There was this time when they were kids, fifteen, sixteen — Steve doesn’t know exactly when, just that it was after Bucky’s hands grew up all by themselves. They’d been small, Bucky’s hands, all through their childhoods; his fingers were delicate, nearly dainty, even after he started having to look down his nose at Steve. Then, one day, they weren’t anymore. One day Bucky reached out and it was a man’s broad palm encircling Steve’s thin wrist, and maybe Steve doesn’t know how old he was when it happened but he’ll never forget it. He looked up in surprise to find Bucky smiling at him, unchanged from the moment before but somehow a completely different person than Steve was expecting, haloed from behind in faded sunlight, smiling easy and too warm. Steve swallowed, and swallowed again, and wondered if Bucky could feel Steve’s pulse jumping against his lifeline, hammering out a confession Steve’d been holding close to his chest for years.
After that, there was this fight, this stupid fight that started the way all their stupid fights did, back then: with Steve opening his damn mouth. With Bucky snarling something protective. With the two of them throwing themselves into the fray the best they could, fists-first and always regretting it, after, Bucky nursing his bruised knuckles and Steve’s busted lip both; they were so predictable, really. They might as well have stayed inside, laid flat on the floor of Steve's bedroom in the oppressive heat and simply imagined bloodying, or being bloodied. It would have come out the same in the end, with Bucky cracking ten jokes in a row to hide his worry and Steve hurting again, always, in trouble or out of it.
Bucky’s hands were huge, anyway, the point is that Bucky’s hands were huge, overgrown to begin with and then swelled up from the fight besides. It was summer, sticky-sweltering, Steve coughing dust every third step, and they couldn’t open the icebox for fear of the food spoiling; Steve held a damp towel to the back of Bucky’s knuckles and they both pretended it was enough. It didn't stop Steve hissing when he pulled the towel away and it was red, like Bucky’s hand was red — and purple, and blue — and Steve said, “Jesus, Buck, look at that.”
Bucky just smiled, that afternoon. He must’ve broken something because his hand never did heal right — Steve could hear bones clicking sometimes, after the serum — but he just smiled, shook his head, pulled the towel back down. “Forget it,” Bucky said easily, like it didn’t matter, like just because it was covered up it was over and forgotten, and then, “Hey, don’t,” when Steve tried to look at it again. So Steve just sat there, staring at the towel, knowing that underneath was a mottled mess unrecognizable as the back of a hand he knew better than his own. Steve sat there and hated himself — for being mouthy, for being small, for taking all the stupid with him that morning. For getting Bucky into this jam, and all the goddamn others.
So looking at the Winter Soldier is kind of like that. Worse, of course, but familiar at least. Figures, that in this brave new world full of hideous firsts, getting Bucky in over his damned head is the one constant Steve can rely on.
For the two years he’s been awake here Steve’s chafed against nostalgia, dug fingertips into thighs rather than reach out to snatch at all the rose-colored glasses; odd, that he gets it now. He lays awake in motel rooms and under the stars, stretched across the bed of the flat-bed pickup he and Sam’ve been driving since Memphis, and maps out conversations he wants to have with Bucky to the tune of Sam’s soft snoring.
Do you remember when we were young and it was easy, Steve wants to say, even though he knows that Bucky doesn’t. Bucky can’t, because they never were, it never was — the both of them were both born screaming in a world set on screaming back, and there was no youth to borrow, no ease to steal. They were children once but that was all, just small people doing their damnedest to get bigger, and Steve knows it better than anyone. Steve knows it and thinks still of saying it, of asking it, of what Bucky might reply.
Do you remember when we were young and it was easy, Steve wants to say, or maybe just, Hey, Buck, don’t you remember how many times we almost missed the chance to get so old? How about that winter, where you were so fucking scared I’d die that you’d panic to find me napping, press your ice-cold fingers to the side of my neck until you found my pulse? That Saturday in May, when we went down the shore and you ran into the water to show off for some dame — you know what I’m talking about, huh? The day you would’ve drowned if I hadn’t gone in after you, yelled out, “The idiot can’t swim!” What about that week we were both so hungry we’d gone mad with it, Bucky, you remember, don’t you? Me stretched across the bed and you down on the floor? Your head against my chest and both of us choking on wheezing laughter, you swearing up and down you could hear my heart murmur because at least it was something, a raw hysteria to to fill our empty bodies, and your ma always said any port in a storm?
The thing is that Steve’s out on the roads of a country whose name he carries; people keep thanking him at gas stations and from the inside of the drive-through window. There’s a man asleep in the cab of this car who's been a better friend to Steve than Steve had any right to expect, and it’s not fair — to Sam, to anyone — that Steve’s gut clenches and churns with the person he still can’t help but be. Bucky knew him when he was just a big mouth and an oft-worried string of hope that he’d live to see himself do some good, or, hell, even see the far side of thirty; Steve thinks that’s the part of it that would be easy to explain. He knew me when, is relatable as anything, something with which almost anyone could sympathize.
It’s the other part that’s not going to translate, that probably shouldn’t: the two of them huddled together at nineteen, outside that bar Bucky liked in the Navy Yard, watching whippet-thin neighborhood boys pulling soldiers down the alley for suckjobs. Bucky blew the smoke from his cigarette over Steve’s head, careful to push it into the downwind so Steve wouldn’t inhale, and Steve stood closer than he ought to’ve, probably, but never quite close enough to force either one of their hands.
“Gonna get himself killed,” Bucky said, nodding at a kid about Steve’s size who was dragging a behemoth behind him. “Biting off more than he can chew like that.”
“How do you know what the hell he can chew, Buck,” Steve muttered.
Bucky’s free hand brushed the side of Steve’s jaw, a light touch, the sort he could play as accidental; they weren’t talking about the kid. “Some poor sap out there worried about him, probably,” Bucky said, voice dark with amusement and cigarette smoke. “He’ll get himself killed and his buddy’ll end up a murderer for it, you know what I’m saying?”
“What you’re not saying.”
“Whichever,” Bucky said. Through the thin fabric of both their jackets, Steve could feel him shrug. “Just, you know. If you were thinking about it, is all. Thought it’d be good for you to know how it’d end.”
“Thanks for the optimism, pal.”
Steve’s cheeks burned in the cool October air — better embarrassment than fever, he told himself, trying like hell to believe it — and he bit his tongue against the things he could say. That he had been thinking about it. That he knew exactly where the extra money came from, when the extra money came. That it wasn’t right for Bucky to shoulder this burden, too, when for once it was something Steve could handle. That sometimes, just sometimes, Steve hated Bucky for being so good to him, for doing so much for him, for making him itch like this with feeling insubstantial.
But Bucky knew all that, had known for years, and it wouldn’t do either of them a damn bit of good for Steve to say it out loud. It’d just be an argument, and one that’d leave Bucky feeling shitty after, too, looking at Steve through his lashes and dropping his hangdog shoulders, running a hand through his overgrown hair. For as long as they’d known each other Bucky’d been the softer touch — quick to cry the way Steve was quick to bleed, just better at hiding it, at holding it in — and if that was the only way Steve could look out for him, well. It’d just have to be enough, biting back the things he could say, borrowing the scissors off Mrs. Thompson later that week and cutting Bucky’s hair back into something manageable. He’d have to make it work.
Steve never could help his big mouth, though, so he said, “I’d kill for you too, you know,” reckless, too honest. Harsh, the way he always tried not to be. He said it and then he stepped away, left Bucky standing alone at the end of the alley, didn’t look around the whole way home.
The stars are bright over whatever part of America this is — Steve should know, probably, will pay better attention come the morning — and the thing is, he still means it. People thank him at diners and rest stops, Sam’s dropped his whole life to ride along with him and make sure he’s all right, and Steve’s still that flush-cheeked kid huddling against Bucky’s warmth at the edge of the alley; Steve still thought about it, on the helicarrier. Steve thought about forgetting the chip, about letting the missiles fire, because not one of the people they’d kill would matter as much to him as Bucky.
It was just a thought, a small shame in the heat of a terrible moment. Steve knows better than to drive himself crazy about it. But thick on his tongue, it sits: Hey Buck, you remember that I’m a pig-headed loud-mouthed bastard when I wanna be? What about that time I cut your hair with Mrs. Thompson’s scissors, and you met my eyes like you knew I was imagining slicing the throats of every guy who’d ever touched you? C’mon, Bucky, go ahead and hit me again if that’ll help — you’ve gotta remember that I deserve it, or that you do, for all that’s been between us all this time.
“Sorry,” Steve says thickly: to Bucky; to Sam; to the country; to the stars. Sam snores. America sleeps on. The stars glow steadily, undisturbed by his maudlin confession, just one of thousands thrown their way tonight, and Steve closes his eyes.
Far in the distance, a bush moves very slightly.
They start spotting Bucky at the edges of shadows, darting away at the corners of their eyes, and every night Steve dreams old history. Little things, at first — the half curve of Bucky’s smile under a forgotten streetlamp. The taste of Mrs. Barnes’ apple cake, flaky and sweet against his tongue. A childhood game, so hazily familiar that Steve can’t tell which it is. Bucky with the straight razor, giving himself a close shave in the mirror, head tilted back so Steve could see his Adam's apple move with every swallow.
One night he could swear he sees the whites of Bucky’s eyes across the parking lot of their motel and afterwards, fitful, he dreams a worn-out memory, frayed at the edges from over-handling. Within it, Bucky shows up unexpected at Steve’s door; Bucky says it’s his day off. Steve rolls his eyes, sure from the set to Bucky’s shoulders and the hard pull to his mouth that he was turned away today, that there wasn’t enough work. He doesn’t say it, though — they’re kids, teenagers, Steve still in his mother’s apartment and eager for Bucky in a way he wasn’t, exactly, once they lived together. There’s never been a time when he wasn’t eager for Bucky in one way or another but in their apartment it was… less desperate, and more. Steve said less, and more. The way that he thought about Bucky, once they began to share all of their space, was less complicated, and more.
They’re not living together, anyway, not now, this day Steve is dreaming — it’s the spring after Bucky started working at the docks and they’re on the pier, kicking their feet out over the water. Bucky is wearing his church shoes, for some reason, thick leather and out of fashion, his father’s before they were his; they’re the nicest thing either of them owns, and Steve keeps staring at them. Steve keeps thinking he sees them skimming the surface of the water even though: of course not. They must be five feet up from the incoming tide and Bucky wouldn’t, anyway, he was so careful with his good clothes in this way Steve never seemed to be careful with anything — always spilling, knocking things over, as though he fit wrong inside of his skin.
He doesn’t know why he’s thinking of — he doesn’t know why he’s looking at — he doesn’t know what he and Bucky are doing here, at the pier, just that it’s that spring after Bucky started working at the docks. It’s that spring, and it’s the day Steve looks to his left and Bucky is rolling up his shirtsleeves, baring his arms to the weak sun for the first time since winter descended. The months of hard labor have etched change into every part of Bucky but Steve didn't know about this, these thick cuts of muscle where none were carved before. There are veins — of course, there have always been veins — but now they are prominent, raised up from the skin in blue-green estuaries. Steve wants to name them the rivers they are but settles for reaching out to touch instead, shock and the promise of spring emboldening him, and feels Bucky shudder as Steve uses his fingertips to trace out their lines.
“Steve,” Bucky says, because that’s what Bucky says, it’s this day and Bucky says, “Steve.” He says, “Steve,” and then he encircles Steve’s thin wrist in his broad palm and possibility flares painfully in Steve’s chest, the hitch to his breathing familiar except for how it feels less — survivable. He looks at Bucky and Bucky looks at him and each of them keeps their fingertips pressed to the other’s heartbeat and the tide rushes in louder and louder and louder and —
Steve wakes up screaming, Sam’s hand on his shoulder, the whites of Bucky’s eyes in the window vanishing when he looks too close. He sits up the rest of the night, frozen, stiff; terrified, although he doesn’t know of what.
One way or another everyone keeps saying it — that Steve shouldn’t get his hopes up, that Bucky won’t be the same man Steve knew before. They say it like it might not have occurred to Steve, as though Steve set out across the country, spent months chasing gusts of wind and half-formed shadows, without ever considering what he would find. A dozen replies sit on his tongue and every one of them is as wrong as the next; Steve doesn’t want to be a person who says some of the things he’s thought, however much he might mean them. It’s not fair to throw elbows and call names, not when the warning comes with the best intentions. It’s not fair to demand to know if he seems that stupid, that blind, that selfish, when it wouldn’t serve any purpose except to make everyone involved feel sad and sorry.
“Do you even care what we find, when we find him?” Sam asks, once, washing his hands next to Steve in the bathroom of an Indiana rest stop. “I mean — I know you care, but — you know what I’m saying, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” Steve says. It comes out thick, heavy, and some small hysterical part of Steve can’t believe they’re having this conversation now, over the sound of the automatic hand driers. It all seems strangely surreal — the environment and all the ways he can’t answer the question, despite months of puzzling it out. Steve knows what he wants to say but not how to say it, how to explain that all the men Bucky Barnes could ever be are inextricably tied to every atom of who and what Steve Rogers is. He cares what they find, all right. He cares, whatever they find.
“Oh,” Sam says, meeting Steve’s eyes in the bathroom mirror, something exhausted and overly familiar in his gaze. “So that’s how it is, huh?”
“Yeah,” Steve says, and swallows. “Yeah. That’s how.”
Weeks later, clipped in a roadside diner, Natasha says, “You don’t know.” Sam is dipping his fries into Steve’s milkshake, placid, and Steve is trying not to stare at the man in the back booth — long dark hair, broad shoulders, baseball cap pulled low over his eyes. “I thought you’d give it up after a month or two, that’s why I didn’t — look. You have no idea. This isn’t about emotion or history and you’d be an idiot to think otherwise. He could be anything, Rogers. Do you have a contingency plan? Have you even thought about a contingency plan? What if he’s, I don’t know — what if his idea of a good time is burning down your apartment? Or Sam’s apartment? Or the Pentagon?”
The man in the back booth is sitting too still. It is unsettling and preternatural, a defensive hunch badly masquerading as calm, and Steve slides out of the booth and stands up.
“Well,” he says, staring hard at the baseball cap — it says Dodgers, that asshole. “Guess I’ll learn to put out fires.”
"Bucky," says Steve.
"Steve," says Bucky.
For a year things are mostly miserable, in this grinding, relentless way that strips all the artifice from Steve’s bones — or would, anyway, if there was any artifice there to remove. As it Steve knows it’s the bones themselves that are being whittled away, old hopes and convictions crushing down to a fine powder that settles into his crevices and cracks. It hurts like that: a deep, breath-catching pain, wearisome and ever-present, unshakeable. On the worst nights, when Steve can hear Bucky’s choked-off sobs through the thin wall between their bedrooms, his despair is so swollen in his chest that he thinks it might just kill him, might finally manage what war and ice and the Winter Soldier himself could not.
For a year things are mostly miserable, but then, Steve has spent a lot of mostly miserable years with Bucky: in this century and others, in this country and others. Steve has washed enemy blood from Bucky’s shaking hands and stubborn tear-tracks from Bucky’s scowling face and this is just — the next thing, isn’t it, after sickness and poverty and war. This is just something else they have to carry each other through and, anyway, it’s only mostly miserable. There are moments of staggering joy in this as in all things and Steve’s gratitude could cut glass, carve diamond.
It gets better slowly, month by month. It’s a smile here and a huff of amusement there, a moment of eye contact or a bumping of shoulders, these little glimpses of personality that Steve holds close to his chest, hoards. Brooklyn starts seeping back into Bucky’s accent, slipping in around his vowels like he used to slide into their apartment late at night; at his therapist’s suggestion he starts picking up construction jobs, which he seems, against all odds, to enjoy. Steve grits his teeth against the urge to draw comparisons because this isn’t — even if Bucky's memory was intact, Steve’s learned well the mistake of being that sort of man, who can’t see the present for the past. It’s Bucky who brings their history to the table, asking Steve to verify each recollection at first but eventually growing to trust his own mind enough to speak in statements, not questions. Steve thinks that’s probably good. He doesn’t really know enough to judge, but he knows the way tension rides on Bucky’s body as well as he’s ever known anything, and it’s not so bad after a while as it was.
Six months in, Bucky comes home holding this tiny brindle puppy, emaciated and terrified, cowering beneath his flesh-and-blood arm. The little thing grows into her massive paws under Bucky’s watchful eye, and raising her seems to satisfy something for Bucky, seems to untie some vicious knot he’s never spoken to Steve about. Steve doesn’t ask, not even when Sam declares the puppy a "Daisy" and Bucky’s closed lips widen, curl, into this expression he used to make around a particularly delicious sweet he wasn’t supposed to be eating. It’s enough, to see happiness start to fox even the very edges of Bucky’s stalwart anguish, to play with Bucky’s gigantic goofy dog on the Mall until they all collapse back against the grass and smile.
For a year things are mostly miserable, but it’s still the best time Steve’s spent since the ice. For a year things are mostly miserable, but the good days — Bucky rubbing the back of his neck as his dog offers Clint’s an enthusiastic hello, Bucky rolling his eyes at trashy 2015 television, Bucky meeting Steve’s dry jokes with a friendly snort of derision — would justify any suffering.
And then suddenly it’s been two years and there are more good days, a shocking number of them, leaving Steve to check the dates on the newspapers and pinch himself to ensure that he’s awake. Bucky jokes and smokes and plays with Daisy, acts as a foreman for construction crews who have no idea that he was born in 1918, goes to therapy every week instead of every day, or every other. He doesn’t want to be a weapon anymore and Steve is selfishly glad to see the end of Bucky’s war, even if he himself can’t give up the costume and all that comes with it. It was never what Bucky wanted, the fight, not the way Steve did; Steve’s been battle hungry his whole life in a way he could never explain even to himself, this burning need to do right by people that ate at his insides when left unfulfilled. Bucky only ever wanted to useful, to be good at something, and he deserves whatever life it is he chooses. He deserves more, but Steve can’t convince him of that; he’ll get them there eventually, he thinks. It’s not as though he doesn’t have the time.
Steve gets home early and, once he fends off the dog’s squirming, licking attack of affectionate greeting, finds the bathroom door open a crack. He can hear water running, and it’s often enough that Bucky takes a shower this time of day, washes off the grime and grit of whatever he’s helping to build; Steve thinks nothing of it. It’s only after he’s changed and started dinner, heard the water shut off, waited for ten increasingly agitated minutes for Bucky to appear, that he starts to worry in earnest.
“Buck?” Steve says, leaning against the wall outside the bathroom, when fifteen minutes have passed. “Everything okay in there?”
Behind the bathroom door, Bucky groans in what sounds like genuine pain and Steve chokes on his terror, shoulders his way into the room with all his thoughts narrowed to a frenetic list of dark possibilities and contingency plans. But Bucky is just standing there, a towel tied low around his waist, turning his scowl from the mirror to Steve.
“God, Rogers,” he says, flushing bright red, “do I need to start locking the door or what? I could’ve been pissing, you know.”
Steve…. stares. Normally he would point out that he’s seen Bucky piss a hundred times — after battles and too much to drink and both, that one night he tried like hell to write his name onto the side of that alley, in truth there's been enough pissing to last Steve several lifetimes — but he can’t. He can’t, because Bucky’s holding a pair of scissors in his hand and is standing amongst the remains of hair two years grown out, dark shocks of it all over the floor, left with only the single worst haircut Steve has ever seen on a human being. Bucky looks as though he’s spent the hours since Steve saw him last getting electrocuted inside a wind tunnel, and probably this is a very important psychological milestone, a symbolic shedding of the past, but. But.
A single snort escapes Steve’s mouth against his absolute best efforts, and Bucky sighs; his flush deepens but his eyes crinkle, just slightly, at the corners. “Yeah, yeah, Rogers. Go ahead, yuck it up.”
Steve, god forgive him, does. He covers his face with his hand and laughs so hard it sets the dog to barking, so hard he has to grab the doorframe to hold himself upright; he can’t look at Bucky without setting himself off again so he closes his eyes, tries to choke it back. “Jesus, Buck,” he gasps, “I’m gonna die, you look so fucking stupid,” and Bucky growls without much real menace behind it, a familiar sound for all he never made it in the old days.
“You think I don’t know that?” Bucky says, and Steve hears the exasperation in it — fond, for Steve, and tired, for himself. “I just — I don’t know, felt like getting rid of it, I guess. But the hell if I was gonna sit down in some barber’s chair and let him do god knows what to my head.”
“Don’t think a barber could’ve done you worse than this, pal,” Steve says. Bucky looks at him balefully from under an uneven chunk of hair, and Steve has to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from busting up again. “You planning to glare at me all day, or you wanna let me fix it?”
Bucky tilts his head in confusion, but then his face clears, and he says, “You always did a better job cutting it than my ma,” in the quiet, wondering tones that mean he’d forgotten that until right now. Steve’s used to this but it still stings every time, a muted twisting in his gut that he never lets creep onto his face; there’s some part of him, petty and minuscule and viciously unfair, that resents Bucky for losing this. Mostly, he’s just sorry.
Bucky doesn’t need sorry, though. Bucky needs compassion and friendship and a better haircut, so Steve grins at him, pulls the scissors from his hand. “Yeah, well. You used to cut mine, too — which is why you got all the dames and I got sent home before the night was over, I might add. You had a great barber, and I had an idiot with a pair of scissors and a real twisted sense of humor.”
“Funny,” Bucky drawls, “the way you can describe just exactly what I’m looking at,” and Steve snorts, starts looking around for a comb.
When Steve did this for Bucky before it was easier; Bucky would sit on the toilet and Steve, so much smaller then, would stand between his legs, the perfect height to cut and snip. Now Steve’s much too tall for that to make any sense and they shuffle around for a few minutes, trying different set-ups, before eventually winding up with Steve sitting on the toilet and Bucky perched on the lip of the bathtub next to him. It's precarious but Bucky's got the Winter Soldier's balance on top of his natural grace, and it balances their heights just right for Steve to get the job done.
“Don’t make me look stupid,” Bucky warns.
“Now, how could I do that,” Steve says, “when your ugly mug does it for you?”
He ignores Bucky’s muttered retaliation and grabs the lock of hair that’s always falling into Bucky’s face, cutting it off quick the way he’s wanted to for ages so that he can see Bucky’s eyes. Bucky winces but Steve knows better than to stop, to ask if he’s all right — Bucky hates to be handled with kid gloves lately, though back before the war Steve is fairly certain he took a little secret pleasure in those moments Steve treated him with extra care. Probably, Steve thinks ruefully, it was the novelty of it more than anything else, since Steve was the one in need of care more often than not; anyway. Now Bucky balks at any tenderness more often than he doesn’t and so Steve does his level best to keep himself in check, for all he wants to do anything but.
It’s hard, just now. It’s hard because this, as nothing else they’ve done in the years they’ve spent rebuilding, is a tender, an intimate act, is something Steve once did for Bucky with a gentleness he never quite managed the rest of the time. He would tilt Bucky’s chin up with two fingers and then hold him in place, the strong line of Bucky’s jaw moving under his palm as he spoke, his little finger pressed against Bucky’s pulse point.
Steve shouldn’t do it that way now, it’s — they’re not — he shouldn’t do it that way but he can’t help it, it’s the only way he knows how. His fingers are lifting Bucky’s chin before he can bring himself to stop but Bucky doesn’t resist the touch, just keeps his eyes closed, lets a slight smile creep up one side of his mouth as Steve palms his jaw.
The last time they did this hits Steve like a punch to the gut: early morning, half-awake, the day before Bucky shipped off to war. Bucky sat on the closed toilet and Steve stood between his spread legs, held the scissors they'd bought off Mrs. Thompson years back in one white knuckled hand, and snipped in heavy silence. He knew, they both knew, that Bucky would go after they finished to get his orders. That likely as not they had a few hours left, the rest of a day that would pass quick as drawing a breath, and tomorrow, Bucky would be gone.
Bucky was so soft in the mornings back then, droopy-eyed and slack-jawed, shaking himself to stay awake every couple of moments. That day he kept turning his face into Steve’s palm to yawn against it, big wet ones that were probably meant to be disgusting, but Steve couldn’t muster the will to do anything but guard jealously even the most foul moments of closeness. He snipped away, dragging it out far longer than it needed to take, and then — then —
Well. It had been enough for Steve, the knowing, for all the years he and Bucky’d spend slipping in and out of each other’s pockets. He’d never been much bothered about sex the way the other boys were — he wanted it, but there were a lot of things Steve wanted for and didn’t have, and it had never really bothered him that much. Bucky liked to chase girls more than he liked to fuck them, a secret he kept close to his chest and that Steve knew better than anyone, but even if the opposite had been true, if Bucky’d had a different dame every night, it wouldn’t have mattered. Steve knew Bucky and Bucky knew Steve and there were things they’d be stupid to let themselves want from each other, to let themselves try for. It was well enough to sleep curled together in one small bed, to jerk each other to completion every now and again, but Steve knew and Bucky knew that if they took it any further, if they allowed themselves to really feel the whole of it, neither one of them would be able to do the smart thing and let it go.
They knew, and the knowing — that moment of realization on the pier and every moment like it, after — the knowing was enough. For Steve, to have Bucky and the knowing both was more than it felt fair to even ask for and he knew better, he always had, than to be greedy, to want more than his due. But that morning the sun was filtering in pink through the dirtied windowpane and Bucky’s lips kept brushing the palm of Steve’s hand when he yawned and all Steve could think was: tomorrow. Tomorrow Bucky would go and though it cracked Steve’s heart in his chest to think of it he might not return, and Steve didn’t think the knowing alone would sustain him, should the worst news come. He didn’t think he could survive it, if Bucky died over there and he had to live the rest of his life alone with the knowledge that he’d had what he wanted sleeping flush against him every night. That he’d had all the riches any man could ever want, and squandered them.
So he leaned forward that early morning, pressed his thin lips to Bucky’s full ones and let himself have it, the full flush of the love they’d been denying themselves for years, just that once. Bucky kissed him back like a plea and a curse and an apology, like the last breath of a dying man, and then it was over — Bucky off to work, Steve making his way to Jersey to try his luck at enlisting again — and they both pretended like it didn't happen, after. But it did happen, and Steve never forgot it, and sometimes — during long nights and dark moments — Steve thought that that’s what had caused it, Bucky’s fall and all the hideous aftermath. Steve, selfish, had been greedy, and in recompense the world had taken away from him the things he’d been too overcome and desperate to appreciate, the things he’d been so much the fool to see as anything less than enough.
But… but. It’s a new day and here’s Bucky returned to him, cheek warm and stubble-studded under Steve’s steadying hand. He is not the sleep-soft man Steve knew 70 years ago but neither is Steve the skinny punk who’d hissed at that man’s broken hand, who’d plastered himself to that man’s side in the Navy yard, who’d counted that man’s heartbeats under his fingertips on the pier and stolen a kiss from him the morning before the end of that world. The person Steve is today wants the Bucky of the present, brittle-edged and swimming upriver towards happiness, scarred and scared and unpredictable. He wants whatever there of this Bucky to spare — whether a knowing or a lack of it or something more, something Steve started but never finished so long ago now that it feels more like a story he’s told himself than a part of his life.
“Bucky,” Steve says, strangled, and doesn’t know how to continue. Bucky sighs, and reaches up to take Steve’s wrist in his metal hand. Only half of his haircut is finished and he looks well and truly out of his mind, a cant of madness to him that’s negated only by his eyes, piercing blue and the calmest Steve’s seen them in months. He is a stained glass window perched on the lip of the bathtub, all sharp-cut edges and the risk of shattering, breathtaking in this way that can’t help but catch the light.
“Steve,” Bucky says, and it’s patient — for this, if nothing else, is a constant of Bucky’s, this patience for Steve that Steve does not deserve, “are you gonna kiss me or what?”
Steve is. Steve does. It is worth a few miserable years; a few dozen; hell, another borrowed lifetime.