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Scents and Sensibility: The Working Assassin's Guide to Supersoldier Seduction

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AVON Romance NEW RELEASES

Wooed by a Werepod, by Judith, Daveed, and Ian Darling

Max was just trying to finish his ecology fieldwork so he could graduate with honors; he was thrilled when the feisty A he'd been pining after for three years was assigned as his fieldwork partner! He wasn’t prepared to be surrounded by glowing eyes on the night of the full moon...

Janelle, losing interest in academia with her degree nearly complete, was hoping to reconnect with the discipline she loved during her fieldwork study. It didn’t hurt that her fieldwork partner was easy on the nose! But when she stumbles upon a hidden society of werewolves, she'll have to make a tougher choice: between the discovery of a lifetime...or her heart.

Raphael, Angelique, and Marta were just trying to survive the loss of their pack lands to coastal erosion. Will they find salvation in a pair of unlikely academics...or will their burgeoning passion tear the pack apart?


TV Tropes: Nick, Nora, and Nelson

The trope of the traditional detective trio has its own trappings and costumes within each iteration, but the roles of each member tend to boil down into: The Gumshoe, The Socialite, and the Listener. While the Gumshoe is actively working to solve the mystery, is gathering clues, or otherwise has a crime solving background, the Socialite (who needn't be an actual socialite) arranges for people to be in the same room for the Gumshoe and the Listener, or otherwise charms and distracts suspects. The Listener, or the Watson, is primarily part of the story to be a sounding board for his two cohorts, or otherwise narrate the story. Occasionally the Listener will note a key piece of evidence, but without the information of the Socialite and the Gumshoe, will not solve the mystery."

     --“The Complex Art of Murder: from Sam Spade to Miss Marple and everywhere in between”, Annie Leeds and Neil Gupta

It’s the classic trio: the Nora is fabulously rich, the Nick is careless and charming, and the level-headed Nelson keeps them alive and somewhat functioning. Variations on crime-solving trios have abounded since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes, Watson, and Lestrade, but the Nick, Nora, and Nelson triad popularized by Dashiell Hammett was the first to marry all three elements into one pod, bringing domestic life and detection work into the same sphere. After the box office success of The Thin Man film adaptation, pod mysteries enjoyed a vogue in American cinema only somewhat dampened by the Hays Code, which limited expression of private domestic lives (notably, in later installments of the Thin Man series, Nick, Nora, and Nelson were all shown with conservative up-dos or close-cropped hair at all times, as opposed to the previous relaxed, loose hair styles later banned under the Hays Code).


 

Steve wakes up slow and drifting, like his brain got put in a boat and sent off to sea and there’s nothing any of him needs to do about it. He’s warm. His hands are wrapped around something nice to touch. He’s had a heightened awareness of his body plenty when he’s throwing all 200-odd pounds of himself into a fight, but not so often when everything’s loose and easy and he feels like all his bones are where they’re supposed to be.

He blinks his eyes open, half expecting to see a shower of feathers from where he’d ripped open the nest of pillows in his sleep. But all the debris from last night has already settled to the bottom of the pit, save for the feathers in Bucky’s hair. The rest of the pillows are whole and hearty and Steve can only glance at them in jumps and starts, because there’s Bucky, and he’s probably not actually glowing but it’s hard for Steve to be objective about it. His scent has spread everywhere overnight, trapped by the curtains.

It’s morning enough for light to filter through and meld the bed pit and its inhabitants into one cedar-rich mossy green blur. Bucky’s curled up tight against Steve, head pillowed on Steve’s shoulder and hair gone feral. He’s got a leg firmly around Steve’s hips and and seems pretty territorial about it; when Steve gets an elbow under himself to look down and see if their feet are under a blanket, Bucky rolls onto him further instead of letting himself slip away to the side.

And Steve’s hands, instead of digging in and tearing apart any of the bedding, have curled around Bucky instead. Bucky’s tunelessly humming along to Steve kneading at his shoulder and hip, heavy and loose across Steve’s body and some of the fluffier pillows.

Steve presses a little more firmly, relishing the opportunity to knead on purpose, and Bucky doesn't budge, stone cold out on Steve’s chest. Steve looks around like maybe a priest walked in while he wasn’t looking and then sniffs at Bucky’s hair. It smells like LOVE POTION, organic glitter and Steve’s bed. Steve tries to have a reasonable amount of emotions about it.

Bucky stretches against Steve, rubbing his whole body against whatever is available and Steve’s hand somehow finds its way into Bucky hair for an illicit scritch. Bucky yawns against Steve’s chest. Steve’s other hand can’t seem to let go of kneading at Bucky’s hip, and Bucky relaxes and goes even heavier under the slow rolls of pressure. It’s so good Steve feels almost guilty about it. He can maybe turn it into a more purposeful massage, at least, instead of whatever lizard brain this feels good, touch more instinct is rising to the surface.

Bucky looks up at him, blinking through tangles. Steve smiles. Bucky smiles back and then it’s just the both of them. Smiling. Steve feels like he should say something. Probably. Probably any words. Any second now one of them will stop smiling and say something.

“Good morning,” Steve says at the same time Bucky says, “You’re awake.” They both freeze waiting for the other to finish. Bucky ducks his head down again, then seems to decide it’s a winning strategy and flops fully on top of Steve.

“I like. Your bed.” Bucky says, ear to Steve’s chest, rising and falling as Steve breathes. Steve carefully threads his fingers through the towering catastrophe of Bucky’s bedhead. Bucky hums and it vibrates through Steve.

“Do you want to keep sleeping?” Steve asks. Bucky hums again; Steve feels well awake, his body knowing this is the usual time to go for a run, but Bucky is pretty lax on top of him.

Bucky picks his head up again and blinks some more at Steve. He’s got a pillow crease running down the side of his jaw. As Steve watches he cracks a massive leonine yawn, his molars showing and his nose scrunching up adorably. Steve’s free hand starts kneading at Bucky’s hips again.

Bucky looks Steve over blearily, mushes his face to Steve’s chest and then rolls back into the pillow pit, curling around one of the biggest, squishiest pillows. “You c’n g’tup.”

“I can stay here,” Steve offers. He’s not going to fall asleep again, but he can definitely lie here and produce body heat to the best of his ability.

Bucky wiggles around and encases himself more thoroughly in pillows. After a second he extends a hand and pats Steve’s hip. “S’okay,” he says dreamily, leaving his hand there. After a second his metal hand turns up and burrows in under Steve’s other hip.

Steve carefully raises himself on one elbow; Bucky already looks halfway back asleep, becomingly covered in Steve’s pillows and easily the nicest place for Steve to rest his eyes for a bit. His hands stay stuck on Steve’s hips, too, which is even nicer.

So, of course, like any nice thing, Steve feels the inane urge to ration it. If he tidies up a bit he can look again, and then make Bucky breakfast and watch him eat it.

It’s only practical. It’s extremely tempting to lie in bed holding Bucky until the end of forever, but eventually Bucky’s going to wake up, and Steve didn’t have time to get anything ready last night. When he’d thought, in vague and wistful terms, about a morning after with Bucky, it had included Steve making sourdough pancakes with batter he’d competently prepared the evening before and left in the fridge to rise. It’s too late for that now, but maybe if he has buttermilk he can modify the recipe.

Steve winces as he remembers sending them both careening into the river yesterday. It had - worked out, but it means Bucky doesn’t have any clean clothes, unless his clothes have dried out well enough overnight to be passable. Or unless he’d be willing to borrow Steve’s clothes, which is such a viscerally satisfying thought that Steve knows it can’t possibly be appropriate. If Steve had been thinking, he could have stayed up to wash and dry them so they’d be ready in the morning, but his goals had been aimed in a very different direction than getting Bucky dressed. Maybe one of them had the presence of mind to at least hang Bucky’s pants up?

A lot of patient nudging eventually dislodges Bucky’s vice grip on his hips. He makes a few noises like a cat being evicted from a sunbeam, but eventually Steve gets him settled a little further to the side, curled against the pillow Steve had been lying on. The way Bucky immediately smashes his nose into the pillow and inhales threatens to derail Steve’s focus, but he scrapes together his resolve and pulls back the bed pit curtains far enough to peek out and evaluate the state of his apartment.

Their clothes are all over the place in a kind of sartorial blast radius. He can see at least three towels strewn around the room and someone’s underpants are on his kitchen chair. Had Bucky even been wearing underpants? That feels like important information to know. Are they good? Are they soft? Does Bucky put them on in the morning and admire himself in the mirror? Was Steve supposed to note them as especially sexy underpants? One time Steve had worn white underpants with a bright blue star pattern to feel especially daring and Peggy hadn’t let him take them off until they were nearly ruined. And seeing as there was a war on he’d had to wear them on unrelated missions after that, too, which had been… an experience.

Steve feels he can’t be too hard on himself for not having noticed Bucky’s underpants, though, given that yesterday he’d have been hard pressed to point out which way was up.

Bucky might want to look around, though, after breakfast, and Steve suddenly realizes he hasn’t dusted the ceiling fan since he moved in. He crawls out and walks as quietly as he can to the cleaning cupboard to at least make the place presentable for a wooing.

The problem is that he doesn’t have that many things to make a mess with, but that doesn’t shut up the insistent need to put out the nice dishes, plate the fancy cookies, and have everything in the house so clean it glows with it. Lack of fancy cookies and nice dishes does not dispel the urge. Maybe he can - make quiche? No, he’ll wake Bucky up. Cooking isn’t a quiet activity.

Instead he dusts everything he can reach without scraping a chair around and then stares around like nice dishes holding an elaborate breakfast will materialize somewhere in the apartment if he looks at enough bare surfaces. Once Bucky’s awake he can at least make pancakes. Does Bucky like pancakes? Are peanut butter pancakes a thing? Would those be too dense? Should he make coffee? He can make coffee.

He gets the coffeemaker running. He looks balefully at the dust on the ceiling fan. He putters around loading Bucky’s clothes into the washer and discovers quite a few knives tucked into pockets and sewn into hidden loops, which he carefully dries with a cloth and lays out on a towel on the kitchen counter. They’re nice knives. If they’d been ambushed in the park Bucky could have probably handled it on his own.

Steve looks at the clock on the stove. It’s been eleven minutes.

This is about when he’d usually go for a run, but right now walking away from the bed pit feels like pulling on the end of a tethered bungee cord, and he knows if he leaves the apartment he’d snap back to his doorstep before he went three blocks. From the doorway of the bedroom he can hear, if he really concentrates, the soft whistling of Bucky’s breathing. He stands there for longer than he should just letting his own shoulders rise and fall in the same rhythm.

The coffeemaker beeps at him and he lunges across the kitchen to shut it off before it can beep a second time. He skids on a damp patch on the tile where his pants had sat overnight, but catches himself on the counter fast enough to roll into a silent tumble instead of just falling on his ass with a thump. It’s not his most dignified moment, but he didn’t wake Bucky, and now he knows he needs to mop and dry his floors. Valuable intel.

A glint of light catches his eye. He has to crawl halfway under the kitchen table to get at it, but when he does - it’s Bucky’s pin. The sparkly red white and blue one that’d fallen out of his jacket. It must have been dislodged at some point and thrown over here.

Steve drags his thumb over the star and leans against the kitchen table. Bucky’s never worn anything in his hair before, other than plain black ties to put his hair up for missions. He hadn’t even worn this to their date - he’d had it tucked in his pocket. One plus one equals Bucky bought this pin for their date and then hadn’t worn it, had either never put it in or had taken it out again before Steve showed up.

And that’s… sweet. That Bucky had maybe worried about his presentation as much as Steve had, when he’d been standing in the blanket aisle and fretting that royal blue was too outré. They could pass for young sweethearts at a squint from a distance, as long as nobody checked Steve’s driver’s license and saw his birthdate. It’s been a long time since Steve’s felt young.

Steve dries the hairpin off with the edge of his shirt, smiling, and sets it on the counter right next to the row of knives. Maybe it should look incongruous, but it doesn’t. These are Bucky’s things, and they all fit him just right. Steve can imagine Bucky coming out and making his knives disappear into his clothes and then, if Steve is very, very lucky, maybe he’ll bend his head down and let Steve put the pin back in his hair like he’d done the day before.

And then Steve remembers everything that came after that and realizes Bucky’s going to have an awful case of bedhead, and he’s going to smell like the bath and everything they did in the bed pit, and Bucky is going to think Steve is an absolute heel if Steve doesn’t take just as much time to put his hair back in order as he spent mussing it up last night. You don’t take nice people out for a night on the town without cleaning them up after. Steve hasn’t been on many dates, and Peggy had always given him precise instructions on how to get her hair the way it was supposed to be, which depending on the mission sometimes meant messing it up even more, but he knows that much from basic etiquette. If you make a mess, you clean it up. He thinks of the way Bucky had pressed his head back against the pillows as he came apart under Steve’s hands, loops of hair catching and sliding while his open mouth made electrifying little noises, and his hands itch to do something to the point where he just kneads at the table until it makes an alarming squeaking noise.

Steve bites his lip. Then he goes to the cabinet shelf in the living room that has the framed pictures of Ma and his father and Grandma Shannon and Peg and all the Howlies on it. He crouches down to get at the lowest shelf and takes out the wooden box holding his ma’s hairbrushes.

It’s a set of six, all done in carved ivory and stained walnut. Wide tooth, fine tooth, boar bristle, wooden bristle, round brush and narrow-handled comb. Family heirlooms, like the linens now stacked in Steve’s closet, protected in a hope chest when Ma had emigrated. They hadn’t been able to afford a practice set for Steve and he certainly wasn’t about to bring in these, so he’d used the school’s chipped loaner set for grooming class and shared with eight other kids. They’d taken turns on the ratty-haired practice dummy and giggled to each other, haphazardly following the diagrams in the same beaten-up copy of Introduction to Hygiene & the Healthful Arts of Grooming.

Steve had never gotten very good at it. Ma had tried to teach him some more than the bare-bones public school basics, but she never had much time and at home they had nothing and no one to practice on. Peggy had been some help, but practicality had her doing most of the work and giving him a kiss on the cheek afterward. In the future they have hair care classes and instructional public television shows and whole video tutorial series online, which Steve had watched a fair number of, glazing over, before he snapped out of it and realized what he was doing. Coincidentally, that was the day he learned how to erase his browser history.

So he’s better off than he was before, in that he’s now got a photographic memory and several hours’ worth of YouTube tutorials stored in it. His practical skills are probably still in the toilet. He keeps his own hair short and businesslike with regular visits to the homey barbershop operating a few blocks north, where he sheepishly enjoys the hot towel the barber puts on his face once every four weeks and the efficient head massage that comes with the territory. So he hasn’t invested much in hair upkeep and that means these are the only damn brushes in his house besides the deeply utilitarian comb living in Steve’s bathroom cabinet.

On the one hand, this is his mother’s dowry set. He doesn’t want to scare Bucky away by moving too fast or seeming too eager. Or… potentially damaging the brushes like the preservationists at the Smithsonian had been making dire predictions about as they handed him a 4-inch booklet about how to take care of things he’d seen less than a year ago. If he had to call up the chief conservator and confess that he’d snapped one of the handles, she’d either burst into tears or put a hit out on him. It’s probably best to leave them in the box.

On the other hand, he really, really wants Bucky to stay. And since he hadn’t thought to prepare, he doesn’t have anything else.

The brushes look smaller than he remembers. He drags a finger along the tongs and they plunk back how he remembers, but the ivory is yellowing, and the walnut hasn’t been polished in years. Held under glass instead of what they were meant for. Steve hasn’t been taking care of them. He hadn’t thought of them in so long, not since he’d extracted them from the Smithsonian. It had been easier to leave them in the chest, where he wouldn’t have to see them looking impossibly older than he remembered, incontrovertible evidence of how much he’d missed.

And Bucky deserves better than faded polish and bittersweet remembrances. He deserves his own set. Something they can make new memories with.

Steve closes the box and sets it back in the cabinet. He pokes his head back into the bedroom and looks into the bedpit. Bucky has become an impenetrable ball of blankets in the time it took Steve to tidy up the apartment. Apparently Bucky gets cold, because he’d found those blankets under all the pillows and burritoed himself with fervor. They rustle a little as what might be Bucky’s arm rises up to rub what is possibly Bucky’s face.

“I don’t know what your plans are for the day,” Steve says, quiet just in case Bucky’s still sleeping, “but if you don’t have to leave right away, you’re welcome to stay longer.”

The rustling stops. “What if I leave never,” say the blankets.

Steve brightens up. “Let me make you breakfast.”

“Wait.” A head slowly rises from the blanket depths, like the world’s hairiest whale breaching. “Zucchini.”

Steve tries to remember what he has in his fridge. There’s no zucchini, but he has some leftover radishes from his share of the reef’s vegetable plot crop, and half a head of green cabbage, he could make a hash fry, that might be filling -

Bucky’s metal hand snakes out from the blanket ball and points unerringly at Steve’s fly. “I didn’t get to see your zucchini.”

“Ah,” Steve says, slotting zucchini right next to melon into his newly-expanded genital euphemism thesaurus. “Did you - want to?”

Zucchini,” Bucky insists, trying to fight his way out of the blankets. He gets one foot free before his exfil strategy devolves into angry wiggling.

It’s too cute. Steve wants to pick him up, blankets and all, and knead him like a cushion. “How about coffee first?”

The blanket ball deflates. “Okay.”

“We will,” Steve says, trying for reassuring. “We will do - zucchini things, if you want to. But um. How about on a full stomach?”

The blankets consider this, then start rolling around in deburritofication. Steve ducks his head on a smile and heads to the kitchen. He takes the carafe of coffee off the warming stand, pours two cups, and gets to setting up the breakfast hash fry up. A good amount of fresh eggs whipped up with a touch of cream, salt and pepper can’t hurt, and plenty of butter in the skillet takes care of the protein. He fills a second pan with a pile of chopped-up homefries he figures he can get some peppers and onions into and starts emptying his vegetable drawer to see what else he has. He eats enough breakfast for four by himself. Given how quickly they’d demolished yesterday’s picnic, Bucky is capable of similar feats, and Steve isn’t about to send him away still hungry.

Bucky, accompanied by a small armament of blankets, shows up when the hash is nearly done and settles onto Steve’s one kitchen stool. His hair didn’t get to dry all the way before they’d… made a night of it, and now it’s, well, it’s not kind to call something attached to somebody a rat’s nest, but it is certainly leaning more toward postmodernism in its interpretation.

Bucky wraps one hand around Steve’s Other Mug and Steve feels hopelessly warm at Bucky just flopped there, his face creased and blankets drawn around him like an entourage. He’s entirely comfortable in Steve’s space and not trying to freshen up or anything. He’s just warm and looking into his mug and smelling all soft and unworried.

“Eggs?” Steve says, trying to put that whole big warm feeling into something he can act on.

Bucky blinks and looks at the bowl. “Powdered?”

“No, just um. Regular eggs,” Steve says, pointing to where the shells were in his little “For Compost” bin. “I took the shells off.”

Bucky stares at the bowl, and Steve wonders if he’d prefer powdered eggs. SHIELD serves eggs in the cafeteria sometimes, but they come out in a huge steam tray looking more like the brains of some deep ocean creature than actual food. Steve still eats them, but the same way he eats his least favorite flavor of MREs when it’s that or pulling up weeds to chew.

“If you keep them moving in the pan. The curd stays smaller,” Bucky says slowly, like it’s something he forgot about and found in his pocket just now.

Steve nods. “Low heat, right?”

“Yeah,” Bucky says, thoughtful. He squints around the table, locates the sugar bowl shaped like a pineapple Steve’s upstairs neighbors had pressed on him as a housewarming gift, and starts spooning sugar into his coffee. Then he stops mid-transfer and blinks at his hands like he’s just realized he’s defusing C4 instead of preparing a drink. Steve watches him peer suspiciously at his right hand, then at his left, and then slowly resume the sugar ferrying operation. When he’s added half the sugarbowl he stirs, sniffs and takes a very cautious sip.

His eyebrows go up. He takes a much bigger sip. His coffee’s got to be more like syrup at this point, which means Steve needs to learn how to make whatever the hell a caramel macchiato is. He also needs to mind the pan on the stove, because those potatoes won’t fry themselves and if he burns the first breakfast he cooks for Bucky, Shara and Mabel and Josef will know and join together with the entire population of his reef to put some kind of curse on him.

Steve keeps cooking, Bucky watching him, still blinking sleepily and stirring his coffee from time to time; when Steve puts a plate of eggs and steaming hash down Bucky pokes at it a moment, leans in close for a vigorous sniff, and then eats in huge, starving mouthfuls. Steve brings the pans from the stove to the counter so he can refill Bucky’s plate before he’s finished chewing the last bite. Bucky keeps the stool and Steve leans on the counter’s edge, holding his plate up by his chest.

It’s a while before they both finish eating. Steve’s topped up both their mugs twice and Bucky’s sitting with his head resting on his elbow, plate empty, sucking idly on his fork. Steve can’t help but notice Bucky’s hair is starting to look a lot like the massive sprawl of wisteria that’s perched across four trellises in the reef courtyard garden, only less purple and not nearly so full of bees. The flower pin is still sitting at the end of the line of Bucky’s knives on the counter. Steve is trying not to look at it.

He won’t bring up the pin, that’s for Bucky to offer or not as he pleases, but a simple combing is just good manners. He doesn’t have the supplies to do it properly, but not offering - that might be worse. He’d had a really, really nice time yesterday. Last night. This morning. He wants to do it again. Bucky shouldn’t leave here thinking Steve isn’t serious, or that it wasn’t good enough for a repeat.

The worst that can happen is Bucky will say no, and delaying isn’t going to make him any more likely to say yes. Steve takes a deep breath. “Would you like me to do your hair?”

-o-

Bucky has been having a good morning. People say that from time to time in the mess hall, an overlapping soundtrack of “- was your morning? Did you have a - ” “good, Pat made waffles for breakfast - ” “ - a good weekend, we went down to the coast and - ” “ - great time with the pod, we’re going again next - ” all blended together into genial background noise like birds waking up and yelling at the sun. Bucky has never known how to fit into the chain those paper puppet sentences make, but now he knows he is having a very good morning.

Steve has made him breakfast and the coffee his hands knew how to calibrate tastes almost as good as it smells and Steve is not wearing many clothes. Bucky tries to slow down to enjoy the food Steve made (Steve made it for him) but the warm potatoes and fluffy eggs he’s shoveling into his mouth are so good and Steve is smiling and smelling better by the moment. Bucky has a mid-bite fever dream of sucking on Steve’s fingers and eating this sprawling plate of food that keeps refilling itself, but his mouth is not that big and he might bite Steve harder than he wants to if he’s trying to chew at the same time. The blankets he’s wearing smell just right and Steve’s kitchen is full of sunlight filtered through green leaves. He doesn’t even need to pick his knives up off the counter; it’s enough to see them there, clean and sharp and ready for him where he’d see them as soon as he got up. Steve understands that having a good morning requires food and a warm mug to hold and knowing where your knives are.

He finally slows down just to find Steve looking at him all warm and soft. His cowlick is out in full force and it brought reinforcements. There’s an overlooked bit of feather stuck to the side of his neck. The light is at his back so he’s all gold around the edges like the sun itself wants to show him off for Bucky.

And then he asks to do Bucky’s hair.

Bucky’s never had anyone offer to do his hair. Not that he knows of. But the magazines had plenty to say about grooming on “the morning after.” What, precisely, came before the morning after had always been obscured by garden metaphors, but the various braids, twists, curls, up-dos, casual waves, and other hair options had been examined with merciless clarity, often with pictures and product recommendations in the margins.

It all seemed complicated and technical and in any case secondary to the business with the melons, but - Bucky very much wants it. He wants Steve’s giant hands to run through his hair like they had in the bath, smoothing and stroking until the inside and outside of Bucky’s head are both calm and well-ordered.

But. The magazines were very clear. Grooming is for the after, and Bucky’s not done with the garden tending yet. He wants to do this properly.

Steve is starting to look nervous. Bucky has been staring for too long. “Zucchini,” he says, sitting up as tall as he can and dropping his fork to the table. Steve stands up as tall as Bucky, looking at him across the demolished breakfast platters. Bucky’s ready to drop everything else in favor of touching all of the happy, content smell radiating off Steve. He wants to make more of it. He wants Steve to be so content that he melts into the bed pillows and both of them can just stay there forever.

Bucky thinks pointing might help. He points. Steve looks down, then nods and brushes the crumbs off his hands. He picks up their plates and takes them to the sink to rinse. Bucky slips off the stool and starts shedding layers of blankets until he just has one draped over his shoulders like a cape. Steve glances over at him, goes pink around the ears, and looks quickly back at the plate he’s scrubbing. Bucky wouldn’t mind watching Steve wash dishes, but he wants to rub his unshaved chin over Steve’s stomach more. He circles the counter and Steve shuts the water off, watching Bucky approach.

Kissing worked last time, so Bucky steps forward and only hesitates a second before leaning in against the long line of Steve’s warm front. Bucky has an ever-expanding itemized spreadsheet  of Very Good Things about Steve, but the fact that whenever he presses close Steve’s arms automatically go around him and pull him in like maybe they can mush together like water droplets on a windshield is underlined and in bold. Steve turns until he’s leaning against the sink, dragging his hands down Bucky’s sides, and Bucky smashes his whole face into Steve’s neck.

“You wanna go back to the -” Steve’s right hand briefly leaves Bucky’s hip to gesture somewhere before coming back and kneading at the tight muscles around his lower back. Bucky hums and presses his tongue to where Steve smells very good and Steve melts a little, his - everything - pressing more heavily against Bucky as he gives up his weight to Bucky’s hold. Bucky knows that means something good even if the exact details are murky, but he’s his own person and can innovate and experiment and Steve will make the good noises.

Steve hefts Bucky up by his thighs and Bucky kicks reflexively. It sounds like that does something unfortunate to Steve’s under-sink cabinet, but Steve doesn’t even glance down so it must not be important. Bucky wraps his legs around Steve’s hips and Steve kisses his collarbones, all pink faced and warm smelling and soft skinned and walking along like Bucky is an easy thing to carry. An easy weight. Bucky smiles without really thinking about it and Steve smiles back, walking them back to the pillow pit.

Bucky half expects to be dropped but Steve wades in instead, falling to his knees and laying Bucky out on the blankets like a fancy coat. Bucky surges back up and tumbles them over in a way that’s - probably more judo throw than love tackle, but it’s fine so long as he doesn’t actually choke Steve out.

Steve smiles up at him from where Bucky has him pinned, then holds up his hands and drops them back against the pillows. “Your turn.”

Bucky nods and assesses the terrain. Steve flat on his back, Bucky’s legs wrapped around him. Good. Ideal. But Bucky is naked and Steve isn’t. Bucky frowns and tries to edge Steve’s pants down with his knees, then his thighs, then growls and gets on all fours and wiggles them off with his hands.

Steve, now significantly pinker and even more significantly all naked, is breathing even harder than Bucky, despite not actively participating in the victory Bucky just achieved over his pants. Bucky had seen him naked in the bath yesterday, but he’d been distracted from doing a full evaluation by his body’s urgent insistence that he climb onto Steve and stay there until something fused. That urge is still there, but now it’s background noise instead of a full brass band playing directly into his ears. Now he can take his time.

Bucky looks at all of the Steve that’s lying there and feels like a shook-up snowglobe. He can put his hands anywhere. Whatever the touching equivalent of eating so fast you get sick is, Bucky wants to do that.

When in doubt, start from the top. He carefully reaches up and rubs Steve’s head, going in with his metal hand first so he doesn’t overload too fast. Steve’s cowlick curls up toward the ceiling and Steve’s eyes half-close as Bucky tries to smooth it down. “Short,” Bucky says.

“Yeah,” Steve says. Bucky strokes down the fine hairs along the curve of Steve’s neck and Steve shivers slightly, just enough so Bucky’s fingers pick it up. His metal hand is sensitive to movement. He can unlock a safe by feel and pick up the vibrations of footsteps two rooms over and know when Steve Rogers likes being touched.

“You ever have short hair?” Steve says, sounding distinctly more blurry.

“Probably,” Bucky says, unconcerned. He traces his fingers back up for another round. Steve’s scent is expanding to fill the curtained space and Bucky wants to drink the air down like soup.

“Probably?”

“I have brain damage,” Bucky says. Steve blinks up at him, his cowlick finally tamed, but with the rest of his hair all sticking up. Bucky thinks of the Before And After pictures in Cosmo, and puffs up at having helped create an After photo. It takes him a second to retrieve the thread of what they were talking about. “I don’t remember things sometimes.”

“Oh,” Steve says, but doesn’t tense up or pull away, which Bucky likes.

“I was in the Army. So. Probably short.”

“That makes sense,” Steve says.

Bucky drags his hand against the grain of Steve’s hair and Steve’s eyes droop closed again. Bucky feels his heart do something fluttery and light and he presses a kiss down against Steve’s cheekbone, his jaw, his lips. Steve hums and arches up a little, which is like riding - something. Something big. Bucky has probably ridden something, even if he can’t remember what it was.

“Do you like it short?” Bucky asks, and then because he can he presses his cheek to the side of Steve’s head, and feels the hairs brush against this cheek and then his neck, tickling over the glands.

“S’good,” Steve murmurs, and his fingers are curled in all soft and calm above his head and Bucky likes looking at them like that. He puts his thumbs at the divot of each wrist and Steve lets out a soft sigh and Bucky wants to somehow grab Steve and shove all of him inside and keep him there. This Steve. This soft and quiet and happy Steve that doesn’t exist at SHIELD except sometimes. When Bucky tucked snacks in his pocket. The thought makes him nestle down close over Steve again, resting his chin in the perfect space between Steve’s shoulder and neck.

“Short’s not bad,” Steve murmurs in his ear. “Long is great too.” He rubs his cheek against Bucky’s, nuzzling against the hair falling over Bucky’s shoulder. Bucky thinks of the way the curtains trap scent and rakes his hair down over his face until it enfolds both of them in a tiny dim pocket. He means to wait and see if that works to create a good Steve smell bubble, but Steve’s eyes get wide and dark and his mouth opens and Bucky’s kissing him before he can think to do anything else, like Steve’s parted lips are a mission-critical intel gap and Bucky has the answer.

His hair curtain has broken apart into tangled clumps by the time he comes up for air. Bucky tables that experiment for a time when he can stand to look at Steve without touching him, which is possible the same way an inversion of the Earth’s magnetic poles is possible. Theoretically it could happen, but it’s hard to conceptualize.

Bucky puts his hand in Steve’s, pinning it, and puts his mouth on Steve’s wrist. Steve gasps and then grunts like he’s been punched when Bucky sucks. He worries at it and Steve starts making the big, deep pleasure-smells he made last night. Bucky looks at the rest of Steve’s hand because it’s big, and it’s there, and he knows the strength of that hand but right now the fingers are relaxed and twitching. Bucky kisses Steve’s big bony knuckles and Steve’s other hand lifts up to hover above Bucky’s shoulder.

“You kinda seem like you wanna run the show,” Steve says, sounding out of breath. His hand runs through the air above Bucky’s shoulder and Bucky arches up until Steve is petting a large warm line along his side. Bucky leans agreeably into the contact, but doesn’t let himself get distracted from investigating Steve’s neck. There’s a lot of Steve and Bucky has wanted to touch this entire landscape for a long time now.

Steve makes a very nice sound. Bucky can work with feedback. If he does something that makes a nice sound, then he should do it again. Soft kiss to the bottom of Steve’s jaw and Steve makes a good noise. Repeat and he does it again. Bite at at the strong tendon along his neck and the noise sort of rolls in gravel for a second and comes back up.

Bucky leans back to evaluate his work. Steve’s skin has shiny patches of spit and red marks and his eyes are very sleepy and dark and he smiles when Bucky looks at him, one hand still pinned down into the pillows because Bucky just likes it there. Steve does a lot of things and Bucky wants him to not have to do anything. He should get to be warm and happy and relaxed like Bucky felt last night and - yes. All of it and more.

Steve is still running his free hand down Bucky’s back, like maybe Bucky is as soft as Cosmo was telling him to be and Steve just wants to keep touching. It makes Bucky want to do things for Steve even more. He doesn’t have a clear mission plan, but the best operatives are willing to improvise based off available intel.

And Available Intel is breathing like he wants to be heard and smells as enticing as the toasty butter pastries Bucky sometimes turns around on the sidewalk to track down and purchase from someone with an interesting haircut who will put anything he wants in a crinkly bag and hand it to him so long as Bucky swipes the card SHIELD gave him. Something Bucky can eat in three bites and think about for four weeks. Except here he hopes the experience won’t end with him throwing up on anything Steve owns.

Bucky slides down, which drags an interesting stuttering breath out of Steve, and examines the situation. The situation is big and pink and, yes, does somewhat resemble a zucchini. When Bucky was A his never looked like this, but that’s not surprising given he hadn’t exactly been in any pillow pits or fraternizing with any Steves. For a moment Bucky considers finding a condom - May had been very, very clear about condoms - but those were for pregnancy risk and that sort of thing is pretty thoroughly out of the question here.

He can’t do precisely what Steve did to him last night, but, Bucky decides, the principle is sound. Licking. And mouth. Lots of mouth. He doesn’t know quite where to start, but he has the firm sense that he should mind his teeth and not pinch anything and maybe nuzzle it a bit first. Steve’d gone in slow and soft, all lips at the beginning, so Bucky will too and Steve will make Good Noises.

Bucky bends down and gives it a try. Steve’s legs jump like a slapped horse. Steve had also hugged Bucky’s legs, and moved his tongue around, and breathed on him all warm and slow. Bucky tries all those things too. Steve says “ohgod,” in a very small voice. This seems promising. Bucky opens his mouth wider.

The next twenty minutes are extremely educational. Bucky wants an entire filing cabinet just for Steve’s noises. He’s not loud at all but it’s like he’s talking with his whole body and he’s saying a lot. Bucky might’ve worried about flying blind, but it feels like last night turned down the volume on every grating or distracting thing in the world and in any case it’s like Steve’s body is laying a roadmap all by itself. Steve makes the softest questioning noise and Bucky follows it until it turns over and becomes a better one.

Steve had not used any teeth and so Bucky keeps his away, but Steve had used a lot of gentle tongue and lips and when Bucky follows that track Steve kicks a leg into the pillows and keeps his arms up where Bucky put them and says “You can…”

Bucky lifts up entirely. The blush that had started on Steve’s ears has reached his sternum and shows no sign of stopping. Bucky’s mouth is too full of saliva again. Maybe this was what the internet meant by watering daily.

He braces himself up on his hands. Steve looks down his whole front in one quick sweep and then at the curtains and back at him and his hands are still where Bucky put them and Bucky has to surge up and press a kiss to Steve’s wrist like he’s got magnets in his mouth and Steve’s the one with the metal arm.

“If you want you can…” Steve huffs and turns his face into his own bicep. Now Bucky has to put his lips to the warm color of Steve’s cheek. “Just um. If you want to suck a little more it’s less… it won’t be too much for me.”

Steve’s hips twitch a little and Bucky moves back down to put his hands on Steve’s thighs. “If you want to,” Steve repeats, sounding like finding words is now as hard for him as it usually is for Bucky.

“I want,” Bucky tells him seriously. Steve shouldn’t doubt that at all. Bucky wants Steve's quiet gravel noises and his big warm smells and the sweat gathering at his hairline behind his ear. Bucky wants Steve to know he wants these things, and so he sets about proving it, coming back to Steve with a firmer mouth and his metal thumb braced against the curve of Steve's hipbone.

He lets back up when Steve starts to sound like he’s scaling Mount Everest freehand, growling in his chest and gripping handfuls of pillow and sheet and bed pit. Steve whines but also looks a little relieved to be able to catch his breath for a second. Bucky wipes his mouth and glances down at himself quickly. His own stomach feels all hot and molten like it had last night and he is also, he notices, making a mess. Steve’s hips have started to move again, though, so Bucky hurriedly shoves his hair out of his face and ducks back down, taking Steve back in his mouth.

“Bucky,” Steve says this time, not like he wants Bucky to pay attention but just like it’s the only word he has right now. “Bucky. Jesus. Oh, lord.”

Bucky sucks harder. Steve makes a noise like a hamster going down a water slide. Bucky stifles a giggle and, emboldened, carefully snakes his skin hand down between his stomach and the bed and tentatively presses between his own legs. Oh, yes. Good idea. He shuts his eyes and tries to copy Steve more, with his hands and his smell and his mouth, hugging Steve’s leg with his metal arm and pushing up on himself with his other hand and vaguely wishing he’d tied his hair back because this is just inefficient.

Maybe Steve can hold it back for him. “Bucky,” Steve manages again, like he heard Bucky’s thoughts, like he wants the same thing, “Bucky, please,” so Bucky reaches up and gropes around until he finds Steve’s elbow. “What do you,” Steve starts, confused and breathless, but then he gets the point when Bucky drags his arm down and slaps a hank of hair in his palm. Steve makes a brand new noise and gathers Bucky’s hair up in his fingers with massive delicacy, like the hair might bruise if he squeezes too hard. All the loops of hair that were catching on Bucky’s chin are swept away. Bucky hums his appreciation and Steve makes a brand new smell.

“Can I kiss you?” Steve gasps, sounding like he’s dangling by one hand over a cliff. Bucky kind of wants to push him off it but also Steve sounds so yearning, like he’d do anything for it, so Bucky pulls off again and swipes at his mouth and shuffles himself up.

Steve meets him with his whole body, his back arching up and his spare arm going around Bucky’s waist, his other arm still cradling Bucky’s hair in a loose clump at the back of his head. Bucky had intended to go back to the gardening after a few seconds but he gets distracted, Steve’s mouth moving so - so good on his, and Steve’s hands, and Bucky ends up plastered against Steve’s side with his leg slung over Steve’s stomach and his hips moving. One of Steve’s hands slides down Bucky’s back, then his ass, helping him grind, then Steve half-rolls them and Bucky’s straddled across him and suddenly they’re pressed right against each other. Steve’s hips keep moving and so do Bucky’s and Steve’s rubbing up right between his legs and Bucky’s brain feels like it’s being pushed through a noodle maker. He’s dissolving from the sternum down like a sandcastle in high tide. The vegetable patch is no longer a monoculture. Being this close feels so good.

Steve makes a noise like it hurts and his whole body goes tight as garrote wire. Bucky’s rhythm stutters and he stops, muzzy and confused, only then Steve shudders out a breath and reanimates. His hand goes down between them and between Bucky’s legs and, oh, just like last night, like when Bucky had guided his hand there and pressed where he knew it felt good to press. Now Steve’s hand is moving a lot more, and Bucky has better leverage, so he plants both hands on Steve’s shoulders and shoves himself down on Steve’s hand until the hot buttered feeling leaps and fireworks through his whole body.

They collapse on each other, gasping. Steve pants like one of the especially fluffy dogs Bucky sees sometimes on Dog Days Fridays and Bucky has the same urge to stuff his face into Steve’s fur except Steve doesn’t have any. Which could be solved by rolling Steve into a sufficiently fuzzy blanket, except that Bucky wants to connect with Steve like a battery and blankets would only get in the way. Steve’s body isn’t soft but Steve is soft right now, fluff or no fluff, and Bucky can’t stuff his face into that softness but he can breathe it in. Steve is flushed and sweat-soaked and Bucky’d be more or less fine if this turns out to be what Heaven is. The two of them floating in this moment.

He feels warm to his core, his belly tightened up to his spine and alive with energy. Steve is still panting, fingers digging into the pillows, and Bucky licks his lips wanting more of it. Wanting him to stay there panting and helpless for as long as Bucky can keep him there. All loose-limbed and easy. Bucky pushes up so their faces are aligned and Steve blinks up at him, then smiles and reaches out to take Bucky’s chin in his hand.

Steve rubs his thumb along Bucky’s jawline and just stares. Well, no. Looks might be a better term, because he’s not sizing Bucky up like a threat, but he seems to want to look at Bucky more than he wants to look at anything else, so that’s where his eyes are staying. Bucky looks back at him and thinks, if all of them were gone tomorrow, this would still have happened. If he never saw Steve again, he would still keep this. Steve’s imprint on his life. Bucky arches down on impulse and presses his forehead to Steve’s and Steve rumbles up into it.

They both hover in silence for awhile, Bucky relaxing down into Steve’s body and Steve cupping his hand along Bucky’s ribs and stroking downward.

“Good?” Bucky asks, lips pressed sideways against Steve’s chest, because post-op intel can be the most important of all. He doesn’t bother to open his eyes.

“Good.” Steve said, stroking the back of Bucky’s head. Bucky feels like he could probably sleep another four hours - the novelty of that hasn’t worn off either - but they are extremely sticky. Maybe they can have a bath.

How many baths are acceptable within 24 hours? Bucky hopes it’s at least 7. He wouldn’t mind switching aimlessly between soaking in warm water and drying off in the pillows with Steve licking at him or him licking at Steve or the both of them belly up in a sunbeam in a defensible position. He has muscles unknotting that he didn’t know he had.

Maybe Bucky can crawl into Steve’s lap in the bath and put his chin on Steve’s shoulder and nap that way. Maybe Steve will wash his hair again and even comb it after. The day before yesterday those things seemed about as likely as Director Fury opening the annual SHIELD staff meeting by doing the can-can, but now all things seem possible. Steve could carry him to the bath, maybe.

Steve seems very awake. Having one’s zucchini tended seems to be quite the energizer. Bucky is just a dead weight manifest destinying the entire landscape of Steve’s chest, but Steve’s hand is already working away at Bucky’s scalp, like he can’t wait to get a jump on hair care now that zucchini business is concluded. His nails burrow down into the itchy roots of Bucky’s hair and Bucky’s body unravels like a ball of yarn thrown off a cliff.

Steve’s smell gets real smug, and Bucky’s fine with that. He feels smug too. They can be smug and snug here together until Monday slams its fist against the door. It’ll have to damn near knock it down to drag Bucky out of this vast simmering eggnog feeling.

Steve sits up after a bit, but since he uses the angle to put his other hand in Bucky’s hair too Bucky doesn’t feel the need to do anything about it. Eventually he rolls over - rolls might be too strong a verb for what’s essentially a prolonged directional loll - and Steve starts massaging his temples. Bucky wants to buy real estate here.

Steve’s fingers move along his hairline and then start fussing at the surface tangles, all meat-pawed gentle, the little tug-tug-tugs giving Bucky a good idea of how much new surface area his hair has acquired in the past twenty-four hours. O’s in magazines always have hair like a waterfall and Bucky has stared at himself in the mirror and thought: oil spill, seagulls beware.

“Would you like me to do your hair now?”

Bucky opens his eyes. Steve’s face is right above him and he looks like if he had something in his hands he’d be fumbling it, but since he doesn’t all he has to fumble with is his face. “I don’t have anything, nice, but. I’d like to. If you want.”

Steve has many nice things. But maybe he wants others. Bucky thinks of the ivory comb he’d seen in the Cosmopolitan centerfold and his neck goes hot.

“Yes,” he says, because whatever Steve’s got, he wants it. “Yes please.”

Steve nods and strokes his fingers through Bucky’s hair again, brow furrowed in concentration, like it’s one of those commercials Bucky sees out of the corner of his eyes in waiting rooms. The ones where there’s always a fan going somewhere offscreen and the word luscious gets thrown around with rivers of hair and chocolate and now that he thinks about it he isn’t sure if it had been selling hair care or candy. Or something else completely. Most ads have models with extremely shiny hair in them.

Unlike in the commercials, however, Steve’s fingers get stuck in the first thicket of tangles and he carefully pulls his hand out. Steve looks down at him. Bucky looks back up. It’s a suboptimal moment, but Bucky still feels sufficiently liquid about the whole thing and Steve seems to be in the valley of chocolate pudding with him, tracing his thumb along Bucky’s hairline.

“Do you, uh... usually do anything with it?” he asks.

Bucky shrugs, trying not to dislodge Steve’s hand. He drags a steel comb through every couple of days, but since that tends to make it retaliate with merciless poof he hasn’t made it a habit. Steve nods like he understands. Maybe Steve has the right idea with keeping his hair short. Except that gives his cowlicks free reign, completely unacceptable. Bucky is ambushed by an image of Steve with heaps of hair piling up around his knees. There’s a children’s story like that, and Bucky doesn’t remember how it goes but that’s okay, that means he can end it how he wants it to end, with him and Steve together. Just the two of them snug in a tower somewhere with yards of hair spilling over the floor in braids they give each other. Bucky curls his hands into his chest and Steve smiles warm all over.

Steve’s hands are big and careful and very slow. He just pets over the surface of Bucky’s hair for a while, like Bucky’s head is a small animal that he’s trying to get to fall asleep. Bucky’s not sure he’s wrong. His eyelids close of their own accord, and he only realizes Steve’s hands are supporting most of the weight of his head when Steve rolls his head a little to get at his temples. His neck muscles are napping on the job. He could use them if he had to, but Steve’s hand is still very big and very warm. When he tries to lift his head Steve smoothes along his hairline again and Bucky’s muscles clock out for the day and set an out of office message for the foreseeable future.

“Here, let me - ” Steve mutters and then Bucky is flopped back into the pillows and Steve is shoving things around before the two of them are snuggled neatly into a corner, with Bucky tucked up along Steve’s front, head on Steve’s stomach. It makes a friendly gurgle at him and it is not a good tactical position for Steve to get at all of his hair, but Steve starts finger picking at the tangles from the front and back, and most of Bucky’s body decides here is a good place to fossilize.

Left without recourse, Bucky dozes for a bit. Steve hums to himself, gently moving Bucky’s head around, and then rubbing along the long over-tired muscles of Bucky’s neck.

“Maybe if we put some of the bath stuff in it, it might loosen up,” Steve says. Bucky snorts from a quarter awake to at least half. A solid half awake, and a solid half too happy to be lounging on Steve like he’s a beach chair to do anything but hum in agreement.

“Okay, great. I’ll be right back.” Steve rolls him to the side all slow and sneaky-like so Bucky barely gets up to three-quarters awake before he’s back, one of the purple bottles in his hand.

“I don’t have any detangler,” Steve says, like it’s something he has to apologize for. “But the leave-in conditioner should work.”

Bucky butts his forehead into Steve’s chest. Steve correctly interprets this as agreement and gets to work. His fingers are pulling more firmly now, tugging at the knots after spreading conditioner over them, but he keeps one hand tight in the hair above the knot so nothing pulls on Bucky’s scalp. Bucky feels the ripples of movement distantly, like he’s a seismograph picking up Steve’s earthquake but staying balanced himself, no need to move.

It’s new. He doesn’t have to check the windows or the doors or secure the perimeter. Normally he’s very good at staying awake but he doesn’t want to stay awake. This is as warm and safe as he can ever remember feeling and he’s slept so much already but he wants more, he’s greedy for it, he wants to store up the quiet of Steve’s home in his bones. And he can. Steve wants this. Bucky can smell it. When the first thread of dreaming starts, Bucky chases it.

-o-

They drift, the two of them, Steve’s hands moving soft and slow over Bucky’s hair even after the tangles are out. After a while Steve can’t kid himself that he’s not done and sheepishly gets up to puts some music on, at the setting just above silent. One of his pat phrases for the press is that he likes that you can buy any kind of music you like and then it’s there for you whenever you want it. Folks are out there hunting down vinyl because it sounds “warmer” and that’s alright too, but Steve likes keeping every song he’s ever heard into a little white rectangle he can fit in his pocket. After 20-something years of listening to whatever was on offer, Steve has fallen arms outstretched into a world filled with music.

Bucky’s cuddled up with a few of the pillows and blinks, clearly half asleep, when Steve settles back in. He keeps one eye open and squishes a pillow corner over the other.

“People keep recommending me stuff,” Steve says, quietly. Like they’re in a fort and actually hiding from the world. Bucky rolls over and replaces his pillows with Steve. His left hand is just as warm as his right, the whole bed pit heated up from how long they’ve been lying there. “Usually with caveats. Like ‘oh you have to watch this, but not after season 9.’”

Bucky puts his hand flat on Steve’s stomach. “Anything good?”

Steve frowns and thinks about it. He’s mostly been watching movies like he’s a oil miner dowsing for references. He stares up at the ceiling and then says, “I don’t know. I usually say it was great, because if it’s the one thing they want me to watch then they must love it.”

Bucky just hums without commentary and Steve’s stomach goes soft right under Bucky hand and he can’t resist a kiss to the top of Bucky’s head. Bucky presses up against him in a long, warm line and noses Steve’s jaw.

“You have anything?” Steve asks, because usually someone would chime in about something by now.

Bucky kicks idly against Steve’s calf. “Have you tried those peanut m&m’s?”

Steve wraps his leg under Bucky’s. “Yeah?”

Bucky draws his fingers along Steve’s arm, following a vein. “They’re better than the original. More textures. You have crispy, and then chocolate, and if you let it all melt you have a peanut. Normal m&m’s melt and you have nothing to bite on.”

“Like one bite trail mix.”

“Efficient,” Bucky agrees. “In suboptimal conditions, the best thing to steal from a vending machine. Unless jerky is present.”

He looks up at Steve, and his lips turn up. So Steve’s lips turn up. Then it’s just the two of them, in a pillow pit on a lazy Saturday morning, smiling.

Steve gathers himself together from the puddle of feelings he’s flowed into and makes his proposition. “Would you…. I mean… is there anywhere you have to be this weekend?”

Bucky, still looking up at him, shakes his head. Steve bites his lip. “I could - I have to run a couple errands,” he says. “But if you’d like to stay, I could go, and come back, and we could um. Spend some more time together.”

Bucky’s nodding before Steve even finishes the sentence. Steve gets caught up smiling at him like a dope, then realizes if he wants to come back to Bucky in his apartment, he has to actually leave first. Supplies. He needs supplies, so he can do Bucky’s hair properly.

“I could - braid your hair, before I go? Just to start,” he adds hastily, lest Bucky think all Steve wants to do is a utilitarian tie-back, like Steve doesn’t know how to do proper hairdressing or doesn’t think Bucky’s worth the effort. “So it doesn’t get in your face.”

Bucky’s already sitting up. He drapes his arms over his knees and gives Steve his back, all his hair in easy reach. Steve sinks his fingers in with a guilty thrill--Bucky has so much hair, and it’s not like Steve would care for him any less if he had a buzz cut, but the soft weight of it in his hands is breathtaking--and wrangles it into the best braid he can without doing a full conditioning and brush-out.

“Okay,” Steve says softly, tying the braid off with a hair tie Bucky miraculously produced from nowhere just when Steve was reaching the end. “That should hold for a while.”

“Okay.”

“Okay,” Steve echoes, and chases himself out of the pillow pit before he kisses the back of Bucky’s neck and starts something he doesn’t have time to finish before the shops close. “I’ll be right back.”

-o-

Bucky stays curled up in the pillows after the door closes behind Steve. After a while his bladder’s signals get more insistent, and he crawls begrudgingly out of the bed pit.

When he’s done he stands in the bathroom and looks at the products lined up at the side of the tub. Then he looks at the clock. He feels his own hair, running a hand over the braid. It’s lumpy from knots and a little greasy now from all the conditioner Steve used. Steve had mentioned detangler like that would be better. Bucky could get detangler, and then maybe Steve would comb his hair out again the next time it gets messy.

Maybe he can get something for Steve too. Something nice. Steve’s home is full of nice things like pillows that smell like trees and warm laundry, but none of them are things Bucky’s given him, except for the acorn he spotted on the end of the bookcase. It sparked something hot and soft in Bucky’s chest to see it there. He wants more of that feeling. And Steve should have as many nice things as Bucky can find.

-o-

Manuela is elbow deep in the demonstration sink when the giant butch alpha comes in, a whole cloud of drama blowing in with him. It’s not totally weird - they’re a super fancy place so their client base is less giggling teens and more Russian tourists in furs and tracksuits buying each other gold-plated combs and $3,146 moisturizer. They do, however, get the occasional lost soul reeking of sex, amazement and nerves.

This one looks to be an especially intense case. Talli offers him the complementary glass of rosé and he takes it like she could be putting a dead rat in his hand and he wouldn’t notice. “What are you looking for today?” Talli asks, and he just looks around the store wild-eyed, doing a double take at the grooming workshop Jordan is running in the back.

Manuela has been running this shop since before she was old enough to vote. She knows the look of a career alpha suddenly faced with a dire courtship emergency. It’s the only thing worse than a career alpha who’s finally gone O and suddenly found themselves with an urgent need to no longer live like a rabid gorilla.

“I think I can take this one,” she says to Talli, coming up and wiping her hands on her apron. The A is wearing no deodorant and she can practically smell what his O ate for breakfast this morning. At least he smells happy. It’s a concussed kind of happy, but happy nonetheless.

“Let me guess,” Manuela says. “It’s getting serious and you don’t know what to get that’ll convey just the right amount of ‘stick around, I’ll show you my velvet underwear’?”

The guy was already pretty pink in the face but that makes him go full tomato. “I just - I don’t have any brushes,” he says. From this close she can see his pupils are the size of quarters. “Or - anything. I was in the Army,” he finishes lamely.

“Don’t worry,” Manuela says. “You’re not the first. What kind of hair does your partner have?”

The A glazes over. Manuela sighs, but internally, because if she plays this right the commission will send her to Barbados. “Long? Short? Curly?”

“Long,” the guy says. “Um. There’s kind of a wave in it?

“Do you know if the texture is coarse or fine?”

If he blushes any harder he’s gonna pop a blood vessel. “It uh. It didn’t. It didn’t feel coarse?”

“Let’s go take a look at some of our options.”

All in all he’s not a bad A to work with. He’s got a pretty good head for details and listens to her suggestions carefully, staring in a mildly stunned way at the options all in velvet boxes. Also he doesn’t seem to notice nothing has a price tag near it, and he doesn’t ask. She gets a read on him by sneaking in a number for the round comb and he just nods slowly and asks what it’s for.

“Now this is a boar bristle brush, it’s good for most hair types, and you said it was…” Manuela isn’t going to use the F-word about a poor O she’s never met, but the A had made wild, sheepish hand gestures around his head and she knows what that means. “A bit - uncontrolled? Carefree?”

He nods and she hands him the brush. A nice smooth oak without too much fuss, given the client, with a nice grip along the handle. “Now this is a vented paddle brush with a mix of boar and nylon which is perfect for thicker hair. You can use a blow dryer with it for more elaborate styles, which my colleague Jordan would be happy to demonstrate for you.”

The A just nods agreeably and adds both the brush and the blow dryer to the basket. He leans more towards the traditional and classic looks; Manuela walks him through the aisle, each piece coming in its own box, until she gets to the end and gestures to the portfolio case. “Now, do you wish to display these somewhere, or would you like to have them in a travel ready bag?”

He takes a nice mahogany display case. Manuela discreetly signals for Talli to sweep in and take the basket when it looks too full, and it gets tucked behind the counter as the A gets bolder, picking up items on his own and looking around at the shop. "Is this paint?" he asks, picking up a package of small silver tubes arrayed in a spiral around a few soft brushes.

"It's a body painting kit,” Manuela says. “It’s pretty popular. All of the paint is both edible and skin-safe."

The A freezes like she's pulled a gun on him. "Oh. Oh. I didn't - realize - that was - "

There goes all the budding confidence. He takes a deep breath and puts the package gingerly back on the counter, then spins around and points in a random direction. "Are those scarves? Those look nice. I'm going to, to, look at the nice scarves. Over there."

They’re hair wraps, but Manuela has to admit the A is very endearing, in a way that has a few other shoppers watching and leaning into each other with a sort of wobbly-kneed deer fondness. Three Russians in the corner smile indulgently at him and stroke each other’s fur wraps.

The A, oblivious, finally makes it to checkout and takes Manuela’s card and doesn’t even really look at the receipt, just smiles in a vaguely anxious way and gathers up his bags in his giant arms. He carefully navigates around the decorative cases like a barge trying to pass through Venice before loping out of the store. For a second Manuela thinks he’s wearing roller skates, then realizes the guy just actually runs that fast.

“So did he just leave someone in bed to come here, or…” Talli says quietly, watching the small dust cloud that was all that remained of the A.

“Did he just clear the road in under a minute?” Manuala says back.

Talli squints. “He’s in a rush to get back, at least.”

“Hah,” Manuela says, her attention already swaying back to the Russians, freshly dosed with mooning alpha scent and now crowded around the body paint display. “Wonder who the lucky beau is.”

Thirty minutes later an O comes stumbling in, wearing weird pants, an inside out turtleneck and a braid that looks like at some point today he had to fight off a hawk. He also looks wild-eyed around the store like he needs to take all of it home right now, though his gaze is less boxer puppy and more barracuda on speed. Manuela wonders if she can just summon desperate customers now, or maybe someone sprayed something alluring and appetizing around the doorframe. She’d always thought a good store advertised itself, but it wouldn’t the first time a certain pheromone had drawn in extra business.

This new customer zeroes in on Manuela. He stalks over. He smells very, very much like he got fucked within an inch of his life recently, and it’s all wrapped up in that thick cosseting smell of a lovestruck alpha doing their damnedest to make the motion stick.

And she’s smelled that particular stink recently. There really is no accounting for taste, she supposes. At least their crazy eyes seem remarkably similar. He’d probably followed his A’s scent straight back here, which wouldn’t be the first time she’d ended up assisting both halves of a courtship. It’s convenient that way.

“Welcome to Lavish,” Manuela says, resigned to smelling this for the rest of the day or at least until Talli does another peppermint oil demo. “Let me guess: you’ve got a special someone you want to stick around?”

“I need him,” the O says, very intently, “to touch my hair all the time.”

Well, that’s refreshingly direct. “Right this way,” Manuela says.

“And my skin,” the guy insists, trailing after her. “All of my skin.”

“You’ve come to the right place,” Manuela tells him, even though it doesn’t matter what she sells this guy, given how willing his A was to let Manuela upsell him on every possible comb, lotion, and detangling serum that might persuade an O to stick around. It’s a little sweet, in a high school pod drama kind of way. If she had a bookstore section she’d hand him a few coming of age stories to help sort himself out.

But she’s a professional. She takes pride in her work. She steers the O towards products that the A managed to miss and picks out complimentary scents, so their collective grooming cabinet will have everything they could possibly need in a harmonious array of textures and scent profiles. It’s easier now that she’s got the O in front of her and isn’t working from the A’s stuttering recollections. The O is a lot more focused and a lot less inhibited, which Manuela appreciates. It’s easy to work with a goal-oriented client.

“This will make your hair smooth and shiny, and then your A will want to touch it,” she tells him. He nods and sweeps the entire hair care product line into his basket. Manuela steers him towards products more for daily use than a special occasion, holding up each item and telling him clearly and directly what they’re for and where he can find the directions. He listens like there’ll be a test later and quickly repeats every instruction back, which is impressive. She’s had new hires she’s had to coach more than that. If he didn’t look like he wanted to simultaneously punch out everyone in the room and hide in the scarf rack she might hire him.

“Do you have a daily skincare routine?” she asks. He slowly shakes his head. She thinks about offering face mapping, but given the way he’s carefully moved around her so she can’t even brush his shoulder, she’s guessing this is a spit and hope arrangement on her part.

“This will make your skin soft, and then your A will want to touch it.” For the face, a jelly cleanser, a witch hazel toner, and a gel moisturizer with aloe because she doesn’t know much about him, but she’s confident his skin is as stressed as the rest of him is. For the body, a shea butter body mask, exfoliating scrub, and sponge shaped like a jelly bean all go into the basket. Talli takes the basket to the counter and replaces it with the fresh one with minimal growling. Manuela gets his top-to-toe regimen all sorted out and mapped on the Skin Wellness Guide she put together for pods buying all at once and needing help sorting who owned what. It looks a little lonely with only one person’s boxes filled in, but there are enough products there to overflow into the neighboring boxes anyway, so he’ll at least have a whole pod’s worth of supplies.

“I also want. To touch him,” the O says when he’s recovered from Talli. Manuela suspects the A in question would be happy to be touched however this O wants to try, but far be it for her to stop someone on a roll. She adds a whole range of massage oils in understated woody bergamot scents that won’t overpower anything and should match well with the A’s base scent, which is still hanging around the store like someone detonated a pheromone bomb. Talli has the peppermint oil demo set up with a studied Professional face on, just waiting for the O to remove his ground zero self from the premises.

The O is going cross-eyed looking at the massage oil, so Manuela guides him towards a starter kit and finds a silk body wrap that should fit the A’s unreasonably massive shoulders. The O looks at her like she just carried his puppy out of a burning building. After a second of deliberation, she also tosses in the body painting kit the A had nearly swallowed his tongue over before. It might give him a heart attack when his O pulls it out, but at least he'll die happy.

“Final word of advice,” she says while she’s ringing him up. Forget Barbados, this commission will be enough to send her to Mars. “There’s no point in playing hard to get. If you want someone, be upfront about it. Make your intentions clear. If you’re as honest with them as you were with me you’ll be fine.”

The O nods very seriously. “I should harvest the zucchini.”

Manuela pauses, remembers the A glowing with dumbfounded joy every time he thought of his O, and says, “Yeah, that should do it.”

-o-

Bucky, having acquired his necessary supplies - his many, many, very, very necessary supplies - considers taking them back to Location Redacted. That lasts about four seconds. He did not get these for himself. He got them to share with Steve. Location Redacted has neither bathtub nor Steve. At this moment in time these are both highly undesirable qualities.

Bucky makes his way back to Steve’s reef. He’s sure Steve won’t mind if he lets himself back in. He hadn’t smelled for one second like he’d minded anything Bucky did for all of yesterday and this morning and he’d asked Bucky if he could stay longer. Steve had smelled… good, as Bucky had moved around in his space. He had made Bucky some food. SHIELD had also made food when they’d wanted him to stay. Steve’s food is better and if Bucky can figure out the bath part, maybe Steve will make him lunch and they could go to a park and just start the entire day over again from the picnic lunch and then wrestle and then Bucky will smell good and he can slop lotion all over to make himself softer and Steve might make more noises Bucky wants to claw his fingers into and eat.

He’s walking up to the building by the time he realizes he doesn’t have any keys or access cards or passcodes to Steve’s reef. He knows he could get in anyway if he really has to, but he doesn’t want to be rude. The main door is unlocked, though, so he just walks in with his bags of things. A pod is watching their kids play on the soft playground in the courtyard and they look up at him, sniff and then wave.

Bucky looks behind him and then back at them. They keep waving. Bucky waggles his elbow back at them and quickly retreats to the stairwell. When he peeks around the corner they’re all leaning in together, whispering and giggling.

They all look a little more excited than the usual greeting of a reef acquaintance warrants, but the only standout smell is curiosity. They’re all sitting around on folding chairs with drinks. There’s a baby carrier made to look like a green bean in the middle and one of them occasionally pokes it with their foot to keep it rocking. On the playground a toddler is industriously bopping their sibling with a stuffed frog. The sibling is peaceably being bopped and chewing on a squishy-looking ring. Bucky’s jaw clenches with a want to chew on something.

He’s never gone into a residential reef through the front door. For a long time even after he went O people would look down and hurry their kids along if he happened to pass by on the street. Bucky wants to get into Steve’s apartment and close the whole world out with the green curtains but he also wants to - stay. For a second. Steve’s neighbors seem very friendly. Some of them had been very helpful last night.

That brings him back to his op. He looks down at the bags in his hands and then takes the stairs.

Steve’s not back when Bucky gets there. That suits Bucky fine. He’s surprised a lot of people over the course of his life with widely varied results - although screaming had been a pretty constant theme - but this time it’s going to be really good.

Steve’s bathtub is one of the biggest Bucky’s seen, barring the one in that General’s mansion that he had to burn down, but he doesn’t like to think about that. He doesn’t have time to think about it, anyway, not when he has two dozen packages lined up in front of him on the bathroom floor and very serious decisions to make about all of them. The bathtub has a couple of built-in oil diffusers, and an attachment on the spout so if you add bubble liquid it’ll make it foam right from the tap, and there are some candle nooks inset into the tiled wall but those don’t have any candles in them. Bucky should have bought candles. Maybe Steve doesn’t like them? Bucky will ask.

In the meantime, he has to decide between Tuscan Lavender, Honey Almond, Lemon Verbena and Basil Bliss. There are also bath salts and bath oils and bath butter, as though he’s meant to make some kind of bath cake. Maybe he’s not supposed to decide on just one? Maybe these are all just ingredients. Maybe cake is exactly what’s supposed to happen. Bucky hunts around for some kind of manual, but the packages just say things like Add to bath for an experience of unparalleled sensual pleasure and Transport yourself to a decadent realm of pure relaxation by applying to skin and For external use only, which just tells him that if it does make a cake, he shouldn’t eat it.

He’ll try it all a little at a time, just to make sure. He tips a teaspoon of the Tuscan Lavender salts into the bottom of the tub and starts the spout running. The steam rising off the water is pleasantly floral, but not overpowering. Emboldened, he adds a capful of the Lemon Verbena oil to one of the diffusers.

By the time the enormous tub is half full, Bucky has added some of everything and the whole room is fogged up, water misting on the tiles and blanking out the mirror. It smells - good? It smells good.

He hopes Steve likes it.

-o-

The first thing Steve notices when he gets back is that his whole corridor smells a lot like one of the stores he just visited, if someone had gone through and methodically pushed everything off the shelves. It’s not by any means a bad smell, it’s just complicated and - strong. When he opens his door, the scent goes from strong to scouring, to the point where he staggers back and nearly drops a bag on his foot.

He’d wound up going to the linens store and then a food market on his way back from the body shop, vague but urgent thoughts of even softer blankets and some kind of casserole for dinner driving him onwards, with the end result that the shopping bags he’s carrying weigh more than he does. Steve sets everything down and puts away the cold groceries in the icebox before going to investigate. There’s a gentle splashing coming from the bathroom, so he’s already got a decent picture of what’s going on before he ducks through the half-open door.

Bucky is sitting in the middle of the tub like a pearl in an oyster or - probably more accurately - like a lobster in a soup pot. He’s shiny and pink and looks delicious, but Steve is pretty sure he’s accidentally boiled his sinuses into a coma. The bathroom windows are already open, at least, letting in the sunshine and also blessed air circulation. Bucky is sitting directly under them, which explains why he hasn't passed out from scent stress yet.

Bucky turns in the tub, spots him and lights up. “Steve,” he says, somehow making it sound like a hug wrapping around Steve’s neck.

“Hi,” Steve says, stepping further into the bathroom but leaving the door open.

“I went to the store too,” Bucky says. “We have more bath things now.”

“That’s great,” Steve says weakly. “You like this smell?” If Bucky does, that’s - fine. Steve’s a supersoldier. His sinuses aren’t actually melting, no matter what his nerve endings are telling him, and if they are, they’ll grow back. Probably. Bucky looks hopeful and a little bit anxious and Steve would staple his own nose shut before doing anything that might make Bucky think he doesn’t appreciate this gesture.

Bucky looks around and gives a sniff. “I don’t know which one this is,” he admits. He points to a row of bottles and jars on the tub ledge that had not been there when Steve left. “I added them one at a time, but.” He waves his hand, encompassing the massive conglomerate scent cloud smothering the bathroom.

“Did you add them… all?” Steve asks, already smelling the answer.

“The store person said they go together,” Bucky says.

That’s probably true. Even now, the smell isn’t bad, exactly; nothing’s clashing or grating. It’s just that what Steve suspects is supposed to be a gentle hint of frolicking through a sweet spring meadow is instead the sensory equivalent of having his eyes ground into an herb garden while someone pours steaming lemon honey up his nose.

It’s a lot more flowery than the shock scent Steve is used to facing across a battlefield, but the same training applies. He draws steady, even breaths until his body has processed the first assault to the system, then focuses on his other senses to ground himself. The air feels warm and humid on his skin. The adjustable overhead light is casting soft yellow reflections across ripples of bathwater. There’s a glistening oily sheen over the water and over Bucky’s skin. Bucky’s head is resting against the lip of the bathtub, his neck loose. Steve gets distracted from his operational evaluation by the sleepy way Bucky’s eyelids are drooping. It’s the furthest thing imaginable from Bucky’s combat focus, and he finds himself relaxing into the nasal napalm feeling faster than he would’ve thought possible.

He kneels down next to the tub and crosses his arms along the lip. “Want to give me a second try with your hair?”

Bucky nudges a cheerfully wrapped bar of something with his toe. Steve picks it up - the bar has a cute little drawing of a bear undoing a knot and Steve smiles at it before reading the instructions. UnBEARable knots have met their match with Behold-Free-Locks Massage Bar! Never greasy, deeply hydrating, Behold-Free-Locks Massage Bar is Always Just Right.

Bucky’s hair smells clean, but now it looks like a loosed fishing net just tangled up in itself. Steve gets the bar warmed up in his palm and has a determined vision of Bucky going into work with a smooth, neat braid. Nothing flashy, Steve could wait to braid things in it like ribbons, and flowers, and some of those shiny nets they had nowadays, and - anyway, that could all wait until they had been on a few more dates. But he wants everyone to know Bucky is being Taken Care Of. That he has people who care about him, or at least one person caring a whole lot. Bucky deserves no less.

Steve’s hands knead at Bucky’s scalp and after some steady work with the conditioner and the detangler bar, Bucky’s hair finally falls into a dark, shining curtain. Steve keeps kneading, finger combing and rinsing it out with handfuls of hot water.

Bucky points at a different bottle with his foot and Steve picks it up. This one is some type of… skin conditioner? Well, if there’s conditioner for the hair, there might as well be some for the rest of the body. Steve rolls his sleeves up past his elbows and gently scoots Bucky along the bottom of the tub until Bucky rolls forward, bracing his elbows on his folded knees. His head droops down and the silver scars of his back and shoulder stretch out long, fingertips of both arms drifting in the water. Steve draws his wet hair forward and kisses the back of his neck, because it’s there and Bucky is letting it be vulnerable.

“You could get in,” Bucky mumbles. “I could. Do your hair?”

“It’s my turn,” Steve responds, dragging his thumbs along the loosening muscles of Bucky’s shoulders. Bucky had his turn to play with Steve in the morning, and Steve had never finished his turn with Bucky’s hair. He’d had to retreat and resupply. Now that he’s got products on hand and has fully adjusted to the full frontal scent assault, there’s no reason he can’t take his time. Bucky turns sideways and slowly collapses over the lip of the tub, his head sinking down to rest against Steve’s stomach, until his knuckles are brushing along the bathmat. Steve smoothes the body conditioner down his back and then keeps working it in, since he can’t reach anything else without jostling Bucky.

“Up,” Bucky says, wrapping his arms around Steve’s hips.

“Do we need to rinse this off?” Steve looks at the bottle, but then Bucky is wrapping his arms around Steve’s neck and his hair is wet and silky looking and Steve’s eyes keep swinging to the water pooling in the hollow of his collarbone instead of focusing on the label.

“I want you to do my hair,” Bucky says. “I have a plan.”

Steve looks at Bucky all pinked up from the hot water, skin shining and warm as Steve strokes down his sides, and feels his ears go hot. “What kind of plan?”

“A written one,” Bucky says, unplugging the tub with his foot. Steve oomphs him up with a slosh of water and he doesn’t know why he bothered staying dressed because Bucky just wraps him up in the rest of his limbs, latching on like a friendly octopus. Steve keeps stroking down his back, because it feels good and because he’s seen Bucky hold himself up in a tree by thigh strength alone, so Steve’s lifting capacity is clearly irrelevant.

“I have a paper,” Bucky says, unsticking one arm to point at the bathroom counter, where Steve can see a pamphlet next to several more bottles and jars. “From a professional.”

“Let’s take a look.” Steve gets Bucky dried off first, setting him on the counter in a nest of towels and grabbing a fresh washcloth to carefully get all the water out from the grooves in Bucky’s metal hand. Bucky takes it with good grace, letting Steve dry the crooks of his elbows and behind his ears and the crease of his stomach, and when Steve finally steps back Bucky picks up the pamphlet.

It unfolds into quite a large sheet of durable cardstock with a lot of labeled circles and squares and arrows on it. Someone’s marked it up further with purple marker, circling things and adding little notes. At the top it says Hair, Skin & Self: Holistic Wellness Guide in a nice font with little hedonistic serif flourishes. It looks like a battle plan.

“We can do this,” Steve says reading it over and looking at the product lists. Some of them he recognizes from his own shopping binge, and the rest are lined up by the tub. He fetches the strawberry-colored bags from Lavish that he’d left piled up by the door and unpacks them, Bucky biting the inside of his cheek in concentration as he nudges all the products into neat little groups. The storage nooks built into the bathtub wall are finally full.

Steve picks each one up to read the description and locate it on the wellness chart. Then he gets out the new brush set and places it down next to the platoon of supplies. They both stare at the platoon of supplies. The wellness chart says which products to use where, but it doesn’t say anything about how to start.

“Videos!” Steve blurts, and Bucky startles and then echoes, “Videos.”

“There’re a lot of videos about how to do things on the Internet. Like how to braid hair and, um. Do skin things?” Steve feels his face going warm and Bucky looks flushed and Steve realizes he’s asking his beau if he wants to watch some… some racy videos with him.

Bucky’s hair is dripping a little onto the floor. Now that the bathtub has drained and Steve’s not getting socked in the face by every smell under the sun, Bucky mostly smells like he rolled himself through a bakery and then down a weedy hillside. Steve could probably fall on him and they could make a wonderful, terrible case of bedhead again. But then people will think Steve thinks Bucky isn’t worth the time to treat respectfully and that’s unacceptable.

“Videos,” Bucky repeats, watching Steve closely and sounding not at all averse to the idea. “You have videos?”

“Yes,” Steve says, impressively steady, and goes and looks for his phone. He finds yesterday’s mud-stiff pants instead, and then fishes out his phone out and stares at it. There’s a dried leaf still stuck to the screen.

“Can phones get wet?”

Bucky makes a noise from the bathroom which Steve interprets as oh boy they sure can’t. “Did... your phone.”

Steve returns to the bathroom, holding out the phone like the rectangle of shame it’s become. Bucky looks it over and shakes his head. “Do you have a phone?” Steve asks sheepishly.

Bucky shakes his head again. “Security reasons,” he says.

“Oops,” Steve says, inadequately.

“Do we need videos,” Bucky says, watching Steve’s face again.

“Well,” Steve says. “I haven’t used a lot of these products before.” Damn near none of them. “I don’t want to mess this up.”

“You won’t,” Bucky says, confidence absolute. He nudges Steve’s knee with his foot, then seems to decide it’s not enough and hooks an ankle around Steve’s calf. “You won’t mess this up.”

And, well, there’s no way to argue with that kind of trust; all he can do is try to live up to it. Steve reads the backs of the bottles carefully and assembles an order of operations. He pours out a thick, lavender-tinted ribbon of leave-in detangler and starts working it into Bucky’s wet hair from behind while Bucky leans over the sink. The conditioning mousse comes out of the can with a quiet hiss and leaves a marshmallowy pile of foam in his palm. By the time he’s worked it through Bucky’s hair from crown to tip, every strand of hair is smoothed straight and covered with a faint rainbow sheen. Steve tries to keep his eyes on his work, but he keeps catching deeply distracting glances of Bucky’s reflection in the mirror. Bucky’s cheeks are flushed and his breathing is slow and deep. The glitter left in the bathtub from their first body wash soak has migrated all over his skin and hair, catching the light whenever he leans into the press of Steve’s fingers.

Once all his hair is soft and biddable, Steve starts braiding, wrapping from Bucky’s left temple down to behind his right ear and gathering in new strands as he goes. It’s nothing fancy, which is good, because he barely gets the end tied off before Bucky pounces on him, bearing him down onto the bathmat and biting gently at his jaw.

“You like it?” Steve asks, a little breathless. It’s hard to string words together with Bucky smiling down at him, Steve’s braid coiling around the side of his neck.

“Yes. It doesn’t pull. Good job.” Bucky nibbles at him again. Steve tilts his chin up, thoughts pinballing between how the bathroom floor isn't the most comfortable place to start something and how far away the bedroom suddenly seems, when Bucky’s stomach gives a demanding gurgle.

“Lunch?” Steve suggests.

Bucky looks at Steve’s exposed throat consideringly, but he nods and sits back. “Lunch.”

They eat again. They nap. Steve wakes up every so often, but each time the sound of Bucky’s faint rabbity snores sink him back down again. Somewhere after sunset Bucky wakes up, crawls onto Steve and makes several very persuasive arguments with his mouth, inviting Steve to counterdebate with his mouth. This time Bucky ends up on top, braced on his forearms and curling over Steve’s head. It’s the best weekend Steve’s had since the opening night of Wizard of Oz.

And when Steve next wakes, really wakes, it’s 0400, on a Monday, when he has to go to work.

Bucky’s awake this time too. Steve feels him rustle, roll over and rub his nose in a pillow, his leg nudged up against Steve’s. It’s only been - really, less than thirty-six hours - but Steve can already tell that Bucky’s woke up fifteen minutes or so ago and has just been idly watching time scroll by.

“Would you like a ride to work?” Steve whispers. “If you want. If you come in today.” Presumably Bucky is on the same non-emergency schedule, but who knows. Maybe Bucky’s on leave.

Bucky yawns spectacularly. “Ya-huh,” comes out of there as he nestles deeper into the pillows.

“Okay.” Steve smooches Bucky’s shoulder before eeling out of the bed pit to go start breakfast.

At some point Bucky slithers out of the pit, shuffles over and attaches himself to Steve’s back. He keeps his chin on Steve’s shoulder and his arms around Steve’s waist and shuffles along whenever Steve moves, and Steve thinks, well, the fritatta needs to cool, and they’ve several times already washed each other, so what’s one more before they go.

They shower again after. Bucky doesn’t seem to have any inclination to stop using Steve as a mobile gantry, so it’s probably okay for Steve to enjoy it. Bucky also animates enough to use some of the bath gel he acquired yesterday, and then he works it through Steve’s hair, his blunt fingers skritching carefully over Steve’s scalp, and it’s definitely okay to enjoy that.

When they get out Bucky raises his arms for Steve to wrap a towel around him, which makes Steve’s chest feel big and broad and full of very important things. While Steve dries him down Bucky looks owlishly around the bathroom, and while most of the things they bought are still in their packaging, the comb they used isn’t. Bucky picks it up and hands it to Steve.

The braid Steve manages this time is a slight improvement on his previous work, mostly because Bucky’s hair is wet and sleek with conditioner. Bucky gnaws sleepily on the neckline of his shirt throughout but abandons it once the smell of coffee starts to reach the bathroom.

Steve packs his serum-necessitated snack bars for the day while Bucky pours coffee with the care of a neurosurgeon, methodically tipping seventeen spoonfuls of sugar into the mug and stirring without ever letting the spoon clink against the sides. Bucky’s back in the clothes he wore for their date, which at this point Steve has laundered twice; it’s probably silly to think Bucky looks even better each time. But he does. Steve should trust his senses. They’re full of superserum, they must be accurate.

When the lunchbag is packed and Bucky’s coffee is drunk, Steve runs out of reasons to stall. “Ready to go?” Steve says, and Bucky says “Yes,” and then looks at him and says “Wait,” and dashes off.

He comes back with the comb Steve used on him. He leads Steve to the kitchen sink, wets it and stands on his toes to run it through Steve’s hair. “Cowlick,” he explains, Steve bowing his head obediently.

“Thank you,” Steve says, touched.

“You’re welcome,” Bucky says, looking up at him. Then he goes pink around the edges, lurches forward an inch and kisses Steve on the chin. Steve dissolves like Jello in a frying pan, which makes it even easier for Bucky to immediately bury his face in Steve’s collar.

They head out. It occurs to Steve, as they pass a couple of his neighbors in the hall, that the two of them are currently the scent equivalent of a matching tea set. Steve’s nose went dead to the particulars of smell many hours ago, but even he can tell that the washing up they’ve done hasn’t been enough to get rid of the soaked-in bath scent. He doesn’t know how to feel about it. On the one hand, they don’t smell like they’ve spent all weekend rolling in bed with each other. On the other hand, they don’t smell like they’ve been rolling in bed with each other.

Possessiveness and politeness have a small, petty war in his head as they mount the bike and Bucky once again molds himself to Steve’s back. He’s thrilled Bucky stayed the whole weekend and is even letting Steve drive him to work, and that should be enough.

They definitely smell like they took the same bath. The wind takes off some of the scent’s sharpness, but by the time Steve parks they still definitely smell like - cooperative bathers. Shower sharers. Buddies of the bath.

When they get off the bike Bucky hooks his hand in the back of Steve’s shirt and ambles after him through the lot. Steve tries not to expand four sizes and lift off the ground.

Bucky is still yawning as Steve swipes his badge and gets beeped in. Bucky doesn’t take out a badge, but the agents in the garage security booth don't say anything, just stare at them wide-eyed and return Steve’s nod with weak little waves.

“I usually go to the gym, so.” Steve points towards the locker room like Bucky doesn’t know where they are or what the gym is. “Do you… also…?”

Bucky yawns again, but he’s nodding even before his mouth closes and he waves Steve into the locker room ahead of him. Steve gets changed into the SHIELD sweats and t-shirt he keeps in his locker for days when he’s not punching aliens or shaking hands with senators. By the time he’s done, Bucky has reappeared in the door of the locker room wearing his standard SHIELD uniform with about half the weapons missing, which Steve assumes is his version of casual office wear.

The gym is empty. Bucky looks around while Steve flicks the lights on, gives a slow, spine-popping stretch and starts climbing up the agility course. Steve knows there’s a ledge up there, up at the very top; it looks like Bucky knows it too, because he heads right for it. He peeks briefly over the edge, seems satisfied Steve is still over by the weight machines, and curls up and goes to sleep.

Steve’s glad Bucky’s decided to stay close. It feels like he’s got a kind of weekend hangover, half of his mind still dozing in the pillow pit, his body puzzled that Bucky’s not within reach. Steve keeps glancing up to check that Bucky’s still there in between reps.

Trainees start to filter into the gym around 0700. They’ve mostly gotten over staring at Steve by now, and Steve’s learned not to try running laps if he doesn’t want to accidentally suck the whole lot of them into trailing after him like winded ducklings, so they’re used to sharing the space. Their faces squinch up when they catch a noseful of Steve’s… weekend scent, but they’re polite enough not to say anything about it, although a couple of them wheel around and head right back into the hallway. The rest of them exchange nods with Steve and go to their regular machines. The gym has constantly circulating air and top-of-the-line filters, so it’s almost as good as being outside.

Steve tunes out the familiar soundtrack of clinking weights and focuses on not accidentally wrenching apart the rowing machine, until a sudden hush makes him look up. Bucky’s in the process of climbing down from the ledge he’d been napping on.

Bucky looks more awake now, a sharpness returning to his face and a wariness to his stance. Steve hadn’t realized how different Bucky looked until it came back. He goes right to Steve, and - he comes very close, definitely within hugging distance, but he doesn’t plaster himself to Steve’s front like he’s been doing for the past two days and Steve suddenly hates every other person in this room.

It immediately shows in his smell. He doesn't mean to swell up like a water balloon connected to a firehose, but it's not really something he can help. The trainees closest to him blanch and find interesting patterns in the floor tiles to stare at.

At least Bucky seems completely unaffected. He doesn’t press up against Steve’s side (because they're at work and Bucky is a professional and Steve needs to get himself under control before they have to run a full scent decon on the gym three days ahead of schedule), but he gives Steve a curious sideways look before turning so they’re a little more back-to-back.

Normally Steve would shower after a workout, but he hasn’t really worked up a sweat and he’s loathe to do anything that would make him smell less like Bucky. Hopefully this is just more of his weekend hangover and his instincts will settle down over time. If they don’t he’ll have to send himself to HR for a stern lecture on personal boundaries in the workplace, which would be mortifying for everyone involved.

For now he ushers Bucky to the cafeteria on the grounds that it’s one of the largest rooms in the building, and full of food besides. Bucky might want a snack. The few people they pass in the hallways duck through the nearest open door to avoid them. Steve isn’t sure if that’s due to the bath scent or whatever kicked-porcupine pheromones he’s giving off, but it’s embarrassing enough that he’s mostly calmed down by the time they get to the cafeteria. Bucky slips off to hover near a table at the very back of the room while Steve loads up two trays.

Bucky eats fast and without speaking, his eyes roving around the rest of the room in a clearly practiced search pattern, but he hooks his ankle around Steve’s under the table. Steve has an unfortunately clear view of the door, so he gets to see the procession of double-takes as people walk into the cafeteria and immediately play Good Gods, What Is That Smell? Their corner of the room is left entirely empty, even as the morning breakfast rush starts.

Agent May is the first to get within ten feet of them. She walks in the door without pausing, locates Steve and Bucky, and approaches in a direct, confident line. Her eyes start to water once she’s halfway there, but her steps don’t waver.

“Agent Rogers,” she acknowledges. “Soldier.”

“Good morning,” Steve says, with a bit of an edge. Bucky hasn’t seemed to notice the way people are scattering out of their path. Maybe that’s how people normally react to him. The only time Steve’s seen him interact with groups of personnel outside of missions is the training session in the gym, where most of the room had emptied as soon as he stepped inside. The thought ramps up his protectiveness a bit higher, and he lays a hand over Bucky’s forearm without quite meaning to do it. He doesn’t like how the trainees are all staring at Bucky.

May ignores his posturing. “I have an assignment for you,” she says, directly to Bucky. “The roof garden on Concourse B has been flagging recently. It’s long overdue for a weeding, and many of the plants need to have their watering schedules adjusted. Are you available to evaluate it this morning?”

Bucky looks surprised, then suspicious, then, in the face of May’s clear sincerity, he settles on warily pleased. Steve’s hackles drop accordingly. He’s really, really glad Natasha isn’t in the cafeteria to see this.

May leads them out of the cafeteria and towards the east stairwell. The hallways are suspiciously empty. Steve wonders if someone sent a memo and, if so, what it said, then decides he’s better off not knowing.

The fresh air on the roof is a relief. Steve’s nose has mostly shut down by this point, but the feeling of an incipient migraine eases off the longer he and Bucky spend in the open air, a steady breeze wafting away the lingering perfumes. Bucky crouches on the broad stones that make up the rock garden walking path and gently manipulates the leaves of individual succulents, checking for signs of rot or withering. Steve looks around until he spots the discreet maintenance shed and goes to hunt down a watering can.

There’s a creak of the rooftop door. Steve looks around. A junior agent is climbing out onto the rooftop, marching stiffly over to Steve and coming to a vibrating parade rest a few feet away.

“Agent Rogers,” the junior agent croaks. Steve recognizes him as one of May’s trainees. He takes a deep breath, then edges forward to stand directly downwind of Steve.

Steve crosses his arms, not sure if he’s annoyed or amused. “Roscoe, isn’t it?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Training going well?”

“I hope so, sir.”

“Working on scent hardening this week?”

Roscoe’s eyes and nose slowly turn red as his sinuses overload. “Yes, sir.”

Steve nods. “Carry on.”

They spend the whole day on the roof. It’s the best day Steve can ever remember having at SHIELD, even with the steady trickle of trainees May sends after them. Being used as a blunt nasal instrument for training purposes is a fair exchange for getting to see Bucky up to his wrists in potting soil, late afternoon sunlight gilding his left arm, everything about him steady and calm as he works his way through the garden.  

-o-

So they start - dating. That’s what it’s called now. When Steve was growing up there hadn’t been an overly long span of time between courting and signing pod papers, but apparently now dating can go on for years. Steve does some furtive googling, after asking if Bucky wants to do something next weekend and Bucky saying yes even before his sentence was finished.

That weekend they go to Coney Island, where Bucky wins four stuffed bears, two dolphins and a turtle at the sharpshooter game. He also carefully considers the rides and then shakes his head at Steve, who ends up pretty happy about that given some residual queasiness of his teenaged years has made an unexpected resurgence. They go to the aquarium instead, where Bucky holds Steve’s hand and Steve doesn’t even try to pay attention to whatever’s floating in the nearest tank in favor of the play of blue-green aquatic lights over Bucky’s hair. They drive back that night on Steve’s bike with all seven stuffed animals tied to the back, and then Steve has a bed pit with seven stuffed companions, all of which smell like Bucky seriously enjoying himself by the time they stumble into work Monday morning.

Things carry on more or less in the same vein. The week after that they go to dinner Tuesday night, and then Wednesday night, and then again on Monday night because Steve has to go escort some diplomat from Thursday to Sunday. When buying groceries Steve has to outright stop in the bread aisle as it occurs to him that he could pick something up for Bucky. He could bring Bucky a packed lunch. He could bring Bucky one of these ciabatta rolls, fresh baked here today.

And everything reminds him of Bucky. Steve sees a cute picture of an otter on a t-shirt and thinks of the aquarium date and thinks of Bucky, and otters, and how they are like otters whacking open the clam of courtship on the rock of their emotions, and inside is affection and intimacy and also, realistically, probably slime. But it’ll be the slime of love.

He researches otters, just to be sure they aren’t secretly a kitten-eating sadist species like dolphins or something, and he gets endless pictures of two sea otters holding hands and bouncing around in the surf. He wants to send it to Bucky, but he can’t. So he sits down a doodles a picture - one otter with cowlicks, the other otter with a cute braid and the two of them cresting over a wave and holding hands. It’s too much. Is it too much? It’s probably too much. He still puts it in a lunch bag with the fresh jar of honey someone had been selling and Bucky seems to expect a doodle with any brown paper bag Steve gives him, so - maybe not too much. Steve doesn’t know where the doodles go, but he likes to think they’re tucked away somewhere nice. Bucky’s favorite book, maybe.

And Bucky’s still giving him little gifts too, because it’s either that or Steve is now haunted by extremely helpful fairies. He opens his SHIELD locker and finds all his gear freshly cleaned and polished, the leather conditioned and the snapped shoelace on his gym sneaker replaced. His Colt sidearm is always freshly scrubbed and his backup boot knife gets upgraded to something a lot sleeker and sharper. A pouch on his utility belt is always full of shelf-stable snacks in the non-sawdust flavors.

And it seems to be going well for Bucky. He looks at Steve a lot more now, as opposed to Steve’s shoulder or elbow or shoes or any point several feet above or to the side of Steve’s head. His voice is still quiet but he talks more easily, explaining the shape difference between throwing and stabbing knives and how to use both to best advantage. They spend a lot of time in the SHIELD gyms and gun ranges, where other people tend to leave them alone even though Steve’s instincts have calmed down enough that he’s not billowing scent like a KEEP OUT sign on a kid’s tree fort whenever someone looks at Bucky. They even chase each other around the obstacle course gym without risking a repeat of their first spar or date forest run. It’s a lot easier to keep things strictly professional when Steve knows Bucky’s gonna meet him at the bus stop and they’ll go do a lot more interesting body things at home.

Bucky’s always teaching himself new things, too, which makes Steve feel a lot less of an idiot in just day-to-day life. It’s like they’re a team, investigating things together. They see a billboard advertising for a show, or a shaving cream, or that just has six penguins and the word EQUINOX and Bucky will look at Steve, Steve will shrug and they’ll figure it out. Someone asks Steve if he has a 401K, and it’s a Roth and Steve later looks at Bucky and asks “Do you have a retirement plan?”

Bucky sucks his teeth for a second, getting the last of the peanut brittle out, and stares at the ceiling. “Do gold bars count?”

“Boy, they sure used to. The neighbors used to hide nickels in their furniture legs.”

Bucky nods like this is a sensible course of action, but they start up a 10-part video course about retirement plans anyways, narrated by a unenthused voice quietly asking questions in spinning font about when they plan to retire, and their financial goals, before falling asleep around part 4: Stocks, Bonds and Futures.

Steve watches Bucky sit in the corner of the large conference room during the new Updated Civilian Care and Deescalating Procedures seminars and drink the cups of tea Steve brings him, and once, gloriously, try not to fall asleep in a sunbeam. As the meeting drones on the sunbeam creeps across the room, until Bucky’s legs, then chest, then his whole corner is directly in it. Steve watches Bucky’s eyes start drifting closed every minute or so while desperately regretting his choice of seat, i.e. not directly under Bucky. He wonders if anyone would notice if he just scooted six inches to the right and gently tucked Bucky’s head to his shoulder. He needs a suitable nap surface. Would Bucky like a nap date? Steve will ask. He’s been amassing pillows. Or they could go to one of those nooks that seem to be everywhere now. Steve heard a couple of agents raving about a new one that had opened in SoHo, where there are apparently snack caches hidden all over the place in the geode cave-themed walls.

People also seem to be pretty approving of their relationship. Maria Hill stops Steve outside the cafeteria one afternoon. “I don’t know what you did, Rogers, but keep doing it,” she says.

“What?”

“Soldier’s attended four out of five safety briefings in the past two weeks. Keep it up.”

Hill’s not the only one. The second Steve walks in the door of the community center, Mabel, Josef, and Shara's heads whip around as one. Mabel lets out an "OOOOOoooooohh" noise like a seventy-eight year old foghorn. Steve, recognizing escape is impossible, flushes hot as they totter towards him in a slow-motion stampede.

"Good for you," Shara says, poking him in the chest. "Good. For. You. Who's the lucky O?"

"His name is Bucky," Steve mumbles.

Mabel makes the foghorn noise again. Steve eyes the door longingly, but Josef has cannily positioned his walker to cut off Steve's retreat. “When are you bringing him by?” Shara demands.

“Our schedules can be kind of unpredictable,” Steve hedges, not wanting to commit Bucky to anything without asking.

“Dance Night is next Thursday,” Shara says sweetly. “That should be plenty of time to plan ahead.”

“Oooooooooooooo,” Mabel says, this time in tandem with Josef.

“I’ll see if he’s available,” Steve mumbles, and thankfully their wool carding instructor walks in then and Steve can flee to the relative safety of putting together his own station.

Josef and Mabel and Shara do spend the entire session making extremely unsubtle comments about how they don’t meet enough new people and it’s only right for friends to introduce each other, but it’s well-meant and eventually gets subsumed by the usual chatter. Something’s gone really wrong if Josef doesn’t talk about his latest weekly murder; they all watch a lot of the same programs on the television, most of which are apparently murder mysteries.

Steve likes that the detective novel hasn’t died out. Gotten a little more graphic, sure, but you have a big, gruff A hunting down criminals and protecting his reef and Steve has a guilty fondness for that type of story, where the bad guys are clearly identifiable and all get caught by the end. In one of them they keep calling the big gruff A captain and Steve’s about 30% sure the fella is based on him. It gives him a weird vertigo like how sometimes he draws the ceiling too tall in his drawings, but the cabinets too low because sometimes he’s a man staring over his own shoulder about perspectives and heights.

His community learning group also talks about their “Stories” but Steve doesn’t know where to begin with those: people brushing other people’s hair, and it turns out they’re an evil twin. Other folks hiding their scent on people and everyone snarling about pack. Engrossing, sure, and maybe Steve fell down a small well watching The Reef Unbroken for a few days. A week. No more than a month, because he had to watch the Russ vs Russel plot get resolved and Vern deserves better, but they also hadn’t told Jen that they were back from their sabbatical and-

Anyway. He wasn’t gonna get a television even if the folks kept talking about all the stories, because a lot of times they’re playing on the gym screens anyway. But then Natasha upped the latest shopping trip minimum to two fucking thousand fucking dollars, pardon his French, and then Steve made the mistake of imagining himself and Bucky like one of those movie ads, tangled up together on the couch, surrounded by snacks, watching the teevee in open-mouthed delight. Then he’d have two arms free for Bucky, instead of one for Bucky and one for holding his phone up above them so they can watch cake decorating videos.

So he buys a television. Bucky comes too. When they go to their Friday dinner - rapidly becoming a weekly routine - Steve asks if he knows anything about televisions. Bucky frowns and says “Some?” which is more than Steve does, which is none.

“Would you like to come buy one with me tomorrow?” Steve says. “I have to spend - two thousand dollars this weekend.” He hopes he manages to subdue a sufficient amount of his cringe. “So I thought. A color television. Maybe we could - watch a movie. When you come over.”

Bucky sponges sauce off Steve’s plate with his pork bun, eyebrows pulled together in thought. He’s sitting across from Steve, which only happens when they can’t get a booth where they can sit next to each other. Steve’s rapidly learned that means the second they sit down Bucky hooks his ankles around Steve’s and keeps them there, like an anchor in double knotted tac boots. “You have to spend two thousand dollars?”

Steve nods morosely. “Natasha makes me show her the receipts.”

“Widow,” Bucky confirms. Steve nods. “She makes you buy things?”

“Yeah. She’s helping,” Steve says, lest Bucky think Natasha’s bullying him into draining his accounts or something. “It makes me try new things. And get used to inflation. And since I arrived without a lot of... stuff.” Steve tries to lighten it up. “Didn’t exactly get a chance to pack a suitcase when the conductor said, next stop, two thousand and thirteen.”

Bucky doesn’t laugh but he doesn’t look at Steve like he’s the saddest puppy at the pound either. He’s nodding, still looking thoughtful. “The strategy works?”

“I guess so,” Steve says. “It certainly gets me to try things I never would’ve on my own.”

“I don’t have much stuff either,” Bucky says matter of factly. “I also didn’t get to pack.”

Right. Steve’s still not sure if Bucky’s time as a HYDRA prisoner is something he’s meant to ask about, since Bucky seems to reference it sparingly but also straightforwardly enough. Steve wouldn’t know how to bring it up, either. Not in a way that he’s sure won’t do more harm than good. Hey, pal, I’ve busted up a few of the squids’ torture labs, so you probably can’t shock me too bad… no. He figures he’ll just wait for Bucky to talk about it himself, if he ever feels like it, and in the meantime just seem as open and ready to listen as he can.

Bucky doesn't elaborate, and then their servers come by with another cart of buns, so the discussion gets tabled until they're back in Steve's apartment. Steve went back and bought cushions for the living room pillow pit two days after their first date, the same sturdy kind that fill his bedroom pit, except these ones are in shades of buttercup and acorn squash and smell like dried lemon peel. He's hoping that after a few more successful dates they'll smell like dried lemon peel and Bucky.

“We should get a whole movie theater,” Bucky says, after they've done a little gentle tussling that turned into snuggling after Bucky got him in a headlock and then flopped on top of him. He's looking around and staring at the big blank wall opposite the kitchen. “With the speakers that go all around.”

“How many speakers do you need for that?”

Bucky scans around without shirking his job as duvet before testing the waters with, “Eight? I think eight speakers?”

“Four there and four there?”

“Four there. Two there. Two there.”

Steve nods, envisioning the configuration as Bucky points. “We can do that."

That night Bucky actually goes home instead of sleeping over, but he shows up again the next morning with what looks like a tool bag. Steve goes to make breakfast as Bucky pulls out a measuring tape and starts tapping along the walls with his listening face on.

Steve makes tartines and trusts in the process. After several minutes, Bucky says, “I found a stud.”

“Okay,” Steve says, putting the tartines and juice on the new floral breakfast tray and bringing it all to the edge of the pillow pit. Sometimes Bucky looks at chairs like they’re an obstacle course he needs to overcome, but he’s always happy to eat in the pillow pit. Steve is too, as he recently discovered his vacuum cleaner has a nozzle attachment perfect for getting into seams and digging out crumbs.

Bucky, eyes narrowed in concentration, marks what must be the stud’s location with a pencil, then measures across to the next stud. He stands back, frowns at his two marks for a solid minute, and eventually nods. Steve sits down at the edge of the pillow pit to watch him, chin propped on his fist. Bucky’s hair is still up in the way Steve did for him yesterday, swept up off his neck after their mutual agreement to try whatever a messy bun is. Whatever they’ve achieved might not fully qualify for bunhood but it is absolutely messy.

“You have to hang from the studs.” Bucky says, which shows he’s been paying attention to the those shows where a reef goes pod by pod to make sure their living spaces are what they want and need, while Steve had just watched the noise and color wash over Bucky’s face and smiled whenever Bucky made a thoughtful noise. “So it stays stable.”

“What about the wall,” Steve asks, gesturing at the blank canvas of it. “Is it a good color for the TV wall?”

Bucky steps back and looks at it, then glances back and sees Steve is in the pillow pit. He promptly sets down his pencil and tape measure, wriggles out of his turtleneck and flops back into the pillows. Then he tugs Steve in and starts to shove things around until they’re cuddled up staring at the long expanse of wall.

“A dark wall,” Bucky says, thoughtful. “Like a theater.”

“Black?”

“Navy,” Bucky says, tapping at Steve’s chest. “Like your uniform.”

Steve wants to go out and collect every navy paint swatch in the world just to see Bucky pick one. To sit and paint the whole wall right then so anyone can walk in and see someone lives here with Steve. That it’s not just the off-the-rack pod apartment he moved into.

“Eggshell… finish?” Bucky says, like he’s trying to speak to a teenage pod about their favorite band and he’s trying to remember their name. Steve nods slowly, eggs are good, he likes eggs, and then they sit and nod at each other.

“There’s a store,” Bucky says. “A paint store. For houses and things. It’s open today. We can go.” Then he looks at the tray of tartines and visibly switches priorities. “After breakfast.”

“Should we get the television first?” Steve says, nudging the tray closer. “So we can pick a paint shade that’ll complement it. Dunno how many colors televisions come in, but I bet we can find any paint to match.”

“Yes. Smart,” Bucky says, then fits a solid two-thirds of a tartine into his mouth.  

-o-

Steve, for lack of knowing where the best shops for televisions are, takes them to the Brookfield Place shops again. It’s a nice place to look around, at least, light and airy even technically below ground, and maybe Bucky will see something he likes.

They stop by the entrance to the electronics store and survey the territory. “Here we go,” Steve says.

“Two thousand dollars,” Bucky says. He doesn’t say it the way Steve does or Natasha does; Natasha says it like it’s real numbers and Steve says it like it’s really big real numbers. Bucky almost says it like it’s all one foreign word he carefully memorized.

“It can be more,” Steve says.

“But it can’t be less.”

“No.”

“Got it.”

They set out.

Bucky sticks close at first, his hands in his pockets, but then they pass through a section titled VINTAGE and find dozens of pastel colored toaster ovens and radios and stand mixers. There are microwaves and laptops and a dozen other things Steve can’t readily name, but everything looks very cheerful. Rounded edges and the hefty tanklike construction that Steve figures you could throw at a rabid animal and pick it up and still use it for breakfast the next morning.

They wander through the appliances holding up friendly moose spatulas and hand carved wooden ladles. Steve pauses at two mugs with little empty spaces in the handle to put spoons, and a wide little slot to put… marshmallows? Cookies? They match, and by the time he’s convinced himself to pick them up Bucky’s stopped at a sleek fern-colored radio and is investigating the dials. It’s a familiar make, something that wouldn’t have been out of place in a more well to do home in Steve’s neck of the woods, and Bucky’s fingers turn about looking for a radio station. Steve hasn’t seen Bucky listening to music on his own devices. No phone, no earphones, no boombox or, uh… going to discos, or whatever the right term is for going out to see a band. He taps his foot sometimes to songs Steve plays, though.

Bucky pets the radio and looks off into the middle distance. Steve taps the radio and Bucky looks at his hand. “Think this would be nice too? For uh… the kitchen?”

Bucky traces the speakers and then nods without saying anything, so Steve adds that to the mugs up front. Bucky settles in alongside him in a warm line and they stand in the middle of the shop sort of half hugging, while the shopkeepers smile at them from under ducked heads and all of them try to look busy without offering to help too often.

Bucky spots the televisions first, and promptly crouches down and proceeds to read the specs on each model with a determined frown, like he’s going to have to eel up a tree and make a shot on one of them and he needs to know everything about all of them just to start. There’s only five options, and a helpful little sign saying what stores in the area have different models and the offer to call any of them, and who to call to move and install it. Bucky digs around behind the displays and comes up with a fistful of manuals, which he promptly takes over to a quiet corner to read. Steve figures he’s got this under control and goes up front to buy the radio and the cookie-slot mug and everything else that’s wound up in their shopping basket. In the check-out line on impulse he adds a mini electric frother that’s shaped like a squid and looks like it’ll make really smooth hot chocolate.

It’s hot enough still that he’s mostly making Bucky iced tea and milkshakes, but it pays to lay in supplies for every season. He thinks Bucky will still be around when the weather turns. Bucky’s favorite brown sweater has been sitting, neatly folded, on Steve’s dresser for a week now, and Steve’s been tip-toeing around it like it’s a sleeping cat that will stay put as long as he doesn’t disturb it.

Steve stacks his wrapped parcels near the door to pick up later, checks the place where Bucky was reading and finds it empty, then sniffs deep and finds him in the aisle with a lot of the more rounded screens, where the interactive displays are. He touches one of the screens, and Steve watches digital fish swim over to the “ripples” caused by his finger. Bucky touches it again and the fish swim to the other corner of the screen.

“You can feed them,” he tells Steve, not looking away from the fish. “And they’ll make bubbles. Try it.”

Steve tries it. Fat golden fish wiggle determinedly over to the sparkles left by his finger. Bucky’s almost smiling, taking his flesh hand out of his pocket again to drag an arc of sparkles over the screen.

“That’s my favorite screensaver,” someone says confidingly, and Steve turns to find a short O in a shop t-shirt at his elbow. “You can change the color of the fish and decorate their aquarium. It’s super cool. Great for kids, too. You tried the garden one?”

They touch the corner of the screen and the aquarium dissolves into a moss garden. This one has brightly colored frogs. Steve watches Bucky’s eyes go big as one of the frogs hops onto a moss patch.

“How much is this one?” Steve asks the shop assistant.

They end up getting the television, a speaker set, and a soft-light lamp with leaves patterned on the shade along with all the impulse buys Steve had squirreled up front in the meantime. They take it back to Steve’s place on the subway, managing the awkward size of the package between the two of them and not bonking anyone in the head. Bucky is the one who sets it up; he reads the instructions very carefully and then just goes for it, moving like he’s been putting up televisions his whole life, so Steve hovers for only a moment before going to make them lunch.

They only turn on the television for a minute, just to check that it works, but somehow the second show in the lineup is The Reef Unbroken and Steve says “Oh, the folks at the center love this one,” and they sit down to watch.

They get sucked in like goldfish in a toilet bowl. “I can’t believe they didn’t tell Vern,” Bucky says, shoving another handful of kettle corn in his mouth.

“I can’t believe Vern didn’t tell Jane,” Steve says, rummaging in the bowl. Bucky steadies it for him with his knee. At some point it’d gotten dark outside. Steve looks around to check the time, then remembers he doesn’t own a wall clock.

He looks back at the screen, where the end credits montage has faded into the selection menu. “It says this… season… has one more episode,” he says. “But it’s getting pretty late.”

Bucky looks up at him, cheeks full of kettle corn. Then he looks back at the screen.

“You’re right,” Steve says. “It’s just one more. We can’t go to bed on a cliffhanger.” Bucky’s already reaching for the remote.

Bucky stays the night. It’s only polite, for Steve to offer and make sure Bucky doesn’t have to trudge home in the dark alone. Most of Bucky’s skin care seems to be at Steve’s place anyways, so then every morning he gets to do Bucky’s hair and Bucky dutifully pats a seeming army of products on his face. And then he stays the next night, because they eat breakfast and then they go and find a nice carved wood wall clock for Steve’s apartment and then of course they need to get lunch and nap and then find dinner. And watch the next season. And undo Bucky’s hair and do the night treatments for everything. Bucky tries a clay mask. Bucky makes Steve try a clay mask. It’s nice.

They do more than watch TV. Steve, working off the intel that the picnic was a success, suggests sculpture parks and botanical gardens and the Flower Walk that opens on the Highline. Bucky never says no. Most of the time he doesn’t wait for Steve to finish the words “Would you want to - ” before he asserts that yes, he would. He very much wants to. He seems perfectly happy to bump shoulders and hook elbows with Steve as they wander down moss pathways and examine art and flowers and plants, and Steve is probably getting disproportionate satisfaction out of buying snacks from street vendors and corner cafés and passing them to Bucky.

Bucky eats everything Steve hands him except for the coconut-pickle relish cup, which he hands back after a lot of dubious sniffing and one tiny test bite, and half the funnel cake with burnt sugar dipping sauce, which he likes so much he insists on sharing with Steve. It makes Steve's teeth ache, but the powdered sugar halo it leaves around Bucky's mouth more than makes up for it.

And Bucky seems very happy in bed, enthusiastic and very appreciative, but it occurs to Steve that he’s never really outright asked Bucky what he likes.

He should. Talking about it is important. But he also doesn’t want to throw a boulder in the easy ebb and flow of each other’s company. He has to approach with caution, with uh… delicacy, with -

Natasha is across the table from him, smiling, chin in hand.

“I bought a color television,” Steve half-shouts in self-defense.

Bucky sometimes joins him for lunch, and sometimes gets absorbed into the SHIELD facility with no clue where he’s gone. Which is...fine. It doesn’t leave Steve as slightly panicked as when Peggy sunk into the dirt of Europe and turned up two weeks later with a bruise on her jaw and six folders of intel. Neither of them appreciate Steve fruitlessly hovering at them until the exact moment they want him to, so he tries to keep it to himself.

Natasha keeps tucking a smile into her cheek in a clear and obvious interrogation tactic to make Steve talk more, but he has tapioca pudding and he can just as soon eat that and let Natasha stare at him. Her hair looks nice today, which either means she spent time with one of her pods, or she just wanted people to think she did.

“You look nice,” Steve tries, after he finishes his tapioca and Natasha hasn’t relented.

Natasha does a long, slow blink and keeps staring at him, gently tapping her foot against Steve’s shin.

“You know I can just leave,” Steve says. “You doing this at the gym has a much worse return rate.”

“Your braids are getting better,” she says. “You can practice your French Braid on me if you want. Or a fishtail, but maybe you’re saving that for the six month anniversary.”

Steve pokes at his empty tapioca cup. “Is this going to be a shovel talk?”

“Do you need a shovel talk?”

“I’d feel better if someone gave me a shovel talk.” Steve frowns. “Bucky deserves a shovel talk or two on his behalf.” Steve had been meaning to give himself a shovel talk in the power vacuum. He’s been told he does a good disappointed face.

Natasha raises both her eyebrows, and Steve vaguely notes she must have filled them in more today so he’ll notice. Steve and Bucky have watched makeup tutorials. They know about… pomade. They’d stared at each other’s eyebrows and decided they were probably fine.

“I’m just happy for you,” she finally says, and kicks his shin. “You smell obnoxiously cheerful so I’m not sure we can go out in the field for awhile, so if you want to hurry up and move in together so we’re not benched, I wouldn’t mind.”

Steve grips his tray and Natasha tilts her head. “You’ve asked him?”

“No,” Steve says carefully, because screaming something inside your head very loudly wasn’t asking. Or sort of… sneakily making your house their house. He doesn’t know the correct time window for it. It can’t be that much longer, right? Another few weeks, or maybe a month or… “It seemed too soon. Is it too soon?”

“A year or two is usually standard,” Natasha says, and Steve stares at her because they could be dead in a year. A year? Anything could happen in a year. The sun could implode and the stars turn into radioactive space slime. It’s not as far-fetched as he wishes it were. His life already contains a lot more radioactive space slime than he’d really been prepared for.

“A year,” he repeats.

Natasha shrugs. “If you want to move faster, you can. Just talk to him. Make sure you’re on the same page.”

“Communication is important,” Steve says automatically, because that’s what Josef and Mabel always say when they’re dissecting each new development on The Reef Unbroken and cataloging everything the characters are doing wrong.

“There you go,” she says, and kicks his other shin in an approving way. He’ll have symmetrical bruises for the next ten minutes or so. “Talk it over.”

Talk it over. Steve thinks about that for the rest of the day, to the point where May nearly elbows him in the head during their sparring session when he doesn’t duck fast enough. He can do that. He can talk it over with Bucky. He isn’t sure exactly what they should talk over, but maybe there’s a list?

Steve searches “moving in with a new pod” on his replacement phone. There are lists. There are a lot of lists. He reads through the first twenty results and makes a compendium of the most common talking points. Up at the top with “group finances” and “managing in-laws” is “intimacy and romance.” Finances are easy; SHIELD pays him a lot more than he spends, and with Steve’s back pay account, he has enough to support an entire pod for a generation. Neither of them have any in-laws to manage; Steve’s original podmates are all long dead, and when he asked Bucky if he had any family, Bucky just shook his head and went around with rounded shoulders and muted scent for an hour.

Steve felt bad about asking that, after. He should have known better. Bucky’s never even mentioned any relatives, let alone smelled of them. Bucky didn’t seem upset with him, but Steve made strawberry-lemon popsicles and roasted peanut apology chicken anyway, and felt disproportionately relieved when Bucky did his usual climb-Steve-like-a-cat-tree after dinner.  

Intimacy and romance. Bucky has seemed pretty happy with what they’ve been doing, but. Talking it out. The lists are right; if there’s something they need to correct or expand on, better to find out now.

Steve broaches the topic after their next date. They spend the morning in a park in the city, skirting the edges of crowded fountains and stopping at every snack stall that makes Bucky’s nostrils flare. Steve waits until they’re back in his apartment, pours them each a glass of iced tea, and sits down at the kitchen table with his heart hammering like he’s going into a firefight.

Bucky, responding, straightens up and looks around, then at Steve, like there’s a fire alarm going off that only he can hear, and Steve tries to rein himself in. “It’s alright,” he says, soothing Captain voice coming out more or less on automatic. Luckily, these days it has the side effect of soothing him too. “We’re fine. I just - wanted to check in.”

Bucky’s settling down again, looking at Steve curiously.

“I just wanted to talk. With you. About how things are going,” Steve perseveres. “With - with us.”

Bucky blinks at him. He says, tentatively, “Good?”

“Good! Me too, that’s what I think. Things are good. But if you can think of anything you want to change, or - something that would make things better for you, that would also. Be good.”

“Good,” Bucky says, looking a little lost.

“I’ve been doing some research,” Steve says, and Bucky brightens visibly. “I found some lists. Of things we should talk about, to make sure everyone’s happy. So. If there’s anything else you wanna try. We can always try it. And talk about anything.”

Bucky gives Steve the politely inquisitive look that means he has no earthly clue what he’s talking around and is hoping someone will say something that makes sense soon.

Steve’s not sure how crude he’s capable of being, but he should probably quit with the pussyfooting. He takes a breath of Bucky’s steadying scent, back to being all relaxed and sated from the pineapple pork they ate in the park earlier. “In bed,” Steve says. “What do you like?”

“All of it,” Bucky says promptly.

Steve pauses. “All?”

“All of what we’ve done.”

“Oh,” Steve says. “Okay. Okay. That’s - really good. Thank you! Thanks. Anything else?”

Bucky’s eyebrows knit slightly. “What else is there.”

Steve kind of stares at him for a bit while all the relevant information rapidly rearranges itself in his brain. He’d - thought, sure, that Bucky maybe wasn’t the most - experienced, but it’s a slightly different thing to have it explicitly confirmed. It’s not that Steve is averse to explaining, it’s just - well, where does he start? And - what if there are whole new types of sex now? Steve wasn’t exactly an expert before, and he certainly can’t be one now.

What else is there. His lists suddenly don’t feel comprehensive enough.

“Let’s find out,” Steve says.

-o-

Two hours later, they rendezvous at the kitchen table. Steve has several library books. Bucky has a small stack of magazines and what looks like clippings.

“They’re not the best intel,” Bucky warns. “Confusing language. Insufficient detail. And I haven’t broken the code yet. But they have pictures.”

“Right,” Steve says, for lack of better answer. “Should we swap?”

Steve had mostly checked out books like Your First Time! and 1001 Games in the Bed Pit and Health & Recreation (Fifth Edition). Bucky opens Your First Time! and starts reading, directly from the beginning, like Steve’s gotten him a textbook and told him there’ll be an exam later.

Well. No harm being thorough. Steve pulls the magazines towards himself and flips the first one open.

It’s very informative. He sees what Bucky means about the unreliable intel; there are acronyms that Bucky has annotated in the margins and some that are circled with ??? above them, and some of the trend reviews read more like product placements than objective journalism, but there’s still enough actual information that by the time Steve turns the last page he’s got a whole new bubblegum pink mental filing cabinet full of skin care routines and wardrobe suggestions. He’s been able to match up some of the outfits he’s seen around the reef to the magazine’s spreads on business casual or dressed-down chic or formal loungewear. There are lots of hairstyles in here, with step by step instructions and pictures of techniques. It’s not as visually instructive as video, but the detailed breakdowns of different products and brushes and methods is very informative.

After a while Steve gets up and makes mint lemonade. Bucky accepts his glass still reading, but after a few minutes he drains the glass and looks up with a dazed expression.

“There are toys,” he says, in vaguely shellshocked tones. “I didn’t know there was equipment.”

Steve thinks of the sapphire satin ribbon Peggy had miraculously procured on the Western front and used to tie delicate bows around his wrists when they had the rare free evening together, then blushes so hard his eyes water a little. "It's - optional," he manages. "But it, uh. It can be fun.”

Bucky makes an interested noise, but doesn’t look up, so Steve has time to hide behind a magazine while he waits for his blood to redistribute. By the time he puts the magazine down, Bucky has started to write notes on the back of Steve’s library receipt. Steve gets one of his blank sketchbooks down from the bookcase - he’d made the mistake of doodling on a mission briefing in front of Natasha once, and as soon as the mission was over she’d dragged him to an art store and given him a $500 spending minimum - and hands it to Bucky.

“For notes,” he says.

Bucky accepts it with a nod and immediately fills the first page with bullet points. Steve goes back to his stack of magazines. By the time Bucky leaves for the evening, Steve is already brainstorming ways to continue their research, hopefully with some hands-on experimentation. He kisses Bucky goodbye at the door, then goes straight to his computer.

Bucky has clearly taken to the bed pit explorations initiative and the idea of equipment in particular, so that’s where Steve starts. When he imagines trying to walk into a physical store and talk to another human being about sex toys, however, he experiences an immediate and overwhelming MISSION ABORT. This, he decides, is exactly what the internet was invented for.

A few basic searches present him with a bewildering variety of options and brands. There are a lot of vibrating toys that come in cute, bee-themed packaging, with attractive honeycomb-print stationary in discreet shades of marigold. Steve pages through the results and tries to figure out what the hell Bucky would like. Should he buy one of the Busy Bee bumbles that comes with a packet of bee-friendly wildflower seeds you can scatter in your garden? Does he want to back the Humble Indie Bumble Bundle on Kickstarter and get a variety of boutique toys as his pledge reward? Would Bucky appreciate a Bumble of the Month Club membership, or would that be too presumptuous?

Steve notices a few product descriptions touting high scores from independent evaluators. Blushing but determined, he pulls up the Consumer Reports website and finds their bumble rankings. Two manufacturers, the Bees Knees and Bee-Twixt the Sheets, both get very high quality assurance ratings, and after twenty minutes of flipping back and forth between their product specs (one of them offers ten hours of battery life, which, wouldn’t there be… chafing? None of the reviews mentioned chafing, it’s probably fine) he gives up and orders a range of basic bumblers from both.

The packages arrive in very normal-looking boxes, though when he opens one the inside is - well, it’s adorable, but he really hopes the smiling bee face on the golden packaging isn’t actually on the bumble itself. He’s not sure he could in good conscience give Bucky something to use amongst his melony bits if it’s sporting a pair of eyes.

Bucky, Steve’s learned over the past several weeks, has an almost supernatural sense of when something new has entered Steve’s apartment, from mail and packages to a leaf that floated in through the open balcony doors that one time. It feels less typical O territoriality and more a feature of Bucky’s professional skillset. He pops up behind Steve approximately twenty seconds after Steve opens the first package of bumblers, sniffing suspiciously, and, well, it’s not like Steve bought these to hide in a cupboard for special occasions.

“What is that,” Bucky says, poking at one of the bumbler’s cardboard antenna, and Steve bites the bullet and holds the thing up.

“It’s for - us,” he says. “To try. If we want. Uh, equipment.”

Bucky carefully looks everything over, then picks up a long, sleek, rubbery thing with The Stinger stamped across its base. It’s a nice cursive script and the color is an alluring tangerine. It, thankfully, has absolutely no eyes on it. “It goes,” Bucky says, brows scrunching together, “inside?”

“If you want,” Steve says. “It says mostly they uh. Buzz.”

“Buzz,” Bucky repeats, sounding not quite doubtful but more open to the potential to be persuaded.

“They have really good reviews,” Steve says. “Some of them are more rumbly, others are more… pulsating. Since we didn’t know what you liked I just…” He gestures at them all.

Bucky picks up the packaging and reads it over, including the fine print. “Pollination,” he says, just the tiniest crease between his brows.  

“We don’t have to try it,” Steve says. “I just thought it might be. Fun.”

“We’ll have fun,” Bucky says decisively, picking up The Stinger - and the Honey, the Bumble Buzzin’ and the Stripey Surprise - and heads for the bed pit.

Twenty minutes later the two of them fall back, panting, the sheets below them soaked with sweat. Bucky reaches out a trembling hand and turns off the Surprise. There’s another one quietly bumbling under a pillow somewhere but Steve can’t be bothered to find it. Maybe it won’t have 10 hours of battery life.

“That,” Steve manages, gulping for breath.

“Uh huh.”

“That was. Wow.”

“Uh huh.”

Bucky crawls out of the bed pit while Steve’s still trying to remember how his legs work, and Steve is briefly worried that the experience had been too overwhelming or upsetting somehow. Sure everything smells correct and good, but communication is important. He half flails up, but the pillows suck him back in, subtly rumbling as Steve pats around for the Bumble Buzzin', which had been wide and slightly rounded in his palm. It made Bucky slam one hand hard against Steve’s shoulder, and use his other leg to hold Steve in place. Mostly right now that means the thing keeps sneaking deeper into the pit.

Bucky rolls back inside a minute later, the sketchbook Steve gave him in one hand and an assortment of pens in his mouth like a bunch of jolly pastel cigarettes. The sketchbook has acquired color-coded tabs that say things like “TOUCHING” and “MOUTH THINGS”. Steve perks up a little, especially as Bucky blunt forces his way into tucking himself under Steve’s arm and shoving them both up to a half sitting position.

“It’s better to record observations as soon as possible,” Bucky explains around the pens, taking one out, flipping to a blank section and writing “BUMBLES” across the tab. Steve’s scientifically perfected heart probably can’t skip a beat, but it gets heavy and full in his chest as Bucky uses Steve’s arm as a book rest. “Your input matters,” Bucky adds, delicately spitting the rest of the pens into his lap and looking up at Steve. “Did you… like… one?”

Steve is stupid and flushed and presses his nose to Bucky’s temple. “I like you.”

Bucky frowns even as he goes pink - pinker- and tucks the pen behind his ear, diving into the pit and unerringly fishing the Bumble out of the pillows. “I like this one,” he says, like he’s trying to demonstrate for Steve how to give an after-action report. The pinkness is intensifying. Steve kisses his ear, then more of his ear, then his temple again. “Do you also,” Bucky perseveres, his voice now gratifyingly breathless, “um. Do you also like - it?”

“I think,” Steve says, now fully drunk on the space just behind Bucky’s ear, the crook of his neck and shoulder, “we should try it again.”

They do. Two hours later, they fill out three whole pages of the notebook. Then they make a review account on the bumble website. They very conscientiously click five stars.

-o-

That gets them on trying other bed things. It takes a while for them to get to the makeup brushes, since they get distracted running through the various bumbler settings and rating the results on a scale of mauve to fire truck, but they get there eventually. Bucky consults his Wellness Guide and finds that the short fat dense brushes go with the Avocado Butter Buffing Cream and the long delicate poufy brushes go with the Matte Perfecting Powder. Technically the brushes can be used for other substances, it says, but it’s best to match the consistency of the substituted cream or powder. The brush kit has a flat brush for masks and a smaller soft-as-air brush for under the eyes.

Bucky pushes the kit over to Steve. They’re back in Steve’s bed pit, the remains of breakfast frittata on plates left soaking in the sink, and they don’t have anything planned for the day. The kit has fourteen brushes. Bucky has a whole page of his notebook ready to record observations.

Steve picks up one of the short dense ones and pulls his thumb through the plush bristles like he’s evaluating a tool. Testing the flat edge of a blade. Testing the strength of a punching bag with a pulled blow. Bucky swallows and feels his fingers itch, ghostly whispers of imagined sensation winding up his knuckles as Steve evaluates the brushes, picking up each one, dragging them along his own neck. Steve wouldn’t try anything on Bucky without first testing it on himself. Bucky’s stomach goes warm and liquid and he tilts his head up, baring his neck, wanting to feel it all on his skin. Wanting Steve to steady Bucky’s head with one of his big, warm hands and trace an invisible make-up tutorial along Bucky’s face.

Steve looks back up at Bucky with a sort of focus that has his body tightening down and opening up all at once. Steve smiles. “They feel like high quality.”

Bucky shrugs, trying to convey with his face and body and smell that they’ll have to test it and see. Practical trials yield the most valuable research. Steve grins and sets one of the thickest brushes against Bucky’s jaw, dragging the plush fibers up to his ear. Bucky’s eyes close without him thinking about it and Steve draws a line down his neck and along his collar bone, pressing down and then lightening up along the end in a flick. His skin wakes up as the brush moves, soft enough that it’s like Steve is breathing over him. Not an itchy or scratchy bristle among them.

Steve follows the line with his dry thumb and Bucky leans into it until his face is nestled into Steve’s palm. Bucky presses a kiss to Steve’s wrist and the entire bed pit smells like contentment. It’s a hot chocolate kind of smell, like this whole apartment is a warm cup of cocoa fluffed with whipped cream that he can curl around to warm his bones. Bucky doesn’t like the cold. He’d never fully realized there was a place away from it.

Steve picks up another brush to try on his own face. Bucky lifts up to bonk his lips against Steve’s cheekbone, nothing so coordinated as a kiss. Steve realigns them, shifting Bucky into the crook of one elbow so he has the other hand free for the brushes and access to Bucky’s face and arms and neck, and Bucky thinks about being a mural. He’d be up for being a mural. There seem to be no obvious downsides. He’s professionally good at lying still. Maybe he can put that skill towards having all of Steve’s focus while they work their way through every kind of brush stroke in the world.

“I could find you something softer,” Steve says, his fingers curled in and supporting Bucky’s head. Bucky thinks of cocoa and being drunk down to nothing and filling up Steve's stomach all hot and fortifying.

Steve smiles and Bucky smiles back up at him. Steve drifts his lips against Bucky’s again, and Bucky’s spine stretches out and curls over the long, fat pillows he’s nestled into, his body all sweet and liquid.

Steve smoothes the brush down Bucky’s throat. Bucky swallows and Steve keeps tracing around. Filling him in and giving him depth. Bucky has watched Steve when it’s the two of them each working in their sketchbooks, Bucky making lists while Steve turns blobs into desks, or coworkers, or Bucky’s foot. Everytime Bucky walks into Steve’s apartment his shoulders unclench from his ears and he feels… quiet. And he goes back to Location Redacted and cuddles into his nest holding onto that feeling until the next time he finds Steve, and then they smile at each other until Steve says hey, would you want to and Bucky does, he does want to, every part of him chanting yes yes yes.

Steve leans down and presses smiling lips to the goosebumps marching up Bucky’s arm. Bucky’s hand lifts up on its own to pet his head, then pinches a tuft of Steve’s hair and whisks it back and forth across the top of his ear like a tiny lopsided brush, tickling him just to see how big he can make that smile go. Steve laughs and shoves his head into Bucky’s stomach and Bucky has to curl up around him until they’re tussling back and forth and kicking pillows out of the pit. Bucky gets Steve pinned and snatches the brush out of his hand triumphantly, planting himself right on Steve’s hips, using his spoils to trace the thin veins on the underside of Steve’s wrist.

“It’s my turn still,” Steve grumbles, but not very loud.

Bucky squints down at him from his position of moral superiority and tactical leverage. “I don’t get to do your hair. That’s a whole turn every day.” He runs the brush up Steve’s forearm and circles the crook of his elbow, by way of punctuation.

“But then you go to work with it and that makes me… ” Steve swallows, looking like he also thinks it seems silly to have an argument about who gets to make who happy. Bucky wants to make Steve happy all the time and maybe Steve is on the reverse side of the same page.

So Bucky makes a considering noise, like they do on the soap operas, and shades in Steve’s collarbones. “You orgasm one time,” Bucky points out, because this is deeply unfair and he needs to find a way around it. “You get multiple times with me.”

Steve turns a very interesting red color. “That’s. I mean. I’m not counting.”

“I am,” Bucky reassures him. “Don’t worry. We can fix it. Even if it takes a long time. Persistence is the key to victory.”

Steve, now extremely pink more or less everywhere but the elbows, blurts out, “Do you want to come to a dance night with me?” in about half a breath.

Bucky slows down with the brush, which may not be the main source of Steve’s breathless pinkness, but probably isn’t helping.

“My community center has a dance night,” Steve soldiers on. “And they, um. Since we’re. They’re real interested in meeting you.”

Bucky falls back into the pillows to think about it, stretching his legs over Steve’s middle to keep him there. Steve’s gone to the community center multiple times since they started going on dates, for weekly cooking classes and a birthday party and a community garden harvest. He hasn’t invited Bucky before. Cosmo had plenty of articles titled WHY HAVEN’T I BEEN INVITED TO MEET THE POD YET? And THE TRI-POD METHOD: THREE STEPS TO A STAND OUT FIRST IMPRESSION, but since Bucky’s still unclear as to what kind of timeline to apply to their relationship he hasn’t found it necessary to study those sections yet.

Steve’s friends. “Like a pod?”

“I mean they… it’s, um. They don’t live here, or anything. But they want to meet you.”

“You like them.”

“Yeah, I do.” Steve’s hand find its way to Bucky’s ankle. Bucky absently stretches into the massage.

“Cosmo has a lot of advice for safe and fun first pod dates.” Bucky starts to get up to get his notebook. Steve sits up and smoothes a hand over Bucky’s hip, pinning him in place without any force at all.

“Is dancing on there?”

“Dancing is a fun and energetic group activity the fosters closeness and encourages teamwork,” Bucky says, omitting the part where the magazine had surrounded these points with a bright pink bubble captioned RAD, because he doesn’t know how to interject that.

“You don’t have to if you don’t want to,” Steve starts, because Bucky hasn’t actually said yes yet, and Steve always notices things like that. Steve likes holding open exit doors for Bucky for things. Bucky never takes them. He still likes seeing them there.

“Yes. Community dance night. That is an acceptable turn.” Bucky opens his hand and lets Steve pick up the brush.

-o-

Bucky shows up to dance night in the brown turtleneck he’d worn for their first date, his hair strictly combed out. Steve obeys the implicit invite and starts braiding, the two of them standing under the wisteria trellis over the community center’s side door. Steve can hear music already playing inside, a warm steady tune that feels familiar even though he doesn’t know it. Someone must have chased Mabel away from the music player; whenever it’s her turn to pick the cooking playlist, she defaults to music that’s just a wall of sound to smack your face into, ostensibly for fun, that the activity coordinator grudgingly plays at the lowest possible speaker volume. A month ago Mabel had demonstrated head banging for Steve and nearly cracked her cervical spine.

They pause just inside the doorway so Bucky can breathe in and get used to the new scents. His eyes only dart around to each exit once, so he must not be too stressed out, but his grip on Steve’s arm tightens for a few seconds.

“Good?”

Bucky nods. “Mabel, Shara and Josef,” he says. “Engineer, painter, park ranger. Fourteen grandchildren.” He puts his hand in his pocket and withdraws a bag of caramels, the individually paper wrapped ones sold in fancy stores. “Emergency backup.”

“They’re gonna love you,” Steve says.

Steve’s not just guessing. He’s gotten a preview of how pod matrons react to Bucky every time his neighbors run into them in the hallways, and barely-suppressed glee seems to be the dominant response. Nikolas from 1B had even patted Bucky’s cheek the other day after Bucky helped him dig holes for autumn bulbs. Bucky had held still for it with the same look of intent concentration he wears as they walk into the main hall.

The walls and ceiling are festooned with crepe streamers, the recycled newsprint kind with headlines and the occasional comic strip pressed into the creases. All the lamps are low and warm, closer to candlelight than the clean white they use for cooking class, and Steve has a moment of disorienting deja vu. Even the accents are right. Only the smells of wax and cheap gin and unlaundered sweat are missing.

Bucky takes the lead smoothly when Steve falters, steering them towards the table where Mabel has loaded her plate to capacity with apple bacon fritters. She turns, sees them, squeaks in delight and immediately seizes Josef, who grabs Shara. All three of them descend like a plague of locusts, Mabel even forgetting her plate on the buffet table. Steve’s shoulders square up automatically.

Steven,” Mabel says. She looks them both over head to toe, incandescent with vengeful delight. Steve swears her eyes immediately lock onto the still-healing hickey barely hidden under his shirt collar.

“Hi. Uh. This is Bucky,” Steve says, willing to accept total exsanguination if it means it’ll stop his blush from its imperialist aspirations. He’s positive his smell is ramping up to do something fantastically embarrassing. “Buck, these are my friends.”

Oooooooooooo,” Mabel, Shara and Josef say in unison, all of them grinning like pumpkins.

“Pleased to meet you,” Bucky says, giving almost no sign that he’d much rather be giving a polite wave from somewhere very high up and easily defensible.

“You dance, son?” Mabel says as Shara expertly flanks Steve, takes his elbow and starts towing the group towards the refreshment table.

“Not lately,” Bucky says, which is a good sign considering he sometimes makes Steve tell his juice order to the O’s who run the corner cafe even though by this point all of them consider him a preferred customer.

“Me neither,” Josef says jokingly, wiggling his walker. “Don’t worry. They play all sorts of songs. We’ll pick it up no problem.”

“Why don’t you open up the floor?” Mabel twinkles at Steve and Bucky, because she is an instigator and a provocateur.  

“If you won’t, I will,” Shara says, drawing an honest to goodness peacock feather fan out of their pocket and flicking it open like a paladin unsheathing a holy sword.

Bucky immediately lampreys himself to Steve’s arm, so Steve sidles them out onto the floor. They go largely unnoticed in Shara’s wake - some lucky gent in a velvet smoking jacket is about to undergo a lot of excitement across the room - and after a quick glance around to make sure he’s doing it right Steve puts one arm around Bucky’s waist and offers Bucky his other hand.

Bucky takes it, brow wrinkled like he’s trying to solve an arithmetic problem or remember if Steve left the stove on. They shuffle back and forth; Steve resolutely ignores the blush creeping up the back of his neck and wishes he didn’t have such an acute sense of when people are watching him. Bucky doesn’t even seem to notice, just frowns at their feet and then at the grip of their hands and then back at their feet again. He doesn’t smell displeased, though, and when Steve experimentally loosens his grip Bucky tightens it, so it’s probably not because Steve has sweaty-feeling gloves or can’t follow the beat.

The music speeds up, trumpet and drums joining in, and it’s becoming less of a waltz and more of what Steve used to hear in wartime dancehalls. Steve’s just trying not to step on anyone’s feet when Bucky says “Oh,” under his breath, then “I know this,” and suddenly Steve’s flying.

For a second he thinks Bucky threw him, and - he did, only in a very different way than in the gym, because suddenly Bucky’s there catching him by the hips and he’s somehow on the ground again, stumbling, though not for long. Bucky’s grip is just as unforgiving as when he spars, only he’s using it to turn Steve, spin him, haul him under one arm and over the other, and this is - dancing? Steve would watch dancing sometimes and it looked fun but this is an extreme sport. Bucky whips him out and reels him back in again, slinging him around like he weighs nothing, like he’s in his old body again, and Steve shoots past a momentary blur that might be Mabel’s face gone obscene with wondrous glee. Steve would maybe try and say something only Bucky’s face is right there as he brings them close and spins them and he looks very - bright. His whole face is sharp with concentration but it’s the kind - like when Steve draws, Steve thinks. When he’s drawing something beautiful.

And since Bucky stopped wearing scentblock after the first time he rolled around in a bath with Steve, Steve can smell him, his mood expanding, glowing up the room. It’s delight tinged with wonder, airy and heady, and people are laughing around them, clapping along to the beat. Steve feels tipsy just breathing it in. He’s six-and-a-half feet of cartwheeling beefsteak as Bucky throws him into spins and he just tries not to break anything when he lands, but second by second that’s changing. Steve’s reflexes and Bucky’s control are doing most of the work for him, and it’s getting his blood up, not knowing what the next step will be, thrilling, even as he gets the hang of some of the repeating bits and starts to be able to anticipate some of Bucky’s moves. He doesn’t have to dance, he just has to follow, and Bucky is nothing if not explicit about what he wants. It’s nothing like combat but he’s lighting up anyway, the leather of his gloves squeaking in Bucky’s grip, their shoes smacking down onto the floor at the same time as Bucky motions for him to jump a split second before they do it and they come down together, perfectly in time. Bucky’s cheeks are red and his hair is coming out of Steve’s admittedly dissolute braid and he looks like he’s having the time of his life.

The song ends with a last jaunty chord. The room bursts into arthritic but extremely loud applause. Steve and Bucky look at each other, panting, Steve torn between trying to get more air through his mouth but wanting to use his nose to scent more, breathe Bucky’s happiness in deeper.

“I remember,” Bucky says, grinning. His hair is everywhere. Steve’s never - surely Bucky’s smiled like this before. Maybe not. Steve would’ve remembered. “I know this,” Bucky continues. “Dancing. I did a lot of dancing. It’s really good.”

“Yeah,” Steve agrees. He’s tingling all over. No wonder everybody kept on setting up makeshift dancehalls in the war, even if it was just a couple of boards on the ground and everybody taking turns around one A stomping along to her harmonica. Why hadn’t he ever tried? The Howlies had gone out looking for music whenever they were in a city and sometimes Steve tagged along, but he’d only ever watched or helped clap or stomp, encouraging from the edges. He hadn’t known the moves, hadn’t learned them when everyone else had and it wouldn’t have done, for Captain America to go falling on his face on a simple dancefloor. That must have been it. He hadn’t known, not until Bucky showed him.

“Again?” Bucky offers, and the whole room goes up with cries of “Again!” and “Put the next one on, the Chattanooga Choo Choo!” and Steve remembers the existence of other people. Mabel and Shara and Josef are standing at the edge of the dance floor beaming at him, Josef thumping his fist on his walker as he joins the calls for more.

“Encore!” Shara yells, and Bucky turns and winks.

“After this one, you can cut in,” he says, and Shara does a hip shimmy of victory.

Bucky’s version of the Chattanooga Choo Choo is more mentally and physically taxing than most of Steve’s SHIELD training exercises. Steve loves it, but he’s not sorry to pause for a cup of lemonade once it’s done. Josef introduces Bucky to the wonders of buffet-style eating while Shara drags Steve into a four-person cluster on the dance floor that starts out as a swing quartet and ends with Steve taking turns tossing his partners into the air, once they figure out he can lift two people at a time, one on each hand. It’s not that different from giving the toddlers in his reef airplane rides.

When Steve eventually returns Shara to their army of waiting suitors Bucky and Josef and Mabel have taken over a table. Judging by the carnage Josef has fed Bucky every snack in the room. Mabel has taken the tiny screwdrivers out of her purse and now she and Bucky are bent over Bucky’s arm, heads close together. “I have shredders,” Bucky is saying. “One of them started making a noise. Last week. A noise it didn’t make before, I mean. I checked the parts that open but I don’t know what’s wrong.”

“Might need to look at the motor,” Mabel says. “Bring it to the center, I’ve got a full workbench there. Steve’ll show you where to go.”

“She fixed my pinky,” Bucky says when he spots Steve, holding up his metal hand and flexing it. “See. No squeak.”

“Screws just needed a little tightening,” Mabel says. “And you can give it a nice oil soak when you get home.”

Steve had kind of liked the little squeak Bucky’s pinkie finger made. Just barely audible, like Bucky was hiding a small mouse in his hand somewhere, a nice Beatrix Potter-type mouse with a housecoat and a jaunty hat. But Bucky is smiling as he flexes his fingers, so Steve is reflexively happy, and generally if something’s squeaky that means it’s not well kept or starting to break down, and for Bucky Steve wants the opposite of that. It’s good to see Mabel and Bucky going through a diagnostic together, Bucky relaxed and content while Mabel peers at his pinkie through a thick lens that makes her eyeball look the size of a tangerine.

They stay late into the night, or at least as late as it gets for septuagenarians like them, which is still late enough that the snack they get on the walk home is from a vending machine because all the kiosks are closed.

“That was fun,” Bucky pronounces like he’s a judge passing down a sentence, but he’s still bright cheeked and smelling like a whole garden of happiness.

“We can ask the organizers to do dance nights more often,” Steve offers, and Bucky hooks his elbow in Steve’s and plants a fast, happy smooch on his mouth. It’s a quick kiss, warm and unthinking, the kind of thing you give to someone you’re comfortable with. Someone you know so well that kissing is just another thing you do. Someone you love without even thinking about it.

Steve takes it as a yes.

-o-

Bucky is having the time of his life.

He is discovering whole new emotions. He is dating. He is learning every day. He learns if he sets his whole body against Steve’s body, Steve will put his arms around him and squeeze and settle himself cheek to cheek until Bucky feels like doing more or letting go (Steve never lets go first, unless it’s to do more). He learns if he lays down in Steve’s bed pit and stretches his arms up and points his toes, Steve will look kind of concussed and then put his big hand right below Bucky’s collarbones and stroke all the way down, over his chest and stomach and hips and back up again. He learns that with some fumbling and positional experimentation he and Steve can lick each other at the same time, which makes him feel like he should’ve run into the street shouting Eureka! after that one.

And he likes talking to Steve. Lots of things that are complicated and confusing become less so after talking about them with Steve. Steve asks smart questions and he’s always willing to try things. Listening to Steve talk about adverts and memorable typefaces and mood-affecting colors is like taking a warm bath inside his head, only with associated pictures. He thinks Steve should maybe make some ads again, in the future. If he feels like switching the spec ops career to part time. It would be nice, Bucky thinks, to walk down the street and see an ad Steve made, telling people about a colorful new design of shoe or electric scooter or camping tent. It would be nice to see the world inside Steve’s apartment overflowing into the streets, spilling warmth and color like a sunrise.

And then he hears word of a HYDRA cell, active just over the border in Canada.

In some ways SHIELD is very inefficient. When something is “outside their jurisdiction” they have to wait and talk to politicians and ask for permission and negotiate border crossings. But Bucky has seen borders shift and merge and collapse in on each other like matchsticks, here today and gone tomorrow, and they’re not important anyway, not when it comes to something like this. HYDRA must be stopped. They hurt people. They make people into things.

And SHIELD thought it could use HYDRA, once upon a time. They might think so again. It was on Bucky to stop it last time, once he could.

It’s been a while since his last HYDRA raid. A while since his last SHIELD combat op, too. He’s mostly been sent out on short courier missions these past couple of months - passing papers for Fury, who is the only one who ever assigns him missions at all. He doesn’t have anything coming up and he won’t be missed, if he slips away for a while.

Steve will miss him.

Steve makes him want to say secrets. He makes Bucky want to tell him everything, anything, from the butterfly that briefly landed on his shoulder yesterday to the things that surface in the dark of his head, things he saw and felt and did that show up in his nightmares. Steve doesn’t pry, doesn’t ask questions Bucky has no answer to, like what happened to your family or where did you go to school or how did you lose your arm. If Bucky says I have to go away for a few days, he won’t demand an explanation.

Bucky… wants to give him one. Steve is a good person. A good captain. But. This is Bucky’s job. He has to fix what he helped break. He can tell Steve about it after.

He has to tell Steve he’s leaving, though.

How does he tell Steve he’s leaving.

He’s coming back. Obviously he’s coming back. But he can’t say when. It’s not that Steve isn’t trustworthy, it’s just you don’t break opsec unless you really, really have to, and right now Bucky doesn’t really have to. And Steve runs missions too. He’ll understand.

Bucky shuttles around Location Redacted for much too long, trying to think of how to talk to Steve. It’s stupid. It’s silly. He should just say it. Steve, I have an op. I’m gonna be gone. For some days. And nights. Easy. Why does his throat feel full of congealed oatmeal.

He’s gotten too used to doing everything with Steve. This will be good for him. For them. A little bit of space and time apart, to remind himself that he can do things alone. He’s spent years alone. It’s not good to lapse in training. It doesn’t do to let skillsets rust.

He lifts the floor tiles that cover his main weapons compartment and starts packing a bag with firearms.

-o-

Steve comes home to find Bucky already there, processing what looks like an assembly line of guns. He’s sitting on the floor with a rifle taken apart in front of him, cleaning it bit by bit; in a line next to it are three pistols, eight knives and a few other assorted things that look like explosives and rope. His mask is right by his hip.

There’s a big container of scentblock, too. That, somehow, jars a lot more than the rest of it. Bucky hasn’t bothered with any in - months. It’s been months.

“Hey,” Steve says, and Bucky silently puts down the pieces of handgun he’s polishing and scuttles under Steve’s arm.

“Hey,” Steve says again, looping him in. Bucky settles into what Steve’s come to understand is his favorite standing up position: chin on Steve’s shoulder, front pressed along Steve’s side, where he can see behind Steve or tuck his face behind Steve’s ear just by turning his head. His metal arm loops around Steve’s stomach, just below his ribs.

“Got an op?” Steve says.

“Yeah.”

“Gone long?”

“Dunno.”

“Need help?”

Bucky’s quiet for a while. Steve eyes the guns. There’s a lot of them. Bucky’s a sniper and a scout; usually for anything this involved, it’s a job for Steve and May and Alpha STRIKE. But he hasn’t heard of anything coming down the pike.

“Not... this time,” Bucky finally says, and Steve doesn’t like how he braces himself a little. He thinks about asking how extracurricular this particular mission is. He thinks about Peggy standing firm in a tent with all her Agent Carter drawn up high on her shoulders like a knight’s cloak. He thinks, mostly, about the brisk cafeteria debrief Natasha gave him about Bucky. What he did while Steve was cold in the ocean.

Bucky didn’t have to gear up in Steve’s apartment. None of the equipment he’s checking is Steve’s, or anything Steve’s seen before. He took it from his own place and brought it here, where Steve would see it, where he’d be bound to ask about it. But he’s not asking for Steve to come with him. He’s just giving Steve as much information as he can, and asking Steve to trust him to know what he’s doing.

It’s hard, knowing Bucky will be going into danger without him, maybe without a team behind him at all. But folks are always saying a good pod is based on trust, and Steve’s no quitter.

“Okay,” Steve says. “Let me pack you a sandwich.”

-o-

Steve promised Estefania down the hall that he’d help her tear down the old wallpaper in her kids’ room and help move furniture and paint, so that’s his Saturday, and Sunday morning he takes advantage of the lack of bedpit lazing to strip the covers off every pillow and run three sets of laundry. He cleans the rest of the apartment before lunch, then goes out to help in the reef garden.

The garden seems more crowded with volunteers than a regular Sunday, and disproportionately tilted towards supervising pod matrons who keep handing him a new task as soon as he’s finished the last. They have him move patio furniture and the grills around, then powerwash the grill pit, then haul bags of soil and fertilizer outside the communal gardening shed so he can patch a leak in the roof before putting everything back where it was. The wheelbarrow that’s usually beside the shed is conspicuously absent.

What should have been a week-long project for a team of three is done by dusk. He’s invited to four separate dinners and he doesn’t know if it’s because people can already smell that Bucky is gone, or if they’re just trying to be nice, but he knows he wouldn’t be good company right now. His phone keeps ending up in his hand without him thinking about it.

“We used to call that a phone yawn,” says Beatrice, when she catches him staring at it. “When you take it out and don’t do anything with it.”

Steve keeps meaning to text Bucky, but Bucky still doesn’t have a phone. And he’s off doing something important and secretive and Steve is… not fine with it, but he understands. Natasha and Bucky both have skill sets that sometimes need him and sometimes really don’t. No one person is suited to every kind of work that needs doing. That’s the whole point of pods in the first place.

Beatrice pushes herself up from the newly repositioned patio chair and pats his arm. “We’ll find you more to do, dear. An idle mind makes mischief.”

True to her word, a steady stream of neighbors drop by in the following week to borrow his reach for putting up high shelves, or his carrying capacity for re-arranging furniture, or just to shove him into a room full of preschoolers so they can scale him like a human climbing wall. It helps, he thinks. He installs new insulation for the reef and attends briefings at SHIELD and doesn’t try to bully the Op administrators into telling him where Bucky’s gone, which he suspects Beatrice would classify as mischief.

It gets better after a few days. Steve stops expecting to spot Bucky in the hallways of HQ or walk through his front door and hear him splashing in the tub. He used to wait for Peggy like this, when he was stuck doing paperwork while she and Dernier got to do something fun like blow up a bridge, and after the first sleepless night he finds that rhythm again, the patience of a long march. He stops looking at his phone.

The couch still seems cold without Bucky there. Steve pulls a blanket out of where it’s wedged between the cushions and tugs it up high around his ears like it’s a turtleneck, tucking his chin so he can catch the scent of mingled SteveandBucky without outright stuffing his face into it. He can't help missing Bucky, but he doesn't have to be melodramatic about it. If they both keep on working for SHIELD, they'll be on separate missions sometimes. Now is as good a time as any to practice getting used to it.

The blanket gets him thinking, though. He leaves the cooking show he’s been half-heartedly watching - there are more episodes of The Reef Unbroken in his queue, but it doesn’t seem right to watch them without Bucky - and goes to his linen closet. His family quilt is still folded neatly where he unpacked it, untouched, on a shelf apart from all the work-a-day blankets he and Bucky have been enthusiastically making a mess of and washing and folding and making a mess of all over again.

When he picks it up, the quilt is light in his hands, the batting worn thin from hard use. Steve runs his thumb over a yellow paisley patch he had watched his mother sew on, during one of the innumerable days of his childhood when he was feverish enough for his Ma to stay home with him during the day. It was from one of Uncle Ian’s shirts, from Ma’s basket of fabrics; in there were Grandma Shannon’s scarves, Auntie Siobhan’s dresses, his father’s shirts. She'd let him pick the fabric scrap and shown him how to lay the stitches. He'd known it would be his job to keep the quilt in good repair, someday. His job to add to it.

Steve realizes he's been standing in the closet doorway for too long. He coughs to clear the thickness from his throat and picks up the mending kit the linens shop had thrown in free when he'd bought a quarter of their stock of blankets. It has a nice supply of embroidery floss in bold, bright colors, silky shining lines of goldenrod and cranberry and cobalt.

In his memory, the quilt is as big as a circus tent. He used to sit with the quilt over his head so he could look at the light filtering through all the different colored patches, a stained glass window that was soft to the touch. Now it barely stretches the length of the couch. It’s big enough to cover him and Bucky, though, and that's as big as it needs to be. For now. Steve tries not to daydream about some future time when he might have a pod big enough to warrant adding new squares. It will come in time, or it won't, and he has a different task in mind for right now.

The names embroidered on the quilt border unspool in his memory as he runs his fingers over the stitches. Steve Rogers. Sarah Rogers. Joseph Rogers. Shannon Donaghue. Anna Delaney. Ian Delaney. Siobhan Lee. His mother and father, their podmates, their parents, their parents' podmates, and on and on, Steve's family even if he'd never known most of them, even if they'd never known him. Their names are on his family quilt, and that makes them his to remember.

He's barely touched the quilt since retrieving it from the Smithsonian. It still has the same names that have been there since before Steve enlisted, and that means it’s out of date. Putting Bucky's name down without asking would be presumptuous, but there are other names Steve has a responsibility to add, other podmates he wants to make sure are remembered. It’s time he stopped neglecting that responsibility. His ma had taught him, on scrap cloth and dish towels, and she had let him trace his own name in the way she stitched it, all crisp and neat. The way she told it, she had asked for the quilt right after feeding him for the first time. Exhausted to the bone but wanting the big blanket heaped over her and to stitch him into their pod before she fell asleep like there was some magic in it.

His eyes are wet, but clear enough that he can thread a needle. Steve choses a deep forest green, finds an unmarked stretch of cream fabric that will provide a good backdrop to the rich colors of the embroidery thread, and gets to work.

He doesn’t use green for Peggy. She belongs in red.

-o-

Natasha calls him two days later. “We need you,” is all she says, but Steve is already moving from the first word, from the tone of voice alone.

“Where?”

“SHIELD HQ.”

It’s three in the morning and Steve cuts across the city no problem, the streets empty save for delivery trucks and the occasional car. He jumps the security gate, flashing his shield up, and he has a tail, but they can take care of it later. He goes straight to the briefing room, not bothering to hit the locker room first; if it’s a live situation he’ll be suiting up on the jet.

But Natasha’s not there, and neither is anyone else. The lights are on but the room’s empty, screens powered down; Steve goes back out to the corridor just as Natasha sticks her head out of a smaller conference room down the hall.

“Steve,” she says, and he hustles over. Hill is in there, surrounded by her pack of assistants, most of them rattling away at laptops and whispering urgently to each other. Steve stops short at the doorway: the whole room stinks of anxiety worse than an air raid shelter.

“Steve,” Natasha repeats before he can get a deeper sniff. “We need your help. Soldier came back injured and now we don’t know where he is.”

Steve forgets about trying to get a read of the room. “Injured?”

“He went on another one of his unsanctioned solo trips. Kellie -” Natasha gestures at a short agent in a junior tech uniform who looks like she has some regrets about her career choices - “saw him come in through the loading bay at 0245 and that’s the last we had eyes on him. None of the cameras or sensors are picking anything up.”

“He was limping,” Kellie puts in, looking scared but determined to say it. “And he was pressing onto himself, like, here, and his jacket was all ripped up, and I saw part of maybe a bandage under there but it was white and red and he really, really smelled like blood.”

“The loading bay?” Steve repeats.

Kellie nods.

“Show me.”

Kellie takes them down, hurrying down the hall but smelling determined now that the situation is being addressed. Steve focuses on that, on how Bucky was moving under his own power, on how he has to stay calm because if he doesn’t his own scent will blow through this base like napalm and Bucky won’t be able to get the help he needs as fast as he needs it.

They exit the stairwell on a ground floor level. Kellie leads them through swinging doors into a loading bay, empty except for parked humvees.

“He went through there,” Kellie says, pointing at a door blocked from the security cameras by a gear cabinet. “I looked inside, but he was gone.”

“Thank you,” Steve says quietly. He can smell blood, even if the bay floor is too dark for him to see it. “I’ll take it from here.”

Kellie gives him an uneasy look, but when Natasha just rests a hand lightly on Steve’s arm for a second before drawing away, she follows without complaint. Steve waits until the door closes behind them, then shuts his eyes and inhales.

Steve didn’t have much luck tracking Bucky through SHIELD before, but that was before he spent weeks marinating in Bucky’s scent. And now Bucky is bleeding. He opens the door and walks through it with his eyes still closed, following the thread of blood and pain.

Steve’s nose leads him to the basement, then the sub-basement, then further past several maintenance access doors. The corridors wind in towards the center of the building, the HVAC ducts getting larger as they get closer to the central furnace. His footsteps are almost drowned out by the pervasive humming of generators a level below.

He loses the scent at a four-way hallway junction. It’s too close to the garbage rooms and incinerator in the basement, the marshy smell of food that’s most of the way to compost and the burnt paper crispness of files fed to the furnace drowning everything else out. He circles the floor anyway, slowly, looking for a clue.

On his second lap he finds a spot of blood, dried, right under a dark gap in the fluorescent overhead lights. The spot is in front of an unmarked door, although small drilled holes in the wall next to it show where a sign used to be.

Steve slowly pushes open the door. There’s a faint scrape marring the paint on either side of the door at about the right height for a clothesline wire boobytrap, but there’s nothing there now, and no other traps he can spot. His first breath tells him he’s in the right place. The whole room is permeated with Bucky’s sick-smell, the watery, acidic thing he’d smelled like when they’d first met, and over that, in a cloying splash, the stink of blood.

It’s a bathroom. Or at least, it used to be a bathroom. There are stalls along one wall and sinks along the other. Bucky has built a nest in the ten or so square feet in between. Steve can see more than one of the thermal blankets from SHIELD’s emergency kits wadded up around a massive heap of shredded paper in the middle of the floor, and behind that is a row of - shredders? Are those paper shredders?

“Buck?” Steve calls out, well aware that sneaking up on operatives who’re hurting or unconscious is a great way to collect concussions. There’s a moment of silence, then a brief rustling.

He takes that as invitation enough to step inside. The paper scraps shift, the dark outline of Bucky’s uniform becoming visible under a few inches of black-and-white camouflage. He’s curled up on his side, arm over his ribs, breathing shallowly. His eyes are gleaming slits.

“Oh, sweetheart,” Steve says softly. He crouches in front of the paper mound, the bathroom tile cold under his knee. “Are you hurt bad?”

Bucky shakes his head, but it doesn’t look very emphatic.

“Are you still bleeding?”

Bucky looks down, then moves his shoulders slightly in a shrug.

“Will you let me see?”

There’s a rustle, and then light: Bucky takes his hand out of the inside of his jacket, a blue chemstick glowing in his palm.

Steve moves the paper aside and looks. It’s - not that bad. Bucky patched himself up pretty well: the bandage on his shoulder is lumpy but clean, no blood showing through. He left the lacerations in his thigh and hip unbandaged, just stapled them both and poured the liquid stitches glue-stuff over top. But it’s all clean and holding.

Steve ghosts a hand over his hip. “You stitched yourself up, huh?” Bucky nods. “Did you take any painkiller?” Another nod. “Let’s get you to Medical.”

Bucky’s metal hand is suddenly gripping hard on Steve’s wrist. He doesn't say anything but he smells like no, emphatic enough that Steve resists the urge to scoot back.

"Or not," Steve amends, and the grip on his wrist relaxes.

Okay. Field medicine rules it is. “Can you show me what you took?”

Bucky’s slow to release Steve’s wrist, but then he reaches carefully into the depths of the nest and extracts a plastic first aid box. Steve opens it for him; it’s entirely full of those modern orange pill bottles. Bucky touches a finger to one, two, three bottles - painkiller, antibiotics, another substance Steve memorizes but doesn’t recognize.

“Got stabbed?” Steve guesses.

Bucky nods and touches his shoulder. “Fence,” he says croakily, pointing at his hip.

“Barbed wire?”

Bucky nods. Steve looks back at the little first aid box. “Do you think you’ll need anything else?”

Bucky shakes his head. Steve looks him over again, lingering on the bandages. He’s got a mini pharmacy on hand, and if he’s anything like Steve his infection risk is minimal, but Steve guesses his throat is dry and hurting, and the only water source in here is the sinks. The hard tile under the nest is leeching heat. Steve’s seen worse sickrooms - Hell, he’s been in worse sickrooms, when half the tenement had diphtheria and they’d been quarantined together on one floor to make the nursing easier - but Bucky doesn’t have to settle for not bad, not when Steve has something better to offer. “Will you come ho - to my place?”

Bucky blinks up at him, then slowly raises one arm, reaching for Steve’s neck. Steve takes the hint and scoops him up carefully, an arm at his back and under his knees. He hooks the first aid box with a pinkie through the handle, in case Bucky needs more later.

Then Bucky makes a hand sign, wait , and Steve stops. Bucky gestures to be brought back to the corner under the window, so Steve crouches down again, ready to pick up whatever Bucky wants to take along.

The wall itself is covered in articles, Steve realizes, clippings and pages from magazines taped up in clusters and rows. It’s hard to see in the dim light, but he catches the Cosmopolitan logo and several others: magazines for grooming and relationships and style. Like the ones he’d brought when they were doing bumbler research. The articles get neater as they progress along the wall and acquire notes along the margins, but none of them have the colored tabs Bucky uses in his notebooks now, and Steve thinks these are older. Bucky doesn’t look at them now, focused instead on a clear patch of wall below them.

Bucky lifts up a tile in the wall and carefully extracts something brown. It’s his card, Steve realizes, as a hint of cedar wafts up. The card he drew for Bucky before their date. Bucky handles it like it’s a badly injured butterfly and tucks it into the front pocket of his vest.

Steve reflexively squeezes Bucky to his chest, remembering at the last moment to moderate his grip and not aggravate any injuries just because he couldn’t keep ahold of the emotions flapping like landed fish in his chest. “Ready to go?” he asks instead, slowly rising.

Bucky bites his lip and signs wait again. It’s hard to just stand there with Bucky smelling like injury and pain, but he’s not in immediate danger and Steve already feels better now that he’s holding him and sharing body heat and breathing in the scent of him. Steve doesn’t smell any fresh blood or infection. He hopes Bucky heals as fast as he does.

It takes Bucky a while to put the words together, but eventually he says, “Will you come back for them?”

Steve glances around. “Come back for...”

Bucky points. Steve looks over at the row of paper shredders. “Yeah,” he says. If Bucky wants six paper shredders Steve will bring them. “I’ll come back and get them.”

“And the printer.”

“The printer too,” Steve agrees. “Whatever you like.”

Bucky seems pacified by this. He lays his head on Steve’s shoulder again and lets out a small sigh, resting the hand holding the chemlight on his stomach. 

It’s not the worst place for a nest, Steve thinks mindlessly as he eases the door open with his back. The vague smell of garbage and disinfectant conceals his scent, and the heat from the incinerator keeps the space reasonably warm. He focuses on the upsides so he won’t have to think about Bucky coming back here alone and hurting, like he must have done god knows how many times before; Bucky had patched himself up too well for this to be anything but routine to him. Steve can’t think about that. He’s here now, and Bucky’s letting him help, and Steve will move Bucky to somewhere that’s safe and warm without the garbage smell and the drain in the middle of the floor, somewhere Steve can make him soup and help him change his bandages and wrap him in the softest blankets the 21st century has to offer.

Halfway out of the building Steve changes course and veers for the motor pool, because Bucky is injured and Steve’s only vehicle is a motorcycle. Steve walks straight past the guard booth and hones in on the nearest car that looks like it will give the least bumpy ride. He fails to remember he has to check out a set of keys, but Bucky pats his arm to get his attention and then points at the driver’s seat. Steve sets him down in it, and Bucky proceeds to open up a panel beneath the steering wheel and do a couple things with different colored wires. He also pulls out a square of plastic that he crushes in his metal fist and sprinkles on the asphalt outside the car door. “Tracker,” he says raspily.

Steve doesn’t bother mentioning that his address is on file with SHIELD, and if it wasn’t he’s pretty sure they’d know anyway, what with how many “secret” agents they have hanging around his reef like worried nannies. If it makes Bucky feel safer to ride in a car without a tracker, that’s what they’ll do. Steve can buy SHIELD a replacement later.

They drive home without incident, Bucky curled up on the back seat, Steve checking in the rear mirror every three seconds and blowing protective scent practically out his ears. They don’t run into any neighbors when Steve carries Buck up through the reef; he vaguely registers that right about now is when the earliest risers are out jogging and everyone else is still asleep. Bucky rouses enough at the door to open it himself while Steve is debating just kicking it in so he wouldn’t have to put Bucky down.

At least Steve’s bed is prepared this time. He carefully lays Bucky on the new flannel sheets, drawing the canopy down until it’s a warm dark cave with just one slice of light coming through the gap where Steve’s leaning over him. Bucky settles in, not moving all that much but small muscles relaxing around his eyes.

Steve leans in and kisses his forehead, using the opportunity to check for any fever. Bucky’s skin is slightly cool but not clammy, and definitely no temperature. “Snack?” Steve says, pulling the blankets higher and tucking them in.

Bucky nods, looking surprised by the offer but not enough to question or turn down providence. Steve heads for the kitchen, where peanut and peanut butter products have colonized fully two thirds of his pantry. Bucky needs something easy to eat, preferably in conveniently bite-sized pieces, and luckily for him that’s what the future seems to be all about. Steve gathers up a bag of peanut butter bites, a package of peanut butter cookies, some peanut butter popcorn and peanut brittle. From the icebox he takes a bottle of something that promises to taste just like a fresh milkshake (Peanut Butter Blast! flavor) and some lemon tea.

Upon consideration, Steve also grabs a jar of Extra Chunky and a spoon.

Bucky’s eyes are closed when Steve pulls back the curtain, but he rouses enough to reach for the bottled milkshake when Steve crawls in beside him. He sips sideways as Steve snuggles up against his side, careful not to jostle him, and when Bucky’s eyelids start to droop barely half a minute later Steve makes sure it doesn’t spill.

Bucky naps with the milkshake bottle held against his chest, and when he blinks awake sometime in the late morning he looks blearily around the bed pit before visibly honing in on the pile of snacks. Steve, who had been lying motionless next to him while trying to pump out nothing but safety smells, immediately ferries them over. The fact that Bucky has an appetite is great news.

“How’re you feeling?” Steve asks softly.

Bucky glances down and prods testingly at his thigh. “Whoa, careful,” Steve says, catching his hand. The painkillers must still be going strong. “Gentle. Just because it doesn’t hurt bad doesn’t mean it’s not damaged.”

He sounds exactly like every nurse who’s ever had to deal with his outpatient procedures in SHIELD medical, but it does the trick. Bucky gives his own leg an apologetic pat.

“Steve,” Bucky says. “I missed you.”

“I missed you too.”

“I miss you when I’m asleep,” Bucky continues, frowning. “Sometimes you die.”

The painkillers must be going really strong. “I’m right here, buddy.”

Bucky looks at him another moment and then pats Steve’s cheek, putting his whole hand flat along Steve’s head. Steve’s catches and holds it, turning to kiss Bucky’s wrist. Bucky paws at the snacks for a moment. Steve opens the peanut butter cookies for him and instead of reaching out, Bucky just opens his mouth, flopped out in a boneless sprawl, except for where he’s still trying to hold his hand up to touch Steve’s face.

Steve feeds him a cookie, because he’s not a monster, but he makes Bucky sit up first against the pillows so he won’t have survived the mission just to choke on crumbs. Bucky slumps resentfully against Steve at first but gets motivated pretty quick by the food, reaching for the hazelnut clusters on his own.

He should probably have some fruit. It takes a while, but Steve manages to persuade Bucky to detach from him long enough for him to go cut up some apples and mango and carrot chunks. That’ll keep Buck from getting scurvy, at least. They’ll need to find a nurse at some point. Steve’s pretty sure Mabel mentioned a niece working in a trauma unit. Maybe she can be persuaded to do a house call, if Steve can properly convey the offer of ‘Captain America will owe you one hell of a favor’ without coming across as presumptive or crass. Bucky’s stable, but a trained medic’s take is worth its weight in gold.

The phone rings. Steve sweeps his head around like a startled meerkat for a full three rings before he remembers phones exist, remembers he has a phone, and remembers where he put it. He picks up: it’s Natasha.

“Steve,” Natasha says very carefully. “Where is the Winter Soldier?”

“Uh,” Steve says, belatedly realizing he’d walked out of HQ and essentially stolen a SHIELD vehicle without so much as leaving a note. “My couch?”

There’s a pause as Natasha takes this in. “And what is he doing there?”

Steve leans over to get a look into the living room pillow pit, where the muffled chewing noises brook no interruption. “Eating peanut butter?”

“Eating peanut butter,” Natasha repeats.

“Yes?”

“That’s all? He’s... fine? Not - erratic?”

“He’s not using a spoon,” Steve notes. “But I don’t know that I’d call that erratic. Inefficient, maybe.”

Bucky shoots him a half-guilty look from where he’s chin deep in the Extra Chunky. “We’re alright, Nat,” Steve says. “He’s healing up. I’ll call you tomorrow if we need anything.”

There’s a brief silence. “You’ll call me tomorrow either way.”

“I’ll call you,” Steve agrees, and hangs up when the line clicks. Natasha could probably help with the medic question, but he doesn’t want to raise that until Bucky’s a little more coherent. The important thing for early healing is to keep him hydrated and fueled up. With that in mind, Steve heads to the pantry.

“Hey,” Steve says, handing Bucky a jar. “I think you’d like this.”

Bucky looks down at the label, focusing with difficulty. “Nutella,” he reads aloud.

“It’s a chocolate hazelnut spread. It’s good on toast, or inside crepes. Natasha likes it with ice-cream. I’ll… get you another jar,” Steve says, because by the time he’s finished his first three sentences Bucky has scooped out half the jar and eaten it straight off his metal fingers. By the look of it, it tastes like religion.

-o-

The next day, SHIELD watches Captain America pull up in the Honda Accord he took out of the motor pool yesterday, go inside, and then proceed to carry out a total of six paper shredders of various sizes and one desktop printer. Then he starts to systematically remove the plants from the building. A few people think, tentatively, about asking him why, but he smells exactly the same as he does going into a firefight, all calm purpose and iron-hard determination, and nobody can quite work up the resolve to slow him down. He gets an unofficial honor guard instead, as people line the halls to watch what he’s doing. One of the junior agents even holds the door for him when he carries the big potted tree from the breakroom out and settles it into the backseat. He leaves without incident.

There’s a mirroring honor guard when he gets back to the reef, only this one is made up of beaming matrons sending their teenagers to hold doors for Steve and filling the air with the rich pumpkiny scent of approval and satisfaction. Steve catches more than one whisper of he’s moving in! going up and down the halls.

Bucky looks like he might try to get up from the couch when Steve comes in with the first plant, but Steve persuades him to stay curled up under his mound of blankets and just point at where to put everything Steve carries in. The paper shredders wind up in a loose circle in the living room, with most of the plants in between them in spots that get the correct amount of sunlight. Steve sets the printer onto the table by the couch and gives it a friendly little pat.

“Welcome home,” Steve says, feeling a little silly but not nearly enough to outweigh the startled pleasure on Bucky’s face when he overhears. He ducks his head and starts tidying up, shifting things around so the printer and shredders look integrated into his home decor, or as integrated as possible when he’d started out with no home decor to speak of. They can re-decorate later. Maybe buy curtains together. Steve’s imagination ambushes him with a vision of Bucky running the booklet of curtain fabric samples over his cheek and he has to go and check on Bucky before he gets any more ideas. Bucky’s injured and here Steve is thinking about velvet.

“Does everything look okay?” Steve asks, sitting down on the arm of the couch and not saying anything about future decor conferencing.

Bucky looks around, nods, then points at the third paper tray on the printer. Steve opens it and finds instruction manuals inside for the shredders and the printer, one for each model. When he tries to hand them to Bucky, Bucky pushes them gently into Steve’s chest.

“For me? Thank you,” Steve says. Bucky gives him an expectant look, so he sets the stack of manuals on the arm of the couch, settles in next to Bucky, and starts reading. Bucky leans into his side and starts in on his third jar of nutella.

“What’s that?”

Steve looks around, at Bucky first because it’s the first thing he’s said in a little while and he’s sounding more awake now. He’s looking at the edge of the bedpit: Steve’s sewing is still out, the quilt folded up next to his basket of needles and thread.

“Oh. It’s - my family quilt. Did you,” ever have a family quilt; no, Rogers. He course-corrects seamlessly to, “want to see it?”

Bucky nods. Steve checks the quilt for stray needles before he carries it over, but he’d tied off the last embroidery loop a few days ago, all the new names complete. Really he should have put the quilt away then, but, well, the apartment was already feeling empty without Bucky there. He lays it on Bucky’s lap.

“Steve Rogers,” Bucky reads, his eyes so soft Steve can’t even look at him, except that looking away is completely impossible, so he’s just going to have to put up with his insides wavering like a mirage. “Sarah Rogers.”

“My Ma.”

“Your family quilt.” Bucky runs his thumb over the brick red Steve and smiles.

“I added some names while you were away.” Steve flips the quilt open further, spreading it over both their laps. The new lines of embroidery are bright and vivid compared to the comfortably faded names laid down by others. “My old unit, from before. And Peggy. We never filed the pod paperwork, what with the war, but.” Steve has to stop and wait for his throat to unstick itself.

Bucky tilts his head sideways like an inquisitive pigeon to look at the new names, a line forming between his eyebrows as he reads. “Gabe Jones.”

“That’s right,” Steve says. “He was a Private. Hell of a linguist. Taught us all to cuss in a dozen languages, real cosmopolitan like.”

“Timothy Dugan.”

“God, he hated being called Timothy. Monty did it just to annoy him. Everyone called him--”

“Dum Dum,” Bucky finishes with him. His forehead crease is deeper. “His hat. He had a hat.”

Steve stares at him. “You… read up on us?” he asks weakly, even as he knows, impossibly, that’s not it. Bucky didn’t say it the way history people say it, the way people say things they’ve read about or watched in a film. Bucky said it like he was excavating a memory.

“Read about you,” Bucky says distantly. “There were. Memos. Not about them.”

“You knew Dum Dum,” Steve says quietly. Bucky, brow still furrowed, gives a slow nod. He doesn’t seem to have noticed Steve’s confusion.

“The 107th,” Bucky says slowly. His finger taps twice on James Morita. “Jim. Jones. Dum Dum. I knew them.”

Steve doesn’t let any of the questions trying to climb up his throat escape. That’s not how this works. When Bucky wants him to know something, he tells him. He doesn’t understand how any of this is possible, but as this new knowledge sloshes around in his head other flakes of insight float to the surface like panned gold. Bucky’s family being gone. Bucky knowing all the dances Steve grew up with. The way both of them move through the world like the terrain is brand new and it’s taking all their concentration to chart a safe course. He doesn’t say anything, doesn’t ask any questions, but he can’t help the way his heart rate doubles as he starts to draw conclusions.

Bucky looks at him in a way that Steve doesn’t quite know how to read, then seems to come to some kind of decision. He looks around, rifles through the snack pile, and hands Steve a packet of peanut crunch balls and a bottle of milkshake.

Steve takes them with the solemnity they were given. Then Bucky pops open a plate on the inside of his metal bicep, sticks his hand in there and fishes out - a USB drive. He leans over to the printer, plugs the USB into the side and pokes a couple of buttons. The printer beeps. After several seconds of whirring, pages start to slide out.

When Bucky returns the USB to the compartment inside his arm, Steve sees it also contains the sparkly pin he put in his hair on their first date. Helpless affection rises up in him like a flood tide of molasses. There’s nothing for it but to lean in and kiss the top of Bucky’s head again. Bucky turns and butts his forehead into Steve’s jaw, friendly like, and Steve buries his nose in Bucky’s hair.

The printer gives a final whirr and spits out the last page. Bucky carefully neatens the edges of the stack and then pushes it towards Steve.

The first page has a US Army header, one Steve’s eyes skip right over, only to jerk back up as he realizes exactly how familiar that particular format is. Everything he’s seen from the Army in cross-departmental briefing packets nowadays looks different, but Steve’s own enlistment papers and mission orders had looked something like this.

James Buchanan Barnes, DOB 3/10/1917, it says, right at the top. Steve stares at it for a few long seconds.

“This is your file,” Steve says, and Bucky nods. “Okay. Okay.”

Steve reads it. Name, date of birth, next of kin, home address - his heart does a funny little jump when he recognizes the street address, close to Steve’s old tenement but a few rungs up the income ladder - he takes it all in. There’s a headshot of a handsome young soldier on the second page, not quite smiling at the camera, head tilted back. It takes Steve a long moment to identify the soldier as Bucky. The image is grainy and over-exposed from repeated photocopying, but that’s not why; the confident jut of Bucky’s jaw, the impossibly young face, are what throw him off.

Steve startles a little when Bucky taps his arm and nudges the milkshake on the table. He swallows hard and takes a drink. What he just read is starting to sink in.

“You were in the war,” Steve says. “You… the 107th. Oh, Christ.” He puts his hand over his mouth, setting the milkshake down. “Peg and I raided a prison camp. That’s… most of the soldiers we recovered were from the 107th. They’d been used for - experiments.”

Bucky nods. He doesn’t look upset, just - focused. He reaches over, picks up the top page of the file, puts it in Steve’s hand and then gently guides it over to the shredder.

Steve watches the page steadily get crunched down. There’s a plastic window on the front of the container, and he can see the shredded pieces of the page tumble down to mix with other ribbons of paper. Bucky’s nest in the basement bathroom had been full of them, drifts of crinkly paper strands like snow.

Steve reads the rest of the file in silence. Occasionally Bucky gives a loud slurp of milkshake, which oddly enough helps a lot. Bucky’s right here next to Steve, for all that horrible things happened to him, and he smells like peanut butter and clean bandages and contentment. His bare foot is tucked under Steve’s calf. And judging by the calm, patient way he occasionally moves Steve to shred the pages, he’s processing through this stuff all right.

At the end of the file, the Army headers give way to plain text and the writing style goes from Bureaucratic, Military to something a lot more disjointed. It takes Steve half a page to realize he’s reading a mission report Bucky wrote. Not one he ever turned in, judging by the lack of annotations or signatures, just a personal record. There’s a stack as thick as his thumb of missions Bucky executed and dutifully recorded. The last file in the stack has a mission plan and preliminary intel, but no final report. Steve checks the date - Bucky wrote it two weeks ago.

“I got them,” Bucky says, surfacing from the last dregs of the milkshake and seeing what Steve’s looking at. “There was an active cell. Stockpiling rifles. Explosives.” He frowns. “There were more personal than expected. Personal. Personnel.”

“You think they might have been warned you were coming?”

Bucky shakes his head. “Solo op. No leaks.”

And that’s - not a surprise, exactly. None of his self-made mission files made reference to op support beyond scavenged intel, comments overheard or pulled out of unrelated SHIELD briefings that Bucky quietly assembled into actionable intelligence. And then he went right out and acted on it, with extreme prejudice.

The thought shouldn’t make Steve want to squeeze him like a favorite pillow, but there it is nonetheless.

That’s not the only feeling, though. “Hey,” Steve says. “Next time you get wind of a HYDRA cell. Tell me about it so I can help. May and Natasha and the others - I bet they’d help too.”

“International mobilization,” Bucky says, wrinkling his nose. “Always a mess. Big mess. Negotiations. Politics. Takes weeks. And they get away. Intel leaks. They run. When… just me, in and out. No warning. Done.”

“But you don’t have backup. And you get hurt.”

Bucky looks down at himself, frowning. “Not usually.”

“What about just me,” Steve says. “Next time you hear about an op that needs to stay quiet - I can sneak too. No politics. Just me.”

Bucky looks at him, still woozy but visibly concentrating. “You want to?”

“I really want to,” Steve says fervently. “I’m not as stealthy as you, but I can guard a perimeter with the best of them. Or if you need something punched, I’m your guy.”

“Okay.”

“Okay,” Steve says, relieved. Okay. He’d really like to bring the full force of May and Natasha and Alpha STRIKE on any nascent HYDRA heads that are apparently still emerging, but he also sees Bucky’s point about needing to move fast, give no warning. They can figure it out.

“I punched through a tank,” Bucky informs Steve. “Like a tin can. Chunk.” He makes the sound effect with his hands and his face, gesturing and blowing his cheeks up. Then he looks around at the wrapper remains of the devastated snack population. “I’m hungry.”

“Let me make you some lunch,” Steve says, automatic.

He goes to the kitchen, feeling slightly unreal as he tries to decide what to make. Soup, probably. A second later he realizes Bucky’s following him, or at least trying, so Steve scoops up the blanket sandwich with Bucky filling and sets him up at the table where he can see the kitchen and Steve can make sure he doesn’t fall down and hit his anything on anything.

It’d take too long to make anything but tomato cream, so Steve gets out a can of tomato puree and starts chopping garlic. He heats up the pan - might as well make cheese sandwiches to dip - and thinks. It’s - well, it’s not like this changes anything. Bucky’s still Bucky. Still the person he’s been this whole time.

“Steve,” Bucky says. Steve turns. Bucky’s holding up the can opener Steve used on the tomatoes, the one shaped like a smiling lobster. “Steve. Steve. It’s me.” Bucky pinches his metal hand together like a crab claw and clacks it at Steve, then cackles quietly to himself and puddles further on the table.

Steve can’t help but smile back at him, stirring the soup. “Well, I think you’ve really come out of your shell,” he says.

Bucky, after several beats of staring, slowly cracks a grin and then starts giggling. He puts his forehead down on the table and rolls it from side to side. “I will make you soup next time you get hurt,” he promises, words only a little distorted by how his face is mushed to the table. “And also stop you getting hurt. I’m dangerous. All day long.”

“I appreciate that,” Steve says. Whoever Bucky is - whenever he was born, whatever he’s been through - he’s still the same person. Steve can ask him questions and talk through it all later, when Bucky isn’t so clearly still doing mental loopity loops on the morphine rollercoaster and he’s been properly fed.

Steve sets a mug of soup and a triangle of sandwich in front of Bucky, pulling up a chair beside him just in case he starts listing to the side again. “Here you go, buddy. Ham and cheese and goat cheese tomato.”

Bucky straightens slightly to investigate the mug. “I’m dangerous all day,” he repeats, sniffing at it.

“You sure are,” Steve says, tucking the blankets closer around him. “But we don’t need to be dangerous right now. We’re at home.”

Bucky briefly abandons the mug to look wonderingly at his metal arm, now quilted over. “Dangerous… but soft.”

“That’s exactly right.” Steve nudges the sandwich closer. “Give this a try.”

Bucky, with the exaggerated care of a drunk Marine handling live ordinance, returns his attention to the food and dips the corner of sandwich in the soup. He takes a bite. Then he picks up the mug of soup and chugs it like hot chocolate.

“Don’t choke,” Steve says, by now if not at peace with then at least used to Bucky’s Hoover-vac eating strategies. “There’s plenty more if you want it.”

Bucky finishes glugging the soup, sets the mug down and looks at Steve very seriously. “You’re my favorite,” he tells Steve, only slightly undermined by his tomato soup mustache. “My favorite person ever.”

“You’re real swell too, Buck,” Steve says, taking a napkin to wipe at Bucky’s face and sounding only a little thick in the throat. “Real swell. My best guy.”

Bucky pushes into the face wiping and then further, sticking his head under Steve’s chin. “Mine too,” he says. “I like your house. And your voice. And hair. And soup. And the quilt.”

Steve takes a deep breath. “I’d like to put your name on too. If you like. If you want.”

Bucky perks up bodily against him. “In green?”

“Yeah,” Steve says, relief and joy frothing up together like champagne foam. “Yeah, any color you like.”

“I like green,” Bucky says, and they sit together and hug and feel things like a couple of turnips floating together in a broth of emotions. The entire reef is probably stewed to the gills in various lovesick nasal arias by now.

After a minute Bucky shifts. “Steve?”

“Yeah?”

“I want to eat it but I know I can’t eat it.” His eyes are laser focused on the quilt

Bucky sounds pretty upset by this. “Here,” Steve says, fishing out one of the remaining peanut butter balls. “You can eat this instead.”

Bucky munches it right out of Steve’s hand, once again slumping prodigiously against Steve’s chest. He heaves in a breath and sighs, a long steady exhale like he’s breathing out a plume of held smoke. “I want to stay here forever.”

“I want you to stay too,” Steve says. He’d stay exactly here with Bucky for days and days and damn the consequences, but reality, he knows, has no patience for romance and its preferred schedule. Also, Natasha is probably going to kick his door down at some point in the next eight hours.

“We... should probably get you some professional medical attention,” Steve says, remembering Bucky’s first reaction. “And SHIELD made this really amazing dissolving suture glue for me that I think you should try.”

Bucky grumbles under his breath, but after some shifting to put his ear against Steve’s heart he quiets down. Finally, he says, “Then we come back?”

“Yeah. We come back.”

 

EPILOGUE

 

Clint gets 90% of the way through his mandatory medical leave before he makes a break for it, which is nearly a personal best. He doesn’t plan to sneak out while the rest of his pod is at the park, it’s just that his leg barely aches at all, and the sun is shining, and he hasn’t been able to shoot anything but rubber bands in weeks, and before he really makes a decision about it he’s already on his feet and pulling stretchy pants over his cast.

Bobbi and Laura conspired with the kids to hide his crutches every time he took a nap, but he’s not Hawkeye for nothing, he can spot a secret at a hundred yards, and also Lila is six years old and pretty bad at hiding things. He fishes one crutch out of the bathtub and finds the other shoved under his own mattress and boom, he’s mobile. Hawkeye out.

Well, to the bus stop. Then, half an hour later because the bus is running on a Sunday schedule and there were delays up the line, Hawkeye out.

He hops down the steps at the SHIELD HQ stop and spends a few seconds beaming at the compound before swinging expertly towards the guard gate.

“ID?”

Clint reaches confidently into the right pocket of his jacket, and then into the left pocket, and then, with declining confidence, his pants’ pockets, his waistband, and his socks. He finds an arrowhead, one of the kids' bus passes, and a dollar thirty-five in assorted loose change, but not his SHIELD ID.

“I’m Hawkeye,” he tries.

The gate guard, Sheila, remains blandly unimpressed. “If you don’t have an ID, you’ll need a guest pass or an escort.”

Clint scratches his nose. “Can I use your phone?”

“You don’t have a phone?”

“No, I do, but I ran out of battery playing Angry Birds at the bus stop.”

“Sunday schedule today,” Sheila says, showing a trace of sympathy for the first time.

Clint senses a valuable line of inquiry and spends a good five minutes exchanging complaints about public transit with Sheila. By the time they’ve compared average commute times and worst What’s That Smell stories, he’s able to parlay Sheila’s newfound goodwill into an invitation to use the guard gate phone.

He tries Natasha’s line, but isn’t surprised when she doesn’t pick up. Hill doesn’t work Sundays unless it’s a genuine, world-ending emergency. May picks up on the second ring.

“Hi May, so uh, I wanted to come back from medical leave early and uh, finish some paperwork, keep an eye on things, you know, this is, um. This is Clint, by the way.”

“Yes. I know. Laura rang and said you were AWOL. We offered to come pick you up,” May says, in tones that indicate she knows that Laura making him navigate the Sunday bus schedule is karmic punishment for sneaking out without telling anyone, “but she said it was no trouble.”

“Right. No trouble. The thing is, I left in a bit of a rush, so uh… I remembered my bow,” Clint says, because clearly that’s the most important readiness factor, “but I, um, left my ID in my other jacket.” Or Cooper used it it to jimmy open the snack food cabinet again and they’ll find it underneath the fridge in a few weeks. Basically the same thing.

May sighs. “Put Robertson on the phone.”

Clint hands the phone to Sheila. She and May proceed to have an involved discussion in which Sheila says little but definitely laughs a lot. At the end of it she grins, hangs up and waves Clint through into the parking garage. “Don’t forget your pass next time!”

Clint salutes, hobbling past gratefully, only to turn the corner and stop when he’s met with a sight that’s strange even by SHIELD standards.

Captain America is by the elevators. Next to him is the Winter Soldier. It’s definitely the Winter Soldier, because even in a shape-swallowing grey fleece and sweatpants with hems piled up around his fuzzy pink slippers there’s no mistaking the hair or the metal hand. The hand is currently holding a thermos.

“You have a smoothie,” Clint hears the Winter Soldier say, to Captain America.

“I do,” Captain America says. He is also holding a thermos. His other arm is pretty occupied with the Winter Soldier’s elbow, because, as Clint notes with his hawklike observation skills, the Winter Soldier is listing slightly to one side.

“I also have a smoothie,” the Winter Soldier says.

“You do,” Captain America agrees, adjusting his grip as he tries to move the party to the elevator.

“It’s got mango.”

“It does. You like mango?”

The Winter Soldier’s brow wrinkles with this deeply philosophical question. After serious thought he ponderously brings his flesh hand up and pats the top of his thermos. “Good smoothie,” he says very solemnly.

Clint could’ve sworn he didn’t take any of his heavy painkillers this morning, but it looks like the Winter Soldier definitely did. The last time Clint saw that kind of behavior was Natasha stroking her oxygen tank in the ICU unit of Medical and telling it what a good job it was doing.

More pressingly, there is only one elevator. It requires a security card to operate, like the one Captain America is currently swiping and the one Clint does not have. Clint makes an executive decision and hobbles faster.

“Oh, hey,” Captain America says when Clint catches the door, his eyebrows going up at Clint but his scent staying fully preoccupied with the Winter Soldier. “Are you going up or down?”

“Uh. Up,” Clint says. The Winter Soldier gives him a bleary look from Captain America’s shoulder, the way Lucky sometimes looks at a toy the baby has chucked at him while he’s lying under the coffee table. “You guys… working today?”

“Not exactly,” Captain America says. The Winter Soldier aggressively ignores him in favor of trying to climb up Captain America’s side.

Clint watches Captain America select the floor for Medical while boosting the Winter Soldier up into a piggyback hold. “You… is he… okay?”

“Yeah, he’s fine,” Captain America says. “Just on a lot of painkillers.”

The Winter Soldier, having finally succeeded in lampreying himself to Captain America’s back, sighs gustily in satisfaction and settles in. Then, as the elevator numbers tick higher, Clint swears he hears a snicker.

"Steve."

"Yeah, champ?" Captain America says.

"I'm a Buckpack."

"You sure are."

The elevator dings and Captain America carries the Winter Soldier out. Clint stands there staring, trying to decide if it’s more likely that he really just saw that or that there’s some kind of hallucinogenic gas loose in the compound, for so long the elevator doors roll closed while he’s still gawping. They’re opening again on another floor before Clint realizes he never pushed a button.

Natasha is waiting for him in the hallway. She looks him over, eyes lingering on his left elbow, which has started to twinge from the strain of crutching long distances. “Barton.”

“What happened,” Clint demands.

“What do you mean?” she says, very clearly fucking with him on purpose, but he’s too agitated not to play along.

“The Winter Soldier! And Captain America! They smelled like each other. They smelled all moony lovey dovey!” he says, gesturing wildly, which makes him drop a crutch and almost fall over. Natasha watches him try to hook the fallen crutch with his foot for a few seconds before picking it up and jamming it back under his armpit. “What the fuck happened, was there a chemical attack?”

“Well, Barton, if you want to stay up to date on office gossip in the future, you know what to do.”

“Come back from medical leave sooner?”

Natasha makes a bzzzzt sound and pokes him hard on the nose. “Try again.”

“Not… jump off buildings without an exit plan?”

“Better.” She takes her foot out of the elevator door, and Clint crutches forward before the doors close on him off again.

“They smelled happy,” Clint says, because that’s the weirdest part of the whole damn thing.

“I think they are,” Natasha says, sounding proud and fond and just a little bit creeped out. “Now come see what else you missed out on.”

Clint follows her hopefully, expecting something equally momentous and possibly even fun, but she tricks him by taking a left into what he thought was a breakroom but is just a small conference room. Full of paperwork. Stacks of it. And at the head of the table, Angelie and Omar and Charlie from Admin.

“Oh no,” Clint says.

“Oh yes,” Angelie says, as Natasha lives up to her traitor reputation and shuts the door behind him. “We’re going to have a nice, relaxing chat about improperly filed and insufficiently filled out after action reports.”

Clint swivels to give Natasha a last-ditch begging stare. She smiles and signs exit plan at him through the door window, then wiggles her fingers and toddles off to do something actually fun like stalk Captain America and hoover up all his cloying happy but not actually unpleasant scents of blissful domesticity.

“So,” Angelia says. “Forty-seven reports. And delinquent benefits paperwork. This doesn’t have to be hard, Agent Barton.”

“No,” Clint says weakly, resigning himself to his fate. At least visibly. He fully intends to make a break for it the second one of them opens the door for tea or coffee or extra ballpoints or something.

Omar, though, has a gleam in his eye. Slowly, once he sees Clint is watching, he brings an object up and sets it on the table with a delicate click.

Clint stares at it like a hypnotized mouse.

“The trainees are running evasion exercises in Block D today,” Omar says conversationally. “And I just happen to have this semi-automatic 46-dart capacity pump action Nerf gun. The technical name, I believe, is ‘The Annihilator’.”

“Let’s make a deal,” Charlie says, putting their hands on the table like a mob negotiator. “Every finished report is another ten Nerf darts in the clip.”

“Fill out the bennies, you get the gun,” Angelie says.

“Make a break for it,” Omar says, because he used to work in Interrogation, “and the gun goes to Agent Romanova.”

Angelie checks her watch. “The trainees will be starting in twelve minutes,” she says. “The exercises run until two. The faster you finish…”

Clint looks at the clock on the wall, then at the stacks of paperwork, then at the gun. Indoor evasion exercises are the best time to teach baby agents the true meaning of covert warfare, not to mention have the most fun possible crawling through gaps and air vents cackling with the heady power of Nerf.

He makes the decision and holds out his hand. “Give me a pen."