Sunlight filters through the blinds, tilted half-closed to allow the light but not the glare. The room smells like it always does, a little bit stuffy with the fresh scent of clean linens and the nostril-stinging tang of camphor, and underneath it all a hint of perfume. Peggy can't wear it on her skin now without it irritating her, but she likes the nurses to dab a little bit on the underside of her pillow.
It's the smell more than the photographs that knocks Steve back; the framed black and whites next to the bed speak firmly of the past to him, but the soft, curling perfume wind their way into his heart and tug at the now. The first time Peggy wore it had been the night she showed up to the bar in that stunner of a red dress, and back then it floated through the spilled beer and sweaty uniforms and sent a shiver down his spine like the feel of fingers in his hair.
Steve lets out a breath as they step into the room, and beside him Bucky is silence and taut muscles, hands clenched at his side. There's no telling what Peggy will remember on any given day; some days she's sharp as a tack, others she drifts in the sea of memories, sometimes stopping to scoop one up and hold it for a few minutes before letting it slip away. Steve warned him before they went in, and Bucky's face twisted a bit but then he said that's something he could relate to, at least, so if nothing else they'd have something to talk about.
Bucky's breath sounds harsh and laboured in his ear but he wanted to see her and Steve aches to have them both in the same room again, even just the once. "Hey, how's my best girl?" Steve says, speaking softly in case she's sleeping, and Peggy turns toward the sound of his voice, blinking awake. "I brought somebody to see you."
"He'd better be dark and handsome," Peggy says, and Bucky bites back a huff of quiet laughter. "Only one blond for me, you know."
Steve grins as the familiar lump settles in his throat, and he tugs Bucky over with a hand in the crook of his arm. "As a matter of fact yeah, at least the dark part. Jury's still out on the handsome."
"Still with that, huh," Bucky says, stepping into view. "I keep telling him, nobody buys that junk from him, but still he keeps peddling it."
Peggy's eyes slowly grow as she pushes herself up on the pillows. Steve ducks in to adjust them for her, and Peggy reaches over to grip his arm. "Steve," she say, her voice scaling up. "Is it really --"
"Yep," Steve says, fluffing the pillows and helping her lean back against them. He doesn't bother to explain how; she'll forget later, and it's not important. Between the two of them they've learned not to stress over little details. "Thought we'd come say hi. I was telling Buck how you just got prettier while the two of us keep getting plainer."
"It's true." Bucky drops into a chair by the bed, and he takes Peggy's hand in both of his and strokes his thumb over the backs of her knuckles. "Some days, only thing that made it worth getting out of bed was knowing I'd get to look at something prettier than staring across the table at my buddies and their ugly mugs."
Peggy smiles and pats Bucky's arm. "You're still terrible, I see," she says. "Good to know some things haven't changed."
They chat for a while between Peggy's occasional dozes, mostly about Peggy's life in the intervening years -- her husband, her niece, the foundation of SHIELD -- and not so much reminiscing about old times. "I've done my share of that, mind," Peggy says, and Bucky squeezes her hand. "It's not hard to do, when you find yourself a part of history, you know, everyone wants to talk about the good old days. But you two have a whole lifetime ahead of you. I want to hear what you're going to do with it."
"I still can't believe we're in the future and I still can't take a rocket to the moon," Bucky says, and Peggy chuckles. "I mean, sure I've got a computer the size of a dollar bill in my pocket, but that doesn't make me feel like Buck Rogers. I should get on Stark's ass about that."
Near the end, Peggy holds out her hand for Steve as well, and they sit and look at their intertwined fingers, all three of them. "Boys, do you mind if I ask you a personal question?" Peggy asks, and Steve shakes his head, followed a moment after by Bucky. "The two of you, you seem -- well, like there is a two of you. Feel free to tell me I'm an old woman imagining things --"
Bucky leans into Steve's space, just a little. "Nah, you're sharp as ever," he says. "Just didn't want to say anything in case I gave you a heart attack of shock."
Steve steps hard on Bucky's foot, but Peggy lets out the first real laugh, not a soft, wistful chuckle, that Steve has heard her make in months. "You would be surprised at what I've seen," she says. "I lived through the wildest decades known to man while you were sitting in a refrigerator, thank you very much." Bucky snorts, Peggy winks at him, and Steve's chest expands until he swears it's going to burst. "Though now I have one more regret to add to my list, I'm sorry to say."
Bucky stiffens, but Steve presses their knees together because Peggy's voice has an edge to it the way it did before she'd make a joke that left his jaw on the floor. Everyone forgot that the pretty dame in a group of hulking military men would've heard her fair share of talk and no one ever saw her faint.
Peggy's mouth curves up, and her expression goes dreamy. "If only we'd had time to take a vacation in the middle of saving the world from unspeakable evil, we might have managed to work things out. I can't tell you what I would have traded to be in the middle of that sandwich." Bucky actually chokes, and Steve rubs his back while stifling his own laughter. Peggy continues, serene. "I'd make the offer now, but I'm afraid I might really have a heart attack. Then again, what a way to go--"
"Ma'am, whatever the history books say about you, I can tell you they don't do you justice," Bucky says in admiration, and Peggy only gives him a beatific smile and asks him to please pass her a cup of water.
Soon after that, Peggy's eyes start drooping, and she stops halfway through some of her sentences, brow furrowing. That's Steve's cue to leave before she loses time and gets upset, and he and Bucky both kiss her on her weathered cheeks and promise to stop by the next week.
Visits with Peggy always leave Steve a little shaky, and he and Bucky step out into the warm, bright sunlight. "She's a hell of a girl," Bucky says, shaking his head. "Always was and still is. Back in the day I swear sometimes I didn't know which of you I was the more jealous of."
Steve blinks rapidly to clear his eyes. "Thanks for coming," he says. "You don't have to come next time if you don't want to, I know it's weird, and she won't remember the promise."
Bucky exhales, and he shoves his hands in his pockets and strolls forward with studied nonchalance. "We'll see," he says, and Steve appreciates that he doesn't make a promise he might regret keeping just to make Steve feel better. "Maybe not every week, but I think I wouldn't mind stopping by sometimes, so long as it doesn't mess with my head too much."
They walk together down the sidewalk, and Steve tilts his head back a bit to feel the sun on his face. "I asked her to marry me when I found her," he says. "Seemed like the right thing to do after making her wait so long."
Bucky stops dead, and he grabs Steve's arm and hauls him around. "Seriously? What did she do?"
Steve grimaces at the memory and runs a hand over his hair. "She laughed in my face." And then kept laughing until Steve worried that she'd actually die of it and then he'd really go to hell forever.
"Good!" Bucky bursts out, giving Steve the same kind of look he did after pulling him out of yet another unbalanced fistfight. "Asking her to marry you, Rogers, are you outta your mind?"
"I was for a long time, I think," Steve says, and Bucky claps his mouth shut. Steve lets himself think back to those first confusing months, new life and new city and new everything, all his friends dead and immortalized in books written long after Steve's plane landed in the ice. "You should've seen me, Buck, I was all over the place."
"Yeah, I'm getting that feeling." Bucky's mouth goes tight and his nostrils flare, and before Steve can -- apologize, flee, climb down a sewer grate, who knows -- he steps in close, grabs Steve by the back of the neck and kisses him, hard. "You're gonna be the death of me, Rogers. I'm glad I'm here to keep an eye on you."
Steve's head reels, and he grips Bucky's sleeve while his mind adjusts to what just happened. "Yeah, but what a way to go," he says, echoing Peggy, and surprise flickers across Bucky's face for a second before he grins. "Let's go up the Empire State Building," Steve says, and Bucky leans back a bit, eyebrows unbalanced.
"You wanna go up the Empire State Building," Bucky says slowly. "You want to wait in line for two hours in disguise to look out a window at a view we've seen a hundred times? Why?"
Steve's heart hammers in his chest, but he jumps out of airplanes without parachutes. He can do this. "Because half of those hundred times I was thinking about kissing you at the top of it, and now I finally can."
Bucky's eyes snap wide before he catches himself, and he swears under his breath before kissing Steve again. "You're crazy," he says, pulling back and resting their foreheads together. "I swear you don't know what you do to me."
"I'm starting to figure it out." Steve slides a hand over Bucky's shoulder and across to the side of his neck to feel the pulse beat beneath his fingers. He's alive and Bucky's alive and Peggy's right, the future is a big place and it starts now.
Bucky throws up both hands in defeat. "Fine, fine, I'll go stand behind some tourist family with four kids and some asshole reading his girlfriend the Wikipedia entry on his phone and some other dude talking very loudly about how he once went to school with the grandson of the designer, just so I can kiss you on the most romantic place in the best city in the world I guess."
Steve grins and knocks their shoulders together before stepping to the edge of the curb and waving down a taxi. "You're a peach, Buck," he says, and grins to himself at Bucky's sulky 'yeah, yeah' behind him.
Once, lifetimes ago, Steve and Peggy sat together in a drooping tent, watching the rain come down in the yard in front of them. The hard-packed dirt turned to a muddy slurry, puddles running together and turning into long, winding rivers, and above them the canvas sagged as the rain collected in the centre. Steve shifted to the side to avoid a few errant drips of water, accepting the metal cup of coffee that Peggy pressed into his hand.
"How do you do it?" Steve asked her, and she'd given him that small quirk of a smile he'd later learned to admit he loved about her and nudged him with her shoulder.
"With precision and grace, I'm sure, but it would help me answer your question if you specified a little more about what it is I do that fills you with admiration." She'd winked at him then, comfortable and teasing.
Steve snorted a little and jostled her back. "Just, you always seem so calm -- when you're not shooting at me, anyway. How can you do that when you do what you do every day? I can't imagine being a dame -- woman -- in New York, never mind in the army, never mind overseas, never mind at war! How come you're not just swamped by it all?"
Peggy flicked her eyes at him, calculating like she used to do before they knew each other and she was still measuring his worth. "Is Captain America feeling a little overwhelmed?" she asked. She held out her hand for the coffee and Steve passed it back; their fingers brushed and he held his breath before shaking himself out of it.
Steve shrugged and looked back out at the yard. A bedraggled bird pecked for worms in the dirt, hopping once or twice and giving irritated little shakes of its wings. "A little, maybe. I'm okay when we're actually doing stuff, but in the downtime sometimes I just can't make my brain turn off. I can't remember the last time I slept a full night. I think Buck is gonna start sitting on my head to suffocate me to sleep at lights out."
"Your Sergeant Barnes certainly has an unorthodox but effective way of managing you," Peggy said, and Steve chuckled. "But honestly, if you want my answer, think of it like driving. Have you ever driven a car, Steve?"
"Sure." Here in Europe it was always someone else doing the driving when they're on the field to leave Steve clear for action in the back, but at home he and Bucky had taken the orphanage car for a joyride once or twice, don't tell anyone. "Can't say I get your metaphor out of the box, though."
"Just think of it like driving," Peggy said. "If you spend the entire ride looking backwards, you'll crash. The same thing will happen if you try looking too far ahead and ignore the road right in front of you, or if you're always looking to the side to see if someone is going to come running out of the ditch at you. All you can do is look straight ahead and keep driving."
"Keep driving, huh," Steve said. "It's as simple as that."
"As simple as that," Peggy repeated. "I know we're asking a lot from you, Steve, and if I were you I couldn't tell you how I'd handle it. But I know you make us proud, all of us, and whatever's worrying you will fall behind you soon enough if you don't let up off the pedal. You'll never get anywhere if you keep pulling over to check the tires."
"Not a lot of room in that analogy for dealing with problems instead of running them over, I gotta say," Steve said, giving Peggy a sideways look.
This time it was Peggy's turn to laugh, a soft exhalation through her nose matched with a shake of her shoulders. "You asked me how I do it, not what's the universe's most perfect coping mechanism," Peggy chided him, and Steve held up his hands in surrender.
It still holds up, seventy-some years and a whole new world later. Steve spent days after his last meeting with Fury and the PR team, stewing over what Bucky would say and how Steve should phrase it. He'd lain awake at night staring at the ceiling until Bucky rolled over and threatened to suffocate him just like he used to (though the method he actually used to get Steve tired enough for sleep was definitely not one they'd used in their army days).
Steve ended up blurting everything out in a rush while Bucky stared at him, face impassive and unreadable. When Steve ran down Bucky gave him a long look, rolled his eyes, then said, "Sure."
All that worrying dashed to pieces by a shrug and a single syllable. Steve's girl hadn't just been smart, she'd been all but prescient.
Now, Steve stands in a side corridor with Bucky while the assembled crowd murmurs in the next room, and he checks all the buttons and medals on his dress uniform so he won't be tempted for the millionth time to ask Bucky if he meant it. The tag on his shirt itches at the back of Steve's neck, and he's trying to decide whether he could fix it in time or if they'd call him out while he had one elbow in the air and his hand down the collar of his shirt when Bucky does it for him.
"You're thinking so loud I can hear it over here," Bucky says, spinning him around with a hand on his shoulder. "Seriously, are we gonna do this again? It's a little late to back out now."
"Nobody's backing out," Steve says immediately, and Bucky's grin goes crooked. "But right from the beginning you said you were following Steve, not Captain America, and once we do this --"
Bucky shakes his head. "Hey," he says, expression going serious, and he curls his fingers in Steve's collar and tugs his jacket into a straight line with a few sharp motions. "I say a lot of things, pal, and I even mean some of 'em, but don't let that one go to your head, all right? I'm not in it for the Captain and I never will be, but that doesn't mean he's not part of you. Without you, Cap is just the outfit."
Steve huffs a laugh, trying to ease the knot in his stomach. "You like the outfit, though."
"I do like the outfit," Bucky confirms with an exaggerated leer that still sticks Steve in the gut, because apparently he's ridiculous. "But -- nah, I was running, that's all. Back then because if I followed you then I didn't have to think about all the things we were doing in the name of our country that just didn't sit so right anymore. Now, different situation but same reason. If I said I was with Steve, not the Captain, then we got to keep it to ourselves forever, but I think I knew it wouldn't last. Can't run forever."
He's not the only one. After years of giving everything to the country, right down to the date on his birth certificate, Steve wanted to keep a few things separate, a few things about him that he didn't have to share with anyone. But Bucky isn't his favourite ice cream flavour or the fact that he really does like the internet and has learned to appreciate modern music just as much a big band jazz; he's a person, and Steve can't keep him locked away either.
This is the right decision, and giving them this doesn't mean giving them everything. It will be all right.
An aide slips in through the half-open door. "Almost time, Captain Rogers," she says, and Steve nods.
"No turning back," Bucky says, socking Steve in the arm. "Knock 'em dead, tiger, I'll be right behind you."
The aide in the corner nods, and Steve steps forward into the explosion of flashbulbs. Seventy years and this part hasn't changed; he still hates standing up in front of a room of reporters, gripping the sides of the podium and trying to find the balance between the canned responses pre-approved by upper management and what he feels is right. But Steve isn't on Senator Brandt's bankroll anymore, desperate to play along in the hopes that he eventually gets to do something good in exchange for rolling over and playing fetch. Not even SHIELD has dispensation to craft every word, not anymore.
He waits through the first flood of mass shouting, barely able to decipher more than a handful of words, and finally holds up his hand. "I'll answer your questions in a minute, but first I'd like to say something," Steve says, and years ago after a disastrous attempt on Steve's part to imagine the population of America in their underwear that left him in near-hysterics, a sympathetic young staffer told him to look over their heads instead. Now he stares past the cameras and microphones and the narrow-eyed, anticipating faces at the soft grey-painted wall at the end of the room.
"My name is Steve Rogers. Some of you may know me as Captain America." It's an old joke but it gets the customary polite ripple of laughter, and if he skipped it at least one would be disappointed. "Look, folks, I know why you're here, and I'm sorry I've been busy. Sadly the trouble around the world doesn't usually take a day off just because it would be convenient for my personal life." Another few chuckles, but more wary this time; they'll be waiting for him to blow them off so they can attack with more fervour.
Steve lets out a breath. "One of the things that shocked me most when I woke up is that everyone knew about Peggy and me. The first time someone asked me about her I thought I'd fallen back in the water, but I got used to it. She was a swell girl, and one of the best things I got to see here in the future was all the great things she did with her life after I wasn't part of it. I'm honoured I could be there at the beginning, same as she was for me." His eyes burn a little but Steve doesn't bother to wipe them; he loves her, always loved her, even if he didn't know what that meant, and that doesn't have to change.
"Some people say you only get one great love but I think they're wrong," Steve says, and funny how he remembers being twenty and thinking he'd never even get that far. "I think you get as many as you need. I got a second chance at life a few years ago, and I thought I'd used up all my luck but I guess not. Peggy Carter was one of the great loves of my life, and part of me will always be with her, but she's not the only one. The other is a guy named Bucky Barnes."
One of the women stands up, and Steve forgets what paper she's from but he's pretty sure it's not one of the ones that uses 'dish' as a verb, and so he nods. "James Barnes was killed in action."
"I thought so too," Steve says. "He was my best friend and I watched him fall. When that turned out not to be true, hopefully you guys will understand why I wanted to make sure it was true before we told anyone. Once I was sure it was real and not a trick, well, I guess I just wanted to keep it to myself a while."
"If that's what you call those pictures from Coney Island," says a man from one of the cheap entertainment rags, and Steve pretends he didn't hear.
The woman frowns, and at least five others open their mouths to start peppering him with followup questions. Steve shakes his head. "I think it'll be easier to explain things if it's not just me here doing all the talking," he says. "Buck, you wanna come out here and give me a hand?"
"I always was the better talker," Bucky says, breezing out and coming to stand beside Steve, close enough that their shoulders touch. "Better looking, too."
Steve enjoys the two-second pause where everyone in the room is too stunned to move before the cameras go off in a massive wave, and he ignores them as though he and Bucky are alone in the house, bickering over who put the milk back in the fridge with only one swallow left. "Well now we've got a whole room full of people who can be a little more objective on that," Steve says, the banter worn and familiar and comforting, and he raises his voice above the crowd until they take the hint and fall back. "But maybe we can save the 'who's handsomer' vote until the end, after we've cleared up a few more important things, huh?"
Bucky rolls his eyes exaggeratedly, but he nods and turns the microphone toward him. He leans forward, posture deceptively casual, and sends a wink toward the centre of the room, aimed at anyone who might feel like it belongs to them. Most of the women and at least half the men cough into their fists or hide behind their smartphones. "Yeah, may as well. Let's start with the gorgeous gal in the sharp suit -- oh wait, that's all of you, let me narrow it down ..."
The press release goes about the same as Bucky remembers those sort of PR gigs going; a lot of babbling, a lot of questions, a lot of sidestepping and intervention from the brass, but in the end Captain America is Captain America, in love with a man or no. There'll probably be disgusted patriots setting fires to Cap merchandise all over the country, but Bucky couldn't care less if you paid him and even Steve just shook his head and changed the channel the first time a news reporter stopped a protester on the street.
"It'll be good," Natasha promised them. Apparently the decades of inventing new identities for herself on and off the Red Room's payroll taught her a few things about maintaining an image, go figure. (When Bucky said she could become a life coach her mouth twitched and she skewered him with an eyebrow.) "You're not giving up your freedom, I promise. It's more like ... if you let them think they're seeing something private, then they won't go digging. You choose what to show them, make them feel included, and you won't have to worry about them stalking you at the grocery store."
The PR team said the same thing, and the kicker is they're not wrong. Bucky and Steve go on a public date a few days after the broadcast, and the restaurant politely bans all cameras from the premises but they duck microphones and squint against flashbulbs all the way to the taxi after. Except the thing is, the very next day they head out to their favourite terrible diner and sit together and nobody even glances over.
Honestly, Bucky doesn't think too much about any of it until the day he and Steve walk past a store advertising televisions and every single one of them is showing the coming out broadcast in high-definition colour.
He's seen himself, obviously, though he wasn't on the home front when the newsreels were being broadcast in theatres all over America back in the day. But he's been to the Met, he's stood in front of the exhibit that listed him as Captain America's best friend and the only Howling Commando killed in action, and they kept everything a very sombre, retrospective-appropriate black and white. The strange thing there was watching the reel of him and Steve laughing at something long forgotten, Steve with his eyes crinkling and his head tipped back giving Bucky his toothy 'you asshole' smile, and Bucky with only one lifetime in his head grinning at Steve like he owned the world.
Catching his own face out the corner of his eye in actual colour makes him trip over his own feet. Which is great, because Steve laughs at him like Bucky never walked across a six-inch girder over an exploding factory.
"Graceful as ever, Buck," Steve snarks, catching him by the elbow, but then he stops and stares through the glass at the rows of televisions with their faces looking back at him. "Oh," he says. "Yeah, that never stops being weird."
"And now everyone knows," Bucky says, and Steve shoots him a glance in their reflections. "I don't mean it like that, I just mean ... everyone knows. I used to be so scared someone would find out how I thought about you and now --" He waves a hand at the city behind them, bright and bustling. "Nothing's exploded or anything, and that's good, obviously, it's just gonna take some getting used to."
"Fine by me," Steve says, as on the screen Bucky snorts and socks onscreen Steve in the arm. "It's good to have you with me again."
Bucky coughs. "This is a lot of feelings for a busy street," he says, and Steve grins at him with that shit-eating grin like he's gonna burst into a bunch of sonnets or something any second. "Oh look, a store with clothes in it, you always need more clothes, don't your pecs rip at least four shirts a day?" Bucky hauls Steve over to the next storefront and dragging him through the door into the air-conditioned interior.
Steve's eyes are doing the crinkling thing again, and Bucky does his best to ignore him as he pokes through the brightly-coloured shirts on the shelf. It still knocks him off-guard a bit to see so much mass production in one place with this much variety, but at least he's stopped eyeballing the prices. He even bought milk yesterday without telling the shopkeeper for the fifth time how much a gallon cost back in the day. Progress, progress.
"Wow, you're really committing to this," Steve remarks from behind him. "Are you gonna let me pick you out something?"
"No," Bucky retorts, and Steve barks out a laugh. "I'll just steal yours, since they'll actually fit me like normal person."
"You will never let that go, will you. I'm telling you, this is how shirts are supposed to fit nowadays."
"And I'm telling you, genius, every woman who's taken you shopping has been lying her head off, and while I can't say I blame them, you're still ridiculous."
Bucky says that last without thinking, and it's not until Steve blinks at him, startled, then breaks out into a wide grin that he backtracks and realizes what just happened. "Take Clint with you," Bucky says, because nothing is a big deal if you don't make a big deal out of it, right? "He'll show you what I'm talking about."
Steve snorts and takes a t-shirt out of Bucky's hands, unfolding it and holding it up against Bucky's chest while blithely ignoring Bucky's very reasonably exasperated face. "I don't think Clint buys his own clothes. I think he just hides in the laundry room of the Tower and steals everyone else's."
Bucky is readying another sarcastic remark when movement to his side distracts him. His muscles tense and he prepares to whirl, but before Steve can put a hand on his am and talk him down Bucky works through it on his own (they're in a store, stores have civilians, stand down) and relaxes.
It's a girl in a store uniform and a hesitant expression, and the panic sets right back in again because her face triggers in Bucky's memory and why would he remember her if he hadn't gunned down her family? Except she's too young for that, and she's not screaming, and so why --
"I can't believe I didn't get it," she says to Steve, and wait, what? "If I'd realized I would've given you a bigger discount."
Steve waves her off. "I don't need half of New York cutting their prices for me. If I wanted you to recognize me I would've introduced myself; I'm happy to give my business."
"Oh, shit," Bucky says aloud, and they both look at him. "I freaked out on you and then Steve made me buy something like six pairs of pants to say sorry."
The girl ducks her head a little, but she made it through one of Bucky's worst post-recovery panic attacks and didn't quit her job the next day, so they apparently use good materials at the salesgirl factory. "I saw you guys on TV last week," she says, wetting her lips. "I realized as soon as you both came out, and then my boyfriend laughed at me for, like, an hour. And I'm sure you must get this all the time, but I'm glad you two worked out -- whatever."
"America really wanted its hero to get laid, huh," Bucky says dryly, and Steve gives him an exasperated look.
"No, I just mean -- everybody deserves to be happy," she says with the breezy confidence of the under-twenty-five and that Bucky only vaguely remembers and isn't sure whether he envies. "Last time things were different, so I was glad to see that things are ... different ... now." She claps a hand to her face. "I'm sorry, it's making sense in my head, I swear. Why don't I get you some shirts, Captain, because every time I see you on TV the straight girl in me is very happy but the fitting expert is screaming."
"Ha ha," Bucky sing-songs to Steve when she walks away, and Steve flings up his hands. Bucky opens his mouth to rub it in when his ears catch a quick whisper, and his brain itches the way it does when someone is staring. Either Bucky will get used to this and eventually tamp down his instinctive responses, or he's gonna end up an even worse hermit than before.
This time it's a pair of kids, skinny in a fashionable way that Bucky and his Depression-era memories still can't ever quite reconcile, huddling and conversing in an excited undertone, and Bucky has to remind himself that teenagers in tight jeans and rainbow-thread bracelets probably aren't going to run over and call him names, but still.
"I'm sorry," Steve says, and Bucky narrows his eyes at him because he likes Steve's reasons for apologizing maybe one-third of the time, and the rest make him want to punt his buddy into space. "This is what you were afraid of, I know, but they said it'll die down --"
And just like that, Bucky doesn't care anymore. Let the kids stare and pretend that they have to check their phones with the camera suspiciously angled out at arm's length, what does it matter? He doesn't have to worry that he'll get caught looking at Steve the wrong way and some asshole will try to lay them both out flat in an alley, or that they'd both get kicked from the service or who knows what else. A little bit of staring won't kill him.
"Eh," Bucky says with an exaggerated shrug. Steve drops his chin and lowers one eyebrow, and the great thing is, Bucky doesn't even have to look away when the familiar expression makes him grin like a maniac. Yeah, he's really not gonna complain, even if the kids should go back to remedial classes in stealth. Now they've turned around and pretending to take a photo of themselves with Captain America (now with boyfriend!) conveniently in the background. "I think it's growing on me."
"I've brought you a few shirts to try," says the salesgirl briskly, coming back with an armful of material, and Bucky's grin turns sharp while Steve manfully hides a groan. The great American hero, undone by shopping; Bucky should sell the story to a gossip rag and take Steve out to an apology dinner with the proceeds.
Steve takes the pile and heads into the changing room with a perfect hangdog expression. "Make sure you turn around when you come out," Bucky calls after him. "Slowly, I wanna make sure I get the full effect."
"Go take a hike, Buck," Steve says, his voice floating over the top of the door on an aggrieved cloud, and to hell with it. Bucky glances back over his shoulder where the two kids are clinging to each other with glee and sends them a wink.
This is probably not what SHIELD had in mind when they authorized the big reveal, but fuck 'em. Bucky hooks his thumbs in his belt loops and readies an appreciative whistle for when Steve exits, just to laugh at the glare.
After all those months getting used to SHIELD blues instead of the old infantry brown, it does Bucky's head in a bit to glance down and see his old uniform. Well, not the actual uniform, Zola and his men likely burned it off him after dragging him out of the ravine, but someone up at HQ made a real nice replica and you'd hardly know the difference.
They even went out of their way to make sure the fabric was just as scratchy around the collar as the one he used to wear back in the day, a nice touch there. Luckily they didn't do the same with the coffee; the machine on the table actually brews a pretty good cup, no steely aftertaste, but no modern foamy stuff either. Bucky holds the styrofoam in his good hand and looks out over the room, decorated like the fourth of July and more eagles than a conservation area.
Steve's in his Cap uniform without the hood, and it should look utterly ridiculous but he manages to pull it off, as always, and Bucky would ask him how he did it except it doesn't really matter. Steve inspired Bucky as a little guy in a grimy white shirt scrapping in alleys, but if the people want to see the man in the blue suit then why not, whatever works. It should come off completely cornball but on Steve it's sincere, and Bucky might be a cynical son of a bitch who likes the movies of the 70s no matter how much Steve clucks his tongue about lost faith in humanity, but it's nice to see on someone else.
They're at a veterans' benefit, Steve's compromise after some kid wrote him a letter that his daddy got all sad after his tour in Iraq and the doctors wouldn't give him the medicine to get better and he couldn't get a job without the medicine and maybe Captain America could help. Bucky held Steve back from storming Washington all on his own -- which was good, since it stopped Bucky from charging in to bust a few heads himself -- and dragged him into SHIELD instead, where they got him to agree on a fundraiser.
Most of them want to talk to Steve, which makes sense; so many of these guys in the service grew up with the stories, and Bucky listens as they tell him -- first embarrassed, then gathering steam when Steve doesn't snort or laugh or tease -- about reading the comics under the covers and wanting to grow up just like him.
It's gotta be weird meeting their hero all these years later and realizing he lives up to everything they ever dreamed. Bucky had the privilege of growing up with his, and he'd been so busy teasing Steve for his stick legs and punching anyone else who tried to do the same that he didn't realize who his hero was for years. By the time Bucky figured it out so had the rest of America and there wasn't much point in saying so.
Steve shakes hands and shares stories and Bucky tries not to think about the part were he fought with these guys' grandfathers because that will never stop giving him a headache. It's all the usual things, and sometimes Steve calls Bucky over to swap a few tall tales before Bucky edges away back to the refreshment table. Nothing is unexpected until a tall man with the kind of face that makes the kid in Bucky want to snap to attention to avoid getting belted walks up to Steve and stops dead in front of him.
"Listen, I want to talk to you about that thing you said on TV last month," the man says without preamble, jaw tight, and Bucky straightens up and tenses in preparation for a fight. "That thing about you having a thing with a man."
Steve's expression cools, his smile fading away, but even with his eyes hard in warning he doesn't turn it to a glare, not yet. "I meant what I said, if that's what you're asking. I thought it was important to be honest."
"I don't care what you thought, or why you did it," the man says, head high, and now the conversations in the room are dying off in batches as people turn to look. "That's not important to me. What's important is that it affected my family. I raised my son well, Captain Rogers, I did everything I could by him, but we never connected. I always knew there was something different about him but I couldn't think what. And then he saw your broadcast, and what do you think he told me?"
The muscle in Steve's jaw jumps. "I'm not sure I'm in a position to guess."
The man lets out a breath. "My boy told me he'd been struggling with homosexuality since he was ten years old. He told me he thought he was worthless, that he'd never get anywhere in life. He told me he thought everyone would hate him, including his old man. He said he'd gone out and bought himself a gun, had it under the mattress, and he was gonna use it. My own boy, I used to pick him up and put bandaids on his knees, and he was gonna put a bullet in his brain."
Steve makes a small anguished sound before he can pull it back, and Bucky closes his eyes. He remembers that feeling all right, the sick twist in his gut every time he caught his eyes dragging the wrong way, how if he'd been able to beat it out of himself he would've done it just to make it go away. He'd even tried, getting into more fights and trying a little less to win to see if someone else's fists would knock it away, but no, he'd woken up in the middle of the night to the same thoughts the next night all over again.
The man swipes at his eyes with the back of his hand. "And then he saw Captain America tell everyone he was in love with another man, and he put that gun down and he came downstairs and he told me everything. He said if Captain America could do it then maybe so could he, and could I maybe love him just the same. And dammit, I told him yes." He squares his shoulders and touches his hand to his forehead. "I just wanted to say thank you, Captain. For what you've done for this country and for giving me back my son."
Steve swallows hard. "If you give me your son's name I'd love to write him a letter," he says, and the man's eyes go wide.
Bucky slips away, his non-bionic hand shaking until he has to press it against his leg to make it stop . It's good -- one less kid will be torturing himself tonight -- but he can't help feeling jealous too, all those years of burying everything deep inside himself with no one to talk to. These kids today live in a whole different world, and he's glad for them but he's not sure how he's supposed to fit in it.
Bucky turns around to two men, one in a wheelchair and a uniform and the other in plain clothes, standing next to him with a hand on his shoulder. The man in the wheelchair salutes, and Bucky returns. "My name's Patrick Dobbs. It's an honour."
"Honour's mine," Bucky says, because holy hell the guy must be in his nineties. They would've fought in the same war. The one standing looks somewhere in the late seventies, maybe eighty if he just aged well. "Where'd you serve?"
Dobbs smiles. "In the 107 th in '43," he says. Bucky actually gropes for one of the folding metal chairs and drops into it, and the man chuckles. "Yeah, I don't expect you to remember me, I was just a kid, lied on the enlistment form to get in. I was only seventeen. A couple of the boys were making fun of me one night because I said I was writing my girl, only it was my mother. You shut 'em up real quick, and I never said anything but I was always grateful for that."
Bucky casts his mind back, but he has too many memories jumbled up to fish out something like that and he's not gonna try, not with his mind whirling so hard. "Oh," he says, like a real genius. "I'm glad you made it back, then. You picked a hell of an outfit to join, pal. Was she waiting when you got home?"
"She was, and I joked that made me better off than half the ones whose 'real' girls couldn't wait for them," Dobbs says, and he looks up at the man behind him with a soft smile.
The man smiles back, expression fond, and he rubs a thumb over the line of Dobbs' shoulder. There's something weird about it until Dobbs lifts a hand to cover the other man's, and Bucky zeroes in on the matching bands on their left ring fingers.
"Sounds like there's a story here," Bucky says, looking from their hands and up again, and both of them grin. "Especially since I'm pretty sure your man here --"
"Jordan," the man supplies.
"-- Jordan would've been running around playing in diapers while you and I were overseas," Bucky says. It's a bit of a risk, but he's rewarded when both of them laugh.
"I snagged myself a hot young man, yes," Dobbs says with a pleased grin. "I won't bore you with details, but I saw your broadcast -- obviously -- and just thought I'd say it's good to see. It wasn't an easy ride for those of us who took the long route."
"No, I bet not," Bucky says, and he's about to ask where they met when loud beeping starts from both his belt and Steve's.
Steve glances down, and he looks at Bucky and nods. Bucky stands up and grabs Steve's shield from where it hangs incongruously on the coat rack, then tosses it over. Steve catches it without looking and hooks it to his back. "Ladies and gentlemen, I'm sorry to have to run, but it looks like Bucky and I have an engagement. We'll try to make it quick and be back before the night's over, but if not, enjoy the party."
Bucky turns back to Dobbs and his husband. "Coffee sometime, maybe," he says, and means it. "I feel like we should talk."
"Looking forward to it," Dobbs says with a wide smile. "My seventeen-year-old self would be so jealous. You were the handsomest man in the infantry."
"My three-year-old self is going to pretend he didn't hear that," says Jordan dryly, but Bucky is up and gone.
"The quinjet will pick us up on the roof in a few minutes," Steve says, leading Bucky up the back stairs. "Should be a fast operation, no real trouble. Hopefully we'll make it back in time for cake."
Bucky grabs Steve by the front of his uniform and pushes him back against the wall, the shield clanging against the railing. "I think you're forgetting something," Bucky says, quirking an eyebrow.
Steve shakes his head and claps a hand against the side of Bucky's face, fingers curled against the edge of his jaw. "Don't worry, I know the protocol," he says, and he leans in close and kisses Bucky right on the mouth.
They kiss in the stairwell, jammed awkwardly in the corner of the landing, and Bucky braces himself with one hand on the bar and the other in Steve's hair. They're still going when their earpieces activate.
"Look I know you two have started that cute little makeout ritual before you go off into battle, and I approve, really I do," Stark begins, and Bucky pulls back with a jerk because Stark's voice and kissing Steve are not two things Bucky wants to build an association with.
"-- especially for Captain 'no I'm not a virgin but I'm not going to give details and that's totally not suspicious' --" Barton adds, helpfully, and Bucky is going to murder everyone.
"-- but we're waiting," Natasha finishes, and Bucky is gratified to hear a thump which he's pretty sure means she gave both Barton and Stark a whack over the head. She, at least, can stay. "Bruce won't comment because he's pretending to be too polite but even he is staring at the ceiling."
Steve's eyes dance when Bucky rolls his, and he leans in for one quick kiss before he stands back and pulls on the cowl. "We'll be right there," he says, and they take the last flight of stairs. "Hey Buck, favour?"
Bucky raises an eyebrow. "Depends."
"Maybe let me take down one bad guy this time?" Steve shoots at him, boots pounding against the steps. "Last time you sniped every single one before I had the chance to throw a punch. The team laughed at me for days . I caught one of the boys at SHIELD watching the footage with his buddies and cracking up."
"Then I guess you gotta be faster, old man," Bucky says, and Steve glares. "Sorry, you're stuck with me now."
Steve sighs, then grins and flings open the door to the roof. "Wouldn't have it any other way," he says, and they run together over the tarmac to where their team is waiting.