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From the End to the Beginning

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("I think you should ask him like he wanted you to, Steve. What can one last time hurt?")

Bucky had been ducking Steve's proposals for years.

The first time Steve had asked Bucky flat out laughed at first because he hadn't realised Steve was being serious. The second time he'd asked had been on impulse and okay, he acknowledges that yes, in the middle of a gun battle wasn't the most appropriate time. The third time hadn't been much better: asking over open comms while Bucky was on the tail of two HYDRA spacefighters in the Cth'te-du Quadrant. "A little busy here, Steve," Bucky had said between gritted teeth as he'd wrenched his fighter into a tight arc.

The fourth time Steve had planned it properly; they'd been on furlough on Nice-Roma a small planet suitable for romantic getaways that had been settled by French and Italian immigrants in the late 22nd century. Sunset, a fancy dinner and still Bucky said no. "Because it's war," he'd said, "and anything can happen. Because I don't want you to feel tied to me if it does." (And Steve hadn't been able to explain that he needed it, that he always would, that he never wanted to want anyone else even if.)

It didn't stop Steve from asking though. The fifth and sixth times were heartfelt teases on a drunken night in Seoul, the seventh time whispered in Bucky's ear as he came apart between a kiss against his neck and the last thrust of Steve's hips.

The eighth time was a soft, desperate curse wrapped in a plea as Bucky lay unconscious in a hospital bed after Steve broke all the rules to rescue him from Arnim Zola. Nine was casually over breakfast, ten to twelve were sprung on Bucky like Steve honestly thought that he might be surprised enough to say yes, and unlucky thirteen was the day before a fighter plane crashed into the earth in a fireball, when Bucky kissed Steve and smiled and said no, but ask me again after the war.

And then the Winter Soldier happened.

And Bucky didn't remember loving Steve.

And Steve never wanted to ask again.

(But Bucky remembers. Twelve times out of the thirteen, Bucky remembers.)

Steve doesn't want to ask, he wants to ask, he doesn't know what he wants. 

Because Bucky hasn't said the words Steve would kill to hear again and Steve can't remember the last time he heard Bucky say them. He hates himself for that a little. The last time Bucky said "I love you," is something Steve should be able to remember. But Steve thinks that maybe, just maybe Bucky might love him again, but after everything that's happen might be scared to admit to it (though he'd never admit to that).

But Steve asks, like Sam says he should, one last time. 

"You heart is pounding," Bucky says sleepily, head pillowed on Steve's chest. Sunday morning sunlight cuts through a chunk in the curtain, painting a warm golden stripe across the bed.

"Mm," Steve agrees. He runs his fingers down the back of Bucky's neck, across his shoulders, and if this was any other moment his heart would be pounding with joy at the noise Bucky makes. Happy, content. They'll never be where they were before and it's taken Steve a long time to come to terms with that, but as Bucky turns his head and presses a kiss to Steve's skin, Steve says, "Wait."

Bucky shifts so he can prop himself on his elbow, looking curiously up at Steve. He's fragments of the man Steve remembers, carefully pieced back together into a whole, but Steve's come to love the new parts just as much as the original. He's still the only person Steve's ever loved. Steve wouldn't give him up for the whole world.

"I have something I want to ask," he says, and his heart flutters in his chest with the nerves of a question he hasn't asked for five years.

Bucky leans forward and presses his mouth to Steve's skin again. "Is it important?"

"Yeah, uh, it--it kinda is--"

Then Bucky groans, rolls his eyes and says, "Can it wait? I need to piss." 

"You are such a jerk," Steve complains. "Go on then."

"I'm kidding, ask whatever you want to ask," Bucky says, resting his chin on his hand.

Steve takes a deep breath. "The war is over," he says.

"It's been over for three and a half years, Steve," Bucky points out helpfully.

"Will you stop?" Steve growls and when Bucky grins Steve has to give in to the urge to kiss him silly. "As I was saying," he says a few moments later and now they're curled together, faces close. "The war is over and once upon a time you once told me to ask you this when--when it was done. So I'm asking if... will you'll marry me?"

Bucky smiles and says yes.

Steve continues earnestly; he's been practicing this speech for a while now, just for this moment. "I mean, I understand that things are different now--"

"I said yes."

"--but I think we've been able to build a real life together after everything we've gone through. And I love you as much now as I ever have--"

"Stevie, I said yes."

"--no, more than I ever have, and I do get it if you're not--I mean, after everything, if--wait. What?" Steve blinks as Bucky's words finally register. "Did you say 'yes'?" He almost can't breathe at the thought.

"Yeah, I did. About half an hour ago, but I'm considering changing my answer if you're not gonna pay any attention to me--pffh!" Laughing, Steve hauls him close and shuts him up the only way he knows how.

(They're married a year later on Earth, in a large ceremony. The invite list is full of people they don't even know.)

"You look lovely," Carol says, picking an invisible speck of lint off Steve's shoulder. Steve knows the lint is invisible because he's already been lint-rolled within an inch of his life consecutively by Jess, Sam and Tony in the last ten minutes. "That uniform..." She steps back and eyeballs him appreciatively.

Like she can talk, Steve thinks. She wears the silver and black of the Royal Navy better than he ever could.

She asks, "Did you convince Bucky...?"

It was the one thing Bucky disagreed on and the only thing they couldn't agree on. Steve shakes his head. "He's got a nice suit." It is nice. But still...

"People are going to expect to see two of the heroes who ended the Great War," Carol reminds him. "That's what they're calling the two of you in the media."

Steve stares at her. "Are you serious? You can't ever say anything about this to Bucky. Don't ever tell him about this."

Carol looks at him in confusion. "I thought he'd be happy to know he's well thought of, that people think he's a hero. It never got out that he was the Winter Soldier, and the official story matches the truth: he was there with you at the end--"

"No, the end..." Steve shakes his head. It's too hard to explain. Steve sure as hell hadn't felt like a hero as the war ground to a close after Bucky had executed Zola and Schmidt, Steve begging his superiors for a quiet exit so he could take Bucky home--if he wanted to go back home, and Steve hadn't even known that at the time--to try and rebuild their shattered life together.

There was nothing heroic about what came after: the nightmares, the fights and the treatments; about Bucky taking it all out on Steve and Steve letting him do it because of his own guilt. For Bucky, for what he was made to do, and for what he thought he had to do. Steve doesn't dream about Bucky putting a bullet in the Red Skull's head, he has nightmares about what was left of Arnim Zola when they found him.

"He never even collected his medals," Steve said. "He never wanted them. I think the fewer reminders he has of that time the better--"

"So you're going to marry him in uniform in front of a thousand-odd people, ninety percent of which would have to be military and ex-military?" Carol asks incredulously. "And with the media out in full force?"

"Yeah." 

It's too hard to explain to someone who doesn't know the full story, but this is what they'd been pressured into the moment news had gotten out that they were marrying. And after a few good years of silence and distance and yes, the invisible support network, Steve had forgotten just how much pressure the military machine that had made him could bring to bear. This was the last thing he owed them. After this he was done.

He and Bucky had made a deal with each other that would keep this day their own despite what the military would have of them, so Steve couldn't help but be happy regardless. 

He was marrying his best friend, after all. He rests his hands on Carol's shoulders. "Buck's fine with this, I promise. The military, me in uniform. He's okay with it. Just don't tell him about this hero business, okay? The media is one thing, but I don't want him to hear that noise from a friend."

Carol opens her mouth to speak, but the door cracks open and Pepper looks in. "Excuse me. Are you ready, Commander Rogers? James is waiting for you."

"Coming, Ms Potts." He kisses Carol on the cheek. "You'd better go take a seat. Wouldn't want to miss the main show, would you?"

"How many times have I told you to call me Pepper?" Pepper asks as she waits for Carol to pass through the door ahead of her. Steve raises a brow when he sees the way Pepper's gaze lingers on Carol in her uniform. Huh. He'd never noticed that before. Not that he'd been looking, but still.

"I'd say about the same number of times that I've asked you to call me Steve?" He grins as he follows her. "Anyway, you've done a great job here, Pepper, and I really need to thank Tony for loaning you out to me."

"Mr Stark doesn't loan me to anyone," Pepper says. "I tell him what I'm doing and do it. Besides, I've had a lot of fun organising everything for you and James."

"I can imagine," Steve murmurs glancing in the direction of the hall, where he knows there are a thousand people waiting expectantly for the heroes of the Great War.

"Oh no, I'm not talking about this."

No, of course she wouldn't be. Steve tries not to look like a complete love-struck fool at the thought, but he's pretty sure he fails dismally when Pepper's mouth twitches as she tries to hide a fond smile. "Come on, he's just through here." And there's something else in her tone, something Steve doesn't quite get until he pushes the door to the antechamber open.

Bucky turns at the sound of the door, but Steve's stopped in his tracks, staring (and Pepper runs into his back with a soft oh!). The tiny part of his brain that hasn't completely short-circuited is aware that he's gaping like an idiot, but Bucky. He's...

He's in uniform. He's in uniform.

The last time Steve saw Bucky in wearing it was over half a decade before, and he'd forgotten how handsome Bucky was in his air force dress uniform. And pinned to his chest was a ribbon for every medal he'd won, even the ones never claimed. "Bucky, I can't--" he says, stumbling forward as Pepper shoves him into the room, "--believe it."

Bucky spreads his hands and smiles faintly. He even looks a little proud of himself. "Believe it."

"I thought you weren't--"

"I changed my mind. C'mere you," he says. Steve laughs and goes to him, except okay, the careful hug so as not to muss he'd intended goes right out the window the moment he gets his hands on Bucky (his dress uniform has always been a turn on to Steve). Bucky groans softly against Steve's mouth as Steve's hands slide over his ass, hitching him close.

Pepper clears her throat awkwardly and they jump apart like a pair of guilty teenagers. The only one who isn't blushing furiously, Steve notices, is Bucky, as Pepper nudges between them to reset the garrison cap on Bucky's head and tidy Steve's jacket.

Bucky holds out his hand to Steve with a serene smile. "Let's do this."

(They're married on Earth in a small ceremony at a lush preservation park, not far from their Brooklyn home.)

It's not that the fancy service held at the Manhattan Defence Force Academy Headquarters was a farce, because it wasn't. But that's not how Steve or Bucky wanted it so they're officially joined in private in front of their closest friends and their families.

"Come on, you two," Natasha says to Steve and to Bucky, where they're sprawled out together a blanket spread on the grass. 

Steve stirs, where he'd been dozing with his head in Bucky's lap. "It's time?" he says sleepily, looking up at Natasha and Sam.

The light is turning golden as the sun sets over the city, the air still heavy and warm from the day. Bucky strokes his fingers through Steve's hair. Steve reaches up and catches his hand, bringing Bucky's fingers to his lips. 

Natasha says, "It's time," as Bucky says, "...if you still want to go ahead after all this. I mean, I know it's been a long day, but if you're tired we can always wait until tomor--"

"I'm awake!" Steve yelps, struggling to sit up. He doesn't want to wait another moment. Laughing, Sam pulls him to his feet and Steve turns to extend a hand to Bucky. He'd refused to go back in the tank after the Sha-thi had put his brain back together, and after a long day spent mostly on his feet he moves stiffly as Steve helps him to his feet. 

Steve slides his hands to Bucky's elbows and pulls him close, kissing him gently. When Bucky pulls back, he asks, "Are you ready?" like Steve's the one who needs to be asked, like Steve hasn't been ready for this moment for the last ten odd years.

"Are you?"

Bucky just smiles.

They pick their way through the spread blankets and picnic baskets to the tree where Nick Fury sits, nursing a beer in one hand and Danielle Cage on his knee. He passes Danielle off to her father and sets the beer down as they approach. "It's time?"

There's nothing formal at all about the service. Bucky wears an old t-shirt from his basic training days, and both are in jeans and barefoot. Natasha stands with Bucky, and Sam with Steve. Fury adlibs the most of it (without any mention of the war) and Steve's pretty sure Bucky makes up his vows on the spot.

He doesn't care. It's what they both want and worth it after the extended formality of the day. The sun barely touches the treetops as they share their first kiss as a married couple, and it feels like the moment Steve's been waiting for all his life. The way Bucky pulls him close, unashamed in front of all their friends. 

For the first time, Steve's not sure he regrets any of the things that went before anymore.

Then he's grinning stupidly at Bucky, who looks just as ridiculously happy. It takes half a second to realise everyone's cheering and clapping and he sees a flash of startled joy on Bucky's face when he remembers that he's still loved; not just by Steve, but by all their friends too. 

"We earned this," Bucky says softly, for Steve's ears only as he pulls him in for another quick kiss.

Steve shakes his head, touching his thumb to Bucky's mouth. "No," he says, "we deserve it."

(The paper lanterns strung between the branches of the trees are lit by the time they slip quietly away, heading hand in hand back to their apartment.)