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Steve hated coming home late.

They’d figured it was better if he picked up night shifts at his warehouse job moving boxes, packing stock into trucks to be taken to liquor stores in the Castro. It was the most discreet job they’d been able to think of; he could wear a baseball hat at all times, keep his head down and his face in shadow, hide his enhanced physique under a baggy sweatshirt and cargo pants, speak to few people. His odds of staying undercover were good at this job, and even better on the night shift.

But all evening, 5pm to 1am, as he packed cardboard boxes into trucks, Steve’s thoughts moved again and again back to Bucky at home. He pictured Bucky pacing the apartment or staring out the window, or standing in the shower for hours, forgetting where he was. Somebody had to work enough to pay their rent, but Steve hated leaving Bucky alone for so many hours at a time, when Bucky was still so fragile.

They had agreed that it was not a good for Bucky to leave the apartment until he had gained a clearer sense of reality. The honk of a passing car could make him spin around, wild-eyed, reaching at his hip for a gun that was not there. He reacted too quickly to every sensation, every noise. Even the sound of strangers arguing on the sidewalk below their window could make his whole body tense. HYDRA had wound him, Steve reflected, like a music box. He was their small ballerina, wound to the snapping point and kept in the darkness until the right moment, and then released to go through his dance. But that deadly graceful assassin was not Bucky, but a creation of HYDRA’s that had been written over Bucky.

Steve pictured Bucky now, as he biked home through the lamp-lit streets of the Castro, keeping to the dark edge of the sidewalks, out of the light. He knew that Bucky had probably forgotten to turn the lights on when the sun set. He might have fallen asleep anywhere in the house. Or worse—he might still be awake, just standing or sitting in the dark living room or bed room, staring at the darkness. The thought made Steve shudder—shudder to imagine what happened in Bucky’s head when he lost track of his surroundings, lost the thread of his reality.

Steve chained up his bike at the front steps of their apartment complex. He fumbled with his keys as he climbed up the steps, then put the right key in the lock and turned, only to find that the door was already unlocked. Odd… Steve’s stomach gave a nervous twist, some sort of soldier’s instinct, and the hair on the back of his neck prickled. He pushed the door open and stepped into the entryway. “Hello?”

No one answered. But why would the front door of the complex be unlocked this late at night? Steve flipped on the hallway light. Nothing appeared to be out of the ordinary—except…the stairs up to the second floor were tracked with dried mud. It looked to have fallen out of a pair…no, several pairs, of boots. A group of people had been here since Steve left. The worst occurred to him immediately, but no, how could HYDRA have found them? Steve forced his fear down and sprang up the stairs to the second floor, but the trail of mud did not stop there, but continued up the next set of stairs toward the third floor: their apartment.

Steve’s stomach turned upside down as panic seized him.

“Buck?!” he took the stairs four at a time, and his heart stopped when he saw that their front door was standing wide open. “Bucky?!” He hurled himself forward, but stopped cold in the doorway as all time and space froze around him.

Bucky was lying on the floor in a puddle of blood. He was pale, motionless, splayed on his side. He was limp and graceful as a drowned pearl diver, and the floor opened up around him as the blood burned through it like acid; he was falling away from Steve in that alpine pass, as a speeding train ripped Steve away through the mountains. Steve leapt and dived after him. He was taking a fighter jet into a nose-dive. He was crashing into a snowdrift; flames burned everything around him, but his body was freezing…

*

“Steve! Steve, c’mon!”

An insistent plea startled him awake, and he sat bolt upright, clutching at his chest. He twisted around to see Bucky in the grey morning half-light, tousle-haired and bleary-eyed, propped up in bed on his arms to shake Steve awake.

“Christ, what were you dreaming, Steve?”

“Buck…” Steve drew a shaky breath and failed to stifle a little sob of relief. He reached up to his face and felt with some embarrassment that his cheeks were soaked with tears. “You were…” he choked as Bucky scooted toward him and pulled him into a gruff hug. He buried his face in Bucky’s hair and clenched his jaw against the sobs that threatened to rip out of him.

It was the most affection he had allowed himself to show Bucky in some time, and he was surprised by how naturally and unhesitantly Bucky reciprocated, rubbing Steve’s back and gripping the back of his t-shirt. “I gotcha,” he mumbled. “Hey, I’m alright, you big sap.”

*

Their plan for living in hiding had been simple; Step one, get an apartment in the Castro, where it was perfectly commonplace for two men to live together, and they would attract no extra attention. Step two was a little harder; get Steve off active duty and convince Fury not to try to track him down. Steve had contacted Fury to tell him that Captain America needed to take a hiatus from work.

“Captain America does not get a hiatus from work, Steve. And it isn’t like him to ask for one in the first place. What’s going on?”

“It’s HYDRA, and what they did to Bucky. It’s just…got me a little shook up, is all. I need some time alone with my thoughts,” Steve had said. It wasn’t entirely lying. It was a perfectly valid reason. HYDRA, after all, had ripped his best friend from his own body and turned him into a lethal super assassin assigned to kill Steve. Fury, however, had not believed it for one minute.

“You’re a rotten liar, Cap. I know you wouldn’t ask for this unless there was something you held above your duty…and for the life of me I can’t imagine what that could be. But I imagine you’re only asking my permission out of courtesy, and you’re planning on doing what you want whether I say yes or no. So why don’t you tell me the truth. Where are you going, and what are you going to do?”

Steve sighed. “I’m sorry, but I can’t tell you that, Nick. I’ve got to do something is all, might take me six months, maybe even a few years, just…don’t wait up for me, alright?”

It was true; it was unlike Steve Rogers to leave his work to others for any reason, but this…this was an exceptional case.

*

When Steve had wiped his eyes and managed to give Bucky a small smile, Bucky lay back down on the bed and looked up at him thoughtfully.

“Seems sometimes like HYDRA fucked you up even worse than me.”

Steve couldn’t think of anything to say to this, so he just stared down at Bucky and laughed. There were moments, like this one, when Bucky seemed just like his old self, joking, teasing, even sometimes smirking his most wicked smirk at Steve. With his lanky hair newly cut short and his face clean shaven, he looked almost like the Bucky who had been drafted to the service some seventy years ago. The only giveaways as to all that had happened in between now and then were his metal arm, and the look about his eyes; a keen, dull focus mixed with sharp anxiety, the look of one who was both hunter and hunted.

It always amazed Steve that after seventy years of brainwashing, torture, and Steve-did-not-want-to-know-what-else, Bucky found the grace to talk Steve down from his stupid nightmares, even to joke with him to cheer him up.

The nightmares always had the same premise; HYDRA got Bucky alone, usually while Steve was at work or out buying groceries. He was a tool to them, a weapon of war, but one that had gone rogue and started disobeying orders. Of course they wanted to kill him. They had made him lethal, made his life hell, and then lost track of him.

There had been no question that Steve would protect Bucky, that it must become his full time occupation. Bucky needed not only somewhere secure to hide from HYDRA, but someone to help him sort his reality from HYDRA’s fiction. He needed someone to support him as he chipped away at the damages of his brainwashing and recovered from his trauma. Steve would trust no one else with him—Hell, he hardly trusted himself.

Bucky was extremely vulnerable, Steve reminded himself daily, in no shape whatsoever for…the kind of relationship that Steve might have liked to have. It was not right to think of Bucky that way when Bucky was depending on him so completely. He couldn’t risk letting his own selfish thoughts color the way he treated Bucky. Bucky needed someone totally level-headed and objective, someone to protect him, and not someone to be romantically involved with …not someone to kiss him until he saw stars, caress him until he felt safe and alive in his own body again…

He’s all here right now, maybe, Steve reminded himself, tearing his eyes off Bucky’s face and lying back down in bed, but he’s vulnerable. Keep your goddamn hands to yourself…

The idea to share a bed had been Bucky’s. He said he figured that they would be safer at night together; if HYDRA did track them down in the middle of the night, they’d be better off fighting together. Steve just hadn’t quite had the strength to say no, after so many years without him, though he hated himself for it.

It was difficult to fall asleep, as he had known it would be, on the nights when he came home to find Bucky already asleep in the moonlight. He crawled into bed next to him around 2 in the morning, after a quick shower. He smelled that particular musky scent that Bucky’s body gave off when he slept, felt his warmth under the blankets, and Steve’s body clenched with the lust of a soldier returning to his love after the war, a strange lust that made his heart hurt as much as it made his body sweat, brought hot tears, stinging, to his eyes sometimes, as he imagined Bucky twisting with ecstasy underneath him, flushed and happy and safe, moaning Steve’s name into the sheets…

Chapter Text

Steve sipped a glass of orange juice, and studied Bucky’s face across the countertop. He made an effort to assess his friend’s mental state. It was his morning routine; he watched Bucky carefully while they ate breakfast, and tried to sense what exactly was going on in his head. There were good days, when Bucky seemed especially clear and relaxed, and bad days, when he was confused, distrustful of reality.

Bucky’s hair was still tousled from sleep. He was devouring a plate of eggs with a fork and knife in hand, a combination of good 1930s boy table manners and a ravenous wolf.

“What’s your plan for the day, Buck?” Steve asked finally, testing the waters.

Bucky looked up and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Same as always, I guess.” He shot an unconscious glance out the window, and Steve recognized his stir-craziness. Bucky hadn’t left the house in two months, and lately he was looking out the window more and more, with eyes that were more and more pitiful, and Steve had half a mind to suggest they venture out to a park, somewhere quiet and without too many people, just to let Bucky look at something other than the walls of their apartment. But no; he knew it was too risky.

“I got you some new books,” Steve said brightly. “Science stuff, I don’t know. Left ‘em on the shelf in the living room. If you’ve run out again.”

“Thanks.” Bucky chugged his glass of orange juice, brought it down a little too hard on the table, and sighed. “Maybe we oughta talk today,” he said. “Sort through things.”

“Yeah?” Steve was always gratified when Bucky wanted to talk. It was another ritual that they had, at least once every few days, to go over Bucky’s history together, with Bucky asking questions and Steve doing his best to clarify. Steve would have liked to do it every day, keeping Bucky’s memory fresh, but there were some days when Bucky forgot details or added strange fabricated twists to his story, and became frustrated with himself when Steve corrected him, too frustrated to continue. Steve could only imagine what sort of lies HYDRA must have told him, and how exhausting it must be to sort through them…

They put on a record, Greatest Hits of Glenn Miller, and sat down on the living room floor with a bowl of chips. Steve propped himself up against the couch and Bucky lay down on the floor, looking up at the off-white ceiling.

“My name is James Buchanan Barnes,” he began abruptly. “I’m from Brooklyn.” Steve sat up a little straighter, ready to interject as needed. “My parents were good to me.”

“That’s right,” said Steve. He tried his best to stay calm during these conversations, to keep his tone balanced. But his stomach twisted with rage at the apparent gaps in Bucky’s memory; he could not remember his first home, his father. He could not remember his schoolyard days, getting into fights defending other children from bullies. Instead, he remembered a childhood full of pain; parents who had neglected him, left him alone and starving for weeks at a time, never sent him to school. When Bucky spoke about his real childhood, he told it like a poem learned by rote memorization. But at this point he had heard it from Steve so many times that he always got it right.

And yet, the trauma was there in his mind, the trauma of a rotten childhood he never had. HYDRA had planted it in him. Likewise, he could not remember his first girlfriend, a lively, spunky, and kind-hearted girl as Steve remembered her. He remembered instead a lonely adolescence, being socially ostracized for the violence and cruelty that were inside of him; he had never been good to anyone; the only girl he had ever loved, he had killed. He was insane, sadistic, and good at nothing but harming and killing. The only friend he had ever known was HYDRA. To them, his twisted soul was useful, and his miserable life worth saving. They hurt him only when he brought it upon himself, tortured him only to help him. The only tenderness he had ever known was HYDRA’s rare and unpredictable mercy; the mercy of leveling the pain, the humiliation, at its peak, the mercy of stopping before it killed him.

They wore thin Bucky’s sense of reality like a relentless grindstone. Sometimes they drugged him with hallucinogens in the early morning, so that he woke to a nonsensical and frightening world. Sometimes they told him that he had hit his head, become confused, dreamed his life before HYDRA or yesterday’s torture. Sometimes they told him that he had already eaten a full meal when he was starving. Sometimes they flickered the lights in his cell and told him he was imagining it. It was impossible to discern, after a time, what was truth and what was fiction. Bucky no longer trusted himself with his reality; he came to trust only them.

He still didn’t trust himself, Steve realized with pain; now he trusted only Steve.

“I'm Jewish,” Bucky recited. “I went to the war. Now they call it World War II. I got promoted to Sargent.” Steve nodded silently. “I almost died. HYDRA saved my life. They gave me a serum, enhanced me.” Bucky fixed his eyes resolutely on the ceiling. “But they hurt me,” he said forcefully, but Steve could hear uncertainty in his voice.

“That’s right,” said Steve quickly. “They tortured you.”

“Tortured me and gas-lighted me,” said Bucky resolutely. “That’s why I have trouble remembering all this.”

“Yeah! That’s really good, Buck! You’re doing great.”

Bucky propped himself up on his arms to look at Steve. “I am, aren’t I?” He gave Steve a wide, proud grin. Steve’s heart fluttered.

*

They talked for three hours, until Bucky was exhausted. He fell asleep on the floor, and Steve picked him up and carried him to bed for a nap. It was Saturday night; Steve did not have to go to work that evening, so he made dinner and took a shower, reflecting happily that Bucky had been clearer today than he had since Steve had recovered him from HYDRA. They watched a movie and tucked in around 11pm.

They had paid very little attention to the black and white movie that night, competing to see who could do more one-handed pushups and scrabbling to push each other over. When Steve knocked Bucky’s arm out from underneath him, Bucky had lunged at Steve, and they had rolled over each other on the floor, a giggling tumble turning into a wrestling match.

And so, it was with contented tiredness that Steve put on pajama pants and a soft cotton t-shirt, and fell into bed. He was already drifting off to sleep as Bucky came back from the bathroom.

“Steve?”

He opened his eyes and rolled over to look up at Bucky, who was standing in the doorway, his hair wet from the shower, shirtless and in his pajama pants. As always, Steve was startled by how handsome he was.

“Yeah?” he murmured.

“I, uh… you awake enough to talk a bit more?” Bucky was aiming to sound casual, Steve could tell, but Steve could immediately hear that he was nervous.

“What’s up?” Steve rolled over and sat up. He turned on the bedside lamp, which cast a warm light over the red-hued room. He scanned Bucky quickly for signs of harm or anguish, but his friend looked healthier than he had in months; his skin was bright, and his blue-green eyes were practically…glowing. He fixed them on Steve for a moment, and then looked down as a bashful smile spread across his face.

He sank down beside Steve on the bed, reaching out his hands for the mattress first as though he were worried that his knees might give out. He planted himself on the bed and fixed his eyes resolutely on Steve’s hands, his cheeks a little pink.

Steve waited, his heart beating a little faster than usual, vicariously nervous for Bucky’s sake.

“Gosh, I didn’t think this’d be so hard to say.” He barked out a laugh and Steve smiled. He decided to relieve Bucky’s anxiety a little with humor.

“It’s alright, Buck, I know you’ve been using my shampoo for weeks,” he said solemnly. “You don’t have to confess.”

Bucky grinned. “Shut up,” he murmured.

“Or is this about last week when you ate all of the ginger snaps in one go, and left none for me? It’s okay, pal, I’ve moved beyond--”

“Shut up, punk.” Bucky’s eyes were radiant as he looked at Steve, fixing him with such a tender, fond glow that Steve began to feel some nerves of his own.

Bucky cleared his throat.

“As I was saying,” he said “…well alright.” He drew a shaky breath, with the air of someone about to jump to an unknown landing. “I guess…I’m ready, is all,” he said. “When you are. I think…if we go really carefully and maybe you check in once in a while to make sure I’m still all there…” He let his sentence trail off and looked at Steve hopefully, the color in his cheeks rising with embarrassment.

Steve gawked at him, too stunned to speak for a moment. “…What?” he choked, finally. His heart seemed to have spluttered to a halt.

Bucky looked dismayed. “Well, it’s just that I was so clear today, y’know?” he prompted. He searched Steve’s face for understanding. “While we were going through my story, it was so much easier than it has been, and I haven’t really been confused all day. And yesterday was so good too. So I think…I think I’m probably safe now. I really don’t think I’d hurt you…” He paused to look up at Steve through his lashes, his cheeks burning. Misreading Steve’s confusion for concern, he said, “I mean, it’s up to you of course, if you’re still nervous about it then of course we won’t…I just feel pretty sure that by now…”

“Bucky,” Steve interjected. “What the hell are you talking about? You think you’re safe…for what? Ready for what?” Steve’s heart was hammering. He already knew the answer, but he could not for the life of him imagine why Bucky was presenting it this way, as though Steve had expected this eventually, as though it had only been a matter of time…What had HYDRA told him about their relationship? Did he believe that Steve was harboring him, protecting him…only to sleep with him?

Bucky looked surprised by Steve’s reaction. “Well…for sex,” he murmured, and laughed nervously as Steve gawked, his suspicions confirmed. “There’s not really a more delicate way to say it, doll.” Bucky tossed his head a little, a nervous, unconscious flirtation. He looked pleasantly embarrassed, his eyes bright with excitement at what he was offering Steve. His happiness was only hampered by his apparent confusion at Steve’s reaction.
Steve took a deep breath and tried to calm himself down. He was totally bewildered—and suddenly more than a little turned-on, he noticed with annoyance—but he had to stay calm enough to sort this out.

“Bucky,” he said resolutely. “Whatever HYDRA told you, you are in no way obligated to have sex with me. I never expected that, I’m not--”
“Hold on, what?” Bucky held up his metal hand. “HYDRA never told me anything like that. They wanted me to kill you, remember? Not fuck you.” He snorted, but there was a wrinkle of concern on his brow. “I thought…” he trailed off. Uncertainty grew in his face and he broke eye contact with Steve, his shoulders rising and tensing with anxiety.

“It’s okay, Buck…tell me what you thought, ” said Steve, eager to catch his friend before he withdrew too far into his head. Bucky looked up at him, and Steve’s stomach fluttered at the intense look in his beautiful eyes, so close. They were just a foot apart on the bed. This whole conversation felt unreal. How could Bucky offer sex to him so casually? He had spoken as though they were old lovers, as though they had had sex before, even, when in reality Steve had spent years repressing his feelings for Bucky. Apart from making excuses over the years to sleep by Bucky’s side, letting their hugs linger on a little too long, and a thousand incidents of accidental eye contact as Bucky caught him staring, Steve had managed, he had thought, to keep his feelings hidden.

Bucky’s pause seemed to go on forever, and Steve’s mind shot back through time, lighting on these moments of tension between them, of pain, at least on Steve’s end. As teenagers, they had sometimes jerked off together. It had always been with the pretense of talking about girls, or passing Playboy magazine back and forth, but Steve had hardly glanced at the pictures, closing his eyes again to think of Bucky so close to him, to listen to Bucky’s breathing change. Most often they had climaxed within a few seconds of each other, pushed over the edge by each other’s sounds.

As sacred as these episodes were to Steve, he had told himself that they meant nothing to Bucky. Bucky wouldn’t consider this messing around together, he messed around on hot dates and late nights at the drive in movies with dames. And though he sometimes drove himself crazy imagining that Bucky might love him too, might even want him too, Steve felt sure that this was only illusion; how could Bucky ever love or want someone like him?

“I thought…that I was supposed to trust what I felt,” rasped Bucky, still not looking at Steve. “You told me that I should rely on my instincts.”

“Yeah…”

“You said that that would help me figure out what’s real.”

“Yeah, that’s right…” said Steve warily.

The dark shadow of confusion was creeping across Bucky’s face. It was the doubt and uncertainty in his own perceptions that Steve knew haunted him, made painfully sharp by the slightest contradiction, the slightest challenge to his perceptions of reality. Steve’s heart tugged with empathy, and he reached out to put his hand on Bucky’s. Bucky looked up, eyes wide.

“That’s…what I’ve been doing” said Bucky. “Trying to just go by what I feel. I feel sick when I think about HYDRA, so I know that what they did to me must have been wrong, even though my brain tells me I deserved it and needed it…I feel less tense when I’m reading, so I know I must like it. And… around you, I feel—well, I guess I thought…”

Steve’s mouth went dry. He didn’t dare prompt him, didn’t dare speak. He stared at Bucky, his heart thundering. Bucky looked up at him, looked down again, and then suddenly grabbed a pillow and whacked him in the face with it, hard.

“Are you telling me we were just friends?” Bucky blurted, incredulous. His eyes were laughing and searching Steve’s face at the same time.

Steve barked out a loud laugh and caught the pillow before Bucky could hit him with it again. “We were—no! Well, gosh, Buck, we never put a word to it, we—it was a different time, y’know? And I never thought—you were always going out with the dames, and I… well, they weren’t interested in me--”

“Only with the dames?!” Bucky hollered. “Then how come--?”

He took Steve by surprise with another playful smack of the pillow, and Steve fell back a little this time, almost banging his head on the headboard. Bucky made an instinctive movement to catch him, his flesh hand cupping behind Steve’s head and his metal hand supporting his middle back. They stared at each other, still grinning, and Steve saw with awed appreciation that Bucky had already managed to pull himself back from his lapse into confusion, already taking the triggering conversation in his stride. What was more, he was holding Steve barely off the bed with a hand in his hair…

Bucky nodded, and keeping his eyes on Steve’s, he said, “I thought that I was supposed to trust what I feel, and I feel…so much around you. The closer you are to me, the faster my heart beats…" Steve gasped a little, and felt his cheeks going even redder. He could not really comprehend that this was happening; it felt unreal, as though he were watching from the doorway as Bucky made these confessions to someone else. “And you’re gonna tell me we weren’t lovers?” Bucky asked, cocking an eyebrow as though he had Steve on an interrogation table.

Steve drew a deep, shaky breath and swallowed twice. “You never told me how you felt and I never told you,” he said. “I never knew for sure how you thought of me—whether as a lover or a brother, or…both. I’d start hoping that maybe you did feel…the way I did, but then I’d tell myself it was stupid and tamp it down. I’d hide it, every day, I’d just hide it and I’d hate myself, and just burn up every time you brought home a dame.”

“Why the hell didn’t I tell you?” said Bucky, more to himself than to Steve. He leaned in to kiss Steve, but Steve held up a hand. He felt a need to clarify more. Bucky had to know the reality of their relationship. He was still so vulnerable, far too easily to accidentally manipulate, despite his gusto.

“Well, I guess… you must’ve been feeling those same things I was,” said Steve, in response to Bucky’s rhetorical question. “Doubt, y’know? Fear. Shame. Gosh, Buck--!” Steve shook his head. “I guess we were gaslighting each other, in a way. Neither one of us could trust what we sensed. And just because I was too scared to tell you the truth.” He shook his head again.

“Nah, don’t think of it that way,” said Bucky quickly. “Seems like it was a two-way street. We were both just scared of that the other didn’t feel the same way, so we didn’t--”

“Well, maybe it was a two-way street, but you still deserved better.” His heart hurt a little, and his stomach twisted with regret. “I’ll never mess with you again. Who cares if I do get hurt? You deserve the truth, always the truth…”

Bucky’s brow wrinkled with emotion. He leaned in, keeping his eyes on Steve’s, and Steve raised his shaking hands to his cheeks to pull him in. Their lips met, and Bucky pulled away long enough for them both to take a shaky gasp of air, then leaned back in, pressing his lips into Steve’s again. Steve was not sure what to do; he had never properly kissed anyone before. Bucky’s lips felt softer than he had imagined, warm and firm. They guided Steve’s mouth open, and he forgot the problem of his inexperience as he felt the heat of Bucky’s mouth. Instinct took over and he slid his hands into Bucky’s wet hair, tugging a little at the roots. He felt Bucky smile. Steve’s nerves were falling away as he melted into Bucky. He pressed his chest forward, wanting to be as close to Bucky as possible, and Bucky gripped his head harder, pulled him deeper into the kiss, pressed his tongue flat into Steve’s. Unbidden, a gravelly groan rose out of Steve’s throat, and Bucky redoubled his efforts, inspired. He guided Steve’s head back onto the pillows, kissing him so filthily that after a few moments, a moan in Steve’s throat turned into a giggle, and they pulled apart for a moment to laugh.

“Something funny, Rogers?” Bucky teased.

“Just the first time I’ve ever been tongue fucked, gosh.” Steve grinned.

Bucky took-in Steve’s flushed cheeks and bright eyes, grinning at him, their faces just an inch apart. Steve’s lips felt as though Bucky had rubbed them with hot pepper. Bucky brushed his thumb across Steve’s burning bottom lip.

“It won’t be the last.” He kissed Steve again and Steve’s mind exploded with visions of how Bucky could use his tongue. His stomach fluttered and his breath sped up. Bucky seemed to sense Steve’s thoughts, and somehow it got hotter between their bodies. It was like an intimate conversation, to kiss like this, like one of their whispered conversations in the dark as children, as teenagers, awake long after they had been told to sleep. Steve wanted desperately to communicate something to Bucky, though he could not have said what. There were no words for what it was; there were only movements for it, only sounds. He wanted to put Bucky’s hands on him, wrap Bucky’s fingers tightly around his cock and hold them there, move in his hand, offer him everything…

Bucky lifted Steve up long enough to reach down his waist and get ahold of his shirt. Steve raised his arms to help Bucky pull it off over his head. It mussed his hair. Bucky threw it across the room, and then looked back at him, and his smile softened into an expression of awe as he ran his hands over Steve’s bare chest. Steve’s muscles lost all their strength in a hot wave of wonder.

“Buck…let’s let our skin touch. I wanna feel your skin…” He was embarrassed to hear himself say it, and by the happy gasp that slipped out of him when Bucky grabbed him and laid him back, but Bucky looked like he’d just received a holy mission from God. He lowered himself onto Steve as though doing a pushup, laying their naked chests flush.

Steve gasped and clumsily kissed Bucky’s ear, and Bucky kissed along Steve’s jaw.

“Anything you want, angel,” he murmured in Steve’s ear. “Say the word--”

“Kiss me,” Steve gasped. “Everywhere.”

Bucky swooped down to lay a kiss just below Steve’s ear. His fingers were firey as he traced them lightly across the sensitive skin of Steve’s wrist.

“Anything,” he murmured into Steve’s neck as he kissed his way down. “Anything…”

Unbidden, an overwhelming feeling of guilt rose up in Steve’s chest and throat. What the Hell was he letting himself do?

Bucky was losing control, kissing and biting him on the neck, and it took all of Steve’s self-discipline to gasp out, “Buck, wait.”

“What’s wrong?” Bucky popped up and looked at him urgently. His cheeks and lips were rouged with arousal, and he looked so pretty that Steve forgot for a moment what he needed to say.

“We shouldn’t do this,” Steve managed to gasp, finally. “You’re depending on me. I won’t take advantage of you like this.”

“Well, you don’t have to do the taking,” Bucky joked. His voice was breathy.

“No, I know you’re feeling clear right now, but that doesn’t mean it’s alright for me to do this with you.”

“Are you going Captain America on me? At a time like this?” Bucky brushed Steve’s hair out of his eyes. “You aren’t taking advantage of me, Stevie, I promise. I want this. I mean, I really, really want this, as long as you do.”

“I do, but--” Steve’s resolve faulted. “Okay, one more minute.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah.” Hating himself, Steve wrapped his arms around Bucky’s neck and moaned into Bucky’s mouth as Bucky kissed him, open-mouthed. Bucky gripped the covers and pulled them up over their heads, so that they were in a dark cocoon of blankets. Their bodies were already hot—Steve was sweating in his pajama pants, but the sweat broke out on his back and a feverish shudder ripped through him as Bucky rubbed against him. His erection was pressed against Steve’s thigh. “Buck,” he gasped. “I feel you. Oh my God…

Bucky gasped against Steve's neck. “More?”

Yeah.

Bucky growled involuntarily, deep in his throat, as he gripped Steve’s hips. He yanked him mercilessly down the bed until their hips pressed into each other. Steve gasped for air as Bucky grinded against him, their hard cocks rubbing through their pajama pants. It was forceful and clumsy, and Steve moved his hips in response, desperately grinding into Bucky. He couldn’t stifle the moans that slipped out of him. The feeling of Bucky hard for him, wanting him, grinding on his cock was too much to handle. He saw stars, pressing his head back into Bucky’s hand, keening from his throat, but…no. “Ohhh, Buck,” he gasped. “Oh my God, we, we have to stop, we--”

Bucky paused, and Steve rallied his feeble resolve. He took a deep breath, and pushed Bucky off of him with stupendous mental effort. He rolled away from Bucky and nearly fell out of the bed before he managed to get shakily to his feet, his chest heaving.

“So help me, James Buchanan, I will chain you to this bed,” he panted.

“Why don’t you give that a try?” Bucky grinned wickedly and rolled onto his back like a happy dog, his hair mussed and his skin glowing with heat.

“No,” said Steve, trying not to melt again at the sight of Bucky looking so depraved. “I am going to sleep on the couch. You are staying here. We are not doing this yet, we’re just…not.”

“Alright, roger that, Cap. But uh, if you change your mind, you know where I live.”

They grinned at each other for a moment. Bucky’s eyes were dancing with a glow that seemed to come from inside. Steve did not know if he had ever seen him so happy. He tore his eyes off of that stupid, gorgeous face, stepped out, and closed the bedroom door firmly behind him.

He fell onto the living room couch, on his back. His hand went, involuntarily, to his cock, and he gripped it in his hand under his pajamas. Was it wrong even to masturbate to Bucky? He was too weak to stop himself, and so on fire that his mind plunged deep into fantasies. He stroked up and down with his own pre-cum as lube, his eyes shut forcefully as the pleasure grew. In his mind, he was still in that bed with Bucky, and he saw Bucky taking his cock into his mouth. Steve wanted him so desperately that his cock ached. His own hands were not enough… Bucky was keeping his eyes on Steve’s as he swallowed his cock down and slid it out again. Bucky’s eyes were sparkling, teasing, but slavishly devoted at the same time. Bucky took Steve deeper than he should have, gagging, choking himself, until Steve let out a keening groan as his orgasm shook his body, long and unbearable, into Bucky’s mouth.

He lay sweaty and sticky in the dark on the couch as the ceiling fan beat.

Chapter Text

Mid-morning on a Saturday a week later, Steve was awakened by Bucky’s metal hand on his shoulder. He sat up blearily and blinked. “Buck-what is-something wrong?”

Steve had taken to sleeping on the couch since the bedroom incident last week. He was too big for the couch, and he always woke up a little sore from cramping himself onto it, but at least his conscience was clean.

“Come look at somethin’,” said Bucky.

Steve threw his blanket off and obediently followed Bucky into the kitchen. Evidently, Bucky had already been awake for a while. The newspaper that Steve had brought home for him yesterday was spread out across the counter. He had laid scrambled eggs and a glass of milk out for Steve, as he sometimes did on the days when his mind was clearest. Touched, Steve opened his mouth to say thanks, but before he could, Bucky said, “Look out at the street.”

Steve stepped up behind Bucky and looked out the window over Bucky’s shoulder.

The street was packed with people. They were boisterous; Steve could hear shouts and laughter all the way from here. They were moving in a stream toward downtown.

Steve caught sight of a bearded man on a balcony across from them dressed in knee-high white boots, long white gloves, and bunny ears, blowing bubbles over the crowd and beaming like sunshine. A young woman shouted a compliment up to the man from below, and he blew her a kiss.

Steve smiled; the giddy joy in the street was infectious. “What’s going on?” he asked.

“San Francisco ‘Pride’, apparently,” said Bucky. He gestured at the open newspaper. “A big pride parade, and a festival happening all day. What d’ya think of that?” Bucky shook his head in wonder. “How things can change when your brain is shut off for a couple decades.”

“Tell me about it,” Steve agreed.

They both stared down at the scene for a few more moments, taking it in. There were costumes everywhere: leotards, capes, stilettos, masks, and glitter. It rather reminded Steve of his brief and ill-suited career as a vaudeville star. But these costumes were more than just a flashy show for the public. This wasn’t even really a performance. This was about people celebrating who they were. What courage these people have, Steve thought.

He glanced sideways at Bucky, and his heart sank a little; he could instantly tell what Bucky was thinking.

“We can’t go out, Buck,” he said. His stomach twisted with empathy. He could almost feel Bucky’s stir-craziness, his longing to join the happy, multi-colored throng on the street. Steve couldn’t image being trapped inside for so long. “We’ll have our own party in here.” He slapped Bucky on the shoulder. “We can decorate the house rainbow if you want. I’m sure we can find something…”

Bucky looked at him sideways and smiled a little. “We’re gonna have to do somethin’. I haven’t felt this wild in months.”

Steve’s heart did a somersault. “Well, don’t go getting any ideas,” he said primly, and bustled off to hunt for decorations among the cabinets.

“Steeeve,” Bucky whined. Steve ignored him. “Steeeve, let’s go out. I feel good today.”

“Buck, we can’t go out… Not in a crazy scene like this. Maybe we can go out once it’s over, sit in a nice quiet park or something. But we can’t start you out like this…”

“We gotta do it,” said Bucky fiercely. Steve’s heart sank. Bucky was insufferably petulant when he wanted to be.

“Bucky, there could be a thousand triggers out there,” Steve pleaded.

“I don’t care. I need this.”

Bucky took a step closer to Steve.

"Think about this, Steve: we could let the whole crowd see us together. Don’t have to hide anything about…anything.”

Steve sucks in a breath. He remembers how they used to have to take separate routes home most days, how they used to draw all the curtains shut when they were home together. Even though they weren’t a couple, they had to do so much to prove to the neighborhood that they weren’t a couple. Peoples’ gossip could get them beat up or worse.

“Okay, but if someone recognizes us…”

“They won’t. Not in a crowd like that. I ain’t worried.”

Steve faltered. “But--”

C’mon, Steve.” Bucky closed the distance between them and Steve braced himself for the full force of Bucky’s charisma. “Take me out on the town. It’d be so keen.. And I know nothin’ could hurt me if I’m out there on Captain America’s arm…” Bucky raised his face to Steve’s, only a few inches away, and stared imploringly up at him through his lashes, barely suppressing his cocky smile.

Steve’s heart swooned, in spite of him. “You dirty scoundrel,” he grumbled.

They cracked identical smiles; Bucky had won.

Bucky’s eyes really were unfairly beautiful. It was cheating, to have eyes like that. Steve didn’t stand a chance. But truth be told, it was Bucky’s excitement that really got to him; Steve certainly wasn’t strong enough to deny him this happiness.

“Get your hoodie,” Steve grumbled.

*

Stepping out into the crowded street, Steve shot an anxious glance at Bucky to make sure he was alright.

Bucky was grinning from ear to ear. He put two fingers to his lips and wolf-whistled at a group of drag queens in costume heels as they walked by, and Steve blushed as several of them looked over their shoulders to finger-wave at Bucky.

“Where to then, big guy?” said Steve. He was unable to repress some excitement of his own.

“Let’s get out in the middle of it!” Bucky cried, gesturing in the direction of the downtown. “That park by the capitol building! C’mon!” Bucky seized Steve’s hand and looked over his shoulder to grin, before dragging Steve deeper into the crowd. Steve jumped a little at the touch, but he could not bring himself to withdraw his hand.

An older lesbian couple in matching leather jackets zoomed by on a motorcycle, and the woman on the back took one hand off of her partner’s waist to wave a little rainbow flag at Steve. Up ahead, couples were swing dancing together in the middle of a square, while others watched and cheered them on.

Steve beamed. It was like a county fair, or even a circus had come to town! But even better, everyone here was like them

Steve thought back to his early adolescence, when he had realized the intensity of his feelings for Bucky. How ashamed he had been, a lifetime ago, to love another boy that way.

“Bubbles!” Bucky exclaimed. He reached up delightedly to the cloud of bubbles that someone had blown above them, aiming to pop one with a metal finger. He popped it, and then looked eagerly to see if Steve had seen, with such unbridled glee that Steve nearly melted into a puddle at his feet.

A tall woman passed by on roller skates, wearing a rainbow tuxedo and showering the crowd in confetti. She caught sight of Steve and Bucky beaming at each other, and paused long enough to reach into the pouch at her waist.

To Steve’s mortification, she tossed a handful of confetti, condoms, and lube packets over them.

Beet red, Steve hid his face in Bucky’s shoulder. Bucky’s arm went reflexively around his waist, and he reached up quickly to catch a condom before it hit Steve on the ear. The woman gave Bucky a theatrical wink before skating on.

“Y’alright?”

Bucky tried his best to sound concerned for Steve’s embarrassment, but he was choking on his laughter. He tucked a few condoms and a packet of lube into his pocket. He cupped Steve’s face in one hand to coax him out of his shoulder.

This was not going well at all. A few moments of weak resolve on Steve’s part, and here they were acting like a couple in the middle of the street. Bucky’s metal hand was cool on Steve’s blushing cheek. His arm around Steve’s waist felt like heaven. Their bodies were pressed together in the middle of the crowd, their faces only inches apart. It would be so easy to abandon what he knew to be right and just give in to the ache in his heart. They could be like this all the time… he could hold Bucky’s hand in the sunlight. He could lean into him like this, bury his face in Bucky’s smell any time he wanted. They could sleep in each other’s arms, shower together, fuck on the kitchen countertops…

“So can I kiss you or what?” Bucky murmured into Steve's ear.

“Gosh, you jerk,” Steve gasped. “Okay. Once.”

Bucky clutched Steve to him, his hands eschewing Steve’s t-shirt a little as he gripped at it. He kissed him, fierce and possessive, making thorough use of Steve’s permission for one kiss. Steve could not remember ever feeling so safe as he did with Bucky’s arms around him like that, Bucky’s hands clutching him close in the middle of a crowd.

When Bucky pulled away, they were both breathless. They rested their foreheads against each other.

“Alright?” Steve rasped.

“Yeah.” Bucky almost nuzzled him. “You?”

Steve considered for a moment, and then told the truth. “Never better.”

They both hesitated for a moment, and then started talking at the same time.

Steve said, “I swear to God, Buck, if things were just a little bit different I would--”

And Bucky growled, “Stevie--

And then they kissed again.

Steve’s heart stopped when Bucky jerked away abruptly. Had he gone too far? Done something that upset Bucky? But Bucky’s hands were on his cheeks again and he looked at Steve urgently.

“Look, here me out, will ya?” he said. “I’m not as fragile as you think. Look at this, people all around, things flying in my face, and I’m cool as a cucumber. And I’m out here with you, and I know perfectly well right now who I used to be, and who I am, and HYDRA can fuck itself.” Steve felt a mixture of many different emotions. “I wanna do some errands,” Bucky plowed on. “Get a job. Start providing for you.” His tone was joking, but Steve heard a note of real emotion in it, and he held Bucky a little tighter.

“So what I’m sayin’…” Bucky pressed on, “is whenever you want, Stevie, I’m ready to…be something new for each other. Give you my pin, you know? And that includes sex. I really am ready for that, whenever you are.”

Steve said nothing for a moment, just stared at him. Bucky was telling the truth, that much was obvious. He really felt ready. And if he felt ready, who was Steve to tell him he wasn’t?

Steve had to believe him.

And with that, Steve’s reservations fell away, and the most pure, radiant joy filled his chest. The only thing coming between him and Bucky was Steve himself. Bucky wanted him. Maybe even loved him. Bucky trusted him, even after everything he’d been through, and maybe Steve could even find the strength to trust himself. The way to respect Bucky now was to believe him, level with him, give him the full truth of his affection.

A terrible, fantastic idea was forming in Steve’s mind.

He laced his fingers into Bucky’s and widened his eyes innocently. “You really do wanna have sex?”

Bucky laughed. “Yeah, I mean, I’ve wanted it for fucking decades. But you know I’ll wait another decade, you punk, if you wanna torture--”

“Well, what about right now?”

Bucky’s mouth fell open.

When Steve did not break his gaze, Bucky spluttered, “Jesus, Rogers, right now?” and his expression metamorphosed from shock to awe.

Steve looked down, blushing. “Yeah, I mean, we don’t have to. I just--”

“Twist my arm!” Bucky’s face split into a shit-eating grin. He gripped his own shirt at its waist and started to pull it off over his head.

“Not here!” Steve yelped, scandalized. He seized Bucky’s shirt and yanked it down.

They both broke down in giddy laughter, and Steve grabbed the bastard for another kiss.

How ashamed he had been to love this man. How proud he was now.

Steve interlocked his fingers with Bucky’s and led him through the packed square to the periphery, where a few streets led into residential neighborhoods, and alleys split off from the streets. Still laughing giddily, they passed a stage with dancers in sequined flapper dresses, passed a float for the local YWCA, rounded a corner, and stumbled down a heavily-grafittied alley.

They were hidden from the square, although the other end of the alley was open to a main street…passers-by probably wouldn’t think to look over.

Steve tugged Bucky down to the end of the alley, and pressed him up against the wall. They kissed with mouths open, chests pressed together, hands in each others' hair. Steve ran his hands down Bucky's sides, over his abs, to the buckle of his jeans. Bucky bit Steve's bottom lip gently, a silent encouragement to keep going and open his pants. But before Steve did, he pressed his forehead gently against Bucky's, their eyes closed and their minds resting together.

"Light check?" Steve murmured.

"Green," Bucky whispered against Steve's lips.

And they fell into another kiss with lights and shapes dancing before their closed eyes.