It’s four in the morning and there is something scratching at Steve’s door.
He’s just moved to this apartment in Brooklyn a few days ago, right after getting out of the hospital in D.C., and he hasn’t really had time to scope out the area, but this is… strange, to say the least. He’s on the second floor of his well-sealed building. Animals shouldn’t be able to get into his hallway.
He opens the door just wide enough for him to peak an eye through the crack, and he stares at what he sees.
It’s a cat. Feral-thin and small, sitting patiently on Steve’s doormat and staring up at him with round, unblinking eyes. Its fur is wet from the storm outside, and a little bit dirty, but Steve thinks it’d be pure white if not for all that. It is still. Not so much as a whisker twitches.
Steve opens the door the rest of the way, kneeling down slowly in the threshold and stretching his hand out so that the tips of his fingers hover before the cat’s pink nose. It bops Steve’s hand very carefully. The fur over its nose feels like pale velvet. Steve smiles.
“Where'd you come from, little guy?” Steve murmurs under his breath, checking for a collar and not finding one. The cut butts its head up into Steve’s cupped palm, a low purr building in the base of its throat.
Steve is just about to sit down and let the cat crawl into his lap when he feels it.
Someone is watching them.
He doesn’t freeze, doesn’t react in any way. He may be brash and stupid when it comes to fighting, but he doesn’t actually want to die, and he’s had enough training to know the basic steps to follow in instances like these. Instead, he continues to pet his visitor for another few moments, ignoring the way the hairs on the back of his neck and all along his arms are standing up at the obvious feeling of eyes upon him.
Slowly, as naturally as he can make it look, Steve lifts his gaze from the cat, scanning the hallway from end to end.
It doesn’t take long to spot him.
Steve’s heart stops beating, and his ears are filled with the buzzing rush of blood. Bucky Barnes is standing across from Steve, wedged in the shadowy corner of this end of the hallway, his arms crossed over his chest and his face hidden by the dirty tangle of his hair.
Bucky, who shot Steve, who watched him fall into the Potomac.
Bucky, who pulled him out.
Steve can still feel the bruises on his face from their fight, the places in his stomach that bullets had been dug out of.
Steve wants to crawl across this hallway, throw his arms around Bucky’s legs, never let him go.
They meet eyes, and Bucky’s are luminous in the darkness, round and shining out of the shadows. There are still smudges of black paint around his eyes, light now, run through with what looks like tear tracks, but it looks old enough to not have been reapplied after their fight a week ago. He’s still in his tac gear, and it’s ripped and dirty with blood, edges fluttering like tattered ribbons as he shifts on his feet.
“Bucky,” says Steve, voice sounding like the rasp of gravel scraping together. His hands are shaking, both of them; the cat (Bucky’s?) is still rubbing against his loose fist, and the loud purr sounds distinctly out of place in this charged space.
Bucky doesn’t react to the word. He stares, unblinking, at Steve.
Carefully, Steve rises until he’s standing, hands at his sides, shoulders hunched in to make himself as small as possible. The cat winds around his ankles. The stitches in his abdomen pull.
This time, Bucky flinches, and Steve hurries to back into his apartment a bit more, putting distance between them even though it’s the last thing he wants to do.
“Bucky,” he repeats, voice somehow fainter than it was moments ago. “Do you need anything?”
It’s not what he wants to ask. He wants to plead, to beg Bucky to come in, to come home, to come back to Steve.
He doesn’t, though. He knows he can’t—shouldn’t. It isn’t what Bucky needs.
Bucky takes a long time, and the silence built up between them is thick and heavy and oppressive. He’s breathing fast: chest rising and falling like the ocean beneath his ripped black top, lips parted a little bit.
“Hungry,” he finally says, and Steve wants to cry at how he cringes back from the sound of his own raspy tone, at how he brings a hand up to his own throat like it hurts. God, it probably does. Who knows when the last time he had water was.
“Ok,” Steve says, so relieved that Bucky came to him for a reason that Steve can actually help with. “Ok, Bucky. I’ll go grab you something to eat—“
Bucky shakes his head, sharp, making a harsh little noise in the back of his throat. “Not.” He stops, points at himself, shakes his head again. “Cat,” he grunts, pointing that same trembling hand at the animal sitting alert between them.
“The cat’s hungry?” Steve asks quietly, and after a long pause, Bucky nods jerkily.
Bucky’s always been like that. Caring for anything smaller than him, weaker than him, hungrier than him. He was like that with Steve. Going off of how he saved Steve a week ago, he still is.
Even after seventy years of brainwashing. Even when he is so far gone that he can’t even help himself.
Ok. Alright, Rogers. Don’t break down.
“I—I’ve got some tuna in the kitchen I think,” Steve fumbles, mentally going through what Sam and Natasha had filled his cupboards with when Steve was still reeling too much from the shock of everything to go shopping. “You stay right here, Buck, I’ll be as fast as I can.”
There is no response. Bucky is back to his blank, unblinking stare.
“I’ll leave the door open,” Steve says anyway, not daring to offer Bucky a place to wait inside, and rushes into his kitchen.
He cracks a can of tuna and fills up a shallow bowl of water for the cat. And then he makes Bucky a sandwich—just white bread and peanut butter in case his stomach can’t handle anything heavier, crusts cut off because Steve remembers that’s how Bucky always used to like it, even when they were hungry enough that every scrap of food made a difference—and fills a much bigger cup with water for him, balancing it all on a tray and walking back out into the hallway in record time.
Bucky is exactly where Steve left him: paralyzed in the darkest corner of the hallway, hunkered in on himself, looking like one loud noise would make him snap.
The cat is over by Bucky now, sitting curled in a dirty round ball on top of his black combat boots, head tucked over its paws. Bucky is staring down at it, holding completely, utterly still; he doesn’t even look up when Steve steps out into the hallway, kneeling once more and setting the tray down before him.
He sits. Crosses his legs. The cat’s ears prick up, and it opens its yellow eyes to watch Steve scoot the tuna and bowl of water further across the floor.
“Here, kitty,” Steve whispers, wiggling his fingers to draw the animal over and feeling oddly proud when it stands and pads on silent feet towards him.
Purposefully, Steve keeps his gaze trained down, eyes off of Bucky as the cat begins to munch voraciously on the smelly tuna, giving Bucky as much space and as little attention as he possibly can when he says, “There’s a sandwich and water here for you too, Bucky, if you want it.”
Bucky doesn’t say anything. Doesn’t say anything. Doesn’t say anything.
Steve looks up.
Bucky is hesitating half out of his shadow, alternating between putting weight on his foot closet to Steve and his foot furthest away. His brow is a stormcloud of indecision.
“That isn’t,” he starts, and his hands are fists at his sides, his eyes are bewildered circles in the black smudge of his face, “That isn’t part of the mission. Haven’t been instructed to partake of sustenance.”
It’s the most he’s said in over seventy years, and it breaks Steve’s heart.
And Steve hates it, hates it, but knows it’s what he has to do as he looks up at Bucky and sees the terrified rigidity with which he holds himself. “I’m your mission,” Steve starts gently, trying to smile through the avalanche of emotion decimating his insides. “That’s what you said. Right?”
A nod. Almost immediate, like that isn’t even a question.
“I want you to eat, Buck,” Steve murmurs, scooting the plate with Bucky’s sandwich on it off of the tray, and setting the tall glass of water next to it. “I want you to have some water. I want you to be ok.”
Bucky inches close with agonizing slowness, his movements choppy. He drops to his haunches, abrupt, and snatches up the sandwich and glass of water with hands that shake and shake. When he stands, he stumbles, and leans back against the wall as his breath kicks up in speed again.
Scared. He’s so scared. Scared of Steve.
The thought hurts.
The cat finishes before Bucky, crawling onto Steve’s lap and quickly falling asleep, so he concentrates on petting it as Bucky eats his food at a glacial pace, and sips at the water. He only finishes half of each, setting the remains carefully beside his feet on the hallway—crusts stacked upon the uneaten half, lined up all neat and tidy next to the glass.
And then he stands still, waiting.
So Steve climbs to standing, too, the cat jumping out of his arms as he gets to his feet and trotting over to Bucky.
“ Высокогорный,” Bucky says abruptly, snapping his metal fingers by his thigh, and the cat leaps from the floor to a perch on his broad shoulder in one bound.
Steve, startled, stares; but Bucky doesn’t seem to notice the oddness of this, doesn’t seem to notice that he’s just demonstrated the fact that he’s trained (his?) cat in Russian.
“Um,” says Steve, Bucky and the cat both looking at him with sharp turns of their heads. He clears his throat and starts over, hands clasped in front of his thighs. “Come back whenever you want to, Bucky,” Steve says, and hopes he doesn’t sound as desperate as he feels. “You and… and your cat. I’ll give you whatever you need.”
Bucky doesn’t move, keeps his eyes trained on Steve’s face, hands tight at his sides. His lips part like he wants to say something—but all that falls out is a breath of air.
Please come in, Steve wants to say, but doesn’t. Makes himself not. He bends and picks up the tray and then backs into his apartment, smiling weakly at Bucky before he shuts the door.
As soon as it’s closed he drops to the floor, sets the tray down beside him, and cries.
He makes it quiet. Just in case Bucky is still on the other side.
Steve doesn’t sleep again that whole night. At six, with eyes that are swollen and a heart that feels heavy and cracked, Steve puts on his running clothes, grabs his phone, and heads out.
The rest of the sandwich and the water glass are gone.
“He was here, Sam. Here. And he had a cat. God, Sam, I didn’t know what to do, I wanted to—I wanted to—I just wanted to hold him, you know? But I couldn’t do that, I knew I couldn’t do that, so—”
“ Woah. ” Sam’s voice is firm and grounding on the other end of the line, effectively halting Steve’s stream of overwhelmed bullshit and immediately lowering Steve’s blood pressure. Steve, currently sitting at an outdoor table at the cafe across the street from his building, takes an aggressive sip of his mocha and tries not to hyperventilate. “You’re gonna need to slow down, man. Take a deep breath—”
“—and try again.”
“Bucky,” Steve starts in a shaking voice, closing his eyes as memories from last night assault his brain. “He showed up at my apartment, Sam. Just… just appeared there in the hallway, like some kind of ghost. No idea how he got in,” he says, laughing a bit hysterically, “and he had a fucking cat with him, which, what the hell?”
Sam is quiet, but Steve doesn’t mind. It’s one of the things he loves about Sam: he always takes his time before answering, weighing the best words to use in order to most help whoever he’s talking to at the moment. “Holy shit,” Sam finally says. “Did he… act out?”
Steve knows what he means: did he hurt you? He flinches at the implication, even though the injuries he’d sustained from Bucky had been the only ones to get him hospitalized since the serum.
“No,” Steve says, and is so relieved that he doesn’t have to lie about this—because he would, obviously. “I promise he didn’t, Sam, you can come look at me to make sure I’m not lying.”
“I believe you, Rogers,” Sam says, laughing a little. He still sounds shocked, and Steve doesn’t blame him; he himself is still reeling.
“He was terrified,” Steve says in a softer voice, swallowing a burning sip of his mocha down sharp. His hands shake, and he doesn’t know if it’s a lack of rest, an overabundance of adrenaline, or the caffeine coursing through his veins. “All he wanted was for me to feed his damn cat. Seemed baffled when I thought he was the hungry one, and then he… he needed permission from me before he ate it. I’m so…”
“I know,” Sam says. And he does. Of course he does. All he’s done since Steve got out of the hospital is listen to how furious Steve is at the people who did this to Bucky, how furious he is that Bucky went through this, how furious he is at himself for not stopping it. Steve’s fury is like a third wheel to their friendship at this point.
“I don’t know what to do, Sam,” Steve confesses. He hates how emotional he’s being, hates that this is the thing that’s breaking him down—but it is and it’s Bucky , and Bucky is always, always worth it.
People walk along the sidewalk next to Steve’s table, chatting to each other, talking on phones, staring straight ahead, completely oblivious to the earth-shattering thing that’s currently happening. Steve wants to scream.
“I don’t think there’s anything you can do,” Sam says, with the air of someone who’s expecting to be fought with but going for it anyway. “If he wants you to find him, he’ll come to you; if he doesn’t, he’ll stay away. But if you go looking for him, you’re gonna be moving around too much and it might scare him, might make him lose track of you. Best just to stay put, I think. Wait for him.” His tone turns wry. “Even though I know you’ll hate that.”
Steve wants to rage against something. Steve wants to find every last person who has ever hurt Bucky Barnes and hurt them, too.
Steve is going to go buy some cat food, and then he is going to go home and wait.
It doesn’t take long.
This time, it is a knock that comes upon Steve’s door, light, just a single strike—and he holds off for a second before opening it, not wanting it to seem like he’s been hovering here all night. Which he has.
Steve gathers the supplies he’s gotten ready up in his arms. It’s a lot: a blanket, two tupperware containers full of human and cat food, respectively, a water bottle and an empty bowl for the cat. He hopes it isn’t overwhelming.
When Steve opens the door, Bucky is standing on the other side, a few feet closer than he’d been the night before, and the cat is sitting back upon his shoulder.
“Hi, Bucky,” Steve says, smiling like this is a normal thing to be happening to them.
Bucky ducks his head, looking up at Steve from beneath the curtain of his hair. It’s dark in the hallway since it’s well past midnight, and Steve can’t really see his face very well, but he can tell that Bucky is scowling—and that is so much better than terror or blank, glazed-over nothingness that Steve’s own smile grows if not in size than in genuineness.
“I brought you and your cat—”
Steve doesn’t miss a beat. “I don’t speak Russian, Buck.”
Bucky’s eyes drift closed as the cat nuzzles at his dirt-stained cheek with the tip of its velvety nose, and the sight is so adorable that Steve longs to draw it. The make a surprising, heart-wrenching pair, igniting something warm deep in the middle of Steve’s bones.
“Alpine,” Bucky rasps without opening his eyes, raising his flesh hand to stroke at the soft fur between the cat’s small ears. “It means Alpine. Her name.”
Steve’s face is going to split in half he’s smiling so widely. He named her. Bucky named this small animal, this thing he obviously cares for so much, and it is making Steve wholly, incandescently happy.
“Ok,” Steve says easily, leaning one shoulder against his door frame and watching Alpine shove her head against Bucky’s unsteady fingers. “I brought you and Alpine some things I thought you could use.”
Slowly, Bucky opens his eyes, dark eyelashes fluttering against his cheeks for a moment before his storm-gray gaze meets Steve’s. He seems a little more relaxed than he had yesterday, more calm with Alpine riding on his shoulders. With a shock of pain, Steve realizes that this cat is probably the only form of contact Bucky has had in seventy years that hasn’t been one of violence. No wonder he seems so much better when he’s touching her.
Steve would hold him, if he asked.
“Food?” Bucky asks, so hopefully that Steve has to bite back the hot spike of fury that shoots through him at the fact that Bucky has ever had to ask for something to eat like that. Bucky’s eyes are big in his gaunt face, and as he tucks a few strands of hair behind his ears, Steve sees just how thin he has become: his cheeks are hollow, his fingers are thin, his body is like a whip even with the muscle mass, not one ounce of extra padding anywhere to be seen on him. Steve’s going to kill someone, he really is.
But, “Yes,” he tells Bucky calmly, “food,” he says, like he isn’t plotting a murder. “For you and Alpine.”
Steve sits, folding his legs beneath him as he spreads out the assortment of items he has brought. Bucky watches on, still standing.
He opens the blanket first, smoothing out the folds so that it’s nice and even on the patch of floor before Steve’s door, big enough for two supersoldiers and a cat to sit on; then come the plastic containers, which he opens, and the water, which he pours some of into a bowl for Alpine, leaving the rest in the original bottle for Bucky.
“Alright,” mutters Steve, settling back on his ass and crossing his legs in front of him. He rests his elbows on his knees, clasping his hands in front of him, and looks up at Bucky with a smile.
Bucky is staring at him like he’s crazy. It’s such a familiar look; Steve would laugh, if anything about this felt anything like amusing.
“Have a seat, Buck,” Steve says, nodding at the other side of the blanket. He points at the plastic container holding another sandwich and some plain potato chips this time, not touching it, just gesturing. “This one is for you,” he says. “And this one is for Alpine.”
Slowly, Bucky lifts both of his hands up to grasp Alpine’s thin body, cradling her to his chest as he bends his knees carefully. She puts up surprisingly little protest, even when sits down a bit heavily on his rear, jostling her where she’s held in close to his mangled tac gear. She is very white against all of Bucky’s black.
Bucky doesn’t break eye contact with Steve the whole time.
“You.” Bucky stops. Clenches his jaw tightly, and doesn’t seem to notice when Alpine wriggles out of his grasp and goes straight to her food. “Want me to?”
Steve doesn’t want to give Bucky orders, he doesn’t want Bucky to simply go from one handler to the next, passed around like some sort of pet—but he understands that now, this early on, so soon after Bucky has started to break free from programming, he’s going to have to be direct with what he says. Make it clear when he wants Bucky to do things, and when he doesn’t, while still leaving as much room for Bucky to make his own choices as he possibly can.
“I would like you to,” Steve says, nodding, “because it will make you happy and well. I want you to be happy and well.”
Bucky’s flesh hand—quivering, quivering, and Steve just wants to take it between his own and warm it up and hold on —reaches out to pick up one half of the sandwich Steve brought him. His jaw flexes once more as he looks Steve over; he takes a bite of the sandwich, and chews slowly.
He eats like a child, Steve sees. Tiny bites, slow bites. Somehow, even though Steve knows his metabolism must be, if not as fast as Steve’s, much, much quicker than the average consumer’s—somehow HYDRA has trained him to eat barely anything, to get by on the absolute bare minimum for a meal. His body probably couldn’t handle much more than what he’s putting into it right now at any given time, and yet still Steve has to hold himself back from encouraging Bucky to finish the other half of the sandwich, to eat any of the chips.
After Bucky is done, he puts his crusts in a neat pile next to the rest of the food, and sets the container down between himself and Steve, edges even with Alpine’s makeshift food bowl. His eyes trail slowly up to Steve’s.
“Why?” Bucky asks, and them immediately shrinks back into himself, going pale, before Steve can answer. “No,” Bucky whispers, head down, shoulders up, voice fast and sharp, “No questions, I know this. The Soldier must not ask questions. The Soldier—”
“ Bucky. ” Steve cuts in perhaps too sharply, and Bucky’s head jerks up on his neck like a marionette whose string has been yanked. “It’s ok, Bucky,” Steve soothes, reaching out a hand in the space between them and then bringing it back to himself as he realizes what he’s doing. “It’s ok, you can ask me whatever you want. I don’t mind. I won’t punish you—for anything.”
Bucky looks like he doesn’t really understand, but his shoulders have relaxed a fraction, his mouth no longer looks grim and set with inevitability. “ Why ?” he repeats, voice a leaf trembling in a gale. “Why do you care?”
Steve smiles, but he knows that he looks like he’s going to cry, instead. “Because,” he whispers, and his heart pounds in his chest. “You’re my friend.”
Bucky mouths the word across from Steve, eyes fluttering closed and then back open again as he repeats it with a bit more voice behind it this time. “Friend. ”
“Yeah.” Steve nods, and smiles, and reaches out blindly to pet Alpine just so he doesn’t pull Bucky into a bone-crushing hug. “Yeah, pal. Friend.”
“You… you are my mission,” Bucky whispers, but he sounds confused, he sounds like there are things shaking apart inside of him and he can’t make heads nor tails of any of it. The corners of his mouth are turned down.
“Maybe,” Steve whispers, feeling Alpine’s purr through his fingers, watching Bucky as he sits, glowing with the light shining out from Steve’s open door, “maybe that means the same thing.”
That night, Steve tells Bucky to take whatever he wants before going back inside.
The next morning, the blanket is gone, and the dishes are stacked up in a neat little line by Steve’s front door.
Steve falls asleep on the couch, thin blanket spread over his legs and chest, head on the end of the cushions closest to the door so he can hear when—if—Bucky knocks.
He’s exhausted. He’s a supersoldier, sure, and he has a terrible relationship with rest anyway, sure—but he still needs to sleep sometimes, just like everybody else. Arguably more, since it takes so much more energy to run his big tank of a body. And the past few days have not been restful, to say the least.
This sleep that he falls into is a dead one, a total and utter blackout behind his eyelids as he drifts away by the light of the lamp next to the couch. He doesn’t dream.
When he does open his eyes, it is not because of knocking or scratching on the door: instead, it’s that same feeling he’d gotten in the hallway two days ago rousing him, alerting him. That feeling of being watched. That feeling of eyes tracking over the places where his skin is bare.
The window in the kitchen is open, and a cool fall breeze blows in across his face.
He sits up.
Alpine stands upon his coffee table, her tail a long, agile question mark curled above her head—and Bucky is sitting there on the edge of the table beside her, his feet placed closely together on the floor, his back as straight as a board, his hands in his lap. He’s watching Steve steadily, not trying to disguise the fact; when Steve’s sleep-clouded eyes finally focus on him, and he gapes a little, Bucky just nods very slightly at Steve.
“Uh,” Steve says eloquently, scrubbing at his face with the palms of both hands as he sits up, blanket crumpling up in his lap. His shirt has gotten all twisted up around his body and he pulls at it with hands that feel heavy and uncoordinated. “Hey.”
Bucky reaches out without looking and scoops Alpine up in his arms, holding her gently around the middle. She lets him tuck her under his chin, and Steve can hear her purr from where he sits.
Steve smiles at them. He marvels that this is his life; that this sheer happiness he feels at the fact that Bucky snuck in through his window in the middle of the night is normal, now.
“Hungry?” Steve asks, already standing up, body angled towards the kitchen in anticipation. He has everything all made up and set out, of course; he just needs to grab it.
But Bucky… he opens his mouth, hesitates, shuts it again. His dark eyebrows crash together above his nose; he’s obviously frustrated with himself.
Patiently, Steve stands where he is, just waiting.
“Hungry,” Bucky repeats, but he’s shaking his head, looking somewhere above Steve’s left shoulder. “Not important right now.”
Bucky moves suddenly, standing and holding Alpine out to Steve with both arms outstretched, his expression still intense and annoyed. “Bath,” he says hoarsely, staring down at the top of Alpine’s head. “She’s dirty, she needs a bath.”
Taken aback, Steve collects the dangling cat into his arms without really thinking about it, not at all surprised when she leaps away and stalks over to his chair to hide underneath it and peer out at them with judgemental eyes.
“You can have both,” Steve says after a few seconds of silence, wherein Bucky scowls at Alpine and Alpine stares at Steve and Steve stares at Bucky. Bucky switches to looking at Steve, scowl fading into puzzlement and then into a simple, studying gaze. “Food and a bath. You can—you can have anything.”
His voice breaks on the last word, shakes a little on all the rest of them, and if this were eighty years ago, if they were both kids again, he’d be embarrassed. As it is, all he can feel is glad that he even has the chance to say any of this to Bucky.
“You and Alpine,” Steve continues on, talking because Bucky isn’t, and he needs to make sure that Bucky understands. “If you want.”
Bucky’s lips form a word, and Steve barely catches it in the lamplight: want. There isn’t any voice behind it, nor any real comprehension, Steve thinks, but it’s something. It’s a start.
“Food first?” Steve asks. Bucky doesn’t answer, and Steve didn’t expect him too: Steve just smiles at him, gesturing a bit weakly in the direction of his kitchen, and turns his back to enter.
He can hear Bucky following along behind him, and he tries to shove down the oddly giddy sensation that bubbles up in his chest at that. Bucky could make himself silent if he wanted to, but he doesn’t; he wants Steve to know that he’s back there, matching him step for step.
Steve turns on the light. It hurts his eyes a little, after the darkness of the living room.
Tonight, Steve has made Bucky grilled cheese, wrapped in foil and sitting inside the microwave to keep the heat in. Steve’s not a very good cook. Even though it was usually up to him to make him and Bucky food when they were young because Bucky always worked late, he never enjoyed it, and it isn’t like he had a stunning array of ingredients to choose from, anyway.
But now, here in the future where it seems that every ingredient he could ever dream of is no further than the touch of a button away, he still just… doesn’t enjoy it.
Bucky’s always been better. He always cooked for Steve on his days off, making the plainest foods taste good. He enjoyed it, too; Steve can remember the apron he’d always wear, the soft, absent smile that would settle upon his face, the aimless tune he’d hum.
Steve is trying his best now, though.
“Here,” Steve says quietly, unwrapping the grilled cheese and placing it on a paper plate. He fills a cup of water, feeling Bucky’s eyes boring a hole in the sensitive spot between his scapula, feeling the frisson of tingles that runs down his spine at that intentional bit of something .
Bucky is sitting at Steve’s little table when he turns around, looking awkward and small in the rickety chair. He has his knees pulled up, the thick soles of his dirty boots resting on the seat, arms wrapped tight around his steepled legs; his chin rests on the peak of his knees.
It’s the closest that Steve has been to Bucky so far, and it’s the brightest light Steve has seen him in; he stops in his tracks halfway across the kitchen floor and takes a minute just to look at him, to look at him, to look at him.
Tired. That’s how he looks. Tired, and dirty, and still so much like Steve’s Bucky that the plate and the cup clatter on the tabletop when he sets them down.
Bucky tenses the closer Steve gets to him so he backs off, getting Apline’s things off of the counter and going to the end of the kitchen. He lines the bowls up next to each other on the end of the linoleum, and murmurs Alpine’s name softly. He can hear Bucky eating quietly behind him.
When Bucky is done, Steve comes slowly up to his table, keeping an eye on the line of Bucky’s shoulders as the space between them shrinks—it doesn’t tense up, doesn’t change at all. This might have something to do with the fact that Alpine is wound up tight around his ankles, but that’s ok. Steve isn’t picky.
“So Buck,” Steve says, hovering before him. Bucky blinks up at Steve, and he looks slow and sleepy, and so out of place in the bloodied tac gear he’s got on that Steve’s brain is short circuiting. He shakes his head to clear it. “I, um. Think it’s not a good idea to give a cat a bath? They do that themselves—what?”
Because Bucky is glaring at him, looking so completely fed up with Steve’s stupidity that Steve briefly flashes back to 1937 and gets whiplash.
“What, Buck?” Steve asks, and god, there’s that pissed of whine he always used to get when Bucky was on his ass about something, not as deep as before and tempered by some huge, overwhelming fondness, but there. He thinks he could either laugh, or cry.
“Don’t give her a bath, ” Bucky says, and really Steve doesn’t see why he’s acting like this is obvious because it absolutely isn’t, Steve gave a cat a bath once and he got scratched all to hell but he did it, “keep her here. Out of the dirt. Out of the rain.”
“ Oh .” The word barely has any noise, barely has any presence in the air between them at all. “Bucky, I don’t…”
Alpine leaps from the floor to Bucky’s lap, from his lap to the table. Pads across the surface to Steve. Looks up at him with eyes identical in size and shape and imploring attitude to Bucky’s, and, oh, fuck.
“Fine,” Steve murmurs, reaching out and petting her, feeling her purr through the palms of his hands. Bucky is leaning back in his chair a little, arms over his chest; he isn’t smiling—he isn’t smiling—but Steve thinks that it’s closer than he ever could have hoped. “She can stay here for as long as you need.”
You can stay, too, Steve thinks, so loudly that he can’t believe Bucky doesn’t hear.
Bucky sits on the closed lid of the toilet as Steve runs his bath water, watching the water level rise with huge eyes.
“Remember how we used to have to take baths, Buck?” Steve asks, not expecting an answer, but talking because Bucky appears to be listening. “One right after the other in that same tub? You’d always let me go first so I could have the warmest water, and I always felt so bad.” He cuts a glance at Bucky out of the corner of his eye, and sees that he’s watching Steve avidly, one hand clasped on each knee. “You were so good to me.”
“So small,” Bucky says, running his eyes over Steve’s chest and arms. “You used to be so small.”
“Yep,” Steve says quietly, smiling as he trails his fingers through the water steaming out of the faucet. Bucky remembers that, and that is something—that is a start.
“And.” Bucky’s sentence breaks off jaggedly in the middle—something Steve’s growing used to. He just hangs back and lets Bucky finish. “Sick.”
Steve nods. “Yeah. You took care of me, though.”
Steve is kneeling on the bathroom tile, leaning up against the tub with one arm and twisting back to look up at Bucky. The steam from the bath lifts the delicate strands of hair at Bucky’s temples. Steve wants to hold his hand.
“You’re my friend,” Bucky whispers, and the tip of his boot inches forward slowly to nudge at one of Steve’s knees, and oh. “Steve.”
He doesn’t dare reach out and touch Bucky; there is no way Bucky’s ready for that, and there’s an honest possibility that Steve might not be, either.
“Yeah, Buck,” he says, choked up and not bothering to hide it. “That’s right.”
Bucky doesn’t move his foot away.
He has Bucky check the water temperature with the back of his hand in a few moments, more to show Bucky that he has autonomy here with Steve than because he’s actually worried it’s too hot.
A nod. Bucky’s eyelashes flutter down over his paint-streaked cheeks, and he sways a little drawn into the warmth. Bucky always has loved being warm.
“Ok,” Steve says, chuckling softly under his breath and twisting the taps until the water shuts off. He stands, wiping his hands off on his sweatpants, and Bucky stands with him. “You go ahead and take all that off, Bucky,” Steve says, “and I’m gonna grab you something soft and warm to wear for after. Sound good?”
“I don’t have anything else,” Bucky says, running the flat of his palms up and down his thighs.
“You can borrow from me for now,” Steve says gently.
Bucky blinks. “Ok.”
Steve gathers his softest sweatpants and t-shirt that he thinks might fit his friend, grabbing a big, worn-out sweatshirt that he didn’t actually know he owned, and a pair of fuzzy socks that Natasha bought him for Christmas, for good measure.
He knocks on the cracked bathroom door before he enters, unsure. “It’s Steve,” he calls listening for the splash of water indicating Bucky’s still in there and sighing in relief when he hears it. “Do you want me to come in or stay out?”
There is a very, very long amount of time before Bucky answers.
“In,” he says, voice wavering slightly. He doesn’t sound scared—hasn’t all night, thankfully—but he does sound a little… poleaxed. Steve can’t begin to comprehend what he’s going through right now—hell, Steve doesn’t even know how many of Bucky’s memories he even has back. He’s willing to bet it’s a very small percentage. Possibly just those two facts about Steve before the war, and nothing more.
“Ok,” Steve says, nodding even though Bucky can’t see him. “Here I come.”
Bucky’s tac gear is folded in a neat pile on the counter, his boots lined up next to each other on the floor beneath that. There are at least ten visible knives atop the pile, their edges sharpened and gleaming to perfection.
Bucky himself is seated in the bath, arms gripping the porcelain sides, looking hunted and confused.
Steve sets the clothes he’s brought in next to Bucky’s old ones and then kneels by the tub once more, very carefully keeping his gaze at Bucky’s face and no lower. “Is something wrong?”
Bucky says nothing. Moving slowly, he ducks his head, wrapping both arms around himself and sort of shrinking into the lightly steaming water.
Thinking quickly, Steve runs through the list of possible problems here. The water is a good temperature, it’s not so deep that Bucky would feel like he was in danger, there are a myriad of soaps lined up along the rim of the bath—
Ah. Steve’s sort of an idiot sometimes.
“There are a lot of choices here,” Steve says. He leans across the bottom end of the tub to grab a bottle of lavender bubble bath, telegraphing his movements clearly so that Bucky can’t possibly be startled by him. “I like this one. Do you wanna try it out today?”
Their eyes meet. The paint lining Bucky’s has started to drip and run with the condensation built up from the warm water he’s sitting in, giving him the appearance of crying black tears, and Steve itches to wipe it away with the back of his hand.
“Alright,” Steve says, making sure to stay pleasant and relaxed, tipping a capful of the soap into Bucky’s water and watching in satisfaction as aromatic bubbles begin to froth up around Bucky’s bare torso. “Smells good, doesn’t it?”
Bucky’s eyes have slid closed and he slumps even further down, inhaling deeply and then letting out a long, low sigh. It’s the most relaxed sound Steve has heard from him yet.
Steve grabs his shampoo and shower gel, setting them next to Bucky’s head, and Bucky looks at Steve when he hears the sound.
“Shampoo for your hair,” Steve says, pointing to the taller of the two bottles, “and shower gel for your body.”
Bucky grabs the shampoo, squirting some messily into the palm of his metal hand and dumping it on top of his head. He works it into his hair with his flesh hand; his movements are quick and efficient, like he is used to washing himself in very limited time constraints. Everything he does is efficient now: he clearly hadn’t been in a bathtub before, but he’s quickly adapted it, sliding down the back of the tub and submerging his hair in the water to rinse it out, sitting back up with it hanging in long, wet strands down his neck. He works fast, and like he has no regard for his comfort or his pleasure. Steve isn’t surprised by that, but it does make him sad.
Bucky is reaching for the shower gel now but Steve holds up a hand, and he freezes with his arm outstretched.
“You might want to rinse your hair again with water from the tap,” Steve says, gesturing to his own hair as he speaks. “The bubbles from the water got you all soapy again.”
Bucky cranes his neck over his shoulder to peer at the tap, furrowing his brow as he stares at it. He doesn’t move: he’s calculating what to do. It breaks Steve’s heart.
“Want me to…”
Steve turns on the hot and the cold together, making it a bit cooler so it doesn’t burn Bucky’s scalp. Bucky leans back into it, running his fingers through the tangles of his hair, and Steve wishes he owned conditioner. Bucky would love the way it makes his hair so soft.
Bucky sits up when he’s finished, looking to Steve.
“Right,” Steve says, turning it off for him. His wrist brushes Bucky’s right shoulder as he twists the knob; they both jump, but only Steve makes a noise.
He looks away when Bucky starts washing himself with the cloth and the soap Steve provided, even though Bucky appears to have no shame. It’s enough for Steve to sit here and try desperately not to stare at the swell of Bucky’s damp chest, at the droplets of water that cling to his eyelashes and pool slightly beneath his heavy lower lip.
If there had been any hope that seventy years of separation would have served to bank the fire of attraction he’s always felt towards Bucky, then that hope’s been banished. Bucky is the most beautiful person Steve has ever seen, and no matter how guilty Steve feels about it, he can’t help but notice time and time again.
“Done,” Bucky says, and turned away like this Steve could swear there’s a thread of amusement in Bucky’s tone—but when he turns back, Bucky looks just as serious as ever, nothing on his face belying anything more than passive existence.
Steve knows his face is blazing red when he meets Bucky’s eyes. He’s always been quick to blush. Bucky used to tease him endlessly for it.
“Ok,” he says, sliding his eyes to rest on a place between Bucky’s eyebrows. He starts to stand. “I’ll just grab you a towel—”
—Bucky’s flesh fingers, bath-warm and slightly damp, fluttering suddenly like a breath of air over the fast-fading bruise beneath Steve’s eye—
Steve freezes. He isn’t breathing. He can’t breathe. He falls back to his knees, and they crack loudly against the tile, and he cannot breathe.
“Steve,” Bucky says, and his voice is so different than it used to be, faded and torn from disuse, and yet the same, too, still Bucky, a little bit warm, a little bit fond. He is staring at where his fingers meet Steve’s skin, his eyes clear, but focused. Lasers intent upon Steve. They aren’t close, but the awareness Steve has of his nearness is ridiculous. “I’m sorry.”
“Buck…” Steve breathes, hands gripping the edge of the bath so tightly that he’s afraid he’ll crack the porcelain. “Bucky. It’s ok. You didn’t know me then.”
Bucky’s hand drifts away from Steve’s skin, comes to settle beside Steve’s, close but not touching. Steve doesn’t dare move.
“No,” Bucky says. Everything about him just looks exhausted. Steve wants to wrap Bucky up in him, to take him somewhere safe and warm, somewhere that he can rest forever, protected and quiet. “But I still did it.”
“It’s ok,” Steve repeats dumbly. He sounds wounded. He sounds like he’s been punched in the stomach, and his breath is all caught up in it. “I promise. It’s ok.”
Bucky doesn’t answer him. He looks away, down at the water, features melting back into familiar blankness. He doesn’t speak again.
Bucky kneels before Steve’s door, wearing Steve’s clothes, fuzzy socks on his feet, feet shoved into his own boots, his hair wet and still tangled around his face. He clicks his tongue softly against the roof of his mouth and Alpine comes trotting out from behind Steve’s TV, tail held high. She stops in front of Bucky, making an odd little cat-noise that makes Steve smile.
“Высокогорный,” Bucky whispers, scratching beneath her chin with two fingers, almost smiling when she licks his palm. “Be good.”
He leaves. Steve didn’t expect him to stay, but it still hurts a little bit. He doubts that hurt will ever stop.
When the apartment is empty, Steve walks very carefully over to his couch, one hand extended before him so that he doesn’t run into anything in the dark. His legs feel suddenly like jelly, like they won’t hold the rest of his big self up, like he’s going to fall over at any second, and he sort of collapses down onto the cushions, making the couch groan in protest.
Alpine leaps up next to him, settling in soft and warm by his hip. He barely notices.
Bucky touched him. Bucky touched him. Bucky. Touched. Him.
For the first time in over seventy years Steve felt Bucky’s skin against his in something other than violence, so soft that it feels more like a memory than a dream now, touching him just like Bucky always used to do when Steve would come home with bruised eyes and bloody lips: careful, like Steve was precious. Reverental, like Steve mattered.
Steve’s aware that he’s breathing too fast; he’s also aware that he can’t make himself slow down.
Gasping a little, he links his hands behind his neck, putting his elbows on his knees and hanging his head.
Bucky touched him, and Steve let him go.
The inside of Steve’s head looks like a thunderstorm, and it blocks everything else out as he gets lost in there, because what if Bucky doesn’t come back , and Steve is scared and scared and scared and—
Alpine weaves her way through Steve’s limbs, climbing onto his lap and pressing her little head into his stomach. She is purring loudly, and the vibration is somewhat grounding: he rests a hand on her back, feeling the rise and fall of her lungs beneath her rib cage, and the movement forces his own lungs to slow down, forces his own gasp to fade.
“Good girl,” he murmurs mindlessly, running his hand through her fur over and over and over again. She’s kneading at his thighs with her paws, and the prick of her claws should hurt him—but he focuses on it instead, focuses on the bright flash of insignificant pain, lets it reel him back into the present.
“Thanks, Alpine,” he says, voice raw. His words quaver, and his hands do, too. His chest stutters, aching as he fights back one last, panic-driven sob.
Alpine meows quietly, shoving up into Steve’s hands and trying to get him to pet her in every place he can reach. Welcoming the distraction, he does.
Steve sleeps like shit that night, which really means he doesn’t sleep at all.
By the time it’s a respectable hour for people to actually be awake the next morning, he’s gone for a run, had a shower, guzzled three cups of coffee, and read the newspaper front to back. His chest still feels tight and sore, and his mind still feels full and battered, and he looks absolutely terrible—but there are things he has to do, and he’s going to do them.
There’s a pet store seven blocks from his apartment, and he’s the first customer there when they open at nine am. The girl working behind the counter smiles at him when he comes in, and he’s sure she recognizes him, but she doesn’t say anything, and he can feel his whole body sag in relief. This is why he loves New York. For the most part, people just don’t care.
It’s so much better than D.C.
Steve buys two more bags of cat food, actual food and water bowls (bright blue with little fish painted on the side, honestly pretty cute) a fluffy bed for Alpine to sleep in, a collar and a tag (which he personalizes with a big confusing machine that he’s pretty damn proud of himself for figuring out), and a bag of assorted mouse-shaped cat toys, some of which jingle.
He’s never had a cat before, since he was allergic when he was young and also way too poor to feed another living creature, especially once he and Bucky moved in together, but the Internet is a vast and helpful place, and this seems like enough for a start. He’s going to make an appointment with the veterinarian on Monday since he’s almost positive Alpine hasn’t had her shots yet, and then, well…
Well. Steve guesses he has a cat, now.
Hooking the plastic bags over his elbows, Steve walks back to his apartment, making one more stop on the journey there.
It takes him a few minutes to pick a conditioner, because there are so many options now and he doesn’t know what Bucky’ll prefer—but he settles on lavender in the end. Bucky had liked it in the bubbles, and Natasha once told Steve that it’s soothing, that it’s calming. Steve figures everybody could use a little of that once in a while.
Steve is still awake when Bucky climbs in through his window the next night, curled up on the couch with a blanket draped over him and the science channel on TV—but just barely. He’s been awake for over twenty-four hours at this point, and while that certainly isn’t the longest amount of time he’s survived without sleep, it’s still far from easy to keep his heavy eyes open.
“Hi, Bucky,” Steve murmurs from his blanket nest, smiling at him as Bucky comes closer, stepping away from the shadows. He looks good in Steve’s clothes, soft and rumpled, the sweatshirt pooling around his smaller wrists and waist. He has the hood up, and his hair is tucked away in it; his face is shielded, too, but Steve can still see his eyes, lit up with the light from the television.
Bucky stands a little stiffly by the coffee table, his arms held like sticks by his sides. Steve can’t stop smiling at him.
He came back.
A breeze comes blowing in through the open window, and it carries the chill of autumn as it brushes across Steve’s face and rustles his hair. He shivers slightly, more out of surprise than actual discomfort, and sees Bucky’s eyes widen as he picks the movement up. Bucky turns on his heel, stalking back the way he came.
“Bucky, what…” Steve trails off, sitting up and watching as Bucky grabs the window with both hands and slams it closed.
Alpine appears from the middle of nowhere at the noise, spotting Bucky and leaping up onto his shoulder. He tucks his cheek against the top of her head as he comes back to Steve, one hand steadying her.
“You’ll get a cold,” Bucky says gruffly, not quite meeting Steve’s eyes.
Steve knows the smile on his face is melty and overly fond and absurd, but he absolutely can’t help it. Bucky cares about him. Bucky came back.
“Buck,” he says softly, and Bucky shoots him a look that clearly means ‘can it,’ so Steve shuts up, but he doesn’t stop beaming. Not even when Bucky gives him a glare before plopping down to sit on the coffee table.
“Hungry?” Steve asks him.
Bucky grunts. “Yeah.”
He follows Steve into the kitchen, a little more closely than usual. Steve tries not to blush at his proximity, although it’s likely that he fails. It’s just that he can feel Bucky’s warmth against his side as he puts Bucky’s food on a plate, and he knows that if he just reaches out a little bit…
He won’t, of course. They are doing things Bucky’s way, on Bucky’s time. Oh, but how he wants to.
Bucky is easier when he sits at the table, probably because he’s been here before and he knows his surroundings. Steve would like to think it’s because he’s remembering Steve more, and knows that Steve would never hurt him—but that’s wishful thinking. There isn’t any reason that Bucky doesn’t simply see Steve as a mission-turned-ally, a safe place that he can come to recharge, and it’s ok if he does. It’s great, in fact; Steve wants Bucky to feel as safe as he possibly can, always. If that’s what it takes, then so be it.
“Do you want another bath today?” Steve asks as he watches Bucky eat, his elbow on the table, his chin in his hand. Beneath the table, their feet are nearly touching, and Steve is overwhelmingly aware of this. Embarrassingly aware. “I bought something else that might feel good in your hair if you do.”
Bucky looks at him over his sandwich, and he smiles. Not with his mouth, but with his eyes; they wrinkle up at the corners, and his brow clears. Steve can’t look away from him.
“Yeah, Steve,” Bucky says in his quiet way. He goes back to eating his sandwich, and tonight, he finishes the whole thing.
Steve runs the bathwater again, leaving Bucky to climb in as Steve goes and finds another set of clothes that might fit him. He should have bought some things for Bucky while he was out today. He reminds himself to do that tomorrow, first thing in the morning.
When he gets back, Bucky is sitting in a cloud of bubbles, lathering shampoo into his hair with his eyes half-closed.
“Coming in,” Steve says gently, and Bucky hums at him as Steve crosses the threshold, not bothering to look.
Steve stacks Bucky’s clean clothes on the counter, avoided the various weapons strewn about, and picks up the dirty ones. He’ll wash them tomorrow, then maybe see if Bucky wants to take any of it with him like he did the blanket, back to—to wherever he’s staying when he’s not with Steve. If not, Steve will keep them here, safe and dry and ready for whenever Bucky needs them.
“Here’s the conditioner, Buck,” Steve says, pointing at it. Bucky cracks open one eye, wiping a trail of lather away, and nods.
Steve smiles. “Want me to stay?”
Bucky closes his eyes again. “Yes.”
Steve waits for Bucky outside of the bathroom as he gets changed, dangling one of Alpine’s new toys on a string before her she bats at it with her front paws.
The door opens, and Bucky appears, leaning against the doorway as a cloud of warm, sweet-smelling steam billows out behind him. His thin cheeks are rosy from the heat, and his hair is warm and soft and glossy in billowy waves around his face, and Steve is so, so glad that he’s here.
Bucky’s holding his boots in one hand, and his socked feet are close to Steve’s on the hardwood floor.
“You know,” Steve says, speaking before he’s made up his mind that he’s going to, and the words pour out of him, and he lets them. “I think Space’s Deepest Secrets is on TV, and I know you’ve always liked space, and if you want you could stay and. And watch it with me for a bit.” His voice goes weak as he finishes, goes quiet. “If you want.”
Bucky doesn’t say anything. But he puts his boots down.
“Ok,” Steve says a bit stupidly, biting the inside of his cheek and nodding once, quick. He picks Alpine up under one arm, but she wriggles free and goes to hide under the kitchen table, and Steve settles back into his own place on the couch, glad to see that he was correct about what’s playing.
He smiles at Bucky, putting the blanket on the middle of the four cushions, hopefully indicating that it’s fair game if Bucky wants it. “Feel free to sit down, Buck,” Steve says. He’s careful not to look at Bucky too much, in case that makes him nervous or scares him away; instead, he settles back into the cushions, fixing his attention on the TV and watching Bucky out of the corner of his eyes.
Bucky inches forward in slow increments, covering about a foot of space per minute until he’s standing right in front of the farthest corner of the couch from Steve. Then, in one swift movement, he is burrowing into the back of the couch, hands pulling the blanket up to his chin before throwing his arms around his knees, head buried so that nothing but his eyes peek out. Alpine leaps up onto the armrest beside Steve, walking over his thighs and then settling down between Bucky and Steve.
If you had told Steve a month ago that one day, he would be watching a show about space with his dead best friend and a cat that appeared out of nowhere, Steve would have… well. Probably yelled at you, then gone home and cried about it.
Oh, but it’s so nice.
Steve knows that Bucky’s watching him more than the TV, but he doesn’t care. He’s used to Bucky’s gaze on him; when they were kids, Bucky watched him constantly, probably worried that Steve was gonna run off and do something stupid, and during the war he did the same—although that was likely more due to the fact that Steve had transformed into an enormous meat tank overnight than anything else.
But it’s a comfortable, comforting position for Steve to be in; Bucky’s familiar blue eyes on his skin, Bucky’s familiar breath, always a little heavier than Steve’s, keeping time in the quiet around him. Bucky.
Steve lets himself relax.
He hasn’t done that in so long.
When Steve opens his eyes, Bucky is perched on his coffee table like a gremlin, the sunlight reflecting off of a knife in each of his hands.
Steve stares. Closes his eyes. Opens them again.
Yeah. Same thing.
“Idiot,” Bucky says briefly, scowling deeply at Steve. Alpine is sitting sentinel next to Bucky, in… the exact same position. Steve doesn’t know whether he wants to laugh, or to go back to sleep.
“What?” Steve asks, rubbing at his neck, gone stiff from the weird angle he’d fallen asleep in last night. He can’t believe Bucky stayed. “Me? Why?”
Bucky gestures sharply at Steve on the couch with the knife in his left hand, and then at the door, and then at the window, and then goes back to glaring.
“Uh,” says Steve.
“You fell asleep on the couch,” Bucky hisses at him, sounding so incredibly put out. “Right by the door and the window. Anyone could get in. Idiot. ”
Steve wants to scoff, but he’s smiling too big, because Bucky is yelling at him like he always used to, and it’s just. Wonderful. “Nobody’s gonna come in here, Buck, I’m fine.”
“ I did!” Bucky says, making a face, and, well, yeah, but.
“But you’re you,” Steve says, and his brain must not be operating in full yet because he adds, “and I’m me.”
Bucky softens ever so slightly, lowering the knives down by his sides, eyebrows relaxing a bit. “Idiot,” he says again, but this time it sounds fond.
“Want breakfast?” Steve asks, out from under his tousled hair.
Bucky rolls his eyes, but he puts his knives away, and Steve takes that as a yes.
Steve has a secret.
It’s one of those secrets that exists simply because nobody’s ever asked—he’d tell if they did. He’s not ashamed about it.
He got an apartment with two bedrooms because one of them is for Bucky.
He thinks maybe Natasha knows, but she hardly counts—she knows everything, she’s probably omniscient, Steve couldn’t keep a secret from her if he tried. But she helped him move in here, and she watched him make the bed in that other room with a knowing look on her face, and she patted him on the shoulder when he was through.
He shows Bucky that room now.
“You can sleep in here, if you want,” Steve says, holding the door open with his back and gesturing in with one arm. Bucky peers past him, gaze sharp. “My bedroom is right across the hall.”
Bucky has been at Steve’s apartment the whole day. He just never left. He hasn’t really spoken, but he hasn’t really detached himself from Steve’s side: following him around the house as he cooks, as he plays with Alpine, as he cleans up his bedroom and does laundry and reads and watches TV. He is like a shadow—a shadow that Steve adores.
Please don’t ever leave again, Steve thinks, and he’s sure that that’s telegraphed across his face, too.
Moving close, but not close enough to touch, Bucky pushes past Steve and into the room. He stands in the center, spinning around in a slow circle, taking in every detail; his eyes flicker over the well-made bed, the empty walls, the closet in the corner, the bedside table.
Bucky looks at Steve. “Ok,” he says. “Sleep in your room, not on the couch. I’ll check.”
Steve laughs, and the sound makes Bucky’s crinkle-eyed expression appear again. “Deal.”
A weight, heavy and significant, pressing down on the edge of Steve’s mattress.
He’s still mostly asleep, eyes too heavy to open; he reaches out with one hand, fingers brushing something warm and soft, lightly stubbled—someone’s face. A cheek. The edge of someone’s lips.
A hand wraps with impossible tenderness around his wrist, fingertips stroking along the delicate veins there as the weight on the bed shifts, stretches out, rolls closer. Steve shivers at the airy touch, shivers breaking out down his spine, along his limbs; there are arms around his torso, a head resting, warm and firm, against his chest, and he shudders with the happy-closeness of it all.
“Buck…” he murmurs, wrapping him up in his arms, pulling him close close closeclose close . There is a sob building in his chest, one of joy or sadness or yearning , and it is going to spill out of him and into the soft hair on the top of Bucky’s head but—
“Shh, Stevie,” Bucky whispers, and his lips linger against Steve’s cheek in that same spot he had touched yesterday, and they are smooth and dry and close. “Go to sleep.”
Steve does, rocked in this careful embrace, never quite sure if he’s dreaming or not.
When he wakes up, he’s by himself, but the bed sheets are warm, and so is the hope flickering behind his heart.
Bucky stays, stays and stays and stays and stays.
Days pass, and then a week, and still he is there: Steve’s faithful shadow throughout the day, trailing him as he completes simple and necessary tasks, watching him as they eat together, crinkling his eyes at him as they play with Alpine or pet her on the couch.
Bucky takes baths in the evenings, and they get longer and longer the more comfortable he grows in Steve’s apartment, the more used to feeling good Bucky gets. He uses copious amounts of bubbles and shampoo and happy, expensive, sweet-smelling things, and Steve doesn’t care; Steve would buy him anything he asked for, Steve would buy him every bottle of bubble bath and every jar of bath salts if it meant he would be happy and content and taken care of.
Steve is absolutely, completely whipped, and he has never cared less about anything in his life.
Alternatively, he has never cared more about something in his life—that something being Bucky. But then, this isn’t a new fact; Steve’s known this since he was sixteen.
Bucky rarely talks, and when he does it isn’t in more than a single sentence or two at a time, but that doesn’t mean they don’t communicate. Steve’s always been good at reading Bucky, and even though his expressions are more subdued now, it’s still the same. Bucky can still read Steve like an open book. And really, Steve could care less if they ever talk again. He is just happy to have Bucky near. Home. At his side.
Bucky hasn’t touched Steve again since that night, and Steve hasn’t asked him to. He doesn’t want to impose upon Bucky’s recovery, he doesn’t want to reach in with his big, fumbling hands and mess things up; he wants Bucky to go about this naturally, in his own time, just in the way he wants to do it, because for the past lifetime Bucky hasn’t been allowed to make any of his own decisions, and Steve will work every remaining day of his own life to ensure that never happens again.
“Where’d Alpine come from, Buck?” Steve asks now. They two of them are stretched out upon the floor on their stomachs, taking turns rolling a little red ball back and forth in front of Alpine and watching in amusement as she attacks it and plays with it for a while before setting it free once more.
Bucky, propped up on his elbows across from Steve, gets a soft little expression on his face. His hair has come untucked form behind his ears and it falls across his forehead in a gentle strand, and Steve has to clasp his hands together to keep from reaching out, to keep from brushing it back.
“Found her,” he says, scratching Alpine between the ears and smiling a tiny smile when she begins to purr. Steve stares, rapt; Bucky hasn’t smiled since he’s been back, and Steve has forgotten how utterly gorgeous this man is when he does. Even more gorgeous than usual. “Getting kicked at in an alley.” He flicks his vivid, stormy eyes up to meet Steve’s, and his expression is teasing as he says, “Reminded me of you.”
“Oh, ha ha ha,” Steve says flatly, but in reality he’s weirdly touched. He wonders if it had really reminded Bucky of him, or if he’s just saying that. Something tells him it’s true.
“Brought her to you,” Bucky continues, “because I remembered you’re safe.” He looks down, idly tracing the grain of the hardwood floor with one metal finger. “Remembered you’re home.”
Steve stares, heart in his throat. “I’m… I’m home?”
Bucky looks at him again, and this time there is no mistaking the smile on his face, small but brilliant. His cheeks are pink. “Yeah, Stevie,” he says, and oh god, that’s the first time Steve has heard that nickname in so long, there’s a sun dawning in the center of his chest. “Mine, anyway.”
“Oh,” Steve says, small. His face is burning; he buries it in his arms, and he smiles so hard that his cheeks hurt as he hears Bucky laugh.
Sam calls Steve on the tenth day, and Steve immediately feels guilty. He hasn’t talked to Sam since that first day Bucky showed up.
“Hey, man,” Steve says when he picks up. He’s sitting on the couch, and Bucky is taking a bath, so he knows he has about thirty minutes to talk. “Uh.”
Sam laughs at him, obviously correctly reading Steve’s discomfort over the call. “Hey, Steve. How’s it going?”
“It’s.” Steve stops. He doesn’t know how to explain anything that has happened to him in the past two weeks, he can’t find the words for the maelstrom of emotions swirling in his belly. “He’s here,” he says finally, his voice low. He can’t tell if he sounds scared or wholeheartedly, disastrously pleased. Both, maybe. Probably.
Sam breathes in sharp in Steve’s ear, and murmurs, “Hold on.” There’s the sound of movement, and then a car door slamming closed, and then a radio turning on loud before the volume sinks. “Ok,” Sam says, sounding remarkably calm for what Steve’s just told him. “I’m in my car, nobody can hear. Spill the beans.”
“He’s here,” Steve repeats, and his tone is flat in the way that it always gets when he’s talking about something that’s just too much. “He kept coming back, and then he. And then he stayed. Sam.”
“Holy shit, ” Sam swears, voice gone breathy over the line. “Why didn’t you tell me, I coulda—wait, nevermind, don’t answer that question Captain I Need Nobody.”
For some reason, this hurts a little, even though Steve knows Sam is mostly joking. “I would have told you,” he says, and he knows that it’s true. Sam is his best friend, other than Bucky, and he’s just plain good on top of that. Steve knows Sam wouldn’t have told anyone if Steve had just asked him not to. “It’s just… It’s a lot. It’s.” He laughs, curving his palm over his mouth and pressing his eyes shut. “It’s so much. He’s here .”
Sam laughs too, distant, dazed, amazed. “Well, fuck me sideways,” he murmurs. “Does he… remember you?”
Steve thinks about what Bucky said to him the other day, and his body temperature ratchets upwards by about a million degrees as he does so: I remembered you’re safe. Remembered you’re home.
“Yeah, Sam,” Steve says quietly, eyes still closed. His heart is pounding beneath his thin skin, pounding and pounding, and he can feel it in the insides of his wrists, the vulnerable parts of his neck, his temples. He breathes. “He does.” Enough.
Sam is quiet, and Steve is glad. He finds that he needs more time to think things through, lately—because everything that he has to consider is so incredibly important it takes that much more brain power than usual.
Bucky is the best thing that has ever happened to him, and also the most complicated.
“So what’re you gonna do?” Sam asks eventually, bringing Steve gently back to the present.
“Whatever he needs,” Steve says, and this is one thing he is sure of, this is the one, shining truth in this admittedly tangled jungle of problems he’s gotten himself lost in. This rings real. “I’d give him anything, Sam.”
“I know you would, Steve,” Sam says. “But what about you? What do you need?”
“Him,” Steve says. “Bucky.”
And he knows that’s probably messed up, he knows it’s probably co-dependant and, and wrong but—but that’s how it’s always been, between Steve and him, and he’s not gonna change it, he can’t.
They don’t talk for very long after that, nothing more than saying their goodbyes and making vague plans to meet up for lunch sometime soon. Steve hangs up smiling, and he’s still smiling when he hears Bucky come into the room and cross over to the couch.
Steve opens his eyes slowly, looking up at Bucky, who is standing above him—and he’s soft and warm from his bath, his eyes round and deep and shining, his mouth soft and pink and curved, hair drying fluffy around cheeks that are slowly but surely filling out. He’s wrapped up in the big, light pink cardigan that Steve bought him a few days ago, wearing one of Steve’s looser pairs of sweatpants. He is so beautiful. Steve loves him.
Steve loves him.
Steve doesn’t say anything, but he smiles, helpless to stop the slow crawl of the gesture across his face if he wanted to. He wonders if that love is shining out of the core of his pupils like he always used to be afraid it would back before and during the war, wonders if he should try to hide it like he always did then.
Bucky takes a step closer, moving in front of the lamp in the corner so that the soft golden light shines through his fine hair and lights him up in brilliance, turning the curves of his face into perfectly shadowed hills and valleys, and Steve couldn’t hide it if he tried.
Bucky bends a little at the waist, swaying slightly down, and, almost like it’s involuntary, his hands flex towards Steve—reaching, and falling empty at his sides.
“Bucky,” Steve says quietly. There is a knot in his throat and it tightens; there is a bruise on his heart and it throbs.
Bucky is not smiling; Bucky meets Steve’s eyes, and—and . And there’s that quiet yearning Steve’s been hiding as best he could, there is that shivery sort of longing that Steve has only ever seen from Bucky when he’s too tired to hide it.
“Bucky, ” Steve says again, so quiet that it could be nothing more than a breath, and reaches up as Bucky reaches down, clasping Bucky’s hands in his own and holding them tight.
His skin is warm, calloused in careful places; his metal is warm, too, soaking in the temperature of its surroundings.
Bucky’s lips fall open a little bit, letting out a small blip of air that contains no noise. Those blue-gray eyes are huge, are storm-tossed, are liquid-deep; his hands tighten on Steve’s, hold on so closely that something in Steve’s breath catches—and then, abruptly, pull away.
Steve watches Bucky back up until he’s standing in the center of the room. He watches the jagged rise and fall of Bucky’s chest beneath his soft pink cardigan, and tells all of the pieces of himself not to fall apart.
“Steve,” says Bucky, ragged and small.
“Whatever you want, Buck,” Steve tells him, and he means it, he means it, he means it. “Anything.”
“I think,” says Bucky quietly, swallowing, and Steve can’t help but watch the movement of his throat as he does. “I have to go to bed now.”
He looks like he’s sorry, he looks like he has something to be sorry about , and he completely does not. Not in any way.
“Bucky,” says Steve, sitting forward on the couch and resting his hands on his knees, making sure Bucky looks him in the eyes. “Bucky, I meant it. Whatever you want.”
He passes Steve on the way to his room, and he stops before him, looking down steadily. He presses his palm to Steve’s shoulder, briefly, just a light touch; he smiles. “Goodnight,” he murmurs.
Steve brushes his fingers against Bucky’s hand carefully, barely there and gone again.
Bucky’s feet are silent on the way to his room.
Steve falls asleep on the couch again, but he wakes up in the middle of the night and moves to his bedroom so Bucky doesn’t worry.
Leaning back against the cabinets, Steve swings his feet above the ground, smiling slightly as he watches Bucky move around in the kitchen.
“Gonna break the countertop,” Bucky mutters at him, flicking Steve on the knee with the big wooden spoon he’s holding before dunking it into the pot on the stove and stirring it. The steam billows up into his face, and he doesn’t flinch.
“Don’t care,” says Steve contrarily, banging his heels into the cabinets below him. He grins when Bucky cuts him a half-hearted glare, a little giddy. It’s been a good day. “You can fix ‘em.”
Bucky gives him a look that clearly telegraphs ‘that’s what you think, asshole,’ and Steve laughs out loud.
“What’s for dinner?” Steve asks, even though he could just lean over and look at what Bucky’s cooking. He wants Bucky to tell him about it though, if he’s feeling up to that many words tonight. Bucky was online all day looking at recipes (apparently as the Winter Soldier he’d been required to have a working knowledge of modern technology, including cooking blogs written by moms and accessible by iPad) because he was “getting tired of sandwiches, Steve, Jesus is this what you lived on without me?” and Steve is excited. He likes when things taste good, but he likes even more the fact that Bucky likes that.
It hasn’t been too long ago that Bucky hadn’t even thought to feed himself. Now he’s feeding Steve, too.
Alpine is sitting on the kitchen floor beneath Steve’s swinging feet, periodically getting up and getting in Bucky’s way as he adds various ingredients to the thing bubbling so deliciously, but Bucky doesn’t seem to mind this. He just smiles at Alpine like she’s the cutest thing in the world, when all Steve gets are nasty scowls and slaps with spoons.
“Stew,” Bucky says, which is not helpful, but ok. He glances at Steve again, a little smile on his lips, and Steve rolls his eyes generously at him.
“Jerk,” Steve mutters.
“Punk,” says Bucky, smile turning into something big enough that he turns his face into his own shoulder to hide it, shy like he never used to be. It’s charming. He pushes Steve’s phone across the counter to him with his free hand, and, smiling, Steve looks down at the recipe pulled up on the screen, reading the title to get the gist.
“Yum,” he says. “Buck, that sounds good.”
“You’re eating it either way,” Bucky says, lifting his face and doling out two portions into the bowls he pulls down from the shelf. He cuts a glance up at Steve through the thicket of his eyelashes. “You don’t eat enough.”
“Yes I do!” Steve protests, hopping off the counter and following Bucky to their table. He sits on the outside like usual, back to the room, so that Bucky can have the protected corner seat. Bucky sets his bowl down in front of him, then flicks him in the side of the head.
“No you don’t, Stevie, shut up,” he says, and he sounds so much like he always used to sound when they were kids that Steve stops talking in favor or bestowing him with a sappy smile.
Bucky rolls his eyes this time, but his expression is fond, and he pats Steve on the shoulder as he passes by, letting his fingers trail across Steve’s shirt as he rounds the table to his own seat. Steve’s breath catches in his throat.
“Eat,” Bucky says as he gets settled, pointing his own spoon at Steve before digging in.
And it’s good. Really good. Steve gets caught up in how much he enjoys this concoction of Bucky’s, and by the time he resurfaces into reality, he’s had three helpings and Bucky is leaning back in his chair, watching Steve with hooded eyes and a whisper of a smile.
“That was delicious, Buck,” Steve says, leaning back and patting his stomach, gratified when Bucky’s smile widens at the edges. “You used to cook for us sometimes, remember that?”
“A little,” says Bucky, still watching Steve so carefully with eyes that feel like a caress when the brush Steve’s skin. “Enough.”
They clean up together, moving in their shared space with effortless ease: Steve washes and Bucky dries, Steve puts away the clean dishes and Bucky stores what little bit of stew there is left in the fridge for one of them to eat as a snack tomorrow. Alpine appears from god knows where, leaping up onto Steve’s shoulder this time, and when Steve and Alpine migrate to the couch in the living room, Bucky follows.
Sinking down into his respective spot on the couch, it takes Steve a second of remote hunting before he realizes that Bucky’s sat himself much closer than his usual, distant corner. He’s still wrapped up in his usual bundle of blankets, feet curled up on the cushions beneath him, but there’s only about a foot of space between the both of them, and Steve can feel the warmth that radiates off of him in droves.
His fingers fumble with the tiny remote buttons as he pulls up Netflix. Bucky isn’t even touching him, and yet there are butterflies in his stomach, and all he can concentrate is the hot, solid bulk of him so, so close by.
Bucky makes a noise in the back of his throat as Steve flicks blindly through his account, so Steve clicks on the thing he’d stopped on, not knowing or caring what it is. He’s been trying his best to steadily work through his List of Things About the Future An Old Man Should Know by Tony Stark, even though most of the things Tony had deemed important aren’t really… Steve’s style. Instead, Steve has added several things of his own, and Natasha and Sam have scrawled down a few, and now there’s an impressive amount of things he has to look forward to.
This is something called Friends. A Tony thing. It’s alright. Bucky likes Phoebe.
Steve likes Bucky.
It’s impossible to concentrate on the show with Bucky so close—especially when he starts to droop closer and closer and closer to Steve, especially when the foot between them shrinks to eight inches, then six, then three.
When Bucky’s head comes to rest against Steve’s upper arm, Steve stops breathing completely.
“Steve,” Bucky murmurs, equally as still. “Is this ok?”
Steve laughs, but it’s strangled, choked-sounding, something mangled and squeezed by everything that he is feeling. “It’s wonderful,” he says, entirely honest. God, he could sing.
Bucky makes a soft, satisfied sound. He takes a deep breath, and on the exhale, presses the soft side of his cheek a little more firmly against Steve’s arm; his skin is warm, even through the fabric of Steve’s long-sleeved shirt, and when Steve dares to rest his own cheek on the top of Bucky’s head, his hair is as soft as clouds.
Fuck, Bucky smells so good. Like lavender, like cotton, like him. It’s heady.
After another episode has gone by, Steve keeps his voice quiet and asks, “Can I put my arm around you, Buck?”
Bucky is quiet for a long time, considering. He has squirmed as close as he possibly can be to Steve and they are pressed together from shoulder to hip to thigh, touching seamlessly, and yet still Steve wants to be closer, if that’s something Bucky’s ok with.
“Try,” Bucky says, sounding sweet and sleepy.
Slowly, Steve removes his arm from where it’s plastered between himself and Bucky; he slides it around Bucky’s shoulders, sighing as he finally, finally gets Bucky in his hold, and pulls him close so gently that the movement is barely felt.
“Good,” Bucky breathes, turning his face into Steve’s side and lifting one hand, clinging tightly to the loose fabric over Steve’s abdomen. “ Good, Stevie.”
Steve thinks his eyes are wet, but he doesn’t care. He closes them tight, buries them in Bucky’s hair, and smiles.
They stay that way a long time, wrapped up in their blankets and each other, so close that Steve can’t tell one heartbeat from another, can’t hear anything but their breaths, synchronized. It is good—it is perfect. Steve never wants to let go of him.
“I missed you,” Steve whispers involuntarily, and yes, his eyes are definitely wet. He doesn’t feel like he can possibly get Bucky close enough, doesn’t feel like any movement he makes is sufficient to show this man just how much he means to Steve. “I missed you so much, while you were gone.”
Bucky hums soothingly into Steve’s rib cage, his hand splaying flat and comforting over Steve’s stomach, thumb brushing close, gentle lines there.
“I miss you whenever I’m not with you,” Bucky murmurs, nuzzling his nose into Steve’s side. “Even when I don’t know who you are.”
Bucky demands a trip to the grocery store, because apparently nothing stocked in their refrigerator is good enough.
“Here’s a list,” says Bucky, shoving Steve a piece of paper that’s been folded up and creased until it’s small enough for Steve to slide into his jacket pocket, which he does. Bucky’s eyes are big and Bucky is close as he tells Steve, “don’t worry about brands. Get cheap shit. I’m experimenting.”
“You’re a regular scientist,” Steve tells him, smiling at Bucky’s enthusiasm. The corner of Bucky’s mouth ticks up.
“Get Alpine some more food,” Bucky says as Steve’s heading out the door.
Steve points at Bucky, then at his own temple. “On it.”
Steve, of course, doesn’t hunt for the cheapest option, because this is Bucky and Bucky deserves the best things—and also there’s an ache that grows a little bit stronger in Steve’s chest the longer he spends away from Bucky, and he wants to get back to him, quick. He doesn’t have time for bargain shopping.
It takes Steve about forty-five minutes, all in all. He calls out his arrival when he gets home so he doesn’t startle Bucky, and dumps the five plastic bags full of things on the kitchen table, glancing around for Bucky, but not seeing him anywhere. Bedroom then, probably, napping. Bucky takes lots of naps, now, finding the warmest spot in the apartment and curling up there like a cat. No wonder he loves Alpine so much. They sure have plenty in common.
Humming to himself, Steve takes out a can of tomatoes to put away, when he hears Bucky’s step behind him. He sets down the tomatoes, turning around and grinning when he sees Bucky there in the entranceway.
Bucky, wrapped up in the comforter off of his bed like a big, soft burrito, is walking toward Steve, and he doesn’t stop doesn’t stop doesn’t stop—
—Steve’s arms open of their own volition and Bucky walks straight into them, nestling down easily into Steve’s chest, his face pressed against Steve’s neck, his hair brushing the bottom of Steve’s chin. The tip of his nose is cold, and Steve shivers as he folds Bucky in close; Bucky is tight with tension at first, but slowly, slowly he relaxes, letting out a quiet, shuddering sigh.
“You ok?” Steve asks, running one hand up and down Bucky’s spine. He loops his other arm around Bucky’s waist, lets his arm settle against him like a grounding weight, and Bucky wriggles one hand out from under his blanket to grip at the collar of Steve’s henley.
Bucky doesn’t answer, but he nods, and Steve thinks he can feel the shape of his lips in a smile against the skin over Steve’s clavicle.
“You were gone a long while,” Bucky mutters finally. Time has passed; Steve isn’t sure how much. He doesn’t care. The sun is setting outside the kitchen window, washing the room in an orange glow, and Bucky is safe and whole in Steve’s arms, and nothing could call him away from this moment, this instant, this place. This person. “I forgot you were coming back. Sometimes… sometimes I do.”
Steve shuts his eyes tight. Tears well at the inside of his eyelids, hot and sharp like a pinprick.
“I’ll always come back, Buck,” he tells him, meaning it more than he has meant most things, meaning it so much that right now it feels like the only true thing in the world. “I promise.”
The shape of Bucky’s mouth on Steve’s skin feels like a kiss now, but Steve doesn’t say anything.
“Not much to come back to,” mumbles Bucky, self-deprecating and trying to joke it off, but sounding piercingly sad about it. “Not anymore.”
Steve’s fingers flex convulsively in the back of his blanket wrap. He holds him.
“Bucky,” Steve says, and it comes out sounding a million times sadder than he meant for it to, sorrowful rather than indignant, tender rather than bracing. “Bucky, you—you are…” his throat is thick, he can’t speak past it. God, but he loves him. “As long as you exist, you are what I want to come back to.”
Bucky says “ Stevie, ” and it’s wet and a little broken, and Steve doesn’t say anything, because he gets it. He understands.
“Sap,” Bucky says after a few more quiet minutes have passed, lifting his head from his nestled spot and peering up at Steve as he pokes him in the shoulder. His eyes are wet and a little red, but he’s smiling.
Steve smiles back at him. Their faces are so close. Bucky’s natural pout is in full effect, and he’s killing Steve, and Steve loves it.
“That’s me,” Steve says easily, barely resisting the urge to lean forward and trace his own mouth over the shallow dip of Bucky’s temple, to feel Bucky’s soft hair against his cheek.
“Yeah,” Bucky breathes. His eyes look like the night sky he loves so much: wide and broad and fathomless—unending. “I got your number, sweetheart, and you better not forget it.”
It is Steve’s turn to drop his head forward into the sweet-warm crook of Bucky’s neck, his turn to hide his face. He’s burning up from the inside out, but still he smiles when Bucky laughs at him, because Bucky’s laugh is low and deep and soft and beautiful, and it’s Steve’s very favorite sound in the world.
Bucky helps him put away the groceries and then together they drift to the couch, settling in close: Steve sitting up and Bucky melded to his side, Bucky’s comforter draped over both of them. Alpine curls herself up in Steve’s lap like a round, fluffy ball, and Bucky smiles into Steve’s shoulder and buries his metal fingers in her fur.
There is something playing on TV, and neither of them are paying any attention to it. Steve’s body feels like a livewire: every inch of him is thrumming at attention, vibrating at that specific frequency that has always resonated with Bucky so perfectly. He feels like he is at some sort of tipping point, ready to free-fall into whatever this is that exists between them and has existed between them for nearly a hundred years; ready, and as soon as Bucky says the word, Steve will do it. He has already fallen for him; he is ready to fall with him now.
Steve has never shied away from a jump, and that won’t start today.
The night wears on and they don’t notice it. Steve feels wrapped up in a special golden pocket, a bubble that can’t be burst; they’re isolated from the rest of the world, safe and alone. He’d like to keep Bucky here, if Bucky was alright with it, forever.
“Stevie,” says Bucky softly, dark eyelashes brushing the tops of his cheeks gently as he shifts against Steve. Bucky’s right arm is curled around Steve’s back, his left stretched across Steve’s front, and his hand rests on the soft swell of Steve’s lower stomach, careful and unconsciously tender, and. Oh. Steve could cry.
He slides his fingers through Bucky’s metal ones, squeezing a little, and watches as the small smile at the corner of Bucky’s lips grows.
“Hm?” Steve asks softly, staring down at Bucky, utterly unable to look away.
Bucky blinks his eyes open slowly, slivers of his pupils glinting up at Steve in the low half-light of the television. His head is tipped back against the arm Steve has curled around his shoulders, and he shifts against Steve’s bicep, reaching behind him for the hand that Steve has cupped over his hip bone. Steve lets him lift it up, up, and holds still as Bucky settles that hand in his hair.
“Please?” Bucky says quietly.
“Bucky,” Steve says, knowing that he looks stunned, unable to do a thing about it. He curls his fingers into the thick, soft length of Bucky’s clean hair, scratching his nails lightly against Bucky’s scalp, and Bucky sighs audibly in his arms, eyelids fluttering closed once more. “Of course,” Steve whispers.
Steve traces dainty circles against Bucky’s skin with the pads of his fingers, strokes through the fine, baby-soft hair at Bucky’s temples, runs his hand through the whole length of Bucky’s hair over and over and over again—from his scalp to the end of the shoulder-length strands, caught up in the soothing repetition of the activity, in the minute expressions that flash across Bucky’s drowsy face at the touch.
He used to do this sometimes, even though Bucky’s hair was so much shorter then: when they were kids and Bucky couldn’t get to sleep at night, when they moved in together and Bucky would come home drunk, wake up the next day with his head pounding—and then later still, during the war, in the privacy of their shared tent or even in bedrolls on the rocky ground, when Bucky wouldn’t be able to close his eyes against the memory of whatever it was they did to him back in Azzano. Steve had ached then for any excuse to touch Bucky, to comfort him, just as he aches for it now.
Never once had Bucky asked for it, though, not out loud. Not just because they are already so close to each other, and he just wants a little more contact. Not like this.
Bucky falls asleep against Steve, pliable in Steve’s arms, a solid heat that he doesn’t want to let go of anytime soon. So Steve doesn’t.
They eat a lot, now. It’s to be expected: they’re both enhanced, and they burn through more calories just sitting still than your average person does going for a run, so the food intake is pretty much constant.
This means quite a bit of takeout (seriously, over the month and a half that Bucky has lived here, they’ve built up a collection of menus that takes up more space in the kitchen than silverware does); but it also means that Bucky can cook whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and it doesn’t go to waste.
Steve wakes up one Monday to the smell of pancakes wafting into his bedroom, and there’s a smile on his face before he even rolls out of bed.
Bucky’s at the stove, wearing Steve’s sweatpants and sweater and the apron that Steve bought him a couple weeks ago—a pale blue number that says I FEED ALL YOU FUCKERS in a fancy cursive script that had made Steve laugh when he saw it. It has three pockets, and Bucky loves it. He’s humming something under his breath, a soft, wordless tune that Steve can’t quite place, and moving his hips distractedly to the beat as he flips a pancake.
“G’morning,” Steve murmurs, still not quite awake, leaning against the counter sideways so he can continue to stare at Bucky. He blinks some sleep out of his eyes, rubbing at them slightly as the blurriness around Bucky goes away; he smiles.
Bucky doesn’t appear to be surprised that Steve is up—probably heard him moving around in the bathroom—so he just continues to hum softly, smiling out of the corner of his eyes at Steve as he pours some more batter into the skillet.
“You’re up early,” Steve comments, picking up Alpine from where she is wending her way through Steve’s ankles and holding her like a baby, just the way she likes. He scratches at her stomach, feeling her purr begin to vibrate against his hands. Bucky’s always up later than Steve—always has been prone to sleeping in, and now even more so. It’s rare to see him awake this early, before Steve has even gone on his dawn run.
“Mmmhm,” Bucky answers, pausing in his movements to take a step closer to Steve and Alpine, to drop a kiss to Alpine’s nose, to squeeze Steve’s shoulder very gently with his hand. Alpine leaps to the floor, going to her food bowl and munching loudly; Steve melts. “Wanted to have something ready for you today.”
His eyes follow Bucky automatically as Bucky moves around their kitchen, sprinkling cinnamon on top of the quickly-browning batter before flipping it with his metal hand, grabbing an empty plate from the cabinet above the stove and starting another stack of pancakes to accompany the first, moving with ease and confidence and fluidity. He’s beautiful to watch. Steve feels like a moth drawn to a flame.
“Why?” Steve asks, slightly dazed, slightly still asleep—but not so much that he misses the fond quirk of the lips Bucky sends his way, the way the blue of his gaze meets Steve’s and sticks there.
Bucky shrugs, cupping the back of his neck with one hand. He tilts his chin down, looking up at Steve through his lashes. “Dunno,” he says, smile sweet. Steve wants to kiss him. “I like to make you happy.”
There is sunshine filtering in through the kitchen window above the sink, the pale pink glow of sunrise, and the light sinks into Bucky’s skin, makes him glow a little amidst the dust motes that dance in the air around his head. Bucky is within arm’s reach, and he’s looking at Steve through starlight eyes, and Steve thinks I have never been happier.
“Buck,” Steve says. His chest feels so full it might crack. “You do. You gotta know that.”
They aren’t ok yet, not by a longshot, neither of them—but it’s getting better. They’re getting better.
In the evening, they come together, Bucky leaning back against Steve’s chest as something drones quietly on the television, Steve’s hands holding him close, petting through his hair. Steve loves it. Bucky loves it. Alpine, who gets twice as many cuddles during this time of the day as she does throughout the whole morning and afternoon leading up to now, loves it.
It’s happened often enough now that Steve considers it a routine. It’s his favorite part of the day, and he thinks it might be Bucky’s, too.
Bucky is his favorite person, and he thinks he might be Bucky’s, too.
“Sweetheart,” says Bucky now, head tipped back against Steve’s collar bone, his hands laced over the one Steve has resting on his diaphragm. Steve’s lips are in Bucky’s hair, and the colored movement on the TV shines in through the paper-thin skin of Steve’s closed eyelids.
“Hmm?” Steve murmurs, letting his mouth brush the top of Bucky’s head. He smooths down a few stray curls at Bucky’s temples, feeling Bucky turn his cheek into Steve’s palm.
“I love you, Stevie.”
Steve can feel pressure building behind his eyelids, tears that build and build before they fall, silent, down his cheeks. He is so happy.
“I love you too, Buck,” he breathes, turning his cheek to nestle on top of Bucky’s head, holding Bucky tight.
Bucky turns his face up to Steve and Steve opens his eyes, laughing a little through the sheen of tears. “‘M fine,” he mumbles as Bucky wipes beneath Steve’s eyes with the pad his thumb, “I just.”
Bucky smiles, watery himself, curving his palm around Steve’s wet cheek as his eyes travel across Steve’s face softly.
“Let’s go to bed,” Bucky murmurs.
“This ok?” Bucky asks him, moving steadily forward until he’s standing before the free side of the bed, hands clasped before him, head bent. There is enough hesitancy to the tender arch of his eyebrows and the gentle sway of his body on the balls of his feet that Steve feels the need to sit up, to reach for him with both hands.
Bucky tumbles into him, pulling the covers up to his chin as they both lay back against the pillows. Their arms and legs are tangled together; Bucky’s forehead is pressed to the center of Steve’s chest, and Steve kisses the crown of his head as they drift to sleep.
When Steve wakes up that morning, it’s several hours later than he usually opens his eyes, and he and Bucky are still twined in the same position they fell asleep in. Alpine is snoozing in the little well of blankets that exists between Steve and Bucky’s feet, her pert white ears flicking occasionally as she dreams.
There’s a peace in him that he hasn’t ever known.
Bucky isn’t asleep, Steve doesn’t think, but his eyes are still closed and he breathes deeply through half-parted lips, and Steve watches as he slowly works up to looking at Steve.
When he does, he smiles, and Steve presses their foreheads together before he can think about it, needing to feel just one more point of contact between them to believe that this is really happening.
“Mornin’, sweetheart,” Bucky says softly, and Steve can feel the air between their lips being moved by his words.
Today is going to be a good day. He can tell.