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Palm Springs

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“It's dark.”

“Jesus!” Steve yelped. He only just stopped himself from crushing the steering wheel in his grip. “I thought you were asleep.”

“I was.” Bucky paused and then added, “Sorry.”

“No, it's ok, I was just...you just startled me. My fault. I wasn't paying attention.”

Steve heard his friend shift against the leather seat. “I didn't mean to fall asleep. I get tired. A lot.”

Steve’s smile was forced and angry. Not at Bucky. Never.

“You can sleep as much as you need to, Buck. I don’t mind. I don’t need much myself.”

The car fell silent and Steve thought maybe Bucky had drifted off again when he heard, “I think, maybe, my body isn’t used to being...operational...for long periods of time?”

Steve’s jaw clenched. “You just need time. Your body will get used to it.”

“Maybe.” Bucky’s tone was flat, as if he didn’t care one way or the other. “Might be that they tinkered with me so much there ain’t no going back.”

“You don’t need to go back, Buck. You — we — we’re just gonna move forward.”

Bucky didn’t reply. Steve took his eyes off the road for a second to glance over at him. He was slumped a bit, his head resting against the passenger window.

“I was thinking we could stop somewhere soon. Get something to eat,” Steve said. “We probably have another couple hours of driving ahead of us.”

“Ok.”

“Anything in particular you want to eat? I don’t know what all is available at the next exit, but-”

“No. Whatever you want is fine.”

Steve grimaced, but kept his tone cheerful. Probably overly so.

“Have you had this ‘fast food’ stuff yet? Like, these McDonald’s restaurants? They’re everywhere. The food’s really weird. It’s salty and kind of way too shiny-”

“Whatever you want, Steve. Really.”

Steve dropped the cheerful tone.

“You alright, Buck?”

“Yeah, just...” Steve braced himself. “I can’t...I mean, I’d rather you just make the decisions for now, pal. It’s still...hard.”

Steve had removed one hand from the wheel, and now that hand was clenched into a fist.

“Yeah, alright, Bucky. No problem.”

****

27 hours earlier.

The phone had barely started vibrating before Steve picked it up. He just managed to stop himself from dropping it into the sink he had been washing dishes in.

“Did you find him?”

“Hello to you too, Steve.”

“Sam. Please.”

Steve heard Sam exhale. “Yeah. I found him.”

Steve’s knees buckled. He put a hand on the kitchen counter to brace himself.

“Where? Is he ok? Is he-”

“He’s ok, Steve. He seems...surprisingly ok.”

Steve closed his eyes, trying to stop the dizziness that swept over him.

“Does he...can I see him? Are you still with him?”

“He wants to see you, Steve.”

Steve stood straight up. He walked directly to his room and pulled a duffle bag out of his closet.

“Where? Where are you? Where is he?”

“A garage in the middle of nowhere. Nevada. Best bet would be the Las Vegas airport. I’ll send you the coordinates.”

“Yeah. Yeah ok.” Steve was firing random articles of clothing into the duffle.

“He looks good, Steve. And he remembers you.”

Steve cleared his throat to avoid making a sobbing noise into the phone.

“Thank you, Sam. I can’t...there are really no words here. I owe you everything in the world.”

“You don’t owe me a damn thing. Now get your ass to Vegas.”

Steve hung up and immediately called Tony.

“I have a big favour to ask.”

“I can’t make the costume any tighter, Cap. It’s physically impossible.”

“I need to borrow a jet. I need to get to Las Vegas right away.”

Tony was silent. Tony was never silent.

“Tony?”

“Sorry, I’m still processing. You, Captain America, need to get to Vegas right away? You are aware that Vegas has mature content, right?”

“It’s not for pleasure, Stark. I...I’m tracking someone. How quickly can I get there?”

There was a moment’s hesitation and then, “You’re in D.C.?”

“Yes.”

“I’m sending a car for you. The driver will take you to my airstrip. You’ll be in Vegas in three hours.”

“Thank you. Can there be a car waiting for me when I land? No driver.”

“Of course.”

Steve exhaled. Three hours. Please stay put, Bucky.

“Thank you, Tony. I owe you.”

Tony made the noise he makes instead of laughter. “I’ll add it to the tally.”

Steve was about to hang up when he heard Tony say, in a tone so earnest it was unsettling, “You know, Steve, if you need help with him...just...you can call me, alright?”

“I will,” Steve said sincerely. He ended the call, zipped up the duffle, grabbed his shield, and just remembered to empty the dish water out of the sink before leaving the apartment he knew he may not ever return to.

****

Sam had introduced Steve to Denny’s restaurants.

“The food isn’t very good,” he’d said, “but they’re always around when you need them.”

When Steve saw the familiar sign just off the highway, he decided it would do just fine for their dinner. Decision made.

He and Bucky slid into a booth and both men ordered coffee from the tired looking waitress.

Steve glanced over his menu and noticed that Bucky wasn’t even looking at his.

“You, uh, you want me to order for you, Buck?”

Bucky looked at him, his discomfort clear on his face. “Just, whatever you order. Order two.”

“Sure, but what are you gonna eat?” Steve asked, trying a bad joke just to see what would happen. To his delight, Bucky rolled his eyes and suppressed a smile.

The waitress filled their coffee mugs and Steve ordered steak and eggs for both of them because he liked protein with his protein. He figured Bucky probably wasn’t getting as much energy from food as he needed. Not that he looked malnourished. He looked great, actually. Really, really…

“You just showing off your new money, orderin’ me a steak?”

Steve grinned. “Is it working?”

Steve saw a ghost of a smile on Bucky’s face again, and his stomach flipped.

This was weird. Not only because the two of them were sitting across from each other in a Denny’s off a highway in the southwest in the twenty-first century, although, yes. It was also weird because Steve was sitting with a man who relaxed him and filled him with nervous energy at the same time. A man he’d been in love with since they were both in school. A man he had watched die. A man who was alive, seven decades later, and neither he nor Steve looked a day older.

Also weird: they had kissed, just the night before. They had fallen asleep in each other’s arms, and had woken up to more kisses and loving touches. It had been at once familiar and uncertain and thrilling. It was something that, until six months ago, Steve never thought would ever be possible again. Just seeing Bucky again, hearing his voice, was overwhelming. He had spent two conscious years mourning Bucky. The insanity of waking up almost seventy years in the future couldn’t overshadow the agony of knowing Bucky was long gone, and that the world wasn’t letting Steve take the easy way out. He would have to learn to live without him.

And he’d thought maybe he could. Until he saw him again.

Steve’s life was fucked up for a lot of reasons, but somehow even being instantly transformed from a scrawny invalid to the world’s first super soldier, or being frozen for most of a century, didn’t really compare to the moment the mask fell off the Winter Soldier’s face. The simultaneous feelings of horror, bewilderment, and elation had been...intense.

So they had kissed the night before, had renewed their declarations of love for each other, even, and now things between them were stiff and awkward and just the opposite of how they’d always been. Not that Steve had ever thought they would be able to pick up where they’d left off. He wasn’t stupid. Bucky wasn’t the same man who had fallen off the train, and that man hadn’t even been the same as the one who had shipped off to war. And Steve maybe hadn’t gone through what Bucky had with Hydra, but he had seen some things that had changed him.

Bucky was staring into his coffee, not even drinking it. Steve wanted to reach out and tangle their fingers together, something he never could have done in public before, but he didn’t. He wanted to say something, but he couldn’t think of what to say. He hated this.

“California,” Bucky said suddenly.

“What?”

“California,” he said again. “We...did we used to talk about going there someday? What it would be like?”

Steve lit up. “Yeah! We did! It always seemed like another planet or something.”

“You’ve been before?”

“With the USO tour. Haven’t been back since, though.”

They fell into silence again. Bucky frowned at his coffee before saying,

“I think I’ve been there too.”

“Bucky…”

“I think...Los Angeles? I don’t know when.”

Steve did reach out for Bucky’s hand then. He touched his fingers gently to where Bucky’s were wrapped around his coffee cup. Bucky looked at their hands, then pulled his hand and cup away quickly, his eyes darting around the restaurant.

“Sorry!” Steve said, “I shouldn't have-”

“No, it's ok,” Bucky’s voice was low, “I just...we shouldn’t draw any attention.”

“Right,” Steve said, “that's, um...you're right. I wasn't thinking.”

Bucky's eyes were back on his coffee. “For the record,” he said quietly, “I like it when you touch me.”

Steve felt the knot inside him untie. He grinned like an idiot. “Good, because I don't think I can stop myself.”

“I might need some time before I can…” Bucky sighed, then swore under his breath.

“Hey, it's ok, Bucky. There’s no rushing anything here.”

“I don't know how. To touch someone. I haven't done that since they took me.”

The tension returned to Steve’s body. He swallowed down the blinding, pulsing rage that thrashed inside him like a living thing.

“Sorry,” Bucky said, glancing up, “I'm not trying to upset you. I just want you to know that...I want to. Touch you. But I might be...bad at it.”

Steve felt like everything inside of him was crumbling. He needed to keep it together or else someone was going to have to mop him off the floor of this Denny’s.

“I’ve heard practice makes perfect,” Steve said, instead of sobbing uncontrollably, “and you’re not the only one who’s a little rusty.”

Bucky nodded. Their waitress dropped off plates of steak and eggs.

Steve wasted no time tucking into his food. He really was starving. After shoveling a few forkfuls into his mouth he looked up to see Bucky nibbling at a triangle of toast.

“Is the food ok, Buck? You can order something else if-”

“S’fine,” Bucky said, “I’m just...weird. With food.”

“Weird?”

“Everything is kind of new to me. Even the stuff that...isn’t really new, I guess.”

Steve had no idea how his body could contain so many huge, warring emotions at once. Horror. Adoration. Anger. Pride. Sadness. Surprise.

“Butter is good,” Bucky sighed around another small bite of toast.

And love. So much goddamn love.

“Yeah,” Steve grinned, “I’ve been going pretty hard on the butter in this century. Pretty exciting to have so much of it around.”

“Explains why you’re so goddamn fat.”

And there was the Bucky that Steve remembered.

“I exercise,” Steve said dryly.

Bucky snorted and picked up his utensils to slice off a bite of steak. Steve watched him chew his first bite.

“How is it?”

“Fine. Jesus. You don’t have to watch me eat.”

Steve shrugged. “You’re just gonna have to get used to me staring at you, Bucky, because it’s not gonna stop anytime soon.”

Bucky tried to meet him with a hard glare, but it softened immediately. Because yeah. Yeah. Here they both were.

Steve finished his dinner in about an eighth of the time it takes Bucky. So Steve leaned forward after his plate had been cleared away and said,

“I want you to know, I meant it. When I said that there’s no rushing. Anything.”

Bucky locked eyes with him.

“I don’t have any expectations, Buck. I know things aren’t gonna be the same. I know you’re not the same. Hell, I know I’m not the same.”

“Is this really where we’re gonna have this conversation?”

“Just...listen. This is important. Let me finish.”

Bucky leaned back in the booth and folded his arms.

“I don’t know if you think, maybe, I’m gonna be disappointed in you. Disappointed that you’re not the same. I don’t want you to think that because it will never be true.”

“Steve.”

“You’re never getting rid of me, Bucky. That I can promise you.”

Steve watched Bucky swallow hard and look away. His jaw tightened.

“Fuck,” Bucky muttered, “You want me to cry in the middle of a damn restaurant?”

“No,” Steve said, “but I'm really glad that you're still a sap.”

“Always will be when it comes to you, punk.”

Steve smiled bigger and brighter than he even knew he could. It had been a really long damn time since he'd had a reason to. It seemed impossible, but maybe, somehow, they were going to be ok.

“We should get out of here,” Bucky said, his eyes darting toward the door.

“Yeah,” Steve agreed. He didn't care if they never saw another person again. “Let's check out Natasha’s place.”

****

“Take a left on Sunrise.”

“A left? You sure?”

Steve turned his head to see Bucky giving him an “are you seriously questioning my navigational skills?” look that was unmistakable, even in the darkness of the car.

“Left. On Sunrise.”

Steve followed Bucky’s instructions, which he was getting from the GPS on Steve’s phone, until they found themselves on a quiet dead end street. “Her house should be the one at the end here,” Bucky said.

Nat had said very little about her Palm Springs property, other than it was nice, quiet, and they wouldn’t be bothered there. When Bucky confirmed the address, Steve pulled into the driveway of a Spanish-style bungalow.

“Just a second,” Steve pulled out his phone. “I need to let Natasha know we’re here. She needs to shut down the security system remotely.”

S: We’re here.

N: Alright. One sec.

N: Ok, door is unlocked, system is off. Pool heater is on. ;)

S: Pool?

N: Have fun.

“Ok, we’re good to go,” Steve said, grateful that the darkness was concealing the heat that rose to his face. Why was he so nervous?

Steve flicked the light switch as soon as they were inside and they were met by pristine white walls and glistening white tile floors. The short hallway from the front door lead them to an open concept room with a kitchen, a dining area, and a living room space with a sofa and two chairs facing a flat screen television. Everything was spotless and modern, but not the same as Stark’s tower. This was more peaceful. More feminine. There were abstract landscape paintings on the walls in soothing blues and cheerful yellows. One wall of the dining room area was all window, but it was too dark to see the view.

Steve turned to Bucky, “Not too shabby, huh?”

Bucky looked a little overwhelmed. “Yeah, it's real nice. It’s um...nicer than what I'm used to.”

It occurred to Steve that this little bungalow was probably the fanciest place Bucky had ever stayed in his entire life. Just being somewhere clean and safe and...not a cryofreeze tank...

“Steve?”

Steve shook his head, snapping himself out of the rage trance he had been slipping into.

“Yeah. Sorry. Did you ask me something?”

“I just asked if you're sure she doesn't mind us staying here. Your friend.”

“I'm sure. She suggested it.”

“Generous of her,” Bucky mumbled, “considering.”

“Natasha’s great,” Steve agreed, “and no one blames you for what you did when you were...not yourself.”

“There's no way that's true.”

Steve's sadness must have been very visible on his face because Bucky looked away quickly and changed the subject.

“Anyway,” he said, “I guess I'll go...unpack.” He held up the two plastic grocery bags that contained all of his possessions in the world.

“Sure, Buck. There are two bedrooms. I don't know if you want to…”

“Um…”

“I mean, if you want we could-”

“I liked sharing a bed with you last night,” Bucky said, cutting through the awkward back and forth.

Steve breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank God,” he said, “there's no way I would have been happy in separate rooms.”

Bucky nodded then moved to walk toward the bedrooms. He paused.

“Steve, can we make a deal?”

“Of course. What is it?”

“Let's just say what we’re really feeling from now on. I don't wanna waste any more time trying to guess what you're thinking.”

Bucky looked back at him over his shoulder. He looked exhausted. Steve’s heart lurched.

“Deal. Absolutely, Bucky. You're right.”

“Ok,” Bucky said quietly, then moved toward the bedrooms.

Steve watched him go. Watched him enter one of the rooms, and Steve felt like he was going to erupt. There was too much happening inside him. He had kept everything bottled up for so long.

There was nothing for it. Time to make good on the deal he just made.

Bucky was sitting on the bed in what had to be the master bedroom. He hadn't even turned on the light. Steve switched it on and just started talking.

“I don't want to be apart. Not for a night. Not for a minute, if I'm being completely honest. When you fell it was like everything got scooped out of me and plummeted right after you. I thought...I mean I knew we had been facing death everyday, but I guess I thought there was enough mercy in the universe to let us die together. And if we didn't, well I hoped it would be enough that you died a hero. Doing something important. But when I watched you fall it didn't matter a good goddamn how heroic you were.”

Bucky stood but didn’t move from the bed. “Steve.”

“I want you to know, Bucky, that every bone in my body, every instinct, is to leave this place and hunt down every Hydra bastard, from the people in charge to the fucking accountants, and make them pay. I am full of rage and I am just barely keeping it in check.”

He saw Bucky’s jaw clench. His eyes widen.

“But,” Steve continued, “I also just want to stay here with you. Alone. I want to keep you safe and protected from everything because you deserve it. You’ve had enough violence in your life, enough for a thousand lives, and you deserve peace. I want you to have it. I want to give it to you. But I’m worried that I...can’t.”

Bucky crossed the room then and stood in front of Steve, wrapped his hands around Steve’s wrists. He studied Steve a moment with sad eyes, then leaned forward and kissed him. It was tender and almost chaste, but it lingered and Steve knew what Bucky was saying by it, even before Bucky broke away and said, in a quiet rasp,

“You can. You always have. Even when I was always worrying about you diving headfirst into the dumbest situations, I loved watching you. Loved being the one who took care of you.”

Steve closed his eyes and leaned forward, already feeling the loss of Bucky’s lips. But Bucky rested his forehead against Steve’s instead of kissing him again, and kept talking.

“I don’t want to be apart from you either. And I don’t want you to hunt down Hydra. But if you do, I’m right there with you, pal. You know I am. That ain’t never gonna change.”

“You shouldn't have to fight anymore, Buck.”

“Yeah? And what about you?”

“I don't know. I want to stop. Now that I have you back, maybe I can.”

Bucky shook his head slowly, their foreheads still pressed together. “I kind of doubt that, Steve. You've been fighting your whole life. I don't think you have it in you to stop. So maybe we'll both be thrown back into it again before long, but for now I just want to remember what it’s like to feel good. To feel alive and in control and maybe not be scared out of my fucking mind for a few minutes.”

“Nothing to be scared of anymore, Buck. I’ve got you,” Steve murmured.

“And I want…” Bucky paused, and Steve waited. “I want to remember what it’s like to make someone else feel good. To make you feel good.”

Steve’s breath hitched, because suddenly they seemed to be talking about something else.

“I want that, Bucky. I want that so much. I'm just...scared.”

“Nothing to be afraid of anymore, right?”

Steve smiled sadly. “I don't even know what I'm nervous about. I just...I don't want to mess this up.”

“Not possible, Steve. You know that. And we can take things as slow as you want.”

Steve huffed and pulled away so he could look at his friend. “Isn’t that my line?”

Bucky looked at him seriously. “We can stop pretending I’m the only fucked up one here, Steve.”

Steve wanted to protest, but there was no point.

“I need some shuteye,” Bucky said, “you look like you could use some too.”

“Still a charmer.”

“Still handsome, too.”

Steve laughed. “I’m not going to argue with that.”

“That’d be a fucking first.”

“Go to bed, asshole.”

****

Steve’s brain raced with worries, fragments of plans, and random thoughts. There was no food in the house. They needed groceries. Would anyone recognize him here? Would anyone recognize Bucky? Or The Winter Soldier? What would they do if that happened? Was Bucky doing as well as he was leading Steve to believe? Did Bucky really want to be...intimate with Steve again? Was he ready for that? Was Steve ready for that? Steve hadn’t gone for a run in a couple of days. Where could he go for a run here? Did Bucky want to go too? Would Steve be able to leave him alone if he didn’t? How long could they stay here? Where would they go next? Would they hide forever? What would happen to Bucky if the world learned that he was still alive? If they learned what he had been forced to do?

In the darkness he heard Bucky sigh in his sleep beside him. Steve rolled onto his side to face him, and smiled at how peaceful he looked. Maybe it was selfish, but Steve needed to get closer. He shuffled over and rested his head on Bucky’s chest, over his heart, like he used to do when Steve was half this size. He heard Bucky murmur something and then his fingers found their way to Steve’s hair. Steve exhaled into the soft fabric of Bucky’s t-shirt and closed his eyes. He let gentle fingers soothe him and quiet his brain before drifting off.

****

Bucky woke up with a weight on his chest. He jerked upright, panic gripping him, and immediately regretted it. Steve, who had obviously been comfortably using Bucky as a pillow, sat up quickly, eyes wide with concern and confusion.

“Buck? You alright?”

Bucky ran his flesh hand over his face. “Yeah. Sorry. Forgot where I was for a second.”

“No, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have-”

“No, hey. C’mere.” Bucky settled back down to the bed and gently guided Steve’s head back to its resting place on Bucky’s chest. He carefully moved his metal hand to rest on the side of Steve’s rib cage, and felt the rise and fall of his body as he breathed.

“So what do you have planned for us today?” Bucky asked.

He felt Steve laugh against him. “I don’t know. I didn’t think that far ahead.”

“You expect me to believe that?”

“Well, I usually go for a run first thing in the morning. Gets some of the excess energy out. And it clears my head a bit.”

“I’ve been doing that, too,” Bucky said, “I don’t know about the energy problem, but it helps me think. But I’m not running in this goddamn heat with long sleeves. When I was out in the middle of nowhere I could just run alone in the desert but here...”

Steve moved his own hand to cover Bucky’s metal one. “We’ll get this figured out,” Steve said, “in the meantime maybe I can get some longsleeved clothing delivered that’s lightweight? They have some pretty impressive fabrics these days. I could ask Nat.”

“Ok.”

“We also need to get some groceries.”

Bucky didn’t reply. He got lost a little envisioning grocery shopping with Steve. The two of them leisurely wandering the aisles of a giant, bright modern grocery store. Planning meals. Tossing frivolous things in the cart to try. Like people do. Normal people who weren’t born almost a century ago. People who hadn’t divided their endless youth between being frozen and murdering people. People who didn’t have exhibits in the Smithsonian and gravestones in Arlington National Cemetery. People who knew who the fuck they even were.

“Buck?”

“Groceries. Yeah. You any better at cooking these days?”

“No,” Steve laughed, “maybe we could learn together.”

“Blind leading the blind.”

“Well, we’ve figured out more complicated things that way before.”

Bucky’s breathing stopped for a moment. Steve noticed.

“Um.”

Bucky resumed breathing. “You should go for that run.”

****

Steve only ran half of his usual 25 miles because he was anxious to get back. He stopped into a Dunkin’ Donuts to pick up coffee and breakfast sandwiches to bring back to the house, and pulled out his phone. There was a message from Natasha.

Everything to your liking?

Steve smiled and wrote back.

Perfect. Thank you.

Have you used the shower yet? You'll like the shower.

Not yet. Can I ask you something?

Of course, and I can't believe you bothered to type that question out.

Can you recommend some light clothing with long sleeves for Bucky? Maybe where I can order some?

I'll take care of it. Is he about the same size as...before?

Steve grimaced.

Yes.

That's good! No significant weight loss.

Steve relaxed. That was true.

Thanks Nat.

****

“You gotta try that fucking shower,” Bucky said. He turned to grin at Steve, who was filling most of the bedroom doorway.

“So I’ve been told,” Steve said.

“It has three faucets. Seems crazy, but once you’re in there…”

Bucky pulled the zipper up on his hooded sweatshirt and ran a hand through his damp hair.

“I picked up some breakfast,” Steve said, “it’s in the kitchen.”

“Thanks, doll,” Bucky said, and he quickly pecked Steve’s cheek as he brushed by him. It was meant as a joke, but Steve still closed his eyes and willed the fluttering in his stomach to settle down.

“Coffee!” Bucky said when he saw the tray with two giant white cups on the counter, “thank Christ.”

Steve sat himself at one of the kitchen stools and reached for the paper bag that contained a half dozen breakfast sandwiches. He slid one over to Bucky, who stood on the other side of the counter blissfully taking his first sip from the thick, styrofoam cup.

“Quite the view,” Bucky said, nodding toward the enormous windows that revealed the serene backyard and pool area, and behind that, the mountains.

“Yeah. Nice,” Steve agreed, but not truthfully. Mountains were not his favourite thing. Trains either, for that matter.

“Is this that shiny food you were talking about?” Bucky had the sandwich unwrapped and was inspecting it.

“I guess so. This sort of thing is very popular these days. But it’s not really good for you, I hear. I don’t think about that sort of thing all that much. I’m just happy there’s so much food around all the time.” Steve offered a small smile and received a slow nod from his friend in return.

“Food was a problem,” Bucky said, “I remember.”

“It was a struggle, that’s for sure. But we always managed.”

“You worked for Mr. Salvatore. The grocer.”

Steve wondered if he would always feel this jolt of excitement rocket through him when Bucky shared memories of their past.

“I did. He was a good man. He helped us out a lot.”

“His daughter was a real looker.”

Steve laughed. “She was. And she sure liked you.”

“Mm,” Bucky murmured around another sip of coffee, “too bad for her I only had eyes for the gorgeous blond number stocking shelves behind her.”

Steve knew he was blushing. He also knew he was deliriously happy.

“You mean the skinny punk with the busted knuckles and crooked back?”

“You forgot about the big nose,” Bucky said, mouth quirked up on one side. He reached across the counter and brushed a fingertip down the bridge of Steve’s nose.

“It’s more proportional now,” Steve said weakly.

“Sure it is.”

Bucky leaned over the counter and kissed him. Steve leaned forward to meet him, but it was still awkward. And wonderful.

****

The shower really was excellent.

The shower he had back at his apartment in Washington — not the one that had been shot up by the Winter Soldier, a new one — was pretty nice too, but it had nothing on this. Cool grey stone tiles covered three walls and the ceiling, with floor to ceiling glass doors making up the fourth wall. There was a shower head at either end and a giant rainfall spout in the middle of the ceiling. It was huge and decadent, but still peaceful.

Big enough for two, Steve considered. His imagination quickly responded to that possibility, which resulted in a slightly longer shower than he had anticipated.

He and Bucky were going to need to talk. Soon.

****

“Baseball cap,” Bucky commented, nodding at Steve's head.

“Yeah,” Steve pawed the back of his own neck, “it's sort of a disguise.”

Bucky took in the way Steve’s shirt strained to contain his ridiculous, sculpted body and snorted.

“They'll never recognize you now.”

Steve rolled his eyes, then frowned. “Maybe we shouldn't go out for groceries. If I get recognized, and then they see you…”

“Mm. We should probably just starve to death in this house.”

“Well, I could just go myself…”

Bucky’s pleasant vision of the two of them shopping together dissipated.

“No,” he said.

“No?”

Bucky took a breath. “Thing is, my life has been kind of terrible. And I've been working real hard these past few months just to, I don’t know, feel like...anything, really. A person? Try to learn what it feels like to be in charge of myself. Make my own decisions. Do things that I like doing.”

Bucky made the mistake of looking at Steve, whose face looked like it was about to crumple any second.

“I’m just sayin’,” Bucky said quietly, “I like buying groceries.”

“Of course, Bucky I’m sorry. I’m an idiot.”

“No you aren’t. Well, yeah, but not about this.”

****

The grocery store was enormous. Much bigger than the little store Bucky had frequented in Nevada. The aisles were endless, and jam packed with more products than Bucky could believe. The lights were almost blindingly bright, and there were constant beeping noises assaulting Bucky’s ears.

It was pretty amazing, though.

They bought things that were easy to prepare, and a lot of snack foods. Steve smiled at him as he put a couple of six-packs of Coke in glass bottles into the cart. Bucky marvelled at new products that seemed very futuristic and strange, like bags of little fish-shaped crackers. He was even more impressed by the products from the forties that were still around. It wasn't just Coke that had stood the test of time.

Bucky pointed out a box of cereal that had Steve’s picture on it.

“This one looks good,” he deadpanned.

Steve flushed red, which Bucky loved. “I know. It’s ridiculous. Put it back.”

“You get a cut of that money?”

“Yes, but it goes to charity. Please put it back.”

“I don't know. I think we should get it. The box says it will ‘shield’ me from hunger and give me ‘super energy.’”

“No. Back on the shelf.”

“It's shaped like little stars. I want it.” Bucky put the box in the cart, returning the photo of Steve’s salute as he did so.

“Now you're just asking for me to be recognized,” Steve grumbled.

They went to the pharmacy section and Steve grabbed toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo, soap and, to Bucky’s delight, hair gel.

“Is that stuff how you get your hair to look like that?”

“Like what? I don't know. Natasha suggested it and I've been using it. What?”

“Nothing. Just didn't expect you to be so fussy about your hair.”

“I'm not! I'm just...trying to fit in, you know. I kept getting made fun of for looking old fashioned so I asked Nat for advice and she...updated my look, I guess.”

Bucky considered this. “Should I be jealous of Natasha?”

“What? No! No, of course not! We never...I mean, once, but that was…”

“Steve, relax. Maybe she can give me some beauty tips too.”

Bucky saw something in Steve’s eyes. Like a match igniting, and it extinguished just as quickly.

“You pretty much have the same haircut as her,” Steve said dryly, instead of whatever he was really thinking.

****

Steve put the groceries away as Bucky shed the heavy layers of clothing that were no longer necessary now they were alone. Bucky went to the bedroom to change out of his sweat-soaked shirt and came back wearing a white tank top.

It was the first time that Steve noticed the star.

“Bucky, did you...that used to be red, right?”

Bucky glanced at his own shoulder as if he wasn’t sure what Steve was referring to.

“Oh, um, yeah. I just...wanted a change.”

“It’s my star.”

“Yes.” Bucky closed his eyes a moment, seemingly gathering his thoughts. “It helped me. I asked Roy to paint over the red for me, and when I saw the white star there it...made me remember a lot of things.”

Steve swallowed “Like what?”

“I remembered us. I remembered...how we used to be.”

Steve set the carton of eggs he was holding on the counter and crossed the room.

“You didn't remember before?” He asked.

Bucky shook his head. “I couldn't figure out why you were so important. I didn't know what my brain was trying to tell me about you. But I saw the star and I remembered you. And me. And what you meant to me.”

Steve cradled Bucky’s face in his hands.

“Everything made a lot more sense after that,” Bucky said. He smiled weakly. Everything inside of Steve trembled. He kissed Bucky and asked,

“How much can you tell me?”

“About what exactly?”

“Everything. But you can start with the past six months. I just...I don’t want to push, but I want to know.”

Bucky took a step back, clearly uncomfortable. “Yeah. Yeah, sure, pal. Maybe we can sit down first?”

They moved to the couch in the living room area. Bucky sat at the end that allowed him to face the window. Neither of them said anything for a minute.

“You wanna...maybe ask me a question? I’ll try to answer it. But I can’t just...start.”

“Of course! Bucky, if this is too much we can-”

“Just ask.”

Steve mentally thumbed through the endless list of questions he had for Bucky, and finally landed on,

“Why Nevada?”

Bucky started his answer with a shrug. “Didn’t really decide on it. I went to the Grand Canyon. I honestly don’t even know why, just something told me it was something I wanted to see.”

“You always talked about going there someday,” Steve supplied. Bucky nodded.

“When I got there, it didn’t feel right. And I felt...guilty, I guess. I remembered that I was supposed to be there with you.”

“That was the plan,” Steve smiled.

“I guess that was when I first started to remember you properly,” Bucky said. “I, uh...I went to the museum. In Washington. I saw the thing about you. And me. But I couldn’t...it didn’t seem like it was about my life. Just someone who looked like me.”

Steve swallowed. “That must have been confusing.” I wish you had come to me. I could have explained everything.

“Felt like I was in a weird dream. Everything kinda did. For awhile.”

“But you decided to go to the Grand Canyon? How’d you get there?”

“Bus,” Bucky said, “Bought a ticket to Chicago first. Then kept buying tickets until I got there.”

“You had money?”

“Hydra’s money. Cleaned out some accounts before I left.”

Steve wasn’t going to condemn that theft.

“So you saw the Grand Canyon, and decided to keep moving?”

“Yeah...that was the end of the mission I’d given myself. It’s easier to think that way. Missions. Gives me focus.”

“You’re not alone on that one, Buck.”

Bucky seemed to consider this, and nodded. “I bought a car, a real junker, and drove her as far as she’d go. Ended up at a garage in Nevada. Stayed there.”

“You liked it there?”

“I did. It was peaceful. Easy. Gave me something to do. I think it helped.”

Steve angrily stomped on the ember of jealousy that sparked inside him. Bucky got better without his help.

Jesus Christ, Steve. Get a grip.

“Was it...slow? Remembering? Or was it all at once?”

“It was slow. Just...things would trigger memories. Sometimes I could focus on them, sometimes they would leave as soon as they showed up. But I mostly remembered you.” Bucky glanced at the kitchen, “Where’d you put those almonds? I could use a snack if we’re gonna be here awhile.”

Bucky got up before Steve could. Steve decided to stay on the couch and wait for him to return. He really wanted this conversation to continue.

Bucky sat back down with a bowl full of almonds and two bottles of Coke. A weird snack for mid-morning, but Steve wasn’t going to criticize a single independent choice Bucky made. Ever. He accepted the bottle Bucky handed him with a quick “thanks” before asking his next question.

“What did you remember first? About me?”

Bucky gave him a crooked smile, “Not too vain, are you?”

Steve’s face flushed. “I’m not. I’m just curious.”

Bucky tucked one leg under himself and turned so he faced Steve more directly. He placed the bowl of almonds on the coffee table.

“You don’t make it easy on a guy,” Bucky said, “remembering you is goddamn confusing. I kept getting flashes of this scrappy little guy, real sickly, but tough, y’know? Hated being fussed over, but always getting into trouble.”

“Sounds like a real pain in the ass.”

“Yeah, but the thing is all I could remember was wanting to hold that little punk in my arms. Keep him safe. Keep him from doing anything stupid.”

Steve bit his lip to keep it from quivering. “Sounds like the kind of guy who never even said thank you, no matter how grateful he actually was.”

Bucky was getting emotional too, Steve could tell, but he cleared his throat and continued.

“Then there was this other guy. This giant fucking Adonis in a flashy costume. Everyone loved that guy, even though he was just as dumb as the little guy.”

Steve laughed. “Couldn’t fool you.”

“Not a chance. So, I remembered the big guy, and I remembered the little guy. But it was a real struggle to put the little guy I used to read comic books to when he was sick together with the big hero guy who stormed into a Hydra factory alone and saved my life.”

“It was a struggle for you at the time. I thought you were gonna take a swing at me by the time I was done explaining it to you.”

“You woulda deserved it.”

Steve tilted his head in acknowledgment. He had more to ask but couldn’t think of the right way to phrase it. Bucky noticed, of course.

“What is it, pal? You’re killin’ me here.”

“So...seeing the star. That’s what helped you put the two, uh...Steves together?”

Bucky looked down at the couch cushion that separated them.

“I...yeah. That’s when I remembered being, y’know...intimate. With you. With both versions of you.”

“What did you remember?” Steve asked, suddenly breathless.

“Um…”

Steve snapped out of it. “Sorry. Sorry. That was...I’m being greedy here. We can talk about...that. When you’re ready.”

Bucky raised his gaze to look at Steve, then shook his head with a broken smile.

“Jesus, we’re a couple of awkward prudes, aren’t we?”

Steve grinned. “We’ll get there. Just a little out of practice. You sure didn’t used to be shy talking about this stuff.”

Bucky looked surprised to hear that. It was true, though. The things Bucky used to say…

“You’re gonna have to teach me how sex works in this century,” Bucky said.

“I really have no idea,” Steve replied, “not something I have any experience with.”

Bucky looked dazed.

“Well...ain’t that something,” he said.

****

The rest of the day passed quietly. There were no more big talks, no more outings. Shortly after lunch, Steve had gone to the bedroom to call Sam, and returned to find Bucky asleep on the couch.

He was still wearing the tank top, and not for the first time that day Steve admired the bulk of Bucky’s new muscles. The swell of the bicep on his flesh arm, the broad shoulders, the expanse of his chest. And, of course, the gleaming, intricate metal arm, now sporting the white star that had guided Bucky back to Steve. The arm was horrible and beautiful and fascinating and Steve wanted to touch it and have it touch him, feel its weight on him. He also wished it wasn’t there. It was an awful reminder.

Bucky was on his back, the metal arm stretched up over his head, off the end of the couch. His right arm was bent so his hand rested on his chest. His shirt was rucked up to expose a sliver of his abdomen. His head was turned toward the back of the couch, and his hair fell across his face.

Christ, he’s beautiful.

Steve didn’t have a sketchbook with him, so he positioned a chair so he could watch Bucky sleep. He wanted to make sure he would be able to draw this from memory when he next got the chance.

As we watched the even rise and fall of his friend’s chest, Steve became misty-eyed. Bucky looked so peaceful. So comfortable. After everything.

Steve couldn’t imagine how Bucky did it. He was in awe of his strength. His bravery. Steve had woken up after nearly seven decades of undisturbed sleep and was still barely able to function. It took everything he had just to get out of bed most mornings. And here was Bucky, fighting his way back from nearly a century of pain and torture and brainwashing and violence, and somehow still able to tease Steve and reassure him and want him.

Steve wasn’t brave. Steve was a stubborn kid from Brooklyn who had just gotten tired of being sick and useless. He had taken an opportunity when it came. Bucky was the amazing one.

****

Steve woke up and Bucky wasn’t there. He sat up in the dark room after frantically patting Bucky’s side of the bed as if he’d suddenly materialize.

He called his name. No answer.

It’s fine. It doesn’t mean he’s-

Steve grabbed his shield from where it sat tilted against the bedroom wall. He walked stealthily down the hall, noting that the bathroom and second bedroom were both unoccupied. He reached the kitchen area and found no trace of his friend. The lights were all off in the house.

“Dammit, Bucky. Where-”

Oh.

He put the shield down.

Bucky turned his head when he heard Steve slide the glass door open. He was sitting on the concrete beside the pool with one knee up, one long leg stretched out in front of him. His left arm was behind him, gleaming in the moonlight, the metal palm supporting his weight as he leaned back. He nodded at Steve, then lifted his cigarette back to his lips, taking a long drag before he tilted his head back and slowly exhaled.

Steve was paralyzed. Like Steve, Bucky was wearing only sleep pants. His feet and chest were bare. The smoke drifted from his lips up into the still night air. Steve may have gasped.

Bucky broke the spell by patting the ground next to him.

“Turns out those things are really bad for you,” Steve said as he settled beside Bucky.

“I've heard.”

“But, um, you still look real good smoking ‘em.”

“Hm.”

Steve hadn’t seen Bucky with his shirt off before. Not with this new body. He couldn't exactly see him now, but his enhanced night vision gave him a pretty good idea. Solid muscles that rivalled Steve's own, smooth and hairless like Bucky had never been before.

An awkward silence passed between them. Without looking at Steve, Bucky said,

“Just ask your question.”

Caught off guard, Steve stumbled over his words. “When did...is the smoking something that you did...when did you buy those?”

Bucky took his last drag and shifted so he was sitting cross legged. He pinched the butt of the cigarette between metal fingers. “I was in a store, when I was heading to Nevada. Just...wanted them. Decided to go with it.”

Steve leaned toward him and rested his head on Bucky’s metal shoulder.

“I hate thinking about you alone out there. Trying to figure things out. I wish I could have helped.”

He felt Bucky tense beneath him.

“Wasn’t the worst thing I’ve been through.”

Steve lifted his head. “I know. Of course. I know. I’m sorry.”

Bucky looked at him. “I was talking about sharing that crummy apartment with you.”

His eyes were mischievous and playful, pure Brooklyn. Pure Bucky Barnes. Steve sputtered and punched his metal bicep before returning his head to its resting place.

“Such a fucking asshole,” Steve grumbled.

They sat for awhile. When they stood to go inside, Steve pulled Bucky to him and kissed him. He tasted cigarette and for a dizzying moment he could close his eyes and it was 1940. No serum, no war, no ice, no horror or nightmares. Just two young men who were crazy about each other. Who couldn't wait to get behind the closed door of their apartment at the end of the day and take each other apart.

“Bucky.” His voice was anguished and he clung to Bucky’s arms as if he'd vanish.

Bucky held him hard against him and murmured into his hair, “Yeah, Stevie. I'm here.”

****

When Steve got back from his run the next morning, Bucky was sitting at the kitchen counter. He was eating cereal, the box featuring Captain America’s picture sitting next to the bowl.

“Have you eaten these before?” Bucky asked.

“No.”

“They’re very sweet. I doubt they contain the nutritional benefits described on the box.”

“I’m sure they don’t.”

“I can’t believe you would endorse a box of lies. What would your ma say?”

Steve nudged him as he walked by, hard enough that a less agile man may have been knocked off his stool. “I think that would be the least shocking thing about this scenario to her.”

“That’s the truth,” Bucky said. Then, to Steve’s surprise, he snorted and let out a high, manic giggle.

“What?” Steve asked.

Bucky covered his mouth with his left hand, then immediately pulled his hand back and stared at his metal fingers. This brought on more giggling.

“You alright, Buck?”

“Yeah, just…” he gestured toward Steve and then back to himself with his metal hand, “Jesus Christ, Stevie. What the fuck happened to us?”

Bucky looked at him, and Steve could see he was just barely holding it together. Suddenly, Steve got the joke, and he smiled and shook his head. That set Bucky off, which set Steve off.

“I think...I think your ma woulda been real proud,” Bucky gasped, “seein’ you on a cereal box like this!”

“In 2015!” Steve squeaked out.

“All huge!”

“In a god damn circus costume!”

Both men howled with laughter. It had never occurred to Steve to laugh about his ridiculous life before. It felt good. He braced himself with a hand on Bucky’s metal shoulder.

Bucky wiped a tear away. “I wish I could go back. Tell your mom that you’re gonna be ok. That I’m still with you.”

Steve smiled sadly, “I wish I could go back, too. Every day.”

“Do you?”

“Of course! Don’t you miss it?”

Bucky was silent a moment. Thinking.

“No. I want to be right here.”

Steve kissed him, because he had to.

“I checked, when I woke up,” he said, “to see if your family...your sisters…”

Bucky went very still.

“Oh God, Bucky. You haven’t checked on them, have you?”

“No. I...couldn’t. I know that sounds awful. I didn’t remember them, and when I did I couldn’t…”

Steve held his hand. “Becca was the last to pass on. She died seven years ago.”

“Oh.”

“She, uh, she had children, though.”

Bucky’s eyes widened. “She did?”

“Yeah. She had a daughter and two sons. The daughter, Deb, lives in Pittsburgh. The sons, Jacob and Tom, are both in New York. I met them all at the Smithsonian exhibit opening. Very nice. Very interested to know about you. Especially Tom. He’s a bit of a history buff.”

“I’d like to meet them. Someday.”

Steve squeezed his hand. “You will.”

****

A small pile of packages arrived later that morning. Boxes of clothing that Natasha had ordered for Bucky. Soon their bed was covered in an array of lightweight, long sleeved clothing, including sweat-wicking polyester, button-up linen, and a material that looked like denim but felt lighter.

“This supposed to be a man’s shirt?” Bucky asked, holding up a white cotton shirt with a wide v-neck that was a little...flowy. It reminded Steve of shirts he'd seen in India or Morocco.

“I'm about the last guy you should ask about fashion,” Steve said, “even back in our day I didn't know a damn thing about it.”

There were bathing suits in one of the boxes. Steve suspected that some of them were intended for himself. There were also four pairs of sunglasses, a few ball caps, and a couple of light jackets.

Steve texted Natasha immediately to thank her, then left so Bucky could change into some new clothes. Because they hadn't actually undressed in front of each other yet.

When Bucky emerged from the bedroom, he was wearing only one item: a pair of navy blue swim shorts. The rest of his body was fully on display.

“You alright there, Steve?” Bucky asked, grabbing a towel from the linen closet in the hallway.

“Yeah...I, uh...you gotta warn a guy, Buck.”

Bucky frowned and draped the towel over his left shoulder, then adjusted it so it covered more of the metal arm and surrounding scar tissue.

“Sorry,” he muttered to the floor.

It took Steve a moment to understand what Bucky thought Steve had meant. “No! God, Bucky, no! That's not- I don't think you're...hard to look at,” Steve felt himself blush. “Far from it, actually. Really fucking far.”

To prove his point, Steve walked to Bucky and pulled the towel away. He placed his hand where metal met flesh and looked Bucky in the eye. “You're beautiful.”

Bucky's eyes were full of questions. It broke Steve’s heart to think that Bucky couldn't believe Steve loved him the way he was. Steve leaned in, but instead of meeting his lips he pressed a kiss to the line of Bucky’s jaw, then back, just under Bucky’s ear where he had always been sensitive. He heard Bucky exhale sharply, then felt his metal hand on his hip.

“You’re incredible, Buck,” Steve murmured, brushing his lips across stubble, down to the dimple in Bucky’s chin, “you’re a goddamn miracle.”

Bucky tightened his grip on Steve’s hip and kissed him. It was slow and loving and Steve melted into it. He still had his eyes closed when he heard Bucky ask, “You gonna join me?”

“Huh?”

“In the pool.”

Steve opened his eyes.

“Uh, maybe I’ll just watch. If you don’t mind.”

Bucky shrugged. “Free country.” Then, “It is a free country, still, right?”

“As long as I have anything to say about it, it is.”

Bucky looked at him, then laughed, “Jesus Christ. You haven’t changed a bit, have you?”

****

Steve sat in a lounge chair and watched Bucky do laps in the small pool. He reminded himself that he needed to buy a sketchbook. For now, he was content to watch Bucky do something relaxing and pleasurable.

After a while, Bucky made his way to the side of the pool where Steve sat.

“It’s nice,” he said, “the water’s real warm.” He folded his arms on the edge of the pool and rested his chin on top of them. “Can’t remember the last time I went swimming that wasn’t...you know.”

Pulling you out of the Potomac. Steve knew.

“You look happy,” Steve said. Because he did. Relatively. I’ll buy you a mansion with three swimming pools if it’ll make you happy, he thought.

The sunlight glinted off of Bucky’s metal arm. His hair looked slightly longer, now wet and sticking to his neck and shoulders. His eyes were the same clear, pale blue of the pool water.

“What?” Bucky asked, because Steve was staring. Again.

“Nothing.”

“Thought we made a deal.”

Steve sighed. “I know. I was just wondering...about your hair.”

“Wondering about my hair?”

“Just...nevermind. It’s gonna sound like I’m being critical and I’m not! I swear. I like it.”

“Out with it, Steve.”

“You kept it long,” Steve said, “I wasn’t expecting that.”

Bucky looked away for a moment, then back at Steve, “Because this is the hair they gave me? That’s why you’re confused?”

“I guess.”

“Wasn’t sure what else to do. Cut it like it used to be? I’m not that guy anymore.”

“I know.”

“I suppose I just thought...if they come for me, I’ll look the same but I won’t be the same, y’know? Maybe it’s more of an insult if I keep the look but not the personality?”

“Oh.”

“It’s stupid, I know.”

“No. It’s not stupid at all.”

Bucky hoisted himself effortlessly out of the pool and Steve stood up and tossed him the towel.

“Do you think they’re coming for you?” Steve asked.

Bucky paused in the middle of drying his hair. “I don’t know. Thought you might know better than I would, honestly.”

“Hydra’s definitely...scrambling. They took a massive hit. But I’m sure not counting them out.”

“No. Me neither. And I know I’m valuable to them.”

Steve’s jaw tightened. He put a hand on Bucky’s shoulder. “They’re never getting you back. Not ever.”

Bucky looked at him a little sadly. “Thanks, pal.”