It’s like a dream, Steve’s legs wrapped around his waist, the thick cords of muscle in his thighs flexing as Bucky lays him down, his short sharp laugh with a cut-off sigh at the end when he hits the mattress, Bucky’s hands faltering for a moment when the clashing sense memory of Steve’s much smaller body folding beneath him interjects – Steve’s back is so much broader but it’s the same shaky breath he lets out, as if he’s still small enough for Bucky to hold up without even having to brace himself – and Bucky’s got the rest of their lives to practice, to get used to it. He might even learn to appreciate the upward curve of his strength and stamina if it means he can lay Steve right every day until one of them dies. There’s nothing he needs more than that; that’s what he’s been trying to tell Steve, ever since they woke him up again. He just doesn’t have the right words.
He buries his face in Steve’s neck and it’s like honey, it’s like nectar; the comfort of him stretches across the decades, lands Bucky right in the centre of 1938 and the whispering rhythm of Brooklyn around them, makes his hands want to curl up into fists so he won’t touch Steve where he’s not allowed, not outside the confines of their bed. He loved Brooklyn with the bright burst of home fires burning in his chest, but they could never be what they wanted back then. He had to hide his kisses in the crooks of Steve’s elbows, the arches of his feet, where no one else could see.
‘Hey,’ Steve says, breathless, his eyes bright and happy looking up at Bucky. Come back, he’s saying; come back and be here with me, be in this bed with me, get inside. It’s nice in here.
Bucky pulls back onto his knees and stares down at him, just cream skin and red rosy nipples and his beautiful, perfect dick all standing up for Bucky, ready for whatever he wants. It’s like a fucking dream, a boon Bucky literally couldn’t imagine. Whatever circuitry of brain and soul he’d needed to envision a better future on the bad days, they’d taken it away from him. He got this blunt blank certainty instead: he’ll kill anyone who tries to touch this.
‘I was just thinkin’ you’re more beautiful than a pin-up, Stevie boy,’ he says, letting his smile crook up and Steve rolls his eyes and it is, Steve’s grin when he pulls Bucky back down, it’s the most beautiful thing Bucky’s ever fucking seen.
They couldn’t dance together in Brooklyn, and Bucky had felt it in his fingertips every time they touched the waist of another girl who leaned in close to him, let him have everything, let him have whatever; the waist of someone else who wasn’t Steve and consequently couldn’t even get close to giving Bucky what he wanted, no matter how deep they were prepared to let him in.
‘I don’t even like dancing, Buck,’ Steve had said, standing with his hands on his hips in front of the window, the sun streaming in behind him and lighting up the gold of his hair. Bucky stops peeling potatoes and just looks at him for a minute, a lump like a date pit in his throat. There are war mutters in the streets, rumours of conscription. He’s making more time to look, these days. If he can fix Steve in his memory clearly enough, maybe it won’t feel so far away when he has to go.
It doesn’t really occur to him that Steve might follow – that anyone might let him.
‘You’d like it with me,’ he says after a moment, going back to the potatoes.
Steve rolls his eyes.
‘Doesn’t matter if I would or wouldn’t. Even if we could, I wouldn’t be able to get near you through the line of girls waiting for their chance.’
Bucky looks up again and Steve’s sat at the table now, got his head buried in a sketchbook, frowning, stick of charcoal between his long fingers. He said it like he thinks the girls might be something Bucky wants. Bucky feels a stab of frustration; Steve should know better about things seeming different on the outside in comparison to how they actually are. Both of them could write books on that by now.
‘Well, I’d ignore them for you, Steve. I feel like that’s kinda implied, what with us living together in mortal sin and all.’
Steve smiles absently, just a twitch of the mouth, still frowning down at his sketching. Bucky’s heart gives a rough, obedient thump like the wagging of a dog’s tail at the way Steve’s fingers wrap around the pages. The nape of his neck is pale milk through a glass bottle, perfect except for one thumb shaped smudge of charcoal.
There’s a creak outside the front door. Bucky tries not to let the line of his shoulders go tense but he might as well not bother; Steve’s whole body goes rigid, sharp with surprise. It shouldn’t shock them so much every time something like this jumps into the comfortable silences between them, knife clenched in its teeth, but it does. The walls in this apartment are even thinner than in their old one; it’s been a long winter, full of silently open mouths.
The sounds of someone in the hallway recede, muttering to themselves but not hollering in the street about queers so Bucky lets himself relax, put down the peeler. He goes over to Steve and puts his hands on Steve’s fine, bird bone shoulders. Steve sighs and leans back into him. He wouldn’t have let Bucky do any of this if they were a few inches over, where someone might see in through the window. Bucky knows it’s only right to hide it when it’s so obviously dangerous to be living like this, but sometimes it fights up in his throat anyway and he wants to scream about it. A guy can marry a dame and make a goddamn mess of it, why shouldn’t he and Steve be allowed to try?
‘You shouldn’t say things like that,’ Steve says softly. He puts his hand on Bucky’s, pressed down as if to hold him in place. ‘All it takes is someone hearing one wrong thing through the keyhole.’
‘Not wrong,’ Bucky insists, half to be difficult and half because he doesn’t want them thinking in those terms. It’ll strangle you, that kind of talk, if you let it, and Steve doesn’t need anything else clawing up his insides. ‘And besides, it was true. I’d turn down Dot Hurley for you.’
‘Dot Hurley?’ Steve murmurs. ‘Well, that changes everything.’
He pulls Bucky’s hand to his mouth to kiss, draw his lips slowly along the dip of his wrist until Bucky draws in a shaky breath. Goddamn. He remembers when Steve could hardly look at him without blushing. He couldn’t even ask for anything until they’d been messing around for a matter of years, and now he can play Bucky like an instrument without any trouble at all, as if he’s the one fitted the strings in the first place.
Steve looks up at him, blinking, his mouth red and cocky, smiling. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks, Bucky knows; this can’t be wrong.
‘I’ll remember that, next time we go out dancing,’ Steve says, playing along. There’s a sad twitch of his mouth. ‘Wear thick shoes.’
‘You ain’t heavy enough to bruise my feet,’ Bucky says, squeezing his shoulders again. If they could do it, if they could fix it in some other universe, if no one else was around, maybe Steve would finally do it, let himself free, go off like a Catherine wheel, laughing at himself half the time and Bucky the other half, feet tripping over each other and shirt stuck to his back and he’d be blushing, his skin all lit up with the energy and movement and embarrassment of the thing. Lord, wouldn’t that be something to see.
‘We’ll see about that,’ Steve says, arching an eyebrow, tugging him down by the shirt collar until they’re just a breath apart. His eyes are full of the promise, full of walking out together at night and making time under the streetlamps and other gorgeous, impossible dreams. ‘I’ll put lead weights in my shoes.’
‘No one else’ll dance with you except me, then,’ Bucky murmurs, eyes flickering up to Steve’s eyes then back to his mouth. ‘Sounds like I just can’t lose.’
'We don't have to stay,' Steve says, soft into the back of Bucky's neck. His palm is flat on Bucky's stomach, wide and hot. Bucky stirs, nestles into the pillow, grinds back a little against Steve for the fun of it, the half gasp he makes.
'How's that,' he says drowsily. He could just stay here all damn day. He could lay here all his life and not lack for a thing.
'We don't have to stay here just cause T'Challa offered it,' Steve clarifies. 'Sam and the rest, they’re making plans to leave too. You don’t owe anybody anything.'
Bucky rolls his eyes. It's just like Steve to insist Bucky owes nothing to anybody when the most obvious, enduring debt Bucky owes is to Steve himself. He probably doesn't even think of it that way, probably thanks the Lord every day he gets the chance to make it up to Bucky, as if he's the lucky one somehow.
Not that Bucky doesn’t owe T’Challa too. He shifts so his left hand is freed, holding the slick black of the vibranium up to the light. He feels Steve’s eyes following it as clearly as if there were his own, Steve’s hand tightening around Bucky’s waist. In thanks or remembrance? To say that Bucky isn’t the same man Steve used to hold like this is a laughable simplification but it cuts to the heart of the unspoken things that occupy every room they share together; an impossible weight, to add to all the others hanging around Bucky’s neck. But Steve had been grinning so wide when they woke Bucky up out of cryo, he couldn’t hardly contain himself, he spoiled the surprise, look, Bucky, look what they’ve made for you!
It must be thanks. Steve’s never met a version of Bucky he didn’t love, even when it was trying to kill him.
'Where would we go?' Bucky asks, testing it out. It feels dangerous, heady in an entirely new way. When he ran to Bucharest it wasn’t the rest of his life he was searching for but the past; he’d spent weeks inside his apartment watching old documentaries, news reels, filling up journals and journals with memories and fragments that always painted a picture of the same man. All the good ones, anyway.
'Anywhere you want,' Steve says, kissing the back of Bucky's neck again, shifting one of his legs to cross over Bucky's in a new pattern. Both of them run too hot these days to really lie like this for long but they’re bearing it, Bucky’s sticking it out even though sweat’s starting to prick in the hinge of his knees, the small of his back. He’d be slick, difficult to keep hold of if he wanted to get away, but he doesn’t. He lets it play out in his mind for a second anyway, the daring luxury of being able to say no: Steve’s hands clinging automatically in sheer surprise before letting go hastily, palms up in surrender, rolling over to the other side of the bed or off it entirely. He’d go to the opposite side of the room, he’d leave the apartment if Bucky wanted him to. He’d stand buck naked in the rain.
Bucky arches his back, nuzzles back into Steve’s cheek and drops a rough kiss there at the thought. Steve’s hand pets at his stomach again, his mouth curves in a smile against Bucky’s neck.
'I mean. Within reason. Maybe not Siberia,' Steve modifies, voice rough.
'Well, that was gonna be my first suggestion –'
Steve pokes him in the side.
'You know what I mean.'
'I dunno,' he says after a minute. 'I guess I never let myself think about it.'
It had taken them a really, really long time to break it out of him but they managed it eventually – the desire to dream. Eventually he figured it out himself, that it was harder to get what he wanted in his mind and then come back to reality, the black and white and red of it, the hard metal taste when he’d been dreaming of softness, so he stopped going to any version of a good place when they hurt him. It was one of the reasons he'd lost track of Steve for months at a time if not years; it hurt worse to keep something so good in a place like that, keep that torch lit in a mind where someone else was blowing out all the candles.
Steve nuzzles into the back of his neck some more, short and determined presses of his lips, thinking so loudly be might as well be using a megaphone. Bucky blinks rapidly, concentrates on sensory input, on keeping himself in the moment; the smooth and steady clasp of Steve’s hands around his waist, the softness of the sheets, the rhythmic patter of light rain on the window on the opposite wall. All good things. The doctors had wiped the code out of him using some kind of neural rewriting software, leaving only the disjointed sense of a place where violence used to live. He can strike all the torches he wants, now; he can fill his mind with light.
'Do you remember,' Bucky says haltingly, a phrase needlessly hesitant and overused when the answer is always yes – even when he didn’t have a photographic memory, Steve had apparently used up important space meant for things like survival instincts burning every conversation they ever had into his long term memory banks – 'we used to talk about going to Europe?'
'We used to talk about running away to Europe,' Steve corrects, smile brushing his pulse point and making Bucky shiver. 'When we'd been bad and our mas rightly thrashed us for it.'
'Your ma never thrashed you, she'd have put you in the goddamn ground.'
She had a mean right hook, did Sarah Rogers, especially for an unwelcome hand around her waist. Maybe it’s no wonder Steve turned out like he did; he had it coming to him on both sides.
'She made me feel like she had,' Steve says severely. 'A few words from her were worse than being hit.'
'You would say that,' Bucky snorts. 'Soft touch. You shoulda tried having four brothers and sisters, no damn time for a few words.'
'I might as well’ve,' Steve protests. 'Yours were as good as mine.'
Bucky lets out a slow breath. Steve does this sometimes, still; he doesn’t pull his punches where their collective past is concerned, because for him there’s nothing to pull. He’d live just as readily in the 30s as he does in the year of our Lord 2016, if he could, getting happily kicked into the Brooklyn gutter every chance he got. It’s not that Bucky doesn’t get it. The life Steve was meant to have was roughly snatched away from him, so there’s always a hint of longing in his voice when he talks about it. He didn’t live through the expanding decades in between, not even in the way Bucky did, popping up every now and then like a jack in the box with a Kalashnikov stuffed down the back of its pants. Maybe it’s just that patented stubborn insistence on seeing the best in everyone or maybe Steve really just doesn’t remember how it felt, to have Bucky’s ma eyeing them across the dinner table at Thanksgiving and making pointed comments about how much like brothers they acted; Bucky does. He can’t put a price on what they lost out on, but it’d be an even worse tragedy if he couldn’t accept the windfalls that land in their lap now. He loved his ma, but he’ll accept laying in this bed with Steve with a glad heart if it means he never has to swallow down another lump of mashed potatoes with a healthy serving of homophobia.
‘Becca was yours,’ he concedes eventually, a brief unexpected smile passing over his face. ‘She liked you better’n me.’
‘Smart girl,’ Steve says, his voice warm.
Steve used to swap drawings with Becca, even when she was tiny and they were just stick figures scrawled on scraps of napkin from the diner across the street – Bucky and Steve playing stickball, identifiable by the inches of height between the figures, Steve’s yellow mop the brightest thing on the page. Steve kept every one of them and in return drew the Barnes family in motion, Bucky’s pa and brothers crowded around the radio whooping for the Dodgers, his ma and her slight smile as she rested her feet at the end of a shift, secret cigarette between her fingers and lips pursed to take another drag.
And he drew Bucky, always Bucky, laughing with his head between his knees after they rode the Cyclone together or propped up against a brick wall with a smear of dirt high across his cheekbone, one eyebrow raised, mouth almost smiling over the cheek of it, having just hauled Steve out of a fight by the scruff of his neck. They were almost embarrassing to look at; they made him want to grab Steve by the shoulders and shake him, find out if that was how Steve really saw him or if it was just a reflection in the eye of the beholder, the look on Bucky’s face as if he was ready to walk right out of those pictures and drop everything he owned at the artist’s feet.
Steve never showed the drawings of Bucky to anyone, not even Becca. He must have recognized the danger at least that much.
Bucky turns around to face Steve and lets out a sigh. Steve shuffles toward him across the pillows and presses their foreheads together, kisses him almost like an afterthought, an old, married kind of kiss.
'I'd go anywhere with you,' Steve says quietly, and Bucky almost flinches at the sense memory hitting him – Steve talking to him like this, close and warm. His smaller frame curled up on the side of the bed. He was smiling but serious all the same, deadly fucking serious like a heart attack, saying those exact same words, and Bucky's lips had twisted helplessly, he’d almost wanted to laugh. It felt unbelievably cruel sometimes, just being around Steve, feeling the way he felt, a longing that cut so deep he couldn’t feel the bottom of it; a joke the universe was perpetrating on the both of them. His kisses had a scorching quality back then, almost savage, so fraught, on edge from keeping his hands at his sides around other people instead of cradling Steve’s face like they should be. He had to kiss him so much, he couldn’t stop himself, there was nowhere else for the conversation to go without declarations he couldn't make to someone he couldn't marry. His hands had fisted in the back of Steve’s shirt, dragging it up and off him, tearing it and making Steve cry out in surprise and always Bucky’s heart was pounding, pounding with the impossibility of it all, thinking God, I wish we could, I wish you could make good on that, I know you would.
Steve looks at him questioningly now, seeing that shift in his eyes where it had been hidden from him earlier. Steve always wants to be soft with him when he sees him like this, soft where Bucky is merciless with himself, dragging his memories back into the light and scrubbing at them until they’re bright and shiny and clean. Bucky just shakes his head a little and Steve looks wary but acquiesces, shifting his hand to span the healthy weight of Bucky’s hip and ass, tangling his feet in between Bucky's legs. He still tries to make himself smaller sometimes, folding his arms, tucking in his feet to fit in the spaces Bucky leaves for him. That’s another thing Bucky doesn’t know how to say, now they’ve got so much time to fit in all these crippling emotional truths: that Steve should never have to make himself smaller for anybody, not when the world spent so long trying to crush him into a more malleable shape. Bucky’ll be damned if it’s for love of him that Steve does it after all, when not even the combined force of one hundred and seventeen nations and a group of his new best friends could.
'I never thought about it,' Bucky says again, hoarsely, reengaging with the conversation with an almost audible snap. He frowns, fumbling for the words. He knows he looks smaller like this too, when he's just remembered something, flattened by the weight of something much bigger than he's used to carrying. 'I just forgot how to – imagine anything more.'
He swallows hard, fumbling at tendrils of the memory. Steve had loved his pamphlets and books about all the far off places Bucky could never imagine getting to, had pored over them for hours and drawn the illustrations over and over again. Bucky had preferred sci-fi himself, figuring the future was right ahead of them and so it would be harder to get lost if you just carried on going in a straight line.
Steve was always asking where Bucky would go if he had the chance, London or Paris or the Congo, as if he didn't know being right next to Steve was the best seat in the house. Bucky’s been to all those places now, but he usually only saw them at night and he didn’t exactly have much time for sightseeing.
'Well, imagine it now,' Steve says, kissing him again carefully. ‘We got the time.’
‘You always wanted to go more places’n me,’ Bucky points out, lying flat on his back with a sigh and picking up Steve’s hand so he can lay it over his heart. Steve shifts onto one elbow so he can keep watching Bucky while he talks to him.
‘Doesn’t mean you don’t wanna go anywhere. It ain’t a competition, Buck.’
Bucky arches an eyebrow at him and Steve blinks unrepentantly, refusing to let Bucky divert the conversation. Him and Sam both, they just can’t get over Bucky asserting himself left right and center. They practically cry with happiness whenever Bucky can make some kind of declarative statement about what he wants, even if it’s just more sugar in his coffee.
‘Oh, ain’t it?’ he says softly, bringing Steve’s hand up to kiss. He sighs and looks at Steve thoughtfully, hoping the next words get through the serum-enhanced thickness of his skull. ‘I want you to have the things you want too, Stevie. This ain’t a suicide mission.’
'You're gonna be there,' Steve says easily, propping his chin up on Bucky’s chest so he’s almost close enough to kiss. 'I think I'll live.'
'What would we do though,' Bucky says a few days later, squinting up at Steve where he's plumbing the rows of T'Challa's library. Wanda left this morning and Steve promptly disappeared into the art history section, frowning, not even reemerging for meals. He’d known she was leaving but there’s knowing that and there’s seeing the team you’ve built disintegrate before your eyes over and over again. Steve’s had it on losing the same people more than once, apparently. Bucky recognizes the shape of failure in his shoulders; they buckle just the same now as they did when Steve was a hundred pounds soaking wet. He still feels panicky looking at the idea of leaving that directly – that much freedom, that much open road before them which could so quickly fill with obstacles – but if he can throw it to Steve as a curveball then that’s a different matter. Looking after Bucky is one of the only things Steve will rank above flagellating himself on his list of priorities, and Bucky is willing to abuse that as much and as often as Steve falls for it. ‘Wherever we go, we gotta have some kinda plan.’
Wanda had sought Bucky out before she left, looking him shrewdly in the eyes.
‘Do you think it gets easier?’ she’d asked.
‘I think more stuff happens,’ he’d said after determining from her expression that she wanted a real answer, not a comforting one. ‘More stuff piles up on top of the old shit and you can’t really see it anymore, but it’s still there if you know where to look.’
‘Sounds about right,’ she says. She sighs and looks at him searchingly. ‘I need to find out who I am aside from the old shit, as you so charmingly say. Do you think Steve will forgive me?’
‘Forgive what?’ Bucky asks. ‘You think he doesn’t already know why you’re leaving? He’s been Captain America for seventy years. He won’t blame you.’
Steve frowns down at him now.
‘I don’t know, Buck,’ he says honestly. He’s sat down on the floor, his back to a hefty bookcase, built out of some kind of gorgeous slabs of dark wood. The book in his hands lies forgotten at Bucky’s question. It’s a giant coffee table kinda deal, heavy enough to count as a weapon in the right hands, shiny pages with lots of pictures of art, the sort of thing people buy to impress rather than read. Steve’s been flicking through it for hours. Bucky had left him to it at first, having spent this morning out on the balcony, letting the mist float over him and wrinkle the pages of his journal. Sometimes he doesn’t write anything at all and it’s enough just to have the tools in front of him, the calm possibility of memories emerging from the fog, but today had been the thick taste of salt on his tongue from an unknown ocean, tightly braided with the sensation of an untreated concussion, shapes wavering in and out of recognition, nausea. He’d written down the words in a list without trying to make sense out of them, because maybe one day he’ll look back and they’ll have rearranged themselves into something that makes sense. He wonders what Steve sees in all the books he looks at, if all those fine lines and brushstrokes and angles add up to something that comforts him, or whether it only sends things spiraling into more chaos. Some days it feels like the only solid thing Bucky has is Steve’s body under his hands, the weight of their shared history when Steve looks at him.
‘We should go somewhere pretty,’ Bucky suggests. ‘So you can paint.’
‘I can paint anywhere, Buck.’
Some teasing memory flickers out the corner of his eye. He tries to catch it, sounds it out in his mind until it feels right.
‘You had that postcard of San Francisco,’ he says slowly, and Steve gives half a wondering laugh, startled enough that Bucky knows he’s got it right. He starts grinning slowly. ‘From that pack of smokes – the golden gate bridge, half of it anyway –’
‘Still under construction,’ Steve agrees, half smiling, his eyes looking at Bucky but seeing something much older, sepia-toned. ‘I kept it pinned to that old photo frame.’
‘Did you ever go?’ Bucky asks. His hands itch; he wants Steve to come down the ladder and back onto ground level so he won’t be so far away. Maybe he never used to be this touch hungry, he can’t really tell – his memories are stained with the need he feels for it now, so it’s impossible to differentiate. If he had to put money on it though, he’d say that this was one of the only things about him that’s stayed steadfast since the thirties. It has that comforting, inevitable flavor, as if Steve could have just walked through the door a minute ago and Bucky’s heart would still be trying to leap out of his chest, battering the walls of his ribcage, screeching what a bargain, let’s take him!
‘No,’ Steve admits. ‘I got – things happened.’
‘Well, they ain’t happening now,’ Bucky says. ‘What d’you say?’
Steve looks at him for a long moment, that uncomfortably shrewd expression that had hopped straight from his mother’s body into his as soon as he was old enough to understand what the word bullshit meant.
Bucky curses internally. Well, Steve isn’t dwelling on Wanda leaving anymore, that’s for sure.
‘You wanna go to San Francisco? Just like that, we’re decided?’
‘Well, not for permanent. I guess I never thought about really settling any place other than –’
He hesitates, eyes flicking up to Steve, who smiles.
‘Brooklyn?’ he says. Bucky’s shoulders drop in relief. They were lying in bed the other day and the rain falling on the skylight sounded so much like it used to when their roof had sprung a leak that Bucky wanted to cry. It’s Brooklyn – it has to be. He doesn’t even care what they do there, so long as nobody’s shooting at them.
‘But – we can take our time getting there, y’know? I want to go lots of places, Stevie. This seems like an alright place to start.’
Steve nods his head slowly, puts the book carefully back in its place on the shelf and starts making his way down the ladder. Bucky turns away and moves over to the window, leans against the wall as if he can physically force nonchalance into his own body. He doesn’t know who he’s trying to fool; that look on Steve’s face, maybe.
‘We can go there if you want,’ Steve says mildly. ‘All I meant was, we don’t have to go the first place we think of.’
He’s close enough now that Bucky could touch him, if he wanted, just reach out and snag his wrist. Steve would stop in midair, no matter what he was doing, and wait to see what Bucky wanted. When Bucky first got out of cryo again and he was still waking up more often in the night, his body thrashing like a ragdoll with a few hundred pounds of muscle behind it, Steve kept putting himself in harm’s way to stop Bucky scratching himself up, give him something else to fight while he resurfaced. Steve had faded red lines down his arms and his back for weeks, for all that he heals fast. War wounds, Bucky had thought, sickened. He kept waiting for Steve to suggest separate beds, start making apologetic excuses to put a safe distance between them, but he never did. Bucky should have known better. Steve never met a lost cause he didn’t like.
‘I had a chance to go where I wanted, Buck. I’ve had years.’
‘So did I,’ Bucky points out sourly. ‘I had Bucharest.’
‘Something tells me that wasn’t exactly a five-star vacation,’ Steve says.
Bucky winces. It still stings that Steve saw him there, wearing near all the clothes he owned on his back. Steve had looked so hilariously out of place in that apartment, the bright red and blue of him against the backdrop of a life sketched in stark and howling black, white and grey. He’d dropped in and it was like a switch had been flicked. Bucky had seen in excruciating detail how it must look to outside eyes, how painfully obvious he had been about every one of the things he couldn’t live without: a place to sleep, the fibrous skin of a plum between his teeth, Steve’s well-worn picture between the pages of his journal.
‘It was what I could have,’ he says.
Steve starts to say something then stops, shaking his head.
‘You want a plan?’ he asks Bucky.
Bucky nods, cautiously. It would be easier for them all, maybe, if he could pretend that wasn’t true, if he could still pick Steve up in a back alley and dust him off, drag him off to a dance with two girls on his arm with no more than ten minutes’ notice. But this isn’t really about what’s easy. Bucky’s starting to get the awed feeling this might be about the rest of their lives.
‘So we’ll make a plan,’ Steve says firmly. ‘If that’s what you need. We’ll make a list of things we want to see, places we want to go, and we’ll draw up an itinerary. There’s gotta be –’ he gestures around at the dozens of bookcases around them ‘– there’s gotta be maps around here somewhere, right?’
‘Or we could use the internet,’ Bucky points out, an irrepressible grin fighting at the corners of his mouth.
‘What’s the internet,’ Steve deadpans. Bucky rolls his eyes. ‘No, I’m serious, let me write that down, how’d you spell it –’
‘You think you’re so funny.’
‘I think I’m hilarious,’ Steve says. ‘You’ve just been spending too much time around Sam, is all, or you’d agree.’
‘I don’t know what I did to deserve you,’ Bucky says honestly, brow wrinkling a little. ‘Seventy years and you’re still making dad jokes.’
‘You don’t need to have done anything,’ Steve shrugs. He blinks at Bucky for a minute, his eyelashes long and real pretty, and Buck has the sudden urge to kiss him. Steve smiles like he can read that, even though Bucky’s expressions these days usually require everyone else to have a translation dictionary. ‘Just stuck with me, I guess.’
‘A curse,’ Bucky agrees, pulling Steve in by the short hairs at the back of his neck. It still makes Steve gasp, satisfyingly, just the way it did when they were eighteen. Bucky grins and it feels almost like it used to, although it sits a little more crooked on his face now.
Steve could hardly leave their bed the winter Bucky got his draft letter; he lied and said he’d only been there five minutes every time Bucky came in and found him like that, but Bucky knew. The winter was so hard on him, almost the hardest it had been since they were children. It hurt sometimes just to lie there next to him and listen to him breathe. It got scary, like waiting for a monster to jump out from behind a pillar in a horror flick, so eventually Bucky had to get out of bed and bring Steve a bowl of hot water to breathe in or rustle up another coat that could go over the top of the pile of blankets already covering him. Steve always tried to shuck some over to Bucky’s side of the bed when Bucky wasn’t looking. He was goddamn impossible, that winter; Bucky wrestling himself away to go to work and Steve trying to get up still and when Bucky gets back home Steve is back there again, curled up on his side, every breath loud and careful and full of concerted effort.
Bucky stands there just watching for a second, his exacting heart already swooping under the covers where Steve lies, like a goddamn heat seeking missile. Steve is always the place he's trying to get to, no matter where he's coming from.
‘Will you let me get the goddamn doctor now,’ he asks Steve, like he asked this morning, like he asked yesterday. He can’t even let the full weight of his irritation weigh his voice down; the frail curve of Steve’s back is too tense for that. Bucky has the notion that if he were to reach out and flick it with the tip of his finger it’d cave straight in.
He doesn’t want to fight; he can’t fight about this again. Steve sees the draft letter out of the corner of his eye all the time now. When he isn’t trying to enlist, he’s scaring himself to death over Bucky going off without him. Bucky wishes he could tell him he’d give it up in a second flat if it meant he could stay here with Steve, but he doesn’t know how that would go down, with Steve on such friendly terms with Uncle Sam these days.
‘No,’ Steve says mulishly, muffled by the covers. ‘I just need to rest, Bucky, I don’t need the doctor.’
‘You always need to rest, baby,’ Bucky sighs, sitting on the edge of the bed. The shape of Steve under the blankets goes stiff.
‘Sorry to be such a burden to you,’ Steve says, and Bucky rolls his eyes and doesn’t dignify that bullshit with an answer. The worst thing is, though – the funny thing, the fucking stupid thing – is that Steve really believes that Bucky would be better off without him. It’s so funny Bucky doesn’t know how to respond to it, so he usually just doesn’t. Steve is his goddamn map of the world; he doesn’t want to go anyplace else because everything he needs is, very neatly, confined to the square foot nothing of space Steve happens to take up at any given time.
‘You’re a pain in my ass,’ Bucky agrees, slipping off his shoes and settling in beside Steve, lying down and putting a careful arm over Steve’s small form with a sigh. He closes his eyes, pressing his face in between the wings of Steve’s shoulder blades. Steve drew a comic once when they were kids about a girl who grew actual wings from this exact place, just conjured them one day out of her own indignation when she saw some grand injustice taking place on the street. Then she flew around kicking criminals in the face and pulling kittens out of trees or something. Bucky’d wanted her to have a laser gun but Steve had told him that wasn’t the point. ‘I wish you’d let me get the doctor. Will you let me get the doctor if I suck you off after?’
Steve swats him on the arm. Bucky sighs.
‘I hate this,’ Steve says after a moment, voice small. Bucky’s arms tighten around him on reflex, like he can squeeze the sadness out. ‘I hate it, Buck.’
‘I know you do, sweetheart,’ Bucky says, and Steve doesn’t even huff at him like he usually does when Bucky calls him sweet. He just lies there.
Bucky swallows down around promises he shouldn’t make but almost believes, and tells himself again: Steve’s the only person he knows who could defy a doctor’s diagnosis on sheer bullheadedness alone. He’s done it before, after all. They all look at Steve with the same x-ray vision, zooming in the weak lungs, the curved spine, the patched and tattered immune system. They don’t see Steve at all, not really.
‘I just feel useless,’ Steve says, and Bucky squeezes him again. You give to me, he wants to say; you give enough to me just by being alive and breathing, you could never be useless.
‘Well, you ain’t,’ Bucky says firmly. ‘If you’re useless, then what the hell am I? At least you got a brain in your head to draw and paint and think on things, what am I good for? I’m gonna be working on the docks like my pa until I’m seventy, you just wait and see, Rogers –’
Steve rolls over, indignant at the concept that Bucky might be good for nothing, just as Bucky knew he’d be. It’s classic, distracts Steve from his self-loathing every time, and even if he realizes Bucky’s doing it that never stops him getting that insulted look on his face anyway at the very idea.
‘You could do whatever you wanted, Buck,’ Steve says, serious, like he can’t believe he even has to say it. ‘Any damn thing you wanted.’
Bucky can even half believe him, when Steve looks at him like that.
They leave when spring starts coming in, the first green blossoming in the mist. It smells like grass and Bucky remembers in hamstrung, choppy slices how he used to have allergies, sniffing his way through the warm weather – one of the only ailments he’d ever shared with Steve, who used to laugh at him when Bucky grumbled and turned into a grumpy snot-smeared kid for at least two months out of the year.
Their plan is cautious but written in pen, scribbled on the back of an envelope after dinner one evening when T’Challa and Sam have disappeared off somewhere (Bucky isn’t going to ask; T’Challa is basically the only person that can distract Sam from trying to steal Bucky’s arm and hide it in increasingly difficult to reach locations).
Bucky and Steve are sat out on the balcony, watching the waterfalls, all that energy dissipating into still water. Bucky might never have felt as peaceful as this before. He doesn’t know what to do with it; as soon as he notices it’s there, it starts weighing heavier on his shoulders.
He sits back, lets his head fall back against the chair.
‘They let you go under the falls in Niagara, don’t they,’ he says to Steve softly. Steve looks at him for a moment and his expression goes quizzical, rifling in his pocket until he comes out with scrap of paper. He straightens it out against the arm of the chair and writes it down, two firm words. He looks up at Bucky, waiting to see if there’s more.
‘The Grand Canyon,’ Bucky says, and that one’s dragged out from somewhere deep, he can feel it tugging at important parts of his insides as it comes.
Steve watches his right hand where it’s started picking erratically at the threads in the seat cushion. He thinks he’s surreptitious about it but half the time his glances are what tells Bucky he’s doing it in the first place. Bucky tries to lie the hand flat but it’s shaking, shaking like a goddamn leaf.
‘You always wanted to go there,’ Steve says, smiling faintly. When Bucky looks up at him his expression is that complicated one that’s become familiar over the last few months, the one that says he’s drawing together the scraps of both who they were and who they are now and trying to patch it into something that makes sense. It’s soothing; Bucky doesn’t really know why. He thought he’d had enough of people trying to fit him back together like Lego but it turns out, as with most things, that when Steve does it, the intention outweighs the potential for negative impact. ‘I drew it once, do you remember – probably got all the proportions wrong, I only had those old comics to go off. I put us both there, with our packs, looking up at the stars –’
‘I took it to war,’ Bucky says hoarsely, swallowing hard. He frowns. The ghost of cold metal under his fingertips, paper worn soft with touch. ‘I kept it in that old cigarette tin.’
It’ll be long gone by now, of course. None of his possessions had outlived HYDRA.
‘I never knew that,’ Steve says, looking at him wonderingly. ‘I woulda tried harder to get the colouring right if I’d have known you were gonna carry it around like a picture of your sweetheart.’
‘Well, I couldn’t get you to stand still long enough,’ Bucky says, smiling a little now. He takes Steve’s hand and Steve squeezes it, and somewhere between then and them arguing over whether or not to stop off in Vegas, Bucky stops shaking.
It goes like that for a while. The list gets longer every day, expanding in tandem with the nervous lightness in Bucky’s chest. He’s still waiting for the other shoe to drop even when they stand in front of T’Challa and an uncharacteristically quiet Sam, ready to say goodbye. It’s the simplicity that scares him: this is all too good. It’s too good, and something is going to happen to ruin it.
‘I don’t know what to say,’ he says to T’Challa bluntly, holding onto the strap of his backpack like it might fall off if he doesn’t clutch it in the metal of his fist. How do you thank someone who gave you yourself? His scientists made Bucky a person again. He can’t exactly send a fruit basket. ‘If you need us then, uh. Break out the bat symbol, I guess.’
T’Challa arches an eyebrow and Bucky shrugs. Steve’s kept a phone to which only four people in the world know the number, but Bucky could happily let every electronic device he owns sink into the ocean if it means he gets to have this – Steve next to him, with a ready list of places to go. He doesn’t deserve it, he knows that much, but he’s going to have it anyway. Isn’t that something people do? Covet things just for themselves, even if they know, really, that the things are too good for them?
By necessity a lot of Bucky’s sweetest memories of Steve are set inside their old apartments and those are the ones that came back to him faster, overflowing once he got the lid off, too many for his subconscious to comfortably contain. But some of his earliest memories, when they finally shrugged off the shadow covering them, are of Steve too: chasing him down alleyways and sitting down on the stoop when Steve needed a moment to breathe, staring up at the sky, cut into patches by the encroaching skyscrapers, Steve’s wheezy breathing beside him. Bucky has been reborn in a hundred different places and years, but this is the birth he keeps close to him, glinting like an amulet: Steve’s half laugh and his voice, always slightly deeper than expected from a boy so small, asking what did Bucky think it would be like to be up there that high, as high as a bird? And Bucky looking at him, swooping in his stomach, thinking it’d be something similar to this: falling too quickly too fast, but knowing it’s home you’re falling to.
Sam makes them promise to call every now and then. Bucky gives him a final two fingered vibranium salute on the way out, grinning when Steve rolls his eyes.
‘You sure you don’t want to take the jet?’ Steve says skeptically as they drive through the palace gates, waving goodbye to the security detail who look incredibly dubious about letting Captain America and his fugitive boyfriend roll out of the royal grounds with nothing but a few duffel bags and an SUV. ‘It’s a long drive.’
‘Why, you got somewhere to be?’ Bucky asks, propping himself up against the door so he can watch Steve while he drives. Steve’s large and solid hands are a monument to the man he used to be; if pressed, Bucky would probably single them out as the part of Steve that changed least after the serum. They look pretty good wrapped around a gear stick, too.
‘A few places, actually,’ Steve replies, grinning. ‘I just wanna be sure, you know, the last time we were in a car together it got pretty tense –’
‘Sam Wilson,’ Bucky begins loudly, ‘is not the world authority on punch-buggy, alright? That was – that was a car ride and a half, is what that was. Sam Wilson is full of shit, Steve.’
‘He’s not actually here, you know, I don’t think he can hear you from the palace –’
‘We’ll see,’ Bucky says ominously, just to make Steve laugh again. Maybe he’s changed his mind; Steve’s eyes might have changed the least. Bucky would have been knocked on his ass just now by how bright they were if he weren’t already sitting down. Zemo didn’t know what the fuck he was talking about.
‘We’ll get a room with a good view, the first place we get to, Buck,’ Steve promises, apparently impulsively, reaching over to squeeze Bucky’s hand before he puts both hands back on the wheel. He looks so much lighter without that A stamped on his forehead, like it’s so much easier for him to lift his head. He starts humming along tunelessly with the radio, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel. Bucky’s heart aches.
‘I got a great view from here, don’t make no difference to me,’ he says.
They cross borders like thieves; Bucky didn’t spend decades as a ghost to lose his knack for stealth now, although Steve’s about as consistently shining and bright as he always was under cover of shadow. It’s hard for him to leave things behind without thanking anyone for them, and he doesn’t like just passing through. Always gotta leave his mark, does Bucky’s sweetheart.
They huddle in the bowels of a freighter bound for Cuba and it gets sorely, bitterly cold at night. Bucky remembers cold. Siberia is the kind of memory that lives in the bone and breaks out when the temperature drops below a certain threshold, past which he can’t really keep hold of himself. Or the self he is now, anyway.
‘Come on, Buck,’ Steve’s saying, rummaging and rearranging blankets around him and Bucky snaps back into himself, grabs Steve’s wrist with the vibranium arm and hears the bones grind together and Steve hiss out in pain before Bucky remembers to moderate himself, and he’s gasping ‘Sorry, I’m sorry,’ and Steve is already giving a half smile, rueful, don’t worry about it, like Bucky giving him bruises is par for the course they’ve set. It is, but that still hurts.
‘What fucking time is it,’ Bucky mumbles so he doesn’t keep saying sorry. Steve hates that, and it doesn’t really help either of them.
‘It’s early. Too early to wake up, apparently,’ Steve says dryly, then sighs. ‘Only one more day. You don’t even like sailing, Buck, and it’s not like we can go above deck anyway. This is bullshit.’
‘S’not bullshit,’ Bucky says mulishly, closing his eyes and lying back on the gently rocking boards, hoping they might lull him back into something resembling restful sleep. He keeps hold of Steve’s hand even though it means his arm is stretched out longer than he wants it to be. ‘Sailing’s great. I love sailing.’
‘You’re a goddamn liar,’ Steve says.
Bucky makes an agreeable noise and tugs Steve down until they’re wound together, clinging body heat springing from Steve into him.
‘We should have flown,’ Steve says. ‘We should’ve – I know I got rich friends somewhere. We shoulda worked something else out.’
Bucky strokes Steve’s hair, fine and soft like silk.
‘I think we pissed off all your rich friends, Steve,’ he says mildly. ‘I don’t fancy our chances much in an airport. Didn’t go great last time.’
Steve snorts a laugh, sounding sleepy. Bucky’s heart gives a painful tug. It’s not enough that Bucky dragged Steve away from everything he knows, the home and the family he’d built for himself in a strange new world he’d only just started getting used to. Steve’s still trying to give more, give everything, as if he might one day be able to tip the scales enough that Bucky can look back with something other than grief. That’s something else Bucky doesn’t really know how to tell him, and probably never will: some part of Bucky is already grateful. It’s ugly and pitiful, it’s at the cost of dozens of lives and everything he used to be able to call his own, but he can’t help it. It’s the heart they couldn’t quite get to, no matter how many other parts of him they tried to cut out.
‘They won’t pull that kinda stunt again,’ Steve replies eventually, mouth muffled by blankets. ‘I think we all knew it wasn’t the real fight.’
‘You wouldn’t know the real fight if it bit you on the ass, Rogers,’ Bucky says. ‘That’s why you got me around.’
‘Like you know any better,’ he bitches. ‘You’re just afraid I’ll show you up.’
‘I’m not afraid of anything anymore,’ Bucky says. It’s supposed to sound like a joke but it doesn’t, really; his tone a shade too serious. Steve’s hand shunts blankets and sheets aside until he can get skin on skin, shifts over until he can spread his hand wide over Bucky’s hip. This close, Steve tucked up and simultaneously spreading his big body out all over the plank of Bucky’s, Bucky can feel Steve’s heart beating, lodged somewhere in Bucky’s abdomen. When they used to lie like this in Brooklyn, he used to get distracted from what they were talking about because Steve’s heart beat so out of sync, scratchy and irregular like a worn out record played too many times. He’d get caught up in the unreliable jagged rhythm of the thing; a couple of times it was so faint he shuffled Steve around, even if Steve was still talking, made him lie down flat on his back on the bed so Bucky could hover over him, press his ear to Steve’s chest and convince himself his heart was beating at all.
A sudden memory startles a laugh out of him.
‘D’you think this is better or worse than the shitty mattress in the garret in –’
‘Worse,’ Steve says immediately, then laughs. ‘Well, maybe that’s unfair. It was still a mattress, and right now we’re sleeping on damp planks.’
‘And yet, still more comfortable.’
A lot of Bucky’s memories fall through his mind like water, dripping off casual remarks Steve makes that leave Bucky floundering, struggling to catch up to the déjà vu already slipping away, but the feelings stick. They’ve laid down like this a million times; it’s in the bone. His body falls into position around Steve, grounded by the basic familiarity of Steve’s body, by the places he’s put his hands in this century and the last. There’s nowhere he could touch Steve that wouldn’t feel like home.
‘One more day,’ Bucky says softly, when he thinks Steve might finally be asleep again, but Steve gives a happy grunt and punches the air.
‘You still gotta drive when we get there, though,’ Bucky says. Steve pokes him in the ribs.
From Cuba they skip to Florida, then Georgia, then Alabama. It’s a circuitous route that’s gonna lead them round in a circle before they get to where they really want to be but to be honest, Bucky kinda likes that. There’s something comforting in taking a route no one would really expect of them – he’d wanted a plan, yeah, but he’s had enough of following the trails other people set out for him. This is something they’re doing just for them, and no one else gets to tell them they’re doing it wrong.
They spend weeks on the road just jumping from hotel to hotel, shedding fake names and documents as fast as they can think of new ones. Bucky dissolves and reforms in each new city, brought back to life under Steve’s hands in the shower, stroking him gently, until Bucky’s soft animal heart is shaking with need.
He wonders if it’ll ever stop feeling like stealing: Steve Rogers, Captain America, the hope of a nation tucked into Bucky’s right hand. It’s the heist of the century.
It hadn’t even been hiding in plain sight when Bucky had dragged Steve into his tent in front of the rest of the howling 107th and God and even Agent Carter herself, who’d had that raised eyebrows look that said now, I see how it is. She wasn’t wrong, but Bucky thought he might take her aside one time anyway, correct her on a few things. No sane woman should get herself involved with a goddamn train wreck like Steve, who couldn’t even be trusted to wait at home a few months for his sweetheart to come back on honorable discharge before he was signing himself up to scientific experimentation and haring across Europe after him, oblivious as ever to any sound above the constant blaring klaxons of what other people need.
This is how it is: Bucky’s going to kill Steve.
‘I’m gonna kill you,’ Bucky promises, barely waiting for the tent to fall shut, frantically tugging on the bindings before grabbing Steve by the lapels and yanking him in – Steve’s bigger’n him now, he has to lean down to reach Bucky’s mouth – his eyes glittering hot with rage, melting into a moan when their lips touch. Steve’s mouth falls open just like it always had, shocked and pretty at the attention, this unlooked-for fucking miracle, his Steve, his sweetheart, come to dig him out of hell like he’d always sworn he would. Bucky can’t help the rabbit patter of joy in his veins, palms aching with overstretched nerves, even though he’s so angry he could spit. ‘I swear to God, Stevie, I never met a bigger asshole – you’n me are gonna have words –’
‘Just as soon as you get my pants off, huh,’ Steve says, more like whispers, sounding almost breathless when Bucky backs him into a table with a grunt and sends important looking files and maps spilling all over the ground, makes him sit so Bucky can get in there right between his legs, yank Steve’s thickly muscled thighs up around his hips and roughly toward him until Steve gasps, his broad chest heaving under the uniform as Bucky pulls at the shirt until all the buttons ping off somewhere and each pornographic inch of Steve’s new body is exposed to the light. Bucky just stops for a second, panting, running his hands unthinkingly over the new and gleaming planes of Steve’s chest and says ‘Where’d you go, Stevie, what the fuck did they do – where’s my skinny boy, where the fuck are your ribs –’
‘They’re still in there somewhere,’ Steve pants, hands yanking at Bucky’s shoulders, ‘come on, Buck, you gotta – c’mon, please –’
‘Please what,’ Bucky says, pulling Steve in around the back of his neck and just mouthing at him, it’s barely a kiss at all, their mouths open and panting, Steve hauling him in hard at the waist and making Bucky stumble – and saying ‘Sorry, sorry,’ quickly, he must not be used to the new strength yet, still ungainly with it, or maybe Bucky just made him forget – ‘you got some fucking nerve, turning up here like this, all blown up like a goddamn doll, what the fuck did they do to you –’
‘I’m still – I still want – c’mon, it’s – look –’
‘Yeah, yeah,’ Bucky says, kissing him again and Steve falls into it with a groan, his thighs squeezing tight around Bucky’s hips, ‘you ain’t changed, still full of it.’
The simple relief of it shoots through him like fucking morphine, the sheer bliss that Steve is here, under his hands, Steve is here with him, and it shifts between them in that fine moment, Bucky has to pull away for a second to look Steve in the eyes, his thumbs anxious and rubbing at the smears of dirt and sweat on Steve’s neck. Steve looks back at him, his eyes bright and his cheeks painted pink with the heat of it, clasps Bucky’s face in both hands.
‘I had to come get you,’ he says, his eyes flickering between Bucky’s like he’s trying to memorize him, keep his eyelids open long enough to burn Bucky into his brain. ‘They told me you might be – and I had to, I just left, I couldn’t –’
‘Baby,’ Bucky says, getting his hands on the underside of Steve’s thighs and pulling him in again so they can grind their hips together and make Steve gasp just like that, so dirty, search Bucky’s mouth out to kiss again so he stops making so much goddamn noise. ‘It was all you, all the time, all I could think of, sweetheart –’
‘I didn’t wanna do it without you, Buck, but it was the only way they’d let me come,’ Steve says, his voice breaking on the end of it, mouth smearing and open with pleasure on Bucky’s neck as Bucky finally yanks open his pants and works a hand inside, fingers fumbling on the hot skin of Steve’s cock and then the most amazing thing – Steve goes off right then, just goes off from the fleeting brush of Bucky’s fingertips against him, goes off with his mouth open and gasping, like he can’t believe it himself, his hips rutting against Bucky’s, sticky wetness seeping through Bucky’s fingers and down his wrist.
Bucky stares down at the mess, mind completely blank.
‘Oh, Jesus Christ,’ he whispers as Steve gasps against his neck.
‘I’m kinda – more sensitive now – oh, oh, oh, Bucky –’
‘Yeah,’ Bucky says, jacking Steve’s still-hard cock with his slick hand and slipping further down until he finds Steve’s entrance and teases at it, wondering if they got time before Steve gets called out to cure the sick or turn all the mud in the trenches into fresh water and whiskey before supper, ‘I figured that one out myself, thanks.’
‘If you don’t fuck me I’m gonna scream,’ Steve says to him, deadly serious even while he’s gasping and rutting, like he can see the thought process playing out over Bucky’s tautly pulled mouth.
‘I can’t fucking believe you,’ Bucky says, and has to let go of Steve’s waist to pull his pants down one-handed. Steve doesn’t even let him do any proper prep, just keeps tugging at him irritably until Bucky mentally throws up his hands and thrusts inside in one smooth slide, Steve making a kind of hurt noise and tightening his thighs around Bucky’s hips to pull him further in, his head falling back and flexing his hips and damn, fucking Christ, Bucky’s missed this, oh God, it’s so good he could cry. He could scream and not a soul in the world would be justified in telling him to quiet the fuck down, Steve’s so hot and tight inside like he’s been waiting for Bucky to get home all this time, just crawl back inside him and stay.
They make the table rock when Bucky pulls out and fucks back in again and Steve plants his hands on Bucky’s shoulders for leverage, so he can grind down harder on Bucky’s cock and both of them gasp, and the table’s creaking ominously because it’s probably not built for two soldiers to have a fraught reunion fuck on but it doesn’t matter because Bucky’s coming, as quick and as simple as that, fucking stars going off behind his eyes, Steve clenching around him while Bucky runs his hands fractiously over and over bunching muscles of Steve’s powerful thighs, sliding his fingers over the slick skin where they’re joined until Steve’s whining. Bucky moves his other hand to jack him off again, his hips still making little rabbit quick jerks that wring little gulping sounds out of Steve until he comes again, his mouth wide open and gasping into Bucky’s, eyes screwed shut with pleasure.
‘I meant it,’ Bucky says drowsily after a few minutes, ‘don’t for one second think that distracted me. We’re gonna have words.’
‘Yeah, yeah,’ Steve says into Bucky’s neck, his fingers running dreamy patterns over Bucky’s back under his ruined shirt. ‘We can have all the words you want, Buck, Jesus Christ.’
It had come up in his journals over and over again, sometimes as a dream and sometimes as a goal: the Grand Canyon. The walls of it towered over him in dreams, the vast labyrinthine channels stretching out like rivers, so impossible it seemed to have sprung out of one of his sci-fi novels. He half expected to get there and find out it didn’t really exist, for Steve to turn to him with an apologetic smile: gotcha, Buck.
Talking about it with Steve was one of the first things Bucky had remembered in a concrete and sustained fashion, probably because they’d discussed it so often that it just stuck like gum to the underside of his brain, impossible to shake off. He kept his journals erratically while he pieced himself back together in Bucharest but when he wrote something down it was easier to keep it in his brain for longer, until eventually he stopped feeling like an amnesiac who had to reread his life’s history every morning just to remember how to be himself. Sometimes reading them was like reading a book written by another person anyway; he couldn’t remember writing the words but he could see how much his hand must have been shaking by how bad the handwriting was. There was a stain left by a coffee cup, here a stray hair that must have fallen when he was running his hands through it, irate. All signs of life that nudged him gently toward a conclusion he couldn’t escape from: he was a person. A person who drank coffee and had shaggy hair in dire need of cutting. Or maybe that was a fiction too, implanted there by HYDRA, and he’d wake up at some point to find one of the technicians laughing at the idea that the soldier could be, or ever had been, human.
The sense of violation, walking into his apartment to find Steve with his hands on one of the journals, had been acute. He’d had a single devastating moment of feeling caught out, like a teenager with a crush. Steve’s name was everywhere, scrawled all over the pages – Bucky consumed every sign and scrap of him he could get and then churned them back out all over the pages, just in case he woke up in doubt of who he was again one day and needed to be reminded. It wasn’t an easy lesson to learn but he’d learned it over and over, and then there Steve was, thumbing through it like it was the goddamn New York Times.
‘I am sorry,’ Steve says again, sounding as if he’s struggling not to roll his eyes where Bucky can still see him. Bucky would be hard pressed to catch him, though; the Canyon is pretty dark, nothing but the light from the stars to see by. Bucky clings to Steve’s curled body, trying to shore up against the cool of the night. ‘But in my defense, it’s not like they had ‘property of Bucky Barnes, keep your hands off Steve’ written on the inside cover.’
‘Depends which one you looked at,’ Bucky says, half-joking.
‘I let you look at my sketchbook,’ Steve says triumphantly after a moment, wriggling around in Bucky’s grip so they’re face to face. He looks almost flushed with the heat under their blankets in contrast to the chilly air. His nose is pink. ‘It’s not the same, I know. But I always did. You’re welcome to look anytime, Buck.’
‘I already know what my own face looks like, Rogers,’ Bucky says, trying to sound sour but failing miserably.
‘I draw other parts of you too,’ Steve says, waggling his eyebrows. Bucky groans and Steve grins until Bucky leans in and kisses him slowly, the trapped breath in Steve’s mouth leaving him in a shiver.
‘I think you got it down alright, you know,’ he says in a while, when they’re still kind of trading slow kisses but mostly just breathing and sighing in very close proximity. ‘For a boy who’d never been outside of New York state.’
‘I did at that,’ Steve says, sounding sleepy and pleased. ‘Always good to check, though.’
‘You’d have married Peggy,’ Bucky says one day, apropos of nothing. ‘Wouldn’t you? If you’d have landed the plane?’
They’re eating ice creams on a bench, somewhere in the region of the Hollywood sign. He’s got his arm slung over the back of the bench, every so often brushes the nape of Steve’s neck with his thumb. Steve obviously can’t decide whether it’s making him hot or irritated and he keeps shooting Bucky these little glares, and it scrapes against something in Bucky until suddenly his mouth comes out with it, with little or no intervention from Bucky himself.
Steve makes a strangled noise and flaps his hands around after inhaling half the ice cream in shock.
‘Oh my god,’ Bucky crows, ‘look, I gotta – goddamn, I wish I had a phone, someone’s gotta see this – I gotta tell Wilson – defeated by brain freeze –’
‘Urgh,’ Steve groans, wincing. ‘For God’s sake, Bucky.’
‘Don’t think you’re getting out of it as easy as that,’ Bucky says mock-seriously – or – maybe a little serious. He licks at his ice cream some more. A woman walking a Pomeranian stops and lifts her sunglasses up to squint at his arm, out in all its glory and shining black and almost wet looking in the sun. Bucky winks at her and she flushes, continuing on and nearly dragging the dog with her.
‘Well,’ Steve says, with the look of a trapped man, ‘yeah. I probably would’ve done, Buck. And if I’d never taken the serum and you’d come back from war and – a million other things had happened, you’d have married Dot or Sadie or any one of those other girls you used to go around with, eventually.’
Bucky shifts on the bench, trying to let it spin out in his mind like a movie. On days like this, that future feels more like something he can accept than it does at any other time. Steve might have done this with his kids, if he’d have had any. Sat in a park on a sunny day eating ice cream. They’d have played football; Steve would have taken them to a favorite diner afterward. Maybe him and Bucky would’ve lived on the same block, maybe even next to each other, shared a garage. Maybe they could’ve pretended it was what they wanted, in the end; that they didn’t need anything else from each other. If you live a lie long enough then at some point, surely, it has to start feeling like the truth.
‘It wouldn’t have been fair,’ he says evenly. ‘Not on either of them.’
Steve looks away for a moment, off into the distance somewhere. Bucky wonders what he’s seeing.
‘You know I loved Peggy,’ he says after a minute. ‘I did, and I still do. But there’s love and then there’s you.’
‘Aw, Christ, Steve,’ Bucky says. ‘You don’t gotta butter me up, I’m already on the lam with you for Christ’s sake –’
‘You started this, you get to hear the end of it,’ Steve talks over him, looking so sincere Bucky wants to turn away but he can’t, not quite. ‘I’m trying to tell you – it doesn’t matter what happened with Peggy, what could’ve happened, who we might have married in another life. I was already spoken for, in all the ways that matter. She would’ve had me, but she would’ve had half – less than half. You know as well as I do, it ain’t got much to do with what’s fair or what hurts least. That’s just the way it is.’
‘I can’t believe you thought you got to say all that on a public bench in goddamn Hollywood,’ Bucky says after a minute, heart pounding. He doesn’t want to be outside, right now; he wants to fold himself and Steve into a box somewhere. He doesn’t want anyone to have seen the looks on his and Steve’s faces He’s blinking too hard, squeezing Steve’s hand as if he’s in danger of running away, then he releases it. ‘You got some fucking nerve.’
‘That’s for telling me you loved me before you pushed me out onstage when we were in eighth grade,’ Steve says. His grin lights up his face, his eyes, so goddamn bright. ‘About time I got you back for that.’
‘That was literally ninety years ago, Stevie –’
‘I’ve been playing the long game,’ Steve says solemnly. ‘I guess we’re square now. Want me to drop you off at the airport?’
‘Shoulda stole Sam’s bird suit,’ Bucky says sourly and Steve laughs.
All Steve’s shirts are too tight for Bucky now, they find out in Calgary when they stop to check out the national park – Bucky wants to check if Steve will actually wrestle a bear if Bucky goads him about it enough times – or, as Steve insists, none of his shirts are too tight. They just fit really, really well.
‘How do you get in these things?’ Bucky complains, holding one of Steve’s skintight t shirts up to the light in their hotel room and squinting at it. ‘Your proportions are ridiculous enough already, you gotta squeeze into a handkerchief to make your life more difficult, huh?’
‘My proportions are ridiculous,’ Steve repeats back to him doubtfully. ‘You know, people write that on the internet but I don’t really think –’
‘You’re so full of shit,’ Bucky mumbles by rote, rifling through the duffle bag in the vain hope of finding something more suitable. He should’ve stocked up in Vancouver but clothes shopping sometimes still requires decision trees more complex and time-consuming than he has the energy for and the sun had been so clear, the bay so bright and glittering in the afternoon light. He couldn’t make himself do anything that entailed so much concentration. Later Steve had provoked him into skinny dipping under the well-beaten boards of the pier and Bucky couldn’t, he just couldn’t think of anything more complicated than the fine sheen of sweat spreading over Steve’s shoulder blades, the way Steve sighed when Bucky had got hold of his hips and pulled Steve back against him in the water, laid his head back on Bucky’s shoulder. He’d reverted to just treading water, holding them both up, tongue-tied by the battering waves of his own dumb luck crashing over him. ‘It’s like you never stopped thinking of yourself as skinny.’
‘You didn’t see me those first few weeks,’ Steve says, smiling a little. ‘I was crashing into everything, banging my head on doorways.’
Bucky looks up, his hands quitting their search without his permission. His palms don’t itch, no nerves fizzling to life in the vibranium. It’s nothing that obvious; just a solid and clean awareness of his own limb that he’d never had with the metal one.
‘I don’t,’ he starts, fumbling for the words. Steve lets the newspaper he’s reading fold onto the table but doesn’t let go of it all together; he’ll be here regardless of whether or not Bucky can pull the memory out in one piece or not. It eases the pressure until Bucky can speak again. ‘I think when I first had the metal arm, I couldn’t – no sensations. Just heaviness. Couldn’t move it. Then the next time they – woke me up, they tried again. Put something new in it. New circuitry. Like nerves. They were too –’ he swallows, saliva flooding his mouth at the nausea springing up in his stomach at the phantom shock of electricity. He closes his eyes against it, brow wrinkling. ‘Too much, too bright. Like sparks. They didn’t – they couldn’t stop me, they – had to sedate me again.’
He breathes heavily. Steve’s gaze is firm and quiet, full of compassion if not total understanding. How could he understand? Bucky would rip off his arm again before he let Steve experience what he’s describing.
‘Next time I could feel it,’ he bites out. ‘In my head. Move the fingers, pick things up, hold –’ he chokes and swallows. ‘Hurt people with it,’ Bucky says softly. ‘God, Steve, so many people.’
‘I know, Buck,’ Steve says. He looks at Bucky with sympathy for him as well as all the people Bucky did that to. Bucky never could work out how he manages that; to be so undiscerning with his kindness. It was Bucky’s hand squeezed the life from so many, Bucky’s hand pulled the trigger. If icons are forged through the actions of men like them then surely Bucky’s legend will be a monstrous one, told to children in the dark to keep them in their beds.
Steve’s nearly biting his lips off in the effort not to say more and it makes Bucky smile, unexpectedly. Sam had counselled both of them on this – Bucky is too quick to blame himself, Steve too eager to skip to Bucky’s defense – until they got the hang of letting Bucky’s memories drip through the quagmire of his brain and pool fully formed before Steve jumps in on his never-ending quest to build Bucky’s sense of self-worth back up to its original height. It can’t be easy; he’d bite the head off anyone who talked about Bucky the way Bucky talks about himself.
‘I didn’t mean to,’ Bucky says simply. He’s turned his memories every which way and that, examined them through every lens he can and to his relief this is always, always the answer that rings true. He’d had a horror of finding out there was some deeply buried well of sadism that contributed to his mastery of murderous violence but there was nothing. He hadn’t wanted to. They’d made him. It was as simple and as crushing as that.
‘I know you didn’t,’ Steve says, obviously trying to keep his voice even and probably doing a good job of to anyone who didn’t know him very well. ‘And you never have to again. Anyone who tries to use you again’s gotta come through both of us now, and that’s if they can even find us.’
Anyone who really wants to find them isn’t going to have much of a problem doing it; after all, they’re conceding to move about as far as the end of the block they used to occupy in 1941. As far as tactical avoidance maneuvers go, it’s lacking in finesse.
But that’s not what bothers Bucky, really.
‘What if I never remember everything,’ he says eventually, trying to phrase it more as a statement than a question. They can argue over it like Steve used to argue in Sunday school. But if God loves everyone the same then why do some people starve, Father? They must’ve thrown a parade the day he stopped coming to church. ‘What happens if I never get it all back?’
‘Then you still get to be you,’ Steve says gently, finally getting up from the table and coming over to the bed, taking the shirt that Bucky’s been absentmindedly shredding and picking it up with a small smile. ‘None of this is conditional on you doing jack shit, Bucky. You don’t have to prove anything.’
‘I get to remember exactly as much and as little as I need, huh,’ Bucky says as if he’s sounding it out. He knew Steve’d say something good and sweet and comforting like that, and he knows he means it too. You just can’t be around Steve for too long before it dawns on you with horror that he actually means every one of the ridiculously noble things he says. But Bucky wouldn’t be himself if he didn’t rib Steve about it too, and he’s making it his personal goal to be as himself as he possibly can be, just as hard as he can, to remind Steve what he’s been missing all this time.
Steve nods long-sufferingly, as if he’s aware this acquiescence is shortly going to come back and bite him on the ass.
‘Can I remember you hanging your goddamn towels up on the rail then, Stevie? Is that alright? Can I remember that for the both of us?’
Steve kisses him. Maybe he doesn’t even need that much reminding, really, of what he’s been missing.
Steve told Bucky he imagined cryo as nothing but ice; nothing but bitter cold and blankness, solid chunks of silence as heavy as concrete blocks weighing Bucky down, keeping him mute. Steve didn’t dream while he was frozen, but Bucky did.
It wasn’t as simple as dreaming, though; that’s what makes it so hard to explain. It was like another life, fragments of his childhood fraternizing with his new, streamlined consciousness as the soldier. He gunned down everyone he knew. He killed his mother and father over and over again. He stalked his old self through the alleyways and crackling streets of Brooklyn in midsummer and found a tiny child Steve hiding around every corner, scowling with his fists up, a constant pop up obstacle the soldier had to bat out of the way in pursuit of his real target. He killed Steve so many times in his own head that when it really came to crunch time on the helicarrier part of him was almost bored. How many times can we kill this kid, an irritated voice in the back of his head was asking. Is he ever going to stay down?
It slotted into place like a gunshot then. Steve, who couldn’t ever walk away from a fight but who willingly dropped his shield into the Potomac so Bucky could finish him off. Steve, who Bucky remembered only as a series of fights he couldn’t allow himself to win. Steve, a goddamn pain in his ass. Steve, sweetheart.
It had taken Bucky a long time in Bucharest to realize that voice in the back of his head hadn’t really belonged to him, after all.
They get wet at Niagara Falls, and Steve still doesn’t really get how they can turn the whole thing different colours when they want to. Bucky doesn’t either, but Steve turns this really great shade of pink when Bucky tells him how lucky he is that he’s pretty.
Bucky thinks some of Becca’s people had settled up in Minnesota and he wants to see if he can track them down, plus it’s easier to get back through the border there, their black-clad bodies melting into the skeletal forest whenever searchlights appear. No one’s looking for them, Bucky reminds himself. Everyone thinks they’re still in Wakanda, and T’Challa is doing as much as he can to preserve the fiction without actually plastering masks of their faces onto blow up dolls and leaving them around in full view of the most accessible windows.
‘Someone’ll figure it out eventually,’ Steve says, eyes closed with bliss or something like it. They’re sat in a park having a picnic on the highest peak. Steve is eating slices of peach, fingers wet and sticky with the juice, his lips slick. Bucky keeps accidentally crushing things with his vibranium hand. ‘But I feel like hiding in plain sight is really our best defense. Besides, what are they going to do if they do find us?’
‘Well, they’ll arrest us, Steve.’
Steve licks peach juice from his fingertips, his mouth swollen and pink. Bucky wants to gesture at all the other people in the park in mute objection and also a silent plea to never, ever stop.
‘Then we’ll break out again,’ Steve says easily. ‘They couldn’t keep us caged last time, Buck, I don’t know what makes them think it’s gonna work now.’
Bucky looks at him, taken aback, then startles out a laugh.
‘I should’ve known,’ he marvels, lying back against the grass and turning his grin on the open sky. ‘I thought you had something up your sleeve but no. I should’ve known. Steve Rogers is gonna fight the entire United States government. Again. Would you look at that, ladies and gentlemen. It’s Tuesday and Steve wants to fight somebody.’
‘I’m not a complicated guy,’ Steve agrees, propping himself up on his elbows and looking down at Bucky, shading his eyes from the sun. ‘I guess I’m technically retired now anyway, and that’s what they wanted. Besides, they still got enough superheroes to do all their fighting for them. They can’t complain.’
‘They can probably complain about me,’ Bucky sighs, closing his eyes and draping the pleasing cool smoothness of his left arm over them. ‘Historically, they’ve not been super happy with me being, you know, outside of prison.’
‘They weren’t happy with you in prison either,’ Steve points out. ‘You just can’t please those guys.’
Bucky lets himself smile, keeps his eyes closed. The tone is light but the words are heavy. This conversation is the closest they’ve got to trying to make sense of what they’re doing here, which is essentially stealing each other away under cover of a couple fake IDs and hoping the combined powers of the hundred and seventeen nation states that wanted them controlled won’t catch up with them.
‘I don’t know if you’ve noticed, Stevie, but the odds are kinda long on this working out,’ Bucky says eventually. He says it to the sky. He can’t open his eyes. They didn’t do this right. He was just hungry for it and he knows Steve was too – to open the doors of T’Challa’s palace wide and dive back into the world headfirst, skip borderlines and oceans for fun, resurface months later still holding Steve’s hand, still knowing his name in a place both of them can still comfortably call home. They didn’t take enough precautions; they were stupid with the desire for everything to finally fall into place. Wish fulfilment has never worked out for Bucky, except when it comes to Steve. Maybe he just wanted to test that lucky streak until it broke.
Bucky can physically feel Steve hesitating before he speaks; he takes Bucky’s hand like it’s a declaration.
‘And I don’t know if you’ve noticed,’ he says much too gently, ‘but long odds are kind of our thing. C’mon, where’s the fun if it’s easy?’
Bucky shifts his arm so he can shoot Steve a belligerent glance. Steve’s grinning slightly. Bucky should tell him he’s wrong, that it’s the ease of this which will kill them in the end. It doesn’t take a moment to throw away everything you’ve built for someone you love; Steve knows that better than anybody.
But he lets a slow breath out instead. Steve knows all that, Bucky doesn’t need to point it out again. If this is the choice they’re making – and it is, that becomes clear with each new impossible day of freedom – then they’re both making it full in the knowledge of how fucking dumb they’re being.
‘You’re such a sap,’ he murmurs instead, bringing Steve’s clasped hand up to kiss.
It turns out Becca had had two sons; only one of them had any children, a daughter, but she has a little boy now. Bucky watches them play in the front yard from a café across the street, shades on, Starbucks in hand. He doesn’t really want the coffee but his hand was shaking and it’s all a part of the disguise, isn’t it?
‘That kid needs to work on his coordination,’ he says quietly to Steve, who is doing a crossword. They’re about three times as hard for him as they are for any regular person but he likes doing them anyway, he says. He doesn’t even use Google. Bucky gave up on that lost cause a while ago.
‘He’s two, Bucky,’ Steve says, frowning down at seven across.
‘I could bowl better than that when I was two,’ Bucky replies, sipping his iced coffee thing then looking down at it with disgust. ‘What the fuck did you get me? What the hell is in this?’
‘A frappuccino,’ Steve says absently. His eyes light up as he writes. ‘Armstrong! Neil Armstrong. That’s the fella.’
‘The moon landing,’ Bucky says knowingly, critically surveying the kid’s overarm technique. His mother claps when he throws the ball and he grins, wide and sticky, clapping his own hands together. Bucky realizes he’s smiling. ‘You wouldn’t have believed it, Stevie. We landed on the moon and all anyone could talk about was where they were gonna plant the flag.’
‘Well, they’d already lost one beloved national monument,’ Steve says, and Bucky groans even as Steve continues with a grin. ‘They wanted to make sure they upheld another.’
‘A national monument that doesn’t know what a fucking frappuccino is. This is some strawberries and cream bullshit.’
‘Well, get something else then.’
Bucky watches Becca’s granddaughter pick up her kid and go back inside the house with his head on her shoulder, all worn out from playing so hard. He’s got his thumb stuck in his mouth.
‘Nah,’ Bucky says. ‘I’m good.’
The closer they get to New York, the greater the pull. The ropes of the Brooklyn bridge lasso Bucky around the neck and tug him close; it’s been such a long time.
‘They never sent me to Brooklyn,’ he says to Steve, one night in Chicago. He sounds so spaced out he almost wants to laugh at himself except that it’s not really funny. Steve is in a similar pizza coma but shifts a little on his back so Bucky knows he’s listening, sheets rustling under his body. ‘I think they knew they might not get me back.’
‘Nobody knew those streets better’n us,’ Steve agrees softly. His voice always gets a little more New York when he talks about this, a difference Bucky notices only in contrast to hearing Steve exchange pleasantries with strangers. ‘It’s different, now, Buck. More high-rise, fancier apartments, more signs – not anything like –’
‘Manhattan,’ Bucky says, pulling a face.
‘– no, but it’s still different.’
‘I know that,’ Bucky says, a touch defensively. ‘I’ve seen pictures. I’ve been online.’
‘I just want you to be prepared. We ain’t gonna be walking back into 1941,’ Steve tells him, a little grief in his voice painting it bleak. ‘They didn’t tell me right, when I woke up.’
Now it’s Bucky’s turn to move so Steve knows he’s still there, spooling out the rope so Steve can climb back up when he’s had enough of memories.
‘I’ve already woken up a lot,’ Bucky says, almost smiling. It always sounds stupid when he puts it in terms like that. He woke up so many times, he died and was reborn out of the ice so many times it might as well be his mother. ‘I think I can handle it.’
‘I know you can,’ Steve says warmly. ‘I think it doesn’t occur to you sometimes that you don’t have to do that on your own.’
Bucky doesn’t reply, lets his own shallow breathing in the dark be the answer. Steve always wants to take everyone else’s struggles on top of his own, what does a punk like that know?
‘I’m just here, is all,’ Steve says after a minute of that. ‘Even though the rest of it isn’t the same.’
Bucky rolls on top of him, the sudden welling up in his chest wanting to burst out somehow. Steve just looks up at him, mouth parted in surprise, then deliberately lets his legs fall open under Bucky’s stare. Jesus Christ.
‘I know that, babydoll,’ he says, pulling Steve’s legs up around him roughly, kissing Steve long and slow until Steve’s breathing evens out of him in long shuddering sighs, ‘can’t get rid of you, no need to remind me –’
‘God, Bucky,’ Steve says, head falling back against the pillow as Bucky sucks loving red marks into his neck just to watch them fade like diluted watercolor paints a second later. Steve’s hips jerk, partnering the steady grind of Bucky’s dick finding its way between Steve’s legs.
‘I don’t think he’s got anything to do with this, Stevie,’ Bucky says, and Steve snorts a laugh that Bucky catches with his open mouth until it’s inside him instead, until it’s quivering in his chest.
Steve had tried so hard to keep it to himself, when Bucky got out of cryo for the last time. It was like the first weeks after the serum all over again, like what was inside was too big for his body – he kept abortively reaching out for Bucky and then reining himself in again, taut frustration in the line of his mouth. It made Bucky almost want to laugh; he could hear the refrain in Steve’s head as clearly as if it were echoing in his own. Don’t push him, don’t come on too strong, remember this isn’t about you – he might not even know –
‘You think I don’t remember,’ he guesses, sat at the table of the little kitchenette in their apartment. He’s messing around with the new arm, which it turns out is detachable so he’s got it out on the table and is working his way through the gamut of light weaponry the kitchen has to offer, but so far nothing’s made a dent, not even the vibranium plated cake fork.
Steve’s been washing up at the sink and the line of his spine goes so straight so quickly Bucky’s surprised not to hear a zinging noise echo through the air. The water in sink sloshes awkwardly in the silence.
‘Guess that answers that question,’ Bucky says, laughing shallowly. He puts the butter knife down and picks up something that looks like a garlic mincer made of spikes.
‘For both of us,’ Steve agrees, voice a little shaky. Bucky wants to touch him so bad that for a second he’s frozen with it, can’t figure out what to do with his body. But then Steve resolutely picks up another cup and starts washing it. ‘It’s not – I didn’t want to push you, Buck. All this – it’s a lot to take in, and I didn’t want –’
‘You didn’t want me to feel obligated,’ Bucky says softly. ‘You didn’t want me to feel like you were pressing me for anything more, when just having me here is enough.’
Steve lets out a sharp breath and lets the cup fall into the water, bracing himself against the sink with both hands like he needs the support to stay upright.
‘When you say it like that it sounds so – I’m not trying to make excuses here, Buck –’
‘You think I don’t know you anymore, Stevie?’ Bucky says, low. There’s something stirring in his gut now, something fighting to get out. Maybe it’s himself. Maybe this is what it takes; Steve Rogers standing in front of him, trying not to ask for what he needs. ‘You think I don’t know when you want something, darlin’?’
Steve turns around at the endearment like Bucky knew he would but he’s not angry about it. He looks like he might be about to cry but he’s not angry. It’s something else.
‘I didn’t want to ask when I knew you might not,’ he starts, obviously trying to get it out before whatever is igniting in the air between them starts to smoke, ‘I didn’t want you to feel like this is something we had to replicate. I love you no matter – no matter about this part. I’m still gonna be here. Things are different now, and –’
‘Not everything’s different,’ Bucky says, getting up from the table and dropping everything he was holding and then it goes, Steve’s eyes lighting up like a match, Steve stepping forward and meeting him in the middle with a groan, almost gasping when Bucky wraps his arm around Steve’s waist and kisses him almost cruelly. It’s so violent, it must look so violent from the outside when Bucky backs Steve up against the sink and pulls him in close, Steve’s hands still pruney from the dishwater yanking at Bucky’s shirt and his hair and the water splashing everywhere when between the two of them they get Steve perched on the edge of the sink so their hips can more easily grind together; it’d look painful, maybe, to someone who didn’t know them, who didn’t know what it meant when Steve’s mouth fell open like that, who didn’t realize that some things never do change after all.
The phone goes off just outside of Philadelphia, so close to the border Bucky can almost taste the sour, blessed Brooklyn air. He has a fleeting moment of absolute horror before he buckles down on it, almost has to sit on his hands so he won’t take the phone off Steve and throw it out of the open window to shatter into pieces on the highway. This isn’t his choice. Or not all his choice, anyway.
Steve’s mouth tightens. He lets the call ring out but he pulls over at the next rest stop and they just sit there for a moment, just them and the phone and an exhausted silence. Bucky leans his forehead against the window, closes his eyes. It’ll be urgent, somehow. Steve will be needed. He is always, always needed somewhere, and the brutal result of that is that he doesn’t know how to say no anymore. He got too used to giving people what they asked for, so used to it he didn’t even know how to sublimate it in favor of his own basic mental health. If Bucky is proud of anything, it’s that Steve now seems to be capable of being selfish about him. This trip has been so good for Steve, Bucky can’t even believe it – and now it’s going to go out the window, as fleeting as any of their happiness ever has been.
Bucky screws his fists up, takes a deep breath. He wants to cry.
Steve gets out of the car and goes over to sit at one of the picnic tables, putting the phone down and staring at it like it’s about to blow up in his face.
Bucky watches him for a minute.
‘Fuck,’ he says quietly, and gets out of the car.
‘I know he wouldn’t call if it wasn’t important,’ Steve begins in a measured voice when Bucky gets within earshot, and Bucky scoffs, swinging his leg over the bench.
‘Do you?’ he asks. ‘It’s Stark.’
‘I don’t know if I can afford to throw any stones in his direction, Buck. I did nearly kill him the last time we saw each other.’
Bucky looks away.
‘So what – what are we waiting for, then,’ he says, realizing he sounds almost desperate, which is a laugh, considering the direction this appears to be heading in. ‘You think he needs you, you think – something’s happening, so why don’t you just. Answer it.’
Steve’s mouth twists. He still hasn’t picked up the phone.
‘It just seems so unfair,’ he bursts out finally. ‘I just – you’ve been doing so well, you look so much lighter, Buck, and now this –’
He cuts himself off, bringing his hands up to steeple in front of his face, trying to keep the words in. With his shoulders hunched like that, his legs under the table, he could almost be under a hundred pounds again. Bucky’s whole heart goes out to him.
‘I don’t know what to do,’ he says in the end, like it’s being pulled out of him.
Part of Bucky wishes he could stop doing this; forcing Steve into confrontation with the less-than-honorable parts of himself. It’s no skin off Bucky’s back – Steve’s seen the worst of him so many times by now that they’re not remotely close to even on that score. But isn’t that a part of their story, too? That Bucky gets to be the one who can force Steve’s hand, force him to be selfish for a change?
Bucky knows Stark was wrong to say Steve didn’t deserve to carry the shield; that’s never been up for debate. It’s whether or not Steve wants to carry it that matters.
The phone starts ringing again. Steve stares at it. He looks so goddamn tired.
They can’t have him, Bucky thinks suddenly and fiercely. They can’t.
Bucky picks up the phone and Steve looks at him sharply.
‘There’s been a change of plans,’ Bucky says.
Twelve blocks down from their old apartment, six stories up; Bucky can count the steps from one life to another. The angles of Times Square turn on the tap of his memories, the deluge so bright and quick Steve has to hold him up whispering his name, his hands steady and firm on Bucky’s biceps, and, gasping, Bucky remembers – Bucky remembers – Bucky remembers being Bucky and Steve back then, so young they could be BuckyandSteve without it hurting anybody, without anyone throwing them any dubious glares, the taste of lemonade at Coney Island, salt in his mouth from the sea, the whisper of the city like it was leaking through the floorboards beneath them when they lay on the couch cushions on the floor. That Walgreens, there, where Bucky had kissed a girl for the first time – that bench where he’d tried to sleep when Steve had kicked him out for pawning his grandfather’s wristwatch to pay their water bill. It didn’t matter, he’d wanted to say – what did it matter, an old lump of metal, if it meant that they could be clean? If it meant Steve could have a hot bath, when he’d been shivering all the winter through from the cold?
Steve had dragged him back inside after an hour, cursing him all the way.
‘Write it all down, Buck,’ Steve suggests, and so Bucky does. It isn’t bad advice. Probably the worst thing Bucky could do is pretend he doesn’t need the journals anymore, now he’s home. They’re a thread back into himself when the rest of the world goes dark, and it doesn’t stop doing that just because they’ve stopped running. Some days the air in Brooklyn is heavier than a history book, pages rustling every time Bucky walks down an alley where Steve got the shit beat out of him when he was twelve, or a jazz club where he used to take girls, or where he nearly got run down by a VW when he was nine. But Bucky gets to sling his arm around Steve’s waist when they walk home from dinner every night, and he doesn’t have to keep his kisses on the inside. Steve burrows his flushed pink cheeks into Bucky’s neck, his grin wide and embarrassed and almost dizzy with happiness. They keep the radio on and the windows open when they’re in the apartment. The city is deep in mid-summer now, hot and full of escaping pressure, but the sheets between their legs are cool.
It starts as just an odd job Steve takes it upon himself to do for Mrs. Bloom across the hall. She’s redecorating – as all 86 year olds who still live alone in their sixth floor Brooklyn apartments must do – and she can’t reach the corners of her bedroom with her paintbrush and of course Steve offers to help, and then she’s asking them both about what do they think to this precise shade of butter yellow for the kitchen and drawing up chairs for them, putting on coffee. Bucky hesitates obviously enough that she must be able to see it, but she just smiles at him.
‘You got somewhere to be?’ she asks wryly and he sits down in the end, alright. He sits down and looks at goddamn paint swatches with Steve and Emmeline Bloom, who is closer to their contemporary than any other person they’ve spoken to in weeks. He has a good time doing it too.
Emmeline insists on paying them for the help at the end and it’s a trick of courtesy even Steve has never managed to pull off, how she phrases it so they can’t refuse, even though it was all just a favor and attaching money to it makes it something – something Bucky can’t quite get his head around.
‘Haven’t had a paying job for seventy years,’ he reflects, sat on the couch staring at the check in his hands.
‘Still haven’t,’ Steve calls from the kitchen. ‘I’m the one who did all the work.’
Emmeline must send out a newsletter or something, because all her friends start getting involved. Bucky didn’t realize there were this many elderly ladies in the neighborhood who’d need someone to help them decorate or fix things around the house, or maybe he’d have refused the invitation to coffee that first time. But there is something about it, the way they let him in, chattering and spilling nosey questions left right and center, so fast Bucky can’t always find the lies quick enough and comes out with something accidentally true: yes, he likes jazz. Yes, him and Steve have been together a long time. Yes, he takes sugar in his coffee, thanks. Decades as a stealth operative and all it takes to prize information out of him is a wavering hand on his, paper thin skin peppered with liver spots.
Steve thinks it’s hilarious, but they love him even more than they love Bucky, if that’s possible. When they go over to Emmeline’s to watch Antiques Roadshow, she always saves all the oatmeal raisin cookies for Steve.
They start calling it Senior Citizen Painting and Decorating. No one gets that it’s a joke except them.
Bucky doesn’t wear the arm when there’ll be a bunch of people up close to him, usually. It’s less a matter of assuaging suspicions and more just people get mouthy; there’s nothing like an obvious war vet to incite blisteringly patriotic speeches Bucky doesn’t have the inclination to receive. But it’s easier to do the work with two arms so he wears it on jobs, usually when the owners aren’t going to be home.
Mrs. Jenkins comes back unexpectedly one afternoon while he’s in the middle of painting her downstairs bathroom a thin, pale shade of mint, muttering something about how the social sec at her DAR chapter couldn’t organize her way out of a paper bag, and stops dead in her tracks staring at Bucky’s left arm. Bucky pauses on his ladder awkwardly, paint roller still up in the air. He’d never really imagined getting caught like this; it seemed like tempting fate to imagine it at all, and it didn’t seem particularly likely that any civilians that enlisted their services would be paying enough attention to notice. Even if they did, New Yorkers will be New Yorkers, maintaining their cool in front of superheroes and internationally ranked criminals alike.
But he looks different now, Bucky thinks with frustration, wanting to shove it in her face like an amulet. It’s not fair. He’s wearing stupid fake hipster glasses, and his body’s taken on a little extra fat, and his hair is up in a bun so he doesn’t trail it in any paint because Steve always laughs at him when that happens, plus it takes an age to wash it out in the shower.
Mrs. Jenkins opens and closes her mouth a few times, then smiles tentatively.
‘Does it hurt?’ she asks.
Bucky opens his mouth and shuts it too, frowning. She stammers, misunderstanding.
‘I don’t mean to ask if you don’t – I just meant, I haven’t seen you wearing it before. Is it painful?’
Bucky thinks for a minute.
‘Not anymore,’ he says.
Steve gets back late that evening; he’s volunteering at the homeless shelter every Tuesday and Thursday and they always need a little extra help on delivery days, and then he had some work on the mural at the community center. Maybe it’s the lightness in his step that makes him so difficult to recognize these days, or maybe Sam was just the only person at the VA with a big enough crush to identify Captain America when he saw him.
Steve gives Bucky a hello kiss and makes a beeline for the couch.
‘Did you make –’ he asks, collapsing face first onto the cushions and muffling the rest of the question.
‘I didn’t make anything, I ordered in,’ Bucky says. Steve gives a muffled but passionate whoop, punching the air. Bucky wonders sometimes what Steve’s everyday life was like when he was still an Avenger, still living alone over here while all his buddies bonded over in Stark tower and SHIELD operatives roamed the hallways of his building. There’s an easel set up in front of the living room window now so Steve can paint as much as he wants, and Bucky’s dozens of journals take up a whole shelf on the bookcase in their bedroom. He’d focused so much on making sure Steve could create when he had the urge that he never realized he might want that for himself, too – to make things beautiful, to soothe the ache of too much time passing with too little to show for it. His hands don’t break things down anymore; they don’t hurt anybody. He picks up a paintbrush or a roller and paints over the cracks, smooths over any errant bubbles, coats the walls of the houses of people he knows and who don’t fear him. Every good thing he uses his body for feels like it’s a mark against all the bad. Everything he fixes and touches gently and doesn’t hurt feels like it’s softening the score against him, goes a little way toward his body being his own again, something no one else can ever use.
‘Martha said something to me today,’ Steve says after they’ve finished eating. ‘And it made me think.’
‘Uh huh,’ Bucky says warily. Sometimes Steve’s talks with Martha at the shelter lead mostly to Bucky wondering whether Tony Stark has managed to finagle some kind of twentysomething redhead disguise with which to torment Steve about his failure to pick up the damn phone. She’s all about responsibility and closure, two words Bucky can’t actually see anymore because they’re so far in his rearview mirror. Maybe one day he’ll have come so far they’ll loop round and hit him right in the face, but then he figures he’ll just start to reverse instead.
Steve nods. He sees the look on Bucky’s face and his mouth quirks up on one side.
‘It’s nothing terrible, I just.’
‘I never asked you,’ he says eventually, ‘whether you wanted to go after them.’
‘Go after who,’ Bucky says in a measured voice. He takes a long swig of his beer, hoping Steve isn’t going where Bucky thinks he’s going with this.
Steve fidgets in his seat.
‘I guess I thought – I don’t know, Buck. I only thought of it because Martha was talking about closure for the vets. That’s a whole other conversation really, but I just thought – I don’t want this to be about running away. If we’re really doing this for keeps, I want it to be for real. I don’t want you to wake up in twenty years and think ‘my God, painting and decorating? What the fuck were we thinking?’ and get up and leave me to fight all the monsters you never go to, that’s what I don’t want. I can’t see the future but this is what I always wanted, Buck, before the war took over everything, and I don’t think I’m gonna get bored. I need to know you won’t end up resenting me for that.’
And then Steve shuts his mouth and sits back, looking at him, just leaving that all there in Bucky’s lap for him to sift through.
‘What the hell is making you think I’m gonna end up doing that?’ Bucky asks after a moment, bewildered. He feels a little like he’s been punched.
Steve opens his mouth, eyebrows drawing together, and Bucky holds up a hand, taking another angry swig of beer.
‘I’m not gonna get bored,’ he says eventually, and he’s glad to hear he sounds as indignant as he feels. ‘That’s – I don’t want – what did you think I was doing, hiding out for two years on my own? I didn’t want to fight anyone anymore. Revenge wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted you, but I knew – I knew I’d have to fight my way to you and I couldn’t face that, so I had to stay away. You’re –’ and he has to pause, has to dig the words out from somewhere deep, the foundations of himself. ‘You’re my whole life, Steve.’
‘Bucky,’ Steve starts, looking thoroughly chastened now. Bucky scowls at him until he stops.
‘It’s not running away if you’re really going where you want to go, is it?’ Bucky asks after a minute. ‘This is where I want to be. I can’t swear to the future either but as much as I’ve got any say over any of this, Steve, I’m not going anywhere.’
‘Alright,’ Steve says after he waits to see if Bucky is done this time. He looks like he feels pretty bad. Bucky wants to clap him over the back of the head. Steve’s good intentions are going to be the death of him someday. ‘Well, that all makes me sound like an asshole.’
‘Damn right it does.’
Bucky thinks it over for a minute then sighs and gets up to go to the dresser on the other side of the room. He faces the wall, swallowing, for long enough that Steve starts shifting in his chair, too nosy for his own damn good.
‘I was gonna save this for a night when we weren’t just about to holler at each other, but it seems like a good time, seeing as we’re making all these declarations,’ he says, and when he turns around he has to stop because he wants to fix this moment in his mind forever, the look on Steve’s face – he’s turned around in his chair, face full of curiosity where he watches the motion of Bucky’s hand, so Bucky has a perfect view of the goddamn beautiful comprehension dawning when he sees the ring box in Bucky’s hand.
‘Bucky,’ he says, his voice gone all shaky, eyes flickering up to Bucky’s face. ‘Oh my god –’
‘I know you,’ Bucky says, his voice still mostly even but getting closer to bumps in the road the longer Steve looks at him like that. ‘I know you, Steve Rogers, and you always gotta fucking upstage me, you – I was gonna set up something for it, dinner and candles and dress up all pretty, but then you gotta go off talking shit about making a life together and I –’
‘Give me the goddamn ring,’ Steve says, sounding like he’s about to cry and suddenly launching out of his seat and reaching for him just as Bucky’s reaching out and their hands meet in the middle, for a second the only parts of them touching, both of them fumbling with the ring box like they’ve forgotten how their hands work and then in the mess of it, Bucky’s hand shaking and Steve kind of gasping and half-laughing, the ring finds its way onto Steve’s finger. It fits perfect, a single wide band of gold.
Bucky kisses him, hard and deep and shaking, then presses their foreheads together.
‘You didn’t even let me ask,’ he complains. Steve laughs and clasps his hands tight into the small of Bucky’s back, swaying them a little, his happiness making him rock back and forth. In the right light, or seen from far enough away, it might look as if they were dancing.
‘I’ll tell everyone you asked,’ Steve says, grinning uncontrollably. ‘I’ll tell ‘em you hired a marching band – put the ring at the bottom of a glass of champagne –’
‘I’m gonna make you marry me in Vegas,’ Bucky swears, ‘with Elvis as the officiator.’
‘I’ll be there,’ Steve says, ‘you can’t take it back now, Barnes,’ as if Bucky wouldn’t run with it clamped between his jaws for the rest of his life.
‘Yeah,’ Bucky says, his shaky hands smoothing along the line of Steve’s collar, ‘alright, Stevie, I’ll see you there.’