Soundtrack: Til the End of Time – Devotchka
A Long, Long Way
From the dark kitchen table, Steve watched Sam disengage from his newly red, white, and blue wings, casting them off to the side of the front door, atop a pile of Sam’s discarded shoes. The uniform looked different with Sam’s wings thrown into the mix, but good-different – a different that Steve needed to see for himself, probably.
Steve scratched a hand through the length of his beard – he was experimenting – and called, “The colors look good on you, man.”
Sam jumped and brandished the shield, but lowered it as soon as his narrowed eyes skirted the corner where Steve skulked.
“You asshat,” Sam laughed, breathless, “You could’ve turned on a light, and instead you’re sitting in the dark like some kind of freak.”
Steve laughed a little back as Sam flipped the light switch, bathing them both in artificial light. The shield bellowed out a clang as it made contact with the laminate flooring.
For all Sam’s wealth as an Avenger, he kept the same apartment.
“No one believes me, you know,” Sam went on, “I tell them, ‘You know Steve? Kind of a dick.’ And they’ll be like, ‘You’re just jealous, Wilson.’ Sit in the dark to scare me on purpose – and just me, too. No one else gets to know how annoying you are.”
Rant aside, when Steve stood and spread his arms to offer a hug, Sam met him with delight. The embrace lasted several seconds. Steve tucked his face into Sam’s neck, and realized with a jolt just how much he’d missed his best friend.
“I can’t think of a more worthy guy to take on the mantle,” Steve told him when they pulled apart.
“Yeah, yeah,” Sam said, “I know I’m great. Everyone wants a piece of this. The real question is: what have you been up to? It’s been, what, three months? How’s being plain ol’ Steve treating you?”
Steve sighed and ran his hand back through his hair. He needed a trim; the man that blinked back at him in the mirror looked like a ragged lumberjack, nothing like he used to see, nothing like Captain America.
Maybe he didn’t need that trim, after all.
“I don’t know,” Steve replied, “I’ve been driving around, mostly sleeping in the bus. I’m thinking about driving out west, actually. I’ve never seen the Grand Canyon.”
“You should,” Sam encouraged, “It’s a hell of a sight.”
“How’s being Cap?” asked Steve. He knew what the news said: some cheered at the addition of a new Captain America. Others felt Sam’s performance fell short of the legacy left by Steve’s career. They were wrong, of course – Sam was doing an amazing job – but the snipes and jibes about Sam being somehow inferior set fire to Steve’s insides. No one had the cojones to say as much to Steve’s face, and that was for the best, being that Steve had been craving the opportunity to punch one of those mouthy fuckers right in the jaw.
Sam rolled his shoulders and grabbed at the back of his neck. “Big shoes to fill,” he said.
“You’re doing great,” Steve assured him.
Sam pursed his lips and said, “Some people disagree with you on that.”
“I know,” Steve said, “and they’re wrong.”
“I’m still trying to figure out how to make being Cap my own,” admitted Sam.
“Take as much time as you need. I’m still trying to figure out what makes me Steve Rogers.”
Sam grinned at that and offered, “Lemme give you some pointers. Creeping around in the dark in somebody else’s apartment? Uncool.”
“You gave me a key!”
“With the assumption you’d treat it like the gift it is,” Sam sassed back, “No more skulking in my home, Rogers.”
Steve held up his hands in defense and agreed, “Okay, okay. No more skulking.”
After that, Steve shooed Sam away to strip off the uniform and get showered. They ordered Chinese, and for the first night in too long, Steve enjoyed the company of another human being. They watched kung-fu movies and shoved each other around across the living room furniture. When Sam fell asleep on the couch, Steve pulled a blanket over him.
Steve didn’t stay in one place very long – not anymore. He indulged in a two-hour nap in Sam’s recliner, then scribbled a note for him.
I’ll send a postcard.
The idea for the Volkswagen bus spurred from one of the movie nights at the compound, before Ultron, and prior to the tension that coursed through the team like a rope pulled taut. The team shared popcorn and laughs and often drinks, and watched a movie called Little Miss Sunshine. Steve was enamored of the entire thing – the characters, the story, the vehicle. Tony, in his typical roundabout way of showing affection, bought Steve a lemon yellow VW bus as a highhanded gift. Steve didn’t get much use out of it at first – he rolled into the small town nearest to the compound to pick up supplies from time to time, but most days it collected dust in the frankly obscene garage joined to Avengers Compound.
More dust settled into the bones of the bus as the Sokovian Accords fractured their hard-won peace and their little found family. As Steve sought refuge in Wakanda, and as he fought under the Nomad moniker behind a Wakandan shield, the world around the bus stretched and shuddered and threatened to end. Avengers Compound emptied as the heroes of the world convened to face a force more powerful than little Stevie Rogers ever could have imagined from his Brooklyn tenement. The good guys won, as good guys ought to do, although not without strife.
When the war ended, Tony wanted Steve to take up the old shield, to again wear the mantle of Captain America.
Steve surprised them both by giving an exhausted, emphatic, “No.”
“So, what?” Tony asked, “You’re gonna keep on keepin’ on being ‘Nomad’ or whatever? Come on, Cap, you’re –”
“Steve,” he’d said back, “and I don’t want to be anybody but that.”
Steve hadn’t planned as much. He hadn’t realized the idea entered his head until the words exited his mouth. For the first time since their chaotic introduction, Tony remained silent, gape-mouthed. The gears turned visibly in his head, whirring away at unimaginable speeds.
All Tony managed was a stunned, “But. You’re Cap.”
“No. I’m not. Not since the Accords,” Steve gently said.
“Somebody needs to be Cap,” Tony insisted.
“Sam can be Cap,” Steve decided, “if he wants to. You can build him new wings. You’ll love doing that.” Steve rested his hand on Tony’s shoulder, a soft smile teasing the corners of his lips.
Tony hesitated, then met Steve’s eye. “What will you do?” he asked.
Steve chewed on the question. Without a fight, who was Steve Rogers? He didn’t know. He’d been fighting his entire life, from the moment he screamed his way into it. He hadn’t had a chance from self-discovery – until now.
“I’m not sure,” Steve answered, at last, “but I’m taking my bus.”
“Great. Good. Excellent. Probably smells a little musty, since no one’s used it since –” Tony cut himself off and frowned.
Since their fight, neither of them wanted to say. Neither Steve nor Tony cared to admit their foibles aloud, and the unsaid confession languished between them. Slowly, giving Tony enough time to pull away if he wanted, Steve guided them both into a tight hug. At first, Tony hung limp in the circle of Steve’s arms, but after several seconds, he hugged back.
“That’s – you –” Tony stammered, and patted Steve’s shoulder before they broke apart. He took a breath, then, and settled upon saying: “Take care of yourself.”
“I will,” Steve promised, “Take care of the others for me.” Wanda, he thought absently, and Peter.
“I can’t be Team Mom,” protested Tony.
“Of course not,” Steve said, “You’re Team Dad. Or Team Weird Uncle.”
“That’s – thanks. I think.”
“You’re welcome,” Steve said, and meant it.
Steve modified the bus before he left. He swapped the seats for an open back, where he stored his meager belongings and a small mattress fitted with comfortable things. He kept his sketchbooks and a couple of well-thumbed dime novels – although they no longer cost a dime, but seven dollars.
Coming to terms with inflation took Steve far longer than he’d needed to adjust to the advancement in technology. The rest of his books lived in his StarkPad, which he loved for the convenience. He could access almost any book with a swipe of his finger across a screen, and when one lived on the road, nothing could compare to a library at his fingertips.
And read and read and read.
He read books from lists online. He digested classics and drank in pop culture. He dipped into romances and followed mysteries, and marveled at accounts of scientific discovery. He read about the stars and sky, of rogue planets spinning aimless in their galaxy. He sped through science fiction and settled comfortably in familiar fantasy. He dared to venture into stories that had once been forbidden to him: queer love stories, whose happy endings were a revolution.
In secret bars in 1940, these happy endings were so far from reach to Steve they may as well have been healthy lungs for as much as he could have them.
The universe was a wily thing, though.
Now Steve’s lungs were powerful bellows, and his chances of a happy ending were equal to any given person on planet Earth.
Steve parked the bus on roadsides and read reclining on his mattress, StarkPad screen aglow in the dark while the sounds of empty nighttime surrounded the vehicle – crickets and bitter winds that rattled the chassis around him and rustled leaves.
Steve flicked through electronic pages in middle-of-nowhere diners, greasy feasts laid out before him. Vinyl seating creaked beneath his weight while he scanned sentences. The barked orders of waitstaff and fry cooks faded to a buzz behind him as he sipped scalding coffee.
Sometimes Steve stole a moment of reading while he filled up his tank at small town gas stations, feet kicked up in the front seat. Tony had meddled somehow with the bus – Steve couldn’t say when – and hybridized it, so these gas station seconds seldom came to pass. An empty tank seemed always to come as a surprise.
Steve drew. He sketched truckers hunched over bacon and eggs at three in the morning and waitresses with bags under their eyes. He remembered every person he encountered – the paper-skinned owners of roadside antique stores, the gas station attendants with their black polo shirts tucked into the waistbands of their jeans, the tattered hitchhikers he drove into nearby towns – not one slipped his mind. The serum ensured as much.
His friends preferred that Steve stay in touch, and so he sent postcards he found on rotating racks in souvenir stores to Sam. He texted Natasha brief updates (“In Kansas. Very flat. Lots of Jesus billboards. Hope you are well, Steve.”). He corresponded with King T’Challa through lengthy e-mails. Steve talked about the people he met and the places he visited, and T’Challa replied in turn with the pranks Shuri played on him and the drama inherent in running a kingdom. To Tony, Steve sent pictures with no explanation: an ugly tree, a dusty storefront, a long road.
All was well until Steve looped the bus around a hairpin turn in the Rocky Mountains, descending the towering bulk of Mt Bierstadt. The bus smacked against something solid, an echoed thunk bouncing across the front. The form of a person skidded across the narrow road, and a chewed up bicycle tangled with the tires.
“Shit!” Steve said.
He threw open his door and jogged across the road. There, the cyclist pushed himself up on his elbows.
“Are you okay?” asked Steve.
The guy blinked at Steve, dazed, and mumbled, “I think you broke my leg.”
Sure enough, the limb in question bent out of the stranger at an unnatural angle. Steve winced.
“I’ll take you to the hospital,” Steve said.
He lurched forward and scooped the cyclist off the ground, backpack and all. Surprise rounded the guy’s gray-blue eyes, and then suspicion narrowed them.
“You’re enhanced,” he observed, a mere beat before he realized, “Holy shit, you’re Steve Rogers!”
“At least you didn’t say Captain America,” Steve said. He shifted the stranger’s weight entirely to his left arm, and used the right to throw open the back of the bus, where he deposited his victim onto his untidy mattress.
“You’re not Captain America,” reasoned the cyclist, “Sam Wilson is.”
That was the moment that Steve decided he liked this guy.
“What’s your name?” Steve asked.
“Bucky,” the cyclist replied, “Bucky Barnes.”
“I like you, Bucky,” Steve said, “I’m gonna get your bike. Hang on.”
Steve had to lift the front of the bus to detangle the bike, which was, in all likelihood, unfixable. Nonetheless, he hefted the gnarled bicycle into the back of the bus alongside the mattress. Bucky groaned at the sight of it.
“I can’t believe Steve Rogers wrecked my fucking bike,” he complained, throwing an arm over his eyes.
“I’ll buy you a new one,” Steve reassured him, “but first I really think we should get you to a hospital.”
Pale, Bucky undid the clip under his chin and cast his helmet to the far corner of the bus, and nodded. He agreed, “Yeah, okay. All right. That sounds like a solid plan. I think I’m gonna barf, actually.”
Steve threw a half-full wastebasket at Bucky’s face an instant before Bucky vomited.
Bucky offered Steve a weak smile, said, “Close one, huh?” and let his head fall back onto Steve’s pillow.
Steve’s foot had never hit a gas pedal so fast.
The nearest hospital, according to Steve’s StarkPhone, lived in a sleepy place named Adamstown, a half-hour trek down from Mt Bierstadt. The nature of mountain roads prevented Steve from speeding as he desperately wished he could, and so as they coasted along twisting, ghostly roadways, Steve put half his attention in the rearview mirror, focused on Bucky’s crumpled form. He’d taken off his massive backpack and slung it on the floor of the bus, and sat with his hands pressed to his temples.
“Steve,” Bucky said.
“Talk to me. I think you should keep me conscious. You know. In case.”
Steve swallowed the lump in his throat. He said, “I’m sorry for hitting you.”
“Least you’re taking me to the hospital,” Bucky said, “I’ve got a buddy some guy hit in the middle of nowhere and left for dead. A trucker picked him up fifteen minutes later, but they never caught the dude that did it.”
“What the hell,” Steve said emphatically.
“I know, right?” Bucky said.
“Do you…live in Colorado?” asked Steve.
Bucky chuckled. “Nah,” he said, “I was living with my folks in Indiana and I got really into cycling out there. I trained to ride my bike cross-country, was gonna end it visiting my sister in Los Angeles. I guess I don’t know what the fuck I’m gonna do now. Anyway, I kinda think that’s less interesting that whatever’s got Steve Rogers driving a hippie van on Mt Bierstadt.”
“I’m just driving,” Steve replied.
“Just driving?” Bucky echoed.
“Yeah. After, you know, Thanos…I retired. Which you probably knew. Tony bought me this bus a while back. I decided to drive wherever I felt like going. My destination is the Grand Canyon, sort of. I’ve taken a lot of detours. Stopped to see the sights. Met some interesting people. Run over interesting cyclists.”
In the rearview mirror, Steve watched Bucky tilt his eyes to stare at the back of Steve’s head.
“Sounds like only half the story,” Bucky remarked.
Steve retrained his eyes on the snake of the road and agreed, “It’s a self-discovery tour of the United States. I never got to do anything like that when I was younger, so I’m doing it now.”
“How old are you, anyway? Biologically, I mean,” Bucky said.
“Thirty-four, I think,” said Steve.
“Ah. I’m twenty-nine,” Bucky responded, then asked, “So, what have you discovered on your self-discovery tour?”
That teased a laugh out from someplace deep in Steve’s chest. He answered, “I can survive for a while eating nothing but pie from roadside diners.”
“That sounds terrible, but go on.”
“I like to read books about outer space,” Steve said.
“Me too. Continue.”
“I don’t actually like chicken-fried steak,” Steve said, “And –” He stopped speaking, the abrupt realization that he almost confessed something private heating his face.
“And what?” Bucky said, “Oh my God, were you about to say something naughty?”
“It’s not appropriate,” Steve responded.
“Come on,” Bucky egged him on, “You can tell me.”
“It’s about sex,” Steve said, “and we just met each other.”
“I mean, you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” Bucky told him, “but like, you can. I probably have stories about sexcapades that would blow your fuckin’ mind.”
“Now I wonder if what I was going to say is even interesting.”
“Well, I can’t tell you if I don’t know,” Bucky said, giving an aborted shrug that made him wince in pain.
Steve sighed. He said, “All I was going to say is that sex in a public bathroom isn’t nearly as thrilling as books make it seem.”
And Bucky burst into belly-laughter.
“You’re laughing at me,” accused Steve.
“I’m not,” Bucky assured him, choking down another guffaw, “It’s just – so true.”
“Tried it yourself, huh?”
“A few times, yeah,” Bucky replied, “and I’m always drunk and it’s never all that great. I’m somehow comforted knowing that Steve Rogers needed to learn the same lesson.”
Bucky and Steve’s easy banter, strained only by the stretch in Bucky’s voice and the long pauses between words for shallow, pained breath, populated the bus until Steve pulled into the tiny hospital nestled on the outer edges of Adamstown. He parked haphazardly near the front of the emergency entrance and carried Bucky like a bride to the front desk, where a bored-looking young woman with a nose ring exploded into action the moment that Steve shouldered them through the entrance.
The hospital admitted Bucky, and Steve could have left. Instead, he waited, face inches from his StarkPad and several pages into a young adult book about a girl with magic powers that lived in Nigeria.
Steve became so absorbed in the story that he startled when he heard Bucky’s voice in the lobby again.
“Oh, hey, you’re still here,” Bucky said.
He sat in one of the hospital’s wheelchairs, a bright red cast on his right leg. He’d tied back his long, dark hair, and lost his biking clothes somewhere in mayhem, replaced by one of the backless hospital gowns that flattered no one. The most startling sight, however, was not Bucky’s well-muscled, thick thighs, or even the large tattoo splashed across his right arm. The surprise was his left arm: a prosthetic, a gleaming, almost-realistic limb – one of Tony’s prosthetics.
Steve’s heart leapt a little at the sight of him. He didn’t want to think about what that might mean. They’d known each other for a couple of hours.
Steve, where he’d been stretched across several waiting room chairs, snapped to sitting. He said, “Of course I’m still here. I ran you over,” and then to the nurse, “I’ll settle his bill.”
“I have to get my phone out of my backpack,” Bucky said, and when Steve didn’t move, he added, “The backpack’s in your hippie van.”
“Let me pay first,” Steve told him.
Bucky grimaced. He replied, “I probably have it covered; I’m a veteran. The VA’s gonna want, like, a buttload of paperwork since this didn’t happen at a VA hospital, but –”
“Bucky,” Steve said, “It’s fine. Let me pay for this.”
With some reluctance Bucky let Steve pass his credit card to the woman at the front desk, and Steve and Bucky walked-slash-wheeled out together. Steve opened the back of his bus and lifted Bucky onto the mattress again. At the sight, he made an executive decision to stop at a laundromat – his sheets were streaked in blood and road debris, and Steve didn’t own a spare set. The space of the bus was too limited to keep extra linens.
Bucky fished a phone, thankfully in tact, out of a side pocket of his overstuffed backpack. He said, “I guess I’m calling my folks to come collect me. Think you can drop me at an airport?”
Steve furrowed his brow. Tentative, he ventured, “I thought you were going to Los Angeles?”
Bucky gestured from the contorted corpse of his bicycle to the red cast encasing his leg and said, “I don’t think I’m biking anywhere for a while, pal.”
“Yeah, but,” Steve protested, “You could come with me. If you wanted.”
Bucky’s jaw went slack. He wet his lips with the tip of his tongue, considering, and said, “You’re, like…important, though. I’m just some dude.”
“Just some dude whose company I really enjoy,” said Steve. He shrugged his shoulders, relaxed his body, and tried to pretend that Bucky’s answer didn’t matter to him as much as he was finding that it did.
Bucky’s cheeks reddened and gripped the back of his neck with his metal hand. A small smile curved his mouth when responded, “You know what? Let’s do it. We can have our self-discovery tours together.”
“Joint self-discovery,” agreed Steve.
“Cheers. I’ll drink to that, bro,” Bucky said, and when Steve cast him a questioning glance, Bucky explained, “It’s a meme.”
“Millennials,” Steve said fondly.
Bucky and Steve inaugurated their joint trip inside a cramped laundromat within the inner crust of Adamstown. Steve left Bucky to stand vigil over the bedsheets and clothing as they cycled through and crossed the street to a hodgepodge souvenir and drugstore, where he purchased crutches and an armful of cheap sweatpants that Bucky would be able to fit over his cast. Like Steve, he’d packed only what he needed (or thought he would need) for his journey, a bounty that included a single pair of loose pants.
As Steve hustled out of the drugstore, his phone buzzed in his pocket.
Few people knew his number and even fewer dared actually dial it.
He shouldn’t have been surprised when Tony’s name shone across the screen.
Steve picked up, and didn’t have a chance to open his mouth before Tony started talking.
“Listen, normally I would have just let it be, but we were Avenging, and I told the team that you’d used your card at a hospital because FRIDAY told me and now –”
A scuffle sounded on Tony’s end, a muffled argument that to Steve’s enhanced ears sounded like Sam barking orders at Tony. The mere idea of Sam commanding Tony brought a smile to Steve’s face.
And, sure enough, when someone spoke again, it wasn’t Tony, but Sam.
“Rogers? I know your dumb ass didn’t do something impulsive! What happened?”
Steve’s smile widened and he said, “It’s good to hear your voice.”
“Are you in a hospital? Do we need to come collect your stupid ass?” demanded Sam, who then muttered: “Colorado…haven’t even got a Colorado postcard yet.”
Steve assured him, “Sam, I’m fine. I hit a cyclist with the bus, and before you ask, yes, he’s fine, too. I paid for his bill and now we’re road tripping together. That’s all.”
“Oh is that all?” Sam said.
“I don’t care for your tone,” Steve told him mildly, as he used his foot to leverage open the glass door into the laundromat. He placed the crutches and plastic shopping bag on the bench beside Bucky and went on, “I made a friend. It’s not that weird.”
“It’s a little weird,” Sam said, voice skeptical.
“I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that,” said Steve, “Goodbye, Sam.”
“Don’t you hang up on me –”
“I gotta go,” Steve said, “I’ll call later. Love you, Sam.”
“You dick –”
Steve swiped Sam away and tucked his StarkPhone into the pocket of his jeans. When he glanced to Bucky, he was starry-eyed.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” asked Steve.
“Was that Captain America?” Bucky asked.
“He’s so awesome!” exclaimed Bucky, “The wings and the shield and – damn! I mean, he was Air Force, which is less than ideal, but Sam Wilson is amazing.”
“I was Captain America too,” Steve felt the need to say.
Bucky waved him off and replied, “Yeah, and? You’re not now. Now you’re just a dude that needs his beard trimmed.”
Steve reached up to touch his face self-consciously.
“I can do it, if you want me to,” Bucky offered, “but you probably should’ve had somebody try trimming it like, a month ago.”
Like that, everything clicked into place. The addition of Bucky to the bus was as natural as taking in air. The room for a companion always existed physically, and to Steve’s surprise, the space existed in his heart, too. Bucky slipped into Steve’s strange, post-superhero life and became a fixture in it: his clothes whirled alongside Steve’s in squeaky washing machines at dollar laundromats. Bucky’s favorite scifi novels sat sandwiched between Steve’s on the shelf bolted along the left side of the bus’s interior. Steve mounted a bicycle rack atop the bus for a new bike to slide into, (though Bucky’s fractured tibia would take at least six months to heal, Steve wanted to make good on his promise to replace the bicycle).
New songs blared through the sound system Tony had installed.
(Steve didn’t realize its uniqueness until Bucky spoke up: “Never seen a hippie van with Bluetooth capability.”)
Bucky teased Steve for his StarkPhone full of classic tunes, of Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller – a stark (Ha-ha, Bucky, very funny) contrast to the rest of Steve’s collection: Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin, and Joan Jett.
The songs on Bucky’s phone consisted of thumping beats and sticky bass lines.
“How else am I supposed to motivate myself to pedal across the United States?” Bucky would ask, a grin splitting his face. Steve’s heart lurched in his chest at the sight.
“Not pedaling anymore,” Steve said, “I’m sorry.”
“No,” Bucky agreed, “but there’s nowhere I’d rather be than here.”
They shared the cramped mattress in the back of the bus some nights. Others, Steve splurged on eerie motel rooms with stained carpets and bed sets straight out of 1987 – or so said Bucky. On warm nights, they employed Bucky’s pop tent, sleeping tangled in one another’s limbs as the sounds of the outdoors played on in deer snapping twigs beneath their hooves and owls hooting in high branches.
On one such night, Steve gathered his courage and admitted something he’d only ever let slip to Sam and Natasha before.
“I’m queer,” he said softly, the confession falling over them both like a gentle rain.
Bucky exhaled and replied, “Oh, thank God.”
“Thank God?” repeated Steve.
“Steve, I’m gay as an Easter lily,” Bucky told him, “Didn’t know where you stood, so I didn’t say.”
“I’m – bisexual. I think. Peggy are I – we were real. But I’ve slept with more men, probably. I haven’t been keeping track.” Steve said it all in a rush, pushing the words from his lungs like the might disappear if he couldn’t speak them fast enough.
A helpless laugh left Bucky’s mouth. In the dark of the tent, Steve could only just make out the moonlit silhouette of Bucky turning onto his back.
“What are you thinking?” asked Steve.
The shadow of Bucky carded a hand through his hair. He tilted his head toward Steve, dim light shining in the whites of his eyes, and said, “I wish I’d known that as a kid. Coming out would have been so much easier. I might have – I don’t know. ‘Captain America is bisexual’ might have eased the way, I guess.”
“I’m not Captain America.”
“But you were, Steve. And you were still bisexual then.” – Bucky sighed – “I’m glad that you told me. That – well, it means a lot. You should know that.”
“Thanks for listening,” Steve replied, “Not a lot of people do.”
After that, some unnamable thing shifted between them. Whatever space existed between Bucky and Steve before vanished. They held one another with little touches and tender smiles in the daylight. At night, Steve tucked Bucky against his chest, or some nights, Bucky held him. Where one of them ended the other began without a thread of space; they lived in one another’s pockets. What once belonged to Steve or to Bucky belonged now to them both, all shared between them.
Steve drew on Bucky’s cast, intricate drawings uncoiling from the tips of several black Sharpies. He illustrated the empty forests that whipped by their windows and the unexpected telephone poles that strung across mountain territory, sketched diners open late and their coffee mugs mingling.
They read books aloud to one another and shared adventures they might otherwise have held privately. Bucky’s voice melted over Steve and lulled him sleep, snapped him to awake and held his attention – he’d never experienced a story the way that Bucky read, not even when he’d been with the Howling Commandos (And DumDum told a damn good story).
They took selfies at Mesa Verde and the Four Corners hand in hand, palpable joy crinkling their eyes at the corners. Steve’s updates to his friends became sentimental and laced with affection. (“Tasha, Bucky and I are doing well. Here he is in one of my shirts. Looks amazing. Love, Steve” Attached: buckysleeping.jpg) T’Challa gave back in equal measure and waxed poetic about Nakia. Sam called to tease them both, good-natured and warm.
Mid-May, the VW bus – or hippie van, as Bucky called it – wound its way at last into Arizona. They would, finally, see the Grand Canyon, a place Steve had only seen on postcards and images on the internet, and Bucky hadn’t visited since a family vacation the Barnes took when he was twelve years old.
Bucky’s music clamored over the speakers, a continuous beat shuddering as the road bumped and looped beneath their wheels. The relentless Arizona sun beat down on the dash and sweat beaded across their foreheads. Bucky drummed his fingers over the lines of his illustrated cast. Though it wasn’t due to come off for several weeks, they’d decided to have it removed in Los Angeles. Bucky’s sister Becca arranged an appointment with her family doctor.
Becca hadn’t believed Bucky’s story at first (Steve Rogers? Former superhero? Hitting her brother? With a hippie van? Impossible). When Bucky turned his StarkTime conversation to show Steve in driver’s seat beside him, Steve waved at the screen at a pretty brunette woman with the same chin dimple as Bucky. She smothered a scream of enthusiasm into her palm.
Now Becca StarkTimed them on a regular basis and was as happy as Bucky to criticize Steve’s driving technique.
An air of anticipation hung over their sweating, overheated bodies as the bus entered the national park. Deep red siltstone littered the landscape. Steve’s heart beat twice as a fast. How could it not, with so much beauty around him?
The landscape was only half of it.
Bucky’s smile burned brighter than the Arizona sunshine, and his light eyes bounced with mirth. Steve hadn’t said anything profound at all, and somehow Bucky still managed to make him feel like the most important person to visit the Grand Canyon.
They paid their entrance fee, parked, and stepped out. Bucky steered Steve forward with a simple incline of his head. Before them, a wonder of nature sprawled out, striking orange and impossibly large. The plunging cliffside went deeper than Steve pictured, but it wasn’t the drop that stirred his nerves.
Bucky, who read to him and let Steve decorate his cast.
Bucky, who sang along with Steve’s classic rock collection but preferred other music entirely.
Bucky, who never treated Steve like a sideshow attraction, but as a friend.
“I think I love you,” Steve blurted. He imagined the words echoing down into the canyon, the huge walls of rock swallowing them up.
Bucky let a crutch fall and wrapped one arm around Steve’s waist, pulling their bodies together so they stood pressed side to side. He said, voice soaked in adoration as he stared at Steve, “Took you a while to figure that out, huh?” He pecked a kiss to Steve’s cheek and added, “I love you, too.”
There on the precipice of the Grand Canyon, under the heat of a spring sun, Steve tipped Bucky’s chin up, and kissed him for the first time. He drank him in like an oasis, cradling Bucky’s face between his palms. Bucky kissed back, lips parting under Steve’s.
For the first time in Steve’s life, he knew that where he stood was exactly where he was meant to be.
Lungs heaving with the effort of his run, Sam fished his mail out from his box. He smiled when he saw a Grand Canyon postcard on top, and flipped it over to see Steve’s familiar, all-caps scrawl.
Dear Sam –
Today I told Bucky I love him. He said he loved me back.
I think I’m happy, for the first time in a long time.
I hope that you are doing just as well as we are.
All our best,
Steve and Bucky