Everyone says that the first time you say ‘I love you’ is one of the most pivotal moments of any romantic relationship.
Steve always called bullshit. That was never the case with him and Bucky. With them, they’d always just known. Bucky had every dame in 40s Brooklyn hanging off his every word, but he always came back to Steve. When Steve went into the ice, he’d done it for Bucky. When he’d woken up, his first thought was of Bucky. It had always been the two of them, until it wasn’t. And then, it was again. But they’d still never said those three words, and things were somehow even more complicated now than they were before. But Steve was an expert on waiting too long, and said ‘I love you’ at every possible moment after they’d been reunited.
Bucky was never quite ready though. When Steve found him in Bucharest, and asked why Bucky had pulled him from the river, he said ‘I don’t know.’
And Steve knew that really meant ‘I don’t want to say this right now. Not here.’
So Steve had left it alone.
But now all that was over. Well, generally. Steve’s team was still hiding out, laying low while the mess from the Sokovia Accords continued to blow over. They couldn’t return to Tony though. Not yet, at least. That part of the future was a ways off, if it ever came again.
So they stayed gratefully in King T’Challa’s hospitality, waiting for things to blow over and perhaps return to normal. Really, Steve stayed because of Bucky. Once Bucky was out of cryo, Steve had done his best to stop himself from smothering the man. He had to keep reminding himself that this wasn’t the Bucky he’d grown up with. He was still someone new. Not a stranger, exactly, but not the person he’d always known, either. He knew there was a lot of relearning to do.
But he couldn’t seem to stop himself. As soon as he heard Bucky had been cleared, Steve had nearly run to him from where he’d been seated, your Bucky your Bucky your Bucky repeating in his head, thumping along in pace with his heartbeat. He nearly burst into the room, locking eyes with his best friend. They held eye contact as Steve moved towards him, and the world seemed to slow down. Steve made sure every step closer wasn’t met with fear or anxiety on his sergeant’s face, and soon enough they were breathing the same air, the whole room holding its breath for them.
Then Bucky lifted up his one arm, pulling Steve into a hug, and their emotions from the reunion poured out into the whole room. Steve hugged Bucky with his whole body, engulfing as much of his frame as he could. Steve could feel the tears rolling down his cheeks and meeting under his chin, but he couldn’t tell what emotions were causing it. He was scared, and nervous for the task of helping Bucky ahead of them, and he was sad that they’d had to be apart from each other for so long again. Mostly though, he was just happy Bucky was here, with him again, at last.
But eventually, Steve pulled away. As he did, he muttered something in Bucky’s ear, something just low enough to be held between the two of them, unnoticed and shielded from the listening ears of the King of Wakanda and all the doctors bustling about the room.
‘I love you,’ Steve whispered. He didn’t really know how he meant it right then - romantic, or friendly - it didn’t really matter. What mattered was that he knew that it felt like the truth, and after all this time, how all the little lies he’d told and how his avoiding the truth had crashed in on him recently, he felt like it was something that he just couldn’t hold back any longer. He pulled out of the embrace, gauging his friend’s reaction. Bucky didn’t say it back - somewhere in him, he knew he didn’t need to. He just smiled, the soft, relaxed one that made Steve’s heart soar, the one that let him know that his Bucky was happy, right here, and that was enough.
Weeks passed and Bucky’s recovery was nothing but uphill. T’Challa had fixed him up a new arm - lightweight but still powerful - and Bucky was endlessly grateful. The team was still trying to coax Wanda into helping too, but she was still scarred from staying in the underwater prison, tied up in a strait jacket, filled with fear at every too-bright light and any sudden movements. Bucky was understanding though, he knew what that fear was like, to be held a prisoner like that. So they both made do with therapists and the other doctors in T’Challa’s facility.
Bucky was warming up to the rest of the team, and vice versa, but he naturally gravitated to Steve’s presence. Sometimes that just meant sitting in the same area as him, while Steve was watching TV, or reading a book. Sometimes they took walks through the gardens, hands floating dangerously close to each other.
It was on one of these walks that the second ‘I love you’ of their 21st century relationship arose.
It wasn’t a big deal at all. They had been walking side by side, joking around, and pointing at all the neat plants and beautiful scenery they saw on their way. A peaceful silence had fallen between them, and Steve was painfully aware of the backs of their hands brushing against each other. So as they swung by again, Steve grabbed Bucky’s hand as gently as he could. It felt like plucking a falling leaf out of the air.
Bucky stopped short, the sensation making him freeze. Steve had been careful to time this so that Bucky was on his left so Steve could hold his right hand, as he knew Bucky didn’t like to use his left arm for anything other than defence, even if it hadn’t been made by Hydra this time.
Bucky stared at their hands for a moment - nothing super intimate, no fingers entwined - just warm palm against warm palm. And then they started walking again, speaking like nothing had happened. Because to them, nothing really had. It was a little new, sure, but they’d both always felt like this on the inside.
So they continued on their walk, and as their conversation came to its next natural lull, Steve came to a gradual stop, causing Bucky to face him with a quizzical look.
‘I love you, you know?’ It was a question, technically, but it was delivered more like a statement, because Bucky knew that Steve loved him, and Steve knew that Bucky knew that, but it was still something that had been begging to come out of Steve at every second, like he just couldn’t show enough love. Steve didn’t know why he was sometimes overwhelmed with this need to let Bucky know of his love and support, but most times he dismissed the thought, because he never really needed a reason to justify it to himself. They had been apart too long without knowing, and Bucky needed him now, and Steve needed him to feel loved, to forgive himself for letting him fall off the train. He suspected that this need, at least part of it, had come from that one statement in the jet on the way to Russia. ‘I don’t know if I’m worth all this to you.’ Bucky had said. It felt like a distant memory, but Steve wasn’t about to get in the habit of forgetting anything about Bucky ever again, for both their sakes.
Bucky smiled, soft as ever, blurring around the corners of his face in a moonlight haze. Because Steve didn’t ever have to say the words for him to know.
But he told him anyway.
‘I know.’ And he grinned with half of a laugh, like Steve was silly for having to remind him. (Steve wasn’t silly. Really, Bucky loved it. He hadn’t told Steve, but the reminder was always nice, no matter how often he told himself that it was true even if Steve didn’t say it all the time. It was always nice to hear from outside his head.)
Steve smiled back, a soft of a different kind. A dazing soft, the feeling of being wrapped in a blanket with a cup of hot coffee, watching the rain patter on the window pane. They walked back to the compound in their quiet, occasionally gripping the other’s hand momentarily for reassurance that they were there, they were safe, and everything was going to be okay.
They held hands through all of their walks after that. Just in case either one of them had forgotten.
The third time Steve said ‘I love you’ wasn’t until he’d kissed Bucky for the first time.
It was nearly two months after the first time they held hands on that walk. Things were looking up. Bucky had been getting increasingly better, and so was Wanda, and they were inching towards both of their recovery.
Things were going slowly, but they were getting better, and that’s all that really mattered to Steve. He had been speaking with Tony quite a bit as of late, trying to reconcile and work out mediations to their differing sides. It was all piecing together, bit by bit.
It was a difficult day of negotiations and planning, and it was nearing midnight. All Steve wanted to do was fall asleep watching another movie on the couch in the commons area in T’Challa’s place.
He’d gotten about halfway through his movie, sucking on the popcorn kernels in the bowl (he’d finished the bowl in the first fifteen minutes), when he heard footsteps behind him. He tensed and whipped his head around to see Bucky rubbing sleep from his eyes and shuffling towards the couch. Steve immediately softened.
‘Did I wake you?’
‘Kinda, but s’okay. Dreams weren’t gettin’ any better anyways.’ Bucky responded sleepily, making his way around the couch to sit down right next to Steve. So close, in fact, that he could feel the heat bristling between their bodies in the chilly night.
‘Do you wanna talk about it?’ Steve said, shuffling over a bit.
‘Not much to talk about, s’nothing but the usual.’ Steve grimaced a bit at the sad fact that this was their new normal. There was nothing left to say but to change the subject.
Bucky diverted his eyes to the TV screen. ‘What movie is this?’
‘Ah, it’s called 500 Days of Summer. I thought it was gonna be funny, but it’s just kinda sad,’ Steve laughed lightly, shuffling the popcorn kernels in the bowl.
They stayed silent through the rest of the movie, save for the sounds of shuffling as they stretched their limbs out occasionally.
‘Well, that was still pretty good, I guess.’ Steve said as the credits started rolling. He didn’t necessarily like credits, but he couldn’t bring himself to move. The movie had hit him in some places pretty hard, and he was scared to the answers of some of the questions it had brought to his mind.
‘Malhauser,’ Bucky suddenly said, watching the credits intently.
‘Sorry?’ Steve turned to him, a little confused.
‘It’s this sort of game Sam mentioned to me. You look for the oddest names you can find in the credit reel. I haven’t really tried it since then, but it seems fun.’ He smiled slightly, still scanning the names. So Steve joined in until the credits ended, waiting until the screen flashed the final studio logo before returning to the menu. Steve shut the TV off, but made no move to get up.
‘That wasn’t the ending I expected,’ Bucky said after a moment, but Steve didn’t really process it. He was lost in thought.
‘Bucky,’ he said, slipping through his lips, almost like a whisper - he wasn’t sure if he wanted to ask his next question.
‘Do you believe in love?’
‘Bucky turned to face him so fast Steve was worried he was going to get whiplash.
‘Of course,’ Bucky said. ‘Don’t you?’
Steve hesitated for a moment. He hadn’t a doubt in his mind - of course he did. Bucky’s question wasn’t the reason for his hesitation. Steve had known for a while, a long while, that it was always going to be Bucky, that it always had been Bucky, in every way.
His eyes felt heavy, weighed down by everything that had happened in the last year. But he let his eyes lift to meet Bucky’s, whose grey-blue ones were already staring intently at him, eyebrows furrowed in concern. Steve watched for a moment as they twinkled in the warm light from the lamp next to them.
‘Yeah, I do.’
Steve wasn’t certain, but he swore he heard Bucky release a breath, as if he’d been anxious about the answer. Neither of them let their eyes leave the other’s, analysing every emotion that flickered across their faces. Steve could feel the tension that had been building between them, and suddenly, he couldn’t take it anymore.
‘I love you,’ he blurted out, shattering the silence of the room.
Bucky paused, a little confused at the urgency of Steve’s tone.
‘I know that, Stevie.’
But Steve felt as if he was bursting at the seams, like if he didn’t say these words now, they’d bury him alive.
‘No, you don’t - you don’t get it. I love you. I loved you back before the war, too, but y’know, it wasn’t safe, and now that it is, I want you to know that I love you, that I have always loved you, that I will always love you. I want you to know that there is nothing, not a single person in this world, not a single thing that you could do, that could make me forget that love. I will follow you into the gates of hell if that’s where this leads us but it would all be worth it because there is nothing in any universe that I want more than you; there is nothing that I would choose over you. I am in love with you, and there is no other person, no other state of being, that I would pick over this feeling. And I just - I just need you to know that I love you this way.’
Steve was feeling a little breathless, and Bucky looked like he was about to get hit by a truck, all wide eyes and flushed cheeks. But he composed himself enough to get the confidence to cup Steve’s face in his hands, taking care with his left hand, barely letting it touch Steve’s cheek. Steve instinctively leaned into the touch.
Bucky leaned in close to Steve’s face, lips nearly brushing, their exhaled breaths mixing into each other. Steve was breathing a little too heavily, his heart rate elevated in the wake of his confession and in the midst of this proximity to the love of his life. He didn’t let his eyes leave Bucky’s though, watching as his pupils dilated. Bucky’s eyes flickered to Steve’s lips, and then back to his wonder-filled eyes several times in the few moments before he finally spoke.
‘Can I kiss you?’ Bucky uttered, desperate, like his life depended on this answer.
Steve felt like all the air had suddenly left the room, but he managed out a quick yes before Bucky pressed his lips onto Steve’s, never letting go of his face. Steve melted into him, eyes fluttering closed and giving himself completely into Bucky. He brought his hands up to lightly hold onto Bucky’s elbows, keeping himself steady. He was savouring every moment, every turn of Bucky’s head, every way their lips always seemed to fit perfectly in place. Steve had always suspected, but it was nice to have proof that their lips were meant to be together.
Bucky eventually pulled back, nearly gasping for air, but grinning wider than Steve had seen since he woke from the cryo. Steve was in awe, struck by wonder over what had just happened, and honestly, he felt a little dizzy. Bucky lightly traced his right thumb over Steve’s bottom lip, admiring the slight swelling of it from Bucky’s reciprocation of Steve’s confession.
Steve’s face was flushed with colour that didn’t fade as Bucky lightly moved his flesh fingers over his cheeks. Steve couldn’t tear his eyes from Bucky, watching the little smile resting on his face. He’d made him this happy, he thought. That was him. And at that thought, Steve couldn’t help the smile that settled upon his face. Steve noticed the way Bucky was avoiding touching him with his metal arm, so he reached down to interlock their fingers. He brought their hands up to his face, resting the cool fingers of Bucky’s arm against his heated cheeks. He revelled in the sensation, adoring the way Bucky’s lips slightly parted at the gesture. But after a moment, he gently untangled his fingers and looked at Steve, a slight sadness present in his eyes.
‘It’s okay, Buck,’ Steve looked at him, concern etched into the crease between his eyebrows. Bucky just looked away.
‘I know you are,’ he smiled fairly sadly at his hands, now back in his lap. He was idly tracing his right hand over the metal palm of his left hand. ‘But I’m not. I’m not ready for that yet.’
Steve just brought his own hands to hold Bucky’s face this time. He tilted his chin up slightly and pressed a chaste kiss to his forehead, and then the tip of his nose. Then he met Bucky’s eyes again, loving the way he lost himself in their swirling, soothing colours.
‘I love you,’ he whispered. But it wasn’t a statement this time. It was a promise, and he scanned Bucky’s eyes for confirmation that he understood that. He saw the hope well up in them and leaned in again to kiss his cheek.
‘Can we sleep in your room, Stevie?’ Bucky asked, timidity lacing his voice.
Steve just nodded, interlocking their fingers again, careful to grab the right one for Bucky’s sake. They walked to Steve’s room, careful not to wake anyone else in the complex up.
They pushed back the sheets and crawled onto the bed, pulling the silky sheets over themselves. Steve moved so Bucky’s back was pressed against his chest and wrapped a strong arm around his waist, assuring him that he was there. He danced his fingers lightly on Bucky’s right arm, attempting to soothe him into a good night’s sleep.
Eventually Bucky’s breathing slowed down and evened out, and Steve, with hints of a smile lingering on his lips from that night’s events, followed soon after, with the comfort of knowing that Bucky was there, and they could finally be together.
Steve had always thought the notion that the first time you say ‘I love you’ in a relationship is one of the most important moments was bullshit. But that was until he started dating Bucky, and he couldn’t count on all his fingers and toes the times he’d told his boyfriend ‘I love you.’ But Bucky hadn’t said it back once yet.
That was okay with Steve. He gave those ‘I love you’s out because he knew that Bucky needed the reminder. Because they were more than just ‘I love you’. They were ‘you’re safe with me’ and ‘it wasn’t your fault’ and ‘it’s okay to hurt’ and ‘I care about you’ and ‘I’m here for you’. They were about more than just love. Or maybe, they were all about love in their own way.
Bucky hadn’t said it back, but Steve didn’t need to hear it back. Or, at least, he thought he hadn’t, until the day Bucky actually reciprocated it, without any prompting, and Steve felt like the final piece of a century-long puzzle had just fallen into place.
It was months after they shared their first kiss, coming close to a year, really. Things had considerably smoothed out and quieted down since what everyone had begun to dub the Avengers’ ‘civil war’. Steve had begun working things out with Tony in recent months, and there was occasional talk of returning back to their complex in the states. King T’Challa made occasional visits, but mostly he was following Zemo’s trial, or was otherwise occupied with running a country. Usually.
Bucky and Wanda had both improved a lot, and both of them were building up to getting Wanda to remove Bucky’s trigger words. It had been a lot of therapy sessions for the both of them, sometimes together, mostly apart, and it was a tense time for everyone. But they were getting very close.
Steve had been sitting up on his bed, reading a book that he’d found in some corner of T’Challa’s facility. It was cloudy and foggy outside, and he found the tone perfect for just devouring a book.
The door to his room opened, but Steve didn’t look up from his book. There had been no knock, so Steve automatically assumed it was Bucky who walked in. When he darted his eyes away from his book to look at his boyfriend, he noticed he was stumbling slightly, looking haggard and defeated. He immediately set his book down and got up, concern etched into the lines of his face. As he got closer, he cupped Bucky’s head in his hands and lightly tilted his head up until their eyes met. When he noticed the tears forming and threatening to spill in his love’s eyes, a soft gasp left Steve’s lips, and he pulled Bucky in close, noticing the way he immediately reacted by gripping tightly onto the back of his shirt, pressing his nose into Steve’s shoulder, slight sniffles coming from him every now and then. Steve held him, rubbing his back gently. He didn’t know how long they stood there, but when Steve felt Bucky’s grip easing up, he shuffled them over to his bed. Steve sat back against the headboard, and pulled Bucky onto his lap, seating him sideways between his legs so that Bucky’s legs rested over Steve’s thighs. Bucky wrapped his arms around Steve’s neck, and Steve held Bucky around his torso, hands running up and down the sides of Bucky’s body in an attempt to soothe him. Bucky pressed his head into Steve’s chest, trying to even out his breathing, and Steve moved one hand to run through Bucky’s hair, parting any knots he came across as gently as he could.
They sat there for what felt like hours of silence, save for Bucky’s occasional sniffle. Steve just kept running his fingers into Bucky’s hair, long after he’d freed all the knots out of them. He didn’t press for answers, or ask any questions to begin with. He’d known Bucky long enough now to know that if he wanted to, or felt like he could, Bucky would tell him what had been going on. Sometimes it took minutes, sometimes days, sometimes weeks. Sometimes never, and that was okay, but he’d speak when he was ready, and Bucky knew that Steve would hold off a war to listen to him if that’s what he needed.
So they sat there without any pressure to say anything they didn’t want to. And Steve, at some point - he didn’t even really recognise that he was doing it - began muttering ‘I love you’ every few minutes, like a mantra. He just wanted to remind Bucky, in case whatever had happened to make him this beat down caused him to think that he wouldn’t love him anymore. But Steve knew that there was not a single thing in this universe that could ever make him hate Bucky Barnes, not even for a fraction of a second.
Eventually, Bucky sat up straighter and pressed a kiss to Steve’s lips, as a reassurance that he was going to be okay. Steve pulled back to wipe away the tears on Bucky’s cheeks and at the corners of his eyes. Steve looked into his boyfriend’s eyes for a while, noting how bright they seemed now, and he couldn’t help but be reminded of the ocean after a storm, calming down, and clearing up.
Bucky shuffled until he was lying down on the bed and straightened Steve’s legs out so he could rest his head on Steve’s thighs, head facing both of their feet.
Steve continued to card his fingers through Bucky’s hair, staring lovingly down at his boyfriend. After a moment in this position, Bucky spoke up.
‘It was a difficult therapy session today,’ his voice cracked, and Steve’s heart broke at the tone, but he hummed softly as encouragement for Bucky to continue.
‘The lady wanted me to talk about the things that were hurting me inside. And I told her we’d be there for days if she really wanted to hear them all, and God, Steve, the look on her face. I can’t take the pity sometimes, you know? But anyways, then she said to start with one thing, and we’d work through them one by one. So I told her about the guilt.’ His voice cracked again on the last word, but he cleared his throat and continued.
‘It’s always the guilt, Steve. I swear I’ve tried every possible thing, but it just doesn’t go away. She keeps telling me it’s not my fault, and it’s like, I know that, but it doesn’t really change the fact that I did those things, does it? I know it’s not me, but - but -’
Bucky’s voice broke, and even though Steve couldn’t really see his face, he knew the sound of someone trying to hold back tears again. Steve’s throat was closing up slightly, choking on the dryness in it as he tried to hold back tears. The pain in Bucky’s voice was nearly unbearable, he felt like he was suffering, too. He had to make a conscious effort to not stop moving his fingers through Bucky’s hair, to prevent him from knowing just how much the things he told Steve sometimes affected him.
So Steve ran his fingers through Bucky’s hair and tried to shush Bucky as soothingly as he could without sounding annoying until Bucky composed himself again.
‘I remember all of them, Steve,’ Bucky took a deep, shaky breath. ‘I remember all of them, and I can’t seem to stop remembering them. And with each passing day that they don’t wipe me, or I’m not in fucking cryo, I remember more and more details. This one had a family; I killed this one’s whole family. I’m responsible for some major, major deaths in the world. Sometimes, I wish I was still a ghost. I can’t tell which pain I prefer - the mental pain that comes with this remembering, or the physical pain they put me through to make me forget.’
Steve couldn’t stop the tears from rolling down his cheeks as Bucky finished speaking, and wiped them before they fell onto his boyfriend’s face.
Steve took a few deep breaths to try and calm himself enough to console Bucky. He’d momentarily removed his hands from Bucky’s hair, but he moved back in as he began his response.
‘I can’t even imagine how hard this is for you. Honestly, sometimes I don’t want to. But I know that whatever you’re feeling in the aftermath of all those years of torture and brainwashing is completely valid, and I think it’s both ridiculous and ignorant to believe that you’re not going to struggle with these feelings for many years to come. I don’t want to bullshit you and say you’ll be okay, because I can’t ever know that, especially with how much you’ve been through. But, I hope this is something we can work through together, no matter what happens in this relationship. I want to be here for you. I know this hurts, so much more than I could begin to comprehend, but I know it will get better and easier with time, and with being open. Baby steps, and you will get there, and I will be here to support you the whole way through. So thank you for being open with me.’ Steve said.
The silence that followed made Steve’s heart race slightly in anxiousness. He worried that he’d said the wrong thing, that he’d accidentally hurt Bucky, or betrayed his trust somehow. In the silence, he recognised the rhythmic sound of rain hitting a window, and focused on that until his breathing slowed down. He continued playing with Bucky’s hair, watching his love’s eyes flutter lightly under closed eyelids from the soothing motions.
They stayed like that again for a while, both men collecting their thoughts and revelling in the touch and sensations of being close, physically and emotionally. Bucky was the one who finally broke the silence.
‘Hey, Stevie?’ Bucky said, and Steve couldn’t help but grin at the pet name.
‘I love you,’ he said, rolling over and staring up at Steve from where his head lay on the blond’s lap.
Steve’s breath caught in his throat, and his grin melted off his face in shock. It was in no way a bad shock, but it was definitely a surprise. Steve had been saying those words to Bucky for at least a year now, and no it didn’t really bother him that it had taken him this long to reciprocate them, but he hadn’t expected to have such an emotional reaction when he did. Steve was afraid he was going to start crying again, the overwhelming joy feeling like it was consuming him. Bucky was worried at Steve’s lack of response and turned his head to look up at his boyfriend. He met Steve’s eyes and immediately his heart swelled at the amount of emotion pouring from him. Bucky grinned so wide it began to hurt, but he couldn’t stop it, and when Steve saw, he mirrored the smile.
‘I love you, too.’ Steve responded, speaking around his grin as best he could. Then he leaned down and Bucky moved his head up to meet in the middle for a kiss.
And when they pulled away, Steve continued to say ‘I love you’ over and over again, until Bucky felt completely relaxed against him. But the way Bucky heard it, the words sounded a whole lot more like a promise Steve would do anything to keep. It sounded a lot like he was telling Bucky ‘you can always come home to me.’
And that’s exactly what Bucky intended on doing.