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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.”

Chapter Text

Steve had been fifteen the first time he'd known he was in trouble for real.

Bucky was less than a year older, but suddenly he’d looked very much Steve’s senior. His recent growth spurt had left him towering head, shoulders and beyond over Steve, who hadn’t grown an inch in over a year. Bucky had been working a job that summer at the docks loading ships, and he had taken up boxing besides. His body had shed what had been left of his baby fat, leaving cords of hard muscle in Bucky’s long legs and arms, his back and shoulders. His chest.

Steve had been envious. He had told himself that was all it was. Bucky had become a man seemingly overnight, and Steve still looked, he’d felt, like a child.

Steve would go sometimes to watch Bucky train. The gym was a real dump, owned by one of the scariest men Steve had ever known, even still. Carney O’Dowd was a brick of a man, strong and sturdy all over, with a thick Irish accent and a cauliflower ear. He was gruff when he was in a good mood, and barbarous when he was in a bad one. He had loved Bucky, though. Everyone had loved Bucky.

There was a guy Bucky had used to spar with, Dan...something. He’d had a girl who would come watch sometimes, and she would sit with Steve. She seemed nice enough, not that Steve could ever even attempt a conversation with her.

One time they had been watching Bucky and Dan spar and she’d leaned over and said to Steve, “Your friend is a real looker.”

Steve, without thinking, had sighed, “Yeah.”

He’d immediately realized his mistake and tried to cover. “I mean, sorry. I didn’t hear you. What did you say?” But he had been blushing down to his toes. He knew it. And when he’d turned to look at her, it was clear she hadn’t been fooled.

She’d given him a bemused look and said “huh.” Nothing mean. Just interested. When it was time to leave she’d put a hand on Steve’s shoulder, gave him a sympathetic smile, and walked over to Dan.

Steve had looked angrily at the ground. He’d been mad at himself for being so careless. He’d been mad at himself for not being able to control these ridiculous feelings he had for his best friend. He’d been mad at her for being so amused by them (he’d known at the time, even, that she hadn’t deserved his anger). He’d been mad at Bucky for being so goddamn handsome and charming and adored by the whole stupid world.

Bucky had walked over to him, barechested and drenched in sweat and oblivious to the way Steve felt like he was being consumed by flames. He had smiled when Steve had looked up, damp hair falling into his eyes, and Steve had felt sick. He wanted too much. He wanted to put his hands on that skin and feel the muscles that rippled underneath. He wanted to taste that skin. He wanted to taste Bucky’s mouth. He knew what this made him, and he knew Bucky wasn’t...that way...but for a wild second he wondered what Bucky would do if he just...reached out…

“What’s the matter, Rogers? You look like you seen a ghost.”

Steve had tried to reply, but his mouth had felt like dust.

“Aw, jeez. You ain’t getting sick again, are ya?” Bucky, to Steve’s horror, had placed a hand then on Steve’s forehead. Steve had blinked, then knocked it away, coming to his senses.

“Knock it off. I’m fine.”

Bucky had looked at him strangely for a moment, and then shrugged.

“I’m gonna get dressed. You still want me to stay over tonight?”

“Actually,” Steve had lied, “I’m pretty tired.”

“Oh,” Bucky’s face had been all concern, “you sure you’re alright, pal?”

“I’m fine,” Steve had said, using all of his effort to keep his voice steady, “I just...feel like being alone.”

Bucky had walked him home anyway. Of course. And when they had gotten to the door of the apartment Steve shared with his ma, Bucky had leaned against the doorframe and Steve had rolled his eyes and let him in. Of course.

****

Steve introduced Bucky to an invention called television.

Bucky had seen televisions before. There had been screens inside, and outside, various buildings he had been in and around over the years. Most of the screens he had seen had information, or news reels, or advertisements. It had never occurred to him that people used them as a source of entertainment.

“It’s a huge part of life these days,” Steve explained, “and I hear that I slept through the peak obsession with it. There are other options now, like these fancy phones,” he held his phone up, “and computers. But there are so many television shows, old and new. And you can watch movies, too.”

“Ok.”

Steve showed him how to use the remote and how to navigate the digital menu of channels and shows. He was, Bucky thought, adorably proud of this knowledge.

The television was noisy and bright and a lot of the shows were confusing, but it cut through some of the tension that had filled the house since their arrival. It also gave Bucky an excuse to curl up on the couch and rest his head against Steve. Or, even better, Steve would rest against him, like right now with his head in Bucky’s lap as they watched a travel show about New Zealand.

“I haven’t been to New Zealand,” Bucky said. Because it was true. He had not been sent there to kill anyone.

“Me neither,” Steve said sleepily as Bucky ran fingers through his short, weird hair.

“We should go someday.”

Steve turned his head and beamed up at him. “I’d really like that.”

They had been at the house in Palm Springs for nearly a week. Bucky had barely left the property, except to accompany Steve on a couple of grocery runs, one solo trip to a 7-11 to buy another pack of cigarettes and a chocolate bar, and one attempt at a leisurely walk where he got paranoid and returned home when the first car passed him.

Steve didn’t leave much either, except for his morning runs and a couple of quick errands. Bucky still wasn’t accompanying Steve on his runs, even though he had some appropriate clothing now. Steve had suggested they go get him some sneakers, like what Steve wore all the time. Bucky wasn’t too keen on having to remove his boots in public. He knew it was unlikely that Hydra would come for him in a shoe store, but still…

On the couch, Steve sat up and stretched. His absurd biceps framed his beautiful stupid face, and his t-shirt lifted to reveal his bellybutton and the line of his oblique muscle running down into the waistband of his jeans.

Bucky was suddenly overcome with the desire to follow that line with his mouth, and maybe he could. Maybe he could just push Steve back onto the couch, straddle him. Put that poor, overstretched t-shirt out of its misery by tearing it off of Steve with his metal hand…

“I’m starving!” Steve announced cheerfully. He stood quickly and strode toward the kitchen, leaving Bucky to stare at the empty spot where he had been. “You want a sandwich, Buck?”

Bucky wanted a lot of things. A sandwich was not one of them.

“Think I’ll go for a swim,” he said.

****

Bucky had been fourteen when he knew.

Or maybe he had always known. It wasn’t like anything had changed, really. He hadn’t woken up and suddenly been in love with his best friend. That love had always been there. Where Steve went, Bucky went. If Steve decided to do something noble (or, as Bucky saw it, stupid), Bucky was right there with him. And if he wasn’t, he was there to patch Steve back up.

There had been this girl in their class that year. Molly. She had taken a liking to Steve, just in an innocent way. She had liked watching Steve draw. She would make requests, and Steve had been happy to oblige. Too happy for Bucky’s liking. And that realization had thrown him completely.

One day after school Steve had told Bucky he was going to walk with Molly, and that he could come too if he wanted. Bucky had mumbled some excuse about needing to pick something up for his ma on the way home, and had watched them walk away. It was the first time he’d felt real, searing jealousy. He’d turned on his heel, shoved his hands into his pockets, and stormed off in the opposite direction.

Later that same week, Bucky got his first girlfriend. She had been a year older than Bucky, and real pretty. Bucky had liked her fine. She’d let him feel up under her blouse, and she kissed with a lot of tongue. She was soft and smelled nice, like lavender or something. Not like sweat and pencil lead. She’d been an alright distraction. For awhile.

Steve never kissed Molly. Not that Bucky knew about, anyway, which means it almost definitely hadn’t happened. Steve never even walked her home again after that one time. Steve’s mood had gotten a lot darker after that week, and Bucky had assumed Molly had said something. Maybe had turned him down. Whatever it was, Steve had not wanted to talk about it. At all.

Now, all these years later, it was easy for Bucky to look back and realize that Steve’s mood had only lightened when Bucky had stopped seeing his girlfriend. It was all obvious now. But back then Bucky had never considered the possibility...he had never dared to hope.

****

Steve sat Bucky down and said, if Bucky wanted — only if he wanted — Steve had Hydra’s file on the Winter Soldier. He told Bucky that Natasha had obtained it for him, and that he had read it several times. It was, Steve warned him, very upsetting to read.

“I can imagine,” Bucky said dryly, covering the fact that inside he was torn between wanting to punch Steve for reading that goddamn thing, or murdering Natasha for giving it to him.

He held out his hand and Steve hesitantly gave him the file. “You don’t have to read it, Bucky. I just thought-”

“I want to. If you read it, I want to read it. Should at least know if you’re getting good information here.”

Bucky went to the bedroom and read the file. Steve, he imagined, paced the rest of the house for the entire hour or so that it took Bucky to revisit some very unpleasant memories (and some things he was thankful he had no memory of).

He would not tell Steve about this horrors that were left out of the file.

When Bucky exited the bedroom, cigarettes and lighter in hand, Steve fell into step right behind him and followed him outside. Bucky sat sideways on one of the lounge chairs and lit up. Steve sat the same way on the chair next to his, facing him.

“I’m sorry, Bucky.”

It was getting dark, but Bucky could see the sadness in Steve’s eyes, and he could hear the heaviness of his voice.

Bucky exhaled a white cloud. “You shouldn’t have read that.”

“Bullshit,” Steve said, suddenly a lot angrier, “are you kidding me?”

Bucky sighed. He could get angry, but what was the point? If their roles had been reversed, if they had captured Steve, Bucky would have read the hell out of that file.

“Were you alone? When you read that the first time?”

“No,” Steve said, surprising Bucky, “Sam was there. He said I shouldn’t...he was worried about what I might do after I read it.”

“Smart man.”

“He is.”

Bucky took another drag. “So,” he said calmly, “any questions?”

“Geez, Buck. I can’t believe...how are you so ok with this?”

Bucky raised an eyebrow. “Is that an actual question?”

Steve considered it. “Yes.”

Bucky didn’t answer right away. This was a big question.

“I did horrible, unspeakable things for Hydra,” Bucky began. “I can’t undo those things. I can’t atone for them. I can’t pretend they never happened. They are done, and I did them.”

He knew this was a weird way to answer Steve’s question, so he quickly pushed ahead.

“I would like to say that I was a mindless drone when I was the...Soldier. That I had no concept of what I was doing, but it wouldn’t be true. That’s not how it was.”

“Bucky-”

Bucky held up a hand. He needed to finish this. “The thing is, I thought the things I was doing, the people I was killing, that it was all for a noble cause. They told me I was saving the world. They kept telling me that.”

“Jesus, Buck,” Steve whispered.

“I think,” Bucky said, his gaze falling to the ground, “they couldn’t overwrite who I was. I think I was a good man, even then. They had to explain these missions to me in a way that would make me accept them. I had to believe that I was doing it for the good of mankind.”

He glanced up. Steve had his hand over his mouth. His eyes were very wet.

“At least,” Bucky mumbled, “that’s what I think. And that’s how I’ve been coping, I guess. By believing that I was never a monster. Remembering that I always fought back against them. I just...wasn’t strong enough.”

Steve dropped to his knees and threw himself on him, pulling him down. His giant arms wrapped tight around him, Steve’s head buried into the crook of Bucky’s neck.

“You’re strong,” Steve said, “you’re so fucking strong. Bucky, I love you so much.”

“Love you too, Stevie,” Bucky murmured, resting his cheek on the top of Steve’s head. “When they told me you were dead...that was when they got me. That was when they really got me. I kinda shut down after that.”

“I’m so sorry, Bucky.”

“Stop apologizing. Just...let’s not do that again, ok?”

Steve choked out a laugh, “Yeah. Ok.”

And then Steve just...broke down. His body slumped and his face was pressed into Bucky’s lap, his giant shoulders shaking and his fists clutching Bucky’s t-shirt. He sobbed loudly, occasionally throwing in an unwanted apology or just Bucky’s name. Bucky tried to comfort him, running his flesh hand through Steve’s hair, and continuing down the back of his neck to his shoulders. He repeated this motion over and over, letting Steve cry but also offering reassuring words.

“It's ok, Steve. We’re here. We're both here.”

Bucky's own throat was tight, and his eyes burned with tears, but he kept it together. Maybe he just didn't have the capacity to feel things like he used to. Or maybe he was just so comforted by Steve’s presence he couldn't really manage to feel too sad about anything right now. He knew horrible, and this, right now, was far from horrible. As far as you could get, really.

When Steve finally lifted his head there was a very wet patch on the left thigh of Bucky’s sweatpants.

“Sorry,” Steve rasped, rubbing his hand over the spot as if that was going to do anything.

“Don't be,” Bucky said, “they're your pants, anyway.”

Steve laughed and ran a hand over his face. “I'm a mess.”

“Always have been.”

Steve sat back on his heels and Bucky wondered if his knees were getting sore, pressed against the concrete for so long.

“I've been...well, Sam says depressed...for a long time. But I don’t know.”

“I’m not a real barrel of laughs myself these days.”

Steve smiled and shook his head.

“But,” Bucky continued, “I can also tell you this is the happiest I can ever remember being. Here, with you. In whatever year this is. Even back in Brooklyn we were hiding and scared. Poor as shit. You were always sick. I was always terrified the next flu would end you. And then the fucking war…”

“I was happy,” Steve said, moving to sit next to Bucky on the lounge chair. “During the war. For awhile.”

“Yeah, I know you were, you dumb asshole. So excited about your ridiculous new body you didn’t even notice we were in actual Hell.”

Steve nudged him. “I was excited to be with you again.”

“Mm.”

“And, uh...you didn’t seem to mind the new body.”

Bucky smirked at the ground. “Didn’t hate the old model, neither.”

Steve sighed and rested his head on Bucky’s shoulder. Bucky took Steve’s left hand in his right and linked their fingers together.

They sat in silence for awhile. Bucky had just said about four hundred times as many words than he usually did. He was very tired.

He stifled a yawn and Steve noticed.

“Let’s go inside,” Steve said. He sounded just as exhausted.

In the kitchen, with the lights on, Bucky could see how red and puffy Steve’s face was. Steve noticed him looking.

“I must look amazing right now,” he said.

Bucky poured Steve a glass of water and handed it to him. “Seen you look worse,” he said, “How do you feel?”

Steve drained the glass in one go. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Better,” he admitted, “I’m, um, not great at...expressing my emotions. People seem to really care about that stuff these days.”

Bucky looked at him, and got an idea.

“You should eat something,” he said. He opened the refrigerator door and rooted around in the produce drawer. “Here.”

He tossed Steve one of the two oranges he had retrieved from the drawer. Steve caught it and turned it slowly in his hands. Then he looked up at Bucky, gobsmacked.

“Is this...you remember? That day back in Brooklyn? The first time we-”

Bucky tore off a strip of peel. “I remember. One of the best memories I got back.”

Steve watched Bucky remove the rest of the peel, and continued to watch him as he popped one of the juicy segments into his mouth.

“You gonna eat that or what?” Bucky asked, gesturing toward Steve’s unpeeled orange.

“I’d rather share yours,” Steve said, barely above a whisper.

Bucky smirked and held the orange out, knowing exactly what Steve was going to do next.

Bucky was pushed roughly back against the kitchen counter as their mouths crashed together. He heard Steve’s orange hit the floor as his hand moved to the back of Bucky’s head, grabbing a fistful of hair. The kiss was desperate and wild and dangerous. They were racing to the edge of a cliff.

Bucky felt desire so strong it was terrifying. He was simultaneously hit, again, with the disorienting, overwhelming realization that they were really here together. His heart raced, and he felt the rapid rise and fall of Steve’s chest against his. He rasped “Stevie” against Steve’s lips, and slipped his right hand up under Steve’s shirt. With his left hand, he discreetly placed the remainder of his orange on the counter behind him. He heard Steve’s breath hitch as Steve’s free hand followed Bucky’s lead and moved under his shirt, Steve’s palm sliding up Bucky’s abs. The countertop dug into Bucky’s back but he didn’t care because Steve was pressing their hips together.

Steve grinded against him, and made a breathy noise that Bucky hadn’t heard in decades but was so wonderfully familiar. He pushed Steve’s shirt up until it was bunched up under his armpits and gave Steve a gentle shove so he could see him.

He was spectacular. All smooth, perfect muscle flowing down into dark jeans. Below the waistband Bucky could see the outline of Steve’s erection.

“Fuck, Steve. Look at you.”

He saw Steve’s eyes dart down to the bulge in Bucky’s pants. Steve’s hands hovered in front of Bucky’s body, uncertain.

“What…” Steve panted, “what do you want to do, Bucky?”

“I don't know,” Bucky said honestly.

Both men stood, chests rising and falling, hands twitching, eyes traveling up to faces, and down, and back up again. Then Steve got a brilliant idea.

“Let's take a shower,” he suggested, “would that be alright?”

“Yeah. Hell yeah.”

Steve held out his hand and Bucky took it. They grinned at each other. They were going to figure this out.

****

The shower turned out to be the perfect suggestion.

Steve got the water nice and hot, and both men removed their own clothing in the steam-filled room. Steve could see how uneasy Bucky was about letting Steve see all of him, but Bucky still removed his pants and, after a moment of hesitation, his briefs. Bucky nudged the small pile of clothing to the side with his foot and looked up at Steve, his face a question: well?

“Gorgeous,” Steve said. It was difficult to even get the one word out. He was overwhelmed by the man in front of him. Always had been.

Steve realized he was still wearing his own briefs, and quickly removed them. He had no insecurities about his own body. He was only modest about it because he never really felt like the body was actually his, like as if he had borrowed a fancy sports car from a wealthy friend. He appreciated his body’s physical perfection perhaps better than anyone else could. So he knew he was fine to look at, even if he felt a little embarrassed about it.

But the way Bucky was looking at him right now...Steve wouldn't mind being looked at like that forever.

“Jesus,” Bucky growled, “I don't even know where to start.”

Steve blushed and gave Bucky a little shove toward the shower.

“Come on, Barnes. You're wasting water.”

The water was hot as all hell but neither man minded. Bucky looked euphoric with his head thrown back under the rainfall faucet in the centre of the ceiling. Steve stood back, the enormous shower offering plenty of room to do so, and admired. He watched trails of water run over Bucky's strong shoulders, down his chest and stomach, curving around his full cock, and down his thighs.

Steve was hit with a giddy feeling he hadn't experienced in a long time, but used to feel everyday: he was so fucking lucky. There was never a day spent with Bucky where he didn't think so. Back then he was too much of a stubborn brat to say it out loud. Back then he had been stupid enough to think he'd have plenty of time to say it.

“I'm so lucky,” he said, finally. Bucky tilted his head down and met his eyes. “I've always thought so, Buck. Can't believe you put up with me.”

Bucky's brow furrowed and he turned away. “Yeah, you really hit the fucking jackpot.”

Steve stepped closer behind him, placed his hands on his arms, and brought his mouth down to his left shoulder. He kissed metal until it met flesh, then he kissed his shoulder blades, his neck, his back, his ears. He ran his hands down his arms and moved them to his waist. He slid one hand up to lay flat on Bucky’s chest, right over his heart. He let the other hand drop to Bucky’s hip, and dug his fingers in slightly. Bucky inhaled sharply and his head fell back onto Steve’s shoulder. Steve kissed along his jaw until Bucky turned his head enough that Steve could capture his lips. The angle was awkward and Steve broke away, moving his mouth to trace the shell of Bucky’s ear.

“What do you want?” he asked again. He would keep asking. He had to be sure.

He slid his hand slowly down to Bucky’s stomach, and felt the hard muscle tremble under his touch.

Bucky placed his own hand over Steve’s and gently guided it lower.

“Please,” Bucky breathed.

Steve grinned against his neck and moved his hand down to wrap around Bucky’s cock and it felt the same. Steve sighed happily. It felt exactly the same.

Bucky swore quietly and his metal hand shot out, bracing himself against the stone tile. Steve started moving his hand, slow and teasing, just how Bucky had always liked it.

“I’ve got you,” Steve murmured, “I’m gonna make you feel so good, Bucky.”

Bucky moaned a little and reached his right hand behind them both, grabbing Steve’s ass and pulling him hard against him. Steve gasped when his own erection pressed hard into Bucky’s ass. His hand sped up involuntarily.

“Christ, Buck. You have no idea. You have no fucking idea how much I’ve missed this. How much I’ve thought about it.” He was thrusting, just slightly, against Bucky’s ass. It felt incredible.

“Think I’ve got some idea,” Bucky said, “I’ve given it some thought myself.”

“Yeah? Tell me.”

“Jesus, Steve.”

“Please,” Steve said against Bucky’s ear, “I want to know.”

“I...god...every night, Steve. Every night after I remembered us, I would lie on my bed in that apartment over the garage and I would get myself off thinking about you.”

Steve moaned. “What did you think about?”

“Fucking you. Burying myself in you. Against the wall of our shitty apartment. On the floor. In a...ah, god...in a fucking tent. In your stupid goddamn uniform…”

“You loved that uniform.”

“I loved being the one who took Captain America apart. Loved watching you...watching you become mine again.”

Steve’s head swam. He moved his hips faster against Bucky, losing all control. Rutting against him like a teenager. “Bucky,” he gasped.

“The rest of the world...they thought they knew you, but they didn’t know a goddamn thing. They didn’t know how filthy your mouth was. How beautiful you looked when you...ah, fuck...I can’t, Stevie. I can’t. I’m too close.”

“Come on. Let go. I want to see it.”

Bucky lurched forward and came with a loud cry, striping the tile with his release and in that moment Steve regretted their positions because he wanted desperately to see Bucky’s face. It had been so long. He squeezed his eyes shut and pictured it, conjuring it easily from so many memories. So many times that he had watched Bucky come apart for him.

He hadn’t intended for it to go this way, their first time since reuniting, but by the time he realized what was about to happen it was too late to stop it. With a noise that was equal parts relief and anguish, he came in hot bursts against Bucky’s ass. It was embarrassing and awful and incredible and when it was over he rested his forehead on Bucky’s shoulder and started laughing.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

Bucky turned around to face him. “Always so impatient,” he sighed.

“I’m sorry!” Steve said again. “I didn’t mean to!”

“I had plans for you.”

“Oh god,” Steve moaned, and Bucky wrapped his arms around him.

“Plenty of time,” Bucky murmured against his ear, “we got all the time in the world, Stevie.”

Steve pulled back and kissed Bucky with everything he had. They could live a hundred more years, he and Bucky. Or maybe they’d die tomorrow. Either way, he was planning on spending every second of the rest of his life with him.

****

Steve fell back on the bed, grinning giddily.

“Buck, I'm exhausted, but oh my God!”

Bucky knew exactly how Steve felt. He was charged, electric. He hadn't felt like this since-

“It's like the first time,” Steve said, as if reading Bucky’s mind, “back in Brooklyn. That's how I feel right now!”

Bucky, still standing, looked down at him. Steve had a towel wrapped around his waist, but the rest of him was exposed. Acres of damp, glistening muscle and smooth skin. Bucky wanted to touch all of it. He wanted to use his lethal hands to make Steve feel so good.

“C’mere,” Steve said.

Bucky dropped his own towel and joined Steve on the bed. Steve looked at him in wonder, and Bucky leaned down to kiss him. He drew it out, kissing him deep and slow, showing him that he was in no hurry. This wasn't Brooklyn. This wasn't the War. They weren't sneaking around anymore. They had time, and they had privacy, and they had a sturdy bed and two strong bodies.

“Wow,” Steve rasped when they broke apart. Bucky sat up and placed his flesh hand in the middle of Steve’s chest. Steve reached up and brushed the backs of his fingers along Bucky’s jaw. Bucky turned his head and let two of Steve’s fingers drift into his mouth. He nipped lightly on the ends of them, then said,

“I’m gonna take my time with you. I’m gonna taste every inch of this ridiculous body of yours and I’m not gonna worry about anyone interrupting us.”

“Yes,” Steve breathed.

Bucky straddled Steve’s hips and lowered his head all the way to Steve’s ear. He brushed his lips against it and murmured,

“We’re all alone, Stevie. We’re all alone and ain’t nobody gonna hear it when I make you scream with how good it feels.”

The sudden Brooklyn drawl in his voice surprised himself. Steve noticed it, too, it seemed. He shuddered visibly.

“Please,” Steve whispered.

Bucky made good on his promise. He nipped along Steve’s collar bone, bracing his metal hand against the mattress. His grabbed Steve’s hand with his right and held them, fingers laced together, on the pillow above Steve’s head. Steve tilted his head back and gasped as Bucky moved his mouth over everything he could reach. He pulled Steve’s hand down without letting go so he could kiss every inch of his abs.

He sat up so he could look at Steve. The towel around Steve’s waist was just barely holding on against the strain of his cock. Bucky took pity on it and opened it. Steve’s cock was so hard it lay almost flat against his stomach, huge and stunning.

“Jesus,” Bucky said, “I'll bet a lot of folks would pay good money for this view.”

“Well they're out of luck,” Steve said, “I'm spoken for.” His smile was devastatingly sexy. And Bucky made a decision right then and there that he was going to absolutely wreck Steve Rogers tonight.

He put his mouth on Steve’s thighs, his hips, he licked into his belly button. He gripped Steve’s waist with both hands until Steve reached down and took hold of his metal wrist. He placed Bucky’s evil, Hydra-built arm on his chest and covered the hand with his own. Bucky pressed down with the metal hand, just slightly, and Steve’s eyes rolled back.

Interesting.

Steve removed his own hand and Bucky kept his metal one in place, still pressing, just enough for Steve to feel it without hurting him. Steve’s face twisted, his eyes were clenched shut. Bucky passed harder, and Steve’s eyes shot open. He looked at Bucky with a mixture of wild arousal and terror, like he couldn't understand why he was so into this. Bucky's arm made a series of awful whirring noises and Bucky pulled his hand off Steve quickly.

“Sorry,” he mumbled, “I can't. Not yet.”

“I'm sorry. Oh my god, I'm so sorry, Bucky. That was…I don't know what that was. But you're not...I mean, that was maybe a little…”

“Advanced,” Bucky said, “for now, at least.” He looked away, embarrassed. “I'm not quite ready to make friends with this thing.” He waved the metal fingers a bit. “Not sure I trust it.”

“I'm sorry,” Steve said again, and he sounded miserable, “we don’t have to. We can just-”

“We can just nothing,” Bucky said quickly, turning back to look at Steve, “I've got a naked Captain America in my bed and, like I said, I've got plans, so clam up.”

Steve grinned and made a show of pressing his lips together.

“Now,” Bucky drawled, “you stay right there. I'm gonna get reacquainted with an old friend.” He slid down Steve’s body until his mouth hovered over Steve’s cock. “How ya doin’, beautiful?” Bucky asked it, and Steve actually giggled, high and delirious.

“Stop being such a fucking...oh! God, yes, Bucky…”

Bucky was adrift in a sea of wonderful memories. The smell, the taste, the feel of Steve on his tongue, filling his mouth, was so familiar. It was soothing.

Steve did not seem to be soothed at all. Steve was propped up on his elbows, gaping at Bucky with wide-eyed wonder. Bucky did some things with his tongue that he somehow remembered Steve liking. Steve started making frantic noises, and Bucky knew what came next.

“Bucky…Buck oh my god. You look...you look so fucking good. Feels so good. God I've missed your mouth so much. So fucking much…”

It was Bucky’s favourite part: the moment when Steve just lost himself and delicious commentary and dirty promises would tumble from his lips in an obscene parade. The moment he became Bucky’s completely, because no one else got to see this. This was his Steve.

“You always treat me so good, Buck. So good. Whatever you want...I’m yours, Bucky. I’m always yours.”

Fucking right.

****

Afterward they lay, draped over and around each other on a tangle of bed sheets, spent and happy. Bucky’s face was nuzzled into Steve’s neck, and his metal arm lay across Steve’s chest. Steve had his fingers interlaced with the metal ones, and he was rubbing his thumb gently over the palm, which Bucky couldn’t really feel, but he was touched by the gesture. By how easily Steve had accepted the metal arm as a part of Bucky.

“That...exceeded my expectations,” Steve said.

“Mm.”

“And I have a pretty active imagination,” Steve continued, “I thought about this a lot. A lot.

“You think too fucking much,” Bucky muttered sleepily.

“Was it...are you doing ok, Buck? Was it ok?”

“Jesus yes. Can we go to sleep please?”

“I don’t think I can! I’m buzzing over here. Maybe I should go for a run.”

“If you move I will kill you.”

“Yeah, because that usually works.”

****

“What’s this?” Steve asked.

Bucky looked up from book he was reading. Natasha had a small collection of very stupid books that Bucky had been working his way through. This one was about a time-travelling nurse who finds herself in 18th century Scotland.

Steve was holding the old issue of Popular Mechanics that commemorated Steve’s own death.

“Roy gave me a bunch of those magazines,” Bucky said, “decided to keep that one.”

“I’ve never seen this before,” Steve said, flipping through it, “it’s...really weird.”

“Yes.”

“Oh look. There we are,” Steve said, his voice a little distant.

“Nice of them to include me,” Bucky muttered, “you know it was also the fortieth anniversary of my death.”

Steve sat on the end of the couch, eyes still glued to the magazine. Bucky sighed and pulled his legs in a bit from their outstretched position to give Steve more room.

“This is weird,” Steve said again.

“Yeah, it’s weird. You know what else is weird? Everything else in your life.”

Steve turned to look at him. “You’re in a mood.”

“I’m fucking bored outta my mind, Steve.”

“Oh. Did you want to go somewhere?”

Bucky shrugged. “Like where?”

“I dunno. We could...go get ice cream?”

Bucky considered this. “Yeah. Alright. Let’s go get some fucking ice cream.”

****

It was, Steve realized when they got downtown, Saturday, and the shops and restaurants were very busy. After standing in line at one shop that boasted real, homemade ice cream, the two men took their towering cones to find a bench somewhere.

They walked along the crowded sidewalk with their heads down, faces hidden behind sunglasses. Steve hadn’t been recognized or approached since they arrived in Palm Springs. Not once. When Natasha had offered Steve her home here, she mentioned to him that it might be an ideal place to hide out.

“Palm Springs is full of two things,” she had said, “celebrities and homosexuals. No one is going to look twice at you guys.”

They found a tiny park but there was nowhere to sit. Bucky had made a lot of headway on his ice cream.

“S’good,” Bucky said, tongue darting out to lick some chocolate from the corner of his lips. Steve watched his eyes scan the hoards of strangers around them.

“Mm,” Steve said, “lemme try some of yours.”

“Not a chance, pal,” Bucky said, holding his cone away from Steve, “not my fault you’re too dumb to order chocolate.”

“You’re such a jerk.”

“Yeah, well…well…”

Steve noticed the ice cream cone hit the ground before he noticed anything else. Bucky’s eyes rolled back in his head and he fell, hard.

“Bucky!” Steve threw his own ice cream aside as he dropped to his knees beside Bucky’s convulsing body. “Bucky!”

His voice was getting louder and people were gathering around them, but Steve didn’t notice them at all. He kneeled helplessly beside Bucky, his hands hovering above his body. He had no idea what was happening or what to do. He didn’t hear his own voice saying Bucky’s name over and over, increasingly frantic.

The convulsing finally stopped, but Bucky wasn’t moving. Wasn’t responding. His eyes were open but there was nothing behind them. The plates in his metal arm were going crazy, rippling under the fabric of his shirt. The arm was making horrible noises. Without thinking, Steve ripped the sleeve off.

That’s when he finally noticed the crowd.

He heard murmurs and gasps. He heard “Captain America”s and “metal arm”s and “Washington”s.

Oh no.

He had to get them both out of there. He would save Bucky. He would. But he had to get them out of there.

He scooped Bucky up in his arms and ran. He got to the SUV and lay Bucky carefully across the back seat. He jumped into the driver’s seat and peeled away, yelling at his phone to call Natasha. She was the first person he thought of.

“Steve?”

“He’s...there’s something wrong with Bucky. Nat, there’s something wrong with him! I don’t know what’s happening. He needs help!”

“You need to calm down, Steve. What’s wrong with Bucky?”

“He’s...oh God. I don’t know! He just...fell and was shaking. I think maybe he was having a seizure? And now he’s…”

“Where are you?”

“I’m in the car. I’m driving. I’m...he’s not talking! He’s not moving!”

“You’re in Palm Springs?”

“Yes! We were...he was fine! He was great!”

“Ok, Steve. Listen. I am going to send you coordinates. I am going to land a Quinjet in the desert. You are going to meet me there.”

“We were eating ice cream...”

“Steve! Did you hear me?”

“Yes. Sorry. Copy. Just...please hurry.”

The call ended and coordinates were sent. Steve pulled over, mapped the location, and started driving toward it.

“You’re going to be ok, Buck. You’ll be fine. Just wait. Natasha will know. And Tony. You’ll be ok.”

There was nothing but mechanical noise from the metal arm in reply.

“Don’t fucking do this to me, Bucky,” Steve said, quickly wiping tears out of his eyes. He couldn’t break down. Not now. He needed to drive.

He got to the rendez-vous twenty minutes before Natasha did. When he saw the plane in the distance, Steve carefully lifted Bucky out of the backseat and cradled him against his chest. When the rear door of the plane opened he ran up the ramp. He was surprised to see Sam there.

“Lay him here,” Sam said, pointing to the stretcher to one side of the cargo area. Steve did and sat beside the stretcher on the bench, clutching Bucky’s right hand.

“We’re heading back to New York,” Sam said, “Stark is getting a lab ready. He’s calling in a doctor he trusts.” He placed a hand on Steve’s shoulder and bent to look Steve in the eye. “He’s still breathing. We’re going to help him, Steve.”

Steve nodded and looked back at Bucky’s face. His eyes were still open, his expression blank. Like he’d been shut off.

“It's gonna be ok, Bucky. We’re going home. I'm taking you home,” Steve said, using his free hand to brush stray hairs out of Bucky’s face.

Sam left to drive the SUV onto the plane. Steve didn’t even notice. They were in the air in minutes. They were in New York in less than an hour.

Chapter Text

Things happened very quickly once the plane arrived at Stark’s tower in Manhattan. A woman Steve had never seen before, a doctor, was standing in the landing bay when the door of the plane opened. She took one side of the stretcher and, along with Steve and Sam, guided it to the elevator. She immediately began checking Bucky’s pulse and blood pressure as the elevator raced to whatever floor they were going to. She shone a light into his unresponsive eyes. Steve’s stomach clenched.

Tony was waiting for them in his futuristic lab. There were others in the room, medical staff, and Steve saw Bruce off to one side. He nodded at him.

“Hey Steve,” Bruce said.

“Jarvis,” Tony said as soon as Bucky was wheeled in, “scan him.”

Almost instantly a projection in the shape of Bucky’s body appeared in front of them. It showed his beating heart, his expanding and contracting lungs, and it showed the circuits and wires of his mechanical arm. Tony reached up and spun the hologram around as if it were tangible, revealing Bucky’s back.

“Yikes,” Bruce said.

“What is that?” Steve asked. “All the blue. What is that?”

“That,” Tony said tightly, “is exactly what I was afraid of.”

“What do you mean?” Steve was losing patience fast.

“The blue is Hydra’s horrible nightmare science. All of this,” Tony gestured with a wide sweep of his hand, “is what’s connecting his arm to his brain. It’s also what is keeping his arm attached to his body in a way that doesn’t make him fall over from the weight. It’s...not great.”

“Tony, please. What is happening to him?”

“I have theories. I need to test them. And I need you out of here.”

“No.”

“Steve...” Sam said.

“I’m not leaving him,” Steve said firmly.

Tony looked at him. “Give me half an hour.”

Bruce gave him a sympathetic look, but said nothing.

Steve felt a tug on his arm. Natasha. Steve hadn’t even noticed her come in.

“Come on,” Natasha said, “let him work. This is why we keep him around, Steve.”

She guided him out of the room and down a hallway until they reached a window with a spectacular view of the harbour.

Steve put his palm against the glass, then his forehead. Natasha leaned with her back against the window beside him. Sam leaned against the opposite wall.

“Tony is going to fix this, Steve,” Natasha said. “He’s the best in the world. And Bruce is no slouch.”

Steve’s jaw tightened. “I know.”

“And Helen is an incredible doctor.”

“Helen? Oh. I guess I wasn’t introduced.”

“He’s in good hands. The best hands.”

Steve swallowed. “I thought he was doing okay. I thought he was...” he curled the palm that was against the glass into a fist, “I’m so stupid.”

“You thought he was recovered,” Sam said.

“I wanted to believe it. I know it’s dumb. But he seemed so…”

Natasha placed a hand on his arm. “He’s fighting, Steve. He’s fighting everyday, and he’s fighting right now. This is a hurdle to get over. He’ll get over it.”

“He’s incredible,” Steve said, his voice small and tattered, “I can’t believe how strong he is.”

“High praise coming from you,” Natasha said with a small smile. She took his hand in hers and they stood together in silence, looking out at the city below them. When thirty minutes had passed, Natasha and Sam walked with him back to the lab.

Tony started talking as soon as they entered.

“I have horrible news, bad news, good news, and great news. What do you want first?”

“Just tell me if he’s going to be okay.”

“Good news, then. Alright. He’s going to be okay. Or, he’s going to be functioning at a level that is as close to okay as you guys get.”

Steve closed his eyes and thanked a God he didn’t really believe in anymore.

“And the rest?”

“The horrible news is that this arm is an affront to god, man and science. And the way they’ve wired it into him is just...well, the word ‘barbaric’ comes to mind. As does ‘inhuman,’ ‘cruel,’ and ‘fucked.’ The bad news is that the only way to really fix this mess is to remove the arm, do some pretty high-risk and complicated surgery-slash-rewiring, and build a newer, better arm from scratch. And all of this would require no less than the most brilliant and handsome genius on the planet, which brings me to my great news…”

“Can you...not? Please, Tony. Just...what’s wrong with him?”

Tony looked at him a moment, seemed to take in how vulnerable Steve was, and took pity on him.

“The arm is hardwired into his brain. It’s...complex. But it’s also not done in a way that promotes long-lasting health and well-being. I think they probably only intended for him to be awake for short periods of time. He’s been out of the freezer for awhile, and things are starting to malfunction.”

“Malfunction how?”

“The tech inside him that allows his brain to control the arm is causing the arm to...control him. Sort of. But the simple explanation is that this tech is bad and it needs to be removed and replaced with good tech.”

“And you can do that?”

“I’m insulted.”

Steve looked at Bucky, unconscious on the table. “Then do it.”

****

The wait was excruciating.

Tony had told Steve that they would need a solid twenty-four hours to finish the first stage of the procedure, which was to remove and replace the Hydra tech that lived inside Bucky. The next stage was to design and construct the new arm and attach it in a way that, in Tony’s words, “wasn’t shitty and dumb.”

The plan was to create an arm that could be fastened or removed from the body externally. This, Tony had explained, would make repairs much easier and wouldn’t “fry Barnes’s brain.” Bucky would need to stay sedated until Tony had at least finished building and installing the component that would attach the arm to Bucky’s shoulder.

“He’s going to be in Rick Allen mode for a week or so while...what?” Tony had noticed Steve’s blank expression, and Natasha’s hard glare, “Def Leppard? Rick Allen? One arm? I thought you were catching up on this stuff, Rogers.” He’d waved his hand, “Doesn’t matter. I’ll need about a week to build the arm. Once he heals from the surgery, which will probably be disgustingly quickly, he can be up and around and doing whatever you geezers do for fun that doesn’t require two hands.”

“But he’ll be okay?” Steve had asked for what seemed like the hundredth time.

“He’ll be better than okay because he’s going to have the most impressive prosthetic this world has ever seen. Lighter, stronger, and painless. And I can make it sport car red, if…”

“No thanks,” Steve had said sternly. Then his voice softened, “Can...can you keep the white star?”

Tony hadn’t missed the way Steve was blushing.

“Aww...sure, we can keep the fan art.”

“Come on, Steve,” Natasha had said, “Let’s get something to eat. We’ll let Tony get to work.”

She’d gently placed her arm on his, but Steve had moved away.

“Just a second,” he’d said, and walked to the middle of the lab where Bucky was laid out. He had been stripped from the waist up, his metal arm resting outstretched on a table next to the bed. Steve had run the back of his hand gently over Bucky’s cheek.

“I’m not going far. I’ll be in the building. And I’ll be here when you wake up. I promise. And every day after that. My friends are going to get you all fixed up. And then we’ll go wherever you want. Do whatever you want. You and me, pal.” He’d leaned down and kissed Bucky’s forehead. He’d pulled back slowly, swallowed hard, and turned to Tony and Natasha.

“Okay,” he’d said, “take care of him.” He’d left the room without looking back.

Now, Steve was sitting on the couch in the apartment he never used that Tony had built for him in the tower. It was massive; twice the size of Steve’s apartment in Washington, and ridiculously nice, but the combination of generosity and luxury made Steve uncomfortable.

Natasha was sitting on the couch with Steve. Sam was sitting in an armchair opposite. There was pizza on the coffee table, which Steve was ignoring. Sam and Nat had already run through the usual reassurances (“Bucky is in good hands.” “He’s going to be just fine.” “Nothing to worry about.”) and were now looking at each other, both wordlessly pleading with the other to say something.

The silence was broken when Steve laughed suddenly. It startled both of them.

“I was just thinking,” Steve said with a wry smile, “we’re both going to be products of Stark Industries.”

Nat and Sam both smiled at him indulgently.

“You should eat something,” Nat suggested, not for the first time.

“We could go somewhere?” Sam said, “Just, go for a walk? Get out of here for a bit?”

“No,” Steve said quickly, “I’m not leaving the building. I promised.”

Sam shot a look at Natasha.

“How about the gym downstairs?” she suggested, “then you’re still in the building.”

Steve thought about it. “Yeah. Yeah, alright.”

****

“How are either of you still alive after that?” Sam asked as he threw himself down on the couch, “I’m never sparring with either of you. Ever. Not ever. That shit was insane.”

Natasha picked up and flipped open the box of now-cold pizza, and held it out in Steve’s direction. Steve gave in and took a slice. He was starving.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I was going easy on him,” Nat said.

Something occurred to Steve.

“Were you in New York today, Sam? I was surprised to see you on the jet.”

“No. I was in Vegas. Natasha made a pit stop to pick me up.”

Steve’s mouth opened to say something, but Sam cut him off.

“We were quick! I promise. She just thought it might be good to have another body there. We, uh...we didn’t know if we’d have a fight on our hands.”

Steve frowned. He knew that wasn’t an unreasonable concern, but it still bothered him.

Steve told them he would be fine on his own, that he actually wanted to be alone, but they insisted on staying. Steve went to the bedroom and left Sam and Natasha to watch a movie in the living room. He pulled a sketchbook and some pencils he had left behind the last time he had stayed here out of the night table drawer and settled onto the bed. He carefully sketched out the image he had been holding onto of Bucky asleep on the couch back in Palm Springs. He took extra care with the peaceful expression he’d had on his face, the softness around his eyes, the lazy curl of his metal fingers above his head.

He must have been drawing for over two hours because Sam was knocking on his door.

“Steve? Can I come in?”

“Sure.”

“Not asleep, then?” Sam asked after he opened the door.

“No. The movie over?”

“Yeah. Natasha went to her apartment or dorm or whatever you’re calling these things. Said she’d check on you in the morning.”

Steve nodded. “You staying?”

“If you’ll have me,” Sam smiled, “I don’t have a fancy midtown apartment.”

“Yeah, sure. Of course.” Steve moved to get up, “You can have the bed.”

“Dude. You know there are two bedrooms in here, right?”

“Oh.”

Sam sighed and sat on the bed.

“Look,” he said, “I’m sure you’ve already figured out a way to blame yourself for what’s happening to him. And I can tell you it’s not your fault — and I’d be right — but you’re not going to listen to that. So instead I’ll say this: I’m jealous.”

Steve’s mouth dropped open. He furrowed his brow and tried come up with a reply.

“Sam. I-”

Sam waved his hand at him. “No, man. That’s not...I mean, I’d be flattered, obviously, but that’s not what I mean. It’s just, what you two have. It’s something else. It’s a rare and beautiful thing, and frankly I think we’re all a little envious. And I haven’t even seen the two of you awake together at the same time.”

Steve looked down. Looked at the sketch he’d just finished of Bucky.

“Thank you,” he said quietly, “I don’t...I never expected to ever have anyone understand me and Bucky.” He laughed. “Sometimes I don’t even think I understand. But, yeah. It’s um...he’s it. For me.”

Sam looked at him with affection and some amusement. “Yeah, no kidding.” He reached out and patted Steve’s knee. “So. We should talk about what you’re going to be wearing when he wakes up.”

“Wearing?”

“Yeah, Steve. You need to look good for your boy. You even have a change of clothes here?”

Steve looked at him and laughed. “I really have no idea.”

****

Jarvis informed Steve at 7:40 the next evening that the procedure was complete and that he was welcome to go to the lab. Steve dropped the sandwich Sam had made him and walked straight out of the apartment. Sam trailed him as closely as he could manage.

“How is he?” Steve asked as soon as he entered the lab. “How did it go?” He strode past Tony and Bruce to where Bucky was lying on the stretcher.

“Good evening!” Tony said, overly cheerful, as he moved to stand beside Steve. “How did you sleep last night? At all? I didn’t! I was up all night removing the evil parts from your boyfriend!”

Bruce pinched his nose. “Tony…”

Steve took a breath. “I’m sorry. Believe me, I’m grateful. I can’t even-”

“He’s fine. He’s still asleep, obviously, but that should be wearing off soon. Maybe very soon. I don’t know how you super soldiers work exactly. Especially off-brand ones. But he’s fine. He has a very cool and well-designed dock component on his shoulder that is just waiting for a sexy new arm. But his insides are...well, I just hope that serum takes away a lot of the ouch. Because there will be a lot of ouch when the meds wear off. We couldn’t remove everything without...well, parts of his spine are now Stark Tech.”

“His spine?

“His spine was evil. Parts of it had to go. We salvaged what we could, and upgraded the rest. And that was not easy. If I hadn’t already been working on artificial vertebrae…”

“He’ll still...he’ll walk, then?” Steve’s eyes traveled to the bed where Bucky lay, asleep and still but alive. He noticed the brace on his neck, and immediately began worrying about how Bucky would react to all this when he wakes up.

“Walk. Run. Twerk. Lindy hop, or whatever you guys are into. Maybe not tonight, but eventually, sure.”

“Do you think...can we move him? Before he wakes up? If he wakes up in here...he might be scared.”

“God you guys are picky. Yes, we can move him. I’ve got an apartment down the hall. A small one. Just somewhere for me to sleep if I don’t feel like walking all the way to the elevator while I’m working. We’ll move him there, you can give him the kiss of true love, he’ll wake up, and everyone is happily ever after. And while that’s all happening, I’m gonna take a nap because I’ve got an arm to build.”

He turned to leave but Steve stopped him.

“Tony. Thank you. I…” Steve grimaced, “I know this can’t be easy for you. So thank you, not only for helping him, but for being willing to help him.”

Tony looked at him seriously and Steve could see how exhausted he was. “How about we just avoid that whole subject right now. Or forever. I’m helping you, Rogers. I hope someday I can know him like you do. Well, not exactly like you do. For now it’s just easier if I treat him like a thing that needs to be fixed.”

Steve nodded. His throat felt tight with sadness or anger. Either way, Tony had done a remarkable thing for him last night.

“Thank you, Tony.” He extended his hand.

Tony’s mouth quirked a bit, then he rolled his eyes and said, “Alright, big guy. One time.” And he enveloped Steve in a hug. “Jesus, I can’t even get my arms around you. What the hell?” Steve laughed into his shoulder.

“Alright, you’re getting my favourite t-shirt all soggy. Save some tears for your lover-in-arms over there. I’ll get Helen’s team to move him.”

Bucky was wheeled out and Steve followed. Bruce walked with him.

“He really is going to be alright,” Bruce assured him, “Tony needs to work on his bedside manner.”

“I can’t thank you enough, Bruce.”

Bruce shrugged as if he hadn’t spent the last twenty-four hours performing complicated, unprecedented surgery on a complete stranger. “I don’t know how useful I even was in there. Tony and Helen seemed to have a pretty good handle on it. I was mostly there to lend my expertise on how the serum may have altered his body, and how it might affect aspects of the surgery.”

“I appreciate anything you were able to do to help.”

“Well, not to be rude, but I’m pretty zonked, and when I get tired I get cranky...and that’s not great for anyone,” Bruce placed a hand on Steve’s shoulder, “I’ll check in with you later, okay? It’s nice seeing you again, Steve.”

“You too, Bruce.”

The “small” apartment was about four times the size of the one he and Bucky had shared in Brooklyn. They parked the stretcher, the monitors, and the IV stands in the middle of the living area. Steve stood over him. Bucky was shirtless with round sensors stuck to his chest. He looked very pale.

Sam had followed everyone into the room as well. He leaned against the wall near the door and said “You should take a shower. Get freshened up. He’ll be out for awhile yet. And I can let you know if he-”

“No,” Steve said. “I’m not leaving.”

Sam sighed. “Figured. You want a coffee or anything?”

“No.”

“Okay, I’ll leave you alone. Let me know if you need me.”

“Thank you, Sam.”

Sam nodded and left. Steve pulled an armchair closer to the stretcher and settled into it.

“I’m right here, Buck. You take your time waking up. Get all the rest you need. I’ll be right here.”

****

Steve sat for an hour without moving from the chair. He would sometimes brush his fingers over Bucky’s hair. He was sitting on his left side so there was no hand to hold. He just watched Bucky sleep, and tried to keep himself from panicking. The worst was over now, right?

There was a soft knock on the door, and it opened before Steve could answer. The doctor entered the room. Steve had already forgotten her name.

“Captain Rogers. I’m Dr. Cho. Helen. I didn’t properly introduce myself last night.”

Steve shook her hand. “Things were pretty hectic. I thought you would be asleep now,” he said.

“Soon,” she smiled, “I wanted to check on my patient first. Has he been stirring at all?”

“No. Not yet. He seems...peaceful.”

“We did our best to make him comfortable,” she nodded, “Tony is...remarkably compassionate when he wants to be. He would have made a great doctor.”

She moved to the bed and began reading monitors. She tapped a screen on one of them and another hologram of Bucky’s body appeared in midair.

“Amazing,” she said, “this serum is no joke. He’s starting to heal already.”

Steve was glad to hear it. He wasn’t exactly sure how the serum Bucky had been given worked.

“You work for Tony?” Steve asked.

“I work with Tony. Sometimes. I have my own lab in Seoul, but we collaborate. I’m primarily a geneticist, but I have a particular interest in combining mechanical engineering with medical science. So your friend here,” she gestured toward the bed, “is, scientifically speaking, kind of exciting.”

Steve was a little taken aback, but managed, “I suppose he would be.”

“I don’t mean to be insensitive, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was absolutely fascinated by what we found inside him. Horrified, certainly. But I’d never seen anything like it. And most of the components were over fifty years old!”

Steve cleared his throat. He didn’t feel like talking about Hydra’s scientific achievements.

“Sorry,” she said.

“It’s alright. You...did you fly in from Seoul last night?”

“No. I happened to be in New York. Good timing, as it turned out. There’s no way Tony could have done this without me. He’d probably argue otherwise.”

Steve did not want to think about Tony attempting the surgery on his own. “Good timing,” he agreed.

“He seems good,” she said, “all vitals look good. Jarvis will alert me when he wakes up, and my staff and I will come right away.” She moved to exit the room, then paused and looked back, “We did good work last night, Captain. He’s going to be a new man when he wakes.”

Steve sincerely hoped she was wrong.

****

Natasha came to check on Steve during hour two of his bedside vigil. She brought him a coffee and a sandwich. She pulled another armchair over and sat next to him.

“Did you sleep last night?” she asked.

“No.”

She tucked her legs up underneath her and sipped the tea she had brought for herself. “I hope he does a better job taking care of you than you do.”

Steve smiled. “He does. Always has.”

“Good.” They sat in comfortable silence for a minute, then she said, “I’m looking forward to meeting him.”

Steve looked at her. It was true. She had never met Bucky when he wasn’t…

“Geez, Natasha. I didn’t even realize. And you let us have your house and everything.”

She shrugged. “I’m a really good friend.”

“You are.” He reached out a hand and she took it. Gave it a squeeze.

“If I’d known you liked Russian assassins so much I would have made a move on you,” she said.

“No you wouldn’t have.”

“No, I wouldn’t have.”

Steve unwrapped and ate the sandwich. Natasha looked pleased.

“So,” she said, “I can see that you’re beating yourself up over this. You want to tell me how this is any of your fault?”

“No,” Steve said.

Natasha raised an eyebrow at him, but didn’t say anything. Steve sighed, then blushed.

“It’s just...I think I might have...pushed him. Into doing things. That he wasn’t ready for.”

“Things?”

“Um.”

“Oh,” her lips quirked, “sex things.”

Steve cleared his throat and looked at the floor. “Yes.”

“So, you think, what? You triggered this by…”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

He turned his head to look at her. She looked like she was trying not to laugh.

“Oh, Steve,” she said, “this wasn’t triggered by you. This was going to happen anyway. Weren’t you listening to Tony?”

“Yeah. Yes. I know, it’s just...it seems like a weird coincidence.”

She did laugh then, and Steve blushed harder.

“That must have been some mind blowing sex,” she mused.

“Stop.”

“Really. What exactly did you do to him?”

“Nat…”

She grinned and he couldn’t help but smile back. “It was,” he admitted, “pretty mind blowing.”

“I can imagine. In fact I am imagining.”

“Oh God. Don’t.”

“Too late.” She looked him over. “You look like hell. Are those the clothes you were wearing yesterday?”

“Yes.”

She shook her head. “I hope he wakes up soon. For your sake.”

****

Sam came during the third hour. He brought a change of clothes for Steve.

“Did you know there is a whole walk-in closet full of clothes for you? Like, really nice clothes. Rich guy clothes. Movie star clothes. A whole wardrobe.”

“Oh.”

He handed him a neatly folded stack and flipped his hand in the direction of the bedroom. “Go. Get yourself looking right. I’ll watch him.”

Steve looked at Bucky, unsure. Sam sighed. “Three minutes Steve. He’ll be fine for three minutes.”

Steve went to the bedroom. He removed his grubby clothing and went to the bathroom to splash water on his face and fix his hair a bit. He pulled on the dark jeans that were a much slimmer fit than he was used to, a white t-shirt and a cobalt blue v-neck sweater. He checked himself in the mirror. Not bad.

Sam whistled when Steve returned.

“Can I ask you something? Is everything in the wardrobe Tony bought for me blue?”

Sam grinned. “I’d say it’s a 60/40 split between blue and red.”

“Are these jeans...is this how they are supposed to fit?”

Sam laughed. “That is how jeans fit in everybody’s wildest dreams, man. Also, go fuck yourself.”

Steve moved to the bed. “He looks good, right? I mean...healthy?”

“He looks a hell of a lot better than he ought to. You sure you can’t give me a little hit of that serum? Maybe we can make like a blood pact or something? Just a taste?”

Steve smiled. He was glad Sam was here.

“I think he’s just milking this now,” Steve said, “he always did love sleeping in.”

“You two are historically known for your laziness.”

Steve snorted. “Yeah, well. History doesn’t know a lot of things about us.”

****

Steve was twenty-five the first time he thought he had lost Bucky forever.

He was also twenty-five the first time he’d gotten him back.

There were two things he hadn’t realized at the time. One was that the Bucky he got back wasn’t the same as the one he’d thought he’d lost. The other was that Bucky, after being rescued by Steve and returning safely to camp, had thought he had lost Steve forever.

Steve figured the second thing out about a month after they had returned to a hero’s welcome. Or, rather, Bucky had flat out told him. Because sometimes Steve could be really dense about things.

“I’m happy for you,” Bucky had said. He hadn’t sounded even a little bit happy.

“Happy for what?”

Bucky had looked up from the bed he had been sitting on in Steve’s officer’s quarters in London. “For you and Carter, dummy! What do you think?”

“Me and…”

“She’s perfect for you, Stevie. I never thought you’d find someone who actually deserves you, but she’s something else.”

“I haven’t...we aren’t...Buck, there is no me and Peg-, uh, Agent Carter.”

Bucky looked almost amused, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “Sure, Steve.”

Steve sat on the bed next to him. “Why are you talking like this, Buck?”

Bucky looked at him like he was a complete idiot. “Oh no.”

“What?”

“You’re gonna fuck this up, aren’t you?”

“There’s nothing-”

Bucky stood. “This gorgeous, amazing dame is in love with you and your new body, and you could marry her and have babies and be happy somewhere when this nightmare is all over and you are going to fuck it up!”

“You think she’s in love with me?”

“Jesus, Steve! Are you that fucking blind? I thought the damn serum fixed your eyes!”

Steve stood, too.

“Bucky, it doesn’t matter,” he said in a frantic whisper, “You know I’m spoken for.”

“Oh God. Oh son of a-”

“What?”

Bucky’s hands had balled into fists at his sides. He'd turned away from Steve, furious.

“Bucky, I don’t-”

Bucky spun around, eyes blazing, and poked Steve hard in the chest.

“You are not doing this Steve! You are not going to throw away this chance at happiness. At a good life. You don’t need to be fooling around with your childhood pal in some rundown apartment in Red Hook. You got yourself fixed up and you don’t need that shit anymore, okay?”

And Steve had been...devastated.

“Is that what you think?” he’d asked quietly.

“It’s true.”

“It’s not!” Steve had almost yelled. “You think, what? That I was just making time with you because I didn’t think I could do any better? Or because I thought I’d be dead soon?”

Bucky shrugged.

“Unbelievable,” Steve had muttered.

“Steve, come on pal, you’ve gotta think about this logically,” Bucky had said, his tone softened.

“When have I ever done that?” Steve had offered a small smile. “And, yeah, Peggy’s great. She’s the most impressive woman I’ve ever met. And if that’s what I wanted, I’d marry her in a heartbeat, but...you know that it isn’t what I want.”

And Bucky had looked like he was going to be sick.

“Steve,” he’d said, strained and miserable, “please. Please don’t do this. Don’t make me the reason you throw your whole life away. I couldn’t ever live with that.”

“I’m not throwing away anything,” Steve had said, moving closer. He placed his hand on the side of Bucky’s face, and felt the stubble that had rarely been there before. It had been their first intimate touch since Bucky had shipped out. “I’m here with the man I love, against all odds, and we have the night off and we have a private room and I am planning on living life to the fullest tonight.”

Steve would never forget the way Bucky had looked at him then. He looked terrified and overwhelmed, eyes wide and pleading. Steve could see the war going on inside him, so he brushed his thumb over Bucky’s lips and watched Bucky’s eyes ignite.

“God damn you, Steve,” Bucky murmured before pressing his mouth against Steve’s. They kissed for the first time at almost equal heights, Steve actually a little taller than him, and it felt strange but everything was so crazy now.

And Steve had let Bucky undress him until he stood next to the bed wearing only dogtags.

“Is it...okay?” Steve had asked.

“It’s really fucking okay. I just...can’t believe my little Stevie is really gone.”

Steve had laid himself on the bed, “He’s still in here, Bucky. Come find him.”

****

Steve had almost nodded off when Bucky opened his eyes. Steve heard the sound of him stirring and snapped to attention. He watched Bucky’s eyes as they blinked open, and saw them immediately grow wide and scared.

“Bucky. It’s me. I’m here.”

“Steve?” he rasped.

“Yeah, Buck. Right here, pal. It’s okay. You’re okay. You’re safe.”

“What the hell…”

“Don’t try to sit up. You have a brace on your neck. We’re in New York. You-”

“New York? The fuck? We were eating ice cream…”

Steve’s stomach flipped. Bucky remembered where they had been. He was the same. He was fine. He was fine.

“We were. You, uh, you had a seizure. Really scared me, Buck. So I called Natasha and she flew a jet out and brought us here to Manhattan. We’re in Tony Stark’s tower.”

“Why? What’s wrong wi- Jesus Christ! Where the fuck is my arm?!”

“I’ll explain everything, Bucky. It’s okay. Stop trying to lift your arms. The doctor will be here in a minute to check on you.”

“Who took my arm?”

“It’s okay, Bucky. We’re all just trying to help you. Tony is going to replace the arm with a new one.”

Bucky closed his eyes. “Did I do anything?”

“What?”

“Did I do. Anything. After the seizure. Was I…”

“No! No! You’ve been out of it since the seizure. You weren’t, you didn’t...turn back.”

Bucky exhaled. “Thank Christ.”

“Is that something you were worried about? Did you think that was something that could happen?”

Even without being able to move his head, Bucky still looked at Steve like he was a moron. “Of course I was worried about that! I’m always fucking worried about that!”

Steve was stunned. He didn’t know what to say. Why hadn’t Bucky told him any of this before?

The door opened then and three members of Dr. Cho’s team entered. Ten minutes later, Cho herself joined them. They surrounded Bucky, checking monitors and talking to each other in medical jargon. Steve moved so he could take hold of Bucky’s remaining hand.

“Look at me, Buck. Right here. Never mind them.”

Bucky locked eyes with Steve. His breathing was quick and shallow, but he gave Steve’s hand a very gentle squeeze. After a few minutes the medical team left, except Helen, who moved to stand beside Steve.

“Sergeant Barnes, I’m Dr. Cho. I performed the surgery last night.”

“Surgery?”

“It’s a lot to explain right now, while you’re still waking up, but the short explanation is that we were able to remove a lot of Hydra’s technology from your body. It had begun to malfunction, and would most likely have eventually killed you. We replaced it with more advanced tech that will be safer and more comfortable. Tony Stark himself is engineering a new arm for you.”

She said the last part as if Bucky should be very impressed by this.

“Okay...” Bucky said.

“Like I said, now is not the best time to get into details. I’ll let you continue to rest. Captain Rogers can stay with you.”

“Thank you, doctor,” Steve said.

“She called me ‘Sergeant,’” Bucky said quietly after she left.

“It’s how people know you,” Steve said, “you’re a war hero, you know. People learned about you in school.”

“That’s so weird.”

“Tell me about it.”

“Guess they’re gonna learn the truth about me soon enough now.”

“They know the truth already. You’re a war hero. And you’re Captain America’s best friend.”

Bucky closed his eyes and sighed. “I feel like shit.”

“You look like shit.”

“Fuck you,” he opened his eyes, “You’re lookin’ alright. That a new sweater? You go shopping?”

“No! I’ve been here this whole time. I just...wanted to look nice for you.”

Steve had what had to be the dopiest smile in the world on his face. Bucky managed a weak smile in return, then closed his eyes again. “Mission accomplished, sweetheart.”

****

Bucky slept for awhile, and Steve sat next to him. He’d moved the chair to the right side of the bed so he could hold Bucky’s hand, careful not to touch the IV needle. Steve himself was exhausted, and there were a few times he looked longingly at the couch, or even the bedroom door, but he wouldn’t leave Bucky’s side.

He smiled to himself. If Bucky were awake he would yell at Steve for depriving himself of sleep. But they had always been stupid about each other. Steve couldn’t count the number of sleepless nights Bucky had endured when Steve had been small and burning with fever.

Steve had no idea what time it was when Bucky woke up again, but it must have been into the early hours of the morning. It was so quiet in the room. Just a gentle electric hum from the machines and Bucky’s light snoring.

“You’re still here,” Bucky observed. His voice was very hoarse.

“Always,” Steve said. “How do you feel?”

“Wonderful.”

Steve’s fingers found their way into Bucky’s hair and Bucky sighed contentedly.

“So, I should probably ask what exactly was done to me.”

“I’m not sure I’m the best one to explain it, but they removed a lot of Hydra’s...stuff...from your body. Like Dr. Cho said, it was malfunctioning and that’s what caused the seizure. Because it was all wired into your brain, I guess.”

“Makes sense.”

“Don’t ask me how they did any of this, but they took it all out of you, and replaced some of it with...friendlier tech. Stark’s tech.”

“So the arm is gone, huh?”

“Yeah. Tony is building you a new one. He said it would take a few days. Maybe a week. But he said it would be more comfortable. Lighter, so it wouldn’t need to be fused to your spine like the old one was. And it will be detachable.”

Bucky’s eyes widened, and he attempted to turn his head to look at his shoulder.

“Ahh! Ow!” he winced.

“Don’t move! Here, I’ll take a picture of it with my phone and show you.” Steve moved to the left side of the bed and snapped a quick photo of the very complicated looking rings of metal that were now a part of Bucky’s shoulder, waiting for a new arm.

“There. See? It’s, um, kind of impressive.”

“Stark built that?”

“Yeah. In a few hours. I have no idea how he does stuff like that.”

Bucky frowned at the photo. “Why would Stark want to help me?”

“Because he knows how much you mean to me.”

Bucky looked surprised.

“Does he?”

“Well,” Steve blushed, “he has some idea, anyway.”

“So, Stark, and the doctor. Who else is here?”

“Bruce Banner was in the operating room as well. And Natasha is here. And Sam. They’ve been checking in on me while I’ve been watching over you.”

“You should go get some sleep, Steve.”

“I don’t think I could sleep if I tried, Buck. I just want to be right here with you.”

Bucky sighed. “Pull the chair a little closer and rest your head on the edge of the bed.”

“No, I don’t want to hurt you.”

“Then go to the side with no arm! Mother of- do I have to think of everything around here?”

Steve laughed.

“Amazed you lasted two years or whatever without me,” Bucky muttered.

Steve laughed harder. Maybe it was relief, or maybe he was exhausted, or maybe it was just like always: Bucky cracking Steve up whenever things looked bad.

“Even when I was brainwashed I still had to pull your dumb ass out of a river,” Bucky continued, “you just can’t give me a fucking break, can you?”

Steve moved the chair back to the left side of the bed and sat in it. He rested his head on the side of the bed as Bucky had instructed. His eyelids were so heavy.

“I love you, Bucky.”

“Don’t try to sweet talk your way out of this, Rogers.”

“You love me, too.”

“Yeah, I do. Now get some sleep, punk.”

****

When Bucky woke up the third time, he wasn’t scared.

He couldn’t move his head, but he knew why. He could hear Steve snoring, the top of his hair tickling the exposed skin on Bucky’s left side.

The arm was gone.

He remembered another time he had woken up. This memory was ancient and horrible and it should have been murkier, but it was always so vivid. He remembered waking up in a bed like this one, in a room that wasn’t at all quiet or safe. Surrounded by strangers and machines, all speaking a language he didn’t understand. He remembers the pain, because there were no medications given to alleviate it. He remembers lifting his hands and seeing, for the first time, that ghastly thing they had attached to him.

And he remembers remembering why he had been there. He had fallen. He had fallen to his death. He remembered terror, and screaming, and Steve, and freezing wind and an endless plummet. And then peace.

He had called out to Steve then, in that horrible Hydra operating room. He had called out to Steve with vocal chords that didn’t work. His name scraped its way up his throat and across his tongue and left his mouth a near silent whisper. He knew Steve couldn’t hear him. There was no Steve in this place. No God, either. No peace.

But Steve was here now. And the arm was gone.

“Steve,” he said, because he could now. And Steve would hear him.

Steve sat up immediately, and moved so Bucky could see his face, and smiled at him like he was the best thing Steve could possibly wake up to.

“Hey, Buck.”

“Get some sleep?”

“Yeah, I must have. It’s morning!”

“I’ll take your word for it.”

The rest of the day was eventful. Dr Cho came to check on Bucky and was astonished by how much he had healed overnight. She removed the neck brace, but told him to keep his head movements slow and careful. She also raised the back of the bed so he was sitting up a bit, and gave him some water to drink. She said if he kept that down she would order that he be brought juice, and then broth. She told him he would likely be ready to eat solids the next day.

A man who introduced himself to Bucky as Bruce Banner brought the broth himself. He explained, rather sheepishly, that he had been headed this way anyway, so…

Banner explained, in way too much detail, what they had done to Bucky in the operating room. Bucky was not surprised to hear that his body had been a real shitshow. He was surprised to learn that they were able to remove and replace Hydra’s tech without killing him.

Banner stayed for awhile, chatting mostly with Steve. Bucky could tell that Steve liked Banner. Bucky liked him too. There was something calming about him.

Sam came to check on Bucky, but mostly to check on Steve. He brought Steve three sandwiches and his sketchbook. Steve looked so appreciative that Bucky was almost jealous. But Steve didn’t even try to hide the fact that he was holding Bucky’s hand when Sam had entered the room, so Bucky knew he had nothing to be jealous of.

Sam sat and chatted with both of them for awhile. Bucky liked Sam. Steve was good at choosing friends.

“Natasha said she’ll stop by tomorrow,” Sam said, “She actually went to her place in Palm Springs. She wanted to get your stuff. Did you know you left your shield there, man?”

“You know something?” Steve said, “I hadn’t even thought about it.”

****

“Do you want to try standing?” Steve asked. Bucky had been unhooked from the IV and was able to eat solid foods again. Every time a doctor came in the room they would remark on Bucky’s amazing healing progress. Bucky had been assuring Steve that he felt alright, all things considered.

“Yeah, sure.”

Bucky draped his arm over Steve’s shoulders, wincing a bit at the strain the movement put on his back, and carefully lowered his feet on the floor. His legs wobbled a bit.

“Easy,” Steve said, “just lean on me until you’re steady.”

Bucky took a breath and stood a little straighter. He squeezed Steve’s shoulder a bit. Steve turned his head and smiled.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey,” Bucky replied.

They walked together, slowly, to the bathroom so Bucky could freshen up a bit. Or a lot. He felt disgusting.

He brushed his teeth and then Steve helped him out of his hospital pants so he could take a shower.

Steve turned on the water in the shower and then, to Bucky’s surprise, undressed himself.

“What?” Steve said, “I’m not gonna leave you alone in there. You could slip and kill yourself!”

Bucky snorted. “You really think that’ll be what ends me?”

“Well, I’m not taking any chances.”

“Be really fucking embarrassing,” Bucky said, “to die from bumping my head in the shower after all this.”

“Exactly. Now let me help you in.”

And the shower was...nice. Steve washed Bucky’s hair and gently rubbed him all over with a bar of really nice smelling soap. Bucky would bet it was really expensive soap. Then Steve quickly washed his own hair and body because he was almost as gross as Bucky had been.

Steve turned off the water but before he could help Bucky out of the shower, Bucky leaned in and kissed him. He could tell Steve hadn’t been expecting it, but he quickly got with the program and opened his mouth under Bucky’s. There was stubble on Steve’s face because it had been a couple of days since he had last shaved. It was weird and different but Bucky liked how it felt, even though it was a reminder that Steve hadn’t left Bucky’s side since he came out of surgery.

“I was so scared,” Steve murmured against his lips, “I worried you would wake up a different person. That you wouldn’t remember me, or…”

“You’re a hard guy to forget,” Bucky said, “thought I’d made that point pretty clear by now.”

****

Natasha came to visit later that day. For whatever reason, Bucky was nervous about meeting her.

She let herself into Steve’s apartment, where Bucky and Steve had moved after Bucky had been cleared to leave the stretcher and the monitors for good. She was carrying Steve’s shield and a duffle bag. She walked over to the couch, where Bucky was was sitting, pressed against Steve’s side. She placed the shield down, leaning it against the end of the couch. She dropped the bag next to it.

“It’s nice to finally meet you, Sergeant Barnes,” she said carefully.

“Bucky,” he corrected her, “please.”

“Natasha,” she said, “I’d shake your hand, but I don’t think Steve will relinquish it.”

“He’s greedy like that.”

She seemed surprised by his little joke. She gave Steve a curious look, then bent to unzip the bag.

“I brought a few things you left behind. Thought they might be important.”

She placed the half-eaten box of Captain America cereal from Palm Springs on the coffee table.

Bucky grinned. “That shit’s probably what caused the seizure.”

Steve punched him lightly — very lightly — in the chest.

Natasha removed more items from the bag: clothing, the old issue of Popular Mechanics, and the stupid Scottish time travel romance book Bucky must have left on the bedside table, upside down and open to the page he had been on.

“You’re almost at my favourite part,” she said with a playful quirk of her lips.

“Thanks,” Bucky said flatly, glaring at her.

She sat in the armchair across from them and said, “We need to talk about something.”

She pulled a small flat screen thing out of her back pocket and moved her fingers quickly over its surface. A video popped out of it, floating above the screen. It was poor quality, but it was clearly Steve, crouched over Bucky’s convulsing body on the ground. Bucky was shocked to see Steve ripping the sleeve off Bucky’s shirt in the video. The camera zoomed in on his unmistakable metal arm. He heard a voice off camera say “Holy shit! That’s Captain America!” and another say “That’s the guy from Washington! Who shot up that freeway! Look at his fucking arm!” and another say “What the fuck is going on?”

“That video,” Natasha said, “is everywhere. You guys are trending on Twitter. Congratulations.”

“Shit,” Steve muttered.

“Twitter?” Bucky said.

“So, you need to think about what your next move is. You’re safe in here, but out there,” she gestured to the windows, “it gets a lot more complicated.”

Bucky watched Steve’s brow furrow. “What are our options?” Steve asked.

She shrugged. “Run. Hide. You can always do that. But if you’re asking what I think…”

“I am.”

She looked seriously at Bucky. “I think you need to reintroduce yourself to the world.”

“Turn myself in?” Bucky asked.

“No. I didn’t say that. I’m saying, you let the right people help you. Advocate for you. And you’ll never have to turn yourself in.”

“The right people.”

“Well,” she said, “you can start with your childhood friend over here. That’s a pretty solid character reference. And you have me, and Sam, who is a decorated veteran, and there’s also the small matter that you are Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes. That guy is kind of a big deal in this country.”

“There’s no way it’s gonna be that easy.”

“I never said easy. I’m just saying, there’s a very good chance that the American government, and the American people, are going to feel a little awkward about one of their greatest heroes being a prisoner of Hydra all this time.”

“It’s just like I’ve been saying, Buck,” Steve said excitedly, “I mean, you were at the museum. You saw the exhibit. Your face was all over it! You’re a hero. There’s no way you’re gonna be charged with anything. Not when they know the truth. And there’s plenty of evidence.”

“You do have a pretty solid case,” Natasha agreed.

Bucky felt something twist inside him. “So that’s it? Nothing I did for Hydra matters? The people I killed? I’m just supposed to forget about all of that and move on?”

“No,” Natasha said, “but there are ways to balance the scales. I can help you with that.”

“I don’t know,” Bucky said, “I killed some people that I think are considered to be American heroes. That might be hard for Uncle Sam to overlook. And then there’s the rest of the world…”

“Everyone in this room knows you aren’t responsible for your actions as the Winter Soldier,” she said, “we just need to let the rest of the world know that too. Believe me, the government will overlook a lot if they feel you can be useful to them.”

Bucky’s heart sank. “Oh.”

“You don’t have to do anything,” Steve said quickly, with a fierce glance at Natasha, “you don’t have to fight for anyone ever again. Even the good guys. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do, Bucky.”

“And what about Hydra?” he asked, and looked at Natasha, because she seemed like she might have the answer.

“They’re scrambling,” she said, “they’re a bit of a mess right now. Did you get any hint that they might be trying to locate you?”

“No,” he said, “I thought I would. But I didn’t. But that doesn’t mean they won’t.”

“You have trigger words,” she said. Not a question.

“Yes.”

“What do you mean?” Steve asked.

When Bucky didn’t say anything, Natasha said, “Hydra, the Red Room, they used trigger words to program their assassins. Say the words, control the weapon.”

Steve frowned at how cooly she said this. “So anyone who knows the words…”

“They’d have me, Steve,” Bucky said, “I don’t know if I could fight it.”

Bucky closed his eyes a moment. He felt very tired all of a sudden.

“Let’s table this for now,” Natasha said. “You don’t have to decide anything today, but you will have to have a plan soon. And I can help.” She looked at Steve. “You know I have first hand experience with this.”

Steve nodded. “Yeah. Okay. Thanks, Nat.”

After she left, Steve repeated what he had said.

“No one makes decisions for you anymore, Buck. You don’t have to fight anymore.”

“Fighting is all I know,” Bucky said. “Maybe it’s all I am.”

“We both know that’s not true.”

“Do we? When have I ever not been a fighter, Steve?”

Steve was silent, and Bucky sighed.

“Forget it. I’m just tired.”

“What do you want to do?” Steve asked quietly. “If your life could be anything, starting tomorrow, what would you want it to be?”

Bucky was overwhelmed. “I don’t know. That’s...that’s a lot to ask a guy who can’t even order his own food.”

“I know. I don’t mean a whole detailed plan, just…”

“You,” Bucky said, “and...quiet. But not isolated. And I want something to do. Something to fill my days. A purpose. But, yeah. I want to make my own decisions.”

“Okay,” Steve said.

“But...I also can’t live with this fucking guilt forever, Steve. It’s too much. And I think the only way to get rid of some of it is what Natasha was saying. Balancing the scales.”

“Balancing them how?”

“Helping people? Killing evil people? I don’t really know. But whatever it is, that’s gonna have to be a part of my new life.”

“Alright.”

“It would...it would be really nice to not have to fucking hide anymore. I’ve been hiding in some way my whole life.”

“I don’t want to hide either, Bucky. But I will. If we have to I will. I’ll run as far and as fast as we need to. I’m not losing you again.”

Bucky felt his throat tighten. He would never understand how Steve could possibly love him as much as Bucky loved Steve.

“Well, for now, how about we run as far as the bedroom. Sleeping in a real bed with my best guy sounds pretty fucking excellent.”

Steve reached out his hand and Bucky took it. “It sounds perfect,” Steve said.

****

They went back to the lab so Helen and Bruce could give Bucky a final check-over before the new arm was installed. Helen continued to be amazed at Bucky’s healing ability.

“The scars are barely visible,” she said, leaning in to inspect his back, “and everything seems to be functioning perfectly.”

“How do you feel?” Bruce asked.

“Better,” Bucky said.

Tony didn’t come to see them until five days had passed since the operation. He rapped quickly on the door and called out, “I’m coming in there, so make yourselves decent.”

Steve and Bucky looked up from where they had been playing chess as Tony opened the door.

“Should have guessed,” Tony said. “So, which one of you is getting the new arm again?”

Bucky stood. “You must be Tony Stark.”

He took a step toward Stark, and Bucky registered fear. Anger.

“Thank you,” Bucky said, “for saving my life. When Steve told me-”

“Let’s just…” Tony interrupted, “Let’s not talk, you and me, alright? How about we just keep it strictly business. You need an arm. I built an arm. You can have the arm tomorrow.”

Bucky didn’t know what to say. He looked at Steve.

“Thank you, Tony,” Steve said, moving to stand beside Bucky. “We both appreciate everything you’ve done. More than we can ever say.”

Tony’s jaw clenched. He kept his eyes on Steve, like he couldn’t even look at Bucky. Bucky couldn’t blame him.

“I’m, uh, I’m gonna go lie down. You two can talk,” Bucky said, and went to the bedroom.

He sat on the edge of the bed. He could hear them talking in careful, tight voices, strained like their friendship.

“Better off without me, Stevie,” he muttered into the empty room.

****

“I’m trying, Rogers. This is me trying. But it’s not going to change the fact that your best buddy killed my parents. It’s kind of a big thing to get past.”

“I know,” Steve said in loud whisper, “I know. I understand how you feel. I do. But...you know what Hydra did to him. What he’s been through.”

“I do. And that’s why I helped him. But I’m not inviting him to play racquetball with me.”

Steve put up his hands in surrender. “Okay. Okay. You’re right. You already went above and beyond what I could have expected of you. Sorry.”

Neither man said anything for a moment, and then Steve, because he couldn’t help himself, blurted,

“He’s a good man, Tony.”

Tony’s jaw clenched and for a second Steve thought he was going to take a swing at him. Instead Tony said in a voice more fraught with emotion than Steve had ever heard from him,

“I know.”

Steve’s brow furrowed.

“I know,” Tony said again, “Believe me. I’ve heard the stories. My father loved you guys. Both of you. All of you. Your whole merry band of heroes. It’s all I heard about growing up. The old man talked all about Sergeant James Buchanan Bucky Barnes and his endless charm and his dry wit and his perfect hair and his heroic death.”

“Tony-”

“So maybe knowing that Dad’s old war buddy is the one who murdered him is a little hard to take.”

“I’m sorry, Tony. You know I thought very highly of your father. Bucky and I both did.”

“Great.”

Steve sighed. “We’ll be out of your hair soon, I promise. As soon as he’s fixed up we’ll leave.”

Something changed in Tony’s expression. Like he was only just realizing that he couldn’t keep Steve here without Bucky staying too.

“Where?” he asked.

“That’s up to him.”

“Back into hiding?”

Steve shrugged. “If that’s what he wants, then yes.”

“And if he doesn’t?”

Steve looked hard at him. “Then we fight. And we keep fighting until the world sees the truth about him. Until they accept him for what he is.”

“Which is?”

“A victim.”

Tony’s eyes darted toward the bedroom door, then back to Steve.

“Eight o’clock tomorrow morning,” he said, “My lab. Let’s not waste any more time.”

****

“Make a fist,” Tony instructed. Bucky did.

“Spread your fingers out as wide as you can.” Bucky did.

“Give me a thumbs up.” Bucky did. “Cute,” Tony said.

“Place your hand on Steve’s neck and squeeze as hard as you can.”

“What?” Bucky asked.

“Tony…” Steve warned.

“Hey, just seeing what he would do. Congratulations, Sergeant. You are now the proud owner of a brand new non-evil arm that is sure to make you the envy of assassins everywhere.”

“Tony.” Steve warned again.

The new arm looked similar to the old one, but was a darker grey, and matte. It did have the star, but it was a lighter grey, rather than white or red. The fingers looked more nimble, Steve thought, and there were far fewer grooves and plates. It looked less intricate, much sleeker, but still very much a weapon. It looked more like the arms on Tony’s own suits, but had to be far more complicated because it would never house a real arm.

“Thanks,” Bucky said quietly, flexing his new fingers. “Feels good. Better. Thank you.”

“If anything acts up with it, call me. Otherwise...don’t.”

Bucky nodded.

“Jeez, Tony. Can you just-”

“It’s okay,” Bucky said. “I don’t care if he hates me. He should hate me. He should kill me. But he saved my life.” He looked at Stark. “You’re a good man, Tony. Thank you.”

Tony looked like he was going to say something, looked a little touched, even, but stayed silent. Bucky hopped down from the table he was sitting on and reached for Steve’s hand. They both started toward the door.

“Have, uh...have you guys decided where you’re going yet?” Tony asked. They stopped.

“Back to Washington,” Steve said, “Natasha is going to direct us to the right people to talk to. We’re going to clear Bucky’s name.”

“That won’t be easy,” Tony said.

“Yeah, well. What else is new?” Steve asked.

Tony sighed. “You can stay here. You don’t have to go.”

Bucky looked as surprised as Steve was. They certainly weren’t expecting that invitation.

But…

“I appreciate that,” Steve said, “But we can’t hide forever. Bucky wants his freedom, and this is the only way.”

“You could both end up in prison,” Tony argued.

“Then we’ll go to prison together. But,” Steve smiled a little, “you know that won’t happen.”

They were about to go through the door when Bucky stopped. He turned back to Tony.

“I just...I don’t know if you want to hear this or not, but I want to tell you. Your father. Howard. He...he recognized me.”

“Bucky…” Steve said. Everything inside him felt cold.

“What?” Tony asked in a tiny voice.

“He knew who I was. He said my name. And for a second...I hesitated.”

“And then?”

“And then I didn’t.”

Tony’s eyes glistened.

“I wish I could have stopped myself,” Bucky said, “I wish that could have been enough, him saying my name. A flicker of a memory. I remember wanting to stop myself. But I couldn’t. I told Steve that I had some awareness of what I was doing when I was on those missions, but when the target was someone I used to know,” he looked at Steve, “they went pretty deep when they prepped me for those. Messed me up good.”

Tony swallowed. “Is that all?”

“Yes.”

They left when Tony didn’t say anything. Steve would ask Natasha to check on Tony. Right now, Steve needed to focus on Bucky.

“Bucky…”

“Let’s go,” Bucky interrupted. “Let’s go to Washington. I can’t live like this anymore.”

“Alright,” Steve said, squaring his shoulders. He was ready. Anything that came at them, they would be ready. Together. “Let’s go.”