It is as if Bucky has a list of all the girls in the school somewhere, and that it is his goal to check every box next to every name. The timeline of this hypothetical list remains unknown, but at the rate he's going, he might need to go for seconds before the year is out.
He kisses Janice McCormick during lunch on his first day of grade 12, and she always calls him "Jimmy", no matter how many times Steve tries to correct her. Bucky usually snaps when anyone but his mom calls him Jimmy, but Janice couldn't take a hint. He never bothers correcting her, though, so maybe Bucky is serious about her. Then again, Bucky kisses Natalie Brennan later the same day, and gets a slap from both of them. Bucky might not ever be serious about anything.
At sixteen years old, watching his best friend work his way through every girl at the school, Steve has never had a girl look at him, let alone kiss him. More often than not, he sits with Bucky when he kisses some girl. He tries to give them privacy, but Bucky always stops to ask where he's going, so he ends up sticking around. He doesn't watch, not really, but when there's a pretty gal kissing your best friend right in front of you, it's hard to look elsewhere.
Bucky occasionally pulls away from the girl of the day to ask Steve about homework, or sometimes just to grin at him so widely that Steve's face turns bright red and his palms get sweaty because he shouldn't be ignoring his girl. If he needs help in math, he lets the girl stay half on his lap while leaning across the table to look at Steve's notes. If the girl leaves, Steve would be the one to say goodbye, throwing an apologetic look at her as she storms off.
Call him old-fashioned, Bucky certainly does, but Steve is looking for the right girl before he starts kissing as much as Bucky does.
Bucky asks how he's supposed to snag a girl if he can't kiss properly. She would hit the road the second that she figured it out, and it wouldn't take long. Steve insists that that isn't the point. Running around kissing every girl in sight might work for Bucky, but Steve is looking for something special. Something lasting.
Still, he has a point. If a girl ever looked twice at him, it is important to know where to put his hands or how to not gross her out. Bucky brings this exact argument up at least once a week. Steve goes into the weekend after Bucky kissed Janice and Natalie with a response that he regrets the second the words leave his lips.
"Well, if you're so worried, how 'bout you teach me how to kiss?" Steve suggests.
The ever-present levity on Bucky's face falls away. His hand, resting loosely on the armrest, clenches into a fist. For an absurd moment, it's flying towards his face, and black creeps into Steve's vision. When he comes back to reality, Bucky hasn't moved, the tendons in his hand extruding so sharply that if it were possible, they would tear through the skin.
Even when Bucky gets really mad, he never hits Steve. He would go all red, the same shade he is turning sitting across his living room from Steve, and sometimes he would shout a bit, but never at Steve, even if it was his fault. He always apologises after.
"I was—" just suggesting, Steve tries to say, to placate him.
"Fine," Bucky cuts him off, jaw clenching as he struggles to spit out the word.
Bucky's jaw relaxes, he flexes his fingers, and he even manages something that looks like a smile. "Yeah. But be careful who you ask things like that. Some other guy wouldn't take it so well."
Steve furrows his brow. "I'm not asking some other guy, though. I'm asking you."
Bucky's teeth close on the inside of his cheek, but he still smiles. His eyes crinkle, his nose scrunches, and the tension in his shoulders falls away. Hollowness fills Steve's stomach, and he hadn't know that emptiness could fill someone, his hands shaking from where they rest in his lap. Maybe his lunch disagrees with him, because there is no reason to feel nervous about this. Bucky notices his shaking hands, and his smile widens.
"This is your idea. Now let's go to my room. You don't wanna try to explain this to my parents," Bucky grimaces as the words came out, thinking about the beat-down he would get for it.
Steve just nods, and Bucky hops up, striding evenly towards his room. Steve follows, some steps too large and others too small. One foot reaches to get near Bucky faster, and the other takes steps so small that it might have been trying to go backwards.
Guys who kiss other guys exist. There are clubs down by the water that never have signs up and people never talk about, but they are there. He was first told about them by Bucky, of course, because who else would tell him about things like that?
Anyway, when Bucky first told him, he tried to imagine kissing another guy. He could never picture himself kissing a girl, and picturing it with a guy was just as impossible, but Steve shrugged. Don't see why it matters to anyone else. Seems like something worked out between two people. No reason why it should matter, he had said.
The way Bucky smiled at that, like Steve had just told him that it was a snow day or that he found a tap in his house that only dispensed beer, sent butterflies to Steve's stomach, even more so when Bucky said, if only everyone thought like you, Rogers. The world would be a better place.
Steve is about to be one of those guys who kisses guys, even if only for practice, and he doesn't feel different. It is still nobody's business. If there is something wrong with it, then Steve isn't smart enough to think of it.
Bucky pats the bed, the same bed they shared whenever Steve's mom was in the hospital and could not talk Steve into going home himself. It may as well have been a stranger's bed for its unfamiliarity when he approaches it with the intent to kiss Bucky. He can visualise his head on the pillow, his hands on Bucky, their mouths pressed together, hot and needy, grappling for something or someone to keep them grounded. Bucky's knees plant on either side of him, and Steve lets him pin him down on the bed—
"We gonna do this or are ya just gonna stare at me until you figure it out?"
Steve jolts back to reality. He has never been able to picture himself kissing someone else before, but the thought of Bucky was so real he had not known it wasn't. His clothes feel too small for his body, and his palms sweat again even though it was just Bucky, just Bucky, he reminds himself.
Steve sits down, close enough to the end of the bed that if either of them were to jolt, he would slip to the floor. A hand curls around his forearm and tugs him towards the middle. Their knees knock and if Steve were to lean back a little, he would still fall off the end of the bed. They slept in this bed so many times together, but it was never this small.
"You changing your mind?" Bucky asks, voice half-teasing, half something else that Steve can't make sense of.
"No! No. You?"
Bucky snorts. "Of course not. But this was your idea, yeah? Let's see what you got."
Steve's insides go cold, and his sweaty palms begin to shake, even as they rest on his knees. He expected Bucky to kiss him, to lead the way and show him how it's done. He can fight off any bully that comes his way even if it ends up with him in the hospital, but when he looks at Bucky's lips — bright pink, soft-looking, defined cupid's bow — he doesn't know where to start.
To say he panics is a bit of an understatement.
He launches himself forward, crashing the general area of their mouths together, and before he can fully register that Bucky's lips are as soft and warm as they look, he pulls away hard enough that the next thing he registers is the pain that shoots up from his elbow and that his favourite red shirt really has been under Bucky's bed since he lost it last month.
He scrabbles for purchase on the bed, pulling himself upright. Bucky's face is frozen in shock, eyes wide, brow furrowed, and jaw dropped just enough that Steve can see his tongue pressing against his teeth. Heat rises under Steve's collar as he realises that Bucky's teeth probably hurt just as much as his, and that was a total disaster.
"Oh God, I'm so sorry," he blurts, mortified.
Bucky laughs, raucous and obnoxiously loud, his head thrown back and his long, pale neck shining with a light sweat from the late summer warmth clinging to the air around them. Mortification, anger, and the desire to lick Bucky's neck to shut him up war in his mind, and the mortification wins out as Steve pulls himself off the floor.
"Jesus, Steve, that's a first kiss to remember."
His blush deepens. "I'm going."
Bucky struggles to stop laughing, reaching out and missing Steve's arm, trying to stop him from leaving. Steve dodges the hand, mind set on the door and getting far away where he could bury his head under a pillow and pretend that he didn't just embarrass himself beyond belief.
"Come on, you never back down from a fight!" Bucky challenges. Steve almost manages to leave, but his competitive nature wins out and he spins back around.
"This isn't a fight!" he retorts.
"Well, that sure felt like you were throwing a punch."
He opened himself up for that one, and the second the words left his mouth he saw it coming, but he can't will his legs to move. His cheeks burn hotter, his hands shake more violently, and his chest feels infinitely tighter, but he doesn't leave.
"This would be a lot easier," he says, voice careful and measured, "if you weren't laughing at me, Buck."
That sobers him. "Sorry, sorry. I swear, I won't laugh. Try again."
Steve hesitates. He should leave. He wills his legs to walk and his mouth to tell Bucky to forget about it, that it isn't a big deal, that he'll figure it out. Instead, he sits back down on the bed, their knees knocking together again, and Bucky's face splits into a grin. Steve punches him in the arm for that, but it only makes him smile wider.
"You said you wouldn't laugh."
"And I'm not, I'm just smiling."
"This was a terrible idea."
Bucky waggles his eyebrows and looks nothing short of ridiculous. "It was your terrible idea, Rogers. I'm just along for the ride."
Steve doesn't dignify that with a response. Instead, he zeroes in on Bucky's lips, as if they contain the secrets of the world, or at least, the secrets to kissing someone without seriously maiming them or himself.
This time, he leans in slowly, mouth properly aligned to Bucky's and teeth not bared. He presses their lips together, warm and smooth. Their noses slide softly next to each other, and Steve closes his eyes. He keeps their mouths together for a few seconds, forcing himself not to count, before pulling away.
Bucky's eyes flutter open, and Steve hadn't known he closed them too. He doesn't look horrified, and no one is injured this time, even though Steve's jaw still hurts from the first time. If nothing else, it is an improvement.
Bucky tilts his head to the side, looking right in Steve's eyes, before shrugging. He feels nervous at the judgement being passed, and he hopes desperately that Bucky doesn't laugh again, even if that felt nothing like what it looks like it would feel when Bucky does it to girls.
"All right, that wasn't bad," Bucky says, voice dragging out over the syllables, words coming out halted. He has always been a terrible liar.
"What was wrong with that?" Steve blurts out, trying not to sound as fed up as he is.
"Nothing, nothing. But if I'm your girl, it's a little dull, you know?" Bucky assures him. He is handling Steve with kid gloves, which he knows he hates, which is probably at least half the reason he always does it.
"What do you mean dull?"
"You wanna kiss so your girl gets worked up, right? Kiss so that whoever's kissing you wants to keep kissing you, you know? So, get me worked up," Bucky says, the hint of a challenge in his voice.
Steve's spine stiffens, the competition surging through his veins, and he feels the sneaking suspicion that Bucky did that intentionally to give him confidence. It shouldn't work so well, especially not when Bucky's suggesting what he thinks he's suggesting.
"Try again. You've seen me kiss, I'm pretty good at it."
"Ass," Steve hisses, startling when Bucky grabs his hands.
He gives him a look, one of those that is half-scolding, half-appreciative, and brings Steve's hands up around his neck. Bucky presses down on his hands until Steve lets his fingers curl around his neck, fingertips just barely brushing against the nape of his neck, the short, bristly hairs there. He wonders absently why he didn't notice earlier that he got a haircut, and why he wasn't there too.
"Really, go again. Just don't picture your grandmother this time, and you'll be all good," Bucky teases.
Bucky grins wider, his eyes glowing with barely-restrained laughter and his nose and forehead crinkling with the force of his smile. Steve almost berates him for laughing again, especially after he promised not to, but he feels laughter bubbling up too and he can hardly criticise at this point, not when he's halfway to delirious.
"No, you see, this is where you come in. You make me shut—"
Steve takes the hint, pulling their mouths together with a little more force than the second time, but considerably less than the first. Their mouths land awkwardly together at first, but Steve shifts, tilting his head to the side and fitting their lips together.
He pauses to think, considering all the times Bucky has kissed girls in front of him, thinking about how he kissed Carol and Alice and Janice and Natalie and every other girl that sat on his lap across the table from Steve. Bucky always goes in with an effortless determination, like the whole process comes naturally to him.
Steve focusses, moving his lips against Bucky's, parting them a little and closing over his bottom lip. He sinks his teeth lightly into the lower lip, and the sound Bucky makes, half-choked off and almost pleading, sends shockwaves through Steve's body.
He presses closer, fingers tightening around Bucky's neck as he feels hands slip low around his waist, not pulling him in but keeping him close. He nibbles on Bucky's lower lip and keeping his mouth open just enough to feel the sounds from low in Bucky's throat.
Those sounds, soft and barely-there but desperate, pleading for more but not taking more. Steve thinks he understands what all the fuss about kissing is.
One of them pulls away, but Steve isn't sure which. Bucky's cheeks are pink and his eyes wide, but there is the curl of a smile on his lips (his lips, and Steve was just kissing them) so he's obviously not angry.
"That was better. That was good, Steve," Bucky says, and his voice is airy, higher than normal.
"Really?" he asks, not because he disagrees, but because he needs something to say to pull his attention away from Bucky's lips.
"Yeah, just. Less teeth, okay? I mean, I really like it, but not everyone does."
Instead of balking at the criticism, it emboldens him. "Can I — again?"
Bucky stares at him, eyes flickering between his lips, his eyes, and a spot just over his left shoulder. He almost cuts in, ready to take the words back and continue on with their day like they didn't just kiss. Maybe thank him for the…lesson. Before he can find the words, Bucky nods sharply, smile hard and eyes still darting to look over his shoulder.
Steve doesn't wait for him to say the words. He just rushes forward, pulling their mouths together and kisses Bucky like he did before. He intends to use less teeth, but when he bites down on his lower lip for the first time, and Bucky practically gasps into his mouth, he tugs harder until Bucky's fingers tighten around his waist and pull him closer.
Finally, finally, Bucky is kissing him, and all he thought he knew about kissing, about how it would feel and how it would sound, was either wrong or underestimated. All he can feel is the places where their bodies are touching and he can't stop his hands from sliding higher, up Bucky's neck and into his hair, too short to grip but just long enough that he can run his fingers through it, mess it up, make it look like it always does in the morning.
Bucky's hands press his waist, pulling him closer until Steve is half on top of him, and he feels like every other girl Bucky has ever kissed and he appreciates them, understands why most of them stuck around even when he ignored them to talk to Steve at the lunch table. His mind is all a haze, and he doesn't want to stop, doesn't think he will ever stop, even if it's getting harder to breathe.
He notices that Bucky's hard against his leg at the same time he notices how hard he is against Bucky's leg. Bucky must realise it too, because before Steve can even fully register it, they both pull away from each other and Steve jerks back so hard he nearly falls off the bed again.
It's only Bucky's hand on his wrist that keeps him off the floor this time. Bucky pulls him from the edge, folding his legs again and shifting uncomfortably. Steve shifts the same, trying to pretend that he's not hard while sitting on his best friend's bed. He wills down his blush, but the heat flares on his neck and ears.
"Um," he manages, and the blush only deepens.
Bucky's lips are bright red and plumper than ever, his hair sticking up and his eyes wider than should be possible. He doesn't quite look horrified, but it's close. He's not even looking at Steve this time, eyes directed pointedly over his shoulder. He swallows hard, Adam's apple bobbing, and Steve doesn't look down at his lap for more than a few seconds.
"Sorry," Steve blurts, rushed and nervous.
"No, it's fine. I told you to get me worked up, right? That's the goal. I think you've got the hang of it," Bucky says, his voice high and shaky.
Steve coughs, the ghost of Bucky's lips still against his.
"Yeah. Uh. Thanks. I should probably get home. Dinner you know?" he mumbles, even though he has no idea what time it is or even if his mother feels well enough to make dinner tonight.
Bucky's eyes meet his again for the first time since they pulled away. He looks nervous, jaw tight and teeth clearly clenched. He looks away for a moment, before meeting Steve's eyes again, calmer, his own flush beginning to die down.
"Right. See you tomorrow?" he asks, voice unsteady.
Steve rolls his eyes. "Of course, jerk. You couldn't shake me if you tried."
Bucky's smile returns in full-force like earlier when he was laughing at Steve panicking over a test he probably aced. Steve smiles back, shoving him as he does, hoping it conveys you're gonna need to do a lot more than kiss me to get rid of me, idiot.
When he gets home, he goes to bed without dinner and tries not to think about the kiss, or how Bucky's hands felt around his waist, or the sounds that he made when Steve bit down a little too hard on his lip. He puts his hand down his pants and bites down on his other hand to stay quiet. When he's finished, curled up on his bed thinking about Bucky's hair sticking up in all directions, he acknowledges that maybe, just maybe, there is a different reason his palms are always sweaty around Bucky.
The doctor said that he isn't going to die, which is a better prognosis than Bucky had before he picked up the prescription. If his fever had gotten any hotter, he would have had to take him to the hospital, even if Steve doesn't have the money for that and Bucky hasn't been to work since he first got sick five days ago. He thinks he could scrape enough together to make sure that they could treat him, but it won't get to that, it won't. It doesn't matter, not now that he has the meds.
He has always taken care of Steve, and this isn't the first flu that nearly killed him. He has lost count of the number of times he has gotten this sick. The difference is, this time, Steve's mom isn't in the other room, waiting for Bucky to call her for help even though she can't get too close to Steve without getting twice as sick. No, this time, Steve's mom is dead and Bucky is the only one around to keep him safe.
He wouldn't trade it for anything, but the block in his throat and the burn in his eyes every time he blinks makes him sick to his stomach, even though he got over the flu weeks ago. He pushes back tears, because Steve isn't going to die, he's not, the doctor promised, and Bucky had enough cash on him to get the prescription filled. He could have asked his parents, but they're stretched thin enough as it is, and Steve is his responsibility.
He rinses the cloth again, squeezing most of the water out, before placing it on Steve's forehead. He groans, but smiles a little, barely conscious and definitely not aware of his surroundings. His eyes open every so often, and sometimes he will smile absently at Bucky, but he hasn't said anything coherent. At least Bucky can touch his forehead without feeling like his hand is going to get burnt now that the meds are kicking in.
Bucky's eyes slip shut and he jolts violently, willing himself to stay awake. He has hardly slept the last few days, just a few hours whenever he had to or when Steve wasn't tossing and turning in his sleep. He needs sleep desperately, but Steve has been shaking ever since he took the medicine and Bucky doesn't want to sleep until he stops.
Steve is far from weak. He has faced off against guys three times his size, spent more time in the hospital than any human being should in their lifetime, and broken more bones than Bucky knew a body had, but he always comes out the other end grinning. It wouldn't surprise him if he said he had never been scared in his life.
Bucky could only wish he were that strong. He could only wish he didn't know fear, but for him, fear was Steve unconscious in a hospital bed or with blood in his phlegm because he can't stop coughing. Fear is Steve slipping in and out of consciousness. Steve might not be weak, but he's fragile like this and Bucky can't sleep when all he can think about is how close he is to breaking.
He jumps up so fast that he bangs his knee on the side of the bed. He curses, nearly biting straight through his lip at the pain, but he leans over Steve. His eyes move rapidly beneath his lids, shining with sweat in the low light of the room. When he cracks them open, they're blue-grey and almost luminescent, and fuck, Bucky will never take advantage of all the times he gets to look into them ever again.
"Yeah, hey, Steve, buddy, I'm here, can you hear me? I'm right here," he babbles, too many words forcing their way from his mouth at once.
Steve closes his eyes again, and Bucky feels his heart break, but they flutter open again before he can sit down.
"I hear ya. You 'kay?"
Bucky laughs, laughs so hard that his stomach hurts and he feels like throwing up even though he barely eaten since Steve got sick and doesn't want to eat until he's better. He laughs until he starts coughing from choking on air, until he has to sit down again beside Steve's bed. His laughter only catches in his throat when he sees Steve smiling right at him, like he's the most wonderful thing in the entire world.
He clears his throat. "I should be asking you that. You scared me there, buddy. You've been out for days. The doctor said —" he starts, but his voice cracks. He clears his throat again, but can't find the words.
A frown creases Steve's forehead, half-confused, half-concerned. He reaches out, hand dragging along the covers, and grabs Bucky's hand, squeezing so hard that it Bucky can feel the life returning to his limbs. He's still sick, so sick, but he manages a grip and Bucky squeezes back so hard that is has to hurt. Steve doesn't complain.
"Hey, hey, it's 'kay, m'kay. When's the last time you slept? Ya gotta sleep, Buck, don't want you getting sick," Steve slurs, smile returning to his face.
Bucky's chest tightens at the delirium. Even though he probably is barely in there, Steve still knows what he's saying, and is still no different from how he is when he's completely there, not really.
"I'll be fine, gotta take care of you," he mumbles, loosening his grip on Steve's hand just enough to stroke his thumb over the knuckles.
Steve laughs, but it turns into a cough that sounds like it's tearing up his throat. The blood that spatters across the back of his hand testifies to that, but Steve just leans back and smiles at him again, like nothing happened.
"So good to me. Don't know what I'd do without you, Buck."
"You kidding? You'd probably be on the fast-track to presidency if I wasn't here to drag you down," Bucky jokes. It makes the frown come back, just like he knew it would.
"Being president would be no fun if you weren't with me. 'm serious. You're so good, Buck. So good to me. Couldn't live without you."
Bucky has to look away from him, the tears welling in his eyes. This isn't Steve. Or, rather, this is Steve, who is always this earnest and has never told a lie in his life, but this is magnified. Everything he feels around Steve is amplified and everything he tries not to feel makes him want to turn around and hold him close. But mostly, he just needs him to get better. He needs him.
"I couldn't live without you either, Steve. So you gotta get better, okay? Gotta get some more sleep. Will you do that for me?" Bucky begs, voice soft and hand tightening again on Steve's.
Steve nods. "'Kay. You too, okay? Ya gotta sleep too."
Bucky nods, pulls the cloth away from his forehead, and leans over Steve — Steve, who looks smaller than ever with blanket after blanket piled on top of him to stop the shivering, Steve, who is still managing to smile at him like he's the only thing that matters, Steve — to press the lightest kiss to his burning forehead.
He doesn't expect Steve's other hand to slip up around his neck, or that Steve would pull their mouths together and kiss him like Bucky spends the majority of his life pretending he never did before.
Steve's mouth is hot, as feverish as the rest of him, and he's a lot better at kissing than he was before, even if it's sloppy and too wet with too much teeth, just the way Bucky likes it. Before he can pull away, before he can jolt back and beg that Steve go back to sleep, Steve sighs against his mouth and lets him go.
"'Night, Buck," he mumbles, eyes already closed and voice trailing off.
Bucky falls back into his chair, free hand darting up to his lips, spit-slick and hotter than the rest of his face. Steve's breathing levels and his arms aren't shaking anymore. If not for the sweat and the heat still radiating off his body, he could be sleeping like normal.
He rinses out the cloth and replaces it on Steve's forehead. He tugs out of his grip long enough to close the curtain, hide the late afternoon sun just beginning to emerge over the snow-covered city, before returning to his side. He laces their fingers together and lays his head down on the bed, next to Steve's hip.
"Good night, Steve," he mumbles, but he's asleep before he can even register he said the words.
Steve's fever breaks and by the morning, he's back to sitting upright and talking animatedly, and of course, he's hungry for whatever Bucky can throw together. When Bucky tells him he's been sick for five days, Steve nearly tumbles off the bed. He can't remember anything before Saturday, when Bucky first got him down in the bed, the events of the last few days lost in a feverish haze.
It is probably for the best.
Convincing Steve to get out of his house on the third anniversary of his mother's death instead of sitting around moping all day was the best idea Bucky ever had. And he's not just saying that because he's drunk, he swears.
"Sure you're not."
He said that aloud. Fuck.
"You said that aloud too, Steve."
He laughs loudly, too loudly. Guys from the next table over stare at them, annoyed that they're even serving Steve even though he's over eighteen, because he sure doesn't look it. He barely looks fifteen, but here he is, in all his glory, parents dead and living with best friend, and he couldn't care less.
Bucky is across the table, leaning into his bottle, grinning around the neck of it in a way that makes Steve feel way too hot even though the room is barely above freezing. He hopes he didn't say that aloud. Bucky is still smiling, so he figures he didn't. Good.
He never really noticed how long Bucky's hair is getting. He wonders what it would be like to pull it.
Bucky chokes around his bottle, and fuck, he probably said that bit aloud. He just laughs, because oh well. He didn't say it that loud, he's sure. It doesn't matter anyway. He reaches across the table, trying to get a hold on Bucky's hair.
"Jesus, Rogers. Can't hold your liquor for shit, can you?" Bucky slurs, grinning at him now that his airway isn't blocked by the bottleneck anymore.
Steve bypasses his hair and pokes him, one finger, pressed hard over his heart. "Hey, I kept up with you. You're pretty drunk too, you know."
Bucky smiles wide, showing too many teeth and looking about as dazed as Steve feels. He pats Steve's hand, before pulling it away from his chest to put it back on the table. He shakes his head, takes another long drink from his beer, and Steve watches him, watches his long neck as he throws his head back to swallow.
"This is great. This was a great idea. You're great. What a good idea. You're my best friend, you know?" Steve babbles, reaching for his own bottle and swallowing more than he can fit in his mouth, so that enough dribbles down his chin and over his throat.
Bucky isn't smiling anymore. Instead, his eyes follow the trail of beer down Steve's chin, over his throat, until it falls beneath his shirt. When he notices Steve looking at him, he looks away quickly, gulping down the rest of his beer and waving for another.
He gets through half of it before speaking again. "You're right, I'm pretty drunk too."
He doesn't slow down though, just swallows more in several large gulps, and Steve watches his throat again, marvelling at the way he manages to make swallowing look amazing and how few buttons are still done up on his shirt even though it's so cold in the bar. He probably feels as warm and fuzzy inside as Steve does. It's pretty great. It's really great. They need to get drunk more often.
Bucky shakes his head. "It ain't worth the hangover, or the money it costs. 'sides, you usually don't like it much."
Steve shrugs. "It feels good when we've had this much, you know?"
He takes a swig from his drink again, this time half-intentionally spilling some down his throat, just because it makes Bucky's eyes follow the liquid. He knows it shouldn't, but it makes him feel even warmer, makes his clothes tight, makes him want to lean across the table and do things that he shouldn't want to do at all, especially not in public.
He tries not to think about it, but he's drunk and loose and Bucky looks amazing. He looks so good. Steve isn't saying any of this aloud, he's being careful, but he can't stop staring at the sheen of sweat on his chest and the condensation from the beer bottle flowing down over his knuckles. He looks unbelievable.
Bucky clears his throat, standing up quickly and looking around. He looks right past Steve, over his shoulder, when he grits out through his teeth, "I gotta hit the head."
He's gone before Steve can ask why, other than the obvious. He shrugs, swallowing the rest of his beer and feeling too much spill down over his chin again. He watches him leave, the way that his pants hang low on his hips because they've been a little tight on money lately and they both have lost weight. They shouldn't be out drinking, not when they're trying to put food on the table, but it seemed all right for tonight.
He doesn't get another beer, feeling guilty about the money they have already spent, but not having anything in his hands or not having Bucky to stare at from across the table makes him restless. Bucky has probably only been gone a few minutes, but it feels like hours, and he worries irrationally. He pulls himself from his seat, staggering towards the washroom after Bucky.
He can't smell any vomit when he enters the washroom, and none of the stall doors are closed, but he can see Bucky's shoes in the last one. He shuffles towards the last stall, leaning around the corner until Bucky comes into view.
He's sitting on the edge of the toilet, head in his hands and his shoulders heaving as he breathes loudly, so loud that Steve acknowledges that that was the sound he heard when he first came in, not the heater. There was no heater, there was just Bucky, shaking a little and heaving heavy breaths in the washroom.
"Buck, you all right?"
Bucky jumps upright, staggering a little, before leaning against the wall when he realises who it is. He shoves Steve, not very hard, but it comes as a shock, so the next thing he knows his back is against the sink and he's gripping it tightly so he doesn't fall down.
Bucky's eyes dart towards the washroom door, then away, then back again, like he's nervous or something else that Steve can't quite understand, especially not when he's this drunk and he's still looking at the low cut of his shirt and the way that his hair sticks to his neck, damp with sweat. He can't stop staring, he can't tear his eyes away, even though Bucky looks like something's really upsetting him.
"Look, you — you gotta stop staring at me like that, all right? You gotta stop. Someone's gonna notice, okay? And that's not good for either of us. I can't fight this drunk," he slurs, eyes still skittering between Steve and the door.
A part of him wants to deny it, and somewhere behind the alcohol he feels guilty, because he had to have been really obvious. He usually wants to look at Bucky like that, but he manages to stop himself most of the time because he knows what would happen to him if he didn't. He wants to deny that he was looking at Bucky like anything, but he also wants to shut him up because he has been looking at him too and they're both playing this game, it's not just him.
"What, you mean I can't stare at you like you've been staring at me?" Steve accuses, and there is more venom in his voice than he intends.
Bucky freezes, eyes on the door. "What?"
"I said, I shouldn't be staring at you like you're staring at me? Because, in case you didn't notice, you've been staring at me for the last three drinks. I'm not saying I mind, because I really, really don't mind, but maybe you wanna do something about it," Steve says, more bold than he actually is, words that are his coming out with an attitude that isn't.
He would never say this if he was sober, he knows that much, and that should be enough to stop him, but Bucky's eyes land on his neck again and he just wants him to stop talking and start kissing Steve, like they did on his bed what feels like a million years ago. He still thinks about it whenever he kisses a girl. He has kissed a few girls, ones he thought he'd really end up liking, but it didn't feel like it did with Bucky.
"Come on, Buck. Come on," he says.
Bucky doesn't try to deny it, not this time. He backs off from Steve, leaving him leaning against the sink, and retreating into the stall. He distances himself as far as possible from Steve without leaving the washroom, and Steve doesn't know what that means. He's too drunk to work out these signals, but he doesn't think it would make much sense if he was sober either.
"Steve, we can't," is all Bucky says, but his eyes are still on Steve's throat and he's running out of good reasons not to just kiss him.
So he does. Steve walks, as steady as he can, straight into the stall and wraps a hand around his neck. Bucky doesn't resist, leaning down when Steve pulls him and gasping when Steve kisses him hard.
Steve doesn't let go of his neck, pulling him closer and smiling against his lips when Bucky wraps his arms around his waist, pulling him further into the stall and slamming the door behind them. Bucky isn't giving him anything, though, not really. He's just letting Steve kiss him like he doesn't want this too, like he hasn't been dying to lick Steve's neck since he start spilling beer down it. He's acting like none of this means anything to him when Steve knows that it does, that it has to.
He leans back against the stall door, trying to coax Bucky into pressing him. He kisses him roughly, biting on his lips and sucking his tongue until Bucky finally, finally, stops pretending. He kisses him hard back, moaning into his mouth and pressing Steve against the stall door.
"God, yes, Buck, come on," Steve hisses into his mouth, groaning louder than he should be and trying to remember how to breathe.
Bucky pulls their mouths apart, and before Steve can whine, his mouth presses back on his neck. He sucks hard, tongue lapping over where his skin is still sticky with beer until all the taste is gone and a bright red spot is left in its place.
Steve has seen him do this to girls, who need to wear scarves the next day but always grin and giggle when their girlfriends ask about it. Steve doesn't think he can do the same, but all he can really think about is how hot the mouth on his neck is and how good it feels to be this close to Bucky.
He pulls Bucky's head back up and kisses him hard, all teeth and tongue and this is nothing like the few girls Steve has kissed and everything that he always wanted kissing to be, with the same person he wanted to be kissing. Bucky wants him, here and now, and he wants Bucky more than he remembers ever wanting anything and for now, that's all that matters. Bucky pants, hot and heavy into his mouth and all he can feel and taste and smell is Bucky, and he hopes it clings to his skin for days, even if he has to stay home and kiss him over and over and over.
The bathroom door opens.
Steve doesn't hear it, not until it's too late, but Bucky does. He's always on top of everything, and he pulls away from Steve and slaps a hand over his mouth before he can do anything stupid like yell at him for stopping. He reaches down, pulling Steve's legs around his waist and keeping him pressed against the stall door.
They wait, hardly breathing, until the guy finishes taking a piss and stumbles out of the bathroom, clinging to the walls and barely making it out the door, before Bucky finally puts him down and moves his hand away from Steve's mouth.
Steve takes that as a cue to start kissing him again, but Bucky pushes him back, a single hand on his shoulder pinning him against the door. He shakes his head, lips beginning to bruise and eyes skittering across the stall like he can see through the walls.
"This is stupid. We can't do this. You're drunk as fuck and we're in a bathroom, for Christ's sake," Bucky says, sounding more sober than he has all night, a note of terror in his voice.
"Buck, I don't —"
"Don't care? Well, you're alone in that, because I fucking care, okay? Don't do that. We're going to pay for our drinks and go home, okay?"
The look on Bucky's face, even in the shitty bathroom light and with alcohol still surging through his bloodstream, tells him not to push it, and he doesn't. He sags against the door, mumbling to himself about how stupid he thinks Bucky is being, but Bucky just grins widely at him and shoves him out of the stall.
He throws the money onto the table, taking one last long drink to finish off his beer, before walking out of the bar with one arm slung over Steve's shoulder like they weren't just kissing in the bathroom and loving it, like nothing had happened, like it didn't mean anything, even though it did, it had to.
The next morning, Steve wakes up with a hangover worse than anything he has ever felt. He can't so much as move for how much pain he's in. The night is fuzzy, but he knows what happened, and when he finally manages to pull himself into the bathroom, he can see three marks along his neck that make pleasure shoot through his body when he presses against them.
Bucky stumbles into the bathroom after him, grinning widely and poking at the marks on his neck. Steve, head pounding and body aching in places he didn't know a body could ache, smiles back, ready to lean in and kiss him.
Bucky laughs loudly, too loudly, and they both grimace. "Look at you, Steve. That girl must have been a fox, yeah?"
Steve's heart turns to lead in his chest. "What?"
Bucky's brow furrows. "Shit, you don't remember her? If I could remember anything I'd help you out. Gal like that's one you wanna call again, if you know what I mean."
"You don't remember yesterday?" Steve asks, voice catching in his throat.
"Nah, do you?" Bucky says, rubbing at his temple, squinting out the window over Steve's left shoulder.
Steve bites his lip. "Nope, all a blur."
Bucky laughs, clapping him hard on the should, eyes still glued to something out the window, even though looking into that bright, natural light has to be killing his head. His lips are still bruised, puffy and gorgeous in this light, but he doesn't remember. He probably thinks he kissed some girl at the bar last night and was too drunk to do anything about it.
"What a shame," he says, grinning.
Bucky gives him one more shove to his shoulder, before stumbling out of the bathroom, leaving Steve alone, fingers trailing over the bruises along his neck. He shouts something from the kitchen about picking up a greasy breakfast with whatever money they didn't spend at the bar last night, and his stomach rumbles, but he can't tear his eyes from his reflection.
"Yeah," Steve whispers to the empty bathroom. "A shame."
He tries to convince himself that it's better this way. The marks on his neck fade after a week. The memory doesn't.
Bucky said he would take him home and clean him up, and he does. Steve doesn't know what he's going to do with Bucky halfway across the world. He will join him soon enough, he knows he will, but until then, he thinks he might not make it to the time he finally gets accepted to the army. He's not worried about surviving these fights, he always does. He can patch himself up too. It just won't be the same.
His own hands are so much rougher on himself than Bucky's, his fingers shake when he tries to dab alcohol on his wounds. Bucky presses, firm but careful, and he always knows exactly where it hurts without Steve telling him. He says it's because he has been cleaning him up since they were kids, and Steve knows it's because no one knows him better, body and mind, than Bucky Barnes. He knows that no one ever will, either, and he knows that his best friend is getting shipped off to England first thing in the morning and could be on a battlefield getting shot at next week.
Steve never much worried for his own life, but Bucky's? That's a different story. He wants to go overseas and fight for what's right more than anything in the world, and he's sure as hell glad Bucky wants to do the same, but he hates to know he'll be over there without him. He has cleaned Bucky up his fair share of times too. They need each other, they've said it before.
Steve grimaces when Bucky dabs under his nose, and Bucky scowls at him for that.
"You know, if you didn't get in fights, you wouldn't have to suffer through the sting of alcohol on the wounds," Bucky scolds, the same mantra he repeats every time Steve picks a fight.
"I'd rather them pick on me than someone else," Steve says. "It's what's right."
"I'd rather you stay alive past 25, Steve," Bucky shoots back, and they have this conversation every week, but both of them still say their lines every time and both of them grin at the same point, right here, where they've joked a dozen times before that if the fights don't kill Steve first, pneumonia will get him anyway.
Steve finds it funny. Bucky doesn't, but he laughs anyway. Steve appreciates it, he really does, but he hates that pained look Bucky gets on his face. He would take it all in a heartbeat for Steve, take everything away if he could. Steve doesn't know what he did to deserve him.
"Well, I hope you stay alive too, for whatever that means," Steve says, voice soft and too sincere, more sincere than he should sound.
Bucky's hand stills against his jaw momentarily, before he wipes the last of the blood away. "Means a lot, you know that."
Steve shrugs. "Good. So don't die on me over there, okay?"
Bucky grins widely and crosses his fingers. "Promise."
Steve has to look away. "Good."
Bucky pulls away, tossing out the alcohol-soaked tissues and humming absently to himself. He washes his hands, eyeing himself in the mirror even though he knows he looks great, as per usual. Steve wants to say that, but he doesn't.
They have another hour before they have to leave, and when Bucky sits back down on the couch next to him, Steve is struck with all the things that he wants to do, to say, before Bucky gets shipped off. He knows he's going to end up over there with him, he has to, but at the same time, he doesn't want to regret anything.
Bucky promised he wouldn't die, and Bucky never goes back on a promise, but Steve can't help but worry. People die in war, he's not an idiot. He is just selfish enough to hope it isn't Bucky. In an ideal world, no one would die, but an ideal world doesn't exist and the odds don't look good for anyone over there, not even someone as brave and hard-working as Bucky.
"I'm gonna miss you. Real bad, you know," Steve mumbles, before he can stop the words from coming out his mouth.
Bucky freezes on the couch, jaw working and eyes closing. When he opens them, there is a glisten of something covering them that Steve knows is tears, but he doesn't say anything. He thinks that if he does, he's going to cry too. He hasn't cried in years, but now might not be the worst possible time, not when his best friend is getting shipped possibly to his death.
"Steve —" Bucky starts, but his voice catches in his throat and he pointedly looks away, raising a hand to his face. Steve pretends he doesn't notice.
"Sorry. I know you hate the sappy stuff, but, you know. I will. Really."
Bucky coughs, his voice still cracking. "Shut up, Rogers. I'm gonna miss you too, okay? A lot."
Steve blinks a few times, willing away the tears that still sneak past his eyelids. He brushes them away quickly, trying to organise his thoughts, to choke out something other than I love you, because he can't say that, he just can't. That's not how it works. He doesn't get to give Bucky a photo of himself that Bucky will keep in his bag for times when he's feeling lost. He's not going to get love letters back from the front. He doesn't want that, either. He wants to be there, fighting alongside Bucky like he is meant to be, like he would be if his body wasn't betraying his mind.
He looks over at Bucky, and sees him staring back. Both of their eyes are rimmed in red, and both of them are trying not to cry. It's so ridiculous that Steve starts to laugh when the next tear slips out. He laughs so hard he starts to cough, then hiccup, then laugh some more. Bucky leans hard against his should and laughs too, loud and boisterous like he always laughs. His genuine laugh, too. Not the fake laugh he usually forces out when he's actually sad or angry, or some other emotion he pretends he doesn't know how to feel — the kind of laugh he only manages around Steve.
Leaning against each other, both coughing from how much they were laughing, and all Steve can think about is kissing him.
"God, I'll miss you. I can't believe it either, but I will, okay?" Bucky admits, shoving his shoulder a little and looking at him with those large, honest eyes that make Steve warm.
"Good. Incentive to come back alive, I hope. Or even better, incentive to wish I were there," Steve insists, instead of kissing him.
Bucky's face screws up, like it does every time they go down this road. "I told you. I'm never gonna wish you were over there, okay?"
"I'm not weak, I'm —"
"Buddy, I know better than anyone on this goddamn earth that you're about the farthest thing from weak, or a coward, or a child that anyone might think you are, okay? You know why I'm not budging from this, though."
Steve gets so tired of this conversation, so tired of Bucky talking around what he means instead of saying it. He shouldn't pick a fight, not on his last day with him, but if he pushes hard enough, maybe, just maybe...
"Do I? Because you just say the same thing every time. Maybe I don't have a clue why you're so content to let me stay here," he says, tone more venomous than he intends and Bucky recoils at his voice. He regrets it immediately, but the flush that rises up Bucky's neck makes it almost worthwhile.
"Goddamn, Steve. You would die over there. You're not weak but a bullet is a bullet, a tank is a tank, a bomb is a fucking bomb, and it will kill anyone, weak or strong. You would die over there and I'd have nothing, nothing, okay?" Bucky spits out, turning away and wiping at his eyes again.
"This is bigger than you and me, Buck," Steve says softly, voice shaking.
He hadn't expected that. He knew the answer, of course he did. He knew that Bucky didn't really think he couldn't tough it out, and it was no question that Bucky didn't want to lose him, but to hear it so plainly, to hear it said like Bucky has never meant anything else as much as he means those words, is like a punch to the gut or to the nose or any other place on his body he is aching right now. His chest is quickly climbing to the top of the list, because Bucky won't meet his eyes.
"Not for me, it isn't. This is about you and me, it always has been. I don't want you to die. I don't know what I'd do if you did, okay? I'd probably die too, all right?" Bucky almost shouts, voice shaking and angry but more sad than anything else. It breaks Steve's heart.
"I'm sorry, you know I can't —"
"I know, I know, fuck. You make my life a living hell, you know that, Steve?" he says, the joke slipping back into his voice as he starts to smile again, wiping the last of his tears away and rolling his eyes at Steve.
Steve leans over, before he loses his nerve, and kisses Bucky. It is different from how they have kissed before, he can feel it. The first kiss, when he finally figured out how to do it, was tentative, but still teasing because Steve knew full well what he was trying to do, he just didn't know quite then that Bucky was the one he wanted to do it to.
Their kiss at the bar was the sort of kiss that led to more, even if Bucky didn't remember it even if they never kissed for more than those few, desperate minutes in the bathroom at a bar he never went back to out of paranoia that the patrons knew what they had done.
This kiss, soft and pleading, is a goodbye as much as it is anything else. He presses Bucky's lips apart, stilled by the surprise, and slides his tongue alongside Bucky's. He reaches back and tilts his head so they fit perfectly, just like they always have. Steve kisses him like he has kissed the few girls he has been with, but also nothing like he has ever kissed them.
He likes girls too, don't get him wrong. They're soft and nice and always taste good. But he loves Bucky. Bucky crawled beneath his skin when they were young and never had the good manners to leave, and by the time Steve figured out the words, the combination of emotions, that could make him leave and never come back, that was the last thing he ever wanted. He never wanted Bucky to go farther than an arm's length away from him. He wanted to be next to him, there on the battlefield. He wanted to be with him.
He kisses him and kisses him, desperate but slow, hot mouths slipping together even though Bucky is barely kissing back, just curling one hand around Steve's back with enough pressure to keep him close. Their mouths move slowly, he barely bites down at all. He isn't trying to drive Bucky crazy, he's just trying to keep him down to earth this time.
Bucky tilts his head forward, cutting the kiss off and pressing their foreheads together. He doesn't open his eyes, his breathing slowly steadying, but Steve doesn't push it as much as he wants to. He just watches Bucky's eyes work under his eyelids, watches his teeth worry the inside of his cheek. He waits.
When Bucky finally opens his eyes, he looks sadder than he has all day. He gently, one hand on each shoulder, pushes Steve back until he is sitting on the couch next to him. Then Bucky pulls his arms back, wrapping them around himself and rubbing his arms like he doesn't know what else to do with them.
"Steve," he starts, voice catching in his throat again.
"Yeah, Buck?" he asks, voice so quiet that he can barely hears himself. Bucky seems to register it, though, because he sighs.
He doesn't finish the sentence, like he doesn't know how he would finish it even if he tried. Steve knows that look, knows that voice, and he looks away. He knows what is coming, and it doesn't make it any easier, but it does mean that he isn't too disappointed when Bucky doesn't lean over and kiss him until he can't remember anything else but Bucky's name.
"We're gonna go out tonight with a couple of nice girls. Maybe you'll even like one of them. Okay?"
Steve wants to fight, he wants to push back. He wants to shout at Bucky, tell him to take a leap for once in their time together, for once in their friendship. He wants to expound on the fact that they do everything together and for each other, and there is no reason whatsoever that they shouldn't kiss like this, like they mean it, because Steve sure does.
He wants to say a lot of things, but what he says instead is, "Okay. Sounds good."
The smile, genuine and bright, that it brings to Bucky's face makes it almost worth the ache in his chest. "My last night here, gotta try to swing you one last date, no?"
Steve laughs, hoping it doesn't sound as forced to Bucky as it does to his own ears. It drags as it comes out of his throat, too high-pitched and airy. It makes Bucky laugh too, though, and after a while, Steve manages a genuine one, if only because of how ridiculous Bucky looks when he laughs like that.
"You wouldn't be you if you weren't still trying to get me a girl, now would you?" Steve jokes.
Bucky grins, all teeth and charm and everything that Steve loves, loves, about him. "What can I say, I'm the best friend you could ask for."
"Biggest idiot, more like," he retorts, and they get in a shoving match that Bucky doesn't even bother letting him win before Bucky dumps him into some halfway decent clothing and drags him out to meet the girls.
When they say goodbye, outside the recruiting office, it is only the public atmosphere that stops Steve from kissing him again, or from shouting that he needs Bucky. He wants to shout that he knows that Bucky has to feel something, or that if he really, really doesn't, to just say so already so that Steve can really find some nice girl to settle down with.
He would. If Bucky told him that it wasn't there, that Steve was seeing something or feeling something nonexistent between them, he would stop. He doesn't think he could ever stop feeling how he feels, and he knows he would never forget that Bucky always tastes like chocolate even though he swears he doesn't keep any on him (he does), or the way he kisses, or how he looks at him with naked admiration. But he would back off. He would find a girl ready to settle for him, and he would go on with his life.
Instead, he just hugs him, makes a perfunctory comment about joining him overseas, and lets Bucky pretend he believes for a second that he is being completely genuine.
Steve has never met anyone better at pretending that nothing matters to them when really, everything does. Bucky would have it so much easier if he had a best friend who didn't know better than to believe him.
Bucky is standing outside his tent when he leaves Stark, memory of the shield in his hand and the sound of the bullets pinging off of it. He probably messed up a good thing with Peggy. He hopes an apology can get them past it, or maybe a near death experience. He gets the feeling they're not going to be short on those, not over the next few weeks.
Bucky grins at him soft and almost shy, and ducks into his tent after him, plopping down on the ground by his feet. After a moment, Steve sits next to him, shuffling closer until their knees bump. They don't need to get nearly as close together as they used to for that to happen, not with Steve basically three times the size he once was. Bucky got smaller, starved and tortured in the HYDRA camp, but he's still the same old Bucky.
"You should be with the doctors."
Bucky shrugged, half-grinning. "Couldn't find anything wrong with me, not with their technology. I feel like something went into me and ripped everything up and put it all back in the wrong place, but I'm apparently fine, so here I am. You're stuck with me."
He pulls Bucky into a hug, tight and desperate, holding onto him so hard that he thinks he is going to break him. Steve doesn't feel quite right in this body, not yet. The arms are too strong, the legs too long, and every part of him feels separate from him. But he never felt so disconnected as he does trying to cling to Bucky. Bucky has never been smaller than him.
"I was terrified," Steve admits quietly, mumbling into Bucky's hair where he once spoke to his shoulder.
"You, terrified? I wish I could have seen that. You've got a body to match that huge amount of courage of yours, now. I still don't get how that happened."
Steve half shrugs against him. "Not quite sure myself, either. The doctor who did it got killed before I could really ask about the science behind it. It just made me bigger, stronger. I'm the same Steve Rogers, I promise."
Bucky laughs, and it sounds like Bucky, like how he always laughed when Steve got melodramatic about something he thought was small, or every time Steve came home with a black eye but a grin wider than his face. It sounds like Bucky, but it doesn't. There is something hollow behind it, something that sounds like pain.
He doesn't push, but Bucky has to be hurting. He could barely walk when they were escaping the facility, and even though he made it most of the way back without having to lean on Steve more than a few times, there's something off about him.
"I know you are. Only Steve Rogers could be stupid enough to try to jump that distance. The difference now is that you can actually make it," Bucky jokes, elbowing him in the stomach.
"Well, if we're talking stupid, only Bucky Barnes would be stupid enough not to leave when he was told, so I know that they couldn't have messed you up that much," Steve says, even though thinking about it makes him feel sick. It makes Bucky laugh again, the same laugh that sounds real but also sounds painful. Bucky doesn't seem to mind, so he doesn't say anything again, even though he is beginning to think he should.
"All right, all right, fair enough. So, are the rumours true? Did Agent Carter really shoot at you?"
Steve shoves him aside, groaning under his breath. "How did that spread so quickly?"
Bucky leans back on the ground, half on top of Steve's sleeping bag even though the tent is too small for the both of them. His grin is lazy, soft around the edges, and for the first time since he was shipped over, Steve feels homesick. Not for New York, not really, but for their apartment on a hot summer day or for Bucky's smile that never seems to completely disappear.
"High school was just a warm up for the army base, Rogers, you should know that by now. So, what about her? You like her?" Bucky asks, elbowing him in the side.
"Yeah, she's great," Steve admits, not wanting to have this conversation, but not really wanting him to leave. The last time they were alone together, Bucky didn't make it clear at all where they stood, but he sure as hell didn't kiss him like he never wanted him to look at someone else, so he doesn't know what he was supposed to do.
"You think you could love her?" Bucky asks.
"Yeah, maybe. Probably."
"Good. I mean, I want to defend your honour, talk to her, make sure she doesn't just want you for the shiny new body, but I think she would kick my ass, especially in the state I'm in right now," Bucky drawls, laughing like he wasn't just tortured and torn apart in a lab experiment.
Steve doesn't know what to say. He doesn't know what signs Bucky is sending, or if he's sending any. He is genuinely happy that Steve has found someone, Steve can tell. But there's something else that's there, that he could never put a name to, even when they were stupid kids practicing kissing on Bucky's bed.
"She's not you," he says.
Bucky snorts. "Well, yeah, I'm pretty fucked in the head right now, but I'd have to be a lot worse to not notice that."
Steve exhales sharply, exasperation creeping into his voice. "That's not what I mean."
Normally, Bucky would keep teasing, dancing around the topic, but his shoulders just sag and he closes his eyes, still laying down and taking up way too much space in the tent for a super soldier to fit in.
Steve sighs, and shoves Bucky over, easing him into a sitting position so that they can at least both fit without having to squeeze in. Bucky seems okay, physically at least, and he assured them all that he was ready for the missions. Steve believes him, he really does, but he wonders if there isn't something wrong beneath the surface. He has never known Bucky to not dance around an answer.
He isn't quite sure what he wants to say. Or rather, how to say it. He has a million thoughts on his mind and all of them have to do with him and Bucky, and how they could have something, and how he could love him. How he does. But he doesn't know how to put that into words that will come out right, or make sense, or at least not sound crazy. He doesn't know what he's doing. The serum changed a lot of things, but it couldn't change the fact that he has absolutely no idea how to handle what he feels for Bucky or what to say to make it all okay.
"So, terrified, were you?" Bucky asks, cutting through the tension with his trademark joking voice. Normally, it frustrates Steve, but he still can't figure out how to address any of it, so he goes along this time.
"I was. I heard them say you were presumed dead and I — I panicked. I would have walked to Austria if Peggy hadn't talked Stark into dropping me there in a plane. I'm glad she did, too, or you could have been —"
He can't bring himself to say any of the many words that would have slotted perfectly into that sentence, and Bucky hums softly from next to him, conveying that he doesn't need to say anything, that he understands. He doesn't need to explain himself.
"I've never seen you terrified, I hope someone took pictures," Bucky teases, laughter curling at the edges of his voice.
"I'm pretty terrified right now. You got a camera?" he asks, finally getting the words out.
He isn't phrasing it right. He's starting wrong, or maybe he isn't starting at all, but whatever he is doing he knows he is going about it the wrong way. He doesn't know what else to do, but he has to say something. He has to get it over with. If one of them doesn't say something, they will never have the chance. Steve will go off with Peggy and Bucky will find any girl he wants, and they'll both live their lives wondering about what could have happened.
"What's scaring you now?" Bucky asks, leaning too close to him and dropping his head down on his shoulder. "Wow, you're really fucking big. I didn't think I'd like it, the whole walk back I was trying to make sense of it, but it's nice to have a shoulder to lean on."
"This," Steve confesses, "this is scaring me."
Bucky hesitates, but he doesn't respond. He continues babbling about Steve's size, about how Bucky can still see the scrawny little kid in there, about how he finally has the body he deserves, how he is so glad that he won't be stuck with a body working against his brain. Steve isn't sure if he's glad that Bucky is downplaying this or if he's furious.
"Because you see," he finally cuts in, voice wavering and far too small for his new body, "I could love Peggy, but I already love you. And that's pretty terrifying."
Bucky, eyes and jaw fixed on babbling, falters mid-sentence, talking about how it won't be easy to get used to Steve being this big. It's dark in the tent, the lights from outside the only thing revealing any colour quickly draining from Bucky's face.
"I don't kiss a lot of people, and you don't kiss a lot of people more than once. But Buck, three times. Three times and the last time —"
"Four times," Bucky interrupts.
As much of a surprise what he says is in itself, Steve hadn't quite expected him to say anything at all until Steve stopped talking. It takes him a minute to get over the whole Bucky-actually-is-contributing-to-this-conversation. He didn't plan this out, didn't expect to confess this, but if he had, he would have bet all his money on Bucky not having any clue where he was coming from.
"I'm only counting the first times as once," Steve explains, voice slow and careful, eyes on the tent flap, wondering how far he can get into this conversation before Bucky bolts.
"Yeah, so I am. So there's that time, the time when you were sick, the time in the bar, and the time right before I left. Four, Rogers, four," Bucky says, voice heavy with something that sounds like bitterness.
It blindsides Steve, like a brick to the side of the head. If he were any weaker he probably would have passed out. He doesn't know where to start, with the kiss he doesn't remember, or the kiss that Bucky lied and said he didn't remember. What can he say so that Bucky doesn't leave before he can make sense of any of this?
"You remember the bar?" he hears a voice say, and it must be his own, because the words shake in his throat.
Bucky scowls. "Of course I do."
"What — why didn't you say anything?"
He can feel his head spin. Everything is making less sense than it did a minute ago, which shouldn't have been possible considering how fucked it was a minute ago, with him declaring his undying love for his best friend and being completely unsure whether or not he was just being nice or if he loved him too. He had thought the latter, but this? This confused him more.
Bucky looks away from him, eyes glued to his lap, hands wringing into fists against his thighs, slowly shuffling over to put some space between them. He blinks several times, and Steve can hardly see him in the low light. The barest reflection of light off his eyes is the only thing that tells him they're even open.
"That guy, you know, the one who came into the washroom while we were — well, that knocked the sense back into me. I wanted…but I couldn't do that to you. Queer ain't the kinda life you want," Bucky insists, still not looking at him. "It was easier to pretend it didn't happen."
Easier for who? he nearly shouts, because all the time that passed between the kiss in the bar and the kiss on the couch and here and now hasn't been easy for him. It couldn't have been easy for Bucky either, it just couldn't have, not if he's saying what it sounds like he's saying. Not if he's saying that he wanted it as much as Steve did.
"What did you want?" he murmurs instead, lifting a hand to curl it around Bucky's neck.
He marvels at how small Bucky looks, which was never a word he would have used to describe him, not before. But his hand, light enough that it could be shrugged off if Bucky wanted, covers his neck and most of the back of his head, and Bucky looks like he would fall apart if Steve pressed too hard. He softens his touch further, carding his fingers through Bucky's hair.
Bucky's eyes close and he hums, low and even, leaning further into the touch. For a minute, Steve doesn't think he's going to answer, because he keeps his eyes closed and mouth slightly open, breathing in tiny puffs in time with Steve's hand stroking his hair.
"I wanted to take you home and make you fall apart," he whispers, voice shaky but words strong. "I wanted to touch you everywhere. I wanted you to come with my mouth on you and your hand in my hair."
Steve's hand falters in Bucky's hair, tugging a little too hard and making his eyes fall open in surprise. The tent feels a lot hotter than it did a moment ago, and even though it's cold as hell outside, he would never be able to tell.
He's aware of how close they are, even with Bucky trying to distance himself from Steve. Their knees are inches away from bumping, their shoulders still pressed together even though Bucky leaned away. His hand is tight in Bucky's hair and he knows he should let go, apologise, but he just grips tighter and Bucky's mouth falls open further.
And they way he's looking at him, eyes wide and honest, more honest than they have been in a while, terrifies Steve. He doesn't know what he is supposed to do here, doesn't know what to say.
"And the time when I was sick?" he finds himself asking.
Bucky tugs out of his grip, leaning farther away and shrugging. "You were pretty fucked up. Sick, almost dying. It was just after I gave you the meds. You kissed me, gave me quite a shock. You got pretty good at it."
Steve looks down at his lap. "Why didn't you tell me?"
Bucky snorts, genuine laughter lurking beyond the edges of his voice. "And say what? Hey, Steve, buddy, you sort of stuck your tongue down my throat while you had a fever, and I know you don't remember, but do you wanna do that again?"
"I would have said yes."
"I know, that's the problem, Steve. You shouldn't want to," he says, voice hoarse and so much sadder than Bucky has ever heard him.
"It's nobody's business but ours, Bucky."
The laughter that fills the tent this time isn't as sweet or genuine as the last. It cuts like the sharpest knife, wounding in a place that you can't stitch up and twisting the blade deeper. It sounds so hurt, so lost, and he wants to pull Bucky close and make him forget about what everyone else will think.
"I kissed you the night before you left to see if you felt the same. I didn't get an answer then. I was just more confused than before," Steve admits, looking at Bucky again.
It's getting darker out, harder to see Bucky's face, but just enough of the light flickers over his skin to make the twist of the knife, the overwhelming pain, visible, and Steve understands that physical pain is nothing, not really. It's something to get your ready for all the pain that transcends the physical, and yet it never quite does its job, because Steve hurts and Bucky hurts and nothing has to hurt, does it?
"If you don't know how I feel about you, you're an idiot," Bucky grumbles.
"Then I'm an idiot. Tell me, Buck, tell me. Please," he begs, voice so quiet that if Bucky wasn't listening for the words, he wouldn't have heard them.
Bucky turns to face him, looking him right in the eyes. It is far too late to take anything back, not from years ago, but Steve realises that Bucky never could lie to his face. He always had to look away, over his shoulder or down into his lap. Away.
"I love you. Happy?" Bucky growls, looking away immediately after he forces the words out.
Steve leans over, curling hands around Bucky's neck and waist, and tugs him closer. Bucky doesn't resist. He relaxes in Steve's hands, letting himself be pulled close. He keeps his eyes open until Steve presses their mouths together, and then he lets go.
They kiss, and it's nothing like any of their last kisses. Their mouths slide, and it feels like for the first time, they're in sync, they are both on the same page. They're not kissing to teach Steve how, or with one of them in a fevered delirium, or drunk in a bar bathroom, or to say goodbye. They kiss like Steve wants them to kiss for the rest of time, limbs everywhere, no coordination, and all them.
Steve isn't sure where his hands are, but Bucky's are on his neck keeping him close after all this time spent pushing him away. Bucky tastes like the chalk of pills but still, still, the sweet taste of chocolate lingers on his tongue, and Steve wonders how much he had to pay to get ahold of that stuff.
They lose track of time, kissing languidly, not pushing too hard for more but knowing that more is there, just waiting for them. Bucky has been hard against Steve's leg for longer than he can remember, and he wants nothing more than to reach between them and —
Bucky pulls away when his hand starts to creep lower. The tent is pitch black now, and if he couldn't feel Bucky wrapped around him so tightly that he wonders why neither of them is losing circulation anywhere, he wouldn't know he was there. Bucky exhales sharply on Steve's neck, tilting his head down and pressing his forehead against his chest.
"Buck —" Steve whispers, pressing his lips into Bucky's hair.
"I want to. I do. Let's wait and see if were survive these suicide missions first, okay?" Bucky pleads, his voice shaking, his lips brushing against Steve's chest, and he can barely feel it through his clothes but he focusses on the sensation.
Steve's hands urge him to shove Bucky down, to kiss him and touch him everywhere, to beg him to let go and let them have this one thing, but he stops himself. He understands. He doesn't want to, and it carves out a spot in his chest that makes it nearly impossible to breathe, but he understands.
To his surprise, Bucky tilts his head back up, grin wide on his face like they aren't talking about the possibility of one or both of them dying. He looks more open, more sincere, than should be possible.
"I promise we'll talk about it, I promise," Bucky babbles, and Bucky is looking him in the eyes and, for the first time in what feels like forever, he knows that he is telling the absolute truth.
"I'll hold you to that."
"Good. Don't fucking die on me."
Steve laughs, and it hurts the part of his chest that was just carved out, but he can't stop the laughter as it bubbles past his lips and makes his head spin.
"Same goes for you," he chokes out through the laughter, and Bucky punches him in the shoulder, but he's laughing too.
No one notices, or cares, that Bucky stays in Steve's tent that night, or that it got so cold in the middle of the night that Bucky had to run back to his own to grab a second sleeping bag. No one notices anything different about Steve until it is far too late.
He should have known it was too good to be true. Seventy years later and he still dreams about Bucky falling.
The pavement has reached the point where kids have started to run outside and see if there is any truth behind frying an egg on the scorching sidewalk. Steve and Sam, both sweating through their shirts because they parked about a block off and sprinted the rest of the way, are both desperate for some water, but Steve's eyes are fixed on something else.
"What I don't understand is how you can live in a place for years, and still give me wrong directions. I get that it's been 70 years, man, and that New York looks a little different, but — oh, he cut his hair," Sam comments, eyes following Steve's.
He has never had an out-of-body experience and he doesn't put much stock in stories of them, but Steve understands what they mean. He knows he is physically there, but if he has a body he can't feel it. He can hear Sam, asking if he's okay, but he can't quite decipher what okay is supposed to mean.
A hand lands on his arm, grip tight, yanking in back into the present. "Steve, come on, breathe."
It is hard to believe what is in front of him, hard to make sense of it. It's Bucky, sitting with a thick jacket on despite the heat and curled into himself, leaning against the apartment building that was their home as soon as Steve got up the nerve to move and Bucky found a job good enough to support them both. It has been rebuilt, but the structure is undeniably home. Bucky's hair is cropped shorter, but not too short, and he is letting his beard fill in a little. He's staring right back at Steve and Sam, curling closer in on himself, but he still hasn't started to run, so Steve takes it as a good sign.
"He's wearing a jacket in this weather, I don't think he's all there," Sam jokes, and against his will, Steve snorts, and that's all it takes for him to start breathing again.
"He looks good," Steve mumbles, mostly to himself.
Sam is staring at him, but he doesn't look away from Bucky. "Yeah, I guess, if one step up for robotic counts as 'good'. You want me to come with?" Sam asks, tone slipping back into seriousness, eyes darting all over the area as if plotting several potential escape routes.
Bucky looks smaller every second he spends staring at him, more likely to run, and he shakes his head before his mind fully registers what the answer's going to be.
"It'll be good," Steve insists, sounding more confident than he feels.
Sam doesn't buy it, but he graciously doesn't say anything. "Fine, I'll hang back. But if he pulls a knife, I'm flying us both outta here, all right?"
Steve hums his agreement, tossing Sam a look that he hopes says anyone else would have give up by now, thanks for sticking around or at least thank you. He rolls his eyes and shoves him, so at least some of that has to have gotten through.
He's back in his old body, barely over 90 pounds and hacking up a lung whenever he breathes too deeply. He doesn't feel like he's walking into a fight, because he never felt scared during one of those. Here, he feels torn open and exposed, the same as he has always felt around Bucky even though his body rarely betrayed it. His steps are too small and his hands only refrain from shaking because of how tightly they're balled up into fists.
And Bucky smiles. It's small, nothing like the boisterous, unchained smiles he was used to, but he smiles. Steve wishes he could shout back to Sam that he can put his wings back in the car, that he hopes there's enough room to drive them all back, that this is Bucky, but instead he just feels a grin growing on his own face.
"You're a hard man to find," he announces, voice cautious but still joking.
Bucky's tense figure relaxes, and he slumps against the wall. Up close, it is clear how much he's suffering from the heat, how crazy the thick jacket is driving him. His hair is dripping with sweat at the tips, and a thin sheen sticks to his face and neck, droplets sliding beneath the neckline of the jacket.
"Right, like you found me," Bucky taunts. "You only know where I am because I want you to."
"Hey, if I had another week, I think I could have found you," Steve objects, trying not to think about the fact that Bucky wanted to be found, that he was ready to be found.
Bucky raises his eyebrows. "You mean Stark could have."
"Sure you did, buddy."
Steve tries to lean against the brick wall of the apartment building, but it burns his skin and he recoils violently. He wants to get as close to Bucky as possible without making him run, or without suffering second-degree burns, if possible. Bucky's lips curl into a smile, something that sounds like a half-choked off laugh escaping from his throat at Steve's yelp.
Steve narrows his eyes, but can't keep it up, because his heart is swelling in his chest and filling his throat. The teasing, the endless teasing, the lilt to his voice, the way his tongue rolls over the word buddy, a little condescending but mostly appreciative. It's all Bucky.
"You look like you're about to pass out, take off the jacket," Steve says, eyeing the beads of sweat collecting along the collar. Bucky shifts uncomfortably.
"You know I can't."
"Why? Does the heat make your arm…malfunction?" he asks, the words coming out stilted and far more awkward than he intended.
Bucky rolls his eyes. "I don't know, they only let me out in the winter, remember?"
Horror racks Steve's body before he can realise that Bucky is fucking with him, or at least, that he was trying to make Steve react. Bucky doubles over, laughing loudly, obnoxiously, and hysterically, but he's laughing, and it's a sound Steve never thought he would hear again.
Sam, who had been on his guard since Steve stepped away from him, throws his hands up in the air and buries his face in his hands. Steve has to laugh too, because that about sums it up, and Bucky is still laughing next to him. It takes him a while to straighten up, way longer than it should, but Bucky hasn't laughed in 70 years, so he gives him the time.
"Your face, man. No, it's a little too high-tech to let the heat bother it. It doesn't even get hot, not really. It's still a metal arm, though, which sorta freaks the kids out. Along with, you know, everyone else," Bucky drawls, leaning back against the brick and smiling, wider this time, less like he doesn't quite remember what a smile feels like.
Steve shakes his head, tentatively reaching out towards the front of Bucky's jacket, waiting for him to knock his hands away. He doesn't, but his eyes track the hands as they inch closer to the zipper. He doesn't shove Steve away when he unzips the jacket, or when he reaches for his shoulders to push the cloth down. He just leans away from the wall, letting the jacket hit the ground and rolling out his shoulders.
Bucky looks good. His hair is roughly cropped, his eyes still heavy with fatigue, and the place where the metal arm joins the rest of the body is visibly scarred even as Bucky brings up a hand to cover it, but Steve doesn't remember ever having seen someone look so amazing.
"If anyone has a problem with it, they can take it up with me," Steve proclaims, pulling Bucky's hand away from his shoulder, but not letting go of it. It is the first time he has touched Bucky, really touched him, in 70 years. He doesn't feel any different.
Bucky snorts. "My hero. I sorta miss when I was saying that about people picking on you."
"I miss it too. Except for the asthma attacks and the yearly near-death flu experiences, of course," Steve jokes, forcing himself not to glance down at where Bucky hasn't tugged out of his grip.
Bucky chuckles, low and thick with emotion, and it makes Steve's hands shake even though he had been trying so hard to stop it from happening. Bucky glances down, where their hands are joined and they're both shaking, not because Bucky is but because Steve is shaking hard enough for the both of them.
"I'm okay, Steve," he mumbles, barely loud enough for Steve to hear over the distant traffic and the couple arguing upstairs. "I'm okay. I feel absolutely no desire to kill you, or anyone else for that matter. Except I might kill your friend if he doesn't close his mouth."
Steve looks over his shoulder, where Sam is doing a very passable imitation of a dying fish in their general direction. He stifles a laugh and turns back to Bucky, who is still looking down at their hands with a small smile on his face.
He could get lost in this moment. Standing outside of their old place, sweating profusely in the sun that is beginning to burn the back of his neck, watching sweat drip down Bucky's neck and crawl between his collarbones, hands joined with him still shaking a bit, and Bucky's smile to top it all off.
"So, it looks like we both survived."
Steve jolts a little, trying to remember the world outside where their hands are joined. "What?"
Bucky fixes him with a look. "We both survived the suicide mission."
Something in him, too deep for him to access at the moment but something still present, knows what Bucky is talking about. But mostly, because he has spent the majority of his new life trying to bury the war under grief and new memories of a new war that isn't all that different from the other one he fought, he is confused.
"Yeah, we did. I mean, I don't think we're exactly the same, what with it being the future, me spending a good chunk of my life trying to catch up on the last 70 years, and you having a metal arm, but in the strictest, physical sense of the word, yeah, we survived," he babbles, and he tries to stop himself from continuing the train of thought, especially the metal arm bit that he keeps meaning not to mention.
Bucky grins. "You talk too much."
"I don't mind. It's proof we haven't changed, not all that much."
"I guess not," Steve says, anxiety slipping away as he grins back at Bucky.
"Different time, different place, different bodies, considerably higher kill counts," Bucky lists, laughing when Steve recoils, "but you're still Steve and, well…"
"I'm still Bucky," he says, smile soft and shy, but still Bucky.
He looks down at their hands joined together, where one of them has shifted so their fingers slide together and they're actually holding hands like they haven't done since before Steve can remember. He blinks rapidly, clearing his throat. When Bucky laughs at him, he doesn't ignore it like he would have, because he never thought he would hear the sound again and he wants to drink it all in like he should have done then.
"Don't start crying on me. It's not gonna get you out of this conversation. Like I said, we survived the suicide mission," Bucky repeats, voice a little shaky.
Steve clears his throat again and looks him in the eyes. "Yeah, and?"
"And I promised we would talk about it."
Steve is embarrassed to say that it takes him a minute to figure out what Bucky's talking about. In his defence, it has been 70 years, and the last time he saw Bucky, after watching him fall from the train, he was trying to kill him. And again, in his defence, after watching Bucky die he didn't have much time to think about this before he met a similar fate.
He drops Bucky's hand, his own hands also falling too his side and shaking harder than ever. Of all the things for Bucky to remember, of all the things to make him come out of hiding, it had to be this.
"I didn't go back on a lot of promises, as far as I remember," Bucky continues, drawl heavy but his eyes darting away from Steve every few seconds. "Other than the dying one, I guess."
"You'd still…want to talk about it?" Steve asks, slow and careful.
Bucky throws him a look he has seen a million times and is finally starting to make sense to him, after decades of time apart. It is fondness tied up and inextricably linked to you're an idiot sometimes.
"You said you'd hold me to it. It's a pretty shit day when my memory is better than yours," Bucky teases, and Steve laughs in one, long, exhilarated puff of air.
"So, did you let me find you so we could talk about this?" he asks, smiling so wide that his cheeks ache and his neck strains with the force of it.
Bucky shrugs with one shoulder, eyes still darting away. "Not really. I let you find me so I could finally do this."
Steve hears the words, but before they register, Bucky is pushing him back against the scorching hot brick that almost makes him yelp. Sam shouts from the background, but before he can so much as wave him down, Bucky kisses him.
One hand slides around his neck, pulling the back of his head away from the wall, but his shoulder blades still feel like they're on fire. He should care, he should pull away because running back to Stark Industries in need of medical attention because he got burned by a wall is about the least dignified thing in history, but Bucky's hand is around his neck and their mouths are pressed together.
Bucky still kisses like he has something to prove but is, at the same time, terrified by what would happen if he could prove it. He still makes the same tiny, desperate sounds when Steve bites down on his lips, and he still only pulls away long enough to suck in a breathy gasp before kissing Steve again like he's trying to make up for lost time in a single kiss.
Steve reaches between them, tugging Bucky's metal hand, the one he was trying to keep out of play, into his own and threads the fingers together. It is surprising cool against his skin, and even when Bucky grips tightly with both hands, he doesn't feel like it's going to crush him. Jesus, Steve, Bucky mumbles, right into his mouth, before kissing him even rougher than before.
Steve hears one of them pleading, one of them agreeing, and he can't feel his shoulders or his upper back or anywhere else his skin is burning. All he can feel is their hands slotted together and Bucky kissing him like they never stopped kissing, like if there was one thing he would never forget, it was how to make Steve fall apart.
When Bucky finally steps back, lips slick with spit and cheeks flushed from the kiss just as much as from the heat, the smile on his face is bold and wider than should fit his face. Steve begins to regain feeling in his shoulders long enough to pull away from the wall, and they both laugh breathlessly at each other.
"Don't think I'll ever get used to how fucking big you are," Bucky says, sliding his hand down to pat Steve's arm.
From where he advanced, half-ready to tear Bucky off of Steve when he first shoved him against the wall, Sam squawks loudly at the statement, mind clearly going somewhere extremely inappropriate.
"Is that why you call him Falcon?"
The responding second squawk from Sam and the shit-eating grin on Bucky's face is all that it takes to make Steve laugh so hard that he falls to his knees, hiccuping and nearly crying like he and Bucky did so many times when they were younger, until Bucky joins him on the ground in hysterics too, wrapping an arm over his shoulder and exhaling hot breaths of laughter right against the side of his head.
"All right, laugh it up, you just wait until Stark gets at that arm of yours and we'll see who's laughing," Sam threatens, even shaking a finger at them for effect. It only makes them laugh harder.
Sam looks almost as confused as he does fond when he says, "I'm bringing the car around, pull yourselves together."
Bucky leans against him the whole car ride back, drowsy from the heat and rambling about how big Steve is, much to Sam's continued horror. When Steve nods off to the sounds of Bucky's voice, he doesn't dream about him falling.