Steve can’t breathe.
It wakes him, the tightness in his chest, the heavy working of his lungs. He can feel a nightmare wrongness pervading every inch of his body, and he has had this nightmare—this one exactly. He knows the way of dreams: how the sleeping mind has a tendency to return to the same places, long after you’ve ceased to live in them; to populate itself with the same faces, long after they’re gone; and to whittle you down to your true image of yourself. Steve blinks gritty eyelids and stares down at the small frail thing curled beneath the covers. He knows this is not a dream. The mattress is thin beneath his bony back.
He sits up and it aches. He has forgotten—without ever truly being able to forget—this ache. He can feel the irregular charge of his heartbeat within his chest, all the familiar signs. If he doesn’t calm down he could trigger an asthma attack. He forces himself to breathe: painful, soupy, and slow.
He doesn’t want to look at himself, so he looks around. Part of him wants it, expects it, to be like the room SHIELD put him in to greet the 21st century with its first lie: subtly wrong, hollow, false. An approximation. But every detail is exact. The hard narrow bed he’s sitting on and the wobbly nightstand with the flower-painted water glass he always had to be careful not to knock over with his shaking hands. (It belonged to Bucky’s mother.) The quilt draped across his knees, cozy and warm and smelling, for months, still like his own apartment, not this one, even as its colorful pinwheel pattern continued to fade. (It had belonged to his mother.) The tattered damask curtain drooping slightly on its wire. Steve watches it waver under the draft that, despite Bucky’s best efforts, always seemed to creep in from somewhere, and he can’t imagine how this could be faked.
Or why anyone would want to. This is not the apartment where the bulk of his memories reside. They had not lived here the longest, nor last. Just a few months in 1938, after Steve’s mother had died but before Bucky’s did, before Steve had cut back on his art classes and gotten the first of a series of jobs that had allowed him (sometimes) to pay his share of the rent. This was a temporary place, more Bucky’s than theirs. One of them had always had to take the couch, though more often than not Bucky had arranged for it to be him, losing bets to Steve on the nights when it was supposed to be Bucky’s turn for the bed, claiming it was easier for him to use the outer part of the room since he’d be sneaking in late, wink wink, and then Steve would come out in the morning and find him with his legs dangling over the edge of the—
Steve’s already irregular heart catches in his chest.
Softly, carefully, he pushes his mother’s quilt off his legs. He wobbles a little as he gets to his feet, his sense of balance thrown off. But muscle memory is swift in returning, and besides, he has a goal in mind now. A focus. He reaches out with small and shaking hand and pulls the curtain back.
Bucky is not on the couch. Steve’s shoulders start to sag when he realizes that he can hear breathing. Rough breathing, or else his unenhanced ears probably would not be able to pick it up. Steve steps forward, and yes, there, on the ground: back against the arm of the couch, dark head bent. Steve feels warmth fill his chest and for a moment it’s almost like he’s grown back to his proper size.
He can’t help himself from taking another step forward, tread intrinsically light, but the floorboards are warped and shoddy, and their creak rips through the silence. That dark head comes up, eyes flashing. The hair framing the familiar face is short and neat, the eyes themselves softer and not yet hollowed by time. Still, Steve knows immediately who it is he is really looking at.
Bucky doesn’t move. He pins Steve with his gaze, but he doesn’t move. His left hand is cradled in his lap, pink, human fingers uncurled atop the soft fabric of his pajama bottoms.
Steve wets his lips. He wants to say something—wants to say so much, but this isn’t exactly going down the way he imagined, not in any of the scenarios he and Sam practiced for. All he knows is that he doesn’t want to scare Bucky away. Not, he thinks ruefully, that that’s much of a risk with him looking like this.
The possible strategic advantage of that offers itself up in all its irony, and all right. Steve is happy to be weak, to be vulnerable, if it means he can fix this, if he can make this work.
“Bucky,” he says softly.
One last flick, and then for a moment, those eyes drop away. When Bucky looks up again, he is smiling. It’s horrifying. His eyes are bright and his mouth is curving up mischievously; it is almost, almost exactly his old smile, from before Hydra and before the war and before everything. But unlike this room, these walls, the thin pale wrists sticking out from Steve’s own pajama top—unlike all of that, it’s a false thing. A lie like SHIELD’s recovery room. A product of the 21st century.
“Morning, Steve,” Bucky says, and his voice is a false bright thing, too. Steve can’t take it.
“No,” he says, shaking his head, “Bucky, don’t. It’s me.”
He’s watching the meaning crash across Bucky’s face when his own realization hits home: Bucky knew him. Bucky said his name.
He rises from the floor. The smile is gone; he moves like a smoothly sliding set of gears, the motion so unlike Bucky’s swagger. Within seconds he’s looming over Steve. Steve draws his chin up and meets Bucky’s gaze. “It’s okay,” he assures him. “We’ll figure this out.”
Bucky turns sharply, heading for the small window. Steve knows what he’ll find—can picture the scenic view down the airshaft—but he follows Bucky to confirm it. He’s barely made it to the sill when Bucky turns away again. Steve has to hold in a gasp: it is so strange to see the sharp set of his jaw on that soft, unlined face. And yet Bucky’s here. He’s here with him.
“You know where we are,” Bucky says, like he’s reading Steve’s mind, like he can still read his face.
“Think so,” Steve says. “Not how, though. Not why.”
Bucky just looks at him. His eyes are dark, expectant. He looks like he’s waiting to be briefed.
Steve swallows. “This is your—our old apartment. From 1938.” He twists his wrists, the way he keeps catching Bucky doing, studying the symmetry of his hands. Steve’s are smaller, of course, though still long-fingered. He remembers, suddenly, his mother finding him sketching by another small window. An artist’s hands, she’d said proudly. He hasn’t thought about that in years.
He can’t tell what Bucky’s thinking at all. His face looks so still he could almost be sleeping. Switched off. Steve takes another deep breath and tries again.
“You remember me. Like this. You recognized me.”
And there at least is a flicker of something. “No,” says Bucky, turning away.
“Yes,” Steve insists, and before he can stop himself, he’s grabbing for Bucky’s arm. His long artist’s fingers close around Bucky’s left wrist.
For a moment he thinks he’s going to be swatted away like a fly. He can feel Bucky tensing, his pulse quickening. Steve holds on tighter.
“You said my name.”
“I know my targets’ names.” His eyes sweep down in a dark arc. Whenever he’s not speaking, his mouth is entirely still.
“Well, if you’re looking to eliminate me,” says Steve, with a soft quirk of his own lips, “you’ve found the perfect place and time.”
After a moment, Bucky jerks his wrist away, but that’s all he does.
“Is that why we’re here, Buck?” Steve presses. It’s probably not smart—he can picture the face Sam would make, that Bucky would have made, once upon a time—but there are certain things he’s never been smart about.
Bucky’s holding his wrist again, left hand cradled in his right, as if Steve’s touch somehow hurt him, fingertips burning into flesh. Steve doesn’t think he realizes he’s doing it. His head is bent, half-turned away, and Steve wants to draw a thousand portraits of him like this. To make permanent this profile he never thought he’d see again.
“I don’t have a mission anymore,” Bucky says. There’s nothing in his voice: no urgency, no emotion, no trace of an accent even—the brassy Brooklyn vowels they once shared. His voice is a void.
It’s a bit much for Steve’s weak old heart, really. It makes him want to punch something, and he remembers this, this useless clenching and unclenching of his slender fists at his sides. Steve forces himself to breathe, slow and careful, like his mother taught him.
“Well,” he says, “you can help me figure this out, if you want.”
Steve is warm. He’s waking slow, not in a panic because his chest hurts, but slow and easy. The bed is so soft he feels like he’s floating. For several minutes Steve just lies there, convinced he’s having a really good dream.
He must be. Honest, he must be, because it’s all too good. Not real but good: he doesn’t hurt anywhere; he feels loose and languid. He scoots down in the bed, stretching out his toes, and gosh, his legs feel like they go on forever. He runs a lazy, half-awake hand up over his side, and yes, okay, this is definitely a dream. The body he’s touching is in no way his own. He can feel sturdy muscle, strong bones. He cants his hips up and yeah, this is a good one. If Bucky wakes him, Steve’s gonna kill him.
He turns his face against the soft dream pillow and lets out a sigh.
A toilet flushes.
Steve wakes up. He’s in an unfamiliar room, an unfamiliar bed. The bed is huge. His hand, plucked guiltily from the inside of his thigh, is huge when it lands atop the covers. Steve kicks them away, and the thigh proves huge, too. He scrambles back up the bed and it groans. He looks down at himself, gaping. He can feel himself starting to panic but his heartbeat is steady inside his massive chest.
A door opens. A strange man wearing nothing but briefs and a t-shirt and with a frothing toothbrush sticking out of his mouth peeks around the doorframe and into the room. Looking at Steve he says, “You okay, Cap?”
Steve used to spend hours pouring over issues of Weird Tales and Amazing Stories with Bucky, imagining himself in all sorts of extraordinary situations—and all the cool and confident ways he’d handle them. If he gets out of this, Buck can never, ever find out that Steve’s stupendously suave response is to make a noise like, “Uhhgl?”
The man removes the toothbrush. His face is full of gentle concern. “Steve?”
“Yes.” Steve’s thrown again: he’d almost decided that he was experiencing some sort of implausible Vice Versa switcheroo—that without remembering it, he’d acquired a magical stone from India and wished to swap bodies with one of the muscular mooks who were always hassling him. Were any of them called Steve? Did they…share hotel rooms…with Negros who walked around in their underwear?
“Steve…you’re kind of freaking me out here, man,” says the gentleman in question. He’s approaching the bed slowly, his hands held out and open—save the two fingers still occupied with the toothbrush. Something about that toothbrush, or the tone of the man’s voice, or even just his face—something makes Steve want to try to trust him.
That, or the fact that he doesn’t have any other damn choice.
“This is gonna sound crazy,” Steve says, “but I’m not crazy…at least, I don’t think so.”
“Hey,” says the man, with a careful shrug, “we’re all a little mad here. Was it a nightmare? Because, man, I’ve had some—“
“You don’t understand,” Steve says, because the poor guy’s clearly missing the magnitude of the situation—he thinks Steve is his friend Steve—and it’s not like he’s going to guess. Steve has to tell him. He has to be upfront and honest and tell him. If the guy tries to have him dragged off to Bellevue, well. At least this body looks big enough to put up one hell of a fight.
“I don’t know who you are,” Steve says, expelling the words on a big breath. “I don’t know where the hell I am.” The man’s still simply watching him: hasn’t said anything yet, hasn’t challenged Steve or scoffed or laughed. Steve decides to unleash the big guns: “I woke up in this body five minutes ago.”
The man’s jaw works for a moment as he processes this. “But you’re Steve,” he says finally.
“My name is Steve, but I am definitely not…” He looks down at the body he’s in again as he gestures to it and…Jesus, it is just ridiculous. Like the back page of a comic book. “…This,” he finishes, and he can’t help the sarcastic edge that creeps into his voice.
The man’s lip quirks. “You’re Steve Rogers,” he says, impossibly, sounding even more impossibly certain of it. “You are.”
“How do you—“
“What year is it?”
“What?” Steve’s no longer enjoying lying down for this. He swings his borrowed legs down onto the floor. “What the hell does it matter what year it is?”
He repents the outburst almost immediately, especially when he stands and sees how tall he is—a good four or five inches taller than the man across from him. “Sorry,” he says swiftly. “It’s 1938.”
“Okay.” The man scratches at his chin for a moment before taking a decisive step backward and gesturing Steve toward the bathroom. “I know I’m probably violating, like, laws of causality and stuff, but I’d rather just be honest and avoid any stupid misunderstandings. That always drives me nuts.”
“Yeah, me too,” says Steve, in a tone that more accurately conveys, I think you’re crazy, but I am just barely too polite to say so.
The man shakes his head and gestures again. “Just have a look in the bathroom mirror and then I’ll explain everything. That I can,” he amends.
Well, this guy may be off his head, but Steve likes this about him, at least: that he’s not promising perfect and complete answers. That he really does seem honest. So Steve steps around him, becoming briefly distracted by how smoothly this body moves: nothing pinching or clicking, no pain. He can’t even fully wrap his mind around it—the utter lack of pain, its complete absence from every movement he makes—so he’s not fully focused on the mirror until he’s right in front of it.
Then he is staring into his own face.
Almost, almost his own face. The jaw’s all wrong, square and mannish in a way he could never hope to achieve, but those are undeniably his eyes, his crooked punched-up nose, his stupid soft mouth. Steve gapes at himself: it’s like looking in a fun-house mirror, but sharp, so sharp—everything is, the colors since he woke up so crisp and bright, his depth perception improved? Steve leans forward and grips the edges of the sink—until he feels the porcelain start to give beneath his hands. He springs back. Turning to the man still standing with his toothbrush outside the bathroom door: “What happened to me?” he asks.
“Bunch of things,” says the man. Despite the flippant phrasing, he’s obviously concerned: “Are you okay? Do you want to sit down?”
Steve shakes his head. “Let’s start with this,” he says, gesturing at himself again. “I’m 20 and yesterday I came up to about here,” he thumps a spot about halfway down his now-massive chest, “so I’m going to go out on a limb and guess this wasn’t a traditional growth spurt. Also—“ Steve feels his stomach flip. “You asked me what year it is. That means it’s not 1938. What year is it?”
He sees the man swallow. “I should have called Natasha. This is definitely a Natasha situation,” he mutters. He seems to realize, belatedly, that he’s still holding his toothbrush, and skirts past Steve to lay it on the edge of the sink. When he comes back out of the bathroom, he’s extending his hand.
“Let’s start over,” he says. “I’m Sam Wilson.”
“Still Steve Rogers,” Steve says, “I guess.” He gives Sam’s hand a careful shake—he doesn’t want to do to Sam what he almost did to the sink. “You gonna dish me up some of that honesty now, Sam?”
Sam nods. “Like ripping off a Band-Aid?”
Steve nods back.
“It’s 2014,” Sam says, and while Steve’s still reeling from that, “you were part of a military experiment to create super soldiers. You were a hero, you helped win a war, but then you were frozen for a while. You woke up three years ago and helped save the world from aliens—“
“Aliens,” says Steve. Were he not wearing the physical evidence, he’d be convinced this was some elaborate prank of Bucky’s—
Steve’s chest feels suddenly tight. Except it doesn’t, really—there’s no physical reaction at all, nothing to mark out what he’s experiencing as real. So he takes up Sam’s earlier offer and walks back over to the bed and sits down. It sags beneath his weight.
“It’s 2014,” Steve repeats. He glances up at Sam, who’s gone from making an apologetic aliens! shrug to regarding Steve carefully with his warm brown eyes. “So,” Steve continues, swallowing. “So. Everyone I know is dead.”
“Um,” says Sam, and Steve knows now why he preaches honesty: even this flicker of its opposite sits so uncomfortably on his features. “That’s, well. That’s comp—“
He’s saved by a bizarre and shrill ringing. “That’s your phone,” Sam says, moving over to the nightstand. He picks up a tiny plastic rectangle.
“That’s a phone?”
“Wow,” says Sam. “There’s the Cap of the bad late-night comedy routines. Um. I should probably get this. ‘Blocked number’ usually means Natasha— Hello?”
“Wilson,” Steve hears a woman say, clear as a bell, so either telephones have been vastly improved—or Steve’s hearing has. “Is Rogers indisposed?”
“That’s one way to put it…”
“If he’s in the shower, have him throw on a towel and take this.” The woman has a deep, no-nonsense voice. “It’s important.”
“Well, we’ve got a little situation ourselves here, actually,” Sam says with a nervous laugh and an apologetic look thrown in Steve’s direction. “I was hoping—“
“I’m willing to bet this tops it. Believe it or not, sometime between last night and this morning, Mr. Elusive completely forgot how to avoid surveillance. A half-dozen cameras have picked him up between Malibu Canyon and Santa Monica. I happened to be in the neighborhood; I’ve got a 20 on him now.” That no-nonsense voice is now honeyed with a note of drawling pride. “It’s definitely Barnes.”
“Barnes?” Steve’s on his feet illogically fast, hoping against hope. “Is she talking about Bucky—I mean, James Barnes? Is Bucky here?”
“Natasha,” says Sam, mouth quirking in a bemused but weary smile. “I’m calling your bet.”
First, they decide to figure out breakfast. Or rather, Bucky decides: Steve’s pacing a little as he thinks, crossing the scant space between the couch and the curtain, when suddenly Bucky speaks. “You’re gonna tire yourself out.”
He sounds a little like he’s reciting a bit from a half-forgotten song. Steve tries not to stare. Bucky’s looking back at him, expectant—waiting for Steve to provide the next line. Steve certainly hasn’t forgotten his part. They must have had a million different versions of this conversation, Bucky protective and Steve indignant. Tire myself out? Maybe I just shouldn’t have bothered to get out of bed at all, huh? Jesus, Buck, stop hovering. Make yourself some damn food if you’re that obsessed about it.
Steve bites his lip for a moment and then says, “If you’re hungry, make yourself something.”
He watches out of the corner of his eye as Bucky moves into their little cubby of a kitchen. He opens a cabinet and pulls out their saucepan on the first try—not that there are many options for where things could be hidden away. He’s awkward at first, especially with his left hand, but he seems to settle into the space—into himself—remarkably fast. Before long his actions are fluid, practiced, familiar: Steve watches him mix the oats and water with a dash of salt, stirring it together with the same battered wooden spoon Steve can remember his mother mixing batter with. Bucky pulls out their old lever can opener and expertly cracks a tin of peaches. He doesn’t go so far as to hum while he cooks, to practice jitterbug steps in the narrow confines of the kitchen and mockingly (Steve thought at the time) attempt to get Steve to join. But otherwise the level of verisimilitude is…intense.
When the oatmeal is done, Bucky spoons it into two bowls and tops them with the peaches and a tiny sprinkling of sugar. Steve can already tell which portion is his because it’s the more generous of the two. Bucky doesn’t quite look at him as Steve takes the chipped red and white bowl Bucky hands him—not begrudgingly, the way Steve used to, but half in awe. It hasn’t been something he’s thought about, but Steve can remember every scratch in each individual bowl’s glaze (a set of four reduced to three). He remembers the way Bucky would stroll over to the couch and sit with his feet up on the coffee table, his own food cradled in his lap. Bucky’s moving to sit there now, though when he sinks back again the sofa cushions, his feet stay firmly planted on the ground. Still the sight of his bent head in the dim morning light is so familiar it takes Steve’s breath away. He’s drawn this so many times.
Only once Bucky is seated does he chance a glance at Steve’s face. It’s a little, fleeting look, and so vulnerable that Steve has to bite down hard on his lip to keep it together. Bucky looks both like a soldier reporting back and like an anxious child, the question clear in his eyes: Did I get it right?
Steve answers by taking what had been his customary place at the other end of the sofa. They’ll have (they had?) a table at their next place—gotta give you room to draw, Steve—but Bucky hadn’t bothered when he moved in here. I know, it’s really gonna put a damper on all those big fancy dinner parties I was gonna throw. Steve can hear his voice in his head loud and clear. Then he looks down the couch and there’s Bucky: right there, close enough to touch. He’s not saying anything; he’s swirling his spoon through the contents of his bowl. He made Steve oatmeal with peaches in.
Steve takes a big bite. Then another, and another, licking the back of his spoon. It’s not that it’s manifestly better than the food he can get in the future—the present? 2014?—just that it simply tastes right. “This is real good, Buck,” he says, biting off a piece of slightly slimy peach. “Thanks.”
He never said thank you enough, the first time around.
Bucky’s still staring down into his bowl. But his tone’s veering toward light as he says, “How’re you ever going to grow up big and strong if you don’t eat your breakfast?”
“Uh…” says Steve.
Bucky’s glancing over at him—tentative, hesitant. The corner of his mouth is quirking; he looks slightly nervous, but also more than a little pleased with himself.
“You got me there,” Steve says, telegraphing his own grin.
Steve finds himself reluctant to finish eating—when they’re done, they have to get back to work, have to solve this, have to go…home, he supposes. It’s harder to think of it that way when he’s sitting here, surrounded by all their old things, his weakened senses still awash in a heady mix of tastes, sights, and smells. Bucky, thinner but softer the way he was before the war, is safe in his spot at the other end of the couch, and so Steve has to steel himself, deliberately remind himself that he’ll be abandoning good people in the future-present if he doesn’t get his act together here. Sam, who he left sleeping in the bed next to him, who Steve a step away from kidnapped, who put his whole life at risk and on hold to help Steve. Natasha, who he hasn’t seen in weeks but who he knows is still helping him out from behind the scenes, who has his back. Fury. The Avengers. The mess that they left and all the things undone.
With a sigh, Steve puts his empty bowl down on the coffee table. “So,” he says, “last I remember, I was in Los Angeles. We’d followed a—well, we thought you might be there.”
Bucky, dead-eyed again, doesn’t reply. His mouth has gone slack.
“We’d lost you for a while before that—“ A month, a whole goddamn month. “We—well, it doesn’t really matter. But it might help to establish if either of us encountered anything that might have caused this.”
Bucky’s spoon scrapes across the bottom of his bowl. “I was in Asia,” he says. “Then L.A.”
“Did you anger any wizards?” Steve asks—and there, at least Bucky’s looking at him again. “I’ve been assured it’s a serious and too-frequently necessary question.” Trust me, Steve’s face says, I’m Captain America.
It’s probably less effective when he’s the size of a string bean—not that it ever worked so great on Bucky anyway. “No wizards,” is all Bucky says. He stands and retrieves Steve’s bowl from the coffee table. His posture shifts. “You can’t just leave it like that, it’ll crust. Jeez, Steve.”
Even in admonishment, it’s like everything about him is suddenly warmer. Steve blinks at Bucky’s back as he walks back into the kitchen and starts scrubbing up the breakfast things. Steve wants to tell him to knock it off—to stop pretending, stop lying, stop making it worse. But although his lip quivers, he finds he can’t say anything at all.
“Come on,” Bucky says, once he’s finished swirling the dishcloth around the inside of the oatmeal pot. “Don’t have anywhere to be today. Let’s go out.”
Bucky strides forward, the edge of determination behind his eyes the only thing spoiling his cavalier air. He hesitates for just a moment in front of Steve, looking down at his feet like he’s trying to remember a set of dance steps. Then he’s grabbing Steve by the elbow, tugging him to his feet in that roughly careful way he perfected. “There’s a whole world out there, Stevie!” Bucky says, and his sloppy grin is so convincing. Steve knows he must on some level be so desperate to be convinced. Certainly he is eager to let himself be pulled along by Bucky’s big warm hand. “Come on. Let me show you.”
“Okay, you win,” says the red-haired woman standing outside the door when Sam opens it.
“Yay?” Sam’s looking a little twitchy after being cooped up in the room with Steve for the past hour, and Steve knows he’s at fault for that. After they’d both gotten dressed, there was nothing to do but wait—not, even under the best circumstances, something Steve particularly excels at. And in this case he’s been so restless he was starting to feel like he might haul off and punch the wall. After all, for the first time in his life, it seemed like there was a good chance the wall would break instead of his hand.
The expression the redhead—obviously Natasha—is sporting is comparatively calm. She tilts her head to see around Sam, her eyes passing over Steve with a disinterested flicker. “Hey.”
Steve can feel himself blushing. He’s as tongue-tied as ever: apparently this vaunted government experiment didn’t fix everything.
He’s still pulling himself together when Natasha steps back around the corner. Through the open door, Steve can see a rectangle of black asphalt—parking lot?—and his first glimpse of that mythic Californian sunlight. There’s a mirage-like glimmer of green that might be a palm tree. Steve’s giving a passing thought to making a break for it when Natasha returns, herding a man in front of her. His clothing’s unkempt and dirty and his long hair’s hanging in his face, but then he looks up and…it’s Bucky, it’s Bucky, he’s not alone, it’s Bucky.
Bucky’s mouth is agape. “Christ, Steve—there’s practically two of you!” Steve hasn’t really registered moving forward, but they’re suddenly in hugging distance. Bucky’s arms wrap around him—have to move slightly up to do so, Steve notes frivolously. Bucky, too, is broader under Steve’s hands; his arms feel heavy, one more than the other.
They both pull back to look at each other. “I mean, she warned me,” Bucky says, his hands framing the impossible distance between Steve’s shoulders, “but I didn’t— Gosh, Steve.” His voice drops to a whisper, but to Steve it’s still clear as a bell. “How does it feel?”
“Good.” Steve knows he must look like a gob-smacked idiot, knows that Sam and Natasha are watching them, but for the moment, at least, he doesn’t care. Everything feels realer now that Bucky is here, and in defiance of the whole crazy fucked up situation, Steve can’t stop smiling. He just saw Bucky last night—“beat” him at cards, then went to bed too grouchy to do more than mumble goodnight—but it feels like longer. Seventy-six years if Sam is to be believed—and Steve believes it. Steve finally and fully believes it.
Bucky looks older. More like six years than seventy-six, but still, there are lines on his face, around his eyes, that weren’t there the night before. His jaw is stubbled and that hair would throw Mrs. Barnes into a fit of disgrace from which she might never recover, but his eyes are alight; he’s grinning up (up!) at Steve. His hand is still on Steve’s ridiculous new bicep; he pats it, then gives it a pinch. “You think that’s impressive? Well, check this out, punk.”
He drops his muddy jacket onto the bed and rolls up his shirtsleeve. He’s got a black glove on his left hand, and above it, instead of his familiar veiny wrist, there’s a shining expanse of silver. Steve, no longer fully faithful in the accuracy of his eyes, touches it to confirm his impressions: metal, solid but not quite as cold as he might have guessed, a humming energy beneath the surface. “Goes all the way up to the shoulder,” Bucky says.
He sounds like he’s showing off a smooth new suit, but Steve can’t help being concerned. “Does it hurt?”
“Naw.” Bucky gives him a look that says, why would the future invent swell robot arms if they hurt? “Moves as easy as anything, and I’ve even got feeling in it! I betcha I could lift a car with this thing.”
“Yeah?” Steve has a hard time backing down from even this purely hypothetical challenge. “Bet I could too, pal.”
Both of their heads swivel back toward the door leading out to the parking lot. “Yeah, no,” says Sam swiftly. He gestures between himself and Natasha. “Both Mommy and Daddy are nixing that one.”
Natasha gives a coy kind of shrug. “Maybe some other time.”
“So until then, you’re just going to keep us shut up in this hotel room?” Steve’s spent years cooped up in his apartment, listening to the other kids playing in the street, listening to Bucky’s stories when he comes back in from the dancehall or even just from work, and if it turns out he’s traveled to the 21st century just to see the inside of a shitty hotel room he’s going to fucking riot.
“Have you really just been in here this whole time?” Bucky interrupts, lifting—lifting!—a steadying hand onto Steve’s shoulder. “Hey,” he says, turning to Natasha, “you’re depriving my pal of an education.”
“I caught up with him down by the Santa Monica Pier,” Natasha explains to Sam.
Steve looks to Bucky for an explanation. “Bathing suits,” Bucky stage whispers. “Most of ‘em are just…like three little triangles and that’s it. Thought I was in heaven at first and not—“ He finally cottons on to Steve’s glare, and ducks his head. “Uh,” he says, and Steve wouldn’t think his bashful routine would work now that he’s all rough and stubbly, but goddammit, it does. “Sorry, ma’am.”
Natasha has her arms crossed over her chest, but she doesn’t look offended or upset. “You’re just itching for a big ol’ tub of popcorn, aren’t you?” Sam asks her.
“My analysis of the situation is completely professional,” Natasha says. “Though, you’re right: maybe we’re the ones being rude. We should give you boys some time to catch up.” The sly smile curling at the corner of her mouth makes her look like a living, breathing Mona Lisa. “Sam and I will go get us all breakfast. Steve, I know you must be starving.”
Steve could eat. Steve could definitely, definitely eat, but his vigorous nod may also have something to do with how anxious he is for their self-appointed babysitters to depart. Steve can’t quite believe that they’re about to be this lucky: both Sam and Natasha seem entirely pleasant, and not easily duped—he and Bucky really must have grown up respectable. Steve decides not to disabuse them of this notion.
“But what if—“ starts Sam, before Natasha hooks her arm through his elbow and tugs him toward the door.
“Shh. I’ll buy you pancakes.”
Steve sees Bucky’s eyes light up at the mention of pancakes, but he and Steve are on the same wavelength. He bites his tongue.
The door closes behind Sam. Bucky looks at Steve and Steve shakes his head. “I can’t believe you went and saw the Pacific Ocean without me, you jerk!” Steve says loudly—in case Sam and Natasha are still listening.
“It’s not my fault!” Bucky says. “It was practically the first thing I saw when I woke up. I was on a rooftop overlooking the water—it’s incredible, Steve. Totally different shade of blue.” His broad grin is broken by an irritating flash of familiar guilt. “I mean—“
“I think I could see it,” Steve says, too (metaphorically, merely metaphorically!) breathless to be all that annoyed. “Everything’s so, so—vibrant, I guess, since I woke up. Bucky,” he says, feeling almost lightheaded as the relief of it washes over him again. “I’m finally fixed.”
Bucky’s face does this odd little twitch. “Yeah.” He sounds weirdly choked up for some reason. “Still too bad about your face, though, huh?”
“Screw you,” Steve says, then drops his voice. “Do you think they’re really gone?”
“I don’t hear anything.”
“Me, neither. And my hearing’s sharp now, Buck. Both ears.”
“Yeah?” Bucky leans close to Steve’s—to what used to be Steve’s trick ear. Steve hears a faint whistle and feels a puff of cool air: Bucky, lips puckered, blowing. “You hear that?”
“Stop it.” Steve wonders if his own blush looks as unnatural atop this big, beefy frame. “I’m legitimately sore about you seeing the ocean without me, Buck.”
“Fine, then,” says Bucky with a dramatic roll of his eyes. The gloved hand of his metal arm reaches out for the door. “Let me show you.”
The first thing that hits him is the smell. It’s…intense, and probably not lessened by being in this body instead of his old-new one: Steve’s nose, for better or worse, was always one of the things that actually tended to work. So Steve’s standing on the stoop, reeling from one whiff of the gutter like some country cousin who thinks cows don’t also have a way of stinking up the place, and there’s his neighborhood: just like he remembered, just like he never thought he’d ever see it again. Bucky, standing beside him, seems for a moment equally taken aback. He doesn’t look grimly blank anymore, but neither is he projecting the eager jocularity that Steve is starting to think isn’t entirely an act. With his eyes saucer-wide and his lips open in a soft gape, he looks heartbreakingly young to Steve. Young and fragile. Steve’s wise to the irony—he is.
They stand side by side for a few minutes more, silently taking it all in. The clatter of the fruit carts and the horse-drawn vans selling ices. Voices shouting in lost accents from windows and stoops down the way. The cars, big and slow as boats, floating down the streets with boys just ten years off from being either of them ducking around the fenders. They’re across the street from the liquor store with the big clock above its sign that was only right twice a day; then next door there’s the optician’s that as long as Bucky lived here was always shut, but was never packed out completely or went away. The giant sign for the loans office is there as Steve remembers when he turns his head, towering over the whole block. The buildings nestle together, tall and dark, secure beneath their interlocking exoskeleton of fire escapes. Steve can see laundry fluttering, hear music playing, the distant hum of radio…
“What are you boys doing, standing around gawking?”
It takes a moment before Steve turns—it doesn’t seem quite possible that they’re actually being addressed, that this is really real. A woman in a floral dress and a neat white hat has stopped beside them with one foot up on the step; she’s watching them with an expression of increasing concern.
To Steve’s surprise, it’s Bucky who saves them. “Just gathering wool, Mrs. Sullivan,” he says with that old charmer’s grin.
Mrs. Sullivan—that’s right, Mrs. Sullivan! It comes back to him in a rush a moment after it’s out of Bucky’s mouth—raises an eyebrow at them. “You’ll have enough to knit Steve a sweater before long.”
Their roles are unnervingly easy to slip into again, like a set of clothes that’s never been outgrown: Steve scowls; Bucky shrugs, all effortless charm. Steve wonders about him: like Natasha, has he simply grown skilled at donning a new mask to for every situation? His file had stated he’d been used as a covert operative for a while—before he became “unstable.” Steve shudders at the thought. He watches Bucky, still grinning at Mrs. Sullivan as she heads up the steps, placated. Bucky’s ability to blend in does nothing to explain his own behavior.
“Oh good, the bad attitude’s back,” says Bucky, turning to him once their neighbor’s gone inside.
“You like my bad attitude,” Steve says, and he sort of means it to be petulant. Steve of 1938 would have been petulant, or downright mean, but Bucky saw past it, put up with it.
He lights up now: “You’re a disgrace,” he says. He throws his arm around Steve’s back, and Steve remembers this—god, remembers it viscerally: the way the top of his head barely brushed Bucky’s shoulder; how it was humiliating and comforting, somehow all at once, to be dragged down the sidewalk; how he was always half-waiting for Bucky to let go and wander off, the second something better came along.
He knows now, like he didn’t then, that if he slipped out from under Bucky’s elbow and went tearing off down Jamaica Street, Bucky would turn and follow in a heartbeat.
“I know what we should do,” Bucky says, dropping his arm but still walking with him, hip to hip. (Or hip to mid-torso, but who’s measuring.) “Let’s go to the pictures.”
“Buck—“ Steve still feels like he should protest. They need to be solving their little Back to the Future dilemma (yes, he saw it), not taking in a dime matinee. But—Bucky clearly wants this. Bucky wants to have this. And Steve never wants to deny him anything, ever again.
So, “Nothing stupid,” he says, he makes Bucky promise, because that’s what he would have made Bucky promise.
And “What if I like ‘em stupid?” Bucky replies. “After all, that’s why I’ve—“
“Why you’ve stuck with me all these years, ha ha,” Steve says. He knows all his lines by heart; so why is it still thumping wildly within his chest? “You’re hilarious, Buck. Why do we need to go to the movies when we’ve got a real, live comedian?”
But he lets Bucky treat him to The Adventures of Robin Hood. He’s seen it before: at least once with Bucky, probably even at this same theater, and then later (much later), on DVD. That had been a little rough. He’d remembered the film as such a richly realized world, with towering castle towers and the dappled brightness of Sherwood Forest. Watching it again, in the apartment SHIELD had rented for him when he’d first woken up, it had seemed painfully obvious to him how fake the whole thing was: nothing but thin-walled sets and a poorly disguised Southern California standing in for the English countryside.
All of that is still true, still apparent to his more educated eyes, but Steve finds himself liking the film again, sitting there beside Bucky in the dark. It’s sincere. The heroes are heroic and the villains frightening; friendship is a vital force in saving the day. Steve can’t say he doesn’t enjoy a story about breaking the rules to do what’s right.
Besides, Bucky seems to be loving it. His own rediscovered enjoyment aside, Steve spends at least half the movie watching Bucky watch it. His features have smoothed out in the flickering light of the screen; occasionally his lips move, mouthing along with the actors. When they were kids, Bucky’s family had more money than Steve and his mom, so when Steve refused the Barnes’ charity or was simply too sick to take it, Bucky used to go to the same film over and over, then reenact the whole story for Steve. He’d do pantomime and voices. Steve’s mother used to get coaxed into watching sometimes, too: she could always be counted on to clap and tell Bucky he was the next Mickey Rooney.
Even when they got older, Bucky never entirely got out of the habit. For months after they saw Robin Hood the first time, Bucky could force Steve out of a black mood by imitating Little John’s boisterous laughter. Even when they were in Europe, and Bucky was quieter and more subdued (Steve should have known; how hadn’t he known?), he would still sometimes indulge the Commandos by taking requests—he could do almost all of Bogart in Casablanca, a spot-on Gable in Gone With the Wind, Joel McCrea in Sullivan’s Travels. He was a natural mimic with a lightning-fast brain for memorization.
Steve wonders if Bucky still remembers any of it—not just the lines from the movies, or even this tiny, one-act play version of their life. He wishes he could tell how much of this is real—and most of all, whether he’s making things better or worse by playing along.
Steve really is hungry, and now Natasha’s put the idea of pancakes in Bucky’s head. So instead of heading straight for the water—which Bucky assures him isn’t far—they duck into what looks to be a diner. They’re as giddy as a couple of truant schoolboys. “You think it’s a diner that has dancing?” Bucky asks, eyes skirting over the semi-nonsensical sign before allowing Steve to tug him inside.
There does not appear to be dancing: just tables and booths—that’s familiar, at least—and what Steve guesses in the future passes as décor. One wall is painted an eye-searing yellow with bright pink cows’ heads spaced across it at even intervals. Steve can only speculate—his experience is fairly limited so far, but already he’s pretty sure colors aren’t supposed to look like that. Bucky shakes his head: no.
Still, what good is it visiting the future if you don’t do it in the spirit of adventure? They snag a booth by the window so they can look outside. They haven’t even reached the beach yet, and the outfits—both women’s and men’s—are already living up to Bucky’s description. The waiter who approaches their table has 1) green hair, 2) a large black disc embedded in his earlobe, 3) a metal ring through his eyebrow, 4) a dozen or so rubbery looking bracelets encircling his wrists. It’s fantastic.
“Welcome to Swingers, can I get you something to drink to start?” asks the waiter, whose nametag indicates he’s called Julio.
“Coffee?” Steve hazards. He doesn’t really want to live in a future where people don’t drink coffee anymore.
The waiter gives him an odd, lingering look, but doesn’t outright say anything, so Bucky seconds the order. “So, is the dancing just at night then?” Bucky asks as Julio turns to leave.
“Uh, nothing.” Bucky covers with one of his most charming smiles. “Never mind.”
Julio’s eyes flick to Steve before returning to Bucky with a long flutter of his eyelashes. He favors Bucky with a long, slow smile before walking away.
“Hmph,” says Steve.
“What?” Bucky asks.
Steve shrugs. “Look at this menu,” he says. “There’s avocado on everything. Who eats avocado?”
“Pancakes are six-fifty,” Bucky counters. “And here I thought I was rich.”
“Found this in my pocket.” He digs around for a second and comes back with a thick roll of money. The outside bill has a portrait of Andrew Jackson on it—the only thing about it that looks even vaguely familiar.
“This looks fake.” Steve knows he’s wide-eyed, though: even taking into account $6.50 pancakes, it’s still a lot of money. He passes it back. “What else have you got in there?”
“Not much.” Bucky produces another one of those thin rectangle telephones, a big red marble that Steve wants to poke fun at him for, and a small roll of thick tape. “I had a knife strapped to my ankle, too, but Natasha made me take it off. She said it was a rule for riding in her car. Steve. You should have seen her car.”
Bucky tries to describe Natasha’s car with visual aids provided by the vehicles passing by their window. When Julio comes back, they order pancakes and waffles and French toast; at the last second, Steve throws in an order for avocado toast. “When in Rome,” he tells Bucky, who laughs. Julio walks away sighing.
It’s only after he has a couple of bites of breakfast in him that Steve remembers that this is serious—or that it should be serious. They’re somewhere alien and probably dangerous, brought here by unknown means and for an unknown purpose, even their very bodies made strange. With Bucky here, though, it’s so much like an Adventure, the type of story they used to invent with each other, stretched out hot on the fire escape, sitting at Mrs. Barnes’ kitchen table, drinking her lemonade. Steve had been taught rather harshly to let go of that kind of fantasy; he hadn’t imagined him and Bucky escaping much farther than Coney Island in years. So it’s strange to be here, probably a good 150 pounds heavier and yet so much lighter. He doesn’t really want to look too closely at it; he’s afraid it will stop.
Still, they’ve at least got to figure out what they’re going to do next. “What do you think of Sam and Natasha?” he asks, crunching through his avocado toast (not half bad).
“They’ve been on the up-and-up so far, haven’t they?” Bucky asks.
“Sure,” says Steve, remembering Sam’s honest face. Natasha, though… “You just hopped right into her car?” Bucky’s always had more faith in people than Steve, but that seems a little extreme.
“Didn’t I just get through telling you? I’ve never seen such a swell car!” Steve rolls his eyes at him. “Look,” says Bucky, more seriously, pausing with his fork speared into a bite of pancake. “She knew my name. She knew your name. She said she was your friend and that she could take me to you. What was I going to say—‘Buzz off, lady’?”
Steve might have. He doesn’t say this, but Bucky can read him too well—his face obviously hasn’t changed enough to change that.
“I’d already been wandering around for over an hour, okay? I woke up on this rooftop, like I told you, on top of this ritzy house up in some hills overlooking the water. I don’t know what I’m doing there, and I start looking for a way down, but as soon as I find one, these guys in uniforms appear—some sort of security, I guess? Either way: bad news for Bucky, so I high-tail it out of there. I can run fast. Crazy fast, Steve—I’m gonna have to race you later, all right?”
Steve smiles a little too eagerly at that.
Bucky’s tone is lighter as he continues. “So I’m running, and as I go, I realize that not only do I not have any idea where the hell I am, everything looks fucking bizarre, Steve. The cars are crazy, the clothes are crazy, there are all these screens and flashing lights. I’ve pretty much figured out I’m in California or some place like it, but Becca’s copies of Silver Screen don’t exactly make it look like this, you know? It’s much more like the magazines we used to get, remember? Weird Tales and all the rest?”
Steve nods. “I thought that, too,” he admits. “When I woke up. Actually, I thought I’d swapped bodies with someone—like in Vice Versa, remember that? You read it to me.”
Neither of them feels like going into more detail of the circumstances under which Bucky read it to Steve. “That was a good one,” Bucky says, and leaves it at that.
“I get why you trusted her,” Steve concedes. “The question is, are we gonna keep trusting them? Are we just going to do what they say?”
Bucky looks at Steve, then sweeps his eyes around their surroundings in a dramatic arc. “Well, clearly not.”
For a few seconds they abandon all pretense of being mature adults and crack up.
Julio comes by with their check and another forlorn sigh.
“Aww,” says Bucky, once he’s out of earshot, “I’ve broken his heart. Or you have.”
Steve tenses. “What are you—“
“I mean,” says Bucky, casually, “I can’t fault his taste—“
“Buck,” Steve hisses, glancing nervously around. Only two other tables are occupied: a family in one of the big booths toward the back of the diner, and a single guy sitting across from them, chowing down on a giant hamburger. He’s too close for comfort.
“What?” Bucky says. Then, “Oh. Oh! Steve.” He smiles, slow and wicked, and Steve feels himself flushing, fever-hot. “There’s something else I haven’t told you about my trip to the beach.”
After the movie, Bucky insists on taking them out for a big meal at the Hamilton Diner. They sit at the back of the car and Steve is anachronistically quiet as Bucky over-orders: eggs and pancakes, French dip sandwiches, fries, fresh corn, apple pie. They share, which only in retrospect did Steve realize was another classic Bucky move to get him to eat what he couldn’t afford or was afraid he couldn’t stomach. Steve’s more interested in Bucky now than in the food, although it’s good. Despite what he told Sam, there were (are?) plenty of things that his era cooked to perfection, and everything tastes delightfully of what it is—even if what it is is grease; the corn cobs they’re gnawing on may actually be the only things with corn in them. Bucky slathers the pancakes with butter and syrup and eats rapturously. Steve remembers how even just this morning Bucky had had to study his oatmeal—the oatmeal he himself had made!—and he has to swallow around the lump in his throat. Bucky looks at home in this diner, utterly unselfconscious as he eats, swaying his head as “Begin the Beguine” trickles out of the radio behind the counter.
Steve has this song on his phone.
“Bucky,” he says, setting down his fork. “What are we doing?”
Bucky’s eyes flicker up. “Eat your pie, Stevie.”
Steve lays his thin arms out along the tabletop. “What are we doing, Buck?”
Bucky glances away, then seems to force himself to look back, meet Steve’s gaze. They’re blue, Bucky’s eyes, and Steve still remembers the first time he realized that, the sun coming up over the forest in Italy and Bucky’s face aglow. He can’t see it now.
“Please,” Bucky says. “Can’t we just—“
“What?” Steve asks gently. “Pretend?”
“Start over,” says Bucky, voice rough. Outwardly he looks calm—there’s no way anyone else in the diner would notice, but Steve can see the way his nostrils flare, the slight twitch at the corner of his mouth. “Fix it.”
Bucky lifts his head and rolls his eyes around the diner. Hello? We’re here.
“How, Buck?” Steve repeats. He hates having to be the one to say this. “There are so many things I wish I could back and change—“ Grab my hand! “So many things, believe me. But we don’t know how this works. We know both too much and not anywhere near enough, we could make it all worse—like all those speculative novels where someone tries to go back and kill Hitler.”
Bucky looks blank for a moment and Steve’s stomach lurches as he remembers that Bucky didn’t exactly spend the last seventy years reading novels.
But then Bucky takes a swig of coffee and says, “I did that.”
“Killed him,” says Bucky, matter-of-fact. “Hitler.”
Steve had read with a certain un-Captain Americanly glee about Hitler’s suicide after he’d awoken; both Bucky and Steve had been “dead” by April of 1945. “How?” Steve asks again, much less rhetorically.
“The suicide was a fake,” Bucky says, shoulders drawing back, voice going flat—like he’s giving a mission report. “He escaped to South America. I caught up with him in Bolivia in 1952. The Russians were running me at the time. Even the potential of a fascist resurgence was considered too much of a threat. But it was also personal. Usually I was ordered to make it clean. This time no such restrictions were put in place. I made it last. I think I knew who he was—not just the identity of my target, but who he really was. I set him on fire while he was still alive. They kept me on ice for a long time after that.”
“Bucky…” Steve reaches across the table and takes Bucky’s hand. Part of him protests that it’s not smart—not here, not now—but a saner, more relaxed 2014-part of him insists that it looks innocent enough, that Steve’s the only one reading added meaning into it. Besides, he always wished he had.
Bucky holds very still as Steve strokes a thumb over his knuckles. Steve knows it means so much that Bucky’s even letting him. Then Bucky lifts his other hand and lays it down next to the first: both hands, flesh alongside flesh. They both stare down at them for a while.
“How much do you remember?” Steve asks finally.
Bucky’s head rolls back on his neck; he turns and looks out the window. “Everything. Nothing. Too much. Not enough.” His mouth has drawn thin.
“I’m sorry,” Steve says, “I realize it’s not a fair question.”
Bucky shakes his head. “I thought I remembered every piece of you,” he says, eyebrows lifting as he looks Steve over, “like this.”
Steve feels pinned to the booth. Bucky’s grip has shifted so he’s the one holding Steve’s hand.
“I was wrong. You’re even better than I remember.”
Steve doesn’t jerk his fingers away, although a petty part of him wants to. “You like me better like this? Small and weak?”
Bucky doesn’t say anything. His expression turns vaguely puzzled.
Steve finds he resents the lack of immediate denial. “Is that how you want to change it? Make it so I never meet Erskine? Stay like this forever?”
“I just,” Bucky says, and he sounds so lost—it’s hard to believe this is the same person who fought with Steve on the helicarrier, who always had Steve’s six in the war, who set Adolf Hitler on fire. “I just want things to be like they were.” His mouth quirks, another sad parody of his old smile. “We didn’t have it so bad, did we Stevie?”
“1938 wasn’t all diner food and The Adventures of Robin Hood, Buck.” Steve lets out a long breath; he doesn’t want to have to wield this weapon, but… “Your ma’s gonna die in less than three months. Do you really want to have to go through that again? There’s nothing you can do to change it.”
Bucky’s clenching his jaw.
“There’s great evil going on in the world right now—right this minute, Buck, while we sit here in this diner and listen to Artie Shaw. In three years this country’s going to go to war to try to stop it. Do you really think that I can sit by and do nothing? Do you really think that you can?”
Steve watches Bucky’s throat work—a slow, hard swallow. “I can stop myself. That’s what I can change.” He lets out a little laugh then, bitter and broken and awful. “Hitler’s not the only person I killed, Steve. In case you forgot.”
Steve shakes his head. He would never dishonor Bucky by forgetting what he’s been through. “But you can’t go back,” Steve says. Remembers Peggy saying it to him, with the wisdom of years he still doesn’t have. With her own inherent intelligence that always grasped at things Steve couldn’t quite see. He thinks he finally gets it now.
But, “We have literally gone back,” Bucky says with another pointed look.
“And what are we going to do now? Play pantomime through the next however many years of our lives? Act out the parts we remember and wait for the chance to make changes that could have ramifications neither of us could possibly grasp? There are good things that happened in the next seventy years, too—what if we prevented something crucial from taking place? I have friends in the future—what if we stopped one or more of them from being born?”
“What if, what if,” Bucky says, sounding dully disgusted. “You don’t even want to try.”
Steve’s chest feels tight with guilt, but he knows he has to stay strong about this. The temptation’s right there in front of him, it’s all around him. Stay and fix it. Stay and somehow get it right. Stay and this time have it all: strength without a war to wage, a purpose without the lock of deadly battle, Bucky and Peggy and the safety of his friends in every era. The comfort of the past made safe by the knowledge of the future. He wants it so badly—a version of history designed to his personal specifications, dangling here in front of him like shining, low-hanging fruit—but the depth of his desire only reinforces his bone-deep certainty that it would be a trick, a cheat. Just another way of freezing himself in a past that’s gone, lingering too long in an impossible dream while the world moves on without him.
“I want to move forward,” he says, sure of it for the first time. “The future needs us; that’s where we can change things for the better. Change ourselves for the better, instead of just pretending that we’re okay because we’re back before things got...complicated.” It hurts to say this, to watch Bucky’s expression tighten as he does, but Steve believes it, and no matter where he is or what he looks like, he can’t back down from what he believes. “I don’t want to be a ghost moving through history. I want us to be real—you and me, Bucky.”
But Bucky’s still shaking his head. “I haven’t been real in a long time.” His voice is barely above a whisper—Steve has to strain forward with his good ear to hear. “Maybe not since I left you at the fair in ’43. Maybe not since now.
“But I can do this,” he says a second later, face shifting, brightening, smoothing out. “I can be your pal Bucky. Remember?” His mouth has taken on a mischievous quirk, tempered by his eyes, which are soft and affectionate. “Remember him?”
“I do.” Steve feels near tears, but with the skill of long practice, he holds them back. “He was great. But he changed. He grew up, and some bad things happened to him. I wish they hadn’t. God, Buck—“ He squeezes Bucky’s hand with the full force of his grip. “I still think you’re great, though. I never stopped thinking it. The longer I know you, the more amazed I get that I do, that I’m lucky enough—“
“Stop.” It doesn’t take much effort for Bucky to pull away. “Shut up. Stop.”
But Steve’s feeling stubborn; he doesn’t back down. He curls his fingers around the edge of the table and leans across it. “I wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for you.”
Bucky shakes his head, grinding his bottom lip between his teeth. He looks like he’s close to crying, too. He’s not pretending anymore. Not being anyone but himself.
He lets out a long breath, his head thrown back on his neck, looking around the diner like it’s already fading from his sight. Then he returns his focus to Steve, eyes tired but clear. “You really are such an idiot, Steve.”
Steve extends a short leg and kicks Bucky underneath the table. “Takes one to know one.”
Bucky sighs and sinks back in his seat. “There’s just one problem,” he says. “I don’t know how to reverse it.”
“Well, I don’t know either, but between the two of us, working together—“
“No,” Bucky interrupts, tone sharp. “You don’t understand.” He’s looking at Steve not just with guilt, but with a kind of fear: like he’s bracing himself not for a punch or a slap, but for Steve to turn away in anger or disgust. “I don’t know how to send us back. But I do know how we got here.”
“It’s not that I don’t believe you,” Steve says. “It just—it seems a little too good to be true.”
Bucky’s been as good as his word so far: with his typically excellent sense of direction, he led the two of them the few blocks back to the beach. The Pacific Ocean is as beautiful as Steve imagined, as Bucky described, but…Steve’s just a little distracted right now.
“Let’s do an experiment,” Bucky suggests.
They’re walking along the broad pier. It’s packed with people—mostly tourists from the look of it—for an overall atmosphere that’s noisy and crowded and dumb in a way Steve’s glad the future hasn’t totally abandoned; his concerns that the world had become one of Amazing Stories’ slick silver jumpsuited societies are long gone. The people all around them still seem like people—though Steve would like to believe Bucky’s right, that humanity has in fact become a better version of itself. The fact that they’re passing a Chinese man arm in arm with a white woman, the two of them laughing and sharing an ice cream, gives Steve hope.
So he can be brave. “What sort of experiment?”
“I mean,” and now Bucky’s flushing a little, “just something small to start. Like those two fellas I saw.”
He reaches out, hand low and still sort of casual; he could just be stretching his wrist. But Steve steels himself and says, “Sure,” sliding his fingers through the bare fingers of Bucky’s right hand.
Despite his flushed cheeks, despite the nervous flick of his eyes, Bucky’s palm is cool and dry. Steve can feel his heartbeat pick up, but it settles down again fairly quickly. He wonders if they look ridiculous like this—like two men dancing with each other would look ridiculous, right? Steve scans the crowd, searching for frowns or glares. He swears a few people double-take, but no one’s aggressive. Bucky seems to be settling into it. He’s even smiling a little.
“You know,” Steve says, and his voice sounds only a little strained, “I read that in the Near East, it’s completely normal for men to walk around holding hands. Culturally, it doesn’t mean… It’s a sign of solidarity and kinship.”
“Yeah?” Bucky’s head is tilted back to see the top of the big Ferris wheel making stately turns above the water. He squeezes Steve’s fingers.
“So, I’m just saying, there might have been a different kind of cultural shift here in America…” Steve tells himself he’s just being a realist, but he’s starting to wonder what he’s trying to talk himself out of.
Bucky nods. “Okay.” He drops his hand from Steve’s and a protest is on Steve’s lips when the same hand slides across the small of Steve’s back. Bucky’s arm wraps around Steve’s waist.
Steve is startled by his own huff of laughter.
“What?” says Bucky, leaning away from him but not letting go. He sounds indignant.
“Nothing,” says Steve. “That was smooth.”
“Shut up,” Bucky says. “This is highly scientific stuff.”
“Is that how you got Louise Gibbons to go out with you? ‘Hey, Louise, lemme take you dancing—for science’?”
“Sure.” Bucky’s laughing now too. His body is warm against Steve’s. “’Louise, it is of great scientific importance that we neck for a while.’”
Steve snickers. “You’re a visionary,” he says. “A pioneer.”
“Yup.” Bucky steers them down some steps and over to the railing at the very tip of the pier. His arm shifts, tugging Steve closer. It’s an incredible feeling—that they’re eye to eye now. Steve can feel the warmth of Bucky’s breath as he leans in. “So,” he whispers. “You convinced yet?”
Bucky’s lips are really pink. Steve never noticed before now—he couldn’t. Whatever they did to his eyes has made the world so bright. Bucky has pink lips and copper in his hair. His eyes are the color of the ocean.
“Huh?” Steve blinks.
Bucky nudges him with his hips; their bodies rock together. “Did I convince you?”
Steve makes a noncommittal noise. “I want to go swimming,” he says.
He tugs on Bucky’s arm, momentarily forgetting himself, and they’re both surprised when it’s hard enough that Bucky stumbles forward. “Hey, watch it, Superman.”
“Come on,” Steve says, tugging Bucky toward the steps that go out to the sand. “Are we really going to come all this way and not get our feet wet?”
“You just gonna wade in in your clothes?”
“I’ve got on shorts!” Steve insists. “It’s more than some of the rest of these folks are wearing.” Bucky had…not been overselling it. Steve tries not to stare and instead focuses on pulling off the weird basketball-style shoes Sam had sworn were his.
He tucks his socks into his shoes and digs his toes into the sand. It’s softer and more powdery than what he’s used to, and the sun has heated it to the point that standing still is almost painful. But it’s a weirdly good sort of pain, especially since he isn’t in any other. Grinning, Steve shucks his light jacket and lays it across the tops of his shoes. He decides to leave on his shirt. He’s ready to charge into the water, but maybe not all the way into the 21st century.
He glances over his shoulder and sees that Bucky has mimicked him, although apparently he was wearing a long-sleeve button-up shirt under his jacket and over his tee. After a second he shrugs and takes it off too. He holds up his gloved left hand. “I’m not sure why I’m wearing this,” he says.
“Take it off,” Steve suggests. He does, and they spend a few seconds just staring at Bucky’s exposed hand. The fingers are all ridged and intricately jointed; the palm a set of neatly interworked metal plates. Steve wants to draw it. He wants to touch, and Bucky gives him a nod, so he runs a finger over one of the places the plates interlock—almost the equivalent of a lifeline. “Can you—feel that?” he asks.
Bucky looks sort of breathless as he bobs his head. “Yeah, sort of. It’s not like—there’s pressure and I can feel the heat from your finger—I could feel it before you even actually touched me? It’s hard to explain,” he finishes with a small, astonished laugh. He flexes his fingers, and everything slides together smoothly, beautifully. “It’s the future,” he says.
“You think you can get it wet?” Steve asks, feeling a brief flash of concern.
“What’s the point of a snazzy future robot arm if you can’t get it wet?” Bucky asks indignantly. “Come on,” he says, with a growing grin. “Race you!”
They tear off toward the water, dodging towels and beach chairs and umbrellas. Steve can’t believe how good he feels. His lungs feel like they could suck all the air out of the sky and still have room for more. His legs are long and strong—he’s bounding across the sand, practically flying. Bucky got a fraction of a second’s head start, but Steve catches him easily. They keep pace almost all the way to the water, at which point Steve puts on an extra burst of speed, swerving sideways and grabbing Bucky around the middle, bowling him over backward into the waves.
He comes up sputtering, his long hair plastered in wet tendrils to the sides of his face. “You little—“ he says, launching himself at Steve.
Steve sidesteps, laughing. “Not so little!” he crows.
“Yeah, the rest of you finally caught up with your mouth.” Bucky manages to get an arm around him and a second later Steve’s being properly baptized by the Pacific Ocean. He spits out a mouthful of salt water as he surfaces, still laughing.
It takes him a moment to realize Bucky’s gone quiet. Steve sees that he’s turned and is staring back up the beach. Already feeling his stomach tighten, Steve turns and looks, too.
What he sees doesn’t make any sense. A good portion of the towels—full of sunbathers and picnickers when they ran past just a moment ago—are now empty and abandoned. A few more still have people hovering over them in anxious, ready to spring poses—all with their tiny future phones held out in front of them as if they could also serve as some sort of shield.
“Did someone spot a shark?” Bucky asks, though he doesn’t sound like he believes it.
All Steve can think is that they saw him and Bucky—before, up on the pier. He can’t understand why they would wait, do nothing then, only to…flee in some mass exodus to fetch the police? It seems like an over-reaction to some brief, purely experimental public indecency. Which was hardly even indecent! Steve plants his feet in the sand. Fine, let the cops come. He’s going to stand right here and give them a piece of his—
“Look at you boys, I can’t even leave you alone for…two hours.” Suddenly Natasha’s in front of them, smiling up from a studied glance at her watch. She’s got their clothes bundled up under her arm. Steve has no idea what direction she even came from.
“Come on,” she says, jerking her head up the shore. “Walk, don’t run.”
Sam falls in beside them a couple feet from the water. He’s holding open Bucky’s jacket and gestures for Bucky to slip it on. “What about me?” Steve asks.
“Nope, it’s the full walk of shame for you, Rogers.” Natasha’s smirking, not smiling. Steve’s starting to realize there is a difference.
Natasha’s fabled car is waiting for them the moment sand turns into pavement, in an area where Steve suspects most normal people are not allowed to park. However, Steve doesn’t get a chance to admire her vehicle or consider all the ways this is definitely not normal, because he’s swiftly bustled inside. There’s already a towel spread out across the seats, but the back of the car is cramped with both him and Bucky squeezed into it, and they’re damp and dripping. They share an all-too-familiar look: Steve knows they both feel like naughty children who are about to be punished.
Natasha dumps their balled-up clothing at their feet, then slides neatly into the driver’s seat. Sam, his chin propped wearily against his fist, is already seated next to her. She guns the engine and swings them out of there with the smallest hint of a sigh.
“I’m going to have to get Pepper another de Kooning.”
Steve had forgotten how difficult it is to be angry in this body. How impotent it feels, his tiny fists clenched, but no possibility of force behind them. There’s always someone for Captain America to (righteously) hit, or at least a steady stream of bags to pound into smithereens. If Steve were to walk into any gym in the neighborhood like this, he’d be laughed right back out before he could even tell them his name.
And this is worse, this anger. It’s worse because it’s Bucky he’s mad at, and Bucky’s the last person in the world he wants to see be the victim of rage.
So he’s holding it in, because he has to hold it in. But Bucky knows Steve too well (he remembers, he remembers Steve—and Steve should be thrilled) and he can tell Steve’s upset. He’s flitting behind Steve like an anxious shadow. “I didn’t know—“ he keeps saying, and “I only realized after—“ and, “I just wanted—“ And Steve feels the anger bubbling like acid in his belly.
“All right, enough,” he finally snaps. “Just—let me think.”
They’re walking just to walk, and because Steve can’t bear the thought of going back to the cramped confines of their tiny apartment right now. The sights and the sounds and even the smell of these streets are already fading back into a familiar background tapestry. Steve keeps catching sight of his and Bucky’s reflections in shop windows, just waiting for the moment when the moment of dissonance goes unnoticed. When, even for a few seconds, he’ll just see himself, him and Bucky, going about their business. Normal as anything: Brooklyn, 1938.
His bangs keep flopping down in front of his eyes and Steve catches himself brushing them back over his forehead with tense fingers, his old nervous habit. Bucky, beside him, has his hands shoved down firmly in the pockets of his pants. His shoulders are drawn up. “Sorry,” he says again, when he sees Steve looking.
Steve sighs. “No, I’m sorry,” he says, on a breath. “Let’s go home.”
It wasn’t something he missed, trudging up all these stairs. Steve gets winded. Bucky’s hand moves, perhaps unconsciously, to his back, and for once Steve doesn’t shake him off. He takes deep breaths the way his ma taught.
Bucky’s hand is rubbing circles. “Maybe we can retrace my steps. Find it again—before.” This is temporally confusing. “I’m sure it’s old: it might still be where it was. We could steal it.”
“Do I look in any shape for a heist?” Steve wheezes. They make it through their front door and Steve collapses on the couch. Bucky comes over a moment later, bearing a glass of cloudy water. “Besides, how are we going to get to India? You spent probably half our savings on eating up that entire diner.”
Bucky looks at him. Then slowly, haltingly: “I have…skills,” he says. “That I didn’t, before. Certain types of people are always willing to pay—“
“No,” Steve says. “Bucky, you can’t. I know you don’t want to.”
Bucky looks like he’s not entirely sure how his own desires factor into it.
“No.” Steve says it softer and gestures Bucky closer. “We’ll figure something out. Maybe I can…track down Howard Stark. Erskine, even! There’s gotta be a scientific way to…”
His lungs give up on the rest. Steve’s chest feels so tight and when he tries to talk his words are swallowed by that awful whistle. No. No no no. Anything but this, he thinks, reduced for a moment to perfect selfishness. His chest rattles with a phlegmy cough. Bucky stares at him helplessly for a painful stretch of seconds, then bolts for the drawer by the bed, fumbling for their small supply of epinephrine. Steve shakes his head at him. He never liked how it made him feel and now that he knows that doctors in the future consider it a terrible treatment for asthma, he’d rather avoid the feeling of his chest squeezing tighter and tighter, of panicky doom descending on him like a cloak. He tries to remember his breathing exercises. He tries to tell himself that this is all temporary, that there’s a future out there where he never has to worry about having another asthma attack again.
Maybe. Maybe still out there.
Steve has his eyes closed and his head tilted back against the top of the couch, but he feels Bucky sit down beside him. There’s a tentative touch on his shoulder, and then the weight of a big warm hand sliding down, settling over his spine. Bucky’s breathing in tandem with him, trying to draw Steve with him into slow, steady breaths. Steve thinks it’s never going to work and then slowly it does work. There are tears stinging at the corners of his eyes but he no longer feels like his rib cage is encased in a vise.
Bucky sits with him until the worst of it passes, and by then Steve feels too exhausted to protest his coddling, let alone plot an assault on the space-time continuum.
“I am sorry,” Bucky says, softly. He scooted away as soon as Steve started to seem more present, and now he’s sitting on the floor again, his back up against the arm of the couch, just like he was this morning when Steve woke up. “I forgot.”
Forgot? Steve feels a flash of anger before he remembers. What a pair they make.
“I never wanted to see you suffer like this again,” Bucky says, voice barely above a whisper.
And Steve knows that. He knows that. Gingerly, he slides his arm off the couch, lets his fingers droop down so that they’re hanging alongside Bucky’s shoulder.
After a long moment, Bucky reaches up and takes them.
Sam and Natasha have acquired another room. They deposit Steve and Bucky inside, along with a duffle bag that apparently contains Steve’s spare clothes, which they are both meant to change into. “Wait here,” Natasha says ominously. “The grown-ups have matters to discuss.”
They retreat, presumably to the original room, leaving Steve and Bucky once again unsupervised. “They’re…oddly trusting,” Steve says.
“Well, who could distrust this face?” says Bucky, gesturing at himself and not fully concealing his tone of disbelief.
“Do you think they followed us?” Steve asks. “They found us awful quick—when they wanted to.”
“I don’t know what to think.” Bucky’s frowning. “Except I’m wet and starting to feel clammy. Do you wanna wash up first? You—“
“Can’t get a cold. Aren’t going to get sick.” Steve lets himself feel smug for a minute. “You can go first.”
“I’ll be quick,” Bucky promises.
Steve shakes his head. “Take your time. Luxuriate! I bet the hot water lasts forever here.”
“Well, I’ll draw myself a bubble bath then,” Bucky says, and darts through the bathroom door.
This room looks almost identical to the last one. Steve’s wet clothes are clinging to him, but he takes a moment to make a more thorough survey. Besides the two double beds and the door to the bathroom, there’s a nightstand with a lamp, another door leading to a closet that’s empty save for a luggage rack and a few lonely hangers, a small desk with another lamp, and a large heavy-looking dresser with some sort of screen set on top of it. Steve wonders if it’s some futuristic descendent of a television. He and Bucky went and saw a demonstration once, and the man conducting it had claimed that one day everyone would have one in their own home. There are a few buttons on the upper rim of the screen, but pressing on them doesn’t appear to do anything.
He’s tilting it around to get a better look at the back when Bucky calls his name from the bathroom. It sounds a little distorted through the door, but Steve can still hear the note of anxiety in his voice.
“What’s the matter, Buck?”
“Do you mind…I think you better come in and have a look at this, Steve.”
Back home, Steve might assume Bucky’s playing a prank on him—he’s not above the odd mooning—but even then Steve would hardly hesitate. Here, his hand is already on the doorknob. He pushes inside to find Bucky standing shirtless in front of the mirror. His shoulders are hunched forward, and when he turns, Steve can see he’s got his left—metal—elbow cradled in the palm of his right hand. He looks up at Steve with betrayal burning in his eyes.
“Does this look like how you’d attach a snazzy future robot arm?”
“Jesus,” is all Steve can say in response. The arm looks like it’s welded on. Around it, Bucky’s skin is horribly scarred: scored and gauged, a sunburst of red and white marks radiating out from his shoulder. “Bucky…”
Steve reaches out as if, foolishly, his touch could somehow make Bucky feel better. He’s not surprised when Bucky shies away from him.
“This ain’t proper scientific procedure, I’ll tell you that,” Bucky mutters. He’s got his arms clenched in tight to his torso, like he’s trying to protect himself from some imagined blow, but they drop suddenly to his sides as a thought appears to strike him. “Fuck, Steve—what about you? Did you check yourself over?”
Steve has physically felt so good all day, he hadn’t even stopped to really consider the fact that he’s this way because he had some dodgy experiment performed on him. When he’d changed clothes earlier, he’d done it quickly, without even stripping out of his undershirt—his mind entirely preoccupied with the halting, frankly garbage information Sam had given him about Bucky. So he’s being honest when he shakes his head and, at Bucky’s urging, pulls off his wet shirt.
“What?” he says, catching sight of Bucky’s face. “Is it bad?”
Steve looks down and he can’t see anything, except—good god, he is enormous. But the acres of skin look smooth and mostly unmarked—there’s a small scar on his stomach, but it appears innocuous enough. He and Bucky step around each other so Steve can look in the mirror and Bucky can inspect Steve’s back. He sees the reflection of Bucky’s hands coming up, but they don’t touch him: they hover above his waist, metal and flesh fingers minutely flexing.
“You’re fine.” Bucky lets out a breath. “You’re perfect.”
Steve turns around again so he’s facing Bucky and his back’s pressed up against the sink. His own hands rise up and hover, seemingly of their own accord. It’s nothing so dramatic as what’s happened to Steve, but without his shirt on, Steve can see that Bucky’s broader than he used to be, too. His flesh-and-bone arm is ropy with muscle, and his torso is coiled with it. He looks strong—not just strong-compared-to-Steve. He looks—just as he’s always looked—like the pinnacle of masculine perfection, everything Steve’s ever wanted to be.
The pitted agony of his shoulder doesn’t detract from that, but it still turns Steve’s stomach. “Does it hurt?” he asks, anxiously, hands fluttering like a pair of anxious moths.
Bucky shakes his head. That’s a relief, but Bucky’s expression is far from relieved. “It looks like it did, though, doesn’t it? Why does that unnerve me worse—evidence of a pain I can’t remember?”
“Buck…” And Steve does touch him then: his hands find his shoulders, one warm and one cold. His fingers skim down, over smooth skin and articulated ridges. Bucky’s bright, ocean-blue eyes stare up at him and Steve feels a familiar tightness in his chest. Look at me, he wants to say, I’m big and strong, I can finally protect you.
Except clearly he didn’t. So what good is it?
“They’re lying to us,” Bucky says, voice flat. “Or at least not telling us the whole truth. Letting us make stupid assumptions.”
“We need outside information,” Steve agrees. “The room doesn’t have a radio, but I think there’s a television. I couldn’t get it to work, though.”
“Probably sabotaged,” Bucky says bitterly. His hands touch down on Steve’s waist—brief, fleeting, and Steve’s heart is in his throat and then Bucky’s turning away. He walks back into the main room, pulls a dry shirt and a pair of pants out of Steve’s bag and dons them with mechanical swiftness. After a moment, Steve does the same.
Bucky’s already poking at the television. He has no more luck with the buttons on the top of the screen. He shifts the whole thing around like Steve had been about to and reveals a tangle of cables coming out of the back. They disappear again behind the back of the bureau. Steve walks over and puts his hands on the bureau’s sides; it lifts so easily it feels like a joke—a prop. He can’t help the little laugh that’s startled out of him, and Bucky doesn’t seem to judge him for it. His frigid frown has a quirk to it as he follows the cables back into the gap between the bureau and the wall.
A second later, he’s snorting: “They unplugged it. That was their top-notch sabotage.”
“Guess they took us for a couple of rubes.” Steve can feel anger boiling in his belly—especially toward Sam. He trusted Sam.
“Well, joke’s on them.” Bucky bends down and jams the plug back in. “Try some of those buttons now.”
Steve does. The screen flickers to loud and vibrant life. “It’s in color,” Steve says, and for a few seconds, they forget their anger and simply stare in awe. It’s some sort of cartoon, featuring people with violently yellow skin. All of it’s going way over Steve’s head, and probably Bucky’s too, but they still stand in silence, just watching the images flash by.
Finally Steve shakes himself and reaffirms his focus. “Maybe there are other stations,” he says, poking at more buttons.
After a few minutes of trial and error, they find what appears to be the news. A reporter in a tan suit is talking anxiously over a picture of a map—apparently there are “more closures on the 405.” Steve glances at Bucky, who shrugs.
The image cuts to two other reporters seated behind a desk. The blonde woman fake-shuffles a stack of papers. “Our top story tonight: Captain America makes an unscheduled visit to the Southland, but it doesn’t look like he’s here to enjoy the surf. Does it, Pat?”
Steve is so startled by the headshot of his own (altered) face appearing in the corner of the screen that it takes him a moment to process what the other reporter is saying.
“Not at all, Cindy. In fact, from the look of this cell phone footage acquired exclusively by KTLA news, we might be looking at a second wave of the conflict we witnessed in D.C. this spring.”
The “cell phone footage” turns out to be shaky—but still full-color—film of Steve and Bucky fooling around in the ocean—what, a whole hour ago? Christ. Steve’s still trying to wrap his mind around that when the screen switches to more grainy color images, this time of two men fighting on an unfamiliar street. With a still strange, dissociative lurch, Steve eventually recognizes the blond in the blue jacket as himself. The man he looks like he’s locked in deadly combat with is wearing a mask. He has long dark hair and a metal—
“Now, I’m no SHIELD analyst—“ says Pat.
“Fortunately not: you’d be out of a job!” titters Cindy.
“Right you are! But well, that sure looks like the same assailant Cap fought in our nation’s capital, transplanted here to our shores.”
“It does to me, too, Pat. However, Maria Hill of Stark Industries had no comment except to say that Captain Rogers is enjoying some personal leave. So we’re going now to Chip Jost, who’s with witnesses at the scene. Chip?”
“Thanks, Cindy. I’m here with Cristina Sanchez, who was enjoying a day at the beach with her sister. Tell us what you saw, Cristina.”
“Well, these two big men came running down the sand past our blanket, and I was, you know, enjoying the view when I noticed one of them had that arm—you don’t forget that arm.”
“No you don’t! It is a distinct appendage.”
“Yeah! And then the guy with the arm, he like, threw himself at Cap. Really violent—he pushed him into the water like he wanted to drown him and I—“
After a moment of fumbling Steve manages to find the power button again. The screen goes dark.
Bucky’s standing still as a statue beside him. His left arm is hanging limp, held as far away from the rest of his body as possible. Bucky’s eyeing it like it’s a venomous snake that’s attached itself to his body and is only waiting for the right moment to make its fatal strike.
“Bucky,” Steve says, swallowing around the dryness in his mouth, “that woman obviously didn’t know what she was talking about. She thought a little harmless roughhousing was a fight…”
“Is that what that newsreel stuff looked like to you?” Bucky says flatly, not looking at him. “You and me on that street—did that look like roughhousing?”
He turns away, paces up past the bed, his shoulders vibrating. “I didn’t tell you. I didn’t want to— When I woke up. On that roof. What I had with me, what I woke up next to…” He turns, and his eyes skitter over Steve’s face before he looks away again. “I was asleep—or passed out—next to some sort of sniper rifle. Big gun on a stand. I must’ve been up there to kill someone—oh god.” He scrubs his palms over his face, then recoils when he realizes what he’s done—flinging the metal hand away from him. “Steve…we’re not on the same side of this.”
“Bullshit.” Steve doesn’t hesitate to invade Bucky’s space: he takes full advantage of his new strength and grabs Bucky by his metal arm, tugs him close until he can hold him quiet and still. He threads his fingers through Bucky’s metal ones, ignoring his efforts to twitch and squirm away. Bucky’s tough-loved him like this before—when he was aching and hurting but prideful; he knows how this works.
“We’re always on the same side,” he says, pressing close to Bucky’s ear. His hair smells like sea salt and his stubble is rough against Steve’s cheek. Steve sucks in a big breath of air and it feels shaky, but he can do this—he can be strong for Bucky.
“It’s you and me, pal,” he promises. “No matter what.”
“Guess whatever they gave you didn’t cure you of being an idiot,” Bucky mutters against his collarbone.
“Nope,” says Steve. “Chronic case.”
Bucky looks up at him and manages half a smile. They’re so close, and Steve—
Steve needs to focus.
“I think it’s time we got some real answers,” he says, looking pointedly toward the door.
And Bucky nods, squares his shoulders. He steps forward and with only a bit of hesitance, reaches out with his left hand and claps Steve on the shoulder. “Sounds like a plan.”
“So,” says Steve, “Plan B.”
“What’s Plan A?” asks Bucky.
They’re both back up on the couch. Bucky had gone and got their “secret” bottle of whiskey out from the broom cupboard and poured them each a finger. Steve had spent a moment thinking, Hey! I can get drunk again! before realizing he doesn’t want to. He wants to be present. He sips his whiskey slowly and looks at Bucky where he’s reclined against the couch’s other arm.
“I don’t have a Plan A,” Steve admits, “so we’re skipping ahead to B until we figure it out.”
His sloppy grin does the trick: Bucky smiles at him over the rim of his glass, and it almost is like old times. I just wanted things to be like they were, Bucky had said, and Steve wants that, too, on some level: their past history, just slightly tweaked to their liking.
“Plan B,” he says slowly: “We can’t ever figure out how to get back.”
Bucky opens his mouth, obviously to apologize again, but Steve halts him with a raised hand. “So what do we do?” he asks. “How do we fix it?”
“We have to get you to Erskine,” Bucky says definitively. Even when he got up to get the hooch, his eyes hardly strayed from Steve; Steve remembers how he used to look after an asthma attack, and he imagines Bucky’s searing the image into his brain now, like a guilty brand.
Bucky releases a rough breath. “And I need to let myself get captured by Zola again.”
“What? Why?” Steve can’t help springing up onto his knees, even though it makes his head spin. Bucky’s throat is moving, methodically sucking back a slurry of whiskey; Steve wants to knock the glass out of his hand. “That’s the last thing—“
“Without what he did to me,” Bucky says, hands falling down to his knees, “I’m just me.” There’s an odd sort of desperation in his eyes as he looks over at Steve. “I was a good shot in the army, it’s why I made sergeant, but it was nothing, nothing like with the Commandos. You never saw, Steve, before—so you didn’t know after. I could see the smallest twitch of movement, thousands of yards away. I made kill shots from over a mile off. And that was before—“ He swallows. “That was without—“
The “So what?” rips its way out of Steve. “Bucky—” He forces himself to say it more calmly. “It’s not worth it. I need you, I don’t need—“
But Bucky’s shaking his head. “You do. You do, if you want me watching your back, if you want to do this, we’re going to need every advantage—“
“So we get you to Erskine, too,” Steve says, and the idea settles over him like a warm bath. “If we’re doing this, we can save him. Get you the serum too—the good stuff.”
For some reason, the thought of this seems to make Bucky uncomfortable. “I don’t…”
“And Peggy,” Steve says, to take the pressure off, but the idea warms him. He warms to it: “Hell, all of the Commandos—why not?”
Bucky’s eyebrow arches, but at least he looks less uncomfortable. “So we’re going to create your own hand-picked army of super soldiers.”
Steve can, admittedly, see all the ways in which this idea could go horribly, horribly wrong—but that’s not what this conversation is about anymore, he doesn’t think.
“Better yet,” Steve says, “we go to Germany tomorrow. Get Erskine out now, before Schmidt can steal the prototype off of him. No Red Skull, no Hydra—done.”
Bucky, kindly, does not ask why Steve thinks an extraction from Nazi Germany would be easier for the two of them to pull off than an Indian jewel heist. “We can end the war before it even starts,” he says with something like a smirk.
“We have over a year,” Steve agrees. “Plenty of time.”
“We would certainly have the element of surprise.” Bucky laps up a last lick of whiskey, then sets the glass down. “I like Plan B.”
“It’s foolproof,” says Steve, spreading his skinny arms.
“And then what?” Bucky asks. He’s drawn his legs up onto the couch, the same pale, long-toed feet that Steve had spent years swatting off the cushions curled between them. His left arm dangles off the curve of his knee.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, we’ve saved the free world. Defeated the Red Skull, taken out Hitler—I did it once so I can do it again.” He’s almost laughing about it. Almost. “We’ve stopped the war, liberated Europe—so. What would you want to do next?”
Steve hesitates. He remembers Sam at the VA asking him, What makes you happy? He stares across at Bucky, who’s watching him over the arc of his arm. His eyes look wide and dark, their blue only in Steve’s memory.
“What would you like to do?” he asks—an obvious and cheap deflection.
Bucky gives Steve a look like he’s onto him, but he’s going to let it slide—for now. “I don’t know,” he says. “Travel, I guess. That sounds stupid; I’ve been around the world more times than I—“
Would like to remember. Steve can fill in the blank.
Bucky takes a breath. “But I’ve never just…wandered. Never been to the Grand Canyon,” he adds, and for a moment his youthful face truly looks its age, all lit up at the thought. “I’d like that.”
“Then I’d like to go with you,” Steve says, and is surprised by the depth of his feeling. That’s it: that’s all he’d like, or want, or need. “Bucky…”
He scooches closer across the couch. Bucky starts to draw his feet away, but Steve puts a hand on his knee, stilling him. He stares up into his face and feels a calmness suffuse him at the old, familiar angle.
“We can fix it,” he says.
Bucky stares at him.
“If you want to,” Steve says. He knows he needs to be careful. He knows he’s being greedy, and maybe selfish, but if he really does have to live it all again, he can’t let them make the same mistake twice.
Bucky’s eyes are on him. Fixed. He nods.
Steve lifts himself up on weak, trembling arms and pulls himself onto Bucky’s lap.
Bucky’s arms come up and wrap around his back. Steve feels tiny, easily enveloped, but he leans into it, presses as close to Bucky as he can. Somehow they manage to mistime it, and their noses bump. They startle back, just a little, and Steve can feel the soft laughter building in his chest, beneath the frantic racing of his heart. Bucky’s staring up into his eyes. Then with a sigh, a great stuttering release of breath, he lifts his face toward Steve’s as his eyelashes flutter closed.
Steve kisses him. They kiss, Bucky’s hand steady on the back of Steve’s neck. Bucky’s lips are soft and lightly whiskey-flavored. There is a slow certainty to their coming together, and Steve’s chest feels tight again—but with happiness, with relief. They are fixing it. This part at least: finally, finally they are doing it the way it was meant to happen.
Bucky lies back, loose-bodied, against the arm of the couch; he tugs Steve tight against him. Their difference in size has never been more apparent and never meant less to Steve. He strokes a hand through Bucky’s hair, holds him by the face, kisses him again. “You and me,” he breathes against his mouth. “That’s the way it was and that’s the way it’s always gonna be.”
Bucky nods, his eyes tear-stung but bright. He’s nodding, they’re agreed, but Steve can’t help telling him anyway: “That’s not a wish, Buck—that’s a promise.”
“Till the—“ Bucky starts and then stops, flushes. “Well, you know.”
Steve’s heart feels close to bursting, but he laughs, because he does.
“Now stop talking,” Bucky says, less a parody of his old self and more a winking celebration, “and put that mouth to better use, Stevie.”
Steve does and does and does.
“I can explain,” is the first thing Natasha says when they burst through the door.
She’s sitting quietly on the bed farthest from the door with one eyebrow arched; she looks like the only still point in a rioting sea of chaos. The rest of the room is completely transformed from the bland but suffocating space Steve was so anxious to leave a few hours ago. The walls, floor, ceiling, bedspreads; the paintings on the walls, the curtains, the image on the television screen, Sam’s t-shirt—all explode with expressive washes of vibrant color, crude but emotively drawn shapes, wide-eyed faces and swirling lines. Some of it, Steve thinks, would be sort of interesting—except there’s so much of it. It looks like the paintings escaped their canvases and surged across the whole of the room, consuming everything they touched—only Steve’s pretty sure that when he was waiting around this morning, the only art in here was a couple of bland pictures of sailboats.
This was not what they were expecting to see. Steve feels his righteous demands fading from his lips in the face of…um.
He has no fucking idea what this is.
“You better,” is all he can manage.
“Yeah,” says Bucky, “and maybe start with how metal robot arms aren’t some cool future accessory that lots of people have, but a very specific and unique thing that maniacs who attack the capital have.”
He turns on Steve. “You think maybe I had a good reason? Well, then I wanna hear it. I want to hear it from them. All of it.”
“It’s complicated…” Sam starts to say, at the same time Natasha says, “You were brainwashed.”
“What?” she says, off of the looks they all give her. “Motivations are complicated. People are complicated. Facts aren’t.” She stares at them steadily and swings her feet around till they’re flat on the floor. “He was brainwashed. Then he got a little better and started hunting down the people who did it to him. Then—in India, I think—you caught up to one of them, and when you raided his compound, you took some things off of him. Including this.”
She holds up a round, red stone which after a moment Steve recognizes as the marble Bucky pulled out of his pocket in the diner.
“I stole the guy’s taw?” Bucky asks incredulously.
Sam shakes his head. Something about his face suggests that he’s breeched his capacity to be surprised and is just going to have to roll with what comes from now on. Steve knows the feeling.
“Apparently, it’s magic,” he says. “It grants wishes. Apparently.”
“Of course it does,” Steve says. He and Bucky exchange a look. “Didn’t I call it, Buck?”
“Vice Versa, you said.” Bucky’s not laughing about it, though. “Of course.”
“But it seems like it’s kind of cranky about it,” Natasha says. “I wished for a de Kooning to help smooth our little PR incident over with Pepper—hey,” she says, all-too-casually tossing the magic wish marble in the air, “might as well kill two birds with one stone. It changed both the paintings in here. Then I tried to experiment with wishing one away—and that’s when it got testy.”
“It doesn’t like wishes that undo previous wishes, even when someone else wishes them,” Sam says. He gestures down at himself. “Hence the wardrobe redesign.”
“I think we insulted it,” Natasha says.
“Insulted it? It’s a rock.”
“What? What?” Bucky says. “I’m already some brainwashed idiot that you have to fight. What else can it do to me?”
“All right,” says Natasha, into the long moment of painful silence. “Maybe it is more complicated than that.”
“What stupid thing did I even wish in the first place? It looks like all I accomplished was giving me and Steve seventy-five years of amnesia. Did I just want to forget? Was I really as selfish as that?”
“Buck.” Steve finds himself filled with the urge to grab Bucky by the shoulder the way Bucky does with him when he’s on the verge of flying off the handle: anchor him with the weight of a steady palm and strong, grasping fingers. His hands are big enough now.
Somehow he can’t move past the notion that Bucky wouldn’t like that. What he would like, though, Steve thinks he knows, so he takes advantage of the fact that Natasha’s focus is on Bucky and lunges for the stone in her hand.
He does not calculate appropriately for his weight and size. Further, it’s not until he’s in motion that it fully dawns on him what he’s doing: throwing himself bodily at a woman who is much, much smaller than himself. She twists away with grace; Steve tries to adjust his trajectory and hits the bed; the bedframe, mattress, and box spring shudder back an impossible distance under the impact and collide with the wall. One of the framed de Koonings crashes to the ground, as does a lamp.
Sam has jumped back several steps; Steve can see his face, upside-down from where he’s lying on the floor. His expression is one of slack-jawed awe. “I will forever regret that I didn’t get a video of that.”
Natasha’s already rolled and bounced back up to her feet, and is looking at Steve with a raised eyebrow. “Um,” says Steve, from the floor. He pulls himself up and is surprised to find he isn’t even dizzy: nothing bruised but the ego. “I thought…”
“You could have just asked, Rogers.” Without even looking, Natasha tosses the stone to Bucky.
He catches it easily in his right fist. “You trust me with this?”
“You want to know what other-you wished,” she says, eying him steadily. “As long as you’re willing to share with the rest of the class…”
“All right.” Bucky’s eyes look dark and intense beneath the shaggy fall of his hair. “I wish I knew what the hell I was thinking.”
A second later he drops the stone. Bucky looks like he’s going to be sick and Steve feels like he’s going to be; he goes to Bucky’s side and reaches out without hesitance. Bucky clutches back, but he won’t look at Steve: his face is all screwed up.
“I just wish things could be like they were,” he says, the words sounding like they’re being ripped from him. “Me and Steve.”
Then he says, “Fuck,” and pushes Steve away.
“Phrasing,” says Natasha, unhelpfully.
Steve barely notices Sam moving past him into the bathroom until he comes back out with a glass of water. He hands it to Bucky, who shakily drinks, before somehow, with Sam’s guidance, allowing himself to be led over to the other bed—the one Steve didn’t destroy. He sits down on the edge, shoulders hunched.
“He thought we had it made, Steve,” Bucky says, still not meeting his eyes. “Can you imagine,” he chokes out, “you and me, the two luckiest fellas in the world?”
Steve sinks down beside him. He loops an arm around Bucky’s back. “Yeah, kinda.” He says it softly: for Bucky’s ears only.
“Phrasing,” Natasha says again, in a tone that’s penetrating but still not loud. “’I wish things could be like they were’—and yet here we have amnesia, an unfamiliar environment. Doesn’t quite qualify, in my opinion.”
“So it didn’t like the wish,” says Bucky, bravely powering through a sniff, “so what?”
“So…” says Natasha, “all of this might be a side effect.”
“You mean like this?” says Sam, waving his tiny phone in the air. Steve missed him receiving a call, but he still announces with confidence: “Breaking news: two de Koonings missing from MOCA; somehow replaced in broad daylight with two mass-produced paintings of sailboats.”
“Wait,” says Steve, after a moment, “are you saying we’re the sailboats?”
Natasha, he notices belatedly, has stealthily reclaimed the stone. She tosses it lightly in the air; lets it thwack back down against her palm. “I wish,” she says, “that we could see where the Steve and Bucky who normally belong in this time have ended up. Talk this over with them a bit.”
It’s one of the least dramatic things he’s ever witnessed—especially today. The four of them are alone in their riotous de Kooning’d room one second, and the next, a window has opened in the air above the damaged bed, quiet as a curtain being drawn back. Steve can see through it into a much more familiar room: it’s his and Bucky’s apartment, with an angle on his and Bucky’s sagging green couch. For a second, it’s like looking in a mirror, or a fantastic color photograph, because he’s there—Steve as Steve knows he really is: skinny and short and…
…astride Bucky’s lap.
Steve’s been looking at modern art for too long; it takes him a moment to decode what his eyes are seeing. Bucky’s leaning back against the arm of the couch with his hands on Steve’s hips and the dopiest grin on his face, smiling up at Steve so broadly that Steve—the real Steve in the fake body—thinks this weird vision of himself, body but not brain, must have something embarrassing written on his forehead or cheek. But his face is clean; he’s smiling too, expression fit to burst as he leans back down, his hands holding Bucky by the throat, tilting his face up to—to—
“Good timing,” says Natasha to herself, self-congratulatory, fortunately drowning out the strangled sort of sound Steve makes.
Attention is further drawn away from himself as the Steve and Bucky through the window realize that they are no longer entirely alone. Steve attempts to, uh…dismount, but he seems clumsy and out of practice with his limbs and almost topples into the coffee table. Bucky catches him, his body moving into a defensive pose that raises Steve’s—the real Steve’s—hackles. The Steve back in his apartment is red faced when he peeks around Bucky’s shoulder, but he seems to be handling the situation with more grace.
“Natasha,” he says after a moment, letting out a long breath. “You could have knocked.”
Steve feels flushed. In spite of being startled the way he was, in spite of nearly crashing through the coffee table—and here, like this, odds were even on the coffee table being the one to emerge victorious—his ardor hasn’t entirely cooled. Bucky’s still clutching him by the arm and his touch feels like it’s blazing. The protective surge would once have irritated him, but now Steve wants to curl into it.
He kind of wants Natasha to go away.
“Well, I didn’t think people got up to such things back in those days,” she’s saying with a mock-gasp. “You’re gonna raise a ruckus, Rogers.”
“Wouldn’t be anything new,” mutters Bucky from beside him. Steve glances up and sees that his gaze his downcast: he’s got a wary eye on Natasha and the weird…rip in the space-time continuum or whatever, but he’s avoiding looking anybody else in the eye. Anybody else being Sam, and perhaps more significantly, them: Bucky long-haired and scruffy but doe-eyed in a way Steve had nearly forgotten, and himself, big and brawny and looking like he’s just been smacked in the face with a pan. They never did give much thought to what must have happened to their displaced 1938 selves; this, Steve now realizes, was a mistake.
He feels his face heating up again, thinking about…what he just showed himself. Him and Bucky. He tries to imagine himself at 20, getting a glimpse of the greatest desire he’d never even let himself contemplate. Twenty-year-old Steve Rogers, who was so even-keeled and well-balanced, having just lost his mother and a big WPA gig and Bucky to the affections of Stella Dermont for three weeks that might have been three months for the way they stretched. Jeez.
“Well, this is awkward,” says Sam, rubbing a hand across the back of his neck. Instead of one of the plain tees he usually favors, he’s wearing one those awful art-appropriating t-shirts that Steve always disdains in museum gift shops. In fact the whole room looks like…
“Did Willem de Kooning throw up in there?”
Sam and Natasha chuckle. His other self is still staring; Steve can see his throat working. Bucky, beside him, keeps nervously wetting his lips. Finally, with a firm adjustment of his shoulders, he pulls himself together. “What were you thinking,” he demands of his other self, “with your stupid wish?”
“I wasn’t,” says Bucky. He’s quiet but his tone makes no excuses.
Still, his past self isn’t satisfied. “You finally had Steve healthy,” he says, gesturing to the man beside him—who does not, Steve notes, appear to appreciate being used as exhibit A. “You’re in this great place where you can—“ His shoulders and head dip in such a way that the wordless meaning is more than clear. “All you had to do was get yourself together.”
“Hey,” Steve finds himself protesting, “it’s not as simple as that. And 2014 isn’t a paradise any more than 1938 is.”
“I’m not saying it’s paradise, pal.” Bucky’s right hand moves, seemingly unconsciously, to circle his metal wrist. “But it’s the future. It’s wide open, you can make anything happen. Why would you go running back to hide in the past?”
Steve’s heart flutters. He touches his Bucky’s wrist: all that smooth, unscarred skin. Bucky looks down at him with sad eyes but Steve is smiling. “You see where I got it from?” he says.
“Look,” says Natasha, “what’s done is done. Steve, I’m glad you’re safe—and have apparently been enjoying your little stroll down memory lane—but now we need to figure out how to put things right.”
Bucky’s fingers slide against Steve’s, then let go. “You have the stone, don’t you?” Natasha holds it up, balanced between two neat nails. “Then just do it. Wish us back where we belong.”
“It doesn’t like that,” says Sam, with the air of someone who’s been over this a few too many times. He gestured down at himself and around at the room—there was obviously a story behind the de Kooning vomit that Steve couldn’t even begin to grasp.
“When you try to reverse a wish, it just seems to magnify it. You didn’t happen to steal the user’s manual too, did you?” Natasha asks Bucky.
Bucky shrugs. “I didn’t even know what it did—just that the guy I came to kill was trying to get to it. Beat him to it.” His shoulders bob again. “And it was shiny.”
Steve sees his other self take a step back. Steve recognizes the set of his jaw. He maneuvers himself in front of his Bucky—between his Bucky and Steve’s.
“All right,” says Natasha, closing her fingers and dropping her hand. “Nevertheless, we’re six highly intelligent people. I’m sure we can figure out a way to outsmart a rock.”
“No.” Steve’s younger self has lifted his head, is inflating every inch of his borrowed chest. “We’re not going to try,” he says, looking Natasha in the eye. “I think it’s time we left well enough alone.”
“I’m not sure that’s your choice, Steve,” Natasha says, voice calm but fist clenched.
“Well, you do have that thing,” says Steve, “so I guess you can keep trying to rearrange reality without our consent. But we won’t help you. As far as I’m concerned, Bucky and I are staying here.” His gaze is defiant as he stares down his not-quite mirror-self through the window. “We didn’t choose for this to happen, but we’re not going back.”
“Steve—“ Steve says.
The younger Bucky cuts him off. “Wait, so you’re just speaking for both of us now? You grow a few inches and suddenly you’re in charge?”
Bucky snorts at himself. “He was always in charge, kid. Don’t delude yourself.”
“I’m not trying to speak for us,” Steve says, ignoring him. “I’m trying to give us the freedom to choose. If we go back there, it’s all set—it’s already written. I’m not going to let that happen.”
He’s turned to face his Bucky; he has his hands on his arms, metal and flesh both. The last time Steve touched him like that, he thinks, he was wrenching Bucky’s arm out of its socket. Steve envies them their gentleness in those bodies. Their innocence.
“I’m not letting this happen to you again,” Steve says.
Bucky looks at him. Steve can’t fully see his face—in this his own broad shoulders and extra inches are his enemy, blocking him. But he feels his own Bucky bump up against his side—gentle—and Steve turns his head up.
“But, Steve,” he hears the other Bucky say. “Even if it gets us here?”
“But look at you. You’re a hero, you saved the world—“
“Look at you. You, you’ve been hurt. I let you—“
“I’m fine,” says Bucky, with a not terribly convincing laugh. “I’m here. I’m still incredibly handsome. I’ve got you.”
“That’s one good thing,” Bucky says, much more loudly. “From all of this: I found you. Or you found me. And I’m not leaving again, am I?”
Steve knows who he’s asking—who he’s really asking.
“No,” Bucky says.
“So we’ll work it out,” says the other Bucky, flexing his unfamiliar metal fingers, then settling them with great familiarity on Steve’s shoulder. His hands are still gentle. “You and me.”
Steve’s still shaking his head. “No. It’s not worth it.”
“Then we make it worth it,” Bucky says, with a forcibly brave intake of breath. “But we can’t go stealing other people’s lives, Stevie. Not even our own.”
Steve can see him now, that same old quirk of his lip. He always did smile when he was sad—Bucky and Steve, too, he’s been told. Another bad habit they share.
Steve sees himself squeeze his eyes shut before turning away. “I can’t go back knowing, knowing that you, that I—“
“So we won’t know,” Bucky says in a murmur Steve can just barely pick out. “We’ll earn it all honestly.”
“Jesus,” Steve says to himself. He wants more than anything to save them from this—the thought of having gone through it all before is almost too much to bear. He almost opens his mouth, volunteers to take their place, but despite all his fantasies about Plan B, he knows he was right before, in the diner. Their place is not here in the past. They belong to the future now.
“But I don’t want to forget this,” Steve’s other self is saying. “Bucky. What if I never tell you?”
“Tell me?” Bucky says.
“I wish they had five minutes’ privacy,” says Natasha, cool and swift, and in an instant they blink out of view.
Alone, Steve, Bucky, and Sam all stare at each other awkwardly. Only Natasha appears—appears, Steve reminds himself—collected.
“I think I’m getting the hang of this thing,” she says.
“Tell me,” Bucky says.
Steve opens his mouth, but his throat makes him feel like he’s swallowed the damn stone. He can’t say it—not in any way that seems different or significant from all the ways they’ve already told each other.
So he shows him instead.
He has to tilt Bucky’s chin up to meet his mouth. Bucky goes eagerly, as he always has where Steve’s led him. Why? Why? It seems impossible that he could feel the same, that he would make this sacrifice for Steve. But he kisses like every touch is a promise. His lips are soft beneath the rough burn of his stubble. Steve clutches at his shoulders and swears that he isn’t ever going to let go.
“I won’t forget this,” he whispers. “I won’t.”
“So I’ve never really cared for de Kooning,” Steve says.
“You don’t like modern art?” asks Natasha, brow arched.
Steve rolls his eyes. “You know that’s not true. I made you go to that Basquiat retrospective in Chicago, remember Sam?”
“Oh, you made me? Captain Won’t Take a Break made me have some downtime. Okay. If that’s how you want to remember it.”
Steve makes a face at him and attempts to return to his original point. “De Kooning, though—he and I have a history. Remember, Buck? The ’39 World’s Fair?”
“You still bitter about this?” Steve can tell Bucky is trying to focus, but he keeps looking around their apartment like he’s never going to see it again. Which, Steve realizes—if all goes well they won’t.
He swallows past the lump in his throat. “Back in—well, back in ’38 actually, I applied for this WPA gig, painting murals for the fair. De Kooning and thirty-odd other guys got picked, but not me. Imagine my surprise when I woke up.” He nudges Bucky’s arm. “You promised me that they’d all fade into obscurity and that I’d be a famous artist.”
Bucky lets out a soft snort, though his gaze is still wandering somewhere over Steve’s shoulder. Steve can imagine them trying to gather up souvenirs: his mother’s quilt, Bucky’s mother’s painted water glass. He knows it’s impossible—they need to learn to be satisfied with what they’ve got. Especially when what they’ve got is each other.
Bucky turns and looks down at him. “Plan B,” he says.
Steve nods. “We’ll always have Plan B.”
He knows Natasha wants to ask, but fortunately her wished for five minutes are up, and the younger Steve and Bucky reappear as if they’d never vanished. They’ve stepped a respectable distance away from each other, but Steve’s frustrated artist’s eyes can pick out all the ways in which their clothes are newly rumpled, and the square jaw that’s in his future has a bit of beard burn already fading from its sides.
“All right,” Steve says. He doesn’t look happy, but Steve can recognize the level of defiance in his own eyes, and so he knows it’s at least not the kind of unhappiness that means they have to brace themselves for a fight. He tries to keep his own feelings about this unconflicted.
“I figured it out,” Bucky says, levelly. He reaches out a hand to Natasha.
Steve can see her hesitate. “You can trust him,” he says. “I still do.”
“You’re still an idiot,” Bucky leans down and whispers in Steve’s good ear.
But Natasha holds out the stone.
Bucky takes it. Holds it in his metal hand, then passes it carefully to the flesh and blood fingers of his right. “I wish,” he says, and Steve can tell he’s mustering his courage, fighting for sincerity of purpose. He turns and he looks at Steve—the Steve he can see looking out of his bigger body’s eyes.
“I wish things could be like they were. Me and Steve.”
Too late, Steve remembers how fast this works, and with how little fanfare. He turns to savor one last look at Bucky—the Bucky of memory, the Bucky-that-was—but he’s already gone, Steve’s gone. It’s already all gone.
Steve wakes up. His chest feels a little tight, but he waits a few moments, breathing carefully, and it passes. He sits up and takes a drink of water, then delicately returns the glass to the nightstand. He slips out of bed.
Bucky’s not on the couch. He’s not in the kitchen. Steve’s already trying to quell his own irritated thought of where did he get to so early—it’s none of his business—when Bucky pokes his head out from where he’s apparently been crouched down beside the coffee table.
“What are you doing down there?”
“Did we break out the liquor last night and drink so much I don’t even remember?”
Steve can feel his eyebrow arching. “Not unless you had a solo party after I went to bed.” In Bucky’s bed, Steve reminds himself. He’s gotta stop letting Bucky get away with this—stop letting him coddle him. He doesn’t want to be coddled.
“Well there were two tumblers on the coffee table,” Bucky says, arching a brow of his own, “and this guy—“ He waves an empty bottle back and forth. “—Propped up against the leg over there.”
“Huh,” says Steve. “Maybe we drank it in our sleep. Or,” he adds, finally getting it, “you’re doing a real bad job covering up the fact that you had Stella back here. While I was asleep behind the curtain! You don’t have to do that, Buck, it’s your place, you can just ask me to go—“
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Bucky holds out his hands. “I didn’t have Stella up here in secret. Jeez, Steve. And it’s our place. And anyway we broke up.”
“Huh?” says Steve again, but in a vastly different tone.
“Me and Stella,” Bucky says, sounding rather matter-of-fact about it. “We ain’t stepping out anymore.” He plops down on the couch and stretches out his feet.
“You think she dropped you because she was sick of your stinky feet everywhere?” Steve asks, swatting at his ankles. He sits down in the spot Bucky vacates and turns to look at him. “Seriously, though, Buck—she doesn’t know what she’s giving up.”
“Yeah?” Bucky lets out a little sigh that struggles and fails to become laughter. “And what’s that?”
“Well,” says Steve, “these stinky feet for one.” He drags his nails across the sole of Bucky’s foot before he can squirm away. Bucky squeaks, “Hey!” and stops holding in the laughter so well.
“And obviously you’re a big manly fella, just like the dames like,” Steve says, pushing up the legs of Bucky’s pajama bottoms to attack the ticklish knobs of his ankles.
“Stop it, stop it,” Bucky says, “I give, Steve—Stevie—I haven’t even had any coffee—”
“Aww, come on, you gotta be able to endure more than that,” Steve says with a laugh. “Show you’re big and tough. Unless you’re expecting to win girls over with nothing but those pretty blue eyes?”
Bucky’s silent for a moment. Then he laughs again—not quite the same ticklish giggle. His face is red and Steve feels flushed. He lets go of Bucky’s legs and sinks back to his end of the couch, panting.
“Well, it’s more than I’ve got going for me, anyway,” he says.
“Don’t be stupid.” Bucky nudges at Steve’s thigh with his toes—clearly he hasn’t learned his lesson. “I mean, I know you can’t help being stupid. But you’re gonna be a famous artist, don’t forget.”
“Not as famous as the thirty-eight guys the WPA picked instead of me,” Steve grouses. He knows he sounds bitter, and should stop. There are bigger problems in the world.
“Hacks,” says Bucky with a shake of his head. “You’re gonna outlast ‘em, you’ll see. You’re gonna be a giant, Steve.”
“Ha ha,” Steve says. Bucky should know better than to joke.
“I’m serious,” says Bucky. He kicks at Steve’s ankle again, and when that elicits little response, slides forward across the couch. He takes Steve by the shoulder, and maybe there is something to Bucky’s eyes, something hypnotic because Steve can’t stop himself from looking up.
Bucky’s smiling his stupid snaggletoothed smile down at Steve. “You’ll see,” he says. “Someday, Stevie—we’re gonna look back on this and laugh.”
“Steve. Wake up.”
There are hands on his shoulders. One of them is cold, but Steve is so, so warm.
Steve forces his eyes open. Bucky draws back, cautious. “Sorry,” he says. “I just…I needed to see it was you.”
“I’m me.” He reaches out. He doesn’t want to push, but he can’t help it. His arms are long and strong—impossible things—but they’re not everything. Maybe he needs the reassurance too.
Bucky reads something into the gesture. “I’m,” he starts, then sighs and shakes his head. He’s fairly deliberately keeping the metal arm out of reach. “Well.”
“You’re Bucky Barnes,” Steve says, wanting to revel in the fact that he’s big enough again to wrap Bucky up tight, keep him safe. Knowing from personal experience that he still needs to give him space. “And you were going to show me the future. Remember?”
For a second Steve worries that the question’s too loaded. Bucky looks less comfortable back in his own body than he did inhabiting the callow youth of 1938. His eyes are hung with dark circles and they are his own.
But after a moment, he reaches out across the crazed cacophony of the Willem de Kooning bedsheets and takes Steve’s hand.
“Yeah,” he says. “I think I remember that.”