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four dreams in a row where you were burned

Chapter Text

Bucky knew.

It’s all Steve can think of as he enters the last of the coordinates, even though his mind should be on the greater picture; practicalities, secrecy, world peace maybe. The stones have been returned safely, stealthily enough that he probably hasn’t spawned another parallel universe, not like he’s about to. He’s on his last vial of Pym Particles, the one that’s supposed to get him home. He thought of getting more, again, but didn’t. Wouldn’t. Couldn’t, soon enough.

His hands don’t shake, but he feels like they should.

He doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s a soldier, a strategist, but not a scientist, and he understands the way this works, but not the how of it. He should go back, to Bruce and Sam and Bucky, the first two unaware and trusting, the latter anything but unaware and more resigned than trusting.

Gonna miss you, Bucky said, and he wouldn’t lie, not to Steve, not on this, but he didn’t stop him. Didn’t ask to come along either.

As good an answer as any, maybe even permission, Steve wants to think, but the justification echoes flatly in his own skull.

It doesn’t stop him.

 

-

 

Steve’s not there to see him hit the ground, but Bucky’s warm when he gets there, torn arm bleeding like it’ll bleed this boy dry.

And Bucky does look like a boy, young and pained, though Steve knows he’s anything but. The Russians may have broken Bucky, but the cracks were there long before they got their hands on him. Steve knows the shape of them, has echoes in his own skull, but his demons don’t peer at him from the wrong end of a rifle scope.

Bucky’s unconscious, and Steve hopes to the god he abandoned years ago that he was out before he hit the rocks that ripped his flesh away. He stirs when Steve hurriedly ties a tourniquet and dresses the wound. He has some supplies, pilfered from another past, but nothing good enough to fix a severed limb.

He does have a plan.

Man with a plan, he thinks, half-hysterically.

It would be smarter to leave Bucky there and hide somewhere with decent sightlines, wait for the Russians, but–

Bucky looks so small and lost, pale and bloody and breathing in ragged whimpers heavy with the pain he’s thankfully not aware enough to truly feel. Steve’s still dressed in his Captain America suit under the quantum suit; the only warmth he has to share is that of his body.

His teeth chatters as his gathers Bucky in his arms; he hasn’t liked the cold since he brought the Valkyrie down, but he can handle it.

Bucky loathes the cold. Loathed? His future has become his past, and Steve’s starkly aware that it will remain there. Maybe it’s not so bad, to leave behind a time when both Bucky’s and Peggy’s eyes fell upon him so many times to only see a stranger. He can’t quite convince himself of that, but he could bring himself to stay even less, and that’s what decided him, in the end.

It's selfish. Steve’s not denying that. This isn’t moving on, this is–

He hears them, body reacting before his mind can catch up. He’s gentle with Bucky, but it still hurts to leave him alone in the cold. He does it anyway, has to, and uses tricks Natasha taught him to hide his footprints in the snow. Every second that passes until the Russians come into view prickle on his skin like the rough bark of the tree he’s half-hidden behind.

There are four of them, armored and armed. They’re wary but focused on the man bleeding out on the ground. Steve kills three before they can get so much as a shot off. The fourth, he chokes out.

He uses the dead men’s clothing to create another layer of warmth for Bucky. He strips the live one, takes most of his weapons, and leaves him naked from waist-up with strips of his undershirt tying his limbs. He’ll die of exposure if Steve leaves him, but Steve doesn’t intend to let him live that long. He melts snow and smears it over the man’s face to wake him. He’s not kind about it. He’s not cruel either, but the long knife in his hand, appropriated from the man himself, says enough about the transience of that state of affairs.

He remembers that he flinched the first time he saw someone tortured. Couldn’t stand it, the way he couldn’t stomach most necessary evils. In the end, he never liked it and never wanted to, but he sure as hell got used to it.

War’s a ruthless mistress.

The man wakes up and his eyes grow huge as they focus on the star on Steve’s chest. They get impossibly wider when they see the knife in his hand. He starts blabbering, threats mostly.

Steve’s Russian isn’t fluent, but he gets by. Learned after he found Bucky; memorized phrases first. I’m sorry. Please come back. I won’t hurt you. You’re safe. Come home. Took online courses to get the basics. Natasha taught him later, those years on the run. She taught him a lot, and sometimes, he can’t quite believe that she never will, ever again. You’d think he’d be used to losing people by now.

The man makes a vain attempt to strain out of his bonds. Steve stops him with a knife tip pressed softly to the delicate hollow of his neck.

“где твоя база?”

 

-

 

Storming a base with a grievously injured, unconscious man in tow is difficult even for a supersolider. Steve manages.

He keeps Bucky away from the action of course, tucked safely and warmly away until the base is cleared. Steve kills the guards, locks the doctors in a room, and sweeps the perimeter to eliminate all loose ends. His mercy in short supply with Bucky’s file still burnt into his mind. He never forgot the things in it, not even in the five years after the snap, but he read it again before this trip, before he even really decided what he was going to do and when he was going to do it. He read Peggy’s file too. Both are impressive in entirely different ways, the contrast almost heartbreaking.

When Steve shoots someone between the eyes, all he sees is another man who dragged his best friend bleeding through the snow and saved his life in the one way that made Bucky ache for death. They had that conversation the first time Bucky came out of cryo in Wakanda, a trial run that Steve rushed to, hope heavy in his heart. Bucky went back under a few hours after they talked.

He doesn’t kill the doctors because he needs them. It’s obvious early on that it’s not a military base. More science-oriented. A small building balls-deep in the Alps is as good a place for human experimentation as any, but Steve’s relieved when he doesn’t see any bodies strapped to tables or locked up in cells. Maybe Bucky was the first.

He wishes his mind would just stop working, that he could stop thinking.

He gets his wish when the doctors he’s holding at gunpoint work to fix his best friend’s ravaged body, but the numb horror is no better.

 

-

 

Bucky opens his eyes for the first time the next morning. Delirious thrashing and muttered nonsense are his only reactions, but Steve’s heart throbs in his chest each time he hears his name interspersed with pained groans and mournful pleas.

Did Bucky cry out for him, the first time they had him? Did he think Steve would come for him even after he plummeted headfirst into his own icy grave?

He’ll never know for sure, but he doesn’t need to either.

There’s not much he can do for Bucky except trickle water into his mouth and set IVs in his veins and hope that Zola’s serum will heal the rest. The doctors are dead now, buried alongside the guards in a makeshift mass grave. It reminds Steve of his European ‘tour’ with Sam, smoking Hydra bases and leaving a trail of dead in their wake. He’s not proud of who he was in those days, but he’s no better now, is he?

He came here seeking peace, but violence comes first. Always had. All he hopes is that, this time, the war will finally end for him, for both of them.

For now, all he can do is wait for Bucky’s fever to break and for him to be well enough for them to leave. The terrain will buy them some time, but he assumes the sudden radio silence from the base will invite investigation sooner rather than later. It won’t do for two Americans to be found in a Hydra base masquerading as a Russian facility and a grave full of dead Russian personnel. Steve’s not unaware that he killed these people for the crimes they committed in another reality. He’s not foolish enough to think the outcome would have been any different in this world, but it rankles anyway.

Bucky wakes properly on the third day, just as Steve’s getting antsy enough to entertain fancy notions of just taking Bucky and fleeing. He won’t act on it; the base is their best bet until Bucky’s better. It’s well-stocked and well-equipped, with enough food and medicine to last them weeks even with Steve’s heightened metabolism and the enhanced rate at which Bucky’s body breaks down the medicine. And worst-case scenario, Steve can fight off the first team they send. Can’t be any worse than dealing with Alpha STRIKE in a crowded elevator.

It's still a relief when Steve jerks awake from a restless nap on an uncomfortable chair to see Bucky trying to sit up on his cot. Steve grabs him by the shoulders before he can, easing him gently back down. Bucky resists, whole body tense, but he’s weak and disoriented. His shoulders feel so small under Steve’s hands. All of him does, his build more lean than bulky, so unlike what the Winter Soldier program sculped him into. The lack of an arm feels less strange; Steve had plenty of time to get used to that in those stolen, dreamlike days they spent together in Wakanda before fresh hell broke loose.

“Steve?” Bucky mumbles, eyes struggling to focus but refusing to close. It reminds Steve of Kreischberg. “You’re real?”

“I’m real, Buck,” Steve tells him, barely recognizing the hoarse mess of his own voice. “We both are.”

Bucky opens his mouth, then closes it again, straining past Steve to look around the room – a small, sterile one, obviously a medical facility but closer to a hospital room than a laboratory as compared to the others – with wide eyes.

“Where’r we?” Bucky asks, slurring his words a little.

He doesn’t seem to have noticed his left side yet. Steve holds him tighter without quite meaning to.

“Swiss Alps.”

“Swiss… Zola. The train. I–” It’s unsettling, how quickly Bucky transitions from vaguely drugged mumbling to wild-eyed sharpness. There’s no panic on his face, in his voice, but plenty of horror. “I fell. I fell, Steve, and you – you were on the train. You’re not supposed to be here. You’re not – you’re supposed to be safe.”

I wanted to save you, Bucky said once in Steve future-past, a note of wonder in his voice, like he couldn’t quite believe it of himself. It’s one of the first things that came…back. That I’m supposed to save you.

Steve still doesn’t know what it was about the expression he made in response that made Bucky’s gaze sweep down to his feet and flit away, the man soon following suit.

“I didn’t jump after you,” Steve assures him quickly, ignoring the way those words sting even now. He pulls back so Bucky can see him, whole and well. He’s wearing one of the bigger guards’ clothes, and they’re tight and loose in parts, makes him look ridiculous, but Bucky drinks in the view hungrily, desperately. Steve wants to squirm under that intensity but doesn’t. Lets Bucky take his fill.

Whatever relief Bucky might find in Steve’s continued wellbeing and questionable good sense is ruined the next moment when he finally notices his left arm – or rather, the torn sleeve and bandaged stump where his left arm used to be.

Steve expects – he doesn’t know what he expects, honestly. Some reaction; words, noise, screams. What he gets is Bucky going eerily still, not even breathing as he stares down at himself.

“Bucky–”

“You carried me,” Bucky says suddenly, cutting Steve off. His voice sounds strange – distant, hollow, like he doesn’t quite know what he’s saying. “I thought it was a dream. A nightmare. I have those. I was in your arms. And my arm was gone. Bloody.”

Steve has to swallow twice before he can speak, but Bucky doesn’t even look at him. His glazed eyes don’t seem to be seeing anything.

“I did, Buck. This is a Russian facility. I got the doctors to treat you. Prevent an infection.”

“Russian facility,” Bucky repeats flatly. “Nice of ‘em to help. Guess s’cause we’re allies.”

Bucky blinks, once and twice and then a few times, rapidly. No tears fall but his eyes are red when they rise to take in Steve’s carefully neutral expression. For a moment, Bucky just watches him.

“Or not,” he says after a while, very quietly.

This isn’t like when he went to retrieve Loki’s scepter and had to fight himself. He can be honest. Their worlds would already have diverged, one of innumerable possibilities. A kinder one, Steve hopes. Prays.

“They’re dead,” he tells Bucky. “I threatened them into treating you, and then I killed them.”

Bucky’s expression goes flat in that way that he thinks is unreadable but is clear as day to Steve; anger in the thin line of his lip, fear in the tightness around his eyes. Bucky of the future-past wore a blank mask with much better efficiency. Steve could read nothing on him sometimes, and it terrified him, even when Thanos was dust and Bucky was back for good.

“They would have tortured you, Buck,” Steve says, sincere and quietly furious even after all these years. He never could move on. “Sawed off the rest of your arm. Drugged you, hurt you. Put you in – they’d have frozen you.”

Bucky blinks like he’s more confused than horrified, but the worst and best thing is that he believes Steve. Just like that. Lets life back in on his face and asks a million questions with the sweep of his eye lashes.

“I’ll explain later,” Steve promises, reaching out hesitantly to touch Bucky’s face. He’s docile under the touch, turning his cheek into Steve’s fingertips so trustingly. “Rest some more. We’ll have to leave soon, and you’ll need it.”

Steve’s not saying that just to save himself from having to tell Bucky what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen, in this world and another. Bucky looks half-dead. Maybe it’s the shock, but his body needs time to heal too. Steve will have some soup prepared for the next time he wakes.

Bucky grumbles, incoherent even to Steve’s ears, but settles down under his touch. Steve pats Bucky’s cheek and strokes his hair as Bucky’s breathing settles into the rhythm of sleep. The dark strands are short and coarse under his touch. Bucky’s hair felt like silk the last time he touched it; accidental more than anything, the length and texture of it bittersweet on his skin when they hugged one final time.

Bucky knew. Said goodbye, more with his eyes than his words. Steve is going to miss him so much–

But Bucky’s right here, battered but alive, closer to the boy he grew up with than the man he left behind. He made a choice, didn’t he?

Steve doesn’t leave the room until he’s sure Bucky’s asleep. He doesn’t go far, only next door where he’s piled all the intel he could gather from the base. He has no grand plans, at least for now, and what he does need to do can be done later. For now, they need a place to lay low. America isn’t an option, particularly once the version of himself currently trying and failing to drown his sorrows will go down in the ice. Europe is their best bet, but the war’s not over it.

Still, as far as plans go, it’s one of the least harrowing Steve’s had to make. He settles in, a map spread out before him, files stacked to the sides. It all feels very familiar.

Hours later, he runs out of the room to the sound of Bucky screaming himself awake.

Chapter Text

Bucky’s a shade of himself these days, quiet and withdrawn, not talking unless Steve addresses him directly and sometimes not even then. He doesn’t eat or sleep much, and Steve thinks he’d just go without both until he drops if not for Steve foisting food on him three times a day and tugging him back to bed after nightmares leave him retching in the bathroom. He’s noticed it since the beginning but was forced not to obsess over it at the base and afterward. His priority was getting them to safety, away from Hydra and the Axis and Allied forces alike.  

Being on the run and under the radar is not new for him anymore, but it’s one thing to do it in the 21st century with advanced technology at his fingertips and a highly skilled team backing him up, and another entirely to do it in the 1940s with minimal resources and a shell-shocked soldier in tow. But some things are easier in this time; less eyes without cameras at every corner, papers less complicated to acquire if you have the money and know who to ask. Steve does; augmenting what he remembers from the war with careful research of what is history in his future-past.

And they are safe now, at least as safe as they can be in Europe while the war rages on. Getting to Bern wasn’t easy, but they’re here now, tucked away in a quiet corner of the world. They got out of the Hydra base once Bucky was well enough for it. That happened fast once he woke, enough that they managed to avoid whoever they sent to the facility, and Steve knows Bucky’s confused about it. He doesn’t know there’s supersoldier serum in his veins, though he must suspect something. They haven’t talked about it. There’s a lot of things they haven’t talked about, but to be fair, a good day is when they have at least one conversation that’s not forced pleasantries and tired arguments about whether Bucky has slept enough, eaten enough. It doesn’t matter that he’s got Bucky safe and secure, that they’re living together and sharing a room the way they used to in that old era tinted pink with nostalgia. They’re best friends and strangers.

It’s not just Bucky either. Steve’s not the same man who this Bucky knew. He’s not even the same man who let Bucky fall, who sobbed to the phantom sensation of fingertips brushing his own, and tried in vain to drink his pain away. He feels like he’s lived two lifetimes since then, each more tiring than the other, and some days, he can feel the ache in his bones. He knows Bucky can see it when he looks at Steve, the stranger swimming in the skin of his friend, and the worst part is that it’s the same for him too.

Bucky is Bucky, always has been, and just as he could see pieces of his best friend in the Winter Soldier even before he broke his programming, he can see traces of the tired, weary survivor that emerged from cryo in Wakanda in the man now with him. Steve knows him, deep in his soul, but there’s so much he has to learn about him. He wants to, he truly does, and he hopes Bucky wants to too.  

Actually talking to each other would be a good place to start, and Steve can perfectly imagine the look Sam would give him if he could see him now, but–

Well. He’ll figure it out, eventually. They both will.

 

-

 

Later, Steve will think that the whole communication thing could have happened a little less explosively, even as he accepts that with the two of them, life always takes that turn. It’s like it’s written in the stars somewhere that the two of them will not tread an easy path together, no matter how deeply entwined their fates. They always come together, but only because they’re torn apart in the first place.

So, yes, when he comes home one day after a day of menial manual labor that barely makes him break a sweat and is greeted by a newspaper thrown at his face with vicious force, his alarm is quick to shift to resignation.

The news is in one of the inner pages, sidelined but important. Steve had conveniently forgotten to buy the newspapers in the days following his crash, or rather, the public’s awareness of it. It stopped being front-page news after a few days with no new developments, at least here. It was – is – a bigger deal in America, helped along a great deal by Howard’s obsession with finding him, but the rest of the world has their own concerns. Steve stopped doing more than perfunctorily scanning the papers a couple of days ago. Natasha would smack him for it, and Steve would fucking let her.

But she's not here to judge him so Steve’s just gotta beat himself up for his complacency.

First though, he has to deal with Bucky.

He’s glowering at Steve from the other side of the room. He hasn’t spoken a word or even moved since he threw the paper. Steve takes one last look at the headline – CAPTAIN AMERICA PRESUMED DEAD, THE SEARCH CONTINUES – and lets it drop to the floor. It’s been almost two weeks. Soon, everyone but Howard will give up hope of even retrieving his body.

“I understand you have questions–” Steve starts, but Bucky cuts him off with a sharp shake of his head. It takes another moment before he speaks and when he does, his voice is low and threatening.

“Who the fuck are you?”

“Steve Rogers.” Steve straightens, looks Bucky in the eye. Remembers all the times he’s said this, in a future that this world will never see. “I’m your friend.”

“Steve Rogers,” Bucky repeats, mouth twisting bitterly. “Captain America. The same Captain America who’s buried in ice, who fucking sacrificed his fool ass to stop the Red Skull, who crashed a motherfucking plane into goddamn ice nine days ago.”

“Twelve,” Steve corrects a little numbly because that’s the easiest part he can address. “I went down on February 2nd. It took them a while to determine whether or not to let the public know. To weigh the demoralization my death will cause against the vengeful heroics my sacrifice will inspire. Clearly, they decided on the latter eventually, but I’ve been told it was pretty close.”

Bucky’s gaping at him now, expression caught between incredulity and horror and sheer rage. He’s tensed to fight, but his posture’s off. He hasn’t learned yet to compensate for the lack of his arm, his changed center of gravity. Bucky, in Wakanda, had been the same in the beginning, but he learned quickly. Steve often got the impression that he was glad to be rid of the arm Hydra gave him, though he seemed comfortable with the ones Shuri made for him. They weren’t weapons, though, not until they knew Thanos was coming.

Steve takes a deep breath and shakes off his thoughts. He wonders whether he’ll ever stop seeing the memory of one Bucky transposed over the flesh of another.

When Bucky finally starts talking, his voice trembles.

“On February 2nd, you were here, fixing a hole in the bedroom wall and helping Mr. Batz pack up his house.”

“Oh,” Steve says dumbly. “You were listening when I told you that.”

Bucky looks like he wants to throw something at Steve again, heavier than the newspaper this time.

“I always listen,” he spits, the vitriol doing little to dampen the way the words warm Steve. “I always watch. And I knew, I knew something was wrong. Steve Rogers wouldn’t abandon a war to play live-in nurse to one cripple–”

“Don’t,” Steve snaps, raising his voice for the first time and taking a heavy step forward. Bucky backs up to match him, and Steve freezes. “Don’t call yourself that. And what do you mean I – Bucky, you’re my best friend.”

“I’m one man,” Bucky says, mouth pressed flat. “There’s a war here that’s bigger than me, bigger than both of us, and Steve knows it, so I’m asking again. Who the fuck are you?”

Steve remembers that he decided on honesty back in the Alps, watching Bucky sleep as he healed. He doesn’t intend to back out of it for all that he’s procrastinated, but still, he can’t help but ask.

“You tell me, Bucky Barnes. Who am I?”

He once pulled off an assassin’s mask in a smoking highway and saw his best friend’s face rendered harsh and cold. There wasn’t a moment of hesitation before the name ‘Bucky’ left his lips. Even later, when the dust cleared and he was vindicated but heartbroken, Steve wasn’t surprised by his lack of hesitation, of suspicion. He knew Bucky. Always would.

It's selfish to know if it would be the same in reverse without years of brainwashing and mind-wiping to cloud the way, but the only reason Steve’s here is because he decided to be selfish.

Bucky, for a long time, just stares at him, eyes sharp and intense like they can peer into his soul. Steve submits silently to the scrutiny. Finally, Bucky’s hard expression wavers, confusion and pain seeping through.

“You’re Steve Rogers. But you’re not the man I knew. “I don–” Bucky’s voice breaks, and his next breath is ragged, wet. “I don’t think I ever knew you.”

“You would have,” Steve tells him, trying to let all his roiling, aching sincerity shine through the way Tony pretended to hate. “If I’d left you in the snow. If they’d gotten hold of you. You’d have met me, eventually. You’d always…you’ve always come back to me, Buck.”

Bucky’s not stupid, never has been. Steve can see him connect the dots, but he can also see the resistance, the disbelief. The stubborn rejection of that which alters what you’ve always thought of as cornerstones of reality. Steve’s been where he is; first when he woke from the ice, then when the aliens came, and it only kept getting worse from there to the point where it only took him a blink and half a second to accept time travel as a thing people could do, that he could do.

He's got sympathy for Bucky who’s having this thrown at him, suddenly and mercilessly, and he’s got the feeling that Bucky’s entertaining the truth as it is mostly because of his inability to reconcile the Steve Rogers standing before him to the Steve Rogers he knew.

“Think of it this way. At least I haven’t put on another foot of height.”

“Would be easier to handle than my best friend and commanding officer telling me he’s from the fucking future.”

Steve thinks Bucky might be a bit wrong about that. He remembers what it felt like to face Thanos for the first time, to stare up at the sheer damned bulk of him. It didn’t stop him for a second, but the look Bucky shot him the first time they locked eyes amidst battle was all familiar fond exasperation, silently saying words he must have snapped and screamed and thought a hundred times; Just for once in your fucking life, stop fighting people twice your size, you contrary bastard. Stop fighting, period. Funny, but now that Steve’s trying to follow that advice, he doesn’t think Bucky’s all that happy.

He didn’t look happy. Seemed to mean it when he said Steve was taking the stupid with him. He tried though. Tried to smile. Said goodbye.

“How else would I know where to find you?” Steve reasons. He’s imagined this conversation a few times. It kept changing; even in his head, he couldn’t find the right things to say. “How would I know what they would have done to you?”

Bucky pales but holds his ground.

“And what would they have done, Steve? Tell me.”

It’s Steve’s turn to blanch. Bucky sees it, and his eyes sharpen, a predator spotting weakness.

“It’s not pretty,” Steve warns before he can push. “Italy. Austria. The whole fucking war. All of that’s nothing when compared to what they do to you.”

Fear flickers across Bucky’s face at the reference to Kreischberg and settles into grim hardness a moment later. Steve gave him an out, the bliss of ignorance, but he knew it wouldn’t be accepted. He wouldn’t, either. Neither of them is the kind to spare themselves pain.

“Russian soldiers find you, but it ends up being Hydra’s people. And they take you captive. Keep you prisoner. They torture you. About a year from now, Arnim Zola will be offered amnesty by the U.S government on the condition that he work for them. He does. You’ve heard them, Hydra. Cut off one head, and two takes its place. I’ve dealt with the Red Skull, but…”

Killed, Steve would have said, but he remembers the soul stone and the face that greeted him. That was a reunion he could have lived ten lifetimes without, and the only good thing about that world was Natasha, waking up with him in the water. The spare space-time GPS he had with him was part wishful thinking and part reasonable precaution, but all Steve remembers now is the sheer, overwhelming joy of pressing it to her palm and telling her to go home.

Steve also said he’d join her soon, but that was a lie and he knew even then. Maybe it was her resurrection or maybe Steve’s a better liar now because she only smiled and promised to see him soon.

The guilt he felt then flares again.

Bucky’s watching him, pale but concerned at Steve’s sudden pause, and isn’t it something that he can still manage concern for Steve at this time. Steve smiles at him, fond and pained, and pushes aside the memories to continue his ghost story.

“Schmidt’s gone–” Probably on Vormir already, a pathetic spectre. “–but Zola, he – he’s five heads all on his own. He gets his hands on you eventually. And he–”

“–finishes what he started at Kreischberg,” Bucky completes, and he’s white as a sheet, but his voice is steady. Unsettlingly so.

“Yes.”

“What else?”

“Buck–”

“What. Else.”

“He gives you an arm,” Steve says quietly, remembering the glint of silver, the pain of it cracking his eyes socket, the soothing coolness of it against his fingers the one time Bucky touched him in the Quinjet. “Removes the rest of your shoulder first because it’s metal and needs to be melded to your bones. They try to break you. You…you fight them. For a time. They freeze you after a while. Cryogenic containment, for a few years, until technology has advanced enough that they can – that they can make you what they want you to be.”

“And what did they want me to be?”

Bucky’s voice is faint. He’s shaking now, hand gripping the side of the couch like it’s all that’s keeping him standing. Steve wants to go to him, take him into his arms and help him down, but he doesn’t know if his touch will be welcome at the moment. And he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to keep going with this horror story once he touches Bucky and feels the rabbit-beat of his pulse racing in fear.

“The perfect assassin. A ghost story. A weapon–” Steve spits the word and feels like shit stuck to someone’s sole when Bucky flinches as if struck. But he keeps going. “–that they could point and shoot.”

Bucky stumbles to the side and collapses on the couch. Steve’s at his side in a second, hands hovering over Bucky’s knees like he can stroke strength into them. Bucky just stares at Steve, and when he speaks, he sounds horrified and pleading all at once.

“Do they? Do I…do I break?”

Steve would give anything, anything, to answer no. To tell Bucky he gave them nothing except James Buchanan Barnes, Sergeant, 32557421.

“Yes,” he says instead. “I’m sorry, Buck. The things they did…anyone would.”

Bucky snorts, familiar and derisive.

“You wouldn’t.”

He says it with so much confidence that Steve aches. But he remembers the files. Imagines, not for the first time, himself in Bucky’s place; starved and sleep-deprived, beaten and drugged. Imagines being shown newspaper clippings and radio recordings of his best friend’s death and glorified martyrdom. Imagines his skin sliced open, bones broken, veins clogged, all to see how fast he’ll heal and sometimes just for fun, just because it can be done.

He can’t, is the thing. He can’t imagine.

“Yes, Buck. I would have.”

Bucky glares at him, lips pursed like he’s about to call bullshit, but whatever expression Steve’s wearing makes him falter, the thin layer of anger melting into anguish.

“You said I’d find you, eventually,” Bucky says desperately, like he’s scrambling for a lick of sense in an insane world. “That means you’re alive. That you survive the ice. That you save me.”

“I survive the ice.” There’s stone in Steve’s chest, heavy and cold. “I wake up in 2011, to a world where you’re dead. Except you’re not, and I don’t know, not until 2014 when Hydra makes another play for world-domination. They figure they need one supersoldier to kill another supersoldier. They send you after me.”

Bucky gapes at him a long moment, and then he smiles, a thin, twisted thing that hurts to look at. His eyes are wide and hurting, more open than Steve has seen in a long time.

“But – but I don’t. Right? It’s – Steve, Stevie, it’s you. I’d never – I couldn’t…” Bucky trails off, staring at Steve and seeing all the words he can’t bring himself to say. He shoots up suddenly. “I’m going to throw up.”

Steve tries to follow and has the bathroom door slammed in his face for his trouble. He doesn’t leave, just stands slumped against the wall, listening numbly to the sounds of Bucky retching. He staggers out after a brief eternity, and Steve’s reaching out before he can help it. Bucky fights it, but Steve holds on, channeling every ounce of his stubbornness, and is gratified when Bucky slumps against him a second later, letting Steve take his weight. He’s not as heavy as he should be; Steve can feel bones poking him where they shouldn’t and resolves to double up on pestering Bucky to fucking eat.

“It’s alright,” Steve croons like Bucky’s a child, arms suffocatingly tight around him, mouth pressed to his temple. “It’s in the past, Buck.”

“It’s the fucking future, our future,” Bucky croaks, digging fingers like claws into Steve’s forearm.

“Not in this world. Not for you. I’ve changed it, Bucky. There will be no Winter Soldier. I’ll salt this earth before I let Hydra have you again.”

“That’s not – time travel, what the fuck, Steve, I don’t know shit, but even I know you can’t just go around changing the goddamned past.”

“You’re right. I can’t change the past – my past. And I can’t change the past of the Bucky Barnes I left behind, can’t save him from suffering. But you – you, I can help. The moment I grabbed you in the snow, timelines diverged. A new reality was created. You’re right that I can’t just go around changing things, but that’s only because I don’t know if what will happen instead is going to be worse. And also because I didn’t come here on a mission. I wanted to stop fighting. Live, instead. Doesn’t mean I’ll turn a blind eye to everything, but I don’t plan to don the suit and rush out ever again.”

Bucky peers up at him, looking dazed. He mouths things to himself, and Steve catches enough to read Bucky’s shock at the information overload. It’s a lot to process, and he knows he should be sorry that he dumped it all on Bucky like that, but he’s just selfishly relieved to have got it out. It’s a secret that’s been eating at him, and only partially because he knew he’d have to come clean eventually. There will be questions, but he can handle that. He’ll have to.

“Captain America really is dead then,” is what Bucky says after a while, and Steve finds it as endearing as surprising that that’s what Bucky latched onto.

“Yes…and no.” He stops for a moment to figure out how to phrase the rest. Bucky shoots him an impatient look. “I’m not him anymore. I’ve done my part. But the man currently in the arctic…well. He’s going to carry the shield again, once he wakes.”

Horror creeps over Bucky’s expression, slow and damning.

“Steve’s – my Steve – he’s in the ice.”

Steve nods. Bucky stares at him, uncomprehending for a moment before anger makes his eyes flicker to life.

“You’re leaving him there?” He waits a moment. Steve says nothing, does nothing, and that’s answer enough. “You can’t – Steve, you can’t. He shouldn’t be left there to freeze, he’s – he’s alone in there, in the ice, and he hates the cold, he shouldn’t be…”

Bucky starts crying before the last word is out, lifting a hand to his face to rub furiously at the tears. More just keep on coming, his cheeks and nose turning an unflattering red. Steve watches, heart in his throat and maddeningly helpless. He can count on one hand the number of times he’s seen Bucky cry, and each time is more devastating than the last.

“I know, Buck,” he says. “I remember.”

Bucky raises wet eyes to him, and the tears do nothing to cloud his fury.

“Then you should save him,” Bucky hisses, grabbing Steve’s collar with a trembling hand. “Why the fuck are you leaving him there?”

Steve curls his hand around Bucky’s wrist, holds tight when there’s a weak struggle to break free.

“If I tell you it’s to preserve the timeline, you’ll punch me. And I’ll let you. But Bucky, it’s more than that. I’d have – he’d have become a fucking popsicle by now. The people looking for me are looking for a body, and that’s all they’ll find. They didn’t realize I was alive until halfway through the thawing process, and in this time, with the technology available, they won’t be able to thaw me safely. I don’t know for sure, but he – the Steve Rogers of this time – might just die if they find him now. That’s not a risk I want to take. The world right now doesn’t need Captain America, but there will come a time when it does. I’ll try my best to make it a slightly better world than the one I woke up in, but that’s all I can do for him.”

Bucky, who’s been listening almost frozen as Steve rambled on, shakes his head. Steve can’t tell whether it’s because he doesn’t believe what he said or doesn’t want to believe.

Steve waits, heart hurting at the tears slipping down Bucky’s face. His lips are trembling, little sounds escaping with each breath. Steve doesn’t want to, but his mind veers off in direction of what Bucky thought, decades ago in that future-past, when they told him Steve was dead. Bucky’s only ever hinted at that, but Steve knew.

There are many things, when it comes to Bucky, that he cannot forgive himself for. It’s not an excuse for what he says next, but it is a reason.

“Aren’t you even a little glad?” he asks softly, so quiet that he’s half-hoping Bucky didn’t hear. But he does, head whipping up to glare incredulously at Steve. “He let you fall. He didn’t come after you. He’d have left you there, in the cold, and you’d have suffered while he slept in the ice. Aren’t you angry?”

“That’s a fucked-up joke,” Bucky whispers after a long pause, staring wide-eyed at Steve. His tears seem to have dried out of sheer shock. “Tell me it is a joke, Steve, you – you can’t fucking – Steve.”

“They’re things I’ve thought, at one point or the other,” Steve admits, looking away from Bucky, not strong enough to endure the blue fire of his stare. “Mostly when I was chasing you around the world. Two years, I looked for you. You knew I was looking. I even came close once or twice. But you always ran. Made it very fucking clear you didn’t want to see me.”

“So you stopped?”

“I ran out of leads. And before I could find any more, shit happened and dropped you in my lap. It wasn’t the way I imagined our reunion, and you weren’t any happier. I never got to ask you why you didn’t let me see you. Shit kept happening, and on the rare times we had any breathing space, there were other things to discuss. At the time, I told myself it wasn’t important, but in hindsight, I realized I was just too cowardly to ask and have you answer that you resented me.”

“But you still thought it,” Bucky says, voice rising. “You still fucking think that I – that he was somehow punishing you for – for what happened to him. To me.”

“I don’t know,” Steve tells him honestly. “But it’s crossed my mind a time or two. And I don’t blame you – him – for it. I understand. I’d probably resent him too, if the positions were reversed.”

“No, you wouldn’t,” Bucky spits out, shaking Steve a little. “You’re a fucking stupid martyr who travelled to the past and saved the best friend who you think hates your guts. You fucking wouldn’t.”

Steve grimaces, turns it into a crooked smile.

“Okay, I wouldn’t. But it’s different. And it’s not like – he doesn’t hate my guts, Buck. We’re still friends. You’re still my best pal. Always will be. I just – forget I said anything.”

“Steve, you dumbfuck, you asked me whether I’d be glad that you – he, my Steve, the guy who’s been with me for half my damned life, the man who followed me to hell, and the solider I followed right back – you asked me if I’m glad he went down with that goddamn plane. How fucking dare you?”

“I’m sorry.”

Steve looks away again, unable to face the anger lighting Bucky up. He’s tempted back because, ironically, this is the most life he’s seen on Bucky since he woke up in that Hydra base, and Steve doesn’t want to miss a moment of it, terrified that it’ll go away, that he’ll do something to kill it.

Bucky’s mouth presses into a thin line. His eyes soften, anger receding even though Steve doesn’t deserve it. It’s a familiar and dearly missed sight from before the war, before the serum, when Steve turned his big fat mouth on Bucky and pissed him off, and they both sulked around miserably for a few hours. Bucky did the same thing those times, the anger fading slowly to start with and then all at once, until it was like they’d never argued at all.

Steve, in his heart of hearts, has always believed that he never deserved a friend like Bucky, and everything that happened – the train, the arm, the freezing – only convinced him that he was right.

But he can’t let him go.

“I tried taking all the stupid with me, like you said, but I should’ve known it didn’t work when you showed up in Italy all bulked up on experimental muscle juice.”

“Bucky–” It hurts, the reminder of the man he left behind, who let him go with a memory and a smile. The Bucky here and now, short-haired and reed-thin, shakes his head and puts a finger firmly on Steve’s mouth, shutting him up.

“I dream of him, you know? I see him reaching for me. I see the horror on his face when I fall. For a moment, I think he was more scared than I was, and all I could think then was that if I was going to die, at least I did it saving you. It’s always been that way, hasn’t it? It’s what I chose, Steve, years ago. It felt right.”

“Don’t say – your life’s more than that, Bucky, you can’t–”

“Don’t fucking tell me what I can and can’t do with my own damn life, Rogers,” Bucky snaps, anger resurfacing, and Steve shuts his mouth with a click. His lips brush Bucky’s finger, the pad of it rough against his mouth. It’s an odd sensation, one that has Steve sucking in a shaky breath.

“I can’t speak for the guy who came on the other side of Hydra. I can only imagine what they put him through, and that’s not something I’m very eager to do. But if he was me, if there was anything of Bucky Barnes writhing inside that guy – he wouldn’t have blamed you either. He’d have lo – he’d have known better. He’d have known you.”

“He didn’t, for a long time,” Steve says, half in a daze, mind lingering on that word Bucky bit off. “But he saved my life, even when he didn’t know me. And he let me save him too, eventually. Trusted me to, though it must have been hard.”

“See?” Bucky whispers, quietly triumphant. “Give him some credit, Steve. Next time you see him, fucking talk to him, for fuck’s sake.”

Steve laughs, and it’s a wet sound. It’s his turn to lick tears off his lips and wipe his face on his sleeve. Bucky doesn’t turn away and politely pretend not to see Steve cry. He dabs at the tears with his hand, fingers gentle.

“Sorry.”

“Shut up,” Bucky says genially.

“I can’t, you know.”

“Can’t what?”

“Talk to him. I – the equipment I had that let me come here. I can’t use it anymore. The actual time-jumping device is still functional, but if I try to use it now, I’ll just get ripped to pieces. There are certain particles that you need to use it right, and I’m out.”

“You – you can’t get anymore? You’re stuck here?”

“I can’t get anymore, no, but I’m not stuck either.”

“But–”

“I planned this, Bucky. I wanted to come here, and I always intended to stay. This is my choice.”

Bucky stares at him, with an expression that’s a blend of horror and disbelief.

“But what about him? Your Bucky.”

“You are my Bucky,” Steve says irritably. It’s guilt that colors his next words. “He’ll be fine. He has friends, a place in the world. He doesn’t need me.”

“And I do? That why you’re here, to fix another broken Bucky?”

“I – no. No. You’re not broken, you’re – it’s not you, it’s me.” Steve looks down, taking a moment to gather himself before looking Bucky in the eye. “I’m here because I need you. And because I hoped that if you needed me back, you’ll let me stay.”

Bucky seems to freeze, not even breathing as he gapes at Steve who holds his gaze, jaw set to hide the ice in his veins. It feels like baring his soul, terror and something else curling low in his gut.

And then all of a sudden, Bucky’s expression crumples.

“Jesus Christ, Stevie, what happened to you?”

There’s a denial already on his tongue, the taste of it acrid, but Bucky’s looking at him with eyes that threaten to burrow into his soul, and Steve’s suddenly, helplessly tired.

“It’s been a long few years, Buck,” is all he says.

There’s more he’d like it say, but the words crowd up his throat and choke him. He swallows convulsively, opens his mouth once and closes it just as promptly. It was easier, somehow, to lead group therapy sessions, to listen to others’ pain and say things about himself that the world already knew. In a way, he was honoring Sam’s memory. Mourning him. Mourning others wasn’t as easy, least of all Bucky, though Steve couldn’t stop thinking that he should have been used to it by now. He lost Bucky so many times that it felt like the world was preparing him for losing him that final time.

But Bucky came back. Steve got him back, and then he left.

He closes his eyes, lashes wet.

“I’m tired,” he whispers, keeping his eyes closed as if that will shield him from his weakness and whatever expression is on Bucky’s face.

That’s why the embrace catches him off guard. Bucky pulls him in, and Steve stumbles, and the two of them slide down the wall in a tangled heap that feels more comfortable than any situation involving that many elbows in soft flesh should.

Bucky huffs against Steve’s ear.

“You weigh as much as a baby elephant,” he gripes but he doesn’t let go. His arms only tighten around Steve.

Steve doesn’t apologize, just shifts so they’re lying side by side, though Bucky deems that insufficient a second later and all but climbs on Steve to hold him closer. Steve grips him back just as hard, desperation clinging to his finger nails.

“Bucky,” he chokes out, burying his face in a mop of greasy hair.

“I got you, Steve. It’s alright. I’m here. I ain’t going anywhere, pal.”

There’s a small, childish part of Steve that wants to ask Bucky to promise him, but he smothers that voice because there’s no point. He’s seen to much, lived too much to think any of them has any control over the world. But he’s also done too much to sit in a corner and let the world take what it wants from him. Bucky’s here, Steve’s here; it’s their second chance. He won’t waste it.

He doesn’t know how long they lie there like that, Bucky’s face tucked into Steve neck, their chests rising and falling in tandem. It’s intimate, and maybe Steve should be uncomfortable because it’s been a long, long time he’s had this with anyone, but it’s Bucky. It’s always been Bucky. He can stay like this forever and be content.

 

-

 

“So what now?” Bucky asks a long time later.

Steve looks away from the window, over at Bucky who’s lounging insouciantly on the couch.

“Now we sleep,” Steve says, just to break that nonchalant façade.

Though they really should sleep. It’s almost dawn now, the sky lightening outside though the streets are still void of life. They spent half the night cuddling; there really is no other word for it, and Steve’s all for doing it again when it’s put that light back in Bucky’s eyes and made Steve’s bones feel ten times lighter. They talked too, a lot. Bucky had a lot of questions, and not all of Steve’s answers made him particularly happy, but he’s not mad at Steve either. More sad than anything, though Steve didn’t miss how he kept his face and voice carefully neutral whenever the Bucky of the future-past came up.

That’s a can of worms he’ll open later. Much, much later, when his own head isn’t screaming at him for it.

“Fucker,” Bucky calls lazily, the scowl on his face half-hearted at best. “You know what I meant.”

Steve shrugs, walks over to sit beside Bucky. He casually lays a hand on Bucky’s knee. It’s like he can’t stop touching him, and as long as Bucky doesn’t complain, he’s gonna go on doing it.

“We’ll stay here until the war’s over. Give everyone some time to settle down. Wait for Peggy to start S.H.I.E.L.D and nab Zola. I’ll go see her after.”

Bucky’s quiet for a moment.

“Oh?” he says after a while, tone unreadable. “You’re gonna tell her the truth?”

“Some of it. Peggy’s too smart to fool, but she’ll understand how some things are need-to-know. If I can convince her I am who I say I am, then I might have her in our corner.”

“She’ll be happy to see you.”

Steve turns to Bucky, and his expression is as flat as his voice. When he sees Steve looking, he musters a lopsided grin.

“I hope so. I do owe her a dance. And Buck,” Steve calls gently, lifting his hand to grip Bucky’s nape. “I’ll get him. Zola. I’ll kill him with my own two hands if I have to.”

Bucky squeezes his eyes shut, looking pained.

“I know you will, punk. I just wish you didn’t have to.”

“I’ve done worse for less.”

Bucky snorts, ugly and unamused.

“That’s the opposite of reassuring.”

“It’s the truth,” Steve says sincerely, not taking his eyes off Bucky. “I couldn’t protect you so many times, Bucky. I won’t fail again.”

This time, Bucky just looks exasperated.

“Sometimes, Steve, I think your brain bounced around a bit too much in your skull from all the hits you’ve took. It’s not a one-way street, asshole. You’re not the only one doing the protecting. I’ve got your six. End of the line, remember?”

Even now, the phrase hits Steve like a helicarrier to the ribcage, his heart hurting something fierce. The smile he gives Bucky is shaky but true.

“Couldn’t forget if I tried, Buck.”

Chapter Text

They settle into quiet domesticity.

Bucky’s the first to land a steady job, not long after he starts venturing out of the house with a degree of regularity. It’s bookkeeping at a local store, not more than a twenty-minute walk from their house, and Bucky settles into it, not precisely happily, but with a grim determination that breaks and soothes Steve’s heart in equal measure. Steve never had a head for numbers until the serum rewrote his brain chemistry, but Bucky’s always been good at it. Got it from his ma, he used to say, with a lopsided smirk offset by the genuine pride in his eyes.

It's one thing they both had common, back when they were two scraggy boys haplessly stumbling into each other’s orbit; they both loved their mothers fiercely, unashamedly.

Sarah Rogers is gone, but Winnifred Barnes is still in Brooklyn, and all she now has of Bucky is a condolence letter and a box of sparse belongings.

They don’t talk about it. The one time Steve hesitantly tried to broach the topic, Bucky shut down so hard that he barely talked to Steve for two days, right until Steve grit his teeth and bulldozed his way through the awkward tension with forced cheer.

If Steve thought that the crying confession session back in February would solve all their problems, he’d have been dead wrong, but he’s not an actual goddamn idiot so he wasn’t expecting anything of the sort. Bucky’s treatment of him swings wildly between the easygoing familiarity of their Brooklyn days, the wary affection he extended to his friend that showed up to war a hundred pounds heavier and a foot taller, and the simmering distance that’s been there between them since they left the Russian base behind.

It's an emotional marathon on a good day, and Steve wouldn’t say he’s happy or content, but he’s – he can see a future for them, here like this, one bleaker than the half-assed fantasies they all spewed with the Commandos, but infinitely more real.

He wonders, sometimes, if they’ll make it to the time Steve left behind. It won’t be the same, won’t be the people he knew, but the course of the world should be similar, for better or for worse. Steve’s got no words for the guilt that surges up in him when he thinks of the war he died for, once, and washed his hands off, now. Can’t help blinking away a wet daze at the death toll at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and wonder – can’t stop thinking about the labor camps, gas chambers, the atrocities wrecking this world while he’s here, playing house–

We both need to get a life, he told Nat. You first, she said, and he’s trying.

He’s trying.

He doesn’t know how the serum has affected his aging; he hasn’t changed at all in the decade since his defrosting. There’s no grey hair on his head, no wrinkles on his face. Neither did the Bucky of his original world, though he spent far less time than Steve out of the ice. He doesn’t know what that means, for either of them, in the long run.

They aren’t new thoughts. He’s imagined it back then, countless times; staying young while Tony and Clint aged enough to pass for his parents. Losing Natasha’s steadfast companionship not to a bullet or a bomb but to the inexorable passage of time.  Watching Sam slip away from him the way Peggy did, Steve a memory slipping through his brain like quicksand.

It used to terrify the everloving hell out of him.

He can’t pinpoint what changed. Maybe it’s that Tony’s dead, Nat’s out of his reach, and the survivors – Bucky and Sam and Wanda – are as distant to him as the stars in the sky, though he can’t say why either.

He does ask himself whether he made a mistake coming here, and when he looks at Bucky, one-armed and haunted but without the hollow-eyed pain and a lifetime of scars the Bucky of the future-past wore like an armor, he still doesn’t know the answer, only that it will never be simple.

 

-

 

Unlike Bucky, Steve doesn’t have regular hours. Mostly because he doesn’t have a regular job, even though it’s nearly been a year since they’ve settled here. It’s not to say he doesn’t have work at all because as a tireless able-bodied mountain of a man, he manages to pick up odd jobs that range from hauling boxes to construction work. It means that sometimes, he’s back hours before Bucky and sometimes, he comes in close to midnight, expecting Bucky to be asleep but finding him curled up with a book on the couch, often awake through sheer damning will.

Whoever gets back first makes dinner, and neither of them have ever been great cooks, but they get by.

It’s Steve’s turn today, having returned almost an hour before Bucky’s due to get off. He makes soup, the one thing he consistently doesn’t mess up. It’s not as good as Bucky’s because he was the one who wheedled recipes out of Sarah and Winnifred both, all of fifteen years old and appointing himself Steve’s nurse with a seriousness that made Steve throw a pillow at him.

He was an ungrateful brat, now that he thinks about it, always more irked at needing Bucky’s help and angry at his body’s betrayal than happy about having a friend so damnably loyal that it was a miracle Steve’s feverish brain didn’t just dream him up.

Bucky still is damnably loyal, even with everything that’s happened, but Steve’s lost him too many times to take it for granted.

And he tries not to think, with marginal success, that the last time he lost Bucky was his own damn fault because Steve left

The front door opens and slams closed, pulling Steve out of his thoughts. Bucky making that much noise is both a good and a bad sign. It means he’s upset, but it also means he’s willing to show it instead of going deep into himself in a place where Steve can’t reach him no matter how desperately he tries.

Bucky storms into the house and stops short at the sight of Steve laying out their food on the wide, rickety desk that passes for their dinner table.

“Hey, Buck,” Steve greets casually, not pausing in his work. “Long day?”

Bucky sucks in a sharp breath and makes a beeline for the bedroom. Steve forces himself to finish putting everything on that table and then to wait another ten minutes. The seconds crawl. There are low sounds coming from inside the bedroom, audible only because of Steve’s serum-enhanced hearing.

He makes it to nine minutes and forty-eight seconds before he follows Bucky inside.

It’s dark in the room after closing the door, but Steve’s eyes adjust preternaturally fast, as always. He can make out the shape of Bucky seated on the edge of the bed, facing away from Steve.

“Come eat something.”

“Not hungry.”

Steve stifles a sigh and creeps forward, opting to crawl on the bed rather than circle around. It’s two beds, technically, their cots pushed together into a single entity. He knows what it looks like, but for all that he and Bucky have never been that way, they were always insanely tactical. They still started out with their beds on opposite sides of the room, but a week of regular nightmares was all it took to remedy that. Bucky protested when Steve pushed the beds together, but stopped complaining the day after, when he was the one shaking Steve away from a dream where Bucky turned to dust at the bottom of that icy ravine.

Bucky doesn’t acknowledge Steve’s proximity, even when he lays a hand on his shoulder. It’s bare, and Steve notices then that Bucky’s naked except for a pair of boxers.

“You gonna ignore me all night, Buck?”

“Not if you take a fucking hint.”

Steve laughs and Bucky shivers, shifting under Steve’s touch but not pulling away.

“When have you ever known me to do that?”

“Can always start,” Bucky grumbles.

“Nah. Even if I did, wouldn’t do it with you. You’re stuck with the worst parts of me, pal.”

That gets him a reaction. Bucky twists his torso around, shaking off Steve’s grip but leaning closer at the same time, even reaching out to fist a hand in Steve’s undershirt.

“Shut your damn mouth, Rogers.”

“Oh?” Steve says, emphatically not shutting his damn mouth. “You sayin’ you don’t wanna be stuck with me, Barnes?”

“Jesus Christ,” Bucky snaps, thumping Steve none too gently on the chest. “Not what I’m saying and you know it, now you come here to pester me to death or what?”

“Pester you to eat, actually. The literal opposite of death, in the long run.”

“Yeah, your sorry soup’s gonna single-handedly keep me from my grave.”

“Damn right it will. And just for that, you’re cleaning out the bowl.”

“You ain’t the boss of me,” Bucky complains, tone trailing off into a distinct whine as Steve bullies him off the bed. It’s not until they’re outside the bedroom and in the light that Bucky freezes, his back turning to stone under Steve’s palm.

“Bucky?”

“I – I’ll go put on a shirt, let me just–”

“Why bother?” Steve points out reasonably from where he’s blocking the door. “It’s hot today.”

“It’s fucking November, Steve.”

“And it’s an unseasonably hot November day, the hell am I supposed to do about it. C’mon, you’ll just sweat through the clothes. We’ll eat and go to sleep, come.”

None of it’s a lie. It is unseasonably hot for late November, though not to the extent Steve’s making it seem. He’s stripped to his undershirt and boxers, and once, Bucky wouldn’t have thought twice of doing the same or going as naked as he can get away with, always having been the more shameless of the two. They both know damn well why Bucky’s so insistent on wearing a shirt and why Steve’s trying to keep him as he is.

They don’t talk about it, but that doesn’t mean either of them are subtle.

Steve tried not to push, the first few months, but well, that’s never been his strong suit, especially when it comes to Bucky. He likes to think it’s important that Bucky lets him.

Today, Steve wins the invisible tug-of-war. Bucky heaves a sharp sigh and stalks away from Steve, but he goes right to the table and sits his ass down, shoving a spoonful of soup in his mouth while glaring at Steve. Another time, Steve might have made a quip about table manners, but he’s happy enough about Bucky not fighting him on the shirt that he decides to leave him be.

Judging by the way Bucky glare intensifies when Steve joins him on the table, he has deduced all of what just went through Steve’s head and is hardly happy about it. He shows his displeasure by attacking the bread like a rabid wolf, and Steve watches, helplessly fond.

He missed this.

It doesn’t matter how long they spend here, carving out a rough routine and settling into their mundane reality. The thought keeps assaulting him almost every day. He missed this. He missed Bucky.

Discounting the ice, Steve spent more years living with Bucky than without him, and it shows here, when they’re like this.

“The fuck you looking at?” Bucky asks belligerently.

“Your ugly mug,” Steve says happily. “Don’t know how it got to be that way, God must have been half-asleep when he put you together.”

He can see it, the way Bucky’s reluctantly amused and trying not to show it, for all that they’ve had this exact conversation and ones very similar countless times.

“Fuck you and your fakeass God, Steven.”

Steve just nods agreeably, where once, even in the war, he might have made at least a token effort to defend Him.

But he lost his faith sometime between caped gods falling out of the sky and the infinity stones unraveling the fabric of the universe, so all Bucky gets for his blasphemy is lukewarm agreement.

Bucky huffs and ducks his head, ostensibly to finish his soup, but Steve sees the smile he can’t quite hide.

After, they clean up together, side by side. Steve washes the dishes, Bucky dries them. It’s the pattern they fell into shortly after moving in, when they discovered that washing is harder for Bucky than drying, and the loss of his arm was fresh enough to send him into fits of rage or depressive slumps, each as equally bad as the other.

It's not that he’s no longer upset about the arm, just mostly resigned to it, as Steve finds out when Bucky growls halfway through the dishes. He throws down his rag and braces his arm on the counter, leaning forward with sharp, ragged breaths.

Steve washes off the suds from his arms and moves closer, reaching out to Bucky, hesitantly at first and then more confident when Bucky doesn’t flinch away. He wraps his hand around Bucky’s bicep and leads him out of the stuffy kitchen, worried when Bucky follows docilely. He leads them to the couch, gently pushing Bucky down and then joining him, not letting Bucky go for even a second of it.

Bucky barely seem to notice, sitting there with his head hung, hair falling into his face and hiding his eyes from Steve.

“Bucky,” Steve says quietly, stroking his hand down Bucky’s back. “Talk to me, Buck.”

“It’s stupid,” Bucky spits out, almost before the last syllable is out of Steve’s mouth. It’s usually so hard to pry things out of him that Steve is stunned for a few seconds, and by the time he recovers, Bucky’s speaking again. “It’s gone, I know it’s gone, but I – I fucking forget, Steve. How do I keep forgetting?”

Bucky looks up, blue eyes wide and pained, beseeching as they stare at Steve like he might have an answer.

“Sometimes, I think it’s still there,” Bucky whispers, so soft that Steve can barely hear him. “And then I–”

He quiets suddenly and looks down again. His lone hand curls and uncurls on his lap, veins protruding artfully, like someone dipped a brush in delicate blue and traced a map of rivers on his skin.

Steve doesn’t think about doing it, but his hand is moving without conscious thought, fingers sliding forcefully between Bucky’s. Bucky starts, making an aborted jerk before going very still.

“Steve.”

“Phantom limb,” Steve murmurs. “Right? It’s – it’s natural, Bucky. I, um, had this friend who knew his shit when it came to what veterans struggled through. He told me a lot of it, and it happens. Feeling like it’s still there. It’s not stupid. You’re – god, Bucky, you’ve been through so much. Cut yourself some slack.”

Bucky snorts, and there’s not an ounce of humor in the sound, but he does raise his eyes to Steve’s.

“Yeah, says the fucking king of going easy on yourself. I had to fucking sit on you to keep you in bed when you had fucking pneumonia, Steve.”

“You didn’t actually sit on me,” Steve says lightly, smiling tentatively. “Would’ve killed me, probably.”

“Now he admits it,” Bucky grumbles, knocking his shoulder into Steve’s.

He freezes, again, because he’s sitting on Steve’s right, and it’s the stump of his left arm that makes contact.

Steve has one hot second to evaluate which would cause the worse reaction, leaning in or pulling away, before he takes a leap of faith into the first.

Bucky makes a noise that a half-formed word and stares hard at the spot where they’re touching, Bucky’s scarred flesh pressed tight to Steve’s unmarred one. And it’s funny, in all the ways it’s not, that if Steve’s skin could bear scars, his whole body would be a Picasso painting.

“Buck.”

Bucky lurches away, the spell broken, but he can’t go far with Steve still holding onto his hand. He doesn’t try either, stopping once there’s a couple inches of space between their bodies.

“Don’t – you don’t have a fucking point to prove here, Steve.”

“That what you think I’m doing?”

Bucky glares at Steve, mulish and challenging.

“Isn’t it?”

“Hell no. Unless the point is that I don’t give a fuck about the scars or the stump, that I’m not fucking disgusted like you keep expecting me to be, but that’s not what you’re talking about, is it?”

“I’m not – it’s not disgusting, I damn well know it’s not, but don’t you see? I’m not him, Steve.”

For a moment, all Steve can see is Bucky in 2017, fresh out of cryo, long-haired and tight-lipped, stepping out of Steve’s hug with the same goddamn words.

For a moment, Steve thinks that’s who Bucky’s talking about, in the world’s most ironic inversion.

“I’m not that kid from Brooklyn,” Bucky says, shattering the illusion. “I know he’s who you came for, but I ain’t it.”

Steve sucks in a sharp breath and can’t, for the life of him, tell whether he’s relieved or horrified.

“That’s not true, you gotta–”

“Stop lying,” Bucky hisses, yanking his hand out of Steve’s. His thumbnail scraps the skin of Steve’s knuckle, an accident, but that’s not what stings. “I told you–”

“Bucky Barnes, shut your damn fool mouth and fucking listen to me. I came here for you. You. I didn’t – I’m sorry, I’m sorry, alright, that I couldn’t come earlier, couldn’t save you before you fell, hell, before you got drafted and this motherfucking war tried to eat you whole. I couldn’t, not when this world’s Steve Rogers was running about willing to move heaven and earth to get to you. I couldn’t – I’m selfish, Buck, but even then, I couldn’t do that to him. I know what it feels like, to live without you. He was going to do it anyway, and it would have been cruel to make him go through it earlier. It’s not fair to you. I messed up, I always mess up, I’m sorry.”

“Steve–”

“But I didn’t want some innocent Brooklyn kid. Not a damn thing wrong with him, but not a damn thing wrong with you either, Buck. I just – I wanted to save you. Thought for it as long as I had time to. This was the best I could think of doing. I’m sorry it wasn’t enough, but fuck you too for thinking I did this looking for a version of you that hasn’t existed since long before – before you fell, before even Kreischberg.”

For a long time, Bucky doesn’t speak, just breathes hard through his nose.

“You done?”

“Yes,” Steve bites out, hackles rising in spite of himself.

“Good, because what the fuck, Steve? No, shut up, my turn, ain’t always about you, you fucking mook. Like hell did you have a right to – to whisk me away from Steve, my Steve, the man sleeping in all that ice. And like hell wasn’t it fair to me. I was his, you realize? I was fucking his, and that’s all I damn ever wanted to be, and Brooklyn kid or army Sergeant, doesn’t matter for shit, I’d have hated you and punched the living daylights out of you if you’d tried to take that from me. It was my choice. Steve was my choice.”

The conversation, Steve registers dimly, has veered wildly out of control. He doesn’t know how it happened, can’t quite pinpoint what set it off, the conversation replaying in his mind like a distorted video, squares of shifting colors that show nothing.

He does remember another conversation, crystal clear. A bombed-out bar and Peggy Carter, her warm touch doing precious little to penetrate the chill frosted over his skin and eating down his bones.

“Do you regret it?”

Bucky looks him square in the eye.

“No.”

“You fell. You lost an arm. You could’ve gone back home. It’s all I thought about for a long time, after the train, and after I found you again. That you could’ve gone home, married some nice girl who’d put up with your shit and whip you into shape, have little blue-eyed hellraiser kids and get a taste of your own medicine.”

“Jesus,” Bucky hisses, closing his eyes. There’s a twist to his mouth, and it trembles. “You’re an idiot, Steve Rogers.”

“So you keep saying.”

Bucky opens his eyes, and he’s there again, the ghost. Ironic how that nickname seems to stick to Bucky like glue, not this Bucky with his clean-shaven face and exasperated frowns, but the one Steve left behind. He lingers between them at times like this, there in their thoughts and hovering on the tips of their tongue but left undisturbed, in the end. It's not fair to him, none of this is, and Steve doesn’t regret coming here and saving this Bucky, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have other regrets.

“That wasn’t ever gonna happen,” Bucky says in the end. “You thought of that, while you were off planning my future in your big, dumb head? You thought of what I wanted?”

Steve’s got no answer to that. Well, he does, but not one that won’t make Bucky sock him one in the jaw, well-deserved as it might be.

“Fucking idiot,” Bucky says again, mouth tight.

“What did you want then?” Steve has to ask. “After it was over, after you were done fighting, what did you want?”

“Home,” Bucky says simply.

“Oh. I’m sorry, Buck. We can – we can go back, one day, but it’s going to be a while, years, maybe a decade, and I’m really sorry–”

“Idiot,” Bucky sighs, resigned now. “Steve, that one-bedroom hole in a wall in Red Hook wasn’t home. And it wasn’t my parents’ place either.”

“But–”

“It was you. I stopped thinking I’d survive the war even before Zola almost proved me right, but when I dared to hope, it was just you and me, livin’ the way we did, years and years, growing old together. Never thought beyond that. Never wanted to.”

Steve can’t speak, can’t even breathe.

Bucky’s body grows tenser and tenser as minutes tick by with Steve silent, and when he looks up, he’s got that expression he wore when he waded into fights with shirt-sleeves rolled up, all ready to get dirty.

Then see takes a good look at Steve’s face, the tension drains out of him, replaced by tight lines of familiar concern.

“Oh, Christ, Steve, don’t look at me like that.”

Steve finally finds his voice somewhere in the depths of his chest and drags it up to his throat, his tongue.

“Like what?” he croaks.

“Like I’m your dame, breaking your heart.” Bucky’s tone’s light enough to be teasing but his eyes are anything but. “C’mon. I didn’t mean it like that.”

“I – like what?”

“God.” Bucky’s head falls back on the couch. It leaves his throat bared, tendons taut and straining. Steve stares, once again out of breath and words. “How did we even get to this point?”

It takes him a moment, but Steve latches onto that like a lifeline.

“You arm. We, uh, started with your arm.”

Bucky actually laughs.

“Yeah. Damn. It’s been like that on and off, and today was, uh, bad. From morning. Stumbled on the way to work and almost faceplanted on a wall because I tried to catch myself with an arm I didn’t have. Fucked me up the whole day. Sorry, I shouldn’t have taken it out on you.”

“You didn’t,” Steve says, and Bucky’s answering glare could strip the paint from a wall, but Steve just grins at the face of it. “No offense, Buck, but we’re not exactly lacking in other interpersonal issues.”

“Interpersonal issues,” Bucky echoes with a disbelieving scoff. “You should hear yourself. And for fuck’s sake, we gotta stop doing this.”

Steve blinks, and his first thought is his hand, which has found its way to Bucky’s thigh again and is resting there all casual and innocent as Steve gapes at it and tries to remember when he put it there. He’s been touching Bucky as much as he can get away with, which is and has always been a lot, and Bucky doesn’t seem to mind except when Steve gets close to his left arm, but maybe–

“These talks,” Bucky says, effectively halting Steve’s mental barrage. “We can’t hold a conversation without it going off the rails into deep fucking waters. It’s gotta stop, ain’t good for my heart.”

“You can take it,” Steve says, trying and somehow succeeding at being cheerful and severe at once. “It’s good for us. Sa – my friend would agree.”

The quick correction doesn’t escape Bucky, but he doesn’t call Steve out on it.

“Fuck you,” is all he says. “Come to bed, I’m tired.”

So is Steve, in a way that’s got nothing to do with his body.

They don’t speak much as they prepare for bed. Steve remembers the half-done dishes halfway through brushing his teeth and promptly decides to leave them for the morning. Bucky keeps frowning at nothing but smoothens it away when he catches Steve watching.

It is, all in all, a typical night.

Once they’re in bed, flat on their backs on their respective sides, Bucky speaks.

“I don’t, you know. Not now.”

Steve, to his credit, does try to make sense of that for a whole damn minute.

“What?”

Bucky sighs forcefully.

“Resent you. Hate you. I don’t. I don’t trust your mush of a brain to not jump straight to that after what I said about – about him. My Steve. But you’re my Steve too. You’re different, but not that different.”

Does that mean you’re mine too, is what Steve wants to ask, stupid and unprompted.

He doesn’t need the answer, if only because he can’t bear to hear it, either yes or no.

“Thank you, Bucky.”

“Shut up and go to sleep.”

 

-

 

Steve doesn’t notice the situation until it is, frankly, out of hand.

It feels like it’s happened overnight, like Steve woke up after a rare night of restful sleep to find Bucky’s hair tumbling down to his shoulders. It didn’t actually happen like that, or so Steve tells himself all through the morning, staring at Bucky and trying not to, deeply grateful that early morning Bucky is too out of it to notice Steve’s preoccupation.

It lingers on his mind even after he’s out of the house, first for a run while Bucky’s slowly regaining animation, and then after a quick scrub. Bucky has already left by the time Steve locks up the house and heads for his job, having finally landed a semi-permanent job at a local warehouse. He’s just dumb muscle, and he can do the work with a quarter of his brain, which is usually fine if mind-numbingly dull, but is actively a pain today because the other three-quarters of his brain is buzzing incessantly.

Bucky! Hair! it screeches, again and again and again. Bucky! Bucky! Bucky! Hair!!!!!

Steve’s cussing himself out, in his head and under his breath when he can get away with it, but secretly, he does agree with all the !!!!.

It’s not a sight he’d thought he’d see again. Bucky’s hair is not quite the length it was after his post-cryo time in Wakanda. It’s closer to his Bucharest length, which is at most an inch longer than his Winter Soldier length.

Steve does pause, then, marveling at his severely specific memories of and labels for Bucky’s hair, before chalking it up to the serum.

What’s important is that Bucky’s apparently been growing out his hair since they moved to Bern and now, two years later, he looks like the ghost from Steve’s future-past.

Except not really, Steve decides that evening, watching Bucky putter around making them both dinner. Steve did offer to help, but he cooked the last two nights in a row, which he didn’t really notice, but Bucky apparently keeps a tally of things like that because he glared Steve down until he sat his ass on a chair and resigned himself to watching Bucky.

Secretly, he’s glad for the opportunity, even if it’s just to creepily ogle his best friend’s hair.

Point is that the long-haired Bucky of 1947 looks nothing like the long-haired Bucky of 2014, 2016, or 2018. He doesn’t even look like the long-haired Bucky of 1991, the one Steve caught only a glimpse of in that thrice-accursed video Zemo shoved at them.

He looks like – well, he looks like Bucky Barnes, young with an unlined face and sparkling blue eyes and shining brown hair that gleams in the light.

He looks like someone who’s been taking good care of himself.

Steve’s a little in awe when that thought strikes, but self-recrimination follows soon after because he didn’t notice. Sure, he noticed that Bucky’s nightmares, while present and intense, weren’t a daily occurrence anymore. He noticed that he smiled more and talked of his co-workers like he actually knew of them and their lives rather than exchanging meaningless pleasantries like he did the first few months. He noticed that Bucky didn’t go with girls or even look at them much when he and Steve went out for a drink. The last one isn’t the only aberration from the Bucky before the war, so Steve treated it as he treats most things about Bucky these days, with calm acceptance for the way people change.

It still stings a bit to know that he missed the most important things.

A light tap on his cheek makes him start, almost knocking over the table with the movement.

Bucky looks down at him, brows furrowed and unimpressed, and steps back as Steve manages to stand without wrecking any furniture.

“What’s wrong with you?” Bucky asks flatly, as if that would hide the concern in his eyes as they flick all over Steve.

Steve doesn’t think, just talks, and blurts the truth as he is wont to do.

“You’re happy.”

Whatever Bucky was expecting, that’s not it. He takes a physical step back, flabbergasted, then takes a longer stride forward so he can get all up in Steve’s space. He’s the only one who’s ever managed to do it unthreateningly, and Steve’s seized by a helpless fondness when Bucky rests the back of his hand on Steve’s forehead like he’s checking for fever. He takes his hand off with a huff and an expression that’s as relieved as it is confused.

“I can’t get sick anymore, Buck,” Steve tells him fondly.

“Well, you never know, only you’d manage to go and get yourself some–”

He cuts off with a choking noise, and Steve realizes it’s because of him, because he’s got two of his fingers wound in a strand of Bucky’s hair and is tugging at it like a child with a fixation.

“–superflu,” Bucky finishes, dazed.

“It’s so long,” Steve says quietly, giving Bucky’s hair another tug. “I didn’t notice.”

Bucky blinks a couple times, rapidly.

“Uh, um, yeah. I guess. Wondered why you didn’t say anything.”

“I didn’t notice,” Steve repeats stupidly, and there’s a distant thought that he should take his hand away, that he’s making this weird, but he physically cannot seem to let go.

“Yeah,” Bucky breathes. “It’s weird, isn’t it?”

“Huh? What?”

“The hair.”

“What? No, no, that’s not – it looks real nice, Buck. Suits you. Makes you look, um, makes you look real pretty.”

Just like that, Bucky gets that look in his eyes that says he’s laughing inside, but the smile that curls around a corner of his mouth is small and shy.

“Yeah? You think I’m pretty, Rogers?”

Well, yeah, for all that Steve mocks him for his ugly mug, he’s always known that Bucky’s real handsome. He’s got two eyes, for fuck’s sake. Something in him still rebels viciously at saying it out loud; he never needed to before, because Bucky knew it all too well at first, had a different girl on his arm every week to drive it home, and a few guys too in furtive encounters that he didn’t talk about so much as insinuate with expressions both smug and nervous. And later, in the twenty-first century, it that wasn’t the kind of thing Steve could say to Bucky, not when it took them half a year to work up to hugging.

Now, though, Bucky’s somewhere between the two, with none of the cocky confidence he wore like a cloak in Brooklyn but also nowhere near the point that his physical attractiveness barely registered in his head.

“Yeah, Buck,” Steve says in the end. “You’re real pretty.”

And Bucky – Bucky blushes.

It makes something go tight in Steve’s chest. He tugs harder on Bucky’s hair, and the breathless sound he makes at the sting has Steve grinning.

“Should braid it, bet it’d look even better. Make a proper princess out of you.”

It’s a hell of a sight even now, watching Bucky rear up, glowing with indignation that no one but Steve would be able to tell is all show.

“Hey, fuck you, pal.”

“Tell a guy he’s pretty and suddenly, he’s got no respect for your ideas.”

“What you got ain’t ideas, Steve, they’re disasters in the making. Braids, he says, like I don’t know how ridiculous that would be.”

It trips Steve up.

It’s not that he forgets. He can’t. But he tries not to remember, tries not to swell, but he can’t help that either, memories popping like bullets at the damnest times.

And what he remembers now is–

“They’d look good on you,” Steve says, and foolishly adds. “They did, on him.”

Bucky grows very still. The humor drains out of his face, leaving his eyes oddly dark as they bore into Steve. They don’t speak about the future, the Bucky in the future, and this is why. They can’t handle it, either of them.

But then Bucky speaks.

“Yeah? Your braid the poor guy’s fucking hair for him, Steve?”

“Me? Nah.” Steve’s voice is weak and he takes a fortifying breath. “There were these kids, for some time towards the end. In a village he stayed at. They were fascinated by him. One of them, this ten-year old boy, once wrangled him into a hair-braiding session. It was good, looked very good. The kid knew what he was doing. Then a few of them stuck flowers in his hair. I have pictures. Well, had them.”

Had deleted them from his phone in a fit of grief-fueled rage, two tears after the Snap. Had gone begging to Natasha three hours later because he didn’t know how to retrieve them, and she had helped, her eyes unreadable as she watched Steve clutch the phone and stare at the picture of Bucky, hair pulled back from his face, braid laid along one shoulder, bright, beautiful flowers along its length. One was tucked behind his left ear, and he had a hand hovering near it, uncertainty shining even through the screen. He was smiling, and even now, Steve can remember that wide, lopsided grin, a little rusty and painfully genuine.

“You’re a mess, Steve,” Nat told him then, and it must have been true because Steve didn’t even have the energy to put up a token protest.

“Huh,” is all Bucky says. He’s looking carefully at Steve, and he has no idea what Bucky can see in his expression. “He liked kids?”

Steve opens his mouth to mumble a thoughtless yes but closes it without a word.

“I’m not sure. I never asked, but I, uh, I got the sense that he liked that they weren’t scared of him. That they didn’t care what he’d done.”

“Yeah?” It’s such a quiet word, but there’s so much challenge in it. “Then he must have fucking loved you.”

I wish, Steve doesn’t say, but it’s a very close thing.

He gives Bucky a tight-lipped smile instead and steps back with one last tug at his hair. He misses it the next second, aches to feel its softness on his skin.

“Your food’s burning, Bucky.”

Bucky gives Steve a look that calls him out on his bullshit better than words ever could, but he does turn back to the stove and sets about rescuing their dinner. Steve watches him and carefully thinks of nothing.

Chapter Text

It’s 1949, and the war’s been over for more than three years when Steve says, “Let’s go home.”

Bucky, scribbling something in a notebook the way he’s taken to recently, pauses only for a moment. He doesn’t look up when he replies.

“We’re already home.”

“You know what I meant, Buck.”

Steve’s treated to baleful blue eyes peering at him from between a curtain of hair. Bucky trims it when it gets to his shoulder, but it’s still long. He seems to like it that way. It gets him some attention, but no one’s going to connect a long-haired, one-armed, perpetually scruffy man to Bucky Barnes of the Howling Commandos, certainly not here, and that’s what matters.

Steve’s feelings on it are still complicated. It suits Bucky. It makes him look like a ghost.

“Bucky,” Steve says a little helplessly when Bucky just continues to glare at him. “You know it had to happen sometime.”

Bucky closes his eyes, huffing sharply. Steve expects complaints. They’d be deserved; they have a good life here. Something like home. Maybe its foundations are flimsy, its walls held together by things not said, but it’s something. It’s more than Steve’s had since he was thawed. They could make something solid out of it, a home that could withstand the nightmares they don’t discuss.

They could, but they can’t.

Steve doesn’t want to fight, but there are things he has to do. He gave up the shield, but Captain America has always been more than that.

Bucky sighs again, but when he speaks, his voice is calm, almost too calm.

“Yeah. You’re right. Don’t mind me, I’m just cranky today.”

Steve opens his mouth to protest, invite a discussion, maybe even an argument, but Bucky pointedly looks down at his notebook and starts writing again. It’s a clear dismissal. Steve can’t even be irked at it because he does the same when he doesn’t want to talk, with a sketchpad or the fucking newspaper. For the life of him, he can’t remember if Bucky picked up the habit from him or vice versa.

Steve lets out a slow breath, lets it go.

 

-

 

Bucky’s quiet mood lasts the whole morning. Steve leaves first that day. Bucky waves him off with a smile that doesn’t touch his eyes, and Steve resolves, the way he always does but rarely follows through on, to pester him into blurting what’s on his mind if he’s still maudlin in the evening.

It's not that they don’t talk. They do, so much that Bucky complains, with a private smile that says he doesn’t mind so much, that they live in each other’s pocket now. Steve likes to point out that they always did, except for a while there towards the end, with war on the horizon and the two of them caught up in their own fuming heads.

It’s just that they’re both as stubborn as a mule, and when one of them doesn’t want to talk, he doesn’t budge an inch come hell or high water. Bucky’s better than Steve, but he’s not open as he was before he was drafted and far less tolerant of Steve’s sanctimonious streak. Steve can’t judge. Before the war, he was a prickly asshole who ran headfirst into his problems and into some of other people’s too, just because. Now, he’s a quiet asshole who ran so hard from his problems that he created a whole new universe.

See, Sam, he’s self-aware.

Wow, you did the bare minimum, have a fucking cookie, Sam’s voice snarks in his head, and that’s not a good sign, probably, but he’s oddly possessive of these flashes he has in his head of Sam and Nat and sometimes even Tony.

It feels, sometimes, like he’s forever doomed to cling to the past.

Steve moves through the day in a haze of memory. Doesn’t fuck up and drop wet cement on his head only because his body’s more adaptable than his mind and can do construction work on autopilot after these years.

It’s a relief to go home and find he’s alone. Steve feels guilty about it a second later. It’s stupid. It’s not even like he doesn’t want to see Bucky tonight. In fact, he’s pretty sure he will – in the eloquent parlance of the future-past – freak the fuck out if he doesn’t see Bucky for a whole day after half a decade of being nestled up in his asshole. His pre-serum self would be horrified at that level of codependency, but that spry fucker didn’t lose Bucky a thousand times to his own fucking hubris.

Yeah, he’s glad Bucky’s not home at the moment. He’d take one look at the lump of miserable that Steve is and do – something. And whatever he did, his face would crease and crumple in that way he’d try to hide but couldn’t, not from Steve, and then Steve would want to cry, but he wouldn’t let himself, and then he’d feel like screaming, and that wasn’t any better either.

Steve drops dinner – bought, not made – on the table and retreats to the bathroom for a good, long soak.

He falls asleep there, and when he jerks awake from restless, vaguely foreboding dreams, the water has cooled and the house is still empty. The bedroom window is dark. Steve pulls on pants, foregoes a shirt after a moment spared to think of the effort of pulling it on. The bed is appealing, but he goes to the couch instead. He contemplates the bookshelf, almost filled now due to Bucky’s earnest efforts, but he doesn’t think he can focus on anything.

So, he waits, an eye on the front door as the clock steadily ticks towards nine.

It’s well past that when Bucky returns. Steve smells the booze on him as soon as he opens the door.

But Bucky’s steps are steady, his eyes clear. His cheeks are flushed, but it’s not from drink. No, Steve knows that particular shade of mottled red, knows the stalking force of Bucky’s walk.

He’s furious.

Steve shoots up to his feet, half caution, half concern, but he doesn’t take more than a step forward before Bucky’s there, his reek sharp enough to make Steve scrunch up his face. He doesn’t pull back even though it’s uncomfortable, the way Bucky’s all up in his space and glaring at him.

“You down half a distillery?” Steve asks lightly. Both his hands are held aloft in the scant space between them, and he’s not sure whether it’s to keep Bucky away or to catch him if he tries to back off.

The sound that comes out of Bucky is a growl, no other word for it. His clenched fist thumps against Steve’s bare chest, not nearly enough force to make it a proper blow. Steve instinctively wraps a hand around his wrist anyway, unsurprised to feel Bucky’s whole arm trembling.

“I fuckin’ tried,” Bucky grits out. “You know what happened, Steve?”

He knows. Of course he knows. He learned that lesson the hard way once, and Bucky wasn’t there to hold him through it because he was the reason Steve even tried to find peace in a crate of whiskey.

“Nothing,” Steve answers dutifully. “You can’t get drunk.”

Bucky’s fist unfurls. His nails bite into Steve’s skin.

“You knew.”

“You think I haven’t tried? ‘Course I fucking know. It’s the same for me.”

For a moment, it looks like Bucky will throw a punch. He was never the type, before. He must have been tempted. There were days when Steve wanted to sock himself in the jaw. But Bucky’s only ever hurt him when he was buried deep inside the Winter Soldier. Steve knows, even when Bucky pulls his hand back, that it’s not going to change now. There’s no blow, only Bucky’s arm falling limply to his side and his whole body lurching forward.

Steve catches him with every intention of steadying him, but it’s his knees that buckle when Bucky’s mouth crashes into his.

They collapse on the couch in a clash of teeth and flailing limbs. Steve feels the sting of skin splitting but barely registers it as he gapes at Bucky’s startled face hovering above his own. He’s still holding onto Bucky, fingers digging into hips that still feel too thin for all that Bucky irritably bats away Steve’s attempts to make him eat more. He thinks he should maybe let Bucky go, push him away, and demand an explanation, but he feels powerless to anything but stare.

The touch of their lips was fleeting and a clear disaster, but that brief moment is replaying in his mind, burning Steve alive.

Bucky exhales shakily, and he shifts like he’s going to climb off Steve. Then something in his expression changes, and this time, Steve’s prepared for it.

But he doesn’t stop Bucky.

It’s less violent this time, but Steve’s blood still slicks their lips. The cut’s already healing, but the touch of Bucky’s mouth stings, and when Steve opens his mouth to invite him in, it twinges like a warning.

But Bucky makes a startled sound and licks into Steve, tentative first and then ravenous, writhing on top of his body as he kisses Steve like he wants to eat him alive, and no warning could stop this, stop them. There’s a sense of inevitability as Steve just lets it happen until the whole of him is flooded with heat and aching to press into every inch of Bucky. He’s never been much for passive taking, and that’s not different because it’s Bucky, though Steve does spare a moment to mull on all the ramifications of this before he slides a hand into Bucky’s unbound hair and another around his waist.

Bucky moans when Steve’s fingers clench in his hair, curling ever so slowly into a fist. There’s something so satisfying about this, nails scraping Bucky’s scalp as he uses his hair as a handhold to move Bucky the way he wants, holding him still for Steve to kiss open, then tilting his head up for his mouth to trail along the curve of his jaw and down the sweaty column of his neck.

He bites down on a straining tendon, and Bucky makes a wounded noise unlike anything Steve’s ever heard from him before.

Steve can’t say what it is about that sound that jolts him back to the realm of common sense when the taste and heat of Bucky, perfect but unfamiliar, didn’t. But it does, and Steve pulls back with a gasp, letting his head fall back against the couch with a low thud that’s obscenely loud in his ears. Above him, Bucky makes a soft, confused whine.

“Bucky,” Steve breathes, wincing when his voice comes out hoarse and downright needy. He clears his throat and tries again. “Buck, what is – what are we doing?”

Bucky’s just staring at him, eyes wide and a little lost. Steve can see it when he comes back to himself, the little jolt of his body and the way his flush crawls all the way down his neck.

“I – I just wanted to forget.” Bucky sounds so small. It’s a shock to hear, and it takes Steve a moment to register the words, and then Bucky’s speaking again. “Just for a night, Steve. I wanted to forget everything.”

Steve’s not so oblivious that he has to ask why.

“So you decided to drink yourself to oblivion?” he asks dully. Bucky nods, the slant of his mouth one of abject misery. “And when that didn’t work, you thought you’d – what, fuck me instead?”

Bucky shivers, a little sound escaping him. He’s still staring at Steve, almost unblinking. His eyes are dark but bright, pupils blown wide in a ring of luminescent blue. They’re eyes Steve has sketched a hundred times, but he’s never thought of kissing Bucky.

“You’re my best friend, Buck.”

Bucky makes that sound again, faint and pained, and it spears right through Steve, leaving guilt and something far more perverse in its wake.

“Bucky, talk to me.”

Maybe Steve should get up and push Bucky off him or hold him tight and make him talk. He doesn’t, just stays right there with Bucky sprawled atop him, caught in Steve’s grasping hands.

“I don’t – Steve, I didn’t just – haven’t you ever wanted me? Haven’t you even thought of it?”

It’s Steve’s turn to make a pained noise. The honest answer is that he hasn’t. The look on Bucky’s face says he’ll shatter if he hears that.

“I never let myself,” Steve says instead, and that’s no less honest.

Bucky says his name, and it sounds like a plea, and Steve’s never been able to deny him anything, be it the endless double dates Bucky dragged him into or the cold embrace of a Wakandan cryo chamber.

They kiss, and they don’t stop kissing until Bucky’s frenzied writhing on top of Steve turns deliberate and rhythmic. Steve reacts to it, hips jerking up to meet Bucky’s, painfully hard in his pants. Bucky keens into their kiss, and the noise gets Steve’s gasping between the wet slide of their tongues. They’re rutting like teenagers, half-clothed and desperate, but Steve doesn’t feel any more controlled than one. He hasn’t had sex in – god, since an ill-advised tryst not long after the Snap. Thor didn’t look him in the eye in the morning, and the one time Steve made himself go to New Asgard, they carefully skirted around the topic, the whole conversation riddled with emotional landmines.

Bucky’s squirming heat is a far cry from the systematic touch of his own hand, and of course Steve doesn’t last. Spills in his pants and is unspeakably gratified when Bucky gives a low moan at the wetness seeping into the fabric and hurls headfirst into his own orgasm.

He slumps on Steve, shuddering one last time, and it feels like the most natural thing in the world to wrap him up in his arms and press a kiss to his hair. It feels like they’ve done this a thousand times before, but they haven’t, they haven’t.

Steve knew he liked men, liked both, long before Bucky confessed to the same. Carried it like a secret; didn’t think he should be ashamed but knew he couldn’t be proud either, not when the world was ready and willing to kill him for it. It was a relief to know that Bucky – who was strong and handsome and had girls hanging off his arms, who was everything Steve wasn’t – was the same as him.

It was another reason to love him. Like a brother, like a friend, like the other half of your soul.

“Steve,” Bucky says, barely a breath, and he sounds so soft, so reverent, that Steve has to wonder what would have happened if he’d just kissed Bucky Barnes on the fucking mouth when he was sixteen.

Nothing very different. He’d still become Captain America. Bucky would still fall. Tragedies don’t stop for love; Steve found that out the hard way the first time Bucky slipped from his grasping hand.

“Bucky,” Steve says, more than a little helpless, and Bucky raises his head and leans in for another kiss.

It starts out sweet. Close-mouthed and chaste, but their lips are still wet with spit, and Steve’s veins thrum at the slip and slide of them. Heat builds, slow and consuming, and the dam breaks when he slides a hand under Bucky’s shirt and the warm shock of bare skin is accompanied by a throaty moan that goes straight to Steve’s gut.

It's no easy task to sit up without either of them falling off the couch. But he manages it, clutching Bucky tight to him when he yelps and tenses at the motion. Steve doesn’t stop kissing him, not as he unbuttons Bucky’s shirt and wrestles it off his torso. Bucky tries to say something, but it’s lost between their mouths. He doesn’t pull away, and Steve doesn’t let him, mapping Bucky’s mouth with his tongue, intent on memorizing every inch of him. Maybe Bucky will wake in the morning and regret it, never mind that he’s sober and not drunk as he’d like to be. Steve won’t let it ruin their friendship, he won’t, but he’ll always have this.

He greedily gropes Bucky’s chest, no intent and less finesse, just the burning need to touch. Bucky pants little half-formed words into Steve’s mouth, incoherent sounds that wind him up like nothing.

It’s an accident, the glancing touch of his knuckles to Bucky’s stump. Steve barely notices it, drunk on the slick heat of Bucky’s mouth and hungry for the bared expanse of naked flesh, but Bucky jerks back like he’s been shocked.

Steve whimpers at the loss, can’t help it, but when he opens eyes he doesn’t even remember closing, it’s to find Bucky staring at him with wide, scared eyes.

“Buck?” No response but a series of rapid blinks. “Bucky, hey. Come on, pal. Come back.”

“Steve…”

Bucky glances at the remains of his left arm. Steve looks with him and sees what he always does. Scarred flesh, completely healed; a remainder that Bucky’s alive, that Steve saved him but couldn’t spare him everything.

He’s tentative he reaches for Bucky who sits still in Steve’s lap but doesn’t fight the hand that cups his cheek and leads him into a soft, lingering kiss.

Bucky pulls away again after a moment, but this time, it’s with purpose. He’s already working at his fly when he scrambles off the couch, and for several long seconds, Steve just watches dumbfound as muscled thighs and almost delicate calves are bared. Bucky pauses after stepping out of his pants, expression uncertain for a flash before it shifts into pure exasperation.

“Steve, take off your fucking pants.”

Steve does, watching Bucky until his attention is diverted by the gross stickiness of the fabric as it peels off his skin. He’s not wearing anything under and shucks the whole garment to the floor. The strangled noise Bucky makes Steve’s eyes snap to him again.

He shouldn’t be surprised to find Bucky staring at him with an expression that’s pure hunger, but he is.

But Steve knows his own face is a mirror of it as he drinks in Bucky, naked and gorgeous. His dick’s well on its way to full mast, flushed with blood and curved against a milky thigh. The sight makes Steve ache.

“Buck–”

He doesn’t get anything else out before Bucky’s on him, yanking Steve into a hard kiss. It lasts barely a second before Bucky’s biting his way down Steve’s throat, moaning in between nips of teeth, something frantic about the whole of him.

Steve fists a hand in Bucky’s hair and drags his head up, and it sends a jolt to his cock to hear him groan and see his eyes flutter at the rough touch.

“Tell me what you want, Bucky.”

Bucky doesn’t respond immediately. He’s panting slightly, eyes dark and a little wild. Steve reaches out with the hand not tangled in Bucky’s hair and cups one flushed cheek, pressing his thumb lightly to the cleft of Bucky’s chin. He trails his hand lower, over the rapid beat of Bucky’s pulse and down his muscled chest, not doing anything, just feeling.

Bucky closes his eyes and groans like Steve’s killing him.

“Let me suck your dick.” It’s said in a rush, almost incoherent, but Steve picks up every word. Bucky almost flinches when Steve’s eyes snap to him, but then he licks his lips and doubles down. “Please, Steve. I’ll make it good.”

“Sweetheart,” Steve says, heart breaking a little. Bucky jolts at the endearment, eyes widening. “I know you will. Yes, yes, please.”

Bucky groans again, a trembling little sound, and goes back to what Steve interrupted. Steve keeps his hands in Bucky’s hair, enjoying the way the strands curl around his fingers and the sweet noises Bucky makes when he pulls a little too hard. Bucky’s sloppy as he peppers wet, open-mouthed kisses down Steve’s torso, quickly making his way down to where he really wants to put his mouth.

And he does want it, throwing himself into it with a desperation that makes Steve’s dick surge violently to life. Bucky takes too much, at first. Gags, throat convulsing around Steve before he pulls off, coughing.

“Woah, Bucky, you–”

He shakes off Steve’s concern and dives back in, hungrily sucking him in. He does – he does something that shorts out Steve’s brain, reduces him to the sensation of slick heat and suction. His eyes press shut, but he pries them open because he wants to see, even though it’s almost unbearable to watch Bucky with his hollowed cheeks and red, stretched mouth, sucking Steve’s dick with wild abandon.

Steve grips his hair but tries not to control his pace, keeping his hips locked in place, but then Bucky pulls off to mouth at the head, and there’s a scrape of teeth, and Steve’s bucking helplessly into his mouth.

“Sorr–”

Bucky moans around his mouthful, loud enough to cut Steve off. He surfaces again, and fuck, he’s a wreck with swollen lips and drool on his chin.

Yes,” Bucky gasps before driving his mouth down Steve’s cock like he wants to choke on it.

He does, Steve realizes once what Bucky said sinks in. He wants it, wants Steve to–

He tentatively pulls on Bucky’s hair and shudders at the groan it elicits, not only because the sound vibrates up his spine. He does it again, harder, and this time, Bucky follows the pressure like a puppet on a string, letting Steve drag him up his cock.

It’s a hell of a sight, and for a moment, Steve thinks he’ll blow his load right there. He doesn’t, probably because he already came once, and fuck, Bucky licked it all up, his come from earlier, and it’s to that thought that Steve bucks his hips, shoving his cock deep into Bucky’s mouth.

Bucky makes a tight noise, and Steve freezes, worried he’s gone too far, but when Bucky open his eyes, they’re so dark, the blue only a hint around the corners. Even with his mouth stuffed with cock, Bucky’s face is a picture of pleasure.

The last of Steve’s reservations flee out the window. He’s gentle to start with, doing most of the work as he keeps Bucky in place by his hair and fucks into his mouth, taking care not to go too far. Bucky takes it well, so well, and yeah, Steve knows Bucky used to step out with guys but it’s another thing to watch him moan as he gets his face fucked and feel, intimately, the fruits of his experience.

It wakes something in him, a curl of possessive need. Bucky’s always been his in a way that doesn’t involve kissing or sex but is no less intense for it. Steve feels, sometimes, that he staked a claim on this beautiful boy on a playground when they were ten, stamped a mark on him when he helped Steve up and didn’t flinch away from his bloody knuckles.

He's never thought of them ending up like this, never even entertained the possibility of it, but now, with Bucky keening around his cock, Steve wants to have him in a way no one can ever touch.

He tightens his fist in Bucky’s hair, a perfunctory warning. Bucky’s moan is high and shocked when Steve pushes him down on his cock. He stops when he hits the back of Bucky’s throat but doesn’t pull out like he did before. Just waits, until Bucky’s choking noises ease up. Then he keeps going, pushing his cock further into Bucky’s throat, moaning at the tight, constricting heat of it. Bucky makes sweet, gutted noises but doesn’t try to get away. His hand clings to the jut of Steve’s hip, fingernails digging into skin.

He doesn’t make Bucky take him all the way. The serum worked him all over, and he’s not gonna just spring that on a guy. Bucky moans again when Steve starts to pull him off his cock, and it’s not very clear whether it’s relief or disappointment. Steve doesn’t get to find out. Bucky gasps for a couple of seconds with his mouth free, but then he’s diving down again, and Steve gets in on the program happily. He can see it, the way Bucky gives it up when Steve grips his hair hard and moves him to his will, and it’s a hell of a rush.

He loses himself to it, watching Bucky in a trance. The pink of his cockhead slipping past Bucky’s stretched, red lips. Eyes that flutter open and then shut tight. Long lashes kissing flushed skin.

Heat and suction and the sounds of Bucky’s pleasure racing down his cock.

Steve has enough sense to pull Bucky off his cock before he comes, hips jerking up as his whole body shudders through a violent climax. When Steve slumps back down, throat scratchy from a stifled shout, and opens his eyes, he’s floored by the sight of Bucky’s face poised over his hips, splattered in come.

It's everywhere, on his mouth, his cheeks, in his hair. A few drops drip down from his chin, falling on Steve’s skin.

As Steve watches, transfixed, Bucky’s tongue darts out to lick his lips clean.

Steve’s gut clenches, even his spent cock caught in a sudden flash of heat.

“Buck, Bucky, Christ, come up here, let me–”

Bucky blinks slowly at him before crawling up, limbs clumsy as he all but collapses on Steve. He’s shaking like he’s the one whose brain just spilled out his dick, and he opens his mouth for Steve’s kiss, sweetly letting him lick and bite, passive like he’ll let Steve do anything to him.

And Steve’s discovering that there are so many things he wants to do. Now that he’s got Bucky like this, his mind’s bursting with desire, and it doesn’t seem to care that it might not last, that Bucky might only be doing this because he wants to forget.

It doesn’t matter, not now. What matters is Bucky’s mouth on his, and Bucky’s cock rock-hard in his hand when he reaches down between their bodies. Bucky makes a shocked little noise at the first touch, and then it’s a torrent of moans and whimpers as Steve jacks him off rough and a little raw with only precum to wet the way. Bucky seems to like it, eyes rolling back with a needy cry when Steve tightens his grip to the point of pain. It’s a quick affair, and Steve’s brain is busy at work hoarding the little details; the things that make Bucky’s mouth fall open (fast and brutal strokes, a teasing squeeze at the base), the things that make him writhe and whine (a nail scarping the underside, a thumb pressing hard into the slit).

When Bucky comes, he sinks his teeth into Steve’s lower lip and whimpers through each shuddering pulse until he’s limp on top of Steve.

Steve licks his stinging lip and lets Bucky tuck his face into his neck. The come on his face smears along the skin there. They’re such a mess, both of them, dripping sweat and drenched in come, but damn if Steve can move.

Bucky seems to have all but passed out, and if Steve couldn’t feel him breathing, he’d be worried.

Eventually though, they do have to get up. They’ll end up glued together otherwise, and more importantly, they can’t sleep on the couch. Even the serums in their veins won’t spare them the back pain of contorting like that.

“Buck? Hey, pal, we gotta get up.”

Bucky makes a sound that serves more to show he’s awake than anything else. But when Steve slowly pushes his body upright, Bucky moves with him, and when Steve rises from the couch, Bucky lets him tug him up too.

His head is lowered, eyes hidden behind his hair.

“You alright?”

It gets him a nod, Bucky’s head still lowered. Steve slides an arm around Bucky and half-expects him to tense or pull away. Instead, he gets Bucky all but melting to his side. It makes his heart skip a beat.

Bucky lets Steve tow him along to the bathroom. Clean-up isn’t all that fun. The water’s cool and bites into Steve’s sex-flushed flesh. Bucky makes a vague sound of discomfort as Steve wipes him down but doesn’t flinch away. When Steve tips his face up to clean him there, Bucky has his eyes closed and lips half-parted, his expression serene.

It makes Steve hurt in places too deep to touch.

He gently moves the wet cloth over Bucky’s throat and cheeks, rubbing lightly where the come sticks slimily to his skin. When he’s done, he kisses him once on the mouth, chaste and lingering. Bucky smiles into it, and when Steve pulls away, Bucky’s eyes are open and heavy-lidded, the look in them one of utter fondness.

Bucky’s silent when Steve leads him to bed.

“Clothes?”

Bucky shakes his head.

“Alright, I – Buck? You’re okay?”

Bucky smiles again, and it’s haplessly sweet in a way it hasn’t been since they were clueless kids running about in Brooklyn. Steve climbs in bed, tentatively reaching for Bucky who molds himself to Steve’s body like they’ve been sweethearts for as long as they can remember.

Steve lies awake for a long time, listening to Bucky breathe.

 

-

 

In the morning, he wakes to an empty bed.

Steve’s not surprised, not really. But he is disappointed. He doesn’t bother getting mad at himself as he lies there listlessly. It’s early because running at unholy hours is a habit he resumed not too long after moving here. He prefers getting up early enough that the streets are empty and a little dark. Usually, Bucky’s still asleep when he leaves, though he always wakes when Steve leaves the bed, grumbles, and goes right back to sleep.

Steve didn’t wake when Bucky left the bed this morning, but then, he was asleep for maybe two, three hours while Bucky was out not long after they slid into bed.

He pries himself off the mattress eventually, if only on account of his aching bladder. He should run, it’ll help, but it’s hard to find the motivation for that when he just wants to piss, go back to bed, and wallow a little.

Bucky’s in the bathroom. He’s in his underwear like Steve, and it’s a familiar sight, but today, it stops him in his tracks.

He stands there like an idiot for some time. Bucky has seen him already; he’s standing in front of the mirror, and there Steve is, wide-eyed behind Bucky’s tired-looking reflection.

“Morning,” Bucky greets quietly, and the tight grip on Steve’s heart eases a little.

He steps inside, half-expecting Bucky to scurry out now that Steve’s here. He was sure, when he woke up alone, that Bucky was going to avoid him. Now, with Bucky calmly watching Steve’s reflection creep closer, that doesn’t seem likely. It still doesn’t mean Bucky doesn’t regret what happened.

“Morning, Buck,” Steve finally says, stopping just behind Bucky. There’s not enough room for them both at the sink. “You’re up early.”

“Woke up early. Couldn’t go back to sleep. Didn’t think I’d sleep at all, but – well, you helped.”

The open acknowledgment of last night floods Steve with sheer relief. He doesn’t even think about; touching Bucky is second nature again to him, and his arms move of their own volition to rise and rest on Bucky’s shoulders.

Bucky stiffens, but it’s only for a moment. He relaxes into the touch and, meeting Steve’s eyes in the mirror, leans back against his chest. The tension in Steve’s body also drips away, until it’s just the two of them standing pressed together in front of a bathroom mirror that’s seen better days.

“My pleasure,” Steve murmurs. “Quite literally as it stands.”

Bucky snorts, then looks betrayed at himself.

“Your sense of humor remains atrocious, pal.”

“C’mon, I’m hilarious.”

Bucky just shakes his head, but he’s smiling, and it’s such a stark difference from the grim expression he sported when Steve came in that he puffs up a little with pride. He nuzzles into Bucky’s hair, and there’s no mistaking it as platonic affection. Sure, the two of them are pretty handsy with each other, but there’s a difference between wandering arms or legs and fucking rubbing your nose into someone’s hair and breathing it in.

Bucky doesn’t pull away. He doesn’t tense either.

The gloom that set upon Steve when he woke flees almost entirely.

“Bucky–”

“Can you do me a favor?” Bucky says in a hurry, unwittingly cutting Steve off. “Oh, sorry, what were you gonna say?”

“Nothing important, pal.” Steve smiles, the expression hidden in Bucky’s hair. “What favor?”

“I – could you cut my hair?”

“Oh.” Steve has to swallow a couple of times, throat clicking, before he can ask, “Um, why? Thought you liked it this way.”

“I do. But if we’re going back to America – well, hair like this ain’t exactly common, is it? Gonna attract attention.”

“I – yeah, but – I don’t know, Buck. No one’s gonna look at a long-haired scruffy guy and think of Bucky Barnes. Could be useful.”

Bucky arches an eyebrow and ever so gently elbows Steve in the gut.

“I’d worry about yourself, Steve. It ain’t my face probably plastered all over the place. I’m just a dumb idiot who fell off a train. And if – if someone does recognize me, I can always claim to be a cousin. You’ve seen us Barneses. You can scrape off Becca’s hair, and she’d look just like me, with a bit of a longer face.”

Steve’s pretty sure Bucky’s underestimating his influence on the American consciousness here. But Steve’s speaking from the perspective of someone from the twenty-first century, where Captain America and the Howling Commandos were part of high school textbooks and even had the dubious honor of being the topic of several college courses. And that’s not to mention all the movies Steve never watched. Now, with the war finished but still raw – well, he doesn’t fucking know. He did his research, yes, but that was more on the practical side of things.

“Fine,” he says reluctantly in the end. “But only if you’re sure. We don’t have to stay there long.”

Bucky shoots him a strange look, piercing and questioning. But Steve doesn’t understand what he’s asking and can’t respond, and before he can prod for clarification, Bucky’s speaking.

“Relax, buddy. It’s hair, I’ll grow it back if I want to.”

Steve sighs deeply.

“Alright, you’re set on it, I get it. You want it now?”

“Sure, why wait? When are we leaving?”

“Soon. We’ll pack up, sell this place. Hop on a ship and head to the brave new world.”

“Y’know, I’d ask ‘with what money’ because we make just enough to feed our bottomless pits and pay the bills, but I’m gonna assume it’s the same secret stash you used to get us our papers and this place.”

Steve shrugs, smiling in spite of himself. The money he brought with him isn’t a secret per se, but they’ve never discussed it either. There was never the need.

“Yep. Now, go get the scissors and a towel. I got to take care of business.”

Bucky extricates himself from Steve’s hold and leaves the bathroom. Steve watches him go in the mirror, and when Bucky turns around to close the door, he catches Steve’s eyes and smiles sweetly.

Steve pisses and is halfway through brushing his teeth when Bucky returns.

“Where do you wanna do this?”

Steve waves a hand at the tub, and Bucky goes, gingerly stepping inside and perching on the edge. He drapes the towel over his shoulder. Steve finishes his brushing and goes to stand behind him, taking the scissors Bucky quietly hands over.

“How short do you want it?”

“Short. The old length, I guess. Maybe a bit longer? I trust you not to make me look like a fool.”

“Hate to tell you, pal, but you don’t need help with that.”

“Fuck you, Steven.”

Steve grins, his amusement lasting until the first strand of dark brown hair falls to the floor.

He used to imagine this. Between losing Bucky after finding him and trying to find him again. He would think, on sleepless nights in motel rooms while Sam slept unaware beside him, of Bucky’s long, messy hair and the way it got in his face when they fought.

Steve’s feet are covered in hair in record time. Under his tender ministrations, the Bucky of now is silent and still but not tense. He doesn’t flinch from the sound of scissors.

The Bucky of the future-past, the one Steve pulled out of a sunken helicopter but never kissed, couldn’t stand scissors. But Steve didn’t know that, not during those long months chasing him across Europe and Asia, and he used to think of tugging at those long strands and teasing. Of trimming the end so they wouldn’t get in Bucky’s eyes like that.

Bucky turned out to hate scissors and love his hair. It looked beautiful, it did, but Steve never told him that, did he?

He stops. Bucky’s hair barely covers his nape now. Steve’s face is wet.

“Time for the front,” Bucky says, maneuvering himself over the side of the tub without standing. He doesn’t look up until he’s got both feet on the floor, and when he does, his eyes widen in something like horror. “I – Steve? Steve, what’s wrong?”

Steve shakes his head and sucks in a wet breath. He wipes his face on his shoulder, but it doesn’t do much when it’s just skin.

“Nothing. It’s nothing, Buck.”

“Doesn’t look like nothing.”

Steve just shrugs and quietly sets to cutting the rest of Bucky’s hair. He doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t even know why he’s crying, why his heart feels like it’s breaking.

He doesn’t remember crying this much in that decade he spent in the future. He gets weepy real easy these days. It’s probably a good thing. Sam would have so much to say about repression and release.

There’s a fresh layer of tears down his cheeks by the time he’s done with Bucky’s hair. It doesn’t look like a disaster. And Bucky’s real handsome; he could pull off whatever mess Steve makes.

Steve steps back, and Bucky rises. He’s very close very suddenly, and Steve’s frozen in place, uncertain whether he wants to flee or slump against him.

Bucky makes the decision for him.

“Come here,” he says, tugging Steve close. The hug’s tight to the point of painful and exactly what Steve needs. “God, you’re a mess.”

Steve chuckles wetly into Bucky’s neck. It’s true, but Bucky doesn’t know the half of it. Steve’s scared to tell him and doesn’t think he can get the words out if he tries. Wouldn’t know where to start. Been five years, and he hasn’t figured it out either.

He raises his head from the protective hollow of Bucky’s throat and says, “Can I kiss you?”

Bucky makes a surprised noise. His eyes are wide, and, as Steve watches, a pink flush creeps up his cheeks.

“I – only if you – I thought–”

“Yes,” Bucky rasps, and he doesn’t wait for Steve, just presses their mouths together, rough and clumsy until it turns into panting mouths and slick tongues.

It’s a messy affair. There’s hair all over Bucky, and they both get it in uncomfortable places, but Bucky was right the night before. It’s good for forgetting, Bucky’s yielding skin a sweeter oblivion than any drink.

Chapter Text

They’ve been on American soil for barely a week when Steve wakes one morning to an empty bed and a bad feeling crowding up his throat.

He can hear footsteps elsewhere in the apartment. It’s a not a big place, and with the serum-enhanced hearing they both have – though Bucky doesn’t like to talk about it – it’s all but impossible not to be aware of each other’s every movement. It doesn’t help that neither of them is employed yet and are dealing with a case of completely justified paranoia about venturing out much. They’re cooped up inside and deal with it about as gracefully as expected.

They’ve argued about more stupid shit in the last five days than they have in the whole five years spent at Bern.

They fuck a lot too.

Steve’s body is pleasantly relaxed from last night’s bout of lazy rutting even as his mind and heart twist themselves into knots.

He lurches off the bed and creeps out of the room, trying in vain to be subtle. Bucky’s pacing back and forth in the living room, his feet doing a number on the thin, worn rug. Beside the front door, leaning against the wall, there’s a suitcase. Bucky’s dressed in some of his best clothes, hair coiffed more carefully that he’s ever bothered with for Steve.

“You’re leaving.”

It takes Steve a second to realize that he spoke, that his lips formed those words.

Bucky stops pacing but doesn’t look surprised. The look he shoots Steve is pained but resolute.

“Yeah. To Brooklyn.”

“Your family,” Steve says numbly.

Bucky’s nod is jerky, his expression one of thinly suppressed panic. Steve feels it in his own chest, something great and terrible rising up his windpipe, threatening to choke him.

“It’s dangerous,” he blurts out.

Bucky makes a low, frustrated noise and stalks forward a few steps, though he doesn’t get up in Steve’s space the way he’s taken to ever since the incident with the alcohol. Because Bucky knows as well as Steve does that the closer they get, the more likely it is that their argument will derail into sex.

Steve readily admits to starting a few for that exact purpose, and he knows Bucky has done the same. He’s ravenous for Bucky, with an intensity that’s almost terrifying, and the only solace is that Bucky’s caught in this inexorable orbit the same way Steve is.

At least, he was. But he’s leaving now.

“I know,” Bucky finally says. “The hell are we supposed to do though? Hide in here forever? I’ll go crazy, Steve. I already am.”

“Buck,” Steve sighs, not sure what to do. It’s true, what Bucky’s saying. “It’s just – Brooklyn knows us. Captain America and Sergeant Barnes. It’s our home. It’s too much of a risk.”

“We’ve walked in and out of burning Hydra bases, Steve.” Bucky’s tone is sharp, a warning underlying the words. “I think I can handle fucking Brooklyn.”

Steve flounders against the rising tide of helpless panic. He can’t help moving forward and is pathetically grateful when Bucky leans into his arms rather than shy away.

“Does it have to be now?” Steve whispers, half hiding his face in Bucky’s hair. “We just got here.”

“Should’ve thought of that when you got us a place in fuckin’ Jersey,” Bucky snarks, though there’s nothing joking about the way his nails dig into Steve’s bare back.

“I’m sorry.”

“For fuck’s sake – come on, Steve, I’ll come back. I just need to see my family, let them know I’m alive.”

“You’ll come back?” Steve asks, shocked out of running desperate arguments through his head.

Bucky pulls back and blinks up at him.

“Yeah, ‘course I’ll–” He huffs, then smiles, fond and pained. “I’ll come back. I’m not leaving you, Steve. I won’t, not until you tell me to.”

“You know I’ll never,” Steve says, distant but honest. He’s considering the rest of what Bucky said because his head’s too sharp for his own good and doesn’t care for how exhausted he gets in a way he can’t even quantify.

Bucky presses a kiss to the hollow of Steve’s throat, but his smile vanishes when Steve speaks.

“Buck, you know you can’t tell them about how you survived. About me. We’re dead, as far as this country is concerned. And it has to remain that way.”

“They can keep a secret, Steve.”

“Can they?”

Steve,” Bucky snaps, pushing away from him. “This is my family. You know them.”

“I knew them almost two decades ago,” Steve says, and he’s calm but there’s a finality to his voice that unsettles even him. He thinks about the Barnes family. George, Winnifred, and Rebecca are faces he can recall perfectly, but the feelings attached to them have long since faded. He’s fond of them, in that nostalgic way he’s been ever since he woke up in the ice, but he wasn’t close enough to them for any real affection to linger.

Bucky’s face is pale now, his mouth tight with anger.

“Maybe they’re relics of the past to you,” he says furiously, “but they’re my parents. My sister. I’m a fucking state away from them, Steve. I’m going. You’re not going to fucking stop me.”

Steve takes an unsteady step back.

“Of course I’m not,” he says numbly. “That’s not – okay, maybe it was but – it’s your life. Your choice. I won’t stop you.”

Bucky scowls at him, still visibly braced for a fight. Steve half-wants to give him one, but this isn’t them throwing petty insults at each other about burned breakfast or the color of the walls.

No matter which world, Steve will never forget that Bucky has had his choices taken away from him too many times in god knows how many lives. What’s the point of Steve saving him just to control him?

It’s selfish anyway. Steve’s less afraid of Bucky blowing their paper-thin cover than he is about being left here alone. He doesn’t know what he’ll do without Bucky, doesn’t know if he wants to find out, but he has to, doesn’t he?

Maybe some of it shows on his face. Maybe he just makes a pitiful enough sight, standing there doing nothing but stare at Bucky’s scowling face. Either way, Bucky deflates, slowly and cautiously.

“Just like that?”

“Yeah,” Steve says. He even scrounges up a weak smile. “I’m not your keeper, Bucky.”

Something flashes in Bucky’s expression at that, but it’s gone too fast for Steve to catch.

“Guess you really did learn to pick your battles.”

“Had to, didn’t I, without you to have my six and do damage control after I open my big fat mouth?”

Bucky snorts, but he doesn’t seem all that amused. He does come closer to Steve though, hesitating for a moment with only a couple of feet between them before stepping forward firmly into Steve’s grateful arms.

Steve holds him gently, wanting to cling and never let go but knowing that’s the surest way to drive Bucky away.

“Be careful,” he says, and then, because he can’t help himself, adds, “Promise you’ll come back.”

Bucky’s blue eyes crinkle up at him.

“I’ll come back. I’ll always come back.” The kiss he presses to Steve’s mouth is hard and on the edge of painful. “Death couldn’t keep me from you, Steve. Fuckin’ New Jersey won’t.”

Steve laughs, though it’s not funny, not really.

“You didn’t die, Buck.”

“Feels like it sometimes,” Bucky says quietly, lips moving against Steve’s jaw. “It’s not so bad, this second life. More than I dared to dream of most of the time.”

“Bucky…”

Steve kisses him because he doesn’t know what to say. Bucky’s the one who deepens it, moaning into Steve’s mouth with open lips, an invitation etched in the shape of them. Steve licks into him, savoring the taste, and he doesn’t think of how he doesn’t know when he’ll get to do this again. Bucky might stay with his family for weeks, months–

“Stop thinking,” Bucky orders, nipping at Steve’s lip. “Kiss me goodbye properly, won’t you?”

“This isn’t goodbye,” Steve says, but he does as asked.

Bucky ends up pressed to the front door, their bodies mere inches away from his suitcase while Steve tries to memorize that taste and heat of Bucky’s mouth, the way he curls the tip of his tongue, how he shivers with his whole body when Steve sinks his teeth into his lower lip.

When they manage to break apart, Bucky’s flushed and bright-eyed, just a few bruises short of well-fucked.

“I’ll come back,” he says, and it’s not that Steve doesn’t believe him, it just hurts anyway.

Codependency is bad – it’s Sam’s voice rings that in his head, but the thought is all Steve. And he knows it’s true, but it’s still hard to watch Bucky walk away and not think of a thousand-foot fall and a face under frosted glass and ashes piled on blood-stained grass.

 

-

 

In the end, Steve can either mope around languishing in how empty the apartment feels without Bucky or he can do what he actually came here to do. He’s not exactly fond of New Jersey either, but there are things – and people – here that he needs.

Camp Lehigh. Peggy Carter. S.H.I.E.L.D.

And Peggy’s home, which Steve takes to stalking.

There’s really no other word for it, benign intentions or not. Back when he was concocting his harebrained plan, Steve kind of accepted that you couldn’t really monitor your former almost-girlfriend’s house without it coming off as creepy. It’s part of why he was hesitant to start until Bucky’s absence kicked his ass into gear. The other part is that it’s one thing to know, down to the extended family tree, that Peggy went on to change the world while also building herself a loving family, but it’s another thing entirely to see her move on. A part of Steve will always be in love with her because he feels that kind of thing too rarely to ever really let go.

But mostly, he just loves her the way he loves Natasha and Tony and Sam and – and Bucky; everyone he left behind, everyone out of his reach. He loves them with wistful loyalty and a sharp awareness of his own failures.

Catching sight of her rouses the oddest blend of memories, past and future all swirling through his head. She’s closer in appearance to the woman he knew in the war than the one he met when he came out of the ice. She’s younger than that hurried glimpse he caught during that first trip to the 1970s. Her hair’s still dark, her face unlined, her lipstick still that eye-catching red. She’s easily the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen.

She shares the house with another woman and a man, both of whom Steve recognizes from the Carters’ family albums. Daniel Sousa-Carter was dead for almost a decade by the time Steve summoned the nerve to go meet Peggy in her facility. Angie Martinelli survived till 2007. Peggy, when she remembered enough, used to say that they both always said she’d outlive them both, and she always sounded so wistful.

Steve usually sees them one at a time, and he’s glad for it because he would feel like even more of a creep if he caught them together. He doesn’t quite avoid it, and there’s a quiet pang in his chest, when he sees Peggy kiss Sousa or share brief, longing glances with Martinelli, for that dance he never had.

Mostly though, he’s glad. Whatever ripples he caused with his one-way trip to the past, it hasn’t taken Peggy’s family from her.

He watches the house for nine days. It’s dangerous, spying on spies when Steve’s always been more of a soldier, but he did pick up a few tricks from Nat and they help. He learns the trio’s routines, or an approximation of them with all three having somewhat erratic schedules. It’s the best he can do because doing this for much longer would be pushing it, and Steve would rather not end up on the wrong side of Peggy’s gun.

He's fairly sure it will happen anyway when he shows himself to her, and that’s going to tricky enough without the stalking to explain.

The whole time, there’s no sign of Bucky, and Steve has never missed cellphones more in his entire fucking life.

When the ninth day ends with a narrow escape from Peggy’s sharp eyes and Steve coming back to an empty house, he decides to stop dithering. It’s tempting, if only because he tries to imagine actually facing Peggy and finds that he can’t.

Where would he even start?

But he’s done things far more dangerous, and arguably more foolish, with considerably less planning, and they’ve turned out well so far. It’s probably not a coincidence that most of them involved Bucky in some form or the other, but Steve has more or less accepted that he’s more heart than head when it comes to Bucky. It’s not a bad thing. It can’t be.

He barely sleeps the whole night. The hour or two he manages is filled with strange, unsettling dreams that slip out of his mind even before he wakes.

It’s half-relieving and half-terrifying to drag himself out of bed and dress in his best clothes, psyching himself up to walk up to Peggy’s front door and knock instead of climbing trees or rolling around strangers’ rooftops.

He’s in the kitchen, fixing himself a hasty breakfast, when there’s a knock on the door.

Steve freezes. He’s sure, maybe irrationally, that it’s Peggy. Or maybe it’s not irrational. She could have caught him. He tried to careful and keep out of sight, but she’s one of the best spies of the century. And he’s pretty sure she knew something was amiss.

The knock sounds again.

Steve abandons his breakfast and marches across the room like a soldier.

But when he opens the door, it’s Bucky on the other side, holding his suitcase and looking somewhat miserable.

“Buck?”

“Hey,” Bucky greets gruffly, pushing past Steve.

Steve closes and locks the door dazedly, and by the time he turns around, Bucky has already vanished into the bedroom. He follows.

Bucky’s set the suitcase aside and is starting to strip. Steve watches as his shirt falls to the floor, leaving Bucky in dark slacks and a white undershirt. The view’s distracting and doesn’t help Steve find the words he’s searching for.

In the end, he settles for softly asking, “How was it?”

“Good,” Bucky lies like a lying liar. “Becca’s grown up so much. I mean, she was 25 when I left for war, but sweet shit, she’s past thirty now. And a mother. I have a niece, can you believe that?”

“Yeah?” Steve asks neutrally, like he didn’t once spend a solid five hours debating whether or not to meet Mildred Barnes. She was in her 50s then, and Becca was long dead. He decided not to, in the end. “Cute kid?”

“Yeah. Very cute kid.”

“She like her Uncle Buck?”

Bucky’s always been good with kids. He liked them too, better than Steve did, though he wasn’t very sure whether he wanted any of his own either. All the little Barnes cousins loved him though.

Bucky doesn’t answer immediately. He doesn’t turn around either, instead working his pants off. Steve’s half-sure that Bucky knows the sight of him in just his underthings will short-circuit Steve’s brain and stall this line of questioning.

And it does, to an extent. It just happens that Steve’s good at multitasking.

He steps into the room, closing the door behind him and leaning against it. He does wonder whether he shouldn’t push. But Bucky came in here, into the room they share rather than the smaller one opposite in which they’ve laid a mattress to keep up appearances but mostly uses as a store room slash brooding space. If Bucky wanted to avoid Steve and whatever he may ask, he’d have gone there and sent a clear enough message.

“Bucky?” Steve prompts gently.

Bucky heaves a sigh. He stands there, half-dressed with his back to Steve, and says, “I didn’t meet her. My niece. Didn’t meet any of them. Just watched from a distance. Bother-in-law’s name’s James too, what the hell. Becca seems to love the guy, but you know no one’s gonna be good enough for her.”

Steve listens and waits a breath after Bucky stops talking. He thinks of everything Bucky carefully didn’t say.

“And your parents?” is all he asks.

“Didn’t meet them either,” Bucky chirps, falsely bright.

For several long moments, Steve doesn’t quite know what to say. He walks towards Bucky, looking for any sign that the proximity would be unwelcome. But Bucky just stands there, and when Steve tentatively places his hands on his shoulders, he finds them rigid with tension.

“Hey,” Steve murmurs. “This okay?”

Bucky hums an affirmative. He’s unusually stiff in Steve’s arms when he hugs him from behind. Steve holds him loosely, prepared to back away if needed, but Bucky’s arm comes to rest over Steve’s forearms in a gentle hold.

“What happened, sweetheart?”

“I saw them,” Bucky says, even the fake levity gone from his voice. He just sounds blank. “I watched my parents. First day, I couldn’t even approach them. Just watched. Next day was Sunday. Becca came over. And in the evening, guess where they went, Steve?”

Steve keeps his mouth shut.

“My grave,” Bucky finishes softly.

“I’m so sorry.” Steve holds him tighter, and Bucky grips his hand back just as hard. “I’m sorry you had to see that.”

“I kept thinking that if it weren’t for you, I would be dead, more or less. Frozen like a cut of meat. And they’d never know, ma or dad or Becca. They’d think I was dead, and they’d be more right than wrong.”

“Bucky–”

“But they’re okay.”

“What?”

“My parents. They’re okay. Left flowers there and went to church, went home. It’s been years. They’ve moved on.”

Bucky, they’re your family. They won’t just move on.”

Bucky shrugs. Steve feels the motion in his own body.

“I know, but – they’ve got a good thing going now. Becca’s married with a kid, she and her guy’s both got decent jobs. It’s a good life. Why would I waltz back into their lives, huh? Their son and brother back from the war, except he’s legally dead and spouting a story no sane person would ever believe. You were right. They’ll think I’m fucking crazy.”

“I did not say that,” Steve says, more sharply than he intended.

“Whatever. Still true. They’re better off without me.”

Steve tries to turn Bucky around, but he plants his feet and goes as stiff as a log. Steve gives up but lets Bucky go too, moving to stand in front of him instead. Bucky’s mouth twists in displeasure as he glares at a spot over Steve’s shoulder.

His eyes are red-rimmed, the tear tracks still fresh.

Steve can’t help but press a soft kiss to one, wet cheek. Bucky makes a gutted noise.

“I don’t think that’s true,” Steve says carefully. Bucky still doesn’t meet his eyes. “And you don’t need to tell them what happened if you’d rather not. Lie, say it’s classified, anything. Maybe it will cause questions later, but if you show up there, Buck, you think Winnie’s gonna care about anything except that you’re alive?”

Bucky shakes his head.

“I don’t know. I really don’t. Spent the whole week thinking in circles and got nowhere. Kept watching them like a creep and wanted so bad to just go to them – but I couldn’t. Any time I even thought of it, I fucking froze. Never pegged myself for a coward, but–”

“No.” Steve covers Bucky’s mouth with his hand and boldly meets the eyes glaring at him. “You ain’t no coward, Buck, don’t you dare.”

Bucky wrenches Steve’s hand away, teeth bared in a snarl.

“Fuck you, what would you know?”

“I know you,” Steve damn near growls. “I’ve known you all my fucking life.”

“Yeah,” Bucky huffs, mouth twisting bitterly. “Knew me so well you decided to ditch me. Him, whichever. Tells me enough.”

Steve freezes. He stumbles back a step, but locks his knees together, keeps them from buckling. He looks at the floor, can’t bear to look at Bucky, and a distant part of his mind chimes that it’s ironic how he looked Tony in the eye and admitted he knew who killed his mother, looked fucking Thanos in the eye as he stood alone before the Mad Titan’s entire army, but faced with Bucky Barnes throwing out the truth as an accusation, Steve can’t even look at his feet.

“Fuck,” he hears Bucky say.

There’s a hand on his face, and Steve lets it tilt his head up but squeezes his eyes shut. Bucky’s forehead presses against his, and his breath falls warm on Steve’s mouth.

“I’m sorry,” Bucky says. “Stevie, I’m sorry, that was out of line. I didn’t mean that, I swear. I was just pissed and spewing shit. You didn’t–”

“I did though,” Steve cuts in. “I did. But, Buck, you gotta know. That wasn’t about you. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about you, I just couldn’t–”

He stops, breath hitching.

“It’s okay,” Bucky’s breathing, a low litany. “It’s okay, it’s okay. I know. I’m sorry. I know.”

“I just couldn’t stay,” Steve finishes. “I loved him, I did. I do.”

“I know, sweetheart.” Bucky kisses him, on his mouth, his cheeks, his eyes. “I’m sorry, that was cruel of me.”

Steve just shakes his head.

“It’s true,” he insists. He opens his eyes and tries for a smile. “It’s also true you’re not a coward.”

Bucky laughs like it’s been torn out of him, not an ounce of humor in the sound.

“No, just an asshole,” he says, kissing Steve when he shakes his head. “Doesn’t matter. I still didn’t go and talk to them. Let them know I was alive.”

“Maybe you weren’t ready.”

“It’s been five years. How long will it take?”

It’s Steve’s turn to laugh. The sound feels like shattered glass crawling up his throat.

“I dunno, Buck, I’m not really the best person to ask, am I?” Steve presses his lips to the spot between Bucky’s eyes and says, “But that friend of mine, I think he’d say you’re ready when you’re ready.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Sounds too easy.”

“Yes, because everything about this is easy.”

“Shut up, Steven.” Suddenly, Bucky sounds very tired. He pulls back – or tries. Steve finds himself clinging to him. “Hey there. You miss me?”

“Terribly,” Steve says, entirely honest. “Didn’t miss you snoring at night but well, turns out I can’t sleep without it now.”

Bucky’s eyes turn suspiciously bright but his voice is steady when he says, “Oh, fuck you. I don’t snore.”

“Sure, Buck.”

“I missed you too,” Bucky adds in a rush.

Steve summons a watery grin and is stupidly grateful when Bucky kisses it off his mouth. It’s nice to lose himself in that for some time, to force his brain silent and just bask in the dearly missed taste of Bucky’s mouth.

“I’m sorry,” Bucky whispers, prying his mouth away.

“Me too,” Steve says.

“The hell you sorry for?”

“That you couldn’t talk to them. Promise me you’ll go back one day?”

“Steve, it’s not that easy.”

“I wouldn’t ask if I thought you really didn’t want to. But you do, Buck. I can see it.”

“’Course I do, it’s just – fuck, I dunno, Steve.”

“Doesn’t have to be now. This week or this month. But one day. Promise, please, Buck?”

Bucky purses his lips and gives Steve an unimpressed look, and that alone says that he’ll cave.

“You don’t play fair. Jesus. Fine. I promise. You gonna take your own advice?”

“Most of the people I’d like to meet haven’t even been born yet.”

“You know that’s not what I meant.”

Steve looks away but meets Bucky’s eyes eventually.

“I know. I will.”

“Promise,” Bucky demands, something about the tone reminding Steve of twelve-year-old Bucky Barnes with his two missing teeth and endearingly imperious way of talking.

“I promise, Buck.”

Bucky nods decisively once, then all but throws himself into a kiss.

Steve grunts at the force, their teeth clacking painfully together, but opens up for Bucky. He’s been expecting this since Bucky stalked into the apartment. And maybe it’s not the best idea to tie sex into anger and misery, but it’s not angry or miserable, the act of it. It’s freeing, everything else swallowed in the pleasure.

They end up in bed, Bucky in Steve’s lap, tugging at his clothes but not breaking the kiss long enough to get them off. Steve’s the one who has to push him off in the end, needing Bucky’s touch on his skin too much to remain dressed.

Bucky lies on his side and pouts prettily up at Steve as he strips and tries not to brain himself on the bedframe as he does.

“You’re a goddamn menace, Barnes,” he growls, climbing over Bucky and pinning him down.

“You complainin’?”

Steve’s got response to that that will preserve his dignity so he just sets about kissing Bucky until neither of them can breathe.

They rut together, bodies slotting into each other naturally after this brief but enthusiastic period of practice. Bucky’s body feels more familiar to him than his own, its dips and curves, bones and scars all etched into Steve’s fingertips. He could spend forever learning and relearning it all the same, finding new ways to make Bucky gasp and arch his back and whisper Steve’s name like a prayer.

“What do you want?” Steve asks, panting open-mouthed against Bucky’s neck.

Bucky’s throat moves as he swallows, Adam’s apple bobbing. Steve sets his teeth to it, sucking a mark there, and Bucky’s fingers tighten in his hair, the sting on his scalp only pleasant. When Steve pulls back, there’s a nice patch of red on Bucky’s neck, sure to be a hell of a bruise.

“Fucking animal,” Bucky gasps, and it’s hardly an effective complaint with the way he’s grinning.

“You complianin’? Steve asks anyway, just to be a shit.

Bucky swats at his chest, pinching a nipple and smiling toothily when Steve grinds his hips down. He sobers the next second, expression turning intent and oddly serious.

“You asked what I want.”

“I did,” Steve says slowly. “What is it?”

Bucky swallows again, the same motion that distracted Steve in the first place, but this time, he keeps himself from acting on impulse.

“What if I want you inside me?” Bucky asks quietly.

Steve swears he sees white.

“Yes,” he rasps, almost tripping over his tongue. “Yes, fuck, please.”

It’s ridiculous how Bucky looks relieved, like Steve was ever going to say no.

“You didn’t really think I’d say no!”

Bucky scowls, and Steve can recognize the embarrassed flush on his face.

“Jee, I don’t know, Steve, maybe you just don’t like sticking your dick in an asshole.”

“Can’t talk about just any asshole, but I’d definitely stick it in you.”

He deserves to get kneed for that, and he does, though Bucky goes for his stomach and not his groin. He does love Steve after all.

“Seriously though, Buck. I can say from experience that I would, indeed, enjoy sticking my dick in an asshole.”

Bucky laughs through his radiant blush.

“And I can say from experience that I would enjoy having a dick up my asshole. Isn’t that fortunate?”

“Very,” Steve says, humor draining out of him to be replaced by sheer, visceral hunger. “Vaseline?”

Bucky silently reaches into that bit of space between the mattress and headboard to pull out a small tin of the stuff. Steve’s impressed and definitely pleased, but he also can’t help raising an eyebrow.

“I love your optimism.”

“Maybe I just wanted to jerk myself off without chafing, Steve.”

“I jerk you off more than you do,” Steve points out. “And we use spit like goddamn heathens.”

Bucky grumbles but doesn’t actually say anything, just topples Steve off him so he can turn over on his stomach and stick his ass up. As far as attempts to derail Steve’s head goes, it’s effective as all hell.

This man is gorgeous.

“Prettiest thing I’ve ever seen, Buck,” Steve whispers reverently. He settles behind Bucky and smooths his hand over his ass. “Jesus Christ, look at you.”

Bucky muffles a noise into his pillow and wriggles his ass, an impatient command. Then suddenly, he raises his head and looks over his shoulder, eyes dark and half-lidded. The sight alone gets Steve’s dick pearling at the tip.

“I can do it if you can’t,” Bucky says. “The stretching, I mean.”

Steve answers by spreading Bucky’s cheek with both hands while looking him right in the eye. It’s a miracle of a sight, the red creeping down Bucky’s whole neck while his eyes grow wide and dazed.

“I can,” Steve states softly.

And he does.

Bucky’s a delight to work open, hot and tight and so fucking responsive, grunting and mewling and pushing back into Steve’s fingers like he’ll die without more in him. Steve draws it out just so he can watch the tight pink stretch of Bucky’s hole around his fingers and hear the rising desperation in his voice as Steve screws in deep and spreads him wide, all without giving him what he’s so prettily gagging for.

He holds out until Bucky starts begging, and then he folds like a cheap, wet tissue.

“Ssh, hush, baby, I know, I’ll give it to you. Turn around, can you do that? I want to see you, come on.”

Bucky rolls over, flushed down to his chest which heaves with every breath. But even the extent of his arousal doesn’t distract Steve from the half-pained, half-relieved groan Bucky makes once he’s on his back or how his right hand twitches towards his left shoulder before curling into a fist.

Steve says nothing for a moment because Bucky’s still sensitive in unpredictable ways about his left arm.

“This position easier?” he asks a beat later, rubbing his hand up and down Bucky’s thigh the way he likes.

Bucky huffs a breath and says, “Was easier to get on all fours with two hands.”

Steve doesn’t quite know what to say to that. He settles for, “Sit back and let me do the work then. You like it when I take control.”

“Hey!” Bucky protests, but the bristling is in play, not real. Steve relaxes a little. “That’s a fucking secret, Steve.”

“My lips are sealed,” Steve promises, worming his way between Bucky’s legs. “Really though. Just spread your legs and let me take care of you, sweetheart. I’ll fuck you good, I promise.”

“Jesus wept,” Bucky gasps, whole body shuddering.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, yes, please, give it to me.”

Steve almost blows it then and there, watching Bucky draw his legs up and fold his arm over them, exposing his slick, open hole for Steve. He has to grab his dick and squeeze tight, unable to look away but refusing to get inside Bucky just to go off like a teenager.

“Come on,” Bucky whines. “Steve, baby, please.”

“Yes, fuck, yes, Bucky–”

He chokes off as he breaches Bucky, breath punched out of his lungs by the clenching heat of him. Bucky’s no better, mouth open soundlessly and eyes wide, staring unseeingly at Steve as he starts to press in.

He stops halfway, concerned. Bucky’s cock is still hard, but he’s uncharacteristically quiet, and it doesn’t matter how badly Steve wants to fuck into him until he loses his mind, he needs to make sure Bucky’s okay first.

“Bucky,” he manages to gasp. “Talk to me. You okay?”

Bucky sucks in a sharp breath.

“Yes, yes, fuck. Fuck. That thing you’re packing, Steve.”

“Too much?”

“It’s perfe – ah!” Bucky trails off into a moan when Steve pushes in another inch. “Yes, yes, yes, just like that, give it to me, come on, ohmygod.”

Steve stays still, buried to the hilt inside Bucky and bowed over him. It’s almost too much, how Bucky keeps tightening around him, how he makes those faint, ragged noises like he just can’t hold them in. He doesn’t even mean to start moving, just does, starting a deep, dirty grind that makes Bucky’s body ripple in reaction.

“Harder,” he demands, winding his legs around Steve’s waist. “Give it to me, I can take it.”

Steve slows down, dragging his cock half out of Bucky’s ass and sliding in just as slow until their hips are pressed flush. It gets Bucky panting and bug-eyed. Steve keeps at it, ignoring the way the coiling heat in his gut tells him to just let loose and take. This is better, Bucky gasping for breath and whining with every stroke, nails raking lines of fire down Steve’s chest.

“Bastard,” Bucky says when he catches his breath. “Fuck, god, Steve, Steve!”

“I’m here,” Steve babbles nonsensically, mesmerized by Bucky’s face and melting in his body.

“Please,” Bucky begs, and fuck but Steve’s weak to that. “Baby, baby, please, I need it, please.”

Steve kisses him, hard and sloppy, and pulls back. He shifts Bucky’s legs to his shoulder, moaning at Bucky’s answering groan, and slides his dick out of him until it’s just the head keeping Bucky open.

He slams back in, and Bucky screams.

The sound jolts through Steve, and he does it again – and again and again – and Bucky reacts like a dream, going wild around Steve’s cock, writhing and whining and begging between gutted cries and breathless gasps of Steve’s name. It’s a fast, furious road to the edge, and Steve plummets down the middle of it, dragging Bucky alongside with a cock ramming into his ass and a hand on his flushed, straining dick.

Steve comes first, thrusting deep inside Bucky and spilling into the welcoming clench of him. He strokes Bucky through it, clumsy and on the side of too rough, and all it takes is a couple of pulls for Bucky’s whole body to lock up tight and give it up.

Steve whimpers when Bucky’s ass milks his spent dick, carefully pulling out. They both hiss when he slides out, and Steve can’t help the way his face heats as he watches Bucky’s gaping hole leak his come.

“God, Buck,” he sighs, maneuvering himself from under Bucky’s shaking legs and settling them down gently before collapsing beside him.

Bucky, down to maybe two brain cells after orgasm and so fucking sweet about it, turns into Steve’s body and clings to him. Steve clings back happily, burying his face in Bucky’s hair and breathing in the sweat of him.

 

-

 

Later, once they’ve cleaned up – and got distracted enough cleaning up to require more cleaning up – and split the cold breakfast Steve made, they go back to bed.

Bucky’s the one who suggests it, saying he didn’t sleep much the last week either, and Steve, who abandoned all plans of going to see Peggy today when he opened the front door, acquiesces gratefully.

“So what did you do all week?” Bucky asks drowsily, the consonants fuzzy at the edges.

Steve thinks about the answer and snorts.

“Same thing you did, funnily enough.”

“Eh?”

“Stalking.”

“I didn’ stalk my parents, I observed them.”

“Sure, and I was observing–” Steve’s too comfortable to raise his hands for air quotes, but his tone conveys it enough– “Peggy.”

“Peggy?”

Bucky suddenly sounds more awake.

“Yes,” Steve says cautiously, surprised at himself for it. “You know we came here because Peggy and S.H.I.E.L.D are here. Was planning on going today, but well. Tomorrow it is.”

“Tomorrow,” Bucky echoes blankly. “Yeah. Sure.”

Bucky’s turned away from him, his back pressed to Steve’s chest. Now though, he curls into himself, rejecting Steve’s touch without uttering even a single word.

“Buck–”

“Sounds like you’ve got a long day tomorrow,” Bucky says. He doesn’t sound sleepy at all anymore. “Get some sleep.”

Steve finds his tongue glued to his mouth as Bucky’s breathing goes deep and even, too suddenly for it to be genuine. The message it sends is clear. And Steve knows he fucked up, he just doesn’t know how.

He does fall asleep, sooner than he expected, drifting off watching the slow rise and fall of Bucky’s back. But it’s restless, his dreams haunted by snow and ash.

Chapter Text

Peggy doesn’t actually shoot him, but it’s a close call.

She’s alone in the house when Steve goes knocking on her front door, and he doesn’t know how she knows, but she opens the door with a painted smile and a gun held at hip-level, well out of the view of passersby and fully capable of blowing Steve’s dick off.

On one hand, he expected something like this, but on the other, he still feels mortal fear. He also quietly wonders if his dick will grow back because his jacked-up brain likes to torture him severely with its capacity for multiple strains of thought.

“Pegs,” Steve says, forcibly suppressing the shit in his head. “It’s me.”

Her bland smile thins.

“Do come in.”

The gun doesn’t waver as she backs off, eyes sharp on Steve. He slowly closes the door behind him and stands there, arms at his sides and held a few inches away from his torso, projecting harmlessness as much as he’s able when his whole body is itself a weapon.

“Now,” Peggy says, lips dropping their curve, eyes turning cold, “who the bloody hell are you?”

Steve can’t help the rush of affection at hearing her crisp British accent. It’s been years, even counting Peggy of the future-past who didn’t quite sound like the woman Steve knew in the war, age and a full life leaving everything except her bright soul unchanged.

“Steven Grant Rogers,” he says. “Peggy, it really is me.”

Anger makes her eyes flash.

“Steve Rogers is dead.”

“He’s not. I’m not.” Steve can’t tell her he’s not her Steve, not when that would only complicate an already fucked up situation. “I know this isn’t Saturday at the Stork club, but it was the best I could do.”

The bullet lodges itself in the wall by the door.

 

-

 

She doesn’t cry, doesn’t shake, doesn’t do anything but stare at Steve with thin lips and bright eyes as he talks and talks and talks some more, scared to stop for fear that he’ll be faced with disbelief or something worse. He can take a bullet or two, but people have always been harder to face, at least when he loved them.

Not that’s it ever stopped him. Tony comes to mind, the rage and the terror on his face when Steve slammed the shield down on his armored chest.

But he runs out of words eventually. He tells her almost everything about how he got here. The ice, the future, the stones, the time travel. Bucky. He skirts over the version of himself still encased in ice, and the older version of her that he met in 2012.

The intel – Hydra, Zola, the Red Room, the Tesseract – he saves for later.

“You have to understand,” she says once he’s done, “how utterly ridiculous this sounds.”

“I do.” He laughs, but it’s hard to imbue it with any real humor. “I really fucking do.”

“So ridiculous,” Peggy continues as if she never heard him, “that no self-respecting spy would conjure up anything of the sort.”

Steve blinks.

“Uh.”

She picks up the gun, which was on her lap in easy reach, and pretends that she doesn’t notice Steve tensing as she puts it aside. She turns back to him, and for a long moment, she just stares.

Steve fights the urge to drag a finger through his beard. It’s not as long as it was during his Nomad days, and he tries his best to groom it. Bucky helps, for all that he complains about how it rubs against his skin when they kiss or do – other things. Steve’s got a feeling Bucky secretly likes the sensation, and that might be part of why he keeps it, but it’s really mostly for the subterfuge.

He doesn’t look like Captain America with a scraggly beard, and it helped even in that future where the international public knew the contours of his face all too well.

He tries to distract himself, but it’s hard to stay calm under Peggy’s piercing scrutiny. It lasts a long time, and when she finally speaks, her voice wavers.

“It really is you.”

Steve nods.

She closes her eyes. Steve’s heart clenches and eyes burn as her cheeks quietly grow wet.

“It’s been so long,” she whispers, unwittingly echoing her older self, and this time, it’s Steve who loses control of his tears.

It’s sheer impulse, what he says.

“I know I’m late. But can I still have that dance?”

Peggy open her eyes, hesitates.

“Steve. Darling, you have to understand. I’ve had years to accept that you’ve died. I’ve–”

“Moved on,” Steve says, smiling. Peggy frowns. “Sorry. I know. I didn’t mean it like that. It’s been longer for me, Pegs. A decade and a half. You built yourself a wonderful life, with wonderful people. I know. Why would I begrudge you that?”

Peggy stares intently at him for a moment too long.

“My general experience with men tells me that they tend to,” she says at the end, a corner of her mouth tilting into a smirk. “But you’ve never been the average man, have you?”

“I don’t know, the fondue incident comes to mind.”

She laughs, bright and startled.

“Well, yes, perhaps.” Her smile disappears, and this time, the gaze she pins Steve with isn’t very friendly. “You were the one watching us.”

Steve grimaces. He’s not very surprised that she knew she was being watched, but he is glad he didn’t get caught in the middle of it.

“I had to be sure it was safe to approach you. That, and summon up the nerve to approach you. I’m sorry, Peggy.”

She keeps staring, expression hard.

“And?” she barks when Steve just meets her gaze helplessly. “How, precisely, did you deem me to be safe?”

Steve backs up an inch on the couch, displaying the self-preservation instincts that Bucky, Nat, Sam, everyone and their mother like to accuse him of lacking.

“Uh, you don’t bring S.H.I.E.L.D personnel here? Except Daniel, but he’s your partner. And, uh, I wanted to avoid him and Angie. Catch you alone. Mostly because I’m sure you would have shot me if I’d come near them.”

It’s not every day that one surprises Peggy Carter. Her face turns evaluative quickly enough.

“You knew them,” she says. “You knew me, in the future you came from.”

Steve summarily decides that subterfuge is really not his forte.

“I’m not sure how much of my future you’ll find here. Things will be different. It’s a new timeline.”

“You’re stalling.”

Steve ducks his head.

“C’mon, Peggy. Alright, yes. You told me about them. I never met them, but yeah. I know what they mean to you.”

“Even Angie?” Peggy asks, voice carefully neutral.

“Especially Angie,” Steve says, grinning at her. “You loved to talk about her. It was – don’t shoot me, but it was adorable.”

Peggy’s never been a blusher, but she’s got an expression that’s the equivalent of it. Steve also watches the tension drain out of her, replaced by a joy that seems almost physical.

“Well, darling, that’s very progressive of you.”

“It’s minimum human decency, but Pegs, I’d be one hell of a hypocrite if I judged you for liking both.”

Peggy’s eyes widen.

“I see,” is what she says, smiling faintly. “Barnes then.”

It’s Steve turn to be shocked.

“How do you know that?”

“Well, it was quite obvious the man was head over heels in love with you. And I did wonder about your feelings for him. But you were always sincere in your regard for me and talked of Barnes like a friend. You’re not the sort to be unfaithful, Steve. I assumed you either didn’t realize you loved him or that I was reading too much into familial affection. I’m happy you figured it out.”

Steve takes a while to recover from that.

“I – you – Bucky loved me in the war?”

“Of course he did. It was very obvious. And Steve, I’m sorry I didn’t say this before. But I’m so glad he’s alive, that you saved him. I never imagined… none of us did.”

“Even I didn’t,” Steve says, momentarily distracted. “He’s – he’s doing really well. I could bring him around? One day, if you’d like.”

Steve planned to ask, this morning, whether Bucky wanted to come along. But he woke to an empty bed, a note on Bucky’s pillow saying he’d gone to take a stroll and wouldn’t be back till later. Steve could take a hint.

“Yes, of course. I’d love to see him.”

“He’d, uh, love to see you too?”

Peggy looks like she knows something Steve doesn’t.

“I’m sure,” she says drily.

“Right. And Pegs, we weren’t together in the war. Bucky and I. We didn’t do anything like… that until recently.”

Peggy sighs, shakes her head.

“The poor man.” Before Steve can ask for clarification, she says, “Well, alright then. Shall we dance?”

She stands up, extending her arm to Steve. He takes it gratefully and lets her pull him up, tagging along with her as she sets the record playing.

It’s as awkward as any time Steve has ventured to the dancefloor. He steps on her toes, and she suffers through the abuse tolerantly, lacquered nails digging into his shoulder her only reaction. It’s nice though, holding her like this, the two of them swaying together to the strains of a song that etches itself into Steve’s heart.

When the music ends, she tilts her head up to press her lips to Steve’s jaw. He smiles, something inside of him throbbing like a half-healed bruise, and reciprocates with his lips on her forehead like a prayer.

They step back. The moment is sweet, tender. In another life, they might have kissed and gone to bed, but no matter the timeline, Steve’s beginning to think that that life was only ever a fantasy for him to cling to while ice crept into his veins.

“Thank you, Peggy.”

Her smile is wobbly but true.

“I’m glad you’re alive, Steve.”

He can’t quite say why that, in particular, reminds him that this isn’t only a social call.

“Peggy, there are some things I need to tell you.”

Her spine straightens, expression growing grave at his tone. You can take the girl out of the war, but you can’t take the war out of the girl. It’s not like Peggy ever stopped fighting anyway. She was every bit a soldier as Steve, took longer than him to give up the violence in her blood.

“What is it?”

“It’s about Hydra. And Arnim Zola.”

 

-

 

Steve walks back to his apartment.

Peggy offered to drive him, but he refused and didn’t begrudge her the relief she couldn’t fully hide at the response. He understood all too well that she needed some time alone with her thoughts. So did he, and he wasn’t the one who just realized that the organization they built – one meant to protect, to safeguard, be a shield – was slowly rotting from the inside out.

Steve did make it clear that he didn’t intend to join S.H.I.E.L.D or return to the battlefield but would only be too happy to held with purging Zola and his cohorts. Peggy seemed to appreciate the offer, but Steve couldn’t tell whether she’d take him up on it. Either way, he doesn’t think Zola is too long for this world, and maybe it makes him a bad person to feel such vicious joy at that, but Steve frankly doesn’t give a shit. He could tear that man from limb to limb without regret.

He’s exhausted in a way that has nothing do with the body by the time he returns home.

Bucky’s not in sight, but if Steve closes his eyes and concentrates, he can hear sounds from the bedroom. Loud breathing and rustling sheets. He pauses by the closed door, palm hovering over the handle, but ultimately decides not to go inside. Bucky’s sure to have heard him come in. And Steve doesn’t really want to deal with whatever mood Bucky’s been in since last night, not now. He doesn’t have the energy for it.

He goes to the kitchen, makes himself coffee.

He hears Bucky pad out to join him, moving so silently that it’s hard for even Steve to hear him. But he’s always had an awareness of Bucky, one he never needed the serum for. He doesn’t turn around though. Just sips his coffee, letting the acrid taste burn down his throat. Fancy coffee is another bullet point in the ever-growing list of the things he misses about the future. It’s just that no matter how long that list gets, it won’t outweigh the man who’s currently boring holes in the back of Steve’s head.

Bucky’s the one to break the silence, doing so with a heavy sigh.

“You’re back early.”

Steve shrugs and shifts so he can see Bucky. He sets the empty cup down.

“Gave Peggy a lot to think about. Figured it’s best to make myself scare, after that.”

Bucky just frowns. The way he’s eyeing Steve is strange. Expectant, but not pleasantly. Steve stares right back, trying puzzle Bucky out through sheer eye contact. It doesn’t work any better than it did last night.

Steve drags his eyes away and starts washing the cup with far more care than is warranted.

“I’ll go back soon,” he says, forcing his voice to be casual and mild. “You should come with. She wants to see you.”

“No, thank you,” Bucky replies icily.

Steve shrugs, hopes it doesn’t look as stiff as it feels.

“Suit yourself. Your loss though. Angie and Daniel are good people. I’m looking forward to actually meeting them.”

There’s a beat of silence.

“Who?”

“Angie and Daniel,” Steve repeats, just to be obstinate. He turns around again, drying his hands on his shirt. “Peggy’s lovers.”

Bucky’s face remains carefully blank for a few seconds. Then, his eyes widen and his lips part, except it’s confusion that dominates over surprise or shock.

“Peggy’s lovers,” he echoes faintly.

Steve hums affirmatively, not taking his eyes off Bucky. He catches the exact moment Bucky decides to run, sees the tensing of his muscles and the panic flashing in his eyes. And Steve still doesn’t get it, not quite, but there’s an inkling of something hovering at the back of his mind, and he doesn’t decide to stop Bucky so much as he just does it.

It's only a few strides across the kitchen floor, and Bucky’s not fast enough to escape. Steve’s in front of him in a flash, crowding Bucky against the closest wall. He doesn’t touch Bucky, but he might as well have locked his arms around him like iron bars for how effective it is.

Bucky stares at him with wide eyes that show a little too much white. Steve can hear his heartbeat soar. When he lifts a hand to touch his fingers delicately to the hollow of Bucky’s throat, his pulse flutters frantically against Steve’s fingertips.

“Are you scared of me?” Steve asks.

Bucky whines, shakes his head, something frantic in the motion. He bares his throat, submissive and oddly animal-like. It works, goes right to Steve’s hindbrain, and he can’t help lowering head and pressing his open mouth to the skin he was touching.

He sucks a bruise there, Bucky’s body trembling against his.

He should stop, probably, talk to Bucky about what the actual fuck is going on in his head, but then Bucky’s sliding his hand into Steve’s hair and clinging like that’s all that anchors him to this mortal realm, and Steve couldn’t keep his hands to himself if he tried.

Bucky’s shirtless, his skin warm and slightly damp with sweat under Steve’s roving palms. He bites possessive marks along Bucky’s neck and shoulder, gropes down his chest and stomach, digging in with blunt nails just to feel Bucky’s muscles jump and twitch under the touch. He can’t help venturing further down, cupping one hand over Bucky’s groin and sliding the other around him to palm his ass.

“Steve,” Bucky whimpers, tugging at his hair.

Steve opens his mouth to breathe hot against Bucky’s collar and bites down at his answering shudder.

He squeezes Bucky’s ass through the pants. It’s plump and soft under his touch, and Steve’s whole body goes hot and electric at the memory of last night, at how Bucky gripped his cock so tight and writhed around him. He slides his hand into Bucky’s pants, hissing through his teeth when Bucky pushes back into the touch with the sweetest little gasp.

Steve gives both cheeks a hard, fond grope before sliding his hand between them, pressing his thumb to Bucky’s hole.

The sound Bucky makes is sin itself.

“Hurts?” Steve asks, idly tracing the rim. It feels a little swollen to him, and when he starts rubbing, Bucky’s whole body goes taut.

“No,” Bucky says.

“Liar.”

Steve grins, slips just the tip of his thumb inside. Bucky’s shudder is a sharp, violent thing, and the cry that accompanies it goes right to Steve’s dick.

“Please,” Bucky begs, alternately stroking and pulling Steve’s hair. Steve kisses his way up Bucky’s throat before reaching his mouth. Bucky pants into the kiss, almost surprised, and he opens up easy for the wet swipe of Steve’s tongue. He sucks on it, grinding back into Steve’s hand at the same time, and there’s something about it that feels frantic, almost desperate, and not quite in the way that made Steve’s blood burn last night.

He pulls back, frowning, and takes his hands away. Bucky gives him wounded eyes and a mournful whine.

“Come back,” he begs, cupping Steve’s face with a shaking hand. “Steve, come on, it doesn’t hurt. I can give you this, I can be good, please.”

Ice bursts in Steve’s chest.

“What?” he asks stupidly. “Bucky, what?”

Bucky swallows, mouth doing that thing where it tries and fails to suppress a grimace in an attempt to look calm. Bucky closes his eyes then, but not before Steve catches the wetness glazing them.

“I’m not her,” Bucky says, each word ringing with a terrible hopelessness. “I know I’m not. I know it’s not enough. But I can make you feel good, Steve, give you this.”

Steve stumbles back a step. Bucky’s eyes are bright and wet.

“Don’t leave,” he says, but he just sounds resigned now, like he’s all set to watch Steve walk away.

“I don’t want you to be her,” Steve says, his voice a numb thing. “I don’t want her.”

Bucky’s eyes flash open. He looks disbelieving, almost hurt.

“Don’t lie to me.”

Fuck you,” Steve snaps, anger rising like a coiled snake and dissipating just as quickly, leaving him with a pounding heart and something bitter in his throat. “Bucky, what – you’re not a replacement.”

Bucky just stares at him, his gaze steady despite the tears swimming in his eyes.

“You love her, Steve. I’ve seen the way you look at her. God, it’s all I could fuckin’ see, during the war.”

“Of course I love her, she’s Peggy. But I’m not in love with her, not anymore. It’s been years, Buck. For her and for me, longer for me than her. I’ve moved on. I let go, I had to.”

Bucky shakes his head, but there’s no real conviction in the gesture. He looks lost suddenly.

Steve steps forward, tentatively, and Bucky doesn’t stop him, doesn’t flinch away. He doesn’t lean in either, standing slumped against the wall until Steve is close enough to hold him again. He doesn’t, but he could. He wants to.

“I let go,” Steve says again, quiet and firm. “I didn’t come back for her, Buck.”

It’s a short in a dark, at least a little. Bucky jerks as if he actually got shot.

“I came back for me. And you.”

Bucky scowls at him.

“How’s it different? Me and her. It’s been years for you either way.”

“It is different,” Steve says, and now, he’s the one feeling helpless under Bucky’s bruised blue glare. “Bucky, I – I don’t remember life before you. I know it happened, a fucking decade of it, but when I think of when I was five or six or seven, you’re always there, like a shadow.”

“I didn’t meet you until you were ten,” Bucky points out softly.

“I know.”

Steve kisses him. Bucky gasps into it, shocked, but kisses back, their mouths moving frantically together. Steve forces himself to tear away, finish this conversation instead of sinking into Bucky’s heat.

“I love you, I’ve always loved you.” He looks right into Bucky’s wide eyes and grinds into him, hard and making a point. “Before this. I don’t love you more because we’re fucking, Buck. I didn’t love you less when you were my best friend and not my lover. I may love you different, now, but it’s not more. Do you understand me?”

Bucky just stares.

Steve takes his face in his hands, holds it like something precious. Bucky’s tears sting his tongue when Steve kisses his cheeks.

“You’re the most important person in my life,” Steve whispers, desperate for Bucky to understand. “You always were. You always will be.”

The worst thing is that Steve has always thought it obvious. Storming Kreischberg alone, crashing the Valkyrie to make sure Bucky didn’t die for nothing, ripping S.H.I.E.L.D-Hydra to shreds, almost killing Tony, giving up the shield and turning fugitive – Bucky was at the heart of it all. He was Steve’s heart. Still is.

Bucky sounds so lost when he says, “But you left him.”

Steve wants to look away. Screw his eyes shut and bury his face in Bucky’s shoulder. Anything to avoid looking into eyes the same shade of battered blue that bid him goodbye. But he doesn’t because he can’t be a coward about this, not now.

“I did,” he admits. “Maybe I shouldn’t have. But he – I lost him so much, over and over and over. And I was terrified to hold on, not when he didn’t need me the way I needed him, and trying to stay with him just took him away. It – I couldn’t, anymore.”

Steve has to pause. Words stick in his throat, but he forces them out, barely recognizing the rasping wreck his voice has become.

“I don’t regret my choice, Bucky.”

Bucky swears under his breath. Steve almost steps back at the vehemence of it, but Bucky twists his hand in his shirt and yanks him forward until they’re pressed so close, there’s barely space for air between them.

“You won’t leave me.” It’s uttered as a command, but there’s an entreaty brimming in each syllable. “Tell me you won’t leave me.”

“I won’t.”

“Promise me.”

“I promise,” Steve murmurs, and he’s the one crying now, tears warm on his cheeks. “Buck, sweetheart, I promise. I ain’t going nowhere, not until you tell me to.”

“Until?” Bucky questions. “The fuck?”

Steve’s smile hurts his mouth, his heart.

“He’s still in the ice, remember? Your Steve.”

“You’re my Steve as much as he is,” Bucky says, a familiar note of stubbornness in his voice. “What, you think you fucking stole me from him?”

Steve shrugs, not disagreeing.

“I don’t care.” Bucky shuts his eyes and takes a deep, ragged breath before opening them again. “Listen to me. I don’t fucking care. Maybe you stole me, maybe I’m the thief, but I don’t give a shit. You came to me. You’re mine. I’m not letting go.”

The kiss is an uncoordinated disaster, and there are no words for the relief that turns Steve’s limbs into cotton.

“You don’t have to,” he promises Bucky. “Please don’t.”

Bucky answers with his mouth and body, breathing wet against Steve’s lips and grinding into him. Steve’s dick is all too quick to get in on the program, and there’s something about this – his cock growing hard against Bucky’s – that’s still novel. A part of him wants to never get used to it, but another wants to spend so long buried in this beautiful man’s skin that it becomes second nature.

Steve drops to his knees, shocking a sweet little sound out of Bucky.

He makes quick work of Bucky’s pants and swallows him down, letting Bucky rise to full hardness on his tongue. Fingers slide into his hair but don’t tangle or tug the way Bucky usually does. They drift down instead, the tips brushing delicately over Steve’s face, caressing the skin with something like reverence. Steve angles his head so Bucky’s cockhead makes one cheek bulge. Bucky touches it, cursing softly.

“You’re a menace,” he tells Steve, and he sounds so fond.

Steve closes his eyes and loses himself to the heat and weight of Bucky on his tongue. It’s addictive, the stretch of his lips around Bucky’s cock and the slow, steady rhythm he coaxes Bucky into. Steve digs his hands into Bucky’s hips, purring happily when the finds the bones there not quite as prominent anymore. Bucky still doesn’t look as healthy as he can be, but he’s better, less pale and not as bony, and Steve’s heart hurts to see him sometimes.

He pulls back when Bucky’s grasp on his hair and face turns desperate. Bucky makes a sad little noise when Steve’s mouth leaves his dick, and Steve almost dives back in just to give Bucky what he needs.

He presses soothing kisses to Bucky’s hips and thighs instead, licking and sucking his way along corded muscles. Bucky’s tense all over, but it’s the good kind of tension, where Bucky’s trying so hard not to let his knees buckle.

Menace,” Bucky gasps, panting loudly. “Steve, come on.”

Steve complies, returning his mouth to Bucky’s cock and taking it deep into his throat. He swallows around it, keeping it deep in him until tears wet his eyes and his lungs start to burn. He pulls off with a gasp and finds Bucky staring down at him with an open mouth and glazed eyes. He looks half-gone already, and there are no words for the pride that surges violently to life in Steve’s chest. He put that look on Bucky’s face, and he wants to keep him like this forever, make him feel good for the rest of their lives.

It might have scared him even a day earlier, this epiphany. It’s no news that he wants Bucky by his side forever, but there’s something that remains surreal in knowing that he wants to have Bucky in his bed forever too.

“I love you,” Steve says, looking up at Bucky and shaping the words carefully, unwilling to let the hoarseness of his voice cloud the sentiment.

Bucky’s face does something complicated. He blinks and the skin around his eyes turns wet.

“I love you too,” Bucky chokes out. “Been in love with you since before I knew what it meant, Steve.”

Steve rests his forehead against Bucky’s thigh and shudders through the ache in his chest. He can’t help but think that it’s not him, the boy Bucky grew up and fell in love with. It’s the man still on the ice.

Bucky’s hand cups his face, draws it up.

“I love you,” Bucky says, the emphasis unmistakable. “The guy who pulled me out of that ravine and brought me back to life.”

“You did that all on your own.” Steve laughs, the sound a little wet. He peppers short, frantic kisses along every inch of Bucky he can reach. “I won’t ever leave. I’d die before I do. Promise.”

“No one’s dying,” Bucky says, tone sharp, but his voice disintegrates into a shuddering moan when Steve takes his cock back in his mouth.

This time, he doesn’t tease, just blows him like his life depends on it. He urges Bucky into fucking his throat, then pulls back to mouth all along the length. He sucks at the spots that makes Bucky’s eyes cross and sets his teeth ever go gently to the head just to hear that high-pitched keen Bucky can’t hold in.

Bucky tries to warn him when he comes, yanking at Steve’s hair and whispering frantically, but Steve just seals his lips over the head. The first burst of it hits his tongue, the taste sharp and bitter. Steve swallows eagerly, working his tongue gently along the tip as Bucky shouts and shudders and floods Steve’s mouth with the unique taste of him.

Steve doesn’t withdraw until Bucky’s slumped against the wall and whimpering with oversensitivity. Even then, he’s reluctant. There’s something nice and intimate about having Bucky’s limp length in his mouth. He feels so small like this, like Steve could just swallow him up.

But his own erection’s throbbing for attention, and Steve tears himself away and rises to his feet, gathering Bucky against himself. He pushes his tongue into Bucky’s mouth, sharing the taste, and he can feel the violent jolt of Bucky’s body against his own.

“Take me t’bed,” Bucky says, slurring a little. He looks dazed. “Want you.”

Steve interprets that quite literally.

Bucky yelps when Steve swings him into his arms, but he laughs then, winding his arm around Steve’s shoulder and relaxing into his hold. It’s such a little display of trust, but the casual faith in it makes Steve ache in the best way.

He’s gentle when he lays Bucky down. He pauses to strip off his own clothes, causing a whiff of Peggy’s perfume as he takes off his shirt. He wonders what Bucky thought of that, whether it hurt to smell that on Steve.

He crawls on top of Bucky and hovers above him, waiting silently until Bucky opens his eyes and meets Steve’s stare.

“Hey.”

Bucky’s smile rivals the full moon.

“Hey, handsome.”

Steve shakes his head, but that doesn’t stop his cheeks from turning red or Bucky from poking one with a laugh.

He stops laughing abruptly when Steve grinds down on him, sliding his cock along the flat plane of Bucky’s belly. It’s a beautiful sight, the way his eyes go dark and mouth pops open. It’s nice too, knowing that Bucky’s as affected by Steve as Steve is by him.

Bucky spreads his legs, an invitation as obvious he can make it.

“I thought it hurt.”

“I said no such thing.”

When Steve just raises an eyebrow at that, Bucky huffs and turns his face to the side. The pink on his cheeks is visible when he says, “Maybe I like it.”

“Oh,” Steve breathes. “Oh.”

Bucky turns red.

Steve doesn’t linger in the moment and torment him. He wants to, because there’s an odd kind of appeal in watching Bucky squirm so sweetly for him, but he pushes that aside, confident there will be time for that later, when things don’t feel so fragile.

He kisses Bucky on the mouth, licking softly over his lips before venturing further down. Steve takes his time opening him up, watching the expressions that flash across Bucky’s pretty face. It’s exquisite, the mix of pain and pleasure he defaults to, and Steve spends a good five minutes just rubbing at Bucky’s prostate to see him make that face.

Bucky’s hard again and flushed all the way down to his chest by the time Steve gets him spread wide on four fingers. Steve’s no better, heart pounding at the head of his dick, the whole of him aching to be deep inside Bucky’s heat.

He drapes Bucky’s legs over his shoulders and runs his hands up the sweaty skin. Bucky’s a bendy little thing, and Steve has to take a moment to just look at him. Bucky huffs like he isn’t pleased about the scrutiny, but Steve’s known this man since they were muddy-toed runts running around Brooklyn. He’s not fooled.

“Pretty,” Steve murmurs, and Bucky curses him out, blushing the whole time.

He curses for a whole other reason when Steve slides home in one, long thrust.

“Too much?” he asks in the wake of Bucky’s strangled shout. The strain in his own voice turns it hoarse. Bucky just shakes his head, turning wide, hazy eyes to Steve.

“You’re perfect,” he says dreamily. “Fuck me.”

Steve does.

The one time he did this before has given him no immunity to the tight clutch of Bucky’s ass. He loses control all too easily, slamming in deep like he wants to carve his claim somewhere deep and untouched. Bucky eggs him on with the sweetest, most frantic noises, writhing under Steve and clenching rhythmically around his cock. His dick drools wetly, smearing precum on his belly. Bucky’s got his hand clenched in his own hair, holding on tight as he rocks madly with Steve’s thrusts. Steve wants to reach out and take it in hand, but he can’t pry his fingers off its death grip on Bucky’s thighs. It’s the only thing anchoring him to his skin as he loses his mind to Bucky.

“Could fuck you forever,” Steve confesses, half gasping.

Bucky groans like he’s dying.

“Want you to,” he says, sounding drunk and happy. “Fuck me so good.”

It’s Steve’s turn to make a gutted noise. Whatever’s left of his restraint is shredded to tatters. He rails into Bucky like he wants to merge their bodies together with sheer violence, and Bucky breaks under him beautifully, coming all over their bodies with a shocked scream, completely untouched.

The sudden, searing tightness of his walls around Steve’s cock sends him hurling headfirst into his own climax, fucking into Bucky with unbridled frenzy once, twice before giving it up.

After, he collapses beside Bucky, whole body trembling like a wrung-out rag.

He expects the way Bucky curls into him immediately, but that doesn’t make it feel any less special.

Steve loses track of how much time he spends stroking his hands over Bucky’s bare, slick skin. He feels precious in Steve’s arms, and he has to wonder what the everloving fuck he did to deserve this gift after all the ways he’s fucked up.

He decides, almost as soon as the question arises, that he doesn’t care. He promised Bucky to never let go, never leave. He doesn’t want to, not again, not to save the world or give it what he owes.

He’s been selfish since he pocketed those extra vials of Pym Particles, and he’s not stopping now, when he has this life, this – this beginning.

Bucky breathes raggedly into Steve’s throat.

“Can hear you thinking,” he mumbles, adorably grumpy about it.

“Ruinin’ your afterglow, sweetheart?”

Bucky nips at Steve’s throat but pulls back to look at his face. He looks sated, eyes bright and happy. Steve kisses him, soft and almost chaste. He likes feeling Bucky breathe against his mouth.

“I thought Peggy was the love of my life,” Steve says suddenly, the words bursting forth with a ferocity that surprises even him. Bucky tenses, but Steve holds him tight. “And I loved her, god, I did. But she wasn’t the one who haunted me, Buck. In that future of mine. She wasn’t the one who made my heart twist in on itself, every fucking time.”

“Steve.” Bucky’s throat clicks when he swallows. “I – she was a hell of a woman. Made me turn green, but I could see it, what you saw in her. Wished I could just make my heart shut up and be happy for you, and I was, but I couldn’t stop wanting you either.”

“She was,” Steve agrees, fond even now. “So were you. One hell of a guy. Maybe I have a thing for fiery brunettes who can shoot like a dream and knock a man out cold with one punch.”

Bucky laughs. He swats at Steve’s belly, but there’s no fire in it.

“Crazy asshole. Sounds just like you.”

Steve rubs his nose against Bucky’s, and he loves how Bucky melts a little at that simple gesture.

“Way I see it,” Steve tells him, pulling back to look Bucky in the eye, make him see, “It ain’t gotta be one. Soulmate, love of your life, whatever you call it. I had Peggy for a while, and she had me. Wasn’t ever gonna be forever. She’s got those two now. And Buck – I’m sorry I didn’t see it the way you wanted me to, but – you’ve always had me too, you know? And you were mine, from the moment we met. Was fuckin’ gone on you, kid.”

The sound Bucky makes isn’t quite a sob, but Steve doesn’t know what else to call it.

“You mean that?” Bucky says, voice choked, and Steve can see he knows the answer but needs to hear it anyway.

“With all my fucking heart. I swear, Buck.”

Bucky makes a damn good attempt at burrowing into Steve skin. Steve holds him back just as tightly. Their grips loosen slowly, in minute increments, until they’re wrapped up together with a little less desperation, and Bucky’s smiling at Steve like he just can’t stop.

Then, as if he just remembered, he says, “Who the hell you calling kid? I’m older than you, bastard.”

“Not anymore.”

There’s a short, sweet pause before Bucky curses the air blue.