When Bucky comes back after the fall of SHIELD, it’s nothing like what Steve had imagined it would be. He’d imagined another rescue, like in Azzano, or maybe fighting side by side taking out HYDRA bases, or Steve finding Bucky wherever he was holed up or on the run and joining him. In his more hopeless moments, Steve thought there could be no end to this but another fight with the Winter Soldier, or Bucky dead by some HYDRA agent’s hand, or even his own.
What actually happens is this: while Steve is dealing with Avengers business (some small time criminals who’d acquired big time weapons scavenged from the Chitauri attack), and Sam is looking for Bucky, Bucky approaches Sam in broad daylight, hands him a flash drive full of intel on HYDRA, and says he’d like to come in now, please, as soon as Sam or the Avengers can guarantee he won’t end up being used as the Winter Soldier again. Bucky slips away after that, and Sam returns to Avengers Tower with the flash drive and the story, baffled.
“Can we do that?” Steve asks the team once the Avengers have assembled.
He’d like to think they can, but Steve’s not naive, no matter what Tony thinks. And it’s a carefully specific thing Bucky is asking for: not safety, not immunity, not a trial, not even his life. Only the guarantee that he won’t be used as a weapon.
Tony notes as much. “Not exactly dreaming big, is he? You’d think his list of demands would stretch to at least, ‘please don’t kill me.’ But yeah, I think we can do that.”
Natasha nods. “I’ve kept tabs on what’s going on with all the alphabet agencies since SHIELD fell, and to the HYDRA trials. Be grateful that the Russian and American branches of HYDRA never got along. The Winter Soldier’s a giant bone of contention between them, and given how many government higher ups have been implicated with HYDRA, it’s apparently a low-key international relations disaster. He got used on both sides of the Cold War, and everyone’s pointing fingers about it in the trials.”
“How does that help Bucky?” asks Steve.
“US wants to pin it all on Russia. They don’t know the Winter Soldier is Bucky Barnes, not for sure, but they know he was an American soldier. Some of the HYDRA guys have testified to that. So the US is saying: you took one of our precious war heroes and held him prisoner, used him to kill our people, how dare you, blah blah blah. Russia’s saying: American HYDRA bought the Soldier fair and square, and then you used him to kill our people, and your Secretary of Defense was his handler, we’re not okay with that blah blah blah. Basically, it’s a lot of politics that’s well above any of our pay grades,” says Maria.
Sam crosses his arms and frowns. “I thought a bunch of this testimony was supposed to be sealed.” Natasha and Maria just raise amused eyebrows.
“The point is,” Maria continues, “That the Winter Soldier is an international relations hot potato. Trying him would air a lot of dirty laundry on both sides. We’ve sent out feelers, no one’s excited about the prospect.”
“If trying him’s not on the table, then what is? Killing him?” asks Steve.
None of this seems like good news so far. What it sounds like is a good way for Bucky to be disappeared or crushed between the wheels and gears of the apparatus of the state, beyond the reach of anything approaching justice or fairness. If it comes to that, he’ll grab Bucky and run.
Tony shakes his head. “The anti-HYDRA task forces don’t want that. They’re desperate for more HYDRA operatives to give them intel instead of biting down on a cyanide pill. And your cyborg bestie has given us plenty of intel, with promises he can point to more. Plus, you may recall that Rhodey and I recently saved the President of the United States’ life. We’ve got some pull. We start kicking up a fuss about bringing this poor American POW in from the cold, people will listen.”
“Listen, Steve,” says Natasha. “I came in under not dissimilar circumstances. I think we can swing this, with Barnes not in for anything worse than the kind of debrief I had. It’ll take a bit of time to set up, and we’ll need to make sure Barnes isn’t dangerous, but I think we can meet his demand. Especially since his demand is what a lot of people already want.”
Steve sighs in relief. “Alright. Okay. So. What’s the next step? What can I do?”
“Before we go any further with this, we need to clear Barnes ourselves. Make sure he’s not hiding any nasty HYDRA surprises, that he really does just want to drop the whole being a cyborg assassin thing, that he’s, you know, mentally with it,” says Tony, which, fair enough.
“Agreed. But we need to find him again for that,” says Steve.
“He’ll find one of us,” says Natasha, confident. “You and Sam just go wander around the city conspicuously, he’ll get the message.”
So they do, and all the while Steve grills Sam about his interaction with Bucky: how had he looked, did he seem okay, did he remember, did he mention Steve, did he say where they could find him? Sam doesn’t have many answers for him: Bucky looked fine and he seemed calm, only a little nervous. He hadn’t said much of anything beyond requesting to come in, and apologizing to Sam for the fight at the Triskelion.
“That’s a good sign, right?” asks Steve.
“Definitely better than I was expecting,” says Sam, and then, thoughtful, “I asked what I should call him. He said to call him Bucky.”
Steve’s knees go weak with relief. He can second guess and obsess over everything else, but this seems like an unequivocal sign that Bucky’s okay. “Who the hell is Bucky?” the Winter Soldier had asked all those months ago: here’s the answer. It fills Steve with a crazed and desperate sort of hope. Maybe everything will be alright.
Natasha was right, Bucky does end up finding him. Steve’s been wandering around Grand Central the past couple days, partly on a hunch, partly because it seems like the best place to engineer a meeting: crowded enough to be able to disappear or remain unnoticed, but out in the open enough to feel safe for both of them. And the way Steve’s scouring the faces of the crowd around him at least seems mostly normal, in a place where so many people are waiting for loved ones to arrive. As on alert as he is, he still almost misses it when Bucky steps out of the rush of people coming from one of the platforms. One moment, he’s just another guy, tall and muscled and wearing the unremarkable modern uniform of jeans, a hooded sweatshirt, and a ball cap; the next, he lifts the brim of his cap to reveal the bright and sharp blue of his eyes, and Steve realizes he’s Bucky.
Steve has about a minute to devour every single detail about Bucky before Bucky gets within speaking distance. He should probably spend that minute thinking of what to say, but he doesn’t. Instead he observes the easy way Bucky walks, neither too rushed nor too slow, nothing predatory about it. He scours Bucky’s frame for any signs of an injury and doesn’t find it, finds only evidence that Bucky’s well in the breadth of his chest and the way his face has filled out some. The dark circles under his eyes suggest sleep has been harder to come by though, and Steve can read tension and nerves in his shoulders and in his restless hands, even if his face only has the look of vaguely hostile blankness endemic to the New York commuter. This isn’t the Bucky of last century, that’s clear enough, but he’s not the Winter Soldier either, and that’s enough for hope to seize Steve by the scruff of the neck and shake.
And then Bucky’s standing in front of him, and Steve thinks he ought to have thought of the right thing to say.
“Do you know me?” is what he ends up asking.
Bucky’s face and voice are both a deliberate and measured kind of neutral when he answers, “You’re Steve. I read about you in a museum.”
Steve lets out a breath that wants to be a sob, but then he catches the slight upward curl of Bucky’s lips and the brightness of his eyes, and it turns into a laugh.
“You’re such a jerk—”
Steve’s not sure which of them moves first, only knows that Bucky’s duffle thumps to the ground and a half second later, they’re holding onto each other. He’s still not entirely used to hugging Bucky in this body, still half-expects to be able to tuck his face against Bucky’s chest. Now he can slot in neatly where Bucky's neck meets his shoulder, where he can smell Bucky’s soap and sweat, where if he focuses his serum-provided hearing, he can hear the pounding of Bucky’s heart through the pulse in his throat. Bucky’s arms are tight around him, just this side of uncomfortably tight really, especially with the unyielding metal arm, but Steve doesn’t care. Bucky is alive and he knows Steve and he is warm and wrapped around Steve, and for just this brief moment, life is perfect.
Then Bucky finally pulls back and messy reality crashes in again, and Steve has to try to get his shit together because Bucky absolutely needs him to have his shit together if they’re going to come out the other side of this.
“Okay. I think me and my team can guarantee you what you asked for. It’s mostly politics, but Natasha and Tony seem pretty sure. They just want to clear you before we go any further, make sure you’re…you, I guess.”
Bucky nods. “Yeah, that’s fair.” Bucky shoulders his duffle again, and they start to make their way out of Grand Central, sticking close enough together that their shoulders keep brushing against each other. Steve wants to take hold of Bucky’s hand, and has to clench his fist to keep from reaching out. He’s not sure how Bucky would react to that in the best of times, let alone now.
They keep the conversation to the essentials: what Bucky can expect from the team, what the strategy is so far, such as it is, what assurances and proof Bucky can provide that he’s no longer on HYDRA’s leash. When they’re just about to enter the Tower, Steve stops Bucky.
“Are you sure about this? If you don’t want to come in yet, you don’t have to.” Steve swallows, but he owes this to Bucky. “I know I’ve been—chasing you pretty hard. But if you want me to stop, I will. If you want to go, you can.”
Bucky stops, considers Steve. There’s something both familiar and unfamiliar about the way Bucky’s looking at him. There’s the same frank no-bullshit appraisal that Steve grew used to long ago, only with a new cautious distance.
“Your mom, Sarah. There’s something she used to say: once you start running, they’ll never let you stop.” Bucky hesitates then, a question in his eyes and Steve nods. Yeah. His mom used to say that. Steve and Bucky are probably the only two people left alive who remember that. “I want to stop running. And I don’t want to fight.”
At that, Bucky sounds more exhausted than Steve has ever heard him. If aliens dropped out of the sky again right now, Steve would fight every single one of them, with nothing but his fists if that’s what it took, so long as Bucky wouldn’t have to do so much as clench his hand into a fist. Bucky doesn’t want to fight. Steve will fight every single war required of him to make sure Bucky doesn’t have to.
Except that Steve does not have to fight a war, he doesn’t even have to punch anybody, or smash any faces in with his shield. Instead, Tony and Maria deploy Steve as the modern, cut-throat politics version of a living and breathing propaganda poster. While Tony and Natasha make sure HYDRA haven’t left any nasty surprises with Bucky, Steve makes the rounds of various committee meetings and briefings, and Tony says his mix of judgey menace and noble sadness is “really very effective, like, shockingly so, stick with that,” so he does. Before he’d been packed off to do his part in assorted Washington DC conference rooms and offices, Steve had entertained wild thoughts of handcuffing himself to Bucky, especially once Natasha told him he couldn’t stay with Bucky for the assorted debriefings and examinations.
“You’re the epitome of too compromised, Steve. Leave this to us, to me. I promise, I won’t let them hurt him.”
And Steve trusts her, he does, but it’s still only Bucky’s request that keeps him from stealing a pair of adamantium cuffs from Tony’s armory to become Bucky’s rather literal ball and chain.
“Steve, I can’t do this if you’re constantly in the corner growling like the world’s angriest guard dog.”
So Steve lets Bucky go. Eventually, there’s nothing left for Steve to do, no meetings to take or testimony to give, because this sort of battlefield in the halls of power and bureaucracy is better fought by people like Tony and Maria and Natasha. He’s left hanging on status updates and assurances that Bucky’s fine, that Natasha hasn’t left his side, that things are going well.
“Are you sure none of the people involved in this are secretly HYDRA?” Steve asks Natasha one night during their daily status update.
“I’m sure. C’mon Rogers, this’ll take just another week.” Steve stews in silence and grips the phone a little too hard. It creaks. Natasha sighs. “Clint owns a building in Bed-Stuy. He’s having some issues with some mafia guys. Go help him, if you can take time out of your busy worrying schedule.”
That feels like a busy work assignment, and it is judging by how unconvincing Clint is in his claim that he needs some help to deal with it, but Steve goes anyway and runs off some tracksuited guys. He doesn’t even get a chance to get any punches in, they just run away. Once that’s taken care of, Steve has little to do other than pace his apartment and work out or run with Sam, and worry about worst-case scenarios. There are a lot of them.
He packs, gets a bag ready to go just in case. If things go south, he wants to be ready. If things go south, he’ll bust Bucky out and they can go on the run. The thought makes Steve equal parts thrilled and anxious. Once you start running….but Steve doesn’t care. He’ll run for as long as it takes so long as he can keep Bucky, so long as Bucky’s safe.
Finally, finally, Bucky is allowed to come back to Steve for good. Steve, who until the very last moment had been prepared to grab a go-bag, break Bucky out, and make a run for it, finds himself abruptly at a loss. Everything is settled, smoothed over: the Winter Soldier remains a ghost, and James Buchanan Barnes is brought back to official life under about a dozen layers of CONFIDENTIAL and NEED TO KNOW ONLY, released to the Avengers under some weird form of witness protection and pseudo house arrest, all agreed to by Bucky. He’ll work with the anti-HYDRA task forces on intelligence analysis and tactical consults as he can, and he’s not to leave the state without prior clearance, but otherwise, he’s free to recover and do as he likes so long as what he likes involves no violence of any kind. This is perfectly acceptable to Bucky, and apparently a huge relief to assorted intelligence agencies and world governments.
When Natasha brings Bucky back to the Tower, where Steve has been pacing a groove into his apartment’s carpet waiting for them, she looks tired but relieved. Steve scrutinizes Bucky, alert to any signs of injury, not that any would show. He’s wearing clothes not dissimilar to what he’d been wearing when he’d gone in for his lengthy debriefing: jeans, a long-sleeved henley and sweater, covered up from neck to feet. He looks exhausted, with dark circles under his eyes, but the set of his shoulders is more relaxed than Steve’s seen it since he came in, and he smiles a little when he sees Steve, a smile that’s more in his eyes than anywhere else, but it warms Steve straight through anyway.
“Everything went about as well as it possibly could have,” Natasha says as Steve ushers them both inside. She fills Steve in on the official details and requirements of Bucky’s release, which ultimately boil down to, “make sure the Winter Soldier doesn’t go on a rampage, and if he does, it’s on the Avengers Initiative.” As she talks, Bucky roams the apartment, exploring.
“This is your home?” asks Bucky at one point.
“It’s where I’m living now, yeah.” That’s something of a dodge, Steve knows. But he’s only been in the Tower for a few months, off and on, and never longer than a couple weeks consecutively. “Tony has apartments set up for all of us, and with everything going on, I don’t—this is my home base, pretty much. Been living more or less out of a duffel bag since the fall of SHIELD, otherwise. Missions, y’know.”
“And looking for me.”
“Yeah.” Bucky nods, goes to poke around the bedrooms. Steve lets him.
“So that’s it? We’re free and clear?” Steve asks Natasha.
“As close to it as it gets.”
“What now?” Steve’s aware he sounds a little lost.
Natasha smiles, her rare gentle smile, the one with no sharp edges or secrets. “That’s up to you. And him,” she says, and gets up on her tiptoes to press a kiss to his cheek. “He’ll be alright, Steve. Looks like he’s done a lot of the hardest parts already.”
Then she calls out a goodbye to Bucky and leaves, and Steve’s left with Bucky, uncertain just what the hell he’s supposed to do now, joy and apprehension warring inside of him. He goes to Bucky, who’s in Steve’s bedroom now, frowning at the go-bag and shield set on the floor in the corner by the door.
“Bedroom across the hall’s yours, if that’s okay. Is there anything you need, or, are you alright, is everything—”
“It’s fine, I’m fine. What’s this?” Bucky tips his head towards the go-bag.
“I, uh—” he swallows, considers a lie and discards it. He lifts his chin up instead. “What’s it look like?”
“Looks like a go-bag to me. You planning on going anywhere?”
“Not now. But I thought—if things hadn’t gone so good. Was gonna bust you out, go on the run.”
Bucky tilts his head, his brow furrowing in confusion. “Together?”
“Yeah, Buck. If you’d have me. Seems like you weren't doing too bad, on your own.”
Something flickers across Bucky’s face, unreadable and fast, before he settles back into that watchful stillness. He’s so still, now. It’s not the nervy, edgy stillness of the war, when he’d barely been able to unwind from the tension of hours-long stints in sniper nests and foxholes, it’s something new. Steve wants to learn every new thing about him. It feels like Steve’s eyes are starving for him, like he can’t get enough of looking at him, at the new breadth of his chest and shoulders, his soft, long hair, the familiar cloudy skies blue-gray of his eyes. If Bucky’s in the room, Steve can’t look at anything else. Bucky’s lips curve into a very small smile.
“Where would we go?”
“Anywhere. Hell, ride the rails like hobos, like we talked about as kids—” he falters. He doesn’t know if Bucky remembers that. He doesn’t know what Bucky remembers.
“That’s not much of a plan. Some tactical genius you are.” Steve smiles back at him, shrugs. When it comes to Bucky, Steve can only throw himself into the fight, and hope desperately for the best. It’s mostly worked so far. Then Bucky says, a little uncertain, “Can I—I want to sleep.”
“Yeah, of course, you’ve gotta be tired, just—I’ll be here. If you need anything.” Bucky nods, retreats to his bedroom.
Steve expects him to maybe wake in time for dinner, but he doesn’t and Steve leaves him be, figures he must need the rest. He listens at Bucky’s bedroom door though, just in case. His super soldier ears let him hear the much-missed sound of Bucky’s breathing, slow and deep. He goes to bed himself, but when we wakes, Bucky’s still asleep, and there’s no sign that he woke in the night. Steve goes for a run, and comes back, and Bucky’s still sleeping. Steve goes over some reports, sends some emails, and yet, Bucky’s still sleeping. By late afternoon, Steve’s about to panic because it’s coming up on a full twenty-four hours since Bucky went to sleep, and it doesn’t seem like he’s woken at all, when he hears the water running in Bucky’s bathroom. Half an hour later Bucky comes out with wet hair, in sweats and a t-shirt, and heads straight for the kitchen.
“I, uh, left you a plate last night. And also a sandwich today. They’re in the fridge.”
“Thank you,” says Bucky, and proceeds to eat all of it and more besides.
“How’re you feeling?” ventures Steve.
“You slept a long time.”
Bucky gives a small nod, eyes on the kitchen table. “Couldn’t really before. Can now.”
“Alright. I’m glad,” says Steve.
There’s more he wants to say, about a million things he wants to ask, about how Bucky’s doing, really, what he’s been doing since the helicarriers fell, what the debriefing had been like, what he remembers and what he doesn’t. Used to be, he and Bucky could talk like they were having one long conversation that only had the occasional interruption, picking up like they’d never stopped, whether the interruption had been hours or days or the long months of the war. Now it seems like the long and involuntary icy silence of decades is too much to overcome just yet.
Bucky gives him one of his new, small smiles that mostly lives in his eyes, and gets up from the table to go back to his room. He comes out again though, with a well-used notebook and a pen, and sits down on the couch to write. It’s a familiar sight, recalling Bucky doing his homework when they were kids in Brooklyn, and then Bucky writing to his sisters during the war. There’s the same serene concentration, broken by the way Bucky occasionally chews at his lower lip, or looks off to the side apparently lost in thought. He still taps his pen against the page too, like when he was briefly stumped on some math problem or another. Steve makes a show of sitting at the kitchen table with his laptop, like he’s doing work, but mostly he’s just watching Bucky. After a while, Steve can’t contain his curiosity.
“Who’re you writing to?” he asks. He doesn’t remember Bucky ever writing anything but letters, after they got out of school.
“Myself,” answers Bucky.
Steve’s not sure what he means. A journal? A diary? To-do lists? “I’ve got a notebook too,” he says, awkward. “Just lists of things to look up. Stuff I missed, all this future stuff, you know.”
“I’ve got another notebook for that,” says Bucky, but doesn’t elaborate. He stays until the sun sets, writing the whole time, then he yawns and stretches, says good night, and goes back to his room, and the cycle starts again.
For the whole next week, Bucky’s asleep for something like twenty hours out of every twenty four. At the next Avengers meeting, Steve asks the team about it. He’s about this close to calling Dr. Cho, and he says as much.
“Awww, Bucky Bear is hibernating,” says Tony, seemingly unconcerned.
Sam frowns though, looks a little worried. “He eating? Does he seem depressed?”
“He wakes up, eats a bunch of food, writes some in his notebooks, then goes right back to sleep. He seems fine when he’s awake. Quiet, but fine.”
As quiet as Bucky is now, it’s not really a worrisome sort of quiet, even as new as it is for Steve. He’s clearly capable of talking, and he asks Steve about his day, listens with evident interest. If he doesn’t talk much himself, well, there’s only so much a man can say about how his night and most of the day of sleep went, and it seems neither of them is willing to break the seal on any heavier discussion. At least Bucky doesn’t have any nightmares, as far as Steve can tell. If it weren’t for all the sleeping, and Bucky’s newly laconic approach to talking, Steve wouldn’t worry much at all. Bucky still smiles at Steve, seems comfortable sharing space with him. He’s present, near, in every way, though they haven’t touched beyond brushing past each other since that first desperate hug. He’s just also sleeping more than a cat, and talking little more than one.
Sam relaxes and Tony snaps his fingers. “See! Hibernating!” Steve rolls his eyes, but it’s starting to sound like the right word.
“Maybe he just really needs the sleep, Steve. Did you ask him about it?” asks Sam.
“Yeah, got a total of five words about it out of him. He said he couldn’t before, but he can now.”
“That means he feels safe,” says Natasha. “Give it time.” She squeezes Steve’s arm with a smile on her way out of the conference room.
“Oh.” That makes him feel warm, warm like the first burst of sunshine on his face after a cold snap. Bucky feels safe. That’s good. That’s what Steve wants.
Tony turns serious. “Cap—” he hesitates, exchanges a quick look with Sam before Sam nods at them both and slips away to leave Steve and Tony alone in the conference room. “Part of what your bestie handed over to Sam were some more detailed files on the Winter Soldier project. That’s stuff we didn’t hand over to the feds, just to Dr. Cho.”
“Okay.” Steve crosses his arms. The earlier warmth fades, like a cloud has passed over the sun. “What was in the files?”
“You don’t want to know most of that. But what you might need to know is that—” Tony stops, clearly considers his words, which is enough to worry the hell out of Steve. “That serum-provided neuroplasticity and neural regeneration are impressive, downright miraculous, even, if you don’t know the science. By all rights, your hunk of defrosted beef should be a freezer-burned vegetable, because HYDRA basically zapped around in there willy nilly and they didn’t exactly have some advanced understanding of the brain. So his poor fried brains still have some healing to do. Sleep’s the brain’s way of doing that.”
“It’s been nearly a year since he got away from HYDRA. Serum healing works faster than that, even for brain damage.” Steve had taken a nasty hit to the head a couple years back, bad enough that it would have killed anyone else, or left them permanently disabled. He’d been unconscious for three days, had a headache and slept a lot for a week, and then he’d been fine.
“Yeah. And he’s got a hell of a sleep debt,” says Tony, the line of his mouth grim. “Leave it alone, Steve.”
“What, time spent frozen doesn’t count?” jokes Steve weakly. Tony’s seriousness has him off balance.
“Sleep deprivation is a form of torture. HYDRA used it. HYDRA used every method. So. Let him sleep, Cap.”
Steve feels the blood drain from his face. “Those files—”
“No. You’re not reading them, Steve.”
Tony’s not being dismissive, not messing around. He’s holding Steve’s eyes, and not in the kind of challenge Steve is used to from him, or even with the condescension that rankles so badly. He’s reminded instead of the somber look Colonel Phillips had given him, when he’d said your friend is most likely dead.
“Tony, he’s my friend. What right do you have to—”
“What right? Cap, you brought a recently brainwashed assassin under my roof, the Winter fucking Soldier. Who, by the way, probably killed my parents!”
Steve flinches, remembers Zola in the bunker, the clippings of Howard’s death that Zola had thrown on the screen, taunting. “How do you know?”
Tony sighs, runs a restless hand over his hair and face. He looks old for a moment, with deep unhappy lines around his downturned mouth. “Say something for your BFF, he doesn’t beat around the bush. He told me. While I was checking his arm for any unwelcome surprises. Said he didn’t remember much, but he thought he had, and he was very sorry and would understand if I wanted to kill him, or kick him out. It was all very polite and he looked me in the eye and everything. Did you know?”
“Zola showed me a couple things in that bunker, but it wasn’t exactly conclusive.”
Steve had told himself he could wait to tell Tony when he knew for sure, one way or the other. He maybe hadn’t tried so hard to get that certainty. Now Steve swallows, feeling bile rise up, his stomach roiling with the churn of guilt and horror and grief. He squares his shoulders, clenches his fists, readies himself for a fight. It wouldn’t be the first time Tony’d taken a swing at him, and he can take him, in the suit or out, can hold him off at least—
“I’m sorry, Tony. We’ll leave, we can—” Tony cuts him off with an impatient swipe of his hand.
“C’mon, did I not just spend the past few weeks making sure our favorite decommissioned Terminator didn’t end up tossed down a very dark hole or shot in the head or whatever? Unlike apparently everyone else on this team, I do the reading. Lucky for your guy, I did it before he dropped his little bombshell. I know what they did to him.”
“Gonna go all Inigo Montoya on him?”
I understand that reference, thinks Steve. Probably not the time to say it. “Yeah.”
Tony gives him a mirthless, wan smile. “No, Steve. I’m not.” What? Sheer surprise makes some of the fight leave Steve’s clenched fists.
“Why not?” asks Steve, voice very small.
Tony turns away to fiddle with something on the conference room’s sideboard table and clears his throat, rattles off a little speech fast and staccato. “What would be the point? He was just the gun, and he didn’t even want to be that. It’d be one thing if he was some mercenary or terrorist, but I read the fucking files. I spent some quality time with the toilet, and then the punching bag, and then with Bruce, and—” Tony turns back to Steve with his jaw clenched. “He’s under my roof, isn’t he? So let’s never talk about it again, and focus on burning all of HYDRA’s goddamn heads off.”
“Alright. Thank you.” Tony waves him off.
“You’re the only one on this team with something approaching clean hands, Cap. Well, you and Wilson, even if he’s insisting he’s not an Avenger. The rest of us are all on second chances, or third. Barnes has a better reason for his second chance than some of us. I’m not the kind of monster who’s willing to take it away from him.”
When Steve gets back to the apartment, Bucky is still sleeping. Steve listens at his bedroom door, eases the door open. Bucky’s fast asleep on the bed on his stomach, half out of the covers, flesh arm shoved under the pillow. His hair is pulled back, but a few pieces have escaped to lie against his cheek and forehead. He frowns and stirs a little when Steve comes in, but it’s like some part of him knows it’s Steve because he stills again and stays asleep. Watching Bucky sleep takes some of the fight out of Steve, which is maybe part of why he’d come in here in the first place.
For just a minute, he’d been so ready for some kind of blowout with Tony. They don’t get along at the best of times, and “I think my best friend killed your parents while he was brainwashed, sorry I didn’t tell you about it,” is far from the best of times. But then, it seems Tony’s at his best in the worst circumstances.
He wants to know how that conversation between Tony and Bucky went though. He’d gotten in the elevator, adrenaline still pumping, before he’d realized that Tony hadn’t said. For a second, the stifled readiness for a fight wants to find an outlet in Bucky. How could Bucky have just come out and said it to Tony, when things were so uncertain? How could he have taken the risk that Tony would react badly and hurt him? And when he was in such a vulnerable position too, with Tony examining his arm? Steve can’t tell if it was idiotically brave of Bucky, or some form of self-sabotage, some guilt-induced desire for punishment. If Bucky were awake, maybe Steve would have gotten into it with him about it. But he’s not, he’s sleeping, he’s resting because he finally feels safe enough to, he’s asleep and vulnerable with Steve in the room with him, but he hasn’t woken. The trust of that, unconscious as it may be, is enough of a miracle that Steve’s anger drains away, leaving only a sort of pained wonder and curiosity. What had Tony and Bucky said to each other?
Steve sits on the floor beside Bucky’s bed and wonders. The familiar sound of Bucky’s breathing lulls him into a sort of waking doze. If he focuses, he can hear Bucky’s heartbeat, and that too is familiar, from nights spent propped against a sitting Bucky, good ear pressed against his chest, when Steve’s lungs had been struggling and his heart had been stuttering, Bucky’s big, warm hand stroking up and down his back like that would help the congestion in his lungs, or coax them to take in more air. When even breathing had been exhausting, Bucky’s steady and strong heartbeat had seemed like a talisman to keep Steve’s own heart pumping. Follow Bucky’s lead, Steve would plead with his unruly racing heart. Slow down.
Steve thinks it’s maybe a couple hours later that Bucky wakes, too suddenly for Steve to attempt to beat a quiet retreat.
“Steve? Everything okay?” asks Bucky, voice rougher than usual. He’s already sitting up, brow knit in worry.
“Yeah, everything’s fine. I just—needed to see you. Sorry. I’ll just—”
He gets up and makes a hurried exit from Bucky’s room, goes to the kitchen to make something for Bucky to eat. Bucky has yet to express a preference, just eats whatever’s ready in the fridge or what Steve sets in front of him, doesn’t even mind the gross calorie and protein-loaded shakes Steve has taken to making him since he realized Bucky was basically only going to be awake for one meal a day and he needed to make the most of it. Steve realizes he hasn’t eaten yet either, so he makes himself a couple sandwiches too, and is on the second one when Bucky comes out, murmuring a thank you before he starts eating his own food.
When he finishes, he looks at Steve, frowning. “You had a meeting today. What happened?”
“Nothing, it was fine.” Bucky raises his eyebrows, and Steve caves. This is probably a conversation they ought to have anyway. “Tony said you think you killed Howard and Maria Stark.” Steve’s not sure what he’s expecting, but Bucky just meets his eyes, calm and still, though it’s a more careful stillness than usual now.
“I was—worried, I guess. About Tony’s reaction. He didn’t say anything, but I know he’s got a temper—”
“That’s what you’re worried about? Not that I killed one of your friends?” Bucky’s words are sharp and incredulous.
“It wasn’t you. Howard and Maria, any of the others—it wasn’t you, you didn’t have a choice. Not really.” Steve doesn’t have to dig deep for that conviction. The sky is blue and the two plus two equals four and Bucky didn’t choose a single thing about being the Winter Soldier.
Bucky’s expression is still calm, but the pain and awful acceptance in his eyes are hard for Steve to see. “I know. But I did it.”
“What they did to you—”
“I know what they did to me,” interrupts Bucky, harsh. “It doesn’t change what my hands did.”
“Is that what Tony told you?”
“No, Steve. I told Tony, and he just stared at me, said ‘Huh. That makes sense,’ and left. Next time I saw him, he asked me if I knew who’d ordered it, why, and I told him what I could.” Bucky’s lips twitched into a grim smile. “Then he said I’d fit right in, on account of all the murdering and death I felt really bad about, and not to worry about it. He’s…really weird, Steve,” confesses Bucky.
Steve laughs, relieved. “Yeah. No argument there.” They share shaky smiles then, and Steve relaxes, only a little unsettled still. But it seems Bucky’s not done yet because he tilts his head a little and studies Steve, that same pain and terrible knowledge in his eyes.
“You gonna say it wasn’t me who shot you and beat you nearly half to death?” asks Bucky, and his voice is thick now with bitterness and self-loathing.
“Wasn’t the first time we’d thrown punches at each other,” says Steve, because it wasn’t. The fight on the helicarrier had been nothing like their youthful roughhousing, but Steve’s trying to lighten the mood here, and failing, judging by the way Bucky recoils.
“Don’t, don’t, I could have killed you—” Bucky gets up from the kitchen table to pace away from him.
“You didn’t take a headshot. You don’t fucking miss, sure as hell not from that close, and you didn’t take a headshot.” Bucky just turns and glares at him, but Steve glares back. “I’m fine. Don’t borrow trouble. And you or not you, you clearly weren’t really in your right mind, Buck. You need forgiveness for that, you’ve got it. Anyway, you pulled me from the river.”
That’s what matters to Steve. That’s the hope that carried him through these months of searching and worry, through the horror of finding out what HYDRA had done to Bucky. Sam and Natasha had thought he was crazy, but ha, guess who’d been proven right. Bucky stops his pacing, presses the heel of his hand to his forehead.
“Did we—we fought before. Before the helicarriers.”
“Yeah. On the bridge, in the city. It’s alright, you didn’t hurt me. Do you not—”
Bucky gives a violent, full-body shudder, doubles over and gasps, and Steve’s out of his seat just in time to catch him as he crumples.
“Bucky? Are you okay?” He fumbles in his pocket for his phone, ready to call Dr. Cho, but Bucky’s straightening again already, and Steve guides him over to the couch, kneels in front of him.
“I’m okay, it’s okay. I just—remembered.” Steve peers at his face, worried still, and Bucky’s gazing into the middle distance with hazy eyes before he snaps back into focus and looks at Steve. “You said my name. The mask came off and you said my name.”
“Yeah. Yeah, Buck, I said your name. You didn’t seem to know it, or me.” It had been nightmarish, sent Steve out of his head, as if worse than a world in which Bucky was not alive, was a world in which Bucky looked at Steve and didn’t know him.
“I knew you,” Bucky says, vague. “But they wiped me again, and then I didn’t.” And there it is, the itch in Steve’s fists, the rage filling him like air filling the bellows, but there’s nowhere to blow it out into, no fire to stoke up.
“It’s okay. It’s over now,” he tells Bucky, which feels entirely inadequate even if it’s true. Bucky lets out a noncommittal sort of hum at that. “Is it like this whenever you remember? Do you want to see Dr. Cho?”
He shakes his head. “I’m fine. Only like this sometimes, now.” He closes his eyes and lets out a heavy sigh. “Go ahead. Ask.”
“Ask what?” Bucky opens his eyes again and gives him a don’t bullshit me look. So Steve concedes and asks, “How much do you remember?”
“A lot. Doesn’t mean I’m the Bucky you remember though.”
Steve nods, because it’s true. He’s not getting the Bucky from before the war back and he knows it, has known it since the march back from that HYDRA factory, when he’d realized he didn’t recognize the look in Bucky’s eyes: the new hardness there, the deep wounded look. Steve had hoped it would ease, but it never had.
“Am I the Steve you remember?” He doubts he is. Sometimes Steve thinks that only the soldier, Captain America parts of him fully thawed after the ice. Sometimes it feels like Steve Rogers stayed frozen.
Steve smiles, and he knows it looks like it hurts, because it does. “But you’re still here.”
“Yeah.” Bucky’s mouth twists into something too knowing to be a smile.
“There you go then.”
Soon enough Bucky starts sleeping less, down to a more normal if still excessive for a super soldier eight to ten hours a night. Bucky settles into a loose routine: four mornings a week, he works on analyzing HYDRA intel. Steve lurks around the Avengers command center the first few days Bucky does it, to see how he’s doing, until Maria banishes him back to his office for being too distracting, and also, creepy.
“Have you lost your sense of object permanence, Rogers? He will still be here if you’re not looking at him, stop being a stalker,” says Maria.
Steve gives her the Captain America face of disapproval, but she’s unmoved. He leaves Bucky with her in the command center. Bucky was doing fine anyway.
Twice a week in the afternoon, Bucky sees a therapist. She’s quite possibly the most thoroughly vetted therapist in history, a no-nonsense but kind-eyed older woman who used to be a nun. Steve asks Bucky if he likes her, if therapy is going okay, and Bucky says it’s fine. He comes back looking pale or thoughtful sometimes, and always more quiet, but that’s all.
Bucky works out in the Avengers gym a few times a week, and sometimes Steve joins him. Steve offers to spar, and only gets a very definite and final “no,” in response, so Steve leaves Bucky to the weight machines and punching bags. He watches Bucky’s broad back and shoulders, alert to any signs of distress, and doesn’t see any. All in all, it doesn’t seem too different from how Steve had spent his first few weeks after being thawed out, only far less lonely, and apparently better adjusted. Also, no alien invasion.
Bucky’s always back in the apartment in the early evening, in time for dinner, and he and Steve pass quiet hours together like the old men they are, Bucky writing in his notebook or reading, while Steve doodles or works on crossing something else off his modern life list. They don’t talk much. It feels a little like punishment for every time Steve had wished for an overly chatty or rambling Bucky to just be quiet. For a few wild moments, Steve feels intensely jealous of Bucky’s seemingly endless series of notebooks, the recipient of the majority of Bucky's words nowadays.
Steve tries not to obsess over what Bucky does with the rest of his time. It doesn’t work. Whatever it is he’s doing, it seems good for him, and it must be outdoors, because the scent of grass clings to him when he gets back. Sam’s the one who finds out where Bucky spends his time, by chance when he shifts his run with Steve to an afternoon solo run one day. Sam sends him a photo: Bucky, lying on the grass in the sunlight, eyes closed. It must be Central Park, since that’s Sam’s preferred running destination when he’s at the Tower. Bucky’s on his back, one arm up over his head, the other thrown wide beside him, glinting in the sunshine, and his knees are drawn up, so he’s likely not asleep. There’s a book on his chest, a bottle of water next to him on the grass. It’s not an artful photo or anything, just a slightly blurry snapshot from a few yards away. It’s still beautiful. Bucky’s beautiful. He’s lying in the full and warm light of day, at ease, and the fact of that is a gift Steve has never known how to thank the universe for. Bucky’s alive. The knowledge makes him weak at the knees and breathless with gratitude. He knows the cost was terrible, but Bucky’s alive. He is out there in the sunshine, right now, and his heart is beating and he is alive. He’s the miracle of a third chance, when Steve had stupidly taken the second for granted, and hadn’t even known what to do with the first.
Sam sends a text a couple minutes later: bucky says hi! Followed by another photo, from close up now, of Bucky squinting up at the camera, hand up to shade his eyes from the sunlight falling bright on his face, grinning a little. Steve stares at the photos for too long, saves them to his phone in a daze. Wild gratitude beats in his chest.
Bucky and Sam come back a little under an hour later, slurping on smoothies, Sam chattering away. Bucky hands a smoothie to Steve with a smile, and for a fleeting moment, Steve can feel the heat of Bucky’s recently sun-warmed body against his own, can smell the grass Bucky was lying on, his clean sweat. If he could have frozen the moment, he would have, or he would have just held Bucky there for a minute, an interval of stillness where Steve could breathe him in more, could listen closely enough to hear the happy thump of his heart. But Bucky moves away, so Steve just smiles at him.
“Thanks, Buck. Central Park, huh? That where you’ve been spending so much time?” Bucky nods happily.
“There’s always prime people-watching in Central Park,” remarks Sam. “Though Barnes here seems to have been attempting a tan. Beach is a better place for that, by the way.”
Bucky does look a little more tan than even a couple weeks ago. Not tan like he could get back in the day, when they were kids and spent just about every daylight hour outdoors, but there’s a warmer cast to his skin.
“No, I just missed the sun.”
Sam raises an eyebrow at him. “It was here yesterday too. And the day before. Day before that too, though come to think of it, it was overcast then.”
“I know. But there was a very long time when I didn’t see much of it. Or of—outside. Green things. I missed it.” Bucky’s voice is calm and even, and he looks thoughtful and relaxed, like he’s remarking on nothing more weighty than the weather.
Sam looks very briefly gut punched before covering it with a smile. Steve wants to scream, or cry, or pluck the sun from the sky for Bucky. Steve wants to blow up every single dark HYDRA bunker that had imprisoned Bucky away from the reach of the sunlight that so brightens his face now. Instead he slurps on his smoothie and tries to swallow it past the lump in his throat.
“Well, you can catch up on all that Vitamin D now,” says Sam.
Sam quietly takes to shifting a couple of his runs to the afternoon permanently, and Steve makes the shift with him so they can join Bucky in the park. Bucky doesn’t reject their company, instead he just situates himself at the end of their preferred running route and obnoxiously directs the glare of the sun into their eyes with his metal arm as his way of getting their attention. They always flop down next to him for their cool down, and poor Sam has to carry the better part of the conversation, because Bucky seems content not to talk, and Steve’s too busy watching Bucky to make more than perfunctory contributions to any conversation.
Bucky’s not doing anything particularly interesting or notable to justify Steve’s attention. He’s beautiful, yes, but Steve ought to be used to that, at this point. He looks different now, a little older, a little more careworn. Yet time has only ever rendered him more lovely to Steve, taking him from baby-faced sweetness to sharp-jawed young manhood to now, stubbled and dangerous looking until you got the look in his eyes to soften, or coaxed a smile out of him, or caught him in a moment like this one, when his eyes are closed and his face is relaxed with contentment. Steve supposes he pays more attention to Bucky’s face, his body, now that Bucky speaks so much less. He’s trying to learn Bucky’s new language.
He finds it surprisingly easy, so when Bucky squints one eye open with his head tipped towards Steve and one side of his mouth curving up, he knows what Bucky’s wondering: drawing me in your head again? Steve just grins a little and shrugs, unabashed. Maybe. Bucky’d long since grown used to Steve sketching him, could usually tell when Steve was itching for pencil and paper. Steve could draw versions of this scene, Bucky basking in sunlight, at every age from seven to now, and every version would be equally beloved. He doesn’t know if Bucky can read that on his face. He can surely read something there, because Bucky wrinkles his nose at him and reaches out for Steve’s wrist to tug him down to lie on the grass fully. Stop thinking so hard. His hand is warm on Steve’s wrist, thumb on his pulse, and it feels like Steve’s heartbeat is leaping up to pound happily against the touch. He lies down next to Bucky, and looks up at the sky, blue and perfect.
“Did y’all just have an entire conversation without saying a single word?” asks Sam, standing over them now with his hands on his hips, a disbelieving expression on his face.
Steve laughs, and—miracle he had scarcely dared to pray for—Bucky does too, a brief but bright burst of sound that Steve hasn’t heard in decades. If he could have, he’d have cupped the sound in his palms like sweet water from a well, he’d have swallowed it down as if he were dying of thirst. Instead he turns his face into Bucky’s shoulder to hide the sting of sudden tears, and Bucky brings his metal hand up to cup Steve’s head, thumb stroking briefly across the line of his jaw. The shaky breath Bucky lets out says Steve’s not the only one abruptly affected.
Steve’s heart beats faster, too much gratitude and love to fill its four chambers. Bucky’s heart is as steady as ever, the metronome by which Steve has measured his life, and Steve tries to match it again.
Later that week, while Bucky’s at therapy, Steve rearranges all the furniture in the living room, moving Bucky’s favorite couch so it has the room’s best light, for the longest. It takes some doing to end up with an aesthetically pleasing arrangement that nonetheless maintains clear sightlines to the door and windows, but eventually Steve manages it.
When Bucky walks in, he blinks in surprise and asks, “Am I in the right apartment? What’s all this about?”
“Just thought a change would be nice,” says Steve.
But with one circuit of the reconfigured room, Bucky sees just what it is Steve’s done, and why. He doesn’t say anything, only rolls his eyes at Steve. He does take advantage of the couch’s better natural light though, and that evening while they’re eating dinner, he murmurs, “You didn’t have to, Steve, with all the furniture, it’s too much trouble. I’m not a potted plant that needs the perfect positioning to avoid wilting.”
Steve snorts at the comparison, briefly imagines a green and leaved Bucky. Maybe he’ll draw a potted plant Bucky, it would probably make Bucky laugh. He shakes the thought off, meets Bucky’s eyes. “It’s not any trouble. Honestly, I’ve been meaning to. It was all laid out like that when I got here, and I never made the time to get it how I like it. And we can—we can get some indoor plants for the apartment. If you want.”
Bucky bites his lip, looks down at his plate. “I’d like that,” he says softly.
So the next day they go to a nursery, and pick out some plants. Bucky wanders the nursery with interest, brushing leaves and petals with curious and gentle fingertips, bending down to read the little placards that have care instructions on them. Steve follows him with the cart, scarcely able to take his eyes off of him and spare a glance for the plants. When Bucky asks his opinion on whether to get this or that plant, he can only say whatever you want, Buck, because it doesn’t matter, so long as Bucky looks like that, so quietly pleased by the simplicity of green growing things.
Eventually they end up in the orchid section, where Steve feels too large and clumsy among the thin, tall stems and delicate flowers. The orchids have an austere, sculptural sort of proud beauty, like each one is the centerpiece of its own museum display. Steve likes them. He picks out one of the white ones, lifts it carefully and puts in the cart beside the other houseplants Bucky has chosen. Bucky smiles at him, and picks out one more, one with a bright and curving spray of orange and red blooms.
When they get back to the apartment, they arrange all the plants according to where they’ll get the appropriate amount of sunlight, and only bicker a little over where the plants look best. The results end up somewhat mismatched, but Steve can’t deny how welcome the bursts of life and color the plants bring are.
Steve’s getting ready for bed that night when Bucky slips into his room and sits on the bed, giving him a thoughtful, soft look. “Thank you. For today,” he says. Then he looks down, chews at his lip a little. “You don’t have to….” He trails off, huffs out a frustrated breath.
Steve goes to him, kneels down in front of him to get a better look at his downturned face, hidden by his loose hair. “Hey.” Bucky looks down at him, tucks his hair back and grimaces. An apology for being unable to find the words. “It’s okay. Christ, Bucky, this is—this is such a small thing. Just some plants, because you like them. You’re doing so much on your own, I just want to help. However I can.”
It feels like a pathetically small thing to do, if Steve’s honest. Steve’s more or less a bystander when it comes to Bucky coming in from the cold. Steve fought so hard to not be seen as useless, to go after his miraculous opportunity to match his body with his will, only to find the limited utility of a near-indestructible body when it comes to the battles that really matter. If this were a fight, Steve would know how to have Bucky’s back. But it’s not, and Steve doesn’t know what to do but be here, and make what small contributions he can to Bucky’s happiness. It can’t possibly be enough.
“You’re helping,” says Bucky, so quiet it’s nearly a whisper. “God, you can’t know how much.”
Steve’s maybe getting an idea, based on the desperate wonder in Bucky’s eyes. It’s not unlike the look Bucky had given him when he’d been strapped down to that table in Azzano, though it’s not as if Steve deserves it just now. He hasn’t fought his way through an enemy base to get to Bucky, he hasn’t saved Bucky. Bucky seems to be managing that mostly on his own.
Bucky nods. “Yeah.” And then he darts in quick for a too-brief hug, just a fleeting impression of Bucky’s arms around Steve before Bucky’s up and gone, back to his room.
Steve’s left kneeling in front of his bed, and he grips the edge of the mattress, tips his head down, and thinks, please. As prayers go, it’s not much, but it’s all Steve can manage: an inchoate please tossed into the indifferent universe as his skin tingles like it wants to chase Bucky’s fleeting warmth.
“Food can taste better than this, I’m pretty sure.”
Steve glowers at Bucky over a plate of admittedly kind of bland but perfectly edible grilled chicken, rice, and vegetables. “You are, as ever, free to shut your mouth about my cooking and do your own if it’s not to your liking,” he snaps and shovels a bite of chicken into his mouth.
Steve’s been doing basically all of the cooking since Bucky’s come back. He mostly doesn’t mind it; Bucky’s got enough going on, and whenever Steve’s not in the mood to do it, he can grab some of the prepared meals or ready-made food from the Avengers’ common kitchen, or order takeout. What he does mind is Bucky complaining about his cooking, because that had gotten old in 1937. Back when they’d first moved in together, the bulk of the cooking had fallen to Steve, because that’s just how their schedules had worked out. Bucky was the one with a steady job, Bucky was the one who worked long hours. It only made sense for Steve to do the cooking and have dinner ready by the time Bucky got home. That Steve was not particularly good at cooking hadn’t mattered. They needed to eat, and they couldn’t always afford the automat. So Steve served up a succession of stews and soups, which Bucky ate with varying levels of appreciation, and any less than complimentary remarks had been met with a snarl and diatribe from Steve. A frequent theme had been I’m sorry I’m not a good little housewife, or it’s not like I’m forcing you to eat it, or do it yourself then. Bucky had usually rolled his eyes at this and joked about bachelor living while Steve had fumed.
Now, Bucky just blinks at Steve from across the kitchen table, frowning in confusion. “Sorry,” he mutters, and returns to eating.
Steve studies the sudden hunch of Bucky’s shoulders, his downturned gaze, and feels a sinking sensation in his stomach that’s pretty unconducive to continuing to eat. Steve just fucked something up, but he’s not sure what. This is the first direct comment Bucky has made about food. Since those first few days when he’d spent more time asleep than awake, he’s eaten whatever’s there, basically, and responds to Steve’s questions about what he wants for dinner with shrugs or anything’s fine. Steve, who mostly just eats to fuel his demanding body, hadn’t thought there was anything to worry about, since Bucky was eating plenty.
“If there’s something else you want to eat, you can, you know. Or I could make whatever you want. Well, I can try anyway. We’re past the days where I boiled everything into a stew and you complained about it.”
Bucky’s still not looking up, and he’s set his fork down. “I don’t remember that,” admits Bucky quietly, and Steve’s heart seizes with grief. “I didn’t mean—I’m sorry.”
Shit. Steve’s misread this situation. “What did you mean?” he asks, but Bucky just shakes his head, clams up. “Hey, it’s okay. Seriously, just tell me if you want takeout or something. Or we can go out, some nights, if you want?” Steve tries.
He’s trying to keep things casual, light, even though this is the first admission he’s gotten one way or another about something specific Bucky doesn’t remember. As often as Steve has wanted to ask do you remember when, he’s wary of making Bucky feel like he’s digging around for the Bucky-that-was instead of accepting the Bucky right in front of him. And it would only lead to sorrow for both of them if Bucky said he didn’t remember something, as they’d both end up in a feedback loop of being upset for each other. Kind of like they are right now.
“I meant—this is fucked up, probably. Just—food’s supposed to taste good, right? You’re supposed to—care about that? I’m trying to—” Bucky breaks off, looks up and sighs in frustration. “I didn’t notice before, it’s just—fuel. Meeting caloric requirements. But I think I used to?”
“You…don’t remember eating?”
Bucky gives him an exasperated glare. “I remember eating, Christ. But—” He stops, chews at his lip. He pokes at the food with his fork. “This doesn’t taste bad, but it could taste better, right?”
“Yeah, probably,” says Steve. He thinks he gets what Bucky’s driving at. “But maybe I’m not the person to ask. I’m mostly still in the food is fuel camp.”
The serum amps up his metabolism enough that the amount he has to eat, especially compared to his comparatively tiny appetite pre-serum, is more of a chore than anything else. There’d been something of a comfort in wartime rations; none of it had tasted good, really, but it had done the job and freed Steve from having to think about what he was shoveling in his mouth. Steve’s perfectly capable of enjoying a delicious meal. It’s just that flavor hasn’t been his first consideration in planning his meals for a while. Serum or not though, there’s no reason Bucky should feel the same.
“So this is just how you’ve been eating since you got thawed out.”
Steve shrugs. “Basically. Sam thinks it’s tragic.” More specifically, Sam thinks it’s the whitest shit imaginable, oh my god. Spices exist, Steve!
“It is, a little. I was on tasteless protein rations and nutrient slurry for decades, what’s your excuse?”
Steve’s not really sure he has one. “Didn’t seem worth the effort, I guess.” He laughs mirthlessly and offers, “There’s been a few times I’ve just eaten a whole jar of peanut butter, and called it dinner. So. I’m, you know, makin’ an effort for you, pal, with the whole meat and vegetables deal here.”
Bucky gives him a keen look for a moment, and Steve thinks he’s maybe given away a little too much about the grey days before Bucky’s return, but soon enough Bucky just rolls his eyes with a smirk.
“I appreciate that. But we can do better. I hear there’s this thing called the internet, and you can learn all kinds of things…” Bucky raises his eyebrows expectantly, still smiling a little.
“Alright, alright. Message received. You gonna be cooking with me?”
“Of course,” says Bucky, and a new routine is born.
Bucky picks a recipe gleaned from the depths of Youtube or some cooking blog, and when they’re both home in the evening, they set about making it together. Never anything too fancy, just things that expand beyond Steve’s admittedly bland repertoire to include herbs and spices in new-to-them combinations. They spend a full week exploring the various permutations of stir fry. One night Sam comes over bearing southern recipes he’d learned from his nana. Some nights, Bucky hasn’t had a good enough day to feel up to the task of choosing something to eat and making it, so Steve runs up to the Avengers’ common kitchen to grab one of the frozen lasagnas or pot pies that the Tower staff stock the kitchen with.
Whatever they’re eating, Steve can tell that Bucky’s making a real effort to taste it, to eat out of something other than mechanic necessity. Steve tries to do the same, but he has to admit, as good as the food is, most of his pleasure is in watching Bucky, in being near him. Apart from a few clumsy mishaps, they share space easily in the kitchen, touch casually, if in glancing ways: Bucky’s hand at Steve’s elbow, or Steve hooking his chin over Bucky’s shoulder to watch him make something on the stove. Little as it is, it goes to Steve’s head as if they were polishing off a bottle of wine as they cook.
Thankfully, apart from a few mild disasters, the food they manage to make is good. Bucky tastes just about everything like he’s tasting it for the first time, and hell, for a lot of it, he probably is. Steve loves to watch the pleased little glow that takes up residence on Bucky’s face when they’ve made something especially tasty, or when he tries something he likes. He even likes it when Bucky’s nose wrinkles in distaste at something that doesn’t pass muster. It’s like watching him in the sunshine in the park, Steve realizes. Bucky’s reclaiming something he’d maybe forgotten how to even miss. Watching that happen—helping that happen, feels like a precious gift.
One night, they give in to nostalgia and make stew, albeit a much richer and more flavorful stew than Steve had ever managed back in the day. Steve scowls over the pot, retroactively stung that this beef stew makes all his prior efforts seem like prison food in comparison. Bucky laughs as soon as he spots the look on Steve’s face.
“Oh, I remember that look. That look never boded well when it came to dinner.” Bucky comes up to stand beside Steve at the stove, and he bumps Steve’s hip with his own. “C’mon, let me try.”
Steve dips the spoon in the pot, brings it up to Bucky’s lips. He tries very hard not to fixate on Bucky’s still-smiling mouth as he tastes the stew. “Is it good? Do you like it?”
“Yeah, it’s—” he takes another taste, pink tongue darting out a little, and now Steve is definitely fixating on his mouth. “It’s really good.”
After a week of fitful and chilly rain, the park’s more crowded than usual when they return to it on the first day the skies have cleared. It’s early afternoon midweek, so it’s not exactly the teeming masses, but it’s still more people than usual. Steve’s not too bothered, even if it had made his and Sam’s running route a little more akin to an obstacle course at times, with them dodging strollers and excited dogs. Bucky is bothered. He’s trying not to show it too much, but his face is set in hard, tense lines and even lying on the grass as he is, Steve can tell Bucky’s shoulders are stiff and tight with discomfort. Steve suspects it’s taking all his effort to not be scanning the crowds in the park constantly.
“Wanna leave?” asks Steve.
Bucky just shakes his head. Sam takes that as his cue to launch into his latest update on the Harlem VA office’s support staff drama, where he’s transferred to despite claims of not being an Avenger, and where he’s slowly catching up to the office’s sordid tale of ill-advised workplace hookups, and engaging in banal battles with the copy and coffee machines. Sam always manages to spin it into a weirdly engrossing story, and Steve and Bucky tend to listen avidly, like Sam’s regaling them with a radio drama. Not even Sam’s storytelling skills can keep Bucky from flinching violently when a group of nearby kids starts shrieking. Their shouts make even Steve jump and whirl to make sure they’re not being murdered, but no, they’re just engaging in some sort of chasing game.
Steve turns back to Bucky to reassure him, and catches Bucky flinching again when one of the kids lets loose an especially high-pitched shriek. The piercing sound makes Steve grimace and reach up to cover his ear. Bucky, a little incongruously, brings a hand up to cover his eyes.
Sam frowns down at Bucky a little. “Your head hurt, Barnes?”
“No,” says Bucky, but he’s squinting when he uncovers his eyes. A new burst of shouts erupts from the direction of the kids and Bucky slams his eyes shut.
“You okay, Buck?”
“Yeah, it’s fine, it’s just—all this noise is too bright,” mumbles Bucky. Bright? Maybe he meant loud.
“I’d go tell those kids to use their inside voices, but they are outside. If they’re gonna holler, they might as well do it out here.” Sam sighs, looks down at Bucky. “C’mon Barnes, let’s head back. You did good sticking it out when there’s this many people around, you can tap out for now.” Sam levers himself up and offers Bucky a hand. Bucky scowls at him, but takes it.
Ah. So Bucky’s not just out here for his daily dose of Vitamin D. He’s trying to get comfortable with crowds again. Steve doesn’t know if it’s something his therapist has suggested or not, but he’s proud of Bucky just the same. Steve gets up too, bumps Bucky’s shoulder in an unspoken hey, it’s okay that gets him a weak grin back before Bucky squints his eyes nearly shut again at a new wave of shrieking laughter from the children.
“Maybe you oughta come out here with sunglasses, Buck.”
“Hmm. Or headphones,” says Bucky.
Sam gives Bucky a thoughtful look. “The kids screaming. You said it was too bright, not too loud.”
“Yeah, sound’s bright, sometimes, if it’s too loud or high-pitched.”
Steve frowns over at Bucky, glances at Sam. Sam just looks interested, and not nearly as confused as Steve feels. “You see sound?” asks Sam. Bucky stops walking, an uncertain sort of frown starting to trouble his forehead. “Hey, it’s alright, nothing’s wrong. You used to be able to do that? You know, before all this serum shit.”
Now Bucky looks into the middle distance. He has that chasing a memory look and Steve edges closer in case it goes like it had when he’d remembered the fight on the bridge in DC. “No? Or, I don’t think—” He breaks off and shakes his head.
“I’m a little lost here,” admits Steve.
“Nothing to worry about, seriously. Any other senses crossed, Barnes?” Bucky shakes his head. “Huh. Well maybe all that brain frying gave you a halfway fun side effect. It’s called synesthesia, where two or more of your senses kinda cross with each other. A lot of people have it, it’s no big deal. Mostly it’s people having mental associations of certain colors with certain numbers or letters. And I read something once about someone who can taste sound. It doesn’t bother you?”
“Oh. Uh, no, just when it’s loud like that. Or high-pitched, like I said.”
They start walking again, and Steve’s not sure what to say. Sam’s lack of concern means Steve’s not too worried, though now he’s scouring his memory for earlier signs of this. He’s noticed Bucky flinch at loud noises, of course, but that’s no surprise in any soldier returned from the battlefield.
“So you, um, see sound? How’s that work?” asks Steve.
“You know when you close your eyes and press on your eyelids? It’s kind of like that.”
“You can still see okay, right?”
“Yeah.” Well, that’s alright then. And it does sound pretty neat, if strange. Steve wonders what his voice looks like to Bucky.
Sam suddenly stops, gasping.
“What? What is it?” Steve looks around wildly, alert to any danger.
“Barnes. Music. Have you tried—”
Bucky rolls his eyes and starts walking again. “I’m working on it.”
“Okay, but who’s making your playlists, because you can’t rely on Steve for this, he hasn’t caught up to the times, and Natasha likes some weird shit—”
As far as Steve can tell, what Bucky means by “I’m working on it,” is that he spends some time every day lying on the couch in the sunshine with headphones on and his eyes closed, listening to music. And watching it, maybe, given this new seeing sound thing. Steve wonders a little if he’s in for a return to the days when Bucky’d kept the radio on non-stop, constantly humming along to the music, or moving with a sort of rhythm and bounce that suggested he was moments away from dancing. But Bucky seems to limit his new music exploration to listening with headphones on his phone, and the apartment remains mostly silent.
“You don’t have to listen with headphones, you know. There’s a speaker set up by the TV,” Steve tells him one night during dinner.
“I know. I like it better this way, helps me focus.”
“You need to focus on it?”
Steve’s admittedly not a big music person, but it’s never struck him as the sort of thing that demands focus. You either dance to it, or it’s pleasant background noise, or nowadays, you could work out to it too. Expressing such opinions had earned him a pitying head shake from Sam, but whatever, Sam had no appreciation for visual art.
“It just sounded like noise for a while, and it looked, I don’t know, confusing. But I could remember that it didn’t used to, it was just that remembering it felt like listening from another room, or watching someone else listen.”
“To be fair, a lot of modern music is just noise,” Steve jokes, and it earns him a grin.
“Now you sound like an old man, Rogers. And I like it, I think. Modern music. It’s different, but it’s good.”
So music has become yet another thing Bucky is carefully reclaiming. It’s a little like he’s stretching out into the limits of each of his senses, fully inhabiting them. He’s so careful about it, deliberate, patient in a way Steve has never been able to be. The closest Steve gets to it is in sketching or painting, and nowadays, he can scarcely settle himself long enough for that. He only manages it when he’s idly sketching Bucky, as if in the act of drawing him, his stillness and his patience come up through the lines of the page to Steve’s hand and up to his body, and not the other way around. Steve ends up in the gym a lot, trying to work off his restlessness. He schedules training scenarios for the team, and maybe he’s going a little overboard with them judging by the way the team groans. The training scenarios are necessary though, if they’re going to make any assaults on HYDRA together.
The only time Bucky betrays any impatience, any frustration, is after nightmare-riddled nights. He never screams or calls out; the only way Steve even knows it’s been a bad night is in the morning, when Bucky is tense and red-eyed, and more quiet even than usual. Steve tries to be gentle with Bucky those days, but Bucky bristles at it. When Steve calls Bucky back from getting lost in his own memories, tries to tell him it’s okay, Bucky just gives him a wounded, furious look.
“Don’t. Don’t tell me it’s okay. I spend a night remembering people I killed—” He stops, shakes his head convulsively. “It’s not okay, and it won’t ever be. Those people aren’t coming back to life. So don’t.”
So Steve doesn’t. He goes to the gym, and breaks some punching bags. He pores over reports, and plans assaults on HYDRA bases. He fumbles for some small measure of Bucky’s patience, finds it in the steady and even pounding of Bucky’s heart that he can only just hear, if he listens carefully enough. It’s almost enough to keep the restless itch in his muscles at bay.
When they’re making dinner one night, Bucky rummages around the refrigerator’s produce drawers with dissatisfaction.
“Can we get groceries?” asks Bucky.
“Yeah, sure, put in an order for whatever you need with JARVIS.” Steve pokes at the onions he’s sautéing. “You think these are ‘translucent’ yet?”
Bucky squints at the onions. “Sure. And no, I mean, can we actually go. Grocery stores still exist in the future. There a reason we have a robot order us our food?”
“What, like that doesn’t thrill you deep in your pulp-novel reading soul.”
Bucky grins and roll his eyes. “It does. I still want to choose my own fruits and vegetables instead of just seeing them on a screen.”
“So picky,” teases Steve. “Heads up, people don’t really haggle any more. But of course we can go. Actually, there’s a weekly farmer’s market nearby, we can go to that.”
They go the next week, and Bucky’s a little tense around the milling crowds at first, but he relaxes after a few minutes, and then he looks around with interest. They make a circuit of the whole market before Bucky zeros in on what he actually wants, which mostly seems to consist of every available variety of seasonal fruit. Fondness wells up in Steve’s chest at this evidence that Bucky’s sweet tooth remains unchanged. He leaves Bucky to his exacting selection of assorted fruits, and ambles along behind him, watching him with the shopkeepers. Steve knows the voluble charm of the old Bucky is unlikely to make a reappearance. That had been muted since the war, when its occasional reappearances had been strained and clearly effortful in a way Bucky’s glib charm had never been before. He’s curious what Bucky will be like with strangers now though. He hasn’t really had the chance to see Bucky interact with anyone outside the circle of the Avengers. Will he be quiet and closed off? It would be understandable. Will he be stiff and awkward, the way Steve had been when he’d first gone out in the world after coming out of the ice? Though hell, Steve is still stiff and awkward sometimes. Or maybe Bucky will be grumpy and curt, the way he used to be when he’d been pushed past the limits of his usual even temper.
The answer is none of the above. If Bucky’s old encompassing charm is no longer in evidence, it’s only because it’s turned into something sweeter and more focused. Where before he could have people fairly eating out of his hand with a broad grin and a minute of chatter, now he has people leaning in and smiling with nothing more than eye contact and his soft voice. Is it the smile that makes his eyes crinkle that does it? Or is it the way Bucky makes an obvious effort to meet their eyes, something shy in the deliberate way he does it? Maybe Bucky’s just innately likable, maybe there’s some inherent warmth and kindness in him that’s always going to draw people in, whether it’s loud or quiet. Whatever it is, it works, and more than one shopkeeper slips an extra fruit or two in his bag for free, urging him to come back next week and let them know how he likes it. It works on Steve too, makes him draw closer to Bucky. He wants to put an arm around Bucky, or hold his hand, but he settles for closing the distance between them until they’re close enough to feel the heat of each other’s bodies. Bucky doesn’t seem to mind.
He just turns to Steve with that smile in his eyes, and holds up a small, perfect wild strawberry.
“Here, try this,” he says, and Steve takes Bucky’s wrist in his hand to steady it, folds his fingers around Bucky’s wrist so he can feel his pulse, and bends his head to take a bite of the berry. A blush colors Bucky’s cheeks and his pulse jumps under Steve’s grip, and Steve feels himself flush in response as he releases Bucky’s hand.
“It’s good, it’s sweet,” says Steve.
Bucky’s smile blooms into a grin that takes over his whole face, that old boyish smile that’s all the sweeter for the new lines around his eyes. He reaches out to grab Steve’s hand and tugs him along after him.
“C’mon, there’s a stall with all different kinds of honey. I didn’t know there were different kinds of honey.”
Steve grins right back at him and holds on to his hand, squeezing tight. Neither of them lets go.
Bucky taking hold of his hand might as well have been a key unlocking the rusted lock of the box that holds Steve’s more than friendly feelings for Bucky. It was a battered box already, decades old and bursting at the seams, but Steve thinks he’s been keeping a good lid on it. He’s been watching Bucky a lot, sure, but Bucky’s been watching back. They’ll catch each other at it every so often, give each other apologetic half grins, but neither of them stops. For the sake of Steve’s pride, he hopes his utter adoration isn’t too obvious. On Bucky’s part, Steve can’t read anything in his gaze but a sort of pensive consideration, or sometimes the familiar warm affection of their younger days. They’re still relearning each other, Steve supposes, still reassuring themselves of the other’s presence.
Steve’s been relearning and rediscovering more than that. He feels a little like a teenager again, like the summer after he’d finally graduated from high school, when puberty had slammed into him, obnoxiously and embarrassingly late, and he could no longer pretend he had purely friendly feelings towards Bucky, not when he was desperately jerking off to thoughts of Bucky’s bare chest, his mouth, the way he turned sweaty and flushed after a long night in Brooklyn’s dance halls, the way his hands held girls as he kissed them, and finally, the distant and impossible fantasy of his hands on Steve. Steve had spent that whole summer and fall feeling practically feverish with lust, a five-alarm fire of a person. He’d wanted Bucky so bad, and he’d been so angry and terrified of that, because it wasn’t ever going to lead to anything good or safe for either of them, not back then. It had felt instead like a betrayal, Steve’s stupid body failing him in yet another way, tainting Steve’s one good thing, Bucky’s steadfast friendship. So he’d shoved the feelings down, fought them as hard he’d fought asthma attacks and nasty colds, and years later, when he was about to get the serum, he’d wondered: will it fix that too?
But he’d had Peggy by then, and there’d been a war on, and it had all been pretty thoroughly distracting. Steve hadn’t realized then that he was missing an already miraculous second chance. Steve hadn’t realized then how differently his calculation of acceptable risk would have been weighted, had he known what result it would end in. He knows now.
Now it’s his third chance, in a future where he could kiss Bucky on the street in broad daylight and not earn a second glance much less a punch for it, where he could marry Bucky. A future where he could love Bucky and want him, and no one who mattered would call him sick or wrong for it.
That alone would be enough to turn Steve into a desperate teenager again, aflame with wanting, but there’s also the reality of Bucky himself, the physical fact of him. It feels like Steve’s enhanced senses are a radio dial that’s always tuned to Bucky’s station. Nowadays Bucky moves too quietly to hear unless Steve really focuses, and then he can hear the slight mechanical whirring of Bucky’s left arm, and if he’s close enough, Bucky’s breathing, his heartbeat. And there’s all the staring, of course, only some of which is devoted appreciation of Bucky’s strong, muscled form.
No, what has Steve watching Bucky now like he’s the best and most fascinating movie he’s ever seen is not how attractive he is, but rather the careful and deliberate way he inhabits his body. Re-inhabits his body, maybe. Bucky had been in a prison within prison, his body bound in cryochambers and assorted horrifying restraints in grim bunkers and vaults, and a good portion of his mind severed from both itself and his body. Now that he’s free, he’s reacquainting himself with all of it: his body, his memories, his senses. That’s what all the lounging around in the sunshine is about, the shared dinners, the measured exploration of and pushing at his own boundaries. Even the therapy, which Bucky seems to approach with the hard-faced determination of a man about to climb a mountain peak.
Steve can’t begin to fathom the strength and bravery all this takes, and instead he’s left gaping at how beautiful Bucky looks doing all of it, a beauty that’s not in the power of his limbs or the handsome lines of his face, but in the still waters clarity of his eyes and the often open expression on his face. There’s something utterly naked and bare in the way thought and emotion register on Bucky’s face now, when he’s not making an effort to guard himself, and he rarely makes that effort when he’s with Steve. He’d always been expressive, but it used to be a little put on, part of his public face. Now it seems that Bucky doesn’t particularly have a public face beyond what Sam calls Bucky’s “resting murder face,” which isn’t quite openly hostile, but is fairly forbidding in its blank neutrality. It seems that’s the only mask Bucky’s willing or able to manage nowadays, because otherwise he doesn’t bother to hide and lets his face reflect whatever it is he’s feeling.
Steve thinks this ought to settle him, because isn’t it a sign of Bucky’s trust? Isn’t Bucky’s presence, safe and content and healing, what he’d fought and searched for, isn’t it enough? But it just makes him want, want things that seep up from under the bedrock of his consciousness into his dreams, which turn non-specifically pornographic with hazy and vague sensations of bare skin and heavy breaths and Bucky’s mouth, and Steve’s cock aching with desperate need. He wakes up to the messy results of wet dreams, still hard, and the touch of his own hand is both too much and not enough. Coming like that is like going to pieces, frustration and relief in equal measure, and he has to hold a tight hand over his own mouth to ensure he makes no sound that Bucky can hear.
However much and however badly Steve wants, he’s not putting that on Bucky, not now. Not ever, maybe. Steve’s pretty sure Bucky’s never wanted him that way.
When Bucky’s general existence isn’t driving him to unbearable heights of desire, it’s filling him with stunted and frustrated impulses to fight, to protect. It’s not that Bucky’s fragile, but the very openness that Steve finds so achingly lovely and precious seems delicate and raw, like new skin growing over a healing wound. The healing itself is evidence of strength and survival beyond Steve’s ability to entirely comprehend. The vulnerability though—that Steve understands, and he can’t think of anything to do for it but to protect it with everything he is. The only problem is, there’s nothing to protect Bucky from, there’s no one to fight.
The entire east coast has been effectively purged of HYDRA, those cells having been the first to start unraveling after the Insight disaster, and then the abrupt and total investigative focus on them thereafter. Plus, Steve and Sam had blown a lot of them up. So the sum total of things Steve has to protect Bucky from in and around New York consists of: being jostled in a crowd, sudden loud noises, and running out of blank notebooks to write in. Everything else, Bucky is handling just fine on his own, or with his therapist.
So Steve bugs Maria or Natasha about leads on a new HYDRA raid about twice a day (always when Bucky’s not with either of them, he’s not stupid), and for weeks they’ve had nothing but paperwork and analysis for him. He’s pretty sure Maria’s deliberately giving him the tedious and boring stuff at this point.
Steve’s drafted up dozens of plans for ops and raids, he’s pored over reams of documents and examined satellite imagery and security footage, but nothing’s actionable, not yet. Maria just sends back the plans alternately marked up with withering criticism and cheerful encouragement that Steve can’t help but read as being passive aggressive. Once, she sketches in a cartoonish and rough little cat hanging off a window ledge, saying “HANG IN THERE,” and Steve has to take a deep breath and walk right out of his office to the gym, where he demolishes three punching bags. It’s not nearly as satisfying as it should be. Steve really just wants to go fucking bash some Nazis’ heads in with his shield.
When Steve gets back early from a still-punishingly long inter-agency meeting on best practices for catching HYDRA moles, a meeting Maria had sent him to in her stead because she’s absolutely fucking with him at this point and is totally insensitive to Steve’s need to bash some Nazi heads in with his shield, he’s not expecting to see Bucky at the apartment. It’s a bright, balmy day out, and he’d figured that Bucky would be out in one of the city’s green spaces, basking, until the last of the light fades. But instead Bucky’s seated at the kitchen table, shirtless, left arm resting on the table. Some of the metal panels in the forearm are open to reveal the inner workings, and for a moment, Steve feels a violent lurch in his stomach like he’s walked in on Bucky with his flesh and blood arm flayed down to the bone. But Bucky’s expression is calm and intent as he directs a spray from the can he’s holding into the interior workings. There’s a brief hiss, then another; it’s a can of compressed air, it looks like. Maybe Bucky’s cleaning out the arm’s inside? Steve hadn’t known that was even necessary. There are some other tools spread out on the table near Bucky, a little pot of some lotion or liniment, and even a can of WD-40. Steve sits down across from Bucky to get a closer look.
“Hey Buck. That something Tony should be helping you with?”
Bucky looks up from his arm and greets Steve with a smile. “You’re back early. Did a meeting run miraculously short for once?”
“I ducked out early,” Steve admits. “The last couple hours were on budget stuff, they don’t need me there for that. Seriously, is your arm okay?”
“Oh, it’s fine. Just doing some maintenance. Stuff gets in there, gums up the works a little sometimes. It’s no big deal, really. HYDRA techs used to take care of it, obviously that’s not an option anymore.”
For a second, all the awful ways HYDRA had taken “care” of its soldier flare hot and punishing in Steve’s mind. He barely knows the half of it, and he’s listened to Tony for once and not sought out the rest of it. Maybe that’s cowardly of him. But he knows that HYDRA had never taken care with Bucky, had never taken care of him. It’s just a saying, Steve knows, a word choice Bucky likely barely gave any thought to. It rankles all the same, goads Steve into an anger that he’d have to be a monster to let out on Bucky. He needs to save his anger for the people who deserve it, for the people who treated Bucky’s body as a weapon. Steve has really got to find some HYDRA assholes to beat up.
Steve puts his head on his arms and watches Bucky. Bucky flicks his eyes up towards Steve, raising an eyebrow. Just gonna sit here and watch me? Steve lifts his shoulders in a shrug and raises his eyebrows right back. Got a problem with that? Bucky huffs out a little chuckle and returns his focus to the inner workings of his arm, sliding the forearm panels shut and moving on to the elbow joint. It’s a little like watching Bucky clean his guns, a comparison Steve feels guilty for even thinking of. Bucky’s left arm is his arm, not just a weapon. But Bucky has the same expression of distant, intent concentration as he did when he’d meticulously cleaned his sidearm or rifle during the war.
He lets his attention drift to the ropy and angry looking scarring at the seam where metal meets skin on Bucky's shoulder and chest. The skin is a little shiny with whatever lotion Bucky put on it. Steve frowns. Do the scars bother him? The skin does look sort of irritated. And it’s unsettling that there are even scars at all. Bucky’s skin is otherwise unblemished, and there’s plenty of it on display right now, smooth and inviting. The serum heals scars, and the evidence of it is all over the unmarked rest of Bucky’s muscled chest and torso, and on Steve’s own body. It hasn’t healed those scars by the metal arm though.
Bucky notices where Steve’s attention has settled and a grimace flickers over his face. “Not a pretty sight, I know.”
“Do they hurt? The scars?”
“The skin gets itchy and uncomfortable all around the metal. And it aches sometimes, where the metal’s anchored into the bone. Don’t make that face, it’s nothing to worry about. Dr. Cho gave me something for the skin irritation.”
“Is it ever gonna heal up entirely?”
Bucky tilts his head, considers it. “I don’t know. Guess I haven’t ever been out of cryo long enough to really know for sure if it can heal. It’s maybe better than it was.”
Bucky returns his full attention to his arm’s elbow joint, and after a few more minutes of poking around in there, he curls his biceps and flexes his arm a few times before nodding in satisfaction and sliding the open panels back shut. He rolls his shoulders, and all the plates of his metal arm ripple and shift in a wave, the mechanical equivalent of a shiver maybe, or goosebumps. Steve’s mouth goes dry. It’s wrong, so wrong, but the smooth movements of Bucky’s metal arm give Steve a thrill like watching Bucky cock a rifle, or twirl a knife. Bucky clenches and unclenches his fist, and the movement should be unwieldy, like an armored glove, but it’s graceful and easy. The metal plates on his hand are thinner and shift around less, and look almost supple, the wrist strangely delicate. Steve maybe daydreams some, contemplating Bucky’s hands and remembering the way his metal fingers had felt against Steve’s face that day in the park, so when Bucky finally looks up, apparently pleased with the state of his arm, Steve startles.
“Can I ask you a favor?” asks Bucky, worrying at his lower lip with his teeth a little. His eyes are wide, a little anxious.
“Anything,” answers Steve, and means it with what is possibly worrying sincerity.
“I can’t reach the back of my shoulder well enough to get this stuff on,” says Bucky, picking up the little tub of lotion. “Could you…?”
Steve gets up and goes around to Bucky’s side of the table, and Bucky gets up too, turning his chair around to straddle it and give Steve better access to his back. Bucky’s back is a clean canvas, apart from the line of scars where skin transitions to metal, and the little constellation of freckles just below the nape of his neck, which has been there for as long as Steve can remember. He only just resists brushing fond fingers over the freckles.
“Do I just put it on?”
“Tell me if I hurt you,” says Steve, and then he dips his fingers into the pot of lotion and starts to apply it gently to Bucky’s skin.
The scars are alternately smooth and rough under his suddenly over-sensitive fingertips, and Bucky’s skin is warm, almost hot. He goes slow, makes sure to cover every bit of scar tissue and ease Bucky into the touch that has him tensing up, maybe in anticipation of pain. Eventually Bucky relaxes with one long and shuddering sigh, and Steve murmurs the same sort of gentle encouragements that Bucky had to him, when his lungs had burned through another round of asthma attacks, or his crooked spine had ached sharply. If Steve knows anything of care, it’s only because of Bucky, and Steve’s ma.
Steve’s not too practiced at this, at taking care of someone. When he finishes spreading the lotion on Bucky’s scars, he’s loathe to stop touching Bucky, but he doesn’t know what excuse he can conjure to keep his hands on him, doesn’t know what else he can do to take care of Bucky in this moment. Bucky’s no help, he’s stayed silent through all of this, and he so rarely asks for anything. But Steve knows: he’s never done too well at taking care of Bucky. After Azzano, Steve thought what Bucky needed was to go on as if everything was normal. Before the war, Bucky tended to downplay his problems, and Steve had settled for distracting him. That’s not going to cut it now.
“Does it still hurt?” he asks, running his hand up from Bucky’s metal shoulder to his neck.
There are hard knots of tension there, and when Steve’s hand brushes past them, Bucky tips his head to the right with a stifled gasp.
“I don’t know, it’s tense, I guess.”
Steve presses his thumb into one of the knots and sets about trying to work some of the tension out of Bucky’s muscles. Bucky groans and rests his head on his arms on the back of the chair.
“Yeah. Yeah, can you—”
Steve’s no trained masseuse, but it seems simple enough to sweep steady pressure along Bucky’s tense muscles until they relax. Calm settles over Steve with the certainty that in this moment, he is doing the best possible thing that he could be doing with his hands. Well, maybe not best. Steve can’t deny that there are other parts of Bucky’s body that he’d like to be touching too, and he’s definitely going to be thinking about that tonight, when his hands will miss the warmth of Bucky’s skin. He’s thinking about it now, his cock stirring with interest. That shouldn’t be what this is about though, and Steve shoves those desires away guiltily.
Bucky just deserves some care, after so very long without anything like it. HYDRA had tried to burn and bury all the parts that made Bucky Bucky, had used the vessel of Bucky’s body in service of pain and horror. To Steve, that vessel is precious not just because it’s beautiful, though it is that, and always has been. What that vessel holds is infinitely more precious to Steve. But Steve can’t gather up all those intangible things that make up the whole of Bucky to keep them safe and loved. He can only do this: offer some care to the beloved body that holds Bucky, and hope it’s enough to mend some of what’s still hurting in him. In both of them.
After half an hour of Steve’s dedicated attention to the knots along Bucky’s neck and shoulder blades, Bucky’s gone utterly limp and loose, slumped over the back of the chair with his head buried in his arms.
“Does that feel better now?” asks Steve, and keeps his voice low in case Bucky’s drifted off to sleep.
Bucky just hums dreamily in response, and stretches forward over the back of the chair and towards the table, turning his head to direct a hazy and sweet smile at Steve, his hair falling over half his face. Steve brushes it back before he can think better of it, and Bucky’s eyes slip shut. Steve takes that as permission to keep stroking Bucky’s soft hair for a bit, and Bucky lets him, perfect contentment clear on his face. If Bucky were a cat, he’d definitely be purring right about now. Though Steve himself kind of wants to make like a cat and drape himself all over Bucky, skin to skin.
“Hey, you can’t fall asleep here, pretty sure that’ll undo all my hard work just now.”
After another luxurious, cat-like stretch, Bucky dutifully gets up and rolls his neck with a sigh of relief. “Thanks, Steve. That really helped,” he says, then puts on his shirt again, which is pretty disappointing given that Steve had just caught sight of the lithe cut of Bucky’s hips where his pants were riding low.
“Anytime, Buck. Seriously.”
Steve finally gets the call to suit up, Avengers assemble, one early morning sometime in the chilly and dark predawn hours before the sky starts to lighten. The Avengers’ assistance has been requested by an overwhelmed and outmanned Midwest FBI field office who have uncovered an extensive HYDRA compound that’s bristling with HYDRA agents. Steve really has to make an effort to not say fucking finally!
“Wheels up in two hours, Rogers. Briefing on the plane,” says Maria.
“Any idea how long this mission’ll be?” Steve asks her, already up and pulling his uniform out of the closet.
“No clue. Count on at least a couple days though, maybe even a week.”
Steve makes a skeptical noise. “Really? How long does it take to just blow up a HYDRA compound?” Not that Steve isn’t deeply attached to the idea of going in and breaking some heads, but he’s not going to turn down a good HYDRA base explosion. Maria sighs gustily.
“We’re not blowing it up, Rogers. And maybe make an effort to leave some HYDRA guys alive, we’d like to get some good intel out of this op.”
“Copy that. I’ll be on the roof at 0500.”
It only takes Steve twenty minutes to get suited up and ready to go, but he doesn’t head up to the Avengers command center or rooftop helipad just yet. He thinks about leaving a note for Bucky, decides against it. If he could be gone for as long as a week, he wants to see Bucky before he goes. As desperate as he’s been for something to do other than paperwork and meetings, he’s not thrilled about leaving Bucky behind. Bucky will be fine, he knows, and he’ll only be a phone call or text away. Still, Steve’s going to miss him, he knows it already. Hell, he’s already missing Bucky, and he hasn’t even left yet.
He creeps into Bucky’s room, and dithers about whether to wake him up or not. Bucky’s stirring a little already though, maybe pulled out of sleep by the noise Steve made earlier as he talked to Maria and got ready. Steve goes to kneel at Bucky’s bedside. He doesn’t want to be looming over Bucky in the dark, that seems like a recipe for a knife to the face. Ambient city light keeps the room from being pitch black, and between that and his serum-enhanced eyes, Steve can see Bucky’s face with almost perfect clarity. Well, the half of his face that isn’t smushed into his pillow. He’s frowning, eyes still shut. After a few seconds, Bucky makes an adorable snuffling and grumbling sort of sound and gropes out blindly with his left hand, smacking Steve’s chest. Steve takes hold of his hand and squeezes the bed-warm metal once before letting it go.
“Steve? Wha’izz’it?” Steve smiles. He doesn’t know how Bucky always knows it’s him, why he never startles or flinches at Steve’s presence, no matter how abrupt or unexpected, but it’s a relief anyway.
“Sorry to wake you. I’m headed out for a mission, might be gone a few days. Wanted to see you before I left,” says Steve, keeping his voice just above a whisper.
Bucky yawns into his pillow but blinks awake, flails vaguely in the direction of the bedside lamp. Steve turns it on as Bucky sits up, squinting against the light. Bucky’s hair is all over the place and in his eyes, so Steve smooths some of it back for him, gives him a second to wake up properly.
“What kind of mission?” asks Bucky, in a voice low and rough enough to make a pleased shiver run down Steve’s spine.
“HYDRA compound in Kansas, local law enforcement wants help busting it up, gathering intel.”
Bucky takes this with equanimity and sinks back down onto the bed. “Just the kind of fight you’ve been itching for then, huh?”
Steve wants to make an automatic denial, but he’s caught short by the clear affection on Bucky’s face, the soft smile and the crow’s feet around his eyes that betray only a little bit of melancholy. The look Bucky’s giving him is as warm and welcoming as the bed he’s lying in, and as badly as Steve wants to go out to kick some HYDRA heads in, Steve’s sorely tempted to crawl into bed with Bucky and hold onto him instead.
“I haven’t been itching for a fight,” Steve denies weakly. Bucky snorts.
“Sure. We’re coming up on three months without you punching anything other than a punching bag. Pretty sure that’s some kinda record for you, Rogers.”
“Is not,” grumps Steve, and feels his jaw take on a mulish sort of set as he frowns. Bucky just smiles wider.
“There you are,” murmurs Bucky, reaching out a hand to press his thumb lightly against the furrow between Steve’s eyes. “Always gotta find bigger bullies, huh?”
He’s struck with some obscure guilt, even though Bucky’s tone is fond, his touch gentle. “If you need me to stay, if you think I shouldn’t go—”
Bucky shakes his head, flicks Steve’s forehead with his fingers. “Don’t be stupid. They need you, don’t they? And Christ, Steve, you were about two seconds away from tackling that guy with the annoying music in the park the other day, and he wasn’t even doing anything wrong. If you’re gonna fight, have it be for a good reason.”
“That music was awful, and I could tell it was making your eyes hurt. That’s a good reason. And I was only gonna talk to him,” Steve grumbles. Bucky’d kept his eyes narrowed to a pained squint as the guy’s music had blared like a mutated and echoing foghorn. Steve had, maybe, been about to go over and have a strong word with the guy before Bucky had grabbed him and dragged him off to get some ice cream instead.
“Uh huh, if you say so.” Bucky pulls the covers back up and burrows back into his bed. “Have fun punching Nazis, try not to die.”
Steve rolls his eyes. “Your tender concern is touching, really, Buck.” Bucky closes his eyes even as he’s grinning.
Steve turns the light back off, but he doesn’t leave just yet. There you are, Bucky had said, all knowing affection. Now that the reflexive guilt has passed, Steve’s left with relief. Bucky knows, Bucky understands, he’s not upset or trying to stop Steve. Every time he thinks there’s a limit to the gratitude he can feel for Bucky, he’s proven wrong. He doesn’t really want to leave without expressing it somehow, but he can’t quite bring himself to say it either. He’s left kneeling there, practically vibrating in the key of I love you, unwilling to actually say it and maybe give too much away, or make Bucky worry that it’s just a different way to say goodbye. He and Bucky don’t do goodbyes.
“Thought you had a flight to catch,” says Bucky, voice muffled by his sheets and pillow.
“Thought you really wanted to bust some evil Nazi heads in.”
“I do.” Steve grins helplessly and folds his arms on top of Bucky’s bed, rests his chin on them.
“Then oh my god, Steve, go away and let me sleep, it’s three in the morning,” groans Bucky into his pillow.
“I’m gonna miss you is all, don’t be a jerk.”
Now Bucky actually lifts his face from the pillow to look at Steve. He’s equal parts charmed and exasperated and grumpy, but Steve’s face must be showing a bit too much, because Bucky’s expression warms even more, the drowsy grumpiness falling away to leave only naked fondness. It makes Steve feel a little like he’s basking in the sun.
“I’ll be in the command center, on ops. If you’re okay with it, that is.”
Steve beams at Bucky. “Yeah, yeah, that’d be perfect. But only if you’re okay with it. And I guess if Maria is too.”
“She’s the one who suggested it. Now go away, Rogers, go do your Avenging, I’ll be here.”
Steve goes away as ordered, feeling buoyant enough to float up to the Avengers command center.
After a briefing on the plane and a lengthy meeting with local law enforcement on the ground to plan the raid, they’re finally ready to move in, and as promised, Bucky’s voice is warm and close through the comms in his ear throughout the whole raid. It’s not the same as knowing Bucky’s eyes are on him from some sniper nest somewhere, ready to drop anyone who gets too close, or having Bucky at his side throwing punches right along with him, but it’s still good, still feels right in a way he’s sorely missed in the 21st century. Plus, Bucky’s good at it, particularly paired with Maria. Together they’re the meticulous, eagle-eyed eyes in the sky keeping hold of the raid’s big picture, coordinating Steve and the Avengers with the SWAT teams and feds. Bucky proves especially helpful at keeping them from bumbling into any HYDRA traps, and at outmaneuvering the HYDRA agents’ tactics. He is, after all, all too familiar with them. Bucky’s calm and even tones feel like an anchor of certainty in the wild, chaotic sea of an op with a lot of moving parts.
Bucky voice is an anchor for Steve’s rage too. This particular compound might have had nothing to do with the Winter Soldier, but they’re still HYDRA, and Bucky was right: Steve’s been itching for a fight. And taking out HYDRA agents is a hell of a lot more satisfying than destroying some punching bags. There’s a clarity in battle that Steve’s been missing, the way the world narrows to his body, his shield, the enemy, his team. The way his anger finally has somewhere to go, something to do. Three hostiles up ahead. The base’s command center is two floors down, you’ll need Iron Man to blast through the door. There’s a new wave of foot soldiers headed your way, Cap, draw them to the east corridor and you’ll have a SWAT team for backup to take them. Bucky is steady and untouched by the chaos on the ground, and it keeps Steve in the moment, focused. Leaves him enough presence of mind to stay mindful of Maria’s earlier request to leave some HYDRA agents alive. Steve cuts through the waves of HYDRA goons easily with Natasha and Sam at his side. He feels a little like the shield himself, thrown at Bucky’s command, and always bouncing and ricocheting back to him.
Once the HYDRA compound is secured, no serious casualties on their side, Bucky signs off, acknowledging the wave of thanks he gets from assorted Avengers and feds with a hesitant you’re welcome. Steve’s not ready for him to go, but there’s little reason for him to stay on comms for the cleanup and evidence-gathering portion of the raid, and maybe Bucky’s reached his limit. Steve’s just starting to hope that this is going to wrap up by tomorrow when Tony says, “Hmm. So, we might have a problem.”
And then it’s four days of a statewide manhunt for three ambiguously enhanced HYDRA operatives. They’re nowhere near the level of Steve or Bucky’s level of enhancement, but they’re unstable and careless of civilian life, plus one of them can turn something close to invisible. Uncertain if these poor bastards had been willingly enhanced or not, Steve orders the search teams to try not to use lethal force. Of course, then Steve himself ends up running one of them to ground in distressing proximity to a mall full of civilians, and it’s like fighting a rabid dog, complete with biting. The guy’s so far beyond reason or sanity that he can’t even manage a properly villainous “Hail HYDRA!”
So Steve does what he’d do for any other rabid, crazed animal: he puts him out of his misery, with a swift and clean snap of his neck.
For a moment, the sense memory of gripping Bucky in a hold like this comes flashing back, how with one shift of his arm, he could have snapped Bucky’s neck instead of dislocating his arm in that desperate fight on the helicarrier. It hadn’t even crossed his mind as an option, then. But the memory and the present crash together now with jarring, sickening force, and this HYDRA operative’s now empty and lifeless eyes are pale blue, a little like Bucky’s. It’s too much, and all of a sudden Steve’s heaving his guts out, panting for air, some part of him stuck in the unbearable might-have-been instead of reality. Bucky’s fine, he tells himself. He remembered you.
Sam swoops down from his perimeter maintaining flight, wings retracting. “Cap, you okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, he just got me hard in the stomach, winded me,” Steve says, and Sam buys it. Steve toggles his comms. “I got him, he’s been—neutralized.”
Once the enhanced HYDRA operatives are taken care of, there’s nothing left for the Avengers to do but write up reports and analyze what evidence and intel they’ve gathered from the raid, so the team takes the quinjet back to the Tower. Steve’s exhausted after days of being on the move on high alert, but he gets started on his report on the flight back anyway. He contemplates calling Bucky, decides against it.
Steve’s had enough time to text him a few times, just to let him know he’s okay and check in on Bucky. Bucky just sent back photos of whatever he was doing at the time, little islands of peace in Steve’s hectic days. Bucky has kind of a weird eye as a photographer, going in close or staying distant at unexpected moments, so Steve had ended up with a series of closeups of sunlight-dappled leaves, a weirdly telescoped shot of Bucky’s therapist’s office door, Maria haloed by the bank of monitors in the command center, a wide take of the Avengers gym, empty with the team gone. Steve takes the photos as an indication that Bucky’s not really up for talking, not even in the medium of text message, and figures he can wait to see him in person. He really needs to see Bucky in person. He needs to banish the nightmare could-have-been that still feels too real in his mind.
He showers in the team locker room, and goes back to the apartment still in his uniform, realizing too late that he’d left the duffel with his clothes on the plane. It’s late, though not quite the small hours of the night. Bucky’s likely to be asleep, so Steve takes care to be quiet as he opens the door and sets the shield and his gear down, pulls his boots off. He ought to head straight for his room, strip off the uniform in favor of sleep clothes and get some rest. But the need to see Bucky is too insistent, insistent enough that Steve knows he won’t fall asleep unless he can shut up the part of his mind stuck hearing the final snap of bone and seeing lifeless blue eyes.
He listens at Bucky’s door for a minute, comforted by Bucky’s even breathing, and it’s almost enough. For a second he wants to give into exhaustion and let Bucky’s breathing lull him to sleep, and he lets the door hold him up for a moment before he eases it open as quietly as he can. Not quietly enough though, apparently, because Bucky stirs, wakes.
“Steve?” he asks, voice rough and fuzzy with sleep.
“Yeah, it’s me.” Steve enters the room, walks to Bucky’s bedside and sits on the floor there with a heavy thump, leaning against the bedside table, too tired for grace. “Shh, don’t get up. Just wanted to let you know I’m back.”
Bucky pushes himself up on the bed, blinking sleepy eyes at him. “You okay?”
“I’m fine, barely a scratch.” Bucky gets a little more awake at that, and he stretches to turn the bedside light on, then scours him with the usual assessing for injuries look. There’s nothing to see, not over the uniform anyway, and his body only aches in the way it does when exertion wars with healing bruises and strains. “I’m fine, seriously, just tired. Go back to sleep.”
Steve can’t bring himself to leave just yet though. Levering himself back up feels like too much effort, and Bucky’s presence alone is more of a balm right now than going back to his own bed. Bucky doesn’t go back to sleep, instead just settles back down on the bed to watch Steve with the sort of patient pensiveness Steve has grown used to since Bucky came back. The sight exorcises the last of the horrifying possibility Steve had so briefly envisioned in that fight with the enhanced HYDRA agent, and he relaxes.
“Everyone else okay?” asks Bucky.
“Yeah, nothing worse than some scrapes and sprains. Thanks for the pictures, by the way. They were nice. Sam says you oughta put ‘em on instagram, whatever that is.”
Bucky smiles a little. “Hmm, maybe.” His face turns solemn, a little anxious. “Sorry I didn’t, uh, text or talk.”
“Picture’s worth a thousand words, isn’t it? It’s alright, Buck. I figured you’d had enough of talking after being on ops for the whole raid.” Bucky rolls his eyes but doesn’t deny it, just winces a little apologetically.
They share the late-night silence for a while, and it’s like sleepovers at Bucky’s house when they were kids, or shared tents during the war.
Back then, moments like this had led to either fits of giggles or questions that couldn’t stand the light of day. Maybe tonight Bucky’s remembering the latter, because he asks, “Is this what you wanted to do after the war?”
“What?” Steve had been drifting into a light doze, and he’s not sure he knows what Bucky means.
Bucky reaches out to tap the star on the uniform on Steve’s chest. Steve wants to reach up and hold onto Bucky’s hand, but he’s already pulled it back. “Keep fighting.”
“I don’t know,” says Steve, because he doesn’t. If he’d thought of after the war, it was in hazy generalities. A small house, Peggy, Bucky, some nonspecific useful work, with the SSR maybe. To think more carefully about it had felt like tempting fate more than he already had. “What did—do you remember what you wanted to do after the war?”
Bucky looks away from Steve for a second, takes a deep breath, then holds Steve’s eyes with a look that’s sad, or maybe wistful. “I just wanted to come home. I kept looking for it, I think, when HYDRA had me. Even got away once, managed to get to Brooklyn. I recognized it a little, but it wasn’t home. I went again, a few months ago, before I talked to Sam. Still didn’t feel right.”
Bucky shakes his head a little, gives Steve one of his small, sad smiles that never fails to tear at Steve’s heart. As always, Steve wants desperately to fix whatever puts that look on Bucky’s face.
“And now? Do you still want—we can go back to Brooklyn.”
Bucky shakes his head. “That’s not home.”
He’s not wrong. Or, Brooklyn now isn’t home. The Brooklyn that was their home is decades gone. “What is?” he asks Bucky.
Those two little words hit Steve like falling into the Potomac from the helicarrier, a breathtaking full-body kind of hit. Bucky gives him a crooked sort of smile, and a what are you gonna do kind of lopsided shrug, but Steve can recognize now that the light that fills Bucky’s eyes is love.
It all crashes down on Steve at once, waves overtaking him, and he remembers, suddenly, what he’d said to Fury, back after he’d been thawed out and Fury had taken him to that cabin in the woods to get his head straight. I just want to go home, he’d said, helplessly, still bewildered at waking from death into the 21st century. Fury had said something about how the apartment SHIELD had gotten him in Brooklyn was waiting for him, and Steve had nearly crumpled to the ground then and there, because that wasn’t home, he couldn’t ever go back home, nowhere and no when was home now.
Instead he’d nodded politely at Fury, walked into the cabin, dropped to his knees, and doubled over with a scream he couldn’t bear to let out. If he had started, he wouldn’t have been able to stop. He had realized then that home was somewhere he wasn’t ever going back to. He hadn’t put much effort into making a new one. The apartment in Brooklyn, the condo in DC, his apartment in the Tower—they were just places he lived sometimes, temporary. Empty, without his mother, and without Bucky, without even echoes of them in things that had been theirs, or memories Steve had made with them. Hadn’t Bucky asked, when he’d first walked in this apartment, this is your home? Steve hadn’t been able to say yes then, not quite. It’s where I’m living now, he’d said, unwilling to commit to more. But now—
He’s crying, he realizes, a steady stream of tears leaking from his eyes. Bucky brushes some of them away with a tenderness that only makes Steve cry harder.
“Steve, shhhh, hey. C’mon, it’s okay.”
Bucky scoots back on his bed, and tugs Steve up. Steve scrambles up to bury his face in Bucky’s chest, clinging to him tightly enough that it must be uncomfortable, but Bucky just grips Steve tight with his unyielding metal arm, draws his flesh arm up and down Steve’s spine in long strokes. Steve tries to quiet his crying and can’t quite manage it, can’t get a hold of the years of grief warring with the realization that he has recovered some of the most precious things he’d grieved so hard, things he had given up for lost. He listens hard to one of the things he thought he’d lost, Bucky’s heartbeat, going a little faster than usual.
Does Steve want to keep fighting? Yeah. There’s a lot worth fighting, and a lot worth fighting for. But he wants to come home too. He’s wanted to come home for a long time now, but hasn’t been sure how. Here’s Bucky, showing him that it’s simpler than he’d thought. Well, Bucky’s always been faster on the uptake than Steve.
“I’m sorry, Steve,” says Bucky in a low and shaking voice. “I wasn’t ready to come home for—for a while. I know that hurt you.”
Steve shakes his head against Bucky’s chest. It had hurt, yes, but that doesn’t matter. “Anything you need, Buck. Anything,” he manages to get out. Bucky runs a hand through Steve’s hair, rests his hand heavy and cool on the nape of Steve’s neck.
“What about what you need?”
“You. Right now, you.” He risks a look up at Bucky, knowing his face is a snotty, teary mess. He’s kind of left a damp stain on Bucky’s shirt, but Bucky’s looking teary-eyed himself. “This is home,” he says, testing it out.
“You live here, so yeah, I sure hope it is.” He pinches Bucky in the side, not that there’s much of anything to pinch other than muscle. Bucky squirms away with a yelp.
“You know what I mean,” he says, and hopes Bucky does.
It’s what they’ve been carefully rebuilding, together, with little things like nice plants and shared dinners. Steve thought he’d been doing it for Bucky’s sake. But they’re both each just parts of a whole, this thing between them bigger and more complete than either of them alone.
“I know,” Bucky says with a smile, and Steve smiles back in relief and delight. Being known. Or—not known, understood. He’s missed it. “You said you wanted to help. That’s how you’re helping, Steve.”
That’s gonna set Steve off again, and he starts sniffling. Bucky makes a tsking noise and cups Steve’s face in his hands, one cool, one warm. Bucky’s cool metal hand feels good against Steve’s still-overheated face. Steve sniffles harder, leans into Bucky’s chest again and rubs his running nose against Bucky’s shirt.
“Gross!” complains Bucky with a laugh. “Hang on,” he says, and climbs over Steve to go to the bathroom.
He comes back a minute later with a towel, and sits on the bed, puts the cool, damp towel over Steve’s undoubtedly red and puffy eyes. This has the opposite of the desired effect, because Steve just starts crying again. It’s stupid, this is just one of hundreds of the little and big ways Bucky has taken care of him. Five or seventy years ago, Steve probably would have just gotten testy about it and thrown the towel at Bucky’s head. He hadn’t been so good at being taken care of, back then. After a few years without, Steve has a different perspective.
“Sorry, sorry,” says Steve, and tries to get his general leaking situation under control.
“Nothing to be sorry for.” Bucky pushes at Steve and Steve makes room on the bed, curls in towards Bucky’s warmth. “Though that doesn’t seem to be helping. What else is supposed to help with puffy-eyed crying hangovers, cold spoons? I could go stick my left hand in the freezer for a few minutes, put it on your face.”
Steve laughs long and hard, tears still leaking from his eyes. He takes the damp towel from his eyes, and looks up at Bucky, who’s giving Steve that soft smile that lives mostly in his eyes, soft and bright.
“I love you. So much.” Bucky takes a sharp breath in and swallows hard, blinks rapidly a few times with wide eyes. Steve tries for a smile, and it lands somewhere tentative and wavering. “That can’t be a surprise.” Bucky shakes his head, short and sharp.
Steve waits, and watches Bucky’s face for a hint of what he’s thinking. There’s love there, yes, but apprehension too, and sorrow, and other thoughts that flicker past too fast for Steve to catch. Steve’s about to leave, give Bucky some space. It’s the middle of the night, and Steve’s maybe pushed too much. Steve doesn’t need an explicit declaration in return, not after what Bucky’s already said, and done. But resolve settles on Bucky’s face, solemn and a little defiant, and he leans down to press a kiss to Steve’s lips. It’s gentle and close-mouthed, a tentative exploration on both their parts, and so warm. And too short, because Bucky pulls away, and Steve makes a bereft sort of noise. Bucky stops, eyes half-lidded and a flush building high on his cheeks.
“Please,” whispers Steve.
“Earlier you said ‘Anything,’” Bucky murmurs.
Bucky exhales in a long sigh, and settles his body over Steve’s, kisses Steve’s forehead, his cheeks, the bump on his nose. He kisses Steve’s eyelids, the lashes still a little damp. Steve brings his shaking hands to Bucky’s hips and holds him there, chases after Bucky’s lips with his own. He learns how soft they are, learns how the curve of his smile feels instead of just how it looks. They’re only kissing, but it’s already almost too much, after weeks of being attuned to Bucky, after years of wanting him. And Bucky is being so careful.
Bucky’s hands skim over Steve’s uniform, and Steve feels it like a phantom touch through the flexible light armor. “Please,” says Steve again, and Bucky hums in response.
His fingers find the straps and zippers of the uniform top, and he tugs Steve free of it with an attention and focus that’s difficult to bear at first. Bucky doesn’t rush, drops the uniform on the floor where it lands with a hushed thump, then peels Steve out of his undershirt. When Steve is bare to the waist, Bucky nuzzles where Steve’s neck meets his shoulder, takes a deep breath there, and something about that has Steve arching up against Bucky, moaning, past shame or embarrassment with frightening speed. Bucky kisses that spot, and the sensation runs down Steve’s spine like a line of tingling and fizzing electricity. When Bucky’s tongue darts out to taste his skin, Steve cries out. It’s barely anything, just a fleeting impression of slick heat, but it brings every inch of Steve’s skin alive to hypersensitivity. It’s the serum, maybe, or long years of desperate, denied hunger.
Bucky soothes him with a few slow strokes of his palms along Steve’s arms and sides before focusing on Steve’s uniform pants. Steve had ditched the utility belt earlier, thankfully, so Bucky just has to pull Steve’s pants and socks off and dump them on the pile with the rest of Steve’s uniform, leaving Steve naked but for his briefs. Bucky leaves those on for now, returning his attention to Steve’s chest, where he maps what healing bruises remain, scattered along his sides. His hand lingers on the livid bruise just above Steve’s kidney, a souvenir from a vicious flying knee Steve had been unable to avoid, and he looks up at Steve’s face with a raised eyebrow that asks barely a scratch? Steve just shakes his head and pulls Bucky in for a kiss, deep this time, and slow, god, so slow, slow enough that Steve has time to catalogue every single sensation, from the wet slide of their tongues to Bucky’s heavy weight on his hips to Bucky’s hand holding Steve at the neck, his thumb stroking along Steve’s jawline, his left hand settled light and cool along the bruise on Steve’s side. Steve’s own hands are shoved up under Bucky’s shirt in search of heated skin, and his fingertips feel rough and dirty compared to the expanse of soft skin under them. Steve’s close to overwhelmed by sensation, each point of contact as wholly intoxicating as the other.
Bucky presses a little on Steve’s bruise, testing, and the pain lights Steve up, the dull ache transmuting into a shockingly sweet pleasure under Bucky’s metal fingers. Steve gasps, moans, and Bucky draws back with a little chant of “Sorry, sorry,” but Steve shakes his head drunkenly and demands, “No, harder, please,” panting now, from both the breathtakingly slow kiss and the pain/pleasure of the bruise. It’s like touching something hot and being unsure if the signals his skin is relaying to him are of heat or cold, it’s just feeling, vast and rolling under and over his skin. Bucky tilts his head, studies Steve with dark and wanting eyes, and then, with exquisite care, he pushes down on the bruise harder, and Steve’s gone, he throws his head back and moans at the beautiful ache, the all-encompassing feeling of it, his hips jerking in search of pressure, or friction. Bucky leans down to swallow the sound with another deep kiss, this one rougher, with teeth, all the while keeping steady pressure on Steve’s side, and Steve is hard now, so hard that that too hurts even as it feels desperately good. Everything feels so good, even when it hurts.
Distantly, Steve’s aware that he’s coming undone awfully quickly, at awfully little provocation. Years of waiting, maybe, too long without. Bucky doesn’t seem to mind, he’s flushed and intent, rapt, the totality of his focus on Steve in a way that Steve can almost physically feel on top of everywhere Bucky’s touching him, like Bucky’s regard is a separate but no less physical aspect of his touch.
“God, you’re so beautiful,” says Bucky, voice gone rough and deep, which is probably patently untrue given how red and blotchy Steve’s face must be. But it’s not just a thing Bucky’s saying, judging by the open wonder on his face.
Steve’s scrabbles clumsily at Bucky’s shirt, and Bucky takes the hint and pulls it off, and with some urgency now, he pulls Steve’s briefs off too, then his own sleep pants. He’s bare under them, cock hard, which makes Steve whimper because god, he wants. He’s not sure what, the array of options is dizzying and confusing, and Steve’s not sure he’s thinking straight enough to pick one. His mind is just full of a deafening static of desire and sensation. His body picks for him, thrusting up against Bucky so their cocks rub against each other, which sets Bucky to panting, mouth open and eyes wide. After that, everything’s in fast forward, and they’re rutting against each other, clumsy and frantic, Steve gripping Bucky close because if Bucky moves away even one inch, Steve’s sure he’s gonna die. Bucky reaches between them to get his hand on their cocks and he gives them both a few rough tugs, just this side of too tight, because Bucky’s a fast learner and he’s learned that Steve wants things on that knife edge between pain and pleasure right now. Steve comes convulsively, shaking, and Bucky follows shortly after with a broken sort of moan, shuddering.
Bucky collapses on top of Steve, and Steve brings his arms around to hold him tight before he can think of rolling away to the side. They’re sweaty and sticky, still breathing hard. It feels glorious, right, as utterly perfect as Steve’s body feels mid-fight. Bucky nuzzles and mouths at Steve’s neck, and Steve shivers, directs Bucky into a sloppy and open-mouthed kiss that turns possessive and devouring with little provocation. They subside a little, eventually, clean up some with Bucky’s sheets as they exchange kisses.
Steve’s feeling hazy and something like drunk, but he’s not especially sleepy. He wants more of whatever Bucky will give him. Lucky for Steve, Bucky very much wants to give him more.
Bucky, Steve is beginning to realize, has maybe been wanting just as much as Steve has. His lips are red and swollen, cheeks still flushed, and the feverish focus of his eyes on Steve leaves Steve with the urge to bare his throat, open himself up, offer every part of his body for whatever Bucky wants to do to it. Bucky is so very beautiful like this, when he wants so openly, and Steve is viciously happy that all this is his alone.
“You up for more?” asks Bucky, cupping Steve’s face in his hand. Steve turns his face into Bucky’s palm, kisses there, nodding.
“Anything,” he says again, pleads, really. He doesn’t know what else to ask for. He just wants, still, more.
“You sure? Not too tired?”
Steve shakes his head. “Please.”
Bucky rewards with him an achingly sweet smile and a kiss, before he rolls away to rummage in his bedside drawer. He comes back with a little bottle of massage oil, or lube maybe, Steve can’t get a good look at it with the way Bucky’s rolling it between his hands to warm it up, which makes Steve smile and maybe want to cry again.
“On your stomach,” directs Bucky, and Steve obliges him.
He’s about to rest his head on his folded arms when Bucky puts a hand on the nape of Steve’s neck and directs him down onto the pillow, tilting his head to face Bucky. So Steve puts his arms around the pillow instead and watches Bucky with interest as Bucky pours some of the oil or lube onto the fingers and palm of his right hand.
“Spread your legs a little,” and Steve does, mouth going dry.
“What are you—”
Bucky traces one slick finger along the cleft of Steve’s ass, strokes Steve’s perineum. Steve sucks in a shocked breath, shudders.
“You ever tried this? Your fingers inside yourself?” Steve just looks at him, wide-eyed. He shakes his head. “Hmm. You’ve been missin’ out then. You’ll like this, I think. Just relax. And keep your eyes on me, alright?” Steve swallows hard and nods, does his best to relax as Bucky ordered.
Bucky settles on his side, facing Steve, and gently, gently, draws little circles with his finger around Steve’s hole. Steve, very abruptly, realizes the appeal of what’s about to happen, and a flush spreads on his skin like a wildfire. Bucky smiles, slow and wicked, and pushes a finger in. Steve groans, his eyes fluttering closed, because it feels strange and good, tight. His cock’s already starting to fill again. His mind skips over thoughts, sensations, the feel of the sheets, the slow in and out thrust of Bucky’s finger, before he remembers what Bucky had said earlier.
He opens his eyes again, and keeps them on Bucky. It’s no hardship, never is or will be. “You’ve tried this?” asks Steve, his voice coming out strange and breathy.
“Yeah. Do it myself sometimes. While I—y’know. Jerk off. Think of your fingers in me instead. Or your cock.” Steve moans just thinking of it, wants that desperately all of a sudden, and Bucky slips another finger in, the stretch aching now, so good, unlike anything Steve had ever expected or imagined. Steve pushes his ass up to meet Bucky’s fingers, which are thrusting with a steady metronome kind of pace, maddeningly unrushed.
“More,” begs Steve.
“Already?” asks Bucky, amused, but god, turned on too, Steve can tell. Bucky hasn’t taken his eyes off Steve for a second. Bucky speeds the pace up just a little, biting his lip in concentration. Steve watches his mouth, and imagines it doing other things with a fervor he knows Bucky can see.
“You like watching me. You’re always watching me,” says Bucky in a wondering sort of tone.
“Yeah. I—You’re, uh, beautiful. Always have been. You’ve gotta know. I’ve always—” Bucky works another finger in and Steve cries out, because this hurts, but only for a second before the hurt transforms into tight heat, and then Steve can feel Bucky curling his fingers inside him, stroking at a spot that whites out all words and thought from Steve’s mind. Steve grips the pillow so hard he thinks he tears it, and maybe he shouts.
Steve’s trying to get friction on his cock and more of Bucky’s fingers, faster, and it’s all so much, too much, he’s panting with it, sobbing. Bucky just keeps up a relentless, steady pace, hushing Steve with murmured praise, and Steve can hardly even focus his eyes on him, he just turns into a live wire of want and feeling.
“Faster, please, please,” Steve babbles, and Bucky obliges him, until the bright stabs of pleasure stop feeling separate and turn into one long overwhelming wave that has Steve rutting into the mattress and coming, all the while keeping his eyes locked on Bucky’s, on the heat and desire and wonder there. His orgasm overtakes him for a moment, and when he comes back to himself, he feels Bucky pulling his fingers free, which makes Steve whimper and shiver with the feeling of sudden emptiness. Bucky soothes him with a long kiss, and slow strokes of his metal palm along Steve’s spine.
Steve scoots out of the wet spot he left, and Bucky mutters, “Gotta change the sheets, christ, we’ve left a mess.”
“Not yet,” says Steve, and directs a hungry stare towards Bucky’s cock, which is hard, precome pearling at the tip. “Let me take care of you, huh?”
“Yeah, alright,” allows Bucky, a little breathless, and lets his legs fall open, and god, his thighs, Steve is really going to lavish some attention on them at some point, but right now, Bucky’s cock seems considerably more compelling, thick and a little bigger than Steve’s.
He figures he can’t go wrong with jerking Bucky off, and he fumbles for the lube, pours some messily onto his hand. It’s strange at first, he’s unused to touching another man’s dick, not at this angle, or with this slick lube. For a few seconds, Steve expects to feel his hand on his own cock, but no, it’s Bucky’s soft and hot skin under his hand, it’s Bucky who’s arching up into his touch, head falling back against the pillows. He gives Bucky a few slow, exploratory strokes, marveling at the feeling, at how hard he is, for Steve.
“That good?” asks Steve.
“It’s good,” answers Bucky. “So, so good, oh fuck.”
He’s gone loose and boneless, and god, he’s gorgeous with his legs spread, metal arm tossed up over his head, and his right hand clenched in the sheets, the taut muscles of his abs and the sharply defined cut of his hips on display. His face is slack and relaxed with pleasure, and Steve loves the sheen of sweat on his face, his chest, the flush of all this sweet exertion. Steve would paint this, but he can’t stand the thought of anyone else seeing it.
Steve keeps stroking long and slow, until Bucky’s chest is heaving and he’s thrusting up into Steve’s hand with jerky motions, clearly struggling to limit himself to Steve’s pace. Steve needs more, so he leans over for a kiss that Bucky returns sloppily, moaning into Steve’s mouth. Steve doesn’t speed up the pace, not yet, and instead kisses along Bucky’s strong jaw, down his neck, in the hollow of his throat. He wants to hold Bucky here, in this moment of purely good feeling and pleasure, for as long as both of them can bear. Time goes stretched and funny, the world contracting to their skin and its heat, the breath they pass back and forth between each other.
Bucky reaches his limit, finally, and says, “Steve,” in a broken voice, so Steve speeds up, tightens his grip just a little. Bucky lets out a few gasping sobs, eyes clenched tightly shut, and comes on his own chest and stomach. The aftershocks shudder through Bucky for a few seconds, and then he opens his eyes again, more gray than blue now with how wide his pupils are, a few tears caught in the dark sweep of his lashes. Bucky laughs a little, eyes alight with heady pleasure.
Steve has the impulse to taste Bucky, so he does, lapping up the come on Bucky’s stomach. It doesn’t taste good, not really, though it’s not quite bad either. It feels good though, doing it, for some dark and hungry reason Steve can’t quite articulate, and when Bucky says faintly, “oh my god,” Steve smiles.
Eventually they flop against each other, finally exhausted. The bed is a mess, they’re a mess, but Steve doesn’t care. He’s never felt so good. He hopes it’s the same for Bucky. Given that Bucky looks something between unbearably smug and giddy, he thinks so.
“Sheets,” mumbles Bucky, patting vaguely at Steve’s chest and the wreck of bedding surrounding them. Steve groans. He’s not about to change them, he’s pretty sure his muscles are too loose and wobbly to manage it. But wait—
“My bed. C’mon,” he says, and shoves at Bucky.
“You’re so smart,” marvels Bucky, and okay, he’s definitely half-asleep, because that sounds way more sincere than Bucky is usually capable of when it comes to complimenting Steve’s brains. He’s awake enough to stumble out of bed behind Steve though, and they go across the hall to Steve’s room, where they crawl into Steve’s bed, and they’re both asleep by the time they pull the covers up.
When Steve wakes late the next morning, he registers a few things in the cascade of awareness that follows abrupt wakefulness: the satisfying ache of exertion in his muscles, his bare skin against the sheets, and Bucky, wrapped tight around him. Steve breathes, listens: Bucky’s breath, coming out against Steve’s chest in little huffs that are almost but not quite snores, Bucky’s one-two heartbeat as steady as always. Bucky has one ankle hooked over Steve’s, the other leg thrown over Steve’s thigh. Bucky’s head is shoved up against Steve’s chest, his hair tickling the underside of Steve’s chin. Steve can feel Bucky wiggling his toes, a happy little gesture that makes Steve grin broadly into his pillow. God, he loves Bucky more than he can stand, almost.
“Good morning,” grumbles Bucky, the low rumble of his voice vibrating against Steve’s chest.
“Best morning,” says Steve, and opens his eyes to beam up at the ceiling.
Bucky shakes with a silent laugh. They both start the process of disentangling their limbs, and smile idiotically at each other. In the clear light of morning, Steve is bubbling with questions: how long has Bucky wanted this? Does that even matter? Was last night okay, did Bucky like it? Steve’s pretty sure Bucky liked it. Does Bucky know that Steve’s anything you need was meant in perpetuity? It’s probably too early in the morning for that many questions. Steve gets a whiff of their collective scent of sex and sweat, which is maybe sort of thrilling, but also pretty gross. They need a shower.
Bucky sits up, runs a fond hand through Steve’s messy hair. “Hey, there’s something I forgot to say last night.”
“Yeah?” Bucky nods, leans his forehead against Steve’s.