Steve studied for press conferences like they were high school exams. When Hill called to say that the Avengers would be expected to do several conferences after the Battle for New York, Steve had started reading every newspaper and magazine he could get his hands on. Tony wished Jarvis had been less accommodating in that regard. “Have you heard of Steve Jobs?” he asked, over dinner. “What do you think of the situation in Israel?” “Do you think Disney contracts are too intrusive?” “Do you believe it was right to invade Iraq?” “What do you think of the new SAT format?” “What's your stance on climate change?”
“The actual reporters aren't this bad,” Clint moaned, stabbing his sushi with metal chopsticks that Tony had made after snapping five wooden sets. It turned out trying to eat sushi while wearing half his Iron Man suit required reinforced plates, as well. Not that he needed to wear the Iron Man suit at dinner. He was just tweaking a few things, wearing it around the house until the bugs were worked out.
“The paparazzi isn't this bad,” Natasha agreed. She stared longingly at the computer in Steve's hands, probably desperate to pull it away and crush it under her stilettos.
“Do you think people should be allowed to smoke on television?” Steve wondered, still reading from the tablet Tony thoroughly regretted giving him. “Will it actually make kids want to smoke?” He lifted his head, eyebrows pulled together in confusion. “Why don't they want people to smoke?”
Clint climbed on top of the freezer, Natasha stole Steve's untouched tuna roll and stuck three pieces in her mouth at once, and Pepper reached for the wine. Bruce and Tony launched into an explanation that seemed to be working, filled with psychology and biology that Captain America wouldn't know, but then - “What does genetic testing mean? Why would you try to label someone with traits they might not have?”
“Oh god,” Tony prayed, and went for the scotch.
The day of the actual press conference dawned crisp and clear, the smoke still hovering over the city refracting the sunrise into a brilliant array of pink-edged gold rays and red haze. By mid-morning the press had assembled at the dais set up outside, by the remains of the Tower. The sky was a fierce, azure blue highlighted by the icy wisps of cirrus clouds, and with the red bunting on the stands, the whole thing resembled an American flag. Or Captain America's costume. This particular day, Pepper had dressed all of them, making them look more like a team than they'd ever managed to act.
Steve was rereading his note cards, muttering worriedly under his breath. “WMD. IED. Internet. Clint, I'm not sure I agree with how the government's been involving itself in the Middle East. Can I say that?”
“No!” All the Avengers, Hill and Pepper replied in unison, loudly enough to quiet the reporters on the other side of the quickly constructed platform.
“Just.” Hill's face clenched, as though she'd bitten down on a lime and hadn't had the tequila to make it worthwhile. “Just stick to questions about you. How you're adjusting. What you think of the food, or something.” Then they were all shoved onto the stage, and told to make nice.
The majority of the questions went to Steve, as they had expected. Reporters had more of Tony than they wanted, normally, and questioning Natasha was like trying to make a panther play fetch.
The other Avengers knew how to play the game, and so the sharks circled the easiest prey. “Captain America, what's your stance on how the government's dealing with the recession?” (“I've been told to answer personal questions, sorry. But ma'am, anything that keeps people from living in Hoovervilles by the river like Bucky and I did one summer is fine by me.”) “Capt. Rogers, what's your opinion on having a woman on the team?” (“Did you mean Agent Carter, sir? Because she was an excellent officer.”) The others took as many of them as they could, and Steve seemed unruffled, contemplating each shouted inquiry as though these people actually wanted to know, and not simply publish articles with “Homeland Hero a Woman-Hater” in block print on the front page.
Things were going fine, and then someone piped up with, “Steven, what's your stance on gay marriage?” and everything stopped. The Avengers tried not to look concerned, and Hill was practically vibrating with the need to call an end to the conference. They all knew Steve went to mass every Sunday, and certainly knew more about the Bible than Tony did – though all Tony knew was that it miraculously appeared in hotel room dressers where a praying man might have hoped to find condoms and lube.
Steve cleared his throat, too close to the mike, and jumped a little at the sound. “I don't like secrets,” he said, finally, and the hush of expectancy that had fallen over the crowd gave way to bemusement at the non sequitur. “But I could never have told Bucky that I was in love with him without losing everything else. So I never did.” Captain America spoke quietly, and Tony wondered if he had a note card about gay marriage in his pocket, to keep his voice so steady. “Um,” he coughed, blushed a little, “so, if you're asking me what I think about two people who love each other getting to say so without being beaten, or jailed, or kicked out of the Army – well, I think it was probably worth all the sacrifices.” What those sacrifices were, he didn't say, but Tony had grown up with his dad's stories of James Barnes, and Steve's face had the hollow look of a man who had watched everything he loved slip out of his hands.
“That's it,” Hill declared, striding onto the stage before anyone had stopped blinking in stunned disbelief. “No more questions.”
There were more press conferences after that, of course. Alone, with the team, it didn't matter; Steve still studied for them, despite Tony's comment that Captain America was a name, not a rank, and no one expected him to be leading the country in every public issue they had. More newspapers and magazines asked to speak with him, a whole subset that Hill told him described themselves as “LGBTQ.” Those were the most difficult, because they eyed him with sympathy and asked too many questions about his best friend. But first they would tell their own stories, of schoolyard bullying or a family's rejection and being so grateful to have a childhood icon stand up and announce he was proud to be gay. It would have been the coward's way out to offer them nothing back.
So Steve talked about Bucky. He told them about how they met before Steve had ended up at the orphanage, Bucky and his slingshot taking out three bullies who hadn't taken kindly to being yelled at for stealing from old Mr. Taylor by a skinny, asthmatic kid. About how he had loved Bucky for his whole life, from when he was a mischievous boy to a smooth-talking dock hand to a silent, deadly sniper at Captain America's side. How loving Bucky was like staring at the sun, so bright that even when you closed your eyes you could still see it shining under your lids.
He hadn't started wanting Bucky until much later, hadn't let himself consider it. Sure, he'd known Bucky was beautiful, had dozens of old sketchbooks to prove it, but he was an artist. He was allowed to admire the lines of his friend's arms, the triangle of his torso, the muscles like marble under the skin of his thighs. If he choked on the envy that rose up through his thin chest when Bucky pulled another girl onto the floor, it must be because no dames wanted to dance with him. If he admitted that he was more jealous of the broad than his best friend. . . Well. It had been him and Buck forever, but he knew that when Bucky found a nice girl and married her it would be the end of the line for them.
It wasn't until after the change, when women did want to dance with him, that Steve figured it out. Running hands down his own biceps and the muscles on his chest, reaching for himself, he still thought of Bucky, and couldn't pretend any more that it was only because he envied his friend's body. He had a perfect body, and he still wanted Bucky's.
These were the interviews where people cried, and tried to hug him. The other Avengers almost always came, Natasha ready to stab anyone who got too close and Tony announcing that #stevexbucky was trending on twitter. The Gay Times gave him a poster, one of the black and white stills from the old propaganda reels, Bucky in a bomber jacket, cigarette hanging off his lower lip. Someone at Instinct silk screened a series of t-shirts, sent Steve one that had Bucky's enlistment picture and “Who Doesn't Love a Man in Uniform?” written below it. He wore that one until it was torn and paint stained, and had to order several more.
“The Coen brothers want to make a movie version,” Phil mentioned one morning, cracking twelve more eggs to make enough breakfast for superheroes, to make amends for the time they'd believed he was dead. “Or maybe that was Ang Lee.” He smiled at Steve, kind and a little amused. Steve had thought that Phil's hero worship would have collapsed under his confession, but it didn't seem to have changed at all.
“Why would they do that?” he responded, confused. “Who wants to see a film about a guy who's in love with his best friend but never says it? Be pretty boring, wouldn't it?” It hadn't been boring, of course. Even before there were Hydra agents and surprise attacks, there were winter mornings with Bucky trying to juggle the sweet buns still too hot from Mrs. Abenbend's oven, Dodgers games and dance halls, alley fights with adrenaline pounding wild through his blood. Life with Bucky had never been boring.
It must have shown on his face, because Phil squeezed his shoulder as he leaned in to put more scrambled eggs on everyone's plates. “It worked for Brokeback Mountain,” Clint chimed in, and then winced when several feet aimed at his shins. “Never mind,” he retracted. “Not your kind of film. The irony might kill us.”
They made the movie, after all. Called it Brooklyn, as though Steve represented all of America and his untold love story represented an entire borough. They called him in to consult, let him write some of the dialogue, map out some of the scenes. It opened with the slingshot, and ended with the plane crash, a single trajectory hurtling through twenty years, off a tenement roof and into an ocean. Someone had dug up a recording of Bucky singing “Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer,” probably drunk, but still in a familiar baritone that had crooned obscene ditties to Steve when they stumbled home late at night, or hummed him lullabies when the pneumonia was at its worst. He began singing just as the actor playing Steve closed his eyes and aimed the plane into the ice, the hope in the song a counterpart to the hope Steve had felt when he shut his eyes. Tony rented out the whole theater, and they settled in, just the team, ready with popcorn and cola, whiskey and kleenex.
Steve didn't like to talk about Bucky, to give up the nights spent sprawled shirtless on the roof, searching for a breeze, the swooping feeling in his stomach when Bucky launched into an alley and took down anyone who'd dared to hurt Steve. He didn't like to talk about it, but the articles and the pictures, the clothing lines and the film somehow made it all a little easier to bear. Natasha saw him watching Bucky's face on a girl's shirt, bright grin and brilliantined hair printed over Army green. “Someone once told me that no one dies until they are forgotten,” she said softly, and tapped at the face on Steve's own shirt. “Thanks to you, Rogers, Bucky Barnes will live a long time.”
Of course, it turned out that Steve wasn't the one who had kept Bucky alive. If Steve had searched for his friend instead of mourning him, there would have been no need to memorialize Bucky at all. It was all Steve's fault, for letting Hydra and the Soviets torture a good man until there was almost nothing left. “You know that's not true,” Natasha chastised him.
Sam, who they had only known for days, shrugged and sipped the coffee Fury's secret bunker provided. “No logic to guilt,” he reminded her, his tone soft and even in the way he had when speaking to a room filled with wounded veterans. “But your guilt isn't going to bring down the helicarriers, and it's not going to bring back Bucky Barnes.” Brown eyes offered sympathy, a shared grief at losing a trusted wingman. As though Bucky were dead.
“You're right,” Steve spat, swinging up and marching toward the door. “Guilt won't do anything. But we are going to stop Hydra. And I am bringing Bucky back, however we find him.”
They would have to make a sequel to Brooklyn. Maybe they could call it DC. This time, Steve thought as he fell, it would end with him crashing into the Potomac, and no one would be alive to narrate the flicker in Bucky's mercury eyes, the crack in his voice when he begged Steve to stop talking. When they found his body, maybe they'd realize that any man trained as a sniper, as a weapon, would have shot Captain America in the head, and not the stomach. That a ruthless killer didn't try to pummel his targets to death. The whole world knew, now, that Captain America was hopelessly infatuated with his dead best friend, but nobody would know that Bucky had tried to save Steve when he couldn't even remember his own name.
“We have to find him,” Steve declared, as soon as Sam had gotten him enough water to un-stick his tongue from the roof of his mouth. Hospitals were much drier, in the twenty-first century.
“He found you first, pal,” Sam responded, rolling his eyes. “You think you washed ashore after a fall like that? We found you sunning yourself on a mud bank, shield miraculously resting on your chest.”
“The pictures are trending,” Tony agreed from the TV screen in the room. He was surrounded by equipment, likely in his LA lab. He glanced up, caught Steve staring at him, and waved. “Hey, Capsicle. Jarvis is glad you're not dead. Pepper sent flowers.” Bruce stuck his head into the frame and smiled. “Oh, and Banner's glad you're not dead, too. So, formulated any plans for capturing the brainwashed love of your life while you were regenerating organs? Did Coulson tell you about -”
“He just woke up!” Sam interjected, as Phil walked into the room, carrying a briefcase and looking sadly at Steve. The aviator groaned, and glowered at the agent. “You guys have absolutely no bedside manner. None. I'm glad none of you worked for the Air Force.”
Phil patted him on the shoulder, then sat on Steve's other side, opening the case and pulling out a stack of photos. “We found a facility under Pierce's house. It seems to be a Hydra lab.”
“Impressive,” Tony muttered, “SHIELD pay for that, too?”
Steve took the pictures, his hands shaking. The room was filled with electronics, bare except for wires and boxes and a chair in the middle of it all, with reinforced straps at the arms and something that must have slid over the head. “The memory wipes,” he murmured, eyes damp.
Phil nodded regretfully. “From what we can tell, based on the amount of restraining gear and the circuitry used, it would be highly effective. And incredibly painful.” Sam muttered something about all of them needing a course in goddamn human relations and stalked out of the room. “But without a cryo chamber, and with the serum, he'd start regrowing pathways almost immediately. We just don't know where he is.”
It took six months to find Bucky, and that was with Stark's technology and Natasha and Nick's intelligence. It took three months before they learned he was traveling to Hydra cells as he remembered them, dismantling the inoperative ones and waiting for Steve and Sam to ambush the ones that remained active. It was five months before they caught more than a glimpse of him, a flash of metal and a perfect kill shot.
The truth was, they didn't find him at all. He waited until they had both gone to sleep, in some farmhouse in Lithuania after taking down yet another active Hydra cell, and let himself in. When they woke up the next morning, he had attached the reinforced handcuffs Sam had been carrying to his wrists and was waiting for them on the living room sofa. Steve immediately uncuffed him, over Sam's protests, and they called Tony and waited for extraction.
Bucky looked – tired. It was the expression he wore when he'd lost another job because he'd been nursing Steve through the flu, and there were doctor's bills to pay and Steve still couldn't even make it downstairs to the toilet on his own. Not the exact same expression, of course: his eyes now were wary where they had been worried and fretful, his jaw clenched where before he had chewed on the insides of his lips. His hair was chopped short; obviously hacked away with an available knife, with no thought but to keep it out of his eyes, sticking up in ragged chunks on the top and too close to pale scalp on the side. Bucky's cheeks were hollow with hunger, face wan and eyes red.
He was the most beautiful thing Steve had ever seen.
Tony renovated the apartment Steve bought in Brooklyn, because without SHIELD there was nothing to keep him from moving back to New York. Without SHIELD, there was no one to keep him from bringing Bucky home, though Nick certainly tried. Pepper hired someone to find a quiet place with two bedrooms and roof access, the top floor of an old building that made familiar sounds when the storms rolled in from the east, that creaked and settled despite Stark renovations. The building was older than them both, and Steve loved it a little for that reason alone.
For the first two months, Steve barely thought about the outside world. There was no TV in the apartment: no TV, no stereo, no blender or microwave, nothing that made sudden noises or could be dismantled for sharp parts or wires strong enough to choke someone with. He kept his phone on silent, though he spent enough time on it calling Sam for advice, or just to panic quietly from the roof while Bucky slept in the room below. When Steve had said he'd give anything to have Bucky back, he hadn't realized that God would take him so seriously.
But after the first month, Steve brought home a record player. He filled the shelf below it with Vera Lynn and Glenn Miller, Count Basie and Tommy Dorsey. Bucky had loved to dance, willing to lindy hop or fox trot until the hall closed, sweat dripping off his nose and hair limp in the heat. Sometimes, when Steve watched Brooklyn, half the movie seemed to be his actor standing in the corner, staring intently at a dark-haired boy arcing off the floor during a lindy hop, breathing hard and radiating exhausted joy. He didn't know if he'd actually spent that much time watching Bucky from across a room, or if the director had simply liked the metaphor, one boy spinning, healthy and oblivious, while his friend gazed longingly from the shadows.
The metal hand smashed six records before Bucky retreated to his room and locked the door. Steve ran out to replace the records, got Natasha to find a device that could transfer the music to something less breakable, and left the ipod in front of Bucky's door. A week later, Steve came home from a run to find the ipod set into the speakers, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” drifting through the apartment while Bucky jitterbugged through the living room, limbs loose and face calm.
Steve leaned back against the door, eyes tracking the cant of Bucky's hips, the flip of his wrist and the muscles running through his bare feet as he stepped into an easy back flip and shimmied toward an invisible partner. Bucky's face wasn't suffused with joy any more, and they were a long way from 1938, but Steve could no more look away than the boy in Brooklyn could have. The director had gotten it right, after all; and one man watched from the shadows while the other spun across an empty room.
“He still hasn't been outside?” Sam fretted over the phone. “It's been nearly three months! Have you tried taking him running with you? He could probably keep up,” the Falcon added, his sarcasm muted by the laughter clear in his voice.
“Uh.” Steve had considered it. Every morning, when he ran by kids wearing shirts with Sgt. Barnes' face and “America's Sweetheart” written over it. Or when he passed the “Sgt. JB Rogers” cupcake boutique and the poster shop that had blown up the still shots from Brooklyn where Captain America stood on a mountaintop, his second beside him, his heart in his eyes. “He's, um, he's still adjusting.”
“Adjusting to what?” His friend's empathy made him too perceptive, at times. “He hasn't been outside, you don't own a television. I know you haven't brought your laptop home yet, Natasha told me. Have you even shown him how to work a phone, or is he supposed to send flares up from that arm of his if something goes wrong?”
“He has a phone!” Steve protested, hunching his shoulders and trying to speak quietly, fairly certain Bucky had come up with some way to hear him from the roof.
Sam's face, even only three inches high on the phone screen, looked a little ill. “Yeah, that vintage rotary land line you installed.” His jaw clenched, the way it always did when he had to deliver news he hated, or when the press found him and started asking questions about Captain America and the Asset, fresh from the spreading oil slick of SHIELD information across the internet. “Steve, I know you're scared. I know you just got him back – and hell, I know if . . . I'd never let him go. But you can't keep him hostage in -”
“Natasha's here,” Steve interrupted, even though Romanoff wasn't due for another hour. “Got to go. Thanks, Sam,” and cut his friend off in mid-sentence.
The rooftop was warm, high enough to see Grand Army Plaza and most of the surrounding neighborhood, too far from the ground to see how, a few floors down, every outfit and sign screamed “Steven Rogers loves James Bucky Barnes” for the only person in the world who still didn't know. It was already June, the flowers gone and the trees obscuring the sidewalk with their foliage, the hipsters out of their “Roger that!” hoodies with Bucky's picture, and instead wearing undershirts and fatigue pants, “til the end of the line” tattooed down skinny arms.
Besides, Bucky was still recovering. Granted, he'd gotten bored enough to turn his room into a gym, and taught himself how to cook using the cookbooks Sharon had given them. Steve had buckled and bought lots of sharp kitchen tools that metal fingers wrapped around without aiming them at anyone's throat. He'd also bought an old projector, and found movies they'd never gotten to see in the theaters. They sat in the living room with Audrey Hepburn and Rosalind Russell, his best friend making wisecracks while working his way through a bowl of popcorn, knee brushing Steve's, elbow nudging into Captain America's solid ribs. Bucky slept through the night, occasionally, though generally only when he crawled into Steve's bed, head tucked against Steve's neck and hand over his chest, the way he'd done since they were kids. Steve didn't sleep at all, those nights. Instead, he tried to breathe evenly, burying his nose in Bucky's hair, tear tracks on his cheeks the only sign they were seventy years down the line.
Bucky had started gazing at Steve when he threw on his running gear, sitting up in their bed and draping his arms over bent knees. Waiting, glancing between Steve and the door, at the sneakers he had never bought for Bucky. Guiltily, Steve would double knot his laces and head for the door, muttering, “Be back soon,” as he locked it behind him. He would tell Bucky. He just needed a little more time.
Natasha brought over a new phone later that day, and Steve barely managed to grab it before she handed it to Barnes. Bucky watched them both from their reflections in the window, staring out toward Lincoln Place, human hand resting against the pane. Natasha snagged it back, digging her nails into Steve's palm, and marched over to the Winter Soldier. “It's Stark tech,” she said loudly, rolling her eyes. “All parental controls on, certain searches blocked. Teach him how to use the damn thing, if you know.”
Bucky tilted his head, pale eyes boring into Steve in a way that most of their friends probably believed came from his years as the Soldier. They were wrong. Every time Steve had shrugged and declared he didn't feel like dancing, whenever he gave a half wave and tried to duck out of the hall, leaving Bucky with the girl he would probably take home – Bucky would go still, and cock his head, as though steel blue eyes could gather Steve's thoughts from his soul. Steve had kept his secrets, but Bucky still knew him better than anyone else in the world, could read the panic sketched over his face when he'd seen the smart phone. Bucky took the phone from Natasha, set it on the window sill, and disappeared into his room, leaving Steve with the power to do whatever he chose.
“You're going to have to tell him,” the Black Widow said, folding her arms and focusing on Bucky's closed door.
The defeat must have congealed in his voice, because the red-haired spy stopped scowling at him. “You never know, Rogers, he could feel the same way. Seems pretty fond of you.” In the room down the hall, the hammer of knuckles against a punching bag beat a quick metronome to her words.
Steve twisted his hands, looking down. A decade of pining without knowing, not even two years of desperately wanting what he couldn't have. Then what felt like centuries of grief, when he lost the only person he couldn't live without. “I'll tell him,” he whispered. Tell him, and learn how to live with the emptiness when Bucky left.
“The Brooklyn Pride Parade's tomorrow,” Natasha warned, changing the subject from Steve's impending broken heart. “You're the celebrity Grand Marshal.”
“Yeah.” It had been easier to stand up there when Bucky was gone, waving at the men dressed like Captain America and Sergeant Barnes, accepting kisses on the cheek and sympathy from people he'd never met. This year there would be questions, because Steve had promised the world that he would give anything to live in a time where he could tell Bucky how he felt. Would give everything, when he told him and Bucky walked away. “Yeah. I know.”
“They're going to wonder where he is. Why no one's seen him.”
“He's not ready yet!” Steve bridled, shifting his weight to block her path down the hall.
Natasha had only stepped backward toward the front door, a small, regretful smile on her face. “No,” she agreed, eyes flitting down to Steve's shaking hands. “No, I don't think he is.”
The parade was in the evening, but Captain America was also leading the 5k Pride run in the afternoon. He skipped his morning jog, laying in bed with his arm pinned under Bucky's chest, warm breath gusting against his neck, his free hand pressed to the scars on Bucky's back. Then Bucky made breakfast while Steve double checked that when he typed “Captain America” or “James Barnes” into the phone, nothing posted after his return showed up on the screen. Wolfing down pancakes at the table, he tried to show Bucky how to use the phone, but gave up after twenty minutes and just handed it over. By the time he changed and headed for the door, Bucky was syncing his music lists and had changed his screen shot to a sepia-toned picture of Captain America in his chorus best.
Pale eyes followed Steve through the room, taking in his Captain America costume and the shield sitting untouched against the wall. “Not a mission,” Steve replied to the query in sniper's eyes. He tucked the helmet under his arm. “It's, uh. A parade?”
Bucky's questioning glance slipped into a smirk, before he looked down at his own slacks and undershirt and the smile faded entirely. He stopped looking at Steve or his phone, moving instead to peer out the window at the tree-lined street below. Steve dropped the helmet and strode across the room, resting his hand lightly on his friend's shoulder. “We'll get your costume ready for the next one,” he swore, unable to leave Bucky standing alone, face pressed to the glass. “Fourth of July is just around the corner.”
The twist of Bucky's lips was sketched into all Steve's memories, plastered on billboards and hanging in the window of tattoo shops. “They still shooting fireworks for your birthday?” he asked, and Steve pushed his face into Bucky's hair and breathed.
“Can't believe you convinced me the fireworks were for me, you jerk,” he murmured. “For years, you told me they were still working out how to make a rocket spell 'Steve'.”
“They should've been,” Bucky retorted, the best friend Steve could have imagined, the center of his world.
He was still smiling at the glass when Steve let himself out, locking the door.
The run was easy; Steve jogged backwards and scooped kids onto his shoulders, waved at the Avengers when they showed up in costume. The parade started later, dais already set up over at Lincoln Place. He waded through what felt like a sea of Captain Americas to get there, including an incredibly buxom one with well-applied make up, who left Steve's cheeks smeared with color.
He knew the organizers, knew that Trish would introduce him and ask a few questions before he gave a speech and found his way to the appropriate float. Covered in red, white and blue balloons, it was easy to find. There were even lollipops to hand out, though they had shaped candy Captain America in a way that made Steve blush, the two shields beneath his feet making the innuendo impossible to miss.
“We brought you a Bucky Barnes to kiss,” Trisha shouted through the megaphone, gesturing at the young man with slicked-back hair and a blue coat with the sleeves torn off. “But we heard you've already got your own!” Steve's eyes shot up and to the right, through the crowd to where he could almost see their apartment in the dusk. Trisha raised an eyebrow, and he tried to recover by bowing to 'Bucky' and gamely kissing his hand.
“How are things going with your Bucky Bear, dear?” she followed up, and Steve was grateful she hadn't wasted time asking how he liked being back in Brooklyn, or what he thought about the recent marriage rulings.
“Just the thing I wanted to talk about,” he answered, swallowing a few times as he reached for the microphone and wished he could tug the note cards out of his pocket. “It's been a learning experience,” he admitted, after the crowd had stopped clapping. He nodded out over the sea of faces, saluted toward the khaki of the veterans' brigade. “A lot of you out there know how it is when you get someone back from the war. How they come back with shrapnel lodged in them that wasn't there before. How you find out that even if the war didn't kill them, there are parts of them that are never coming home. How you spend every day trying to make all the pieces fit.”
He paused, gripped the mike until he heard it start to crack. On command, the troops to his left shouted, “Hooah!” and Steve quirked his lips up, inhaled deeply enough to go on.
“Having Bucky back is. . .” Steve's free hand scrubbed over his face, buying him time to speak around the tickle in his throat. “It's incredible. I don't – I don't have any better words, any way to tell you what it means to see him stand in the kitchen with a cup of coffee, or dump all the yogurt in the trash because he thought it was food gone bad.” Trisha laughed, and it boomed through the megaphone and down the street.
“But I'm also learning that I didn't know what true bravery was, before this. I thought it meant running toward the bullets or leaping off the airplane, standing up to bullies around the world.” He waited for the cheering to die down, gestured over the crowd below. “But all of you, here, have the courage to be who you are. When we were young, I thought love meant that I could keep silent and let Bucky go. That if I really loved him, I wouldn't tell him.” He shrugged, chewing on his bottom lip. Thousands of people went quiet, waiting for his next words. “And maybe that was true, back then. But it wasn't brave. All of you have the courage to be yourselves, even when it means losing people you don't want to live without. You have the courage to reach out and love, to speak when silence is the only assurance that you won't be alone.
“I am grateful for your successes. I am honored by your solidarity, by the trials that you faced so I can stand here today. And I rely on your bravery, because I don't yet have enough of my own.”
When he got home, the apartment was empty. He had ducked out early from the festivities to be back by dark, hair dusted with glitter and pockets filled with Cap pops. Steve could feel the absence as soon as he opened the front door, leaving it ajar as he hurried from room to room. It wasn't until his second circuit of the house that he realized the door to the roof was open, the hinges dismantled and laying in pieces on the top of the stairs.
Bucky was standing on the highest part of the roof wall, looking through binoculars Steve had forgotten he owned. Aiming them, he knew from the terror and guilt churning through his stomach, at Lincoln Place, where the parade began.
“There's no threat,” Bucky said without turning.
Steve couldn't process the words, couldn't take the few steps forward to reach for his friend. Couldn't fall to his knees, and beg Bucky to stay. “What? Bucky, I -”
“I thought maybe Hydra was still out there, at first.” He scoffed, spun neatly off the ledge to face Steve, eyes wintry. “That you were afraid someone would try to kill me if we went outside. I thought you needed the bulletproof glass and steel doors -” and they had covered the door with old oak, made it look perfectly normal, but the Winter Soldier was smart and Bucky had never been a fool “- to keep people out. But it was never for that.” His arms were loose by his sides, metal gleaming under the simple t-shirt and jeans, feet bare. Steve had never given him any shoes. “It was to keep me here. Your weapon this time, instead of theirs.”
“No!” Steve cried, felt it ripping out of his chest, still in his costume, lipstick stains on his cheeks and glitter drifting from his hair. “No, God, Bucky, that's not it.”
“You go out every morning. You go to lunch when Sam comes to visit.” He flicked metal fingers to indicate Steve's appearance, looking away. “You go give speeches and kiss people and spend time with people who dress like I did, but you won't bring me. Am I that dangerous?” And he watched Steve like he trusted him still, as if Steve could say yes and Bucky would snap the thick, magnetic handcuffs back around his wrists, sitting wan and forlorn in a farmhouse in Europe.
“No,” Steve breathed, tried not to sob.
“Am I a prisoner?”
Steve shook his head, dashing away the moisture in his eyes. Dark hair fell across Bucky's forehead as he tilted his head to the left, gazing at Steve across a busy dance floor, on a boardwalk at night in Coney Island, on a busy street when he didn't know his own name. Then he stepped out, spun as graceful as the opening move of a lindy hop, and flipped backwards over the wall.
“Sam!” The phone shook in his fingers, and the Falcon took one look at the face he saw through the phone and straightened into military form.
“Jesus Steve, what happened? Are you still at the parade?”
“Bucky's gone, Sam. He's gone. And I don't know where, and what if he has a flashback? What if he gets hurt?”
“Not what you're afraid of,” Sam pointed out, gentle where Natasha would be harsh. What if he never comes back? Steve didn't say, though it hung in the air between them. “What happened?”
Steve hunched over the phone, pressed his face into his hands. “I messed up,” he choked out. “You were right. He thought I was keeping him here because he wasn't safe to be around other people. He thought I was holding him prisoner, and he was letting me do it.”
Proving again why he was Steve's closest friend from this new time, Sam didn't reply that everyone they knew had been warning Captain America about consequences just like that one. Instead, he sighed, and schooled his face into an expression both tired and kind. “Yeah, you messed up. Doesn't mean you can't fix it. Just means chasing him down to lock him back in his room probably isn't the answer.”
“He doesn't have any shoes,” Steve whispered miserably, and stared over the roof into the New York night.
The streets were packed with people, too busy and loud and colorful, even in the dark. Bucky stuck to the trees for a few blocks, unnoticed by the revelers as he dug his toes into the bark and swung over their heads.
A few streets over, a branch cracked and he landed on a Spanish-featured Captain America. Holding his hand, a slighter blond was dressed like Sgt. Bucky Barnes might have looked, if he'd spiked his hair and put on too much eyeliner.
“Shit, man,” Bucky's doppelganger spat, leaning too close. “Watch where you're going, why don't you? Trying to fucking kill us?”
Bucky shook his head, attempting to back away, and collided with another woman dressed as Captain America, blond hair cut short, her Bucky Barnes darker than Jones, willowy and female.
“Calm down, Matt,” the first Captain said, tugging his sidekick back. “I don't think he meant to fall out of a tree.” Reaching out for Bucky, the man stopped when he caught sight of the metal arm. “Are you all right?” he asked instead, holding his free hand up in a peaceful gesture.
“Why are you dressed like Captain America?” Bucky responded, cataloging boots that didn't meet regulations, a uniform that would tear under the first kiss of a knife.
“It's Pride week!” his friend exclaimed, before the Captain could speak. “Captain America's a goddamn national icon!”
Frowning, Bucky pulled out the phone Natalya had given him, and noted that it was the middle of June. “You're celebrating an American holiday?” he confirmed, wondering what new holiday fell in June and involved glitter.
“Ignore Matt,” Captain America counseled, elbowing his Bucky when the man started to protest. “I'm Carl,” he offered, hand still outstretched, and Bucky took it reflexively, shook it twice. “What he meant is that we're celebrating gay pride, not patriotism.”
“Who doesn't know that?” Matt screeched, just as Bucky asked, “Gay pride?”
“Look at him,” Carl hissed close to his friend's ear. “That arm look fake to you?” Speaking a little louder, he scratched his head and stared at Bucky. “Well, for us, it means that Matt and I can get married, or go on dates, and -”
“Holy shit, you're Bucky Barnes!” Matt's voice went high, but his screech could barely be heard over the raucous crowd in the street. “Holy shit! Holy shit.” He stood there and gaped at Bucky, who fidgeted and wrapped one bare foot around his calf.
The street was warm, and there were two women kissing behind Carl, a man and someone that Bucky couldn't identify scooping a tired little girl into a stroller to roll her home. Carl rolled his eyes, but kept his fingers laced through Matt's, and leaned in to kiss blond hair. “What's all this got to do with Steve?” the Winter Soldier queried. He pulled his phone out, typed in Steve's name, but all that came up had happened before the end of the war.
Matt, apparently incapable of standing still, snatched the phone out of a metal hand, and promptly found himself facing the opposite direction, on his tiptoes to keep his arm from snapping behind his back. “Sorry,” he squeaked, but scrolled through Bucky's phone with the hand that the Soldier wasn't near breaking. “But there's something seriously wrong with your search engine.” He handed the phone back over his shoulder, and Bucky let him go. “Here, look, use mine.” When he tapped in 'Captain America' - faster with two flesh hands - the results were SHIELD disasters interspersed with news clips and rainbow flags, all of them after Steve had been pulled out of the ice. “Look, see, he came out two years ago, when he told the whole world -”
Carl interrupted, glaring at Matt. “He doesn't know, remember?” he told his boyfriend. “You heard the speech.”
“Did you?” Matt retorted, folding his arms. “Because I heard something about needing the rest of us to get off our asses and help Captain America be brave. And what, you want to buckle him into the booster seat with the sabotaged phone and send him back to Rogers' closet?”
“I don't want to be the reason Captain America loses his best friend,” Carl sighed, and they both turned to look at the man across from them.
Bucky frowned. “I'm not leaving Steve,” he disagreed, metal arm flexing in a way that made the other men inch back.
Triumphant, Matt spun and stuck his tongue out at his partner. “I knew I wanted to be Bucky Barnes this year,” he crowed, then reached out for Bucky's human arm. “There's this film, they're showing it for Pride week down at the theater. It's called Brooklyn, I think you'll like it. Then there are some press conferences on YouTube that I have bookmarked, and we recorded the speech your boy gave today. Also, maybe some t-shirts you might like to buy, a few custom dog tags. Are you into tattoos?”
Carl sighed again, and followed as Matt wove them through the crowd, already handing over his phone so that Bucky could study Steve's face as it had looked today, sparkling with glitter and smiling wide in front of a rainbow flag.
It was past two when Steve heard footsteps on the stairs. He had come down from the roof around midnight, after calling Natasha and begging her to see if she could find Bucky.
“You want me to tell you where he is?”
“No. Just . . .” She could buy him dinner. See if he would ever be willing to speak to Steve again. He had watched the ledge as the sky darkened to the pale, reflected black of a New York night, hoping his friend would come somersaulting back over it so that he could try to explain. That he would come back, even though Steve had refused to let him go.
Eventually, he had moved downstairs, stripping the costume down to his waist and collapsing onto the sofa. He left his phone on the roof. If Natasha found Bucky, he didn't deserve to know.
The footsteps were slow, lingering on the stairs and nearly silent. The front door was still ajar, keys in the lock. The only reason to keep it closed had been to protect Bucky from his best friend's heart, plastered all over the world. He didn't bother to stand. If the intruder wanted to see Captain America broken, all they needed to do was walk through the door.
“You idiot,” a familiar Brooklyn accent called from the entryway, “you want us to get mugged? I know how much that blender cost.”
Steve's throat closed. His looked up in time to see Bucky turn the corner into the living room, carrying three full shopping bags, hair long enough again to flop into his eyes. Bucky stopped and tilted his head to the left, watching Steve.
“You have shoes,” Steve managed to say, before tripping over the coffee table in his haste and toppling into his best friend's arms.
Bucky caught him easily, then pretended that Captain America wasn't shuddering against his chest by picking up one foot and wiggling it. “You like them? Matt said they'd be good for dancing. I bought running shoes, too.” Despite the shaking he couldn't control, Steve felt Bucky go quiet and tense. “You know, if you wanted company tomorrow morning.”
Nodding furiously into Bucky's neck, Steve fought to stop heaving each breath so he could speak. “Of course I do. Every morning. Buck, I'm -”
“A sap,” his friend interrupted, shifting them both around the toppled coffee table and chucking Steve onto the couch. He had to untangle Steve's hands from his t-shirt to move away, righting the table and sitting so that their knees touched. Steve reached out, and Bucky let him thread his fingers through flesh and metal fingers warmed by the June night. “Saw a few interesting things tonight. Couple of interviews. Cake shop with our names on it. A film about a couple of dumb punks.”
Thin lips pursed, and Bucky looked the angriest Steve had seen him outside the nightmares. “You thought I'd leave you. I told you everything back then. About my dad, about the bruises. About leaving Becky at the orphanage, and never going back.” Blue eyes stared, unblinking, at a point to the left of Steve's face. “I tell you about the nightmares now. About the deaths. My whole life, you're the only one who's always known exactly who I am.” It was true. Steve had hoarded up the pieces of Bucky he knew no one else got to see, loved him more for the fragile parts of himself that he left willingly in Steve's hands. “You know me down to my bones, and you think loving me would make me leave you.”
“I was never sure why you stuck around in the first place,” Steve confessed, in the darkness of their home.
He stared fiercely at his own hands, but he couldn't help flinching when Bucky pulled away. Then flesh and metal cupped his cheeks and lifted Steve's head until their eyes met, a smile playing across lips that Steve had watched for years. “Thought that serum made you smarter, Rogers. I told you why I stuck around. I'd follow that little guy from Brooklyn to the goddamn ends of the earth.”
Bucky wasn't leaving. Sifting through the soul that the man across from him had entrusted Steve with, he realized he'd been a fool to think otherwise. Bucky Barnes' loyalty was legendary, etched into displays in the Smithsonian, documented in the annals of the war. And for some reason, Bucky's loyalty had always centered around Steve. “Guess I took all the stupid with me,” he murmured, and let himself grab his best friend and drag him onto the couch for a bone-crushing hug.
Groaning at the impact, Bucky tapped Steve on the head with a metal index finger. “Hey, pal. You forgot something important.”
Steve let go, allowing Bucky to put enough space between them to see each other's faces. “You're right. I meant to apologize earlier, but I am so, so -”
“Not that.” Bucky rolled his eyes, then settled, twined a hand around Steve's. “You forgot to ask why I want to follow a scrawny jerk everywhere he goes. How long I've been in love with him.” He cocked his head, small smile quirking his lips at Steve's expression, his eyes on Steve's face. Waiting.
“Bucky.” Steve's voice was strangled. “You're – It's not. I don't -”
Which was enough, apparently, for Bucky to grow tired of waiting. “Since forever, you dumb punk,” he said firmly, then took matters into his own hands, and drew a still sputtering Steve into a kiss.
Bucky's first press conference was the New York Pride Parade, almost a year later. He wore a sleeveless blue t-shirt with the shield emblazoned on the front, and “Property of Captain America” written in the center. Pepper had tried to convince him to wear something dressier, but he was determined to show off the metal arm, “til the end of the line” scripted carefully inside the red star. Carl and Matt were waiting on the float with Sam, already chucking Cap-cock pops at anyone who walked by, switching to shield taffies for the kids. Matt had done Bucky's eyeliner, because no one thought greasepaint was a good idea. Steve had refused to wear makeup, so Natasha had dumped a bucket of glitter on his head as they'd walked out the door.
There was a band, near the dais, and someone must have taught them how to play Tommy Dorsey, because Bucky nearly knocked the emcee off the stage when he jitterbugged into a flip, then slid between Steve's legs and up into his embrace. He'd been teaching Steve to dance, mostly enough to snap his fingers and catch Bucky when he launched off the floor, to stay out of the way so he didn't break Bucky's toes.
Steve had note cards tucked into his pocket, but they were all scribbled over with swing steps and sketches of Bucky's face.
The presenter seemed more interested in Bucky Barnes than Captain America, but so was everyone else. “So, Captain, care to introduce New York to your friend?”
Thousands of phones were recording the stupid smile on Steve's face. Captain America, on the evening news, his heart in his eyes. “Gladly. This is Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes, my -”
“Fiancé,” Bucky interjected, tilting his chin up at the organizer, threatening even with bedroom eyes and lip gloss he'd spent half an hour trying to scrub off.
The emcee squealed, but so did Steve. “Bucky! We're not – you have to ask someone before you get engaged!”
“Oh.” Bucky shrugged, tilted his head, and smiled at the world. “Okay. Captain America, what's your stance on gay marriage?”
“Oh God, you jerk,” Steve retorted, laughing helplessly, leaning in to kiss his best friend - his fiancé - on a street in New York, on cameras broadcasting around the world.
“Convince you I'm not leaving yet?” Bucky mumbled against his mouth, still grinning. Behind them, the band struck up “Hallelujah I Love Him So,” and Bucky's hips started to wiggle beneath Steve's hands.
“Come on,” he said, stretching out his metal hand and waiting for Steve's to meet it, completely ignoring the presenter, feet already tapping out the rhythm from a hundred bars and dance halls, a thousand hours of Steve watching his best friend from across the room. Steve tucked his palm under Bucky's, folded their fingers together, spun him out before bringing him right back into Steve's arms.