When they take Bucky out of cryo, Steve is waiting for him.
He listens vaguely to the explanations offered, but the part he focuses on is Steve: here, alive.
“Guess you’ve got me back,” Bucky says once he’s stopped shaking and throwing up. He reaches up to touch the bruise on his cheek; it’s still there, an oddly comforting reminder that this is real.
“Yeah,” Steve says. He looks exhausted under the unforgiving lights of the lab. “I’m glad they were able to —”
Bucky can feel his insides tensing already; he doesn’t want to talk about that.
“So,” he smoothly cuts in, changing the subject. “How long’s it been?”
Steve almost sounds apologetic when he says, “Six months.” He smiles, very brittle.
Bucky tries not to let the surprise show on his face.
Honestly, he hadn’t thought Steve would be there waiting for him when he got out. It might have taken years to fix him. It should have.
Steve deserved a chance at happiness, a life that was something more than waiting for a dead man.
But Bucky’s known for the longest time that deserving and having aren’t the same thing.
“It was six months, Wilson,” Bucky says later, when Steve has gone to talk to T’Challa. “You’re telling me he didn’t do anything? Go anywhere.”
Sam shakes his head. “What, Steve?” he says. His smile is grim. “Nah.”
Bucky doesn’t know what to do with that idea.
“Right,” he says, feeling slightly sick.
That night, when Bucky’s stripping off for the shower, he finds bruises on his hips, too.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” Steve had said, even as he was pressing his hands to Bucky’s skin, tracing the lines of ribs he didn’t know were broken.
Bucky hadn’t wanted to answer that: instead, he’d kissed Steve, mouthed along his jaw until Steve forgot any of his stupid notions about being gentle.
He’d gone to the cryochamber the next day still feeling every inch of Steve inside him. That hadn’t made anything easier.
Bucky turns on the water, closes his eyes against the warm spray. His ribs are still aching. He lays his one remaining hand across them, noticing how the pain makes his breaths come out short.
It’s better than feeling nothing, anyway.
At first, he thinks Steve is angry with him for the decision he made; for leaving him.
Then he realizes it’s something worse: Steve thinks he doesn’t know him anymore.
Bucky wants to tell Steve he’s the same as he ever was, but the words lodge in his throat and he can’t get them out. He’s never been a good liar.
“Let’s get out of here,” Bucky suggests while his new arm’s being fitted. “The humidity’s killing me.” He gestures to his ratty hair, and Steve cracks an unnatural smile.
“Sure, Buck,” Steve says, distracted. He’s watching the tech calibrate the neural settings — anything rather than look at Bucky. “Anywhere you want.”
“I’d like to go home,” Bucky says. He flexes his new vibranium fingers; the faint clicking sound is familiar, but they feel stranger than he expects.
“Home,” Steve echoes, like he doesn’t even remember what that is.
But then he’s touching the metal of Bucky's hand, his grip warm and steady, and for a moment, Bucky can let himself believe that everything’s going to be okay.
A couple of plane rides later, they’re stateside. They rent a car at Dulles airport with no real destination in mind.
The only thing they agree on is avoiding New York.
“Want me to drive?” Bucky says. He’s grinning. It feels good to be back in the country of his birth — grounding, somehow.
“It’s fine,” Steve says. “I’ll let you know when I get tired.”
He almost looks happy as they drive away.
They take turns choosing the radio station as they drive, but it can’t make up for the long silences. They don’t talk, and they don’t talk, and it stretches out, agonizing.
Once, a song from their youth comes on, and Bucky watches Steve’s face light up for a brief second.
He opens his mouth to say he remembers this—the tinny sound of a radio in a sweltering apartment in midsummer, Steve trying and failing to remember the words while they both laughed—but when he glances back at Steve, he’s not smiling anymore. So he doesn’t say it.
“You mind?” Steve says, reaching for the dial to change the station.
Bucky shakes his head. It feels like something’s snapping inside him.
“Is it Carter,” Bucky says, thoughtful, a few miles past Philadelphia. “Sharon, I mean. Is that what’s eating you?”
He watches Steve’s hand tighten on the steering wheel before he answers, “No.” Then, more exasperated, “I don’t know why you’d even —”
Bucky huffs out a sigh. “I’m not jealous,” he clarifies, and can’t resist adding, “Not my fault you like to keep it in the family.”
“Just leave it,” Steve says, tight and annoyed.
Bucky clicks his jaw shut. He stares out the window and wonders why he keeps getting it wrong.
Somewhere in the Midwest, they pull into a rest stop and Bucky fucks Steve on a creaking motel bed until they’re both gasping.
“I really missed you,” Steve says afterwards, tugging Bucky’s arm around him. His eyes are soft, but his smile is sad.
Bucky presses his lips to Steve’s sweaty hair and says, very quietly, “Yeah. Me too.” It’s not a lie, and that’s the best he can manage right now.
He tells himself: maybe this is enough.
“I shouldn’t be here,” Bucky says, over cups of rocket-fuel coffee in a 24-hour restaurant.
Steve looks stricken. “Don’t say that,” he says. He knocks back the rest of his coffee and grimaces.
“If I wasn’t here, maybe you’d have patched things up with Stark,” Bucky points out. “You’d have your shield back.”
Steve avoids his eye and signals for the check.
Later that evening, in their room:
“You should have done something while I was out of it,” Bucky says, because he can’t let this go now he’s started. “Taken a trip. Anything. You didn’t need to put your life on hold for me.”
“What life,” Steve says, and immediately flushes, like he hadn’t meant to say it.
“Christ, Steve,” Bucky murmurs, and presses a hand over his eyes. He doesn’t know how to respond to that.
“Anyway,” Steve gets out, not looking at him, “I couldn't have done that, knowing you were in there. I had to wait for you.”
Bucky thinks it might be the most honest thing Steve’s said to him in weeks.
“I’m sorry,” Bucky says, weakly.
Steve is standing now, pulling on his shoes.
“I let you down,” he says heavily. “All those years ago. I left you there.” Then he’s leaving, letting the door click shut behind him.
And that’s when Bucky realizes maybe some things can’t be fixed.
He’s not asleep when Steve comes back, but he knows how to breathe evenly and pretend. He listens to the soft sounds of Steve undressing for bed and wishes, desperately, that things were different.
To his credit, Bucky tries. He tries and tries, until he can’t anymore, and he’s spent what feels like years watching Steve tighten his jaw and look away from him.
In reality, it’s only been two months.
Two months, and they can’t find a way to live with each other. Bucky would laugh, if he could bring himself to.
In Arizona, there's a faceless hotel room with peeling wallpaper and broken air conditioning. Steve is lying there on the sheets, all the breath knocked out of him.
Bucky knew—they’d both known—it’d be the last time, so he’d taken his time with Steve; opened him up slow and careful before pushing into him, his fingers laced with Steve’s and his mouth wet on Steve’s collarbone. The second they were done, Steve had pulled away, and Bucky figured that was how it was supposed to go.
Slowly, Bucky makes himself get up. He grabs a quick shower, packs his bag. The whole time, Steve doesn’t say a word.
He’s reaching for the door handle when —
“You don’t have to go,” Steve offers, but there’s obvious relief on his face, and that shakes Bucky to his core.
He’s known all along that Steve needed this — a life without him, at least for a little while. Maybe it’s something he needs too.
Bucky sucks in a breath and says, “You’ll know where to find me.” His voice is starting to crack. “If you want to.” He dredges up a tight smile and pulls the door open. Sun spills into the room, hot and blinding.
“Bucky,” Steve says.
Bucky forces himself not to look back. He goes.