Bucky doesn’t speak much when he finally surfaces.
He placidly submits to behavioural evaluations and medical tests. He doesn’t seem to mind it. Steve watches, anxious and puzzled, unsure what he’s supposed to do.
Weeks later, Bucky takes the spare room in Steve’s apartment with a mumbled “Thanks.”
Steve is grateful beyond measure that Bucky’s here, that he’s safe. All he can do is wait. Whenever Bucky feels like talking, he’ll be around.
It turns out, talking is the one thing Bucky doesn’t want to do.
He doesn’t want to go to therapy, or see anyone. Apart from meals, he never comes out of his room. He has a laptop in there, and sometimes Steve hears the faint murmur of Netflix coming through the wood of Bucky’s door.
So he must be okay in there, Steve thinks. At least, he hopes so.
Steve tries to give Bucky space.
He's on extended leave from SHIELD, so he takes his bike out for long rides, feels the wind in his hair and the possibility of the road ahead.
He doesn’t think about whether Bucky will be gone when he gets back. He wants to at least give him the choice, when Hydra had stolen away his autonomy for so many years. Every time Steve returns and throws his keys on the hall table, he always hears the gentle creak of Bucky’s door. Like he’s letting him know he’s still there.
He might as well be living with a ghost.
Little by little, Bucky returns to himself. He starts coming out of his room. He reads, watches TV. He starts conversations with Steve, shows him things he’s interested in. He still likes baseball and history and Clark Gable movies.
“It’s not that I don’t remember you,” Bucky says, thoughtful. “I do. But it’s like fog, all faded. I can’t put the pieces together.”
“You don’t have to remember me, Buck,” Steve says slowly. His chest feels like it’s constricting. “You’re here now. And so am I. That’s what matters.”
“I guess.” Bucky shrugs and heads for his room.
Steve waits until the door closes before he puts his face in his hands and breathes out shaky, wet breaths. He thinks he might be crying.
He doesn’t know what he expected, but it wasn’t for Bucky to be so sanguine about losing pieces of his past.
At least he has a future, Steve reminds himself. They both do.
Bucky looks up from the Howling Commandos biography he’s reading and says, “This book says we were lovers. Were we?”
Steve’s chopping onions at the counter; he freezes.
He doesn’t know how to answer. No, he could say. But I wanted it, and I’m pretty sure you did, too.
Instead, he turns to Bucky. “No,” he says, very clipped, and forces a smile. “We weren’t.”
“Oh,” is Bucky’s toneless reply. He turns his gaze back to the book and carries on reading.
Steve goes back to his chopping. His eyes are stinging; it must be the onions. He listens to the faint scratch of Bucky’s metal fingers turning the pages and tries to keep his breathing steady.
One morning, Steve can’t find Bucky. He runs downstairs in a panic and finds him outside, working on a bike. Steve’s bike.
“Oh,” Steve says, confused. “I didn’t know where you were.”
Bucky stares at him blankly. “When you took it out yesterday, the engine sounded weird,” he says. “Thought I’d take a look.”
Steve has no idea where Bucky learned to fix motorcycles. He isn’t sure if he wants to know.
There’s grease on Bucky’s hands; he wipes it off on his pants casually and stretches. His loose t-shirt rides up, and Steve’s eye is drawn to the way Bucky’s pale skin pulls taut over his hipbones, near-translucent. He wonders what it’d be like to touch that skin. Wants it so badly he can almost taste the need in the back of his throat.
Bucky coughs, exaggerated. “Right,” he says, and picks up a wrench. “Guess I’ll carry on, then.”
“I’ll make breakfast,” Steve says weakly, turning away.
Steve stares up at the flaked paint on his bedroom ceiling and dwells on thoughts he shouldn’t.
Once, he’d caught Bucky coming out of the bathroom with a towel around his waist. Bucky had fled, but not quickly enough, and Steve had seen. He'd seen the spiderweb of raised scars around the metal shoulder joint, the stark evidence of Bucky's suffering.
Steve thinks about putting his mouth to those scars, tasting them. Maybe Bucky doesn’t remember wanting him—a lifetime of innocuous looks and touches that never had a chance to be realized—but Steve can remember for them both. He wants to tell Bucky about all their almost times in the past, to press their stories into Bucky’s skin with hands and lips and tongue.
He slides a hand down over his belly, already shuddering and sensitive when he starts to touch himself.
Afterwards, he cleans up and stares at himself in the bathroom mirror, racked with guilt.
Bucky doesn’t look at him any differently the next morning.
He greets Steve with a grin and passes him the sports pages. Steve smiles back, fighting down his blushes. He gulps down too-hot coffee and splutters like an idiot when it burns him.
“Steve?” Bucky’s frowning.
Bucky gives him a strange look, but he lets it go.
Sometimes, Bucky has nightmares and wakes up shouting.
They wake Steve, too, but he knows Bucky’s ashamed, so he doesn’t go to him. He buries his face in his pillow and clenches his fists so he won’t end up crossing the hallway and pushing open Bucky’s door.
On the mornings that follow those nights, Bucky’s eyes are dark and haggard. Steve makes strong black coffee and they don’t talk about it.
Steve comes awake with a whimper, fragments of an unpleasant dream still rattling around in his head.
He doesn’t even hear the door open, but Bucky is there. He’s there and he’s real, sliding into Steve’s bed without a word and fitting himself against his back.
A soft noise slips out of Steve before he can stop it: Bucky’s so warm. “Bucky, what —” he says sleepily.
“Shh,” Bucky murmurs. He presses his cool metal palm to Steve’s sweaty forehead, briefly. “Go back to sleep, Steve.”
Steve does, and sleeps better than he has in years.
It isn’t mentioned the next day. Or the next.
Steve marks time by the deepening ache inside him whenever Bucky looks away (these days, he always seems to look away).
It’s almost a relief when SHIELD calls and says they need Captain America and the Winter Soldier back in the fray.
“We're putting you on low-level ops, Barnes,” Nick Fury says, his steely gaze flickering between the pair of them. “Let’s see what you’re made of.”
Steve sees the small look of defiance that passes over Bucky’s face before he nods, and has to try not to smile.
Bucky breezes through the missions with flying colours and a kind of grim satisfaction.
“I’ve spent the last seventy years killing people,” he tells Steve, strapping weapons to his belt. “A little espionage is child’s play compared to that.”
They take down a few Hydra cells in Eastern Europe with no trouble.
Steve would say it’s like the old days, but that’d be tempting fate. The old days didn’t turn out so well for either of them.
It’s past the witching hour when Bucky knocks on Steve’s door and says, “You awake?”
“Yeah.” Steve sits up in bed; he was only staring at the ceiling anyway. The door opens.
The curtains aren’t fully closed. Streetlight is spilling through the gap in the center, warm and bright.
“What’s on your mind?” Steve asks carefully. He can see Bucky’s eyes watching him, intent.
A smile is playing on Bucky’s lips. He almost looks mischievous when he sits down, the mattress shifting under his weight.
“There’s no easy way to say this,” Bucky says, determined, and then he’s kissing Steve. Bucky's mouth is wet and hot, and Steve makes a strangled noise before he opens up, lets Bucky in.
“I think I get what you mean,” Steve says once they break apart. His hands press down on Bucky’s shoulders, keeping him close. He wants him close, closer than anything, wants there to be no space between them ever again.
“I still don’t remember everything,” Bucky admits, and his eyes are guarded. “But I get the feeling this isn’t the first time I’ve wanted this.”
“Good enough for me,” Steve says. He presses another kiss to the corner of Bucky’s mouth.
Bucky's grinning now. “I know we didn’t do this before,” he says, “but I think we can probably figure it out.”
Steve lightly touches his forehead to Bucky’s. “Yeah, Buck,” he whispers, soft as a prayer. “We can.”