Chapter 1: Prologue
When HYDRA sent the Winter Soldier to New York to take out a target, there was no black leather, no shining chrome. Everything that would mark him as the espionage world's bogeyman was hidden behind a rumpled and ordinary exterior.
He was a man, no, a guy, a youngish guy, making his way through the streets of New York, guitar case in hand, backpack over his shoulder. The only thing that marked him as different would take the eyes of another assassin, or someone with comparable skills, to see. There was no guitar in the case; instead there were guns. There were no jeans and soft shirts in the backpack, no dog-eared notebooks filled with scribbled lyrics; there were more weapons and ammunition. He was loaded with weapons. He was a weapon, but a weapon who walked in plain sight.
A weapon set loose to perform his appointed task and trusted to return. Although trusted might not be the right word.
One didn't trust a computer to undertake its programming. One didn't trust a train to travel down its tracks. One simply knew that, in the absence of malware or a rockslide, it would happen.
It wasn't trust that let HYDRA loose its soldier into the world; it was the supreme confidence of knowing you've rewired a human being so thoroughly that human may no longer be entirely the right word to describe him.
Pride goeth before a fall, however, and no one can account for every eventuality, particularly not ones brought forth by the god of mischief.
The Chitauri, for example. No one could have predicted holes being ripped in the sky and invaders from another dimension pouring in, hell bent on slaughter. No one, not even HYDRA in all their arrogance, could have predicted behemoths filling New York's skies.
The Winter Soldier's programming met something it was never designed to deal with and it broke. In the absence of the program that had run it for close to seventy years, the brain searched desperately for guidance, for something, anything, to tell it what to do, because if it stood there, frozen, it was going to die.
HYDRA's brainwashing met something it could never have predicted, malware in the code, a rockslide on the tracks, and their control broke.
Pieces of the man the Soldier used to be, the man who'd been a soldier when he fell, bubbled up through the depths to meet the threat.
When holes ripped open in the sky and the Chitauri poured down on New York City it wasn't just the Avengers who met them.
He had weapons, so he turned them on the creatures. There was no elegance, just brutal violence. His ammo didn't last long—he'd come loaded for assassination and found himself in a war—so he was quickly reduced to knives, his metal arm, using his guns as clubs.
Almost as terrifying to the people around him as the aliens.
At the time he hadn't known what had ended it, all he'd known was that it had ended. He kept prowling, kept roaming, people scattering out of his path like he was something to be afraid of.
Maybe they were right.
Probably they were right.
His mind was a cacophony of cascading memories and screaming conflict: run, report, stay, flee, fight.
Eventually they found him. They'd known him. She'd known him, anyway, and that was enough.
His right hand flexed around his knife and the plates in his metal arm shifted, whirring and resettling, ready to fight, ready for war.
He didn't fight. Not them, anyway. The only person he fought was himself and when they shocked him into unconsciousness the only thing he felt was grateful.
SHIELD emptied him out, sucked him so clean he was surprised he hadn't flipped inside out, organs displayed for everyone to see, heart and lungs and spleen flapping in the air.
He got it. He understood.
For the first however-long he didn't understand anything. It was a blur of confusion and anger and pain. He didn't know if HYDRA had been drugging him and this was coming down or if it was purely mental. SHIELD didn't volunteer and he didn't ask. Eventually it smoothed out.
Eventually he could think.
He was doing okay, considering. The nightmares didn't come every night, and when they came they didn't last all night.
The fact that SHIELD seemed to want to help him was beyond his capacity to understand.
He spent two long sleepless nights and days pacing back and forth in his rooms, trying to work it out. He had things they wanted to know. They hadn't even known HYDRA was still a threat. Hadn't known it still existed. Even his splintered mind, memories scattered across the decades with little rhyme nor reason, was a treasure-trove and they wanted every last scrap of intel.
He got that.
That didn't mean they had to help him. They had no reason to help him. He'd definitely killed more than a few of their people. Of all the things he could remember clearly, he could remember that.
He couldn't come up with an answer that made sense and there was no point asking: any answer couldn’t be trusted, no matter what it was.
He'd been awake for fifty hours when he decided: it didn't matter. It didn't matter why they were helping him. They were doing it and he could either let them and accept it, or he could spend his time asking questions without answers and drive himself crazy.
He lay down, closed his eyes, and was asleep in minutes. His nightmares were, by his standards, pretty tame.
No one was going to lock him up.
Based on everything he'd told them, based on all the evidence they'd been able to compile, they'd decided his official status had been a POW. Prisoner of War. Nothing he'd done had been his choice.
He couldn’t quite believe it was going to be that simple.
Turned out, he was right.
SHIELD never found out where the first leak came from. That was the problem with an organisation full of trained intelligence operatives: they knew how to cover their tracks. It was someone who thought they were a patriot, that much soon became obvious. Doing the only honourable thing in the face of gross injustice, when he, a terrorist, an assassin, a decades spanning serial-killer, was getting let off scot-free.
Getting coddled and wasn't that just typical of the liberal nanny state their once great nation had become.
That first headline, that first story, was permanently emblazoned on his memory, because part of him kind of agreed. Oh, not the bit about the once-great nation—they could take that bullshit and shove it right up their ass—but the coddling bit.
He was getting off scot-free.
And it wasn't that he thought he should be locked up. He understood that he'd had no choice, that he hadn't been a willing participant, when he'd picked up the gun, the knife, the wire, used his bare hands and killed. But the thing SHIELD's therapist didn't seem to get—the thing no one seemed to get—was that it didn't make as much difference as everyone seemed to think it should.
The media shitstorm lasted months. It raged back and forth between people who thought he was a stone-cold killer in need of killing and people who, thanks to some strategic counter-leaking by SHIELD, thought he was a victim. No one seemed to think there was a middle ground, but he was coming to learn that that was normal nowadays. Whatever people decided, whichever side they picked, everyone seemed to have an opinion and everyone knew. Everyone knew about him. About what he could do. About what he'd done.
It killed any desire he might have had to wander the streets. Even some people in SHIELD looked at him differently now. He got tired of looking at people and seeing fear.
"What do you want people to call you?"
He liked SHIELD's therapist, about as much as he liked anyone. He didn't dislike her, anyway. However much he'd come back, there was something missing. The part of him that liked people, that wanted to be around people, that knew how to connect with them, to connect with the world—it was missing.
"What do you mean?"
She gave him a piercing look. "We've talked around this before, but I think it's important that you at least think about a name."
He'd been avoiding it, letting people call him whatever they settled on. What he'd been called was in his records, and it was interesting to see who settled on Sergeant, who settled on James, who settled on Barnes. But he wasn't any of those people. He wasn't Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes and he was never going to be. She was right. He needed a name. One he chose himself.
"Bucky." When he'd been a kid, back before the war, back before everything, when the world had been new, it'd been his nickname. He remembered that. "I think, Bucky."
His world was new again. Maybe it'd help.
Bucky thought maybe it was a fancy way of saying we don't quite trust you to be part of our team, so we're keeping you close but not too close. And it wasn't like they'd asked him to fight. He'd presented himself to Romanoff, asked her when he'd be cleared for duty, because what else was he going to do?
She'd given him a long, thoughtful look and two days later he'd found himself sitting in a room with Captain America.
Not the original Captain America. Bucky remembered her, he'd served under her, he'd fallen under her command. His memory of that time was sketchy, but he'd read the files before he'd figured out that reading about himself was a quick trip to blinding headaches and a jumbled mind and panicked confusion and more trouble than it was worth. If something didn't want to come back on its own, he'd prefer to keep on not knowing.
He remembered the first Captain America, though. Technically, the second, but the first that mattered. Carter, who'd taken up the shield when the numbskull the Brass had picked had gotten himself blown up by some kind of super weapon. She'd apparently started a tradition, the shield passed down from Captain to Captain, each one chosen by the one before.
This was the first Captain America who could fly, though. Samuel Thomas Wilson, former Pararescueman, chosen by the last Captain America in highly classified circumstances. They talked a little, Bucky on edge the entire time, but he didn't ask anything too hard. And when it was over, Bucky was officially Avengers adjacent, back-up for when their core marksman wasn't available or they needed extra coverage, an extra gun.
Bucky didn't blame them for keeping him at a distance; he honestly preferred it that way. None of them were unkind, but they were the Avengers and he was Avengers adjacent. An auxiliary. He was okay with that.
He wasn't okay with living in the Tower. The idea of being trapped in that tower, under its eyes, under its control, because he knew, whatever anyone said, that it was basically Stark's second skin, made his skin crawl. Instead, they set him up with a heavily secured apartment on the very top floor of a very nice, very tall building with an exit onto the roof, which was big enough and strong enough to land a Quinjet.
They tended not to call him out for anything in high density population centres, not unless they really needed him, because, Avengers adjacent or not, civilians didn't tend to greet his appearance with anything approaching relief.
Mostly he scared the crap out of them.
The media shitstorm after the leaks and the leaks themselves had painted him a certain way. People saw the metal arm and, in a crisis situation, even if they'd fallen on the he's a victim side of the equation, they tended to react as if he was going to eat their soul.
Bucky hated seeing that fear, but there was nothing he could do to change it. All he could do was stay out of the public eye, keep out of any aftermath, and make sure he was back on the Quinjet before anyone started taking photos.
Absolutely no offense to steampunk or Downton Abbey intended.
Steve didn't actually want to be here today. It wasn't that he didn't love his studio, because he did. It was small, sure, but the light was incredible, the wide window letting in the sun, and the spider plant in the corner had taken over, sending a cascade of green tumbling down the red brick wall.
He'd lucked into it, this perfect space right at the top of the building. His name had come up on the waiting list just as it had been vacated—vacated as a result of some sort of conflict he was not going to ask about it, since Jeremiah still scowled ferociously whenever the former occupant's name was mentioned.
Jeremiah had been sitting on the bottom step, head in his hand, the silver piercings gleaming against the dark skin of his ears, that first day when Steve had arrived. He'd promptly won Jeremiah's heart by offering to clean out the former occupant's belongings and shove them in the basement, or possibly it'd been Steve's half-joking offer to find an incinerator, but whichever, he'd been smiling again. The top floor corner studio had been Steve's ever since. Toting canvasses and supplies up four flights of stairs could be a pain in the ass, and Jeremiah had offered him one of the other two vacant studios, but he'd refused. The inconvenience was worth it.
No, Steve's reasons for not wanting be here today had nothing to do with the space. They had nothing to do with the painting, either, since he was incredibly happy with how it was turning out. It was a commission, and it wouldn't have been his first choice of subject matter—two young kids, a boy and a girl, and their pet goat—but they were endearing and full of life, and he'd never actually painted a goat, so he was enjoying the hell out of that.
He didn't want to be here because he wanted to be outside. He wanted to be moving. The day was perfect, clear skies and not too hot, he felt good, his body was loose and limber, his fingers were itching, his toes were tapping, and the walls were feeling a little too close.
But he had a deadline. That meant he had to work. Paintings that didn't get finished on time meant rent didn't get paid, Steve didn't get fed, and the last thing he needed was for word to get around that he didn't come through when he said he would.
So, work. He leaned over to turn up the music, pointedly ignored the window, which gave an excellent and seductive view of the neighbouring rooftops, and threw himself into the painting.
Soon he was completely lost in his work, oblivious to everything else.
The afternoon had started out with scrambling, everyone on high alert, responding to the message from the Downton Dandies, announcing their intention to return the city to the One True Way, to Victorian Values, to a Better Time.
Bucky had been able to hear the capital letters when they replayed the message for him at the briefing. The expression on Captain America's face as he listened was indescribable.
For all their posturing, the laser guns which had been the prime concern, and the main reason Bucky had been called up, had turned out to be completely ineffectual. Two of them had exploded, resulting in a long lecture from Stark about the proper way to construct a laser weapon. The timid response from one of the Dandies, that they'd only used materials available during Victorian times, had made Stark bang his repulsor glove against his metal helmet and mutter, "I give up. You're all idiots."
It didn't take long for the Avengers to confine the aspirant super villains to a few blocks.
Bucky was perched on a rooftop, covering a section of the locked-down area, but they didn't need him, not really. He settled himself more comfortably on his corner of the building, with a clear view of the street below, and listened to the chatter over the comms.
Stark swooped past, suit gleaming red and gold, herding a little knot of bad guys. The competence they lacked in designing their weapons appeared to have manifested in their outfits, which were all goggles and top hats, velvet and lace, with gleaming buckles and gears everywhere.
Bucky shifted again, easing his weight, and sighed quietly. He didn't mind that there was nothing for him to do, he preferred it, but parts of his anatomy were falling asleep.
He hadn't been quiet enough. "Bored there, Buckaroo?" Stark asked.
There was a long silence, like he was waiting for more. When it wasn't forthcoming, Stark proclaimed, "Woah, keep the chatter down. Comms are for official business only. Can't have you cluttering them up with your nattering."
"Nattering, Stark? What are you, my grandmother?" It was Hawkeye, and Bucky sent him a silent thank you for distracting Stark.
"Your grandma wishes she looked this good."
"My grandma could kick your ass."
"If we could focus?" Captain America cut in. "There's still a bunch of these to idiots to round up and I, for one, have plans tonight. If I'm late because you two wouldn't stop arguing about your grandmas..."
Bucky let their words wash over him as he kept scanning the surrounding streets. Three of the goggled and geared brigade scampered into view and he dropped one, who twitched and sparked and lay still—not dead, they'd all switched to non-lethals when the general incompetence of the enemy became obvious—but the other two bolted and the angle was wrong. With a deep sigh, he stood, taking his time because there wasn't anywhere they could go; the whole area was locked down.
Except there was a bystander where no bystanders were supposed to be. A skinny blond guy had stepped out of one of the buildings that was supposed to be locked down and was blinking in surprise at the two burly men barrelling down on him.
Shit. He's fucking tiny. They'll smash right over the top of him.
* * *
Steve had been vaguely aware of a siren in the distance while he was painting, but sirens in the distance weren't exactly a noteworthy occurrence. He thought someone, possibly Jeremiah, possibly not, had popped their head in and said something, to which Steve had responded automatically with something apparently satisfactory, but he really had no idea what either of them had said.
Which was why he was surprised to find the front door locked when he went to leave the building. It wasn't a problem, he had a key, so he unlocked it and let himself out, slinging his bag over his shoulder.
He was even more surprised to find the street outside basically deserted, and he frowned, glancing around. It was eerily still. The unnatural silence was broken by pounding footsteps and he jerked his head up to see two big burly men, dressed like refugees from a steampunk convention, barrelling down on him.
With intent. They were focussed on him, and one grinned maliciously, arms outstretched, and there was no time, no time to run, and he wasn't a runner anyway. Steve breathed deep, centred himself, and as they reached him he slammed his bag into the face of the left one, pretty sure he heard the crack of breaking bone.
The guy on the right gaped in shock, and Steve crouched, coiled, reached, and leapt, planting a foot on the left guy's hip and pushing off, using the leverage and the height to get his other foot on the right guy's head, kicking off his stupid top hat in the process. The impact of Steve's weight shoved him down, compressing his spine. Bet that fucking hurt, he thought with absolutely no sympathy as the guy's reaction, trying to throw Steve off, gave him the lift he needed to get a hand on the butt-ugly excuse for a sculpture that stuck out of the front of the building.
Straining, he dragged himself up until he could grab it with his other hand and kept hauling himself up until he could swing his leg over to straddle it. Good sculpture. I swear, I'll never say anything bad about you ever again. After that, it was almost easy. The windows were set into the building like they were designed to be climbed, like stones in a stream, wide brick frames and windowsills giving him broad hand and footholds, and he made his way up the building, moving from window to window, and pulled himself onto the roof.
He stopped, scanning the sky and the neighbourhood, trying to figure out what the hell was going on, but when the two guys looked like they were going to try and follow him, he took off. The rooftops were where he was comfortable. Where he knew how to get around. Even if they made it up here, they'd never find him, never catch him.
This wasn't how he'd planned to get outside and get moving, he was going to hurt tomorrow, with no time to stretch or ease into things, he'd have to figure out what to do about everything in his goddamn bag, but...
No matter why, no matter how much he was going to hurt, up here, moving across the rooftops—and he jumped down to the next building, moving easily, lightly, eyes open for anything else that might jump out and try and grab him—this was where he belonged.
* * *
Bucky had been so sure his bystander was about to be smashed into the ground.
Except he'd reacted so fast, no hesitation, and he'd moved like a snake, like a waterfall in reverse, flowing up and over the side of the building. He'd pulled himself up with one hand, and Bucky knew what kind of strength that took.
When he'd stopped, looking out over the city, Bucky had thought maybe his bystander could see him. Bucky could see him clearly and he was beautiful.
It him like a bullet in the gut. He couldn't breathe. He didn't know, couldn't remember, when he'd last thought anything was beautiful.
Bucky thought he was beautiful and it wasn't close to enough. He was thin, sharp, jaw like a ship in motion, nose probably too big but it was right, and his eyes were gleaming blue.
Something stirred in him, like his heart had cracked open, he couldn’t breathe. He wanted to yell, to wave his arms, to get his bystander's attention, something, anything, because his heart had cracked and something was flowing out it and he didn't know what to do, he didn't know he could feel this.
The sound of metal against metal, the two men trying to climb up after Bucky's bystander, snapped him out of it. With a low growl, he sighted down the rifle and removed them from the equation. They sprawled, twitching on the road, sparking briefly, moaning and writhing before they went still. The electric charges from the Stark built rifle were non-lethal, but they hurt and for one brief moment Bucky wished they could hurt more.
When he looked for his bystander, he was gone.
After it was over, and Stark was gladhanding the press, instead of stealthy retreat to the Quinjet—it wouldn’t do anyone any good to be made overtly aware of his presence—Bucky made his way over to the building his bystander had come out of and scooped up his bag.
Romanoff raised an eyebrow at him when he came back to the Quinjet with it. He held it protectively to his chest. "Bystander lost it. Didn't want to leave it there."
She looked faintly surprised, which was strangely kind of her, since he knew letting him see what she was thinking was a gift. If that really was what she was thinking. But Bucky had decided it was better to simply take her at face value. He knew they had a past, but it was gone like so many things were gone, the only place it lived was in her memory, and she'd respected his request not to enlighten him. Memories came back or they didn't; when people tried to force them back, tried to reinsert them in his head, it was painful.
"That's decent of you."
Bucky shrugged and kept his eyes on the bag. It was deep green, made of tough canvas he knew was waterproof, had strong buckles, a strong strap, colourful metal pins stuck on the front of it: a rainbow flag and one that was pink, purple, and blue. A splash of blood, fresh and bright, caught his eye; his bystander had done some serious damage.
His bystander was amazing.
When he got back to his apartment, he opened the bag. Gingerly, because he didn't want to snoop. He didn't want to spy. He just wanted to find out how to get it back. There was a wallet, practical black leather, with an ID. His bystander had a name—Steven Grant Rogers—and a truly awful picture that did him no justice.
And an address.
Bucky stared at the photo for a few minutes and then he contacted JARVIS. While he waited for the courier, he carefully cleaned the blood off the bag. After the courier picked the bag up and took it away, Bucky made himself something to eat, turning the name Steven Grant Rogers over in his head.
Mildred was warm and soft and Steve was safe and comfy in her embrace. When the knock came at the door Steve really didn't want to leave. He hadn't ordered food, he wasn't expecting anyone, so he doubted it could be anything good. And Mildred was so comfortable. He loved her so much.
The knock sounded again, more insistent, with a definite hint of I can do this all night. Steve sighed and dragged himself upright and over to the door to peer through the peephole. His face wrinkled in confusion when he saw it was a courier. Who held up... Steve pulled the door open. "That's my bag."
"Whatever you say, pal. Delivery for Steven Grant Rogers?"
"Got some ID?"
"In the bag you're holding."
The guy looked from Steve to the bag and back to Steve, then held it out. Steve opened it, pulled out his wallet, and he could see at a glance it still held all his cash—twenty bucks counts as all—and showed his ID.
The courier guy held out an electronic pad. "Sign here."
Steve did and asked, "Who sent this?"
"No idea. They tell me to deliver something I deliver it. Even if I did know I couldn't tell you, privacy laws and all that, and judging by your wallet, you don't have enough to bribe me to break 'em."
Steve snorted, the courier grinned, and Steve shut the door. He sank back into Mildred's embrace and went through his bag. Everything accounted for. Nothing missing. It didn't even look like anything had been disturbed more than could be accounted for by using his bag as a club.
"I don't know whether to be grateful or creeped out," Steve said, frowning. "Mildred? Opinions?"
Mildred didn't offer an opinion, which wasn't surprising given that she was a couch.
Bucky knew where Steven Grant Rogers lived. He didn't do anything with the knowledge. He wasn't all that great at being a person, but he knew that would be incredibly creepy.
He did, however, keep thinking about him, his golden bystander, while the days ticked past.
The Avengers called him up again, this time for something much nastier, deep in the jungles of Bolivia. A newly uncovered HYDRA operation, one that seemed intent on mixing blood magic with stolen Stark tech. Bucky didn't know if blood magic was as ludicrous as it sounded, but the feel in the base afterwards was wrong, greasy against his skin.
He showered three times afterwards and even that barely erased it. He couldn't shake the feeling that shadows were following him. After laying awake in the darkness, knowing the only thing waiting on the other side of sleep were nightmares, he got up, got dressed, and left his apartment.
Bucky knew where Steven Grant Rogers lived. He'd never do anything with that information, but he somehow found himself back on the roof across from the building Steven had come out of. A little voice, and it almost sounded like Romanoff, pointed out that this was nearly as bad, but he ignored it. He wasn't going to do anything. Bucky just wanted to see if maybe he could catch a glimpse of him.
Not likely, given it was three in the morning, but he settled, still and patient, the night dark and cool around him, and waited.
The memory of how Steven had moved kept replaying in his head. The grace, the fearlessness. The beauty. He still didn't know what to do with any of it, any of how it had made him feel, it was so unexpected.
Steven never appeared, but the next morning, Bucky once more still and patient on the rooftop, he trotted down the street, the strap of his green bag across his chest, bright as sunshine. Bucky felt his heart flutter, felt those warm feelings welling up and tracked him as he disappeared into the building. Some minutes later, he realised he could see Steven through a top floor window.
He could, if he wanted to, sit here for the rest of the day and watch him.
It was appealing on a level he didn't know he could feel, but... No. Bucky, you really can't do that. He stayed just long enough to watch Steven uncover a painting and start working on it, and then he left.
He came back the next day, to watch Steven arrive, and the next, and a few days later he showed up in the afternoon, to watch Steven leave, and it wasn't stalking.
It wasn't. If he wanted to stalk Steven he knew where he lived. He had the skills to follow him through the city unseen. It wasn't stalking.
It was just watching.
From a distance.
A few times Bucky made his way down to the street, thinking about maybe going up and talking to him, saying Hi and I'm the one who sent your bag back, but then he tried to imagine how that would go, tried to figure out what he could possibly say after that, and retreated back to the rooftop and stayed there.
Except for the day he saw Steven furtively glance around before ducking into an alley. Saw him leap up to grab a fire escape and pull himself up one-handed to scamper up the ladder to the roof.
Bucky was a moth drawn to a flame, he had to get closer, wanted to see what Steven would do next.
He followed, stealthy and silent, as Steven leapt across the rooftops. Bucky had been an assassin, one of the best in the world; watching Steven, he felt like a lumbering elephant. Steven was leaves swirling on the wind, a bird in flight, feet touching down like he was doing gravity a favour and Bucky was completely lost.
Someone was following him.
This was Steve's space and someone was following him. Whoever it was, they were good at it, Steve barely knew they were there, wouldn't have if it was anywhere else in the city. But he knew these rooftops like they were part of him.
As he threw himself forward, twisting and leaping and living in his body, commanding muscle and bone and tendon to obey and feeling it respond, vaulting over the gap between buildings and laughing at the ground below, he sensed someone else. And whoever it was, they were definitely following him.
It wasn't the first time someone had looked at him and thought easy target. But it was the first time it had happened here, in his space. It pissed him off.
This was his time. There were only so many days he could have this and then he'd pay the price. How fucking dare someone interfere. This place, this time, belonged to him. Whatever they wanted, whatever they thought they could get, if they thought they could catch him when he wasn't paying attention they were going to be in for a hell of a shock.
Steve waited until he knew they were close, took a deep breath, and raced for the building's edge. He planted one hand as he jumped and twisted his body, shedding momentum as he redirected himself back into the side of the same building to land on the wide ledge four feet down. Crouching low, moving fast and sure, he shimmied his way around the building, catching a glimpse of a big, black-clad man leaning over the edge.
Silently he pulled himself back onto the roof and ran, light and fast, to grab, bend, twist, and hurl the guy over his shoulder. It was perfect and the guy slammed into the ground.
He danced back, just like he'd been taught, getting out of reach; the guy was huge, if he got his hands on Steve, Steve would be royally fucked.
But the guy wasn't making any move to grab him. He wasn't swearing or threatening or doing anything but staring up at Steve with an expression Steve didn't understand.
Steve glared back, balanced on the balls of his feet, body loose and poised. "Not an easy target after all, hey, asshole?" The guy didn't respond, just kept staring up at him. "Mind telling me what the fuck you think you're doing, following me?"
The guy licked his lips, opened his mouth to answer, but all that came out was, "I'm Bucky," which wasn't an answer.
Steve blinked, knocked off balance by the non-sequitur. "You're Bucky...and that's why you're following me?"
"Yes?" It was soft, and a little hopeful, but Bucky cleared his throat and said, "Yes," in a much more certain tone of voice.
Steve could feel his anger fading, because this was not going according to script. The guy, Bucky, should have hopped up by now and tried to kick the shit out of Steve, to soothe whatever battering his ego had taken at being laid out by someone Steve's size. And he was just lying there. Steve had no idea what was going on.
His eyes slowly travelled over Bucky, trying to figure it out, and Bucky held perfectly still, like he wasn't going to move unless Steve said it was okay. He was huge: broad shoulders, barrel chest, thick thighs, biceps for days. His long sleeves had been shoved up by his rapid journey through the air and equally rapid introduction to the roof and he was wearing gloves.
A gleam of metal above his left glove caught Steve's eye. He drew in a sharp breath as he focussed on it. Metal. There were lines on it, it was, Steve stared harder, it looked like interlocking plates, and as he watched, they shifted, like they were trying to hide from him.
He was looking at a metal arm.
There was only person running around New York with a metal arm. For one moment, Steve basked in a deep sense of pride that he'd successfully taken down the Winter Soldier.
His eyes flicked up to meet...to meet Bucky's. Not the Winter Soldier. He'd said his name was Bucky. Bucky, who was looking up at him with a kind of hopelessness, like he knew what Steve had just figured out and also knew that, whatever came next, it wasn't going to be good.
When the story had broken, the media working itself into rabid frothing hysteria, Steve had read everything he could get his hands on. Everything. Even the stuff that had made him sick, made him so angry he could barely see. Not at the man lying on the roof in front of him. At the people who'd held him, who'd hurt him, at all the people who'd been screaming to kill him for things that weren't his fault.
The Winter Soldier, who was, according to all those screaming masses, a murderous assassin who would snap at any moment and revert back to slaughtering innocents by the dozens, lay on his back, staring up at Steve, and very quietly said, "I'm sorry. I don't know how to meet people."
Steve took a deep breath. "Talking to them usually works. You can try asking the time, talking about the weather. Maybe ask them to get coffee if it's going well. All of those are better options than stalking them across rooftops."
"Right." Bucky licked his lips. There was a brief pause, and then a small, hopeful smile flickered across his face. "Have you got the time?"
A snort of laughter escaped Steve. "Way too late for you to be lying around on the roof." His eyes flicked over Bucky again, back to the gleam of metal, and he made a decision.
He moved to stand next to Bucky's hip and held out his hand. His left hand. He doubted Bucky needed help getting up, but if he wanted it, he could have it. And if he wanted it, the natural move would be to take Steve's hand with his left hand. His metal hand. Steve was making a point. He wasn't sure exactly what point it was, but he was making it.
* * *
The terror that had flooded Bucky when Steven had disappeared had kicked him right in the gut. The relief that had flooded him when Steven hadn't been lying broken and bloody on the ground below had been like cool water.
The warmth that had rushed through him when Steven had put him down as neatly and expertly as anyone he'd ever met, had overwhelmed him. Steven was so tiny and he'd flattened him. It was wonderful. Bucky couldn't have taken his eyes off Steven, who'd been furious and beautiful and golden, if someone had put a gun to his head.
He'd known the exact second Steven realised who was lying in front of him. Bucky had been ready to retreat, to swear he'd stay away, to do whatever he had to do to reassure him, but Steven hadn't seemed at all concerned. It had taken his breath away. Now he searched Steven's face, wondering what this was, but Steven's eyes were warm and steady. Maybe a little challenging, like he was saying I know who you are and it doesn't worry me; I'll still knock you on your ass.
The feelings that flowed out of his heart were warm, were glowing. Carefully, giving him time to pull away, he wrapped his metal fingers in their leather glove around Steven's and the moment he made contact something inside him blazed into life.
Muscles like iron cables flexed in Steven's forearm as he pulled Bucky to his feet. When Bucky was standing, still holding onto Steven's hand, because he never wanted to let go, Steven looked up at him with no apparent awareness of their size difference. "I'm Steve. If you already know that, we're going to pretend you don't, because part of meeting people is you don't already know their name."
"I do know your name, though." And it was Steve. Steve, not Steven and Steve was so much better for this tiny ball of angry sunshine. "I don't want to start with a lie."
That caught Steve's attention and he tilted his head. "Start with?"
Inside, Bucky flailed, because he hadn't meant to say that, it had just slipped out. "How about that weather?"
After a beat, Steve grinned. "Good job with the small talk. Come on, I'll buy you a coffee." With the greatest reluctance, Bucky relinquished Steve's hand and followed him to the fire escape. He lost himself for a bit, watching as Steve leapt down the rusting stairs, barely making contact, a hand here, a brush of a toe there; he was movement and grace and— "Bucky. Bucky!"
Steve was watching him, eyebrows raised, and Bucky trotted down the stairs, leaping off the bottom to land lightly next to Steve. He pulled his shirt sleeves down, readjusted his gloves, making sure the metal was completely covered, and pulled a hat out of his pocket, pulling it low over his eyes.
Steve gave him a long look, like he was going to say something, then just led the way out of the alley.
Bucky was warm walking next to Steve. Tiny Steve who'd sent him flying. Who moved like he was flying, glancing at Bucky from time to time like he was making sure Bucky was still there. Each glance sent a new surge of warmth through him, because it meant Steve maybe wanted him there. They didn't talk, and Bucky was fine with that, because he didn't know what he'd say; he was content to simply walk by Steve's side.
The coffee shop was half-hidden down another alley and they knew Steve by name. When Steve asked what he wanted, and Bucky just shrugged, because he honestly didn't care, he said, "Give me two of the usual, thanks, Amy."
When they had their drinks, which turned out to be black coffee, sinfully sweet, and Bucky wasn't sure whether he loved it or hated it, Steve gestured at Bucky to choose where to sit.
He put his back to the wall and Steve sat across from him. Bucky didn't know if Steve did it on purpose, but the way he angled his chair meant he didn't block Bucky's view of the door.
"How do you know my name?" Steve asked once they were settled. Before Bucky could answer, Steve pointed at him. "No, actually, I know. You're why I got my bag back, aren't you?"
"That means you know where I live."
Bucky nodded again, trying to sink into the chair.
"Have you been stalking me there, too?"
"No!" he blurted out, then hunched his shoulders. "No, I wouldn't."
Steve was studying him, something in his gaze reminding Bucky strongly of Romanoff, and then he smiled and Bucky's heart fluttered. "You know, I believe you." Relief so strong he felt it in his spine flowed through Bucky. "Can I ask why that wasn't okay and following me around was?"
Bucky frowned down at his mug while Steve sipped his coffee, watching Bucky over the rim. "It wasn't," he admitted. To Steve and to himself. He glanced up and Steve was obviously waiting for more. "Following you wasn't okay. I'm sorry." He weighed it up, then added, "I watched you from the roof across from your building, too. Just coming and going. A few times."
Steve hummed thoughtfully. "Okay. Can I ask why?"
Bucky hid a wince and went still. How did he answer that? What could he possibly say?
"Must be pretty bad," Steve said kindly. He looked at Steve and nodded. "Tell me anyway."
"I was on the building across from yours the day of the attack. The Downton Dandies?"
"The ones who wanted to return us to the glory days of Victorian values?"
"Yeah, them." It had been in the news for a couple of days, in which Bucky had learned there was something called Steampunk; proponents of it had spent those couple of days tearing the guys who'd attacked to pieces.
"Those assholes," Steve said, humming with vitriol. "Victorian values is code for I want to be a bigot in fancy clothes." He snorted. "Plus they were dumb as a bag of hammers. Downton Abbey, which I'm guessing is where they got their name, wasn't even Victorian. It was post-Edwardian." He snorted again, then softened. "Sorry. You were across from my building?"
"Yeah. And I saw you. When two of them tried to take you down. I was on the roof, I had to move to take them out, the angle was wrong, and I saw you." He stopped, not sure how to continue, but Steve gave him an encouraging look. "You were," Steve was watching him patiently, eyes bright blue, strong jaw, that same aura of strength and sunshine, and Bucky felt himself yearn, "so small and fearless and, and strong, and you never hesitated. You took out that first guy. You were," no, you can't say beautiful, do not say beautiful, "incredible, you pulled yourself up the side of the building like it was nothing. You looked amazing."
It was the first time I've felt anything like that since I became me again, it was the first time I thought anything was beautiful, I didn't know I could feel that, Steve, I had to know if I'd feel it again, I wanted to feel it again, I wanted to see you again. Just see you, that's all. I wasn't brave enough to talk to you until you took it out of my hands. And I did, I do, I feel all those things, you make me feel them all.
And he couldn't say any of that. He might not ever be great at being a person, but he knew he couldn’t just blurt that out. Steve had been patient with him, seemed to be willing to make allowances for Bucky basically stalking him, but there were limits. "And I wanted to see you again." That was probably okay.
"I see," Steve said, like everything suddenly made sense. "Bucky. That's not so bad. I'm not really fond of the small," Bucky sensed a world of warning behind that, "but you're not the first person to react like that." He tapped his fingers on the table, head tilted, looking Bucky over, then nodded once, eyes warm. "We can work with that. No more following me around, though."
"No," Bucky promised, feeling a fierce happiness shoot through him. We can work with that. Steve was going to let him stay.
"You could join me, though." He grinned, fierce and bright. "If you can keep up."
Steve arranged to meet Bucky on Thursday. He didn't give Bucky his phone number, not yet. Bucky didn't ask for it, but he did ask, "What if I can't make it?" and when he added, to Steve's questioning look, "If I get called away on no notice," it had been like a bucket of cold water dumped over his head.
Uncertainty crept into Bucky's stance, like he was waiting for Steve to say forget it, then, and it hit him that Bucky was talking about the Avengers needing him. That the man who was looking at him with hopeful eyes might get called out to fight the worst of the worst.
Okay. That's...something. "You can leave a message here." He gave him the number. "They know me."
Bucky nodded and followed Steve out to the street, seeming reluctant to leave, but Steve gently shooed him away.
Steve had enjoyed having coffee with him. Bucky hadn't talked much, but he'd spoken volumes with his body, with his eyes and his face and his hands.
Everything had fallen into place once Steve had understood where Bucky was coming from: he was attracted to the pocket rocket. Yeah, and fuck you, too, Angelo. Angelo had turned out to be an asshole, but he'd summed the phenomenon up nicely. Steve looked like a skinny drink of water who'd blow over in a strong breeze, but he was strong and quick and agile and that did it for some guys. Bucky wasn't the first.
He was the first in a long time that made Steve think about giving him a shot.
He knew better, he'd been down this road before and he knew where it ended, where it always ended, but there was something endearing about Bucky, something sweet, stalking notwithstanding, but Steve believed him when he said it wouldn't happen again. Bucky was devastatingly handsome, no, he was gorgeous, with that body, the way his hair curled around his face, even under that stupid cap, the way his eyes flowed between blue and grey like a summer storm, but that wasn't why. And it wasn't the weird surge of protectiveness that rose up when he let his mind linger on who Bucky was.
The dire predictions of the worst of the rabid media had never come true. The Winter Soldier barely rated a mention anymore, driven out of the public eye by the forty or fifty scandals that had broken since then. It wasn't that he'd been forgotten, precisely, but in a world where every day brought another end-of-the-world, end-of-our-country, end-of-our-way of life story to beat you over the head, most people couldn't sustain their fury over the old ones. Most people couldn't even remember them. Outrage got repackaged and redirected towards the latest big thing.
The Winter Soldier was old news. Arguably wasn't even around anymore, since the man Steve had met—flattened, Steve, you snuck up on him and laid him out, and there was that giddy pride again—had introduced himself as Bucky.
There was just something about Bucky. Something that made Steve want to walk this road again until the end, enjoy it for as long as it lasted.
All he had to do was make sure he didn't get too attached.
Thursday morning found Steve sitting on the fire escape outside the coffee shop wearing a t-shirt that exposed his lean, muscled arms when Bucky arrived. Bucky was bundled in a long sleeved shirt and his gloves, his ball cap pulled low over his forehead, head down.
Steve gave a low whistle and Bucky looked up just as the sun hit the alley. It lit Steve up, shading him in gold, turning him into a miniature sunrise, and Bucky stopped, stunned, eyes wide, drinking him in, the beauty of him, the way he smiled as Bucky kept staring. Amused, but not laughing at him, like what Bucky was doing was okay, it was all right, like Bucky was allowed.
His heart fluttered, spreading warmth through his whole body, and he had to fight the urge to close the distance between them and wrap his arms around Steve's legs, maybe press his forehead against Steve's knees. Would Steve let him? Would Steve run his fingers through his hair?
No. No, he knew that would not be okay. It didn't stop him from wanting. From imagining what it would be like. He shook himself, made himself start walking again. Steve was still wearing that amused smile.
"Everything okay there, Bucky?" Bucky nodded. "Then let's go up."
It was elegant, not a single movement wasted, how Steve made his way to the roof, smooth muscle moving under his skin, and Bucky followed easily, stronger and just as sure, but knowing he couldn't come close to matching Steve's grace.
Steve stopped in the middle of the roof, stretched his arms above his head, tipping side to side, stretching his legs, and Bucky's eyes followed the movement. After a few minutes he shook out his arms, his hands, then looked at Bucky. "You ready?" Bucky nodded. "Then let's go."
Without waiting to see if Bucky was following, Steve took off, heading for the edge where the roof dropped away, down to a lower roof a few feet below. Steve paused at the edge, grinned at Bucky over his shoulder, and leapt forward, landing in a crouch, one hand on the ground, before pushing off to jump up on the wall that ran around the rooftop. He ran lightly down the wall to leap over the gap where the roof did a ninety degree dog leg, the ground flashing past in a fatal drop below as Bucky followed.
Steve hit hands first on the other side and pushed, legs swinging forward, and kept moving.
Steve didn't race, didn't bolt, was swift and sure, just enough speed to give him what he needed to get his body where he wanted it to go. A metal-framed tower jutted up ahead of them and Steve jumped for it, fingers grabbing for the handholds, and he pulled himself up, muscles in his arms flexing as he climbed. When he was high enough, he leapt to the wooden structure a few feet over, ran to the edge, and jumped, twisting his body as he fell, turning in mid-air, rolling as he landed, popping back up onto his feet.
Bucky followed, without the spin, touching down lightly, absorbing the force with bent knees. Keeping up with Steve wasn't hard. Matching him was almost impossible.
Steve knew this path, Bucky could see it; he was barely watching where he was going, eyes fixed on the horizon, so Bucky fixed his eyes on Steve as he leapt and twisted and rolled, driving himself higher, up and over obstacles, running, no it was practically dancing, down a wide length of pipe between two buildings, until finally he leapt onto a wall on the edge of a building, loped to the corner, and stopped, staring out over the city.
He wasn't quite breathing hard, just deep and even, and he gave Bucky a pleased smile as Bucky jumped up to stand next to him.
The view was breathtaking, the city spread out below them, completely ignorant of the amazing man standing next to him, who'd just flown over its rooftops, and Bucky shifted his gaze to Steve.
Found he couldn't take his eyes off him. There was sweat tricking down his temples, his hair was sticking to his scalp, his t-shirt was plastered to his back. More than anything, Bucky wanted to touch him.
He resisted, knew it wouldn't be okay, but nothing could have made him look away.
"Did you have fun?" Steve asked.
Bucky managed to gather himself enough to nod.
"Want to do it again sometime?"
"Yes," he breathed, eyes fixed on Steve's face, and Steve's grin turned knowing.
"I thought you might say that." Steve dug his phone out of his pocket, tapped the screen to bring up the contacts, typed in Bucky and held it out. "Here. Put your number in then text yourself. That way you'll have my number."
Bucky grinned, pleased and warm, as he took Steve's phone and did exactly that.
Steve was fearless, but he wasn't careless. It was something Bucky worked out the second time Steve took him careening across the rooftops.
Bucky stayed aware of the world around them, second nature to make sure they were safe, part of him always alert to potential threats, but his eyes stayed on Steve. Sometimes he dragged them away, when he had to know where he was landing, when he knew he'd been staring for too long. But they always found their way back, and Steve...Steve let him watch.
Let him watch as he fearlessly threw himself into every moment, every motion, every grip sure and firm, every landing devised to minimise the impact, like he was doing calculations in his head, working out on the fly whether it was better to roll or run, or curl into a landing.
It looked like he threw himself around like he didn't care what happened to his body, but the longer Bucky watched, the more Bucky realised that wasn't right. There was a definite method to everything he did, from the thorough stretches beforehand, to how and where he placed his hands and feet, to the way he moved his body, curling and twisting. Everything Steve did held a deliberate, well-hidden care.
Well, not quite everything.
He threw himself over the gaps between buildings like he thought he had wings. Like he was immune to gravity. Logic told him Steve had been doing this for years and had never fallen but the warm fluttery feeling in his heart shouted it down, knew that if Steve fell, if he hit the ground, he'd break. It made Bucky's heart seize but he knew, he already knew, if he said anything it would go badly for him.
So he kept it firmly to himself.
It was early, early enough the only people around were joggers and dog walkers and no one had paid any attention to two people climbing, and bouncing, and hauling themselves all over the decorative boulders that formed a twenty foot spiral in one of the park's isolated corners. Except for the woman with the pekingese who'd declared them both reckless idiots, but Steve had simply grinned down at her, and she'd huffed and kept going.
Steve had brought them here because they were doing maintenance on one of his usual buildings, which would mean workmen on the roof, which meant staying away. But this was a nice change, the boulders giving a different sort of challenge, and it was good to give himself a chance to take it a bit easier.
Now Steve was stretched out in the grass in a beam of morning sunlight. He'd have to go soon, head home and shower. He had work to do at the studio, paintings to finish, but for the moment he was content to sit and enjoy the sun.
With Bucky, because Bucky hadn't left when they'd finished, even though Steve had been expecting him to, especially when Steve had explained he wouldn't be staying much longer. Instead he'd settled cross-legged next to Steve, careful not to block the sun.
"Is it hard, being an artist?" Bucky asked after a bit. "For a living, I mean."
"Very. Most people don't manage it." Steve looked up at Bucky, to gauge his interest. "You don't want to hear all this."
"Okay. Let me know if you get bored or, I don't know, grunt if you start lapsing into a boredom coma."
Bucky just shook his head, smiling a little.
"Right. Well, I was getting by mostly on commissions. My original work wasn't selling." At Bucky's curious look, he added, "Abstracts. I paint abstracts. In oils, acrylics, whatever takes my mood. I mean, I can do digital work, and I do, pencils, inks, whatever. I'm versatile. Whatever will get me the commission. I can't be too fussy, I have to pay the rent and eat. And I was getting a lot of work. I didn't say no to too much and I'm reliable. Word got around." He propped himself up on his elbow. "Still with me?"
"Still with you," Bucky replied, and he didn't look bored. Steve shrugged and kept going.
"Jeremiah, the guy who runs the building I rent a studio in, and that's a whole other story, turns out he's from an art family. His aunt and her wife run a gallery, and they love abstracts. He mentioned me, they took a look, and now they carry my work, originals and prints." Steve made a face.
"That's...bad?" Bucky asked, sounding confused.
"You're making it sound bad."
"It's not, it's good. Except."
Bucky looked at him expectantly.
"The gallery's in New Jersey. Paramus, New Jersey."
"New Jersey, Steve? Really?"
Steve shot up and stared at Bucky. "What was that?"
"That, New Jersey." Steve eyed him. "You hate New Jersey."
Bucky blinked in surprise. "I guess, maybe I do?"
"Good." He settled back down. "Anyway, the prints, and the occasional original, sell, the prints sell really well, but people are buying them because they want something to make themselves look hip or modern or edgy. They don't actually give a damn about the art. Most of the time I tell myself I don't care, because they're paying my rent, but..." He shrugged. "But they are paying my rent. Between them and my commissions, I can make a living doing this and not a lot of people can."
"I'd like to see your work sometime," Bucky said after a bit.
It would never happen, Steve knew, but it was nice of Bucky to say. "Maybe some time."
"Not in New Jersey, though." They was a lilt to Bucky's voice, like the idea was distasteful, and again he looked surprised.
"You really didn't know you hated Jersey?" Bucky shook his head. "You were born in Brooklyn, right?" Bucky nodded. "Me too. Some things go down to the bone." He hesitated. "Can I ask," he started, then stopped. It was none of his business. Absolutely none of his business and way too intrusive.
Bucky tilted his head to the side, hair falling in a waterfall to frame his face. "You can ask."
"It's none of my business."
"Steve," it was soft, earnest, "you can ask."
"Does it happen a lot, getting surprised by things you feel?"
A smile spread across Bucky's face, his eyes crinkling at the corners. "Sometimes," he said, gaze riveted on Steve, and Steve felt like he was missing something, then Bucky looked away, down at his hands. "Sometimes. I've got a lot missing, and what's not missing, some of it's scattered. Some of it's crystal clear and not all of that's great," he added with a wry smile. "There's some stuff....I know things I don't remember, I remember things I don't feel, and I feel things with no memories attached to them."
It was too much, too honest. It tugged at his heart, the rising swell of protectiveness threatening to overwhelm him. Don't get attached, Steve. "Like hating Jersey," he said, deliberately light.
"Like hating Jersey," Bucky agreed, just as light, smiling down at Steve.
Don't get attached.
Bucky was careful not to abuse Steve's number. He only used it when Steve texted him first, asking if Bucky wanted to come and meet him.
Sometimes, whether after or before, they'd get coffee at the coffee shop down the end of the alley, which turned out to be called The Coffee Shop, because, Steve explained, the woman who owned it had a deeply disturbing sense of humour.
Bucky could see it, could imagine conversations beginning meet me at The Coffee Shop, and devolving into chaos. It teased at his memory, at memories from before—a radio show and baseball and who's on first, the whole thing devolving into similar, hilarious chaos. He could remember laughing, sitting rapt in front of the radio.
It made him unreasonably fond of The Coffee Shop for reasons that had nothing to do with Steve, although he would have loved the place anyway, because it was where he got to sit quietly with Steve, got to simply be with him.
Two weeks after Steve had given Bucky his phone number, he woke up, rolled over, and swore. It wasn't a surprise, he'd felt it coming on yesterday, but that didn't make it suck any less.
He could've put this off a little longer, but that would have meant missing out on time with Bucky. Which was kind of ironic, since it was that time with Bucky that had brought it on. He'd been pushing too hard. He'd pushed too hard, done too much, too close together, without giving himself a break, and brought this on himself.
He was supposed to meet Bucky today but that wasn't going to happen. He pulled himself out of bed, bundled himself into comfy clothes, and shuffled out to let Mildred coax him into her warm, comfortable embrace. Even walking hurt right now and all he wanted to do was curl up here with Mildred and some painkillers where no one could see him. Only Mildred got to see him like this.
After a few minutes he hauled himself up, limped into the bathroom for his pills, limped into the kitchen for water, and grabbed his phone on the way back to the couch, trying to think of an excuse. He wasn't going to tell Bucky the real reason; he wasn't ready for this to end yet.
He stopped dead when he looked at the screen: there was a text from Bucky.
I'm sorry. Had to go out of town. Reschedule?
Reprieve. No lying necessary. Steve settled back onto Mildred, took the pills, pulled a blanket over himself, and sent a text back.
You don't have to be sorry. It's fine. Just be safe. How about dinner instead?
He wasn't expecting Bucky to text back right away, and he didn't, but Steve woke up to: OK. Nothing else, and from anyone else it'd mean they weren't interested or didn't care or were reluctantly agreeing, but this was Bucky. He'd spent enough time with him to know OK meant he didn't know what to say. Steve could imagine him, leaning over his phone, trying to work it out. He clamped down on the rush of affection.
I'm busy the next few days. Busy recovering, busy waiting for his body to stop hurting. Meet me at the Coffee Shop on Wednesday night, around 6? We can go from there.
A few minutes later: OK.
Steve smiled and sent back: You're safe, right? Not hurt?
Safe and not hurt. Promise.
Steve set down his phone and ignored the way his heart warmed.
Miss Kay's wasn't much to look at from the outside: the single window was small with thick glass and the paint was old and starting to crack, giving the overall impression of dinge. Steve waited for Bucky to say something, to give him a dubious look or three as Steve led him inside—most people he brought here did—but he didn't. The interior was equally as dingy, faded red booths down one wall, chrome tables and chairs filling the rest of the space, everything spotless but giving the impression that it had seen better days.
People didn't come to Miss Kay's for the décor. People came to Miss Kay's for the food.
It was busy even on a Wednesday night, with an extra helping of customers waiting for takeout, and the low hum of conversation mixed with music and the cheerful calls from serving staff to the kitchen to create a kaleidoscope of sound.
They ended up at one of the tables, not quite in the middle of the floor, but close. Bucky seemed antsy. "Not what you were hoping for?" Steve asked. Bucky has said anywhere was fine when Steve had asked where he wanted to eat. Steve wondered if he was regretting it.
"No!" Bucky said quickly, looking surprised. "No, this is good. It smells great." Bucky wasn't kidding; the smells wafting out of the kitchen were amazing.
"It should, they do the best burgers in the city." He pushed the menu towards Bucky, who reached for it, but Steve kept his hand on it. "You can read this, and you can order. Or..."
"Or you can trust me, and let me order for you." It wasn't a test, but he was curious how Bucky would respond.
Bucky pulled his hand away with a small smile. "Pick something for me."
Somehow, it wasn't a surprise. Steve ordered his usual, with the bucket of fries to share, and, after a moment's consideration, grinned, and ordered the MK Special for Bucky. "With extra everything."
The waiter grinned back, glancing briefly at Bucky with his eyebrows raised, and Steve's grin got wider. And maybe a touch smug. Even in long sleeves with his gloves and that damn cap covering his gorgeous hair, Bucky was something to look at. "Can do."
Bucky leaned back in his chair when the waiter was gone, trying to look relaxed, but Steve watched him while he related the tale of coming down the stairs from his studio just in time to see someone wrestling on the second floor landing with a sixty-foot coil of tightly wound wire. He'd just been reaching out to help when the wire had won—spectacularly—and promptly sprung free of its bonds, throwing itself down the stairs like the world's most rebellious slinky.
Bucky listened, Bucky laughed, but his eyes were flicking around the space, he kept shifting in his chair whenever someone got up, when the door opened, and he didn't look comfortable. Steve made a decision. When their waiter came past, Steve got his attention and asked, "Would it be a huge pain to get our burgers to go?"
He looked between him and Bucky. "Shouldn't be. I'll get them boxed up for you, no problem."
"Thanks." Bucky looked uncertain, like he thought he'd done something wrong, so Steve said, "I thought you might be happier if we ate somewhere else. Somewhere quieter, with not so many people."
He was rewarded with a look of relief and when the waiter returned, their food not only boxed but bagged with a heap of napkins, Steve paid, left a generous tip, and said, "I know just the place."
The place was a butt-ugly metal sculpture, which Steve was sure had been cutting edge sometime in the early seventies, but whose only currently redeeming feature was that it was practically made to be climbed.
Steve handed the bag to Bucky and eyed the sculpture. It was a series of slightly curved, offset boxes, placed one on top of the other, each one smaller than the last, but he had a specific one in mind, completely out of sight of passers-by. He quickly climbed up, then reached his hand down for the bag and motioned Bucky to follow.
Steve settled himself on one side of the box and started taking the food out, laying it out like an impromptu picnic while Bucky climbed up and sat across from him. "This is nice," Bucky said softly, but he was smiling and Steve thought he meant it.
"Better than Miss Kay's?" Bucky held up his right hand, thumb and forefinger separated by about an inch, and Steve laughed. "Here, eat before it gets cold."
* * *
This wasn't what he'd expected when he'd met Steve tonight, but it was good all the same. He watched Steve, who was nibbling the fries, except Steve poked his knee, frowned, and shoved his burger at him, so he obediently picked it up and unwrapped it.
Bit into it.
It was good.
It was unbelievably good. It was the Steve of burgers. It was amazing. There were multiple patties, there was bacon and cheese and onion rings on the burger and he wasn't sure what else there was, but he never wanted to stop eating it. He tried to be polite, to go slow, but he didn't stop until it was gone.
Steve was staring at him in awe, his own half-eaten burger hanging forgotten in his hands. "Wow."
"We should have stayed."
"Because they've got a burger challenge, and I think you could be the first person to break the record."
"It'd be cheating."
Steve shoved a handful of napkins at him. "Cheating?"
Bucky wiped his hands while Steve kept eating his burger and didn't look at him. "I'm not exactly standard human anymore." He paused and still didn't look up. "I don't know if you knew that."
"I knew," Steve said. Kindly. Calmly. Like it didn't matter to him, the same way Bucky's arm didn't matter to him, like who Bucky'd been didn't matter to him, and Bucky felt relief cascade through him as he wondered what exactly he'd done to deserve Steve. "Does it means you eat more?"
"Yeah. Not huge amounts, but more."
Steve shoved the box of fries closer. "Go on, I'm not going to finish them."
Bucky didn't eat them all, didn't wolf them down like he had with his burger, just picked at them while Steve ate. When Steve was finished, he sat back with a content sigh, wiped his hands, and pulled a roll of mints out of his pocket, popping one in his mouth before offering them to Bucky.
They were sharp, biting, cool like the breeze that swirled in through the sculpture, making Steve shiver. He eyed Bucky thoughtfully. "Does not being standard make you warmer?"
"I guess?" It wasn't something he'd ever considered.
"Good enough." Steve slid across the metal surface and pressed himself against Bucky's side. Bucky went still. Steve was warm, solid, he was leaning into Bucky and electricity was sparking up inside him. He'd wanted to touch Steve for so long, and here Steve was, touching him. "Is this okay?"
"Yes," he breathed, then cleared his throat. "Yes." He glanced down at Steve. His hair was ruffling gently in the breeze. "Steve?"
"This is a date, isn't it?"
A smile spread across Steve's face and he glanced up to meet Bucky's eyes. "It is, Bucky, yes. You didn't know that until now?"
"I wasn't sure." Bucky's answering smile was wide and warm and he lifted his arm, not quite touching Steve. "So you're okay if I do this?"
Steve laughed softly. "I wish you would." Bucky wrapped his arm around Steve's shoulders and Steve snuggled into Bucky's side. "Happy?"
"Yeah," Bucky said on a sigh of contentment.
Steve reached up to squeeze his hand. "Good."
They were out of sight of anyone walking past, but they had a decent view of the path through the park, and they settled in to people-watch, Steve narrating the possible lives of the passers-by: dog walkers and joggers, bike riders and skate boarders. Bucky was happy to listen, Steve a warm weight against his side, and he gently rubbed Steve's shoulder. When Steve rested his head on Bucky's shoulder, he let his fingers trail through Steve's hair.
Eventually Steve sighed and stretched, leaning into Bucky, and gazed up at him through his lashes. "Walk me home?"
Since Bucky didn't want the night to be over, would quite happily have stayed right where he was, holding onto Steve, forever, he eagerly agreed. They climbed out of the sculpture and walked to Steve's in companionable silence, shoulders bumping, fingers brushing, until they were standing outside Steve's building.
Steve moved to face him and leaned into him, hands sliding up to curl around the back of his neck. "Coming upstairs?" He asked like asking was a technicality, like of course Bucky would say yes, like it was obvious they were going upstairs, and Bucky somehow hadn't expected that. He should have, he guessed. They'd spent enough time together before tonight, the date had been good, Steve had cuddled into his side while Bucky held him, so he shouldn't be surprised that Steve was asking him to come upstairs.
But maybe he shouldn't assume. "For sex, right?"
Steve's eyes crinkled at the corners, amused but not laughing at Bucky. "It's what I had in mind, yeah."
He'd been right. Bucky didn't know what to say, there were some things he didn't know how to put into words, so he shook his head and gently caught Steve's hands, pulling them away. He held onto them, though, thumbs rubbing circles on Steve's palms, and he loved the way Steve didn't pull away from his metal hand. He ran his metal thumb over Steve's fingers, tracing the lines on his palm, then glanced up to find Steve frowning thoughtfully at him. Quickly, he let go. "Sorry."
"No, it was nice. You're sure you don't want to come up?" Steve sounded surprised.
"I'm sure." He hesitated, wondering if it would be all right, but this was something he did want. "I would like to kiss you good night."
It got him a slow, pleased smile. "That would make it a very good night."
Bucky moved closer, wanting to get this right. He couldn't actually remember kissing anyone, couldn't remember doing anything like this, even though he knew he must have. But Steve was right there, looking up at him patiently, so he gave in to the urge and stroked the fingers of his right hand down Steve's cheek, then traced the line of his jaw, letting his fingers trail back into Steve's hair. It was soft, he couldn’t resist running his fingers through it, smiling faintly, before he let his hand settle at the nape of Steve's neck, thumb rubbing against the delicate skin behind his ear.
Steve shivered, his eyes fluttered, and Bucky wanted to touch him, wanted to pull him in and hold him and not let go. Instead he lifted his left hand, meaning to cup Steve's face, then froze with it hovering in the air. Steve's eyes sharpened, then he caught it, wrapped his hands around the metal, and pressed it to his cheek. "It's fine," he murmured. "It's okay."
And it was, it was okay. Bucky breathed in, shifted closer as Steve tipped his head back, and pressed his lips to Steve's. They were warm and soft, he tasted like sunshine and mint, and as Bucky faltered Steve took the lead, wrapping his arm around Bucky's waist, his other hand still pressed against Bucky's metal one. There were warm sparks sliding down Bucky's spine, warmth spreading through his whole body, flooding him. He lost all thought. Everything he was, was Steve.
He sighed quietly as Steve gently pulled away, saying, a little breathlessly, a little mournfully, "And you're definitely not coming upstairs with me."
Bucky smiled and cupped Steve's face with both hands, kissed his forehead, and slowly made himself move away, saying, "Good night, Steve," in a soft voice. Steve gazed at him for a few moments, then he smiled and touched Bucky's chest before turning to go inside and shut the door.
* * *
Steve leaned against the door, staring up at the ceiling, and breathed out slowly. He'd thought he'd known how the night would go: dinner, home, sex, probably Bucky would stay the night which he'd been looking forward to and he didn't always.
He hadn't expected Bucky to refuse to come up.
It didn't quite fit.
But then neither did the way Bucky had held his hands, the way Bucky had touched him. Steve could still feel it, the strength of his fingers, how gentle he was. That, he blew out a sharp breath, that was something. That gentleness when Steve knew how strong he was, he could feel it. Damn.
And the kiss. Steve licked his lips. It was obvious Bucky hadn't known quite what he was doing, but he'd been so honest, so earnest, had let Steve guide him, no posturing, no bullshit. Like all he wanted was Steve and he was content to let Steve show him how to have that.
Maybe that's why he hadn't come up. Everything he'd been through, maybe he needed to ease into it. He's literally from a different time, Steve. Maybe they did things differently back then.
Warmth spread through Steve, heart and brain and soul, affection and fondness and all of it shaped like Bucky but he forced it away with an effort, because no. Do not get attached.
Miss Kay's is actually in Brisbane, and not at all dingy, but their burgers are amazing and their milkshakes are deadly. If you're ever in town stop in and grab one. And yes, they have a burger challenge.
Do not get attached was excellent advice.
Steve was just having trouble following it.
Things had changed since their impromptu picnic. Since Bucky had kissed him. Bucky still watched him out of eyes that practically glowed as Steve propelled himself, easy and free, limbs loose and muscles strong, over obstacles, up walls, pulling himself up fire escapes and throwing himself over buildings.
But now when Steve would do something—and he could never be sure what was going to set Bucky off—and Bucky would lose himself, eyes riveted on Steve, snapping out of it when Steve laughingly called his name, he'd close the distance between them and kiss him.
Bucky was turning out to be a tremendous kisser. He put his whole self into it, liked to put his hands on Steve's face, always making sure that Steve didn't mind being touched with his metal hand. Always making sure Steve didn't mind being kissed.
And he was so fucking gentle. Not in a limp handshake, wet fish kind of way. Steve could feel the strength behind everything Bucky did, behind every touch, but he was just...gentle. Steve was trying not to think about it because it wasn't helping with the don't get attached.
When Steve woke up aching and sore, he lay in bed, staring at the ceiling. Everything hurt. He was supposed to meet Bucky, but everything hurt. He couldn't be the Steve that raced over rooftops and threw himself off ledges when everything hurt and that was the Steve that Bucky wanted. The only Steve anyone ever wanted. The tiny guy with the explosive strength and lean muscles and effortless grace, who could do things someone his size shouldn’t be able to do.
No one ever wanted the other Steve.
Steve ruthlessly controlled his body and he knew what all that effortless grace would cost. It was a price he willingly paid, because he loved it. He'd mastered his body and it obeyed him, right up until it didn't. Right up until the bill came due and he paid with pain. Paid with days of limping through the world, when even walking hurt, when his body ached, joints and spine throbbing and taking muscles with them.
No one wanted that Steve. That Steve spoiled the fantasy.
It would ease, pass, and he'd start the cycle all over again, throwing himself around just as fearlessly as ever. But that never mattered. No one ever wanted to stick around while he paid the bill.
And Bucky, who watched him move out of glowing eyes, would be no different.
Steve was getting too attached. He knew better, but he could feel Bucky worming his way past his defences. He couldn't hide this part of himself forever and if he let it keep happening it was going to hurt when Bucky walked away.
Steve had to protect himself. It was time to end it. On his terms, with his dignity and his heart intact.
He popped a couple of ibuprofen to take the edge off and texted Bucky, asking him to meet a few blocks away in the local park. He told himself waking up like this was actually a good thing. Bucky would get to see the other side of the fantasy, see the reality of Steve in pain and grounded, and if history was any guide he wouldn't care that much about Steve calling them quits.
When Steve got to the park, Bucky was waiting, slouched down on a bench like he was trying to hide his bulk, that stupid cap pulled low over his eyes, long sleeves and gloves hiding his metal arm. Steve felt his traitor heart lurch as Bucky lifted his head, eyes lighting up when he saw Steve.
"Steve." It was soft and low and happy and his heart lurched again, but he ruthlessly shoved the feeling away. Bucky's smile faded as Steve moved closer, Bucky eyes running up and down his body, and now he was frowning. "What's wrong?"
He stopped in front of Bucky and looked down at him. "We need to talk."
* * *
Steve was moving wrong. Maybe someone else wouldn't have seen it, but Bucky couldn't turn that part of himself off. The part that assessed everyone by how they moved, that saw every person around him and automatically categorised them into threat or not threat. And besides, he knew how Steve moved, and this wasn't it. Steve was hurting.
Steve's words didn't quite register at first, he was so busy being worried about why Steve was hurting—had something happened? Had there been an accident?—but then Steve said, "Bucky," in a sharp voice, meant to get his attention, and his eyes snapped to Steve's face.
"Our plans are off."
"Because right now anything besides walking hurts like a son of a bitch."
"What happened? Steve, what can I, can I do something?"
"Nothing happened. This is who I am." Bucky frowned, and Steve smiled wearily. "And I think," he ran a hand through his hair, wincing slightly as he let his hand fall, "it'd better if we don't see each other anymore."
The world stopped. The air went still, like the moment before a kill, absolute silence. He wasn't breathing. "Why?" He knew there should be emotion in his voice, knew it shouldn't be flat, empty, but he didn't know how all of a sudden.
A hard tension pulled Steve's shoulders tight, his spine turned to sudden steel, as he shoved his hands in his pockets. He stared down at Bucky, who stared back at him, then he sighed. "You think you're the first?"
"The first to be turned on by the whole," he dragged a hand out of his pocket and waved at himself, wincing slightly, "the whole...pocket rocket, one guy put it, the muscles and the energy and the," he snorted, "attitude in the tiny package. I get it. It's a," he paused, like he was looking for a word, before settling on, "kink a lot of big guys have. But I know how it goes. I've been here before. Once they find out the package comes with bad days, days when I hurt, once they find out about the whole package, suddenly it's not so attractive."
He stared down at Bucky, then gave him a half-smile. "And hey, I knew what I was getting into, I walked into this with my eyes open, so you can go. It's fine. No hard feelings."
Bucky stared back at him. There was too much emotion, too many feelings careening around inside of him, it was pure chaos, stars being born, planets colliding, anger at everyone who'd hurt Steve, fear that he was going to lose him, a surging tide of warmth he wanted to wrap around Steve, and he couldn't make sense of it. Steve was watching him and when Bucky stayed silent, he nodded, turned, and started walking away.
Don't let him leave. If he leaves... That came through loud and clear. Moving fast, he got in front of Steve. Didn't grab him, didn't touch him, just held up both hands and said, "Wait. Give me a minute. Please."
Steve stopped. Stood, not exactly patiently, but he stayed and Bucky let out a slow, grateful breath. He knew, not thought, knew, if he'd walked away Bucky would never get him back. Head bowed, he stared at his boots and carefully picked his way through everything Steve had said, everything it had set loose inside him.
"I don't," he finally said, speaking slowly, because he could not fuck this up. "That's not," get it together, Bucky, "it's not what you said, it's not a kink." He stopped. "I saw you and you were like sunshine. Angry, brave sunshine. It," he balled up his metal fist and shoved it against his sternum, "I felt it here. It was warm, it was like something coming to life." He lifted his head to meet Steve's eyes. "I didn't think I could feel that anymore."
Something shifted in Steve's eyes, in his face, and his stance eased. Bucky took a chance and moved a tiny bit closer.
"Watching you move, it's incredible, you're so full of, of joy, but it's not, I don't," why were words so hard when he had to get this right? He didn't know how to get this right, "it doesn't matter, it's not why I got that feeling here." He tapped his sternum. "That was you. I figured that out about five seconds after I met you and you weren't afraid of me, you didn't care about my arm. Please don't— No. If you want me to go, I'll go. If you want me to stay away, I'll stay away. But please don't do it because you're having a bad day. Because you hurt, because today your body's not strong. It's okay to hurt, it's okay to not be strong. I know about bad days, Steve." His voice shook a little but he brought it under control. "Trust me, I know. It doesn't change anything for me."
Steve was studying his face, sharp eyes taking him to pieces, like he could see every word, like he could weigh it and measure it. "That's more than I've ever heard you say."
"I've never been so scared I'm going to lose something before."
* * *
Steve's heart lurched and this time he didn't try and shove it away. "Scared." Bucky nodded. "Shit," he breathed. "I scared you. I didn't mean to scare you. I didn't know I could scare you."
Bucky's eyes were deep and his hands were curled, not into fists, more like he was trying to stop himself from grabbing hold of something—you, Steve, he's trying to stop himself from grabbing hold of you, he was scared he was going to lose you. It shook him down to his aching bones. It had never occurred to Steve that he was something Bucky could lose. That he was something to be lost, that he meant that much to Bucky.
"You can. And I should have said all those things when you asked me why I was following you but...I didn't. I didn't because I know people don't just say things like that. But maybe I should have. I'm not very good at being a person."
It broke his heart. It broke his heart and it made him angry. "There's nothing wrong with you. Okay, maybe if you'd said all that I'd have been...surprised, but you're great at being a person." The world was twisting under him like an angry horse, he was losing his footing. From that first day he'd known today was coming and that at the end of it Bucky would be gone. From the moment he'd texted Bucky he'd known exactly how this meeting would go. He'd been wrong.
He'd been wrong.
Everything he'd been fighting back, all his feelings for Bucky, flooded him. Don't get attached, Steve. Too fucking late. But maybe it was okay. Maybe it was okay. "There's going to be more bad days."
"Steve," Bucky murmured. "You haven't seen mine. Bad days are bad days. They don't define you." It sounded like something a therapist would say. "I like you, I want to be with you. With Steve, not with what your body can do on a given day. We're not," his expression was complicated, and Steve watched him pull in a deep breath and let it out slowly, "we're not what our bodies can do."
He believed Bucky. He believed him absolutely, and that shook him. He drew in a shaky breath of his own as he realised how much he'd hated how this confrontation was going to end. How much he'd hated the idea of losing Bucky. "Angry brave sunshine?"
Bucky ducked his head, then lifted it, gazing back at Steve with such warmth Steve felt like his foundations were shifting. Bucky held out his right hand and, after a moment, Steve took it. Bucky lifted his hand with exquisite care and kissed his palm. "Yeah. Angry brave sunshine." He tipped his head to rest his cheek in Steve's hand, and Steve curled his fingers around Bucky's jaw. "Please don't make me leave you." It wasn't begging, wasn't pleading, was simple and heartfelt and strong and Steve felt heat prickle behind his eyes.
"No, Bucky. I don't want you to go." Bucky's quiet sigh gusted across his wrist, then Bucky lifted his head. Steve was struck by the peace in his eyes.
"What happens now?"
Steve had no idea. He was lost in territory he didn't have a map for, feeling his way through somewhere he'd never expected to be. "I was going to go home and sit on the couch, watch some Netflix, maybe do some sketching if I could manage it." Bucky nodded. Steve weighed it up, carefully considering, because he didn't do this, he didn't let people see him when he was hurting. "Do you want to come?"
"Are you sure you're okay with that?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I am. But if you get bored, you don't get to blame me."
"It's a deal," Bucky said and smiled like Steve had offered him the world.
Bucky slipped his fingers through Steve's before they left the park and Steve found he was happy to let him. They walked the two blocks back to Steve's place hand in hand. As they walked, slower than they'd normally move, Steve didn't try quite so hard to hide his limp, the way he was favouring his right side, the hitch in his stride.
* * *
Bucky stood behind Steve while he unlocked the front door and felt a frisson of nervousness settle in the base of his spine. Steve had brought him home. He wasn't going to lose him. This was Steve's apartment, Steve's place, and he was going to see it. Steve looked over his shoulder before he let him in, said, "It's nothing special," like he could read Bucky's mind, and pushed the door open before Bucky could reply.
It was small but it was beautiful and it was special because it was Steve's, but he knew enough not to say that. The walls were pale cream, warm and welcoming, shelves filled with colourful objects and books (and Bucky itched to look through them, to see what Steve read). There were paintings on the wall, bold and colourful, abstract, but with a sense to them that there'd be something to see if he just looked hard enough.
Standing in marked contrast to the overall taste of the rest of the room was an absolutely hideous couch. It was plaid, in garish green, glowing orange, and three shades of blue. It was huge. Bucky stared at it and Steve grinned. "Nice, huh?"
"Did something die on it?"
Steve laughed. "Possibly. She's the ugliest thing in the world, but she's also the most comfortable. Sit on her once and you'll fall in love. I call her Mildred."
"You named your couch?"
"You'll see." He hung up his jacket and headed into the kitchen, moving slowly. "Want something to drink?"
"No," he said absently, cautiously approaching the couch. He poked it suspiciously. It was very soft.
"Just sit," Steve said, walking out of the kitchen with a bottle of water.
He sat, slowly, carefully. As his butt hit the cushions he let out a low groan and sat back, sinking into the incredible comfort. It was like being hugged.
"I might love your couch," Bucky admitted.
"I might love Mildred."
"Everyone does," Steve said and carefully sat next to him, wincing a little. It pulled Bucky's attention back to him.
"Is there something you can take?"
"Yeah, but they make me sleepy. I don't usually take them when anyone else is around."
Bucky nodded in understanding, but there was something he could do, if Steve would let him. "Do you have any liniment?"
"I do." Steve raised both eyebrows. "You offering?"
"If you want. If it would help. I have good hands."
Steve gave him a slow smile. "What I've seen of them so far, I agree."
It made him warm, remembering the way he'd touched Steve that night downstairs, the feel of Steve's skin under his fingers when he'd kissed him on the rooftops. "Go get your liniment."
"Whatever you say."
* * *
Steve changed into shorts when he went to dig out the liniment. He stopped to stare at himself in the mirror, to see if he looked any different. He felt like the Steve that had walked out of the apartment—god, less than an hour ago—had been someone different than the Steve staring back at him. He didn't do this, didn't let people see him hurting, didn't hand himself over to let someone put their hands on his aching body. Apparently this new Steve did. This new Steve that had Bucky, a Bucky who wanted all of him. A Bucky who wanted this Steve.
He shivered, the swirl of emotions almost too much to handle, and grabbed a towel, resting it over his shoulder. "Here," he said, handing the jar to Bucky as he walked out into the living room. "One of the women at the studio makes it. It's good."
Bucky took the jar, his fingers lingering against Steve's, gentle and warm. "Where do you want to do this?"
"I can lie on the floor." He spread the towel on the floor and slowly lowered himself to lie down, feeling every joint creak in protest. He half expected to be apprehensive, because this was making himself vulnerable in a way he just didn't do, but there was nothing.
"Do you want a pillow?"
"No, I'm good."
He heard Bucky moving, heard him getting closer, and waited for Bucky to straddle him, but he didn't. Instead, Bucky knelt on the floor next to him. His voice was soft as he asked, "Where?"
"Shoulders, spine, knees. Hips."
"Okay." Bucky scooped a fingerful of green goop out of the jar with his right hand and worked it between his fingers and his palm. "This will be easier with your shirt off."
He knew that and he should have done it before, but he was distracted by everything he was feeling. He sat up long enough to carefully pull his shirt off, trying not to wince, exposing his slender torso, his arms, shoulders, ribs wrapped with long lean muscle. He glanced at Bucky, wanting to see his reaction, but he wasn't staring, wasn't ogling, was simply gazing at Steve's face, calm and still. It was relaxing, as if his calmness was flowing into Steve, and he lay down again.
A few seconds later Bucky smoothed the liniment in a warm stroke down his spine and he sighed softly, feeling himself relax. "Is it okay if I use my left hand?"
He always checked, like someday he thought Steve wouldn't want Bucky to touch him with his metal hand. He always checked. Why hadn't he seen it? Seen how much Bucky cared? "Why wouldn't it be?"
He would swear he felt Bucky smile as there were suddenly two hands on him, the metal one cool and slightly segmented, but it felt just as soothing. Bucky's touch was firm but gentle as he carefully worked the liniment into his joints, rubbed it into his muscles. He could feel himself going limp. Bucky shifted and his hands were on Steve's knees, his calves. He lost time somewhere and came back with Bucky's fingertips resting lightly on his back, a question in his ears he hadn't heard. "What?"
"Do you want me to do your hips?"
He didn't hesitate. Just said, "Sure."
Bucky hands were quick and efficient as he rubbed liniment into Steve's hips, pushing carefully under the edge of his shorts, never roaming or straying. When he was done, he sat back. "How does that feel?"
It still hurt, everything was still sore, but it felt so much better, looser, like his joints weren't actively trying to kill him. Like he could move, could breathe again. If he took two of his painkillers, life would be perfect. He didn't take them when other people were around, because they made him drowsy, sleepy. Vulnerable. But he turned his head to look at Bucky, who was gazing down at him, nothing but warm concern in his eyes, and realised he was fine with taking them. Bucky...Bucky wasn't other people. "Better."
"But you still hurt."
"Yeah." He rolled and moved to sit up, Bucky's hands on him helping ease the way, and Bucky handed him his shirt. As he carefully pulled it on, he said, "I think I'll take those painkillers."
"Do you want me to leave?"
"No, I want you to get them for me." Steve let Bucky pull him slowly to his feet. "And I want you to tuck me into Mildred and sit with me while I put something stupid on the TV."
"You do, do you?" Bucky's arms were looped around him. Steve leaned into him, resting his cheek against the solid wall of muscle that masqueraded as Bucky's chest, and nodded. "I can do that."
Bucky kissed the top of his head, and then he was being gently propelled towards Mildred. He sank into her welcoming embrace and Bucky unfolded her blanket and wrapped it around his shoulders, then disappeared, only to come back and look at Steve expectantly. "Medicine cabinet, second shelf, brown bottle, two."
Bucky came back with two pills and a bottle of water from the fridge, and handed him both, then the remote. Steve swallowed the pills, then patted the couch next to him while he pulled up something mindless from his Netflix queue. Bucky sat next to him, warm and solid, and Steve settled against his shoulder.
It didn't take long before Steve was drowsy and relaxed, very aware of Bucky next to him, the noise of the TV a distant drone. "Steve?"
"Can I do something?"
"What'd you have in mind?" Steve asked easily.
There was a short silence. Steve had the feeling, as he so often did, that Bucky was carefully assembling his words before letting them out into the world. "Would it hurt you if we cuddled?"
Hopeful, but giving him an out. Steve couldn't stop himself from reaching over to squeeze Bucky's hand. "Cuddle away. You're not going to hurt me."
Bucky didn't waste any time in rearranging them both, and Steve found himself tucked between Bucky's legs—Bucky having shifted so one leg was stretched along the length of the couch—lying against Bucky's chest, Bucky's metal arm a careful weight against his back, his other hand cradling the back of Steve's head, fingers tangled in Steve's hair. It was warm and comforting, and Steve rubbed his cheek against Bucky's chest and slipped his arms around Bucky. "Okay?" Bucky asked.
"Yeah," Steve replied, and it was. Snuggling on the sofa had never been part of his life, but this was nice. Better than nice. Nice wasn't anywhere near a good enough word. He didn't know how a day that had started like this one could possibly have ended up with him here, cuddled in Bucky's arms, but the aching pain from his joints, from his spine, was distant, he could hear Bucky's heart beating under his ear, and he felt weirdly safe.
* * *
He half-woke to the sensation of movement. He was being lifted. There was a moment of struggle, a surge of fight, because he was achy and sore, wrapped in the muddy fog of painkillers, but then a soft voice said, "Steve, it's me, you're safe. I'm putting you to bed. Sleeping on the couch is just gonna make you feel worse, I don't care how comfy she is."
Bucky. That was Bucky. Bucky who he'd scared. "I'm sorry I scared you."
It wasn't, not really, not at all, and he frowned and shifted, but Bucky held him tightly and they were moving, Bucky was laying him down in his bed. Steve latched his hands in the front of Bucky's shirt. "No, I'm sorry. I didn't want to lose you. I was scared too."
"You won't lose me." Bucky's hands were big and strong and gentle and he stroked Steve's hair, pulled the covers up over him, and then Bucky pressed the softest of kisses against his forehead. "We had a mix-up, but we'll be okay."
"Okay," he muttered and fell asleep to the sound of Bucky's breathing and the feel of his hand stroking his hair.
"I've got two kinds of bad days," Bucky said.
It had been four days since Steve had seen Bucky, since he'd tried to let him go and discovered he didn't have to. Discovered he didn't want to. Discovered he'd grown more attached than he'd ever dreamed. It had been longer than Steve wanted, but circumstances had conspired and this was the first chance they'd had to see each other.
Steve gave Bucky a sharp look, but he wasn't looking at Steve. He was gazing out over the city, hands loose on his knee, the rays of the sun reflecting off his metal hand. He'd shed cap and gloves when they'd come up here and Steve felt like it was a gift just for him. That didn't stop him from wondering what Bucky was getting at.
"Bad body days and bad mental days," Bucky continued. "Sometimes they happen at the same time. Bad body days, when this," he tapped his metal arm, "aches, makes everything ache, shoulder, spine, neck. Bad mental days, they're like a black hole I want to crawl into." He paused. "Haven't had one of those in a while." There were crinkles at the corners of Bucky's eyes as he glanced up at Steve and that wasn't fair.
"Why are you telling me this?"
"I thought it might be easier to tell me about yours if I started with telling you about mine."
"So you've got an ulterior motive," Steve said, but he said it lightly, head tilted, and Bucky smiled at him.
"Yeah, I want to make things easier for you. If you want to tell me. If you don't," he shrugged, "I would have told you anyway."
Steve thought about it. While he thought, he moved to sit next to Bucky, both their legs dangling over the edge of the building, and the warmth in Bucky's eyes rolled through him like caramel. He weighed it up, trying to decide if he was going to tell Bucky. He knew Bucky wouldn't push.
Bucky had told Steve about his, doing everything he could to make it as easy for Steve as possible. And he'd already trusted Bucky with the physical reality of his bad days, trusted him with his body. Not telling him seemed kind of stupid after that. "I got sick when I was a kid," he said slowly, easing into it. "I was young enough I don't really remember it, but it fucked up a bunch of my joints. They said it'd get better, and it did, but it never went away completely. I take a bunch of drugs, they help keep it under control, and I make sure I don't put on too much weight. Keep myself lean." He held out his arm and flexed, making the muscles ripple, but they didn't bulge, not the way Bucky's did.
Bucky's eyes tracked the movement and Steve wasn't surprised when his fingers followed, smoothing a path from his inner wrist to his bicep. They were warm, his touch achingly gentle, and Steve supressed a shiver.
After a minute, he kept going. "Reality is, if I didn't do anything but walk, jog, maybe swim, ride a bike, I'd probably be fine."
He stopped. Waited. There were very few people he'd told this too, and there was a certain inevitably in what came next. He waited some more, but Bucky was wrapping his hand around Steve's arm, thumb moving in a sweeping arc, like he couldn't bring himself to stop touching.
Finally he got sick of waiting. "Not going to ask why I do it then?" He couldn't help the challenge, the defensiveness, even though part of him knew Bucky didn't deserve it.
Bucky met his eyes and they were soft, so certain. "You do it because you love it."
It completely disarmed him. "Yeah." He looked down at his hands. "And because I can. This is my body. It's mine. I'm in charge of it, it does what I want it to do." He snorted. "Most of the time. But then the bill comes due and..."
"And bad day." He let go of Steve's arm.
Bucky hummed under his breath and Steve leaned on his shoulder. "How did you start?"
"When I got sick, my mom lost her job. When I was better, she got a job at this community centre. She was a nurse," he explained. "It was run by these kind of hippies, they had a permanent first aid station, and offered a bunch of health classes, they hired her for both. They had yoga, tai-chi, bunch of different self-defence classes, an indoor ropes course, a climbing wall way before climbing walls were a thing. There was no way she could afford a baby-sitter, so she brought me to work with her every day after school. They were into this whole free-range peace and love thing, so they didn't care. I was six when I started climbing on stuff and sneaking into all the classes where people were having fun. The instructors thought I was cute," he made a face, "so they let me stay, started teaching me things, and just never stopped. Doctor back then even said it was helping my problems, that I could keep doing it as long as I was careful."
"And were you careful?"
"I was sort of careful. I never broke anything. And like I said, if I decided to be careful, to stop, if I didn't do any of it, I wouldn't have much in the way of problems. But it's not worth it. I'd rather have two or three bad days on a regular basis and keep doing what I love than give it up. Maybe that sounds stupid..."
Bucky kissed his temple. "That sounds perfectly you."
He pulled back to eye Bucky. "I notice you didn't say it didn't sound stupid."
He was rewarded with a grin and he glared at Bucky, who pulled him closer and kissed the tip of his nose. "It doesn't sound stupid."
Steve sighed and snuggled into him while Bucky wrapped him in his arms.
After a few minutes, Bucky asked, "Your mom doesn't have a problem with it?"
The whole world froze.
"My mom." He fell silent. He was silent long enough Bucky pulled back, gently touched his cheek, wordlessly asking if he was okay.
Steve wasn't. He was hovering on the edge of something. Not sure whether to go forward or retreat. He could feel the touch of Bucky's hand on his face, his warmth around him, and suddenly he was talking, the words gushing out of him like a lanced wound.
"My mom died when I was fifteen. Cancer. It happens. At least it was fast." Bucky's hand was warm against his back but he didn't speak, didn't offer meaningless platitudes or infuriating I'm-sorry-for-your-losses, just pressed his hand against Steve's spine, solid and reassuring and real, and Steve leaned into him while the words kept coming. "We didn't have any other family. I thought maybe someone at the community centre would take me in. I could have worked, earned my keep, but no. In the end for all their peace and love hippie bullshit no one was interested in helping me out."
"What happened?" Bucky asked, but it wasn't a demand. It was calm, gentle, the words wrapping around Steve, like they were holding him up, and Steve knew he could stop. That Bucky wouldn't push. He kept going.
"I got dumped into the system, but at that age there was no chance I'd get placed with a family. I ended up in a group home." He could see Bucky didn't know what that was. "That's a house with a whole pile of kids, most of them with stories way more fucked up than mine, with adults paid to feed us and supervise us and make sure we don't die. The first few weeks were hell. I was new meat. I was there 'cause my mom was dead, I came from a normal family. I was small for my age. They were gonna eat me alive."
Steve bared his teeth, remembering the way they'd watched him, the whispered threats. In a way they'd helped, distracting him from the crippling grief of his mom's death. "Except I was strong, and fast, and I kicked the shit out of them and I didn't stop. They learned to stay the hell away from me. Learned to stay the hell away from other new meat, too." He couldn't even remember why he'd stepped in, just remembered seeing the new kid go down, three of the worst on his back, and wading in, fists flying, because it wasn't right. And then he'd just kept doing it. They'd try to thank him and he'd ignore them; they'd learned fast enough to leave him alone, just like everyone else. But he'd still stepped in when someone tried to hurt them.
"The biggest problem was that my bad days aren't new." Steve clenched his hands into fists, remembering, remembering being the next thing to helpless when it hurt too much to fight, getting knocked down and dragging himself back up, bloody teeth and battered knuckles, refusing to stay down. "But when I was back on my feet, I made them pay for it."
Steve had told this story to a handful of people in his life and almost every time he'd regretted it. But Bucky didn't let him down. There was no pity, no Oh Steve, no You poor thing, just Bucky, real and solid, listening attentively.
It let him keep going.
"The thing about a group home is almost no one stays. Kids come in and out, except for ones like me, a couple of the others. I had to keep doing it. Every time some new wannabe tough guy would come in, or some poor kid with new meat branded on his forehead, the whole thing would start again. And again. And again until I aged out and got the fuck out of there."
He pushed back so he could see Bucky's face. "I learned I have to protect myself. That's why I tried to get rid of you. I thought you wanted the Steve that can run and jump, the Steve that's strong, the Steve that can, that can fly, and once you found out the truth, that some days I can only limp, you'd walk away. And I was getting too attached to you." A ripple of emotion passed over Bucky's face. "I had to do it first, to protect myself."
They sat together quietly, wreathed in the sounds of the city, and then Bucky shifted. Said, "You don't have to protect yourself from me." Steve bristled, ready to snap that it wasn't that simple, it wasn't that easy, but Bucky was still talking. "But you don't know that. Not here," he touched Steve's heart, "and not here," he touched the back of Steve's head, "even if you know it here." He gently smoothed one finger over Steve's temple.
Steve frowned. "What are you talking about?"
Bucky looked down, at his metal hand, Steve realised, which was whirring gently, the plates realigning smoothly. "Some things're so ingrained they're instinct. You feel them in your heart, in the back of your head, even if your brain knows they're not true. You can't just set them aside. Those instincts keep you alive, keep you safe." He looked up to meet Steve's eyes. "I understand."
"I guess you do," Steve murmured with a flash of guilt. What Steve had lived was nothing compared to what Bucky had survived. "Bucky—"
It must have shown on his face, because Bucky said, "Don't."
"No. Steve. Pain's not a contest." His voice was soft but firm in a way that brooked no argument. "Don't make it one."
After a long moment, Steve's shoulders slumped. "Sorry."
Bucky kissed his temple. "Nothing to be sorry for." Silence fell between them again, warm and heavy, until Bucky broke it. "I want to say I'll never hurt you." He paused. "I can't say that, can I?"
"No. No one can."
Bucky nodded. "I'll never hurt you on purpose. Never. I'll—" He stopped with his mouth open, then snapped it shut.
"What were you going to say?"
"I was going to say I'll protect you, but you don't want that. You don't need that."
"No. I can look after myself. I can protect myself."
Bucky looked out over the city, and Steve had the sense he was turning something over in his mind. "Then how about you protect me?"
"Real funny, Bucky." But there was no trace of joking in Bucky's voice, no humour, no teasing. No mocking, but he realised he'd never expect that from Bucky. Never.
"No. I mean it. Protect me. Keep me safe."
"From what? You're built like a brick shit-house and you can take down armies. What the hell am I going to protect you from?"
"From myself." Steve stared at him in confusion and Bucky turned to meet his eyes. "You can't know, you don't know. Being with you, it's like peace. You make me happy. I've got no defences against you. Nothing. You could rip me open with a word."
It slammed into him. He couldn't speak, took two tries to make his brain form words, while Bucky simply watched him, a half-smile on his face. "Bucky," he finally managed. "You can't just say things like that."
Bucky's eyes were deep and clear, a bottomless ocean and Steve was drowning. "That's why I need you to protect me," he said and Steve was sure he could hear a faint hint of lurking mischief beneath the bone-deep honesty.
"Jesus, Bucky." Steve dragged him into a hug. There was something utterly ruthless about the way Bucky had torn himself open and offered himself to Steve, but it didn't change the truth of it. That was the heart of it: Steve knew it was true. Bucky had meant every word. "You don't mess around, do you?"
"Not when it's you. Never when it's you."
Steve ran his hand into Bucky's hair and gripped tightly, giving Bucky's head a little shake, then held him closer. "Okay, Bucky. Okay."
Bucky turned his head to press a kiss against the skin of Steve's neck and Steve felt him smile.
Since their talk on the roof Steve had been different. A distance that Bucky hadn't been aware of until it was gone had fallen away.
Bucky would catch Steve watching with a strange look in his eyes. Not bad. More wondering. It made him smile, made him remember Steve saying You can't just say things like that. Except he could just say things like that. He felt them, he was going to say them. To Steve. Only to Steve. Only Steve made him feel that way.
The thing Steve didn't seem to realise was that Steve had done it first. He'd opened himself up and given himself to Bucky, gave Bucky the story of his past, the truth of it. Trusted him with it.
Bucky didn't have anything else to give Steve except the truth of what Steve meant to him.
Steve needed to protect himself, but more. Bucky thought there was something in him that needed to protect other people. Buried deep under years of hurt, but he'd mentioned like it didn't matter, like it didn't mean anything, that he'd protected other kids at that group home, when he'd had no reason to and every reason not to.
So Bucky had said: protect me and Steve had responded like it was instinct. Ever since things had been different. Easier, softer, better. Not quite like Steve had dropped all his walls, more like he was reconstructing them around Bucky.
They were spending time together just being together. Doing things besides careening over rooftops. Bucky was getting to be with Steve. Just be with him, doing whatever struck Steve's fancy.
A couple of weeks after their talk on the rooftop Bucky asked if he could come to Steve's studio and watch him paint. Steve had said, "Sure, Bucky. If you want."
When he arrived at the building, he stopped outside, staring up at the strange metal sculpture sticking out of the wall above the door. This is where it started.
No one gave him a second glance when he walked inside, except for a tall Black man with a line of gleaming silver piercings in his left ear, who simply cocked a questioning eyebrow at him then nodded in satisfaction when he said, "I'm here to see Steve."
Steve's studio was in the top corner of the building and he let Bucky in when he knocked.
"This is nice," Bucky said, looking around. There was a huge spider plant in the corner, one that rivalled some of the plants in his bathroom, very green against the red brick. A set of narrow wooden shelves stretched up one wall all the way to the ceiling, completely covered in a rainbow of paint splatters and packed with art paraphernalia, canvasses leaned against the shelves, and an easel was set up across from the window.
"Yeah, I'm damn lucky. A hundred years or so ago Lady Rutherford, who apparently hated her entire family, died and left the building and her fortune in trust for artists. You can rent the studios for almost nothing as long as you don't earn more than a certain amount a year, eighty percent of your income comes directly from your art, and you can make it off the waiting list before you die. Every few years someone comes sniffing around, tries to buy the building from the Trust, but the people who run the Trust are deadly, send them off with their tail between their legs."
Some poking around in the basement, piled high with the cast-offs of artists past, led them to an old padded chair, possibly second-cousin to Mildred judging by the garish purple and green plaid it was swathed in, and Bucky easily carried it up the four flights of stairs. Steve positioned it in the corner behind the door, taking up almost all that was left of the free space, but he seemed okay with that.
Bucky made himself comfortable and pulled a paperback out of his pocket while Steve looked at him dubiously.
"You sure you want to just sit there while I paint?"
Bucky had never been more sure of anything in his life. Being with Steve made him happy, whatever they were doing. "If you don't mind."
"No, no it's fine." Steve was stiff at first, kept glancing over at Bucky, but he gradually relaxed. Bucky would have thought Steve had forgotten he was there, except that he'd absently detour to touch him, or kiss him, when he needed to pause to fetch something.
It started a pattern, Bucky showing up regularly to watch Steve paint, spending the day seeing paintings come to life under his brush. He was incredibly talented, no matter what he was working on, but his favourite time was when Steve was working on his own art, not on a commission. His own stuff was, it was alive, spiky and vibrant. It was nothing that Bucky could quite grasp, all abstract, but it was something, there was something there, something real in the colours and shapes and light.
He almost asked Steve to explain, but then decided he'd rather try and work it out himself. Even though he didn't know what they were, didn't know what they represented, there was something about them that was all Steve.
It was good to be able to watch him work.
It was even better when Steve could put down the paintbrush and head to the rooftops, to throw himself up walls and across gaps (although Bucky still felt a twinge every time Steve did that), to pull himself up fire escapes one handed, to leap off elevator huts and roll gracefully to his feet, watching Bucky to gauge his reaction, grinning when Bucky checked out, lost in watching him.
Steve would bring Bucky back with a kiss and Bucky would hold him close, hands sliding into his hair.
There were days he wasn't with Steve, because he knew he couldn’t spend every moment with him. He had responsibilities, and more, he knew he simply couldn’t. He wanted to be with Steve, it was what made him happy, Steve was peace and joy, but however great he still wasn't at being a person, however much he didn't know how a relationship—was this a relationship? Was that what it was called, what they were doing? He didn't know and he didn't think it mattered—was supposed to work, he did know spending every day orbiting someone wasn't healthy.
There were things he had to do. He had to train, he had to see SHIELD's therapist. He had to look after his apartment, his plants. He had to be Bucky, time spent alone with himself, remembering who he was now.
There were times he was called up to fight, and he could never know when those were going to come. Those days always seemed darker, but he guessed that wasn't surprising; no one ever called in the Avengers for anything good.
And he had bad days. Those days, the bad days that weren't physical, that were preceded by endless nightmares, that were all in his head, those were the hardest days to stay away from him.
He didn't always succeed.
Steve was getting used to having Bucky sitting with him in the studio while he worked.
Bucky would sit and read, or watch Steve paint, and Steve would sometimes find himself narrating what he was doing, explaining what he was thinking or planning. Or, in the case of some of the stupider commissions, making fun of the subject matter. He needed the commissions; that didn't mean he had to like all of them.
It was a Friday when Bucky showed up later than usual and he seemed off. Silent, but not his normal quiet, calm self. He seemed distant. Steve found himself on the end of a long, hard hug, Bucky not wanting to let go, and his eyes were flat, with darks bags under them. Bad day, Steve thought. And he's still here.
Steve got him settled in the garish chair and sat next to him on the arm, pulling Bucky's cap off so he could stroke his fingers through Bucky's hair. "Do you want to go?"
"You have to work."
"It can wait if you need to go."
"Am I disturbing you? Do you want me to leave?"
"No, Bucky. That's not what I meant." Steve caught his face between both hands and kissed him. "What do you need?"
"I just need to be where you are. It doesn't matter where that is."
The urge to wrap Bucky up and hide him from the world roared up inside Steve. "Okay. But you tell me if you want to go."
"I will." Steve stayed with him as Bucky pulled off his gloves, laying them over the arm of the chair, and pushed up his loose sleeves. Steve liked that he did that here, like this was a place that Bucky felt free to be himself, felt safe. The door helped, firmly shut with the latch flicked, and Bucky had ears like a cat; no one was going to surprise them.
"Do you want your book?"
"No." He softened it with a touch on Steve's arm and Steve slid his fingers through Bucky's, squeezed gently. "Go paint. I'm okay." He didn't think Bucky was okay, but he did as Bucky asked.
Time passed, the room slowly filling up with golden light. He was aware of Bucky's eyes on him, following his every move, but it didn't bother him. If Bucky needed to watch him to feel better, it was fine with him. He thought maybe it should, that sort of scrutiny from anyone else would have him bristling, but this was Bucky. The normal rules simply didn't apply.
Eventually the sun hit his canvas and he took it as a sign. They could both use a break. He covered everything up and moved over to Bucky. "I'm going to the kitchen." He put one hand on each arm of the chair and leaned in to kiss him. Gently, just a light press of his lips, and Bucky responded, soft and sweet. He was smiling a little when Steve pulled away. "I'll be right back."
He felt Bucky's eyes on him when he left.
When he came back he had two cups of tea, precariously gripped in one hand, a bright pink lump he'd sweet-talked out Nora, one of the sculptors, in the other, a bag hanging from his fingers, and a board under one arm, also courtesy of Nora.
Bucky watched him curiously as he kicked the door shut, then reached out to take the mugs.
"One of those is for you, and so are these." He set the board across Bucky's lap and plonked the pink lump on top of it, set the bag on the floor and held out his hand for one of the mugs. Bucky passed it to him and Steve sat on the arm of the chair. "I thought you might like something tactile to do." Bucky poked the lump. "Or not. But making something might...help." He sipped his tea, watching Bucky. "And I don't think painting's really your thing."
"No," Bucky said, looking up from the pink lump.
"So, polymer clay. You just squish it into whatever shape you want."
"It's very pink." Bucky sounded pleased by this fact.
"Yeah," Steve said with a laugh. "I asked for the brightest colour she had."
Bucky poked it again, then looked up at Steve, warmth simmering in his eyes. "Thanks."
"You're welcome." Steve pressed his leg against Bucky's, hard, feeling his heart light up. "I also brought lunch. Sandwiches. And before you say you're not hungry, you need to eat." He fished a sandwich out of the bag and passed it to Bucky.
They sat, legs pressed together, drinking their tea and eating their lunch. Bucky's first few bites of the sandwich were tentative, but then he wolfed it down, and the second one Steve gave him, and when Steve offered him the other half of his, shoved it at him with a glare when Bucky would have refused, he finished it with a sigh. Steve hadn't been that hungry anyway.
When their tea was gone Steve shoved both mugs onto the windowsill, tossed their lunch remains in the garbage, dropped a kiss on Bucky's lips, and returned to his painting.
Hours passed. Steve lost himself again, but Bucky was a constant presence at the edge of his awareness. As he moved, changing canvasses, new picture, new paints, new brushes, he touched him, checking in with him, almost automatically, and was reassured as Bucky touched him in return.
When he finally came back completely, stretching his back as his muscles complained about standing for so long, he glanced over to see Bucky contemplating a bright pink something with obvious pleasure.
"It's a dog," he said to Steve's questioning look. Steve studied the clay. Tilted his head. It had four legs, kind of, but there the resemblance ended. "It's abstract," Bucky added smugly with a glance at Steve's canvas.
Steve laughed and shook his head. "It's perfect. Let's wrap it up and take it home."
Bucky seemed to be weighing it up, then he asked, "Do you want to come back to my place? Maybe have dinner?"
He'd never been to Bucky's place. It shouldn’t be big a deal, but...it felt like it. "Sounds great, Bucky."
They took a taxi. They'd normally take the subway, but Steve could tell Bucky was tired. Bucky didn't seem all that comfortable in a taxi; Steve talked to the driver, idle chit-chat, so Bucky only had to deliver the address.
It was a fancy building.
With a lot of security.
When Steve raised his eyebrows at Bucky and Bucky shrugged, Steve realised he shouldn’t have been surprised. Of course Bucky, who had been the Winter Soldier, who fought with the Avengers, wasn't going to live in a crummy walk-up.
The elevator was all chrome and glass, no personality, and Steve had no idea what to expect from Bucky's apartment. He found himself hoping it wasn't going to be chrome and glass. Not just because Steve personally thought it was ugly, but because Bucky deserved better than that.
When they went through the door, Steve was bracing himself.
He was surprised to find it was completely ordinary. It looked like someone had gone through an Ikea catalogue with a checklist. Not unpleasant, but not much in the way of personality. "I'm giving you a painting. Two paintings."
"Yeah, Bucky. Maybe more."
Bucky lit up, absolutely beautiful, and as Bucky stood in the middle of his out-of-a-catalogue living room, holding a bright pink not-a-dog, Steve felt himself teetering on the edge of a chasm he knew he'd never climb out of if he fell. He was so beautiful, he'd survived hell and torture and he was still calm and kind and gentle, and the way he looked at Steve... God. No one had ever looked at him like that. Like he was everything. You could rip me apart with a word.
With an effort, Steve shook it off. Glanced down at the not-a-dog and said, "We should put that in the oven."
"You want to burn my dog?" Bucky asked, but his eyes were teasing.
"To cure it," Steve said with a laugh. "You do have an oven?"
"In the kitchen."
"Shocker," Steve deadpanned, and Bucky pulled his left glove off with his teeth and chucked it at Steve, who dodged it with a laugh. Bucky shifted the not-a-dog to his left hand, Steve came over to pull off his right glove, and then Bucky led the way to the kitchen. Steve found an oven tray in the catalogue kitchen, got the not-a-dog set up to cure, then frowned at Bucky's metal hand. "Maybe polymer clay wasn't such a good idea." He grasped it and turned it so he could see the palm. The grooves between the plates were streaked with pink.
Bucky folded his hand around Steve's. "No," he murmured. "It was good. It helped me be in my body again."
Steve searched his face. Bucky's eyes were deep and Steve nodded. "Good, but now your body has pink stripes we have to deal with. Have you got hand sanitiser, or rubbing alcohol?"
"I've got rubbing alcohol. In the bathroom."
"Again, shocker." Bucky's eyes crinkled at the edges and Steve followed as he led the way down a hallway. "You're going to have to sacrifice your toothbrush for the cause."
"I have a spare," Bucky said as he opened the door and waved Steve into the bathroom.
The bathroom that was a complete surprise.
All the personality missing from the living room was here. It was huge, a gigantic claw foot tub taking up one end, surrounded by lush plants. In fact there were plants everywhere, so many it was like walking into a miniature jungle. Shelves around the walls held candles, and different kinds of oils, boxes and soaps and who knew what else. It smelled amazing. The walls were pale green, the mirror above the sink framed in silver. Steve thought it might be an antique.
He turned to look at Bucky.
Bucky looked at his feet. "I spend a lot of time in here. Soaking helps when things hurt. And," he blew out a breath, "and I just like it."
"Bucky, it's amazing."
He looked up. "Yeah?"
"Yeah. Do you look after the plants yourself?"
He nodded. "I don't like people in my place, so I do everything myself."
It stopped Steve dead. "I'm here," he said carefully.
That flush of warmth again, that chasm opening up beneath him. He touched Bucky's arm, then waved a hand, taking in the bathroom. "Alcohol?"
"Under here." Steve watched over Bucky's shoulder and there were a lot of first aid supplies under the sink, more than he'd ever seen in someone's house before. But again, he shouldn’t be surprised. Bucky pulled out a bottle of rubbing alcohol and then rummaged around until he came up with a toothbrush and a washcloth.
Steve hopped up on the counter, splashed alcohol on the washcloth, wiped down Bucky's metal hand, and started scrubbing at the pink clay stuck in the grooves. Bucky leaned his thighs against the counter and started stroking his fingers through Steve's hair. Comfortable silence fell around them, the only sound bristles on metal as Steve worked.
"Okay, it's in your wrist, too. And up at your elbow. How did you get it all the way up there?"
"Nora always said the stuff migrates. I never actually believed her." As Steve worked he kept shoving Bucky's sleeve up and it kept falling down. Shove it up, it fell down. Finally he sighed. "You know this would be easier if you took your shirt off."
Bucky went still, then he stepped back and put both hands on the bottom of his shirt. Steve blinked in surprise, said, "You don't actually have to," but it was too late, because the shirt was coming off over Bucky's head and he dropped it on the floor and stood there, shirtless, in front of Steve.
His mouth went dry.
Bucky was pure muscle, defined and golden, and Steve's eyes slowly travelled upwards from where they'd settled at his abs.
His left shoulder ended abruptly, brutally shifting to scars and metal and a story written in agony across Bucky's body. His gaze moved to Bucky's face. Bucky's eyes were uncertain, hesitant, and Steve wondered if Bucky had been waiting for this. Waiting for a chance to show Steve, to see how he'd take it. Problem was, Steve didn't know what he might say or do that could hurt Bucky.
And there was no way in hell he was going to risk hurting Bucky.
"I'm going to ask you a question and I want you to be honest with me."
A tiny exhalation, a tiny twitch at the corner of his mouth, and Bucky said, "I don't know how to be anything else with you."
"Do you want me to ignore the scars or is it okay to react?" Steve kept his eyes firmly on Bucky's face. "Because I'll do whatever you want." It would be hard to ignore them, but he'd do it if that's what Bucky wanted.
"You can react."
"Jesus, Bucky." He let his eyes drop to the rope of scars, the sunburst, that marked the border between metal and flesh. "Fuck." His hand hovered and then he let it drop.
Bucky took a deep breath. "You can touch them."
"Do you want me to?"
There was a long pause. "I don't know."
"Then I'm not going to. Not unless you know. Not unless I know it's okay." He reached out and grasped Bucky's left shoulder, right up against his neck, avoiding the scars completely. "But I can't make the same ignore-it-or-not offer for the rest of you, Bucky, because, god, you're gorgeous." He wanted to touch. Hell, he kind of wanted to just lean forward and kiss his way across that broad expanse of chest, feel that sprinkle of chest hair against his lips. A faint touch of pink graced Bucky's cheeks, but he looked pleased and Steve grinned up at him. "Gorgeous," he repeated. "All of you. You're the best damn thing I've ever seen."
He reached for Bucky's metal hand, swiped the alcohol soaked washcloth over the metal plates, then picked up the toothbrush again. "Let's get rid of the rest of the pink and then you can buy me dinner."
* * *
The decided on pizza for dinner. It was easy, didn't require much thought, and Steve discovered Bucky was incredibly easy going about pizza toppings.
The cooling not-a-dog was placed in pride of place on the coffee table while they ate pizza. "You should give it a name," Steve said.
Bucky chewed thoughtfully, swallowed, and said, "Fred."
"Fred it is."
They ate in companionable silence, broken when Bucky said, "I want to teach you something."
Steve looked up from contemplating the pizza, trying to decide if he was actually still hungry or if he just wanted another piece. "What?"
"I'd like to teach you something." Bucky was absently poking Fred with one metal finger, looking weirdly proud, like a dad on his strangely-shaped child's first day of kindergarten.
"That's the problem. All my skills, everything I could teach you is," he hesitated, then finished, "lethal."
Something about the way Bucky said it made him sad. "Does it have to be?"
"Yeah, Steve. I don't know anything else."
It made Steve ache. Bucky was so much more than that. "You know how to make abstract dogs," he pointed out and Bucky laughed quietly. "There must be something."
"I guess...I could teach you target shooting?"
"I don't think I'm all that keen on learning to fire a gun. I don't think there's anything wrong with it, I just don't think it's for me."
Bucky nodded and fell silent, mulling it over. "Knife throwing?"
"Sure, Bucky. That sounds like fun." And it did. He'd seen trick throwers at the circus once, and it'd been impressive. "I don't know if I'll be any good at it."
"I can teach you to be good. And I want to work on your self-defence."
"What, you want to give me another chance to put you on your ass?" It was the first time he'd ever referred to that day when he'd sent Bucky flying.
Bucky beamed at him, brimming over with pride, and it lit up Steve's heart. "Yeah."
* * *
They settled on the couch after dinner, the TV on in the background, something mindless playing as they talked about inconsequential things. Bucky went willingly as Steve poked and prodded him until he was lying against him, his cheek against Steve's chest, Steve's arms around him.
He'd started the day at the bottom of a deep dark well, the light barely visible, and Steve had slowly drawn him up, drawn him out, until now he was surrounded by sunlight. He let out a quiet sigh as Steve ran his fingers through his hair, stroking over and over again, and he was amazed to feel himself drifting in a sleepy haze. He couldn't fall asleep, there were nightmares waiting if he fell asleep, but he could float here, warm and content in Steve's embrace, safe in the sun.
Steve looked up from his painting to see a woman sitting in Bucky's chair. He stared at her. She had red hair and was watching him closely and he had no idea where the hell she'd come from. "Nice painting."
He set down his paint brush, folded his arms, and smiled, showing all his teeth. "I'd say thank you, but I feel like that'd give you the impression that you being here was okay. This is a private studio. Visitors not welcome."
"There's at least one visitor who's welcome."
A fierce burst of protective anger shot up inside him. There was only one person who came into the studio, only one person who would count as a visitor. Bucky. He took a step forward, shifting his weight to the balls of his feet, fingers curling. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Sure you don't, Steve."
"I don't remember telling you my name."
"You didn't." She smiled at him and it was too earnest, too honest. Steve instantly distrusted it. "I'm here to talk about your visitor."
His fists clenched. "You're here to waste your time. You're here uninvited. And you're here to leave."
"Actually, I'm here to check you out, Steven Grant Rogers. Paramour of Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier. You know." She wiggled her left hand. "Has a metal arm?"
Paramour of... It threw him. "Who the hell are you?"
"Isn't that the sixty four thousand dollar question." She frowned. "Actually, allowing for inflation, that would have to be, what, around the half a million dollar question?"
"Something like that." Her sudden shift in interest, away from Bucky and onto him, soothed his anger slightly and he had a feeling someone who wanted to hurt Bucky wasn't going to say thing like paramour of Bucky Barnes. No one said things like that. "But however much it's worth, you still haven't answered it."
He studied her as he talked, eyes running over her from the top of her head to the tip of her toes: well-muscled body hidden under casual clothes, brilliant red hair, bright attentive eyes, amused as she watched him studying her. She was casually sprawled in the chair but there was something deceptive about it; Steve realised she was holding herself like she was ready to move, to react to a threat. With a sudden terrible sinking feeling he thought he knew who she was.
She grinned at him, showing white teeth that seemed, in that moment of almost recognition, very sharp. "You can call me Natasha."
And that confirmed his suspicions. "You're the Black Widow."
"Sometimes," she said airily, waving an unconcerned hand. "At the moment, I'm Natasha."
There was an Avenger in his studio, sitting in the hideous chair, looking like the cat that ate the canary. He glowered at her. "I don't give a damn who you are, I'm not telling you jack shit about Bucky."
"That's okay, because like I said, I'm much more interested in you." She leaned forward, put her elbow on the arm of the chair, and rested her chin on her hand. "What exactly are your intentions towards Bucky, Steven Grant Rogers? Are you looking for a quick roll in the hay? A life partner? Is this a budding romance? Are you turned on by the metal arm? Or is it the fact that he could kill you. Give me a hint here."
"Are you serious right now?"
She raised an eyebrow. "You've been spending an awful lot of time with Bucky, or he's been spending an awful lot of time with you, and I thought it behoved me, as his," there was an infinitesimal pause, "co-worker to come and check you out."
"Really. It behoved you."
"Mmmm, someone was going to and trust me, I'm the best option. You could have ended up with Stark in here."
Steve considered everything he'd ever seen of Tony Stark on TV, and shuddered.
"You want me to tell you about my relationship with Bucky."
She tilted her head, a little smile on her lips, like he was a dog who'd successfully performed a complicated trick.
"No," he said. Forcefully.
"I could make you tell me, but you wouldn’t like it. Neither would Bucky." She sighed. "Look, Steve. Bucky is," she stopped and Steve had the oddest feeling she was making an effort to be honest with him, "what he's been through. Where he is now. I'm concerned. It would be easy to hurt him. If all you want is a go at the Winter Soldier I'm asking you to back off."
She didn't move, but everything about her was suddenly a threat.
"No, that's not what I meant." He owed her nothing. He owed Bucky everything. He wouldn't break the trust Bucky had in him. But he genuinely believed that this woman, whatever she wanted to call herself, was actually concerned for Bucky. "Bucky...is Bucky. It's not a kink." He smiled suddenly as he realised he was quoting Bucky. "That's what you're worried about, right?" She didn't respond, but the threat radiating off her eased. "He's, I like him. I trust him. He makes me happy. Being with him, with him, the person he is now." Steve looked down at the floor, trying to find a word to capture the complicated mess of chaotic feelings Bucky raised in him, then shrugged and went with, "He makes me feel good." Protect me. He stared her down, radiating a little threat of his own. "And I would do everything in my power to end anyone who tried to hurt him."
After a long tense minute, she said, "Okay," and hopped up out of the chair, heading for the door.
"Okay? Okay? That's it? Just okay?"
"What, were you hoping for a stamp of approval? Maybe a certificate?"
She grinned and disappeared out the door. He was still staring at it when it opened again and she poked her head through. "Steve?"
"Yes?" He didn't even try and keep the What now? out of his voice.
"I was serious about it being a nice painting. Do you take commissions?"
Steve eyed her and had a feeling she already knew the answer along with exactly how much he charged and possibly every commission he'd ever painted. "Yes," he said anyway, and pulled out a business card.
"Could you paint a grown man as a cupid?" she asked as she plucked it from his fingers. "The baby angels in the diapers with the bows and arrows?"
"Yeah, I guess."
She grinned wickedly. "I'll be in touch," she promised and was gone again.
Bucky came off the shooting range in the Tower to find Romanoff waiting for him. She was wearing a grey hoodie with the sleeves pushed up, jeans, and sneakers, and looked about nineteen. He was certain whatever she wanted wasn't official business. Was even more sure when she wiggled the fingers of one hand in a casual wave. He nodded in return and kept going past her to the weapons locker.
"Bucky," she greeted, following him.
"Romanoff," he replied, taking a guess.
"Natasha," she corrected.
Natasha, not Romanoff. He'd been right. This wasn't official business. Nothing to do with the Avengers. She was always good about making sure he knew why she was talking to him. She was always good to him and Bucky didn't think she had a lot of reasons to be good to him. He owed her more than he thought he could ever repay. It was down to her that he hadn't been killed out of hand after the Chitauri invasion and he knew, though he could never prove it and she refused to talk about it, that she was one of the voices in SHIELD that had spoken for him.
Part of him wished the memories of her would come back; part of him was glad they never had, because he was certain they wouldn't be anything good. There were precious few Winter Soldier memories that, even on a sliding scale of Winter Soldier memories, could be categorised as good.
"Natasha, then." He offered her a small smile, which she returned, then hauled herself up to sit on the counter while he racked his guns.
"I need to tell you something."
"I met Steve today."
His arm shifted and whined as his shoulders tightened and he slowly turned to face her. She was watching him carefully and he could see she was ready to move, ready to dodge or fight, every muscle poised and ready. In case he attacked. That, more than anything else, forced him to relax. He wouldn't, but the thought of her approaching Steve, it made him angry.
"Are you okay?" That wasn't Natasha. That was Romanoff, second in command, asking him to assess.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes." He took a deep breath, called up the sense memory of the feel of Steve, the muscles of Steve's back shifting under his hand, the strength of Steve's arms wrapped around him, the scent of him, Bucky's nose buried in his hair, and let it out slowly. "Yeah, I'm fine. But I need you to explain."
"You're one of us." Bucky shifted uneasily. "I know you're not precisely an Avenger, you're not SHIELD. But you're still one of us. You fight with us, fight for us. And you've been spending a lot of time with him. Someone was going to go and check him out." She gave him a long measuring look. "You should know he's already been fully vetted by SHIELD. Background check, associates, full history, the works." Bucky opened his mouth and she kept going over the top of him before he could speak. "It'll stay locked up in your file. But it's the reality of who you are. Anyone you start spending time with is going to get the full workup. SHIELD had to make sure."
Anger swelled again, but she held his gaze and he let it go with a kind of weariness. There was no point. It was done. But he wouldn't keep their secrets. Not from Steve. "I'm going to tell him."
She shrugged. "That's up to you."
"If they put him through a full background check, why did you feel the need to meet him?"
"I wanted to know what his intentions were." Bucky waited for the punchline, but she gazed at him and he realised she was serious. "Like I said, you're one of us. We were concerned."
"Stark was concerned."
"We were all concerned in our own way," she corrected with a wry smile. "And someone was going to go and check him out. I figured you'd be happier if it was me."
He had to give her that. Out of all of them, she was the least bad option. "And are you satisfied?"
She hummed thoughtfully, tilted her head from side to side, then said, "I like him."
"So do I," he found himself saying softly. "He makes me feel good."
Her smile grew amused. When he didn't say anything else, she gave him a quick nod, said, "Good talk," and hopped off the counter.
She was halfway to the door when he said, "Wait."
She turned back, one eyebrow raised.
"Can I." He stopped. She waited, infinite patience in a lethal package. He lowered his voice. "Can I talk to you?"
Her eyes widened in genuine surprise. "Talk. You mean talk talk. About something personal?"
He wanted to crawl into a hole and pull the earth after him, but he nodded.
"Sure." Her smile was strangely gentle. "Want to get out of here?"
They wound up at a hole in the wall Vietnamese place, drinking thick sweet milky coffee delivered by an unreasonably grumpy waiter. "So what do you want to talk about?"
He didn't know how to start. He didn't know where to start. He glanced up and Natasha was gazing at him patiently. He went back to looking at his coffee. "I didn't feel anything. Until Steve, I didn't feel anything. When I saw him, when I met him, it was like he burned through the not feeling, made it come back. And it just kept, it just keeps, getting bigger, brighter. He's like the sun." There was longing in his voice, he didn't try and hide it; all he wanted right now was to be with Steve, to touch him, hold him, bury his face in Steve's hair and simply be. "But not everything came back. It might never come back. I don't," he lifted one shoulder, "I don't miss it. Honestly, I don't really remember what it felt like. To do it or to want it."
After a minute, Natasha asked, "Are you talking about sex?"
Bucky nodded. "I don't know what to do about it. All the touching, the kissing, I can feel him reacting, wanting more, but I don't feel it. There's just nothing there."
"And you're asking me what to do."
Bucky nodded again.
"I want you to know that this goes against everything I stand for," she said solemnly, but he could see the glint of teasing in her eyes, "but be honest. Tell him."
"I don't want to lose him over this."
Natasha sighed and leaned back in her chair. "It's harder for a man to fake it than a woman, but it's not impossible. If you want to know how, I'll show you, but you shouldn't. I've met Steve. You're not going to lose him over this. You might if you lie to him."
"Mmm, but you knew that already."
She grinned at him. They finished their coffee, and Bucky ordered another round from the grumpy waiter, added some goi cuon and banh xeo, and Natasha asked how he'd actually met Steve. So Bucky found himself explaining how Steve, his beautiful, tiny Steve, had flattened him, had snuck up on him and flipped him right on his ass.
Natasha's laughter filled the restaurant, so infectious even the grumpy waiter momentarily grew slightly less grumpy.
Steve sank down onto Mildred and sighed. Stared up at the ceiling for a few minutes, then pulled out his phone and texted Bucky. It was late, but that had never stopped him.
I had a visitor today at the studio.
It took Bucky a few minutes to send back: I know. I'm sorry. Can I come over?
Always. He grinned and added, Bring your toothbrush and you can stay over with a kiss emoji and a wink emoji.
For a minute or two, the only response was the dot dot dot that said Bucky was thinking of a response and then We need to talk came through.
Steve stared at it, dumbfounded, then panic roared up inside of him, followed by a rush of anger, old instincts rising up, screaming at him to text back, don't bother, don't bother coming over, to lash out first before he could be hurt, to shield himself, to protect himself. He forced them down, forced them back. This was Bucky. Bucky. Those four words from Bucky weren’t the deadly poison they would have been coming from anyone else. Didn't mean what they'd meant when he'd said them. From Bucky they were simple honesty.
Bucky had said protect me. He'd said protect me from myself. He'd said you could rip me open with a word. Steve realised as he stared down at his phone, knuckles going white at how close he'd come, how far away his old self wasn't. Bucky didn't just need Steve to protect Bucky from Bucky. He needed Steve to protect Bucky from Steve.
With a deep breath that he let out slowly, he sent back: Sure, Bucky. Whatever you need, then dropped the phone on the couch, tipped his head back and closed his eyes.
He was still sitting like that when Bucky knocked on the door. Steve didn't get up, just called for him to come in, and he opened his eyes to Bucky staring down at him in concern. "Hey," he said and held out his hand. Bucky immediately threaded his fingers through Steve's and Steve pulled him down to the couch, pushed him back against the cushions, and practically crawled into his lap. Bucky wrapped his metal arm around him and Steve sighed quietly against Bucky's shoulder.
"Are you okay?" Bucky asked quietly.
"I am now."
He felt Bucky smile as he kissed his cheek, and Steve turned his head to kiss Bucky properly, leaning into it, deepening it, and lost himself in kissing Bucky, in being kissed by Bucky, until he couldn't breathe. When he pulled away, he rested his chin on Bucky's hair, Bucky's metal hand trailing up his spine, fingers kneading the muscles, and Steve melted under the touch.
"I'm sorry about Natasha," Bucky said after a few minutes.
"Did you send her?"
"Then you don't have to apologise. It was surreal, having the Black Widow in my studio. I looked up and she was just there."
"She does that."
"I refused to talk about you but," Steve wound his fingers in Bucky's hair, kissed the top of his head, "I think she actually was trying to look out for you. And I think she's going to commission a painting."
"What?" Bucky leaned back, his hair slipping through Steve's fingers, to stare at Steve in bemusement.
"I told you it was surreal. Don't worry, I'm going to charge her a pain in the ass tax if she actually comes back."
"Make it a lot," Bucky grumbled.
Steve grinned. "I will."
Bucky grinned back but it faded as he said, "There's something I have to tell you, and I don't think you're going to like it."
"That doesn't sound good." He climbed off Bucky's lap and sat cross-legged next to him. "Go ahead."
"When we started spending time together SHIELD did a full background check on you. Your history, your associates. Everything."
A very long silence followed Bucky words. "I see," Steve said neutrally. "Did you know?"
"Not until today."
Steve tried to work out how he felt. Angry? Definitely. Surprised? Not really. Not at all, actually, now that he thought about it. "What happened to it?"
"It's part of my file. Which is under the highest security classification SHIELD has."
Steve huffed a laugh. "You're saying as far as SHIELD's concerned I'm permanently part of you."
"I guess so."
Another long silence. "I'm not happy about it," Steve finally said. "It's an invasion of privacy and I'm not even going to get started on the civil liberties rant I'm storing up if I ever meet someone from SHIELD, but okay. It happened. I can even see why they did it. I might have been a bad guy, they have to protect you," or keep a potential weapon out of enemy hands, but maybe he was too cynical, "so okay. And hey, that means I'm officially part of you."
Bucky was searching his face and Steve nodded, prompting him to sigh in relief and twist sideways to rest his forehead against Steve's shoulder. Steve clasped his hands at the back of Bucky's neck, stroking his thumbs over his hair. They sat in silence for a few minutes and then he said, "Bucky?"
"You said we need to talk, and I don't think you meant about surprise visitors or SHIELD files." He knew he was right when Bucky winced. "Whatever it is, it's okay, but for future reference? The words we need to talk? Those are not good words."
Steve shook his head. "No. They're what people say before they break up with someone."
Bucky pulled away, looking horrified. "You didn't think—"
"Only for a second, then I remembered it was you. It's okay. Just maybe don't use them again."
"No. I won't." Steve nudged him and raised both eyebrows. Bucky spread his hands on his knees. "I'm guessing you've been wondering why," he tilted his head to look at Steve, "no sex."
He'd had no idea what Bucky was going to say, but he hadn't expected that, and he had no idea what to say in response, he was so surprised. He'd kind of given up worrying about it, assumed it would happen when Bucky was ready, but...he had wondered. "A bit, yeah," Steve admitted. Bucky's shoulders hunched and Steve shifted closer, leaning into him. "Hey, it's fine. I've got no problems waiting."
"You could be waiting a while." Bucky rubbed one metal finger over his knee, back and forth. "You could be waiting forever."
He covered Bucky's hand with his own. "Bucky?"
"When I saw you, when I met you, do you remember, I told you it was like something coming to life, like I felt something I didn't think I could feel anymore?"
It wasn't something he was ever going to forget. "I remember."
"One of the things I don't feel any more is sex. It's just not there."
Steve chewed the inside of his cheek. "I'm not trying to make you feel bad here, just trying to make sure I understand. Do you mean you can't," he considered how to put it, and went with, "perform?"
"No. Well, yes, but not like you mean. I don't get hard, but not because I want to and can't. Those feelings, wanting to have sex, desire, I guess, even if I feel like an idiot saying it like that, I don't have that anymore. I don't want to have sex with you." Bucky said it apologetically, but even so, it stung. Steve pulled back, tried to pull away, but Bucky slipped his metal arm around his waist, holding him in place. "No, Steve, I don't want to have sex with anyone. If it was going to be anyone, it'd be you, but I don't even remember what it felt like to want to."
"Oh." It wasn't enough; right now, it was all he had. "Because of..." He trailed off, because he didn't know how to finish the sentence.
He didn't need to. "Yeah, because of that. It might come back, it might not. No one really knows and it's not like they have a basis for comparison."
Bucky said the last in a wry tone that caught at Steve's heart. It was easy to, not forget, precisely, but to set aside everything Bucky had been through. He was so calm, so gentle. The fact that he'd been tortured for decades, it was like Steve's brain couldn’t hold onto it day to day, and then suddenly it came crashing back and he realised how much of a goddamn miracle it was that Bucky was even walking around in the world. No sex. Okay. He was disappointed, he wasn't going to lie to himself, most days he wanted to climb Bucky like a tree, but he could deal with that.
Bucky was patiently waiting, giving Steve time to work through what he'd been told. "Has anything I've done so far not been okay?"
"It's not like that. Sex, the idea of it, it doesn't bother me. I just don't feel anything."
"Nothing at all? About anything?"
Bucky leaned in and kissed him. "Steve, no. I may not want to have sex, but you, you're amazing, beautiful, gorgeous, god, you're the best thing to ever happen to me. You kissing me, touching me, it's incredible, and when I get to, when you want me to, touch you, kiss you. Hold you..." His eyes were glowing and the look in them, the joy, hit Steve like truck. "It's everything."
It made him close his eyes, he needed to close his eyes, to get control of himself, to clamp down on the rush of emotions. It didn't work as well as he'd hoped because he found himself saying, "You should stay anyway. Stay with me, sleep with me, here, tonight." There was a long silence and he opened his eyes to Bucky looking hopeful and hesitant. "What?" He traced a line above Bucky's eye, down his cheek.
"You might not want that."
"I wouldn't have said it if I didn't want it. Tell me what's wrong."
"I have nightmares."
Of course he did. Steve's heart broke at the thought of Bucky lying alone, suffering through nightmares. "Okay."
"Sometimes they're bad."
"Not every night, no."
"What would you need from me?"
"Don't touch me, don't try and wake me up. It might not end well."
"What if I'm already touching you?" Bucky blinked, clearly surprised, like that hadn't occurred to him. "Because if you stay with me, if you sleep with me, I'm going to be touching you." He smiled as Bucky went a bit dazed around the eyes, like Steve had offered him something he'd never known he'd wanted, had never known he could have, and now it was all he could think about. "You said holding and touching was good, so I'm going to do both."
"Oh." Bucky blinked again. "Right." Steve grinned as he obviously forced himself to focus. "Whatever you're doing, you'd need to keep doing it. Don't change anything. Don't try and wake me up or bring me out of it."
"If I promise to do all that, will you stay?"
"I didn't bring a toothbrush."
"I've got a spare."
"I might talk, or yell, or," he looked uncertain again, "it could get bad. If you don't want—"
Swiftly, Steve placed his hand over Bucky's mouth. "If you were about to say something about me not wanting you to stay, you better stop right now."
Bucky melted against him, and Steve pulled him into a hug.
* * *
Steve dug out an old, stretched out pair of sweatpants that barely fit Bucky, and his bed wasn't that big, so when Bucky crawled under the covers there was no choice but to tuck together. Steve poked him, told him to turn over, and then moulded himself against Bucky. Steve was warm and Bucky could feel every shift of his long lean muscles as he hooked his arm over Bucky's chest and tucked his body more tightly against Bucky's and his breath ghosted across his shoulders.
Bucky had never felt more perfectly at peace, like this was the one place in the world he was meant to be, like everything he'd survived, everything he'd lived through, had led him here.
Steve kissed the back of his neck and Bucky felt something stir in his heart, huge and overwhelming. He knew what it was. He wasn't sure he was ready to say it. He wasn't sure Steve wanted to hear it.
But he knew what it was.
He closed his eyes and felt every muscle in his body slowly let go, giving itself over to Steve, and when he slept there were no nightmares. Just perfect dreamless sleep.
"Why do we have to go to Stark Tower?"
"Because that's where we can do this safely."
Steve hmpphed under his breath and crossed his arms. They were in the back of a big black car. Bucky didn't usually take advantage of them, but they were permanently on offer and using one would make it easier to get to the Tower.
"You don't want to go to the Tower."
Steve sighed and bumped his shoulder against Bucky's. "It's not that. I just don't want this to turn into a meet and greet. Getting grilled by one of them was enough."
"No one's going to bother us. The only ones who'll know we're there will be you, me, and JARVIS." He paused. "And probably the Black Widow. I think she knows everything. But she's Captain America's second in command, so it's her job. And it's her hobby. She'll leave us alone, though."
He found himself on the receiving end of one of Steve's searching looks, so he leaned close, kissed him, and said, "Come on, this is supposed to be fun," against his mouth and was rewarded with Steve winding his fingers into his hair and kissing him back with an intensity that left him reeling.
Steve was looking smug when he finally pulled back. "It has been so far."
Bucky laughed quietly and pulled him close and they spent the rest of trip to the tower snuggled close on the back seat.
There were more than a few floors outfitted for the Avengers to train, but Bucky had chosen the one that he knew wasn't popular, one of the first that Stark had set up. It was high-tech but generic: a range, a gym, a boxing ring, punching bags. The other floors were specialised, had equipment and protocols designed specifically for each member of the team. This one, everything was the highest quality, but it could have been for anyone.
It was Bucky's favourite.
He'd set the range up for knives, wooden targets scattered around the echoing space, and he left Steve wandering around while he went to fetch what he'd bought him. He came back to find Steve twelve feet up, eyeing the crossbeam and, as he watched, Steve leapt, grabbed, and pulled himself up, the muscles in his arms flexing, to straddle it. He grinned down at Bucky, who felt the familiar surge of warmth and awe roll through him.
"Happy?" Bucky asked.
"Thrilled," he replied gleefully as he got to his feet, ran lightly down the beam to the wall, leapt down to a ledge, then to the top of one of the wide poles holding a target. He crouched there, one hand resting on the pole between his feet. "Bucky?"
"Catch." Bucky set down the bundle he was holding and held out his arms. Steve threw himself off and Bucky scooped him out of the air, spinning to shed momentum, and Steve wrapped his legs around Bucky's waist. "Hi."
"Hey, Steve." Bucky kissed him, then let him slide down his body. "Ready to see what I got for you?"
Steve nodded and Bucky crouched to unroll the black bundle. Inside were a dozen gleaming silver knives, sharp, flat, hiltless, with rounded ends and wicked points.
"They're beautiful," Steve said, surprised.
"They're yours, I chose them for you." Bucky kept his eyes on the knives, not sure whether to say why he'd chosen these knives for Steve. While he was thinking, he heard his mouth say, "They reminded me of you."
He could feel Steve studying him and he glanced up. Steve touched his cheek, then stroked his fingers through Bucky's hair and kissed the top of his head. "Thank you."
He leaned down, reaching for a knife, but Bucky caught his hand. "Not yet."
"No. I said we had to do this safely," he said seriously. He wasn't taking any chances with Steve.
Steve nodded, but he curled his hand around Bucky's as he straightened and he didn't let go while Bucky ran him through handling his knives safely, through the different grips and how they changed the way the knife moved through the air.
When he was satisfied that Steve understood, he led him to a point in front of the largest target and explained how to find the best distance to throw from. Then he stood behind Steve, handed him a knife, and gently shaped his arms and his body, shaped his grip around the knife. "Got it?"
"Got it," Steve murmured.
He kept his hand wrapped around Steve's while he described how to throw, gently guided Steve's arm through the motions while he explained what to do and why. "Got it?" he asked again. When Steve nodded, Bucky backed away to a safe distance. "When you're ready, throw."
Steve, with a look of fierce concentration, threw the knife. It clunked into the board and rebounded onto the floor. Steve glared at it.
Bucky handed him another knife. "Try again."
It took three more knives before one precariously stayed in, but after that they all stayed in. Bucky collected them, brought them back, and again handed them to Steve one by one. Every one stayed in, thunking into the board one after the other, Bucky murmuring words of praise or suggestions as needed. Eventually he fell silent and just watched.
Steve had a gift. His strength, his agility, helped, but he listened to Bucky, he paid attention. He had a knack for measuring the distances, for figuring angles, the same way he worked out a jump or a landing. Like he was doing calculations on the fly.
"Do you think," Steve said, and there was an expression on his face... Bucky was instantly alert, "it would be possible to mix this with, oh, say, jumping off things?"
He should have expected it. "After a lot of practice, and if you're careful, yes."
Steve's grin was a thing of beauty. Wicked, worrying beauty.
"If you're careful."
"I heard you. I can be careful."
He retrieved his knives and lined up again, putting one after the other into the target. They were scattered over the huge board, it was going to take a lot of practice before he was hitting smaller targets, before he could hit with accuracy, before he could hit from different distances, much less before he could hit a target while he was moving, but...he'd get there. Bucky could see it.
It hit him like a hammer, the sudden realisation that Steve could be dangerous. As he touched that thought, he realised it wasn't a surprise. It wasn't... He frowned, it wasn't that Steve could be dangerous, like it was something he could learn. It was...that potential was a core part of who he was. He was suddenly glad Steve hadn't wanted to learn to shoot.
He blinked. Steve had collected his knives and was standing in front of him. "Sorry. What?"
"Am I that boring?" Steve teased. "Make it up to me. Show me what you can do." He offered his knives to Bucky.
Bucky hesitated, then took them, holding them loosely in his metal hand. "Stand right in front of me." When Steve had pressed his back against Bucky's chest, Bucky breathed in, breathed out, and the room was filled with deadly flying steel.
It took only seconds to put all twelve knives dead centre into targets all over the room.
He let his hands fall. Steve leaned into him for a minute, then walked over to the closest knife and tugged at it. It barely moved. "Okay, I can see I'm going to have to practice." He glanced at Bucky over his shoulder. "A lot."
Tension he didn't know he'd been feeling slipped away. He hadn't been sure how Steve would react. Throwing a knife into a target was, it was nothing—All my skills, everything I could teach you, is lethal—but it was the first time Steve had seen even a taste of what he could do.
Steve was watching him closely. With a faint smile he walked over to clasp Bucky's hands, then lifted them and pressed them against his face. Bucky sighed quietly and cupped Steve's cheeks as Steve wrapped his arms around Bucky's waist and Bucky bent his head to kiss him.
Steve had been pleased when Bucky had come home with him after they were done at the Tower. They'd spent enough nights together, both at Steve's and at Bucky's, that they each had a toothbrush, something to sleep in, left-behind clothes, a few necessary bits and pieces, at both apartments. They didn't spend every night together, not by a long shot, but Steve missed Bucky's bulk and his heat and the shape of him when they didn't. So yeah, he was happy Bucky was staying tonight.
He hadn't expected to enjoy this afternoon as much as he had, but there'd been something incredibly satisfying about putting a knife into a target, about hearing it whip through the air and then thunk into the wood. Something even more satisfying about Bucky's expression, his pride, when Steve made it happen.
Okay, his first few efforts had been nothing to write home about, but then it had clicked. Bucky was a good teacher, patient and with a gift for explaining exactly what Steve needed to do and why he needed to do it. It made a difference. He couldn't wait to try it again.
And Bucky. Jesus Christ, Bucky. He'd never seen anything like that, it was like the knives had teleported out of Bucky's hand and appeared in the targets. There'd been a moment afterwards, a shadow sliding into Bucky's eyes, but it had faded as quickly as it had come once Steve got Bucky to touch him.
Steve had never been a knife person. He knew there were people who loved knives, who waxed lyrical about their beauty, who practically fetishized the things. He'd done a commission once, an incredibly detailed portrait of a sixteenth century rondel dagger coming out of its sheath, that, thanks to the client's lovingly detailed instructions, had felt more like porn than anything he'd ever painted. So yeah, there were people out there who loved knives, but that wasn't Steve.
Until now. He loved the knives Bucky had given him. Not because they were knives, not because of the way they looked, but because Bucky had said I chose them for you. Had said They reminded me of you. It should have been weird. It hadn't been. He'd understood. They were fast and sharp and strong. And small. Only you, Bucky. Only you.
A wave of affection swamped him and he snuggled against Bucky's broad back, draped an arm over his waist, pressed his forehead between Bucky's shoulder blades, and fell asleep.
All these nights they'd spent together and Bucky had never had a nightmare. Steve would have liked to think it was down to his presence, but he wasn't that naïve. Life wasn't that simple. Bucky'd said he didn't have them every night and they'd simply been lucky enough that he hadn't had one on the nights he'd stayed with Steve.
Steve woke abruptly, dragged out of sleep by the sound of Bucky's metal arm shifting, whirring, the plates realigning. Bucky had moved while Steve was sleeping, Bucky's arms were wrapped tightly around him, holding Steve against his trembling body, and Steve could feel Bucky's heart racing, hear his laboured breathing.
And he wasn't allowed to do anything.
He wanted to wake him up. To wriggle around in his arms and comfort him. But Bucky had told him not to and trusted that Steve wouldn’t. Steve would not betray that trust.
All he could do was lie here, listening to the whir of Bucky's metal arm. He couldn’t move, couldn't get away from Bucky, but he was happy to be trapped. How much worse would this be if he was lying beside him and couldn't touch him? At least this way he could tell himself that Bucky had some comfort. He could breathe slow and even, in the hopes it would get through.
It felt like he lay there for hours while Bucky shook and trembled and flinched, the metal arm a constant accompaniment to Bucky's fear. In reality Steve knew it was far less, but by the time it was over he was exhausted.
When it finally let Bucky go he went limp against Steve and Steve began gently stroking Bucky's right arm since it was the only thing he could reach without moving. He didn't think Bucky was awake, but after a few minutes he slid his fingers through Steve's and clung to his hand. Steve lifted it and kissed Bucky's knuckles, then tucked it against his chest.
It took Steve a long time to fall asleep.
Neither of them had to be anywhere the next morning and they were both tired, so they were lying on Mildred, drinking coffee, relaxing together.
Steve was sprawled across Bucky's lap, chin pillowed on Bucky's thigh, flipping through a photobook his client had given him. He'd been carrying it around all week, trying to pick something, since all his client had said was paint something from it, which wasn't a lot to go on. Bucky was reading a broken-spined, yellow-paged paperback that filled the living room with the scent of old paper, holding it in his metal hand, his right hand stroking through Steve's hair.
Steve lifted his head to watch him, remembering the nightmare, remembering the way he'd trembled, remembering the noises he'd made. Looking at him now, so calm, his touch so gentle, he felt something welling up inside of him. "I don't understand you." He said it quietly, not quite meaning Bucky to hear, but Bucky always heard. Bucky looked up from his book and gazed at Steve, hand stilling in Steve's hair as he tilted his head, eyebrows raised slightly. "Why aren't you angry?"
Bucky let out a long slow breath and let his hand fall. "Is this about the nightmare?"
"No. I mean yes. Sort of."
He put the book down and his voice was very gentle when he said, "Steve. Ask what you need to ask."
"I read the stuff that hit the news, hit the 'net, about you. About what they did to you, about what they made you do." Bucky's flinch was subtle, but it was there, and Steve sat up to grasp his hands. "I don't know, I can never know, what you went through, what you really went through, but I think I'd be furious, I think I'd want to tear down the world and burn it to ash. I kind of want to do it anyway for what it did to you."
"Don't do that." Bucky squeezed Steve's hands. "We live in the world, it'd be damn inconvenient if it was on fire."
Steve gave a quick smile of acknowledgement, but it faded. "Feeling you, hearing you, going through that nightmare. Bucky, you were so scared." He blinked away the prickling in his eyes. "I hated seeing you like that."
For one moment Bucky looked sad, but then he pushed it away. "I'll stop staying with you. I don't want you to have to see that. We've been lucky—"
"No! No, that's not— I think you should stay with me every night from now on, so you don't have to go through it alone."
Bucky stared at him and Steve stared back, very firm, and Bucky slumped in relief. "I should say no, but I'm not going to. Staying with you is one of the best things in my life."
Bucky brushed his metal knuckles down Steve's cheek, followed them with a kiss, said, "Before you, I was kind of...blank. Not angry, I wasn't angry. Me and the world, we didn't connect, but I didn't want to hurt it." He took a deep breath. "All that stuff out there about me, anything in there that says how I stopped being the Winter Soldier?"
Steve shook his head. "Not that I ever read. You never looked at any of it?"
"No. After the first article, I stayed far away from all of it. Bad enough knowing better than half the country wants you dead without seeing it for yourself." He was quiet for a minute and Steve waited patiently, drawing circles on the back of Bucky's hand. "My programming broke because no matter how good it was, it wasn't set up to deal with space whales." Steve choked back a laugh and Bucky flashed him a quick grin. "And when it broke there were enemies attacking people, enemies who needed fighting, so I fought them. At least that what we pieced together after the fact. It's all kind of mixed up in here."
He tapped his temple and Steve took advantage, kissing him right where he'd tapped.
Bucky crinkled at him and said, "You know the next part already."
"Yeah. The next part is you. I saw you. I met you. And something cracked. You, we," he cupped Steve's face, eyes intent, intense, trapping Steve, "you woke up something I thought was dead." The corner of his mouth quirked. "I'm not angry. I don't want to hurt the world, I don't want to hurt anyone, but before you I was just existing."
There were no words to capture the warmth, the wonder, that filled him as he gazed at Bucky, so he said, "I'm going to kiss you now," and did, both hands slipping up into Bucky's hair. Bucky's lips were warm and soft and Steve leaned into him, leaned into the kiss, lost himself in the taste and feel of Bucky, hands pushing under Bucky's shirt so he could press them against warm skin and hard muscle.
Eventually, Bucky pulled away, murmuring, "Angry, brave sunshine."
Steve dug his fingers into Bucky's ribs, making him squirm, making him laugh, then stroked his hands up Bucky's sides and pulled him into a hug. Bucky settled against him with a content sigh, calm and relaxed, and Steve held him close.
Sweat ran in a river down his back, his face, made his fingers slippery as he slammed another clip into place. Bucky'd lost count of how many he'd killed. He'd have to count the shells, the empty clips, to know for sure.
Word had reached the Avengers through one of Stark Tech's subsidiaries that AIM was conducting experiments in the Australian Outback, trying to turn people into killing machines. They'd called up Bucky, because if the intel was right they were going to need the back up.
They'd located AIM's base in tunnels dug deep under the sand in a place so remote it didn't have a name. The local wildlife had already taken care of the scientists: snakes as thick as Bucky's arm and spiders as big as his hand and the scientists were very dead. The experiments were untouched, lively and numerous and as deadly as the wildlife, milling in the tunnels. Waiting.
The experiments had once been people but, whoever they'd once been, they weren't people anymore. They were stunted, twisted, with grey skin, bulging heads, popping eyes. They were mindless, no one home to be reasoned with.
Captain America had tried.
Zombies, the Avengers collectively agreed, but Bucky didn't know.
All he knew was that there was no end in sight. A new wave surged out of tunnels and he picked off another and another and another. They'd been people once before they'd been turned into killing machines. He clamped down on that thought, because it wasn't going to help.
Just like he clamped down on the fleeting gratitude that they were mindless, because it was easier to kill them when what made them people was already gone.
Back at the Tower, Bucky cleaned his guns, making sure every last grain of sand was gone, then he headed for the shower. He scrubbed off sweat and sand and blood then stood under the spray, watching clean water swirl around his feet.
His mind was blank, a vast echoing space filled with shadows.
He should go home. He shouldn't take this to Steve. Steve was golden and warm and everything that was good.
But he wanted him, wanted to touch him, to hear his voice. He needed him.
Rom—No, Natasha was leaning against the wall when he finally came out, heading for the elevators. He stopped and looked at her. Waiting.
"Are you going home?" she asked.
Natasha gave him a long, thoughtful look. "Good."
He nodded and kept walking.
"Bucky." He stopped again. Waited again. He had a feeling she was choosing her words carefully, had a feeling whatever she'd been going to say, it wasn't, "I'm glad you've got him."
"So am I," he said over his shoulder and offered her a tired smile. She returned it and he kept going.
When he got to Steve's he didn't expect to find him waiting up, half-dozing on Mildred. Bucky stood over him, Steve opened his arms, and Bucky went into them with a tiny sound, pressed his face into Steve's shoulder, breathing deep.
"You're back." Bucky nodded but didn't speak and Steve stroked his back. "Was it bad?"
Bucky didn't know how to answer that, because it hadn't been bad. Not comparatively. They hadn't even been people anymore, but he felt like he was full of shadows. He finally nodded.
"I'm sorry." Steve kept stroking his back, let his fingers trail up into his hair, held him close, and Bucky listened to Steve's heart beat under his ear and slowly, so slowly, he felt the shadows fading, felt himself filling up with light.
Steve curled his fingers around the nape of Bucky's neck and suddenly it wasn't enough. He needed to touch Steve.
He got up on his knees and shifted them around, Steve allowing himself to be manhandled, until Steve was laying with his back against his chest. Steve's eyes were half-closed as Bucky stroked his right hand down Steve's neck, his chest, he pressed up into Bucky's touch, but he was relaxed, muscles a melted puddle against Bucky as he turned his head to kiss him.
It still wasn't enough. Bucky slipped his hand under Steve's shirt as he returned the kiss, stroking his skin, felt Steve's breath catch, and he did it again, long smooth strokes, slow, gentle, as he kissed a path across Steve's cheek up to his temple.
It was awkward with Steve's shirt rucked up and by mutual unspoken accord they worked together to pull it off, Steve relaxing back down in the cradle of Bucky's arms. He settled one hand on Bucky's leg as Bucky caught his other hand with his metal one, twining their fingers together. His right hand trailed lower, brushed, found Steve half-hard, and Steve sucked in a shuddering breath as Bucky pressed his palm flat against Steve's abdomen, fingers nudging under his waistband. "Can I?"
"But you do and I want to. I want to give you this."
Steve tipped his head to meet Bucky's eyes and he tried to put everything he was feeling into them. He wanted this so much, wanted to give this to Steve, wanted to use his hands to make him feel good.
Whatever Steve saw it seemed to satisfy him, because he swallowed hard and said, "Yes. God yes. Whatever you want."
"Tell me if I do something wrong, if you want me to stop."
"I will, Bucky." He lifted Bucky's metal hand and kissed the knuckles, before letting it settle back on his chest.
Steve was growing harder and Bucky cupped him through his pants. He could feel Steve swelling under his touch as he squeezed gently, rolled his hand, and Steve's hips jerked as he sucked in a sharp breath. "More?" Steve nodded and it was simple to slip his hand under the waistband of his sweatpants, to slide his hand inside. His fingers trailed through crinkly hair and brushed hard heat, then Steve was impatiently shoving at his pants, making a frustrated noise when they got stuck, and he wiggled, shoving them lower.
Bucky propped him up, biting back the urge to laugh when one leg got tangled around Steve's foot and he shook it impatiently before finally kicking them off. "And stay there," he muttered as they flew across the living room.
Steve hummed low in his throat and stretched, arms above his head, lying back against Bucky. "Much."
Seeing Steve laid out naked against him, all long lean limbs and smooth muscle, pale skin against his dark clothes, he wished for Steve's talent, his skills. He wanted to capture this, hold it forever. He spread his legs and, as Steve nestled between them, hooked one ankle over Steve's, lightly holding him in place.
He took his time, gently exploring, and Steve pressed up into his touch. He learned as he went, fingers stroking down Steve's thighs, between his legs, tracing up his stomach, following the faint trail of hair. He learned what made Steve gasp, what made him sigh, what made him go still, focussed with single-minded intensity on Bucky's touch.
The feel of Steve under his hand was beyond anything he had words for. Bucky wasn't aroused, his penis was as soft as ever, but his mind was buzzing, sharp and hyper-aware of the tiniest changes in Steve's breathing, in the beat of his heart. When he finally wrapped his hand around Steve's hard length, Steve bucked up against him, sucked in a breath that was almost a whine. "Bucky."
"Shhhh." He wrapped his metal arm around Steve's hips, pinning Steve against his body. "Relax."
Steve laughed and squirmed against his hold. "You don't want much." But he breathed in, breathed out, the tension bled out of him and he melted into Bucky's hold.
"There you go." He pressed kisses across Steve's temple, down his cheek, in his hair as he worked him in long, slow, steady strokes, the only sound Steve's ragged breathing, his soft gasps as he gripped Bucky's thighs. A shudder rippled through him and he thrust up into Bucky's hand, once, again, and Bucky sped up to meet him until Steve came with a gasp, back bowed, leg straining against Bucky's hold as Bucky pressed warm kisses across his shoulder.
Steve collapsed, limbs loose and floppy. "God," he breathed, and Bucky grinned. Steve's eyes were closed when he turned his head, lifted it, seeking, and Bucky kissed him, sweet and soft and slow. "Thank you." It was half a whisper against his mouth as Steve opened his eyes and Bucky nuzzled his nose, kissed it, kissed his cheek, his jaw.
"My pleasure." And it had been, it was. Bucky's whole world was made of light.
Steve collapsed again and threw one arm across his forehead, laughing, then groped across the couch, found his shirt, and wiped himself off, then Bucky's hand. Making a face, he tossed the shirt on the floor, then curled onto his side, nestled between Bucky's legs. Deeply content, Bucky wrapped him up tight and held him close, fingers stroking his spine.
* * *
Steve was vaguely aware that he was very naked and Bucky was very not, but he didn't care. He was floating in a post-orgasmic haze and the sheer wonder that was Bucky having given it to him, Bucky's arms were around him, and he really didn't care about anything else. "Steve."
"No," he muttered into Bucky's chest and felt Bucky's quiet laugh.
"You don't even know what I was going to say."
"Whatever it is, no."
"Okay." Bucky ran his fingers through his hair, making Steve sigh in contentment. "Are you warm enough?"
Warm, safe, happy beyond words. "Mmmhmm."
"I'm gonna assume that's a yes."
Steve snuggled closer and closed his eyes more firmly. He didn't notice when he fell asleep.
He woke up in his bed, forehead pressed into Bucky's hip. He sat up and blinked in the dim light of the bedside lamp. Bucky smiled softly at him and set down his book. "Hi," he said, looking a little unsure.
"Hi. You okay?" Bucky had said he'd wanted to, but now that he wasn't under the influence of Bucky's touch, which was more than a little intoxicating, he needed to make sure.
Bucky's eyes crinkled at the edges. "I was going to ask you the same thing."
The light was reflecting off his metal arm, his hair was falling over his face, he had that warm look in his eyes, that one that was brimming over with affection and fondness and... Steve stopped breathing. Just for a moment. He was on the edge of something huge. He stared at Bucky, unable to answer.
"Steve?" It held a touch of concern, and that was enough to shake him out of it.
He caught Bucky's face between his hands, rubbing his thumbs over Bucky's cheekbones. "I have to tell you something." Bucky nodded, eyes never leaving Steve's. "I love you."
The instant joy that blazed into Bucky's eyes was blinding. "You do?"
"So much. I don't know when it started, but I just figured it out now. I love you."
Bucky pressed his right hand against Steve's. "I have something to tell you."
"Bet I can guess what it is," Steve said with a grin.
"I bet you can, too," Bucky said, and kissed him. Kissed him like Steve was his everything, like he was never going to stop, and when he finally did, said, "I love you," like it was the most obvious thing in the world.
Looking back on the past few weeks, Steve realised it was.
* * *
They fell asleep curled around each other. While they slept the nightmare came, as it always came, creeping into Bucky's sleep, a traitor disguised as an ordinary dream, lulling him into thinking he was safe.
Sometimes the dream was happy, sometimes he could fly, sometimes it held flashes and glimpses of a life long forgotten before the wash of red drove it away in a rush of gut-deep terror.
He was a nightmare in his own right, a legend, a ghost, a thing the world feared, but here, in his own mind, the nightmare in complete control, he was helpless.
Helpless to stop himself as he killed and killed and killed.
He huddled in a ball, cowering and terrified, as the nightmare dragged him through a hell formed of memory and cruel invention. He didn't know how to tell them apart and it didn't matter, because he was drowning in blood and ash and death.
A shadow passed over him and he flinched, waiting for the pain, waiting for the fear.
It never came.
The shadow stood before him, straight and strong. It turned its head and its eyes were deep and dark.
It was Steve.
Bucky wanted to scream, wanted to scream at him to run. The nightmare would come and it would make Bucky hurt him, it would make Bucky torture him, make Bucky tear him to pieces.
Bucky couldn't save him. Bucky was helpless.
He should have known, he should have known. It was coming, he could hear it coming, he could feel it, shapeless, formless, deadly, coming for the one he loved and it would make Bucky kill him.
Steve didn't move.
Bucky was frozen, locked in place.
Steve's hand was full of knives.
A blaze of golden light blinded Bucky. He couldn’t see, he was blind and he was glad, he was a coward but he was glad; he didn't want to watch what it would make him do to Steve.
Slowly the light faded.
A hand like a benediction came to rest on his head. Steve's knives dripped a river of blood as he stood, unbowed, unmarked, and curled his fingers into Bucky's hair.
Bucky pressed his forehead against Steve's thigh and...
Woke up. His eyes were wide, his heart was pounding, and he frantically ran his hands over Steve, who murmured in his sleep and idly batted at them, then made a quiet, happy noise as Bucky pulled him close.
That had been... He had no idea what that had been. That had been Steve. Steve, standing between him and the nightmare. He didn't know whether to laugh or cry because he knew Steve would. Steve would stand between him and anything.
The nightmare's greasy, nauseous aftermath was nowhere to be found. He felt clean, whole. Safe.
"I love you," he murmured against Steve's hair.
"Love you," Steve replied, not even close to awake. "Sleep."
This is the gorgeous art by Merrkkat that inspired the last scene. Go, look. It's amazing. It's also fiception in a way, because the art's based off the post this fic is based on and the little fic I wrote based on that post, so we have come full circle!
Steve was sitting at Bucky's kitchen table, markers spread across the surface, thick shiny paper rapidly filling up with colour. He didn't do a lot of work with them but he loved their feel, the smooth way they moved across the paper, the way they blended. This was preliminary work for a commission, but it was a commission for one of his pieces, one of his abstracts, and he already knew it was going to be amazing.
He was knocked out of the zone by the sound of the front door opening. Bucky. He'd been called out in the middle of lunch, had kissed Steve soundly, held him like he hadn't wanted to leave, and Steve had literally needed to bite his tongue to stop himself from saying: Don't.
Bucky returning from a fight was like a snuffed candle, all his light, his joy, gone. The nights they spent apart were almost non-existent now, dividing their time equally between their two apartments, which meant Steve got to see Bucky every time he came home, and every time it was the same. It made Steve's heart ache.
Bucky limped into the kitchen and, without a word, slumped to sit on the floor next to Steve and put his head in Steve's lap.
Steve dropped the marker he was holding, didn't bother to cap it, and slid his fingers into Bucky's hair as Bucky pressed his forehead into Steve's thigh. "You're limping," he said quietly.
"Got a bit banged up."
"How bad?" Bucky had never come back hurt before.
"Not bad, just cuts, pulled some muscles."
He went silent, but it was the silence of an unfinished sentence and Steve ran his fingers along the nape of Bucky's neck. "What else?"
"Dislocated my shoulder, but it's good now. We put it back in."
"But you're hurting." He could feel Bucky thinking about deflecting and he leaned down to kiss the top of his head. "It's okay to hurt, remember?"
"Using my words against me? Yeah, Steve, I'm hurting. Not a lot, I heal fast, and," he lifted his head, "I'm with you, so it doesn't matter."
He couldn’t help the eye roll. "You're lucky I love you, because sometimes you're an idiot."
"Aren't you supposed to be nice to me if I'm hurting?"
"I'm going to be nice to you. I'm going to be so nice to you you'll never want me to stop."
Bucky's eyes were distant, shadowed, but his faint smile was so full of love Steve felt himself flush. "Already got that covered."
"Come on, get up." He nudged Bucky and Bucky hauled himself to his feet. His normal fluid grace was completely absent and Steve didn't think it had anything to do with pain. He stood and threaded his fingers through Bucky's metal hand and Bucky followed as Steve led him to the bathroom. Once they got there, he started filling the tub, making the water nice and hot.
"Clothes off." Bucky nodded and started stripping down, ended it standing completely naked in front of Steve. It wasn't the first time Steve had seen him naked, but it was the first time it hadn't been incidental, between one set of clothes and another. Steve had been naked in front of Bucky, been naked under Bucky's hands, more times than he could count, since after that first time on the couch Bucky hadn't been shy about doing it again, but this was the first time Bucky had stood before him, completely nude. He kept his eyes on Bucky's face.
Bucky was watching him intently. "You can look," he said softly. "I want you to."
Steve searched his face, looking for any discomfort, any hesitation, but Bucky was standing peacefully under his gaze, so he let it wander down.
Bucky was breathtaking. His body was a sculpture, every muscle defined perfection, but that wasn't what stole Steve's breath, stole his coherence, made his heart beat faster. It was because it was Bucky. This was Bucky, his Bucky. And he was so beautiful.
There were bloody scrapes across his torso, a gouge in his left thigh, spattered dots like gravel rash curled around his hip. Like his arm, they didn't mar his perfection so much as highlight it, but they hurt, a reminder of what Bucky had been through, everything he'd suffered, today and for endless years before.
He moved closer, gently pressed his fingertips against Bucky's sternum. "I want to touch you. Everywhere, every inch of you." It wasn't sexual, even though he could feel himself getting hard. He just wanted to know what he felt like, wanted to know every part of Bucky.
"You can." Bucky covered Steve's hand with his own. "Now?"
With an effort Steve dragged himself back to what they were here to do. "Not now. Now is for getting you to stop hurting."
"That might do the trick," Bucky murmured and Steve went up on his toes to kiss him.
"Focus. Any of these boxes or bottles good for putting in the bath when you're sore?"
"Yeah, the blue box." Bucky reached out, snagged it off the shelf, and handed it to Steve.
Steve opened it and sniffed it, then shrugged. The bathtub was getting full, so he turned off the tap and dropped in a handful of the pinkish powder. The bathroom was soon filled with the scent of lavender, mint, and chamomile. "You'll smell nice, at least."
"It's supposed to help," Bucky said as Steve stripped off his shirt, to save it from getting soaked. "You getting in with me?"
"Not today," he said, filing Bucky's interested look away for later. "In you get."
Bucky lowered himself into the water with a quiet hiss, Steve's hands on his hips, sliding up to his shoulders as Bucky sank under the water up to his chest. The long sigh he let out was like a balm to Steve's ears.
"Close your eyes." Steve knelt next to the tub. "Relax."
As Bucky's eyes slipped shut Steve ran his hands across his right shoulder, pushing a little, and Bucky slipped lower, the water touching his chin, his hair floating on the surface. "Not going to drown me are you?" It was barely a whisper and Steve kissed his cheek.
"Never." The water was hot, a bit cloudy from the powder he'd tossed in, and when he pressed his palms against Bucky's chest his skin was slippery smooth. He worked his way down Bucky's right arm, gently massaging, not lifting it from the water, until he reached his hand, then he rubbed each finger, massaged his palm, while Bucky breathed slowly and evenly. He placed Bucky's hand on his hip, then shuffled down and started working on the big muscle of Bucky's right thigh, the water up to his biceps, then massaged his calf, his foot. Bucky's toes curled, but Steve was firm, not wanting to tickle him.
He had to lean right over, half-submerged, to reach Bucky's left leg, braced awkwardly with his elbow, but he managed and was careful to avoid the gouge. His fingers were wrinkled by the time he was done, but Bucky was pliant under his hands, his breathing was slow, and Steve kneaded his way gently over Bucky's abdomen, up his chest, to flatten his hand over Bucky's heart. It was even and regular. He thought Bucky might be half-asleep and he leaned closer, to kiss Bucky's temple, then sat back, hands dangling in the water. "I love you." He whispered it, but Bucky opened his eyes.
"Steve." Bucky's smile was a soft thing, his eyes clear and bright, with no trace of the shadows he'd carried in the door, and he lifted a dripping hand to cup Steve's cheek. Water trickled down his neck, but he didn't care.
He nodded slowly, languidly. "You always make it better."
There'd be nothing to make better if Bucky didn't come home so sad, so shadowed, every time they called him out to fight.
Maybe he shouldn't. Maybe this wasn't the time, with Bucky so relaxed, so peaceful. But maybe there'd never be the time. Protect me. Keep me safe. Steve would burn down the world to keep Bucky safe, to keep him happy, to bring him peace. He'd do whatever it took. Right now, that maybe meant asking a question. "Bucky? Can I ask you something?"
"You can ask me anything."
Steve's voice was very careful, very gentle. "Do you want to do it?"
Bucky's thumb was rubbing his cheek as he asked, "Do what?" but there was something... Steve thought Bucky knew what he meant.
"Fight." The word dropped into a sudden thick, heavy silence. Bucky's eyes went wide, shocked. Steve wanted to grab him and pull him into a hug. He didn't. He held Bucky's gaze, leaned into Bucky's touch, and waited. Bucky's hand trembled slightly, his fingers curled, tightened. "Bucky. It's okay," Steve whispered.
Bucky tensed, every muscle clenched, and then he let go. Slumped. His hand fell. "No."
"Then stop." Steve leaned over and kissed his forehead, rested his own against Bucky's. "Don't do it anymore."
Bucky's smile was sad. "I'm not sure it's that simple."
Anger flashed through Steve, so hot he was surprised the water didn't start steaming. "It fucking better be. If it's not, me and Captain America are going to have...words."
For a long moment Bucky stared at Steve in wonder. "Steve. You can't fight Captain America."
Steve's grin was feral. "Watch me."
Bucky lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, Steve wrapped bodily around him.
After the bath, Steve had dried him, fed him, and tucked him into bed, then crawled in after him. In the dark of the bedroom they'd made a plan. Steve had offered to go with him. Insisted, at first, but Bucky had gently dissuaded him. He was honestly afraid if something didn't go according to plan Steve would try and fight Captain America.
There was no way that would end well.
Do you want to do it?
He didn't. He didn't want to fight anymore.
He wasn't sure he'd ever wanted to.
Bucky drew in a deep breath and shifted his gaze to Steve. He could barely see him in the dim light.
He'd done it because what else had there been for him to do?
He'd asked Steve, before Steve had fallen asleep, "What do I do if I'm not fighting?"
"Anything you want, Bucky. Literally anything you want." He hadn't been able to find a response and Steve had pushed up on his elbow to lean over him. "We'll figure it out. You don't have to have the answer now. We've got time. You and me, we'll figure it out.
"Yeah, Bucky. I love you. I'm not going anywhere."
He'd thought it would take a couple of days to set up, but the next day, in the afternoon, one of the black cars picked him up and took him to the Tower to meet with Romanoff and Captain America.
He'd expected to meet with them in one of the offices, but Romanoff led him into a, a sitting room he guessed. There were couches, chairs. A low coffee table. Captain America. It was strange seeing him out of uniform, wearing jeans and a burgundy sweater. The only time Bucky had ever seen him out of uniform before had been that first meeting. The shield was nowhere in sight and he was watching Bucky calmly.
Bucky turned away and focused on Romanoff.
Who looked more like Natasha. She'd opted for casual as well. Bucky was feeling overdressed. Steve had dressed him, choosing tailored black pants, a button up shirt in a blue the same colour as Steve's eyes, black boots with a little heel. "Clothes will give you an advantage," Steve had murmured as he'd done up the buttons, pressing little kisses to Bucky's chest as he'd fastened each one.
Bucky could still feel them.
"Bucky?" It was Natasha. "Coffee?" He shook his head. "Then why don't you sit down and tell us what's up."
Bucky sat. He clasped his hands together. He looked up. "Captain—" He didn't get any further.
"What do you think about calling me Sam? This isn't a mission, it's just the three of us sitting around talking. Captain America seems a bit overkill." He smiled as he said it, warm and amused, and Bucky felt himself responding. It was hard not to. He nodded. "Give it a try, so I know it's working."
"Sam," he said, and it felt weird, but Sam grinned at him.
"Nice. Now Nat said this sounded important, so I'm not going to interrupt you again. The floor's yours."
And Bucky didn't know what to do with it. He glanced at Natasha, who gazed back at him, and she couldn’t help him even if she'd wanted to. She was Capt— Sam's second-in-command.
He didn't know how to start.
What should I say? he'd asked Steve.
Just tell them.
Okay then. "I don't want to fight anymore," he said, and waited. Waited for contempt. Waited for refusal to let him go. Waited for he didn't know what, but he was sure it wouldn’t be good.
Sam and Natasha exchanged a glance.
"What do you mean, exactly?" Sam asked.
"I just want to be Bucky. I don't want to do," he waved his hand in an arc, taking in them, the Tower, the view out the window, "this anymore. I don't want to do it anymore. I don't want to hurt people. I don't want to kill anyone. I don't want to do it anymore. Not any of it." He was breathing hard as he finished, and he clenched his hands together more tightly, hunched his shoulders protectively.
"Okay, Bucky," Sam said soothingly. "Okay. That's okay. If that's what you want, it's okay. You don't have to."
Startled, his head shot up and he stared at Sam. Who nodded, mouth quirked in a half-smile. He looked at Natasha, who lifted one shoulder in an artless shrug. "Fine with me."
"And they'll just let me go?"
"They?" Sam asked.
"He means SHIELD."
Sam's expression went stony. Hard. "You may not technically be an Avenger, but you're still part of us. SHIELD made you part of us and that means I make the decisions about what happens to you. If SHIELD has a problem with that they can take it up with me. They can take it up with all of us. If you want out, you're out."
"As simple as that?"
"As simple as that."
The vice that had been crushing his chest since he'd walked into the Tower suddenly let go. He could breathe. He could have brought Steve after all. "When do I need to be out of my place?"
Natasha stirred, she and Sam exchanged another look, and she said, "You don't."
"That's your home, right? The place you feel safe?" Sam's eyes were sharp, knowing, seeing way too much, but Bucky nodded anyway. "I'll make sure you keep it."
Now he was reeling, because he'd known he'd lose it. It was a price he'd been willing to pay, but he'd never thought... "Thank you." It was nowhere near enough, but he didn't know what else to say. "I thought this was going to go differently."
"Bucky." Sam leaned forward, like he was thinking of reaching out, but then thought better of it. "You've given more than anyone should ever have to give. No one was going to think less of you for hanging up your guns."
Bucky swallowed hard and nodded.
"There is one thing you should be prepared for, though, and it's not something I can change," Sam warned, suddenly serious, and Bucky braced himself. "Paperwork. So much paperwork."
After a second, Bucky huffed a laugh. "I think I can handle it."
Sam sat back, looking pleased. "What are you going to do?"
"I don't know yet. I haven't figured it out. Something else." He pulled himself to his feet with a questioning look and Sam nodded his permission. "Thank you," he said again and turned to go, then stopped and turned back. "You know I served under the first Captain America, right? I mean, I know she was technically the second, but she was the first that counted."
Amusement flared in Sam's eyes at his description. "I do."
"I don't remember her very well, but from what I do remember? She'd be proud you're carrying the shield. I should have told you that before. I'm sorry I didn't."
Sam grinned, wide and pleased, and Bucky gave a quick nod, then turned and walked out, Natasha following him. She stood with him at the elevator, neither of them speaking. When the doors opened and he stepped on, turning to face her, she said, "If you need us, we're here." As the doors began to slide closed, she added, "I'll be seeing you soon, anyway. I want a painting from your boyfriend."
It left him grinning the whole way down to the ground.
He found Steve on the roof where he'd first laid Bucky out, sitting on the edge, legs dangling, watching the birds swirl and dance in the blue sky.
Steve held out his arm and Bucky tucked himself underneath it, so Steve could kiss him and pull him close, and ask, "How'd it go?"
"Good," he said, voice filled with wonder. "It was easy in the end. There'll be paperwork but Sam understood. Said if anyone tried to interfere he'd take care of it. And he's going to make sure I keep my place."
"Sam. You mean Captain America?"
"Huh. I know Captain America's supposed to be the epitome of all that's good and right and honourable, but I always figured he'd secretly be kind of a dick. Now I feel bad."
Bucky pressed his face into Steve's shoulder and laughed while Steve ran his hand through Bucky's hair.
"That means you're free. No more fighting."
"No more fighting." The whole world was filling up with light, his whole body was filling up with light, and Bucky was at peace. His eyes fluttered shut. "I love you."
"I love you, too," Steve said, running his hand down Bucky's back in long slow strokes.
He wasn't sure how much time had passed when Steve said, "Bucky?" His voice was soft, a caress of sound, and his fingers traced a gentle path down the side of Bucky's neck. Words beyond him, all he could manage was a warm, content murmur, and he felt Steve smile as he kissed his temple. "Catch me if you can."
And he was gone.
Bucky's eyes snapped open to see him dashing away, laughter trailing behind him. He shot to his feet and raced after him. Steve leapt fearlessly across a gap, already a building ahead of him, tossing a grin over his shoulder, silhouetted by the golden sun, and Bucky's heart was filled with love so strong he couldn't breathe.
He didn't know what the future held. He knew there'd be good days. He knew there'd be bad days. He knew neither of them would ever be perfect, but they didn't need to be. All they needed to be was together.