“I think we may finally be getting to the end of it now. Hydra is definitely weakening. And this next mission looks promising. I’m going back to New York first thing tomorrow. That’s why I’m here,” Steve explained. He reached out for Peggy’s hand. “I wanted to say goodbye before I left.”
Peggy was watching him with a small smile on her face, though he couldn’t think of anything he’d said that might have amused her.
“They don’t even put up much of a fight anymore,” Steve continued. “We show up, and they come along quietly.” Finally he couldn’t ignore her expression any longer. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
Her smile grew wider. “May I ask you something?”
“Anything.” Steve leaned close, taking her hand in both of his.
She laughed. “Oh, Steve, sometimes I forget how young you are.”
“Oh, don’t mind me. It’s just you’re so very earnest.” She reached out to rest her other palm against his cheek. “When you came in, I asked you how you are, but do you realize that everything you’ve told me has to do with work?”
Steve thought back over his words and nodded.
“What I can’t figure out,” she continued, “is whether you don’t tell me about your personal life because you’re worried I’ll be jealous? Or because you simply don’t have one?”
Though she said it kindly, the question stung.
“The fact that this is one of my good days is not lost on me, I assure you.” Peggy probably used that wry tone to keep the conversation light, but it still made Steve sad, reminding him of the things they’d lost. “So I’m going to take advantage of my moment of clarity to give you a bit of advice.” She gave his hand a tight squeeze. “I understand that this has been difficult for you, I do. Coming back with most everyone you cared about gone and me this shriveled old thing. But it’s been years, and lately I find myself just wanting to shake you.”
Steve found himself on his feet. He was speechless, hurt. He left Peggy’s bedside and went over to the window.
“You’re hiding,” she insisted, not unkindly. “Hiding from life.”
He turned and started to stammer out a denial, but she interrupted him.
“Do you begrudge my moving on after you were gone? Getting married? Having a family?”
“Of course not. I’m glad you had a chance to—”
“I think you aren’t moving on out of guilt, or some misguided sense of loyalty to your friends, but they’ve lived their lives.”
Not Bucky, he wanted to say, but the words caught in his throat.
“Oh, Steve. I understand. I do. But Sergeant Barnes wouldn’t want you to mourn forever.”
She understood him so well. She always had, but Steve wasn’t sure how to handle that insightfulness when it came to how he felt about Bucky.
“Steve. Darling.” She reached out for him, and he went back to his chair beside her bed to take her hand again. “You deserve a life for yourself in the here and now—something that’s more than just work.”
Steve struggled to swallow the lump in his throat, then admitted, “I don’t think I know how to do that.”
“You won’t know until you try, will you?”
“Well, I keep asking you to marry me, but you keep saying no.”
She ignored him, seeing it for the dodge it was. Steve looked away, but he could still feel her sharp gaze.
“You’re a good man, a loving person,” she said quietly. “You deserve to find love again. I want you to. Even if marriage and children aren’t what you want, companionship is important. And sex.”
A hot flush rose up Steve’s neck and over his cheeks.
She laughed. “Don’t you know that one of the few perks of being this old is that I can be as blunt as I like?”
“Peggy . . .”
“Have you tried since you came back?”
The question brought the blush right back to Steve’s face in full force.
“Oh, I don’t mean sex.” She chuckled again, though her eyes were sad. “Have you tried spending time with someone you might be interested in? Even just over a coffee?”
Steve hesitated before shaking his head. “Everything’s so different now. And I never knew what to do. How to approach someone I liked.”
“You did all right with me once you simply talked to me.”
“No. No, I didn’t. I was awkward and said stupid stuff. It was terrible, and you know it. The only reason it worked was because of you.”
“As you say, things are different now,” Peggy said. “Perhaps that’s a good thing. Maybe it’ll actually be easier for you.”
“Maybe it would be, if I could just be Steve Rogers, inexperienced idiot. But everyone looks at me and sees Captain America. How do I—?” He didn’t even know how to frame the question.
“You have to learn to set that aside. That’s what you do, not who you are.”
Steve wanted to argue. He was Captain America. He didn’t just put on that face like he put on his uniform. He was recognized everywhere he went, and he ended up on YouTube and Twitter and who knew where else. How could he fumble through dating with that kind of public scrutiny?
“If you can’t forget about Captain America now and then, you can’t expect a potential partner to forget it either.”
Steve slumped in his chair.
“Oh, it’s not all that bad,” Peggy said. “Come on, I’ll let you off the hook for now if you promise to think about it. The next time someone flirts with you, or even just smiles at you, keep it in mind. For my sake? Now give me a kiss and let me get some rest.”
As Steve was closing the door of Peggy’s room behind him, a voice with a charming Southern lilt came from behind him.
“Captain Rogers,” the voice said. “Hello.”
Steve turned and saw one of the nurses assigned to the floor walking down the hall toward him. This particular nurse was always ready with a few kind words and a beaming smile. Although it might have been friendliness, Steve was pretty sure he was being flirted with. He’d never had any intention of doing anything about it. It seemed better to feign innocence—the clueless-guy-from-the-forties routine seemed to get him out of a lot of sticky situations. He’d been afraid to look at it too closely anyway, because the few moments of flirting in the hall outside Peggy’s room or down by the nurse’s station a couple of times a week formed the entirety of his love life.
He hadn’t expected to be presented with a test of Peggy’s advice so soon, but what the hell. He plastered a grin on his face.
“Hi.” Steve’s voice came out squeakier than he’d intended. He cleared his throat and tried again. “I haven’t seen you in a while. How are you?”
The nurse’s smile grew broader. “Can’t complain. You been to visit Miz Carter?”
“Yeah, but she kicked me out. I guess I overstayed my welcome.” Steve thought it was a pretty pathetic attempt at humor, but he was rewarded with a peal of laughter. Okay, he thought. Maybe it wasn’t just friendliness.
“I can’t imagine you being unwelcome anywhere, Captain Rogers.”
Steve could feel his face flushing, though he tried to ignore it.
“We’re always happy to see you when you’re here for Miz Carter.”
The Southern accent was kind of endearing.
“You’re so good to her,” the nurse continued, stepping closer, head tilted to one side. “You come every week, rain or shine, sometimes more than once.”
Suddenly Steve realized he wasn’t having to force a smile anymore. Maybe he could do this—maybe he wasn’t hopeless at flirting.
“Luke! For heaven’s sake, leave Captain Rogers alone!”
The nurse jumped back, his own blush standing out in stark contrast to the pale blue scrubs he wore. Over his shoulder, Steve could see another nurse, a tall, frowning woman wearing her hair pulled back into a severe bun.
“Mr. Dauer needs help getting ready for bed.”
Luke nodded and headed down the hall with an apologetic glance in Steve’s direction. Once he was gone, the woman turned to Steve. Her expression was less sour now.
“I’m sorry about Luke,” she said. “He doesn’t mean any harm.”
“No, ma’am,” Steve replied, automatically respectful. He felt like he was back in second grade getting scolded by Mrs. Connelly. “Of course not.”
It wasn’t until she’d wished him a good evening and walked away that Steve realized she’d assumed he would be shocked or offended by Luke’s flirtation, and he felt discouraged all over again.
It took him a few minutes to get his feet moving, but when he finally made his way down the hall and rounded the corner, Luke was waiting for him.
“I’m sorry about that,” he said. He reached out and touched Steve’s arm. “She’s a stickler for keeping everyone on schedule.”
Steve nodded. Luke’s hand felt warm through the sleeve of his shirt. “It’s okay.”
Luke smiled then. It was a smile full of promise, and for a moment Steve thought about giving in to it. This guy wasn’t Steve’s type—he looked like a farm boy, with white-blond hair and freckles across his cheeks and nose. But he was attractive. And he was right here, standing close, holding on to Steve’s wrist, and smiling at him.
Steve had been staring at Luke’s hand on his arm, but he looked up now, ready to say something—to ask when Luke’s shift ended, or if he was free this weekend, or something, but he could see the stars in Luke’s eyes, as if Steve were wearing his full uniform and holding his shield. It was Captain America he wanted. He didn’t see Steve at all.
“Yeah, sorry,” Steve mumbled. “Thanks. I’ll see you next week.”
Luke’s face fell, but Steve wrenched his hand away and made his way to the elevator.
He rode his bike home on autopilot, lost in thought. He couldn’t have explained it to Peggy, but there were reasons why he didn’t try to find someone, never tried to date. It seemed unfair to involve anyone else in his confusion about all of this stuff. He needed to figure a few things out first.
When he met Peggy, he’d thought he had it made. He would marry Peggy when the war was over. And they would have been happy. Now, it didn’t seem so simple. He’d thought about trying to find a nice girl, but. . . . As he’d pointed out to Peggy, things were different than they’d been when he was a kid. It wasn’t so easy to push aside things that he had been trying to ignore his whole life. He knew with absolute certainty that he would have been happy with Peggy, but part of him would always have pined for Bucky.
Not that Bucky ever knew—Steve would have died before letting him find out about his hopeless crush. However, that part of Steve was still very much alive, and he wasn’t sure whether to indulge or suffocate it.
Somehow, when Steve had been with Peggy, it hadn’t seemed disloyal: his love for Bucky was in a separate place in his head and his heart than his love for Peggy. The idea of saddling some unsuspecting woman with his unresolved curiosity about what else was out there? That didn’t seem fair.
It was socially acceptable now. He could be with a man—hell, he could marry a man—shouldn’t he take advantage of that freedom to at least give it a try? But he wasn’t really sure that was what he wanted. Back before the war, he’d only had the most general of ideas about what two men could do together. Not that he’d had much experience with girls either. The few times he and Peggy had managed to find some privacy, it had been great. It had been wonderful. Their intimate moments had been full of kisses and laughter. Her soft skin and her strong legs. So Steve knew he liked that, but he’d never find another woman as perfect as Peggy.
Other than his pathetic, unrequited love for Bucky and some innocent flirting with Peggy’s nursing staff, Steve had no experience with men. He’d never really felt seriously interested in any man other than Bucky. Of course, there hadn’t been too many women other than Peggy who’d caught his eye either. Everywhere he went, he saw beautiful faces, beautiful bodies, but they didn’t move him any more than a lovely painting in a museum. He needed to know the person behind all of that to feel love, or even just to feel desire, and maybe that made him old-fashioned, but he couldn’t help it.
Maybe his interest in Bucky had just been habit, though it made Steve feel disloyal to even think it. Maybe he simply got used to Bucky being the most important person in his life, and lust somehow got mixed up in that. Did he really want to try being with a man? Maybe it was time to figure that out.
The moment Steve entered his apartment, he went to the laptop and turned it on so that it would be ready to go by the time he hung up his jacket. His stomach felt jittery, but that was partly from excitement. Once he had the Google logo in front of him, he hesitated for only a moment before starting to type: How do I know if I’m—he’d been about to type gay, but the computer’s autofill offered bisexual, which made Steve pause.
Of course. He should have thought of that. He’d been too busy thinking in terms of either/or. Either he was gay or he was straight. It had to be either Peggy or Bucky. But that’s not how things worked, was it? The whole point of this was to broaden his horizons. Still, the term made Steve uncomfortable. Gay or even queer didn’t make him squirm like homosexual or bisexual, which seemed so blunt and clinical.
He made himself start the search and stared, uncomprehending, at the choices offered. He clicked on a site at random, and it wasn’t all that helpful, working so hard to be encouraging that it didn’t really give a lot of information: Being bisexual is normal. There’s no one right way to be bisexual. Lots of people have sex with people of both genders but don’t identify as bisexual.
The second site Steve tried was better. It was still educational in focus, but it suggested things to think about, like who you’re attracted to, who you love, and what you want from sex. It included all the things Steve was already thinking about, so it was nice to know he was on the right track. On the side of the screen was a picture of two men kissing. It was a pastel cartoon sketch that looked like it belonged on a greeting card, but Steve was riveted.
He opened a new tab and typed men kissing. His finger hovered over the enter key before he gathered the courage to hit it. He was afraid he’d get an eyeful of pornographic images he wasn’t ready for, but most of the pictures were sweet—romantic close-ups. After a few minutes to get used to the idea, he let himself look at some the less tame ones. His eye kept coming back to one in particular: a photo of a dark-haired man wearing skimpy underwear lying sprawled on a bed while another guy leaned over to kiss him. The standing guy had one hand shoved up under the other guy’s T-shirt, revealing his flat stomach and the dark line of hair trailing over his belly button. Another photo showed one man straddling another. Both were naked, though they were pressed so close together that Steve could only see their profiles. Their arms clung desperately to each other’s shoulders as they kissed.
Steve’s dick was taking a definite interest, but that didn’t mean anything. Ever since the serum, Steve got aroused when the wind shifted direction—almost anything was enough to set him off. He wanted more of a test to figure out how much he wanted this, so he opened yet another tab and typed gay sex. He steeled himself before hitting enter, but the search didn’t bring up any images, just text. Even the text was daunting—Steve didn’t know where to start. After several minutes of staring, he shut the computer off and went to bed.
Steve got up early the next morning to head to New York. Tony always offered a car, or a private jet, but Steve liked going by train. As he made his way through Union Station, he couldn’t stop imagining the pictures he’d seen online the night before. The guy sprawled out on his back with an impressive bulge in his shorts, craning his neck up for a kiss.
A good-looking man caught Steve’s eye. He was standing in line to buy coffee. Without even thinking about it, Steve got in line too. There were three people lined up along the counter in between them, so Steve could study him without being too obvious. The guy had dark brown hair—almost black. It was a little long, and he wore it brushed back from his face in a way that made Steve think of nineteenth-century poets. The man smiled at the barista as she handed him his cup, and Steve stared at the man’s lips as he took his first sip. As he walked away, Steve watched how his suit, though beautifully tailored, tightened around his biceps and his thighs as he moved. Steve thought of the muscular entwined limbs in the photos. He swallowed and walked away without ordering any coffee.
All throughout the trip to New York, Steve had those images in his head. While he was picturing the couple passionately clutching at one another’s shoulders, he saw a young guy—just a kid, really, maybe in college—with a cleft chin like Bucky’s. Maybe Steve wasn’t as dependent on knowing the person inside the beautiful body as he’d thought, because it seemed like everywhere he turned he saw a handsome man that sent his thoughts back to his embarrassing internet session.
He stumbled his way through mission prep, ignoring the puzzled, almost concerned looks Natasha directed at him. When the meeting was over, Tony suggested carryout—a team dinner in the tower’s common area—but Steve excused himself and went to his apartment, heading straight for the computer.
For a moment, he regretted asking Tony to keep Jarvis out of the apartment. Though he liked his privacy, Steve could probably get Jarvis to find exactly what he wanted, but he’d be too embarrassed to ask Jarvis about this anyway.
Steve didn’t hesitate, immediately searching for gay sex and randomly clicking on a link. A collection of alarming images popped up on the screen, with the largest window showing an unbelievably huge dick fucking a guy’s ass. Steve let out a squawk and fumbled with the touchpad, trying to make it disappear.
He almost shut the computer off, but the idea of heading out on a mission with this still nagging at him—it would be frustrating. Maddening. It would be distracting, which could be dangerous. And his dick was pressing uncomfortably at his zipper. So he initiated another search, and this time was more discriminating about which link he clicked. The new site was explicit but less hardcore. Steve watched the gifs, ignoring the heat the spread across his face and down his neck.
He let his eyes skip over the more shocking images and fix on one that reminded him of the picture he’d kept going back to the night before: a dark-haired guy lying on the bed while another man bent over him for a kiss. Only this guy wasn’t even wearing tiny underpants. He was fully nude, his dick jutting out, and while Steve watched, the man leaning over him wrapped his hand around it. Pressing the heel of his hand against the front of his jeans, Steve held his breath and watched the long, strong fingers stroking rhythmically, then traveling lower, rubbing at the other guy’s asshole before pushing inside. The guy getting fingered let out a sound somewhere between a growl and a moan.
Steve scrabbled at his fly, got his pants open, and grabbed his dick just as the image froze. A prompt came on the screen, asking Steve to put in his credit card information to see the rest of the video. Steve groaned in frustration. He clicked on the X to get rid of the prompt and restarted the clip from the beginning. In spite of his curiosity about where things would lead, he figured this was enough for now.
He watched the video half a dozen times more before slapping the laptop closed and heading for the bedroom with his fly still hanging open. He shut the door, and after staring at it for a moment, pushed the button to lock it. As he made his way across the room, he yanked his T-shirt off, paused to tug off his socks, then shoved off his jeans and boxers. He pushed the covers to the foot of the bed and fell onto the mattress, already working his dick with his left hand.
The video was playing in his mind, vividly. He rolled onto his side and tentatively reached around and put two fingers between the cheeks of his ass. His face was flaming hot, but he couldn’t stifle a moan as his fingertips circled over his asshole. Overeager, he tried to push inside, but it was too dry.
He jumped out of bed and headed for the bathroom. The tower had a staff that kept the apartments shocked with basics, so there had to be some kind of lotion or something else slippery that Steve could use. He opened the bathroom cabinet, and it only took a moment of shuffling through the contents to find a small bottle of lubricant. The kind specifically designed for sex.
Steve stared at the bottle in his hand, his blush growing even hotter. He tried to convince himself that it was just one item on the standard list of things the staff was ordered to keep on hand, not any different than toothpaste or Q-tips. It wasn’t like anyone would know that he’d used it. Or what he’d used it for. And they probably wouldn’t care even if they did know—no one on the team was prudish. At least, no one but Steve.
But no, he wasn’t a prude. He liked sex, and he shouldn’t feel ashamed. He closed his hand around the bottle and took it back to the bed.
His hands shook as he opened the bottle and coated the fingers of his right hand. He considered putting some on his left hand too, and his dick strained away from his body at the thought, but he didn’t want everything to be over too quickly. After settling himself comfortably, he moved his right hand behind him and spread the slipperiness between his cheeks and over his asshole. After only a few seconds, he was shaking from the feeling. He took a deep breath and pushed one finger inside. He paused for a moment, then slid it slowly in and out. He was still shaking, and his breath was coming heavy, but that was more from the idea of it than the sensation. He couldn’t feel all that much—he wanted more.
He withdrew his hand, then pushed back in—two fingers this time. It was tight and a little uncomfortable. Maybe he wasn’t using enough lube? And now he was thinking too much. He knew that porn videos weren’t exactly realistic, but it had seemed so natural when the guys on screen had done this, the standing man’s fingers gliding easily as his partner groaned and writhed. Picturing the video helped—imagining how it would feel to have someone else doing that to him.
Steve’s mind leapt to Bucky, along with a crushing weight of guilt, but he shoved that aside and let himself dream. Who was it hurting? Bucky was gone, and if Steve needed this to move on with his life, no one ever had to know.
He imagined Bucky bending over him for a kiss. His lips—his beautiful mouth. Steve licked his own lips and wrapped his left hand around his dick. He imagined Bucky’s hand stroking him, then traveling lower, rubbing at his asshole before pushing inside—just like the video. A groan clawed its way out of Steve’s throat, and he pushed his fingers of his right hand deeper as his left moved faster.
Bucky would tease, wouldn’t he? He had teased Steve incessantly, all their lives, and it wouldn’t be any different in bed. Steve imagined Bucky driving him crazy with light kisses and playful nips of his teeth. Slowing his hands—the hotter Steve got, the slower Bucky would move, drawing out Steve’s pleasure.
He tried to slow his own movements, but he was too far gone. His hips were rocking between his hands now, and he wanted still more—another finger in his ass—but he wasn’t coordinated enough to manage it.
Bucky would have done this for Steve—opening him up slowly. He’d always been careful of Steve, even after the serum, even after he’d grown bigger than Bucky. He would be gentle, making sure Steve was ready with his fingers and lots of slippery stuff. Oh God, the thought of Bucky fucking him. His dick buried in Steve’s ass, holding his hips tight with both hands, groaning in his ear. Steve shoved his fingers as deep as he could, and pleasure zinged up his spine like an electric shock. His hips slammed forward, fucking his own fist as he came hard, his dick jerking even after the rest of him was too overcome to move.
He collapsed flat on his back, panting. Every inch of his body tingled. He wanted to do it all over again—maybe with three fingers this time.
But as he caught his breath, guilt crept in. He shouldn’t have used Bucky’s memory for something like this. In his frustration, he lifted his hand to run his fingers through his messy hair, but he stopped himself just in time, then got up to wash his sticky fingers in the bathroom. He avoided looking in the mirror.
When he returned to the bed, he saw the bottle of lubricant lying in the rumpled sheets. He grabbed it, shoved it deep into the nightstand drawer, and threw himself onto the mattress.
Why hadn’t he focused his fantasies elsewhere? He could have stuck with the guys from the video. Or thought about the coffee drinker from the train station. But Steve couldn’t imagine just talking to him, much less going to bed with him. Could Steve only let himself be intimate with a ghost?
Maybe this had been a bad idea. Maybe it had been better not to know. Because now, Steve was pretty sure he would like sex with a man, but what good did it do when he could never in a million years tell someone what he wanted? It would have been almost impossible back when he weighed a hundred pounds soaking wet. It was completely unimaginable that Captain God-damn America wanted a nice strong man to tackle him onto a bed, grab tight onto his hips, and . . . well.
“How about Miranda in research?”
Steve tried to put an edge of warning into his voice. “Natasha.”
She ignored his tone, of course. “She’s a little older than you—well, not older exactly. But she’s smart as hell. Her master’s thesis was on propaganda in World War II, so she might understand you better than the average girl on the street.”
“Natasha, please.” Steve looked at the other SHIELD agents strapped in next to them in the quinjet. They were politely pretending not to hear anything, but how could they not?
“We’ve got another half hour until we get there, at least, so unless you want me to keep going, at least give me an opinion.”
Steve sighed heavily. “Not you too.”
“What do you mean ‘too’? Who else is trying to set you up?”
Natasha gave him a pointed look.
“Ok, fine—Peggy. She says I need to put myself out there. Find someone.”
Natasha smiled. “I knew I liked her.”
Steve sighed. He’d thought that it would be a relief to get to work today and escape his confusion about Peggy’s advice and the stuff on the internet, but with Natasha playing matchmaker, he was having trouble putting it out of his mind.
Natasha nudged his shoulder. “Miranda?”
“I have no idea who she is.”
“I’ll introduce you.”
“No, really. I appreciate the thought, but I don’t want to be fixed up like that.”
Natasha tilted her head and studied him. She did stop talking about poor, unsuspecting Miranda, but the silence was even worse. It was a relief when Sam left his seat up front with Clint and joined them.
“We’re about ten minutes out,” Sam said as he strapped himself into a vacant seat.
“Thank you, Sam.” Steve was glad to be able to turn his attention to the mission. “We’ll hit the ground running and take care of this in no time.”
Natasha was still watching him, one eyebrow quirked up, but Steve ignored her.
The facility they’d come to root out was definitely Hydra, but just as definitely deserted. The air was musty, and every hallway was eerily silent. They split up to search the place, just to be thorough, but all Steve found was room after empty room of lifeless, dated computers and scattered papers.
It left him dissatisfied—not that he wanted a fight, but he didn’t like wasting time. He was about to round everyone up and head home when Clint’s voice crackled over the comm.
Natasha answered first. “You find something?”
After a moment’s pause, Clint said, “I think you might want to come take a look at this.”
By the time Steve caught up, Natasha was already with Clint, both of them staring at a row of metal tanks. There were five of them, oblong, like coffins. Each one had a circular glass window like a ship’s porthole.
“What the hell are those?” Steve asked.
“I think there are people in there,” Clint said.
“What?” Steve went over to one of the tanks but couldn’t see anything through the glass because it was coated with a thick layer of frost.
Agent Lane approached the next tank. “Oh my god, there is someone in here.”
Steve turned, and through the window he could see the top half of a person’s face: shaggy blond hair, pale eyebrows, and part of one closed eye.
Natasha was bent over a desk in the corner, flipping through a thick file folder. “Some sort of experiment. Cryopreservation?”
Agent Rathburn approached. “They’re frozen?”
“Is there any chance they’re alive?” Steve asked
Sam appeared in the doorway, out of breath. “Who’s alive?”
“You lasted seventy years in the deep freeze,” Clint pointed out.
“Some kind of experiment,” Natasha explained.
Steve turned away from the tank, pushing the image of icy rushing water out of his head. “Can we get them out?”
Natasha’s eyes were still scanning the papers in front of her, and she didn’t answer.
“Natasha, does it say how to get them out?”
“Hold on. I’m reading. . . .”
Steve took a deep breath and walked over to look at the third tank. “We should probably get them to a hospital, even if there are some kind of instructions.” He wasn’t sure how much they could rely on SHIELD resources for this kind of thing. Everything was still kind of a mess after DC. “Let’s talk to Stark and see if we can get his help. We can take them back with us. Agent Lane?”
“Do you think you can transfer these tanks to the quinjets without interrupting the power supply?”
“Yes, sir. I’ll get on it.”
“Steve.” Natasha strode across the room with the file in her hand.
“Rathburn, you get on the phone and make sure they’re ready for us once we get back to New York.”
Natasha said Steve’s name again, more insistent this time. Now that he’d gotten the ball rolling for transporting the tanks, he turned to give her his undivided attention. One look at her was enough to tell Steve that something was really wrong. She pointed at the file she was holding, but the text was in Cyrillic letters.
“You know I can’t read that. What is it?”
She jabbed her finger at the page again, indicating a few sentences in German. Steve saw his own name, but his gaze passed over that and latched onto a word a few lines down: Barnes.
It felt like all of the air was sucked out of the room.
Sam was at Steve’s side and grabbed his elbow. “Steve?”
Shoving Sam’s hand aside, Steve rushed back to the first tank he’d looked at, but no matter how much he rubbed his hand over the glass, he couldn’t see anything through the window. He ran to the third tank, skipping over the one holding the blond man, but found it empty.
Natasha caught up with him. “Steve—” He pushed by her.
The fourth porthole revealed a shrunken, skeletal face—Steve didn’t need to look twice to know that the poor bastard in there was beyond help, but he wouldn’t even consider the possibility that he’d recognize anything he saw there.
Steve’s hands were shaking as he approached the last tank. The window was half frosted over. Steve could make out the line of a jaw, rough with stubble. He would know that chin anywhere. “Oh God.”
“It’s him. It’s Bucky.”
“Are you sure?” Sam came to peer into the tank.
Clint approached and stood on the other side.
“It’s him.” Steve repeated. “We have to get him out.”
“Hold on there, Cap,” Clint said.
“Steve? Remember what you said? We’ll take them to a hospital.” Natasha latched onto his arm, as if she thought he was going to reach for the heavy latches at that very moment.
“She’s right,” Sam said. “We need to slow down. Get Stark and Banner in on this, a medical team, just like you said.”
He shook off Natasha’s grip. “My God, what did they do to him?” He rubbed at the glass, trying to see more, though he knew it wouldn’t do any good. He turned back and pulled the file away from Natasha. “What does it say?”
Natasha threw Sam a worried look, and Steve tried to check himself. One look at Bucky—just a glimpse of part of his face, and it was like Steve was sixteen years old again.
“It’s okay.” When Natasha laid a hand on his arm a second time, Steve let it stay there. He gave the papers back to her and leaned over the tank again. If he got at just the right angle, he could catch a glimpse of Bucky’s neck, his Adam’s apple.
“With the death of Captain Rogers, the usefulness of Barnes as a hostage is questionable,” Natasha said slowly, translating as she read. “Orders are to instead include him as a subject in cryopreservation trial 17.”
Steve knew he should be helping get the tanks safely onto the jets, but he couldn’t make himself move away from the one that held Bucky. He could feel Natasha’s eyes on him. When Agent Lane returned with huge battery packs, he came straight toward Steve, but Natasha headed him off and directed him to one of the other tanks first.
Agent Rathburn lowered her phone from her ear and looked warily at Steve. Everyone knew he was compromised, but he couldn’t seem to pull himself together. He took a calming breath and nodded to her to speak.
“There’ll be a team waiting for us when we land. They’ll have power sources, medical teams, a tech crew. I think we’re set there.”
She turned away as Agent Lane approached, poking at a tablet as he talked. “We’re going to have to splice into the cables,” Lane said. “These things are hardwired into the building’s electrical system. There must be some kind of backup system though—what would they do in a power outage? Maybe that’s what happened to that one over there.” He waved vaguely toward the tank that held the skeletal figure Steve had refused to think about.
Lane had a slightly manic look about him. Steve recognized the expression from seeing it on Tony’s face: a scientist eager to tear apart someone else’s invention and figure out what made it tick. He left off his work on the tablet, finally looked at Steve’s face, and schooled his expression to something less gleeful. “We’ll make sure this transfer goes without a hitch before starting on the others.”
Steve nodded, his eyes already drifting back to the window on Bucky’s tank.
Steve made himself focus on Lane.
“Should we take that one too?” He gestured toward the fourth tank again. “It’s pretty clear he didn’t make it, but—”
“Yes, take it,” Steve said. “And the empty one too. Taking a look at those might help them get the others out safely.”
Natasha called Lane away. Steve knew she was running interference—trying to give him as much privacy as she could. He leaned over and gazed into the window again. He couldn’t help it. It was strange seeing Bucky’s face unshaven. He was usually fastidious about things like that. Even when they were out in the field he would heat a little water and do the best he could to tidy himself up. Still, it was unmistakably Bucky. How many times had Steve sketched the line of his jaw? The cleft in his chin?
He must have stood there staring for a long time, because when Natasha came to speak to him, her voice was hushed and her eyes concerned. “All the other tanks are ready to go. No interruption in power. No obvious problems. We’re ready.”
“Okay,” Steve said. “Can I help?”
“Let’s let them do their jobs,” Natasha said. She put her hand on Steve’s arm, and he stepped away. He didn’t want to make her actually drag him away from Bucky’s side.
She stood next to him over by the wall, and Sam came to stand on his other side. The team swarmed in with their gear and went to work. One guy worked with the wires coming out of the back, hooking them up to one of the huge batteries, which had a reassuring green light at the top of it. Another guy used a gun-like drill to detach the tank from its stand, which was bolted to the concrete floor. They had a makeshift cart pulled up alongside, ready to wheel the tank into the quinjet once they had it free.
“We gathered up every piece of paper we could find,” Natasha said quietly. “Anything that might help.”
Steve couldn’t answer, and Natasha lapsed into silence too.
“Good to go,” the guy with the drill said once he’d loosened the last bolt, but the electrical guy was still working.
Steve had a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach and knew it probably wasn’t going anywhere until they had Bucky safely moved and were on their way home. Or maybe not until they were back in New York. How long would it take them to figure out how to open the damn thing?
Steve was almost afraid to watch, but he couldn’t tear his eyes away as the team slipped thick straps under the tank and hefted it up. They moved it carefully over to the cart, but the weight of the thing settling onto the metal supports clanged loudly. Everyone jumped, and Agent Lane eyed Steve anxiously. He managed to hold his tongue, but he couldn’t help approaching to peek in through the glass. Nothing had changed.
Steve wondered if anything could change. They’d said that cryopreservation meant freezing. Did that mean Bucky’s flesh was literally frozen? Steve thought of a plastic-wrapped steak, hard as a rock in his apartment freezer back home, but quickly forced the image from his mind. He was no coward when it came to death, but he couldn’t bear thinking of Bucky as so much raw meat.
As the team pushed the cart through the underground hallways, Steve followed at a distance, not wanting to get in the way. Natasha directed them to the left, and they pushed the cart up the ramp, though Steve could see a bustle of activity in the other jet on the right. She was trying to keep Steve from prying eyes.
Sam and Natasha sat with Steve in the hold with Bucky’s tank, while Clint piloted. Even with the privacy, Steve didn’t trust himself to talk. Natasha sat with her shoulder close to his arm, not quite touching. Years ago it had bothered Steve to know that she must have read every file SHIELD had on him, but now he was relieved that he didn’t have to explain anything about his history—Bucky’s captivity and torture. The nightmare of that day in the Alps.
“Whatever Zola did to him must have helped him survive the fall,” Steve said. “They must have found him.”
“None of that’s your fault, Steve.”
But it was. Nothing she could say would make Steve think otherwise. He should have found Bucky, no matter what.
“We’ve got him out of the tank, and we’re monitoring his condition. His vital signs are promising.”
“That’s good,” Sam said.
Steve was afraid to believe it. They’d worked on all the other tanks first. Every one of the other men had been dead when taken out of his tank, though the cryopreservation had kept most of them looking as if they were only sleeping.
“That’s good,” Sam repeated. “Right?
The doctor smiled at him, patronizing but kind. “Yes, it’s good. It’s remarkable. The problem is we have no idea what coming out of this will do to him. We have the notes taken during the early stages of the experiment, but . . .”
“Hydra’s scientists weren’t particularly worried about making sure their subjects weren’t suffering.”
A surge of anger only added fuel to Steve’s fear. He found himself wishing the base hadn’t been abandoned, wanting to get his hands on the people who did this to Bucky. Steve quickly recovered enough self-control to be ashamed of himself. “But he’s alive? He’s definitely alive?”
“Definitely. But there are still a lot of variables here, and we don’t really know what we’re dealing with.”
“I know that,” Steve said, fighting another wave of dread. “What are you trying to say?”
“He’s alive. His vital signs are strong, but the situation is complicated. We have no idea what the process might have done to him.” Her eyes darted over to Sam before settling again on Steve. “He could have brain damage.”
That possibility hadn’t occurred to Steve. He’d figured Bucky was either alive or he wasn’t. Steve should have thought of that. The process had killed all the other guys in the trial. Maybe Bucky had only made it this far because of whatever Zola did to him back in Azzano. Steve knew it was a horrible thought, but for the first time he was glad Zola had gotten his hands on Bucky if it gave him any advantage now.
“There’s a long road ahead.”
“We want to try to wake him up slowly,” the doctor explained. “There might be pain. We want to let him sleep through all of it, if we can. We’ll gradually raise his body temperature, then let him rest for a while longer, until he’s stable.”
“How long do you think it’ll take?” Steve asked.
She sighed. “We have no idea. I’m sorry. All we can do is bring his temperature up a few degrees at a time and continue to monitor him closely. We promise to be as careful as we need to be—better safe than sorry.”
“Of course,” Steve answered. “Of course.”
“I know you’re anxious, but we’ll do our best. I promise.”
“And you’re sure he isn’t in any pain?”
“As sure as we can be. He won’t wake up with the doses we’re giving him.”
Steve was ready to interject, to explain about Zola’s experimentation, but before he could open his mouth, Tony burst through the double doors with Bruce on his heels. Steve tried to peer past the doctor down the hallway, but the doors fell shut too quickly for him to see anything.
“Don’t worry, Cap. I already explained about Barnes being Zola’s voodoo doll for a while. They’ve given him enough meds to tranquilize an elephant.”
Steve frowned—if they gave Bucky too much—but Bruce, giving Tony a mildly reproachful look, explained. “They’re using approximately the same dose they used when they woke you up.”
The doctor put a gentle hand on Steve’s arm. “We’re sure Sergeant Barnes is completely unaware of what’s going on at the moment.”
Steve asked the question he’d been wanting to ask since they’d landed the quinjets. “So when can I see him?”
“There’s something else we have to discuss,” the doctor said after an ominous hesitation.
Tony spun around and pointed an accusing finger at her. “You didn’t tell him?”
She frowned. “I didn’t have a chance.”
“Tell me what?” Steve demanded
“Steve,” Bruce said. Then he stopped and cleared his throat.
Steve waited, but Bruce didn’t continue.
“Come on, man.” Sam said. “You’re making it worse by dragging it out.”
“Yeah, sorry,” Bruce said, waving his hand. “His arm—he must have been injured in the fall. He’s in pretty good shape physically. Amazing shape, actually, considering everything he’s been through. But—”
Tony cut Bruce off. “He lost his arm. Just above the elbow. It’s his left arm, so I’m hoping he’s right-handed. Is he right-handed?”
“Wait—what?” Steve stammered. “Yeah, he’s right-handed, but how—?”
“It’s healed well,” the doctor said. “The tissue looks very healthy, and with minimal scarring.”
Steve felt tears sting his eyes. It was ridiculous. Bucky wasn’t out of the woods—his mind could be gone, even if his body looked like it had seventy years ago—but Steve was finally pushed over the edge by the knowledge that he’d lost his arm? Steve had seen so many men go home with a hell of a lot worse—or not go home at all. He was lucky to have even a miniscule chance of getting Bucky back. But it was hard to let go of the image of Bucky swinging a bat in the vacant lot. Dancing with one pretty girl after another. Even the memory of Bucky getting Dugan to time him while he disassembled his rifle and put it back together.
Steve forced himself to tune back in to the doctor’s explanation.
“But the care they gave these kinds of injuries in the forties was not like it is today.”
Sam let out an angry huff of air. “And I bet Hydra wasn’t exactly worried about that kind of thing.”
“You’d be surprised,” Tony said. “I’m sure they didn’t care about the guys they were using as guinea pigs for their own sake, and they didn’t care if they were in pain, but as part of their sick little experiments, they sure wanted them healthy. The notes they took were really detailed about everything they did. They wanted them in top physical condition when they stuck them in the freezer.”
“Tony,” Bruce said.
The doctor sighed and looked at Steve with kind eyes. “Like everything else, his arm is in better shape than I would ever have expected. And I see no reason why he couldn’t be fitted with a prosthesis and do very well, if everything turns out as we hope.”
If. . . . That was the problem. None of it mattered if Bucky didn’t wake up. Steve pushed all of that out of his mind. “When can I see him?”
Bruce put a hand on Steve’s shoulder. “It could be a while.”
“Yes,” the doctor agreed. “As I said, we’re moving very slowly, with every possible precaution.”
“We should go get cleaned up,” Sam suggested. “Eat something.”
“That’s a good idea,” Bruce said. “Get some rest if you can.”
Sam was already walking toward the double doors out of the infirmary, clearly expecting Steve to follow him.
“It’ll be hours before we know anything,” the doctor said. “Maybe days.”
Steve had taken a couple of steps toward the elevator, knowing he should join Sam, but he balked at her words. “Days?”
“Unless you want to give Sleeping Beauty a big old kiss to wake him up,” Tony said. “That would make our jobs a whole lot easier.”
Steve felt a flash of annoyance, but the kind look Bruce gave him a moment later was actually harder to bear than Tony’s teasing.
“It’s going to take time,” Bruce said quietly. “We’re working as fast as we can, as safely as we can.”
Steve nodded and turned to go with Sam, but he whirled around again to glare when Tony started singing: “Someday my prince will come.” Bruce said Tony’s name again, but he ignored the scolding tone and kept singing. “Someday we’ll meet again. Wait, maybe that’s Snow White. Is that Snow White?”
Though Steve had been about to warn Tony to shut up, the question made him pause. “Yeah, that’s Snow White,” Steve said. “I saw that one.”
Tony’s expression was smug when he turned to face Steve. “Doesn’t matter. She still wakes up when the prince lays one on her, right?”
Steve let out an angry huff, and Tony started walking away again, backwards.
“Don’t worry,” Tony said. “We’ll take good care of him, Cap.” He was gone before Steve had to come up with a way to answer.
Steve let Sam nudge him to the elevator. Once upstairs, he showered, put on clean clothes, and ate mechanically, but he couldn’t make himself sit still. Sam sat at a stool by the counter, but Steve paced as he chewed the sandwich Sam had made for him.
“I can’t just sit here,” Steve said.
“Well, what do you think you could do down there?” Sam was all patience. “You’d just be in the way.”
Sam was likely right, but Steve still wanted to argue. He finished his sandwich and even sat on the couch with a book. He couldn’t settle down. In just a few moments, he was back on his feet and pacing. Sam was poking at his tablet, but looked up and watched Steve move back and forth in front of the windows. It was getting dark out, lights coming on all over the city.
“I guess I shouldn’t bother telling you to try and get some sleep?” Sam said.
Steve gave him a pointed look.
Sam was quiet for another five minutes before he spoke again. “They’ll let you know the second there’s news.”
Steve stopped his pacing and looked out the window at the headlights creeping by on the street far below. All those cars. All those people. Just going about their business. It didn’t seem possible that the world hadn’t come to a screeching halt, holding its breath until Bucky woke up.
Though Steve knew waiting downstairs in the infirmary wouldn’t be any easier than waiting in the apartment, he turned away from the window and headed for the door. Sam reached out and caught Steve’s sleeve. “At least wait till he’s awake. Then we can—”
“I can’t. I want to see him. I need to—” Steve couldn’t wait anymore. It wouldn’t be any easier to deal with Bucky never waking up if Steve hadn’t seen him face to face. It wouldn’t be any harder to lose him again just because he’d had one more chance to touch him. “I want to be there when he wakes up. No matter what else is going on, if I’m there, he’ll know everything is all right.”
Sam didn’t argue anymore. He followed Steve down the hall to the elevator. When they got downstairs, Bruce had propped himself against the wall, studying something on his phone. He looked up when he heard Steve and Sam, and he seemed to understand right away why they were there. He led the way right to Bucky’s door. Tony came around the corner just as Steve reached for the door handle and called out, “Hey—”
Bruce quieted him with a shake of his head, and all of them fell silent as Steve pulled the door open.
Bucky was lying on the bed, his head propped up on a couple of pillows. He looked like he was sleeping—he looked wonderful.
Steve stood frozen on the threshold until the door fell closed and hit the heel of his right foot. He took two more steps into the room and stopped again. It seemed impossible that Bucky could be there, could be alive. Though Steve could see his chest rising and falling with each breath, it felt like getting too close would shatter what had to be a dream. But it was impossible to stay away. Steve was drawn slowly toward Bucky until he was able to touch him, resting one hand in the middle of his chest to feel those reassuring breaths under his palm.
Bucky’s hair was long and shaggy. That, coupled with the stubble on his chin—if Steve had seen him walking down the street he might not even have recognized him. Steve took Bucky’s hand, ignoring the stinging in his eyes when he felt its warmth. He’d been afraid Bucky’s skin would be cold to the touch. As he squeezed Bucky’s hand, Steve’s gaze jumped to his opposite shoulder. The sheet was pulled up high on that side, so he couldn’t see anything of what was left of Bucky’s arm.
Steve’s legs felt shaky. Without letting go of Bucky’s hand, he hooked one foot around the leg of the chair in the corner and dragged it close so he could sit.
He’d been wrong to think that seeing Bucky wouldn’t make it any worse. Having him there, being able to touch him—feeling his breathing, the calluses on his fingers, the warmth of him. If his mind was gone, Steve would stay with his body. He would curl up around him and hang on until they both turned to dust.
[link to picture not working - I've asked the artist for a new link - sorry!]
Steve had no idea how long he sat there. He just held Bucky’s hand and ignored the bustling nurses. The doctor came in a few times too, but she didn’t say much after checking Bucky over—just smiled sadly at Steve and left the room as soon as possible. He got so used to ignoring the staff as they went in and out that he didn’t even realize Bruce had entered until he spoke.
“If you need a break, I could sit with him.”
Surprised, Steve turned in his chair to look at him. Then, feeling self-conscious, he set Bucky’s hand down on the white blanket and stood up to face Bruce.
“Thanks,” Steve said. “I appreciate the thought. But I’m not sitting here just for him.” He got the feeling that when Bruce nodded, it was because he truly did understand.
“If you change your mind, just let me know.” Bruce jerked his head to one side, in the general direction of the elevator bank. “I’m in the lab.”
After Bruce slouched out, Steve turned back to the bed and looked down at Bucky. The doctor had said it might take days before they knew anything definitive, but as the hours ticked by, Steve was finding it harder to be hopeful. Other than his shallow breathing, he hadn’t moved. His head was still perfectly centered on the stark white pillow. He was so still, the sheets didn’t even look rumpled.
Steve grabbed Bucky’s hand, desperate to feel its warmth, and leaned close to press a kiss to his forehead. Maybe it was selfish, but Steve thought he could allow himself such an innocent gesture, given the circumstances. Still clutching Bucky’s fingers in his, he let his forehead rest against Bucky’s.
“Come on, Buck,” he whispered. “Please come back to me.”
And Bucky’s breathing slowed, extending into something like a sigh. Steve lifted his head in time to see Bucky’s eyelids flutter.
Afraid to move, Steve thought of Tony’s smart-ass remark about Sleeping Beauty. “Bucky?”
Slowly, Bucky’s eyes opened. “Steve.” His lips curved slightly in a weak smile.
Steve’s heart felt ready to explode. “Yeah, Buck, I’m here.”
“Steve.” Bucky’s eyes fell closed.
Steve resisted the urge to shake him awake again. He mashed his lips to Bucky’s forehead, stupidly optimistic, but Bucky didn’t stir.
“Hey!” Steve hoped his shouts would be heard through the thick wooden door, because there was no way he was leaving Bucky’s side. “Hey! Nurse!” Finally, he remembered the call button on the side rail of the bed, and in moments a nurse was at the door.
“He woke up! He woke up,” Steve said in a rush. “He opened his eyes and he saw me.”
The nurse’s expression shifted into something kind but skeptical. “Sometimes it seems like patients are waking up, but—”
“No, he looked right at me,” Steve said. “He said my name.”
The doubt in her eyes faded as her eyebrows lifted. “You’re sure? He spoke to you?”
“He said my name,” Steve repeated. “He knew me.”
She called in reinforcements, and soon the room was packed with every medical professional on the floor. While they tugged at Bucky’s eyelids and argued over what they saw on the monitors, Steve sank back down onto his chair, Bucky’s hand held firmly in his. He sat in the middle of the frenzy like the calm at the eye of the storm. He was the luckiest man on the face of the earth.
After pelting Steve with dozens of questions, the doctor decided maybe Bucky had woken up because Steve had talked to him. So from then on, Steve talked whenever there was no one else in the room. He told Bucky about how he came out of the ice. About the Avengers. About rooting out Hydra. About the Dodgers. About television. He read aloud all of the information he could find online about prosthetics—anything he could think of just to keep talking. There was no response. For another whole day Bucky was still and silent.
Late in the afternoon, Steve was dozing, slouched low in his uncomfortable chair, when Bucky’s fingers tightened around his. Steve was instantly upright and alert. “Bucky?”
Bucky smiled. “Steve.” His voice was gruff, and Steve wondered how long it had been since he’d really talked. He tugged at Steve’s hand—just the slightest tug, but it was more than enough invitation for Steve. He half fell on Bucky, wrapping his arms around him.
“They told me you were dead,” Bucky whispered.
“No,” Steve said. “I’m here.” It was a stupid thing to say, but he didn’t care, because Bucky let out a choking laugh, and his hand thumped clumsily on Steve’s back.
Steve pulled away so he could look at Bucky. He had tears in his eyes, but so did Steve. He couldn’t stand being so far away—he grabbed Bucky for another hug, lifting him right off his pillows.
“They told me you were dead. I thought that’s why you didn’t come.” Bucky rasped out a laugh. “I should have known you’d come for me even if you were dead.”
Steve’s throat was too tight to answer. He relaxed his arms and lowered Bucky until his head was resting on the pillow, but his hand still clutched weakly at Steve’s shirt. Steve didn’t want to let Bucky go either, so he pulled him close again.
When Bucky next spoke, his voice was thick with tears. “What took you so long?”
Steve felt the question like a knife in his gut. He shouldn’t have let anything stop him. “I’m sorry, Buck. I’m so sorry.”
“No, don’t—” Bucky turned his head to push his face against Steve’s neck. “Just—”
“I went after the Red Skull. He had a plane with bombs for New York, Chicago. I crashed it.”
Bucky went still. “You what?”
“I crashed it. The plane. Into the ocean.” Steve knew his explanation was wildly inadequate, but there was too much to cover in a few short sentences. “It kind of took me a while to get back.”
Bucky’s hand moved from the back of Steve’s head to his shoulder to push him away, putting some space between them. He stared up at Steve. “But you got Schmidt?”
“Yeah, Buck, I got him.”
“And that’s why they thought you were dead.”
“That’s why.” Steve drank in the sight of Bucky: even with his shaggy hair and his whiskers he was the most beautiful thing Steve had ever seen. “You have no idea how glad I am to see you.” The words were out of Steve’s mouth before he realized how stupid they sounded, but Bucky’s mouth tilted in a crooked grin.
“Actually, I think I have a pretty good idea.”
Bucky tugged him down into another hug then suddenly froze. “My arm.”
Steve pulled away just enough to be able to look down at Bucky’s face. “Yeah, Buck, the doctors are working on that.”
Bucky gave a stoic nod, then cracked another grin. “I don’t know what you think they’re going to be able to do about it.”
Of course Bucky wouldn’t complain. Steve tried to come up with something to say that sounded encouraging rather than an annoying platitude, but Bucky cut him off the moment he opened his mouth.
“Maybe I can get a hook,” Bucky said. “Get a job on a pirate ship.”
Steve resisted the urge to hug him again. “They’re doing really amazing things with prosthetic limbs these days.”
“Yeah? How do you know so much about it?”
“It took you a while to wake up,” Steve explained. “I’ve been talking to the doctors.” Suddenly it occurred to him that Bucky had been awake and talking for a while now, and Steve never even thought to call in the doctors. “We gotta get the doctors in here, Buck. They want to check you out. Make sure you’re okay.”
“I’m fine,” Bucky said, but he didn’t argue.
There was no way Steve would leave the room, but he stood to one side so that he wouldn’t get in the way while the medical people hovered over Bucky. They shone a bright light in his eyes and asked him a million questions. Steve should probably have been paying attention to the answers, but he’d barely slept in days, and he felt almost drunk on the happiness of seeing Bucky sitting up, talking, patient with the interrogation, and stealing looks over at Steve now and then.
Every time Steve thought they were wrapping things up, a new group of unfamiliar faces would appear, and the questions would start all over again. If Steve hadn’t been so dazed, he would have put a stop to it much earlier, but as it was several hours went by before he noticed that Bucky was drooping. He wove between the white coats gathered at Bucky’s bedside and turned to face the crowd. “I think he needs to rest now.”
“Of course,” one doctor said. He was an older man with a thick moustache. He had to lean way to one side to look at Bucky—Steve hadn’t realized what a defensive position he’d placed himself in. “Our apologies, Sergeant Barnes. Your case is fascinating, and we forgot ourselves.”
Some of them had already started to file out of the room, and now the rest followed. When Steve turned back to Bucky, his head had fallen back on his pillow, and his face was pale. Steve put a hand on his shoulder, and he opened his eyes and gave Steve a faint smile.
One nurse hung back. “We’ll give you some time to rest,” she said, and Bucky lifted his head. “We have to check your vitals again, but that can wait a little while.” Steve couldn’t imagine what they needed to check when they already had Bucky hooked up to half a dozen monitors, but since she was leaving he didn’t call her back to ask.
Bucky’s head flopped back down onto his pillow, and Steve took his hand. Bucky gripped Steve’s hand tightly—with more strength than when he first woke up, in spite of how tired he was, and again, Steve was thankful for Zola and his knockoff serum before guilt pushed the thought out of his mind. Not letting go of Bucky’s hand, Steve sank into his chair.
Bucky looked like he was asleep already. Steve leaned his elbows on the mattress and let himself stare all he wanted. After only a few minutes, Bucky opened his eyes and asked. “Where are we? London?”
Steve hesitated. He wasn’t sure how much he should explain. It was too soon, and Bucky was so tired, but Steve wasn’t going to lie. “New York.”
“New York,” Bucky echoed. “Wow.”
“You were asleep for a long time, Buck.”
Bucky looked thoughtful. “How long?”
Steve decided to skirt the question. “The war is over.”
Bucky’s eyes opened wide, and his mouth fell open. “It’s over?” His fingers tightened around Steve’s until it almost hurt. “Wow.” He shook his head, then suddenly looked panicked. “We won, right?”
“Yeah, we won.” Steve couldn’t help but laugh. “Sorry, I should have said that right up front.”
“I can’t believe I missed the end,” Bucky said.
“It’s okay,” Steve said. He didn’t think this was the time to tell Bucky that he’d missed it too. “We can celebrate now. As soon as you’re feeling better.”
Bucky smiled, and Steve’s throat felt tight all over again.
“You gotta rest now, okay?”
Bucky’s head barely moved when he nodded, and he was asleep soon after.
It was hard to watch Bucky sleep now. When Steve thought about it rationally, he truly believed that Bucky would be fine. Whether because of the serum or because he was a tough, stubborn bastard, he’d survived being imprisoned by a cult of power-hungry maniacs and losing his arm and cryofreeze, so a nap probably wasn’t going to do him any harm. Part of Steve was afraid that if Bucky fell asleep, he wouldn’t wake up again. Steve had to force himself to be still, to not talk or do anything that would wake Bucky up.
The nurse returned a couple of hours later, apologetic but firm, and woke Bucky by wrapping a blood pressure cuff around his arm. The second Bucky was awake, he whispered Steve’s name. It made Steve’s heart jump up into his throat.
“Right here, Buck.”
Bucky’s eyes didn’t open, but his hand squeezed Steve’s. He didn’t let go the entire time the nurse was in the room. Once she was gone, Steve gave Bucky his own onceover. There was already a clear improvement, his color better and his eyes less shadowed.
“How long was I asleep?” Bucky asked.
“Just a couple of hours.”
“You know I don’t just mean the nap.”
Maybe Steve should have asked the doctors for advice about how to break it to Bucky gently. Then again, the doctors were probably the ones to advise letting Steve come to in a room with a fake window and a recorded baseball game on the radio. Steve knew Bucky best.
“C’mon, Steve. Just come out with it.”
Steve scooted his chair even closer to the bed and wrapped his other hand around Bucky’s. Bucky looked down at both of Steve’s hands around his and raised his eyebrows. “Jesus, it must’ve been a long time if it’s got you this spooked.”
“It’s twenty sixteen.”
Bucky didn’t react. “What?”
“That’s the year. Twenty sixteen.”
Bucky tilted his head, and his eyes squinted at Steve, suspicious. “You’re pulling my leg.”
“No, I’m not. I wouldn’t—not now. I’m sorry, but—wait, here.” Steve went to the tray table on the other side of the room where a nurse had left a newspaper for him a couple of days before. He’d read some of it aloud to Bucky, though he himself hadn’t been able to concentrate on it enough to comprehend anything he’d read.
Steve took the newspaper back to Bucky and held it up so Bucky could see the dateline. “But—” Bucky shook his head. “Twenty sixteen. You mean two thousand? The year two thousand? But you’re here. How can it—?”
Steve had hoped to put off telling Bucky everything for at least a few more days, but the story just poured out. Bucky was silent as he listened to it all, but his face showed a spectrum of emotions, one after another until Steve had to look away, staring down at their clasped hands as he talked. He stopped before he recounted the Battle of New York. As many strange things as they’d seen during the war, that was a whole other ball of wax. Bucky shouldn’t have to deal with gods and monsters. Not yet.
“I know it sounds crazy,” Steve said. “Believe me, it took me a while to accept it too. Part of me wishes I were joking.”
“But—” Bucky shook his head again and didn’t finish his sentence.
“Here look.” Steve pointed at the photo on the newspaper’s front page. “Look at those cars. And look at this.” Steve reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. It wasn’t that he really thought Bucky didn’t believe him, but he couldn’t seem to stop presenting evidence, as if that would make it any easier to accept that they’d each missed a lifetime.
Steve held up his phone. They’d both seen enough SSR tech that just the shiny sleekness of the thing wasn’t enough to impress.
“What it is it?” Bucky asked.
“Your phone?” Bucky reached for it. “How does it work?”
Steve showed him how to make a call, dialing his own number. When Bucky heard Steve’s voice on the message, he grinned. “Holy cow.” Bucky pulled the phone away from his ear, and Steve demonstrated how to navigate—he’d always picked up on technology quickly, and he got the hang of swiping at the icons a lot more quickly than Steve had.
Steve sank onto his chair watching Bucky poke at the screen. Why were they playing with his phone when there were a million more important things that Bucky had missed?
Bucky looked up from the screen, one eyebrow raised. “Who’s Natasha?”
It had been years since Steve had felt the acid of jealousy poisoning his belly, but when it came, it was instantly familiar. It was easy to imagine how it would go when Bucky met Natasha. He would love her: she was beautiful and strong and would keep up with his flirting and his wisecracks. How could Steve be worried about something like that when he had Bucky back? It was petty and childish. He forced himself to smile.
“She’s a friend.”
“Just a friend? Seems like there’s more to it than that.”
Steve couldn’t meet Bucky’s gaze. He knew that just made it seem even more like he was lying about Natasha, but he didn’t want Bucky to read his expression. He was out of practice with hiding his jealousy from Bucky after all this time.
Bucky gasped, and Steve jumped to his feet.
“What is it? What’s wrong? Are you hurt?”
“No, Steve, it’s not me. It’s—” Bucky dropped the phone on the blanket draped over his legs and grabbed Steve’s arm. “Peggy.”
Steve looked Bucky right in the eye then. He’d already grasped the inevitable truth: that Peggy was either dead or a very old woman by now, and he was genuinely heartbroken for Steve’s sake.
With a sigh, Steve collapsed in his chair. “Yeah, Peggy’s fine. She—she got married after a few years. She has kids. Grandchildren. She’s widowed now. She—”
Steve ignored the kindness in Bucky’s voice—he didn’t want to start bawling. “She’s in a nursing home in DC. She’s—well, she gets confused sometimes. Most of the time she remembers me though, and lately she doesn’t even recognize her own granddaughter, so that’s flattering.”
“No, Buck, it’s okay. I’ve been back for a while. I’ve had time to—” Bucky’s hand released Steve’s arm and slid down to weave their fingers together. Steve stopped trying to put a brave face on it. “I’m lucky she’s still here.”
They sat there quiet for a long time until Bucky shifted his leg to study the newspaper more closely. Then he twisted his neck to look out the window, but there wasn’t much about the view that would cue him in the vast changes in the city—Steve had made sure of that long before Bucky woke up.
When he turned back to look at Steve, he had a sad smile on his face. “So no flying cars, huh?”
“No, they pulled me out a few times,” Bucky said.
It was early. The doctors had come back for more questions, and Steve was determined to pay better attention than he had the night before. What he heard made him ill.
“At least three times that I can remember, maybe more.” Bucky was staring at his hand where it rested on his right thigh. “They made me do stuff. Like jumping jacks, running. They said they were testing my endurance. Then the doctors would take a look at me.”
Steve’s hands were clenched on the arms of his chair in an iron grip. They’d used Bucky as a guinea pig. All the others put in cryofreeze had died—Bucky probably would have met the same fate if it weren’t for the serum. It wasn’t Steve’s fault, and he knew that. He still felt responsible.
“They’d keep me awake a few days, push me to move around, to see how quickly I’d recover, I guess. They’d get me to eat. Then stick me back in.”
“Do you have any idea how long you were in stasis?” one of the doctors asked. She was on the far side of the room, and Steve couldn’t see her through the mob. “How long between being woken up? Months, or—” She paused, as if recognizing the insensitive and fantastic nature of her question. “Or years?”
“I don’t know.” Bucky lifted his head, and his eyes searched the room until he found Steve. Steve tried to smile at him, but his anger and frustration were probably perfectly clear to Bucky.
“But you have eaten,” the doctor urged. “When they woke you up, you were fed?”
Bucky nodded. “At least once, that I can remember. No, twice.”
The man standing closest to Bucky’s bed—it seemed like he was the doctor in charge—cleared his throat. “We’d like to get things back to normal as soon as possible for you.”
“Normal?” Bucky laughed and threw Steve an amused glance, but he couldn’t respond in kind. “There’s nothing normal about this.”
The doctor ignored Bucky’s flippant tone. “We’re going to start introducing fluids. Clear liquids first, then we’ll move to a nutrition shake, and if you tolerate that we’ll try soft, bland foods.”
“Can’t be worse than rations,” Bucky joked.
“I’d like to get that IV out. And we want to get you moving. We have a physical therapist—” He broke off.
“Here.” A young man stepped forward. He was short but solidly built, with thick dark hair and an olive complexion. “I’m Nick,” he said, holding his hand out to Bucky. “We’ll get you back on your feet in no time.”
“That’s enough for now,” the doctor said. “Let’s break for lunch. Then I’d like to see the neurology team in the conference room at one. Sharp.”
Everyone but Nick shuffled out of the room, talking in low murmurs. Steve unlocked his fingers from around the chair arms and crossed to Bucky’s bed. Nick stood on the other side, smiling.
“Have you been out of bed at all? Even just to the bathroom?”
Steve started. He hadn’t even noticed that Bucky hadn’t gotten up at all.
Bucky gave a wry smile as he shook his head. “Nope. They’ve got me all hooked up. Monitors and the IV and—” He glanced at Steve. “A catheter.”
They’d never been shy around each other, not through all of Steve’s illnesses, but Bucky’s hesitation made Steve blush. Maybe it was harder because neither of them were used to Bucky being the one in bed.
Nick seemed to take everything in stride. “Well, it sounds like they want to keep the IV in until you’re eating, but let’s get that catheter out. Let me go talk to the nurse.”
Bucky fidgeted with the edge of his blanket, and Steve couldn’t think of anything to say. They were saved from their silence by the nurse entering with a paper cup full of juice.
“All right,” she said cheerfully. “With a straw or without?”
Bucky didn’t answer. He picked up the cup and lifted it to his lips. He took a long draft from it, then another.
“Slow down,” the nurse said. “Don’t overdo it.”
Bucky looked annoyed at the warning, squinting sideways at her, but he lowered the cup and waited several beats before taking another sip. “God, that’s good. It tastes so good.” He drank again and grinned at Steve. “I haven’t felt hungry. Is that normal?”
“I guess nobody knows,” Bucky said. “Nothing to compare me to.”
“You’ve had the IV for days,” the nurse explained. “It’s given your body what it needs, so you may not feel hunger for a while.”
Bucky nodded and raised his cup again. After he took a gulp, the nurse reached for the cup and set it on the tray table. “Let’s wait a few minutes before you try more, okay?”
“I feel fine,” Bucky insisted.
“Still, let’s wait five minutes. In the meantime, let’s get that catheter out.”
“Oh.” Bucky looked at Steve. “Okay.”
“I’ll wait outside,” Steve said.
Steve leaned against the wall in the hallway next to Bucky’s door. Nick appeared from around the corner. “Did the nurse show up?” he said.
“Yeah, she brought him some juice. And she’s helping him with the—um.” Steve knew there was nothing to be embarrassed about. It was a medical concern, but he couldn’t bring himself to talk casually about that particular part of Bucky’s body.
Nick smiled kindly. “Good. That’s good. He’ll feel better, the more we can get him away from the tubes and wires.”
The nurse emerged from the room. “He’s all yours,” she said to Nick.
As Nick reached for the door handle, Steve asked, “Should I go? I don’t want to be in the way.”
“No, come on in,” Nick said. “People usually do better if their loved ones are in the room. I think they like to show off.”
Bucky was game to try, swinging his legs off the bed eagerly and barely waiting for Nick to advise him on the best way to use the walker to stand. When he lifted himself off the mattress, he listed too far to the left. The walker wasn’t much help because Bucky had no arm to brace himself with on that side. If Nick hadn’t been there to catch him, he would have fallen. Bucky’s face was grim as Nick settled him safely on the bed.
“Okay, don’t let that get to you,” Nick said. “That was a balance issue, not a strength issue. You can do this, but you gotta take advantage of the walker until you get your equilibrium back.”
Bucky nodded, then looked up at Steve, and it was like Steve could read his mind. Bucky hated this. He hated being coddled and having to lean on something to walk, like an old man. After all the pep talks he’d given Steve over the years about asking for help when he was sick and not being ashamed of it, he felt he couldn’t complain or balk now.
Nick hovered by Bucky’s side. “You ready to try again?” Bucky nodded, and this time he listened to Nick’s instructions about placing his feet and where to hold on to the walker. Bucky was able to stand with minimal help and would have stepped forward, but Nick stopped him. “Whoa, get your balance first. Make sure you’re steady before you start moving.”
Bucky pinched his lips together at that, but he didn’t argue.
“You mind helping?” Nick asked, and Steve tore his gaze away from Bucky to look at him. “You could move the IV stand with us, so it doesn’t get tangled up.”
“Sure.” Steve crossed the room and grabbed the pole. “Anything.”
Bucky made several trips back and forth across the room, his face brightening with each trip. When his legs grew tired and shaky, he stumbled. Steve grabbed him, wrapping both arms around Bucky’s waist before he remembered it was probably Nick’s job to do that kind of thing.
“Sorry,” Steve mumbled.
“No, my fault,” Nick said. He leaned to one side so that he could look up into Bucky’s face—he’d ducked his head down. “I should have realized you were getting tired. I think we’ve done enough for today.”
Steve walked Bucky back to the bed, trying not to be concerned that he had to almost carry him and then lift his legs up onto the mattress for him.
“You did great,” Nick said. “If things keep up like this, you won’t be seeing much of me. But for now, I don’t want you to get up without someone here to help, all right?”
Bucky sighed quietly, but he nodded.
“Get some rest, and I’ll be back tonight for another session.”
After Nick was gone, Bucky let his head fall back onto the pillows.
“Tired?” Steve pulled the blanket farther up Bucky’s body.
“Yeah, it’s ridiculous.”
“It’s not ridiculous,” Steve said. “Your body’s been through a lot.”
Bucky didn’t say anything.
“You should rest,” Steve said. “Maybe take a nap?”
Bucky’s eyelids sprang open. “I will if you will.”
“I’m not tired. Come on, just close your eyes for a while.”
Bucky didn’t answer. He was already drifting off. Steve moved his chair back next to the bed, careful not to let it scrape across the linoleum, and sat down.
Bucky’s mouth fell open, and a light snore rasped out every time he exhaled. It made Steve smile. He knew he could easily spend the next hour doing nothing but watching Bucky sleep, but he forced himself to look away, digging in his pocket for his phone. He could at least check his messages. There was nothing urgent. As he scrolled through, he found himself yawning. Maybe he was feeling worn out, but he hated the idea of leaving Bucky, even for just a little while.
Steve was startled awake by the sound of his phone hitting the floor. Bucky jolted awake too, sitting bolt upright in his bed. Steve jumped to his feet. “Bucky? You okay?”
Bucky looked around the room before answering. “Yeah.”
“I’m sorry I woke you.” Steve bent to pick up his phone. “I dropped this. I think I fell asleep. I must be more tired than I thought.”
“It’s okay.” He reached out, and Steve took his hand. “I started dreaming.”
“No,” Bucky tugged on Steve’s hand until he sat down on the edge of the bed. “But it makes everything seem like a dream.” He looked down at their clasped hands and suddenly pulled his away. “Sorry. I’m okay.”
But he wasn’t okay. He was clearly shaken, and it was Steve’s fault for startling him awake. He stood up, and Bucky frowned.
“Will you—?” He cut himself off, and his expression turned even more unhappy.
“Will I what?”
“Never mind. You should get out of here. Get some sleep in a real bed. You don’t need to stay. I’m fine.”
Had Bucky thought Steve was leaving because he stood up? Had he been about to ask him to stay?
“Move over,” Steve said. He silenced his phone and shoved it in his pocket.
Bucky gave him a puzzled look.
“Come on. That’s an order from your CO.”
Bucky snorted out a disbelieving laugh. “The war’s over, remember? You don’t actually get to boss me around anymore.” But he moved to the far side of the bed.
Steve sat down again, this time facing the same direction as Bucky, and leaned back against the pillows. “Now go to sleep.”
It was crowded with their shoulders pressed together until Bucky turned onto his side. His knees bumped into the side of Steve’s leg, but Steve didn’t mind that one bit. Bucky’s eyes were already drifting closed. Maybe this way, they’d both get some rest.
Within five minutes, Bucky’s light snore sounded in Steve’s ear, and a few minutes after that, his head fell forward until it was resting on Steve’s shoulder. Steve wished he could put his arm around Bucky, but he wouldn’t disturb him again for anything. Not even when a damp patch spread across his sleeve from where Bucky was drooling in his sleep.
Steve’s throat was tight again—that had been happening a lot in the past few days. His heart felt so full. It was a stupid thing to think, but it was the best way to describe it. Bucky’s here, Steve told himself. He’s alive. He knew he was a sap, but it was more than just joy at having Bucky back.
How could Steve ever have doubted how he felt about Bucky? This feeling—desperately miserable and blissfully happy all at once. It had to be love. Steve felt desire too. Even now, with Bucky too thin, unshaven, his hair shaggy and sleep-rumpled, Steve wanted him with an intensity he couldn’t believe he’d forgotten. It was no wonder he’d never wanted any other man, not when he felt this way about Bucky.
Steve could handle it now. He could handle being Bucky’s friend, without regretting it couldn’t be more. Because Steve had lived without Bucky, and he didn’t want to do it again. So he could never let Bucky figure out how he felt. He would keep it a secret. He was lucky, and he wasn’t going to let himself forget it,
Settling himself more comfortably, Steve closed his eyes and fell asleep with Bucky warm beside him.
After two more days of questions and tests, Bucky sent Steve out of the infirmary with firm instructions not to come back until he’d eaten a decent meal and slept at least six hours. “And take a damn shower,” Bucky added.
Steve knew Bucky would be fine without him, but he lingered by the door. “Still looking out for me, huh?”
Bucky rolled his eyes. “I’m surprised you survived so long without me.” But he was smiling at Steve fondly. It made it even harder to walk away. “Go on, get outta here.”
Steve made himself go up to his apartment, microwaved some frozen lasagna, and as he stood by the kitchen counter wolfing it down, he noticed a flat box on the dining room table with a white piece of paper on top. He grabbed his drink and went to sit down by the package. Steve, the note read. Thought the Barnesicle might be bored. This should help. —Tony
Inside the box was a brand new tablet. Steve pushed the button to turn it on, and it was ready to go: fully charged and loaded with games and movies. Since Bucky woke up, Steve hadn’t seen any of his new friends. He hadn’t even thought much about them, too wrapped up in Bucky to spare them any time. Obviously they’d been thinking about him. After sending a text to thank Tony for the tablet, he sent another to Sam, who had gone back to DC soon after Bucky woke up. When he texted Natasha, she answered right away.
Barnes up for a visit? Natasha’s message read. I’m free all day.
Steve almost put her off. He wanted Bucky all to himself, and he couldn’t forget the expression on Bucky’s face when he’d found Natasha’s name in the phone. But Steve wanted Bucky to meet everyone, to feel welcome and know how many people were rooting for him.
Still, Steve would rather be around when she came. He glanced at his watch. If he took a shower and slept for a while, it would be evening by the time he was back downstairs. Natasha had said she was free for the day, but she might have plans in the evening. If Steve just took a quick shower before going back to Bucky’s room, Natasha could come by sooner. Plus Steve could bring Bucky the tablet. It made a lot of sense, and Steve wasn’t even tired.
He typed into his phone: Anytime this afternoon is fine, hitting SEND before the childish part of himself could change his mind.
Bucky frowned at Steve when he returned to the infirmary, but he was too interested in the tablet to scold.
“It’s like my phone,” Steve explained—he’d shown Bucky how to play a few simple games in addition to making calls. “Just bigger. And Tony put a whole bunch of movies on here. Some old stuff like we’re used to and some new ones too.”
“Who’s Tony? Your new best friend?”
Bucky was only teasing, but Steve thought he detected a hint of jealousy in his tone. He tried not to be gratified by it. He shoved at Bucky’s right shoulder. “Move over. Let me show you.”
After Bucky’d slid over to the far side of the bed, Steve sat down next to him and held the tablet while Bucky touched the screen. With only a few hints from Steve, he found the library of movies and figured out how to make them play. Then he looked at the list of games. Tony’d downloaded a lot of things that Steve had never tried—he didn’t like games where the object was shooting as many people as possible.
“I like that one,” Steve said, pointing at the Candy Crush logo.
“You play these games?”
“The world’s greatest soldier, and you’re wasting time with stuff like this?”
“Hey, gimme a break. It’s not like I spend hours on this. Just on the subway, or waiting for a meeting to start. Or when I can’t sleep.”
Steve felt Bucky’s eyes on him, but he kept his own gaze fixed on the tablet and pretended he hadn’t admitted anything.
“Here.” Steve selected the Pipe Roll icon. “Try this one. It’s simple.”
“Thanks a lot.” Bucky laughed. “You think you need to find a simple game so I can handle it?”
“I just mean it’s relaxing,” Steve said. “You just have to make the pipes connect. Look, the blue is water.”
Bucky touched a square with dark gray stuff, making the pipe rotate ninety degrees. “What’s that?”
Steve shrugged. “I guess it’s supposed to be sewage or something.”
“That’s disgusting.” Bucky switched the positions of a few more squares, lining up the pipes so the blue water flowed away from the source.
“I do the water first.”
“Do you get more points for that?”
“No,” Steve said. “But people gotta have water, Buck.”
Bucky rolled his eyes and let out a snort.
Steve knew he had a stupid sense of humor, but people tended to assume he was being sincere rather than being sarcastic when he made remarks like that. It was a wonderful relief to have Bucky see the smart ass inside his earnest exterior. He watched Bucky connect the water pipes and start on the ones with gray stuff.
Steve’s eyes drifted away from the tablet and up to Bucky’s face. His handsome profile. Their shoulders and upper arms were pressed together hard, and Steve thought about draping his arm over Bucky’s shoulder. If he did that, what would stop him from leaning closer? From tucking his face against Bucky’s neck, or pressing a kiss behind his ear? It was better to steer clear of temptation.
Steve tore his eyes away and jumped when he saw Natasha standing at the foot of the bed. “Hope I’m not interrupting anything.” One of her eyebrows was quirked up, and her smile was knowing. Steve could feel himself blushing and scrambled to stand.
“Hey, Natasha. Hi.”
“Hi.” Her expression remained amused, and Steve averted his gaze. “Bucky, this is Natasha.”
“Pleased to meet you.” Bucky held out his hand to Natasha, but he didn’t let go even after they’d shaken. “Steve’s told me all about you.”
“No.” Bucky gave her one of his most charming grins. Even scruffy as he was, he was breathtaking. “He didn’t tell me a thing, but he never does. I did learn a lot about his phone, though, and your name is at the top of the list.”
Natasha tilted her head, considering Bucky, who still hadn’t let go of her hand.
“You’re pretty chipper for someone who just found out he’s been asleep the last seventy years,” Natasha said.
Steve was ready to jump in and explain, but Bucky didn’t miss a beat. He’d already figured out Natasha’s sense of humor.
“Well think about it,” Bucky said. “What do I have to complain about, really? I’ve got my best friend here, and a visit from a gorgeous dame.”
Natasha raised her eyebrow—severely this time.
“Bucky,” Steve said. “No one says ‘dame’ anymore.”
Clearly amused, Bucky glanced at Steve. “Sorry,” he said. “A capable, intelligent, independent woman.”
Natasha rolled her eyes.
“Who happens to be beautiful,” Bucky added.
Even Natasha couldn’t withstand the smile Bucky flashed in her direction.
Steve knew he should be glad they were getting along so well, glad to think they might become friends. It was always hard watching Bucky charm a woman.
“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised,” Bucky said. “Steve always did have a thing for dames who could kick his ass.”
“Where’s the plug for my tablet?” Bucky asked. He half-stood, even though he had only one shoe on.
“I already put it in the bag,” Steve answered. “With the tablet.”
“Okay.” Bucky sat back down on the bed and grabbed his other sneaker.
“How do they fit?”
“The shoes. Do they fit?”
“Oh.” Bucky looked down at his feet. “Yeah, I guess. They’re pretty strange though.”
Steve smiled. “I guess I’ve gotten used to them.”
Bucky patted at the pocket of the jeans Steve had brought for him. They were too long, bunching up around his ankles. “I feel like I’m forgetting something.” His hand came up to tug at the neck of his T-shirt. “I don’t even have dog tags.” His eyes scanned the room. “I guess I’m ready.”
“We’re just going up a few floors,” Steve said.
“Yeah,” Bucky said. “So?” He turned to look at Steve and rolled his eyes. “It’s not that I don’t want to leave. It’s just that here, that pretty blond physical therapist helps me take a shower.”
Steve ignored Bucky’s sly smile. “She’s the occupational therapist.”
“What’s the difference?”
“I have no idea.”
Steve sat next to Bucky on the bed and put one arm around his shoulders. For some reason, it felt strange to be taller than Bucky in New York. He’d gotten used to it somewhat in Europe, but at home, Steve found himself wishing he were smaller again so his shoulders would fit right under Bucky’s arm like they used to.
Bucky was silent for a few moments, then he jumped to his feet. “Let’s just go. There’s no reason to stay, right?”
“Okay,” Steve said. “Let’s go.”
Bucky grabbed the bag Steve had packed with his few belongings, so the nurse handed Steve the paper with a list of Bucky’s upcoming appointments. All the staff had gathered to say goodbye—no surprise that he’d made himself popular in the week since he woke up.
The elevator ride up was quiet. Steve wished he could think of something to say that wouldn’t sound patronizing. The tension broke when Steve unlocked the door and led Bucky into his apartment. His jaw literally dropped.
“Jeez, our entire apartment could fit in this room three times over.” He spun slowly to take in the entire room, then went to the wall of windows to take in the view. “Looks like you’re doing pretty well for yourself, Rogers.”
“This isn’t my place. It’s Tony’s.”
“Stark Junior? He’s a good friend then?”
“He’s a teammate,” Steve said, but that was disloyal. “And a friend. He’s a good guy. He actually offered to help. With your arm.”
“If you want a prosthetic.”
Steve left his keys and the paper the nurse had given him on the table by the door and joined Bucky by the windows. “They do amazing things these days, Buck. Really cutting edge. And Tony’s a smart guy—he says he thinks he can do even better, doctor up something just for you.”
Bucky let out a noncommittal hum. Steve knew better than to push the issue.
“You want to see the see the rest of the place?”
Bucky nudged Steve with his elbow. “Sure.”
Though the rooms were luxuriously spacious, there weren’t all that many of them. After a trip down the hall to leave Bucky’s bag in his room and point out the bathroom, Steve took Bucky into his own room. In spite of the fact that they’d spent a lot of the last week side by side on Bucky’s narrow hospital bed in the infirmary, being right next to Steve’s huge bed felt too intimate, so he herded Bucky back to the kitchen as soon as possible.
Bucky stared at all the stainless steel and stone—a far cry from the homey kitchens they’d grown up with. It was another thing Steve had gotten used to, but seeing it through Bucky’s eyes made it strange all over again.
Bucky shrugged. He looked at the watch Steve had helped him strap onto his right wrist just an hour before. “I guess it’s dinner time.” He squinted at Steve. “Are you cooking?”
“I’ve gotten better,” Steve said with a laugh. “But we can get anything you want. All the restaurants around here deliver.”
“Deliver food? Here to the apartment?”
“Yeah, anything you want.”
Bucky considered that without answering.
Steve was torn: there were so many good things he wanted to show Bucky about this new century, but tonight, after his obvious anxiety about leaving the infirmary for the first time, maybe it was better to pick something familiar. “It’s Saturday night though. They’ll be busy. Maybe we should eat in tonight.”
Bucky shrugged, and Steve headed for the fridge. He wasn’t sure what was in there. He’d been grabbing what he could to eat here and there to spend as much time as possible with Bucky. He pulled open the freezer.
“Whoa.” Bucky had come up behind Steve and was peering over his shoulder. “Your ice box is huge.”
Steve turned to smile at Bucky, repressing the urge to hug him.
“What?” Bucky was looking at Steve. “What is it?”
Steve shook his head, laughing quietly. “I was just thinking sappy stuff you’d make fun of me for if I said it out loud.”
He’d expected Bucky to laugh or elbow him in the ribs. Instead, he ducked his head, then slid his arm around Steve’s waist, giving a squeeze that made their hips bump together. It made Steve’s breath catch, but all too soon Bucky pulled away and stuck his head in the freezer.
“Are these pork chops?” Bucky pulled a plastic-wrapped package out and showed it to Steve. “Let’s have these.”
“I can put them in the microwave to defrost them.”
“Yeah, it’s a—” But Steve didn’t know exactly how microwaves worked. “That’s the microwave. It heats things up, really fast. So it’ll defrost the pork chops in no time.”
“Okay.” Bucky handed the package to Steve. “A pan of warm water in the sink works too.”
Steve smiled. “But I’m hungry now.”
“No patience,” Bucky said. “What else?”
“It’s okay. I was going to make dinner. You don’t have to help.”
Bucky’s eyebrows went up. “Really? You’re not gonna let me help?”
“It’s your first night home,” Steve said. “And I don’t mind.”
Bucky’s expression softened at the word home, but he didn’t give up: “Neither do I. How else am I gonna learn?”
“Oh, that’s what the occupational therapist is for,” Steve recalled. “She’s supposed to help you learn to do everyday stuff, adapting to everything with only one arm.”
Bucky rolled his eyes.
“What?” Steve said.
“You think I need someone to teach me to fry a pork chop? Pork chops haven’t changed, even if it has been seventy years.”
“C’mon, Buck, you’re just being stubborn.”
“Yeah? I’m stubborn?” Bucky laughed. “That’s rich, coming from you.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I’m not the stubborn one. No, I don’t need any help. Or how about I can get by on my own?”
Okay, Bucky had him there. He was standing by the stove now, waiting, just watching Steve.
“Okay,” Steve said finally. “Okay.”
Bucky’s whole body relaxed, and he smiled. Steve was sure he would never get tired of looking at that smile. It was even worse here than it had been in the infirmary, where Steve was more guarded because a nurse or a visitor might walk in at any moment.
Bucky bent to open the drawer under the oven, pulled out the biggest frying pan, and set it on the stove. “What else?”
“See? Not totally helpless.”
“I never said you were.” Steve just wanted everything to be nice for Bucky, to be easy from now on, and there was so little he could do. He shouldn’t have been surprised that Bucky didn’t want to be coddled.
“And leave it to you to store the pans in the exact same place your mother did,” Bucky added under his breath.
In spite of Bucky’s missing arm, they worked together as seamlessly as they ever did, weaving around each other, elbows bumping even though this kitchen had a lot more space than they were used to.
They ate in companionable silence. As he was chewing, Steve realized how tired he was. He hadn’t slept in his bed in over a week.
Bucky pushed his plate away with a contented sigh and leaned back, his shoulder brushing Steve’s.
“I’ll be the bigger man and let you do the dishes,” Bucky said. He nudged Steve’s leg with his knee and grinned. “You know,” he continued. “Since you’re so eager to do all the work.”
Steve laughed. Bucky’d always hated doing the dishes. “Oh, wait’ll you see. Do I have a surprise for you.”
Bucky wrinkled his nose. “What are you talking about?”
Steve rose from his chair and carried his plate over to the counter. He unlatched the dishwasher door and threw it down with a flourish.
Bucky cocked his head to one side. “And that is…?”
“It’s a dishwasher,” Steve explained. “You don’t have to wash anything by hand. Just stick in here and push the button.”
Bucky’s eyebrows hitched up. He was interested. “Okay, that’s pretty great. Not flying car great, but pretty great.”
Steve grinned. He was doing that a lot tonight. Bucky got started stacking everything in the dishwasher while Steve took the frying pan to the sink.
“I thought you said we didn’t have to do that,” Bucky said.
“It’s not good for cast iron.”
“I have no idea.”
Steve started scrubbing. Bucky closed the dishwasher and came to lean against the counter next to the sink.
“I was thinking . . .”
Steve didn’t miss a beat. “Don’t hurt yourself.”
Bucky stretched out his foot and gave Steve a gentle kick on his left shin.
“I need a haircut.”
“Oh.” Steve had gotten used to Bucky’s shaggy hair, and he kind of liked it, even if the idea of running his own fingers through it was a temptation difficult to resist. “If you want,” he said. “Lots of fellas have long hair now though.”
Bucky laughed. “I don’t know, Steve.”
Steve bent his head and scrubbed hard at the frying pan to hide the flush warming his face. “We can go tomorrow if you want. Or maybe the next day. Maybe we should just take it easy tomorrow.”
Bucky made a face. “I have an appointment on Monday.”
“After that,” Steve said. “There’s a barber shop not too far away I like. It’s—” Steve had been about to say old-fashioned, but he didn’t want Bucky to think of it that way. “It’s how barber shops should be. There are lots of fancy places around that charge a hundred bucks for a trim.”
“A hundred bucks?” Bucky laughed. “Give me fifty, and I’ll cut it for you.”
“Anyway, it won’t take long. It’s close enough to walk.”
Bucky’s eyes cut sideways to the window. They were too high to see anything other than the windows of other high rises, but Steve could guess what he was thinking. He himself had felt nervous and awkward about heading out into the world when he first woke up. He waited patiently while Bucky thought about it—not wanting to push—and tried not to be distracted by the way he caught his bottom lip between his teeth. Finally, Bucky nodded. “Okay.”
While Bucky was in the shower, Steve pulled pajamas out of the drawer. He decided to bring a T-shirt instead of the pajama top because he didn’t like the idea of a long, empty sleeve flopping around, a constant reminder of Bucky’s injury. He knocked on the bathroom door, and Bucky yelled for him to come in.
“I’m leaving pajamas for you on the counter by the sink.”
Steve could see the shape of Bucky’s body through the shower doors, though the frosted glass made it impossible to make out any details. He averted his eyes.
“You need anything else?”
“No, thanks. I’m good.”
Steve’s gaze was drawn back to Bucky’s shape to steal another peek before he forced himself to leave and close the door. He went back to his room and quickly changed for bed. It wasn’t late, but he could tell Bucky was worn out. If Steve set the example of an early night, Bucky would probably follow suit. After throwing his clothes in the hamper, Steve fell onto his bed with a book, ignoring the sensation of soft cotton against his dick, which had been at half-mast since Bucky’d mentioned the shower. Just knowing Bucky was so close, naked and wet. . . . The water shut off, and Steve stuck his nose in his book.
A few minutes later, Bucky showed up in the doorway, his wet hair combed back from his face. Looking at his fond smile made Steve want to jump up and sweep him into his arms. He didn’t, of course, and he couldn’t speak. He just stared until Bucky grew puzzled.
“What is it?” Bucky said.
Steve shook his head and looked down at his book.
“You turning in?”
“Yeah,” Steve said. “It’s been a long day.”
“Okay. I guess I will too. Good night.”
Bucky hovered in the doorway for a while before he turned. Steve listened, but the carpeting was too thick for Bucky’s footsteps to make any sound.
“Oh, hey, Buck?”
He reappeared in the doorway almost instantly. “Yeah?”
“There’s an outlet under the nightstand.”
“An outlet. For charging your tablet.”
“Oh.” Bucky sighed. “Okay, thanks.” A lock of his still-damp hair fell over his eyes, and he tucked it behind his ear.
“And there are bookshelves in the living room if you want to read.” Steve knew he was babbling. Of course Bucky had seen the shelves for himself just a few hours ago, so he hardly needed a reminder.
“Okay.” Bucky glanced up at Steve once more. “Night.” As he turned away, Steve thought he saw him biting his lip.
Steve opened his book again, but he couldn’t concentrate. After only a few minutes, he turned off the light and crawled under the covers. He heard faint sounds from the other bedroom as Bucky settled in, and then everything was quiet. Too quiet—Steve wished for the noise of their old place: traffic and neighbors and creaky pipes.
After what seemed like an eternity, Steve heard Bucky climb out of his bed. He came in the door and stopped.
“Bucky?” Steve reached for the lamp. Bucky squinted when the light came on. “Everything okay?”
“Yeah.” Bucky took a few slow steps until he was next to Steve’s bed. “I can’t sleep.”
Bucky gave Steve a tiny smile. “I’m tired, but I feel like I’ve been asleep too much.”
“We could watch a movie.”
“You look like you’re all settled in.”
“We don’t have to go out to the living room,” Steve said. “We can watch in here.”
Bucky crossed the room and sat on the edge of the bed. “How many TVs do you have?”
“Two. We can get one for your room too, if you want.”
Bucky made a face and he settled himself more comfortably on the bed, lounging against the pillows. “Why would I want to watch in there all by myself?”
Steve didn’t watch television in the bedroom very often, so he had to rummage in the nightstand drawer for the remote. His fingers closed first around the bottle of lubricant he’d hidden in there before the mission. He quickly shoved it to the back of the drawer, grabbed the remote, and slammed the drawer shut. If he could have asked Jarvis to set up the movie for them, he would never have opened that stupid drawer while Bucky sat there, on the bed, only a couple of feet away, relaxed and loose-limbed, and no doubt smelling amazing.
“So it’s a lot like your tablet.” Steve hoped throwing his full attention into teaching Bucky the ropes of the video library would distract his own thoughts from the embarrassing bottle in the drawer. “There are menus with different levels. Tony set it up. You can list the movies by when they were made, by what type of movie it is—like science fiction or comedy—or based on who recommended it. Some of the titles have notes, explaining why they recommended them.”
“Who has the best taste in movies?” Bucky took the remote from Steve’s hand and scrolled through the list of names.
“It depends.” Steve had found Natasha’s recommendations to be consistently good, but there were movies on everyone’s list and he found himself hesitant to mention Natasha. “Sam probably knows me best.”
“Sam?” Bucky’s head snapped to the left to look at Steve. “I thought Tony was your new best buddy. Who the hell’s Sam?”
“He’s another friend. He was with us when we found you. But he had to go home to DC before he had a chance to meet you. His parents are elderly. Sam can fly.” Steve said it on purpose to make Bucky react, and he wasn’t disappointed. Bucky’s expression tilted into a good-natured sneer. “He doesn’t have superpowers or anything,” Steve explained. “He has wings.”
“Wings? And that’s not a superpower?”
“No, they’re mechanical.”
“He has robot wings?”
Steve laughed. “Yeah, I guess they are robot wings.”
Bucky’s gaze went back to the television. “So I should pick from Sam’s list?”
“Not necessarily,” Steve said. “Pick whatever you want. Anything’s fine with me.”
Bucky’d always liked science fiction, so Steve expected him to pick something from Bruce’s list, but when Bucky laughed at something on the screen, Steve noticed right away that the comment was attributed to Tony. That was nerve-wracking, because Steve knew Tony included movies with titles like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Never Been Kissed just to tease. But Bucky was looking at The Great Escape, where Tony had typed, How often do you get a movie with Nazis AND a happy ending?
Steve figured he’d fall asleep while Bucky watched—he’d barely slept in days—but the movie kept him interested until he gave up on the idea of sleep altogether, popped corn in the microwave, and brought a couple of Cokes back to the bedroom too. Bucky was completely absorbed, and when it was over wanted to watch another right away.
He started a second movie, but it wasn’t as good. Or maybe Steve finally used up his last bit of energy, because he woke up to a dark, quiet room. He had a terrifying superstitious moment where he feared that it had all been a dream, but there was popcorn grit under his arm, and when he stopped panicking and listened he heard Bucky’s breathing—not quite snoring—on the other side of the bed.
Moving carefully so as not to wake him, Steve rolled over. In the darkness he could just make out the shape of Bucky’s dark head on the white pillowcase next to his. It still seemed unreal. Steve longed to touch Bucky—it wasn’t even sexual. Not that he didn’t want Bucky like crazy, but that wasn’t what was driving Steve now. He simply felt happy. Impossibly happy. He’d made friends—good friends he trusted and enjoyed and cared about—but Bucky was family.
Steve moved in bed, pretending to stretch. Bucky was asleep, so subterfuge wasn’t necessary, but the habit of hiding was ingrained. Steve stretched a few more times until he’d migrated to the middle of the bed and finally made contact with Bucky—his elbow digging into Steve’s ribs. The contact was more comforting than comfortable, but Steve wouldn’t move away for the world.
Bucky stirred, and Steve went still, his heart beating fast. Bucky made a humming noise in his sleep, folded his arm against his body, and shifted closer, tucking himself in by Steve’s side. Steve held his breath, waiting until Bucky’s breathing slowed again, then let himself fall back into sleep as well.
Steve looked up from his papers when Bucky emerged from his room. It was after ten o’clock. He’d gone to bed early the night before after a quiet day of movies and reading, but the doctors had said it was normal to need a lot of rest after trauma. Still, Steve had been up for hours and was glad to finally have Bucky’s company.
“You hungry?” Steve asked.
Bucky rubbed a hand over his face. “Yeah, I . . . yeah.”
It had always taken Bucky a while to wake up, and of course Steve had always been fascinated with the way Bucky looked when he first crawled out of bed, his hair a mess and his eyes still half-closed.
“I could make some eggs,” Steve offered. “And I think there’s bacon.”
Bucky gave him a funny look. “Thanks, but I’ll find something.”
“I don’t mind.” Steve jumped out of his seat.
Steve sank back onto the stool. “Okay. Sorry.”
Once Bucky had a pan of eggs and bacon sizzling on the stove, he said, “I’ve got that appointment at one.”
“Yeah,” Steve said. “It’s just downstairs, right?”
Bucky nodded and poked at his eggs with a wooden spoon.
“You still wanna get a haircut after?”
There was only a heartbeat of hesitation before Bucky nodded again.
“OK, great. I’ll tag along for your appointment, and then we can head out for the barber shop right after that.”
Bucky took a long time in the shower and getting dressed, so he wasn’t ready to go until just before one o’clock. Steve was surprised to learn that the appointment wasn’t with a doctor at all. Instead, Bucky was meeting with a nutritionist because he was malnourished.
“Malnourished?” Steve blurted out.
“It’s not uncommon with POWs,” the nutritionist said. Her tone was meant to be soothing, Steve was certain, but it grated on his nerves. “The team just wants Sergeant Barnes to gain weight in a healthy way.”
Steve realized the nutritionist was wasting time reassuring him rather than talking to Bucky, so he didn’t ask the questions that tumbled around in his head. He glanced over at Bucky, who just rolled his eyes. He clearly wasn’t worried. Steve listened carefully as the nutritionist explained about lean protein and healthy fats. He pulled his notebook out of his pocket—it seemed like he should be taking notes, because he’d never remember everything—but she held up her hand.
“You don’t have to write this down,” she said with a smile. “I have materials to give you that’ll explain everything.”
As she rifled through a tall file cabinet behind her desk, gathering pamphlets and printouts, Bucky leaned close to whisper in Steve’s ear. “You’re not getting graded on this, you know,” Bucky said. “And anyway, I’m fine.”
Steve didn’t have time to answer before the nutritionist turned around and handed Bucky a small stack of papers. “I’m not saying you need to count calories or force yourself to eat more than you want.” She was looking right at Bucky as she spoke, but he was flipping through one of the printouts. “Just making a few good choices will start to put muscle mass back on those bones.”
Bucky nodded, but he still didn’t meet her gaze. He didn’t say another word, leaving it to Steve to say thank you and shake hands.
“Hey, Buck?” Steve said once they were in the hallway. “Everything okay?”
“Yeah,” Bucky said. “Sure.” He strode away toward the elevator doors. When they were in the elevator, side by side and facing the doors, Bucky sighed. “I just don’t get why everything has to be such a big deal.”
“They just want to get you back to fighting weight.”
“If I need to put on some weight, I’ll just eat some more. Why do I have to talk to some expert?”
Steve understood Bucky’s frustration. He’d never liked being fussed over. “It doesn’t hurt to follow her advice. Then they’ll stop worrying about it.”
Again Bucky sighed. “Some of the stuff on that list she gave us, I don’t even know what it is.”
“How about this?” Steve said. “How about you come with me to the grocery store? That way you can pick out some stuff that looks good.”
Bucky snorted out a laugh.
“My first trip out into the world,” Bucky said. “And we’re going to the grocery store?”
“And the barber shop.”
“Yeah, don’t forget about the barber shop,” Bucky said. “It’ll be an adventure.”
Steve shrugged. “I like going to the grocery store.”
“Yeah, well, the way you eat now, I guess it’s pretty important.”
“It’s not just that,” Steve said. “It’s also . . . I don’t know. I guess I like that it just feels normal. People seem to be too busy getting their own stuff to notice me, so I don’t usually get recognized.”
Bucky nudged Steve’s shoulder with his. “I keep forgetting that you’re sort of a celebrity.”
“I wish I could forget.” Steve had forgotten it, lately. It was easier to just be himself with Bucky there.
The elevator stopped on the ground floor and they stepped off, but Bucky paused before they got to the revolving doors, and Steve stopped next to him.
Bucky turned toward Steve, tilting his head slightly. “You don’t like it? When people get excited about Captain America?”
Steve forced himself not to fidget under the scrutiny.
“It used to get under your skin that no one noticed you,” Bucky said. “Now they do, and you don’t like that either?”
“It’s not that I wanted people to notice me. I just didn’t want them to dismiss me,” Steve said. “And now, it’s like they see me for the wrong reasons.” He wasn’t explaining it well, but Bucky nodded like he understood.
Then Bucky looked out through the floor-to-ceiling windows all along the front of the lobby. Throngs of people moved up and down the sidewalk, and traffic was at a standstill. Seeing Bucky’s expression, Steve was about to suggest deferring their outing, or cancel it altogether. They could pay someone to come to the tower to cut Bucky’s hair and to deliver groceries. Bucky squared his shoulders and smiled at Steve.
“Okay,” Bucky said. “Let’s go.”
Steve pulled his sunglasses out of his shirt pocket and ignored Bucky’s raised eyebrows. The sunglasses weren’t a guarantee that no one would recognize him, but they seemed to help.
Once outside, they merged into the flood of people. Steve made a point of staying within arm’s reach of Bucky, assuming that the crowds and the noise would be overwhelming, but Bucky had a small smile on his face, and his head was turning this way and that as he took it all in. Steve shouldn’t have worried. Bucky’d always loved the city. It was home, and unlike Steve, he’d had time to get used to the idea of the twenty-first century before venturing out into the streets for the first time. Still, Steve couldn’t help turning to check on him every so often as they walked.
“A guy named Mickey owns the barber shop,” Steve said. “He actually remembered me.”
“Remembered you? He must be a hundred years old.”
“Close to it.”
“And he’s still working? On his feet all day?”
“No, his grandson runs the place now,” Steve explained. “But Mickey’s there every day. He and his buddies play cards at a table in the corner.”
Bucky grinned. “Not such a bad way to spend your golden years.”
“No, not bad at all.” Steve hesitated before disclosing the real reason he’d brought all of this up. “I was just thinking . . . they might recognize you.”
Bucky’s steps faltered, but he recovered quickly.
“I just . . . I don’t know what you want to tell them if they do figure out who you are.”
Bucky stopped then, right in the middle of the sidewalk. He was frowning, and Steve regretted raising the subject until Bucky started laughing. “I don’t have the slightest fucking clue what to tell them.”
Happiness flooded Steve’s chest at the sound of Bucky’s laughter. It happened a dozen times a day—Steve feeling stunned at his impossible luck. As Bucky’s laughter died down, Steve moved next to him and slipped his arm around Bucky’s shoulder. Bucky smiled up at him, but after only a moment, Steve let his arm drop and started walking again.
Steve led the way into the shop, smiling at Mickey and his gang when their heads turned at the sound of the bell on the door.
“Steve!” Mickey stood and toddled across the room, his hand out to Steve.
“How are you, sir?” Steve said, shaking Mickey’s hand.
“Can’t complain,” Mickey said. “Can’t complain. ”
Steve looked over Mickey’s shoulder to the circle of men seated around a folding card table near the back of the room. “How you doing, fellas?” He smiled at the chorus of friendly answers. They knew who Steve was, but they treated him as a regular, not as a celebrity. That alone was enough to keep him coming back.
“I brought a friend.” Steve stepped back and put one hand lightly on Bucky’s shoulder. “You can see he’s in dire need of a haircut.” He watched Mickey’s face and saw the exact moment when he recognized Bucky—his cheerful expression collapsed into open-mouthed shock. His eyes darted to Steve for confirmation, and Steve nodded, trusting in the old man’s kindness and tact. Steve’s faith in Mickey wasn’t misplaced. He recovered from his surprise in seconds and held out his hand for Bucky to shake.
“It’s an honor to meet you,” Mickey said.
Bucky didn’t often blush, but his cheeks reddened now, and he didn’t say anything.
Mickey was already leading Bucky back to one of the ancient barber’s chairs, ignoring the stares of the other old men. Their cards lay spread on the table, forgotten for the moment. Mike, Mickey’s grandson, was just finishing up with another customer, so Mickey stayed with Bucky, chatting until Mike was free. Then Mickey walked slowly back to Steve and slapped him on the shoulder.
“You should have warned me. You could give an old man a heart attack with a surprise like that.” But Mickey was smiling.
“Nah, you’re tougher than that,” Steve teased. “But thank you. For . . . making him feel welcome. And not asking a lot of questions.”
Mickey gave an exaggerated shrug. “I’ve stopped asking questions. Superheroes. Aliens. War heroes back from the dead. I don’t ask anymore.”
Steve smiled, and Mickey went back to his friends.
Mike had already gotten started on Bucky’s haircut. Steve took a few steps toward them but instead made himself go back to the front of the shop and sit in one of the chairs. He picked up a magazine and flipped through it, hoping it would distract him enough to keep him from staring. It mostly worked. Steve couldn’t help a few peeks, but he got involved enough in his reading that he was surprised when Bucky stood up from the chair and stepped over the bits of dark hair strewn all over the floor.
Steve could only stare. Bucky looked beautiful.
He’d shaved that morning, and with his hair short, he looked more like himself than he had since he came back. But the haircut was also modern: short in the back and a bit longer in the front, some of it sticking up, artfully messy, and other bits falling down over Bucky’s forehead. Steve wanted to run his fingers through it—to hell with the style. He wanted to smooth it back out of Bucky’s eyes. He wanted to kiss him, running his hands over the nape of Bucky’s neck where the hair was shortest.
“Steve?” Bucky eyed Steve uncertainly.
He jumped to his feet. “Yeah, sorry.”
“Does it look okay?”
Okay was such an understatement that Steve almost laughed out loud. “Yeah, Buck, it’s good. It’s really good.”
The doubt faded from Bucky’s face. “So it’s grocery store time?”
“Yeah,” Steve said. “Sure.”
Again as they walked Steve stole glances in Bucky’s direction, but this time he was getting himself used to the way Bucky looked now rather than checking up on him. Bucky’s head still swiveled constantly, taking everything in.
After they’d walked a few blocks, Steve said, “Mickey knew who you were.”
Bucky gave him a wry smile. “Yeah, I picked up on that.”
“A lot of people will be just like Mickey. Really glad to meet you. Honored, like he said.”
“But we don’t have to make it public just yet,” Steve said.
Bucky made a face. “I don’t care one way or the other.”
“Okay.” Steve was more than happy to keep Bucky all to himself for a while. “Turn right here,” Steve said after they’d walked two more blocks. “It’s not far.”
As they waited at a busy cross street, Bucky said, “You’re older than me now.”
“What? How do you figure that?”
“You’ve been around for a couple of years while I’ve been on ice.”
Steve hated the casual way Bucky mentioned it, like it didn’t bother him at all. Maybe it didn’t bother him, though it bothered Steve. But Bucky seemed so content. Steve didn’t want to object and ruin Bucky’s good mood.
“So you were aging all that time,” Bucky said. “While I’m still young and gorgeous.”
The traffic light changed, saving Steve from having to answer.
“Whoa.” Bucky stopped just inside the automatic doors.
Steve had to stop too, to avoid running into him. A woman in a business suit and high heels slammed right into his back. She looked up from her phone, mumbled an apology, and zipped away into the aisles. Steve glanced at his watch—he should have planned this better. At this hour, there’d be a lot of people stopping in on the way home from work, but now that they were here, they might as well pick up a few things, at least.
“This is huge,” Bucky said.
Steve grabbed a basket from the stack by the door and handed a second one to Bucky. “Come on.” Steve led the way towards the fruit. He grabbed a couple of bunches of bananas and a bag of oranges, then turned in time to see Bucky do a double take at the sign over plastic containers of strawberries.
“Is that the price per pound?” Bucky said. “Holy cow.”
Steve put some strawberries in Bucky’s basket. “You get used to it.” “What the hell are those?” Bucky crossed the aisle, set his basket on the floor, and picked up a kiwi. “They look like ogre’s balls.”
Steve closed his eyes against the image. Bucky’d been tearing through The Hobbit because Bruce’s note in the movie database recommended reading it before seeing the films. “I used to like kiwi,” Steve said with a groan. “Thanks for wrecking that.”
“Come off it. You’re not that picky. Here, catch.” Bucky tossed the kiwi he was holding at Steve, who caught it and put it in his basket.
“What do they taste like?” Bucky picked up a second kiwi and rubbed at the fuzzy exterior with his thumb. “You don’t eat the fur, right?”
“No, you don’t eat the fur.”
Bucky gave Steve a devilish grin. “That’s probably true of ogres too.” Steve grimaced, and Bucky laughed. “Wait,” Bucky said. “Do ogres have fur?”
“Kiwis are good,” Steve said, hoping to change the subject. “You’ll like it.”
Bucky tucked the kiwi in with the strawberries and moved into the next aisle.
It took them more than a half hour just to get out of the produce section, but with Bucky there cracking jokes, it was fun. For all that the store was ten times the size of the little neighborhood grocer where they used to shop, it was just like before the war, when they split rent on a cramped cold-water flat and did just about everything together.
Over the last couple of years, Steve wondered if that time could possibly have been as idyllic as it was in his memory. How could he have felt so happy when they had to scrounge for every penny? How could they have had so much time together, just shooting the breeze, when Bucky worked two jobs to make ends meet? But whether they’d been running errands or washing the dinner dishes, Steve had been happy as long as he’d been at Bucky’s side.
“How come they sell so much stuff that’s not food?” Bucky asked when they went to get a new bottle of shampoo—the kind stocked in the apartment smelled too flowery.
“I don’t know,” Steve said. “It’s more convenient for people, I guess.”
“Hey, look at this.” Bucky pulled a familiar jar off the shelf halfway down the aisle. The label was red with a green stripe: Royal Crown Hair Dressing. “They still make this stuff?”
“You gonna start using that again?” Steve asked. He remembered when Bucky first started using Royal Crown. They’d been about eighteen. Bucky had shown up at Steve’s door looking like a matinee idol. Just the sight of him had taken Steve’s breath away, but part of him had missed the unruly waves, not to mention the way Bucky used to run his fingers through it when he laughed. Once he started using pomade, he’d gotten more careful about how he looked.
Now, Bucky put the jar back in its place on the shelf. “Nah.”
Steve was torn between letting Bucky pick familiar foods and trying to stick to the nutritionist’s recommendations. He gave in and left the brick of Velveeta in Bucky’s basket but insisted on whole grain bread. “That’s full of sugar,” he said as he put the white loaf back on the rack.
“So what? I thought they want me to get fatter.”
“Not fat,” Steve said. “Muscle mass.”
Bucky rolled his eyes.
“You’re just pretending you don’t know what to buy to get my goat,” Steve said.
Bucky grinned. After he headed over to the dairy department, Steve took the loaf of white bread back off the shelf and put it in his basket right alongside the whole grain.
As Bucky was staring at the candy bars by the checkout, Steve noticed that he looked tired. They’d done a lot of walking. Steve should have been paying better attention. “Let’s catch a cab home,” he said. “Rather than lug the bags of groceries.’
Bucky paused for a moment, and Steve thought maybe he’d object. They never used to take cabs—it was a waste of money. Plus Bucky was already frustrated at everyone making a fuss over him. After a few minutes he nodded.
“Okay,” he said quietly. “Let’s go home.” He sighed. “I guess I’ve had enough of the world for today.”
Steve stepped close and put his arm around Bucky’s shoulders. Even though Bucky leaned into him, he wasn’t brave enough to leave his arm there for long. Instead, he pulled away to grab a few candy bars off the rack and put them on the conveyor belt next to their other purchases.
Bucky didn’t say thank you, but he poked Steve’s ribs with his elbow, which was even better.
That night Steve woke up out of a sound sleep, his heart hammering. The apartment was silent. He swung his legs out of bed and padded down the hall to Bucky’s room. The door was cracked, so he pushed it open.
“I’m okay,” Bucky said. His voice was raspy. “It was just a dream.”
Had Bucky called out in the night? Steve didn’t remember hearing anything, but something must have woken him. He crossed the room and sat on the edge of Bucky’s bed. “A nightmare?”
There was a long pause before Bucky answered. “Yeah.”
Steve leaned over to turn on the lamp. Bucky groaned and pulled the covers over his head.
“Sorry” Steve turned the light back off. “You wanna talk about it?”
“Okay.” Steve knew he should probably head back to bed. “You wanna go back to sleep?”
Steve stood up, but before he turned away, Bucky said his name.
“Yeah?” Steve sank back down onto the bed.
“When—” Bucky broke off and fumbled for Steve’s hand. Steve gave a gentle squeeze. “When did my parents die?”
It was awful that Bucky asked in that way, but of course he had to assume his parents were gone.
“Your ma died in 1956. She had cancer.” Steve paused to see if Bucky needed comfort, but he was still and silent, so Steve pushed on. “Sounds like your dad did okay after, all things considered. He moved to Florida and painted houses for a few years before he retired. Then he fished a lot.”
Bucky’s fingers tightened around Steve’s. “Is my sister still around?”
“No. I’m sorry.”
“I didn’t think she would be, but I thought maybe . . .”
“She got cancer, just like your mother. They’ve figured out that breast cancer is hereditary. She was married though.” Steve didn’t bother telling Bucky that she also got divorced. It hardly mattered now, and it didn’t seem to Steve that Becky’d had a bad life. “She had three kids, and they all have families too. So you’ve got nieces and nephews. I met some of them.”
“Yeah.” Steve felt odd about it now, as if he’d invaded Bucky’s privacy. “I . . . when I first woke up, I guess I wanted something familiar. They were all really nice about it, and they loved hearing about you—their very own war hero—but they have their own lives. I didn’t want to bother them.” Steve didn’t explain that Becky’s oldest grandson was a dead ringer for Bucky, and Steve had found it impossible to be around him.
“Wow, Becky’s kids must be old. Even her grandkids. Older than me. Sort of.”
“This is insane.”
Bucky tugged at Steve’s hand, so he shifted on the bed until he could lie back against the pillows and put his feet up. Bucky rolled onto his side, so close that his knees bumped Steve’s legs. Steve longed to turn toward Bucky, to slide one arm around his waist, but he made himself lie still.
“You could’ve asked me about this stuff before,” Steve said. “You’ve probably been wondering.”
“I didn’t want to talk about all of that. You were miserable enough. I’m putting an end to all that.”
“Was it that obvious?”
“Well. . . .” Bucky’s legs shifted with a rustling of sheets in the darkness. “I know you pretty well. Maybe no one else would notice.”
Steve laughed. “I guess it was pretty obvious.”
Bucky was quiet for a while, and Steve waited for him to move away, to roll back onto his side of the bed or say goodnight, giving Steve his cue to leave, but he didn’t. So when Steve started drifting off again, he didn’t fight it.
He woke up hours later, with the sun peeking around the curtains. His sleeping self had done what he hadn’t dared when he was awake, wrapping around Bucky like an octopus.
Bucky’s back was tight against Steve’s chest. His stomach was warm under Steve’s hand, and his lean thighs were pressed against Steve’s. And Bucky smelled good. Steve’s morning erection was rock-hard in seconds. He carefully pulled himself away from Bucky’s sleeping form and snuck out of the room.
“You don’t shave as often as you used to,” Steve said over the breakfast table one morning a couple of weeks later.
Bucky was still half-asleep. They’d gone to a late movie the evening before—they’d been venturing out of the tower now and then—and even Steve had slept in and skipped his morning run.
After Bucky swallowed his mouthful of cereal, he said, “You know how much work that is? Lots of guys are scruffy. I’m right in style.”
Bucky’d always had a heavy beard. Most days he had a five o’clock shadow by lunchtime. Steve liked it when Bucky skipped shaving. It made him think of lazy Sundays before the war, when Bucky would talk Steve into skipping church so they could sleep late and spend the day together. Bucky looked sexy with the dark shadow creeping over his jaw. Steve also liked it when Bucky emerged from the bathroom clean-shaven. He looked so young. It was like Steve noticed all over again how handsome he was.
Watching Bucky shove another spoon of cereal into his mouth, Steve imagined rubbing his cheek against Bucky’s rough whiskers. Gliding his lips over the line of his jaw.
Steve shook himself out of his reverie. “What?”
“You were staring at me.”
“Sorry,” Steve said. “Just . . . lost in thought. I’ve got a charity thing today. I’ll be out for a while. Maybe when I get back we can have dinner together?”
Bucky smirked at him. “I’ll be fine. I don’t need you to babysit me.”
“I’m going down to meet with Stark Junior.”
Steve laughed. He knew that Bucky liked Tony well enough, but he always called him Junior. Steve had a feeling that it stemmed from Bucky’s conviction that Tony’d replaced him as Steve’s best friend.
“He’s got some plans for the prosthesis to go over,” Bucky continued. “He thinks he’ll be ready to build soon.”
“That’s a good sign. You’ll have a new arm before you know it. Once Tony gets his teeth into a project, he works till he drops, so it won’t take him long to finish.”
Bucky nodded, his mouth again full of his breakfast.
“So I’ll see you back here later?”
“Yeah, sure thing,” Bucky said. “Dinner.”
Though he knew Bucky would be fine, Steve was still reluctant to leave. An afternoon in Tony’s lab joking around with him and Bucky would be way more fun than forcing smiles, shaking hands, and posing for photos.
Steve sprang out of the car and zipped across the lobby to the elevator. He was eager to get up to the apartment and see Bucky. Maybe Tony would be there too. He often followed Bucky upstairs and hung around for a while after their prosthetic planning sessions. But when Steve unlocked the door, he found the place empty. An hour passed before the door opened, and Natasha appeared instead of Bucky. She was carrying two huge shopping bags.
She smiled at him. It was a pleasant enough expression, but it seemed like she knew something he didn’t. Or rather, since that was always true, that she knew something specific that he didn’t know and probably should.
“Have you seen Bucky?”
“Yes,” Natasha said. “We’ve been with him all afternoon.”
Clint walked in carrying several more bags and dumped them onto Steve’s couch.
“We’ve been shopping,” Natasha said smugly.
“Shopping?” Steve looked at Clint, who rolled his eyes.
“For Barnes,” Natasha said. “It’s a crime to have a good-looking man like him walking around in your cast-offs.”
Steve felt indignant. Of course Bucky could get some of his own things. It just hadn’t occurred to them. Well, it hadn’t occurred to Steve. Maybe Bucky had wanted to for a while. He’d always dressed sharp. Since he woke up he’d been wearing hospital scrubs, T-shirts, a pair of Stark Industries sweatpants, and a pair of Steve’s jeans that didn’t fit him very well.
Natasha was grinning at Steve now. “Presenting the new—and thoroughly modern—James Buchanan Barnes.”
Bucky burst into the room, dropped the bags he was carrying right inside the door, and walked slowly toward Steve, stopping just short of bumping into him. Then he spun to show off his outfit.
“What do you think?” Bucky said.
Steve’s mouth had gone dry. He’d never learned anything about fashion, but he knew he liked the sight of Bucky in those jeans, slung low off his hips, hugging his thighs. Steve couldn’t even take in the rest of what Bucky was wearing. He snapped his mouth shut. He had to stop staring and say something. “Yeah, wow, you look—those jeans are—” He was babbling. He shook his head to clear it. “You look great, Buck.”
He glanced at Natasha. She was watching him in a way that made him nervous.
“Can I get you a drink?” Steve offered. Going to the kitchen would give him a minute to get his act together.
“Don’t go anywhere,” Natasha said. “We can find our own.” She grabbed Clint’s arm and dragged him into the kitchen. Steve had the urge to follow them. It seemed like gears were turning in Natasha’s brain. Maybe she knows.
Steve suddenly realized it had been weeks since Natasha had said anything about fixing him up with some woman. For a long while, he couldn’t run into her for even a moment without her asking if he knew Julia in accounting or Sandy in legal. He was relieved that the matchmaking had stopped, but now he was afraid to wonder why.
Bucky pulled his new things out of the bags, holding them up for Steve and piling them on the back of the couch. Steve didn’t really see many of the clothes. Instead, he savored the way Bucky’s eyes were shining.
Steve remembered when Bucky found a three-piece suit in a secondhand shop, soon after they’d gotten their own place. He’d paid to have it tailored so that it fit his body perfectly. He’d been so proud of that suit and had looked damn good in it. Steve had wondered if maybe losing the arm had stolen some of Bucky’s confidence, but he clearly knew he looked good now. Steve found it irresistible.
“These are my favorite.” Bucky was holding up a pair of dark blue pajama pants. It looked like they had polka dots on them until Bucky brought them close and Steve saw they bore tiny images of his shield. “I was going to get them for you,” Bucky said. “But I knew you wouldn’t wear them.”
Steve smiled and shrugged. “Probably not.”
“And this is my second favorite.” Bucky pulled a black leather jacket out of the bag and shoved it at Steve. The leather was soft and supple between Steve’s fingers. Bucky pulled it away and tugged it on. One sleeve hung empty, but Steve forgot all about that when he saw how Bucky was grinning. “I’m not even going to tell you how much it cost. I can’t believe the prices, but Natasha told me it was actually a steal.”
Steve nodded, still staring.
“We owe Natasha a hell of a lot of money now,” Bucky said. His smiled dimmed.
“It’s fine,” Steve hurried to say. “I’ll make sure to pay her back.”
“Thanks.” Bucky said. “And I’ll pay you back too. When I—”
“Pay me back by taking us to dinner,” Natasha said as she emerged from the kitchen. “Clint’s getting grumpy. He needs to eat.”
Natasha led the way to a tiny Italian place a short cab ride away. Everyone raved about their food, and the conversation flowed comfortably, but Steve was only dimly aware of it all. He was too busy watching Bucky. It was wonderful to see him so happy, looking like his old self. Enjoying his meal instead of carefully consuming healthy fats. Not to mention having their legs tangled under the table in their cramped booth.
After Bucky put down his fork, he leaned back against the cushion behind him and smiled at Steve. “Why don’t we go out more?”
“Steve doesn’t like going out,” Natasha said.
“Yeah,” Bucky said “He always was a homebody.”
Though Bucky didn’t sound bothered by it, Steve felt guilty. Bucky’d always been more social than Steve, but he didn’t want to hold Bucky back.
Clint snorted out a laugh. “And now he can’t go anywhere without getting mobbed by old ladies and eight-year-old boys.”
“I keep telling him,” Natasha said, “you just have to go somewhere with people who think they’re too cool to be a fan of anyone but themselves.”
Bucky threw Natasha a flirtatious smile. “If Steve doesn’t want attention, he should stop dining out with such beautiful women.”
The jealousy that flared up in Steve’s belly kept him from seeing how Natasha received Bucky’s remark. When Steve got up the nerve to raise his head, Bucky was frowning. Steve didn’t learn why until they were home that night.
Bucky put on his new pajamas with the tiny shields along with one of Steve’s white undershirts. Steve was ridiculously pleased that Bucky still wanted to share. He tried not to think about how it would feel to cuddle up next to Bucky while he was wearing those clothes.
Steve had already turned on the TV by the time Bucky came to sit with him, but before they discussed what to watch, Bucky blurted out, “I’m sorry I was flirting with Natasha.”
“What? No, Buck, it’s fine.”
“No, really, we’re not—” Steve broke off and shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “At one point, I thought maybe . . . but no, Natasha and I are friends.”
Bucky studied Steve for a while without saying anything. Steve thumbed at the remote, though he was blind to the various shows he was scrolling past.
Finally, Bucky asked, “So, is there somebody else?”
Steve let out a huff of air. “Peggy.”
Bucky didn’t laugh. When Steve turned his head, he was surprised that Bucky’s eyebrows were knit together, and his lips were pressed into a tight, unhappy line.
“I’m kidding,” Steve said. “She’s kind of past all that.”
Bucky grabbed the remote from Steve’s hand. “But if she wasn’t, you’d what? Live happily ever after?”
“No, I—” Steve ran his fingers through his hair. “Hell, I don’t know.”
“You’re still in love with her.” It wasn’t a question.
Bucky shot him a look.
“No, I’m not. I’m—”
“—in love with the idea of her, maybe,” Steve said. “Someone familiar. Someone who understands what it’s like.”
He was skating dangerously close to the truth, but Bucky didn’t answer. He didn’t even look away from the television. He started a show—some kind of documentary about the war—but Steve couldn’t pay attention. Had he said too much?
Somewhere in the middle of the documentary Bucky hit the pause button. “Is there any ice cream?”
“I think so.”
Bucky jumped up and headed for the kitchen. “You want some?”
When Bucky came back, he handed Steve a bowl and sank onto the couch next to him. Right next to him. Their shoulders brushed every time Bucky spooned up a mouthful of ice cream. So he must not have understood what Steve had been hinting at. He clearly wasn’t uncomfortable, or else he’d forgotten all about it.
When the show was over, Bucky sifted through the menu again, but he wasn’t in any hurry to start another program. “Can we go shopping sometime?”
Steve’s laughter helped him shake off the last shreds of worry over coming so close to spilling the beans. “You need more clothes? After everything you got today?”
“I need underwear,” Bucky said wryly. “Yours are always falling down.”
Steve hadn’t really thought about the fact that Bucky’d been wearing his boxers. Now, that was all he could think about. Underwear that Steve had worn was at that very moment covering Bucky’s nether regions. Or maybe he wasn’t wearing any underwear at all. With the soft fabric of his pajamas pants, maybe he’d just skipped boxers altogether.
Steve carefully kept his gaze fixed on the TV.
“I saw some that looked really good. They were like boxers but not so baggy.”
Steve’s face grew warm. “Boxer briefs?” he managed to choke out.
“Yeah. I think they’d be good.” Bucky laughed. “A little more support. You know.”
Steve got up off the couch. “You want something to drink?”
“No, thanks,” Bucky said after a puzzled pause.
Once in the kitchen, Steve took a glass from the cupboard, filled it at the tap, and drank down the cool water in several huge gulps. He took a few deep breaths.
Bucky in boxer briefs—the thin fabric clinging to his legs and ass. Jesus.
Steve drained his glass and filled it again before heading back to the living room. “We can go shopping whenever you want.”
Bucky smiled up at Steve, and it made his blush return. He had to get control of himself.
“Thanks,” Bucky said. “I couldn’t buy underwear with Natasha there. I walked away from the rack when I saw her coming. There’s gotta be some rule of etiquette against letting a woman buy your underwear if she’s not your mother or your wife.”
Bucky was still grinning, but he did look genuinely embarrassed by the idea of Natasha seeing his underwear, much less paying for it. Seeing Bucky cringe made Steve feel less embarrassed himself.
“Let’s watch something funny,” Bucky said. “Something that’ll make me forget that documentary.”
“I keep telling you to stop watching those things.”
“I just want to catch up.”
“I know, but—” It wasn’t that Steve didn’t want Bucky to understand how the war had ended and how the world had changed, but it was easier to pretend they hadn’t lost so much time when they didn’t dwell on things that had happened when they were both down for the count. If Bucky wanted to be distracted, Steve was happy to oblige.
“Here, give me that.” Steve took the remote from Bucky, almost snatching it away in his determination not to let himself linger in contact with Bucky’s fingers. He found Some Like It Hot and hit play. “You’ll like this one.”
And Steve was right. Bucky laughed throughout the entire film, watching with rapt attention. Steve barely saw the movie. He was too busy sneaking glances at Bucky, but it was okay. He’d seen it before.
The next morning as Steve gulped Gatorade after his morning run, he scrolled through the headlines on his phone. A picture caught his eye: Natasha and Bucky. Steve’s heart skipped a beat.
The picture showed the two of them standing by the curb outside the Italian restaurant. Clint had been with them—the three of them had headed outside to hail a cab while Steve paid the bill—but he had been cut out of the frame. Obviously the gossip site wanted to play up the idea of the Black Widow and a romance, because the little blurb speculated about her new flame.
Then, in a postscript of sorts, there was a picture of Steve standing close beside Bucky by a crosswalk. Bucky was laughing while Steve smiled shyly. It was impossible to tell where the picture was taken, and Steve sure didn’t remember it. The caption read, We’ve never known Black Widow to share her toys, but her new mystery man got pretty friendly with Cap too.
There was nothing else, but even that slight hint of his secret being out there in public was sickening. And thrilling.
Steve studied the picture. He knew it was only wishful thinking, but Bucky looked happy to have Steve standing so close. They looked good together. They hadn’t had their picture taken together since the war.
Steve saved the picture on his phone. He only looked at it when he couldn’t stand not to.
Steve’s elbow caught a woman jogging by on the path in the opposite direction. He looked over his shoulder to call out an apology, then made himself look where he was going. He kept getting distracted by Bucky’s legs.
Bucky was wearing shorts. Steve hadn’t seen Bucky in shorts since they were kids, when Bucky’s legs were almost as skinny as Steve’s. Now Bucky’s legs were muscular, with a dusting of hair, and Steve couldn’t stop looking at them. The doctors recommended Bucky adopt an exercise regime, and just as with diet, Steve took that advice very seriously—so he’d talked Bucky into going running in the park.
“Jeez, slow down, will you?” Bucky was short of breath.
“Sorry.” Steve again forced his gaze away from Bucky’s calves.
Less than five minutes later, Bucky gasped out, “Uncle,” and collapsed on the grass, with his knees up and his feet flat on the ground. Gravity pulled his shorts up his legs, giving Steve an even better view. Steve wanted nothing more than to kneel between Bucky’s feet and run his hands up Bucky’s strong thighs.
“Yeah?” Steve gazed out across the crowded park and saw a young father holding hands with his son. As Steve watched, the man took his phone out of his pocket and lifted it up. Steve was pretty sure he was getting his picture taken. He wondered if he should talk to Bucky again about making an announcement about his return. He hadn’t mentioned anything about the blurb on the gossip site—mostly because he was embarrassed about how besotted he looked in the photo—but if they were going to keep going out in public, eventually someone was going to figure out who Bucky was.
Bucky’d caught his breath and pulled himself upright, his elbow resting on one knee, his palm cupping the other knee. He looked content, staring out over the green lawns at the other people running and lounging on the grass, and Steve couldn’t bring himself to raise a subject that might make him unhappy.
“Yeah, of course,” Steve said. “We should get moving again.”
Bucky was looking at him funny.
“What?” Steve asked.
“You’re doing the voice.”
“The Captain America voice.”
“This is just the way I talk.”
Bucky shook his head. “It’s different. You stand up straighter, and your voice gets just a little deeper.”
“You trying to convince me to exercise or buy bonds?”
“Neither,” Steve said. He would have been troubled that his alter ego was creeping in if Bucky weren’t wearing a disarming grin. “We can stop if you want, but your muscles will get sore if you just stop cold like that.”
“They’re going to be sore no matter what,” Bucky said. “Before a few weeks ago, I hadn’t even walked any farther than across the room.”
“C’mon, let’s move. That’s an order.”
“I’m pretty sure you can’t call yourself my CO anymore.”
In spite of his protests, Bucky dragged himself to his feet and started running. He even let Steve lead him through a few stretches when they got back to the apartment.
When they were done, Bucky sprawled on the carpet in the living room and groaned. “You mind if I shower first? I stink, and you barely broke a sweat.”
“Sure.” Steve offered his hand, and Bucky took it to haul himself up off the floor. “Bathroom’s all yours.”
Bucky tugged off his T-shirt just before he turned into his bedroom, and in the face of all that bare skin, the lust Steve managed to squash earlier in the park came raging back. He tried to ignore it. If he could shake it once, he could shake it again. It was harder this time, without witnesses and cell phone cameras to make him shy. And with the sound of running water—all Steve could picture were rivulets running down Bucky’s back.
Steve paced back and forth in front of the living room windows until he heard the water shut off, then he dashed into his room. The track pants he was wearing wouldn’t hide anything. Once Bucky was safely in his own room with the door closed, Steve slipped into the bathroom. He was careful to lock the door behind him.
Stripping off his clothes quickly, Steve stepped into the shower stall, but that was worse. Bucky been in there just moments before. Wet and naked. “Get a hold of yourself,” Steve muttered, doing his best to ignore the fact that his dick was standing up at attention.
He grabbed a washcloth and built up a good lather, but no matter how hard he scrubbed, the glide of the soap on his skin made him imagine Bucky’s hand instead of his own, scrubbing circles over Steve’s shoulder and slipping down his arm. His hands on Bucky’s skin in turn. Steve was painfully hard. The problem wasn’t going to go away on its own, so he coated his fingers with more soapsuds and wrapped them around his dick. He let out a groan. It echoed off the tiles, and he cringed.
Willing himself to be silent, he closed his eyes and tried to push all thought out of his head. He wouldn’t think of Bucky in the park. His lean thighs. He wouldn’t think of the way Bucky’d tugged off his T-shirt in the hallway. He wouldn’t think of Bucky standing in this very spot. Did he ever touch himself like this in the shower?
Steve’s dick jerked at the thought of it, and he stifled another moan. His strokes quickened. His brain was stuck on the idea of Bucky standing right there under the shower’s warm spray, head thrown back, feet planted firmly while his hand worked his dick.
It was no use for Steve to tell himself to stop. To tell himself that it was wrong. He had no control left. He didn’t care if it was wrong. He wanted to see for himself. The next time Bucky was in the shower, he would sneak into the bathroom. He would open the shower door and see Bucky jerking off and fall to his knees. Bucky would grab Steve’s hair and fuck into his mouth, and suddenly Steve was shaking, his come hot on his fingers, the slickness of it making it feel even better. Waves of blinding pleasure until Steve couldn’t move anymore. He clutched at his dick with both hands as it gave one last weak spurt, then slumped against the wall, panting.
The elation wore off quickly, only to be replaced by guilt. And shame. He shouldn’t have let himself imagine all of that—it had been bad enough indulging in fantasies back when he’d still thought Bucky was gone for good. How could he face Bucky now? Bucky, who was probably in the kitchen at that very moment, making Steve’s breakfast.
Steve turned the handle to cold and turned his face up to cool it under the spray, promising himself that he wouldn’t lose control like that again. If he couldn’t touch himself without thinking of Bucky, he wouldn’t do it at all.
Bucky was still too thin, and the nutritionist continually encouraged him to eat lots of protein. Taking Bucky out to try new things became a kind of hobby for Steve. Plus, Bucky liked going out. Whatever they were doing throughout the day—Bucky’s physical therapy or Steve’s work and public appearances—they’d meet back at the apartment around suppertime, and Steve would get Bucky to pick where they’d eat.
When it came to new food, Bucky was fearless. He had his favorites—he often picked Italian when he was tired from physical therapy, like it was a comfort to him (though Steve made sure he didn’t eat just carbs), and there was a Mexican place where he liked the enchiladas that was only a few blocks away. He’d try anything. The spicier the better.
He’d take a bite and chew for a while, very slowly. If he liked it, a slow smile would spread over his face, and a warm, uncomfortable, addictive feeling would snake its way into Steve’s belly. Steve knew it was asking for trouble, letting this dangerous need curl up inside him, but he couldn’t help it. Bucky was having so much fun, and he wanted Steve there—the few times he tried to beg off when Clint and Natasha were planning to come along, Bucky’s face would fall, and Steve was helpless to resist.
Steve thought he had it under control, until the day Bucky found a review for a new seafood place online. It was mobbed when they got there, but Bucky just grinned, grabbed Steve’s sleeve, and pulled him along to the raw bar. Bucky got lucky and found a single empty stool. Steve stood beside him, the crowd pushing him close so that his chest was mashed up against Bucky’s side.
Steve thought raw oysters looked way too slimy to eat, but the guy behind the bar offered to order something from the kitchen for them.
“I thought this was just the raw bar. Don’t we have to be seated for—”
The bartender waved off Steve’s concern and said very quietly, “I think it’s the least we could do for Captain America.”
Bucky grinned up at Steve, then ordered a startling list of steamed, fried, and broiled things.
“Calamari? Isn’t that squid?”
“Is it?” Bucky asked with a laugh. When the plate arrived it looked harmless enough: little rings of fried breading. Bucky popped one in his mouth right away. “Mmm, it’s good. Try it.”
“I don’t know, Buck.”
“Trust me. You’ll like it.”
It wasn’t at all like Steve imagined squid would taste like: fishy and chewy. It was tender—almost melting in his mouth.
“See?” Bucky said with an elbow to Steve’s ribs. “Good.”
The next dish was broiled scallops. They sat in a tiny frying pan, dripping with butter. Bucky stuck his fork into one, and the minute it touched his tongue he closed his eyes and groaned. Pressed close, Steve could feel the noise in his chest and his belly. He tried to back away, but the place was too packed for him to move.
“God, Steve.” Bucky’s voice was quiet and breathy, leaving Steve straining to hear him over the crowd. He took another bite and let out another throaty moan. “This is so damn good. Here, try it.” He speared a scallop on his fork and offered it up to Steve. “What’s wrong?”
The sounds Bucky was making—that’s what was wrong. It made Steve think of internet videos he was embarrassed to remember watching. Was this what Bucky sounded like when he was having sex?
Unable to find words, Steve opened his mouth and let Bucky feed him the scallop. It was even better than the calamari: a delicate flavor under the creamy butter and a hint of lemon.
“Mm-hm,” Steve answered, still chewing.
The bartender appeared, and for a moment Steve dreaded whatever food he’d present next and what Bucky’s reaction to it might be, but he was empty-handed. “A table opened up, if you still want it.”
“Yes! Yes, thanks. That would be great.”
Bucky looked at Steve curiously but didn’t question his overly enthusiastic reaction.
Bucky enjoyed the rest of their dinner, and from across the table, Steve was able to enjoy it too. Still the distraction of Bucky’s . . . noises had Steve cursing his laptop, the internet, and his own stupid self. He’d been right—it would have been better not to know the details of what two men could do together. For all those years, he’d been able to cope with his longing for Bucky. Now he didn’t have to rely on his vague imaginings. He had a whole shameful bank of memorable images to draw on, and it was a hell of a lot harder to ignore. He’d stuck to his resolution not to touch himself when thinking of Bucky, but the problem was he was always thinking about Bucky, so it had been a long couple of weeks, and Steve felt just about ready to explode.
Bucky was leaning back in the booth, sighing happily, when the waitress brought the bill. As Steve reached for his wallet, Bucky happened to glance down at the check. His double take was almost comical.
“Are you kidding me?” He grabbed the bill to look at it more closely. “This has gotta be a mistake.”
Steve took the paper from Bucky’s hand. It was extravagant for a single meal, but seafood was expensive. Not to mention this was Manhattan. Not that Brooklyn was any cheaper these days. He shrugged, laid the check on the table, and slapped his credit card on top of it. “It’s okay, Buck. We can afford it.”
“But that’s highway robbery.”
Steve shrugged. “It’s not a big deal.”
“Okay, that’s it.” Bucky shook his head. “We’re gonna start eating at home.”
“Yeah. It’s a good thing you like the grocery store so much, cause we’re going to be heading there a lot more often.”
To be able to enjoy Bucky’s company without worrying about being recognized? Steve had to admit, that hadn’t been happening as much as he’d feared, but still, he wouldn’t complain about evenings at home, just the two of them.
Though he was accustomed to supporting his metabolism, even Steve was feeling stuffed and sleepy after the amount of food Tony had gotten Jarvis to order. The whole gang had gathered for Chinese, but now that the meal was over, they were uncharacteristically quiet. Tony suggested a movie—for all his cynicism, he enjoyed having the whole team together for something other than a mission—but other than a general murmur, there was no real response.
Bucky’d been the first to leave the table. His appetite had improved in the last few months, but he still didn’t pack it in like the others, so while everyone else was filling their plates for seconds, Bucky had slipped away and slumped into the corner of one couch with his phone to play a game while he waited for the others to finish. Once the takeout containers were cleaned up, Steve had joined him, gradually listing sideways until their shoulders were pressed together. Bucky’d looked up with a smile but quickly turned back to his screen. Steve took a peek at the phone and saw brightly colored candies over—were those ice cubes? Steve couldn’t really understand Bucky’s continued interest in these games. Maybe they helped him relax.
Steve studied Bucky’s hands. He’d grown so used to the shining metal of Bucky’s left arm that he barely noticed it anymore. The first time Tony’d shown them his designs, Steve had balked. He’d done his research and knew that there were all kinds of ways to make prosthetic limbs look like the real thing. They could even match a person’s skin tone and distinguishing marks. Bucky’d had a freckle on his left arm, just above the elbow—Steve had been all set to describe it to whoever made Bucky’s prosthesis, but Tony had pulled up images of this robot arm.
“I’ve got a lot more experience with metal,” Tony’d said casually. “And we’ll get amazing tensile strength with this, an unbelievable range of motion.” Then he’d launched into a jaunt of what Clint called techno babble. Steve only half-listened because Bucky was gazing at the drawing of the arm on Tony’s hovering screen, his eyes sparkling. It was love at first sight for Bucky, and any arguments died on Steve’s lips.
The day they’d hooked Bucky up to the thing had been no fun for Steve, at least until Bucky’d come out of the operating room—he’d stayed awake for the whole procedure and then walked out by himself, waving jauntily at Steve with the metal monstrosity. Steve had tried to keep himself from frowning but must have failed miserably because Bucky came right up to him, put his regular flesh arm around Steve’s shoulders, and said, “C’mon, quit worrying. I’m all right.”
It was amazing how quickly he’d been able to coordinate the movements of the prosthetic, and though he’d been doing fine, the new arm gave him a kind of balance—literal and figurative—that made him even happier. Steve had to love the thing if it could do that for Bucky.
They’d added more physical therapy to their quiet routine, and already Bucky was complaining about it. It wasn’t necessary, he said. He’d quickly learned to manage the arm like he was born with it, and he was always patient whenever Tony came around with lots of questions. Steve got the feeling he really wanted to see Bucky’s arm in a combat situation, and he had to restrain himself from chasing Tony out of the apartment. He’d been a huge help, and of course he was curious about how his invention was faring, so Steve tried to give him a chance.
Clint passed behind where Steve and Bucky were sitting and caught sight of Bucky’s phone. He vaulted over the back of the couch and sank onto the cushion at the far end so gracefully that Steve felt only a faintest tremor of movement. Clint wore the same contented, slightly dazed expression the whole team shared after a huge feast, so Steve was surprised when he spoke and his voice came out sounding surly.
“What the hell are you doing to Barnes, Cap?”
“This game,” Clint explained. “It’s for kids.”
Bucky looked up.
Clint jumped up off the couch and headed for the cabinet under the enormous television Tony had installed in the apartment. “It’s time you learned about real video games.”
Bucky sat up straighter. He was interested. He gave Steve a sidelong look. “You gonna play too?”
“Nah,” Steve said. “You go ahead.”
Clint was pulling out controllers for the game while Bucky grabbed the TV remote and hit the red power button with his thumb. “It’ll be like physical therapy,” he said with a grin at Steve. “Dexterity. Fine motor skills.”
Steve raised a doubtful eyebrow but didn’t bother trying to fight his smile. Clint started a game that had a bunch of guys in fatigues with machine guns and explained the various buttons and knobs on the controller. It sounded unnecessarily complicated to Steve—too involved to be fun or relaxing—but Bucky listened with the same serious intensity with which he prepared for a real mission.
When the game started, Bucky and Clint were absorbed and Tony came to watch, making the occasional snide comment. Natasha and Bruce lingered at the dinner table, sipping their wine and talking quietly. No one was paying any attention to Steve, so he decided he liked video games: it gave him a chance to stare at Bucky without anyone noticing. He enjoyed the expressions flitting over Bucky’s face, and watching the plates of his prosthesis shift and glide was fascinating—it was quite beautiful, really. Steve thought about going to fetch his sketchbook from the bedroom, but he didn’t want to distract Bucky. He found it hard to pull himself away.
Bucky was enjoying himself. He smiled at Clint’s good-natured ribbing and Tony’s sarcasm. It reminded Steve of when they were kids and Bucky’d joined in with the neighborhood stickball games. Except on the rare occasions when he was particularly strong, Steve had been forbidden to play: his mother had been certain that running around in the heat would trigger his asthma. So he’d sit on a nearby stoop and watch. It should have been humiliating, but Steve found it hard to remember to be upset when he was watching Bucky, whose gaze would often meet Steve’s for a wry look or a goofy grin, whatever he thought would make Steve smile. Watching Bucky had always been a habit, even before Steve understood exactly what it meant.
Steve’s reverie was interrupted by a happy shout from Clint and a frustrated groan from Bucky. “Gimme another go,” Bucky said. “I’ve got the hang of it now.” Before the next round began, he looked over his shoulder and stuck his tongue out at Steve, a gesture straight out of one of those 1930s stickball games, and Steve laughed.
“Get your head in the game, Barnes,” Clint said, hitting Bucky hard with his elbow. Clint’s on-screen soldier was already firing into Bucky’s army, and Bucky’s attention snapped back to the television.
They played for over an hour, Bucky getting closer to Clint’s score each time until he finally beat him—just barely. Bucky crowed, threw both arms up in the air, and fell back on the couch. “That’s even better than flying cars!”
Clint snorted out a laugh. “I don’t know about that.”
Bucky grinned at Steve—so handsome, so happy—and Steve stared at him helplessly, his eyes traveling south from his face, over his torso, down to where his shirt had ridden up, exposing bare skin. A dusting of hair under his navel. Steve wanted to lick along that stripe of skin. Would Bucky curl away from the touch? He was ticklish. Or would context make a difference? Steve imagined Bucky moaning and writhing under his hands.
“Oh my God,” Clint said.
Steve’s head snapped up. “What?”
“The two of you.” Clint stood up and threw the controller down where he’d been sitting. “I can’t stand it.” He stalked over the table and flung himself into the chair next to Natasha. She looked up at him, then shot a look in Steve’s direction. When she turned back to Bruce, there was a hint of a smile playing around the corner of her mouth.
Steve’s stomach tensed up. Natasha was far too observant. Steve hadn’t thought Clint would figure it out on his own, but Natasha could have told him. When Steve looked back at Bucky, he was still grinning. He hadn’t noticed anything amiss, so Steve pushed his worries about what Natasha had noticed right out of his mind.
“We can’t go in that way,” Natasha said. “Not all of us are encased in a hunk of metal.”
Tony waved his hand. “Clint can cover the door.”
“But he’s already covering the windows at the front,” Natasha pointed out.
Steve’s phone vibrated in his pocket. Since almost everyone who would text him was already in the room, he knew it had to be Bucky.
What time will you be home? The message read. I’ll make dinner.
Steve smiled. He looked up. Natasha and Tony’s conversation had gotten completely off track, with Natasha insisting that she definitely did not need Tony to make her a suit of her own. “It’ll be great,” Tony said. “Iron Woman. You can be like my sidekick.” Though Natasha’s only response was an icy stare, Steve had a feeling nothing productive would be happening any time soon. He should probably get them back on track, but first, he’d answer Bucky’s text.
Around 6, Steve typed. Maybe a movie after?
It wasn’t a date. Steve knew that. Still, it made him feel cheerful knowing he’d nailed down plans with Bucky for the evening. He wasn’t always free anymore. Sometimes he was in Tony’s lab, giving input about the upgrade Tony was planning for the prosthetic, and sometimes Clint came by and led Bucky away with a snide grin at Steve.
Steve was ready to tuck his phone back into his pocket when it buzzed again: Why is our spaghetti brown? He laughed before he could stop himself. He tried to turn it into a cough and typed in a quick response: Whole wheat. More nutritious.
Then a series of texts came, one after the other:
So like your ww bread?
And those ww crackers?
Like eating a broom
Can’t we just buy normal food?
Steve let out another quiet chuckle before he remembered where he was. Just looking out for you, he texted back. Still too skinny, according to the docs.
Still not as skinny as you, you stupid punk. See you at 6.
He looked up to see Natasha watching him, her head tilted ever so slightly to one side. He could feel his face growing warm, and her left eyebrow quirked up. He couldn’t hide how pleased he was over Bucky’s stupid teasing. Even him calling it our spaghetti. Steve loved any reminder that they lived together and shared everything, just like they had a lifetime ago. In spite of Natasha’s questioning gaze, Steve couldn’t stop grinning. He must have looked like an idiot. He shrugged at Natasha and tried to focus on the meeting.
“I still think old eagle-eye over there could manage it,” Tony said. “After Cap is past the big windows, that area will be clear. Clint can run over and cover the other door.”
Clint was shaking his head—not angry, but firm. “There won’t be time. We know there’s a lot of guys in there. They’ll be swarming out as soon as we breach the perimeter.”
Steve still felt Natasha’s eyes on him. It made him jump into the conversation without thinking. “Too bad Bucky can’t come.”
Silence fell over the table.
“Why not?” Clint asked mildly.
“Excuse me?” Steve kicked himself.
“Yeah, that’s perfect,” Tony said. “Barnes can cover the other door.” Then he was off again, talking a mile a minute about a plan Steve was never going to approve.
“No, no, wait a minute, Tony. Bucky’s not doing this.”
“Why not? Lost his touch?”
“No,” Clint said. “I’ve taken him down to the basement for target practice.”
Steve shot a look in Clint’s direction. Was that where he and Bucky went? Clint gave Steve an unrepentant smile and continued: “He’s good. Really good.”
Natasha’s face registered a flick of interest at Clint’s assessment.
“So that’s settled,” Tony said. “Barnes can do it.”
“I never said he can’t do it,” Steve said. “I just don’t know if he wants to.”
Tony and Steve stared at each other across the table. He could almost see Tony biting his tongue.
Natasha finally broke the stalemate. “You should ask him.” Steve looked at her, and she nodded. “He might jump at the chance. He’s not the type who enjoys lying around doing nothing.”
She was right, of course. Bucky should make his own choice about it. Days filled with physical therapy and cooking Steve’s dinner weren’t enough to occupy him. Steve hadn’t realized until that moment how their roles had switched: Steve used to be the one stuck at home—recovering, doing what chores he could manage around their apartment while Bucky went out into the world as the reliable breadwinner—so was well aware of how frustrating it could be. If Bucky wanted to start going on missions. . . . Well, it wasn’t Steve’s place to deny him an opportunity, was it?
It was close to seven o’clock by the time the meeting broke up and Steve went upstairs. The apartment was filled with the aroma of garlic bread and the thick meat sauce Bucky had simmering on the stove. The table was already set with a big bowl of salad in the middle. The kitchen was empty when Steve first walked in, but Bucky appeared as Steve was stealing a taste of the sauce.
“Sorry I’m late.”
“I’m used to it,” Buck said. “I plan for it now. Dinner’s in five minutes.” He dumped a box of angel hair pasta into the pot of boiling water.
“I’ll shower afterward then.”
Bucky took the spoon from Steve’s hand and nudged him away from the stove. “Go get drinks.”
“You want a beer?”
Steve took the first bite, and he could feel Bucky’s eyes on him as he chewed. “It’s really good, Buck.”
“Yeah, it’s great.”
Bucky grinned and picked up his fork. He made a face after his first bite. “The whole wheat pasta still tastes strange.”
“I like it.”
“But we all know you’re a glutton for punishment.”
Bucky seemed comfortable with the ensuing silence, but Steve struggled for a casual way to introduce the topic of the mission. He didn’t want to make it seem like a big deal so that Bucky felt pressured to participate.
Bucky’s mouth was full, so he just let out a questioning hum.
“At the meeting today. . . .” Steve was tempted to just keep everything to himself. He could tell the team that Bucky would rather not go, and then he’d stay home. Safe. But that wouldn’t be fair to Bucky. Steve should just say it rather than drawing things out. “I won’t bore you with the details unless you want in, but there’s a mission you might be able to help with.” Bucky’s eyes opened wide in surprise, and Steve rushed to add, “But only if you want to.”
Bucky was quiet for a long time. When he finally spoke, his voice was quiet. “I don’t know, Steve.” Relief flooded through Steve. “That’s fine. You don’t have to go. I told them you wouldn’t want to, but I promised I’d at least ask.”
“I didn’t say I wouldn’t go,” Bucky said, and Steve’s relief evaporated. “Tell me about it.”
Steve steeled himself with a deep breath. “It’s a suspected Hydra base pretending to be a factory. There’s a huge lobby with floor-to-ceiling windows—the only way in the front. I’m going in that way.”
“And Barton will cover you,” Bucky said.
“Well, yeah, that was the plan. But Tony and Natasha need to head in the back, and Tony’ll be fine, but Natasha will be out in the open for a couple hundred yards. Clint can’t be in two places at once.”
“So I’ll cover you.”
“Yeah,” Steve said. “If you come, you’d cover me at the front.”
“I’m coming,” Bucky said.
“You don’t have to.”
“I know. I want to,” Bucky said. “I need to get a job at some point, right? I can’t let you be my sugar daddy forever.”
The term made Steve blush, though he knew Bucky was only teasing. “You have your own money,” Steve said. “Or you will.”
“They’re talking about giving you something like they gave me.”
“Disability pay from the army for the whole time I was in the ice.”
Bucky stared at Steve for a few beats, then let out a low whistle.
“I think someone probably suggested it as a joke,” Steve explained. “But then it kind of worked. Now that they have a precedent—”
“A precedent for how to pay guys who’ve been frozen for years and years?” Bucky said with a laugh.
“—they’ll probably do the same thing for you. You don’t even have to work if you don’t want to.”
“Then let me chip in for rent when I get my pay.”
“Tony doesn’t let me pay rent,” Steve admitted.
Bucky’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh, so he’s your sugar daddy?”
“Bucky, will you—” The words alone made Steve uncomfortable, but it was made worse by the fact that Steve had found Tony attractive when he first met him. “No one says that anymore.”
Bucky rolled his eyes. “Lighten up, Rogers. I’m just joking around.”
Steve shoved a huge forkful of pasta into his mouth and took his time chewing, staring down at his plate. After he swallowed, he took a long sip of his beer. “Look, I don’t want you to come if you don’t want to. We can come up with another—”
“I’m coming.” Bucky grabbed his plate, though it was still half full, and carried it to the kitchen.
Steve made his way up the ramp, heading straight for the seat where he’d sat on the ride out, but Sam was already sitting there next to Bucky. Their heads were bent together in quiet but intent conversation.
Steve’s steps slowed and stopped. He wanted to know what they were talking about. At the same time, he knew it would be better to let the two of them forge their own friendship without Steve as a link between them. He walked quickly past them and, though he saw Bucky lift his head, charged farther down the aisle and threw himself into the empty seat next to Natasha.
She gave him a distracted smile, then turned back to the window. She could probably tell that Steve wasn’t in the mood for conversation.
Sam had looked so serious. On the way out, he’d been joking with everyone, including Bucky, but now every time Steve craned his neck to peek past Natasha, he could see Sam nodding thoughtfully and the top of Bucky’s ducked head.
Bucky’d done a great job during the mission—efficient and professional. Steve had been simultaneously bursting with pride and wracked by anxiety. Worrying about Bucky hadn’t affected Steve’s own ability to play his own role. Or at least not much. Bucky’d grinned at Steve when they were done. He’d seemed okay. But maybe it had been too soon. He sure didn’t look okay now.
He didn’t say a word during debriefing, and he disappeared into the shower the moment they got back to the apartment. When he came out of the bathroom rubbing his hair with a towel, Steve suggested a movie, but Bucky begged off. Steve fought off the urge to follow him into his bedroom and ask what was wrong, instead marching himself off to the shower and then straight to bed.
Once Steve was in bed with a book propped up on his chest—he sure wasn’t reading—Bucky came and hovered in the doorway. Steve sat bolt upright, letting the book fall to the floor.
“Hey, Bucky. What’s up?”
Bucky rolled his eyes, which Steve probably deserved for not at least trying to be subtle with his concern, then came to sit on the foot of Steve’s bed, his legs crossed.
“I was talking to Sam on the plane ride home,” Bucky said.
Bucky frowned. “Yeah, so?”
“So nothing,” Steve said. “Sam’s a good guy. I’m glad you’re getting to know him.”
Bucky let out a breath. “Anyway, he told me about his job.”
“He must be good at it, cause he sure knows how to get a guy talking. He asked me if I was okay.”
Again, Steve nodded. Bucky looked annoyed, but Steve didn’t know what to say. He wanted to hear what Bucky’d come to tell him without leading questions.
“I mean, I think he asked me if I was okay because he could tell I wasn’t okay,” Bucky said. “You know what I mean?”
“Did you get hurt? Buck—”
“No, cripes, don’t be so literal. I just—” Bucky bit his bottom lip. “I don’t think I can do that anymore.”
“You mean go on missions with us?”
“Yeah.” Bucky got up to pace along the end of Steve’s bed. “I’m sorry, Steve. I mean, you know I’d do anything I could to help you out, keep you safe. I’ve killed for you.” He stopped and turned to look at Steve. “Hell, I basically died for you.”
But Bucky cut him off. “All I’m saying is that if you really need me, I’ll do it again, but I’d—well, I’d rather not. Okay? I think after everything that’s happened—”
“Of course it’s okay. I didn’t even want to ask you this time, but—”
“No, I’m glad you did,” Bucky said.
“Yeah. If I hadn’t gone at least once, I would’ve always wondered if I was just scared. And that’s a lousy reason not to do something.” Bucky came and sat on the bed again, this time on the side, closer to Steve. When he spoke, he was uncharacteristically tentative. “Sam says I can do whatever I want.”
“So what do you want do to?”
Bucky blew out a puff of air between pursed lips. “I have no idea”
“What’s so funny?”
“That’s exactly what I say every time Sam asks me. It’s hard to imagine doing something else.” Steve nudged Bucky with his knee. “But Sam’s right, you know. You can do anything. Or nothing.”
“We’re not having that sugar daddy conversation again,” Bucky said, pushing his leg against Steve’s. “But that disability pay you talked about hasn’t shown up yet.”
“Still, you don’t have to work. We have plenty of money.”
“You have plenty of money.”
“C’mon, Buck. What did you always say? I know exactly how you feel, but—”
“If you know how I feel then you know why I can’t keep taking your money.”
“No, I know exactly how you feel,” Steve said. “And you know what it’s like to be on this side of things, so you know it doesn’t matter whose money it is, as long as we have enough to get by. And we have more than enough. So if you don’t want to work—”
“Now you’re making me sound lazy,” Bucky said, but he was smiling.
Steve threw a pillow. Bucky caught it and tucked it under his head as he shoved Steve’s legs over and curled up on his side.
“Sam said I could go to college.”
“That’s a great idea, Buck.” Bucky’d always been a good student but had dropped out of high school to get a job and help his folks. “I bet you’d love that.”
“You could go too, if you like the idea so much.”
“Yeah, why not?”
“Captain America going to school?”
Bucky gave Steve’s thigh a not-so-gentle punch. “Not Captain America. Steve Rogers, now that he won’t miss half the semester cause he gets sick.” Bucky pushed himself up on one elbow. “Hey, you could go to art school.”
That idea was more tempting. A long-deferred dream. But it would be selfish, wouldn’t it? To stop working with the Avengers? To stop fighting Hydra for art school?
Bucky’s knee bumped Steve’s leg again. “C’mon. You’ve done your duty. Enough already.”
Steve shook his head.
“At least think about it,” Bucky said. “Okay?”
“Snack time,” Clint said as he threw down his controller. It was a miracle any of the video games in the common area still worked, considering the rough treatment they got.
“You’re just saying that cause I almost beat you that time,” Bucky said. He was improving, but Steve had a distinct feeling that a desire to beat Clint on a regular basis was the real incentive to keep playing.
Clint ignored him and disappeared into the kitchen.
Bucky had been sitting cross-legged on the floor, but he crawled over and pulled himself up onto the couch next to where Steve was sitting with his sketchbook. He looked over Steve’s shoulder, reaching out to flip through the book to see more of Steve’s work. “You’ve gotten even better.”
Steve didn’t want to be so pleased at Bucky’s praise, but he let himself show off, turning back a few more pages to display a drawing of Natasha that had turned out particularly well.
“Nice,” Bucky said, taking the sketchbook from Steve’s hands.
Carrying a rustling bag of chips, Clint returned and fell into his chair. “Yeah, Steve, maybe these will end up in a museum too.”
“What’s that mean?” Bucky nudged Steve’s shoulder. “You got your stuff in a museum? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“No, it’s not like that. It wasn’t an art museum.” Steve glared at Clint, who grinned at him. Smart ass. “Really, Buck, it was nothing.”
“What’s nothing?” Tony asked as he strolled into the room, swiping with one finger at the tablet he held.
Steve took a pillow from the couch and tossed it at Clint’s head. He ducked it easily, then lobbed it back.
“You have your very own exhibit in the biggest museum in the country, and it’s nothing?” Clint said.
Tony looked up from his tablet. “Ah, the Capsicle hall of fame.”
Bucky squinted at Steve. “What are they talking about?”
“It’s no big deal,” Steve insisted. “The Smithsonian had an exhibit a while back. It was just—”
Tony interrupted him. “No big deal? It was a very big deal. The President came to the grand opening.” Tony turned to Bucky. “They had old uniforms, old sketchbooks, all kinds of pictures, some of the old movies.”
“Movies?” Bucky looked at Steve, the corner of his mouth tugged up by his suppressed laughter. “They still have the movies? I always wanted to see those.”
“Are you kidding me?” Tony said. “You’ve never seen Steve’s movies?”
“Bucky—” Steve said.
But Bucky was already wearing a grin a mile wide.
“Jarvis, pull up one of Cap’s Oscar-worthy performances, huh?”
“Of course, sir.”
“Come on.” Steve willed his blush to go away. “We don’t have to—”
“Let’s see the one with the song first,” Tony said, smiling as if Steve had given him a present. “That’s my favorite.”
Clint laughed silently in his armchair.
Steve sighed, but Bucky’s grin grew wider. “There’s a song?”
“You really don’t want to see this,” Steve said.
Bucky’s eyes were practically twinkling. “The hell I don’t.”
“Come on, Buck.”
But the film was already playing. Tony let out a wolf whistle when Steve appeared on-screen in the tights and the ridiculous shorts. The music started, and the dancing girls marched in and surrounded Steve on the stage. Even before the singing began, Bucky was cackling. When he heard the corny lyrics about “the star-spangled man with the plan,” he laughed so hard he could hardly breathe, and he collapsed half on Steve’s lap.
Tony was snickering too. “How is it possible that you’ve never seen this stuff?”
“I was kinda busy.” Bucky sat up and wiped his eyes. “Little thing called World War II.”
Tony’s face grew serious, as if realizing how recent the war really was, for Bucky. However, Bucky was still grinning. He turned to Steve and said, “I wish the guys could see this.”
“Oh, but they have,” Tony said.
Steve knew what Tony was talking about—a documentary made to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of Steve’s supposed death. All of the Commandos had been in it. It had been surreal hearing Dum Dum’s booming voice coming out of a shriveled body—he fought cancer in the early sixties and beat it, but it had turned him into an old man. All the others had aged and faded too. Steve had thought that watching it would be like seeing them again, but it had left him feeling down for days.
Steve didn’t want Bucky to see that particular film. He’d rather keep Bucky smiling, even if it meant further mortification.
“Nah, not the documentary,” Steve said. “How about the one with the machine gun?”
He was careful to keep his tone casual, but Tony’s attention focused on him like a laser. Steve got the feeling Tony was reading his mind—he was more perceptive about people’s feelings than he liked to let on—because he didn’t argue or tease. “Jarvis, you heard the man.”
Bucky laughed again when one of the propaganda films started rolling. Steve groaned at his own wooden acting, but Bucky threw an arm around his neck. “This is my favorite movie ever.” Steve’s face, which had finally started to cool with everyone’s eyes on the screen, heated up again. Bucky gave Steve a gentle shake with one hand and patted him on the knee with the other. “Forget Casablanca. Forget The Maltese Falcon. This is the best movie ever made.”
It was worth it. It was worth every moment of humiliation to have Bucky touching him like that. His arm around Steve, leaning on him, laughing, so damn happy—Steve desperately wanted to kiss him. If Bucky didn’t stop, Steve would have a problem: hiding the rock-hard erection in his jeans.
“I want to see it,” Bucky said.
Steve’s head jerked around to look at him. “Excuse me?”
“C’mon, they made a whole exhibit about you. I want to see it.”
“It’s not just me. You’re in it too. And all the guys,” Steve said. “But it’s probably not even there anymore. That was ages ago.”
Even before Steve got the words out, Tony was poking at his tablet, confirming that the exhibit was back in the Smithsonian after an extended tour to museums around the country.
“C’mon, Steve.” Bucky’s hand was still on Steve’s thigh. “It’ll be fun.”
Bucky was looking at him with pleading eyes, still wearing a huge grin, still so close. Steve couldn’t think straight. There was no way he could say no.
When they got to their hotel, Steve settled himself on the bed, determined to relax. Bucky explored every inch of the room, even sticking his head into the shower stall and laughing about the bar of soap, which was wrapped with fabric and a white ribbon. When he emerged from the bathroom, he threw open the French doors. There was no balcony—just a railing with thin iron bars, twisted like licorice ropes.
Bucky stood looking out over the Potomac, framed in the sunlight. “Pretty swanky, Rogers.”
Steve shrugged. “We have more money now than I’ll ever know what to do with. It’s kind of hard to get used to.”
“I don’t know.” Bucky threw himself on the bed next to Steve and propped himself up on one elbow. “I’m not having any trouble getting used to it at all. I guess I was just made for the good life.”
Steve desperately wanted to kiss Bucky’s grin, to press his face into the crook of Bucky’s neck. It was always a temptation to have Bucky so close.
Suddenly the smile fell off Bucky’s face. “I almost forgot. You said you wanted to visit Peggy. We should get going if we’re going to do that before dinner.” He rolled away and jumped to his feet.
“We don’t have to go yet.” Steve wished he could get Bucky to come back and lie on bed again without having to ask.
“No, let’s go now,” Bucky said. He looked in the mirror hung over the dresser and combed his fingers through his hair. “I’m getting hungry.”
It wasn’t until the cab dropped them off in front of the nursing home that Steve remembered Luke. What if he saw them and tried to flirt with Steve? The corridors never seemed so long as they did when Steve expected any moment to hear Luke’s Southern lilt calling out to him, but they made it to Peggy’s room safely.
Steve had called Peggy to give her the news about Bucky being back, but he could never be sure what she would remember. Telephone conversations seemed to be less memorable to her than those in person, so Steve was prepared for shock and confusion. Peggy, however, beamed at Bucky from the minute he stepped through the door. She held out one hand, and Bucky crossed the room to take it in both of his.
Tears sprang up in Steve’s eyes. Peggy noticed first and smiled, though her eyes narrowed—an expression half scolding, half doting. Bucky turned and, when he saw Steve’s face, rolled his eyes. “Wow, you’re a sap. I always knew it, but—”
“Shut up,” Steve said agreeably.
“Look, pal,” Bucky said, his voice vaguely threatening.
“Now, now,” Peggy said. Still looking at Bucky, she held out her other hand for Steve. When he took it, her fingers gripped his tightly. “I’ve been happy thinking of you there to take care of Steve. Don’t spoil it.”
Bucky grinned at that. “More like he’s been taking care of me.”
Peggy’s sharp eyes fixed on Steve, and his face grew hot. “Bucky’s doing fine.”
“I’m sure.” Peggy’s head tilted slightly as she turned to look at Bucky. “And how are you finding life in the twenty-first century?”
Bucky entertained Peggy, keeping her laughing with self-deprecating stories about adjusting to “living in the future,” as he called it. He wasn’t flirting. Not exactly—he’d always respected that she was Steve’s best girl—but he turned on the charm. Steve could sit back and enjoy watching them without having to come up with much to say himself, so he didn’t fully notice Bucky excusing himself until he was standing up.
“You don’t have to go,” Steve said.
“Nah, it’s fine,” Bucky insisted. “I’ll grab a cup of coffee or something. Meet you in the lobby when you’re done.”
He pressed a quick kiss to Peggy’s cheek, then slipped out of the room before Steve could object again. Steve stared at the door long after it had closed behind Bucky, then turned to offer Peggy a smile.
“I’m glad you and Bucky got to catch up.” After Steve thought about it for a moment, he said, “But I guess you two really didn’t know each other all that well during the war.”
“He was kind enough to give us our privacy,” Peggy said. “Then and now. But I’ll always welcome a handsome young man at my bedside.”
Steve smiled again. It felt more genuine this time.
“I made an effort, for your sake,” Peggy continued. “I suspect Sergeant Barnes was doing the same. He’s rather devoted to you.”
“Yeah, Bucky’s the best. Tony showed him the Captain America movies. He got a kick out of it.”
“So I brought him down to see the exhibit at the Smithsonian.”
Peggy didn’t respond. She was watching him in a way that made him want to fidget.
“What?” he said. “What is it?”
“You seem happy,” Peggy said.
“Happy? Yeah, I’m happy. Bucky’s back, and—”
“So you’ve figured it out then?”
“Figured it out?” Steve didn’t like how weak his voice sounded when he said it.
She studied him for another long minute before she answered. “You’ve always looked at him like he hung the moon and stars, and today, he was looking at you exactly the same way.”
Steve was speechless. What really surprised him was how quickly his mind jumped over the fact that Peggy knew how he felt about Bucky and latched onto the second part of what she’d said: she thought that Bucky looked at him like that? But he made himself back up and tackle one thing at a time. “How long have you known?” It came out in a whisper.
“I’ve always suspected.”
“That doesn’t mean I don’t love you too. I always did. I still do.”
“I know, darling.” Peggy took Steve’s hand again. “But we’re straying from the point of this conversation.”
“But—” Steve took a deep breath. “Bucky and weren’t—I mean we never—I didn’t—” His face was on fire.
“You never told him how you feel?”
Even Steve’s shame was refreshing—shame that he’d never told Bucky and shame that he admitted it to Peggy even though she clearly wasn’t hurt by it, not now. Maybe not ever. He didn’t feel ashamed of his love for Bucky though, which he’d always assumed he would if anyone ever found out. “I don’t know what to say.”
Peggy stayed quiet. Waiting.
Steve watched her face carefully. He knew that she wouldn’t lie to him, but he needed to see the truth in her eyes. “Do you really think he—that there’s even a chance?”
“You won’t know until you try, will you?”
They had the cab drop them a few blocks from the hotel so they could choose somewhere for dinner. Steve was relieved when Bucky walked right past a fancy restaurant with candles and white tablecloths and instead picked a bustling, cheerful place. Steve had trouble coming up with something to say—his head full of his conversation with Peggy, and a quiet atmosphere would likely have felt awkward. Bucky ordered alarming amounts of seafood and smiled at Steve so much he didn’t even mind when Bucky flirted with the waitress
Later, as they strolled to the hotel, Bucky said, “Didn’t you say you had an apartment in Washington before you came back to New York?”
“Yeah,” Steve said. “I still have it.”
“You still have it?” Bucky stopped in his tracks. “Why didn’t we just stay there?”
Steve shrugged. “There’s only one bedroom, one bed. I didn’t want to make you sleep on the couch.” He’d meant it as a joke, but as soon as the words were out of his mouth he imagined sharing his bed in the DC apartment with Bucky. To cover his embarrassment, he blurted out, “Anyway it’s been sitting empty for months now—I didn’t want to spend the weekend clearing out the dust.” Both were true enough, but he could have paid someone to clean. It was more that he didn’t want to go back to a place where he’d spent so much lonely time. “Plus I wanted it to be like a vacation, you know?”
Bucky started walking again, weaving past a woman walking her dog. “You were always like this.”
“Like what?” Steve asked.
Bucky shrugged. “You get these grand ideas of how perfect something’s gonna be. Imagine every detail. With anyone else, it would just make them disappointed when reality couldn’t live up to the plan. But you, you make it happen.”
“I don’t know if a trip to the Smithsonian is exactly a grand idea,” Steve said with a laugh. “And anyway it was yours, not mine.”
Bucky nudged Steve’s shoulder with his, still wearing a grin. He’d easily teased Steve out of his anxious thoughts, but the awareness of the fact clammed Steve right back up again. They didn’t speak until they were back at the hotel. Steve dashed into the bathroom to brush his teeth, avoiding the temptation of watching Bucky change into pajamas.
“We gotta get up early tomorrow, right?” Bucky said as he flopped onto the bed. “How early can we get in?”
“The guy said he’d be there around seven, so we’ll have a couple of hours to ourselves before the museums opens to the public.”
“Nice of Stark Junior to arrange it.”
“Yeah, well.” Steve watched Bucky arrange the pillows to his satisfaction. “Tony knows everybody.”
Steve pulled off his jeans, climbed in bed in his boxers, and turned out the light, though he didn’t feel sleepy. Bucky was just a few feet away, and Steve longed to cross the space between them and touch him. “Hey, Bucky?”
“Yeah?” Bucky’s sounded groggy—he was half-asleep already.
“Never mind,” Steve said. “Night, Buck.”
Steve had to drag Bucky away from the huge central areas of the museum, his neck craning all the while to look up at the planes overhead. “We can see those later,” Steve said. “I don’t want to still be in the exhibit when the museum opens.”
“All right, already,” Bucky said, but he didn’t try to pull his arm out of Steve’s grasp.
“We could go see the other one out in Virginia,” Steve offered.
“The other one?”
“There’s another branch of the museum. It’s got a space shuttle inside, it’s so huge.”
Bucky’s eyes lit up.
“That’ll have to be on a different trip,” Steve said. “We gotta get back for Tony’s birthday Friday night.”
Bucky rolled his eyes, though Steve knew he was looking forward to the party.
“But we could come back sometime,” Bucky suggested as Steve led the way to the escalators.
“Sure,” Steve said. “Anytime you want.”
Steve tried to rush Bucky past the huge mural at the entry to the exhibit: Steve—well, it looked mostly like Steve—saluting in his Captain America gear. It was too much like the insistent patriotism of the USO shows to be anything other than embarrassing, but Bucky grabbed Steve’s arm and made him stand in front of the damn thing for a picture. Bucky stopped Steve when he tried to walk away, to show him that he’d set the photo as his wallpaper. It made Steve cringe to see his own sheepish grin with the ridiculous mural in the background.
It was strangely reassuring that Bucky lingered near the picture of Steve at boot camp, his dog tags hanging from his too-skinny neck. “I kinda miss this guy,” Bucky said quietly. Steve couldn’t answer. Bucky must have seen his discomfort and quickly moved on to the motorcycle display.
“It’s not mine,” Steve said. “I have no idea what happened to mine.”
Bucky was watching the screen nearby playing footage from the war. He seemed far away. To bring him back, Steve said, “I have a new bike.”
It worked. Bucky turned. “A new bike? Where is it?”
“It’s here. In DC,” Steve said. “In a garage near my apartment.”
“And you didn’t want to stay there?” Bucky hit Steve’s elbow with his own. “I want to see it.”
“Okay, next time. I’ll take you out to the other museum on the bike.”
“It’s a date,” Bucky said.
Bucky didn’t seem to think anything of what he’d said, but it gave Steve pause. Bucky’s choice of words, his good mood—it all fanned the flame of hope Peggy had sparked yesterday. He couldn’t seem to keep a smile off his face until Bucky walked around the corner and stopped dead, staring at the mannequins made up in the Commandos’ clothes. Steve himself didn’t really look, though spots of color stood out in his peripheral vision: Monty’s beret and the deep blue of Bucky’s coat. He let Bucky look for a long time, standing close enough for their shoulders to press together.
“C’mon,” Steve said when he couldn’t stand it any longer. When Bucky didn’t move, Steve put an arm around him and led him away, but the next part of the exhibit was worse: a glass panel explaining about the rescue at Azzano and Bucky’s death.
After a few minutes, Steve gave Bucky’s shoulders a squeeze.
“Maybe we should tell them,” Bucky said. “They probably don’t like making mistakes.”
“There’s no rush,” Steve said.
Bucky shrugged and looked down at the monitor next to him, which played a loop of film showing Bucky and Steve, laughing. Steve remembered that moment like it was yesterday, a sunny spring afternoon after a tough but successful mission and a hard night’s sleep. It had felt so very satisfying, knowing they were doing good, doing something no one else could—or at least no one else was willing to try. Having a team like that behind them.
“I was a good-looking kid,” Bucky said.
Bucky lifted his head, and Steve realized he’d spoken without thinking. They stared at one another, and Steve wished he could read Bucky’s face. It was an expression he’d never seen Bucky wear before.
“Excuse me, Captain Rogers?” Steve turned and found a man with a blue blazer gesturing at the open doorway into the theater. He said, “If you’d like to see the film before the museum opens. . . .”
“Yeah, thanks,” Steve said. By the time he looked back at Bucky, the singular expression was gone.
Steve barely paid attention to the film, but it looked odd to him. The newsreels out in the main part of the exhibit had quickly taken him back to the black and white images he grew up with, and the colors in the film footage of Peggy were strangely lurid in comparison.
Bucky leaned close to whisper in Steve’s ear. “She was a looker too.”
Bucky smiled and turned back to the screen.
By the time they came out of the small theater, the museum had opened and people were trickling in to the exhibit. Steve hadn’t brought his hat, and he worried that wearing his sunglasses indoors would draw more attention. “Want to head out?”
“What, now?” Bucky said. “We didn’t see any of the rockets.”
“We could walk on the Mall,” Steve pointed out. “So you can see the Capitol and the Washington Monument.”
Just then a young woman—maybe a college student—caught Steve’s eye, and he saw her face light up with recognition. She grabbed her friend and pointed at Steve. Bucky turned to see what Steve was looking at, just in time to see the girl raise her phone.
“Okay,” Bucky said. “Let’s get out of here.” He made a beeline for the door, and Steve jogged to catch up. Once they were outside and across the street, Bucky stopped in the shade of a tree and asked, “What do you want to do?”
“Yeah.” He was looking at Steve intently. “You’re always letting me pick. Your turn.”
“I don’t care. I just wanted you to—”
“No, come on. What do you want to see?” When Steve still didn’t answer, Bucky stretched out his foot and kicked the toe of Steve’s boot. “What’s your favorite art museum in Washington?”
“I don’t have a favorite.”
Bucky was still looking at him expectantly.
“I guess I always wanted to see the Phillips Collection.”
Less than half an hour later, they were in the Rothko room. It was quieter here, and considerably less crowded than the Smithsonian museums tended to be.
Bucky came to stand next to Steve, considering the squares of color in the painting in front of them. “I don’t get it,” Bucky whispered.
“It’s not my favorite stuff either,” Steve admitted.
“Let’s go see something else then,” Bucky said. “You don’t have to see it all.”
Bucky seemed to enjoy the photography exhibits, and they both enjoyed the Impressionists, lingering long enough that Bucky asked if Steve wished he’d brought his sketchbook.
“Isn’t that something people do?” Bucky asked. “Copy the work of the masters for practice?”
“I guess,” Steve said. “I’d rather draw from life.”
Bucky gave Steve a sly grin that made his heart beat faster. It was almost flirtatious. He said, “Maybe—” But he cut himself off, and the smile fell off his face.
“What?” Steve asked. “What is it?”
“Nothing. I just realized it’s getting late. What time are we supposed to meet Sam for dinner?”
“Not till five.”
“But you never know how long it’ll take so close to rush hour,” Bucky said.
Bucky was quiet while they walked back to DuPont Circle and waited on the Metro platform. Steve hoped he wasn’t still down after seeing the Smithsonian exhibit. The first time Steve had seen it, he’d been glad to be called away on a mission early the next morning. Without the distraction he would probably have brooded for days.
Steve shook off his worries. “Yeah?” He looked up and caught sight of a couple over Bucky’s shoulder: two men holding hands.
Steve tore his eyes away and fixed his gaze on Bucky. “Yeah, sorry. What’s up?”
Bucky turned to see what had caught Steve’s attention, just in time to see the couple lean close for a kiss. It was nothing inappropriate, but Bucky stared at them, slack-jawed, and Steve’s face flooded with heat.
“Never mind,” Bucky said. “Here’s the train anyway.”
Sam gave Steve a hug, thumping hard on his back, then reached out to shake Bucky’s hand. “How you doing, man?”
“I’m good,” Bucky said. “Partly thanks to you.”
“Me?” Sam’s eyebrows rose. “What did I do?”
“Just got me thinking. I’m not going to do any more missions.”
“No? Well, that’s good, man. You figured out what you’re going to do instead?”
Bucky grinned and shook his head, giving a lopsided shrug.
“That’s good too,” Sam said. “Take your time, take your time.” He turned to Steve. “Seems like things are going well.”
Steve smiled instead of answering, though Sam’s easygoing manner and the cheerful atmosphere of the neighborhood bar he’d picked were already helping the tension evaporate—the silence on the Metro ride had been deafening.
The waitress appeared before they’d even settled in their chairs, and Bucky promptly put on his most enticing smile, catching her eye. She tilted her head and smiled right back at him. All three of them ordered burgers, and she headed for the kitchen, though not before one last lingering smile for Bucky. Steve hadn’t been bothered when Bucky’d flirted with their waitress at dinner the night before, so why did he feel so annoyed now?
Sam noticed Bucky’s smug smile and shook his head. “Why is it that he’s been unconscious until a few months ago, but he still has more game than either of us?”
“Get used to it,” he told Sam, manufacturing a teasing tone and clapping a hand on his shoulder. “Impressing the ladies is Bucky’s real superpower. Forget the fancy robot arm.”
Sam laughed, and Bucky’s grin grew even wider. By the time the waitress returned with their beers—she rested her hand on Bucky’s shoulder for a moment as she set his glass on the table in front of him—Steve had regained his equilibrium enough to ignore the flirtation. It didn’t stop there.
“Look.” Sam nodded his head, and Steve followed his gaze only to find a trio of pretty girls sitting a couple of tables away. They were giggling and looking right at Bucky. “He’s already got something going on and we’ve been in this place, what? Fifteen minutes?”
The flirtatious looks from across the room continued throughout the meal, and almost the minute the waitress cleared their plates, one of the girls came over to ask if they wanted to play darts. Bucky jumped out of his seat, but Sam declined politely, for which Steve was silently grateful.
“You’re coming though, aren’t you?” Bucky looked at Steve hopefully.
“I don’t know, Buck.” He glanced behind Bucky and saw that the girl had retreated to rejoin her friends, and they were making their way to the dartboard.
“Come on, you can’t possibly think they won’t be interested in you now.” Bucky waved his hand vaguely, taking in all of Steve’s serum-enhanced body. It was embarrassing, even though he knew Bucky didn’t mean anything by it.
“It’s just that people don’t expect Captain America to be out trying out pick-up lines. And I was always terrible at it anyway.”
“I’ll help,” Bucky said. “What are friends for?”
Steve looked over to where the girls were dividing up the darts, still giggling. “Aren’t they a little young?”
Bucky laughed. “Compared to us? Everyone is too young.”
Steve found himself smiling up at Bucky, wanting so badly to kiss his cocky grin.
“Come on, just one game?”
Steve looked over at Sam.
“You go ahead,” Sam said. “I’ll just hang out here for a bit.”
“I think I’ll sit and catch up with Sam.”
Bucky’s face fell, though he recovered quickly. “All right,” he said as he turned away. “Your loss.”
Steve tried not to watch as Bucky introduced himself—as “James,” Steve noticed—and two of the girls were clearly dazzled by his charm. One of them, however—a petite blonde—was looking in Steve’s direction. She touched Bucky’s arm. “Aren’t your friends coming too?”
Bucky glanced over his shoulder. “Nah, they’re a couple of sticks in the mud.” He turned away then, reaching for the darts.
They were quiet for a few minutes, watching Bucky.
“He looks like he’s doing all right,” Sam pointed out.
“Yeah,” Steve said. “Yeah, I guess he is.”
“Well, he’s got you.”
Sam gave him a look, and suddenly Steve wanted to tell him everything. There was just something about Sam that invited confidences. More than that—he made you want to unburden your soul. I’m in love with him, Steve wanted to say. I’m in love with him and I don’t know what to do.
But how much comfort would it really give him? He could already imagine what Sam’s advice would be: just pointing out that Steve had a choice, to tell or not tell. No one else could make that choice for him.
Steve took a long draft of his beer, then set his glass back on the table, lining it up with the ring of condensation. “Thanks for talking to Bucky. You know, after the mission.”
“No problem,” Sam said. “I could tell he was having a hard time.”
“I think you helped him figure out a lot of things.”
“It helps to talk it out.” Sam was watching Steve intently—like he knew Steve had something else he wished he could talk about. “You geezers aren’t the best at talking about your feelings.”
Steve huffed out a laugh. “Yeah, yeah.”
“He’s a really good guy.”
“He’s the best.” Steve said it without thinking, and it was the truth, but he didn’t like that it had come out sounding so wistful.
There was a pause, and Steve got the feeling Sam was putting two and two together. It would have been almost a relief to have him come right out and ask about it, but instead, he turned to look at Bucky. “You’re lucky.” He sounded downright wistful himself.
Steve suddenly remembered Riley and realized he was being self-centered, feeling sorry for himself because he couldn’t have the impossible when he had Bucky back with him. “I am,” Steve said. “I’m so lucky.”
Sam smiled, just a flash of his teeth that was obviously forced, and said, “Has he thought about what he wants to do yet?”
Steve shrugged. “We talked about it some the night after the mission, but he hasn’t brought it up since.” Steve should have brought it up himself—he was being selfish all around. “He seemed interested in maybe going back to school, which would be great.”
“What about you?” Sam asked. “You had any more thoughts about getting out?”
“Yeah, I have. You know I’ve been thinking about it for a while, but—I don’t know. It never seemed like something I could really do.”
“What, have a life?” Sam chuckled. “Sure, you got your whole life ahead of you. And it might be easier now.”
“I think you had a lot of anger left. With Barnes back, you just seem . . .” Sam shrugged. “Lighter somehow?”
He was right. Steve hadn’t even realized it, but he had been angry. Sad and lonely and mad at the world. When Bucky came back, a lot of that anger had melted away. Maybe that’s why he could finally consider doing something with his life that didn’t involve throwing his shield at people’s heads.
“Maybe it’s time to figure out what you want,” Sam continued. “There’s more than one way to save the world. To help people. I get just as much satisfaction at leading a good meeting as I do from a mission.”
“That would be good. To help with something like that. To help other vets, I mean,” Steve said. “But I’m not like you. I can’t talk about it.”
“No, I know,” Sam shook his head. “Don’t I know. But there’s other stuff you can do. I’ve got a buddy with the Wounded Warrior Project. They help injured vets—job placement, supporting the families. It’s a great organization, and I’d bet they’d love to have an endorsement from Captain America.”
At the mention of his alter ego, Steve cringed inwardly. He tried to hide it—it felt ungrateful—but Sam was perceptive.
“Hey, I can see you’re getting tired of the celebrity of it,” Sam said. “I know you didn’t really sign up for that. But you’ve got it, and it’s not going away. Why not put it to good use?”
Steve nodded, but it was discouraging to realize that he was always going to be Captain America. He still had to do his duty.
“Hey,” Sam said. “How’s the game going?”
Steve looked up. Bucky had returned with one of college girls tagging along— the blonde who’d been staring. He took a few sips of his beer while she watched him adoringly. Then her gaze shifted to Steve.
“Do you know who you look like?” she said. “Steve Rogers.”
Bucky laughed. “Yeah, he gets that a lot.” He set his glass down on the table with a clunk. “I guess it’s pointless to ask if you’re up for the next game?”
Steve shrugged. He didn’t much feel like playing, but he didn’t want to ruin Bucky’s fun either. Bucky put a hand on Steve’s shoulder. “It’s okay. I can understand not wanting to challenge me when you know you’ll lose.” He sat down, though Steve could tell from the way he was perched on the edge of the chair that he would head back to the dartboard in a moment.
The girl frowned, probably because Bucky was ignoring her, and drifted back toward her friends. Bucky didn’t seem to notice her departure, but Sam watched her go, then turned to Steve.
“You really don’t like getting recognized?” Sam’s tone was conversational, not confrontational, but Steve didn’t really want to talk about it. He just shrugged and took a long draft from his glass.
“That’s kind of an understatement,” Bucky said
“Maybe it’s because it’s still new to me,” Sam said. “But I gotta say, I don’t mind it one bit. I might have used my hanging-out-with-superheroes fame to get a couple of dates with a really amazing woman who lives around the corner from me.”
“Oh yeah?” Steve was happy to hear it. Sam would never complain, but Steve knew he hoped to get married and have a family someday, and he hadn’t dated much in the whole time Steve had known him.
“Yeah, I ran into her a few times during my morning run, and she recognized me from the news. She’s not a groupie—I don’t mean that. But I’m not sure she would have stopped to talk to me if I weren’t buddies with Captain America.”
Steve scoffed at that, then asked, “Is it serious?”
Sam gave an exaggerated shrug. “I don’t know, man. I like her. I really do. And I guess she’s the reason I don’t want to go flirt with Barnes’s friends over there, but it’s only been a few weeks.”
“That’s great, Sam. Good luck.”
“How about you?” Sam said. “I can never figure out if you and Natasha. . . .”
Steve could feel Bucky’s eyes on him at the question. “No,” Steve said. He tried to sound casual, because there was no reason not to be casual about it, but Steve couldn’t figure out how interested Bucky was in Natasha, so it felt like a loaded subject. “No, we’re just friends.”
Sam must have seen Steve’s discomfort, so he shifted the topic of conversation. “I don’t need to ask about this guy,” he said, gesturing at Bucky. “He’s clearly playing the field.”
Bucky smirked, then drained his glass. “You guys want another round?”
“Thanks, man. Another beer?” Sam said, and Steve nodded.
As Bucky headed for the bar, Steve glanced back over to the three girls, who were still standing by the dartboard. The blonde had her phone in her hand, and Steve was pretty sure she’d been taking a picture.
Sam asked, “You okay?”
“I’m fine.” Steve tried to shake off the lingering annoyance and discomfort, but it was rude, taking pictures without permission, like he was public property, but he hadn’t seen her do it—just suspected.
Later that night though, while Bucky was in the hotel bathroom taking the world’s longest shower, Steve went online, and it didn’t take him all that long to find the photo she’d taken. Bucky wasn’t in the picture, just his arm, and from the angle, you couldn’t even tell that his hand was metal. That was good—Steve would protect his privacy for as long as he could. Sam was to Steve’s left, his shoulders hunched up in laughter. Right in the middle of the photo, Steve was, well. . . .
Natasha had talked to Steve about body language once—one of her many lessons about “how not to be completely obvious, maybe have some hope at being subtle and blending in.” Steve was still far from an expert, but his body language in the picture didn’t require a lot of interpretation. He was leaning toward Bucky like the Tower of Pisa, a dreamy smile on his face, his longing clear in every line of his face and body.
There were other recent photos too, including one taken at the seafood restaurant, weeks ago, with the dirty dishes still sitting on their table. Bucky wasn’t in that one much either—just a bit of the back of his head. The caption read, A rare grin renders Cap almost unrecognizable.
Steve laughed out loud. He couldn’t help it. All this time, he’d been worried about going out and being recognized. However, in one of the few moments where he’d let himself forget about that and smiled, they had trouble recognizing him. Was he that much of a sad sack?
He’d been going out a lot more often since Bucky came back, and it wasn’t like his picture was suddenly all over the internet. Probably that was because he was smiling a lot more often since Bucky came back. Maybe he should just stop worrying about it.
The music in the club was so loud Steve could feel it throbbing in the pit of his stomach. Everyone around him was smiling, dancing, and laughing, and Steve liked hearing new music. For a long time, everyone thought all he would want to listen to were George M. Cohan songs and Sousa marches.
Bucky looked amazing. He was dressed all in black: dress pants and a button-down shirt, well fitted, showing off his broad shoulders. For all of the modern sleekness of the outfit, it reminded Steve of seeing Bucky in his dress uniform. His hands itched to run over Bucky’s ribs and settle on his hips.
Tony’s arrival distracted Steve, which was fortunate, because it was hard not to stare. Steve couldn’t count how many times he’d been frustrated by Tony’s narcissism, but it was easier to forgive the grandstanding on his birthday. He mugged for the cameras, gave out kisses, and made a show of dancing with one pretty girl after another while Pepper smiled fondly—all indulgence.
After his grand entrance, Tony nursed his drink, sitting with his arm around Pepper’s waist, talking with her and Bruce and Colonel Rhodes. He wasn’t smiling exactly, but he looked content.
By the time Steve and Bucky made their way through the throng to shake Tony’s hand and wish him a happy birthday, Steve would have been happy to go home, but Bucky’d had a couple of drinks and seemed ready for a good time. He hung on to Steve’s shoulder, tugging him close. “Let’s dance!” Bucky yelled in Steve’s ear.
Steve let his hand rest on Bucky’s side—he couldn’t help it—and shook his head.
“C’mon,” Bucky shouted. “It’s not like anyone’s really dancing. It’s just jumping around.”
Bucky moved closer, and Steve’s hand slipped around to rest on Bucky’s back, just above his waistband.
“At least come buy a girl a drink,” Bucky coaxed. “Talk for a while.”
Steve was almost grateful that Bucky mentioned girls. It was a much-needed reminder of reality. He dropped his hand from Bucky’s waist.
“I think they just want Captain America,” Steve said. “They don’t see me at all.” He’d been trying for a joke, but it fell flat.
“So what?” Bucky nudged Steve with his elbow. “You gotta get past that. Let them get to know you. That’s why you take a girl on a date, stupid—to get to know each other.”
Steve made a face.
“And if they can’t see past the stars and stripes, then they’re not worth it.”
“Exactly,” Steve said. “That’s what I’m saying—it’s not worth it.”
“No, first you give it a try, then you get to say it’s not worth it.” Bucky gave Steve’s shoulder a hard shove. “Sometimes you gotta take a chance.”
Bucky wouldn’t be advising taking a chance if he knew what Steve really wanted. Bucky rolled his eyes and headed over to where Tony and the others were talking. Tony and Pepper were nowhere to be seen, but Natasha had joined the group, sitting on the arm of the sofa next to Bruce. When Bucky approached and leaned down to talk to her, she smiled, stood up to take his hand, and followed him to the dance floor. Bucky watched her as she began to dance. As a slow grin spread across his face, Steve’s stomach tensed into a knot.
Steve caught sight of Pepper and Tony with their arms around each other, dancing much more slowly than the music seemed to call for. Steve coveted the intimacy they shared, in spite of the mob around them.
He made his way over to the cluster of seating and sank down onto the couch by Bruce, who had his phone out and his glasses on. He was probably looking at lab results in the middle of the party. Steve envied the portability of his work—no matter which way he turned he saw something that made him bitter, but he had no one to blame but himself. Bucky’d wanted Steve to dance with him. He’d practically begged.
Steve threw back his head to down the rest of his drink and reached out to set his empty glass down on the table. It hit the surface more loudly than he’d intended, and Bruce’s head jerked up. Clint stared at him from the chair opposite.
“Sorry,” Steve said.
Bruce shrugged with one shoulder. He squinted slightly, and Steve hoped he wouldn’t waste too much energy trying to figure out the cause of Steve’s foul mood. Suddenly Natasha was back, resuming her perch on the arm of the couch on Bruce’s other side. If she was here, where was Bucky?
“You gotta help me out, Steve.”
Steve looked over his shoulder. Bucky stood behind the couch, an exaggeratedly dejected expression on his face. Steve felt a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.
“Amateurs,” Bucky said. “All of ‘em. They can’t dance worth a damn.”
“I beg your pardon,” Natasha said primly.
“Aw, you’re all right.” Bucky threw her a flirtatious smile. “But let me and Steve show you how it’s done.”
“You know I can’t dance,” Steve said.
“C’mon, all those lessons I gave you?” Bucky reached out and nudged at Steve’s shoulder with his knuckles. “Besides, even at your worst you’re better than these kids.” He turned and wiggled his eyebrows at Natasha.
She shook her head at him but laughed. “Good luck with Rogers,” she said.
Tony and Pepper returned just in time to hear Natasha. “Good luck with what?” Pepper asked. “Are you all giving Steve a hard time?”
“Would we do that?” Clint said.
“It’s fine.” Steve smiled at Pepper. “I can hold my own.”
“Barnes is trying to get Steve to dance,” Natasha explained.
Laughing, Tony sat down next to Steve on the couch, which made Steve realize he’d stolen Pepper’s seat. He started to stand, but she waved him off, settling herself on Tony’s knee. His arm wrapped around her waist like it was a reflex.
“Steve, Bruce, Clint—they’re all hopeless,” Natasha continued. “As much as it pains me to say it, Stark, you really are a stand-up guy when it comes to dancing.”
“Don’t forget me,” Bucky chimed in.
“Oh, I wouldn’t forget you.” Natasha gave him a coy smile.
“Barnes, come here,” Tony said, beckoning over his shoulder.
Bucky leaned down until Tony could whisper in his ear. Bucky’s face lit up as he listened. Steve had learned a long time ago to be wary when that smirk appeared, but before he could say anything, Bucky slipped away into the crowd.
“What was that about?” Steve asked, but Tony only smiled.
Bucky returned only a few minutes later, but he also ignored Steve’s questions.
“Come on, Buck,” Steve said. “What are you up to?”
“There it is!” Tony said. He pointed up at the ceiling and grinned at Steve.
The DJ had started a new song, and the rhythmic jangle of a tambourine played over the speakers.
Tony patted Steve on the back. “The first time I ever saw you smile—really smile—was when you heard this song.”
“I don’t even recognize it,” Steve said. Then came the thrum of a base guitar, and it started to sound familiar. “Oh, yeah,” The drums started up. Steve did like this. It had the driving beat and rough, raspy rock-and-roll singing that Tony seemed to like, but it wasn’t to the point of screaming like some of them. The infectious beat cut out from time to time, making you anticipate the moment when the drums would kick in again. It was a lot of fun.
So 1, 2, 3, take my hand and come with me, because you look so fine, and I really wanna make you mine.
Bucky grabbed Steve’s hand and gave it a good yank. Steve let Bucky pull him to his feet and didn’t step away when Bucky pushed up close to talk right into his ear. “C’mon, let’s show ‘em how it’s done.” Steve could feel Bucky’s breath on his neck. “You said you’d celebrate with me when I was all better.” How could Steve say no to that?
Bucky knew—he always knew—the precise moment Steve gave in. He still had a grip on Steve’s hand and led him into the crowd on the dance floor. Steve felt lost, but Bucky spun in place until he was facing Steve, then started doing the Lindy hop, of all things. It worked—somehow it worked with this music, and Steve did his best to follow.
Steve was more coordinated than he’d ever been when they practiced as kids, but it had been a long time. Bucky had always been a good dancer though, and he dragged Steve through the steps.
People started to notice them. How could they not? No one danced like this anymore. They drew back, leaving an open space around Bucky and Steve. Some even stopped dancing and lingered nearby just to watch.
Steve missed a step and kicked Bucky in the leg. “Ow!” Bucky yelled, but he laughed and kept right on dancing. “Watch it, pal!”
Bucky was grinning, his hair falling in his eyes, and he was holding Steve’s hand tightly in his. Steve knew he was grinning like a fool too, and all of a sudden, it hit him: he was happy. He was downright elated. He’d seen the photos of people celebrating the end of the war. The parades, and the sailor kissing the girl in Times Square. It never seemed real. At that moment, watching Bucky dance, both of them alive, together, and happy, Steve understood how it must have felt.
The realization didn’t make Steve any less happy, but it made him lose his focus on what his feet were doing. He fumbled a turn and smashed into Bucky. It could have been embarrassing, but he wrapped his arms around Steve, laughing hard.
All around them, people were clapping. Steve knew he should put some space between him and Bucky—they were still standing with their arms wrapped around each other. With every breath Steve could feel Bucky’s chest heaving against his, but he couldn’t make himself move away, not when Bucky was smiling at him like that.
Maybe I should tell him the truth, Steve thought. Bucky loved Steve, and even if it wasn’t in the way Steve loved him, he wouldn’t stop being Steve’s friend—they were family. If he didn’t want what Steve so desperately wanted, maybe it was better to get it out in the open—clear the air, stop lying, stop hiding, and move on. Try to live his life now rather than regretting the past, like Peggy had urged before Bucky’d come back to him. Maybe he could give up this childish crush and move on.
A touch on Steve’s arm made him turn. It was Natasha. She bounced on her toes like a little girl. “My turn!” she shouted.
Bucky’s arms tightened around Steve’s waist, a quick squeeze before he released him and grabbed Natasha’s hand. She followed him effortlessly. After only a few minutes of watching Steve’s pathetic attempts, she was able to do the steps perfectly. With a more talented partner, Bucky got more adventurous, adding a few swing steps, and Natasha followed him like a champ.
More people were paying attention now, and a few were even mimicking the style, holding hands with their partners instead of the random, formless movements Steve had seen before on the dance floor. The DJ picked up on it, playing a Benny Goodman number even Steve thought of as old, but it was close enough.
Steve couldn’t take his eyes off Bucky, and he was enjoying watching almost as much as he’d enjoyed dancing. At least until Bucky gave him a funny look and jerked his head to the left. There was Pepper, smiling and clapping, and Steve could see that she’d like a turn too. Bucky wanted Steve to ask her to dance, but he didn’t have the guts. He’d been caught up in Bucky’s enthusiasm before, forgetting there was anyone else in the room, but now he noticed that people had their cameras out. They were catching the Avengers at play, and Steve could never enjoy dancing while aware of the scrutiny.
When the song ended, Bucky pressed a kiss to Natasha’s cheek and gallantly led her to the edge of the open circle that had formed around them. With a formal bow, he offered his hand to Pepper, and she took it, looking pleased if embarrassed. Tony put two fingers in his mouth to whistle, then clapped as he watched Bucky twirl Pepper around, teaching her the basic steps. She didn’t take to it as quickly as Natasha, or with the same athleticism, though that might have had something to do with the sky-high heels she was wearing. Bucky slowed things down for her, and her natural grace carried her through. They danced through an entire song, then Bucky led Pepper back to Tony. He held out his arms, and she walked right into his embrace.
Steve averted his gaze and tried to squash the envy that welled up—he wanted to fall into Bucky’s arms the way Pepper fell into Tony’s. Bucky was still in the middle of the cleared circle on the dance floor, and he was smiling at Steve. Not the playful grin he’d worn while he was dancing, but something softer. Steve took a step toward him, but Natasha popped up at Bucky’s elbow. Another song had started playing, a slow one, and after a quick apologetic look at Steve, Bucky took Natasha in his arms.
Just like that, Steve was back in Brooklyn, watching Bucky dance with yet another pretty girl. It would always be like this, wouldn’t it?
Steve turned away. Why torture himself by standing there and staring? He returned to his seat on the couch next to Bruce, who gave him a small smile. “Not too bad, Cap,” he said. “I thought you didn’t dance.” Steve just shrugged.
He tried not to look at the crowd of dancers, but his eyes were continually drawn in that direction. It was a familiar feeling: being a wallflower, abandoned by Bucky. But that wasn’t fair—Bucky had always tried to get Steve to join in. He’d found a date for Steve whenever he could. The awkwardness and loneliness—that was all Steve’s fault. He should consider himself lucky, really, that he’d had Bucky’s undivided attention for so long. Of course Bucky would want to date now that he was acclimated. It made sense that he would want a woman’s attention. And Natasha deserved to be happy too.
Still, when Natasha paused in the dance to stand on her tiptoes and whisper in Bucky’s ear, it was hard to watch. It was even harder to watch the smile that spread across Bucky’s face at whatever she’d said to him.
The next song was bouncier, and Natasha and Bucky moved seamlessly into its rhythm—no more Lindy hop now. Bucky’s hands were on Natasha’s hips. There was nothing truly improper about it, but it was intimate. Bucky leaned down to talk in Natasha’s ear, and she laughed—if not quite carefree, she looked younger than Steve had ever seen her look.
Steve glanced over at Clint, still seated in the chair on the other side of the seating area, to see if he was bothered by the spectacle. Steve has never figured out whether Natasha and Clint were an item or more like brother and sister, but he didn’t seem jealous. If anything, he was watching with a great deal of interest. Bucky and Natasha looked great together. Steve had to admit that. In spite of his jealousy, his dick twitched, so he made himself get up and walk over to one of the many bars dotted around the room. He ordered straight whiskey, though he knew it wouldn’t help.
Once he had a drink in his hand, he turned away from the bar and saw that almost the whole group had returned to the cluster of seating. Bruce was still planted in the same spot. Tony was sitting on the far end of the couch from Bruce with Pepper on his lap. Rhodey was shaking Tony’s hand, making an early exit. Steve thought about asking if he wanted to share a cab but admitted to himself he wouldn’t actually leave until Bucky was ready to go too.
Bucky was nowhere in sight. Neither was Natasha. Steve imagined them off somewhere alone together. The club was full of shadowy alcoves.
When Steve scanned the room, he quickly spotted Bucky and Natasha perched on a couple of stools on the far side. A few shot glasses stood empty on the bar in front of them, and while Steve watched, Bucky tossed back another. Natasha laughed at the face he made once he’d swallowed. Steve sighed. At least they weren’t hiding in some dark corner, leading Steve’s imagination into territory he knew he shouldn’t allow himself to enter.
Steve wove through the crowd and sank onto the couch next to Pepper and Tony. She reached out to squeeze Steve’s hand with a fond smile. Tony was singing—just loud enough to be heard over the loud club music. It took a few moments before Steve recognized the tune: Someday my prince will come.
Anger instantly surged up in Steve’s chest. After the ups and downs of the last hour, it was hard to laugh off something like this. Obviously Tony had figured out about Steve’s pathetic crush. He could be such an ass. Steve tried to come up with something to say to shut Tony up, but when he turned, Tony wasn’t laughing. He nodded slightly, looking pointedly over at Natasha and Bucky. Then Tony jerked his head toward them impatiently.
Steve still sat frozen, and Tony leaned over, which made Pepper slide to one side. She let out a squeak, grabbed Tony’s shoulder so she wouldn’t fall off his lap, and then giggled. Steve realized she was drunk. It was sweet, really. She rarely let herself lose control.
“Steve,” Tony said.
Again, Tony nodded in Bucky’s direction. When Steve didn’t react, Tony rolled his eyes. Then he said—very slowly, as if Steve were the one who was drunk and giggling: “Go talk to him.”
Steve fought down panic. So Tony did know. Soon everyone would know. Steve was pretty sure Natasha knew and had probably told Clint. Peggy figured it out back in the forties. Was it obvious to everyone? God, did Bucky know? If he did, it didn’t stop him from being kind to Steve—he’d never mentioned it or done anything to make Steve feel bad. Still, it was humiliating.
If Steve didn’t go talk to Bucky, would Tony make a fuss? He liked being the center of attention. Steve decided it would be easier to at least pretend he was going along with what Tony wanted, even if he didn’t want to face Bucky just then. He pushed himself up off the sofa and strode across the club to stand by Bucky and Natasha’s stools.
Natasha noticed him first. “Steve!”
Hearing her, Bucky spun around and stood up to throw his arms around Steve, smiling drunkenly. “Steve.” His tone was quiet, warming and tearing at Steve’s heart simultaneously. Steve let his hand rest on Bucky’s back, wishing Bucky didn’t have to be drunk to get close like this. Then he realized that he didn’t—Bucky’d had a few drinks earlier, before they’d danced, but he hadn’t been drunk.
Bucky gave Steve a squeeze around his waist. “Hi, Steve.”
Steve returned Bucky’s smile. “You having fun?”
Bucky nodded. “I’m drunk, Steve.” The goofy grin he was wearing was endearing.
“I noticed,” Steve said. “I wasn’t even sure you could get drunk anymore.”
Bucky’s face scrunched up into a caricature of a thoughtful frown. “Me neither. But it turns out I just have to drink a lot.” His arms tightened around Steve again. “And when I say a lot . . . I mean a lot.”
Steve finally let himself hug Bucky back. “You okay?”
Maybe Bucky tried to nod, but after his head ducked down, it didn’t come back up. His forehead rested against Steve’s shoulder. “Will you take me home?”
“Sure, whatever you want.” Steve looked up at Natasha. In spite of her wryly arched eyebrow, she was smiling fondly. “You staying?”
She nodded. “Have fun, boys.” She hopped off her stool and made her way over the couches. She sat next to Bruce and linked her arm through his. He lifted his gaze from his phone in surprise, then smiled at her.
Bucky turned his head so that his face was mashed flat against Steve’s neck. It snapped Steve’s attention back into focus. His arm wrapped more snugly around Bucky as if it had a mind of its own. He said Steve’s name again—it came out almost like a sigh. Steve’s heart started racing.
If Bucky knew. . . . If he knew how Steve felt about him and he was acting like this. . . . But then Steve remembered Bucky’s reaction to the couple in the Metro station. When face to face with something like that, he couldn’t even look at Steve.
Steve led Bucky toward the door. “Come on, Buck. Let’s get you home.”
As they stood on the sidewalk looking for a cab, Bucky leaned heavily on Steve’s shoulder. He was humming softly, though Steve couldn’t catch the tune. Steve hadn’t seen him drunk in a long time. During the war, even when the guys spent an evening in a pub, Bucky’d stuck to just a pint or two. He’d always been on his guard, as if he might be called up for a mission at a moment’s notice.
Now, he was loose-limbed and genially unfocused, sprawling out on the back seat after Steve shoved him inside the cab and falling right up against Steve’s shoulder as soon as the door was shut behind them. After giving the driver the address, Steve fell quiet, content to listen to Bucky’s quiet humming.
Bucky let Steve haul him out of the car and leaned heavily against him while they waited for the elevator. Steve put his arm around Bucky’s waist to hold him steady, and Bucky turned, tilting up his chin to look into Steve’s eyes. Steve gulped. They were so close, all Steve would have to do was lower his head a few inches and their lips would meet.
Instead, Steve stiffened, shifting away from the warmth of Bucky’s body. Bucky’s drunken smile fell off his face, and he took two steps toward the doors, though the elevator hadn’t arrived yet.
He didn’t answer. Steve opened his mouth to ask what was wrong just as the elevator dinged. The doors slid open, and Bucky stepped inside. He jabbed one finger at the button for their floor. His happy, relaxed slouch had been replaced by angry tension in every muscle. “You coming?” he said brusquely without looking at Steve.
The elevator started to close, so Steve scrambled to get in, pushing the doors back with one hand. He glanced over at Bucky, who was still glaring at his feet. “You okay?”
Bucky sighed. Then he bit his lip. Finally, he answered. “I saw two girls kissing in a corner of the club.”
Steve froze. Bucky’d said it so quietly, it was hard to get a read on his tone. While Steve was still struggling to find words, Bucky spoke again: “And we saw those two fellas in Washington.”
“Well. . . .” The elevator car seemed much smaller all of a sudden—suffocating. “It’s a lot more accepted now.” The silence was painful. “Bucky—”
“But you don’t accept it.” Bucky’s head snapped up, and he started at Steve.
“What? Why would you think that?” Steve lifted his hand but stopped himself before reaching out to touch Bucky’s arm. “Everyone should have the right to be with the person they love.”
Bucky let out a bitter laugh. “Is that what they taught you to say? Captain America’s gotta please everybody, right? What do you really think?”
Ten minutes ago Steve had been hoping that Bucky knew—that he was leaning into Steve and gazing at him fondly because he knew. Now Bucky was angry because he thought Steve was a bigot?
“You were embarrassed when we saw those fellas,” Bucky said. “I saw your face. You didn’t know where to look.”
The elevator reached their floor, and Bucky strode off. It took Steve a moment to get his feet moving, and he jogged to catch up. “Bucky, wait.”
Bucky had the door unlocked by the time Steve reached it, charging inside and tripping over the sneakers Steve had left on the floor after his run that morning. He cursed as he stumbled, and Steve reached out to keep him from falling. Bucky’s shirt rode up as Steve’s hand slid around his waist. His fingers touched bare skin. Bucky let out a strangled groan and tried to push Steve away.
“Do I disgust you?” Bucky said in an angry whisper.
Bucky’s face was inches away. Steve let his palm press against Bucky’s side, but Bucky didn’t even seem to notice. “Buck, why would you even—?”
“I was just so . . . so damn lonely, you know? . . . I never wanted you to know.” Bucky’s hands fisted in the front of Steve’s shirt. Now that his anger had faded, he was unsteady on his feet again. “I didn’t want you to think. . . . I’m sorry.”
“Sorry for what?” Steve wrapped his arm more tightly around Bucky to keep him upright.
“Lots of guys did it in the army. And I thought I was going to die.” A bitter smile crossed his face. “I was kind of right.”
Understanding finally sank into Steve’s brain, and he froze: Bucky had been with other men during the war. It threw everything into chaos inside Steve’s head. In spite of a twinge of jealousy and regret, a brand new glimmer of hope flared up. It was wonderfully terrifying.
“Bucky.” Steve said carefully. “What are you saying?”
“I know what you must think of me, but I keep hoping. You look at me sometimes, and I start to hope that maybe—but then in Washington. Those two guys on the Metro. And you practically jumped out of your skin downstairs.”
“How drunk are you?” Steve demanded.
Both of his arms were wrapped around Bucky now, holding him close, but Bucky shoved at Steve’s chest.
“Dammit, Steve, I’m not saying this because I’m drunk. I’ve been hiding this for so long, and now I’ve really fucked up—”
“No, Bucky, no.” Steve felt an explosion of hysterical laughter threaten to erupt out of him. “You’ve got it all wrong. I just didn’t want to. . . .”
“Didn’t want to what?” He still held the fabric of Steve’s shirt in a vice grip and used it to give Steve a gentle shake. His eyes searched Steve’s face frantically.
“Take advantage. If you’re too drunk, I mean—I’m pretty sure if I touch you I won’t be able to stop.”
Bucky shook Steve again, this time not so gently. “What are you—? Steve, are you—?”
“I’ve been in love with you for as long as I can remember.”
The anxiety in Bucky’s face melted away, and he looked up at Steve—it made him think of what Peggy had said: He looked at you like you hung the moon and stars.
“I was always too scared to tell you. Then I was Captain America, for God’s sake, and the war and—” Steve broke off. He didn’t want to talk about the fall, and he knew he was babbling, but Bucky was smiling at him now. “And then you were gone, and I thought I’d never see you again. And I was stupid—I was lucky enough to get you back, and instead of telling you, I—”
Bucky released Steve’s shirt with his right hand, and fingers brushed Steve’s cheek before wrapping around the back of his neck.
“Sometimes I started to hope too,” Steve said, “but then—but it doesn’t matter now, except you’re drunk, and I don’t wanna—”
“Shut up,” Bucky said, and then he kissed Steve, his lips warm and soft. Steve closed his eyes and held on tight. When Bucky pulled away, he panted out, “Take advantage all you want. I’m begging you.” He kissed Steve again—this time it was even better than the first.
Bucky rested his forehead against Steve’s and sighed happily. “I’ve wanted to do that for a long time.”
“How long?” Steve said it like it was a joke, but Bucky saw right through him.
“Do you remember the first time I kissed a girl?”
“Mary Ellen McAuliffe in the seventh grade,” Steve answered promptly.
“Since about a week before that.”
Steve bent his head down for another kiss, and Bucky met him enthusiastically, his tongue gently parting Steve’s lips and sliding inside his mouth. Steve pulled Bucky closer. The movement shifted their balance, tilting them sideways. Bucky went with it, shoving Steve back against the wall. As Bucky’s mouth moved down to Steve’s neck, Steve’s hands slid over Bucky’s ribs, resting on his hips briefly before coming up to grab Bucky’s head and claim his mouth again. When they parted, Bucky was gasping, and Steve rubbed his cheek over the stubble on Bucky’s jaw.
“You do realize I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing,” Steve said. “I mean, I’ve never—not with a man.”
His words evaporated when Bucky tugged at his shirt, yanking it out of his waistband and shoving his hands up underneath. His fingers skittered over Steve’s stomach, making him groan. Bucky nudged Steve’s head aside with his forehead and sucked on his earlobe.
“I’m not worried,” Bucky murmured against Steve’s skin as his lips traced a trail down Steve’s throat. “You’ve always been a quick learner.”
Steve laughed as Bucky shoved up even closer, his hips grinding into Steve’s. “God, Buck, that’s just—”
Bucky cut him off with another kiss. Steve twined his fingers through Bucky’s hair so he could really hold on and kissed him back—really kissed him—then pulled away to look. Bucky’s lips were pink and shining, and he was breathing hard. Steve ran his hands over Bucky’s shoulders then down over his chest and ribs until he could tuck his hands up under his shirt and get to bare skin.
They came together for another kiss before Steve fell to his knees, shoving the T-shirt out of the way so that he could get his mouth on Bucky’s stomach. He worked on Bucky’s belt as he pressed kisses to the trail of dark hair over his belly button. Once Bucky’s fly was open, Steve tugged at his underwear—the boxer briefs that he hadn’t let himself fantasize about. He pulled them down just enough to reveal one hipbone, then tore his gaze away to look up at Bucky, who was watching with hot, dark eyes.
With his eyes still locked on Bucky’s, Steve pulled the waistband away from Bucky’s body so that his dick could spring free. Bucky’s eyes closed tight, and he choked out a strangled moan. Steve leaned close, experimenting with a swipe of his tongue.
“Oh God,” Bucky groaned. At the sound of it—gravelly and desperate—Steve bent his head and took Bucky’s dick into his mouth. Bucky moaned again, then huffed out a laugh. “See? Quick learner.” His hips pushed forward, and Steve had to withdraw slightly so he wouldn’t get choked.
“Sorry,” Bucky whispered.
Steve gave Bucky’s hip a squeeze in response, then left his hand there, holding Bucky still and anchoring himself. Wrapping his lips around Bucky’s dick again.
“Jesus, Steve.” His fingers clenched in Steve’s hair, and he shifted his feet, trying to find his balance, but his pants were still around his thighs. “Wait, I can’t move like this.”
Steve pulled away and pressed his cheek against Bucky’s hip.
“C’mon.” Bucky’s voice came out low and raspy as he shoved the waistband lower on his legs. “Please.”
Steve didn’t need urging. He couldn’t wait to get back to it, but the brief pause had cleared his head, and he realized he didn’t actually want his first time with Bucky to happen while kneeling on the cold tile of the entryway, half-dressed. A plan for what he did want started to form in his head. He looked up at Bucky, who was already tugging his pants up.
“Bedroom?” He grabbed Steve’s hand to help him up.
“Bedroom,” Steve agreed, then dragged Bucky down the hall until he pulled his hand out of Steve’s grasp. When Steve turned to protest, he saw Bucky was already taking off his T-shirt. He stopped midstride to watch, making Bucky run right into him. It was too much temptation to pass up, now that he knew he could touch Bucky in all the ways he wanted to.
Steve ran his hands over Bucky’s chest, skimmed over his ribs, then up the valley of his spine, pulling him close for a kiss. Bucky met him eagerly, his tongue shoving between Steve’s lips, but pushed Steve to get him moving again. When they reached the bed, Bucky paused to shimmy out of his pants, and then he was naked.
He was naked. Sprawled out on the bed, beautiful. Now, finally, Steve could kiss him. Touch him in all the ways he’d been dreaming about for months. Years. His entire life, it felt like.
Bucky was hard, his dick curving up to his belly. He was hard for Steve.
Steve swallowed. It was hard to get enough breath to answer. “Yeah?”
“What the hell are you waiting for?”
“Oh! Yeah!” Steve threw himself on the bed next to Bucky, who immediately rolled onto his side and pulled Steve close. He kissed him before shoving him away to tug his shirt over his head. He pushed Steve back flat onto the bed and trailed a line of kisses down his body.
“What are you doing, Buck?”
Bucky snorted a laugh. “What does it look like I’m doing?”
His progress slowed as his path crossed by Steve’s left nipple. He lapped at it before his mouth closed on it, and he bit down gently. It startled a squawk out of Steve, and Bucky laughed again as he fumbled with the fly of Steve’s pants. He bent to kiss the skin exposed as he undid the buttons.
“Wait,” Steve blurted out.
Bucky instantly stopped and lifted his head. “You don’t want me to?” He crawled back up the bed and looked down at Steve’s face, frowning.
“No, I do. Of course, jeez, I just—” Steve could feel his cheeks getting warm, though he couldn’t keep an embarrassed smile off his face. He tucked his face into the crook of Bucky’s neck.
“C’mon, you can’t pretend to be shy with me.” Bucky nudged Steve’s shoulder, gently pushing him away. “Not after the way you were sucking my dick out there.”
The comment startled a laugh out of Steve. Bucky had a point. It wasn’t that he was shy exactly. He just wasn’t used to talking about this—asking for what he wanted. “I just—”
“Yeah?” Bucky leaned close.
Steve closed his eyes, expecting another kiss, but it didn’t come. He opened his eyes to find Bucky squinting down at him.
“You’ve got a plan, don’t you.” Bucky laughed. “A grand plan. You’ve got this all figured out.”
“Well . . .”
Bucky nuzzled the hair behind Steve’s ear. “So you’ve been thinking about this a lot, huh?”
His hand slid over Steve’s ribs, making him shiver. He had to swallow before he could answer. “Yeah.”
“That’s good.” Bucky’s lips were close enough to brush Steve’s ear when he spoke. “That’s really good. I’ve been thinking about it too.”
“Yeah.” Bucky gave him another kiss. “So let’s hear it.”
“Okay.” But Steve felt too self-conscious to say anything. He tried for a kiss instead, but Bucky pulled away.
“C’mon, Steve, I just want to know what you—”
He cut himself off with a laugh when Steve grabbed him and rolled them over so that he was on top. He bent his head to put his mouth right next to Bucky’s ear. It was easier to whisper than to say it out loud. “I want you inside me.”
When Bucky froze, Steve started to pull away, but then Bucky grabbed him tight and gave him a wet kiss. “Jesus Christ, Steve.”
“Is that okay?”
“Okay? Jesus, yeah. I can’t even—” Bucky kissed him again. “But you’ve never—”
“No, but I’ve . . . tried a few things. On my own. So I’m pretty sure I’ll like it.”
A garbled noise came out of Bucky’s throat. Steve didn’t realize that it was a good kind of garbled until Bucky started rutting up against him. “God, why are you—?” Bucky let out a kind of growl. “Why the hell are you still wearing pants?” He shoved Steve off of him and tugged at his jeans, but his fingers were clumsy. Steve pushed Bucky’s hands away and pulled off the rest of his clothes himself. The second he was done, Bucky pushed him flat on the bed and settled between his legs.
Now when Bucky thrust against him, Steve could feel Bucky’s hard dick pressing right against his belly. Nothing between them. Steve pushed up, shifting so his dick slid right alongside Bucky’s.
“Jesus,” Bucky panted out. “We have to—” He lowered his head for a searing hot kiss, then leaned to one side, resting on his elbow. “Okay,” Bucky said. He ran his fingers through his hair. “Okay. We need something slippery.”
“I have—wait, here.”
Steve wriggled out from under Bucky and stretched across the bed to get the bottle of lube he’d hidden in his nightstand drawer.
Bucky had turned to watch him, and his eyebrows shot up. “You have—?”
“I told you I tried some stuff.” Steve looked away. It felt like the mood was slipping away. “If you don’t want to—”
“No, are you crazy? Of course I want to.” He reached out for Steve. “Get over here.” Steve hesitated, but Bucky got up on his knees, tackled him flat onto the mattress, and climbed back on top of him. After a few kisses, Bucky smirked down at Steve and said, “I shouldn’t be surprised you’re prepared. Star-spangled man with the—”
Steve tried to shut him up with another kiss, and Bucky ducked away. When his lips parted in a laugh, Steve caught him and licked into his mouth. Bucky moaned, his hands tightening in Steve’s hair.
With his mouth still sealed with Steve’s, Bucky let himself fall to one side. He was still pressed close, his hips twitching, his dick pushing against Steve’s thigh, but his hand was free. He wrapped it around Steve’s dick, stroking gently.
It was so much better than his own hand—Steve lost himself for a moment, even forgetting to return Bucky’s kisses, and suddenly Bucky was pulling away, moving down Steve’s body, taking Steve’s dick into his mouth. He sucked hard, leaving Steve moaning, then his hand clasped Steve’s thigh, his fingers slick, making Steve’s breath catch in anticipation.
Bucky went slowly, cool fingers gliding over Steve’s skin, rubbing lightly, then pressing harder before finally slipping inside.
“Breathe,” Bucky whispered.
Steve hadn’t even realized he’d been holding his breath. As he let it out in a long, shuddering sigh, Bucky pushed in a second finger and again closed his mouth around Steve’s dick.
“God, Buck. God, it’s good, so good, please—”
Steve spread his legs wider, and Bucky let out an approving hum. His fingers moved, sliding and shifting. Steve was torn, thrusting up into Bucky’s mouth and pushing back to get more of that astonishing pressure inside.
“Wait, Buck, you’re gonna make me—Please, not yet.”
Bucky chuckled and pressed his lips to Steve’s inner thigh. “It’s okay. Don’t hold back.” He turned his head and kissed the other thigh. “I’m sure we could get you ready to go again soon.”
It was tempting. God, so tempting, but Steve had dreamed about this for so long. “I just kind of wanted . . .” Steve trailed off, feeling awkward.
Bucky’s fingers were still inside him. Steve didn’t want to be talking right now. But Bucky understood.
“This part of the plan too? You are such a sap,” he said. He shifted to the side, kissed Steve’s hip, and whispered “Whatever you want.”
He started moving his hand again, gliding in and out, but he didn’t touch Steve’s dick. Even so, Steve wasn’t sure how long he’d be able to wait.
Bucky’s fingers slid out, skimmed in circles several times, then slid right back in. Steve couldn’t keep still—he could feel the heat and pressure building low in his belly. If Bucky didn’t stop, he was going to come too soon.
“Please, Buck,” Steve gasped out. “You gotta stop or—or I’ll—”
“You know, a good superior officer knows when to listen to his second in command. And I have a pretty good plan myself.” Bucky’s tone was almost conversational. “See, in my plan I keep doing this.” Bucky’s fingers pressed deeper, making Steve groan. “And this.” He took Steve’s dick between his lips and sucked hard, bobbing his head several times before pulling away. “Until you can’t stand it—until you come like crazy.”
“God, Bucky, please.”
“And then, when you’re all wrung out, all relaxed, then I’ll get you hard again, and then I’ll fuck you nice and slow.” Bucky’s fingers withdrew, and Steve said his name again, almost in a whine—he wanted Bucky’s fingers back inside him. Bucky said, “We’ve got all the time in the world.” Then he kissed Steve sweetly.
When Bucky touched Steve again, his fingers were even more slippery—he must have paused to get more lube. Once again, they rubbed in slow circles before pushing gently inside. Three fingers, now, even tighter, and so, so good. Steve pushed his hips off the bed, trying to get Bucky’s fingertips where they felt the best, until Steve was shuddering, head to toe.
Every nerve was tingling so it took him a moment to realize it when Bucky pulled his hand away and wriggled up the bed for a kiss. It was wet and messy—Steve was too far gone to be coordinated. He reached out, and his hand met Bucky’s thigh before being drawn as if by a magnet to his dick. Bucky groaned into Steve’s mouth. Drawing that sound from Bucky went straight to Steve’s own dick, and he tightened his grip, hoping for another moan. Bucky obliged—a deep throaty rumble as his forehead fell hard onto Steve’s shoulder.
“God, Steve, you—” He pressed a kiss to Steve’s collarbone, then lifted his head to give Steve a drunken grin. “I can’t think.”
Steve didn’t answer, just worked his hand even faster. He gazed at Bucky’s face. His eyes fell closed, and his mouth hung open slightly. “Jesus, Steve,” he breathed out. “You’d better quit it if you want to stick to the plan.”
“The hell with the plan,” Steve growled. “Fuck the plan.”
Bucky let out a breathy laugh as he arched his back, craning into Steve’s touch.
Steve loved the feeling of Bucky’s dick. Warm, soft skin over hard flesh, straining, begging to be touched. It was even better when Bucky’s hips nudged forward, helplessly thrusting into Steve’s fist. His movements grew jerky and uneven, and he groaned again as his dick pulsed, hot and slick on Steve’s fingers. His whole body went limp, a dead weight along Steve’s right side. Steve turned toward him, wrapping an arm around him and pulling him close for a kiss.
“Sorry,” Bucky panted at the exact same moment that Steve said, “That was amazing.”
Bucky’s lips, still pressed against Steve’s, spread in a smile. “Yeah? Seems like we left out a few vital parts of your plan.” After another kiss, he raised his head to peer down at Steve. “My plan too, for that matter.”
“Like you said, we’ve got lots of time.”
Steve was pressed against Bucky, and he couldn’t stop nudging forward with his hips, yearning toward Bucky, whose kisses grew slow and lingering—maddening when Steve’s blood was still pumping at a breakneck pace.
“C’mere,” Bucky murmured against Steve’s mouth. He sounded half asleep already. “Whatever you want.”
Steve’s arms tightened around Bucky’s body. His dick brushed against Bucky strong thigh, and he pressed hard into the contact. “Okay?” Steve asked. “Is this okay? It’s not very—”
“Yeah,” Bucky said into Steve’s ear. “Yeah, I don’t need anything fancy.”
Steve almost laughed. Fancy. He couldn’t do fancy. He could only manage graceless rutting while Bucky murmured encouragement.
All he needed was Bucky—the heat of his body, the pressure of his hands, his breath in Steve’s ear. Bucky wove his fingers through Steve’s hair, steering him into a kiss. Steve shoved closer until he was half on top of Bucky, plunging his tongue into Bucky’s mouth. He moved faster, hot urgency coiling in his gut, but it still took him by surprise—an explosion of white hot pleasure that left him shaking.Bucky kissed him, a dozen sweet kisses. Steve stared down at Bucky’s grin until his trembling arms buckled. Bucky grunted as Steve’s weight fell on him, then shoved at Steve’s shoulder. “You’re crushing me, pal.”
“Sorry.” Steve rolled off Bucky onto the mattress, hating the distance between them, but right away Bucky pressed close, draping one arm across Steve’s chest. Steve could feel the movements of his breathing.
“I just realized something,” Bucky said quietly.
“I never said I’m in love with you too.”
Steve smiled and pushed his face against the side of Bucky’s head—the only place he could reach without moving too much. “That’s okay. I think I figured that out on my own.” Steve rolled onto his side for a real kiss. “You are in serious trouble though.”
“What are you talking about?” Bucky said with a breathless laugh. “I didn’t do anything.”
“Now that I know what this is like, I’ll never be able to keep my hands off you.”
Bucky laughed again.
“I’m not kidding. You may never sleep again, buddy.”
“Fine by me.” Bucky sighed. “I was asleep too long.”
When Steve didn’t answer, Bucky poked him in the side, just below his ribs. “Quit it. You’re killing the mood. It was just a joke.”
“Sorry. I just don’t like thinking about it.”
“I don’t like thinking about you out there in the ice either,” Bucky said, sliding his arm around Steve’s waist. “But if it hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t be here right now.”
“And that’s good?”
“It’s the best. The war is over.” Bucky paused to give Steve a kiss. “We have buckets of money.” Another kiss. “And I can make an honest man out of you someday.”
Steve didn’t know what to say. He wanted that, of course he did—to be able to marry Bucky? But when he thought about that, he imagined their personal lives being splashed all over the internet and gossipy TV shows.
“What’s the matter?” Bucky said. “You don’t want to get hitched? You sick of me already?”
“I just never imagined telling the world about this.”
Bucky shrugged. “We don’t have to.”
“No. No, I want to.”
Bucky’s arms tightened around Steve. “You’ll be the gay kids’ favorite superhero.”
“I’m not joking.”
Steve should be used to this by now—the idea that he’s a role model when he never really did anything special. Actually, if he could do this: be brave enough to be honest about his love for Bucky, that would feel more like an accomplishment because it would be a conscious decision on Steve’s part. Most of the time, he felt he hadn’t had much say in how his life had gone since he met Dr. Erskine. He tried to do his duty, but the idea of duty was muddier than it used to be. Seventy years ago he felt like it was his duty to hide who he was. Now, maybe it was his duty to do the opposite. It was daunting.
Steve shook off the thoughts and smiled at Bucky. He smiled back, but Steve knew that expression—it wasn’t genuine. It was the smile he gave when he was holding his tongue. A kiss brought out Bucky’s genuine grin, but Steve had a feeling that Bucky didn’t like the idea of hiding.
“Why didn’t you ever tell me before?” Steve asked quietly.
“You didn’t tell me either,” Bucky pointed out.
“I know, but you’ve always been better at this stuff than me.”
“Hey, don’t blame it on me. How could I know that this was the one secret you could keep from me?” After a thoughtful pause, Bucky said. “To be honest, even if I’d known, I’m not sure I would have done anything about it.”
“Why not? Did you think it was wrong? Oh God, do you still—?”
Bucky slid one hand up Steve’s back. “No, I don’t think it’s wrong, but it could’ve gotten us into a hell of a lot of trouble, and it was my job to look out for you.”
The urge to argue must have been written all over Steve’s face, but Bucky didn’t let him get out even one word of protest.
“C’mon, Steve, you’re worried about what people are going to think now? Imagine what it would have been like then. When I was in Europe, before you got there—”
Bucky broke off and Steve fought off a surge of jealousy. It didn’t matter now, he knew—or it shouldn’t.
“It was no picnic. Sneaking around, always afraid of somebody finding out, or hearing something. I wouldn’t have wanted that for us. Now at home, that was different. Maybe we could have kept it a secret. But I was too afraid before. I think I needed to be convinced that I could die at any second before I was brave enough to try it.”
Steve hugged Bucky to him tightly.
“Then you showed up,” Bucky continued. “Looking like this, and I—it was just so strange. Part of me couldn’t even believe it was really you. And we were never alone anyway.”
“Once I was back with Hydra, I promised myself if I ever got out, I would tell you, no matter what. I would tell you how I felt, cause I didn’t want to wait anymore, knowing that we didn’t have forever, and then they told me you were gone.” Bucky’s arms were clamped around Steve now like he was afraid he might slip away. “But then when I woke up, I thought you had a hot red-headed girlfriend.” Bucky barked out a laugh, but there was no humor in it. “And I was such a wreck. Missing an arm, and so scrawny—”
“You were the most beautiful thing I ever laid eyes on.”
Bucky’s body relaxed against Steve’s. “So we were both stupid.”
Steve squirmed around on the bed until he could tuck his head under Bucky’s chin. Bucky grabbed the comforter and pulled as much of it over them as he could while they were lying on top of it. Then his hand ran through Steve’s hair over and over. Steve was happy, comfortable, and tired in the best possible way.
“Are you falling asleep?” Bucky gave Steve’s hair a gentle tug. “Cause I figured the whole super soldier thing would make for a pretty short recovery time.”
Steve tried to answer but could only let out an incoherent mumble.
Bucky kissed his temple “You can sleep.”
When Steve woke up, he was alone in the bed with the comforter tucked around him. He thought about getting up to go find Bucky and wondered if he needed to bother putting on some pants to do it. Before he could make up his mind, Bucky emerged from the bathroom wearing black boxer briefs and a towel around his neck.
Steve jumped out of bed just to kiss him.
“Hi,” Steve said, twining his arms round Bucky’s waist. He knew he had a stupid grin on his face, but it didn’t look like Bucky minded.
“Hi.” After a second kiss, Bucky pulled away and tilted his head. “You look good like this”
Steve laughed. “Hair a mess and kind of sticky all over?”
“Naked and smiling,” Bucky said, then reeled Steve in for another kiss.
Bucky smelled good—fresh and clean. His skin was soft and still damp in places. Steve couldn’t resist touching him, kissing down his neck and over one shoulder. “I didn’t get to do this as much as I wanted last night,” he murmured against Bucky’s breastbone.
Bucky’s voice came out all breathless and high-pitched, and it made Steve grin. He bent lower to press a kiss to Bucky’s belly, then got down on his knees. He yanked down the briefs on one side to kiss Bucky’s hipbone before opening his mouth to gently gnaw at it. Bucky groaned. Steve traced the hard line of his dick through the soft fabric with his fingers, then followed the same path with his mouth. He wanted skin, so he pulled the briefs down and closed his lips around Bucky’s dick, hands on his hips to hold him steady.
“Jesus, Steve, that’s good.” Bucky’s hands threaded through Steve’s hair.
The sound of the front door banging open startled them both. Steve pulled off with an embarrassing slurping noise, looked up at Bucky in a panic.
“Steve?” It was Natasha.
Steve cringed and whispered. “I was supposed to meet her in the gym this morning.”
Bucky grinned, touched Steve’s cheek. “It’s OK.”
Steve raised his voice, “Just a second!” He jumped to his feet.
“Here,” Bucky whispered. He was laughing quietly as he yanked his underwear back up. He pulled the towel off his shoulders and handed it to Steve. “Tell her you were getting in the shower.”
“Is everything okay?” Natasha called from the living room.
She didn’t sound concerned at all, but she sounded curious, which was probably worse. Steve wrapped the towel around his waist, praying that Natasha wouldn’t come down the hall looking for him.
Steve walked to the door, planning to just lean out and talk to Natasha, give her some excuse, but he caught a glimpse of Bucky’s mouth before he turned away and went to the closet—a tight line. This was exactly what he’d said he didn’t want: sneaking around, hiding, worrying that someone would find out.
The last thing in the world Steve wanted was to hurt Bucky when they’d barely gotten started, and this wasn’t the public eye—the press and the internet. Natasha was a friend.
Steve stepped out into the hall, clutching the towel with one hand. He was nervous, and he’d never noticed that his bath towels were so darn small. He still had to stifle a smile when Natasha saw him and did a double take.
“Whoa,” Natasha said. She looked at him and cocked her head. “Okay.”
“I’m sorry. I forgot about our session in the gym.”
“It’s all right.” She clearly expected more of an explanation.
“I’m kind of in the middle of something,” Steve said.
“Okay. In the middle of what, exactly?”
Steve turned to look back into the bedroom. Bucky was standing in the middle of the rug, watching him.
After a pause, Natasha said, “Excuse me?”
“That’s what I was doing. I mean, who I was—” A fierce blush was flooding over Steve’s face, down his neck, and over his chest—his whole body would be bright red in a minute, and Natasha would see almost every inch of it because of the damn tiny towel. “Well, we were . . .”
Steve looked at Bucky again. He had a huge grin on his face, and Steve couldn’t help but smile back. He couldn’t seem to remember why he thought they had to hide. Seeing Bucky smiling at him like that, Steve wanted to tell whole world.
When he turned his gaze back to Natasha, she stared at him for a few more seconds before she rolled her eyes. “Finally.”