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Your Touch, Your Skin (Oh Where Do I Begin?)

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“Steve,” Sam says, leaning against the doorway, arms folded. “He’s doin’ it again."

A sullen voice chimes from the kitchen: “Am not!”

“Are so—“ Sam stops mid-sentence and visibly steels himself. “Steve,” he says firmly, then strides forward and kicks at the bed. “Steve, man. Wake up. Tall, Dark and Deadly is rearranging my kitchen knives.” He repeats, sternly: “Again."

Steve rolls over, burying his face in the pillow. “Nngh,” he says. He thinks distantly that he ought to say something about the nickname, but he’s heard the other options. At least this one’s not obscene.

Another kick to the bed. “He’s caressing the handles—”

“—I am not, I’m polishing them!”

Steve rolls over again, cracking an eye open. His fingers inch towards the pillow next to him.

“You’re gettin’ intimate with my cutlery is what you’re doing, Barnes," Sam snipes over his shoulder.

“I’ll show you intimate!”

“Is that a threat or a promise, ‘cause I’m a taken man—oof!”

The pillow finds its mark. Sam folds in half, clutching his midsection. “Steve,” he wheezes in a wounded voice. “You hit me.”

Satisfied, Steve tosses the pillow aside and yawns. “Oops,” he says insincerely.

“Your best buddy,” Sam continues, betrayed. “Your partner in crime. Your wingman.”

Steve stretches leisurely. “You woke me up,” he says, rolling over and dragging himself into an upright position. “You woke me up, on my only day to sleep in.”

“Man,” Sam says. “It’s 8 am. Any later and I would’ve thought you were dead.” He grins. “I was helping you out.”

Steve snorts. “Sure,” he says. “Screaming about kitchen utensils, real big help.”

“I was just worried about my Cutco collection,” Sam drawls. “Barnes was getting up close and personal, you know?”

There’s a clatter and a snarl from the kitchen. “If you don’t stop with the knife jokes—”

Sam darts a look at the door. “That’s my cue to scoot,” he announces brightly.

A second later, Bucky’s in the doorframe, a rolling pin clutched to his chest and a mutinous expression in his eyes. He stops short when he notices the room is empty, save for Steve lounging in bed and a pair of conspicuously fluttering curtains.

Steve hides a grin. “I think he went out the window,” he says helpfully.

Bucky looks from the curtains to Steve, then back to the curtains.  "Seriously?” he asks.

“Well. We’re only on the first floor," Steve explains solemnly.

Bucky lowers the rolling pin to his side and frowns. There’s a pause, before he mumbles something unintelligible.

Steve raises an eyebrow. “What’s that?” he asks mildly.

Bucky heaves an irritated sigh. “I said,” he says loudly, “that I wasn’t fondling Wilson’s knives.”

Steve has to cough into his fist to hide his startled laugh. “That’s good,” he says. “Not sure the new millennium would look kindly on that kinda thing.”

Bucky regards Steve skeptically. "I dunno,” he says. “I’ve seen the way you look at your shield."

He smiles then, shit-eating and goofy. It sends a lightning bolt of recognition through Steve, followed immediately by a sweet ache almost like longing.

In the beginning, Bucky’s memories came back in fits and starts: some days he’d wake up and say Steve’s name with all the weight of their combined history behind it, and some days he’d wake up screaming of blood and guts and children dying in their beds. It would’ve been difficult enough with that vicious dichotomy, the cold precision of the Winter Soldier coexisting alongside the messy, emotional re-emergence of James Buchanan Barnes. But slowly, inch by painstaking inch, Bucky’s also had to learn how to become an entirely new person. Someone with undiscovered likes, and dislikes, and desires. Someone with autonomy he doesn’t always want, or know what to do with. Someone who’s got baggage that’s buried so deep even Steve hasn’t seen all there is under the surface. Not yet. Maybe not ever.

It’s silly, but Steve has found himself missing Bucky so many times, even as he’s stood right there, within arm’s reach.

And Steve gets that his friend isn’t who he was once, he gets that nothing is the same except for the dogged loyalty that’s characterized their relationship from the start. Steve’s not stupid. He knows how things get carved out of a person, and never get put back, not the same way. But—oh, but. Bucky’s smiling now, like he used to. Before the war, cast in shadows or illuminated by the sun, arm slung around Steve’s neck. Small, sly, happy.

He’s grown into another man, sure. But that man can still smile like he’s the world’s biggest idiot, and it’s so familiar that Steve can’t breathe for a moment.

Something of the happiness expanding in his chest must translate badly onto Steve’s face, because Bucky’s expression suddenly looks alarmed.

“That was a joke,” he says hastily. “I was making a joke.”

Steve scrambles to look less unhinged. “Whoops,” he responds, shifting so he’s propped up against his headboard, blanket tangled around his knees.  “Thought your ugly mug was the joke. Got distracted.”

There are a lot of possible answers to Steve’s attempt at gentle ribbing, but the last one that he’d ever expect is the one Bucky actually gives.

“Not too ugly to get you going,” he says, eyebrow raised.

Steve pauses.

“What?” he asks.

Bucky leans against the doorframe, folding his arms. He drops his eyes down to Steve’s lap, and Steve’s no wilting violet but for some reason now, Bucky’s regard makes heat flood his face, burn at the tips of his ears.

“I’m just saying,” he says slowly, raking his eyes up Steve’s torso. “I’ve seen you. Some mornings, when you think I’m not looking? You like brunettes, Steve. Don’t think I forgot.”

Bucky’s face is carefully blank, but there’s a challenge in his eyes as he holds a look with Steve before he turns and, without another word, vanishes.

Leaving Steve to stare after him, stunned.

“…what?” he repeats.

 

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Clint Barton, 9:12 am: ok so
Clint Barton, 9:13 am: he was definitely flirting w you
Clint Barton, 9:13 am: or threatening you, depending on what ur into
Clint Barton, 9:15 am: what ARE u into btw i got a bet going w stark
Clint Barton, 9:15 am: cap?
Clint Barton, 9:18 am: u there

 

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“Clint is not a person who’s qualified to give life advice, Steve.”

It’s the first thing Natasha says after she’s hauled Sam out of the rose bush where he landed and carried him bodily into the living room. She shoves him towards Steve.

Steve catches Sam and nonchalantly dumps him on the couch. “Well, I wasn’t going to text Stark,” he says. He doesn’t bother to ask how Natasha knew about his text to Clint. Despite contrary claims, she pretty much knows everything.

Sam makes a noise from the coach. “You should’ve texted me,” he pouts. “I give great advice. Which you never follow, on account of your big fat head.”

Steve folds his arms. “That was one time,” he says, “And your advice was pretty unclear.”

“I said DON’T GO IN THERE IT’S A TRAP,” Sam says with the air of someone who’s had this argument before. “Not my fault you got the All White People in Every Horror Movie Ever gene.” He shakes his head. “Got captured by an army of clones, too, didn’t you? Captain America, more like Captain Dumberica—”

Natasha plops down next to Sam and swings her legs into his lap. “Ignore him,” she says. “He’s just cranky he didn’t think to jump out the other window in the room. The one that wasn’t surrounded by scratchy foliage.”

Steve shakes his head. “I can’t believe you actually jumped out the window,” he says. “Drama queen."

Sam shrugs. “Self-preservation, man. Last time Barnes got me in a headlock, he gave me a noogie to end all noogies. I still haven’t regrown that patch of hair.” He tilts his head at Steve, eyes suddenly bright with humor. “Plus, it did give you two some alone time.”

At the implication in Sam’s voice, Steve’s ears grow hot again. He is forcibly reminded of his last interaction with Bucky, the long, assessing look in the bedroom and the voice low with intent. He rubs the back of his neck, embarrassed.

Natasha and Sam exchange curious looks.

“Aw, sit down,” Sam says. “I’m not trying to embarrass you. Just think it’s funny. Not as funny as Barnes makin’ sweet love to my—very, very sharp—silverware, of course.”

Steve takes a seat on the opposite couch. “About that,” he starts, striving to sound nonchalant, “You think he’s regressing?” Unbidden, the image of Bucky and his smile, that old perfect smile, wavers into life.

Natasha and Sam exchange looks again, this time more sympathetic.

“Nope,” Sam says. “I don’t think it’s actually about the knives at all. I mean, I saw him feel up my Cuisinart last Tuesday.” At Steve’s confused look, he hastens to explain: “It’s not the thing itself. It’s how he’s reacting to the thing.”

Natasha taps her lips. “He’s doing a lot of...touching. Lingering.” She cocks her head thoughtfully. “He almost seems—”

A quirk of her lips, quick and teasing. “Covetous,” she says. A flash of heat goes through Steve at the word, and he tamps down a shiver.

“Could be he’s just getting used to being more tactile,” Steve says. He drops his hands to his knees, knuckles white. “Or it’s a coping mechanism.”

“Or,” Sam says, “He’s makin’ eyes at random household appliances ‘cause he doesn’t know how to do it with...y’know, people. You, mainly.”

He leans back on the couch and points a finger gun at Steve. “We got a word for this, Cap, and it’s spelled s-e-x-u-a-l—look, it’s called sexual frustration. After so long locked away in his own body, maybe this is the only way he knows how to express it.” Here, he steeples his fingers under his chin. “You oughta do your patriotic duty,” he suggests, just a hint of mischief in his tone. “Teach the man how to jitterbug.”

Steve drops his face into one of his palms, barely suppressing a groan.

“My bad,” Sam says. “You do know how to jitterbug, don’t you?”

“Depends,” Steve asks dryly, taking his hand from his face. “Was that a euphemism?” He doesn’t wait for a response, plowing ahead. “Because if it is, you’d be wrong. It’s not like that. We’re not like that.”

Natasha snorts. “Steve,” she says. “He watches you all the time. And you’re not much better.”

Steve folds his arms, shifts uncomfortably. “Look,” he says. “You can call Bucky my boyfriend, or my guy, and sure, it’s a joke—for you—but the truth is, we’ve never been together in that way. Not ever.”

He stares down at his folded arms, the knee that’s started jiggling inexplicably. “It’s not like that for him,” he continues, voice quiet.

Another exchanged pair of looks between Natasha and Sam.

“For him?” Sam inquires gently.

“I—” Steve shrugs awkwardly. “It’s never mattered. I’ve always been happy enough to be friends with him. To have him in my life.” He fumbles over the next words, unable to stop himself. “Maybe sometimes I wondered,” he says. “Maybe sometimes I wanted. But he was my best friend in the entire world, and for awhile, he was all I had, so.” He clenches his jaw. “It never—” He cuts off.

There’s a brief silence, and Steve tenses, already regretting the stream of confession. He trusts Natasha and Sam, of course he does. But some things aren’t meant to see the light of day. Some secrets are meant to be kept.

“It did matter.” Natasha’s voice is determined, abrupt. She swings her feet to the floor, sitting up and leaning in almost urgently. “It does matter,” she corrects. “Trust me. When people are emptied out, filled with lies, sometimes all that matters is what’s real. Being told what’s real and being given the choice to deal with it.”  

Her elbow and knee brushes Sam‘s, a small point of contact that settles something in her eyes. “I know about holding myself away from people, Steve. Thinking you’re not worth it. But the truth is, as much as we tell ourselves it’s to keep them safe from us, it’s always the other way around.”

Natasha reaches out a foot, gives Steve a companionable kick. “Think about it,” she orders, before springing up from the couch.

It doesn’t escape Steve’s notice that she’s hauling Sam along with her, fingers curled into his collar in a possessive gesture that speaks volumes. Steve raises an eyebrow as they go, but Sam just gives him a blinding grin over his shoulder, and a tiny shrug.

Think about it.

Steve’s spent a long time actively not thinking about it, though. He was still a kid when he learned to be friends without any expectations, learned to accept Bucky’s possessive and protective nature without wanting more, learned to look at him with the concern of a brother and a soldier before anything else. Eventually, he found Peggy, and that—that was love. That was desire, as sure as anything. What he had, however brief, with the woman who saw him for every contradiction and possibility that he was...it was reciprocated. It was real.

This? This is a paranoid fantasy devised by an ex-spy and a well-meaning former pararescuer.

Think about it. Steve shakes his head. He’s not going to take stupid risks now, just because Steve’s nosy best friends think there’s something more to Bucky’s strange behavior. He’s in a vulnerable place, and Steve—

Well, Bucky may have changed, but Steve hasn’t. Not where it counts.

He still sometimes wonders. He still sometimes wants. And it’s still as impossible as it ever was, seventy-some years ago.

So, no. No, Natasha, he will not be thinking about it, thanks very much.

Steve gets up, dusts his hands off decisively. Unbidden comes the memory of Bucky’s smirk from this morning, the one edging just a bit on the side of hungry. A jolt of—something—slams through Steve, leaves him breathless.

Okay, fine. Maybe he’ll be thinking about it a little.

 

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Tony Stark, 11:00 am: for the record, there are no bets between barton and i
Tony Stark, 11:00 am: well, fine, there are a few, but none about your predilections, whatever they may be
Tony Stark, 11:01 am: just for reference, what may they be?
Tony Stark, 11:02 am: cap??
Tony Stark, 11:03 am: aw come on

 

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When Steve goes upstairs to check on Bucky, he’s in his room, staring down at a glass tumbler he’s got cradled in his hand.

Illuminated by the sun, framed by the window, Bucky is half-shadow, half-light. Steve stands there with his fingers tight around the doorknob, arrested by the complete accuracy of the composition.

“Hey,” he says, loathe to interrupt the quiet of the moment. Bucky’s shoulders tense, but he doesn’t look up. Instead, he shifts the tumbler in his hand, rotating it slowly, the metal of his fingertips catching on the ridges of the glass. There’s silence as he handles the tumbler, thumb tracing the rim as it turns.

“Hey,” Bucky finally responds. “So, look. I’m sorry about earlier.” He peeks up from behind the fall of his hair. “I was out of line.”

A startled laugh slips past Steve’s lips. “Don’t be,” he says. “When we were fifteen, you came up to me in church while I was talking to the prettiest girl in our building. You leaned in and said, loud as you could, ‘Hey Stevie, you got a loaf of bread in your pants or what?’”

Bucky’s fingers go still on the tumbler, and in the sharp burst of sunlight that glints off the glass, Steve can see him smile. Victory is a spray of fireworks in Steve’s blood, sparking at his every nerve.

“So what you’re saying is, I’ve always been an ass,” Bucky says wryly.

Steve grins. “Some things never change, I guess,” he says.

Bucky bites his lip and resumes rotating the tumblr, sweeping the surface of the glass with fingers that are almost reverent. “Some things do,” he says. “They change a whole hell of a lot, and you don’t know how you’re supposed to deal with it.”

The frustration in Bucky’s voice is thick, but there’s a sense of uncertainty there, too, and it tugs on Steve’s heart.

“How about not alone,” Steve suggests. “‘Cause you’re not. You’ve got me, Bucky. Always.”

The grip that’s wrapped around the tumbler seems to tighten. “Yeah,” Bucky says, voice strained. “Thanks.”

Steve lets his eyes settle on Bucky’s hands. The way they curve around the tumbler, the long fingers and the square palms, the bruised knuckles on one hand, the silver joints on the other. He watches as they move slowly, purposefully, with a kind of certainty that belies the confusion on Bucky’s face.

Natasha’s words come back to Steve: “...touching...lingering…”

Covetous.

For a split second, Steve lets himself imagine those hands diving through his hair, moving down his sides, over his stomach, under his—

It would feel as familiar as it would foreign, this Steve knows. He swallows, and clutches the doorknob so resolutely he’s surprised the handle doesn’t break off.

“Well. If you ever need help,” Steve says faintly. “With, you know. Anything. Just, uh. Ask.”

Bucky looks up, something pained mixed with amusement in his expression. “Yeah,” he says again. “Thanks.”

For a minute, Steve stands there, buzzing with the need to move. He’s distantly aware that he’s staring. Bucky stares back, blue eyes locked with his, sunlight moving slowly over the fall of his hair, the fringe of his lashes. He sits likes he’s waiting, shoulders hunched and gaze unfocused but unwavering.

Steve wants to inch closer, move forward. To check if Bucky’d scoot over, make some room. If he’d drag Steve close and knock noses with him, breathe in the same air. If there’d be some fire, some recognition, that goes beyond surface memory. The kind that roots deep into the soul, more than friendship, more than brotherhood. It’s been years since he’s remembered what it was like to look at Bucky and feel this helpless, swamping sense of longing, and he’s kept it under careful lock and key for so long in the face of Bucky’s return. But now, some devil on his shoulder is urging Steve to think about these things. To want these things. Again.

Steve takes a faltering step. Reaches out a hand, watches as Bucky’s eyes darken, as his shoulders tilts forward.

Then, with a sickly smile and a dorky thumbs up—a goddamned thumbs up—Steve says, “Cool!”

And, pretty unceremoniously, he turns and flees the room.

 

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Sam Wilson, 11:15 am: man, thank god the walls are thin
Sam Wilson, 11:15 am: so i could hear u strike the hell out w bucky boy
Sam Wilson, 11:15 am: natasha is laughing @ u
Sam Wilson, 11:16 am: if u need help just ask?????
Sam Wilson, 11:16 am: cool?????
Sam Wilson, 11:17 am: cap
Sam Wilson, 11:17 am: seriously

 

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“I panicked,” Steve says, and hands popcorn to Natasha.

He’s gone running three times, and spent a few hours gardening, and put meat in the slow cooker for dinner, and the humiliation still burns through him. Naturally, Natasha decided a marathon of bad reality TV was the answer.

“I heard,” Natasha says, grabbing a handful of popcorn and cramming it into her mouth. Sam is still at the VA, which probably explains why she’s not sexily and mysteriously eating each kernel. That, or the fact that there’s literally no mystery left between her and Sam anymore and he’d think she was sexy in a potato sack. “So what’s eating at your all-American head, Rogers?”

Steve is quiet for a minute. “I don’t know,” he says finally. “I guess I let myself think about—what it would mean if you and Sam were right.”

Natasha throws popcorn at Steve, methodical and precise. There is a piece of popcorn balanced precariously on the edge of Steve’s hair.

“And?” she prompts.

“I don’t know,” Steve repeats. “I panicked.”

Natasha makes a disgusted sound. Steve tries to explain. “I’m used to going after what I want,” he begins.

A deadpan look from Natasha, like no kidding.

“I’m used to going after what I want,” Steve continues,  “But a long time ago, I made a decision to pack up this thing I got for Bucky and bury it someplace deep. I was sure to not go looking for it. And especially now, when he’s just figuring himself out...maybe he doesn’t need all my baggage on top of his. Maybe there’s a good reason to keep it all buried.”

He scratches his ear, feeling suddenly miserable. The popcorn falls from atop his head.

The TV flickers blue and white light across her face as Natasha kicks him gently. “Sure,” she says. “Or maybe you’re being stupid.”  Steve glares half-heartedly and grabs at Natasha’s foot. She executes some kind of elegant twist and traps Steve’s hand between ankles.

“He’s not a child, Steve.” Natasha looks serious all of a sudden. “If you’re worried about your own feelings, how they’ll be received, whether they’re appropriate, if you’re even brave enough to say anything...well, that’s one thing. But don’t confuse fear for consideration. He’s been out in the cold for a very long time. It’s not kind to leave someone there, staring through windows, at something they want, something that could be theirs, if only they knew how to open the door.” Her voice goes faraway. “Sometimes, you have to be the one to open the door for them.”

Steve tilts his head back against the couch. “I’m not sure I know how,” he asks quietly. A confession.

There’s laughter in Natasha’s eyes when she says, “Well, Steve, when one supersoldier loves another supersoldier very much—”

It’s Steve’s turn to nudge Natasha. “Stop,” he says, fighting a smile. “I was in the army, I don’t need the mechanics.” He shoves a hand through his hair. “But I’ve never—my whole life, I’ve been the one staring through windows. Not sure where to begin opening that door for someone else.”

Onscreen, a man smashes a chair over another man’s head. Natasha’s profile is gilded in silver, and she looks serene and beautiful as she slants a benevolent look at Steve

“You can find out together,” she suggests.

It’s absolutely the sappiest thing he’s ever heard come from Natasha, and it makes Steve grin.

“Could be I’m just a warm body, though,” he teases. “Could be Bucky’s got an itch that just needs to be scratched.” He swallows around a slightly forced smile. “Could be, it’s not about him wanting to be...with me... at all.”

It’s half a joke and half an actual concern. Saying it feels disloyal, but Steve is a realist. He knows what it’s like to have a body that demands things the mind doesn’t quite know how to procure. And he knows that hunger isn’t choosy. That it can be all-encompassing, and sometimes, the only thing a person needs is a sense of satisfaction. It’s not always about closeness, not for everyone.

The thought sends a sharp bolt through his ribs, a shock of feeling that tightens his skin and his throat. No matter what, he couldn’t be that for Bucky. The thing that takes the edge off. He wants more. Always has.

That’s the problem.

Natasha is looking at him shrewdly, television forgotten. “You know,” she says, “Sam and I are pretty attractive.”

Steve frowns. “Gross,” he comments.

“I’m just saying,” Natasha shrugs. “Bucky’s lived with us for awhile now. You could even say he trusts us. And we’re not bad to look at, not even a little.” She leans in. “So when I tell you that he hasn’t even glanced twice at either of us, but he looks at you like you’re an oasis in the desert, I want you to appreciate how rare that is.” She leans away, folds her arms. “You’re not a warm body, Steve. You’re the warm body.”

It’s something, but it’s not what he wants to hear, not exactly. Steve tries to tamp down the disappointment that flows through him and turns his head light, but he can’t. It fills his brain, bleeds through his teeth, shines in the crooked grin he flashes—the one that makes Natasha’s brows knit together.

“Gee,” he says. “And they say romance is dead, Nat.”

Natasha rolls her eyes so hard that Steve’s almost concerned for her. “I know you’ve got literal centuries of repressed yet ardent feelings just boiling under that charming facade, Steve,” she says.

“Hey,” he protests mildly.

“But,” she barrels on, “if you need some kind of confirmation, or signal that this is about Bucky like liking you, you might be waiting a long time. He’s spent too long being a weapon, and weapons aren’t allowed to want, or need, let alone love. So maybe you don’t know how to open the door, but he doesn’t even know he’s allowed to knock.”

And in the face of that sobering revelation, Steve’s shoulders square. Because regardless of his own messy and complicated feelings, regardless of the fact that he’s still not convinced Bucky would ever want to bear the burden of those feelings, Steve knows one thing for absolute certain: Bucky deserves to come in from the cold. He deserves to know that he will always, always be allowed to ask Steve for whatever he needs. Once, he spent much of his lifetime giving Steve anything that he could; maybe now it’s Steve’s chance to do the same.

“I could put out a welcome mat,” Steve muses aloud, corner of his mouth kicking up. “How about that?”

Natasha heaves a sigh. “It’ll do,” she says, and steals another handful of popcorn.

 

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Pepper Potts, 6:00 pm: First off, I’m not Tony STark
Pepper Potts, 6:02 pm: I mean, I’m not Tony Stark on someone elses phone
Pepper Potts, 6:03 pm: Im Tony STark’s CEO I am updating personnel files for the Avengers Initiative
Pepper Potts, 6:03 pm: Would you call yourself equal opportunity in the sexual sense
Pepper Potts, 6:03 pm: The safety of the world depends on your answer

 

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Bucky is looking at the crockpot with unusual intensity when Steve comes into the kitchen to start dinner.

“I’m pretty sure the chicken’s already dead,” Steve says wryly, grabbing some mixing bowls. “Doesn’t need you staring it into submission.”

Bucky startles, then gives Steve a sardonic eyebrow raise. “Ha, ha,” he says. “You’re as funny as you are pretty, Rogers.”

The compliment is stilted, like it’s escaped Bucky’s mouth of its own volition, and he only just managed to stop it before deciding to ride it out. Steve has to smile at the look of betrayal Bucky gives his own mouth, a special mix of self-disgust, embarrassment, and defiance.

“Thanks,” Steve says quietly, bumping companionably against Bucky as he takes out a chopping board from the cabinet above his head. Even if Natasha is wrong and Bucky isn’t struggling for a way to express some kind of unsaid desire for Steve, it’s nice to hear him talk so sweet again. Just for a little while.

“Don’t...uh, don’t mention it.”

Bucky clears his throat and goes back to staring at the crockpot, the back of his neck a mottled pink. Intrigued, Steve considers pursuing the topic, but decides instead to move to the other side of the stove, laying out the vegetables for a salad.

As he chops, he notices that Bucky’s hands are smoothing over the marble countertop, fingers tapping restlessly over the shiny surface. Bucky’s expression is absent now, focused inward, but his body is a coil of tension. His eyes dart to Steve’s hands, which are busily dicing carrots. Something glazed comes over him, and his tongue darts out to wet his lower lip.

Steve’s so distracted that his knife slips and almost takes his finger off. Blood gushes profusely, and the transfixed expression fades from Bucky’s eyes, instantly replaced by horror.

“Oops,” Steve says belatedly, eyes snapping from Bucky to his dripping thumb.

The muttered exclamation draws Bucky near. “Dammit, Steve,” he says, voice tight. “Your thumb is practically hanging off the bone! What’d you go and do that for?”

Steve blinks. “Got tired of it,” he says blandly. “It had to go.”

Bucky scowls. He steps even closer, closer than he normally comes of his own volition, and takes Steve’s wrist. “You need to stop hanging out with Wilson,” he says, peering down at Steve’s thumb. He turns Steve’s hand gently, grabbing a dishtowel to staunch the bleeding, elevating the hand over Steve’s head. “He ain’t funny enough to be rubbing off on you.”

Steve opens his mouth.

“Don’t say it,” Bucky warns. “You need to stop hanging out with Stark, too. Pervert.”

Steve swallows a chuckle, trying hard not to grin at the mothering tone of Bucky’s voice. “Sorry,” he says contritely.

“Like hell you are,” Bucky says, but the look in his eyes is fond. Even as he lowers Steve’s wrist and uncovers the towel, even as he tsks and tugs Steve along after him, heading for the drawer where all the makeshift stitching supplies live. Even as he takes out a needle and cuts off a length of thread with his teeth, and instructs Steve to take a seat at the dining table near the window. Affection, naked and true, shines in his small smile.

They sit, knees bumping, as Bucky bends laboriously over Steve’s wound. It’s a scene that reads like an echo, an imprint of the past.

“Feels like old times,” Steve says, deliberately light. “You always did have a steady hand.”

Bucky is silent for a pause, before he confesses: “Good at hiding things, is all.” His grin is almost boyish when he peeks up at Steve. “Used to be going nuts inside, figuring I’d scar you for life. And there you’d be, practically falling asleep.” He nudges Steve’s knee with his own. “Idiot.”

Steve thinks about those days, every minute spent trying to carve himself a place in the world, ignoring the place that had been carved for him already. He remembers Bucky, and the bony grip of his hand. The piercing blue of his eyes. The promise in his voice, and the way he refused to leave Steve behind.

How long had Steve spent, trying to fool himself into believing friendship was enough? How many ways had he come up with to explain the dogged loyalty and fierce love, in words that didn’t threaten or overturn what they’d always been in favor of what they could never be?

“Idiot,” Steve echoes, and means it deep in his bones.

The needle and thread flash, Bucky going lightning-quick, maintaining the precision of his stitches. He frowns slightly, so utterly absorbed in his task that Steve can’t help himself: he reaches out and lifts the corner of Bucky’s mouth with a finger. It’s something they used to do—a joke, a laugh. Forcing each other, pretty literally, to smile when times got tough.

Steve’s finger moves over Bucky’s lower lip, tracing the curve, a gossamer touch. There is a hitch to Bucky’s breathing, and his rhythm falters.

Even though he knows he shouldn’t, knows Bucky might not be ready to acknowledge the need swimming through Steve’s veins, not to mention his own, Steve drops his fingers to Bucky’s wrist. He finds a pulse that is hot and racing.

“Bucky,” he says, voice low.

There is no reply, but Bucky’s grip changes, grows firm, fingers pressing into the white skin of Steve’s injured hand. His thumb drags over Steve’s life line with a reverence that is breathtaking. His touch, simple as it is, sets Steve’s nerve endings alight, drizzles of honeyed heat pouring through Steve’s body as Bucky follows the complicated tracery of Steve’s palm.

Steve shudders, then, says again, in a broken, wondering voice: “Bucky.”

At the sound, Bucky flinches. Seems to come back to himself. A snip of the thread and then he’s snatching his hands away, scraping his chair back, a hunted, haunted look coming over him.

“Hey,” Steve says softly. His hand hovers uncertainly in the air between them, sutured and slightly shaking and in need of a cover. “You gotta bandage me up.”

Bucky makes a small noise in the back of his throat. He sounds anguished.

Steve slips the bandages out of the first aid kit on the table. “Come on,” he says. “They’re Dora the Explorer.”

After a pause, Bucky lets out a breath and reluctantly takes the bandage from Steve. His fingers tremble when they smooth it over Steve’s wound, pressing gently on the edges.

There was a time when this kind of intimate affection came naturally to Bucky. A kiss to Steve’s fever-hot forehead, a headlock as they strolled down the boardwalk, the soothing drift of his breath rifling through Steve’s sweaty hair while tucked together on their rickety old fire escape.  Steve remembers that once, Bucky used to draw strength from their physical contact. Before he was made into a weapon. Before he became a harbinger of death.

Now, he has to relearn how to express himself, how to release the jittery energy that drives him to touch, but not to connect. Until he can, everything will be like this; charged and loaded, leaving him sapped. Weary, and wanting.

Steve would unburden Bucky, if he knew how.

But the truth is, there might be things he has to relearn, too.

 

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Sam Wilson, 7:30 pm: steve, i say this as your friend
Sam Wilson, 7:30 pm: you gotta little drool comin off your lip

 

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There’s no drool, Steve thinks, scowling to himself as he folds up his phone and puts it away.

It’s just that Bucky’s decided to come to dinner with his hair combed back, wearing a crisp new button-up tucked into a pair of tailored trousers and even though it’s a little silly and he’s pretty overdressed, the total impact of the whole picture is kind of overwhelming.

So maybe there’s a little drool.

He scowls over the table at Sam once more for good measure. Sam gives an angelic smile in return.

“You know, you haven’t taken Natasha to dinner and a show in a long time,” Steve says loudly and pointedly. “Might be nice for you guys to, I dunno, get out more.”

Sam’s smile grows even more angelic. Natasha smirks around a forkful of spaghetti.

“Nah,” Sam says lightly. “We got all the entertainment we need right here.”

Natasha’s got a predatory gleam in her eye. Or maybe that’s candlelight. “You look nice, Bucky. Doesn’t he, Steve?”

Steve stifles a sigh and tries to get out of answering by stuffing an entire meatball in his mouth.

Next to him, Bucky’s arm is warm and solid under the cotton of his shirt. They’re sitting close together out of necessity since the table is small and has to seat three bulky men plus a woman who likes to spread out. But there’s a certain magnetism that pulls Steve to Bucky with gentle, casual gestures, brushes of skin against skin. After their interlude in the kitchen, Steve feels balanced precariously on some ledge, waiting and watching to see what Bucky will do. And for the first time in a long while, Bucky’s not flinching away. Instead, he’s slowly, tentatively, by degrees—relaxing into each touch. Letting it happen. Letting it be. 

The effect is more devastating than Steve thought it would be. He can only imagine what it'll be like when, or okay, if, Bucky decides to return the touches. If he decides to sink into it like the sun into the sea.

“He looks great,” Steve says, finally, having swallowed and avoided everyone’s eyes for as long as possible. “Very, uh, dashing.”

His voice might crack a little. It might add another layer of humiliation to Steve’s already burgeoning pile. A little.

But he shores up his courage anyway, takes a chance and reaches out to lay his hand on Bucky’s thigh.

Arrested, Bucky stares down at Steve’s hand. His profile in the candlelight is soft, blurred. Then he smiles, and the tightness in Steve’s chest loosens.

“Just thought I’d put some effort in,” he says lightly, dropping his hand atop of Steve’s. “Nothing wrong with looking good for...people.”

He squeezes Steve’s wrist once, hesitant, before letting go. There’s still a skittishness to the way Bucky moves, but the expression on his face is open, relaxed. Steve finds himself drinking it in. He knows his face must look frozen, open, starving. He's seen it before, in the mirror. The shadow of hunger in the purse of his lips. The way that love can almost be sad, the lines around his eyes and the tilt of his eyebrows.

 

Natasha's foot nudges Steve's, and he shakes himself out of it. That sick feeling of yearning sticks around, though, weighing heavy in Steve's belly.

“Wish Rogers would change it up," Natasha teases. "Even when he’s not in uniform, he’s in uniform.”

Steve glances down at his usual t-shirt and jeans. “At least my clothes fit,” he retorts.

Sam coughs over something that sounds suspiciously like, “Do they, though?”

“It suits him,” Bucky responds. His voice is low. “Outside’s the same as his insides. Honest. No frills.” His arm presses more firmly against Steve, a line of heat. “What you see is what you get.”

Steve coughs, flustered. Does he look flustered? From the laughter bright in Natasha and Sam’s eyes, probably.

“Bucky always was a sharp dresser,” Steve blurts out. “Folks to impress, you know.”

It’s just habit that fills the words with residual bitterness. Just the lingering memory of lady after lady parading through Bucky’s bed. And there’d been those few times with men, too, when possilities had bloomed so desperately through Steve only to be tamped out by the truth of their circumstances. Of his circumstances.

“Betsy from across the street, Mary Anne from downstairs, that pretty gal from the cinema,” Steve recites, and he should stop, he knows he should stop. He doesn’t even care about this shit anymore, but for some reason, there’s a storm starting up inside him. Some kind of panic. The idea that this isn’t real. The idea that it was never real, that it might never be real. The fear that he's made this all up in his head. The terror of existing in a purgatory of friendship, dangling right on the precipice of something more, and never taking the leap. Never even asking.

Sometimes, Steve gets stupid instead of brave.

“This why you’re so fancy?” he asks, and he wishes his voice would come out more teasing than goading. “Getting back to old Casanova Barnes?”

Even to his own ears, Steve sounds like an absolute tool. Natasha must agree; under the table, she gives Steve a more solid kick. He winces, and sees a fleeting expression of hurt on Bucky’s face before it’s wiped clean and in its place a blank canvas.

“Sure, Steve,” Bucky says, pleasantly enough. “That’s exactly what I’m doing.” He moves carefully away, drags his fork across his plate. “In between waking up with nightmares and trying to remember my own name, I’m sprucin’ myself up so I can start bringing people home. Into my bed. Because I’m such a great prospect.”

Sam coughs into his fist and Natasha thins her lips. Steve tries to figure out what to say that might counteract that flat tone of Bucky’s voice, the shadow in his eyes. How he might bring back the loose, certain way Bucky’s body pressed against Steve’s, rather than carrying itself with this detached precision.

Steve wants to tell Bucky that he is a great prospect. That the idea of bringing someone home into his bed isn’t so far-fetched and that’s why it burns jealousy through Steve’s gut. He wants to say all that, but the warmth feels like it’s been sucked out of the room.

He shivers and reaches out, terribly sorry. The gesture is meant to be conciliatory. Instead, for the second time today, Bucky scrapes his chair away.

“‘m gonna go outside for a couple minutes,” he says. “Need some air.”

There’s a ringing silence in Bucky’s wake. Steve doesn’t bother looking at Natasha and Sam, knowing what he’ll see.

“I’ll—” Steve starts, but he doesn’t even get halfway through whatever he was going to say before giving up.

“I’m gonna go, too,” he says. “I’m—”

An idiot. Socially inept. Confused. Combative. Self-sabotaging. Completely lost.

Really fucking in love.

“Not hungry,” he finishes.

 

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Natasha Romanoff, 9:15 pm: remember when you accidentally knocked yourself out w your own shield
Natasha Romanoff, 9:15 pm: that was 200 percent more embarrassing to watch  
Natasha Romanoff, 9:15 pm: [frowny face emoji]
Natasha Romanoff, 9:16 pm: go after him
Natasha Romanoff, 9:16 pm: now
Natasha Romanoff, 9:16 pm: [pile of poo emoji]

 

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It’s been decades since Bucky’s had a cigarette, Steve knows. But there he is, standing on the back porch with smoke curling into the air around him like it’s second nature. Clear as a picture, sweet as a memory.

“Those’ll kill you,” Steve offers.

Bucky smiles grimly, tilting his head. “Something ought to,” he says.

Steve’s there in an instant, hand gripping Bucky’s shoulder, turning him so they are face-to-face. Whatever fights they might have, this is something Steve won’t leave to ambiguity or unsaid words.

“No,” he says firmly. Just that, but it’s enough, because there’s a hint of soft acknowledgement in the way Bucky relents.

They stare at each other for a moment, breathing in the acrid smell of smoke and the crisp bite of encroaching winter. Bucky’s painfully handsome in the dim glow of the porch light. His hair is shorter now, and he’d look young again, if not for the stubble crawling along his sharp jaw, the weariness in his blue eyes. Steve wonders if it’s the same for Bucky when he looks at him, if the past blends so dissonantly with the present.

The problem is, Steve’s lived too many lives by now. He’s been too many people. So has Bucky. It takes effort to sort out who’s who, and what each of those people might want or need.

Except no matter who Steve has been, at any moment of any life, Bucky has always been Bucky. And he’s always wanted Bucky. Always.

Maybe it doesn’t have to be so complicated. Maybe it can stay how it was when it all began: Steve loving Bucky even if he’s not loved, not in that way, back.

“Bucky,” Steve says, “I’m sorry. For before.”

“You don’t got anything to be sorry for,” Bucky says abruptly, dropping the cigarette to the ground. He grinds it into ash and folds his arms tight to his body. Closing himself off. “You were right. I was playing dress up, is all. Been spending so long around things because I don’t know how to be around people. I  have these thoughts, you know? Like something is crawling through me, trying to get out. Like I’ll die if I don’t do something.”  

His fingers smooth over the metal ridges of his elbow, blunt nails scraping over the joint. “I thought maybe I needed to adjust. Needed to learn how to be a human again. But everytime I’m around you—it’s all the time, all the time now, and I can’t put it out. I don’t know how.”

He looks at Steve, imploring. “You get me?” he asks. “You understand? I’m on fire, inside. I’m trying to be a person, Steve, and it ain’t working. I can pretend all I want, but it doesn’t change a thing.” He clutches his head with one hand. “I’m not civilized. If you knew what I wanted—”

Steve’s voice is quiet when he touches Bucky’s hand, pries it gently away. “Try me,” he suggests. “I’m not afraid of you.”

“Were you ever?” Bucky asks, pained. “Even when you should’ve been? Maybe that’s why I don’t wanna tell you. Maybe I think you might be foolhardy enough to try and help and I don’t deserve it, Steve. Not this.”

Steve’s fingertips are light, traveling over the expanse of Bucky’s skin, sliding down his cheek like a tear. “You deserve peace,” he replies, and means it.

Bucky shakes his head. “This isn’t peace. This isn’t peaceful. It’s...a lot.” He draws in a breath, closes his eyes. “It’s a hell of a lot.”

Steve steps closer. His hand rests on Bucky’s chest now, over his heart. It’s beating fast under the thin material of his button-down.

“What do you want, Buck?” he asks, voice low. There’s something unwinding from its lazy sleep in the pits of Steve’s belly, stirring at the way Bucky’s body shivers.

“You,” Bucky says. It’s one word, but the force of it, the simplicity and honesty and elation it ignites in the hollows of Steve’s bones—it’s like a storm.

He can’t breathe for a second. “I told you,” he says, when the air finally moves through his lungs. “You got me. Always.”

Bucky opens his eyes, pupils dark against fever-bright blue. “No,” he says, desperate. “You don’t get it. Steve, I look at you and it’s nothing we’ve ever—” He cuts off, something like fear shadowing his face.  “I want you the way I shouldn’t,” he confesses. Steve’s fingers curl in the material of Bucky’s shirt, still hot over the plane of his chest.

“I wanna crawl inside you,” Bucky continues, on a whisper, a hiss. “I wanna take you apart.” He brings up his hand to cradle Steve’s, fingers light over the bandage that’s already peeling off. “I want to touch you because even when I was breaking you, I wanted to fix you. You’re the only thing my body didn’t forget, Steve. Not ever, not once, not really. And when I look at you now, all I can think is that there are things I still don’t know about you. How you taste. What you sound like when you—”

Steve doesn’t moan, but it’s a near thing, under the force of Bucky’s frantic words and the low, gritty quality of his voice.

Bucky’s hand tightens around Steve’s, thumb sweeping over Steve’s knuckles. “God help me, but I want to know you inside and out.”

Underneath the white noise filling up his head, buzzing in his ears, Steve feels Bucky’s words like an electric shock to the skin. It’s not just anyone then, like Steve had feared. It’s him. It really is.

Bucky wants him.

The realization releases the tension held between his shoulder blades, in the sinews of his neck and back. There’s clarity, this close to Bucky’s face, the wings of his brows and the fringe of his lashes, the nose and jaw and cheekbones that Steve’s been drawing for years. There’s an answer, the one that’s been living behind Steve’s tongue and teeth, waiting to be spoken into existence.

He says, the force of his relief like a clean, pure rush of water in his veins: "I want that, too."

Bucky’s hand drops, and for a moment, Steve’s stomach drops with it. But then Bucky’s muttering “Ah, hell, Stevie,” in the most absolutely broken voice that Steve’s ever heard, only it’s not sad, no. It’s fractured with the same thing Steve’s always felt inside, this splintered longing, this soul-deep and blood-hot need.

He grabs Steve by the waist and pulls him close. His body is rigid in the cold.

When they kiss, though, his mouth is so, so warm.

 

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Sam Wilson, 10:00 pm: you guys have been out there for awhile
Sam Wilson, 10:00 pm: maybe think about coming inside
Sam Wilson, 10:00 pm: oops ok i mean maybe think about entering
Sam Wilson, 10:01 pm: I MEANT GET INSIDE IT’S FREEZING
Sam Wilson, 10:02 pm: also the neighbors are staring

 

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There’s a moment before a match is lit, before the fire takes hold, when there’s just silence. The scrap of the match against a volatile surface. The anticipation, the bated breath. Before the conflagration starts, there’s only silence.

And then there’s fire.

It’s like that, kissing Bucky. Like Steve’s lived his entire life in that one second of quiet, and now he’s going up in flame.

Steve’s hands don’t know where to settle. They don’t know how to settle. It’s been so long since he’s touched someone intimately, in a way that means something, and this isn’t just anyone. It’s Bucky. It’s—

His hands are greedy, grasping. They skim over Bucky’s hips and up the flat plane of his stomach and over his shoulders, diving into his hair. They clutch at Bucky’s clothes, they smooth under cotton and across hot skin. They tremble, a little, when they frame Bucky’s jaw.

“Steve,” Bucky gasps, as his mouth comes down over Steve’s again and again, restless and relentless, kisses that are slick and taste like the bitter cold and marinara sauce and the smoke still on Bucky’s tongue. Steve groans hungrily into each kiss, clumsy as he tries to find a rhythm that might satisfy the sharp ache in the pits of his belly. “Steve, can we—”

“Whatever you want,” Steve interrupts. His lips are swollen, stinging. His cheeks are scratched from Bucky’s stubble. His skin feels tight, stretched thin over the blood rushing through his body. He feels like a nerve exposed to the air, lighting up at every slight provocation, just from Bucky’s sheer proximity. He feels...overwhelmed. For as long as he’s known Bucky, for as long as he’s watched and wanted him, there’s still so much to discover. Almost too much. Like there’s not enough time for everything Steve wants to learn.

He should be on his knees, he thinks. At the thought, at the mere idea, a whine works its way into the hollow of Steve’s throat, a sound that makes a hectic flush rise to Bucky’s collarbones.

Steve presses his fingers to the slope of the bones, and he says more fervently, “Whatever you want.”

When they stumble back inside, the kitchen is dark, food covered with foil and a few candles burning, the smell of bergamot and cedar redolent through the house. Sam and Natasha have given them time alone, then. And set the scene, too.

He looks at Bucky, who’s giving him a dry smile. “Subtlety ain’t for superheroes, I guess.”

Steve laughs; the desire is there twined through their fingers and in the electric touch of their eyes when they meet, but it's muted. The levity is a welcome reminder that there's more to them than that.

“It’s nice of 'em,” Steve says, without thinking. “They knew how much I’ve been waiting for this. How much I wanted this. How much I—”

Always wanted this.

He doesn’t say it out loud, but the words hang in the air anyway, so obvious that Steve’s skin feels hot with uncertainty. Bucky regards him for a long, thoughtful moment, and the years feel like they’re peeling away, right here in the dim candelight, the edges of Bucky’s smile going soft and distant.

“Were you sweet on me, Steve? Back then?” Bucky asks. His voice is still rough with grit, but underneath, there’s an almost plaintive tone. Something full of wonder and longing. Something new, something dangerously like hope.

Natasha had said that Bucky needed more than just an unlocked door. She’d said he needed an invitation.

There’s nothing for it. Steve steels his shoulders, looks Bucky in the eye, and welcomes him home.

“Yeah, Buck,” he responds, voice hoarse. “I was real sweet on you, back then.” His hand shakes as he reaches out, brushes the back of his fingers over the cleft of Bucky’s chin. “And if I’m bein’ honest? Still am.”

Bucky’s eyes drift shut. “Steve,” he whispers. Disbelief rings clearly in his voice.

“You died,” Steve says, “and I never told you. Every night we had together, in the mud and the muck, the stink and the grime, every bullet you put into a HYDRA head, and I never said anything, not once. Thought we had all the time in the world, and then you fell.” Steve’s voice breaks. “And then I died, too. Didn’t matter so much after that, because the only one who came back was me. I was the only one left.”

He steps forward, touches Bucky’s waist, leans close and breathes him in. “Till I wasn’t. Till I saw you again on that bridge. After that—well, okay, let’s be fair, you were brainwashed for a while—” Bucky pinches Steve’s side, earning him a stifled chuckle. “No, I—”

A big breath, and the thing he’s never admitted before. “After that... I was afraid.”

Bucky’s eyes are still closed, and he’s holding himself very still. “Of me,” he says.

“Of you not wanting me like that,” Steve corrects, and he can’t hide the self-deprecation that makes his words wry. “Of you not wanting this, ‘cause it wasn’t my place to assume. Wasn’t my place to ask. I couldn’t say it, ‘cause you were never supposed to carry that kind of load, Buck. Not from me.”

Even now, Steve isn’t sure that he’s doing the right, the honorable, thing. Even now, Steve’s scared.

Sometimes, though, he gets brave instead of stupid.

“You followed me into Hell, and it’s like you never found your way out,” he says. “I got so much to say, so much I want to give, but I don’t ever wanna be another thing that weighs you down.”

Bucky’s eyes fly open. He grabs the back of Steve’s head, fierce and firm. “Steve,” he says. “That kinda thing isn’t a burden. Not ever. It’s a gift.”

His mouth drifts closer, skims over the lines of Steve’s lips. “It’s a gift, goddamn it,” he repeats. “And I’ll take it.”

Steve stops breathing. “Lord’s name,” he chokes, almost on reflex. Then, “What’d you say?”

Bucky presses a kiss to Steve’s mouth, dry and quick and full of intent. “I said,” he says, “I’ll take it. Thought it was enough, you letting me touch you. You, touching me back. But now you’re giving me the words, too, and Steve. I want ‘em. I wanna carry ‘em. I wanna keep ‘em.”

He kisses Steve again, slow and slick, tongue stroking deep. “Say it, please,” he asks on a low groan. “Please.”

And Steve can’t not.

“I love you,” he says. “I’ve loved you for a long fucking time and I think I’m gonna keep loving you for longer. Shit.”

He feels like he’s jumping out a plane without a parachute, like the water is rushing up to meet him, like the ground is solid and sure beneath his feet and his body is strong, like nothing can touch him. He feels like—like he’s lived a hundred years and he’s only now understanding what it’s like not to be alone, so completely alone, in the dreams that have slept in his head, in his heart.

Bucky laughs a little, the sound jagged and rusty, but real. “Shit,” he echoes. “I’ve been making eyes at household appliances for weeks, and I could’ve had you all along.”

Steve shrugs. “Well. You did have me,” he says. “All along.”

Bucky’s eyes darken. “Shit,” he repeats, reverently. They stand like that, heads bowed together, two halves of a whole, their shadows lengthening in the candelight, the house settling around them.

The past few decades have had Bucky out of practice, touching people with heat and intent without malice, channeling desire into something that can soothe and inflame all at once. He's never loved like this, or been loved like this, and it's all new. Everything, even his body, even the memories in his head. Steve knows it'll be a slow journey. It'll be an exploration, this thing.

When they finally end up in bed, Steve finds that it doesn’t matter. They’ll do this how they’ve done everything else.

Together.

 

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Bucky Barnes, 1:00 am: for the record
Bucky Barnes, 1:00 am: i love your stupid stubborn ass too
Bucky Barnes, 1:01 am: now come back to bed or i’m sending stark this naked selfie of us