In the past month, Steve's spent more time in the infirmary than he has since after the battle with Bucky on the Helicarrier. The Avengers' most recent fight with some angry blue aliens left him with several broken bones and an infection from space bacteria (Jane, Helen, and Tony had all given him a detailed explanation but what it boiled down to, as far as Steve was concerned, was bacteria from space aliens) that hadn't responded immediately to antibiotics or his usual healing factor. Helen's probably going to win a Nobel Prize for figuring out how to fight it.
Steve feels better than he has in a while; he'd somehow managed to forget how awful it was to be sick and unable to do the things he'd wanted to do. It wasn't the same as it was when he was a kid--not only did he have the internet and a StarkPad full of books to read, music to listen to, and movies to watch, he had friends who visited and entertained him with field reports and gossip, and even, once he was feeling less nauseous all the time, letting him sketch them. And of course, the one thing that was the same was Bucky at his side, cheating at gin.
Getting Bucky back is the best thing about this future and Steve will never stop being grateful for it--that they both survived, that they found each other, that they were able to resume a friendship around which Steve's world had spun since he was six years old. If he sometimes misses the secret kisses and desperate touches of their teenage years, well, he learned to live without them a long time ago. That was never the most important part of their relationship.
Helen's given him the clearance to start sparring at full-strength again, and he's gong to take advantage of it. He changes into his sweats and heads to the gym.
Bucky and Natasha are already there, so absorbed in each other that they don't seem to notice Steve's joined them. It's okay, though; he enjoys watching, his fingers itching for his charcoals and pencils.
They fight like they're dancing, feints and sweeps and twirls from Natasha that keep Bucky from being able to use his strength or reach against her. She's taught Steve a great deal--a lot of his current fighting style is based on her training, her insistence that he learn to do more than plant his feet and keep swinging once his shield's not a factor in the fight. And Bucky, it turns out, taught her a lot of what she knows (a far more lethal set of skills than the haymakers and jabs he'd taught Steve back in the day), so he's well prepared to fight her to a standstill.
Natasha brings out her signature move, her thighs around Bucky's neck, and flips them both to the mat. Bucky rolls them over and they stare at each other, panting raggedly, as if nothing else in the world exists. Bucky murmurs something in Russian and Natasha reaches up a hand to cup his cheek.
Steve backs away silently and goes for a run instead. He's glad Natasha's recovering from the heartbreak of her attempt to date Bruce, but that doesn't mean he actually wants to see it. Especially not when Bucky's the one helping to heal her heart.
Later, when he's come back from his run and taken a long, hot shower, he comes out of the bathroom to find Bucky sprawled on his bed.
"You didn't have to leave," Bucky says. "You could have joined us."
Steve knows he doesn't mean that the way it sounds, but his ears burn anyway. He recovers quickly and says, "Yeah, it'd take both of you to take me down."
Bucky snorts. "We'll have to try it sometime."
Steve makes a strangled sound and goes back into the bathroom to get dressed.
A couple of weeks later, Steve comes home from lunch with Sam to find Darcy on the couch, her feet in Bucky's lap as he paints her toenails.
"Stop squirming." Steve can hear the laugh in Bucky's tone.
"I can't help it if I'm ticklish," she says, giggling and swatting at him playfully as he puts the brush back in the bottle of nail polish and sets it on the end table.
"Don't ruin that manicure," Bucky warns. "It took me forever to get it that neat." He glances at Steve with a smile. "You probably should have had the artist here do it. I bet he could even do fancy designs for you. He's got steady hands."
"No steadier than yours," Steve answers, still standing in the doorway. He doesn't have the patience to be a sniper, and Bucky'd had it long before HYDRA got hold of him. "And I've never worked on a canvas that small."
"You can start with mine then," Bucky says. He leans forward to blow on Darcy's toes and she giggles.
Steve reaches behind him for the door. "I'll just leave you to it."
"No," Darcy says as Bucky slips her flip-flops onto her feet. "I have to go get dressed. Jane's taking me to this awards dinner tonight." She bounces upright and flaps her hands. "Four hours of physicists trying to be sociable. Thank god there's an open bar." She bends at the waist to press a kiss to Bucky's cheek, gives Steve a bright smile, and leaves.
They both stare after her for a long moment.
Before the war, Bucky was a ladies' man; even when he and Steve were sneaking around under the covers, it was easier, safer for everyone to see him with a dame on his arm whenever they went out. He'd always made sure to line one up for Steve, too, but they were rarely interested in him, and to be honest, Steve'd rarely been interested back. He'd tried, because it was what guys did, and Steve had tried a million different things to be one of the guys back then, and most of them hadn't worked for more than fifteen or twenty minutes at a time. (Perhaps that was why he'd been simultaneously stung and pleased when Peggy had accused him of it after Private Lorraine kissed him. Peggy had been the first woman who didn't need him to fit some predetermined mold of manhood, and he'd loved her for it then, for seeing and understanding the way so few people did. He loves her now, too--that'll never go away--but it's different here in the future.)
Steve had known then that he and Bucky couldn't have had the kind of relationship that worked for both of them, not when Steve would have wanted to show it off to the world, and Bucky spent all his time trying to keep it a secret.
Now, well. Now it's okay for two fellas to get married, even if there are still some bigots who judge others for their choice. Steve knows there will always be people like that and that he'll always try to fight them. But this isn't that. This is just him and Bucky wanting different things.
"Come on," Bucky says, "stop daydreaming and do my nails." Steve sits on the couch next to him and catches the bottle of nail polish Bucky tosses at him. "I was thinking you could do your shield on my index finger."
Steve sucks in a deep breath and huffs it out, releasing some of the tension he's been carrying around lately. He takes Bucky's right hand, nails already painted a bright blue that matches Steve's uniform, and frowns. "Does Natasha know you're stepping out on her with Darcy?"
"I'm not seeing Natasha. Not seeing Darcy either." Bucky huffs a soft laugh. "I realize I've done some dumb shit in my time." Steve raises a knowing eyebrow. "Usually to pull you out of trouble, but I just got back on her good side. I'm not going to piss her off."
"I know you like to live dangerously." He has to let Bucky's hand go to open the bottle of nail polish and his fingers feel unaccountably cool without Bucky's touch.
"I think you're confusing us again. You're the one who jumps out of planes without parachutes."
Steve has no response for that, so he daubs a small spot of white in the center of Bucky's nail, and draws a small circle around it. He finds himself intensely aware of Bucky--the rough grain of his skin, the scent of his soap (the same as Steve's, which shouldn't give him a thrill but does), and the smell of stale coffee on his breath. Steve syncs his breathing to Bucky's the way he did when he was trying to stave off an asthma attack. He likes to imagine their hearts beating in time as well, especially now that he no longer has arrhythmia, though he knows that's being fanciful.
His hands are steady, though, a red circle joining the white one on Bucky's nail without drips or mishaps. He puts the polish down and takes Bucky's hand in both of his, tipping it this way and that to make sure the circle is even. It is. He brings Bucky's hand close to his lips and blows on the nail to dry it. Bucky's fingers quiver against his and he can hear the sudden sharp intake of Bucky's breath. He looks up to find Bucky watching him intently, eyes dark and heavy-lidded.
"I can't help it if ladies love me."
Steve rolls his eyes. "Whatever you say, Buck."
"They're not the ones I'm interested in."
Steve's heart leaps and he tries--fails--to tamp down the sudden hope rising in his chest. "Oh?"
Bucky grins. "You're an idiot."
Steve grins back and ducks his head. "It's been said."
"Shut up." Bucky leans in, cups his cheek with the metal hand, and kisses him.
It's as familiar as coming home and as exhilarating as jumping out of a plane without a parachute, a lightning strike that leaves him hard and aching.
"Careful," he murmurs against Bucky's cheek. "Don't want to ruin that manicure."
Bucky's laugh vibrates through him as he pushes Bucky back against the cushions and settles in for an afternoon of making out on the couch.