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Why Then Oh Why Can't I? (or, 5 Times Steve Rogers Felt Awkward Talking About Sex, and One Time He Stopped Talking Altogether)

Chapter Text

 

 

 

It's just like old times, and nothing like them at all.

The bar is quiet and slightly grubby, familiar in the way that all old watering holes are whether you've been there before or not. It reminds Steve of the spots that Bucky used to drag him along to, back before the war. Before everything changed. Places where two young men on the verge of manhood could sit and share a beer and a laugh, and trade stories about girls far too classy to bring to a dive like this. Steve himself had never had much in the way of stories, but Bucky had always more than made up for the lack. The things that he said had made Steve blush more often than not, which he'd always suspected was a big part of why Bucky said them in the first place.

It's hard to wrap his head around the fact that it's seventy years later now, and Bucky is sitting on the stool next to him just like he always was when they were eighteen years old. His hair is longer and his eyes are harder, and his skin is marked with scars that Steve doesn't remember. Still, it's unmistakably Steve's best friend underneath, no matter what anyone else can see.

Steve is drinking beer, the same as always, because he couldn't get drunk if he wanted to but he still likes the taste. That much is the same. Bucky's drinking vodka, though, and neither of them is much in the mood to talk about girls today.

“You've adjusted pretty well.” Bucky glances over at him, eyes sweeping quickly up and down as he turns his glass in a slow, lazy circle. It's a look more suited to a soldier sizing up an enemy than to an old friend. Of course, Steve thinks as he considers the dark circles lingering beneath Bucky's eyes, certain allowances did have to be made. “Quite a team you've managed to assemble for yourself this time around.”

Steve's lips twitch, but the he suspects the joke wouldn't be funny if he explained it, and he settles for a shrug.

“I wasn't the one who put it together, but you're right. I'm lucky; I've always managed to fall in with the best groups around.”

Bucky snorts. “I can't believe you're still telling yourself stories like that.” The look of fond exasperation on his face is achingly familiar, and Steve is surprised at his sudden urge to freeze this moment in time: when his friend looks like his friend again, and his heart feels full to bursting. “You've always been a leader, Steve. Even when you were five-foot-five and ninety-eight pounds soaking wet, people looked up to you.” He grins. “So to speak.”

“Funny,” Steve says, rolling his eyes but unable to keep an answering grin off of his face. “Maybe you've forgotten that I used to get beat up every other day. Doesn't seem like the way people would treat someone they admired.”

“C'mon, you know better than that.” Bucky takes a careful sip of his vodka, avoiding the still-healing cut on his bottom lip. “Most of the jerks who kicked you around were afraid of you. That's what you do when you're scared: either you run away, or you beat the thing you're frightened of into a pulp before it can get any bright ideas.”

Steve waits, but Bucky doesn't seem inclined to say anything more. “Well.” He clears his throat. “It is

a good team. It could always be better, though. I'll bet, once you're back on your feet a little more—”

“Not a chance,” Bucky cuts him off before he can finish. “Natasha would kill both of us before she worked with me again, and you know it.”

“She helped us extract you,” Steve points out. “We couldn't have done it without her.”

“Yeah, well. She'll go a long way to repay a debt. That particular red mark's wiped out now, though; she made that extremely clear once she was sure I was still alive. Besides.” He knocks back the rest of his vodka in one gulp, no longer careful of his battered lips, and sets the glass down with a visible wince. “I'm not really much of a team player anymore.”

To his surprise every bit as much as Bucky's, Steve lets out a laugh. “Heck, Bucky, if that were a necessary qualification we'd be out pretty much our entire roster. Fury didn't exactly pick a whole lot of social butterflies.”

“No.” Bucky laughs back, hesitant at first but then almost like the laugh Steve remembers. “No, I guess not. Still, I don't think it's a good idea.”

“Why not?”

“Steve.” Brown eyes seek out blue and hold them. “Three weeks ago I was trying to kill you. Doesn't that concern you at all?”

“That wasn't you,” Steve says firmly, willing his friend to believe it as he does. “I'm not going to hold you accountable for what you did when you weren't yourself, and neither is anyone else. Especially not Natasha.”

“I know she doesn't blame me. But she doesn't trust me, either.”

“She hardly trusts anybody.”

“She shouldn't trust me. I don't trust me,” Bucky says urgently. “I don't know what they put in my head, or if your friends at S.H.I.E.L.D. really managed to get it all out; it's like I have two sets of memories, and I can't always tell which one is real. I'm not safe to be around, not in a combat situation.”

“So you don't trust yourself. That's fine.” Steve reaches out, clasps a hand over Bucky's shoulder. “I'll trust you enough for both of us.”

“You—” Bucky looks, for just a moment, as though he might start throwing punches. Then the tension in his shoulders eases—Steve can feel it beneath his palm—and he lets out a weary laugh. “You really haven't changed.” He reaches out and grasps Steve in return, the fingers of his one remaining hand curling firm and fever-warm around Steve's neck. “Still the same Steve.”

“The world has changed enough.” Steve feels oddly like shivering despite the heat of Bucky's skin, and they both pull away as one. “I guess I just don't see any need to help it along.”

“Oh, I don't know. Things haven't changed all that much. Not really.” Bucky signals the bartender for another round.

“No?” The dim lights overhead catch and refract on the complicated metal joints of his friend's left wrist. “You don't think so?”

Bucky catches his glance and shrugs, lowering his arm again. “Things have gotten . . . fancier, I guess. More complicated. But you strip away the surface, get to what's underneath—that's all still the same as ever.”

“Maybe.” Steve knocks back the last inch of his beer and reaches for the new one with an absent nod and 'thank you' for the bartender. “You're probably right. Still, it's good to get back to something . . . familiar, I guess. Don't get me wrong,” he says hastily, feeling suddenly disloyal. “The team's great. Mostly. Just . . . different than what I'm used to.”

There's a smile playing at the corners of Bucky's mouth that's wonderful to see, even if Steve knows it's been bought at his expense.

“You're talking about Stark,” Bucky guesses, though it's really not much of a guess at all when you're as close as they are. Were. Are.

“He's—” Steve takes a moment to check the words that want to immediately escape. “He's a good man, I think, underneath it all. There's definitely more to him than what's on the surface.”

Bucky nods. “But what's on the surface is . . .?”

Steve takes another deep breath, another drink, and gives up. “A pain in the ass,” he says bluntly, belatedly scanning the bar to make sure there aren't any ladies present while Bucky laughs again.

“I didn't think he was so bad. Of course,” he muses, giving his metal fingers a thoughtful flex, “he did give me one hell of a welcome-home present. My last arm was top of the line, but this one makes it look like it was made of Tinkertoys.”

“That's Tony for you. When it comes to grand gestures he's not afraid to go all out. I just wish a little common courtesy wasn't more than he can manage.”

There's that twitch of the lips again, and Steve suppresses a quick surge of annoyance. “He's been giving you trouble?”

“No. Not really, it's just . . .” Steve sighs. “Maybe you're right, and things aren't really that different than they used to be under the surface. But sometimes it seems like 'surface' is all there is anymore. Tony Stark is as close to a living embodiment of this modern age as it's possible to get, and it's just . . . hard to understand him a lot of the time.” He rolls his eyes. “Especially his sense of humor.”

“Oh, no.” Bucky's grinning fully now. “I know that face. Did you get a little prank pulled on you?”

“You know, I should've guessed you'd find this funny.”

“Yeah, you should've. C'mon, what did he do?” Bucky nudges Steve's shoulder with his own. “Do I have to go beat him up for you?”

“We're not kids anymore, Bucky,” Steve says, shifting uncomfortably without quite knowing why. “And in case you hadn't noticed, I can fight my own battles now.”

“I've noticed. But seriously.” He tilts his head, peering at Steve with something that's just a little too hard, a little too cold to be called 'worry'. “What did he do?”

“It's really not a big deal.” Steve fiddles with his drink, but his friend's scrutiny doesn't ease and finally he sighs, shrugs, and gives in. “When I heard you'd been cleared for release, I was asking around, trying to get some advice on where we could go to get a quiet drink.”

“And you asked Stark?”

“Not a chance; I do know better than that,” Steve says dryly. “But I figured Bruce might know someplace that wasn't too . . . over the top, and Tony overheard me asking.” He spreads his hands helplessly. “Bruce backed up his suggestion! I thought it would be safe.”

“Not so safe you didn't check it out first, though?”

“Of course not. I'm not an idiot.”

“And I'm guessing they didn't sent you here. So where was it?”

“This little bar in the West Village.” Steve can feel himself starting to blush, and takes a drink to try to hide it. “It seemed nice enough. But I barely made it to the bar before I had someone trying to pick me up.”

Bucky lifted an eyebrow. “And that's a problem?”

“It was. Ah.” Steve's face is bright red now. “It was . . . another guy. Hey!” He glowers as Bucky starts laughing so hard he seems in danger of falling off of his stool. The handful of other patrons in the bar are turning to stare, and Steve hunches his shoulders towards his ears. “It's not funny!” he hisses.

“Yes, it is,” Bucky gasps, clutching at the bar for support. “They sent you to a gay bar. That's . . . oh, man, that's priceless.”

“It's really not that funny.” Despite his embarrassment, however, the sound of his friend's laughter is more than he can handle without smiling back himself. “You jerk.”

“Sorry.” Bucky finally starts to bring himself under control, though little chortles still escape his throat every so often. “I'm sorry.”

“No you're not.”

“No, I'm not,” he agrees, chuckling. “I just wish I'd been there to see it.”

“Well, I'm glad to provide you with some amusement,” Steve says wryly, lifting his beer in a self-deprecating salute. “I didn't even know places like that existed. That is.” His cheeks are heating up again, and he silently curses his fair skin. “I knew there were men who . . . I mean, there always were, even back . . . then. But now there are places like that, and everybody knows about them, even.” He takes a drink. “And you say the world hasn't changed that much.”

Bucky is looking at him oddly now; if Steve didn't know better, he'd say his friend looks almost nervous.

“It hasn't,” he says quietly at last. “Not as much as you'd think.”

“What . . .” Steve feels, for a moment, strangely heavy, hyperaware of every cell in his body. “What do you mean?”

Bucky turns back to his drink, staring down into the vodka as if it holds the answers to all of the spoken and unspoken questions between them. “Let's just say,” he says after a moment, “that I didn't take you with me every time I went to get a drink.”

“You . . . but you like girls,” Steve blurts out, feeling immediately like an idiot, but Bucky only rolls his eyes and smiles.

“Yeah, I do. It's not always just one or the other, you know.”

“Oh.”

They sit together in awkward silence for several long moments, eyes fixed on the drinks in front of them. Steve can't decide which has shocked him more—Bucky's confession, or the very fact that Steve had never known. There are large swaths of his friend's life that are lost to him now, the years and generations that passed while he was sleeping. He might not like it, but he accepts it. But he never would have guessed that there were things he didn't know about their life before, had never imagined that there might be any part of his best friend kept hidden from him.

“You could've told me.” He speaks quietly, but the words are like the crack of a whip in the silence that has fallen between them. It makes Steve jump as much as Bucky, and startles him back to himself. He shakes his head. “It wouldn't have changed anything between us. Hey.” Steve lays a hand on his friend's shoulder again and tries not to be hurt by the look of surprise on Bucky's face. “It doesn't change anything.”

Shadowed brown eyes look back at him, searching his face for something Steve can't begin to guess at. When Bucky smiles at last it's surprisingly sad, but he shakes his head and laughs, and a moment later is simply himself again.

“You really never did grow up all the way, did you, Steve? Of course it changes things. But hey.” He lifts his glass, and Steve reluctantly lets go to join in the toast. “Who says change has to be bad?”

“Do you . . .” Steve starts after a moment, unsure of himself but determined to press on. “I mean, if you want to go to that bar instead, I'd understand, we could go check it out . . .”

Bucky snorts, shakes his head. “All I want right now is to have a quiet drink and talk with my friend.”

“Sure. But. I don't want you to feel like you have to hide that part of your life from me.”

“I won't. Tell you what, next week we'll go out and paint the town red, okay? You and me.” He grins. “Assuming the world isn't ending again,” he amends, and Steve nods.

“It's a plan.”




Chapter Text

 

 

You've got to be kidding me.”

 

Things have been fairly quiet on the super-villain front lately, and the world, as it turns out, didn't end before Saturday. Sitting here now, in a new bar with an old friend and a familiar burning flush working its way up his neck, Steve finds himself almost wishing that it had.

 

I really don't see why it's such a big deal,” he mutters, trying to sink down into inconspicuousness as he glances around to make sure they aren't being overheard. “Or why we have to talk about it here,” he adds pointedly.

 

It's a big deal,” Bucky says, ignoring the second part of his complaint with the ease of long practice, “because you're my friend, and you're ninety-five years old—”

 

I really don't think the years that I was frozen ought to count,” Steve protests.

 

All right, fine. You're twenty-seven years old, then, and you've just told me you're still a virgin. I know you're interested in sex—”

 

Bucky!” Steve hisses, bright red at this point and furiously wishing that the floor would open up and swallow him.

 

“—so what's holding you back? I know it's not a lack of female interest.”

 

I can't believe I'm having this conversation with you in the middle of a bar.” Steve buries his face in his hands for a moment. A warm knee nudges his own, making his heart thump, and he looks up.

 

C'mon.” Bucky has his hair brushed back, still tousled and over-long but no longer obscuring his dark brown eyes. “Talk to me, huh?” He leans an elbow on the bar and leans in a little closer, lowering his voice to something less likely to carry. It's not as reassuring as Steve would've thought. “You've never even been close?”

 

I . . . well.” Steve swallows heavily, fighting against a wave of grief that's eased over time to something manageable. “There was Peggy.” It's easier to stare down into his beer than to meet his friend's eyes any longer. “I mean, we never actually . . . we kissed. Once. Right before . . .” He takes a drink, and ends up downing almost half the glass. “I would have married her,” he says at last.

 

I'm sorry.” Bucky sets his own glass on the bar with a sigh. “I don't think I've actually said that yet. I know you two were . . . well, I could see how great you were together.”

 

Despite himself, Steve laughs. “What, you mean you noticed that when you were trying to steal my girl for a dance?” he teases, and Bucky grins without an ounce of shame.

 

Can't blame a guy for trying. You're just lucky I was off my game. But Steve . . . I know she meant a lot to you, but you woke up, what—two years ago? Longer? Hasn't there been anyone since then?”

 

Not really.” Steve's hands have gone embarrassingly damp under the pressure of his friend's scrutiny, and he shifts uncomfortably on his stool. “I, um. I don't really get out much,” he admits.

 

Steve.” Bucky shakes his head, exasperated. “You're in New York. There are literally millions of eligible women here.”

 

Yeah, well, I don't want millions,” Steve grins, remembering another conversation just like this, and a dozen more besides. It's an old argument between them, so often played out that it might as well be scripted. “I'd be happy with just one.”

 

And how exactly do you plan on finding this girl if you never leave your tower? For heaven's sake, you actually live in a tower like a storybook princess.” The more frustrated Bucky gets, the wider Steve smiles; it's a nice change, seeing his friend wrong-footed for once. “Look, you're never gonna find your Prince Charming if you don't go out and kiss a few frogs first, okay, Princess?”

 

Funny,” Steve says with a glare that he doesn't really feel. “But I don't want to run around randomly kissing frogs. I mean, girls. Women. You know what I mean. Heck, Bucky, you're the one who told me all I needed was to find the right partner.”

 

I also told you that you'd never actually find one unless you went out and looked.” He shakes his head again, reaching for his drink. “Boy, you really have been lost without me, haven't you?”

 

Yeah,” Steve says quietly. “I really have.”

 

Bucky's eyes dart over, startled and warm at the admission. For just a moment the air between them feels charged, full of questions and admissions that make Steve's stomach clench, that he isn't sure he's ready to say or hear. Then it passes, with Bucky's smile spreading wide over his face, and a curious mixture of disappointment and relief are churning in Steve's stomach as his friend turns to survey the rest of the bar.

 

Well then, it's a good thing you have me back now, isn't it? Let's find us a couple of girls.”

 

No, Bucky—”

 

I'm not talking about a soulmate here, Steve, but you've gotta get back on your feet. Get a little practice in,” he says with a good-natured shove to Steve's shoulder.

 

And how am I supposed to practice in a place like this?” The bar has only gotten louder since they arrived, and while that bodes well for their incredibly embarrassing conversation having gone unheard, Steve can't imagine that it'll be conducive to conversation with anyone else.

 

Trust me,” Bucky says. “I haven't steered you wrong yet, have I?”

 

No, but.” Steve is glancing around as well now, uneasiness setting in as he watches the women laughing and flirting all around him. “Bucky, none of these girls really seem like my type, you know?”

 

Steve, for once don't worry about your type. This isn't about finding a wife, it's about remembering how to talk to women.”

 

I've never known how to talk to women,” Steve grumbles, and Bucky laughs.

 

You're not wrong about that.”

 

He's still scanning the crowd, and for a while Steve simply watches him. He recognizes the look on his friend's face, though it takes him a moment to figure out why. When he finally does place it, the answer isn't comforting. It's a look he's only ever seen on the battlefield—the intense, focused concentration of a sniper picking out his target. It's unsettling to see it now, in the midst of a crowded Manhattan bar, and Steve wonders yet again just what Bucky's captors did to him to turn the warmth he remembers to such cold, grim militancy.

 

Steve knows a fair bit about ice, but he'd never imagined that someone could be frozen quite like this, with a frigid core still locked away even after the rest of him has long since thawed.

 

All right,” Bucky says abruptly, shaking Steve out of his thoughts and back to the present, and looking more or less like himself again. “Now we're talking. Those girls over by the window,” he nods, and Steve follows his gaze. “And you thought there wouldn't be anyone here for you tonight.”

 

They're pretty,” he acknowledges, unsure what else to say. “Why them?”

 

The redhead's a god-fearing soul,” Bucky grins, clapping Steve on the shoulder. “Just like you. Which leaves the blonde for me. C'mon.”

 

He's off before Steve can ask him what on earth he means, and he's left following in his friend's wake as ever. It isn't until they're nearly to the table where the women are sitting that Steve notices what Bucky had seen from across the room: a small gold cross resting just below a lightly-freckled collarbone. He can't help but smile at the sight.

 

Hi there. We're really hoping you ladies will allow us to buy you a couple of drinks.”

 

Steve feels his stomach jerk. For the second time in less than a minute, his friend has morphed into something that isn't quite the Bucky Barnes he'd always known. His familiar, easy charm is still in full force, but as he speaks Steve realizes that it's been overlaid now with something new, something dark and almost dangerous. He watches as a slow, wicked smile spreads over Bucky's face, and stands up a little straighter.

 

We have drinks,” the blonde girl points out, a smile of her own lighting up pretty grey eyes. “We'll take your names, though, if you're giving those out.”

 

You drive a hard bargain, but I guess we can manage that much. My name's Bucky,” he says, “and this is Steve.”

 

Nice to meet you,” she says as she blatantly sizes them up, and her friend adds a quiet, “Hey,” with a shy little smile.

 

You're not going to leave us guessing about your names, are you?” Bucky teases, drawing a laugh from both girls, and Steve has never understood how he manages to do this so effortlessly.

 

I'm Pia.” The girl glances at her friend, who offers another small smile.

 

Evelyn. Evie. Bucky isn't your real name, is it?”

 

James, actually; no one's ever called me that but my mom, though. I had another nickname at the Academy, but . . . well, it's not exactly suitable for mixed company, I'm afraid.”

 

You're military?” Pia asks, though her tone is more polite than interested, and Bucky shakes his head.

 

Former. Both of us; Steve here was an army captain,” he adds with a conspiratorial glance. “I'm afraid I only made it to sergeant myself before I, ah . . . dropped out.”

 

And what are you now? Let me guess—a spy?”

 

Bucky laughs, sudden and deep, head thrown back to reveal the long line of his throat. “Well, I could tell you, but . . .” He winks, and though Pia rolls her eyes she's smiling as she does so.

 

And what about you, Steve?” The question startles him, and he turns his attention back to Evie. She's smiling warmly at him, her light brown eyes friendly and encouraging. “What do you do?”

 

Me?” He can feel his tongue starting to tangle. A lock of hair keeps falling into her eyes, continually brushed back by impatient, unadorned fingers. “I'm not with the Army anymore, but I'm still . . . uh . . .” He searches frantically for something to say besides part of an elite, dysfunctional team of superheroes charged with protecting the world. “Special forces,” he finally manages.

 

Wow.” She seems genuinely impressed, and Steve is flattered enough to try a cautious smile.

 

He's an artist, too,” Bucky adds, winking at Steve when he turns to him in surprise.

 

Really? What kind?” Evie asks, interest lighting up her face.

 

Um. Drawing and painting is what I focused on in school.” Steve shoots Bucky a nervous look. “It's really just a hobby these days, though.”

 

Well, now that we all know each other,” Bucky says, “are you sure we can't buy you a drink?”

 

It's a tempting offer,” Pia says, exchanging a look with her friend.

 

It's just that we were actually just getting ready to leave,” Evie finishes apologetically. “We're going to check out the Stark Expo. Of course,” she adds, glancing hopefully up at Steve, “if you wanted to come with us . . .?”

 

Yeah!” he grins, glancing belatedly over at Bucky. “That is—”

 

That sounds great,” his friend agrees, and Steve is once more caught off-guard by that same confusing tangle of relief and disappointment. “Ladies, after you.”

 

They stand aside to let the girls slide out of their seats, and Steve tries to focus his attention back on Evie. She's really very pretty, he can't help but think. On the tall side for a woman, she'd have dwarfed him in the days before Erskine's serum, though the top of her head reaches just past his shoulder now. She's wearing a simple cotton sundress that shows off her shoulders, the skirt short enough to hint at a pair of excellent legs. As she passes him she glances up with another one of those shy, sweet smiles, and he smiles back, still unable to completely believe that things are going this well so far.

 

Way to go,” Bucky says under his breath, grinning again as they follow the girls out. “What'd I tell you? It's not so hard after all.”

 

She seems nice.” Steve glances ahead at Pia, almost half a foot shorter than Evie but built like a pinup model, all rich curves and long, sleek blonde hair. “They both do. Do you, ah . . .” He gives what he hopes is a subtle nod of his head. “Do you like her? Pia, I mean.”

 

I certainly like what I've seen so far.” Bucky's smile turns wicked again for a moment, and before Steve can catch his breath his friend is clapping him on the back and saying, “Let's go, don't want to keep them waiting!”

 

Most of the evening feels like a blur after that. The Expo is even more vibrant and fantastical than Steve remembers, and the moment they arrive all four of them find that their attention is pulled in every direction at once. Evie is easy to talk to—easier, certainly, than he's ever experienced with women before, even Peggy at first—but he's ashamed to admit that he hardly remembers a thing that either of them have said. He thinks she may have mentioned something about her brother, but his attention was divided just then between what she was saying, and the realization that Bucky and Pia had wandered out of sight again.

 

Sorry,” he finds himself saying more than once, “really, I'm so sorry. It's just, Bucky's pretty new to town, and I'd hate for him to get lost, especially when he's got your friend with him.”

 

Pia grew up here, don't worry, she knows her way around,” Evie is saying for the third time in an hour when they round the corner and find the other two waiting for them. Or, Steve thinks, to be more accurate: find them laughing and flirting and apparently unconcerned with the fact that they've managed to abandon their friends in the process. “See? There they are.”

 

Hey, guys.” Bucky looks up at the sound of her voice, dark eyes still glittering with laughter at whatever Pia had been saying. “We lost you there for a little while, huh? Has Steve been behaving himself?”

He's been a perfect gentleman,” Evie says kindly even as Steve sputters at the implication. “Pia, I hate to cut things short, but I've got to get home. It's late, and I have church in the morning.”

 

Oh.” Her friend looks disappointed, but takes a reluctant step back from Bucky. “Yeah, I guess we probably should get going.”

Bucky is shooting him a speaking look, but with all the distraction it takes Steve a long moment to interpret it. When he finally does, he feels like a heel and hesitantly clears his throat.

 

If you'd like to stay, I'd be happy to see Evie home.” He turns to her. “That is, if that's all right with you?”

 

He doesn't miss the thumbs-up that Pia shoots her friend; nor does he miss that Evie's smile is just a little strained around the edges.

 

That's really nice of you, Steve. Sure.”

 

Be sure to call when you get home,” Pia winks.

 

Oh, I will. Goodnight, Bucky; it was nice to meet you.”

 

The pleasure was all mine. See you later, Steve.”

 

Bucky waves him off with a smile and a wink of his own, and when Steve glances back on the way out of the pavilion he sees that the two of them have already disappeared into the throng. He turns back to Evie with a smile, trying to ignore the awkward silence that's settled between them.

 

I had a great time tonight,” he finally manages to say when they've worked their way to the edge of the crowd. “Sorry I was a little bit . . . distracted.”

 

Yeah.” She shoots him a wry look that he can't quite interpret. “I noticed.” She slows to a stop next to a taxi stand and turns to face him fully. “Steve, I appreciate the offer to see me home, but I think I'm just going to take a cab from here.”

 

Are you sure?” he frowns. “I really don't mind.”

 

I know you don't,” she sighs. “Look, you seem like a great guy, and in other circumstances I'd probably already be giving you my number and really, really hoping you'd call.”

 

Oh.” Steve is at a loss for what to say to that. “But?”

 

But,” Evie says gently, “you seem to be way more into your friend that you're into me, and that's just a little more drama than I'm interested in right now.”

 

What?” Steve's face is suddenly blisteringly hot; he's a little bit surprised that his collar doesn't burst into actual flames. “No, I—what?”

 

Aren't you?”

 

No, I . . . look, Bucky is my best friend, and I love him like a brother, but I don't . . . that is, I'm not . . .”

 

It's a simple enough phrase: Things aren't like that between us. I don't think of him like that . I'm not attracted to men. Any number of ways to say it, but somehow none of the words will form. The inability makes him hesitate, and as he does he can't help but think of that wicked smile, of warm fingers curled around his neck, of affection and fond exasperation and a strong arm slung around his shoulders.

 

Maybe I'm wrong,” Evie offers, and hesitates before continuing carefully, “but you might want to think about it.” She leans up, hands braced on his shoulders, and presses a soft kiss to his cheek. “You really are a sweetheart, Steve. I hope you work things out.”

 

She's almost to the closest cab before Steve remembers to move, darting forward to open the door for her. “I . . .” He hesitates, and smiles apologetically. “I was really glad to find someone who still goes to church.”

 

St. Paul the Apostle,” she grins up at him. “West 60th and Columbus; I'm there for the ten o'clock Mass every Sunday.” She slides into the car. “If things don't work out between you.”

 

Right,” he says, still a little dazed as he closes the door and steps back, watching the cab pull away.

 

He takes a step back towards the Expo before he stops himself.

 

Right,” he mutters again, shaking his head, and starts on the walk back home.

 


Chapter Text

 

 

The small cabal of arms dealers that's been evading S.H.I.E.L.D.'s detection for months finally slips up, and Steve agrees to join Natasha and Clint in backing up the standard response team. The raids are fairly straightforward, as these things go: Steve and Natasha take point, the rest of the team mops up, and Clint covers the exits. Easy as pie, and the whole thing runs more or less like clockwork every time.

Steve finds himself being quickly ushered out once the buildings are secure, but he doesn't think much of it until the third warehouse they hit. That's when the agents—his handlers, he's only belatedly beginning to realize—aren't quite quick enough, and he finally catches sight of the symbol stamped on the side of the crates. It's the logo for the the Kronas Corporation, the same one that was plastered all over the building that Natasha's intel had led them to three months ago.

It was there that they'd tracked the Winter Soldier. Where they'd found Bucky.

He doesn't make a conscious decision. In that moment he's beyond rational thought, beyond the morals that have guided him all his life, beyond anything but the memory of his friend's battered body and cold, empty eyes.

The first man he hits flies so far that he slams into the far wall with a sickening crunch; Steve is already turning on the next with a backhanded strike that sends him crashing to the floor. He loses track after that—everything passes in a blur of pain and rage, and the helpless knowledge that he couldn't save his friend when he needed it. Too late in Russia; too slow on Zola's train; always just a step too far behind, and what good are superpowers if he can't even save the people he loves?

He doesn't stop—wouldn't have stopped—until an arm wraps around his throat and jerks him back, away from the man he's currently pummeling. Steve twists and turns, but his assailant clings like a burr. His air supply is cut off, and he's starting to get light-headed when an arm catches his around the elbow and tugs, upsetting his balance and sending him suddenly flying through the air. He lands flat on his back, the air driven from his lungs from the impact against the solid concrete floor, and Natasha's hand is fisted in his hair with her knee pressed warningly against his throat.

Am I going to have to knock you out?” she asks, her voice carefully calm. She's hardly even out of breath. Steve, struggling to fill his own lungs, shakes his head weakly. “Good.” Natasha stands, eyeing him warily, but offers a hand to help him up nevertheless. “I'd hate to have to haul your dead weight out of here. You're big.”

Steve lets her pull him to his feet and holds on for a few seconds afterwards; his head is spinning, and he's not altogether steady on his feet. He takes a slow, deliberate look around, surveying the damage.

It looks like he's taken out eight men in the course of . . . whatever it was that just happened. That's how many bodies he can count, anyway, through the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents rushing forward to check on the fallen. A slow, sick roll starts in his stomach.

Did I . . .?”

I don't think there were any casualties,” Natasha says, “though I'd imagine some of them might be wishing otherwise right now.”

Relief feels sour mingled with his guilt, and he's afraid for a moment that he might actually throw up.

Everything all right down there, Tash?” Barton's voice crackles over their headsets, making Steve wince at the hint of concern that Clint can't quite manage to conceal.

We're good here. But . . .” She glances up at Steve. He turns away, unable to meet her gaze, but it doesn't stop him from hearing her next words clearly. “Captain Rogers has been compromised. I'm sending him out.”

He doesn't argue, just pulls the headset from his ear and makes his way outside. He can't stay in the building a moment longer, anyway; the sight of what he's done makes him feel sick. Even worse than that, though, is the fact that the fury that had taken hold of him hasn't disappeared. There's a part of him that wants to turn around, to go back, to raze the building to the ground and end every last pathetic soul that's allied itself with those monsters.

It's the closest to hate that he's ever felt, and it's absolutely terrifying.

The next few hours pass more or less exactly as he'd expect. Back at headquarters the debriefings are just shy of endless, despite the fact that Steve never really has anything more to explain himself than I lost my temper. He's left with the distinct impression that he's not going to be invited along on another mission like this one anytime soon. It's a decision he's not about to question.

By the time he's free to go he feels wrung out; his limbs are heavy and his stomach's hollow, and all he really wants is to go home and sleep for a year—hopefully not literally, though at this point he doesn't even know that he'd object if it were.

Hey, Cap.” Steve jerks in surprise, sending the papers he'd been gathering up scattering across the glossy tabletop. Bucky stands in the doorway, a hint of a smile on his face as he watches Steve scramble for the papers. “Rough day, huh?”

Bucky.” He can't seem to get his fingers to work properly, and finally he just gives up. “What are you doing here?”

I came for my checkup; making sure I'm still the only one behind the wheel in here,” he says, tapping at his temple as he saunters into the room and pulls out the seat next to Steve. “Fury's been wanting to talk to me for a while, too; keeps offering me the sales pitch. I was in with him when you guys got back.”

Steve drops his eyes to his hands, curled loosely on the table. “He told you?”

No. Actually,” Bucky says with a small, disbelieving laugh, “Natasha did.”

It's enough to have Steve looking up again. “What?”

Surprised me, too. I ran into her in the hall, and she mentioned that you might be glad to see a friendly face when you were finished with your debriefing. I don't think I've ever actually seen her concerned for someone before.”

Steve raises an eyebrow. “Maybe you don't know her as well as you think, then.”

As it turns out, we understand each other pretty well. Now, especially.” Bucky finally sits, and stares at a point just over Steve's left shoulder. “You know, I did a lot of things I'm not proud of when they were calling me the Winter Soldier.”

That wasn't your fault,” Steve says again, but Bucky shakes his head and holds up a
hand to stop him.

It's not as simple as that,” he sighs. “I wish it were; it would make things easier. Some of my targets, though, they were genuinely evil people. If I had the chance . . . I don't know that I'd change what I did. I might not be proud of what I was, but I'm not exactly sorry for it, either. Not all of it, anyway.”

Steve's quiet for a moment, then: “Natasha told you what we found, didn't she?”

She didn't give me any details. But she told me you'd been compromised, that you'd put down half the men there before she managed to subdue you. And I know a thing or two about the arms dealers you guys are going after; I know they're connected to Lukin.”

Yeah.” Steve's fingers curl briefly into fists. “I guess you could say I have some unresolved issues there.”

I know the feeling,” Bucky says lightly. “But not nearly as many as I might've had if you hadn't got me out.”

Steve can only shake his head. “More than you'd have if I'd gotten you out sooner.”

Hey.” Bucky cups his hand around the back of Steve's neck, urging him to keep eye contact when he would've turned away. “You pulled me out of Zola's workshop; you found me in the Kronas labs; that's twice now that you've pulled me out of genuine, real-life horror stories. Give yourself some credit, all right?”

Bucky's fingers are warm, and his eyes are a deep, rich brown, and quite suddenly Steve is hit with the almost overwhelming urge to lean forward and kiss him. For a dizzying moment he thinks that he might see something like invitation on Bucky's face; Steve's heart thumps hard in his chest once, twice, and he pulls back with an uneasy laugh before his friend can feel his pulse begin to skitter. He regrets it as soon as he does it, but Bucky just drops his hand with a grin. The moment vanishes as quickly as it appeared, with only Steve's racing heart and sweating palms left behind to mark its passing.

You look wrecked,” Bucky says bluntly, and stands. “Let's get some food; burgers sound good? My treat. C'mon.” He stares down at Steve, his smile belied by serious eyes. “I'm not gonna let you go back home and hide again.”

You've been through hells I can't even imagine.” Steve's voice isn't quite steady. He takes a deep breath, shaking his head in wonder. “How are you always the one taking care of me?”

Old habit,” Bucky grins. “Besides, what are friends for? Now let's get moving; I'm starving.”

It's a normal sort of outing for them, just a quick bite to eat and conversation that they both take pains to keep away from any serious subject; utterly unremarkable but for the sizzling awareness that's buzzing just beneath Steve's skin. He's almost glad to say goodbye at the end of the night, eager to get away from the feeling even as a part of him doesn't ever want it to stop.

Too many thoughts are crowding his mind, deafening in the quiet, empty stretch of his apartment. It's been too long a day, with too many whip-sharp emotional turns. He barely summons the energy to wash up before he falls into bed exhausted, asleep as soon as his head hits the pillow.

He wakes with the sun, a habit that none of the intervening years or altered circumstances have managed to break. When he heads out for his morning run he's brought up short by the small, paper-wrapped package sitting in front of the door; it crinkles when he picks it up, and the fragrance that hits him tells him what's inside before he even reads the note.

Nothing helps keep you calm like a good cup of tea. Trust me, I should know. —Bruce

It's his favorite blend, the one he's oddly secretive about whenever someone asks where it comes from, and Steve has to admit that the scent of it is relaxing. He takes it inside, a grateful smile tilting up his lips even as they part on a resigned sigh. For a group at least nominally in the service of a covert government agency, there are remarkably few secrets at Avengers headquarters. Still, he appreciates the gesture, and he can certainly use all the help that he can get to get back on an even keel. He sets the bag on the kitchen counter with an apologetic glance at his coffeepot, and heads out.

The park is still just waking up this early in the morning, mostly filled with other early-morning joggers. He runs harder and faster than he usually does, runs until the last dregs of anger in his blood have stopped trying to claw their way out. Back home, after a shower and a plate of eggs, he actually feels something close to human again. With a mug of Bruce's tea in one hand and his sketchbook in the other, he pads barefoot into the living room and sinks into the chair closest to the windows.

Bucky was right; he's willing to admit it now, in the safe confines of home, which really only underscores the point. He has been hiding here, away from the world and all of its dizzying newness, away from the unfamiliar frontiers that yawn so terrifyingly huge before him. It's been an easy thing to do—as bunkers go, this one is top of the line, and settled in as he is, with the stretch of the Manhattan skyline waiting just beyond a wall of windows, it's been easy to pretend that he's letting himself be a part of the world.

In reality, he's realizing now as he thumbs through his sketchbook, the only world that he's let in to any real degree is this one. This team, these people—the pages of his book are full of them. There's Natasha's dramatic features staring back at him, all watchful eyes and cool, restrained strength. Bruce's furrowed-brow concentration as he adjusts the controls on a device that Steve can't begin to understand. Clint, perched on the edge of the roof, a self-satisfied grin on his face as he describes sights hundreds of feet below. Tony and Pepper, and the way their fingers intertwine when they think no one is looking. Even Thor, who Steve hasn't seen since the Kronas laboratory on the day he fought to free a warrior held captive by the enemy, his body wreathed in lightning and wind and fury.

There are no full drawings on the last few pages, only bits and pieces before the book gives way to blank paper. The shape of a jawline, the curve of an ear; the broad stretch of a firm back beneath strong shoulders. The sweep of hair against the nape of a neck, a pair of clever-looking hands. It's all that he can bring himself to do, these little snatches of remembered presence. To the untrained eye they might belong to anyone; but he can recognize the shape of his friend even in pieces of the whole, and as he looks at them now he feels a slow, insistent heat begin to build in his stomach.

He'd love to draw Bucky properly, to be able to take the time to study all of the stunning contrasts that compose him. Pale skin and dark hair, soft eyes in a sharp-boned face, the heavy, solid gleam of his left arm merged with fragile flesh and blood. Bucky has scars—Steve has seen them, wept for them. Now he wants to map them out, to trace the years they've been apart by the strength of a body that refused to break.

In the makeshift workspace he's set up on the far side of the room, there's
a blank canvas waiting. He knows how he wants to fill it, but hasn't yet been brave enough to ask. The warmth, the need for closeness he's feeling now are nothing new; they've always been there, mixed in with affection and admiration and deep, unquestioned love, giving his feelings a pleasantly painful edge that he's always shied away from exploring. Now, however, his awareness has been brought into razor-sharp focus, and the thought of asking his friend up, of seeing him standing in the wash of mid-morning light stripped of everything but skin and scars . . . it terrifies him even as he craves it. And so he hasn't asked, and the canvas is still blank, and Steve is left with nothing to show for his stunning revelation but this gnawing, hollow hunger in the pit of his stomach.

Just another way he's been keeping the world at bay, he realizes. Maybe it's time to let a little more of it in.

Sipping at his tea and silently willing it to help calm his jangling nerves, Steve heads to the computer that Tony had insisted on installing along with a dozen other gadgets. He's only ever used it a handful of times—the complexity of it still baffles him more often than not, despite Tony's claim that it's completely user-friendly, I promise. It's the only course of action he can think of at the moment, however; there's a library downstairs, but somehow Steve doubts it's stocked with the kind of material he's looking for.

He turns the thing on, dragging damp palms against his thighs as he sits. He feels excited and on-edge, unable to shake the feeling that he's doing something illicit and glancing nervously over his shoulder despite the fact that there's no one else around to see.

Of course it doesn't take him long to realize, staring at the screen, that he has no idea how to even begin. He's only ever really used this machine to type up his mission reports, and beyond that he doesn't have the first clue how to use it.

Can I help you with something, sir?”

The voice seems to come from all around him, making Steve jump, and he glances guiltily at the screen despite the fact that all he's managed to do so far is turn the thing on.

Jarvis!” His heart is racing, and he belatedly realizes that he's managed to spill tea all over his hand. “Um.” He reaches for a handful of tissues and begins mopping up. “Are you always here?”

In a manner of speaking, sir. I am installed throughout the building; however, my protocols state that I am only to oversee basic functions unless specifically called for, or when my presence is deemed to be a necessary aid in a select number of predetermined potential events. Specifically, in your case, whenever you attempt to use the computer and are idle for longer than two minutes at the outset.”

Right.” Steve can't decide whether to be annoyed with Tony or grateful for his foresight, but after a moment's thought he settles on the latter. “As it happens, I'd appreciate some help. I don't really understand what I'm doing here.”

Certainly, sir. If you will simply tell me what you wish to do, I'd be pleased to walk you through it.“

Well, I ah . . . I just wanted to find out—actually,” Steve cuts off, hit with a sudden—but, he's certain, entirely justified—surge of paranoia. “Can anyone else see what I'm doing on here?”

Negative,” Jarvis says immediately. “Mr. Stark originally programmed me to monitor all incoming and outgoing transmissions, but Ms. Romanoff disabled that particular protocol nearly a year ago.”

So if I were to be looking for sensitive information . . .”

I promise you that I am the very soul of discretion.”

An odd sentiment coming from a computer, Steve thinks, but he lets it go. “All right. I just . . .”

He's already starting to flush, which he tries to tell himself is ridiculous. He's talking to a machine, after all, and one of Tony Stark's machines at that. He doubts there's anything he could say that it hasn't heard before. He sets the mug down to give his hands something to do, and tries to steady his nerves.

I'm wondering about, um. About . . . homosexual relationships.” He feels ridiculously proud of himself for managing to get the words out in a normal tone of voice. “The physical side of things, I mean. I'm not really entirely clear on how, um . . . how that works,” he finishes lamely, feeling like an idiot but also somehow lighter for having spoken the words aloud.

I see.” There's a brief pause, and a small twirling circle appears on the screen; Steve recognizes it as the symbol that Pepper's tutorial told him means the system is 'thinking', though he's never actually seen it before. “There appears to be quite a lot of available information on the subject, sir,” Jarvis says at last. “Is there anything specific that you would like me to look for?”

Oh.” In all honesty, Steve hadn't been expecting that, and he doesn't know quite what to say. “Just . . . well, anything you think might be helpful, I guess.”

Very good, sir. Streaming in now,” Jarvis says, before Steve finds himself abruptly surrounded on all sides by an explosion of information.

The air around him is suddenly cluttered with countless still pictures along with half a dozen videos, complete with sound, all running at once. Scrolling text with what he assumes are key passages highlighted, is overlaid with a cacophonous soundtrack of pleas, moans, and the wet slap of skin against skin audible over several conflicting beat-heavy melodies.

Steve almost falls backwards over his chair as he scrambles to his feet, eyes wide and heart racing, and yelps, “NO! No, no, wait! Stop!” The entire overwhelming display disappears immediately, apart from one remaining still picture on the screen itself. Steve has to avert his eyes from it as his face threatens to burst into actual flames.

Sir?”

Okay.” He's struggling for composure, snatches of what he saw still playing in his mind's eye as he tries to pull himself back under control, and as the sensory overload begins to fade he realizes that he's grown half-hard, as if his body is only waiting for his brain to catch up. He takes a deep, careful breath. “That was maybe a little much. A little more . . . um, advanced than what I was looking for.”

My apologies.” Jarvis's voice is, of course, as smooth and unruffled as ever, and Steve allows himself an indulgent moment of irrational irritation. “There are several instructive manuals on the subject. Perhaps that would be more your speed?”

Manuals? Are there really?” Steve doesn't know why he should be surprised by that, given what he's seen in the past thirty seconds. “Okay.” Another deep breath to steady himself, and he nods decisively. “Okay. Yeah. I'm good at manuals.” He settles himself back in the chair, pausing before he rolls it back up to the desk. “But, um. Maybe something without a lot of pictures.”

Certainly, sir.” The picture on the screen winks out, replaced with an innocuous-looking block of text. “If you need anything else, please don't hesitate to ask.”

Thanks, Jarvis,” Steve says absently, pulling a pen and pad of paper towards him, and begins to read.

 


Chapter Text

“All right, I'll admit.” Steve's grinning as they walk out of the theater and into the crowded street of an early New York summer evening. “That was a pretty good show.”

“You've gotta start trusting me on these things,” Bucky says with a little nudge to Steve's shoulder. He tosses the popcorn bag into a trash bin as they pass, sucking absently at the residue of butter and salt on his fingers, and Steve has to come to a sudden stop or risk tripping over his own feet. “I've lived in the world a bit longer than you, all things considered.”

“Ah . . . yeah.” It takes a moment for Steve's brain to come back online and focus on the words instead of slick, shining lips and the tip of a soft pink tongue. He laughs nervously and wipes his palms in what he hopes is a subtle sweep against his legs. “I suppose so. You know, I was thinking.” His heart is hammering in his chest, and his stomach feels like a massive ball of nerves, but he manages to keep his voice level. “It's still early, and that popcorn didn't really fill me up; do you want to go grab some dinner? My treat.”

Bucky laughs at that, catching the attention of a group of women passing by and earning more than a few appreciative glances. Steve takes a half-step closer to him before he realizes his intent, sparking wide-eyed surprise and a round of half-muffled giggles. Maybe they recognize him; maybe they just think he's a jealous boyfriend. Steve finds he doesn't much care either way, just grateful that they're moving on, and he turns his attention back to his friend.

“That sounds good,” Bucky is saying. “But you know you don't have to offer to pay to get me to eat with you, right?”

It's the least I can do,” Steve replies with a shrug and a smile. “If I'd ended up picking the movie again who knows what garbage we'd have seen?”

“I shudder to think. All right then, lead the way. What are you in the mood for?”

“Um.” Steve starts walking and tries to ignore the fact that that's a loaded question at the moment. Unfortunately, between the mental images bombarding him and the nervous contemplation that's been hounding him all night over whether or not it's too soon to try to take Bucky's hand, it's a struggle to pull his mind back on track. “Have you ever had shawarma? There's a great place not too far from here, if you want to—Bucky?”

He pulls up short, abruptly realizing that his friend isn't beside him anymore Suddenly uneasy, Steve spins around, scouring the streams of people passing around him, but there's no sign of him. He begins to backtrack hastily, peering into startled, unfamiliar faces as a growing sense of foreboding overtakes him.

Hey!” The call has his head whipping up. An old man is leaning forward out of a news kiosk, calling angrily after a retreating figure. “Hey, you have to pay for that!”

Steve knows that back, knows the slope of his shoulders and the fall of his hair; he runs after his friend, calling out an apology to the angry vendor as he passes, and manages to catch up with Bucky before he's made it more than a few feet.

“Hey! What's going on? Are you all right?”

He lays a hand on Bucky's shoulder. For a split second he feels the muscles there tighten, and then his friend turns on him, right arm tangling with Steve's as a metal fist whips towards his face. Steve manages to dodge, but just barely; he feels the wind of its passing against his cheek even as he tightens his grip on Bucky's other arm. In response Bucky drops, bringing all his weight down at once. It's a calculated risk—Steve has to either let go or risk dislocating his friend's arm, but Bucky's gambled on Steve being unwilling to hurt him too severely, and he was right. Steve releases his hold and lets his instincts take over; he jumps without thinking, and narrowly avoids the sweeping kick that threatens to take his feet out from under him.

Bucky's eyes narrow, and the bottom drops out of Steve's stomach when he sees a familiar coldness there, an emptiness that still plays a starring role in some of his worse nightmares. He stops fighting defensively after that; the next time Bucky swings at him—a feinting uppercut followed by a backhanded slam towards his head that would have cracked his skull if it had connected—he catches his friend's left arm and yanks, sending him off-balance and spinning. Steve ducks inside his guard, strikes the flat of his hand against Bucky's sternum and knocks him back to slam into the brick wall behind him. Using all the leverage he has, Steve keeps Bucky's left arm pinned, and lays his other forearm across the shorter man's windpipe.

Bucky.” Steve is all too aware of the civilians who are crowded around them, and he's torn between concern for their safety, and worry whether one of them might have called the police and how soon they might be arriving. His friend is still attempting to struggle out of his hold, and Steve bears down just a little harder. “Hey. I know you're in there, okay? Whatever's happened, you've gotta try to fight past it. Focus on me. You know me; I'm your friend, remember?”

A spark of awareness flickers in Bucky's eyes as the fight gradually leeches out of his body, and though Steve doesn't release his hold he eases his arm back enough to let Bucky breathe more freely.

Hey,” he says again, quietly. “That you in there?”

Steve? Shit.” Bucky's eyes flutter closed and he draws a deep, ragged breath. The newspaper still clenched in one fist flutters to the ground as his hands go limp. “Did I hurt anyone?”

No.” Still wary of releasing him entirely, Steve shifts his grip to shoulders that are trembling under some invisible strain. “And you're not going to; just keep coming back.” He glances down, to the crumpled paper lying on the sidewalk. “Can you tell me what happened?”

Triggered.” The word is a harsh rasp; it grates against Steve's ears, makes his fingers involuntary tighten before he checks himself. Bucky lets out a weak, painful laugh. “Guess the S.H.I.E.L.D. docs didn't quite manage to scrub me clean, after all. I never took out my last target before you guys pulled me out, and I still . . . you've gotta tell them she's in danger. They won't be trusting my programming anymore; there'll be others.”

We'll make sure nothing happens to her, I promise.” Steve has no idea who he's even talking about, but it doesn't matter; whoever it is, he knows that he'll do everything he can to keep Lukin's forces from getting to her. “But we'll worry about that after we get you safe.” He sees Bucky about to argue and gives him a quick, careful shake. “I can't help her if I'm busy worrying about you, too. We need to get you off the street. Get you contained, like you said.”

My apartment isn't secure.”
Bucky opens his eyes again, and though he looks pale and shaken there's more of the man that Steve knows in there than there was only moments ago. “I need to go to S.H.I.E.L.D.”


Too far.” It's a fifteen-minute trek by taxi; longer, and with more potential for disaster, if they take the subway. “My place is just a few blocks away,” he says after a moment, “and our security's every bit as good as S.H.I.E.L.D.'s. We can contact Fury from there, give him a heads-up on the situation. I'm gonna let go of you now; will you be okay?”

Bucky takes a cautious breath. “Yeah,” he says at last. “I'll be fine.”

Steve releases his grip slowly, carefully, muscles tensed and ready in case Bucky attacks again. He stays put, however, leaning pale and unsteady against the wall, and Steve bends down, retrieving the newspaper from their feet. He rolls it up, tucking it into his waistband; Bucky jerks in surprise a moment later when Steve slides an arm around his back, tugging him upright.

Just like old times, huh?” he says, grinning weakly as he slings an arm around Steve's shoulders.

Yeah; we've really got to stop meeting like this.”

Bucky laughs quietly, and Steve has to fight the urge to pull him closer. Instead he focuses on keeping their steps in sync, on balancing Bucky's weight against his own as they move. After only a few steps he stops, however, bringing them both up short in front of the newsstand that Bucky had looted. The proprietor eyes them warily, but his expression calms when Steve pulls out his wallet to hand over several bills.

I'm really sorry about this; will that be enough to cover the paper?”

The man grunts and nods, tucking the money under the counter without taking his eyes off of Bucky. “He a vet?” he asks.

Yes, sir.”

Thought so.” The wrinkles around the man's eyes soften. “He's got the look. My grandson went over to Iraq, came home with that PTSD; can't hardly stand loud noises now.” He nods sharply. “You get him someplace quiet, let him come down.”

Yes, sir,” Steve says again. “I will. Thank you.”

They're off again immediately, and it's almost strange how easily they fall into step together after all this time. They've supported each other like this so many times, countless times over the years, after bullies and beatings and unspeakable horrors. The way they move is muscle memory as much as anything, undiminished even in this far-flung future. Much later, when he's alone in his bed with the memory of his friend's body pressed warm and trusting against his, it will occur to Steve to wonder if they would fit together this smoothly in other ways, as well. For now, though, his mind is fixed on keeping them moving steadily forward, towards the safety of Avengers headquarters.

When they've made it past the doorman, past the codes and identification checks that until this moment Steve always thought were a little excessive, he guides Bucky to the couch within easy sight of the kitchen. He sets the kettle on to boil as he dials Fury's direct line, and keeps his voice low while they talk. With the newspaper spread out in front of him, he fills in all the details he can manage: Senator Horton, Democrat from Louisiana; set to speak in front of a Congressional panel on the new weapons ban next month; in town on a speaking tour for the next two days. Fury's closed-mouthed enough by nature that Steve can't tell if he's caught off-guard as well, or if he's staring at a dossier on the Senator even as they speak. Truth be told, he doesn't much care. As soon as he's relayed the information he gets himself patched through to one of Bucky's doctors, and listens intently as she advises him on what to do next.

Steve adds several heaping spoons of sugar to the tea after he's hung up; hot, sweet liquids as treatment for shock, he remembers, and Bucky's always had a sweet tooth that could send you into a diabetic fit by proxy in any case. He's still sitting on the couch when Steve walks over and hands it off to him; he takes it without looking up, metal fingers wrapped unflinchingly around the hot mug.

Dr. Godaire will be here soon,” Steve offers, perching on the coffee table in front of his friend. “She said it would help things if you talked, though.”

What about?”

Yourself.” Steve clears his throat. “You know, anything that you can remember about . . . being you. I guess.”

I . . .” Bucky sits up, leans back. “I don't even know what to say. I don't even know who the fuck I am.” He scrubs his free hand hard over his face. “The programming itself isn't the worst part, you know,” he says. “Not at the time. It's after; the drop, when you're falling back into yourself and you can't even remember who that is anymore . . .” He shakes his head once, viciously. “I used to think it was better when they'd just leave me under.”

Did that happen a lot?” More than anything at this moment, Steve wants to be beside his friend, to lend the comfort of a hand on his back or an arm around his shoulders, to hold him through this so he knows he doesn't have to do it alone. But everything about Bucky's body language is closed-off, drawn inward, and all that Steve can do is keep him talking. “I figured they'd sort of . . . well, kept you that way, when you were awake.”

Eventually they did, once they figured out it was easier.” Bucky glances down at the tea in his hand, startled as though he'd forgotten he was holding it; after a moment he shrugs and takes a sip. “In the beginning, though, they were still working things out, deciding what they wanted me to be. I think there was a lot of arguing about that, actually. So they'd wipe everything in between missions, give me back . . . whoever I was, and I'd spend a few days curled up on a cot practically begging them to take it back again.” He fiddles with his mug. “I wonder, sometimes, if that's not part of why they did it that way. There were times I would've sold my soul to have that clarity, that . . . certainty again, instead of the scraps they left me.”

He shrugs tightly and takes another drink. “There were a couple other times, too, before they had all the kinks worked out, when it sort of . . .” He pauses, searching for the word. “Fizzled out, I guess. Left me stranded in myself again. Like tonight.” It startles a laugh out of him. “Damn. I was in the middle of a mission the last time it happened, too. That was . . . back in the seventies, I think? Of course, that time ended up a little differently.”

Yeah?” Steve leans forward a little, pleased when Bucky doesn't move away. “What happened?”

I, um.” Bucky grins, half-sheepish and half-unrepentant. “I sort of ended up going to bed with my target instead of taking him out. We skipped out of the country the next
day, spent a week in Italy. It wasn't like I was trying to escape,” he says, “not really, or I'd have gone a hell of a lot farther than Rome; but once he got his mouth on me I'd have agreed to fucking
anything, damn.”

Oh.” Steve blinks. “Right.”

Sorry.” Bucky looks embarrassed now, and shakes his head at himself. “You don't need to hear about that.”

It's fine,” Steve says quickly. “I mean, if you want to talk about it. It's something that happened to you, right, not . . . whoever they turned you into? So, you, ah. You went to Rome.” He clears his throat. “What happened then?”

Nothing much, really. We spent most of the week in bed; Jesus, I couldn't keep my hands off of him.” He takes a deep drink of his tea; Steve notices that his own throat has gone dry. “I hadn't actually wanted anyone for so long, and it was like I'd been storing things up all that time. Poor guy got the brunt of it when I finally let loose.”

I, um.” Steve can feel his face turning red. For once he's glad of it; the more blood he can keep in his head at this point, the better. “I sort of doubt he minded.”

Bucky laughs loudly. His coloring is coming back at last, and there are pink spots high on his cheeks. “That's nice of you to say, but I don't think he was really prepared for how bossy I was.”

Well now see,” Steve says, proud beyond measure that his voice remains more or less steady. “There's the problem with jumping into bed with someone you've just met: no one who's known you more than a few hours would be at all surprised at that.”

Bucky laughs again. “Yeah, well. He wasn't expecting it from someone who likes . . .” He shakes his head. “I'll spare you the details.”

A part of Steve is grateful for the out, happy with the idea that they can stop talking about this stranger who had the nerve to put his hands on Bucky. Still, despite his burning cheeks and his completely unreasonable jealousy, his curiosity turns out to be too strong to ignore.

You can tell me.” Bucky lifts an eyebrow at him, and Steve raises one right back. “You'd tell me if it was a girl, wouldn't you? You've never exactly held back on details before.”

Yeah, well. That was different.”

You're not going to shock me, I promise,” Steve says, more confidently than he feels. “I've done a lot more reading than I had the last time we talked about this.”

What do you mean, reading?” Bucky asks, surprise and confusion clear on his face. Steve shrugs.

I, ah.” He clears his throat. “Jarvis helped me figure out how to get on the internet.” He shakes his head, still a little dazed every time he thinks about it. “I don't remember the world being this obsessed with gay sex when we were growing up.”

That has Bucky letting out a long, loud laugh. “Things have changed a little since then,” he chuckles after a moment. There's gratitude and affection in his expression, and something almost like wonder. “You know, sometimes I don't even . . . only you could make me laugh after something like tonight. You just keep right on saving me, don't you?”

Flustered and pleased, Steve smiles back at his friend. “Seems to me it's mutual.” He clears his throat again, looking away from Bucky's eyes before he does something rash. “So tell me more about this guy. What happened?”

Nothing much to tell, really,” Bucky shrugs, finishing off his tea. “Like I said, we stayed holed up in Rome for a week. Then he disappeared. I woke up one morning and he was gone; the next day, my handlers finally tracked me down and took me back to headquarters. I don't know if he knew they were coming, or if he just got bored. Either way, as far as I know they never found him again.”

Wow.” Steve hesitates, unsure what to say or how to say it without sounding affronted on his friend's behalf or jealous on his own. “I'm sorry,” he says at last, since it's all he can manage without being disingenuous. “That must've been terrible.”

Not really. Like I said, it's not like I was trying to escape; I just sort of got caught up in the moment, you know?”

No, I mean—just having him leave like that,” Steve clarifies. “It must've been hard.”

Why?” Bucky only blinks at him and lets out a confused little laugh. “I mean, the sex was great, but it's not like I thought I'd never get laid again.”

I just . . .” Steve's face is getting warm again, but he soldiers on regardless. “In that kind of . . . intense situation, you know, it would be natural for . . . for some sort of feelings to develop . . .”

Bucky's wearing the sort of shit-eating grin now that Steve's used to seeing whenever he blunders his way through talks like this. Are you asking if I fell in love, Steve?” he teases, and for once Steve just stares seriously back at him.

Didn't you?” The question seems to throw his friend; Steve spreads his hands helplessly as he forces his next words out through the sudden tightness in his chest. “He's the first thing you thought to talk about that reminded you of who you are. That time clearly still means a lot to you. Are you really telling me that all there was between you two was sex?”

It wasn't love.” Bucky sounds unsteady, but not uncertain. “Love divides loyalties,” he adds quietly; “it's the first thing they take when they start to work on you. They stripped it out of me over seventy years ago, and I've never . . .” He shakes his head. “Still. Maybe it wasn't love, but yeah, I guess you could say that there was something between us. He reminded me of someone that I—well, I couldn't remember who; I couldn't remember anything about who I'd been before. Someone I'd cared about, though. That was probably the closest to love I was able to get, so . . . I guess that's something.”

And now?” Steve's heart is trying to jump into his throat. “You don't think that's . . . I mean, it isn't gone for good, is it?”

Bucky glances at him, then away. “Tough
to say.” He stands abruptly, depositing his empty mug on the table next to Steve and wandering over to his workspace. “Is this the same canvas that was here last time I was over?”


You're changing the subject.”

Noticed that, did you?” Bucky asks dryly, and nods towards the empty canvas again. “Is it?”

Yeah.” Steve stands as well, willing to drop the matter for now as long as Bucky keeps talking. Watching his friend move makes his fingers itch for his sketchbook, and for other things that he's still not quite ready for.; he shoves his hands in his pockets in an effort to keep them to himself. “It's been there for a while now.”

Not like you to leave it blank. Don't tell me you're out of ideas.”

No. Not exactly. I have one idea; that is, I know what I want to do. With the canvas, I mean.” Steve swallows nervously. “I just . . . haven't been able to get started.”

Why not?”

I've actually . . .” He takes a deep breath. “I've actually been meaning to ask you to sit for me.”

What, like for a portrait?” Bucky seems surprised but not put off, and Steve takes an eager step forward before he can stop himself.

Yeah. I haven't had a chance to draw you properly since that project I did for school, remember?”

Oh yeah.” A distant grin spreads over Bucky's face. “That was pretty good; Ma loved it. I wonder what ever happened to it?”

I don't know; I don't actually know what happened to any of my old things. But I'd like to do a new one, if you'll let me. Try to capture who you are now.”

Who I am now.” Bucky nods once, absently, before fixing Steve with a knowing look. “You're talking about this, aren't you?” he asks, gesturing at his left arm.

Partially,” Steve admits. “It's an amazing piece of engineering, and I'd love to get a better look at it. But I don't just want to draw your arm,” he says seriously. “I want to draw you.”

Silence falls between them for a moment, blue eyes locked on brown and a dozen other declarations hovering on the tip of Steve's tongue. Bucky opens his mouth, but whatever he might have said is lost in the sudden buzz from the door.

Captain Rogers,” Jarvis's voice calls out smoothly, “Dr. Godaire has been admitted to the lobby and is requesting admittance to your floor.”

Thanks, Jarvis. Go ahead and send her up.” He turns to Bucky, shifting uncertainly on his feet. “Do you want me to give you guys some privacy?”

No, it's . . . I'd feel better with you here.” Bucky takes a careful breath before his lips tilt into a wry smirk. “After what you've already seen and heard I doubt there's much left to keep private, anyway. And hey.” He nods. “I'll sit for you if you want. Or stand, or whatever. Provided I'm not about to get locked up, that is.”

Okay. Good.” Feeling brave and newly hopeful, Steve grins. “It's a date.”

Chapter Text

 

 

So, how's it looking so far?” Bucky hops down from the stool and grabs his shirt. “Do I get to see it yet?”

 

It's still only sketches,” Steve says absently, looking up to see his friend tugging his t-shirt on over his head. “I, uh.” He tries with no success to tear his eyes away from the sight of bare skin disappearing beneath worn cotton. “I ought to have enough to go on, though. I'll pick a pose from these, and we'll block it onto the canvas tomorrow.”

 

Godaire wants me to go in for more tests tomorrow, actually.” Bucky heads for the door, and Steve quickly stands to follow him. “If it goes anything like last week, they'll take most of the day. I can come by on Friday, though.”

 

Okay. Yeah, that's fine.” Steve is embarrassed by his own childlike disappointment; after all, it won't kill him to spend a day without his friend's company. “Or,” he hears himself saying, and cringes internally even as he carries on, “if you wanted, you could come over tomorrow night instead. I mean, if you don't have plans already. A . . . date, or anything?”

 

No, I'm free as a bird.” Bucky's smile is warm and surprised, and Steve has to steel himself to keep from leaning forward to discover how it tastes. “The light's gonna be different, though; that won't screw things up?”

 

I'll just be blocking in the pose; it'll be fine. Mid-mornings will probably be better for the painting itself, if that's okay with your schedule?”

 

Sounds good. I'll see you tomorrow night, then.”

 

Yeah.” Steve opens his mouth to say . . . something. To ask him to stay; ask him to dinner; ask for a kiss; but what comes out instead is simply, “See you.”

 

He smiles cheerfully until the elevator doors have closed; then he leans forward to press his forehead against the cold, smooth metal, lifting up briefly just to let his head fall forward and connect again with a loud thunk . He stands like that for several long moments before he manages to straighten up again. Having Bucky sit for him had seemed like such a good idea at the time; unfortunately, he hadn't quite considered what it would do to his self control to see the other man stripped to the waist in the middle of his apartment every day. It's become a constant struggle to keep his hands to himself—a struggle of which Bucky has seemed to somehow remain cheerfully unaware.

 

His first order of business is a cold shower. The second is advice.

 

Steve is already chiding himself as he steps into the elevator. This is a terrible idea, and he knows it, but the sad fact is that he doesn't have a whole lot of options right now. His current methods, such as they are, certainly aren't getting him anywhere, and he needs an outside opinion. And besides, he reminds himself, if Tony's advice is terrible, he doesn't have to take it.

 

The doors slide open and the air is immediately filled with power chords that don't quite drown out the drone of a high-power drill. Tony's private lab takes up two entire floors of the tower on its own and is impossible to access without clearance from Jarvis, something that Tony ensures is granted only to a select few. All the members of their team have an open invitation to his “clubhouse”, as he calls it, and Steve would be surprised if there's a single square inch of this building where Pepper isn't allowed. Beyond the six of them, however, he doesn't know of a single person who has permission to set foot inside. Granted, that might be because he doesn't tend to visit all that often; noise levels aside, he has a pretty low tolerance for listening to Tony's tech-speak. Not to mention the fact that seeing the other man in the middle of a lab only tends to emphasize Tony's resemblance to his father, a comparison that doesn't sit particularly well with either of them.

 

He's here now, though, and Steve follows the sounds of drilling until he finds Tony, decked out with safety goggles and a pair of heavy metal-working gloves, surrounded by mountains of mechanical parts that Steve can't begin to recognize. He can see Tony's mouth moving as he issues what are most likely either directions or a volley of curses to one of his robots, but Steve can't actually make out what he's saying.

 

Hey.” There's no response. Not surprising; he can barely hear himself. “HEY,” he shouts again, “TONY.” Still nothing. With a sigh, Steve moves to the nearest computer instead. “Jarvis, can you hear me? Can you cut the music for a minute?”

 

Certainly, sir.”

 

The answer rings out even as the music cuts off; Tony, to his credit, manages to hold the drill steady despite his surprise. A moment later he's shut it off and set it aside, and is pulling off his safety glasses as he looks around for the source of the interruption.

 

Sorry about that,” Steve says, walking forward. “Didn't mean to startle you.”

 

No problem.” Tony's forehead creases. “Don't see you in here very often; is everything okay? We're not like, under attack or anything, are we?” he asks, glancing at the windows as if to confirm that the city's still standing.

 

No, nothing like that.” Steve picks up a random bit of machinery, all twisting wires and complicated connections, turning it this way and that as if doing so will give him some sort of clue to what it is. “What are you working on?”

 

A new positronic relay system to—” Tony stops, visibly swallowing what he was about to say. “A new suit.”


Steve grins. “It really bugs you to have to cut out all the technobabble, doesn't it?”

 

It just makes me feel sorry for you, actually,” Tony shoots back. “You're missing out on the coolest parts.” He heads over to the coffee pot. “Want a cup?”

 

Yeah, thanks.” The coffee smells burned and tastes worse; it reminds Steve of the sludge he drank in a dozen different military camps, and he sips at it with an oddly fond sort of disgusted nostalgia. “Wow. This is really terrible.”

 

Yeah, well. It gets the job done,” Tony says, swallowing half of his cup in one go and immediately turning to refill it.

 

Maybe you ought to ease up a little.” Steve frowns at the dark circles beneath Tony's eyes. “When was the last time you slept?”

 

Tony just waves a hand as if swatting the question out of the air. “I never sleep when Pepper's not here,” he says dismissively. “Too much to do. Speaking of which—and don't think I'm not thrilled to have you stop by for a visit to all the tech you don't understand, but—why are you here?”

 

Steve clears his throat and sets down his coffee—nostalgia, after all, will only carry you so far. “I actually. Um. Well, I need some advice.”

 

Advice.”

 

Yeah.”

 

From me?”

 

Steve smothers a sigh. “That was the general idea, yes.”

 

Right.” For a moment Tony simply blinks back at him, and Steve would almost be amused to see him this wrong-footed if he weren't so busy fighting off his own embarrassment. “What kind of advice?”

 

Well.” Steve wishes that he hadn't set his mug down after all, as he suddenly doesn't know quite what to do with his hands. He settles for jamming them in his pockets, where at least they'll be out of the way. “Romantic advice.”

 

Tony's face splits into a grin. “Okay, this is a joke, right?”

 

God, I wish,” Steve mutters. “But no.”

 

It's not. Well.” Tony clears his throat. “Can I ask you a serious question, then, before you start?”

 

I doubt it, but go ahead and give it a shot.”

 

Why on earth would you come to me for romantic advice? Sex advice, sure, that makes sense, but romance has never exactly been my forte.”

 

I didn't really figure it was,” Steve allows. “But you do have Pepper, so you must at least be doing something right. Besides, I don't think Clint or Natasha's advice would necessarily be any better, I doubt Bruce has even considered a relationship in years, and Pepper's in California right now.”

 

So what, I'm your very last choice for this?”

 

Pretty much, yeah.”

 

Well, good. At least you still have some common sense left.”

 

You know what,” Steve says, holding up his hands, “I knew this was a bad idea. I should just—”

 

Now hold on, relax.” Tony finishes his coffee and abandons his mug. “C'mon. If you're really serious, then out with it.”

 

Steve stares at him suspiciously for a moment, but he isn't any more spoiled for choice than he was fifteen minutes ago and he caves in the end.

 

All right. I have . . . that is, I've developed . . . damn it.” He sighs, trying to compose his thoughts. “I have this friend. A . . . a male friend. And I've sort of developed . . . feelings for him. Only, no.” Steve begins to pace back and forth, hoping that movement will help him push the words out. “It's more like I've realized that there's more to how I feel about him; how I've felt about him for years, really. Just recently, I found out that he's . . . um . . .” Steve's face is growing warmer by the second; he glances over at Tony and then quickly away again. He clears his throat, searching for the word. “Flexible,” he says at last, blushing even harder. “But even if he is, I don't want him to think that I'm assuming he'd be interested in me just because he's attracted to men, in a general sort of way. I don't even know what his type is. If he even has a type. And, well, I've never actually courted anyone before, and I don't really know what the heck I'm doing, or if I'm doing anything, but I sort of feel like I'm messing it all up anyway and I could just really sort of use some advice.”

 

He pauses for breath and looks back at Tony, who seems . . . uneasy, which catches Steve by surprise. He has a bare moment to wonder if perhaps the other man isn't as thoroughly modern as he'd have people think, and then Tony is the one clearing his throat as he shifts awkwardly in place.

 

Look.” Tony crosses his arms over his chest and immediately uncrosses them again. “It's not that I'm not flattered,” he ays abruptly. “I am. Really, you're a terrific guy; you're very handsome, in an incredibly wholesome, apple-pie sort of way—”

 

Wait—”

 

“—and you're actually pretty fun when you manage to unclench a little—”

 

Tony—”

 

“—maybe, who knows, another time another place; but I sort of have this pretty serious thing going with Pepper, and I—”

 

Oh my God, it's not you!” Steve finally shouts, bringing Tony's rambling to a sudden halt.

 

It's not?”

 

No,” Steve grits out, and to his surprise, Tony frowns.

 

Well . . . why not?”

 

Oh my God,” Steve groans.

 

I mean, I'm a pretty good catch, you know,” Tony goes on, ignoring the way Steve has buried his face in his hands. “I'm a genius, I'm financially solvent, charming, incredibly attractive—”

 

I can't do this with you right now.”

 

I'm just saying, if you're gonna develop a big gay crush on someone, I really think I'm the clear choice.”

 

I don't know why I thought you could be serious about this.” Steve shakes his head with a sigh. He can't even bring himself to be terribly annoyed, because he really ought to have known better; this is just Tony's nature. “I'll let you get back to work.”

 

He's already turning to go when:

 

It's Bucky, right?” Steve stops dead and turns to stare at Tony, whose expression has sobered to something very nearly appropriate. “Don't look so shocked,” he says, picking up the component that Steve had been fiddling with earlier and taking it back to his work table. “You haven't exactly been playing things close to the chest there. He's been over practically every day for the past week and a half, posing for that picture you're doing; if you didn't look so tense all the time I'd have thought you two were already f—uh . . . having relations?” He sends a significant look Steve's way before turning back to his work. “I have to say, though, I'm surprised at how well a good, God-fearing man like yourself is handling this revelation of yours.”

 

You know, I've seen a lot of people over the years who call themselves God-fearing,” Steve replies. “A lot of times when they were doing some pretty terrible things. I have to say, condemning a person to Hell just for loving someone . . .” He shakes his head. “Well, that's not the Bible I remember reading.”

 

You're sort of freakishly well-adjusted, you know that?” Tony says mildly, but Steve can see genuine surprise in his eyes. “It really didn't give you even a moment's pause?”

 

I didn't say that,” Steve admits. “The idea took some . . . adjusting to. But in the end I decided that if I don't think any less of Bucky—or anyone else—for being this way, there was no reason I should think any less of myself.”

 

Freakishly well-adjusted,” Tony mutters again. “Still, I suppose that makes sense; after all, I've seen how you look at him.”

 

And how's that?”

 

Like the world's a better place just for having him in it,” Tony says. “And, more recently,” he adds, “like you're wondering what he looks like naked.”

 

Steve grins a little despite his embarrassment. “I don't have to wonder; I've seen him naked.”

 

And you'd like to see it again, huh?” Tony grins back. “You told him that yet?”

 

Steve is blushing furiously now. “I can't just—it's not like I just want to—I mean, I do want that, but—”

 

Okay, all right, no need to give yourself an aneurysm. Let's maybe back up a step: what have you done?”

 

Well. Mainly I've tried, you know . . . courting him,” Steve frowns. “But I don't know if I'm really being clear enough about it, because nothing's really changed. And everything I can think of for us to do are things we always did anyway,” he says helplessly.

 

Uh huh.” Tony picks up a delicate-looking device and starts tinkering with the wires. “And I'm guessing you haven't just tried planting on one him? That would probably get your point across pretty well.”

 

What? No!” Steve is equal parts horrified at the idea, excited by the thought of it, and horrified again at the fact that it excites him. “That would be . . .” He opens and closes his mouth several times until he finds the right word. “Disrespectful.”

 

Right.” Tony's mouth twitches. “I'm also guessing you haven't just sat down and talked to him about this.”

 

Well. Um. No.”

 

Thought so.” Tony sets the device down again and picks up another. “So what's the problem? Why haven't you made your move yet?”

 

I . . . it's like I said: I don't want him to think that he's just . . . convenient.”

 

Mmm-hmm. Or, you're just scared.” He holds up a hand before Steve can begin to protest. “Hey, don't get me wrong—it's understandable. It's a big change you're thinking about; he means a lot to you, and you're not sure how he feels, or how it'll change things. Sure, it might go great, but what if it doesn't?” He turns his attention back to the contraption in his hands. “The idea that you might screw up something so important is a scary one. I'd imagine.”

 

Thanks,” Steve says dryly, “I feel much better now.”

 

Look, the point is, you have two options. Either you can suck it up and deal with the possibility that he might say no, or you can keep things the way they are and deal with the fact that you'll have to see him hooking up with someone else later on. You've gotta decide which is scarier: losing him because you gave it a shot, or because you didn't. Your choice.”

 

Steve can't think of anything to say to that, and for a moment he simply stares. Tony glances up, then quickly back down at his work.

 

Anyway.” He gives a tight, embarrassed shrug. “That sounds like what Pepper would say, and she's usually right about these things, so.”

 

Yeah,” Steve smiles. “I think she probably is. Thanks.”

 

No problem. Now, I really do have work to do.” Tony jerks his head towards the elevator. “Scat.”

 

Sure.” Steve shakes his head, amused. “See you later.”

 

And hey,” the other man calls absently after him, “the next time you see him, ask him to come in for a diagnostic on his arm. If you're not too busy sticking your tongue down his throat, that is.”

 

Can't hear you, Stark,” Steve calls back, grinning to himself as he leaves his friend to his work.

 

 


Chapter Text

 

 

“Thanks again for agreeing to do this.” Steve glances over the top of the canvas with a nervous grin. “I'm sure it's probably getting tedious for you by now.”

“Don't be an idiot,” Bucky says fondly. “I told you already, I don't mind. Besides, I get to hang out with you while you work, so where's the down side?”

“I guess there isn't one.” Steve knows he's smiling stupidly now, and he ducks his head back down. “I like having you over,” he admits, applying one final messy stroke to the canvas before he deposits the brush in a waiting jar of mineral spirits. “And if it's not too much of a chore for you, I was sort of hoping I could convince you to do it again.”

“What, come over?” Bucky teases.

“Ha-hah. No, I meant sit for me again.”

“I know what you meant. You've hardly started on this painting and you already want to do another?”

“No. Well, not exactly. I was thinking of drawing, not painting; you've got a great face for charcoal. And a great body, too, obviously.” Steve's face immediately flares bright red. “From an artistic standpoint, I mean. I mean, you do have a great body, I just—”

Bucky is laughing, grinning like Steve hasn't just made an idiot out of himself. Or maybe like he has, but it just doesn't matter. Steve grins awkwardly back and tries to relax.

“You're seriously on-edge tonight,” Bucky says. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah. I . . . everything's fine.”

Steve swallows hard, trying to unclog the words that have caught in his throat, and wishes absently he were wearing nicer clothes. His old jeans and faded S.H.I.E.L.D. t-shirt are fine enough for painting—there are already spatters on both from old projects, in addition to a couple of new smudges from tonight—but not exactly what he'd consider ideal attire for a romantic confession. He could change, but there's really no way to justify that unless they're leaving the apartment. He considers that idea for a moment—they could go out for a nice dinner, and Steve could order a bottle of wine and pretend that it's making him braver. But no, if he's going to do this he wants it to be in private; he doesn't want to face the possibility of crushing rejection in a crowd full of strangers. So maybe, he thinks, it would be best to hold off altogether? Tomorrow would be every bit as good, really, and—

He's stalling. He knows it. And if there's one thing that Steve has never been, it's a coward, so he squares his shoulders and takes a deep breath.

“Actually, there's something I wanted to talk to you about.”

“Yeah?” Bucky hops down off of the stool and pads over to the easel. “Shoot.” He pokes his head around to steal a glance, and he can't keep his brow from creasing into a frown. “Huh.”

“What?” Steve asks, momentarily distracted and shifting nervously from foot to foot. “What's wrong?”

Bucky raises an eyebrow. “That,” he says, jerking a thumb at the canvas, “doesn't look a thing like me.”

“It's not supposed to, idiot.” It's a little ridiculous, how relieved Steve is; he hadn't quite realized until this very moment how worried he's been that Bucky won't like his work. “This is just to get the basic shapes down; it won't start looking like you until later.”

“Uh huh.” Bucky doesn't seem to be paying terribly close attention, too busy staring critically at the blocks of color. “You're still planning to have me shirtless? That's why this bit is all sort of the same color, right?” he asks, gesturing. “So how come you had me keep it on tonight?”

It's an opening, of sorts, but somehow because I'm getting ready to tell you that I'm in love with you, and under the circumstances, asking you to strip half-naked first seemed like a creepy way to start the evening doesn't seem like the best possible answer. Instead, Steve just shrugs uncomfortably.

“I know what color your chest is; I don't need to see it just to block it in.”

“You had me take my shoes off,” Bucky points out. “My feet are the same color as the rest of me, too.”

“That's different; it's an entirely different shape, you—”

“Nope, sorry,” Bucky interrupts easily, his mouth twitching. “No more of this blind faith in your abilities. I'm gonna need to see some proof you know what you're doing if you want me to show up tomorrow.”

Steve rolls his eyes and grabs his sketchbook, handing it over with an exasperated grin. “You could've just asked, you know.”

“I've asked before; you always brushed me off.” Bucky starts flipping through the pages, and Steve shoves his hands in his pockets. “You said you had something to talk to me about?”

“Hmm? Oh.” He's gotten distracted again, watching Bucky's hands. “I, um. Yes. I did.”

“Okay, so.” Bucky glances up with a grin that makes Steve's stomach flip. “Spit it out already. It's just . . . me. Oh.” He's glanced back down at the sketchbook, and when Steve follows his gaze he sees that he's turned to the most recent pages. “Wow.” Bucky swallows visibly, his fingers trailing over a rough sketch of his profile. “These are . . . I always knew you were good, but these are really amazing. I look . . .” He laughs, a little nervously. “I don't really look like this.”

“You don't spend as much time looking at you as I do,” Steve says, and immediately wishes he could snatch the words back. There's no going back, however, so he clears his throat and decides to use the opening that it's given him. “That's actually what I wanted to talk to you about. Sort of. I mean, not specifically, but—” He takes a deep breath and tries again. “You see, the thing is, when you're drawing someone, when you're looking at someone so closely for so long, you start to . . . well, to notice things that you might not, otherwise.”

“Okay.” Bucky closes the book warily and sets it aside. “I take it you've noticed something about me.”

“Yeah. Sort of. More something about me, I guess? Just.” Steve clears his throat and tries to summon his courage. “You remember when you first told me you were . .
. interested in men? And, um. I told you that it didn't change anything, but . . .”

“I told you that it would.”

“Right. Well, the thing is . . .” Steve feels flushed and shaky; he can barely speak he's so nervous. “You were right.”

“Was I?” Bucky's face is falling into neutral lines, closing off in a way that makes Steve's nerves skitter uneasily.

“You were. It . . . well, there are things it's made me notice. Realize, I guess. About, um. Well, I don't think any of it is new, really, I just never understood what it meant, before. But now—”

“Look, Steve, it's okay.” Bucky glances at the canvas again and then quickly away. “I think I know what you're getting at. But you don't need to worry, all right? Nothing has to get . . . weird between us.”

“Oh.” As reactions go, Steve is finding this one ambiguous at best. It feels like rejection, though, and he does his best to steel himself against the sudden hollow feeling in his stomach. “Okay, that's . . . good, I guess.”

“You do trust me, don't you?”

“With my life,” he says immediately, without needing even a moment to consider, and he watches a grateful smile spread over Bucky's face.

“Okay. Then trust me when I say that you don't have to worry about this.”

“Right.” Steve opens his mouth, closes it again; best to let it drop, to change the subject, to let it go. But he has to know, has to be sure; he has to hear the words, or he'll never really be able to move on. “So . . . you're saying you're not interested?”

“What?” Bucky looks like he's been caught off-guard, and he blinks up at Steve in confusion.

“Aren't you?” Against all reason, a cautious spark of hope catches hold in Steve's chest, and he dares to edge an inch closer. “If that's not what you were trying to say, then what were you talking about?”

“What were you talking about?”

“I . . .”

The words won't come out, stuck as they are behind his heart that's managed to climb its way into his throat. He's trying not to stare at Bucky's lips, but for some reason he has Tony's voice in his head talking about getting his point across, and before he can remind himself why it's a bad idea he's framing Bucky's face in his hands as he darts forward to steal a kiss.

Bucky's mouth is slack with surprise beneath his, but his lips are soft and warm, and the scent of his skin is making Steve's head spin, so it's several long moments before he fully realizes what he's doing. Guilt hits him immediately, and he's about to pull away, to stammer out an apology and hope that his friend will forgive him, when things abruptly change.

There's sudden pressure against his lips as Bucky begins to kiss him back, and Steve can't even hope to think beyond how good it is. He's aware of a warm hand curling around his waist, of the shift and press of Bucky's lips against his, of a gentle wash of breath against his cheek. His entire body feels like it's humming, buzzing and trembling and vibrating with the sudden force of this, yes, finally. He's half-hard already, from nothing more than a single chaste kiss; Steve thinks, distantly, that he should be embarrassed about that. He's not, though, and he hears himself make a small, eager sound as he moves in closer. His hips fit against Bucky's, and they both groan as the hand at his waist pulls him in, encouraging for a brief, wonderful moment. But then both of Bucky's hands are braced against Steve's chest as he steps away, steps back, and Steve is left floundering and unsure.

“Sorry,” he says automatically, even as he fights the urge to reach for Bucky again. “Sorry, I . . . was that not—?”

“No, it's just—this is a bad idea.”

“It's . . . but . . .” Steve can't seem to make himself understand. “You kissed me back.”

“I know. Fuck.” Bucky runs a trembling hand over his mouth. “I want to; god, Steve, you have no idea.”

“Oh. Oh, good. Thank God.” Nearly giddy with relief, Steve steps forward, but Bucky edges back again. “What?”

“Look, it's natural to be. You know. Curious.” Bucky isn't quite looking him in the eye now. “But you're not the type to do this sort of thing casually. That's just not who you are. And I'm not gonna let you to do something you'll regret later, just because—”

“Bucky.”

Steve is quicker this time, taking hold of Bucky's shoulders before he can evade. There are so many things he wants to say, so many thoughts tangling together in his mind, but none of them quite manage to make their way into words. Truthfully, that's probably for the best, since at least half of what he's thinking is probably too much, too soon. So instead he focuses on the single, simple truth that runs through everything else he wants to say.

“I don't want to do this with anyone else.”

There's something like recognition in Bucky's eyes at that, something like the same cautious hope that Steve is feeling; like perhaps those meager words are, after all, enough to make him understand. Steve moves slowly forward, his eyes still locked on Bucky's as he carefully lowers his head. If Bucky pulls away again he won't stop him, but he hopes—oh, Steve hopes he won't. And when he doesn't, when Steve feels his lips brush softly against his friend's, his eyes drift closed as pleasure and relief wash over him.

There's that moment of hesitation again, but this time when the response comes Steve can feel it in every line of Bucky's body, in sudden relaxation followed by a breathless surge towards him, and it doesn't feel like surrender so much as attack. Steve shivers when Bucky's arms wrap around his waist, tugging him closer, and again when clever hands slip beneath the hem of Steve's shirt, warm skin and cool metal sliding over his back. Feeling suddenly bold, he swipes his tongue across the full lower lip that's been haunting his thoughts lately; the groan that he gets in response makes him feel ten feet tall, even when Bucky's tongue darts out to meet his and Steve's knees threaten to give out.

“Hold on,” Bucky pulls away to gasp, “slow down.” Big words, Steve can't help but think, from a man whose hips are still moving in slow, insistent
circles against his. “We should talk about this.”

“No.” Steve kisses him again, almost drunk on the taste of his lips alone, and lets his mouth start trailing over the delicate skin at Bucky's jaw. “I'm bad at talking.”

Bucky lets out a breathless laugh. “Yeah, you really are.” He pulls one hand out from beneath Steve's shirt, and Steve nearly protests until he feels it stroke into his hair instead. “But I . . . ah . . . I need to know how far you're looking to go here, though.”

Steve pauses, his forehead pressed to Bucky's temple as he struggles to catch his breath.

“How far will you let me?” he asks at last, and can't help but smile at Bucky's quiet, heartfelt curse.

“Damn it, Steve.” Bucky leans in to wraps his lips around Steve's earlobe, and for several long moments Steve forgets how words work altogether. “If you get uncomfortable—”

“Yeah.” Steve threads his fingers through Bucky's hair and drags his mouth back for a deep, desperate kiss. Then he fists a hand in the fabric at his collar, and starts tugging him towards the bedroom. “I'll let you know.”

And then Bucky is laughing, and Steve is grinning between kisses as they stumble their way through the apartment because he can't remember the last time he felt this simply, overwhelmingly happy.

He can't stop touching, can't stop tasting; Bucky's shirt is tossed aside somewhere along the way and Steve has to pause to crowd him against the nearest wall, ducking his head down to run lips and teeth and tongue down his neck and along his shoulders. Meanwhile, Bucky's hands have dropped to cup Steve's ass, pulling their hips tightly together; the first time Steve feels Bucky grinding hard and eager against him, all the blood seems to leave his head in a sudden rush. He buries his face in Bucky's neck as he tries to keep his balance, teeth sinking into firm muscle almost of their own accord. It has Bucky letting out a breathy moan and thrusting his hips harder against Steve's, and Steve has to remind himself that he has very good reasons for wanting to get to a bed instead of just pushing Bucky to the floor right here and now.

Steve's hands are trembling by the time they finally make it to the bedroom; he threads them into Bucky's hair, letting the soft strands between his fingers soothe him as he kisses him again. He can't get enough of that mouth, of the softness of those lips and the clever twists of Bucky's tongue, the careful scrape of teeth and the shape of his smile as they kiss. He focuses on that, on taste and texture and the sneaky thrill of pride that hits him whenever he does something that makes Bucky's breath catch, and lets his hands drop down to work at the other man's belt.

Between the unfamiliar angle and the need to keep touching, it's surprisingly difficult to get the thing loose. He gets distracted twice: first by the crisp hairs trailing down over a smooth, flat stomach, and again when he gives in to the urge to cup his hand around the bulge at the front of Bucky's trousers, squeezing and stroking through the fabric until Bucky's clinging to his shoulders and breathing short, panting gasps into Steve's mouth. His hips are moving, helpless little thrusts into Steve's touch, and that's because of him, because of Steve and what he's doing, and Steve is smiling into their kiss again because he just can't help himself.

He finally breaks away when Bucky's belt and trouser fastenings are vanquished, pressing gently on Bucky's shoulders to urge him down onto the bed. For a moment Steve simply stands, looking down at him. Bucky's lips are swollen and red, his pupils blown; there's a darkening bruise on his neck where Steve bit him, and Steve feels vaguely guilty over how smug he is at the sight of it. He presses his fingertips gently against Bucky's jaw, bending down to brush a light kiss over his lips as he sinks slowly to his knees.

Bucky is staring like he can't quite believe this is really happening, and Steve grins up at him even as nerves tie his stomach into slippery knots. Kneeling between his legs, Steve hooks his fingers in the waistband of Bucky's trousers and underwear, giving them a gentle tug. Bucky lifts his hips and Steve pull them off, sliding the fabric down long, strong legs before tossing it aside.

There seems to be miles of bare skin in front of him now, and it takes a moment for Steve to build up the courage to really look. He's certain that this is what he wants, but even so, Steve hasn't quite been able to suppress the worry that he might not be ready for the reality of it. When he does look, he's filled with a curious sense of relief, because there's nothing frightening about this at all.

Bucky is hard, his cock flushed and erect between his thighs. It's a good size, Steve thinks—more or less as big as his own, if maybe a little longer. He thinks that it would fit nicely in his hand, and he reaches up to find out. It's firm and smooth and warm against his palm, and as he wraps his fingers carefully around it Bucky lets out a little sighing puff of breath that makes Steve's own cock twitch inside the confines of his jeans. It's a good sound, one that he immediately sets out to try to get again.

His movements are uncertain at first, hand and wrist moving at an unfamiliar angle, but soon enough he finds a rhythm: squeezing lightly on the upstroke, skimming his thumb over the head every so often to collect the liquid that's beginning to leak from the top. He's going on instinct more than anything, on Bucky's quiet gasps and groans and the shift of his hips into Steve's touch; on the way Steve likes to be touched himself—and everything that he's read over the past several weeks has assured him that masturbation is entirely normal and healthy, so he's not even going to blush over the thought, he's not.

Steve licks his lips, absently, and a sharp gasp from Bucky has him swiftly loosening his grip, afraid he's hurt him without meaning to. When he glances up, however, and sees that Bucky is staring at his mouth, a sudden wave of heat roll through him as realization hits. He wants to . . . but it's still a little daunting just yet, so he leans down instead to kiss along the smooth, delicate skin of Bucky's inner thighs. His skin smells incredible, musky and warm and just a little sharp, and Steve lets his mouth trail higher as the scent of it fills his head.

Bucky's cock is leaking steadily now; before he has time to think about what he's doing Steve swipes the thumb of his free hand over the tip, bringing it to his mouth to sample the taste. Bucky bites off a moan at that, his hips bucking helplessly into Steve's grip.

“Fucking hell.” His voice sounds hoarse and wrecked, which Steve discovers makes him feel incredibly smug. “Are you trying to tease me to death here?”

“Sorry,” Steve says, though the smile on his face is more self-satisfied than sheepish. “I'm sort of making this up as I go along. Besides.” His grin widens, grows wicked. “I thought you said you were bossy.”

Bucky chokes out a laugh at that. “Yeah. Yeah, I usually am, but I'm just a little bit nervous about deflowering my best friend.” He swallows hard. “I don't wanna push you.”

Steve has no hope of fighting back a blush at that, but he grins unabashedly nonetheless.

“Guess I'll just have to keep taking the lead for a while, then.”

And really, once he makes the decision it's remarkably easy to follow through. Leaning down again, he licks at the tip of Bucky's cock, savoring the sharp, salty flavor of the liquid there before he slowly drags the flat of his tongue up the underside of the shaft. He likes the way it feels: the smooth skin, the weight, the heat. He likes the way it tastes. But most of all, he likes the way it sounds, the way it turns Bucky's breathing to short, shallow gasps and quiet moans. A glance at Bucky's face to find him watching intently, eyes wide and lips parted, fills Steve with a sense of pride he'd never have expected, and he smiles again before he wraps his lips around the head of Bucky's cock and starts to gently suck.

Wary of taking too much in at once, Steve leaves his hand around the base to compensate as he draws him in as deeply as he dares. And oh, oh, it's good, so good to feel him in his mouth like this, to savor the stretch of his lips and the weight of Bucky's cock against his tongue. Steve hadn't realized how good it would be, how much he would want it; his own cock is painfully hard, but he can't spare a moment to relieve the pressure. Both hands are occupied now, one sliding up to gently squeeze at Bucky's balls as the other pumps around his shaft, moving in counterpoint as his head begins to bob.

Trembling fingers thread through his hair, cupping the back of his head in gentle encouragement, and Steve lets out an eager groan. He hears Bucky curse, then, fingers tightening in his hair, and a fresh wave of lust has Steve redoubling his efforts. The sound of it is filthy, wet and loud as he sucks at the hard cock in his mouth; he has to pull one hand away then to grind the heel of his palm against his own cock, still trapped in his jeans. It's all he can manage at the moment, unable to summon up the concentration or coordination necessary to get the damned things open.

He's lost to almost everything that isn't the taste and feel of Bucky in his mouth; the trembling in his parted thighs; the sound of his breathing turning ragged as Steve works at him. For a moment he has to pause to struggle for air himself, his own breath panting out over wet skin until Bucky groans and tries to tug his head back down. Steve goes willingly, eager to fill his mouth again, and he thinks that he could happily stay here on his knees forever, making Bucky shake and gasp and groan.

“Steve.” Too soon, Bucky is tugging insistently at his hair again, trying to pull him off. “I'm going to—oh god, I can't—Steve—

He doesn't care. A day, an hour, even ten minutes ago he might've, but now he only wants to feel Bucky come and come apart in his mouth. So he stays put, keeps going, and after a moment Bucky stops protesting, hips shifting towards Steve's mouth in irregular, helpless little jerks. Steve grinds his hand down harder against his own erection, desperately seeking more pressure, more friction. And then Bucky's cock is swelling against his tongue, and the sensation shoves Steve violently over that final edge moments before Bucky spills himself down Steve's throat in hot, staccato bursts.

Steve feels dazed, lightheaded, and amazingly powerful as he finally lets Bucky slip from his mouth, reveling in the feel of his rapidly softening flesh as it slides past his lips. He swallows carefully; the taste and texture aren't the best, he thinks, but it's well worth it for the way he can see relaxation written in every line of Bucky's body. Steve starts pressing lazy kisses over Bucky's hip and stomach, and there's a soft sigh above him before he's pulled upright and into a proper kiss.

“For heaven's sake, Steve,” Bucky laughs softly when he pulls back, “get your clothes off already.”

Unsteady on his feet, Steve scrambles to obey as Bucky scoots back onto the bed, reclining lazily to he watch him strip; Steve knows full well that it's ridiculous to blush over that scrutiny, considering what they've just done, though apparently that isn't going to stop him. He winces a little as he peels off his underwear, embarrassed at the mess he's made.

“I, uh. Sort of . . . sorry.”

He makes a vague gesture and Bucky rolls his eyes, leaning over to grab his wrist and tug until Steve topples down onto the bed. They're both of them laughing as they collide, playfully shoving each other back and forth until Bucky finally shoves him onto his back and seals their mouths together. Steve melts into the kiss, pulling Bucky as close as he can manage, astounded at how his head is already spinning again from no more than the simple pleasure of bare skin against bare skin.

“You're still such a punk,” Bucky murmurs, smirking against his lips before his mouth starts trailing down.

Steve smiles lazily as Bucky works his way down his body—lips and tongue and the gentle scrape of teeth along the column of his neck and across his shoulders, warm kisses that rain over his chest and shoulders—and his breath catches when he feels Bucky's mouth moving lower still. Propping himself up on his elbows to get a better angle, he watches wide-eyed as Bucky's tongue begins to slide carefully over his groin, cleaning away the sticky mess still drying on his skin.

He can't seem to breathe properly as Bucky's lips wrap around his cock, already almost half-hard again. Bucky's eyes have drifted closed, and he looks as lost to the sensation as Steve had felt. He's doing something sinful with his tongue that has Steve moaning; it would be good, so good to lose himself in this haze of warm, wet pleasure. But as much as he wants that, there's something else he wants even more, so he steels himself and reaches down to pull Bucky back up, pleased when he goes without too much complaint.

Steve has a moment's shock when their mouths meet and he realizes he can taste himself on Bucky's tongue, but he's easily distracted when Bucky moves to straddle him, slowly grinding their hips together. Steve moans again, opening his mouth wider to the kiss as he thrusts up eagerly to meet him.

Bucky's hands are braced on Steve's chest, pinning him to the mattress, and Steve is taking shameless advantage of this new position to let his hands wander freely over warm, bare skin. He slides them slowly down Bucky's back until he's cupping his ass, pulling him closer, and skims one careful finger over the cleft there. Bucky shudders and pulls back with a groan, his breath ghosting over Steve's wet lips as he presses their foreheads together.

“I wasn't expecting this when I came over tonight, you know.”

“I know,” Steve says quickly, though he can't quite bring himself to move his hands. “I . . . if you don't want—”

“No, I mean—” Bucky laughs. “Jesus. I mean I don't have anything with me.”

“Don't have anything—oh. Oh. Um.” Steve turns his head to glance at his bedside table. “Well.”

“You're kidding me.” Bucky fixes him with a disbelieving look, and reaches over to open the drawer. “You . . . really weren't,” he says after a moment, pulling out a bottle of lube and a box of condoms. “Wow.”

Bucky,” is all Steve can manage in response, trying with only limited success to keep his hips still beneath all the twisting and squirming that Bucky's just done. He's somehow surprised, though he really shouldn't be, when Bucky's answer is to grin wickedly and rock down in a hard little circle that makes Steve's toes curl. “Oh, God,” Steve whimpers, beyond caring how it sounds because right now he just needs that to happen again.

“You sure about this?” Bucky asks, going still, and Steve simply groans, grabbing hold of him and flipping them over in one quick, rough move.

“I'm sure.”

Bucky's mouth opens eagerly to his, and for a time Steve allows himself to simply drink in the sensation of Bucky's body beneath him, the taste of his tongue and the warmth of his kiss. Before long, though, their hips are rocking together again, erections sliding against each other as their tongues meet and tangle, and Steve can feel his mind beginning to haze over. Bucky's left hand lifts from the mattress, and a moment later there's a popping sound that makes Steve shiver in nervous anticipation. He leans up just enough to look down into warm brown eyes, sliding to one side even as he presses his lips gently against the creases that form at the corners as Bucky smiles.

Steve holds out his hand to let Bucky squeeze the contents of the bottle onto his fingers, coating them with the slippery liquid. His heart is beating faster already, from nothing more than the slide of his fingers against each other; a sudden bout of nerves threatens to overtake him, and he has to take a deep breath to steady himself. When he reaches down, though, Bucky's legs fall easily open for him, and in the face of such unquestioning trust there's nothing that Steve can do but move forward.

He kisses Bucky again, grounding himself in the soft press of lips against his as he gently rubs a fingertip against Bucky's entrance. The moan that echoes into his mouth makes him bolder, and slowly, carefully, he pushes inside. Bucky is warm and tight around his finger, muscles pulling him deeper as his hips begin to shift; still moving cautiously, Steve begins to pump his finger in and out. It only takes a few moments before Bucky is lifting fully up to meet him, lips gone slack as he pants against Steve's mouth, and Steve braces himself up on one elbow. He wants to watch this.

“More.” Bucky licks his lips, and when he opens his eyes Steve sees that they're blown nearly black. “Steve. Come on,” he says with a grin that breaks on a moan as Steve twists his hand. “I'm not made of glass here.”

Steve pulls out entirely, taking just a moment to enjoy Bucky's protesting moan before he presses back in with two fingers. He's never seen anything as beautiful as this, he thinks: Bucky naked and open beneath him, spots of color riding high on pale cheeks, parted lips slick and red and raw. He's working himself eagerly onto Steve's fingers now, planting one foot flat against the bed so that they can slide in even deeper. He looks wanton and filthy and all, all for Steve.

Trying desperately to remember the things he's read through the haze of lust fogging his brain, Steve starts to carefully spread his fingers on the outstroke, stretching Bucky for—he shies away from finishing the thought, afraid that just the idea of it will make this end all too soon. An urge is rising in him to simply take, hard and fast and rough, and consequences be damned. The fear of doing real damage holds him back, however, and he distracts himself by running a line of wet, exploratory kisses up the column of Bucky's neck as he trembles with need.

“Can you take another?” he whispers in Bucky's ear, enjoying the way Bucky groans when Steve bites gently on his earlobe.

“Yes.” Bucky's voice is little more than a gasp, but he clenches around Steve's fingers and Steve's eyes threaten to roll back in his head. “God, yes, another. More.”

Steve pauses to grab the bottle again, adding more lubricant to his fingers before he pulls the first three in tight together and begins to gradually work them into Bucky's body. A strangled cry escapes Bucky's throat, and his eyes clench shut, but his hips are moving as insistently as ever; praying his friend will speak up if he needs to stop, Steve keeps going. He watches as Bucky bites down on his lower lip, and the sight tears a desperate moan from Steve's chest. Without pausing the movements of his hand, Steve leans down to run his tongue across straight white teeth, urging them open so that he can replace them with his own.

He twists his hand again, spreading his fingers and grazing something deep inside, and suddenly Bucky is arching up, crying out, his breath coming in ragged gasps as his hands fly up to pull at Steve's shoulders, trying to draw him closer.

“Jesus Christ. Now. Steve, now, fuck me now, now.”

And Steve, who's never quite seen the appeal of dirty talk, is suddenly scrambling to move between Bucky's legs, desperate to obey the command. The air between them is thick and hot; it clogs Steve's lungs with the scent of sex, with musk and the salty tang of sweat. He manages to open the box lying discarded on the bed, but his fingers fumble on the small foil packet and Bucky laughs, breathless, before he reaches out to help. It's Bucky's fingers that roll the condom gently onto Steve's cock, that wrap around him to stroke more lubricant on over the latex. And then he's guiding him in, helping him into position as Bucky lifts his legs up, and Steve begins to press his way inside.

It's tight heat, soft and slick, and Steve sends up a silent prayer of thanks for the thin sheath around him that's dulling the sensation, because without it he's afraid he would've come as soon as he started. As it is he's already trembling, struggling to catch his breath because nothing in his life has ever, ever felt this good. His hands are gripping Bucky's thighs—too tightly, he's afraid, but he can't seem to loosen his grip; it seems to be all that's keeping him from exploding out of sheer, unbelievable pleasure.

When his mind finally begins to clear he realizes that Bucky's legs have fallen loosely around his waist and his arms have wrapped around his shoulders, tugging him down so that Steve's head is resting against Bucky's shoulder. Gentle fingers stroke lightly through the sweat-dampened hair at the nape of his neck, soothing and enticing all at once. Steve's hips stutter before he can help himself, an unconscious rock into the comfort of Bucky's body that draws a shallow gasp from both of them.

Bucky's lips find his cheek, his jaw, the corner of his mouth as his hands lower to Steve's hips. With careful pressure he begins to guide him, encouraging him into longer strokes. After a few thrusts Steve slides his knees forward, working them beneath Bucky's hips for better leverage, and Bucky's head falls back, the line of his throat exposed on a guttural, drawn-out moan. Paired with the slick, wet sounds of their bodies moving together, it's easily the sexiest thing Steve has ever heard in his life. He sits back on his heels so that he can see as well, can watch himself sliding in and out of Bucky's body, and he's shaking again with the effort it takes to keep himself in check.

“Steve.” Bucky's beginning to squirm beneath him, drawing an embarrassing little whimpering moan from Steve's throat. “Harder.”

“I don't . . .” Steve shakes his head. “Don't want to hurt you,” he finally manages to gasp out, and can't help but be surprised when Bucky laughs.

“You worry too much. C'mon, Rogers.” He grins breathlessly up at him. “I can take anything you dish out.”

He does . . . something, then, a careful squeeze of his muscles that makes Steve's eyes lose focus, hips snapping forward before he can help it. Bucky groans shamelessly, legs tightening around Steve's waist, and Steve's composure breaks, his mind going blank beyond the immediate, desperate need for more. He's driving himself into Bucky in earnest now, chasing the sparks that shoot up his spine each time he thrusts in deep. It's too much, and not enough, and his world has narrowed down to nothing more than the two of them and way they move together.

Steve's head is spinning with the heavy scent of musk and good, clean sweat, with the sound of ragged breaths and broken moans and the creaking of the bed beneath them. Bucky's left hand has lifted to grasp the headboard, bracing himself to meet Steve's thrusts. The wood groans in protest as metal fingers squeeze tighter and tighter, a new addition to the chorus that's threatening to drive Steve out of his mind with lust. He grits his teeth, determined to hold on, because Bucky is panting and groaning and crying out because of him, and Steve wants this to last forever.

It's too good, though; he's trembling, sweat is pooling at the base of his spine, and every shift of his hips tears at his control just a little bit more, and despite what he wants he knows that he can't hold out much longer.

“Bucky.” He drops forward, hands braced flat against the bed as he keeps moving, helpless to stop now. “I—I can't—I need—”

Bucky just nods, right hand reaching down to fist around his cock. The sight of him as he works himself over, chasing his own pleasure, has Steve moving harder still, thrusting in tandem with Bucky's strokes. Steve feels Bucky start to shake around him, eyes squeezed closed and raw red lips open on a wordless, grunting cry as he spills out his release over his own stomach.

Bucky's body tightens as he comes, and Steve goes still, arms trembling with strain until he falls onto his forearms, struggling for breath. When he starts to move again it's rough, unfocused, helpless to everything but the feeling of Bucky so relaxed and open underneath him now, lips at his ear whispering filthy encouragement until Steve shudders as well, and the world explodes behind his eyes.

It's long moments before he can think clearly enough to worry that his weight might be uncomfortable, and even then he can't do more than simply slide to one side, shuddering again when the movement slides his softening cock out of Bucky's body. Bucky presses a light kiss to the corner of Steve's mouth, and reaches down to carefully remove the condom as Steve tries to ride out the aftershocks. When he lies back down Steve reaches out instinctively, pulling him close until they're lying face-to-face with Bucky's forehead resting against his.

“Is it going to freak you out if I tell you that I love you?” he asks quietly, unable to regret the words even when he feels Bucky give a start of surprise. “Look, I know it wasn't exactly fair of me, springing this on you the way I did. And maybe . . . maybe this was just sex for you, I don't know. But I do love you, Bucky. And I should warn you that I'm not gonna give up easy.”

“When have you ever?” Bucky cups Steve's jaw in one hand, tilting his head up for a kiss that makes Steve's cock give an interested twitch despite his exhaustion. “You really are kind of an idiot, aren't you?”

“Why?” Steve frowns. “For loving you? Because—”

“For thinking I don't already love you back, you twerp.” Bucky's smile is warm and easy, and something in Steve's chest seems to give way at the sight. “Jeez, I've been crazy about you since we were eighteen years old.”

“You . . . really?” Steve can't do more than blink back at him like the idiot Bucky says he is, even as a grin starts to stretch over his face.

“I really sort of figured you knew already,” Bucky grins, and give him a playful nudge. “I don't think I always managed to be subtle about it.” He shrugs. “Lucky for me you're a little slow; you still let me hang around, anyway, even when you didn't need me anymore.”

“I always needed you,” Steve contradicts, and Bucky seems to falter for a moment. Steve lets his hand drift from Bucky's back, still damp with sweat, to rest cautiously against his waist. “I was afraid you might not—I remembered what you said, about what happened to you. About love dividing loyalties. I wasn't sure you'd be able to—”

“They didn't take you,” Bucky says quietly, and stops Steve cold. “Not all of you; not everything I felt. They would have, if they could, but it ran too deep. No matter what they did, I still remembered parts of you, even when I didn't know what it was I was remembering.” Bucky shakes his head and fixes Steve with a wry look. “Damn it, you're making me get sappy over this.”

“Yeah, well.” Steve knows he's back to grinning like an idiot, and absolutely can't find it in himself to care. “I'm trying to feel bad about that, but I really don't.” Bucky lifts an eyebrow, and Steve's grins widens. “Okay, I'm not trying hard.” He laughs. “I still can't believe you had a thing for little Shrimpy Steve.”

“I hated that nickname.” Bucky's hand slides lazily over Steve's hip. “Besides, I liked how little you were.”

“You did?”

“Well, yeah. Not that I like the way you look now; believe me,” he says with a wicked grin, “I do. Most of the times I pictured doing this, you were a lot smaller, but—um.”

Steve's eyebrows lift in surprise. “You really thought about that back then? About . . . having sex with me?”

“I, ah. Well. Yeah.”

“Are you blushing?”

“God, you're a brat,” Bucky mutters, and yes, there's a distinct reddish tinge to his cheeks.

“You are!” Steve leans up on one elbow, a delighted grin splitting his face. “Oh man, I can't believe I actually made you blush for once.”

“Shut up.”

“Did you think about it a lot?” Steve teases.

“Oh, for—” Bucky lunges at him suddenly, grinning now as well despite his obvious embarrassment, and Steve laughs unabashedly as they wrestle back and forth. Soon enough Bucky has him pinned again, the glare on his face softened by the sparkle in his eyes. “Shut up,” he says again, and Steve lifts his chin in blatant invitation.

“Make me.”

Bucky, much to Steve's delight, proves to be more than up to the challenge.