At some point when he doesn't notice, Barnes's watching changes. It's no longer really surveillance. It's no longer the quality of study when one is attempting to learn the character and habits of a target. It's more as if Steve is the only thing his eyes want to see. The reason for the change is unclear. No part of him has an answer. So he watches.
"Jeez, why are you standing right on top of me, Buck?" Rogers says.
"You okay, buddy?" he asks, "you're even quieter than usual."
But this doesn't seem to be the answer that Steve wants, because he frowns and stares into Barnes's face until it's uncomfortable to hold his eyes. Barnes has to look over Rogers's stupid muscle-bound shoulder until Rogers sighs and turns away.
There is a sensation in Barnes's chest like mission jitters. Purpose unknown. No known parameters changed. Missions go like this sometimes. There is a change, unclear from the outside, that could affect outcomes. Barnes knows what to do: keep silent, observe until the new pattern becomes clear and mission parameters can be adjusted. He watches. But he doesn't sleep well, and words are stopped up in his mouth again. It's like his early days in the tower, as he haunts the empty hallways before dawn and sits crammed into the corners of sofas, staring out.
Which is what he is doing one morning when Steve stumps out of his bedroom toward the kitchen. He's just back from a mission and still in that state of trading off eating with sleeping. Before Barnes can rouse himself to go sit on a kitchen stool and stare, Steve returns, glass of orange juice in one hand and piece of bread in the other.
He stands in front of the balcony door, wearing nothing but those boxer briefs they both like (containment plus flattering: approved modern invention), his hair sticking up in all directions. What a dope. The reddish morning sun makes Steve look molded out of some gold metal. He sneezes, then smiles, close-lipped around the mouthful of bread. He shoves the last bit of bread into his mouth and stretches tall, so smoothly that the orange juice barely sloshes in its glass. Steve looks like a giant, stretched up in that slanting light. It is a study in proportion. In gold and red. In contour and shadow.
Barnes's body does a new thing. He looks down at this new thing his body has done. From this angle, it’s a damn impressive thing.
Awkward, though. And. Private. He doesn't want to talk about this new thing with Steve.
He rises from the sofa, and his silence gets him all the way to the back hallway before Steve says, "Oh, hi, Bucky! I didn't know you were up."
Barnes waves. Up. You don't even know, pal.
In the shower, he can make an examination of his new body thing. Perhaps there are more internal components of the self than he is aware of, because his hand knows how to attend to this thing: it knows how to grasp, to pull, to establish a rhythm that causes his pulse rate to increase, that creates pressure building in his belly. The pressure takes up more and more room inside him until the space behind his eyes replays that image of Steve, stretched and golden, and Barnes breaks into pieces. He melts down. Even the plates in his left arm shift, and he bites his lip to keep silent while he shatters and it is terrible but it is also so good. For one pulsing second he is outside everything: there is no memory or mission, no pain. All of him is only yes.
Barnes's knees feel wobbly, so he sits down to pant and let the hot water fall on his head. He will sit under the water for as long as it takes for his pulse to return to normal and for him to feel safe in open spaces. At the moment, all his edges feel tender, as if he were delicate and could be easily hurt.
There is a lot to think about, assuming his brain ever works properly again. This new thing could be extremely problematic. It was one thing to tease Steve and make him blush, or to speak of emotion when holding everyone at arm's length. If he tries to step closer, will Steve push him away. In that case, it would be better to keep silent. Maintain status.
But now the briefing has recovered from their adventure, and it shows him things. Carter in Steve's lap, her hands undoing his shirt while his mouth moved over her neck. Two GIs standing in the dark space between buildings, foreheads touching and hands pumping at the front of each other's trousers. The way Potts arches her neck and opens her mouth when Stark leans over the back of the sofa to kiss her.
Even though: Stark. Gross.
Never mind, the briefing will show him more. Steve's hands gripped around Carter's waist. Those GIs, kissing to stifle their own moans. The Bucky-person, curled in a ball on a rickety iron bedstead, pretending to be asleep and therefore to not hear the rustles and sighs from the other side of the room. That was Lyon: a week back at base so Steve could rustle up new missions and new bite marks on his shoulders.
You'd have to bite pretty hard to leave marks like that. Steve is tough. Tough enough to take -
"Bucky, are you okay? You've been in here forever."
Barnes convulses with surprise, but sitting in the tub, it only sounds like a squeak and a clank. Nothing to give him away.
"Just thinking," he says.
His voice is so steady.
"You want some coffee? I can bring you some."
If only it were possible to get a mocha delivered to the bathroom. But it's nice to have a second-choice option.
Unfortunately, when Steve returns and reaches in to place the mug on the lip of the tub, he also says,
"Let me know if there's anything I can do to help," just as Barnes is staring at Steve's huge hand, with its long fingers and squared-off nails.
The download of the GIs unfolds again, dissolves into the mental picture of Steve's hand doing what his own has just been up to, and Barnes feels a clench deep in his gut, a spike in his pulse.
You are not kidding, mission.
The coffee's too hot, and it burns his tongue, but for once that's a good thing. It distracts him from everything going on below the waist. His skin feels unusually sensitive, so Barnes covers up with clothing. He's tempted to pull up his hood and hide his face, but the nosy parkers filling every square centimeter of the tower would never be able to let that slide.
"Aren't you hot?" Steve asks.
Hot one minute with goosebumps the next, though clearly not feverish. His body has gone haywire. If it doesn't clear up soon, Barnes will have to have some deeply uncomfortable conversations. At least the medical staff will be bound by patient confidentiality. He has no idea what constitutes 'normal' in this situation.
Looking on the internet is not fruitful. New mission parameter added: do not google 'erection.'
Not that he needs to. Having had one, his body appears to be making up for lost time. His eyes want to look at Steve, which makes his body want 900% more touching than current norms, which makes his lungs want to stop accepting air, which therefore suggests that the proper action is to not look at Steve but then where the hell else is he supposed to look.
He throws The Dispossessed at the wall.
"No good?" Steve asks.
Stop looking at me Steve.
"You want to spar?"
Sparring is helpful. They run around the obstacle course and beat the hell out of each other for 2.5 hours, until Barnes is tired enough not to feel like a live wire. This relief lasts 20 whole minutes, until Steve marches out of the bathroom in a towel. Thanks so much, pal.
The mission is having a hard time too.
Hard time. Jeez.
His next order of books contains an unexpected item. While he examines the bottle, his phone makes its text alert.
"For assistance with your recent project," the text from Building JARVIS reads.
The stuff is gooey and quite helpful. Also, it tastes of mint. Unfortunately, 'helpful' in this case means even better, until Barnes thinks his eyes might be permanently crossed, and there is apparently no number of orgasms that can knock the idea of touching Steve out of his brain for more than 10 minutes.
There is no one to speak to about it. The Olds might scream with laughter. Unacceptable. Even worse would be if Esther got all mushy. Potts: mushy. Barton: might as well hang a sign off the side of Building. Sam: too close to Steve. Building: despite its help with practicalities, no experience of human romantic difficulties. Hill: too mushy, followed by killing him. Stark: no way. Steve: no fucking way.
The mission briefing gives him some mental images. Barnes is going to have to clean up his language.
This is terrible.
So. Banner or Romanoff. On one hand, Banner is sure to have heard way worse during Drunk Science Days. On the other hand, too much surprise and you get yelled at for 'causing' a hole in the wall or four even when said holes were demonstrably made by green-thing Hulk, and how was Barnes supposed to know Banner was even around that corner anyway.
Jesus. Romanoff's going to laugh at him. He doesn't want to talk to Romanoff. He doesn't want to talk. He wants to return to previous mission standard. His body disagrees.
He has a pair of Steve's PJ pants in his room – the ones with giraffes wearing crash helmets. His hand raises them to his face, and they smell like Steve, which objectively sounds like it should be revolting but makes him feel like a lit flame. The monitor at the end of his bed shows Steve's room. Steve is asleep, lying diagonal across his bed, hands flung out to his sides and a pillow lying on his chest. The mission briefing suggests that watching this scene while holding the PJs would result in his brain turning inside out. But Steve also has a monitor. If he wakes, and sees. Barnes covers the monitor with a t-shirt, bites his pillow to keep quiet, and turns his brain inside out after all. Four times.
He's pulling his sheets out of the dryer the next morning when Captain Smooth G. Obvious of the US Army leans against the door jamb and says,
"So, Buck. I, uh. Noticed that you covered up your monitor."
The mission imperative makes itself into an alarm. Painful. But nicely distracting. Thanks mission.
Barnes looks over. Steve's face is approximately the color of Thor's cape. There's so much blood in his face that his feet are probably asleep.
"It's okay if you want to turn them off. I mean, my feelings won't be hurt if you want privacy."
Pretty generous statement from the guy always complaining about being bugged. Barnes considers the thought of waking in the middle of the night and not seeing Steve asleep. He considers waking from a nightmare and not being able to see anything that anchors him to safety. Or is this like the times when Steve offers up what he wants.
"Do you want to turn them off?"
Steve raises an eyebrow and gives one of those sarcastic little smiles.
"I'm not the one who covered it up, Bucky."
While true, this is also a deflection. Barnes can play that game.
"Still's a valid question."
America's mighty chin of stubbornness juts out like Plymouth Rock.
Oh no, mission. We are in terrible trouble.
"Jeez, Bucky, I was trying to be thoughtful. I don't want to turn off the damn monitors. I fucking like being able to see you when I wake up in the middle of the night, okay?"
Status normal. What a relief.
Steve throws his hands up in the air.
Not normal normal. But pretty normal. Barnes's body continues to want increased touching, and the mission briefing is beyond the pale, and he has to wash his sheets a lot. He takes a lot of showers. He tries to watch Steve covertly, which is not so easy when you live in the same apartment. Steve is jumpy. Reason: unknown. Conjecture: Barnes is staring too much. He dials it back, but that doesn't help.
Romanoff calls him.
"Can I borrow your whetstone?"
"Don't scowl, I can't find any of mine. I think Clint must've gone on a sharpening spree, and you know he never puts anything back in a sensible place."
"Did you look in your vegetable bin?"
"Of course I looked in the vegetable bin. I can't find them anywhere."
Barton is a good example of how a human can be lovable despite significant flaws. It's encouraging.
"Sure. I'll bring them."
"We'll have a party."
Barnes brings all his sharpening gear and a sack of knives down to Romanoff's apartment. It has fewer personal touches than his – just a few books that she likes, and some photos, mostly of Montreal. She never speaks of Montreal, which means that the photos are important. She has made tea, and there are little Russian dumplings filled with cheese.
"Piroshki," he says, and Romanoff smiles her way into some dimples.
She has even set jam down on the table next to the sugar. The briefing is excited about the jam, though it has no details or pictures for him. Just the pleasure of tea sweetened by cherries and of chewing on them at the bottom of the glass.
"I knew you were the old-fashioned type," she says as she spoons in her own helping of jam.
They sharpen their knives. The scratch of the whetstone, the zing of the steel, and the swish of the strop are all calming sounds. The scent of oil is a calming scent. The taste of sweet curd and cherry-flavored tea enhance his quiet. He feels easier than he has in weeks.
When they're done, the table is covered in a number of knives so great as to feel within the range of acceptable even if they were not within the confines of Building JARVIS. Task completed, readiness for difficulty.
"Steve asked me to talk to you," Romanoff says.
Calm and satisfaction shrivel up and blow away.
"Do you want to talk?"
She stares at him for a long breath.
"Do you want to watch a movie?" It's perhaps less useful than speaking of his predicament, but much more welcome.
They watch a movie about unhappy English ladies who rent a castle and start to feel better as they dry out. Reasonable.
"It's so ridiculously sentimental, but I like to watch this when I feel sad," Romanoff says, "the flowers make me feel better. And their gorgeous clothes."
"Are you sad?"
She hasn't seemed sad. She made dimples twice.
Romanoff turns and gazes at him.
"I thought you might be," she says, "Steve said you seem upset."
"But not at ease."
"It's okay," she says, "I only promised I'd ask, not that I'd actually make you answer."
Barnes laughs. He hasn't laughed in a while. It feels good. She pats his knee.
"You aren't in that bad shape. Steve's such a mother hen."
That's a funny mental image. Also accurate. Barnes laughs again.
When he leaves, Romanoff lays her hand on his arm.
"You can tell me, if you want, or not, and we'll be okay. But Steve's not like us. He's not used to secrets. You'll have to tell him eventually."
This is correct, though it is not what he wants to hear. But Romanoff is good at secrets, and she is his friend. Maybe talking of this thing is like so many other aspects of human interaction and will be made easier by practice.
"I don't want to ask for too much," he says, "in case it drives Steve away."
For a brief moment, Romanoff lets him see her surprise. He knows that's a gift, like the dumplings, the jam, and the movie.
"That might be a hard conversation, Barnes," she says, "I don't know what he'll say. He won't even know until he says it. But do you really think he'd ever make you go? After everything?"
After decades, and mourning, and long months of the hard work of recovery. They've weathered enough bullshit for several lifetimes. Romanoff is right. There might not be any net gain from talking to Steve about it, but there sure as hell won't be any long-term loss.
Confirm, mission. Steve is home. Just as Barnes is for Steve.
"No," he says.
She breaks out into dimples yet again.
"I knew you were too smart for that."
"Where've you been, Buck?"
As if he didn't know.
What a beautiful matched set of complete numbskulls they are.
Shut up, you.
He holds up the sack of knives.
Steve blinks, then laughs as if he's surprised. It's nice. Barnes realizes that Steve hasn't been laughing either.
"I guess you had a good time."
"Confirm. Ate Russian snacks, watched a movie, and all my knives are sharp enough to split molecules."
"Sounds like your perfect afternoon."
It's a good moment. A normal moment. Barnes chooses not to mess it up.
The calm of the good afternoon doesn't last. Barnes's body continues to make demands, and his brain continues to make inconvenient pictures that cause his cheeks to flush and his guts to tense when he looks at Steve.
Barnes gets a cramp in his right hand and tries the left. Hair gets caught in between the plates, which puts an immediate end to all fun.
Barnes is deeply grateful that Steve does not come searching for a midnight snack and discover the use to which Barnes puts the kitchen shears.
He washes them when he's done. They use those for food, he's not horrible.
This incident is a potent example of the stupid nature of the situation. He has discussed this with Romanoff. Flying Sam has taught him the value of communication. He needs to speak up.
Of course, hypotheticals are much easier to face than Captain Fret wearing his worried expression. Barnes's courage fails. It's so dumb. Once he took on a squadron of 12 with 3 bullets and a stiletto. Once he punched out a goddamn bear. But that crease between Steve's eyebrows makes him go to pieces.
Thank you so much for your valuable support.
Thankfully, Steve's constitutional inability to resist apologizing for things not his fault saves the day.
"Tell me what I did, Bucky, and I'll make it right," he says, kneeling down next to Barnes's reading chair and staring earnestly from 8 cm away.
Barnes's brain buzzes like an overloaded transformer. (Not just his brain.)
Mission's right on the money, as usual.
Seconds have passed, and Steve's earnestness is starting to resolve into frowning. He draws back, and without forethought, Barnes reaches out to place his hand on Steve's arm.
"Didn't do anything," he croaks.
"Then what is it? And don't tell me nothing, I'm not blind."
Barnes takes a minute to shake his head slowly. To let his hair fall around his heated face. Up against the wall. Better to just brave it.
"I think maybe I've changed my mind," he says.
And Steve frowns for real at that one. Barnes has a sensation like sinking into himself. On one hand, he hasn't been that obvious. On the other, it means the topic has not been on Steve's mind. At all.
"About what, Buck?"
Dammit, you're gonna make me say it out loud? Unfair.
Barnes stares at Steve and wills the knowledge to magically transfer without having to be spoken. It doesn't work. Of course.
"About?" Steve says, his eyes wide.
He pulls his arm away from the chair.
He stands up.
"Okay, Buck. Okay. Uh. Thanks for telling me."
He walks away.
Barnes sits in his chair and stares at the highly polished authentic oak flooring. He thinks about the days when his most pressing concerns were following Steve around Brooklyn and locating sufficient daily caffeine. Those were simpler days. It's easy to meet one's physical needs when they consist only of mochas and grilled cheese. He looks down at his lap.
"Troublemaker," he says.
Steve walks past 22 minutes later, in workout gear. He looks at the door while he speaks.
"I'm going down to the gym for a run. I'll. Stay in the building, I promise."
Barnes needs to become more fluent in Rogersese. Is that 'everything okay, just need a minute'? Is it 'I can't even stand to look at you'? Is it 'I am overwhelmed by joy'? That seems unlikely. Is it 'maybe if I leave he'll be gone by the time I return'?
After 34 minutes, Barnes cannot sit in the reading chair any longer without ripping its arms off or launching himself off the balcony. In his experience, there are three things that relieve the existential tension of a situation gone far past pear-shaped. 1. Violence: except that Steve's in the gym. 2. Confiding in someone. No goddamn thank you. 3. Cooking it is.
The second batch of oatmeal-cardamom-apricot cookies is 2 minutes from done when the door opens.
Okay, Barnes. This might be snotty and red, or it might be sweaty and rumpled. Do not either glare or drool, no matter what.
It's sweaty and rumpled and fiddling with hair and big, earnest eyes. For fuck's sake, Barnes is a partially recovered sufferer of severe PTSD not a damn piece of granite why is this even happening.
The timer goes off, thanks be to glasnost.
"Cookie?" he says, meaning peace offering.
Meaning don't leave. Meaning sorry but not really. Meaning how do we go back to normal.
Steve takes one and blinks rapidly three times after the second chew.
"Holy crap Bucky, how's something taste this good that doesn't even have chocolate in it?"
See, that's kind of normal.
"I'm highly skilled," he says.
But the briefing replays pictures of some of the maneuvers he has learned with his hand, so he turns red, which makes Steve turn red, and goodbye kind of normal, sorry your visit was so brief.
They stare at each other.
"Can I have another one?" Steve asks finally.
Yes. Please take all the cookies if that will make things better.
Steve takes five of them. Gratifying.
After the third cookie, he says, "We're gonna talk about it, Bucky. I just needed some time to think."
Vocal tenor lacks indicators of upset.
"And I'd really rather not have a serious conversation while I reek like a garbage pit."
An excellent point.
His own voice has the flat sound of tension. His throat feels tight. It's good to have actions to perform: scrape pans, make neat rows of almost-perfect balls of cookie dough, set the timer. Barnes completes two more batches before Steve is done in the shower. He adds a handful of chocolate chips to the last batch, just for fun. These come out of the oven at the same time that Steve emerges from the back.
He's wearing a semi-decent shirt, and his cheeks are pink. Barnes is covered in flour and dried-up cookie dough, and he's wearing a pair of sweatpants that never saw better days. Because of course. Steve stands on the other side of the counter but won't meet Barnes's eye.
Guess that's our answer, then.
Yeah, me too. But we'll deal with it.
Stop fiddling with the plate, Steve.
Barnes eats a cookie. Tastes like a year-old protein bar.
"Is it okay if we talk somewhere that we don't have to look at one another?"
Steve smiles – just a little – at Barnes's fervor. Nice to know that at least the awkward is shared.
"And I'm bringing the cookies."
Well, if there was any question of Barnes following Steve, that seals it. Where the cookies go, there goes Barnes. Steve rotates the sofa so it faces the balcony door. It's a good plan. The city gives them plenty to look at and pretend that they're not having history's most uncomfortable conversation.
Steve sits at one end of the sofa. That certainly seems like a tactical play. Barnes sits at the other end. Steve sighs.
"You don't. Have to sit that far away."
Steve laughs. Barnes hasn't heard that laugh in many days.
"God, you'd think we'd be better at this. Is it Sam's fault that we're still terrible at this?"
Sam's efforts to get them both to open their mouths have been more patient than either of them deserves. Frankly, Barnes had thought he was better at communicating than this. He personally would blame his troublesome body. However, when presented with the opportunity to pass the blame on, why not take it?
"Since he's not here, it's definitely Sam's fault."
"Get over here, jerk."
At least 43% of Barnes's misery bleeds away. He scoots left: not all the way. To the middle. Steve scoots right, until their shoulders touch, and they balance the plate of cookies on their legs. The sky outside is turning pink, and the sun glares off buildings in all the colors of metal.
Barnes knows torture better than a great majority of humans, so he won't characterize sitting next to Steve as such. But it is a form of agony to feel pressure and body heat and still not to know. And yet. If Steve's answer will be no, this quiet time on the sofa in close proximity will be a cherished memory. An agony with sweetness, like a really hot curry, or saving the day even if you have a bullet tearing through your critical organs. Barnes commits the sensation to memory, just in case.
"Did you ever notice how men don't touch each other nowadays?" Steve says, "as if we're expected to be monuments. All silence, and I don't know. Self-sufficient."
Barnes turns his head and stares. Does this guy even listen to himself.
"Yeah. Suffering in silence like a martyr. Crazy. Who does that."
Steve elbows him.
"Shut up, asshole. I've had trauma too, you know."
Barnes also has elbows.
"I'm making a point about our time. Do you remember?"
The mission briefing is currently single-minded, but it has previously given Barnes a few things: an arm slung around a small neck, lying close together in hot sand. Barnes has seen all the modern bullshit about the undesirability of male emotion.
"I remember a little."
"I miss it. Just being able to sit like this, close to somebody else. Someone familiar."
I'm not sure, mission.
For a long few breaths, they eat cookies and watch the sky turn many colors.
"Damn, Bucky, these are even better with chocolate."
As conversations go, it's not big on useful information, but it's nice to sit next to Steve and feel safe and close. The room around them darkens along with the sky, and that's easier. No matter what his face does, even Steve's super-sight will only kind of see it. The cookies are gone. Steve slides down until his legs stretch out for about a mile across the coffee table. He then. He lays his head on Barnes's shoulder.
Barnes holds himself as still as he can without actually ceasing to breathe. Also, why. That's the metal shoulder; it can't be comfortable.
"It's hard to talk about, Buck."
"I mean, you were always the one good at this stuff. Before."
Steve sits up, a blocky shadow. Close, but not too close. Not close enough.
"No, Bucky. That's not what I meant. I just meant. I don't. Have any idea what I'm doing."
Nice to have things in common.
"Me neither," Barnes says. "I don't even know what I'm asking for. What if I'm wrong? What if I hurt. This."
How did that slip out.
Steve huffs once, like a short laugh, or surprise. Then he sits back, puts his head back on Barnes's shoulder.
"Yeah. Yeah, me too. I mean, nothing's ever gonna break us, right?"
"I never really thought about. With a man," Steve says.
"Might be a dealbreaker."
Steve takes his hand. Barnes forgets to breathe for real.
The wonders of holding a metal hand can't last forever, and the nighttime cityscape they see every day is not that interesting. But there's no awkwardness as they get up, put the sofa back, and make a pile of pasta. They don't talk, really, but that's standard procedure. They often don't need to. For the moment, the briefing is quiet, and Barnes feels calmer than he has in weeks. The sense of impending disaster has dissipated under the memory of Steve holding his hand.
And when they sit down to watch 'How It's Made' (modern factories are really something), Steve maneuvers him so that they sit crossways on the sofa, Barnes between Steve's legs, leaning back against Steve's chest.
"Is this okay? Can we try this?"
Is it okay. Is it okay to never move again.
"It is nice," Steve says. "Let me know if it's too much."
Too much awesome, maybe. Barnes can feel Steve's heartbeat, just behind his own. Maybe it would surprise exactly no one that their resting heart rates are similar. Steve has one arm on the back of the sofa, but they clasp their right hands together. It's nicer than flesh with metal. Pulse, and warmth. His thumb passing across the back of Steve's thumb. The smooth Canadian drone of the show announcer. Barnes is asleep before the end of the first episode.
He wakes when Steve shifts.
"No, sorry I woke you. But I think my ass is falling asleep."
Barnes slides to the end of the sofa, as groggy as if he'd been tranked. Has he ever slept like that? His muscles ache. He yawns. Steve laughs.
"Go to bed, Bucky."
The briefing tries to turn that into a set of ideas.
The hug he gets is a new kind of hug. A little more lingering, a lot more pressed together below the shoulders. Pretty nice. Hugging is less oppressive than previously, by several orders of magnitude.
"Sleep well, Buck," Steve says in his ear.
"More of this tomorrow, maybe."
Barnes, where did that come from.
"Yeah. I think maybe so."
Barnes discovers a whole new level of sleep. It's like being plugged into a recharger overnight. He wakes in the morning with 97% of his body comfortable and relaxed and the other 3% ready for immediate progression of all touching-type activities to the advanced level.
After he has corrected that anomaly, Barnes spends some time wondering how much Steve would laugh at him if he rolled down the hallway for coffee. He's pretty sure his skeleton won't work for a while. Alas. Caffeine must be procured.
The monitor shows that Steve is already out of bed. Maybe there will be coffee. Maybe there will be breakfast. Maybe there will be more hugging.
Who even am I.
He finds all three. The hug is a little stiff and sideways at first; then Steve says something like "ngh" and throws the spatula down to fold Barnes up. They're both broad, but they both have long arms that wrap all the way around. The briefing knows that long ago, they didn't fit this nicely together.
"I'm so glad I'm allowed to do this now," Steve says.
Barnes feels the rumble of it in his chest, feels Steve's breath at the spot under his ear. Steve doesn't know how ticklish that spot is.
"This feels safe," Steve whispers.
It would be easy to feel guilty about that. For all the time it felt unsafe for himself. But Barnes knows there's no blame in it. Steve would've held back forever, would've never said anything, if Barnes had continued to dislike touch.
Super-suffering. He was good at that even before the serum. And it's always mission-compliant to lessen that pain.
Barnes squeezes, and Steve makes a sound like a sad laugh. So Barnes pulls a trick he has seen in movies: he leans back and lifts until Steve's feet come up off the floor. Steve laughs, but he also wiggles until Barnes sets him down, which (a) awesome, (b) holy crap don't embarrass anyone, body.
For fuck's sake. The sunrise smile is even better at actual sunrise.
"You want to go for a ride, Bucky?"
Steve's face is pink, and he seems to find his half-eaten pancake fascinating, but the twist of his mouth is almost a smile.
Barnes pokes him.
Now the ceiling is interesting.
"I don't want to stay in the apartment all day. It's too small. I want wide-open spaces today."
That sounds like a good thing, maybe.
"And I want. I mean. If we're gonna try this thing. We can't – in front of everyone, right? In case it doesn't work."
Crap, wouldn't that be a nightmare.
Barton and Stark would never shut the hell up. Pepper might cry.
"You see my point."
"It'll be weird enough if it does work."
Steve goes from pink to red.
Barnes disapproves of the motorcycle if he thinks about it too hard. Neither of them will wear a helmet - Steve because he has delusions of invulnerability and Barnes because it would make him catatonic – and even fancy serum can't heal traumatic head wounds. Also, the wind tangles his hair, even when he braids it tightly. But it's an excuse to sit close to Steve that no one will remark on. The seat's uncomfortable, and the engine's vibration is probably going to make his balls itch, but once they're on the streets, Barnes slides up close. He ducks his head behind Steve's shoulder to shield his face from the breath-stealing wind.
It's a giving up of control that's actually. Not so bad. They round a corner and lean together, one unit. There have been hints of that sometimes, especially when sparring. Synchronicity born of long years of familiarity, as long as he can lay the stranger-years aside.
There were so many things his body taught him in the early post-Asset days, before his self was fully formed: how to relax in hot water, picking locks, jump-starting cars. Things his body knew. Evidently, one of those is leaning into a turn with Steve on a motorcycle.
What else does his body know. His breath gets caught inside for a moment, and his clasped hands slip down several inches. Barnes feels Steve's belly muscles clench, and something tight and electric flickers through him.
He hopes this is normal desire and not a short in his arm.
They stop at a red light, and there is the synchronous movement again, as they put their feet down for balance. Steve looks back at him – a serious, sidelong glance that Barnes can't interpret. But when Barnes goes to lift his hands back to chest level, Steve grabs them and presses, a clear 'stay there.'
That's good, right?
Steve keeps his hand there until the light changes. As they move forward, Steve reaches up to perform the turns and hitches needed to get the bike in gear. Once that's done, he reaches back and squeezes Barnes's knee.
Okay, that has to be good.
If this is as much as we ever get, we are lucky.
They ride north for 87 minutes on a small highway that meanders through small towns and trees, with the Hudson occasionally showing off to the left. Barnes cannot recognize any difference from all the others they have passed through about the town where Steve decides to stop. Like the others, there is a small commercial block of brick buildings with colorful awnings. It's too late for summer crowds and too early for autumn foliage, so the street is quiet when Steve parks the bike in front of a store with a sign reading 'Homemade Fudge' that they are definitely going to check out later.
"I thought maybe we could walk a little."
If by 'walk' you mean hobble around like Ollie.
"I'll try. Not sure there's any feeling in the lower half of my body."
Steve does that thing where he blushes, ducks his head, and rubs the back of his neck.
Barnes has a new aesthetic appreciation of that thing. Pepper once said, "if he had any idea how cute he is when he does that."
Confirm, past Pepper.
It's nice that we're in agreement, mission.
The briefing concurs in its own way, which is a whole thing about hands and necks and mouths that Barnes has to tuck away because he's standing out in the open street in front of Steve, for shit's sake.
"Sorry," Steve says, "I didn't mean to drive quite this far out of town. I was just enjoying the ride."
It's like the briefing is dancing. And wow is Steve bright red.
"It is a pretty nice day," Barnes says, which sounds stupid, but he can't think of anything better to say.
Steve sure can turn many different shades of crimson. The briefing wants to know how far down the red goes.
Steve turns and slings his arm around Barnes's shoulder.
"I meant," he says in a soft voice low enough below his usual tone that it feels like a growl in Barnes's ear, "your hands on me."
Barnes stumbles. Marx and Engels he is in trouble. So very much trouble that his face can't stop grinning all of a sudden.
They walk. Steve removes his arm after only a few paces, leaving Barnes's skin buzzing all down the right side of his torso. There's a path that goes along the river. A man with a bright orange kayak passes them. They follow and watch him climb in at a narrow slip and paddle out into the current. The rocks along the shoreline look placed there on purpose. Steve crouches down and picks through the rocks. He comes up with a handful of small ones and dumps some into Barnes's cupped hands.
"I think I'd hate being tied into a boat like that," he says.
The river water would be cold, not like a bath, and not still and clear like the pool.
They skip their stones across the river's surface. The current messes them up, but Barnes gets 4 bounces out of one well-balanced rock.
"Nice," Steve says.
They walk some more.
"Can we?" Steve says, and takes Barnes's hand.
Barnes squeezes to indicate yes.
They walk with a similar stride. It's easy to walk, connected to each other. And Steve's on the river side, where any enemy would be in sight from far off. Barnes's metal arm is free and ready to shield them from any danger on the town side.
Around one bend is a tiny promontory with a bench.
"Let's sit," Steve says.
But when they do, he frowns. What is the frowning.
"I noticed that you keep letting me take the lead, Buck," he says to his knees. "And. Uh. You don't have to, all the time. We're both feeling our way blind here, right? So don't. I mean you can. We both know how to say no? If we want to. If you want to."
If vocabulary is a resource, Steve is using it very poorly.
We are a couple of morons, mission.
"Okay," Barnes says.
He leans over until he's at an angle against Steve and drags Steve's arm so it hangs down over his own chest. Pretty comfortable. Steve laughs.
"I should've said something earlier."
The spot is nice to look at, with river, trees, and civilization blended together. The sounds of water, birds, and trains.
"You should draw this," he says.
Barnes sits up.
"Yes. And give the drawing to me."
"Okay, Buck," Steve laughs, "geez, maybe I'm gonna regret what I said."
But he pulls his travel notebook and pencil from his jacket pocket to sketch. While he sketches, Barnes gets to stare. Not that he hasn't stared at Steve as his primary activity since mission reset, but now he notices the details. Like the cowlick that sticks out at the back of Steve's head. The way he squints when he looks out, then chews his bottom lip as he draws.
Mission, you're right.
How did he never notice those before? There's one on Steve's cheek, just under the cheekbone. One on his neck, close to the spot under the ear where Barnes is so ticklish. There are more on the other side, he thinks. Where else? How many?
He reaches out with one fingertip and touches the freckle on Steve's cheek. Because Steve will say no if it's not okay. He traces down to the other one, and Steve takes a breath with several hitches in it. Steve drops his pencil and turns swiftly, and his hand wraps around the back of Barnes's neck. He looks almost frightened, and their faces are so close together, for a second it's too much, but Steve stops when their foreheads touch. Room for choice. Steve always gives him that.
Barnes tilts his head and puts his lips on Steve's. He has no idea what he's doing, so he doesn't try anything fancy. Just light pressure, and his hand grasping Steve's jacket collar, and Steve's hand pressing the back of his neck, and it's enough to feel like. Like. He thought it would feel like explosions, or the middle of a tough mission. But it feels like coming home. It is quiet. It is right. He hopes so hard that Steve will agree.
Barnes pulls back, and Steve's eyes stay shut for one heartbeat longer. Look at that. Remember that, Barnes. Just in case.
"Bucky. I didn't think I."
Steve leans in again. It's a quick kiss. But the fact that it happens is peanut butter cookies, and mocha, and a grilled cheese, all at once.
"Look at that smile," Steve says, "who knew I could make anybody smile like that?"
Well. Barnes could make about 9 smart comments about that ludicrous statement, but he doesn't want to ruin the moment.
The drawing pencil has rolled far away. They laugh as they look for it. They don't search efficiently. They keep stopping to stare at one another, to touch.
If his mission is to enhance Steve's well-being, it is definitely mission-compliant to cause him to smile like that, simply from Barnes wrapping his fingers around Steve's wrist. If his mission is to live a good human life, it must be mission-compliant to let himself touch Steve's hand, to let himself stand close while they put their arms around one another.
Once, hugging felt like restraint and no air. Now it makes him want to give gifts, and maybe even to whistle. Barnes thought he knew happy, but this is a new kind of it. Advanced happiness skills.
Barnes finds the drawing pencil 2.5 m away from the bench, in a clump of grass.
"Hey, thanks Buck, now I can finish -"
The light feeling in his chest takes over. Barnes grins, snatches the pencil back, and takes off running.
Oh good, a head start. He needs it. He's slightly shorter, and his arm makes him heavier. Steve's faster. Steve will catch him. Which is the point.
Steve catches him with a flying tackle, which (a) ouch and (b) awesome. Barnes is not easily rattled by a hard fall, so he struggles to keep the pencil away, tossing it from hand to hand, and wrestling is definitely something they should be doing all the time, except he's a little distracted, so after only a couple of minutes Steve has him pinned, one knee on his metal arm, his right arm held down over his head, and Barnes's focus snaps in on how hard they're both breathing. Pinned down, but not afraid. Several other things entirely than afraid. He might be losing the pencil, but he has won something.
"You got me," he says.
Steve's wide-eyed expression softens into something warm and smiling.
"I have got you, haven't I?"
Barnes really could get used to this kissing thing. Too bad it's over so soon.
The air seems a lot colder, a minute later, than it did with Steve lying on top of him.
Only more okay than he has been in conscious memory. For example: tactical abilities functioning.
"Might need help walking."
Steve does that raised eyebrow thing.
Bet he'll play along.
"Oh yeah? Feeling weak at the knees?"
"Just got tackled by a small mountain. How would you feel?"
"Sounds tragic. Maybe I'd better put my arm around you."
Who knew it could be so easy to walk so close to another person, matched stride for stride.
"Are you hungry?"
They're spoiled for choice in this touristy little town. But the place in front of the motorcycle advertises not only fudge but also milkshakes. When he sees that, Barnes plants his feet and pulls. Green-thing Hulk might be able to keep walking at that, but not anyone else.
"We're eating here, huh? You know you could just say so."
"This way's more fun."
And it's a diner. A very clean, cutesy diner done up in red and white check, but a diner just the same.
"Bucky, you're lucky HYDRA never knew that tuna melts are your one true weakness."
The milkshake menu is extensive. Steve can get excited all day long about mint chocolate chip if he wants to. Barnes is getting peanut butter.
Halfway through lunch, Barnes is overcome and puts the milkshake down.
Steve's concerned expression is too much at home on his face.
"Tuna melt," he says, "peanut butter milkshake. Kissing. This is the best day of my life."
Steve laughs. He's bright red again. Making Steve blush is fun.
"The kissing part is pretty unexpected," Steve says.
Barnes feels Steve's foot under the table, hooking around his ankle.
"Really okay," he says.
Then he takes a long drink of his milkshake and shrugs at the table.
"I mean, so far. I won't really be able to tell without trying some more. Possibly a lot more."
It's good that no one else is around to hear the sound that comes out of Barnes's mouth. What do you call something halfway between a squeak and a giggle? Neither sound is becoming on an ex-assassin, possibly-proto-Avenger. But he kind of feels too good to really care.
"Let's go home," Steve says.
The ride home makes Barnes feel crazy, pressed up against Steve, his arms around Steve, the bike's vibrations, and knowing that they are going to get back to the tower and behind their locked door and. And and and.
But seriously, he has to get a mocha first.
"It's a two-minute detour."
There are people in the garage. People at the coffee bar. And they both know that Stark routinely watches the videos of the elevators, because he doesn't respect privacy rights. But somehow (ha ha somehow) they keep bumping into one another. They keep meeting one another's eyes. It's hard to breathe.
And Steve, because he is terrible, unlocks the door to their apartment with exaggerated slowness. Punishment, Barnes assumes, for the mocha. Steve walks into the apartment, drops his keys on the little table by the door. He doesn't look at Barnes once. He takes off his jacket slowly, as if he's thinking about something.
Is this. What is this. Is he changing his mind.
Steve takes off his boots and lines them up neatly by the door. He wanders into the living room and sits on the sofa.
I don't know what to do.
"Bucky, don't make me sit here all day like an asshole."
Barnes dumps his jacket on the floor and doesn't bother to look where his boots land. He doesn't even care that he left his mocha by the door, because they get a little fancy, and it turns out that Steve is goddamn delicious.
Barnes is conducting an oral exploration of all the freckles on Steve's neck somewhat later when Steve says,
"Oh my god this is so weird."
Barnes sits up, but he doesn't move far. Steve's fingers are still hooked in his belt loops.
"I'm sorry, Bucky. That was rude. I don't mean bad. I really don't mean bad. It's just strange."
Maybe it is strange. Barnes has little memory of his previous inhabitant's sexual experiences. But Steve remembers.
"Because of Carter?"
For a minute it seems like Steve is going to pull away, but then he simply drops his head.
Barnes remembers that it is comforting to have a hand on the back of his neck sometimes. He lays his hand on Steve's neck.
"I really did love her."
"Past tense incorrect."
"Why'd you say that in past tense? Carter's still alive. We can go see her tomorrow."
"I don't -"
"You do, Steve. I see it. She sees it, even when she doesn't see anything else."
Steve takes a deep breath. He nods.
"That doesn't bother you?"
"Figure your heart's big enough to love plenty of people."
Steve's smile is not so successful. Time to say something smart, Barnes.
"I didn't think this would happen," he says. "I mean. You know how I feel. That I'm not ever gonna leave."
Steve pulls at him, until they're chest to chest. He knows Steve's hiding his face. That's okay. Easier to talk to Steve's neck, anyhow.
"I know I teased a lot. But I figured. People love each other all the time without touching, right? Family. Friends. People with good reasons not to touch. And I thought that was me."
Steve's arms tighten around Barnes's back.
"I know you're not like that. And as far as all the parts of me know, you never wanted any guy that way."
Steve shakes his head like he wants to butt in. Dammit, Barnes is making a point here. He pulls on Steve's hair.
"Shut up, let me finish. You know how you run battle plans through your mind?"
"I did that. Practiced. For about a year now, practiced what I would feel when you told me you'd met a girl. I said shut up, I'm not done yet. I'm saying. It wasn't hard to picture, because I know how you love Carter. It doesn't bother me, Steve. Maybe this is temporary. Maybe later on we're gonna find out that one or both of us is creeped out by anything more than necking. Maybe we're an item and we don't know it yet. Maybe next week you'll meet the girl of your dreams and have seventeen babies for me to spoil rotten. You said it earlier. We both know how to say no. But I haven't reached my limit of yes yet. If you reach yours first, sure it'll sting. But you know neither one of us is going anywhere no matter what the world throws at us."
Okay pal, there is such a thing as too much squeezing. A man has to breathe.
"I don't know why they always have me making the speeches when you're the smart one," Steve says.
"If you tell my deep, dark secret I'll have to kill you."
Steve goes completely still.
"I, uh. Have a secret of my own," he says to Barnes's clavicle.
When he made his big speech just now, Barnes did not expect the universe to throw a curve ball quite so soon.
"When we were teenagers," Steve says.
What. Who cares what happened back then? Steve you can't be freaking out about stuff that happened in grandpa times. You could be biting my lower lip right now. Wouldn't that be better?
"I mean, I always liked girls, right?"
"Sure. Women are terrific."
"Don't tease, Bucky I'm being serious."
Focus, Barnes. Maybe if he can get this "secret" out of the way, he'll put his mouth to better use over our clavicle.
"But there was a while, when we were both sixteen. I mean, I worked really hard to stop, I knew it would only cause trouble."
Barnes tries to imagine what kind of danger tiny teenaged Steve could possibly have caused that would make giant, modern, been-through-the-shitstorm-and-back Steve sound so worried.
"Do you remember sleeping on the roof, in the summertime?"
The briefing has fragments for him: the scent of asphalt, stars obscured by haze, and the distant sound of boat horns.
"There was one night. The moon was really bright, and I couldn't sleep. It was so hot I couldn't breathe, even on the roof. And the moonlight, making weird shadows everywhere. And I looked over, and you'd tossed the sheet off your chest. You'd been working at that warehouse, hauling crates after school every day, and the moon made your shoulders look like marble, the light and shadow on your face."
"Oh jesus, Bucky, it was the only thing I could think about for months, but I couldn't say anything. What if you never spoke to me again? But I wanted to. I wanted."
Barnes's blood has gone all carbonated.
"What did you want, Steve?"
And yeah, Barnes is strong, but Steve moves without any warning and flips them over, and Barnes's brain turns completely to mush from what Steve is doing to his mouth, and how the neck of his shirt gets ripped a little bit, and then Steve is using his mouth to do some extremely interesting things to Barnes's neck. And then the teeth action starts and Barnes can't help that sound he makes, and it's like Steve is everywhere, but it's okay, and hey now, up against his leg he can feel that Steve's body is also doing the new thing.
"I wanted this, Buck," Steve whispers, "I wanted this."
Well, you're getting it, pal.
The advantage Barnes has is a metal hand that can overcome any resistance by human neck muscles, even those of larger than average size, so he can pull Steve's head back, and isn't it interesting how Steve looks a little cross-eyed at having his hair pulled like that.
Then Barnes demonstrates the positive attributes of teeth action to the neck. Steve has a sound of his own. Excellent.
All those pictures in his head from the briefing have been bothersome in recent weeks, but they had nothing on the full-body experience of sitting next to Steve on a park bench with their mouths pressed together. Or being pinned down in cold grass by Steve. Straddling Steve's lap on their sofa behind a locked door figuring out all the fancy ways to kiss. Or lying underneath him on their sofa trying to reach every bit of skin from the chest up with mouth and hands, while their shirts slowly get shredded by their enthusiasm.
Skin is so excellent.
There is a moment when the mood changes. It's not a bad moment – just that they both look up at the same time and shake themselves a little bit.
"Breather?" Steve asks.
It's awkward at first, to sit up and move apart. Barnes doesn't know where to look, but then he looks down, then looks over without meaning to, and Steve's pants are in just as ridiculous shape as his are, and they laugh like idiots.
"I need a beer," Steve says.
"And a whisky, and then another beer," Barnes says.
It takes a while to even get through the first beers, because they have to keep touching each other, and Barnes thinks it's hilarious to keep putting the cold bottle on Steve's bare skin to make him jump, and then Steve does a thing with the mouth of the bottle that looks absolutely filthy.
"Why don't you come over here and try that."
Steve with whisky overlay: even more delicious.
When they open the second beers, Building JARVIS butts in with, "Excuse me sirs, Mr. Stark has been attempting to ring you for the past forty-three minutes."
"The world had better not be ending, today of all days," Steve says.
"Damn straight," Barnes says.
"Happily no, Captain. Mr. Stark is requesting your presence for dinner. He is not responding well to my insistence that you do not wish to be disturbed."
"Building, you are an excellent mission assist."
"Thank you, Sergeant, I am happy to be such. And may I also congratulate you on this new stage in your relationship. I wish you much joy in it and assure you of my continuing discretion. However, I'm afraid Mr. Stark will not stop – if you will permit me to use your own language – annoying the shit out of me if you do not consent to speak to him."
"Dammit, what are we going to say?"
"I have a suggestion, Captain. In anticipation of your question, I took the liberty to do some searching. The International Lindy Hop Association finals are on ESPN3."
"People still lindy hop?"
"That's gonna make us sound like the two biggest stuffed shirts ever to live outside of Jersey."
"Which I guess makes it the perfect excuse. Patch him in on audio only, JARVIS, and thanks."
"My pleasure, Captain."
"--because the Summer Olympics are stupid, Barton, everyone knows that. Running and throwing crap and shooting bows and arrows. Who cares? People fling themselves down mountains while riding on knife blades and strips of fiberglass in the Winter Olympics. That's real action."
"Tony," Steve yells.
"Cap? Where the hell are you? Did Barnes blow something up again? Because I don't want you making crappy repair jobs to my building, I have contractors for that. Why can't I see you? We're ordering dinner, what do you want?"
"At home, no, I don't know, nothing thanks."
"That was not even English."
"I was answering your questions."
"All my questions are rhetorical, except for where are you and what do you and Barnes want for dinner? Hurry up, we're starving up here."
"Bucky and I are staying in for the evening, go ahead without us."
"Lindy hop finals," Barnes yells.
"Again with the not-English."
"The International Lindy Hop Association finals, sir," JARVIS says.
"You mean the dance?" Pepper asks in the background.
"You're watching dancing? You're giving up on my buying you delicious takeout and forgoing the company of your teammates to watch dancing?"
"Reminds us of the old days, Tony."
"OH MY GOD ARE YOU DANCING IS THAT WHY WE CAN'T SEE YOU?"
"I have never lindy hopped in my life!" Steve yells.
"Confirm," Barnes yells.
He's pretty sure it's true – the Asthma King couldn't have taken it, and who had time to learn to dance during the war?
"You both disgust me, enjoy your boring lives," Stark says, and the connection goes quiet.
They clink their bottles together in victory.
"Hold on," Steve says a few minutes later, "what did JARVIS mean, 'continuing discretion'?"
Barnes learns that when he blushes, it goes from scalp to feet. Well, in for a kopek, in for a ruble. He goes to his room and fetches the little bottle.
"Building had that put in my most recent book delivery," he says, and tosses it.
Steve catches it, reads the bottle, says "GAH," and drops it. Then picks it up and puts it on the counter. Stares at it.
"That’s for. Uh?"
"Feels about half-empty, Buck."
"Wait. Is this why you covered up your monitor a few weeks ago?"
For fuck's sake. In for a ruble, in for a freaking bank account, apparently.
Steve's blush goes at least to the waist. Interesting.
"Is that. Also why you've been doing so much laundry?"
"Now see, that makes SO much more sense. Sam said - "
"You talked to Sam about it."
"I always talk to Sam when I'm worried about you, Bucky. And every time he tells me I should be talking to you instead. He said maybe you were feeling unsafe about something and self-comforting by cleaning, which was why you kept doing laundry and taking so many showers oh god."
He laughs. He laughs so hard that he disappears behind the kitchen island. Barnes has to go check on him, just to make sure he hasn't hit his head on the way down or anything. But no. He's just sitting on the floor, laughing.
"Help me up."
Barnes hauls him to his feet, and oh boy more kissing.
While making dinner they discover that hot olive oil popping out of the pan onto bare skin hurts like a son of bitch no matter how much a tough guy you are, so they have to put new shirts on.
They even watch a little of the lindy hop finals, which are amazing. Not as amazing as necking, but solid dinnertime entertainment.
"Wait a second," Barnes says as he puts the last clean dish away. "Statement yesterday, 'never really thought about with a man,' statement today, 'wanted this.'"
"You're not any random man. You're Bucky."
"Breather's over," Barnes says.
"Thank god," Steve says.
They look at the sofa.
"I'm thinking," Steve says, "maybe."
He grabs Barnes's hand and heads for the back of the apartment. He also grabs the little bottle. They stop in the back hallway.
"Your room or mine, Buck?"
And mess up his nice clean sheets? Plus which, Barnes knows from the experience of Steve going out of town that Steve's bed is more comfortable.
"Right. You just don't want your clean sheets to get messed up again."
Barnes punches him.
"Punk. This is why I."
"Why you what, Bucky?"
"Shut up Steve."
"Why you love me? That's what I thought."
The bed's even better than the sofa. Easier to get more leverage with a little more room. Easier to tangle their legs together. Nice to demonstrate for Steve the obverse of their time on the sofa, holding Steve down by the shoulder and tracing all the veins and tendons in his neck, sucking on that little hollow above his clavicle.
"Jesus, Bucky," Steve says as if he can't get enough air, his free hand scratching at Barnes's back.
To do this to Steve is just as good as feeling it himself. Who knew? Thorough tactile study is going to take a long time. Best project ever.
Then Steve's hand drifts down to his ass, and the inside of Barnes's head explodes white. His last sensation is of jackknifing away, and then his eyes don't see Steve's room anymore. They see a white room in Czechoslovakia. It is 1946, or maybe 1947, he doesn't know the date, but the prosthesis on his arm is shorting out across the nerves in his shoulder, and the Russians are breaking him. Sometimes they use objects for this, but the moment Barnes is caught in, one of them is using his body for the purpose, and Bucky is ashamed to feel grateful that it's not worse.
"Bucky!" Steve's voice.
Has Steve finally come for him? But how could Steve come for him. Steve is dead. They showed him the newspapers. No one will ever come for him. He's alone, and they won't even kill him.
"Bucky. I'm not dead, Buck. They were wrong. I lived, and I didn't need to come for you. You found me. Remember? You found me in the river."
That's right, there was a river.
"You pulled me out of the river, and you followed me to Brooklyn. Remember Brooklyn? You lived across the street from me, with Ollie and Lidia and Esther."
"Yes, cat Eleanor, who loves you. But you live in the tower now, with me. Safe in the tower, with me."
Barnes blinks. He's curled in on himself in Steve's bed, mostly naked, and Steve's hovering over him but not touching.
It's a new voice in his head. Maybe the briefing.
"Bucky, what do I do? I don't want to hurt -"
Barnes unfolds onto Steve and clings. He did not want this memory, but it's as fresh in his mind as a knife wound.
"I'm so sorry, Buck."
Barnes's teeth are chattering. It's just strong emotion, but it feels like cold.
Please understand what I mean.
Steve does. He wraps his arms around Barnes, too loose, too careful. But it's a start. It blocks out the light.
Barnes burrows into Steve's neck and listens to Steve's heartbeat. He tries to match their breathing. Steve doesn't hold him as tightly as he'd like, but it's enough. Steve rubs Barnes's upper back, combs his fingers through Barnes's tangled hair, and after a while the shivering stops. A while after that, the memory of the day starts to overtake the memory of 70 years ago. Barnes stretches a little, and is able to take a good, deep breath.
"Bad memory, Bucky?"
Finally, Steve squeezes tight.
"I'm so sorry. I should've remembered. I should've been more careful."
"Steve, shut up."
"But I. Okay, okay."
"Didn't know that would happen," Barnes says, "not your fault, not mine."
Steve's hands are so gentle on him. Here. Now. In the future. After a really good day.
Barnes rolls back to look up.There's more distress on Steve's face than he has seen in a year.
"I ruined our day, Steve."
Distress is replaced by a blank expression.
"Did you just 'deny' at me?"
That snotty, obnoxious pile of. Well, shit. Pile of gorgeous. Who knows that a pissed-off Barnes is a not-freaking-out Barnes. He sits up.
"One of these days that is not going to work, Steve."
"That day's not today, though. This completely not-ruined day."
"You have a real smart mouth."
Steve puts his hands behind his head and makes a facial expression Barnes has never seen before. He smiles slowly, with a lot of teeth and half-lidded eyes. It's the kind of look that promises trouble.
"Yep. I know how to use it too. If you're interested."
Oh, he's interested. Kissing hasn't given him any bad flashbacks. But no one ever called Barnes 'easy' unless peanut butter's involved. He arranges his face.
"I don't know Steve, maybe we should cool it for today."
Ha ha, look at the guy go all contrite.
"Yeah, no, of course Bucky, you -"
Barnes punches him in the pec.
The mood's gone, though. Barnes's skin is clammy from his flashback, and when they're not distracted at the mouth, all their elbows and knees knock together. There's a lot of interruption for 'ouch' and 'hold on, left me shift.' Jeez. Then Steve yawns, which sets Barnes off.
"Bucky," Steve says, looking for-real serious.
But his hand is wrapped around Barnes's bicep, his thumb stroking back and forth.
"Do you think you'd be able to get any sleep if you stay here?"
"Fell asleep in your lap last night. Maybe so."
"We used to sleep in the same bed sometimes. Especially when it was cold. Like this."
He turns over and curves his back into Barnes's front, pulls Barnes's arm over his chest and laces their hands together.
"Really. We used to cuddle and hold hands."
Nice to feel Steve laugh against his chest.
"Not really, though we woke up this way a few times. Usually we started out back to back, but I figure you wouldn't like that."
"After Azzano, a few times you let me curl around you like this."
Briefing, do we have that.
There is the edge of a memory, his forearms covering his face, his back warm.
I'll want that one later.
"I bet that helped," he says.
"I hope so."
Barnes pulls closer, until his nose is pressed against Steve's neck. "It's good now."
Steve lifts Barnes's hand and kisses a knuckle.
"Man, I hope you can sleep like this," he says, "because I haven't felt this at home since before the war."
Mission, we're gonna fucking well learn to sleep this way if we have to.
Turns out it's no problem. After 3.5 minutes, Steve exhales slowly, and the muscles in his back relax. Clearly asleep. The quiet rhythm of his breath sends Barnes after him.
Barnes wakes before dawn with a moment of disorientation, until his eyes adjust and he sees Steve 7 cm away, now on his back, trying to hog the entire surface of the bed. Barnes is crowded against the far edge. He lies still and looks for a bit, since Steve will wake up when he shoves him. Observing Steve's sleep in person is even more calming than through the monitor.
But he really doesn't want to fall off the bed. It's a gentle shove.
Steve shifts and wakes.
"You're taking up all the room."
Steve moves over.
"Sorry. You been sleeping?"
Barnes reaches out to place his hand on Steve's shoulder.
"You are objectively handsome," he says.
He can see Steve's grin even in the dark.
"Thanks, Bucky. You also have a pleasing symmetry of feature."
Barnes pinches. This causes an unexpected cascade of Steve crying out, rolling over, grabbing, and biting Barnes on the ear.
"Guhbluh," Barnes says.
"Like that, do you?"
He does it again.
"Seems like you always make weird faces when Eleanor messes with your ear," Steve says.
"Wonder what you'll do when it's me."
He will squirm and laugh a little and sigh, as it turns out. And say 'lower' in a voice like he can't get any air (accurate).
"Oh, you mean here?"
Steve attends to that spot under Barnes's ear that turns out in this case to be not so much ticklish as a direct conduit to his lower parts. Barnes says some more things that are not in any known language.
"I know," Steve says, applying his teeth to the side of Barnes's neck, "it is awesome."
Barnes doesn't have any brain space for a snappy comeback – not with Steve's hand moving over his chest, Steve's mouth on his neck, Steve's thigh shoved up between his legs. His hips move of their own volition, with Steve's fingers dug into his side and Steve's tongue.
Steve's leg moves, and Barnes loses himself, arches up and cannot hold back the small noise in the back of his throat. It's so much better than his own hand. Steve is right here. He is open, he is exposed. He is safe. He doesn't hurt. And Steve is right here.
Barnes blinks and breathes. Steve's expression above him is wide-eyed and open-mouthed.
"Jesus, Bucky," he breathes, "your face."
Barnes feels lazy and wicked. He reaches down between Steve's legs and squeezes, and he gets to see Steve come apart. Gets to see him shudder and clench his teeth. Gets to hear Steve say his name in a choked voice, while his hand gets sticky and wet.
What a mess. Good thing it's Steve's bed.
Steve collapses onto him. Sometimes it's nice to be squashed by an overly large pain in the ass. Especially when the squashing is accompanied by a bunch of sloppy kissing.
"Told you the day wasn't ruined," Steve says to his shoulder several minutes later.
"This is a different day, Steve."
"Today's not getting ruined either."
Lying around in a sticky mess is not super great.
"Aw, Bucky, don't make me move."
See, it's that kind of talk that gets you pulled to the floor and dragged down the hallway by your arm.
"You're the worst," Steve says as he wipes himself down with an errant pair of PJs (too bad, your own PJs, sucker) and drops onto Barnes's bed.
"Yep, and you picked me."
"I have highly questionable taste."
"That you do."
When they wake for the second time, the sun is fully up. They require breakfast and second breakfast, and it's good that they have nothing on their schedule because everything takes five times longer when you have to continually stop to make out. They've long been in the habit of walking around half-dressed: how did this take them so long? So much skin; Barnes has been so blind. Steve is covered in freckles. He's going to have to kiss them all.
You got that right.
"You keep smiling, Buck."
"You're one to talk, Steven Grin Rogers."
A great deal of useful intel is acquired:
- There is room for both of them in the shower.
- That twisty wrist thing Barnes figured out how to do makes Steve forget how to speak English.
- Steve is a fast learner and quickly learns the twisty wrist thing.
- The twisty wrist thing is even better when it's someone else's hand and said someone else is also applying their teeth to one's nipple.
- Teeth are great.
- Cleaning another person is an excellent excuse to touch all of them.
- Barnes is not ready for that yet. But it's just a flinch, not a flashback.
- The sofa makes a decent napping spot for two heavily muscled people, as long as they don't mind tangling close and stiff necks afterward.
- If you're going to watch a movie during which you plan to neck, make it one you've already seen before.
- Necking really works up an appetite. A large dent is made in the cheese supply, and the bread is gone.
This is a minor emergency in the making. Barnes is ordering groceries when Stark pings them on the TV.
"Don't even tell me there's more dancing, I don't buy it. Dinner in thirty."
Steve arranges his face into a sad expression.
"Today's no good, Tony. We're having a … challenging day."
"What? Is Barnes okay? What do you need?"
"We're handling it, thanks. Just need some quiet and time."
"Okay. Tell the T-1000 to take care. Let me know if we need to reschedule tomorrow."
"Will do, thanks."
"And you say you never lie," Barnes says.
"I didn't lie. It's very challenging to keep my mouth off you, and I require time and quiet to keep handling you."
"You know you make the mission imperative forget proper language."
"Go me. What the hell's tomorrow?"
According to the calendar, team practice.
"On one hand, team practice is fun. On the other hand, not as fun as necking," Steve says.
"We'll have to bathe afterward."
"And team practice for the win."
Somewhat later, Barnes learns that Steve also thinks teeth are great. After that, there are no more beds lacking in wet or crunchy spots. Oops. Well, he's slept in worse.
Team practice is a good time: the controlled mayhem of training gets a little looser in the control department. Building JARVIS makes hypothetical situations for them, and they figure out how to save the day and the civilians.
They have special outfits for team practice: stretchy and tight, with sensors built in and fabric tough enough to prevent some injuries. The blue fabric hugs every curve of Steve's muscles.
"How did I never notice how you look in that?"
"Hell if I know, Bucky. Maybe we need our eyes checked."
Barnes's suit is black. And he does actually look amazing in it.
He makes his expression blank when they step off the elevator in the basement, and the team's full of sympathetic noises and shoulder pats.
"I was gonna mix it up a little today," Stark says, "have the rest of us team up against the Russo-American Muscle Brigade. But we can save that for later if today's not a good day for it."
Could that be any better.
"It's okay," Barnes says.
It is the first time in the history of team practice that the 'villains' win. Barnes and Steve crush their teammates. They have fought well together since Barnes recovered enough to train, but this is different. It's as if Steve's body is an extension of his own, as if they share thoughts. They anticipate and avoid every attempt to separate them. They never leave an opening.
Barton goes down when he ducks a shield throw and finds a rubber knife waiting to catch him in the face.
They run in a complicated formation, Barnes angling his metal arm so that the lights reflect in Thor's face and he doesn't see Stark behind them – Thor's lightning shorts out Stark's suit. Barnes follows up with a punch that lays Stark down and will probably get him in trouble with Pepper.
Barnes rips a cable out of the wall that sends a set of scaffolding toppling toward Romanoff. He tosses the cable to Steve, who jumps at green-thing Hulk's outstretched arm, loops the cable over, and throws it back. Barnes catches the end midair, flips off Hulk's back, loops it over the other arm, and lands next to Steve. They pull hard, and gain leverage for 2 full seconds – long enough that Hulk's so surprised he flips back to Banner and scuttles off the course, laughing.
"This is totally wrong," Stark says over the comms.
But the rule is: you go down, you stay down.
Romanoff drops onto Steve from above and tries to shock him, but Barnes climbs up Steve's bent leg and grabs her arm, so she shocks herself.
It takes a bit longer to get Thor, what with the flying. Finally, Steve just throws Barnes, and when Thor bats him out of the way like a baseball, Steve's right behind, climbing up to Thor's flank, and pulling him right out of the air.
"God damn, Bucky," Steve whispers when they hug.
"Okay, when did you two develop psychic powers, that's not fair," Stark says.
"Right? That was spooky," Barton says.
"Seems like we all ought to be grateful that Steve didn't jump after Barnes in 1945," Banner says.
Ain't that a mood-killer.
"Sorry," he adds.
"It's true, though," Barton says. "I may never sleep again."
"Hey, I fight on the side of good."
"Sure you do, Barnes. Until the day that the government starts rationing peanut butter. Then we're doomed."
The government's not gonna ration peanut butter.
It had better not.
When they get off the elevator on their floor, Romanoff is standing at their front door, dripping sweat on the mat and making more dimples than should be possible on such a little face.
"Barnes, you told him," she says.
"What?" Steve says.
"Barnes, how far down does that blush go?"
"All the way."
Steve glares at him.
"Same," he growls.
Ooo. We like that voice.
She takes Barnes's face in her hands and kisses his cheeks, one-two-three.
"I'm so happy."
She kisses Steve, one-two-three.
"How could you tell?"
Barnes and Romanoff roll their eyes at one another.
She plants her fists on her hips.
"I swear, you're going to make even a bitter killer like me believe in happy endings."
"Not the end yet."
"Shut up and let me enjoy the moment, Barnes."
In the elevator, she turns and winks.
"I'll leave you two to it."
Usually, Barnes likes a long soak after hard training. He is glad to discover that with a bit of a squeeze, the tub fits them both. How nice. And he discovers that with Steve sitting in front of him and leaning back, the metal arm can hold him in place when Steve tries to arch away, and that if he takes that moment to slow down and tease, Steve will cling to the arm with both hands and beg. That Steve is not afraid to be overwhelmed.
Let's work on that, mission.
Six feet up seems a pretty impressive distance to have to clean the wall, too.
It's not so easy to leave the apartment and spend time with the team. They have agreed that they're not ready for the pile-on of well wishes and dirty jokes. But they can't stay cooped up and fondling one another forever. Alas.
"I'm borrowing Barnes," Romanoff says, and they go drink hot chocolate in Bryant Park.
She keeps twinkling at him.
"Is it good? Please tell me it's good and that you're deliriously happy."
"If I work really hard at it, I can make a hickey on Steve's neck that takes two point eight hours to fade," he says.
Because she is a brat.
Guess what: the Black Widow can also blush.
"How far down does that go."
She hits him.
"I deserve that," she says, and laughs.
"Deliriously happy, confirm."
"You deserve that," she says.
Maybe, maybe not.
But he'll take it.
His next shipment of books arrives, and for once he hasn't finished the ones from the last batch, because he has been extremely busy making Steve have orgasms. And having orgasms. And eating about 7 meals per day. And sleeping really well.
There are extras in the box again: a large bottle of lubricant, and a second type proclaiming itself 'waterproof' (interesting). And a book called The Practical Guide to Gay Sex.
Building JARVIS is a busybody.
He flips the book open randomly and finds an upsetting line drawing. He snaps the book shut.
"Here," he says when he finds Steve standing by the dryer.
"Building sent this. Don't like the pictures."
He goes to make cookies.
After the fourth batch, he hasn't seen any more of Steve and goes looking. Steve is sitting on his bed, reading. Next to him are a pencil, a notepad, and a little packet of marker flags.
"Hm," he says.
The book has several marker flags sticking out at the top.
"Huh. Interesting," he says, and writes a note on the pad.
"Well. How about that."
He underlines something on the page.
Barnes returns to his cookies.
He has eight dozen in three flavors PLUS four loaves of banana bread before Steve re-emerges. Incredible. What is in that book.
That book is now flagged with markers top and side. And at least the top page of the notepad is completely covered in Steve's handwriting.
Steve sits at the counter.
"Wow, Bucky, you've been busy."
"So have you."
Steve turns a little pink.
"Fascinating book. Very informative."
He takes a cookie and pats Barnes's hand.
"Don't look so terrified, Buck."
He takes a whole plate with him.
At the door to the back hallway, he says over his shoulder, "Well. Maybe a little terrified."
Another batch of cookies it is.
Barnes feels deprived by evening. They haven't made out in over 14 hours. This is highly objectionable. And he's out of flour. And the book now looks as if it arrived years ago, not this morning.
Barnes hates that book a little bit.
"Come here, you," Steve says after dinner.
The book is sitting on the bedside table. Also, Steve slaps his hands away when Barnes reaches for his belt.
"Stand down Sergeant, I'm in charge here."
Barnes breaks out in goosebumps.
"Well. Isn't that useful to know," Steve says.
Barnes doesn't know what his face is doing, but it doesn't feel normal.
"Calm down, Bucky. This'll be fun, I promise."
What is 'this'.
"Bucky. Come on, you look ready to bolt. You trust me, right?"
"Let me try this. You can always say no."
Steve checks the notepad, then nods. Barnes lets Steve undress him, sits as directed on the side of the bed, though the purpose of Steve kneeling down is unclear what does he.
People are allowed to do this? Who invented this? Did they get a medal? They definitely deserve a medal. And where did Steve learn how to do that? Is it in the book? Is there a picture of it in the book? Because now it's a picture in Barnes's mind, and he might not ever think about anything else again, and he hasn't even looked down yet. Don't look down Barnes, you'll break your brain, the briefing will go nuts.
He looks down. Holy shit.
Steve removes his mouth with a slight popping sound.
Barnes very suavely and intelligently groans.
This only ramps up Steve's enthusiasm, and Barnes is fairly sure Steve's going to suck his eyeballs out through his dick, except that then Steve adds his very slippery hands to the mix, and Barnes doesn't even know what's coming out of his mouth, he will promise anything if Steve just keeps going, he loves it, he loves Steve's mouth, he loves Steve, he loves skin, he can't he can't he can't he is as big as the universe, he is in pieces, but all those pieces fit together.
"Hey," Steve says after, crawling up onto the bed and pulling him close while Barnes twitches and tries to remember how to be a human being instead of a supernova.
"Hey, was that all right?"
Barnes can only laugh.
"Don't be a dope."
"Well, it was my first time, maybe I wasn't that good at it."
"Jesus. You got all of that out of the book?"
Barnes loves that book a little bit.
"I guess," he says, "you'll have to talk me through it when it's your turn."
Steve shudders. Nice.
"I'll talk you through anything you want, Buck," he says in a gravelly voice.
Steve Rogers has hidden depths. Hidden, pervy depths. It is so great.
"What else did you get from the book."
"Well," Steve says, and sits up, the asshole.
"I've got a whole plan worked out. There's a pretty logical sequence of progression. We'll want to work on oral sex some more, obviously. Seems like a good idea to see if we can suppress our gag reflexes."
"And I know you're not, but I'm definitely interested in a little light bondage."
"Then move up to fingering – again, me at first, until you're ready. Guess you'll be topping for a while."
"What is. Topping."
"Fucking me, Buck."
Steve looks at him.
"Aha, I thought so. I figured our serums would give us a really short refractory period."
"Glurr," Barnes says.
"I'm telling you, it's fascinating. I learned a little more than I ever wanted to know about watersports, but overall very useful."
"What are. Never mind, I don't want to know."
Steve takes pity on him.
"We'll take it slow, Bucky. We've got time."
Barnes stops even trying to process.
"You want me to tie you up. And fuck you."
"Not today, but yeah."
The briefing can already see it. He's never going to have another coherent thought.
Steve looks concerned.
"Is that okay?"
How do you get from nefarious killer to lying naked in bed with the best man alive smiling at you like that? Seems unfair to all the less-lucky jerks in the world. The best man alive smiling like that, bringing that smile down to your own mouth.
He will never tire of that smile.
"If not that, what do you want today?" Barnes asks when they come up for air.
"An exploratory mission," Steve says, divesting himself of his pants, "if you're up for it."
"Don't worry. I know it's a big mission -"
"A huge mission."
"An enormous mission. But I'll talk you through it."
Barnes kneels down.
"On your orders, Captain."
Fifty-two days later, Steve's sketchbook is 86% unsafe for public consumption, Barnes has lost the dark circles under his eyes, and Operation Suppress Gag Reflex is such a resounding success that they haven't made any further headway on Steve's plan.
Yeah, it's hilarious.
Barnes has read the plan. The plan has no upsetting line drawings. It's a good plan, very sensible. Makes one optimistic about the idea of positive touch therapy overcoming past physical trauma. Barnes is particularly taken by this phrase on p. 4: "Result: Bucky bangs me like a screen door in a hurricane."
It's fucking poetic.
AND ABOUT FUCKING
It sure is, mission.
The others continue to have no idea, because they are possibly idiots. How do they not notice the both of them lying bonelessly on every flat surface, grinning like dopes? It's practically all they do. Besides, you know.
Barnes can barely keep it together when they're watching movies and Stark or Barton will say, "Somebody cover Cap's eyes, it's a kissing scene."
They think they know. Steve's no prude. He's just bad at asking permission. Once he has it? Relentless. And inventive. It's a real detriment to organized thought and clothing integrity.
Then, on day 52, rampaging sentient plants. It was bad enough when the bad guys had light-beam rifles and skinless faces. But marauding vines covered in thorns? Come on, modern world. Get a grip.
Sentient plant doesn't mean smart plant. There's just a lot of it making Astoria look like the jungle. Green-thing Hulk gets super dramatic, roaring and ripping vines to pieces, it's all very boring except for the part where Barnes gets to use a flamethrower (fun), until he realizes that he can't see Steve.
Where Steve was 1.3 seconds ago is a writhing knot of vines.
Barnes loses his mind a little. It's conceivable that an outside observer might rate the shouting, leaping, and slashing with multiple knives as rivaling Hulk for dramatic effect.
Screw those outside observers. Turns out the damn thing had a big sucker right over Steve's face, and he couldn't breathe.
Once he's free, it takes the longest 2.8 seconds in history for Steve to cough and open his eyes. Two point eight seconds is plenty of time to formulate a good dozen world-ending scenarios. His uniform's ripped in multiple places, he's bleeding, his helmet's gone.
Barnes hauls him up and no amount of "I'm fine, Bucky. I'm really okay" is gonna do. It's a full pat-down, pal. But all Steve's limbs seem intact, the little cuts are sealing up already, and who's wheezing like that? Oh, he is.
"Bucky, calm down. I'm fine."
Strong emotion is not so easy. The plates in his arm are moving. He wants to hit something. He kind of wants to hit Steve.
"My eyes!" Barton yells.
"At last," Thor says.
"What is. What am I looking at? Are senior citizens allowed to behave that way? Holy crap, my innocence is forever shattered."
"Leave them alone, this has been going on forever," Romanoff says.
While the rest of the team says "whaaaaat" and "roar," Romanoff applies Barnes's flamethrower to the nexus of the plant, and hooray they're done and they can go home. Barnes has a closer physical examination to perform.
Are you even kidding me," Stark says. "Pepper's gonna be so happy. Goddammit."
"There are few things more beautiful than two brothers in arms who can celebrate their bond physically," Thor says.
"My brain is broken forever," Barton says.
"Shut up, you love it, sappy endings are your favorite," Romanoff says from her seat on Hulk's shoulder. She and Hulk fist-bump.
"Nooooo, you can't skip post-battle dinner, we're all going to know what you're doing," Stark groans.
They cross off the next item in Steve's plan.