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The Voyager

Chapter Text

Please, I don’t want to die.

It was the only thought he had in the seconds between noticing the Lovecraftian horror on an out-of-control hoverbike and realizing it was headed in his direction.

The wall of the building caved instantly under the impact, and he was buried beneath the rubble of what had once been a smoothie shop.

This wasn’t real. None of it could possibly be real. Monsters hadn’t descended from a hole ripped in the sky. He was at home in his own bed, trapped in a nightmare. Soon, he would wake, and his mother would make him pancakes. Only his mother never made pancakes. She wasn’t the sort of -

A creak, a groan, and the last remaining bit of the wall crumbled, sending indescribable pain throughout his body. When the initial shock faded, he realized something was terribly wrong.

Fuck, it was his leg. Pinned and twisted somewhere he couldn’t see, but he could feel the white-hot line of blazing fire that made his stomach roil. He was going to vomit. Did vomit. Turned his head to the side and puked his lunch right onto the dead monster’s ugly face.

At least he had that.

There were other people - had been other people in the shop. People who had jostled and pressed him along when the first massive beast the size of a building flew - flew! - through the sky. He had been separated from his friends, escaping into that shop under the futile hope it might keep him safe.

God, he didn’t want to die. He would miss his parents. His sister. His boyfriend. He couldn’t remember the last thing he’d said to any of them, and that thought made him sad.

They might not ever find him. Might not know that he died there, buried under the debris. Another one of a countless number of corpses left when all was said and done.

Dying was going to suck.

The rubble shifted, increasing the pressure on his mangled leg. He screamed - a hoarse, desperate sound ripped from his throat as he begged for it to stop. He wasn’t brave, wasn’t strong. He was scared, and he wanted to go home.

The wall moved. He was sure it was God or the devil or something in between lifting it up. Tossing it to the side as though it weighed nothing at all. A child discarding a toy.

There was a man standing there. Broad shoulders, wide stance.

“It’s alright, folks,” he said. “Got a safe place you can go. Single file if you can walk.”

He couldn’t walk. He moaned instead.

The man crouched down and then there was an arm under his back. His legs. Perfect strength lifting him and the pain was unbearable. Excruciating.

“You’ll be alright,” the man repeated. It sounded like a promise.

His head was swimming and what was left of the room began to spin.

The last thing Bucky Barnes saw before the darkness took him was a white ‘A’ emblazoned on the cowl covering his savior’s face.

Chapter Text

It was aimlessness, Steve supposed, though that wasn’t a feeling with which he was overly familiar. Boredom, yes - an isolated childhood spent in sickbeds, followed by an adolescence of fighting and fury - but not aimlessness.

There had always been a next. The next bully, the next battle, the next plan. Steve had come out of the ice itching for a fight, and he’d gotten one. Gods and monsters in Manhattan spurred on by a creature that reminded him of a man with a skull for a face and evil in his veins. So he’d fought, and he’d won, and now? There was no next. No battle. No war.

Now, there was only himself staring down the barrel of a new century, brimming with possibilities he wanted no part of. This hadn’t been the plan. The plan had been to finish the fight. The plan had been Peggy. The plan had been a home and building a life with someone he loved.

Then there had been the Valkyrie and a different plan. The last plan he ever intended to make. Funny how fate had a way of kicking a fella when he was down. Bringing him back into a world he didn’t understand, surrounded by people who saw him as a symbol and a relic rather than a man.

It was a hell of a thing, life after death.

The future was flash without substance. People talked a lot, but they never said much. Steve had spent the first week in a SHIELD facility, given a crash course in the twenty-first century and just what he’d missed. He’d chafed against the coddling. The way the agents assigned to him tiptoed around - reverent and condescending all at once.

Fury had been the one to clear him. Gave him leave and set him up with a blank canvas of an apartment in midtown, furnished generically in a way he supposed was meant to make him feel at home but in actuality left him cold.

The second week he spent wandering. Brooklyn, Queens, all five boroughs with nary a familiar sight. Even the stink of garbage under the heat of the late-spring sun was foreign, and God knew he never thought he’d be nostalgic for the smell of shit on a sidewalk.

Then, there had been the tesseract that ought to have been left in the ocean alongside Steve. The gods and the monsters. A team of people he didn’t know and didn’t trust. They were good in a fight, he’d give them that much, but if Fury believed Steve could be forced into creating the same camaraderie he’d had with his Howlies after years in the muck and the mire? He had another thing coming.

The day following the battle of New York, midtown resembled the aftermath of a war zone. Which of course it was, even if the war was like nothing they’d seen before. Steve had woken from a night of fitful sleep with a rock in the pit of his stomach. He thought about the city. His home, even if it wasn’t precisely home anymore.

Guilt led him to the center of the mess where construction crews and coroners were working together to catalog the dead. Every hospital was overflowing with wounded survivors, some of whom would join the ranks of the dearly departed soon enough.

Steve had tried to save everyone, same as always. He’d pulled civilians out of the mess when he’d been able, pointed them to safety and prayed to his mother’s God that they made it. But there were others he hadn’t been able to save. Innocent people going about their days struck down in front of him, too far away to reach. It crippled him to know how many happy, unsuspecting people had been out and about when the sky opened above them to reveal what must have seemed like hell on earth.

His wandering eventually led him to a hospital, bustling with activity. There were reporters outside, as well as harried staffers and family members seeking information. Steve watched as a nurse comforted a weeping woman and was reminded of his mother, who had been so good at setting others at ease.

Quietly, hoping not to draw much attention, he slipped past the crowd and into the lobby, which had been transformed into a makeshift ward full of cots and gurneys, every one of them full. What privacy there was came from small, flimsy screens set up between beds, though it was impossible to mask the sounds of humanity. People were crying, laughing, snoring, groaning. A vast swath of the sick and the scared with all its attendant misery.

There was a pack of playing cards on a cart. Steve picked it up, attempting to blend in.

“Are you looking for someone, sir?”

Damn. Another nurse, albeit without the crisp white uniform he was used to seeing on his mother. The oversize cotton clothing printed with cheerful characters was a nice change, though. He remembered his ma complaining about the difficulty of maneuvering in her uniform, and how it bothered her that the hospital cared more for protocol than for patients.

Whatever changes might have transpired in the medical profession, he figured a person still needed a reason to visit a hospital. Feeling guilty for contributing to the carnage that led to folks’ hospitalization wasn’t much of an excuse.

“I’m uh. Looking for a friend,” he said. “He’s…”

“You need to talk to someone at the desk,” she said firmly. “They’ve got the list of who’s here, but right now it’s just family…”

“That’s him,” Steve blurted, pointing to a young man dozing on a cot about fifteen feet away. There was something familiar about him, though he couldn’t put his finger on it. Still, if he was sleeping, Steve might be able to sneak by and stay to...help? He wasn’t sure. Sit with his guilt, perhaps. “That’s my friend, I’ll just…”

As he took a few steps closer, he realized exactly how he knew that young man. He remembered a bloody face and a broken leg. A trail of vomit and terrified blue eyes rolling back in his head before he’d passed out in Steve’s arms.

Truthfully, Steve hadn’t been sure the kid would make it - he’d seemed in bad shape. But there he was, sleeping, leg in what traction this jerry-built ward could manage and a bandage wrapped around his head.

“Sir…”

“I swear, that’s uh...that’s my buddy. Thank you, though. Really. You’re doing...just a great job. My mother was a nurse. Really...nothing but respect…” He was inching away as he spoke, flashing a smile that he’d heard was charming, as smiles went. Harmless. Nothing to see.

“I...alright,” she acquiesced, frowning.

“Thank you.”

The only problem with using the kid in the bed as a convenient excuse was that now he had to go and sit with him. This stranger he didn’t know, and who most definitely didn’t know him. Steve hoped he wouldn’t wake up and panic.

There wasn’t a chair to sit in - not that there would have been room with the quarters so cramped - so he was forced to perch awkwardly on the edge of the cot, oversized frame hunched over like a gargoyle on the world’s least impressive cathedral.

The kid, who must have barely been dozing, was roused by the slight movement. He blinked, then squinted, sleepy and confused. “Uh...hi?”

“Hi,” Steve replied. “Buddy.”

Buddy groaned, rubbing his bleary eyes with a hand that had its fair share of bandages covering it as well. “It’s Bucky. I keep telling them...are you a doctor?”

Steve had lied enough for one afternoon, so he shrugged. (Also, Bucky? Really?) “Not a doctor. Just helping out. Visiting people. How are you feeling?”

“Like shit,” Bucky muttered. He caught himself, though, cheeks turning pink. “Sorry. That was rude.”

“You’re entitled to feel like shit,” Steve replied, doing his best not to laugh. “You’re the one in the hospital.”

“Yeah, I…” Bucky cocked his head to the side. “Who are you, exactly? There was already some guy in here sniffing about helping me sue the city, and I’m not interested.”

That gave Steve pause, and he considered for a moment precisely who was liable for the destruction. “I’m not a lawyer,” he said. “I’ll level with you - I thought people might be a little down, and I wanted to help, but they’re not exactly looking for volunteers. So I uh, I lied to a nurse and said I knew you. You ah...I’m here at your leisure, pal.”

Bucky looked confused. “...how were you going to help, exactly…?”

“I…” Steve held up the pack of playing cards. “Can be entertaining? Aren’t sick people bored?”

Truthfully, he’d visited enough hospitals while wearing stripes and spangles to know that people were grateful for any break in the monotony. There were older memories, too, of months spent in bed as a boy, so angry and frustrated that even activities like drawing or reading gave him no comfort.

“So you snuck into a hospital to...play cards with us?” Bucky’s mouth was twisted up into an expression of incredulity, eyes squinting as he made a game attempt to puzzle Steve out. “Don’t you have any friends?”

Ouch. “I’m trying to be altruistic,” he snapped, voice pitched louder than was strictly necessary. “Geez, you wanna cut a guy some slack?”

“Oh, so I wake up and a strange man’s sitting on my bed, and I’m the one that’s being unreasonable?”

That was fair. Steve hadn’t exactly asked permission to join him. The familiar feeling of a red hot blush began creeping up the back of his neck, and he wished - not for the first time - that the goddamn serum had gotten rid of his tendency to turn into a tomato along with his asthma and his bum ticker. He’d have to give Dr. Erskine a hard time when they caught up in the afterlife. “I’m sorry…” he stammered.

Bucky cracked a grin, his whole face relaxing. “Nah, I’m just messing with you. It’s nice, I guess. Kind of weird, but whatever. This whole place is weird. Some crazy lady with a pile of Chick tracts came through earlier. Like I need that salvation right now. Card games sound fun.”

Steve had no idea what a Chick tract was and made a mental note to find out later. The invitation was waiting, so he held out a hand for Bucky to shake. “I’m Steve. Rogers.”

Extending his hand, Bucky laughed and raised an eyebrow. “Like Captain America?”

Damn it. He’d forgotten that his name was one for the history books - a name relegated to history. SHIELD had explained it, his nonsense legacy. He’d been memorialized in songs and films - so much so that people associated an actor named Paul Newman with his face more than they did his own ugly mug. There were apparently statues and schools bearing his name, as though he’d done something to deserve that. It annoyed him, truthfully. His name was his, and he wasn’t about to give it up. He’d asked Fury to keep him out of the press - to save him from the attention of the world knowing he hadn’t died. Fury had mentioned that he ought to think about a pseudonym if he felt that way. An alias. A secret identity for the recently unfrozen super soldier.

Steve had considered it. Yet there he was, doing a hell of a job blowing his cover. Peggy would have had his hide.

He waited for the light to dawn. For the spark of recognition in Bucky’s eyes.

It never came. Just a slight smile as Bucky released his hand and looked down at the cards.

“I uh,” Steve said, realizing he’d been quiet for an awkward length of time. “My parents were big fans of the name.” It wasn’t a lie.

“Oh yeah?” Bucky plucked the cards from his hand and began to shuffle. “You got a sister named Ginger and a brother named Kenny?”

Steve blinked. “I’m an only child.”

“Jesus Christ,” Bucky swore before beginning to laugh. “I thought you were supposed to be entertaining me and now you’re not even laughing at my jokes.

Ginger Rogers. Of fucking course. Steve would have sworn he used to be smarter than that. Maybe the ice had done more damage than initially thought.

Still, Bucky hadn’t recognized him, which was a relief. Then again, one didn’t exactly go around expecting figures from history to come waltzing through the front door of a hospital. Hell, Steve had spent countless hours in a sick bed, and neither Abraham Lincoln nor Vincent Van Gogh had ever bothered to show up and play cards with him.

“Slow on the uptake,” Steve said. “That’s funny, though.”

“I’m the one with the head lac,” Bucky replied, nimble fingers easily managing the deck, despite the bandages on his palms. “You know rummy?”

“I do.” Steve shifted his weight, giving Bucky as much room as he could to deal and create a draw pile. There wasn’t much space, so the pile ended up sitting on the blanket covering Bucky’s torso. “So uh, how bad is it? The head injury...or, uh, all of it, I guess.”

Bucky shrugged, eyes cast down at his hand. “Not so bad. I got lucky - got rescued. It’s a broken leg, lots of cuts and bruises, and the head lac like I said, but no concussion. Plus, the doc says it’s only like...mild brain damage.”

“Really?”

“No.” Bucky finished setting up the stock and discard piles. “Not really. Go.”

Steve drew a card. No good combinations. He made a face and discarded a two of hearts. “Are they letting you go soon?”

“Maybe, but I got no place to go,” he said, doing the same. Steve must have looked surprised because he continued quickly. “I’m not homeless! I just mean, I don’t live here. I was a tourist. Uh, we were up here for a school trip from Indiana. My friends and I - we graduate in a couple weeks, and exams are done so we splurged.”

“Geez.” Steve frowned. “High school?” Bucky seemed young - too young to be done with college, perhaps, but too old to be finishing up high school.

College,” he said, indignant, before discarding a four of spades. “We were supposed to be touring Stark Enterprises. There was an internship fair, and we were on our way, but then…”

But then, Loki. But then, the Chitauri. But then, Steve.

“Are your friends alright?”

“Oh, yeah,” he said, before beginning to ramble out all the fears and anxieties he must have been nursing by himself, which was sad. “We got separated, and they missed most of it. They’re holed up in our hotel. My phone got a signal for like, two seconds this morning before it died, and I called them and my parents, too. Because our flight got canceled out of La Guardia, so my mom and dad are trying to get here to pick me up, but...you know how it is.”

Steve had some idea. Flights into and out of the city were grounded. Roads were gridlocked by both those attempting to flee Manhattan and those trying to get into it, desperate for home, or for news about loved ones and relations. It didn’t help that there was likely going to be a mint to be made on salvaging any and all alien rubbish left behind.

Fury had a hell of a mess to contain. Steve didn’t envy him the job.

“I’m sorry about that,” he said, picking up a queen of spades. Three queens - not quite the set, but he’d get there. “That’s lousy - I’m sure they’re worried about you.”

“Yeah,” Bucky said, studying his cards, the flip attitude masking his anxiousness. “I mean, I talked to them, so they know I’m okay. My mom’s paranoid, though. She thinks there’s gonna be another attack.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, apparently there’s this whole conspiracy theory going around on the news. How it was an inside job? The government like...cloned Captain America, and all those flying monsters were the messed up clone army they were trying to create. And like, okay, so there was a Captain America in the fight - I mean, a new one, not the old one - but wait, what was I saying?”

“About the clones,” Steve prompted, trying not to smile.

“Right, the clones. So my mom’s going nuts, convinced the government’s keeping people out of Manhattan because they’re going to round us all up and do experiments on us if we saw the fight. And like, turn us all into clones? But…” Bucky lowered his voice, discarding a queen before getting properly conspiratorial. “Look, I saw one of those things up close. It was...there was nothing human about it, you know?”

Steve nodded, picking up a card. Genuinely lousy poker face, that was him. “Sure,” he said. “I saw it on the news.”

“Right!” Bucky continued. “And this guy, the new Captain America? He’s the one who rescued me. Picked me right up like it was nothing. I don’t know what the government’s doing - him and that blond guy, with the red cape? I mean, I guess if you cloned one super soldier, you might as well do it again, right?”

Rumors were funny, useful things, Steve decided, as he set his combination of queens down on the bed. Bucky swore under his breath.

“I suppose someone might,” Steve agreed, thoughts briefly turning to Bruce Banner before he focused his attention on the game. “Either way, you’re lucky he was there, whoever he was.”

“Yeah.” Bucky picked up another card and made a face. “God, I shuffled like shit.”

“You’re only saying that because I’m winning.”

“Uh, obviously?”

Steve laughed. He liked Bucky.

In the end, Steve won the round and found his new friend to be a remarkably cheerful loser. They played one more game of rummy before attempting something Bucky called ratscrew, but Steve remembered by another name.

“Fuck, you’re fast,” Bucky complained on their third go-round, throwing his hands up in defeat.

Steve hadn’t realized. “Sorry, I…”

“If you say you should have let me win, I’m gonna get that nurse over here to kick you out on your ass.”

“I was only going to say,” Steve replied. “That I have an unfair advantage, not being in traction.”

“Yeah, that’s true,” Bucky agreed. “Next time I’ll play you fair and square. Beat you honestly.”

Steve grinned. “It’s a rematch. Heal up, and I owe you a game - even if I have to come to Indiana to win.”

“Wow, that’s so weird and competitive of you, Steve. I like it.”

“That a fact?”

“That’s a fact,” Bucky said, a smile splitting his face. It faded less than a minute later, though, when the very same nurse who had interrogated Steve announced that visiting hours were over. “Aww, damn it…”

It had to be hard - alone in an unfamiliar place, surrounded by strangers, left without anything to pass the time. Bucky didn’t even have his phone to entertain him, as it had run out of battery and he had no access to an outlet (a story he told Steve no fewer than three times during their conversation). The ubiquity of the little devices was something Steve still found strange, but he understood Bucky’s frustration with having no way of contacting his parents or the outside world.

A sudden inspiration struck Steve, and he smiled.

“Listen,” he said, feeling very altruistic. “Give me your cell phone. I can take it home and charge it if you’ve got a charger.” It was a gas, using the lingo of the day, so when Bucky didn’t give him the side-eye, he assumed he’d gotten it right.

Bucky did, however, look suspicious. Unwilling to give up his small rectangle to a stranger, which was hilarious. Sure, they were serviceable when they worked, and the technology was fascinating, but what use was a dead device?

“I’ll bring it back in the morning,” he promised. “I have a meeting first thing, but then I’ll come here, I swear.”

Cocking his head to the side, Bucky considered it, chewing on his full bottom lip before reluctantly handing over both his phone and the cord that attached it to the wall. “You’re being really nice to me. Why?”

A reasonable question with any number of answers.

I rescued you, and you stuck with me.

I feel incredibly guilty about the mess I caused.

You’re the first person I’ve met in this century who’s neither trying to get something out of me nor terrified of upsetting me.

“Because you’re lousy at card games,” he offered with a smile. “And I like winning.”

Bucky grinned at the not-answer. “Okay, weirdo. Thanks. You promise you’ll come back? If you sell that phone…”

“I wouldn’t know how,” he replied. “And of course I’ll come back.”

 


 

Steve wasn’t lying, though his meeting the following morning took longer than he’d thought. Two meetings, truthfully. The first involved wrangling a muzzled Asgardian from his holding cell before returning him to his planet, where he would face what his brother assured them would be justice. A not-inconsiderable part of Steve thought that the people of Earth ought to be the ones giving Loki his day in court, but a larger part of him knew that the gesture would be futile. What was human justice worth to a god, after all.

The second meeting was with Fury and Hill, involving a discussion of what, precisely, Steve was going to do now. There was a debate - hotly contested - over what Steve owed SHIELD, considering the life that had been granted to him through his work with the SSR. Steve’s personal opinion was that he owed SHIELD no more and no less than what he’d owed the SSR: his service in a war that was long over.

He owed Peggy more, but she wasn’t around to collect.

“All due respect, sir,” he said as Fury sat, fingers steepled and a frown on his face, Hill ever-present at his side. “I’d like to take a little leave. Figure out my next move.”

There was backpay in a bank account, he knew, along with no immediate concerns about additional invasions. Fury had made that clear. If it happened, Steve would come to their aid, but he was itching to get out from under SHIELD’s thumb. To strike out on his own and see something new - find out how the past seventy years had shaped country. Take the trip he’d promised to someone he loved who couldn’t take it with him any longer.

It took some convincing before Fury agreed. That agreement came only after he’d solicited a promise from Steve to check in if catastrophe struck. The promise was an easy one to make - Steve felt strongly about the gift he’d been given by Dr. Erskine, and while he didn’t necessarily believe that the government was the place he ought to be employed, he had no intention of shirking his duty should the need arise.

Fury dismissed him eventually, and Steve went to keep another promise.

Bucky had a magazine open in his lap when Steve arrived, a glazed expression on his face that indicated he wasn’t really looking, only staring. Steve felt a bit like Santa Claus, showing up with a duffel bag over his shoulder and Bucky’s phone in his hand.

“Hey!” Bucky exclaimed when he saw him, face lighting up.

“Afternoon,” Steve said, handing the phone over first, considering he could practically see the drool collecting in the corners of Bucky’s mouth. “How you doing?”

“Better,” Bucky replied, though he only had eyes for the device. The thing had lit up with a myriad of buzzing notifications the moment Steve plugged it in at home, so Bucky likely had plenty to catch up on. “Oh, shit. My mom texted like a billion times. Can you...hang on a second? I want to talk but…”

“Take your time.” Moms were important.

Bucky placed the call and chatted for a while - reassuring his mother that he was fine, that he wasn’t able to charge his phone, that he’d turn it off right away and call her again that night. He told her that he loved her. To tell his dad and his sister that he loved them, too.

There were tears in his eyes as he ended the call. Steve didn’t like to draw attention, so he cleared his throat and indicated the duffel instead. “I thought you might need something better than card games..”

“Wh-oh, shit, that’s for me?” Bucky wiped his eyes before pulling the bag closer and tugging on the zipper. “I thought you just came from the gym.”

“Nope.”

“I mean, if you did...well. When you didn’t show up this morning, I figured you were just some jerk who...oh, wow, thanks!”

Steve had tucked a blanket on top of everything else in the bag - an overly soft, fuzzy thing that had been thrown across one of the generic armchairs in his personality-free apartment. Truthfully, he hated it, but it was warm, and Bucky’s hospital blanket was thin. It made him smile as Bucky pulled it out and spread it across his lap.

“You’re welcome. There’s more in there...some of it’s contraband, so keep it under wraps.”

Bucky raised a curious eyebrow before continuing to dig, a slow grin spreading across his face as he realized the full extent of his bounty. Candy from the bodega near Steve’s place, a couple of books from his SHIELD-filled bookshelves, and a notebook and some pencils, in case Bucky liked to sketch.

“This is really nice,” Bucky said, trailing his hand across the cover of one of the novels. “How come…?”

How come, indeed. Steve shrugged. “I was sick a lot as a kid. I know what it’s like to be laid up.”

“Oh.” Bucky went for the notebook next, propping it up on his elevated thigh and flipping through the blank pages. “I love…” he cut himself off with a laugh. “Nevermind, it’s dumb.”

“No, what?”

“It’s dumb,” he reiterated, eyes on the paper. “But I love like...blank shit? Like, you’re looking at all these possibilities. You can fill it up with whatever.”

Something warm settled in Steve. A tentative, burgeoning hope of friendship and a kindred spirit. It had been a long time since he’d felt anything like that. “That’s a good way of putting it,” he agreed. “I used to feel like that when I got a new sketchbook.”

“You’re an artist?”

“I was.”

“Ah. I’m…” Bucky huffed, fingers tapping the page as he looked from Steve to the notebook, then back again. “I like to write, but I’m not really a writer.”

“Oh yeah? What do you write?”

“Uh…” he huffed out an awkward laugh, cheeks going pink. “Short stories, mostly. Poetry sometimes. It’s just a hobby - I’m not very good.”

“I’m sure you’re better than you think,” he said. “We’re our own worst critics.”

Bucky snorted, mouth twisting up into an expression that was difficult to parse. “Yeah, maybe. So uh, what do you do now, if you’re not an artist?”

What Steve did or didn’t do hadn’t come up the previous afternoon. Intentionally, though Bucky didn’t know that. Steve had driven the conversation towards Bucky - his family, his friends, his engineering major. Still, if they were going to be friends - and Steve hoped they were - the question had to be answered.

“I’m - well, I was in the army. Just got out.” In a manner of speaking.

“Oh wow,” Bucky replied, eyes wide. Steve had gathered, from what little research he’d done, that the military wasn’t seen as a natural choice these days. Kids like Bucky didn’t need the service to give them a leg up. A job. A bit of potential.

“So now, well, I guess I don’t do anything,” he continued. “I’m planning a trip, though. Gonna see the country before I settle down.”

“Like...get your kicks on Route Sixty-Six?” Bucky asked.

Steve wasn’t sure what that meant - a reference he’d need to look up, though if he had to guess he’d say it was a song. “Something like that,” he replied. “I was supposed to be going with someone, but it didn’t work out.”

“Sorry,” Bucky said, voice tinged with sympathy. “That sucks.”

“Yeah,” he agreed.

Sucks didn’t quite sum it up. Didn’t quite capture the way she was there in his head, that voice on the radio. The last voice he thought he would ever hear. He had made his peace with that and now there he was, hale and hearty while she wasted away in a care home, all those lost years between them.

She’d had a life with someone else. He was taking their trip by himself.

Knowing it wasn’t anyone’s fault didn’t make him any less angry about it.

“I’m gonna leave in a couple days, probably. Once things calm down, and I can get out.”

“My mom was optimistic they’d be able to get here tomorrow,” Bucky offered. “So you might be able to leave sooner than you think.”

“Huh,” Steve smiled. “Isn’t she worried about the clones kidnapping her when she crosses the bridge?”

Bucky laughed, unwrapping a candy bar and taking a bite. “She’s totally worried about that,” he said around a mouthful of chocolate. “But she’s coming anyway. She said she’s not gonna rest until she has me strapped down in the back of the minivan and we’ve got a hundred miles between us and this dumb city.”

“So, no big plans to visit New York again?”

“You know, I think I’ve seen it,” Bucky said, voice airy as he waved a hand. “Big buildings, space aliens, grievous bodily harm. I’m good. Thanks, New York, it’s been real.”

Steve smiled, reaching into the bag to pull out one last thing - a game they’d been selling near the checkout of the bodega. Scrabble, with magnets, to play on the go. He’d never played Scrabble before, but it reminded him of a game he’d played with his mother before she died. The rules were straightforward enough - anyone could build a crossword - and he had thought it would be a better distraction for Bucky than another afternoon of card games.

“I’ll try not to take that personally, pal,” he said. “Considering I was born and raised in Brooklyn.”

“Oh, my apologies,” Bucky said, taking the game from him and opening the box. “You think you’ll end up back here?”

Steve wasn’t sure. Home was Brooklyn, but Brooklyn wasn’t home. Not the home he wanted, at any rate. Hell, that home had been lost long before he enlisted with his mother gone and most of the boys he’d grown up around missing or killed.

“We’ll see how the trip goes,” he said. “Maybe I could keep you posted - write you sometime?”

Bucky began setting up the board and distributing tiny, magnetic squares with letters on them. “Like email?”

No, not like an email. “No, not…”

“Or texting?”

Neither. Sometimes, Steve very much wanted to go back to sleep. Running a hand through his hair, he forced a smile. “Like letters,” he said. “Postcards. You could text me back, I suppose, since I won’t have a fixed address.” Granted, he’d only heard of texting in theory rather than in practice, and he rarely turned on his phone, but he could figure out how to check messages if he might find one from a friend.

Bucky looked thrilled, funnily enough. “That would be awesome! Like, we’d have an epistolary friendship. That’s so vintage.”

Vintage, that was Steve all through. He snorted. “I guess so.”

“Cool,” Bucky said, before holding up his tiles. “Can I go first, since I’m sick?”

“Sure.”

“I’m gonna kick your ass at this, just so you know. I’m super good at Scrabble - me and my friends have weekly Scrabble nights while we’re doing our laundry at school.”

Steve was new to the twenty-first century, and he had a lot to learn about what was popular. However, even he had to suspect that weekly Scrabble nights weren’t the height of hip, which made Bucky all the more likable.

Less likable was having the stuffing knocked out of him by the kid over the course of three consecutive rounds of Scrabble. Bucky was, at least, a charming winner, and Steve left the hospital with his address and telephone number written on a bit of scrap paper he’d torn out of the notebook. In turn, Steve had scrawled his yet-unused telephone number on the new first page.

Upon returning to the hospital the following day, he found Bucky’s cot gone and the lobby slowly but surely returning to normal. Hoping for an update, he turned his phone on and was pleased to find his very first text waiting.

 

 

Mom&dad made it this morning & we r headed home. Thx so much for Scrabble I am playing with my sister. I stole ur blanket but I’m not sorry. Pls write letters!

 

The next morning, Steve rode his motorcycle over the George Washington Bridge and headed north, nothing but time on his hands.

 

Chapter Text

Steve’s first postcard arrived on Bucky’s graduation day, the mailman dropping it in his parents’ mailbox around the same time Bucky was limping awkwardly on his crutches across the stage, sunlight blazing down, cheap polyester gown clinging to his sweaty body as he received his diploma.

The piece of paper felt stupid now, after all he’d seen, and he was only attending out of a certain familial expectation. His parents were in the audience alongside a sullen-faced Becca whose constant complaints about the temperature had gotten her cell phone privileges revoked for the duration of the ceremony. His Nana and his Aunt Susan were inside one of the air-conditioned viewing rooms, as Nana didn’t do so well with the heat, and Aunt Susan didn’t have a ticket.

Bucky didn’t care about the logistics, but he was jealous of the air-conditioning.

No fuss, though, no bother. He wanted to make them happy, especially after worrying them so much. The drive back to Indiana from New York had been fraught, his mother occasionally bursting into tears while his father drove in stony silence.

Graduation (and all its attendant nonsense) was the least he could offer them in the face of all that. And it was okay, for the most part. Too hot, too many people. A bevy of solemn speeches about how the world might be changing, but scholars like Bucky and his classmates were vital.

Stupid. The world wasn’t changing, it had already changed - aliens were real, and a major city had suffered the consequences. Bucky didn’t see how his dumb civil engineering degree was going to do a damn thing about that unless he was going to single-handedly rebuild the buildings.

(Not to mention the fact that he didn’t even know if he wanted the degree. It had been the thing to do - the thing his father had done. The logical choice, considering his parents were paying his tuition.)

Once the ceremony was over, they went to lunch in Indianapolis, alongside every other new graduate. The restaurant had lost their reservation, and the wait was interminable. Nobody in their party of six was feeling great by the time they were seated nearly an hour after their arrival.

Bucky’s grandmother insisted on complaining loudly to anyone in her vicinity about how they weren’t tipping for this nonsense, while Becca muttered under her breath, “God, Nana,” so only Bucky could hear it.

“I know,” he sighed, giving her a half-smile.

The problem with Nana and Aunt Susan coming to lunch with them meant that Patrick couldn’t, which just pissed Bucky off, considering he and Patrick had been together since sophomore year. Patrick hadn’t even graduated that day - Bucky had completed his degree in three years, meaning that Patrick still had another to go. He totally could have come, but Nana was The Worst, and his mother hadn’t wanted A Scene, and Bucky’s leg and head and back had been hurting him so much while they’d had the conversation that he’d acquiesced.

Patrick’s feelings had been hurt, and now things were weird between them.

At least it had been quiet in the hospital. Well, sort of. There had been people, and it had been awful, but he’d had time to himself, away from the Barneses and all their attendant insanity. Bucky loved (most of) his family, he really did, but his mother’s side was loud. And demonstrative. And incapable of believing for one second that their needs might not be the only pressing concern of the world at large.

In contrast, Bucky’s father was mild-mannered and soft-spoken, employing his words carefully and precisely when he wanted to. It was George who had insisted that his children excel academically, and George who had maintained that a useful degree was necessary if he was going to be paying for it. Bucky’s entire life, up to that point, had been spent in pursuit of academic achievement. Perfection, really, and not one letter grade less.

Bucky had been a pro under pressure - skipping third grade, entering college at seventeen, and graduating three years later, summa cum laude.

With, again, that engineering degree he didn’t plan on using, and no job prospects on the horizon.

It was weird, not having anything to shoot for. He couldn’t remember a time when the future had been so hazy.

The immediate concern was the summer, and he found himself faced with the prospect of moving back into his childhood bedroom, forced to endure Becca’s gaggle of idiot friends every time they slept over. Patrick was going to Chicago, having secured an internship there, and Bucky tried not to be jealous. It was only that his best shot at an internship or a job had been blown to smithereens when the aliens attacked Stark Tower the day of their career fair.

“Mom, there’s no salmon,” his mother said, peering at Nana’s menu as she huffed. “What about the sea bass. You like sea bass, don’t you?”

Nana, as it turned out, did not.

Bucky’s head hurt.

Lunch took an hour and a half, every second of it agony. Then, they had to swing by Aunt Susan’s condo to drop both her and Nana off before the Barneses-en-masse could go home. Bucky rubbed his temples as they walked through the door, counting the minutes before he could escape to his room and zone out for a while.

“Hey!” Becca said, bouncing up to him. She’d been sent to retrieve the mail because that was the lot in life of younger siblings. “Buck-o, you’ve got a postcard.”

Who was sending him a postcard? Patrick hadn’t even left yet. Maybe it was another solicitation from a lawyer - he’d been getting a lot of those since New York.

The card was a photograph of a boardwalk emblazoned with a hideously kitschy font reading Greetings from Atlantic City! Flipping it over, his eyes caught on the messy scrawl of a signature. Steve.

Of course, it was from Steve. Steve, the weirdo, good samaritan with a blanket and a big grin. Steve, with the way-out-of-Bucky’s-league-body and the shoulders of a Greek god.

A man of his word, that Steve - he’d said he would write, and there was the evidence.

 

 

Hi Bucky,

I just left Manhattan and stopped for lunch. Saw this card & thought I would say hello. Going to head up the shore, see where I end up. Hope you’re home and feeling better.

Steve

 

Next to his name, he’d drawn a caricature of Bucky - a long-haired guy in a bed with his leg in traction. It was remarkably lifelike for such a tiny little drawing - Steve hadn’t been exaggerating when he said he’d been an artist.

Bucky brought the card up to his room, pinning it on the bulletin board above his desk and covering up one of his stupid awards in the process. He sent Steve a text to let him know the card had been received.

Steve didn’t text back.

 


 

Steve’s first letter came a week later on stationery bearing the logo of the Blue Spruce Motel, the envelope postmarked Plymouth, Massachusetts. The note itself was short, with lines marked out alongside no small amount of misspellings.

 

 

Dear Bucky,

Thank you for your text. I meant to Sorry I didn’t respond. I don’t use my phone very much. I am in Plymouth, Massachusetts mostly because I remember learning about it in school and always wanted to see it. It’s poetic but I found a state park that’s very secluded so I’ve been doing some hiking. Mostly marshland and ocean so when I stand on the edge I can almost picture how it must have been for the Pilgrims when they arrived.

The hotel is nice. There’s a pool. I haven’t been to one in ages. Used to be you’d have to Every time I’m out there a family shows up - two kids, a boy and a girl. I think you said you had a sister? Did your family ever take trips? Ma and I never had the money growing up, but I traveled some after joining the army. Me and Mostly big cities, never small towns like this.

I plan to keep heading north. Keep going until I run out of country. Never been to Maine but I hear it’s nice in the summer.

How’s your leg? Have you played any Scrabble?

Steve

p.s. Have you ever heard a song called by the name of “Call Me Maybe?” The little girl at the pool does a song and dance number to it. Pretty catchy.

 

Bucky, bored out of his skull one week into his post-graduate exile, sent Steve several texts in reply.

 

 

Yes we took vacations but mostly the midwest. Have not been to the coast very much.


Plymouth sounds cool watch out for May Flowers ha ha ha


My leg ITCHES and yes i played scrabble with my sister


Also literally everybody ON EARTH knows that song it’s so obnoxious but i’m glad you like it i guess!


Enjoy maine don’t fall off the edge of the country

 

Three days later, Steve responded.

 

 

Staying in Maine for a bit. Have you heard of Stephen King?

 


 

Three more postcards over the course of a fortnight, all postmarked the same:

 

 

Bucky,

There’s a painting on the wall of my room. Two rocking chairs on a big front porch. Fine art!

Steve

 

 

Bucky,

Went to Moosehorn National Wildlife Reserve today. Did not see any moose. Saw eight horns though.

Steve

 

 

Bucky,

Weekend in Bangor. Big! City! Livin’!

Steve

 

Steve was, in Bucky’s opinion, something of a dork. Not that he had any room to talk, being as the most excitement he’d had in weeks was going to his doctor for a checkup and a couple scans. No lasting brain damage - what a win!

 


 

Steve’s second long letter arrived the same day Bucky was unceremoniously dumped by Patrick.

His Patrick. Who had been so sweet and shy at their freshman orientation. Who Bucky had spent the better part of nine months crushing on before getting up the nerve to ask out. Who had been his solid-if-unexciting paramour and confidante ever since.

His fucking Patrick. Who wanted to enjoy his senior year unencumbered by his stupid, unemployed, graduated-too-soon, no ambition boyfriend, apparently.

Granted, he didn’t say quite that over their Skype call, but Bucky got the gist.

“I just - bi...- chool -” Patrick explained, the connection patchy.

“Are you...are you really doing this over Skype?” Bucky had nothing else for him, so intense was his disbelief.

“Sorry,” said Patrick, shrugging in a way that made Bucky think he wasn’t sorry at all. “It’s fo- th- best.”

“I...what? I’m not...Patrick, I can’t process this...did I do something wrong?”

Patrick hadn’t heard any of that, still rabbiting on about his own fucking needs. “...have fun, you know?”

No, Bucky very much didn’t know. “Can’t I just call you? Please?”

“On my lunch break,” Patrick said, and that came through just fine. Bucky wished he could reach through his laptop and throttle Patrick’s freckled throat. “I know you’re mad, but this will be good for both of us, I promise.”

Easy to say when you weren’t the one being dumped.

“Damn it,” Bucky muttered. “Don’t try and make this better. You suck. I’m...I’m really mad at you.”

Tears were pricking in his eyes. He wasn’t going to cry. He wasn’t going to cry.

Shit, he was going to cry.

“...orry, Bucky. I can’t. I gotta go…”

“Yeah, I fucking bet you do.” Bucky slapped at the mouse, ending the call. A petulant move, perhaps, but who cared about maturity when you’d just been dumped by the first guy you ever slept with? Sure, maybe they’d been growing apart, but he could have at least done it in person.

There was nothing for it but wallowing, so wallow he did, ordering a pizza for lunch and hiding in his room, sadly picking off pepperoni when he was too full to indulge in another slice.

Becca knocked on his door around five, not bothering to wait for a response before barging right in. “Wow, who died?”

“Shut up,” he muttered.

“Whatever. You’ve got mail, and mom wants to know if you’re coming down for dinner.”

“No.”

“God, fine. You should open the blinds or something, gross-ass.”

“Shut up, Becca,” he repeated, reaching for the nearest available soft object to hurl at her head. Said object happened to be the stuffed bear he’d had on his bed since he was a baby, so he felt a tiny bit bad when she swatted it away before it could hit her in the temple.

You shut up. Here’s your dumb mail.” She threw two envelopes as forcefully as any human could throw two envelopes. So, not very forcefully. They landed on the carpeted floor, skidding a few feet towards Bucky’s bed. “I’ll tell mom you’re dead.”

“Fine.”

“Jerk.”

She slammed the door hard enough on her way out that it shook the walls. Bucky counted to three and was gratified to hear a “Re-bec-ca Win-i-fred Barnes!” come from downstairs.

The letters were awfully far away, over there on the floor, four feet from the bed. But he recognized the familiar handwriting on one of the envelopes, so he stretched, groaning with effort until his fingers could just grab it. The other, he left alone. Probably a credit card offer.

Steve’s new letter was the same as the other, full of mistakes and crossed out lines. Bucky could just about make out what was written underneath if he tried, though Steve had done a hell of a job with scribbling through his more pensive thoughts.

 

 

Dear Bucky,

Maine is not what I expected, but I like it. I’m still writing to you from Maine but I’ve moved on to a place called Lubec. You warned me not to fall off the edge of the country but I guess this is about as close as I can get. I started sketching again. Sitting on the edge of the world. It has been interesting to pick it back up. I’m rusty but I guess even Picasso started somewhere.

I was thinking about what you said about being a writer. There’s a lot of stuff around here about a guy named Stephen King who I gather is well-known and from the area. The first place I stayed had his books in the lobby and I borrowed two and am reading one called The Stand. Have you read that? It’s good. I’m learning a lot from it. My favorite character is Frannie, but I like Stu, too. It’s making me think about humanity. How it can be good and evil all at once. The people here are nice, if a bit strange.

How’s the leg? I never asked how long you have to wear that cast but I’d wager you’re not having much of a summer. Makes me feel guilty every time I go for a swim. I really did forget how much I liked swimming. I wasn’t good at it as a kid but I’m not bad now.

I heard that song you don’t like on the radio. I think I liked it better when the little girl was singing it by the pool but it’s catchy. Different than the usual music I like but I could get used to it. Everyone walks around with these white wires stuck in their ears and the teenagers here say I can put music on my phone if I want to. Everyone here thinks I’m a funny tourist, which I guess I am.

There’s a concert tonight at a local church that I’m planning to attend. I think it’s classical music and I think I should enjoy that. Part of me feels like I ought to get back on the road but I am content here. I like being by the ocean. I like the quiet. It’s funny because I have always lived in loud places. Guess people change as they get older.

I hope you’re having a good summer in spite of the cast. I’ll try to check my phone more often.

Steve

 

Bucky finished the letter and realized he was crying. Stupid, to be crying over a letter from a man he hardly knew. But Steve sounded happy - like he was figuring himself out and having an adventure while Bucky was stuck in this crappy town, in his crappy room, with a crappy broken leg and no crappy boyfriend.

Even a crappy boyfriend was better than no boyfriend at all. Probably.

Reaching for his phone, he sent Steve a text.

 

 

Sounds like Maine is treating you well. I haven’t read The Stand but I think my parents have a copy. Looking forward to meeting Frannie and Stu. Hope you write again soon.

 

His phone buzzed with an immediate response, and he jumped, excited and hopeful for an actual conversation with Steve.

 

 

Error: Invalid Number. Please resend text message using a valid 10-digit number.

 

Damn it. Everything sucked. Bucky nearly threw his phone across the room before getting up and going to his desk where he dug out the notebook Steve had given him in the hospital and brought it back to bed.

Chewing on the end of his pen, he thought about what Steve had said about sketching. About writing. Steve’s phone might have been dead and gone, but that didn’t mean Bucky had to waste the lesson.

Opening the cover of the notebook, he flipped to the second page and began to write.

 

The Voyager came from the stars...

 


 

Two weeks later, Bucky’s cast came off, and he’d had three nightmares about monsters on hoverbikes. His mother wanted him to see a therapist. Bucky wanted everyone to leave him alone.

There was a postcard from Steve waiting in the mailbox when he got back from his doctor’s appointment.

 

 

B,

Lost my phone. Will write when I can.

SR

 

There weren’t any more letters or postcards after that.

Five weeks after the last one arrived, Steve showed up at his house instead.

July had turned into August and Bucky was out on the front porch, curled up on the rickety old swing, reading The Stand and feeling sorry for himself. Sure, nobody in his life had the superflu, but he’d been trapped in New York just like Larry Underwood, surrounded by corpses and nightmares and images that would stick with him until the day he died. Stephen King ought to come talk to him, as a matter of fact. He could give him some excellent fodder for a book. Or he could write the book himself. His story about the man from the stars was shaping up, piece by piece, and he was proud of it, even if he wasn’t sure how good it was.

He’d just decided to go inside and noodle around with it when a nondescript, silver Toyota SUV turned onto his street and parked right in front of his house.

Bucky might not have paid much attention, save for the fact that Steve was the driver, stepping out looking every bit as gorgeous as he had in New York, only now he was sporting a dark blond beard and hair that was considerably longer than when Bucky had last seen it.

“Hey, Bucky,” he greeted, as though he was an entirely expected presence, strolling right up to the front walk. “Finally made it to Indiana, figured I’d come say hi.”

Bucky put his book down and got to his feet, swing creaking with relief.

“Hi,” he replied. It seemed the thing to say.

Chapter Text

When grief came, Steve greeted it as a constant companion. The feeling was not unlike meeting an old friend, but instead of joy, there was an ache, familiar and bone-deep. He and grief understood one another - they’d met early in his life with the loss of a father he’d never known. Grief had come when his mother had been taken from him, leaving him unable to fathom how he could live without her. Grief had sent young men to war, then left them to die on a lonely battlefield, faces frozen in a terrified rictus. Steve had seen men die, had watched men fall.

None of that made grief any easier to bear there in that restaurant on the Atlantic City boardwalk, tourists streaming in every direction. A brunette in a navy dress passed by the window and his heart seized with the surety of it. The knowledge that it was Peggy, and in a moment she’d walk through the doors, sit down across from him, steal a potato chip off his plate and ask him why he’d taken so long to catch up?

The brunette turned towards her companion, and her face was wrong - smile too soft, eyes too small. Steve squeezed the fork he was holding tightly enough that the metal bent in his fist. He tipped the waitress twenty-five percent, on the chance the fork might come out of her wages.

Grief walked with him as he left the restaurant to wander the boardwalk, slats baking under the summer sun. There were so many people. Loud and bright and wonderful and terrible all at once.

God, he wanted to tell someone. To have someone understand. But that was the thing about grief - it was his to bear alone. To fret over, nurturing it from a seed of pain to a full-grown thorny vine. There wasn’t anyone left in the world who would understand, save for Peggy, and the thought of going to see her? He didn’t think he could bear it.

Maybe it was selfish. Probably it was. But he couldn’t stand the idea of hurting her by turning up with his whole life left to live while she had so little time remaining.

She would have laughed at him. Told him to stop being maudlin and silly. Stop feeling sorry for himself. Live his life and take his pleasures where he could find them.

Of course, Peggy had always been ruthlessly practical. It was one of the things he loved most about her.

“Easier said than done, Pegs,” he muttered to no-one in particular as he came to a stop in front of a gift shop featuring cheap trinkets and chipper postcards.

There was, he supposed, Bucky. Not that Bucky could understand, but he was the only person in this brave new world who found the possibility of spending time talking to Steve intriguing rather than obligatory. Bucky didn’t remember enough about Captain America to make the connection - not that the truth would have been anyone’s first guess. Steve knew he ought to have told Bucky that he’d been his rescuer. Knew that keeping it from him wasn’t fair. Wasn’t the kindest thing to do. But, hell, when had life been kind or fair? Didn’t he deserve one friend without complications?

Steve bought a card and tracked down a post office for stamps. He sat on a bench at the end of a pier, scrawling a few meaningless words on the back of the card before dropping that first bit of correspondence in the mail.

After that, he got back on his bike and rode in the opposite direction from the half of his heart waiting in Washington DC.

 


 

After two hours spent on the interstates, Steve abandoned them entirely. He hated them - those great, soulless wounds lashed across the country, bending to the twin masters of efficiency and conformity. Time was in no short supply, and he could make do with the highways and the backroads, weaving and winding through the hills and valleys of America, revealing all of her idiosyncrasies and her curiosities. He had seen it all before, traversing the nation on a cramped bus with twenty-some-odd showgirls and the guy who played Hitler. Doing it by himself was different. Better. Sadder, too.

There was freedom in not having an agenda. In not being entirely sure where he was going, only that he was headed north.

He followed signs, wandering from one highway to the next until he saw something that caught his eye. Namely, Plymouth, which conjured memories of a small, poorly-heated classroom presided over by a young, mousy nun telling them stories about the Pilgrims and the Mayflower. Uptight bastards, the Pilgrims. No fun, no frills, no fancies. Steve didn’t think he would have liked them much. But the idea of being an explorer? An adventurer, setting foot in a new land and seeing something no-one had ever seen before? That appealed. That had always appealed.

Man went to the moon in 1969, as he now knew. Steve had stepped into a Vita-Ray machine a quarter century before that.

Some firsts were more memorable than others.

His arrival in Plymouth was a comedy of errors and wrong turns. Eventually, practicality won out over pride, and he stopped to buy some food, some gas, and a map. There was a decent-looking motel just outside the town that met all Steve’s standards - clean enough, and cheap, with an outdoor pool. Thriftiness had served him well his entire life, and he wasn’t about to start changing things, no matter how much money he had in the bank.

The woman behind the counter of the motel flirted with him. Or, he was fairly sure it was flirting. He hadn’t had much practice in the art, and the newfound attention was something he was still getting used to. Wasn’t much flirting on the front, and Peggy had never been subtle about her intentions.

Part of him understood he could make this woman an offer - give her a wink and a smile. Ask her up to his room. A larger part of him never would. Grief had filled up his dance card and didn’t like to share.

Leaving the woman wanting, he went to his room and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep that lasted nearly fourteen hours. There was nothing like a decent night’s rest for getting a fella feeling fine. It was better than sex, far as he was concerned.

Well. Almost better.

The next day, he went exploring, finding a visitor’s center quickly enough. There were a thousand brochures to flip through, and not a person in sight to talk to. Eventually, Steve cornered a staffer who had been coming in to refill the racks, inquiring about things to do, to see, where to eat and if there were any local spots he shouldn’t miss.

The staffer - a young guy, around Steve’s presumed age - seemed baffled by the attention. He kept talking about their website and how Steve could find anything he needed on there. Still, he tried to help and being earnest made up for not being especially informative. Steve left the visitor center with a few notes scrawled on one of the brochures and a couple of places to try.

He ate fish and chips for lunch and tried not to think about the first time he’d eaten the dish in London.

After lunch, he acquired a swimsuit, as the pool at his motel was appealing. He went to a bookstore and bought pen and paper, along with a book of local legends - the sort of poorly written hodgepodge that was perfect for reading when you didn’t care all that much for plot or structure.

The pool was deserted when he arrived, which suited him fine. There were four rusty-looking lopsided lounge chairs, so he picked the least dilapidated option. Leaving his stuff, he took a dip, then went to his book, which was truly terrible. Just what he’d wanted.

His solitude was interrupted about an hour later by the arrival of a family - mom, dad, son, daughter. One of each. They made him smile. The little boy was maybe ten, all gangly arms and legs, while the little girl was around eight, pudgy and guileless in a swimsuit made up mostly of pink sparkles and frills with a unicorn emblazoned on the front.

They were hard to ignore - screams and shouts, plenty of “watch me, mommy!” and “she hit me!” parried back and forth. The girl, especially, had boundless energy and began working up an impressive song and dance routine for her parents that involved her towel and a half-decent cartwheel, ending with a big cannonball splash into the pool. It was a hell of a grand finale, and Steve was getting a kick out of watching her play.

On her umpteenth iteration, however, things didn’t go quite as planned. One foot slipped on the edge of the pool as she executed her cannonball, and as she fell, she smacked her head against the concrete. Her mother gasped, and Steve was on his feet before he fully realized what he was doing - instinct driving him as he dove in, pulling her up and out of the pool before the blood from her cut had the chance to spill.

The moment her head was above water, she was screaming the scream of every hurt, terrified kid. Steve swam to the edge, passing her up to her hysterical parents, her father’s hands shaking as he took her.

“Oh, Kyla,” said mom, kneeling down and looking for all the world as though she was going to be sick. “Oh my God, thank you. Thank you.” That was directed at Steve, voice a breathy, trembling, tear-filled sort of thing. Her accent reminded him of Connie, one of the USO girls he’d liked best, a blonde from Tennessee with a killer pair of gams and a stellar wit.

“I don’t think it’s too bad,” Steve replied in lieu of acknowledging the thanks. He wasn’t much of a field medic, but with a small cut and only a little blood, he didn’t think it would need stitches.

“I couldn’t get there,” her father said. “You were so damn quick…”

It was hard to talk, what with Kyla screaming, but Steve tried. “I was in the military,” he demurred. “Fast reflexes, that’s all.”

“Honey, we ought to take her to the hospital, just in case…” the mother said, as Kyla reached out for her, clinging tight.

“Right,” dad agreed. “I’ll get the car. Jackson, come on.”

Jackson didn’t see what the big deal was, whining bitterly about having to leave the pool, which was most definitely going to lead to some tears. Or, more tears. There were already plenty.

“Thank you,” the mother said again as they took their leave, both kids hysterical. God, did it make Steve strange that the sight of it didn’t help the mourning he’d been doing over the children he would never have with Peggy?

It was better not to dwell.

He was pleased to see them back at the pool the next day. Kyla, with a brightly colored bandage on her temple - came right over to his lounge chair, presenting him with a cellophane-wrapped Whitman’s Sampler. Her big, toothy grin set off that same grieving ache, though he took the chocolates with a smile.

“Mom says to say thanks for saving my life,” she recited with a glance over her shoulder to check she was making the appropriate overtures.

“Nah,” Steve replied, popping the cellophane and opening the candy. “You had it under control. Want some chocolate?”

Throwing caution and propriety to the wind, she nodded, taking a piece with the haste of a kid who knew a parent might holler at them any moment. “Thanks, Mister.”

“Steve,” he said. “I liked that song you were singing yesterday. What’s it called?”

She mumbled something around the chocolate that ended with the word maybe. Steve got the gist.

“Well, you’re a real good singer,” he said. “And I appreciate the chocolate.”

“Welcome,” she said, hightailing it back to her mother, who gave him a wave. Steve waved back but ultimately left them alone. Being a good Samaritan didn’t require inserting himself into their lives. He wasn’t that lonely.

The next day found him hiking in a state park, losing himself in the marshes as his thoughts turned, strangely enough, to Bucky. When he got back to the hotel, he turned on his phone and was pleased to find a text from his friend acknowledging the postcard.

Instead of replying, he sat down and wrote Bucky a letter.

 


 

Getting to Maine took significantly longer than getting to Plymouth. Steve had always been in possession of a decent sense of direction. However, a vague notion of Maine being northwards wasn’t the same as knowing precisely where he was going.

He ended up following signs to what he hoped was decent lodging after a few nights spent in motels that were neither clean nor comfortable. The lodge he found at the end of the signs was rundown but hospitable, with a young, fresh-faced clerk at the front desk sporting shaggy brown hair and an accent that Steve would soon learn was common in that part of the country.

“Call up front, y’need anything,” he said, handing Steve a key. “I’m here all night.”

“That’s a long shift,” Steve said in an effort to make conversation.

“Family business,” he replied. “My dad owns the place.”

“You must enjoy that, working together?”

The kid looked at him as though he’d grown three heads when he realized Steve was serious. “Sure, yeah. It’s great. He’ll ah, be here in the morning if you need anything. Have a good night, sir.”

Steve recognized a dismissal when he heard one, though nobody could hold a candle to Colonel Phillips when it came to letting a body know it wasn’t wanted. He gave the kid a salute before going to investigate the location of his room.

The lodge was two stories, and Steve was on the second. The room itself was rustic, with a certain charm, if charm meant worn sheets and a cracked windowpane. Steve didn’t mind that so much - he liked that it was quiet, and it would be dark at night, which were his only two requirements of late.

The next morning, he found himself back in the lobby, seeking out recommendations for where he could get a decent breakfast. As it happened, the proprietor was a damn sight more conversational than his son.

“Andy Allen,” he offered at Steve’s introduction, offering his hand. “Good to know you.”

“Likewise,” Steve smiled. “Where’s the best place to get something to eat around here?”

“Mmm, halfway decent diner a few miles up the road. Won’t say it’s the best food you’ve ever had, but around here...slim pickings. What brings you our way?”

“Hiking.” It was better to fib when the truth was that Steve’s uneasy truce with the modern world was pushing him further and further to the fringes, desperate for any familiarity he could call his own.

“Plenty of that ‘round here,” Andy said. “Maps of the park by the door.”

“Great.” Steve headed in that direction, though his eye caught on a rickety bookshelf sitting next to a disused fireplace and he went there first, perusing the titles. “Big fan of uh...Stephen King?”

“Tourists like him, especially around here.”

“Oh? Is he local?”

Andy got quiet, and the silence was one Steve recognized as the kind that meant he’d stepped in something.

“He...y’might say that,” Andy said after what felt an eternity. “You don’t know him?”

“Afraid I don’t.” Steve crouched down by the shelf, touching the spines. “Got any recommendations?”

“Most folks’d tell you to start with The Shining, but my favorite’s The Stand.”

Steve pulled both out - one novel-length and the other a behemoth of a book, bigger than the Bible. “Geez,” he laughed. “Don’t know if I’ll finish these before I leave.”

“Don’t bother yourself about it,” Andy said. “Keep ‘em if you like - drop a couple bucks when you pay your bill so we can buy new ones. Used bookstores around here are full of ‘em.”

“Thanks.” Struck by the unexpected generosity, Steve smiled, bringing both books with him to breakfast where he ordered eggs over easy, hashbrowns, and black coffee. While he waited for the food, he checked his phone and found several unanswered texts from Bucky. Good mood buoyed, he texted back before cracking the spine on The Stand.

Turned out, Andy was an excellent judge of literary tastes. Steve brought both books with him when he left the lodge two days later, determined to see the edge of the country.  

 


 

Lubec was as far as he could go without leaving America. The sleepy little village welcomed him with wariness as befit any insular small town. Steve liked it, and while the urge to move on hadn’t left him, he didn’t mind staying in one place for a beat. There was plenty to see and experience despite the small population - people who had lived their entire lives in one place, as well as their children who were desperate to escape. The scenery was breathtaking and inspired him to purchase a sketchpad and some pencils from the closest thing the town had to an art store - namely, two shelves of stationery supplies in the grocery.

Steve made a game attempt to capture the coastline, perched on a rocky outcrop overlooking the sea. Seventy years in the ice had dulled his talent, in his own estimation, fingers clumsy and slow as the image took shape. Not quite right. Never quite right.

He would keep trying.

His next letter to Bucky was written in a restaurant after eating his first authentic Maine lobster roll. Then his second. Then his third. He couldn’t help it if he was hungry. The letter itself was long and aimless, with Steve crossing out passages he found mawkish and overly sentimental. Bucky might have indulged him, but Steve couldn’t be sure.

It was a nice evening. Quiet and calm and precisely the sort of thing he’d been seeking in his solitude.

Which made finding Tony Stark sitting on the single bed of his hotel room all the more awful and incongruous. His heart rate spiked before his instincts kicked in, recognizing an ally rather than a threat, albeit an ally who shouldn’t have known where he was.

“Tony…” he said, before being interrupted.

“I’d say finding you was a needle in a haystack, Cap, but I’d be lying. Did you really think they’d let you go?”

“What?”

“SHIELD.” Tony bit the word out as though it left a bad taste in his mouth. “They’ve been keeping tabs, Steve, and they don’t like sharing their toys.”

“I don’t…”

“No, you wouldn’t,” Tony agreed. “Too noble, probably, but here’s the thing…”

Tony,” Steve interrupted, having found his wits enough to shut the other man up. For the most part, he and Tony were fine - scepter-induced madness aside. Those particular petty grievances tended to fall away when you watched a fella fly a nuke into space. But Steve didn’t know Tony - not really. Not well. And now Tony was here in the small space he’d found out for himself, and it was enough to make him annoyed if not downright angry. “What are you doing here?”

Tony held up both hands, a half-smile on his face. “Look, Cap, far be it from me to un-Jack your Kerouac - I think it’s great. But someone puts a target on my teammate’s back, that annoys me.”

“A target?”

“I don’t work for SHIELD,” he said, tone clipped. “I get the sense that after what you saw on that helicarrier, you’re not too thrilled with them either. Not interested in signing up for another round of propaganda, and hey, I’m on board. But you’re not free of them. They’re tracking you, Rogers. JARVIS isn’t out of their systems yet - call me paranoid - and your phone, your bike? Let me guess - a lovely partying gift from Nick Fury?”

There was a shift, gears turning in place as Steve’s mind switched on. He had been so stupid.

“Shit.”

Tony relaxed, albeit minutely. “Thing is, Aunt Peggy’d have my ass if she knew I knew and didn’t step in to save yours.”

“Aunt…”

“Did I not mention? Guess we didn’t have a lot of time to reminisce. Your old flame, my godmother. One and the same. Not strictly related, but family’s family. You get it.”

“Sure, Tony. I get it.”

Tony dug in one of his impossibly tight pockets to produce a square plastic something-or-another. “This unlocks a car in the parking lot. Toyota - few years out of date. It’s registered to a Mr. Edward Carter.”

The name threw him. “Edward?”

“Edwin’s too old-fashioned,” he said, which didn’t explain much. “ID, passport, cash in the glove box. Enough to get you by a while, if you’re careful. New phone, too, though my number’s the only one in it. I recommend not using it for anything else.”

“I…”

Tony was on a roll, spurred on by his own smarts. “You need to give me the phone you’ve got now - Pepper’s worked it out, far as I know. I’ll take the bike, the phone, make SHIELD think you’re still screwing around this part of the country while you disappear. How do you feel about disguises?”

“Your godmother put me in glasses in a wig to infiltrate a Nazi safehouse once.”

Caught off-guard, Tony grinned. “She did not.”

“Well, she threatened.”

“Grow a beard, dye your hair. Whatever you have to do to keep off the radar. Got me?”

“Yeah, Tony,” he said. “Thank you. I don’t know how…”

“Whatever happened,” Tony said, walls going back up as his spine stiffened. “We’re on the same team.”

Steve nodded. Stepped forward. Tony stepped back. Shook his head. “You ah...you ever make it out to California, look me up. Pep’ll show you the Malibu house. It’s a kick - you’ll love it.”

“Maybe,” Steve agreed, pushing a hand through his hair rather than offering it for Tony to shake. Didn’t seem as though the gesture would be appreciated. “I did kinda want to see the Dodgers play on the wrong coast.”

Tony’s horrified reaction got a laugh out of Steve, and God, he wished they had more time.

It took him less than twenty minutes to pack up and hit the road, atlas open on the empty passenger seat next to him, his phone and his bike abandoned to Tony’s goodwill and genius. The car felt isolated and antiseptic when compared to his bike and the open road.

Lonelier, too.

That loneliness stuck with him as he hugged the border on his travels, winding his way around the Great Lakes, stopping when he pleased, not bothering to connect with anyone on his way. Weeks passed, and he took Tony’s advice - growing a beard and neglecting to do much more with his hair than comb it. He lived, but he wasn't living, caught somewhere between running and hiding as he did his best to lose himself in the world.

When he left Michigan and headed south, he did so without a particular destination. But when he saw the first sign for Indianapolis, his thoughts turned to Bucky. Stupid to think things like that, considering the circumstances. Visiting his friend wasn’t staying under cover. It was, in point of fact, precisely what Tony had warned him against.

Every protective instinct he had gained under Peggy’s careful tutelage was screaming at him to reverse course when he turned onto Bucky’s street.

He couldn't help it. There was something about the kid. Something that stuck.

Steve parked the car, sure that Bucky was going to take one look at him and laugh in his face.

He opened the door anyway.

Chapter Text

“I would have called, but…”

Words were coming out of Steve's mouth, but Bucky wasn't listening. Because Steve had a beard now. An excellent beard, which was a weird thing to think. Bucky wasn't into beards. But the beard combined with those shoulders? The way it made his bottom lip just a skosh more pronounced? It was a good beard.

Bucky wanted to kiss him. Which was, wow, no. Just hadn’t gotten laid in a while, that was all.

“Bucky?”

Right. Steve would be expecting him to carry on half the conversation. Like a normal human being.

“Oh yeah. I got your postcard. About the phone?”

“Great.” Steve smiled, pushed a hand through his hair in a way that made Bucky focus on his wrist, which was surprisingly delicate for such a big guy. “I was up in Michigan before this. You ever heard of Bois Blanc?”

“What?”

"Bois Blanc Island - you gotta get a ferry over to it. I read about it somewhere, wanted to see it. So I saw it. Then I headed south and saw a sign for Indianapolis, and I figured you couldn't live far, so I looked you up."

Bucky blinked, processing all of that. Something about an island? Didn’t matter - Winnie Barnes hadn’t raised him to be rude. “Uh, you wanna come inside?”

“That’d be great, thanks,” Steve said, a look of relief crossing his features. “I’ve uh, had to piss since Fort Wayne.”

Charming. Bucky snorted, leading the way. “I mean, far be it from me to deny you the facilities. We uh, but we weren’t expecting company so, the bathroom’s clean but like...my mom’ll kill me if she knows I didn’t put the company towels out.”

“I’ve seen worse, Buck. I’m not fussed about fancy towels.”

Buck. It rolled off his tongue like he'd been calling him that his entire life. Effortless. Steve was so friendly - Bucky figured it had something to do with the time he'd spent in the service. He'd no doubt got used to meeting lots of new people, hostile and non-, and he'd have to put on a kind face. A cheerful one, even when it was hard.

“It’s uh, right in there,” he said, indicating the half-bath just off the hallway.

Steve stepped inside, and Bucky waited awkwardly until he emerged, shoulders barely making it through the small frame. God, he was huge. He made the house seem small. Not that Bucky was tiny - too skinny, maybe, but nearly six feet tall, and he'd started feeling the lack-of-size in the space when he was about fifteen. The house was old; a craftsman bungalow built in the twenties and purchased by his parents for a song when Bucky had been all of eighteen months old. They'd fixed it up over the years, and while it held a certain charm, it wasn't made for someone like Steve. Someone who overwhelmed every place he entered.

"Sorry," Steve said, sheepish as he shut the bathroom door behind himself. "For uh, dropping in like this. I'll go to a motel later, but check-ins aren't usually until the afternoon, so I figured I'd come and say hello first."

“Don’t worry about it. It’s good to see you again,” Bucky said and meant it. “You hungry?”

“Always.”

The kitchen was empty - Becca likely holed up in her room, playing stupid games online or talking to her friends. His mother had gone to the grocery store earlier in the week, which meant there was plenty for him to work with. Sandwiches were about the height of his culinary ambition, though, and he wasn’t about to put himself to the test with Steve.

“Leg looks good,” Steve said as he sat down on one of the wooden chairs around the kitchen table. A haphazard set, but sturdy enough.

"Oh. Yeah. I got the cast off, and I've been doing PT, but I'm probably gonna stop soon because I can do most of the exercises here."

“What’s PT?”

Looking up from his judicious application of appropriate condiments, Bucky raised an eyebrow. “Physical therapy?”

“Oh. Right.” Steve smiled. “Glad to hear you’re healing up. No trouble with the head?”

“No more than usual. You good with cheddar?”

“Cheddar’s good.”

“Cool.”

The conversation hit a lull, and Bucky cringed internally. It wasn't surprising - they'd spent a couple days hanging out, but it wasn't as though they were old pals. Conversation was an art, and neither of them was particularly skilled at it in that moment.

“So uh,” he offered, bringing over the plates. “How’s the trip been? Besides your phone crap.”

“Not what I was expecting.” Steve picked up one half of his sandwich, taking a messy bite and setting it down. Bucky looked away when he swiped his tongue across his bottom lip to get the last of the mayo.

“No?”

“No.” Steve reached for a napkin, wiping his mouth and leaning back in the chair before crossing his arms over that broad, ridiculous chest. God damn it. “I’d uh, actually been planning on taking this trip with someone. Before.”

Oh. Fantasies? Meet screeching halt.

“It ah,” he continued. “Didn’t quite work out that we could take it together.”

“You two split up?”

“No.”

“Oh.” Bucky’s heart twinged. Steve had been in the military - lotta shit could happen at war. “Did...uh, did they die?”

Steve blinked as if woken from something, before shaking his head and uncrossing his arms. “Oh, no, no. She’s not dead.”

She. Bucky had been deliberately gender neutral, but there was his confirmation. Steve probably hadn’t been flirting. Or, well, maybe. Or maybe he was just naturally charming. “So...you guys are still together?”

“No.” He smiled, reaching for his sandwich again. “Complicated, huh? I know it doesn’t make much sense. I guess it’s…circumstances? That forced us apart? But I still. Well. I’m working on it.”

“I’m sorry. I uh...I’m kind of getting familiar with that sort of thing.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah.” Bucky shrugged, picking at the bread of his sandwich. “Not the same, but, ya know. Got dumped over the summer.”

“I’m sorry.” Steve took a bite of his sandwich, swallowing before he spoke again. “You’d been together a while?”

“Two years, give or take,” Bucky sighed. “I asked him out the end of freshman year.”

Coming out to someone new was always a risk. Bucky wasn’t ashamed of who he was - he’d opened the closet door to his closest friends, as well as his parents and sister while he’d still been in high school. But Steve was a relative stranger, and while he was kind, he was also ex-military and seemingly straight. There were no guarantees.

The reaction wasn’t great, in point of fact - Steve’s eyes widening imperceptibly, processing the new information in a way that made Bucky somewhat uncomfortable.

“Him?” Like it was such a shocker. Not quite the response Bucky had wanted - the shboggled gender gasp was usually a bad sign.

“Yes,” he said, voice stiffening as he sat up straighter in his seat. “Is that a problem?” Defensiveness was occasionally a poor choice, but it was what came naturally. It was his house, after all, and while he didn’t like confrontation, he could handle himself.

Steve’s cheeks had gone pink, while the tips of his ears were turning bright red. “I uh. I mean. I’ve met homos before, but…”

Bucky cut him off. “Okay, look, if you’re gonna start busting out slurs, you can go.”

“Shit.” Steve blanched. “It’s not - it’s just you don’t act like one…”

“Excuse me?” Asshole.

Steve held up both hands, and Bucky didn’t think it was possible for his eyes to get any bigger, but there they were. “Jesus, Bucky, I’m not...tryin’ to be rude. I only...I don’t have a lot of experience dealing with uh. What’s the right word nowadays?”

“Are you kidding me?” Bucky’s hackles had never risen further; Steve was from Brooklyn, but at that moment he sounded like he was from the moon. “You don’t deal with queer people - and you don’t get to call me queer, either. I’m just...we’re just people.”

“I know,” Steve said, the initial panic giving way to something conciliatory. “Geez, I’m sorry. That was...you only caught me by surprise. But I knew a girl! Connie. She was a dy-”

“Don’t use that word.”

“But that’s what she used!”

God. “Steve. Okay. So...let’s just lay our cards out here. Do you have a problem with the fact that I’m gay?”

Steve shook his head, genuinely looking as though he felt bad. “No. Just took me by surprise, like I said. But there was Connie, and this fella I served with. And I knew guys back in Brooklyn, too. I’m real sorry I...it’s not a problem.”

Bucky’s shoulders relaxed by a fraction of an inch and he nodded minutely. “You...need to watch what you call people. That shit’s offensive.”

“Sorry.”

“I’m not ashamed of it.”

Steve shifted in his seat, regarding Bucky with something approximating respect, mixed with a healthy curiosity. Which wasn’t great, but he’d take it over horror and disgust. “No, I guess you’re not. That’s something, huh?”

“That’s something,” Bucky agreed.

Whatever Steve was planning to say in response was forestalled by Becca appearing in the doorway of the kitchen, clad in her moon and stars pajamas, hair sticking up in every direction. Confronted by a handsome stranger in her midst, she let out a shriek and hightailed it in the opposite direction.

“Uh.” Steve managed.

“My sister,” Bucky explained. “Hang on.”

Standing, he followed Becca’s footsteps to the den, where she had flung herself across the couch with the sort of despair that could only be mustered by a fourteen-year-old.

“Whoooooooooo is that?” she wailed, once Bucky got her attention.

“That’s Steve. The guy from the hospital?”

That’s the hot volunteer? In our kitchen? Bucky! I’m in pajamas.”

It would have been cruel to point out that Steve was in his mid-twenties (at least), and that Becca had only gotten her braces off the previous spring. Bucky remembered being fourteen; remembered falling in love with any and every remotely attractive guy in his orbit. He could indulge her crush, so he smiled and leaned over the back of the couch, looking down.

“I didn’t know he was coming, Becs, honest. I would have warned you.”

“He’s so cute,” she whined.

"He's very cute," Bucky agreed. "Why don't you go get dressed, and I'll introduce you?"

‘Getting dressed’ involved Becca running upstairs and straight into the shower before she primped and preened for a good thirty minutes, during which time Steve and Bucky finished their lunches. By the time she came downstairs, Steve was showing Bucky some of the sketches he’d done throughout the trip. Bucky thought the Maine stuff was the best, but he really liked one Steve had done of an elderly woman sitting on a bench outside a shop on Bois Blanc.

Becca's cough from the doorway pulled them out of their discussion, and Bucky nearly choked when he saw her. He loved her so much and was very down with however she chose to express herself, but the metric ton of foundation and eyeshadow slathered across her face was a lot for eleven o'clock on a Tuesday.

Steve, gracious and gallant, got to his feet. “You must be Rebecca. Bucky’s told me a lot about you.”

“Hi,” she said, voice pitched low enough to make Bucky raise an eyebrow. God grant him the faux-confidence of a teenaged girl. “Please, call me Becca.”

“Becca, then,” Steve said, shaking her hand. “Sorry to barge in on you this morning - I was passing through.”

“Yes, Bucky said you’ve been on a road trip. That’s so interesting.” Becca Barnes, UN ambassador addressing a fellow diplomat. Bucky tried hard not to laugh. “Have you been enjoying yourself? Seeing the sights?”

Bucky was going to die. He hid his smile behind his hand as Steve charmed the hell out of his little sister, regaling her with stories of his trip and indulging her incessant questions about what, precisely, he’d seen and where, exactly, he’d seen it.

(Okay, so both Barnes’ siblings had a crush on Steve. It was a thing.)

The three of them ended up settling in to watch a movie in the den, which they were about halfway through when Bucky’s mother got home from her part-time gig at the library. She stopped in the doorway, took a look at the three figures on the couch, and beckoned Bucky to follow her, no doubt curious about the bearded stranger with her children.

“Uh, is that your mother?” Steve asked.

“Yeah, it’s fine. I’ll be right back.”

“I can come…”

“No, just...I’ll talk to her.”

“It’s okay, Steve,” said Becca, generously. “I don’t mind hanging out with you.”

Martyr of a sister, that one.

Bucky got up, ignoring Steve’s continued concerned stare and Becca’s smirk as he followed his mother to the kitchen, where he found her standing with arms crossed.

“Who’s that man?”

“That’s uh, Steve? You remember, the guy from the hospital?”

Her stance softened, but only slightly. “That’s Steve? I thought Steve was…” she hesitated, searching for the word. “Younger?”

“He’s twenty-seven.” That fact had been established earlier when Becca had asked Steve how old he was and Steve had stopped to think about it like a weirdo.

“That’s…” she shook her head. “Not the point. Why is Steve in my den?”

“He’s visiting?”

Winnie huffed out a breath, nostrils flaring, all five-foot-four of her radiating annoyance. “Honey. You know I don’t like being surprised by company…”

“I didn't know! And I put the company towels out!” Albeit after Steve had already used the bathroom. “He’s on a road trip. He just showed up!”

Uh-oh. Her lips were pursed. Bad sign. “That’s very rude. I hope he's not expecting to stay…"

“Oh, no, ma’am,” Steve cut in, all charm and smiles appearing from the den. “I’m so sorry for the intrusion. Of course, I should have called, but I’m afraid I’ve had some trouble with my phone.”

“Oh, I…” Winnie was flustered.

Bucky tried not to smile. Steve was so damn charming when he wanted to be, which made the times he was awkward all the more endearing. Even if the whole back-and-forth of it might give Bucky whiplash. He had to wonder if the smooth-talking guy on top was a cover for something underneath. Not that he was a great judge of character - Steve was just a paradox, vacillating between suave and gawky on an unpredictable cycle.

“I hope you’ll let me buy you folks dinner,” he continued. “I could bring food over once I’m set up at the motel if you’d rather not go out?”

“Well. It’s. That’s very nice of you, Steve,” Winnie said. “And of course we’re grateful - you visiting Bucky in the hospital when he was...well. And of course, you’re...but you shouldn’t buy us...we can…” Shaking her head, she turned her attention to Bucky. “Bucky, for heaven’s sake, go and make up the sofabed in the office. We can’t have your friend saying in a motel…”

What. The hell. How was this his fault? “Uh, yes ma’am.”

“I’m grateful for the hospitality, Mrs. Barnes. And of course, I’ll still buy you dinner. Bucky, I’m happy to help make up that bed…”

“Oh, no,” his mother said. “Bucky can manage. And please, call me Winnie, Steve. Why don’t you sit right down and I’ll make you something to drink. Do you like tea?”

Obviously, Steve liked tea. And obviously, everyone liked Steve, who continued his charm assault by buying dinner from a local Chinese restaurant that didn’t totally suck, as well as playing a couple rounds of backgammon with his father. He also, Bucky noticed, asked his parents plenty of questions about themselves whilst completely avoiding talking about himself.

Once the backgammon was through, Bucky showed Steve into the office, where the pullout couch took up most of the room, and the slant of the ceiling meant Steve would bang his head if he wasn't careful.

“Sorry,” Bucky said. “It’s not uh...really that big?”

“I’ve slept worse places.” Steve tossed his bag - recently retrieved from his car - onto the bed. “Your family’s swell, huh?”

Golly gee, mister, indeed. Shrugging, he leaned against the doorframe. “I guess. You know you don’t have to stay here to like...appease my mother.”

Steve cocked his head to the side and God, it really wasn’t fair that he was so good-looking and unavailable all at once. “I’m not,” he said. “I appreciate it, Bucky. It’s nice to be around people again.”

“Oh.” Bucky smiled, sticking his hands in his pockets. “Maybe uh, tomorrow, if you want, I could show you some of Indianapolis? It’s not that far away, and there’s like an art museum?”

“Sure,” Steve said with that same easy cadence. “Sounds like fun.”

Bucky left him after that. Went upstairs and pulled out his notebook where he picked up the story he was still trying to find the best way to tell.

 

“I came here to fix you,” the Voyager said. “Don’t you think you ought to be fixed?”

“We didn’t know we were broken.”

 


 

Turned out, as art museums went, the one in Indianapolis was decent enough. Steve had plenty to say about the paintings, at any rate, and Bucky was happy to indulge him. They ate lunch in the cafe, and Bucky got a magnet for his mother in the gift shop.

Steve spent another night, and the next day they took Becca to the Y, bringing Steve in on their guest pass and enjoying the pool as much they could with fifty thousand other families fighting for space in the water. Still, Bucky got to see Steve with his shirt off, so the trip wasn’t a total waste.

Another night, another day. This one bringing with it a trip to the zoo, which wasn’t as much fun as they’d initially thought since every single animal was either sleeping or hiding in their indoor habitat because it was hot as balls outside. Summer was the worst.

Through all of it, Steve was good company, and Bucky liked having him around. He made his bed in the morning and helped out around the house where he could, whether it was drying the dinner dishes his mother washed or vacuuming the house. Weirdly, Steve really got a kick out of vacuuming - Bucky had never seen anyone so excited about the chore before - and he ended up cleaning every room before Winnie managed to wrestle the Hoover away from him.

On Friday, Steve declared he was going on a hike, having found a book in the office about decent trails within fifty miles of Indianapolis. Bucky was not a nature person, but to spend time with Steve, he’d endure.

As it happened, the experience wasn’t much of a sacrifice at all. There was something peaceful about the trail, even if it was a full seven miles long. Bucky thought that was excessive, though Steve wasn't even winded by the time they headed into mile five. Meanwhile, Bucky was beginning to wish he'd been a bit more thorough with his PT exercises. His leg was mostly fine - the break had been clean, and it had healed well - but seven miles was pushing it. Plus, it was hot, and Steve was faster than him.

“Can we take a break?” he asked when he couldn’t manage another step. They’d finished climbing a giant hill full of switchbacks, and while the view was pretty, he just wanted to stop for a minute.

Steve glanced over his shoulder and took in Bucky’s appearance. No doubt, he looked disastrous, hair falling out of its loose ponytail, sweat beading on his forehead and legs trembling. “Sure, Buck. Sorry about that. I forget not everyone’s uh…”

“Built like a tank with stamina to boot?”

Steve’s cheeks went pink, which was a funny way of reacting to a compliment. “You want some food?”

Bucky very much did, so they sat down on a rocky outcrop to share the tangerines and granola bars Winnie had stuffed into Steve’s rucksack. Not Bucky’s choice, but it would do in a pinch.

“So, I’ve been thinking,” Steve said, having downed four of the granola bars in all of sixty seconds. “This week’s been great, but I’m starting to overstay my welcome.”

That wasn’t exactly true - they all liked Steve fine - but there was something to the adage about fish and visitors starting to stink after three days. “No, that’s…”

“Your folks have been more than generous,” he said firmly. “But I need to get going.”

Bucky bit into a second granola bar, watching two birds chasing one another around a tree before settling on a branch. “Where are you going to go?”

"Mmm." Steve leaned back on his elbows, crossing his legs at the ankle. He looked like an ad for REI, except instead of some glorious mountainous landscape it was just the Indiana woods. "Head back east, probably. I missed a lot of the coast, and I heard the Outer Banks are nice."

“Sounds fun.” Bucky picked at a mosquito bite that was just coming up on his ankle, pressing into the skin hard with his thumbnail, watching as it turned white before pinking back up when he released it. “Must be nice.”

“What?”

“Having a plan.”

It had come up, Bucky’s lack of ambition. Steve had been curious about what he was going to do with an engineering degree, and Bucky hadn’t had an answer. The restless itch that had been under his skin since the beginning of summer was really starting to bother him now that his friends were going back for their senior years and he was just stuck, aimless, at home with his parents.

He wasn’t afraid of the future, he just didn’t know what his looked like.

Steve closed his eyes, tipping his head back and letting the sun hit the long line of his neck. Bucky tried not to notice.

“You could come with me if you want.”

The offer was so unexpected that Bucky nearly choked on his tangerine. “What?!”

Steve opened his eyes, a grin on his face. “What? You said it yourself - you don’t have a plan, pal.”

“I…” Bucky swallowed. “Yeah, but, I mean. I don’t. I can’t.”

There was no way. He didn’t have much money. He hardly knew Steve. The idea of it was crazy. Stupid and impetuous and very much not in line with figuring his shit out and moving forward.

But, then. It would be an experience. He didn’t have a lot of those.

“You can,” Steve said, as though it was that simple. Maybe it was. “We’ll drive until we don’t, and then you can get a plane ticket back home.”

Bucky looked down at his lap, brain hemming and hawing as he thought it over. “I um. I gotta ask my mom.”

Steve scoffed, reaching for his water bottle and taking a long swallow. “You’re not a kid.”

Bucky wasn’t, but he asked her anyway, later that night after making a few half-assed plans with Steve about where they might go and what they might see. He told himself he wasn’t asking her permission, only telling her his intentions.

Regardless, she wasn’t thrilled.

“Is this...are you seeing him?” Winnie’s face was solemn as she gripped Bucky’s hand. “Honey, you hardly know him, and he’s older than you…”

“No!” Bucky wished he could pull his hand back. “God, no, mom. He’s straight. It’s just...it’s a road trip. Like...like Wolfe, or I don’t know. It’s a thing people do. It’s not like I’m doing anything here.”

Winnie pursed her lips. “You could be.”

Shrugging, Bucky picked at a spot on the edge of the kitchen table where the laminate had peeled away, exposing the particleboard underneath. “I will. Eventually. I just...I want some time to explore before I have to think about all that.”

His mother blinked, and Bucky very much hoped she wasn’t about to cry. It wasn’t that big of a deal. “You…” she said. “Will call me at least every other day. And always charge your phone. And don’t ever sit down in gas station bathrooms.”

Bucky and Steve hit the road before the sun was up the next morning. There was a flask of coffee courtesy of Winnie sitting between them on the console, and an atlas spread open on Bucky’s lap.

“To the beach?” Steve asked, pulling away from the curb.

“To the beach.”

 

Chapter Text

Having company was infinitely preferable to being alone. Or, rather, Bucky’s company was infinitely preferable to being alone. That fact came as a relief to Steve, who had extended the invitation on a whim, half-expecting to be turned down flat.

The thought of more endless miles without anyone to talk to, though? Unbearable - even with Tony’s warning in his head. So there they were, nearly to the ocean. The last time they’d stopped for gas, Steve swore he could feel the sticky humidity in the air. It never got old, that anticipation of the ocean, of sand pushing up into every tiny place between your toes, the baked-on crust of salt coating your skin.

He had always loved the water, even when he’d been too small and sick to do much more than wade out knee-deep, holding his mother’s hand. Now that he was bigger, there was more to enjoy - fighting past the waves, battling the current, seeing just how long he could hold his breath.

Once, on leave, he and Peggy had gone to Brighton, and the memory of traded kisses on a pebble beach was enough to make his heart jump in his chest, which wouldn’t do. He was looking forward, damn it. Not back. He wasn’t going to wallow in what he couldn’t have when he had such good company propelling him onwards.

And Bucky was a nice kid. Or, well, not a kid precisely. It wasn’t fair for Steve to think of him that way, but he couldn’t help it. Bucky was young, sitting there at Steve’s side without the weight of the world on his shoulders. No grief, minimal sorrow, only a piss-poor diet, an excellent sense of humor, and an obsession with his phone.

Steve had never in his life seen anyone so attached to anything. Bucky treated the phone the same way a child would treat a beloved toy - perpetually playing with it, then frantic when he thought he might have misplaced it. On their first day out, Steve had watched as Bucky plugged another white cable into what he informed Steve was a cigarette lighter (though nobody smoked anymore - come and gone in the space of seventy years). The lighter charged the phone, and wasn't the modern world a hell of a thing? Your climate controlled car with cruise control charging the tiny device that could connect you with anyone and anything in the world with the click of a button.

Made the mind boggle.

Steve’s phone? Stayed off, tucked into the box in the glove compartment along with Tony’s cash and all the identification he had that wasn’t the fake driver’s license in his wallet.

The phone had its uses, though, Steve had to admit. Bucky had used it to pinpoint the location of a motel they could stay at their first night on the road. One room, two beds, no frills. Also, the discovery that Bucky muttered to himself in his sleep - nothing intelligible, just the occasional murmur, as though he was having a serious discussion with someone in his dreams.

Steve didn’t mind - found it endearing, even - and spent most of that first night sitting up in bed with a book, not quite tired enough to sleep.

He had learned other things about Bucky in the three days they’d spent meandering towards the ocean, stopping when they pleased at various, stupid roadside attractions, some of which were worth the hours driven out of their way, others of which were flim-flammery and foolishness. Bucky loved them all - he was drawn towards nonsense, and nothing made him happier than scribbling down his observations into the notebook he carried with him all the time. (Steve couldn’t help noticing it was the very same notebook he’d bought for Bucky in New York, which made him pretty pleased with himself.)

Other Bucky quirks included his dietary habits, which left much to be desired. Every time they stopped to gas up, Bucy would purchase a can of what he called ‘energy drink.’ The brands were different, but the products all looked the same - garish, neon-colored fonts promising BLAST and MONSTER and BURN and ROCKSTAR boosts.

Steve had tried a ROCKSTAR when Bucky presented it to him. Needless to say, he wasn’t a fan. Nor was he terribly fond of the snack foods Bucky ate by the dozen.

“You’ve never had a Cheeto before?” Bucky had asked, incredulous as he held out the bag of bright orange thingamajiggers.

“No.”

“God, that’s un-American. That’s like never eating, I don’t know, apple pie or ice cream.”

“Apple pie tastes good.”

“Cheetos taste good!”

Steve reached out and took a Cheeto. Chewed it. Swallowed it. Thought about it. “Tastes like salt,” he proclaimed. Texture wasn’t bad, though. Crispy and oily, albeit with an unpleasant aftertaste.

“Weirdo.”

Bucky hadn’t offered him another one and instead got orange dust all over his jeans, necessitating a trip to the small laundry room at the motel they stayed at on their second night.

Steve had learned Bucky had been an Eagle Scout, that he’d only failed one test in his life (due to walking pneumonia), and that he was quite possibly one of the smartest people Steve had ever met. Not just intelligent, but smart. He picked up on things, saw the world from all sorts of angles, and was always coming up with references Steve didn’t understand.

He spent a lot of time smiling and nodding around Bucky as they got to know one another. Turned out, you learned a lot about a person when you sat next to them for five, six, seven, eight hours at a stretch.

All told, it was an excellent thing that Bucky was pleasant company.

However, he hadn't been much company at all the past few hours, conked out against the passenger window, mouth open, snoring slightly, the tiniest hint of drool on his chin. Steve glanced over at him occasionally, determined not to wake him as he followed signs for the island they'd decided was the place to stay. A barrier island, one that faced south, so the water would be warm and the waves not too terrible.

(They’d had the tiniest bit of a fight over whether or not Bucky should input their destination to his phone’s GPS, which Steve ultimately won, putting the kibosh on Bucky’s plan. Spontaneity and adventure didn’t come from prescribed routes.)

Twenty minutes later, they reached a massive bridge which led up and over the Intracoastal Waterway, signs lining the road promising fun, sun, and mini-golf.

“Bucky,” he said as they crested the bridge, not wanting him to miss the view from the top. Reaching out a hand, he shook him. “Look - ocean.”

“Hunh?” Bucky cracked an eye open. “Ocean?”

“Yeah. The big blue thing. Can’t miss it.”

“Shuddup.” Dopily, he grinned and rubbed at his eyes, squinting into the distance. “Cool.”

Cool was one word for it. The ocean disappeared as they began the slope down to the island proper. There were signs for a grocery store, a bakery, and a Civil War-era fort. Steve probably shouldn’t have been so excited at the thought of wandering around said attraction, but old habits died hard.

There were also signs for the Oceanway Motel, which seemed promising. Steve headed that direction while Bucky popped his neck and sighed.

“Can we go swimming after we check in?”

Bucky did that a lot - asking permission, as though Steve had any right to be giving it to him. Steve couldn’t remember ever feeling that young; he’d been making his own choices since he was seventeen, and that had been a very long time ago.

“You can do whatever you want,” he said, and not for the first time. “But yeah, swimming sounds good.”

“Cool.”

Everything was cool. Steve shook his head and began scanning the horizon.

The Oceanway Motel turned out to be a hulking two-story beast of peeling paint and rickety walkways. It boasted Free! HBO! along with free wi-fi, which Steve had learned was part of the standard Bucky-motel-requirement package.

Check-in didn’t take long, and soon enough they were clambering the grey, wooden stairs to the second floor, where their room faced the ocean. There was a boardwalk that led straight over the dunes to the beach, which meant getting to the water was as easy as walking out their front door.

Pure luxury, as far as Steve was concerned, even if the room left a lot to be desired. Years of salt and sand being tracked in and out left everything faintly gritty. The room smelled of seaweed and damp, though it was as clean as it could be.

Ah well, they only had to sleep there.

“Beach,” Bucky declared, dropping his bag on the bed nearest the bathroom while Steve took the bed near the door. It was a pattern that had established itself the first night they’d spent in the same room, and they hadn’t deviated. Suited Steve fine - he didn’t like the idea of putting a civilian between himself and whatever might come through that door. Bucky hadn’t objected.

“Sure, beach,” Steve said, rifling through his bag until he produced the swimsuit he’d purchased back in Plymouth.

Disappearing into the bathroom holding his trunks, Bucky emerged a few minutes later with his hair pulled back, barefoot and shirtless. God, he was skinny - all arms and legs and sharp angles. Made sense, considering the way he ate. Steve felt like a glutton by comparison. Bucky picked at most meals like a bird, barely getting through the french fries on his plate. He sustained himself on the shit he bought in gas stations, which baffled Steve to no end. The kid had access to the types of food Steve had only ever dreamed about as a young man, and there he was, turning his nose up in favor of goddamn Cheetos and energy drinks.

Maybe, if he got scurvy, Steve could convince him to eat an apple.

“Can you get my back?” Bucky was holding out an orange bottle.

“Huh?”

“The sunscreen, can you get my back?”

Steve glanced at the label - Hawaiian Tropic Sunscreen. 70SPF, whatever that meant. Winnie must have packed it for them, as he knew Bucky hadn’t bought it. He’d seen the stuff before - people slathering it on themselves at the pool in Plymouth, at the YMCA in Bucky’s hometown. He’d assumed it was some sort of tanning oil, but as he read the words on the bottle, he realized it was the opposite.

“Sure,” he said, squirting some of the cream onto his hands before nearly gagging at the smell. It was as though a coconut and a banana had fucked a jar of cold cream. Disgusting. Wincing, he rubbed his hands together and wiped the vile concoction on Bucky’s pale back.

There was an efficiency to Bucky’s body - he was skinny, sure, but lean and compact where Steve had been thin and frail. Bucky was built for speed rather than brute force, which made sense. He’d mentioned being on the track team in high school.

The last back Steve had rubbed had been softer, with its own strength and power emanating from the muscles and the curves. That back rub, however, had been in service of a larger goal.

This was only sunscreen.

He blinked and cleared his throat.

“So, this stuff works?” he asked, careful to avoid Bucky’s hair as he rubbed the cream in.

“Yeah, I guess. I don’t think Hawaiian Tropic’s the best brand but my mom’s cheap and I don’t want to burn.”

“Sure,” Steve said. It was neat they’d found a way to prevent sunburn - the nasty, lingering memories of burnt skin in his youth were still with him. There was nothing like a sunburn for making you feel an awful sort of miserable. Since the serum, it hadn’t been a bother, though.

“I can do you,” Bucky offered.

“Don’t need it.”

Bucky snorted, stepping away as Steve finished before looking him up and down. “You’re kidding me, right?”

“I don’t burn.”

“Uhhh, okay. You can still get skin cancer, idiot. My grandpa died from that.”

Steve shrugged. “It’s...I won’t?”

Bucky scoffed, taking the bottle. “Go put your suit on and let me do your shoulders. Won’t get cancer, my ass.”

What was the point in arguing with that?

Ten minutes later, they both smelled like tropical vomit as they settled down on the sand, hotel towels serving as beach blankets because neither of them had thought beach towels a necessity. They’d remedy that in the morning. Steve’s treat.

“I’m going swimming,” Bucky declared as soon as he’d gotten himself set.

Steve waved him off, content to stay where he was, being that he’d reached the portion of The Stand where betrayal seemed inevitable, and he wanted to see what happened next.

The beach was crowded with tourists, which made sense considering it was high summer. Families with children, awkward teenagers on dates, and a group of young people around Bucky’s age setting up a volleyball net in an attempt to get a game started.

When Bucky left the water ten minutes later, one of the volleyballers spiked the ball in the wrong direction, sending it Bucky’s way. He caught it, jogging over to them, all smiles and charm. Within a minute or two, he’d joined the game, palling around like he’d known them for years.

Steve couldn’t get over how easily Bucky made friends. Bucky could - and did - make small talk with nearly everyone he met, from the clerks at the gas station to random folks in a rest stop. The damndest part was that Bucky didn’t try to be endearing, it just came naturally to him. People were drawn into his orbit, and he met them where they were. Steve envied him that ability, as every ounce of charm he'd ever mustered came out of the army's lessons in deportment for the star-spangled USO man. Sure, he could make do with new people and stressful situations, but it always felt like veneer laid over so much cheap wood.

Marking his place in the book, Steve sat up to watch the game. Bucky was serving, though on his first attempt he hit the ball straight into the net, which earned him some good-natured ribbing from his teammates. Steve had never been an athlete - asthma and other ailments preventing him from participating. But he did like sports - baseball, primarily - and it was fun to watch other people play.

“Steve!” Bucky called when he noticed him watching. “Come even up the teams!”

Visions of sending the volleyball a mile out to sea as the result of a too-competitive hit swam in Steve’s head. So he demurred, declining and holding up his book. “I’m good, Buck.”

Bucky made a face and got back to business. Steve kept watching the game, hiding behind his sunglasses as he followed the action.

Followed Bucky.

The long, lean line of him as he jumped up to spike the ball over the net. The way the trunks he had on rode low on his hips, the jut of bone visible above his waistband. He ought to watch himself - he’d end up arrested for indecency if he wasn’t careful.

As if reading his thoughts, Bucky took a moment to hitch his shorts and re-tie the tie before resuming play.

It was funny, how Bucky was a queer. Or gay. Whatever the term was. Steve still wasn’t sure, though after their disastrous conversation he’d learned not to assume anything. He genuinely wasn’t bothered, although his initial surprise had gotten Bucky pretty mad, which was fair enough. But he’d meant what he said about Connie and Monty. They were people he knew, liked, and respected, regardless of what they got up to in their private lives.

And, hell, it wasn’t as though Steve hadn't ever thought about what it might be like to kiss another fella. You didn’t grow up in his part of Brooklyn without at least acknowledging to yourself that it happened. It wasn't precisely something that was talked about, but there was an implicit understanding about some people. Maybe they practiced with a guy. Maybe fooled around a little. But that wasn’t queer. That was just a dry-run.

Steve hadn’t practiced; he’d already been small and weak and lesser-than. He didn’t need anything else weighing him down. So he’d stayed celibate as a priest until Peggy, and there was no doubt in his mind that he’d loved her. Loved every bit of her - some bits he was especially partial to. Several of those bits Bucky didn't possess.

Still, Bucky was handsome. There was no denying that. He had that big, kind smile, and while his long hair drove Steve crazy, it looked good on him in its ridiculous, shaggy way. People noticed Bucky - young women, usually. Steve caught girls staring whenever they stopped to gas up or get food, drawn in by the fact that Bucky came across as unthreatening. Harmless.

Bucky never looked back at those girls, which made some kind of sense.

Kissing Bucky would have to be different than Peggy. Bucky was clean-shaven, but with a hint of stubble. His lips were always chapped, though without the lipstick, there’d be no chance of leaving Steve with a red mouth or stains on his collar. And Bucky was taller than Peggy, though not as tall as Steve. Hell, Steve could probably pick him up just fine - kid couldn’t weigh more than a buck forty soaking wet.

Stupid, idle thoughts. He wasn’t going to kiss Bucky, he was just sex-starved and beginning to feel the dearth of it, being as his last go-round had been around seventy years prior. They’d hidden in a broom closet, Peggy’s legs like a vice around his waist as he fucked her frantically in the hours before leaving on a mission that would undoubtedly be dangerous.

He hadn’t realized it would be their last time.

If he’d known, he would have been sweeter. Would have kissed her more often. Told her loved her once more and given her that, at least, to hold onto in the end.

He hadn’t.

And now there he was. Seven decades later. All alone on a beach thinking strange thoughts about his friend. Didn’t mean a thing.

Resolutely cutting his eyes away from Bucky, he went back to his book, then went for a swim. Small mercies, there weren’t any jellyfish.

Several hours later, once they’d both showered and dressed, they went foraging for dinner and found themselves at an establishment about a mile down the road which promised the world’s best crab cake. The building was elevated, like most places on the island, ostensibly built to withstand hurricanes, though this one looked like a stiff breeze could knock it over. The wraparound deck which housed plastic tables and deck chairs seemed especially precarious, dotted with families and couples taking up every available inch of space.

It was popular, at least, which boded well for the quality of the crab cakes. As they stood in line to order, Steve spotted a couple making ready to leave. “Go get that table,” he said, elbowing Bucky, who had his head down, focused on his phone.

“What table?”

“The one those two are leaving.”

“What tw- oh, okay.”

Bucky moved fast, snagging the table out from under a pair of teenagers on what was very likely a first date. The girl looked annoyed, which in turn made the boy looked terrified. Steve’s heart twinged in sympathy, though he wasn't sorry Bucky had gotten the table first.

The line moved quickly, and once he was at the front Steve ordered enough food for four, figuring he’d eat what Bucky didn't. They gave him a number, and he got a couple beers as well before weaving through the tables where he found Bucky talking to a young woman of nineteen or so. She was slight and blonde, hair down to her backside, with tanned legs for miles. Not Steve’s type - he’d always preferred brunettes - but he could appreciate the view.

The girl was laughing at something Bucky said, her head thrown back in an obvious flirt. Bucky, awkward smile on his face, waved to Steve as he approached.

“Hi,” Steve greeted, setting the number down.

The girl looked back and forth between them, face falling ever so slightly.

“Steve, hey,” Bucky said. “This is Jessie. She uh, she works here. She just was saying hi?”

“Hi, Jessie,” he said, sitting down in one of the flimsy chairs and hoping it was sturdier than it looked. “Nice to meet you.”

“Likewise. Food’ll be right out.”

Bucky gave her another half-smile then glanced down at his phone as she walked away.

“She was flirting with you.”

“Yup.” Bucky didn’t look up. “It happens.”

“Does it bother you?”

“No.” He clicked a button and stuck the phone in the pocket of his shorts. “Anyway, she got the hint when you showed up.”

It took Steve a moment, and when he did, he blushed. “Oh. Uh. But we’re not.”

“Yeah, well, she doesn’t know that.”

Steve resisted the urge to look over his shoulder. To see if Jessie was watching them. Judging them for something Bucky was and Steve wasn’t. He half-expected the police to be called. Everyone lived so freely these days - things that had been at best open secrets when he went into the ice were now proudly proclaimed for the world to hear. And it was a good thing. He knew it was a good thing. But there was a part of him that wanted to find Jessie. To explain that he wasn’t like that. As though that was anything to be ashamed of.

God help him, he was trying.

“When uh,” he cleared his throat. “When did you know you were…” He searched for the word. Not homo, not queer, not invert, not fairy. “Gay?”

A muscle by Bucky's right eye twitched, and Steve hated how long-suffering he looked as he answered. "When did you know you were straight?”

Fair question. “Since the wind blew Dottie Laufer’s skirt up in the fourth grade and I got a glimpse of her underwear,” he said, playing it off as a joke. Not that Dottie would have given him the time of day; not that any girl ever had, until Peggy.

“Huh,” Bucky said. “So. That didn’t happen for me, but I faked it for a while. I had girlfriends and stuff.”

“Really?”

“I’m not allergic to women, Steve. I’m...just not attracted to them. And I started noticing guys - mostly in movies or on TV, then people around school and…” he shook his head. “Anyway, I’ve always been gay, it wasn’t a choice. But when everything around you is telling you that the normal thing is being straight, you get some mixed messages.”

Steve’s palms were sweating like crazy, and he wiped them on his shorts. God, it was humid. “Sure. Makes sense.”

The strangest part of it was, Steve had noticed men. Jack Walsh's older brother - a kid named Dougal - he'd been a boxer. Lightweight, but fast and mean as a snake. Steve had run with Jack for a while, in as much as he could run with anyone, and so they'd sit around Mrs. Walsh's table and eat supper while Steve watched Dougal. His hands, especially. The way they were bruised and scraped, rough and torn. The shiners he’d sported often enough. The tooth he’d chipped in an alley brawl.

He’d drawn Dougal’s hands from memory a dozen times. His smile even more often. It had only been practice - figure drawing using what was available, considering he and his ma couldn’t afford any classes.

It wasn’t about an attraction; it was hero worship. Bucky was different. What Bucky wanted was different.

“You must have been serving when Don’t Ask Don’t Tell ended,” Bucky said, a question in his voice.

“Don’t what?”

“Uh, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?” He repeated it slowly, which meant Steve was missing something obvious.

As was his usual response when that happened, he nodded a vague assent and hummed under his breath. “Why do you ask?”

“Cause,” Bucky shrugged. “You said you served with someone who was gay, right?”

Steve nodded.

“So, it’s...I mean, you have to know some of this stuff, right?”

Nope. "Yeah. Some of it. Sorry, I was raised uh...it was kind of peculiar, I guess." In that, it had been nearly a century ago. That was a hell of a peculiarity. "I won't ask questions if you don't want me to."

Bucky reached for his beer, which apparently, he wasn’t old enough to drink. Stuff and nonsense, as far as Steve was concerned. Twenty-one his lily white ass - if a kid was old enough to go to war and die for his country, he was old enough to buy a goddamn beer in it.

“I don’t mind,” Bucky said, after swallowing. “But I’m not an encyclopedia, and I’m not representative of like...every queer person in the world.”

Steve frowned. “I thought queer was uh...I thought you couldn’t say that?”

“No, you can’t say that.”

“Because I’m not queer?”

“Because you’re not queer. But other people don’t mind it. Just...you gotta pay attention, I guess.”

Fuck if there weren't a lot of rules. Though, if learning them made someone else feel comfortable, he could adapt. After all, he was the one the world had passed by.

“I uh. Thanks for being patient with me.”

Bucky cracked a grin, leaning back in his chair as the glow of the sunlight caught on the side of his face. “I mean, I think you’re probably from the moon, Steve. But it’s fine.”

Steve laughed, pushing some hair out of his eyes. “Not the moon. Kinda wanted to go there, though, when I was a kid.”

“I can see that,” Bucky said. “You look like an astronaut.”

Steve wrapped his lips around the neck of his beer and took a long swallow. “What’s an astronaut look like?”

“You.”

“Jerk,” Steve laughed, though Bucky did look pleased with himself.

“I can’t help it,” Bucky said. “You're an All-American dreamboat, Steve.”

Steve snorted as Jessie showed up with their food. Turned out, the crab cakes were pretty goddamn delicious. Company wasn’t bad, either.

 

Chapter Text

Bucky was never going to get tired of the beach. A week in, he couldn’t quite believe his good fortune with the motel room right on the water, the surf and the sand and the utter freedom of it all.

Every morning, he woke up and took himself for a run, sprinting down the sand until he couldn't take another step before walking back to join Steve for breakfast. Then, the rest of the day was spent lying on his towel with a book in his hands. Swimming if he felt hot, or sleeping if he felt tired. Pure bliss, and so much better than all the forced-family-fun trips he'd been made to endure as a kid. Sure, the Great Lakes were, uh, great, but this was better.

(Sometimes, he worried that maybe it was too good. Like the universe was going to karmically fuck him over because he’d relaxed too much.)

His newfound stress-free existence was good for his creativity, and his writing had reached a fever pitch. Weird, the way he'd forgotten how to create in the aftermath of the attack, all the words inside of him withering on the vine because he was preoccupied with his fear and consumed by his nightmares. Now, though, he couldn't stop, scratching down thoughts and observations as they came to him. Some of it wasn't half-bad, even if he was treading familiar ground. He wasn't the first young, white guy to take a jaunt across America and think he was experiencing something profound.

At least he had the good sense to acknowledge it.

It wasn’t as though the nightmares were gone. Just dimmed and dulled the longer he spent soaking up the sun and forgetting about his troubles. New York was a million miles away, though Steve was right there, all Brooklyn accent and (Bucky assumed) swagger.

That particular morning, he’d finished his run before setting up in the sand with his notebook and his novel. He was still working his way through The Stand, swapping thoughts and nicknames with Steve along the way. Such a busy, productive morning necessitated a nap, and he fell asleep with his notebook on his chest, entirely at ease.

Steve woke him sometime later, though Bucky couldn't say for sure how long he'd been out. He awoke to Steve's shadow falling across his face, accompanied by a nudge to his shoulder. "Hey, lazy," Steve greeted, holding out a sandwich on a paper plate. "Hungry?"

Save for Winnie Barnes on her worst day, Bucky had never met such a food pusher as Steve Rogers. It was endearing and obnoxious in nearly equal measure (though if he was honest, obnoxious won out). Bucky was aware of the fact that he was skinny, but he didn't think he was unhealthy. He just ate when he was hungry, that was all.

And if what he wanted to eat happened to be junk food? Well, he was twenty.

"Yeah," he said, sitting up and taking the plate.

Steve, a dork, had gone grocery shopping on their second day, purchasing a loaf of standard white bread, along with sliced deli meat and cheese for the mini-fridge in their room. Because Steve was cheap, which was another thing Bucky hadn't realized about him when agreeing to go on the trip. Cheap motels, cheap food, cheap beer. However, he never asked Bucky for a dime, so Bucky supposed he couldn't complain. The only things he'd purchased for himself so far were a pack of Little Debbie zebra cakes along with a couple postcards for his mom, and he'd only managed to snag those because Steve hadn't been with him at the time.

Part of him wondered if Steve was a cheap date, too. If that woman he was pining for had rolled her eyes at his penny-pinching ways. Maybe she'd thought he was miserly - hell, maybe they'd broken up over money. Steve kept insisting they hadn't broken up at all, which made no sense. They weren't together, that was for damn sure. As far as Bucky was concerned, Steve could call it what he wanted - they were both nursing their respective broken hearts.

Because, God, did he ever miss Patrick. It was a weird thing, to hate someone and miss them in equal measure. He missed Patrick's gap-toothed smile, and his dumb freckles and the way he laughed like a goat over shit Bucky said that wasn't even funny. Patrick - more cute than handsome, in his gawky, gangly way - had been Bucky's, and now Bucky didn't have anyone at all.

Mostly, he was missing sex, and because of that, sharing close quarters with one of the most attractive humans Bucky had ever met was beginning to wear on him. Hell, he was single - he could look - and Steve was worth looking at. Shirtless on the beach, towel around his hips after a shower. The one time he'd left the bathroom door cracked while he brushed his teeth and Bucky had gotten a glimpse of his bare backside.

Ugh, masturbation wasn’t cutting it anymore, especially when said masturbatory exploits had to be fairly furtive.

The fantasies were mostly centered around the beard. Bucky hated beards, yet with Steve he was developing a lumberjack fetish, jacking off twice to notions of what sort of beard burn Steve might leave on his skin.

Stupid, stupid, stupid. Steve wasn’t going to be leaving any marks on him, beard or no.

Because Steve was straight.

Mostly straight.

Pretty straight.

Bucky wasn’t oblivious to when other guys looked at him. The instinct had been honed out of necessity - he was good at telling a flirty tone from a friendly one. And Steve? Steve flirted. Steve looked. Steve was looking now, as it happened, eyes flicking down to Bucky’s legs, then back up to his face before he smiled, biting into his sandwich.

No, Steve wasn’t gay, but Bucky was beginning to get the sense that Steve doth protesteth something a bit too much.

“So the room’s up tomorrow,” Steve said, casual as he pleased, crossing his legs at the ankle in a way that was becoming increasingly familiar. “I only paid for the week.”

“Oh.” Bucky hadn’t realized, and he frowned as he picked at the cheap bread. It had come in a yellow bag with a cartoon bunny on the side - the whole thing had cost all of a dollar, most likely.

“We could stay,” Steve continued. “But…”

“But this is supposed to be a road trip,” Bucky supplied. “We’re not tripping.”

“We’re not tripping,” Steve agreed, missing the joke entirely as he took another big bite of his sandwich. Or, one of his sandwiches. He had five on his lap, and would no doubt power through every single one. Bucky had never met someone who could eat so much in his life, and while he wasn’t about to make some dumb hollow leg joke, well, did Steve have a hollow leg?

“I mean, there’s a whole other ocean on the other side of the country,” Bucky said, masking his disappointment with false cheer. “And I’ve never been further west than Iowa, so…”

“So,” Steve said. “Tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow,” Bucky agreed. He took another bite of his sandwich before offering the other half to Steve. He was full, and Steve would finish it. “I think I’m gonna get a couple more swims in. And like...an Official Last Swim.”

“That’s real poetical, Buck.”

“Yeah, I’m a poetical sort of guy.”

Steve laughed, head tipped back and perfect teeth gleaming in his mouth. A golden god among mortals and, alright, the Voyager wasn’t Steve, but sue him if he pictured the guy in his head when he wrote. Hard not to, considering he was an Adonis on earth. With the people, but not of the people.

It would explain some shit if Steve were an alien. Like how he didn't know Lady Gaga and found Carly Rae Jepsen to be the height of cool.

There was probably a more prosaic explanation like he’d been raised in a conservative, religious household or something. Maybe a cult, or a bunker. That would be interesting.

Leaving Steve behind, he headed for the water, more ideas for his story beginning to take shape in his head as he pushed out past the breakers. The Voyager needed a mission and a purpose. Steve's quirks planted a seed of a notion that might grow into something if he worked with it.

Bucky loved writing, he really did. Even when it was frustrating, he loved it. He'd never been able to say that about engineering, where he'd always excelled but never felt passion. That was frustrating, too. Why couldn't the universe just line up his talents and his interests? It would make things easier.

The water calmed once he got far enough out. He lay on his back, floating, eyes closing as he thought things over. Briefly, he wondered what country he'd hit if he drifted all the way out. Italy, Portugal? Southern Europe for sure. Weird, that feeling of being connected to every other thing on the planet through the water.

That could be something - the cycle of the moon, the waxing and waning and the tides and maybe a few lines about seasons?

Ugh, no. That sounded like ad copy for a tampon commercial. Some writer he was - cliche bullshit. Scowling, he ducked under the water, scrubbing his hands through his hair and squeezing his eyes shut tight. He blew out a breath, just to feel the bubbles leave his lungs.

It helped clear his head, and he wasn't quite so down on himself by the time he came to the surface.

“Buck!”

Bucky turned and found Steve about halfway through the breakers, the whitecaps posing no difficulty to him as he leaped right over them, laughing like a kid when an especially big one nearly knocked him over. He emerged unscathed, of course, wet hair plastered to his forehead and a goofy grin on his face.

"Never gets fuckin' old," Steve said. "God. I had asthma as a kid - couldn't do stuff like this."

Steve so rarely shared things about himself, that Bucky didn’t quite know what to do with the information. “That sucks.”

"Making up for it now." Another big wave came then, the swell of it lifting them both before setting them down, current pulling their bodies further down the beach. It wasn't bad that day, but there was power in the water. Bucky could see how quickly it might become a dangerous thing for someone who wasn't a strong swimmer.

“Hey,” Bucky said, thinking out loud, still half in his worries about how the story was going to go. “You ever think?”

“Oh, I rarely think,” Steve said. “But try me.”

"Ha ha. So, I'm sitting out here thinking about how I'd describe the ocean if I were writing about it. The tides, stuff like that. And it's all just cliched crap, you know? Sand and beauty and salt and blech."

Steve didn’t say anything in response, looking him over. He did that, sometimes. Got quiet in a way that made Bucky jump in to fill the silence.

“Maybe I should just get a job and build some bridges when I get home, huh?” Bucky muttered.

Steve shrugged, glancing towards the horizon as another wave lifted them. “Maybe, maybe not. Depends on if you think you’ve got something to say. If you do, you say it. Write the cliche crap and then…” smiling, he spread his arms. “I painted a lot of sunrises and sunsets when I first started out. Drew a lot of boring shit - landscapes, body parts, the usual. Eyes and hands. I copied other people because I didn’t have a style of my own yet.”

“That’s…” Bucky laughed. “Shit. Everything I’ve written so far on this trip probably sounds like Stephen King. That’s on you.”

“Point is,” Steve said, grinning. “I spent my time tryin’ to be the next Kandinsky. Him, maybe, or a dozen other guys. But I’m not Kandinsky. I’m me, and I had to figure out who that was before I started producing anything half-decent. You’ll figure yourself out, too. Or, hell, maybe you won’t, but you gotta give yourself time to try.”

“What if I’m not, though? Half-decent. What if I’m just some shitty mimic?”

Steve shrugged. “Do you love it? The craft of it?”

“Yeah.” That was the easiest question he’d answered all day.

"Then build your bridges if you have to, and write five-cent weeklies for fun, Buck."

“The hell is a five-cent weekly?”

"Eh." Steve blinked in that way he sometimes did - as if clearing his thoughts. "Uh, you know. Shit books. Pulp?"

Pulp, he knew. “Guess so.”

“All that to say,” Steve said, a wry smile on his face. “You still oughtta pay your folks back for that useless degree they shelled out for, Mr. Author.”

“Shut up.” The response wasn’t mature. Nor was splashing Steve, though he didn’t seem fazed by it, water clinging to his long eyelashes as he recovered with nary a cough.

Steve didn’t bother to respond verbally, simply lifted one well-muscled arm and splashed Bucky back with what felt like a tidal wave.

Bucky managed to grin in spite of his spluttering. What an asshole.

 


 

The next day, they left early, though they hadn't made it far before Bucky begged Steve to stop at the familiar sight of the golden arches. McDonald's coffee - he had discovered in his week-long road trip experience - was the very best coffee. The food was terrible, but he wasn't eating.

Soon enough, with the coffee in the console, they were officially on the road, and Bucky was fiddling with his phone in an attempt to get music playing on the stereo. Steve had, up until bringing Bucky on board, been traveling solely with the company of the car's radio, no aux cable in sight. Hell, not even a CD to break up the monotony of NPR hosts droning on. Bucky had fixed that at the first gas station, Steve buying the cable along with a car charger, and now their life was filled with decent music. Or, at least, music Bucky thought was decent. Taste was relative, but his wasn't bad.

“Who’s this?” Steve asked.

“Sufjan Stevens.” Mellow for the morning, obviously.

“Huh.”

When pressed, Steve said he preferred classical music, or Benny Goodman, which was such a weird thing to like that Bucky assumed he was kidding. Nobody was into Benny Goodman - Sing, Sing, Sing was the song that got played at your cousin's wedding, and you said "oh, I know this one!" but that was it.

Still, slowly but surely, Steve was coming around to Bucky’s way of thinking regarding both Gaga and Monae. That was a relief, considering Bucky had neither Chopin nor Liszt on his phone.

Classical music and Benny Goodman weren’t Steve’s only idiosyncrasies, and after a week and a half in his company, Bucky hadn’t found a better way of describing him. Steve preferred the paper atlas to Bucky’s perfectly good GPS. He paid for everything - including hotel rooms - in cash. And the way he talked, God.

Plus, his reactions to some of the shitty things Bucky took for granted were downright odd.

For example, the week prior, they’d been leaving Indiana when they were passed by a truck - some giant fuck-you good ol’ boy vehicle meant for those people who were compensating for something. There was a huge, obnoxious Confederate flag in the back window, which seemed par for the course. Bucky had rolled his eyes before discreetly flipping them the bird.

Steve had done a triple take.

“Is...that’s a Southern cross, isn’t it?”

Bucky hadn’t heard it referred to as such, but sure, probably. “Uh, yeah?” he laughed.

Steve had gawped, genuine shock and confusion written across his features. “That’s...disgusting,” he spat.

For a moment, Bucky had been convinced Steve was about to do something stupid like rev the engine, catch up to the asshole. Force him off the road. Which would have been bad all around - said asshole likely had a gun rack hidden behind that flag.

Maybe, without Bucky in the car, Steve would have. Instead, his rage had subsided, and he'd had questions. Bucky went on to participate in one of the strangest conversations of his life, explaining the whole bullshit phenomenon of Southern pride to Steve, who had gotten angrier and angrier.

Bucky hadn’t been able to take it anymore, after Steve’s fifth incoherent spluttering of the afternoon. “Were you homeschooled or something?” he asked.

“What?”

“Oh my God, Steve. How do you not know this stuff? These people have been terrible for years - decades! Hate dressed up in patriotism for a war they lost.”

“That’s…” Steve frowned. “Buck, people like that have never been subtle. But there was...that’s not patriotism.”

“I know.” Seriously. Homeschooled. Bunker.

Bucky had let it drop after that, though he hadn't forgotten the incident, especially as they headed further south. No, he wasn't one of those idiots that thought everyone below the Mason-Dixon line was an inbred racist, because that was bullshit. But, well, it was more prevalent down there, and part of him worried what might happen if Steve saw a display of memorabilia in a gas station and shot off at the mouth. Sure, Steve was a big guy, but bigots tended not to care, and Bucky wasn't sure he could handle himself. Frankly, he worried about it more than he should have.

Self-preservation came with being queer in small-town Indiana. Bucky had learned that lesson early on.

 


 

Sufjan became Steffi became Spektor became Sia as they drove - the flat, beachy landscape giving way to something more scenic. They’d stopped once, but since then had ridden straight through. Bucky had to piss and just wanted to get out of the damn car for a minute. Surely they’d need gas again soon?

He spotted a sign for a Cracker Barrel and pointed, turning to Steve with his best pleading face.

“Cracker Barrel?” he asked.

“Really?”

Bucky didn't understand why Steve hated chains so much and wasn't inclined to ask, mostly grateful that he deigned to stop at all. Getting out of the car, Bucky scooted inside, disappearing under the traffic light above the bathroom that was the same as every other Cracker Barrel traffic light across the country.

Predictability was a beautiful thing sometimes.

By the time Bucky took care of business, Steve had put his name in for a table. The restaurant wasn't busy, so they were seated within a couple of minutes. Their waitress - Dierdre - was very into the current summer special, and did they know they could still order breakfast if they wanted?

Magical, Dierdre, really, but Bucky didn’t want breakfast. He wanted macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, and biscuits. Pure, southern grease with some bread on the side.

Steve got meatloaf with mashed potatoes and a side of steamed broccoli which, when Dierdre brought over their tray of food, made Bucky want to gag. Was there any worse smelling thing on the planet than overcooked broccoli sitting in its own fetid water?

"So," Steve said once they'd both made decent progress on their meals. "I figure we can keep going until we get past Knoxville - we're not that far out."

Bucky shrugged and swallowed. “Up to you. I’m not driving.”

Occasionally, he felt guilty about that fact, but not too guilty. Probably Steve’s insurance didn’t cover him, though he’d never asked. And besides, Steve said he liked driving, so Bucky took him at his word.

“Great,” Steve said. “If we get gas here, I think we might make it into the mountains, maybe find a place to stay there. We could do some hiking?”

“Sure,” Bucky said, setting his fork down and giving Steve a half-smile. “I’m gonna go out to the store, buy some candy.”

“Buck, you’ve still got half your food on your plate…”

“You sound like my mother.”

Steve pursed his lips, and now he looked like Bucky’s mother, too. “I never had food like this growing up, is all, and you pick at everything.”

Bucky rolled his eyes. He’d spent his entire life being told he was a picky eater, and so what if he was? Plenty of people were. Annoyed, he picked up his second-to-last piece of chicken and took a big bite that left him feeling nauseated when a piece of gristle squeaked between his teeth.

“Better?” he said, mouth full.

Steve had a funny look on his face - inscrutable, that was the word. "I don't mean to," he said. "Sound like your mother, that is. I just hate to see good food go to waste."

Not for the first time, Bucky got the overwhelming sense that Steve had grown up poor. The kind of poor where food was scarce and nobody ever got to eat enough to feel full. Bucky’s parents hadn’t been rich, but they’d gotten by, and he’d never known hunger. He’d been privileged enough, in fact, to grow up with some piss-poor nutritional habits.

“Just...my family picks on me a lot,” he sighed. “I’ll do better about ordering what I think I can eat next time. I do like the biscuits.”

Steve, a walking contradiction, smiled at him. “You should order a couple more.”

In the end, Steve ate the rest of Bucky's chicken, and Bucky ordered more biscuits.  Bucky also bought candy in the gift shop. Or, rather, Steve bought the candy for him, along with a magnet for himself.

They drove from the Cracker Barrel to the Shell across the street, and Steve filled up the car while Bucky goofed off with the squeegee, since they’d accumulated a fair bit of bug detritus throughout the day.

He was in the midst of scraping down the watery windshield when he heard a bang, and his mind went wild with visions of screaming alien monsters. Shattered glass and broken bones and blood and vomit and everyone was crying.

Steve moved with a speed that seemed superhuman, putting himself between Bucky and the direction the sound had come from, arms flung wide, pinning him to the car. A human shield.

It was over before it started - a rickety truck had backfired as it turned onto the highway, panicking them both before they realized that it hadn't been anything nefarious at all.

“Oh my God,” Bucky said, voice shaking as Steve pulled back.

“Jesus,” Steve muttered, coughing.

“You jumped in front of me.”

“Reflexes,” Steve said, rubbing the back of his neck.

“That’s amazing.”

“You’re a civilian. I...thought it was a gunshot.”

“My hero.” Bucky clasped his hands over his chest as Steve went red.

"Shut up," he said fondly, before slinging one big arm across Bucky's shoulders as they made their way towards the station so he could pay.

Steve still smelled like the ocean. Bucky didn’t mind.



Chapter Text

The billboards began appearing the day they left the Smokies. Always the same three words:

See Rock City

Steve felt the pull like a talisman or an omen, the words cropping up in strange places - on the side of a gas station, on the roof of a barn - as if leading him towards some curio of Americana.

It was a peculiar way to feel, considering they’d spent two nights in a motel near Cade’s Cove, which was about as curious as a place could be. They’d hiked several hikes and spent precisely two hours in Gatlinburg, which Steve proclaimed “terrible” and Bucky proclaimed “hideous!” but in a way that let Steve know he loved it.

(That, and the two hours Bucky forced them to spend in the Titanic museum, which felt too close for comfort, though the ship had gone down a few years before Steve was born.)

Now, on the other side of the mountains, the billboards were unavoidable.

“Do you know what Rock City is?” he asked Bucky as they waited in line to pay for gas (and Bucky’s Snickers).

“Huh?”

“Rock City. Like those signs?”

“Oh. Uh. Yeah, it’s a tourist trap, I think? It was in some book I read.”

“What book?”

“It’s...um, American Gods? It's by Neil Gaiman."

Steve didn’t know who that was, but that didn’t make him less interested. “You want to go?”

“To Rock City?”

“No, to Brooklyn, you mook. Of course, Rock City. What are we even talking about?”

Bucky fixed him with one of his endearingly offended looks.

“Hilarious, really, Steve. We don’t even know where it is, how do you propose we find it?”

Benevolent to the end, Steve gestured at the phone in Bucky's hand and smiled, in what he assumed was a beatific and generous fashion. "So look it up, jerk."

Bucky’s mouth fell open, which Steve thought was a bit much, considering. Yes, he preferred using the atlas and finding their way without the use of the gadgets. He wasn't a Luddite, but having everything set and centered by a tinny, electronic voice didn't strike him as being in the spirit of the trip. Plans and punctuality were for war, not life.

But an actual, honest-to-God destination? Break out the technology and get him on the road.

Bucky futzed with his device as Steve paid. They were on their way back out to the car when he jabbed a finger at the screen. "Chattanooga! Or, near there. We're not too far, and it says there's a waterfall and you can see seven states."

A veritable fountain of fascinating facts, that was Bucky.

“Seven, huh?” Steve teased. “If I wasn’t sure before, now we gotta go.”

“...are you going to let me use the GPS, or am I gonna have to find it on the atlas?”

Steve grinned. “Ask a stupid question, Buck…”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

Chattanooga, as it happened, was in a southwesterly direction. Bucky plotted their route as best he could with the atlas, and soon enough they were off. The road signs advertising Rock City grew more frequent as they drew closer, and eventually, they didn't have to use the atlas anymore - the signage spoke for itself, pointing the way to a turn-off just outside the city.

The turn-off was more like a turn-up, leading them on the road towards the summit of what Bucky proclaimed was Lookout Mountain (though he wasn't one hundred percent sure). Some mountain - after the Alps, everything paled in comparison, and didn't that just make Steve feel like a snob?

“Kind of outta the way,” he said.

“Yeah, it’s…oh.”

As they rounded the last turn, Bucky’s face fell. Instead of the cornpone they’d been expecting, they were driving into a clean, modern parking lot, replete with a Starbucks. On top of a goddamn mountain.

Tourist trap, indeed.

It was disappointing, was all, and as Steve navigated the parking lot (avoiding children and families), he glanced over at Bucky. “You still want to go?”

“I mean, we’re here, right?”

It wasn’t a no. Steve found a spot and pulled in before they both got out of the car.

The line to buy tickets was long, the height of summer vacation season bringing out the crowds. Steve stood in line while Bucky went to find a bathroom, and when he reached the front, he bought them each a day pass from a sullen teenager with a name tag reading Paul. Paul looked very much as though he hated his job. Steve could empathize - probably there were plenty of entitled, angry people who were annoyed about paying such a steep price to look at some rocks. Or whatever the hell was waiting beyond the turnstile.

Bucky found him as he stepped away from the booth, decidedly more chipper than he had been in the parking lot. Most likely, he’d been needing to piss for a while and not wanting to bother Steve with that fact, which was both the dumbest and most charming thing in the world. Bucky never wanted anyone mad at him, and he’d avoid conflict at any cost. Which meant that most of their petty squabbles went unresolved or ended with Bucky kowtowing to whatever Steve wanted.

Steve hated that. He was trying to be better about imposing his will on their adventures, but it was hard. It was only that he was used to having people listen to him. Having his orders followed.

He handed Bucky's ticket over, and they pushed past the turnstiles, walking down a ramp and finding themselves stuck in a maze of gift shops, which felt about right. Spend a mint on the tickets, then spend a mint on crap.

America sure did love selling shit. Not that they hadn’t in his day, but the blatant consumerism was a marked change from what he’d known. Or, rather, people had spent less time buying what they couldn’t afford on credit and more time scrimping and saving to buy what they needed.

God, he didn’t belong here.

“Look,” Bucky said, pointing to a sign. “Enchanted Trail.”

“Huh.” Steve raised a skeptical brow, though he followed Bucky as he led the way.

Turned out, the enchanted trail was busy, and being crammed onto any sort of trail with hundreds of other tourists was not very enchanting at all. Tinny music was piped in over strategically placed speakers, and while the rocks and plants might have been interesting on their own, the claustrophobic nature of the experience wasn’t.

Bucky had his phone out because of course he did. He occasionally snapped a picture, but mostly he had his head bowed, looking at the screen Steve had come to know as the one for texting.

Waste of goddamn money.

His annoyance was to the point of making him angry when - mercifully - they reached a place where the trail split. One branch led folks to an underground tunnel, another offered a way up and over for taller people who didn't want to stoop, and a third led people back to the visitor's center if they didn't want to continue on.

Lots of people chose the third option, to Steve’s relief.

“I’m going through the cave,” Bucky declared.

Steve didn't bother to point out that it was just a tunnel, following him in instead, then immediately wishing he hadn't. The ceiling was low, the walls narrow, and he was forced to dip at the waist and awkwardly shuffle forward. Bucky had to duck, too, though his skinny shoulders fit just fine. It struck Steve suddenly that his smaller self would have made it through perfectly. Wouldn't even have had to stoop.

Funny, how he still thought of himself as having that body. Staring at the mouth of the tunnel and assuming he'd slide right through. He'd been quite a few years in his new frame, but those old memories died hard.

Chalk one up to the little guy, and all.

Luckily for Steve's shoulders, the tunnel was relatively short, and they emerged from the other side unscathed. This section of the park was quieter, and while there were still people, there was room to spread out. To breathe and enjoy.

To keep up with Bucky, who had put his phone away and was beginning to vibrate with the excitement of a kid on Christmas.

“Let’s go to the uh, lookout thing,” Bucky said, pointing to a sign.

“Your call, pal.”

They wound their way along the trail, the music not so omnipresent anymore, and a pleasant breeze sweeping through the massive boulders that dotted the landscape. It was fascinating - the natural grandeur of it - and whoever had seen fit to first plant the gardens in and around the rocks had been a visionary.

Another divide in the trail - one branch leading to a sturdy, stone overpass, the other to a swinging, suspension bridge. Bucky chose the latter, natch.

"Bet you could figure out how they built this," Steve said as they crossed the bridge. Which, now that he was on it, he realized was pretty goddamn up there. The valley below them was dotted with fields and crisscrossed with roads. There was a barn visible in the distance with - yup - See Rock City painted on the roof.

“Huh?” Bucky looked over his shoulder, the bridge swaying slightly in the wind.

It was safe; it was a tourist trap, for Christ’s sake. But something about the way Bucky let go of the railing. The way he was standing so close to the edge. It made Steve want to reach out and grab him. Haul him to the other side of the bridge and set him on solid ground.

Winnie Barnes would kill him if he let her only son plummet to his death, was all.

Either that, or he was getting in the habit of saving Bucky Barnes.

Who was still looking at him expectantly.

“I mean uh, the engineering of the bridge? You could probably figure it out.”

“Sure, I guess,” Bucky agreed before picking up the pace and leading the way to the lookout.

The seven states thing turned out to be a misnomer. Theoretically, seven states were visible as they surveyed the horizon, though the claim to a couple seemed spurious at best. The view, however, was spectacular, and Steve wished he’d brought his sketchbook with him.

Bucky got as close as he could to the edge, leaning over the railing and snapping pictures with his phone, making Steve’s stomach churn. What was with him and high places?

Steve walked away so he didn't have to see - couldn't be held responsible if Bucky tripped and fell.

There was a gift shop because of course there was. Couldn't have a natural wonder without trying to hock some shit in the vicinity. Still, they had magnets, which were becoming Steve's stock in trade. He'd gotten in the habit of buying one everywhere they went, after noticing Winnie's fridge full of magnets in Indiana.

Part of him thought he might put the magnets on a fridge of his own one day.

Turned out, every magnet sold at Rock City was some variation on a bright red birdhouse. Barns and birdhouses, if that wasn’t America all through.

“Steve?” Bucky’s voice beside him and a hand on his arm.

Steve turned to face him and couldn't help grinning. The breeze had blown Bucky's hair into a shocking state. He looked, quite frankly, ridiculous, and needed to tie it back. Steve didn't say so, just reached out and knocked a loose piece down.

Bucky followed the movement of Steve’s hand, watching as he lowered it back to his side, fingers twitching against his trousers.

Stupid. Why had he done that?

“Ready to get going?” he offered, lamely.

“Yeah,” Bucky agreed. “I took a bunch of pictures.”

“Good.”

The trail continued its winding way through the park, getting progressively more and more interesting. Steve had changed his mind about the worthiness of Rock City. Sure, it was a tourist trap, but it was a damn good one.

They reached a narrow set of stairs colorfully characterized as the "Fat Man's Squeeze." Steve was by no means fat, but with his shoulders he found himself uncomfortably wedged between two sheer rock faces, inching his way along while Bucky slipped quickly through the passage.

Steve envied him, making it twice in one day he’d wished for his smaller body.

The squeeze opened up onto a path that curled its way in and around massive boulders that had been standing for thousands of years, if not tens of thousands. No amount of tinny music or Biblically inspired signage could change that grandeur, and Steve found himself overwhelmed, stopping to look up at a rock the size of ten elephants, so precariously balanced that it seemed as though it could tip over any moment.

He wondered, briefly, if he was strong enough to tip it. To send it spiraling down the side of the mountain into the woods below.

An idle thought, though his fingers itched to touch.

Shaking his head, he hurried after Bucky, who had picked up his pace.

The next corner they turned brought them to the morbidly named Lover’s Leap. A sign explained the story - a man and a woman from rival tribes, named Sautee and Nacoochee, had fallen in love. Sautee had been captured and thrown from Lover’s Leap. In her distress, Nacoochee had jumped after him.

Probably more allegorical than factual - Steve recognized Romeo and Juliet and figured every culture had their own version - but he didn't mistake the tragedy. It made him wonder just how Peggy had grieved him. How long it had taken before she'd been able to move on and have a life without him. Because on his side of that decades-long divide? He was having a hard time figuring out how, precisely, he was supposed to make it without her. A fridge full of magnets and nobody to share it with.

“Sad,” Bucky said, running his fingers over the sign.

“Yeah.”

“I don’t get it, though,” he said. “Maybe I haven’t really been in love, because I don’t...how could you kill yourself over someone else? Wouldn’t they want you to, like, go on living?”

Steve gave him a slight smile, stepping closer to the barricade and looking down at the valley below. “Dunno, Buck,” he said. “When you love like that...it’s hard not to want to jump right after them.”

Bucky fell silent, and when Steve looked over his shoulder, he found Bucky watching him with a solemn expression.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Whatever happened with your uh...with her.”

“Thanks, Buck.” He forced a smile onto his face, willing himself to put away that grief. It wasn’t fair to burden Bucky, not when he was dealing with his own heartbreak over Patrick. (Or, Steve was pretty sure the guy’s name was Patrick.) “Should we keep going?”

Bucky brightened, pushing a loose piece of hair from his forehead. A futile gesture, considering. “Yeah. Let’s go see Fairyland Caverns.”

Seeing Fairyland Caverns was on the bottom of Steve’s list. At the end of the day, he and Bucky were markedly different people.

Turned out, Fairyland Caverns proved him wrong. The entrance started them on a slope into a staggering treasure trove of insanity, in the best possible way. A sprawling labyrinth of pathways leading them past hideously wonderful fluorescent tableaus of classic fairytales. There was a sign informing them that the caverns had been commissioned from an artist by one of the founders of Rock City, and the displays had been placed underground two years after Steve went into the ice.

The artwork was grotesque and fascinating - Snow White and her dwarves as they might appear in a child’s technicolor nightmare. Cinderella running back to her shrunken pumpkin pulled by rats. It was horrific. It was tacky.

It was the greatest thing Steve had ever seen.

“This is so kitschy!” Bucky was gleeful as they entered the largest cavern yet - one that Steve suspected wasn’t entirely natural - housing a massive tabletop display of brightly painted cheesiness for them to make their way around, examining every detail.

“Kitsch-y?” That was a new one, though it sounded German.

“Yeah, like...camp? But not really camp.”

Another new one. Steve played along. “It’s great. I want to live here.”

"Me, too." Bucky pulled out his phone and snapped a picture of the Big Bad Wolf. The creature's face reminded Steve of Sister O'Leary, the tiny, shrewish nun who'd pinched him harder than any grown-up should have after he'd mouthed off to her in class. "This is incredible. I'm so glad we came here."

Something in Steve’s chest loosened, laughter bubbling up inside of him as Bucky ran ahead to gawk at a twisted version of a fairy castle, featuring a cow jumping over a parapet and a demented moon grinning down from the sky above.

If this was kitsch, sign Steve right the fuck up.

As with all good things, Fairyland eventually ended. Coming out the other side was a letdown, greeted with the same gift shop warren they'd found upon entering the park. They had, as it happened, seen Rock City.

If Bucky was bothered, he didn’t show it, wandering over to where the shop was selling - again - birdhouses. He picked up a box and checked the price, furrowing his brow.

"You want it?" Funny, how he took a notion to buy things for Bucky. Sure, the implication had been that Steve would be paying for most of the trip, as he'd been the one going on it anyway, but instead of resenting spending the cash, he found he liked it. Bucky was so damned grateful, and Steve had never been in a position to provide for anyone before. To treat them.

“Oh, uh, no,” Bucky said. “I was thinking about getting something for my mom, but this is…”

“Get it,” he said with a smile and a shrug. “I’ll get my magnet.”

Magnets were cheap, offsetting the cost of a birdhouse. Sure, he liked paying Bucky’s way, but that didn’t mean he wanted to overdo it.

“That’s…” Bucky chewed on his bottom lip the way he often did - usually belying worry or nervousness, which was nonsense. It was only a birdhouse. “Thanks, Steve.”

“Sure.”

After making their purchases, there wasn't much else to do in Rock City. Plus, they were both hungry, and Steve balked at the prices posted in front of the on-site cafe. In the end, they went back down the mountain and ate at a Thai restaurant they'd passed on their way in.

“We could stay here a couple days,” he offered, once they’d eaten and were getting back in the car.

Bucky smiled, holding up the brochure on Chattanooga he’d picked up at Rock City. “Yeah, cool. There’s supposed to be a good aquarium.”

 


 

The aquarium was a bad idea. The smell, the cramped space. The feeling of suffocation - that the glass could crack and he’d be buried under the weight of all that water.

Steve could handle the ocean just fine, but the claustrophobia of the building above and about had him sprinting outside, sitting down on some steps with his head between his knees.

Bucky ran after him, placing a hand between his shoulder blades. "Uh, Steve?"

“Sorry,” he said. “Felt a little closed in, was all.”

Bucky, good-natured as always, shrugged. “That’s okay. A fish is a fish is a fish.”

Steve laughed, reaching into his pocket to retrieve his wallet before handing Bucky a ten. “Go buy us a couple magnets. Pretend we saw the whole thing.”

 


 

They left Chattanooga the next morning. Bypassed Nashville and Memphis to follow the road west until they saw signs for the Ozark National Forest. Steve had memories of the Ozarks from the USO tour. Pretty scenery, poor people. It all blended together after a while.

“I’m starving,” Bucky complained as the sun set in front of them.

Steve was hungry, too, though they hadn't passed a real town for a while. They were low on gas, and while they had yet to run out on the road, Steve felt it was inevitable. He lived too close to empty, and he'd end up regretting it one day.

"Keep your eyes peeled, then." He couldn't produce a restaurant or a gas station out of thin air. And hell, even if he could, it wasn't as though Bucky would eat anything more than a pittance.

“There!” Bucky exclaimed around twenty minutes later, spotting a sign in the distance.

The sign was lit from below, an ugly font spelling out O’Leary’s Irish Pub alongside a crude approximation of a shamrock. Steve had no idea if it served food or not, but he wouldn’t mind a beer, and he could see the familiar neon glow of a gas station a few buildings behind the pub, so if nothing else they’d have that.

“They might not have food,” Steve pointed out.

“Let’s just try.”

“Beggars can’t be choosers,” he agreed, turning off the road and into the parking lot.

The pub had seen better days, paint cracked and peeling, outdoor lights flickering. But a sign in the window said open, and as they got out of the car, he could hear the sound of music within. A promising start.

That shabby exterior didn't tell the full story, and Steve was pleased to find that the inside was warm and quaint - chockablock with knick-knacks and nonsense that reminded him of his mother's kitchen. The music they'd heard outside ended up being a live band, set on a small stage in the corner, playing to the assembled patrons.

A young woman with strawberry blonde hair, harried in the way all good waitresses aspired to be, approached them, a pad of paper in her hand. "Hi. Y'all eating or drinking?" she said, voice loud enough to be heard over the music.

"Both." Bucky and Steve spoke simultaneously.

"Uh huh," she nodded, looking them up and down.

“Take whatever table you want - I’ll be along in a minute.”

They ended up taking a booth, tucked into the wall near the band which was playing a song Steve remembered hearing sung by men spilling out of pubs and into alleyways, pissing into corners while they roared lyrics remembering County Kerry and whiskey in jars. The familiarity of it had him leaning forward, eager to soak up every note. The band was composed of three men and a woman, all middle-aged and hard-edged, as though they had a story to tell.

"My mother was Irish," Steve said when the song ended, and he caught Bucky staring. "Grew up with music like that."

“Oh, cool,” Bucky nodded, looking down at his menu. Steve did the same, and the waitress turned back up a few minutes after that.

“Sorry about the wait,” she said. “I’m Cindy.”

“Steve,” Steve replied. “That’s Bucky.”

Bucky rolled his eyes as though Steve had done something wrong in making the introduction. Cindy glanced between the two of them and raised an eyebrow. “Y’all just passing through?”

“Something like that. Is there a motel nearby?”

“Sure, couple miles up the street if you keep heading west. The Dewdrop Inn.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Wish I was. Y’all want something to drink?”

They put in their drink orders before sitting back to enjoy the music. When Cindy returned with their beers, they ordered food - corned beef and cabbage for Steve, a burger and fries for Bucky. Some Irishman.

The band kept things upbeat, songs about cockles and mussels, drunken sailors and bewitching lasses. Steve knew most of the lyrics, even if he couldn’t remember all the names. The songs of his childhood played out in the shadow of the Ozarks, their roots put down generations ago by immigrants yearning for familiarity in an unfamiliar place.

They lingered longer than was strictly necessary - Bucky content to listen to the music and play on his phone, while Steve remained enraptured. Cindy cleared their plates and brought them new beers every time they asked, the alcohol doing nothing for Steve but getting Bucky decidedly tipsy, cheeks pink and eyes gone glassy as the evening wound later and later.

“This is our last song,” the woman in the band said eventually, voice lilting with a slight twang. “It’s a new one for us, an old one if you know this sort of music. Song’s called Craigie Hill, and if y’all like it, we’ll be passing around a bucket at the end.”

Steve's stomach tightened, and his breath hitched in his throat. He knew that song. It was his mother's song. The song she would sing because it reminded her of his father. God, she must have loved him, the way she sang it. No musical talent to speak of, voice cracked and off-key but clarity in every note as she sang Steve to sleep, or scrubbed the kitchen floor, or ironed the creases out of her uniform.

It was her song. Sarah’s song sung at a pub in the backwoods of Missouri by a woman who wasn’t his mother.

Steve's eyes pricked with tears before she'd even gotten through a full stanza. He dug into his pocket for his wallet, tossing a fifty on the table before making a break for the door. He couldn't look at Bucky. Couldn't try to explain how hearing those notes felt like having his heart cut out with surgical precision and laid bare for anyone to see.

There were tears on his cheeks by the time he got to the car, and he could still hear the song, though the volume was much diminished. He leaned his forehead against the door and sobbed in a way he hadn't since his third day out of the ice when he'd finally had a moment's peace to realize precisely what had happened. Where he was, when he was, and who he didn’t have anymore. He’d cried then. Only once. Then he’d bottled it up and pushed it down, letting it alone until now, here. The last place in the world he’d expected to be overwhelmed with the unfairness of it all.

“...Steve?”

Bucky had followed him. No wonder, considering he’d come across as crazy.

He straightened his spine, wiping his eyes and clearing his throat, though he didn’t turn. Didn’t want Bucky to see. “It’s fine, Buck.”

"Uh, it's not, though?" Bucky stepped closer. "You definitely just ran out of there like a lunatic, and now you're crying on the car, so…"

God, Bucky might have given him a bit of dignity. The tactlessness of the young and drunk. Steve turned and found Bucky closer than he’d realized, swaying slightly, trapping him against the car. No, not trapping - Bucky was tiny, relatively speaking. Steve could move him if he wanted to.

“My ma used to sing that song, s’all,” he muttered. “Reminded me of her.”

“Sure,” Bucky said, regarding Steve like one might a grenade with a loose pin. “It’s okay if you’re sad, though? I’m...you don’t have to pretend you’re not.”

“I’m not…” he began, only to be cut off at the knees when Bucky closed the gap and hugged him tight, skinny arms wrapping around his waist. Fuck, he hadn’t been expecting that. For a moment, he didn’t know how to react, though he ultimately settled on hugging back, arms around Bucky’s shoulders.

Bucky squeezed him then, and any hope Steve had held of containing his tears was lost as a fresh round sprung into his eyes and onto his cheeks like a stupid, inconsolable child.

“It’s okay,” Bucky said, sweet as anything in his drunken haze as he rubbed a small circle on Steve’s lower back. “You’re okay.”

A nice sentiment, even if he wasn’t. Steve squeezed his eyes shut as tight as they’d go, willing the tears away. “Just miss her, I guess.”

‘Her’ could mean a lot of things. The hole in his chest. His loneliness. His desperation. God knew.

Bucky held him until the tears subsided and Steve’s shoulders stopped shaking. Held him until he relaxed and went pliant. Steve brought a hand up to wipe his eyes before starting to pull back.

It all went to shit pretty quick.

Bucky chased after him as he moved, pressing a sloppy, intoxicated kiss to his lips. Steve kissed back without thinking about it. He wasn’t thinking at all, in fact. The kiss lasted a couple seconds at best, and Steve was the one to break it. Wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and said the first thing that came to mind. The worst thing that came to mind.

“The fuck’d you do that for?”

Bucky’s expression shuttered. He pulled away, eyes hurt and wounded. “Dunno,” he muttered. “Drunk, I guess.”

“Yeah.” Steve made another choice. Chose not to kiss Bucky again. Chose not to chase the feeling in his gut that said maybe it had always been a choice for him. Chose the same thing he’d always chosen: simple, uncomplicated normality and convention. “Don’t do that again.”

"Don't worry," Bucky snapped, stomping around to his side of the car. "Fucking won’t.”

That was the last thing he said to Steve the rest of the night, curling up into an angry little ball of resentment once they reached the hotel.

Steve, meanwhile, couldn’t fall asleep, the memory of the evening playing itself over and over in his head like a bad movie.

He watched the rise and fall of Bucky’s blankets and thought about how well and truly fucked he was.

It was a lot to think about.

 

Chapter Text

Bucky had once kissed a kid named Ryan Mitchell in a locker room. Ryan Mitchell, in turn, had punched Bucky in the nose.

The incident had taken place in the spring of his freshman year of high school. Bucky had been awkward and gawky and barely fourteen (on account of skipping the third grade). He had also been harboring a major crush on Ryan.

When the rumor mill told him that someone heard that someone said that Ryan was gay, Bucky seized the opportunity one day after gym class when they were alone, kissing him all casual-like as they stood by the lockers talking.

Turned out, Ryan wasn’t gay, and whatever friendship the two of them might have had was killed with one punch.

Bucky was fortunate in that Ryan had been embarrassed enough he hadn’t outed Bucky to the entire school. So Bucky kept pretending he liked girls for another few years. More than that, he was careful. Careful with his heart, careful with straight boys, careful with his kisses.

Until Steve.

Until he’d let that always-potent combination of booze and bad decisions guide him to Steve’s mouth, where he had been soundly rejected in no uncertain terms.

It was one thing when a dumb kid like Ryan Mitchell nearly broke your nose. It was quite another when a man like Steve Rogers looked at you as though you were shit on the bottom of his shoe.

And sure, Bucky was brokenhearted - he’d been nursing a crush on Steve for several thousand miles - but more than that, he was pissed. He’d thought Steve was better than that, and yet Steve had chosen to be disgusted. That was on him, not Bucky.

All that righteous anger didn’t make the next morning any easier. Bucky woke hungover and headachey, lost in a tangle of cheap, itchy hotel blankets. Grunting, he sat up, scrubbing a hand through his hair and reluctantly looking at the other bed.

Empty. Steve was gone, and he’d left a note behind. Bucky stretched across the distance between the beds to snag the paper and found that Steve had gone on a run. Of course. That was fine - Bucky wouldn’t miss him.

He took a shower in the avocado green tub that had seen better days, wishing the pipes didn’t squeal at a pitch that perfectly coincided with the frequency of his headache. Once he felt a bit more like a person, he dried and dressed in the bathroom, sweats clinging to his damp body. He wasn’t about to risk giving Steve another chance to be shitty. Scandalized by the sight of Bucky’s bare skin.

(Which, okay, he hadn’t done that before, but Bucky wasn’t feeling extra generous.)

When he emerged from the bathroom, he found Steve had returned, but only just. He was closing the front door with his foot, hands occupied with two big, styrofoam cups.

“Bucky, hey…” he said, a hint of uncertainty in his tone, as though he wasn’t sure how he’d be received. Good.

“Shower’s free.”

Steve blinked. “Uh. Great. I got us coffee. Or, it’s mostly for you. For...I figured you might have a headache.”

“No thanks.” Walking to his duffel, Bucky let the awkward silence hang between them, enjoying what little victory he could take in making Steve suffer. He shoved his pajamas inside, along with his toothbrush. Ready to hit the road.

To get to the nearest big city and fly home. Probably. Maybe. Stupid Steve.

“Look, Buck, about last night…” Steve’s voice was closer. Bucky tensed.

“Let’s not talk about it.”

“Well, it’s only…” Trust Steve not to take a hint. “I know you were drunk, and I’m...I don’t hold it against you, is all. I’m not upset.”

Any goodwill the coffee might have brought with it evaporated instantly. Bucky’s head throbbed in time with his heartbeat as he tossed his duffel over his shoulder before turning around to glare at Steve, who was just standing there with the stupid cups.

“Don’t do me any favors,” he snapped. “Just get me to Kansas City.”

“Aw Bucky, come on…”

“I’ll be in the car.”

He pushed past Steve, making sure to slam the door on his way out. Childish? Sure, but who said he had to be mature. He was the dumb, drunk kid, after all.

Steve made another attempt to give him the coffee as he started the car. Bucky poured it out the window onto the asphalt of the motel parking lot before immediately wishing he hadn’t.

“Gonna cut off your nose to spite your face, too?” Steve asked.

Bucky glared, curling up on the seat with his hoodie pulled down as low as it would go, hiding his face against his knees and praying for the sweet release of death. “Shut up.”

“Suit yourself.”

The rough highway was a misery - Bucky’s nausea and headache exacerbated by every bounce and jostle. He was relatively sure he wasn’t going to barf, but he wasn’t one hundred percent sure, and he hated Steve. Hated the car. Hated the whole trip.

Then, to Bucky’s very great surprise, Steve turned onto the ramp for Interstate 49. A miracle, considering Steve found interstates to be anathema to the very spirit of the road trip.

Bucky looked up from his ball of misery, finding Steve’s jaw clenched, hands holding the steering wheel tightly enough that his knuckles had gone white. A muscle twitched near his eye when he caught Bucky staring.

“Interstate’s faster,” Steve said with uncharacteristic stiffness. “Wouldn’t want to keep you.”

Oh, so now Steve couldn’t wait to get rid of Bucky.

“Fine,” Bucky gritted.

“You want I should drop you right at the airport, or do you maybe want to have a conversation first?”

The fact that Steve just assumed he knew Bucky’s plan was even more annoying than Steve wanting to foist him off on the first available plane. Sure, flying home had been his intent, but now he absolutely was not going to do that. At least not today. Because screw Steve and his snark. Bucky wasn’t the one who’d been a condescending shitheel.

“I’m not going home today,” he replied as imperiously as possible, sniffing before lowering his forehead back to his knees. “Gonna sleep it off. I’ll go home tomorrow.”

“You’re fucking impossible,” Steve muttered, before falling silent.

That silence lasted for hours, and by the time they reached Kansas City, they were low on both gas and patience.

"Can we like...not stay in the shittiest motel in town?" Bucky asked, breaking the silence in the meanest way possible. Steve's weirdo hotels were fine, or whatever, but he had seen a sign for a Best Western, and he just wanted something ordinary with a continental breakfast.

That same muscle by Steve’s eyes twitched as he jerked the car into the exit lane, driving angrily and not-at-all maturely until he was pulling into the parking lot.

Turning off the engine, he looked over at Bucky. “You want your own room?”

“Do you want me to have my own room?”

Steve shrugged, giving him a weary sigh that seemed to indicate a detente. Ceasefire - for now. “No, Bucky. I don’t.”

“Cause it’s cheaper, right?” Bucky had signed no such truce and would fire at will, though he did feel a little bit guilty for doing so.

Steve pursed his lips and opened his door, stepping out and standing still for a moment before leaning back down. “Sure, Buck. Whatever you say,” he agreed, before slamming the door shut and stalking towards the lobby.

One room, two queen-sized beds.

The Best Western was cleaner than the motels, at least, though Bucky figured some of it had to be artifice. Nobody wanted to take a blacklight to any hotel room sheets, at the end of the day.

He tossed his bag onto the floor next to the bed he was claiming for himself before kicking off his shoes and flopping onto the mattress. Rolling himself right up in the coverlet, he closed his eyes and heard Steve snort somewhere behind him. Whatever. Bucky didn’t give a crap what Steve chose to do or not do - he was focused on the sweet, sweet bliss of going back to sleep.

When he woke, it was dark outside, and his mouth tasted like shoe leather. Disoriented, he blinked and rolled over, convinced for a second he was at home in Indiana, wrapped in blankets, up before his alarm.

That illusion was shattered when he saw the generic floral art above the bed. The lamp jutting from the wall next to the headboard.

Right. Hotel. Steve.

Grunting, he sat up, pushing his hair out of his eyes and looking around. Steve was sitting on his own bed, back to the headboard with his sketchpad open in his lap. He didn’t look up from his work, concentrating on the page with a furrowed brow.

“Hungry?” Steve asked without stopping the movement of his pencil.

“No.” Bucky was very hungry. “Wha’time is it?”

“Bit after eight.”

God, it had been three in the afternoon when he’d gone to sleep. Five-hour naps weren’t his thing, but he also wasn’t usually so angry and hungover. Hell, he was never hungover, really - wasn’t much of a drinker at all, most of the time.

Funny, though, how at that moment all he wanted was a little hair of the dog that bit him.

“Damn it,” he muttered. “I’m gonna be up all night.”

“Yeah, well,” Steve replied, voice terse.

Bucky’s fingers flexed against his leg, nails digging into the material of his sweats to the muscle underneath, fighting the instinct to say something shitty. Truthfully, he didn’t want to fight anymore. Nor did he want to sit there in silence. He’d barely been keeping his head above water in Steve’s company for the better part of twenty-four hours, and he’d spent most of that time asleep.

The situation was intolerable. Ergo, Bucky needed to change the situation. A break from Steve was becoming a necessity, so he reached over to the bedside table and picked up his phone.

Damn it to hell, he hadn’t charged it the previous evening, and he had forgotten to plug it into the car charger. Twenty percent battery remaining. Fastidious adherence to battery life was apparently only for sober Bucky, so he hung off the bed and dug in his bag until he found the cable, plugging it into the socket underneath the wall sconce.

A few minutes of searching on the map app found him what he wanted, and what he wanted was only a ten-minute walk from the hotel. Honestly, bars and clubs had never been his scene. He’d much preferred geeky board game nights with his friends at school to trawling for dudes at a dive bar. Plus, with Patrick, he hadn’t needed to. Nope, the idea of grinding up against a bunch of strangers hadn’t appealed much to him at all.

Now, though. Well. A guy could only take so much, and it wasn’t as though he’d never been to a bar before, his experience was just limited.

Decision made, he got out of bed and rifled through his bag, pulling out what he hoped was an acceptable outfit. Skinny jeans, which were predictable but useful, and a clingy, nearly see-through black t-shirt. Cliche? Sure. But he wasn’t going out not to look like the world’s most stereotypical twink, so he tossed both pieces of clothing over his arm before heading into the bathroom to dress. After that, he futzed with his hair for ages, ending up with it back in a low ponytail because he couldn’t make it behave any other way. There was too damn much of it, and while he knew he ought to cut it, part of him was still attached to the length. He’d grown it out in some misguided fifteen-year-old attempt to look cool, and now he couldn’t quite see himself without it.

Steve paid him no mind when he came out, having swapped his sketchbook for a novel. He had finished The Stand and moved on to The Shining, which Bucky thought was really appropriate for Steve since he was a jerk who deserved to live in an isolated hotel with a bunch of ghosts. And get murdered. Well, maybe not murdered.

Ignoring Steve as hard as he could, Bucky sat down and pulled on his shoes before checking his phone. Thirty-three percent. Not great, but it’d be enough to get him through the night.

When he stood up and grabbed his wallet, Steve finally deigned to look at him. There was an immediate frown marring his features as he took in Bucky’s appearance, eyes flicking from his head to his toes.

“Where are you going?”

“Out.”

Out,” he scoffed, closing the book and crossing his arms over his chest. Ugh, sanctimonious prick. “Where?”

“None of your business.” It was not, strictly speaking, the most mature response he could have chosen, but Steve was always on his ass about choosing things for himself, so Steve could suck it.

“Are you coming back?” The question was bitten out, as though Steve hadn’t really wanted to ask. He cut his eyes away from Bucky to stare at the wall, the television, the weird curtains. Anywhere but Bucky’s face.

“Uh, yes?” Where the hell else was he going to go? His bag was still sitting on the floor. “Don’t like, wait up for me, though. I might be out late.”

Steve looked as though he had a half-dozen questions hidden behind the heavy weight of his brows. Bucky didn’t have time for this particular crisis of conscience, so he left. It took him some time to orient himself, but once he was sure of his surroundings, he walked the seven blocks and two avenues that would take him to the gay bar the website had called the ‘best option in Kansas City.’ Not a ringing endorsement, granted, but the Indianapolis scene wasn’t much better.

The hour had just turned nine when he arrived, and it was early enough that there was nobody checking IDs at the door. A relief, considering he wasn’t strictly legal. He walked in with what he hoped was a smattering of confidence, looking around the room as though he’d been there a million times before.

The crowd was sparse - a few groups clustered around the long, sticky-looking bar which ran the length of the front half of the room. Two couples were swaying together on a dance floor in the back half, trading occasional kisses. Tables and chairs filled the rest of the space, along with a few questionable couches. The whole place had the patina of the well-worn and well-loved, as though it was home for the people who chose to spend their time there. When options were limited, Bucky supposed, you made your home where you could find it.

Sidling up to the bar, he caught the attention of the bartender - a short woman, maybe thirty or so, with electric blue hair pulled back into a high ponytail, sporting a tank top with the bar’s logo and a pair of skinnies not dissimilar to Bucky’s own.

“What can I get ya?” she asked.

“Vodka tonic.” Casual. Like he asked for it all the time. Like he’d been twenty-one for ages, and this was no big deal.

The bartender looked him up and down. “You driving?”

“Uh, no.”

“Mmm.” She cocked a brow before nodding and going to fix him his drink. Maybe she could smell the heartbreak on him - could see that he needed it. Maybe she legitimately thought he was of age. Bucky didn’t know. Didn’t care.

She set the drink down in front of him a few minutes later. “Cash or tab?”

“Uh, tab, I guess.” It wasn’t as though he’d been paying for much on the trip, and a night of drinking wasn’t going to make much of a dent in his savings account, so he handed over his debit card.

The bartender opened his tab before winking at him, which made him feel marginally better as he went to find a place to sit. He ended up on one of the questionable couches, sinking into the material that might once have been velvet but was now mostly threadbare patches barely holding back the stuffing beneath. The headache of the morning was diminished but not forgotten, though he had high hopes that the combination of alcohol alongside being away from Steve would get rid of the remainder.

That and the opportunity to people watch. As long as he could remember, he’d loved doing that. Making up stories about them, parsing just precisely why they did the things they did or said the things they said. In Bucky’s experience, everyone on the planet was awkward in their own unique, wonderful way. Some were obvious - bumbling and stammering through every interaction. Others were nuanced, dressing their awkwardness up in a veneer of cool, trying desperately to hide the insecurities underneath. Bucky was never sure where he fell on the spectrum of odd, having worked hard to tamp down his weirdness as a teenager before letting his freak flag fly in college.

(Which, for him, meant being as unapologetically geeky and queer as he wanted to be, thank you very much and fuck you, Steve Rogers.)

Steve was on the latter side of the scale, though it had taken Bucky time to see it. He couldn’t imagine Steve had ever gone through an awkward phase - he’d probably been a perfect cherub of a pink and white baby, followed by a golden childhood and teenage years spent making time with every pretty girl who looked his way. People like Steve - people with that sheen of handsomeness and perfection about them? Their awkwardness was different. Steve’s manifested itself in the way he couldn’t ever say what he meant; how he couched any possible show of emotion in platitudes and nonsense. The way he was buttoned-up to the point of repression, yet with a wicked sense of humor and a penchant for doing stupid things in the name of fun.

Mostly, Steve never let his walls down, and Bucky was beginning to wonder if he ever had. If this woman he was so in love with had really known him, or if she’d been another person left confounded by the set of mysteries and contradictions that was Steve Rogers.

Damn it. He wasn’t there to think about Steve.

Scowling, he sipped his drink and turned his attention to the group of people who had just come through the front door. There were seven in all - four men and three women. Two of the men were holding hands, and Bucky really had to get over the irrational jealousy crap. People were allowed to be in relationships. They were allowed to be happy. No unspoken law of the universe said that coupled people had to stay away from the recently dumped at all times.

(But God, wouldn’t that be nice?)

By ten, the bar had begun to fill up. There was some sort of eighties theme happening, which meant certain people had gone all out. Two guys were fully kitted out in Adidas tracksuits and gold chains, a woman was channeling Cyndi Lauper, and an honest-to-God nut in a He-Man cosplay.

Which, okay, Mr. He-Man had the abs to carry off the outfit, so Bucky wasn’t complaining. Granted, He-Man didn't have Steve’s abs, but what human did? Bucky had no idea how Steve maintained that physique - he never saw Steve work out, save for the occasional run, and the man ate like the prize pig at the county fair.

Which wasn’t to say that Bucky didn’t get attention. He was cute enough. Even sitting there on that couch by himself, he got noticed. The battery on his phone died around eleven, and when he looked up from the screen, he found he was attracting admirers. No fewer than three separate men bought him a drink while attempting to initiate a conversation. Regrettably, the first guy was dull, the second not-at-all his type, and the third had the distinction of the worst case of halitosis Bucky had ever had the misfortune of smelling.

Excusing himself from dude number three, Bucky headed for the dance floor, pleasantly tipsy. Probably not the best idea to get drunk two nights in a row, but he had crossed the line into not caring.

The once-empty dance floor was now crowded, full of a hundred idiots screaming along to Walk Like an Egyptian with accompanying dorky-ass dance moves. Bucky wasn’t much of a dancer, but when it came to moving in a crowd that size, he could manage - flailing wildly along with some approximation of the beat.

And hell, it was fun. He sipped his drink and lost himself in the crush of bodies, sometimes dancing with other people and sometimes bouncing around alone. It felt so human and connected and yeah, they were all goofy weirdos, but Bucky liked goofy weirdos and knowing how much he liked them made something in his chest ache with a sort of rare, pleasant happiness.

The next time he turned around, he bumped right into a sweet-faced boy who had brown eyes and brown hair that was spiked with far too much product.

“Hi,” Bucky grinned.

“Hi,” sweet-face replied, stepping close enough that Bucky could see the glitter smeared across his cheekbones. “I’m Matty.”

“Bucky.”

“Ricky?”

Buck-y.”

“Yeah, okay,” Matty agreed, not bothering to clarify as he reached out and grabbed Bucky by the belt loops, pulling him closer and dropping his arms around his waist. Which, okay, that was a little forward, but Bucky could be into forward. He wrapped his arms around Matty’s neck and looked down at his new partner, drinking him in.

Matty was shorter by a few inches - muscular where Bucky was lean, smooth and soft where he was wiry, baby face belying the fact that - when Bucky looked closer - he could see Matty was probably at least a couple years older than him. More like Steve’s age, maybe.

Matty could dance, too, gyrating their hips together so that Bucky was forced to move with him. It was easy enough to follow, especially when Matty pressed a knee right between Bucky's legs so he could grind up against him. Which felt, okay, yeah that felt super good. Probably because of the alcohol in his system, but at least he didn't have whiskey dick. A minor miracle. Who didn't love some good old-fashioned dry-humping on a dance floor? Not that Bucky had a wealth of experience, but he was definitely beginning to understand the appeal of a place like this, with its boozy, anonymous sweet-faced guys who just wanted to buy you a drink and rub against you for a while.

Matty pulled him closer still, hands sliding into the back pockets of Bucky’s tight jeans and giving his ass a squeeze. Bucky giggled - there was no other word for the sound he made - hips jerking forward against Matty’s body.

“Ohh…” he managed, unable to keep the grin off his face before he leaned down to kiss Matty, who’d been halfway to his mouth already. They stayed that way for at least two songs, hands everywhere, kissing messy and wet and ugh, Bucky was really hard now, dick straining against the confines of his tight jeans while Matty practically rode his leg right there in front of everyone.

By the time Push It turned into Come On Eileen, Bucky needed to come up for air, pulling back with a weak smile on his face. “I uh…”

“Bathroom?” Matty asked with clear intent. Which, yeah. Bathroom.

Bucky let Matty lead him off the dance floor by the hand, floating on a haze of endorphins and arousal. Some of that magic dissipated, however, when Matty pushed open the door to the three-stall shithole of a bathroom, which smelled exactly like one might expect a bar bathroom to smell. Looked about that way, too, with a flickering fluorescent light and standing water in a puddle on the floor under the window.

One of the Adidas guys was at the urinal, and he gave them a knowing wink before shaking himself off and zipping up.

Matty pulled Bucky into a stall, shutting the door behind them and immediately moving his hand down to palm Bucky’s cock through his jeans. The gesture was nice, but at that moment all Bucky could focus on was the lewd graffiti scrawled across one wall of the cubicle.

 

BEN G HAS HERPES.

I GOT IT FROM UR MOM.

 

Bucky didn’t want herpes. Bucky also didn’t have a condom, so he shook his head and pushed Matty’s groping hand away. “Sorry, I uh. Sorry. I can’t.”

“Seriously?” Matty groaned. “Come on, man…”

“Yeah, no. I’m sorry. You’re uh, damn it, you’re really cute, but I uh…”

“God, you’re a fuckin’ tease.” Matty smacked his hand against the wall of the tiny space with a surprising amount of force. “Bye, then.”

Bucky was suddenly glad he was bigger than Matty, all things considered. “Bye,” he muttered, pushing past him. “Sorry. I’m...yeah, I’m really sorry.”

He couldn’t seem to stop apologizing as he made his escape. As though he had anything to be sorry for, not wanting a quickie suck job from a stranger in a bathroom stall.

Any magic the night had held was gone by the time Bucky made it back to the bar. Maybe his fairy godmother had closed her tab, because a place that had seemed ripe with possibility was now no more than a run-down dive bar with a too-loud soundtrack played over blown-out speakers, filled with sticky floors and screaming people.

Bucky was done.

Almost done.

He walked up to the bar and ordered two shots of whiskey, which he slammed before closing his tab and stepping out into the night.

Funny thing about alcohol: it tended to dull the senses. And the thing was, when Bucky had arrived at the bar, he hadn’t been drunk. It had barely been nine o’clock, and now it was just past midnight. He was alone, in an unfamiliar city with a lousy sense of direction and a dead phone.

No problem. He was pretty sure he knew where he was headed until suddenly he didn't. Where was he? This wasn’t - he didn’t recognize any of this stuff. No, it was fine. He was fine. He could get back. He was going to get back. There had been a Wendy’s. Yes, he remembered seeing a Wendy’s because he’d thought maybe he wanted to get a frosty on the way back to the hotel since he hadn’t eaten anything since...

Wait. When had he last eaten?

His stomach growled, and he couldn’t find the Wendy’s. Couldn’t find anything except a McDonald’s where he ordered a large fries and a sundae before curling up in one of the hard plastic booths, shoving the food into his mouth and feeling caught somewhere between tears and barfing. Maybe both.

Stupid whiskey. Stupid Matty. Stupid penis. Stupid Steve, especially.

Definitely, all of this was Steve’s fault. Definitely, he wouldn’t be sitting alone in a shitty McDonald’s eating cold fries if Steve hadn’t been such a shitty...shit shitterson.

Ugh, no, he wasn’t going to cry over Steve.

“Honey, are you alright?”

Blinking back the tears, Bucky looked up and found a heavyset woman with a concerned look on her face. She had on a nametag that read ‘Charlotte,' and underneath that, it said ‘Manager,' and Bucky wondered if she gave good hugs because she looked like the sort of person who would give a good hug. God, he wanted his mom, and while Charlotte didn't resemble Winnie Barnes in the slightest, Bucky found himself pouring his heart out to her anyway.

"...phone died, and I can't find my hotel and I'm drunk so I ordered fries and they're cold now…" Which was indeed the greatest tragedy of all.

“I see,” Charlotte said, mouth curving into a smile. Bucky supposed one didn’t become the night manager of a downtown McDonald’s without seeing one’s fair share of stupid, drunk children. “You remember where you were staying?”

“Best Western.” He sounded kind of pitiful.

“Uh huh,” she said, nodding her head. “I know where that is. You just sit tight a minute.”

Bucky watched her go, blinking a couple times before absently shoving another fry into his mouth. It didn’t even taste good.

Charlotte returned a few minutes later with a piece of paper, a cup of water, and a hot apple pie. Bucky loved Charlotte. Charlotte was his favorite person on earth.

“Alright,” she said, handing the water over. “You drink this and listen close. Right now, you’re on Main Street. Your hotel is also on Main Street. So you’re gonna walk out the front door, turn left and keep walking down this same damn street until you see your hotel. No turns. No detours. Straight. It’s about a mile, maybe a little more. You understand? You cannot miss it.”

“Uh huh.”

“If you get lost, you call this number,” she said, tapping the piece of paper before handing it over. “It’s the non-emergency number - someone there can help you out.”

Bucky managed a watery smile as he set the empty cup down. “Thank you. That’s um, really nice of you.”

“Honey, I get ten kids like you in here a week. Go left out of the parking lot, and don’t worry so much.”

Left out of the parking lot. Left. Bucky could do that. One foot in front of the other. Go left, then walk straight.

Walk forever. How long was a mile, anyway? A mile was a million years.

He was just about to give up and lie on the sidewalk, content to die on the cold concrete when he spotted the Best Western sign in the distance. Glory hallelujah.

It was only when he was standing outside the door to their room that he realized he hadn’t brought a room key. Damn it. He’d have to go back to the lobby - Steve was probably asleep.

Nah, he didn’t want to bother the clerk. Steve sucked. Bucky would just wake him up.

He was raising his fist to knock when the door opened, and he found Steve standing there, decidedly frantic.

Jesus, Bucky,” he said, ushering him inside. “I thought you were fucking dead.”

Bucky blinked. Steve was confusing. “I’m not dead?”

“Yeah, obviously.” Oh. Steve was mad. Or worried. It was hard to tell because Steve was putting his arm around Bucky’s shoulder and walking him over to bed and okay, bed sounded so good but Steve was still talking.

“...check your phone, Buck? You live on that thing!”

“It died,” he muttered, trying to kick his shoes off and failing miserably. It was fine. He could sleep in his shoes.

“Give it to me.” The tone brokered no argument, so Bucky fished his dead phone from his pocket and handed it over, watching as Steve plugged it into the charger. “Fucking punk, had me worried sick.”

“M’sorry?” He wasn’t that sorry, but he wanted Steve to stop talking, so he held out the remainder of his apple pie, which had gotten cold and greasy on the walk. Probably it was still good, though, if Steve wanted it.

“It’s…” Steve pressed his lips together before taking the pie and putting it on Bucky’s nightstand. “We’re not talking about it right now. Go to sleep.”

“Screw you, I’ll go to sleep when I want to.” Bucky had meant it to sound authoritative, he really had, but his voice came out slurred before a yawn split his face in two.

Steve snorted and ugh, Steve wasn’t allowed to laugh at him. It wasn’t acceptable. Steve. What a guy.

“You do that,” Steve said. “And you’ll get what you deserve in the morning.”

“...s’not acceptable.” Had he said that out loud?

“What’s not?”

“Your...you.”

“Yeah, alright, Buck,” Steve said as he sat down on his own mattress. He sounded tired. “I’m going to bed. You do whatever you want.”

Bucky would. He absolutely would. Even if what he wanted was flopping onto his side as Steve turned out the light. It took him some time to get out of his shoes, finally knocking them to the ground with a resounding ‘thunk’ before beginning to wriggle out of his jeans. He kicked those to the foot of the bed and wrapped himself up in the comforter, closing his eyes and willing his head to stop spinning.

 

Chapter Text

“Tough old world, baby. If you're not bolted together tightly, you're gonna shake, rattle, and roll before you turn thirty...”

 

Steve had been reading and rereading the two sentences for twenty minutes, though that wasn’t Stephen King’s fault. The book was interesting and hell, he liked the man’s writing. Found it easy enough to read - the prose bridging a gap he hadn’t known was there, words written thirty years after he went into the ice and thirty years before he woke up, give or take.

It was hard to focus on the page as the clock rolled over to midnight and there was still no sign of Bucky. Which wasn’t to say that Steve was worried, exactly - Bucky was an adult. He was perfectly capable of taking care of himself, so if he wanted to go out dressed like a hobo in tight pants, then that was his choice (even if Steve thought he looked ridiculous).

When he’d first taken his leave, Steve had been glad for the reprieve from the sulky, sullen kid he’d been forced to share space with throughout the day. There wasn’t any excuse for childishness over something so trivial as a kiss.

Still. Still. It was a strange city, and as the wee hours of the morning crept up, Steve’s hackles rose. He closed his book and got out of bed, heading to the car where he retrieved his phone from the glovebox and brought it inside. Tony had said not to use it unless there was an emergency, but wasn’t this something approximating that? He dialed Bucky’s number from memory, not wanting to add it to the address book, just in case.

The phone rang. And rang. And rang.

“Hey…”

“Hey, Bucky…”

“...you’ve reached my voicemail, so leave me one, if you really want to talk. Bye!”

Fuck. Steve glared at the phone before tossing it onto the bed, resentful at having been fooled by Bucky’s cheerful tone. As though anything about Bucky was cheerful right now.

Picking up his book, he began the passage again.

 

Tough old world, baby.

 

Wasn’t it just?

Steve wasn’t queer, he knew that much. Leastways he wasn’t queer like Bucky was queer. What precisely that made him, he wasn’t sure. Something worse, maybe. Different, definitely. All he knew was that when Bucky had kissed him, there had been an urge, burning deep down low, that wanted nothing more than to kiss back. That same small, dangerous part of his psyche that he’d been pushing down into the dark recesses of his mind his entire life. The places where the tormentors of his childhood lurked; those dusty corners of want and desire he wouldn’t allow himself to touch.

He’d spent his youth angry and unexceptional. Now, he was exceptional, yet found that he was still angry.

God, wasn’t there some middle ground? Some no man’s land where he could be normal and average and precisely what everyone expected him to be.

 

Tough old world, baby.

 

Deep down, past the defensiveness and the fear, Steve understood why Bucky had been angry. Why Steve had been too proud to admit he was wrong.

The thing of it was: if he said it out loud? Well, then he’d have done it, and where could he go from there?

He didn't need Bucky's pity or condescension, though he couldn't truly imagine his friend having either. It was only that hashing things out with Bucky - when Bucky was the goddamn person causing the thoughts he didn't want to think - seemed counterintuitive to solving the problem. Like maybe Steve was trying to take advantage of the feelings he now knew Bucky was harboring towards him.

Connie would have been better for having that talk. Matter of fact, he would have given his right arm to talk to her. Monty, too. Ask them outright what it meant to be not-quite-queer and oh-so-confused. How they had managed it in a world that despised them for who they were.

He wished they could see it, this new frontier, where kids like Bucky didn’t have to spend their time hiding in the shadows, denied that most basic of wants. To love and be loved, and wasn’t that it? No more than that, and no less, either. Change came slowly, but fuck if it wasn’t progress that he wished his friends had lived to see.

If he had been born in the year on his license, in 1985, would he have kissed Bucky back without question? Shit, probably. Probably would’ve kissed him at the beach. Kissed him in the car. Pressed him up against the wall of that cave in Rock City and kissed him there, too.

There were all sorts of places a fella might want to kiss Bucky, if he got creative about it.

That was it, the crux of the issue. He wanted to kiss Bucky. Wanted very much to kiss him in a way he hadn’t wanted to kiss anyone since Peggy, grief letting slip that one small piece of his heart.

Steve sat with that thought, turning it over and over in his head, examining the oddness of it from every angle to try and determine what it meant to want. He certainly still loved Peggy, and that included the parts he’d come to know intimately in broom closets and back rooms. His brain spun no shortage of fantasies about her curves and her soft places. The way she smelled. The way she tasted. If she were to walk in the door of the room right that second, he’d have no trouble taking her to bed.

Only, he’d still be worried about Bucky, out there on his own. Beyond that, he’d still be preoccupied with what possibilities existed with Bucky. Possibilities he used to pretend he found wretched but now allowed himself to find intriguing.

The kiss had been Steve at his worst. Horror manifesting itself from those angry places inside of him that Bucky couldn’t hope to understand.

Fuck. He owed Bucky an apology - a real one, not some half-assed pass the buck consolation prize like the bullshit he’d tried that morning.

Only Bucky wasn’t around.

Steve called him again. Voicemail. That was a stupid name for a stupid technology. What was the point of leaving a message when all you wanted was to know someone was safe and on their way back to you?

He reached for his book. Got through three pages without really reading any of it, preoccupied and anxious.

When his third call to Bucky received no response, that niggling anxiousness he’d been harboring blossomed into true worry. Bucky loved that phone more than any kid loved Christmas. Treated it as an extension of himself, and so unless he was a real shitty person (which Steve was sure he wasn’t) he ought to have picked up when Steve called the second time, even if he’d ignored the first.

There was no way he would have let three calls go without answering. That wasn’t Bucky.

The nervous energy that had been fueling Steve all night propelled him from the bed, and he paced back and forth, wearing down the carpet as he mulled over various scenarios.

The way he saw it, there were two options: stay put, or go search. The latter was more appealing because Steve wasn't one to sit around idly. Wasn't one to wait. If he went out to look, he'd feel like he was doing something. But, realistically, he wouldn't be. It was a big city, and he had no clue where Bucky had gone. Four points on a compass - eight if you were picky - and only one of them was right.

No, there was no way for Steve to know which direction Bucky had headed. Where he was going. In which deserted alley Steve might find his lifeless, desiccated corpse.

Probably not desiccated yet. He’d only been gone a few hours.

Staying put was smarter. Harder. Steve could do that. Sit tight and wait.

He lasted all of twenty minutes before he was out wandering the halls of the hotel. To the lobby, back to the room, back to the lobby, to the parking lot. Walking up and down the street in front of the building and squinting in both directions before going back inside.

He sat on the couch in the lobby for thirty minutes, drinking cup after cup of stale coffee as he bounced his knees in an attempt to work off all the nervous energy he’d built up in his panic.

Inspiration struck as the clock ticked towards two. Steve got to his feet and headed to the room, phone in hand. He was going to call Tony because this was an emergency. Tony could track Bucky, and Tony would likely ask very few questions about why Steve needed to find a twenty-year-old idiot in the middle of Kansas City. At two in the morning. On a Sunday.

Was it Sunday? He was pretty sure it was Sunday and had been for a couple hours.

It took Steve some time to figure out how to get Tony’s number pulled up on the phone, and he had just about gotten there when he heard footsteps in the hallway. Shambling, shuffling footsteps. Drunk footsteps that stopped right outside the door.

Steve leaped for the handle. LetitbeBuckyletitbeBuckyletitbe…

Bucky. His fist raised to knock and his mouth falling open in an ‘O’ of shock when Steve opened the door before he could. The idiot was drunk out of his gourd - more than the night before, that was for goddamn sure.

Jesus, Bucky.” Wrapping his fingers around Bucky’s raised wrist, he pulled him inside. So much for diplomacy. “I thought you were fucking dead.” So much for lack-of-hyperbole.

Bucky blinked at him, pulling his wrist out of Steve’s grasp, movements clumsy and slow. “M’not dead?”

The words came out as a garbled slur, Bucky swaying on his feet as he spoke, hardly able to keep himself upright. Steve very much hoped his constitution was strong enough that he wasn’t going to vomit.

"Yeah, obviously," he said, wrapping an arm around Bucky's shoulders to keep him upright. Any hopes he might have had for a conversation taking place were dashed - he'd be lucky to get Bucky into his bed before he fell over. "What's wrong with you, you don't check your phone? You live on that thing.”

Alright, maybe there wouldn’t be a conversation, but he could at least have the last word.

Bucky was making a game attempt to kick off his shoes, to absolutely zero success. Steve tried not to smile. It shouldn’t have been as endearing as it was. Especially not when he pouted, lower lip jutting out in a way that accentuated the softness of his jaw and, no, it was not the time for that particular line of thought.

“It died,” Bucky muttered.

“Give it to me,” Steve said, holding out a hand. Wordlessly, Bucky began digging in the pocket of those ridiculous, tight pants he had on, handing the phone over without complaint. Steve plugged it in, glancing over at Bucky, who had flopped down on the bed. “Fucking punk, had me worried sick.”

"I'm sorry." He shuffled a bit, and when Steve next turned around, he was holding out the shredded remains of a cardboard box labeled as - huh. Pie. Where the hell had he gotten pie in the middle of the night?

“It’s…” Steve was cut off when Bucky shook the box of pie at him insistently. God, he was funny, which was annoying. Taking the box, Steve set it on the nightstand next to his phone. Just in case Bucky woke with any pie-related urges. “We’re not talking about it right now. Go to sleep.”

“Screw you, I’ll go to sleep when I want to.”

Charming, especially when accompanied by a giant, ugly yawn that he didn't bother to cover up. Bucky was a nasty little drunk, turned out, and Steve snorted at that show of defiance.

“You do that,” he said. ”And you’ll get what you deserve in the morning.” A hangover, with any luck.

Bucky blinked before raising a hand and pointing a finger in Steve’s direction, like some wizened old soothsayer. “...not ac-cept-able,” he slurred.

Steve wasn’t going to laugh. He wasn’t. “What’s not?”

“Your you.”

There was officially no point in continuing the conversation. Bucky was funny, but it wasn’t fair to keep him up, and all that adrenaline Steve had been carrying around with him for the better part of the evening was dissipating, leaving him drained.

“Yeah, alright, Buck,” he said, sitting down on his mattress. “I’m going to bed. You do whatever you want.”

Bucky wanted to go to sleep, funnily enough, though he spent a good five minutes wriggling around and getting comfortable before he settled, soft snores emanating from his side of the room soon after.

Steve didn’t get much sleep, though he dozed, winding his way in and out of dreams, restless and anxious. When the first bits of dawn began peeking through the curtains, he got up and scrawled a note on the hotel stationery that he’d be back soon, after which he headed down to the lobby and had a quick conversation with the manager, who helped him find what he wanted.

It was a nice day, low sun casting long shadows down city streets as it meandered its way up into the sky. Steve’s destination wasn’t far - a mile and a half at most - and he enjoyed the solitude of his walk. Cities were always different in the morning, brand new and blinking, shaking off the detritus of the night before and starting fresh.

He was in a good mood by the time he reached the church he’d been seeking. It was a pretty building - Notre Dame in miniature, boasting a single gothic tower adorned with a Catherine window. The sight of it was at once out of place and blessedly familiar to Steve, who’d grown up attending a similarly ornate church in Brooklyn. Never let it be said that the church let itself look shabby - poverty, chastity, and obedience couldn’t hold a candle to ostentatious displays of wealth and power.

Truthfully, he wasn’t much of a Catholic. He hadn’t attended Mass with any great regularity since his mother passed. She’d been devout, while Steve had been no more than an obedient son. Sure, he believed in God, but that didn’t necessarily mean the God of his mother’s choosing. Doing good while being kind was enough morality for him, though he struggled to live by his own self-imposed precepts, especially lately.

With everything he’d been dealing with over the past few days, a touch of the divine mystery might not go amiss. Or, if not the mystery, at least the familiar. The comfort of routine and ritual.

Steve entered the church, finding the font and crossing himself before walking up the wide, center aisle of the nave. He chose a pew towards the middle, nodding to those parishioners who had looked up when he entered. There were only four other people - three older woman, and one man of Steve's vintage, head bent and lips moving in silent prayer.

Steve did the same, kneeling and closing his eyes, murmuring the familiar prayers because it was expected. Because he remembered his mother’s fingers moving as she prayed the rosary. Because it was something he still knew how to do and someone he still knew how to be.

The church began to fill as the top of the hour neared, and Steve found himself looking forward to saying the words and preserving the traditions that reached back hundreds if not thousands of years.

It came as quite the shock, then, when the priest faced front and began saying Mass in English. Things only got stranger from there, with folks sitting and kneeling at all the wrong times and responding with all the wrong things.

Steve nearly laughed at the absurdity of it. He had come seeking comfort and had found nothing resembling such conventionality, which was no bad thing. Perhaps he needed to be shaken; he certainly didn’t need to stay for the rest of the service.

Bowing his head, he said a quick prayer of forgiveness and sent it up to his mother and to Mary before slipping out of the pew and walking outside.

Only when he was back in the sunshine did he allow himself to laugh - real, ridiculous laughter that had him sitting down hard on a bench in the small garden outside the church, face in his hands as his shoulders shook. Once he’d calmed, he cast his eyes heavenward and grinned.

Shit, if the Catholic Church could change so much in seventy years, Steve supposed it might be alright to let himself be queer.

With the surety of a newly saved soul, Steve got to his feet and headed in the direction of the hotel, stopping at a coffee shop along the way to buy two cups, along with a couple pastries. Sure, Bucky had rejected his coffee-related overtures the previous morning, but this was a new day. A good day.

He was whistling by the time he left the shop, tipping the barista five bucks and holding the door open for a harried looking woman juggling a diaper bag and a toddler.

Bucky was still a pile of blankets when he got back to the room, so Steve left him to sleep as he sipped his coffee, sitting down by the window and doing a quick sketch of the view. It was all bridges and overpasses, but there was something fun about trying to capture the proper perspective.

Thirty minutes into the work, the lump on the bed behind him groaned and began to move. It was a hell of a process - first, an arm emerged, groping for its phone on the nightstand, which it pulled right back under the covers. Soon after, a leg. Then, a rumpled head of hair which hadn’t been removed from its ponytail, leaving it mussed and floating in a cloud around Bucky’s bleary-eyed face.

“Coffee’s on your nightstand,” Steve said.

Bucky licked his lips, which looked less than kissable at that moment - dry and cracked. Steve hardly dared imagine what his breath smelled like. Reaching for the coffee, Bucky brought the cup to his mouth and took a sip before making a face. Then, another sip. Needs must.

“Thanks,” he croaked, bringing his free hand up to rub his eyes. “I’m never drinking again.”

Steve smiled. At least Bucky hadn’t woken up belligerent again. “That’s what they all say,” he teased. “I brought you a cruller, but we can go out, too - there’s a dinner a couple blocks over I passed on my way back.”

Steve secretly hoped Bucky would go in for the diner. If they were going to talk - and they were going to talk - he wanted Bucky clear-eyed and level-headed, which required sustenance.

“Back?”

“I went to mass.”

Bucky squinted and took another sip of coffee, studying Steve as though he were some curiosity in a zoo. “Huh. Okay. I’m uh...let’s go to the diner, but...m’gonna take a shower first.”

The thoughts were muddled, but the cause and effect were there. Steve shrugged and turned his attention back to his sketch. “We’ll go out when you’re ready.”

Slow and sluggish, Bucky got himself up and into the bathroom (stopping to pick up his cruller, which Steve really hoped he wasn’t going to eat in the shower). The water ran...and ran...and ran, and Steve was just about to go and knock when it shut off, so he left well enough alone. When Bucky came out, he looked much better, with damp hair and pink cheeks. His eyes were still bloodshot, and he was collecting a whole set of fancy luggage underneath them, which made him look older than he was. Poor guy needed a decent night’s sleep without a drink in his system.

“Can we go to a drugstore, too?” Bucky asked, sitting down on the edge of his bed and slowly, methodically pulling on his shoes.

“Sure,” Steve said, figuring aspirin was on the agenda. Closing his sketchbook, he went to finish packing what few things he’d used the previous evening. “Let’s check out, we’ll find a drugstore, and then get you some breakfast.”

It struck Steve as he packed that this might be the last hotel room he’d share with Bucky. After the talk, they’d either be continuing on together, or Steve would be going on alone. The latter thought was a gut-punch, and he chose to ignore it. No use borrowing trouble.

Bucky finished dressing and packing, the rosiness in his cheeks fading the longer he had to endure being on his feet. When they reached the CVS about twenty minutes later, Bucky bought a pill in orange packaging called Motrin, alongside a giant bottle of bright yellow juice proclaiming itself Gatorade. It looked like neon piss, far as Steve was concerned, and he told Bucky so. Bucky shrugged and gulped it down anyway, muttering something about electrolytes.

The diner Steve had seen wasn’t crowded, which didn’t bode well for the food, but would give them the chance to talk with some measure of privacy, at least. Bucky sat down in the booth, hoodie pulled all the way up and sunglasses covering his eyes.

He looked absolutely fucking ridiculous. Endearingly fucking ridiculous.

“So,” Steve said, once they’d placed their drink orders (coffee for both, orange juice for Steve, Dr. Pepper for Bucky), “I think we need to talk.”

Bucky lowered the menu he’d been using to hide behind, and Steve recognized the skepticism in his posture.

“First off,” Steve continued. “I want to apologize for the other night. Unreservedly. I reacted like a real asshole, and I’m sorry.”

That admission of guilt caused Bucky to reach up and pull his sunglasses right off, squinting at Steve in the harsh daylight of the diner. “Really?”

“Really. The thing is…” He forced a smile onto his face. For all his morning revelations, saying it out loud was harder than he’d ever imagined it could be. “The thing about it is, Bucky, I’m not…”

“Gay. I know.”

Steve flinched, mouth moving before he had much chance to parse his phrasing. “No, that’s not...that is to say, I’m not, but I’m not not, either.”

Bucky blinked, squinting again before lifting his hand to rub his temples. “Um. What?”

“I’m…” Steve made a vague gesture, hands waving in small, stupid circles. “I think I might be?”

“You think?” Incredulity, thy name was Bucky.

“I like women,” he shrugged, balling his hands into fists before resting them on the table. “Too. Also. But you...it’s not every guy…”

A tentative smile was making its way onto Bucky’s face. He leaned forward slightly, head cocking to the side as he thought it over. “So, you’re bi.”

“Bye?” Steve wasn’t going anywhere, far as he knew.

“Uh, like, bisexual? Like, you like both?”

Oh. Another new term. Steve rolled the word around in his brain and wasn’t sure he liked it. Sounded too clinical and scientific for his tastes. Dissected bisexual.

“I don’t know if that’s what I am,” he said, before meeting Bucky’s eyes and holding his gaze steady. “Mostly, I know I like you. And I didn’t know how to admit that to myself, so I was a real shit to you instead.”

“Yes, you were,” Bucky agreed, before falling silent for long enough that Steve’s insides started squirming. “Which...okay, sure. You like me. What exactly does that mean?”

Oh, Steve hated this. Definitely couldn’t have this conversation. Hell, it had mortified him to discuss the particulars with Peggy, and he’d been more in his element there. It was expected, at the very least. “Uh,” he began, before looking at the menu. The window. The table. Anywhere but Bucky until he’d found what he wanted to say. “Means I’d like to kiss you again. Sometime? If you’d have me.”

Bucky opened his mouth to reply, just as their waitress came back with their drinks. Steve was torn between appreciation for the interruption and vexation over their discussion being broken in two.

They placed their orders - double hashbrowns and a side of bacon for Bucky. Short stack for Steve, though he wasn’t sure he’d be able to eat it, being so damn twisted up in knots.

Once she’d gone, Bucky looked at him for what felt like ages, bloodshot eyes judging the sum of Steve’s parts and finding him...something. Wanting? Maybe. Wanted? God, he hoped so.

“I am not,” Bucky said carefully. “Here for you to figure yourself out on. That’s not gonna be what this is.”

“What?” Steve wasn’t sure what any of that meant, though it didn’t seem positive.

“This...crisis of sexuality. Whatever’s going on with you. I’m not here to be someone for you to experiment on while you figure it out.”

Damn it. That was a hell of a punch in the gut. Steve had gone about it all wrong, as usual. “Oh, God, no,” he said, shaking his head. “Bucky, that’s not…” he swallowed. “Look, I’ve been pushing this shit down for a long time. Feels like about a hundred years."

Jesus. Well-done there, subconscious.

Shaking his head, he continued on. "I don’t want to kiss you for practice, or to fulfill some experimental vision. It’s only that...I like you. That’s all.”

There was a small smile on Bucky’s face by the time Steve had finished his spiel, though it was easy to see he was trying to hide it as he cast his eyes down towards the laminate tabletop. “Thank you,” he said. “For telling me. And uh, I am also sorry. If I worried you. Last night.”

“Oh, that? Don’t worry about it.” It wasn’t nothing, but it wasn’t worth another fight. “I was worried when you didn’t pick up your phone, but if it was out of battery...”

“I don’t want to go home,” Bucky blurted, cheeks going red as he cut Steve off. “What I said yesterday? About the airport? I don’t...I want to keep going. I want to go California. And I’m sorry I was shitty.”

Steve smiled and shrugged, reaching for his coffee. “You were only shitty,” he countered, “because I made an ass of myself. So, it’s bygones, pal. Water under the bridge.”

“Really?”

“Really.” Steve smiled. “Where do you want to head next?” They hadn’t made any concrete plans outside of Kansas City before the kiss had happened.

“Uh, I think Denver’s due west,” Bucky offered. “Boulder, too. We could head that way to get to the mountains.”

“Think we’ll run into Mother Abagail along the way?”

“You are such a dork,” Bucky said with a snort. As though he hadn’t seen thinking the same damn thing.

When their food arrived a few minutes later, they set to it with gusto, making plans for Denver as they ate. Bucky, shockingly, ate every bite of his hashbrowns, as well as a few mouthfuls of Steve’s pancakes. Apparently, all he needed to cure his pickiness was a hangover. Go figure.

Once they were back in the car, Bucky pored over the atlas for a few minutes, determined to find the most interesting westward route. Steve waited patiently for directions, a smile on his face. Things felt good. Different, but not so different as to be unpleasant. New, though. Bright with possibility.

“If…” Bucky began. “We take highway twenty-four, we can maybe get into Colorado today and stop just across the border to sleep. Then we can figure out if we want to aim for Denver or Boulder or somewhere else.”

“Sure, Buck. You’re the navigator.” Steve leaned closer to look at what he was pointing to on the map.

The kiss caught him by surprise, Bucky leaning in and catching the corner of Steve’s mouth, nose bumping against his cheek as a funny little laugh escaped him. Steve smiled. Turned his head and met Bucky somewhere in the middle, mouths coming together in that awkward, pleasant way that existed for all truly memorable first kisses. And it was their first kiss, as far as Steve was concerned.

Bucky broke away first, lips quirked up in a half-smile and a faint flush on his pale cheeks. “I’m the navigator,” he repeated, breathless enough that Steve couldn’t help wanting to kiss him once more. So he did, placing a light peck on his lower lip. Just enough to keep him close. Bucky’s smile widened as he spoke. “Let’s go to Denver, Frannie.”

Steve laughed - a real laugh - pulling back from Bucky’s orbit and starting the engine. “You got it, Stuart.”

 

Chapter Text

Kansas was boring. Really, really boring. Miles and miles of endless prairie boring.

Exceptionally boring because Bucky had kissed Steve that morning, and he kind of wanted to kiss Steve again. Sure, he could sit there staring out the window, pretending his head hurt only half as much as it did, and daydream about kissing Steve, but compared to the real thing, he found it wanting.

Because they had kissed. After all that rigamarole, Bucky had kissed him, and Steve had let him and now? Now, Bucky didn't know what, but he knew it was something. Or, at least, it could be something. They'd figure it out along the way, so long as Steve had been honest about not wanting to use Bucky as some sort of sexuality science experiment.

Squinting into the distance, Bucky shielded his eyes from the sun and sighed the sigh of the long-suffering. “This is boring,” he said over the music, turning his head to study Steve.

Steve looked right back at him, fully taking his eyes off the road. Not that it mattered. He could have taken his eyes off the road for the next million, billion miles, considering the road was flat, level, and perfectly straight forever and ever, amen.

“Yep,” Steve agreed, reaching to turn down the volume on the stereo. “We gotta stop for gas soon, though. That might liven things up.”

“Nothing like a gas station bathroom to make you wish you were back in the car,” Bucky agreed, covering his mouth to yawn. Two nights of drinking in a row did not a happy camper make, and he was done with the hard stuff for a good, long while.

Steve pulled into the next station they saw, situated (naturally) between the hot spot destinations of middle-of-nowhere and the town directly beside the middle-of-nowhere. Bucky made a beeline for the bathroom while Steve gassed up.

Once he’d taken care of business, he looked at himself in the mirror and winced, pulling at the bags under his eyes and making a face. To say he looked like shit was being generous. Corpse-like was apter. It was a wonder Steve liked him at all.

Speaking of, Steve was patiently waiting outside the bathroom door, hands in his pockets and a smile on his face. He looked fine. Good. Like he’d had a decent night’s sleep, even if Bucky had kept him up worrying (which he still felt seventy-five percent terrible about).

“All yours,” he offered.

"Thanks." Steve stepped closer, then hesitated, before leaning down for a kiss. Quick and light, hidden from prying eyes by the length of the hallway. Bucky could feel the tension radiating from Steve - spine stiff and straight, the resulting kiss awkward. Not entirely down with the public thing, but he was trying. Bumbling in his attempts to figure himself out, and to make things up to Bucky. Hell, if making things up meant spontaneous, strange kisses in gas station hallways, Bucky could get used to it and give him all the time he needed.

“Um, thanks,” Bucky said, watching as a red flush bloomed across Steve’s cheeks. “I’m gonna...go get, uh, more Gatorade.”

“Sure.” Steve cleared his throat, straightening up. “I’ll be out in a second.”

It was another ten minutes before they were settled back into the car - Steve having paid for Bucky’s drink and snack without remarking on the color of the liquid. A minor miracle.

Steve hesitated a moment after starting the engine, holding the steering wheel with both hands and drumming his fingers on the leather. “I hope it’s alright if I kiss you sometimes. I don’t want to be forward.”

Looking up from where he’d been ripping into his Ruffles, Bucky shrugged. “Oh. I don’t care. I mean, don’t like...make out with me in the middle of the Southern Baptist Convention or anything. But...you can kiss me whenever.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Steve said, relaxing.

“You do that.”

It occurred to Bucky, as Steve pulled out of the parking lot, that if they continued to kiss, it would eventually lead to other things. Which would make him Steve’s first, in a manner of speaking. He had never wanted to be anyone’s first. Too much pressure to perform and give someone a memory. Patrick had been with someone else before Bucky, which had suited him fine.

Steve, though, that was different. He wasn’t exactly some blushing virgin, although he kissed like one - all that pent-up nervousness and anxiety, undoubtedly due to Bucky’s gender and the novelty of the whole thing. But he’d had sex. Multiple times. And it wasn’t so different, Bucky figured, but at the same time, it kind of was.

The problem was, Steve didn’t know what he didn’t know, which meant Bucky had no idea where to start.

So, they’d have to talk about it.

But not yet.

Bucky finished his chips before pulling out his notebook and writing another half-page of his story, which had been slow going lately, considering his various states of intoxication. He had left the Voyager having a hell of a time - the God-like powers he’d had upon coming to Earth beginning to slip the longer he stayed amongst the people he was beginning to love - and as he scratched his pencil across the page he felt as though he’d written himself into a corner.

He wrote the same sentence five different times, scratching it out and trying again over and over until he closed the notebook in frustration.

“Alright?” Steve asked.

“Yeah,” Bucky replied. “Dumb story.”

“Sorry. Why don’t you sleep on it?”

Steve was smart. Bucky's head hurt. Leaning his temple against the window, he closed his eyes and drifted off soon after, waking only when the car slowed to a stop.

“I uh…” Steve’s hand was on his knee. Bucky opened his eyes and found himself in the parking lot of another rundown motel. “I know you don’t like the motels much, pal, but there are limited options out here, and it’s getting late.”

God, there was a guilty gut-punch. Bucky frowned, dropping a hand over Steve’s where it lay and shaking his head. “I do like them! I was just being shitty when I said that. They’re fun. You know, kitsch, again.”

Steve gave him that blank sort of smile that said no, he didn’t know, but he was going to pretend he did. That blank smile happened so often that Bucky had begun choosing to ignore it, chalking Steve’s ignorance up to whatever doomsday cult bunker he’d been raised in. It was the most logical explanation for Steve, Bucky having abandoned his alien theory as too farfetched.

“Great,” Steve said, cheerful enough if Bucky was happy. “I’ll go and get us a room.”

“I’ll come with you,” he said. “Wanna check out the brochure rack.”

The brochure rack in the lobby was stowed out, and thank God for that, considering Steve wouldn't let Bucky use his phone to find them things to do. Brochures - those oft-overlooked pieces of pre-Internet wisdom - had become Bucky's primary source of information on every terrible tourist trap across the country. They were important.

Brochures acquired, he followed Steve to their room, which was standard-issue. The theme of this particular slice of novelty was the wild west, meaning the bedspreads had cactus print and all the terrible art featured cow skulls and wagon wheels.

They’d picked up a menu in the lobby for a dubious-sounding Chinese restaurant which the clerk had proclaimed, “the best Chinese food in town!” Steve ordered while Bucky flipped through channels on the television.

By the time the food arrived, Bucky was starving, and he dove into his wontons with the gusto of a dying man, fully expecting to end up disappointed, only to be pleasantly surprised by some damn good food. Small towns: who knew?

After they’d eaten, though, things got awkward. End of a first date awkward. Only, instead of being able to go home at the close of the evening, Bucky had to share a hotel room with his so-called date. And also, his date was his good friend. And also, what the hell even was normal in a situation like that?

Bucky took his time in getting ready to sleep, changing in the bathroom before coming out to find Steve sitting up against the headboard of his bed, pajamas on, covers pulled to his waist and The Shining open on his lap. Hesitantly, Bucky first went to his own bed, looking down at his pillow, then over his shoulder, then back.

“I…” His voice came out a squeak, so he coughed and started again. “Can I come over there? For a minute? I don’t want to...I mean, it doesn’t have to be weird.”

He sounded like an idiot. There was no way Steve was ready to…

“Sure.”

Oh.

Bucky turned and found Steve holding up the covers as though he'd been waiting, the book having been placed on the nightstand. Not one to stand on ceremony, Bucky willed himself to relax as he got into Steve's bed. At least it was queen-sized, so they had room to breathe.

“I um, I just...I meant what I said,” he offered, wanting to put Steve at ease. “We don’t have to do anything, I only wanted to…”

“Bucky.” Steve’s voice was firm as he moved with decisiveness to turn out the lamp, leaving the room lit only by what light spilled through the curtains from the buzzing fluorescents in the parking lot.

Steve’s weight shifted, and Bucky’s heart began thumping somewhere in the vicinity of his molars. There was a hand cupping his cheek and then, wow, there was the press of Steve’s lips to his own, the kiss far firmer and warmer and better than any that had come before it. As though Steve knew just what he wanted, and now he’d decided he could have it, he wasn’t going to let anything stop him.

Bucky parted his lips, half-certain Steve would pull back. He didn’t, though neither did he deepen the kiss, preferring to set his own pace, which turned out to be torturously slow. His hand slipped from Bucky’s cheek to his neck, and only then did he move closer, drawing Bucky up and into an intense embrace.

As it turned out, Steve was a practiced kisser, even if his experience with kissing men was limited to Bucky. He had done this before, with at least one someone who had taught him well. Someone who had taught him to take it slowly, to tease, to leave his partner chasing after the sensation of those lips. A breathy moan left Bucky the first time Steve’s tongue swiped across his lower lip, sure and insistent and oh, yes, he wanted Steve.

Steve gave a low chuckle at Bucky’s moan, pulling away enough that their noses bumped together, Steve’s calloused thumb rubbing a circle just below Bucky’s jaw. “Alright, pal?”

“I, yeah,” he managed. “You’re uh. Good at that.”

“Mmm.” Steve laughed, a low rumble deep in his chest that had Bucky’s prick taking a definite interest in things. “I had a solid teacher. Though, as far as uh...everything else…?” Glancing down, Steve shrugged, both of them cognizant of the shared hurdle they’d have to cross if things kept going well.

“S’okay,” Bucky said, turning his head and kissing the inside of Steve’s forearm. “Really, I just wanna kiss you for now. I’m not... “ he looked up. “I mean, I’m not asking for that, and I’m kinda...nervous for when we get there because I’ve never taught anyone before but…”

“I guess we’ll figure it out when it happens, Buck,” Steve said before he was kissing him again - needier and hungrier, catching Bucky’s hand in his own before beginning to ease him down to the mattress.

There was more to life than sex, Bucky came to realize, as Steve lay him out, pinning him to the bed with the substantial, comforting weight of his bigger body. Their hands stayed above their waists, but it was impossible not to notice that they were both enjoying things, on those few occasions when they moved a certain way and the predicaments of their lower halves became apparent.

“I like your beard,” Bucky panted, coming up for air eventually, arms wrapped around Steve’s neck.

“Yeah?” Steve smiled, resting their foreheads together.

“Mmmhmm. Never liked beards before, but now…”

“Huh.” Steve grinned. “Yeah, me neither. But what can I say? It’s growin’ on me.”

Bucky groaned at the pun, before forgetting the lousy joke entirely as Steve put his beard to good use, pressing a line of kisses down Bucky's jaw to his neck. The sensation of those rough whiskers, combined with the marks Steve was no doubt sucking into his skin, had Bucky's hips jerking, desperate for any friction that might bring some small measure of relief.

Steve noticed - it was impossible not to, with the way Bucky was moving - and he slid one big hand down Bucky’s torso, bringing it to rest just above his navel and tapping his index finger on Bucky’s bare stomach (his shirt having rucked up considerably during their activities). “Feelin’ pretty good, huh, Buck?”

“Ungh.” Not his most articular response. But yes. Feeling pretty good.

“I’m not ah...sure what I ought to do here,” Steve admitted, sounding wary for the first time since they’d started.

Bucky closed his eyes, willing his body to calm itself as he took a deep, steadying breath. There was a part of him that worried if he pushed Steve too far, too fast, that would be it. He’d scare him off and ruin things before they could even get going.

“I am,” Bucky said, gritting his teeth as he pushed Steve’s hand away. “Gonna go jerk off in the bathroom. Actually. And then I’m coming back to go to sleep.”

Steve bit his lip, and Bucky really couldn’t look at his earnest face, or he’d go back on all his good intentions.

“Really?” Steve said, frowning. “I was gonna try...I mean, I’m not sure what, but…”

“Steve, it’s fine,” he said. “I’m so good, alright? And we’re taking it slowly.”

“Right.” There was a hesitation, but Steve ultimately nodded.

“So…” Bucky sat up, pushing back the covers to get out of bed. The erection he was sporting was visible to anyone with eyes, despite the dim light of the room. He didn’t care - Steve had felt it, and there was no point in pretending it hadn’t happened. “I will be uh. Right back.”

Shocking precisely no-one, it didn't take Bucky long to finish himself off, stifling a moan as he shot into a wad of toilet paper, gamely assisted by a bottle of unscented hotel lotion. Charming. Romantic. The very height of class.

Making a mental note to pick up some lube at the next available opportunity (just in case), Bucky left the bathroom and studied Steve, who was curled up under the covers. If - and it was a big if - he’d taken care of his own problem in Bucky’s absence, he’d done well disposing of the evidence.

“Hi,” Bucky said, awkward as anything.

“Hi,” Steve replied. “You gonna sleep over here? With me?”

“As opposed to sleeping with someone else?”

“Don’t be a smartass.”

“Can’t help it when you set me up,” he pointed out, crossing the room to clamber back into Steve’s bed, stretching out so they were facing one another.

“You good?” Steve asked, as though Bucky were the one that needed checking in on.

“Oh. Uh, yeah. It’s only. Was um. Did you like it?”

“Yes,” Steve said without a moment's pause. “I did.”

“I’m. Well. That’s...so great,” he said, chipper like he was congratulating Steve on a new job or an A on a test.

“Would it be alright,” Steve said, a smile that might have been described as shy on his face. “If I held you? Would you mind that?”

The vulnerability was new; Bucky had never heard him so hesitant. As if asking to hold Bucky was so much more than asking to kiss him. As if it was opening up a part of himself that revealed something true. Something Steve liked - something he needed from a partner - and for which he was nervous to ask.

Being able to give him exactly what he wanted was nice.

“Of course.”

They moved themselves, arms and legs and elbows and knees all over the place until they were able to settle with Bucky’s back pressed against Steve’s front, one of Steve’s arms draped over his torso, hand spanning his stomach. It was an intimate place to be touched, and while Bucky might have sucked in a little, he didn’t mind. Not when it was Steve.

Steve pressed a light kiss to the top of his head. “Goodnight, Bucky,” he murmured, breath warm as it ruffled the hair on his scalp.

Bucky smiled, settling one hand over Steve’s while tucking the other under his chin, holding the covers in place the same way he’d done since he was small. “Night, Steve.”

When Bucky woke the next morning, he found Steve still asleep, having shifted in the night to release his hold. Now, he was lying flat on his back, one arm flung above his head, the other resting on his torso, with his mouth hanging open and his hair mussed. Still handsome, sure, but human and vulnerable in a way Bucky didn’t often get to see. He liked it - watched him for a few minutes before going to get his notebook.

Bringing it back to bed, he began to write. The Voyager wasn’t Steve, he knew that much. Or, he hadn’t started out as Steve. Now, as Bucky colored in the details of the character, he found that the Voyager looked like Steve. A little. Was a weirdo like Steve. Sort of. Made bad puns like Steve. Definitely.

Only Steve wasn’t a god or an alien, he was just Steve.

Didn’t change the fact that Bucky was inspired as he sat there, watching the way Steve’s chest rose and fall with each breath. Noticed the slope of his broad shoulders, the vein that ran along the underside of his arm that Bucky very much wanted to bite. But hey, there were lots of places on Steve he could see himself biting.

Huh. It was more fun to daydream about biting Steve than writing. The Voyager could wait.

Steve caught him eventually, one blue eye cracking open while Bucky was having a long contemplation about the length of Steve’s nose - wondering how many times he’d broken it, who’d done the breaking, and why.

“Mornin’, Buck,” Steve grunted.

“Hi,” Bucky said, unabashed in his ogling.

“M’shower.”

A most excellent idea - Bucky took one of his own, once Steve was through, and they were on the road again before nine.

An hour after that, they were an hour closer to Denver, Bucky with his feet on the dashboard, brochures on his lap. When he found one that got him excited, he yanked it out of the stack and waved it in the air. “Oh my God, Steve!”

Steve’s reaction was ridiculous - reaching over and bracing Bucky back against the seat with his hand, as though Bucky had shouted in danger. It happened fast, with Bucky yelping and Steve nearly swerving off the road in his haste. For all that he was a stalwart guy, Bucky had gotten the sense Steve was dealing with some residual shit from the war. Not PTSD, exactly (though Bucky’s knowledge about PTSD mostly came from TV shows and movies), but something deep down and wholly unresolved.

“Jesus, Bucky,” he managed, cheeks going red as he pulled the car back into alignment and took his hand away. “What?”

“Um.” Well, now Bucky was embarrassed. “It’s only, there’s this hotel? Right near where we’re going? And it’s a Stephen King hotel. I mean, it’s the Stephen King hotel. From The Shining!”

Steve raised an eyebrow, which Bucky took as an all-clear to continue.

"So, like, the book's about the Overlook and whatever but the hotel he based it on - the Stanley? - it's in this town called Estes Park near Denver, and we can go there.”

Bucky expected excitement, considering Steve’s near-obsession with all things King. What he got instead was a wry grin and Steve thumping him on the knee, hard enough to make Bucky let out a startled laugh. “Geez, Buck, you nearly wrecked us for that?”

“Well. Uh. Yeah?”

“Huh.” Steve grinned. “Find it on the map, and we’ll go.”

“Really?”

“Would I lie to you?”

 


 

Turned out, getting to Estes Park would add an hour and a bit to their total drive time. Bucky didn’t mind. Not when that drive took them through the magnificence of the Rocky Mountains, flat grasslands giving way to the sheer faces of the foothills leading to the staggering beauty of the peaks and valleys.

When the mountains had first appeared on the horizon, Bucky hadn’t been sure what he was seeing, squinting into the distance.

“Are those...clouds?”

“Mountains,” Steve had said. “I remember this, from when I was out here before. You think...God, how can that be real, and then you get up close and...hell, I thought I’d never seen anything so beautiful until I saw the Alps.”

Squawking, Bucky had leaned over and pinched Steve’s thigh. It was hard to find enough fat to get a good grip, but he managed it all the same. “Damn it, that’s ruining them! Not as good as the Alps, my ass!”

Steve had laughed, knocking Bucky’s hand away before grabbing it and kissing the back, pushing their fingers together and letting them rest on the console between the seats. The gesture was unexpected and so thoroughly romantic that Bucky didn’t know what to do with himself, so he settled for reading the Estes Park brochure out loud as they grew closer.

Once they reached the foothills, they began to climb. Every twist and turn brought stunning new vistas into view - an endless succession of grandiose beauty. Bucky's only disappointment came from the fact that Steve was forced to let go of his hand to maneuver the car around some of the tighter corners.

They saw Estes Park from a distance, the little town nestled alongside a river and overlooking a lake, visible from the highway as they began to make their way down the series of sharp turns into the valley. Upon arrival, it was impossible to miss their destination. The Stanley Hotel stood out, gleaming white and red, standing apart from town and set high on a hill. It wasn’t quite the secluded resort Bucky had imagined from the book, nor was it what the Torrance family had found in the film. The town was bustling with late summer tourists, and as they drove down the main drag, Bucky could see Steve’s annoyance mounting as people darted to and fro, only his good reflexes saving him from hitting a couple stupider souls.

They’d accidentally turned the wrong way, and it took them some time to find a sign pointing the way back to the Stanley, some of the majesty taken away by the sheer amount of people doing the same thing. Still, Bucky could see what King had seen. How intimidating the structure appeared - how lonely and austere it might be, buried in the snow.

“We can take a tour,” he said to Steve as they found the turnoff. “They do ghost tours, and like regular ones. But you have to pay to get into the parking lot, it says, so we don’t have to…”

“Let me worry about it, pal,” Steve said with a smile. There were a few switchbacks that led them up the hill towards the hotel, and a guard house lay between them and the parking lot. Steve rolled down the window, giving the man collecting visitor fees a thousand watt smile.

“Hi,” he said. “We’re checking in. Got a reservation under Smith.”

Lying punk. Bucky bit back a grin as the guard waved them through upon checking his list. “Steve!”

“What?” Steve laughed. “There’s always a Smith. And I’m sure as shit not paying to visit a parking lot, Buck.”

Sometimes, Steve's cheapness was frustrating. Other times, admirable. The man was tight-fisted, though he'd been generous with Bucky so he couldn't complain.

Still, it made what happened next extremely surprising.

Once they’d parked and headed inside, Bucky went to find a bathroom while Steve inquired about tours. It was a fancy hotel, albeit one with a sort of faded, ornate splendor, catering to those who wanted an old-fashioned experience. Bucky liked it immediately, and he was meandering his way back towards the lobby, reading signs about the hotel’s history when Steve came up behind him.

“Catch,” Steve said, tossing something at him as Bucky turned around. Reflexes kicked in, and Bucky caught whatever it was. Looking down, he found he was holding a set of keys.

“Uh?”

“So yeah,” Steve laughed. “I was gonna see how much a room was. And, I saw something about...these little places out back? They’re like apartments, best as I can figure. Up further on the hill, but they’re part of the hotel. So. I got one for us.”

Bucky blinked. “What?”

Steve rubbed the back of his neck. “We haven’t stopped for more’n a night in a while. And they had a good deal - two weeks at a twenty-percent discount. You wanted to see Denver, too, and I figured there’s plenty for us to do around here, and…”

Steve was blushing. Steve was stammering. Steve was a secret romantic and Bucky was sure his heart was going to burst and kill him with an overwhelming swell of emotion. He didn’t bother to keep the grin off his face, stepping closer. “Seriously?”

“I ah…” If it was possible for all the blood in a person’s body to rush to their face, it was happening to Steve at that moment. Bucky was slightly concerned. “You were so excited...and you didn’t want me to lie to the guard...we’re not Smith, but…”

Bucky couldn’t help what he did next - leaning up and kissing Steve right there in front of God and everyone who happened to be in that hallway. For a moment, he worried Steve was going to pull back. Spurn him again, and this time in front of other people.

Steve didn’t - choosing to return the kiss for a second before leaning back with a grin on his face. “Aw, c’mon, Buck. It’s only a room.”

It was, and it wasn't. Less an apartment and more a townhouse. A place to themselves; a place to stop and recharge. That glorious place with a view of the Rockies out the front window of the living room with a giant fireplace that Bucky immediately wanted to turn on, though it was still early in September. There was a kitchen, two bathrooms, and a balcony with a hot tub.

There was a bedroom, too. One bedroom with a single, king-sized bed.

For two weeks.

Bucky didn’t hate that.

 

Chapter Text

It was easy to like Bucky, so maybe Steve was stupid for having expected it to be difficult. Naive for believing that giving in to the buried urges within himself would be wholly different from the way he’d felt about Peggy.

But it wasn’t.

Bucky made himself easy to like - affectionate without being cloying, funny without being overbearing. Different than Peggy, to be sure, but no less exceptional. Peggy had been headstrong where Bucky was cautious, stubborn where Bucky was conciliatory. Prone to lashing out in anger while Bucky’s temper was borne out in a low-simmering sulk.

Where they were similar, though, was in their kindness. That innate quality of decency that drew Steve into their orbits, helpless to resist.

And he and Bucky were in one another's orbits constantly these days, in their house on the hill, as Steve had taken to thinking of it. They worked around one another, settling into their newfound domesticity, and found that the space suited them fine.

The first day, they'd gone grocery shopping, stocking the kitchen and cooking together. Neither of them was exceptionally skilled in the culinary arts, and while the burgers they produced were no better than charred hockey pucks, they were at least edible.

That night, they shared a bed for the second time. Steve found it a comfort to hold Bucky. To hang on tight no matter the differences between the sharp angles of Bucky’s body and the memories he had of Peggy’s curves.

It was harder in the morning, waking to find his nose pressed against a head of dark hair and for a moment - the briefest of moments - forgetting where and when he was. Thinking she was there with him instead.

The moment passed, Bucky waking slowly, turning onto his back and letting Steve kiss him awake. That was a hell of a way to banish grief.

Funny thing about a fella’s libido was that once the great, hulking beast of want was roused, it was hard to put him down again. Steve wanted Bucky with a ferocity that bordered on frightening, mostly because he had no idea what to do or how to do it. Sure, he could figure out the basic mechanics, considering he had equipment of his own to work with, but the doing of the act was different from the imagining.

He was going to have to figure it out, though. Same as he’d bumbled his way through losing his virginity with Peggy, that last night in Camp Lehigh.

Back to the drawing board.

 


 

On their third day in the cabin, Bucky - the king of indoor activities who hated breaking a sweat - suggested a hike.

You could have knocked Steve over with a feather, and he raised an eyebrow, looking up from his novel. “Really?”

“Sure,” Bucky said, tapping his finger on the guidebook he’d been poking through. “There’s a glacial lake at the end of it.”

“Yeah, alright,” Steve said, quick to agree in case Bucky changed his mind. “Gonna break in your boots?”

The boots in question had been purchased on day two, from a hiking supply store in town. Steve was sure they’d overpaid, but Bucky hadn't packed any proper outdoor gear, and he’d spent the better part of their hikes in the Smokies complaining bitterly about his ratty sneakers.

“You think I’m gonna get blisters?” Bucky frowned.

Considering what the boots had cost, Steve sure as shit hoped not. “I sure as shit hope not.”

“Hmm.” Bucky closed the book, tossing it onto the couch before getting to his feet, where he proceeded to yawn and stretch in that way he had. The way that - more and more often - made Steve want to fall to his knees and lick a stripe across his skin. Make him vulnerable. Make him Steve’s. And, yeah, they weren’t fucking, but it was beginning to feel inevitable. “I’ll bring the blister stuff, just in case.”

“Huh?” He’d forgotten what they were talking about.

“The blister bandaid things? Are you listening to me?”

“No.” Steve shrugged, putting down his book and reaching out a hand. “C’mere a second.”

Bucky came. Straddled Steve’s lap and let Steve kiss the pout right off his face before they broke apart and went to get ready for their hike. God, it happened quickly, the touching. The wanting. The harmony of it all.

The trailhead was further than either of them expected, and Bucky was looking as though he regretted his choice, staring up at the very literal mountain they were supposed to climb. Not to the top - Steve had checked - but the elevation gain was significant.

“Uh,” Bucky broke in. “The book said it was moderate.”

“Moderate’s probably relative, pal.”

Bucky gave him a look but didn’t raise another protest as they started on the trail. Soon enough, Bucky began falling behind, so Steve slowed his pace.

"No point in hurrying," he said when they reached the top of an especially steep incline, and Bucky doubled over, holding his knees as he caught his breath.

“You--” Bucky managed. “How come you’re not--”

Steve didn’t answer; how could he? Instead, he lay a hand on the small of Bucky’s back and tried to comfort him. “It’s probably just the elevation getting to you, Buck. That’s all.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Bucky replied, still a bit winded as he straightened up. “You’re elevated, too.”

“Maybe it affects some people worse than others.”

Elevation sickness was a nasty business - Steve had noticed the bloody tissues in the bathroom, Bucky’s nosebleeds brought on by the thin mountain air. Having had enough of those as a kid to last him a lifetime, Steve had sympathized but hadn’t brought them up.

"Not you, apparently. You're ripped." Bucky said, though he didn't sound too upset. Reaching for Steve's hand, he squeezed his fingers, and they set off again.

The trail was gorgeous with the first hints of fall beginning to show as the path wound around picturesque lakes and over small streams. There weren't too many other folks out, though they passed a few other groups of hikers - rugged individuals obviously on a more extended trip, laden down with huge backpacks, as well as a family with four kids barely carrying anything at all.

He and Bucky fell somewhere in the middle, packs full of food and water, but not much else. It was ten miles, out and back. They wouldn’t die.

As they continued, Steve found himself puzzling over a word Bucky had used. Usually, he could figure out Bucky’s slang with context clues, but this one had him confounded. “What’s ripped?” he asked eventually. He was betting it had something to do with his physique, he just couldn’t figure out why.

“Uh...you are?”

“Yeah, so you said,” he laughed. “But why ripped? What does that mean?”

Bucky frowned, chewing on his bottom lip as he thought it over. “I don’t know why. Just...you are.”

Hell of a situation, how a body could go into the ice thinking a word meant one thing, then come out to find it had changed meaning, then find out it had meant that new thing so long, a kid like Bucky didn't know when or why it had changed.

“Well,” he said, “you figure it out, you let me know.”

“Aye, aye,” Bucky said.

It ended up taking them nearly two and a half hours to navigate the five miles to the glacial lake. The effort proved worth it when the woods opened up onto a vista carved out of the mountain by ice and time, stunning in its majesty, a hidden oasis for those who took the time to seek it out.

“Wow,” Bucky said, pulling his phone out to snap a picture.

Steve agreed with the sentiment, if not the method of commemoration. He sat down with his sketchbook instead, leaning back against a boulder and concentrating on capturing the peaks and valleys.

Bucky, practical to the very end, plunked down next to him and began digging in his rucksack for the sandwiches they’d made that morning. He was neither couth nor dignified as he crammed half of a PB&J into his mouth, hardly taking the time to chew. His appetite had increased, though he still ate like shit most of the time. Still, he’d started eating actual meals as opposed to candy, and on very rare occasions he’d allow a vegetable to pass his lips.

Not that Steve was about to point it out, after the reception he'd gotten the last time he tried. Bucky's habits were his own.

“This part reminds me of Europe,” Steve admitted. “The Alps, even.”

The memories came unbidden - nights spent camping in the mountains, eking out shelter with his men. There was one particularly good memory of a stolen evening in a safe house, Peggy’s work bringing them together for the first time in months. God, they’d nearly ripped one another to shreds, frantic and anxious and worried they wouldn’t have another chance.

They’d been premature; their last time had come several months later.

Hugging his knees, Bucky looked over at Steve. “How long were you there?”

"Long time," he replied, still half-caught in the remembrance. "I wouldn't mind going back. See what it looks like now that the war's over."

He realized his mistake the moment the words left his lips. Bucky frowned, brows knitting together. “There’s...not a war in Europe?”

“Sorry, yeah, I phrased that badly,” Steve said, the lie a poor cover. “I’d like to go back as a civilian, I mean to say. Now that I’m out of the service.” Steve knew there were still troops in Europe, and when Bucky had made the assumption that Steve had spent time there en route to the Middle East, Steve hadn’t bothered to correct him.

Bucky squinted, and shit, Steve could feel the back of his neck turning red. He wanted nothing more than to tell Bucky the truth. He hated lying to him outright when it was so much easier to lie by omission. Though hell, these days, even that was hard. But how could he tell him the truth now, after so much time had passed? He wouldn’t be believed, or worse: he would be, and he’d lose Bucky because of it.

The thought of never seeing Bucky again might not have worried him two months prior when he was just the kid at the other end of his letters. Now? He couldn’t stand it. Couldn’t stand the thought of having something so close to wonderful and then losing it all over again.

So he told himself it was a problem for another day and that he'd figure it out when he had to, but for now, he ought to enjoy the goddamn hike.

“I guess,” Bucky said, slow and unsure.

“Peg and I,” Steve started before Bucky could spend too much time thinking about what he’d said. “We used to sneak off sometimes if we were stationed in the same place. Make time together. Uh, euphemistically, that is.”

“Peg?” Bucky frowned before a slow realization dawned. Shit, had Steve not mentioned her by name before? Probably not - he hadn’t mentioned her much at all, save for a few necessary references.

“Peggy,” he offered. “We never had much time together, so we took advantage of it when we could.”

“Oh.” Bucky frowned, reaching into his bag and pulling out a granola bar before getting to his feet. “I’m gonna uh, go look at the lake.”

Fuck. That had been the wrong thing to say, though he wasn't entirely sure why. Steve and his big mouth, getting him into trouble in two goddamn centuries. He watched Bucky as he walked towards the water, shoulders hunched and head bowed. Funny how ‘annoyed’ looked the same on both Bucky and Peggy - the set of their shoulders eerily similar. Steve knew better than to follow, but all the same, he wished he wasn’t quite so good at bringing such annoyance out in his favorite people.

Bucky stayed by the water for a while - long enough for Steve to polish off two sandwiches and a cookie. When he returned, he was frowning, and he reached for his bag to close it up.

“We better get going,” he said. “It’ll be at least two hours back down.”

“Sure,” Steve agreed. “I...are you alright, though? If I said something wrong--”

Bucky shrugged, shouldering his pack and fingering the straps as he worried his bottom lip between his teeth the way he always did when he had something he wanted to say that he thought might not go over well. Used to be, he just wouldn’t say it. Things had improved considerably in that regard.

“You can talk about her,” he said. “If you want. I won’t be mad.”

That wasn’t what Steve had been expecting. “I...oh.”

“I’m not gonna get jealous, okay? Or stupid. I don’t know what happened with you two, but like, you’re here with me, so I’m not...” He shrugged, blowing out a breath which fluttered the hair that had fallen from his ponytail. “That’s not who I am.”

Steve wasn’t good at subtle, but he wanted to be careful with the piece of Bucky’s heart that was quite clearly being laid out in front of him. Clambering to his feet, he reached for his own bag before taking Bucky’s hand.

“It’s not that I think you’d be jealous,” he said. “It’s only that it’s hard for me to talk about her without…” Without the chasm inside of himself opening up that much wider.

“You loved her.”

“I did.” Do.

Bucky nodded before pulling Steve in the direction of the trail, shoulders squared and a surety to his steps. They walked in silence for a while, the forest closing up behind them as they left the grandeur and expanse of the lake behind.

Things still felt strange, and Steve mulled over what he could do to set them right again. An idea struck him - borne of yet something else he and Peggy had once done, rather stupidly - and he smiled. Intimacy was easy to restore if the approach was novel (or at least novel to them).

He tugged on Bucky’s hand, pulling him right off the trail and into the woods, where there were trees with trunks thick enough to shield them from view.

“What?” Bucky laughed, just as Steve shut him up with a kiss, pressing him right against the rough bark of something huge and ancient and solid. “Ohhh…”

Making time in the woods, as it happened, was one of Steve's specialties. He kissed Bucky breathless, pressing one knee between his legs until he felt something stand to attention. Truth be told, the first time he'd felt the press of Bucky's prick against his thigh it had scared him and thrilled him all at once. Now that fear was gone, and only the thrill was left. That, and the pride puffing Steve up with the knowledge that he was the one managing to get Bucky all hot and bothered.

“Uh oh,” Steve murmured, pulling back from the kiss and looking down at Bucky, all sweetness with his bitten lips and big blue-grey eyes. “Gonna walk back to the car lookin’ like that, pal?”

“Nnngh,” Bucky replied. Not much of an answer, but Steve could work with it. Took advantage of Bucky’s discombobulation, even, taking both Bucky’s wrists in his left hand and pinning them to the tree above his head like he was some doe-eyed damsel in distress.

Because yeah, Steve was good at making time in the woods, having fucked Peggy against a tree a time or two. Laid out his jacket on the ground and had her there, too, legs clamped like a vice around his ears as he did his damndest to make her scream, and she did her damndest to keep quiet. Turned out, she was better at doing her part, but Steve learned a lot about what he could accomplish with his tongue.

Logistics with Bucky were a bit more complicated, considering, but Steve could make do. He held him in place, popping the button on his pants and watching as Bucky's eyes went wider, his hips jerking upwards at the touch.

“Need a little help?”

Bucky nodded. Steve spit in his palm. There were better methods, but he hadn’t anticipated quite this scenario unfolding when he’d packed his bag. Slipping his hand past the waistband of Bucky’s boxers, he palmed Bucky’s cock and took a moment to appreciate the sheer fucking newness of holding a prick that wasn’t his own. Granted, he had pre-serum and post-serum masturbatory experiences, but Bucky was neither of those.

Steve would have to take a closer look sometime.

“Steve, please,” Bucky whined, rocking his hips into Steve’s hand and oh, he was cute when he wanted something.

Ignoring the needy throb of his own dick (which wasn't hard but was undoubtedly thinking about heading that direction), Steve set to work. Figuring out what Bucky liked was a piece of cake, considering he couldn't shut up about it, a litany of pleas and whimpers falling from his mouth as Steve pumped him.

“Shhh,” Steve cautioned, trying not to laugh as he leaned in to muffle Bucky’s whines with a kiss. Sure, the trail was mostly empty, but they weren’t completely alone, and the last thing either of them needed was a park ranger stumbling onto the scene. “You’re alright, Buck.”

Very much alright, as a matter of fact, squirming and moaning, fighting and jerking against Steve’s other hand, which was still holding him against the tree. When he came, it was with a happy shout that no amount of kissing could muffle, spunk spilling hot and wet onto Steve’ still-pumping fist which, honestly, was pretty fucking spectacular. Messy? Sure. New? Yep. Strange? Absolutely. But overall, Steve was sure it was going to become one of his fonder memories.

Steve released Bucky’s wrists, and Bucky lowered them only far enough that he could wrap his arms around Steve’s neck, clinging tightly.

“Oh,” Bucky managed. “The hell. What the hell. Was that?”

“Pfft,” Steve grinned, feeling pretty goddamn proud of himself. “You know what that was.”

“Well, yeah,” Bucky said, still catching his breath and pressing a couple light kisses to the sensitive skin below Steve’s ear. “But I thought we weren’t uh...doing that stuff yet.”

“We weren’t,” Steve replied. “Now we are.”

It was simple enough: he wanted Bucky. More every day. Logic dictated they needed to at least start heading in that direction. Crawl before you walk, walk before you run. Etcetera.

“Oh.” Bucky released his hold on Steve’s neck. “I uh. Good. That’s good. Should I return the favor?”

Yes. God, yes. But no. It wasn’t about quid pro quo; it was about showing Bucky he was wanted in spite of Steve’s grief, and confusion. So he shrugged, slinging an arm around Bucky’s shoulders. “Nah, I’ll survive. Got better self-control than you, I figure.”

“Uh huh.” Bucky smiled and dropped a hand to the front of Steve’s pants, squeezing what he found and oh, fuck, that felt fantastic. “You might scare the locals, walking around that way.”

“Bucky…”

“I want to.”

Bucky was a man on a mission, and there was no stopping him. Not that Steve tried - putting up no more than a few half-hearted protestations in the midst of Bucky undoing his fly and taking him firmly in hand.

“Wow,” Bucky said, and Steve had no way of knowing if that was good, bad, or otherwise, only that it was the best thing that had happened to him in seventy goddamn years.

Christ, Bucky knew what he was doing. Knew how to touch. When to squeeze. Seemed to instinctively pick up on when Steve was close and began to pump him harder. It nearly brought Steve to his knees, mouth falling open in a silent cry when he came, shooting white across Bucky’s knuckles and gasping for breath. Maybe the altitude was affecting him, or maybe it was just Bucky.

He could have wept with the relief of it all. Nearly did, until Bucky brought him up short with a laugh.

“Uh, are you always so quiet when you come?”

Steve’s head was spinning, and it took him a moment to navigate his way back down to earth. “Hnh?”

Bucky grinned, waiting.

“No,” Steve said, once he had his bearings. “But...thin walls growing up. We’re outside. Shut up.”

“It’s sweet,” Bucky replied. “And now I get to figure out what I have to do to get you noisy.”

“Knockitoff, Buck,” he warned, laughing. Not that he minded.

“I think I already did,” Bucky replied primly, before cleaning his hand on a leaf.

The rest of the hike was perfect. More than that, the rest of the day was perfect, right down to the pasta they undercooked for dinner and the cuddling they did in bed, making vague plans for a trip to Denver the next day.

Steve supposed he ought to have seen the other shoe hanging over his head. Waiting to drop.

The drop came four days later, in Boulder. Bucky had wanted to run around an outdoor mall on Pearl Street, which was Steve’s idea of hell, so he’d left Bucky to it and found a restaurant where he could sit and wait.

He was nose-deep in the last third of The Shining when an unfamiliar blonde slid into the booth in front of him, brazen as could be, in sunglasses and a floral dress. Indistinguishable from any number of pretty young women wandering the street outside.

Except for the unfortunate fact that this young woman was Natasha Romanov in a wig.

“Cap,” she greeted, cool as a cucumber.

Steve stiffened, and his thoughts turned to Bucky.

“You’re a hard man to find,” Natasha continued.

“Almost like I planned it that way.” Steve’s voice came out hard, mind going a million miles an hour, calculating how long he had until Bucky turned up. What Romanov might do if she saw him.

“You had help,” she said. “I won’t insult us both by pretending I don’t know exactly who that was. And that’s fine. I don’t blame you, after what happened. But--”

“How did you find me?”

“The kid you're with,” she said. “Stark destroyed your phone, but I had your texts and his number. So I kept tabs on him, and once you started traveling together…” She shrugged.

God, Steve was tired. “We don’t want trouble.”

“You won’t get it.” There it was - that enigmatic smile he didn’t quite trust. “Not from me, at any rate. I’m not here for SHIELD, just for myself.”

“Fury?”

“Not him, either.” Reaching across the table, she stole a lukewarm french fry, popping it into her mouth and making a face. “I’m not your enemy, Steve. I thought I was your friend, but...I suppose I don’t have that luxury.”

“I don’t know you, and I think that’s by design.”

Something flashed in Natasha’s eyes, and Steve had to think it was deliberate - that tiny show of vulnerability. That flicker of pain. “Look,” she said. “We worked well together. I thought so, anyway. And then you disappeared, or tried to. A girl might get her feelings hurt.”

“It’s not personal.”

“Neither is this.” She hesitated. “I’m not telling anyone where you are. Not Fury, not Hill, not anyone. And I’m not telling anyone about the kid. That’s…”

“Is this a threat?”

“No.”

“Then you want me to trust you.”

“Yes. I wish you already did.”

“Yeah, well,” Steve shrugged.

“The thing is,” Natasha continued. “I might need you. Me. Not SHIELD. Not Stark.”

Steve cocked a brow, crossing his arms over his chest. “Oh?”

“There’s something wrong. I don’t know what, but I’ve been pulling on some threads. Seeing what turns up.”

“Making trouble?”

“Something like that.” She offered him half a smile. “I hope it’s nothing, but if it isn’t? If the world needs you - if I need you - are you still that guy?”

There it was. Natasha, holding the grenade, asking Steve to jump on it all over again.

Fuck. He would always be that guy.

“Yes,” he said.

Natasha nodded, slipping from the booth with a vague promise of being in touch before disappearing into the crowd outside.

Just like that, the countdown clock started. Maybe he had a day, maybe a week, maybe a month, maybe a year. The sword of Damocles inching its way towards his throat, waiting for whatever evil was going to strike, pulling him back into the line of fire.

He had no idea what he was going to say to Bucky when it happened. No idea how to begin untying the Gordian knot he’d in which he'd bound himself.

So he sat there: ninety-four years old, wanting nothing more than a little more time.

 

Chapter Text

Bucky had never thought of himself as a domestic sort of person, namely because the only domesticity he’d known had been the kind provided by his parents - homey and comforting, yes, but easy enough to imagine himself escaping.

This, though? This companionable fortnight spent with Steve, tucked away from the world in their house on the hill? Nine days in and Bucky couldn't imagine giving it up. Couldn't imagine any other life than this one.

It was a dangerous thing, falling so fast, but Steve made it simple when he woke Bucky up with a nose pressed against his neck, hand halfway down Bucky’s shorts, easing him into the world with teasing kisses and soft touches.

“Morning,” came the puff of air against his skin. Bucky wriggled closer, still half-asleep as Steve wrapped a hand around him. He shuddered to imagine what his breath smelled of, but it was hard to care when Steve was making him feel so good.

Bucky hadn’t been expecting Steve to be such a romantic, was all. Steve - pragmatic, dorky Steve with his atlas and his odd phrases - was downright chivalrous, treating Bucky with an awed reverence and paying attention to him with a focused intensity that set Bucky squirming. Made him feel as though he was worth more than he’d ever thought himself worth before.

(Seriously, though, some enterprising person could bottle Steve up and sell him as a cure for self-esteem issues.)

That blazing intensity could be disconcerting, too. Mostly because Bucky wasn’t sure how long their fledgling relationship could last. Steve was still hung up on his girl - still grieving whatever he’d lost with her - and Bucky sometimes wondered how much of his newfound devotion was transference. He’d meant what he said to Steve about not being jealous, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t worried.

Eventually, they would run out of road and into reality.

Bucky wasn’t ready to think about that yet, choosing instead to take his pleasure where he could find it.

“Morning,” he mumbled in return, closing his eyes again as Steve worked him over. He couldn’t complain about the new morning ritual - Steve had started waking him up that way every day since the day in the woods when “taking things slowly” had gone up in smoke behind the trunk of a tree.

It never took Bucky long, first thing, and if he was supposed to be embarrassed by that, well, he never got the memo. He came with a bitten-off cry and a moan, twisting his head to press a kiss to Steve’s jaw.

“Thanks,” he sighed.

“Welcome,” Steve replied.

“Gotta piss.”

“By all means.”

Bucky took care of pressing concerns, before leaning against the doorway of the ensuite, wearing nothing but his boxers and looking at Steve with a smile. “Your turn, by the way.”

Steve grinned, raising an eyebrow and nudging the comforter down, revealing the not-inconsiderable tent he was sporting. “Don’t let me stop you.”

Crossing the room, Bucky crawled back into bed and pressed a minty fresh kiss to Steve’s still-sour mouth. Ah well, couldn’t have everything.

“Can I suck you off?” They hadn’t done that yet; messy, fumbling hand jobs had been good enough, and Bucky hadn’t wanted to push his luck. But, hey, it had been nearly a week since the first one - surely they were ready to try something new?

Steve laughed, more from shock than anything else, before his face relaxed into a smile. “Sure,” he said. (Bucky nearly snorted - real casual, Steve, as though there’d been any chance he would turn down the offer.)

“Cool.” Very not-lame response, Barnes. Exceedingly well done. Truly. Covering his blush, he leaned in to meet Steve’s mouth before breaking away to leave a line of lighter kisses down his jaw. Neck. Collarbone. Across his chest. Flicked his tongue over Steve’s nipple, just to see what he’d do.

Good reaction, there, with Steve hissing and bringing a hand up to cup the back of Bucky’s neck. Interesting - Bucky would have to remember that for later, though at the moment he was more concerned with continuing his journey down Steve’s torso, licking and occasionally biting as he worked his left hand beneath the fabric of Steve’s briefs, pushing them down to expose him.

The thing about Steve was that his prick was proportioned the same way as the man himself: big and intimidating. To the point where Bucky occasionally wondered whether someone had carved him out of marble before bringing him to life. Only the David wasn’t packing what Steve was packing underneath that white cotton.

In for a penny, in for a pound. Bucky shifted his weight and took a moment to study Steve, figuring out the best course of action. Hell, they didn’t call it a job for nothing.

“Fu-h-huck,” Steve groaned the moment Bucky wrapped his lips around the head of his prick. Oh, good - silent Steve did have a voice on occasion. Hand coming to wrap around the base of Steve's shaft, Bucky did his best to bring them together somewhere in the middle, though if he was honest, his hand moved further than his mouth. He wasn't a miracle worker. Still, he wasn't bad. He knew what to do, and he liked how Steve tasted on his tongue. Different than Patrick - saltier, which was a weird thing to think, but it was the only word that was applicable.

Sinking down another quarter inch, he flattened his tongue against the underside of Steve's cock, doing his level best not to choke himself. Easier said than done - there wasn't going to be any deep-throating happening, that was for damn sure. He began a rhythm, hand and mouth moving in tandem, and was pleased to feel Steve's thighs tremble at the movement. Steve, Bucky had discovered, was incredibly sensitive, though he didn't have much in the way of stamina. Bucky wasn't sure if it was a lack of experience or just an overactive libido. Though, from what Steve said, he'd had plenty of practice with Peggy.

Probably wasn’t the best idea to philosophize about one’s partners prior paramour with a dick in one’s mouth. Especially when one’s partner had just laid a heavy hand on one’s head. Gripping one’s hair and pushing.

Bucky pulled off immediately, giving a delicate lick to the tip of Seve’s cock before looking up at him. “Don’t push. Or pull,” he said primly, before lowering his head and working his way back down.

“Yeah, alright,” Steve panted. “Yeah, Buck. Yeah…” He was still so quiet - his initial outburst tamped down into something softer. It made Bucky sad sometimes, to think Steve was so resistant to letting his pleasure be known.

What he did say was sweet, if inarticulate, from grunts of satisfaction to praise in the form of, “s’good, s’good Buck…” and back again. Bucky didn’t need eloquence when he had the hard evidence in front of him - Steve lifting his hips, pumping into Bucky’s mouth as he grew close to completion.

Eventually, he gasped out an, “I’m gonna…” before he did. Shooting down Bucky’s throat, and okay, a little extra warning would have been nice, sure. But he’d tried, and Bucky didn’t mind as he swallowed what he could, letting Steve’s softening cock slip from his mouth as he recovered. Bucky couldn’t help pressing a few kisses in the general area as he pillowed his head on Steve’s thigh, looking at him with a grin and raising an eyebrow.

Steve rolled his eyes before grinning right back, then hauled Bucky up by the armpits to join him. Kissed him hard and hugged him tightly, pressing his face against Bucky’s neck, the rough hair of his beard tickling the sensitive skin.

“Jesus,” he muttered. God, he was strong - Bucky was sure he was about to be crushed. “Jesus, Buck.”

“It wasn’t that good.” Because it had been fine, as blowjobs went, but Steve was the king of disproportionate responses.

Steve grunted and bit his neck. Bucky jumped, laughing out loud and swatting the back of Steve’s head until he let him go.

When Steve pulled away, his eyes were wide and had a pleading sort of look in them. “Let’s leave today,” he said. “I miss being on the road with you. Let’s...we can go to the Grand Canyon.”

Talk about whiplash. Bucky blinked in confusion. They had another five nights in the Stanley, already paid, and now Steve wanted to pack it up and leave on a whim. Weird. Maybe not the weirdest thing Steve had ever done, but with a list that long, who knew?

"Why?" He asked. Pushing back. He was happy there, and he didn't see why they had to go. "I like it here."

Steve released his hold on Bucky, and it was impossible to miss the flash of annoyance in his eyes. Bucky wondered - and not for the first time - what it was Steve had done in the army. What his rank had been. Because he came across as a man who didn’t like having his orders questioned.

Too bad for Steve. Bucky had spent his whole life following implied orders. From his parents, his teachers, his own brain that expected him to do well and be good.

He was done doing things just because someone told him to.

“Does it matter?” Steve asked. “We’ve got half the country to see, still.”

“...I wasn’t aware we were on a timeline,” Bucky said, frowning. All he could see at the end of the road was a possible separation from Steve, which was disconcerting. “What’s the rush, exactly?”

Steve mirrored Bucky’s frown, the lines of his brow knitting together in a way that made him look older than twenty-seven. “You don’t want to go to the Grand Canyon?”

“Of course I do,” he said. “But I’m pretty sure it’ll still be there next week.”

“Bucky, that’s not…” Steve pulled away completely, standing up from the bed, managing to look somewhat dignified, even with his underwear pooling around his ankles. “What are we even going to do here?”

“I don’t know! But come on, we haven’t even been to the park yet! I want to do that uh, the scenic drive.”

“We have to drive through the entirety of the goddamn Rocky Mountains, and you want more scenery?”

Sitting up, Bucky crossed his arms over his chest. “I want to stay here for the two weeks you promised.”

“I didn’t promise you two weeks.”

Asshole wasn’t a good look on Steve, nor was sullen, and he was wearing both of them with dickish aplomb. Bucky got to his feet as well, arms still folded across his torso as he scowled. “You said two weeks. One if I wanted. And I want two.”

Steve’s mouth twitched and curled into something terse and prickly. Bucky figured he was about to say something mean - going for that brutish instinct Bucky had noticed a time or two. He didn’t want to hear it, so he grabbed his jeans, discarded the evening before.

“I’m gonna take a walk,” he snapped, yanking the clothing on. “You’re not invited.”

“Bucky…”

Grunting, Bucky shoved his feet into his untied sneakers, sans socks, and threw on the hoodie that was lying on top of his suitcase. “By all means, Steve, you wanna pack up and abandon me in Colorado over a few extra nights spent in my oh-so-terrible company, you go right ahead.”

Steve didn’t say a word, which was somehow more annoying. The man could pick a fight with thin air, Bucky decided, stomping out of their shared space and letting the front door slam shut.

The brisk, early-morning mountain air cut through his hoodie like a knife, and he immediately regretted his lack of layers. Scowling, he huddled in on himself and headed in the direction of the main hotel. They would, at least, have breakfast.

He didn't get far. A hundred feet, maybe, before footsteps were coming up behind him and a pair of familiar arms were wrapping around his shoulders.

“Sorry,” Steve murmured. He had gotten dressed, but only just. “Sorry, Buck. It’s…”

“Why are you in such a hurry for this trip to be over?” he asked, and there it was. The crux of it. The thing that was making tears prick in his eyes and hurting his feelings. They had time, so why was Steve acting like he couldn’t wait to be rid of him?

“Bucky, I’m not,” he said, turning him around, framing Bucky’s face with warm hands before leaning in and kissing him. “I’m screwing this up, sweetheart. It’s not that I want it to be over, I just...I wanna see so much more with you.”

Excellent line, stupid romantic Steve, making Bucky’s heart swoop and soar. He hated how much it was working, and he knew he was pouting a little as Steve’s hands moved from his cheeks to wrap around his shoulders, hugging him tight.

“Two more nights?” he bargained. “Please? I really just want to see the park.”

Steve held him close, fingers fisting the back of Bucky’s hoodie. “Sure, pal,” he agreed. “Let’s go to the park today. Don’t be mad at me anymore, Buck, c’mon.”

Bucky couldn’t keep the smile off his face as he moved one hand up to run through Steve’s hair, patting the back of his head affectionately before pushing him away so they could look at one another. “I’m not mad, dummy. You hurt my feelings, that’s all.”

“I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings,” Steve said, pulling Bucky’s hand up and pressing kisses along his knuckles, reminding Bucky of a dog who’d been yelled at for getting into the garbage, all sad eyes and solemnity.

“Yeah, well,” Bucky shrugged. “Buy me breakfast?”

Steve did.

 


 

“Where will you go now?”

“Home,” said the Voyager, looking to the sky.

 

Several hours later, they were on top of the world. Or, at least, it felt that way, sitting in that meadow in the park as a breeze ruffled the pages of Bucky’s notebook.

He wasn’t going to say anything. Wasn’t going to point out how blissfully happy Steve looked, reclining in the grass with his face tilted towards the sun, eyes closed and a smile gracing his features.

Instead of gloating, Bucky closed his notebook and stuck it in his bag before rolling on top of Steve to pin him to the ground. He kissed the pout of his lower lip before biting down, just hard enough to be annoying.

“Wake up,” he instructed.

“Wasn’t sleeping.” Steve’s arms came to wrap around him before he cracked one eye open, squinting against the glare of the sunlight. “Hi.”

“Hi,” Bucky replied, glad for the privacy. They’d taken a short hike away from the parking lot of the overlook where they’d stopped, finding a secluded spot to rest. Relatively secluded - there were a few elk grazing, several hundred yards away.

“I was thinking,” Steve began.

“A dangerous proposition.”

“Shuddup.” Steve was grinning, though, before he pressed a kiss to Bucky’s nose. Bucky wasn’t sure what part of Brooklyn Steve was from - or what that part of Brooklyn sounded like, accent-wise - but sometimes he thought Steve was having him on with the way he said things. Like a gangster movie or something. “You gonna listen, or be a smart-aleck?”

Case in point. Bucky’s mouth twitched, and he shrugged, ignoring the question as Steve’s hand came to rest on the curve of his ass, which didn't suck.

“Like I said, I was thinking,” Steve continued. “About uh...maybe we ought to extend the trip.”

Bucky raised an eyebrow, a smile spreading across his features. “Oh?”

“Yeah,” Steve said, reaching up to brush away a piece of hair that had fallen from his ponytail. A futile gesture, considering the breeze, but a sweet one all the same. “You said it earlier - there’s no rush, right? We could keep going up to Oregon, after California.”

Interesting. The plan - loose and unfocused as it was - had always ended in Los Angeles. See a baseball game, run around Hollywood for a day or two, then buy Bucky a plane ticket back to Indiana. Granted, they hadn’t been sleeping together when they’d made the plan, and they hadn’t discussed modifying it since the parameters of their relationship had shifted so completely.

“Oh, that’s good,” Bucky said. “We could um, do like this again, in Oregon? Find a place to stay for a while?”

“Sure, Buck,” he said, his hand snaking around to tug the elastic from Bucky’s hair, setting it loose in the wind whipping down from the mountain. “God, you got pretty hair. You know that?”

Bucky laughed at the unexpected sentiment, shaking his head around so said hair ended up in a massive tangle, grinning at Steve from underneath the mess. “I guess? I thought it looked cool to grow it out when I was fifteen.”

“It’s very...cool,” Steve agreed, using slang in a way that never felt quite natural. Chalk one up to the bunker. Bucky didn’t mind his dorkiness, not when Steve pulled him down for a kiss, holding him in it for quite some time.

It was a cliche, and he knew it - making out in a meadow like some old movie. But the clicheness of it was undercut by the fact that it was damn cold up there, setting Bucky's teeth chattering when a gust of especially cold air blew across his back. "Wow," he muttered, clinging to Steve. "Summer's over, I guess." He couldn't recall the precise date, but he knew they were at least two weeks into September.

“Cold, sweetheart?”

It was the second time Steve had used that particular endearment. Old-fashioned and gooey as it was, Bucky thought he could get used to it.

“Yeah,” he said, tucking his head under Steve’s chin. “I like it when you call me that.”

Steve laughed, fingers digging into the meat of Bucky’s ass, which was fine with Bucky. “Cause you are,” he said. “Only I wasn’t expecting you to be.”

“Oh, perfect,” Bucky agreed. “Cause I definitely didn’t have a crush on you or anything.”

“No, definitely not. Real subtle guy.”

“Subtle’s my middle name.”

“Thought your middle name was Buchanan.”

“That, too.”

“You’re so funny, Stuart.”

“I’m hilarious, Frannie.”

“Sure you are.”

Steve flipped him, then, kissing him there on the damp grass until Bucky couldn’t breathe, giggling past the point of all good sense. Funny, how easy it was to be so happy.

 


 

“Buck.”

Bucky had been in the clouds. Dreaming of men from the stars alongside bright blue cowls. Strong jaws and strong arms and bright, phantom pain in his leg.

Steve's voice roused him, and he jerked awake, opening his eyes and snorting. There was drool on his chin. Not his best look.

Then, who would look their best, sharing a car with Steve Rogers? He of the four a.m. wake-up calls. Insisting that they had to leave early to get to the Canyon. He'd given Bucky two nights and not a second more. Now they'd been driving for hours, across the vast expanse of land between Colorado and Arizona.

Was it any wonder Bucky had fallen asleep after their last stop for gas?

“Huh?” he mumbled, wiping off the drool and looking over to where Steve was looking right back - an affectionate glance that might have made him uncomfortable, except for how it didn’t. Nobody else in his life had ever looked at him that way, and while he liked it, he didn’t quite know how to look back. How to convey with a glance everything he felt for Steve.

“I think we’re gonna get there just before sunset,” Steve said brightly. “Might end up sleeping in the car, but...it’ll be worth it.”

It took Bucky’s brain a moment to catch up and understand that Steve meant sunset in the canyon. That the reason for the pell-mell drive across several states was to get them there on time. As though the world couldn't’ spin forward one more day without them having witnessed such a sight.

Steve was a lot. Bucky smiled and reached for his notebook. Scribbled down the thought while Steve followed the signs to the canyon, swearing to himself when there didn't appear to be any parking places before finally managing a complicated maneuver to squeeze them between two hulking RVs. Bucky thought it was very magnanimous of him not to complain when he practically had to flatten himself to get out of the car.

They weren’t alone - no solitude to be found in a place like that, with hundreds of tourists lining up to see precisely the same thing. Still, there was beauty in the shared experience, and the two of them headed for the least-crowded area, perching on a rock just as the sun began to dip below the horizon.

“Wow,” Bucky managed. Words were difficult when faced with something so spectacular, the canyon spread out before them lit with the slow, smoldering burn of that deep, ancient glow.

“Awesome,” Steve murmured, the word incongruous in his mouth. Bucky nearly poked fun, until he realized Steve meant it literally - what they were seeing was awesome.

Smiling, he leaned his head against Steve’s shoulder before entwining their fingers, not caring a whit who might see them. Who might care. At that moment, Bucky wanted to tell the entire world, because he was in love.

Except it wasn’t love. Strong like, maybe. Effortlessly increasing affection, sure. But not love. You couldn’t fall in love that fast. He’d only known Steve since May, after all. It was at most infatuation. Appreciation. Fascination.

Bucky was a very level-headed person. It wasn’t love.

But it was something.

They stayed still as statues, frozen in time until the sun had disappeared entirely and the other tourists began to move away. Turning, Steve pressed a light kiss to the top of Bucky's head, growing more and more comfortable with those slight displays of public affection the longer they spent together. "Hungry?"

Bucky shrugged, yawning and stretching his arms over his head. “Mmmhmm. Let’s get a motel room and order in.”

(The magnificence of nature was great and all, but it could always be subsumed by baser human desires.)

Three hours later, after trying four different places that were increasingly further and further from the canyon, they found a motel with a vacancy. Bucky ordered a pizza, and as they ate, he flipped channel while Steve turned up his nose at everything Bucky suggested.

“You are a snob,” Bucky informed him after he scoffed derisively at a rerun of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.

“I’m not a snob,” Steve laughed. “I just got better things to do with my time than watch some guy eat food I can’t have.”

“Like what?”

“Shutting you up.”

Bucky grinned and scooted away. “Betcha can’t.”

Steve shrugged before delicately picking up the pizza box and setting it on the floor, after which he pounced on Bucky with the ferocity of a starving lion stumbling upon a herd of slow antelope. He teased, he tickled, he got him so worked up that Bucky actually squeaked, which set Steve off in an undignified guffaw, falling back on the mattress.

Bucky pressed his advantage, straddling Steve’s stomach and looking down at him with crossed arms and a scowl. Steve smirked and bucked his hips, just to be a jerk, jostling Bucky, who had to fight to keep his balance.

“Quit!” Bucky laughed.

“Or what?”

“Or I’ll make you regret it.”

“Gimme your best shot, Stuart.” Spreading his arms wide, Steve left himself vulnerable to Bucky’s attack.

Turned out, Steve was ticklish, too.

Later, when Steve was asleep, Bucky found himself unable to join him. So he slipped from Steve’s loose embrace and made his way to his backpack, where he pulled out his notebook.

He sat down by the window, watching Steve sleep as his fingers wrote words that once again attempted to capture him and put him on the page.

No, it wasn’t love. But it wasn’t far off.

 

Chapter Text

As Steve traced his fingers along the impressions left by Rita Hayworth’s hands, he thought maybe he was going to be sick.

 


 

Hollywood had seemed a prime destination after just over a week spent at the Grand Canyon. They’d taken burros to the bottom, hiked a half-dozen trails, and tumbled into bed each night aching and exhausted. (Or, well, Bucky was exhausted. Steve was playing possum, as commiserating with him was kinder than teasing. Steve remembered what it was like to be small and tired. Not that Bucky was small, exactly. Just smaller.)

Truth be told, Steve could have stayed another few days. Bucky’s phone didn’t work so well out there, which meant there were fewer prying eyes. One set of prying eyes, specifically, though Steve had seen neither hide nor hair of Natasha since that strange day in Boulder. Then again, Natasha wasn’t a woman who you saw unless she wanted you to, and Steve had a feeling he’d know when he was needed.

It was easy to forget that he might be needed, though, when he was spending time alone with Bucky. Easy to forget about the weight of the world resting precipitously on his shoulders when he could hold Bucky’s hand. Kiss him and bicker with him and maybe love him.

But Bucky had gotten restless. He missed his toys and his games - wanted a new city and a change of pace. The chance to rinse off the dust of the desert and get back to all the silly, touristy things he loved.

So Steve indulged him, figuring it wouldn’t be so bad. At least going to Los Angeles meant he would have the chance to see the Dodgers play once more.

Said Dodgers game was where things had started going wrong. The team on the field wore the colors and played the game, but they weren’t the Robins he knew. The park itself was glitz and nonsense - overpriced beer, folks focusing on their phones rather than the athletes in front of them. The score seemed an afterthought for those fans, and maybe even for the team itself as they faced off against the Rockies. Steve was privately jealous that Denver had managed to create a team over the last seventy years, as opposed to Brooklyn’s lost identity.

The Dodgers scored four runs in the bottom of the second inning, while the Rockies hadn't scored a thing. Regardless of the outcome, Steve's heart just wasn't in it. Bucky, meanwhile, was thoroughly checked out - playing some dumb game on his phone that involved chucking balls which vaguely resembled birds into block towers, sending them crashing to the ground.

“You hungry?” Steve offered, tamping down the annoyance that was threatening to overflow. The seats hadn’t come cheap, was all, and it was criminal what they were charging for a ballgame nowadays. A kid like him would never have been able to afford even the cheap seats, and that was lousy.

“Uh.” Bucky ignored him long enough to pull his finger back and flick a fat, red bird into a pile of triangles. “Hot dog?”

“Yup.” Steve got to his feet and set off in search of a vendor. Funny how the guys hawking shit in the stands were never around when you actually wanted to buy their wares. That hadn’t changed, at least.

There were a lot of families in the park, being as it was an early evening game on a Friday. Steve got in line behind a dad with a kid on his shoulders, mom at their side, casting nervous glances in the little girl’s direction. The kid was cute - long, wild curly brown hair poking through the hole in the back of her Dodgers cap, and a gap-toothed smile Steve noticed when she turned her head to grin down at her mother.

Seeing them gave Steve a pang; a wince deep down in his gut as he cut his eyes away. Blinked a couple times before crossing his arms over his chest and waiting for the family to order.

“I don’t like that,” the little girl complained moments later as they walked away, her mother attempting to hand her a pretzel.

Steve didn’t get to hear the rest of the fight as they disappeared into the crowd, nor did he want to. Little girls with curly brown hair and toothy grins weren’t exactly doing anything to help the melancholy that was threatening to overwhelm him. Ridiculous - it was all stuff and nonsense and feeling sorry for himself.

He stepped up to the counter and ordered a couple hot dogs, before swearing under his breath at the price. Grudgingly, he paid and returned to the stands where he would bet dollars to donuts Bucky hadn’t looked up from his goddamn game.

Bucky, predictably, ate precisely three bites before pushing the food away. Steve was pretty sure he was going to kill him.

The Rockies never stood a chance, losing eight to nothing, bullied into the ground by a team Steve couldn’t root for.

“That was fun,” Bucky said as they shuffled out of the stadium alongside the rest of the crowd.

“Was it?” Steve said, perhaps a bit too sharply, and with no small touch of bitterness.

“Yeah.” A warm hand slipped into his own, fingers knotting together as Bucky gave him a squeeze. “Sorry I wasn’t paying that much attention.”

It was hard to stay stone-faced and angry when faced with something like that. Steve smiled and looked over at him, taking in his appearance and shaking his head. “Thanks, pal. Your hair’s a mess.”

“You shoulda bought me a cap.”

Steve fought back a smile. “You shoulda asked.”

 


 

They went to a diner near their motel for a late dinner - a place that styled itself like an automat Steve might have known, only nothing was quite right. Bucky called it retro. Steve would have called it ridiculous save for the fact that his picture was on the wall.

The sight of it startled him, hanging there amongst the other relics of days gone by, that grainy black and white shot. He recognized it immediately - remembered the day it had been taken, out there on the road with the USO. They’d been in Texas, and it had been a big to-do because real, live movie stars were coming to entertain the troops alongside Steve and his merry band of showgirls and dictators.

So there they were, immortalized. Betty Grable, Rita Hayworth, Fred Astaire, and Steve. All lined up in a row. The movie stars had been practiced and perfect - plenty of smiles and winks, real glamorous for the camera. In comparison, Steve seemed small, though he was the tallest of the four. Shy and uncomfortable in his cowl, face hidden and blurred, as though he hadn’t known where to look.

Which, of course, he hadn’t.

Betty had been kind, Fred brusque.

Rita, though. Rita had been something else.

“Weird, huh?” Bucky said, taking his arm as he stared, caught up in the memory.

“What’s weird?” Too quick. Too defensive.

“The whole uh...Captain America thing?”

Steve’s heart beat faster in his chest and God, he was grateful for the beard. For the blurry photograph. For a million other things that kept Bucky oblivious, even if it wasn’t fair to him. Even if Steve knew it. He cleared his throat. “What about him?”

Bucky affixed him with a funny look. “You know, the new one? The faker?”

Right. The wrong explanation. The one Bucky had reasoned out in his trauma, working through what had happened to him in New York, buoyed by his mother’s conspiracy theories and the various stories that had been run over the summer attempting to narrow down just who the hero of the Battle of New York might be.

There had been a lot of idle speculation - another alien. A clone. A lone vigilante with a Cap fetish and a costume. Nobody had guessed the truth, but then, why would they? In Steve’s particular case, the truth was stranger than any fiction.

“Oh yeah,” he said, hoping Bucky would let it drop.

The hostess turned up then, all false cheer in a brightly-colored uniform that Steve figured was meant to mimic what a waitress in his day might have worn. They were shown to a table, and Bucky seemed disinclined to continue the conversation. Excellent. Considering the time they’d spent together, Steve didn’t think Bucky was going to suddenly cotton on to the truth, but any little nudge in that direction reminded him of the fact that he wasn’t being honest. That he was being a little selfish. That he was setting Bucky up to be hurt somewhere down the line.

The thing of it was, though, how precisely did you tell a fella that everything he thought about you was a lie?

Didn’t seem like the kind of thing to bring up over dinner. Or ever.

Steve was damned.

 


 

Later that night, Bucky was curled up tight with his head on Steve’s chest, thumbing through the brochures he’d been picking up at various locations all day.

“Let’s go to Grauman’s tomorrow,” he said, pulling out another Twizzler from the bag he’d bought at a gas station. “It’s right next to the wax museum, so we could do that, and see the Star Walk, and uh, looks like there’s a Dodger’s shop so you could get a dumb hat if you wanted.”

“Sure, Buck.” Steve shifted, more interested in the way the candy was turning Bucky’s mouth a tempting shade of red than making any plans for the next day.

“You’re not listening.”

“Nope.”

Because, hell, it had been a long goddamn couple of days - sue him if he wanted to kiss his guy for a while. Wanted to kiss him sweet, and slow, and think real hard about maybe sucking him off. Maybe. Hadn’t quite figured out the logistics yet but he was getting there.

Bucky didn’t seem to mind waiting, especially not when Steve chose to jerk him off instead. God, Steve was never going to get tired of the way Bucky looked when he came - shooting with a mewl and a shiver before tucking himself right up against Steve’s shoulder, hiding his face and catching his breath.

There was no way Steve was giving that up without a fight.

 


 

Hollywood wasn't what Steve had been expecting. His memories of it had been from newsreels - the USO tour had never made it as far as Los Angeles - but it had always seemed the height of glamour. Like so many other things in this new century, anything that had ever been special about it had been commodified in the intervening years. Bought and sold to the highest bidder; paeans to capitalism and consumerism in the form of countless shops and vendors peddling knock-offs.

Star Tours! Hollywood Museum! Fuck Your Memories, There’s Money in the Macabre!

Bucky loved it, of course - running up to every sign, making Steve take pictures of him in front of every landmark.

Eventually, he pulled Steve into a wax museum called Madame Tussaud’s, which brought about the end of Steve’s ability to cope with any of it. Christ, he just couldn’t. The museum was filled with grotesque mimicries of people he’d grown up idolizing, cast in wax, all of them dead and gone. Vivien Leigh in the dress of green curtains. Cary Grant as a caricature. Bette Goddamn Davis in a fright wig and bright lipstick, looking older than Steve had ever known her.

He lasted less than fifteen minutes before telling Bucky he’d meet him at Grauman’s and leaving the wax museum behind.

Grauman’s was where he found Rita. Immortalized in concrete, those tiny hands and tiny footprints. Steve crouched low to the ground, the hulking shadow of his shoulders blocking anyone else’s view as he put his hands over his face and forced himself to breathe.

To remember.

The USO show had been a disaster that day. Performing for soldiers, Steve had found, was different than theaters full of willing civilians eager to buy war bonds. Brandt was a fool, thinking the sideshow that was Steve Rogers could do anything to entertain real, live troops. What sort of young man wanted a freakshow lifting a motorbike over his head when Rita Hayworth was around?

Steve had panicked a little when he’d gotten the news that Rita was going to be in Texas. That he’d likely have to meet her.

He'd never been good with women, but he was sure he'd be downright lousy with her, all things considered.

Rita as an object of fascination had been recent, as she hadn’t been a known quantity to him in his younger years; Myrna Loy had been the girl to star in all his teenage fantasies. He’d fallen for Myrna in a darkened theater at the ripe old age of thirteen, watching The Desert Song and sporting a stiffie in his shorts at the sight of her dancing. That particular film had been prime masturbatory fodder and damn the consequences.

He hadn’t fallen for Rita until he was nearly twenty-three, with a full decade of experience with Myrna under his belt. Euphemistically speaking. But then, Rita had turned up in Life, the issue passed around the stockroom where Steve had been picking up hours in between his ill-fated attempts at enlisting.

God, that photograph. The very memory of that photograph.

Steve hadn’t felt a bit bad about stealing a copy to hide under his pillow.

Boy, what he would have given to tell that smaller version of himself that just a couple years later, he’d be meeting her. And that when he was faced with the object of his wanton desires, he would find her human. Small and shy. Nothing like the vixens she so often portrayed.

Steve had taken the picture with her, Betty, and Fred out of obligation to Uncle Sam, who was always searching for a way to commodify his commitment. Then, he’d done the stupid show. Knocked out ol’ Adolf for the umpteenth time before disappearing through a side door and hiding behind the building. Eager to escape the ‘boos’ and hisses. To seek out a little privacy.

That was where he’d found her, seeking some privacy of her own, a cigarette held between dark red lips. Lips that reminded him of someone else - someone he missed terribly. That other woman who set his heart beating faster. Who’d shown him what it meant to be wanted.

Rita's hands had a nervous tremor, and she had looked up when he emerged, pulling the cigarette from her mouth. Steve had apologized, and she'd told him not to. Smiled at him and offered him a smoke.

“I don’t,” he’d said because he’d never picked up the habit. Asthma cigarettes were all well and good, but they’d never helped much, and the real thing hadn’t held much appeal.

Rita had smiled and taken a drag before looking him up and down. “No kidding? Bet you don’t drink, either.”

“I do,” he’d replied, managing not to sound too utterly awkward. Thank God for Peggy.

Rita had proceeded to produce a flask from somewhere on her person, offering it to Steve and inviting him to sit down. He did and found her to be excellent company. They sat together for ages, swapping stories. Mirrors of one another, made in the image of the gods that created them. Steve, the god of war. Rita, the goddess of love. Their imperfections stripped away and chiseled off as they were molded into false versions of perfection.

Steve had learned that Rita had recently been married to Orson Welles. She proclaimed him the love of her life and a good man. The only good man she’d ever met. Steve had thought she might be joking about that, but her tone indicated otherwise.

So he had told her about Peggy. About their fledgling, tentative romance and how he wasn’t sure what any of it meant. Rita had encouraged him to act - to reach out for what he wanted and to hold onto it once he had it in hand.

When she left him, it had been with a kiss on the cheek and the lingering scent of her perfume, eliciting a promise from him that he’d write her sometime. Call her sometime.

He never did either, and now she was dead and gone like the rest of them. His shy, sly friend from an afternoon long ago.

There was a hand on his shoulder, and Steve jerked away from the touch, nearly toppling over.

Bucky - and it was only Bucky - was looking down at him with concern on his face. “I was calling you…” he said, worrying his bottom lip between his teeth.

“Sorry,” Steve said. How long had he been crouching there? “Sorry, sweetheart. I was...I knew her.”

The words were out of his mouth before he could think better of them, and Bucky’s face screwed up in confusion.

“I mean ah, her pictures. She was my...I had a big thing for her as a kid.” Three years ago or seventy; what did it matter?

Bucky cocked his head to the side before offering Steve a hand. Once Steve was upright, Bucky smiled and linked their arms together. “Musta been a weird kid, Steve. I had a thing for Orlando Bloom.”

Steve wasn’t going to ask.

 


 

They went to Holy Cross Cemetery that same afternoon.

Bucky must have thought it was strange when Steve insisted they visit an information stand to ask where Rita Hayworth was buried. He undoubtedly thought Steve was nuts when he bought flowers - pink roses and zinnias and white carnations - to bring to her. But Bucky never said a word. Let Steve have whatever it was he needed because Bucky was a saint.

Steve found her by herself. No Orson. No husband at all. Only a headstone with her name and the years alongside a notation that she'd been a Beloved Mother and a quote about companionship and reunion.

She’d had a life. They’d all had lives. Rita and Peggy and Gabe and Dugan and Morita and Howard and all of them except Steve who’d had nothing while they wasted away. Crumbling to dust while he was preserved.

“Fuck,” he muttered, dampness from the grass soaking through the thin fabric of his pants as he knelt, head bowed, on the verge of tears over a woman he’d hardly known.

Bucky knelt next to him and reached for his hand, holding it tight. If Bucky believed he was crazy - and God knew he probably was - he was doing a remarkably good job of keeping it to himself. Steve was sure Bucky had questions. He’d seen him looking askance whenever Steve did something strange or said something wrong. Bucky wasn’t stupid. It was one of the things Steve liked most about him.

One of the things that was going to get Steve in trouble eventually.

“Sorry,” he managed, looking up before leaning over and pressing a kiss to Bucky’s cheek. “Sorry. I’m ready. We can go.”

“Sure,” Bucky said as they got to their feet. “If...you want to talk about it…?”

Steve shook his head and wrapped an arm around Bucky’s shoulders. “Nah, Buck.”

Bucky was what was real. Here and now, not dead and gone or waiting to die. Steve breathed him in. Hugged him close. Bucky was the beginning of something instead of the end. The only thing he’d found in this strange, new world that he liked, unreservedly and without agenda.

“Let’s get out of here, pal,” he murmured, tugging Bucky away and back towards the car.

They made it to the motel in good time, despite the traffic. Steve locked the door behind them.

It had been a bad day, but Bucky made it better by merely being. Steve kissed him down to the mattress. Lay him out and undressed him, piece by piece, until Bucky was squirming under his attention, breath coming in short bursts, ribs visible as his chest rose and fell. Steve kissed every one of them on his way down. Bypassed Bucky’s prick entirely so that he could leave a line of kisses against Bucky’s thigh. His calf.

He picked up Bucky’s foot and pressed a kiss to his ankle, digging his thumb into the arch. Bucky rolled his eyes and called Steve a weirdo, so Steve bit his big toe in return.

“Your weirdo,” he agreed, setting Bucky’s foot back on the mattress, leg bent at the knee. That knee was at just about the perfect height for kissing, so Steve did that, too, as his hand slipped between Bucky’s legs and wrapped around his half-hard cock, working him over until he was hard and ready and Steve’s.

It didn’t seem so strange to move his kisses there. To push aside the worrying and the wondering he’d been having about the deed and simply do. To lick a tentative strip up the underside of Bucky’s prick and feel him shudder. To taste him and find that he liked it. That it wasn’t so different from getting his head between Peggy’s legs and making her moan.

At the end of the day, it was making someone happy, and wasn’t that the goddamn point?

“Steve, don’t tease…” Bucky panted, fingers twining into Steve’s hair, tugging on it. “Please, please don’t tease…”

How could he resist such a nice boy making such an earnest request?

There was some finesse to it, the whole suck job thing. Steve took Bucky into his mouth and promptly ran out of ideas. He did his best to mimic what Bucky had done for him - bobbed and weaved, so to speak. Used his tongue and sought out what would make Bucky respond. What he liked. What he hated.

To no-one’s surprise, Bucky liked a lot more than he didn’t. He liked holding onto Steve’s hair. Liked pushing his head down onto his prick and fucking up against him in a manner that was decidedly not the delicate way Bucky preferred being treated when he was the one with his mouth on Steve's cock.

Little hypocrite.

Good thing Steve could handle the rough. Enjoy it, even, if it was what made Bucky happy. Made him moan and squirm and sigh.

Steve's confidence grew as he explored. He brought a hand up to cup Bucky's sack, fondling him and testing the waters to see what he might do. Turned out, it was like a reflex - dick twitching in Steve's mouth, an extended "fuuuuuuuck" escaping him as he tightened his grip on Steve's hair.

There was a vein that ran along the underside of Bucky’s prick, and Steve could feel it pulsing in time with his heart. Stupid and sentimental, obviously, but Steve hadn’t noticed it when he’d been giving him handjobs. It was hard not to notice it now - the way it allowed him to keep time with his boy. Figure out what made him throb, or when he ought to pull off just enough to get him whining before sliding back down to make him holler.

Bucky's dick hit the back of his throat after one particularly enthusiastic movement, and yeah, Steve gagged a little, but he didn't mind that so much.

“Fff-aster, please?” Bucky begged eventually. Steve could see Bucky’s free hand fisting against the sheets which was one of his tells. An obvious sign that he was near completion.

For the briefest of moments, Steve considered pulling back and finishing Bucky off with his hand instead. An idle thought - borne of lifelong instincts, and quickly banished. He wanted to stay. Wanted to taste and see and swallow.

Bucky's breath hitched three times, and there he was, coming into Steve's mouth with a cry and a twitch of his foot. Steve stayed right with him until he was sure Bucky was through, pulling back only long enough to swallow. Bucky curled up on his side, panting for breath, too sensitive to be touched.

Steve gave him a moment before he leaned over and licked a stripe up the salty skin of his bicep, working his way to his shoulder and his neck until he reached his mouth, kissing him deeply.

God, Bucky was sweet when he pulled back from the kiss with a grin and a gleam in his eyes. Untouched by the world - young and guileless and no, it wasn't fair to think that. Bucky had seen his share of horrors, trapped there under that rubble, leg broken and the world falling down around him.

There was no use comparing trauma. Nobody ever won that game.

Still, having him there, pleased with himself and so very twenty-years-old about it, Steve couldn’t help but smile back before leaning in to kiss his forehead.

“That…” Bucky sighed. “Was so worth the wait.

Steve's mouth twitched, and he resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Instead, he shifted position to sit up against the headboard, pulling Bucky into the space between his legs, naked as the day he was born, while Steve was still in his clothes. Completely comfortable with one another, which was something so new and fragile that Steve marveled every time he remembered how recently they'd met. The intimacy seemed to have taken no time at all, yet it had been such a long time coming.

“Coulda asked,” he pointed out, settling his hands on Bucky’s stomach and pressing in. A warning of tickling to come, if he didn’t watch himself.

“Nah.” Bucky grinned, turning his head at an odd angle and pressing a kiss to Steve’s jaw. “I’m a real patient guy.”

“You’re a pain in my ass.”

“That, too.”

Steve laughed, hugging him tighter before reaching down for a blanket to pull over them both. Then, he watched while Bucky - blissful in the haze that always settled after a good orgasm - drifted off against his chest, mouth falling open as he surrendered to sleep.

The part of Steve that never forgot anything already had the sight burned into his memory; his perfect brain’s desperate attempt to preserve everything he might one day lose.

He couldn’t lose Bucky.

So, he had to figure out a way to tell him the truth.

 

Chapter Text

Certain things had been different since Boulder.

Bucky couldn’t put his finger on why, or even how, but when he looked back over the past few weeks, things had stemmed from the day he’d walked into a restaurant and found Steve agitated and distant. That had been followed by the whole incident of Steve wanting to leave Colorado early before rolling over and showing his belly the moment Bucky cried foul.

California had been another mess entirely with Steve weeping over the grave of a long-dead movie star, unable to spend more than two minutes in a wax museum, and crouching like a specter over a set of concrete handprints.

It was weird. But no matter how Bucky came at the problem, he couldn’t figure it out.

Most of the time, though, Steve was fine. Fine enough that Bucky didn’t want to push it. What was the point of forcing Steve to talk, if talking might precipitate a freakout? Granted, Steve didn’t seem the type, but one never knew, and the remembered awkwardness of Kansas City lingered.

Plus, rocking the boat might force them out of the comfortable place they settled in their relationship - not quite the honeymoon anymore, but a gentle rhythm where they teased and cajoled, kissed and canoodled. It was nice. Homey.

Not to mention, Steve kept trotting out that old romantic within, surprising Bucky on occasion.

“I rented a house,” Steve had proclaimed, during a night spent in San Francisco.

“What?” Bucky had looked up from where he’d been fussing with his hair in the mirror. The plan was to tour the Castro and see some sights, then walk down to the waterfront for dinner.

“In Oregon.” Steve had come up behind him, spanning Bucky’s hips with his hands and tugging him back against his body. “Two weeks - cap off the trip. It’s right on the ocean.”

“That’s...excellent.” Bucky had turned his head to capture him in a kiss. “Thank you.”

So there was no reason to worry. There was a house waiting for them and all the time left in the world to enjoy it. They didn’t have to figure out their next move, Bucky didn’t have to think about going home, and Steve would get over whatever was bothering him.

Or, well, maybe Bucky would ask. When they were in Oregon. When they were settled and sure of one another. He could ask Steve what was next then. What they meant to one another, where things were going; if they were going to be forced to return to their epistolary friendship now that the trip was over.

God, he hoped not. He hoped Steve saw a future for them - the same future Bucky did when he let his mind wander. The two of them, a year down the line. Two. Five. Ten. Maybe it was sappy and stupid to think that far ahead, but the thing of it was, Steve was always in the picture that Bucky conjured. Rooted in his path like a tree planted ages ago, waiting for him to turn up.

After leaving San Francisco, they made their way north, the miles slowly but surely ticking down to zero. As Oregon drew closer, Bucky became less and less confident in his plan.

“It never gets old,” Steve said, breaking Bucky from his thoughts.

“Wha-?”

“This road.”

He wasn’t wrong, and Bucky smiled as he focused on the scenery. It was difficult sometimes to shut off his engineering brain, which couldn’t help calculating the amount of work it would take to wind the road around the steep cliffs ahead. The Pacific Coast Highway was a hell of a feat, built from equal parts hubris and ingenuity.

Bucky liked the Pacific coast. The wildness of it. The roughness. The windswept beaches and their forbidding, rocky waves crashing onto massive boulders. He wanted to write it down, or articulate it somehow.

Instead, he replied, “oh, yeah.”

Steve looked over, a smile playing on his lips. “What? All this majestic shit’s boring you?”

“I…” he rolled his eyes, though he couldn’t help smiling when Steve’s hand came to rest on his knee, squeezing. “Just hungry, I guess.”

“We’ll stop soon,” Steve promised. “Next town.”

That next town turned out to be a place called Crescent City, which was probably very nice, though Bucky only had eyes for the signs advertising seafood restaurants. The establishment they chose promised views of the harbor and the opportunity to see sea lions in their natural habitat. Bucky didn’t care about sea lions, but he guessed that if they happened to be hanging out, that would be sort of cool.

Being as it was nearly four o'clock when they arrived, the restaurant was just about empty, which meant they were seated right in front of the big, bright windows overlooking the rocks. Where, yup, sea lions were sunning themselves.

“Huh,” Bucky said after taking a good, long look.

“What?” Steve asked, peering over the top of his menu.

“That big one looks like you.”

Steve scowled, putting his menu down and folding his arms across his chest. “Excuse me? How, precisely, do you look at that and get me?”

Bucky thought about it, looking from the sea lion to Steve, then holding up his thumb like an artist in a cartoon (he had no idea why artists did that, but it felt like a thing to do). “It’s...I think it’s the face? And how hideous it is? And like, how the sea lion is big and gross, and just flops around all over the place and--”

Steve kicked him under the table, none too gently. “You’re a jerk, Stuart.”

“Yeah, but I’m your jerk, Frannie.”

Steve got that fond, weird look Bucky knew all too well on his face. He’d been sporting that look more and more lately. It was a dumb expression that made Bucky nervous, truth be told, because nobody had ever looked at him that way before.

Sure, Bucky was daydreaming about his future, but that didn't mean he was one hundred percent sure about the journey he would take to get there. Or what speed he planned on traveling. When Steve gave him that look, Bucky felt like they were on an expressway hurtling into the mouth of a tunnel that hadn't been completed, and didn't that just scare the shit out of him?

So he ducked behind his menu, studying it carefully. As though he might suddenly develop a fondness for shellfish or squid. As though he wasn't going to order the fish and chips he'd come to think of as his standby in places like this.

“Should we split a bottle of wine?” Steve offered.

“Only if it’s local.” Bucky set down his menu and flapped his hands in a way he hoped was truly, outrageously pretentious, grateful for the reprieve from the heavy stuff.

(The behavior was learned from Sonoma wine country. They'd spent two nights in a vineyard that also boasted a B&B. Said B&B was the gooiest, awfullest, tackiest place Bucky had ever been. Which meant he had loved it, of course, putting on airs and graces as they sampled the wine provided by their hosts.

They had split a bottle on their first night, Steve hardly affected and Bucky getting the giggles after a glass and a half.

“Mmm, I’m getting a whiff of ah...oh, let’s see...pig farts and elderflowers,” he had proclaimed to Steve, before burping not quite in his face, but in the general vicinity.

“Now, son,” Steve had said solemnly, doing a bang on impression of the snobbish man behind the counter who’d facilitated their wine tasting. “You know full well that wine’s got the essence of cow pies and passionfruit.”)

Clearing his throat, Steve looked down at the wine list and fought a smile. “So, that’s a yes?”

“Yes.”

Steve ordered a bottle of the house red, along with a plate of calamari and some shrimp scampi. Bucky got fish and chips. Extra chips.

They spent most of the meal exclaiming over whatever ridiculous things the sea lions chose to do. Bucky figured it would get old after a while - all that flopping and huffing - but it never did. They were hilarious. More hilarious once he’d had his first glass of wine. Possibly the funniest thing he had ever seen as he finished his second.

Bucky was decidedly tipsy when the check came. Steve - despite the two glasses he’d downed in short order - seemed fine. Stone cold sober, if Bucky didn’t know any better.

Come to think of it, Bucky didn't think he'd ever seen Steve really, honestly, drunk, although he drank plenty.

Once Steve had paid, and they were on their way out, he placed a hand on the small of Bucky's back, steering him towards the car. "Bucky, Bucky, Bucky," he teased. "Pal, look at you. You're a mess."

“I’m…” Grinning, he looked up at Steve, who was crowding him right up against the hot metal of the car with a look in his eye. “Hi.”

“Hi.” Steve kissed him. Wine-flavored and wonderful and oh, wasn’t it nice to be making out in a deserted parking lot, with the sound of the ocean crashing on the rocks behind them, and sea lions bellowing, and okay, that wasn’t super sexy, but Bucky could make do.

Whining, he wrapped his arms around Steve’s neck as Steve deepened the kiss, tongue mapping the familiar places in Bucky’s mouth. One of Steve’s muscled thighs moved between Bucky’s legs, and so what if he couldn’t help jerking his hips forward with a moan. Steve chuckled, slipping a hand between their bodies to cup the bulge making itself evident in Bucky’s jeans. Damn, damn, damn Steve was getting good at that.

Bucky didn’t care that they were in a parking lot. Didn’t care what he looked like. He wanted.

And Steve?

Steve didn’t want. Steve got him all worked up before stepping away and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “Gosh, Buck, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were drunk, acting like that…”

“Huh?” Bucky blinked, reaching out for him.

Steve grinned and took another step back before tossing the car keys from one hand to the other. He began whistling to himself as he scooted around to the driver’s side, leaving a confused, very worked up Bucky to adjust himself and get into the car.

“Steve, that’s mean,” he complained as he settled. It took him four attempts to buckle his seatbelt before Steve took pity and did it for him.

“Oh yeah, was it?”

“Yes!”

“Maybe you should think twice before calling me a sea lion.”

The noise that came out of Bucky then was more sea lion-like than not - something between a protest and a honk. It made Steve laugh until there were tears in his eyes, and Bucky hated Steve. Hated him.

“Aw, Buck, don’t pout about it,” Steve said, leaning across the seat and kissing the curve of his ear.

“You’re so...so...sensitive,” Bucky snapped, trying to sound as imperious as possible, which wasn’t actually very imperious at all, considering.

“Maybe,” Steve agreed as he pulled back and started the engine. “But I’m not jerking you off in a parking lot, so you’re the one in for a rough ride.”

Steve wasn’t kidding. The PCH while tipsy and turned on was one of the least fun experiences of Bucky’s short life. What with all the twists and turns, switchbacks and bends. Bucky ended up with his eyes closed, trying to power through it, despite the pressure in his bladder which was almost too much to bear. On top of that, he was annoyed. Not angry, but miffed, which was different. Miffed was an insidious, low-simmering sort of pissiness borne of comfort and familiarity with the object of one’s ire.

"Buck…" Steve said eventually, reaching over to touch him. Bucky wasn't sure how much time had passed, but he wasn't entirely through being miffed yet.

“Don’t,” he snapped. “I have to piss.”

“Oh.” Steve nodded. “We’re just about to cross the border. Probably there’s a rest stop in Oregon?”

“Whatever.”

The rest stop appeared some miles later, and Steve pulled into the parking lot. Bucky sprinted from the car to the facilities. Not the most pleasant of accommodations, but as he took care of the problem, he didn't particularly give a crap.

Steve arrived in the restroom just as Bucky was shaking off and zipping up. Bucky frowned when he entered, though he still couldn’t pinpoint exactly why he was pissed off. It had been embarrassing, yes. He hadn’t liked Steve making fun of him, either. And, truthfully, the entire thing had been unkind. That was it, he realized. The unkindness. He and Steve were always teasing one another, but things were new enough that the lines of ‘too much’ and ‘not enough’ hadn’t yet been drawn in the sand. There were still boundaries to be established, was all.

He wanted it, though. Those boundaries. That implicit understanding - an ease borne of familiarity and time.

Steve, for his part, appeared to feel bad about whatever line he’d unintentionally crossed, stepping closer to Bucky and giving him a sheepish smile. “Uh, there’s a beach across the road,” he offered. “If you want to go for a walk…?”

“Yeah,” Bucky said, a small smile of his own on his face as he went to wash his hands.

The beach was across the highway, then up a rise and down a dune. It was a windy, cold day that reminded Bucky of the fact that the trip had gone well beyond the summer. Well beyond what he’d told his mother it would.

He and Steve sat down on the sand, taking off their shoes and socks, then leaving them there as they headed down the beach, hand in hand.

“I’m sorry,” Steve said after a moment.

Bucky appreciated the sentiment, but he wanted them to be on the same page. “Why?”

“Because I teased you too much,” he said, shrugging. “I thought I was being funny but...geez, you wouldn’t be the first person to get mad at me for uh...a disproportionate response. I didn’t have a lot of friends growing up, so I don’t always…”

Bucky stopped him, pulling him around so they could face one another. “I don’t think you’re a sea lion. But if you’re mad, you should just tell me.”

“No, it wasn’t...I wasn’t mad,” he said. “I was just...trying to be fun, too?”

Something twisted up inside of Bucky - some small, tiny part that was growing bigger every day. That part of him which knew that what he felt for Steve was something monumental and life-changing and bigger than anything he'd ever felt before.

He wanted to say it out loud, but he couldn’t. Not yet.

“It’s...it just felt kind of mean,” he sighed. “I’m still half-drunk. Apology accepted. It’s over.”

There had been a million little spats with Patrick. Those signs of a real relationship - something that had moved beyond platitudes and best behavior. So maybe it was good, that niggling, annoyed feeling he’d been nurturing since they left the restaurant. Maybe it just meant things were moving along, right on course.

“I…” Steve laughed, scrubbing his free hand over his beard. “Want me to make it up to you? We could hide behind that boulder and--”

“What is it with you and jerking me off in the beauty of nature?” Bucky teased. “I’m fine - problem took care of itself, pal.”

Steve lit up at that, leaning down and kissing Bucky’s forehead. “You said pal.”

“Yeah, yeah. Picking up your bad habits, I guess.”

“It suits you.”

Bucky considered calling Steve a sap but thought better of it. Instead, he broke away and began to run, which meant that Steve had to give chase. They made it all the way down to the far end of the beach, where they clambered up on the big rocks. Bucky struck poses and jumped off into the sand below, while Steve pretended to be very worried about his safety. The fight was entirely forgotten.

“Come here,” Bucky instructed after his final swan dive into the sand, tugging Steve close before pulling out his phone. He angled the screen so they were both in view, pressing the button before Steve had time to register a protest.

The photo was nice - one of a handful Bucky had taken of the two of them together. Steve was weirdly reluctant to be photographed, insisting he looked terrible, which was objectively untrue.

“Handsome,” he teased, as Steve shook his head.

“Don’t uh...don’t post it on the uh...the Facebook?”

“Yeah, okay,” Bucky agreed. “Will you take one of me by the water?” If he couldn’t post a shot of the two of them together, he could at least post something showing how very fabulous his life happened to be.

Steve took his picture, and Bucky posted it before they headed back to the car. The sun was already low in the sky, but Steve said they had another four hours to go before they would reach the infamous and mysterious beach house he’d rented. Bucky had no idea how he’d done it, considering Steve paid for everything up front with cash, but if Steve said he’d figured it out, Bucky trusted him.

 


 

Three hours into the four-hour drive, blue and red lights began flashing in the rearview mirror.

So, that sucked. Bucky frowned, while Steve swore under his breath. Why the hell were they being pulled over? It wasn’t as though they’d been speeding - Bucky was sure of that. Sure, Steve tended to go fast, but he wasn’t a reckless driver, and he never went excessively over the limit.

“Uh…?” Bucky bit his lip.

“It’s fine,” Steve said, pulling over to the side of the highway as the cop did the same.

The officer who approached Steve’s window was a standard-issue cop, right out of a catalog. Khaki uniform, about thirty pounds overweight, sporting a ridiculous mustache and sideburns.

“Evening officer,” Steve said.

“You ah, know how fast you were going back there, sir?”

Bucky could see the muscles in Steve’s jaw working and he really, really hoped Steve wasn’t about to say something dumb. “I uh, thought I was going about fifty-five?”

Oh good. Not dumb.

“Sixty-three in a fifty,” the cop replied in that smug way of so many authority figures Bucky had known. He was also a liar. There was no way Steve had been going that fast.

“Oh yeah?” Steve said, in a manner that indicated he thought the cop was full of shit, mouth twisting up into an unpleasant grimace.

“License and registration, sir.”

Steve swore again as he dug into his pocket for his wallet, pulling out the license and handing it over. He opened the glove compartment next, taking out the car’s registration, which he passed through the window.

“Uh huh,” the cop said, shining a flashlight on the documentation before peering back into the car. “And uh, where are you two headed this evening, Mr. Carter?”

It took a moment for the cop’s words to register. Steve winced, and Bucky’s brain stopped working for one, two, three seconds before he took in a sharp breath. Carter?

“Yachats,” Steve gritted. “We got a house rented up there. Just...out to see the coast.”

“I see.” He shone the light right in Bucky’s eyes. “And this is your…?”

Bucky wasn’t in the mood to deal with a homophobic cop, all things considered. “Brother,” he snapped, knowing they looked not one iota alike, but not caring a whit in that particular moment.

“Welp,” said the cop. “I’m gonna go run this. You two sit tight.”

The moment he disappeared from view, Steve turned to Bucky in an attempt to placate him. “Bucky…”

Carter?” Bucky said at the exact same moment.

“Look, I can explain…”

Steve was married. A serial killer. A con artist.

A liar. Liar, liar, liar.

Logic, Barnes. Think through it. Probably not a serial killer, considering he’d had plenty of opportunities to murder Bucky but hadn’t. Con artist, possibly, but who was he conning? Bucky didn’t have any money.

Married, though. Married made sense. The mysterious woman he couldn’t be with, but couldn’t be without? Definitely married. Kids, too, probably. Bucky just bet he had kids.

“You’re married, aren’t you?”

“What? No! Buck…”

“Don’t what me, Steve. I mean, is it Steve?”

"It's Steve. Bucky, it's not...it's nothing bad. I've been meaning to tell you for a while." He was rambling, voice losing its surety the longer he went on. "Only, not here. Please let me deal with this, and then I swear, sweetheart. We'll get where we're going, and I will tell you everything.”

Wow. Bucky had never heard Steve in a panic before. Then again, Bucky had only known Steve for four damn months and holy shit, why had he allowed himself to ignore all his instincts? Every bit of his good sense that had been screaming at him that Steve was weird. Steve was off. That there was something about Steve that didn’t make any sense at all.

“I…” he began, swallowing around the lump in his throat, his heart jackhammering in his chest. “Uh.”

“Please, Buck…” Steve reached out.

Bucky pulled back. He didn’t feel unsafe, exactly. But he couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t quite think. Couldn’t quite process. “Who…?”

Steve breached the gap, his hand closing over Bucky’s as he pulled it up to his lips and kissed the back. “Bucky, it’s not as bad as you’re thinking right now. I promise you. I don’t...I was planning on telling you when we got to Oregon, I swear.”

Jerking his hand away, Bucky shook his head and pulled his legs to his chest, wrapping his arms around them and leaning against the door. “Tell me now.”

“Bucky, I can’t--”

“Tell me now!”

“I was the one who saved you!” Steve blurted, voice strange and high-pitched as his hands gripped the steering wheel hard enough that his knuckles turned white. “In New York. That was me.”

There was a rushing sound in Bucky’s ears because surely - surely - he’d misheard. “What?”

“I--”

The cop tapped on the roof of the car and Bucky jumped. Stupid, sneaky bastard. Though, now that he looked twice, the cop had gone pale as he leaned down to hand Steve back his license and registration.

“So sorry to bother you, Mr. Carter,” he stammered, sounding reverent. Scared, almost, which did nothing to assuage Bucky’s worry and confusion. “I didn’t. That is to say. We didn’t. When I ran your ID. I’m...please enjoy your stay in Oregon, sir.”

Steve’s mouth drew into a tight line as he passed the documentation to Bucky and nodded before rolling up his window. Bucky looked at the license in his lap. Edward Carter. Born March 19, 1985. Eyes, blue. Hair, blonde. Height, six foot one. Nothing special.

“Bucky, I--”

You were the one who saved me,” he said, cutting him off once more. “That’s what you said.”

“Yes.”

Steve didn't say anything else. Didn't try to justify or explain. So Bucky looked at him. Studied his face. His jaw. That profile he'd spent so long memorizing without ever genuinely seeing what lay beneath the beard. That damn beard, masking the vague memory of a face that had always been blurry, misremembered through his fear and terror, covered in a cowl.

But now?

God, he knew him now.

“It was you,” he said, incredulous and angry, there on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere.

“Give me an hour,” Steve - Edward? - said, voice broken and pleading. “Let me get us where we’re going, and I’ll explain everything.”

Bucky snorted, fully prepared to deny him the opportunity when Steve spoke again, desperation tinging his tone. “Tomorrow, I’ll take you to the airport first thing, if that’s what you want. Or, hell, tonight, after I explain. But please, Bucky, let me try?

Whatever he was - whoever he was - the man had given Bucky his life. Bucky knew that now and for that fact alone, he could give him an hour.

So, he nodded and tucked his face against his knees, trying to calm his breathing as Steve pulled back onto the highway and began to drive, the endless minutes ticking by.

Bucky thought of a million questions to ask as they made their way through the tiny towns dotting the Oregon coast, and by the time they reached Yachats, he had decided Steve was either a fool or a madman. A masked vigilante who got his kicks from saving people under the mantle of a long-dead hero. Only that didn't make sense, either. Didn't add up. Because if Steve was crazy, then why had he been so good, and kind, and generous, and careful?

The house Steve had rented was tucked away in a cove, overlooking the ocean, the waves audible but not visible in the deep dark. Steve retrieved the key from a lockbox, letting them both inside where he flipped on the lights, revealing a small, tasteful living room with a well-worn, comfortable looking couch.

Bucky wasted no time, turning and crossing his arms over his chest the moment the door was shut behind them. “I gave you your hour. So talk.”

Steve sighed, sticking his hands in his pockets and shrugging. “I’m um. I’m Captain America.”

Bucky snorted and scowled before sitting down on the couch, pointing to the spot next to him and giving Steve a glare. “Uh. Okay. Talk more.”

Offering him a tight, wary sort of smile, Steve sat down on the couch and did just that.

 

Chapter Text

Once, when he was very small, Steve had lied to his mother. It was the first lie he could remember telling, and that tiny untruth had stayed with him throughout the years.

They had been at Mass, and when the collection plate had been passed, Sarah dutifully dropped in what little she'd been able to muster. Steve remembered the feeling of resentment well, watching as what they had went back to God, who'd never seemed inclined to give them much in return for their sacrifices. It wasn't fair - not when there was a box of crayons in the window of the Woolworths that he'd been eyeing for weeks.

So he had bided his time, making a plan and waiting until the following Sunday. Then, when Sarah’s head was turned, he had plunged his tiny hand into the collection plate and fisted what change he could manage, filling his pocket before passing the plate on.

Someone had seen him, though he never found out who, and that someone had informed Sarah of his transgressions.

She had waited until they were home to confront him, crouching on the floor so they were eye-to-eye, and taking him by his skinny shoulders. Steve could still see her there in his mind's eye - the way the collar of her dress had been fraying, the circles under her eyes, the hat sitting slightly askew on her ash blonde hair.

“Steve,” she had said, voice gentle but urgent. “Did you steal from the collection plate today?”

His lower lip had shaken with the distinct, awful knowledge that tears were coming and he would be unable to stop them. Still, he had tried, jutting out his chin and planting his feet firmly apart before shaking his head.

“No, ma.”

Sarah had been so disappointed, her entire countenance wilting as she dug her fingers into his shoulders, not to hurt, but to warn.

“You’re not lying to me, are you, honey?”

“No, ma.”

She had looked away then, releasing her grip and sighing a sigh so sad it felt like it would break her in two. A guilty fist closed around Steve’s heart, squeezing, and he’d been desperate to appease her - to prove he wasn’t lying.

“You put our money in!” he had blurted. “It’s ours! I was only takin’ it out again.”

When Sarah looked up, the expression on her face was worse than the punishment she would go on to mete out; the sore rear end and going to bed without supper was nothing compared to the sorrow on her face. Sadness mingled with the realization that her only son had broken faith with her for the first time. That he had been intentionally deceitful. It had been a look that spoke of lost trust and the planting of a seed of doubt that would linger, tainting his words going forward. A trust, once broken, could be mended, but even the best join would show a seam. A remembrance of what had once been whole and perfect.

Bucky had that look. That heartbreak and sadness and mistrust staring out at Steve from behind furious blue eyes as they sat facing one another on the couch.

Steve hardly knew where to start, so he ended up repeating himself.

“I’m Captain America.”

“Yeah, so you said.” Bucky leaned back, crossing his arms over his chest. “You’re gonna have to clarify.”

“Uh…” Steve didn’t know how to be anything other than what he was. “I’m...him? Steve Rogers, Captain America, whatever you want to--”

“Captain America’s dead.”

“Well, I sure tried,” he agreed.

It had been a joke, albeit a bad one, considering. Bucky wasn’t laughing - he was scowling instead, folding into himself in that way he had when he wanted desperately to push the world away. Steve had never wanted to hug him more, but fought the urge and continued talking.

“Look, I know it sounds crazy, but everything you know about me is true.”

“Uh huh,” Bucky replied. “Because you totally look like a hundred years old. That’s some story.”

Steve gritted his teeth. “Would you just…” he took in a deep breath. “I crashed a plane into the Arctic. You know that part, right?”

“I know that Captain America died in a plane crash,” Bucky agreed.

"Right. And I did think I was going to die. I was sure of it, and I don't…" His hands, resting on his knees, dug into the fabric. Reassured himself that he was real and warm and solid and present with Bucky. "I don't remember it all. I remember being cold. Lonely and scared. I went to sleep and figured I was done, and then, shit, I opened my eyes, and I was here."

Bucky snorted. “Here?”

“Here,” he repeated, waving a hand around. “Earth. Twenty-twelve. America. New York City. Here. Alive.”

“Bullshit.”

Steve wouldn’t have believed himself, either. Hell, some days he was sure he’d made it all up. That he was living in some nuthouse somewhere, crazier than a shithouse rat, dreaming up future worlds in his head.

"I don't know what else I can tell you, Buck," he said, pushing a hand through his hair. "There was an expedition that found me. They thought they'd recovered the plane, at first, then they saw me. I guess they thought they were dealing with a body, but no such luck. I got shipped back stateside like a hunk of beef, and they did...well, I don't know what they did, but I woke up, and I'd hardly found my footing before the sky opened up and the Chitauri…"

He trailed off. It wasn’t working. Bucky looked incredulous, spine stiff as he vibrated with indignation. Steve was losing him.

“Bucky, honest to God, I was barely two weeks back in the world when I found you and…”

“You didn’t find me!” Bucky exploded, shooting to his feet in a burst of anger Steve hadn’t been expecting, though maybe that had been naive. “You are crazy. You’re some Captain America wannabe with a savior complex, Edward. Captain America’s dead, jackass. Whoever the fuck you are--”

“Steve,” Steve supplied, helpfully.

Bucky snorted. “So what is it? You’re actually nuts, or you get off on dressing up as Cap? Or is like...the government’s throwing you into the fight because it looks good? That’s…” He shook his head, frowning as he considered. “No, that doesn’t make...okay, so, you’re not Cap but...there were the clones and...there’s the guy in the red cape and...that’s…”

Bucky was yelling a lot. Steve didn’t mind, save for the fact that he was working himself up into a lather trying to defend conspiracy theories that weren’t true.

“Sweetheart…”

Don’t.” The retort was so instantaneous and wounded that Steve sat back, feeling for all the world as though he’d been slapped.

Bucky continued to pace, talking to himself. “This is crazy. This is crazy. It’s crazy. This is so dumb, it’s not, and you’re not...no. Nope.”

"Aliens came out of the sky and knocked a building on you, but you're having a hard time with me coming out of the ice?"

“Shut up,” Bucky snapped. “Stop being so...so…”

“Bucky,” Steve said, finding himself remarkably calm, all things considered. “You know I was the one who saved you, don’t you?”

“...yeah.” A reluctant admission, but an admission all the same.

“How do you think I did that? You were trapped under a wall, pal.”

“I don’t know!” Bucky bit back a sob, the phrase ending in a shout. “Damn it, I can’t--”

“I was going to tell you,” Steve interrupted. “Honest to God. When we got here, I had this whole plan. I was going to sit you down and tell you everything.”

“Bullshit,” Bucky snapped. “You’re only saying that because you got caught. You could have told me at the hospital - you knew who I was.”

“Yes.” There was no use lying about it. “I recognized you, but...I don’t know, Buck. I didn’t know you that well, but I liked you, and everyone that knew who I was, actually only knew what I was, and you were just...you knew Steve. You wanted to be my friend. I know it wasn’t fair.”

It was pathetic, was what it was. Steve had clung to Bucky’s ignorance in an attempt to keep his head above water, and in the process, he’d hurt him.

“You suck,” Bucky informed him, which summed it up much more succinctly.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know why...no, I do. I started writing to you and, shit, we were friends, Buck. I didn’t want to lose that, and for a while, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be Captain America anymore.”

Bucky frowned. “But you--”

“I gave my life when I put that plane in the water. Gave up my future. I was ready to die and--”

“Why now?” Bucky asked, too smart by half. “Why were you going to tell me now when you hadn’t told me before?”

Easy enough. “I thought I’d been doing a good job of keeping under the radar, but a colleague of mine caught up to us in Denver and--”

“Oh my God,” Bucky laughed, the sound harsh. “So you weren’t going to tell me, but then you got caught.”

“No, that’s not--”

“Were you just going to keep it to yourself forever?” he asked, working himself back up into a lather. “If - and believe me, Steve, it’s a big fucking if - I believe you, that doesn’t change the fact that you were going to keep lying to me about--”

Steve stood up. Bucky wasn’t listening, and there were things he needed to hear. “That’s not true.” Bucky opened his mouth to protest, but Steve barreled forward with his explanation. “I’d been thinking about how to do it for a while before she showed up - feeling guilty about it, and--”

“Oh, well if you felt guilty--

“Jesus, Bucky, I didn’t think I was gonna start falling in love with you!”

Time stopped the moment the words left Steve’s lips. Bucky’s mouth fell open, and Steve couldn’t breathe. Everything else he’d planned on saying disappeared from his mind as they gaped at one another.

“What?” The word came out a whisper as Bucky’s hands fisted at his sides - big, confused eyes blinking. Steve wished more than anything that he wasn’t the cause of that confusion.

“Buck, can we just sit down and talk? Can we--”

No such luck. Bucky flew at him with a swiftness, and Steve wasn’t sure if he was about to be kissed or killed. In the end, he got two armfuls of Bucky, coming at him with such a startling ferocity that it rendered him speechless.

“So fuckin’ mad at you,” Bucky muttered, hands scrabbling for purchase on Steve’s shoulders as he pressed his face against his neck. “So fuckin’ mad.”

“Oh, Buck,” he sighed, wrapping him up and squeezing him tight - maybe tighter than he should have, but he needed to feel him. “I know, and I’m so sorry.”

Bucky’s feet left the ground, and he forced Steve to shoulder his weight in a way that felt like a challenge. It wasn’t a fight because it could never be a fair one. But it was what Bucky had - all that anger, all that frustration coming out in the fury of his body as it clung to Steve’s. And Steve could give that to him. Could allow him to be angry until the fight was gone, so long as they could be there working through it together.

Eventually, Bucky pulled back, eyes ringed with red though he wasn’t quite crying yet. “You saved my life.”

“Yeah--”

“Now you’re ruining it,” he continued, sniffling before rubbing a hand across his nose.

Steve grinned in spite of himself. “I’m a multifaceted sorta guy.”

That got a snort out of Bucky, which made his nose start running again. It wasn't dignified, but it was sweet, and Steve couldn't help smiling as he walked them back towards an end table that held a box of tissues. Bucky released his hold long enough to grab one and blow his nose with a prolonged honk.

“You’re a lying asshole, Frannie,” he muttered, once he’d tossed the used tissue onto the table.

“Yeah, I am, Stuart,” Steve agreed. “But you know now…”

“Still working on the believing part.”

“Fair enough. But honestly, that’s it, and...well.” He hesitated. “There’s one other thing.”

Bucky glowered.

“The uh, the colleague that caught up to me? She thinks I might be needed. Cap, that is. So I might have to go, and I don’t know when.” But he had his suspicions, being as he hadn’t been speeding.

“So what?” Bucky replied, arms folded across his chest as he closed himself off once more. “You go back to your life, I go back to mine?”

“Bucky, I don’t have a life,” he said, the weight of the words sitting heavy on his shoulders. “Not one that means anything. You’re it - my whole life. So when I go, I hope it’s so that I can get the job done before coming back to you.” He hesitated, warmth creeping up the back of his neck as he realized the implications of his statement. “If you’ll have me, that is.”

Bucky continued to scowl, though there was a smirk catching right at the corner of his mouth - sunshine emerging from the clouds. Drawing himself up to his full height (which wasn’t so high, considering), he sniffed imperiously. “I will consider having you.”

“I guess that’s all I can ask, huh?”

“Yup.” Bucky looked down before offering him a hand. “Well, that and uh...you’re gonna answer every single question I have for as long as I want to ask them.”

That sounded exceedingly fair. “All night, pal.”

Bucky looked him up and down before giving him a nod. “We might as well get comfortable.”

Comfortable turned out to be the bedroom, a simple room with pale gray walls and a big bank of windows. Bucky shut the door behind them and leaned against it, considering Steve.

“Lift that up,” he said, pointing to the bed, which was a big, sturdy platform made of real wood with a thick mattress sitting atop it.

Steve obliged, showing off as he lifted both the frame and the mattress one-handed. Bucky stared with an open mouth, as the last part of him that hadn’t quite believed Steve’s story began to quiet down. (Though, in Steve’s experience, while seeing was believing, it wouldn’t shut up that little voice entirely. Peggy had watched it happen, and she’d still had to touch, to see, to make sure he was real.)

“Shit,” Bucky stammered as Steve set the bed down. “Shit, wait…” Walking over, he bent and strained to accomplish the same feat with two hands that Steve had managed with one. The bed lifted half an inch at best before Bucky released it with a grunt.

“You wanna get a gun and shoot me?” Steve offered. “I heal pretty quick.” He was joking. Mostly.

“No.” Bucky scowled, sitting down on the bed and crossing his arms. “I want to know about the woman you were in love with.”

Ouch. “Peggy.”

“Yeah, her. Is that why you said all the stuff about her being alive, but you can’t be with her?”

Steve nodded, part of him wishing Bucky had started their conversation off with something a bit easier to bear, but knowing he owed him an explanation. “She’s not dead,” he reiterated, sitting down next to Bucky and sighing. “But she’s in her nineties now. Alzheimer’s, it said in her file.”

“Oh.” Bucky’s voice was small. “So…”

“She’s had a life and a family, and as far as she knows, I’ve been dead seventy years.”

"But that means that you...you were still with her when you uh...when you thought you were going to die?"

“Yes.” There was no use sugar-coating it. “She’s had decades to grieve me, and I’ve had months. I’m not--”

“You’re still in love with her.”

“Yes, and part of me is still grieving that loss.” Tentatively, he reached across the space between them and dropped a hand to Bucky’s knee. “But I’m grieving who she was, and the life we might have had together. I can’t change what happened, but I don’t want you thinking you’re some replacement for her. Or second best.”

Bucky was quiet, looking down at Steve's hand and waiting for a moment before dropping his own on top. "Thanks," he said. "I um...this really helps with a lot of things, actually. Like how you were so dumb about my being gay, and how you didn't know about being bi, and…how you'd never had a Cheeto."

Steve laughed, leaning back against the pillows and stretching one arm out beside him, just in case Bucky wanted to join him down there. “I’ve been dumb about a lot of things, huh?”

“Yup.”

Bucky looked at him, considering, before shrugging and draping himself across Steve’s torso. Still mad, but working on it.

They lay without speaking for a moment, and Steve took a chance in bending his outstretched arm to brush his fingers through Bucky’s hair, tugging out the elastic and hoping the gesture was viewed as a comfort rather than an annoyance.

“You,” Bucky offered eventually. “Are Occam’s razor.”

Steve shifted his weight, twisting a lock of hair around his finger before pressing a kiss to the top of Bucky’s head. “I’m not familiar.”

"It's this problem-solving principle that says like...the simplest explanation is usually the right one. And that's you when you look at all the pieces together," Bucky explained. "Not knowing who Stephen King is, can't use a cell phone, total skinflint, how you talk, Rita Hayworth, all of it. It's simultaneously the least likely thing I've ever heard, and yet the only explanation that makes any sense. Answers all the questions, you know?"

Steve smiled at that; genius fuckin’ kid. “It’s the truth.”

“Mmm,” Bucky shrugged. “Shoulda told me at the hospital. Or, like, when you showed up in Indiana at the very latest.”

“I’m sorry, Buck,” he said. “I’m gonna say that as many times as you need me to until you believe me.”

“Oh, I believe you’re sorry, Frannie. I’m just gonna let myself be mad at you for a while.”

"Sure," Steve agreed. That seemed fair. "Be mad as long as you want. I'm not great at groveling, but I think I could try and learn."

Bucky gave another snort and cuddled closer.

 


 

They talked until nearly two in the morning, with questions ranging from Steve’s childhood illnesses (plenty of ‘em), to whether Tony Stark was nice (wasn’t the word Steve would use, but his heart was in the right place), and if Steve really, truly couldn’t ever get drunk (pretty sure, though he’d never put it to the test). Steve had had questions of his own - things Bucky had said that he hadn’t understood at the time, from Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, to the reemergence of the stars and bars.

Bucky managed to not be too condescending when he told Steve about Google. Steve managed not to tickle him into submission.

It was a good night, with both of them drifting off in the middle of a conversation about how wrong Bucky’s sophomore year history class had been when it came to Steve Rogers and the serum.

Steve woke around seven, the room lit by the sunlight reflected off the water and through the gauzy white curtains covering the windows. He watched the steady rise and fall of Bucky’s chest for a while, leaning down to press a kiss to his forehead before leaving him to sleep and walking out to the living room.

Natasha Romanov was sitting on the sofa.

Perhaps Steve should have been more surprised, but the timing seemed about right, and he'd had his suspicions about the traffic stop.

“Cap,” she greeted.

“Steve,” he corrected. “You want some breakfast? I gotta go shopping, but I can toast a mean piece of bread--”

“I’m sorry,” she said, and she did sound sorry, in her Natasha way. “This isn’t a social call.”

“I figured.”

“You knew this was coming.”

“Kinda hoped it wasn’t.” In his heart of hearts, he had hoped she was wrong. That the world was a better place than he knew it to be. That the threads she was pulling on would turn out to be nothing at all - simply a spider spinning her web because it was everything she’d been taught to do.

Natasha offered him a sad smile, though not a pitying one. “In a way, I have you to thank.”

Steve raised an eyebrow as he went to sit opposite her in an armchair.

“When you left - ditched SHIELD, the works, it started me thinking. If Captain America doesn’t want to work for these people, am I sure I do? You’d been held up as this symbol of everything I’d been raised to hate and mistrust, and the people who raised me…” she shrugged. “All I know is that if you’re against something, it’s probably the sort of thing that deserves a second look.”

“Natasha, I’m not against SHIELD, I only--”

“Maybe not, but you’re not for them, either. You, Stark, Bruce...you all saw something wrong there. Something I didn’t see until we discovered those weapons on the helicarrier.”

Steve grunted, the memory of the weaponry and Fury’s explanations still a sore spot.

“Call it a gut feeling,” Natasha continued. “An instinct. I started doing some digging behind the scenes.”

“And?”

“I’m not sure, but I know it’s not good, and I know I need someone on my side I can trust because I’m not sure who else has been compromised.”

“What about Barton?”

She shook her head. “Not compromised but…not ready, yet.”

Steve hesitated, tapping out a rhythm on his knee as he scrutinized her. “What if I’m not on your side? How do you know you can trust me?”

A half-smile and a shrug. “I can’t trust anyone, but you’re as close as I’ve got to a sure thing.”

“How do I know I can trust you?”

“Take it on faith.”

“That’s not a ringing endorsement.”

“I know,” she said. “I also know you don’t have any reason to believe me, but you can believe that I wouldn’t be here if I thought I had another option.” She smiled and shrugged. “I don’t begrudge you your happiness, Steve. I’m glad you found someone, and I wouldn’t put this on you if I thought I could do it myself.”

Steve didn’t know her well, this enemy-turned-agent who had leaped off his shield to throw herself headlong into a fight without any powers to speak of - nothing but her wits and her wiles, that was, both of which she had in spades. He liked her. Hoped he could trust her.

If he was going to start living in this new world instead of just walking through it, he’d need other people on his side.

“How long do I have?”

“We’ll need to--”

“Um?”

Steve jumped and turned to find a bewildered Bucky standing in the doorway. Funny, he was so used to Bucky being in his vicinity that he hadn’t registered his approach as anything other than business as usual.

“Buck,” he began, as Natasha got to her feet, cool as a cucumber. Of course, she’d heard him coming. “This is--”

“Your colleague?”

God, Bucky was so smart. It was easy to forget sometimes.

“Yes,” he said.

“Natasha,” said Natasha.

Bucky gave her a cool look before turning his attention back to Steve, arms stiff at his sides. "So, you're leaving?"

“I’m sorry,” Steve began.

“Wheels up in ten,” Natasha confirmed.

“Up?” Bucky replied, at the same time Steve said, “ten?”

Natasha crossed to the window and pointed to the beach. Steve and Bucky followed, with Steve swearing under his breath at the sight of a sleek looking aircraft sitting on the sand. He should have heard it coming, and the fact that he hadn’t was of some concern. Stealth was getting stealthier and stealthier; maybe that was part of the problem.

“Ten,” Natasha reiterated, once they’d both recovered. “Sorry to steal him away, ah...Buck, was it?”

James,” Bucky replied. Steve hid a smile.

“James,” she agreed, offering him a nod. “Steve, I’ve got a suit for you.”

“Uh, thanks…” He felt trapped - Natasha walking to the front door, as Bucky fled towards the bedroom.

Shit, he wished they had more time.

Natasha showed herself out, and Steve followed Bucky down the hall, finding him curled up on his side with his back to the bedroom door.

“Bucky,” he began, kneeling on the bed behind him and touching his shoulder.

“You said soon,” Bucky muttered. “This is sooner than soon.”

“I know. I’m sorry, she--”

“Do you have to?” Bucky interrupted, looking up at him with such a mournful expression that Steve nearly laughed. Catching himself, he bent for a kiss instead, rolling Bucky onto his back and pinning him down.

“I think so, Stuart,” he said. “You gonna wait here for me?”

Bucky shrugged, wriggling one arm free of Steve’s confines and bringing it up to trace a pattern along his bearded jaw. “You said it’s paid up for two weeks, right?”

“Yeah, but I don’t think it’ll take that long.” He hoped not, though in truth he had no idea.

“Hmph.” Bucky sighed. “Then I’ll be fine, I guess. I’ll wait.”

“If I don’t…” he began, before shaking his head. “You’ll need money regardless. There’s a compartment in the glovebox. Code’s six-two-seven-four-two. Say that back.”

“Six-two-seven-four-two.”

“Good, don’t forget that. There’s money in there - cash, probably eighty or ninety grand left. I didn’t count, but Tony--”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Bucky said, his eyebrows nearly shooting off his face. “There’s been ninety thousand dollars of cash sitting in our car, this entire time?”

“Well…” Steve hesitated. “It was a hundred when I started…”

“Oh my God,” Bucky managed. “Tony Stark gave you a hundred thousand dollars?”

“...yes?”

“And you made us sleep at the Moondust Motel?” Bucky exclaimed. And, alright, the Moondust had been one of the stickier experiences of their trip, but Steve didn’t see how that made any difference.

“The money’s not mine, Buck, I’m not going to waste--”

Bucky shut him up with a kiss - a deep, sweet, lasting kiss that was broken only by his laughter, hand coming to rest on Steve's backside, where he gave him a pinch. "Damn it, Steve, it's tough to stay mad at you."

“Maybe I don’t have to go,” he blurted. “I could tell her I’m out, I could...I could stay.”

 

I'm gonna need a rain check on that dance.

 

Bucky considered him, then, eyes boring a hole in him as though they might find some hidden depths. “Could you live with yourself?” he asked after a moment. “If she needed you, and you didn’t go?”

Steve shook his head. He didn’t need to think twice.

“Then you gotta,” Bucky replied, a smile on his face that didn’t meet his eyes. “I’ll be here when you get back.”

 

A week, next Saturday, at the Stork Club.

 

“Promise?”

“Promise. Just...don’t do anything dumb. No planes. No ice.”

 

Eight o’clock on the dot. Don’t you dare be late.

 

“Nothing dumber than usual. Got it.”

Bucky smiled. Kissed him and let him go.

 

We’ll have the band play something slow, I’d hate to step on your--

 

Chapter Text

Bucky sat on the deck of the house and made a list.

It was a long list. Pages upon pages full of realizations about Steve.

Steve, his savior. Steve, his friend. Steve, his boyfriend. Steve, Captain America.

Steve, who had been so confounding and now made sense in a way Bucky could never have imagined.

Steve, who had been gone less than twenty-four hours, though to Bucky it felt like twenty-four years.

Melodramatic? Maybe. But it was honest.

Bucky had stood at the window of the bedroom watching the sleek aircraft lift horizontally from the sand. Which, wasn't that some kind of something? Steve had been carried away into the clouds, and Bucky was left behind with his thoughts, his questions, and ninety-thousand dollars worth of free time.

The entire situation was insane, and Bucky felt trapped in that liminal zone between sense and non-, where things hadn’t quite smoothed out - the bumps and ridges of the surreal jarring his mind as it tried to work through all that had happened.

It was easier to write it down. To ponder on paper and get himself out of his head and onto the page. He dug down deep for the truth of how he felt - whether he was still angry, what other questions he had, and whether or not he loved the man who came from the stars.

Mostly, he tried to figure out where Steve ended and where Captain America began.

Bucky hadn’t used his laptop much on the trip - it had been in his backpack, gathering dust, his phone sufficient for most of what he needed. Now, for the first time in weeks, he opened it up and began to search for Steve.

Steve Rogers Rita Hayworth brought up a single photograph of them together - the same picture he'd caught Steve staring at in Hollywood, though he hadn't recognized him then, hidden behind the cowl. Bucky couldn't help feeling like an idiot.

There was footage of Steve without the cowl, too - newsreels Bucky had never seen before of him with his Howling Commandos, smiling and laughing in some, serious and sober in others. Occasionally, there was an unidentified woman with dark brown curls, and Bucky had to wonder if that was Peggy. They'd never showed any of that stuff in history class, but the man in the footage was Steve. Simply, plainly Steve.

Now that he could see it, he wondered how he’d ever missed it. How he could have been so obtuse. But then, it was Occam’s Razor again, wasn’t it? Just from another angle. Steve Rogers was dead. Ergo, Steve Rogers was statistically unlikely to walk through the doors of the hospital in New York City where Bucky was recuperating from an alien attack. Steve Rogers, being dead, was very unlikely to be running around saving folks.

People didn’t come back from the dead. Bucky consoled himself with the notion that he wouldn’t have recognized Winston Churchill or Marilyn Monroe, either.

Besides, it wasn’t like he’d been a history major. His acquaintance with the story of Captain America and his heroism during the war had been brief and fleeting - a high school class, an old movie with Paul Newman he’d watched once with his mother, and a more recent film with Channing Tatum that he’d seen with his friends. The Steve in those flicks had been mighty and valiant, saving a blonde named Betty Carver before laying down his life for his country. Virtuous and without flaws - nothing like Bucky’s Steve at all.

Steve's true face had been a glancing memory of a textbook, mixed in with the other heroes, villains, and legends of the war. No more real than the remembrances of their deeds laid down in black and white for a bored kid in a crowded classroom to forget.

Plus, Steve had grown a beard. Like an asshole.

God, Bucky missed him.

Thirty-six hours into his solitude, Bucky gave up on research and turned on the television instead. There had been an insurgent attack in the Middle East, the FBI was dealing with an ongoing hostage situation in Texas, and some movie star had checked herself into rehab.

None of those sounded like they involved Steve or his dumb colleague.

Bucky’s stomach rumbled as he began his second hour of depressing CNN watching, and it struck him that he hadn’t eaten in a while. It had been since the day before, at least - he’d wolfed down the remnants of what they’d had in the cooler from the car.

Shoving Little Debbie snack cakes into his mouth without Steve around to berate him for it wasn’t as much fun, he had found, and he hadn’t eaten since.

There was no food in the house, save for a random container of bouillon cubes and a few loose tea bags in a cupboard. Bucky remembered passing a small grocery store on their way into town, and he could hear Steve’s lecture in his head about taking care of himself. Wanting to avoid that (and not thinking at all about what might happen if Steve never came back to deliver that lecture), Bucky went to the car and opened the glovebox, where he punched in the code and found the promised cash alongside Steve’s goddamn phone.

Bucky scowled and grabbed a hundred dollar bill, along with the device, shoving them both into his pocket before slamming the glovebox closed.

“Stupid, stupid, stupid idiot,” he muttered. “How’m I supposed to text you when you leave your phone...so dumb.”

That wasn't charitable, and he knew it. Steve wasn't dumb, he just didn't think the way Bucky would think. He never had, and Bucky was only beginning to realize just how often they'd been missing one another, from Steve's weirdly regressive homophobia to his avoidance of the interstates.

Of course he wouldn’t think to bring his phone. It wasn’t ingrained in him. Still, if he sent Bucky a letter from the war, Bucky was sure he’d scream.

The tiny grocery store in town was crammed full of the basic staples people needed on vacation, but not much else. Bucky picked up a basket and wandered down the cereal aisle, figuring he could buy a couple boxes and live on that if he had to. Maybe a piece of fruit, for Steve’s sake.

Rounding the corner with a basket full of Reese’s Puffs, he ran straight into a man holding an energy drink and a six-pack of beer, a pair of Ray-Bans perched on his head and a slight sunburn on his nose.

“Sorry!” Bucky jumped back.

The man gave him a grin, eyes crinkling up at the corners. “It’s cool. I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going.”

“Right,” Bucky said. “Uh, still sorry, though.”

“No problem,” he replied, before continuing on with the conversation as though Bucky really wanted to make a friend, which he emphatically did not. “You live around here?”

“Oh, no.” Talking was better than worrying, though, and Winnie hadn’t raised him to be rude. “Just um, on vacation. So I’m stocking up.”

“You’re all by yourself?” The man cocked his head to the side, and Bucky noticed the hearing aid in his ear for the first time, the device small and unobtrusive.

“No, I was uh...I mean, I’m here with my boyfriend.” Shit. This guy was nosy. But friendly. Probably just friendly.

The man didn’t look offended at Bucky’s admission of sexuality; instead, he shifted his grip on the beer and extended a hand. “Cool. Me, too. Vacationing, I mean. No boyfriend, no girlfriend. Just me. I’m Clint.”

“Uh, hi.” Bucky shook Clint’s outstretched hand. “I’m Bucky.”

“Good to meet you, Bucky. I’m sure I’ll see you around.”

“Yeah,” he agreed, offering Clint a tight smile before he continued on his way, stopping to pick up a few more odds and ends, then heading to the checkout.

When he got back to the house, he made himself a sandwich and went to sit on the deck, where he picked at the food and watched the water crash onto the rocks below. It was a wild sea - swirling and shooting up through the cracks and crevasses between the boulders. Steve would have wanted to go exploring. He would have climbed all over the rocks in a way that made Bucky kind of nervous, only now he knew he wouldn’t have had anything to worry about. God, it was weird to think that way about Steve.

Bucky couldn’t bring himself to walk down the path towards the water. Too sad, too lonely. Too something.

It was easier to write than think, so when he’d eaten as much of his food as he could stomach, he went inside to get his notebook.

 

“Have we trapped you here?”

“Yes,” said the Voyager. “But I don’t mind.”

“The world must seem so small to you now.”

“I prefer the quiet.”

 


 

 

The third day passed without anything on the news.

Same with the fourth.

The fifth.

Bucky was going to lose his mind, he knew it. What if Steve was already dead? What if he never came back? What if he’d been a figment of Bucky’s overly active imagination? What if Bucky was in a coma after the attack, imagining the whole trip?

When his thoughts carried him too far in that direction, he would pinch himself and open up his phone, looking at the few photographs he had of himself with Steve. Who was real, and fine, and not dead.

Not dead yet.

Ugh, he wished he knew.

On the sixth day, Bucky finally went to the beach, where he perched on a rock with his toes in the sand, staring out at the horizon and trying not to worry. No news was good news, wasn’t it?

Maybe not.

So he called his mother, who was due for a call. His check-ins with Winnie were usually brief and one-sided, but at that moment he wanted nothing more than to hear her voice.

“Hey, honeypie,” she greeted, the warmth of her tone flooding the line and oh, Bucky ached to hug her. Would have given almost anything to feel her arms around him.

“Hi, mama,” he said, his voice shaky as he used an old name; a babyish name. One he hadn’t called her in years because he’d been so very grown up and important. Funny, how that all broke down when the world fell apart around you. He had called her mama on the phone from the hospital, and he’d done it again on the day she and his father had arrived to pick him up.

Winnie was a smart woman, which made sense - she’d raised smart kids. “You alright, sweet pea?” Her list of nicknames was endless. Bucky missed her very much.

“Yeah,” he said. “I um. I guess I’m missing you guys a little.”

“You could come home,” she said like she’d been waiting for Bucky to give her the opportunity to offer. To be fair, she’d been good about the extension of the trip. Understanding of his westward dawdling. But she was worried, and he knew it.

“I know,” he said. “I might.”

“Might?”

“Well, I will. We’re um, Oregon’s really pretty. And we’ve got another week here, but you know Steve?”

Winnie hesitated. “I...know Steve, but…” he could hear the frown in her voice. “Did he do something to you, baby?”

“No!” Yes. “It’s just that, you know how I said we were trying things out?”

(And boy, hadn’t that been a fun conversation? Full of “but I thought he was straight!” and “you’d better be careful!” from Winnie, combined with a lot of “mo-oooooom!” from him.)

“I do remember that, yes,” Winnie said, her tone cautious.

"Okay so, the thing is, I think I'm in love with him? And I can't be, right? Because it's too soon and...and…" Damn it. He wasn't going to cry. If he cried, it would all be over, and he'd descend into a vicious cycle of blubbering and apologizing for blubbering while his mother tried to calm him down.

Winnie got quiet as Bucky struggled to get hold of himself. When she spoke, her voice was gentle. “I don’t know, honey. Sometimes love happens quick, sometimes it grows over time.” She hesitated. “But Bucky, you don’t sound very happy. I don’t like that.”

He couldn’t tell her. Couldn’t explain that Steve was gone and he missed him so badly it was making him sick. Couldn’t explain that Steve was out there risking his life on a mission Bucky wasn’t privy to, with someone Bucky didn’t know calling the shots. Couldn’t explain that no, he wasn’t happy, but he was stuck.

So, he did the best he could. “I am happy. It’s just...new. And I’m figuring it out.”

“I can’t tell you how to feel,” Winnie said. “But I know you’re smart, and I trust your judgment. Whatever it is you’re figuring out, you’ll get there. But...you know dad and I are here for you, right? If you need anything…”

“Hey, it’s Bucky, right?”

Bucky looked up in surprise at the voice and found the man from the grocery store - Clint? - standing in front of him in jogging clothes, breathing heavily.

Covering the bottom of his phone, Bucky nodded. “Oh, yeah. Um, hi.”

Winnie’s voice was in his ear. “Who’s that? Bucky?”

“Yeah, sorry, mama. I have to go, but I know about you and dad, and I’ll call you later, okay?”

“Bucky…”

“I love you. I gotta go - I’m sorry. Love you!”

“Love you, too, baby, but--”

Bucky ended the call, looking up at Clint, who had his hands held up in the universal gesture of apology. “Uh, sorry. Didn’t mean to cut you off.”

“No, it’s okay,” Bucky replied. “It’s...we were done.” Well, almost done. Or, at least, getting to the point where Bucky was going to be forced to start lying, and he didn’t want to lie to his mother.

“I’m uh, Clint, remember? We met at the store?”

“I remember.” Clint was very friendly, so it was a good thing Bucky was used to friendly, being from the midwest. Maybe Clint was lonely, too - a kindred spirit. Or maybe Bucky was just projecting.

“Awesome,” Clint grinned. “I don’t mean to bother you if you’re busy.”

“No, it’s fine,” he said. “Seriously, we were done. How’s your vacation going?”

“Can’t complain,” Clint said. “We’re neighbors, I think, if you’re in the grey house? I’m just down there.” He pointed, and Bucky turned to look at the line of condos visible in the distance.

“Oh, cool. Yeah, we’re in the grey house. It’s...the view’s killer.” He gestured towards the house, while his brain sent him a nasty little reminder that ‘we’ weren’t anything at all, because the other half of ‘we’ was MIA. KIA. (Shut up, brain.)

Clint let out a low whistle. “I’m jealous.” Grinning, he pressed two fingers to the side of his neck. “Shit, heartrate’s dropping. Gotta go - catch you ‘round, Bucky.”

“Uh, bye?” Bucky raised his hand to wave, but Clint was already gone.

Weird guy.

 


 

Late in the afternoon of that same day, Bucky turned on the television and left it playing low while he read one of the terrible books that had been sitting on a shelf in the house, likely left by some other guest. The pages were stiff and brittle, as though it had gotten wet somewhere along the way. Bucky didn’t mind, invested as he was getting in the romantic story of a Scottish laird and his buxom bride.

So invested, in fact, that he nearly missed the breaking news alert when it flashed across the screen.

“...getting reports of shots fired inside the Triskelion. Stay with CNN for the latest.”

Once the words registered, Bucky dropped his book and scrambled for the remote, turning up the volume and sitting, wide-eyed and transfixed by the live image on the screen, which was showing a building that was as familiar a landmark as the Pentagon or the White House.

SHIELD. Steve had mentioned SHIELD. Bucky wished he’d asked for more details. Wished he’d pressed the redheaded colleague for precisely where she was taking his boyfriend. (Not that she’d seemed the type to give up secrets, but he could have asked.)

The wait was interminable, the shot on the screen static. Nothing was happening, save for the constant stream of inane babble from the pundits speculating on what could possibly be happening inside. Terrorist attack? Homegrown militia? Disgruntled employee?

“Steve Rogers,” Bucky muttered.

The news had entered its second hour of coverage when there was a knock at the door. Bucky nearly jumped out of his skin, fumbling with the remote and dropping it on the floor.

Steve! Said his hopeful brain. Like Steve would ever be so polite as to wait for an invitation to his own house. Not his style.

But maybe...maybe

Bucky opened the door and found Clint on the other side, grocery bag in his hands, with another six-pack tucked under his arm. What the hell?

“Hey, man,” Clint greeted, cheerful as anything.

“...hi?” Bucky replied, not bothering to hide his confusion.

“So, here’s the thing, I bought way too much steak at the store. Just...a shit ton of steak. And I hate to waste food, so I was thinking...shit, Bucky’s got this nice place. Probably has a grill. Thought maybe you guys’d want to cook out?”

“Um.” Bucky’s brain had officially flown the coop. “What?”

“Or not!” Clint laughed. “You’re just the only person I know around here and…”

“You want to cook steak. On my grill?”

“...yeah, man.”

Bucky was too worried to care about how weird Clint was. “Um. Okay.”

“Seriously? Awesome.” And then Clint was inside, and had Bucky let him in? Maybe. He wasn’t sure. Clint was kind of smooth, come to think of it.

“Steve’s not here,” Bucky said as he shut the door. “So he can’t eat the extra steak. Because he’s not here.”

Clint cocked his head to the side in a remarkable approximation of a curious bird. Bucky felt compelled to continue babbling.

“He was here. But he had to um. Go to work. So he’s not. Here. Now.”

“Oh.” Clint shrugged. “Cool. More steak for us, then.”

“Right,” Bucky nodded, following Clint - who seemed immediately comfortable - into the house.

He stopped short when he saw the television. The photo had changed, the camera swooping and swaying as it attempted to focus on a speck in the sky.

A speck that was...a bird? A man? A man-bird.

A guy with wings.

“Whoa,” Clint said. “Cool.”

“There’s uh...there’s something going on in DC,” Bucky said. “It’s all over the news.”

It felt good to tell someone. Bucky had never been all that complicated - he told the truth, tried to be honest, and kept things simple. The biggest secret he’d ever held onto had been his sexuality, and that hadn’t been a secret for long.

This was something else, and it was a relief to share the burden of knowledge with Clint, even if he couldn’t share everything.

Still, he could tell him a bit more. “Steve’s - he’s working in DC, actually. So I’m…”

“Aw, man.” Clint frowned, clapping him on the shoulder. “Hey, no worries, though. I’m happy to keep you company.”

The sentiment was appreciated, if strange. Clint was the uninvited guest, after all. “Um, thanks?”

“Absolutely,” Clint replied, whistling as he headed into the kitchen, where he proceeded to make himself right at home.

Turned out, Clint wasn’t a bad cook, even if he did have a tendency to drop things on the floor. “Butterfingers,” became the common refrain as he passed back and forth between the kitchen and the patio a dozen times in forty-five minutes. Bucky found it hard to focus on the television, what with Clint asking him where things were - spatula, cups, tongs, salt, pepper, aluminum foil.

Bucky was going to lose his mind.

“Hey, Clint, I--” he began, hoping for five minutes to himself when Clint cut him off.

“Rare or medium rare?”

“Medium rare, but--”

“Me, I like mine rare, but I’m kind of a carnivore, so…”

Bucky didn’t hear the end of the sentence because that was when everything went to shit.

The anchor gasped as the Triskelion began to buckle. Not exploding. Imploding. That massive complex of interlocking architecture folding in on itself. In and down and in and down and his ears were buzzing as it crumbled because, because, because…

It had to be Steve. It had to be Steve and Steve was in there and Steve was in there fuck fuck fuck and…

“...evacuation of most personnel completed before…”

“Hey, Bucky?”

“...unable to ascertain…”

“Hey, Barnes, stick with me.”

“...getting reports of a massive underground bunker…”

“It’s alright, kid. You’re alright.”

The world narrowed to a pinprick of light and the smell of smoke.

“I think the steaks are burning,” Bucky managed before pitching forward, his head hitting the coffee table on his way down.

There wasn’t anything at all after that.

 


 

When Bucky awoke, he was in bed. Fully dressed, stretched out on top of the sheets, with a throbbing headache and a dry mouth.

Reaching up, he found a tender lump covered by a gauze bandage on his right temple.

Clint was sitting in a chair by the bank of windows, watching him, beer in hand and a smile on his face.

Bucky couldn’t remember exactly - couldn’t shake the sick feeling in his gut - but there had been a collapse. And Clint had called him Barnes.

He had never told Clint his last name.

“You’re one of them,” Bucky said, the pieces of the jigsaw slotting into place.

“Nat said you were smart,” Clint replied. Bucky snorted. “She thought you might need a babysitter - figured I’d be a decent enough distraction.”

“Steve…?”

“I don’t know.” Clint’s smile tightened as he shook his head. “You were out for about an hour, and I haven’t heard a thing.”

“Oh.” Bucky sat up, dizziness overwhelming him. He closed his eyes in an attempt to recalibrate before opening them and staring Clint down. “So...if you’re one of them, why weren’t you there?”

Clint shrugged. “Sabbatical. I had a hell of a summer.”

Bucky grunted. “That makes two of us.”

That got a smile. “Heard you were in New York.”

“Yeah, I…” Bucky squinted. “Oh shit. You’re the archer.”

“Guilty.” Clint shrugged. “They never got my good side in any of the footage.”

“You’re...you…” Bucky was getting an F in superhero recognition and reconnaissance, that was for damn sure.

“It’s fine,” Clint replied. “You had a lot on your mind.”

“Yeah. I’m...the building, though. That looked bad.”

“Nat’s been through worse. I’m not worried yet.”

Bucky frowned, piecing it together. “So, you and her, that’s…?”

“Something like that.”

“I’m sorry.”

Clint shrugged and got to his feet. “Don’t feel sorry for me over something I haven’t lost yet. I don’t feel sorry for you.”

Somehow, that was almost reassuring.

 


 

Twenty minutes later, Clint had put together a meal of slightly-charred steak sandwiches and beer. Bucky was especially grateful for the beer, though slightly worried about the condition of his noggin (which was such a Steve word to think that he nearly groaned).

“Should I be drinking with a head wound?” His second of the year - congratulations on your brain damage, kid.

“Nah. I’ve had a lot of concussions, man. You’re fine.”

Clint seemed like a guy who would know, though he still wouldn’t let Bucky get out of bed and move around. Just in case.

Halfway through the meal, a soft, electronic ‘ping’ sounded throughout the room. Bucky glanced up to find Clint grinning, fishing in his back pocket for the sleekest looking phone Bucky had ever seen.

“What?” he asked. “What’s it say?”

“Budapest,” Clint said, unable to keep from laughing at the news. So, good? Probably?

“What’s Budapest?”

“Means they’re okay,” he said. “Or...well, it means they’re alive.”

Bucky didn’t feel very reassured. Alive could mean a lot of things. Alive could mean injured. Or comatose. Or frozen in a block of ice for seventy years.

On the upside, however, alive was way better than dead.

“Can’t you call her?”

“Not how it works,” Clint said, though not without sympathy for Bucky’s plight. “She’ll let me know more when she can.”

Bucky glared at Steve’s useless phone, sitting silently on the bedside table. If and when he got Steve back, he was going to staple the damn thing to his hand.

By the time they’d finished eating, Bucky’s head was hurting to the point of making it hard to look at any bright light. Clint encouraged him to sleep, which under other circumstances he might not have been able to do, yet the pain made it easy enough to drift. In and out and under, strange dreams passing over him as the night wore on.

He woke in the morning to find weak sunlight filtering through the windows, the day grey and overcast with an ever-present drizzle. His head no longer hurt, Clint had vacated the chair, and Bucky could smell bacon.

Following his nose, Bucky found Clint working on breakfast, and greeted his new acquaintance with a wave and a pressing query.

“Did Nat call?”

“Not exactly,” Clint replied, before gesturing to the television and turning it up.

A generic brunet anchor was speaking with the sort of grave tone usually reserved for tragedies or assassinations.

“...the overnight release of classified documents online rocking the intelligence community. With millions of files to comb through, it could be weeks or months before the ramifications of the leak are understood.”

“Turns out,” Clint said, flipping the eggs he was frying and catching Bucky’s attention. “All that good work Cap did in the forties? Not so much - those nasty Nazis he thought he shut down had infiltrated SHIELD. Ever heard of HYDRA?”

Bucky really hadn’t. Or, if he had, he couldn’t remember when or why. “Uh, no?”

“Nobody’s figured much out yet - just the broad strokes. But I know Nat, and I’m sure she dumped those files. If it wasn’t her, I’ll eat my hat.” He paused. “If I had a hat. Maybe I should get a hat.”

“What about Steve?”

“Okay so,” Clint cleared his throat. “Don’t freak out.”

Bucky freaked out. “Clint!”

"He's in the hospital, but he's fine! Or, okay, he's not fine, but he’s going to be fine.”

“You needed to lead with that part!”

“Sorry. It’s...mostly that the building sort of fell? On him?”

“...what?”

“But he’s fine! He’s totally fine! He will be fine. Nat said so!”

“Can we go there?”

“Oh, most definitely not.”

“Fuck you.”

“I mean, fair,” Clint agreed, sliding the eggs onto a waiting plate. “You could go outside and get in your car and drive to the airport and do whatever the fuck you want. Or you could sit tight and trust me.”

Bucky’s teeth were going to be ground to dust at the rate he was going. He closed his eyes, then opened them, then reached out to steal a piece of bacon from Clint’s plate.

He liked Clint fine, but he didn’t trust him. Steve? Steve, he could trust, in spite of everything.

And Steve had promised to come back. So Bucky could wait.

“Hey, ten bucks says I can flip off the balcony and be fine,” Clint said.

Waiting would be interesting, at least.

 


 

It took two days for the world to figure out who Steve was, thanks in part to Natasha’s info dump, which included all the information relevant to Cap’s de-popsicle-ization (as Bucky had begun to think of it).

The media descended, and less than three hours later, the man known as Captain America disappeared from his hospital bed, right under their noses.

The only witness said he’d jumped out a window. Said window was on the twenty-fourth floor.

Bucky really hoped Steve was okay because he was looking forward to murdering him.

Twenty-eight hours after Steve disappeared from the hospital, Bucky had come up with a list of inventive ways to make Steve suffer during the said murder. Really stick it to him, for so very many things. Leaving Bucky alone? Sure. Keeping him from the truth for months? Definitely.

Inflicting Clint Barton on him for days on end? Oh, fuck yes.

Clint was so nice. And so friendly. And so eager to keep Bucky happy. It was hard to be mad at him when he was all those things, save for the fact that he was also so, so messy.

Bucky had never met someone as messy as Clint. The man left a trail of filth wherever he went - candy wrappers, sand, beer bottles and so very many crumbs. Endless crumbs. Bucky tried to be understanding. He knew Clint was anxious, too - he was worried about Natasha, and it turned out that his coping mechanism was overly effusive generosity with both his time and his attention.

Which meant that Clint cooked. Constantly. Using every pot and pan in the tiny, rented kitchen. Bucky wasn’t even sure how it was possible to use four measuring cups, a whisk, and a saucepan to heat up a can of Progresso, but there they were.

He had to admit, though, he preferred the company to being alone. Clint, for all his faults, was funny and kind. It was hard to believe he was the same man in the footage Bucky had pulled up of New York.

Clint also told good stories, regaling Bucky with tales of his childhood (some of which were highly unbelievable), as well as what few memories he had of Steve during the Battle of New York. Turned out, Clint had gotten up close and personal with the power of an alien god, which made Bucky’s broken leg seem insignificant by comparison.

They passed the time as best they knew how as the second day turned into the third, then the fourth, then the fifth with no word from either Steve or Natasha.

On the morning of the sixth day, Bucky opened his eyes and saw a shadow standing over the bed, silhouetted by the bright light spilling through the filmy curtains. Bucky hesitated, hardly daring to hope as he found his voice.

“...Steve?”

 

Chapter Text

The fingers of Bucky’s left hand twitched, and Steve smiled. Caught in a dream, no doubt, lying there fast asleep, sheets kicked to the bottom of the bed, face mashed against the pillow.

God, there wasn't much to him. Skinny and small. Breakable but not broken, though the world had certainly tried. An average young man - unsure of his future and seeking some semblance of stability - but more than that, a good one. Good, not naive, which was an easy mistake to make when confronted with his geniality. His kindness.

Good was a choice.

Steve loved him, and it was as simple as that.

The universe might have liked to fight him on it, that little voice in his head which said he hadn’t known him long enough. Said that the love Steve felt was fueled by anger, or grief, or the shock of waking up in a world he didn’t understand. And sure, the universe might have had a point, but what did it matter? It was love, and that was enough in all the ways that counted.

The Triskelion had fallen down on Steve’s shoulders, and his last thought had been of Bucky. The way he’d turn his head in the car sometimes and give Steve that big, sunshine smile.

When he’d woken up in the hospital some time later, his first thought had been of Bucky, too.

Bucky, who had waited for him without any guarantees. Bucky, who had taken the weight of Steve’s world on his back and stood resolute and strong beneath it. Bucky, his compass, and maybe that was awfully florid, but Steve wasn’t so averse to his poetical musings these days.

Blinking twice, Steve coughed and wiped his eyes, stepping into the darkened bathroom to undress, not wanting to wake Bucky.

Sleep would be good. Steve didn’t think he’d ever wanted anything as much as he wanted to crawl into bed with Bucky and sleep for the next seventy years. Give or take. Ha ha.

The bathroom mirror reflected the worst of his remaining injuries - a deep, nasty laceration above his left eye that had looked twice as bad the previous evening, along with a broad band of sickly yellow bruising along his left ribcage.

Funny thing about falling buildings - they tended to leave a mark.

Steve stepped out of the bathroom in nothing but the skin God gave him (God or Abraham Erskine, at any rate). The clean, white early morning sun that was filtering through the curtains nearly made Bucky glow, and it was hard to fight the desperate need to capture him in all his picturesque glory. To go and find his sketchbook; hide in the corner and work to capture every fine line of Bucky’s being on the cheap paper.

Bucky chose that moment to open his eyes, body jumping in surprise when he realized he wasn’t alone. Steve gave him a moment. Let him squint and think through it until he came to the only possible explanation for his early morning visitor.

“...Steve?”

“Hey, sweetheart.”

Bucky sat up on his elbows, blinking sleep from his eyes as Steve took a step closer.

“You shaved,” Bucky said.

“Beard got itchy.”

Had he wanted the sketchbook? He couldn’t remember. Sitting down, he reached for Bucky and pulled him close.

Steve kissed him then, lifting a hand to Bucky’s cheek and stroking his skin. Mapping every mark. Memorizing every inch. The kiss couldn’t make up for the lost time. The fear. The worry. It couldn’t tell Bucky just how much Steve had missed him. How for the first time since coming back into the world he didn’t want to leave it again.

There was a life for him in the here and now, and he planned on living it.

Bucky shifted his weight, curling into the embrace as the tension melted from his body. His right hand dropped to Steve’s hip and squeezed, clinging tight, as if proving to himself that this was real. True. Steve brought both hands to rest on Bucky’s neck, attempting to offer that same reassurance, tipping his head up to deepen the kiss.

 

Art by ellebeesknees of Steve and Bucky kissing on a bed, as described in the story

 

When Bucky broke away, there were tears in his eyes, though he didn’t blink them back or hide from his feelings the way Steve might have been inclined to. Yet another reason Steve was sure that he loved him.

“I’m sorry.” He swiped a thumb underneath Bucky’s eye, catching the first tear before it could begin its slow path down his cheek. “I know you must have been worried, Buck. I know--”

“Where were you?” The question came out half a sob, Bucky’s voice cracking as he brought his hand up to touch the stitches on Steve’s face. “They said you jumped out a window.”

Steve shrugged before telling the truth, which felt a remarkable thing to do. “I went to see Peggy. To know if she ah--”

To know if she’d known. If she’d been aware of the tentacles snaking their way into SHIELD. If she’d realized that the threads Natasha had been pulling on would lead to such a terrible revelation.

Truthfully, he’d been sure of the answer before he’d walked in the door. She hadn’t. A simple confirmation, and a flimsy excuse to see her. Peggy was the bravest person he’d ever known, with a moral compass that pointed true north. Stalwart and stubborn, but good. The two loves of Steve’s life had plenty in common when he got right down to it.

There were lots of ‘ifs’ to think through when it came to reckoning things with Peggy - if Steve had been found earlier, if he’d given her coordinates, if Howard had discovered the crash site.

If he’d had a life with her.

That was the one neither of them wanted to touch on. If it had happened, he had no doubt they would have continued to love one another fiercely, while fundamentally disagreeing about how best to save the world. Steve had never had as much room for nuance and ambiguity as Peggy - he the soldier, she the spy - but meeting her at the end of her life had given him a certain understanding of her morality.

The afternoon had been one of comfortable familiarity, with Peggy greeting him as though he were any other old friend come calling.

“Of course Nick told me,” she’d chided, before taking him to task for waiting so long to come and see her.

Steve had been awkward about it until Peggy’s amiability brought him around. She had been wonderfully herself, until she wasn’t, fading into her memories and seeing him as he had once been. Her long-lost love, come to fill up her dance card.

He had visited her once more, two days later, knowing by then he couldn’t risk it again. All of the secrets Natasha had given the world were trickling out, and it was only a matter of time before someone recognized him.

They would come looking, and he wanted to be back with Bucky by then.

All the same, he’d needed to give her a proper goodbye. The second visit had been better - she’d stayed with him the entire time, telling him about her children and her grandchildren, while Steve had waxed rhapsodic about the trip he’d taken and the road ahead. At her prodding, he’d told her about Bucky, not wanting to lie, but unsure of her reaction.

She had laughed, called him sly, said she was old but not dead and did he know her grandson had a husband and the two of them were trying to adopt a baby?

Steve hadn’t known, but he was glad she’d told him.

Peggy had wished him well. Wished him love, and life, and happiness wherever he could find it.

Steve had kissed her one last time, then left her to rest without making any promises.

Natasha had taken him back to Bucky, and he’d traded places with Clint before locking the door behind him.

No more soldier. No more war. For today, at least, and that was enough.

“To know if she what?” Bucky prompted, leaning in to inspect Steve’s wound more closely.

“To say goodbye,” he amended, wincing when Bucky touched one of his few remaining tender spots.

“Oh.” Additional inspections as Bucky’s eyes traveled down his body. “You’re looking pretty good for a guy who had a building fall on his head.”

Steve kissed him again, catching his full bottom lip between his teeth and tugging on it none-too-gently. “It didn’t fall on my head, smartass.”

“Might have knocked some sense into you if it did,” Bucky sniffed.

“That’s a dumb joke, Stuart.”

“Musta learned it from you, Frannie.”

Steve grinned, pushing Bucky back to the bed and ignoring the pain in his side as he pinned him, covering his face and neck with as many kisses as he could possibly manage, ignoring Bucky’s squirming and protestations. Those teasing kisses gave way to something deeper after a time, and soon enough Bucky was canting his hips so Steve could feel him.

“Oh, I fuckin’ missed you, pal,” he murmured, kissing Bucky’s forehead one more time for good measure before pushing himself up on two arms.

“I’m glad you’re safe.” Bucky shrugged, running a finger along the inside of Steve’s arm, tracing the line of muscle up and over his bicep to his shoulder. “You should know that I um. I forgive you. For lying. I know you probably figured that but…”

Steve lowered himself in an approximation of a perfect push-up, kissing the tip of Bucky’s nose before straightening his arms again. “Figured.”

“Show-off. Anyway, I do.”

"I'm glad." He dropped to his elbows, this time landing on Bucky with an ‘oof' before rolling to the side and looping his arms around Bucky's waist, tugging him and arranging him, so his backside was flush against Steve's pelvis.

Bringing his hand to Bucky’s stomach, Steve drummed his fingers against the skin and huffed a laugh when Bucky sucked in, same as he always did, desperate to escape the ticklish touch.

“Sensitive,“ Steve teased, pressing a kiss to the top of Bucky’s head before slipping two fingers below the waistband of his shorts. It didn’t take much to find what he wanted, rubbing the head of Bucky’s prick.

“Unh.”

An articulate response from an intelligent young man. Steve smiled and kissed the shell of his ear. “I could do it dry, but…”

But Bucky didn’t like it, as Steve had learned, so he waited patiently for him to fetch the lube he’d bought after their backwoods encounter in Colorado and a couple dry-run mornings. That had been an awkward conversation. The mechanics of sex with Bucky were a lot more complicated than they’d ever been with Peggy, but Steve had found he didn’t mind making the extra effort.

Snuggling back into place, Bucky passed the bottle over. Not wanting to tease, Steve slicked his left hand and pushed Bucky’s shorts down before wrapping a fist around him and pumping slowly. As it happened, Steve’s own body was responding in kind, and while it wasn’t his first concern, he certainly didn’t mind the friction of Bucky’s bare backside against his cock. The warmth of his body. The promise.

They hadn’t broached that topic yet - metaphorically or otherwise - but Steve wanted it. Wanted Bucky in every way he could have him.

“Please, please, please…” Bucky panted in earnest when Steve picked up the pace. His body always went rigid before he came, and that particular occasion was no different. There was a gasp and a moan before he shot off, whining as he stained his stomach but hopefully not the sheets. Steve made sure of that, protecting his damage deposit as he rolled Bucky onto his back and leaned down to lick up the mess he’d made. Strange, to want to do that. Distasteful, still, in some small part of his mind. But who gave a damn about tasteful?

Bucky didn’t seem bothered, what with the way his hand moved to stroke Steve’s hair as he continued to clean him up with only his tongue.

“So weird,” Bucky mumbled, fighting down a giggle when Steve hit a ticklish spot. “You’re so weird.”

“Maybe,” Steve agreed, kissing Bucky’s navel before working his way back to his mouth, where he kissed him deep and messy. Pulling back, he looked down at him with a grin.

Bucky bit his lip. “I want you to sleep with me. Can we?”

The question was asked so shyly, so sweetly, that Steve nearly missed his meaning. Then, when he did realize, he hesitated. Not his finest reaction, but not his worst, either.

Sitting up, Bucky leaned forward and dug his fingers into Steve’s thighs. “Please? I missed you so much, and I want...I want to, Steve. If you do. I can show you?”

As though he could turn him down. As though he’d want to. “Yeah,” he said. “Sorry, just caught me by surprise. Of course we can do that. Only...you’re the navigator, alright?”

Steve.” He was smiling, though. Leaning up to kiss him before pulling back with a shrug and a deeper blush. “I um. Wasn’t expecting you back, though. If we’re gonna, I gotta go shower.”

It took Steve a moment to cotton on as to why, and when he realized he found himself blushing as well. “Right. Yeah. Alright.”

“Fifteen minutes.”

Steve dozed while Bucky showered, leaning back against the pillows and closing his eyes. It had been a long time since he’d been able to rest without the weight of any secrets hanging over his head. Bucky knew, the world was safe (for now), and he had come home, in as much as any place was home if Bucky was there with him.

The sleep of the unburdened turned into more than a doze, and when Steve woke he found Bucky stretching out next to him, hair and skin damp from the shower.

“M’sorry, Buck,” he said, still muzzy. “Didn’t mean to do that…”

“I’m not insulted.” Bucky kissed him again, raising an eyebrow and smiling. “Still ah, want to take the car out for a drive?”

“Now who’s makin’ stupid metaphors?”

Showing remarkable restraint, Bucky didn’t slug him in the shoulder. Instead, he crossed his eyes and stuck out his tongue before rolling onto his stomach. “First lesson. Don’t be a punk, and get the lube.”

Steve would have to do his best.

As it turned out, Bucky was an excellent navigator, despite having a driver who hadn’t passed any sort of test. He led Steve through the painstaking process of opening him up and getting him ready, which was a slow, methodical sort of thing. Not sexy, exactly, but intimate and enthralling all the same. The feeling of it was one of the stranger things Steve had ever experienced - the touch private and revealing, showing him parts of Bucky he hadn’t seen before. Bucky was good, though, telling him when it was too much. When it wasn’t enough. When he ought to add another finger, and how precisely to stretch him.

“Doesn’t it hurt?” Steve asked when Bucky gave a low moan and ground his hips into the mattress.

“Not...hurt, exactly,” Bucky said, breath hitching as he pushed back on Steve’s hand. “A little, I guess. But it’s good, too. If you uh...curl your fingers a little?”

Steve did as he was told, and Bucky groaned the same sort of groan he often did when Steve jerked him off in the mornings. So, that was something.

“Yeah, good, good,” Bucky panted. Delighted with himself, Steve leaned down to kiss his shoulder.

“That’s a neat trick.”

“Oh yeah, it’s swell,” Bucky laughed. “Shit. Okay. You gotta do one more finger, I think. ‘Cause uh--”

Because the serum, in addition to all its other gifts, had left Steve significantly more endowed than he’d been in his past life. The pride of American ingenuity could be nothing less than virile and virtuous in all the ways that mattered. Even with Peggy, there had been uncomfortable moments, especially with the rubber in the way. (Which, hell, that was a bonus with Bucky - couldn’t get him pregnant, and Steve could neither contract nor transmit VD, which left them both in pretty good shape.)

Steve hadn’t ever minded what he’d had before the serum. He’d always had enough to work with, for his part. And now? Faced with the possibility of hurting Bucky? He very much wished he was smaller.

“Steve?” Bucky broke in, and Steve realized he’d stopped moving his hand. “It’s fine. I can handle it.”

“Sorry, Buck.” Bucky didn’t need his fretting or his coddling. “I know you can.”

It took a few more minutes and significantly more lube before Bucky declared he was ready, pushing himself to his hands and knees. Steve didn’t mind the position - hell, he’d enjoyed it a time or two with Peg - but it didn’t sit right with him. Not for the first time with someone you loved.

“Hey, pal,” he said, running a hand up Bucky’s spine as he knelt next to him. “I want to look at you, alright?”

Bucky seemed so surprised that Steve had to wonder if anyone had ever asked him for that before. It hurt to think maybe they hadn’t, and so he was careful as he placed a hand on Bucky’s chest, rolling him over and onto his back.

Christ, though, wasn’t he vulnerable like that? Open and exposed, feet planted flat on the mattress and knees falling apart. Steve’s for the taking.

Moving between Bucky’s legs, Steve fought to keep his nerves at bay.

“You think you got it from here?” Bucky asked, the tremulousness of his voice not entirely hidden.

“Yeah,” Steve said. He’d damn well try, at least, placing one hand on Bucky’s hips to lift them before using his other to line himself up, the angle new and unfamiliar.

Fuck,” Bucky hissed when Steve met with some resistance.

“Shit,” he muttered, heart thumping double time in his chest. “Shit, Bucky, I’m sorry.”

“S’okay.” Bucky shook his head, scooting down on the bed and using the leverage of his lower half to elevate his hips. “It’s just gonna hurt a little. I’m okay.”

Steve hated that, though the second attempt was better. That time, when Steve breached him, Bucky closed his eyes and sucked in a deep breath in through his nose. Out through his mouth. Getting used to the sensation and waiting for his body to settle before he asked Steve to continue.

They worked together in an awkward, delicate dance. Steve eased in, carefully and only at Bucky's behest, until he was seated entirely within him. Fuck, he was tight - Steve hadn’t known anything could feel like that, a vice grip on his prick that narrowed every thought in his brain down to simple, stupid caveman desires. MoremoremoremoremovemovemoreMOVE.

Steve wouldn’t move. Not yet. Not while Bucky’s eyes were shut. Not while he still gripped the sheets tightly enough that his knuckles had turned white. Steve could count every rib as his chest rose and fell. Could make out the sheen of sweat on his forehead. The way he’d bitten his bottom lip near to bleeding as he’d worried it between his teeth during their coming together.

Perfectly human, every inch of him. Beautiful.

“Go ahead,” Bucky said, opening his eyes and catching Steve staring. “You can move.”

Nobody needed to tell Steve twice, and Bucky gasped and arched his back at Steve’s first tentative thrust. It was hard to find a rhythm, he discovered, as he attempted to balance the heady pleasure with the need to be careful. Gentle. To keep Bucky intact and unbroken.

Slow was better, in the end. Slow lasted longer. Prolonged every moment and kept Steve right on the brink of something perfect.

Bucky wrapped a hand around his cock as Steve bent him nearly in half, knees up by his shoulders, thighs shaking. “Steve,” he gasped suddenly, shaking his head. “Shit…”

Panic set in. “What, Buck?”

“Cramp. My leg. We gotta fuckin’ move.”

Steve would have done anything for him, so long as he didn’t lose that feeling of being enveloped in the warmth of his body. So he did as Bucky requested, leaning back and lifting him, rubbing the back of his cramping thigh even as he sat back and gathered him into his lap.

Bucky breathed a sigh of relief and made up what scant inches they’d lost, sinking back onto Steve and drawing a moan out of him as they reconnected.

They held one another, foreheads pressed together until Bucky gave him a grin. “Cramp’s better,” he proclaimed.

“Good, you wanna--”

Bucky cut him off, placing both hands on Steve’s shoulders and pushing him to his back, where he leaned down and kissed him, deep and filthy and desperate. Steve smiled around the insistent press of Bucky’s tongue and gave over the burden of the work, Bucky’s hips pumping slowly at first before finding a steady rhythm as he worked himself onto Steve’s cock.

This was staking a claim. Bucky taking Steve’s pleasure into his own hands and giving as good as he got. Navigating.

“Feels good,” Steve grunted as he reached for the lube. Not his most articulate response, but he was trying.

“Uh-huh.” Bucky agreed.

Evening things up, Steve coated his palm with the slick stuff and reached for Bucky’s prick, wanting to make sure he was enjoying things just as much. Or, nearly just as much. Steve didn’t think anyone else on earth could possibly be enjoying themselves as much as he was at that moment.

There was no magic to any of it when they finished. Bucky came quickly, his second orgasm less powerful than his earlier release. Steve watched as his head fell back, the movements of his hips stilling, hands coming to rest on Steve’s stomach, nails digging in as tremors overtook him.

“You look so good like that, sweetheart,” Steve murmured. “So fuckin’ beautiful.”

Sappy. When had he gotten so sappy?

Bucky had already been blushing, and as Steve spoke, it deepened. When he opened his eyes, though, he didn’t look abashed or embarrassed. No, he looked proud, leaning up and raking his nails down Steve’s torso before lifting his hips and rocking back with a purpose. A want and a desire. Marking Steve as his own.

There was no possible universe in which Steve’s good sense could last after something like that. Bringing his hands to Bucky’s hips, he held him loosely but let Bucky set the pace, doing his level best to lift his hips in response to Bucky’s rhythm. And he tried, he really did, but when he got damnably close, he gripped Bucky’s ass and brought him down to hold him in place. Steve planted his feet on the bed and thrust once, twice, there it was, damn near throwing Bucky off as he rolled his hips through his pleasure.

“Fuck,” Bucky muttered as Steve finished, lowering himself to rest against his chest, sweat and come and lube and God knew what else trapped between them.

“Mmm,” Steve agreed, too sex stupid to say anything else.

Bucky kissed him, lazy and dreamlike. Steve returned the kiss and brought his less sticky hand to brush Bucky’s sweat and still shower-damp hair from his eyes.

“Hey, Stuart?” Steve asked.

“Yeah?” Bucky’s voice was muffled, being as he was kissing his way along Steve’s jaw, nosing at the smooth skin. Steve would have to grow the beard back.

“I love you.” He said it with no hope of reciprocity, but he needed Bucky to know.

Bucky pulled away, studying him with a half-smile on his face. “Yeah,” he said. “I figured. I kinda love you, too, Frannie.”

Steve looked at him and started to laugh.

 


 

“Our two weeks are up tomorrow.”

Steve hated to bring it up, after the sweet morning they’d had. Once they’d extricated themselves from their sticky sheets, they’d showered and eaten a late breakfast. Bucky had told Steve about his time with Clint, and Steve had told Bucky as much as he wanted to hear about the fledgling Project Insight and how they had stopped it.

They’d gone to the beach after that, clambering over rocks together, Steve using his strength to haul Bucky up and over boulders that he would have otherwise had no business climbing. Bucky had been the one to spot a depression carved by the waves underneath an overhanging rock face, with space enough to spread out a towel.

Steve was sitting there now, back against the wall made smooth by the tides, with Bucky between his legs, leaning against his chest. It had begun to rain, though the rock above kept them perfectly dry in their shallow little cave.

“Hmm,” Bucky said, playing with Steve’s fingers where they lay in his lap. “So what, the trip’s over?”

“I guess.” Steve shrugged. “I could take you home.”

Bucky hesitated, entwining their hands as he thought that over. “Like, for a visit?”

“Up to you.”

“If you took me home,” Bucky said. “Would you stay?”

“Would you want me to?”

“Yes, but…”

“But?”

“I don’t want to go back there. I mean, I do. To visit. I want to see them. And uh...to explain you. Which, I'm not sure if my mom put it together yet. That'll be fun. But I don’t want to stay.”

That was a relief. Steve still had no idea what he was going to do next, but he hoped that whatever it was, it would be with Bucky. “You could come back to Brooklyn with me,” he offered. A vague plan, but one he’d been mulling over as a possibility.

Bucky visibly flinched, body going stiff as he shook his head. “No, thank you. Is, I mean. Is that what you’re going to do?”

“Not necessarily,” Steve replied, running a hand along Bucky’s thigh in an effort to relax him. “The world knows about me now, but they don’t know where I am. Brooklyn’s a likely candidate - might be too easy to get found out there.”

“About that,” Bucky said. “About him. Are you...you’re not giving that up, are you?”

No. That was the simple truth: there would always be another bully. But this world was a different world than the one in which he’d gone to sleep. Different sorts of wars, and different enemies, but at the same time not so different. Aliens, yes, but also monsters of mankind’s own making, just as there had always been.

Dr. Erskine had seen something in Steve. Had given him a gift that brought with it clear responsibilities. Yes, he had signed up to fight in a war that was long since over, for a country that had long since moved on. It was hard to say what constituted duty in the face of all that, but there was an obligation all the same.

“I can’t,” he said. “If the world needs me--”

“You belong to the world,” Bucky finished.

“When I have to,” he said, kissing the top of his head. “Mostly, I belong to you.”

Tension bled from Bucky's shoulders, and he laughed, angling himself so he could look up at Steve. "That's cheesy."

“Je suis le fromage,” he replied, all that dime store French he’d picked up on the front coming back to him like a memory.

Bucky knocked his temple against Steve’s chin and shook his head. “We still don’t know what we’re doing.”

Steve smiled, lifting his hands and bringing them both to bear on Bucky’s forearms, sliding down his skin until he had both Bucky’s wrists held in a loose grip. “Guess we don't. But you never did see Maine.”

“I didn’t,” Bucky agreed.

“Still got the car.”

“True.”

“And if we go to Maine,” he said, mulling it over. “Well. I did take a notion to maybe living by the beach for a while.”

Bucky turned his hands up, breaking Steve’s grip and pushing their fingers together once more, squeezing lightly. “That sounds nice. Another house on the ocean.”

Steve could see it in his mind’s eye. The house would be small - a lighthouse, perhaps - sitting on a rocky outcrop, windows crusted with salt and grit from the spray of the ocean on windy days. Steve would clean them once a week, even if it was cold, or rainy, and Bucky would tease him every time. Tell him it was a fool’s errand. That they’d only get dirty again. Steve would clean them anyway, out of some misguided sense of pride.

They would buy their groceries in town. Watch those stupid shows Bucky liked on the off-chance it might teach them how to cook. Some nights, they’d eat out. Maybe go to classical music concerts at the local church. They’d always participate in the lobster festivals, and they’d wave to their neighbors. They’d carve out a niche for themselves as eccentrics, maybe. Steve had always wanted to be interesting.

He would paint. Sell his work at a local coffee shop - the sort of place that catered to tourists seeking authentic souvenirs from their vacations. Bucky would write, refining his talent into more than mere mimicry so he didn’t have to worry about whether or not he ought to be building bridges.

At night, they would share one bed. They would fuck and they would fight, though hopefully the former more than the latter. They would annoy one another and amuse one another in equal measure, and when they got into a squabble, Steve would be stubborn, and Bucky would be sullen.

In the mornings, they’d stay in bed and talk about the future. About what they’d do with a little girl with brown eyes and curls.

Occasionally, Steve would travel for his job, but he would always come home.

They would love one another as best they were able, and they would be happy.

Steve cleared his throat and squeezed Bucky’s hands in return. “That’s a plan, pal. There’s a lot of good writers come out of Maine, I heard.”

 

The man smiled. “Once, I was a voyager.”