Bucky grinned when he saw the honey-colored shampoo still sitting out on the ledge of the tub. He felt weightless, like the faint bruised ache in his ass was something holding him up, out of himself, out of the gravity that normally held him down.
He remembered this giddy, warm feeling well enough to know it wouldn't last, but also well enough to relax into it for as long as he had it. He laughed a little when he caught himself humming under his breath, and he opened his mouth and did the thing properly, singing under the hot spray.
He washed his hair with the shampoo Steve had used on him the night before--on Jamesy. The scent of it brought back the night before with an almost hallucinatory clarity. Steve calling him son, and his own mouth opening on the word Daddy, as easily as it opened now on singing. His Daddy promising to punish him. To make him right.
He almost didn't want to rinse the shampoo away, but the routine of a shower overpowered even his lazy wallowing in his own good mood. Then he heard a soft footfall, and a second later knuckles rapped against the frame of the open door. "Buck?"
"Yeah, Stevie. C'mon in." The words were there in his mouth and out in the air almost before he thought of them, effortless in this warm, floating place.
He tugged the shower curtain back, to be sure that Steve would know he meant for him to come all the way in, and Steve grinned hugely as he stepped into the other end of the tub.
"Oh, wow. Buck, you're--"
"Still pretty fuckin' high, yeah."
Bucky beckoned him closer, until he could catch Steve's wrist and bring Steve's hand to his ass. Steve got the idea quickly then, tracing his fingertips lightly over the lingering hot bruised places. It'd be gone completely in another few hours, but for now there was this. Everything was easy and warm, and Bucky didn't have to think before he pressed his mouth to Steve's.
Steve's hands tightened on his ass, making him gasp. Steve pulled back just enough to grin, and then kissed him again and again, and didn't ask him any questions.
Steve remembered how this went too. So that was all right.
They only separated long enough to throw some clothes on after showering together. Bucky was tempted to trail Steve right back into his bedroom--to pull open that drawer--but he knew better than that. Kissing and groping and coming together under the spray had made the lingering feeling warmer and would make it last a little longer; if he insisted on diving right back in Steve would probably let him, but flying too long could only end in a crash.
So Bucky only trailed his fingers briefly over the ribbon he'd pilfered from Steve's toy drawer before he tucked it away. He put on jeans and a couple of layers of shirts. Bucky's clothes. He put on socks but couldn't bring himself to stick his feet into his boots. Not yet. That would come, but not yet.
Steve was in the kitchen, closing the oven door on something. Bucky walked right into his arms, peering over his shoulder--he'd left the packaging on the counter, it was one of those frozen breakfast casserole things, eggs and potatoes and cheese. They'd had this one before and Bucky's stomach growled in happy anticipation.
"It's gonna take a little while," Steve mumbled, closing his around Bucky and nuzzling at his shoulder. "Lay on the couch with me and watch TV for a while?"
Bucky nodded. "That Bob Ross? Or a cooking show?"
"Bob Ross is good," Steve agreed, steering Bucky toward the couch. "Cooking show'll just make me hungrier."
Bucky could have suggested that Steve eat something, then, but he wouldn't say no to what Steve was offering. They stretched out on the couch together, Bucky twisting to put his back against Steve's front, cradled by his whole body as their legs curled together. Steve's heart beat steadily under his and Bucky lay still and warm, drowsing as Bob Ross talked soothingly through a couple of paintings. Steve's hands flexed against Bucky's stomach a few times, half-consciously imitating some flick of the palette knife or stroke of a brush.
"Oughta get you some canvas," Bucky mumbled. "You haven't painted in forever."
Forever-ever, he remembered saying, and he smiled a little, still feeling dopey and good. It wouldn't last. But he wasn't going to wreck it one minute before it wrecked itself.
It didn't get ruined, though, not really. They ate together and washed dishes together, spent a few more minutes apart so they could each visit the bathroom alone, and then it was back to the couch. Cooking shows, this time, since neither of them would manage to be hungry again for a little while.
When a couple more hours had passed, Bucky got up to take a piss without hesitation, without his hands dragging over Steve's or giving Steve a kiss to tide him over. By the time he met his own eyes in the mirror he knew that he was out of it, properly awake, and he knew that Steve was going to want to talk about it; they'd gone straight from Bucky hardly being able to smile at him to last night with no middle steps, as far as Steve had seen. He was bound to have questions.
Sure enough, when he came back out, Steve was sitting up properly on his end of the couch, waiting for Bucky.
Bucky sighed and went around to sit down. "Thanks for that. I didn't remember until we were in the middle of it how it could kind of... linger like that."
Steve nodded. "I always liked that part, too. When we were just us, but we could be... peaceful like that together."
Bucky nodded. "Me too. But I guess we're done being peaceful, huh?"
Steve smiled with one side of his mouth. "Well, hopefully we're still under some kind of truce for a while."
Bucky returned the crooked half-smile. Steve remembered too. They'd done this before, sort of, even if it hadn't been quite the same back then. "Yeah, I think so."
Steve nodded, looking down at his hands. Bucky could see him squaring himself up. "So I... I guess I don't have to ask if it was good, if that went the way you wanted?"
Bucky snorted and scooted over to sit closer, nudging Steve's knee with his. "It was good, Steve. It was what I wanted. You gave me enough ways out if it wasn't."
Steve looked over at him, his gaze searching before it softened back into a smile. "Yeah. I mean--I know that, but. Good to be sure, right?"
Bucky nodded, looking down at his own hands. "I couldn't... I'd been wanting. To ask for it. I remembered a while ago and I thought it'd help. I knew I wanted you, wanted to--be right, but it was like there was..." He swallowed, glanced over at Steve cautiously. "A sheet of ice. Between what I thought and what I could do, or... feel, even. Or say."
Kissing had seemed more foreign and less appealing than the idea of putting a knife in his own mouth, sex somewhat more difficult to grasp than the idea of rubbing a loaded weapon all over his skin. And yet he had known he wanted those things, needed them. He had known he used to be able to want them, feel them, understand them. He used to be like that, with Steve; they used to connect.
Steve looked at him steadily, like that didn't sound crazy. After a couple of breaths he said, "You needed thawing out, huh?"
Bucky nodded, looking down again. "I... I remember, any time I was awake for a while..."
He looked over. Steve had turned his gaze down, but when Bucky paused, Steve leaned into him a little, nudging him onward and assuring him of Steve's presence all at once.
Bucky leaned into that pressure. "They had to... prep me, when they woke me, to make sure I would be... stable. To make sure my memories weren't coming back, that I was--enough a machine to do what they wanted. And they'd have to do it again, if they kept me out of the ice for long, because I would get..." Bucky's mouth twisted into something that felt too savage to be a smile. "Erratic."
He heard Steve draw in a little breath, and pressed on. "This was the opposite, Steve. I was too much machine, but you... you helped me remember how to be something else. Someone else. So. Thank you."
Steve pushed his shoulder hard against Bucky's, enough to make Bucky look up and meet his eyes. "You know it's no hardship, pal. It's you and me. And you're not gonna fob me off on anyone else--neither one of us needs to go off and marry a nice lady nowadays. So as long as this is what you want, I want it too."
"I want this. I want you," Bucky agreed. That was all there was to it, really.
The day passed much like the others since Bucky had come to stay with Steve. They did the normal things, visiting a secure gym, then sitting quietly together while Steve did some inscrutable sort of work on a laptop and Bucky read a book from Steve's shelves.
It just felt different. Bucky was able to get lost in enjoying a story instead of struggling to slow down his efficient intake of information. When he looked up and found Steve watching him, he could smile, reach out to touch, lean closer.
"I have some meetings tomorrow," Steve informed him that night, and Bucky nodded acquiescence.
That was normal too. Bucky himself had no special status--not a soldier, not a prisoner, not a hero--but Steve was still Captain America, however much he'd been trying to keep his focus on Bucky since he came home. He usually had to go out for something--he called all of it "meetings," even the time he came home limping with a new nick in the shield's paint job--every two or three days.
"I thought," Steve added, tilting his head toward his room. "Stay with me tonight? Just to sleep, if..."
Bucky crowded him up against the doorframe for a kiss, and that was the end of Steve being diffident about it. By the time he was pressing Bucky down to the bed, pushing inside him, there was no hesitation left in either of them. They were right where they belonged.
Bucky snapped awake to Steve saying, "Okay."
The word, clipped off like that, didn't mean okay. It meant something more like, Roger, wilco. Bucky turned to face him, watching Steve's face as he received a few more seconds of intel from whoever was on the line.
"Got it," Steve said. "Twenty. Rogers out."
Bucky's fingers flexed, feeling the cold touch of a phantom rifle.
"Mission," Steve said. "Buck..."
Bucky shook his head. "Go. I'm fine. And I think we both agreed I'm not supposed to touch guns anymore."
Steve tried to smile and frown at the same time; Bucky had told him enough times that it looked like it hurt, but he never quit. "If you--you know that stuff I say to Jamesy--"
"I know," Bucky said, leaning in to kiss him before he got himself all wound up in knots right before he had to go save the world. "I meant when I came here, all those nice people I debriefed to, remember that? I don't do this stuff anymore--not unless there's a Class 5 threat, whatever that is."
"Means you and pretty much everyone else'll be dead if you don't suit up so you might as well be organized about it," Steve said, like that was the point. "This is--nothing like that, it'll be fine."
"So go, then," Bucky said lightly, even as he was curling his fingers around Steve's arm. Don't go, don't leave me. I can't do this without you.
"I'll be back soon," Steve said firmly, tugging his arm free and pinning Bucky's wrist to the bed while he kissed him. "You'll be fine until I get home. We'll both be fine."
Bucky nodded, laying back against the pillows like Steve obviously wanted him to.
"Go back to sleep," Steve said, letting go of Bucky's wrist to run a hand over his face. "It's three in the morning, you don't need to be awake yet."
Bucky nodded again, and pretended to sleep so well that he almost believed it, at least until he heard the door close and lock behind Steve.
It was not a good day.
He pretended to sleep until the sun came up, and then pretended that this was a normal day, going through the motions while he felt himself hardening into metal, into a machine, with every new pretense of normality.
Pretending didn't stop memories from rising up, and nightmares built from memories. So many things could be happening to Steve now, without Bucky there to protect him. What right did he have to say he wouldn't do it anymore, when Steve was still out there putting himself on the line?
What right did Steve have to leave him alone like this when he'd promised to be here?
But being angry was even more frightening than being scared, and guilty, and half-sick with the images that kept coming to him with nothing to stop them.
Halfway through the day an odd buzzing sound reminded him of the existence of his phone, and he discovered a message from Steve.
All's well so far. You?
His hands curled into fists against the urge to beg for Steve to come back. He couldn't do this, he couldn't, he needed--but the world needed Steve. Bucky had to wait his turn. He knew that, he did know that, that was just how it was when you loved Steve. Sometimes you just had to wait your turn. And he could; he wasn't hurting anyone, even himself, just because that wall of ice was building up again.
He tapped, ok.
Nothing else followed for hours. Bucky didn't know if it was better or worse to have the phone to fixate on, waiting for news, waiting for another message, waiting for anything at all that wasn't this waiting.
The phone also had a display of the time, which made him aware that he was not only watching and waiting. He was losing time, minutes and hours slipping away from him while he waited. It was painless, this disappearing. It was like freezing to death, feeling warm and safe as the darkness closed in.
Being aware, that was the bad part. That didn't hurt either, but it was the part of freezing to death that just felt cold. His flesh felt even more foreign to him than his metal arm, all of it a strange machine he was operating from some impossible distance.
He had to do something. He had to still be here--he had to still be him--when Steve came back. He had to remember how to be warm, even if he couldn't do it right now.
He forced himself to remember the day before, being easy with Steve, and how he got there. Steve had helped him. Steve had made him.
With an effort like he was operating a sniper rifle through some Rube Goldberg machine, he brought his right hand to the phone. He needed Steve. He needed to tell Steve that he needed help with this. Even if Steve wasn't coming home soon, even if it took a long time for him to answer, Steve would know what to say. To help. To make Bucky thaw.
Clinging to the plan like it was a life-or-death mission briefing, Bucky made his hand tap out five words: The little ones miss you.
Even without any response, seeing the words there on the screen made them seem more real.
The little ones. Jamesy, who had had a bath with Steve the other night. Jemmie, whose ribbon was safe in Bucky's dresser drawer. Even the littlest, promised by that package of pacifiers Steve had hidden away. They were real parts of Bucky, who had to be real himself to encompass them. They were there. He could find them. Steve would help him.
Bucky clung to the memories, sifting through all he could find--just impressions and sensations at first, the feeling of Steve's arms around him, Steve's lips pressing against his hair, the softness of a silky ribbon against his cheek. Then the actual memories came clear, particular times they'd played.
He wound through practically every moment of a time when he'd been Jemmie and Steve had cut up his dinner and fed it to him bite by tiny bite. He was startled back to the present by the realization that the stretched-thin discomfort in his abdomen was hunger. He looked at his phone--no response from Steve, but it was about two hours past the time he and Steve normally ate supper.
Bucky went to the freezer and found one of the specially-made-for-supersoldiers frozen meals Steve kept it stocked with, from big cardboard boxes delivered weekly. Steve usually heated them in the oven, but reading the label for instructions, Bucky found he could use the microwave and cook it right in the plastic container. He popped it in and set the timer, and went back to staring at his phone.
He couldn't remember exactly why Steve had wound up feeding him his dinner that night, but he remembered being annoyed about it, even as Jemmie. He had complained that his tummy hurt, after, and made Steve gently rub it for what had seemed like an endless time while Jemmie rested against his chest. Steve had told Jemmie some long story about a kitten named Jem who wore a blue ribbon around its neck and had a series of ridiculous adventures.
Bucky returned to the microwave to retrieve his dinner when the timer went off. He ate standing up at the counter, still keeping an eye on his phone. He let other memories bubble up: the way Steve had let Jemmie scribble with the stubs of pastels and crayons, his hand running gently over Jemmie's hair while they sat together in a pool of late-winter sunlight.
What they did had never been safe, not the way it was now, here. But he had felt safe all the same, under Steve's hands. He didn't remember what he had needed to be safe from, then, what he had believed would take him away from Steve, or Steve from him. But he had known it couldn't, when he was Jemmie, when Steve was beside him.
The phone lit up with a message, and Bucky stopped breathing.
I miss them too. I'll be home in an hour or so, but that's going to be past their bedtime.
A hot rush of excitement ran through Bucky. He hurried through the rest of his supper as he worked through everything the message meant. Yes and soon were the important parts, but past their bedtime...
Bedtime had always been a pretty flexible notion; Jamesy could get spanked for staying up past his, and even Jemmie would be scolded. It was an easy pretext, if Steve wanted an excuse to play the game in that direction.
Steve was coming in from a mission, though. Steve might go into battle angry, but he never came out that way. He would be weary, wanting to get back to being at home.
Bucky remembered the way Steve had been during the war, after any action. Sometimes triumphant, but never exactly happy. They hadn't dared to play often in that year, and certainly not when they were still out in the field after something like that. But Steve had always found a moment to be alone with him after, and those moments had only held the sweetest touches; even if Bucky had spent the whole thing safe in a sniper's nest Steve would want to look him over, to be sure he was unharmed.
So. He could stay up past his bedtime if it was what he needed, but Steve wasn't asking him to. Steve would want the opposite: someone in his bed, someone to look after, to be sure that he was home and the fighting hadn't followed him here.
Bucky could do that.
His purpose kept him fixed in place, and along with the warmth of food in his belly it kept him securely inside his own body. He finished eating and cleaned up the kitchen, then turned off all the lights except the one over the sink. The apartment was pleasantly dim, then, but with enough light to easily navigate.
Bucky showered and used the honey-colored shampoo, combing his hair out carefully afterward. It was only when he was back in his own bedroom that he began to be uncertain of his course.
He picked up Jemmie's ribbon, running it through his fingers. He had lots of clothes, but none of them were Jemmie's clothes. He didn't think Jemmie had ever had clothes, but he had never had this many to choose from when becoming Jemmie, either. Nothing was right, not even close, the way some of his clothes could be Jamesy's.
He thought about being Jamesy, but Jamesy would want to ask Steve a thousand questions about where he'd been, or demand a story, or want to play until his daddy got stern and told him to go to sleep. He wanted to be Jemmie--Jemmie wouldn't have to play up to hide how much he had needed Daddy to come home.
But he didn't know how to be Jemmie. He couldn't find that place in his head the way he could feel the Jamesy place. Bucky wasn't even sure whether Jemmie was a boy tonight or a girl. He never told Steve which Jemmie was--Steve seemed to understand that Jemmie could be either, or both, or neither, and never said anything that made Jemmie feel bad about any of those possibilities--but Bucky, when he was Jemmie, always knew.
Not tonight, though.
He shut the drawer, taking only Jemmie's ribbon, and went into Steve's--Daddy's--Jemmie's Daddy's--room. Jemmie would only be wearing a towel after a bath. Jemmie was too little to get dressed alone, so Jemmie's Daddy would figure out what Jemmie ought to wear to sleep in. Jemmie just had to go to bed, to be good for Daddy when he got here.
Bucky went to Steve's dresser and pulled out a couple of stacks of shirts from the lowest drawer, half-hoping that a nightshirt would have materialized there to solve this problem. Everything was as Bucky had left it on his last recon, though. He set the packet of ribbons aside and lifted out the soft brown stuffed bunny.
This was Jemmie, for sure, this irresistible impulse to hold the thing to his face, to rub lips and cheek against the silky plush fur, to cling to something soft like this. After a moment he made himself put the clothes back in the drawer and closed it, then went back to Steve's bed. He turned on the lamp on the nightstand, making a warm pool of light around the bed, and then climbed in on Steve's side.
Bucky could smell Steve's sweat and shampoo lingering on the pillow, and it made him dizzily conscious of his own adult body, naked but for the towel still wrapped around his hips, big and strong and halfway turned on as he lay in Steve's bed. Jemmie's bunny and the ribbon wrapped around Bucky's finger felt all wrong--shameful and unconvincing all at once.
His hand clenched on the bunny at the same time he couldn't help thinking, You're a hundred years old, you're a combat veteran and the fucking fist of HYDRA, you've literally survived more wars than you can remember, and you still want this stupid kid stuff? You're still playing pretend?
He tried to push it away, tried to get to the place in his head where he could be Jemmie. There were hardly any words there at all, let alone those, but the doubting, scolding thoughts wouldn't quit. Even when he made himself ignore the words, he could feel the acidic burn of them.
He worried at the ribbon, tugged it tight until his finger went purple and cold, and then hastily unwound it. It ought to go in his hair--it's long enough, some scornful voice pointed out. He tried to tie it there, but he just ended up tugging hard at his own slippery-wet hair, tangling it and raising sharp little jolts of pain that only took him further from where he wanted to be, remembering all the wrong things.
He let go of the ribbon, then, grabbed the bunny and just tried to remember the stuff he'd remembered earlier, when he was in the kitchen. But it was just pictures in his head, flat and meaningless, without the power to anchor him.
Had Steve really held him like that, making up a stupid story about a kitten just to try to make him smile? Bucky had been twice his size back then, bringing home the paychecks that kept them fed more often than not. What the hell had he been thinking, coming home from his respectable clerking job to crawl on the floor, pretending to be some little kid while Steve--
All his thoughts stopped dead at the sound of the door unlocking. He didn't even breathe, and squeezed his eyes shut to focus on listening.
Relief coursed through him like a river at the first quiet footfall. Steve was home. Steve would fix it.
He listened while Steve closed and locked the door. He could practically see Steve looking around. Steve would spot the two lights Bucky had left on, in the kitchen and in his bedroom, and know exactly what Bucky had chosen, what Bucky was asking for. Steve would be smiling a little, maybe, and thinking about how he was going to make this work.
This was going to work now. It always worked once Steve put his mind to it.
Bucky groped around to find the ribbon he'd abandoned in frustration before. He wrapped it--not too tight--around his first finger, then used that hand to hold on to Jemmie's bunny. He still wasn't sure about Jemmie, wasn't sure how to get there, but it would be okay. Steve would send him there if he couldn't find his own way.
Steve's quiet footsteps went into the kitchen. Bucky heard him pour himself a glass of water and drink off half of it, then refill the glass. A soft click as he turned off the light over the sink. More quiet footsteps, coming closer this time.
Bucky kept his eyes shut. Steve might not come here first. He might go to the bathroom, or look in Bucky's room.
But his footsteps stopped at the doorway, and Bucky could almost feel the weight of his gaze. He didn't have to see it to know the look in Steve's eyes would be warm, fond, protective. No one, even inside Bucky's head, could tell him he shouldn't want this now. Not when Steve was here, looking at him like that.
Still he kept his eyes closed. He should've been asleep. It was late for a little one, past their bedtime. Jemmie wanted to be good for Daddy.
"Hey, sweetheart, you sleeping already?" Steve's voice was warm and fond, everything Bucky had been missing, and the sound of it sent a rush of abashed delight through him.
Jemmie was a boy tonight, then. When Jemmie was a girl she accepted words like that as her due; when Jemmie was a boy he couldn't believe he was allowed to have them. But he did have them, because Steve--his daddy--wanted him to.
He pressed his face a little more firmly into the bunny even as he opened his eyes, peeking shyly out over it.
Steve was smiling. He was in civilian clothes already, his hair mussed up like he'd been dragging his hands through it before it dried. The way he slouched against the doorframe didn't hint at any injuries.
Bucky smiled against the bunny and fiddled with the ribbon wrapped around his finger, though it was obvious Steve already knew who he wanted to be tonight.
"You getting shy on your own daddy, honey?" Steve finally came into the room, and Bucky couldn't help the full body shiver of happiness at those words spoken that way, the soft warmth in Steve's eyes. He came over and knelt by the bed, setting down his glass of water down by the lamp. Steve rested his hand on Bucky's shoulder, his thumb brushing over bare skin. "Not gonna even give me a hug hello?"
Bucky clung to the bunny for another second, his mouth moving against its fur in the shape of Daddy. He still wasn't quite sure how to be Jemmie, how to do it right, but he wanted to. He wanted to be hugging Steve--Daddy--and clinging to him. Wanted to be able to say it in Jemmie's voice.
"It's all right," Steve murmured, pushing up to lean over the bed, pressing a kiss to Bucky's forehead. "I know it's late, and I bet you had a hard day, being all alone without your daddy, huh?"
Bucky squeezed his eyes shut, nodding into the bunny.
"You were such a good kid, eating up all your dinner and putting yourself to bed," Steve murmured. "Even took a bath, huh?"
Bucky nodded again and pushed away the thought of standing in the shower, giving himself a careful smooth shave. That wasn't what Jemmie would have done at all.
"So nice and clean." Steve nuzzled at the curve of Bucky's ear, where he could probably smell traces of the soap he'd scrubbed with. "But it was too lonesome to sleep in your own bed without Daddy here, huh?"
A nod wasn't enough of an answer to that. Jemmie moved without thinking, flinging himself at Steve to hide his face against that broad chest; the bunny was squished between them as Jemmie threw his arms around his daddy and held on tight.
"Hey, there's my little angel," Steve murmured, wrapping his arms firmly around Jemmie and holding him close. He pressed a few more kisses to Jemmie's damp hair. "I missed you too, Jemmie. I missed you so much. So, so much."
He wasn't just talking about today, Bucky knew. He was talking about before, but he wouldn't say it like he had with Jamesy, wouldn't name it as the time Jemmie was lost, not unless Jemmie did first. Jemmie was too little to sort that stuff out by talking about it, and Steve wouldn't bring it up when there was nothing to be done about it that couldn't be done better without any words at all.
Well. Maybe one or two words.
"Daddy," Jemmie whispered against his shirt, trying out the feel of it in his mouth, the smallness of his voice. "Daddy, missed you."
Daddy squeezed him tighter. "I know, honey. I know you did. You were real brave for me, though, weren't you?"
Jemmie nodded. He wasn't sure that he'd been brave exactly, but Daddy knew better than he did. Daddy knew all about being brave.
"I see you didn't find your pajamas, though," Daddy said, rubbing his hands over Jemmie's bare skin where he was holding Jemmie close. "I guess you would've needed help getting 'em on even if you did find 'em."
Jemmie nodded harder, still holding on tight.
"I'm gonna go get them for you, Jem," Daddy said firmly. "Let go now, I'll be right back."
"Promise?" Jemmie hadn't meant to say it, not when he was trying to be good for Daddy, quiet and obedient, but he couldn't keep it back.
"Promise," Daddy said, not getting annoyed at all but kissing the top of Jemmie's head again. "You can watch me the whole time, I'm just going over to the dresser and back. You can count and see how long it takes."
Jemmie liked counting, even if he wasn't very good at it yet. He wriggled happily and transferred his grip to his bunny as Daddy pushed him down to rest on the bed again. "One..."
Daddy took a big, exaggerated step toward the end of the bed, eyes wide as he looked right back at Jemmie.
"Two," Jemmie went on, holding up two fingers. Daddy moved faster, darting over to the dresser, so Jemmie called out, "Three! Five! Five an' a half!"
Daddy yanked a drawer open and reached down into it, pulling out a bundle of purple cloth.
"Six!" Jemmie called out, "Six an'--an'--"
Daddy hopped right into the middle of the bed, tickling at Jemmie's ribs and making him laugh and lose track of what he was counting. He didn't need to keep counting anyhow; Daddy was here.
Bucky had to concentrate for a second on moving like Jemmie, wiggling with only Jemmie's strength, staying soft on the bed and pushing ineffectually at Steve's hands.
Then Steve caught both of Jemmie's hands, pressing them to his chest in a gentle, implacable grip, and Jemmie didn't have to think at all. Of course Daddy was stronger than he was, strong enough to move Jemmie where he wanted him. He was Jemmie's daddy; he was stronger than anyone.
"Shh, shh, honey," Daddy bent down to kiss Jemmie's cheeks and forehead, and Jemmie squirmed a little, still breathless with laughter. "Shh, I shouldn't have riled you up when it's so late."
Jemmie squirmed a little then, pushing playfully against Daddy's grip, but Daddy held firm. "No, shh, settle down now. Time to get your pajamas on and then you need to get to sleep. It's too late for playing."
Jemmie pouted. "No playing today. No Daddy."
"Aww, honey, I know, I know you didn't get to play today. But it's late now, and you need your sleep. Don't talk back now, let me help you get your pajamas on."
Jemmie meant to keep pouting, but then Daddy let go of his hands and picked up the shirt of the pajamas he's brought over to the bed, holding it up for Jemmie to see.
It was light purple, made of some thin knit cloth, so soft the whole thing puddled together until Daddy used both hands to hold it up by the shoulders. There was a little ribbon bow at the center of the wide neck, and the shirt was patterned with butterflies in different colors, pink and yellow and blue and green. It was the prettiest thing Jemmie had ever seen, and it was for him.
"Daddy," he gasped, eyes wide as he stared.
"I thought you'd like it," Daddy said with a smile. "Here, sit up a little, hands up."
Jemmie hurried to cooperate, and Daddy guided the shirt on, tugging it down Jemmie's arms and over his head. The long sleeves of the shirt were loose enough to fall down to his elbows when his arms were up, but when Jemmie lowered them the sleeves half-covered his hands. The shirt was long, too, puddling up around his hips and covering his lap. He wondered if it was just a nightshirt, but then Daddy held up a pair of little shorts. They were the same purple as the shirt, mostly plain, but there were butterflies around the bottom hem--and, he saw, when Daddy turned the shorts to show him the back, one butterfly on each cheek.
Jemmie wriggled and clapped his hands. "Daddy! Pretty."
Daddy grinned. "Not as pretty as you, Jemmie honey. Come on, let's get them on you."
Jemmie lay back, kicking his feet up into the air, and Daddy got them through the shorts and then tugged them all the way up, helping him get tucked away neatly inside them before he pulled the shirt down. It came almost to the end of the shorts, so those butterflies around his thighs just peeked out. The other two, on his backside, would be hidden, but Jemmie knew they were there, and so did Daddy.
"There," Daddy said, smoothing his hands down Jemmie's sides, making Jemmie wriggle a little just to feel their warm, gentle strength. "That's better. But your ribbon doesn't belong on your finger, does it?"
Jemmie bit his lip and shook his head, but he raised his hand to his lips as he did it, brushing them against the silkiness of the ribbon.
Daddy leaned over him, running his hands through Jemmie's damp hair. "How about if Daddy makes this all neat for you, so it doesn't get tangled while you're sleeping? Then we can tie your ribbon in your hair where it belongs."
Jemmie nodded agreement.
"Sit up, then," Daddy directed, sitting down himself with his legs spread wide, making a space for Jemmie between them. Jemmie scooted into place, feeling the softness of his new pajamas against his skin with every motion. And then he was tucked in against Daddy, Daddy's strong legs around him, Daddy's broad chest at his back.
Daddy squeezed him tight, and then pushed him to lean forward a little. "Hug your bunny, Jem. And tell me if I'm pulling too hard, okay?"
Jemmie nodded. Daddy's fingers moved through his long hair gently, scratching lightly at his scalp, combing his hair back where Daddy wanted it.
"You've got the prettiest hair, Jemmie," Daddy said softly. "Such a nice deep color, and with that little bit of wave to it. Feels so nice and silky in my hands, and I'm so glad I can fix it for you with a pretty ribbon and all."
Jemmie brought his bunny up a little higher to hide his face, letting Daddy's words replace the nastier ones in his head. Daddy liked his hair, liked it long enough to braid and put ribbons in. That meant it was all right for Jemmie to wear it long, even if Jemmie was a boy.
"Let's see now," Daddy murmured. "Been a while since I did this..."
Daddy's hands didn't hesitate, though, gathering up sections of Jemmie's hair near his forehead and temple and weaving them together with firm tugs. Jemmie remembered to hold still, mostly, though he wanted to see what Daddy was doing and wanted to snuggle closer to Daddy at the same time. He clung to his bunny and tried to be patient, only wiggling a little bit.
Daddy reached over his shoulder then, and Jemmie realized that the hair on one side of his head was all braided while the other side was still loose. "Let's have that ribbon, honey. I'll tie this half, then tie them both together when I'm done with the other half."
Jemmie loosened his grip on the bunny enough to let Daddy take the ribbon, and then there was a soft silky tail brushing against the back of his neck. It made him shiver, and Daddy wrapped both arms around Jemmie, hugging him tight for a moment.
"You're being such an angel for me, Jem," Daddy murmured. "So good, so patient and quiet even though I know you're tired. Daddy's so proud of his good little Jemmie."
Jemmie tucked his face down against Daddy's arm where it came around him. Daddy kissed the back of Jemmie's neck and the parting of his hair and held him for a while.
"Okay," Daddy said finally. "Come on, sweetheart, one more braid and then I can get you all tucked into bed for the night."
Jemmie nodded and sat up again, leaning forward and hugging his bunny tight. He was leaning over too far, but Daddy just huffed and leaned over him, running big strong fingers through Jemmie's hair to comb it into place before he started braiding it piece by piece. It hardly seemed to take any time at all before it was all firmly and neatly in place, and Daddy was tying the two tails together at the nape of Jemmie's neck.
He could feel the cool brush of his own damp hair, and the softer touch of the ribbon, all resting against his nape where Daddy's hand might rest sometimes. It felt good in so many different ways at once that Jemmie could only shiver, twisting to reach for his daddy.
Daddy's arms came around him firmly, and Daddy kissed the top of his head and told him how good he'd been. They stayed that way a little while, and Jemmie was really almost asleep in his daddy's arms when Daddy said, "Come on, let's get you all tucked in properly."
Jemmie whined softly, wordlessly, but Daddy just kissed the top of his head and moved him. Jemmie was too sleepy, and too small, to give any resistance at all as Daddy laid him down. Daddy brought his bunny up close to his face, guiding Jemmie's right hand close to his mouth, and it was automatic to tuck his thumb between his lips and suck softly as he nuzzled against his bunny's velvety ears.
Daddy moved off the bed then, and Jemmie opened his eyes to look. He was too comfortable and sleepy to complain, and he knew his daddy wouldn't leave him, not really, not when he'd been so lonesome all day waiting for Daddy to come home.
Sure enough, Daddy had only gone over to the dresser again. He peeled his t-shirt off first, and Jemmie blinked slowly, looking at his daddy's bare chest in the low light. His skin seemed to glow gold, and he was so big and so strong. It gave Jemmie a shivery feeling inside to know that he belonged to a daddy like that.
Daddy skinned out of his jeans next, folding them and setting them on top of the dresser. He left his shorts on, and Jemmie could see the bulge at the front of them, just another contour of Daddy's big muscular body. Jemmie sucked harder on his thumb, squirming a little at the feeling between his own legs.
He thought there might be a bulge in his soft purple butterfly shorts, too. Nothing like Daddy's, but something down there felt warm and swollen and good when he wiggled, rubbing his crotch against the soft fabric of his shorts.
"What's this," Daddy murmured as he tugged down the covers, climbing in on the other side only to scoot right over to Jemmie. "Still can't sleep after that nice cuddle with your daddy, sweetheart?"
Jemmie shrugged. He could sleep, probably, but this felt good too. He didn't want to take his thumb from his mouth, so he reached down with his other hand, rubbing with one finger where the tingly-good feeling was.
"Ahh," Daddy said. "I see what it is. You need a really special cuddle from Daddy. Come here, angel, turn on your side for me."
Jemmie went the way Daddy's hands guided him, turning to face the bedside table. He curled up small and Daddy cuddled right up behind him, pulling Jemmie against his chest. Jemmie could feel the bulge in Daddy's shorts pressing against his bottom, and it felt funny and made Jemmie feel funny. He wriggled against it a little, and Daddy tsked and put a hand on Jemmie's hip to hold him still.
"Just let Daddy hold you, Jemmie. Daddy's been waiting so long to be able to cuddle you like this."
It didn't seem like a very different kind of cuddle so far, apart from the funny pressure against Jemmie's bottom. But he wanted to be good for Daddy, and more than anything he wanted Daddy to hold him and help him settle down and sleep, so he held as still as he could, sucking his thumb and squeezing his bunny.
Daddy's arms closed around him, and Daddy just squeezed him for a minute, so tight it almost hurt, so tight that Jemmie knew he could never get away, or get lost ever again. Then Daddy rested one hand, the one that had squirmed underneath Jemmie to hold him, against Jemmie's belly. The other hand went to Jemmie's hip again, and then to the spot between Jemmie's legs where he felt all swollen and good.
Daddy brushed lightly over that spot, something like a tickle, something like Jemmie needed to sneeze. He shivered hard all over, his feet kicking out, and Daddy gripped him tight again, squeezing until Jemmie was still.
"Did that feel bad, honey?" Daddy asked. "Or did it just feel too much?"
Bucky shrugged tightly, caught dizzily halfway between Jamesy and Jemmie, remembering being in the bath, trying to find words for how it felt the same and how it felt different while he was struggling to remember who he was tonight.
Steve's grip tightened at the same time he pressed a soft kiss to the base of Bucky's skull. "Shh, Jemmie, take it easy, Daddy's here. Daddy's got you, don't worry. You just relax, Daddy will take care of it. Can you relax for me, sweetheart?"
Bucky took a breath and nodded, letting Steve's words lull him back to that quiet, easy place. To Jemmie.
"Daddy's got you," Steve murmured again, loosening his grip so he had a hand free to slide up under Jemmie's pajama shirt. He just rested it there at first, and then Jemmie let out another breath and felt himself softening all over in Daddy's grip, his muscles letting go. His tummy seemed to round out under Daddy's hand as he relaxed the muscles of his belly, and Daddy kissed his neck and the back of his head, making little soothing noises as he started to rub slow circles there.
Jemmie remembered this, from when his tummy had hurt.
"Story, Daddy," he mumbled around his thumb.
"Oh, yeah?" Daddy squeezed him a little tighter and then loosened his grip so he was just holding Jemmie close, not pressing so hard. "Hmm, a bedtime story for my angel. Should it be a story about a... lizard?"
Jemmie huffed and shook his head, shifting his grip on his bunny to wave its ears at Daddy while still pressing his face against its soft body.
"Oh, a story about a bunny?" Daddy stopped rubbing Jemmie's belly and his hand came into view from under Jemmie's shirt, two fingers poking up like bunny ears as it hopped its way up Jemmie's body. "A bunny named... hm... what should the bunny's name be, Jem?"
Jemmie nodded firmly and echoed, "Jem. Bunny Jem."
Daddy laughed softly against the back of Jemmie's head. "Okay. Jem the bunny, huh? Jem is a soft little brown bunny who lives in a real big forest." Daddy's hand hopped, bunny-like, back down to Jemmie's belly, and slipped back under his shirt, and Daddy went back to rubbing Jemmie's belly while he talked about Jem the bunny hopping around in a meadow full of white and yellow flowers, meeting a rock, and a tree root, and a frog, and a sparrow.
Jemmie wasn't asleep, exactly, but he wasn't quite awake, either. He was drifting on Daddy's voice and Daddy's touch, and when Daddy's hand rubbed down lower on his belly, he wiggled a little and sighed at how nice it felt. Daddy's hand was outside of his shorts, making the soft cloth move against Jemmie's skin, making it slide and tug where Jemmie was feeling hot and tingly and full.
Jem the bunny decided that none of the creatures in the meadow were quite like him, and started hopping toward home, but he couldn't find the way after wandering so far.
Jemmie whimpered, clutching his bunny tighter, and Daddy paused the story to shush him softly. "It's gonna be all right, Jemmie," Daddy promised, his hand still moving low on Jemmie's belly, giving him all those soft, warm feelings. "It's a nice story, honey, I promise."
Jemmie nodded, and Daddy's hand moved a little lower as he said, "Just when Jem the bunny was starting to get scared about being really lost, another bunny hopped out of the grass. This bunny was a grownup bunny, a lot bigger than Jem."
Jemmie wriggled, pressing into Daddy's touch, bumping the hottest and most sensitive part of him against Daddy's hand. "Was--was it--Jem's--"
"Shh, honey," Daddy rubbed lower, which didn't make Jemmie's breath stop hitching, but did make Jemmie stop talking. "Yeah, that's right, it's Jem the bunny's daddy. Daddy Bunny got real worried about his little bunny when it got so late, so he went looking for Jem in the meadow. When he saw his little Jem all alone there, he picked Jem right up by the scruff of the neck--"
Daddy touched his teeth to the nape of Jemmie's neck, making Jemmie shiver and push into his hand, breathing hard now against his bunny's fur. "And he went jumping across the meadow to take Jem home."
Daddy's hand moved in big, rhythmic strokes then, just like Daddy Bunny hopping away across the meadow. Jemmie could feel it through his whole body, that tingly-good feeling spreading from where Daddy touched him right up to the top of his head and down to his toes. He was just like Jem the bunny; Jemmie's Daddy was here to carry him away to where he needed to go to feel safe and good, when he'd been alone too long.
"Daddy," Jemmie gasped. "Oh, oh--"
"Shh." Daddy squeezed him tighter again and kept his hand moving over Jemmie's shorts until Jemmie cried out, his toes curling, his whole body bending in around Daddy's hand and his bunny. The good feeling where Daddy touched him became impossibly better, rushing all through him so he couldn't think. He only knew that Daddy was still holding him, and that without Daddy's tight grip he might have exploded with the feeling that filled him so overwhelmingly.
After a while it ebbed away, leaving him limp and panting. Daddy still held him close, his arms wrapped around Jemmie.
Daddy wasn't holding completely still, though. He was moving behind Jemmie, rubbing against Jemmie's bottom. It felt hot and strange, but Jemmie felt good and kind of sleepy, and he liked Daddy holding him so close, so he just tucked his face in against his bunny while Daddy's breathing turned rough and fast.
Daddy's grip on Jemmie tightened harder and Daddy pushed harder against his bottom, and Jemmie squirmed and whimpered in confusion. Daddy wasn't hurting him, but he wasn't sure what Daddy was doing, or what he should do about it.
"Shh, honey, shh, almost done," Daddy whispered. His voice was tense and low, but he nuzzled softly against the back of Jemmie's neck and loosened his grip so it was nice and not too tight. "Just--be still for me, angel, Daddy just needs--"
Daddy went still and tense behind him, and Jemmie felt that bulging part of Daddy twitching against his bottom. Daddy let out a long, shaky breath, and then kissed the back of Jemmie's neck--once, twice, and then a flurry of kisses that made Jemmie squirm and smile. He was too sleepy to laugh and play, but Daddy stopped after a moment, leaning over Jemmie to reach the bedside table.
As soon as he pulled out a package of wet wipes from the drawer, Jemmie became aware of a problem. He squirmed in Daddy's hold and whined, "Sticky, Daddy. Messy."
Daddy laughed and moved to kneel up over him. "I know, honey. I made a pretty good mess of both of us, but that's what your Daddy's for--cleaning up the messes."
Daddy tugged Jemmie's new purple shorts down and started cleaning him up, and Jemmie looked up at his Daddy's face and thought that he looked awful tired.
Daddy hadn't had a good day either. Daddy had already cleaned up a lot of messes today. But that wasn't what Daddy was for.
Daddy stopped what he was doing and looked at Jemmie. "No? No what, honey?"
Jemmie tugged his bunny half in front of his face, feeling shy suddenly. He'd contradicted his daddy, and he still wanted to be his daddy's good little one. But it was important. "Daddy's not for messes. Daddy's for me. An' I'm for Daddy."
Daddy's expression softened, and he leaned down to kiss the tip of Jemmie's nose. "You're right, angel. That's what we're both for." He went back to cleaning Jemmie up, and added offhandedly, "We sure do manage to land in an awful lot of messes, though, you ever notice that?"
Jemmie muffled his giggle into his bunny, but Daddy heard him and smiled a smile that made Jemmie feel warm and safe and good from head to toe. He closed his eyes then. He didn't want to see anything else but Daddy's smile.
Pretty soon the light turned off and Daddy's arms were around him again, holding him close so he could sleep and know just where his Daddy was.
"Love you, Daddy." That was what he'd been trying to say before, maybe, but he was too little, and didn't say it quite right. Daddy had understood anyway.
"Love you, Jemmie," Daddy murmured, kissing the back of Jemmie's neck, and behind his ear. Daddy was so big and so warm, and Jemmie wanted to lie there forever feeling how small and safe he was, in his daddy's arms, in the dark. Still, it wasn't long before he slept, and the long, long day was finally over.
Bucky woke up cuddled close to Steve, nose pressed against his chest. For a moment there was nothing but the pleasure of being warm and close to Steve in the quiet, feeling no pressure to get up. There was no threat of cold just outside the blankets, no nearby voices, no boots already on his feet signaling that they would have to get on the march soon.
Then Steve's hand moved on his back, making him aware of the stretchy softness of his pajama shirt, and the night before crashed into his awareness. Bucky squeezed his eyes shut tighter, pressing his forehead against Steve's shoulder.
He felt all right. Not the giddy high of the morning after he and Steve first played together here, but light years away from the frozen numbness that had overtaken him in Steve's absence.
He remembered what Steve had said last night--that's what your Daddy's for--and he remembered the weariness on Steve's face. Even deep in the soft-edged space in his head that was Jemmie, Bucky had known that wasn't right, and now...
Bucky cleared his throat, and Steve's arm lifted away, giving him room to move. He pushed back just far enough to rest his head on the pillow and meet Steve's eyes.
Steve was smiling crookedly at him, still drowsy and easy, and Bucky smiled back irresistibly.
Maybe he shouldn't say anything. Maybe he should play along, have another easy morning like they had after the last time.
But if he couldn't say it to Steve in this safe, quiet moment, he was never going to say it at all. And he couldn't keep going like this; playing with Steve again, remembering what it was like to be a person, including all the parts of himself that he'd been cut off from for so long, only made it more obvious.
"When I said the other day," Bucky started, and then halted, thinking maybe he should have started with Good morning or I love you. He raised one hand and ran it over his head just to confirm that, yeah, he had just opened this conversation while his hair was still in two French braids, tied together with a purple-blue ribbon at the nape of his neck.
Steve's expression sharpened, and Steve's hand covered his on his head and then slid back to the nape of his neck, slipping under the tails of his braids to press against his skin. "Yeah?"
Bucky took a breath and tried again, tipping his head back slightly to feel Steve's grip. "About... needing you to thaw me out. I needed it real bad last night. Yesterday, while you were gone, it wasn't... good."
Steve's eyes showed a little wince, and he squeezed softly at the back of Bucky's neck. "Yeah, I got that feeling. Better this morning?"
Bucky nodded. "But I meant what I said last night, too. You're not just for cleaning up messes, Steve. You can't be. I can't sit around being a mess and waiting for you to come home and fix it."
Steve's thumb stroked over his hairline, tugging a little at the braided hair. The little thought-line appeared between his brows, but he didn't speak, didn't let go.
"I think I... I gotta get some kind of other help," Bucky went on.
He had only the vaguest idea of what that would mean, except that Sam and Natasha had both told him he could choose a doctor, that it would only mean talking and maybe medication, but he wouldn't be shut up anywhere, would be able to stop if it wasn't helping, if the cure was worse than the disease. That there could be such a thing as a cure, or at least something better than this.
It hadn't meant much, when he was still behind that sheet of ice. He'd been functional, and with Steve, and more had seemed both impossible and unnecessary. But now, knowing what it could be like, and what it felt like to slide back into that cold...
Steve nodded slowly. "Whatever you need, Buck. Is that... do you..."
For a second Steve looked all of sixteen years old, ninety-two pounds dripping wet, stuttering his way to telling Bucky that maybe he oughta forget this stuff between them and get serious about a nice girl.
Bucky huffed and chucked Steve under his chin--not so sharp as it was back then, but Bucky could still find the soft underside easily enough. "I'm still gonna need you, Stevie. I'll always need you. But maybe it'd be nice if I could still breathe and eat and walk around on my own and you didn't have to do it for me, huh? So our thing could be for us, not just for me."
Steve's hand tightened hard enough to make Bucky's eyelashes flutter and his head tip back, reflexively showing his throat. Steve was nearly growling as he said, "It's never just for you, Buck."
Steve's mouth found his, soft in contrast to his hard grip, and then rougher as he let up with his hand. Bucky let Steve have him, kissing back only in soft little motions, just enough to encourage him, as Steve rolled over onto him, holding him in place.
When Steve finally let up, Bucky felt a little dazed. It took him a second to find the thread of what they'd been talking about.
Steve got there first. "I'll help you find someone. The right someone. I've talked to Sam about it before--they had me talk to a doctor when I first woke up and... the guy was probably HYDRA anyway, but even before I knew that, I knew it wasn't good. Sam says it's complicated sometimes, finding someone who's the right fit."
Bucky wrinkled his nose as he realized just how complicated it might be. "Are they gonna try to cure me of this? I know they don't try to cure queerness anymore, mostly, but..."
"We're a little above and beyond," Steve agreed, one corner of his mouth tilting up. "I think I know who to ask, though. There's other people like us who talk to each other online. Even the groups that are just people in New York have a hell of a lot of members--somebody there's gotta have had to see a doctor about this kind of thing before. I can ask around for who's good, who to avoid. We'll find someone. If there's anyone anywhere who'll be right for you, there's gotta be someone in New York."
Bucky had an odd moment of doubled awareness, wanting to tease Steve about being such a New Yorker and knowing without a doubt that it was true. There was nothing anyone could need that you couldn't get in New York, and New Yorkers had seen everything. Somewhere in this city there would be a doctor who wouldn't bat an eye at his sex life.
"Thanks," Bucky said, feeling lighter already with the knowledge that Steve would be with him on this. And with Steve's weight still holding him down...
Bucky moved both of his hands up over his head, crossing his wrists on the pillow. One of Steve's hands came to rest over them like it was magnetized, and Bucky said, "First, though, did I tell you good morning?"
"Oh, it's gonna be," Steve breathed, pressing down harder over him, and Bucky smiled.
Yeah. This was going to be a good day.