Chapter 1: The Man Out of Time
One day finds him in front of a women's clothing store for thirty minutes, staring at the mannequins. He would have married Peggy, he thinks, maybe, it seemed like the thing to do -- and he has no idea if she wore that red dress because she liked the colour, or the style, or just because it was the farthest thing from her green and brown uniforms. Steve turns away after the third time the store manager wanders by the window, each time looking increasingly concerned, and nearly stumbles into a rack of leather jackets. Bucky would have liked those, Steve thinks automatically.
Steve wanders the city that's unfamiliar and too familiar all at once, until he finds out he might not be alone after all.
"Son." Nick Fury stares at Steve with an intensity that can only lend credence to the popular theory that behind his eye-patch lies another eye-patch to block the death laser embedded in his skull. The other patrons in the diner keep giving him the side-eye. "You want to tell me how I turned on the TV to see Captain America heading a gay pride parade?"
"I don't recall being on your payroll," Steve says, crossing his arms. He's not, either, he looked into it to make sure when Fury and his goons kept sniffing around, but Steve is still on his army pension, and with the interest accrued over his years in the ice, well, he's doing fine. That doesn't mean he's happy doing nothing and taking the money for it, but he's not real happy with what the world has done in the absence of Hitler, either. "Last I checked, I didn't have to answer to you."
"Of course you don't." Fury turns down the level on his glare just a notch or two. "I'm just checking up on you. I have a special interest in making sure America's greatest hero is settling in all right. I think some people down at psych might consider fronting at pride to be a cry for help."
"With all due respect, sir, I'm doing just fine." Still, Steve supposes Fury has to tell something to the people whose job it is to run around with mirrored sunglasses and those funny headsets and clean up public relations messes, and Fury always looks like he could use a drink or he's already started. "And for the record, I didn't know what it was. I was going for a run and I had my headphones in. I tend to -- well, focus -- when I run, and when I looked up there were people everywhere. I just figured it was one more thing I wouldn't understand, so I went with it."
'Focus' is a nice word for it. Steve does his best to disappear into his runs; one nice thing about modern technology is those portable music players, and while back in the day Steve preferred to run in silence, now with his own thoughts it's just as crowded as being in a ballroom full of chatty socialites at one of Senator Brandt's parties. It's better to put the headphones in and turn up the volume and pretend he's being chased by a full-piece band playing Glen Miller in double-time. It's not very road-safe -- Steve read the manual and saw the warnings about volume and busy streets -- but if it drowns out the voices in his head and the whistling of the winter wind as the Hydra train zips down the line, he'll take the risk.
The leaves are turning now. Steve has no idea how he's going to handle that.
"Well, I've got people beating down my door asking for a statement," Fury says, breaking in on Steve's thoughts, and he shakes himself. Focus, soldier. "I don't suppose you'd care to provide me with a soundbite?"
Steve's shoulders tense. After he figured it all out, he went home and checked his computer -- in his apartment, he has a computer, in his apartment, and it's the size of an envelope, sometimes he thinks he'll never get used to this -- and found out it was because New York state passed legislation to allow men and women to marry each other in addition to the traditional definition. They turned Niagara Falls rainbow -- he and Bucky always talked about hitchhiking up to see the falls sometime, but life, it goes on, or it ends, and sometimes it's one path for one of them and one for the other -- and the whole city of New York partied while Steve buried himself in scans of old newspapers searching for anything related to a James Buchanan Barnes.
"I think it's swell," Steve says, and Fury's face doesn't change but he bets the big man is surprised. Yeah, that's right, Captain America -- who vows to fight like a man for what's right night and dayyyyyy -- thinks it's swell, chew on that, head of the Strategic Homeland Intelligence and whatever else Division. "I think it's about time folks get to spend their lives with people they love, raise families, get the benefits they work for. Nothing more American like that. Same-sex marriage is like apple pie and the old red, white and blue." He taps his forearm. "That a good enough quote for you?"
"It'll serve," Fury says, and Steve fights off an itch beneath his skin.
Fury takes his leave, and Steve sits in the diner and stares through the grimy window at the street outside. The waitresses here haven't cottoned on to who they're serving their terrible coffee -- and Steve likes it terrible, only thing that would make it better is served cold in a metal cup, and he thinks of passing the cup hand-to-hand while ankle-deep in freezing mud -- and Steve can sit and think and pretend. The lights of Times Square aren't visible from here, and it's all dark corners and honking cars and 'HEY, ASSHOLE', and he keeps looking up to grin across the booth except there's no one there.
It's 2011, men are allowed to marry, and Bucky is dead.
Steve spends a lot of time wandering. The streets, the subways. He thinks of all his friends, dead and gone, but it's Bucky he finds around every corner. New York is the same and not the same all at once, and he finds Bucky in the differences just as much in the surprising hits of nostalgia, like when the old restaurant they used to go to is still standing. He catches himself in the middle of mental reminders to tell Bucky this, or show him that, just like he did when he was little and his mother passed away.
One day finds him in front of a women's clothing store for thirty minutes, staring at the mannequins. He would have married Peggy, he thinks, maybe, it seemed like the thing to do -- and he has no idea if she wore that red dress because she liked the colour, or the style, or just because it was the farthest thing from her green and brown uniforms. Steve turns away after the third time the store manager wanders by the window, each time looking increasingly concerned, and nearly stumbles into a rack of leather jackets. Bucky would have liked those, Steve thinks automatically.
Exactly two months after the incident with Loki, when Steve finally worked up the nerve to call a meeting with Fury and ask him to change the status on Bucky's file from MISSING IN ACTION to DECEASED -- "Sir, even if he wasn't killed by the fall, it's been over seventy years. I've done the math. I need closure" -- one month after Steve gets back from his motorcycle journey across the country, stopping by the old base camp, the war memorial, the cemetery where all his friends are buried -- SHIELD agents burst into his tiny Brooklyn apartment, muscle him downstairs and shove him in the back of a car.
They're lucky Steve is awake enough to notice the logo on their uniforms, otherwise there would be an apartment full of unconscious agents with bruises and a lot to answer for. "You fellas gonna tell me what's going on?" Steve asks, but they don't say anything. These aren't the ordinary SHIELD gofers, either; they're dressed in black, masks and weapons and the whole bunch. Specialists. Specialists expecting trouble, no less.
They don't answer him, but Steve didn't really expect that. He's not an official SHIELD employee -- he draws a salary, or at least his bank statement tells him he does, but Fury's requests for him to join the action are backed less by actual command structure and more the 'the Earth will be doomed if you sit this out' -- and who knows what level of clearance this requires.
Steve isn't exactly bothered about being shipped out to places without needing to know why -- or, well, it gets under his skin, but he knows it's an inevitable part of military operations, whether it's actually necessary or not. The brass like to make themselves feel good by keeping their operatives in the dark, but after that whole Phase II debacle Steve tells himself Fury won't keep any big secrets like that from him again, not if he wants Captain America's help in the next crisis. Which, Steve supposes, is now.
The jet they usher him onto is sleek and black and completely devoid of windows, and so Steve sits in silence with the rest of the team, all of whom look as tense as men with their faces covered by helmets can. "I don't have my suit," Steve speaks up at one point, though he bets Fury has a few spares just in case something happens to the main one. Nobody answers.
In the end they don't take him to the helicarrier at all, or to any command rooms or briefing areas or anything that looks like Steve will be part of any sort of real action. It's a big, grey, nondescript building that could be anything, on a street that could be anywhere, and Steve only sees it for a second before the doors finish closing and they get him into an elevator that starts dropping at stomach-curling speed.
This is the point where Steve realizes this could all be an elaborate trap, that it could be someone other than SHIELD entirely and that maybe he's been too trusting. Fortunately for everyone in the elevator with him, that idea barely has enough time to work its way through Steve's brain, not enough for him to tense his muscles and prepare to fight, before the elevator stops and Nick Fury stands in front of the doors as they slide open.
"You going to tell me what's going on, sir?" Steve asks with what he thinks is remarkable politeness. Just try hauling any of the other Avengers around like this without a word and see how well that worked out for everyone involved.
"We will," Fury says, which is about all Steve could ever hope to get from him, and he's resigned and irritated rather than surprised. "Right now we have a situation, and in order to contain it we need you safe."
"What?" Well, that's a new one. "Shouldn't I be up there helping?"
"In an ordinary situation, yes," Fury says, beckoning Steve to follow him. They end up in a room that looks like a luxury hotel suite transported into the middle of a military stronghold, a big bed and television and some sort of entertainment system Steve will take an hour to decipher, all with blast-resistant walls and keyed entry. "But this is a bit more complicated than that."
Bucky used to say that's what people said when they wanted to sound smarter than they were. Steve clamps down on the memory and clasps his hands behind his back. "So what can you tell me, sir?"
"There's been an assassin dispatched after you, contracting organization unknown," Fury says, and Steve draws back. "I have the others on it, but I think it's best if you stay here and minimize the risk. We can't lose you."
Steve supposes he should be flattered that he's a valuable asset, but instead he feels like he did in 1942 all over again, listening to Phillips telling him his men didn't have the time to be part-time babysitters. "I'm not about to go and get myself killed, sir," he says, but Fury shakes his head.
"Sorry, son, not this time. Can't risk it. This is a delicate situation."
'Delicate situation' is Fury code for a whole bunch of other words that Steve isn't comfortable saying aloud. "I see," he says, though worry starts chewing at his chest like a nervous puppy with a pair of shoes. "So what, I just sit here? Can I at least have a headset so I can hear what's going on?"
Fury shakes his head again. "That's not a good idea. Just wait until we take him down, and then I'll call you in for a debriefing."
"Debriefing?" Steve frowns. "How can I be any use in a debriefing if I wasn't actually present for the action? Sir?"
But Fury has turned his back, spinning on his heel at the precise angle to make his coat fan out as though there's a gust of wind following him at all times. Tony and Clint made a bet that he practiced that move for hours when he was still a junior agent, back in the dinosaur age.
"And in the meantime …" Steve says to the empty room, once the door locks. He blows out his breath in annoyance and sits down on the sofa. There is a laptop on the desk, but it's not connected to the internet, and when Steve flicks through the TV channels he realizes with annoyance that they're all movies, nothing live or that could be preempted by news reports. No way for him to find out what's going on other than being a good little boy and waiting like Fury said.
They did leave him a pad of paper and some pencils -- Staedtler, good stuff, way more expensive than the ones Steve used to cart around with him on the field, carving with a knife until the stubs were too short for him to hold in his post-serum fingers -- and with nothing else to do, Steve settles himself down and draws. He intends to draw the Avengers, but Steve sketches absently without paying attention, and when he finally looks at the paper with any sort of conscious focus it's the Howling Commandos around the fire. He swallows and tosses the sketchbook on the table, unable to look at it.
They're all dead, and Steve should be, too. Instead he's stuck here in a world that's outgrown him, that's shiny and loud and new and cynical, like all the glitz and glamour of the Stark Expo of '42 and none of the hope. This is the future, people of today seem to think; it's all downhill from here.
They didn't leave him with any kind of timekeeping device, but Steve knows enough by his estimation that this is not a cake mission. He watches several movies without really paying attention and eventually picks up the pencil and draws a few more portraits -- this time it is the Avengers, Natasha in profile when something surprises her and the hard lines of her face soften, Bruce and Tony hunched over the workbench doing something Steve will never understand in a million years, Clint smiling to himself as he disassembles his bow for cleaning and gives each piece a kiss before setting it reverently down, Thor with a slice of pizza in one hand and a mug of beer the size of his head in the other.
He's starting to get hungry -- one thing Steve's learned over all these months is that his voracious appetite wasn't just because of the aftereffects of the procedure combined with inadequate rationing, but something that will stay and gnaw at him for the rest of his life -- when at last the door clicks. Steve leaps to his feet, dusting off his hands.
It's Clint, which is not what Steve was expecting. He's been to medical -- he has bandages on his arm that don't quite cover the damage, and there's blood in his hair that doesn't look like his -- and he sits down on the couch and drops his head into his hands.
"Clint?" Steve asks, adrenaline spiking. "Is everyone okay? Did you catch the assassin?"
"Yeah," Clint says, his voice gravelly. "Nat's with him now."
"What --" Steve blinks. "What do you mean, Nat's with him? Does she know him?"
That makes sense, at least; Steve knows very little about Natasha's past pre-SHIELD, only that if it's mentioned she clams up and Clint's posture suddenly shifts to a kind of protective aggression. Still, someone from Natasha's old life can't be a good sign, and by the way Clint's muscles stand out in his arms as he clenches his fingers together, that only makes it look worse.
"Clint," Steve says, eyes wide. "Tell me. Is someone hurt?"
"Not -- exactly." Clint runs a hand through his hair, not even stopping when it tangles in one of the matted blood clots. "It's -- we have the assassin on file here at SHIELD. We didn't know his name, but Nat did. It never came up in any of her debriefings so it didn't go into the system."
Clint doesn't usually talk roundabout like this, doesn't like to back into answers and play the SHIELD game of hide and seek with the truth. If Steve had been worried before, he's edging up toward panic now. "What aren't you telling me? Why did they come after me? Is Natasha all right? Clint, please."
Finally Clint leans back, collapsing against the sofa and pressing hands to his eyes. "It's someone Natasha used to work with, back at the Red Room. He trained her. They were -- close. Lovers for a while, it helped keep them both in check I guess, I dunno. I didn't ask. I knew there was someone once, she talked about him sometimes, but only in her sleep. She called him 'the American'. SHIELD called him the Winter Soldier."
Steve waits for some trickle of recognition, some reason for this to be connected to him, but there's nothing. "The Russians?" he asks, frowning. "I don't remember ever having any problems there. We were allies back then. All that Cold War stuff, that was after my time."
After his time and before Clint's, which is one of those weird things that have finally stopped knocking Steve over whenever he thinks about it. Clint nods. "I know. This is -- different. Personal."
"Clint!" Steve doesn't mean to snap, but he did spend the better part of the day in an empty room with nothing but paranoia and memories to keep him company. "Will you just tell me? Please."
"With him in custody, SHIELD managed to confirm his identity." Clint swallows. "At first we thought -- coincidence, but then they ran his image through SHIELD's facial recognition software and we got a match. One hundred percent positive ID. It took a while because all the photos we have on file are old ones, black and white and they're all candids, none of them are studio quality --"
Steve's breath leaves his body as thoroughly as though he's sixteen years old again and some big jerk has just punched him hard enough in the stomach to send him reeling. "No," he says. "No, you're wrong."
"Wish we were." Clint still hasn't looked at him. "We actually got back a few hours ago, but we've spent the whole time at SHIELD HQ cross-referencing. It's not just that it looks like him, it is him. We looked up every record we had -- fingerprints, dental, all the stuff from his enlistment forms, and it's all a match. They even did some kind of carbon dating from his hair, and it looks like he's been in cryo since the eighties, when the Soviet Union collapsed. Unless he's some kind of advanced clone -- and if he was, why there's only one of them makes no damn sense -- well, it's him."
Clint reaches into his pocket and pulls out a thick piece of paper, folded into fourths. "All that's left is for you to give us a positive ID, just, you know. Confirmation of what we already know."
Steve takes the paper, opens it and stares at the face looking up at him. The hair is much too shaggy and expression is all wrong -- there's a cruel twist to the mouth he's never seen in his life, not in nearly twenty years of knowing each other, and the eyes are hard and terrifying -- but it's Bucky. There is something about him that seems off, but it's subtle and not something Steve can put his finger on until he realizes that he's never seen a colour photograph of Bucky before this moment. Bucky died before that was invented.
At least, Steve thought he did.
"Impossible," Steve says, and he doesn't know whether to clutch the photograph close or throw it as far away from him as he can. His body compromises by clutching it hard enough to bend the thick, glossy photo paper around the edges. "He -- I watched him fall. I saw that ravine. Nobody could have survived."
"We don't know what happened yet," Clint says. "They're going to try to piece things together as best they can, but it doesn't look good. Based on the initial brain scan it looks like he's been in and out of storage for the last seventy years. You got a long sleep; he got a bunch of catnaps."
Steve's hands twitch. "I want to see him."
"Because he tried to kill me?" Steve can barely choke the words out. "Clint, I -- if he's -- if something like that has changed, I want to know what it is. If he blames me for letting him fall or for getting him involved I need to talk to him --" But Clint says nothing, only sits with his eyes closed and his jaw clenched so tightly the bone stands out in his cheek.
And then, it hits him.
"They sent you for a reason," Steve says, at the same time hoping, praying, pleading that he's wrong. Not this. Anything but this. "They sent you because you can explain to me what it's like. What he's gone through." He sets the photo down on the table, and Bucky's eyes aren't glowing blue but it's not that kind of thing, is it. His legs give out, and he collapses down onto the couch next to Clint. "He's been unmade, just like you."
Clint lets out a slow breath. 'Looks like it. He doesn't respond to anything , though when Nat talked to him his eyes flickered. Nothing we could dig up on his past life -- Howard, the Commandos -- got through to him at all. We tried saying your name, and nothing. The only other thing that registered --"
"Captain America," Steve says, a bitter taste in his mouth like he's just drunk the last dregs of unfiltered coffee that's been sitting in the bottom of the pot until it burned and stuck to the metal.
"Yeah. Say that and --" Clint snaps his fingers. "We had to tie him down. We took the arm off, but --"
"His arm?" Steve jolts upright. "Clint, I know he's different, but --"
"No, no, not like that. He's got a prosthetic. Metal one, cutting-edge back in the sixties, maybe, but the tech is old now. The Ruskies must've been having problems near the end. It had weapons built in, you know, like those rocket gauntlets Nat wears? We had to take it off. The doctors think he lost it to frostbite and whoever found him, well, made him a new one."
Steve gags, his hand pressed to his mouth as his stomach heaves. Clint sits forward, palms the back of Steve's head and shoves him down, bent double with his head between his knees. "It's okay, buddy, just breathe," Clint says, his voice dull. "They want me to talk to you. To tell you what it feels like, so you can be prepared."
"Prepared for what?" Steve chokes out. He doesn't vomit, but that doesn't stop the tears from building up in his eyes and dripping down.
"Prepared for how he might really be gone. Cognitive recalibration ain't gonna cut it this time, else he would've come back at least ten times during the fight to bring him in." Clint's hand tightens on Steve's neck. "Loki pulled me out of my head and put his own thoughts in there, but I was still there somewhere to come back. Results are preliminary, but from what they're able to tell, it's more like they took your friend, chopped him up good, and stuck him back in there wherever. There might not be enough of him left to come back."
Steve survived one of the riskiest scientific procedures in history, enduring searing pain to get there; he went through test after test of his pain tolerance, endurance, and resistance to toxins, chemicals, and diseases. He marched through Europe on his own and with his friends, fighting Nazis and Hydra agents on double rations when his new body required at least five times that. Just last week some two-bit villain with a freeze ray managed to throw him off the side of a skyscraper, which would have been the end if Tony hadn't managed to catch him, and even then the sudden jolt nearly gave him whiplash. He's been through more than most men will have to deal with in a lifetime, and he's not even thirty.
He hopes they keep that in mind and don't laugh at him too much when he passes out.
When he comes back, Clint has somehow managed to manhandle him up onto the sofa. Steve sits upright, ignoring the stabbing pain in his head and the swimming in his stomach. "I want to see him."
Clint, stretched out on the bed with the pillow over his face, shakes his head. "You can't."
"Can't when? Can't now, or can't ever?"
"That depends." Clint sits up and swings his legs over the side. "Look, I know it sucks big time, but right now Captain America sends him over the deep end. SHIELD is gonna do their best to pull what's left of him back into his head, but it's gonna take time, and if you're there throwing him back into assassin mode it's only going to make it worse. Right now you're the trigger, and until SHIELD can dig that out, you can't see him."
Steve presses both fists to his forehead and grits his teeth. "I want them to give me progress reports. And I want to be able to see him as soon as I possibly can."
"It's not gonna be pretty, Cap."
"I don't care about pretty!" Steve glares, and Clint shrugs. "I just -- please."
"I can't make any promises for the brass," Clint says. "But they'll call a meeting with you in a couple of days. Fury said for you to sit tight. You're pulled off missions until they can debrief you on this one."
"Fine." Steve lets out a breath. "But if they're keeping me here, they should at least give me something to eat."
Clint stands up and stretches, joints making horrible cracking sounds. "Fury said to tell you if you can behave, you can go home. But first sign of you trying to sneak in to find him and your ass is dumped under high security."
Steve clenches his jaw, but part of fighting is knowing when you're licked, and sometimes it's not when you can't get up anymore. "Understood."
Clint slaps him on the back. "It's okay. We'll get him back."
Steve has made it through a world war, through a seventy-year sleep under the ice, through aliens and monsters and mythological figures and technology he never knew existed, and he still goes to church every single Sunday -- but if Bucky stays trapped inside his own head forever, Steve knows that will be the straw that breaks his faith.
"I hope so," he says, and Clint gives him a sad, tight smile.
Chapter 2: For Everything (turn turn turn)
Steve spends his second twenty-first century Christmas in the hallway outside Bucky's room armed with a deck of cards, some old comics, photos of the Commandos, and two bottles of beer.
It's a long time before the Winter Soldier is Bucky again, and Steve's not allowed to be there for any of it.
FULL DISCLOSURE: stories like Long Range Reconnaissance have done a fantastic job with Bucky's coming out of Winter Soldier and back into himself. I'm not going to try to replicate that. This fic is concerned with living after he remembers who he is. This chapter is the bridge.
SHIELD pumps Steve for as much information as he has about Bucky. Steve can't think of anything useful for the longest time; his brain keeps coming up with useless tidbits like his favourite colour (blue) or how he likes his coffee (black) or the different kinds of smiles he has and what it means when his eyes crinkle or his eyebrows skyrocket. It takes several hours before he manages to give them the kind of information they want, skills and psychological profile and everything else, and after all that, they forbid him from getting involved any further and tell him to go home.
Steve survives for months on official SHIELD reports, hearsay, some questionably-legal eavesdropping and even more questionable intel given to him by Tony, who writes a program to get into Fury's systems and manages to pull as many files as he can before he's caught. After that Steve is given an official reprimand courtesy of Fury himself, but he doesn't care, and the fact that Captain America is practically insouciant about committing grand insubordination is serious enough that at the end of their talk, Fury says he'll try to keep Steve more informed, at least as much as possible.
None of the news is good. Clint and Natasha sit down with Steve and give him first-hand accounts of their experiences with brainwashing and mind control, and Steve gets sick to his stomach just listening to it, never mind imagining what it must be like for Bucky. Natasha tells him of the day agents found her and told her she'd never been a fashion designer, or a ballerina, or a schoolteacher, of letting SHIELD into her head to pull the Red Room out, of still having memories that no one could decide the truth of. Clint talks about looking into the eyes of the man who gave him a job and pulled him from the brink of self-destruction, only to fire directly at his chest. When Steve panics, Clint tells him that Loki compelled him to take a headshot but he hadn't done it, he'd found enough of himself in there somewhere to aim for the kevlar hidden under Fury's suit. There's hope, Clint says. A chance, Natasha adds.
Steve hasn't had nightmares for a while but he does now. They still don't let him in to see Bucky.
He spends his second twenty-first century Christmas in the hallway outside Bucky's room armed with a deck of cards, some old comics, photos of the Commandos, and two bottles of beer.
"Aw, Cap," says Clint, dropping down beside him, probably from the ceiling tiles or something ridiculous, and collapsing into a cross-legged position. "That's just sad."
Steve shrugs. "It is what it is," he says. He knows this is Bucky's room because he asked, but the cell doesn't even have a window, and everything is soundproofed or he'd try to pass something in morse code. Honestly, that's probably why they took that precaution in the first place, but who knows.
"What'd you guys play?" Clint asks, taking the cards and slipping them out of the cardboard case, shuffling them with flash that Steve would expect more from a circus performer and not a master spy.
"Snap," Steve says. "But you need more than -- oh."
The 'oh' comes from looking up and seeing Natasha sit down next to Clint, folding her legs beneath her in a smooth, deadly motion and setting down a bottle of vodka; Bruce and Tony standing behind her with snacks and drinks, which they scatter around before Tony drops to the ground with all the coordination of an elephant and Bruce settles himself gingerly on Tony's far side.
"Guys --" Steve says, and his eyes sting.
"I call dealer," Tony says, grabbing the cards out of Clint's hands.
"That means he's going to cheat," Bruce says meditatively.
"I'm the only regular guy between the super-soldier, assassin twins and you, buddy, which means I'm going to have my hands smashed or cut off at the wrists if I'm not careful. I would've brought a gauntlet if I'd known, but there you go. Hell yeah I'm going to cheat."
"It won't help you," Natasha says serenely, and she offers Steve a sip of her vodka. It goes down clean and burns his throat. He thinks about Bucky's age-old complaint that alcohol should be like a naked woman, beautiful even without her clothes on, not needing stupid things like orange juice and liqueur to make it interesting, and wonders if that's changed.
After the new year they move Bucky to a room with a window -- one way -- and Steve is allowed to look at him through the glass. His hair is still long and shaggy, hanging almost to his shoulders -- the old Bucky would never have put up with that, even in the army as soon as he got away with it he didn't even bother to shave more than once a week, and taking care of hair like that would've been ridiculous -- and his body, what Steve can see of it in the white medical uniform, is criss-crossed with scars that Steve doesn't remember. His left arm is gone, the sleeve folded up and held with thread, not pins.
He stalks the room like a caged tiger, taking the corners with military precision, never stopping.
"Is that him?" Steve asks, sensing Natasha behind him despite never hearing her coming, even with augmented hearing. "The one you knew, I mean."
"In a way," she says, and her face is still but Steve is beginning to read her now, and her eyebrows furrow in a way that means she's just barely holding on. "The man I knew -- he was angry, yes, but there was always something else. Something deeper. Regardless of the Red Room, he was -- kind to me. I don't see that now."
Steve sucks in a breath. Natasha unfolds her arms and brushes his wrist with her fingertips. "We'll get him back," she says, steel beneath her voice. "Even if I have to crawl into his head and drag him out myself."
It's nice, in a horrible, useless sort of way, to know that Steve isn't the only one who loves the man prowling behind the glass.
Fury calls Steve into his office in the beginning of February. "I'm going to tell you this only because I'm sure you'll find out somehow, and I don't want you to get your hopes up," he says, continuing his streak as SHIELD's resident ray of sunshine.
Steve swallows. "Sir?"
"Our people think they've gotten all the triggers out," Fury says. "Of course it's too soon to tell, but as far as we know at this moment, we've managed to dismantle any conditioning the Red Room left behind."
There's something very disturbing about discussing putting Bucky's mind back together using the same vocabulary that he might describe taking apart an ugly table. Still, Steve nearly collapses with relief. "So what's the bad news?"
"We've taken the Red Room out, but that doesn't leave very much left. At best, what we have is the blank-slate mental state they would have put him in between missions, before giving him new programming. The James Barnes you knew is, at this moment, gone."
Steve holds his ground. "That's not all."
"No, it's not. We have -- an artefact," Fury says carefully, and Steve wonders how many meetings they had just to agree that he could say that much. Steve will probably have to sign something before he's permitted to leave the office just in case. "It doesn't matter what it is or where we got it, but we believe it can be used to draw out what might be left of Barnes' old memories. Depending on what the Red Room used to suppress them in the first place, if anything remains, we should be able to bring them back."
Steve's hands tighten into fists at his sides, but he does his best to keep himself as neutral as possible. "What are the odds of it working?"
"I prefer not to calculate the odds," Fury says. "Odds can be manipulated, and expectations skewed. The point is that if his memories are still there, this should be able to get them out. The problem is that if they used something similar to wipe them, there won't be anything to retrieve. The other problem is that the device doesn't differentiate. It will bring everything back -- from childhood all the way until he was last put to sleep. That means that all his missions, all his assignments, will come back as well. If he's still as good a man as he was when he fell off that train, there's a high likelihood that these memories will cause him a significant amount of trauma."
Steve's jaw twitches, but he forces himself to remain steady. "So what are you saying, sir?"
"I'm saying that even if he does come back, there's a chance he'll lose his mind out of guilt," Fury says, and Steve might be imagining it but his voice seems to lose some of its edge. "I'm sorry."
Steve nods. "But you're going to risk it?"
"And can I see him? If it works?"
This time Fury's expression definitely softens, something like regret around the corners of his mouth. "I think it's best if someone with presence in his more recent memories is there to help him through it first," he says. "If he does react badly to the knowledge of what he did as the Winter Soldier, he likely won't want to see you. Agent Romanov, at least, was with him at that time, and shouldn't be as much of a shock."
A frisson of something -- jealousy? panic? -- runs through Steve, but he wrenches it back. "I understand, sir. I only ask that I be allowed to see him as soon as it's reasonably expected he'll be able to survive the shock."
"Of course, son," Fury says, despite having a birthday some fifty years after Steve's, and Steve almost laughs at the sobriquet because everything in his life is so surreal. "I'd like you to step up your sessions with your therapist, in the meantime. You're under a lot of stress and we don't want that to get in the way at the wrong time."
Steve is not about to break down in tears in the middle of a battle -- he continued fighting Hydra when Bucky's death was still fresh and raw in his mind, thanks -- but he knows better than to argue. "Yes, sir," he says.
Later, Steve barely remembers the next few weeks. He doesn't starve, so he supposes he eats; no one attacks him with a sponge and a bucket of soapy water, so he must bathe; he doesn't develop bedsores, so at some point he obviously leaves the house, but it's all a blur, a litany of Bucky's name, of hopes and fears and prayers. Steve wears out the knees on three pairs of sweatpants, crouched on the floor with his head on his hands, sending his requests skyward. The other Avengers would mock him for that, he's pretty sure -- Tony and Clint, definitely, Natasha might just roll her eyes in private, and Bruce would likely sit him down for an unintentionally patronizing lecture on Asian deities and world religion -- but Steve takes comfort where he can.
Everything is a fog until the day Natasha finds him at the gym, where she waits for him to stop pummelling the punching bag before stepping in. "We have him," she says, and gives Steve a cautious smile. "Full recovery will take time, but he's here, and he remembers you."
The bag sways, and Steve grabs hold of it with both hands to steady it, not to mention himself. "Can I see him?"
"Not yet." Natasha tosses her head, flicking hair out of her eyes. "He's ashamed of what he did as the Soldier, but we anticipated that. I'll let you know."
"Thank you." Steve's fingers grip the canvas until the rough fabric digs into his skin. "Tell them -- all of them -- thank you."
It's the first week of March when they bring Steve into the facility, with the knowledge that if anything goes the least awry, if Bucky's brain activity spikes the wrong way, they'll be pulling Steve out before he can finish saying 'what the --' and resistance will not be appreciated. Steve agrees -- he'd agree to go in wearing one of those sexy Captain America dresses he's seen girls wear on Halloween if it means he gets to see Bucky -- and has to keep wiping his palms on his slacks.
Bucky has lost weight, and his cheekbones are even more stark against his face than usual. They've cut his hair and allowed him to shave, but his left sleeve still hangs loose and empty. Steve's breath leaves his body like when his plane hit the water all those years ago, and for a moment he has to struggle to stand.
"Hey, punk," Bucky says, with a small, hesitant smile, not wide enough to show his canines; the one he used to have after they argued. "You're still wearing those stupid slacks, huh?"
They pull Steve from active duty for the next month, because it's clear he's compromised and will be no good on the field. Steve argues with them because he feels like he has to, but nowhere near hard enough that they take him seriously, and he supposes that, like his earlier sassing, it's probably a sign in itself.
It means he gets to spend his time with Bucky, who, as Steve expected, has good days and bad days. There are days when they play cards and swap stories and share memories -- Steve knows it's as much a tool for recovery as it is about nostalgia, helping Bucky slot things into their proper places, giving him confirmation that what's in his head is really real. There are also days when the guard at the door shakes his head no, and Steve looks through the window to see Bucky curled up on his bed with his face against the wall, clutching his empty sleeve.
Four weeks after Steve and Bucky sit down for the first time with four feet and seventy years between them, Bucky's various psychologists and psychiatrists recommend that he be moved somewhere with more regular social interaction, in order for him to be acclimatized. Steve calls Tony so fast he's surprised his phone doesn't complain about him mashing the speed dial, and after rounds of paperwork and bureaucracy that make Steve want to chew off his own arm -- hey, he and Bucky can be a matched set -- they give dispensation for Bucky to take a room in the Avengers Tower.
It's not that much of a stretch -- it's already been retrofitted to accommodate any random Hulk-outs that Bruce might have, not to mention all the possible ways Tony's inventions might go crazy and kill everyone -- and it has as many cameras as the SHIELD base, possibly more. Steve has a room there that he uses when on assignment and can't be bothered to take the train back to Brooklyn twice a day, and it doesn't take long for them to set things up for Bucky.
That doesn't mean things are normal. Bucky is quiet, withdrawn, and easily spooked; seeing Natasha when he doesn't expect it sometimes sets him off. The good thing is that in a house of superheroes, someone is always there to take him down if he loses control.
The hardest part for Steve is reminding himself that this isn't just picking up where they left off, that just because they spent months knee-to-knee in the trenches and back-to-back on hard ground, because they pooled the pay from the four jobs between them for a tiny apartment in Brooklyn and slept curled together to generate more body heat, that doesn't mean that's all right now. Not that Steve would even try -- there's a wall between them now, invisible but no less real, and Bucky isn't the only one adding bricks.
It does mean that each night Steve lies awake, the bed that never used to take up much conscious thought in his head now feeling much too big, until, finally, that changes -- just not the way Steve thought it would.
"Excuse me, Captain Rogers?" JARVIS' cultured tones, as well as that wake-up chemical he puts into the air that smells like coffee, drag Steve out of sleep. "I beg your pardon for disturbing your rest, but you did ask me to notify you if Sergeant Barnes' condition changed significantly. His heart-rate and cortisol levels have spiked. I do believe he is experiencing night terrors. He is not presently a danger to himself, but intervention would be prudent."
Steve scrambles out of bed, bare feet slipping against the smooth floors. Gotta get a rug put in or something. "Thanks, JARVIS," he says. "Doors?"
"Locked from the outside, as per instruction, but your code will open them."
"All right." It's not far to Bucky's room, but Steve's hands are shaking and he mis-punches in the code three times -- it's like back after he first had the serum, his body too big for his muscle memory, and the first time he tried to dial a telephone he ended up throwing it across the room in frustration. This isn't even a real set of buttons, just painted light on glass, but finally something beeps and the door slides open.
Bucky takes his arm off at night -- SHIELD says there are no more triggers left in his brain and JARVIS has control over whether it's activated, but he says he sleeps better if he doesn't have to worry about it -- and while at first the thought distressed him, now Steve is grateful for it. It means less for Steve to think about as he climbs up onto Bucky's bed. "JARVIS, bring up the lights, slowly," Steve says, and the room brightens just a little, the glow soft and orange. "If there's anything calming you can release into the air, do that too."
Steve has had meetings with the psych department about Bucky and his nightmares, and he knows that he's not supposed to shake or startle him awake. It's disorienting enough for someone having a regular bad dream, and even before being frozen in the ice Steve remembers being jolted awake, sweating and terrified and completely unaware of where he was. With Bucky, still trying to knit together the pieces of his brain and identity, Steve has to be much, much more careful.
Talk to him, they told Steve. Establish physical presence, non-threatening but obvious, that will filter through to his subconscious. Steve finds Bucky's hand and squeezes it in both of his. "Hey," he says, his throat squeezing. "Hey, Buck, it's me. It's Steve. I'm here, and you're gonna come back to me, okay, so just listen to me and follow me out."
He talks while Bucky thrashes and cries out in Russian -- Steve's been taking lessons from Natasha but she's not a very patient teacher, prone to frustration, and anyway they don't really have time and so he has no idea what Bucky is saying -- and gradually JARVIS brings up the lights to a comfortable dim level.
At last Bucky snaps awake, but when he does it's not Bucky who stares at Steve wide-eyed. Fortunately Steve has combat-reflexes and plenty of experience, because he's off the bed and prepared by the time Bucky launches himself at him, teeth bared and snarling. The unexpected lack of one of his limbs throws Bucky off, but Steve is at a disadvantage in that of the two of them, he's the only one trying not to hurt the other person.
"Shall I call for security?" JARVIS asks, as Bucky slams Steve against the wall, only to fall back when he goes to take a swing with his missing arm.
"No!" Steve shouts. "It's fine, just give me a second!"
It takes him more than a second, but eventually Steve gets Bucky pinned on the floor, one arm across his chest just below his throat, and the wildness drains out of Bucky's eyes and the fight from his body. "Hey, Buck, hey," Steve says, throat tight, and Bucky sags and lets his head fall back against the floor.
"Bad?" Bucky asks, voice rasping.
"Nah," Steve says, and holds him down for a few more seconds before letting him up. "You're okay."
Bucky brushes Steve off with a sharp gesture when he tries to help him, and he gets himself up and drops down onto the bed hard enough to make the frame creak. "I'm fine," he says, his voice tight. "It's fine. You didn't have to come running."
"Yeah, I did," Steve says quietly. His own nightmares have shifted lately: now it's less the crackle of ice above his head, freezing cold all around and the whistling of Arctic wind in his ears; no longer Bucky's fingers slipping from his, watching him pinwheel as he careens down into the ravine below. Now it's Bucky's eyes gone hard and grey as he slips back into the Winter Soldier and raises his gun at Steve's head, only to shift at the last second and fire at his own temple instead. "I'll always find you, you know. Wherever you go. I hope you know that."
Bucky flops back on the bed with a grimace, massaging the stump of his left arm. "You oughta get that sentiment checked out, Captain Rogers," he says, closing his eyes. "Looks like you've got a terminal case. Something like that could get you drummed out of the service."
There's something about the twist of his voice as he says it that makes it sound less like a joke than he probably intended, and Steve swallows. "Move over," he says. "I'm staying."
"No you're not," Bucky says, shooting straight back up like someone jammed him full of electricity. "This isn't our tiny apartment in Brooklyn with room for only one bed and no heat, Steve, this is the Avengers Tower, with beds the size of swimming pools and cameras in the toilets so JARVIS can monitor how much fibre we're getting. No way."
Steve's heart thuds. They're skirting close now to that thing they never talked about because it would be suicide to talk about, suicide by fists and boots and improvised weapons, and later on by dishonourable discharges and public disgrace. "You're right," he says carefully. "This is the Avengers Tower. Which is exactly why I'm staying." Bucky starts to protest again, but Steve holds up a hand. "No, you don't -- we're broken, all of us, and we all end up sharing beds more often than we like and it doesn't mean anything."
This time Bucky straight-up raises his eyebrows. "I'm impressed."
"What? No!" Steve would flush if this weren't important, but it is, and he beats the embarrassment back. "Not like that, come on. I just, all of us here have reasons why we don't want to sleep alone sometimes, and nobody's going to judge anyone else for it, I swear." He's not going to talk about the others or their reasons -- it's not his place, and he only understands the surface level anyway -- but he has seen them. No one who's lived in the Tower for more than a week can avoid it: Bruce and Tony collapsed against each other on the sofa, their faces lit by the soft blue light of the arc reactor; Natasha and Clint curled against each other like they're one person, Natasha's arm slung across Clint's back with a beretta clutched in her hand.
It's not decided who takes comfort with whom, either; Steve has walked in on Bruce, asleep with his head in Natasha's lap, her fingers in his hair, while she sits, half awake with her eyes lowered to green slits. Steve himself has fallen asleep at Tony's workbench, head resting on his folded arms, watching the man tinker into the late hours of the night, neither of them speaking, and woken up to the sound of Dummy struggling to lower a blanket that turned out to be a grease-stained rag across his shoulders. Steve knows that despite the odd mix of banter and sudden, brooding silences, Clint can work a neck massage like nobody's business and prefers to keep one arm curled tight around the other person's waist.
They all tear each other apart, true, and sometimes they need far less motivation to do so than they should for a team that saved the Earth together, but sometimes the thing about broken pieces is that they find ways to fit together.
Unfortunately Steve has no way to explain that to Bucky -- or himself, really -- and so he shrugs and twists his hands together in his lap. "I'm just -- nobody's going to judge, or even assume anything. We all of us could have our own sitcom and keep all the shrinks in New York in business just with our issues alone, it's not. I don't know. It's not like that." He swallows. "Plus I'd like to wake up and not have that minute where I think I've dreamed it all and you're still dead, if my being selfish would make it easier."
"Yeah, that's you to the bone right there. Pure selfishness." Bucky snorts, but he moves over to give Steve room. It's more the gesture than necessity -- the bed is half the size of their old apartment, just stick a sink on the end and there it is -- and Steve tugs the blankets out from under them and sets them to rights. "Watch those hospital corners, soldier," Bucky says, looking up at Steve through half-lidded eyes, and Steve chuckles.
"I still make my bed that way," Steve says, and finally he crawls under the blankets. "I bounce a quarter off it to make sure I've got it right, just in case. The others laugh at me but I can't help it."
Bucky rolls onto his side, facing away from Steve, and it feels like walking downstairs absent-mindedly and expecting there to be one more step. They never slept like that back in Brooklyn. Bucky always lay with his chest against Steve's back, curled around Steve's smaller form with one arm folded on top of his side to maximize the transfer of body heat. Steve used to chafe at it, the obvious show of protection and clear evidence of Bucky's physical superiority, but at the same time, it was warm that way and his lungs seemed to do better when he could feel as well as hear Bucky's slow, calm breaths, and so he never argued much.
Funny that he misses it now, but at the same time, Steve finds himself wanting slide an arm around Bucky's waist and hold him steady, so maybe it's not just Bucky who's been dropped head-first down the stairs.
"These mattresses are weird," Bucky says out of nowhere. "It's like I can't sleep without that big spring sticking into my side."
"I used to brace my knee against one of them, to keep it from sliding," Steve says, and he wonders how much time they spend reminiscing and what, if anything, they're trying to prove by it. Desperately clinging to what they know while the rest of the world moves on at breakneck speed, or something, he's sure his shrink would have something to say. "Tony calls it memory foam. I've got one too, and yeah, it is weird."
"The hell kind of name is that? Is that a StarkTech thing?"
"Apparently it's everywhere, just meant to sound more futuristic than it is." Steve's fingers twitch against the blankets as his hand tries to move to touch Bucky of its own accord. Steve grimaces and forges on with the conversation, pretending it's not strange to do this staring at the back of Bucky's head in the darkness. "Listen, uh, Tony says it's supposed to be good for people who have to share a bed, if the one person kicks and fusses it shouldn't wake the other person up like a normal mattress. So you don't need to worry about waking me or anything."
He means that Bucky doesn't have to stay all the way over there with his nose practically in the wall, but Bucky just tosses off a salute high enough Steve can see it. "Roger that, Cap," he says, and he doesn't change position.
Well, no sense in pushing it, and Steve isn't even sure what he wants to happen. "I'm here if you need me," he says, and that sounds kind of pathetic and useless even in his own head, but too late for that. He almost says 'sweet dreams' but catches himself just in time. "Wake me if you have to."
"I will." A moment of quiet, then Bucky lets out a breath. "Hey, it's fine, I promise. Stop it with the Steve Rogers puppy eyes."
"You can't even see me!"
"I don't need to." Bucky turns just enough that Steve can see his smile, small though it is. "Yeah, that face, right there. Cut it out and get some sleep."
"You don't get to order me around, Sergeant," Steve says, but he lets himself brush a hand against Bucky's shoulder.
Clint catches them leaving the room together the next morning, but one look at Steve's face and he snaps his mouth shut. "Tony says he's replaced all of the kitchen appliances now," he says, falling into step with them as they head down the stairs to the kitchen. "Not sure if that means there'll be less bugs or more fires, but either way, I'd stand back."
Bucky doesn't say anything -- it's not that he dislikes Clint, Steve's pretty sure, but he's protective of Natasha and hasn't decided whether Clint is good for her yet -- and so Steve sighs. "Thanks for the warning," he says. "Maybe I'll just stick with cereal."
"That's probably a good idea."
Bucky snorts, but subsides when Steve squeezes his elbow.
Chapter 3: They are a-Changin'
"At least in the forties if someone called you a queen you got to lay them out on the sidewalk for it, not buy their damn merchandise!"
Steve forgets he's had a little longer than Bucky to deal with certain aspects of how much society has changed. He's not sure whether Bucky has.
I don't buy that finding out being gay is okay is all they need for them to get over their issues. Heck, people nowadays grow up with that idea and that doesn't help them -- nor straight people, either. Being in love is hard, y'all.
Living with the other Avengers full-time is exhausting, even if it's generally a positive experience. Steve is used to chaos, and being surrounded by people who seem to embody it, but with Bucky back he finds himself wanting privacy. For what, he's not exactly sure, but they've both been handed different editions of the same book and are struggling to find the right page; that's not so easy with the rest of the class heckling and throwing balls of paper at their heads.
Steve never was good with metaphors. There's a reason he had his lines written on the back of his shield, and why he's not the one to make the motivational speeches for the team. (Thor, surprisingly, was good at those, sincere and rousing and entirely un-self-conscious about baring his soul and appealing to others' emotion; Steve sometimes misses him and his solid presence, even if 'overwhelming' scarcely did him justice.)
It turns out not to be just him, which is a relief so strong it's almost palpable. "I guess SHIELD would throw a fit if we asked to get our own place somewhere?" Bucky asks one morning, shaking his head as Clint, hanging from the ceiling, throws insults at the toaster, which flings charred pieces of bread at Tony as he attempts to get close enough to turn it off. Looks like those upgrades were the bad kind after all. Steve is getting a little tired of All-Bran, though it doesn't mean he's going to eat any of the weird marshmallow and sugar filled monstrosities Clint buys because he didn't have a proper childhood. "This is kind of a bit much."
Steve has had time to get used to it, but even before Bucky came back, whenever he stayed at the Tower too long he found himself thinking wistfully of his apartment and its solitude. "I can ask," he says. "I'm sure we could find a place."
"I'd promise not to go crazy and murder the neighbours and everything," Bucky says, which is one of those flippant-but-not-really things he likes to come out with that make Steve wince internally while simultaneously determined not to let it show.
Steve does ask, expecting a flat-out 'no way, son', but while it takes time to push through the paperwork and get the necessary approval, finally, Fury hands Steve the key to a small brownstone in Flatbush. Steve almost asks why a house and not an apartment, until he realizes that Bucky isn't the only one thinking about killing the neighbours. At least if he has an episode, there won't be people on either side of every wall ready to panic and call the police.
"Thank you," Steve says to Fury, with feeling. "I really appreciate it. This will be so much better, I promise."
"I hope so," Fury says, but he gives Steve the slight nod that's as good as a grin from someone else, and tells him he's sent a team to the apartment to ferry what little belongings Steve has over to the new place.
"You're not sitting around the house in SHIELD fatigues." Steve frowns. It's a few days after they moved in and started getting settled, and Bucky hasn't changed out of the things SHIELD gave him after his incarceration ended. "I'm putting my foot down. I keep thinking we're supposed to ship out any second, and that's not what I want for my down time, not in our house. The Tower was one thing, but not here, no."
Bucky doesn't even look down at himself, the trim blue uniform looking sharp and out of place in the house, especially when paired with his sloppy posture, sprawled over the sofa with his fingers clutching a bottle of water. "It's better than nothing, though I know some dames that might disagree with me there."
"I'm sure half of New York would disagree with you there," Steve says dryly, and Bucky snorts and takes a swig of his water like he wishes it were something stronger, but he doesn't have the all-clear for mental impairment-causing substances just yet. "That's not the point. We're going to get you something to wear."
"Really. You're going to take me shopping. Gee, Ma, can we stop for ice cream afterward?"
Steve tries to look like the concept isn't just as strange to him, too, and settles for folding his arms. "I could do worse. I could sic Ms. Potts on you."
"The redhead with the legs?" Bucky raises his eyebrows. "Yeah, that sounds like a real chore."
"You say that," Steve says, and he likes Ms. Potts and would never want to be disloyal, but good grief. "It took all day. I think we visited every store on the Upper East Side, and she made me try everything on."
"She made you try things on and you still ended up with shirts that fit like neon signs flashing at your pecs?" Bucky huffs a laugh. "Better watch out for that one, I think she might have a thing for you."
Steve only rolls his eyes. He's been in the twenty-first century for enough time that Bucky will have to try harder than that to shock him. "She has a thing for someone, and that someone has a big glowing circle in his chest and an ego problem only Ms. Potts can contain, so I think I'm all right," Steve says. "Stop changing the subject. I can put in an order for them to send you some civvies, but they'll need measurements and that'll take a few days, and I can't stand looking at the uniform any longer."
Bucky narrows his eyes. "Is this a veiled attempt to get me to leave the house?"
"There's no veil." Steve lets out a breath, fast and bracing. "I want you out of the house and out of uniform. You're never going to adjust that way, and believe me, I know."
The last time Steve saw Bucky out of uniform and not in pyjamas has been over seventy years ago by calendar dates, or about three by Steve's internal clock. As soon as he got accepted Bucky had worn the uniform everywhere, from the day he enlisted to the night Steve last saw him before they both shipped out and everything changed. After that, well, the Howling Commandos were unorthodox but they still weren't about to go charging into a Hydra facility dressed as civilians, Dugan's bowler hat and Jim's scruff notwithstanding.
A muscle works in Bucky's jaw, but finally he gives a small nod and stands up. "Fine," he says. "But if you start talking about coordinating or matching my eyes I swear I'm gonna sock you."
Steve gives him a disapproving look and Bucky grins -- unrepentant, but a real grin -- and Steve will take that over apologies any day. "You're not going out like that, either, put on something of mine for now."
"Yes sir, Captain America, sir!" Bucky barks out in an impressive approximation of Phillips' sharp drawl, and he disappears into their bedroom.
Not their bedroom. The bedroom. That they share. Steve tries not to think about it. Bucky emerges a few minutes later in one of Steve's long-sleeved shirts and a pair of faded jeans -- one of his first since that whole mess with the Chitauri, when he decided maybe he didn't have to be the kind of guy who wore slacks all the time -- and does a spin, expression mocking. "There, do you approve?"
"Good enough," Steve says, though seeing Bucky in his clothes is a bit of a head trip on its own. The shirt is ridiculously large on him at the shoulders, but luckily Bucky's dig about Steve's clothes being too tight is kind of true, so it doesn't sag at the collar as much as it might have. The jeans, at least, are better, since Steve is narrower at the hips and Bucky a bit wider. Bucky won't win any fashion awards, but at least he no longer looks like a hobo or a relic from the past on furlough in the future.
The weather is nice, not blisteringly hot enough that people will look askance at Bucky for wearing a leather glove on one hand -- thank goodness for New York City sometimes, nice to know that time had only expanded its definition of normal in accordance to what the rest of the country considered strange -- and Steve tries to uncoil. Living alone with Bucky again, it's nice and it isn't, like everything that was and is all mushed together -- like dropping an entire set of Tinker Toys on the floor and trying to sort them in the dark while wearing thick gardening gloves.
It's strange -- he and Bucky never went shopping before, not like this, they'd pick up an extra shirt or pair of pants if one got too many holes in it to be worth patching anymore and that's about it -- but nice, too. They walk instead of taking the subway; Bucky makes sarcastic comments about the advertisements plastered on the taxis that drive by, and Steve doesn't relax, exactly, he's not sure he knows how with things between them still unsettled, but he stops clenching his fists at his sides as he walks.
Everything is fine until they're actually in the store and Bucky kicks up a fuss about trying anything on. "I don't care, Steve, can we just get something and go?" He taps one foot against the floor, irritated but meticulous, and his eyes dart around the displays.
"There's no point if it's not going to fit," Steve says, exasperated. "Do you want to go through all this again? Just try it on, if it fits we'll buy a bunch in the same size, and then we'll go. Here, try the blue one." He grins in spite of himself. "It'll go well with your eyes."
"You're a cruel man, you know that," Bucky says, snatching the shirt out of Steve's hand and disappearing into the changing room with a growl.
"Can I help you find anything?" asks the salesgirl at Steve's elbow as he waits, standing in the at-ease position because he defaults to that if no one points it out to him.
"I think we're fine, miss, thank you," Steve says, and his cheek twitches when he notices her eyes widen in surprise at his polite referral. He didn't think he was ever going to lose that, so let's hope that Coulson -- agh, Coulson -- hadn't been wrong about what the world needs a little more of. "Not unless you have something that will make him less likely to swear at me for dragging him in here."
She laughs, and the sound is easy and personal instead of professional. It's the way girls used to laugh around Bucky but never with Steve -- around Steve it was sharp with edges of mocking, but not anymore -- and he isn't sure he'll ever get used to that. "Oh, I know how that is," she says. "I can't get mine into a store, much less into a changing room. I have to buy things for him and slip them into his closet without him noticing. You'll have to tell me your secrets."
"What?" Bucky stands in front of them, and Steve has to check his eyes for the Winter Soldier's blankness because the tension is there, clenching his hands and tightening the line of his shoulders. "What did you just say?"
The girl jumps. Steve steps forward, one hand out. He has no idea what triggered Bucky -- if it even was a trigger, he's not combat-ready, just coiled and angry, the way he used to look when he was small and Steve smaller and the bullies twice as big as both of them -- but he knows they can't, they really can't, have an episode in a department store or it will be back to SHIELD lockdown forever.
"Buck, it's fine," he says, placating. "Don't worry about it. The shirt looks good, we'll grab a bunch and go."
"No." The muscle in Bucky's jaw jumps like a Mexican bean, and the lines around his eyes grow craggy. "Did you hear what she called us?"
"She didn't call us anything!"
"She damn well did." Bucky's nostrils flare as his jaw tightens further and the knot in Steve's chest loosens, just a little, because that's a Bucky mannerism and not the Soldier. That means that whatever just happened, it's going to be okay. Comparatively. "Steve, she called us a couple of fairies."
And oh. Several words run through Steve's mind then, most of them approved by Dugan and Clint but decidedly none appropriate for the Star-Spangled Man with a Plan. His blood chills, and he risks a glance at the salesgirl, whose face has gone pale. "She didn't mean it," Steve says quickly.
"Yeah, she did, and I don't appreciate it." Bucky swallows, fingers twisting as he works to uncurl his fists. "I don't care if I wear my uniform every day until it falls apart, I'm done shopping." He turns, military-precise, and storms off, still wearing the blue shirt. It does bring out his eyes, snapping with anger as they are. Steve starts to go after him but stops when Bucky grinds to a halt outside the door, pacing back and forth on the sidewalk and making no move to run.
"I'll pay for that," Steve says before they can be thrown in jail for theft on top of everything else. He turns to the salesgirl and winces. "Miss, I'm sorry, he isn't --" But he can't very well explain that Bucky comes from an age where being told you make a cute couple was a precursor to getting hit over the head with a baseball bat. New York was a different place then, grittier in ways people today will never understand. Steve casts about for an excuse, and he thinks back to one of the articles he read back when the marriage amendment passed. "He's new here. He's a vet, and he's from -- Mississippi. He's not used to what it's like in New York." The accent is all wrong but he doubts that will be a problem.
"I'm so sorry," she says, and he's pretty sure from her tone that she is, and not just thinking about getting fired from what is probably a cushy job for someone just out of college, it looks like. "I shouldn't have -- I'm really sorry."
"It's all right." Steve doesn't try to tell her that it's not like that; it's not anyone's business either way, and the denial sits sour in his mouth when he isn't entirely sure what like that implies or where he and Bucky are now. They're caught somewhere in the fuzzy area between like that and not, a no man's land filled with barbed wire and buried mines. His shoulders slump and suddenly he could use one of Clint's magic massages. "I'll take a few of those shirts if you don't mind."
Steve finds Bucky in front of the store, all whipcord tension and energy, and he terrifies a chihuahua that scampers too close by glaring at it. "Is that what it's like in the future?" Bucky demands, and he eyes the shopping bag in Steve's hand like it's a dead fish. "People say things like -- like that, like it's no big deal, and you're just supposed to shut up and take it? At least in the forties if someone called you a queen you got to lay them out on the sidewalk for it, not buy their damn merchandise."
This is not the place for this conversation, but Steve doesn't want to go back home with Bucky like this, either. "C'mon," he says, and he reaches out to take Bucky's arm and herd him along, but Bucky whips out of Steve's reach, teeth bared in a snarl. Steve pulls back. "Prospect Park, let's go."
"I don't want to go to the park, Steve, I want to go home," Bucky says, a dark wildness behind his eyes. "No, screw that. I'm going to the range."
"You're not," Steve says, and he puts as much of his old Captain's authority into his voice as he can without crossing the line into infuriating. Gee, Captain Dad, and here I thought my father was dead, Tony sometimes says, exasperated with a layer of something meaner underneath, and it's never intended as a compliment. "We're going to the park, and we're going to have a talk so you don't take someone's head off the next time this happens."
Bucky grits his teeth at 'next time', but Steve stares him down. They stand there like that, frozen, locked in place across from each other while passersby shuffle past them, start to complain, then catch a glimpse of their faces and the size of Steve's muscles and think better of it. "Fine," Bucky spits again. "But if you think you're getting me on the carousel, you've got another thing coming."
"I wouldn't dream of it," Steve says, and the tension drains from his shoulders only to settle in the pit of his stomach. "I just -- somewhere else. Not here, and not the house."
Bucky nods, a short jerk of the chin, and when they walk he puts a good three feet of space between them, enough that they take up an awkward amount of space on the sidewalk, enough to block others' passage but not enough to slip in between. Whenever they meet someone Steve has to fall back, then jog to catch up. Bucky walks with a soldier's precision, long strides and harsh heel taps, and Steve wonders if he's doing math in his head like the trauma experts at SHIELD told him to do when he got angry.
Steve has ulterior motives for taking Bucky to the park, and he makes sure to take the route with the cleanest streets, the prettiest architecture. Brooklyn in the 2010s is not the Brooklyn they grew up in. Now it looks like one of those nice places where nice folks would raise nice kids, the kind of place that Bucky and Steve would've snuck into as kids, feeling dirty and unloved and out of place, to peer at the parks full of laughing families and pretend that, one day, that would be them.
"I see what you're doing," Bucky says when they're only a couple of blocks away, and he gives Steve a sideways glance that's narrow-eyed but edged with defeat. "You're trying to soften me up by showing me how nice Brooklyn looks now, but it's not gonna work. It's still got the same alleys you got beat up in, the same parking lot I pulled those two goons off you after you didn't like the way they were talking to a lady. Same old girl, new dress, that's all."
"It's really not." Steve grimaces. "Look, Buck, I would've said something except it wasn't ever really relevant, you know, but things have changed. She wasn't trying to be nasty or suggest anything, she was being nice."
"Nice." Bucky gives Steve a look. "Is that what you call it nowadays?"
"Well, yeah, because it's not -- things aren't the same now. It's not an insult. Well." Steve corrects himself, because he's not going to lie and start painting in pastel colours just for the sake of Bucky's fragile sensibility. "It is -- I mean, it can be. It still is, in places, even here, but not the same way. It's not a death sentence anymore, Buck. You don't even get kicked out of the army for it -- went through federal law last year. Heck, in New York you could even get married. I was here when that went through, too."
"The hell do you keep saying 'you'?" Bucky demands, and the tension crackles between them like a downed telephone wire, raising the hair on Steve's arms.
"Collective you. General you. French vous," Steve says, backtracking, because he didn't mean it personally -- except maybe he did, sort of, except not, and oh, he doesn't know anything anymore. This is dangerous ground, thin ice, slippery slope, a million cliches sending him rollicking straight to hell in his own personal hand basket. "I didn't mean you, I know you're not -- I mean." He sucks air through his teeth. "Not the point. I just meant, she wasn't trying to insult us. She got the wrong impression, sure, but she was just trying to strike up conversation. That's all."
"But it was still the wrong impression."
"Yes," Steve says, because he is not having this conversation with Bucky ratcheted tight and rigged to explode on a hair trigger, not when he hasn't even had it with himself. "Yes, Buck, I am not secretly dating you behind your back, or whatever that was supposed to imply."
"If you were I'd expect a hell of a lot more flowers and a lot less crappy Chinese delivery," Bucky says, and lets out a breath in a long whoosh. "There. There, I joked about it. I joked about it in public and I'm not even going to look around for some guy and his buddies cracking their knuckles at me, are you happy now?"
"I'm not saying --" Steve runs a hand through his hair, stuck, because he has no idea what he's saying at all. "Just. People joke about it more. They assume a lot more, too, you should see half the articles about the Avengers nowadays, it's all gossip about who must be sleeping with whom, but it's not the same. That's all it is most of the time, something else to gossip about. It doesn't mean someone's looking to knock out your lights behind the restaurant. If a salesgirl talks about it, she's just trying to make small talk and get herself a nice commission."
Bucky clicks his tongue against his teeth. "If you say so," he says, and Steve lets it drop.
Prospect Park is nice, soothing, and they don't ride the carousel but they do grab some hotdogs and sit on a bench nearby, watching kids squeal and wave frantically to their mothers, who obediently wave back and go back to chatting with their friends and checking their cell phones.
"Not everything's changed," Steve says, and there are layers there, layers upon layers, but even he doesn't know what or where they are so he isn't worried about Bucky peeling them back.
Bucky looks at him, brow furrowed, and finally he sits up, shifting from resting his elbows on his thighs to letting himself fall back against the bench, his shoulder pressing against Steve's arm. "Yeah," he says.
They eat their hotdogs in silence, and Bucky wipes the mustard off his fingers right down the sides of Steve's jeans as though daring Steve to say something. Steve takes the greasy paper, folds it up and gets up to toss it in the closest wastebasket across the way, but Bucky shakes his head. He throws the crumpled ball and Steve watches it soar into a perfect arc and land in the garbage can without even pinging the sides. Some kid on three-wheeled roller skates gives an impressed whistle as he zooms past.
"Look, it's not just the -- thing she said," Bucky says, and he's staring at his hands like he has crib notes scrawled on his palms like he used to do when they were kids and he'd panicked the night before a test. "It's everything. It's the store, it's Brooklyn, now. It does look like a nice place now, a good place. If you're right about it changing, I don't know if I belong here anymore."
Steve rears back as though Bucky punched him in the chest. "Oh hey, no --"
"Don't." Bucky cuts him off, his mouth in a grim line. "I'm -- broken, Steve, I'm a super soldier spy assassin with his brains chopped up and stuffed back together like some twelve-year-old girl's first quilt shoved away in her hope chest. This -- everything -- is bright and shiny and soft. That store was full of people, civilians, and in my head I was marking them, taking note of where they were and how long it would take to kill them. That's what it's like for me all the time, and that's not the Soldier, that's just me. That's what I do now. I can't help thinking that our Brooklyn might've been dirtier and darker and meaner, but at least she was mine. At least she understood me. This, I don't know, especially not after what you said earlier. It's like going away to war and coming back and the girl you got engaged to when you were kids and in love and stupid has grown up and you don't know each other anymore."
"I don't know which best friend you think you're talking to," Steve says, keeping it light, but they haven't used that term for each other since Bucky came back, and even now it sits unevenly between them like a little kid's clumsy attempt at a paper mache heart. "I didn't exactly pat the Hydra agents on the back and send them on their merry way with a note from the principal, and that's not what the Avengers do, either. I mean, we're not the Reconcilers or the Let's Talk About This Like Adult-ers. Everyone looks at me like I'd never even turn and spit, but they forget that Captain America doesn't do his protecting with a stern look and a spanking." Steve tilts his head back and squints up at the sky, watches the clouds move across the sun. "I'm not saying I like it or anything, but you've got a lot more amnesia than I thought you did if you think I don't know what it's like to get your hands dirty."
"Yeah, for the sake of saving the world," Bucky says darkly. "Not because some guys in a lab wound you up and let you loose with a gun in your hands. Not really the same thing."
"Same thing to the people who are dead because of us," Steve says tiredly, and this is something his shrink keeps poking at, his veteran guilt, but there's no point when things have to be done. Time enough for remorse when he's not actually diving back into the field as soon as Fury makes the call. "And you don't like it either. I just, I dunno. I don't think you're as out of place as you think you are -- or at least, no worse than I am -- was -- still am, just not as much. It gets better."
"I don't know that it will," Bucky says, his voice sounding like it's been dragged over gravel and stuffed into a too-tight suit. "What if it's not? Can you deal with that?"
Steve turns and glares at him. "I pulled you out of Zola's lab after risking the whole mission to go back and get you out. I jumped across a room that was on fire because i knew you'd catch me. I still remember what it felt like when I let go of your hand on that train, do you really think --" he reins himself in because that's too much, too much, and the peace between them after Bucky's outburst is too raw, too delicate for this much sentiment. "Whatever it is, I'm pretty sure I can deal with it."
"I won't hold you to that," Bucky says, and there's resignation in his voice that does its best to crack Steve's ribs except there's something else beneath it, hope, maybe. "Still, it'd be nice."
"Well, there you go."
They walk back together eventually, once the sun starts to dip below the taller buildings on the horizon and the wind gets the first tinge of a chill to it, and while Bucky keeps his distance, it's not as rigidly enforced. When they pass by the store again, Bucky stops. "We didn't get jeans," he says, awkward, and his eyes slide away from Steve's, but Steve was not born yesterday and he recognizes a peace offering when he sees it.
"Get one pair to fit and I promise that's it," Steve says, and Bucky sighs and squares his shoulders, but he follows Steve in without complaint. The salesgirl flinches when she sees them, but Bucky rolls his shoulders and turns on his best ladykiller smile, and by the end they've left with a store discount and a gift card. Steve laughs, but stops when Bucky shifts his stride to knock him nearly into a lamppost.
They don't talk about it when they get home, and since Steve isn't exactly eager to jump into that pool with his shoes still on, he lets it go. It doesn't come up again until they go for another walk, this one aimless, because Bucky -- like Steve did -- has to get used to downtime, not having every minute of every day allocated to a specific task. The longer time passes the more he feels like he needs to be up and doing something. Bucky's shrink suggested walks, Steve's suggested company, and so they do both.
Steve is about to ask Bucky what he wants to get for lunch when Bucky freezes, his hand coming up to grip Steve's elbow. "Do you see that?" he asks, his voice a hoarse whisper, and it's a mix of terror and shock and absolute disbelief.
"See what?" Steve looks around, trying not to be too conspicuous. There's a street vendor selling overpriced photographs next to another man with a table spread of scarves, a couple with a small child whose face is covered in ice cream, and a teenager with more tattoos than Steve would have thought legal for someone who looks young enough to require parental consent. "Buck, I don't --"
"Those two," Bucky says, jerking his chin toward the couple. "Are they crazy?"
Steve blinks. One of them is crouched next to the stroller and doing his best to wipe the mess from the child's face; the other is talking rapidly into the bluetooth headset in his ear. "Oh," Steve says, and apparently the Soviets didn't master that sort of technology. He sags in relief at the innocuousness of it all, though wow, Bucky is high-strung today. Maybe a walk through the park again. "He's not crazy, he's talking into a headset."
"Not the headset! I've been to SHIELD, I know about bluetooth okay, and that's not -- for God's sake, Steve, am I crazy?" Bucky hisses through his teeth. "Dammit, Steve, those two are together and they have a baby and they're in public, are they looking to get killed?" His eyes are wide and white around the edges. "Okay, fine, sales clerks can joke about it and it doesn't mean they're trying to get you kicked out, but you can't tell me that what they're doing isn't suicidal."
Oh. Steve lets out a breath. "It's really not," he says. "I mean, I don't think so, not in New York at least. There are all sorts of couples with babies, Buck, they're all over the parades. I think they even get their own group to march in."
"Parades." Bucky gives him a flat look. "There are parades."
"Well, yeah, I see them on TV, on the news." Steve decides not to tell Bucky about his own accidental involvement, since it doesn't really count, anyway. "It does depend on where you are, I'm not going to pretend it's fine everywhere. But nobody here is going to come after them and the kid isn't going to get taken away or anything like that." He gives Bucky a small smile. "You should see all the cute interracial kids running around the park sometime, too."
"Jesus," Bucky says, and apparently Sister Catherine reaches up from the grave to smack him on the head because he flinches and rubs the back of his neck without Steve even saying anything. "You're right, the world has gone completely screwy." He shakes his head.
"Well, we landed on the moon in '69," Steve says. "It's not so far-fetched for us to take only forty more years to allow a couple of fellas to adopt a kid if they want to."
Bucky snorts and drops it. Ahead of them, guy-with-phone hangs up and grins down at the baby.
It's a dangerous subject and not one Steve wants to push, not when he really isn't sure where he's going with it. He's had some time to adjust to the new century, the new ways of thinking -- and the ones that haven't really changed even after seventy years, good ol' America stalwart and true even in her bigotry -- but in an abstract, detached sort of way. He tells himself it's because he's interested in the socio-politics, which makes sense if he's going to be a superhero representing all of the nation in one man, but Steve knows himself a little better than that.
Knows himself enough to know that just because he's been dumped in a place where salesgirls dig for commission by complimenting men on their handsome boyfriends and couples can walk down the street with their adorable adopted babies doesn't magically erase over twenty years of growing up in the era he did. Not to mention, any soldier knows how to put a lid on destructive thinking or there would be a lot more breakdowns on the battlefield and maybe fewer Passchendaeles and a few more soccer games to the tune of Stille Nacht, who knows.
Point being, sure he's been in this new and self-styled "enlightened" century -- millennium, even, take a second to chew on that -- for over a year, but most of that was without Bucky, and other than a few specific days that ended with him wishing he didn't metabolize alcohol like a super-soldier, Steve didn't let himself think about it. What was the point of throwing a rescue ring into the water when the swimmer had already drowned?
With Bucky here, those questions have begun to loosen in his mind again, and the locks he'd placed on so many parts of his mind have started questing for keys. Still, though, not yet. Not yet. He's on Bucky's time schedule now, whatever that means, and nothing's going to happen -- if indeed Bucky wants anything to happen, if Steve even wants anything to happen, it isn't as though he's given himself time to sit through it -- if anyone pushes.
Which is why Steve finds himself losing his temper one afternoon in the Avengers Tower when Tony and Clint's kidding goes a little too far.
"Okay, look," Tony says, out of nowhere, and they're supposed to be watching a movie but it's from the seventies and Steve tires of the cynicism and the anger and tends to tune out, so he welcomes the distraction even if Tony has his belligerent face on. "There's really no way to ask this nicely, but I was going through the pot and trying to clean up a few old wagers and I don't think it's going to get resolved any other way, so --"
"What?" Bucky says, leaning forward, and Steve uses the chance to flex his arm a little and get some blood flow back, not that he would ever, ever complain. "You guys have a betting pool and you didn't bring me in as soon as I got out? That's cruel, Stark."
"Spangles here still isn't in on it," Tony says, and Steve rolls his eyes. "We mentioned it, but he said he wasn't interested."
"Maybe I would have, if the wager at the time hadn't been whether Bruce could have sex without his heart-rate kicking up and bringing out the Other Guy." Steve's mouth thins. He has a sense of humour like anyone else -- Bucky could draw a laugh from him that made his stomach muscles ache and his lungs burn -- but it's just not in line with the others in the Tower. Their humour is sliding, nasty; even when it's in good fun it still feels mean-spirited. Humour in the twenty-first century is much more cynical now; it's as though no one is allowed to laugh unless it's at someone else's expense.
"Oh, that's nice," Bruce says, but it's mild and tired like everything else. "The answer is yes, by the way, but since I told you that means whoever the winner is has to split the takings with me." He pauses and takes a thoughtful bite of his vegetarian pizza. "Or at least take me out to dinner before attempting to test that out, in case it was a really convoluted attempt at asking me for a date."
"Sorry, big guy, it was my wager, so maybe next time. Though maybe Pep's into that, who knows, I'll ask." Tony claps Bruce on the shoulder. "I'll transfer you some stock instead, how's that? But no, Steve, we had a thing going, whether or not you've, you know, sampled the Earth's greatest delight as it were. Bruce said no and gave me this long lecture about the politics and society and I really didn't care so I said yes mostly just to shut him up. Because I mean, you know, Captain America, those arms, ladies faint at the sight of those arms, and you can't possibly be so naive to think those shirts actually fit you --"
"No," Steve says sharply, and Tony stops mid-sentence, blinking as though he didn't actually expect Steve to answer. "I haven't." He bites the inside of his lip, tasting blood, but then Bucky moves just a fraction into Steve's space, his arm flush against Steve's side, and Steve lets out a breath. "You could have asked, you know. I was in the army, not a convent. It's not like the question would have made me faint."
Tony claps his hands together. "Okay, then, big guy, that means you're cleaning up today, I guess."
"That's not fair," Clint whines, digging his chin into Tony's thigh hard enough that Tony yelps and applies a little cognitive recalibration attempt of his own. "Why don't we all just give Bruce our money? It's a dumb wager in the first place, I mean, why bother? That's like betting whether or not he can get drunk."
"He could, theoretically, get drunk," Bruce says, and they all look at him, even Steve. "His metabolism is what, four times that of a normal human? It just means he has to drink a lot more a lot faster, that's all. Pound a shot a minute and he'll get intoxicated the same as any of us, but it wouldn't be pleasant."
And that makes sense, because the only times Steve actively tries to get drunk are all about Bucky, and those are sit alone with a bottle kind of nights, taking long, slow pulls and contemplating everything that had gone wrong. He hadn't tried to chug the whole thing in a matter of minutes. Well, the things you learn.
"I don't like you," Clint tells Bruce archly. "You're no fun." Seeing as he's currently taking up the whole sofa as though he's the only one on it, draped across both Tony and Bruce with his feet in Natasha's lap, the sting from that statement is mostly gone. Bruce doesn't seem upset at least; he only pats Clint on the back in a consoling gesture.
"Seriously, though, really?" Tony says. "Okay, I know you did that whole scary-underfed-sickly thing for years, but you're telling me nobody would even take you out on a pity date? And don't tell me nobody was having unmarried sex in the Depression because please, what else were you going to do with your time?"
Steve folds his arms, drumming his fingers against his bicep. "Apparently this might surprise you, but pity dates really weren't what I was looking for. I was -- waiting for the right person. There's nothing wrong with that. People still do that now, you know."
"Sure, girls in ankle skirts with promise rings." Tony waves a hand. Steve blows out a breath through his nose. "But c'mon, you're in the 2010s now, and that's a whole different ball game. You can't hide behind the forties and societally-sanctioned prudery, or whatever you want to call it, and now it's definitely not about pity. There's no excuse, Rogers, no more pearl-clutching. Now it's just plain sad."
"If he doesn't want to, he doesn't want to," Bucky breaks in, and his voice is sharp with warning. "If he wants to wait, so what? How the hell does that affect anybody else in this room?"
Steve pokes Bucky in the side with his elbow. "I don't need you to fight my battles for me, soldier," he says, but his mouth twitches in a small smile. "I can handle it, I promise."
"Well maybe I don't like listening to it either," Bucky says flatly. "It's not like you're eight years old and someone takes you to a candy store and says you can have whatever you want. It's complicated." He gives the room a look that drops the temperature a few degrees -- or maybe JARVIS agrees and is just being dramatic.
Tony pauses, and then his gaze flicks between Steve and Bucky. "Complicated," he says. "Right, yeah, makes sense. The twenty-first century really is different, you know, whole lotta possibilities you might not have considered before."
"Stark," Natasha says, drawing out the vowel and aspirating the k. "Drop it."
"I'm just saying!" Tony waves both hands in one of those gestures that could mean anything. "If you guys want to take the jet and borrow one of my island getaways, I promise I won't say a word. I'll just write it off on my taxes as a charitable endeavour. Or therapy, maybe, since Bucky here needs to acclimatize to the new millennium and all."
"Enough!" Everyone jumps when Steve shouts, and he would apologize for causing Natasha to draw her beretta and Clint to pull a knife, both out of nowhere, but there are lines. Steve doesn't have many when it comes to himself and not bullies or injustices, and often he doesn't know where they are until someone crosses one, but they have, and there it is. "You're going to drop it. Right now."
"Easy, Cap," Clint says, and his eyebrows are furrowed in annoyance at being startled into drawing a weapon. "Seriously, all those years, never mind the time on ice, you really should go out and get laid. It'll do you good. And hey, if all you're worried about is finding the right partner…"
"That's exactly what I'm talking about," Steve snaps. He fights his way out of the pile of limbs and stands up, actually shaking with anger and fear. Fear that their jibes will do what the salesgirl's innocent remarks almost did; that they'll make Bucky think Steve has some sort of designs or ulterior motives and send him packing. "Me, Bucky, sex, any of that, that's off-limits. I don't have to sit and listen to you joke about it, and I'm not going to. If anybody has a problem with it, they can take it up with me outside. We can even go to the gym and spar right now."
Something flickers across Bucky's face, tightening the line of his jaw and the skin around his eyes. "Okay," he says, slapping his thighs and standing up. "It's been fun, fellas, but I think we'd better go."
He puts his hand on Steve's shoulder, trying to calm him, but Steve shakes him off. He won't be placated, not this time. "Not until they understand this is not okay."
Natasha slides to her feet, fluid and catlike and dangerous, and immediately every man in the room crosses his legs. "It's okay," she says, tossing Steve a dark look over her shoulder. "I'll explain it. You go home." She gives Bucky a small, tight smile. "Take care of him, James."
Steve will never get used to hearing her calling him that, he thinks, but Bucky only nods. "Will, do, ma'am," he says, and salutes her. As they leave, he hears Natasha's voice, never rising but chilled and terrifying, and he relaxes just a fraction.
"Stand down, Captain," Bucky says, and he sounds a little amused and a little hesitant at the same time. He shoves his hands in his pockets, tugs his left sleeve further down over his hand. "You kinda lost it back there."
"I'm not a museum exhibit," Steve says, and he feels as though ants are crawling beneath his skin. "My -- choices -- are not up for discussion."
Bucky runs his tongue over his teeth. "Thought you said it's not a big deal anymore."
"What's not a big deal, privacy? No, it's not, not to other people I guess, but it still is to me."
"Not that." Bucky grimaces, flops a hand vaguely between them. "You know. What they were implying. What people always implied, back when I was allowed to sock them in the nose for it."
"Oh." Steve pushes one hand into his hair, fingers twisting. "Oh, that, no. It's -- not, they're not judging or anything. The only thing worth judging about sex nowadays is not having it, I guess, but that's not -- agh." He swallows, trying to get his thoughts a little more organized than the swirling chaos they are now. "It's not a big deal, but I don't want them saying that about us, Buck. It's not like that. It's not -- it's not right."
"Sounds like you need to figure out where your head is at, Cap," Bucky says, and that's two Captains and no Steves, which tells Steve just as much as the sudden brittleness in his voice that Bucky's mood has shifted. "No, sorry, I get it. It's okay, just not for you, and they should knock it off."
Steve backtracks, does his best to collect what he was saying. This is more talking about the thing that never gets talked about than he ever would have imagined, but Bucky is still here, at least, not running for the hills or pulling a knife on him, and that's something. "No, I just -- with you, that's not what I'm doing." Pressure builds in his chest and he needs Bucky to understand this, if nothing else. "It's not like they were insinuating. I'm not here with you because I'm waiting for some kind of, I don't know, physical payoff for my time and attention. I got my best friend back from the dead and they're treating it like I'm the kind of guy who thinks that because he buys her dinner, a girl owes him something. I don't want you to think I'm trying to trick you or push you into something I'm not. I lost you on that train and I almost lost you to brainwashing and I'm not going to lose you because my friends think it's funny to joke that I'm only keeping you around in the hopes you repay me with -- with that. I don't want you questioning everything I do and thinking I have secret motives."
Bucky stares at him, blinking several times before he manages to say anything. "Uh, Steve." He swallows, clears his throat. "Are -- you worried I might think you're trying to, uh, take advantage of me? Because --" His voice stutters in a hysterical laugh that he tries to hold back, but it only pushes the sound up into his nose and makes it worse. "Steve. C'mon."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Steve demands, but Bucky is laughing, full out laughing, the kind where he has to lean forward and brace himself with both hands on his thighs, and Steve hasn't seen that since before. Way, way before. "I just didn't want you to get the wrong idea!"
"Well, I'm glad you cleared that up, because boy, I was starting to feel like I should watch my back." Bucky claps Steve's shoulder. "It's fine, I promise. I just got sore at the Tower because it was obviously bugging you, and just because you're bigger and don't need me to fight your battles doesn't mean I can just turn it off." He shrugs, a little sheepish. "Sorry."
"It's fine," Steve says, and runs a hand over his eyes.
"Yeah." Steve glances at Bucky, surprised by the warmth in his tone, and Bucky gives him a crooked grin so much like his old, carefree one that Steve forgets how to breathe. "Yeah, it is."
Chapter 4: Round and Round and Back Where You Began
"You're the only one who saw the real me before the serum, and it looks like you're the only one who sees me now. I dunno, Buck, maybe you are just crazy, the numbers aren't looking good. Maybe everything special about me did come from a bottle."
In which culture shock is the story, not the punchline.
"I'm going to the store," Steve says, patting his pocket to ensure his wallet is there. "Need anything?"
It's something he'd said hundreds of times, two or almost a hundred years ago depending on your scale, and he has to stop and let that sink in. He's wearing shoes that would have made even the richest snot-nosed kids at school balk -- these ones were $100, as cheap as Tony would let him get before he started getting hives, and back in the SSR he got fifty bucks a month, bumped up to one hundred when he switched to active combat -- and he has a computer in his pocket with what Tony says is a hundred times more processing power than what they used to go to the moon.
They've been to the moon. Fancy that. Funny how Steve's met aliens and so-called demigods and who knows what else, but staring up at the moon and thinking that some guy's footprints are up there is what gets to him. The others have good reason to chuckle at him, really.
"I don't know why you bother," Bucky says, coming around the corner and munching on an apple. "You could have SHIELD send over some minion with a full refrigerator every week, and here you go shopping. Captain America in the bread aisle. You gotta admit that's funny."
Steve shrugs one shoulder. "I like it," he says, and he could try to pinpoint and defend himself, but what's the point. Especially when Bucky's mouth quirks up at the corner and Steve realizes he's not really asking.
"I know, it's like how you look for those little hole-in-the-wall diners with awful food and cranky waitresses and a health inspection certificate from the 70s when you have the cash to go to one of those places we used to stand under and imagine going inside," Bucky says, and he finishes the apple and tosses the core over his head without looking. Steve hears it hit the garbage can with a solid, rattling thump. "Same old Steve, pretending nothing has changed."
"There's nothing wrong with that," Steve says, and this time he is defensive. It's like his SHIELD-mandated psychiatrist his first six months back, who told him he should stop his nostalgic search for atavistic normalcy and work on finding normal in the here and now. "Plus I like being able to choose my own food. It makes me squirrelly having someone else do it for me."
"God forbid anyone do Captain America any favours," Bucky says dryly, and Steve bristles before Bucky winks, following it up with a smile that isn't quite like his old one but is trying its best. "Nah, I'm sorry. Nothing wrong with wanting normal." His eyes go far away, and Steve stiffens for a second except this isn't Bucky losing himself, it's him remembering on purpose. "I still remember when we were what, like, ten? And they asked us what our dreams were, where we wanted to be when we grew up, and you said you wanted a house somewhere, Long Island maybe, with a yard and a barbecue and a dog, and you'd make apple pie in fall."
"I remember that." Steve crosses his arms, but a smile twitches at his mouth in spite of himself. "You laughed at me."
"I laughed at you because I said I wanted to be a spaceman or a superhero and you were talking about pie and jumping in leaf piles." Bucky raises an eyebrow. "And now look at us."
"Yeah," Steve says, chewing on his lip, and he doesn't look at Bucky's sleeve pulled low over his arm, but only because he's had the practice. "Look at us now."
Bucky heaves himself up away from the wall and does up the zipper on his hoodie. "Here, lemme get my shoes and I'll come with."
"Really? Lord James Buchanan is gonna slum it in a grocery store with me?" Steve asks, and he jostles Bucky with his shoulder as he passes.
"Well, not if you keep up with that mouth," Bucky shoots back, bending and lacing up his sneakers. "I don't remember you being this much of a smartass."
"Yes, you do." Steve catches himself staring at the curve of Bucky's neck, and quickly looks away. "I always made an exception for you."
"Yeah, you did, huh."
Bucky has gotten better at not craning his neck when they walk through the streets. Not that he ever was as much a rubber-necker as Steve tended to be; Bucky was more the quiet "Well, I'll be" type while Steve gawked and found himself lost in dreams about the future. Still, the best Stark Expo had nothing on Times Square after dark, all the bustle and the people and the computers everywhere, and if it didn't have flying cars, well, that was probably better. Steve's seen Manhattan taxi drivers; he doesn't think they need another dimension to curse at each other in.
Just because Bucky kidded him, Steve decides not to stop in at the tiny corner store run by Mr. Hassan, who always gives Steve the newspaper for free and who has a pack of Captain America trading cards behind the counter but never once asked Steve to sign them, and goes to the big shiny super-mart instead. Steve doesn't think he'll ever get the hang of those, not after getting frozen when he did. Maybe if he'd been a kid -- or even if the war hadn't broken out and he and Bucky had both gotten jobs somewhere and married nice girls, or whatever it was good red-blooded American boys were supposed to do -- he would've been able to run through the aisles in a mess of wonder, picking up all the different kinds of bread and marvelling at them.
It's been over a year since they found him in the ice so Steve has gotten better, but he still walks through the supermarket's sliding doors with trepidation. He'll touch a jug of milk the size of a small child and think about Bucky stealing silk stockings from a department store and giving them to one of the girls down the road who kissed him while he grinned, and pooled resources from the other girls in the building to give them a whole quart to themselves, and because it was the middle of winter and they had no heat they didn't need to worry about it spoiling so fast. They had milk on their wheaties for over a week, and Bucky joked that he knew how to take care of Steve, now didn't he.
Now, Bucky skids to a stop inside the supermarket and refers to their Lord and Saviour in a manner Sister Catherine would've given him The Look for.
"Now, now, Buck," Steve says, trying to hide a grin and only feeling a little guilty, "I don't think the man upstairs needs you to call his attention to the grapes."
"Ha ha," Bucky shoots back, and he stands in the middle of the produce and just spins around. "Where do they even get this stuff?"
"It usually says so on the signs," Steve says, pointing to the little cards, and Bucky bends down to examine them.
"Look at that, papaya from Mexico. That's just insane. And people eat this?"
"That's not even the best part." Steve grabs a hand cart and takes one of the papaya, squeezing it and holding it to his ear like he has any clue what the heck he's doing. "People don't want the foreign stuff, they want it grown local. If it doesn't come out of somebody's back garden, that's not good enough anymore."
"Well, lah-dee-dah," Bucky says, taking an apple and turning it over in his hand. "Times do change. You're saying our stupid little window box tomatoes would be worth more than ones imported from --" he checks the tag -- "Florida?"
"Guess so." Steve watches Bucky let out a low whistle and shake his head, shoving his hands in his pockets and strolling away from the fruit before he adds, "Just don't check the price of anything."
Bucky being Bucky, he immediately spins on his heel and heads for the closest aisle, which happens to be the condiments. Bruce once told Steve there's a science to how grocery stores are laid out, something about tracking movements so that people make the highest number of impulse buys, but Steve didn't really pay attention and Bruce didn't care if he did, he just liked the company.
"What the --" Bucky holds up a squeeze bottle of ketchup, and Steve pretends he has a cough to stifle his laughter. "They want me to pay $8.99 for a thing of ketchup? Are they insane?"
"I told you," Steve says, pretending like he didn't do that on purpose.
"Fifty cents," Bucky says dully, and suddenly it's not so funny anymore as his face tightens and he drops the bottle back on the shelf with a clatter, his shoulders at sharp angles. "Fifty cents, and half of that went toward the war effort. And now they want nine bucks, and for what? Who gets the extra money?"
Steve actually curses under his breath. He knows Bucky was awake for more than just the forties -- right through the Cold War, something Steve and other guys who look his age only read about -- but he was on assignment the whole time and wouldn't have gotten much chance to think about this sort of thing. "Hey, Buck, it's okay," Steve says, and he steps in close and curls his fingers around Bucky's elbow, heart pounding. He can't afford an episode in a grocery store in the middle of Manhattan, not after the close call in the department store last week, not when they've finally gotten enough trust that they can live on their own with the sneaky kind of detail instead of the kind that follows ten feet away. He wonders if they're calling in for backup right now, being advised to stand down while they wait to see if Rogers has a handle on the situation.
"I'm sorry," Steve says, quiet and close, and it's the sort of thing they never would have been able to get away with back in the day, two guys standing elbow to elbow in a grocery store having an argument about condiments, not without someone making a smart remark if they're lucky or getting pushy if they weren't. He finds himself insanely glad they had that particular conversation already. "Buck, it's just ketchup, it was a joke, c'mon. Let's go."
"Nine bucks," Bucky says, hissing through his teeth, but he lets Steve drag him away and for once doesn't yank his elbow free. "I didn't fight the Nazis to pay nine bucks for ketchup," Bucky calls over his shoulder at a wide-eyed little girl in pigtails, who turns and runs to tell her mother about the crazy man over by the potatoes.
Bucky withdraws as they wander the aisles together, and while at first Steve tries to get his opinion and which kind of sauce or which kinds of bread he prefers, Bucky always takes one look at the price tag and shrugs. "It freaked me out, too, at first," Steve says, and he doesn't look at Bucky, just pretends that he's fascinated by the types of cheese. "You know, one time I said to Tony I just always pick the cheapest version of whatever I want, and they all looked at me like I was crazy, even Natasha. I had to suffer through this whole lecture on quality. Ms. Potts actually sat me down and told me there's a difference between all the kinds of olive oil, said people actually have tasting parties. Meanwhile I get stuck in the pasta section because I don't know whether I'm supposed to care about tagliatelle or forma-whatever, and it's funny because Captain America, ha ha, he doesn't know how to buy cheese."
"This stuff could'a fed the whole orphanage," Bucky says, and his eyes are hard, his jaw set. "People were cutting coupons and buying bonds and saving butter for a special occasion, remember that time I kept staying out late for like two weeks and you got all sore at me, thought I was going out with dames and I should be careful before I got one of them knocked up and then where would I be --"
"And you stood there and let me shout at you and lecture you at chest level," Steve says, a small smile on his face, and he doesn't remember moving into Bucky's space but there they are, and the only place they're touching is the side of their arms but Steve feels it down to his toes. "You let me get out this whole tirade and here you'd been doing odd jobs and collecting scrap metal and trading rations and you got us each a steak for New Year's."
"Damn right I did," Bucky says, and there, finally, the danger passes and his expression softens, and Steve can breathe again. "It was worth it, though, seeing you and your big blue eyes looking up at me all guilty. I think I got a neck rub out of it, no complaining."
"Something like that," Steve says, and he swallows. "C'mon, let's load this up and go home."
"You want me to carry that?" Bucky asks as they leave the store, and then he stops mid-stride and shakes his head. "Sorry, old habits. You do your thing."
Steve hands over one of the bags, and Bucky raises an eyebrow. "Hey, even super soldiers need circulation in their fingers," Steve says, and the ghost of a grin flits over Bucky's face as he takes it. Steve looks down at the plastic and grimaces. "I keep meaning to buy one of those eco bags or something, I just keep forgetting. I never -- Buck, can you imagine just getting new plastic bags every time you went to the store? And here I'm doing it without thinking."
"It's horrible," Bucky says, and he gives Steve a sideways grin. "You're a disgrace to your uniform. Nah, don't worry, Cap, I'm sure in a couple of months I'll be complaining because you bought the wrong kind of coffee, or whatever it is folks around here do."
"In the Tower, mentioning coffee is pretty much grounds for war," Steve tells him. "I like the cheap instant stuff, but apparently that's an insult. Bruce likes the turkish kind, I dunno what's turkish about it but it's sludgy and could knock you on your back, and Tony says he only drinks the gourmet kind that needs a special machine that looks like something Howard would've used to go to the moon, but then when he's in the workshop I've seen him drink the stuff Dummy makes without even blinking and I'm pretty sure it was mixed with motor oil."
A trio of girls passes by, giggling and nudging each other with their elbows. They crane their necks when they pass, and when Steve glances back they burst into peals of laughter and take off running. Steve snorts. "You didn't even say anything at them and they're still going crazy for you. At least some things don't change."
Bucky shakes his head. "The only thing that hasn't changed is that you still think you look like you did before the serum," he says. "Those girls were looking at you. Clean-cut all-American boy like you, and the crazy guy with the stubble in the sweater? C'mon, Steve."
Back with the Commandos, Steve used to try to argue when Bucky said things like that, but the problem with the serum is that it took what Steve had grown up with as not even modesty but just actual fact and turned it into the most abominable false humility. "Gosh, Bucky, was she really looking at me?" made sense when Steve was six inches shorter and a hundred pounds of muscle lighter; afterward he just sounded like the most desperate fisher of compliments.
But the thing is, Steve can't just turn his brain off. He can't make all those years of seeing himself as a weakling, as the last man any girl would ever want to look at, much less go dancing with, just go away; an image change isn't going to flip the switch that instantly. The serum amplified everything about him, and that includes his insecurities, his assurance that he's just a normal guy, nothing special, that the least he can do is lay down his life because there's no point to him other than that.
Here, people talk to Steve as though he's been Captain America all his life, which makes sense to them since he was a super soldier when most of his fans' grandparents were alive. They forget that it's been just over a year for Steve -- less, even, when he first woke up -- and that most of his memories aren't of the muscles and the speed and the strength and admiring glances and coy touches, but of being undersized and underfed and catching every disease on the planet, and the only one whoever looked at him like he was a six-foot man in a five-foot frame was Bucky.
"Hey, sorry, it's fine," Bucky says, breaking in on Steve's thoughts. "I know you don't like getting teased about it."
Steve shrugs. "It's just -- strange," he says. "I guess the one thing I got used to when I was -- the way I was -- is that if anybody ever did want to, uh, dance with me, then they'd want me for me, you know? I wouldn't have your problem, where girls fall all over you just because you're gorgeous, and you don't know if they really want you for you."
"That's okay, Steve, don't hold back," Bucky says, but he shoots Steve a grin. "I really don't think it was as bad as you remember, but I'll take the flattery. I did occasionally find a dame who liked me for my sparkling personality."
"Yeah, and your baby blue eyes and killer jaw," Steve says, rolling his eyes. "You got most of your dates without opening your mouth, don't pretend you didn't. We'd go on double dates and you'd end up with both by the end of the night." Steve doesn't mention the part where he was always a little bit relieved, mostly because he's pretty sure Bucky knew and thinks that might be why he did it.
"All right, all right, I'm gorgeous," Bucky says with a rakish wink, the kind that could unhook a girl's brassiere from fifty paces. "I think I've lost track of your argument, though."
To be honest, Steve isn't quite sure where he was going with that, either, but he's not about to let on now. He does a mental backtrack and finds the nearest point before the conversation went off the rails. "I just -- people don't see me anymore. They see Captain America and all the history that goes with that, history I wasn't even around to remember most of. They know my story better than I do, and that's what they're interested in, not me." He scuffs his shoe against the sidewalk, glad they're coming close to the house. Despite his decidedly non red, white and blue getup, he's starting to get the whispers, the stares, the people asking themselves and each other if they really just saw Captain America buying groceries.
"I guess I just thought -- after the serum -- I thought people would finally be able to see me for me." Steve blows out a breath, and his fingers are cramping so he switches the bag to his other hand. "Back in the day I was the skinny guy they wouldn't look twice at, and I thought if I could just get a normal body then I might have a chance. They'd stop overlooking me just because I didn't seem like a guy they should take seriously. But now --" He shrugs. "Now it's the exact same problem, just backwards. They're still looking at the outside, not at me, and just because now they're fainting instead of laughing at me doesn't make it any better."
"Gee, I didn't know you'd put so much thought into this," Bucky says lightly, but it's like ice over a lake, and Steve isn't sure what's underneath it. "You really looking that much?"
"Nah." Steve barks out a hollow laugh. "Nah, Buck, I'm still waiting for the right partner. Only thing is that now instead of having none to choose from, I've got too many, but it still doesn't solve my problem. Tony and the others joke about me being a prude or wanting it to be special, but it's not even that anymore. It's just wanting someone who wants me."
Bucky slings his arm around Steve's shoulders, gripping him by the arm and pulling him in for a hug, the way he used to do when their heights were different and Steve's head only came up to his chest. It's more awkward now -- their shoulders knock, and Bucky can't rest his chin on the top of Steve's head the way he used to -- but it still does its job of settling the mess in Steve's chest so he can breathe a little easier. It's the most casual contact they've had in public in a long time, and Steve soaks it in.
"I'm sure you'll find somebody," Bucky says. "You know the old saying, love comes when you're not looking, right? Well, you've been not looking for about seventy years. That's gotta count for something."
Steve chuckles. He unlocks the door to their house and they head inside; he wonders, not for the first time, how many cameras have been hidden in the premises, whether someone watches them climb the stairs up to the porch, if they shout advice at the screen during his and Bucky's arguments like they might a television sitcom because they're bored and underpaid.
"Well, I don't know about those folks too dumb to look beneath the muscle," Bucky says, reaching past Steve to put the milk in the fridge, "but I know you're a great guy. And whatever anybody says, you were that same great guy when I could lift you over my shoulder one-handed, so if they don't see that, screw 'em. You're Captain America, you don't have to settle for some fan with the stars and stripes in their eyes."
Steve glances at Bucky sideways and starts stocking the cupboard with the canned pasta sauce. Maybe one of these days he'll actually learn to make it. "You're the only one who saw the real me before the serum, and it looks like you're the only one who sees me now." He pauses, a box of macaroni halfway to the shelf. "I dunno, Buck, maybe you are just crazy, the numbers aren't looking good. Maybe everything special about me did come from a bottle."
Bucky freezes. "Who the hell said that?"
"Nobody, it's nothing." Steve winces. "It wasn't -- he didn't mean it. Well, I mean, he did, I think, but we were angry -- I'd made him angry, I said awful things too, really awful things, I said he was -- well, never mind -- but Loki's staff was controlling us and making us angry and edgy and basically nothing anybody said in that conversation counted, but I dunno. I guess it stuck. If what I said burns him half as much still as what he said to me, I should probably put all my money toward the biggest apology bouquet in the world. Maybe something the size of Ebbets Field."
Bucky says nothing for a minute or so, concentrating on putting away the last of the groceries. Once they're done he leans his hip against the counter and crosses his arms. "You and your buddies seem kinda -- volatile."
"It's really not that bad," Steve says, and tries not to think about how he and Tony Stark found each other's deepest insecurities within minutes and drove the knife in. "We -- I dunno, I don't think you get to be a superhero without some kind of trauma, it's what you trade for the responsibility, right?" He's joking, or trying to, except not really. "You put a bunch of us together and some things are bound to get thrown at the wall. But it's better now. We still fight, but it's not as pointed. We lash out because we're angry, we're not trying to wound each other quite so deep."
"If you say so." Bucky toys with the edge of his sleeve, and nobody would argue that Bucky hasn't paid his price, except maybe for some of the SHIELD higher-ups who still make noises about restitution, but those people also tossed a nuke at Manhattan so Steve isn't going to give their opinions much credence. "Still, you have to know that's wrong. I mean, dead wrong, stupid dead wrong."
Steve doesn't want to have this argument; there must be a time and place for existential crises, but he's pretty sure it's not the middle of his cozy-not-cramped kitchen in a small house approximately one-tenth the size of what Steve could afford just because he can't imagine spending that much money on himself.
"Like I said, it's fine," Steve says, brushing it off. "I don't really think that, I don't know why I said it."
"Uh huh." But Bucky drops it, the way he always does when he pushes Steve too far, and Steve finds himself suddenly, fiercely grateful for his presence. "Well, we bought all this food, I guess we should probably cook it. I don't suppose you've learned to make decent grub in the time you've been out."
Steve laughs. "Not really. I just sort of heat things up, though if you start waking up before ten I'll make you breakfast. I'm good with eggs."
"I need incentive to get out of bed before ten," Bucky says dryly. "So far, New York's not giving me much. Now that nobody's waking me up and giving me a target and a gun in the same breath, I figure I can sleep in as late as I want."
"Of course you can," Steve says immediately. "I wasn't suggesting you shouldn't, just that I usually make myself something when I get back from my runs, that's all."
"I know, I know, stand down, soldier," Bucky says, and he reaches up to ruffle Steve's hair, an echo of their previous dynamic made strange by the flip in their height difference. "Well, I'll have you know, in my time as a super-soldier-spy-assassin, I learned absolutely nothing about quality cuisine, so there's that." He takes down one of the boxes and turns it over to look at the ingredients. "I don't even know what half this stuff is. Thiamin mononitrate? Riboflavin?"
Steve grins. "Yeah, I did the same thing. It's probably better not to look. When Natasha gets on one of her kicks she yells at us about how we're all voluntarily poisoning ourselves."
Bucky falls quiet, and Steve kicks himself. Bucky and Natasha are good, but there's a lot of history and Steve tries not to poke sticks at it. "Buck, I'm sorry--"
"Eh, it's fine." Bucky's mouth thins in a deaths-head smile. "I mean, I do manage to see her around the Avengers Tower without losing my mind more than a couple of times, I'm sure you can make jokes about her food preferences."
Steve tries not to think about the first time, when Natasha turned the corner unexpectedly and Bucky's whole body changed like someone flipped a switch; he'd gone taut, feral, reached for half a dozen weapons that were no longer there. In the end Natasha had to use her patent-pending cognitive recalibration, and Steve had to wait three days outside the infirmary, chewing his nails and harassing the nurses until not even Captain America's baby blues saved him from the hospital administrator's wrath.
"One of these days, you're going to get past agonizing over the question you're obviously dying to ask," Bucky says, shaking his head. "And hell, I might even answer it."
Steve flinches, but doesn't take the bait because he knows Bucky -- even this semi-stranger with the kill switch who wakes in the night, not screaming from nightmares like after he escaped the Hydra facility, but coiled and ready to strike and barking in Russian -- and if Bucky were ready to talk about it he wouldn't be pushing, wouldn't be trying to goad Steve into talking. Besides, Clint gave him the basic rundown already, and he's not sure he wants Bucky to know that.
"C'mon," Steve says, and he nudges Bucky with his hip. "Pick something to eat and we can watch TV or something. There's supposed to be a classic movie marathon again tonight, we could keep catching up on the ones after 1942."
Maybe one day it will stop being strange; maybe one day Steve will be able to navigate the sea of cultural references so entrenched that people don't even think to explain it to him. Sure, they know to give him explanations about Twitter or cell phones or cafe wifi, but nobody ever stops to think about all those movie quotes and allusions that enter the common speech. If they do remember, it's almost always something Steve actually knows -- one time Bruce paused to explain where 'Rosebud' came from, only to get the biggest, most punched-in-the-face look of jealousy when Steve testily reminded him he'd seen Citizen Kane in theatres.
He didn't tell Bruce that Bucky was bored stiff by the film, fell asleep against Steve's shoulder right there in the theatre, and snored so loudly despite Steve poking him frantically in the side that they nearly got kicked out.
Bucky makes a face. "Why? I like modern movies better. More explosions."
"Bucky, Bucky, Bucky," Steve laments, pushing him out of the side and grabbing one of those boxes of things you just had to add milk -- Steve can use milk now, instead of water, and not feel too guilty -- and ground beef to and presto, meals. "Your taste. I thought that was supposed to improve with time."
"Eh." Bucky is unapologetic as always. "Take a hat nobody in their right minds would've worn back in our day, show it to a bunch of people today and they lose their minds. Seems to me, a lotta folks say 'classic' automatically when they really mean 'old-fashioned and boring', but for some reason they don't want to admit it."
Steve freezes, and half a second later, Bucky swears. "Shit, Steve, no, that's not what I meant. C'mon, you know that."
Steve lets out a low breath. They're talking about movies, the ridiculous obsession with vintage things -- Steve's seen it himself, dresses that would've cost a quarter now going for hundreds upon hundreds of dollars just because they're from another time -- but he can't help it. "No, it's fine," he says, and it's been over a year, he should be fine now -- there are t-shirts with him plastered across them again, new ones, and the comics about his adventures are being printed anew -- but he really isn't. There's sand shifting under his feet all the time, and he thought Bucky would have stabilized things but he only seems to tip it further.
"Steve, c'mon, if you're old-fashioned, I don't even make sense," Bucky says. "You're the man out of time, I'm the man so in and out of it I don't even know who I am anymore. At least you know that."
"Do I?" Steve asks, but this is too much for one day; his head feels like someone stuffed it with the scratchy woollen blankets from the orphanage. "No, I'm okay," he says. "But seriously, it's the 60s this week, and I've been told this is one of the best decades for movies. It's got everything -- drama, horror, comedy, and none of the high-minded artsy stuff you love to make fun of."
"I don't care what anyone says." Bucky turns on the stove and starts heating up a chunk of frozen beef. "I sat through three hours and the whole thing was about a stupid sled."
"You know, I looked it up, and it's only two hours."
"Really? I said three to be conservative. It felt like four. A sled, Steve. You dragged me to a movie about a sled. And some guy yelling a lot about newspapers."
Steve rolls his eyes. "You could do with some culture, you know."
"You're kind of a jerk, you know that?" Bucky flicks water at him from the bowl near the stove.
"I thought you were the jerk."
Bucky shrugs one shoulder, gives Steve a small grin. "I can't call someone a punk if he's taller than me, so I guess that means you get to be the jerk from now on."
Steve swallows, and this is entirely ridiculous but he can't stop the small twinge of panic in his chest. On top of everything else that's changed between them, their ritualistic insults are sacred. If even that isn't constant, he's not sure what is; the words are worn smooth like jogging trails in Prospect Park, comfortable like that old sweater of Bucky's he used to steal even when it got so old he could push his thumb through a hole in the sleeve. "No," Steve says, and he ratchets back the irrational urge to clasp Bucky's arm. "No, I -- I'm still the same, okay, I just am. You can't mess with tradition like that. It goes against the laws of the universe."
Bucky gives him a long look that Steve can't identify, and he really does need to sleep better because his eyes are bruised and hollow, but finally they crinkle at the corners. "Fine, fine," he says. "Punk."
Steve lets out a breath he'd forgotten he was holding. "Jerk."
They eat the pasta-ground beef thing and end up ordering Chinese for delivery anyway; it's been long enough that Steve is used to the cravings, the gnawing gut-hunger that rarely ever goes away, but it still surprises him from time to time. Now that Bucky's here he can't help thinking back to trying to satisfy that need with rations, how the other Commandos would each leave something behind and scrape it all together onto a plate for him so their Captain wouldn't pass out in the middle of the field because he was subsisting on one can's worth of watery coffee, cold pork and bland potato hash. Steve tried to demur, but they only ever complained about the monotony of the same thing every day -- what'll it be, fellas, pork and beans, pork and hash, or pork and stew? gee, Dugan, I think I'll take the roast goose with a side of cranberry if you don't mind! comin' right up, just as soon as we send Adolph crying back to Berlin -- and said they'd rather the empty belly than one more day stuffed to the gills with C-rations.
Here Steve can order whatever he wants, eat as much as his body demands, and there's no one to stop him, no reason to feel guilty.
Well, no reason except that time he was flipping channels and came across an absolutely heart-crushing program about kids all over the world with stick-thin legs and protruding bellies who crawl through garbage every day, and he spent the rest of the day talking with Bruce, who'd lived it first-hand, about poverty and famine and disease learned the reason why Stark Enterprises has a discretionary fund set up by Ms. Potts that sends money and goats and sheep and workers to dig wells. Back in Steve's day there were the fat-cats and the little guys, and it hit him that day in the Tower that things really haven't changed, it's just that the world is more open and it's obvious how many more little guys there really are. Steve sends a monthly donation as well -- he lets Ms. Potts and JARVIS manage it -- but that does little to assuage him on his bad days, and the days he doesn't think about it only makes the days he does worse. Sometimes he understands why Tony flew back to Afghanistan alone.
Back in the day they lived in the cheapest, most rickety apartment in Brooklyn, the kind where kids made pets of rats and they never used the radiator because even if they could afford the heat, turning it on made the whole thing creak and rattle like the building was going to take off for the stars. They got used to sharing each other's body heat -- even more so during the war, the whole troop shoulder-to-shoulder around the fire, sleeping on cold ground under thin, frost-rimmed blankets, pressed back-to-back to keep what warmth they could -- and it's a funny thing about habits because even though Steve's modest bungalow now has all the amenities and he's not actually cold, he still finds himself leaning against Bucky as they watch.
"You're like a super soldier furnace," Bucky complains, and Steve goes to move away but he just rolls his eyes and takes off his sweater, balling it up and tossing it across the room. "You don't like the mess, you get up and clean it," he says when Steve gives him a disapproving look, and Steve might have but Bucky winks and settles back, holding up the blankets with an inviting arm. Steve makes a note to retrieve the sweater later.
The new position means that Bucky's prosthetic arm is flush up against Steve's, and he wonders for a moment if Bucky did it on purpose to see if he flinches. Steve makes sure not to let his expression so much as twitch. The arm is cold and alien -- Tony and Bruce are working on synthetic skin but the last one he tried caught on fire when Bucky got too near the stove -- but it's as much a part of Bucky now as the strange gaps in his memory, the moments when he's tense and awaiting orders that will never come.
It's no stranger to Steve than he thinks his new body must be for Bucky, the years of affectionate gestures that need to be rewritten, and he's determined never to say a word.
The others were right; the movies from the 60s are fantastic. It's a mix of the campy humour Steve loved as a kid and the kind of gritty realism that America-at-war was both experiencing and doing her best to escape, without the crushing defeatism that made its way into post-war films as America sat back and licked her wounds. There are spy thrillers and romances and comedies and Steve is enthralled. Bucky says he prefers Butch Cassidy or Bonnie and Clyde to Citizen Kane, Steve asks if he's trying to tell him something, and Bucky throws popcorn at his head..
At least this time there are no films about soldiers returning from the war with metal hands; one of those came up during the 40s marathon, and Bucky's jaw got so tense Steve could practically hear his teeth grinding. Steve turned off the TV but it was too late; it took the rest of the evening to get Bucky back in a better mood, and even then he still had nightmares.
He thinks of the months where they weren't allowed to see each other after the team recovered the Winter Soldier from his mission, months of Steve demanding answers until Fury threatened to file a restraining order against him or have Tony lock him in the Tower or put him back on ice, anything to stop Steve from badgering his entire staff. Months of Bucky in white rooms with white walls and doctors in white coats doing their best to pull the Red Room out of his head without yanking the rest out with it, deactivating triggers and knitting together old memories. Fury called it "exit counselling" or "strategic intervention therapy", but Bucky talks less about the deprogramming than he does his time as the Soldier, and Steve's learned it's best not to ask.
Months of that, of thinking he might never see Bucky again -- that sure, he could look in through the tiny window or get Tony to tap into the security feed and show him James Buchanan Barnes the Winter Soldier but not Bucky, not his grin or his hair flopping over his forehead or his elbow digging into Steve's side as he made yet another joke -- and here they are. Steve lets out a long breath.
"This is a comedy," Bucky says, nudging him, and Steve jumps. "Man, you are out of it. It's Spencer Tracy. You love Spencer Tracy."
"Remember when we saw Woman of the Year?" Steve says suddenly. "That was what, January of '42?"
"Something like that. I said I'd fight you for Katharine Hepburn and you said I'd never be able to handle her tongue, I said something rude and you hit me."
"I meant the insults, and you knew it then, too. She'd eviscerate you. But Tracy was in his heyday," Steve says, thinking back to the theatre, the smell of stale popcorn, the whisper of fabric as people shifted in their seats, and, as always, Bucky's solid presence at his side. Bucky used to drape his arm across the back of Steve's chair so he could sprawl and stretch out his too-long legs in the narrow aisle. "I loved his films, you remember, and when I woke up, he was dead. Dead for almost forty-five years but we were there, Buck, we saw his stuff in the theatres." He shakes his head. "It's the dumb things that get you."
Bucky leans a little more weight on Steve's arm. "I lived through most of it in flashes," he says slowly. "A job here, there, all over the place. Every time I woke up the world looked different -- not that I got to see much of it. They probably liked it that way, helped keep me disoriented. The less the world made sense, the more I focused on the missions."
Steve doesn't know what else to say to that. His arm is falling asleep and so he moves it, shifts so his hand rests on his own leg with his ring and little finger just barely touching Bucky's thigh. "I'm glad to have you back."
Bucky glances at him, the flashing images from the television reflected in the whites of his eyes. "For better or worse," he says. "But I guess I am."
Steve smiles, the expression widening when Bucky matches it. They doze off there on the couch in the middle of The Graduate -- not really Steve's thing -- and don't make it up to bed until much later, when Steve crawls awake at two in the morning and nudges Bucky with his shoulder. Bucky grunts and makes noises about Steve having to carry him up to bed like a wounded soldier on the front lines, but eventually he stumbles down the hall to the bedroom and collapses.
That night, for the first time, Bucky rolls over and curls up against Steve's back, one arm draped across his waist. Steve freezes, afraid to move, even to breathe, in case Bucky realizes what he's doing and jerks away. Bucky's breath tickles the back of his neck, and at last Bucky grumbles and noses Steve's head at the bottom of his hairline.
"You're thinking," Bucky mumbles, his voice sleep-heavy and thick, and he slides his hand up to poke Steve accusingly in the chest. "Stoppit. Noisy. Not restful."
"Sorry," Steve says automatically, and Bucky snorts but doesn't move back. Steve lets his muscles uncurl until he finally drifts to sleep.
In the morning, Bucky's nose is mashed against Steve's neck, Steve's shoulder wet with drool, but he wouldn't trade it for anything.
Chapter 5: L is for the way you look at me
That's how it always was. A moment where Bucky's mind fuzzed and he nearly did something stupid, then panic so strong he almost upchucked all over his shoes. Bucky's adolescence was peppered with moments like that until he's surprised he hasn't managed to come up with some sort of sick association between fear and being horribly turned on.
It's not denial, or even repression. It's self-preservation.
Aaaaand switch POV!
Bucky has been in love with Steve since -- well, a long time, it's not like he had a diary that he wrote the revelation in with pink ink and loopy, heart-dotted letters, no matter what some of the fellas in the 107th would've said if they heard. He sure didn't write "Mrs. Steve Rogers" across his copybooks in school before he dropped out to start working and put Steve through his first year of art school before the war hit. Honestly he didn't actually think about the future or possibilities at all; no real point in that when the future is a boot in your face and broken glass ground against your cheek, right?
That didn't mean Bucky didn't think about it, because he did, every damn time Steve found himself backed up in an alley, facing some jerk's swinging fists because said jerk had used the wrong tone when talking to a lady -- every winter when the cold turned Steve's body into a non-stop cough-generating machine, when Bucky spent hours rubbing his back and holding him upright over a pot of boiling water, hoping for one clean breath every few minutes -- but it wasn't anything that took much constant attention. More like a slow burn in the back of his mind, a splinter lodged under his fingernail.
Being in love with Steve wasn't technically a revelation anyway, not really. There was no defining moment, no clear line where Bucky could mark his life as 'before' and 'after' -- or at the very least, 'uncomplicated' and 'really damn confusing'. Bucky's life was never uncomplicated anyway. He does remember the time before he met Steve, and while objectively he knew it wasn't that bad -- the nuns weren't any stricter, his bed in the orphanage any harder, the bigger boys any meaner -- for whatever reason all those memories are coloured with grey wash, like when Steve tried to paint a picture out in the field but couldn't waste the water to rinse out the mason jar whenever it got muddy from all the different colours mixed together.
Steve wasn't even that magnetic as a kid. Not really. He was small, and scrawny, sure, but Bucky didn't have a lot of protective urges when he was younger -- not smart, that, good way to get your nose stuck in the wrong place and then smashed into the ground -- and he didn't think much when the blond kid with the pillowcase of stuff showed up, looking squirrelly and bony but with a set to his jaw that meant he'd be seeing the toilets from the inside within three days.
The thing is, and Steve will deny this to the end of his days but it's true, Steve is a better person than Bucky, always has been. Kids got bullied in the orphanage all the time and Bucky never stepped up because well, guess what, so did he, and either you learned to toughen up or you learned to like the smell of sewer in your hair. It never occurred to him to tell the bigger kids to knock it off because it wasn't worth inviting the trouble, putting yourself on their radar. Bucky learned to fight dirty, though more importantly he knew how to yell like they hurt him way worse so that when one of the Sisters came running the other guy had to scrub the floors for like a week.
Steve, though. His first day in, nine years old and fifty pounds if you gave him a stack of Bibles to hold, he got on the case of one of the bullies who'd taken some kid's book. Bucky thinks his name was Henry, and the book was some big, thick law tome full of words that Bucky probably wouldn't even understand now and that Henry or whoever definitely hadn't at the time. But the book had been his dad's, along with the big round-framed spectacles that he'd poked the lenses out of and stuck on his face, and Henry would sit there with the book in his lap, tracing his finger over the pages and pretending to read aloud. He had a good imagination, and sometimes when Bucky had nothing better to do he'd sit nearby and pretend he wasn't listening as Henry spun stories about knights and dragons and evil witches. When they asked him why the stories were different every time, he said it's because the book was magic, and the pages never stayed the same.
Bucky remembers that they had the book and were threatening to throw it out the window. Henry was in tears, those stupid glasses hanging crooked off his ears, and they laughed and pushed open the ancient, rattling windowpane and balanced the book on the ledge. Bucky was in the room, curled up on the couch and not moving even though a spring was digging into his leg because they were out for blood today and he didn't want to get caught in the crossfire. Not to mention Henry was being stupid; there was a fire escape outside and the book was heavy and they'd never manage to throw it past. It would fall two feet, maybe, and the worst that would happen is some bent pages and maybe a bit of water damage since it had rained last night.
If things had been like any other normal day they would've done it, Henry would've cried, and after they left Bucky would have rolled his eyes and reached out the window to grab the book, shove it into Henry's arms and warn him not to be such a yutz. Except that Steve Rogers walked into the room and saw the whole thing, and the colour of the orphanage changed forever.
Bucky doesn't remember exactly what happened -- it was a long time ago, and he's only recently had his memories put back in a way that makes sense anyway -- but the key elements are there. Steve in his grey shirt and his khaki pants and his skinny chicken-arms crossed over his practically-concave chest, calling out in a voice too big for him that they should pick on someone their own size. The bullies standing up -- unfolding, practically, like a big construction crane -- and staring down at Steve who didn't back off, didn't flinch, not for a second. Henry holding his book to his chest and waddling out like a terrified penguin while Bucky gave him the eye for being an ungrateful coward.
They actually got a few hits in before Bucky's admittedly amoral compass switched over, but even when Steve was on the ground and any kid with brains knew to lie there, let them get a few last triumphant kicks in and they'd get bored and wander off, Steve only dragged himself back up again. Finally even Bucky couldn't take it anymore, and he wasn't big like them but sometimes that was a good thing because smaller kids learned tricks the bigger ones didn't need to waste their time on.
Bucky remembers grabbing a pen from the table and jamming it into one of the kids' legs, and the whole fight was nothing but dirty tricks and low blows, gut shots and crotch punches and kicks aimed at the back of the knee. They got him good, too, but somewhere Bucky remembers looking beside him and finding Steve back on his feet, blood dotting the front of his t-shirt, fists raised. They didn't win in that the fight didn't end with the bullies beaten and crying at their feet, but the boys did decide it wasn't worth it and made a retreat, swearing to get them next time, and that was enough.
They didn't, Bucky knows, become instant best friends. Steve looked up at Bucky, smiled at him with his split lip and one heck of a shiner, and stuck out his hand. Bucky knocked it aside and told him to forget it, he stuck his neck out once and that was Steve's free sample but don't expect another. He left Steve standing there and went to lock himself in the upstairs bathroom, the one nobody used because the hot water didn't work, to clean himself off and give himself a good smack for getting involved in some suicidal kid's quest to get himself killed by the end of the week.
History knows how that vow turned out.
But the thing is, if Bucky can't even remember he stopped being annoyed at himself for his inability to stand back and let Steve Rogers get his heroic butt handed to him -- when the sight of a bruise on Steve's jaw stopped making him roll his eyes and started a fire burning in his belly that spread out to his fists and never faded until said fist found itself in someone else's face -- how he's supposed to remember when all those feelings tangled and tumbled together like shirts in a dryer and came out looking something like love, well.
Instead, Bucky remembers flash incidents, and usually ones that terrified him. That's a pretty good cue, if he's looking back; if something made his stomach twist and knocked his breath out of his lungs and got him squirrelly and checking to make sure no one saw, then it probably wasn't something that could be laughed off as boys being boys. Not in the Depression, anyway. Love and terror went hand in hand for guys like him.
Bucky thinks of kids today with their skinny jeans and rainbow pins and parades and wonders if they have any idea what it was like. He knows that's not fair -- just last week there was a kid and his boyfriend beaten up by a group of assholes outside their university, right here in New York, but the difference is that the public reared up in indignation and called for the arrest of the guys who did it. If anyone was snorting over their coffee and saying the queers deserved it, well, they weren't the ones getting airtime, and that's it right there.
Steve doesn't like Bucky to compete in the misery olympics, says it's negative thinking and never helps anyone, but sometimes Bucky can't bring himself out of it. The other day some kid pressed a flyer into his hand petitioning for better representation in movies -- "We're always the bitchy fashion queen or the best friend, why can't gay people ever star in a movie and have it, like, not being about being gay, why can't it just be a movie about a guy, who is gay, not about a guy who is gay" -- and Bucky's brain nearly flew out of his head. He spent a lot of the time staring at that flyer until it tore in his hands, wondering what it must be like for that to be the biggest problem on your mind.
Hell, they have a word for it now. The first time someone said it to Bucky over here he had no idea what they were talking about.
Bucky remembers being fifteen, holding a towel stuffed with ice against Steve's forehead while Steve did his best not to groan. "You can't ever just walk away, can you," Bucky groused, grabbing Steve's hand and yanking it up to hold the towel steady while he probed Steve's side for broken ribs. "Holler if it hurts."
"Everything hurts," Steve had laughed, breathless, but while he winced he didn't scream, and Bucky decided that meant his ribs were fine. "And you don't ever walk away, either." His free hand came up to push Bucky's hair out of his eyes, one thumb brushing the edge of a bruise at the corner of his eyebrow.
"I was saving you, punk, there's a difference," Bucky pointed out. "If I stood back and let you take the pounding you deserved I'd get picked up for assisted suicide."
Steve laughed, and his eyes were glassy because Bucky broke into the medicine cupboard and stole him a couple of aspirin, and medicine always hit Steve harder because there was nothing to him.
"I swear to God, Steve," Bucky said, shaking his head. "Being friends with you is like having one of those stupid dogs that always dashes out into traffic as soon as you take it off its leash, no matter how many times you smack it."
"You wouldn't smack a dog! Bucky, that's horrible!"
"No, just like I don't break your nose every time you go and get yourself into trouble, even though I oughta. Here, lemme see how that's looking." He moved the towel and pressed his fingertips against the wicked-looking bruise, but it didn't look like the skin had split this time. Bucky bent down just to check; Steve's breath huffed warm against his neck, and his hand came up and curled around Bucky's forearm.
Bucky didn't even realize he was about to kiss Steve's forehead until the fear gripped him and drew him careening back. "You're looking good, no thanks to you," Bucky said with exaggerated cheer, and something flashed in Steve's eyes but he didn't push it. Bucky did his best to pretend it never happened.
That's how it always was. A moment where Bucky's mind fuzzed and he nearly did something stupid, then panic so strong he almost upchucked all over his shoes. Bucky's adolescence was peppered with moments like that until he's surprised he hasn't managed to come up with some sort of sick association between fear and being horribly turned on.
Girls, though, girls were great. They were soft and giggly and they fit against his side nice and perfect like puzzle pieces, and they called Bucky handsome and cute and strong and if they didn't think he was smart well they sure as heck didn't care. If Bucky wanted to catch one of them under his arm and kiss her under a street lamp, she might giggle and smack his chest and call him fresh but no one would ever take a baseball bat to him unless she was someone else's girl, and anyway if ever Bucky tried that a farmer could plant a whole crop of corn in the furrows between Steve's eyebrows.
"Why do you never date the same girls twice, Buck?" Steve asked him once, dead of winter and for once their radiator was working, but go figure it was overtime, pumping so much heat into the room that they were sitting there on the bed in their shorts and undershirts, tiredly tossing cards into a hat across the room.
"I dunno," Bucky said. He flipped the ace of spades and it bounced off the brim of the hat and onto the thin mattress. He clicked his tongue. "I'm not looking to get married, and the more you go out with them the more they start to think about it, y'know? It's not really fair."
Steve frowned and picked at a loose thread on the blanket. "If you don't want to marry them, why do you date them, then?"
Bucky rolled his eyes. "Look, I know you're good to wait until you find the perfect girl across the aisle from you in church and fall in love and wait five years before getting married just to make sure you're not rushing things, but some of us want to have fun."
"I really don't understand it, that's all."
"Yeah, I know you don't."
Because the thing is, there's girls, and then there's Steve, always, and Bucky learned early that the best way to deal with the feelings he definitely shouldn't be having if he liked breathing as a hobby was to go out, find some girl in a dance hall and kiss her until the feelings went away. He never made any promises he didn't intend on keeping, and no matter what people nowadays thought about the thirties, it was not that hard to find someone willing to go dancing and steal kisses and maybe some groping under a bridge or behind a tree in the park.
Steve didn't like it, and whenever Bucky stayed out late he always waited up, shoulders tense and the pages of his book crackling with disapproval every time he turned them -- he always turned the page whenever Bucky walked in the door, pointedly -- but Bucky wasn't about to start a fight because by the end even fighting did something stupid to his stomach. Steve's eyes went dark when he got angry, and when his jaw clenched like that Bucky could almost forget that he was ninety pounds and asthmatic, and started thinking about what it would feel like to have that stupid skinny chest under his hands, feel Steve's ribs sharp against his palm.
Bucky never got more than a few seconds down that particular alley, that's for sure. Being a guy like him back then required self-control that the little whiners of today had no way of comprehending.
Be nice, says Bucky's inner Steve, which does a lot more lecturing and a lot less fun stuff than Bucky would like.
By the time Bucky shipped off to Europe and left Steve standing behind him with that stupid, brave, hurt expression on his face, it took everything Bucky had to keep walking. If he'd known what happened after he turned his back he would have run back, hang his orders, hang the 107th and Hitler and the Nazis and the whole goddamn war, because that was the night Steve went and got himself enlisted and on the road to being Captain America, while Bucky went home and spent the night going all the way with two girls for the first and last time in his life.
Bucky is the only guy in the whole United States of America, other than Hydra agents, who wishes Steve never met Erskine, never enlisted, never got himself jabbed with that formula. He'd grown up at once cursing and being perversely, protectively proud of the fact that he was the only one who knew what a great guy Steve Rogers was. He got to be the one with his arm around Steve's shoulders and mouth by his ear, telling him he was amazing and everyone else was an idiot.
That probably wasn't nice, but again, that was never really one of Bucky's priorities.
And then the serum, and suddenly Steve was what every girl in America doodled on her papers and gossiped with her friends about, that every guy nearly killed himself trying to be. Suddenly the whole country and half of Europe knew Steve's worth, and Bucky's trust and faith in him became about as rare and precious as the French mud under their boots as they marched. Senators were falling over themselves to say how they'd known it all along; people Steve had only ever met once at a hotdog stand gave interviews about how even back then he had a hero's smile.
Funny enough, Steve never believed a word of it anyway, and while from most people the 'just a guy from Brooklyn' line would've been just that, from him it just oozed sincerity like everything else. Bucky would sit, pressed knee-to-knee with Steve and the other Commandos around a campfire, watching Steve carve a piece of wood with his pocketknife and frowning as Falsworth read the latest (for months-earlier fieldwork value of 'latest') praise-worthy column in the paper.
"See," Bucky said, nudging Steve with his knee. "I told you. Bigger on the inside. Now the outside matches, that's all."
Steve shrugged one shoulder. "If you say so," he muttered.
"Hey, what am I always saying?" Bucky took the knife away, pressed the mug of terrible field ration coffee into Steve's hand. "Captain America's not the hero, he's the costume. Steve Rogers is the heart."
"You boys're gonna make me puke," Jim said, scooping up a clod of hard dirt and chucking it at Bucky's head. Steve's arm lashed out and knocked it aside before it ever got there. "But still, Buck's right. Plenty of guys in uniform out there and we ain't followin' them."
The serum caused another change, too, one that Bucky liked very little and thought about even less. He'd loved Steve while he was scrawny and small and glared up at bullies rather than down; and not regardless of the way he looked but because of it, the way a giant's heart beat inside that tiny ribcage. He didn't spend a lot of time thinking about the particulars because Bucky knew better than to let the throttle out on that particular train of thought, but while girls giggled nastily at Steve and rolled their eyes if they even bothered to look at all, Bucky knew the hidden strength in Steve's fingers and how the curve of Steve's spine fit against his chest when they shared a bed in their tiny apartment. He didn't love Steve despite anything, and he'd moulded his life to make it work.
And then, one day, they no longer fit anymore, and all the girls with a pulse and without a swastika found their underwear about three sizes too small. They couldn't go on furlough without Steve getting swamped, and Dugan once joked he was surprised Cap's uniform hadn't caught fire what with all the attention those girls paid him. The other Commandos loved it, said that Steve's polite lack of interest made the girls all that more desperate to go home with anyone who paid them a couple of compliments, and used to toast him for the jump in their love lives. Meanwhile Bucky didn't begrudge Steve getting all the attention he'd deserved for years, but suddenly nights on the town stopped being quite so fun.
The stupidest part is that Bucky now lives in a century where this is supposedly okay, but he still can't talk about it, not unless he wants to be deafened by the sarcastic applause. Yeah, poor him, he left Steve looking like a half-drowned rat and came back to find him sex and America distilled and poured into a frame of sculpted muscle, that must be terrible for his libido -- except that it was, and even now it still is.
It means, too, that Bucky is no better than anyone who ignored Steve when he looked like a weakling, because he knows Steve is the same inside, the same dumb, headstrong hero who'd dive into a burning building aimed with nothing but a garden hose if he thought there was the smallest chance of someone inside, but he can't get over it. He can't move past the fact that his Steve, the one he grew up with, the one he fell in love with, is gone, and this perfect stranger sits in his place.
Steve has the same eyes, piercing and heartbreaking and capable of carving through Bucky's strongest defenses in seconds, but the packaging is all wrong. It's worse because Bucky knows a normal person would be happy, but he can't work past it. Imagine if he did, finally, tell Steve that he made Bucky's stomach curl in on himself until he nearly puked on his shoes, that his smile dug fishhooks into Bucky's chest and yanked his heart out. Steve would just assume Bucky had waited this long because now he was finally handsome enough to be a worthy investment, and there's very little Bucky could say to convince him otherwise.
Bucky bets his SHIELD shrink would have something to say if he told her he had to control more physical impulses before Steve took the serum than now when even Stark has referred to him as a walking wet dream, but that's fine because he will never, ever say it aloud.
The one thing is that if there was any guy in the whole country who could take a magical procedure that turned him into a sex god and not have it go to his head, it would be Steve. He still carries himself as though he's his old self, and sometimes that's a problem -- the clenched jaw that made him look scrappy and determined when the guy he fought could break him in half now looks arrogant and at times almost bullying. Bucky has seen Steve and Stark in a standoff once or twice and Stark's posture is always on the defensive, while Steve's is the way it's always been but with his new presence makes him look intimidating, almost threatening.
"You gotta stop doing that, you know," Bucky says after one of their arguments, when the tension crackles in the air and JARVIS has to release lavender into the ventilation system to trick all their brains into calming down. "Stark probably thinks you're gonna deck him like his old man wished he could."
Steve flashes Bucky a betrayed look the way he always does when someone reminds him that Howard the idealistic hero didn't stay that way, but Bucky and Stark have had more than one drunken conversation about things that sucked about growing up, and not even Steve's faith can save that one. "I'd never actually hurt him."
"Yeah, but he doesn't know that. You get all up in his space like you're still five feet tall, but now you're huge. You can't do that."
Steve looks down at his hands, large-fingered and broad-palmed, and even those are different. Bucky wonders if he had to teach himself how to draw all over again, if he ever had trouble with the buttons on his shirt. "I don't mean it like that."
"I know you don't. But he doesn't. Nobody does."
Steve drops his head, and Bucky moves one hand to rest on the back of Steve's neck. He can't leave it there for long; the new angle is awkward, and he'll probably never get used to that either. "At least you know me," Steve says, almost desperate, and it's not, quite, a statement.
"Yeah, pal," Bucky says quietly, and he scratches his fingers over the short hairs at the base of Steve's skull. "I know you."
But time ticks on, and they find each other, as people do, and carve out new routines and habits in place of the ones they lost. The newsstand selling comics and magazines, where young Steve and Bucky would stand and see how long they could get away with reading before the proprietor caught on and chased them away, disappeared sometime in the last 70 years, but an antique bookshop appeared in its place. Steve takes Bucky in one day and shows him to a dusty corner in the back, where sitting on a shelf of old school primers is the reader the two of them used to study in school. Bucky flips through the crackling pages, looks at the story of Dirk, the boy with the spotted dog, who always got in trouble when he ventured into the forest to have adventures; or the illustration of the horse whose master loved it too much to get its tail cropped and who, one day, saved his master's life when he fell into a river by letting him grab the very tail that wouldn't have been long enough had it been chopped off. Some ill-behaved boys had scrawled notes or messages in the margins, the ink long faded, and Bucky's head swims; everything dips like he's sitting in a gigantic, swaying hammock until Steve presses his hand to the small of Bucky's back. Bucky leans into the touch and lets it ground him.
"Weird, huh," Steve says, low and almost reverent, and Bucky nods. The smell of chalk tickles his nose and he puts the book back on the shelf, hastily. Steve leaves his hand above Bucky's waist until they exit the store.
They talk, too, very carefully, about subjects they never would have dared even to breathe around before, and about a couple of things they might have if they'd ever had the time. Bucky discovers that he's not the only one alone and confused in a world that's bigger and smaller all at once, shiny and always moving, with more people and fewer connections, where it's all too possible to sit in a crowded place and feel utterly alone. That Steve had so much more time to adjust yet still hasn't quite managed makes Bucky at once relieved and concerned.
One night after a movie marathon they stumble into bed together, and Bucky finds himself reverting to his ancient habit of sprawling over Steve from behind, nose pressed against his neck. There's no conscious decision, and indeed Bucky isn't even aware of it until Steve stiffens against his chest, holding his breath. By the time his actions register, Bucky decides to hell with it. Let the SHIELD agents who'd bugged the house watch and snicker, if they even care.
"You're thinking," Bucky says, because of course Steve is, what does it mean and what does Bucky want him to do and is he even aware of what he's done. Even just imagining what thoughts are racing through Steve's head makes Bucky's ache. "Stoppit. Noisy. Not restful."
Steve apologizes -- of course he does -- but he doesn't argue, and Bucky evens out his breathing and fakes sleep until Steve drops off as well.
The next morning Bucky wakes up alone, but since the smell of eggs and bacon frying in butter had permeated his dreams -- they can use butter now to fry things, not even to eat it but just to put it in the pan, Bucky doesn't think he'll ever get used to that, either, put it on the list -- he doesn't wake in a panic. He fell asleep in his clothes, only managing to peel off his socks because Steve doesn't like the feel of itchy wool pressed against his calf and Bucky could never keep his feet to himself, and Bucky rouses himself and stumbles into the kitchen.
"You're a good man," Bucky says, groping for the coffee machine. The one good thing about having an artificial arm -- especially StarkTech as opposed to the crap the Russians had given him, all they cared about was whether the missiles on the wrist would make it into the other guy, not so much if Bucky could hold a glass without it smashing -- is that even if he's not awake enough to hold the mug, the arm is.
"Well, you know what they say." Steve looks over his shoulder and smiles. "Man, heart, stomach, all that."
"You know that's not true," Bucky says meditatively, and knocks half the mug back without bothering with cream or sugar. Steve makes a face, but he'd never managed to get over the part where coffee doesn't have to taste like it was heated over a camp stove and drunk from a metal canteen and a guy doesn't actually have to stuff it full of junk for it to taste good.
Steve turns and waves a fork at Bucky, his eyebrows unbalanced in warning. "If you're planning on telling me that joke about the sternum, believe me, I've heard it. Clint and Natasha think it's the funniest thing on the internet and insist on reminding everyone whenever they see it."
"Nat's just messing with you," Bucky says, and finds he can actually joke about it without panic sticking needles into him. He and Nat spent a lot of time talking back when he was still putting the puzzle pieces of his brain back together, but it always felt like walking on broken glass. It's getting better. "It's actually a bit to the left of the sternum, not straight on. Either way it hurts like hell, though."
"I know." Steve grimaces. "I've got first-hand experience."
Bucky didn't know that. He probably has as well -- the Winter Soldier definitely racked up the medical bills, and Bucky still can't look at a scalpel without shuddering -- but he doesn't remember much of the details. "Really?"
"Yep." Steve hands Bucky a plate filled with steaming eggs, bacon, and brown toast. "One time somebody jabbed Bruce with this kind of, well, it's like the serum and what changed him but different, and Hulk went crazy -- crazier -- and took off after some civilians. I had my shield, but I couldn't get it up in time and his fist drove the edge into my chest. Fury gave me the good drugs for that one, not even my resistance worked on them."
"Yeah, I bet." Bucky winces. He wonders what it must be like for Steve to live in a world where megalomaniacs are as common as breakfast cereal, where someone like Hitler can no longer take the world by storm but has to wait in line. Where Steve has no fear of being hit with a grenade, but has to worry about his giant green rage-monster teammate's fists, and where the futuristic, terrifying Hydra weapons are likely now antiques.
Still. It isn't as though warfare in their day was any cleaner, or less scary. The weapons he and Steve learned to use and fear and respect had done just fine in their tasks of destroying men's lives, and he figures that at the end of the day, it doesn't matter if the thing pointed at you is a submachine gun cobbled together in a factory in the middle of Germany or some supervillain's latest high-tech masterpiece, if it hits you, you're dead all the same. At least the big, flashy things the crazy guys in capes and masks carry around seemed to do the job quick; Bucky isn't an expert or anything, but he's spent a lot of times in modern hospitals and he doesn't recall seeing trauma wards full of people with missing limbs and gaping head wounds, biting down on dirty cloth as doctors sawed at their arms.
"Now look who's thinking," Steve says, balling up his napkin and throwing it at Bucky's head. Bucky blinks at him, and while Steve smiles, his forehead still wrinkles and he gives Bucky the look that had caused him and Jones to dub him 'Captain Dad' behind his back.
"Sorry." Bucky tucks in to his breakfast. "I was thinking, we should get out. Go somewhere, do something."
"There's a new exhibit at the museum," Steve suggests, tilting his head to the side.
"Not that. That's actually what I'm talking about." Bucky's mouth is dry, and he lifts his coffee mug halfway to his mouth before setting it down because thirst is not the issue. "We've done that a lot, you know? Museums and classic movie marathons, and it's good, all of it is. But I think we should, I dunno, try doing some things going on right now."
Steve raises an eyebrow. "Like the grocery store? Because that went well."
Bucky rolls his eyes. "That was still good for me, so don't give me that look, but no, I meant fun things. I've been kind of holing myself up in here and I should get out more."
"It took me a while, too, don't worry," Steve says, giving Bucky a small, understanding smile. "Eventually I snapped and did a cross-country motorcycle tour, but we don't have to start there. What do you have in mind?"
Bucky gnaws the inside of his cheek, and he takes another sip of coffee to hide how much he wants to fidget. "What about a movie? Not a classic one, and not one that's playing on TV, but like, an actual movie, in a theatre. Sticky floors, popcorn, kids getting handsy in the back, the whole deal. Or do they not still do that?"
"Yeah, they do." Steve looks startled, then pleased. "Just, nobody from the Tower ever goes because it's too much public exposure for most of them, and not the right kind for the others. I just end up going by myself. Lots of people recognize Captain America, but not too many people notice Steve Rogers in a dark room."
"And lemme guess." Bucky leans back in his chair and gives Steve a long, knowing look. "You go alone not just because your friends are jerks, but because that's what you used to do back when you wanted to feel sorry for yourself when I was at basic and god forbid you actually do something that wasn't watching news reels and reminding yourself just how much you couldn't contribute, and the habit stuck. You don't go to the big multiplexes, or whatever they're called, either. You find the old ones with crumbling facades that show movies like a month after they're released, and they're run by old guys who can still remember their first talkie."
"His name is Leonard," Steve says with dignity, "and he is a fascinating guy. Sometimes I don't even watch the film, he just pulls up a chair and we swap stories. If you're going to make fun, you don't get to come."
Bucky grins and mimes shooting Steve in the heart. "See, you're right, I do know you. And I'll go to as many old movies in falling-apart cinemas as you want, but I think it would be good for you to go to a flashy one for once. Just to see what it's like."
"There's a reason I go to the old ones, you know," Steve says, shaking his head. "It's not just nostalgia, either. But fine, if you want to go to one of the big fancy theatres, I'm not going to stop you. Then the next time you'll come with me to mine because you'll find out I'm right."
"If you say so."
And it isn't weird -- friends go to the movies together all the time, guys used to go and laugh at the cartoons and get all patriotic over the reels back in the forties, even -- but at the same time, Bucky feels a stirring of something in his chest when Steve accepts. If Steve felt it he doesn't show it, only spears a piece of bacon with his fork and examines it. "You want to grab a bite before we go?"
"Nope," Bucky says. "This is why you never could get the girls, y'know. You always did everything the wrong way, though fair enough, everybody gets this one wrong. Movie first, afternoon showing, and then you have something to talk about at dinner and you have plenty of time to take a walk or whatever afterward without worrying about it being mugger o'clock. See? Science."
"This isn't--" Steve begins, flustered, and Bucky waits for him to finish the sentence but he doesn't, only breaks off and frowns, staring at the tabletop. A rolling drumbeat starts up in Bucky's chest. "You're not some girl I just met," Steve amended. "It's not like we need the movie to find something to talk about."
"Just try it," Bucky says, splaying his fingers against the table and pressing down, letting out a long breath. "You'll be converted, I promise."
This time is Steve's turn to say "If you say so" with a wry smile, though to be honest, Bucky has long lost track of what they were talking about.
"No fancy restaurants, though," Steve says as an afterthought, his expression pained. "I still -- this isn't me being stubborn, I just don't like them."
"Me neither," Bucky says, grinning. "I haven't changed that much, don't you worry. No monkey suits for me, we can just find some greasy spoon pizza place and that'll be my compromise, how's that?"
Steve nods. "All right, then."
Bucky isn't nervous, because that would be ridiculous. He just needs another cup of coffee with a bourbon chaser, nothing wrong with that.
Chapter 6: Don't keep me waiting when I'm in the mood
"You do know that just because you're Captain America, you don't owe people anything. About you, I mean. Yeah, you owe them Cap, but you don't owe them Steve."
In which some conclusions just might be inevitable after all.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
"Twenty-eight bucks?" Bucky bursts out, unable to help himself. "You charged me for two tickets, right, not a whole classroom of kids on a field trip or something?"
The clerk in the booth looks like she can't decide whether to hide, call her manager, cry, or throw something in Bucky's face. "Tickets have always been $14, sir," she says finally.
"They damn well haven't," Bucky retorts. "Are they five hours long now? Do you get served a complimentary meal at intermission? Are there head masseuses that wander the aisles? Do they show blue movies instead of the boring parts?"
"Bucky," Steve says, warning, but the girl just gapes at him. "They're not called blue movies anymore, for one thing. Leave the girl alone."
"This is ridiculous." Bucky looks at his wallet and leafs through the bills in it. Another clerk opens up a new line to take care of the people behind him, who probably think Bucky is some kind of escapee from an institution. "Shit, Steve, I only brought twenty bucks. I thought it would be five dollars each." He doesn't tell Steve that he reached that number after exaggerating in his head so grandly he thought he would surely be covered.
To his credit, Steve doesn't burst out into an 'I told you so' dance. He does cough and nudge Bucky aside, flattening out three tens and sliding them under the glass. "Two please," he says, all politeness, and the girl smiles at him and calms down like a ruffled cat finally being petted. Just think, back in the old days it was Bucky that could do that without thinking, and now he rants like a lunatic or the old guys who would sit in Prospect Park and talk about how in their day you could buy a newspaper for a penny.
Bucky does not want to be one of those old guys. Not when he's only around thirty, give or take. He blows a breath through his nose, gives the girl a tight smile, and follows Steve into the theatre. "I was gonna pay," he mutters, shoving his hands in his pockets. "This wasn't some kind of weird scheme to get you to front the cash."
"I know," Steve says, and he sounds pleased with himself. "You would've turned that smile on me, I know you. But you were wondering why I go to the tiny theatres, well, that's it. Just try not to look at the prices for the concessions."
"Why?" Bucky's head hurts. "How much could you possibly charge for a bowl of popcorn? It's still just corn and butter, not even real butter, what could -- eight dollars? For a medium?" It takes all his strength not to tell the wide-eyed kid behind the counter that back in wartime, the candy counter charged ten cents for a bucket of popcorn and still turned a tidy profit.
In the concession stand's defence, Steve buys a large that looks big enough to double as a bathtub for a baby. He gives it to Bucky to carry, and Bucky has to hold it away from himself because no way should popcorn ever be that large unless it's hiding a tiny assassin inside.
They have other snacks too, candy and chips with cheese and chili and hotdogs and Bucky finds himself feeling overwhelmed just like when he stood in the bread aisle. "Hey, easy," Steve says, and his hand goes to Bucky's back again, five points of contact warm through his shirt and steadying. "It's okay. Try closing your eyes, it helps. It still smells and sounds the same."
Bucky tries that, and sure enough. It's still popcorn and butter and people laughing and calling out and kids running around while their parents either shout after them or sigh to themselves. "Thanks," he says finally, opening his eyes. It's not that weird. New York is still New York. He just has to think of it like the Stark Expo, only twenty-four hours a day.
"All right, well, I'm not complaining about this," Bucky says when they get to their seats. He leans back in the plush chair and stretches out his legs as long as the seats will let him, which is way farther than he used to do back home. The floors aren't even sticky, though he kind of misses that in a weird way. The stadium seating is much more sloped than back in his day, so even if some huge guy and his wife with a giant hat sit down, it still won't block his view.
"See, it's not all just inflation," Steve says, and he takes the popcorn from Bucky and sets it on his lap. He can't hold it between his knees because the container is too big, and Bucky can't help laughing.
"If you'd eaten that back in the day you would've died," Bucky says, stealing a handful. He's pretty sure they've added even more flavour oil than during the war, which is impressive, but Bucky loves it. It makes him think of rare decadence in a time when the country tightened its belts for justice, being able to stuff himself on corn and artificial butter and feeling like he'd had himself a meal. Bruce insists that the stuff will kill their insides and won't allow the buttered kind, sprinkling it with cumin or garlic or other spices instead because that's healthier. Meanwhile Bucky wants to finish a bowl of popcorn feeling like he regrets every decision he's ever made.
The lights dim, 'COMING ATTRACTIONS' splashes itself across the screen, and Bucky feels a jolt of excitement like he's a kid again. He watches the commercials for upcoming films that make no sense yet look completely amazing -- explosions! guns! aliens! -- only to blink when the dancing text tells them to await the feature presentation.
Bucky leans slightly to the side and whispers as low as he can, grateful for Steve's super-soldier hearing. "They don't play newsreels anymore?"
Steve shakes his head. "They call that propaganda now," he says quietly.
Bucky's eyes widen, and he glances at Steve, who only shrugs. Bucky remembers that word being thrown derisively at the Nazis, but no one would ever have dared to say it about the United States. Bucky was never as blindly patriotic as Steve was even before the serum, but to hear that word levelled at his own country feels like a punch to the gut.
"Not ours," Steve says. "Those are historic treasures." He settles the popcorn in his lap, then reaches over and squeezes Bucky's knee. Bucky lets out a long breath and pushes the thoughts from his mind.
The movie is all the things Bucky likes about the twenty-first century: ridiculous special effects that might look cheesy to modern audiences but blow his mind; ridiculously attractive people being allowed to kiss like they mean it instead of mashing their cheeks together (look, no matter what Steve said, Greta Garbo always looked like she was thinking about whether the cat puked on the rug again okay); fun, shiny weapons used absolutely improbably by the actors; girls being sassy and making the first move; and the colours, all the colours, all the time, everywhere, until Bucky's head aches and his eyes are watering.
"What did you think about the story?" Steve asks, as they file out of the theatre with everyone else.
"Story?" Bucky grins. "What story? That's not why I'm watching."
It's a great way to go and turn his brain off, and Bucky read an article in the newspaper last week complaining that modern films are nothing but brain candy, all flash and no substance. The writer compared them to the gritty, realistic films of the early to mid forties -- of course -- and how back then Hollywood really understood cinema. It's that kind of facile nostalgia that has Bucky grinding his teeth; he'll complain about the prices, the cynicism, the waste, the whining of the new millennium but he'll be the first to tell anyone that the thirties and forties were not a picnic. Steve teases him for his taste in movies, but Bucky does not watch in order to have nightmares that require emergency sedatives and a next-day appointment with his shrink.
It's a weird era, this one, where people aren't allowed to like anything, and anything of value to anyone of discernment must be sad. Bucky thinks of the comic books gracing the shelves back in his day, of Captain America and Superman and all the rest in bright colours having adventures and winning the war -- propaganda, now, right up there with ol' Adolf, there are probably university courses about it -- and how kids went to sleep dreaming of rockets and cities in the sky instead of the march of German boots goosestepping down Central Avenue, bombs exploding above their heads.
Steve shifts in his stride just enough to knock Bucky with his shoulder. "You know your whole 'movie first' thing only works if there's enough stuff in the movie to talk about."
"Well, like you said, it's a good thing we know each other and don't have to rely on the picture for conversation topics, huh," Bucky says, knocking Steve back. They didn't have much time for horsing around in the Commandos, so of all the strange things still left over from Steve's change in size, that's one of the weirdest. He's used to having to be careful so he doesn't throw Steve across the street; now he's more in danger of bouncing off the wall of Steve and going flying himself.
Since Bucky agreed to compromise on the restaurant, they find a hamburger joint that actually looks like it might've been around in the forties instead of being built twenty years ago and outfitted with a garage sale's worth of kitsch anywhere from the thirties to the sixties. Sometimes Bucky wishes he could climb on top of those bleachers in Times Square and shout that people didn't actually adorn their walls with gigantic Coca-Cola buttons and not-vintage-then ads.
Still, it's nice to know that no matter what happens, a good burger is a good burger, even if it does cost an insane amount of money. At least Bucky's twenty dollars does cover the cost of the meal, which puts him and Steve on the level for the evening.
They do talk about the movie, funny enough, though Steve gets that pinched look around his nose when Bucky asks him what he really thinks. "It's the sex scenes," Steve admits. "The whole thing is weird."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Bucky knows Steve better than anyone alive today, he's pretty sure, and he knows Steve isn't a prude. He never would have lasted in the army – never mind led a group like the Howling Commandos and gained their absolute respect -- if he had been. At the same time, Bucky isn't offended by bananas but that doesn't mean he has to eat them. "I thought that one was better than most of the other ones. At least it was interesting."
Bucky's not one for watching actors tumble around in white sheets with orange fireside lighting and the camera making long swoops up the dame's legs and the guy's chest, ending of course in the improbable position where the sheet just covers the guy's hips while coming up over her breasts. It's fine, but it's also a little artsy-fartsy and silly, and the swelling strings always just puts it over the top. This one was two secret agents and they did it on the rooftop while on a stakeout, which was ridiculous and funny and if Bucky had been on that mission that's when he would've put a bullet through both their heads, real poetic, but let's not think about that.
Steve's mouth quirks. "You would say that. I don't know, I'm just never sure what we're supposed to do when we watch those scenes. Are we supposed to get turned on, because in a theatre crammed full of people, that's just awkward."
"I don't think you're supposed to think that hard about it, Cap."
"I'm sure." Steve shrugs. "I dunno, it always just knocks me out of the movie. I can deal with the aliens and the explosions or whatever else, but as soon as that happens, I remember it's not real. And then I start thinking about what it must be like to act that and pretend all that is real, and isn't that weird?"
"You gotta remember, though, the room would be full up with cameras and crews and equipment and people telling you to move that leg there and angle your hip this way and why don't you put your hand here," Bucky says, and Steve laughs. He's told Bucky about the awful Captain America films he had to do before coming overseas. "It's a different sorta headspace, I think."
"Maybe." Steve pokes at his fries. Bucky remembers that as a kid he used to eat them with mustard, but now he dips them in ketchup like a good all-American boy. Bucky wonders if his tastes have actually changed or if someone told him along the way, and the thought hits him somewhere below his chest. "It's just, it's everywhere, Bucky. It's on the buses and in the newspapers and in the movies. And I'm not pretending it was that much different when we were growing up, like it was innocent or anything, but it wasn't like this. Now if there's no sex people are disappointed and the movie is accused of playing it safe. If a celebrity starts dating, people think they're entitled to the details. It's like the idea of what's private just got turned upside-down. You know, some photographer took pictures of this girl, sunbathing without a shirt on, and it got splashed everywhere, all over the papers, and people said she deserved it for doing it in public. Except that she didn't, she was in her yard with a ten-foot fence, and he had to climb on a roof and use a telephoto lens and --"
"Whoa," Bucky says, cutting him off, eyes wide. This isn't about sex scenes in movies anymore, and Bucky has long lost track of where this is going. Except there's a thread, an undercurrent, in the set of Steve's shoulders and his gaze flicking everywhere but Bucky's face, and he thinks maybe he does know. That maybe this is just one more step in the dance they might be dancing together, or Bucky might be watching from the sidelines, or might be imagining at all. "Whoa, hey, it's okay."
Steve grimaces and wipes his fingers with the waxy paper napkin -- funny, whole new millennium and restaurants still use things that refuse to get all the grease off -- before tossing it in a crumpled ball on the table. "Sorry, I don't know what's gotten into me. I didn't mean to wreck the evening or anything."
"Hey, it's fine," Bucky says, and keeps his tone light with the same focus and concentration he used to use when sniping. He can't shake the feeling that this is important. "You do know that just because you're Captain America, you don't owe people anything. About you, I mean. Yeah, you owe them Cap, but you don't owe them Steve."
Steve's eyes go wide and startled, and he flashes Bucky a smile -- a real one -- before his expression shuts down. "Ah, Buck, you have no idea."
"Why? What's happened?"
Steve presses his lips together, and he stares resolutely at the wall, mercifully not plastered with ads for an ice-cold Coke at 5c a bottle. "When's my birthday?"
Well, that's not what Bucky was expecting. "Uh," he says. "Is this a trick question?"
The look Steve gives him is not one Bucky wants to see on anyone he likes, let alone his closest friend; it's bitter and resigned and all the things Steve was before he took the serum. "Maybe."
"It's April 18th," Bucky says, a twist of panic in his chest. "The hell, Steve -- wait, what day is it? What month is it? Did I miss your birthday?"
"Not anymore. I've got a new one, it's on the paperwork and everything. Official. I shouldn't even be having this discussion with you. It's a violation of something I signed, I'm sure." Steve picks up the ketchup and watches the red goop slide slowly down the neck of the glass bottle. "My birthday is July 4th, just like America's."
Bucky's breath leaves him in a whoosh, and he sits back in his chair. "When did that happen?"
"Way before I found you in Zola's lab. Senator Brandt got the idea when he was getting me to sell bonds." Steve shrugs. "It just never came up because, you know, winter, and I didn't really care because anything to serve my country. It's not like birthdays were ever a big deal. And at the time, I don't know, war, it really wasn't, and maybe now I just have too much time to think about it, but."
"Haaaa," Bucky says, drawing out the sound, and he's smashed the last of his fries into mush with his fork without thinking. "You're serious."
"Yeah." Steve drags his finger down his water glass and traces patterns on the table with the condensation. "It seems like a stupid thing to whine about, and it probably means something that it didn't start to bother me until last summer, but it makes things harder. Sometimes I think people forget there's a Steve at all. Though maybe that's what they need -- they needed it with Hitler, and sure there are no Nazis anymore but the world doesn't seem to be much happier, so maybe they need that again now. Maybe it's selfish to wish I could keep that part of me separate."
Bucky actually wants to hit something, but he's not going to tell Steve that. It's the sort of impotent rage that used to build up after seeing one too many bruises on Steve's face, the kind that would have him stalking out and looking to start a fight just so he could lay someone across the pavement. He settles for gripping his fork in his left hand and squeezing until he bends it in half. At least his stupid arm is good for something.
"Okay, that's sick," Bucky says, and he's proud of himself for sounding so controlled. "That's -- really sick. I know some stuff has to come with being Captain America and all, but changing your birthday? Really?"
"It's not that big of a deal," Steve says, eyes skirting across Bucky's face, and as always, once he catches the angry, protective vibe that tightens Bucky's jaw and narrows his eyes he backs off.
"Not on its own, but you're right. You're entitled to some stuff that's just Steve, and if they're not even letting you keep the day you were born, then you're double-entitled to something else." Bucky swallows. The air suddenly feels thicker, like those dreams where he's running as hard as he can but moves like he's in quicksand. "Okay, look, they don't know about me, right? As far as people know, I'm still dead." It's true; unlike Steve, they haven't reactivated him in the official records yet. Waiting to see whether he goes crazy, Bucky figures; way easier to off a guy who's already dead in the government's eyes. "So, here's this; you and me, this, that's for Steve. Not Captain America."
Steve blinks, and Bucky feels the warm glow he gets whenever he manages to say something that throws Steve off-guard. "What do you mean?"
"Well, if you hang out with Stark then it's big news, right?" Bucky shrugs. "Not me. Even if I did join SHIELD, I'm not a superhero, I'd just be one of the mooks in blue. So let's keep that. Whatever we do, that's just us, and nobody else's. You get something selfish to keep all to yourself."
Steve's gaze does something to Bucky's insides, and after a long silence, he wets his lips and nods; once, hesitating, then again, hard and decisive. "All right. You've got yourself a deal."
Bucky wonders how far they can take this without talking about it really, without setting boundaries or definitions or whatever else, but he's not going to think about it, not going to stomp all over the baby flame that's just starting to flicker before turning into a proper fire. "Good," he says, heart thumping, and Steve smiles at him. Bucky isn't sure whether he wants Steve to know he would fall off a thousand Hydra trains to see that smile, or if he wants to hide that from Steve forever.
"I hear this place makes a mean banana split sundae," Steve says, laughing when Bucky makes a face. "C'mon, we each order one, I'll take the bananas from yours and you can have my cherry."
Bucky pauses for a split second, taking in Steve's expression to see whether or not the Captain is aware he just made a filthy joke -- Steve does that, sometimes, couched in such polite language that it takes a second, and his eyes are always a dead giveaway -- but Steve just picks up the menu and runs his finger down the dessert column, unaware.
"Sure," Bucky says, choking back laughter. "Sounds good."
Steve's cell phone rings a few days later, at the ungodly hour of the morning when Bucky would much rather be unconscious, too early even for Steve and his jogging habit. He set it to a ringtone that isn't quite so jarring, which is good because it means Bucky doesn't roll out of bed in combat mode, but it did mean that what was actually a pretty pleasant, if embarrassingly private, dream went weird when Steve started singing to him in Perry Como's voice.
Without ever agreeing to it, Steve has taken to sleeping on the wall side of the bed so that if Bucky panics in the middle of the night and has to get out of there, he can without any real trouble. This means that Bucky is in charge of answering the phone if Steve doesn't lunge over him to do it first.
They'd stayed up late the night before, though, and Steve has gotten to the point where he finally doesn't rise military-punctual at five a.m., and Bucky isn't going to ruin it. He groans and sticks out his arm, grabbing the phone and pulling it to his ear. "'lo?" he mumbles.
"I need you to put Rogers on the line," come the ever-dulcet tones of one Nick Fury, and Bucky winces. If it's weird to him that Bucky is the one answering Steve's phone at ass o'clock, he doesn't let on, which is a pretty good indication that he knows damn well and that those cameras Bucky jokes about are actually real. "I need him up and ready for duty, and you to get your ass over to the Avengers Tower."
Great, a whole day of Steve out doing SHIELD business while Bucky stays home and gets babysat by JARVIS. At least Steve managed to argue that the AI was an adequate watchdog so that Bucky doesn't have to go to SHIELD headquarters and spend the day playing video games and drinking bad coffee on a utilitarian sofa.
"Sure," Bucky says, and Steve is awake now, wide-eyed, and Bucky presses the phone into his hand before getting out of bed and pulling on a pair of jeans over his boxers. He's still getting used to how tightly everything fits here, though he's beginning to suspect that the salesgirl was doing herself a favour when she said these ones fit just fine and no no no they weren't too tight at all.
Steve is out of bed and changing into his uniform-underclothes while still on the phone, barking out military-perfect 'yes sir' and 'no sir' and 'understood', and Bucky knows he'll have the rest of the uniform in record time, army training sort of like riding a bike. Bucky sighs. Part of him feels like he should be going to the kitchen and packing Steve a lunch.
"So what's up?" Bucky asks, shoving his feet into his shoes. He's not expecting an answer.
"I'm sorry," Steve says, which as predicted means 'it's classified'. Bucky's not used to that, but it beats having to hop to it whenever Fury gets the urge to sneeze. "You could join up, you know. We'd be glad to have you, and if you start that thing about your past again I'm sure Natasha would be glad to hit you."
"No," Bucky says, as he always does, and they hop down the stairs and into the shiny black car that pulled up who knows when without Bucky hearing. SHIELD is creepy.
And really -- really, Fury? -- they sent a car, not some kind of jet or copter or something, which means they'll have to navigate traffic and the tunnel and everything else, and if they have time for a half-hour drive then surely Fury could've let them sleep in.
Usually Bucky lets these sort of arguments drop, but he's been woken up early and hasn't yet had the chance to drink his coffee, plus that dream was really nice before the phone ruined it -- no faces turning into blood or ice or anything -- and he feels the urge to pick a fight.
"I'm not joining your little team," Bucky says, folding his arms and staring at the blackened window. The car must have some sort of weird traffic-controlling device because they never see SHIELD vehicles stopped in traffic, and he's pretty sure they're already at the tunnel when they should be at the expressway. He wonders if whatever they're doing is legal, but probably not. The drivers never even stop for tolls. "Not now, not ever."
"Why? We could use you. And I like knowing you're at my back."
Bucky grits his teeth. "I'm done having someone else point me in the right direction and tell me when to pull the trigger," he says. "I've done my time as man-for-hire. I'm all sold out."
"It's not like that!" Steve sounds aghast that Bucky would even bring it up.
"Oh yeah, no, I know." Bucky pulls his lips back from his teeth in a grin that has nothing funny about it. "Just like Hitler or Schmidt, right? Fury tells you where the bad guys are, and you bring 'em down, no questions asked."
"I don't --"
"I'm just saying, Steve, nobody is born thinking they're going to be a supervillain when they grow up, and nobody just wakes up in the morning with that thought, either." The fingers on Bucky's left hand are starting to cut circulation from his arm, and he forces himself to loosen his grip. "Villains aren't born, they're made. People like Schmidt, they're rare. Most villains are just people who've gone wrong somewhere, but SHIELD doesn't care about that."
"That's why the Avengers don't kill unless we have to," Steve points out. "That's better than World War II already. It's -- we bring them to justice."
"What justice? Not the federal courts, that's for sure, and I know they're definitely not going to state pen. The truth is, if Nat hadn't been there to eyeball me and stop her pet archer from taking me out, I'd be on a slab somewhere, and you wouldn't even have been called in to confirm the corpse." He's shaking, which is stupid, but so are emotions. Can't help that. "The Winter Soldier was no different from any of these other guys you bring down and stick in a SHIELD holding pen to be tortured and interrogated and dissected. Only thing is that you guys recognized me and put up enough of a stink that they couldn't lock me away, too."
"That's not true!"
"It is true, and if you've never had doubts about Fury or SHIELD then you're not the little guy I knew," Bucky says, and from Steve's silence he knows he's made a point. "Yeah, that's what I thought. So look -- Captain America, the country needs him, but nobody needs the Winter Soldier anymore, and I'm sure as hell not volunteering. It's as simple as that."
"Fine," Steve says gruffly, his jaw set in full on Captain's disapproval. Bucky could string a hammock between his eyebrows and take a nice, long nap.
"You're off here, Captain," says the driver, pulling over.
Steve hesitates with his hand on the door. Bucky knows after the whole 'thought you were dead' thing happened -- twice -- he doesn't like to leave things unfinished, but they really don't have time, not today. "Go," Bucky says, and almost manages not to sound entirely bitter about it. "I don't want to get chewed out by Fury for keeping you behind in a crisis."
The frown only deepens, but Steve nods and slips out of the car. Bucky catches a glimpse of police barriers and officers holding back the crowd, and he rolls his eyes. It can't be too bad if they haven't completely cleared the area. "When I get back," Steve says, and Bucky bites back the remark that he sounds like he's trying to be someone's father.
"Yep," Bucky says instead, and tosses off a sharp salute.
Once at the Tower -- which, when deserted, feels a lot less like a place where superheroes hang out and more like the lair of a mad genius, which Bucky thinks is probably mostly the truth -- Bucky makes himself comfortable on one of the biggest couches. "JARVIS, the usual setup, if that's okay," he says.
"Of course," says the invisible robot connected to the entire house, and sometimes the future really is not so bad.
The giant television screen lights up with images, from Iron Man's helmet, traffic cams, reporters, news channels, military surveillance and even the occasional bystander's cell phone camera. It's frenetic and will give Bucky a migraine by the time it's over, but it's the only way he's found to get eyes on what's going on at ground level. JARVIS patches through the communications from the Avengers' earpieces, which might not be precisely legal but even if it isn't, is enough of a grey area that SHIELD has never come breaking through the door to tell Bucky to stop.
"Isolate Rogers' feed for me for just a second?" Bucky asks. He's never sure if he's supposed to say please to JARVIS -- Steve does, but he also says thank you to the toaster, and if you can argue that waitresses are just doing their jobs then that goes double for an appliance programmed to do it.
"Certainly," JARVIS says, and the chatter dies.
Bucky listens, and you'd never know from the unflinching authority and lack of hesitation that Steve got into a fight just before entering the fray. He gives commands and coordinates attacks and keeps his crazy team together, and Bucky would feel bad except that he really, really doesn't. The guy they're fighting -- something about being able to move molecules around, which sounds pretty dumb until Bucky realizes that, potentially, he could arrange all the hydrogen and oxygen in the air to put all of Manhattan underwater, and then that's not so funny -- is a typical overblown, overdramatic supervillain, monologuing every time he gets close to one of the cameras, but Bucky is convinced that he wasn't a crazy five-year-old rearranging his Tinker Toys into machine guns.
It's a stupid thing to get hung up about, and it isn't as though Bucky feels sorry for these guys exactly -- he had the dubious excuse of being brainwashed, but he remembers what he did and he remembers, if not enjoying it, then feeling absolutely no guilt -- but something about being on the other side doesn't sit under his skin. He wonders why Natalia -- sorry, Natasha -- joined SHIELD, whether she feels indebted and whether she ever questions. Probably not; she's good at self-preservation, and the kind of moral soup Bucky is swimming in is anything but that. She'd know how to put that behind her. She's never been that concerned with the choices of others.
The fight is a long one, which makes sense when you're fighting a guy who can basically rearrange the universe as he sees fit. Bucky can't help wondering what he's been doing in the meantime, if he had that power, or why he decided to come out now after the Earth's protectors have come together. Then again, seems like a lot of the villains have the same idea. The SHIELD shrink would probably say they had some sort of narcissism disorder, more eager to be caught than actually to get away with it. Validation through vilification or something like that.
Still, it goes on long enough that Bucky has to wonder how the humans on the team are keeping up. Steve with his super serum still gets tired, but can push through it for days on end if he has to. The Hulk just has to stay angry, and while Stark's endurance is limited to his body, the suit helps mitigate a lot of the stresses on him. But Clint and Natasha, they're just people. Ordinary people with weapons, and yet they're still fighting, hours later, alongside the people with superpowers.
"Can you try to focus on visuals of the Black Widow?" Bucky asks, and JARVIS obediently patches together whatever he can. Bucky leans back and watches her, proud and competent and fiercely human, and he doesn't love her -- the Red Room stripped that from him, leaving him just enough to form their connection but not enough that he would even think to leave them with her -- but he does, sort of. It's just that it's the kind that sits warm in his chest instead of curling in his stomach.
Bucky drags a hand down his face. He shouldn't have got on Steve's case. Not when the team includes two former assassins -- one originally slated for death by SHIELD itself -- and a rage-monster who's lucky he's not locked up in a lab right now, not to mention not-exactly-mentally-stable Tony Stark. For all Bucky knows they do put the people they defeat in some sort of supervillain rehab, and anyway, it's not Steve's doing.
"Can you switch to Steve for me?" Bucky asks JARVIS. "Wait, was -- did that skyscraper just turn into a giant fist?"
"It would appear so."
"Tell me straight, is this the weirdest fight they've ever had?"
"It is definitely the most unique, I'd say."
Bucky shakes his head. "Right, Okay, sorry, now can you bring up Steve for me? Haven't heard him on the comms for a while."
JARVIS pauses, and when he comes back his modulated voice sounds almost apologetic. Bucky freezes. "I'm afraid I'm unable to locate Captain Rogers on any of the feeds."
Bucky pushes away the box of pizza he'd managed to scare up from the fridge -- Stark's programmed them to be self-aware and alert JARVIS when leftovers start going off; if there's a patent pending for that Bucky wants a piece of it now -- and fights down the panic. "What do you mean, you can't locate him?"
"I wouldn't worry just yet," JARVIS says, which is easy for him to say. "I'm sure he's just engaged elsewhere."
Bucky's hands tighten, and he reaches for the gun that's no longer at his side and that wouldn't do him good anyhow, sitting here on the damn couch. "Keep looking," he says, breath squeezing in his chest. "Give me anything, audio, visual, whatever."
Stark's voice filters through the chaos, the background noise fading as JARVIS isolates it. "Anybody got Rogers? I can't reach him."
"Negative," spits out Natasha, as she rolls to avoid an energy blast and comes up shooting. "Hawkeye, can you get eyes on him?"
A pause, then, "Nothing."
"Well, nothing we can do about it right now," Stark says, tense. "JARVIS, run a scan and alert me if he shows up."
Bucky can't breathe. This is worse than the 107th, than the SSR, than the Commandoes, all of it. He's stuck watching it like it's a television show and there's nothing, absolutely nothing, he can do. All his moral posturing from earlier flies right out the window and he wishes he were out there with his rifle snug against his shoulder, the sight in front of him, shooting at any bastard who dared come near Steve.
The battle continues until Stark and Barton create a distraction while Natasha darts in; Bucky can't see what's happening until Stark flies back and his helmet cam picks up their opponent, lying unconscious on the street, with Natasha holding out a long stick as though it's a bomb. "The hell is that?" Stark and Bucky demand at the same time.
"Looks like what he was using to manipulate things," Natasha says, blood-splattered and beautiful. Bucky thinks he might have a problem. "We need a containment device, fast."
"Still nothing from Rogers," Barton says, and Bucky closes his eyes.
He knows Steve still believes in God the way he knows the sun will come up tomorrow; Steve's faith in the little things is sometimes shaky, but in the big things it's absolute. Bucky hasn't given much thought to it since coming back -- the belief that someone else was up there taking the cosmic rap was a nice thought during the war, but the Red Room took that from him, too -- but now he dives right back into praying without shame. He only wishes he had a rosary, to keep his fingers busy if nothing else.
"HULK FIND CAPTAIN!" roars Banner, and Bucky's breath leaves him in a gigantic whoosh. "BIG ROCKS! BIG CRUSH!"
Bucky follows Iron Man's helmet cameras to the scene, where Hulk heaves, gigantic green muscles straining, to lift what looks like a huge toy mallet, only the size of a high-rise. Stark darts in, using his suit's repulsors, and Natasha crawls into the gap and comes out backwards, straining. "Clint!" she barks, and the archer drops down beside her to drag Steve's body the rest of the way. They collapse in a heap, not that Bucky can blame them, since Steve's two-hundred-something-pound frame is a doozy to lift even when he's not completely deadweight.
Steve's face is slack, blood and dust greying his skin. Numbers and data whirl on Iron Man's helmet camera, giving Bucky details of things he has no idea, and nothing that will tell him if Steve is breathing or not.
"JARVIS, vitals?" Stark snaps, flipping up his faceplate, and he lets out a sigh of relief at whatever it is he hears. "Okay, good. Let's get him back to medical before they decide to debrief us first."
Bucky slips off the couch onto his knees, bracing himself with his elbows bent against the coffee table, forehead resting on his clasped hands. "Thank you," he says out loud, and yeah, it's probably stupid to think that God is listening to a guy with brains like scrambled eggs and a list of sins longer than the Bible itself, but Bucky's not going to question. Not right now. Maybe later, when they're safe at home with Steve's back warm and solid against his chest he'll be confident enough to doubt, but they have to get there first.
The next hour until the others come home is torture, just as bad as anything SHIELD's team of deprogrammers put him through. Bucky badgers JARVIS until the AI reminds him -- as politely as ever, but still managing to put an edge into his voice -- that he's not connected to the SHIELD base and that Master Stark is out of his suit and therefore out of communications range. Bucky apologizes -- what else can he do -- and turns to pacing the length of the main hall, back and forth.
"I don't suppose there's a secret firearms range in here somewhere," he says at one point. Bucky really wants to shoot something.
"I'm afraid not."
"Didn't think so."
Bucky used to make fun of Steve for his insistence on making sure they were all right before they separated. In wartime it seemed fair enough, but this isn't war, it's a modern century where they claim to be more civilized than that. This is goofy megalomaniacs in costume. Bucky's last words to Steve sit in his throat, bitter and sarcastic and burning his mind like the time one of the other kids dared him to lick a battery.
"They'd have to file something if he dies, wouldn't they?" Bucky bursts out at one point. His right fingernails are chewed down to the base and bloody, his fingers looking like he tore someone's heart through their chest with his bare hands. "You're connected to all sorts of networks, don't pretend Stark hasn't hooked you in with backdoor access, or whatever you call it."
Even as JARVIS politely says he neither confirms nor denies the existence of root access into any government databases, it hits Bucky that it wouldn't matter. Steve Rogers isn't important to SHIELD, but Captain America is; if he died they wouldn't dare make it official, they'd just find someone else to take his place. Bucky's hand sweats, and he wipes it against his pant leg. The symbol is more important than the man, exactly the way Steve was afraid it would be.
"Might I suggest a tranquilizer?" JARVIS asks after a while, and Bucky lets out a hysterical semi-laugh and pushes his hands into his hair. "Mr. Stark keeps some in every room in case Dr. Banner has an incident. The blue ones should be suitable to your physique."
He almost considers it when JARVIS overrides him. "Cancel that, I believe the others have arrived downstairs."
Bucky takes the stairs three at a time, tripping on the landing and nearly falling and rolling down the rest of the way. Sure enough, the Avengers come limping in through the giant lobby doors, patched and bandaged from their trip to medical and with the kind of exhaustion around their eyes that only a thorough SHIELD debriefing can bring out.
They all look pretty rough but okay, and none of them are wearing an expression that he would associate with death. "He's fine, James," Natasha calls out, as Bucky runs toward them, sock feet skidding on the smooth floors.
"Everyone clear a path," says Barton, sarcastic and grinning, and Bucky will spike his coffee with hot sauce later because there's Steve, propped up against Stark's side with his arm in a sling, ashen and fatigued but alive.
Tony steps back and pushes Steve forward just in time for Bucky to catch him in a crushing embrace, just barely avoiding hurting him with his arm. "I'm so sorry," Bucky hisses into Steve's neck, and he clings as though he'll die if he lets go. He's honestly not sure he won't. "Fuck, I'm sorry. So, so, sorry."
"Language, Buck," Steve says, laughing a little, but his hand comes up and twists itself into Bucky's hair, fingertips scraping across his scalp.
"I can say it in Russian if you'd like that better," Bucky says, and this is hysteria, this is what being hysterical feels like, but he doesn't care. He's dimly aware of the others being dead silent, but he doesn't care.
"It's the sentiment, not the means," Steve chides, and Bucky lets out a breath that could be a laugh if you're being charitable. Steve pulls back, his hand still clasping the back of Bucky's neck, and he presses their foreheads together and closes his eyes. "I'm sorry, too."
It's the sort of moment you're supposed to remember, emblazoned in your memory forever so you can tell your grandchildren as they roll their eyes, and in some ways it is. Bucky will always remember the slide of Steve's forehead, slick with sweat and grime, against his, the smell of the city and blood and ash on his clothes. The sharp curve of Steve's jaw beneath his fingers, the intake of breath that could have come from either of them.
What he doesn't remember is who kisses the other first. That seems like it should be an important detail except that once the kiss turns into kissing Bucky realizes it doesn't matter one damn bit.
There are decades between them in the kiss, desperation and fear and repression and God only knows what else, and Bucky might have kissed more girls than he could count in the forties but he hasn't since he came back, and turns out it's not really like riding a bicycle at all. Not when it's Steve he's kissing, Steve's fingers hot against his skin, Steve's mouth on his, and Bucky thinks -- with what part of his brain is capable of thinking -- that he should probably be better than this, that their teeth shouldn't clash and their mouths should align just so and he shouldn't accidentally bite Steve's lip and cause Steve to laugh, nose pressed against his cheek.
They stop when Bucky forgets where they are and slides his metal arm up Steve's injured one, and Steve jerks back, hissing. That's when Bucky opens his eyes and sees the others either staring at them or pretending that there's an alien on the ceiling that needs taxonomical classification right now.
"Oh, shit," Bucky says without thinking, and Steve snorts.
"Look at you, I leave you alone for a few hours and you're cursing like a sailor." The rise of colour to Steve's cheeks is pronounced against the rest of his pallor, but he doesn't look like wants to turn back time and take it all back. Just maybe the part where they did this in front of, oh, the entire team.
"Sorry," Bucky says, for a lot of things, and Steve's eyes are blue-grey and amazing and Bucky will shoot himself if this train of thought keeps going, so he looks away.
"JARVIS, I sure hope you're recording this," Stark says, and Steve whirls around at the same time and shouts, "JARVIS, don't record this!" a split-second later.
Banner clears his throat. "I'm going to go make a pot of camomile, if anyone wants some."
"I will," Natasha says, and she gives Bucky a quiet smile, one that barely touches her lips or her eyes but that he knows because he knows her, and she nods her head. "Clint, Stark, you should come too."
"I don't want tea," Stark complains, but Natasha loops her arm through his in a way that looks casual but which Bucky knows will turn crushing if he hesitates. Judging by the way Stark jumps and hustles, he's experienced it first-hand.
"Clint," Natasha says again, warning.
"Sorry, I, just, gah." Barton runs a hand down his face. "This, I'm not awake enough to deal with this. I grew up with Captain America, you know, and then the guys at SHIELD never shut up about him, and then he's here, this living legend, but then I found out that he doesn't like Star Trek and he complains about me eating his pizza crusts and that kind of -- brought the legend down to human level, which is cool, but watching him make out is a little too much for me."
Natasha rolls her eyes, snags his arm and drags him away.
That leaves them alone in the lobby, which now feels very big and very quiet and very public, and the enormity of what just happened hits Bucky between the shoulder blades and leaves him more than a little short of breath.
"Okay," Bucky says, and that's an idiotic thing to say. That's not suave, or charming, but Bucky has known since England and that uncomfortable bar stool with Steve and his muscles and his perfectly pressed button-down and Peggy in that knockout red dress that when it comes to Steve he's pretty much incapable of being smooth. "We just, uh."
"Stop, don't," Steve says, eyes widening. "Not here. Tony has overrides on JARVIS, if he says to turn the cameras on it won't matter what --"
"Okay, okay, yeah." Bucky steps back, and it feels like trying to pull a magnet off the fridge without using his thumb. "So what, then?"
"Home," Steve says, and closes his fingers over Bucky's wrist.
Just in case, by the way, you think the only thing left is the wrap-up chapter, nope. We're still going.
Chapter 7: I found more clouds of grey
They started out this conversation with kissing. How did they even get here? Oh, right, Bucky's an idiot, nothing new here, let's move on.
Two steps forward, one step back.
It's the longest train ride of Bucky's life.
("Couldn't we ask SHIELD to lend us a jet? Nobody would notice if it landed on the top of the Tower."
"Maybe not, but they would when it crushed the neighbour's house when it landed."
"Fine, be practical.")
The only up side is that after the battle everyone is too busy to pay attention to passengers on the subway -- why would Captain America take the subway -- and since Steve changed into jeans and a hoodie, pulling a baseball cap down low over his eyes, no one notices. He slumps against Bucky's side, exhausted, and Bucky keeps an arm across the back of the seat, casual and noncommittal.
"Almost there," Bucky says, low, when the train pulls in at Prospect Park. "One more stop." Steve nods, his head on Bucky's shoulder.
He nearly has to drag Steve home from the station, and the last four steps up the porch just about d him in. Steve stares at them, uncomprehending, and Bucky taps his hip encouragingly. "I can't carry you," he says lightly. "A couple more steps and that's it."
"Right," Steve says, stretching out his hand to brace it against the wall, and with Bucky behind him to -- what, he's not sure, be a cushion? -- in case he falls, he slowly makes it up and through the door. They don't make it to the bedroom, but it's all right because the couch is a good one, big and sturdy because now that Steve has money and means he won't spend millions of dollars on himself but he won't be breaking any furniture either, and when Steve collapses onto the sofa without bending his knees it doesn't even groan.
"You want anything?" Bucky asks him, and they're home now, safe, but his palm is slick again and none of this makes any sense because he's thirtyish, not seventeen, but there you go. "I think we've got some SHIELD-approved painkillers somewhere, should knock even you out."
"No, I'll be fine." Steve holds out his good hand. "Just -- sit down?"
"Sure," Bucky says, and Steve budges over enough that Bucky can lower himself down next to Steve on the cushion without knocking into anything broken. "You sure you don't want something?"
"No, I'll heal soon enough, it's fine." Steve closes his eyes.
Bucky remembers learning about inertia in school and not really caring, but for some reason it hits him now. It's some weird kind of inertia that keeps people kissing even when they should stop; at the same time, it's what keeps people from kissing again when the streak gets broken. At the time, the whole Tower could've burned down and Bucky wouldn't have given a damn; now they're alone, with no interruptions, and he finds himself hovering awkwardly and not touching. Stupid science. His ten-year-old self had the right idea.
"Steve," Bucky says finally, when Steve doesn't move. "I -- are we okay?"
"You'll have to be more specific," Steve says, opening one eye, and he really does look tired. "Are you talking about the fight we had where you called me the twenty-first century version of the SS just doing my job for Herr Fury, or where we gave Tony blackmail material for the next twenty years? Because the first I'm still hurt about, but I'm strangely okay with the second." He smiles a little. "Though that could be the concussion."
"You have a concussion?" Bucky asks, sitting up straight.
"Mm." Steve nods. "Took medicine. Got CAT scan. You're supposed to wake me every couple hours and ask me if I have double vision and know who the President is, all that, but it should be fine."
Well, that puts the kibosh on talking about the fact that they kissed in the lobby of the Avengers Tower, which Bucky is not-all-that-surprisingly okay with too. "Let's get you to bed, then," Bucky says. "Not the couch, actual bed. I got up early and spent the last few hours having multiple heart attacks, and that might not be up there with getting trapped under a building for half an hour, but still."
Bucky gets Steve up and over to the bedroom, where he's a good boy and doesn't even make jokes about getting Steve out of his pants as he helps him strip down to his shorts and t-shirt. Bucky hesitates once Steve rolls under the covers, and he's about to invent an excuse when Steve cracks an eye open. "You coming?" he asks, and Bucky isn't going to make him ask again. He crawls under the blankets and curls up at Steve's back, feeling the long sigh that Steve lets out all the way through him.
Concussion. Bucky thinks back to his training, and he's pretty sure confusion is part of concussions, and it's not likely but it is possible that the only reason things happened is because Steve suffered minor brain damage. Bucky doesn't really want to think about that, and his finger tightens against Steve's hip without thinking.
"Hey," Steve says, and his voice has gone muzzy but he turns over, flails awkwardly with his good arm and tugs Bucky forward. Bucky obeys, leaning down, and Steve pulls him in for a kiss, tired and devoid of heat but still amazing, and please God please don't let this be the concussion. "Talk later. Sleep now, okay?"
"Okay," Bucky says, and helps Steve settle so his arm is less likely to shift and hurt him while he's out. Steve catches Bucky's fingers and tangles them before his breathing evens out and he drifts off to sleep. Bucky stays awake, committing as much of this to memory as he can just in case he wakes up to find himself buried under the rubble of the Tower having hallucinated the whole thing, and finally closes his eyes.
The one thing that's stuck from Bucky's stint both in World War II and as the Winter Soldier is that he can wake up on cue. He sets his mental alarm every two hours in order to nudge Steve awake and check him for signs of the concussion worsening, but each time things are fine and they slide back into sleep soon after.
Bucky crawls awake for good when the light slanting in through the window is tinted pre-sunset yellow, and he blinks and grimaces at the cotton-tongue taste in his mouth and the dull not-quite-headache lurking in his skull. By his clock, Steve can sleep for another half-hour or so before Bucky needs to rouse him, and so Bucky eases himself out of bed and heads into the kitchen. He's no chef or anything, but he's getting better, and now that they can afford real food instead of canned pork and beans and cheap spaghetti, it's almost a fun challenge.
He's finishing up a massive Steve-sized breakfast-for-dinner when the floor creaks and Steve wanders into the kitchen, hair mussed and pillow lines across his face. He looks muddled and sleepy, though no longer bone-deep exhausted, and about as far from the symbol of American democracy worldwide as he can get. He looks, in short, like Steve Rogers, and not Captain America.
"Hey," Bucky says, and he glances away so Steve won't see the slew of emotions on his face -- then stops, because he doesn't have to look away, doesn't have to hide, not anymore. Maybe. He's not sure. Bucky risks a quick look, and Steve's expression is somewhere between thoughtful and confused as well.
Bucky will say one thing for the forties; knowing that getting caught doing anything suspicious would result in dishonourable discharge or a boot in the face made things simple -- not better, not nicer, but simple. Clear-cut. They had rules, they followed them, and while they weren't exactly happy, they at least knew where things stood, what was allowed and what wasn't. Now everything's been tossed into the blender and Bucky has no clue where to go from here.
Steve walks gingerly for a man his size; while he still hasn't gotten the hang of his posture quite yet, Bucky assumes he got accustomed to his sheer bulk pretty quick, most likely when he kept whacking his head against doorways, accidentally smashing mugs, or putting holes in things. He wonders if Captain America ever has to hold babies and kiss their little heads at photo opportunities, and whether that gives Steve a heart attack every time. He was always afraid he'd drop them when he was small.
The stupidest part about all of this is that Bucky has gone on some really awful dates and woken up with girls he'd rather be miles away from, and the morning-after breakfasts still weren't this awkward. He sure as heck hasn't ever felt tension this strong just from one round of 'thank God you're alive' kissing, and back in the 107thth he used to enjoy his share of that because it seemed a damn sight better than pining. Well, first time for everything.
Steve smiles a little and rounds the table, pressing two fingers against Bucky's wrist. "You all right?"
"Peachy," Bucky says, keeping his tone light. "Should eat the eggs, they're better hot."
Steve quirks one eyebrow, the same face he made decades back in that little bar in London when Bucky asked him about the uniform, only now Bucky doesn't have to shove his reaction to that face down into his boots. "Even cold eggs beat army hash," he says, and his throat works, eyes flickering, before he leans in and kisses Bucky on the mouth.
It's a damn good thing Bucky managed to put all the plates down first.
It only lasts a few seconds before Steve pulls back, not enough time for Bucky's brain to come back into gear, for him to remember that this is all right, that he doesn't have to freeze and immediately start listening for people who might see them and have something to say about two pretty fellas like that. "That's just in case you thought it was the concussion," Steve says, mouth twitching.
Bucky lets out a breath, parks his hip against the edge of the table to steady himself and pulls Steve in for another. It has the potential to get serious quick, Bucky knows -- all those years, all that wasted time, all the times they thought the other lost -- but they both lean back pretty fast, considering. "That's in case you thought I was just overwhelmed at seeing your stupid, heroic face," Bucky says, and Steve laughs, his breath warm against Bucky's jaw.
"Fair enough," Steve says. He lets go of Bucky's arm and sits down, tugging the plate with the larger helping toward him as though nothing happened.
Is this normal? Could it ever be? Bucky shakes the thoughts away because for now, Steve is here, alive and not brain-damaged, and Bucky has bacon cooling on his plate. Reduce things to the essentials and work from there.
Unfortunately it's not that easy, though Bucky isn't really surprised to find himself thinking back to this morning. Not to the good parts, natch, but to the gut-gnawing terror that came from being forced to wait at home like some fella's girl during the war. Bucky's breakfast suddenly tastes no better than field rations, which is an insult considering how much the raw ingredients cost. Three bucks for the eggs alone.
"You really think Fury would let me join up?" Bucky asks, and Steve pauses with his fork halfway to his mouth. "I just, the guys at SHIELD always skedaddle like they're waiting for me to pull a rifle out of my hair and take the whole place out."
"You'd have to undergo a full psych eval just like the rest of us," Steve says, frowning. "But I mean, Fury is a realist. We're all of us unstable in some way or another. It's not like you have to be --"
"Captain America?" Bucky says wryly, and Steve gives him another unimpressed face. "Naw, I'm kidding, I'm sorry. But there's a difference between culture shock and an insane moral compass, or some narcissism and self-preservation issues, and somebody who has the potential to flip out and slaughter the entire base because the good doctors left something behind."
Steve's nostrils flare, which means Bucky is well on his way to making him upset for real, and this isn't how he intended to start this conversation. Bucky raises a hand. "Sorry. Okay. Let me try this again. I've reconsidered and I want to join the Avengers, if you think SHIELD will okay it. I'd rather not go through the whole rigmarole if you think they'll just say no."
Steve chews the inside of his lip. "I think they'd say yes," he says slowly. "You'd be a fantastic asset; even back then you saved my life and the team more times than I can count. I'm just a little curious what changed your mind."
Bucky isn't sure he should admit that, and in hindsight he probably shouldn't have brought it up until he had a better answer. He sure can't tell SHIELD the truth when they bring him in for the interview, they'll either have him recommitted or laugh until they shake themselves into pieces. "Change of heart?" he says flippantly, but Steve skewers him with a glare and he submits, one hand pressed to his heart as if struck. "Okay, okay. I just, I'd never really thought about you guys going out and getting yourselves killed all the time, not really. I guess the guys you'd been fighting lately were small-time or something."
Steve nods. "This was closer than most," he says. "That sort of thing is rare, though Loki's attack was the worst. Nobody's been able to round up an intergalactic army complete with giant flying monsters, so you know, perspective."
"Right." Bucky grins a little, because at what point does your life just get so weird you take things like that in stride? Now, apparently. "No, I just, I'd never had to sit back and watch it before. I was always out there with you, ready to get your back or anybody who needed it. Even when you pulled me outta Zola's lab, I was right in there in the thick of it with the rest of you. Sitting on that couch and waiting for JARVIS to give me news, any little crap to tell me you weren't dead -- that was different. I can't keep doing that."
The ensuing pause lasts long enough that Bucky feels like he has to say something else. He's never really been afraid of silence -- he and Steve had the whole sit in companionable quiet thing down -- but things are different now. Boy, are they ever different. "I'll find something different to tell the SHIELD brass," he says. "Something about understanding the need to bring dangerous villains to justice, or whatever. I'll figure it out."
"That's not funny." Steve crosses his arms -- crosses his damn arms at the damn breakfast table -- and sets his jaw. "It's -- this isn't a joke. This is important stuff, and you can't just -- no. You had serious objections and I might not agree with them but they are yours, and you can't toss them aside just because you're worried about me."
"That's putting it a little too simply," Bucky says, nettled. It's not like he's suddenly Steve's girl here. "Do I like what SHIELD does with its villains? No. I think they need to face justice, sure, but proper justice, not whatever weird shadow courts SHIELD and the branch of government it sits in come up with. But my sitting at home isn't going to change that, and if my being there ups the chances of the rest of you coming back safe, I don't really have that much of a choice, do I."
"Yes, you do," Steve snaps. "I'm not going to be the cause of you doing something you find morally unacceptable. That's a lot of pressure and I don't want it."
Bucky leans back in his chair, tilting it on two legs with his feet braced against the tile. "So lemme get this straight. We had a fight this morning, you went charging off into danger with us both still mad at each other, and now when I'm trying to agree with you you're getting angry at me again?"
Steve's face flushes. Bucky can't remember if he's supposed to be keeping Steve calm, if getting pissed off is bad for the concussion, but oh well. He's pretty sure they've both been angrier with worse injuries, and at least being on SHIELD's retainer gives you a damn good health plan. "I'm not being unreasonable," Steve says, and indeed, his tone practically drips with reasonable. It's the kind of thing that used to drive Bucky nuts when they were younger, and usually ended up with Steve in a headlock. Bucky's pretty sure that isn't going to work now.
He could, in theory, try kissing Steve to shut him up, but Bucky gets a crawling feeling in his stomach at the thought. He doesn't think Steve would like that, and Bucky isn't sure he would, either. It seems a bit soon to be associating this with fighting when they haven't even figured out what this is yet.
"I don't want to fight about it," Bucky says, and he sounds sullen even to himself, which means to Steve in full on Captain Dad mode he probably looks like a petulant teenager who wants to borrow the car for the evening.
"Then let's not," Steve says, and he's staring at Bucky's chin, which means he doesn't trust himself to make eye contact, and that's not a good sign. They started out this conversation with kissing. How did they even get here? Oh, right, Bucky's an idiot, nothing new here, let's move on. "If you want to join the Avengers, then great, I -- we'd love to have you. But you have to be okay with what we do. You can't join if it still bothers you, not just because you want to be able to back me up if I needed. It will just keep chewing at you, and one day you'll take it out on the person responsible, and that person will be me." Steve presses his fingertips to the inside corners of his eye sockets. "I can't deal with that. I really can't."
And see, this is why Steve's the Captain and Bucky's the sidekick, because Bucky never thinks that far ahead. He drags both hands down his face, rubbing at his cheekbones. "Okay. I'm sorry. I think you're overestimating how much it actually bugs me -- you gotta factor in early wakeup and no coffee and bad mood -- but okay."
"I want you out there with me, too, you know," Steve says quietly. "I'd feel safer with you there, and I wouldn't have to panic over making sure the last thing we said to each other wasn't something you'd regret forever. But it's just like the war. You can't just go over because you want to kill Nazis, you needed to fight for something bigger."
"Well, that's gonna be a bit of a problem," Bucky says, and he slept all day and still has nap-brain but now he's exhausted all over again. "Because right now, the only thing I see worth fighting for in this stupid century is you." He smiles, tight and unamused. "Talk about pressure, I know. Sorry."
Steve's a funny guy, always has been. To him it makes absolute sense that a bunch of guys would throw themselves into the trenches to fight a war because some guy on the other side of the ocean was pushing a bunch of other people around, because these guys are the enemy and we're the good guys and that's that -- and by extension, that it's natural for people to want to follow Captain America because he's the embodiment of all of that. But tell him you're not interested in the uniforms and the badges, tell him you're interested in following the guy with the heart the size of Texas in the chest the size of Rhode Island and he looks at you like you're nuts.
Bucky joined the war for all the wrong reasons. He wasn't like Steve, burning up with something deeper than patriotism, with the desire to stop the biggest bully on Earth from kicking millions of people while they're down -- Bucky did it for the honour and the glory, for the uniform and the girls and the sense to do something useful instead of rotting away in Brooklyn, sitting on the roof with Steve and looking at the stars, talking about how they wish they could go out there.
Zola's lab changed all of that, stripped every pretension from him, and in the end the only thing left in Bucky's mind was the guy who pulled him off that slab and out of an exploding laboratory with a jump that no human should ever have been able to make. After that Bucky couldn't give a damn about governments or the brass or anything else, just Steve and taking out the bastards who wanted to kill him, which is a whole other different kind of selfish.
"This is, uh, not how I pictured the evening going," Steve says, and Bucky has to laugh because a-men to that.
"I'd ask you how you did picture it going, but I think that might constitute flirting and I don't know if we're there yet." Bucky takes the risk, and he's rewarded by one of Steve's surprised smiles, eyes crinkling at the corners.
"I think I'd survive." Steve picks up his fork again but doesn't start eating again, not yet. "Buck, I don't know what we're doing, any of it, but I would like to figure it out. I just -- it's going to take a while. I'm sorry."
Bucky raises an eyebrow. "You'll notice I haven't jumped you or tried to get you into bed other than to sleep your concussion off," he says, and wow, that was easy to say and almost not panic-inducing. Progress! "This isn't just weird for you."
"You at least have experience in this sort of thing."
Bucky's proud of the way Steve gets through that with only his ears turning red, and he bites back a grin. "Not this kind of experience, and you know it. Plus, even if I was a girl or something, it would still be a big deal, you know, because you're --"
"Captain America," Steve says again, making his sour lemon face.
"Steve," Bucky corrects him, giving him a flat stare. "Seriously, how many times do I have to say it? It's not the uniform, it's you."
Steve closes his eyes and swallows. "I guess I just like hearing it."
"I'll make a note." If this were a regular thing with a girl, Bucky would reach over and take her hand, maybe play with her fingers or rub his thumb over her knuckles, but is that okay? Is that even a thing you do with guys? He's not sure, and so his hands stay where they are, fisted on his knees. "I want to figure it out, too. And I'm okay if it takes a while. I waited this long, I'm not gonna wreck it by diving in too soon."
Steve sags a little in his chair. "Okay. Good. I mean, just -- thank you."
"Not sure what you take me for," Bucky says, and Steve chuckles a little and salutes. "Eat your food before it gets all gross. I slaved over that stove, you know."
"Be still my heart," Steve says dryly, and Bucky laughs out loud, no small thrill running through him when Steve glances up and grins in return.
Now, Bucky doesn't know anything about maybe being in a sort of relationship with his male best friend, but he does think that it probably, at its fundamentals, shouldn't be that difficult. He loves Steve, always has, and the only thing that's different now is a few things on the physical level. Intellectually, it isn't that different, and shouldn't be that weird.
Of course, intellectually Bucky knows he can't psychologically be held responsible for acts committed during brainwashing, but that doesn't stop him from having nightmares about the people he killed and the things he did. Sometimes the heart and brain are both stupid, and the only thing they agree on is that Bucky should be miserable for the rest of his life. Or at least ridiculously melodramatic, that's what guys like him are supposed to be like, right?
Because the thing is, it doesn't actually get easier, at least not right away. Bucky never gave it much thought, but in the parts of his brain that did and didn't immediately get crushed by the parts of him that liked surviving, he'd thought that if they'd lived in a magical fantasy land where this sort of thing was okay, that if they both felt the same thing and managed to work it out, it would be like opening a door into this great new world where Bucky got to love Steve and kiss him at the same time.
Except it's more like opening one door and finding a hallway full of a million other doors, and now the whole corridor is a million miles above the ground and one misstep means death. Bucky isn't stupid, and he doesn't think he's that naive. People say that nothing will change after they add that element to friendship, but they're either kidding themselves or just don't want to take responsibility for what's in reality a major shift. The stakes are higher whether he likes it or not, and whether Bucky wants to admit it, it is entirely possible that their friendship -- which survived separation, war, death, time travel and assassination attempts -- might actually be undone by the most pedestrian of relationship issues.
Of course, over-thinking is the quickest way to kill anything, and Bucky tries not to, but it means that they spend the rest of the day doing normal things like talking and not the fun things that Bucky's pretty sure he's actually allowed to think about now.
Bucky isn't actually doubting or regretting because he is cautious but not a masochist, and Steve might be quiet and a little bit thoughtful as well, but Bucky's pretty sure he isn't doing a massive backpedal either. They just don't bring it up again until it's time for bed and they both realize that sleeping all day means neither of them is actually tired.
"Movie, then?" Steve suggests, and Bucky nods and lets Steve choose.
Sitting on the couch together is something they've done a hundred times even in this shiny new century, but even that is a stumbling block. Bucky finds himself transported back to when he was fifteen and not sure where he was supposed to put his hands when with a girl, what she'd think was fresh and whether she actually wanted it and if she'd think he was not the marrying kind if he was too much of a gentleman, and this, this right here, this is ridiculous. This is Steve. They fit together like muscle memory, things Bucky shouldn't even have to think about, much less agonize over. He'd expected they would be all over each other by now, but he's even more paralyzed than before.
Fortunately, because this is Steve and not a shy teenage girl back in the Depression, he looks over at Bucky, sitting straight and stiff with his hands in his lap and laughs. "C'mon, Bucky," Steve says. "I know it's weird, but it's not that weird. Here." He tugs Bucky's arm up, tugging it over his shoulder, and he leans back against Bucky's chest and props his feet up on the ottoman. "There."
If Bucky ignores the part where Steve is twice as big as he was when they used to do this, then all right, it's not so bad. "I'm really sorry," Bucky says, because he doesn't know what else to say. He feels like throwing himself off the roof of the Avengers Tower. He's good at this, or he was. Girls told him all the time.
Yeah, before he never called them again, because Bucky was real good at the part where they had a nice time and everybody left happy, but not the part where it meant anything or was supposed to last. Well, damn.
"I don't know what I'm doing either," Steve reminds him, and Bucky would make a joke except it's not really funny. Having more experience doesn't count when none of it applies.
And to hell with this. Bucky reaches down and finds Steve's good hand, catches it in his and holds it. Steve has to bend his arm with Bucky's draped across his shoulder, and their hands meet somewhere in the middle of his chest. Bucky's heart trips, which is just embarrassing, but the world doesn't end, no one jumps out from behind the TV to yell 'gotcha', and Steve just makes a pleased sort of noise and settles his head in the curve of Bucky's shoulder.
There's a cord of muscle at the side of Steve's neck that never used to be there before. Bucky spent a lot of time staring at Steve when they sat like this -- it was the one time he had free rein to look, really, since Steve couldn't see him, and if things ever got too bad he'd just say he had to use the bathroom and hightail it out of there while Steve teased him for being the one with the big body and tiny bladder. Before, the only things that stuck out of Steve's neck were the top knobs of his spine, but now it's different, solid and strong, and they're not on the front so Bucky can actually get a good eyeball full of it.
"You're burning a hole there, Buck," Steve says, something not quite nerves but not quite casual in his voice. "I can see your reflection in the TV." Bucky freezes, but before he can move or apologize or set himself on fire, Steve shifts, tilts his head and catches his eye. His expression is serious, his eyes dark. "I could always see your reflection, you know."
"Man, really?" Bucky says, because that's what you say when your dirty little secret turns out to be one word less than that. "Here I thought I was so subtle."
Steve laughs, and he reaches up to flick Bucky between the eyes. "You're a lot of things, but subtle was never really one of them. I did know what you were saying when you looked at me -- at least, I think I did -- but just." He shrugs, then grimaces and rubs at his injured shoulder. "It was nice. I mean, it was strange, and scary, but nice. There was just no way I could say anything, not back then."
Bucky lets out his breath in a huff, and before he can find a way to wreck this he twists around so he can kiss Steve without either of them breaking their necks.
Every time they do this, it gets a little better, a little hotter, and Bucky forgets how to breathe a little more. Steve always was a quick learner, both back when he was small and desperate to prove himself and later, when he felt the need to show that the millions of dollars invested in him hadn't been thrown away on the wrong guy. Turns out whether it's mastering fancy Hydra weapons, scaling cliff faces or learning how to make a guy's knees weak, he's just as single-minded and determined about it.
Bucky has to step up his game or he's going to be left behind, he thinks. It doesn't help that minus the big silver arm, Bucky is the same when everything about Steve is entirely different. He's getting used to it, at least, so it's not bad-different, but combine that with things like lack of breasts and it's enough to throw Bucky off a little.
"Ow," Steve says finally, pulling back and chuckling. "This looks a lot easier in the pictures, huh."
Bucky grins, sheepish, because his neck is cricking a little and he's not even the one craned half around like Steve. "Yeah, it worked better in my head," he says, and even just saying that is a giddy, terrifying thing because he can say that. "You wanna keep trying in a way that doesn't end in us calling a chiropractor?"
Steve pulls back and turns around, curling one leg on the sofa. "Is there a word or a phrase people use to set the mood?" he jokes, eyes crinkled at the corners, and Bucky loves him so hard it nearly makes him gasp. "'Gentlemen, start your engines', something like that?"
"Not really," Bucky says, and this time when he leans in to kiss him, Steve is already there.
The thing about kissing is that Bucky has thought about this. He managed, back in the day, to clamp most of the thoughts down, to shove them away in a box and toss that box in a well and set the well on fire, for reasons not just because of what would happen to him if anyone found out but also because Steve couldn't run a block without coughing up a lung. Bucky liked sex and while he didn't think he was really all that adventurous or strange, there was no way he and Steve could get anywhere near half that stuff without worrying that Steve was going to have a heart attack, a fit of asthma, or both.
Kissing, though. On the days when the wanting got too strong that not even thoughts of consequences could push it back, Bucky let himself think about that. When he was strapped to that gurney in Zola's lab, sending his mind into a safe place away from the pain -- the details of which he's really, really glad Fury and his stupid cube didn't manage to drag out -- he imagined kissing Steve, because what could be further from torture than that? Later, lying on the cold ground with a thin blanket over him, bone-tired and sick of bad coffee and watching people, good people, get disintegrated by weapons that shouldn't exist, sometimes Bucky let his mind drift because who gave a good goddamn anymore.
It's different now. Steve is taller -- Bucky has to lean up to kiss him, and not because Steve's sitting on the counter or the table but because he's actually taller, and maybe one day that will stop being strange but not today -- and broader and when his hand skirts Bucky's waist his fingers reach all the way around to his back. Bucky splays his hand against Steve's chest and feels nothing but solid muscle, not a hint of bone protruding, and he keeps having to pull back and remind himself this is where he is. Steve's eyes are the same, at least, lashes that the girls used to die for and probably still do, if lashes are still a thing in the future, and that helps.
Bucky pulls back for other reasons, too, because he never managed to get the hang of fantasizing without being realistic, and he knew that if he and Steve ever did get to do this he'd have to make sure Steve didn't die part way through. Even though Bucky knows Steve's lungs are healthier than his now, he went through most of his life modifying his behaviour to accommodate for Steve's conditions, and it's harder than he thought to make the switch.
Bucky's lost track how many times he breaks the kiss to let them catch their breath, but finally Steve stops him with a hand at the back of his neck. "Bucky, c'mon" Steve says, smiling against his mouth, and Bucky would die a hundred more times just to feel that. Looks like there's no hiding the fact that he's dead gone, not now that he won't get killed for admitting it to himself. "I don't have asthma anymore. You don't have to stop every thirty seconds."
"It is not every thirty seconds," Bucky retorts, though honestly he has no idea. As a sniper he'd crafted a pretty good internal clock, but turns out some things toss that right out the window. "And how do you know that's why I'm stopping?"
Steve raises one eyebrow, and even with his face so changed that expression is the same, affectionate and disbelieving all at once, and Bucky has to kiss him again. "You took care of me even when you didn't have to, and I let you because it made you happy and kept you out of trouble --"
"You know it did, so don't start with me." Steve brushes Bucky's hair off his forehead. "But now you really don't have to. I mean, really."
Bucky swallows. "What exactly are we talking about here?"
Steve's eyes widen. "Not -- gosh, I don't know, I wasn't thinking that far ahead. I just meant you don't have to protect me anymore with this stuff, not --" He breaks off, flustered, and Bucky would laugh except boy, does he know how that feels.
And unfortunately that's too much thinking, and Bucky's brain has gone back into overdrive. He kisses Steve one more time, for good measure, then heaves himself to his feet and holds out a hand to help Steve up. "Should probably hit the sack," he says, and somewhere his fifteen-year-old self is staring at him, bug-eyed, and calling him a bunch of names that would impress even the Commandos, but he can shut it and let the grownups talk.
There's a second where Bucky's afraid Steve will be -- well, what, he's not sure, angry, maybe, or disappointed, or hurt -- but Steve just clasps Bucky's wrist and stands, grimacing when the movement jostles his arm. "Sounds good," he says. They make it to the stairs before Steve stops, catching Bucky's arm, and Bucky turns with one foot on the bottom step.
"This --" Steve says, gesturing between them, or, more specifically, at the level between their mouths. "This is nice. Really nice, don't get me wrong, it's amazing. But it's not what's important."
Bucky's body might have something to say about that on occasion, but he's had years of practice telling it to shut up, and anyway, he agrees. "Yeah," he says. He spent his entire adolescence and most of his twenties if not content then at least resigned to the knowledge that he and Steve would never, in any universe, get to do half the things his brain could think up if it had the freedom.
"I mean it," Steve says, and he finds Bucky's hand, links their fingers together and looks at them like it's some kind of miracle -- which, as far as Bucky's concerned, it is. "The knowing, the acknowledgement, that's worth more than this a hundred times. Even without it, I never felt like anything was missing. We're the same as we always were, no stronger, just -- different."
And here Steve got to that realization without having lots of meaningless dates with giggling girls he liked just fine but didn't actually give a damn about. He should probably get a medal or something. Then again, he's had way more therapy than Bucky has, so maybe that's it.
Steve smiles, ducking his head a little, and he's actually not bad at talking about his feelings but it always embarrasses him after. He might be twice the man he used to be but not everything has changed, and some of the jangling in Bucky's chest settles.
"You're right," Bucky says, and squeezes Steve's hand. "Though, uh, in case this is news, this --" he raises their hands and gestures at his mouth with both their fingers -- "isn't all I think about. So hope that doesn't, I dunno, pressure you or make you feel weird or something."
Steve actually grins at him, lopsided and not quite wicked but definitely mischievous. "Hey, I didn't say this was forever, did I?" he says, and Bucky knows him enough to be able to tell what's true grit and what's bravado, but even bravado about this is a million times more than Bucky ever thought they'd get. Steve's grin widens into a full smile, affectionate and amused. "Upstairs, soldier, if you've got enough blood flow left in your legs to do it."
"You know you're kind of a jackass," Bucky says, amazed.
"You love it."
"Yeah," Bucky says, and nearly falls down the stairs when Steve turns that smile on him again. "Yeah, I guess I do."
Chapter 8: Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I
Bucky wonders if everyone in maybe-relationships feels like they got hit in the chest all the time, or if this is just him.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The next morning, Bucky stumbles downstairs, cursing and grumbling, when the doorbell rings at ass o'clock, only to find out that Stark has sent them a priority package filled with -- cross Bucky's heart and hope to die, stick a needle in Stark's eye -- spangled condoms.
"WHIPPED THESE UP IN THE LAB LAST NIGHT," writes Stark. "SHOULD BE GOOD ENOUGH TO HANDLE EVEN A SUPER SOLDIER. THANK ME BY NOT GIVING ME THE DETAILS."
"It's fine!" Bucky hollers up the stairs, after his scream of outrage wakes Steve and sends him running to the landing. Bucky stashes the box under the sofa and stomps back upstairs. "Everything's fine. Just wondering why I never kicked Howard Stark so his balls vacated through his nose."
"What?" Steve's eyes are wide. "What excuse did Howard give you for that?"
"Birth," Bucky snaps.
"Bucky, come on, men don't give -- oh." Steve stops. "What did he do?"
"Nothing. A joke. It's not funny." Bucky blows out his breath. "And for the record, I'd planned on waking up a lot nicer than this, so I'm sorry."
"Gee, Bucky, crabby in the mornings? I'm not sure I can handle the shock." Steve grins at him, and damn him to heaven, the knot of fear and anger in Bucky's chest loosens, just a little. "C'mon, come back to bed."
Bucky trips over his feet and nearly falls down the stairs in his hurry.
He tells Steve later, after they spend a few hours in bed, talking and dozing off in the middle of the conversation and starting back up when they crawl back awake. It's a rare thing for Steve to be this lazy in the mornings, but he's still on medication and it makes him a little woozy. Bucky isn't complaining, that's for sure.
"Oh," Steve says, his face pinching around the nose, and he sighs. "Oh, Tony. I know this is going to sound stupid, but he was just trying to help."
Bucky gives Steve a flat look. He likes the Avengers fine, sure, and any group of guys that Nat can hang out with and not immediately murder has to be good for something, but he's not used to them. They're not the Commandos. Bucky hasn't gone toe to toe with these people in a firefight; he doesn't know they have his back, isn't as comfortable with the knowledge of how they move in a fight and who can protect him when like he was with the boys in the war. You never really know someone until you're with them in the trenches, and these guys, well, they haven't been tested. Not yet.
"It's how he deals with things," Steve says, waving a hand. "Giving presents. The more expensive, the better, and if they get to be inappropriate or embarrassing, well, that’s a bonus, because it means the recipient is less likely to talk about it and that means no messy feelings for him. It's -- a good sign. Really."
"Well, I hope you won't mind if I'm still gonna be a bit offended," Bucky says, and he focuses on the fact that they're having this discussion in bed -- their bed -- together, with a plate of sliced fruit between them because neither of them felt like getting up long enough to cook. It takes some of the sting off. "I just -- I'm not that kinda guy, okay, first night? Really?"
Steve laughs, startled but genuine. "Really? Because I think I know a few girls who might have something to say about that."
"Well, yeah, but only if that's all it was and we both knew going in," Bucky says, unexpectedly nettled. Steve gives him a look then, soft and fond and knowing way too much, and Bucky glances away. "I didn't do that if it was going to be serious. You -- yeah, you toss back shots like nothing, but if you get yourself a nice bottle of wine, you take it slow."
"I'm not sure about that metaphor, but I'll take it," Steve says, and he squeezes Bucky's knee through the blanket. "I get it, I do. And for what it's worth, I agree." He lets out a breath. "I know everything -- now, I mean -- moves so fast, but." And now at least it's not just Bucky who's nervous, which should make him feel better but doesn't, really. Steve picks at a loose seam on the blanket, pulling it until the fabric puckers and the thread kinks. "Just in case you were, uh, concerned -- I want to take this slow but it's not because I'm not sure. I can promise you that."
"I don't need you to promise me anything, but I'll take that too," Bucky says, and Steve relaxes and spears the last piece of pineapple. It's whole, from an actual fruit that they bought and sliced and ate, just like that -- no cans, no syrup, no rations -- and the first time they went overboard and got mouth ulcers the next day. Bucky didn't even know that was possible.
"You want to take a walk later?" Steve asks him. "Not to go anywhere, just get outside. I could use the exercise."
Bucky snorts. "You spent all of yesterday getting tossed around the city and getting punched by the creations of a madman," he says. "And now you want exercise."
"I didn't say I wanted a marathon, I said I want to go on a walk," Steve says. "With you."
Oh. Right. Bucky wonders if everyone in maybe-relationships feels like they got hit in the chest all the time, or if this is just him. If it's everyone, it's kind of amazing that humans have managed to reproduce enough for a global overpopulation problem.
Steve shakes his head, grinning, and Bucky feels the ever-mature urge to hide under the covers. "Fine, let's walk," Bucky says, and he rakes his gaze across Steve, sleep-rumpled and gorgeous, and something sticks in his throat. "But only if you don't comb your hair."
"What?" Steve goes cross-eyed trying to look past his own eyebrows, and Bucky grins.
"Your hair. You still comb it like you're waiting for inspection or Sunday School. You're a grown man, have a little pride."
Steve gawks at him. "What part of being an adult means I shouldn't take care of myself?"
"You iron your shorts," Bucky says, and mimes throwing a dart straight at a bulls-eye.
"I don't! Not anymore!"
"You do. You get up early so I won't see you and make fun, but Steve, I've known you since we were kids and I might be screwed six ways to Sunday now, but I still like laughing, and I'm not gonna miss an opportunity like that." Bucky grins, lazy, and he leans back against the pillow. He catches the now-empty plate with his foot and transfers it to the ground. They took out all that assassin stuff from his head, thank God, but the reflexes will stay forever. Steve watches him with a dubious expression. "Plus your pjs have creases down the front. You make me feel underdressed when we're sleeping."
Steve makes a face at him. "There's no reason not to take care of yourself!" he snaps, defensive, and they've had this argument a hundred times, in another era, and the familiarity and the strangeness both wrap Bucky like a blanket that's a little too warm and maybe a bit itchy. "Dressing nicely just means you respect the other person enough to make an effort."
Bucky laughs this time, bright and unreserved, and before he can think too hard about it, he catches Steve's arm and tugs him down, kissing him just like that. Steve blinks at him, pleased, but still wary. He knows when a punch line is coming. "So you're dressing to impress me in bed, is that what you're saying?"
"Well," Steve says, and this isn't his area of expertise by any means but he did pick it up, having the friends he did. "Apparently I have themed condoms. May as well complete the ensemble."
Bucky has no idea how to react to that, and so he kisses Steve again.
Eventually Steve pulls back, eyes vaguely glassy, and he slaps Bucky on the chest. "Up," he says, his voice all Captain. "Walk."
Bucky groans. "Sir, yes sir," he says, rolling over and trying to suffocate himself with the pillow. Turns out that giving himself free rein to think about certain things meant the emergence of a problem that he hadn't had to deal with in, oh, a long, long time.
Steve coughs. "You shower first," he says, getting up and picking up the plate and the empty glasses of orange juice to take downstairs. "I'll do the dishes, so take your time."
"Thanks," Bucky says, unable to hold back the sarcasm, and Steve at least has the decency to look chagrined.
"Not forever," Steve reminds him, and he gives Bucky a long look that's mostly uncertain and a little shy, but with just enough of something deeper, darker, that oh yeah, Bucky's gonna need to take his time all right. "I'll meet you downstairs."
"Yes sir," Bucky says again, but the words taste funny this time, and Steve's grin quirks before he leaves.
As a rule, Bucky doesn't like uncharted territory. He's not born and bred a soldier or anything, but there's something about wartime that brings everything into sharp, terrifying clarity: do this or you die. Don't do this and more people die. New horizons are just unsettling. It's not like it was better to know that getting caught holding hands with a guy meant a broken nose if you're lucky, but at least you knew where you stood. This new world where everything is apparently fine is kind of terrifying.
Still, as far as they go, this one is pretty good. Steve slides his hand around Bucky's waist and kisses him once when they're at the door, getting their shoes on, and it hits Bucky that this could very well be his life now. He thinks he could get used to it.
Classic mistake, really.
As soon as they step outside, blinking into the late morning sun, and hop down the steps into the street, Bucky freezes. It's similar to the way the Winter Soldier sometimes takes over his brain, turns his muscles to steel and his mind to a hair trigger, but not quite. An older lady with a walker and a gigantic, grey-whiskered dog shuffles by and bids them a cheery good morning, and Bucky's breath rasps in his throat.
"Bucky?" Steve asks, and he's close, way too close, and his fingers are on Bucky's arm.
Bucky jerks away and puts space between them before he even realizes what just happened. "Sorry," he says, but he can't make himself narrow the gap. "Sorry. Just. I know it's okay, you've told me and I've seen it, just. I feel like everybody knows."
"I'm pretty sure there's no neon sign or anything above our heads now," Steve says, but he's Steve and he respects Bucky's boundaries, just puts his hands in his pockets and strolls along as though Bucky hasn't just acted like he's worrying about contracting the plague. "For the record, I wasn't going to -- well, I mean, nothing we haven't done already for years, that's all."
Bucky glances over at Steve, who keeps his expression neutral. Steve left his hair mussed when he left, didn't comb it to its usual Sunday best, and he's amazing. He's amazing and Bucky is one giant tangle of neuroses on legs, neuroses he didn't even know he had until they knocked him to the ground. "I know, I'm sorry."
"Don't." Steve's hand twitches like he was about to touch Bucky in reassurance -- as they always did, as kids and right through to the end, and it didn't mean anything except it did, it did and Bucky just lied to himself for years, but now he's stopped lying and that has to mean something -- but he stops himself. "Don't apologize, it's okay. I didn't mean to push you."
"You didn't, it's fine, I'm just, I don't know." Bucky starts with the number three and counts up by squares. His brain handles even numbers better than odd, so this is a bit more of a challenge, and it helps him fight the rising panic. "I don't even know what's wrong. You said it's fine. I've seen it be fine. Marriage, parades, all of that, it's just."
"It's just that last year it was '42," Steve says. "Or, well, some weird mix-up of the years in between for you, but I know what it's like. It's weird for me too."
"Okay." Bucky mocks Steve for his tendency to apologize overmuch, yet now he has to bite back another of his own. "I guess a walk was a bad idea after all."
Steve shakes his head and stops at a corner stand for a newspaper, tucks it under his arm. "It's fine," he says firmly, stressing the word. "Don't, let's not even talk about it, not here. Do you want to go back home?"
Yes, Bucky thinks. Yes, yes, yes, the word and the desire pounding in his chest, but no. It won't help. Everything is easier at home, with nobody but bored SHIELD goons watching; it's easy to pretend it's just him and Steve and the rest of the world has gone to hell. It's simple and clear and nothing challenges him, and as soon as they get home and he can press his face into Steve's neck and breathe him in, feel Steve's fingers in his hair and his lips against Bucky's temple then everything else will fall away. Then Bucky will go outside again and this will start from scratch.
"Not yet," Bucky says, squaring his shoulders and shifting into military posture. He sees Steve's gaze flick over him and knows he hasn't missed the change, but everyone copes the way they can. "Haven't changed my mind," he says, just for good measure, and his throat tightens.
"Thought never even crossed mine," says Steve, quiet and warm, and Bucky thinks something that might be I love you and might be I don't deserve you, but either way he's not sure because he stamps it down. Talk about not helpful.
"Thanks," Bucky says instead, and Steve smiles but keeps looking straight ahead.
It's irrational, but of course fears often are, and that doesn't help anything. There's no reason for Bucky to ratchet back, to pull himself tighter and further from Steve than he ever did when things were unacknowledged between them and their surroundings more dangerous. He only hopes he'll work out whatever the hell is wrong with his head so they can fix this mess.
They make it to Prospect Park and are walking the perimeter when Steve chuckles to himself and stops. "What?" Bucky asks, but Steve just turns and waves. Bucky doesn't see anyone until he realizes he's looking too high off the ground, and a little boy maybe five years old darts behind his mother's legs. Steve grins and jogs over, Bucky following in his wake.
"Josh," the mother hisses, clearly embarrassed. "It's not him." She stands up straight and gives Steve an apologetic look. "I'm really sorry, it's just, he thinks --" She cuts herself off, not even wanting to say it out loud.
Steve drops down to his knees, crouching so he's at eye level, instead of bending at the waist and looming like people who aren't good with kids usually do. Bucky stands back, a small smile on his face, because while it took him a second, he gets it now. It just took him a second because Bucky was never out with Captain America when they weren't on the battleground or at a bar.
"Hey there," Steve says, and he sounds friendly and encouraging and not at all condescending. "You know who I am?"
The boy nods, one finger in his mouth. "You're Captain America," he says, shooting his mother a defiant look.
"You're absolutely right," Steve says, and the boy gasps. His mother's eyes widen, then narrow, and Bucky sees her start to wonder if this is just some handsome creep taking advantage of her kid. Bucky gives her thirty seconds, max.
"Where's your suit?" the boy whispers.
"Well, that's the thing. Sometimes I'm just a regular guy. But you bet if there's trouble I'd put it on." Steve winks at him, then digs into his wallet and takes out his official SHIELD ID, the one with his name and alias underneath it. He actually lets the boy hold it, and it honestly looks like the kid just had Christmas all over again. His mother chokes, then looks ashamed.
They chat for a while, about what the boy wants to be when he grows up (an astronaut, or maybe a subway train conductor, or Captain America's sidekick) and what things he has trouble with (reading, and listening to his mom when she tells him it's time to go to bed or that he has to eat his spinach) and what he's scared of (thunderstorms and big dogs). Steve tells him that he'd be glad to have him as a sidekick if he's still serious when he's older, that he should listen to his mom about both bedtime and spinach but that maybe he could ask her to cook it in things so he doesn't notice, and that he doesn't need to be scared of thunder because it just means Thor is flying around the sky protecting the Earth but that sometimes big dogs are scary and it's a good idea to ask their owner first.
After awhile the kid looks up at Bucky, and he squints, obviously trying to fit him into his mental slots for the Avengers. "Are you a superhero too?" he asks.
"Josh," says his mother, but Bucky waves her off with a grin.
"You bet," Steve says before Bucky can answer, and he glances up with a placating expression. Bucky doesn't roll his eyes, but only barely. C'mon, just because he has massive guilt issues over being an assassin-for-hire doesn't mean he's going to tell that to a kid.
"What's your superpower?" the boy asks.
Bucky glances around, and what the hell, he was a kid once, and he damn well could've used a hero. He pulls his glove loose and lets the kid see the glint of metal. "I use this," he says. "It's good for all kinds of stuff. But it's a secret, so don't go telling folks you saw it."
"I promise!" he says, wide-eyed, and Steve talks to him a little bit more, gives him advice on bullying and what to do when his sister makes him mad, and finally his mom drags him away after taking a few pictures with her cell phone.
Bucky shakes his head. "You and kids," he says. It comes from growing up in the orphanage and knowing what it's like to be young and starving for any scrap of attention or validation from adults, but it's not just that. Lots of kids grew up in orphanages, and lots of them turned out mean. Lots of them turned out okay but with no real affinity for children, either, like Bucky. Steve really is some kind of magic.
"I like them," Steve says, smiling.
"Do you want them?" Bucky asks, the question settling uncomfortably in his stomach.
Back in the Depression, before the shades of war, before Hitler's name became as common as Wonder Bread and Pearl Harbour hung over the heads of every able-bodied American and the war consumed everyone's thoughts -- back instead when Bucky worked any job he could and Steve did odd jobs that chafed him because they were only given out of pity by people who wanted to help the nice young orphan with all those health problems -- Bucky had thought about their future. He knew that the things he didn't think about would never happen, and the best he could hope for was that he and Steve settled down with nice girls and bought houses next to each other and raised their kids as best friends. He'd seen himself vaguely, then, tossing a ball back and forth and teaching his son to hate the Giants, and while Bucky had absolutely no idea about his parents or what raising a kid might be like, he thought maybe that wouldn't be too bad.
Then the war, and once Bucky had looked into the eyes of a man through his sniper scope and fired, precise and straight into his brain, he knew he'd never, ever be able to be responsible for the life and upbringing of a kid. Guys came back from war and raised kids all the time, but sometimes they came back mean or drunk or quiet or all of the above, and while Bucky knew he'd have Steve to pull him through it, he knew he couldn't do that. Now with the Winter Soldier in his head it's only more apparent.
"I don't know," Steve says, and he's taken a minute to answer the question. He looks out over the park at the kids with their parents. At least, based on what Bucky's seen, it's not a stupid, impossible question for him to ask. Not these days, not if that couple with the cell phone and the ice cream and stroller mean anything, which really kind of blows Bucky's mind -- how are two guys supposed to raise a daughter, he's pretty sure he'd run screaming -- but in a good way. "It was never really -- I don't know."
"Sorry," Bucky says, because Steve's not any better off than Bucky is, at the end of the day.
"It's okay, I just don't think it's a good idea." Steve glances at him, gives Bucky a wry smile. "Besides, Captain America should be for all the kids, not just one, right? It would be selfish."
He can't identify the reason, but Steve's answer sticks in Bucky's throat, and he has to fight the urge to grab him and haul him in for a headlock-hug combo, right there in the park. Before he would've done it and thought nothing of it, but now he freezes. "Food?" Bucky asks finally, because hell's bells.
"Food," Steve agrees.
They find a small diner -- they probably should expand their repertoire to other kinds of food, they're sitting in the culture capital of America in the future, but screw that, this is America and Bucky can do what he wants -- and sit at a booth in the corner. They sit across from each other, and nobody even looks at them funny but Bucky still can't help glancing around to make absolutely sure.
This, though, this is ridiculous. They've crammed into the same side of a booth in larger restaurants than this, Bucky's arm draped casually over Steve's shoulder as he reached across and sneaked fries onto Steve's plate. There's no reason for him to be paranoid, and no matter what fears Bucky has developed, he refuses to be like the guys he sees nowadays who sit two to a four-person table diagonal from each other to make it absolutely clear how not-dating they are. Bucky has issues, but he likes to think he's not that dumb.
"You doing okay?" Steve asks, and the table is small so their knees bump underneath it.
"Yeah," Bucky says. He takes a breath, reaches over and covers Steve's hand with his, just barely tangling their fingers together. Steve looks up, startled, and then he smiles, the expression absurdly pleased. Bucky swallows. It's not so bad.
"What can I get you guys?" asks the waiter, and so much for being a super assassin because Bucky didn't even notice her walking up. This is why they discourage super spies from having relationships, Bucky thinks.
He nearly jumps and pulls away, but if sneaking around has taught Bucky two things: one, that you never, ever answer the question 'what were you doing' with 'nothing'; and two, that making a big deal by flailing in your attempt to escape is actually worse than holding your ground. Bucky's heart rate hikes, and his fingers spasm, trapping Steve's against the table, but he doesn't move. "I'll have the special," Bucky says, amazed at how calm his voice is.
"Same," says Steve. "And a side of home fries, please, ma'am."
And this, right there, is the twenty-first century in a nutshell, because the waitress blinks in surprise at the 'ma'am' but not the two guys holding hands. "Sure thing," she says, and takes the menus away.
Steve flexes his fingers under Bucky's iron grip, and Bucky starts and lets go. "Sorry," Bucky says, and wow, he really is getting worse than Steve.
Steve just shakes his head. "I think you're forgetting a couple things," he says. "It's strange to me too, for one. And the other is that after waiting this long, you really think I care whether you want to hold hands in public? I'm pretty sure Mr. Hassan running out of cinnamon-raisin bagels is higher up on my list of concerns than that."
"Oh," Bucky says, and now he feels like a heel all over again. He wonders if this will ever stop or if it's just the way things go when you're doing -- whatever it is he's doing -- with Steve Rogers.
Steve gives him an impish grin. "But if you're worried, we can split a milkshake," he says, and Bucky laughs.
They do split the milkshake -- with spoons, rather than straws, but still -- and the world doesn't end. Once they get back home, Bucky catches Steve by the arms, presses him against the door and kisses him, and that gets easier, feels less strange, every time. Steve grins down at him, flushed and dazed, and Bucky's heart settles a little.
This takes me up to the last of the stuff I had written before NaNoWriMo, so updates might not be as regular from now on, but I'll try my best. We're not done, though, heavens a-mighty.
Chapter 9: I've Got You Under My Skin
But the best part now is waiting for him in bed when he gets home.
Tony tricks SHIELD into giving Steve a two-week reprieve from duty. For once, Steve isn't going to argue with him.
Sweet mercy but I was blocked on this one. Apologies for the wait and for the relative shortness, but I'm back on track and I know where I'm going. This is a transition chapter.
The first thing Steve does once things settle a little is give Tony a call while Bucky is in the shower. JARVIS answers for him, and when the video flicks itself on, Tony has his one set of goggles over his eyes, another pushed and likely forgotten in his hair, and engine grease or something like it all over his face.
"Hey, Cap," he says breezily, gesticulating with a blowtorch, which doesn't seem very safe to Steve but he isn't the engineer. "I trust everything's all hunky-dory, or whatever it is you folksy people say."
"Everything's fine," Steve says. "Look, um, we got your -- delivery."
"Whoa, Cap, when I said I didn't want details, that wasn't actually a passive-aggressive attempt to get you to give me said details --"
"No!" Steve breaks in quickly. "No, it's not -- we haven't. It's not like that."
Tony releases the switch on the torch, shoves the second pair of goggles up onto his forehead, and gives Steve a hard look. "You told that to Barnes, because uh, I'm not an expert or anything but I think he might have something to say about that."
"No! I just -- not now, not yet," Steve says, desperate and over his head, and he doesn't miss the thirties but sometimes he misses the way a man's business was his own. "It's -- I just wanted to tell you that I know you meant well, and it was very thoughtful. Just maybe don't … try to be thoughtful again. At least without asking me first."
"Steve, if that were the way our friendship worked, you'd never get any cool stuff," Tony says, unrepentant. "You whined about the StarkPad, said you'd never get used to anything that wasn't paper, but I saw you doodling on it in the back during one of Fury's boring meetings so don't pretend you don't like my presents."
"I do, I do like your presents, and I appreciate them, but." Steve pushes a hand into his hair. It feels strange, messy and unkempt, but Bucky likes it when he doesn't comb it so severely and Steve figures after everything Bucky has gone through while he slept he can at least listen to suggestions about his hair. "It's just a lot of pressure really fast, that's all."
"What, sex? It's really not." Tony disappears out of the frame, and when he comes back he has a vat of something that looks like he's melted down a whole toy store's worth of baby dolls. "It's engineering, that's all, figuring out what goes where, and it's really not that hard. Plus you were an art student, you oughta know some things."
"Sometimes I worry about your MIT education if that's what you think I went to classes for," Steve says dryly. "And you know as well as I do it's not like that, unless you're going to tell me you took Ms. Potts to bed the first time you realized she wasn't just a pretty secretary."
Tony stops and glares at him, and Steve feels a pang of guilt about talking that way about a lady, except he thinks Ms. Potts can handle herself -- must, if she's with Tony. "Low blow, Cap," Tony says, then he grins. His teeth are startlingly white in his dirty face. "I like it. I'm clearly a good influence on you. Your attitude is like my love child. I think I'll name it Tony Jr."
Steve stares at the camera. "When was the last time you slept?"
"For your information, Dummy had to drag me out of a pile of shell casings just this morning, so ha ha to you, Mr. I-Know-Everything," Tony says, and Steve resists the urge to smack himself in the forehead. "Anyway, you should thank me again, because I had a breakthrough on the synthetic skin for your boy's arm."
"Last time it exploded."
"Combusted, Steve, combusted, and don't tell me an army man like yourself doesn't know the difference." Tony shrugs. "I dunno, I figure it's about time we actually work on it. Me 'n' Bruce have been burning the midnight oil, though I think the big guy passed out some time around three."
Steve grimaces. "Please get some sleep, both of you, preferably somewhere without explosives or corrosives nearby. I don't want you to design a skin that turns out to be sentient."
"Who's sentient with the what now?" Bucky asks, coming up from behind Steve, and he's fresh from the shower, still dripping, and he drapes the towel over his shoulders. Steve's glad he's looking at the screen because it means he can't look at Bucky, at the way his t-shirt clings to his damp chest. Steve spent a lot of time not looking at Bucky, not thinking about it, not letting himself, and now that he can, he flips between forgetting he's allowed and forgetting how to do anything else.
"Well, if it isn't the man himself," Tony said, waving with an oil-stained rag. "I've got your skin up and running, I think, and this one shouldn't burst into flame. Or, if it does, it shouldn't be the kind that hurts you."
"Really?" Bucky asks, dropping onto the sofa, and his arm presses against Steve's shoulder.
"I'm going to use the shower," Steve says, standing up. "I'll leave you two to it."
"Tch." Tony's mouth twitches a little. "Never figured you for a water-waster, Cap. Though I suppose all that ecology conservation stuff didn't really pick up until you were in the ice, huh."
"Stark, please." Bucky grins, surprisingly filthy, and he gives Tony, then Steve, a wink. "You and me both gotta know that showering together never actually saves anybody time or water."
"A smart man," Tony says, acknowledging the point by tapping one finger against his forehead. "You've got yourself a good one there, Cap."
Steve smiles reflexively, and Bucky grins at both of them, more relaxed than he's been in ages. Steve decides not to push it, and heads for the shower while the other two start chattering about Bucky's new arm. Apparently by the time Tony's done with it, Bucky will be able to replace the entire US military all on his own. Steve wonders what Fury and the rest of SHIELD will have to say about that.
When Steve comes back out, Bucky and Tony have hung up the phone -- Steve will probably keep calling it that until he dies, no matter what the actual name for it is, because habits die hard -- and Bucky has stretched out on the couch, lazy and pleased.
Steve sits on the edge of the couch, and it only takes him a moment of hesitation to lean down and kiss Bucky like it's nothing. Bucky curls his fingers in the short hairs at the nape of Steve's neck, and Steve hums. "Did Tony say anything interesting I should know about?" Steve asks.
"Other than a bunch of science stuff about my arm that I pretended to understand just like I was back in science class again?" Bucky laughs, but then he sobers, swallowing and giving Steve a look he can't quite parse. "He said he hacked into SHIELD and authorized two weeks of leave for you, though he said Fury probably knows he did it and just doesn't want to deal with you mooning around all distracted. He told us to enjoy the honeymoon."
Steve blows out a breath -- of course Fury knows, though Steve doesn't want to think about how or when -- and looks at Bucky, who's studying his face as though waiting for Steve's reaction before he gives one of his own. "You want to get breakfast?" Steve asks him, and Bucky smiles, wild and startled and real.
All of this would be perfect, except for the part where Steve has no frame of reference and occasionally drifts into defaults that drive Bucky crazy. Steve has never actually had a relationship -- assuming that's what this is -- but what he remembers about the appropriate behaviour when in one is courtesy and respect. Steve tries to do that in his daily life anyway, and it's not hard to nudge that up an extra notch for Bucky. He thinks about what he would have done with Peggy, if he'd been allowed to continue that, and really, since Bucky is the most important person in his life, it translates well enough.
Steve thinks he has the hang of it until Bucky loses his temper. It's the fond kind, mostly a mix of exasperation and affection, and it happens after Steve pulls out his chair for him at the restaurant where they're eating lunch.
"Look, cut it out, willya?" Bucky asks, and Steve nearly trips on his way back to the far side of the table. "I'm not your girl, Steve."
"What? I never said you were!"
"Yeah, well, you wouldn't know it otherwise," Bucky says, and he snatches a menu from Steve's hand a little more forcefully than necessary considering that it's not going anywhere. "Seriously, the chairs, the doors, the hand at my back, I know you're in mourning for the dames you never had, but that's just not right."
Stung, Steve takes his own menu and concentrates on looking for typos to give himself something to do other than feel hurt. "I didn't mean to."
Bucky sighs. "I know. Shit, I'm sorry, I know. And we can figure this out, I know we can. We just need to work out how to be together in a way that doesn't make me feel like I'm going to be writing you letters and sealing them with a ribbon and a kiss, okay?"
"Don't be silly," Steve says, and Bucky's rolling his eyes but he doesn't look too irritated, just uncomfortable, and the only real way to deal with that is to turn everything into a joke. "If you're going to write me letters, at least spray them with your perfume."
"What, with your asthma?" Bucky says out of habit, but then he catches himself. "Huh. Damn, that's weird. Okay, well, no asthma, guess I have no excuse for holding back, do I?"
Steve smiles, and he smooths a wrinkle in the tablecloth. "For the record, I'll -- try to stop. I'm not doing it on purpose, I promise."
"Really?" Bucky bugs his eyes out, and Steve balls up his napkin and threatens to chuck it at his head. "Man, Cap, it's like you're freakishly polite and considerate or something. I never would've guessed." His foot nudges Steve's under the table; Steve jumps, but Bucky doesn't try anything, just presses their calves together and leaves his there. "Like I said. We'll figure it out. This isn't, I'm not ashamed or anything."
"I hope not," Steve says lightly. "Captain America, you know, that's kind of a big deal."
Bucky narrows his gaze. "I'm not with the Captain, I'm with you. How many times do I have to say it?" He answers himself before Steve has the chance. "As many times as it takes, I guess. Okay. I'm just saying, I know I freaked out before, but I want to work on that. Just maybe try not to be so respectful."
"I'll make sure to trip you the next time we go through a door," Steve says, and Bucky grins at him, so at least that's something. Steve isn't really surprised he's managed to offend Bucky; as much as he protested to the contrary, Steve really doesn't know how to act in relationships and did default to the sort of thing that was accepted in the old days. He would have held the door and pulled out chairs for Peggy, so of course he'd do the same for Bucky now. At least Bucky said something now, instead of letting it fester for ages. Steve decides to focus on that.
Steve tugs off his earbuds and tosses his music player onto the table by the door, ignoring the tiny scream from the remnant of Tony's soul that follows him around and shrieks when he misuses technology. If Tony doesn't want him to keep things in his pocket with his keys or set them down without giving them a tiny electronics massage first, he shouldn't tell Steve that this model is extra rugged and brag that he could drop it off the Empire State Building and not see a scratch. Steve never would have treated something this expensive with such casual disregard back in the Depression, but he's learning that he can't treat things with the same level of respect here. They're not made for it and he's still stinging from the time he told Tony he must have thrown out a CD by mistake and they all tried not to laugh.
He jogs up the stairs, shirt sticking to his back and legs still shaky from his morning run. He'd stopped running when Bucky moved in, not wanting him to wake up alone in a strange place without someone to reassure him and remind him where he was -- Steve remembers that himself, those moments of panic and adrenaline when he saw the sun slanting yellow across the floor and thinking he was going to get a bawling-out for sleeping late and giving the rest of the men a bad example -- but it's all right now.
Early morning runs were the one thing Steve liked about the twenty-first century before they found Bucky, but they're even better now. The routine is still the same, now that he's gotten back into it; he still wakes up a little before five, grabs his tattered running shoes and a pair of sweats, and heads out into the city. Brooklyn before dawn is the Brooklyn he remembers, dark and shady and comforting; no one's honking yet and most of the disreputable types have found somewhere to pass out, and the big shiny new places with their neon lights and bright white storefronts are closed. The little places like Steve remembers are open for the early commuters, and it helps settle him and remind him that not everything has moved on without him.
But the best part now is waiting for him in bed when he gets home.
Bucky does not do early morning runs, or early morning at all, really, which Steve finds amusing to no end. "Hell no," he said the first time Steve nosed him awake and asked if he wanted to come along. "Too many years of my life seeing too many sunrises with my face in the dirt and some loud-mouthed sergeant shouting at me. I'm done with those." When Steve helpfully reminded him that he'd seen plenty of them on the other side, staggering home from a night of carousing, Bucky rolled over onto him and tried to smother him with a pillow. Steve didn't end up going running that morning at all, but he didn't actually mind.
True to form, Bucky is still conked out when Steve pads up to the bedroom, but as always his eye cracks open as soon as Steve passes through the doorway. "Hey, there he is," Bucky mumbles into the pillow, and he rolls over onto his side and tugs the blankets back. "My favourite walking nutcase."
"It's not insane to like watching the sun come up from the proper side, Buck." Steve rolls his eyes, but it's part of the routine, not a real argument, and he climbs into bed and drapes himself over Bucky's side, nuzzling his shoulder.
"Mmhmm, keep up with the delusion, I'm writing it all down and I'm gonna show your shrink next time you annoy me." Bucky runs his fingers through Steve's sweat-dampened hair and snickers. "You're slimy, by the way, I hope you realize I am literally the only person in the world who would put up with you climbing in here covered in sweat and rolling it all over me."
Steve, high on endorphins and a bed with Bucky that he doesn't have to pretend he sleeps in for the warmth and electricity savings, just grins and wipes his forehead against Bucky's collarbone. "You like it."
"Yeah, I do, Captain Stockholm," Bucky says, indulgent, but Steve knows it's more than that. This is just good, honest sweat, not French mud and gunpowder and blood that might be his or someone else's. It's a reminder that they're here and they don't have to do that anymore, costumed supervillains and their robot doom-armies notwithstanding. "Though seriously, you're still lucky. No girl would put up with this."
"Um, please," Steve says, pulling back and giving Bucky a hard look. "If you think Natasha would complain about a little sweat, you haven't seen her work out and then flop all over Clint on the sofa. I'm pretty sure she'd be okay with it."
Bucky's face goes tight, and Steve kicks himself. "I know she's okay with it," Bucky says, and his eyes get that look that he does whenever he thinks about the time the two of them spent together while Steve was under the ice. Maybe one day Steve will get to hear that story, but he isn't going to push it, and honestly if he never does that's all right, too. It's years of something tangled up in Bucky and not-Bucky and everything else, and even if Steve never finds out the details he hopes one day he'll stop stepping in it.
After a minute Bucky blinks, pushes Steve's hair off his forehead and kisses him at his hairline. "It's fine, stop worrying before I get fined for giving Captain America's famous face wrinkles. Though I bet your mug is insured. Your toothpaste smile if nothing else."
"You know, for a guy complaining we're up early, you sure do a lot of talking," Steve says.
"Maybe I just want somebody to shut me up." Bucky winks at him. "I did get a hell of a lot of kitchen duty for insubordination."
"Well, I do outrank you, so I could, if you really want to get technical." Steve pushes Bucky over onto his back and straddles his waist. He slides his hands up Bucky's arms, feeling the warm skin and cold metal beneath his palms, and pins his wrists against the pillows.
Bucky just grins. "Technically, I'm a civilian now. You can't order me around anymore." He flexes his wrists and Steve knows he could break free if he wanted to, but he doesn't, and that sends a shiver down his spine.
"Then I guess I'll have to ask nicely," Steve says, eyebrow raised, and if when he kisses Bucky this time it's not exactly nice he'll wait for a complaint before he stops.
There isn't one.
"You okay?" Bucky drapes his arms across Steve's shoulders, then leans back and frowns. "You're not okay, you're upset. What happened? See, this is why I told you nothing good comes from the Internet."
Steve rests his head against Bucky's chest and imagines demolishing a punching bag. Maybe if he thinks about it, it'll vent his frustrations the same as if he does it. "Just yesterday you were all about the internet after you found those websites that take photographs of guns like normal people do of naked women."
"Well, yeah, that part of the Internet is fine," Bucky says, and he flicks Steve behind the ear. "Stop trying to distract me."
"You're just going to make fun of me." Steve sighs and gives in anyway, tilting the screen so Bucky can see it at his angle. "I was just looking for a movie to watch and I ended up depressing myself."
"The Best Gay Films of All Time," Bucky reads over Steve's shoulder, and he can hear the capital letters in his voice. "Okay, first of all, what the hell, and second -- no, I'm just going to stop there. What the hell?"
Steve folds his arms across his chest and looks away so he doesn't have to see Bucky's incredulous eyebrows reflected in his laptop screen. "I don't know! We've been watching movies to catch up on things, I thought it might be interesting to watch some stuff about it. But just, augh. Just look at the summaries."
Bucky takes the laptop from the desk and holds it in his hand, resting the base against the top of Steve's head, and Steve rolls his eyes but lets him. He feels itchy, like the time Tony tested his nanobots on him and Steve spent the entire day trying not to think about microscopic bugs crawling beneath his skin. He wants to put on his shoes and run until his legs give out, then turn around and run all the way back.
"Well," Bucky says, which is impressively restrained for a second until he follows it up with something in Russian that Steve recognizes from the times he gets a hit on Natasha in sparring. "That's an awful lot of death."
"Yeah." Steve lets out a long breath and clenches his hands into fists. "And the ones who don't die of diseases or get their heads smashed in with baseball bats end up alone anyway. There's a movie where a tree falls on a woman at the end, Buck, I mean, really?"
Bucky closes the laptop and sets it back on the desk, placing his hand on the lid when Steve tries to open it. "No. Enough. No more of that, we'll find something else to do and I won't even make fun of you for thinking this would be a good idea. For fuck's sake, Cap, it has the word film in the title."
Steve leans back in his chair, tipping his head back to frown at Bucky upside-down. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Okay, I know I haven't been here as long as you, but even I can figure this out." Bucky taps him on the forehead. "Movies are the things you watch with your friend and have fun. Films are what you watch and feel miserable because you want people to think you're intellectual. The Wizard of Oz is a movie. Citizen Kane was a film."
"I don't think that's in the dictionary," Steve says, but he's smiling.
"Argue with me all you want, I know I'm right," Bucky says, unperturbed, and he tugs Steve up by the arm. "People think that if something ends happy, it's not real. Makes sense that when people start making stories about two fellas and want to get taken seriously, they gotta make it sad so people think it's meaningful. It's all shit. It's not life. When bad things happen in real life you don't get a cookie for sitting through it and bragging to your friends that it taught you the truth of the universe. It's not beautiful. It's not compelling. You drag yourself up and sew yourself back together and most of the time you get jack shit for not putting a bullet through your brain except another stupid sunrise that you probably sleep through anyway." He shrugs. "I had a point. I don't know what it is, other than stupid movies are stupid and you shouldn't let them get to you."
"That's awful philosophical for you," Steve says, and jostles Bucky with his elbow.
"Hey, you started it." Bucky's eyes flicker for a second, and then he's stepping close and kissing Steve, and okay, Steve is all right with doing this instead of continuing the discussion. He pulls back after a minute, and his grin is the one that used to mean somewhere an adult was going to start shouting. Steve raises an eyebrow. "If you really want to watch something on the theme, though, I did get an email from Barton that says there's a video of you jogging in front of some rainbow-painted naked ladies pushing a kid in a baby stroller --"
Steve kisses Bucky to shut him up again. Clint isn't going to be so lucky.
Steve looks up from his computer as Bucky parks his hip against the edge of his desk. He knows what Bucky's going to say -- they're not even finished with their vacation and already Steve is back onto the server, checking the briefing files to see what he's missed. He knows it's ridiculous, and maybe Bucky even has the right to be annoyed, but Steve does have to go back on Monday and he's so far behind already. He doesn't want them to have to schedule an extra meeting before the regular meetings to make sure Cap's up to speed.
"I'll finish soon," Steve says, hunching his shoulders a little, but he sets down his pen. Tony makes no end of fun of him for going through computer files and then transcribing the important bits onto paper -- he's started calling Steve Captain Tree-Killer, which is rich coming from a man who has mahogany panelling in his bathroom -- but Steve can't help it. He needs the physical action of writing to make things stick. He learned to touch-type early on and can type even faster than Tony thanks to his serum-enhanced reflexes, but it's like the thoughts fly straight out of his brain into the computer and don't stick anywhere. Computers are too efficient, really.
"That's good, because you're being ridiculous, but that's not what I wanted to talk to you about." Bucky licks his lips, and it's been two weeks since Steve first kissed him and he still has to remind himself he doesn't have to drag his gaze away. He's getting better, at least. "Look, you've been really swell about being patient with me. I appreciate that, I really do."
"There's nothing to be patient about," Steve argues, because Bucky's his best friend and that's what Steve does. "I mean, other than the part where you throw your laundry everywhere just because there's no CO to come through and do inspection anymore, or how you leave one sip of milk in the jug so you don't have to be the one to replace it, or --"
"All right, all right, will ya?" Bucky snorts and raps Steve on the head with his knuckles. "Look, so I heard they've been redoing Coney Island."
Steve nods. "They took me there when I was first defrosted, in the middle of the big revitalization. They're trying to draw in the Manhattan crowd I guess, like they did with the rest of Brooklyn while we were gone. Ruby's is still there, but they had to clean up the storefront, that sort of thing."
Bucky's expression falls, a frown creasing his forehead. "Ah, never mind." He pushes himself off the edge of the desk and makes to leave.
"Wait, what?" Steve reaches out and catches Bucky's wrist, feeling the flutter of pulse beneath his fingers. "What did I do?"
"I was just wondering if you wanted to go see it," Bucky says, and he doesn't look at Steve. "You know, walk around, make fun of it for getting all gentrified and too expensive for the people who used to live here or whatever, see how many hours we would've had to work for a couple of hot dogs at today's prices. Maybe see if that serum means you can ride the Cyclone without puking, if it's still around. But if you've already been, that sorta defeats the purpose."
Steve kicks himself inwardly. "I said SHIELD took me there," he says, thinking fast. "I'd just been taken out of the ice. Times Square looked like a gigantic nightmare. A couple of suits took me to Coney Island and stood around behind me while I walked around for an hour and then went home. I kept seeing you everywhere. It was like playing one of Clint's Japanese video games with the ghosts everywhere." He looks down at his desk, tracing his finger over the grain. "I saw the Cyclone, and it looked so small, Buck, you can't even. It costs eight bucks to ride it. I asked one of the agents to do a conversion from 1940s dollars for me, and even then that's more than twice the cost. I just. It wasn't the same without you."
Bucky pauses for a long time before speaking, and when he does his voice is dubious. "Okay, well, I was thinking this might be a good idea for a date, some nostalgia and whatnot, but if you're going to get depressed then double never mind."
"That's not what I meant at all." Steve stands up, and he knows what this means, for Bucky to use that word. He even used to avoid it with the girls he was with, preferring to describe what the evening entailed -- dinner, dancing, a movie -- instead of referring to it in a traditionally romantic manner. "I want to go, and now that I have you, I think it will be different. I can make it a place that's okay to go again because I won't feel so alone." That still doesn't sound very romantic, and Steve tries again. "I'm sorry. I want to go on a date with you, I do. Coney Island sounds perfect."
Bucky raises an eyebrow, and he tugs Steve in with a hand at his waist. "You sure? 'Cause I don't want to drag you if you'd rather go to the dentist and get a root canal or something."
"Stop being melodramatic," Steve chides him, and he catches Bucky by the hand and tugs him in close, presses a kiss to the corner of his mouth. Bucky catches Steve's mouth and kisses him for real, and they don't talk for a while after that. "So when you say date," Steve says when they break apart, letting the sentence trail.
"I mean date," Bucky says firmly, and there's a tightness around his eyes that belies his calm, but that just means Steve knows what this means. "You can buy me cotton candy and I'll win you a stupid plush thing from one of those booths, and if there are some pretty girls around that hammer strength machine you can win that and give them the prize and make their day. We can go on the Wonder Wheel together like we used to, squashed into those stupid seats with your dumb skinny elbows in my ribs, only this time I'll kiss you at the top."
Steve swallows, his throat dry. "Yeah?"
"Yeah. Nobody's gonna see up there." Bucky lets out a breath, and he ghosts his fingers across Steve's jaw. "Look, you've gotta know that I was thinking about that like the last five times we went together. I thought about it every time we got to the top and the thing stopped so we could see the view. I had it pictured a million ways, but I could never do it because -- well, you know why."
The thing is, Steve had had his share of inappropriate thoughts when sitting together, the stomach-churning smell of the carnival -- popcorn, hot dogs, ice cream, cotton candy -- thick in the air between them, feeling sick and nervous and not just from overeating and being too high, either. He remembers the press of Bucky's thigh against his, the hard metal of the railing beneath his fingers as he gripped it hard enough to make his hands ache so that he wouldn't inch his fingers to the side and cover Bucky's hand with his own. Once he hooked his pinky finger over Bucky's thumb and pretended he didn't notice; Bucky didn't move his hand the whole time until the ride finished, and at the time Steve just thought he was too embarrassed to say anything.
The words tear themselves out of him before he can stop them. "I love you," Steve bursts out, and then his eyes go wide and he sucks in a sharp breath.
Bucky is equally bug-eyed, and he takes a step back but doesn't move his hand from the side of Steve's face just yet. It's not the first time Steve's said that -- and Bucky used to say it too, a lot more freely, usually in a grateful groan when Steve pressed a mug of cold coffee and a plate of greasy eggs into his hand the morning after he'd been out carousing with a new girl -- but the last time he said it was over seventy years ago and he hadn't memorized the curve of Bucky's spine beneath his fingers as they kissed.
"Because I promised you some corn dogs, a giant stuffed sheep and a kiss at the top of the ferris wheel?" Bucky says at last, his voice light. "Man, how were you single for so long again when you're this easy? You sure you didn't have a bunch of girls on a string somewhere? Or is it just my natural charm?"
He doesn't say it back, but Steve has never said anything with the intent of forcing the other to repeat it, not then and certainly not now. Steve rolls his eyes. "Shut up, you, and just for that I've upped my ante. You're going to have to get me one of the Avengers prizes. No farm animals."
Bucky's eyebrows creep up towards his hair. "You're kidding me."
"Nope." Steve grins, and he pulls Bucky back in, curling his fingers in the other's belt loops. "Clint went out and got the whole set. He likes to hide them around the Tower or SHIELD HQ. You should've heard Tony curse at him when he put the Iron Man one inside the Mark VI's helmet."
Bucky snickers. "Okay, fine, Avengers prize it is. Do we have a date then?"
"Yeah." A strange tightness hits Steve in the chest as he remembers the last time he made plans; for a second he's overtaken, the sickening plunge in his stomach as the plane dropped, the sound of Peggy's voice, strong through her tears, filtering over the radio. He looks down at Bucky and takes a breath. "It's a date."
Chapter 10: Soon we'll be without the moon
There may be trouble ahead,
But while there's music and moonlight,
And love and romance,
Let's face the music and dance.
Steve and Bucky go on their first date, and for once neither of them care what happens tomorrow.
"Bucky." Steve groans and rocks back on his heels, trying not to overbalance from the abundance of stuffed things he's juggling in his arms. "Buck, c'mon, I don't actually want the whole team. Where would I even put them?"
"Not my problem," Bucky says, and he shoots Steve a grin over his shoulder that stops Steve's heart. Steve used to tease Bucky for the way his smile made girls start giggling and do whatever he wanted, but now it looks like he needs to go back in time and send them an apology.
"It will be your problem, if I decide your half of the room is where I'm going to keep them," Steve shoots back, but then he has to drop his knees and lash out with one hand because Black Widow fell out from the bottom of the pile, and her stitched face is already scowling at him enough without him letting her hit the ground. He catches her on his foot and flips her back to the top of the heap. "This really isn't necessary."
Bucky just hands another handful of dollars to the amused man behind the booth. He hefts the ridiculous plastic air rifle they keep for the grownups, locking it into place between his chest and shoulder like it's an actual weapon he would use in combat. "How many for the Hulk?" he asks.
"Ten ducks," says the man. "If you don't make that, you can trade three Hawkeyes or two Iron Mans."
Steve isn't sure that's a very fair trade for anybody. Then again, the Hulk prize does come up past his waist.
"I am so telling Barton that Banner is worth three of him," Bucky says, bending to rest his elbows on the table. He lets out half a breath and fires, taking out ten of the moving ducks in a row. "Hey, look at that." He straightens up, hands the gun back to the proprietor, and hooks his thumbs in his belt, looking for all the world like he just saved the day. "That'll be one Hulk, my good man."
Steve glares at Bucky, though he assumes he takes some of the sting away when he has to crane his head and stick his chin between the wings on tiny-Thor's helmet. "I have no idea what I did to deserve this, but whatever it is, it wasn't worth it."
"Hey, you're the punk who said he wouldn't be satisfied with a cow, so don't look at me." Bucky just keeps on grinning, and he tosses the Hulk up and down in one hand like he's trying to decide whether or not to lob it at Steve's head. Steve gives him his best Captain's face, and finally Bucky winks at him and turns back to the man at the booth. "How much would I have to pay you to mail these for me?" he asks.
"Half the point is you've gotta lug 'em home yourself," says the man, dubious, and Steve is already aghast that Bucky has paid something like twenty dollars for these gigantic wastes of space, but sometimes the weirdest things catch Bucky's fancy and he refuses to let it drop. Steve remembers the time they were kids and Bucky conned the girl at the ice cream shop into letting them try a sample of every single flavour for free, even though he knew he hated half of them already.
"Fifty bucks," Bucky says. "It'll cost you what, like, five, ten max. The rest is for the inconvenience. Come on, you're not going to get a better deal than that."
He hesitates, but Steve sees the flash of greed on his face when Bucky actually waves the crumpled bill under his nose. "All right then," he says, and Bucky scrawls their address on a piece of paper and hands both over.
"Now, if these things don't show up within a week, I will come back here and kill you," Bucky says, easy and joking, but it still makes something tighten in Steve's stomach anyway. He tries not to let any of it show on his face, and at least Bucky doesn't notice.
"Yeah, yeah." The man takes the rest of the Avengers -- plus an extraordinarily grumpy Nick Fury -- from Steve and stashes them under the counter. "Pleasure doing business with you."
"I have no idea what that was trying to prove, but whatever it was, let's just consider the lesson learned," Steve says, punching Bucky in the shoulder as they walk away.
"No lesson," Bucky says sunnily. "Except maybe don't try to mess with me, because you might be bigger now but I can still take you. You don't have the conviction to follow through with pranks and stuff like I do."
"I might just find it if you keep this up," Steve says, but he doesn't push it or try to broadcast too much annoyance because it's good -- amazing, really -- to see Bucky goofing around and acting as though he doesn't have three lifetimes' worth of trauma stuffed into his head like the burritos Clint likes to eat in front of Bruce to watch him gag.
Bucky just laughs. "Hey, I said I wanted this to be a proper date, didn't I? It's been a while, but I'm pretty sure you can't call it a night until you make the other person blush at least once. Since I can't do that, I'm just gonna have to settle for you wanting to sock me one."
"Fair enough," Steve says, and he lets his fingers brush against Bucky's wrist for a second before pulling away.
They cycle round to the boardwalk, and Bucky shoves his hands in his pockets and saunters like he's nineteen again and owns his piece of the world, before war and super-science took that away from him. "I can't believe it's still wood," he says, scuffing his feet against the aging planks, bouncing up and down to make them creak. "I would've thought they'd've changed them to plastic or something by now, like all the playground equipment. How d'you think they managed that?"
Steve coughs, and he might not turn red whenever someone makes a sexual remark like everybody seems to think he does, but this time he feels his cheeks get warm. "Ah. Actually."
Bucky stops, and a couple strolling behind them nearly runs into him. He grabs Steve's arm and pulls him off to the side. "Wait, you? Seriously?"
"Well." Steve rubs the back of his neck. "Everybody knows Captain America's from Brooklyn, right, so when the city commissioners tried to modernize the place and replace all the planks with concrete, the restoration committee contacted me. I did a spot, got Tony to put out a few tweets on the Stark Industries account on my behalf, and he managed to convince the board to let them cover the cost of upkeep as part of SI's pro-bono discretionary spending or something. Good PR for them and SHIELD and the Avengers, helping a national hero protect his childhood home, that kind of thing."
Bucky lets out a low whistle. "Huh. I had no idea."
Steve shrugs. "Well, you were gone -- I thought, I mean, you were here, actually, we'd found you but you weren't you and they didn't know if you ever would be, and this gave me something to do. Something productive, which I needed pretty badly. I knew how much you'd hate it if they ripped everything up and put down cement, so I did what I could. I remember thinking it's too bad you weren't yourself to see it, and I thought if worse came to worst I could at least tell you about it and see if that helped."
The realization of exactly what he's saying and who he's saying it to splits Steve down the centre, like sticking his thumbnail into an orange and tearing the peel away from the fruit inside, and for a moment he's almost dizzy. He has to stop himself from catching Bucky in an embrace right there, clinging to him until the world stops spinning beneath their feet. "Turns out I got so relieved when you came back I forgot all about it."
"Holy shit, Steve," Bucky says, and he's dead serious, his eyes very wide and very blue in his face. "You seriously have the most irritating habit, you know that? You make me just --" He runs a hand through his hair. "You do these things, you say things that you don't think are that big a deal but they just make me want to punch you or knock you down or squeeze the life right outta you or -- well, or kiss you, dammit," he says, hard and defiant, and Steve swallows. "You're something, that's all."
Steve swallows. "Takes one to know one."
"See, and then you just say things so incredibly cheesy that it's okay again," Bucky says, grinning, and his shoulders relax. He bumps Steve's arm. "C'mon, I think I promised you a ride on the Wonder Wheel, and because I'm a good guy, I won't even try to make a bad pun about that."
"That's only because you can't think of one," Steve challenges.
"Ah, you got me." Bucky stops, buys a bag of cotton candy and doesn't even cluck about the price, which is impressive because it made Steve's eyebrows try to buy timeshares in his hair the first time he saw it. He tears off a piece and hands the rest of the bag to Steve, like they're ten years old again. Steve used to cram his mouth full so that when the sugar melted it left a hard lump instead of disappearing to nothing and the sweetness made his eyes water. Bucky glances at him. "Save some of that," he says, and refuses to say why.
They buy their tickets for the Wonder Wheel and wait in line, behind a family of four kids with their two exhausted parents -- the mother catches Steve's sympathetic look and rolls her eyes to the sky before smiling and turning back to the youngest and his ice cream smeared face -- and in front of a teenaged couple trying for the world's first voluntary pair of Siamese twins. "Man, this is weird," Bucky says, leaning back and looking up. "Some of these attractions are new, right?"
"I think the haunted house is." Steve looks around the park, struck as he always is by his dual-vision; he keeps seeing things the way he remembers them overlaid on what he sees now, like that series of photos popular on the internet a while back where they superimposed old shots from World War II on modern colour images. Except the thing is, his memories are fading; the twenty-first century is subsuming him, taking over, and it's harder for Steve to remember whether this building or that one was there the last time he was here.
"Well, the wheel's the same," Bucky says, squinting against the lights. "We gonna sit backwards like last time, or be responsible adults?"
Steve quirks a smile. Bucky had insisted, the last time they went on the ride together, that they kneel the wrong way on the bench inside the swinging carriage so they could look out the back window, both of them clinging so they wouldn't topple over, unbalance themselves, fall out and die, which is what the attendant at the bottom had warned would happen if any of you hooligans horsed around up there. Steve remembers being terrified, though he knows now it was less about the rule-breaking than it was about Bucky so close to him.
"I think we're a bit too big to sit backwards, Buck," Steve says, but then they're at the front of the line, and they hand their tickets to the bored college student manning the ride and listen to the monotone lecture about proper behaviour. The attendant takes one look at the couple behind them, then shakes his head and lets Steve and Bucky have their own carriage, which is what Steve was hoping for.
Steve slides into the seat, pressing himself against the side so Bucky can slip in next to him instead of sitting across. He keeps the cotton candy between his knees.
"Now this is really weird," Bucky breathes, and he runs his hand over the metal struts, sticking his fingers through the gaps and craning his neck to look out behind him. "It actually feels like we're back."
They chose one of the outer carriages instead of the swinging ones in the centre -- Steve never liked those anyway, they used to make him almost as nauseated as the Cyclone and Bucky would tease him all night until he got mad and punched him, ineffective as that was -- and Steve sits back and watches as the wheel rises slowly over the skyline. It's like being back in time all over again, except that the lights are brighter, bigger, and without really thinking about it, Steve finds Bucky's hand and squeezes his fingers. Bucky doesn't push him away.
The wheel turns, and finally they're on the last quarter before the top. Bucky reaches across Steve's lap and snags a handful of cotton candy, popping it into his mouth and licking his lips, and Steve has to laugh. "Never have you been a more attractive human being," Steve tells him.
Bucky snorts, but then their car moves to the top and the ride stops to let them admire the view. Before Steve can ask Bucky if he meant what he said, Bucky leans in and kisses him. Bucky's fingers press against Steve's jaw; his mouth is warm, and now Steve knows why he asked to save the cotton candy because the slow slide of his tongue against Steve's tastes like sugar, and Steve remembers being a teenager and slamming the lid down on thoughts about that exact detail. "Your hands are sticky," Steve says when Bucky pulls back.
"Really?" Bucky raises both eyebrows. "I take you out to Coney Island, kiss you on top of the damn Wonder Wheel, and you're griping that I didn't bring wet wipes --" He stops, cut off when Steve fists both hands in his shirt and yanks him forward to kiss him again.
It's everything Steve never let himself want when he was seventeen and awkward, including the popcorn- and sugar-sticky hands. Bucky makes a noise against Steve's mouth that sends sparks shooting through his brain and overrides his safeties, and he pushes Bucky back against the wall and kisses harder, trying to keep it going long enough that Bucky stops tasting like cotton candy and starts tasting like himself again.
He doesn't get the chance, because the wheel lurches and starts moving. They spring back, breathing hard, and Bucky pushes the fingers of one hand into his hair. "So Captain America has a thing for ferris wheels," he says, his voice a little shaky. "Keeping that in mind."
"I don't have a thing for ferris wheels," Steve protests. "It's not the location, it's -- oh never mind."
Bucky huffs a laugh that's a little breathless, a little amazed, and all Bucky, and for a second Steve thinks he really has fallen out and is plummeting to the ground. "Yeah, no, I got it," he says, and Steve smiles because he knows Bucky does.
After dinner they do another circuit, going on rides and stuffing themselves full of terrible snacks like they're kids with the iron stomachs of childhood to match. Steve knows he's going to pay for it tomorrow -- he can't even think about his usual ninety-minute morning run without his insides rolling -- but he's having fun. He can't remember the last time he had fun, genuine, act like an idiot and not really care fun, and for Bucky it will have been even longer. They battle it out over ring toss and give their prizes to the little girls who'd been staring at the booth with their fingers in their mouths, and Bucky lets Steve pretend that wasn't his plan all along. They walk along the boardwalk for the second time and stop trying to point out what's changed and what's stayed the same. Bucky asks Steve if he wants to try the Cyclone again and Steve gives him a look, even though he knows that after being carried all over the city by Iron Man a wooden roller coaster isn't going to do him in this time.
"You know what?" Bucky says near the end of the night. The littlest kids have gone home, leaving the couples and the gangs of teenagers that Steve tries very hard not to think of as 'gangs' because he's not that old, and some of the smaller booths are starting to pack up. "This was good. This was a fun night. I really should thank whoever came up with the idea, he's kind of a genius. Who thought of this again?"
"Someone modest, clearly," Steve says, but then he sucks in his breath and jams his hands in his pockets because he was just about to catch Bucky by the front of his shirt and kiss him and he can't, not here. In some ways crowds provide almost as much anonymity as true privacy, but he won't do that. Not when Bucky's still adjusting. Steve's more shocked at himself that it was a reflex at all, but now that he's had to stop himself it hits him. He does want this. It's not going to ruin his day if he can't, but after years of hiding and denial and being so very, very careful, Steve wants to be able to take Bucky's face in his hands and kiss him anywhere.
The problem is that maybe Steve Rogers could have done that, if he'd been born in the seventies instead, but Captain America can't.
Bucky glances at Steve, his expression thoughtful, and Steve wonders if he knows what went through Steve's mind just then. Steve looks away until Bucky's fingers close around his wrist. "Hey," Bucky says, and tugs them both to a stop. The people eddy around them, not caring, and Bucky nudges Steve around to face him. "You're great, you know that?"
"I try," Steve says, and he's going for flippant but it takes a left turn and ends up somewhere near unexplainably nervous instead. Bucky's eyes are intent, searching, and Steve feels like he does when he jumps off a building and Iron Man waits that extra second before catching him just to keep him on his toes.
"No, really, you are. You've always put up with me and my shit, and I used to be able to tell myself I evened the score by beating the crap out of guys for you, but --" Bucky shrugs one shoulder. His fingers are very warm against Steve's skin. "Well, I don't like leaving debts unpaid, is the thing."
"There's no debt," Steve says, frowning. "Buck, you're my friend, my -- you know who you are to me. You're back now and that's all I ever need. It's more than I ever thought I'd have. That's enough."
"No," Bucky says, and his jaw goes tight and his eyes flicker in the way it did when he made up his mind and Steve couldn't stop him from putting on that uniform and walking away. "No, it's not." He steps in close, tilts his head up and kisses Steve full on the mouth.
Someone jostles Steve as they shuffle past, but he barely notices and definitely doesn't care. It's chaste and appropriate, their only points of contact being the kiss itself and Bucky's hand on Steve's wrist, and that should be funny considering it's Bucky, king of the dance hall corner clinches, but Steve's heart stops anyway. Everything roars around his ears like he's on the top of that mountain looking down at the train and the thin zip cord meant to hold all of them, except this time when things settle he won't be staring at his empty hands and thinking about Bucky's body smashed against the rocks.
Bucky pulls away and the sounds slam into Steve again, the buzz of conversation and the screams coming from the rides, the wail of one last toddler being dragged home far too late, the cries of the hucksters trying to get in a few more customers. "There," Bucky says, and Steve can't breathe. "Not even, but a little closer, maybe."
"Fags," calls some kid from behind them, and Steve has to stop himself from whipping around and delivering a full on Captain America lecture, maybe complete with a bit of looming, because that's not acceptable anywhere but especially, selfishly, not now.
Except that Bucky just snorts and rocks back on his heels. "These fags can kick your ass, kid," he drawls, and he brings his right hand up to rub at the back of his neck so the kid can see the line of muscle in his bicep. Steve turns and crosses his arms, and the teenager and his buddies take one good look before muttering profanities and scattering.
"Oh man, if getting old means I get to terrorize tiny assholes, I'm all for it." Bucky grins, and Steve is still trying to figure out how to stand after the world tilted itself ninety degrees on its axis.
"You're not old," Steve reminds him. "The number on your birth certificate doesn't actually mean anything."
"Steve." Bucky goes somber, the smile fading from his face but not dropping off completely, and he digs the heel of his boot into the grass. "I enlisted. I went off to war, and by the time I knew what I'd done the only thing left to know is that I wouldn't be coming back. I was a dead man walking at twenty-seven, literally, and every time one of my buddies got blown to bits I knew I'd never see thirty and I wouldn't forgive myself if I did. Then later they found me, kept waking me up and putting me back to sleep and now I got no idea how old I am at all." He gnaws on the inside of his cheek and looks out over the crowd. "Every day I've got here, now, is a day I never shoulda had in more ways than one. So yeah, Cap, I am old. And I'm starting to love every minute of it."
Steve lets out a long breath, and the foot of space between them becomes a chasm as he fights not to touch, to embrace, to cling and prove to Bucky that they're both here, alive and solid and not going anywhere. "Let's go home," he says.
Bucky's smile slides back into place, then grows into something real. "Yeah, sounds good to me."
Steve has a habit of raising his eyebrows when characters in movies kiss voraciously and start shedding their clothes while still getting through the front door. It always seemed a little ridiculous that they honestly couldn't wait another five seconds -- like smoking in the bus stop, or on the subway platform -- and while Steve didn't have any experience with it, he did have a fair amount of confidence that if he had the chance to be in that situation in the future, he would be a little more circumspect.
Turns out, not so much.
The only reason Steve knows his keys hit the bowl they keep them in is because he hears the clink after he tosses them. They kick off their shoes without bothering to untie the laces, and Steve makes a note of their position just long enough that he won't trip on them before putting it out of his mind. Bucky's hands are inside Steve's jacket, and Steve might not have done this before but Bucky has; he works the jacket off Steve's shoulders and flings it aside without Steve needing to remove his hands from Bucky's waist for more than a few seconds. Bucky gets Steve up against the door frame, pressing him hard to the wall so that the edge of wood digs into his spine, and Steve is taller than Bucky so it should feel weird but it doesn't. He tries his best to get rid of Bucky's jacket but it tangles around his elbows, and Steve curses under his breath when Bucky laughs at him.
"You don't usually do that unless there are bullets flying somewhere," Bucky teases, and he frees himself with a grace that Steve always used to admire and still does before kissing him again.
"Quiet, you," Steve says, twisting his fingers in Bucky's hair and yanking in a way that's supposed to make him yelp but wrings a low growl out of him instead, and close enough.
Steve has had many, many years to actively avoid thinking about this, but he's never managed to get this far even in his brief bursts of imagination before denial slammed the door down. It would have been emotional suicide to picture this, the pressure of Bucky's fingers against his skin as he tugs Steve's shirt free and slides his hands up beneath the hem; the way Bucky's hips jerk when Steve loops his fingers in his belt loops, his thumb brushing the strip of skin above the top of Bucky's jeans. It's terrifying and exhilarating all at once, not unlike the first time Tony took him flying, and Steve's stomach lurches in pretty much the same way when Bucky gets his knee between Steve's legs.
"This is not comfortable," Steve manages to say after a while, gasp-laughing into Bucky's hair, and Bucky gives Steve one last bite on the collarbone before raising his head.
"You got complaints?" Bucky raises an eyebrow and grins at him, laconic, and Steve manages to arrange his face into something that might be the cousin of a glare if you're feeling really charitable.
"Not about you, but some specifics, maybe." Steve digs a finger into Bucky's ribs. "You know, like standing, these stupid slacks, the door frame poking into my back, all of this, could we maybe not do that part?"
"You're the one who wore slacks to the fair," Bucky points out, entirely unnecessarily in Steve's opinion, but he steps back, tugging Steve after him by the hand. They make it halfway across the room before they're kissing again, and this is ridiculous. This is dangerous. There could be assassins hidden in the house and Steve would never know because he doesn't care if it's not about how to get Bucky's t-shirt off without it getting stuck and giving Bucky more cause to chuckle at him.
"Don't make me order you to be quiet," Steve says, and they did that the other day and that turned out way more fun than Steve would ever have thought, but now Bucky gives him a look that curls in Steve's stomach and says Steve won't be making any commands right now and Steve is, perhaps surprisingly, okay with that.
They break to climb the stairs, mostly because neither of them feels like dying of a broken neck -- or worse, being rescued because the SHIELD agents watching their house saw it happen and sent an ambulance in time -- and by the time they're at the top, Steve's heart has settled somewhat and his brain has managed to click itself halfway back online. "Listen, Bucky--" he closes his hands over Bucky's wrists, and Steve used to spend a lot of time not-looking at Bucky's forearms and he gets distracted now for a second -- "Just, before we do this, I should probably say, Tony's, uh, gift, I'm not -- I don't want to use those yet. Well, I'd rather use those particular ones never, really, but you know what I mean. I hope that's not going to ruin your plans."
Bucky shakes his head, and his expression goes at least semi-serious as he rubs a thumb over the point of Steve's hipbone in distracted thoughtfulness. "Nah, me neither. Not yet. Still, plenty of ways to have sex, Cap." His grin returns like a physical force. "This is the cue for any SHIELD mooks watching right now to have an unfortunate power outage to the cameras," he says in a loud voice, and Steve should probably be embarrassed or disapprove or something, but he just laughs and lets Bucky drag him through the bedroom door.
Steve's phone goes off before his alarm, and this might be the day Steve's on-call again for SHIELD but that doesn't mean he appreciates them being quite so on the nose about it. "You gotta be kidding," Bucky mumbles, his face mashed into Steve's shoulder. "Answer that and I kill you."
Steve has a crisis of conscience for about five seconds before he turns a bleary eye on the clock next to his bed, and all right, no, it's four in the morning and no supervillains ever attack before dawn. Not enough people are around to make anything worthwhile for your average attention-seeking megalomaniac. "Nope," Steve says, and he cards his fingers through Bucky's hair. "I'll check my messages in about an hour."
"You're disgusting," Bucky mutters, snaking his arm tighter around Steve's waist. "I can't believe you're actually thinking about going in to work."
"You're the one who waited to seduce me until the night before I had to go back to work," Steve reminds him, and add that to the list of things that amaze him to be able to say without repercussions, because instead of jerking away or asking what in the hell he means by that, Bucky just lets out a low chuckle and presses a sloppy kiss to Steve's neck.
The phone stops ringing, and Bucky grunts in satisfaction for about two seconds before it starts up again. Bucky hisses, untangles himself just long enough to slap the phone onto the ground, where it buzzes against the carpet. Steve frowns. That's not good. He's considering whether or not to get up and answer and if that will put Bucky in a terrible mood forever when the phone rings for the third time, and this time it's not Steve's usual ringtone; it's Tony's voice yelling "PICK UP THE PHONE, STEVE" over and over.
Bucky jumps, smacks his head off the headboard, curses, and flails away, falling off the edge of the bed. "I'm going to kill him," he grits out, and Steve sits up, eyes wide. "How the hell does he even -- you know what, I don't care. I'm going to kill him." Bucky finally finds the phone, holds it up to his face and barks, "What?!"
Steve holds out his hand for Bucky to pass it over, but Bucky doesn't. He says "What" again, flat this time -- then again as a question, his voice scaling up into the panic register, and then he explodes in a litany of curses. Steve scrambles to lean over and turn on the light, and there's Bucky on the floor in his boxers, face pale and drawn while Tony's voice echoes tinny through the speaker. "Just a second," Bucky says. "Stark -- no, I got it, seriously, stop, but I'm gonna put you on speaker, I don't wanna have to repeat this." He sets the phone on the table and buries his face in his hands. "Okay, Steve's listening, say that again."
"Someone got a picture of the two of you at Coney Island last night," Tony says, and his voice is tight, controlled, which means he's already called Pepper and they're trying to negate the damage but it's not working. "Cell phone camera, pretty crappy quality, but it's enough to ID Captain America. They put it online and it's gone viral."
Steve looks at Bucky, eyes wide, but Bucky still won't raise his head. "Can we contain it, take it down?"
"That's not all." Tony's voice is grim, and no, of course it isn't. "There was midnight printing of a tabloid for this morning's run about Captain America's gay affair, but we shut that down. That's not the problem. It's -- the fans got a hold of it, you know, the big-time fans, old-school fans. Somebody ID'd Barnes."
"No." Steve's breath leaves him in a whoosh, and Bucky digs his fingers into his hair. "How? It was dark and the only photos of him are from World War II, how could they --"
"That's not the only photos they got, Cap," Tony says, and he actually sounds apologetic. That sets off more warning bells than Steve knows how to deal with, and a chill runs over him. "Looks like somebody at Deno's is enough of a fan to recognize you, but not enough to respect your privacy when they see an opportunity." He pauses. "There are cameras in the ferris wheel, you know, for security purposes."
Steve swears for the second time in twelve hours.
"Yeah." Tony lets out a sigh that buzzes through the phone's speaker. "I just, normally I'd say congrats, you know, to the both of you, I'm seriously proud and I'm not even being sarcastic, but that got out, and the quality's good enough that some insane fans with every photo of Captain America and the Commandos ever printed matched them up. They've made enough of a positive ID that I don't think we can shut this down. JARVIS has all of us on Google Alert, but I don't own the internet, not yet. Not enough to stop this once it hit Tumblr."
Steve has no idea what a Tumblr is, only that when he asked about it everyone in the room shouted "NO!" and he decided that was all he needed to know. Apparently not. "But it's four in the morning!"
"Looks like some bloggers in the UK got hold of the original post and went crazy," Tony says. "Believe me, there's a whole team of people on my payroll who are about to get very, very fired for letting this get through so far." He groans, and Steve imagines him tugging at his hair. Somewhere nearby Pepper will be in her nightclothes, snapping orders into a phone and trying to clean it up, and regardless of whether they manage to fix it, Steve feels so much gratitude for the both of them that his chest aches.
"How bad is it going to be?" Steve asks. "I assume SHIELD has been alerted and I'll have to make a statement or something. Fury called me in just over the parade thing."
"Oh yeah." Tony's voice goes distracted for a second, the way it does when he talks while doing something else at the same time, probably checking messages with JARVIS. "Fury wants you to come in, both of you. They want to get a head start on this before it breaks for the mainstream crowd."
Steve runs a hand down his face. He has to look away from Bucky, who still hasn't moved from his hunched position. He swallows. "Is it really that bad? In the grand scheme of things, will it really destroy the country if Captain America has a boyfriend?"
Finally Bucky looks up, staring right at Steve, and Steve holds his gaze and shrugs, though the motion is difficult with the weight pressing down on his shoulders. Bucky presses his lips together in the faintest hint of a smile, though his eyes are shadowed and his jaw tight enough that the bone juts out. Steve lets out a slow breath.
"Yeah, that's ... not all we're concerned about, Cap," Tony says, very carefully. "Look, you need to come in. If you don't want SHIELD to send somebody I can come get you."
"Yeah, that's just what we need," Bucky says, and at least there's some grim humour in there underneath the monotone. "Captain America and his gay sidekick, being carried off into the sky by Iron Man. I can't even imagine the headlines."
"I meant the Quinjet," says Tony with some asperity, and who knows how long he's been awake and how hard he was working to recall the damage before finally calling it in. Steve winces. "But sure, be a bitch, that's always helpful."
"Sorry," Bucky says, sounding neither like he means it nor is being sarcastic, just an exhausted neutral, and he hauls himself to his feet. "You, SHIELD, send whoever the hell they want, but tell me if they're gonna shoot on sight because otherwise I'm not gonna bother getting dressed."
Tony rolls his eyes so hard Steve can practically hear it over the phone, or maybe he's just used to the way his tone changes when he does it. "Don't fall down the stairs or anything, someone will be over to get you in about half an hour. It's a public relations disaster, not a matter of national importance, so relax."
"This could very well be a matter of national importance," says Fury, and Bucky slumps back in his seat and throws a pencil across the room, where it sticks in the cork board like one of Clint's arrows. Fury cocks an eyebrow but otherwise lets it slide. "This is about more than Captain America breaking the hearts of men and women nationwide."
Steve frowns. "Frankly, sir, I'm not sure how it's anyone's business. It isn't as though it's going to affect my work."
Fury gives him a one-eyed look that says 'it better not', but it's more than that, Steve can tell. Fury glances at Hill, who takes the opportunity to straighten the edge of the pile of papers she's holding. "The fact is, the public has positive proof that James Buchanan Barnes is back from the dead," she says in her usual crisp manner. "This is a problem."
"So I was dead and now I'm not." Bucky folds his arms. "You're SHIELD. I'm sure you've worked on bigger security breaches and had to spin worse stuff than this. Make something up about finding me in the ice. It's not like the people on the street actually know who the Winter Soldier is, and anybody who ever saw me is in the ground."
Hill gives him a dark, steely-eyed stare, and ice sticks in Steve's chest and spreads out like frost forming on his terrible Brooklyn apartment's windowpane in the middle of January. "Random people aren't the problem," Steve hazards, "but certain people are."
"Precisely." Hill nods curtly and bangs the bottom of the pages against the desk again. Surely that's not necessary. "As Barnes said, most people who encountered the Soldier are no longer around to tell the tale, but the people who made him, who hired him out, they have. They'll know your face. They'll know they lost you on assignment, and now, they'll know we didn't kill you, didn't lock you away, that we let you keep your arm -- gave you a new and improved one, even. We've let you run free to hold hands and canoodle with Captain America at an amusement park, and I'm sure it won't take them much time to track down where you are based on that. I expect it will be a matter of hours before we receive instructions on how best to compensate them to keep that information quiet. I also expect that whatever it is, it will not be a price we are willing to pay. At the same time, we can't allow that information to be released; SHIELD is already under enough suspicion. This would likely result in us getting frozen completely."
Bucky swallows. "Does this mean I'm going back into lockdown?"
Fury lets out a gusty sigh. "I'm afraid that's the only choice for now, until we can guarantee your safety. Blackmail and extortion aren't the only worries we have, if someone decides to send an extraction team to fetch their pet assassin back."
"If this was such a problem, why let me out in the first place?" Bucky demands. "If I knew the first camera in my face was gonna send me right back here, I would've -- hell, I don't even know, but you can't just lock me back up again after letting me out. I'd rather you just kept me here the whole time."
"We took a chance," Fury says calmly. "It was clearly the wrong one. We didn't expect civilians to be the ones to recognize you after all these years; we underestimated the ardour of Captain America's fanbase, but we won't make that mistake again."
"We'll work on a statement for Captain America to make to the press," says Hill, and Steve notes that she didn't address him as 'Rogers'. This won't be his speech; this will be his persona, the nation's hero, and his chest tightens. "At least we can clean up the greatest symbol of America becoming a gay icon overnight. With the right spin we can turn it around and make it so anyone who has anything to say against it will be attacking America itself, not just homosexuality. Like it or not, the USA is about to become the most visibly queer nation in the world." She says it so matter-of-factly that Steve almost admires her. "The rest, the identity of the Captain's mysterious boyfriend and the reemergence of James Barnes, we'll have to see. We can obfuscate for now."
"The Black Widow is in conference now, giving us a rundown of any contacts she might have that could lead us to the Soldier's latest employees, as well as anyone else who might know his identity," Fury says, tapping one finger against his bicep. "One way or another, we'll find out. If we can build up a case of plausible deniability we'll do that. No one is going to learn about the Winter Soldier if we don't have to."
Bucky grips the arms of his chair, and the plastic bends and cracks under the pressure of his left-hand fingers. He doesn't seem to notice. "They'll put me on trial for crimes against humanity," he says, and it's impressive how neutral he makes that sound. "They'll pin any even remotely political assassination from the past fifty years on me, and there will be no way to say yes or no."
"As you're well aware, you aren't the only former assassin we've managed to take under our wing," Fury says coldly. "We look after our own, and whether you choose to accept it or not, that's what you are. We aren't going to turn you over to the authorities just like that. SHIELD operates outside the official government branches for a reason."
Steve thinks back to his and Bucky's fight before the battle with Molecule Man, where Bucky accused SHIELD of having ulterior motives when it came to its villains, exercising its own brand of justice with no one higher up to regulate it. Whatever truths that might hold, Steve finds himself so relieved to be on the right side of that privilege that he has to struggle to breathe. SHIELD is not and never will be the Commandos, and Fury isn't Colonel Phillips, but sometimes Steve feels like they're close enough.
"The bottom line is, we will fix this," says Fury, and Steve has never had anything even close to absolute faith in the man, but he knows he has to trust him now. Fury sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose, and when he looks up there's something unfamiliar about his expression until Steve identifies it as regret. "For what it's worth, boys, we'd all be happy for you in different circumstances."
They're in a meeting, which means Steve stays at attention instead of sliding a hand down his face, but he really, really wants to. Bucky, under no such obligation, snorts and sinks further down into his seat. "Thanks," he says. "Appreciate it. Tell whoever won the pool that they owe me takeout from someplace good."
Fury pauses. "I believe that's Jenkins, from marketing. You should take that up with him."
"Oh believe me, I will." Bucky drags a hand over his face, then glances at Steve, his face tight. "Hey, you, c'mere." Steve risks a quick glance at the front of the room, but Hill is packing up her things with her usual quiet efficiency, and Fury turns to speak with her. He closes the distance between them and stands next to Bucky's chair. Bucky sighs and curls his fingers in Steve's sleeve. "It's okay," he says, and his voice is dull but not dead, and he manages to dredge up a small smile. "This is absolute shit, but it's okay. I still wouldn't take yesterday back just because some fucker with a camera ruined it."
Steve sends a silent prayer to Phillips and every hard-nosed trainer in the SSR for all the abuse they poured on his head, because it means he can keep standing instead of collapsing with relief. "That's good," Steve says, which is remarkably inadequate but that's all he can say in the presence of SHIELD agents and still trust himself to keep it together. "I wouldn't either, except for the part where it put you in danger."
"Please." Bucky's eyes are dark, and he stares at his left arm, opening and closing his fingers. He was going to meet with Tony today to get the new synthetic skin installed. "I was always in danger; this was just all of us kidding ourselves. It's like enlisting all over again; it's never over. Just sometimes you die while you're still waiting for the next big one."
Steve twists his hand to grip Bucky's fingers, and they stand and sit together in silence while Hill finishes gathering her things and walks out, her shoes tapping against the floor.
"Gentlemen," Fury says at last. "Let's get you to your quarters."
"You don't have to stay," Bucky says to Steve, and when he stands he looks at Fury, challenge written across the just of his jaw and the line of his shoulders. "He doesn't have to stay."
"No, he doesn't," Fury agrees, at the same time that Steve explodes, "The hell I don't!" Bucky glares at Steve, and Fury clears his throat. "You will, of course, be needed elsewhere and expected to report for duty when necessary, but there's no reason why you can't use the temporary living quarters when you're not directly required, if you so choose."
"I choose," Steve says, and he gives Bucky a hard look. "I'm not going anywhere, and I'm definitely not going back to sleep at the house without you."
Bucky holds Steve's gaze for a few seconds, but finally he gives in. "Fine," he says, and Steve squeezes his hand. "Is it going to send the free world into chaos if I go back to bed?"
Fury shakes his head. "No, everything that needs to be done for the next few hours will be on our end. You boys get some rest. I get the feeling you're going to need it."
Bucky snorts again. "Well, when you put it like that," he says dryly, and he frees his hand from Steve's hold and stands up. "C'mon, you need to sleep until you stop looking like somebody slapped your mother," he says to Steve, forcing lightness into his tone. "Can't meet the press like that." Steve doesn't argue.
Fury leads them to an extra suite and hands them their passkeys. "We will fix it," he says again. "And Captain -- welcome back."
Steve didn't think himself capable of saluting sarcastically, but apparently there's a first time for everything. "Thank you sir, always a pleasure."
Chapter 11: I'd take a stroll and get you right off my mind
Bucky has no idea what the Soldier's going rate was at the end; from the sounds of it he was pretty much being passed between buyers like a cigarette around a campfire on the field, so who knew.
SHIELD asks Bucky to help them identify possible Winter Soldier targets, and the results aren't pretty.
Thank you to Chrism for all her help, plotting and planning and flailing and hand-holding.
PTSD warning, violent images warning (Winter Soldier, yo) also a lot of Bucky/Nat feelings, because ain't no room for Natasha hate on the Steve/Bucky ship, y'all.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Bucky jerks awake, thrown out of sleep by the rush of chemicals in his brain and the fragmented images his mind saw fit to toss at him, and nearly breaks his teeth on his hand. It's a habit he started back during the war after Steve pulled him out of Zola's lab -- they all slept in close quarters out on the field, and a lot of the time across enemy lines, and he couldn't exactly wake everyone and half of Germany or occupied France or wherever just because he'd had a bad dream -- but now it's different.
Back then, Bucky would shove a fist in his mouth to stifle the shouts, and the pain if he did break the skin would give him something else to think about so he could shove back the panic and wipe his eyes and not look like a damn baby out on the front with a bunch of guys who went through hell every day. Back then he'd had fingers made of flesh and bone and muscle, not some kind of Stark Industries alloy that could get caught in an elevator door and come out looking brand new, though couldn't say the same for the doors.
Back then, the only thing in his nightmares had been pain and fire in his veins and the doctor's soft voice hissing in his ear asking for reactions, like he could really write down how he felt on a scale of one to ten and describe if the pain was burning or stinging or aching or throbbing or anything else Zola wanted to know when he was screaming so hard he lost his voice. Back then Bucky thought it couldn't get any worse.
Now, Bucky's head is stuffed full with another life -- hundreds of other lives -- scattered across the century and shoved back inside about as carefully as a field medic might stuff a man's insides back into his stomach until they got him back to the hospital. Now it's blood and screams and silence, it's faces with their eyes wide in fear and their mouths open in a shocked 'o' as they fall to the ground and their skulls crack against the floor.
Now, Bucky's left arm is made of metal, and he's still right-handed but the machine in him reacts faster than the man and so it's his new hand that he bites down on to keep himself from shouting and waking Steve or bringing all of SHIELD down on his head. Great. This just keeps getting better and better. Just when he thought it was safe to sleep with the arm still attached.
Bucky sits up, swings his legs over the side of the bed, and sits with his head in his hands and his elbows digging into his thighs as he runs his tongue over his teeth searching for cracks. Behind him, good old Steve snores on, which means that Bucky might have to check his mouth in the mirror just in case but at least it wasn't for nothing. Steve is already run pretty ragged worrying about Bucky and going through every public relations protocol that SHIELD has without waking up to yet another nightmare.
The nightmare wasn't anything special, anyway. No soldier is a stranger to night terrors, even the ones who didn't get their brains hacked to pieces by mad scientists and used by madmen for decades. The ones who only had to put up with regular stuff like getting blown to pieces in a muddy trench, or seeing their buddy's legs get torn off by a land mine, or choking and fighting to keep their head above a mess of mud and rainwater while crouched in a shell hole, or listening to a friend and comrade die slowly overnight in the middle of no-man's-land because they couldn't make it out to drag him to safety or put a bullet in his brain.
Bucky comes back to himself when he opens his hand and sees several black strands twisted around his fingers, and oh damn it, there'd better not be a bald patch or he'll never manage to get this past Steve. As it is he has to get it together; SHIELD says they don't have monitors on his vitals but Bucky didn't enlist yesterday, and at the very least they'll have the place full up with cameras just to make sure their favourite liability doesn't go crazy and murder their favourite soldier.
He's not sure he can sleep and even less sure he should, and so Bucky pushes himself up off the bed and drops down silently into the chair at the desk across the room. It's a nice place, lockdown, way better than even the best joints the SSR got put in during their heyday during the war, and he takes a second to run his hand over the oak desk leg before shaking himself and going back to the files.
The problem with the cube, or whatever it is that SHIELD used to restore his memory, is that it's all there, all the memories that the Red Room did their best to wipe from him -- Stark made some kind of analogy using computers that Bucky isn't even gonna try to parse, something about overwriting data seven times still isn't enough, and Bucky just smiled and pretended he was listening to a girl talk about shoes -- but they're all over the place. Bucky can't just call up the names of people he assassinated as the soldier; he has to hear it, or see it, and that triggers the memory if it's there.
There's a pile of folders and papers on his desk that Bucky's been sorting into two piles based on whether he stares blankly at it or gets a jolt like he just tried to lick a light socket, which is about as fun as it sounds. He thinks back to the day the poor young SHIELD mook who was probably re-evaulating her pay and wondering whether she could sue for a raise came to him and gave him the assignment.
"Seriously?" Bucky'd said, trying not to stare her down. He used to be good with girls, used to be funny and charming, but that part of him is old and scabbed-over and it's easier to turn back into blank-faced and, apparently, terrifying. "You want me to stare at a bunch of pictures, see if any of them trigger an episode, so I can tell you whether I think a hit is one of mine."
At least she'd looked apologetic about it, behind the fear, anyway. "We'll need to come up with cover stories if any important figures are yours," she said. "Just in case someone talks."
"Do you want me to give you how they died, if that's part of the flashback?" Bucky had sneered, all hard-edged and nasty, and boy Steve would not have approved if he'd heard, but Steve wasn't there.
"That's usually in the file," she said. "They thought it might help you remember."
"Great," Bucky had said, smiling at her, and there'd been a hint of his old devil-may-care grin there, but now it was too sharp, too jaded, like trying to hide a bunch of nails and broken glass under a carpet in the hopes it wouldn't puncture your tire. He'd snatched the file out of her hands and stalked off. Later he felt bad and apologized; she told him it's okay, her grandpa fought in the same war as he had so she understood, and that's when Bucky just about stuck his head under the sink and left it there.
Now, Bucky pulls the closest file to him and opens it, staring at the swarthy face of a man unfortunately named Timothy Dinkwater, a banker responsible for a bunch of hedge funds that went under back in the day. Bucky studies his face in the live headshot, and when nothing hits him, he flips the page over to the police file on his death -- shot in his home, lying face-down in the shower, most of the blood having run down the drain by the time anyone arrived. He runs an eye over the details -- point blank range, messy exit wound -- and finally shakes his head and slides the photo back into its file. Nothing. Not one of his. Whoever was buying the Winter Soldier apparently didn't bother with bogus investment funds, which made sense because anyone mad about it probably wouldn't have the cash anyway.
Not that Bucky has any idea what the Soldier's going rate was at the end; from the sounds of it he was pretty much being passed between buyers like a cigarette around a campfire on the field, so who knew.
Bucky flips the next file open, flicks his gaze over the woman's face -- Asian, pretty, serious expression -- and doesn't even get as far as the name before the memories slam into him like a wave. The eerie, hollow rustling of wind through bamboo leaves. Sliding paper doors that tore when he slammed them open. The thud of his boots against reed mats. Wailing, begging, imploring, words in a language he hasn't spoken in years but which carves its way through his skull now. The curve of a rounded belly covered in purple silk. And then blood, so much blood.
This time Bucky can't stop the scream that tears itself out of him, he slams the file shut and throws it across the desk but it's too late, the images are there. Not this woman (wife, expectant mother) but others, children lying motionless under the kitchen table, toddlers stretched out in dingy halls. They hadn't just sent him after important figures, it had been their families, too. Bucky during his World War days had killed plenty of people through his sniper scope that probably had wives and kids back home, but he'd never actually marched into their kitchens, killed each with a single shot to the head, and left with the house on fire behind him.
There's the stuffed Hulk that he won Steve at the fair on Bucky's desk, next to the lamp. He's supposed to look at it when he has an episode to help him focus, draw his attention to the present because there may be triggers everywhere, connections to his past that he doesn't know exist until they hit him, but his therapists are pretty sure that a fuzzy green rage-monster toy isn't one of them. Except that as he stares at it, Bucky's mind jumps to a stuffed teddy bear lying in a pool of blood, and he can't tell if that's an actual memory or just his mind being super melodramatic and sickening but it doesn't matter. Either way, that coping mechanism's gone out the window with the rest of them.
The part of Bucky's brain not currently trying to make him crawl inside-out thinks that if the SHIELD headshrinkers aren't the highest paid members of the staff, they probably should be.
That thought quickly slides away, and it's nothing but blood and more blood and metal and smoke and the sickly-sweet stench of rotting bodies, and underneath it all is -- peppermint?
The smell hits his brain, wiping away the rest with the clear, clean scent of gum and tea and candy like Sister Catherine used to keep in her drawer and give to him when he'd done something good. Bucky gasps, opens his eyes and sees Steve kneeling in front of him, holding his hands, an open bottle of oil on the desk beside them. "Good, Buck," Steve says, slow and soothing, "You're right here with me. You're here at SHIELD, Bucky, it's okay. You're safe. You didn't hurt anyone. You can come back."
Bucky sucks in a breath -- for a second the air feels cold, like ice and snow and falling -- but Steve moves, holds Bucky's face in his hands and presses their foreheads together and tells him to breathe, and Bucky is a soldier and a soldier follows orders and he does. "Good," Steve says again, like Bucky is a dog, but it lets Bucky take another breath, and another, and another. "Good. It's okay, Bucky. You're here. Nobody's hurt."
Bucky looks down at Steve's wrists, mottled purple from Bucky's panicked grip. "Except you," he gasps out, his voice hoarse.
Steve doesn't even look. "I'll heal. The important thing is that you're here and you're safe." He blows out a breath through his nose, the lines of his face tight.
"What's with the look?" Bucky asks, and his heart rate is still skittering all over and he's shaking and if he tried to stand he'd fall over but at least he knows where he is. Bucky recognizes the face Steve makes when he's pissed, seriously end-of-the-world Captain-America's-gonna-kick-your-ass pissed, but trying not to show it, the thing where he clenches his jaw until a muscle twitches and his eyebrows turn into those two towers from that movie series Bucky might actually sit through when he has a million hours to do it.
"You're not doing that again," Steve says in a carefully modulated tone. "I don't care what they say or how soon they want it, you're not doing that alone. They can do their own cross-referencing or whatever it is, and if they really need you to check for them then they can do it when you're in with a therapist ready to bring you out of it, but not alone. Not in the middle of the night. Not again."
"What, is Captain America going to deliver a star-spangled spanking to the SHIELD brass?" Bucky tries to laugh, but it gets stuck somewhere in his chest. He closes his eyes and lets Steve's fingers, strong and blunt against his jaw, hold him steady.
"He will if he damn well has to," Steve says, all crackling energy and repressed fury, and it's stupid and maybe not that healthy but Bucky relaxes. He grips Steve's wrists -- lighter, this time, not digging in and leaving marks -- and Steve strokes his thumb across Bucky's cheek. "You back with me, Buck?"
"Yeah, old man, I'm here." Bucky tilts his head, and Steve takes the invitation to kiss him, screw the poor suckers on the night shift who will be monitoring this.
After a while Steve pulls back, running his fingers through Bucky's hair. "C'mon, turn on the TV and we'll play a game. No point trying to sleep. In the morning you're going to see your therapist."
Bucky sighs and lets Steve drag him to the bed. "You mean you can't just heal me with your love? Wouldn't that be easier?"
"Therapist," Steve says firmly, and pulls Katamari Damacy from the pile of games next to the TV. It's a good time-waster, repetitive and colourful and task-based, exactly what Bucky needs after an episode. Which is good, because turns out when you're not allowed to play anything with violence, your options are kinda limited.
Bucky leans against Steve's shoulder as he directs the little green man around the screen, and they take turns after every mission because Bucky enjoys backseat driving almost as much as actually playing. He ends up dozing toward the end in the middle of shouting at Steve to roll up the dog because it's really damned annoying. He doesn't remember after that except that when he wakes up the TV is off and Steve has him held against his chest, reading from one of those electronic book things so he can turn the pages one-handed and hold Bucky with the other arm.
The next morning after Bucky's therapy session, during the daily briefing, Steve corners Fury and the other SHIELD operatives to give them a piece of his mind over not allowing Bucky to identify targets on his own anymore. It's not the first time Bucky has heard Steve yell at someone higher up because he believes what he's yelling about is right, but it gets him every time. By the end of the conversation Fury has ratcheted himself tighter and tighter, drawing himself up and twisting his mouth into a sour-lemon expression until Bucky thinks he's going to lift up his eye patch and blast Steve to smithereens with a death laser embedded in his skull.
"I'm listed as his next of kin, and his health care proxy," Steve says, mulish, and he crosses his arms and clenches his jaw like every old political cartoon from the forties of Captain America chastising the Nazis. Yet again the part where he can lecture Bucky about not bothering to dress properly while he himself wears shirts two sizes too small works well, because his muscles strain against his sleeves like they're pumped full of his rage. "That means I can make decisions about his health care."
"That paperwork was filled out over eighty years ago," Fury says with the sort of maddening calm that means the only good thing he's getting out of this conversation is staying cool while the other person explodes. "And furthermore, that proviso only comes into effect if Sergeant Barnes is incapable of making decisions himself."
"I found him triggering himself at three in the morning because he couldn't sleep after one of your sessions," Steve says, short and furious. "Buck, you know I love you, but you're stubborn as hell. You'd run yourself into the ground just because you hate to ask for help."
"Thanks for saying that to my face, I guess, instead of going all 'Sergeant Barnes' on me like I ain't here," Bucky says dryly, and Fury's eyebrow twitches. "Look, I don't really care either way --" he stops when Steve gives him the evil eye, "-- but if you guys want me sane enough to make some kinda statement later, then yeah, maybe not."
"It's my professional opinion that while James does need to deal with the various elements in his past if he's to avoid being triggered in daily situations, these unscheduled, unsupervised episodes are detrimental to his recovery." Bucky has to give Gloria, his main shrink, credit for managing to sound like a normal person in their sessions while dialling up the unnecessary professor-speak when faced with opposition. It's a talent he appreciates even if it's not really his style.
Fury pinches his lips together like he really wants to drag a hand down his face but isn't going to give them the satisfaction. "All right," he says, doing his best to get his picture in the dictionary after the word 'aggrieved', definition: I've had it up to here with you assholes but I'm going to humour you because I'm the bigger man. "From now on we'll avoid bringing past cases to Sergeant Barnes except in the event it's necessary."
"And only in a safe environment," Steve adds.
"And only in a safe environment." Fury fixes him with a baleful stare. "I hope that satisfies." He looks at Gloria and jerks his head toward the door; she nods and slips out through the back. "Now. Talk to me, people. How are we coming on the Soldier? Is anyone stepping up?"
Everyone looks at Natasha, whose experience naturally put her at the head of the project. "Nothing yet," she says, cool and collected as always. Her gaze flickers to Bucky just for a second, and she gives him a small smile that digs into his chest with just as much force as the assassin photographs. He sees her face in his mind, splattered with blood and dirt after a mission -- he congratulates her, takes a swing to test her reflexes -- she blocks, and he kisses her and tastes the tang of smoke and gunpowder on her tongue --
Bucky shakes himself. Everyone's staring, and he looks down to see his metal fingers digging dents into Fury's nice mahogany conference table. There's a vein in Fury's temple that should probably petition for sentience recognition soon. "Sorry, what? I wasn't listening."
Natasha, bless her, just keeps going as though Bucky didn't have a mini-freakout right there in front of everyone. One day he'll ask her how long it took her before she stopped doing the same. Right now it's all too raw. "I was saying that no one we can track down to having used the Winter Soldier over the past few years has come forward or made any extortion threats against SHIELD. That doesn't mean anything just yet; it's entirely possible they're waiting for confirmation before they show their hand."
That sounds about right. Bucky remembers almost nothing about the people or organizations who bought him -- they made sure of that, nothing like having a half-crazed assassin remember your face and decide he wanted to cut out the middle man and get paid directly -- but anyone willing to track down a legend and work their way through the underworld channels to get him had to be good at some measure of patience. "So what do we do?"
Hill does that thing with the edge of her papers and the desk that makes Steve homicidal. "We keep looking. Meanwhile, we continue using our life model decoy of Captain America to stave off the situation here at home."
After the news of Captain America, America's possible next gay icon, hit the mainstream, SHIELD got clobbered for demands for interviews and statements and all that kinda nonsense that seems like it would really gunk up the workings of a secret organization. Hill anticipated that, and so as soon as that early-morning meeting ended, they sent out a robot replication of the Captain to Europe, where he could be seen investigating news of an enemy installation and therefore not be reached for comment until he got back. It gives them an excuse, takes some of the pressure off, and also gives Steve something to do, since he can't actually be seen in public and the LMD needs his input if it's going to do more than just stand there and be a really attractive statue.
Bucky still can't get used to the idea of a walking, breathing, talking Steve Rogers that isn't the one he grew up with. It's weird, but even with demigods and aliens and everything else, it's the robot that gets him. Maybe it's because back in the day he'd always known that the other stuff wasn't real, but robots, those were the future. Those would happen. It's one hell of a head-scratcher to wake up and find that they happened while he was away.
Stark didn't make it any easier by joking that if Bucky did really well on his next psych eval, maybe they'd let him take one home so he and Steve could try out some more complicated stuff without needing to find a third person. They're all lucky Steve wasn't in the room to hear that one.
It looks like a lot more busywork until somebody cracks somewhere, and Bucky is on psychological leave and may as well use it, so he gives himself permission to space out. This is the sort of in-between bullshit that they'd always put him to sleep for, which doesn't make it worth it, but when Bucky's feeling morbid and amused he can pretend for a second. It's nice of SHIELD to let him stay awake and keep his memories and all, but really, right now he's of no more use to them than he was to whoever hired him back in the day. Maybe he should learn to make gourmet coffee and doughnuts and bring things around to the staff.
Eventually the meeting ends. Steve's called away to help his robot self make an appearance, which leaves Bucky with a pair of SHIELD kids who must've been head hunted just out of college. SHIELD and its diaper recruitment league have a nifty way of making Bucky feel ancient even without factoring in the actual date on his birth certificate. It's not always a bad thing -- like he said to Steve, at least he's in a place where feeling old is better than the alternative -- but it does fill Bucky with irritation that he has to follow these infants around.
The only good thing is they look just as mortified to be keeping track of him as he is annoyed by their presence, so there's that. Bucky sighs and heaves himself to his feet, but that's when Natasha glides over and sends the aides away with a flick of her fingers. Bucky raises an eyebrow.
"You need to work off some of your stress," Natasha says, lifting her eyebrow right back at him.
Bucky needs more sleep, but in lieu of that, sure, stress relief works too. His automatic response is something cute about what she might recommend, but he can't even get all the way through the thought before it stutters to a halt because this isn't just a pretty girl. This is his Natalia, even if she's not who she was back then and neither is he. "Have you got something better than meditation, because if I go through any more yoga exercises I think I might --" He stops himself and winces. "I might do something entirely appropriate and not likely to get me locked away again," he says, instead of his usual quip about killing somebody. That had already stopped being funny back during the war, but now it's right up there with suicide.
"I got you clearance for the shooting range," Natasha says, and Bucky doesn't know whether it's the thought of holding a gun again or the small, twisting smile she sends him that makes his stomach jump, but either way, he's probably screwed up but there you go. "You'll have to be with me, and take orders from me at all times, but you can at least do something while Steve is away on his mission."
Bucky has no idea how to untangle what he and Natasha are to each other now, and honestly he's not sure whether he should even try. Like everything that happened after the KGB got hold of him, his memories of her aren't as clear as the rest, but he knows he loved her -- that they loved each other. Knows that in the middle of what would turn out to be the worst hell of his life, he did manage to make something good out of it, even if it all went up in flames later.
He hasn't asked her -- he can't -- what they took from her, if she still remembers all of it, what's left of the stolen moments, climbing through windows and sneaking into showers, stealing kisses in locker rooms and whispering their promises in English so they could at least pretend they weren't committing treason by doing it. Call it just one more road that Bucky can't walk down because he's pretty sure it will end in nothing but blood and tears and fire.
He loved Steve before the Red Room turned his mind into party dip, and he loves Steve now. That's what matters, and that's what he trusts. It's easier for Bucky to think of him and Natasha as a relationship that ended and that's it, even though it's nothing like that at all, even though there's no closure in his memories, no nice bow to tie it off with. She's like the arm he lost in the ice except there's no new shiny fix-it in this metaphor, just a severed limb and a lot of trailing tendons and gushing blood, and the less he pokes at it the better.
Steve keeps not-asking so loud he may as well be shouting his demands through a megaphone, but that's just fine; Bucky will keep not-answering until the day he dies.
"Assuming you want to," Natasha says, and Bucky jumps because he hasn't answered her. He doesn't know how to tell her that he can't talk to her without his brain freezing, that it wars against the pre-war flippant part of him that keeps making bad cracks and the part of him that's quiet, deadly, and remembers the feel of her lips against his neck, her fingers massaging the join of his shoulder where his skin met metal.
"Yeah, of course I do," Bucky says finally, choking on the automatic phrase 'I could kiss you', and this must be what going crazy feels like -- actually going crazy, not being turned that way by a bunch of scientists with nothing better to do than rip people apart and ruin their lives.
"I thought you might." Natasha is the same woman who haunts Bucky's memories but she isn't, too. She's lighter, her everyday movement less like she's stalking and preparing to strike; his Natalia kept herself coiled tight, every part of her ratcheted in like the inside of a pocket watch, precise and wound and perfect. Like if she let herself down for a second she might explode, and Bucky has scraped together enough in his mind to know that's not just paranoia. Now she still occupies the same amount of physical space but it doesn't feel quite so weighty, like she's given herself permission to close her eyes and fall asleep and trust that she won't wake up to a world on fire.
She leads him through the bowels of the SHIELD underground, and Bucky doesn't bother to try to memorize the layout even though he's been trained -- programmed -- to do just that, because if SHIELD doesn't want him to find it again, he won't, though likely not because he doesn't remember the route. Nothing happens here without Fury's one-eyed say so, and if that includes Bucky only getting to play with guns under adult supervision, then so be it.
He actually has to put up with a lecture from the guy in charge of the range about safety, and Bucky would roll his eyes or make smart remarks except that he's lucky SHIELD lets him wipe himself after he uses the john, so he keeps quiet. It's a little better when he lets his gaze flicker to the left and sees Natasha's lip curl in what would be an unreadable blank face on anyone else but is as good as a guffaw from her. Bucky keeps his expression neutral but it holds him through to the end of the speech.
They don't let Bucky choose his own weapon, and his fingers itch as he takes the safety earmuffs and puts them on while Natasha fetches something for him. He's wondering what they'll trust him with when Natasha comes out of the locker with an M1903 Springfield, and Bucky loses his breath. He takes it from her, runs his fingers over the smooth wood stock, the sights, and for a second he's jarred back to the trenches, pressed shoulder to shoulder with the Commandos -- only they weren't called that then, they were just a bunch of guys in the same outfit who fought together and insisted on calling him Jimmy no matter how much he protested -- and Bucky hisses. It probably says something that this is one of his better flashbacks, but no matter how bad it is, the smell of blood and smoke and the tang of metal and garlicky scent of nerve gas, at least he knew who he was then.
Bucky looks up to see Natasha watching him in that cool, calculating way she has, except she's waiting, too, gauging his reaction for more than science. "I hope you don't think any less of me if I start bawling like a baby," Bucky says, and he's rewarded when the corner of her mouth curves up. "You picked this one on purpose."
It's the last weapon he handled before Zola picked him up and started the process that led him to where he is today, a nutty patchwork quilt of a guy, like Frankenstein's monster only with fewer scars and neck-bolts and a killer smile instead. The last weapon Bucky had before they took him and made him into one himself.
"I thought you might enjoy it," Natasha says, and yeah, Bucky did love her once, and even if thinking about it makes him feel like he's dragging himself across broken glass, she is amazing. Loving Steve now doesn't change that. "We all have our comforts."
"You still sleep with a beretta?" Bucky asks, holding up the Springfield and sighting along the barrel. It's not an authentic historical model, but for a working reproduction it's flawless. The only real clue is that the sight's too good, the line of the barrel too perfect. He won't have to compensate on the field like he did back then.
"Only on special occasions," she says, and this is all right, this Bucky can do without freaking out, and then they step into their partitions and everything slides away.
Later, Natasha almost has to pry the rifle out of his hands. "I'll call you," Bucky says to the gun, kissing his fingers and touching the stock before Natasha tugs it away and heads back to the storage room.
"Come," Natasha says when she reemerges, jerking her head to the side, and Bucky is nothing if not an obedient soldier and so he follows. She leads him through to one of the commissaries, and she grabs herself a mug of something that Bucky doubts is regulation while he fills his mug with the thickest, blackest coffee they got.
"So," Bucky says, because what can he say? He and Natasha do better in groups, when they don't have to rely on themselves to keep the conversation going, when Stark's unending prattle or Banner's alternating polite and sarcastic interjections fill the silence.
"I think you should join SHIELD," Natasha says, taking a sip and regarding him evenly.
Bucky has seen way too much to choke on that statement, but it's a near thing. He sets down his mug, pleased with himself that he didn't spit-take. "Say what?"
She reaches up and tucks a strand of hair behind one ear, and Bucky really needs to get his head sorted because a memory hits him of standing with her in the shower, pushing her soaked hair out of her eyes before she kissed him, and wow, that is really not an okay thought to have. Bucky's not a prude and even less of a gentleman, but that's bad even for him. This whole business of stirring up his memories has left him jumbled and ridiculous.
"You heard me," Natasha says. "That's going to be the deal in the end, their protection in exchange for your cooperation. You may as well impress them by bringing it up first."
"You know, me and Steve had a big fight about this before he got himself smacked into the ground by a histrionic crazy guy," Bucky says dryly. "I told him it doesn't sit right with me, what you people do with the ones you take down."
Natasha raises an eyebrow, and Bucky swallows. He still hasn't asked her what happened, how she got here, how she found herself on the other side of the world, speaking a language he'd only barely begun to teach her, and he knows by the way Steve's eyes burn through the back of his neck when they're in the same room that they never bothered telling Captain America, either. If she'd joined SHIELD on her own or if they'd made her or what happened there, but Bucky gets the impression he just put his foot in it.
"They gave me the choice," Natasha says simply. "We give everyone the choice, just like I'm giving it to you so you know it's coming. Nobody just gets locked away to rot to death. Everyone SHIELD comes up against is a possible asset and ally, and more than one of them have seen the wisdom of that."
"What, no better way to guard against evil aliens than by recruiting psychopaths and giving them guns?" Bucky can't believe that, no matter what anyone tells him. He's fought some of these people. He met Doctor Zola, slimy and simpering and doe-eyed and evil, every bit as evil as Red Skull with his posturing and aggrandizement because he thought himself a sane man amongst madmen. There's no way that SHIELD would just let them loose any more than they'd tell him he was free to move to Hawaii without further interference. Likely the place he stayed at would have cameras hidden in the walls before he even decided to buy it.
Natasha rolls her eyes at him, and Bucky winces, because this is not her affectionately exasperated face. "A psychopath is someone who needs healing," she says, firmly, and Bucky looks down at the table and draws an embarrassed squiggly-mouthed smiley in the ring of steam-condensation left by his mug. "Not everyone can be rehabilitated, no, but all of them have the option. I don't know if this will surprise you, but many choose incarceration rather than to give over to people they see as their enemies. Some of us --" she shrugs -- "were more practical."
Bucky hadn't really thought about that either; he imagines anyone from SHIELD getting Red Skull to agree to put down his alien beam weapons and join the forces of good, and the guy would've laughed his skin off while eating their hearts with his bare hands. He frowns. "And you really think that would help, if I put on the uniform and played nice with the boys in blue."
"It can't hurt," Natasha points out. "Look, James --" he still shivers when she says his name, and he's glad more than anything that Steve never called him anything but Bucky -- "Let me tell you something, off the record. I've been going through every file we have on the Winter Soldier's appearances, confirmed and suspected. There's no indication that you've been used by any real organization since the Cold War ended. From the looks of it, you were bought and sold by anyone with the knowledge to find you and the wherewithal to pay for it."
Bucky winces. "That's what I figured, but always nice to have it confirmed," he says, a sour taste in his mouth, and he swigs the rest of his coffee in an attempt to wash it away. It only sort of works.
"At one point you were being used by both sides of a turf war." Natasha lifts one shoulder and gives him a small, tight smile. "I spent a great part of my life avoiding a crisis of personality by attributing my life's meaning to whichever forces bound me at the time. Sometimes that's all we have. The point is, there is no giant shadow organization with a binder full of knowledge on James Buchanan Barnes and his other identity, not as far as we can dig up."
Bucky swallows. "No?"
"No," Natasha says, and her voice is not gentle, not precisely, but it is quiet, and calming, like her smooth, capable hands setting a bone back in place. "The only organization that knows anything about you at all is the one big enough -- and willing -- to protect you."
"In exchange for doing your dirty work." He uses the familiar inclusive pronoun without thinking, but Natasha doesn't even blink.
"Yes," Natasha says without prevarication, like always. "SHIELD does what it can, just like anyone, but if the events of last year proved anything, it's that there are enough people within the organization to stem the tide when it starts down the wrong path. You could be part of that, in whatever capacity you choose."
Bucky swallows. He wasn't lying when he told Steve he missed fighting at his side, that seeing him out there on the field, getting shot at, getting buried in the rubble, without Bucky there to keep him in his sights, made Bucky sick to his stomach. It felt a lot like when they were dumb kids trying to get themselves enlisted to fight overseas, when he pictured some low-grade outfit picking Steve out of desperation, the two of them sent across the continent to battle and die alone.
And yet at the same time, Bucky has no idea if he could ever pick up a rifle and fire it at another human being ever again. "You know that part of me best," Bucky says, and Natasha says nothing, gives him no clues with her expression or posture. "You really think that's a good idea? What if the first time I look through that scope and see a person on the other side, I lock up? What if I have episodes every time they let me into combat?"
"Then SHIELD pulls you from active duty and gives you something else," Natasha says. "You could train new agents, just like you did me. You could work in the weapons department. SHIELD has more nooks and crannies and specialized units than you could ever imagine. The protection we're going to offer you will not be contingent on whether or not you're useful on the battlefield. We only get a few fights a year anyway; it's hardly like the old days."
Bucky gnaws on his cheek, and memories flutter at the corner of his mind but don't creep into his conscious mind, not yet. He lets out a breath. "Okay. What do you think?"
Natasha looks at him, really looks, that way she does that makes him feel like he's been stripped down to nothing, not just bare skin but right down to his core, like she knows every part of him. The way Steve looks at him when Bucky's been running tail from a realization for far too long and even the Captain's patience can't take it anymore.
"I think I've been wanting this since we pulled Captain America out of the ice and I saw your face in his personnel file," Natasha says levelly, but there's a rasp beneath her tone that makes Bucky's spine straighten. "They always used to joke it was you, back at the Red Room, but none of us actually thought it was real, and you never said anything about it to me so I thought --" she shakes her head, cutting that off, but Bucky knows what she was going to say. She thought that because he hadn't told her, it must not be true. He exhales through his nose to avoid giving himself away with a grimace.
Natasha's eyes go faraway. "Every time Steve talked about is best friend, I knew who you were. Every time he beat himself up about letting you fall off that cliff and die, I knew he hadn't. I knew that what happened was far worse. That it was better for him to remember his friend as the one who lived a short life and died a tragic death. Now that you're back --" Her hands tighten against the table, pressing flat to the surface in the strongest show of real emotion that Bucky has seen from her in a long time. "This is an opportunity for everyone to get what they want. Steve has his friend back, and I no longer have to worry who's using you when I'm not there."
"Is that it?" Bucky asks before he can stop himself, because he's an idiot with brains tossed in a blender and he doesn't know where he is anymore.
"I wouldn't say 'it'," Natasha corrects him. "But it is what it is. I've had time to work through what we were and what happened to us, James. A long time." She pauses, and it hits Bucky that she looks exactly the same as when he knew her, just with different hair and clothes, but age hasn't touched her at all. He has no idea how old she is, how many years it's been for her. "There are things more important, more binding, than love, at least in the simplistic sense that people seem to value. You and my team are part of that."
Bucky's chest tightens, but at the same time it's like those stories he heard about guys with missing limbs who had itches they couldn't scratch until this doctor played a trick with mirrors and their remaining arms and it made the phantom twinges go away. "You sure know how to be romantic," he quips, because if he doesn't he's afraid he'll fall apart.
Natasha snickers lightly. "Hardly. But I can borrow some sentiment, if you'd like, and tell you that having you alive and back in your own mind is all I ever wanted for you, and more than I thought I'd get. For both of us to be here, and sane, and safe, is all that matters."
"So is this a fancy way of telling me there's another guy and I shouldn't get my ego up?" Bucky asks, and he means it to be funny but it isn't, really.
"No," Natasha says, and he expected her to say something smart or maybe threaten him for the remark, so it throws him when she doesn't. "But I am telling you it doesn't matter." She raises her eyebrow again. "I haven't spent all these years pining, James. I've just finally learned to live. And so should you."
It's the kind of thing that people say in a well-intentioned sort of manner all the time, big smiles and wide eyes and sickening optimism, the kind that no one should ever really try on Bucky because he can't track his moods anymore and has no idea whether he'll be comforted or want to smack them in the head. Except that from Natasha -- like it would be from Steve, or Stark, or any of them -- it means something, because every one of the Avengers knows the difference between surviving and living.
Something unknots in Bucky's spine, and he leans back in his chair. "You know you're amazing."
Natasha smiles. "So says my personnel file."
Bucky grins at her, and he feels a little more solid now, like the ground underneath him isn't eroding away quite so fast. "Is it okay if I still don't have heart to hearts with you about Steve? I mean, that's kind of weird."
"I assure you that's perfectly fine," she says, and she uncurls herself from her chair with the kind of grace that only dancers and assassins can maintain. "If you're really feeling the need to chat about your feelings, try Dr. Banner. He hates it when people assume his Ph.D makes him a licensed therapist but he'll be the one to pretend to be nicest about it. Maybe Clint, if you bribe him and he's allowed to make fun."
"I'll remember that," Bucky says. Natasha stands, and he holds out a hand, though he doesn't grab her wrist because he knows better. "Hey, sorry, this is gonna be a weird request, but just -- last time I saw you, before all this, I was getting tasered and everything went to hell. You think maybe -- just, to close it, I dunno --"
For a long moment Natasha says nothing, but then she nods. She steps in close, leans down and kisses him. It's a simple press of lips, close-mouthed and lasting all of two seconds, but it slots the last of the broken pieces back into place. Bucky exhales when she pulls back, and it feels like he's been holding that breath for decades. In a way, he has.
Natasha's gaze flicks to the entrance of the commissary, and Bucky follows her eyes to see Steve standing in the doorway, watching them both. He has a lot of guarded expressions now that Bucky can't read, and it's jarring after their years of growing up together where Bucky didn't even have to look at him to know what his face was saying. Bucky swallows. He's been slapped by girls for less, and this is the kind of thing that Steve would have every right to get pissed as hell over.
Natasha slips out past Steve, lays two fingers on his arm and says something too low for Bucky to hear. Steve gives her a startled look, but then he makes his way over to Bucky and drops down into the chair next to him. "Hey," Steve says, and he's careful, he's using his eggshells voice, but that could mean anything. "Everything okay?
"Yeah," Bucky says, and Steve doesn't look mad, his eyes are clear and he's not clenching his jaw, and he folds his hands together on the tabletop with his fingers loosely linked. "Is this the part where I say 'it's not what it looks like'?"
Steve huffs a small laugh. "Well then I don't know what it was, because it looked like a goodbye."
"Oh." Bucky blinks.
This time when Steve laughs it's more real, and he nudges Bucky with his foot under the table. "C'mon, Buck, what did you think I was going to do, jump to conclusions and shoot at you?"
It takes a second for Bucky to get the reference, and when he does he shoots Steve a flat-eyed stare. "Okay. Steve? That is not what this looked like. If I'd been kissing her like private what's-her-name was kissing you, I'd fully expect me to shoot me."
"You didn't even see her kiss me! How do you know what it looked like?"
It's an old argument, and Bucky lets it smooth the last of his ragged nerves, lacing his hands behind his head and giving Steve a wide, toothy grin. "Because I remember Agent Carter, that's why, and no way would she have gone that crazy on you if it had looked innocent."
Steve harrumphs, Bucky laughs at him, and in the middle of it all Bucky catches Steve by the front of the shirt and tugs him in for a kiss. "Can we get out of here?" Bucky asks, and yeah, maybe some of this is trying to prove to himself that he's okay, they're okay, after being so jumbled up for the past week, but he's allowed to be broken. He's allowed to try to fix it. "I mean. We can't get out of here, but out of here?"
"See, that's why the girls always liked you better than me, all that smooth talking," Steve says, and Bucky may be crazy but Steve loves him -- actually loves him -- and what's crazier is that for the first time in a long time, that might actually mean something. "But yeah, let's get out-of-here-but-not-out-of-here-just-out-of-here."
"Thanks," Bucky says, jostling Steve with his shoulder, and he wants to ask Steve what Natasha said to him, sort of, but after he thinks about it for a minute the desire fades away. Steve still hasn't asked Bucky to talk about Natasha, not even he walked in on the two of them sharing a kiss, so you know what, Bucky will let Steve keep this one to himself.
"Hey, you know what," Steve says, and he turns to Bucky with a grin. "If you don't mind being around people for a little while, there's a table tennis tournament going on in one of the rec rooms. It's getting pretty heated, but I think you and I could take everyone in the team competition. What do you say?"
"Only if they're betting real money," Bucky says. "This is the future, right? No more matchsticks and cigarettes."
"I don't know about that, but I think Harker from salvage has some old alien weaponry he's put up for whoever wins the runoff."
Bucky barks out a laugh, and he throws his arm around Steve's shoulders and pulls him in until they knock skulls. "Sounds good to me."
(EDIT TO ADD: omg I have been such a butt about replying to comments for the last few chapters but I love all of them and all of you)
Chapter 12: Forever and Forever and Forever
IT'S STILL THE 4TH OF JULY SOMEWHERE. HAPPY BIRTHDAY, AMERICA. PAY NO ATTENTION TO THE YEAR BEHIND THE CURTAIN.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
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.
Cheesy? Yes. Cornball? Probably. Deserved? I THINK SO. Poor boys. Thanks for sticking with me, and I hope you enjoyed the ride!