Steve liked how running quieted his mind. It was never completely still, hadn’t been since three months ago, when he’d seen Bucky alive, when Bucky had pulled him from the water. But this, this short break from life, gave him more of a respite than anything else. It was close to the peace he used to feel when drawing, but lately his drawings were all the same theme: everyone he’d lost, captured in as much detail as possible, and more often than not, he had to walk away halfway through before the pain became too overwhelming.
He’d drawn one of Bucky the other night and snapped two pencils when his thoughts started to wander. He couldn’t shake the haunted, lost look in Bucky’s eyes. The pained recognition in the helicarrier when he’d paused, blood-streaked fist pulled back. He’d recognized Steve. He had. And that meant that wherever Bucky was now, he might be remembering things too. He might be hurting just as much as Steve.
The path turned sharply to the right, along a thicker patch of trees and a stretch of benches. Later in the morning, an older man would come out to sit on the middle bench and feed the pigeons, like he did every day. He wasn’t there yet though. Steve had come out extra early today, well before dawn. The sun was just starting to peek up from the horizon; he liked watching its rise turn the sky a million shades of purple, pink and orange.
Another lap, and another passed, and Steve’s brain became increasingly empty. He started thinking idly of what else to do today. The world wasn’t under immediate threat, so he had some time to himself. Maybe he’d go down to the green market later and—
Steve’s thoughts stumbled when he caught sight of someone near the bench. Not the older man he was used to, but a man in a hoodie, wearing a baseball cap to hide his face and long dark hair. Steve slowed his steps, heart thudding, as he saw the man pull his hands out of his pockets, saw the gleam of his silver fingers.
“Bucky?” Steve asked, breathless, as he came to a hard stop less than ten feet away from him.
The man reacted, but didn’t look up; instead, he turned away and ran.
Steve was too dumbfounded for a moment to do anything, and then when he snapped out of it, he ran after him, but Bucky—because it had to have been him—was gone.
The next morning, Steve woke up well before dawn, still in his armchair where he’d drifted asleep with a book open on his lap. He looked down at the two-page spread of him and the Howling Commandos. There were photos of all of them, one with him and Bucky—he’d just finished telling Steve a terrible joke, and the both of them looked ready to burst out laughing again at any second: a rare moment of joy amidst all the nightmares of war. He’d drifted asleep looking at that photo, like if he only stared hard enough he could slip inside of it.
He looked at the photo again once more before softly shutting the book and setting it back on its shelf.
On the way to his jogging path at the park, Steve paused, spur of the moment, at the coffee cart vendor he liked and ordered a coffee, black, three sugars, and a buttered roll. Then he headed towards the bench where he’d seen—where he thought he’d seen Bucky yesterday and set the bag with the roll and the coffee down on the bench. He was early enough that the pigeon feeder wouldn’t show up for another two hours, and he had enough nervous energy to run until then, if he needed to.
His first lap passed uneventfully, not even a rustle of leaves from squirrels or anything else, but on his second round, he caught a glimpse of silver, just for a second. He slowed just enough to take in as much detail as he could, enough to be sure of what he’d seen. But not enough to spook Bucky. At least, that’s what he hoped.
The third round made his heart skip a beat. The bag and the coffee were gone. And he saw a man, in a cap and hoodie disappearing behind the trees, holding the coffee with a gloved hand—a ring of silver ran from the bottom of the glove to the cuff of his sleeve.
Steve had stopped running entirely, and watched Bucky as long as he could, long after he was gone, watched the space he’d occupied, so parched was he for just the sight of him.
Steve went to a deli instead the next morning and got a bagel and bottle of water. He didn’t know if Bucky would like the bagel, but Steve loved them. He set the plastic bag carefully on the bench, and started on his jog.
This time, he didn’t catch a glimpse of Bucky, not on the second round or the third. But on the fourth, the plastic bag was gone, and there was a scrap of paper bag stuck between the bench’s wooden slats: done in such a way to keep it from blowing away, even with the strong gusts of wind coming off the water. Steve pulled it out gently, afraid it would tear if he used to much force, and he unfolded it like it was fragile, thousand year old parchment. Scrawled in pen, in what was definitely Bucky’s handwriting, he’d written: Thanks. Was that coffee or Diesel?
Steve let out an overly loud laugh, his nervous energy manifesting. He folded the paper carefully, tucked it into his pocket, and kept his hand on it the entire walk back home, until it felt warm to the touch.
The next morning, Steve had a different plan. A far more radical one.
A voice in his head told him he was making a mistake. It grew louder the closer he got to the park, but he ignored it, grinding his teeth. He had to try. Even if it was too soon. Seeing Bucky like this, so close to making actual contact...he had to at least try.
And what if you scare him off for good? the voice asked, pointedly.
That was a distinct possibility. But if he didn’t try today, he’d do it tomorrow, and there was no telling how many days Bucky would keep this up anyway. What if today was the last day he showed up? What if tomorrow was too late?
What if today is already too late? the voice countered.
Defiantly, Steve walked the last few dozen feet, and set the bag on the bench, in the same spot as yesterday. It was starting to feel less like a drop off and more like a ritual. He had to put the bag in the same spot, because if he didn’t, Bucky might not come. If conditions weren’t exactly right, he might not.
Steve broke into a slow run, forcing himself to concentrate on the route, on the stillness it brought his mind. Two laps in, he’d calmed himself a little, but every time he passed the bench, that calm flew out the window. On his third lap, there was still no sign of Bucky. On the fourth, the bag was gone, and he saw Bucky—same hat, same jacket, darting behind the trees. Steve ignored the powerful impulse to follow him, hoping his note would do the trick.
Steve sat at the diner table and waited, chewing on his lip.
He’d left a note with the address of the diner and a Can we talk? It was an idea he’d gotten from the V.A. group that Sam counseled. Sometimes, soldiers with severe PTSD felt more comfortable in familiar places. Steve and Bucky had come here all the time back in the forties. It had looked a little different then, sure, but it was the same spot, and Steve was pretty sure the bar was the same too, even if they’d replaced the bartop a few times.
This diner used to be their favorite place to go, when they had the money. Birthdays, holidays, any excuse for a celebration. After Steve’s Mom passed, this was the place they went. Bucky might not remember it, but maybe seeing Steve here would trigger something.
It was a loaded word, trigger, Steve thought, his mind darting in a million different directions, like an agitated fish trying to find its way out of a bowl. He was too on edge waiting for Bucky, to keep anything else steady in his mind for too long.
But if Bucky came, if he’d read Steve’s note, if Steve had picked the right words and the right place—if he came, then what would Steve even say to him? It had all seemed so clear last night, under the hot spray of the shower. Steve would look him in the eyes, tell him how he understood Bucky’s need to stay away, but that he missed him, and he’d help him in any way he could, for however long he needed.
And God how he missed Bucky. Living in this new decade was getting easier, day by day, but he still felt like half of himself was missing. It was worse somehow knowing that Bucky was out there, just too afraid to take those last few steps. Steve had to convince him it was okay.
Steve pictured how he’d say it, rehearsed his words, far more awkward and clunky than they’d been last night. He imagined how Bucky would look at him, the little flickering changes in his face when he understood, when he listened. Steve could see Bucky so clearly in his mind. And then he looked up, through the window and Bucky was standing there. Right across the street.
He looked different than the last time he’d seen him face to face. Just as pale, if not more so, but far more alive. Far more himself. He was wearing civilian clothing, a hooded sweatshirt, a glove over his left hand and a baseball cap. But it was Bucky. And he was right there.
Steve was on his feet instantly. They locked eyes, and Bucky saw him looking back. He looked spooked—like a deer in headlights. He was going to bolt.
Heart in his throat, Steve nearly leapt over the table and crashed through the window, but stopped himself, took the time to go around and open the door like a normal, albeit possessed person. But by the time he’d run out onto the sidewalk, there was no trace of Bucky, no matter where Steve looked. It was like he’d vanished into thin air.
Steve stood there for another minute, breath coming in ragged gasps.
“Everything okay, Sir?”
Steve looked down to find the waitress, Diane, looking up at him.
“No,” he admitted, “but I don’t know what to do about it.” He turned to head back inside and she followed him in. He couldn’t sit back down, didn’t have the stomach to finish his dinner. He asked Diane to wrap it up, and walked back home, scanning every inch of the sidewalks around him.
The rest of the night, Steve was on edge, vacillating between reprimanding himself for scaring Bucky away and being furious for not crashing through the window and grabbing him when he'd had the chance. He paced back and forth in his small living room, until he was sure his feet were starting to wear a divot into the wooden floor.
The next morning he went for a long run, hours long. Hours with no sign of Bucky. He hadn’t expected to see him, but the reality of it still stung. He swung by home long enough to take a shower and change, then headed to the diner. He already knew he couldn’t stomach going there that night. But he had an idea.
Diane knew something was wrong when she saw him, brows furrowed. “Everything okay?” she asked.
Steve shook his head, and pulled a pamphlet from his jacket pocket. A museum exhibit that featured photographs of him and the Howling Commandos. He pointed to Bucky and said, “This is my friend. If he—if he stops by here, can you just put whatever he gets on my tab?”
“You got it.”
It was wishful thinking on Steve’s part. But maybe Bucky would stop by if Steve wasn’t there.
The hard part was sticking to the plan, once he’d come up with it. He had to do everything he could think of to distract himself, to keep himself from going back to the diner after all. But he knew he’d crossed a line when he'd scared Bucky off last time, and the only way to win back his trust was to give him the space he so clearly needed.
Steve spent two hours taking all of his books off the shelf and sorting them by size and theme. After that, he emptied his dresser drawers and refolded everything inside, which killed another hour. He turned on the television and tried to let that distract him, even found one of the movies Sam had recommended, "Rocky," and watched it, but his mind wandered nonetheless. In the end, he promised himself he could stop by the diner tomorrow morning, right after they opened.
It didn’t make things any easier, but at least it gave him a concrete goal.
“Your friend was here,” Diane said, unlocking the door to let Steve in.
Steve’s heart skipped a beat. “Yeah?”
“Had the blueberry pancakes and about a gallon of coffee.”
“Good, that’s—“ Steve chewed on his lip for a second, forming the question, “How’d he look?”
Diane smiled softly, but her eyes held pity. “Tired. Thousand yard stare, he was somewhere else, mostly.” Her smile faded and she continued, “I’ve seen that look plenty. He served, right?”
Steve nodded. “For a long time.”
Diane nodded. “Takes a while to get them back to the here and now. Took my dad years. Some people never make it all the way. You gotta just...take whatever they can give and give them whatever they need.”
Eyes burning, Steve nodded. Her pain was heartfelt and genuine, and he knew she was right. He’d heard similar at the V.A. groups. Sometimes he wasn’t sure if he himself had made it back all the way either. Part of him had fallen with Bucky. And that part was still with him, even the haunted ghost of a man he was now. Maybe when Bucky felt steady enough to come back, they could both learn to be whole again.
Diane straightened, suddenly, eyes brightening. “Oh right. I have something for you!” She darted into the kitchen before Steve could respond and popped back out seconds later holding a newspaper.
Steve took it from her and she pointed at an ad she’d circled—a photo of their old apartment in Brooklyn, and underneath it the words The Brooklyn Historical Society presents landmark homes : Steve Rogers aka “Captain America.”
“Wow,” Steve couldn’t help but say. “Haven’t been there in a while.” It had been too unsettling the last time he’d gone to their old block, too many changes, too many unrecognizable spots and the few he did remember were painful too. But now, there was an ad inviting strangers to go look at their old home.
“Your friend was looking at this pretty hard, last night,” she said. “Thought you might want to know."
Steve’s heart skipped a beat. “Yeah. Yeah I do. Thank you,” he said, “seriously.” He turned to leave but she said, “Wait!” and when he turned back, handed him a coffee in a to-go cup.
“Good luck!” Diane said, with a wink.
“Admittance 10am-6pm Tuesday through Saturday,” Steve read aloud, “they’ve got a website and everything.” He straightened, still looking at the sign on the door. It was surreal, seeing a piece of his life commemorated like this. Tucking his hands into his pockets, he turned to head back down. They’d replaced the old unsteady wood stairs he remembered with a stone ramp, metal railings on both sides.
It was drizzling, not enough to warrant an umbrella, more of a mist than actual drops. Steve stopped at the bottom of the ramp, closed his eyes, and relished the cool of the wind, the relative quiet of this part of town, nothing but a few cars and the muffled rumble of the subway.
“They put a plaque up here,” said a familiar voice. Bucky’s voice. “On our old shitty apartment. It’s a fricking landmark.”
Steve turned and saw Bucky standing there, at the door. Exactly where he’d been standing himself moments earlier. He hadn’t even heard him move.
Bucky rapped a metal knuckle against said plaque, making it clink. “Imagine that.”
“What’s it say?” Steve asked, afraid to come closer and spook Bucky off. This was the closest they’d been in months and he didn’t want his eagerness to jeopardize it.
“Former home of Steve Rogers, Captain America.”
“And James Barnes, it should say.”
“I wasn’t on the lease.”
“Neither was I. They never changed it from Ma’s name.”
“Saw it in the paper, and I had to see for myself.”
“Figured you might.”
That struck Steve as a revelation. Bucky’d come here because he thought Steve might. That was good, that was progress. “I have a new apartment now. It’s nice. They gave me seventy years back pay, so I bought it outright. It’s—“ Steve chewed on his lip, forced himself to continue, “there’s plenty of room, if you ever wanted to—"
“I can’t,” Bucky said, sharp, but quiet. “Not yet.”
Steve waited a few seconds, gave him time to elaborate, but he didn’t. “Bucky, it’s safe, I promise. No bugs. I’ve got titanium window guards that come down at night.”
Bucky huffed a dry laugh. “Nowhere’s completely safe. Not really. But it’s not the apartment I’m worried about. It’s me.”
“I’m not afraid of you,” Steve said, “Whatever they did to you, I know that wasn’t you attacking me—and I know you. You were strong enough to break through it.”
“No, I—“ Bucky thumped his head against the wall behind him, and he sounded just as exasperated as he had back in ‘43 after yet another argument with Steve about enlisting. They’d done this dance, even if it was to a whole new melody. “It’s still in me. What they did. I’m not safe. And I’m not going to put you in danger, just because I miss you.” He let out a slow, audible breath. “I miss you so much, Steve.”
“I miss you, too, Buck,” Steve said. “That’s why I can’t just—I don’t want this to be it. I don’t want to go home again tonight, alone, looking at pictures of you when I know that you’re—you’re here,” Steve’s voice broke on the last word, and he stopped, trying to compose himself.
“This is the best I can do right now,” Bucky said. “I’m sorry.”
Steve’s sorrow turned to anger and he moved, heading up towards Bucky. He dashed forwards, but by the time he got to the top of the ramp, Bucky was gone. And Steve was alone again.
Mornings were the worst. When Steve woke up alone and remembered the ramifications of now. It’d taken him long enough to get used to the decade, but seeing Bucky—making contact with him repeatedly had done something to his brain that made it easier to slip—easier to forget that this wasn’t their old apartment. He woke up half of the time, disoriented by how clean the ceiling was, started leaving the window open on purpose to recreate the feeling of the draft they’d never quite been able to get rid of.
There were mornings where Steve nearly wished he hadn’t seen Bucky again after the day SHIELD fell. Nearly. But only nearly. In the end, knowing Bucky was out there, and that he knew who Steve was...it wasn’t enough, but it was something.
Steve kept up his routine, his morning jog, his twice a week visit to the diner. But Bucky’s visits were irregular. Sometimes he wouldn’t show for weeks at a time. And Steve would try to quell the panic that built inside of him, the worry that something had happened. But inevitably, he’d show again, just as Steve was ready to give up. Like he knew when Steve was at his limit.
Maybe he did. Steve liked to pretend that sometimes. That Bucky watched Steve as devoutly as Steve watched him. That he looked in on him while he was sleeping. That he peered through the blinds, at the strategically-placed photos of them Steve had put in view of the window.
Maybe Bucky was working his way back slowly, and everything Steve was doing was helping. It was just taking a while. Bucky had the right to take his own time—Steve tried to convince himself that was the case, despite the fact that he needed help, medical care, all things that Steve could help him find. But he had to rebuild trust first. And he would.
It’d take time. And if that’s what Bucky needed, Steve would give it to him.
He kept up his routine, even when it pained him to, like an emotional Sisyphus, rolling his boulder of hope uphill until it inevitably tumbled back down, just for him to do it again the next day, and the next. And then one night, in his booth at the diner, as he stared out the window, looking for a glint of metal that would never come, he had a revelation. Of course Bucky wasn’t going to come to the diner while he was there, not when he was sitting out in the open at a booth, demanding interaction, demanding he come sit across from him. Bucky wasn’t anywhere close to that.
Steve stood, picked up his coffee and the rest of his dinner, and moved to the counter. Diane gave him a smile. “Needed a change of scenery?”
“Yeah.” He nodded and smiled at her as she handed him the paper. She kept copies on hand for the regulars, a lot of them from an older generation, like him. The younger people were all on their phones, but Steve still preferred newsprint over tiny jarring headlines designed to be clicked that led to articles with little actual content.
As Steve finished his potatoes and vegetables, he read through the world news section, and then started the local section when Diane brought dessert. She always brought him pie, whatever was best that day. It was peach tonight, which meant Clyde had gotten them fresh in the afternoon. Clyde got the pies from the bakery four blocks over.
He was halfway through the pie when the door opened, and Steve froze, mid-chew. He didn’t turn to look, despite how much he wanted to. But he recognized the boot-steps, knew their weight, knew the movements of the man who sat two stools down from him.
Steve kept his eye on the paper, ignored the trembling in his fingers. Though he kept on pretending to read, he wasn’t taking in a single word. After a few minutes of Bucky there, two seats down, after he’d ordered coffee and a plate of pancakes, much to Steve’s amusement, he calmed himself enough to fold the technology section and the funnies, which Bucky had always liked, pushing the paper towards the empty spot between them. He didn’t turn to look at Bucky, focused instead on finishing his pie, taking it as slowly as possible. But when he couldn’t drag it out anymore, after he’d given Bucky more than ample time to make some kind of contact, Steve settled their tab, and left. He gave Bucky wide berth, didn’t say goodbye, restrained himself, as hard as it was. But when he got outside and turned, he couldn’t help but look back through the window, eyes pulled like magnets. Bucky had his back towards him, and reached for the paper.
Steve smiled to himself and headed home.
He repeated it all, the whole ritual, the next night, and the night after that. He ordered larger dinners than usual. Something that would take him a long time to finish. He sat at the bar, and every night, Bucky came and sat two stools down from him. On the fourth night, Bucky took the paper as soon as Steve slid it over. He read it, took out a pen to do the crossword puzzle, and after a few minutes, pushed it back towards Steve.
Steve’s heart stutter-stopped as he tried not to show his surprise. He sat perfectly still, as Bucky stood, gave a tip of his hat to Diane, and left the restaurant. The bell jangled as the door fell shut, and Steve’s heart sped up again, trying to fall back into its natural rhythm.
Fingers trembling, Steve reached for the paper, and pulled it closer. Unfolding it, he saw that Bucky had filled out the crossword puzzle, but only a few rows. What he’d written there made Steve’s eyes well with tears. A hot flood of relief ran through him, head to toe, enough to make him shudder.
“You okay, sir?” Diane asked, voice pitched low.
Steve wiped at his nose, reflexively, before meeting her eyes. “Yeah, yeah I’m great,” he said. And he meant every word. “Can I get the check please?”
“‘Course.” Diane cleared his cup, and Bucky’s plate, and Steve carefully, meticulously tore the crossword puzzle out of the paper. He folded the scrap of paper and tucked it into his breast pocket, his heart picking up speed again, like it too could read the ink between the newsprint. Pulling a twenty from his wallet, he handed it to Diane when she returned with the check, and headed for the door.
The air outside was warm, with a gentle breeze that cradled Steve, as he hurried home.