The trip to the mountains had a two-fold purpose—one, Nat, Sam, and (of all people!) Pepper Potts had insisted they be given free reign to decorate the newly-acquired brownstone in Brooklyn before “the boys” were allowed to move in; two, Steve and Bucky had realized that, despite their city childhoods, they had both spent several years in the forests of Europe and Russia, and they yearned for some of the quiet and peace of the trees.
So Steve had rented them a cabin—really a small house—upstate, in the Catskills, within walking distance of the Hudson River but a mile from its nearest neighbors. Their time frame was flexible. Steve had insisted, for the first time since he’d been thawed out, that he be off-grid for the duration.
“What if we get more aliens, giant mechs—” Tony had argued.
“Thor’s here until winter, visiting Jane,” Steve reminded him. “And you have the shield.”
“I can’t use the shield!”
“Then ask Sam. Or Rhodey. Hell, ask Nat, we’ve all trained with it enough.” They had, thanks in part to some… fannish jealousy from the rest of the team when they caught Bucky and Steve ping-ponging it efficiently around the gym at Stark Tower, just for practice. “Give me this, Tony,” he’d said as Tony opened his mouth to argue again. “Please. If we’re friends, give me this.”
Tony had done more than given the time off—he’d sicc’d Pepper on the brownstone and insisted he pay for the decorating. “I’ll hook you up with a tablet in your hidey-hole,” he said. “Closed network, only for your design picks, alright? Go nuts.”
Steve reminded himself now, as he flicked on the coffee pot and dug mugs out of the cabinet, to get something really nice for Tony when they got back. Whenever that was.
Their time in the cabin had settled into a kind of routine, different than their time in DC where they were constantly interrupted by problems from the last dregs of Hydra and the beginnings of Bucky’s serious recovery, or Stark Tower, which was filled with people all the time and where the routine was more of a hope built around weekly therapy appointments and a tentative training schedule and shattered easily at the first call to scramble the Avengers. Here, with limited access to the outside world—Netflix, yes; Twitter and headlines, definitely not—and the expanse of the Slide Mountain Wilderness on all sides, Steve and Bucky found a good pattern, a healing pattern.
Most of the time.
As the coffee brewed, Steve went upstairs and poked his head into the farthest room, which they’d chosen as their bedroom for the stay. Bucky, usually an early riser, was curled up in bed still. Steve couldn’t tell if he was still asleep or not.
He knocked gently on the doorframe. “Hey Buck. You up?”
“I’m making coffee, if you want it. I thought we could finish Hill House today, or you could try shooting for that floaty-thing you were talking about.” Steve had gotten Bucky a digital camera just before the trip. Sam, whose mother dabbled in photography, said it was supposed to be a good “entry-level DSLR,” whatever that meant. As far as Steve knew, it was a goddamn miracle, and he refused to touch it in fear of hitting the wrong button and making it explode. Bucky, however, had taken to it almost instantly, and had progressed from digital black and white shots to get back into the swing of it to more complex projects, setting up lighting and a tripod and shooting for hours, then layering and editing things on his computer in ways Steve never understood but was always willing to model for.
A long pause and then a sigh was his answer from the lump in the bed. “I dunno, Stevie. Don’t wait on me.” Don’t wait on me in Bucky-speak meant several things, but when said from under a duvet at mid-morning, it meant roughly, I am too triggered to get out of bed today.
Steve’s heart sank. There was a time where a day like this would have led to both of them floating zombie-like around Steve’s apartment in DC for days, not quite talking, blaming themselves and chafing on each other, until they either ended up shouting at each other, crying, or fucking hard enough to break furniture. Sometimes all three. Thankfully, they’d gotten past a lot of that, especially after Sam had taken Steve to breakfast one morning and chewed him out for not putting work into his recovery, too, for Bucky’s sake. So now the heart-sinking Steve felt was just… the normal kind, the kind you felt when someone you loved (he still hadn’t quite gotten his head around boyfriend or partner, it felt so… risky) felt like dog shit.
“Can I come in?” Steve asked the blanket lump.
He sat on the corner of the bed farthest from Bucky. “What happened?”
“Got up and decided to read for a while. Read something in particular. Had a flashback. Can’t shake it.”
“You wanna talk about it?” Steve asked.
Another long pause. “Not… not really.”
“Okay,” Steve agreed, against the opinion of the selfish, panicked part of him that needed to know every detail. To help, of course, despite the fact that dragging the details of trauma out of someone rarely helped. The things you learned in therapy. “Do you want space?”
“Either way,” Buck said, back still to him. “Really. If you have things to do, go do them.”
“I don’t, at the moment.”
“Can I stay?”
“Yeah. Yeah, Stevie, that’d be nice.”
Steve nodded and hopped onto the bed properly, sitting up against the headboard. “Is today a touching day?”
“Not currently,” Bucky said, voice once again muffled against the bedding.
“M’kay,” Steve agreed. He retrieved the tablet Stark had lent them from the bedside table and checked the most recent photos Pepper had sent them from the brownstone. Gotta get something even nicer for Pepper, he thought.
The two sat in silence like that for a while, Steve answering menial questions about towel colors and picture frames, Bucky grappling with whatever he was grappling with. Eventually Steve traded the tablet for his sketchbook and, of course, found himself sketching Bucky. He’d sketched Bucky a million times in his life, before and after his return, but this time he decided to do something a little bit different, like some of Bucky’s photography projects. Instead of drawing teenage Bucky, or Sergeant Bucky, or the recovering Winter Soldier, he blended them together. He gave the drawing younger Bucky’s smile, war-time Bucky’s swagger, recovering Bucky’s wise eyes. What had started as a quick sketch turned into a proper portrait, with Steve flicking through various self-portraits Buck had finished that they’d saved to the tablet to get the light right, or the angle of Bucky’s nose or brow-line.
He drew for long enough to get lost in it, to forget where he was or why he had started, until Bucky rolled over in bed beside him and brought Steve out of his trance. Steve glanced over and saw Buck’s nose peeking over the top of the blanket, his eyes still clouded with distress but focused on Steve.
“Hey, punk,” Steve said, moving to put the drawing aside.
“Whatcha drawin’?” Bucky asked, voice rough from disuse.
“I wanna see.”
“Come up here, then.” Steve spread his arm and Buck sat up and tucked himself beneath it, cuddling up to Steve and leaning to look at the sketchbook.
“Is that me?”
“No, it’s the other beautiful idiot I can draw from memory. ‘Course it’s you, Buck.”
Despite the fact that Bucky had seen Steve draw him countless times, he seemed particularly fascinated. He took the sketchbook into his own hands and traced the lines with his metal hand to avoid smudging the pencil. Steve was torn between wanting to make another joke and wanting to ask what was holding Buck’s attention so strongly. He bit his tongue and let Bucky stare instead.
Finally, Bucky spoke. “Is this what I look like?” he asked.
“What? Bucky, are you okay?” Steve frowned. “Did something happen before I—”
But Buck was waving his right hand impatiently. “No, I know it’s my face but… I just… Is this… how you remember me? How I look when you think of me?”
“Yeah, I suppose it is, in a way,” Steve conceded. “It’s kind of all the bits of you I remember best put together.”
Still staring at the drawing, Buck ran his flesh hand through his hair, which had grown long after so much time out of cryo. He’d taken to tying it back sometimes, and he still often asked Steve to wash it for him, but otherwise he seemed to ignore it.
“Can you cut my hair?”
That was… not what he’d been expecting. “Sure, Buck, if you want.”
“Can you make it look like this?” He tapped Steve’s drawing.
“I ain’t a barber,” Steve said. “But I’ll do my best. I think I saw clippers in the bathroom. You go ahead. Let me know when you’re ready.” Steve tucked his sketchbook under his arm and went to see if the coffee he’d made earlier was any good. Thankfully, the coffee maker had some setting or another that kept it from burning on the warming plate. Steve prepped the mugs, adding some Bailey’s-flavored creamer—no alcohol in it, but damn, did it taste good—to Bucky’s as Buck putzed around the bathroom. Finally, Buck called him from the bathroom. Steve kept his sketchbook under his arm, grabbed both mug handles with one hand, and hefted a kitchen chair into the other.
“You don’t have to show off for me, punk,” Bucky laughed as Steve arrived, gear-laden.
“I only show off to you, Buck.”
“Bullshit,” Buck said, but there was humor in his voice. “I got half a dozen reporters and about a hundred civvies who’d back me up.”
“Alright, well, I only show of on purpose for you,” Steve conceded, putting the chair down in front of the sink and resting the mugs on the counter. Bucky stood off to the side, a pair of small scissors and a small black case in his hands. “Is that a clipper? It isn’t the one I saw in the cabinet.”
Buck shook his head. “No, I brought this one with me.”
Steve cocked his head. “You been thinking of this a long time?”
“What’s been stopping you?”
Bucky shrugged. “Lots of things.” He rested the case on the counter and handed Steve the scissors. Steve tucked them into his back pocket.
“Tell me about it?” Steve asked. “If you want.” He set to work assembling the clippers, skimming the instructions, and setting the sketch book up against the mirror.
Bucky shook his head, more to clear it than as a denial. He spun the chair backwards and sat facing the sink, arms leaning against the top of the chair back. “It’s… It doesn’t feel like me. The hair.” He twirled a lock of it around his good fingers. “At first I didn’t want to cut it because I wanted to… to control it. They always kept it at my jaw, good facial obstruction, I guess. But buzzing it off reminded me too much of Basic. Felt like I was giving myself off to the military all over again.” Steve nodded. He remembered that feeling.
“So what does this feel like?” he asked. Bucky shrugged again.
“Guess we’ll see, eh?”
Steve caught his eye in the mirror and smiled at him. “Guess we will,” he agreed. He held up the scissors. “You ready?”
“Aye-aye, Cap’n,” Bucky agreed, snapping off a salute.
Steve cut the length off first, in increments small enough that if Bucky balked and changed his mind, there would still be a fair amount of hair. Bucky didn’t say anything, so Steve kept going. Finally, he put the scissors back into his pocket. Buck’s eyes were closed, though whether it was to block things out or just because he’d fallen into a meditative state to the sound of the scissors, Steve didn’t know. He picked up the clippers from the counter and turned them on, letting Bucky accustom to the sound.
Steve, despite his own anxiety, didn’t ask again. It was no good projecting his worries on Bucky. Instead, he took another look at his drawing and then began buzzing hair from the nape of Bucky’s neck. He worked in silence for a while, moving from one guard length to the next the same way he’d switch paint colors or pencil pressures.
“You know, I’ve always loved your hair,” Steve said.
“Yeah. Was always jealous of how thick it was, when we were kids. How you had to have pomade and shit to keep it nice. Meanwhile, mine was brittle as straw n’ grew out all uneven.”
“You kept it short,” Bucky said, in the way he’d learned to state memories he wasn’t entirely sure of. Not a question, but not a declaration, either. “So it was fuzzy. Soft.”
“Ma kept it short,” Steve corrected. “But it was, yeah. You always liked to come over and pet it right after she trimmed it.”
“Gave me an excuse to touch you.”
“Was that it?”
“I was always looking for an excuse to touch you,” Buck said. Heat flooded Steve’s face.
“Way back then?”
“Way back then,” Buck agreed. “Didn’t do it much. Guess I was afraid I’d break ya.”
“You prob’ly woulda,”
“Glad I didn’t.” One of Steve’s hands was resting on Bucky’s left shoulder. Bucky brought his right hand up and squeezed it.
“Me too, Buck.”
They lapsed into silence again, the only sounds the buzzing of the clippers and the occasional sips of coffee Buck took from his mug. Steve didn’t even need to tell him to keep still. He lifted the mug with his left arm and slurped without moving his head. Goddamn sniper training was good for something.
Bucky kept his eyes closed unless it was to keep his coffee from missing his mouth, or the mug from tumbling off the counter. After what seemed like ages, and about fifty checks of the sketchbook against Bucky’s three-quarters profile, Steve finally put the clippers and scissors down.
“Ready to see?” he asked.
“Ready if you are,” Bucky agreed.
“Open your eyes then, you dolt.”
Bucky did, lifting his head from where it had been resting on his arms on the chair-back. He caught his own eyes in the mirror as he stood up. Steve shoved his hands in his pockets and reminded himself that Bucky would talk when he was good and ready.
His hair was somewhere between the length it had been when he’d… fallen… and how it had been when he’d come to Steve after the fall of Project Insight. Longer on top, it tumbled over itself in that sexy bed-head way that Steve had secretly loved, even though Bucky had insisted on slathering it with pomade and slicking it back. Absent of the weight as well as the length, it stayed more or less swept back from his forehead when he ran his hand through it. The locks that tumbled forward were just short of Bucky’s eyebrows. It was shorter on the back and sides, at its shortest the same kind of soft fuzz Bucky had loved touching on Steve when they were boys. Divested of the dark curtain, Steve thought he could see more of Bucky’s face, both his expressions and those things that rested there beneath the surface.
“Hot damn,” Bucky said eventually, leaning on the counter so he was almost nose-to-nose with his reflection.
“You like it?”
“Like it? Hell, I gotta find a new place to shoot self-portraits so we can show Nat n’ Sam.”
Steve laughed. “I’m sure they’ll shower you with compliments.”
“They better.” Buck turned to Steve and smiled, though there was still a tightness in his eyes. “Thank you, Stevie.”
“Any time, Buck. You name it.”
Steve waited to see is Buck would offer a hug or a kiss, but he didn’t. Still not a touching day, then, he thought. The two of them cleaned up the bathroom, sweeping up as much hair as they could and deciding to vacuum another time.
Steve made a late lunch for the two of them while Bucky showered, grateful that Buck’s appetite didn’t flag with his moods quite as much as it used to but still ready to wrap most of it up as leftovers. As expected, Bucky picked at his plate and only ate half of an apple in any substantial way. Steve polished off his own food and then wrapped Bucky’s up for later.
“Wanna watch more Hill House?” Steve asked. Bucky was still sitting at the table, his gaze far away.
“Nah. Wouldn’t enjoy it. If you put on somethin’ else, I’ll sit with you.”
“Deal,” Steve agreed.
They settled in on one of the long couches, Bucky the little spoon to Steve’s big, tucked under a soft throw embroidered with historical landmarks from the nearest town. Steve turned on a historical documentary about Egypt and Bucky brought his phone, set to airplane mode but loaded up with all his favorite puzzle games for the trip.
“Did it help?” Steve asked after a while.
“I love it. It feels good. Lighter.”
“That’s good. You still feeling triggered?”
“Wasn’t related to the hair, actually.” Bucky made a small sound. “Sorry.”
Steve planted a small kiss on the top of Bucky’s head. “Don’t be. Wanna talk?”
Steve turned his attention back to the TV while Buck went back to his puzzle. The wind whispered through the trees outside and Steve heard the first coyote of the early evening howling its grievances, warning its nearby prey. So they weren’t always happy. So what? They were here, together somewhere beautiful. Tomorrow, or the next day, or next week, Buck would feel better, would take those new portraits on his camera, would talk Steve’s ear off about the historical inaccuracies of another action movie. So what if it wasn’t today?
There were so many other days, spread into a bright line ahead of them, shimmering like copper wire. So there would be good days there, too. Good days together, tumbling around with the bad and the ugly until they all tasted the same. Until then, until the epilogue that neither of them would write wound itself around their resting bodies, Steve would love him, and that would be enough.