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A Hollow Star, An Empty Glass

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The word safe has a strange taste to it, a tang. He doesn’t trust it.

Still, it’s hard not to think it when they’re on the other side of the English Channel, walking the arteries of the Allies’ heart and soul. When there’s water between him and Zola, waves; miles of sea and sky that separate him from that awful room, those terrible hands—the dead place they drilled inside his head. Or tried to, he tells himself. Tried.

London’s not at her best right now, it’s true. Half the city is rubble, it seems like, and the other half always has one eye towards the sky, but one thing you can’t question is that freedom’s alive here. The people that have stayed, that persist day after day in the center of Hitler’s favorite bullseye, they’ve made a choice not to run, not to panic; to keep their heads up instead and live all they can between bombs and behind blackout curtains.

That’s a word that feels right, though: choice. He’s got those now, doesn’t he? In spades. He and Steve both do. But the only choices he can control are his.

He can choose to rally the boys to play hooky from Phillips’ war room and lead the charge to the nearest down-and-out pub for the night. Steve chooses to come, because Steve goes where his men do. That was a given, to be fair. Not a choice that really says anything.

All right. 

He can choose to nurse a couple of pints while the Commandos really lay in and gin themselves up to a howl. He can sit next to Steve and not look at him, not stare like he wants to. Not touch.

He can choose to wait for Steve to say something, to give him some indication, a sign.

Sure. Or he can bite the bullet and make up his own damn mind.

It’s been a week since they marched back into that Allied camp, five days since he got the stink of HYDRA off his skin, three since Carter bundled them on a plane and babysat them straight over the white cliffs of Dover.

Two years, give or take, plus a week? Yeah. He’s waited plenty long, thanks.

He pushes back from the table in the middle of some dumb joke Dugan is telling about an sweet girl and an eager sailor and comes back from the bar with whiskey. Two shots. Two glasses. Not one. He sets them down—one at his place, one in front of Steve—and slips back into his seat without a word. He doesn’t need one. He shouldn’t, anyway. It’s an old signal between them, the oldest: a shot of whiskey offered. A question unspoken, but asked.

He half-wonders if Steve’ll even remember. But then, hell, Steve’s the one who started the whole thing in the first place.

 

*****

Steve, he was the one who’d shoved the snow from Bucky’s hair and stared at him serious, so fucking serious, all those years ago in their tiny kitchen in the flop above the dry cleaners, the one who’d said: “I want this, Buck. I want you.”

“No, Stevie,” Bucky had said, gentle. “You don’t.”

“I do,” Steve had said, all stubborn punk, his damn hand still in Bucky’s hair. “Why is that so hard for you to believe?”

“Because you’re drunk, Rogers, and you’re talking straight out of your ass.” Bucky nodded at the whiskey on the table, the cheap stuff, the only bottle they’d been able to afford, at the shot glass beside it still wet. “Since when do you drink this shit, anyway? Usually half a beer puts you sideways. How much have you had?” 

Steve wobbled on his feet and Bucky braced him, got around his waist and held him steady. Answer enough. Still, Steve insisted: “A splash. Not even that.”

“Uh huh. That why your breath smells like Kentucky?”

Steve glared at him, that fighting light firm in his eyes. “I was waiting up for you, jerk. I don’t know if you’ve noticed it at all, but it’s real cold up here and it was either this or jack up the heat and we’re out of nickels for the radiator because someone took the last three to use on the bus. I wonder who that could be.”

Bucky tried not to laugh. “Right. Yeah. It’s a real mystery.”

Steve had clung to him, all pissed off and feisty, and Bucky figured he should have shaken him off. He could have; his friend, for all his huff, might as well have been made out of balsa wood.

But god only knew how many times he’d thought about this, dreamed about it, reached out in the street without thinking and had to stop himself from yanking Steve to his side. A year they’d been living together then, since Steve’s mom had passed, and the want had gotten worse every day, every fucking hour, until some days, it was all he could think about. He’d go out after work and throw himself at every skirt and come home fucked nine ways to Sunday and still his idiot heart would twitch when he turned the key in the lock and heard Steve call his name: “Buck? Hey. I’m in here.” 

Maybe there was something wrong with him. He’d wondered about that sometimes. But then Steve would forget to comb his hair before breakfast and eat scrambled eggs with his bangs in his eyes. Or he’d shovel the front stoop while the flakes were still falling so Mr. Zellman wouldn’t risk a repeat of last year’s coronary. Or he’d help Mrs. Zellman at the counter when the dry cleaners got backed up and come upstairs smelling of soap and make a big show of shoving those few extra dollars into their coffee can kitty and Bucky would stand there grinning like a fool and think, I love you, kid. How could there be a damn thing wrong with that? 

God, sometimes he misses those days, when his biggest problem was loving his best friend too much. Shit. Nobody shooting at him or trying to unscramble his noggin. What he wouldn’t give, sometimes, to go back.

But he’d never said boo about it, the knots that Steve had tied his heart effortless into. Not once. How could he? Rogers was his best friend, sure, but Bucky knew he was all Steve had in the whole fucking world and if he managed to mess that up, to ruin the one good thing that Steve had left, he’d never have forgiven himself. And he could see too many ways that shit would go bad if he squawked. So he’d kept his trap shut.

Which had seemed like a fine plan until he’d come home on that random snowy Tuesday to find Steve at the kitchen table tipsy and saying all kind of crazy stuff, and as much as he wanted to jump in with both feet, shove Steve against the icebox and kiss the ever-loving hell out of him, he was still determined not to fuck it all up, either.

“Tell you what,” he’d said then, nodding over Steve’s shoulder. “You pour me one of your so-called splashes, sport, and pass it over here." 

“Why?”

“Why? Because that way I know that you’re sober enough to understand basic instructions. Which would go a long way to me believing you were serious and not just blowing smoke.”

Something flickered over Steve’s face—ah, Bucky thought, yeah, there it is: a challenge—and he slipped free of Bucky’s grip just long enough to grab and shuffle and pour.

“Careful now,” Bucky needled. “Don’t you spill any.”

Steve straightened up and brought the glass back to bear between them, full to the fucking brim. “There. This meet with your approval?” 

Bucky nodded. “Yeah, ok. Give it here.”

But Steve did no such thing. Instead, he met Bucky’s eye and knocked it all back, straight down the hatch. “There,” he said. “You happy now?”

Bucky cupped Steve’s cheek and felt the blood there, singing. “Gimme ten minutes, Rogers,” he’d said, easing the words over Steve’s mouth, “and then ask me that question again.”

That first time, after, they lay in Steve’s beat-up sheets under every blanket they had and watched the moon wheel through the sky overhead, chasing the last of the flurries away.

“You gonna tell me what brought this about?”

Steve shifted in his arms and leaned his head back on Bucky’s shoulder. “Hmmm? What?” 

“This,” Bucky said, “you. You practically jumping me when I came in the door. You have to admit, Stevie, that’s new.” 

“It wasn’t the booze, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

He let his lips drift down Steve’s temple. “I figured. I mean, I was hoping it wasn’t.”

Steve’s hand found his forearm, went tight. “I’ve loved you my whole life, Buck.”

There was a storm in Bucky’s head, a sudden clearing. God, trust Steve to say something so huge so simply, like it was a given. “What, just like that?”

“Just like that,” Steve said. “And I was thinking about it today, watching Mr. and Mrs. Zellman. You know they’ve been married 40 years?”

“Uh huh. I remember you saying.”

“Yeah. So I was watching them walking down the block towards the bus and she was holding his arm and he was holding his cane, trying to plant it firm in the snow, and I thought: I want that with Buck.”

“You wanna walk with me in the snow?” Bucky gripped Steve’s waist, made to lift him out of bed, tried to ignore the sudden flutter in his gut. “Here, come on, we can make your fantasy come true right now, babe.”

Steve laughed and shoved himself back, let Bucky take all of his weight, pinned them both back to the blankets. “No! No, I mean I want to grow old with you. Want to watch those raven tresses run right into gray.”

“Oh, you do, huh?”

“I do.” Steve sat up a little, turned; his eyes, his voice so fucking earnest that it made Bucky’s throat feel like a claw. “I wanna wake up every morning for the rest of my life in the same bed as you, with my skin right next to yours.”

“Jesus, Steve,” Bucky managed, “I—” 

Steve’s hand slipped to his chest, lingered there over his heart. “Look, I know that time’s not guaranteed. Not to anybody. But if I do get 40 more years on this earth, somehow, then I want to spend them with you.”

Bucky caught him, turned him, shoved the scrawny love of his life into the springs and stretched over him, drowned himself in that big, certain gaze. “You’re a sap, Rogers,” he said, “the biggest goddamn sap I ever met and I tell you what, punk, I love you more than I can fucking stand.”

“Then,” Steve said, “you should probably get down here and kiss me before I make you say all that stuff again.”

He laughed, that well of joy filling up again, filling his head to the brim. “You get feisty when you drink, Stevie. You know that?" 

That earned him a smack on the arm and a good grip on his ass. “Funny. Didn’t hear you complaining about it before.”

“Mmmm,” Bucky said, tracing the corners of Steve’s smirk with his tongue. “Believe me, sweetheart. I wasn’t.”

And they were together, then, like they had been their whole lives. Most things didn’t change; Bucky still picked up shifts and Steve still stayed up too late waiting and they never had enough money to get through the month without sweating, no. But they had each other in a way they hadn’t before. Now they kissed while Bucky made pancakes and they slept in the same bed and they shared the little hot water there was in the mornings, crammed together in the bathtub, chasing suds over each other’s skin. They argued without any clothes on and settled things that way, too. Bucky smoked too much. Steve didn’t eat enough. They were happy.

But the lovey stuff, it stayed in their apartment. It had to. They didn’t hold hands in the street. They couldn’t. They didn’t kiss where anybody could see them. They couldn’t even really touch, not in the way that Bucky wanted to. Not the way they could’ve if one of them was a dame. They couldn’t even talk about it, what they were to each other, what they felt—not anywhere beyond the four walls of their dipshit little flat.

Bucky knew why. He got it, he did. It was just…sometimes his hands itched and his mouth did and he’d look over and Steve and think I want to kiss you and I can’t even say that to you because there are other people around. Sometimes, he’d catch Steve looking at him back and know, just know, what the kid was thinking and he’d think: This is bullshit. Why can’t we just—?

But he got it. He did. But he didn’t fucking like it.

And then one day, Steve found a way to say what he couldn’t, to leave something unspoken but asked.

They were at Marino’s, a dive bar three blocks from their flop, on an afternoon in May. It wasn’t late, wasn’t early; it was that weird stretch of calm on a Friday when the weekend was just a step away, a step ahead, and there were blossoms everywhere, falling in legions from the trees, littering the sidewalk and clinging firm to Steve’s collar, no matter how many times he tried to shake the things off. Some of the lunch crowd had lingered, like them, and it was almost worth being laid off for the week to hang out with Steve like this, the Steve who rolled his shirt to his elbow and beat the snot out of a visiting shark at darts. A Navy man, he was. A guy who didn’t like losing. 

“You,” he said, menacing, “you fucking wormy little prick. You cheated me, didn’t you?” 

Steve stared at him, calm, folded up the twenty and slid it in his breast pocket, looking for all the world like he was the one with six inches and a 100 pounds in his favor. “It was a fair game. Everybody saw it.”

There was a murmur, a general rumble of agreement, and oh, Navy boy did not like that one bit.

“You using weighted darts?” He laughed, a rude rip of a sound. “Or maybe the board’s tilted, huh, maybe it ain’t quite straight. Just like you?”

“Ain’t you gonna help your friend?” the barfly on Bucky’s right asked him.

“Nah.” Bucky tipped back the last of his beer, set the glass down with a bang. “He’s doing just fine.”

“If you need to tell yourself that,” Steve was saying, “that’s your business. But we both know it’s not true. And so does everybody here.”

Navy’s face was a cherry bomb. “You’re an asshole, kid, you know that? A real certified American asshole.”

“Calling me names won’t get you better aim.”

The guy got right in Steve’s face. “Yeah? Well, why don’t you tell me: where’d a skinny faggot like you ever learn to keep your wrist so fucking firm?”

The bar drew in a breath, went silent like mice stunned by the afternoon sun, and Bucky eased up a little straighter at the bar, just in case. 

But Steve, he just smiled, a big, fuck-off grin, and tapped the Navy guy on the chest. “Thanks for the game,” he said. “How about I break this Jackson you gave me and buy us both a beer, huh?” And before Navy could answer, Steve took two steps to the bar and leaned over the battered wood. “Hey, barkeep. A beer for the brave serviceman here; hold the foam!”

Bucky saw his cue. “Let’s hear it for America’s finest,” he shouted. He hopped over and clapped the thoroughly confused Navy man on his back. “Come on, fellas—show your appreciation for the best and the brightest, huh? Who knows? This could be the very man who’s gonna kick Adolph Hitler’s ass!”

The place erupted in hoots and hollers, slid into a slurry version of “Anchors Aweigh,” and before Bucky could find Steve again in the crush, Navy had three pints with his name on them ready and sweaty on the bar.

“You’re an idiot,” Bucky said. “I hope you know that.” 

Steve was lit up like a Roman candle, bouncing on the balls of his feet and grinning to beat the band. “Yeah, well. Did the trick, didn’t it? Taunts sidestepped, money retained, and everybody’s honor saved. Good day’s work, I’d call that.” He waved a hand at the bartender, raised two fingers.

Bucky snorted. “Uh huh. Sure.” He put his back to the bar and leaned an elbow on the rail. “I hope it wasn’t my honor you were worried about, Stevie. ‘Cause you know I can take care of myself.”

“Oh, it wasn’t. It was his face that needed saving, not yours.”

There was a ripple of movement in his peripheral; the sound of two glasses sitting down hard.

“Hey, thanks,” Steve said. “How much?”

Bucky dipped his head, caught the bartender behind them.

“Forget it,” the guy said. “You did me a service, kiddo. That asshole’s been hassling folks for three days, chasing out the regulars with his cocky macho bullshit. You’re the first one who’s been able to shut him up. The goddamn fleet can’t ship out fast enough, you ask me.” He laughed, a slip of white falling over his eyes. “Hell, you fellas aren’t free tomorrow night, are you? It’ll be their last one in town.”

“No,” Steve said with a smile, the small charming one that for all its softness brooked no argument. “We’ve got plans. But thanks for the drinks.”

A shrug, a sigh, and they were alone again, separated from the crowd by clouds of cigarette smoke that softened the sunset to a smoky haze.

“Buck?”

Bucky looked up and Steve was holding a shot glass at him, dangling it between his fingers.

“What’s this?”

“What’s it look like?” Steve said. “It’s whiskey.”

“Hey, I’m good. I had three beers while you were throwing that sharp shit around. You want me to stay vertical tonight, then I’d better not.”

Steve’s eyes darkened, blue sky heavy with rain. “Bucky,” he said again. “Take it. It’s yours if you want it.”

And somehow, through the pleasant haze in his own head, even in the din, around the chatter and the radio and the off-tune singalong by the front windows, Bucky could hear it: Steve was saying I love you I want you—right here, right now. In public.

Goddamn.

And from the looks of it, he expected an answer. 

He reached up and plucked the glass from Steve’s fingers and downed it in one long, lovely go. And said: “You better fucking believe it.”

They didn’t look at each other on the way home, didn’t touch. Not so much as a peep. But once the door was closed between them and the rest of the mixed-up world, Steve’s hands were on his hips, crawling, racing each other around his back and joining there, clutching, clawing.

“Made me so hot,” Bucky said, curving his palms around Steve’s face, holding him against the bedroom door, “watching you take that guy apart. Beating him like that when he was so goddamn sure he was gonna wipe the floor with you.”

Steve laughed and rubbed up against him, the stiff in his shorts already talking. “Yeah? You liked that?” 

Bucky kissed him, ground out a groan in that beautiful, stubborn mouth. Murmured: “I did. You’re fucking gorgeous when you take no shit.”

“Mmmm. You know what I’d really like to take?”

Bucky snorted and licked at Steve’s lips again. “We gotta work on your dirty talk, man.” 

“That bad?”

“Oh, god,” Bucky said. “Just awful.” 

Steve shifted, caught Bucky’s cock against his hip, and gave up a sigh, dirty, triumphant. “Got you revved up sure enough, didn’t it?”

Bucky’s face ran red. “Hey,” he blustered, “do I have to put my cock in your mouth to shut you up? Because I will, Stevie. Don’t test me.”

A grin, a rake of nails in his back. “I thought you’d never ask.”

A shot of whiskey, then, had become their way of posing the question: Do you want me, still? Are you ready? Can we go home and fuck? It was handy in public, sure; kept them both outta jail. But they learned it was useful in other ways, too. It was a good way to end fights, to cede ground without losing face; to say I love you I’m an asshole Let’s hide in bed and forget the dumb shit that I said. The day Steve failed his first physical, they used it; the day that Bucky passed his; the day Bucky got mugged, the day Steve stopped a robbery; the night Steve called Bucky at work to bail him out of jail, all the goddamn way downtown.

“I’m sorry,” he said 75 times on the way home, at least. “I really am.”

“That was rent money for two months,” Bucky gritted. “Two fucking months, Rogers! You get that, right?”

He couldn’t bring himself to look over. Knew what he’d see: Steve’s right eye the color of a ham hock, the paper-thin skin around swelled to within an inch of its life. There’d been blood on his mouth at the police station, a thin, stubborn line that Bucky had to stop himself from wiping away. It infuriated him: Steve’s stupidity, his own cowardice, his best friend’s apparent determination to get himself killed. And for what?

“You know, most people can talk about politics without coming to fisticuffs. You get that, right?” He was trying to be funny, sort of, but the words came out sharp, razor blades that cut through the night chill. “Most people don’t fucking volunteer to bleed over the Lend-Lease deal.”

Steve was quiet for a half a block. “He wasn’t aiming me, Buck. My face got between him and the other guy.”

Bucky laughed, a bitter burn on his tongue. “That supposed to make me feel better? Because it doesn’t. I’m gonna have to pull doubles for a month to make up what I had to fork over to get you out, damn it.”

Steve’s voice was so soft, he almost missed it. “You coulda left me there.”

“What?”

Steve turned, his battered face ripped by the streetlights. “I said, you could’ve left me. I’d have understood. It was asking a lot.”

“What?” Bucky said again. “What? What the fuck. Stop! Would you just stop for a second? Fuck.” He shoved his hands through his hair and tried to get his head around it: his own anger, the stupidity of the shit Steve was spitting. “Of course I wasn’t gonna leave you there! Christ, Steve. You can’t really think that.”

Steve’s eyes swung to awnings above them, his battered shoes, the rattletrap car shuffling by. Everywhere except Bucky’s face. “All I said was that I would’ve understood if you had. That’s all. Asking you to leave work in the middle of a shift? Let alone all the money you—” 

“You stop it. Right there.” There was something hot in Bucky’s gut, a weight, a fist, a flame. “You just fucking can it until we get inside, ok?”

All at once Steve was looking at him, and oh shit, that look about killed him. “But—”

Bucky held up a hand, stepped a little too close, said a little too loud: “Enough, ok? We’re almost home. It can wait.”

Upstairs, he herded Steve into the kitchen and ignored the light switch; reached for the bottle instead.

“I’m sorry,” Steve said again, barely more than a whisper.

Bucky handed him the glass, filled it with shaking hands. “Me, too,” he said. “I’m sorry you thought I’d ever leave you.” 

He felt Steve’s fingers on his chest. Saw the flash of the glass as it rose full and fell empty. “Buck, I—”

Bucky breathed and breathed and breathed and slid to his knees ungainly, off balance, and reached blindly for Steve’s belt, then his cock, and Steve came still clutching the glass in one hand, the back of Bucky’s head in the other. 

That little glint of light in his palm, that’s what Bucky remembered. Looking up as Steve shattered and seeing a hollow star in Steve’s hand, an empty glass that held everything there was between them. All of it.

“I love you,” Steve said later, arched above him in the dark. “You know that, don’t you?”

Bucky reached up and brushed the kid’s hair from his broken face. “‘Course I do. How could I forget it?”

 

***** 

And he hadn’t, despite hell, war, and otherwise. But he couldn’t be sure about Steve. 

What the Super Soldier stuff had done to his body was pretty fucking apparent. But what had it done to his head? Who could tell? Well, he figures it couldn’t have scrambled it that bad. Steve remembered Bucky. Hell, he’d gone out of his way to save his goddamn life.

But it’s been a week now and he hasn’t looked at Bucky like he used to: like he’d never get enough, like Bucky might disappear if Steve’s eyes weren’t on him. He hasn’t touched him, either, aside from an arm around the shoulder, a guiding hand, maybe, those few times that Bucky’s let Steve see him stumble. And he hasn’t said a word, either, but then, they never were great about putting this stuff into words.

Bucky could’ve been the one to reach out, from day one: day one of his post-POW life. He knows that. But some part of him...some part of him, the stubborn part, the cocksure kid he was before Italy, before HYDRA’s lab, had been counting on Steve coming to him. Making the first move, again, like he did the last time. But Steve’s changed, too. Hell, he’s Captain America now, for crying out loud. Maybe it’s not fair to put all this shit on him. 

So ok. He’s fine with being the one to pose the question, but Steve, he’ll have to be the one who answers.

He picks up his shot and grins around the rim of the glass and knocks it back over his teeth, swallows hard. 

He sneaks a glance. The glass is still full. Steve’s still paying him no mind.

Ok. So. He can wait. The army’s made him real good at that.

He tips his chair back on two legs and stares at the great wooden beams in the ceiling, at the cigar smoke that’s curling there, urged on by Dugan’s ardent puffing alone. He licks the whiskey from his lips and remembers his first taste of Steve’s—the urgent sting of peppermint and two dollar booze; remembers the way Steve moaned the moment their tongues touched, brushed, the way Steve had clung to him, kissed him, during those long shuffle steps to the bed.

Would this Steve sound like that, taste like that? Hell, does this Steve even still want him? His face goes hot and he bites his lip, hard. Jesus. He can’t bear to even think it. 

He looks down. Yeah, the glass is still full. But Steve’s touching it.

He’s leaning his fingertips into the curves, stroking the cusp of it; tracing its weight, the turn of it, the swoop. They’re bigger now, Steve’s hands, like the rest of him, and Bucky can’t help imagine what they’d look like on him, what they’d feel like spreading like waves over his hips, cupping his ass, teasing down the length of his spine.

Christ.

He sets the chair down hard, but nobody notices. The whole table’s goggled at the Frenchman now, who’s babbling about the treachery of his government or the lechery of his wife--it’s hard to tell; he’s speaking so fast that the kid beside him can hardly translate. Bucky finds himself leaning over the table, trying to catch it, trading grins with the other guys and doing his damnedest not to be the first one to laugh.

“Hey.” A voice in his ear. Deeper, a little raspy from the smoke. But impossible not to know.

“Hey,” he says, turning his head just a little, just enough to feel the heat of Steve’s face beside his own. 

“Thanks for the drink.”

Bucky’s mouth is dry, cotton ball drag, and he’s aching from just the sound of that voice, the promise there, the history. God, he’s missed this. “Sure,” he says, aiming for cocky, “yeah. You know. I figured you might need it.”

Steve laughs and oh, Bucky has to see that, has to see if Captain America looks the same when he loses it as Stevie Rogers from Brooklyn does. He settles back in his chair and well, what do you know? He does.

“Actually,” Steve says, “I do need it. I really, really do.”

There’s a flash of a glass, a swallow, and Bucky is grinning like an idiot. He knows it. Doesn’t care who can see it. “Your dirty talk still sucks, Rogers. I mean, come on. You’re embarrassing me.”

Steve’s hand finds his knee under the table. “I will for sure if we don’t leave in the next two minutes.” He turns the glass in his fingers and sets it on the table, careful, right next to Bucky’s. “Your choice, Sergeant Barnes.”

Bucky’s lips twitch and he nods at the door: a mission, a challenge. “Hey, after you, Captain America.”

*****

They don’t go back to the barracks, the safe house Stark owns near the Thames. Instead, Steve pulls up his collar and Bucky pulls out his wallet and they get a room of their own.

It’s dark as hell, of course it is; blackout curtains everywhere, a silent, dark city beyond, but once the drapes are drawn tight, they risk a candle. Then two.

The light’s dim, but it doesn’t blur the lines of Steve’s body, lines Bucky’s hands don’t yet know. Where once he’d felt sharp turns and bony corners are now curves; skin he remembers as delicate, like bruised linen, is supple and giving, pulled tight over muscles that sing for him, squeeze.

“Oh, god,” Steve whispers, “oh god, Buck, Bucky, fuck—right there. Right there. Oh, baby. Don’t stop.”

He opens up for Bucky so easy, like it hasn’t been two years and he doesn’t have a new body and Bucky isn’t sorely out of practice because god knows there’s been nobody since Steve. Fuck. How could there be? And the look in Steve’s eyes when he starts to push in is the same trusting blaze that Bucky remembers, the one he clung to on Zola’s table when the shadows grew too hungry, the empty places inside his head too deep. He’d closed it off from that madman, this feeling, this sweetness, buried it away; and now here it is in front of him, beneath him, and if his face is wet, if there are tears adrift on his lips, so fucking be it.

“Hey,” Steve says, soft, “hey, Buck, hey.” He lifts his hands, hands that could swallow Bucky’s neck now, wrap twice around his throat, but instead, they cradle it, form a warm cage that Bucky never wants to escape, and it’s so good, so utterly fucking perfect, that for the first time in ages, Bucky lets himself feel it: safe. 

“Sweetheart,” Bucky says when Steve starts to shudder, that great, beautiful body on the edge, “sweetheart, I missed you. You’ll never know how goddamn much.”

“I wouldn’t have left you there.” Steve sucks a kiss on his throat, two. “You gotta know I’d never leave you.”

Their mouths meet and Steve’s right there, right there, Bucky can feel it. “You happy now, Stevie?”

Steve’s smile is electric. “Ask me in again in 40 years, hmm?” His hips lift to meet Bucky’s and he groans, a low, beautiful sound. “I'll let you know then."