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I Owe You

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1.

The air is murky, clouds heavy in the sky above them as it looks down at a scene that is witnessed far too often throughout the streets of Brooklyn. Steve’s lip is split something horrific, his hands are scraped and bloodied up worse than they’ve possibly ever been, but he’s still fighting – fists raised defensively in a stance that Bucky’s helped him perfect over the past few years, yet it still doesn’t seem to do much for him.

Bucky admires the conviction that must run through his friends veins, and has done since the day they met. There’s not many people who put up a fight quite like Steven Grant Rogers – he fights, or rather tries to, like there’s no greater injustice than backing down, like the bashed and broken bones are worth the pain if it means he can stand tall and say that he gave it all he’s got. Which he does, every single time without fail.

He’s standing stubborn as always, until he isn’t – knocked face down into the concrete by one measly punch that almost anyone else could’ve blocked as a malicious chortle echoes through the alleyway and Bucky could swear he sees red.

By this point, he knows better than to offer Steve his hand. It’s been made perfectly clear time and time again that Steve has a perfectly adequate ability to take care of himself, and any action that implies Steve is less capable results in being ignored for at least half the day, which is explicitly longer than Bucky can even begin to stand.

Instead, Bucky does what he knows is the only thing Steve will accept, having been in this very situation too many times to count and simply throws a punch much harder than this particular ugly brute of a guy Bucky knows all too well as Big Jones from across the road ever imagined, sending him hurtling backwards before delivering a swift kick to his stomach.

“You’re gonna regret that, Barnes,” he says, hand gripping onto his gut as he throws Bucky a nasty glare from under his unattended-to eyebrows.

Bucky just rolls his eyes and crosses his arms over his chest, his chin jutting out in defiance and legs spread wide enough apart to convey that Bucky Barnes means business, with a look of steely determination on his face, because if there’s anything his father taught him, it’s that nothing is more powerful than one’s own confidence, and he intends to use that superpower of his until it’s forcefully pried from him.

“If I were you, I’d back away now, pal,” he warns, his stink-eye getting that much more intense by the second, his constant burning need to defend and protect Steve Rogers fuelling his hate fire.

Jones snorts with all his gargoyle-looking glory, and it’s an ugly sound that bounces off the narrow walls of the alleyway. “Oh yeah? And why’s that?”

“Because things are gonna get real messy for you if you don’t.”

Steve’s halfway to his feet at this point, teeth gritted as he pushes himself up despite the countless number of scrapes that litter his kneecaps and shins. He shouldn’t be used to it, but he is and this is just what he does – he gets knocked to his feet, and he fights tooth and nail to get right back up. There’s nothing to Bucky that’s more admirable than Steve’s sheer determination and belief – belief that he’s stronger than what everyone else sees, belief that if you fight hard enough for it, you’ll get to see the good in the world, belief that he’s more than just a fragile frame that’s far too small to support a heart the size of his.

But at the same time, he also thinks Steve is a fucking idiot.

Jones scoffs as Steve pushes him forward to stand in line with Bucky, mocking the size of his frame instead of marvelling at the extent of his resolve. Which is why Bucky simply rolls his eyes and hooks an arm around Steve’s own scrawny one and begins to pull the both of them out of the alley.

At first, Steve struggles but Bucky elects to ignore both him and the shouts of ‘coward’ that follow behind them. “What ya’ doing, Buck? Let go of me!”

He protests right up until they’ve rounded the corner and Bucky’s sure Jones has gotten bored and backed off in the other direction. They’ve already done this charade a million times. “You really think he’s worth it, Stevie? Don’t waste your strength on half-wits like him.”

Steve lets out a short, deprecating laugh. “What strength?”

Without even hesitating, Bucky unlinks their arms and gestures towards Steve’s chest, poking it a little harshly to get his point across. “The strength in there. Come on, Steve, you know you’re better than any of these jerks who come along thinking they’re the top dog just ‘cause they can throw a few punches. You know that.”

“You always say that,” Steve grumbles under his breath, but he’s got the hint of a smile tugging at the corner of his injured lips, causing Bucky to grin too because there’s nothing that makes him more satisfied than seeing Steve happy – even more so if he’s the cause of that happiness.

“And I always mean it,” he says, one arm being thrown over Steve’s frail shoulders to bring him into a side-hug that feels way too familiar but somehow still not enough.

Just as Steve glances up at him, blue eyes gazing up at him as the shades dance out a message Bucky’s never been capable of interpreting, the rain begins. One second, his mouth feels dry and scratchy as he struggles to form words much like he does every other time Steve turns his full attention toward him, and then the next he’s gasping like someone just dumped a full tank of freezing cold water over his head which, in a sense, he supposes the sky has.

Of course, his first instinct is to glance in Steve’s direction who’s smirking at Bucky’s taken aback expression like his own hair isn’t already beginning to drip as a result of Brooklyn’s typical March weather. He shoves him teasingly, a grin of his own spreading back across his face as they get into a play fight of sorts, grabbing at each other’s limbs and tousling hair and shoving the other away. Bucky might be careful with Steve, but that doesn’t mean to say he’s gentle or shows him any mercy and it’s only a matter of minutes before Steve finds himself with Bucky’s arm around him in a head-lock, hair all messy and dishevelled with his slacks soaked from the ankle to the knee. Admittedly, Bucky doesn’t think it’s a bad look for him, but then again he’s never before found a way to critique Steve’s appearance.

“Alright, Buck, think you can let me go now?” Steve relents, swatting away almost helplessly at Bucky’s arms wrapped securely around his neck, but he’s chuckling at the same time. He’s still yet to beat him even after all these years, and even though the one person Steve doesn’t mind being beaten by is Bucky – he’d surrender in a heartbeat – but he swears he will, one of these days.

Laughing despite the shower that’s opted to pour down on them, Bucky unhooks one arm from around his friend and shakes him gently with the other, keeping it securely wrapped around Steve’s shoulders and pulling their faces close enough together he can see a tiny droplet of water dripping down from Steve’s nose to his lip.

“We should probably be gettin’ out of this rain,” Steve grumbles, and he’s already started shivering despite how hard he’s got his teeth gritted and his hands clenched to stop himself.

Bucky runs a hand up and down his arm as if to generate some heat into him, despite it being a wasted effort and the two begin to make their way through the streets, trying to keep as close to the edge of the buildings as they can in an attempt to take shelter from the downpour, Bucky right on Steve’s heels.

The rain continues to pound down on them, soaking through every inch of clothing until Bucky’s concerned that it’s not seeping into Steve’s bones and drowning him from the inside out. If they don’t get shelter as soon as possible, he’s convinced Steve’s going to catch pneumonia.

It had happened before, and Bucky’s stomach churned horrifically at the mental image of Steve writhing on a mattress under a measly sheet that was simultaneously too thick and too thin, of the constant frantic scrambling for his inhaler as his asthma nearly killed him on more than one occasion. Sarah Rogers had initially tried to thank Bucky for staying by Steve’s side, but he’d refused any kind of gratitude – he knew he owed it to Steve, anyway, to always be by his side and he wasn’t about to let that debt go unpaid – and poor Sarah had just been forced to accept that this was the way things were always going to be between them, with a loving yet worried smile stretched across her face.

They duck into a doorway, squeezing into the narrow space that shields them from the downpour that threatens to drown them and sit down. It’s not unpleasant, being forced so close to Steve – the press of their legs is somehow warm despite the rain, and it’s comforting and familiar where the weather isn’t.

Steve’s teeth chatter harshly, rattling in his mouth as his shoulders shake no matter how hard he tries to conceal it. Usually, Bucky wouldn’t do it knowing the almighty glare he would get in return – and probably a shove that he would allow to hurt him just a little because, well, it’s Steve – but he refuses to let his best friend kill himself out of stubbornness, so he shrugs off his own jacket which is unfairly thicker than Steve’s and wraps it around his shoulders before he can protest.

He opens his mouth, but Bucky covers it with his hand. “Don’t you dare try ‘n take that off, Stevie. You’re gonna freeze to death and you know it.”

Steve glares at him in return, holding his gaze for a full minute without Bucky’s hand budging, until he childishly licks across his fingers tips, laughing when Bucky whips it back and groans in disgust.

“You’re a punk,” Bucky mutters, attempting to wipe his hand dry on his drenched trousers to no avail, screwing his face up in a pretence of being completely grossed out.

“Jerk,” Steve retaliates softly, bumping their knees together. He’s still shivering pretty violently but he doesn’t fight Bucky on it again, pulling the jacket tighter around his shoulders.

Bucky turns his head to look at Steve, who’s gazing at the moisture drip off his cheap, well-worn shoes. He’s never been much invested in drawing or painting or sculpting, the dexterity of it washing right over his head, but looking at Steve he thinks he realises why his friend’s so transfixed by it, always bent over a sketch-book with a pencil clutched in his too-small hands, because if he could capture every single feature that graces Steve’s face, he would in an instant. The dip of his jawline, the bow of his top lip, the swoop of his eyelashes dusting over his cheekbones - the highest form of art he could ever imagine, and the sight of it is too valuable to not attempt to at least absorb it into his memory, if he can’t capture it forever on paper.

And Steve is pretty with his hair sprinkled with rain, much like the girls he’s supposed to be interested in but he’s found that no matter how many plumped feminine lips he kisses or how many times he makes one of them blush and twirl their long hair around their finger, it will never even begin to compare to the feeling that settles deep in the pit of his stomach as Stevie’s eyes light up when Bucky finally agrees to be his model, or when he finally begins to recover from some gut-wrenching flu and uses all his strength to give Bucky a weak yet affectionate smile with drooped eyelids. Bucky would rather spend his days following Steve to ends of the Earth, cleaning up all the cuts and bruises acquired along the way, than another second in anyone else’s company.

He’s scared of what that says about him.

Which is probably why as his hands tentatively reach out towards Steve’s face they’re slick with sweat and rain and horribly clammy, why when his thumb soothes over the red, blood-stained crack in Steve’s lip it’s shaking uncontrollably and why when he closes the distance between them and softly presses his own lips to Steve’s, his heart is hammering in his chest and he can’t hear himself think.

There’s a pounding in his eardrums as he realises that they’re out in public, lips brushing against each other in quick, light kisses, and God only knows what would happen to them if they were caught. There’s rain drops falling from Steve’s hair and landing on Bucky’s cheeks but he doesn’t dare shift to brush them away.

But then Steve lips are soft against his, softer than Bucky would’ve imagined considering the amount of beatings he’s witnessed him take, but they are and they move along with Bucky’s like a goddamn fairy-tale, and he completely forgets about any consequence this could have.

Bucky feels one of Steve’s hand secure around his wrist, the other gripping lightly onto his waist like he never wants to let go. He wouldn’t complain if he didn’t.

Goosebumps raise over Bucky’s arms, and it’s not from the absence of his jacket. Instead, it’s from the hold Steve has on him tightening and Bucky can’t help but place just that little bit more pressure onto Steve’s lips, his stomach twisting in cartwheels as the two of them exhale shakily onto the others skin. He presses one last kiss to Steve’s lips before he pulls away and untangles himself from Steve’s hold, opting instead to stare at the ground in front of him with his hands gripping onto his knees.

Bucky feels Steve’s eyes on him, questioning and maybe just a little wary. “Gotta keep you warm somehow, right?” he offers weakly.

Steve doesn’t reply, and silence falls over them until the rain stops beating off the ground to the rhythm of Bucky’s heart.

2.

Steve’s eyes are beautiful.

Bucky mentally curses himself, because even though that’s a thought he has more often than not, he’s got enough self-control to not act on impulse anymore – at least when he’s sober. But now there’s whiskey running through his veins and he’s got Steve sitting across from him at the table with rosy cheeks and eyelids that are drooping from the alcohol and maybe just a little bit from exhaustion and goddamn it, the more he drinks the more he wants to just reach across and press his lips to Steve’s – he doesn’t care if it’s soft or rough, or messy or romantic. He longs for even the slightest taste of Steve’s mouth, but the atmosphere around them is different now, and they’re no longer fourteen years old and sheltering helplessly from the rain and Bucky’s much more of a coward than he’d like to admit.

It’s been nine years and he’d missed every single window the world had been gracious enough to grant him to just confess, to tell Steve everything he’d kept bottling up in the pit of his stomach but instead he opted to shove them further and further down, latching onto Steve’s company in every way he could as if it could ever substitute. Bucky knows he should be with some pretty dame right now, twirling her about on his arm but Stevie wouldn’t have wanted to come on some ridiculous double date, and his is the only company Bucky ever really craves.

“Okay so maybe moving in together wasn’t your worst idea,” Steve relents, rolling his eyes and taking another swing from the bottle in his hand, all courtesy of an unexpected twist of fate where Steve had actually managed to sell some of his art for a sum of money that was pretty in comparison to what they’d been living off of recently.

A sum of money which, in a fit of overexcitement, they’ve probably just drank and then pissed out the drain, but neither of them had the heart to break the elation they still felt with a sharp nip of reality – at least not tonight. It’s been too long since they’ve been able to just go out and do something without having to sneak their way around paying or fretting over excessive costs.

Bucky smirks at Steve, his surface cockiness doing its utmost to pass his approval as nothing more than playful banter between two friends. “It wasn’t my best idea either, mind you, sick of hearin’ your teeth chatterin’ every time it drops below fifty.”

“Well maybe if you didn’t hog all the goddamn blankets my teeth chatterin’ wouldn’t be the problem,” Steve’s cheeks only get more flushed the more alcohol he consumes and Bucky begins to feel guilty for the number of wicked thoughts it puts in his head.

“Nah, the only thing that’d stop it would be you cuddlin’ up to an entire hearth,” Bucky teases, taking a swig from his bottle, hand loose on the neck.

Steve chuckles, only half out of humour and nudges his drink away. “Could we even afford a hearth?”

“Well, if we could three hours ago, we can’t now,” Bucky shrugs, pushing the bottle back towards Steve who narrows his eyes slightly. “May as well make the most of it, Stevie.”

It’s then that Bucky catches a glimpse of the couple sitting across the room from them. The gentleman sits with a beer in his hand, a cigarette dangling precariously far out of his mouth as he smiles lopsided up at the girl that’s perched on his knee. She’s pretty, Bucky can’t deny that, with careful pin-up curls and a skirt that’s just short enough to make the mothers tut, but he simply can’t go beyond just appreciating her beauty. He wishes, so much, that he could – that the cascade of her hair and the indent of her waist was something that Bucky could look at and see more than simply the frame of a woman. But he can’t.

However, when he looks at Steve, he sees the ocean swimming in his eyes, the purpling bruises that scatter every single limb, – one of many indications of his bravery – he sees a heart that’s so full of nothing but pure good as it thumps against his too frail chest, and every single day he wishes he didn’t. But he does, and Steve is beautiful, and Bucky is completely fucked because not only is this the opposite of what Steve wants and needs, but it’s also one of many things he could never hope to have in his lifetime because the world seems to have an agenda of keeping Steve just out with his helpless reach and it’s frustrating and heart breaking and he wishes and he prays that there was something more he could get out of it all, but he can’t so he allows himself to revel in the time he does get to spend with Steve, innocent as it might be.

“You know, it’s okay, Buck,” Steve says softly, breaking Bucky out of his trance.

Bucky frowns, eyes roaming over Steve’s sympathetic, if slightly disheartened expression. “What is?”

“To start taking dames home again,” he shrugs, and continues speaking as Bucky opens his mouth to protest, despite not knowing what exactly it is that he wants to say. “Don’t try and argue with me, Buck. You barely spend any time goin’ on dates anymore, and when you do you sure as hell don’t take anyone back with you.”

“Look, Steve it’s not like tha-“

“You don’t have to feel sorry for me,” Steve insists, brows furrowed in annoyance. “I know what people see when they look at me, and I don’t blame ‘em, but I’m used to it now. I don’t want you missin’ out just because you feel like you have to keep me company.”

“Steve. Listen to me. You know I don’t feel any obligation to spend time with you, you’re my best pal, of course I want to be around you, dames or no dames,” Bucky says, and it’s mostly the truth, but the stare he receives from Steve makes him feel like Steve’s got the whole thing sussed out.

It’s a few seconds before Steve pushes himself up and out of his seat. “I gotta use the restroom.”

He says it bluntly, almost implying that he never wanted to be having this conversation with Bucky in the first place, despite being the one who brought it up. His steps are clumsy, staggering on his way to the bathroom, tripping over his own feet due to the alcohol that they can’t afford pumping around in his body.

Bucky stares at the seat where Steve had just been in bewilderment, at the abandoned bottle lying on the table, which suddenly makes him feel isolated with its reminder of Steve’s sudden and unexplained absence. He gulps down the remaining contents of his own drink before following after Steve, carefully picking his way across the floor.

Upon entering the bathroom, he sees Steve bent over the sink, hands grasped tightly onto the sink as he looks down at his feet and for a second Bucky is wildly panicked he’s about to throw up.

“You alright, Stevie?” he asks tentatively, taking small steps forward.

It takes a few seconds before Steve replies but when he does he releases a large puff of breath and releases his hold on the sink, whipping round to face Bucky with that determined look in his eyes that they both know all too well.

“What’s the real reason you’ve stopped dating?” he demands, looking Bucky dead in the eye and for someone who’s only five foot four and weighs next-to-nothing pounds, at this moment in time Bucky swears he’s never seen anybody more intimidating.

“I don’t understand what you mean, Steve, I haven’t stopped dating – there just haven’t been many girls that catch my fancy,” he shrugs, trying to keep it casual despite the thrumming in his chest and the twisting in the pit of his stomach. Whether it’s from nerves or his complete adoration for the man in front of him, he doesn’t know.

“Any particular reason for that?” Steve’s taken a step closer, inched his way round now so that he’s got his back to the bathroom stalls and Bucky has to swallow deeply before he says something he’ll seriously regret.

“Already told ya, none of them have caught my eye recently.”

Steve throws his hands up, and sighs in exasperation. “Why can’t you just admit it, Buck?!”

“What are you expecting me to say?!” their voices are raised, but thankfully not so much that they could be heard from outside the bathroom which just so happens to be empty, and Bucky really, really wishes somebody would walk in right now so they could put an end to this conversation – even Steve would find himself relenting.

“Look me in the eye and tell me you haven’t thought about kissing me again.”

Bucky swallows again, and he tries to keep his gaze solely on Steve. “I haven’t thought about it,” he says, but his voice is weak even to his own ears and his eyes slide downwards before he’s finished his sentence.

Obviously, Steve picks up on this and laughs without humour, pressing his back to the stall behind him. “I know what you want, Buck, and you know it too.”

After hearing his defeated tone, Bucky takes one look at Steve leaning against the bathroom stall and sees him staring him in the eyes like a dare, before the alcohol in his system breaks through his resolve. With two long strides he’s crossed the room and Steve’s jaw is in his hands, gripping the sides of his face like his life depends on it. He pushes his lips to Steve’s with a little more force than is probably necessary, but he doesn’t care because he’s waited so fucking long to do this.

It’s nothing like their first kiss – innocent and unsure. This is hungry and desperate as he mouths at Steve, licking against his lower lip and gasping hot and heavy onto his skin when Steve finally begins to respond and kiss back, biting at Bucky like he’s been doing this his whole life.

He can taste the liquor on Steve’s tongue as they run along each other, tanged with the soup they’d been able to scrounge up earlier in the evening. Breathing in the scent of alcohol and cheap cologne and just the slightest bit of sweat is enough to have Bucky’s hands releasing the sides of Steve’s face and travelling down to grasp him by the hips and pull him closer, rubbing against each other in a way that Bucky probably would’ve cursed himself for even considering the idea of it earlier on in the day.

But if the way Steve pants against his mouth is anything to go by, it can’t be all wrong. In fact it’s Steve who pushes them back into the bathroom stall, leaving Bucky to reach behind them and slam it shut as they continue to desperately tug at the others lips, nipping teasingly at their necks as if it won’t leave a bruise they’ll pretend to ignore in the morning.

It’s not until Steve’s back has been shoved against the door of the bathroom stall and the hips are drawn so flush together that they can both feel the hardness of each other through the fabric that somebody comes in. Bucky hears him first, and by instinct clamps a hand down over Steve’s mouth, his other one pressed firmly on his chest, preventing him from coming any closer as their foreheads press together, sheen with sweat.

The man is clearly drunk; fumbling around awkwardly to get his zipper down, not bothering to wash his hands and proceeding to trip over his feet time and time again before he finally grabs the door after several useless attempts and leaves them alone once again, minus the frantic gasping which is instead replaced with a thick silence that Bucky wishes would just suffocate him so he doesn’t have to think about what just happened.

He pushes Steve away, gently enough to know this isn’t about to turn into a fight but assertive enough to show that it can’t go any further. “We should go home. It’s getting late.”

With that, he turns on his heel and makes his way to the door, trying to ignore the puffiness of his lips and how turned on he still is which doesn’t get any easier just because his back is turned.

“Bucky –“ Steve begins, following after him with quick footsteps.

“Don’t, Steve,” Bucky warns, hand reaching out for the handle before he looks back over his shoulder. “It’s time to go.”

The sight of Steve takes Bucky’s breath away, even in the poorly lit bathroom of some stupid pub he never should’ve bothered coming to. His hair’s dishevelled, sticking up in the places he’s usually so pedantic about keeping neat, his shirt rumpled and threatening to untuck from his trousers, lips red and well-bitten – much like Bucky’s own ones he supposes – and eyes blown so wide it’s a wonder he can still see the ring of blue in them.

It doesn’t do much to help the problem contained within his pants, but he takes a deep breath, one that he hopes Steve can’t hear, and stalks out of the bathroom, hoping Steve has the sense to give himself a once over before leaving as Bucky does, smoothing his shirt and hopelessly running a hand through his hair.

Slapping a few bills down on their table, the two of them walk home in silence but Bucky’s thoughts are racing so fast he can’t comprehend anything coherent anyway, and he doesn’t until they’ve slid into their shared bed, an arm slung awkwardly around Steve’s small frame.

Steve’s breath is hot against his shoulder when he speaks up. “You don’t have to say it, if you don’t want to,” he whispers. “I already know.”

Bucky knows too, so he doesn’t.

3.

By the time he’s got Steve perched on the kitchen table in front of him, Bucky swears he’s prepared to throttle him. His lip’s bleeding profusely and no matter how much pressure Bucky applies, it just won’t fucking stop.

Dabbing some more cotton in alcohol, he swipes it around the scrapes Steve’s got around his nose trying his hardest to be as delicate as possible but Steve winces anyway despite how hard he grits his teeth and clenches his fists in an attempt to tough it out.

“You’re an idiot,” Bucky mutters, more to himself than anything although they both know who he’s talking about.

Steve sighs. “Sorry. I know you had plans.”

Bucky had started dating again, more to make a point than out of interest for any of the girls he was taking out. Sure, they were pretty and a few even captivated him in some interesting conversations but more often than not he never bothered catching up with them again, pretending something came up and he’d been rendered indisposable. By that point, most of them had lost interest and found some other nice gentleman to take them out and let them thread their arms together. They never spoke about either of the kisses, and Bucky preferred it that way, but he didn’t miss the pointed look Steve gave him the first time he announced he was going out on a date or the way his eyebrow quirked ever so slightly. He’d elected to ignore it – Steve was the one who wanted him to started dating again, anyway.

Discarding of the pile of cotton that’s gathered on the table, Bucky shakes his head. “It don’t matter, Steve, my first priority’s always been makin’ sure you haven’t gotten yourself killed.”

He reaches up and holds Steve’s face softly with his left hand to keep it in place – it’s innocent enough, he’s just trying to clean Steve up a little, but it causes his stomach to twist in knots and flip over inside and, really, he should be over this by now but he’s not and Steve’s eyes soften at the contact and his whole body becomes that much more relaxed under Bucky’s touch that he has to force himself to look away and concentrate solely on the bleeding wound.

“And I don’t get to do the same for you?” Steve asks, and it’s softly but there’s no denying the underlying challenge in his tone.

They both glance half-heartedly at Bucky in his uniform, all ready to be shipped out for war and acting like he’s excited – like he’s so lucky to be sent to the war front, as Sergeant Barnes no less, serving in the 107th - and relishing his orders like it’s a dream rather than a complete fucking nightmare.

He knows Steve’s not jealous, not quite, but he’s so defiant to what everybody around him keeps telling him – Bucky knows Steve is made of solid stuff, but he’s seen him barely survive a schoolyard scrap never mind the front lines. But Steve is brave, and courageous and his heart alone outweighs the weak bones that never fail to let him down. He’s not Steve, he never will be and there’s a part of him that wishes they could swap places, because Steve deserves a healthy body and he deserves to have girls flinging themselves at him. Bucky could live being frail and weak if it meant that Steve got to have what he’d been missing out on his whole life, but there’s also the part of Bucky that’s terrified to go to war, whereas Steve would be undeterred by the threat – his will alone would get him through, but Bucky doesn’t see the world the same way Steve does so he knows that there isn’t much of a chance of him coming home to Steve – that this is the last time he’ll ever wipe away at the blood dripping from Steve’s face, the last night they’ll ever spend together, the last time he’ll have to deal with the fact that he’s unrequitedly head over fucking heels in love with his best friend like some kind of Shakespearian shit show and actually have to make the conscious effort to hide it.

But he doesn’t dare to say as much.

“Because you ain’t got nothing to worry about,” Bucky says, voice determined as he pulls the cotton away from Steve’s lip to discover that the bleeding has finally decided to let up. “I’m gonna be fine.”

“You’re the one always reminding me about how dangerous it is, Bucky,” Steve insists, pulling his face away from Bucky’s hold leaving him to drop his hands to either side of Steve on the table which he really wishes he could pull away from but the breaths escaping Steve’s open mouth brush against his cheeks softly are too familiar and too comforting, and he can’t bring himself to do it.

“Please, Steve, I don’t wanna fight with you – it’s my last night,” he says softly, looking down at his shoes with his eyebrows furrowed ever so slightly, and he knows he doesn’t sound defensive or adamant anymore, he sounds borderline defeated.

He hears Steve sigh again, but this time it’s more sympathetic than apologetic and he feels his eyes on him. “I’m sorry Buck, I don’t wanna fight either it’s just, well – I’m gonna miss you. A lot.”

Hearing Steve’s voice crack, Bucky looks up to find the smallest of sheens swimming around amongst the blue like the sea really is trapped in there – Bucky would have no reason not to believe it if someone told him so. “I’ll miss you too, Steve. Everyday.”

They spend a few moments like that, gazing somewhat vacantly into the others eyes, both fighting tears and fighting to get words out. When they do eventually speak up, it’s at the exact same time.

“I’m sorry I’ve been so-“ Bucky begins at the same time Steve says, “You’re the most important-“.

Both chuckling awkwardly, heads still pressed too close together to be considered appropriate for a pair of best friends, Bucky gestures with one hand for Steve to go on.

He takes a deep breath and looks up again, giving a small sad smile that Bucky’s seen too many times to be happy with – when he was eight years old and realised he wasn’t sure which was the right color to fill Bucky’s carefully sketched eyes in with, after his mother died, each and every time he was given a ‘4F’ on the first, second, third, fourth, fifth enlistment form. The list went on.

“I was just saying – you’re the important person in my life, you and Ma, always have been. Please don’t get yourself hurt out there, I don’t think I could lose you both,” he’s looking at the ground by the time he’s finished, too used to being perceived as weak to be happy with willingly letting it out, and Bucky doesn’t blame him but he just wishes Steve wasn’t glancing away, maybe then he could see the complete adoration that Bucky’s tried so hard to erase glistening in the eyes looking back at him.

So he reaches out, clearly more caught up in the moment that he’d initially thought he would be, and places one finger on Steve’s chin and gently pushes his face up so they can look at each other. His breath catches once again at the sight of Steve’s earnest yet fucking broken expression, but he clears his throat and for the first time, lets a sliver of what he feels for Steve out.

“End of the line, remember? That line’s still gonna be here when the war’s over, and so am I. You better be waiting for me, alright?” he doesn’t blink at all, watching Steve’s reaction to the contact with curiosity and the slightest of nervous bubbles fluttering around in his stomach.

“End of the line,” Steve confirms, nodding his head slowly, almost in a trance, and he speaks in more of a whisper.

Bucky’s about to speak up again, but he catches the way Steve’s eyes travel down to his lips and his mouth dries up like the words never existed in the first place. He hadn’t noticed either of them leaning in at any point of their conversation but now they’re so close Steve’s breath is no more just a small tickle on his face – instead, he can feel how short it’s become and hot it is against his skin.

He lowers his head, tilting it ever so slightly as Steve does the same and lets his lips brush against Steve’s. He figures it’s not too late to pull away, to pretend this whole ordeal never happened, but then he remembers the war and he remembers the years of helpless pining and he allows himself to be selfish now, to not think about the consequences or anything else.

Pressing his lips to Steve’s this time, he keeps his eyes open – they both do, watching the other almost with caution as they let themselves marvel at the feather-like pressure of their mouths. Steve’s hands travel to Bucky’s waist and hover there delicately, like he’s not sure he’s allowed to touch.

Bucky reassures him by squeezing his eyes shut, bringing his hands to Steve’s neck and kissing him hard on the lips. There’s no sloppiness to it, and there’s nothing frantic about it. In fact, they barely move an inch the entire time, lips only occasionally closing over each other as they both tighten and loosen their grips accordingly.

When they pull away, they’re still a little breathless despite the languid intent of it and Bucky rests his forehead against Steve’s with his eyes still shut for a few moments before he stands up straight with a grin. “Come on, Stevie – I said I’d get you cleaned up - now we’ve got a date to get to.”

Steve offers a small smile, shaking his head in mock exasperation and pushing himself up off the table. Picking his jacket up from where he discarded it on the chair, he allows Bucky to throw a too-cheerful arm over his shoulder and lead them out of the house toward a date that Bucky knows will be spent sparing Steve glances while some dame fawns over him while the other is ridiculous enough to ignore Steve.

4.

A part of him wishes he’d died on that goddamn lab table.

Nothing that Zola bastard did to him could compare to this – to watching Steve fall in love with someone else right in front of him. What’s even worse is that she loves him right back. And he deserves her. Peggy Carter is one hell of a woman, he wouldn’t dare doubt that for a second, with her famous right hook and her no-bullshit attitude, only to fall completely smitten the second Steve lays his ever-adoring eyes on her. She’s everything Steve could ever hope for. She’s good for him. He’s good for her.

They’re a match made in heaven and it fucking kills him.

He likes her, there’s no way he couldn’t. She doesn’t take anybody’s shit and could easily outsmart any of the men in the division – she probably already has, if Bucky’s being perfectly honest with himself. It’s himself he can’t stand.

Because he knows now, he knows he fucked up. He let Steve slip out of his grasp on the assumption that Steve would never make it into the war and he would never make it out, and now the joke’s on him – being granted with what would probably be the most perfect opportunity he could ask for in this day and age only to find he wasted too much time lying to himself and everyone else, probably, for him to even consider asking Steve to be his – and why should he? Steve isn’t the same helpless case that everyone else always saw him as, he doesn’t need Bucky’s protection anymore and that’s the worst part of all, to be rendered completely useless while a whole flock of new people thrive to fight by the good captain’s side.

And how can he compete? How can the same old James Barnes possibly hope to outshine the appreciative grins that are tossed in Steve’s direction, the ladies that fling themselves at him the way they once did to Bucky, before he let darkness seep into his eyes and hardness into his heart? He won’t see the glances Steve always spares for him, the ones that are lost in a sea of withering looks that neither one of them are hopeful enough to return. Steve’s here, in good health, with muscles to match the size his heart has always been and shoulders the breadth of his courage. And yet, Bucky remains the same – helpless, and pathetically in love with the one who could never be his.

He was sure it was a hallucination, seeing Steve leaning over him wearing that concerned expression on his face that near enough broke Bucky’s goddamn heart. Seeing things was bad enough, but to have Steve waved in front of him, healthy and strong like he always should’ve been, was nothing but a cruel slap in the face from HYDRA, pushing his buttons, testing his will – hadn’t they already pushed his body and mind to the limit?

It wasn’t until he heard Steve’s voice that sounded like home and everything that once meant safety, felt hands that were far too big to be entirely familiar caress his face that he knew he wasn’t being tricked. It was entirely implausible for Steve to be there, but then again it was a miracle that the boy had ever lived past twelve – he’d always just been too damn stubborn to let go, no matter how close the call was.

Watching Peggy stroll into the bar wearing that gorgeous red dress that should’ve made his jaw drop, much like it did Steve’s, he knew he was done for. He’d felt real, genuine hope flare up in his heart that maybe, just maybe, he could confess to Steve – tell him everything. If this wasn’t a second chance, then Bucky didn’t know what was, but seeing the way they looked at each was enough to have his mouth clamped shut like it’s permanently caught in a vice. His small sliver of optimism ripped from him in an instant, and he suddenly remembered why he’d never bothered to entertain the idea that Steve could want him back – it would hurt too much when reality slapped him across the face.

Steve deserves all the happiness the world has to offer and no matter what, Bucky can’t provide him with that. He can’t give him a golden band to slip around his ring finger, he can’t give him his dog tags when the war’s over as a symbol of his love, and he certainly can’t provide him with the white picket fence life assuming both of them actually make it out alive. But Peggy can, and Bucky doesn’t mind being lonely and miserable too much if it means Steve gets a shot at real, unconditional love. Not the secretive bullshit he’s got to offer – either that or to be labelled as a faggot and chided in the streets, maybe even arrested and locked up. Steve deserves more than Bucky’s selfishness, he always has.

Which is why, as they walk back to Steve’s quarters from the bar Bucky fakes a grin and rambles on and on without pause about how amazing it is that Steve’s new body is everything they both knew it always should be through gritted teeth as their shoulders now brush every so often in a way that neither of them had ever expected. It twists his stomach unpleasantly to think he’ll never sling his arm over Steve in the same way again.

There’s the same kind of atmosphere in the air that reminds him with a punch of nostalgia of Brooklyn. If he averts his focus for the worn grass and the military tents and everything else that is a sharp reminder of where exactly they are, he can almost convince himself he’s back home in New York – by Steve’s side just like always.

“Science is incredible isn’t it?” he concludes with a sigh as they stop outside.

Steve offers a wry smile and a half-hearted shrug. “Still goes right over my head.”

Bucky chuckles, but when he looks back at Steve his expression is nothing of humour – brows furrowed, creasing his eyebrows with a down-turned mouth.

It really is amazing that he has to look up now to see into Steve’s eyes that are too hypnotic for him to want to linger on, that his shoulders could probably carry the weight of an army in more than just a metaphorical sense, that now Steve’s healthy and Bucky can’t help but hate everything about it. All he ever wanted to do was protect Steve from the horrors of war, and here he is standing in front of him as America’s greatest weapon. He no longer needs protecting and it makes Bucky’s stomach churn.

“Are you sure you’re alright, Buck?” Steve’s earnest tone catches Bucky off guard – the low murmur of his voice causing his façade to drop for just a second.

“Yeah of course I am – got my best pal by my side again, don’t I?” he smiles, trying to make it wide and light-hearted as he punches Steve in the shoulder, still as soft as he did when there was a chance that hitting a fraction too hard could leave one hell of a bruise on Steve’s delicate skin. He supposes that’s one habit he’ll never learn to break.

Steve still doesn’t look convinced, reaching for Bucky’s wrist as he takes a step forward and closing the distance between them, hesitating slightly when he speaks up again. “I don’t know what they did to you in there but if you ever need anything – I’m your guy, you know that right?”

Bucky closes his eyes and tries not to let his mind wander to the implication of what Steve’s saying, or the warm press of Steve’s fingers slotting around his wrist in a way that he knows all too well which makes this a whole lot fucking harder than he’d thought it would.

“Yeah, Stevie, I know.”

They stay like that for a few moments, Bucky with his eyes closed but feeling the way Steve’s trail over his face and in silence, letting the cool air of a country he’d rather not be in ruffle their hair and send a million and one scents in their direction.

“I’m sorry,” Steve whispers, pressing his forehead to Bucky’s. “For everything.”

Steve doesn’t clarify what he’s apologising for – he doesn’t need to, and even if he did, Bucky doubts there’s a way he could put it into words. It takes Bucky a while to speak up again himself.

“All I want is for you to be safe - and happy,” his voice is quiet but insistent, on the verge of cracking slightly on the last word because he knows that’s a fate he can’t look forward to welcoming. It was different five years ago, when he could pretend that he had all the time in the world to tackle his feelings, like he could charm his way through it like he did everything else – but now they’ve both been flung into a war they’re both too young and too unprepared for, and Steve’s already far too in love with the girl he’s always dreamed of and always deserved for Bucky to intervene.

It’s one of those rare moments, where his mask slips just the slightest part, letting Steve have a glimpse that everything he’s been bottling up for more than half his life. At this point, Bucky’s too exhausted to care much; there’s no point denying it to himself that Steve knows. He’d said as much himself, lying on their miniscule bed while Bucky tried his very hardest to not hurl all over the floor – and that had nothing to do with the alcohol. Everything seems so different now, and it’s not just the war – it’s him and it’s Steve and it’s everything he feels inside. It twists his gut to look at Steve in a way that he can no longer gloss over with a chuckle or a throwaway comment, he feels everything so much deeper and it hurts a whole lot more and he can’t figure out why.

“Is this about Peggy?” Steve’s grip is tighter on Bucky’s wrist, and Bucky wants to slap Steve upside the head for thinking that for one second Bucky would consider placing himself before Steve’s happiness. because Steve is Steve and when it comes to the people he cares about he’s got a guilt complex stronger than any muscle mass that could ever be engineered onto his body.

“No. It’s about you and me,” Bucky replies, and he’s not exactly lying – it always has been about the two of them as far as he’s concerned and it always will be. Whether they’re picking fights with bullies or battling it out on the war front, they’re always going to be carrying each other’s scars like it’s their own, and he doesn’t want to think about it being any other way.

“Bucky,” Steve breathes, tickling Bucky’s chin with the exhale he releases. “Peggy, I mean yeah, she’s great, amazing even, but I –“

Bucky moves forward and presses one simple peck to Steve’s lips – gentle and delicate as if applying too much pressure would result in a commitment that neither one of them could keep. He doesn’t know what forces him to do it; possibly for closure, to get one last taste of what could’ve been before he opts to let go. It was the only way this could’ve ever gone, after all.

“Shut up, Steve,” Bucky says smiling as he removes his wrist from Steve’s grasp and lightly pushes him a few steps back. “You deserve to be happy.”

Steve opens him mouth to speak, but Bucky interrupts. “And you deserve some sleep. Go to bed – you’ve got an early start tomorrow, Captain.”

With a mock salute, he sidesteps Steve and begins to retreat back the way they came.

“Goodnight, Buck,” Steve calls softly with a small, tired smile on his face.

His head bowed down, he feels Steve’s eye on him until he’s out of sight.

5.

On his list of ‘Steve’s Most Fucking Bizarre Ideas,’ this is definitely, without a doubt, in the top three. Zip lining through the Alps to jump on top of a fucking speeding train?

Absolutely. Fucking. Insane.

But hey, it’s Steve, and what Steve says goes – he’s never led the Commandos wrong in the two years he’s been their faithful leader, and even though Bucky accumulated his fair share of blackened eyes and ass-kickings, it went the same way for him since childhood and right through adolescence to the men they are today.

So he lets the ice-cold wind whip through his hair and his legs to feel like jelly when they hit the roof of the train (because holy fuck is it hard to run across with this amount of freezing cold air being blown into your face) and he follows Steve inside, not out of duty but out of his reckless habit of refusing to let Steve doing anything alone.

The air inside is too still, too lacking for him to not be suspicious. With his rifle poised in front of him, he stalks a few steps behind Steve, his guard up in full swing. It’s not long before they’re separated, kept apart by two impenetrable doors that quickly slide shut as soon as Steve crosses the threshold of the next carriage, rendering them both to fend for themselves. Not that that’s any problem for Steve, Bucky knows, although he still worries, so he’s quick to whip himself away from the shocked expression he can see Steve pulling through the transparent squares of window in front of both of them.

He’d be lying if his heart wasn’t racing as he saw the looming big brutes of a pair of HYDRA eyesores approaching him, with rifles that easily outmatch his held securely in their arms but he does what any good soldier would do, what’s expected of him in this god forsaken shit show of a war, and he fights.

His shots are frantic, but far from inaccurate as he strategically manoeuvres to the other side of the train, concentration unbreakable as he fires a few shots that make contact with the daunting armour in front of him and ultimately takes one of them out.

It’s not until he finds himself out of bullets he starts to really panic.

Throwing his head back against the dark wall behind him, he pats himself down hoping, praying, to any God there could possibly be that there’s a few extra rounds hidden in there. But of course, just like always, Steve comes to his rescue, his own persistence defeating whatever danger had lain on his half of the carriage.

He tosses forward a gun after getting the doors open which Bucky catches gratefully and watches as Steve sprints forward and knocks the bastard out, allowing Bucky a clear shot which he takes without missing a beat, heaving a sigh of relief when the thug drops down to the floor with a heavy thud.

“I had him on the ropes,” Bucky assures, gun held in a hand that had started to shake without him realising.

“I know you did,” Steve says, and he looks fucking ridiculous with that damn helmet on but he’s breathing heavily and there’s a hint of that smug smirk on his face he gets whenever a mission runs smoothly that screams ‘we fucking did it.’

He’s seen that look too many times to count, but it still captivates him as much it ever did.

It’s probably their shared breathless grins that makes him do it, but Bucky marches across the small gap between them, gun still firmly gripped in his right hand and he lets the other one reach up to grasp onto the back of Steve’s neck and reel him in for a kiss. Steve kisses him back and, although Bucky knows it’s probably just from the adrenaline, it leaves his skin tingling and his head fuzzy because Steve is fucking incredible at kissing.

Their lips move against each other’s at a quick pace, but it’s far from desperate – they kiss each other like they both have a point to prove and the only way to do that is to first and foremost devour each other. Bucky’s not exactly complaining, he just wishes the circumstances were slightly different.

Steve’s hand slots easily onto the space of Bucky’s lower back, fisting gently into the material of his jacket and pulling him in closer and Bucky knows this is far more intimate than most other kisses they’ve shared – potentially taking first place. But here they are, surrounded by danger and far from safety, and all they can do is turn a blind eye to it and let the thrill of the fight draw them to each other. Bucky can almost convince himself that Steve wants him, and that’s fine by him.

The moments over far too soon as far as Bucky’s concerned but they’re grinning at each other by the time they’ve pulled away and he doesn’t have a fucking clue what he’s supposed to say, do, think, now, but Steve looks happy and that’s all he’s ever cared about because that smile should be able to bring every poor soul in Brooklyn out of poverty and it should be able to bring loved ones back from the dead and it should be able to ensure victory for the allies, but in that space of time all it’s doing is driving Bucky completely crazy because he just can’t get enough of it.

And God, he opens his mouth to say something – what, he doesn’t know but something. Anything to make Steve see just how special his existence is, war hero or not. He made Bucky’s life into something incredible just by being in it, alley fights and all.

“When we get home, Buck, we should – “ but whatever Steve’s about to say is cut off, severed by the firing up of a gun, far too close than either of them could’ve predicted and then there’s a harsh blast as Steve lets out a cry of ‘get down!’ in a voice that’s far too assertive for him to even consider taking this lightly.

He hears the whirring of the HYDRA fuelled weaponry as he sees Steve fall to the ground, shield dropping in the process.

He feels his heart beating faster as instinct takes over him and he picks it up.

He then feels his heart dropping as, for all its durability, he has no practice with the shield and any shot he fires is fruitless.

Then he’s gone, forced out of the carriage to cling to a hand rail of questionable strength as the wind whistles around his ears and makes his fingers feel almost instantly frozen, his whole body tensing up as he uses all the strength he can muster up to keep himself from letting go.

Steve’s in front of him within the minute, helmet abandoned as he lets his hair get dishevelled by the harsh breeze battering off their bodies. “Bucky!”

He uses all his might to try and shuffle across, willing himself to reach Steve’s outstretched hand because even as he’s clinging to the train within an inch of his life he downright refuses to let his Stevie flashing him a crestfallen expression and heartbroken eyes be the last thing he sees.

But he can’t always have what he wants.

Steve’s shout of “grab my hand!” is lost as the rail gives way under his strength. His legs flail desperately from underneath him as he nothing left to grab onto, Steve’s outstretched hand just fingertips away.

The way he falls is hard, but it doesn’t compare to how hard he fell for Steve Rogers.

He screams when falls, but maybe it’s not because he knows what happens next, the inevitability of death that will capture him far too soon and far too young – maybe it’s because the one person he truly loves disappears in the blink of an eye. He knows as he falls, that windswept blonde hair and scared blue eyes that are far too childlike and innocent to belong to a man of war will be the final image he ever sees of Steve and that chills him more than the coldness that consumes him as the air is knocked out of him and the snow the envelopes his body.

He’s not sad, not for himself at least – he’d hoped, but he always knew he wasn’t returning home from war.

 

*******

(+1)

He knows he’s made an absolute mess, pictures littering the floor and coffee cups stacked haphazardly on top of any surface he could find within his reach. His attempt to organise everything had been fruitless – first he’d tried to sort them into piles according to date, only to find out Steve’s an idiot who rarely ever dated his work, only signed. Then he’d moved onto quality but that was far too difficult because everything Steve had drawn was flawless and he was no artist – who was he to judge the expert? After wrestling with a questionable desire to have them filed into categories – scenery, people, Bucky, still-life’s, some more Bucky, etc. – he’d accepted his fate and just let all the drawings he’d accumulated to simply scatter the wooden floor of Steve’s apartment.

It frustrates him that’s he not able to look at every single one of them, because each one of them is captivating in their own right. There’s a view sketched looking out from a window, looking down onto an alley where blood spills across the streets in a way that looks more therapeutic than threatening – the edges blurred and soft-looking as it cascades its way down from the small pool its formed, almost river-like. There’s another one of a young woman, Peggy, the perfectly curled hair pencilled in immaculately and soft eyes that show nothing but complete adoration.

The sight of it makes a flare of emotion spring up inside of him, and initially he questions what it is – guilt? Jealousy? It takes him a while for him to recognise it as regret, even though he’s not sure why. His ‘death’ should’ve been the perfect pathway for Steve to live the life he deserved. It’s a feeling he’s familiar with, the heaviness he’d felt on his shoulders and even in his soul every time he’d completed a mission and been left long enough to be able to think about what he’d done without his brain being tossed back into a blender. He supresses a shudder as thoughts of his past actions begin to creep up.

They never leave, not entirely, but he chides himself for dwelling on it nonetheless. He thinks he’s getting pretty good at this – reminding himself of the things that Steve’s always saying, to not blame himself, to not think of himself as anything less of a person. It’s difficult but it’s worth it, for Steve. Steve who always smells nice and gives warm hugs and has the brightest of smiles. Steve who reminds him of home, even if he can’t really remembering ever knowing one.

His favourite photos are of the sergeant, of himself. He still struggles to see the Winter Soldier and Sergeant Barnes as the same man. He supposes he’s something else now, some hybrid version of the two, perhaps. The man in Steve’s sketches is almost always smiling and, to start with at least, he’s always got this charming sparkle in his eye that Bucky’s tried to recreate in the mirror more than once. He reckons he’s almost got it a few times, and he doesn’t plan on giving up.

Slowly, that sparkle begins to fade. The smile remains though, and that’s what gives Bucky so much hope. In the later drawings, he’s still got his mouth upturned at the corners, if not in a wide grin despite the darkness that’s lingering in his eyes and the shadows that have settled underneath. They’re not so different to the one’s Bucky sees in his reflection, and his own mouth has been able to form something similar to what he’s seen Steve’s artistic hands sketch onto paper, which apparently is something to be proud of, so he lets that slip into his list of little steps forward.

Number one on that list though, will always be making Steve laugh. He doesn’t care if he remembers all aspects of a life that seems completely alien to him, he doesn’t care if they take every memory he’s regained and taint it with evil, he doesn’t even care if he never forms another coherent memory again. He just wants to hear Steve laugh whenever he possibly can. It sounds like music to his ears, and of all the new songs he’s heard over the past few months, none of it can beat the sound that escapes Steve’s mouth. It’s melodic – whether he’s releasing a soft chuckle under his breath or a full-on belly shaking cackle. But then again, it’s something that he’d always loved, Bucky figures.

There’s a lot he loves about Steve, things that are both old and new. Bucky isn’t the only one who had changed since they fought side by side in the forties. Steve had been through more than he cared to share. He completed a suicide mission, made the decision to leave behind everyone he cared about – minus Bucky – just to realise that he survived after all. It was a terrible irony, really, that he should wake up after all, but find himself in another century, another lifetime, where all those people he sacrificed himself for are dead. It had worried Bucky, at first, that there were so many things about Steve that just didn’t feel familiar. He was a lot quieter, for one, and tiredness seemed to seep through his blood as much as the serum did. Bucky grew to love it, of course, how could he not?

He loves the way Steve will sometimes absentmindedly run his fingers through Bucky’s hair if they’re doing something as simple as watching a movie, he loves the way Steve will smile at him in the morning when he wakes up a few hours after Bucky’s usual four am start to a newly brewed cup of coffee and some breakfast, a ritual Bucky had committed himself to since the very first day he moved into Steve’s apartment. At first, breakfast was probably of the same standard you’d expect to find in a dumpster but it now had Steve licking his plate in a way that defeats the purpose of any lesson Sarah Rogers taught them about table manners as kids, but also makes Bucky’s heart melt. He loves the way Steve talks about him to his friends, because even though he knows it’s probably rude to listen in, there’s nothing that puts a smile on his face more than hearing the words that tumble out of Steve’s mouth when he’s telling some new tale about him, always so sincere and caring. And he also loves the way Steve lets him rake through his stuff whenever curiosity gets the best of him and he finds himself invested in finding out more about the man that he trusts to hold him when he gets scared without feeling the need to struggle and lash out.

That’s how Steve finds him late on a Thursday evening, wearing a baggy shirt with a huge American shield on it that Tony Stark – who has a face that Bucky would rather forget, although he doesn’t say as much - had given to him with a chuckle. The face Steve had pulled when he saw led him to believe it was a joke shared between the two about Steve’s infamous choice of weapon but he just smiled with a shrug and went back to reading his book. He’s also borrowed a pair of Steve’s sweatpants that are too comfy for him to want to give back, so the two of them just end up switching the ownership back and forth. He likes it better that way anyhow – it always smells like Steve whenever it’s his turn. His hair’s pulled back into a ponytail, the exact way Natasha had shown him how to. It was the first time he gotten a proper look at his face and realised that he kind of liked what he’d saw, and had taken to wearing his hair that way almost constantly ever since. Not that that stopped Steve from playing about with it and mussing it about with his soft fingers – which almost always resulted in a wrestle match of sorts and Bucky declaring Steve was a complete and utter punk. He’d been nervous the first time he said it, unsure of where the playful insult had come from and scared it would maybe upset him, but Steve had just grinned wide and called him a jerk and convinced Bucky to let his hair hang loose so he could wiggle his fingers softly between the strands.

“What you doing, Buck?” Steve says softly as he shrugs off his jacket and leaves it hanging over the back of the couch. He’s got two grocery bags in his hand which he discards on the coffee table as he precariously inches his way to Bucky on the other side of the room.

He’s mindful where he places his foot, making sure he’s not stepping on any of the pictures Bucky’s got strewn across the woodwork. It’s more for Bucky’s benefit that his own, he knows – Steve had been on the verge of getting rid of a whole tonne of them, muttering under his breath about how pointless it was that SHIELD had even returned the majority of them, until Bucky had caught him in the act and all but lunged on him in protest, making grabby hands at the box of art work Steve was holding poised over a trash can.

“Just thought I’d try ‘n sort out all these old sketches of yours,” Bucky replies, eyes scanning appreciatively over one that must’ve been completed before the war – he looks young, despite the height and the way his hair styled in a way that’s obviously meant to scream maturity despite the clean shaven cheeks and borderline baby face. His eyes are brighter, posture laid back and slack with hands buried deep into his pockets while he laughs at something. Bucky supposes it was probably something Steve said.

Steve takes a seat next to Bucky, having to swipe his arm around in a semi-circle on the floor before he’s got a large enough clear space. He crosses his legs, knees bumping against Bucky’s in his usual friendly way but the smile Steve gives him when he turns to look back in his direction says something a little more than that.

“These ones were always my favourite,” Steve says, reaching forward to pick up two from either side of Bucky. The one he holds in his left hand is a drawing of Bucky in a fighting stance, fists raised in front his face with a ridiculous purse to his lips as a tiny trickle of blood runs from his nose. It’s only the top of him that’s sketched, just enough for Bucky to see the places where his shirts become rumpled from whatever fight he’d just been. The other is just a collection of close-ups; bewildered eyes with an eyebrow arched, lips twisted up into a smile, the form of an ear with a stain of blood dwelling stubbornly on the lobe, firms hand gripping onto a rifle, a swollen mouth, clearly bitten and hanging ever so slightly open, a slight trace of stubble and scruff gracing his chin and cheeks surrounding his set of lips, the page was full of them.

Bucky hums, leaning his forearms on his Steve’s leg as he bends himself forward to look at them in closer detail. “A lot of lips,” he mumbles upon inspection. It doesn’t bother him, but there must be at least three perfectly sketched set of lips for every other body part.

Steve chuckles almost timidly, placing the sheets of paper delicately down on the floor before giving a one-armed shrug. Bucky doesn’t miss the way his cheeks redden slightly. “Well, I did get pretty familiar with them through the years.”

“Speaking of all this kissin’ malarkey, I’m pretty sure you had something you were about to say last time,” Bucky says, quirking an eyebrow at Steve before giving him a prompt in the best imitation of Steve’s voice he can muster up. “When we get home, Buck, we should…’”

Steve pauses for a minute, looking slightly surprised with his mouth slack and his eyes blinking more than necessary. “You remember that?” he asks softly.

Bucky scoffs fondly and chuckles. “Memory might be a little frazzled but I’m able to tell the difference between reality and wishful thinkin’.”

And he’s not lying. It had taken a while, and a lot of confusion, to differentiate between what he had initially thought was some strange pipe dream he’d conjured up as a means to help him deal with everything that was still so foreign – seeing Steve groggy from sleep every morning in a way that was so familiar it ached, his heart fluttering whenever their hands touched as they passed a mug over – but it hadn’t been long until he realised that it wasn’t new. Supressed, definitely, but he knew that what he felt went much further back than he would even had remembered had he been back in the 40s fighting the good fight. He still felt the press of Steve’s lips against his from time to time, like a phantom shadow that barely made contact – just grazing the surface in the hopes of being reached out to.

Reaching out between them, Steve makes a small pile of all the drawings Bucky had declared his favourite and pushes them aside so that can manoeuvre himself around to face Bucky who does the same, calves resting against each other’s.

“If I’d been able to finish,” Steve begins, glancing up at Bucky’s face with a small but earnest smile. “I would’ve said – ‘When we get home, Buck, we should never stop doing this.”

Bucky’s mouth turns up into a shocked little smile, letting it hang open ever so slightly in his surprise because – oh. “You sayin’ I owe you something, Rogers?”

It’s strange, he doesn’t like owing people anything. He didn’t know how to repay Tony when he’d removed any trace of HYDRA from his cybernetic arm, or Natasha when she would speak to him in Russian without a complaint whenever he wasn’t feeling enthusiastic about opening up, or any of the wonderful people Steve had befriended in his absence for everything they’d done for him, really.
Even when somebody makes it clear nothing is owed, Bucky can’t just let people wait hand and foot for him and not do a single thing in return.

But with Steve, it’s different.

When it comes down to it, after everything he’s done for him, he owes Steve the world, if not the entire galaxy. He owes Steve his life and he owes Steve his memories, no matter how fleeting they may be, and he owes Steve everything he could ever give. He owes Steve his own happiness because that is what makes Steve smile and that smile mocks the sunshine even on its brightest day.

Owing Steve isn’t something that makes him feel guilty, because to Steve his actions aren’t a debt that need to be paid. To him, that’s just Bucky – and as far as he can tell, maybe Steve’s always loved Bucky a little bit more than he’d ever let himself think before.

“Not exactly. Maybe I’m saying,” Steve continues softly but full of determination, looking pointedly at Bucky so he’ll pay attention again. “That I owe you.”

Before he knows it, Steve’s face is mere inches from him, his cologne travelling up and annihilating Bucky’s senses. His tongue darts out in one fast, fluid motion against his bottom lip before he looks back up to Bucky’s eyes, silently asking for permission that Bucky’s knows he’ll never need.

And then Steve pushes forward and presses their lips together and it’s like the past seven decades never happened and the reality of the years before that are altered. He’s waited for this for so goddamn long and, really, he didn’t even know it. But he can feel it – can feel a seventy year long inhale finally being released in a sigh of relief somewhere inside him.

One hand tucks under Bucky’s chin, pulling him closer with both of their eyes closed, and the other intertwining with Bucky’s left hand, fingers slotting together perfectly despite the metal on flesh contact. Bucky lets his right hand trail up Steve’s arm before holding gently onto the side of his face, subconsciously stroking his thumb against his cheekbone – he doesn’t think he ever felt something so real.

Steve leans forward ever so slightly, giving Bucky exactly what he wants when his mouth parts the tiniest part and, God, he would give anything to know what he’s thinking. With his grip on Bucky’s tightening and the soft hums he keeps releasing every time he deepens the kiss, Bucky can’t help but feel his heart hammering in his chest – Steve is here, with him just like he’s always been, after all these gruelling years and he’s kissing him like he never wants to stop, like he could live in this moment forever. Bucky can’t say he disagrees.

But then Steve pulls away, just enough that their lips can still brush, and rests their foreheads against each other. He’s breathing slightly heavier, soft gasps of air tickling Bucky’s face. The two of them smile, eyes half-open but drinking the sight of each other in all the same. Steve never untangles their hands, but his left hand drops to rest comfortably on Bucky’s leg.

“We’re home now,” Steve whispers gently, lips tugging up in a wider smile as Bucky chuckles softly, almost under his breath.

“Thought it was gonna be another, what…eighty years of me chasin’ after your sorry ass.”

Steve head shakes lightly and Bucky notices that his eyes have dropped shut again, his brow creased in the centre like he’s trying to solve some riddle or something. “No, Buck – you never once had to chase me. I’ve always wanted you.”

Bucky inhales sharply, his heart swelling at the words he’d become accustomed to thinking he’d never hear. He pulls his head back so he can get a proper look at Steve, hand that was cupped around his cheek dropping down to rest on top of Steve’s left one. “You never told me any – what about Peggy, I thought you –“

“I did,” Steve interrupts, opening his eyes again to look directly into Bucky before he links their other hands together as well. “But Bucky, when it comes down to it; it’s never been anyone but you. If the circumstances were different, maybe I would’ve ended up with Peggy – maybe married with kids, even. And I never would’ve been able to forgive myself for living my life like that without you.”

“I love you,” Bucky blurts without even thinking about it, before he frowns down at their hands. “I mean, I always did back then but I never told you and I still do now, but it’s... different. It doesn’t feel like it has to be a secret anymore, and it doesn’t hurt so much.”

Steve strokes the back of Bucky’s flesh hand with his thumb, chuckling ever so slightly. “It was never a secret, Buck, at least not to me – saw right through you.”

Bucky grins up at him, eyes crinkling up at the sides and he can tell by Steve’s mirror image that it’s the smile – the one with the sparkly eyes and the white teeth on show and his heart feels like it’s about to burst out of his chest. “Does that mean that you –“

“I love you, Buck, yes,” Steve nods, grin stretching further as one eyebrow raises teasingly. “At least you finally said it.”

Bucky just rolls his eyes, but Steve greets his lips again and for once, he doesn’t think about everything that still burdens him, all the obstacles he still has to overcome, and everything that they’ve both lost because he realises now that, no matter how long it took, he did make it home from the war – Steve is his home.