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Twenty-Six Hundred (Heading Zero-Three-Zero)

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His hands are on the controls before he can even think it through.

T’Challa had been more than accommodating—not just of Bucky, who was there and welcomed for a whole different set of reasons, but of Steve, who increasingly feels like he deserves very little in the way of accommodation, or understanding, or mercy at anyone’s hands for the way he chokes at the finish line and apparently sees fit to spit in the face of every bone fide miracle the universe tosses at him.

But T’Challa has been more than accommodating of Steve, and more than patient with the length of time he’d spent staring at Bucky’s body through the frosted glass, throat sore with how many times he’d needed to swallow to keep the sting in his eyes from consuming him, and Steve had dug crescents into his palms for clenching his fists, fingernail lines of blood that healed and burst and healed again because he sees it, he sees this happening, Bucky choosing this and Steve standing by and nodding because that’s what he does, now—maybe always. Maybe Steve’s always just stood by and ached, drawing blood and making noise to no effect in the end. Maybe being selfish on the inside isn’t all that different from being selfish in the world.

Maybe the unspoken, unacknowledged fist that’s been digging fingernails into the heart in his goddamned chest for longer than he thinks even he could tell was punishment for never grabbing the wheel and turning around.

Which is why this time, when he does it without so much as a thought? He knows.

He knows, because he’s felt this way before, in the North Atlantic as the water seeped in. Steve knows when he’s dying, cell by cell for the ice and the fist is freezing so his blood can’t move and he thinks he knows what that means, now. What words people tend to fit to that feeling.

“Captain,” the quinjet’s computer—Tadashi, Steve thinks the voice is called, maybe; “the dome defenses are already reengaged.”

“Then just reverse the lift-off trajectory,” Steve says, because, well. It should be that simple, right?

“The coordinates are encrypted. Unscrambling them,” there’s a pause; “I cannot estimate how long that would take.”

Oh. Right.

So, in StarkTech speak: not that simple. At all.

Steve probably should have expected that from the smartest, most advanced civilization in the whole goddamn world.

But then again: Steve may have strayed from his roots for a while, may have wandered away from his course without the presence of the only real compass that kept him right and out of the kinds of trouble that threatened to be the very last kind he ever got into—maybe he’s wavered, but not anymore, and if there’s one thing Steve Rogers can be depended upon for?

It’s going in with nothing but stubbornness-conveniently-overshadowed-by-conviction and the bold-blind hope that he’ll figure out a plan along the way.

And hell, but he’s still breathing—save for that whole seventy-year nap thing—so it’s worked alright so far.

He’ll take it.

He turns the craft and tries to calculate in his head, based on when they’d crossed the barrier, speed and course: he was never the one with the head for math, that was Bucky, but he’s not stupid with it either, so he can formulate a guess, and he calls out to the ship to aim for it.

He’s about thirty-percent sure he’s right. But he’s about a hundred-percent sure of what he needs in order to survive whatever going to come in the wake of being a fugitive and knowing that Bucky’s frozen halfway across the world in any given breath, so.

Thirty-percent is more than enough.

He counts down the seconds based on what he thinks would be when he’ll make it back through, if he makes it back through and the forcefield protecting and obscuring Wakanda doesn’t incinerate him, and he can see the shimmer around him as he lets out a breath he hadn’t planned on holding when the cities and the palace and the bustling tapestry of life is revealed before him.

Oh, thank fuck for that thirty percent.

He lands in the same place he’d taken off from just, well. Probably about ten minutes prior? But he lands there to the anticipation of a single figure on the pad waiting for him as he disembarks.

“Are you aware,” Shuri says to him with crossed arms that betray the disapassionate tone of her voice; “that you were more than one-hundred meters from the reentry point and could easily have been vaporized on contact?”

Steve blinks, and thinks, well. Maybe less thankfulness for thirty percent, but not by much.

He’s here, after all. And that’s what counts.

“Umm,” he starts, quite smooth about it if he does say so himself before he clears his throat. “I wasn’t, though?” It comes out as more of a question than he would like, and Shuri quirks an eyebrow at him.

“Thanks?” he ventures, because he figures the reason ha hasn;t been reduced to tiny molecules in the air is down to one person and one person alone, and she’s standing in front of him.

She smirks, and yep. He was right.

“You’re lucky I like you, Captain,” she taps a mental band on her forearm indicatively.

“You have your shield, and I have mine.”

And that’s a hell of a difference in scope of shield, Steve thinks, but the thought that really lingers is the desire to correct her—he had his shield; doesn’t anymore; but then, he replays the way she said it. Simply, but carefully. Measured. Her eyes on him heavy.

He thinks she may have probably said it that way on purpose.

“Did you forget your jacket?” she asks with no lack of sarcasm. “Misplaced your keys? Not that we haven’t desperately missed you in the whole quarter of a hour you’ve been away.”

And Steve opens his mouth, then, but his tongue’s too big, suddenly, and his throat is dry so it cracks and bleeds where his pulse as risen up fierce in it, and he doesn’t know what his face gives away—thought he was better at hiding all his forbidden, secret truths by now—but whatever it is softens Shuri’s expression just a little, just this side of pity to be almost warm, and he backons him to follow her as she leads the way off the tarmac toward a path that’s already familiar for Steve. That he could walk, even now, in his sleep.

_________________

“I will not wake him yet.”

She says it from the other side of the room, giving Steve the space next to the pod Bucky rests in, face slack and calm in a way Stev can’t resent, not entirely, even if it’s unnatural, even if it’s too cold and he can’t touch.

“ I know.” And Steve does. Steve’s not entirely sure why he had to be here, really. Or else, why he had to be here now, because the reason he needs to be here is made of words, confessions, things he should have said decades ago our days ago or hours ago, or all of them and everything in between and damn the consequences, however much they may hurt because Bucky deserves the truth, Bucky deserves…

Everything. And Steve would die so many more times to this world, and to any other, in order to give him just a shred of that.

He wouldn’t think twice.

“I guess I,” and Steve could finish that sentence a hundred thousand different way. I just wanted to see him. I just needed to watch to make sure he’s still alive, that it’s just for now, that he’ll come back. I just needed to look at his lips and pretend I wasn’t a coward and that, maybe it would only be once, but maybe he’d let me have just that if I asked, if I told him—

“I just wanted to leave these,” he says, and reaches under his shirt with a wry grimace. “I didn’t forget something here,” he glances to Shuri over his shoulder as he pulls the chain that’s never left him since he got it in the first place over his head; “I forgot to leave something here.”

There’s a ledge on the contraption that holds Bucky in stasis, and Steve eyes it as Shuri approaches quietly.

“Is it okay, if I…” Steve nods toward it, and Shuri nods in kind, her eyes understanding as she reads the clear embossing on the metal tags: two blood types, two names.

“We had to remove his,” she says softly, almost with regret now that she sees...well. Whatever she sees, and given what Steve knows of her, little as it is, he suspects she sees everything. “Do you want to take them with you?”

And fuck, yes, Steve does, but he shakes his head.

“Those were a gift,” Steve says, bit it sits wrong as the words come out. Because so were his, and he’s not giving them back, he’s not, it’s just that they held the close in case they were separated, in case they were lost, and Bucky’s not lost anymore and if Steve’s not here beside him in the waiting, the watching, the bated-breath moments, then something needs to be.

Something that’s two hearts on a string, more than Bucky’s ever known.

Shuri nods again, and yeah.

Yeah, she see everything.

She gives him time to watch Bucky’s motionless figure, to shed more tears and wipe them away in his own time before he turns and she leads him back to his jet.

“Captain.”

She calls as he starts to climb in and he turns.

“Drop to twenty-six hundred, heading zero-three-zero,” she tells him seriously. “It would not do to tempt fate again.”

And Steve—who’s only ever known that temptation—smiles at her, and thinks: okay.

Some things, while worth the risk, aren’t worth the losing.

The numbers are burned in his memory beyond the enhancements of a serum; carved on his heart deep enough to hear them in the beat by the time he takes off again.

Chapter Text

Steve is pretty sure he’s heard that if you try and fail and no one really notices, it doesn’t count. Something about a tree and a forest and no one around, and he’s pretty sure it applies.

He may also have heard that it’s the thought that counts, that shooting for the moon lands you among the stars if you miss, and a lot of other platitudes that state the exact opposite, but that seems really irrelevant right now so he’s just going to put that neatly out of his mind. In the corner of his mind, way in the back, at the very least.

Point being: if trying and failing—by which Steve means trying and receiving not-incineration (which Steve is now aware is not actually a possibility, given that Wakandan airspace is simply masked from prying eyes, and the casual comment to the contrary last time probably tells him more about Shuri than he could have hoped in such a short encounter); but he’s not met with incineration or the more likely fate of deadly collision with a rock face, but instead with a soft impact that merely jars him in his seat and pushes the aircraft gently back.

Steve maybe tries again. Then twice over. Maybe a third, and a fourth time. Maybe comes back and tries in an hour. Maybe tries comms on every channel. Maybe gets a little worried.

Maybe he tries again tomorrow. He might try to reach out to the CIA about that Agent Ross fellow who’d been hanging out among the Wakandan delegation after the disaster at the UN. Via Sharon, even, who he’d agreed, mutually, to probably never contact again after their ill-conceived, adrenaline-fueled kiss that had too much to do with Sharon’s blue eyes and the shape of Steve’s pecs under her hands, as he later finds out regarding a recent ex that Sharon maybe needed some closure with. Point is, Sharon deserved that closure but also deserves better than Steve, much like her great aunt did, because Steve’s heart could hold a lot of love but anyone who lived in it, like that, deserved the whole thing.

And the whole thing was already more than spoken for. Steve can’t remember a day, a moment, a breath when it wasn’t.

But Steve reaches out and finds that Ross was KIA, and Steve feels no real sympathy for this because what he feels instead is frustration, because he needs information on why he can’t get into Wakanda.

Maybe they’re already tired of his nagging.

Steve, though, had always taken such a reaction as an invitation to push harder, and nag more incessantly. Character flaw.

This maybe becomes a pattern.

But the point is: it’s actually not a day, or days, later that he lands in Wakanda again, but a full week precisely, and that’s what restraint looks like. Yep.

Trees falling in forests with no one around. Exactly.

“Apologies for the unintentional exile, Captain,” and it’s T’Challa himself who greets him on landing. “It seems neither my armor, nor my skill, was properly tested on foreign soil,” he smiles, rueful and tinged mostly with sadness but tilted upward with hope, and as Steve takes in the great destruction still being remade, scorch marks on the land, he doesn’t think he’ll ever be as strong a leader or as good a man as the one in front of him.

Maybe that’s for the best, though. He feels guilty enough, inconveniencing them after their kindness, their hospitality, their endless striving on Bucky’s behalf alone and then with Steve badgering them as he has, well.

Were Steve a better man, he might stay away. And he can’t ever feel guilty enough to manage that. He’s not built for it.

“With some upgrades, though,” T’Challa adds, gaze falling on the reconstruction efforts across the span of the central city; “it proved victorious, if not without great casualties.”

“I’m,” Steve clears his throat, realizing that while he’d been trying to power through what was normally a straight shot through a cliff face, yearning for the still form of his best friend, his best shield, his best everything, Wakanda had been fighting for its own freedom, and losing hundreds.

Steve may not be such a good man, but the grief and guilt he feels are no less profound for it.

“I’m sorry,” he says, because that’s all there's left now to say, really; else all that’s left to start with. “Is there anything I can,” Steve turns to T’Challa, then, and T’Challa follows suit.

“I mean, anything I can do?”

“You can stop bouncing on your feet like a child.”

Steve spins at the voice as Shuri approaches, smirk on her face as she looks Steve up and down; as Steve does the very same to himself, on instinct. He’s a fucking soldier, he’s better trained, even in these circumstances, than to give himself away so blatantly, and yet when it comes to Bucky, he’s—

“You weren’t,” Shuri grins at him before he descends further into existential crisis; “but it is obvious that you want to.”

“Shuri,” T’Challa sighs with a long-suffering kind of resignation to his sister’s ways.

“Brother,” Shuri returns flippantly, lips turned upward. And brows raised before T’Challa makes to take his leave.

Which just proves to Steve that there really is no challenging Shuri. Not that he’d really suspected there ever was.

“I will let you know if I think of something that may suit your skills, by way of assisting,” T’Challa says to Steve; “and it will be with gratitude that your help is accepted, if I do.” He adds it almost as an apology for his sister, who simply rolls her eyes at him and waves him away.

“Don’t you have kingly things to be concerning yourself with?” she asks with irritation, but not without affection.

T’Challa shakes his head before inclining it instead toward Steve in farewell.

And it’s in that moment that Steve realizes he’s never parted from the King’s presence as anything but a fellow warrior, really, or else as a man too desperate to act on ceremony, and has absolutely no idea what to do, what protocol to follow.

As usual, Steve grasps for the one of the handful of things the USO was good for: teaching him how to fake his way through such situations with something vaguely resembling grace.

But only very, very vaguely.

“Your majesty,” he bows a little, and knows his discomfort is palpable, visible when T’Challa only slightly bothers to stifle a chuckle.

“Don’t worry,” T’Challa smiles as Steve straightens, waving off Steve’s awkward attempts. “That is not the kind of ceremony we stand upon, here.”

“Come on,” Shuri cuts in, making it clear that Steve is to follow her without any further dawdling with her brother of all people. “Before you shake out of your skin with the effort of not bouncing on your feet.”

_________________

“He is in stasis,” Shuri tells him as she opens the door to the room, even more like a suite than anything Steve has seen thus far: comfortable. Like a home.

“He will be moved soon to a natural environment to wake, properly,” Shuri adds, glancing at the various readings that appear in thin air with a tap at her wrist; “though he’ll remain here, like this, for a few more weeks.”

Steve nods, more to himself than for Shuri’s benefit. His eyes are on Bucky, tucked under blankets and Steve’s fingers itch to loosen them because Bucky tucked Steve in, despite Steve own protests, yet no matter how cold it got, he hated being so confined.

Though maybe Bucky doesn’t mind it, now. Maybe Bucky’s changed in so many ways, across so much time and so many horrors that this changed too.

Steve knows he’s going to have to square with that fist around his heart, clenched with all the things that might have changed, at some point.

Right now isn’t it.

“Fixing his brain, you see,” Shuri motions at the projected numbers and images to zoom in on something even Steve recognizes as having neurological connotations; “is nothing compared to fixing his mind.” She dismisses all of the floating information and glances down almost fondly at the unobstructed view of Bucky’s prone form.

“And much of that must come with time, and living out his healing.”

Steve knew this, of course. In his own mind, he knew this. In the few hours, really, that he’d had with Bucky

“But we have means of aiding the basics. Trauma, guilt, loss, regret, self-worth,” Shuri says as she walks about the bed Bucky lies in, presumably noting things that Steve can’t pick out as she taps on the beads at her wrist. “We can set him on the path toward regaining himself on solid footing, with the desire to move forward.”

Steve blinks, entirely lost, because—

“How?”

“Neural stimulation, paired with internal projection technology,” Shuri gestures and brings the display back to light, hovering in the space before them, and Steve tries to focus on what she’s showing him, rather than how it’s obstructing the view of Bucky’s rising-falling chest.

He tries very hard. Really.

“Think of it more as traditional session-based therapy, that’s happening at incredibly rapid speeds by our external measures,” Shuri narrates scans as she flips through them, and Steve sees it: successive brain scans with dates, no, minutes, all with new, increased activity, different spaces showing brighter after, later than at first as Steve blinks.

He doesn’t understand what he’s seeing, exactly, but it feels warm in his blood somehow. Like it knows something he doesn’t.

“Hours, even years of recovery via conversation and hard work,” Shuri says, fond and almost proud as she looks at Bucky, tapping her temple.

“The only difference is that it is played out up here.”

There are probably far better responses to that, yeah. No: there are definitely better responses. But Bucky’s breath hitches, only slightly, and then goes back to normal, and it takes Steve a moment to realize it’s not pain, really, but more like a sniffle, a shuffle, and heavy breath short of snoring in a deep, restorative sleep.

“That’s impossible.”

It’s what comes, in the face of calm and normalcy even as Bucky remains mostly still but safe, peaceful even as it’s clear from the way his eyes move beneath the lids that Shuri’s speaking only truth. Not that he doubted her, just...

It’s impossible.

“For you.”

And Steve wants to shake his head and say that’s not how he means it, not at all. He knows how far beyond even his modern understanding of technology and biomedicine they have here, but no.

No, it’s more that Steve cannot process that this, if it’s as effective and thorough and real as she makes it sound: Steve can’t possibly make sense of the fact that it might be that simple. Not at all simple, of course, but for them.

For them

“So he went from cryo to—”

“Not exactly.”

Steve doesn’t know which syllable heralds the way his heart drops, but it probably doesn’t matter. It’s a free fall and a thickness to the air he tries and fails to breathe either way.

Not exactly, which means there had been time

“I told you we fixed his brain,” Shuri speaks quickly, picking up on the devastation that Steve doesn’t try to hide, trying to fill the emptiness that starts to spread unforgivingly through Steve’s entire body with words that are meant to soothe; and maybe will, maybe can: just. Not yet.

“That was easy, really. I removed the embedded triggers and programming while I was putting the finishing touches on my brother’s new suit. They were clearly unnatural pathways in his neural network, simple to identify and treat. With his accelerated healing, it was an even quicker process than we’d anticipated.”

“He was sedated afterward,” Shuri nods down to Bucky again, and it’s in that moment, that motion that Steve’s realizes that he hadn’t been looking at Bucky at all, that something in him knew that to do so would save or damn him, and then he does look. He can’t help it.

The air returns because Bucky’s breathing. His chest rises, and then falls.

“We needed to test him, and in order to do that, we wanted more than battle simulations. We wanted our best,” Shuri explains, though slower now. Almost hesitant, if she had the capacity to be that with any sort of ease. “The Dora Milage were...”

“Otherwise occupied?” Steve ventures, sensitive as he can manage given the givens, though his voice is more a scratch, and he regrets making the sound as soon as it escapes into the world.

Shuri nods, though, as if the sound is normal, is entirely passable and nothing to be ashamed of. Steve’s grateful.

“So we had a bit of a gap between the procedure and testing its success rate,” Shuri continues on. “But it was flawless. His brain, to scan it, is as perfect a specimen as I’ve even seen, and the physicians here agree. We even compared it to the original Project Rebirth records, and the files from your S.H.I.E.L.D. records,” she looks up and waits until Steve meets her eyes.

“The serum you share is a thing of beauty, even by our standards.”

Impressed. She’s impressed, and even in his present position Steve knows he won’t get that again, or else, not any time soon: he recognizes how rare it is, and while he can’t relish it, and wouldn’t even if his heart were properly situated in his chest—he didn’t make himself this way, after all—but impressed.

He knows that’s an accomplishment, even if he can’t take the credit.

“Thanks,” he says hollowly. Because he ma taught him that much.

“And it is not so different, the two formulations, as the preexisting files suggest,” Shuri comments idly, bringing numbers and data charts up into the air again in bright lights. “Theoretically, of course. We aren’t about to transform the two of you into lab rats in vivo,” she says, horrified at the thought, and Steve takes comfort in that: the first time, maybe, that either of them had ever faced the idea of being understood, biologically at least, like they were humans. As if they felt like anybody else.

“You were not contacted because there was nothing for you to do,” Shuri cuts into Steve thoughts, and he realizes he must have looked very far away. He felt as much, at least. “Don’t look like a scuffed puppy.”

Or else, he must have looked like, well, like—

“A kicked dog?”

Shuri tips her head and considers Steve's suggestion—not a correction, not for her—and shrugs.

“I like my version better,” she declares, with the horror in her expression returning as she glares at Steve, like he came up with the saying himself from very personal experience:

“Who would kick a dog?”

Steve doesn’t laugh, but he makes a scoffing noise that’s as close as he’s going to get, probably for a while, and Shuri smiles like she gets it.

Damn, but he likes her. She seems to almost understand.

“Think of dreams,” Shuri says, apparently returning to the reasons, the reality of what Bucky’s going through in the now. “How time seems to move so much faster, and then crossed with your,” she pauses, looking for a word before settling on: “colleague, Stark’s, retro-framing device.”

And colleague, yeah.

Jury’s still out on that.

“But then imagine that such a machine would be using technology that is now,” she considers for a moment: “centuries outdated, actually.”

Oh. Well, right then.

Fuck.

“He is doing the heavy lifting,” Shuri assures Steve, as if he needs it. “Here,” she reaches with an open hand, but makes no contact, toward Bucky’s forehead.

“And no doubt, even more so here.” And she does exactly the same, toward Bucky’s chest.

Steve’s breathless, again. The air is thick, again; the reasons are completely different.

“Would you like to sit with him a while?”

Steve stops himself just in time before he gasps, or sobs, or falls apart completely. All he does is turn too fast, and takes Shuri’s expression in: invitation. Compassion.

“Sometimes, if only very rarely, people have said they recall whispers,” she tells him softly; “though not normally what is said.”

Steve swallows, over and over, until he thinks he can make words into sounds.

“Can I?”

Shuri doesn’t nod, just goes to make her leave.

“I’ll have a tray sent in,” she says, and Steve must look dismayed at that because she narrows her eyes and points at him before he can even go to settle in the comfortable-looking chair situated—as if in anticipation of Steve’s presence, and Steve’s presence alone—at Bucky’s bedside.

“Do not frown at me like that, Steve Rogers,” she warns him, and he feels it; feels the threat in a way few people can manage, with him. “You look nearly dead on your feet. You will eat and you will hydrate properly while you are within our borders. No childish arguments.” And then she’s at the door, before she glares back. “And no pouting, goodness, you are like my brother.”

Steve takes a breath and schools his expression out of his apparent pouting.

“That’s quite a compliment,” he says, and means it, but Shuri snorts straight away.

“Of course you’d think so,” she rolls her eyes, waving him off in farewell:

“Give it time.”

_________________

“Hey Buck.”

It takes Steve a second to say anything, even once he’s alone in the room with Bucky breathing quiet, steady next to him. It’s both the hardest and the more blessed thing Steve’s ever done, to sit here like this: Bucky unconscious, sure, but not unwell, alive underneath the deep sleep even if Steve’s heart twists with the truths of his eyes—still, monitors, hospitals, dying; well.

Basically: Steve’s heart twists thinking this helplessness, if maybe not the degree of sheer heartbreak, is what Bucky had to endure all the goddamn time with Steve, for most of the time they’ve shared together. Steve’s heart twists with the knowledge that, if their roles had been reversed, he’s not sure he could have stood it. It would’ve broken him straight in two, he’s sure of it, and Steve didn’t think he could know the strength of Bucky Barnes any clearer in his mind than he already did, but now—hell.

Steve didn’t think he could love Bucky Barnes any more than he already did, thought his heart was too far-stretched already, but no. No, because here, now.

Here, he loves and knows that strength with such new depth, and it will kill him one day, he knows that deep in his bones, but fuck if it won’t be a better death than Steve’s ever earned.

He finds that he’d been stroking the linens next to Bucky hand, just outside touching, and his breath catches.

Bucky used to touch his hand, hold it steady in the hospitals, in the winter, in the summer: in their bed together, wholly innocent and so protective, Bucky used to hold his hand.

Steve lets himself touch, if not yet hold: Bucky is his Bucky, but things are different. They’re different. Steve doesn’t want to make leaps where he might fall in the middle anymore. Leaps where he’ll lose what matters when the other side proves too far, can’t reach to catch.

“I,” the word comes out like sandpaper; Steve clears his throat and tries again.

“I hope you’re doing okay. That you’re,” and Steve draws circles around the knuckle of Bucky’s pinky finger to steady himself: regroup as he breathes in deep and finds the scent in the air that’s Bucky, just Bucky: the same across so much.

“I mean, I know it’s gotta be harder than I can even imagine, but you’re so strong and so fuckin’ brave and I’m so proud of you,” Steve says in a rush, voice low but his heart so entrenched in it that if he doesn’t say it quick that heart might give out.

He waits for it to settle into the words again, though, before he whispers it:

“So fucking proud, Buck. Always have been.”

He studies the way Bucky’s hair curls around his ears, fans out around him further: glossy, now. Silken. Begging for touch in a way that moves, that reaches in the bounding of Steve’s pulse where his hands can’t go.

“There’s so much I want to say, y’know?” Steve fills the wanting in his limbs with the wanting in his soul, and he should have thought about that one first, really. Because that’s a hell of a poor exchange. One was clumsy, the other was…

Unbearable. Unstoppable. Undying and all-consuming and unspeakable because Steve thinks he might burn with the ferocity of it if he tried to give it voice.

“I don’t know if I even know the words for it all, for any of it, even,” Steve admits, like a confession and a failing all at once as he scoffs at himself for it, whichever one is most true. “You know how bad I am at this stuff.”

Steve pauses, that twist in his chest strangling him this time, harder and more violent than before:

“I hope you still know,” because fuck. Fuck, but what can Steve even hope for, other than for Bucky’s eyes to open? Anything more than that is just, just—

“Please.” Anything more than that is selfish, foolish, damning; that’s what it is.

“Please, even if you don’t know, or can’t remember, just,” Steve finds that the gasp of the words sounds like begging, but it’s so far away under the heavy thump of his pulse. “Just come back when you’re done, okay? However long it takes,” he reaches, again, and brushes Bucky’s hair behind his ear, gently and softly so that if it’s not welcome it wouldn’t be noticed too much but if it is welcome, if it ever could be, then—

“And whatever else you need, after,” Steve murmurs; “to heal, to,” and Steve fumbles, his gasp more rooted down at its foundation in a sob, now, as he goes back to Bucky’s hand and lays his own over it, palm covering it as best he can, so close to the same size it nearly fits perfect.

“This.”

And Steve breathes. And his hand is close enough to feel Bucky’s stately pulse at the wrist, a North Star where Steve’s own shivers, barely managing its job because he’s close enough that his exhales move Bucky’s hair, and his hand is on Bucky’s hand.

“I know, I,” Steve swallows hard. “I do know the words, Bucky, these words, but I don’t have a clue how to say them.”

He doesn’t think before he bends, before he presses his brow against Bucky’s and closes his eyes and revels in sharing Bucky’s breath, so goddamn innocent and still everything

“I’m just gonna hope like hell you understand what I can’t say,” Steve murmurs, as his bowed head slips down toward Bucky’s neck, defeated and needy and lost as he just-shy-of gasps into Bucky’s shoulder:

“I'm gonna hope that maybe you always understood the thing I could never fucking say.”

Steve realizes that the boundaries he’d been trying to keep are ones his heart’s gone and broken while it was being reckless and needy; he starts at the way he finds himself having slid lower, now, leaned up against Bucky’s chest so he can feel his breath and hear the beating of his blood.

And Steve shoots up like death and destruction are coming for him for the last time, now, and maybe they are, maybe he’s—

“I’m sorry,” he stammers, and feels himself blanch with it, tremble with it. “I hope you don’t mind,” he makes himself breathe slower, calm as Bucky does nothing, just goes on inhaling and exhaling unperturbed, an imaginary quirk of his lips telegraphing ease and Steve pretends in his head that it means he’s okay. They’re okay.

It’s okay.

“It’s just, you used to, and I,” Steve fumbles with the words, shaking his head as cold nights and hot days and two boys curled together or two men strong enough to feel breath and blood through uniforms in the snow all trip through his mind, because yeah.

We used to.”

And Steve doesn’t even know what he feels. How he feels, just then, with those memories and this moment here and now. His heart’s just pounding and he’s dizzy for it, and he wonders when the hell he grew so selfish, how the hell he got this far alone with half a self; what in the hell he’s going to do, how in the hell he’s going to survive whatever comes: Steve wonders, and knows there’s only one world, one thing that can come in the end to answer any of it.

“Just come back, okay?” Steve exhales, shaky like it can’t hold all the questions, let alone all the certainties and their desperate weight.

“Just come back and we,” and the gasp isn’t rooted in a sob anymore; it’s a sob outright, and the sting in Steve’s eyes is too much to bear, and more than he even wants to fight.

“We used to make each other whole, or, ” Steve stops at that, sudden, because he’s always hoped, and maybe he didn’t understand just how much, or for what reasons, what kind of hope it had been, but goddamnit, it had always been a hope that whatever Steve was feeling it wasn’t one-sided; wherever Steve was going, it wasn’t alone.

But it was only ever hope. And Steve is still the coward who never tried, could never bear to learn otherwise.

“You always made me whole,” Steve settles with, because that’s the god’s honest truth to end all truths, save the one that he can’t say; or maybe not, maybe they go together, part of a whole in themselves; maybe saying this much will get him closer, give him courage. “That’s why when you were gone I was just, doing. Never being. Some shell that stood and moved, and I...”

Steve’s breath runs out and he lets it, lets his eyes linger on Bucky’s face in the quiet, and lets his heart beat to the rhythm between Bucky’s breaths like home.

“You made up the important parts, all the parts that mattered at all and I,” Steve inhales, and shakes loose the way they matched, those precious moments where they existed in tandem without trying: as it should be.

“I should have known it clear as day before that train but I,” Steve chokes on whatever words were coming, and the stinging in his eyes is too damned much to deny, and he swipes a hand across his face just to smear the tears salty into his open mouth as he breathes heavy, because of the memories, before and after and since and everything they’ve meant, and all that Steve’s lost but more—all that Steve could still lose, and lets himself stand in the position to do so.

“Come back,” Steve says, broke open and flayed wide; beginning. “Come back and maybe, if you want,” Steve shakes his head; no, not just if Bucky wants, more if Steve’s brave enough to ask, to try:

“Maybe we can make each other whole again. Better than we ever did before, because we’ll mean it. We’ll plan to, instead of finding it by accident, and we’ll know it.”

Steve deflates with the meaning in those words, and again, as ever: so much futile but blinding hope.

“And maybe if I’m whole,” Steve adds softly, laying his hand gently on Bucky’s chest again; “maybe I’ll be able to do it.”

Bucky’s breathing doesn’t change, and his heart is a drumbeat, a metronome. Perfect precision, but with softness in it. Languid and gentle and sweet like a lullaby or a world to fall into and never climb out.

“Maybe if I’m whole,” Steve whispers, because he can’t fall in just yet, if ever; he can’t fall into that world and live in that beat, in that warmth without asking, without knowing it’s okay and that there’s someone living in the space in his chest too.

“Maybe if I’m whole and I’m half as brave as you for it,” Steve leans and presses a kiss next to his fingertips against Bucky’s nightshirt: stolen. Selfish.

The only air left in Steve’s lungs so he can promise, closest that he can:

“Maybe I’ll have the courage to finally say the goddamn words.”

Chapter Text

“Captain Rogers.”

Steve’s not even off the ramp yet when the voice reaches him. He slows down at the sound—it's been too long, trying to get Scott settled while staying off the grid, trying to figure out where Clint had already gone off the grid, swarmed by the guilt all of it entailed to distract from the pull in his chest toward here; he slows, because it's been too long, and he'd damn well been tripping over his own two feet to get to Bucky's bedside, just to see him.

Hear him breathe.

So he pauses a little, and squints against the sun to see the Royal Guard awaiting him, and—upon glancing around—finds them standing without either T’Challa or Shuri among them.

Steve feels suddenly just a little bit intimidated.

“You’ve been requested.”

Steve swallows when the soldier at the front addresses him, and okay. Maybe more than a little intimidated.

“Can I ask by who?” Steve ventures, because if it had been either T’Chala or Shuri, no doubt they’d be the ones here, and yet—

“The General would like a word.”

Oh wow. Steve didn’t think rank alone could rattle him anymore. It shouldn’t. It doesn’t.

The lead guard turns in anticipation that Steve will follow without further question and it shouldn’t rattle him.

But it kind of does.

_________________

 

“Captain.” The General nods and returns the salute of the soldier that escorted Steve, then begins to consider Steve himself, sweeps her gaze up and down with the force of her full attention and Steve has known a number of powerful, intimidating women in his life, but this one.

This woman is fierce in a wholly new way, and it makes Steve stand just a little straighter without even thinking on it.

“General,” Steve says without any trace of the practiced respect he’d had etched into him in boot camp, on tour; it’s not needed here. Being in this room, that alone: there’s no need for anything practiced or rote.

She nods to him, considering and maybe a little approving, though only a little; and Steve knows he’s likely biased, not to mention hopeful, but it’s with a bit of relief that he takes the seat she waves him toward.

“I need for you to answer a few very critical questions,” she tells him seriously before taking a seat herself across from him.

“I’ll do whatever what I can,” Steve tells her honestly, and there’s a hint of a curve to her lips, and Steve feels like he’s pleased his fifth-grade teacher: proud almost, even as the General sighs, steepling her hands before she speaks again.

“It has come to my attention that the Wolf is being,” she pauses, her small smile flipping to a deep frown; “informally inducted into our intelligence corps.”

Steve tries to follow the point being made, particularly where he comes in. It’s not that he knows much about wolves, but intelligence, he’s good at strategy, sure, but he can’t imagine he’d be better than anything this woman has ready access to in her own resources, or hell, even just herself.

“Regardless of my approval or disapproval,” she continues with a sigh, and an eyeroll that’s visible beneath her eyelids for the force of the expression; “there my remit is only so broad when the concerns do not significantly overlap with those of security or of the Royal Guard.”

Her gaze floats a bit toward the window as she murmurs disapprovingly:

“Which one may think would be the case by default where the Royal Family is involved, and yet…”

Another sigh, and she’s focused back on Steve.

“Regardless,” she concedes; “I suspect it won’t just be knowledge they eventually intend to share, once he is fully recovered, and then it will be my concern directly.” Her eyes narrow as her posture gains new purpose.

“I pride myself on knowing the trajectory of the chips before they fall,” she tells Steve seriously. “And in this particular case, I have collected all of the pertinent information, save what only you can provide, and so.” She gestures broadly to him: “Here you sit.”

Steve runs back through the words spoken, and again; he feels like he’s going to disappoint his favorite grade school teacher. Again.

And this time not because he punched Frank Harris in the face.

“Ma’am, I honestly have no idea what you’re talking about.”

She blinks at him, then frowns.

Yep, disappointment. Steve tries not to show how much he shrinks inside for the feeling.

“You’ve stood beside him in battle,” she counters, and powerfully—and Steve’s wracking his brain on this, he really really is; “You’ve fought with and for him,” and maybe T’Challa, maybe fighting against rather than beside, but then why would she be talking about T’Challa when more people here can claim the beside part properly, plus he’s a king so doesn’t he already know his own intelligence services, not to mention that panthers aren’t wolves

“Saved him, been saved by him,” Steve wouldn’t go that far, particularly given the whole fighting at odds thing the last time they’d stood on the battleground. “There are crucial elements of his personhood where the records we have recovered stand overturned, given recent interventions. And you can speak to the truths of the matter to an extent and with detail that even our methods cannot replicate.”

Steve’s face must speak for him because she huffs impatiently and speaks slowly so that he can grasp her request when she continues on:

“The White Wolf,” she says clearly, as if that means a damned thing to Steve. “Sergeant Barnes.”

Steve feels the air leave the room and the blood stop still when his heart freezes mid-beat.

Because that does mean a damned thing. That means every damned thing Steve could ever need or want or hope to know.

“Sergeant…” Steve repeats in a bit of a haze as the blood starts rushing, leaving him lightheaded as he tries to make sense of the things asked of him, and why, when none of them really matter one goddamned bit if, if

“Was that not something you called him?” the General’s face softens a little before she shakes the moment off and dives back in. “Regardless, your insight is singular regarding—”

“Wait.”

She straightens, and Steve knows he’s probably breaking all sorts of protocol and niceties and definitely all general points of respect, both military and interpersonal at large, but to be honest? He doesn’t give a damn. Because in replaying the conversation and its implications the best he’s able over the now-thunderous skipping of his pulse, there’s one undeniable part of the story that trumps everything else:

“Bucky’s awake?”

Chapter Text

Steve is entranced. He’s goddamn mesmerized.

Because there, in the valley sprawling before him, is Shuri in front of a large metal contraption that she’s considering with mild disdain, and T’Challa, who’s hiding the amusement clear in his posture behind a hand over his mouth, and then there’s the thing that’s truly enraptured him, both a vision and a voice, because the man with them, simple cargo pants and sling-wrapped shirt, is the most perfect thing Steve’s ever seen and the sound, the sound ringing through the plains and trees, rebounding and echoing and surrounding Steve in the kind of heart-stopping, soul-lifting music that can save lives and change worlds—

It’s Bucky, and his head’s thrown back, and his hand’s splayed on his chest, and he’s goddamn shaking with full-bodied, breath-catching, unmistakable laughter.

Laughter.

Steve doesn’t even realize he’s crossed most of the way to him, to them, until they turn; the sound, the sight—but then, he couldn’t stay away if he tried.

And he doesn’t even think of trying.

“Steve.”

And it’s that glorious voice, Bucky’s voice, still breathless with laughter but breathless and then some; Steve doesn’t know whether to feel concern for it, or hope.

“I, it’s,” Bucky stumbles a bit over his words, swallowing hard enough for Steve to follow it down his throat, which is easy enough because Steve is staring, blatantly, and drinking in every inch of Bucky there is, without any goddamn shame.

“It’s good to see you,” Bucky finally gets out, but doesn’t move at all; “How ya been?”

And Steve's not sure, in that instant, what to do. Because all he wants to do is move, is reach, is hold and ask and be fucking brave this time, because he said he’d try, and there’s a miracle standing in front of him and how many times, how many miracles is Steve going to watch pass him by?

“Bucky?”

It’s T’Challa who breaks the silence, charged so strong it’s almost dangerous, with a soft clearing of the throat.

“We will give you a moment,” he says, and nods to Shuri as they both walk toward the edge of the clearing and out of sight, though Steve doesn’t notice when they are—out of sight, that is—because all he can see, all he can know is Bucky.

The silence between them reaches fever pitch, and Steve’s already buzzing, reeling, aching, so it’s Bucky that speaks first.

“Steve,” he says, soft but firm and his voice is a balm and an impetus and Steve, Steve thinks he could be brave this time, one day, maybe soon, so long as he has that voice as a guide. “I—”

“I love you.”

It’s out of Steve’s mouth before he can stop it, and fuck. He did not mean that soon.

And the look on Bucky’s face, frozen still with mouth half open around whatever words he was going to say next—not those ones, fucking hell Rogers—makes it very clear that it should not have been that soon, at all. Maybe it should have been never.

“Umm,” Steve fumbles, his heart starting to catch up to what he’s done as it pounds and catches up in his breath, in his voice. “I didn’t,” he trips, shaking his head and taking a step back because there’s a fight-or-flight response in everyone, and he’s no different, no matter what they marketed him as all these years.

“Look, I,” he swallows hard enough that it feels like the motion changes the course of his pulse; or maybe that’s the other way around, maybe it’s the pulse that harder; “Buck, I’m—”

And Steve looks, really looks, because he’s always looked to Bucky to guide him, to catch him when he fell and maybe he’s been finding ledges and walls to steady in the meantime but it’s only ever enough to keep from stumbling, really, and now there’s Bucky, and Steve can’t help it: he looks to Bucky for which way to turn, where first to step, how to fix what he’s gotten himself into, because Bucky always pulled him out, saved his ass.

But this

Steve’s watching Bucky, though, desperate, and Bucky hasn’t moved, hasn’t shifted, but there’s something in his eyes. Something that Steve doesn’t know, and that makes Steve reckless because maybe that’s Steve’s biggest fear, now that losing Bucky and never having Bucky back are taken care of; off the table. Maybe Steve’s biggest fear is what he doesn’t know about Bucky anymore, the things he’d started to notice in the war, and definitely notices now, and Steve’s never been one for fear, save for this one thing, this one thing with the one person he’s never had to fear, even at their worst.

And he’s dug himself a hole, no getting around that. But whatever’s in Bucky’s eyes, the thing he doesn’t recognize and can’t figure out?

That thing makes Steve brave.

“I didn’t mean for it to happen, like,” Steve swallows, and it’s still hard, but less so; “that.”

Bucky unfreezes in little bits, like a thaw, and it shivers Steve to the bone to imagine it in completely different contexts, not under the sun and safe and sure like they are now; but those imaginary places don’t have Bucky tilting his head and narrowing his eyes almost in concern as he takes the step forward from where Steve had stepped back, putting them on even ground once more as he asks:

“Steve?”

And Steve’s a man of extremes, god help him, always has been. Doesn’t know when to quit. And whatever sparked the words from him first? That thing takes over again, and makes him slice his heart straight open and let it bleed forth, whatever may come.

“I didn’t mean for it to happen like that,” Steve says in a rush; “but I mean it. I mean it so much, Buck, I can barely stand it and I couldn’t keep it in, not again. I just couldn’t wait and lose and just, risk it, risk you, no matter what, and I, if you, I’ll understand—”

“Steve.”

And that voice halts him dead in his tracks, because that tone. That tone, he knows. That tone is warm, and fond, and open; that tone is familiar, and maybe it’s always been there, and Steve always knew it meant love, and so here, here maybe it means a different kind, or maybe it always did, and—

“Nobody else gets to see this, do they?” Bucky’s suddenly very close; Steve can feel the softness of his breath as he murmurs, can feel the brush of his chest when he breathes. “Steve Rogers, flustered,” Bucky reaches out, and tucks a stray piece of hair behind Steve’s ear. “Screwing up his courage while he’s shaking on the inside.”

He watches Steve closely, so close, and Steve doesn’t move a muscle, and still Bucky finds his way to the only one Steve can’t control, not here and not like this, sliding his palm to the center of Steve’s chest and leaning in to speak just alongside his cheek:

“Is it because you don’t let them, or because they can’t read the signs?”

Goddamn, but Steve shivers.

“It’s because I don’t get that way when the problem’s on the outside,” Steve says softly, so unsure of himself, but so very, very sure of Bucky; “on the inside,” he dips his head, sheepish, because on the inside, he only gets that way around one person, and that person’s only just come back to him, and maybe, god, somehow seemingly could feel the same.

“Never were smooth when it came to matters of the heart, were you?”

Bucky’s smirk is full of light, though, and his choice of words is like an invitation, and Steve’s brave now, because of Bucky.

He was always brave because of Bucky.

“Shut up, jerk,” he volleys, and Bucky’s grin grows wider.

“Make me, punk.”

And Steve leans in, close enough so their noses touch but far enough that Bucky can still back out, even if Steve’s trembling makes their upper lips touch ever-so-slightly, ever so often.

“Oh, wow,” Bucky says, and Steve thinks watching Bucky’s eyes dilate like that might be the most amazing thing in the world. “Getting smoother,” Bucky tilts his head and meets Steve’s eyes one more time: “I like it.”

And Bucky could still back out.

He doesn’t, though; he leans in.

__________

While Steve’s no virgin, it’s not like he’s not well worn-in, exactly, and he’s certainly not had the chance or the desire to change that any time in the recent past.

But either way: Steve always knew whatever he felt in bed with another person would pale to what he really wanted, and he always knew that whatever he could give to anyone else would be a cheap facade of what he held close in his chest for just one other soul in the history of the world. Nat was always setting him up, but somehow he couldn’t make her see it was a fool’s errand, and he wasn’t brave enough, then, to explain to her why.

He’d been right, though. Everything in the goddamn world pales in comparison to this.

They’d kissed every inch of skin between them on a bed near the ground that should not have been so soft, so forgiving of their combined weight; Steve had sucked Bucky just for the taste, once, and another time just for the pleasure; Bucky’d rode Steve hard, balanced with his right hand digging bruises into Steve’s shoulder so sweet Steve could have, might have sobbed for it; Bucky’d taken Steve deep with his hand balanced at the very center of Steve’s torso, expertly as his hips did all the work in the world and Steve fell apart for it in more ways than he knew were possible.

They slept twined together, after, and Steve would have been afraid to close his eyes, lest it all turn out to have been a dream, except he’d curled up pillowed on Bucky’s chest and listened to his heartbeat and the way his breathing evened out and that couldn’t be a dream. It just couldn’t.

He comes awake to the light touch of fingers playing in his hair and fuck it: he goddamn purrs.

Bucky laughs underneath him, and keeps carding fingers against Steve’s scalp for long moments before he breathes out:

“Me too.”

“Hmm?” Steve turns a little; curious but not curious enough just yet to move too much and forsake the touch.

“Me too,” Bucky says, and he takes the touch away, laughing at Steve’s involuntary whine, only to cup Steve’s jaw and turn his face up to meet Bucky’s eyes when he says:

“I love you, too.”

And Steve can hardly breathe.

“Got something on my face, Rogers?” Bucky says eventually, still smiling, and that’s why Steve’s brave because of Bucky, because Bucky was always braver—there’s no question for the way Steve’s quiet, staring, just that look that Steve knew, and now knows, means love.

“Just,” Steve chokes out, clearing his throat and sitting up to takes Bucky’s face between his palms and kiss him soundly: “that’s the best thing I’ve heard in my whole life.”

“Well, then,” Bucky smiles softly, and peppers kisses to Steve’s cheekbones, his lashes, his cupid’s bow between words as he lavishes them:

“I love you, Steven Grant Rogers,” his own hand coming up to cup Steve’s jaw, thumbs stoking the lines. “And I have loved you, for I don’t even know how long.”

And Steve melts with that, burns with that, and grabs Bucky’s right hand in his own and draws him in so that he can kiss him, so that Bucky’s tongue can trace his lips, and they can fall into each other just to learn a little more about the ridges of teeth and the savour of skin.

“How many years did we miss out on?” Steve finally asks when they part for breath, half wondering, half lamenting.

“Doesn’t matter,” Bucky catches him, and turns him fully back toward wonder: “we won’t miss out on any more.”

Chapter Text

As Steve descends from the jet, his grin could rival the sun, he’s certain of it of it, and it’s all Bucky’s doing.

“Stevie,” Bucky smirks at him crookedly, waiting on the tarmac; “how ya been?”

And goddamn that man, he’s being snarky.

“That’s a thing, now?” Steve challenges, but he can’t stop smiling, so it’s mostly moot.

“I like it,” Bucky shrugs. “It’s true. It’s us.”

And that little smirk remains, and Steve could live off that smirk, and the sparkle in those eyes; he could live the rest of his life on those alone and yet he knows he gets more.

Beyond all possible hope, he gets it all.

It still feels unreal.

So Steve reaches bringing Bucky’s willing frame to his and wrapping an arm around his shoulders to pull him in and capture his lips like it’s the most natural thing, which it is; like it’s brand new, and that’s true: like it’s inevitable, and what they’ve always been meant for, and that.

That’s the only thing pounding through Steve’s veins, that single point of real, unshakable knowing, as he pulls back, breathless, to see that Bucky knows how to smile to outshine the sun, too.

”Well then,” Bucky exhales, pressing an open palm, steadying as he marvel, teases, relishes the same way Steve is, he knows.

“Good to see you, too, Buck,” Steve leans in again to say it against Bucky’s lips, and Bucky was right.

It is them, through and through.
__________

Steve never tires of this; doesn’t think he ever could. They’d spent weeks, months learning each other after a fucking lifetime of wasting time at arms-length, just there within reach and yet never reached for, and lost irreparably when he’d tried and failed—but oh. Oh, what if the world could change and a heart could heal and death itself could be reversed, and what Steve thought could never be fixed was stitched together with every breath and touch, every kiss and palm braced for balance on a chest as they came apart only for each other.

Only with each other.

And he’ll never grow tired of the feeling of being put back together by James Buchanan Barnes.

They fucked hard, this time, and Steve’s learned that he loves it like that—loves being moved by Bucky’s strength and filled with Bucky’s heat, cradled at the hips by a strong grip pressing bruises into flesh and straining the superhuman stamina they’re both equipped with to its limits so that Steve feels honest to god exhausted, so that he’s genuinely breathless and gasping and his heart’s pounding against his ribs fit to crack: it’s liberating. It’s life-giving. It’s perfection.

It’s them.

But no matter how they make love—because sue him, Steve thinks of it in those terms every time, every single fucking time because that’s what it goddamn is—they end up next to each other after, sprawled atop or curled around or waiting for the next round with breathy laughter as they come down and god, Steve never dreamed of having this. Steve never fucking dared.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?”

Steve’s shaken softly from his thoughts by the low rumble of Bucky words against his ear, where Steve’s propped against Bucky’s chest, settled soft and pliant between Bucky’s legs, strong thighs framing him and making Steve feel so at least, so goddamn safe in a way Steve never realized he wanted, could let himself have, could need until they’d lain together after those first times, in those early days that felt like pure newness and well-loved familiarity all at once. He leans his head back all the way to catch Bucky eyes, trained down on him with a smile in them that’s only echoed gently on his lips but that’s more than what Steve needs, because those eyes speak the whole goddamn world.

And the world, beyond all reason: the world, here and now, after so very very long, is bright.

Bucky dips his chin down and reaches the space between Steve’s eyes to drop a kiss before he nudges the side of Steve head up straight: Steve doesn't miss that Bucky’d been looking at him when he’d made the comment, but just the same: he doesn’t miss the stunning surise peaking up out the window of what they’d both worked to build into a proper little cabin, from Bucky’s one-man tent before—just for them.

It would be breathtaking, the view, if Steve didn’t know what the real definition of that word was, and if he wasn’t lying in the hold of that singular definition, here and now.

“Think you’d stay here?” Bucky asks, lips at Steve’s ear to draw a shiver, but it’s a question that’s pitched lightly, flat in tone and intended to mask whatever emotion that lives beneath. “Like, except when the world’s crashing down.”

Steve’s still pressed against Bucky’s chest though, and there’s nothing in his pulse or breath that gives away what he’s thinking, feeling: except for the fact that Steve’s a quick learned when it matters, and he’s spent more than four months buried in Bucky’s entire being, memorizing every single facet he could find and the stillness, the way it’s so measured and so precise: protective. Anticipatory.

Nervous.

Steve leans and presses lips to the centre of Bucky’s chest.

“I stay here already, when they world’s not crashing down,” Steve punctuates the truth of it with a nip to Bucky’s collarbone, just as far as he can reach without dislodging from the comfortable embrace he’s luxuriating in. He’d only been gone this time because they’d caught Lang and he’d cut a deal, and Steve needed to check in and make sure everything was in the clear, particularly with Clint in the wind and no way to make sure to check in on him. Steve’d been gone a whole of a week, at most, but it’d felt like a lifetime, had left Steve waking up in a sweat that squeezed his chest unforgivingly every time the old familiar nightmares had surged back to life from wherever they’d been lying in wait from all those nights with Bucky, where they’d been eased into submission, quietened by the subject of their terror lying safe and warm, pressed against him: proof.

Those days alone, though; they’d hit hard, and Steve hadn’t realized just how hard until his heart had unclenched the moment he’d seen Bucky waiting for him to land.

What a question, then, with all that in mind: would he stay

“But if what you’re asking is if I’d stay here for always, like, if it’s where I’d want to call home?”

Bucky’s still, again: scared, or else, as scared as he can be these days, and Steve’s pretty sure that he’s the only once Bucky gets scared for, really, and he’s not sure the word for the thing that does to his stomach, the sensation in causes in his bones.

“Would you?” Steve turns the question on Bucky, mostly to set up making the only relevant point there is to make in all the world.

“Already do, don’t I?” Bucky huffs; “But in the future, you know.” He exhales slowly and traces idle circles against Steve’s side. “If they’d let me, probably.”

Bucky stretches a little, but makes sure Steve stays balanced on his chest just so; so it’s Steve and Steve alone who turns, and starts kissing up Bucky chest, stealing the breath from the lungs underneath him as he nips up toward Bucky’s throat.

“Then, if they’d let me,” Steve presses the words against Bucky’s jaw: “probably.”

Bucky shivers, and looks down at Steve like he’s trying to read the world in the set of his face, but Steve’ expression’s wide open, and he’s not in the business of causing his lover any more distress, demanding any further effort from him that doesn’t end in pleasure: not now. Not ever.

“You gotta know that home’s where you are,” Steve slides an open hand up Bucky’s bare chest; “you know that, don’t you?”

Bucky swallows visibly, mouth parted just so, eyes unblinking as he studies Steve’s face.

“I do,” he says, just a little raspy before breaking eye contact; almost shy with it. “Just sometimes I need to hear it, to make sure, you know?” He smiles ruefully, maybe a little embarrassed, which is absurd: there’s nothing left to hide between them. Nothing left unrevealed or unoffered. They’re stripped bare before each other, flayed raw only to be soothed by the touch of the other, the breath, the heat.

The very existence of one another in this world.

“I’ll tell you,” Steve promises, vows to the pulse between Bucky’s clavicles. “Every goddamn day, if you need it,” he glances up from under eyelashes, just like he knows Bucky likes; “or want it.”

“I want it,” Bucky says, cupping Steve’s jaw and stroking the strong line. “But right now?”

“Please be a fucking cliche and say you want ‘something else’, right now?” Steve isn’t too proud to admit he’s begging, just a bit, and he’s definitely not too proud to admit the damn-near feral grin that spreads across Bucky’s face before he flips them just with the strength of those goddamn thighs doesn’t go straight to Steve’s groin.

“Oh, sweetheart,” and another thing Steve’s not too proud to admit it the keening moan that escapes him when Bucky’s grinds down on Steve’s growing arousal without mercy as he speaks straight against Steve’s ear, breath hot and heavy as his full weight carefully settles from chest to knees against Steve’s body:

“I am the most cliched bastard in the whole wide world.”

Chapter Text

After staying another four months at Bucky’s side before the rest of the world came barging in, Steve was adamant that three days away was his limit.

He’d been wrong, in the end—that was far too long to ask of himself, of his soul.

So takes the meeting with a contact of Natasha’s in Bratislava—supposedly with intel on the legal dealings Scott and Clint had gone through, and what it meant for himself and the rest, still in hiding, under the Accords—and makes it back in under 48 hours.

He misses quite a bit, even so.

Bucky’s not waiting for him, and he’s not at their cabin, either; it’s Shuri who meets him and escorts him to what Steve knows are Bucky’s quarters in the palace, though he’s only seen them a handful of times. Steve crosses over to him and kisses him deeply, and Bucky meets him with equal enthusiasm.

“Miss me, Rogers?” Bucky asks cheekily, but he’s got an arm hooked around Steve’s neck like it’s the best place in the world he could possibly be, the most comfortable he could ever feel in his life, and Steve agrees wholeheartedly.

“What do you think?” Steve asks, an open book with adoration in his eyes that’s tangible enough for Steve to feel radiating off of himself, strong enough that Bucky has to feel it too. And Steve knows it in the way Bucky softens at his touch and leans in to kiss him again.

“Come here,” Bucky says, pulling away so that the shape of his lips around the words ghost against Steve’s mouth on the retreat. “Wanna show you something.”

He leads Steve to an impossibly ornate table with a long case sitting atop it. Bucky stares at it for a split-second longer than necessary before he flips it open and reveals what it holds.

“It’s for,” Bucky starts; “I mean,” he bites his lip and tilts his head.

It’s beautiful, is what it is. A stunning, shining black limb with nearly invisible articulation at the plating, save for the subtle glow of violet.

“I think I kinda like it?” Bucky says softly, running fingers across the smooth surface. “Almost like it’s supposed to be, like I’d have, if,” he trips a little, swallows audibly, and Steve hears what he doesn’t say: it’s like if I’d come back from the war and the technology was there, and Howard would have made it there, for him, the best Howard could have. It’s like it could have been, had everything been different.

Steve leans in and presses lips just behind Bucky’s ear; Bucky leans back into Steve’s body and sighs, tension bleeding from him, and Steve can’t think of a better word for the moment than just grateful.

“And it keeps it close, reminds me,” Bucky tilts his head, eyes closed, against Steve’s shoulder; “of the parts I need to hold on to.”

And Steve knows a little about that; from his own journey and what Bucky’s shared. Steve’s seen therapists for clearance with S.H.I.E.L.D., not that it’s borne any fruit, but in Wakanda he’s met with a doctor more than a few times when Bucky has meetings with Shuri about his own recovery, or appointments with the division heads he supports in some of the outreach programs and whatnot—and Steve learns a little, even in those early, every-so-often sessions, about gratitude for what is, versus regret for what isn’t.

It’s still an open wound, but it’s closing over; Bucky’s put in more work for it, though, for far deeper injuries, and Steve learns from him, too.

“And we’re lucky, you know?” Bucky muses, eyes still shut. “When you’re like us, it’s not even hard without it, really, and so many people, they come back and it’s just...” And Steve knows that, grieves that. The people who have suffered different, but suffer more for these things, these essential needs they’ve more than earned in defense of their country, and it makes him angry, and it makes him sad, and he admits to putting it out of his mind too often in the face of everything else, alien invasions and best friends back from the dead, the love of his life in his arms, but that doesn’t make it any less of a travesty. Two people in the world have the kind of strength, the kind of privilege to exist without a fucking limb as a mere inconvenience; the rest deserve better.

Though for Bucky, it’s different. And Steve doesn’t want Bucky minimizing that: the fact that an arm for him means so much more, holds and carries so much more of the ghosts and the demons and the pain, and all that he’s done to overcome them. It’s not simple function, or anatomy. It’s a part of who he is, the story he’s lived, what he was forcibly made into without knowledge or consent or the ability to refuse and what he gave up and overcame to be here.

And grateful, again, is the only word Steve can come up with.

“I wouldn’t wear it all the time,” Bucky picks up, like he needs to explain, or worse, somehow apologize to Steve for whatever he chooses, whatever he’s come to decide. “But sometimes, you know. So we could...”

“Bucky,” Steve wraps arms around him from behind and kisses his neck. “I don’t care if you have it on off, if you want to keep it or give it back. I don’t care.” He sucks a careful, perfect circle of a bruise against Bucky’s pulsepoint at the throat until Bucky moans just a little, deep enough that Steve can feel the rumble beneath his hands.

“I care that you’re comfortable, and that you’re as close to happy as you can possibly get, as often as you can possibly be.”

Bucky turns in Steve’s grasp and links arms around his neck

“I love you,” Steve says, most serious and true thing in the world. “And the fact that I can touch you, and feel you, and be here with you,” he shakes his head, filled still with wonder at it. “This is so much more than I ever dared to dream of having, so much more than I deserve—”

“You do that on purpose.”

Steve frowns. “I do what on purpose?”

“You tell lies about yourself so I’ll stop feeling bad,” Bucky catches Steve lower lip between his teeth, as if it’s a punishment when it’s anything but. “You deserve the world.”

“Then you deserve to be happy,” Steve counterse; “whatever that looks like, whatever that means.”

“You,” Bucky says simply; honest. “Looks like you.”

And Steve can’t help but capture his lips full-on with words like those. He can’t.

“Then that’s that,” he grins against Bucky lips when they part, and Bucky grins back, kissing his smile one more time for punctuation.

“That’s that.”

Bucky pulls away just enough to turn back to the arm lying in the case before them.

“Help me put it on?” he asks, and Steve eyes it just a tiny bit warily. He’s not sure he can be trusted with tech that advanced, certainly not if handling it wrong could mean hurting Bucky the slightest bit—

“I—”

“It’s not hard, promise,” Bucky smiles at him, pulling his shirt off to reveal the unbandaged socket at his upper arm. “And it’s technically a prototype, though that kind of means something entirely different here than it does anywhere else, so you know,” Bucky shrugs; “But I’ve got to test it out so they can make adjustments or work out a new version.”

Well, Steve thinks. If it’s to help.

And it is easy, insanely so: the tech attaches almost like a magnet, reaching and hooking in and calibrating as soon as it’s in proximity; Steve really doesn’t see why he ever needed to help, to be honest.

“Door closed?” Bucky asks, just as soon as Steve’s satisfied with a quick check ot make sure the connection is seamless.

“Yeah—”

And then Bucky’s spinning them, two palms on Steve’s shoulders and the full strength of both arms slamming Steve against the nearest wall and Steve stumbles back a bit, not expecting it, but he knows his eyes are wide, pupils blown as Bucky takes his hands and skims them down Steve’s sides before he grips Steve’s thighs and lifts him off the ground, Steve instinctively wrapping legs around Bucky middle as Bucky’s grin turns wild and he pulls them closer, flush together as they both get hard between breaths.

“Been wanting to do this since ‘35, punk,” Bucky growls against the corner of Steve’s mouth. “Good goddamn, but you’re beautiful.”

And Steve uses the wall as leverage to grind against Bucky’s length, and Bucky groans as he holds Steve with one hand and wrestles his fly down with the other, and oh, yes.

Steve’s really glad Bucky asked him to help with that arm.

Chapter Text

“You are doing that all wrong.”

Steve’s head snaps up from where it’s watching his shoe dig gently around the sprout of green hinting up out of the soil, trying to see if something’s growing underneath, because... that’s how it works, right? With some plants and stuff. Tubers?

But given Bucky's smirk as he leans against the door of the cabin, Steve thinks he might be wrong on that account.

“Oh, did I forget all the gardens in Brooklyn?” he flips back, as unabashed as he can muster in response. “Where, exactly, would I have learned to do it right?”

“Come on, smart ass,” Bucky grabs his arm and forcibly removes Steve from kicking, however, gingerly, at his crops—he’s protective of them, Steve realizes, and he thinks that’s fucking adorable.

“There’s stuff ready to harvest out back,” he tells Steve, once they’re a safe distance from the green shoots in the soil that Steve had posed a risk to. “Even you can’t fuck up picking things off a vine,” Bucky pauses, raises an eyebrow and frowns: “right?”

Steve’s eyes widen, and he smacks Bucky’s upper arm in retaliation, which just makes Bucky laugh.

“Such a jerk,” Steve says, but he can’t make it sound threatening, or even annoyed, because that laughter is the best thing in the whole world: Bucky’s joy, unleashed for Steve to bask in. It’s perfect, and Steve can’t regret being the cause of it, no matter how.

“Always,” Bucky winks, and Steve’ll give him that; he’s never denied he’s a jerk.

Steve’s always thought that self-awareness was actually part of his charm.

__________

“So,” Bucky leans in and teases Steve’s lower lip with a sweet burgundy-colored berry Steve’s never seen before, but thinks is delicious: probably only second to the taste of one Bucky Barnes himself. “How’s the world?”

Steve bites at the fruit, but Bucky pulls it away playfully, depriving him—grinning at Steve as he pouts.

“All seven days I was out in it, you mean?” Steve had been delayed, and was proud as fuck at the fact that he’d managed it, made it work when there wasn’t any choice and he’d had to spend all the time he should have been sleeping, even by serum-enhanced standards, on video calls with Bucky back in Wakanda, just to see his face and hear his voice and manage to get through the mission: Hydra files falling into the wrong hands that needed retrieved before they fell into worse hands, and Steve thinks it’s only something like that, something that involved Bucky, or could have involved Bucky, in some way, that would have pulled him away and kept him there. He’s become undeniably codependent, in Natasha’s estimation, and Steve won’t pretend otherwise: he loves every minute of it.

“Mmm,” Bucky hums, popping the berry into his mouth dramatically, eating it and then leaning in to kiss Steve, long and hard to share the flavor. “Too long.”

And there’s something that blossoms warm in Steve at the admission, at the same sentiment reflected back: Steve’s grown accustomed, and gorgeously so, to Bucky’s presence as a given, Bucky’s touch as something centering, Bucky’s voice as a balm and Bucky’s warmth against him in bed an endless comfort, his breath in sleep soothing like nothing else. And all he wanted, the whole time he’d been gone, was to be in their bed—their bed, against all odds and so much time and heartache, fucking theirs—head pillowed on Bucky’s chest, and feel cherished, protected. Loved beyond all measure.

“Sucks,” Steve finally answers the question asked, though it’s a reflection of the world as much as being out in it, without Bucky at his side: “as usual.”

“Captain America,” Bucky pauses his left hand midair—he’s testing a new prototype of the arm, striped with plating junctures around the circumference all the way down glowing in blue—where he’d been about to feed Steve another berry: feigning being appalled with such dramatics that Steve can barely keep a straight face. “I am simply shocked those words know how to come out of your mouth.”

Steve decides it’s best to just show rather than tell, and proves what his mouth is best at by sneaking a nip of a kiss against Bucky’s lower lip, and then stealing the fruit from his fingers, rolling it back on his tongue before sucking the juice from each individual finger, slow and painstaking, watching the expressions on Bucky’s face at the sensations that the new arm provides to match the swirl of Steve’s tongue and the hollowing suck of his cheeks up to the knuckles, then licking back down. He doesn’t stop until Bucky shivers with it, and then he lifts off with a pop so obscene that Bucky’s eyes darken for it. He could take it further, he knows, but he likes this; wants a little more of this easy, lazy perfection for a little while longer.

“Naw,” Steve sighs, leaning back to lie on the grass and Bucky mirrors him, sprawled on his side next to Steve and propped at the elbow, resting his chin on his palms. “Like, the Accords are one thing, but the world itself is just, shit,” Steve shakes his head and folds his arms behind it as a pillow, staring up at the clear sky. “Governments and politics and fucking fascism, Buck, like dictators and shit.” He sighs heavily; “Thought we left that behind.”

“You know what Miss Bernstein always said,” Bucky’s fingers enter Steve’s line of sight, feeding him more berries. “Those who don’t learn their history....”

“Are doomed to repeat it,” Steve tries and fails horribly at imitating her squawk, but neither of them care because they giggle like the schoolboys they were for the attempt. “But Buck, pretty sure she meant failing the class.”

Bucky shrugs. “Same difference.”

Steve sighs, and Bucky’s suddenly kneeling where his head’s resting, moving so silently as to escape even Steve’s hearing—he nudges Steve to sit up against the incline of his thighs and starts massaging the tension from Steve’s muscles, tightness Steve didn’t even realize was there until he feels it ebb away as he leans into the touch.

“T’Challa’s had me around doing some tactical work for the outreach programs,” Bucky speaks as he kneads Steve’s shoulder blades. “Refugee relief, mostly, things Nakia and Shuri don’t have enough time to be on top of,” and Steve feels a swell of pride in him at that, but it’s not a new thing: the thing he’s always been most proud of in his life was Bucky—Bucky with him, Bucky at his side, Bucky believing in him, Bucky being his friend, his confidant, his soulmate, his heart—

“I help some of the experts out, not like I’m short on time, y’know?” Bucky laughs to himself and moves to work on Steve’s neck, which elicits a fairly obscene moan. “It’s good work, but it’s hard, knowing that whatever we do won’t ever be enough.” He lets his thumbs dig that truth out of Steve’s bones and closer to the surface where it feel less heavy, where it burns just a little less fierce. “Way of the world.”

“It’s enough,” Steve says, because Bucky is enough, and everything he does follows suit.

“So’s your work,” Bucky returns the sentiment, all of it—Steve knows—and catches him red-handed in their favorite exchange; turning the truths they’d die by about each other back and forth, until they both have to concede belief in them for themselves.

“World still sucks,” Bucky declares, simply and stoic like the Earth is round and the sky is blue.

“Yeah,” Steve sighs into Bucky’s still-massaging hands and closes his eyes: “world sucks.”

So it’s a damn good thing they have this.

Chapter Text

It’s not that they hide, or that it’s a secret to anyone what they are to each other, how they are with each other.

But Bucky’s never greeted him on the landing pad with a kiss before, let alone one that tips him back a little, searing to the point where Steve’s lungs burn with the prolonged pleasure.

“Impatient, are we?” he pants, breathless, as soon as Bucky breaks away.

“Shut up,” Bucky growls, but there’s no bite to the words themselves, only to the general sentiment: shut up, so I can ravish you, punk. In public. With no restraint.

But rather than continue trying to tongue at Steve’s heart where it’s started pounding wildly in his throat, the fear and promise of being seen like this stoking something hot and unexpected in Steve’s chest, in his groin, his thighs—

Rather than doing precisely what Steve’s pretty sure he wants more than he ever thought he did, which would be continuing to kiss Bucky senseless in full view, Bucky grabs his hand, taking the time to lace their fingers together just so, and leads him wordlessly toward the palace compound, grip firm and insistent with something achingly desperate that settles heavy, sour against the arousal in Steve’s stomach.

“Got myself a royal suite, these days,” Bucky tells him as they reach the residential areas, tugging Steve’s hand still held tight in his own to kiss his knuckles briefly, never missing a step.

“Don’t kid yourself.” Steve startles as a voice travels over, passing them by and then calling over a shoulder, giving the two of them little acknowledgement as the stride doesn’t falter to stop and greet them properly. “You have always had a royal suite, on top of your other various palace accommodations. You just did not choose to use it.”

Bucky snorts at that, still holding both Steve’s hands in his own and leading him up a flight of stairs, nowhere near where Steve’d spent time with him before, his other quarters in the Palace, apparently.

“Spoilsport,” Bucky calls down, and Steve hears the snort in response.

“I live to serve,” Shuri’s stopped now, and watches them ascend the steps knowingly. Steve fights a blush because, well, she of all people does know.

“She knows I love her,” Bucky murmurs as an aside in Steve’s ear, nipping at the lobe.

“And she’ll love you even more if you take yourselves to that royal suite right now and make only as much noise as my soundproofing technology accounts for,” Shuri calls up at them, and Bucky laughs as he drags a no-longer-able-to-fight-the-blushing Steve further upward, and around a corner with a single-mindedness that Steve can’t match, being both thoroughly embarrassed and thoroughly ravaged as Bucky takes the relative privacy of the hallway as less an invitation than a command given the sheer relentlessness of hands and mouth and tongue good god, with every step until he’s got Steve’s hips in his hands and is devouring him, walking him backward like they’ve got a single moment and Bucky’s going to wring it out until it breaks; like he’s got one breath left in him and he’ll let the darkness steal him before he gives it up, and Steve doesn’t know why, though he does know he’ll need to find out and do his damnedest to make it okay—

But hell if he’s strong enough to fight enjoying it while Bucky’s so determined to take Steve apart before he even gets hands beneath his clothes; so dead set on manhandling him down the corridor and into a room at its very end, where presumably, the clothes won’t be an issue any longer.

__________

“Nightmares.”

Steve’s lying next to Bucky, staring at the ceiling after being both thoroughly fucked out and left with a blissfully sore jaw for the single-minded attention paid to Bucky’s ass by Steve’s eager mouth—the mattress beneath them is plush as hell, and Steve’s realized something very clearly—a bed being too soft, like a marshmallow, had everything to do with who was sharing it with him; who was missing. Now, with Bucky next to him, it’s perfect. Bucky’s perfect.

They’re perfect.

But Bucky’s spoken out of nowhere in the comedown, and that word is enough to make Steve’s blood run cold.

“I know you wondered why,” Bucky tells the ceiling, also looking straight up and catching his breath, one hand on his chest and the other gesturing vaguely in a way that Steve assumes means why I jumped your bones like that, with an elbow brushing Steve’s side as the only point of contact between them. "Just, nightmares. Of how it used to be.”

Steve tenses, because he should have been there. He should have been there for Bucky when the everything Steve left him to suffer, abandoned him to be unmade into and beyond; it’s his job, it’s his fucking job to be there for this, particularly when Bucky’s always there for Steve when Steve’s own terrors wake him up, sweating and shaking, only allowed out when he’s alone and when he’s safe, so safe in Bucky’s arms.

Steve should have fucking been there.

“Almost losing you,” Bucky says softly, and Steve studies his profile; uncomprehending. He knows that they used Steve against him in the early days, made him think he was fighting to rescue Steve, or at Steve’s side to save them both, but this doesn’t sound like that. He knows what that sounds like.

“Always. Always almost losing,” Bucky shakes his head back and forth, hair veiling his face from Steve’s perspective. “I don’t know how I did it.”

Steve rolls closer to him, rests an open palm on his stomach and strokes up and down slowly, rhythmically, trying to read what Bucky’s saying, what he means.

“I know I loved you,” Bucky muses, somewhere far away yet rooted right here, all at once. “I don’t know how I was that strong,” he turns to Steve and reaches for his face.

“I don’t think I could ever be that strong again, to watch you, and to hold it together,” he exhales, confesses, and his eyes are full of agony, and oh; oh it was then, then when Steve was on death’s door more than he stood on any other threshold, save when he forgot his keys; his agony is just about them, about him, and Steve can’t bear it, he just can’t.

“While you were away, it just seemed like, like that part of who I was, who we were then, wanted all the attention.” Bucky rolls to him, then, and their chests only just brush when they breathe. “Couldn’t sleep, just needed to,” and he reaches, curls a hand behind Steve’s neck and braces himself. “To feel you, hale and whole, y’know?” He nuzzles beneath Steve’s chin and breathes for a long while, and Steve holds him close, so their chests touch flush against each other, and their heartbeats are what brush when they breathe. “Know it every way I could.”

And Steve holds him so fucking close, so fucking close, and with every breath he hopes Bucky knows that he’s sorry, he’s grateful, he’s so full of love he can’t stand it, and he’s here, he’s here, he’s here.

Bucky falls asleep against him, and if Steve stays up all night to watch, to make sure he doesn’t wake, then that’s how it’s supposed to be.

Chapter Text

Steve had been told it was casual. Steve was told not to worry, Bucky wasn’t dressing up. Steve was told it’d be fine to wear the soft linen trousers and wrap-style shirt he’d been lounging in beneath the sun while Bucky tended to his garden—because Steve had tried to learn, he really had, honest to god, but he was hopeless; even he’ll admit it—but Steve had been told those would be fine.

He should have known better. Just because Bucky looks gorgeous in just about anything if he so much as lifts his little finger with the effort, Steve lacks that particular grace in life. And he damn well sticks out like a sore thumb at the royal table because of it.

“You do not.” Bucky elbows him and murmurs under his breath as they take seats across from Shuri and Nakia, T’Challa; Steve hadn’t said a thing, but Bucky knows him.

Bucky also leans in and whispers in his ear, so low that only their enhanced senses could pick it up:

“I’d drop to my knees here and now if we didn’t have an audience, because the amount of chest you're showing in that shirt is obscene,” and that close, Steve hears the heavy swallow, the subtle smack of lips so fucking close, and that’s what’s fucking obscene; “It’s a good thing my pants are loose around the thigh Rogers, goddamn.”

And Steve’s brave, and reckless for just a second, and he takes Bucky’s hand that’s on Steve’s knee and moves it inward, lets Bucky feel how loose Steve’s pants aren’t around the thighs.

To his credit Bucky doesn’t flinch, but he does put a little pressure to Steve’s growing hardness; Steve’s proud of himself that he’s as straight-faced as Bucky, and Bucky smiles softly, lacing his fingers in Steve’s and lifting his hand to his lips to kiss the knuckles soft but quick: a diversion of attention, but still sweet enough to flutter in Steve’s chest.

“You’re such an old married couple.”

They weren’t pretending to be alone, exactly, but they both start at the comment from across the table, Shuri’s eyes dancing with mischief but also fondness as she watches them closely. Steve’s eyes flicker to T’Challa, Nakia, even M’Baku and Okoye on duty in the corner, and none of them bother to hide anything from a smirk to a genuine grin.

“Emphasis on old,” Shuri says with a wink, and there’s laughter, and they go back to eating, but the nice thing is that being serum-enhanced makes you fairly well ambidextrous, and they’re respectful enough not to fondle each other any longer under the table once everyone’s engaged in conversation and camaraderie, but it’s enough that they don’t drop hands for the entire meal.

So much more than enough.

__________

After a dessert of something tart and tangy and absolutely, sinfully rich that Steve can’t wait to lick out of Bucky’s mouth, Steve’s the one who leads them to Bucky’s quarters—their quarters—excitement humming in his veins as he pushes the door open and locks it behind them.

“Come on,” he reaches out for Bucky, but Bucky’s a step ahead of him, as always; spinning him around and shoving him just hard enough toward the bed that Steve trips over himself and falls on it with a bounce that Bucky takes full advantage of in following, bracketing Steve with his knees and leaning to run teeth across Steve’s neck, chin past Adam’s apple to the collarbone where he sucks the pulse to the skin, red and hard, hot and wanting. Steve moans, and Bucky licks the same trail he’d dragged down back upwards, sucking along Steve’s jaw bone and pulling the most impossible, unexpected sounds from Steve’s throat, Steve’s chest, Steve’s fucking soul with the way he draws paths with his mouth and maps causeways with his tongue and teaches Steve new ways to feel, always new and beautiful and heartstopping as Bucky moves lower, to his chest, flicks a tongue over his nipples and rubs the flesh around them to pebbles until the tensions in the skin itself hardens the nipples to the point of agonizing bliss when he bites on them with lip-guarded teeth and sucks on them while tonguing them fiercely, driving Steve to arch off the bed to the point of losing balance, to the point of toppling down but Bucky catches him, Bucky grabs him and cradles him back down and never misses a beat, his tongue swirling downward to the trail of curls leading from his navel drawing shapes and patterns playfully as he looks up at Steve through dark lashes and grins, chin at the very top of Steve’s pelvic bone.

“Old married couples can still have fun,” he says slyly, and Steve chokes a laugh, so taut with arousal but god, he loves this man.

“Particularly when they’re super soldiers,” Steve says, taking advantage of the pause to collect himself just enough to make his own move, to flip Bucky around and bury his face in Bucky’s groin, never hesitating for an instant before taking his balls in hand and licking circles around the base of his cock, and Bucky moans, head thrown back for an instant before he dives in too, sucking just the tip of Steve’s dick between his lips meticulously, edging further down slowly, slowly by carefully coordinated centimeters, until Steve’s down his throat and Bucky’s humming and Steve’s twitching and trying to suck Bucky off while he’s coming undone, and then Bucky, fucking menace and miracle that he is, slips his index finger in his own mouth alongside Steve’s length, an unexpected sensation that sets Steve lifting, writhing but Bucky follows, and starts fingering Steve’s hole, tapping fingers from the tight draw of his scrotum back and then just playing, fingertip circling his entrance and nudging him apart, and Steve can barely breathe around the weight of Bucky’s erection against his tongue and the unbearable build of his own release as Bucky just puts pressure, just pressure on Steve’s opening, finger shaped and sized just right, fucking perfect and Steve comes undone, coming hard and fast down Bucky’s throat, and Steve can only just feel the curve of Bucky’s lips in a grin around the shine of endorphins and release, smiling around him as he swallows all that Steve’s got.

Bucky follows soon after; he tastes a little like the sweet berries they eat in Bucky’s gardens, and he’s everything Steve never knew to want. He’s everything.

They pull off, and slowly make their way to one another, horizontal across the bed, legs tangled as they swap each other’s taste languidly, kisses sloppy and slow and growing tired and Steve doesn’t notice exactly when kissing becomes simple embrace and wanting becomes having and being satiated with it—that doesn’t matter.

There’s Bucky beside him; and that does.

Chapter Text

Steve’s sitting between Bucky’s legs, hands steadied on those impossible thighs of his and leaning back against his chest; he’s not wearing his prosthesis, and there’s something vulnerable and beautiful and comfortable in the way he holds himself that Steve admires the hell out of. But Steve admires just about everything about Bucky Barnes; always has.

Bucky’s using his right hand expertly, though, to massage Steve’s shoulders, kneading out what little tension lives in him here, in this place with Bucky at his side; that only lives at all when the inevitable interruptions come and Bucky knows it, presses into his shoulder blades and sweeps his hair away from the shell of his ear—murmurs there, never once letting up on the wonderful pressure he’s placing where Steve needs most to be soothed, to be comforted, to be brought back to himself where he exists in Bucky’s arms, under Bucky’s touch.

“You’re gonna have to leave, aren’t you?” Bucky finally asks, soft enough to tickle and draw a shiver against the skin of Steve’s neck.

“Just for a little while,” and it’s true, because he nor his contact have time to spare; Steve for the sake of his heart, and Pepper for the sake of the company and the fact that Tony doesn’t know, yet, that she’s meeting with him in Bern to discuss where the Accords currently stand; and likewise, his status as a fugitive. “You know I can’t stay away for long.”

“And I don’t want you to,” Bucky murmurs into the nape of his neck; “so that works out good.”

Steve huffs a laugh, a little taken with the idea; everything about them works, even the gaps.

“But I know you have a life, built a life,” Bucky says to him, almost out of nowhere; trying for nonchalance and anyone else would have bought it, too. Just not Steve. “A life that’s not here, not with me.”

“Bullshit,” Steve immediately pulls away and round on him, kneels so he can face Bucky straight on, eyes narrowed. “Where the hell is this coming from, Buck?”

“I just,” Bucky averts his eyes for a second, then meets Steve’s gaze head-on. “I’m grateful, more than I can ever say, for how you stay. Here. With me. When you have other people, other things, other—”

Steve can’t bear to hear any more of the nonsense Bucky seems intent on speaking, so he does the best thing he knows to shut him up and kisses him, hard and fast and deep so as to try his damnedest to root out these lies about what Steve has, what Steve knows, what Steve could possibly be doing or where Steve could possibly go that is anywhere better, anywhere more perfect, anywhere more necessary than right here, right now: wherever Bucky is.

Always.

“Do you have any idea,” Steve pulls back to speak the words against Bucky’s lips, to breathe in his exhales, to say this as close as he can and make Bucky goddamn understand; “what my ’life’ was like without you?”

Bucky looks up, pulls back only far enough to consider him closely.

“It was me itching for a fight, but without any soul in it,” and that’s the best way Steve can say it, and just thinking about it, thinking the words ‘without Bucky’, he knows it's put the same emptiness, hollowness, nothingness in his gaze that it sets off in his chest. “I was such a shell, such a fucking...”

“Machine?”

Steve’s eyes snap to Bucky’s at the word, whose own eyes have softened.

“Sounds like neither of us did so hot without one another, then.”

Steve swallows hard—machine, and Steve knows what that word means to Bucky—and he needs to make it clear: “I mean, it was nothing like—”

Not a competition, Stevie,” Bucky smiles, and it’s with less sadness than Steve had expected, and more of that gratefulness Bucky’d spoken of before. “You were hurting, and I’m sorry.” He reaches up to grasp at the crook of Steve’s neck, using his thumb to slowly caress the skin.

“Hurts to think of you like that, y’know?” he breathes, just staring at Steve with so much goddamn love it still makes Steve a little dizzy; might eat him alive if he didn’t feel it himself, just as strong. “Someone so full of, just, heart and fire, thinking of you without that…”

“Hey,” Steve cuts him off, reaching and mimicking the hold Bucky has on him. “You told me I’m not allowed to feel that way, and I’ve got way more bandwidth for that,” he leans in and presses his cheek to Bucky’s, relishing the sensation as he murmurs Bucky’s words back to him. “Not that it’s a competition.”

Bucky huffs, and leans into Steve just the same.

“But you’ve got nothing to be sorry for,” Steve breathes against him, kissing just below his ear. “Ever.”

They both pull back, and when Bucky smiles that little smile he has, that gentle and private one just for them, Steve smiles too, because how can he not?

“Probably believe that when you do, punk,” Bucky says; “though I imagine I’ll have things to be sorry for, along the way.”

Steve’s brow furrows.

“What?”

“Along the way,” Bucky repeats, and Steve struggles, frowns in trying to figure out why that’s the operative part to understand.

“I just,” Bucky shrugs; “you and me, over time, we’ll have reasons to be sorry for little things, not for, you know,” he gestures between them; “having, and keeping—”

And oh. Oh, together. Together.

For..for...

It’s not as if it’s not the thing Steve thinks about most, thinks about every damn second of the day: forever. But to hear Bucky say it, even without the words themselves is, it’s—

Them. Them. Without a timeframe or a deadline or a train or a mountain or the ice. Just them. For always.

“Do you know how much I love you?” Steve whispers, because that’s the most he can muster, because his heart’s in a free fall and a flutter and the eye of a fucking hurricane and in Bucky’s hands, Bucky’s hands always and god, god.

Them.

“I think so,” Bucky looks at him, serious as anything, and maybe that’s exactly how it should be, how this should be; and he’s brushing hair from his face and looking at him like he’s in the hurricane too, hands keeping Steve steady against everything, anything: “Do you know how much I love you?”

“Think so, too.” And Steve doesn’t deserve it, or maybe doesn’t know how to process it, or maybe both. It’s just so much.

It’s so much.

And then Bucky’s got a hand on the center of his chest and leveraging weight and momentum to press his back to the ground, climbing over him and leaning down to kiss him slow, lush, lavish, and Steve could barely breathe, could barely feel his lips for the way they were swollen red with the attention.

“Well that’s unacceptable,” Bucky breathes against his raw mouth, and goddamn does it shiver something fierce through his bones. “You’ve gotta know beyond a doubt.”

And Steve’s a stubborn sonuvabitch, and Bucky’s too much like a dream sometimes not to question, but the way Bucky looks at him; damn.

Steve thinks Bucky could change his mind.

Chapter Text

“It’s pretty amazing.”

And it really is. Like, obscenely, indescribably amazing. But even if it wasn’t Steve would have said it was, because of the fucking blinding smile on Bucky’s face, and Steve hasn’t seen Bucky look so goddamn excited since they were teenagers and he got hands on a bottle of whiskey for them to both choke down stupidly near Steve’s window one night his mom was at work, spilling half of it while they tried to play it tough like their throats weren’t on fire; the childlike giddiness in him as he shows off the uniform is infectious—magnetic.

“You haven’t even seen it on, gimme a sec,” Bucky nearly vaults onto Steve’s shoulders in sheer enthusiasm as he goes behind the floating pieces and disables the force that suspends them, stripping shamelessly in front of Steve with an suggestively-quirked eyebrow and a sultry smile, bending over a little further than necessary and stretching to the advantage of his tight-as-fuck underwear a little more suggestively than is strictly called for, and Steve glares at him only half-heartedly, because it’s both hot as hell and tenting his jeans all at once. Bucky smirks when he sees the bulge in Steve’s pants and takes pity on him from there, making quick work of the uniform with his back to Steve the whole time before he spins, striking a pose, and taking Steve’s breath away for a multitude of reasons, not least of which because, the hair and musculature aside, he looks like a ghost, or a figment from Steve’s most longing, aching, heart-rending dreams.

Bucky picks up on it in an instant; goddamn him. God bless him.

“Sorry, you’re,” Bucky’s at his side immediately, too close for Steve to see the way the blue cuts across his torso and threatens to trap Steve on a mountain in the snow; “you’re back there, aren’t you?”

And Steve doesn’t even have to so much as nod before Bucky’s pressed against him, taking Steve’s head cradled in his right hand, brought forehead to forehead, and Steve’s hand in his left to press hard to the center of his chest: heartbeat—living. Metal fingers—new; now, not then. Warm—real, not cold like it was.

Bucky just knows, without ever having to ask, and Steve’s luckier than he thinks he ever imagined a man could be to have this, to have him.

“I was trying to,” Bucky murmurs, more warmth in his breath at Steve’s ear; honey in his tone—intimacy they didn’t have then, idiots that they were, to separate it further from the past. “I guess, you know how you put on the old suit when—”

And that’s the last he needs: a reminder of finding him, of what it did to his whole heart to see that face and hear that voice and know the shame and agony of having lost him and never bothered to find him sooner; and the sweet pain of knowing he’d stop at nothing to find him again and bring him home.

“I wanted to try and reclaim it. To call it mine but in my own way, for this self, because I’m not that man, but I’m,” Bucky swallows hard, pauses a moment; “the longer I work at it, the more I’m sure that I’m also not, not that man, if that makes any sense.” Bucky diverts his eyes, almost hesitant, and that’s when Steve breaks from his shock and reaches back, snags Bucky’s eyes and holds.

“It makes all the sense in the world,” Steve tells him, smiling soft. “It...” He feels the smile fade, because he may know this isn’t the past, but that doesn’t mean the past isn’t still the backdrop of everything else.

“What?” Bucky asks, the first sparks of worry in his eyes as he holds Steve harder again, grounding him, and Steve realizes then that his hand is still at Bucky’s heart: fitting.

“I’ll catch you this time,” Steve murmurs; “I swear to god, Buck,” he shakes his head back and forth even as he swears this thing he knows with all certainty, and he screws his eyes shut because suddenly it’s too much, it’s too much from then and from now and—

“Oh Stevie,” Bucky says, his eyes full of aching and needing to care for, to make right; “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”

“No,” Steve shakes himself forcibly from his own mind and thoughts: selfish, in the end, when Bucky had been so thrilled with this, and deserved it, goddamnit, and Steve had no right to poison it with his failures and doubts. “No, it’s,” he breathes in deep and exhales slow, and:

“It’s perfect.” And that’s true, and Steve takes Bucky’s face in his hands and kisses him fierce. “You’re perfect.”

Bucky studies him for a long moment after they part, and it takes a few moments, maybe for them both to believe it, but in the end, they do believe it. And Bucky smiles again, and that’s worth the world.

“Plus, I mean, the color,” Bucky says, pulling back and gesturing to his outfit. “Brings out my eyes, y’know?”

And Steve laughs, because really. And he feels light, and warm, because it’s the truth.

“Also, and this is the important part,” Bucky takes a few steps back and opens his arms wide: “hit me.”

Steve’s blinks at him, dumb. When Bucky only looks at him expectantly, he steps forward after a moment and slugs Bucky in the shoulder, which doesn’t even sway him and only earns Steve an eyeroll.

“Come on, hard,” Bucky chides him; “I’ll even put up a fight for it, come on.”

In the end, Bucky has to sigh and throw the first punch; it’s not all he can give but it’s a nice move, and Steve dodges, and they scuffle for a second or two before Bucky very deliberately leaves himself open where Steve had counted on him to block, but the impact is reversed, and Steve is thrown back with the very amount of force he put into the punch in the first place.

“See?” Steve’s shaking out his hand a little dramatically, and Bucky’s grin is back, giddy. “It’s built into the fabric, the tech’s woven in as much as anything else. And it’s a helluva lot better than what you’ve been hauling around, which is what,” Bucky’s expression grows stern, then, eyebrow raised in absolute judgement. The bad kind: “nothing?”

Steve sighs; they’ve had this discussion so many fucking times: “If a supersoldier’s not enough on his own to go into completely non-combative situations—”

“As a fucking fugitive of the United States government—” Bucky cuts himself off, shakes his head halfway.

“I’m gonna stop,” Bucky takes a deep breath, composing himself; “because you’re a fucking stubborn ass, and you’re not going to hear it. but ,” he sighs, and his tone turns just a little bit pleading, which fuck all, Steve can’t bear, can’t swallow down and ignore.

“Can we at least try the same thing with your suit, or something under your civvies?” he uses those big seachange eyes to their full advantage, and goddamnit: the uniform does them every favor they don’t need, just now, to sway Steve’s resolve.

“Just like an undershirt, Steve, please,” he asks, the fight out of him because they have had this argument, so very many times. “You go in with no cover, with no armor, with no…”

And Steve doesn’t want to argue with Bucky. More than that, though: Steve doesn’t want to deny Bucky a single thing in this world, not if it’s in his power to give.

“Okay.”

Bucky looks at him, skeptical as hell.

Okay?”

Steve nods, because it’s not hard, in the end; it probably should have never been. “Okay.”

Bucky seems to swallow back both the disappointment and the worry he’d been prepared to hold onto in Steve’s continued rejection before he straightens his shoulders and says, sounds just a little bit more at ease with the word. “Okay.”

Steve smiles at him, and wonders if Bucky would let Steve strip him out of this new uniform of his, to, you know. Get a sense of how the material fits. Breathes.

That sort of thing.

“You know I hovered over Howard with that fucking frisbee of yours,” Bucky says, apropos of everything and nothing. “Every little detail, making sure it was perfect so it’d do its job right, so you’d be…”

Protected. Safe. Alive. Steve hears what Bucky doesn’t say.

“But you’re better than that,” Bucky goes on, and speaks in earnest. “So much better and bigger and stronger than anything you could hold, anything made and not born. You are so much more than—”

He swallows so that Steve can follow the motion through his throat and speaks low when he does:

“I can hear it in my head,” he says; “just another thing I wish I didn’t remember, except to tell you, because I can see it in your eyes that it’s fucking stuck with you.” And his eyes flicker up, find Steve's, and they’re all fire and certitude and love, goddamnit—love, and that burns away the memory of the last time he held the shield in his hands strangely quick, considering how much it took from Steve—not more than what he gained, not even close, but still enough—to give it up.

“You’re worth everything and anything,” Bucky damn well snarls, defensive of Steve in a way no one else in this world’s ever been; “don’t you dare believe anything different, ever.”

And Steve doesn’t know what to say, save the only thing there is:

“I fucking love you.”

And if Bucky was giddy with his uniform, with its tricks? He goddamn glows with that.

“I love when you say that,” he confesses, and it’s joy in him and in the words alike. “I will never get tired of hearing you say that.”

Steve kisses him, a promise: he’ll never stop saying it. Not ever.

“T’Challa and I were talking,” Bucky says, careful but sure somehow, all at once. Sure of what he means but careful of how it lands. “If they made me an arm that,” he shrugs, looking at said arm with due consideration; “well, for if the world comes to us first, ya know? But I was thinking it might be worthwhile to make sure you have something, too, on top of this,” he gestures to his uniform, eyeing Steve warily, like he’s suspicious he’ll renege on his consent to an undersuit for his civilian negotiations, few and short though they tend to be.

“But something to keep you safe when I can’t,” Bucky says meaningfully, and Steve heeds it as such; “When you are in a combat situation, should it come to that.”

And the way Bucky’s standing is the same as he always did, casual but wound, ready to go into battle for the right cause at any moment, and Steve had somehow always been the right cause.

“I fucking love you.”

Bucky smirks, shoulders relaxing. “You said that already.”

And Steve crosses the distance between them, wrapping arms around Bucky’s hips and drawing him in.

“And don’t you dare believe anything different,” Steve gives the words back to him; “ever.”

And the look on Bucky’s face makes Steve think that yes: he’d definitely be up to Steve stripping off the uniform, as soon as humanly possible.

Chapter Text

Steve’s lounging; it’d been his turn to check in with Vision and Wanda, and he’d made quick work of it, gone less than a day and a half, but he’d still curled into Bucky’s arms that night like a man dying of thirst, and he’d been happily fucked in welcome until his limbs were weak with it, and has spent the hours since mostly kissing and fucking as soon as the strength came back to said limbs, a blissful back and forth between pleasured and pleasuring.

Steve had never had the luxury, before, of having a favorite pastime, a favorite way to spend his days, and it’s only now that he realizes that to call “the fight” his favorite thing was never really a decent answer, let alone a healthy one.

Being like this, with the love of his life, though: this is undoubtedly his favorite thing in all the world.

“Up, lazybones,” Bucky nudges his chin and Steve keeps his eyes closed, basking in the midday sunlight while he groans petulantly. If Bucky wanted him for what Steve would like best, then he wouldn’t be using something cold and hard and curved to nudge at Steve’s face.

“Don’t wanna,” Steve whines, and he’s not too proud to admit it either; Bucky doesn’t relent, though, and keeps tapping at his jawline with the cold, hard, curved thing—a plate, he thinks it’s a plate—until Steve sighs and cracks one eye open.

Yep, a plate. Though whatever’s on it does smell fucking delicious.

“Need your strength, dontcha?” Bucky tries to entice him, and Steve opens both eyes to narrow them at Bucky warily.

“For?” Because Steve is lounging, and enjoying the whole fucking-to-just-fucked-to-fucking-again routine they’ve established for the day quite a bit, thank you kindly, and would hate very much to interrupt it for anything less than...well.

Anything less than continuing it.

“Oh, big plans,” Bucky says, and the tone is what hooks Steve; sultry, and decadent, and depraved. “Very big plans.” He runs the pad of his thumb along the swell of Steve’s lower lip, pulling it so that it pops wetly when he lets go, and Steve feels a rush of heat at just the touch and the look in those eyes. “Come on, sit up.”

Steve maybe makes a bigger deal of the effort than is strictly necessary, but it amuses Bucky, and that’s reward enough. Steve props himself up by his wrists and lets the offending plate—that would have been a nicer interruption of his lounging had it been warm, hard, and curved against his jawline—be settled on his lap.

“I grew it, I baked it, traded for the rest of it,” Bucky gestures to his handiwork grandly. “And plated gorgeously, if I do say so, which is totally a thing,”

And it is pretty gorgeous, and smells even moreso up close: a tart of some kind, creamy and caramelised with the vegetables worked in, sauce drizzled just so in the right amounts across the top with more of Bucky’s own stores slides through the centers and stuffed with something tantalizingly silken that makes Steve think of something that probably tastes even better, silky in his mouth—

“Renaissance man you’ve snatched here, Rogers,” Bucky draws his attention back by handing him cutlery.

“You were always a catch, Buck,” Steve says automatically, because it’s a fact of life; “always.”

“Hey.” Bucky sits next to Steve then, and Steve turns at the silence that follows. “So were you. Always have been.”

Steve scoffs at that, and grabs for his plate to dig in, but Bucky stops him.

“Why do you think I didn’t make a move, Steve?” Bucky asks him, suddenly serious. “Guy like me, working the docks, just barely keeping your lungs afloat when you needed more meds than we could afford,” his eyes narrow, reading Steve’s expressions, minute as they may be, with an expertise only he possesses.

“You didn’t think I was scared of what we’d have to hide, did you?”

As a matter of fact, knowing what he knows now about what they both felt: that’s exactly what he’d though. Where Steve had been certain he was alone in his undying affections, at the very least for all that Bucky could do so much better, he’d figured, upon learning of Bucky’s feelings in kind, that he’d been afraid of the hate at best, death at worst that might come alongside.

“People don’t notice what they don’t want to see, Steve,” Bucky smirks ruefully, no mirth to it. “They’d written us off as good as brothers and then some, no one woulda said shit if I still made the rounds, talked up enough girls,” he huffs a sigh, and looks Steve straight in the eyes when he says it:

“Steve, you coulda done so much better, and if I was scared, it was of rejection.”

Steve’s mouth’s dry at that, his mind blank at that, because it’s so...preposterous. Unthinkable.

“I couldn’t lose you,” Bucky says; another truth of the world if his tone’s to be believed, and hell: if anything about him is to be believed, and Steve trusts him with his whole goddamn soul. “So I, well.” He shrugs, looks away; “I took the coward’s way.”

And that, among anything else, Steve won’t let stand.

“You’re a lot of things, James Barnes,” Steve says plainly, grabbing for his plate again and stabbing the tarte with his fork. “Delusional, for one, given the bullshit you just spewed about me being a catch and you being anything but,” Steve smirks as he saws off a corner to life to his mouth; “adorable, in that apron,” and Bucky maybe flushes a little, like he forgot he was wearing one, or maybe because he had been wearing one at all—Steve’s grateful he did, though, because he really is the cutest thing and Steve loves that side of Bucky; every side of Bucky, ever. “Sexy as all hell, all the time, in,” he reaches over and fingers at the seam of the apron, then at the waistband of Bucky's trousers; “or out, of anything.”

He takes a second to look Bucky up and down, hungry and appreciative and full of all the love and truth he knows. “Talented, in more ways than one,” he says, both honest and suggestive, just the way he intends before he takes the waiting bite of Bucky’s culinary masterpiece and moans:

“But ‘dis if definitewy one,” he adds, mouth still full because damn, it’s good.

“Beautiful,” Steve says after a swallow, exaggerated for good measure. “Inside and out,” and Bucky looks down at the ground, blush high on his cheeks, and Steve’s glad of it, because that means Bucky gets it, Bucky knows Steve’s being truthful and truthful alone.

“You are so many things,” Steve finishes softly, reaching for Bucky’s hand and kissing the knuckles; “but one thing you aren’t, and have never been, is a coward.”

“Eat your lunch,” Bucky tells him, voice a little rough. “I want you in good shape so you can keep up when I’m ready to eat mine.”

And if Bucky needed to clarify his intentions on the matter—he didn’t, but Steve’s not complaining—his hand reaches down the backside of Steve’s pants, finger tracing the cleft of his ass, and oh.

Steve is very, very interested in rebuilding his strength; the absolute deliciousness of the means is just a bonus.

Chapter Text

Steve’s escorted from the helipad by a guard he does not know.

The guard part isn’t new; Okoye is almost always on hand guarding when Bucky meets him, which is a courtesy Steve suspects isn’t afforded to many people, to have the General attend either one of them and Steve’s appreciative of it, even if he knows she’s utterly unimpressed by him and it’s for Bucky’s benefit more than anything else, a courtesy afforded to him, and Steve’s a goddamn proud bastard if there ever was one, always had been to know Bucky, to call him his friend, his best friend, his brother, and now—

But that’s when Bucky greets him.

And when Bucky’s not there, it’s definitely a member of the Royal Family to see to him, or Okoye with her second in command, who Steve sees now, waiting to take him to Bucky, most likely because Bucky’s in the middle of something or waiting to show Steve something. Steve feared it, at first, but he’s comfortable with the place, the people, with what he and Bucky have: he knows he’ll be met by Bucky soon, when that happens, and that Bucky is always joyful, and even so his eyes light up all the more when he sees Steve, just Steve.

Just because he’s Steve. Nothing more.

But this: neither commander nor second, neither royal nor the very man who’s the whole of Steve’s heart—this, and the bottom of Steve’s stomach falls out, heavy. Steve’s escorted by a guard he does not know.

That’s not a good sign.

Steve follows her too closely, he knows, but tries to take comfort in the fact that she herself doesn’t rush, simply leads him toward the rooms he knows: areas for suits and weapons, armor and readying for...

“Steve.”

Oh god, but Steve didn’t realize how tight his chest had gotten, how much the unnameable worry had seeped into his bones until Bucky’s there, in front of him, eyes lighting up just to see him when Steve’s whole body remembers how to survive when Steve sees him, and Bucky’s not joyful, Bucky’s tense from the shoulders down, eyes drawn tight as he studies what appear to be maps on the holoscreen in front of him; despite the technology, it snaps Steve back into the past where Bucky matched him thought for thought as they planned attacks on the hoods of their transport, arguing only minutely when their plans deviated, but only inasmuch as they deviated on the path to the same destination. They’d always been of a same soul, but sometimes of different minds in the process.

Steve’s shaken back to the now by the extension of Bucky’s hand: simple, reaching out for him, without ever looking away from the plans in front of him.

Steve grasps it, because Bucky’s hand outstretched is meant for his to hold. Always has been, and anything less is a sin against the universe.

“We’ve got to ask you to do something, Steve,” Bucky says, still not looking toward Steve, taking his left hand and maneuvering the map, zooming and repositioning at will. He sighs, finally, and turns to Steve, squeezing his hand like by rote as he does. “I wouldn’t ask you if it wasn’t important, but...” He shakes his head, looking back to the map, and Steve would give the world to wipe the worry from his face, from his stance, from every inch of that body and heart.

“We’ve got War Dogs in Ukraine,” Bucky says, and Steve recognizes the map, now; eastern Europe, farther than they ever travelled in the war, but familiar terrain to Steve now, after everything. “They’re deep cover, they use these nano masks so they look different every time someone sees them and Shuri encodes the appearances daily,” he makes some gestures at the corner of the map and Steve begins to watch a longitudinal replay of the timestamped check-ins and mask resets, with photo visuals of the appearances programmed and changed like clockwork. “But we lost contact with them a week ago, couldn’t connect to make the change. Shuri can’t even find any of the signatures from the ink in the tattoos, and that’s half the reason they even get the tattoos—”

“Buck,” Steve finally cuts off what’s become rambling, the words too fast out of Bucky’s mouth. “Calm down,” he says softly, and waits for Bucky to breathe and meet his eyes. “Tell me what I need to do.”

Bucky's gaze is grateful, at that, and they’re still of one mind: Steve knows what Bucky needs of him, and Bucky knows he can count on Steve not just to see it, but to act—Steve is grateful for it too. That he can do something, anything to help Bucky after all that Bucky’s ever done for him. Not the least of which is just to have come back.

“The operatives had reported on possible activity that,” Bucky says, sighing deeply; “that pinged some old HYDRA operations. Nothing for sure, but—”

Steve cuts him off, grasping his shoulders, firm but gentle, and turning his whole body toward Steve.

“Tell me,” Steve repeats, because it’s really that simple: “what I need to do.”

Bucky blinks, and then grasps Steve’s shoulders just as firmly, maybe tighter.

“What we need to do.”

And there’s a particular kick in Steve’s pulse at that, the idea of Bucky in harm’s way, but he knows he can’t fight it, not now, not like this. So he moves, grasping one of Bucky’s hands from his shoulder and twining with his own as he steps up to the map Bucky’s studying.

“Get me up to speed, then.”

__________

“We’re still a hell of a team, aren’t we?”

Bucky took longer by a hair in the bathroom they’d shared after coming back and stripping immediately to share the shower where they’d cleaned off blood before fucking hard as proof of life: they’d both taken fire, because the War Dogs were being held as hostages to lure them into a fight, just as Bucky’d suspected, and while they’d come back with the spies and the intel, and had left the dead bodies of the HYDRA sympathizers behind, they themselves had left a little worse for wear, and needed all the reassurance they could get.

“Never doubted it,” Steve answers, naked on the bed where he’s still gathering himself; he’d missed the easy fight with Bucky at his side, but the thread of fear for his safety was all the more sharp in his blood and bones for the kind of love given freedom between them, and Steve doesn’t know how that works: how Bucky knowing and reciprocating in kind changes how much Steve fears for his safety when Steve’s loved him all along, but god, god: it does.

“Last time,” Bucky turns, and it’s intentionally timed for the loaded implications; but there’s a towel wrapped at his waist much to Steve’s dismay, but he’d removed his arm before and it needed cleaning, which he’s doing quickly, but far too slow in Steve’s opinion, and likewise far too far from Steve’s touch. It’s a good distraction from everything that ‘last time’ could bring to mind.

“Well, it’d been closer to a century than not, and I was still half a self,” Bucky shrugs, carefully tending to the now-golden ridges of the appendage in this new, maybe most stunning version of his arm. “And we still fell straight into step like no time had passed, like nothing had changed, when everything had.”

Steve moves to lie on his side and watch Bucky straight on. “Not everything.”

Bucky rolls his eyes, but his smile is everything.

“Fucking sap,” Bucky says without any strength to it, and then grows quiet as he finishes up on the arm, considering it long and silent, and Steve reads the conflict in his face as he looks it over; as finally he closes the case around it with just a little too much force.

“Buck,” Steve says softly, feeling for him, knowing the way that the arm, the battle that accompanies it weighs on him still; “you didn’t have to, I could have—”

“Steve.”

Bucky’s turned to him, but he doesn’t approach the bed just yet. He does discard the towel, though, and that speaks to a lesser degree of discomfort, of turmoil than Steve had feared.

“I don’t know how long it’ll take me to make peace with it as anything but a weapon,” he says softly, approaching Steve slowly; “you help, god, you help, but I don’t know when that line gets crossed, and I can see it in balance.”

He stops at the foot of the bed, drinking Steve in before he pounces, crawls on top of Steve’s body to press his own down, thighs to chest against him skin to skin.

“What I do know,” Bucky says forcefully; “is that when you’re in trouble I will use every weapon in my power to keep you safe,” and Bucky slides his hand between them up Steve’s chest. “So there was no question of asking you to go without me going, too. There never will be.”

Steve swallows; there’s something in that promise, as well as it’s known, that catches in Steve’s chest just then. So much love that it could ruin him, if it wasn’t the only thing Steve knows: life itself.

“I just,” Bucky ducks his head down and kisses the pulse between Steve’s collarbones; “I just have to work on it, for other times. That’s all.”

Steve considers him carefully, watching Bucky’s face so closely, so intimately, and he loves, god god. He loves so damn much.

So he kisses Bucky hard, with all the love, and makes a very particular point of showing him that love in every motion that follows.

Chapter Text

Steve is absolutely sure he’s got it right this time.

He’s tried, every time he’s had to leave and come back and he’d had a chance to stop, but it’s always been met with a sort of dismal, performative graciousness that someone of any lower station, any lesser honor wouldn’t have bothered with. Though in truth, the eyes give it away: he’s not expected to succeed. And admittedly, he’s failed miserably thus far, so he can’t fault that assumption, much as it claws at his pride.

But he’s really fucking sure this time. He’s accounted for everything, particularly all the things he’s been missing thus far. Location, frequency, purpose, context. He’d been assuming consistency too long; a long established ritual based on tradition, thereby timelessness. He hadn’t taken in the evidence, and that grates at him, because he’s meant to be a great tactician and what great tactician ignores changing contexts? Everything he’s seen spoke to something completely different than what he’d presumed, and all of his efforts had failed as a result. He’d tried to meet a need that didn’t exist; assumed contraiety based on anecdotes, and took tried-and-true over novel as a matter of course.

The cup’s in hand as he walks over to her, green mermaid—he only just learned that’s what it was, after being told idly by the man at the register how “unique” the artwork rendering of “her” was, and he’s still not convinced he should have been able to figure out that’s what “she” was on his own—etched in shiny metal, a brand new design that keeps cold drinks as cold as it keeps hot drinks hot, and that’s exactly what Steve needed, because not a goddamn ice cube was going to melt before he got this back to Wakanda.

Not. One.

“General,” he greets her, and she nods as Steve offers her the Starbucks tumbler. It looks like a thermos, and Steve sees that she’s already anticipating more disappointment from him because he’d only brought her warm drinks thus far, because it’s warm here and so why not drink warm things elsewhere, when it’s less warm, but that’s not it at all, is it, because all he’s done so far is get it wrong: but she thinks it’s warm, now, and she’s already decided it’s a lost cause, he can see it.

Her eyes widen when she takes a sip and it’s cold. Good start.

She drinks a little deeper, and he watches her savour the flavor and see if it’s right: her eyes narrow, and Steve thinks he’s misstepped, again, but she swallows, and looks grudgingly content. She flicks her eyes up to him once more, wary, as he takes another full sip.

Finish strong, Rogers, come on.

She doesn’t grin, but she does sigh with satisfaction as she lowers the cup from her lips.

“My thanks for your generosity, Captain,” Okoye says, warmer, and more words in themselves than she’s said in response ever before; “it is much appreciated.”

And there it is. Cascar-something-or-other-cold-version-thing. Finally, Steve got her order right.
__________

Bucky rolls off of him, panting.

“You’re enthusiastic tonight,” he comments, patting Steve’s heaving chest lightly.

“I’m always enthusiastic.”

Bucky huffs. “Not quite like this,” and maybe he has a point. It’s not even dinner time yet and they’re on round seven.

Steve grins to himself and catches Bucky’s hand against his sternum.

“I got it right.”

“No shit?” Bucky flips over and faces Steve. “And no one told you what she likes?”

“Process of elimination,” Steve says with a faux-haughtiness that gets the laugh it wants out of Bucky, which means it’s perfect. “And I have an incredible tactical mind.”

“Oh yes,” Bucky nods mockingly; “it only took you, how many wrong lattes to figure it out?”

Steve snorts. “It was a,” he thinks hard about what the menu called it; “cold brew.”

Bucky turns to him more fully and stares him down. “Do you know the difference?”

“Yes,” Steve answers stubbornly. “One is cold.”

Bucky snorts again, but this time he tackles Steve and bites at his neck.

“You’re fucking absurd,” he says close against Steve’s throat.

“You love absurd.”

“Damn right I do,” Bucky growls, and oh. Round eight, with Bucky’s mouth on his rough and playful and ready to breathe him in, and Steve knows beyond a doubt he’s never been in love with someone, with anyone, like he’s in love with Bucky; knows unfailingly that he never could love like that outside of Bucky, ever: of course he knows.

But the thing is: he doesn’t think he’s ever been in love with his own life before this, before finding Bucky here and feeling at home in his arms, before smiling with Bucky and eating fresh produce from Bucky’s own gardens, before lying with Bucky making love for days and days on end until time didn’t matter; before feeling Bucky’s laughter through his chest most days, almost every day and his kiss even more so, even more places; this life where he can make a game of coffee with a general and make a joke with a princess and hold close the most important thing in his life without anyone trying to make it go away: whether by taking it from him, or him from it.

Steve doesn’t think he’s ever valued his own life, before, and it’s a strange and wonderful thing to stumble upon, more so than he’d have ever guessed.

Steve’s pulse jumps with the realization, euphoric, and he surges into Bucky’s kisses like maybe he’s never been able to before, not with this new lightness in his limbs, in his chest and bones and Bucky responds, takes him in and holds him close with all he is, with all they are and Steve grabs for him, drags him upwards and cups his ass to draw him closer, ever closer as his tongue explores the familiar territory of Bucky’s mouth, deeply and freely and open as he’s never been before, cracked wide and laid bare and set alight with it and Bucky seems to know it, seems to revel in it like he’d been waiting forever for Steve to see it, to come to the conclusion himself and to own it, to step into it with confidence and strength and the last hold he keeps on a love they have that’s so far beyond holding at all. Bucky opens his mouth wider and takes every ounce of devotion Steve finally knows exactly how to give, and they’re skin to skin and even if they do nothing other than kiss with roaming hands they are as connected, as intertwined as they’ve ever been, will ever be.

If Bucky left hand curls around Steve’s cock, though, mouths never parting, and his right hand moves to open himself up as he fucks Steve’s mouth relentlessly with his tongue, well: Steve’s not going to complain about it.

“Show me what it does to you, what it makes you want,” Bucky mouths against him; “Show me how you know it.”

And as soon as Steve’s hard in his hand, that’s exactly what he does, taking the lead and showing, showing everything while Bucky keeps firm suction on his mouth, licking and gasping and diving back in and they’re as connected, as part of one another as they’ve ever been and god, god but Steve gets it, now.

This is what it was always meant to be.

The both peak fast, though they come down slow, and they’re swat-slick in each other’s arms, both their breaths the only clear sound Steve can make out outside the relentless, if almost-regretfully slowing pulse in his ears, like his heart still wants to pound on the off chance is can escape him and rest in Bucky’s hands, in Bucky’s chest as much in the physical as it does in every other way.

Steve’s smiling for the thought, fanciful but poignant for it, when Bucky shudders in a breath, pressed close to Steve’s frame so he can feel it more than hear.

“Did you know,” Bucky says, letting Steve curls around his back and wrap his arms around him and pull him close into Steve’s chest, tight against his heart and it’s so right, this is so right, and Steve can relish it. Steve is allowed to have this and be happy for it.

“The priests, here, they,” Bucky pauses, and Steve’s hands on his chest note the quick-change in his pulse, a hard knock and then a gallop, just under Steve’s hand.

“It’s a marriage, in a sense, but somehow, the ones I’ve gone to,” Steve’s not able to worry for what he feels beneath his touch before Bucky reaches up and presses Steve’s palm all the closer: undeniable. Not anything to hide.

“They’re bigger than that. Stronger than that,” Bucky says softly; breathes deeply, rhythmic and lulling against the pounding of his heart that makes sure that Steve knows this is more than Bucky’s saying, but whatever that more is? Bucky’s sure of it. Bucky’s certain inside it’s truth.

“Maybe it’s the ritual, or the ceremony of it, but it feels deeper. Like two bare souls getting married, not just people. I know Father Thomas always said that’s what marriage was, but,” Bucky exhales long and slow, a breath Steve hadn’t realized he’d been holding as he he finishes: “yeah.”

Steve stays there, wrapped around Bucky like he’s all the world, because he is all the world—Steve stays there until his own heartbeat picks up to match Bucky’s clench for clench.

“Are you,” Steve breathes out; “Bucky, why are you telling me this?”

“Just telling,” Bucky says, and Stever buys all of none of it.

“And maybe,” Bucky says, and his pulse ratchets up that much higher, and Steve’s follows, like every other part of Steve will follow every single part of Bucky until the end of fucking time. “Maybe you, like, if you wanted, and T’Challa said, and” he sighs and holds Steve’s hand to him tighter, like a touchstone, something to ground him. “Maybe we…”

And he trails off, lost as Bucky so rarely is but Steve is there, and Steve is thrown and as hopeful as he’s maybe ever been and he’s going to same Bucky from himself, just now, not only because he’ll always save Bucky, but because Steve wants his hope to mean something. To be borne out.

“Ask the question.”

And it’s slow, but Bucky turns in his arms, and his fingertips tremble when they touch Steve’s cheek.

“Would you marry me, Steve?”

And it’s a simple question that shifts the world on its axis and changes the universe, and Steve thought he felt light, felt grateful to be living before.

“In a goddamn heartbeat,” he replies, and oh, he’s been wrong.

Bucky’s smile, matched only by his own; this feeling is what it means to be alive.

Chapter Text

Steve’s been gone longer than he’s ever been before, while small things become larger things becoming cosmic things, culminating in a faceoff inside an Edinburgh train station and a fuck you to General Ross and a journey that he might have suggested earlier, if there weren’t a part of him that didn’t want anyone else following him into Wakanda, following him into that sacred space—but they don’t trade lives, and that comes far before Steve’s childish stake-claiming, and besides: Bucky is his home, his safe haven, in Wakanda or anywhere else. No one can change that.

So he rattles off the coordinates and doesn’t listen to Sam’s quip and he waits, because it’s been too long and he aches with it, and he needs to help Vision and get him to Shuri and he needs T’Challa to know the stakes of what they’re up against, but what he needs

Bucky’s voice filters over to them, in offering: yet another new version of his arm glimmering in the sunlight as he walks over with just a little bit of the swagger Steve loves a whole fuckton of a lot and knows is entirely for him—Bucky’s voice, Steve’s fiance’s voice, filters over to them, to him, and Steve can damn well feel his chest open, like a fist clenched tight for too long and it cracks a little in splaying wide, but fuck if Bucky doesn’t fill those cracks with warmth just by meeting Steve’s eyes and smiling that crooked fucking smile of his and making Steve’s world make sense again, despite what might be coming for them.

Steve embraces him with only a fraction of intimacy he’s used to, let alone wants, but it’s more than he’d give anyone else with a crowd around them, and given the situation at hand, and he can feel in Bucky’s return of the touch that he knows it, and he angles them both so that Steve can bury his head just a little in the crook of Bucky’s neck, just the space of a rapid inhale to breathe him in: Steve’s grateful for him, for a man who knows his soul and loves him anyway; loves him for it, and makes space in the world for him to just be.

“How ya been, Buck,” Steve breathes out shallowly, trying to keep the scent of Bucky’s hair in his lungs a little longer, if he can. Steve feels the laugh Bucky swallows at their familiar back-and-forth, and Steve tries to hold onto that, too: desperately.

“Not bad,” Bucky says, stepping away and Steve aches for the loss of contact; for the casual but almost small way Bucky holds himself: apologetic, but Steve doesn’t know why; “for the end of the world.”

Maybe that’s why.

Bucky doesn’t come with them when they take Vision to Shuri, and Steve aches, no, fucking hurts for it, like a stabbing pain throughout his limbs pumped anew with his blood over and over until he can’t stand it, and when he leaves the room everything in his body orientates to Bucky, wherever he is, like there’s a magnetic pole, like Bucky’s Steve’s North and it’s true, he is, and Steve wants nothing more than to follow, to follow and to set everything else aside and—

They’re on their way to the labs where Steve’s armor’s stored when hands wrap around his wrist and his waist and pull him in a single smooth motion into a side corridor Steve hadn’t even noticed, until he’s being dragged down it just enough, silent as a shadow as he’s pushed through a door that doesn’t even snick shut, but does make a noise when he’s thrown against it and kissed within an inch of life, strong hands on his shoulders pinning him as if he needs some kind of incentive to stay put, to be ravage, to have pure molten affection and arousal and need poured into him from Bucky’s mouth on his; no.

No, Steve would stay here forever if he could, as is tempted to try anyway even though he knows he can’t; tempted to grab Bucky and run, just run until the end of the world comes for other people first and then maybe reaches them, maybe doesn’t because he wants, he wants, he wants and if he’s made only of wanting now, all of those wants, in the end, are just Bucky.

But here, and now, Steve doesn’t have to be pinned but gets hard for it, and he licks his way into Bucky’s mouth and devours him in kind just as thoroughly, moving his body against Bucky’s as they both try to suck each other’s soul out between their teeth, as if they hadn’t given that to one another freely long ago.

Steve cants his hips upward against Bucky’s, needy and clear about his wants.

“We don’t have time,” Bucky mouths wetly at the corner of Steve’s mouth and it’s a momentary thing, it happens in an instant: the certainty that Steve won’t let Bucky deny them this. He lifts his hands off the door just enough to circle Bucky’s wrists, and guide one down fast to the line of his cock through his pants, pressing it to Bucky’s until Bucky hisses with the sensation.

“We’ll make time,” and Steve doesn’t leave room in that for argument, because if there’s time for breathing, or thinking, or feeling, or trying to fight off the impossible, there is time for this.

This, before all else.

Steve’s hands are on the buckles at Bucky’s waist, his hand’s on Bucky’s length and the way Bucky’s head tilts back at the touch he knows Bucky thinks that’s as far as Steve’s going to go, but it’s not, because Steve needs more.

So he sinks to his knees in a breath and swallows Bucky down whole in one slick wrap of his lips.

“Jesus Christ,” Bucky groans, and his hands are in Steve’s hair just as Steve loves best, tugging at unpredictable intervals, no pattern or rhythm as Steve sucks and lick and moans around Bucky in his mouth, because they have to fit it all in this one suspended moment: Steve needs to fit it all into this one, precious, stolen moment against the world that waits.

Bucky comes quick, as Steve had intended, much as he’d have rathered a lifetime on his knees like this with Bucky’s taste on his tongue; he swallows around Bucky just as he’s learned Bucky likes best, in time with the trembling that takes him apart and Steve savours it, all of it, and when he pulls off he lets himself breathe against Bucky’s thigh for a few long moments before he looks up and let’s Bucky pull him to his feet and straight back into his arms, tasting himself from Steve’s mouth as he kisses him hard. Steve lets his hands roam for a short moment before they move on their own, his hand dipping under the impossibly-tight fit of Bucky’s uniform vest until he can make out the impression of the dog tags he wears, that they both wear every moment they’re not together, that they take off in tandem when they’re returned to one another and Steve hates that they’re both wearing them now; that they have a reason to fear, to be apart, to, to—

“Don’t leave me.” Steve’s eyes snap up at Bucky’s words, and Bucky looks wrecked, looks like every defense in his arsenal is shattered on the threat of losing, of being rent in to and Steve knows exactly what he means; intimately so.

“Given past experience,” Steve says, bringing Bucky’s hand to press against Steve’s tags beneath his own uniform, perfect match to Bucky’s own, both their names above both their hearts; “I think I’m the one who needs to ask, no,” Steve leans in, presses his forehead to Bucky’s and doesn’t bother to draw Bucky’s touch away from the fear in his pulse, pounding war drums and death knolls and every terrible thing he cowers before—he can’t hide it.

“I’m the one who needs to to beg that of you.” Steve’s voice cracks, and Bucky’s hand comes to cup his face.

“I won’t be able to stand it, Buck,” he whispers, and goddamn, but his words don’t wait for permission; his pulse pounds them out of him before he can fight back: “I won’t survive it again.”

And Bucky cradles his jaw gently, staring into his eyes like they can read every letter of every word and wish and want inside their gazes and maybe they can, maybe they can.

“I love you, Steven Grant Rogers,” Bucky breathes; “and I’m coming back from this, and making an honest man out of you, and we’re going to live a fucking glorious life.”

Steve’s breath catches, and he pulls Bucky closer when he didn’t think that closer was possible at all.

“I love you, James Buchanan Barnes,” he murmurs against Bucky’s lips: “and I cannot wait to be your husband and continue living a glorious fucking life.”

Bucky kisses his lips, sucking the bottom and then the top, like he can taste the promise itself right there.

“It’ll be glorious and there will be fucking,” Bucky says; “so it works both ways, too.”

And Steve laughs, even if it’s half-hearted at best, even if it hurts, but Bucky wanted the little spark of joy form him anyway and he gets it, and for that reason among so many others Steve loves him to the ends of the fucking universe and back, until the end of everything there’s ever been or ever will be.

“So much fucking, Steve,” is what Bucky says, then, but it means other things, and Steve knows them too.

“God, yes,” Steve agrees, to everything said and unsaid. “I love you,” Steve tells him again, because he could never say it enough, ever, for it to be enough. Bucky kisses him, and it feels final and that breaks Steve’s heart, but it’s a beautiful thing and it’s got Bucky’s soul in the press of it, so he has to love it, too.

“When it’s done, we’ll…” Bucky starts, and Steve nods, almost too hard; almost too desperate.

“When it’s done.”

And they’ll survive it. They’ll survive it and Steve will somehow get everything he’s never earned and always wanted. He’ll get Bucky in his arms, in his bed, in his heart and soul with Bucky’s ring on his finger to top it all off. He will have it. He will get it.

They will survive.