There was something to that old trope about two people being stuck somewhere freezing, usually a cave during a blizzard, and having to huddle together with skin-on-skin contact to keep warm. While rocky, mountainous, and snowy terrain was in no way alien to Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes during the war, they hadn’t needed to bare all in a cave to keep each other alive. (In fact, Bucky supposed back then that it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility that Steve’s super soldier enhancement gave him the ability to light a candle just by rubbing the wick between his fingers. The thought of him straight-up surviving in a block of ice for decades never crossed his mind, though.) But before then, that blizzard cave was their apartment in Brooklyn. Not all the time, of course, but sometimes utilities were fickle things and the heat stopped working. That first year they lived together after Steve’s mother’s death, the heat conked out for several days in the middle of January. The first night, they made do with every blanket in the apartment, and a few things that weren’t blankets (as it turns out towels can be useful in a pinch). The next night, outside temperatures dropped below freezing and the pair had to get creative. It was Bucky who suggested getting cozier, promptly taking his shirt off and announcing, “ladies and gentlemen, please hold your applause.” Steve had stifled a snort but went along with it.
“Christ,” Bucky had chimed, “for such a beanpole, you’re one hell of a furnace.”
“Glad to be of service…?”
“No seriously, we could probably make a few extra bucks hooking you up to the burner.”
“I’ll pass, I think one Buck’s all I need tonight.”
They made it through the night, Steve awaking to find Bucky’s chin resting protectively on his head. They didn’t let go for quite some time, even after the heat was fixed.
The better part of a century later found them once again in the same bed, but this time with space and immeasurable levels of horror and trauma between them. Bucky had flinched when Steve clapped a hand to his shoulder in Siberia, out of reflex. Every bit of physical contact he’d had since 1944 had been punching or kicking or grabbing or dragging or choking. He wanted to say that the only other friendly contact he’d had was Steve pulling him out of the drowned helicopter, but frankly that still constituted “dragging” in his book. Plus, he’d been unconscious for it. Not that he wasn’t grateful; when all was said and done, he’d rather be here living a life with a man he loved more than life itself instead of dead at the bottom of a moat in Berlin. Whether or not he would rather have died in the moat or at the base of that snowy ridge below the train tracks, before decades of brainwashing and bloodbaths began, was another story. But of all possible outcomes, he had wound up with Steve, and that was worth being alive for.
But Bucky didn’t feel entirely back yet.
He lay on his back and flexed his fingers, both hands at once. It was a reinforcing gesture of wholeness. The old arm that had punched through so many walls and squeezed or beaten the life out of so many people had been blown off. Gone. This new arm was a part of him now, and he was going to own it. A nice blank slate for a fresh start. And that meant relearning a lot of things. Even before the new arm, his time in Bucharest had allowed him to readjust to having the occasional normal human interaction, like going shopping, and rediscovering leisurely activities like reading. He and Steve had rejoined not that long ago and that time had been spent mostly on memory work. Nothing particularly intense, mainly just reminiscing about the old days. Simple and organic. Those chats were the best part of every day.
If there was one thing about Bucky’s daily life, the one aspect of those bygone times that he most wanted to reclaim, it was remembering how to touch. And how to be touched.
He curled his lip slightly at the thought of Sam Wilson likening him to a cat, fickle about physical contact, never sure if he was going to lash out and bite you if you scratched his belly. Sam wouldn’t be entirely wrong, though. Bucky did still fear the possibility of accidentally lashing out if someone touched him (granted if Sam ever did try and scratch Bucky’s belly, Bucky would totally punch him). It wasn’t that the idea of not liking to be touched made Bucky feel like less of a “normal functioning” human being. After all, there was nothing wrong with not liking to be touched. But he and Steve had shared many arms around the shoulders and hugs and kisses and things more intimate, and he wanted to be able to take joy in that again instead of bracing for possible pain. Because after so many decades of people only touching you because they want to hurt you, some habits just died hard.
Bucky still had nightmares.
Though the brainwashing had been undone in Wakanda, that only killed the switch that could activate the Winter Soldier with just a few innocuous words. Memories remained and scars ran deep and shadows came in the night. For the first week, Bucky had insisted that he and Steve sleep separately. He’d said it was because he wanted to bask briefly in the glory of having privacy without worrying about having to bolt at a moment’s notice, but he could tell Steve knew that was a load of bull. Bucky knew that if he said, “I’ll probably have nightmares and I don’t want to bother you or wake you up in the middle of the night,” Steve would almost certainly insist they stay together. But somehow Steve still seemed to recognize that Bucky was serious. In this period of post-cryo vulnerability and trying to put the pieces of himself back together, it looked like Steve knew it was best to take extra care to respect Bucky’s space when he asked for it.
Sealing himself alone with his thoughts was both a blessing and a curse. An idle mind may be the devil’s workshop, but the active mind of Bucky Barnes these days was an aggravating mixture of that and angels working overtime in their own competing workshop to lay the foundation for something better. Angels looked forward, but devils remembered. And good god, there was a lot to remember.
Bucky had spent the first few nights doing what he always did in Bucharest when the voices came and the screaming started in his head: pick a mental anchor, something to focus on, usually the moon or a star or planet in the sky, and just…tough it out. Alone. Cry about it if necessary, sometimes pillow screaming helped too.
I’m with you till the end of the line, pal.
Christ, he needed to start following his own advice.
Bucky had hoped that Steve’s mere presence, the warm body of the most familiar person in his life just a foot away, would help stave off the voices in the night. The operative word turned out to be “help.” The nightmares became more infrequent after Bucky and Steve started sharing a bed again, but they didn’t dissipate completely. One night Bucky saw faces. All of them. Every life he’d ever taken. They started off neutral but soon began to change, contorting into grotesque masses of bulging eyes and unhinged jaws. There was the screaming again. An eyeball burst, spraying him with blood and fluid and knocking him back into consciousness. He sat bolt upright and began frantically pawing at his face, trying to clear the imagined entrails. The only moisture he found was sweat, but the wet sensation and his newly-woke and still-frantic state was enough to convince him otherwise for a few seconds. Those few seconds were, in turn, enough to elicit a sharp cry of distress from him. Enough to wake Steve.
The sudden sound startled Bucky off the edge of the bed. Landing with a hard thump, he seized the corner of the bedsheets and buried his face in them, still hellbent on drying himself.
“Bucky?” Steve asked again, leaning over his distressed partner’s side of the bed and trying to assess possible damage. “What is it? What happened?”
“Blood on my face…face wet…why’s my face still wet…” Bucky managed to stutter out over the sheets. Steve took a handful of sheet closer to him and tugged it gently.
“Buck, I don’t think you’re bleeding. Let me look.”
Bucky was glad Steve didn’t put his hands on his face, because he was afraid his gut reaction might be that someone was about to put his eyes out with their thumbs. Instead, he let go of the sheet on his face as Steve reached over and turned on the bedside lamp. Bucky couldn’t even bring himself to look Steve right in the face in that moment. He’d thought that Steve’s face might be an excellent mental anchor, something to focus on to pull him out of his nightmare tremors. But instead he flashed back to that day in Washington, looking down at the golden face that he, Bucky…no…Winter Soldier…had beaten and bloodied. He sucked in a shuddering breath.
“Buck, it’s not blood,” said Steve. “You’re sweating and crying at the same time, that’s why your face is wet.”
Oh. Of course.
Bucky swiped a finger over the crest below his eye and above his cheek and looked at it. The moisture glistened in the lamplight, perfectly clear. He was clean of blood.
If only it were that simple.
“You just had a nightmare, that’s all. That’s normal.”
“Shut up, th-there’s nothing normal about this,” Bucky attempted to snap back. Steve got off the bed and pulled the comforter sheet off the top, sitting down on the floor next to Bucky.
“How long have you been dealing with this alone?” Steve asked. “Wait…you don’t have to answer right away. Just breathe first.” Bucky’s breath was still coming in ragged waves and the occasional choked sob.
“The whole time…years…” he sputtered.
“Here…” Steve draped the comforter around the battered soldier, who gripped it tightly around himself like a cloak. Bucky’s sobs became more pronounced. He needed to do one of his pillow screams, but figured the comforter would suffice. Stuffing a sizable handful into his mouth, he roared wordlessly into the thick sheet until he was out of breath. For good measure, he took another deep breath and did it again. Taking the comforter out of his mouth, he coughed several times and blinked away a few oncoming tears. Steve reached out his arms.
Bucky’s mouth tightened. “J-just…don’t grab. Be gentle.” Bucky had never thought of “gentle” as being in the top five adjectives to describe loveable, reckless, fire-blooded, stubborn punk Steve Rogers, but he could trust him to be that when he needed to. Steve put a single arm around Bucky and the blanket and stroked his shoulder with his thumb. Bucky gave a couple nods of approval and even managed half a smile before he caved again. Burying his face in his knees, he huddled himself into a shaking ball and let the rest of the anguish spill out. He could feel Steve adjust his arm around him and scoot over to be as close to Bucky as possible, pressing a kiss to the blanket over his head before resting his own head on the weeping Barnes. It took Bucky half a second to realize that the additional weight on top of him was a comforting gesture from Steve and not debris leaning on him. He took in the steady warmth through the blanket, actively reminding himself that he was with the best man he could possibly be with and that he wasn’t trapped or about to be seized and thrown out a window. In the depths of his soul, Bucky started to feel loved and cared for for the first time in…since when? But the fact that debris and death grips and blood had factored into his thoughts at all was still a problem.
This might take a while.
There were two things Bucky had come to love about video games: one, they were a better escape from reality than anything he’d ever encountered before. Books and movies were all well and good, but there was an extra level of satisfaction Bucky got from actually having control. Two, there was something pleasurable about the feeling of buttons under his fingers. A few taps or clicks opened up a world of possibilities. Steve had told him that warfare shooters, even a bunch about World War II, were weirdly popular amongst folks these days. Neither of them were particularly keen on joining that bandwagon. Bucky found himself drawn more to games centered around character customization and building. The Sims was one hell of a concept. Make a whole household of characters based on anyone you could think of and just have them live out regular lives? Nice. Bucky sank more hours into it than he’d like to admit. Eventually, though, he longed for something a bit more adventurous. Something about team-building and friendship and exploring colorful locales…
“I think what you’re looking for is Pokémon, Buck.”
“No, that’s the name of the series. It’s short for ‘Pocket Monsters.’ They’re these creatures with special powers that live all over this alternate world where people catch and train and battle them.”
“Train and battle? So…kinda like dog-fighting but with dragons and dinosaurs and ghosts and, I dunno, bears and stuff?”
Steve scratched the back of his head, sheepishly. “…Yeah, more or less. They come up with all kinds of justifications in-universe, like ‘oh, it increases the bond between Pokémon and their trainers’ and they claim that Pokémon want to be with humans and fight for them.” Steve furrowed his brow. “Actually there is a game mechanic where they like you and grow better if they spend enough time with you…but I think the best one is that they have these all-purpose hospitals called Pokémon Centers where you give the little guys to a nurse and they put ‘em in a machine and bam: heals everything. No cuts, no bruises, no poison, no paralysis, it’s just…almost like nothing happened.”
Bucky found himself hyper-aware of the scars on his shoulder where metal met flesh and resisted the urge to say, heh, wouldn’t that be nice. He could keep the new arm, but the jagged lines like thunderbolts along his skin were not a favorite feature of his. Instead, he settled on the rather morbid follow-up question of, “Can they die?”
“In-universe, yes,” said Steve, “but it’s not a game mechanic. If you catch a Pokémon, it’s yours basically forever. Actually, that’s part of what makes it so great. It might not sound like it, but trust me, you will get really attached to them. There’s this thing called ‘migration’ where you can take your Pokémon from older games and move them up to newer games, so your old friends can stay with you. Since they’re digital, they don’t age. But, once you migrate them, they can’t go home again. Well, sort of. One of the earlier games I played was called Sapphire Version and I had a starter named Flatbush. Good friend, great fighter. But I felt bad about moving him up and taking him out of his home. Then a few years ago, they announced that Sapphire was getting a remake. I could move Flatbush up. He could come home after all. And I realized, sometimes, maybe old things can come back.” He gave Bucky a meaningful look. “That was in 2014.”
Bucky smiled and shrugged a little. “What can I say,” he said, “I guess I’ve just got good timing.”
“Actually…” Steve stepped out to grab something from his bedside table drawer. He returned with a 3DS in hand, which he flipped open and loaded a game. “Here, this is Flatbush.” He sat down next to Bucky on the couch and showed him the screen. Bucky found himself looking at what he could only describe as an orange humanoid chicken with long, bulky legs and claws for hands. Steve pressed a button and the screen changed, showing a different creature. This one was a proud-looking green serpent with a long collar and a calm but regal air. “This is Peggy, my very first Pokémon ever.”
Bucky chuckled. “Sure looks like she could spit fire like her.”
“Actually she’s a Grass type, but that’s…yeah. And this…” Steve changed menus and opened up a different game feature. Instead of a stats screen, Bucky saw an open field with a single occupant. It appeared to be a colorful eagle with red, white, blue, and yellow feathers and its back to the camera. Steve tapped the screen twice with the stylus, which got the bird’s attention. It turned around and tossed its head back, cawing happily at its trainer. “Bucky, meet Bucky.”
For the first time in years, Bucky let out a proper loud guffaw. “You named that guy after me?!” he said, pointing to the screen. “Immaculate plumage, red-white-and-blue, America: The Bird…I thought that was your thing? And no ‘wingman’ jokes, I’ve got Wilson for that.”
“Took me a while to find him,” Steve smiled. “I was looking for a Pokémon I’d want as a partner in real life. He’s…okay, yeah, he’s a ‘wingman’.” Bucky rolled his eyes and Steve leaned in closer to the 3DS. “Hi Bucky!” The Pokémon made an inquisitive peep in response.
“Woah, hold on, he can hear you?” Bucky asked.
“Yeah, there’s a tiny microphone. Here, you can say hi.”
“Okay Steve, that’s…pretty neat.”
“You can pet him if you want.” Steve handed Bucky the stylus.
“What, I can pet myself?” Bucky smirked. He saw Steve lift his fist with the intention to bop him in the arm, before thinking better of it. “Nah, go ahead, I deserve it, that was bad.” The bop happened after all. The sensation lingered on Bucky’s right arm. He pressed the stylus to the bottom screen and ran it back and forth over the bird’s neck feathers. The game made a mildly dismissive chirp with every motion and Poké-Bucky glared directly into the camera.
“Umm, he actually…doesn’t like it there,” Steve interjected. “Try petting his head feathers, he likes that.” Bucky moved the stylus, and his feathered counterpart closed its eyes contentedly. The chirping sound rose in pitch to sound happier and, after a few seconds of petting, Poké-Bucky tossed its head back and cawed again, emitting a stream of hearts.
“Yep. And there’s over seven hundred more species where that came from.”
“Y’know what…I think I have heard of these games before. Aren’t they fronted by that weird yellow thing with the red cheeks and the ears and the zigzag tail?”
After spending the next week blazing through Pokémon Y and chatting with Steve about the other games, Bucky understood what else his virtual reality enabler saw in this series. You always played as a kid, and there was always a team of malicious adults who wanted to hurt people. The little guy standing up against bullies to protect the other little guys. Also, this world seemed to be populated almost entirely by people ready to pick a fight. So, basically an army of Steves. His time playing also did wonders for his neck. Which is to say, he hadn’t been having neck problems before, but he sure as hell was now. Bucky offhandedly voiced this complaint to Steve a few days after completing the main story of the game.
“Here, let me see if I can help fix that…” Steve said, closing the freezer where he’d been sorting the meat. “Ready?”
Bucky was ready to keep talking about the game while Steve’s fingers worked their magic, about that post-game story with the Heartwarming Orphan Girl and the Bumbling Hardboiled Detective who takes her in, but his thoughts were cut short by the grip of cold hands on the back of his neck. They started to squeeze.
His arms shot up and seized the forearms behind him, flinging the rest of the body over the couch to land with a crash on the floor in front of him.
“Buck! BUCKY! STOP IT’S ME!”
Steve’s voice cut through the ending of the reflexive throw, leaving Bucky shuddering and still holding Steve’s arms in a vice grip. He couldn’t remember what was supposed to happen next in that maneuver, thank god. From this angle it might have involved kicking Steve in the head or stomping on his face.
“I didn’t realize my hands were that cold and I gripped too tight, I’m sorry,” Steve said in a rush, also breathing with a shudder. They stayed that way for a few more moments before Bucky finally moved, helping Steve to his feet. But Bucky didn’t let go of Steve’s hands when he was upright. He clasped them together between his own, feeling the chill dissipate and warmth return. Giving Steve a pitiable look, Bucky leaned down and kissed their intertwined fingers before pressing them to his forehead.
“You didn’t deserve that,” he said, just above a whisper.
Sometimes it gets hot, and sometimes a man’s gotta grab an ice cold beer, look at a nice shiny bathtub and a bottle of suds, and go I’m gonna take a nice cool bubble bath.
Usually Bucky preferred showers. There was something pleasant and meditative about the feeling of cascading warm, clean water. If the former Winter Soldier had his druthers, he’d be at a swimming pool. But for secrecy’s sake, that was out of the question. Fortunately, the bath was a perfectly acceptable alternative and he sank down under the bubbles with a contented sigh. Holding his breath for a moment, he submerged his head to get his hair good and soaked before reemerging and wiping the foam from his face. There was something hilariously excessive Bucky found about the sheer quantity of bath fragrances these days. It seemed like if there was a fruit or a pie or a form of weather or a state of being or a mood, there was soap for it. He hadn’t been sure what to expect when Steve had brought back cucumber mint (cucumber and mint? Really? Was it because they were both green or…?), but Steve had said it came highly recommended by Natasha so Bucky figured hey, why not. In an America where anything from cheesecake to soda could be found deep-fried somewhere and ice cream themed off of late-night talk show hosts were things that existed, it was nice to find strange combinations of stuff that did actually work. Especially after Steve had linked him to that one article about post-war recipes for stuff like vegetable jelly that were apparently A Thing in the ‘50s.
Bucky took a swig from his beer. How Steve had managed to get a hold of a twelve-pack of Brooklyn craft was probably a question for another day, but Steve had assured him that a proper exchange of money was involved. Speaking of packs and mystery, Bucky put his arms under the water so that only his head was exposed and looked at himself in the tub, taking the opportunity of the foam layer to forget about his body. He was a blank slate underneath, both naked and unseen, and in that moment he could imagine himself any way he wanted.
He thought of his body over the course of his life existing in several stages: there was when he was young and new and unscathed by war, first a child and then an awkward pubescent before finally rounding out his figure just before hitting adulthood. Then there was the war, an environment that made exceptional demands on a body that had previously only had to deal aggressively with schoolyard bullies and occasionally keeping Steve in check. Then came the Winter Soldier: the arm and the enhancements and the separation of most conscious thought with what he physically did. To spend any time with your body not truly being your own was a horrifying prospect in any capacity, but to be brought back from the greatest pain of your life and dismemberment and the brink of death only to be refashioned into a murder puppet…well. Finally there was post-Washington, a period of many months trying to reacquaint himself with free will. He’d taken up exercising full-time, partly to help ground himself in independent movement with no interference from a controlling outside source. Reminding him that both his body and his mind were his own. Well, mostly. Triggers and reflexes still existed that made him do things he didn’t tell himself to do. But in his book, recoiling from arm grabs and snapping out the occasional punch were preferable to being sent off on a killing spree, and were ultimately a step in the right direction. Certainly not ideal, though. He knew he could do better. Had to do better.
There’s nothing normal about this.
Regardless of the parallels between himself and Steve, augmentation of their bodies and extended periods of time being frozen, Bucky knew that he was completely alone in the world in his experiences with his body. The other Winter Soldiers were dead in Siberia, and even if they weren’t, Bucky was still the only one with a cybernetic limb. He flexed his metal fingers under the water. Own the arm, he reminded himself, own the arm. In the old days, Bucky had been rather vain about his figure. Strapping young lad, always a hit with the ladies and the men alike. For a while he’d wondered if battle scars would make him look, well, apparently the word these days was “cooler.” But now that he had them, he wasn’t so sure. He reached over and touched the abrasions on his left shoulder. Would he get rid of them if he could? It was then that Bucky realized something that should have been painfully obvious this whole time: if he was going to accept his body as a whole, both the organic and the mechanical, why should he reject the connective tissue? He drew in and breathed out a long, contemplative breath, puffing his cheeks out and drawing his mouth into a straight line. Starting from his shoulders and working his way down to his feet, he did a full-body stretch dragging his fingers along his skin under the water.
This was the body he had. And he was making an executive decision now that this was the body he wanted to keep.
There was a knock at the bathroom door.
“Bucky?” Steve called from outside.
“I finished those leftover ribs but I’m pretty sure I’ve still got sauce on my face. Can I come in and use the mirror?”
“Sure thing, man.”
Steve entered, sporting a few reddish-brown smears on his cheeks and one on his nose. Taking stock of himself in the mirror, he picked up a washcloth and ran it under the tap.
“You couldn’t’ve just used a wet napkin in the kitchen or something?” Bucky asked, reaching to take another gulp of beer.
“I did,” said Steve, wiping his face down, “but that just moved some of it around a bit.”
Own your body, Barnes.
“Sure you didn’t just want to come in and see me naked?” Bucky quipped, cocking an eyebrow. Steve cocked an eyebrow back.
“Now why would I do that?” Steve replied. “I do try to respect your privacy, Buck, but it’s not like it’s anything I haven’t seen before. Besides, looks like you’re already covered.” In the heat of the moment and a return to flirting form that Bucky had thought long-faded, he had half a mind to invite Steve to come in and join him. But then he remembered that that would involve full-body skin-on-skin contact. It’d been decades since the frigid apartment in Brooklyn, even since the empty barracks before the train, but it was still firmly on Bucky’s mental List of Things to Relearn. Hey, he’d been going on about his own body acceptance, so wasn’t this as good a time as any?
“Also,” Steve continued, “sometimes you have to face the fact that your initial assumptions are wrong, and you need to stop and take a good look at yourself.”
The sudden Deep Profound Wisdom jolted Bucky back to reality. “Jesus, Steve, it’s barbeque sauce, not moral dilemma…sauce. And you missed a spot.”
Bucky gestured for Steve to come closer. He leaned down. Closer. Leaned down more. Bucky popped up and planted a dollop of foam on Steve’s nose, sloshing a bit of water out of the tub. They both smiled.
“Cute,” said Steve, going back to the sink and wiping his face again. He draped the washcloth over the edge of the sink, pausing for a moment before turning back to Bucky. “Did they…let you take baths?”
“Not as such,” said Bucky. “I got hosed down occasionally, but it was mostly chemical spray. Had to relearn how to wash my hair in Romania.”
“When was the last time anyone washed your hair?”
“Oh come on, I haven’t done that bad a job with…”
“No, I mean really.”
“Not…not since Brooklyn. You were good at it, I remember that.”
“I might’ve lost my touch, though,” Steve chuckled. A pause.
“I wouldn’t mind deciding that for myself,” said Bucky. Steve’s eyebrows elevated slightly.
“Yeah, just like old times.”
Steve reached over to the shower caddy and picked up the bottle of Bucky’s shampoo, returning to the head of the tub and settling himself on his knees. He squeezed out a handful and asked, “Ready?”
Bucky nodded. “Go for it.” Steve smeared the shampoo over the top layer of hair before digging in with his fingers.
Steve had gotten really good at striking the perfect balance between light and firm, albeit this had to be on the firmer end of things. Bucky closed his eyes and gave himself permission to drift a bit, to let go of the tension while reminding himself, you’re being cleaned. Clean is better than dirty. Help is better than alone. Practiced hands—yes, Bucky would absolutely back that description despite Steve’s statement to the contrary—worked his scalp before threading through his locks, then bunching it all up into a foaming ebony mass and giving it a good crunching.
“You are…” Bucky breathed through the…okay fine, he could totally count this as “bliss”… “not wrong about that moral dilemma sauce.”
“Initial assumptions and looking at yourself.”
“Speak English, Buck.”
Bucky opened his eyes just to roll them and sigh. “I’m trying to say ‘you’re doing a great job, Steve’.”
“Thanks, I’m glad this works out. Which reminds me, how’d that movie night with Sam go?”
“Jesus, that blew up in my face.”
“He showed me this boxing movie from the ‘80s, so it was about two Americans and a Russian punching each other. I tried to get back at him by looking up ‘sad bird movies’ and found this one called Fly Away Home. Allegedly there was a wing-clipping scene, but we didn’t make it that far before I had to stop.”
“How bad was it?”
“Car crash at the beginning. Kid’s mom dies.”
Bucky felt Steve pause for a few moments before saying, “I’m so sorry,” and resuming his scrubbing.
“Don’t be,” said Bucky. “I brought that one on myself.”
Steve withdrew his hands from Bucky’s hair and rested his elbows on the edge of the tub. “I know you’re probably tired of hearing this,” he began, “but not everything is your fault.” Bucky scoffed.
“I chose a movie for petty revenge without checking to see if it had any of my big triggers,” he said. “I did myself one hell of a disservice and I am owning up to that.” Steve crooked a corner of his mouth up.
“Well, fair enough,” he said. “There’s a hell of a lot worse ways to feel better about yourself.” Bucky’s gaze was distant.
“Like…” he continued, “…remember that first kiss after Wakanda? We’d just gotten here and you kissed me on the cheek. I wiped it off right away because the moisture felt weird. But I felt bad about it so I tried kissing you properly. That…sometimes I feel like these days I’m a detriment to us. Because I can’t give you everything you want, not yet.” Steve’s half-smile had drooped considerably, as had his eyebrows. He reached out a soapy hand, Bucky gave him a small approving nod, and Steve put a reassuring grip on his partner’s shoulder.
“You don’t need to apologize for anything you’re not ready for,” he said. “And if you’re worried about what I want, what I want is for you to feel like you again. Don’t worry about anything else.”
Bucky reached over to put his new hand on top of Steve’s before giving half a chuckle, smiling, then pursing his lips and saying, “Goddammit, Steve, you and your sappy-ass speeches.” He looked down and broke into a proper grin. “Seriously, you’re gonna make me cr…wait, I’m just getting soap in my eyes, hang on.” He removed his hand from Steve’s and took a breath, ducking back under the water to scrub the suds out of his hair. Reemerging, he wiped his eyes and blinked back at Steve. “Are we good?”
“Are you good?”
Bucky shrugged. “Getting there.”
Steve smiled. “We’re good.” He rinsed his hands off in the tub and stood up, striding over to the towel rack to dry himself off. “How is that stuff Natasha recommended, by the way?” Bucky pressed his forefinger to his thumb in a certifying circlet. “Great, leave some for me.” He reached for the door.
In Bucharest, Bucky had not spent a lot of time naked. It was pretty much just showering and that was it. If he had needed to bolt at a moment’s notice, he had to have clothes on as constantly as possible. On this night, Steve had fallen asleep hours ago and Bucky was still lying awake. It had taken him a while to get used to the prospect of wearing however little he wanted to bed instead of always snoozing in sweats and his shoes. Steve was facing away from him and gave no indication that he could be roused, but Bucky still wanted to remove himself from their bed first before attempting his…experiment. Scooting over to the edge, Bucky slowly swung his legs off the bed and got up to pad over to the second bedroom. He closed the door behind him and got on the bed, laid back in a moment of preparation, and then leaned forward to slide his briefs off. Lying back against the headboard, Bucky waited a minute for his eyes to adjust to the dark, aided only by the faint moonlight outside. Then at long last, he looked down and beheld himself.
“Hey there, old friend. Sorry it’s been so long.”
A man who had both had and enjoyed sex and was proud of his body…going nearly seventy years without masturbating. That had to be some kind of record.
Bucky’s hands had only come in contact with his dick lately when he needed to pee. Actually spending proper naked time with himself hadn’t happened in a very long while. Even during that first week when this was his bedroom alone, Bucky hadn’t jerked it. He hadn’t really seen a reason or had a need to. But in regaining his bodily autonomy more completely, certain urges had returned. In the old days, handjobs and mutual masturbation had not been uncommon between Bucky and Steve, but the former was keen on reacquainting himself properly with his own junk before reintroducing the latter to it. Bucky reached down with his right arm and took himself in hand, tracing his fingers around his neglected cock. With a bit of thumbing at his slit and languid stroking, he felt himself begin to stiffen. Okay, this was off to a good start.
Now, what to think about?
At that moment, Bucky wished the room had a computer. If there was one thing people seemed to be pretty into these days, and something that allegedly existed in large quantities for free, it was “Internet porn.” On one hand, Bucky wouldn’t mind trying some of that right about now. On the other hand…well…filthy hands. He could be a pretty dirty fellow, but sometimes a guy’s gotta draw the line at possibly getting semen on something that other people used. Unless that something was shared bedsheets. That was different. Well, he’d gotten by on pure imagination before, so for now that would have to do. Sometimes it did have its advantages, too. Sexual fantasies versus actual sex allowed for scenarios where you didn’t have to worry if you messed up or someone touched you wrong or anything like that. Thusly reassured, Bucky set to work wondering what he’d want Steve to do to him.
Steve and sex had…taken a while. Not for lack of trying, though. Steve was definitely interested, but the actual act came with a boatload of fumbles. Still, Bucky could tell that his almost hilariously awkward boyfriend was generally more comfortable around men than women, although he did manage an attraction for both. Honestly, if there was one thing about Steve that impressed Bucky even more than successfully upgrading from a punchy shrimp to a full-on superhero, it was balancing Bucky and Peggy during the war. Steve had to have skill even where he wasn’t always willing to admit it. Speaking of skill, Bucky thought, didn’t he used to be really good at sucking me off? He decided to take that thread and run with it.
Playing with himself with a dry hand while envisioning a blowjob was not exactly what Bucky would call ideal. He tried picturing it even harder: Steve’s hot wet mouth around his cock, tongue stroking the underside, some gentle tickling teeth at the root, Bucky’s hand in Steve’s hair urging him on…Steve’s hair was already pretty damn luxurious and that feeling along with getting his dick sucked was a combination like chocolate and marshmallow as far as Bucky was concerned. Still, what he wouldn’t give for some decent lubricant right about then. When the pre-cum began to drip out of him, he smeared it around in an attempt to alleviate the dry friction. Very little such luck. He even took a minute to work up some saliva which he spat into his right palm. A little bit better…? In the interest of experimentation, he even had a go with his new hand. He was in pain and cursing himself within ten seconds. Bucky made a mental note: if he ever attempted that again, for christsake use the full glove that he used to wash his hair to keep anything from getting caught. The fingerless glove, he now knew the hard way, was not enough to keep exposed grooves in the metal from yanking out a few pubes. After another minute or so, Bucky stopped and considered his options. Yet another minute found him rummaging through the cabinet in the bathroom, looking for some kind of cream or lotion. Moisturizer? That looked promising. Might even be a balm to his stinging crotch.
If Bucky had to do a pillow scream these days, it was always because of a nightmare. He hadn’t had to deal with a mouthpiece in several years, and he never wanted to again. But as it turned out, moisturizer on damaged skin might have necessitated one. Because Christ on a cracker, Bucky could’ve almost sworn someone had set his genitals on fire. He’d been punched, kicked, shot at, crashed helicopters, and generally taken a lot of pretty heavy punishment over the years, but never to his nether regions. Waddling gingerly back to the bathroom as quickly as he could, he yanked the showerhead off its hook and tried to wash himself down.
cold coLD COLD JESUS TITS BARNES you couldn’t’ve WAITED a second before the WATER heated up oh god that’s better okay hold the shower with your left hand we don’t wanna rip ourselves bare down there okay now gently ow ow ow oW OWOWWOW don’t get it in your urethra do nOT get it in your urethra jeeeeeEEEEEEZUS AHHAHHH AHHhhh ahhhh okay…okay I think it’s coming off…ohhh crap Barnes are you crying again? Hey, don’t sweat it, grieve for your dignity and the suffering of your dick. This was supposed to be a fun time and then it hurt. You’ll do better next time.
After patting himself down with a towel, Bucky returned to the bedroom to put his briefs back on before heading to the kitchen to make himself a warm compress. Sitting down on the couch, he nestled the balm between his legs and tried to breathe properly again. The warmth helped him establish equilibrium between his crotch and the rest of his body. Bucky wound up falling asleep on the couch, to be awakened in the morning by a rather confused Steve.
“Bucky, are you alright? What happened to you last night?”
Bucky’s lips tightened. “…Let’s just say I had an accident.”
Sometimes the safeword was just “no” or “wait” or “stop.”
“I promise I’ll let you know if you do anything that makes me uncomfortable,” Steve said. “Quite honestly, I doubt I’ll need to.”
Where exactly Steve had gotten the idea that being allowed to openly explore the mostly-naked bodies of others would ultimately help the former Winter Soldier be more comfortable engaging in physical contact, Bucky wasn’t sure. It made sense to him, though. For so much of his life, physical contact had been defined by pain and violence. To use a blanket term, aggressive non-consensual touch. Being invited to touch someone was a privilege that Bucky respected considerably, but he still had misgivings. It wasn’t like he and Steve hadn’t gone All the Way before, but this felt not unlike only playing with your best friend’s toys when you were playing together and then to have a day when they presented you with their entire playroom and said, “go for it.”
“Is this foreplay?”
Steve opened his palms in a mild shrug. “Not if you don’t want it to be.”
The two men were sitting on their bed facing each other in their underwear, legs crossed, knees not quite touching, illuminated only by a lamp on one of bedside tables and narrow shafts of light from the setting sun outside that peeked through the slats in the window blinds. Bucky had a knot in his stomach. What if it felt weird or different?
“I just hope I do this right.”
“Bucky, I have faith in you. You’ll do fine. And remember, we can stop at any time. You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.”
“Yeah, I just…” Bucky averted his gaze slightly. “I don’t want to let you down, Steve.”
“You won’t,” said Steve. “Besides, you shouldn’t do this for me. You should do this for you.”
Bucky wanted to do this.
He clapped his right hand to Steve’s shoulder. “Alright,” he said. “I’m ready.”
Steve threw a glance at the hand on his shoulder. “Looks like you’ve already started.”
Bucky smiled back and then shifted to a face of concentration. What next? Take it slow. You’ve got all the time in the world. Bucky trailed his fingers down Steve’s smooth front, stopping for a minute at his left breast. Splaying his fingers out a little, Bucky placed his palm flat over Steve’s heart. The heartbeat was strong, lively. Bucky decided to stay there for a while, taking in the rhythm of another living being, one who offered him his body and soul. Steve let Bucky touch his heart and, dammit Barnes, you can ponder how deep this is later. Don’t get weepy when you’ve just got started. Continuing, Bucky went lower, tracing the outline of the bottom of Steve’s impressive pecs. He slowly dragged his hand up and down the perfectly toned bumps and grooves on his partner’s stomach, feeling Steve breathing, his abdomen rising and falling gently in a calming cadence. Bucky noticed a slight increase in breath intake when he moved his hand lower, close to Steve’s waistband. Steve’s face changed as well, eyebrows lowering and eyes closing. He liked this. So did Bucky. Withdrawing his hand, he made a mental note: do more things that elicit positive reactions. But first he wanted to try something else.
Bucky raised both hands and put them on Steve’s shoulders, moving down and caressing his biceps. It was like touching warm, smooth rock. Christ, no wonder he was able to hold down that helicopter. Steve made a small sound when Bucky ran his thumbs over the crease under his elbows, something between a giggle and a snort. Another mental note: remembering where Steve’s ticklish spots were. Bucky brushed lightly under Steve’s forearms, lifting them up before reaching his hands. They held their palms together, spreading their fingers in unison. No words, just looking into each other’s eyes. Bucky pressed gently into each of Steve’s fingers, starting with the thumbs and working his way out to the pinkies. A slight shift, and they intertwined their fingers together.
Leaning in a bit, Bucky brought the hand on his right to his lips and kissed it softly. Then the hand on his left. Finally he put both sets of hands down to their sides and leaned his whole body forward. Wrapping his arms around his partner’s waist, Bucky buried his face in Steve’s chest and inhaled deeply. This was meant to be a sensory experience, so that should include smells. Steve Rogers did not, as the jokes went, smell like freedom or liberty or what have you. He’d had a workout and a shower that day, so at the moment he smelled more like soap. Oatmeal soap, with a faint whiff of residual sweat. To be fair, it wouldn’t surprise Bucky at all if an America-themed soap existed somewhere, but if it did, Steve didn’t wash with it. Bucky lay there for a few minutes, just breathing in the man he loved. He had half a mind to ask Steve to hold him, but he wanted the other man to hold to his passive agreement just a little while longer.
Moving down Steve’s chest, Bucky found one of his nipples and began kissing at it. There was that increased breathing from Steve again, and Bucky had to resist quipping, you like that? Finishing off with a single lick, Bucky moved to the other side, made the briefest of smirks at Steve’s other nipple, and blew a hard wet raspberry into it.
Steve launched himself backwards, falling flat on his back against the bed and stammering out between laughter, “Bucky…w-what…was tha-at?”
“What, am I not allowed to have fun with my favorite old toy?” Bucky grinned, resting on his hands and knees over him.
“It-it’s not that, it’s…GAHHAAH,” Steve barked as Bucky blew into him again, this time on his bellybutton. “Je-esus, Buck…!” The corner of Bucky’s mouth turned up in a mischievous smile and he dove for the crooks of Steve’s elbows, tickling them fiercely. Steve laughed uproariously as Bucky went wild on him, tickling him in his worst spots as fast as Bucky could remember them: crooks of the elbows and knees, armpits, his sides just above the hipbone. Wherever Bucky found his hands, he found a place to either kiss Steve or blow another raspberry. It looked like he was enjoying this, too. Bucky kept an eye out for any attempt by Steve to stop him, which didn’t happen until a while after Bucky had expected.
“Okay, okay…that’s enough…stop…!” Steve snickered, putting his hands up and trying to catch his breath. Bucky sat back and admired his handiwork. That was…that was actually really fun. Forget my state, when the hell was the last time Steve had a laugh like that? “You…wow, you really went for it.”
“Maybe we both needed that,” Bucky replied.
“I think what I need right now,” said Steve, “is a little payback.” Bucky spread his arms.
“Ask and ye shall receive.”
Steve raised an eyebrow at him. Bucky raised both eyebrows and nodded. Steve pounced.
The next moment, they were a frantic ball of scrambling fingers and kisses and manic revelry. Hands and lips and energetic chortles were damn near everywhere as decades fell away and two boys from Brooklyn were mashed together in their most fierce display of love since 1944. They ended up on the floor, Steve on top, Bucky mostly bare and exposed to him, riding out the last of their laughter. Bucky reached up and put his hand in Steve’s hair—god, the man had unbelievable hair—and ran his fingers through it. The feeling of those silky strands on his skin again helped center him, brought him gently down from the high of their hands-y escapade. Bucky guided Steve’s head down until they were touching foreheads. They stayed there in that state of wordless bonding for minutes before Bucky said, “Hey, I love you but I’m beat. Let’s go to bed.”
They didn’t have sex, and that was okay. What was less okay was that Bucky still couldn’t sleep well.
He had a lot of nightmares about running. Sometimes they were the ones where you tried to run but your legs wouldn’t move, or you could only run in slow motion. This was a slow motion nightmare, and also one where he couldn’t scream or close his eyes to block out the horror. He was stuck in chamber full of blood and gore, trying to run for an exit that didn’t exist. Gooey hands and tendrils began to leap up from the pulsating mass on the floor, coiling around his legs and winding their way up his body. Bucky tried to cry out for help, but all that escaped his mouth was a hoarse facsimile of words. He reached a hand to the ceiling, begging the universe or his subconscious or whatever to save him as a tendril clamped over his mouth. Then the glowing rope came. Seizing it with his outstretched hand, Bucky began to hoist himself out of the sinewy stew. Hand over hand, he worked his way out towards a hole in the ceiling, towards…what?
Bucky drifted out of sleep as the light enveloped him, finding himself safe in bed with Steve. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been properly held, lovingly cradled in Steve’s arms, chin resting on Bucky’s head like the reverse had been that night the heat was out in Brooklyn. He could tell Steve was awake, since the soothing hand running through his hair hardly seemed like an involuntary sleep motion. Bucky decided not to alert Steve to his own woken state, though, opting instead to just lay there and let himself be comforted. He did, however, take advantage of the arm thrown over Steve’s midsection to squeeze himself closer.
And tears fell. Because he was so happy, so happy, that he could finally do this again.
It was early afternoon and Bucky came into the sitting room to find Steve reading a book.
“What’cha got there?”
“P.G. Wodehouse. Remember him? He was the guy who wrote Code of the Woosters and all those other comedy-of-manners books about England and New York. He put out a lot of stuff after we went under. Thought I’d try catching up. This one’s Jeeves and the Tie That Binds.”
“Sounds kinda kinky.”
“…No, no, Buck, it’s not. That’s Fifty Shades. This is serial-monogamist gentlemen and their genius manservants and their wacky adventures. I’m almost finished, though. Just a few more pages on this one and then just one more book left. Or two, if you count that one someone else wrote a few years ago.”
“Ah. Hey Steve?”
“You ever wanted a really big cat?”
“Like how big?”
Bucky held his hand up just above his head. “Like this big.”
The corner of Steve’s mouth turned up. “Why do you ask?”
“Because guess what, you’ve got a really big cat.”
Bucky paced over to the couch and sprawled himself on it, stretching first and then curling up with his head in Steve’s lap. Steve gave a fond chuckle and put his free hand in Bucky’s hair, petting him and occasionally giving him loving scratches, only removing it to turn the page.
“Well, that’s it,” said Steve, closing the book a short while later. “Now I know what the ‘tie that binds’ is.”
“It’s basically this.”
Steve gestured to the two of them, cozy, enjoying each other’s company, just happy to be together. “This.”
Bucky looked up at him. “This” still had nightmares. “This” still involved past atrocities that could probably never be forgiven. “This” was still laying low. “This” hadn’t fully recovered. But “this” was getting better. “This” was on the road to recovery. “This” was a much better place than before. “This” had Steve, and Bucky was immeasurably glad to have a “this” with him.
“Yeah,” he said. “This. I like This.”