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It feels wrong to watch Steve leave.

That’s what Bucky’s brain keeps coming back to as he stands in the yard, watching Steve wipe fresh snow off the car and check that the wipers don’t have ice on them before scraping frost off the windshield. It feels wrong on a level Bucky can’t describe, hands curling into fists on his sides no matter how hard he tries to beat it back. Steve’s not leaving for good and Bucky knows it, but still there’s a knot of dread in his stomach, going tighter and tighter as the clean patch on the windshield grows.

Barely six days, and it’s like Bucky never lived without Steve in the first place, distress a low thrum under his skin at the thought of Steve driving away from him.

Something must show on his face, because when Steve’s ready to go and glances at Bucky, his expression goes all soft and he strides back, grabbing Bucky into a gigantic hug.

“Hey, Buck, it’s just a few hours, right?” Steve’s tone is reassuring, but his arms are just a little too tight around Bucky’s waist to not be desperate, like he doesn’t want to leave either. “I’m gonna return the rental and check out the car deals Bill found. I’ll be back before dark.”

“Yeah, of course,” Bucky says against his shoulder stupidly, acting like he’s sending Steve off to-- a fucking war, or something, when he’s just gonna drive down to Bangor and come back. He doesn’t want to let Steve out of his sight, and even more than that he doesn’t want to let Steve out of reach of his hands.

Human touch is a strange thing. Bucky’s survived without it just fine for months; fuck, he’s survived without it for decades, but ever since Steve put his hands on Bucky’s back and clung to him in the kitchen six days ago, he’s been itching for it constantly. They’ve been attached at the hip for almost a week, and his skin feels warmer when it’s being touched, like fuses lit up under his shell.

Steve squeezes him and lets go abruptly, grinning as if he’s not curling his hands into fists at the same time, maybe to stop himself from clinging. “I’ll call if something turns up. Love you.”

Bucky shivers: from the cold or the declaration, he couldn’t tell. It’s heady, hearing it, no matter how casual Steve’s tone is - and maybe it is the ease with which it’s said that makes something hot and content curl in Bucky’s belly. “Drive safely,” he says, touching Steve’s bearded jaw with his fingertips.

That’s the closest to ‘love you too’ he’s capable of, for now, nowhere near enough to convey the whole swelling tide of feelings in his chest, but it makes Steve smile like he understands anyway.

Steve walks backwards, holding Bucky’s eye until he bumps into the car and has to break eye contact to get inside. Bucky waves at him as he goes, and shuffles to the garage to get the shovel out. He might as well be useful and clear out the route between the garage and the house while he’s waiting.

“Hi Jamie,” Irina says when Bucky peeks into the kitchen after shoveling. She’s doing an inventory in the pantry, and the kitchen table is filled with jars. “Did Steve leave?”

“Yeah,” Bucky says, tiptoeing in on his socked feet, boots left at the front door. “Is Bill out?”

“He went to help Mariyam and Jacob.” Irina puts two more jars onto the table. “They bought a new bed, and delivery would’ve cost an arm and a leg. Bill is cheaper, all he asks for is some coffee.” She points at a chair. “Sit down, sweetie, I wanna know how you’re doing.”

Bucky does as he’s told, taking a closer look at the jars on the table: blackcurrant jam, pickled carrots, canned pears. Bucky had already missed the harvest when he arrived in town, but it’s a new year, and maybe he and Steve will have some jars in their pantry for the upcoming winter, too.

“Spill the beans, Jamie,” Irina orders. “I’ve barely seen you in a week. How is it?”

“It’s good,” Bucky says, fiddling with the hem of his shirt, cheeks flushing with the memory of the easy love you Steve threw as he left. “It’s-- really good.”

“He treating you well?”

“God, yeah,” Bucky says wistfully. “I forgot how nice just being with him could be."

Irina clicks the electric kettle on and pulls out tea bags and honey, puts a mug down in front of Bucky. She has to move a couple of jars onto the kitchen counter to make room. “Yeah?”

Bucky hesitates a little. From the moment he looked up from Ruth on the hillside and saw Steve for real for the first time since 1945, he’s felt like he’s walking in a fog where Steve is the only bright beacon of light, cutting through. It never felt like that before, even when he was missing Steve so much that his whole body ached, but now he keeps stumbling forward, desperate to stay in that light.

It feels strange to be wanted so fiercely by someone, in any way possible. They’re still figuring it out, trying to navigate their way around each other, and Bucky never wants it to end.

“I’m crazy about him,” Bucky confesses finally. “I-- I never thought I could have him like this.”

He never thought he could have Steve like this, because he never allowed himself that luxury. He used to dream about a home for the two of them, of course, because in the war everybody dreamt about surviving and getting to live on with their sweethearts. In the perfect world, Bucky would have emerged from the war untouched by death and blood, and gone home to find Steve waiting for him, merely brushed by the tragedy. But Steve went out to seek his own destiny, instead: he came for Bucky in Kreischberg, unknowingly killing his dream of getting home - because where Steve went, Bucky followed, and Steve belonged to the world, now.

Afterwards, back on his own feet, when he longed for Steve, he never really entertained the idea that Steve might actually stay, instead of visiting occasionally like Bucky was a mistress, kept happy somewhere out of the way. Maybe that’s why it’s so heady, to know that he’s enough to make Steve settle down and grow roots; to really keep him.

There are a lot of ugly things inside Steve now, just like there have always been, more or less hidden under the surface, and Bucky wants every single one of them. He wants all of them: the bitterness and the anger and the grieving; he wants to consume and chew them up and make them his. It shouldn’t make him so happy, knowing that Steve’s filled to the brim with so much awfulness, but it does; it does, because Bucky’s the only person in the world who can match it.

Irina puts a tea bag into his mug and pours hot water over it, sweeping an errant lock of hair from his face with her free hand. “You deserve it, baby,” she says, and suddenly Bucky feels like crying.

Because it’s such a maternal gesture, affection seeping from Irina’s voice, her fingers cool and gentle on his temple, and Bucky’s mother has been dead for decades and he never got to see her again; and he keeps fucking missing her so hard, finally able to mourn his family.

He tries to wipe off the threatening tears as Irina turns to place the kettle back on the counter. “Yeah,” he says, voice wobbly. He doesn’t know which cosmic power thought he could’ve used some guidance, but he’s beyond grateful for ending up with Irina and Bill anyway.

Irina just smiles at him, and pushes the honey closer.

**

When Bucky took Steve to Matthew’s on that first, magical morning, it was freezing, and Steve held his hand on the short stretch of road where there were no houses to spy on them from. Steve let go when they came to the edge of the town, but it made Bucky ache nevertheless. They had never been able to do that before: there was no road in their history where it would’ve been acceptable for them to walk hand in hand, even in secret.

They went in through the back door, because it was breakfast time and Bucky wanted to introduce Steve to Matthew without any prying eyes. “I lived upstairs before Bill offered me a place,” he told Steve when they closed the door behind them. “Matthew was the first to take me in, back in September.”

“He just took you in?” Steve asked, looking around curiously, peering up the staircase like he wanted to climb up to see the tiny room Bucky had lived in. “No questions?”

Bucky shrugged, tugging off his beanie and mittens. “I was kind of a sorry sight, and Matthew’s got a big heart.”

Steve smiled at that, touched Bucky’s hip and said, “Now you’re just a sight, especially for sore eyes like mine.”

“Flatterer,” Bucky said, unable to keep a smile off his face.

“Jamie?” Matthew’s voice came from the direction of the kitchen, nearing the hallway. “Have you started talking to your-- Oh.” He paused in the kitchen doorway when he spotted Steve, who was looming uncertainly near the door.

“Hey Matthew,” Bucky said. “Sorry to barge in like this.”

“No problem.” Matthew eyed Steve with an unreadable expression. “Who’s this?”

“Steve,” Bucky said, and Steve sidestepped him, reaching out to Matthew to shake his hand. “He’s my-- my--” Bucky searched for the proper word, and when he couldn’t find it, finished lamely with, “Steve.”

Matthew knew there had been someone for Bucky, a long time ago, before he went to war and everything fell apart. It was easy enough to see that the pieces had already started to come together in Matthew’s head when he shook Steve’s hand, scrutinizing him in a way Bucky had never seen before.

“Matthew Burr,” he said finally. Bucky was pretty sure he was trying to intimidate Steve by squeezing his hand too hard.

“Good to meet you,” Steve said politely, glanced at Bucky as if to gauge his reaction, and Bucky shrugged one shoulder, steeled himself just in case. It was better to get the truth finally out, at least to Matthew who’d had nothing but kindness for him. “Steve Rogers.”

It didn’t take long to click. Matthew froze, eyes narrowing, skimming over Steve’s face, and then he turned to look at Bucky, and his eyes went huge with surprise and recognition.

“Jesus fuck, Jamie,” Matthew said after a short, stunned silence. “Is that why every new dish is such an adventure to you?”

**

When Bucky returns from the fields at dusk, Ruth perched on his fist, Steve’s leaning against a slightly beaten-up truck in front of the garage. He looks tired but satisfied, and his eyes crinkle with happiness when he spots Bucky approaching down the road. It makes warmth pool into Bucky’s chest, and he speeds up without thinking, pulled forward by the gravity of Steve’s contentment.

“Hey,” Steve calls as soon as Bucky is close enough. “What do you think?”

Ruth wiggles happily on Bucky’s arm at the sight of Steve, making funny little noises through her beak. They’ve been taking walks with her every day to get Steve and her acquainted and to show what life up here is for Bucky, and it’s astonishing how quickly she’s gotten used to him, even if Steve is still mesmerized and wary of her.

Bucky eyes the truck: it’s dark green and nowhere near mint condition, but there’s no rust and the upholstery is in good shape when he peeks inside. It doesn’t smell like Wunderbaum either, which is a blessing. “How was the drive?”

“It runs well.” Steve extends his gloved hand carefully towards Ruth, mouth stretching into a grin when she lets him scritch her chest. “Good steering and brakes, that’s why I bought it.”

“Good,” Bucky says, and in a fit of bravery leans up and kisses him on the mouth. It’s short and chaste, and Steve’s beard is bristly against his lips, but Steve lights up like a goddamn Christmas tree, a look of giddiness and wonder on his face.

Bucky’s face heats up, and he turns towards the door, mumbling, “Welcome back.”

Steve’s arms circle his waist before he can walk away, and then Steve’s laughing into his ear, squishing him. “I’m glad to be back,” Steve says, and Bucky can’t help the grin that pulls at his mouth as he leans into Steve.

Steve’s content to just hold him for a while. Bucky’s head is tipped back against Steve’s shoulder, and Ruth is shuffling on his fist, bored. Bucky doesn’t know if he’s ever felt so entirely, utterly content.

Then Steve murmurs, “I think Irina is watching us from the kitchen window.”

“She’s probably waiting for the chance to feed you,” Bucky says, and Steve snorts, his arms tightening a little. Privately Bucky thinks that she must be watching to get a confirmation and a peace of mind; to see if they really are as happy as Bucky told her.

Steve kisses his temple, lips brushing against the hair that’s spilling out from under Bucky’s beanie, and says, “Maybe tomorrow,” in a tone that’s low and soft, as if everything he wants from life is to go inside and have dinner with Bucky.

“Yeah,” Bucky agrees and turns his head so that he can push his forehead against Steve’s woolen scarf. “Tomorrow.”

**

“Bill and Irina’s grandkids are coming over today,” Bucky says around his toothbrush two days later, checking his phone. He’s been in the Meadows’ group chat since mid-February: a clear proof that he’s part of the family, now.

He feels half-asleep after a shoddy, fitful night. The seam of his metal arm is aching; the coming-and-going inflammation has flared up again, but thankfully not badly. He needs to be careful with it, though, and avoid scrubbing Matthew’s floors for a few days.

Steve looks up from the drawer he’s rooting through in search of a clean pair of socks. His hair is still dripping from the shower he took after his asscrack-of-dawn run, and the collar of his long-sleeved t-shirt is looking uncomfortably damp. He’s been eyeing Bucky’s left shoulder all morning with that endearing divot between his brows like he wants to say something. Bucky knows he should tell Steve about the ache, reassure him that he’ll be fine soon, but the state of his body after HYDRA is a can of worms Bucky’s not ready to open just yet.

“Okay,” Steve says, and Bucky pops back into the bathroom and chucks Steve’s towel at him. Steve catches it easily with a grateful smile and rubs it furiously over his head. It looks so easy and effortless compared to how carefully Bucky has to squeeze the water from his hair and wrap it up in a towel to dry it, and for a split second he can’t decide if he’s charmed or envious. “Do I have to do something?”

Steve’s hair is sticking out every which way when he pulls the towel off and tosses it over his shoulder, and Bucky’s chest feels suddenly impossibly wide and warm with affection.

“No, just be yourself,” he says to cover the way his body goes all tingly with emotions, and goes to spit and rinse his mouth. “Or maybe show off your muscles, they’ll want to use you as a jungle gym anyway.”

Steve’s laughter is bright and fills Bucky up like hot soup on a cold evening, as he pulls out a hairbrush and starts working the tangles out. It will be good to see the kids: it’s always grounding for him, especially when he’s a little less steady on his feet and doubting if he really belongs in this town. It’s not the case now, with Steve cementing his home here, but the kids will be a welcome break in the strange codependent bubble they’ve been floating in. They could all trek to the hills to fly Ruth, maybe take Bill and Mabel with them.

Steve follows him into the bathroom to drape the towel up to dry. He strokes his beard absently, looking like he’s pondering trimming it, and Bucky watches him in the mirror. Steve looks good with the beard - it makes him look older, closer to how much he’s seen in his life, and it’s something that nobody else has a say in, except maybe Bucky, but he would never ask Steve to shave.

Steve catches Bucky’s eye and smiles at him in the mirror, scratching his chin a little, and Bucky smiles back, starts brushing his hair again. Steve watches until most of the tangles are out, then puts a broad, warm hand on Bucky’s hip, tugging. “Hey,” Steve says, and suddenly they’re kissing in front of the sink like a pair of dumbasses, Bucky craning his head to reach Steve’s mouth.

It’s easy, close-mouthed and intimate, like they’ve been necking in their shared bathroom for years. Then Steve, the bastard, tries to tickle him, and Bucky’s laughing as he shoves him away. “Let me go, Casanova, I gotta braid my hair.”

Steve’s grinning too, but his expression is soft and open as he touches Bucky’s hair and says, “You should teach me, I could do it.”

Bucky blinks. “Really?”

“Of course, Buck,” Steve says, suddenly way more serious than a discussion about hair requires. “I’d do anything for you.”

It’s clear he’s not just talking about braiding anymore, so Bucky brushes a tender hand over Steve’s bearded jaw and says, “I know. Let’s go for breakfast, and then I’ll show you.”

It takes almost an hour, but by the time Bill’s car door is slamming, letting them know he’s leaving to pick up the kids, Bucky’s hair is braided. It’s pretty shoddy and incredibly uneven, but Steve’s practically glowing with pride and happiness, and that makes the clumsy braid feel like a royal crown.

“It looks like shit, but I’m gonna practise,” Steve promises, stroking one curve of hair carefully with his finger.

Bucky doesn’t doubt that.

**

“Uncle Jamie,” Isaac yells as soon as Bucky steps out of the garage door, and both kids come barreling down from the porch towards him. Bill is left grinning, the front door half-opened to usher the kids in.

Bucky grabs Isaac under the arms as soon as he’s close enough, swinging him up. Isaac squeals with laughter, and Dominic bumps into Bucky’s hip, throwing his arms around his middle.

“Hey, boys, hey,” Bucky says, laughing, and hugs Isaac, perching him on his arm so that he can ruffle Dominic’s hair with his free hand. He loves these damn kids, and he loves that he’s Uncle Jamie to them, now.

“Uncle Jamie,” Isaac says into his ear in a voice that’s just a little too loud, and Bucky hides his wince. “We’re getting a kitty. Mom promised!”

“That’s awesome,” Bucky says, bouncing Isaac and making him laugh. “What color is it?”

“Brown,” Isaac says, grabbing the end of Bucky’s braid that’s resting on his shoulder. He’s bundled up in a snowsuit and squirming with excitement in Bucky’s arms. “Like your hair. But stripes.”

Bucky laughs, fondness seeping through. “That’s nice, we’ll match.”

“Who’re you?” Dominic asks, and when Bucky looks down, he’s peeking around Bucky to stare at Steve.

“Yeah!” Isaac echoes, and Bucky turns around, urging Dominic closer to Steve with a hand on his upper back.

Steve looks a little startled, but then he relaxes, crouches down to Dominic’s eye level and says, “I’m Steve. I came to live with B-- Jamie.”

“Oh,” Dominic says, puffs his chest out and promptly thrusts his hand towards Steve. Bucky stifles a laugh; Dominic’s gotten even more forward since Bucky met the kids for the first time. “I’m Dominic.”

Steve shakes his hand solemnly. “Nice to meet you, Dominic. How old are you?”

“Almost seven,” Dominic says. “I’m starting school this year.”

“Wow, you’re pretty big then,” Steve says. “Are you excited to go to school?”

“Yeah!” Dominic’s serious face dissolves into giddiness, and he bounces on his toes. “My best friend is in the same class with me! I’m gonna be as smart as Grandpa.”

Steve smiles, and Bucky leans down to put Isaac back on his feet.

“This is Isaac,” Bucky says, because the kid’s suddenly gotten weirdly shy, clinging to Bucky’s leg. “He’s gonna be five in May.”

“Hey Isaac,” Steve says and waves, staying put, radiating calm in a way that’s impressive considering his bad track record with small people. Maybe it helps that these kids could be considered Bucky’s family; the only child Steve was ever good with was Bucky’s youngest sister, Alice. “Wanna tell me about that cat you’re getting?”

Bucky’s always been great with children; it came with having three younger sisters and dozens of cousins. But it’s been a long time since those years, and Bucky’s been actively ignoring thinking about his sisters or family ever since he got those memories back. Just the thought of looking them up and finding out what happened to them after his “death” makes bile rise up: yet more people he failed to return to; yet more people who grew old in his absence.

Isaac flushes and hides his face in Bucky’s pant leg. It’s such an Alice move that something twists in Bucky’s stomach suddenly, sharp and overpowering, but he swallows to ignore it, crouches and whispers loudly, “Did you know that Steve’s even stronger than me?”

Isaac’s eyes go huge and round, and he glances at Steve speculatively. Steve’s grinning, obviously delighted, but the quirk of his eyebrows is soft and fond when he catches Bucky’s eye.

“Really?” Dominic leaps forward and reaching for Steve’s bicep, trying to feel it under the parka Steve’s wearing. “Are you a superman? Uncle Jamie says he’s not but I think he’s lying.”

Steve laughs. “That’s what he would like you to think, right?” he says. “Hold tight.”

When Dominic loops both arms around his forearm, Steve stands up from the crouch, lifting him easily along. Dominic cheers wildly, swinging his legs and accidentally kicking Steve in the thigh. He’s higher than Bucky’s managed to lift him, and clearly enjoying every second.

That’s what gets Isaac to forget his shyness, and he creeps closer. “Me too!”

Steve grins even wider, and he offers his other arm to Isaac, who darts to him and climbs up like a baby monkey; Bucky keeps an eye on them, just in case. On the porch, Bill and Irina are now both leaning against the railing, grinning like sharks - they know perfectly well how much the kids love using Bucky as a jungle gym, and how well Steve is suited for it, too.

The sun comes out just as Steve hoists both kids up, his face split in a dumb, gigantic smile, crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes. His blond hair is peeking out from under his beanie, longer and messier than Bucky’s ever seen it; his warm parka straining a little against the muscles of his arms. Suddenly Bucky’s hit all over again by how right it feels to see Steve here, how well he fits in the small, close-guarded life Bucky’s carefully built for himself; how goddamn lucky they got to finally, finally have this.

He watches Steve with Isaac and Dominic, and his traitorous heart flips in his chest, because with their dark hair the kids could just as well be Bucky’s, and the thought fills his throat, making it hard to breathe. During the brief, wonderful time Steve and he have spent together so far, Bucky’s never really stopped to think about what he was offering to Steve, or that maybe it was so much more than what it seemed at first glance.

He’d thought he was offering something simple, close to their life together before the war: a small apartment with clunking pipes, a yellow-eyed baby goshawk to replace the stray cats Bucky used to feed; a pieced-together man with only himself to give.

He hadn’t realized that what he also brought to Steve’s life was family - people around them who cared for Bucky like for a son or a brother, and extended the same love to Steve as well. It’s like there’s a whole clan of Barneses again, pulling Steve into their circle, except this time they’re Meadowses whose hearts seem to be even bigger and broader if possible.

Steve meets his eyes, the fondness in his gaze warming him, and Bucky’s moving before he registers it, sliding his hands around Steve’s torso and tucking himself under Steve’s chin despite the two kids hanging on the sides. Isaac accidentally kicks him on his ass, squealing a giggly “Sorry!”, and Bucky laughs against Steve’s coat.

“Hey,” Steve says happily, rubbing the top of Bucky’s head with his chin. “What’s up?”

“Nothing,” Bucky says, closing his eyes. “I’m just happy.”



March brings temporary goodbyes. The molting season is approaching - it’s a process that Bill isn’t equipped to handle with the facilities they have, and that’s why both Ruth and Mabel need to go to an aviary near Bangor for whole spring and summer. They’ll return in September with new plumage, ready for another autumn of flying; Ruth is bound to lose more of her baby fluff and come back closer to adulthood.

The morning Bill is supposed to drive down to Bangor, Steve helps him get Mabel into a box for the trip, while Bucky stands back, holding Ruth. Steve tries to focus on the task on hand but it’s hard, when his eyes keep straying back at Bucky, worry gnawing his heart. Bucky’s fingers are squeezing Ruth’s jesses, and his whole body is tense: he’s paler than normal, refused breakfast with mumbling something about not being hungry, no matter how much Steve tried to cajole him to eat at least something.

It’s been a strange couple of days. Bucky’s spent most of his time outside with Ruth, Steve trailing after them, and he’s been quiet and wan, alternating between shying away from touch and seeking it out. He hasn’t eaten much, veering into anxious, borderline obsessive activities like scrubbing fingerprints off of the fridge door seal or folding the laundry into tight rolls, and it shows in his appearance. He looks thin and tired, dark circles under his eyes, and he’s favoring his metal arm like he’s hurting, his expression pinched.

Ruth has picked up the mood and is fussing on Bucky’s fist, nipping at Bucky’s metal fingers when he tries to soothe her. Bucky’s jaw goes even tighter, and his voice cracks when he says, “It’s gonna be okay, baby. It’s gonna be just f-fine.”

Ruth bristles on the fist, her beak clicking angrily, and Bucky drops his uncertain, hovering hand, stuffing it into his pocket. Steve wishes the ordeal to be over already and Bill on his way, so that he could concentrate on helping Bucky out.

The two short weeks they’ve had together haven’t been enough for Steve to fully understand the bond between Bucky and Ruth - he’s sure there is more under the surface than just Bucky picking up a pet, but Bucky hasn’t told him the full story yet, and there is too much that Steve doesn’t know about manning a hawk to fill the gaps himself. The intensity and care Bucky and Ruth operate with goes somewhere deeper, bringing with it the ease of their hunts and their eerie connection, like a fine-tuned machine.

Maybe Bucky sees similarities between himself and Ruth; there must be a reason he chose a goshawk of all things to be his companion. Steve’s been trying to imagine the state of mind Bucky was in when he arrived in Maine, back in September, but how can he ever relate to something like that, the aftershocks of a trauma so deep that it’s unbearable to even think about? From what he’s gathered, Bucky was definitely still in a shell-shocked state when he stepped through Matthew’s door, but Steve isn’t sure if Bucky will ever even want to share what it really was like for him, back then.

Sometimes Steve thinks that Bucky’s trying so hard to make Steve love this new, steadier version of himself that he wants to bury the journey to get there like he's ashamed; forgetting that Steve loves him even more for the courage and strength it took for Bucky to struggle out of HYDRA’s hold.

Bucky escapes before Bill puts Ruth in her box: he jerkily thrusts the bird at Bill and turns and leaves without a word. Steve sees him from the window, heading towards the fields with his head bowed down.

“Is he--” Steve starts, not sure what he’s asking.

“Okay?” Bill says. “I don’t think so, I saw how he looked, too. Help me hood Ruth and get her in, I can manage it from there.”

Ruth doesn’t take nicely to the box, but in the end they manage to wrestle her in, with only one sliced-open sleeve as the casualty. They both have to pant a little when the lid is on, listening to the angry hissing. Mabel’s cool as a cucumber in her box, clearly more used to it.

“Jesus,” Bill says then, wiping his forehead. “For a bird as easy and adaptable as she is, Ruth definitely puts up a fight.”

“Do you think she would’ve taken it better if Bucky had been here?” Steve asks, inspecting the torn sleeve of his fleece jacket. Luckily Ruth’s talons didn’t reach his arm, or he’d have some serious bleeding going on.

Bill shrugs. “Hard to say.” He straightens up and nods towards the door. “Go, I can get the girls in the car on my own. Try to get some food in him, he looks thin.”

Steve nods, patting Ruth’s box reassuringly. He’s gonna miss her and her judgy stare, the happy shuffling on Bucky’s fist. He veers upstairs to put on a coat and grab Bucky’s jacket for him, before heading to the hills.

Bucky’s sitting on the same hillside where Steve first saw him again, perched on a dry tuft of grass poking from the snow. His knees are drawn up, his face hidden against his arms, and Steve’s chest aches at the sight: Bucky looks so young like that, shivering in his hoodie. He doesn’t move when Steve approaches carefully and sits down next to him.

“Bucky?” Steve asks in a low voice, inching his hand closer, hovering over Bucky’s back like he’s trying to pet a spooked animal. But Bucky doesn’t flinch away: instead, he turns towards Steve just slightly, and Steve takes the cue, wrapping the jacket around his shoulders and gathering him up.

“I’m not gonna see her for months,” Bucky says, and his voice sounds wet and weak. He’s curled tightly into himself, pressing closer to Steve like he’s trying to make himself so small that he would fit into Steve’s shirt pocket. Steve hasn’t seen him like this since they were kids, when Bucky’s favorite alleycat was run over and he cried for days.

Bucky’s reaction is understandable: it’s the first time since autumn that he and Ruth are going to be apart. Bucky-with-Ruth had been confident, bold with his affections when he had a hawk on his fist but tentative and shy on his own. As Steve presses his cheek against Bucky’s hair, he feels suddenly endlessly grateful that Sam found Bucky now and not any later - just in time for Steve to be there for him through Ruth’s absence. Steve doesn’t know yet who Bucky-without-Ruth will be when that emotional support is untethered, but he’s keen to learn and love that part of him, too.

“She’s gonna be fine,” Steve says, dropping a kiss to the crown of Bucky’s head. “Summer’s short, she’ll be back before you notice.”

And you’ll have me in the meantime, he doesn’t say, because he and Ruth aren’t mutually exclusive; she can never be a human companion just like Steve can never be a hawk, and it wouldn’t be fair for Bucky to compare Steve and Ruth’s importance in his life.

“Do you think she’ll recognize me anymore?” Bucky asks against Steve’s coat.

“I’m sure she will,” Steve reassures, rubbing a hand down Bucky’s back, cherishing the closeness and the vulnerability Bucky’s trusting him with. “Want to tell me about her?”

Bucky draws a shaky breath, huddles a little closer, and starts from the beginning.

**

After Ruth goes away, Bucky withdraws for a while: he stays out by himself, taking as many small jobs as he can, or helping Matthew in the café. Steve understands a little better now so he gives Bucky his space, trying to be patient, but there’s only so many times a guy can go through Bucky’s small library of books before getting bored out of his skull.

A week later, Steve wakes up to an empty bed. It’s almost nine a.m., and Bucky’s side of the bed has already cooled, like he’s been gone for a long time. When Steve crawls to the kitchen in search of coffee and breakfast, there’s a sketchbook and a set of good pencils on the table, a yellow post-it note stuck on top.

Matthew is catering Franklin Todd’s grandkid’s baptism party, but his assistant got sick so he asked for my help. Might be late. Love you.

Steve puts his fingers on top of Bucky’s hastily scrawled love confession, warmth blooming in his chest. He can’t lie and say he hasn’t been hoping to hear it back, one day, but he’s content to take it in the ways Bucky is comfortable with: he knows the sentiment behind Bucky’s actions and can parse it from between the lines. Seeing it written down doesn’t mean Bucky will manage the words outright, and Steve can wait; God, he’ll wait until the end of the earth if that’s what it takes.

But Christ, Christ. It’s still a love you, in Bucky’s rushed penmanship, tenderness written all over the casual tone of the message, and Steve can imagine Bucky’s face when he added it to the note. He must have been flushed, roses high on his cheekbones and over the bridge of his nose, as exhilarated to get it out on paper as Steve is to receive it. Steve wants to tattoo it on his arm so he gets to look at it every single day, and then promptly laughs at his own love-dumbness.

Elevated, he goes on with the routine of grinding the beans and brewing coffee, making himself two sandwiches and some eggs. He eats his breakfast, drinks his coffee, brews another cup, eyes straying constantly back to the little note on top of the sketchbook, mouth tugging up helplessly.

Bucky’s bought him a sketchbook. Bucky’s in love with him. At this rate he’s never going to live through actually hearing Bucky say it; his booming superhuman heart is going to promptly give up from sheer happiness.

What a way to go, though.

It’s a rainy day and Steve has nowhere to be, so he settles on the couch, turns on the tv with the volume off, and flips the first page open. He hasn’t drawn in ages, not since Bucky came back into his life with vengeance, but his fingers are itching to do it again now that the supplies are there.

The first thing he does is carefully paste Bucky’s post-it note inside the front cover, so that he can see it every time he opens the book.

He spends the rest of the day sketching, getting up only now and then for lunch or a midday run. At first he does some simple drawings of things he sees around him to warm up, but when his lines start to get surer, he starts sketching from memory. He fills page after page with the curve of Bucky’s smile; Ruth’s annoyed, puffed-up bristle; the well-organized utility room where the birds are kept. He draws Peggy, in all her youthful glory and her dignified old age.

As he draws, it feels like something finally starts to give inside him, like a beaver dam starting to leak. He’s never been good with his emotions or talking about them - and, really, talking about feelings wasn’t something people did much in the 1930s - but at least back then he had art to channel them into.

It was easier to keep drawing the sharp angle of Bucky’s jaw than tell him that Steve loved him; it was easier to sketch a house where he could’ve lived after the war than talk about the fragile future. With Bucky, with Peggy, it didn’t matter. He had a dream of after , despite accepting that the war might consume them all, and the only place it could thrive was inside his notebook.

After has always been like a half-forgotten dream, too far away to chase and too foggy to bother with. Maybe there would be an after for him, maybe it would be a happy one; it was a cold comfort in the middle of the war where brothers in arms were falling next to him daily, but he held onto it, silently wishing for the day the impossible would finally inch closer.

When he woke up alone in this odd new century, it hadn’t mattered anymore. There was nothing to wish for anymore; no war to come home from, nobody to make a home with. He had hidden the part of him that never got out of the battlefield, but when Bucky turned up again, so did the desperate wish for after, and now--

Now, he thinks, flipping back to the front cover to see the post-it note again, the fog has finally started to dissolve.

Bucky stumbles through the door hours later, when it’s already starting to get dark. He looks bone-deep tired, and there’s flour on his clothes and hair, transferring onto Steve’s as Bucky collapses on the couch and presses himself against Steve’s flank. Bucky’s so impossibly sweet like this, seeking contact, all his hard angles softened with exhaustion. Steve pushes his fingers into Bucky’s hair, trying to work open the bun, and Bucky sighs, sagging against him. He smells like cherry pie and stale sweat.

“Long day?” Steve asks as the hair tie is loosened and Bucky’s hair falls down onto his shoulder.

Bucky makes a low noise of relief and agreement. “Never again,” he mumbles. “Franklin Todd better not get any more grandchildren.”

Steve hides his smile, because Bucky’s words are half-hearted, at best: Bucky loves so many people in town, especially Matthew, and likely would agree to help in a blink of an eye if Franklin Todd had another baptism to host and Matthew happened to ask. Steve runs his fingers through the hair at the back of Bucky’s head, fingers pressing gently against his scalp, making Bucky let out a pitiful sound and slump further into Steve’s armpit.

“You look exhausted,” Steve says softly. “Want me to run you a bath?”

“Yeah,” Bucky says, turning his head and resting it against Steve’s collarbone. “But not yet. Let me stay here for a minute.”

“As long as you need,” Steve says, kisses the top of Bucky’s head, and squeezes him close.

Steve sits on the toilet lid while Bucky’s in the bath, reading a book with his left hand and holding Bucky’s hand with his right. Bucky’s eyes are closed, head tipped back against the side of the tub, knees drawn up. His face, hair, and knobbly knees are the only parts of him visible among the bubbles, and Steve keeps stealing glances at him. Bucky’s eyelashes are long and dark against his cheeks, and they make him seem younger.

If it weren’t for the length of Bucky’s hair and the new lines on his face, and how badly Steve fits in the tiny bathroom, it could be just like before the war, whenever they could carry enough warm water up for an actual bath. Bucky’s got the look of someone who’s tired from hard work and pleased with the result.

“Can you wash my hair?” Bucky asks, opening his eyes and glancing up, tightening his grip around Steve’s hand a little. Under the wan bathroom light his grey eyes look almost translucent.

“Of course,” Steve says, puts his book away and reaches for the shampoo. He presses a kiss on Bucky’s knuckles before letting go, and Bucky smiles at him, dunking his head in the tub.

Steve washed Bucky’s hair just once, before, in the camp after the rescue from Kreischberg, when Bucky had been skittish and withdrawn, so exhausted that he was swaying on his feet. He’d been told to strip by the nurses who catalogued his wounds, but he’d refused to be touched, so Steve had been the one to help him into a tub and scrub the dirt and blood and sweat off him. Bucky had been so thin, his ribs and spine clearly visible, his shoulders sharper than Steve had ever seen. When Steve had washed him, Bucky had sat hunched into himself and startled at every touch, even though Steve had been careful to warn before laying a hand on him.

It had been the last time Steve had touched Bucky’s bare skin.

“Steve?” Bucky asks softly, and Steve blinks, realizing that he’s half-standing next to the tub, holding the shampoo.

“Sorry,” he says, clearing his throat, but his voice is a little weak. He pours shampoo onto his palm and starts working it into Bucky’s hair, dark and wet and so stupidly, wonderfully long. Bucky melts into the touch sweetly, tipping his head forward when Steve rubs his scalp, fingers digging carefully into the stiff muscles at the base of Bucky’s skull.

The seam of Bucky’s metal arm looks red and irritated, and Steve frowns, leaning closer to have a better look. The skin is hot to touch, and it makes Bucky flinch, drawing into himself a little.

“You’re hurt,” Steve says, and Bucky lifts his unharmed shoulder, not looking up.

“A lot of kneading,” he murmurs. “It hurts sometimes.”

“We need to get salve for it.” Steve touches the seam one more time, trying to gauge the severity of the inflammation. “I’ll go buy some tomorrow.”

“Yeah. How was your day?” Bucky’s mumbling into his knees, slurring with exhaustion, and Steve’s whole body goes warm with affection. Bucky’s practically asleep on his ass and yet trying to make conversation because he’s been out for the whole day.

“It was good,” he says, reaching for the detachable shower head and tapping Bucky’s jaw with his other hand. “Lean back.”

Bucky tilts his head back and lets Steve rinse the lather from his hair. “D’you like the pencils?”

“Yeah,” Steve says fondly, working the conditioner in. “I loved them. I’ll show you tomorrow what I drew.”

“You never showed ‘em to me in Europe,” Bucky says. It’s true: Steve used to let Bucky leaf through his sketchbooks back home, because they were already sleeping together and there were no secrets between them, but he’d stopped after he found Bucky again in Austria.

“Because most of them were of you,” Steve says, rinsing the conditioner out. “You’d made it clear you didn’t want me anymore, I couldn’t just-- well, give you a damn book full of your face.”

“I did want you,” Bucky murmurs, eyes closed, and Steve squeezes water out of his hair and twists it into a knot, securing it with a clip to keep it out of the bath water. “I just didn’t think I deserved you anymore.”

“Yeah,” Steve says softly, leaning to rest his head against Bucky’s temple. “I know that now.” He stays there for a while, breathing in Bucky’s squeaky clean smell, and then he forces himself to pull away, dropping a kiss on Bucky’s brow. “Let’s get you to bed.”

It’s not until Bucky’s struggling to pull a long-sleeved shirt on that Steve realizes he’s cradling his prosthetic arm close to his body, trying to limit its movements. He’s just about to reach out to help when Bucky finally manages to slip the shirt on, expression twisting with pain, and sits heavily down on the bed.

“Buck?”

Bucky looks up, blinking rapidly. His breathing is a little shallow, and he looks paler than he did in the bath. “It’s just-- My back hurts. The arm really fucks it up sometimes.”

Looking at the way Bucky’s twisted and hunched to stave off the ache, it’s no surprise. Steve’s noticed his lopsided posture, of course he has, with how much he keeps watching Bucky to commit him to memory, but he’s never stopped to think about the implications or the effect it might have on Bucky’s body. Steve doesn’t know exactly what Bucky’s arm is made of - and he doubts Bucky knows either - but it’s definitely heavier than the alloy of Tony’s armor or Sam’s wings.

Steve sits next to him, his hand hovering over Bucky’s lower back. “Anything I can do?”

Bucky leans into the touch, tense and careful, but something soft lingering around his edges from Steve taking care of him. “Could you - maybe try giving me a massage? It might help.”

“Of course.” Steve kisses his temple, damp hair clinging to his lips. “Get comfortable, I’ll see what I can do.”

Bucky’s back is a mess of tension and knotted muscles, and it takes a long time to get them to loosen up, but eventually Bucky falls asleep like that, sprawled on his stomach with his face mushed in the pillow, Steve still coaxing the knots out.

Steve sits on the side of the bed for a long time, watching him. He strokes his hand absently down Bucky’s back, thinking about what a show of trust it must have been for Bucky to ask for the massage: for all their closeness and fumbling intimacy, Bucky’s still hesitant when it comes to what HYDRA did to his body. Steve doesn’t fault him for it, but maybe this was the first step to conquering that obstacle; Steve’s just glad to have more ways to care for Bucky.

Bucky sighs in his sleep, and Steve leans down to kiss his shoulder and turns off the light. They’ll have time to figure it out, now.

**

Life settles onto its track.

Bucky does his odd jobs around town. Steve sometimes tags along, but most of the time they just wander in the fields or hunker down at home, pop into town to see Matthew. It’s a quiet life, just like Bucky warned him, and Steve loves it, he does, but sometimes--

Sometimes it’s hard. He’s fought for his living for a long time, and the lack of it makes him antsy and nervous, thrumming with pent-up energy.

“Do you miss it?” Bucky asks quietly one night, when Steve’s having trouble sleeping. “The shield?”

Steve’s been lying on their narrow bed for almost an hour, listening to Bucky breathe in the dark. He hadn’t realized Bucky was awake, his body a solid weight against Steve’s back.

“I don’t know,” Steve says after a beat. “I don’t miss the fighting, but--”

“You need an outlet,” Bucky says drowsily, hooking his chin over Steve’s shoulder. He’s sleep-warm, and his arm is heavy on Steve’s side.

Bucky sleeps so much nowadays, woken up by nightmares only a couple of times a month, and it shouldn’t break Steve’s heart, it shouldn’t. But back in 1944 Bucky’s sleep was fitful, patchy, and Steve can’t imagine how difficult the past year has been to him, so seeing him at peace means so much to Steve that it’s almost painful.

Bucky has his bad days, still - Steve would be more worried if he didn’t - when he is prone to either stick as close to Steve as humanly possible, or disappear for hours with just a nearly-illegible Out scrawled on a post-it. His craving for Ruth gets sharp and visceral, sometimes, resulting in Steve finding him downstairs in the empty mews, oiling the unused jesses over and over again like it would make time move faster. It’s frustrating because there really isn’t anything Steve can do to make it easier: the only way to get past it is letting Bucky’s overwhelming sorrow run its course and waiting for him to bounce back for another day.

Silently Steve’s counting days for the inevitable fight, when his own restlessness will clash with Bucky’s bad day and turn into yelling. He hopes he will figure out a way to let energy out before that; the last thing he wants is to fight with Bucky about something that isn’t his fault.

“I guess, yeah,” Steve says, and Bucky worms somehow even closer, plastering them together. He’s clearly struggling to stay awake but is trying anyway, likely because he knows Steve wants to talk, and-- Christ, Steve loves him to the moon.

“You should get another hobby,” Bucky murmurs. “A physical one.”

“Like farming?” Steve asks, aiming for a joking tone, but it falls flat. He’s genuinely considering it as a possibility.

“Maybe,” Bucky says, trying to stifle a yawn. “You’d probably look great in denim overalls.”

Steve snorts and manages to turn around so that he can get his arms around Bucky and squeeze: the shape of Bucky’s body is a marvel, familiar territory he’s still getting to know.

Bucky’s hair is a little damp from the shower, tied up in a slightly uneven Dutch braid. Steve’s gonna have to practise harder to make his braids tidier, more even. He’s also gonna have to practise not choking up whenever Bucky turns his back to him, sits down and says, Can you do my hair.

Bucky yawns openly, his breathing slowing down as he starts losing the grip on awareness. “This bed is too small,” he mumbles against Steve’s shoulder.

As if to demonstrate that, he turns around to become the little spoon, and nearly pushes Steve out of the bed in the process. Steve has to scramble to defy gravity, and he’s huffing with laughter as he settles again, moulding himself to Bucky’s back.

“You did that on purpose,” he murmurs, nosing Bucky’s ear, and gets just a sleep-sniffle as a response.

Sleep comes easy after that.

**

Barely three days later, Bill pulls Steve aside while he’s turning the soil in Irina’s vegetable garden, urging it to dry faster. Bill’s expression is hard to read, scrutinizing on a level that makes Steve squirm a little.

“Listen, son,” Bill says, lowering his voice even though Bucky is inside, scrubbing the bathroom. “You’re sticking around, right?”

“Yeah,” Steve says, leaning on the shovel and wiping sweat off his brow with the sleeve of his fleece jacket. The days are getting warm, and snow has already melted in most places, making way for spring. Irina’s itching to plant, but the soil and the weather aren’t fully ready for it yet, so the windowsills of the house are lined with seedlings just waiting for the right time.

“Not gonna keep running around the world after aliens?” Bill presses.

Steve shakes his head, wondering if this is gonna be some awkward shovel talk about Bucky. “The only thing I want in life is up there,” he says, gesturing towards the garage upstairs. “I gave up the shield, and I’m gonna stay as long as Bucky wants me around.”

Bill narrows his eyes in consideration, then his mouth turns into a smile. Sometimes Steve thinks that Bill is the kind of man he would like to become with age - steady, kind, picking his side and planting himself there, always in support of those who need it.

“Good,” Bill says at normal volume. “Do you see that house?” He points towards a small building, a little way up the road.

Steve’s run past it several times. It’s a one-story bungalow near where the path branches off towards the hills: a little neglected, standing in the middle of trees and overgrown weeds, looking like nobody’s lived there in decades.

“My parents built it in the 50s when I was a kid,” Bill says when Steve nods. “Irina and I lived there for a while, but built this house when Alicia was two, because Irina got pregnant with Mariyam. I’ve tried to take care of the house after that, just to make sure it’s not rotting, and we had tenants there for a while, but it’s been empty for over ten years now. Shame, because it used to be lovely.”

Steve nods again. The little house is pretty charming - or it would be, if it was painted, the roof fixed and the yard cleared up. For a few seconds Steve makes the mistake of picturing Bucky there on a summer morning, half-asleep and leaning against the doorframe with his hair twisted up and a coffee cup in his hands, waiting for Steve to get back from his run.

It’s a very, very good image, even if it’s just a fantasy.

“Do you want it?” Bill asks bluntly, jolting Steve from his daydream. “It needs a full renovation from top to bottom, but it’s a good house if you don’t need much extra space.”

“Not like we have much space currently, either,” Steve says absently, and then the full implication in the words hit home, the realization of what Bill really is offering him.

A house to call their own; that post-war forever home Steve used to dream about inside his sketchbook; his final, long-awaited after.

Holy shit. Holy shit.

“Oh,” Steve says, stunned, and the images of Bucky and late summer mornings slam back with vengeance, grabbing a firmer hold of him. “Fuck, uh, sorry, I-- gotta ask Bucky. But that-- that would be amazing, Bill, I don’t even know what to say.”

Bill grins, obviously pleased with both himself and Steve’s reaction. He clasps Steve’s shoulder, squeezing tight and warm, like Steve’s a son-in-law he’s given his ultimate blessing to. “No need, kid. Come over with Jamie when you’ve talked to him, we can go look at it today so you will get the whole terror of it.”

Bucky’s eyes light up with excitement and wonder when Steve goes to fetch him after the vegetable garden has been turned. The bathroom floor is shining from the vigorous scrub Bucky’s given it, and there’s a healthy flush on Bucky’s cheekbones from the warmth of the house and the exercise. He’s favoring his arm again - not as badly as after Franklin Todd’s party, but noticeably. The arm doesn’t like repetitive movements, that much has become clear, but Bucky wouldn’t be Bucky if he didn’t insist on doing the chores anyway.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Bucky says. “I love that house. Let me get changed and we can go.” He’s wearing Steve’s t-shirt, his sweatpants rolled up to his knobbly knees to avoid getting them wet, and Steve wants to scoop him up and never let go.

He puts his hand tentatively on Bucky’s upper back, instead, pushing gently with his fingertips, and asks, “You okay?”

Bucky makes a low noise, his smile slipping just a little. “Just sore,” he says before his smile returns back to its brightness. “I’ll be fine. Let’s go see the house.”

Steve drops it. Maybe he can do something for Bucky later to help him unwind.

Bucky is practically vibrating with excitement as they walk up the road after Bill, and it would make Steve laugh if his throat wasn’t feeling suspiciously tight the closer they get to the little house. They have to hack away the weeds to make it to the porch without getting dry thistle all over their clothes, and when Bill opens the door, the smell of stale air and dust rolls out, making Bucky wrinkle his nose. Steve tries to not find it so adorable.

Bill wasn’t kidding about the need for renovation: the house seems dark and sad with its yellowing walls and peeling paint, the stained carpets curled up in the corners, the smell of dust and mildew hanging in the air. The plumbing and wiring needs to be updated and the roof replaced, and the bathroom makes Bucky recoil a little in horror.

But the teak veneer of the built-in cabinets in the foyer and the master bedroom is in good condition, the windows are big and let in a lot of light after the dusty curtains are pulled to the side, and the floor plan is good. Steve walks around the house, knocking on walls, trying to imagine how it would look with new paint and hardwood flooring, with all of Bucky’s things from the flat brought in; with furniture that is theirs.

It could become a home. There is definitely room for a bigger bed.

He finds Bucky and Bill in the kitchen, gently testing the old cabinets to see if the frames can be saved. When Steve goes to them and puts his hand on Bucky’s lower back, Bucky leans into the touch and says, “I like it.”

“Me too,” Steve agrees, turning his head and pressing a kiss on Bucky’s temple. It sounds terribly lame comparing to the whole overwhelming mess of emotions Steve tries to convey with it, but his voice catches a little in his throat, and Bucky’s eyes are shining in a way that means he gets it, probably feels exactly the same.

“Let’s do this,” Bucky says, and Bill grins, tossing him the keys. Bucky catches them easily, and both he and Steve stare down at them: the literal start of a new life together.

When Bill wanders out to check on the garage, Bucky turns to Steve, takes him by the collar, and leans up for a kiss. It’s longer, less tentative than the ones they’ve been trading until now, and Bucky’s eyes are bright when they finally break apart, a little breathless.

He’s smiling, the curve of his red mouth irresistible, and Steve can’t help but lean back in for another kiss, his hands migrating to Bucky’s hips. Bucky rocks closer, slides his right hand into Steve’s hair and opens his mouth, and suddenly every nerve ending in Steve’s body lights up, stunned and delighted.

It’s the kind of kiss he remembers from before the war, when Bucky wasn’t yet scraped raw and pulling away - but now he also has a new kind of appreciation for the long road they took to reach this point, and it fills Steve with giddiness and marvel. This is their homecoming; their American dream seventy damn years in the making.

When Bucky pulls back and rests his forehead against Steve’s, they’re both breathing heavily, grinning like a pair of loons.

“We’re getting a house,” Bucky says in a low, astonished murmur.

“Yeah,” Steve agrees, kissing the corner of Bucky’s mouth, and thinks, Now, now, now.

**

They fall into bed together that night, giddy with excitement and laughter, and Bucky’s pliant and kissable against Steve, miles of long limbs and happiness. He’s warm when Steve sneaks a hand under his shirt, and makes the most wonderful little sound as Steve’s thumb follows the lines of his abs, rucking the shirt up.

Steve’s careful to not go too far up; he’s seen Bucky shirtless dozens of times when changing or in the bath, but there’s a line of intimacy they haven’t yet crossed, and he doesn’t want to push Bucky into anything he isn’t ready for.

But then Bucky maneuvers them easily so that he’s sitting on Steve’s lap and grabs the hem of his shirt, and Steve’s brain shorts out. Bucky pulls the t-shirt over his head, revealing the pale expanse of his torso, the lean muscles shifting under his skin. The light is out, but the thin sickle of newborn moon is shining outside, making the darkness less heavy.

Bucky’s hair is loose and flipped over his shoulder, and it tickles the side of Steve’s face when Bucky leans over him, cupping Steve’s face with both hands. He looks like a wild thing, like something that has allowed itself to be tamed by Steve, and Steve’s mesmerized, his hands twitching helplessly on Bucky’s thighs.

“I love you,” Bucky says softly, curved over Steve like a shield. “I love you, I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to say it out loud.”

“No,” Steve manages, his heart in his throat. He struggles to prop himself up onto his elbows, pushing up and closer to Bucky. “It’s all right. I’ve known it.”

Bucky smiles, tilting Steve’s face up with his hands to kiss him. He’s minty fresh from brushing his teeth and his lips are soft, and Steve never wants to stop kissing him. Steve doesn’t know if he’s been this happy in his whole life, the almost unbearable lightness swallowing him whole.

“I want to sleep with you,” Bucky says, their foreheads pressed together, “if-- if you want that too.”

Steve surges up to kiss him again, trying to be mindful with his beard and the burn it can cause. “Yes,” he says, “yes, of course, Bucky, Jesus,” and Bucky laughs against his mouth.

Bucky’s grinning when he pulls back, his hands sliding down Steve’s chest to the hem of his shirt. Steve hastens to sit up, letting Bucky ruck his t-shirt up and over his head, tossing the garment to the floor. As soon as it’s gone, Steve reaches for Bucky again, bringing him in for more kisses, running his fingertips hesitantly up Bucky’s torso, over his metal shoulder.

Bucky shivers at the touch, sighing, his back curving and head tipping back as Steve kisses him on the jaw and down his neck to the dip between his collar bones. Bucky threads his hand into Steve’s hair at the back of his neck, and he presses helplessly into Steve’s hands, firm around his ribcage.

“God, you’re beautiful,” Steve murmurs against Bucky’s throat, making Bucky laugh breathily.

Steve kisses the scarring around his shoulder and the faded marks from long-gone decades on his chest. Bucky’s hand tightens a little in his hair, his warm metal hand running across Steve’s shoulders as Steve’s lips move lower. He mouths at Bucky’s nipple, circling the other one with his thumb, and Bucky inhales shakily. Some things never change - Bucky’s always had sensitive nipples, and Steve used to be able to make him come just from playing with them.

God, if that naive little pre-war Steve could see them now: how far they went from that shabby room in Brooklyn Heights, all the tragedy that came for them. Maybe it would make him appreciate what he had more, or fight harder through things to come, knowing there would be a good ending for them both. Maybe he wouldn’t learn a thing and still be a foolish kid, getting his dick wet on the regular and thinking it would last forever.

Steve flicks his tongue against the tight little nub of Bucky’s nipple before sucking it between his lips, getting it nice and wet so that when he moves to the other one, his thumb slides easily over it in a lazy, torturous rub. Bucky’s making soft, breathy sounds at the back of his throat, hips rocking just slightly. Steve loves playing with his body like this; the sweet way Bucky’s always given himself up when there’s a hand or a mouth on his tits.

Soon enough Bucky’s properly squirming on his lap, and when Steve sneaks a hand between them he finds that Bucky’s hard as nails in his pajama pants, worked up and starting to get that air of desperation Steve likes so much. He presses against the bulge, kneading a little, and Bucky draws a sharp breath, a low sound rising from his chest.

Steve’s half-hard just from having Bucky on his lap, but suddenly Bucky’s pulling away, sliding down Steve’s body and-- Jesus fuck, putting his mouth on Steve’s cock over the underwear, making it jump.

“Lie down,” Bucky says and mouths at the line of his dick, and Steve’s back hits the mattress like lightning, making Bucky chuckle. Steve squirms at the vibrations, half from arousal, half ticklish. He wasn’t expecting Bucky to turn the tables on him like this, but it delights him all the same: serves him right for assuming that Bucky wouldn’t remember how to play this game, too.

“Fuck, Steve, look at you,” Bucky murmurs, a sly smile on his lips, his hands sliding up Steve’s torso, petting his chest hair and palming his pecs briefly before returning to his hips. “Finally the rest of you matches the size of your dick.” He presses a kiss on Steve’s abdomen, following the line of the iliac furrow with his tongue, and touches his lips against Steve’s cock again.

It hits Steve then, that this is the first time Bucky’s really touched him after he got the serum, and that both of them are just as dumbstruck by each other: Bucky by health and strength, Steve by survival and happiness. Overwhelming gratitude sweeps over him, just from feeling Bucky’s hands framing his waist. It’s like their first time together all over again, except so much better, because they’re getting to touch each other like this again after all the hardship and sorrow.

Bucky doesn’t make a move to pull Steve’s underwear down, content to coax his cock to swell with his clever tongue and wet mouth, sucking the head through the cotton. Steve swears, scrabbling for purchase, and Bucky pulls his hand into his hair, encouraging Steve to hold it. It’s silky between Steve’s fingers, thick and shiny, and he fists it experimentally, making Bucky breathe out in surprise and arousal.

Steve tightens his hold a little, and Bucky makes a sound that goes straight to Steve’s dick as Bucky sinks down again, sucking Steve to full hardness, damp fabric moulding around every curve. It’s a new sensation and unbearably erotic, making Steve arch off the bed. He wants to squirm, but holds on to the mattress with his free hand, biting his lip, until Bucky does something incredible with his tongue, and he can’t take it anymore.

“Come here,” Steve says breathlessly, pushing up onto his elbows and sitting up against the headboard. If Bucky actually gets his underwear off and goes to town, this is going to be over sooner than he wishes.

Bucky obeys, crawling up Steve’s body to meet his mouth halfway. Kissing him is electric, the slide of his lips and the crook of his tongue setting off sparks under Steve’s skin, and Steve’s never wanted anything as badly as he wants Bucky, bright and alive and in his arms, this time to stay.

“How do you want me?” Steve asks, thrusting slowly up against the swell of Bucky’s ass.

“Like-- oh.” Bucky’s mouth opens in a sigh, and he curves his back to meet the roll of Steve’s hips. “Like we used to do.”

Steve knows immediately what he means: the muggy summer nights spent crammed together on Steve’s narrow bed, Bucky’s tightly crossed thighs and arched back, sheen of sweat on his body. “Yeah,” he breathes out, leans in to press a kiss on the underside of Bucky’s jaw. “Do you have anything to slick you up?”

“In the bathroom,” Bucky manages. “Let me--”

Steve lets go, and Bucky wobbles off the bed and onto his feet. He comes back a few seconds later with a jar of vaseline, tossing it to Steve, but doesn’t come closer. He hovers at the foot of the bed, then swallows and lifts his chin.

“Turn the light on,” Bucky says softly, hooking his thumbs in his waistband. “Please.”

Steve feels like he’s choking on his own heart, so high up in his throat, as he leans to click the bedside lamp on. He’s grateful for the warm glow of the lamp: he wants to see Bucky, but, more importantly, Bucky wants to be seen, doesn’t want their second first time together to be in the dark.

Bucky waits until the room is lit before pushing off his pajama pants and straightening up, stepping out of the pooling fabric. Steve doesn’t know where to look first, his gaze sliding greedily up Bucky’s calves and powerful thighs to his cock and trimmed pubic hair; up his slender torso to the hair spilling down over his shoulder. He’s breathtaking, agile and beautiful, and all Steve’s.

“Jesus, Bucky,” Steve manages, meeting Bucky’s eye, and something in Bucky’s expression softens, opening up, and he comes back to bed, leaning in for a kiss. Steve worms out of his underwear and fishes around for the vaseline, screwing it open.

Bucky’s warm and smooth, pale after the long winter and gilded by the light, and he yields into touch perfectly, spreading his legs. He’s trembling by the time Steve finishes slicking the insides of his thighs, eyes half-lidded.

“Come here, sweetheart,” Steve murmurs, half-sitting back against the pillows and the headboard, crooking a finger at him.

Bucky turns around, and just the sight of his bare back, narrowing down to his trim waist and the flare of his ass is enough to make Steve swallow. He swipes some loose locks back over Bucky’s shoulder, just to feel Bucky’s skin under his fingertips.

He helps Bucky settle his back against Steve’s chest, his ass right up on Steve’s groin; the pressure a promise in itself, the sweetest kind of torture. Bucky’s pressed together thighs are slick with vaseline, muscles tensed to create the perfect, tight channel for Steve to slide his cock into, rubbing against Bucky’s perineum. Steve plants his feet on the bed, thighs bracketing Bucky’s and rolls his hips experimentally, gasping at the tightness. Bucky lets out a shuddering sigh, tips his head back against Steve’s shoulder.

They used to do this on their sides, or Bucky lying under him, and the grip of his thighs is achingly familiar. But now it’s so much better: Bucky curved against his chest, his whole gorgeous body up on display and to caress, and Steve finally has the power and muscle control to fuck slowly up into the warm space between Bucky’s legs, able to watch the tip of his cock pushing out, flushed and leaking.

It feels so good, and Steve kisses Bucky’s jaw, draping one arm over Bucky’s pelvis to help him stay in place, running his other hand up to find a nipple. Bucky gasps at the touch, hand braced against the bed and the other looped behind Steve’s neck, chest pushing up. He’s wonderfully eager and pliant, trying to move his hips just slightly, and Steve mouths another kiss on his neck, wholly wrapped around Bucky.

He gets hair in his mouth, and still fucking loves it.

 

 

It’s quiet, intimate; there’s not much room to move so it’s more of a slow grind than actual fucking, and Steve wouldn’t change it for anything. He revels in the slick grip of Bucky’s thighs, the silence in the bedroom broken only by the wet slide of his cock and the small, breathy sounds Bucky makes when Steve teases his nipple with his fingertips.

“I can’t wait for it, baby,” Steve says against Bucky’s ear, and Bucky squeezes his thighs just a little more, making Steve’s breath hitch as his orgasm starts slowly building. “A real house, with you. We’re gonna have a fucking life together.”

He slides his hand down to palm Bucky’s dick, spreading the pre-cum with his thumb, and Bucky sighs shakily, tries to push up against the pressure. Steve squeezes a little, teases the crown and revels in the perfect way Bucky responds to the touch, squirming with pleasure, a breathy laugh on his lips.

“Kiss me,” Bucky says, turning his head, and Steve’s more than happy to comply. It’s a little messy and uncoordinated because of the funky angle, but then Bucky rubs his thighs together and crooks his tongue in Steve’s mouth, and suddenly Steve’s teetering at the edge of an orgasm, just like that.

“Christ, Bucky, I’m--” he says as he pulls back from Bucky’s mouth, his hips stuttering.

Bucky nods, his eyes bright and mouth raw from kissing, says breathlessly, “Yeah, give it to me,” and then Steve’s fucking up into the wet heat between Bucky’s legs; once, twice, thrice, making a guttural sound as he comes.

Bucky makes a low, approving noise and circles his hips slowly, his thighs massaging Steve’s cock through the orgasm, and Steve’s pawing at Bucky helplessly, panting and happy, high on the first orgasm he’s had with Bucky since 1943.

“I wish I could live here,” Steve slurs, fuck-drunk and stupid, because his cock doesn’t show any signs of softening, and he’s already thinking about flipping Bucky over to all fours and sliding back in; of all the places he could take his hands to in that position.

Bucky laughs, surprised, but it turns into a moan when Steve brushes a thumb over his nipple. “What, between my legs?”

“Yeah,” Steve says, grinning with the post-orgasm high, and tugs lightly at Bucky’s perky nipple, “with your tits up like this.”

Bucky sputters out a mixture of a laugh and a needy sound. “You animal,” he says as he pushes his chest more into Steve’s hands. “Is this how you talk to all the girls?”

They used to laugh and horse around a lot while having sex, before, as much as Steve’s health allowed, and sliding easily back to that dynamic after the heavy intimacy just moments before hits Steve like a punch to the stomach. “Nah,” he says to cover the way his heart cartwheels in his chest. “Just the one that for some reason likes my dumb face.”

It makes Bucky laugh again, the grip of his thighs loosening a little, and having him jostling with mirth in Steve’s lap in all his naked glory is better than anything Steve could’ve ever dreamed up.

“Open your legs,” Steve murmurs, and when Bucky does, he moves Bucky’s hair out of the way, swipes his hands over Bucky’s thighs to collect some of the grease, and brings his slippery fingers up, palming Bucky’s pecs. He kneads slowly, Bucky arching up against him, breathing heavily.

“The things I want to do to you, sweetheart,” Steve tells him, shifting his grip so that the calluses on his palms scrape against Bucky’s hardened nipples, drawing the most incredible noises from Bucky’s throat. Bucky’s hips start twitching, like he’s seeking friction on his dick, and his breathing is fast, his chest heaving against Steve’s hands.

“I’ve had a lot of time to think about it,” Steve says, low, running his fingertips down Bucky’s flanks, following the dip of Bucky’s iliac furrow with his thumbs and diverting his touch just before he reaches Bucky’s dick. “All the ways I want to take you apart with my hands and my mouth before I give you my cock.”

Bucky cants his hips up to chase the touch, spreading his legs, and Steve uses it to his advantage, sliding his hand down between Bucky’s legs and rubbing his sensitive inner thigh. “I could flip you around right now,” he says against Bucky’s ear. “Put you on your hands and knees and eat you out until you're all sloppy and sweet and ready for me."

Bucky's breath hitches, and Steve presses a fleeting finger against his hole, like a promise, just enough pressure to dip in before withdrawing, coming back up to Bucky's chest. "Or I could put you on my lap, have you hold your arms behind your back so your tits are all pushed out for me, and see if I can make you come with just my tongue."

Steve circles Bucky's nipples with slick fingers and rolls his hips a little, nudging his erection against Bucky’s heavy balls, making Bucky choke out a moan, low in his throat. Bucky's panting now, his back arching, and Steve gives him another tug. It's intoxicating to have Bucky like this, all spread out for Steve's exploring touch, giving himself up so sweetly.

"Yes," Bucky pleads, "fuck, please Steve, anything," but Steve's not done yet. He pulls his hands away again, stroking every inch of Bucky's warm skin with his palms, hips rocking lazily.

He'll never get used to this, Steve thinks as he kisses up Bucky's neck: the rush of arousal and affection, the quiet, all-encompassing intimacy that they've found. But maybe that makes it so incredible - they've finally got all the time in the world to explore and relearn, to find out all the ways that make them tick now.

"I want everything with you," Steve says, rubbing and rubbing, teasing Bucky closer to his orgasm. "We're just getting started, sweetheart."

“Steve,” Bucky chokes out helplessly, gulping for air as Steve flicks his fingers against the tight, slicked-up peaks, thumbing them, and suddenly Bucky’s gasping as his body convulses, his cock shooting over his stomach.

Steve stares at him shamelessly, his own dick twitching: the perfect arch of Bucky’s body, hair cascading over his shoulder, nipples blushed and puffy and begging to get a mouth on them; the mess they made on Bucky’s thighs and stomach, Steve’s drooling cock straining between Bucky’s legs.

He’s a fucking sight, and Steve kisses his jaw, stroking both hands down Bucky’s sides, following the full-body blush. After a moment, Bucky sags back against Steve and tips his head onto Steve’s shoulder, eyes closed. “God,” he rasps out.

Steve presses his face against Bucky’s temple, breathing in the sex-scent of him, and the smell of outdoors always lingering in his hair. “I love you,” he says, because that’s him: Steve Rogers, the certified sap. “You’re incredible.”

“Flatterer,” Bucky says, squirming a little until Steve wraps his arms around him in an embrace. He settles down against Steve to catch his breath, turning his head to meet Steve’s eye.

“Always,” Steve says, winks cornily, and kisses him, swiping his tongue over Bucky’s spit-slick lower lip. They trade lazy, satisfied kisses until Bucky’s breathing has evened out, and then Bucky reaches down between his legs, circles the head of Steve’s still-hard cock between his thumb and forefinger.

Steve bucks up to the touch, and Bucky laughs breathlessly, stroking a little more insistently with his thumb. “Did you say something about putting me on all fours?” he asks, and Steve grins, grips him harder, and does as he promised.



Turns out that Lena Schwartz - whom Bucky once helped move - is an interior designer, and Charles, her new fiancé, works as a carpenter and a builder. They come over to take a look at the house, grimacing at the aged carpets, but Charles confirms that there doesn’t seem to be any structural problems with the house, and that the renovation can be finished before summer is over.

Lena designs them a new, improved kitchen and completely renewed bathroom, implements the color scheme Steve suggests, and kicks the ugly utility room countertop off by herself on the first demolition day.



They’re both in the kitchen, clearing the table after lunch, when Steve’s phone starts chiming in the pocket of his toolbelt, hanging near the door.

Bucky looks up when Steve’s head whips towards it, surprise written all over his face, and for a moment they both stare at the toolbelt, listening to the chime get louder and louder. Bucky’s never heard that alarm before, and when Steve snaps out of the trance, throws the dish towel down and strides to pull out his phone, he realizes why.

A dot and a dash, the first letter of the Morse alphabet. It’s the Avengers alert.

“Fuck,” Steve says to himself as he pulls the message up and skims through fast. His face is intensely focused as he reads, and then he’s quickly dialing, putting the phone to his ear and turning towards the bedroom. Bucky stands mutely in front of the sink, his hands still in the murky dishwater, and watches him go.

“Tony,” Steve says as he disappears into the bedroom, “I need transport. Do you have the coordinates?” A short silence. “I should’ve guessed. No, you can’t just land anywhere, you’ll ruin the harvest. There’s an unused airfield near me, I can get there pretty fast.” Another pause. “Yeah, I got it, thanks. Haven’t tried it on yet, but I’m sure it’ll be fine. Yeah. I’ll be there, see you soon.”

Bucky finishes scrubbing the last plate and rinses it, yanks the plug out to drain the sink. He wipes the counter and the kitchen table, takes the dish towel Steve left lying around and folds it neatly over the oven handle. Both of his hands are trembling, just slightly.

How the hell does Steve know about the small, unused airfield, seven miles out of town? Bill took Bucky there once, back in the fall when they were getting Ruth used to short car rides, but Bucky’s never even mentioned it to Steve as far as he can remember. Has Steve been preparing for this, looking up places where a quinjet might land without disturbing the farmers’ livinghood? And if he has, why didn’t he say anything?

Bucky busies himself with the fridge, rearranging the fresh produce and the pre-made meals he’s cooked for Steve to take to the building site. There’s something heavy and terrified sitting under his sternum, pressing against his lungs. They’ve been slowly renovating the house for three weeks now, working around Charles’s work schedule, and everything has been going so well, so well, and now--

“Bucky,” Steve says, and when Bucky turns, he suddenly feels like someone threw a bucket of cold water on him.

Steve’s standing at the doorway of the bedroom, phone in hand and hair swept back from his face, but he’s not in cargo trousers and a flannel shirt anymore. Instead, he’s wearing an all-black tactical suit and heavy boots, fingerless gloves pulled on. Bucky’s never seen it before, didn’t even know there was anything like that in their apartment.

“It’s Chicago,” Steve says, and Bucky stares at the uniform, stares and stares and stares. Where had Steve stashed it in their small bedroom, and why had he kept it from Bucky? It must be fairly recent, because when Steve arrived in Maine back in February, all he’d had was one duffel bag of clothes, nothing battle-ready in sight.

Steve’s eyeing him, a complicated mix of emotions on his face: concern, guilt, determination. “It’s-- it’s looking like a nightmare, Buck, that’s why they alerted me,” Steve says. “It’s too big to risk it - I have to go. The quinjet will be here in twenty.”

The spell breaks, and Bucky glances back towards the fridge, inhaling shakily. “Okay,” he hears himself saying. “Do you need a ride?”

“Yeah, to the airfield,” Steve says, and Bucky closes the fridge door and turns, unseeing like he’s in a dream, heading to put on his shoes and find the car keys.

“You could,” Steve starts, but there’s hesitation in his voice. “You could come with us,” and that’s when Bucky’s hands start to shake in earnest.

He’d finally made his peace with his past during the long, cold winter, accepting that he’d done terrible things under someone else’s influence, and that there was nothing he could do about it now, except to forgive himself and try his best to live better. And there it was again, the option: another rifle, another battle, another burden to carry on his back. No masters, not anymore, but would that taste any sweeter than what he was used to?

HYDRA had also told him that he would help save the world.

“No,” he finally manages, hating how his voice breaks on the word, and tugs his sneakers on, bowing his head down to tie the laces so that he doesn’t have to look at Steve. “I’m done with fighting. And I promised Matthew to go see him.”

Steve’s silent for a long moment, and when Bucky finishes tying his shoes and braves a glance up, Steve’s looking down at him, his expression so terribly, wonderfully open and fond, his whole heart written all over his face.

“Of course, Buck,” Steve says, coming closer, and then he’s pulling Bucky up and leaning tentatively in for a kiss. Bucky meets him halfway, because if he’s learnt something in his life, it is that he will never, ever again let Steve go anywhere thinking that Bucky’s mad at him. They’ve had enough tragedy and too little of happiness.

The quinjet isn’t there yet when they arrive at the airfield, the truck bumping down the unpaved road, eaten by years of frost and neglect. They sit in the car in silence for a while after Bucky kills the engine, and then Steve’s opening their seatbelts and reaching out over the center console, and Bucky tips easily into his embrace.

It feels strange to hold Steve like this, with the suit so coarse and stiff between them: until now there’s only been soft, vulnerable layers of wool and cotton and flannel separating them, letting them be close and let their guard down.

“Please be careful,” he says against Steve’s shoulder, inhaling the unsettling mix of Steve’s familiar deodorant and the leather and canvas of the new suit.

“I’ll do my best,” Steve says, crushing Bucky against him despite the awkward angle over the gear stick, and when Bucky makes a disbelieving noise, Steve pulls back to look him in the eye.

“I swear, sweetheart,” Steve says, his face serious and intense. “Sam will kick my ass for you if I do something dumb.”

Bucky cracks a smile at that, and Steve smiles back and kisses him, threading his hand into the hair at the back of Bucky’s skull, messing up the braid, and just keeps kissing him until the rumble of the approaching quinjet brings reality back in. The jet lands smoothly on the field, the hatch opening in wait.

“I love you,” Bucky says before Steve can leave, his lips tingling with the scrape of Steve’s beard. “Stay safe.”

Steve leans in for one final kiss, hard and unyielding against Bucky’s mouth, and opens the door. “I love you too,” he says. “I’ll text you.”

“I didn’t know you knew how to text,” Bucky says. “Modern technology is often difficult for old people,” and then Steve’s shoving him, face softening briefly into something private that’s meant just for Bucky, put-upon and fond and amused.

“You’re older than me, asshole,” he says. “Besides, your modem wasn’t installed properly, until someone fixed it,” before he brushes his lips over Bucky’s nose, gets out of the car and slams the door closed. Bucky watches him jog across the airfield to the jet, the tiny figure of Tony Stark walking out to meet him.

The jet looks out of the place in the middle of the Maine countryside. Bucky stares at the hatch as Stark and Steve get in, and suddenly all he can see is the burning helicarrier with its destroyed quinjets, and himself, kicking a pilot into the running rotors. He wrenches back against the seat, trying to dispel the memory, and starts the engine just as the jet lifts off and disappears under a cloaking shield.

He drives back home with his concentration in shambles, trying to stay alert long enough to park the car and kill the engine. Once the car’s quiet, Bucky leans his head against the wheel and inhales through his nose, exhales through his mouth, concentrating on his breathing for a long, still while. He fought for this life and he deserves it; it doesn’t do to dwell in the past. If he starts thinking that he needs to make amends for what he was forced to do, he will never stop. He’s beaten himself enough over it.

His hands are clenched on the wheel, and he has to consciously loosen his grip to not crush it. Steve will be fine. He has a whole team to watch his back, now, and Bucky made his bed when he said no; all he can do now is lie in it.

But what if this isn’t the odd occasion? What if the alerts will start coming in more and more frequently, and in the end it will be like Steve never let the shield go at all? They’ve managed for two whole months without incident, but Bucky should’ve known that Steve was restless, even after he got a physical outlet in renovating the house. But a suit? Bucky doesn’t want to know what it implies, but he can’t help but think about the what ifs.

Suddenly he misses Ruth: her bright, yellow eyes and head turned in curiosity, her talons curling around Bucky’s metal fingers. He thinks about the softness of her underdown, her weight on his arm, the easy, happy way she rouses when she sees him; and he has to squeeze his eyes closed to stop them from watering. How is she doing in the aviary - is she healthy, her molt proceeding like it should?

It’s been barely a month, and knowing he won’t see her until September sits in his chest like a boulder. How the hell is he supposed to survive through the whole summer without her to care for?

Letting Ruth go was harder than he’d ever imagined, and for days after her departure he kept walking down to the mews, ready to take her out to the fields, only to find empty perches and unused jesses and remember that she wasn’t there, wouldn’t be for almost six months. Steve’s presence has been helping with the separation, but it’s entirely different to use caring for something else as a way to care for himself, than to actually let somebody do it for him.

They’ve been taking care of each other, him and Steve, but what the hell is going to happen now, if Steve is going back to being Captain America and Bucky’s left unmoored and hawkless?

I’m doing my best, he thinks, pressing the heels of his palms against his eyes. I’m trying so hard. God, I hope I’m wrong about this.

It takes him a long time to get a grip of himself, glad that Bill and Irina are visiting Mariyam and Jacob and therefore not witnessing his meltdown, but finally he slides out of the car and heads down the road towards the town. There’s a headache forming at the back of his skull, and he forces his shoulders down, trying to relieve some of the tension. He’s been getting more and more headaches lately, and the culprit is clear - his left arm has been weighing him down for as long as he can remember. He compensates by leaning to the right, and his spine is constantly crooked because of it. He’s managed with it for the past year, but all the continuous manual labor at the building site has made the shoulder seam flare up and worsened the muscle cramps in his upper back and neck.

If he could just take the damn thing off, he would - but he needs his left arm, there’s nobody capable of handling tech like that around here, and just the thought of the nerve pain he suffered during and after every repair is enough to make him swallow back bile. So he handles the headaches, and the muscle pains and the inflammation at the seam, even though sometimes his whole upper body hurts so bad that all he wants is to curl up and pass out.

Steve’s been doing whatever he can - massaging out the knots in Bucky’s back and neck, carefully rubbing antibiotic salve to the inflamed area, giving head rubs and cool wraps for Bucky to put on his eyes, softly reading a book aloud when Bucky’s coming down from the worst of the pain. He’s been so fucking tender and Bucky’s so damn grateful for him that sometimes it’s almost as unbearable as the pain.

Matthew is in the kitchen when Bucky lets himself in through the back door, plates clinking as he empties the dishwasher. The whole house smells of rosemary and sun-dried tomatoes, a sure sign that Matthew’s been baking focaccia, and stress and anxiety leave Bucky between one breath and another. He’s home. He’s safe. Nobody will ever ask him to kill again.

“Jamie?” Matthew calls over the splutter of the coffeemaker, and by the time Bucky steps into the kitchen, he’s trying on a smile, worry folded away for the time being.

“Hey, Matthew,” he says. “Any onions today?”

***