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august and her sons

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1.

Steve turns fifteen during one of the hottest summers New York has ever known.

The fifth-floor apartment he shares with his mother is stifling, and with her long shifts at the hospital, he’s left to his own devices most of the time. Luckily, there’s Bucky to haunt his steps and distract Steve from all the summer homework they’re supposed to be doing.

Seemingly overnight, Bucky has become lanky and stretched-out, all long limbs and sprawling feet and hands. Muscle rounds out his shoulders, and his increased height has started to draw the eye of girls, their gaze pulled magnetically upwards to his rakish smile. Next to him, Steve feels even smaller than usual, and when girls talk to Bucky, he might as well be invisible.

Not that Bucky ever lets Steve be ignored. That summer, he always invites Steve out, will make a determined effort to bring him into the conversation whenever he’s with a date (Now, Steve here, my best buddy, he’s great at drawing. Gonna be a famous artist someday). Trailing Bucky and his latest girl around sweaty Brooklyn streets, a snow-cone melting miserably in his hand, is hardly Steve’s idea of fun. But he still does it, every time.

Maybe he just wants to be with Bucky anywhere he goes, and that’s kind of pathetic.

Still, Steve never gives it much thought. Not until a scorcher of a day in August, when he and Bucky have the apartment to themselves for the day. The metal of the fire escape is hot enough to fry an egg on, but the brick behind provides some shade, and it’s better than the sweatbox inside. They shove an old blanket down and settle in for an afternoon of doing nothing much.

Since it’s just the two of them, they’ve gotten rid of their belts and stripped down to their undershirts. And maybe Bucky’s chest looks a little defined under the thin cotton, where it’s plastered to his skin with sweat, but Steve isn’t thinking about it or anything.

They spend a pleasant couple of hours settled on the blanket with a jug of homemade lemonade Steve’s ma left before she went to work. Steve is drawing — he got a book out of the library last week and has been trying to learn how to sketch faces, but so far it’s all a big mess. Bucky looks up from the comic he’s reading every so often to offer encouragements, but it’s no good. Steve screws up piece after piece of paper, sighing as he tries and fails to get the features right.

“What’s it like, Buck?” Steve asks suddenly, glancing up from the paper resting on his knees. “Kissing.” He isn't quite sure why he's asking, but he's seen Bucky kiss enough girls this summer that it's made him more than a little curious.

Bucky puts down his Dick Tracy comic and grins. His cheeks are pink with the heat. “It’s good, y’know.” He pauses. “Well, I know you don’t know, but —  it’s just nice, I guess. Girls are all soft, and sometimes you have to talk ‘em into kissing you, but that’s the best part.” His eyes take on a glassy, far-away look. “And sometimes if you kiss a girl real good, she makes these tiny sounds, pushes right up against you.” Some of the bravado fades from Bucky’s voice then, his face starting to go red.

“Yeah, yeah. You total lech,” Steve admonishes. His throat has gone dry, so he reaches for his glass of lemonade to take a sip. It’s tart and sweet on his tongue; a little warmer than he’d like, but still refreshing.

He sets the glass down and looks back to find Bucky watching him. There’s a strange expression on his face.

“You wanna try it or something?” Bucky says. There’s a teasing lilt to the words, but Steve can tell he's serious.

Looking away, Steve gulps, “I — I don’t —” but it’s too late; he can feel the flush spreading across his cheeks already.

“Yeah,” Bucky says softly, no trace of laughter left in his tone. “That’s what I thought.”

“Uh, maybe you’ve got heatstroke, Buck,” Steve babbles, “I think you should probably drink some lemonade.”

Bucky ignores him, scoots along the blanket on his knees until he’s right in Steve’s face. His mess of dark hair is damp and stuck to his forehead; it makes Steve’s pulse speed up.

The musky scent of Bucky’s sweat hits Steve square in the nostrils. He feels like he should be repulsed, but he’s just as sweaty, and finds himself leaning closer to rest a hand on Bucky’s shoulder. When Bucky puts a hand on the side of Steve’s face, the touch is surprisingly cool, despite the heat. He’s so close Steve can feel the warm puffs of Bucky’s breath, uncomfortable against his already overheated skin.

“What do I do?” Steve mumbles, embarrassed.

“You’re thinking too much,” Bucky says, with an exasperated noise.

Before Steve can even think, Bucky’s crushed his mouth to his, quick and dry. He isn’t sure what to do, whether to open his mouth or not, so he just stays there, still as death. It feels nice, but he doesn’t really get what all the fuss is about.

“Wait a sec,” Bucky murmurs when he pulls back, as if sensing what Steve’s thinking. “That wasn’t a kiss.” He licks his lips and goes back in, a determined look in his eyes.

This time, Bucky’s mouth is wet and hot on Steve’s, tongue sweeping over his lips until Steve opens his mouth instinctively. He breathes in the heat and salt of Bucky’s skin, tasting the sour burst of lemon on his tongue. Somehow, Steve has grabbed a fistful of Bucky’s undershirt, pulling him even closer as they kiss. Bucky makes a soft noise in his throat that goes straight between Steve’s thighs. With shame, Steve realises he’s tenting his pants. He doesn’t dare look down at Bucky’s lap.

In an instant, they break apart. Bucky’s lips are bright red, his cheeks even pinker than before, and it’s all Steve can do to wrench his gaze away and not go back in for another kiss. He can hear Bucky breathing heavily next to him, and Steve’s heart is pounding like a jackhammer in his chest.

Forcing an even voice, Steve says, “You smell like the gutter.”

A grin slides back onto Bucky’s face, all awkwardness forgotten. “Yeah, well, you ain’t no picnic yourself, pal.” He tickles Steve in the ribs until he squirms and shoves him away, gasping for breath.

They don’t talk about it again, but when fall comes, Steve starts getting himself into fights on the regular. Bucky yells at him every time they end up with torn shirts and cuts and bruises, and his ma worries, but Steve can’t stop himself. He channels all the nervous energy inside him into split lips and bruised knuckles, tells himself he’s trying to toughen up, make a thick armoured shell around his heart so nothing can hurt him.

It doesn’t work. A single innocuous glance or touch from his best friend: those things can hurt Steve, slice him apart like a knife gliding through butter. He tries his best with girls (which isn’t really his best, truth be told) and isn’t the least bit surprised when they look past him, to Bucky.

But Steve’s been living in the gulf between want and have for long enough that he’s used to it.

 

2.

It’s early evening, and the sweltering heat of the day has thankfully broken. Steve’s got the windows cracked wide open to let in a faint breeze, enough to cool the sweat prickling on his skin.

Bucky is back for two days on leave, and they’re in the bedroom getting ready to go out for the evening. Currently, he’s hogging the mirror to straighten his tie, humming to himself.

“You gonna kiss that mirror?” Steve says, from where he’s seated on the bed, watching Bucky smooth out his freshly-pressed US army uniform. He hopes it doesn’t come out bitter; he’s nursing his third 4F in as many months.

“Screw you, Rogers,” is Bucky’s flippant reply, but he throws Steve a fond glance as he turns around. “So, whaddya think?”

“Every girl’s dream,” Steve answers, because he knows it’s what Bucky wants to hear, and really, he is. It’s a heavy outfit for the July heat, but Bucky fills it out well with his broad shoulders.

Bucky’s lips stretch into a grin, easy and wide, but Steve isn’t buying it for a second; he knows he’s scared as hell. He’s going to get his orders tomorrow, and the day after, he’ll be shipping out to war. Steve can smell the fear on him like fresh soap, and yet they’re dancing around it, like they’ve got nothing better to talk about than Bucky’s sartorial choices.

He’s got a drawer full of letters Bucky sent to him during basic at Camp McCoy. They were cheerful for the most part, peppered with funny anecdotes about soldier’s pranks and army food, but between the light words, some truths had slipped through: Steve, Wisconsin is cold. I don’t remember what it was like being warm. When I go to bed at night, sometimes my body hurts so much I can’t move. I’ve pulled muscles in places I didn’t know I had them. I’d kill for a sticky New York summer right about now. His last letter had simply said: Miss you, Stevie. Nothing’s the same without you here.

“The NCO’s pay’s not bad,” Bucky says, his voice softer as he finally acknowledges everything they weren’t talking about before. “You’ll have enough to keep the apartment for a bit.”

Steve nods calmly, more grateful than he can admit: his sign-painting and poster-making work is sporadic, and he never quite knows if he’s going to have enough to support himself.

“I’ll probably get something smaller,” he says. His heart lurches at the thought of living in their place all alone, even though he’s been doing it for the past few months anyway. But that hadn’t felt permanent; he’d always known Bucky would be back.

This time, he might not be. Only yesterday, Steve had run into an old classmate, Donna Ardizonne, on a street corner. Her eyes had been swollen from crying, and he’d known before she said it that her brother Fabrizio hadn’t made it (and okay, he’d once beaten up Steve in a parking lot, but it wasn’t without provocation, and that was hardly the point). He’d shipped out to Tunisia and never come back. Just like that. It had knocked the breath from Steve’s lungs, and he’d mumbled a condolence before stumbling away, feeling like icy water was pouring into his stomach.      

Now Bucky is studying the paper, and Steve’s eyes are drawn to him. Faint light is slanting onto Bucky’s face through the open window, picking out highlights in his dark hair.

He looks up and catches Steve staring. “I got something on my face?” he demands.

Steve swallows hard. “Just your ugly mug,” he manages, a lightness to his words that he doesn’t feel.

“I oughta come over there and knock some sense into you,” Bucky murmurs, but there’s no heat to it. He tosses the paper aside and comes to sit next to Steve. “You wanna go to a movie tomorrow?”

“Sure, Buck,” Steve says, conscious of Bucky’s warm thigh pressing against his own, crisp dress uniform pants next to crumpled slacks. “You pick.”

Bucky’s stomach rumbles, breaking the silence. They’ve not eaten since a hasty automat lunch a few hours ago.

“Oh! That reminds me.” Steve gets to his feet. “There’s a surprise for you in the kitchen.”

Bucky’s eyes light up. “How good are we talking?” he says. “Naked Betty Grable kind of good?”

Steve laughs, a bright, joyful sound. “She got married again, remember? But I got the next best thing. C’mon.” He heads to the kitchen, Bucky following.

There’s a lemon meringue pie on the counter from old Mrs Kaplinsky in 3B; Steve always carries her groceries upstairs, and in return she seems to think it’s her job to feed him up. Sugar’s expensive in wartime, and Steve feels terrible about taking more than his fair share, but he doesn’t want to hurt her feelings. Besides, pie is Bucky’s favourite.

“Fair play, Stevie. I can’t remember the last time I had a decent slice of pie.” There’s a hint of innuendo in Bucky’s voice that Steve decides to ignore.

While he cuts the pie, Bucky leans back against the counter, all nonchalant cool, but he’s watching Steve intently. Not even bothering with a plate, Bucky stuffs in two slices in rapid succession, licking powdered sugar and lemon filling off his fingers. Steve nibbles at his own pie, but his stomach’s too twisted up in knots for him to really enjoy it.

With an unashamed groan, Bucky wipes his mouth on the back of his hand. “Damn, that was good,” he says. “Remind me to go and thank Mrs Kaplinsky later.”

There’s still a white fleck of meringue at the corner of his mouth; it taunts Steve, makes him stare at Bucky’s lips, pink and sticky with sugar. As if he’s pulled forward by some invisible line, Steve moves in to brush his thumb to the corner of Bucky’s mouth.

“Bucky,” he murmurs, “you got a little something —”

He doesn’t expect Bucky to close his eyes, to sigh. And he certainly doesn’t expect Bucky to launch himself forward and wrap a hand around the back of Steve’s head, hauling him in for a kiss.

It’s rough and wet and just a shade desperate, their teeth clacking together and Steve reaching up to wind his arms around Bucky’s neck. He give as good as he gets, sucks the sour-sweet citrus taste off Bucky’s tongue, leans into the warmth of Bucky’s body where they’re pressed together, grinding into each other without realising they’re doing it.

Steve comes to his senses first. He moves his hands to rest them on Bucky’s chest, gently pushing until Bucky draws back.

“Steve,” Bucky says, hoarse, and presses their foreheads together. “At least I’ve got you, eh?”

Maybe it’s the sore spot he’s been living with all these years, but something makes Steve twist out of Bucky’s grasp. He doesn’t want to be the fallback, the one Bucky can always count for a kiss on if he’s feeling vulnerable or there are no girls around he likes.

“Didn’t think you remembered,” Steve says, anger making him spit the words out.

Bucky is wrong-footed; his eyes go wide, and when he looks at Steve, there’s hurt written all over his face. The knot in Steve’s belly tightens.

“Of course I did,” Bucky admits. All the false confidence of earlier has fallen away; his shoulders are hunched, and he looks small and frightened.

Steve aches to touch him again, and keeps his hands at his sides so he won’t. “So why’d you do it again?”

“I wanted to.” Bucky fiddles with the pie knife on the counter, its blade still white with meringue. He isn’t looking at Steve. “Besides, I’m pretty sure you kissed me back. Can’t a man do something a bit crazy when it might be his last—”

“Don’t,” Steve hisses. His eyes are stinging.

“Right.” Bucky nods, squares his shoulders, and Steve watches the tension visibly fall away. Bucky’s always been so good at that, at letting others see what he wants them to.

Rubbing at his eyes, Steve returns the tight smile Bucky gives him. Like it never happened.

“Let’s go out,” Bucky says quickly.

Later, when they get back from the bar, Steve is seeing three of Bucky, and they stumble to their respective beds with no small amount of difficulty.

For a brief moment, their eyes meet. Bucky’s mouth is red and swollen, eyes china-doll bright from the alcohol they’ve drunk, his hair a mess all over his forehead. He looks like sex, and God, Steve could —

Clenching his jaw, Steve snaps the light off, gets into his own bed before he can do anything stupid. “Night, Buck.”

“G’night, Steve,” is Bucky’s faint reply from across the room. “Sorry about before.”

Steve doesn’t say anything. The next day, with a splitting headache and a wounded heart, he forces himself to pretend it didn’t happen. He drags himself to a recruiting station and gets another 4F for his trouble.

Then Bucky goes to war, and Steve becomes someone else. This time, he finds it easy to forget all the things he isn’t supposed to want.

 

3.

1944’s been quite a summer so far. Post D-Day, the Commandos are in Allied territory in France, seeking intel on some of Schmidt’s rumoured HYDRA installations. The Germans are being backed into a corner, but Steve knows that while HYDRA exists, no-one’ll ever be safe.

One of of Howard’s stealth planes dropped them into the forest last night. Falsworth has gone to a nearby town to garner information from the locals (due to his work with British intelligence, he’s often given special infiltration tasks by Colonel Phillips) and the rest of them are waiting.

It’s August, and the air is thick and muggy; Steve’s army t-shirt is sticking to his back, and the others are in a similar state, sweaty and ill-tempered. Bucky is pouring the sludge that passes for coffee into several tin mugs when Steve hears a noise from the trees ahead.

His hand automatically goes to the gun at his hip, and he sees Bucky reach for his rifle. “Steve,” Bucky says, warningly.

There’s a shout: “Hey, Cap!” Steve immediately relaxes — it’s Morita.

A second later, he feels cloth hit the back of his head and turns to find Morita’s shirt at his feet. He ducks out of the way before Morita’s pants can get him.

“Morita?” Steve says uncertainly.

Next to Steve, Dum Dum is bent double laughing. “What the hell are you doing?” he calls to Morita.

“There’s a river,” comes the excited murmur of a now certainly naked Morita from the trees. “Clear water, fast running. I dunno about you, but I’m dying for a bath. Last one in’s a rotten egg!” He whoops, and there’s a distant splash.

Dernier laughs, and says something to Gabe in rapid-fire French that Steve doesn’t quite catch. Gabe is nodding enthusiastically.

Steve grits his teeth. He should probably put a stop to this — Captain America and his Howling Commandos aren’t supposed to be running naked around a French forest like a bunch of wood-nymphs — but his men are already heading for the trees, stripping off clothes as they go.

Only Bucky hangs back, one eyebrow raised. He’s quiet these days, harder to get a read on than he used to be.

“You joining us, Captain?” Bucky’s voice is an easy drawl, but his eyes are fixed on Steve.

Something is prickling on Steve’s skin, with the way Bucky’s looking at him. He hasn’t taken a stitch off yet, and he feels like he’s already naked. “I guess I’ll have to,” he says, and it comes out strangled.

Bucky lays down his rifle, pulls his shirt over his head. He’s thin, his ribs sharp from the weight he lost in Krausberg and hasn’t gained back yet.

Steve doesn’t realise he’s staring until Bucky frowns at him and says, “Am I the only one dropping trou here?”

Going bright red, Steve mumbles, “I’ll just get changed,” and flees for the trees.

He hears the rush of the water before he sees it. The clear blue of the river comes into view, and he can see the rest of the Commandos are already in. In the close heat, a swim is tempting beyond belief.

Dum Dum shouts, “Cap! Get your star-spangled ass in here or we’re gonna drag you in.”

“Who’s the commanding officer here again?” Steve calls over his shoulder. He folds his clothes into a pile, and there’s another loud splash from behind him. Bucky’s laughter explodes in the air, easy and happy in a way Steve hasn’t heard him be in too long.

That’s good. It must mean Bucky’s in the water with the others. He’s in the water and he’s — naked. Steve freezes.

“Aw, he’s modest,” Gabe is saying. “Don’t worry, Captain, we promise we’ll protect your virtue.”

He hears Bucky say, “Dunno what’s gotten into him. Steve never cared much about stripping off when he was a shrimp.”

And it’s true; he didn’t. Steve has been in various states of undress around Bucky over the years, wouldn’t bat an eyelid at it. It’s different now.

The fantasies he thought he’d long put out of his mind are rushing back, making his skin flush. Before anything embarrassing happens, he slides down the bank and jumps in. It’s cold despite the hot weather, and his teeth chatter a little before he adjusts.

Then Dum Dum swims over stealthily and ducks him, and for a while, Steve joins in with all the antics. Eventually, they all climb out reluctantly. The others go looking for their clothes, and Steve heads for his rock to get dressed.

A branch cracks behind him, and he turns to see Bucky. Bucky, stark naked, water drops rolling down his body to his waist, and presumably lower (Steve doesn’t dare look).

“Hey,” Bucky says softly. “I left my clothes here.”

Steve looks to his right to see Bucky’s clothes in a heap on the forest floor; he hadn’t noticed them before. “Right. Think we’d better get dressed. Falsworth’ll be back soon.”

Bucky acts like he hasn’t heard. “I’d never seen, before,” he says. He gestures to Steve’s body, appraising him blatantly, and Steve feels like his face must be crimson by now. “God, Steve, you look —” The words are wrenched from Bucky’s throat, raw and honest.

Lost in his own self-consciousness, Steve doesn’t notice Bucky drawing closer until his hands are on his chin, fingers tracing the line of Steve’s jaw. He closes his eyes, feels the stale heat of Bucky’s breath against his lips.

“It’s not just the whole marble statue thing,” Bucky explains. “I wanted you, y’know. Before.”

In the back of Steve’s mind, there’s Peggy. He thinks about everything he’s been too afraid to say to her, the way he watches her, torn up with want inside while the words stick in his throat. He hasn’t forgotten her, but for once, he wants to act, to stop living a passive life where he lets everything he wants slip out of his grasp.

Steve stops thinking. He grabs Bucky’s wrist and then he's tugging them behind a rock, down onto ferns and damp leaves. Bucky’s mouth covers his, hard and hungry, moving down to suck at his collarbone. Steve runs his hands all over Bucky, dizzy with finally being able to touch him the way he’s always wanted to, but still mindful of the fact they aren’t exactly alone here.

Bucky is breathing quick and shallow in Steve’s ear. He trails a hand down his stomach, and Steve goes tense against him.

“Wait,” Steve says. He’s been hard since the second Bucky gave him that come-on look, every nerve in his body screaming for Bucky’s touch, but his mind is clear, and he needs to understand what this is to Bucky. If anything. “Do you really want this, or is it just something to pass the time?”

There’s a huff from Bucky. He stops. “Are you seriously asking me that?” He leans in to kiss Steve tenderly, cups his jaw with one hand. “If you’re asking whether this means something, then: yeah. You can’t be that much of an idiot, Rogers.”

It’s not much, but Steve knows it’s all Bucky can give right now. It’ll have to be enough.

He’s trembling already when Bucky reaches down to wrap a warm hand around him, his thumb flicking over the head of Steve’s cock. Steve doesn’t last a minute before he’s spilling over Bucky’s hand, biting his tongue until he tastes copper from the effort of not crying out.

“Let me,” he says, grasping at Bucky’s cock with shaking fingers, clumsily trying to reciprocate. Smiling, Bucky reaches for Steve's hand and they stroke him together. He comes in a spill of heat over their joined hands, his face pressed into Steve's neck, making choked sounds against his skin.

“Steve.” Bucky is draped over his chest, boneless and already sweaty again. “That was —”

“Yeah,” Steve agrees. Happiness is bubbling up inside him, an untapped wellspring of joy he never knew was there. Bucky is smiling and relaxed, almost like the best friend Steve remembers from Brooklyn.

The happy glow fades, though, when they remember where they are. Steve and Bucky clean up as best they can and shove their clothes back on in double-quick time. Thankfully, the Commandos are all dispersed around the camp, breakfasting or engaged in various tasks, and Steve and Bucky are able to slip back in separately without being noticed.

Falsworth gets back at midday, hot and irritable about missing the great Commando skinny dip. They have new orders from Phillips to stay put for another night. Luckily, Falsworth managed to charm a tarte au citron out of one of the housewives in the village, and the commandos gather around the fire in the evening and eat lemon custard encased in flaky pastry. Dum Dum declares he might marry the girl who made it if he didn’t already have a wife back in Chicago.

Steve watches the firelight play over Bucky’s face: it’s half in shadow, and he can’t tell what he’s thinking. When he eats his own slice, savouring every bite, the flavour of the tart is familiar. It tastes like hot July afternoons in Brooklyn, like his best friend’s mouth, like better times.

But Bucky never looks at him over the fire, not once. Sometime past midnight, Steve is beginning to think it was all a dream when his tent flap opens.

“We’ll have to be careful,” Bucky says without preamble, and he isn’t smiling. The old hollow set of his jaw is back, the tension Bucky seems to carry in his shoulders on a daily basis.

Steve knows they shouldn’t. He thinks about the promises he wants to make to Peggy, the ones he still could. It would be simpler than this. If anyone found out, he and Bucky would be shipped off back home with a blue discharge, and maybe HYDRA would win. He knows what’s at stake, but he’d do anything to make Bucky smile the way he did this morning.

So he reaches for him.

“Stay,” Steve whispers, bending his head down to meet Bucky’s mouth.

 

4.

“I don’t know why they bother pretending this stuff's like ice-cream,” Steve says, poking the spoon gingerly into his lemon-blueberry frozen yoghurt. “It tastes like sour, whipped air.”

Natasha smiles patiently. “It’s not supposed to be, Steve. It’s froyo.” She licks a spoonful of her bubblegum froyo, and sticks a blue tongue out at him.

Steve laughs, and they pick their way back to the tiny spot they’ve staked out on the sand.

“Like you remember?” Natasha asks. She puts down her cup to adjust her bikini straps.

Steve averts his eyes awkwardly and answers, “Yeah. Pretty much.”

Coney Island beach in mid-June is thronged with people; that part isn’t much different from what Steve remembers. It’s kind of comforting, actually. After his near-drowning, he still doesn't feel like going in the water, but the sand is warm and the cloudless sky is as blue as he's ever seen it. He's had worse days.

The only problem is, being here reminds Steve of the one person who was always at his side in the past: Bucky. It’s been more than a year since DC, and Steve and Sam (and sometimes Natasha) have followed enough dead-end trails around the world for them to figure out they aren’t going to find the Winter Soldier if he doesn’t want to be found.

Steve is trying to accept it. He has to believe Bucky will remember, will come back to him, but his hope is waning with every month that passes.

“Hey, it’s Captain America!” says a small voice behind him, and a little boy in bright red shorts and a Captain America baseball camp ambushes Steve. The commotion attracts others, and he spends a few minutes good-naturedly signing autographs.

“I’m so glad I went blonde for the summer,” Natasha says afterwards, smiling. “I still get tons of fanmail from little girls at Avengers Tower. It’s kind of sweet.”

Steve stretches out on the sand, puts his sunglasses on. “Well, you’re my hero,” he says affectionately.

A toe jabs him in the ribs, and Natasha mutters “sap,” which is her way of telling him she’s glad to be his friend, too. Some days, Steve thinks he’s just about figured out Natasha.

“What do you want to do for your birthday next week?” she asks.

Steve shrugs, eyes still closed beneath his shades. “Go watch the fireworks, like we always do.” Truth be told, he hasn’t thought much about birthdays since 1944. That was the last time he really felt like celebrating, before the train and the ice.

There’s a sudden rustle next to him. “Steve. Sit up,” Natasha murmurs, very serious.

Steve sits up, pushes his sunglasses up his forehead. Natasha’s face is guarded. “What?” He frowns.

“There’s someone watching us,” she says. Steve tries to follow her gaze. “No. Your eleven o’clock.” He swivels his head. “There. Under the building canopy.”

When Steve looks, he can just about make out a figure, hidden at the side of a kiosk. There’s an arcade machine in the way, but the sun catches a flash of silver.

His heart is in his throat. “Natasha, what if it’s —”

“Steve, I want you to be careful,” she urges. “We don’t know if he’s still under programming. Really, we should get backup.”

“No,” Steve says, shaking his head. “That’ll spook him.” And then I might never see him again, he adds inside his head.

Natasha gets to her feet. One hand is on her hip, no doubt ready to draw whatever weapon she’s concealed in her bikini.

“Okay. Slowly. I’ll be behind you.”

Steve approaches carefully, walking up the beach like he’s stalking a predator. He can sense Natasha’s close by, even if he can’t hear her light tread.

Getting closer, he can see it’s unmistakeably Bucky. The straggly long dark hair is there, the metal arm, only its fingers visible under the cuff of a jacket. He’s leaning against the wall, face red and sweaty, wearing black jeans and what looks to be several layers underneath the jacket. He must be sweltering.

Steve’s only got a pair of surf shorts on, and he feels strangely vulnerable in front of a fully-clothed Bucky.

“Buck?” he says, squinting into the sun’s glare. The midday sun is beating down on Steve’s head, but he doesn’t dare approach the building where there’s shade, in case Bucky decides to make a run for it.

Bucky nods curtly. His eyes are blank, but he looks Steve up and down. “Steve,” he says, voice scratchy with disuse.

“You remember coming here?” Steve can feel the hopeful smile growing on his own face, and he can’t bring himself to suppress it.

Nodding again, Bucky says, “Still goddamn crowded as ever,” and there’s a hint of his Brooklyn drawl in the words.

“Yeah.” Steve’s cheeks are aching from how wide his smile is.

Raising a hand, Bucky looks past his shoulder. “Widow,” he says, grudging respect in his eyes (maybe it’s for the time Natasha almost managed to garrotte him; Steve isn’t sure).

Natasha is at Steve’s side now. “We need to tase him?” she says.

To Steve’s surprise, Bucky starts laughing — he clearly hasn't laughed in a while, because it sounds horrible, like a rusty tin can.

Leaning in so her hair brushes Steve’s ear, Natasha whispers, “I’ve already called Fury. They’re sending people.”

Bucky’s stopped laughing now, and has slumped back against the wall, shying away from the sunlight.

“We’re gonna have to take you in, Buck,” Steve says, daring to step closer. He can see now that Bucky is thinner, his hair hanging in sweaty, unkempt strands around his red face.

“I know,” Bucky says, quiet and resigned, and he walks towards Steve. “Need to make sure I won’t kill anyone.”

“You want a gelato while we wait?” Steve asks, feeling a little hazy, like he’s in a dream. It might be the heat, or it might just be the fact Bucky’s here — dazed and broken, but here.

Bucky nods stiffly and says, “Okay.” They wander up towards the boardwalk and find a place. It takes Steve a second to realise he doesn’t know what flavour Bucky would want. He doesn’t know anything about him, really.

“Lemon,” Bucky says tentatively, pointing at the menu. “I think I liked that one.”

“Lemon. Okay.” Steve orders, thinking how everything about this is achingly familiar. They stand there and eat their gelato under the midday sun. Natasha watches them warily, never taking the hand from her hip.

It feels strangely surreal, eating lemon gelato with Bucky on the Coney Island boardwalk like it’s 1936. Like nothing’s changed.

Later, when Bucky is safely in the hands of the doctors at Avengers Tower, Steve will remember other things: the taste of Bucky’s mouth, citrus and heat; the feel of Bucky’s sweat-slick skin pressed to his. He jolts awake in his air-conditioned bedroom, skin clammy and burning hot, hard against his thigh. Under the cool spray of the shower, Steve touches himself, his belly twisting with shame by the time he spills onto the tile.

That was then, he reminds himself. This is now, and things are different. He might have loved Bucky once, but he has no right to force his memories on him.

No right at all.

 

5.

Fury sends Captain America and the Winter Soldier to bust a HYDRA cell operating in Athens. It turns out to be some sort of weird R & D division, and it's not much of a challenge for Steve and Bucky to take down the small strike team and capture a bunch of cowering scientists. Steve enjoys the mission far more than he probably should: ripping the heads off clunky robot drones and fighting alongside Bucky, just like they used to. They even get to go and see the Acropolis, after. Steve can't help but smile at the childlike wonder on Bucky's face as they wander around the ancient site.

It's almost nightfall by the time they get back to their hotel room.

“Souvlaki,” Bucky says eagerly, slumping down on the bed to unlace his boots. “We should go get souvlaki.”

“Okay,” Steve agrees, still suffused with the satisfaction of a job well done.

A couple of showers later, they get civilian clothes on and leave the hotel in search of dinner. The oppressive heat of the June afternoon has given way to a balmy warmth; if it wasn't for the hotel room full of weapons, they could almost be on vacation. Bucky keeps touching Steve on the shoulder as they walk, grinning at him.

It makes Steve’s heart feel light to see Bucky like this: comfortable in his own skin, able to do something useful after a lifetime of mindless violence. It's been a year since Coney Island, since Bucky's moved into Steve’s apartment and started to put himself back together. Steve is immeasurably grateful that there’s still a place for him in Bucky’s life, and he really does cherish every moment of borrowed time they get. If sometimes he wishes for more, then, well — he’s used to not getting everything he wants. He can live with it.

They find a little neighbourhood place on a quiet street. The scent of grilled meat in the air makes Steve’s mouth water. Once they’ve finished a mountain of souvlaki apiece and several helpings of Greek salad, Bucky suggests they go get baklava.

“Bet it won’t be as good as the stuff we used to get from the bakery around the corner,” Steve says.

“Oh, yeah.” There’s a distant look on Bucky’s eyes, a half-smile curving his lips. “Hey. I’ve got an idea.” He tugs Steve off the road, up a set of steps. Away from the smells and sounds of the heart of the city.

Bucky climbs over a high wall, and gestures for Steve to follow him. Steve drops down heavily on the other side and looks around. Ahead of them is a large stone house, and a yard filled with lemon trees. Steve’s never seen them before, but he remembers drawing them from books: the curved, twisted branches and heavy green leaves, the brilliant yellow fruit.

The scent of ripe lemons makes Steve glance at Bucky, eyes widening as the powerful sense-memory hits him. Kisses and touches and heat. But back then, there was the burn of shame, too. Steve remembers waking up out of the ice and seeing fellas kissing in the street, the wild celebrations when they legalised gay marriage across their entire country. It wouldn’t be wrong, not anymore.

Bucky meets his gaze, like he’s thinking the same thing.

“Buck,” Steve whispers, his feet already carrying him across the courtyard, “isn’t this someone’s house?”

“Yeah.” Bucky licks his lips. “So what? It's a nice courtyard. Spotted it when we were on the way back, and I thought it might be worth having a look at.”

He’s still staring at him, and Steve feels like he might combust from it. His skin is hot and flushed for reasons nothing to do with the evening’s warmth.

“I remember other stuff sometimes, y'know,” Steve mumbles, not even sure what he’s saying. "About you and me."

“Yeah?” Bucky gets in his space, hand sliding around the back of Steve’s neck. “Well, so do I.”

“Really?” Steve says, feeling all of a sudden like he can’t get enough air. “What kind of —“

He doesn’t get a chance to finish before Bucky is kissing him. He grips Steve’s shoulders and crowds him against the wall, his mouth hard and wet and demanding. Steve meets Bucky's challenge, kisses him back like he doesn’t need to breathe, tasting a hint of smoke from the souvlaki they just ate. The stone is warm against Steve’s shoulderblades, and Bucky is all taut muscle pressed up against him, tongue slick in Steve’s mouth, biting at his lip. Steve slides a hand into Bucky’s hair, the other moving to push up his shirt and feel the sweat pooling at the small of his back.

Bucky moans into his mouth, shoves a thigh between Steve’s legs, and laughs when Steve’s hips jerk against him. He starts to lick a heated trail down Steve’s neck, pausing to suck bruises into the skin. Steve is panting, his head spinning with the closeness of the air and the proximity of Bucky. When Bucky reaches between them, metal hand fumbling at the button of Steve’s pants, Steve has just enough sense left to realise they shouldn’t do this here.

“Bucky,” he manages to say, gravel-deep, “Not here.” He’s still half-expecting some angry person to come out of the house and take them to task for debauchery on private property.

The frustrated noise Bucky makes goes straight to Steve’s dick. “Okay.” Bucky sighs, letting go of him.

There’s a beep, and Bucky reaches for his phone first, scanning the message, all business. “Looks like Fury got a tip on another base just outside of the city. Wants us to check it out while we’re here. Strictly intel, do not engage.”

Steve’s heart sinks. He nods slowly and peels himself off the wall. His lips are tingling, he’s hard as a rock and his brain’s shorting out: he feels like a total mess. Not remotely mission-ready.

When he chances a look at Bucky, he’s already smoothed his hair back into place and is wearing an even smile. Like nothing ever happened. Still the same old Bucky, who can pull a full-wattage grin onto his face after kissing his best friend senseless.

“Bucky, I —”

“We’ll talk about it later, Steve,” Bucky says calmly.

The lead turns out to be a major weapons supplier for HYDRA. With all the intel and equipment involved, they have to call Fury for backup, and end up spending two more weeks in Athens dealing with the fallout.

Steve waits for later. Weeks pass, and Bucky doesn’t mention it.

He thinks he should be used to it by now: even in the war, they’d never been able to acknowledge the depth of their feelings for one another. Or at least, Steve’s feelings. He’s never been entirely sure if it was the same for Bucky.

 

+1.

If Steve had to pick the worst time for his air-conditioning to be on the fritz, it would be the day after the Avengers have spent all night in Queens trying to capture a giant mouse-lizard (there are more scientific explanations for the phenomenon, based on some moron’s attempt to recreate Dr Curt Connors’ regenerative experiments, but the essential point of it was a giant mouse-lizard). The thing’s now safely in custody, ready for Bruce to run tests on it, and Steve and Bucky made their way back to the apartment as soon as they were able, sore and tired.

Steve was hoping to sit in a nice cool living room and spend the entire day catching up on Call the Midwife (Bucky prefers Land Girls, but he knows Steve likes to watch the show because it’s Peggy’s favourite, and one of the few things she still remembers on her lucid days). But no, the damn AC had to break, and the repairman can’t come over until tonight (Tony would normally send someone, but he’s currently trying to repair lizard-tail damage to his Iron Man suit).

The coolest place Steve’s found is lying on the bare floorboards, so that’s where he is.

“It’s hot,” he mutters, flat on his back. All the windows are open, he’s wearing nothing but a pair of loose sweatpants, and it still feels as airless as an army tent in midsummer. “I hate August in New York.”

There’s a laugh from Bucky; it sounds like he’s in the kitchen area. “I forgot how whiney the heat used to make you,” he calls. “This twenty-first century living’s made you soft, Rogers.”

Steve hears the clinking of metal on glass, but can’t be bothered to raise his head to see. “What are you up to?” he asks.

“Lemonade,” Bucky answers. “It was in one of your ma’s old recipe notebooks, the ones the Smithsonian gave us last month.”

A fond smile comes to Steve’s face. “I wondered why it smelled like a lemon grove in here.” It’s there, just barely, the bright citrus scent carried on the air like rain. He closes his eyes and breathes deep, inhaling.

He doesn’t hear the sound of Bucky’s tread on the floorboards before a glass is put next to his head.

“Try it.” Bucky gets down on the floor beside him with his own glass, and Steve reluctantly levers himself into a sitting position.

“Thanks, Buck,” Steve says. He takes a cautious sip: it’s good, just like his ma’s, tart with just the right edge of sweet, and plenty of ice. For a moment, Steve could be back on a Brooklyn fire escape, trembling because his best friend’s just offered to show him what kissing’s all about.

The ice cubes clink against the sides of the glass when he sets it down. Bucky takes a long drink of his own beverage before doing the same. He reaches up to push his hair out of eyes with the metal hand, and a droplet of sweat rolls down his forehead.

Steve’s throat has gone dry. It’s hot, but the sight of Bucky is making him thirsty for an entirely different reason. There’s sweat itching at the back of his neck, crawling down his spine.

He looks at Bucky, and the words come out in a rush: “Do you want —”

“Yeah,” Bucky says, cutting him off. There’s a slightly guilty smile on his face. “I’ve always wanted this, Steve.” He takes a deep breath. “I love you, okay?” Bucky mutters something else that might be “dumbass,” but Steve is too happy to care.

His cheeks feel like they might split from how much he’s grinning, and he doesn’t hesitate before taking Bucky’s face in his hands and planting a kiss on him. It’s softer, a little less needy than it’s been in the past, but there’s no less feeling behind it. He pours his heart into the kiss, hoping it’s saying everything he isn’t coherent enough to articulate right now.

When their lips part, Steve says, “Love you, too. But you know that.”

“Yeah.” There’s no mistaking the shit-eating grin on Bucky’s face, and it just makes Steve want to kiss it off him. So he does, then licks down his neck and grabs Bucky’s t-shirt in both hands so he can tug it away.

He can smell the stale sweat on Bucky’s skin — it’s not exactly pleasant, but it makes Steve’s cock harden in his pants anyway — and taste the tang of lemonade on his lips. This is what Steve knows and remembers, the only thing he’s ever truly wanted.

Bucky makes a face when Steve reaches out to trace the gnarled skin around the metal shoulder joint. Steve just laughs and kisses the scars, until Bucky’s breathing goes shallow and he mutters, “Oh God, Steve. Touch me, please.”

They wrestle their sweatpants off, and Steve pulls Bucky back in for another kiss. Their bodies slip and slide with sweat as they touch each other, clumsy and desperate to feel everything. It’s not long before Steve is losing himself in the sensation of Bucky’s warm hand on his dick, stroking him slow and sure like it hasn’t been decades since they last did this. He comes into Bucky’s hand, hips jerking, and squeezes at Bucky’s cock until he falls apart too, letting out a groan into Steve’s collarbone.

“C’mon, pal,” Bucky growls, and he’s hauling Steve up roughly with the metal hand. “We’re taking this to the shower.” He starts to walk away, and Steve can’t help but admire the view.

There wasn’t much space in Steve’s heart to start with, but there’s always been room for Bucky.

He follows him, and this time, he knows it’s for good.