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before sight, before speech

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It’s hot in Istanbul when they get there, the air heavy and dry enough Steve can feel it scratching all the way down his throat when he breathes in. They find a cheap hotel off one of the busy markets, tucked into the corner of a one-way street and relatively quiet even with all the other tourists milling around the city.

Bucky cuts his hair.

He walks back from the communal bathroom at the far end of the corridor, in Sam’s jeans and Steve’s tank top and his hair is short, cut neatly though inexpertly. It’s damp and it curls at his temples, just a little. He keeps running his hand over the back of his neck. Steve lifts his eyes from where he’s sitting at the foot of one of the beds and he forgets how to breathe.

Bucky catches him looking, holds his gaze for an imperceptible moment that still goes on far too long, and then turns away.

Sam catches him looking, too, and Steve can feel heat creeping up his neck and collarbone. He bites the tip of his tongue and he knows his ears are burning even though he’s not fourteen any more, to be blushing at the sight of his best friend’s bare arms, and once upon a time he’d be blushing at being found out at all but now it isn’t shame that makes him quickly drop his eyes back to his tablet.

It’s guilt.


They find Bucky after three months as he’s stalking the last remnants of HYDRA cells, and with him they find the pieces of the Winter Soldier’s history that were missing from the file in Russian that talked of the NKVD’s rudimentary and failed experiments and the quick exchange of the comatose, brain-damaged asset for three Red Army lieutenant colonels imprisoned for war crimes in occupied then-Czechoslovakia.

Three months later and Bucky still talks in clipped half-sentences; his accent still oscillates between neutral and heavy — forced — Brooklyn. He avoids touching his left arm even though it’s a replacement model, much quieter. Sam pulls some strings to get it, cashing in a favour from the scientist and engineer who designed his wings, whom Sam only introduces as T’Challa. Bucky avoids touching the arm and avoids others touching him. He avoids physical contact in general if he can help it.

The arm has a new paint job. Each time Steve sees the star on the shoulder, white on blue with no hints of red, something in his stomach twists into a tight knot and it’s difficult to think. Sam watches him with a careful and carefully blank expression (it’s his idea for Bucky to wear Steve’s colours on his arm; Steve finds out much later).

It’s another three months before they track down one of the SHIELD bureaucrats responsible for the purchase of the Winter Soldier from HYDRA’s Russian division in 1948; he’s living out his last days in Turkey. He lives out his last days in a hospice, hooked up to a heart monitor and a dialysis machine, small and fragile and breakable after a losing battle with cancer. Bucky stands at the foot of his bed, motionless, for over an hour.

Afterwards, Steve finds a cheap hotel and Bucky cuts his hair.


For a while, back Stateside, Bucky’s trail runs cold and Steve gets tense and antsy and restless (reckless). He sidesteps the part of his brain that’s kept telling him why pushing for anything more than Sam’s already given him would be a terrible and terribly selfish idea. He waits until Sam is showering to corner him.

The running water drowns out the sound of Steve locking the door behind himself and it muffles the noise Sam makes when Steve gets in the shower with him, still dressed, and sinks to his knees. His t-shirt is soaked in an instant, but he doesn’t care. Sam instinctively reaches out to tangle his fingers in Steve’s hair and for a second Steve wonders if he’ll pull him back up and say it’s okay, but they’re not like that; it’s okay, but Steve isn’t in a place where this would be good and healthy for him; it’s okay, but it isn’t.

Instead he only asks, ‘You sure about this?’

There’s something about his faith in Steve’s ability to make his own choices that gets Steve right where he lives. There’s something about the way he doesn’t treat Steve with kid gloves even though he’s the only one who has any real idea of just how screwed up Steve’s head is under the stars and the stripes and the masks he wears to function. There’s something about the way Sam makes a soft, strangled noise when Steve curls his fingers around his cock.

He says, ‘Yeah, I’m sure,’ and then doesn’t say anything else until he has Sam shaking and cursing a blue streak with his hips pinned to the shower wall and his hands fisted in Steve’s hair.

Steve doesn’t want any more regrets and could-have-beens. Or, well. He does want regrets. He wants to have something he’ll be able to regret later.


They’re still in Istanbul when Bucky asks Steve if something important happened once at Coney Island, and Steve pulls him into the tightest embrace he can manage without breaking any ribs; afterwards, he can’t stop touching Bucky. He looks good with his hair short, he looks like himself, and he’s smiling faintly when Steve cups his jaw and stares at him like a blessing and a miracle and a second chance and, of course, that’s when Sam comes into the room.

Time seems to stop, and guilt threatens to choke Steve up. Sam’s understanding smile might be the worst part, or maybe the recognition in his eyes and the there-and-gone-again flash of disappointment.

‘I’ll, uh. I’ll just leave you guys alone.’

For a horrifying moment Steve can’t even think of a single thing to say. This is exactly why he knew pushing Sam and then looking at Bucky would be a bad, terrible idea: because when it comes down to it, he can’t choose. It’s selfish and it makes him a shitty friend, but he can’t choose.

Neither can he seem to let go of Bucky, and as Sam starts to turn to leave Bucky leans into Steve’s touch. ‘Like hell you will,’ he whispers. On the other side of the room, Sam freezes. For a moment Bucky looks like he wants to curl in on himself. He shuts his eyes, but when he straightens up again there’s a smirk tugging at the corner of his mouth, and it’s the kind of smirk Steve hasn’t seen since the war. Bucky’s gaze is steady. Maybe he gets it; maybe he gets that right now it’s up to him to disarm the bomb.

If it was up to Steve, he’d just never touch either of them again. He can’t choose. The thing that’s never occurred to him before is that he might not have to choose at all, and he realises it just as Bucky breathes in and looks up at Sam.

‘Like hell you’re leaving,’ he says again, louder. Cockier. ‘What, think I can’t handle two?’

Instinctively, Sam looks at Steve and Steve has no goddamn clue what his expression might show. Pleading, maybe. Relief. Maybe the same kind of relief he can see mirrored in Sam’s face, and he knows — he knows — it’ll be okay when Sam starts moving towards them, towards the bed, as if pulled by an invisible string.

‘We are so talking about this like grownups later,’ he mutters as he lets Bucky tug him closer by the hem of his shirt. When Sam touches Bucky, Bucky leans into it just like he’d leaned into Steve earlier. He’s starved, but more than that he’s starved for this, for them, in equal measures. It wouldn’t work otherwise, but if Bucky wants them both and if Sam is all right with having Steve and Steve’s best friend for the price of one, then Steve doesn’t have to choose and with a sudden rush of giddy joy he reaches past where Bucky is unbuckling Sam’s belt and pulls him down on the bed and kisses him, upside-down and messy.

There is a point where they lose their clothes and there is a point where Sam cups Bucky’s face in both hands and kisses him and Bucky looks about ready to pass out, and a point where Steve just takes Sam’s hand and pulls him closer and starts mouthing at the side of his neck and shoulder. There’s a point where Sam dives off the bed to rummage in his bag for condoms and supplies, and a moment that feels like time slows down to a crawl, because Bucky chases Steve’s mouth with his own and Steve wishes he had anything to compare it to, he wishes he knew if that’s how Bucky kissed before the war, all tongue and all demand, but Sam taught him to live in the moment and Steve takes all the moments these two will give him.

He doesn’t have to see to know the moment Sam pushes inside Bucky, just from watching them, and he doesn’t know what to focus on — Bucky dropping his head down and trying to breathe, hair falling into his eyes and damp with sweat already, or Sam’s fingers curling around Bucky’s hips, his own breathing forced. On automatic Steve covers Sam’s hands with his own and Sam’s eyes open, his pupils blown, and as Bucky presses his face into the crook of Steve’s neck and bites gently on his collarbone, Sam grins.

‘C’mon,’ Steve says, hoarse. ‘Do it.’ He scratches his nails right below Bucky’s hairline where it’s now short, and Sam settles more comfortably on his heels and the next thing Steve knows Bucky is moaning against his skin and Sam is fucking him in that particularly slow, careful, excruciating way that Steve knows pretty well by now.

‘Jesus,’ Bucky manages. He starts pushing back, to get more, and his grip on Steve’s arms is tight enough it would bruise a regular person. ‘Jesus — just, god, don’t fuckin’ stop. Missed this.’

‘He always a talker?’ Sam asks, sounding only a little strangled.

Steve reaches around Bucky to curl his hand over the back of Sam’s neck, pull him close, lick into his mouth and kiss him slow, then faster, just to see if he will fuck Bucky faster, too. He does, without even thinking about it. The noises they’re making, the slick slide of skin on skin, looking at them, is enough that Steve doesn’t care no one is touching him; he’s hard enough it hurts, but it’s the best kind of hurt. Instead he reaches down between Bucky’s thighs to wrap his hand around his cock, hard and slick with precome.

He smiles into Sam’s mouth and bites his lower lip before leaning back. ‘I wouldn’t know. Wanna try and shut him up, though.’

‘Fuck you, Rogers,’ Bucky breathes, and Sam laughs and says, ‘Yeah, we’re already doing that. Case you didn’t notice.’

Bucky is fronting, Steve knows, so he twist his hand on each upstroke as he jerks Bucky off, going faster, and Sam matches his rhythm and together they make Bucky fall apart. Sam doesn’t hold out much longer — he follows as soon as Bucky comes, him shaking and swearing and digging his fingers into Steve’s shoulders enough to drag Sam over the edge. Steve wants to commit this picture to memory forever, the sight of Sam and Bucky collapsing in a heap and trying to catch their breaths, Sam still holding on to one of Steve’s hands and Bucky listening to Steve’s heartbeat to slow down his own.

He doesn’t get much time to remember every detail; before he knows it Bucky is pushing him back and back until Steve lies flat on the bed. He and Sam exchange a quick look and then Sam is stretching out next to Steve, grinning wide and dangerous.

‘This is all ‘cause of you,’ he says, leaning on one elbow low over Steve and blocking his view of Bucky. ‘You ain’t getting off so easy.’

‘Wait, what,’ Steve starts, and then just, ‘oh. Oh,’ because that is definitely Sam’s hand resting warm and easy on his abdomen and that is definitely Bucky’s mouth, hot and wet, wrapped around the head of Steve’s cock. Fireworks are going off somewhere inside his skull and he forces himself to look down, spreading his thighs for more; christ, it feels good. He’s watched Sam and Bucky and forgot about his own want, and now Bucky sucks him off with single-minded focus and Sam bites down on his collarbone and it’s that, the mix of the two, that makes Steve moan out loud.

His hand goes automatically to Bucky’s hair, a little scratchy at the back of his neck, and Bucky hums his approval — then again, when Sam strokes his hair too.

‘Look at him,’ Sam murmurs right in Steve’s ear, voice as hot as Bucky’s tongue tracing the underside of Steve’s cock. Steve does, he looks, at Bucky’s mouth slick and stretched around him. Steve looks, and has to shut his eyes; the noise that leaves him is mortifying, and his hips come off the bed in a shallow jerky movement. ‘Jesus, look at you.’

Steve doesn’t manage words. He manages to awkwardly grab at Sam and pull him down, finally, for a graceless bruising kiss. Sam laughs into his mouth and lets Steve get as sloppy as he likes, the slide of his tongue driving Steve out of his mind just as well as the slide of Bucky’s tongue, and a slightly hysterical part of him realises belatedly that, yeah, this right here is a terrible idea. He’ll never want anything else.

‘C’mon, do it,’ Sam says, an exact echo of what Steve said earlier. Fingers tightening in Bucky’s hair to give him some warning, Steve is helpless to do anything but obey. Instead of pulling off to ease Steve through his orgasm with his hand Bucky just hums around Steve’s cock and swallows him down, and down, and down, and Steve would yell as he comes except Sam chooses that moment to kiss him again and there is nothing but whiteness at the edges of Steve’s vision and static inside his head for a solid minute.

He more or less comes back to himself, only to see Bucky wiping his mouth with the back of his hand and hovering curiously over Steve. He doesn’t poke, but he looks like he’d like to, to check if Steve is alive and responsive.

‘Didya break him?’ he asks Sam. ‘Looks like you broke him.’

‘You’re the one that broke him, Buck,’ Sam bites back. There’s no heat in it, though, and his fingers are skimming over Steve’s stomach, tracing faint patterns that might or might not be stars.

‘No one’s broken. Don’t flatter yourselves.’

Steve pulls one of his knees up. His skin feels sticky with sweat. He tugs Bucky closer to lie down next to him, and Bucky goes without protest. The mattress dips a little under his weight. He’s warm and solid and alive; he curls around Steve, not touching save for the knuckles of his right hand brushing Steve’s arm, and after a moment Sam climbs up the bed to sit back against the headboard, looking for the television remote.

He ends up reaching out as if unable to help himself, and he runs his fingers through Steve’s hair, gentle and hypnotic. The room smells like them, like sweat and sex, and Steve dozes with the white noise of a reality show in a language he doesn’t understand playing in the background.


The air is still warm in the middle of the night, and the streets aren’t empty. Tourists, mostly, loud and drunk and obnoxious. Steve isn’t sure when they’ll be leaving Turkey, or where they’ll be leaving to. It feels presumptive somehow to ask Nick if he has any intel about HYDRA leftovers, but they need some kind of mission to keep them going, the three of them; even the pretence of something to do and somewhere to go.

Steve has known from the moment they left the States that Bucky wasn’t looking forward to going back. What surprises him is that he doesn’t miss home either.

He sits cross-legged on the curb in front of the hotel, a tall but narrow building that’s seen better days maybe twenty or thirty years ago, and wishes he still had the disgusting asthma cigarettes he’d used before war broke out, if only to occupy his hands. Nicotine doesn’t work on him these days, so smoking just feels like a waste. He hears the front door open with a soft creak and he recognises Sam’s footsteps without having to look.

‘He told me he doesn’t wanna get between us,’ says Sam without preamble. He settles down next to Steve on the curb, resting his elbows on his knees.

They haven’t talked about — them, yet. They’re gonna have to. Sam was right, because he’s always right, and they need to lay down some ground rules before things get fucked up and messy. Steve might have wanted to stop missing his chances, to have no more regrets, but he doesn’t want to look back at this moment and remember it as the short time things were okay before they all went to shit again.

‘What’d you tell him?’ he asks.

Sam shrugs. He’s sitting close to Steve, so Steve feels the movement as a shift in the air and instinctively leans against Sam’s side. ‘That we’re just gonna have to share, ‘cause there’s no way I’m getting between your weird-ass century-long Brokeback tragedy, either.’

‘You realise I get that reference, right?’

‘Yeah, I was hoping you would.’ When Steve turns to face him Sam is grinning, pleased with himself. He absolutely deserves a shove in the ribs, so Steve shoves him in the ribs before taking his hand and pulling it into his lap, tracing the inside of Sam’s palm with the tips of his fingers. Out of the corner of his eye he sees Bucky slipping out through the front door, but he hangs back and doesn’t come any closer. Instead he catches Steve’s eye and smiles, and it isn’t the kind of smile Steve remembers — it’s too fragile, too bleak. It’s new; it’s who Bucky is now.

They’re all of them fragile and bleak and Bucky isn’t the only one starting over. All they can do is hold on, living in the moments they’re given, and Steve wants to take all the moments and make them into something like a second, third, fourth chance never to be wasted.