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This Is My Last Breath

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.::.

"What are you doing?"

Steve looked up under his lashes and Bucky kept his hand on the stairwell doorframe, eyebrows raised as he waited for an answer. But he didn't get a reply - instead Steve stuck out his arms, presenting the flowers to Bucky.

He stared for a few seconds, studying the bouquet without reaching for it, then looked back up at Steve and repeated his question. "What are you doing?"

"Aw, c'mon, Buck. Don't be like that."

"Be like what? You brought me flowers, Rogers, what the hell am I supposed to do with that?"

"Take them?"

Bucky threw up his hands and kicked the stairwell door open, leaving Steve to come inside for himself. It was stupid enough he knocked on the damn thing in the first place. What, so he could stand there like a moron pretending they were in some suburban movie? He fell onto a couch, groaning into his hands, and suddenly a faintly-sweet smelling bouquet was dropped in his lap. Bucky lifted his head, picking the thing up like it was poisonous, and made a disapproving sound.

Steve plopped down next to him, one hand on Bucky's cheek while he nuzzled in and pressed a soft kiss to the other cheek. Bucky grumbled and turned the open petals towards them, scanning the color palette and Steve even picked out flowers like an artist.

"You're lucky you're a good kisser," he muttered, dropping the bouquet back into his lap. And tipping sideways with the force of another supersoldier kiss to his cheek. "Why'd you get me flowers, anyhow?"

Resting his forearms on his thighs he turned his head to look at Steve, who at least had the decency to blush a little at the ridiculousness of it all. Then he shrugged, twisting his hands together and looking down in that weirdly cautious way he did sometimes. "Always wanted to. Figured I finally could."

"You've always wanted to get me flowers?"

"I did, once." Bucky's eyebrows shot up and Steve leaned back against the couch, voice barely audible as he mumbled. "Just didn't give 'em to you."

"Wait...really?"

"If you're gonna be a dick about this just forget it--"

"No, no, wait. You are so telling this story. Sit your ass down, I need to hear this." Steve crossed his arms. Bucky picked up the scented plants and waved them enticingly in front of Steve's nose. "I'll keep the flowers if you tell me?"

Blue eyes narrowed suspiciously and Bucky jumped off the couch, filled a glass with water, and dumped the thing in as is. Steve rolled his eyes and took them back out, clipping the bottoms and undoing the ribbon that held the stems together as he talked.

"Eighth grade - you'd started workin' your first job, so I'd go to that park down the street to wait for you to get off. Except you always looked so exhausted comin' home and I wanted to do somethin' to make you smile." Steve fluffed the flowers in their makeshift vase, thumb stroking a tiny delicate petal. "So I picked half the flowers in the park and bundled em up with a shoelace--"

"You asshat, you said you lost that shoelace by stepping on it!"

"Interrupting. Anyways, I got you flowers and ran to see you as fast as my stupid lungs would let me. 'Cept then I was standing outside the door with flowers for my best guy and..." He stopped, running a hand through his hair and closing his eyes and Bucky could see it - little Steve standing outside the door, bouquet of freshly picked flowers in his tiny hands, wheezing from the run - pretty face falling as he reached for the doorknob and reality hit.

Steve cleared his throat, "...and I couldn't. So I gave 'em to Ms. Sherry next door."

The tone of his voice, the way he was looking at his hands...there were times Steve's body language overruled the muscles and he was the tiny punk again, sittin' on the couch next to Bucky, stuffed inside some body that took better care of him than Buck ever could.

And it was goddamn depressing, the mirror of the past slumped beside him; that irrational hope, stubborn spark, broken heart - all still tucked inside, no matter what body he had.

And so he brought Bucky flowers.

Because he couldn't before. What a touching parallel.

"You think this is sweet, don't you?" Steve looked up, glancing from Bucky to the vase and Bucky shook his head, swooping a hand as he clarified. "Not the flowers. I'm talking about the whole thing."

That got an even more confused glance so Bucky shifted, turning his torso and sitting up straighter, his body language as accusatory as his tone.

"You think this is some sorta...romantic Shakespearean play." Soft lips parted to protest but Bucky shut him up with a hand because he wasn't done. He wasn't anywhere near done. "Best friends their whole lives, one almost dies and the other can't live without him and tries to die too."

Blue eyes narrowed but Bucky ignored them, waving a hand and continuing in his mock storytime voice. "Then they both get a 'second chance' so they play it right, fall for each other. Get to be together after decades of pining and unrequited feelings..."

Steve's expression was hard, defensive and hurt and that in itself confirmed everything Bucky said. He wasn't being malicious; just realistic. That's how Steve saw this whole thing, some mushy fairytale about flowers and yearning gazes. They'd never survive this if that's the reality Steve was pretending to live in.

With hands as gentle as his words had been harsh, Bucky took Steve's face in his hands, running his thumbs over the chiseled jaw and forcing Steve to look him in the eyes, serious and close.

"Stevie," Bucky chided softly. "This ain't some sonnet."

Blue eyes searched his, wavering between confusion, offense, and fear and this was so much more complex than Steve was pretending.

"Bucky, what're you saying?" He managed, hesitant and small and it wasn't like that.

Steve was painting their picture in pastel colors - but it'd never be them without harsh blacks and reds and grays. Bucky was only trying to change his color palette. Look at this thing without rose-colored glasses.

Don't forget what this thing was really about.

"We're not a love story, Steve." Bucky smoothed his hands down Steve's neck and shoulders, gripping his arms and holding them both stock still. "We're a war story."

Surprise flitted over sharp features, a single pause as it sank in, then Steve shook Bucky off, grabbing his hands before they could retreat and holding all four in between them, high and centered and Steve looked almost relieved. Excited, even, and it was Bucky's turn to be confused.

"It's the same thing." Steve squeezed their hands together and Bucky furrowed his eyebrows, pretty sure he'd heard wrong.

"What?"

"It's the same thing," Steve repeated, scooting half a foot closer as the eager look settled into determination. He let go with one hand to gesture grandly as he elaborated. "Love, war."

Bucky stared at him. Maybe somebody should give Steve a dictionary because Bucky was pretty sure those were antonyms.

"I'm gonna show you, Buck." He put their hands down, fingers running up Bucky's forearms as he leaned forward, mouth curling into a pretty smile. "It's the same goddamn thing. You watch."

He was still wrapping his head around whatever the hell Steve was saying when warm lips pressed against his, thrumming with energy as excited palms rubbed lines into Bucky's arms and how had that turned around on him?

It wasn't like Steve said it just to say it, either. He'd brightened all over, lighting up the way he always did when he realized something important.

He actually believed it, Steve sincerely thought...

Their mouths broke apart and wet lips puckered on the side of his mouth in a chaste, happy kiss and Bucky's brain was turning gears but he still couldn't figure out how Steve was going to show him two opposites were the same thing.

Then Steve leaned back and great, Bucky knew that face, that was the unmistakable - probably patented - Steve Rogers has a mission face.

Bucky watched with a sigh as Steve vaulted off the couch, snagged a single flower from the vase and took off with a salute.

Great.

In his attempt to make Steve understand the actual theme of their lives, he'd accidentally invoked another war.

Because that's what Steve's mission face meant. He wasn't gonna let this go, he wasn't gonna back down from the fight.

The bouquet laughed at him from its vase and Bucky reached out, running his thumb over one of the delicately soft petals, the pretty colors blinking up almost cloyingly sweet.

If flowers were the first battle?

The next assault was the exact fuckin' opposite.

 

It came roughly 20 hours later, so Bucky'd pushed it out of his mind and really, he hadn't expected Steve to follow up flowers with something like that.

Bucky went to the gym in the mornings, Steve knew this. And he hadn't forgotten either, because when Steve left for his run with Sam and kissed goodbye him on the nose (fuckin' sap), he explicitly said "have a wonderful workout!" with a suspiciously cheery tone.

He'd jogged down the ten flights of stairs to the gym in a tanktop and gym shorts, debating what the hell Steve could've been up to with each jolting step.

The explanation came when Bucky swung open the glass doors.

Steve was in the middle of the gym floor doing one-armed push-ups. In tight black boxer-briefs.

His life was so hard.

Literally.

"You're an asshole," Bucky commented nonchalantly, leaning against one of the padded columns to watch. Steve pushed extra hard, torso lifting a few feet off the ground as he quickly switched arms, landing on his left and tucking the right behind his back. The kind'a pushups officers do in basic camp, back in the forties.

"Don't be sore," Steve managed between heavy breaths, "Just 'cause you're...jealous."

Bucky scoffed, pushing off the wall and making his way slowly across the mat. "At that rate, you're gonna be the sore one."

"Prove it," Steve breathed, not missing a beat of the obscene up-down motion, arm straining and muscles ridiculously defined, shiny with the beginnings of a sweat sheen, the perfect gorgeous soldier.

He'd seriously been hanging out with Steve too much, because that sounded like a challenge, and who would he be to deny it? And as much as he'd love to give Steve some extra weight and do sit-ups on that gorgeous back, they could save that for a time when Steve wasn't practically naked.

There were other ways to make him exhausted.

Scooping his foot under Steve's ribs, Bucky flipped him over easily, balance shot with only one arm on the mat. The rippling back smacked the mat with an loud noise then Bucky was straddling him, pinning both arms over his head, locked fingers over strong wrists.

Steve strained up against him, lifting his head and forcing his wrists apart in attempt to break Bucky's hold, only Steve was a goddamned amateur at wrestling compared to him, so he didn't get further than an inch. He flopped his head back down on the mat, sweaty hair sticking up in a thousand directions and an amazing, fucked out grin on his face.

He liked being held down. A lot.

A mischievous smile of his own curled a corner of his mouth, because he was in a great position for revenge when he was hovering over Steve. Squeezing the wrists tighter, Bucky lowered down, mouth ghosting over Steve's, then he was grinding his ass down on Steve's hips and the sudden pressure shot through Steve like a bottle rocket and he arched up hard, spine curving and head tipped back and goddamn, was he beautiful.

The pressure against his ass was making him dizzy, the heat pressed up against him through a thin layer of boxers and fuck, fuck, Steve was keening up against him all needy and flushed and every single one of his nerve endings were on fire, a ripple up his spine and through his left shoulder, plates of his arm shuddering all the way down to his fingers closing harder around those pretty wrists.

Sweat glistened on Steve's neck and Bucky circled his hips once, biting his lip at the heat tightening his chest as Steve lost it, head thrashing to the side with a gasp, shaking and panting under him, lips parted and damp with heavy rushes of air and fuck, that was enough of that.

Bucky covered that gorgeous mouth with his, kissing the trembling lips rough and dirty. He tasted salty with sweat, pressing up against Bucky all desperate and hot with tiny puffs of staccato breaths in and out of Bucky's mouth, stealing his oxygen and god, that was fucking intense, Steve filling his lungs with air directly from his own. The world threatened to tip sideways but he couldn't afford to get lightheaded now, not when he was supposed to be exacting revenge.

He broke off before he lost his mind, feeling the separation tug deep in his chest but he forced himself up, on his knees again so the only part of their bodies touching were the cuffs of his fingers over Steve's wrists. It took a few seconds to open his eyes, get his breathing under control because fuck, he could feel Steve everywhere and he needed more, really fucking badly, and he actually had to resurface mental training techniques to keep himself from dipping back down for more.

"C'mon, Buck. C'mon," Steve panted, squirming and looking so goddamn debauched Bucky almost caved. God, Steve was all sweaty, had come in here and stripped down to just boxer-briefs to put his gorgeous body on display all for him and Bucky was gonna die.

"No," he managed, voice cracking, then he shook his head and forced himself to get a grip. And seventy years of training were apparently still good for something because it took him about five seconds before the tension bled enough to calm his voice down, steady and cocky now as he spoke again. "This is payback for interrupting my morning workout."

Steve glared up at him, biting his lip annoyedly except Bucky knew it was to entice him and that's when he made the mistake of readjusting his grip on Steve's wrists. That was the only opening he needed before Steve kicked up, wrapping one leg around Bucky's hips and then suddenly Bucky was slammed into the mat, pinned down with inescapable weight and Steve's mouth was back on his, kissing the fuck out of him.

Wet, hungry twists and darting licks of his tongue and Bucky's head was spinning, his everything was spinning and fuck fuck, training, he could do this. He could fucking fight the moans Steve was trying to tug out of his chest, he could hold himself back when Steve tugged at his lips, sliding and popping and diving back in and fuck fuck fuck, he could keep his hips from bucking up like a starved whore only god he wanted it, so fucking bad, and it was every ounce he had to keep himself from crying out and shuddering when Steve pressed their mouths so hard together they'd both bruise.

Decades of training and he was barely keeping it together, ripped apart by the fire of Steve's mouth and holding on by a fraying string, so close to giving in that he was trembling with the force of it, barely managing to keep still--

Then suddenly it was all gone and a whimper did escape his throat finally, mouth and chest and everywhere hit with cold as Steve's grounding weight disappeared. Fuck, fuck, he probably looked like a total wreck, laying on this mat and half-near crying with the effort and the twist in his chest.

"Hey, hey, are you okay?" Steve asked from next to him and god, what a fucking question that was, Bucky felt like he was inches from exploding. He glared at the gated lights on the ceiling.

"No." He grit between his teeth, heart pounding out of his chest and why the fuck had Steve stopped touching him, he wanted - needed, to do something about that but if he caved now, if he grabbed that perfect body and pressed it back to his then Steve would win.

And that was the thing about being best friends for a lifetime before they started doing...this. As fucking much as he wanted to kiss Steve? He couldn't lose a competition. Goddammit, he could not let Steve win this. It was like, embedded in him not to.

"God, Bucky, I'm sorry, I didn't think." Steve's voice sounded strangely distressed, although Bucky felt pretty damn distressed too, only what the hell was Steve apologizing for? Bucky glanced over and Steve was curled up, arm curved around his knees and the other fucking up his hair as he looked down and muttered. "Of course you wouldn't want to be held down. Fucking Hydra."

He pushed up to stand and Bucky stared at him, the words finally registering.

"Wait what?" So that's why he'd stopped? Oh, shit, must've thought Bucky's reluctance meant-- He shook his head quickly, quirking an eyebrow as he looked up with an amused twist of his mouth. "No, no, I just didn't want you to win. I'm so okay with being held down." The amusement curled up in a sidesmile but Steve furrowed his eyebrows in disbelief. Okay, he had a bit of a point. Bucky thought it over and tacked on a stipulation. "Just as long as there aren't chairs or leather involved, I'm good."

The hesitant fear was still on those pretty features so Bucky reached out, curling his right hand around Steve's ankle, forcing his attention with a sharp shake of his head. "Seriously, Steve. Don't let Hydra take this too."

That got him. The idea of Hydra still fucking them up, grip tight when it was in the past, it was over? Hydra'd already taken so much from them and Bucky meant it when he said they weren't going to take this.

Whatever this was. So they kissed now, but beyond that, he had no idea what they were supposed to be. What it meant, even, really.

Steve ran a hand through his hair, ducking his head. After a moment or two and he nodded slowly, looking Bucky over carefully. "Yeah, yeah. Okay...if you're sure."

The mood shift had given him enough time to get a grip on himself so he stood easily now, closing the step between them and tipping Steve's chin up with the side of his finger. "I'm sure. I'll let you know if it ever gets to be like...that, okay?" He gave Steve a small smile, hand sliding to cup the side of his neck. "So long as you do the same."

He'd expected it, but that didn't make it sting any less as Steve's face twisted in blatant, honest confusion. A few beats of silence, then Steve's mouth opened and Bucky's heart broke. "You've been hanging out with Sam too much." A little laugh, shake of his head. "I don't have...issues. I'm fine."

Right. He'd never heard Steve say it out loud like that, but he didn't need to. He knew how that brain worked and he'd be offended, really, that Steve thought he was too good for PTSD - but smothered Bucky about his. Except he knew it wasn't about that either. As much as he'd love to shake Steve's shoulders for being a self-deprecating dumbass, he raised an unimpressed eyebrow instead.

"So if I wanted to makeout in a pool you'd be fine with that?"

Steve huffed and looked away, the internal monologue of this is stupid as clear as if he'd said it aloud. Ever patient, Bucky cupped Steve's jaw and manually turned his face, making their eyes meet again.

"How about thunderstorms?" The blue darkened a little but Steve didn't say anything.

"Nightmares?" Bucky suggested, and that one got a flare of annoyance in response. There was no way to deny the things Bucky was saying and he could tell, that was the most frustrating part for Steve. Not the truth, but that Bucky was presenting it in a way he couldn't deny it like he'd done for months.

"The way you refuse to go into the cockpit of the quinjets?" Steve's eyes widened at that one and Bucky pursed his lips, adding a thoughtful sidenote. "Or any plane, for that matter."

"How did you--" Steve started and Bucky almost laughed. Was he about to say notice? How did Bucky Barnes notice something Steve Rogers did? Gee, it's a national mystery.

He refrained from saying, "It's my fucking job, punk," and instead cut Steve off, continuing with the mile-long list Steve didn't want to hear.

"How when you visit Peggy you can't take the train, so you sit on a public bus for three hours?"

Steve scowled. "You take the train when you visit her?"

There was a lot loaded in that question, the assumed accusation of you visit her; Steve was trying to trip him up, shove Peggy and the train-fall in his lap at once but Bucky just smiled, running his thumb along the edge of Steve's ear.

"No. But I know I'm fucked up."

And there it was. Steve either had to deny being fucked up too, which would be ridiculous considering everything they'd just said, or he'd have to admit to months of denial.

Or he could take bastard-route-number-three.

"Speaking of which, Buck. Last time I saw Peggy she told me you two had a talk? During the war?"

Bucky dropped his hand from Steve's face. The subject change was blatantly obvious, depressingly desperate, but he wouldn't force Steve to talk about this in the middle of the gym floor if he didn't want to. Instead he studied Steve's expression, looking for exactly how much he knew before carefully replying, "We did."

"About me," Steve clarified.

"Yep."

"And you said?"

Bucky snorted, taking a step backwards. "That's between me and her."

"Really?" Steve crossed his arms over his chest, all stubborn and righteous again. "Cause she seemed to think it was pretty important you tell me."

"She would," Bucky conceded, more to himself than Steve. The expectant look was waiting but Bucky ignored it, taking a few backwards steps towards the door. "But I'm not going to. Now, before we ruin a morning that started out perfectly fantastic," he gave Steve a grin and turned, looking over his shoulder for the rest of the line, "...you wanna put on some clothes and join me for breakfast?"

He paused at the door, trying not to laugh at Steve jumping into gym shorts and throwing on a - Bucky's - black hoodie, tugging it over his head as he caught up to Bucky's side.

"Real breakfast as in not juice? We're actually eating food now?" There was a joking tone in that sweet half-smile but it was a low blow, so Bucky shoved him, swinging through the door first with a growl.

"Shut up, I'm trying." He meant it to be snarky but Steve's face suddenly went all soft, bumping up against Bucky's side with a sugar smile.

"I know. And I'm so proud of you, sweetheart."

Oh Christ. Bucky rolled his eyes and threw his arm up, looping Steve's neck in the crook of his elbow and tugging him down the way he used to when they were kids. Except this time he nosed Steve's temple, eyes closed, placing a solid kiss to the side of his head and holding him there a moment too long.

When he finally let go Steve straightened up with that sunshine smile and it wasn't Bucky's fault if he ducked his head with a smile of his own.

~*~*~

 

Natasha was waiting on their couch. That was the thing about living in the tower, there were always people invading your space because technically, it was all Tony's space.

She stood up when she saw them, and thankfully they weren't doing anything embarrassing like making out in the elevator. They were both outta breath, but that was because they'd raced up ten flights of stairs - while pushing each other down whole sets. Steve had a fading bruise on his shin and Bucky had one on his forearm and he could tell Steve's hair was fucked up, so god knows what his looked like and all in all they probably looked suspicious as hell. But it'd been an innocent game of shoving people down dangerous slopes, nothing to be giving them that look for.

"James, can I borrow your--"

"Steve, yes, you can borrow him, but you have to return him without any cracks or I charge full refund." Bucky clapped his hand on Steve's shoulder and shot them both a wide smile on his way to his room. Either Steve was seeing things way more sexually or Bucky was totally swaying his hips on the way out.

He shook his head fondly and suddenly remembered he was being stared down by Natasha, turning to her with raised eyebrows. He was pretty sure she'd almost called him Bucky's boyfriend, so it was a really good thing Buck had reflexes enough to interrupt before they had to have that conversation. Not that he didn't want to have that conversation, but.

"Nat. It's been a while, how are you doing?" Steve started towards the couch and Natasha waved a hand, cocking her head towards the elevator.

"Not as great as you, it seems. Although with bruises like that, I don't see how anyone could be." Another raised eyebrow and shit, this was totally not what it looked like. Not that it hadn't been like that earlier, down in the gym, when Bucky'd...God. Not the time to think about that. "You had coffee yet? There's a great place downtown."

Steve followed her into the elevator, wondering what the hell could be pertinent enough to discuss over coffee. He didn't have to wait long to find out; the moment they sat down in the corner booth of a shop (that was surprisingly cheery for Natasha's taste), she cut straight to the chase.

"Do you have any idea what you're doing?"

"You're a very gentle person Natasha, has anyone ever told you tha--"

"Rogers, it's a ploy. I told you he's a professional, I warned you he was putting thoughts in your head. You know you're smarter than this." She uncapped her coffee and blew on it and Steve blinked at her with a little shake of his head.

"Don't you think you're being a little paranoid?"

"What do you know about Red Room?" Steve shrugged, making a wishy-wash motion with his hand. Natasha pursed her lips and held up her thumb for number one. "First step for deep cover missions: make yourself appear the victim. Misogynistic minds do that to women all on their own, but it helps to play up confusion and dependency. What's the first thing Barnes did? Show up to your apartment bloody and needy. You know what it takes to get a ghost story to bleed?"

"He was in a messed up place--"

"Do you honestly believe that? A man who's been invincible for decades suddenly leaning on you because you 'shared a moment' on a burning helicraft during one of his kill missions? He saw an opportunity in you, and he took it."

"Natasha, this is Bucky. He's not playing me, he's been my best friend as long as I can remember. He's got his memories back, he killed all his Hydra connections."

"Step two, prove you have a common enemy." She flipped her palm out with an axiomatic expression that read hello in that terribly sassy tone. "And you can say for sure it was total elimination?"

Steve narrowed his eyes and took a sip of his coffee. "I can't imagine he'd leave any alive. You should've seen what the carnage looked like."

"I've seen him fight." Nat leaned back in the booth, arms crossing over her chest. "He's an animal."

"Natasha."

"Steve. He's not your innocent Bucky Barnes from Brooklyn anymore." She shook her head exasperatedly and Steve stared into his cup, the taste bitter on his tongue now.

"He was never innocent, Nat. He was always...dark."

"And Hydra took that darkness and twisted it, shaped it into a guard dog. Don't -" she held up a hand to stop him and he froze, forcibly unclenching his fists under the table. "I know what you're going to say. I get it's hard to hear, but they called him Cобака for a reason. You don't come back from that."

"Maybe you don't," Steve leaned forward, holding Natasha's gaze seriously. "But he's not a machine anymore. He's a human-fucking-being. Not a ghost story, or a monster. When's the last time you kissed somebody because it made you happy, Nat?"

"C'mon, Steve, that's the point! You seriously think he's seeking happiness here?"

"Right, 'cause god forbid a killer be happy?"

"You're blind to this. You don't get it - you're the in. The tool to pry open the vault. You two conveniently fall in love while one of the biggest evil super-corporations in the world decides they don't care about retrieving their deadliest weapon? Oh wait - it's because he's safe now, right? The only place in the world he could to be safe from Hydra is, of course, the famous Stark Tower. There was just nowhere else to go.

"And now he has full access to one of the most technologically advanced intelligence bases in the world. The inside scoop on SHIELD's biggest pawns, the dinner invite with the Avengers. I wonder how he could've possibly set that up?"

"It's not like that." Steve glared out the window and it was Natasha's turn to lean forward, rapping her fingernails on the table insistently.

"How do you know? Hydra hasn't attempted to come after him. He's refused to do a psych exam. Or a medical exam. Or even a debriefing over why the fuck he's here."

"He's here because of me." His voice had the edge of a challenge in it, the same tone that'd gotten him into a hundred fights before.

Except Natasha had the opposite reaction, dipping her head and softening her voice, something almost like pity. "That's what he wants you to think. That's the whole point of this."

She gestured at him and Steve ran a hand down his face. When Natasha got worried, that's when you should get the fuck out of whatever the hell you're doing. But this was Bucky. There's no way he'd be a double agent.

"There's a Red Room method, a guaranteed-results path. Ensures any victim, no matter how difficult to break." Natasha looked sorry enough that he could anticipate her next words and fuck, he wasn't sure he'd be able to hear them. He didn't have a choice though, because Natasha flicked her hair over her shoulder and opened her mouth to break his heart. "You make them fall in love with you. You get that, you have everything."

Steve tilted his head and curled one side of his mouth in a smile, the way he always did when he wanted to cry.

"Do you believe in love?" he asked softly. Natasha gave him a sad smile and weary eyes holding the reflection of a thousand stories.

"Love is for children."

He nodded, looking out the window again. "We were children together. I loved him then, and I never stopped."

"But did he love you?"

Steve closed his eyes. He'd been asking himself - how long - had mentioned it to Bucky, tried to pieces together clues. But the truth was he didn't know. Bucky refused to tell him.

"When did he start feeling this way about you? As kids? Teens? After you shot up three feet? After he broke your cheekbone with his metal fist? When his agency was tracking him down and he needed a safe place to stay?"

If Bucky didn't insist on hiding everything, Steve could answer that. But he'd been shoved off every time he brought it up. So he shook his head, giving Natasha the depressed shrug.

"He didn't say."

Another smile and Nat looked him over, studying and evaluating. If she didn't think Bucky was working for Hydra and Bucky wasn't cold to basically everyone, they could be friends. They'd talked a few times (because Bucky'd known about the kiss in the mall and Steve hadn't told him), but now that Nat laid out her opinion it was pretty clear she'd only interrogated him and thrown events to judge reactions.

How do you feel about me kissing your best friend? And by the way, are you still being brainwashed by the assholes who kept you captive for seventy years?

A surprisingly sturdy hand slipped into his, holding it tight until Steve looked up at the concerned green eyes. "Look, Rogers, I don't want you hurt. If he's hiding something, you need to know what."

He didn't want Natasha to be right. But she had a terrifyingly good point.

All the signs, they all pointed to a distrustful double agent who'd found Steve's weakness and exploited it like the professional he was.

Steve could only pray it wasn't true.

~*~*~

He ran into Bucky in the first hallway past the lobby.

His hair was pulled in a low bun, wisps of pieces around his face and he was carrying a small thin box under one arm.

"Hey! You and Nat missed it, Tony's setting up the neatest security net for the Tower residents and he asked if I wanted to help." Bucky stopped as he reached Steve, bouncing on the balls of his feet in excitement.

What had Nat said? Insider access to the most-advanced technological base?

"That's great, Buck," Steve managed, hating how obviously he tensed up. It was a lot to take right now, so Steve meant it when he offered a small smile and stepped aside, ending his half of the conversation.

Only Bucky was too excited to recognize the uncomfortable rejection, following Steve's step with his own and pulling him into a one armed hug, other occupied with holding the box at his side. He pressed a kiss to Steve's shoulder and Steve closed his eyes, wishing he'd had like ten minutes longer to absorb everything before this.

"Remember when Howard used to let me hang out in his lab?" Bucky lifted his head, one arm still around Steve's waist as he looked up with bright eyes. Steve smiled tightly. When Bucky'd hung out with Howard he hadn't been a deadly assassin with possible ulterior motives.

"Yeah, after you got shot? And were supposed to be invalid for a week?" He'd meant it to be a joke, that always was between them, it was their coping method.

Except this time Bucky's expression dimmed, ducking his head to look at Steve's shoes as his excited energy thrummed down into quiet seriousness. "I knew I'd heal faster than that. I should've...I shouldn't'a faked it, I should've told you." A soft breath, the metal hand on his back tightening in his shirt. "Steve, I'm sorry."

"What, a legitimate apology from a Barnes?" He teased, because that's what they did, Bucky'd would say shut up and they'd go their separate ways and Steve would have time to think.

But he didn't get the shut up back. Instead crystal eyes turned up at him and fuck, were they actually wet? Bucky had his pretty bottom lip between his teeth, all masks down, sincere and honest written into every single detail of his features.

Steve had known this face his entire life. He knew exactly what Bucky's poker face looked like, what every stage of his lying faces were. This wasn't any of them - this was honest.

If Natasha was right...if Bucky was trying to hook him?

He got Steve good.

Fuck paranoia. He was goddamn sick of second-guessing every good thing that came into his life. They'd been brought back together through the centuries and they'd finally gotten something great and Bucky was blinking up at him, teary-eyed and so sorry for not telling Steve about the serum, so sorry he didn't save them from all that pain--

Steve pulled Bucky into his chest, wrapping both arms high around his shoulders and holding him close enough to feel the patter of his heartbeat. He was so far gone. If Bucky was playing him...there was no way he could back out now. He was in this thing way too deep.

When Bucky pulled back, sniffling once and wiping an embarrassed hand down his face, Steve tucked a piece of dislodged hair behind his ear and told him to have fun with Stark; Buck gave him a little wave goodbye and turned back to the labs. Steve watched him go, memorizing the familiar gait for the thousandth time, and decided that the most honest thing Natasha'd ever told him was I only act like I know everything, Rogers.

He'd defend her to the death. She was honestly his friend - and she'd also been the one to tell him not to look for Bucky in the first place. Don't pull on that thread. It was her past experience clouding her judgement and Steve could never think less of her for that. God knows the same was the case with him.

But he didn't have to take her word as gospel either. You can't kill ideas once they're planted - he'd watch closer now, make a point to learn all the things Bucky was hiding. But he wasn't going to accuse his best friend of working with the enemy, and he sure as hell wasn't leaving him anytime soon.

In fact, he was gonna do the opposite. He was going to give Bucky every reason in the world to trust him so he could know all those secrets, so they could put the entire thing behind them.

He'd tuck the paranoia as deep inside him as it'd go, smile bright over the top so no one'd ever know.

Just one more reason to give it their everything, right?

~*~*~

It'd become almost regular, now, waking up screaming. Or silent-crying, or sweating, or gasping and jerking upright. Or not going to sleep at all, that was pretty regular too.

That didn't make it any easier.

Especially since Bucky'd called him out on it, claiming it was PTSD-or-something. After everything Bucky'd been through, Steve didn't deserve to have nightmares at all, let alone full-blown issues like trauma.

The darkness of his room was the same blackness as the back of his eyelids, the same darkness as that black mask that'd been shoved over his face ten seconds ago, cutting off his air and suffocating him as he scrambled against the hard plastic--

Steve shoved upright, pressing his back against the solid headboard and drawing his knees into his chest, covering his face with both hands and forcing himself to breathe normally. Fill his lungs, empty them, inflation, deflation. Things Bucky'd coached him through a hundred times; and the words in his head were in Bucky's voice, the familiar concerned tone and gentle coaxing.

The door to his room pushed open and then it wasn't the comforting voice in his head anymore, it was the weight compressing the other side of his bed, five warm fingers encircling the top of one of his knees. Bucky refused to touch him with the metal hand post-nightmare after Steve'd flinched that one awful time.

"Hey, you here with me?" A whisper against his ear and his shoulders dropped, slippery sheets sliding him down the headboard into a tighter ball. He didn't mean to let out the whimper, only the sound came from somewhere in him he didn't have control over and then heavy arms were around him, pulling him all the way down to the bed.

Bucky was wearing a hoodie, and a glove, and Steve felt goddamned awful about that but he didn't have full control after waking up like this and fuck, he wanted to tell Bucky he was sorry but he was afraid of the noises that'd escape his mouth if he pried his lips apart.

"Shh, shh. I'm right here, babydoll," Bucky murmured into his hair and the hands over his face suddenly felt more suffocating than helpful and Steve let them fall to the mattress, cold air hitting his oversensitive skin and making him gasp, the sound ragged and awful and then Bucky's metal arm was wrapped over his stomach, warm scratchy lips pressed to the back of his neck and those were real, Bucky was real.

Puffs of breath tingled at the top of his spine, a steady, slow rhythm that was nothing like the way Steve was breathing and he had to focus on that and he'd be fine, he'd pull himself together.

It wasn't fair doing this to Bucky.

How could Steve take his nights away too?

It took another three minutes, but he got ahold of himself. By the time Bucky was running gloved fingers over his ribs, Steve's back leg trapped under his, the darkness had faded enough that the terror in his veins was safely threaded out. It always drained him, made him boneless and exhausted, never wanting to crawl out of bed again, and once he hit that point, that's when Bucky usually smoothed a hand through his hair and left.

"You know," Bucky pondered into the darkness, running the leather glove over Steve's sternum soothingly. "I figured when we were in bed together...all sweaty and outta breath...it was gonna be for a really different reason."

Steve couldn't help it, a laugh escaped his chest and he could feel the smile in the kiss pressed to his neck that time. It was such a Bucky thing to say, only it'd never meant anything before. Except now, now feelings had been revealed and it wasn't a joke anymore. Not in that way. It was a tease, but it wasn't...impossible. Which made it a hell of a lot less depressing than usual.

He lifted his head from the soft sheets, rolling backwards enough so Bucky could scoot out of the way and let him roll onto his back. He got a grumble of complaint, then the glove was cupping his face and Steve blinked into the darkness, barely catching the outline of Bucky's features.

The leather thumb brushed over his cheek and he couldn't have felt it through the leather and metal, but somehow he still knew... so Bucky leaned forward and kissed the tears from his cheeks.

Steve's eyes slipped closed and the soft presses against his face didn't stop, soaking warmth and safety into his skin, and then the world wasn't palpable anymore, he was drifting to some place where everything was sleep-soft and easy and smelled of Bucky.

He fell asleep while Bucky was still kissing over his forehead.

Thankfully, he woke up first. But god knows why he opened his eyes to a peaceful face smushed against one of his pillows, dark hair fanning against white, lips slightly parted and arms curled under the sturdy chest.

Why was Bucky in his bed? Why hadn't he left?

He always left.

Steve held his breath and rolled off the side of the mattress, landing silently on his feet and padding for the door as quiet as possible. Bucky must not've slept in a while, otherwise he'd have woken already. But his body was more exhausted than his mind was alert, so Steve snuck out of his bedroom without waking the snoozing assassin.

He'd rather have stayed, but that wasn't an option. God knows Bucky would either freak or bolt the moment he realized they'd fallen asleep in the same bed now that they didn't have to (Steve had no idea why - they'd shared fine in the past, what the hell was the problem with it now?) and he was sparing Bucky the trouble. Leaving first so Bucky didn't have to.

And in the process, saved his own heart from breaking the way it always did when Bucky left. Bucky wouldn't care about waking up alone, but it ripped something up in Steve he didn't have a right to keep whole with hope in the first place.

Really, Steve was desperately reaching for him with no idea of what Bucky wanted. But he was determined to find out. To prove Bucky that they could be happy - more than that. They had the right to be happy.

 

"You seem awful chipper this morning," Sam huffed, pumping his legs and arms while Steve jogged lightly beside him.

"Hmm? Yeah. Guess I am." A smile curled his mouth up and Sam gave him a suspicious side-glance.

"Barnes alright?"

"Yeah. Yeah, he's great. I mean...things aren't perfect. And I still don't know where we stand on. Well. Anything. But he smiles now, and he kisses me sometimes and I definitely can't," Steve sucked in a breath, picking up the pace a little to push Sam further, "-complain about that."

"No you cannot," Sam agreed with a smile and quick shake of his head, wheezing a tad as he forced his body to match Steve's pace. "You - agh - you remember that one conversation we had...in that restaurant in Germany?"

Steve furrowed his eyebrows and Sam made a cross face, apparently hoping Steve would pick up the talking at that point to save Sam's breath.

"The one-- where you said Bucky'd never. Like you like that?"

"Oh yeah. That conversation. Is this your I told you so?" Steve grinned and widened his strides, making Sam curse before switching into a sprint to keep up.

"It's a little...more effective when I can. Fuck. Breathe."

Steve laughed, taking a few jolting strides to slow back down to an easy jog. Sam nearly collapsed with relief, falling into step beside him and wiping sweat off his forehead, flicking his hand to splatter the drops on Steve.

"Ewww," he complained, shoving Sam's shoulder lightly, except it still almost made him wipe out and by the time he caught his balance again Steve'd stopped jogging, hand on his stomach as he laughed at Sam trying to breathe, hands on his knees and gasping.

"You're a lot more of an asshole than that museum makes you look," Sam gasped and Steve shook his head, glancing up at the sky and smiling. It was nice out today. Maybe he'd take a walk with Bucky in Central. "Speakin'a which..."

Sam straightened up, hand on his torso as he waved a hand to get Steve's attention. "If Barnes is in a good mood, I've got somethin' I wanted to talk about with him."

Steve shook his head, both hands on his hips as he raised disapproving, amused eyebrows at Sam.

"I'm pretty sure the 'I'll kill you if you break my best friend's heart' speech doesn't work on deadly assassins who can backflip-dodge your machine-gun bullets and kick your ass nine ways to Sunday."

"Haha, very funny. It's actually not about you, surprise of all surprises. Somebody wants to talk about something other than Captain America..."

"And you wonder where I get my sarcasm from," Steve shot back, bumping into Sam's side as they started back towards the tower.

"No way, man. You had that way before I was in the picture."

Steve rolled his eyes, but that much was true. Honestly, though, it kinda made Steve curious. What would Sam want to talk to Bucky about that wasn't Steve? It was kinda...all they had in common. God knows Bucky wouldn't do a psych eval, and Steve doubted Sam was dumb enough to ask again.

Which meant it was something Steve had no idea about.

So it couldn't be good, could it?

~*~*~

"I've actually never been in here," Bucky mused, stepping in behind Sam and glancing around the room. It was tidy, small enough to feel cozy but sparse enough to seem decently-sized. Brown crown-moulding and a wooden desk, everything else standard whites and blues.

"Well I don't live in here anymore, so feel free if you want a change of scenery." Sam waved a hand around and Bucky snorted.

"It's twelve feet from my room, the scenery can't change that much."

Sam shrugged and pulled the chair from under the desk, scooting it next to the bed. A sound at the door made them both turn their heads, where Steve was standing in the doorway pointing over his shoulder.

"Hey I'm gonna go find Clint, so follow the smell of pizza and dogs if you need me." He gave a little wave and disappeared, and that was the first clue this was definitely not going to be the good kind of talk.

Well, the first clue was Sam coming back with Steve from his run and asking if he could talk to Bucky privately, but if Steve was leaving their floor altogether? Might as well get it over with.

Bucky plopped down on the edge of Sam's former bed, rubbing his hands together and letting the serrations sliding across the palm of his right hand calm his heartrate.

"So. What did I do?" He glanced up, tucking a piece of hair behind his ear, and Sam swiveled the chair around, sitting down on it and crossing his arms over the back of it.

"Right to it?"

"Sure. Unless you wanna talk about Rogers first, I've got about a million embarrassing stories you could hold over his head."

Sam laughed, eyes lighting up and shifting to get more comfortable. "Man, that sounds great. I'd definitely love to hear those sometime. You should stop by more often - we're both friends with Steve, I'm sure we've got plenty in common."

"Actually I think we're polar opposites," Bucky admitted and Sam smiled with a contemplating sound, "But that could actually be a good thing."

"Yeah. And I'd like to see if Steve's stories are anywhere near the real thing."

"Steve talks about me?"

"Uh. Yeah, all the time. You're kinda his..." Sam waved his hand, waiting for Bucky to fill in the blank. He shrugged, looking away and pretending to study the framed picture on the wall.

"We haven't talked about it," he finally filled in, glancing back at Sam. But his expression didn't crease with worry or flatten with judgement; it was as open as ever, nonchalant but not uncaring.

"Cool. Whatever floats both your boats, you know? It's none 'a my business. That is, unless you hurt him--"

The over-exaggerated tone was obviously a joke and Bucky snorted, shaking his head because they both knew that conversation was useless. How many people had Bucky threatened or killed for hurting Steve? It was a mute point. That is...unless that's what Sam'd come to say?

"Uh. Is that what you wanted to talk about...?" He asked hesitantly, rolling his lips in and glancing up with an apologetic look.

"Oh, no. No worries, man. I know you've got him. You always have."

"Except when I was trying to kill him. Then you had his six. I never, uh. Thanked you for that, so. Seriously, it means a lot to know that if I went off the rails, he's got somebody else."

Because really, Bucky'd spent months being pissed at Steve for making him feel this way. And years with muddled memories wishing he could get rid of the ghost with the blue eyes. And now that the ghost was pressing kisses to his lips, everything was a thousand times more complicated and nothing was answered. So yeah, going off the rails didn't seem that far out. And he couldn't let Steve get hurt if that happened.

"Yeah." Sam nodded, biting the inside of his cheek and looking down. Steve'd told him about Riley - Bucky knew exactly how it was, finding out your best friend died. So it was a hard topic for everybody.

"See? This is why we should be friends." Bucky reached over to nudge Sam's arm and he lifted his head, mouth turning up in a one-sided smile as he nodded slowly.

"Yeah, yeah. We should. Which, actually, brings me to my point. I know your birthday isn't for a week--"

"Ugh how do you know that?"

"Dude, everyone who's taken sixth grade history knows that. Anyways, that's not what I came to talk about either. See, I got you something for your birthday, and this is gonna spoil it but I don't really care, so." Bucky shrugged in agreement and Sam continued, "A lot of soldiers who come back already have 'em for comfort, but I know you don't, so I figured I'd get 'em for you."

Sam leaned sideways and dug a hand into his jeans pocket. Bucky knew what is was the moment the silver chain fell between Sam's fingers, the familiar clink of metal on metal.

He didn't know what to say. Thankfully, Sam to be expecting that, holding his hand out and dropping the two metal plates out of his hand, letting them dangle by the chain in front of Bucky. He lifted his right hand slowly, wanting to feel them against a hand that'd actually held dogtags before.

The cool metal settled against his palm, an extension of the steel fused to his body, the first metal he'd ever been attached to. Sam dropped the chain and it slinked into Bucky's hand, rattling softly as he ran a finger over the raised words, the inscription he used to trace back in the war.

BARNES, JAMES B
32557038 T42 43 A
                            P

That's who he was.

Who are you?

Rewind.

Nothing.

A soldier.

James.

Buchanan.

Barnes.

He pressed his thumb into the letters, like maybe if he could engrave the name into his skin he'd never forget it again.

"You-- thank you." Bucky closed his eyes and wrapped his fingers around the tags, reveling in the bite against his palm. He'd never thought about it, hadn't considered the absence of cold weight against his chest. Identifier. "I...I didn't even know I was missing them."

"Most people don't." Sam propped his chin on his forearms, watching Bucky as he ran the chain between his fingers, clutching his fist tight and releasing it open again, looking the necklace over. Hydra'd taken his, the same time they'd taken that drawing and his coat, burned it all to ash.

"And thanks for not...not giving them to me in front of everyone, that. I, uh. It's just really personal." Bucky glanced up and Sam nodded silently. As much as he wanted the chain around his neck again, he didn't want the emotions that'd come with it. He'd do it later, by himself. So instead he held them, turning the tags over in his palm.

“It's actually not...I mean, I wanted you to have the tags, but it's not what I wanted to talk about."

"Oh?" Bucky didn't look up, running his fingernail along the curved edge of metal instead. Nothing Sam said was going to surmount past this anyways.

"Yeah. I went to the Smithsonian exhibit a few weeks ago," Sam cleared his throat, maybe nervous? before continuing, "...and they got something wrong.”

Bucky snorted, glancing up with an amused smile. “You mean like how I was simultaneously born in both 1917 and 1916? I'm sure you can imagine how confusing that was, pre-memory-restoration. No wonder I was messed up.”

He was expecting a laugh, or at least a smile, but Sam just looked at him. Bucky shifted his weight uncomfortably, tightening his fingers around the individual bubbles of the chain. But he didn't get an answer, only a patient expression as Sam waited for him to cut the bullshit. Finally Bucky sighed, pushing an aggrieved hand through his hair.

“Fine, what is it?"

The brown eyes were looking at him cautiously - gaging a reaction? Why? What could possibly be that--

“Your part of the exhibit?" Sam straightened up, voice softening as he pinned Bucky with his gaze and said the four words Bucky was praying he'd never hear aloud. "It says you enlisted."

The colour drained from his face.

His eyes cut to the chain in his hand, rolling the serrations over his skin. He spread his fingers wide, taking in the exact amount of space between them, the energy along his fingertips, the way his chest expanded when he breathed. Careful, controlled, he was touching the edge of the bed, his clothes, the floor with the balls of his feet and his first four toes, his heels were in the air and--

“That's not what your serial number says." The words were low, half-asking a question that clearly, he already knew the answer to. Then his fists were curled tight enough to hurt and the metal in his right hand would get crushed, if he didn't let go.

He shoved the dogtags in his pocket, tucking the etched name and number out of sight.

The numbers Zola used to make him mumble on repeat.

The fucking number that gave him away.

Obviously Sam worked with vets, 'course he saw Bucky's serial and recognized the numbers - it wasn't the combination they gave the enlisted, it was the bastard number given to the soldiers who had to be drafted, dragged off their home turf before they agreed to suit up, to all the people like Bucky who'd never wanted it, who'd gotten a letter in the mail with their name and words to end a life.

No one was ever supposed to know.

It was the best thing that exhibit ever did for him, those words etched into the glass. Enlisted. It couldn't be any other way, not with who his best friend was.

"Steve doesn't know, does he?” Sam's voice shook the air again and Bucky parted his lips, staring at the ground and wondering if he could sink into the floor if he focused enough.

Of course he hadn't told--

“What don't I know?” Interrupted a voice from the doorway and both their heads snapped up. Steve was leaning in the doorway. He pursed his lips, looking between Sam and Bucky with his arms crossed over his chest. "I came back to get something, caught the tail-end of 'Steve doesn't know.'"

He stepped into the room, moving big and graceful and powerful and Bucky wanted to shrink away, crawl under the carpet and never face the light again. "So what don't I know?"

Steve sat down on the bed beside him, pinning sky-cut eyes and Bucky had to look away, desperately turning to Sam for help.

"He deserves to know," Sam offered quietly and hot tears welled up in Bucky's throat because yeah, he fucking knew that, he should've told Steve the moment he got the letter.

Better now than never, right?

Actually, scratch that, he'd much rather have this conversation never.

He could leave. Storm out, lock the door to his room, they'd let him go. It's what he wanted to do...escape the situation and he didn't have to deal with it.

But Steve was doing so much, trying to make this work, whatever the fuck this was and hell if Bucky was going to be the weak one.

Flailing in the dark for a maritime star. Praying it wouldn't blink out.

Blink.

"I never joined the army."

There, said it, done, he could go now--

Steve's hand landed on his arm and Bucky flinched, falling weakly back down to the bed. He didn't want to see the look on Steve's face, the hate and confusion and betrayal.

"What do you mean? Buck? I fought beside you, watched you ship out--"

"I was drafted," he interrupted flatly.

The hand on his arm fell away.

Silence.

Tick tick tick and Bucky could count the seconds from the patter of his pulse, and ten, fifteen, twenty, maybe he'd be the first person to count to infinity, and then

"What?" Quiet. Calm. Too calm. Way way way too calm, but hey, at least he hadn't walked out yet, right? He was saving that for later. Probably after he had the satisfaction of seeing Bucky cry. Wouldn't be long now, not with the way his throat was closed and his eyelashes were cold, clumped together, bottom lip wavering no matter how much he bit down.

Another ten seconds, god knows how long, and then he couldn't.

"I'm sorry," he broke, curling in against the light except the hands on his face had barely covered him, he'd barely pulled his knees into his chest before there was a heavy hand on his shoulder and one on his thigh, prying him back apart before he could become a whimpering ball and Bucky was so surprised he pulled his hands off his face and blinked at Steve, two fat tears rolling down his cheeks.

"No. We need to talk about this." Steve was looking at him with that face they'd given him the title Captain for. He was so goddamned pure, beautiful, good, noble and honorable and fuck, how was Bucky supposed to look him in the eye and admit he'd been a coward all along?

"First of all, why the hell is this the first I'm hearing of this? Are you...are you being serious? I mean, Buck. You've gotta be...this can't. Okay. Um. If you really....when the hell'd you get a letter? 'Cause I sure never saw one. And why'd you tell me you enlisted if you were..."

"A sunshine patriot?" Bucky asked with a self-depricating smile, wiping a quick hand over his face.

"C'mon, you know that's not--"

"That's exactly what you were gonna say," he bit back, jumping to his feet so he could sneer right in Steve's face. Letting the red take over his veins because it hurt less to shout than to cry. "These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine--"

"I know how the goddamn quote goes, Bucky." Then Steve was standing too, a few inches taller than him and like he was gonna let Steve use the fucking serum to win this fight.

He shoved Steve back on his ass with his metal fucking arm, two could play that game, and crossed his arms over his chest, leaning forward enough that Steve was forced to look up at him.

"Then you know exactly what people used to call the soldiers who got drafted. Why'd you think I never told you? So I didn't have to see the disgust on your face when you found out I wasn't the 'brave, courageous man' you always thought I was!"

"Seriously? Seriously, you're gonna pin this on me?"

"Oh, like you don't hate me right now?"

"I don't! I'm pissed," Steve bit back and Bucky threw up his hands because wasn't that the whole point, then Steve put a palm up to stop him and continued, "-that you didn't think you could tell me you got drafted into the goddamn army. That you felt like you had to lie to...to keep my respect for you!"

"What, like you respect me right now? No, don't answer that. I don't wanna fuckin' hear it out loud. If I did, I would've told you instead of burning the fucking letter."

"Oh, stop with the dramatics, would you? You seriously thought I'd feel better thinking you joined the army for me? I've lived with the guilt of that for years, Buck. I kept telling myself I pressured you to sign up, that Azzano, Zola, the fucking Winter Soldier never would've happened if I hadn't kept pushing you to fight. That it was my fault everything happened to you and you knew, you knew," and Steve was on his feet again, jabbing a finger in Bucky's chest and forcing him a step backwards, "-how guilty I felt for that because I told you and you just let me live with it? When all along it would've happened anyways? Are you fucking kidding me."

They were both staring, winded and emotional to all hell, and Bucky was so goddamned pissed, he could feel it in his bones and fuck. Fuck, he knew he was pushing that outwards on Steve, who sure as hell didn't deserve to take the brunt of Bucky's shame.

That's what it was, that's why he was pissed, at himself for refusing to sign up, for having to wait until he was dragged overseas when the sweetest, most honorable person he knew would do anything humanly possible - did do anything humanly possible - to get one minute of fighting for his country.

So yeah, he'd never told Steve. Because it was about more than what Steve thought about him.

It was what Bucky thought about himself.

He couldn't look Steve in the eyes, so he stared at the wall over his shoulder instead. "I couldn't...I couldn't tell you because. Because I don't deserve any of the- the honor and credit they all try to give me when I wasn't even." He sucked in a breath, closing his eyes so they didn't well up with tears again. "I wasn't even brave enough to go over there on my own. And. And you were so small and s-sick and you wanted to fight so badly you'd do anything and I couldn't bring myself to enlist, I couldn't bear to--"

A choked sound escaped his mouth and he ducked his head to his chest, taking a step back to sag against the wall. "I couldn't imagine..."

"What, Bucky? You couldn't imagine what?" It wasn't yelling anymore. It wasn't soft, more like...tired. Steve sounded exhausted. Done.

A week ago, he never would've been able to answer that. But. But Steve had kissed him and Steve cared about him, more than his second in command, more than even best friends, and. and.

He may not know what that meant or why Steve was doing any of this, but they'd kissed and somehow, that changed something. He didn't know what it changed or why Steve kept kissing him, but for some reason when he opened his mouth, the words didn't freeze in his throat.

"I couldn't imagine leaving you." He bit his bottom lip, shaking his head as tears prickled the corners of his eyes, trembling hands curled into weak fists. "I couldn't imagine having to live without you, Stevie, I'm. I'm so sorry, I needed you too much..."

Callused hands curled over his, tugging him off the wall.

"C'mere," Steve ordered, voice rough and gravely as he bundled Bucky into his chest, one hand pressed hard against the back of his head, the other arm barred over his shoulder as he held Bucky close and rocked them gently.

He clutched Steve's shirt in his hands, arms parallel with Steve's back and held on as tight as he knew how.

There'd been a time he hadn't felt emotions at all.

He couldn't decide if this was better or much much worse.

"You two okay?" Sam asked quietly from the side of the room and Bucky choked a sudden laugh, turning his face into Steve's shirt.

"Ohmygod, we forgot about Sam," he mumbled apologetically against the warm cotton and Steve finally seemed to catch on, hand on the back of his head leaving to probably cover his mouth in surprise.

Bucky lifted his head, resting his chin on Steve's shoulder to look behind them at Sam, who was still sitting in his chair, had seen that entire argument and Bucky was probably all puffy and red and he could still feel the glittering cold on his cheeks and nobody'd ever seen him like this except Steve, so the club of witnessing trash Bucky Barnes just expanded by one.

"I'm so sorry you had to see that," he winced, jaw clicking weirdly from keeping his chin on Steve's shoulder. Sam put a single hand in the air, mouth curling up a little on one side.

"Hey, man. It's all good. At least now I know how supersoldiers work through their problems. A lot of shoving and a lot of yelling."

Bucky snorted, tucking his face back down against Steve's collarbone and then Steve was turning them, looking over Bucky's back now as he mouthed something at Sam, except Bucky could really care less because Steve was holding him, hadn't left after he found out what a fuck-up Bucky was.

He'd ruined Steve's shining, reflective image of him, had wiped it black with truth from long before he killed people, and Steve was still here.

He had no idea why Steve hadn't left. And he was much too selfish to ask.

 

~*~*~

 

It was raining.

He couldn't remember the last time he'd sat and watched it rain.

The window at the far end of the art room, after stepping over the cacophony of paintings and supplies, had a window seat, a long, wide one that fit him easily with room to spare.

Steve sat on the windowsill with a mug of tea and watched it rain. He used to love this before the serum. Sometimes Bucky'd sit on the other end and Steve would watch the reflection of rain in those crystal eyes instead.

One thing that hadn't changed, over all this time, was the way the rain fell on the fading dusk of New York.

The rain hadn't lied to him about one of the most important--

Bucky'd been the one to bring up they were a war story. War stories started with letters. Drafting and enlistment letters. Red and blue. Bucky'd started the most influential chapter of their lives with the biggest lie imaginable.

Was this it? Was this the one thing he'd been hiding all these years? Was this why he refused to talk about how he felt when they were kids? Was this the big secret Natasha wanted him to find out?

All that talk of spies and trust. Steve wanted to be trusting, he did. This was Bucky. And he'd been lying for how long?

But the rain cleared his mind. Let him think. And he was going to prove that even this -- this -- was part of their story. It all was. He only had to figure out how to say it.

The door creaked open slowly, a silent foot touching hesitantly inside. The nervous features asked a single silent question. Steve nodded and turned back to the rain.

It was hard to be graceful when climbing over a mess of canvases and paint but somehow Bucky managed it. He really was an assassin after all. Steve scooted one leg up, bending at the knee so Buck would have room on his half of the bench. His other foot was on the floor beside the windowseat, propping him up and out of the way for Bucky to sit.

Steve just hadn't expected him to choose there.

Hesitantly, propped a few inches away, looking over his shoulder for permission first. Steve sat his mug down and opened his arms, waiting for Bucky to lean back against his chest before he wrapped his arms around Buck's torso, hands sliding into the hoodie pocket over his stomach. Bucky pulled up both his legs, feet flat on the windowseat as he settled back against Steve, covering Steve's hands with his own.

The rain was pattering softly against the window, wind blowing it at a rougher angle than before. But it was still beautiful, always was, from angrily pattering to a gentle drizzle.

The heavy weight on his chest was grounding, warm. Everything he hadn't had the last time he'd done this - sitting alone on a windowsill a few months after waking up, staring at the foreign outside world and wishing he had his best friend beside him.

But those dark days? That was the worst time in Steve's life. Those months after Bucky died, after Steve's existence was cut in two. And maybe Bucky lied to him, maybe he hurt Steve - a lot - but he was here. In Steve's arms, the strong muscles of his back solid against Steve's chest. How could...how could he stay pissed? In the end, it didn't matter. What mattered was they had each other now.

He tightened his arms around Bucky's torso, pulling him in closer and eliciting a soft sound as he pressed his nose to the side of that beautiful face. Crystal eyes slipped closed and Steve opened his mouth, breathing soft over Bucky's ear for a few beats before he brushed his mouth close, placing the words right onto heated skin.

"I forgive you," Steve whispered, and Bucky deflated against him, going soft and pliant with relief as he turned towards the window, reaching his head up to kiss under Steve's chin. He ran his fingers through thick, long hair, carefully untangling knots as Bucky curled closer against his chest, knees knocked over and pressed to the cold glass as he gripped one hand tight in Steve's shirt, head falling to Steve's collarbone.

The rain settled, quiet steady bullets from the sky, splashing on pavement far far below. Two boys sat on a windowsill, one cradling the other in his arms, holding each other close as water poured down outside.

It was probably twenty minutes later that Bucky fell asleep on him, exhaustion making his eyes droop and slide shut, breathing slow and deep as he let himself drop off in the safety of Steve's arms. He ran his hands carefully over Bucky's hair, the sides of his face, smoothing down his torso and his sides, securing warmth around him while he rested.

A few months ago, Bucky hadn't slept at all, not until he came stumbling into Steve's apartment with wary eyes, jumping up and clutching a knife the moment he awoke. And now Bucky was passed out on his chest, fingers loosely tangled in his clothes and body curled as tight to Steve as he could manage.

It was an hour later that Steve threatened to fall asleep too; shifting carefully, avoiding the mug of tea as he slipped off the windowseat, he lifted Bucky up bridal style, tipping him inwards and turning his face against Steve's chest. Carrying him all the way across the apartment to his bed.

A few years ago, Bucky'd been shot in the thigh and Steve had carried him out of the city exactly like this, climbing over twisting roots in the woods and soaking his Captain's uniform as he waded through a river, looking down at his pale best friend with his heart in his throat.

He didn't let himself fall asleep beside Bucky this time. He wouldn't be able to take the heartbreak of waking in the morning alone.

~*~*~

He woke up alone.

It was his fault; he'd never told Steve he could stay.

He shouldn't care.

But he felt empty. Hollowed out. Missing.

He couldn't hate Steve for not staying. But he could hate himself for making Steve think he couldn't.

And he hated himself the most for wanting Steve to stay so goddamn badly.

When Steve came to check on him at eleven the next morning, Bucky was staring at the ceiling, lips red from how much he'd bitten them in attempt not to call out Steve's name.

"Buck?" The door shut softly behind him and Steve sat down on the edge of his bed, stroking one hand through Bucky's hair. He couldn't help it. He turned into the touch, nosing at Steve's hand with his eyes screwed shut. "You feelin' okay?"

"Fine," he choked out, keeping his eyes shut so he didn't see Steve's stupid face. He wanted to grab that jaw and kiss him until he bled.

"You mind if I sit awhile?"

Yes, conditioned training formed on his lips.

"No," his mouth answered for him. Bad dog. Steve scooted up on his bed, laying beside him and stroking his fingers down the back of Bucky's neck. They were so warm and solid and fuck, Bucky wanted them tangled in his hair.

With his eyes shut, he could keep the vibrations down his spine minimized, he could keep Steve out of his goddamned head--

And then damp lips were on his. Bucky's lips parted in ecstasy and the chaste kiss of comfort was suddenly Steve's tongue sliding into his mouth, violent shivers running through his bones and his body pulled itself closer to Steve's without his permission and then a warm hand was pressing hard against his lower back, holding Bucky up against his hips and every nerve ending in his body was warning him, bright red flashing signs

off off off

don't touch don't touch

his senses overloaded with every instinct to stop, poison seeping into his mouth from Steve's, toxic every place they touched and he needed--

The Winter Soldier did not need.

Only now he needed too much.

Consumed, buried so deeply in his veins he could devour Steve from the inside out and this, this was what he'd been worried about, this was so much more than comfort and crushes, this was addiction and pain and he wanted to bar his metal arm against Steve's throat just to hear him choke Bucky's name and--

No one'd told him the serum amplified everything. Including emotions. He'd been repressing them from the moment he'd gotten drugged up in Azzano. And now that Steve was trying to

open

the

floodgates?

"Hey, hey," Bucky mumbled into Steve's mouth, getting a metal hand between them and shoving Steve gently upwards. Their mouths broke apart with a twist to Bucky's gut and he managed a breathy, barely-there smile up at Steve because it was the only way not to scream or pull him back in. "Breakfast?"

Steve groaned, dropping his forehead to Bucky's chest. "Can't you eat later?"

"No. I'm hungry." He ran a controlled hand through Steve's blonde hair, watching with careful eyes to be sure it didn't shake. He was hungry, but not for breakfast. He needed air before he lost the last grip he had on these tumultuous waves inside him.

A heavy sigh shoved hot air against his chest - Bucky closed his eyes and grit his teeth, then Steve's head lifted and he smoothed out every tense muscle in his face, looking down with patient, sculpted softness. He should be on Broadway.

"Do you want grapefruit? Pepper said something about a really good--"

"Sure. Great. Cut it up for me?" So I can have three seconds to breathe without inhaling fumes?

"And he thinks just 'cause I kiss him now I'm his servant," Steve grumbled, inching forward to press another short peck to Bucky's lips, sticky and tugging then he was climbing off and Bucky was sucking freezing air into his lungs and his room was empty, door wide open.

Fuck.

 

"Get up. We're going out."

"What?" Bucky looked up as Steve smacked his foot, raising his eyebrows and gesturing hurriedly at Bucky.

"C'mon. Get dressed. We're going out."

"Where?" Bucky looked back down, uninterested. Steve grabbed his foot and pulled.

The squawk that came out of his mouth was not his, he'd claim that to this day. But dumped on his ass on the living room floor with Captain America standing over him with his hands on his hips and that patriotic-ass look on his face?

Bucky got off the floor and put on nicer clothes.

 

"Do people even do that anymore?"

"'Course they do. A lot might've changed, but going out for drinks isn't one of them."

He glared out the tinted window. It wasn't that it didn't sound like fun, it was just that...everything lately? Bucky sucked in a breath and glanced back at Steve.

"Why are you doing this? Like...all of it. Flowers, the gym, taking me out drinking..."

Steve shrugged, eyes on the road. "Things have been hardcore lately. I figured we could use some fun."

That wasn't what he meant. But he wouldn't ask again.

"...it's not that easy, Steve. All the crap doesn't go away if you ignore it."

"No, it doesn't." Blue eyes glanced over from the other side of the car, all sweet and serious at the same time. "But the bad times don't have to be over for the good times to begin."

 

"Steve," Bucky whispered into his ear. "Steve, is this dancing? I don't think this is dancing."

"You're the dance expert, not me."

"Steve," Bucky tugged his sleeve. "Steve, I really don't think this is our scene."

Steve raised his eyebrows and knocked back the shotglass the bartender slid him. He didn't feel the burn, but he needed to do something with his hands.

The bodies on the dancefloor were basically...having sex with their clothes on.

The music was so fucking loud, he didn't care how old he sounded saying that.

"You can get a little tipsy, right?" He shouted over the bass, leaning closer to Bucky's stool. Bucky looked between him and ridiculous supply of alcoholic beverages behind the bar.

"A little." Bucky made a face and Steve lifted his hand, calling the bartender over.

"Give me ten of the strongest stuff you've got."

He got a really concerned look, then he slid Stark's card across the bar and there were no more problems after that.

Steve laughed as Bucky made a horrified face at the greenish liquid the bartender plopped down on the slick black surface. He made a worse face after tipping it back, but then he was reaching for the next one and Steve leaned on the bar, propping his head in his hand as he watched Bucky grimace his way through the drinks.

They'd had some bad experiences with drinking since Azzano, but Steve was sober and on red alert; the slight chance of an episode was worth getting Bucky to loosen up for the first time since their roadtrip. It was killing him, watching how much Bucky beat himself up over everything.

You know what he needed? Bucky Barnes needed to dance.

Ten apparently terrible drinks later and a vodka to wash it down - Russia, god - and Bucky's eyes were a little brighter, looking over the squirming bodies on the dancefloor with genuine curiosity instead of disgust. Steve slid off his barstool and scooted up to Bucky's side, leaning close to his ear so Bucky could hear him over the blaring music.

"You wanna dance?"

"C'mon, Stevie, you know we ca..." Bucky trailed off, turning in his seat slowly to look at Steve with wide eyes. "There's guys on that dancefloor. Together."

Steve stuck his tongue in his cheek, biting back his laughter at the look on Bucky's face. "Yes, Buck. There are."

"So we could...you and me..."

"Yep." Steve popped the 'p,' leaning in close enough to make Bucky go cross-eyed looking at him. "We can."

Another glance at the dancefloor, then the DJ and the rest of the room, and Bucky turned to him again. "It's dark enough in here, flashy lights and everything, no one's recognized you yet."

"Entirely anonymous," he confirmed. Bucky blinked, staring at Steve like he was something out a gold mine. Then there was a gloved hand squeezing his and Steve jolted as Bucky jumped off the stool and started towards the dancefloor.

They weaved between sweaty, scantily-clad bodies until a spot in the middle of the floor opened up, the beat of a new song started up. It didn't sound like a real instrument, but then Bucky's arms were wrapping around his neck and he was swaying his hips tentatively back and forth so Steve was definitely not complaining.

"C'mon, put your hands on my waist," Bucky breathed into his ear and that was it, there went any bit of resolve Steve had.

His hands settled on the light curve of Bucky's waist for about three seconds before he decided that one of them had to adapt to this century sometime. Might as well be here.

With a quick shove to Bucky's right side and equal tug to his left, Steve spun Bucky around and pulled their bodies flush with his fingers digging low into the jut of Bucky's hipbones. He felt the air leave Bucky's body in a shocked gasp, then his head was leaning back on Steve's shoulder with his eyes closed and lips parted in arousal and Steve sunk his teeth into the side of Bucky's neck and ground their bodies together.

"F-fuck," Bucky cursed, low and rough, bass too loud to hear it, the word slipping silent into the smoky air around them. He kissed the faded bite mark, pressing his lips too long because Bucky was irrationally, wonderfully warm.

The music was loud enough to sink into his bones, crashing beats against his insides, steady and downright dirty. The bass made the floor beneath their feet tremble and every place their bodies were touching - pressing - was throbbing, making Steve's head spin, dizzy with the heat between them.

The curve of Bucky's body against him, the solid, undeniable weight of his arousal pressed against Bucky's ass, Buck's hands pressed over his, forcing Steve to grip him tighter and fuck, Steve could get onboard with the twenty-first century. Thumping in his chest, the energy thrumming in his fingertips as he hiked up Bucky's thin black shirt, eliciting another broken sound as he painted his touch against the heated skin stretched over sharp hipbones.

He could feel the leashed moan in Bucky's chest, a dark low sound, vibrating under his skin, and he had to dig his fingers in harder to anchor himself. The room blurred around them, sweat and alcohol and artificial smoke.

And then Bucky's hands reached backwards, sliding over Steve's hips until his fingertips were brushing over the edges of Steve's ass and then they were curling hard against his jean pockets and there were only a few layers of clothes between that metal hand and his ass and Steve's knees nearly gave out with the heavy rush reverberating into his spine.

"Ahh, Buck," he groaned, voice low and rocky. Then Bucky was grinding back against him hard and Steve wasn't in his mind anymore, he was lit up like the fireworks on his birthday except this was way better than any birthday he'd had.

A hand shoved up in his hair, fucking it up royally and god, he wanted Bucky to wreck him, wanted to walk out of here stumbling with bruises and fucked up hair and a swollen mouth for a reason that was finally not a fist fight.

He couldn't resist, Bucky was devastatingly gravitational and Steve was so so gone, the secure hands on Bucky's hips started to wander, skimming up under his shirt over the tight planes of his stomach, hard muscle tensing under his chest and then Bucky rolled his hips back slow, so slow Steve's stomach coiled tight enough to shake another moan past his lips.

The music shifted, picking up faster in the background but he didn't notice, not when Bucky's pretty mouth was turning to him and whispering firmly against his neck, "Yeah, babydoll, c'mon."

Would it be entirely too forward to drag Bucky off the dance floor and bend him over the sinks in the bathroom and ruin him in every way imaginable?

Except they hadn't talked about that, hadn't gotten anywhere near that, and honestly he'd be just as fine with pushing Bucky into a wall, makeout and grind against each other.Those lips were wet and parted and the most familiar shape he knew, the most addicting thing he'd ever had against his and god, Steve wanted to kiss Bucky until the world stopped spinning around them.

"Steve," Bucky said again, voice strangely clear, and it wasn't until the hand slipped out of his hair that Steve opened his eyes, blinking and looking back down at Bucky.

"Hmm?" he hummed, an octave too high with the way his brain wasn't exactly functioning right now.

"Did you hear that?" Bucky'd stopped moving, looking up at Steve with his eyebrows furrowed. Steve blinked at him, hands still swaying Bucky's hips back and forth except they were barely touching now, and maybe that was helping clear his head a little. "Pretty sure the song just said...wait. Okay, hold on, we have to call Natasha."

"We have to-- what?" His confusion disappeared under the blaring song and the sudden jarring of being dragged across the dancefloor. "Buckyyy," he whined, tightening his fingers around the hand dragging his. He didn't want to call Nat he wanted to dance with Bucky. Or makeout with Bucky. Although it did look like they were headed towards the bathrooms.

"Wait, wait, listen." Bucky stopped, putting a hand on the center of Steve's chest and thank god that was there, he was about to fall over, only how was it that he felt like the drunk one? Although, looking closer, Bucky was totally swaying off tempo, his lips shiny and wet and why wasn't Steve kissing him?

He leaned forward, landing his mouth sloppily against Bucky's, the intoxicating wet drag that had nothing to do with the alcohol, the cling of Bucky's plush lips to his and god, that was great--

And then he heard it.

He actually laughed into Bucky's mouth before thinking to lift his head, cocking it to the side as he listened harder to the lyrics. "Black, black widow baby."

"Oh my god," Steve gaped for a moment, then the next line came in I'm gonna l-l-l-love you until it hurts. Just to get you I'm doing whatever works, and if that wasn't Natasha he didn't know what was. "You have to--" he turned back to Bucky, but he already had his phone pressed to his ear, dragging Steve towards the bathrooms.

"Natasha!" Bucky shouted into the phone, slamming the bathroom door behind them. The music was still really loud in here, but you could hear yourself think too, which was nice.

"Barnes? Is Steve alr--"

"NAT!! There's a song about you! And it's like waaaayy worse than Star-Spangled Man." Steve giggled and Bucky shoved him, then he was half falling, grabbing Bucky's hip with one hand and the wall with another, and suddenly Bucky was pinned against the wall, blinking wide pretty eyes up at him and then that mouth opened....

To shout into the phone again. "Hold on, hold on, it's comin' up. Wait, listen."

Bucky held the phone up and Steve finally noticed the speaker button was on, which would probably explain why he'd heard her so well.

This is the web, web that you weave, the song sang and Bucky covered Steve's mouth with a hand, trying to keep his laughter quiet so Natasha could hear but while they were waiting they might as well be kissing. Steve pressed his mouth to Bucky's, only wait, his hand was still there. Well. They were kissing through his hand at least.

"Are you guys in a club?"

"Why are you not freaking out about this song?" Steve demanded, breaking off to stare at the phone in Bucky's hand.

"I've heard it before."

Bucky groaned, banging his head back against the wall and mouthing goddammit and wait, his mouth was free again, only then he was being pushed back by a metal hand and how did Bucky have more resolve than him all the time?

"But you didn't answer my question. You guys went clubbing? And you haven't freaked out and left yet?"

"We're not that lame," he whined and then Bucky gave him a look and he could picture the Natasha-version of that same look probably on the other side of the phone right now.

"You know, twenty-first century dancing can be very fun if you give it a shot--"

"Oh, believe me, we know," Steve told the phone and then Bucky's hand was clapping over Steve's mouth - again - and he squeaked in annoyance.

"You guys are at a club and grinding?"

"No, Steve's drunk," Bucky tried to cover, only Natasha snorted at him and said, "Steve can't get drunk."

"You should see 'im right now, you'd be surprised. Although he's not drunk on alcohol, just m--fuck."

Steve had gotten tired of Bucky's hand over his mouth and decided to lick his way up one of Bucky's fingers before pulling it into his mouth. Now Bucky was staring at him with wide eyes and a bead of sweat rolling down his temple, his finger salty and heavy on Steve's tongue and wow, they should do this way more often.

"Are you okay?" Nat asked over the phone and Steve couldn't answer with his mouth preoccupied so that left Bucky to breathe, "Yeah, fine. We gotta go, bye."

The phone clattered to the ground and Bucky's finger popped out of Steve's mouth, replaced with his tongue and then Steve was being shoved back against the sinks and he moaned, threading thick hair through his fingers and pressing back against Bucky hungrily.

Unwielding hands shoved against his ribs, yanking his shirt up and then there was cold metal running up his bare sternum and solid teeth sunk into his bottom lip and Steve cried out, clutching Bucky's hair and pushing their mouths together harder, tasting a hint of cooper as Bucky ground his hips forward against Steve's and fuck his mind went white.

The heavy heat against his crotch was making him see stars and he let go of the long thick hair to grab Bucky's ass and drag him closer, kicking his feet out to the side to press against that hard pulse and then Bucky's hands were on his shoulders and Steve had about three milliseconds to register that before he was being shoved to his knees, denim smacking the dirty bathroom floor hard enough to throb except that really wasn't the throbbing part of him he was concerned with.

Or the part of Bucky he was concerned with. His knees were still smarting, sending a tingle up his spine that traveled right back down to tighten his pants and he tipped his head back, meeting those crystal eyes looking down at him as that metal hand shoved into his hair, gripping the short strands tight and it was predatorial, the way Bucky was staring down at him. Animal, someone'd called him. Fuck.

He leaned his forehead on Bucky's hip, so dizzy with want the room was threatening to tip, and Bucky's hand smoothed down the back of his head, still rough, still possessive, but comforting too and god, fuck, if that didn't make Steve want to do this even more.

Running his hands up the sides of Bucky's thighs Steve lifted his head again, peeking up at Bucky one more time before breathing out heavily and inching his fingers closer to that zipper.

He didn't even get the chance to touch metal before there was a loud banging on the door and that's right, Bucky'd locked it and this was a public restroom after all, if he had to pee he'd be super annoyed about people making out or doing...other things in here and leaving a public commodity unavailable to the rest of the population, especially one that'd been drinking a lot.

With a very reluctant and still spinning head he pushed to his feet, eliciting a groan and an arm wrapping around his stomach as he tried to walk away and okay, if Bucky pulled him tight enough to press up against his ass Steve was gonna be gone, so he shoved forward and quickly yanked open the door, Bucky's arm still around his waist as he peered angrily over Steve's shoulder.

"Sorry," he winced, then the interrupter stormed past them and nearly stepped on Bucky's phone so thank god Steve thought to bend over and pick it up only Bucky was still behind him and the sound he made--

They really had to get out of here.

And sleep in different rooms.

Before somebody did something really stupid.

He hauled Bucky out of the club with an arm around his waist and Bucky kept kissing his neck when they passed through the shadowed areas and hell, maybe nights on the town weren't his brightest idea. Especially when he was drunk on Bucky and Bucky was at least tipsy for real and seriously, weren't they supposed to talk about these things before doing stupid stuff in club bathrooms?

Except once he called a cab, Bucky passed out on his lap with a soft smile on his pretty face, so maybe tonight wasn't exactly his worst idea either.

 

~*~*~

 

They'd just come back from a mission when Steve first did it. Bucky was exhausted and gross and stripped off his shirt before the elevator doors slid shut behind them. Steve whistled low and Bucky flicked him off, then they were both getting water glasses from the kitchen, leaning against the counter with twin groans.

"I'm gonna go take a shower," Steve whispered against his cheek, pressing a quick kiss to Bucky's sweat-sticky skin. "Mmm, have fun," he hummed back, tilting his head to the side as Steve pressed another kiss to his neck, then his shoulder. Then the red star on his arm.

Bucky pulled away, shoving Steve back lightly and holding his arm out of Steve's reach. "Don't," he warned quietly, turning to put his glass in the sink. Except Steve caught his shoulder, turned him back around.

"Why not? You don't like the star?" The worry in that statement held even more than than the weight did. He didn't answer, then a pressure slid over the plates, Steve's thumb tracing over the mark. "I think it's patriotic."

He yanked his arm away again, starting for his room as he muttered to himself. "Yeah, for Russia."

"What?"

"Steve, it's the Soviet symbol? Hello?" He cupped his hand over the red metal, wishing he'd thought to paint over it by now. Although honestly, he wasn't sure he could.

It wasn't hard to hear Steve following him to his room, so Bucky didn't bother kicking the door shut behind him, sitting down on the edge of his bed with enough room for Steve to sit quietly beside him. On the right side.

"It shows I belong-- belonged, to them. Like a brand." He turned the metal hand over, watching the way the plates shifted and glinted in the light.

"We could get rid of it, if you wanted." Steve scooted further on the bed, coming up behind him lay his palm gently over the metal. So much for putting him on the right. Steve's fingers were running so gently over his arm he could barely detect them, tingles more than pressure. He didn't know the sensors could do that. "Or..." the trace of the star, an outline Bucky could swear he felt sometimes, "...instead of altering you why don't we alter what it means?"

Bucky turned over his shoulder to give Steve his what the hell does that mean face, then Steve was climbing off the bed, spinning around as he scanned Bucky's room and found what he was looking for by the window. Grabbing a clipboard, paper and colored pencils, he sat back down, shoulders tipping together as the mattress shifted.

He started drawing, careful thin strokes of color across the paper, outlining a shape that'd become achingly familiar. As touching as it was, he really wasn't all that interested.

"I'm not gonna wear a flag suit like you," Bucky rolled his eyes and nudged Steve with his elbow, because he was still drawing that signature Captain America suit that looked great on Steve and Bucky had absolutely no reason to wear.

"It's not for you," Steve replied, focused hard on his drawing and missing the confusion knotting Bucky's expression.

So he sat and watched for a while, the outfit sketching more dimensional, padded and smart like his blue one, closer in color to his old one with red and white stripes across the stomach. By the time he finished it looked really good, clean and sharp with heavy outlines and stark colors. Steve straightened up and held the clipboard out, showing the suit to Bucky.

He nodded, because it did look good, but he still didn't get whatever point Steve was trying to prove. Then he put the clipboard in his lap again, grabbing the red pencil and pressing hard, dark lines on the chest, outlining the silver-white star in bright red.

"There." Steve scribbled the lines darker, "Now your red star is over my heart."

He stared wide-eyed at the drawing. Steve wanted to have Bucky's star...and then he was swooping the red lines out at two of the tips, arching them across his chest and wrapping them over the top of his arms, tying it in perfectly with the rest of the uniform. "And this way, it wraps all around me..."

"You're a fuckin' sap," Bucky said incredulously, taking the clipboard from Steve. He took the blue pencil and eraser, smudging out the red on the top point of the star and the two bottom points, leaving the red outlines on the other two points that wrapped across the rest of his chest. "That looks better. And this way, it almost looks like something red is holding the star."

Steve laughed, nudging him back. "You're an even bigger sap than I am." Bucky shrugged exaggeratedly and handed Steve the clipboard as he popped off the bed with the energy of that tiny kid from Brooklyn. "I'm gonna show the sketch to Tony, get him to make it for me."

He started for the door and Bucky gave him a little wave, except then Steve stopped in the doorframe, one hand on the wood as he turned around and gave Bucky that look.

"So now your star means something...it means we match." Bucky groaned and Steve stepped closer, wide-ass smile on his face. "We're a pair, a duo, it's so ROMEO AND JULIET."

And it was worth getting off the bed if it meant shoving that smug, laughing face out of his room with some very rude expletives and a smile on his face to cancel them all out.

The next time he saw the star in the mirror, that sinking feeling in his gut of branded didn't feel so bad. It didn't stand for Russia anymore.

It stood for Steve.

Bucky let him kiss the red star when he got back from Tony's lab. He let Steve kiss all the way up his left arm.

~*~*~

It took some searching, but he finally found Steve on one of the communal floors, elbows propped on the counter with a pile of papers spread in front of him, talking to a holographic screen and practically bent in half at the angle. He stopped and leaned against the wall a little ways away, admiring the view until Steve finally noticed him, straightening up and saying goodbye to Bruce before shutting off the screen and scooping up the papers into a pile.

"You're back." The smile on Steve's face was tucked in at the corners, lips rolled in so he didn't end up grinning wide like an idiot. Except his eyes were dancing and bright and it wasn't like Bucky wasn't gonna notice how happy Steve was to see him.

"I'm back," he confirmed, twitch of a half-smile as he hopped up the inset three steps leading to the kitchen, then Steve's arms were sliding around his waist, under his jacket, both of them checking over each other's shoulders for company before Bucky leaned up on his tiptoes and pressed a kiss to Steve's mouth. Fingers pushed up through his hair, smoothing it away from his face and combing out the few light tangles as Bucky slipped his hands up under Steve's shirt, heat-warm metal still making Steve shiver against him.

When they pulled away Steve pressed a kiss to his forehead, hands cupping Bucky's jaw and tilting his face up to look him over. He let Steve look his fill, tracing lazy patterns across his back with fingertips while he waited.

"I missed you," he whispered, hands dropping to Bucky's shoulders. And this time it was his turn to lift a hand to Steve's face, holding the pretty jaw as his eyes crinkled in a smile.

"I always miss you, Stevie." The precious blonde head ducked, bright smile and faint blush on his cheeks. Bucky pressed his thumb against Steve's shoulder, holding him solid and steady as he leaned forward to whisper in his ear. "Even if it was only a day-mission with Clint."

"You better," Steve mumbled back, shoving Bucky's collarbone in his flushed grievance. It was adorable, so much like the way he acted when he was younger, that Bucky had to tip his head up and kiss him again.

His lips were soft and pliant, moving under Bucky's so easy, breaking apart to soon, always too soon. Then a light went off behind Steve's eyes and he straightened up, mouth curving in excitement. He didn't bother moving out of Bucky's loose embrace, reaching around his arm to dig something out of his pocket.

"We," he announced, pulling two slips of hard paper into the air. "-are going on a date."

"A date? Jeez, Rogers. You gone outta your mind?"

"Why couldn't we?"

Steve's eyes widened all innocently and Bucky narrowed his, analyzing Steve and the two suspicious pieces of paper between his fingers. They weren't...they weren't dating. Yeah, they'd kissed. A couple times. But they were still best friends, and going on a date? That wasn't something they did. Like...why would they?

“What's your game?” He asked warily, hands frozen on Steve's sides as he tilted his head up to look directly at those pieces of sky. Steve softened at the tone in Bucky's voice, fingertips running along his right arm and sending tingles up his spine.

“Don't you wanna go back?" That c'mon, Buck plea was in the curve of those pretty lips and Bucky squinted, analyzing Steve harder as fingers closed tight around his bicep. "You and me, the old days. Let's be the way we never got to be then.”

There were a lot of ways they never got to be then. But. But if Steve wanted to court him, take him on dates to make up for all the times they'd gone with girls instead of each other...

"My hair's too long for that," Bucky conceded, pushing a handful backwards for emphasis. Steve's eyes lit up in a smile because he heard the yes, then Bucky's hand was covered with another, warm fingers threading through his hair with an affectionate grin.

"I like your hair." Dry lips pressed a kiss to Bucky's forehead and he closed his eyes, pushing aside the thought at least one of us does before it ate him up. Then Steve was leaning back, sunshine smile as he presented the tickets to Bucky with a flourish.

"So, we're going." Steve's fingers brushed his, waiting with his tongue in his cheek while Bucky read them over.

"These are train tickets." Bucky turned them over, not seeing what they'd have to do in that destination. Then he flipped them again, staring at the front for a moment before it clicked in and he looked back up at Steve. "These are train tickets."

Steve shrugged, one hand playing with the long hair at the base of Bucky's neck. "I figured we've gotta conquer it eventually, right? Why not together?"

 

The platform was noisy, full of people crowding each other and for once, when Steve reached for his hand, Bucky let him take it. It wasn't about the whole new kissing thing though whatever that was - it was about the two of them finding comfort in each other's touch the way they always had.

They waited in silence, standing with shoulders pressed together as people milled around them on the tracks.

Then the train came roaring around the corner. Impossibly loud, chunking engine and piercing whistle as the wheelbars whipped in spinning circles.

Steve cringed at the sound, forcing warm air into his lungs. Bucky was here beside him, his hand in Steve's. They were fine. It was just another form of transportation.

If Bucky was doing fine and he's the one who fell, then seriously, Steve shouldn't be shaking. What gave him the right? Only then he glanced over at Bucky and maybe he wasn't doing so fine after all. If the gloved metal bruising his hand was any indication, anyways.

They both stood in silent checkmate, staring at the train and the cacophony of sounds washing over the platform. Steve was frozen again, stuck in a coma of ice and couldn't move at all--

"We tried," Bucky suddenly announced, tugging Steve's hand and pulling him off the platform. Good lord could Steve agree with that. He laughed incredulously as Bucky shoved through the crowd, pulling them back out into the lobby and holding the tickets up in front of them, letting go of Steve's hand to dramatically shred them into the closest trash can.

Steve smiled all the way to the bus.

The seats were admittedly cramped and it smelled like the underside of an extremely dirty city, but they crammed their shoulders together and sunk low in the seats, one earbud for both as they listened to Bucky's iPod and whispered made-up stories about the other patrons.

"Why can't you tell me where we're going?" Bucky whined, tipping his head against Steve's shoulder.

"The whole point of a date--"

"Oh what do you know about dates?"

"Plenty! Watched you go on 'em all the time."

"Shut up," he grumbled, poking a finger into Steve's pretty waist. "S'not like we couldda done this in the thirties."

"Would you have wanted to?"

"Are we really gonna get into this now?"

"Why not?"

"Because it's the past, there's nothing we can do about it. Plus you're interrupting, this is a great song. Now we're gonna have to start it over."

Steve had to admit, it was a good song.

They got off the bus in DC. Truth was, the whole time Steve'd lived here, he'd never once gone. He'd ran past it almost every morning, but nothing could make him turn down the path to cut between the Lincoln memorial and the Washington Monument. He couldn't do it.

But now that Bucky was here? He deserved to go.

"You taking me on a date to see a dead guy pillar?"

"C'mon, Buck. It's George Washington, it's a monument."

"He owned 123 slaves and used to be a spy, don't tell me Captain America doesn't know his American history."

"Yes, I do, why do you?"

"Because I am not as dumb as you think."

"I don't think you're dumb," Steve shoved Bucky's shoulder lightly and then a metal arm was shoving him off the sidewalk.

Bucky laughed at him way longer than necessary, finally settling down as they neared Washington Monument. "Wait, are we seriously going to the tower thing?"

"No, we aren't."

"I thought dates were supposed to be fun. Like dancing and drinking."

"We tried that. It didn't end well."

"It didn't end badly. And it wasn't a date."

"True. But still."

"...but seriously, monuments? D.C.? Can't we go to the movies like normal people?"

"We go to the Avengers movie nights all the time. Besides," Steve looped his arm through Bucky's, turning them down the split in the sidewalk he'd never taken before. "This is more important."

"What could possibly be...oh."

They stopped and Bucky stared.

Here we mark the price of freedom.

More than 4,000 gold stars reflecting the sunlight. Huge white pillars with wreaths, a fountain pool in the center. The two gazebos, Atlantic and Pacific at the ends. The National World War II Monument.

The war. The beginning of the end, the end of the beginning, the catalyst to everything and the suppression of the air in their lungs. Lies, bullets, prayers, a sniper scope and a shield, seven men in uniform in the back corner of a rundown bar.

The memorial was a circle. They stepped onto the path quietly, pausing at the Victory Medal embedded into the ground. A medal they'd never gotten to see. Victory.

No part of it had ever felt like victory.

In silence they moved along a curving wall, bas relief depictions in an arching story. Engraved: soon-to-be servicemen getting physical exams, taking the oath, being issued military gear. Bucky's eyes cut away and his arm unhooked from Steve's. Steve didn't stop him.

It was an entire study, scenes following through the war, soldiers in uniforms nicer than any the Howlies' had ever worn. Sun shadows over deep engravings, men in combat.

And Steve's turn to stop, step closer, press his fingers against the wall. Broken-hearted brothers burying their dead. Something he'd never gotten the chance to do with Bucky. Something the Commandos had never gotten to do with him.

Eventually Bucky took Steve's hand off the wall, both of them moving in perfect silence as they stepped further on, arms falling to their sides, shoulders brushing as twin gazes followed the carvings. The elation of the homecoming scene. The brilliant smiles and the cheering. A couple dancing in the street, another kissing over a mailbox, people waving flags and leaning out of windows. Neither of them had that either.

The last scene was of a handshake between the American and Russian armies when the western and eastern fronts met in Germany.

Steve put his arm around Bucky to still the shaking. "They didn't know," he whispered against his ear. Bucky covered his mouth and nodded, staring at the joined hands. The Americans, Bucky's home; the Russians, his captors; shaking hands at the end of the war he'd given his life for.

By the time they'd gravitated back to the Atlantic gazebo no one'd cried, but they'd come pretty close. As soon as Steve propped on the white stone wall, scooting over to leave room for Bucky, those crystal eyes turned to him, too shiny and dangerously pretty.

"You tryin' to make me cry on a first date? What kinda fella are you? Mixin' this with..."

"Us? I told you, Bucky. This war? Our war story? It's the same thing as our love story."

Bucky turned away, shielding his eyes from the sun as he squinted at the immense marble columns surrounding them, the glitter off the fountain pool. "How, Steve? How? I look at this...at us?" Crystal turned to him, surreally beautiful, brown hair fluttering in the wind. "And I don't see anything but those engravings, but our lives laid out bloody and sad. The only flowers we get are the ones on graves."

His chest rose and fell, a slow steady breath, eyes closed against the sun and those words. Bucky waited, watching Steve ground himself, watching his hands flatten against the white stone beneath them, blonde hair batting against his forehead and how much had changed since the last time they'd sat somewhere and talked.

How many memories were full of smoke and fire? How did Steve not see that? Did he not remember the clarity, the stark whip of death, of living on the brink of that...

"Bucky? When...when you first heard about the war, what's the first thing you did?" Steve's eyes were still closed, or maybe downcast, and Bucky squinted across the memorial, the circling pillars shining so white and clean and opposite of war's reality.

"We were in art class. I turned to you and--"

"You turned to me. And what did you do when I told you I wanted to train?"

Bucky furrowed his eyebrows, glancing over curiously again. "I took you to that gym and taught you what I could."

Steve nodded, head lifting to look out over the water, sun blinding a halo behind him, so beautifully regal against all that white stone, like the angel who'd come to visit his own grave. Their own graves.

"When I stopped in front of the first I Want You poster?"

"I put my arm around your shoulders and dragged you off. Told you they didn't need fellas like us. Why?"

"And when I asked you to enlist?"

"Said I had enough fightin' keepin' you outta trouble. Steve, what's this got to do with anything?"

Steve paused, blue eyes reflecting water and stone and everything was so bright and open and so different from those dirty gold streets, from the shadowed green woods, from the bitter years of ice. They were sitting close enough that he could see oxygen filling Steve's lungs, his chest expanding without the familiar wheeze, the strength and power, so surreal. Ethereal.

"And when you got...your drafting letter? What's the first thing you thought?"

The wind almost stole the words before he could hear them and it certainly stole Bucky's breath away with it. He hadn't thought they'd talk about this again. Especially not on a date. If this was a date.

"I. I thought about how I couldn't leave you. How I didn't want to...to die over there, because who'd take care of you? I thought about how I didn't want to fight, not when the only thing--" he stopped, clearing his throat and kicking his heel against the stone beneath them. "--when the only thing worth fighting for needed me here."

Brooklyn, dirty Brooklyn that felt like heaven after the months in trenches with the 107th, the explosions he'd see everytime he'd close his eyes, and he couldn't have Stevie in those ditches with him.

"After Azzano, they told you to go home. But I needed you there, so..."

"I followed orders. I went home, to your side, and I fought beside you because I'd rather die than have to leave you--"

"Do you see it, Bucky? Do you see the common denominator between you and the war?" They turned to face each other and Bucky had to pin his hair back with a hand to keep it from flying into his face.

"...you. It was all about you." Bucky sighed, pressing his palms against the tops of his thighs. They were so much warmer than the cold stone. "Steve, if you're tryin' to prove my life revolves around you, believe me, I already know that--"

"No, Buck. Listen. The war. For you, what was the war about?"

With his memories so vivid in his head, it could've been yesterday he burnt that letter in the alley. He remembered exactly what the war had been about for him. What the fight had always been about. "So...I did it all. Because of you."

"No," Steve said again, then there was a hand covering Bucky's, fingertips landing between his spread ones, interrupting the energy, the space he had control over, now that space was shared. The hand on his. The one that'd taken off his mask, cast it aside. Pulled Bucky into his arms. A thousand times.

Then that rich low voice was in the air between them, heavy words spilling onto white pristine and black relief. "You did it because of love."

I'm gonna prove it to you, Buck.

They're the same thing. War stories are love stories.

"It's not...it's not clean enough to be love," he whispered and the memorial ghosts shredded his words the moment they hit air. The fingers between his curled, tucking tips under in a rush of seething warmth.

"Love isn't beautiful." A melody on the air, singing voices of soldiers past as Steve leaned closer, too far for intimacy but proximal enough to float soft sounds instead of stab. "Love's human."

Human. Coбака. War?

"Do you remember when we danced...it was February, 1945?"

A laugh spilled out of Bucky's lips, quiet under the roar of distant invisible gunfire. "Did you forget that dance? Everyone who saw that remembers that dance."

A little girl grabbed her mother's hand, pointing at the pond with a loud exclamation and Bucky watched, thinking of swirling snow and spinning gold. "The damn bartender, who didn't even know our names, probably thinks about it nightly," his mouth said for him and Steve's hand loosened on his.

"Do you remember what you said?"

1 2 3, ratty boots over war-worn floors.

Tears in his eyes then, dry disfracture upon him now.

"When I asked what you were fighting for?" Steve's dandelion voice prompted again. Bucky remembered. He remembered every detail.

Solid stone where there had once been caving dirt, earthy tree branches, the sharp smell of smoke from behind a sniper scope.

"I said...you already know the answer to that question."

The hand over his - the same two that'd once been clasped in a waltz.

"And I did," the angel beside him replied softly, white as his halo, white as the sloping gazebo behind them. Atlantic.

"Love," Bucky echoed, detached as he cocked his head at a scar on the side of Steve's hand. He didn't think Steve got scars anymore.

"Me," Steve corrected, and something warm flooded him from his toes and arched out through his fingertips, buzzing them warmer against Steve's, buzzing his whole body bright.

War story?

Even the wind took the caesura, everything freezing around them in the only way that wasn't cold, in the only way that didn't lock him out of his mind. He could go back.

That body, that Steve was touching, was his.

Maybe it wasn't on fire enough to feel all over. Maybe it wasn't bruised enough to feel alive. But it could still be his.

That story. That could be his.

"Bucky. That's what soldiers fight for. They all do it for love. Love for their country. Love for the people they leave behind. To protect the people who haven't gotten the chance to love. Because the horror hit and they love the world to much to see whatever they're fighting for die. The soldiers who got drafted? They didn't enlist because they were already fighting for something they loved back home. Like you. And when you left overseas, that was about love too. War stories, Bucky. They're love stories, every one of them. Every soldier."

"All those people that died..."

"I don't commend countries for initiating mass murder with a patriotic stamp on top, but it's not about the countries who do this, or the politics. It's about the soldier who fights anyways. Every uniform has a cause, Bucky."

"But Steve, war--"

"You say 'war' like it's a condemnation. Like being soldiers was the worst that ever happened to us." Fingers, palms covering his and Bucky clutched on too tight, digging metal bruises into angelic flesh. "But we're still here. We came home."

Some day, I know I'll be back again. Please wait, 'Til then.

Hands that'd pulled the trigger. Hands that'd clasped in dance. Hands that waved goodbye. Hands that snapped off dogtags and buried bodies. Hands interlocked. "We saved lives. You saved lives."

"And I took so many. Stevie, I can't come back from that--"

"You think you're already dead from the inside out." The fingers squeezed tighter and maybe they'd bruise each other this way. "You think all that matters is the lives you've taken, but that's not it. You're not a machine, Sergeant. Your skills might not be applicable in the civilian world, but you're still part of it - you went on a journey, you left with your brothers, and you came back dead, but there's always a second chance."

Shining waterdroplets and anyone who said angels couldn't cry could write that out of their poems now. The memories under their feet and the wind and the sun so cold and warm against their skin and holding on too tight as tears slipped out of blue eyes while crystal watched on.

"You think no one will ever see you again. I see you, Bucky. Let me be your second chance."

The blinding light off white stone and glittering clear fountains disappeared, fading, and Bucky tilted his head back to look up at the sky. A swarm of mottled gray and white clouds, covering the brilliant sun. Shadows cast over the memorial and the speckled crowd began to murmur and exit.

Impending storm.

Bucky looked up at the clouds and wondered how long he'd been covering the sun.

He used to be the nightsky holding a remarkable star.

The sun was reaching for him and the one in the sky wasn't the one that mattered, not when there was another at his side. A glowing halo waiting to pull him out -

but it was more complicated than that.

That halo was stained red. Just like his.

The angel didn't want to lift him from condemnation, it wanted to take his hand and army crawl into the light with him once more.

A second chance.

Bucky tore his eyes away from the sky, sweeping over to the wall now duly reflecting what bits of light the clouds had left to offer. 4048 gold stars. Each for 100 soldiers who'd died in this war. The Freedom Wall.

And before it, engraved and huge enough to see from the sky. Here we mark the price of freedom.

The price of freedom is high. It always has been.

He was the price of freedom.

He was one of those gold stars. So was Steve. So were so many soldiers. And this was only one war.

War.

Love?

Bucky turned back to Steve. The wind settled enough to gently ruffle their hair now and Bucky lifted his hands away from Steve's, scooting on the white stone wall to angle his chest towards his best friend.

His comrade. His brother-in-arms.

He lifted his metal hand - the phantom's limb, the mark of his time as a soldier he would always be a soldier - and placed the cold palm against that angled, pretty jaw. Steve's eyes slipped closed and he tipped his head into Bucky's touch and Bucky held him that way for a moment, a moment of concession to the words upon this world they'd written.

"Steve?" He lifted his other hand, half dead and half alive, half human and half machine, all here. All soldier. All...

All hero.

"Will you be my war story?"

 

~*~*~

 

"Am I the only one who thinks surprising a scary ghost-assassin and his legendary boyfriend is a bad idea?"

"Shhh, they have super-hearing." Natasha elbowed Sam and he hissed in pain, scooting away and bumping into Clint. "Besides," Nat whipped her head towards the stairwell door, pressing closer to the wall they were all hiding against. "They're not officially dating."

"Well they're something, otherwise it wouldn't take them eight years to walk up the stai--"

"Tony! Super-hearing!" Nat hissed. Clint and Sam snickered.

"Yeah, Tony, superhea--" Sam started to mock in a high voice, only then Pepper elbowed him in the other side of his ribs and he hissed again, grabbing his side in offense as Nat reached over him to high-five Pepper while Clint and Maria snickered.

Then the stairwell door was pushing open and everyone shut up, a final quick battle glance before they jumped into sight, a cacophony of clashing voices,

"HAPPY BIRTHDAYYYY TO YOOOUUUU!!!"

It was only his immaculate training assess targets before shooting that left everyone alive, although there were two guns aimed at both Tony and Nat, who had been the loudest shouters of the group and therefore deserved bullets to the chest first.

Except then Steve was knocking both out of his hands, pushing through from behind him and taking his guns almost as fast as Bucky had drawn them, then the room fell silent as Steve stared wide-eyed at the Avengers: frozen with their arms wide and their voices echoing around the huge room. Two metallic thuds as the ejected clips hit the ground, and Bucky stared over Steve's shoulder at his crazy, colorful friends.

One of which was holding a cake, another a big blue box with a bow, another a bottle of wine, another a microphone?, another with a bunch of balloons and a sixth with a deck of cards.

The last time he'd been told happy birthday, it had been by the Howling Commandos. They'd been on a boat, there'd been singing to Dernier's harmonica, whiskey, cards. They'd woken him up by screaming the happy birthday song in his face.

He'd pulled a gun on them, too. Steve'd taken the clip out then, too. Everyone'd been dying of laughter, brimming with joy. No one'd been afraid of him. He'd been a killer then, and they'd woken him with shouts because they trusted him.

But now, he was more than a killer. He was an assassin, deadly, volatile.

A war story.

And...these people. This team. They trusted him too?

They trusted him enough to shout-surprise Happy Birthday at him and not fear for their lives. Tony wasn't even in his armor. They were all just standing, looking, presents and a cake in hand. Waiting to see what he'd do.

The last time he'd been told Happy Birthday in 71 years had been by his boys. His team.

And this time, it was his team too.

"You're all going to hell," Bucky told them flatly. And his mouth curved up in a tentative smile. A real one.

Steve glanced over his shoulder, blue eyes soft and...watery? Fucking sap. Those pretty lips rolled in and Steve shook his head once, then he handed the guns back to Bucky and turned back to his team.

Their team.

"Already there," Tony offered cautiously, shrugging his shoulder like he wasn't sure if he'd be shot or toasted with amusement.

Then Steve was laughing he remembered and Natasha stepped forward to give him a kiss on the cheek. Sam crossed the room to throw an arm around Bucky's shoulders, Tony shook the big blue box in his face tantalizingly and Pepper held up the wine for him to see as Clint crowded the herd towards the dining table, narrating the scene into the random microphone as Bucky laughed at everyone and tried to peer over Maria's shoulder to see what Natasha's cake had in icing on the top.


Happy B-day Bucky Barnes.
98 28

The 98 was crossed out with a big purple x of icing, the 28 traced next to it all lopsided and most-likely in Clint's handwriting. Steve had this beautiful smile on his face, one arm around Nat and the other around Sam, backs of his fingers brushing Bucky's shoulder as the cake slid across the table to land in front of him.

A fancy-looking lighter that probably had 8000 extra features wielded in Tony's hand while Pepper produced candles, setting one on each point of the red star in the center of the cake, everyone cowering cautiously as Tony flicked a switch and a golden flame leapt out of the end of the lighter, then Clint was starting the Happy Birthday song way too loudly and quite off-pitch into his still-mysterious microphone and everyone else's voices joined in, loud and merry.

Steve caught his eye over the people between them, gazes meeting in the middle of the chaos and the look on Steve's face, that easy, unadulterated joy - he deserved that every day of his life. After everything they'd been through? Steve deserved that more than anything. That brilliant glow in those angel-blue eyes, surrounded by his friends while they serenaded terribly, and this was exactly where Steve belonged.

He broke his eyes away, looking down at the round cake, the flickering fire atop each of those five points. Five months ago, he'd been in a box of ice. He'd been nothing but a killer. And now here was this team, this family, pulling him into their arms and their antics and baking him a birthday cake.

How could this be where he belonged? He was that odd piece out still, wasn't he? Steve fit in here, Steve'd found a home amongst all the crazy soldiers and scientists, but that piece of sunshine was the only thing Bucky had in common with these people.

How could they want him to be part of this scene?

How could Sam be squeezing his shoulder and Clint be nudging his side and Tony be trying to poke him with the strange lighter as they all waited for him to lean down and blow out the flames.

Five candles, five months ago he'd been a burnt-out empty shell full of nothing but fire and now, he was blowing fire out.

But war stories didn't have happy endings, did they?

Except love stories did. And if they were the same thing...

Bucky closed his eyes, leaned over, and blew out his birthday candles with a single wish silent on his tongue. Cheering erupted and rough hands clapped him on the back, more loud shouts and insisting of unwrapping presents and getting knives to cut cake.

He pulled one of his nine blades out and Pepper scolded him for using weaponry on things they were going to eat and Tony thanked him exuberantly for not being the only one to understand functionality of personal armory and Sam and Steve were in some sort of argument over ice cream and Nat was trying to get Maria to lick off the icing on candles so as to not waste it while Clint pried the cork off the wine with what looked like a modified arrowhead and

Bucky stood and watched; a soft, awed smile on his face.

Pepper coerced him into letting her pull his hair back into a french braid while he opened gifts and Sam set up cards. Nat smeared cake in Tony's and Maria's faces and nobody dared get her back. The loud and the crazy and the laughing didn't stop for what felt like hours. At one point Tony shouted "children, behave!" at them and Steve giggled like a schoolgirl and threw a plastic fork at Bucky's head, only it hit Clint instead and that induced a very quick wrestling match that ended with Clint cradling his elbow and whining.

Eventually, in the midst of an intense game of B.S, the chance popped up and Bucky pulled Steve to the side, halfway across the room so they could talk without being overheard, think without Sam's bellowing laughter floating between them.

"So this," Bucky waved a hand to indicate the surprise party, glancing up at Steve with an amused look as he ran his fingers through his hair to undo the french braid. "Our war story? This part of it may play out familiar, but they sure are nothin' like the Howling Commandos."

"No, they aren't," Steve shook his head, glancing over his shoulder affectionately before turning back to Bucky, running his palm down the metal arm and freeing a few pieces of remaining braid with his other hand. "But it's just part two of our war story, Buck."

He huffed a soft sound, catching Steve's fingers as they stroked down his wrist and stilling them, holding his focus tight.

"I fought a World War for you, Rogers." The liberation of saying that out loud - he never thought he'd have that. He never thought he'd have any of this. "You think we'd be done with this whole battle business by now."

That pretty blond head shook, then their clasped hands were joined by another warm one, wrapping Bucky's fingers up and squeezing tight.

"Never." A step closer and Bucky had to tilt his chin up to meet those eyes and wasn't that strange, this body he used to be able to scoop off the ground like a sack of potatoes now forcing his chin up. His little Stevie. Nothin' little about either a' them anymore.

Fingers squeezed tighter and maybe Steve was making up for lost time or somethin', how much he'd been holding Bucky's hands, only he really really wasn't gonna complain. Those pink lips parted again, whisper floating between them. "I'm on the frontlines all over again. I'm fighting the war for you this time."

Their war. Only the war hadn't ended so well last time and that was written all over his face, familiar pained sorrow that'd found them so young and taken both their lives.

"And I'm not crashing anything this time," Steve added with a little smile. Bucky blinked and Steve's whisper was louder now, desperately sincere as he leaned down, inches from Bucky's nose, and slipped a promise over his shoulders. "This time, I'm falling with you. For you. Every day."

He wasn't gonna cry, really, only he'd spent months wishing and wondering why Steve hadn't jumped after him because God knows Bucky would've. Except now Steve was. Falling right alongside Bucky, both of them jumping off the proverbial cliff into this mess of a war story, into whatever this was, into kissing each other and testing icy waters with toes that were scared to be frozen or broken again, only they'd already jumped; it was too late to do anything but hold each other tight and close their eyes until they hit the bottom.

"Aw, Stevie," he managed, eyes watery and voice choked. "Sure know how to sweet talk a fella."

Another little sad smile, only that wasn't enough, holding his little punk Stevie's hands weren't enough for this moment.

"C'mere," Bucky murmured, wiggling his hands free to spread his arms. And like always, his Stevie folded against his chest, icy nose to the side of his neck, one hand clutching his shirt and the other shoved up in the back of Bucky's hair and he closed his eyes, clutched his arms around Steve's broad back and held him tight.

Falling for you. With you. Every day.

He wasn't gonna cry.

When he pulled away he covered his eyes with his right hand, knowing the wet would shine against the metal and wanting that water gone before the day was spoiled. Bucky wiped the stupid unfallen tears and knocked his damp fist into Steve's shoulder, making that sweet mouth giggle softly and fuck, that look on Steve's face wasn't fair.

"What do you say we get outta here?" He whispered, leaning to the side to dodge the kiss aimed for his cheek. Steve made a pouting sound at the rejection, but it came with a nod and a quick squeeze of Buck's hand, then they were saying goodbye to everybody, tingling with the anticipation to be alone again.

"You guys have been wonderful," Bucky begrudgingly admitted, placing chaste kisses on the cheeks of all the women - even Maria - because that's what he would've done back in the day. "But we're gonna go try out my new present."

"If I'd known we were couple-gifting, I'd've been much more raunchily creative." Tony raised his eyebrows with that look that said way more than his words did and maybe he went red as the star on his arm but god that is not what he meant by that.

"Haha, we're not a--" he cut off, glancing at Steve for help, except he looked just as confused, so Bucky threw up a hand and gave Tony a pointed look. "We're gonna go. But thank you guys, seriously. It's great to be older than everyone and still the best looking."

Nat flicked him off and Maria snorted and Sam laughed at Clint's raised unimpressed eyebrows and Tony rolled his eyes as Pepper shooed them off. Steve wrapped a big arm over his shoulders, Bucky's gift from Stark in the other hand as they stepped into the elevator.

Bucky pressed the button for the roof instead of their floor and Steve gave him an amused look but didn't say a word of protest.

The soft beeps followed them up and Bucky repositioned his grip on the speaker handle. Jarvis told Tony how he liked having control of his own music and didn't have a decent speaker, so the big blue present had been a high-tech but simple boombox, small enough to carry around and big enough for a great sound.

It was actually the perfect gift. And they were going to test it out properly.

"Alright, c'mere." Bucky sat the radio on the ledge of the roof, waving Steve over to the center of the empty space. Steve screwed up his eyebrows, looking between the boombox and his best friend, the urgent gesturing hand, bottom lip caught between his teeth.

"What are we doing?" he asked cautiously, taking a step closer. Bucky waved faster. Giving up on interpreting anything, Steve crossed the space between them, hands on his hips and head cocked as he waited for whatever Bucky was planning.

He pressed a button on the tiny remote, shoving the thing back in his pocket, and then the music started.

It was loud, an instrument Steve'd never heard before, and strangely poppy sounding. He turned to look at the stereo in confusion, but Bucky grabbed his wrist, whipped Steve back to face him, all attention on the crystal eyes and ruffled brown hair.

"Oh don't you dare look back, just keep your eyes on me," the words started behind them, except Bucky was singing along, eyes sincere, expression serious, fingers locked tight around his wrist.

"What ar--"

"I said you're holdin' back, she said shut up and dance with me."

It was such a signature Bucky thing to say that a surprised laugh tumbled out of Steve's mouth, shaking his head in amusement, except that only made Bucky more insistent, taking Steve's other hand and squeezing them tight.

"Oh ooh oh, shut up and dance with me!" And then Bucky was tugging him in, lifting clasped hands up and wrapping metal fingers over Steve's hip, cool through the cotton of his shirt.

"Are we-" he started, then Bucky took a step backwards, pulling Steve with him, making him stumble to keep up.

"We're actually-"

Bucky stepped again and spun them around, hands secure,

"--dancing on the roof." Steve finished, raising his eyebrows because this was Bucky of Brooklyn, not the Winter Soldier, and this one didn't belong to Steve, not the debonair flirt from the past.

"We were victims of the night," Bucky's hands curled around his waist, their bodies pressing close as he guided Steve's hips, moving them together. "-the chemical, physical, kryptonite." The suggestive, classy way he used to dance with all those dames.

"Helpless to the bass and the fading light." The New York skyline reflected like stars and he was leaning up with a coy, precious smile on his face, singing straight to Steve with this incredible, twinkling mischief.

"Oh, we were bound to get together, bound to get together."

Together, Bucky'd just called them together and bound, bound to happen, if Steve was ever the sun, it was only because Bucky lit him on fire.

"She took my arm, I don't know how it happened." Bucky's expression shifted into sheer, exaggerated innocence, wide-eyed and pure trouble because he knew exactly how this happened and then he took Steve's hands again and the chorus hit, music loud and fast as Bucky tugged him into a swing-out Lindy.

"Oh, don't you dare look back. Just keep your eyes on me." The sincerity in Bucky's words made it impossible to tear his gaze away, although Steve couldn't imagine looking at anything else, locked on each other with Bucky's grace and fire to guide the way.

"I said, 'You're holding back,' she said, 'Shut up and dance with me!'"

It wasn't You're My Sunshine but Bucky was as stunningly beautiful as the last time he'd sang for Steve on his birthday, that night on the boat with the Commandos. After all this time, everything that happened to him, he still had that spark. That gravitation, the light behind his eyes and that dashing smile and the undeniable charm, that perfect way he moved his body like he owned everyone who dared look his way.

The heavy beat fell back to something lighter and Bucky pulled him in close again, hand on Steve's waist, rockstep triplestep. He'd never been a dancer like Bucky, despite the lessons in the kitchen. But now, like this? This was perfect, like old times. Better than old times, because this time it meant something.

He knew he was already beaming down at that pretty smile like a lovesick fool, but it wasn't until Bucky's eyes darted down, a hint of shyness as he sang the next line a little softer, "I felt it in my chest as she looked at me." That's when Steve melted entirely.

"I knew we were bound to be together," Bucky whispered quietly, something like awe. And Steve'd caught on enough to take the next line easily, tipping his hand under Bucky's chin to make their eyes meet.

"Bound to be together," Steve echoed with a smile and the world lit up as Bucky brightened again, the music stopping for the briefest of pauses, tension flying as it kicked up again, voice loud and beautiful again as Bucky swung them through the crisp night air.

"She took my arm, I don't know how it happened. We took the floor and she saaaaaid..." They spun and Steve was past focusing on not falling, only thinking of those crystal eyes and warm hands on him. "Oh, don't you dare look back, just keep your eyes on me--"

"I said you're holding back," Steve sang back at him and the air was the lightest in his lungs it'd ever been with the way Bucky was beaming at him.

"She said shut up and dance with me. This woman is my destiny," and Steve had to join in for the next part too, enthusiasm to match Bucky's, energy and tension between them high enough to float to the clouds and, "Oh, oh, oh, shut up and dance with meee."

The song split into an instrumental bridge and Bucky broke off, dancing backwards, gesturing at Steve, all mischief and beauty and temptation and Steve was a helpless, poor lost soul. "Oh, come on girl!" Bucky shouted with the song and Steve laughed up at the sky, hand over his chest as he tried to catch his breath.

"I ain't your dame," he finally managed, eyes on the man jazzing in happy circles around the rooftop.

"Prove it," Bucky dared back, raising an eyebrow.

He was close enough that Steve only had to bound once before he had Bucky in his arms and he may not be the kind of dancer Bucky was, but there had been a bounty of kitchen-lessons and he hadn't learned nothing.

With one hand tight on Bucky's he flicked him out, lifting his arm high and whipping in a circle to spin Bucky under it, tugging him right back into Steve's chest, finishing the swoop and dipping him low, long brunette hair falling back as Steve leaned over the backbend of that pretty body. Bucky tipped his head back even further, laughing joyously, and the sound echoed over the rooftops and engrained itself into Steve's heart.

Only a few seconds of victory before he was outmaneuvered and Bucky straightened, falling onto his chest and the world froze around them, bright eyes looking up, reflecting stars and city lights, both palms flat on Steve's collarbones, blinking up intimately like Steve was somehow everything.

"Deep in her eyes, I think I see the future," Bucky sang, captivated, and how could this emotion be for him, edging into desperation tinged in sadness and the next words tore his heart out of his chest, the heavy, final way they fell off Bucky's tongue.

"I realize...this is my last chance."

As much as Steve wanted to hold him and tell him they had all the chances in the world, all the last breaths in the world; Bucky kept singing, pushing past and the wind whipped everything else away.

"She took my arm, I don't know how it happened. We took the floor and she saaaid..."

The music paused and really, he wasn't going to get sentimental, but he was going to goddamn kiss his best friend because he wanted to more than anything and for once, he finally could.

Steve tilted Bucky's face up and pressed their lips together, eyes slipping shut as Bucky's hands weaved into his hair and kissed him back, easy and sweet, his soft bottom lip sliding between Steve's, a gentle tug as their mouths moved together, stars shooting down his spine, making his toes curl in his shoes.

Their lips parted, barely, and Bucky's forehead pressed to his, his words ghosting right over Steve's mouth and this time, they meant a lot more than dancing. "Oh, don't you dare look back...."

He could never look back, not now,

"...just keep your eyes on me."

They'd never been anywhere else.

Steve's eyes were still closed as he ran his thumb over Bucky's jawline, and his whisper wasn't about dancing either. "I said you're holding back."

"She said shut up and dance with me," he replied softly, and it was an answer and a promise and maybe Steve was high on moonlight and dancing but he could swear this was important, the way Bucky was holding him so tight and close. "Oh, oh, oh..."

The moment snapped, hair flipping in the wind as he grabbed Steve's hand and opened his pretty mouth to shout at the top of his lungs,

"Shut up and dance!"

Bucky lifted him off his feet with strong hands and twirled them around, sending them both spinning across the rooftop like crazy people and no wonder all those dames fell in love, the celestial beings looking down from heaven were probably in love with Bucky Barnes right now.

But in all the times he'd seen his best friend dance, he'd never seen this pure freedom. Which he would never say aloud because there would be jokes about eagles and bleeding red-white-and-blue for the rest of his days and that was not the kind of freedom he meant.

"Ooh, oh oh, shut up and dance with me!" The roof and New York were spinning around them, the only clear thing pure crystal, if it was possible to burst, he might do it in this moment.

Bucky's hand whipped him around and Steve's feet twirled so quickly it felt like a battle reaction, then he was spinning right into Bucky's arms and they were dancing around the roof, Bucky's hair was all over the goddamned place and his smile was impossibly wide.

"Oh oh oh, shut up and dance with me!!" Bucky shouted at him and Steve shouted it back and then they both stumbled to the edge of the roof, hands overlapping as they clutched the edge and shouted over the floating rooftops of the city.

"Shut up and dance with me!"

Bucky spun under his arm and Steve spun under Bucky's and then they were laughing over the final refrain of the music, falling against each other and propping each other up because god, when was the last time they screamed something over the rooftops of New York?

The drums hit in a final warning for the end of the song and Bucky grabbed him around the waist, dipping him upside down and kissing his mouth hard enough to press the laughter right over Bucky's tongue and it felt like falling, in a million ways, only propped up with a single hand on his back, balanced over Bucky's touch and entirely trusting as that mouth moved over his, and then the music crescendoed into silence, echoing the finish into the night.

And then Bucky dropped him.

Steve hit the ground with a groan and a swinging kick for Bucky's shin. He cursed and dropped to Steve's side, then those contrasting hands were on his face again and Steve rolled them over on the concrete ground and kissed Bucky back until his lips were numb.

The moonlight spilled over them and every time they'd almost kissed, almost spoken, and passed each other by all melted away because this, this was the end game. Simple and perfect, no complications, just them under the big bright sky, holding onto each other for no other reason than that the other was here.

By the time they shoved each other off, collapsed in heavy-breathing piles next to each other, staring up at the sky, Steve's heart was pounding out of his chest and he was happier than he could remember being, ever.

 

"Wow," Steve told the stars and Bucky laughed, an airy, disbelieving kind that was exactly how the inside of Steve's chest felt.

"I wanted to dance." Bucky shrugged next to him and Steve made an approving noise at the sky. "That crap at the club doesn't count."

"It doesn't," Steve agreed, smacking his hand on the concrete next to him repeatedly until he located Bucky's arm by whacking it and scooted over, still looking up at the sky as he flopped his head down on Bucky's stomach and made him huff in annoyance.

But then a metal hand was carding through his hair and Steve closed his eyes with a smile because he knew Bucky didn't really mind. How long had he been using Bucky for a pillow on rooftops and fire-escapes?

This, this was what it was all for. This was that reward, the point of living that made not-dying worth it. Moments that could belong to any goddamned year in their life and that was the most beautiful part, how many times they'd done this and how this time was unlike anything they'd ever done.

"I want to paint something," Bucky declared to the stars and Steve raised his eyebrows curiously, even though Bucky couldn't see him. He could probably picture it anyways. The fingers in his hair didn't stop playing with the blonde strands, voice kinda distant and dreamy. "Like, for real. Not some moody expressionistic creepy crap."

"Yeah your last painting was creepy," Steve pondered and the fingers in his hair flicked his temple. He supposed he had that coming, so he refrained from punching Bucky back for it.

"One rule though," he continued, like Steve'd never interrupted at all. "Nobody touches it but me. Until I give you permission, then you can, but I want it...I want it to be mine. And maybe, if you're nice, I'll let you see it one day."

"You planning something big then," he asked, although it was worded like a statement because he knew Bucky well enough to at least know that.

"Oh you know it." Steve'd bet anything Bucky quirked his eyebrows all cute and he laughed at the metal image, opening his eyes up and rolling his head on Bucky's sternum to catch a glimpse of his peaceful expression. The angle was all wacked, but then Bucky lifted his head and looked down at Steve, twisting up funnily. "Get your ass up here so I can kiss you."

Steve rolled onto his stomach and army crawled the rest of the distance, pressing a chaste kiss on Bucky's lips. "You're shivering. Inside?"

"I'm not shivering. You're shivering." Bucky shoved him off and Steve rolled his eyes, picking himself up off the ground and humming over to the quiet boombox. He tugged the iPod off the top, checking the name of the song and the artist. "Walk the Moon...no way."

"What?" Bucky paused from brushing himself off, looking up in concern. Steve waved the iPod, pointing at the artist and kinda disbelieving of the uncanny luck.

"Stark sent me a song to show you, it's by them. We're..." he slid his thumb over the screen, pulling up YouTube because he was a Proper Twenty-First Century Citizen and typing in the name of the song. "...gonna listen to it on the way down."

He shifted the boombox in his hand, throwing an arm over Bucky's shoulders as the elevator doors slid shut and they began the descent to their floor.

The elevator doors slid open with a ding and Steve tugged Bucky into the hall, thumb pressing the play button, arm hooking around Bucky's neck just in time for the song to start.

"We walk out the cinema, about to go our separate ways," Steve tipped his head up and gestured with his free hand at the sky like somebody out of the films.

"And I, I almost wave goodbye, when you let your hair fall in your face," he tucked a piece of stray hair behind Bucky's ear and the crystal eyes rolled in fond exasperation.

"And I often wonder why the things that I want are so hard to find," Steve sang, tugging Bucky towards the kitchen and setting the boombox on the table. "But I often fail to see the things that I need are right here by my side."

He pressed a kiss to Bucky's cheek and a metal arm shoved him for his efforts and Steve grabbed the steel fingers, tugging Bucky back in with a twirl, one hand pressing tight to his lower back as he lifted his eyebrows and sang with overexaggerated sincerity.

"Something in the air is giving me bad ideas,"

"Always," Bucky grumbled in agreement and Steve swayed them side to side, still on top of the world and full of energy from that smile, no matter how much Bucky was pretending to complain now.

"Something in the air is giving me dangerous thoughts, like..." Steve took the pause, gathering courage before he let the words slip out of his mouth.

"...Why don’t you stay at mine tonight?" The song echoed the question in the background and Steve rolled his lips in, refusing to get nervous and let his heartrate raise the way Bucky's eyebrows suddenly did. So he'd never explicitly asked before, but.

"Why don’t you stay with me...and be my sidekick, sidekick?" Steve twirled him out with a shove and it was a good thing he did, because as soon as Buck spun back to facing him, his mouth was open in shocked, exaggerated offense. Steve offered a don't kill me smile.

"Do you, do you, do you wanna be my sidekick, sidekick?"

"I will sidekick your ass," Bucky declared, then there was a heavy boot colliding with Steve's hip and Steve barely caught Bucky's ankle before it knocked him over, laughing and tugging Bucky down sideways with him as he did lose his footing after all.

They landed in a pile on the tile floor and Bucky wasn't trying to kick him anymore, just tickle him, which was a hell of a lot worse, so Steve grabbed his hands and rolled them over, pressing kisses to Bucky's face so he'd stop trying to attack Steve for the sidekick comment.

"We’re kissing on that kitchen floor, our friendship up against the ropes," the song sang from the boombox on the table and Steve suddenly broke off, pushing up to look down at the crazy waves of brown hair and parted lips because that opportunity was too good to pass up.

"I've got you on the ropes," he exclaimed, then he was being shoved onto the tile floor none too kindly and even if the air hadn't been knocked out of him Steve wouldn't be able to breathe anyways, he was laughing too hard at the scandalized look on Bucky's face.

They wrestled around on the ground, tumbling over the tile and shoving into cabinets and walls before somebody finally pinned somebody and they were kissing.

The best idea to shut Bucky up was definitely by kissing him. And, strangely, for once they agreed on something because Bucky was kissing him back enthusiastically, giving up his attempts to tickle Steve to run his hands in swirly lines down Steve's spine instead.

"Well it just occurred to me the one that I need could be right here by my side." The words floated over them and Bucky was smiling into his mouth and Steve adjusted the angle to kiss that smile right off his lips, taste happiness like if he could memorize the flavour they could feel this way forever.

"Something in the air is giving me bad ideas, something in the air is giving me wicked thoughts..."

"Wicked thoughts, huh?" Bucky murmured, words squished by Steve's mouth, so he reluctantly pulled back a little, blinking his eyes open while the song reverberated that question through the room, settling the meaning heavy in their gazes.

"Why don’t you stay at mine tonight?"

It could mean sleeping next to each other the way they used to. Or maybe. Maybe it could mean something more.

"Why don’t you stay with me and be my sidekick, sidekick?"

To be fair, Bucky'd been offended as hell at being portrayed as a 16-year-old in a mask and tights, and after everything that'd happened since, he'd imagine being called a mere sidekick was even more offensive.

Which was exactly why he ran his fingers through Bucky's hair, eyes wide and innocent as he cooed, "C'mon, you'd be a great sidekick, baby."

And also why Bucky kicked his shin, flipped him onto his back and shoved him sliding halfway across the kitchen tiles in a single maneuver with a very loud shout of "The Winter Soldier is not a sidekick."

Steve was out of breath again, wheezing laughs as he grabbed onto the counter and hauled himself back to his feet, leaning on the granite for support.

"Do you, do you want to be my...?"

Buck pushed up to his feet too, fluid and easy, moving like a different kind'a dancer now, a ballerina or a trapeze artist, all grace and waterfall movements as he slid back up to Steve's side just in time for Steve to mouth the words do you want to be mine? against his cheek.

He got a contemplative noise in return, a stiff hand rubbing over the top of his shoulders, and Steve closed his eyes again, tipping his head against the side of Bucky's and breathing in the heat of his skin.

"Something in the air is giving me bad ideas," Steve whispered along to the song and the ripple down Bucky's spine was unmistakable, the shiver making his metal fingers pulse and tighten, plates shifting with a whir. He slid his lips over to Bucky's ear, pressing the words tight against his skin. "Something in the air is telling me you could be my..."

Settling his grip on Bucky's hips, Steve pulled them away from the counter, gazes locked as he backed towards the archway into the hall. "...sidekick, sidekick."

There was too much loaded on this to let it happen this easy, so as soon as he backed into the hallway Steve let them settle against the wall, unmoving as he ran his thumbs over the defined bones of Bucky's hips, ignoring the fading music in the background as he leaned his mouth beside Bucky's ear again.

"C'mon, Buck, answer the question." He kissed the soft skin of his neck and Bucky shivered against him, taking a moment to get ahold of his voice again before he answered in that familiar, masked nonchalance.

"Be your sidekick? Aren't I kinda--"

"Will you stay at mine tonight?" Steve interrupted, pulling back so he could see the emotions flickering through Bucky's eyes in the dim light.

He was frozen, studying Steve with the skilled, observant debate of a sniper. Steve waited, patiently, his hands stilled on Bucky's hips because if they were going to do this, they were going to talk about it like adults instead of dancing and flirting like the crazy teenagers they'd been all night.

"Maybe," he finally relented, not sounding adverse as much as cautious. "Let me take a shower and think on it, then...then we'll see."

Steve nodded, ducking his head with a sincere smile that invoked another fond shove, then Bucky backed up a foot, eyes still on Steve as he tugged tantalizingly at the hem of his tshirt and added, "And no, you can't join me."

"I wasn't gonna offer!" He clutched a hand over his heart in offense and Bucky's eyes went wide with dancing amusement.

"Oh you totally were." Steve looked scandalized at the suggestion, a slip in the usual teasing for whatever concern Steve had about Stepping Over Lines and Bucky wanted to kiss him for that, too. Instead he kept up the innocent act, taking another step backwards as he teased. "It was in your eyes, Rogers. I can read you like a book."

And finally Steve seemed to catch on he was still playing, the worry draining entirely as he shuffled awkward on his feet, arms crossing over his chest as he pouted.

"You're a... book," he responded lamely and Bucky threw back his head and laughed, because sometimes Steve was the same ninety-pound punk he'd grown up with and that was probably the very best thing about all of this. Bucky got to have them both.

The pout was too precious, he had to bound forward and kiss that pretty mouth one more time, lips sticking and popping apart with a wet sound as they both ached to hold on too long, but Bucky really had to go off for a shower, spend a few minutes alone to get his head on straight without the poison of Steve's taste on his tongue.

So he smacked Steve's hip and darted for the bathroom door, only Steve caught him first and shoved him and Bucky had to shove him back and he barely got his hand on the doorknob, turning it quick and tumbling out of Steve's reach before it could turn into another battle that ended in kissing against walls and floors and maybe beds.

He stumbled into the bathroom, laughter echoing with the closing door, tile cold and smooth under his bare feet. A hand landing on the counter Bucky looked up, flashing crystal eyes meeting his own in the mirror, a beaming, brilliant reflection. That smile on his face, that joy in his eyes, that light and laughter tingling in the layer beneath his skin.

It almost didn't look real.

 

 

Like a doll.

Like a pretty painting.

A perfect
machine.

He lifted a hand - the right one, both literally and figuratively - tentative fingers curling towards that expression in the mirror. Reaching forward, watching as the flesh grew closer and closer, until his fingertips were pressed against the shocking cold, hard, unfeeling glass. The surface of that smile. Glass.

Breakable. Shatterable. A blurred reflection of the poignancy within.

Crystal eyes locked on his as the edges of the mouth fell, hundreds of feet down a mountain. The fire in eyes extinguished, burning flame flickering to ashes of paper drawings. The bright joy sinking through a frozen river to settle against the billowing dusty bottom of reality. He watched as the man in the mirror faded.

If he pressed hard enough, maybe his fingers could go right through the glass, delve into that shiny, gooey material to reach that face in the mirror, touch real skin, feel what a smile meant against his fingertips. Skin pushed harder, glass creaked in warning and his hand flew back like fire.

Those eyes were dead now, looking back at him. If he opened his mouth to scream, no sound would come out on this side of the mirror, not when the dead man staring at him was locked inside that shiny, silver box, behind the glass wall.

Bucky cut his gaze away, staring at shaking hands. One grabbed the faucet handle, turned the sink water on full blast to fill the bathroom with noise. He couldn't hear his own breathing. He wouldn't know he was breathing at all if it weren't for the stinging blood pumping through the veins beneath the translucent skin on his wrists.

Shoving his hands under the clear spray, waiting for water to wash the shaking away, only the water wasn't touching him at all. Full, wet, circle droplets sliding off his skin, over his hands and gone, nothing was sinking in. Nothing was staying. Like duck's feathers, waxed cars, waterproof dogs, the water slid off his skin and none of it sank in. It wasn't permeant. He was impermeable.

He'd been letting himself slip. He'd been letting himself forget. He'd been breathing, blinking, thinking automatically. A month and a half ago he'd shouted at Steve that they'd broken every bone in his body. Tackled Steve to the ground when he tried to snap his own wrist.

They'd done -- Hydra'd done so much to him. He had all those years of training and torture and hell shoved inside his head and he'd been ignoring them. Kissing Steve's mouth to forget the taste of blood on his tongue.

It still happened.

Bucky stared at his hands under the spray of the water. The water slid right off his hands and drained down into the sink. That part wasn't a war story. Seventy years that didn't fit in - that was a horror movie, no plot but pain and terror.

He could rub a towel over his hands and all of the water would be gone. Just like that. Nothing stuck. Nothing absorbed. Nothing lasted. Nothing stayed-

The water was cold, flooding his eyes as he shoved his head under the faucet. It drained down the long strands, soaking his head, but at least it proved he was real. His hair was wet, dripping into the sink, running down his forehead, but at least it would stay that way. At least it proved he could be touched. At least it didn't slide off like his skin.

The towel was rough on his head, turning dripping to damp, then he was staring at the reflection again and finally, fuck, something changed. He smoothed his hands over his head, pushing strands flat to his head, slicking it all back until the length disappeared, until the man in the mirror looked like someone he knew. He used to wear his hair like this, all slicked back. Especially for special occasions. And funerals.

The person in the silver box could almost be him. If it weren't for the hunk of ugly metal hanging off his body. Metal.

Bucky dug his fingers in his pocket, pulling out the chain with a soft clink. He hadn't had the courage to wear them. Sitting the tags on the counter, he pulled his shirt over his head, smoothing his hair down again before unbuttoning his pants, dropping them to the floor and toeing them aside, sliding down his briefs too, pushing the pile of clothes out of the way, peeled out of this century and left with nothing but his body.

He turned to the man in the mirror again. If he looked at the right half of his body, he could be back in 1944. What he'd give to be back in 1944.

They'd danced tonight, under the stars. Laughed and kissed. Steve was waiting for him in his bedroom in this lavish palace of glass. He had a team. They made him a cake, got him gifts, trusted him.

What he'd give to be back in 1944.

He lifted the dogtags off the counter, holding them up in the air and watching the bright bathroom lights reflect off the glint. If he had to choose -

go through the hell of Hydra and be with Steve, or

go back to the simplicity of the war and watch Steve marry Peggy

 

 

At least he was invited over for dinner on Sundays. Steve was so much...brighter, then. He was still beautiful now, but that easy, sunny joy? Nothing was easy anymore. Bucky'd give up kissing those precious lips for the rest of his life if it meant Steve could have a home.

The dogtag chain was big enough that he could slip it over his head, slicked-back hair setting the strangest illusion of youth. He almost looked 28.

Steve knew he'd been drafted. The way he'd acted, his response, the easy way he was around Bucky now. He thought that was it. He thought that being drafted was the scary, dark secret Bucky'd been hiding away since '43, he thought everything was in the open and fixed now.

He had no idea. That was nothing, not in comparison.

The metal settled on his chest. Familiar clanking, cold, his name etched and unforgettable.

James.

Buchanan.

Barnes.

"Bucky?"

A naked soldier staring at his reflection, wishing he had the courage or incentive to cut his hair off, wishing the body in that glass box could belong to him.

Crystal scanned over his reflection, looking at the expanse of bare skin, wondering if he could carve his way inside, force his mind back into that body manually. He was nothing but metal and bone now - more metal against his chest now. He'd always been metal.

Clanking.

There were fingerprints on the mirror. Fingerprints on the counter and the doorhandle. Sloppy. Worse than sloppy - a death sentence. Shaking hands grabbed the towel and started to scrub. Smear. The man in the mirror looked distressed and Bucky ignored him, wiping away the evidence. He'd been here.

This body had been here.

There were fingerprints all over the apartment. Sloppy sloppy sloppy. If Hydra came, there'd be so much proof, so easy to track, he'd have to burn the place down--

His fingerprints were all over Steve. He'd touched his face and his arms and his back and his hips and his mouth and if they got their hands on Steve they'd have proof of that, they'd have proof that Steve was involved and they'd kill him, they'd torture him and he wouldn't break

not like Bucky did

so they'd kill him and it'd be his fault because he'd left proof, his hands, this skin, had betrayed him and he'd have to flay Steve's skin off to save him--

Metal fingers slammed on the hot water in the shower. More than hands were shaking now and he didn't wait for the temperature, ducking into the waterfall, under the spray and let the water rush over him - untouching. It burned his lips and his eyelids and the skin of his wrists and his lower back and his chest, it was burning a hole in his chest.

The dogtags heated up and they were searing hot into his skin, imprinting his name so he could never forget again only nothing stayed, nothing lasted, all the scars and burns were gone.

Except his arm.

The metal burned. It was still burning when he slammed the water back off, leaning his forehead on the cool tiles to clear the swimming vision. It didn't clear.

He dried off automatically. Wrapped in a towel. He didn't look at the man in the mirror.

He went straight to his room. Steve heard him. Came and hesitantly knocked on the door once Bucky was dressed. Bucky didn't answer.

He'd said maybe. It was never. He couldn't --

it was too deep. Everything with Steve ran too deep.

They'd used Steve to break him. Of course he was still broken. He couldn't turn to the cracks in his heart for comfort, not when Steve'd been the one that'd caused them.

Why don't you stay with me tonight?

He pulled the sheets over his head. Eventually footprints walked away from his door. Steve got the message.

Except really, he didn't. He had no idea.

The nightmare was inevitable. Waking up silent was the only blessing. He used to be perfectly silent. Efficient. Now he was a fucking mess. A fucking mess.

Whatever the mess you are, you're mine, okay?

Shut the fuck up, Bucky told the Steve in his head, the first cognitive thing he'd processed in the past five minutes of rocking, clutching his head as he shook. Most times, Steve came barging in. It was like he had a sense of when Bucky woke up with a nightmare.

It'd been a terrible one. There'd been a hole in his chest, a smoking burning hole where his dogtags now burned against his skin. He'd pulled a knife from that hole, carved the skin off Steve's pretty face, carved him down to a skeleton while Steve looked up at him lovingly and even his skeleton was golden, made from the sun and the moment Bucky's fingers had touched it it'd burnt black, spreading like a disease, crumbling to ashes--

He shoved metal knuckles in his mouth to stifle the whimper.

His eyes were squeezed shut and the darkness did nothing to ground him. He had to stay silent. Steve couldn't come in here right now.

The taste of metal on his tongue. Bitter like blood. Only maybe there was blood in his mouth too.

Copper and steel swirled over the backs of his teeth, drowning his throat. A metal swirling poison. Topped off with salt from the tears streaming down his face.

Curling up into a ball, as tiny as he could get, holding his arms around himself as more tears and salt dripped against metal and a cotton pillow that felt like falling.

Always falling.

Every day, for you. WITH YOU.

But Steve hadn't. Bucky'd fallen alone.

His shoulders shook. He shook until he cried himself back to sleep.

But at least he'd accomplished the mission. He'd kept quiet. So quiet Steve never knew. Steve never came. Just like he'd told himself.

It was better this way, he was made - designed - to fall alone.