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The first time it happens, Steve isn’t even sure that he hasn’t imagined it. He wakes up abruptly. The ceiling fan is creaking but it’s been doing that since last night. He lies very still. There is no movement except the breeze trickling in through the open window and stirring the thin privacy curtains: the same window that Steve hadn’t opened last night because it had been pouring rain.

He sits up slowly, swinging his feet to rest lightly on the floor. His shield is propped against the bedside table, but there is nowhere for a person to hide in this room. He can even see into the bathroom thanks to a well-placed mirror.

Steve looks back at the bed. As usual, Steve had been sleeping on the left half. He usually barely moves enough in the night to even disturb the bedding on the right side. One of the pillows is on the floor now. Maybe it’s his imagination, but the blankets seem ruffled and the other pillow indented.

He goes to the window, still walking silently out of force of habit. He pushes the white curtains out of the way. The window has been thrust wide open by the wind. It’s mostly grey skies still but there are small squares of blue lurking. The streets shine with puddles and he can almost smell the sea. A man across the road is dragging various signs out onto the street from his shop, getting ready to open, but Steve doesn’t speak enough Polish to guess what they say.

The window latch has been broken clean off and set on the ledge with very deliberate care. Steve pulls the window shut again, but without the latch to secure it, it blows back open with a thwack almost immediately. That probably explains the sound that woke him up.

At breakfast, over a third cup of dishwater coffee that doesn’t do anything for him anyway, Steve says “You didn’t by any chance break into my room through the window last night to sleep in my bed, did you?”

Sam raises his eyebrow. “Why would I break in? I have a key card.”

“Yeah,” Steve said. “Yeah, I figured.” It wouldn’t have been the first time they slept in the same bed. They’ve shared rooms when hotels were all booked up, and like most soldiers, both of them understand that sometimes being in a space that’s all yours, alone and quiet is the most luxurious thing you could ever ask for, but just as often, it’s so unfamiliar it’s complete torture. But Sam’s not really the kind of guy who’d break into your room through the window when he had the key, just to mess with you. Not like the person Steve suspects is the perpetrator of the crime.

“Something happened last night,” Sam says. It’s not a question.

Steve nods, puts his hand against the back of his neck where his hair has been growing out a bit more than he likes. “The lock was broken off my window this morning.” He doesn’t mention how it was set so apologetically on the ledge.

“Nothing’s gone though?”

“Nope,” Steve says. “But—”

“But?”

Steve shakes his head. “No. I’ll tell you if it happens again, or, you know, if it becomes important.”

Sam shrugs. “Okay,” he says, meaning, I trust you and I can already guess what happened, anyway. “We’ve got an appointment at the records office at eight thirty. I’ve already checked us out.”

Steve washes down a bite of stale croissant with the last of his coffee and stands to follow Sam out onto the street.

The next night, at the next hotel, Steve leaves the window open, turns back the covers on both sides of the bed and tries to look like he’s fallen asleep before he actually has, but when he wakes the next morning he can tell that’s he’s been alone the whole night.

+

The second time, Steve and Sam are in a tiny seaside town in Spain just past the border to France. Steve has been getting what Sam refers to as “the crazy eyes” and so instead of climbing on to the third flight in less than twenty-four hours they’re driving from Lyon to Barcelona.

“We’re just going to pick up cold case files!” Sam argues, even after they’re in the rental car and pulling onto the motorway. “They’re not going anywhere.”

“But I can—”

“I’m well aware that you can stay up for forty-eight hours straight and that you can forego any food that isn’t put in front of you while you are trapped on an airplane and have nothing better to do than eat it and that you can spend every free second reading old briefings which clearly aren’t even useful to this mission. I know you can. What I’m saying is don’t.

“But—”

“Nope,” Sam says, angrily readjusting the rear-view mirror. “I do not want to hear it. You are the single shining example that not every idiot who gets himself jumped up on superhuman juice has to get rid of all his common sense to fit the muscles in. Don’t go proving the popular media wrong.”

“I have it on good authority that I can be very reckless and self-sacrificing when I want to be,” Steve complains, crossing his arms and tilting his chin up just slightly.

“God save us from heroes,” Sam mutters, leaning forward to rest his head on the steering wheel for a moment.

“Watch the road!” Steve says. Sam looks up and tosses a smug look in Steve’s direction.

“That’s my boy,” Sam says before obediently directing his gaze into the distance.

They make it to the hotel at five thirty, wander around the town and then walk down to the beach to stick their toes in the water. Three girls wading in the water watch them and then lean in, laughing to each other. It’s all so normal. Steve feels like he’s breathing from his whole lungs for the first time in weeks.

He thinks about Brighton Beach in 1936, floating on his back and imagining the sun pouring straight through him, drying his lungs out and filling him up. Bucky and Janet Blume and Freddy Castellano holding their heads under water to see who would have to be the first to come up for air. Bucky, trying to be quiet, swimming up from underneath, grabbing him and pulling him under the water, shouting “Shark attack! Help, help! He’s losing his legs to a Great White!”.  Freddy never roughhoused with Steve, he always treated him like glass, but Bucky had a way of doing it that left just the right amount of bruise.

“Better?” Sam asks, already knowing the answer.

Steve nods, staring out at the horizon. “Do you want to eat at that restaurant back there?” He asks, absently gesturing to the collection of plastic tables under umbrellas huddled around a grill that sits on a deck jutting out into the sandy beach. “Good people-watching.”

“Sure,” Sam says. He looks smug again. It makes Steve roll his eyes.

Later, when they're back at the hotel, Steve pushes the window open as wide as it will go before climbing into bed and leaves the curtains all the way back as well. He can hear the waves beat against the shore. Sam was right; he hasn’t been eating even half as much as he should be. He feels better. He knows already that it’s going to happen again.

He wakes right away at the slight creak of the bedframe dipping beneath another body’s weight.

“James,” he says. “Bucky.”

“I can’t sleep anymore,” Bucky whispers. “I close my eyes, and I dream that…” Silence falls; the dark of the room is absolute. Bucky must have pulled the blackout curtains after climbing through the window. “I haven’t slept in three days. It’s becoming a problem.”

Steve lets out the breath he’s been holding, blows out all the air in his lungs and sucks in his next breath like maybe the imprint of Bucky will be left on the air and it will tell him something if he holds it in his lungs for long enough.

“Is it medical? Do you need-”

“No,” Bucky says. “Don’t talk to me, just let me.”

Steve begins to sit up, to turn around, but immediately there is the press of cold metal on his bare forearm. He’d used that hand to make Steve flinch, so Steve doesn’t. He holds still for a moment and then slowly relaxes back onto his side, facing the wall. “Okay,” he says. “I won’t turn around.”

He puts his head back down onto the pillow, evens out his breathing. Behind him, there are the soft sounds of rustling fabric; the bed creaks as Bucky moves around. It’s so familiar the Steve has to close his eyes tightly and swallow. They lay both lay perfectly still for a long, long time, and Steve panics, thinking, he has to fall asleep. He won’t come back if it doesn’t work.

“Can I—”

“No.” Bucky says again. He doesn’t sound as firm this time. He shifts again slightly, and Steve is pretty sure that he’s turning from lying on his back to his side. After another moment of painful stillness Steve feels a warm palm settle on his waist. Steve tries hard to lean back into the touch exactly the right amount, not too much and not too little. After a while, Bucky’s breathing slows. He coughs a little, just like he always did before falling properly asleep. Steve closes his eyes too and remembers floating.

+

It starts happening every three nights, like clockwork. Except once they stay in the same hotel two nights in a row and on the second night, he comes back to find the sheets rumpled free of the military corners Steve had imposed that morning, the pillow still warm.

They never speak, and Bucky never lets Steve even see him. Every time Steve tries, Bucky just says “no” and Steve is terrified of pushing it too far and driving him away, so he stops asking. Instead, he and Sam chase Bucky’s long dead paper trail and Bucky chases them and it’s absurd, but Steve doesn’t know what else to do yet, besides wait and watch. Patience doesn’t come particularly naturally to Steve: it’s something he’s had to learn the hard way. But every lesson he’s ever learned the hard way, Steve learned well.

The fourth time it happens, Bucky has a dream in the middle of the night. He sits bolt upright in bed and the threat of a scream rattles in his chest. Steve eases up as slow as he can, trying not to startle Bucky. The blackout curtains are closed again and it’s pitch black, but Steve can see the faintest hint of Bucky’s profile: his too-long hair hanging in his face, the familiar jut of his chin. Without all the body armour, he seems smaller than Steve remembers. Steve doesn’t realise Bucky knows that he’s not alone till suddenly, Steve’s right hand is clasped between one warm palm and one cool metal. Bucky squeezes hard, but it only hurts a tiny bit.

“I’m sorry,” Bucky says. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

“Shhh, no.” Steve replies, bringing their clasped hands up to his lips. “It’s okay. You’re okay.”

“Пожалуйста, простите меня.”

“Я уже простил тебя.” Steve whispers his reply. Bucky’s breath stutters.

“When did you learn—?”

“I thought that word might be important. I asked Natasha – Natalia? Maybe you remember?”

“No,” Bucky says, sounding suddenly resigned. He lies back down and turns away from Steve, which he hasn’t done before, but he keeps holding on to Steve with his right hand. Steve sighs and leans back against the headboard. Bucky doesn’t stir and after a long time, his hand relaxes. Eventually, Steve dozes off.

+

Sometimes, when Steve wakes up in the morning to an inevitably already empty bed, there are little flecks of dried blood on the sheets and he touches them and presses his hand over his eyes and his breath pushes out between gritted teeth in a harsh whisper and he thinks, Please, please, please just let me help you. He could perfectly imagine what his Bucky would say to that. “You already are, you idiot. But people only get helped as much as they want to be.” For every time it had been Bucky’s job to save Steve, there had been a time when it was Bucky’s job to save someone else from Steve saving them too aggressively.

Sometimes, he feels like he must have imagined the whole thing. He remembers Nat calling the Winter Soldier a ghost and thinks that she can’t possibly know how perfectly accurate a description that is.

Sometimes, on mornings when the empty bed beside him is still warm, Steve rolls into the space, lies on his stomach and presses his face into the pillow. The cheap hotel bleach and Bucky’s nervous sweat mixed together smells exactly the same as being nineteen in their shared room in the tenement, climbing into Bucky’s bed at four o’clock in the morning and pressing his clammy forehead against Bucky’s collarbone and waiting anxiously for a familiar thumb to trace the line from the base to the top of his spine.

He presses his fingers into the mattress and focuses on not ripping right through to the springs so he won’t reach down and touch himself, so he won’t think about skin, or being caged by strong arms; the only time he’d ever felt small in a good way. He is one hundred per cent sure he’s not quite ready to deal with that particular suitcase in his entourage of emotional baggage just yet.

It’s been one such morning, when Sam abruptly grabs his arm while they’re walking down a back street in Cairo and says, “Be real with me. You okay?”

Steve winces. “That bad, huh?”

“You and I both know that Rahal has got people following us right now, and we both know that he’s not going to touch us until we get to the rendezvous point, at least. So who are you looking for right now? You’ve spotted every possible sniper position on this block twice over. You’re doing it right now. You know who’s there, so who are you looking for?”

“I’m just being cautious.” Steve says, defensively.

“No,” Sam says. His tone makes a thrill of familiarity run across the back of Steve’s neck. Sam notices and his eyes narrow. “You think he’s watching us right now.”

“We’ve already established that Rahal has his eyes on us.”

Sam gives him a look that says, Do you think I was born yesterday? “You think Barnes is watching us.”

Steve sighs heavily. “Yes.” He doesn’t elaborate.

“Why are we chasing Rahal for information if you think he’s right here, right now.”

Steve still doesn’t have a real answer to that question, except that he knows somehow that Bucky won’t go so far as to follow them back to New York if they give up and Steve can’t very well just start spending his days aimlessly hotel hopping across Europe in the hopes that Bucky will keep following him and dropping in for a slumber party on every third night – he has to be doing this for something. His only sure bet is to continue the pattern that brought Bucky out in the first place.

“I don’t want to scare him off,” Steve says, helplessly. Helplessly is Steve’s least favourite adverb.

“You said me you’d tell me if it became important.”

Steve shrugs. “I know, I’m sorry. How about, I’ll tell you if there’s anything you can…contribute to the situation.”

Sam shrugs right back. “I guess that’ll have to do.” He stars to turn away, but Steve grabs his shoulder before he can carry on down the street.

“Hey, listen,” he says. “Sam, you gotta know that you are already contributing to the situation.”

Sam rolls his eyes. “Yeah, I know someone’s got to be in charge of googling every single goddam song you hear on the radio and reading you the entire life story of all the band member off Wikipedia.”

Steve shakes his head. “If you weren’t here making me go down for breakfast, if you weren’t here sitting in hotel bars with me at night, if you weren’t here to tell me to spend twenty minute sketching in the park… I don’t know. Maybe I’d be okay. But I have a strong suspicion that I’d be sinking like a stone, honestly.”

Sam gives him a hard long look and then reaches one hand to cup the nape of Steve’s neck and brings their foreheads together. “We got this.”

“He won’t even let me look at him.”

“We’ll get your boy back,” he says, gravely, before releasing Steve and carrying on down the street with purpose.

+

Sam waits another two days and then calls Natasha.

“Hello, you’ve reached 1-800-Assasins-R-Us, how may I help you?”

“Hi Clint, is Nat there, please.”

“She is, unfortunately, indisposed at the moment.”

In the distance, Sam hears some muttering and then, loudly enough to hear, I’m making Fettuccine Alfredo, I wouldn’t really call that indisposed.

“Hi,” Nat says, a little breathless after a too-long fumbling with the phone.

“Looks like you win the bet,” Sam says, without preamble.

“He made contact?”

“From my best guess, just less than a month ago. I was a little slow to figure out what was going on.”

“Oh no,” Nat says. “Oh no, they’re sleeping together. I am never going to hear the end of this from Phil.”

“Well,” Sam says, hesitant. “It depends on what you mean by sleeping together. I’m not one hundred per cent sure, but as far as I can tell they are just literally sleeping.”

“Huh.”

Sam can hear the muffled sound of Clint speaking in the background. Natasha covers the receiver for a minute and it sounds like they’re arguing.

“Nat?” Sam says after a moment of waiting.

“Sorry, sorry. Clint says it’s a good thing, I’m not so sure.”

“What are you worried about?”

“His angle. We thought he’d be deliberately staying one step ahead. One step behind though? Why? What’s he waiting for?”

Sam sighed. “Yeah, that’s what I’m wondering too.”

“Has Steve talked to him?”

“No. Says every time he says a word, the man shuts him up.”

“Huh,” she repeated again. This time she sounded pleased.

“That’s a good thing?” Sam asked.

She confers with Clint again and then said, “When you’re working someone, you’re always trying to keep them talking. That’s rule number one, every word the mark speaks is a bullet with his name on it. It’s a good thing.”

“You think?”

“It’s a good thing,” he hears Clint say, firmly in the background.

Sam imagines that the two of them spend a lot of time in companionable silence.

Later, he tells Steve what Natasha had concluded and Steve just shrugs. “You guys have to stop trying to manage me.”

“Maybe you need a manager,” Sam says, half joking, half serious.

“I need friends,” Steve says, smiling with just the corner of his mouth, like he does when he knows something you don’t. That shuts Sam up pretty quick.

+

After the morning in Cairo, things carry on much the same way for another week and a half. It’s becoming a real habit now, and Steve’s sleeping better than he has in literally seventy years. He hears the window creak, wakes just slightly and feels this bone-deep sense of security settle over him that only a few people, only Sam and Natasha, really, have even come close to matching. Sometimes it makes him feel guilty, and he can’t quite put a pin in why exactly.

Also, the struggle to hold his tongue is becoming more and more difficult to overcome. He’s less and less sure that letting Bucky call the shots is really the right thing to be doing. After all, isn’t Bucky the one who’s unhinged? Doesn’t that mean Steve has some sort of responsibility to be the sensible adult of the situation?

The eighth time it happens, Steve wakes up at five thirty in the morning, knows he’s got another hour yet to lean into the feeling of a line of warmth strength against his back. Bucky has rolled in close enough that his whole arm is hooked around Steve’s waist. His breath, slow and even, stirs fine hairs on Steve’s neck. I’m gonna do it, he thinks to himself. I’ll lay awake until he gets up to leave, and I’ll make him talk this time.

But then he falls back asleep, and it’s the most useless thing in the world, trusting Bucky, just then. Anyone else creeping around his bedroom would wake him instantly, but Steve’s hindbrain recognises something about Bucky, his smell, his gait, it doesn’t matter what, and tells Steve not to worry.He took a shower, for God’s sake. He took a shower and Steve didn’t wake up.

He’s a little short with Sam that morning as they climb on to the metro towards another cramped office with four cold case files that they’ll be gently confiscating for probably no good reason. He forgets that even people who know him pretty well don’t expect his sense of humour to be quite as black as it can be when he’s in the right (or wrong) mood. Sam is being worried, and Steve is feeling like sort of an asshole, but he kind of just keeps going. They’re coming up from underground, and Sam’s saying something like “We can take a step back if we need to. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, if it’s too much…”

And Steve’s about to interrupt him to say, “A step back! Half of the whole problem here is that I do want to do!” But he’s not quite sure he’s ready yet, to open that can of worms with Sam, to try to explain himself, because it sure is a long, long story. Long enough that a history book could and probably will someday be written on the subject.

He’s about to say all this, but they come up to the top of the stairs, commuters and tourists pouring out onto the street around them, and Steve’s phone starts ringing and Sam says, “I’ve got six missed calls in the last seven minutes.”

Steve answers the phone and Tony says, “Well, we’re not really clear on the issue yet, but it’s either mad scientists, power-hungry aliens, killer robots, or some delicious combo of the three, Cap. Time to put the vacay on hold.”

They’re on a jet to New York in less than twenty minutes.

It turns out to be mad scientists with killer robots, which happens to be a really common villain theme, so the operation goes pretty smoothly. Including the clean up and debriefing, it only takes two days to sort the whole mess out.  Steve wants to get immediately back to the trail, but he also knows that everyone is going to give him looks, so he spends one day kicking around the Avengers’ tower, which everyone is sort of half-moved into.

The next day, he does his Brooklyn things: catching up on the gossip about Mrs Masri’s cousins, doing laundry at the place now owned by the son of the son of Barry who used to give him a discount for doing sketches of people washing their clothes which he’d hang up in his office. Some of the originals are still there, and a few new ones have joined them. He gets a bit too stern with some boys who don’t want this girl with scrapped knees to join their game of pickup soccer. She and Steve beat them solidly. The girls is better than Steve, who has no idea of the rules and keeps getting yelled at for being offside.

When he goes to Sam’s the next day, duffle packed again, Sam’s already waiting for him, ready to go. “You’re like a kicked puppy,” he says, throwing his hands up in frustration as he walks past Steve out to his car. “Who can say no? No one can say no. We all have a serious problem and its name is Steve Rogers trying really hard not to ask for things he wants. Natasha and Clint have emailed me three different lasagne recipes today asking me which one looks the most like “how mama woulda made it”. And then they wrote “please advise, neither of us had mamas”. What am I supposed to do with shit like this?”

“No one makes it like Mama,” Steve says. “That’s kind of the point of Mama’s lasagne.”

“Surely lasagne was a bit exotic for your average white boy back in the day?”

“Nat’s talking about this story I told her about Bucky’s and my next door neighbour in, must have been ’41? She was called Mrs Fantini, but she has us calling her Mama pretty quickly.”

“Well, you’re gonna eat it and like it, or you’ll probably wake up dead. Clint texted me to say that he was at a home store buying set of Le Creuset baking dishes.”

“A what?”

“Just know that great lengths are being gone to.” Sam says, shaking his head in despair.

Steve writes “some kind of french cauldron brand(?)” down in his notebook, anyway.

“All I have to say is, my niece’s birthday is next month and you have kindly volunteered to attend. We’re finishing this before then.”

He says it like he’s joking, but Steve can tell that he’s not. He’s right, too, so he gives Sam a sharp nod to show that he knows that Sam means it. This has gone on long enough. They’ve reached the nineties in the paper trail: it can’t be much longer. What are they going to do now they’ve reached the end? What’ll be left to do?

They pick the trail back up in Lisbon. From there it leads back to Russia again, which so far, has never been good. The trend continues. They go to meet a witness in Bryansk, and it turns out to be yet another Hydra sleeper cell, the fifth they’ve encountered. They have to fight their way out, and nearly don’t make it, except the last three men are suddenly down, bullets placed neatly in the centre of their foreheads. Sam studies the angles in the room for a moment before saying, “Sniper, I’m guessing the fifth floor of the apartment block across the street.”

Both of them turn to look at the same time. Steve thinks he sees a glimmer of movement, the sun striking red steel, just a glint.

“Did you just—?” Steve says,

“Yep.”

But then they hear voices on the third floor, moving towards them fast. “We’ve got to go to ground,” Sam says. So they take the stairs up on silent boots, follow the roof access to the next building along, which Steve had checked before they’d come, and disappear down onto the streets. They split up immediately, Sam getting on the first bus that pulls up to the stop, and Steve getting on the second. The plan is to make random movements across the city for three hours before they make their way slowly back to the backup hotel, which is not so much a hotel as the disused holiday flat of Sam’s friend’s uncle’s daughter-in-law.

Steve gets there first, and starts setting the little gas camping lights up and shaking dust out of the covers on the single beds. Discounting that flash in the window, Steve hasn’t seen Bucky in six days, now. ‘Seen’ being used loosely, in this case. Steve’s sitting on the floor, thinking about this, when Sam comes in with, of all things, a takeaway pizza from Sbarro.

“They have Sbarro in Russia?”

“There was a very complicated salad bar,” Sam replies, as if that explains everything.

“Right,” Steve says.

They don’t talk as much as usual. There are dust cloths covering most of the furniture in the flat, and though the taps run clear water, it’s permanently icy cold. One of the bathrooms is all ripped up, like it was left in the middle of a renovation project and the sink sits on its side in the hallway. The overall effect is profoundly creepy and neither Steve nor Sam is immune to the eerie atmosphere.

They don’t talk much, but as they climb into their musty twin beds, Steve says into the darkness. “Sometimes I think I’m just hallucinating him.”

“Don’t feel special, Cap,” Sam says. “I feel like these last few years have just been one giant hallucination. Sometimes I forget what I’m doing, with you. I think I’m on a normal mission, and then I remember who you are, and I remember that I can fly. Sometimes I worry that…” He trails off, thinking.

“You can tell me,” Steve says. His voice isn’t sympathetic: it’s direct.

“The week before I came back from my last deployment, I was doing a normal patrol, got out of my vehicle at one point when I probably shouldn’t have because I wanted to tell this local vendor guy goodbye and that I was leaving and I got back in and drove off and everything was fine but when I got back to base I was checking things over and there was an unexploded car bomb attached to the underside of my vehicle. So now, sometimes I worry that that bomb really did go off and I’m dying right now, and I’m having this long hallucination that’s actually happening in the split second of desperate brain activity before I shut off forever. But, you know, the crazier things get the better I feel.”

“Because you couldn’t make this stuff up.”

“Exactly,” Sam says, voice very soft. “I knew you’d get it. I couldn’t make this up.”

The next morning they both wake up too early. Steve tries in vain to sleep a bit longer but it’s not happening. He and Sam exchange exhausted looks while they comb through the files taken from yesterday’s run-in. There are several possible leads but the strongest looks like contracts for the Winter Solider to take out the key members of a non-profit organisation promoting free speech working out of Copenhagen in ’95. Sam books the plane tickets under aliases just in case there are any Hydra stragglers while Steve puts the dust cloths back over the beds and packs up the duffels with practised motions.

“Are you ready to go?” Sam says, picking up his bag. Steve nods and they head for the doors.

They check into a tiny Bed and Breakfast in Copenhagen at two in the afternoon. It’s a little off the beaten path, the kind of place nice young couples go for a weekend break. Steve assumes Sam picked it because it’s not the kind of place they usually go for and anyone trying to find them would probably look here last. Steve throws his bag onto the bed and then follows it down. The duvet it a good heavy one and smells like it was line-dried in the sunshine. He starts falling asleep before he can think better of it and doesn’t wake up till Sam comes looking for him nearly an hour later, freshly showered and looking a lot more like a functioning human being than Steve.

“You haven’t been sleeping, huh?” Sam says, prodding Steve into the bathroom so he can rinse off.

Steve shrugs, as if to say, what can you do, and thinks to himself that this is day seven.

They go to the non-profit’s head offices, which are located in the spare bedroom of one of the widows of the activists the Winter Soldier assassinated. It turns out to be something of a dead end in terms of finding any more leads for the Winter Soldier, but they talk to the woman for a long time. She starts asking questions and everything comes out. They tell her who killed her husband, and why, and Bucky’s story makes her press her hand over her mouth and shake her head. “There is only one thing more tragic than fighting for a bad cause,” she says. “And that is being forced to fight for a bad cause.”

She sends them on their way with a tin of crunchy ginger biscuits and as they walk out the door, she says, “It must be you who donated so much money to our foundation a few days ago?”

Steve tilts his head. “Pardon?”

“I received this letter, that explained some of the victims of Hydra were receiving reparations from seized bank accounts.”

“Could we see the letter?” Sam asks. The woman shuffles through some papers on the desk and hands it over. It’s S.H.I.E.L.D letterhead, but very out-dated. There is no signature at the bottom, but it’s obviously Bucky.

“It’s him,” Steve says.

The woman smiles sadly. “He is trying very hard.”

“Yes,” Steve agrees.

+

They get back to the B&B just before ten. Sam gives him a one armed hug. “We’ll pick up one of the other leads from Bryansk tomorrow. Try to get some actual sleep.”

The key sticks in the lock as he tries to get it open. He’s so tired he can barely see straight. He finally gets the door open, hangs his coat on the hook because knowing where you put your coat can save you thirty seconds when you need it. He flicks the lights on, kicks his left boot off, but the lace is tangled on the other one. He glances up, for no real reason. Bucky Barnes is tucked up neatly into his bed.

It’s really the covers that draw Steve up short. He stands there frozen, for a good long moment, staring at the hillocks and valleys of that clean, line-dried duvet pulled neatly up to Bucky’s chin. A black leather jacket hangs off the bedpost; heavy boots are lined up regimentally at the foot of the bed.

Bucky is sleeping on his back; his hair seems very dark against the pillows, brushed out of his eyes, damp and clean looking, his face freshly shaved. His eyebrows are drawn together worriedly and there is a healing cut over his right temple. For a second, Steve thinks he’s also got two black eyes, and then he realises the bruises are actually dark circles from a lack of sleep.

Steve had sort of been expecting to be transported back in time when he finally got a good look at Bucky’s face, but he isn’t, not at all. It’s not that he doesn’t look the same, because he does, he looks plenty the same. It’s just that Steve isn’t thinking about being fifteen and finally working up the courage to ask Bucky if he could draw him, or being twenty and kissing Bucky awake when they were sporting four actual black eyes between them, or even knowing Bucky was almost absolutely dead and finding him alive in that Hydra base anyway. This doesn’t remind him of any of those times, even slightly. This feels like brand new, unmapped territory.

Steve drops the room key on the desk, struggles out of his other boot and lets the door close with an audible click behind him. Bucky startles awake, and he’s half crouching on the bed with a shining knife gripped in his flesh hand before Steve can even blink.

“It’s me,” Steve says, cautiously. Bucky shakes himself awake, dog-like, and the knife disappears somewhere into the bedding.

“I’m done with this, now.” Steve says. “You understand. I’m done. This is it, we’re talking now. You don’t get to say no and put your hands on me to make me afraid to lose you.”

Steve thought he felt tired, but Bucky looks dead.

“Okay,” he says. His voice is gritty and low with exhaustion. “Okay, I’m ready.”

“You haven’t slept have you?”

“What?”

“You haven’t slept since I last saw you.”

“I told you, the second time, that I couldn’t sleep without you.”

“It’s been almost one hundred and sixty hours, Bucky!”

“I think I’ve probably been doing microsleeps. And I blacked out for eight minutes this morning.”

“Don’t say that like it makes it okay!”

“I warned you,” Bucky says. “The one thing I told you was that I couldn’t sleep without you.”

“I thought you were being melodramatic.”

“Funnily enough, I’ve been trying not to add any additional melodrama to my life. I feel like events have unfolded to provide plenty without any help from me.”

“Well, you seem on top form, really,” Steve says, only half joking.

Bucky, not joking even a little bit, looks up, meets Steve’s gaze straight on, his eyes icy, head tilted up slightly till the shadows make his jaw sharp as a knife and says, “You’ve caught me on a good day, lucky for you.”

“You don’t seem to be having any memory problems?”

“Not at the moment, but…”

“But?”

“Things go in and out. It’s worse more than it’s better. Sometimes I remember a lot, sometimes I think I remember nothing, but it’s hard to keep track when it’s like that. I’m sure the not sleeping isn’t helping, but there’s not much I can do about it.”

 “Besides sleep with me?”

The suggestion of a shadow of a smile passes over Bucky’s face. “C’mere.”

Steve crosses the room to the bed. Bucky reaches up and puts his left arm, which isn’t as cold as Steve expected it to be, around Steve’s middle, tugging him down to sit on the edge of the bed. It makes Steve’s breath hitch, to feel that sleek and impenetrable grip separated from his skin by only the thin cotton of a t-shirt. “Tell me if I make you uncomfortable. When I’m like this, when I remember a lot, everything’s too much, too close. It’s hard to know what I’m allowed to do and what I’m not.”

“You can to do anything to me Bucky, you always could.”

“That’s exactly the kind of thing you shouldn’t say to me, Steve. I’ll take you at your word. I’m just warning you that I’m not gonna pick up on very many your finer social cues.”

“Understood,” Steve answers softly. Bucky presses his face against Steve’s side and breaths in deeply.

“I think it’s the way you smell?” Bucky says. “About a week before I came to you, the first time, I started having this dream. I kill you, different ways every time: I’m very inventive. And when I wake up, I can’t go back to sleep. I don’t mean it’s hard, I mean I can’t for at least another twelve hours or so. Except if you’re here, or I’m in your bed, I don’t have the dream, or if I start to have the dream, I wake up before I do it, and I can go back to sleep.”

“I thought maybe it was something like that.”

“I have dreams where I kill people all the time, Steve. But it’s just that one that ruins me.”

Steve puts his hand in Bucky’s hair, combs his fingers through the long strands. He thinks about unmapped territory again. “Lucky me,” he says.

“Lucky you.”

“We’re not done here, but you’re slurring your words pretty badly. I reckon you need to sleep for about ten days straight before we continue this conversation.”

Bucky looks up at Steve, his eyes are a little glassy and unfocussed. “I was hallucinating that you were here earlier.”

“Great,” Steve says, deadpan.

“It was, actually. You were stroking my back.”

“Is that a hint?”

“Oh! No, it wasn’t.”

“Sure, whatever.” Steve says, “I’ll stroke your back on one condition.”

“Name your price.”

“Do not leave this room until I say we’re done with this.”

Bucky sighs. “You wouldn’t have got very far with me on plenty of those nights. I’m telling you, this is a good day.”

“I’m not interested in giving you a talking to for not being ready. I wasn’t ready either or I would have pushed harder. But it’s time now. Or it will be after you aren’t in serious danger from sleep deprivation.”

“I can go sixteen days without sleep. Tried and tested.”

“Bucky.”

“Fine, I promise,” Bucky says, and then end of the word gets twisted up in a huge yawn.

Bucky slides over to the left side of the bed to give Steve room to slide the rest of the way into bed. Steve shimmies out of his trousers and strips off his t-shirt before rolling under the covers, which are already warm from Bucky’s skin.

“You gonna be okay with my arm?”

“Huh?” Steve asks, confused.

“I’ve been sleeping on the other side, so it would be easier to touch you with the other—”

“Yeah, Bucky, of course I’m okay.” He reaches out and grasps Bucky’s metal hand. He runs his fingers up Bucky’s forearm slowly, to the elbow. “How much can you feel?”

“All of it.” His breath sounds short. “It’s, I don’t know how to describe it. Raw, maybe? It’s more sensitive than my other arm.”

“But when you use it like a weapon… doesn’t it hurt?”

“It is a weapon,” Bucky says, coldly. “It’s supposed to hurt.”

Steve doesn’t reply, just gentles his touch even further. “Is this okay?” He says, brushing around the concealed joints in the elbow.

Bucky nods as Steve makes his way up to the shoulder, traces his finger along the seam, runs his thumbs over the webs of scars, which makes Steve think about maps again. He presses a bit harder, and Bucky hisses.

“Not good?”

“Still good.”

“Turn over onto your back.”

Bucky tries to roll himself but he gives up halfway too tired to make the effort. Steve has to help him the rest of the way, rearranging him so that he’s mostly on his stomach with a pillow sort of half propping him onto his side.

“You’re so strong, I forgot,” Bucky slurs. Steve presses his thumb against the base of Bucky’s spine and draws a smooth line to the nape of his neck.

“That’s the horizon line,” Steve murmurs.

“We playing guess the city?”

“This is the 2014 version, not the ’44 version. You think you can handle it?”

“Dunno, guess we’ll have to find out.”

Steve thinks for a minute, before he starts tracing the shapes of buildings across Bucky’s back. After a moment, Bucky says “Stockholm?”

“Got it in one. What gave it away?”

“Little islands,” Bucky mutters, almost gone. Steve rubs his palms flat across Bucky’s back, which is as hard and pale and scared as the rest of him, like he’s wiping a slate clean. He traces a new horizon, lower this time. Bucky is asleep before Steve gets to the first building.

Steve slides down into the bed, puts his arm across Bucky’s lower back and falls asleep almost instantly.

+

Steve wakes up slowly and it’s mostly dark outside. He checks on Bucky first, who’s still asleep, on his stomach. Bucky’s pushed the blankets off himself and onto Steve, but only one leg remains covered. They’re not touching, but Steve knows he could lean across the bed and brush his hands over Bucky’s skin so easily, which is really just as good.

He looks at his phone next. It’s eight thirty-eight in the evening. They’ve been asleep for nearly twenty-two hours. There are four text messages from Sam, one from Nat and one from Clint.

The first one, received at seven forty-five in the morning, reads “You coming down for breakfast anytime soon?” The next, from fifteen minutes later says, “Steve? Hello?”. Another ten minutes after that reads, “I came into your room, and I see that you are otherwise indisposed. Gonna cancel the appointments for today.” The final one sent by Sam is from only an hour ago which says “Gone out for dinner, back asap, be careful and text me if you guys wake up.”

Natasha’s text says “Don’t do anything stupid.” The one from Clint says “Get some.”

Steve sends a quick reply to Sam saying that he’s woken up but Bucky’s still down for the count and not to worry and another to Clint which is just a string of random characters. He’s got a bet running with Natasha to see how long it takes the rest of the Avengers to guess that he’s faking not being able to use his phone. He puts the phone back on the bedside table and flicks the small lamp on. The change in light levels causes Bucky to roll over onto his side, but he doesn’t wake.

“Hey,” Steve whispers. “You wanna get up now?”

“No,” Bucky says, mournfully.

“C’mon. We can’t sleep forever. Got to get some food in you. When’s the last time you ate, huh?”

Bucky mumbles something incomprehensible and then turns towards Steve, his right hand covering his eyes against the light.

“That Big Joe is a real pill, expecting us to all be down there hauling before sunrise, ya know.”

Steve freezes. The hand that Steve had been reaching out to roll Bucky back towards him comes to an abrupt stop.

The silence that falls stretches too long. Bucky’s expecting Steve to agree, to commiserate. Yeah, Bucky, that big Joe is a hellaluva pain, ain’t he. That’s what he would have said.

“Steve?” Bucky asks, taking his hand away from his eyes. It takes a minute for his vision to adjust to the light. Steve can actually see Bucky’s irises contracting rapidly. Bucky stares at him, his face slowly slackening into shock. “What happened to you?”

“Oh no,” Steve says. “Oh god. You’ve… you’ve… oh my god.”

Later, in the days and weeks and months to come, Steve will know exactly what to say when this happens. He’ll have the mental scripts on hands for Bucky at every stage of memory, just what to say to Bucky at sixteen, what to say to him as he is now, at twenty-one, what to say to child-Bucky and solider-Bucky, a Bucky who speaks no English, a Bucky who is a perfectly blank slate. Steve will know how to say, “Let’s just think for a minute before we talk,” which can sometimes snap him out of it, and where to put his hands to soothe him, to stop him diving for the nearest gun.

Right now, at this moment, all he can think is, how can I take this away from him? Innocence was never a word Steve had applied to Bucky, but now he suddenly understands that there were times in the past that Bucky was as young and clean and new as snowdrops. That’s what this is: a single, stupid, perfectly unblemished snowdrop peaking through a wasteland. And Steve is the man who has come along to snap the stem.

“Steve?” Bucky asks, again, very quietly, the kind of false steel in his voice that badly covers a well of terror.

“It’s not 1939,” Steve whispers.

“You’re so big,” Bucky responds, distantly.

“You don’t work for Big Joe anymore. We’re in a hotel, in Copenhagen. But you’re safe, I promise you’re safe. I joined the army. So did you.”

“What is that thing, that flashing square?” Bucky says, looking past Steve to the bedside table, where Steve’s phone has just started to ring. “Why does my arm hurt?”

“Don’t look at your arm,” Steve says, sharply, so of course, Bucky looks. Steve picks up the phone because he is pretty sure they’ve reached the point in this situation where Sam could probably start contributing now.

“You up, sleeping beauty?” Sam says.

“We’re having a slight problem,” Steve says. Apparently, the panic is very evident in his voice, because the door to the hotel room bursts open before Bucky has even had a chance to start shouting.

Several things happen very fast: Bucky stops looking at his arm with dawning horror and his entire posture changes like a lightening strike of calm is moving through his body; Sam bursts through the door and has a gun trained immediately at Bucky; a second gun appears from under Bucky’s pillow, which Bucky proceeds to aim levelly at Steve’s head.

“So I guess this is a not-as-good day?” Steve says to Bucky.

“Steve?” Bucky says, as though he’s not aware that he’s got a Sig Sauer placed a neat inch from Steve’s temple.

“You know who I am?”

Bucky looks confused.

“Because, you may have noticed that you’re holding a gun to my head.”

“Shit,” Bucky says, eyes widening as he quickly lowers the weapon.

“You too, Sam,” Steve says.

“If he releases his hold,” Sam says, measured.

“Let go of the gun, please?”

Bucky sucks in a sharp breath. “I don’t know if I can?” he says, almost calmly, like he’s saying, “I don’t know if I can make a Friday appointment.”

“Will you let me take it away from you?”

“Probably.”

Steve moves very slowly. He places one hand on the gun and the other gently encircles Bucky’s right wrist. He strokes the skin there very gently for a moment before pulling the gun out of Bucky’s grip. “That wasn’t so bad,” Steve says, voice pitched low. Bucky lets out a little huff of a bitter laugh.

“I know what’s going on. Memory’s back, for now.”

“That’s good, that’s real good,” Steve says, like he’s talking to a spooked horse.

Sam has already lowered his gun when Steve looks up to him. “I’m just going to stay with you guys for another few minutes.”

“Sounds good,” Steve says, handing the gun to Sam. Bucky tilts his head down in an almost imperceptible nod of agreement.

Silence settles over the room, but it’s not uncomfortable. Everyone is just breathing, taking their time to see that no one has been shot in the head and that there is no immediate danger. Bucky gets out of the bed, pulls on his abandoned jeans and a long-sleeve black shirt that looks like some sort of space-age thermal layer material. He starts to move around the perimeter of the room, as though looking for something. It doesn’t take long for Steve to realise he’s checking it over for any bugs.

“I know we’re clear,” Bucky explains as he feels along the curtain railings. “It helps, though, to calm down.”

“Be my guest,” Steve says. He scrubs a hand over his face and reaches down over the side of the bed to grab his discarded t-shirt and pull it on. There is also a dagger on the floor, which Steve picks up and hands over to Sam for his accumulating weapons stockpile.

“How may of those do you have?” Sam asks.

Bucky is examining a lampshade. “On me right now?”

Sam merely raises an eyebrow when Bucky glances back at him.

“Six. Probably.”

“Probably?”

“Sometimes I don’t realise I had an extra till I take it out to use it.”

“Well, that really makes a man feel safe in his bed,” Sam says, with a dark laugh.

“You’re tracking the years-cold trail of a soviet bogeyman and cleaning up the last outlying pockets of a Nazi super-organisation.” Bucky says, matter-of-fact. “You aren’t safe in your bed for a lot more reasons than me tagging along.”

“And explain to me, why exactly are you tagging along?” Sam says.

Sam,” Steve hisses. He’d had a lot of extremely delicate plans about how exactly he was going to ask that question, which Sam has just blown out of the water.

“With all due respect, Cap.” Sam says, “I think I’ve got a right to know why I’ve spent the past month tailing a man who’s tailing me. And I know you’re not going to make a point of this till long after the question needs to be asked, because you already have.”

That was probably a fair assessment of the situation. Steve keeps his mouth shut.

Bucky, who has now finished his search, sits back down on the edge of the bed, close enough to Steve to make him suspect this might be an unspoken plea for reassurance. Steve leans forward just enough to brush fingers over the seam where Bucky’s shirt meets his trousers. He isn’t sure, but he thinks he might have seen a tiny bit of the tension Bucky is carrying across his shoulders slip away.

“I’m…” Bucky pauses, not like he is nervous or hesitating, but like he just trying to find precisely the right words. After a long moment, he finally says. “We’re clearing my name.”

“Explain,” Sam says.

“I couldn’t have come back with you right away, and been with you in New York,” Bucky says. “Even if I’d remembered as much as I do now, I couldn’t have, because there were a lot of lose ends.”

“Yes,” Steve says, already understanding. “Those are the loose ends we’ve been using to find you. Friends of the people the Winter Soldier killed or people who’ve hired him.”

“Any of them might have popped up at a bad time for your lot, if I’d gone with you right away, but this way, we clean up the mess before it creates any problems,” Bucky says.

“I didn’t really realise that we’ve been tying things up, but I guess we have, most everywhere,” Sam agrees.

“I’ve been taking care of anyone you missed,” Bucky adds. “The press, the public: they’ll still find out it was me someday, maybe soon. But it will be a damn sight easier to deal with the fallout when it’s not accompanied by an onslaught of attempts to kill me from either side, those I hurt or those who used me. I’ll have already come by and paid whatever dues I could.”

“You don’t owe anyone anything,” Steve interrupts. “I wasn’t you.”

“I remember doing it,” Bucky says tightly.

The tension in Bucky’s shoulders is back, so Steve puts his hand right where he thinks the worst knot in Bucky’s back must be and tenderly guides him around so that Steve can see his face. “You wanted me to see it all, didn’t you? You wanted me to follow this trail to the end so I could see everything you’ve done.”

Bucky holds his gaze steady, but his eyes are wet. There’s the barest hint of a tremor in his hands. “I didn’t want to lie,” he whispers. “But I didn’t think I could…” Bucky sucks in a breath. The pause stretches taut like its causing Bucky physical pain not to finish his sentence

“You couldn’t tell it to him, either?” Sam offers. Steve can see that the cautious wall Sam has been holding in place has crumbled away considerably. He sounds achingly genuine. Steve is reminded of why he’s here with Sam and why Sam knows more of Steve’s private thoughts than anyone else, even Bucky. Though, to be fair, Bucky hasn’t had had much of a chance to catch up lately.

“It was better for you to see it yourselves,” Bucky says, haltingly. “I wanted you to make up your own minds.”

“I forgave you already,” Steve murmurs. “I won’t tell you there was nothing for me to forgive, because that’s something I know, but I don’t want to say it to you until you know it too.”

“You don’t know what you’re getting into. Some of my not-so-good days are a whole lot worse than what you just saw.”

“I’m willing to take the risk.”

“And I’m watching his back,” Sam says, standing and moving around the bed until he is almost touching Steve’s left shoulder. Steve gives him a look that says; I know what you’re really saying. Bucky seems to understand that there is something important about this exchange and Steve is very familiar with the two emotions that pass over Bucky’s face, one part jealousy, one part relief.

“I think that’s my cue to leave,” Sam says, smirking. Apparently, growing up with Bucky wasn’t a requirement to read his face in this case. “I’m taking the guns. There are no more guns?”

“That’s for me to know and you to find out,” Bucky jokes, dryly.

“I’m not sure that’s really a laughing matter quite yet,” Sam says, with good humour.

“What are we supposed to do about it, if not laugh?” Steve offers quietly.

Sam smiles and offers a half wave as he goes out into the hall. “I’ll bring you two old fogies back some dinner. Expect me in about an hour.”

It’s quiet when Sam leaves. Bucky lies back on the bed and relaxes visibly.

“You should’ve told us that Sam was making you nervous,” Steve says.

“Mission ‘Bucky acts like a normal human being in the real world’ isn’t going to be a huge success if I become a shut-in and never spend time with anyone but you,” Bucky replies, a little sharply.

“You gonna get annoyed if I’m gentle with you?”

“You gonna treat me like I’m broken?” Bucky replies, lightning quick. “Cause I know I am. I don’t need to be reminded.”

“I was remembering, earlier, how you used to be so good at never reminding me that I was a mess,” Steve says. “You’ll have to teach me.”

“I guess I can do that,” Bucky says, more calmly. “Can I give you a tip?”

“Sure,” Steve says.

“If you want to kiss me, you should do it.”

Steve pauses, looks closely at Bucky. The skin under his eyes still looks bruised, and he seems a little wary, like he’s worried he overstepped. Their relationship had been complicated long before they’d had soviet conditioning, or being seventy years into the future from where they’d left off or Hydra or even the super-serum to contend with.

It had been clear to Steve from a young age that he and Bucky loved each other in a way that was uncompromisingly fierce, but what exactly that meant was constantly changing. One year, they were having furtive sex in their tenement bedroom every chance they could get, and the next Bucky was trying to get Steve a date, and then Bucky was making out with some girl, and then he was making out with Steve the same night with the waxy aftertaste of lipstick in his mouth.

Then they were at war, and Bucky couldn’t stop touching Steve’s shoulders with wide eyes and Peggy gave them both knowing smirks and then sometimes wouldn’t give Steve the time of day and other times would touch his elbow as he was leaving a mission briefing like she was saying come back for me and Steve would come back for her but then he’d go to his tent to sleep pressed up as close to Bucky as he could get, tangled into the same bedroll in cold encampments across Europe and kissing his innumerable scrapes and bruises with a kind of reverence that was reserved for personal saviours.

They had never quite had the chance to stop and take deep breaths and try to understand what they wanted from each other. In that time and place, Steve wasn’t sure they ever would have been able to be honest about it either. Maybe they’ll get the chance soon. For the moment, Steve only says, “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.” Bucky replies, propping himself up on one elbow and directing that same sly once-over at Steve that used to win him all the girls.

Steve knows that Bucky’s trying his absolute hardest to present the picture of effortless, predatory grace, but Steve isn’t buying it. He leans over Bucky cautiously and hovers, holding himself up with both arms placed deliberately on either side of Bucky’s hips. He wants to make sure Bucky is thinking about the fact that soon all of Steve’s weight will be on him, pinning him in place, so that it’s not surprising when it happens.

He reaches up one hand to push Bucky’s hair away from his face, tuck some of it behind his ear. It stills feels clean from Bucky’s shower the day before. His jawline is shadowed with stubble, which Steve likes. Bucky anticipates Steve’s next move and tilts his head back a little so that Steve can run his fingers over Bucky’s chin. He traces a path up to the bow of Bucky’s mouth with one fingertip. Steve makes a little sound of pleasure when Bucky’s tongue brushes against his finger even though he’d been expecting it. Steve doesn’t linger. There is a smattering of new and unfamiliar tiny scars, especially over Bucky’s brow where the half mask doesn’t protect him. Steve traces each one. Bucky squeezes his eyes shut tightly, as though against pain.

“You have to tell me if I do something wrong,” Steve says, softly.

“Not wrong,” Bucky replies quickly. His voice is utterly shot: low and raw. “Don’t stop.”

“Then, you have to tell me what you’re thinking, if it’s important.”

Bucky sighs, and doesn’t open his eyes to reply. Steve moves back to Bucky’s hair, scratching at the base of his skull. By now, Steve has shifted till he’s straddling Bucky at the waist, thoroughly trapping him. Bucky moves his hips, testing, and then settles. “I can’t remember the last time anyone touched me like this,” he says after a long silence.

“And you’ll tell me if it’s too much,” Steve says, firmly.

Bucky nods, seriously this time, not annoyed. His breath is coming just a little too fast.

“Good,” Steve says and leans in to press his lips to Bucky’s. They start slow, close-mouthed, very light presses of lips, it feels too familiar, which Steve wasn’t necessarily expecting. Bucky’s right hand slides up Steve’s thigh, settles on his waist, fingertips brushing the bare skin under his shirt.

“Use both,” Steve murmurs. “Only if you want.”

It’s the feeling of that cool palm, the gunmetal weight of it, the difference, the unfamiliarity that tips Steve over the edge. He opens his mouth into the kiss and slides his palm around the back of Bucky’s head, pulling him closer. Bucky surges forward, like he was just waiting for Steve to okay it and suddenly they’re kissing desperately, tongues in mouths, breathing harshly through their noses so they don’t have to separate.

Bucky kisses just the same, a threat of a bite to Steve’s lower lip, running his hands all over Steve’s back like he’s checking him over. Steve can feel that Bucky is hard, so Steve rocks his hips back and forth, pressing his own clothed cock against Bucky’s. Bucky moans, his hands clench again Steve’s hipbones hard enough that he might even bruise. The thought makes Steve reckless; he breaks away from the kiss, to rest his forehead against Bucky’s and blinks his eyes open. Bucky’s peeking, too. They grin at each other. It feels even better, watching Bucky’s face, knowing they’re right there together. Steve pushes Bucky’s shirt up with the hand that’s not holding him up, brushes his fingers against Bucky’s nipple. Bucky gasps and arches into Steve’s hips. The new angle makes Steve whine in the back of his throat. He’s close already, which is ridiculous.

“Боже мой.” Bucky pants. “Please please please, трахни меня.”

“Maybe next time.” Steve laughs with what little breath he has.

“What has Natalia been teaching you,” Bucky mutters, now rocking his own hips up to meet Steve’s. It would be so much better if there weren’t trousers in the way, but stopping seems impossible.

“Anything I thought I might need to know,” Steve says, innocently.

“You’re the worst,” Bucky says, sticks his tongue back in Steve’s mouth and puts his hands on Steve’s ass to get better leverage. The change in angle is insanely good. Steve cries out and has to close his eyes again, because looking at Bucky is just too much. He feels lit up on the inside, like there’s no space for oxygen because of all the hope filling his lungs.

“I’m gonna—” Bucky says.

“Yeah, me too,” Steve says. “Go on.”

Bucky comes first and Steve follows seconds after, shaking with release. Bucky’s eyes are glittering, and Steve touches the dark circles under his eyes gently and he slumps to the side. His pants feel intolerable, but also every bone in his body is liquid, so he’s not really sure how he’s supposed to go about taking them off.

“I really was just planning to kiss you,” Steve says breathlessly. “Thought we could save that till after you’ve slept for a week.”

“Beggars can’t be choosers,” Bucky says, sagely. They fall silent, panting together. Steve rolls onto his side and tucks Bucky under one arm. Bucky is stiff for a split second and then he relaxes, boneless, any hesitancy that was left going out of him. He looks up at Steve’s face, watching.

“You’re thinking about something,” Bucky says.

“I’m thinking about your accent.”

“My accent?” Bucky asks, surprised.

Steve smiles. “Yeah. You don’t have much of one. I can tell it’s American, but that’s about it.”

“It’s ‘General American’,” Bucky says. “I used to watch footage of newscasters to get it right.”

“What do you sound like if you don’t put on any particular accent?”

“I don’t.” He doesn’t sound annoyed or tense talking about it. Steve’s listening closely, just in case he hits a mine.

“How do you mean?”

“I mean that I’m always putting on an accent. There’s nothing else underneath.”

“Huh,” Steve says.

“I’m not the same man.” Bucky says, patient. “No amount of therapy or sweet-talking will change that.”

Steve takes a long time to compose his thoughts. Finally, he says, “Nobody stays the same, and nobody changes. That’s just something every single person has to face. So maybe you’re putting that to the test a little more vigorously than most. What are you or I or Hydra or whatever’s left of S.H.I.E.L.D. or anyone else going to do about it? It’s how things are now. I’ve loved you with my whole heart since I was fifteen, years before I knew what to do about it. What that fact means has stayed the same, and it’s changed too. We’ll get used to it.”

“We’ll get used to it,” Bucky promises. That’s more than good enough for Steve.

When Sam comes back, Steve and Bucky are showered and changed into clean clothes. It’s past ten o’clock and even though they’ve only been awake for two hours, Bucky keeps yawning.

“I called Nat while I was out,” Sam says. “She’s gonna have a secure jet ready to take us back into the US privately when we’re ready to go. And she’s asking Tony build you guys some rooms in the Tower.”

“What about Steve’s apartment on Dean Street?” Bucky asks.

“It’s very creepy-romantic that you know that,” Sam replies. “Seeing as he wasn’t even living in New York when he was under your surveillance before.”

Bucky laughs darkly. “Doubtlessly, more of that will be rearing its head.”

“I guess I’ll get used to it,” Sam says, cheerfully.

Steve smiles. “That seems to be a theme.”

Sam explains: “The Prospect Heights apartment hasn’t been totally cleared yet. We haven’t been through the whole building yet to check if any of the tenants are plants. And also, probably Bucky shouldn’t be left alone if Steve has to go out for any reasons.”

Steve winces. It’s kind of depressing to think about the reality of Bucky basically having to live under house arrest until they get a whole lot of stuff sorted out. But then again, knowing Bucky, and himself too, if he’s honest, they’ll probably just throw caution to the wind when it comes down to it, so he might as well not worry.

Bucky nods like these are all reasonable explanations and then he catches Steve’s eye as if to say: I hope you know you’ll be sneaking me out.

Steve quirks up the sides of his mouth in their private smile.

+

The sixteenth time Bucky Barnes sneaks into Steve Roger’s bedroom through the window, Bucky wakes Steve up because he’s taking up too much of the bed.

“I don’t know how you do it,” Bucky says. “This whole bed is the same size as our first apartment.”

“Did you come in through the window?” Steve says, in dismay. "That’s twenty-two stories of sheer glass wall!”

“Gotta keep limber,” Bucky says unconcerned. “Anyway, I was only coming up from floor nineteen.”

“You know there’s an elevator,” Steve says, yawning hugely.

“I guess the romance is dead,” Bucky says, with mock despair. He’s very good at faking feelings now. He’s gotten out of three vitally important meetings with Agent Hill by having exceptionally convincing emotional breakdowns.

“Yeah, whatever, come get in bed, I’m moving over.”

Bucky strips off his jacket and shirt and jeans and leaves them on the floor where he stands. He’s been going through a phase lately of getting real delight from not cleaning up after himself. He leaves traces of his presence all over the tower: open books in the library, socks all over the living room, half-eaten pieces of toast in the kitchen, handprints in the steam in the bathroom mirror. Tony says he’s found sixteen of Bucky’s preferred brand of “ouchless” ponytail holders in his workshop. How does he even get in there? Tony had cried. No one can get in there but me! In his head, Steve has been calling it the “de-ghostification process”.

Bucky crawls into bed, tucks his feet between Steve’s and his head into the back of Steve’s neck.

“You okay?” Steve asks. “You haven’t been waking up in the middle of the night as much, anymore. That seems like a good thing.”

“I dropped into the Soldier while I was sparring with Natalia earlier,” he says, quietly. “It took her and Clint twenty-five minutes to get me to come back.”

“Hey,” Steve says, drawing aimless patterns on Bucky’s back. “We’ve only been in New York for two months. You’re so much better. Remember that first week, you had me at gunpoint three times. That hasn’t happened since. And other people besides me can pull you out now too, which is, you know, convenient.”

“Yes,” Bucky says, sighing. “Yes. That’s true.”

Bucky’s quiet for a long time, but Steve can tell he’s still awake.

“I’ve been thinking,” Bucky says, finally.

“Yeah?”

“We should go to the beach.”

“The beach?”

“I mean, Clint pulled me out earlier because he randomly decided to start describing this beach to me, and he was talking about, you know, the sun baking down on me and the cool blue water, and being under water holding your breath until you just couldn’t anymore and then reaching for the surface and taking a huge gulp of fresh air. I think it was supposed to be a metaphor. It was kind of stupid. Except that it made me remember that time you, me, Janet B. and Freddy Castellano went down to Brighton Beach, and we were all trying to see who could hold their breath the longest. Do you remember that?”

“I do,” Steve says. “I was… I was thinking about that too actually.”

“Funny how that happens,” Bucky says. “Do you remember that was the day you first kissed me?”

“I remember,” Steve says.

“It’s so clear,” Bucky says, almost to himself. “I remember I got sand in my sheets and we were trying to go to sleep and it was terribly hot, the windows were both wide open. And I wouldn’t stop complaining to you about the sand even though I could tell it was really annoying you cause you were pretty exhausted from swimming all day. And you just suddenly sat straight up and even though it was dark I could tell you were looking right at me and you said “James Buchanan Barnes if you want to sleep in my bed with me, just get the fuck in and stop making excuses for yourself.” I was so shocked that you’d just come out and said it. I didn’t know what to do; I just lay there. And you said “Come on then.” So I got up and walked across the room and got in your bed, and you said, “Happy now?” but I wasn’t yet, but I didn’t know what to say, until finally, I kinda squeaked out a “No” and then—”

“And then I kissed you.”

“Yes, you kissed me. I couldn’t believe it. I was so damn surprised and you stuck your tongue in my mouth, and you put your hand on the back of my head and I was just thinking how does he know to do it like that.

Steve laughs. “I asked Marlene Saunders how you liked it.”

“You sly dog! That explains so much.” Bucky grins and shakes his head. “Nobody knows the trouble you cause me,” Bucky says, sounding pleased.

“The beach, then, huh?” Steve says, quietly.

“I remember it so clearly, like it happened yesterday.” Bucky says, yawning and pressing in against Steve’s back as close as he can.

“We’ll go then.” Steve says, and thinks about floating while Bucky falls asleep.