Some nights, when the four walls of their apartment seem to close in around them and there's nothing interesting on TV, they climb up onto the rooftop to watch the world turn. Steve sketches on his tablet, trying to get used to drawing with a stylus; Bucky smokes and grumbles that cigarettes just don't taste right anymore, and it's almost like old times. Except that it isn't, and there's no going back.
One time Steve asks, just for his own peace of mind, "Do you ever regret coming on that plane with me?"
Bucky gives him a long-suffering smile from under his longish bangs and blows a thin stream of smoke over to him, just because he can, just because they survived a goddamn plane crash and Steve's asthma isn't a concern anymore. "Hell, no," he says, lazy and content. "Ever wish you'd bailed when I told you to?"
"No," Steve says, and they don't talk about it again.
It starts the day it nearly ends: when they zipline onto a speeding train in the Swiss Alps, and Bucky is forcefully disembarked by a HYDRA goon with a laser gun. (Which, seventy years later, becomes one of those things Steve never lets him live down.)
Steve has had so many close shaves by now that his life doesn't even flash before his eyes when he swings himself from the blown-out compartment and finds that his fingertips won't reach Bucky's. It's the sensible option that occupies his imagination instead, the alternative to dying. He can stay where he is, with one hand curled tight round a ledge on the inside of the train and the other stretched impotently to Bucky; he will howl with grief when Bucky slips away from him forever, and go back to camp and accept the Colonel's platitudes and Peggy's kind words (and maybe she'll marry him and they'll settle down somewhere in Europe because he can never go back to Brooklyn now, not when everything will remind him of Bucky, and what if he runs into Bonnie or Connie or whatever her name was and has to tell her about how Bucky was three inches away and he still couldn't reach him and she'll sob that she never got to tell him she loved him and Steve will have to bite his lip not to say I know, I know, me too)—
—and he thinks, to hell with the sensible option.
Bucky realises what he's going to do in the instant before he does it, and his eyes widen in helpless horror. "Don't you dare, Steve!" he yells, voice hoarse with anguish. "Don't you fucking dare!"
But Steve's brain is hard-wired to interpret don't you dare as do it now you sucker and he's already letting go of his firm grip on the handhold, throwing himself forward so he can reach Bucky. His hands close around Bucky's outstretched arm in the instant before they hear the terrible groan of metal giving way, and the bar Bucky's been clinging to goes hurtling down to the rocks below. Then they're both falling. Steve kicks out on instinct and his legs close around something hard and solid, the edge of the compartment or the running board or a present-day miracle maybe, he doesn't care, all he knows is that they're dangling off the side of the train and they're not quite dead yet.
"Let go!" Bucky screams at him. "Or I'm gonna take you down with me!"
"Not a chance," Steve gasps. His arms and legs are going to pop out of their sockets and his chest feels like it's being torn in half by two opposing forces, gravity tussling with his will to live. Any moment now something will give; he's going to hear that metallic crunch again and they'll both find out first-hand what a five-thousand-foot drop feels like. "I've got you, just hang on!"
He hauls himself up inch by painful inch, not daring to put too much weight on anything anywhere, and it's like doing the sit-up from hell except upside down and penduluming over thin air. He gets himself over the lip of the hole in the wall and Bucky manages to grab a fragment of twisted metal and scramble to safety, and then they're both sprawled face down on the floor of the compartment, panting and trying to get their breath back.
"That," Bucky pronounces at last, still sounding wheezy, "was the dumbest thing you ever did."
Steve feels a surge of inane laughter threaten to rush up and overtake him. He's been ready to die since he was twelve and had pneumonia for the first time, but he's never been ready to lose Bucky. "Really? You said the same thing after I broke into Schmidt's lab to bust you out. And when you caught me lying on my enlistment form."
"And when you tried to take on four guys bigger than me behind our school," Bucky says thoughtfully. He's lying half on top of Steve, face pressed into his shoulderblades, and Steve feels him shake with a mixture of adrenaline and suppressed mirth. "You're getting worse, Stevie."
And it doesn't get any better, Steve tells himself, so go on, kiss him, do it, he's right there, if someone blew this train up now you'd never get another chance. And for a moment he thinks he really might do it—might pull Bucky towards him and cup his cheek and push their mouths together, because he doesn't ever want to die without having done this first. But the hysteria passes quickly, and he remembers where he is.
"Yeah, and you fell out of a train," he says, dislodging Bucky's head reluctantly so he can sit up and reach for his battered shield. "What kind of idiot does that?"
Bucky laughs. Steve retrieves his sidearm from where it's fallen behind one of the big black containers and hands it over, and their fingers brush as Bucky takes it from him. "Your kind of idiot," he says, still grinning. His smiles are scarcer than they used to be back at home, and Steve has learnt to treasure every one.
(He sketches that smile half a dozen times when they get back to camp, and doesn't let anyone see what he's drawing.)
Their first night back in civilisation, everyone wants to hear about the train. Bucky seems happy to tell and retell the story of Steve's heroic rescue in exchange for an endless stream of beers, and it's well past midnight by the time he comes into the room they share. He seems to have had a good time: the first three buttons of his uniform are undone and his tousled hair is falling into his eyes, and there's a burn-like mark on the side of his neck that Steve is certain is, in fact, not a burn. He smells faintly of beer, but his eyes are alert and bruised by sleeplessness.
Those eyes fall on Steve, who shoves his sketchbook under his pillow and sits up on his bunk. "Enjoyed yourself?"
Steve is aware that he sounds sharper than he means to, and his own voice makes him cringe. There are already too many people at camp who see him as some strait-laced, cherub-with-flaming-sword figure who thinks it's unpatriotic to have fun, and that's hilarious in its own way, but the last thing he wants is for Bucky to think they're right. But Bucky hardly seems to notice. "Wasn't much good when you weren't there," he says, flopping down next to Steve. His shoulder comes to rest against Steve's bicep, and their knees knock against each other. Bucky has never quite managed to acquire a functional understanding of personal space. "Private Lorraine did her best to get me drunk. Girl deserves a medal for valour or something."
Steve feels a burning, unpleasant sensation settle into the bottom of his stomach. He has a sudden vision of Peggy shooting at his head in Stark's workshop, and realises he now knows exactly how she must have felt. He isn't sure if that makes him feel better or worse. "So why didn't she succeed?" he asks.
Bucky shrugs. "Like I said. Turning into you. And," he adds, shoving Steve out of the way and collapsing across his bunk, "as a bonus side effect, I'm pumped so full of beer that if you breathe on me I might pop."
Between best friends, there is only one way to respond to a statement like that, and Steve automatically starts angling in for a particularly vicious dig under Bucky's ribs (because if even the glorious Agent Carter is allowed to be passive-aggressive on occasion, then so is he). Bucky grins, reading his mind, and pre-emptively rolls over into prone sniping position to protect himself, arms locked around an imaginary rifle. His hand rustles something under Steve's pillow and resurfaces holding the sketchbook. Steve feels an absurd prickle of anxiety. "Give me that."
Bucky dumps it in his lap, not without a kind of casual reverence. "Draw me."
"You never sit still long enough." It's a lousy excuse, because Steve can make a perfect reproduction of every contour of Bucky's face and body without even looking, in pencil or charcoal or paint, a fact in which he takes a terrible, guilty pride.
"I promise to," Bucky says, rolling over on his back again. The sight of him stretched out over Steve's bunk with his shirt half open and his eyes half shut is almost too much to bear, and Steve backs away hastily, sitting down hard on their rickety stool instead. "I'm about to drop off anyway. Stevie?"
Steve stops fumbling around for a pencil long enough to look up at Bucky, praying he won't blush. It's a lost cause. He can already feel the heat spreading from his cheeks to the tips of his ears and the base of his neck. "Yeah?"
"That's twice now I've nearly died," Bucky says. He's not looking at Steve, just staring up at the top bunk where he usually sleeps, so he doesn't notice the blush. "Photographs just aren't good enough, y'know? I want you to have something proper in case—in case I'm not so lucky the third time."
If he'd said this a few years ago, Steve might have fidgeted uneasily and told him not to be so fatalistic. But they're no longer boys and Steve has been at war long enough that all he does is swallow hard and make a sound of agreement. Bucky doesn't know that he already fills about two-thirds of Steve's sketchbook, which is just as well.
"Draw me one of you too," Bucky says, smiling faintly. "Make it real pretty."
"Can't do that," Steve says, settling down with a pencil and a blank page. "It won't look like me."
"Jonesing for compliments now?" Bucky teases, arching an eyebrow. Steve starts to blush again, because he wasn't, not really, but then maybe he was, just a little? "You're an idiot, Rogers. Don't know why I put up with you."
He dozes off soon after. Steve stays up half the night to draw, taking exquisite care with every stray lock of hair and every crease in Bucky's uniform, but he leaves out the mark on Bucky's neck, since he wasn't the one who put it there.
"Forget everything I said," Bucky mutters, as they poise themselves for the jump. "This is the dumbest thing we've ever done."
"Could be worse," Steve says. The Colonel's car hurtles after Schmidt's plane, and the wind whistles in his hair, blowing it straight back from his face. "I could have insisted on going alone."
He can't stop himself from stealing a sideways glance. Bucky is wearing the look the Howling Commandos have affectionately christened his Killing Face, the one where he scrunches up his brows and puffs out his lips just before he takes a shot, to which Steve has devoted no fewer than eight pages of his sketchbook. Bucky catches him looking and they exchange a smile, quick and reassuring, and Steve feels something shudder through him—something that closely resembles a thrill of anticipation, as if they aren't about to hijack a plane and maybe get blown to pieces.
And then Peggy yells, "Now!" and they're flying out of the car, and really, this is no time to be examining his feelings.
The next five minutes are chaos. Steve knocks out a couple of Schmidt's men and tosses several more out of the plane, all the while Bucky is constantly by his side, watching his back. Fighting is so easy like this, when they move like two halves of the same whole—harmony and melody, rhythm and backbeat—and Steve lets himself imagine that they're back home in Brooklyn, beating up a gang of bullies in the alley behind the schoolyard. This is how it should have been, he thinks, not him getting thrown into dumpsters while Bucky tried desperately to keep him alive.
"Steve!" Bucky yells. "They're launching the nukes!"
Steve whirls round. The hold is opening, and a couple of the missiles are whirring to life as the HYDRA pilots slip into the cockpits. Bucky grabs at his arm. "That one's got New York written on it," he says. He's wearing the Killing Face again. "Go take Schmidt, I'll deal with this."
"Go!" Bucky shouts, and even as Steve scrambles for the control room, he glimpses the New York nuke dropping out of the hold, and Bucky dropping with it.
Steve's mind goes on lockdown mode, and he can't, won't accept the fact that Bucky is gone. So he's not even surprised when he staggers back to the hold after a hard fight and a cosmic explosion, and finds the New York missile miraculously parked back where it belongs, with Bucky unconscious in the cockpit. His jacket is soaked through with blood, and there are shards of broken glass in his hair. "Bucky," says Steve, leaning in to touch his shoulder. "Hey, Buck!"
It takes a moment—a very long moment, during which Steve holds his breath and doesn't dare think of anything except wake up wake up naptime's over—but Bucky makes a cranky noise and sits up with a grimace. "You should—ugh—see the other guy," he says, shaking the glass from his hair. "Where's Schmidt?"
"Vaporised himself." Steve gives Bucky a critical once-over. He looks pretty lucid for having lost that much blood, so either most of it wasn't his own, or the Thing is happening again: the phenomenon where Bucky gets shot or stabbed or concussed while in the field, and is somehow perfectly all right in a day or two. The Commandos speculate in whispers about what HYDRA did to him in that lab, but no one says anything to his face. "Listen, we're low on fuel and there's still a dozen nukes here. We've got to put the plane down."
Bucky eases himself out of the cockpit with a groan. "Where are the parachutes?"
"That's the problem," Steve says. He takes a deep breath, and Bucky narrows his eyes. "There aren't any."
"Well, you don't need one, do you? So you can bail now and I'll send Peggy your coordinates, and then I'll just—"
"Shut up," Steve says. "Shut up now."
"—find somewhere deserted to land, and you can look for me afterwards, and if you come quick it won't be so bad."
"Bucky," says Steve, in a very soft voice that doesn't sound in the least bit like his own, "all the nukes are gonna go off the moment you crash."
Bucky sets his jaw in a familiar look of determination that Steve simultaneously loves and wants to punch off his face. His hand moves absently to the pocket of his bloodsoaked jacket, as if closing around a touchstone. "Better me than both of us."
"No," Steve says, using the crash-barrier tone that means he's pulling rank and no arguments will be brooked. "Better together than alone."
He's not sure how he expected Bucky to respond. There's a moment of complete silence, broken only by the muffled roar of the plane's engines. Bucky just stares at him, eyes wide with hopeless rage—the same eyes Steve has drawn hundreds of times without ever being satisfied, because there's no way to capture in static form something so changeable, so alive—and then, inexplicably, the corners of his lips turn up and the anger is replaced by a kind of resigned exasperation. "You know," he says, "I'd have preferred to be vaporised by one of those laser things. Looks quick and painless."
Steve lets out a breath. If they're going down, at least they'll go down together, the way it was always meant to be. "Well, at least," he says, letting Bucky lean on his shoulder as he leads the way to the control room, "this is the last dumb thing we'll ever do."
They hold hands as the plane nosedives.
Steve reaches out first, in a gesture he's been mentally rehearsing ever since they were still in school and his hands were small enough that one of Bucky's could dwarf them both. He always imagined that if he dared try it in reality, Bucky would freeze up for a moment, then scramble for a witty remark so they could joke it off, and the next girl Bucky induced to go out with him would look at him with pitying eyes.
But they are twenty thousand feet up and plummeting fast, and Bucky doesn't do any of those things, just squeezes the proffered hand and looks at him questioningly. The cabin floor is tilting at a steep angle, and they're both clutching the dashboard with their free hands to keep from being thrown against the control panels, but it doesn't occur to Steve to use balance as an excuse. He shrugs, affecting nonchalance, and now, even now, he feels his cheeks heat up. "I just thought, we won't get another chance."
Fifteen thousand feet. "You have the worst timing," Bucky grumbles.
"Sorry. It couldn't wait any more."
"Wait?" Bucky repeats. And then, before Steve can respond, he rolls his eyes, looking for all the world like they're just having any old argument in the mess hall or in their Brooklyn apartment—which, thanks to Bucky's ministrations, is not about to be blown to kingdom come with the rest of New York. "Fuck you and your patience, Rogers."
"Don't you mean impatience?"
Ten thousand feet. "Shut up," Bucky says. He looks miffed about something, but he hasn't taken his hand away. His Killing Face is directed out the windshield, at the solid mass of white rushing up to meet them like an old friend at the docks, so Steve figures it's safe to twine their fingers together. In any case, Bucky can't tease him about it once they're dead.
At five thousand feet, Bucky takes a step towards him and closes the distance between them, and they stand shoulder to shoulder above the beeping alarms on the dashboard.
At two thousand feet, as they spiral crazily to the ice, Steve says, "I'm a little scared."
A little is their special code for terribly, the only appropriate answer to questions like did it hurt? and are you hungry? and is it too cold? "Yeah, Stevie," Bucky says quietly. "Me too."
At one thousand feet, they duck down on the floor under Steve's shield and Bucky brushes their joined knuckles against his lips.
Just before impact, Steve realises he can hear Bucky laughing.
The first conversation Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes have in sixty-five years goes like this:
"Really? A baseball game from 1941? They couldn't have bothered to do their research?"
"Maybe they're understaffed. Maybe they didn't peg us as the type to follow baseball."
"Then they obviously don't know as much as they claim to, 'cause you wrote me dozens of letters in '43 to catch me up on all the games I missed while I was busy getting shot at, and I kept every single one of them."
"You did? That's, oh, wow, that's ni—are you saying they read our letters? Oh, God, please don't say they read our letters."
Bucky makes it his self-appointed mission in 2011 to grow out his army-regulations hair, a task he falls upon with great glee and of which—when he observes the results—Steve is thoroughly supportive.
They've been settled in an apartment in Brooklyn, paid for and guarded by SHIELD (an organisation filled with bogeymen if there ever was one, and if Steve is honest with himself, the only reason he consents to join is that Peggy helped found it). It's not much bigger than their old one, but it encompasses so many differences, like the enormous flat-screen TV that comes with about five hundred channels and a magazine-sized computer that, if Howard Stark's progeny can be believed, is capable of doing just about anything in the world.
More importantly, the heating works.
Steve returns from a jog one morning to find Bucky sprawled across the living room floor, attacking an enormous cardboard box with a pair of scissors. He's wearing dark jeans that look so tight they must be painful, and a black leather jacket that fits him like a glove. Steve nearly misses the chair when he goes to sit down. "What's that?"
"Stuff they salvaged from the plane," Bucky says. "Some of it's in better condition than others, depending on who kept it, but—oh, here's your old suit."
Steve makes a noncommittal noise, reaching for his tablet. He's just about gotten the hang of using the stylus, and he thinks he might sketch Bucky lounging on the rug with his newly floppy hair falling triumphantly into his eyes. Bucky tosses a bulky clothing bag out of the box and unzips another. "And here's my jacket."
Now Steve does look up, because he has a whole host of pleasant memories of Bucky looking very good in all that blue wool. Bucky's holding up the jacket with the familiar Howling Commando insignia still pinned on the sleeve, turning out the pockets one after another with his brows furrowed in concentration. "Don't be so rough, you're gonna rip that," Steve says.
"I had something in the front pocket," Bucky says, scowling. "Dammit—oh!"
He drops the jacket and lifts something from the bottom of the box. Curious, Steve joins him on the floor and peeks over his shoulder. It's a much-wrinkled portrait of a man in uniform, done in pencil, stained brown with what looks like dried blood and encased in a protective plastic covering. Steve's heart performs an awkward flip as he recognises the face, the signature at the bottom—it's him, it's the self-portrait he drew for Bucky right after they nearly fell from that train, hasty and slipshod because he'd been fairly sure Bucky had just been joking about wanting it and there were a thousand other things he'd rather be drawing than his own face. "You kept that," he says accusingly.
Bucky shrugs. "Asked you for it, didn't I?"
"It's awful," Steve says. He can feel his pulse leaping in his throat. "I'm surprised anyone bothered to preserve it."
"Well, you drew me about five hundred times, and Peggy maybe three hundred, but this is the only self-portrait you ever did. That's historical value for you. Besides," Bucky adds with considerable smugness, "it was in a war hero's pocket when his body was found."
They both stare at the drawing in a moment of shared wonder. Steve thinks about his other sketchbooks and experiences a surge of sheer panic, wondering where they've all gone, if his drawings of Bucky are hanging in the Smithsonian now, or being pawed over by some private collector. He clears his throat, acutely aware of the pressing need to say something, and of how close they're sitting, tucked together from shoulder to knee. "God, Barnes," he says. "I didn't know you were such a sap."
"Speak for yourself," says Bucky. He leans back, quite deliberately, so that his hair brushes against Steve's cheek. His shampoo smells like apples. "I seem to recall you grabbing my hand just before we went down."
Steve draws in a breath that he knows is too loud. For an instant he half wishes they'd died in the ice after all. "In all fairness, I did think those were our last minutes on earth."
Bucky puts the drawing down and turns around so they're facing each other. He's still smiling—lately he's always smiling, and their therapist Sam says he's taking to this new century like he was always meant for it—but his eyes are solemn. "Was it a one-time-only thing?"
After seventy-odd years of being in love with his best friend, Steve has managed to convince himself that he will never need to have this conversation. Something always happens and saves his ass: war breaks out, or Bucky meets a girl, or they crash a plane and end up fossilised in an ice floe. He holds his breath and waits for the customary calamity—maybe the street will blow up, maybe an asteroid will hit—but all that happens is that Bucky folds his arms and puts on the Killing Face. And Steve, who has faced down bullies and Nazis and a madman who looked like a demonoid rooster without batting an eye, finds himself starting to hyperventilate.
He takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. "You know that's not true," he says, choosing his words carefully. "Otherwise, you wouldn't ask."
Bucky's expression softens a little, and takes on a tinge of mischief. "You know, I'd crash any number of planes if it meant I got to do it again," he says. "But it'd be nice to hold hands on a few, you know, non-life-threatening dates as well. Just for variety. If you don't mind."
Steve nods. Then he nods again, more emphatically. This is going far better than he ever dared hope, and he knows he probably shouldn't push his luck, but there's something about the cadence of Bucky's voice that suggests Bucky is just as nervous about this as he is. And if they're on equal footing, then why the hell not? "We could do some other things as well," he says. "Like, uh—"
He demonstrates, forcefully, with his mouth.
Bucky makes a small, soft sound that is equal parts surprised and delighted, and then he kisses back. He tastes of peppermint and chocolate, and his tongue is eager and wicked, and his laughter vibrates into Steve's jaw like a benediction. When they come up for air, Steve discovers that Bucky has at some point clambered onto his lap, his legs arranged in an artful sprawl that really shouldn't be possible in those jeans. "Glad to see you grew some balls while we were sleeping," Bucky drawls, his pupils wide and appreciative. "I thought you'd never dare do that."
"I dare to do lots of things," Steve says mock-angrily. "You witnessed most of them."
Bucky grins, leaning in to drop a quick peck in the hollow of Steve's collarbone, and as Steve pulls him in for an instinctive follow-up, he thinks he's really starting to like this century.