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What Gets You Through

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 i.

 Sam lowers his eyebrows, glaring at Steve so intensely that he misses the knobby roots on the forest ground. He trips, stumbling forward and cursing under his breath. Steve flicks him a glance to make sure he’s all right and adjusts his grip on his shield.

 “Dude,” Sam says, finding his footing. “You’re doing it again.”

 “Doing what?” Steve says in a low voice, ducking to avoid the lower branches. He takes deep, steadying breaths, the stale air making the atmosphere feel devoid of oxygen.

 “You’ve got that look,” Sam grumbles. “That gleam in your eyes, like you’re gonna kick some Hydra ass and enjoy it. More than is socially accepted.”

 Steve snorts out a chuckle.

 “Steve, you need—”

 Sam’s hand reflexively flies to his gun holster at the sudden crackling sound, but Steve dismisses it with a wave of his hand.

 “Just twigs,” he says, his voice carrying in the silence.

 The unusual silence. No animals seem to be living in the forest, no chirps of birds, or scuffles as chipmunks hunt for food, not even a slight breeze to rustle the leaves of the towering sickly trees. It feels like a dead space, woods bathed in a yellowish gloom. Steve involuntarily shudders.

 “You need to find better ways to cope,” Sam goes on. He doesn’t seem to share Steve’s unease, or he’s jabbering away exactly because he does. “There has to be a better way for you to get through whatever it is you have going on and will stubbornly not share.”

 “I’m getting through just fine,” Steve says, untangling the hem of his shirt from a pesky bramble.

 He moves cautiously, but quickly. The sooner they get away from this leafy trap, the better, even if what waits on the other side is enemy territory.

 “There’s nothing to get through,” he corrects himself. “I’m fine.”

 He ignores the utterly unconvinced look that Sam shoots his way.

 “Why are we here anyway,” Sam grouses, “it’s not like your boy won’t have taken care of things already.”

 Steve ignores the pitter-patter of his heart, too. He’s gotten good at ignoring his feelings, a habit he developed in his younger years and turned into a skill adeptly mastered in this brave new world.

 “Like every other damn time—” Sam’s voice goes higher as a branch scratches his arm.

 Steve winces, wishing he had something more useful to offer than a Kevlar vest and a gun. He wishes he had his suit, too, and his helmet, but the ambush is impromptu and they’re a long way from their homes and equipment.

 “We’re just doing our thing, looking high and low for Barnes, who doesn’t want to be found.” Sam shoots a pointed look at Steve. “Stark or Coulson calls with Hydra cell locations, and always, always we get there a moment too late. Your boy has miraculously just been there, has just burned everything to the ground, and we’re just left to do the clean-up.” He lifts his shoulders, helplessly lets them fall. “We’re literally doing his paperwork for him.”

 “He wants to be found,” Steve says absently, trying to peer through the trees to the fast-approaching grove. There’s noises now, carrying from the distance, and voices, undecipherable and angry.

 Sam glances toward the sounds, then turns to Steve. “If this is about Kiev—”

 “Sam,” Steve interrupts impatiently, “unless you have a better explanation of how a stack of chocolates and a sweatshirt up and left my room, then I stand by my initial—”

 “Why would Barnes sneak into your room to steal—”

 “Shh,” Steve hushes, raising his hand. “The tree line’s thinning.”

 Sam’s mouth tightens as he nods. He swerves to the left, following their plan, removing his gun from its holster as he goes.

 Steve creeps toward the opening, crouched as low as he can get. He spots the Hydra installation, the only building in the otherwise empty clearing—or rather, he spots the concrete entrance leading to the underground facility, sturdy walls on its right and left keeping the earth around it from caving in.

 Steve moves closer, tries to discern individuals in the flurry of movement as what appear to be Hydra soldiers are shouting, shooting, and falling on the ground. The still upright soldiers round in on a black-clad man, and Steve feels it before he really sees that it is Bucky, kicking out at the soldiers, writhing wildly as he tries to shake the lankiest one off his back. A gray grenade escapes Bucky’s hand and Steve watches its trajectory in slow motion, sucks in a quiet gasp when it comes to land in the dirt.

 The men hold in a collective breath, but the grenade doesn’t blow, the safety pin apparently still in place. The lanky soldier grins, a slimy, predatory grimace, as he turns to Bucky and rams the butt of his gun against his head. Blood trickles freely from the wound, trailing red streaks across Bucky’s grimy cheek, and Steve’s heart seizes with fear. He springs into action.

 The shield slams onto a soldier’s back and sends him to the ground as Steve follows behind it at full speed.

 Bucky startles, eyes wide in alarm as Steve careens toward their little party. He elbows the lanky man restraining him, quickly grabs the shield and throws it back. His glare on Steve is dark and murderous, but Steve ignores him, seizing the shield in midair and smashing a careless fist against an enemy gone cocky.

 The lanky soldier dives for the grenade. He gazes hungrily at Bucky, who is watching him warily, brow furrowed, shoulders tense. The man extends his thumb, ready to sweep the safety off, and Steve screams Bucky’s name —

 Bucky’s on top of it. He lunges at the man’s midriff, pries the grenade from his hand as the soldier yelps, both of them rolling on the ground. Bucky grabs the man’s throat, squeezes as the man tries to twist under his right hand.

 Steve gulps. He can hardly condemn what Bucky does, but the sight makes his stomach turn.

 “Bucky!” he shouts, torn and scared.

 Bucky whips his head around and glowers, his face a grotesque painting of blood mingled with dirt. He lets out a low growl and pulls away, leaving the man coughing and sputtering but still alive. He shoves his hair away from his face and vaults to the installation’s entrance still standing open, exposing the underground space to its imminent demise. Bucky halts, waves the grenade at Steve, warns him of what is coming.

 Steve spots Sam running his way and frantically flails his arms, gestures for him to stay away—

 A loud rumble shakes the ground and Steve shelters himself behind his shield as he’s blasted by heat and shock waves. The underground entrance collapses on itself with a deafening sound, the force of the explosion sending debris in every direction. When the dust settles, Steve lowers his shield and tries to peer through the hazy, stuffy air. Bucky is gone, leaving smoke and mayhem in his wake.

 ~

 Steve politely declines discussing the matter and Sam doesn’t push. It seems like a good idea at the time, but late into the night, when Steve finds himself restlessly pacing his tiny hotel room, he begins to regret it. He thumps his right fist against his left palm and vice versa as he guiltily hopes for some Avenging to save him from his noisy thoughts.

 He’s agitatedly biting down on his thumb, hard enough to feel the pressure of teeth against his nail, when his phone chimes with an incoming text. Steve doesn’t recognize the number, but his heart skips a beat at the words that appear on the screen.

“Meet me at the ruins. Punk.”

 ~

 Steve drives back toward the destroyed Hydra installation and blindly treks his way through the forest, the overhanging branches shutting out any trace of moonlight. The mulchy smell fills up his lungs, suffocating him, and he picks up the pace, wrapping his arms around himself. The erratic beating of his heart does little to improve his circumstances, unbearably loud in his ears as thoughts of what he might find at the other end of the forest spin into his mind. An image of Bucky not quite knowing who Steve is swims before his eyes, familiar from his many nightmares. His breath catches at the thought of a Bucky emotionless and silent, while yet another alternative, Bucky looking out at him with fear or loathing, makes Steve’s stomach lurch.

 He doesn’t quite know what to expect, but what he finds definitely isn’t it.

 Bucky is sprawled on the rubble that remained after the blast, legs swaying carelessly a little high off the ground, his posture open and welcoming, if a little more disciplined than what Steve remembers. His face, clean and healed, cracks into a grin that’s almost cheeky when he catches sight of Steve, and Steve blinks, nonplussed. He bites his tongue and makes his way to the ruins, eyes mostly on the ground lest Bucky mistake unbroken eye contact for wariness or animosity.

 He climbs up and sits beside Bucky, not too close, but not close enough for Steve.

 “I had ‘em on the ropes,” Bucky states, the grin never quite leaving his face.

 Steve can’t tell if it’s intentional, the echo of Bucky’s last words before the world went insane. It hits him like a punch in the gut, and he uselessly fumbles to gets his bearings.

 “I owe you somethin’.” Bucky shoves his hands inside the pockets of his hoodie and comes up with a handful of chocolates. Snickers, just like the ones Steve ‘lost’ in Kiev. “Here,” he offers lightly.

 Steve’s eyes widen as he takes them in. “It was you. You did come into my room —”

 Bucky lets out a soft snort. “Who else did you expect?” He nudges the chocolates toward Steve, drops them in his lap. “And.” He unzips his hoodie, proudly showing off the blue sweatshirt—Steve’s stolen sweatshirt—underneath.

 “You did take it!”

 Bucky chuckles, pulling the zipper back up. “Seriously though, Snickers?” Bucky says, clicking his tongue. “So many better ones to choose from. Is it because you can eat the peanuts now, is it a rebellion thing?”

 Steve ducks his head, cheeks warm and heart relieved that Bucky seems to remember.

 “Why didn’t you stay?” he asks, voice coming out small.

 Bucky stares off into the forest and gives a feeble shrug. “I didn’t even know why I came.”

 Steve eyes him, wonders how much he can say without scaring Bucky away. “You’ve been leaving a trail.”

 Bucky twists his lips into a lopsided bitter smile. “Burnin’ Hydra to the ground, one installment at a time.”

 Steve swallows. “Some of us have been doing the same thing.”

 “Not doin’ that good of a job, huh?” Bucky says dryly, but his eyes are smiling. “If I’m doin’ your work for you.”

 “You almost got killed,” Steve points out, voice cracking despite himself; a few chocolates turn mushy under his tightening fist.

 Bucky smirks, insolent and brash. Steve’s nostrils flare, the urge to grab him and scream some self-preservation into him surging in his chest. The tables have funnily and sorely turned on him.

 “I told you, I had ‘em on the ropes,” Bucky repeats slowly, tone dripping with self-satisfaction.

 Steve straightens his shoulders, feels the blood rush to his head. “If that grenade—”

 “The safety of that grenade only responded to my fingerprints,” Bucky drawls, waving the fingers of his right hand. “No one else could’ve worked it. All was goin’ just fine.”

 Steve wonders who has the means to provide Bucky with custom fingerprinted grenades. Part of him fears the answer is Hydra’s weapon stashes for the Winter Soldier. He’s still debating whether he should ask, when Bucky chuckles softly.

 “And did you see how I—” he pulls his arm back, elbowing the air “—right into the ribcage. It was all as planned.”

 Steve rolls his eyes before he can stop himself. “You couldn’t have known what he would’ve—”

 “But I could’ve,” Bucky interjects, a faint smile playing on his lips. “I’ve seen them train.”

 Steve’s face falls quickly; he hurries to school his features into something flatter, before Bucky thinks he can’t handle this part of his life. Bucky doesn’t seem to notice or at least doesn’t acknowledge it.

 “The thing with Hydra goons is,” he’s explaining confidently, the tone of a mentor instructing a student, “they’re many, but they’re not good. They don’t amount to much. Some of them are good, and you’ve got to look out for those ones, but” —he shrugs— “most of them aren’t. So. I knew someone would be comin’ from behind ‘cause that’s what’s predictable, that’s what people do when your back’s turned. It’s a handy move, the elbow pull.”

 His eyes light up.

 “C’mon, let me show you.”

 “I—” Steve shakes his head, confused. “I know how to ‘elbow pull,’ Buck,” he says, the quotation marks audible in his tone.

 “C’mon,” Bucky insists, bouncing on his perch with a coaxing smile. “What, you too good for me now? I taught you how to punch, jerk.”

 Steve lets out a self-deprecating laugh, awkwardly rubs his chin against his shoulder.

 “C’mon, Stevie.” Bucky swallows hard, not quite smiling anymore. “I’ll go easy on you, I promise. I won’t hurt you.”

 His voice quavers just a little, enough for Steve to catch the minute change and he suddenly understands. It’s not about guiding Steve into the simplest of fighting moves, one that Bucky knows he’s already acquired. It’s not about a friendly tussle—it’s Bucky showing Steve that he can trust him. It’s Bucky demonstrating in his own, maybe roundabout way, that he wants to cause no harm.

 Steve half wonders why Bucky can’t show this with a hug.

 Bucky’s looking positively nervous now, jaw clenched and tense creases forming around his eyes, so Steve relents, as he always relents, will always relent with Bucky.

 “A’right,” he says, jumping off the concrete, dropping the chocolates on the slabs. “Show me your moves, Barnes.”

 Bucky does. He shows Steve where to stand, how to move, and Steve obliges him, two shadow figures under the dim moonlight twisting and thrusting in slow motion. Steve drapes his arms around Bucky with the least pressure possible. Bucky is warm under Steve’s hands, firm but not tense, and Steve tries really hard not to turn this into an embrace. Bucky slowly moves his left arm, connects his elbow with Steve’s ribs, so gently that Steve can barely feel the contact.

 “And now you loosen your grip,” Bucky points, radiant and strangely breathless. “’Cause of the impact.”

 He twists within Steve’s loosening grasp, their noses almost touching as Bucky’s lips stretch into a satisfied grin. He’s standing so close that his breaths are warm on Steve’s skin, and Steve struggles to hold back something as rash as a quick peck or a full-blown kiss. He loses himself in the moment, takes in the sparkle in Bucky’s eyes, cherishes what he once thought he’d never see again.

 “And now I knock you with my forehead,” Bucky says, and Steve blinks.

 “Or maybe kick you.” Bucky cocks his head contemplatively. “Depends on your strength and agility.”

 He shakes himself loose, Steve’s arms falling uselessly to his sides.

 “Try it.”

 Steve lets out a small cough to hide his distractedness. “Hm?”

 “Try it yourself.” Bucky rolls his shoulders. “Elbow me, c’mon. Turn around.”

 The roles are reversed, Bucky wrapping his arms around Steve’s chest as Steve takes a moment to breathe in Bucky’s scent, woody and familiar, now with a hint of metal that Steve instantly dotes on. He reenacts what Bucky demonstrated, every bit as gentle as Bucky was. If he takes a moment too long to get a move on, Bucky doesn’t point it out.

 He twists, mimicking Bucky’s fluid turn, and Bucky’s gaze comes to land on Steve’s lips, lingers there for what feels like an eternity. Bucky’s chest rapidly rises and falls, and Steve almost takes a step forward. He almost closes the distance between them, almost presses his lips on Bucky’s, it would only take a small step—

 Bucky disentangles himself with a strained chuckle, rolling around once and subtly distancing himself.

 “Well done,” he says. “You got it.”

 Steve barely remembers how to breathe.

 Bucky hovers for a second, runs a hand through his hair. He grimaces, features contorted with regret, and Steve knows what’s coming before Bucky speaks.

 “Later, Steve,” Bucky rasps.

 Steve’s lips part of their own accord. He doesn’t know what will come out, a protest or a plea, but he doesn’t get to find out.

 Bucky is taking steps backward, slowly shaking his head. “’Til next time.”

 He’s gone, disappearing into the trees in the blink of an eye, before Steve can move himself to speak up or follow. He knows that Bucky doesn’t want him to do either, as much as Steve’s every instinct urges him to act. Steve gives precedence to logic. He shoves his feelings to the back, mechanically scoops up his chocolates, the only evidence of the night’s encounter, and trudges back toward his rental car.

 

 ii.

 A small Eastern European country is in ruins, a sentient robot has asserted that Steve cannot live without a war, and Steve has almost proved him right.

 The statement, once uttered, knocked all the air out of him, or maybe finally knocked into him what Sam had unsuccessfully been saying for months. He’s been incessantly fighting a war or training for the next one, clinging to that one small sense of purpose. He lost all sense of balance once he plunged into the ice and never actually regained it. He’s left going through the motions, latching onto his morals and shouting them from the rooftops because it’s the only thing he knows anymore.

 But he’s not a man of war, not as such—Steve would rather be out of a job and see the world thrive than constantly fight for unattainable ideals. The scheming villains of the world are lying low, and Steve aggressively turns his attention to acts of goodwill. He visits more schools and hospitals than he can count, he cooks for the homeless so often that the paparazzi deem it old news and stop keeping tabs. He’d love to take full credit, claim it’s all out of the goodness of his heart, but he knows better than to lie to himself. Deep down he knows that while one part of him is doing what is right, the other part is just trying to get through each day without succumbing to the void that’s in his heart, that’s threatening to swallow him whole.

 After he plays ‘The Battle of New York’ with giddy children, bakes and sells cupcakes for charity, and tries to give stray puppies a new home, after the fundraisers, the speeches, and the tree planting excursions, he lies in bed staring at the ceiling, patiently waiting for sleep so that he won’t have to think, won’t have to feel anymore. On the hard days, when patience turns to impatience turns to frustration, he aggressively directs his thoughts to Bucky. He always wakes up feeling guilty. Bucky’s the forbidden fruit he’s not allowed to touch, comfortable in his choice of leading a life in which there’s no place for Steve.

 The Stark Relief Foundation is working overtime to restore Sokovia, but the country’s been destroyed beyond recognition and can use all the help it can get. Steve tries to quiet his mind by cleaning up the wreckage and restoring houses.

 His arrival in Sokovia is met with enthusiasm. He’s given what the mayor deems the best room in town, though Steve insists he doesn’t care either way. On his first night there, he finds himself pacing the living room and itching for the light of dawn, so that he can get his hands on some work, tire out his overworked brain.

 His phone chimes with a new text.

“Welcome to post-apocalyptic Sokovia, punk. Come down to Saint Ana’s Church.”

 Steve almost trips on his hasty way out.

 ~

 It’s hard to find anyone to give him directions this late at night, and Steve worries that Bucky will see his lateness as rejection. He finally finds the church in question, another half-ruined victim of Ultron’s delusional ambitions. Part of its front wall and most of its right side have collapsed, creating a mound of cement, marble, and glass that conceals the inside from view. Steve hurries to what’s left of the arched entrance, breathes a sigh of relief when he sees that Bucky is still there.

 He’s at the very front of the aisle, gazing at a small statue that’s miraculously still standing, sporting only dust and grazes. The light of a few candles glimmering dimly in the corner does little to illuminate the church’s dark and bleak interior. The full moon enters through the caved-in ceiling and the stained-glass windows, bathing the nave and half-broken altar in an otherworldly light. Strips of moonlight glide through the cracks, gossamer threads come to rest on Bucky’s face. The cool silvery light paints him into a being more ethereal than earthly, pale and pearlescent, a ghost that sometimes Steve dreads only exists in his aching imagination.

 Steve approaches softly, his footsteps loud in the silence. Bucky turns around, graces him with a warm smile and folds his hands before him as if ready to attend mass. Steve slides beside him, heart thumping fast inside his chest.

 “Been a long time,” he says, his voice almost a whisper.

 “It has,” Bucky agrees.

 He’s more subdued than what Steve remembers, or maybe it’s the setting that calls for it. Maybe it’s reverence, coming from centuries-old habits scolded into him by Winifred Barnes and her endless supply of psalms and rosaries.

 “Been a long time since—” Steve swallows down hard “—since I’ve seen any avenging on your part.”

 Bucky chuckles softly, half turns to look at Steve. “Avengin’s all yours, pal. I was straight up killin’.”

 Steve tips his head to the side, his eyes sweeping over Bucky, examining and assessing. The sharp edges of his face have softened; his eyes are calm as they reflect the glimmering light.

 “How’ve you been?”

 “Been helpin’ with the rebuildin’ for some time now. I was leavin’, but heard you were comin’ and—” Bucky shrugs. “I waited for another day or two.”

 Bucky looks at him and Steve can feel it, those eyes reaching into his very soul, searching for the answer to the question that follows.

 “How’ve you been?”

 Steve’s jaw reflexively tightens. Bucky notices, and Steve knows that if he lies, Bucky will know. He goes for a half truth.

 “Getting by.”

 Bucky studies him as if searching for something unspoken in his face. “Yeah?”

 Steve nods stiffly. “Sure.”

 Bucky smiles, the fleeting small smile of someone not quite convinced, but doesn’t question him further. He turns to the sanctuary, eyes gazing at the frescoes, the rich blues, purples, and burgundies of angels, saints, and popes.

 “I used to have faith. In this God,” he says suddenly, his voice rough and quiet as he faces the altar. “It ran in the family.”

 Steve glances at him, a nervous muscle twitching on his neck. They shared that life; this should be something Bucky remembers.

 Bucky scoffs self-deprecatingly, alleviating Steve’s fears.

 “You know that already. What you don’t know... When I grew up, I couldn’t reconcile the idea of a God who protects us and at the same time smites us for– for tryin’ to be happy, even if it was in different ways than what was usual back then.” He shakes his head. “And then one day, I just knew. They were wrong, all of them, they had it so wrong. God wouldn’t judge us. God loved us.”

 He smiles at Steve, sincere and tender.

 “I almost told you then,” he says as he turns back to the altar, and Steve’s heart rushes up into his throat.

 “I almost did,” Bucky affirms. “But then I got drafted and you got angry.”

 Steve gulps, choking on the apologies he never thought to make.

 “You pulled away and I thought”—Bucky shrugs—“what’s the point? I might be dead in a month. Might as well spare you the grief if you felt the same, or the guilt if you didn’t. What I actually did was much worse,” he adds darkly.

 “No,” Steve croaks, and it’s as much as he can get out without his words trembling as much as his hands do.

 Bucky chuckles softly. “It was. It was so selfish. I saw the way Peggy looked at you, how you looked at her, and— I didn’t like it. You could’ve had a life with her and I didn’t let you.”

 Steve can’t trust himself to give more than a simple “No,” repetitive and contrived. He hopes it can convey all he means but is too scared to say, lest he pushes Bucky away.

 “That night in the pub”—Bucky shakes his head, eyes glassy at the reminiscence—“she was beautiful. And I got in the way.”

 He presses his lips together with a deep frown.

 “I chalked it up to the near-death experience—and it was true, it was what pushed me. I said I’d follow you ‘to the jaws of death’”—he raises mocking eyebrows as he quotes the line from times long gone and Steve feels his eyes prickle—“but what I was thinkin’, what I was really thinkin’, and you never did know, was that this time the jaws of death might actually snap down on me, and I knew two things. I knew that I didn’t want to die, and more than that. I knew that I didn’t want to die havin’ wasted that chance.”

 “I’m glad you didn’t,” Steve manages, his voice thick.

 “You could’ve been with Peggy,” Bucky says. “It could’ve been easier.”

 “It could’ve,” Steve says, “but then I wouldn’t have been with you.”

 Bucky looks at him then, gifts him with a small smile, and Steve goes numb with anticipation when he feels Bucky’s hand slip softly into his own. He doesn’t dare move, fears that he’ll disturb what feels like a delicate moment, a pocket of time separate from his hollow reality.

 “I don’t care if God’s there anymore.” Bucky looks contemplatively at the frescoes. “Maybe He is, maybe He isn’t. I don’t care if He sees all, ‘cause far as we know, down here we’re all alone and all we have is each other. Maybe with His blessin’, or maybe not, and we might never know. If He exists, I can’t understand him, but if He does exist, He won’t judge me for it.”

 “All we have is each other,” Steve echoes weakly.

 Bucky smiles, his face softening with melancholy. “That’s about it, yeah.”

 “Who...” Steve swallows awkwardly. “I...”

 Bucky lets out a breathy laugh. “I don’t have anyone.”

 Steve suppresses a groan. “But you said—”

 “I said, and that’s the most I’ve said in one go in the last few months,” Bucky says, his eyes smiling kindly. “I can’t talk about most things. I’m gettin’ there.”

 Arguments and beseeching speeches gnaw Steve from the inside, a sequence of ‘Let me be with you’ and ‘You’ve got me,’ ‘Don’t go’ and ‘I miss you’ vibrating in his mind in a growing crescendo. He chews the inside of his cheek and stays silent.

 “Hope you’re takin’ advantage of the literature,” Bucky says, oblivious to Steve’s quiet turmoil.

 “You read a lot?” Steve asks hoarsely.

 “Yeah. Helped with the rememberin’,” Bucky replies. “‘I lived that,’ ‘I lived somethin’ similar,’ ‘Have no idea what that’s like.’”

 Steve nods. “Good.”

 Bucky cocks his head. “Television’s way more stimulatin’ though, so.”

 “Yeah,” Steve says flatly, all of the fight drained out of him.

 “Sometimes it puts me on edge,” Bucky elaborates.

 “Yeah,” Steve repeats, hoping against hope that Bucky will keep talking despite Steve’s conversational shortcomings.

 “In time,” Bucky acknowledges, and all Steve can say is, “Yeah.”

 Bucky clears his throat, his thumb brushing softly over Steve’s hand. Steve already knows what’s coming, his heart taking a violent dive into his stomach.

 “Steve? I’m gonna go now,” Bucky says gently.

 Steve struggles to keep himself from swaying, the ache inside his chest palpable and livid. He mutely fixes his eyes on the altar, unable to look at Bucky without collapsing into something vulnerable, babbling and raw.

 “You stay here, help the people out.”

 Steve feels Bucky’s warm hand leave his, and the suddenly empty space chills him to the bone.

 “’Til next time,” Bucky says.

 Steve can’t look.

 

 iii.

 Steve steps into the dark warehouse, secures the shield against his back, and motions for Wanda to follow.

 Tony is convinced that AIM, an organization of researchers gone rogue that means a lot to him but absolutely nothing to most of the other Avengers, has regrouped. He has been obsessively hunting for their trail, seeing clues and evidence where everyone else sees nothing.

 He may or may not be right, but Steve isn’t taking any risks. He calls the scout a training mission for Wanda and obliges Tony, who promises homemade pizza when they’re done. He half believes there won’t be anything to find. He’s already thinking of his nightly painting time, Steve’s latest and actually fruitful attempt to fill in the long hours of the day, when Wanda stumbles to a stop and sucks a breath in through her teeth.

 Steve stills. He follows her eye line and instinctively throws a protective arm out toward her when he spots the bodies lying on the floor. Wanda gestures to the far wall, where light from the street lamps is spilling in through an oval-shaped hole in the concrete. The edges of the missing space look charred.

 A groan comes from their feet. The people on the ground—five of them, Steve counts—are alive, possibly even only slightly injured. They squirm, stretch, and rub their hands over their wounds, muttering complaints or curses. Their equipment, craters of semi-transparent guns and rectangular minimalistic devices wholly unfamiliar to Steve, are all destroyed, smashed to useless pieces scattered all over the floor.

 Wanda wanders, running her fingers over the broken objects. Steve makes his way to the nearest wounded, a man no older than thirty with a bloody gash on his forehead and a swollen lip that prevents him from clearly uttering his mumbled words. He crouches beside him, checks his uniform for an insignia as the man turns his head, avoiding Steve’s eyes.

 Wanda traces the hole in the wall. She looks out at the night sky, her eyebrows knitted with confusion.

 “What could’ve done this?” she asks softly.

 Steve shakes his head, as lost as Wanda.

 “Call Tony,” he instructs.

 ~

 Steve splashes vivid red over muted orange, a rough bright sunrise bleeding over his canvas. He waits for updates on the warehouse front, although they’re probably not coming tonight. The men involved, escorted in handcuffs to the police station, don’t care to speak or don’t know much in the first place.

 He deliberately pushes away all thoughts and lets instinct take over, every brush stroke adding depth and definition to the colorful horizon. The skyline comes next. When the painting is complete, he’ll be gifting it to Wanda, a belated ‘Welcome to your new house’ gift to a friend who needs a home as much as Steve does. He hopes it’s easier for her to find.

 His phone chimes with a new message, number unknown, and Steve gives himself a tentative shake. He doesn’t dare get his hopes up until he reads the text.

“Come out on the Bellevue rooftop, punk. 1st Avenue side. I have cake.”

 Before he realizes what he’s doing, Steve texts back, “The hospital?”

 The previous numbers hadn’t worked once Bucky disappeared—Steve is too ashamed to admit that he tried calling a couple of times just in case—but he’s quite certain his text is timely enough to go through.

 The answer arrives quickly. “Yes. We’re celebrating.”

 Steve goes over a potential list of things to celebrate, but comes up short. The hospital is a short distance from the Tower, but he takes his motorcycle, not wanting to be late. He suppresses a snicker when he passes the hospital’s gift shop, briefly considering getting a balloon or a bouquet of flowers, even if the occasion escapes him.

 He climbs up staircase after staircase and reaches the rooftop undisturbed. A light breeze tickles his skin and cools his flushed cheeks once he steps outside. He spots Bucky easily, the sole figure in sight. He’s sitting on the ledge, his back to Steve as he gazes at the intricate constellations of the lit buildings below.

 “Bucky,” he calls softly, not wanting to startle.

 “Come on over!” Bucky calls without turning.

 Steve approaches with quick steps, plops down beside Bucky with a quiet grunt. Bucky really does have cake, a small one with fruit and yellow swirls on top, probably purchased from a supermarket if its plastic container is anything to go by. He also has whiskey. He swings the bottle giddily once Steve gets settled.

 “What are we celebrating?” Steve asks.

 Bucky holds out a finger, a smirk never quite leaving his lips, and produces a pack of cigarettes from his jacket pocket.

 Steve stares, nonplussed.

 “No?” Bucky scrunches his nose. “Nothin’?”

 Steve shakes his head.

 “Morita’s birthday” — Bucky grins.

 “That’s today?” Steve says. “Why would you even remember that?”

 Bucky snorts as he unwraps the cellophane around the pack. It twinkles as it catches the light and Bucky shoves it in his pocket, exchanging it with a box of matches.

 “I lose track of most days,” he says, pulling out a cigarette and slipping it between his lips. “Barely keep track of what month it is, let alone the day, so when I do know what’s what, and if the date’s somethin’ special, I take a moment and make it matter.”

 He strikes up a match, his face briefly lit by the honeyed orange flame, holds it at the cigarette’s tip as he puffs in.

 “Smokes and booze,” he says, putting out the match. “‘S what he’d have wanted.”

 “It is,” Steve agrees, shaking the bottle out of Bucky’s hands and prying it open.

 “Every damn birthday. ‘S what he did,” Bucky says.

 Steve downs a gulp of whiskey, wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.

 “What he always said”—Steve exchanges the bottle for the cigarette—“Whiskey and a smoke, that’s what my birthday’s all about.

 He lets out a small cough, unused to the burn of the nicotine, though the cigarette rests neatly between his fingers as muscle memory of his war days takes over. He blinks away the headiness and watches Bucky’s fingers, nimble and swift as they open up the cake box, the whiskey bottle firmly secured between his thighs.

 “We using our hands or...”

 Bucky clicks his tongue reproachfully. “Not everyone’s a caveman, Rogers.”

 He unsticks two plastic spoons from the side of the box, pulls them out of their wrappers. Steve holds out the cigarette, the filter-end turned toward Bucky, and Bucky takes a long drag. It feels unexpectedly intimate, and Steve’s shoulders slack with ease as he takes a drag of his own.

 Bucky passes Steve a spoonful of cake, holds out his own spoon.

 “Long live,” he says ceremoniously.

 “Long live,” Steve echoes as they clink their spoons together.

 “So,” Bucky starts.

 He licks the frosting off his lips, his tongue brushing the skin above them and below. Steve traces the movement, distractedly mesmerized, and notices what he’s doing only when his heart suddenly speeds up.

 “How did the raid go for you?”

 Steve looks up, startled. “The what?”

 “The raid,” Bucky repeats, as if the word will suddenly make sense. He takes a sip of whiskey, repositions the bottle between his legs. “The warehouse?”

 “That was you?” Steve says incredulously, making Bucky laugh and wiggle in delight. “It wasn’t a raid, it was recon. If that.”

 “Seriously?” Bucky muses.

 He stretches his neck forward, eyes motioning toward the cigarette. Steve gives him a drag, pulls in a shallow one of his own.

 “Who were they? They’re not talking,” Steve says. “Hydra?”

 “Hydra, no. AIM. Old timers, they’ve rebranded, tryin’ to stir up some trouble. Again”—Bucky dunks his spoon into the cake, licks it clean of cake and frosting—“you need to up your game.”

 Steve jerks the whiskey out from between Bucky’s thighs, giving him a mock-glare. “You branchin’ out?”

 Bucky raises his eyebrows.

 “Thought you only went after Hydra,” Steve clarifies.

 “I’m doin’ a little bit of everythin’ these days,” Bucky says, tipping his head back and dropping a candied strawberry into his mouth.

 “Everyone was alive,” Steve says as casually as he can muster, gulping a swig of whiskey to mask his nervousness. “Welcome change from the clean kill shots you used to impress us with.”

 Bucky flinches and Steve mentally curses himself. He takes another swig, long and hard, hoping to stop himself from saying anything worse.

 “I don’t do that anymore,” Bucky says evenly, eyes searching for the cigarette. He accepts it when Steve passes it to him, inhales the last pull and grinds it on the ledge. “Least casualties possible.”

 Steve sighs. “That’s great, Buck, it really is— I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to sound...” He shakes his head.

 “You didn’t say anythin’ that isn’t true.” Bucky nudges Steve’s ankle with his own. “Cake.”

 “Wait,” Steve says, halfway into a spoonful of yellow frosting and pineapple pieces. “The hole in the wall?”

 “Me,” Bucky affirms, eyes twinkling.

 Steve gapes; surely not even Hydra had that kind of tech. “How?

 Bucky giggles.

 “What, you have a light saber?!” Steve exclaims.

 “A light saber.” Bucky grins, swirling his spoon over the frosting. “Fury will like that.”

 Steve sits up straighter. “Fury?! You’re working with Nick Fury?!”

 Bucky smirks. “Don’t go tellin’ anyone.”

 “Jesus,” Steve breathes.

 Bucky licks frosting off his spoon, gazes calmly down at the city. “What’cha doin’ these days?”

 Steve puffs out a breath, takes a sip of whiskey. At least this time he has something he’s proud to share. “I’m painting a lot.”

 Bucky’s eyes light up as he looks at him. “Yeah?”

 It’s more of obsessively painting to shush his thoughts and too-loud feelings, but Steve isn’t about to overshare.

 “Yep”—he smacks his lips—“Lots of new materials to play with.”

 “Aren’t there, though?” Bucky smiles. “I went to an art supply store once and thought, hell, Steve would love this.”

 Steve’s chest burns, his brow furrowed in longing. They could be sharing these moments. They could be sharing the art store trips and the recons, the raids. They could be sharing more nights, or every night. The thought doesn’t seem to cross Bucky’s mind at all.

 “Yeah, but. I mean—” Steve clears his throat, shifts “—sometimes it gets to be too much.”

 “What does?” Bucky asks.

 “Well”—Steve runs his fingers over the bottle—“this, everything. This nonstop lifestyle, this-this mindset of always getting more, doing more, having it all no matter who gets hurt...” He ducks his head, fixes his eyes on the lip of the bottle.

 “You keep comparin’, that’s the thing,” Bucky observes. “You keep thinkin’ how it was and how it is, and it throws you off balance, it’s bound to.” He shrugs. “And there’s no point to it. Not like we can go back. Would probably not even want to.”

 “You wouldn’t?” Steve asks.

 Bucky grimaces, chews on his lower lip. “It was simpler, yeah, but look at how far the world has come.”

 Steve gives a small nod. It has, but it’s been a double-edged sword.

 “Not sayin’ that it’s perfect”—Bucky reaches for the whiskey, easily snatches it from Steve’s loose fingers—“but people know now. They won’t accept nothin’ but what’s right.” He takes a swig. “You could paint all that. The difference. Depict it, somehow. Make it art.”

 Steve scoffs a dark chuckle, awkwardly picking at his nails. “I’m just painting skylines.”

 He feels Bucky’s eyes on him, but keeps his own fixed on his hands.

 “I’m sure you’re makin’ the best there are,” Bucky says firmly.

 Steve feels him move, turn his body towards him.

 “You gettin’ better?”

 “Hm?” Steve murmurs.

 “At skylinin’,” Bucky clarifies, bending his knee and propping it on the ledge.

 “Sure,” Steve says feebly.

 “Show me,” Bucky says.

 Steve lifts his head, startled. “What?”

 Bucky beckons with his hand, a pen that’s seemingly come out of nowhere twisted between his fingers.

 “That’s sketching,” Steve points out.

 “Still,” Bucky insists.

 Steve lets out a dramatic sigh, shakes his head as he uncaps the proffered pen.

 “The things I do for you,” he mock-complains, eyeing the cake box for sketching surfaces.

 “No, here.” Bucky offers his hand, palm side down.

 Steve arches an eyebrow. “Your hand?”

 Bucky nods, his eyes confident and wide. Steve recognizes this as what it is—an offer of comfort, an echo of a familiar gesture dating back to their pre-war days. It started out as a joke, but soon turned into a habit. Steve liked the warm feel of Bucky’s hands in his own, liked that he would leave pieces of his soul on them, a reminder of his affection. Bucky liked it too, or so he’d said once, on a humid summer night that found them idling on their apartment’s fire escape. He liked to watch Steve as he drew, long eyelashes hanging low, lips pinched as he would concentrate on his work. He liked the gliding of the pen’s tip as Steve drew and connected lines, and how he’d turn Bucky’s hand and fingers from an unconventional canvas to a work of art.

 “That’s a tiny ass space for a skyline,” Steve remarks, grasping Bucky’s hand, ignoring the drumming of his heart and trying with all his might not to shiver.

 “You better draw a tiny ass place then,” Bucky drawls.

 Steve bends over Bucky’s hand, his grip firm as he angles it just so, tugs it closer to perfect the minute details. His breathing turns deep and slow. The black lines meander across the stretch of Bucky’s hand, some horizontal trails going past his knuckles, extending upwards onto the length of his fingers. When he deems the sketch finished, he pulls back and surveys the final work as he discreetly pockets Bucky’s pen, a memento of a stolen moment, his for safekeeping.

 Bucky looks at the back of his hand, his eyes going over the thin, frail stick buildings, the shades that fill in windows and darker corners, the skyscraper and the cathedral spire that cover the skin over his index and ring fingers. He nods in approval.

 “Like it?” Steve asks.

 “Best tiny ass skyline I’ve seen,” Bucky confirms.

 He licks his lower lip, lightly nips it on the inside as his eyes flicker toward the sky. He’s reading the position of the moon, trying to tell the time, and Steve knows what follows before Bucky speaks.

 “I should—” Bucky hesitates, as if the notion makes him uncomfortable, but Steve is already capping the whiskey bottle and shoving the used spoons inside the box.

 “I’m gonna leave you the cake,” Bucky says, hauling his leg off the ledge, crouching into a kneeling position.

 “Mighty generous,” Steve mumbles toward the box. “I’d rather you—”

 He stops himself before he says anything he’ll regret—not because he won’t mean it, but because he doesn’t want to corner Bucky, put the kind of pressure on him that he may not want to take on. He occupies himself with crumping the spoon wrappers into small balls, as if this is an essential part of cleaning up the space.

 “Gonna leave you the whiskey too,” Bucky tries graciously.

 “Amazing,” Steve mutters humorlessly.

 Bucky stares at him and Steve can feel it, his gaze burning a hole through the side of his forehead. He doesn’t look up, not even to acknowledge if it’s pleading, apologetic, or merely politely interested. He just doesn’t want to see Bucky go.

 “’Til next time,” Bucky says wearily.

 He leans over, softly presses his lips to Steve’s hair and lingers for a second. He stands up and gingerly pads away.

 Steve still doesn’t look up.

 

 iv.

 The invitation from Latveria arrives in early December and is met with wariness. The country has chosen to remain isolated for decades, and its self-proclaimed monarch, Victor von Doom, is notoriously rumored to have more power than he should, wildly ambiguous morals and ambitions that are contrary to the rest of the world’s continuing survival. The Avengers are invited to the festivities of the country’s most infamous national holiday, Doom’s Day, instituted by the country’s leader in honor of himself.

 Still, a few team members jump at the opportunity to go, each for their own reasons. Tony lusts after the country’s technological advances, so meticulously hidden under a veil of secrecy. Sam is genuinely curious to see the much talked-of country, and Wanda craves a change of scenery. Steve reluctantly agrees to go after much pressure and cajoling.

 They arrive in a quinjet and are escorted into the great castle on the mountain top by a small troop of stiff guards. Dr. Doom never stops smiling, and Steve feels the hairs at the back of his neck rising when he takes him by the elbow and guides him to the grand feast, the rest of the Avengers on their heels. They are joined by the country’s ministers—quiet, almost cowed people who always look at their monarch before they speak.

 Steve politely declines spending the night in the castle, opting for an inn room in the capital below. Wanda and Sam follow his lead, but Tony stays, too eager to discuss robotics to go anywhere else. Steve heeds him caution.

 Sam tries to get him to a local pub, Wanda suggests a walk around town. Steve politely avoids both, but it comes as no surprise. He has been avoiding people for weeks now, has joined in only when work and training demand it. His mind goes blank on words that used to come easily, large groups of people wear him out or put him on edge. He feels disconnected and has to get away, retreat somewhere solitary and safe before the sensation overwhelms him. Getting through his days is a process, has always been one, and he’s currently failing spectacularly at it.

 He retreats to his room, sprawls on his stomach on the double bed and does what he’s done every night since this mood kicked in. He idly watches yet another show he won’t remember, the TV sound turned down to a soothing murmur, his eyes half-lidded in the light of the room’s bedside lamp. His cheek, mashed against the pillow, is getting number by the second, but shifting feels like a hassle.

 The ping on his phone has him blindly reaching out. His fingers brush over it and send it to the floor with a muffled thud. Steve sighs, rubs a hand over his face as he untangles himself from the flax blanket and bends down to retrieve it.

“Punk. Meet me at the bus station outside your inn.”

 Before he’s consciously aware of doing so, Steve is trading his pajamas for black pants and hunting in his duffle for a clean shirt. He cannot fathom why Bucky would be in Latveria, but he’s used to them operating on the same grounds, even if their paths rarely cross. It’s unfair how Steve’s heart feels instantly lighter, how easily his spirits lift at Bucky’s beck and call. Or maybe it’s a blessing, a support system consisting of the one person he desperately needs, though he can’t hope to have.

 He’s halfway into a pair of trainers when the phone pings again.

“You comin?”

 Steve grimaces his confusion and sends out a quick, “Yes.”

~

 Bucky is slumped on the bench at the otherwise empty bus stop, idly knocking his knees against each other as he looks out at the cobbled lane. Steve clears his throat to signal his arrival and sits heavily beside him. Bucky gives him a lopsided smile, small and slow.

 “Punk,” he says in lieu of greeting.

 “Two texts,” Steve observes with a weary smile, trying not to stare at the dark shadows underneath Bucky’s bloodshot eyes. “We double texting now?”

 Bucky huffs out a snort. “Didn’t know if you were awake, ‘s pretty late.” He rolls his shoulders, cranes his neck till it creaks. “Had to know if there was any point waitin’.”

 Steve nods. “What are we waiting for?”

 “The bus,” Bucky deadpans, stealing a look at Steve.

 Steve twists his lips in consent. “Okay.”

 Bucky gives him a sideways glance, but Steve keeps his eyes fixed on a statue-like figure that’s standing still under a street light.

 “Why are you here?” he asks without turning.

 Bucky follows his eye line, presses his lips. “Not yet,” he mumbles, eyebrows drawn in a troubled furrow.

 Steve allows for silence, waits until the green and silver bus approaches them at its own leisurely pace. Bucky springs up, side-glances at Steve.

 “Why won’t you ask where we’re goin’?”

 Steve shrugs as he lifts himself off the bench. “Don’t care.”

 Bucky stares, the incredulity rolling off of him, then licks his lips. “We’re just ridin’ round the city.”

 “Won’t the driver kick us out?” Steve mumbles as he follows Bucky onto the bus.

 He looks up, catches Bucky discreetly saluting the driver who minutely tips his head in recognition. He follows Bucky to the back, the bus empty of other passengers. Bucky motions for him to take the window seat and Steve obliges. Bucky plops down next to him with a heavy thump.

 “Friend of yours?” Steve nods to the driver as the bus takes off.

 Bucky makes a noncommittal sound, slipping his hands inside his pockets.

 “Couldn’t talk because of the Night Watch?” Steve guesses.

 Bucky gives him a tired nod. “Day Watch, Night Watch, they’re all the same. Always there, always patrolin’. So considerate,” he snarks.

 Steve bites his lower lip, hesitant. “Rumor has it they’re robots. That that’s why they look so identical. Is it true?”

 Bucky twists his mouth, lips dejectedly turning down at the ends. “I mean... It’s pretty difficult to get any intel on Latveria.”

 “That why you’re here?” Steve asks. “Intel?”

 Bucky cocks his head, raising his eyebrows. “The monarch of the most secretive country suddenly invites the Avengers to his most beloved national holiday? Sounds a little iffy. Had to come early to make sure he wasn’t plannin’ anythin’.”

 “Anything like blowing us up?” Steve suggests.

 “Or keepin’ you hostage.” Bucky shrugs. “You can’t blame us, the guy is literally named Doom. Celebrates his own life on a holiday he calls Doom’s Day. Can hardly get any more sinister.”

 Steve nods. “Did you find anything?”

 Bucky smooths the fabric over his thighs with a small sigh. “Like I said. Pretty difficult to get intel on Latveria.”

 He settles further down into his seat. Steve turns to look at him and almost chokes on his own breath when Bucky lays his head on Steve’s shoulder, shifting until he settles.

 “How’s the paintin’ goin’?” he mumbles, the corners of his mouth brushing against Steve’s sleeve.

 The paint brushes and canvases gathering dust in Steve’s living room flash before his eyes and he clears his throat.

 “Good,” he manages, even if it comes out a little strained.

 “Perfectin’ the skylines?” Bucky drawls, his eyes closed.

 “Moved on to abstracts,” Steve says.

 So abstract that they’re not even a thing.

 “Why...” He swallows. “Why’re we always meeting like this?”

 Bucky mumbles something incoherent that Steve chooses to interpret as a cue to elaborate.

 “Churches, rooftops, buses. Unusual places and...” Steve drums a nervous hand on his knee. “Feels important somehow, and I’m missing out why.”

 “They’re liminal places,” Bucky mutters, huddled against Steve.

 Steve turns, looks at the top of his head. “What?”

 “Liminal,” Bucky explains sleepily. “Thresholds, places in-between. Neither here nor there.” He exhales softly. “Like me.”

 The last part is a whisper and it makes Steve start.

 “What d’you mean?” he asks, trying to keep his voice soft.

 “’M not,” Bucky murmurs, almost as if he’s sleep-talking. “Not yet. Gettin’ there.”

 Steve opens his mouth, a thousand questions and retorts on the tip of his tongue, but Bucky’s already asleep, his breathing deep and even, his weight resting on Steve’s side. Steve chews on his lower lip and turns his gaze out of the window.

 The streets they pass are empty, save for the Night Watch, hands folded behind their backs, figures in silver and green uniforms, unmoving and unblinking. Steve would swear they’re robots—Dr. Doom is known for his affinity for such technologies.

 Bucky sleeps peacefully, and Steve feels a kind of content that he hasn’t experienced since the ‘40s. The bus drives slowly, the ride less bumpy than any bus Steve has ever ridden on, its rumble lulling rather than a sore. They pass by houses so tiny and clustered that they remind him of caricatures, and houses reminiscent of small fortresses, their stone walls beige and cream, the roofs all peaked and brown. They pick up a passenger, a drunk man with ruddy cheeks who barely spares them a glance and gets off two stops later, and then another, a woman draped in shawls who casts furtive looks at the driver until she climbs off at the city square. Steve gazes at the square once, twice, and by the fourth time they pass by, the bus driving in circles around the city, Steve is overly familiar with the sight of the cathedral, the bell tower spiked and imposing amid the dark towers surrounding it.

 It feels like the tour Steve never got to make, and as Bucky sleeps, Steve takes on his measured breathing and stares out at taverns, barbershops, tailor shops, and the town’s sole museum, bathed in the amber light of the sparse street lamps. Street after meandering street, they keep riding, and Steve catches the driver glancing at them through the mirror more than once, as if to ensure their safety. By the umpteenth time they reach the city’s main park, the bus jolts to a stop and a young man climbs on, taking a seat at the front.

 Bucky jerks his head backwards at the sudden halt, eyes bleary as he peers at Steve and murmurs something too jumbled for Steve to decipher.

 “Hey, it’s okay,” Steve says softly, disentangling his arm from beneath Bucky and wrapping it around his shoulders. “’S alright, I’ve got you.”

 Bucky manages to fix his eyes on Steve’s, and Steve tries to suppress a smile of fondness at the red spot on Bucky’s forehead where it had been pressed against Steve’s clothes. Bucky slightly parts his lips and Steve perks his ears to hear what’s coming, but he’s not expecting what does. Bucky stretches, brushes his lips softly against Steve’s. He pulls back, inspects Steve’s face sleepily, apparently approves and goes back to sleep, cradled against Steve’s side.

 It’s a while until Steve gathers his bearings, and only does so because the ache from his arm, stretched stiffly around Bucky, is getting rough.

 He doesn’t move an inch.

 Bucky wakes up long before he actually pulls away. Steve can tell by the change in his breathing, but doesn’t speak, content by the arrangement, stiffness be damned.

 His stomach gives a jolt of discontent when Bucky sits up, ruffles his hair, and says, “This is our stop.”

 They get off the bus where they started. Dawn is peeking in the horizon. The day’s first pinks are blending in with the blues and blacks, and the earlier birds have started tweeting their good mornings.

 Bucky grimaces as he rubs his eyes. Steve shuffles, shoving his hands in his pockets. He wonders if Bucky remembers the kiss and finds there’s no good way to ask.

 Bucky runs a hand through his hair.

 “Thanks, I—” He shakes his head.

 “What?” Steve prompts.

 Bucky shrugs. “Hadn’t slept in four days. Got pretty tiresome after a while.” He smiles sheepishly, looking up at Steve through his eyelashes. “So thanks.”

 “Any time,” Steve says awkwardly.

 Bucky takes a step backward. Steve knows what’s coming and wants to forestall.

 “So—” Bucky starts.

 He can’t ask him to stay, so Steve blurts out, “You leaving?” It comes out petulant; Steve’s lower lip is jutting out.

 Bucky presses his mouth. He looks pained, and Steve takes some sort of strange vindication out of it, although it doesn’t change the facts.

 “’Til next time, Stevie,” Bucky says, strained.

 Steve watches him until he goes.

 

 v.

 Doctor Doom is wreaking havoc in New York and his once acquaintances and now openly foes are handling it particularly badly. The Avengers are too busy struggling with Doom’s humanoid robots—a little too adept at fighting, a little too seasoned and precise in their military tactics—to go after the man himself, as he commands his small army to perform his whims. Even the otherwise stoic Thor is thoroughly mystified, and the ever-snarky Tony has stopped making quips for an unnerving twenty minutes.

 Steve jerks his head as Natasha, currently fighting by his side, lets out a stifled cry. He throws his shield against the robot that is strangling her, distracts it long enough for Natasha to crawl away.

 “Tony, what the hell is happening?” he yells into his comm.

 “Um, well…” Tony hesitates into Steve’s ear. “I hate that genius bastard and regret that we ever bonded over dinner, and I hate his stupid mask, it’s tacky—”

 “Tony!” Steve barks.

 “There’s about twelve of ‘em marching towards you and, boy, do they look happy,” Tony says. “That blank expression they all have—it’s happiness, I can tell.”

 “Yeah, I see them!”

 From the corner of his eye, he catches sight of Natasha taking a step back as she spots the dozen robots in question. Her eyes are gleaming with alarm.

 “A little help?” Steve says urgently.

 “Not likely,” Tony says.

 “Dammit,” Steve breathes.

 “Having fun?” Natasha says gruffly, coming to stand near him.

 “Party’s a little too raucous for my taste.” Steve grimaces.

 The robots are getting closer, whirring sounds accompanying every step they take, the force of their marching making the ground vibrate. Natasha wipes blood from her lower lip and straightens her shoulders, defiant and determined. Steve gets a firm grasp on his shield and braces himself for the impact.

 One robot crumbles to the ground, and then another. Its closest comrade follows suit, then one that’s marching on the front, and Steve looks around wildly, trying to spot their deus-ex-machina assistant.

 “Huh,” Natasha says thoughtfully, her gaze fixed into the distance.

 Steve follows her eyes, sucks in a hard breath. Disoriented, he momentarily forgets to be on guard, but the robot that is aiming for his head collapses to the ground either way.

 “He sure knows how to make an entrance,” Natasha comments as Steve gapes ineffectually. “Look at all that hair flying...” She clicks her tongue in appreciation. “So dramatic.”

 Bucky lands by the robots’ left flank. Two of the humanoids turn on him, their moves sharp and stilted, as the rest advance as planned, stalking towards Steve and Natasha.

 “Who the hell gave him bullets strong enough to disable robots?” Natasha asks, somersaulting her way to grappling a robot to the ground.

 Steve heaves a deep sigh and hurls his shield.

 ~

 Steve manages to go through the debriefing without his eyes glued to Bucky, who against all odds has stuck around and is attentively listening to Tony drone on about robots, AI, and Dr. Doom’s retreat to the nigh impenetrable Latveria. There’s a battle to be fought yet, but strategy will be discussed later. Bucky leans forward, folding his hands as he explains the materials in his bullets, the specifics of how they work. Steve unwittingly tunes out, withdraws inside his mind, where he’s safe from hostile technology, potential force fields that could fry them upon impact, and from Bucky’s inevitable departure. He ruthlessly torments himself with the latter, builds a wall around his heart lest hope attempts to wiggle its way inside. That would be bad; that would leave him crashing.

 The Avengers move to the lounge, talk Bucky into joining them for food and drinks. Steve quietly slips out, dashes to his apartment to change out of his uniform. He viciously wants to hide in his bedroom, too tired for small talk, too bone-weary of sticking around just to see Bucky go. It’s cowardly, selfish, and he berates himself for it. He splashes cold water on his face, pleads with himself to come to his senses.

 He makes his way to the lounge, nods to Clint, who is sprawled on the couch nursing a glass of champagne. Snowflakes are falling heavily outside the glass walls, twirling spots of white against the dark night sky. The February snowfall makes a pleasant contrast to the orange glow that’s tinting the room, to the warmth of camaraderie among people quietly relaxing or conversing with each other.

 Steve needs the cold, needs it to numb his spinning mind. He passes Wanda and Sam, catches a conversation about “wings shooting fire.” He glances at Thor, describing alongside Natasha their near demise to an interested and visibly commiserating Bruce. Bucky is animatedly chatting with Tony, as Tony munches on a slice of pizza, mumbling out encouraging hums.

 Steve leaves all of it behind, walking to the balcony, softly closing the glass door as he goes. He pads to the edge and rests his forearms on the railing. The snow settles softly on his hair and clothes, leaves small wets spots on his exposed skin.

 He gazes at the city, vast and bustling, and his shoulders sag with years of repressed emotions, of a possibly misplaced attempt to keep up a façade, to give people what they needed—a symbol, a hero, someone who looked like him but felt like a stranger. The man the 21th century brought back, the man it threw back into battle without a question, a command more than a request, to fight for the same things he gave his life to destroy, this man wasn’t so much Steve Rogers as history’s construction of an unparalleled soldier, a beacon of bravery and sacrifice, who never needed, never wavered, never failed. Steve Rogers has retreated, crawled away from a world that keeps on taking, that only gives to ruthlessly reclaim.

 He exhales heavily, counting down the minutes until he can sneak back into his room, try to find the next best thing to get him through the day. He’s been considering snorkeling as of late, if only for the funny way the word sounds.

 “I was wonderin’ where you’d got to.”

 Steve turns at Bucky’s voice, wets his lips to hide his nervousness. “Buck. Sorry.” He slips his hands inside his pockets. “I just needed to clear my head a bit.”

 Bucky nods. “It’s okay. I understand,” he says calmly. “Do you want me to go?”

 “No. No!” Steve repeats, more vehemently the second time as the thought No, not ever! flashes in front of his eyes. “It’s fine...” he tries again, his tone forced, but successfully even. “If you don’t mind the snow.”

 Bucky smiles, a small, quivering quirk of the lips as he comes to stand beside Steve.

 “I’m feeling a bit better now,” Steve says, omitting how Bucky’s presence is a weight lifted off his heart. “It’s just... Do you ever have moments where you feel so out of place?”

 He looks up at the snow, now denser as it twirls around them.

 “Days where it really hits you how different the world is...”

 He stops himself with a sigh.

 Bucky probably doesn’t. He’s accepted the present—as well as he should. He opens his mouth, fumbles for words but doesn’t find any, and Steve can’t blame him. It’s him, Steve, that needs to fix himself, get on with the changed times, his changed circumstances. He rests his forearms on the railing again, ducks his head in resignation. The prolonged silence makes him want to flee.

 “All the time.”

 Steve whirls his head in surprise. Bucky’s eyes are on his, kind and calm and impossibly blue, aged by years that he never got to live, wearied by cruel choices that he never got to make. Steve suddenly feels like he missed the signs, wrote off a conversation that only needed time to happen. His heart gives a painful tug at all the lifetime—lifetimes—that he shares with Bucky, at everything he’s been trying to denounce.

 Bucky is silent as he gazes out at the city. He doesn’t look particularly ruffled by the confession, the information as factual to him as breathing, a shared experience that Steve desperately craved for to stop feeling like a stray.

 “What helps you get through it?” Steve asks.

 Bucky scoffs humorlessly, drops his eyes to the ground. “You, Steve.”

 Steve stares at Bucky for a long minute, too stunned to speak.

 Bucky looks up at him, a tentative smile tugging at his lips. “I talk big, but I ain’t all that,” he says calmly. “Things get tough and when they do”—he shrugs—“you’re what keeps me goin’. That you’re here. Not givin’ up. And sometimes, I give in”—he huffs—“and text you, and you always come, and I always leave you dry. ‘S unfair, but you always made the bad stuff better.”

 Steve stares, unblinking and silent, then throws his head back and lets out a low groan. Bucky chuckles, brushing a wisp of hair out of his eyes.

 “I respected that you wanted to stay away,” Steve says stiffly.

 “I know you did,” Bucky confirms, eyes twinkling in amusement.

 “Doesn’t mean I like it.”

 “I know,” Bucky reassures.

 “I hate it,” Steve adds for good measure.

 Bucky breathes a small laugh. He looks up at the sky, blinks as snowflakes fall into his eyes, licks his lips as they land on his mouth. Steve watches him openly, wistfully. He wants to run his fingers through Bucky’s battle-tangled hair, trace the faint freckles under his eyes and press his lips to the upturned corners of Bucky’s own. He’s lost in the fantasy and startlingly jolts out of it when Bucky turns to grip his arm.

 “Listen, I—” He stops, narrows his eyes with amused suspicion. “Did you just... shiver?”

 Steve swallows and deems silence is the safest way to go.

 Bucky must see the answer plainly written on his face, because he lets out a loud laugh. “Why?!”

 Steve opens his mouth, snaps it shut. Bucky is waiting for an answer, one that makes sense, and Steve uselessly tries to think of something that will not expose him irreparably.

 “I, it’s—” It’s cold

 It’s good enough an excuse, as good excuses go, but Bucky cuts him off before Steve gets to the lie. He leans in, closes the distance with a swift kiss, a rough little thing planted on Steve’s half-parted mouth. It comes straight-on with no coordination, eyes open and noses colliding, as Bucky fleetingly nuzzles Steve’s lower lip and pulls away. Steve licks his mouth and tastes sugar; he blinks the stars out of his eyes.

 “Unfair,” he manages, voice coming out ragged.

 Bucky lights up. “Yeah?”

 “I’d have done it sooner,” Steve mumbles.

 Bucky lets out a breathless chuckle and reaches out, his fingers winding through Steve’s damp hair. He presses himself against Steve’s chest, his torso, his thighs, two people melting into one as their lips search out one another and crush together in an urgent kiss. Bucky lightly nips Steve’s lower lip, closes his eyes as his tongue finds its way inside Steve’s mouth, and Steve forgets to breathe. His heart is soaring in his chest, a drum beating frenetically inside confines and he clutches at Bucky’s sweater, twists and rumples it with his numb fingers, clings on it so that he doesn’t fall apart.

 His lips are swollen, Bucky’s impossibly soft. Bucky holds him close, one hand pressing at his back, the other cupping Steve’s face. The metal feels cool against Steve’s skin that’s now burning hot despite the cold and snow, and Steve doesn’t have a single care in the whole wide world. Aliens could invade, asteroids could hit, but all he gives a damn about is tilting his head just so, allowing better access to Bucky’s tongue currently sweeping across Steve’s teeth, willing to let the world burn around him as long as he goes down in this kiss.

 Bucky moans into Steve’s lips, a quiet, almost aching sound, and pulls back, reluctantly disentangling himself, loosely holding Steve’s fingers in his own. His eyes are dark and serious, his breathing heavy, and Steve drinks him in, counts the snowflakes speckling his dark hair. Bucky reaches out, places his right palm on Steve’s heart and Steve almost recoils, blushes at how it feels like it’ll explode right off his chest. Bucky’s lips quiver upwards into a slow, gratified smile as he lifts Steve’s hand, holds it against his own heart. It’s hammering so hard against Steve’s palm, so rapid and erratic that Steve is both blissfully pleased and unavoidably worried. A thrill runs down his spine. It simultaneously makes his legs go numb and his whole body burn up with life.

 He tugs at Bucky’s fingers, takes a small step away from the railing.

 “Let’s go.”

 ~

 Steve’s vision explodes in a kaleidoscope of colors and he gasps, pants out a whimper forming Bucky’s name. Bucky collapses on his side, his chest glistening with sweat as it shallowly rises and falls. He exhales small, incredulous puffs of air until he laughs, a gurgling loud giggle that seems to emanate from somewhere deep inside, that makes Steve’s heart both swell and ache at once.

 He rolls to his side, draws up his knees and presses them against Bucky’s thigh. He trails his hand down Bucky’s stomach, lets his touch wander till he reaches his left arm. His fingers dip and rise as he traces metal patterns, geometric ridges and the edges of the red star; Bucky watches him, shifts so that Steve doesn’t have to stretch. Steve gently touches the angry rays of scarred flesh, permanent lines that attest to Bucky’s courage, hears Bucky sharply inhale a short breath. He memorizes it, the point where silver meets flesh, a palpably vivid memory for when he’ll long for Bucky’s touch. He keeps running his fingers over Bucky’s shoulder, his neck , down to his clavicle. Bucky shivers with pleasure and Steve preens, he thinks—

That serves him right

 “What’re you doin’?” Bucky asks with a smile.

 Steve starts, abruptly jolts out of his reverie. He looks up at Bucky, his face beaming as he gazes quizzically at Steve.

 Steve grips Bucky’s wrist, caresses his thumb with his own. “Stay a little longer?” he asks softly.

 Bucky dips to his side, tips his forehead against Steve’s, lays so close that his breath ruffles and tickles Steve’s eyelashes.

 “’M not leavin’,” he says.

 Steve eyes widen, begging the answer to his unspoken question, needing to hear it again. Bucky must see it in his face, must find something that he wants to soothe. He runs his fingers through Steve’s matted hair, his touch light, affectionate.

 “’M not,” he assures.

 “Hallelujah,” Steve murmurs roughly.

 He hums a sigh of content, revels when Bucky snorts out in laughter. He tugs the sheets so high that they almost reach his shoulders, buries his head in Bucky’s chest.

 “Hallelujah.”

 Bucky kisses his forehead and strokes his hair. Steve tells him stories of a brighter future.