It's just like old times, and nothing like them at all.
The bar is quiet and slightly grubby, familiar in the way that all old watering holes are whether you've been there before or not. It reminds Steve of the spots that Bucky used to drag him along to, back before the war. Before everything changed. Places where two young men on the verge of manhood could sit and share a beer and a laugh, and trade stories about girls far too classy to bring to a dive like this. Steve himself had never had much in the way of stories, but Bucky had always more than made up for the lack. The things that he said had made Steve blush more often than not, which he'd always suspected was a big part of why Bucky said them in the first place.
It's hard to wrap his head around the fact that it's seventy years later now, and Bucky is sitting on the stool next to him just like he always was when they were eighteen years old. His hair is longer and his eyes are harder, and his skin is marked with scars that Steve doesn't remember. Still, it's unmistakably Steve's best friend underneath, no matter what anyone else can see.
Steve is drinking beer, the same as always, because he couldn't get drunk if he wanted to but he still likes the taste. That much is the same. Bucky's drinking vodka, though, and neither of them is much in the mood to talk about girls today.
“You've adjusted pretty well.” Bucky glances over at him, eyes sweeping quickly up and down as he turns his glass in a slow, lazy circle. It's a look more suited to a soldier sizing up an enemy than to an old friend. Of course, Steve thinks as he considers the dark circles lingering beneath Bucky's eyes, certain allowances did have to be made. “Quite a team you've managed to assemble for yourself this time around.”
Steve's lips twitch, but the he suspects the joke wouldn't be funny if he explained it, and he settles for a shrug.
“I wasn't the one who put it together, but you're right. I'm lucky; I've always managed to fall in with the best groups around.”
Bucky snorts. “I can't believe you're still telling yourself stories like that.” The look of fond exasperation on his face is achingly familiar, and Steve is surprised at his sudden urge to freeze this moment in time: when his friend looks like his friend again, and his heart feels full to bursting. “You've always been a leader, Steve. Even when you were five-foot-five and ninety-eight pounds soaking wet, people looked up to you.” He grins. “So to speak.”
“Funny,” Steve says, rolling his eyes but unable to keep an answering grin off of his face. “Maybe you've forgotten that I used to get beat up every other day. Doesn't seem like the way people would treat someone they admired.”
“C'mon, you know better than that.” Bucky takes a careful sip of his vodka, avoiding the still-healing cut on his bottom lip. “Most of the jerks who kicked you around were afraid of you. That's what you do when you're scared: either you run away, or you beat the thing you're frightened of into a pulp before it can get any bright ideas.”
Steve waits, but Bucky doesn't seem inclined to say anything more. “Well.” He clears his throat. “It is
a good team. It could always be better, though. I'll bet, once you're back on your feet a little more—”
“Not a chance,” Bucky cuts him off before he can finish. “Natasha would kill both of us before she worked with me again, and you know it.”
“She helped us extract you,” Steve points out. “We couldn't have done it without her.”
“Yeah, well. She'll go a long way to repay a debt. That particular red mark's wiped out now, though; she made that extremely clear once she was sure I was still alive. Besides.” He knocks back the rest of his vodka in one gulp, no longer careful of his battered lips, and sets the glass down with a visible wince. “I'm not really much of a team player anymore.”
To his surprise every bit as much as Bucky's, Steve lets out a laugh. “Heck, Bucky, if that were a necessary qualification we'd be out pretty much our entire roster. Fury didn't exactly pick a whole lot of social butterflies.”
“No.” Bucky laughs back, hesitant at first but then almost like the laugh Steve remembers. “No, I guess not. Still, I don't think it's a good idea.”
“Steve.” Brown eyes seek out blue and hold them. “Three weeks ago I was trying to kill you. Doesn't that concern you at all?”
“That wasn't you,” Steve says firmly, willing his friend to believe it as he does. “I'm not going to hold you accountable for what you did when you weren't yourself, and neither is anyone else. Especially not Natasha.”
“I know she doesn't blame me. But she doesn't trust me, either.”
“She hardly trusts anybody.”
“She shouldn't trust me. I don't trust me,” Bucky says urgently. “I don't know what they put in my head, or if your friends at S.H.I.E.L.D. really managed to get it all out; it's like I have two sets of memories, and I can't always tell which one is real. I'm not safe to be around, not in a combat situation.”
“So you don't trust yourself. That's fine.” Steve reaches out, clasps a hand over Bucky's shoulder. “I'll trust you enough for both of us.”
“You—” Bucky looks, for just a moment, as though he might start throwing punches. Then the tension in his shoulders eases—Steve can feel it beneath his palm—and he lets out a weary laugh. “You really haven't changed.” He reaches out and grasps Steve in return, the fingers of his one remaining hand curling firm and fever-warm around Steve's neck. “Still the same Steve.”
“The world has changed enough.” Steve feels oddly like shivering despite the heat of Bucky's skin, and they both pull away as one. “I guess I just don't see any need to help it along.”
“Oh, I don't know. Things haven't changed all that much. Not really.” Bucky signals the bartender for another round.
“No?” The dim lights overhead catch and refract on the complicated metal joints of his friend's left wrist. “You don't think so?”
Bucky catches his glance and shrugs, lowering his arm again. “Things have gotten . . . fancier, I guess. More complicated. But you strip away the surface, get to what's underneath—that's all still the same as ever.”
“Maybe.” Steve knocks back the last inch of his beer and reaches for the new one with an absent nod and 'thank you' for the bartender. “You're probably right. Still, it's good to get back to something . . . familiar, I guess. Don't get me wrong,” he says hastily, feeling suddenly disloyal. “The team's great. Mostly. Just . . . different than what I'm used to.”
There's a smile playing at the corners of Bucky's mouth that's wonderful to see, even if Steve knows it's been bought at his expense.
“You're talking about Stark,” Bucky guesses, though it's really not much of a guess at all when you're as close as they are. Were. Are.
“He's—” Steve takes a moment to check the words that want to immediately escape. “He's a good man, I think, underneath it all. There's definitely more to him than what's on the surface.”
Bucky nods. “But what's on the surface is . . .?”
Steve takes another deep breath, another drink, and gives up. “A pain in the ass,” he says bluntly, belatedly scanning the bar to make sure there aren't any ladies present while Bucky laughs again.
“I didn't think he was so bad. Of course,” he muses, giving his metal fingers a thoughtful flex, “he did give me one hell of a welcome-home present. My last arm was top of the line, but this one makes it look like it was made of Tinkertoys.”
“That's Tony for you. When it comes to grand gestures he's not afraid to go all out. I just wish a little common courtesy wasn't more than he can manage.”
There's that twitch of the lips again, and Steve suppresses a quick surge of annoyance. “He's been giving you trouble?”
“No. Not really, it's just . . .” Steve sighs. “Maybe you're right, and things aren't really that different than they used to be under the surface. But sometimes it seems like 'surface' is all there is anymore. Tony Stark is as close to a living embodiment of this modern age as it's possible to get, and it's just . . . hard to understand him a lot of the time.” He rolls his eyes. “Especially his sense of humor.”
“Oh, no.” Bucky's grinning fully now. “I know that face. Did you get a little prank pulled on you?”
“You know, I should've guessed you'd find this funny.”
“Yeah, you should've. C'mon, what did he do?” Bucky nudges Steve's shoulder with his own. “Do I have to go beat him up for you?”
“We're not kids anymore, Bucky,” Steve says, shifting uncomfortably without quite knowing why. “And in case you hadn't noticed, I can fight my own battles now.”
“I've noticed. But seriously.” He tilts his head, peering at Steve with something that's just a little too hard, a little too cold to be called 'worry'. “What did he do?”
“It's really not a big deal.” Steve fiddles with his drink, but his friend's scrutiny doesn't ease and finally he sighs, shrugs, and gives in. “When I heard you'd been cleared for release, I was asking around, trying to get some advice on where we could go to get a quiet drink.”
“And you asked Stark?”
“Not a chance; I do know better than that,” Steve says dryly. “But I figured Bruce might know someplace that wasn't too . . . over the top, and Tony overheard me asking.” He spreads his hands helplessly. “Bruce backed up his suggestion! I thought it would be safe.”
“Not so safe you didn't check it out first, though?”
“Of course not. I'm not an idiot.”
“And I'm guessing they didn't sent you here. So where was it?”
“This little bar in the West Village.” Steve can feel himself starting to blush, and takes a drink to try to hide it. “It seemed nice enough. But I barely made it to the bar before I had someone trying to pick me up.”
Bucky lifted an eyebrow. “And that's a problem?”
“It was. Ah.” Steve's face is bright red now. “It was . . . another guy. Hey!” He glowers as Bucky starts laughing so hard he seems in danger of falling off of his stool. The handful of other patrons in the bar are turning to stare, and Steve hunches his shoulders towards his ears. “It's not funny!” he hisses.
“Yes, it is,” Bucky gasps, clutching at the bar for support. “They sent you to a gay bar. That's . . . oh, man, that's priceless.”
“It's really not that funny.” Despite his embarrassment, however, the sound of his friend's laughter is more than he can handle without smiling back himself. “You jerk.”
“Sorry.” Bucky finally starts to bring himself under control, though little chortles still escape his throat every so often. “I'm sorry.”
“No you're not.”
“No, I'm not,” he agrees, chuckling. “I just wish I'd been there to see it.”
“Well, I'm glad to provide you with some amusement,” Steve says wryly, lifting his beer in a self-deprecating salute. “I didn't even know places like that existed. That is.” His cheeks are heating up again, and he silently curses his fair skin. “I knew there were men who . . . I mean, there always were, even back . . . then. But now there are places like that, and everybody knows about them, even.” He takes a drink. “And you say the world hasn't changed that much.”
Bucky is looking at him oddly now; if Steve didn't know better, he'd say his friend looks almost nervous.
“It hasn't,” he says quietly at last. “Not as much as you'd think.”
“What . . .” Steve feels, for a moment, strangely heavy, hyperaware of every cell in his body. “What do you mean?”
Bucky turns back to his drink, staring down into the vodka as if it holds the answers to all of the spoken and unspoken questions between them. “Let's just say,” he says after a moment, “that I didn't take you with me every time I went to get a drink.”
“You . . . but you like girls,” Steve blurts out, feeling immediately like an idiot, but Bucky only rolls his eyes and smiles.
“Yeah, I do. It's not always just one or the other, you know.”
They sit together in awkward silence for several long moments, eyes fixed on the drinks in front of them. Steve can't decide which has shocked him more—Bucky's confession, or the very fact that Steve had never known. There are large swaths of his friend's life that are lost to him now, the years and generations that passed while he was sleeping. He might not like it, but he accepts it. But he never would have guessed that there were things he didn't know about their life before, had never imagined that there might be any part of his best friend kept hidden from him.
“You could've told me.” He speaks quietly, but the words are like the crack of a whip in the silence that has fallen between them. It makes Steve jump as much as Bucky, and startles him back to himself. He shakes his head. “It wouldn't have changed anything between us. Hey.” Steve lays a hand on his friend's shoulder again and tries not to be hurt by the look of surprise on Bucky's face. “It doesn't change anything.”
Shadowed brown eyes look back at him, searching his face for something Steve can't begin to guess at. When Bucky smiles at last it's surprisingly sad, but he shakes his head and laughs, and a moment later is simply himself again.
“You really never did grow up all the way, did you, Steve? Of course it changes things. But hey.” He lifts his glass, and Steve reluctantly lets go to join in the toast. “Who says change has to be bad?”
“Do you . . .” Steve starts after a moment, unsure of himself but determined to press on. “I mean, if you want to go to that bar instead, I'd understand, we could go check it out . . .”
Bucky snorts, shakes his head. “All I want right now is to have a quiet drink and talk with my friend.”
“Sure. But. I don't want you to feel like you have to hide that part of your life from me.”
“I won't. Tell you what, next week we'll go out and paint the town red, okay? You and me.” He grins. “Assuming the world isn't ending again,” he amends, and Steve nods.
“It's a plan.”