Epilogue - Pineapple on Pizza

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New Year's Day

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New Year's Day

The pizza shop in your old college town isn't exactly as you remember it.

The old movie posters on the exposed-brick walls haven't changed, and neither has the menu. The steady flow of hungover college students passing through is familiar, as long as you don't look closely enough to try to recognize any faces. The scratched laminate tables, the vinyl bench seats held together by duct tape and a prayer- all of those, you remember.

But the girl behind the counter is new. The owner was nearing retirement age when you were a regular here, and when you ask, the girl tells you he only comes in a few times a week these days. It's not necessarily a bad change; Mr. Esposito was a hard-ass, but when Bucky passes this girl his credit card, she takes a long look at his left hand and throws in an order of breadsticks, on the house.

This man standing beside you- he's new, too.

In the back of the restaurant, you and Bucky squeeze into a tiny booth to wait for your food. He hides his hands under the table, but you don't worry; keeping his hands hidden is more about shyness than shame now. The pizza shop girl isn't the first to recognize him since you left the compound late last night.

There was the overnight gas station clerk, and the woman behind the front desk of the hotel. Both of them had been completely unaware until Bucky took his hands out of his pockets to pay- and although they offered nothing more than a kind smile and a respectful nod, the recognition made Bucky so tense that he immediately stuffed his hands back in his jacket pockets. After, when he reassured you that he was fine, his tense jaw and the faint electronic whir of his clenched fist told the truth.

Free breadsticks are great, but they aren't worth this discomfort that comes from being recognized. If Bucky wants to keep his hands hidden, you understand- and with his hands under the table, no one else in the shop gives him a second look. His face is still all over every cable news channel in the country, but people don't seem to recognize him when they can't see that telltale metallic glint. You can't blame them; who would expect to see the former Winter Soldier on a pizza date in some sleepy college town? Six months ago, you wouldn't have believed it.

Hell, you can hardly believe it now. You half expect to wake up any minute now, tangled in your bedsheets with nothing but a hollow ache in your heart to remind you of this dream you've conjured. It would be easy enough to imagine him here; you've sat at this table hundreds of times before. There were study groups and dinners with friends. A couple of dates, a couple of heartbreaks. Late nights when you didn't want to be alone, so you would put on your coat and trek a few blocks through the frigid Vermont winter, just to bask in the warmth of strangers' laughter.

You sat here alone a few days after you graduated. All of your friends had already left town, ready to move on to their next adventures, but too late, you realized you had nowhere to go. You had no plan. No goals.

You ate your pizza in tears that night, afraid of what the future held, unsure of what would come next. Mr. Esposito himself brought you free refills all evening, and just before he clocked out for the night, he set an oversized serving of your favorite dessert on the table. The unexpected kindness only made you cry harder; if your hopelessness was so overwhelming that even that cantankerous old man felt sorry for you, you must have been even worse off than you thought.

Bucky's knee bumps against yours under the table. It's a tight fit in that booth, so it was probably an accident- but when you catch his eye, he offers you a sheepish grin.

Things have a funny way of working out.

Bringing his hands above the table, Bucky leans forward and rests his weight on his elbows. You smile; even in public, he's always trying to be closer to you. He absentmindedly folds and unfolds a straw wrapper, worrying the thin paper in his hands until it begins to fray- his nervous energy is palpable, even though he tries to hide it. It's only been sixteen hours since the two of you left the compound, and after spending so long stuck in one place, even the most mundane experiences feel brand new.

Some of them are brand new, of course.

Bucky adapts so quickly that most of the time it's easy to forget his experience in the twenty-first century has been anything but ordinary. Filling up the gas tank is nothing new, but it took him a few moments to figure out how to pay with his card- he had only ever used cash while on the run, he explained. And when you asked him to pull into a drive-thru for coffee as the sun came up, he froze while he stared at the bright LED menu, struggling to process the seemingly infinite options. Eventually his uncertain, overwhelmed eyes met yours, and you climbed over his lap to order at the speaker for both of you.

You got your usual, and two drinks for Bucky- a normal coffee, like you would make him at home, and one of those signature sugary concoctions the chain was famous for. Bucky shook his head while you ordered, staring at you in that exasperated way that you loved, but after trying the drinks he admitted he liked both.

Maybe if you didn't know him so well, you wouldn't notice those quick moments of anxiety when he comes across something he doesn't understand. You wouldn't recognize the panic in his eyes, only there for a moment before he manages to hide it and soldier on. Bucky's ability to take this changing world in stride never fails to impress you, but deep down, you hope he always looks at you like that.

You hope he always trusts you enough to show you his weaknesses, no matter how big or small. You hope he never feels like he has to hide things from you. You hope he knows you're with him, no matter what.

All you want is to take care of him as much as he takes care of you, from now until forever.

You should tell him, you realize. You think he knows, but you should tell him, just in case.

You open your mouth, but before you can get the words out, Bucky flicks the crumpled-up straw wrapper across the table and hits you square in the jaw.

You gasp, but when you see his face you can't even pretend to be outraged, because that grin. Crooked and cocky and trouble if you've ever seen it, you love everything about that grin. Especially how easily it comes to him now- because that wasn't always the case.

"Oh, you dickhead," you grumble, too loudly, though you can't keep the smile off your own face. A few patrons turn to look at the two of you, but Bucky doesn't mind; he's still snickering when a waiter appears with your food. Breadsticks and two pizzas to share- one with your favorite toppings, the other with pineapple.

He doesn't know how controversial his choice of toppings is, and you aren't going to tell him. There are very few things in this world that you're able to protect him from, but this is one of them.

Bucky Barnes deserves every small joy the world has to offer him, pineapple on pizza included.

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