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Howard Stark: Center of the Universe

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It was a hazy August morning when Howard Stark read an article in Science that theorized the center of the galaxy might be a dead quasar. Howard liked the idea, wished that he had come up with it, and started what it might mean and how he could use it—that the everything in the galaxy was pulled in by the remnants of this massive, black hole. He was still thinking about it when he was heading out to lunch and Maria stopped him at the door, telling him that she was pregnant.

He kissed his wife but couldn’t help but compare the growing embryo to a black hole. Privately. He wasn’t sure that Maria would appreciate the comparison. But wasn’t it fitting? The greatest of all black holes bringing forth a new black hole.

He could teach the embryo-black hole everything that it would need to grow as a black hole. It’d need to be a worthy successor—it needed to be capable of being so much more than a center of a galaxy if it would ever fill Howard’s shoes.

Fuck the galaxy, Howard was pretty sure he was the center of the goddamn universe.

Of course, as the center of the universe, there were things that Howard Stark missed. Systems in the universe circled around him and were moved by his abilities and he decisions. But he didn’t notice away that the systems circled around each other, even in a closer orbit, never far from one another.

He didn’t notice those things. But hey—there were sacrifices to be made at the center of the universe.

Chapter Text

Poets and artists all might’ve had a lot of great things to say about New York, but they sure as hell weren’t saying it about the weather in February. It had been bad enough when Howard left his penthouse in the early hours of the morning, needing to leave the comfortable warmth of his bed and the company of a cigarette girl’s glorious body. Instead of all of the promises of what might have happened if he stayed in bed, he had needed to walk outside into the freezing wind tunnel. It had been less than a minute before he had escaped into the pre-warmed heat of his car, but it had been enough to chill him down to the bone.

The weather was worse when he stepped out of an empty storefront in Red Hook. The early-morning clouds had cleared away, but even the sun looked weak and cold. All it did was melt some of the surrounding snow to dirty slush and the way that the wind blew off the water every way that you turned was enough to make any man whip out a flask before noon.

Not that Howard Stark was just any man. He got into his car and opened up his wet bar to make himself a real drink. For all the shitty weather, he was as happy as a clam. Red Hook might be a shit show, a real special mixture of dockworkers and Al Capone wannabes, but it was the perfect shit show for what the SSR was cooking up.

The shop he had visited was an impressive display of Prohibition ingenuity. The whole thing had a series of connected basements, big enough that if it had ever been filled, the whole city could have gotten gloriously drunk one day. It seemed to have been forgotten about, and while it meant the local rats were going to need to find a new home, it also meant that it’d be easy to convert the building into a top-secret military weapons bunker.

And to top it all off, it was close enough to the water that if they needed to flood the damn thing when everything went sideways, then the damage could be contained. And with any luck, Howard wouldn’t be there when it happened.

That was a pleasant thought. It was enough to make Howard toss back the rest of his drink and put his car into gear, ready to head home and work on his rough designs for the machine some more. It wasn’t enough to ruin his mood—if the weather in New York in February couldn’t do that, nothing would.

As he drove past the docks and back toward the bridges, he might’ve passed two men, on their way to enlist, but he didn’t even pay attention to it. He was trying to think of a name for the project. Something catchy, flashy. Something to really stick to those Manhattan Project boys. Whatever these Vita Rays were gonna do was going to be better than what they produced for the war effort.

He also needed to decide where he was going next, and fast, since pretty soon he was gonna need to decide if he was taking the Brooklyn or the Manhattan Bridge.

And like a flash of lightning, the name hit him, and he smirked. 

The Brooklyn Project. 

‘Suck on that, Oppenheimer,’ Howard thought to himself. ‘And shove that Upper East Side attitude where the sun don’t shine.’

———————- 

Nothing scared Bucky Barnes as a kid. But growing up meant getting increasingly nervous about Steve’s challenge face—the one where he looked at Bucky as if to ask, “Well, you gonna let these jerks get away with this?”. It meant he expected Bucky to do something about it. It wasn’t anything Bucky should have rightly been afraid of, but as they got older, sometimes Steve’s expression instead meant “Well, you gonna pretend there’s nothing between us?

Bucky wanted to pretend there’s nothing between them. So he looks away, trying to avoid Steve’s disappointment that inevitably follows.

He expected it to go away once they were fully grown (as much as they would ever be), but it only got worse. It turned into “Well, you gonna kiss me?” except Steve looked like he expected nothing from Bucky anymore.

And then Pearl Harbor happened, and Steve gave him a look that said “Well, you gonna do something about it?

Bucky was so afraid of losing Steve, but it wasn’t what he was most afraid of. Not when there was a chance Steve would end up alone. So he trained Steve, in the vain hope that maybe it’d work and maybe people would see what Steve is capable of.

When they go to enlist, Bucky’s not surprised when he’s accepted. He goes along with all the tests and signs when they tell him to sign, shakes a hand when they hold out a hand in front of him, but his thoughts are with Steve, wondering what sort of miracle might have happened and not sure what outcome he’s hoping for.

When Bucky steps out into the hall, he sees Steve and the way his mouth is set in a thin line, looking to the world like he’s ready to fight anyone, he knows he doesn’t have to ask. He’s not surprised, but he turns toward Steve with a breath, looking both certain and uncertain. Eyes on Steve, who was approaching with an expectant look, Bucky tried in vain to defuse things. “Well, that was more poking and prodding than I’m used to on a Wednesday afternoon.”

It worked to ease some of the tension—some. Steve looked less angry than he did five seconds before Bucky spoke, but he narrowed his mouth even more, briefly looking down when he stepped close enough to Bucky. His had was visibly fidgeting through the thin material of his coat, but he nodded a little, clearing his throat before he spoke in an effort to keep his voice steady. “So… where are you headed?”

“Wisconsin. C’mon, let’s step outside,” Bucky tried again, noticing the thinness of Steve’s lips while he finished buttoning up the top couple of the buttons of his shirt. When he was finished with that, he used that hand to try and steer Steve back toward the end of the hall and toward the exit, not wanting to linger.

Steve magically managed not to fight Bucky on it, only nodding again. He didn’t want to stay in the recruitment center any longer, either. It wasn’t that he was any less ready to fight Bucky—but he at least didn’t want to have words in this hall. Steve pulled one of his hands from his pocket, shoving the door open so that they could leave. “Army?”

“Yeah,” Bucky answered, keeping his response carefully short for Steve’s sake, not wanting to fight at all, but aware that he might not be able to stop the oncoming storm. He followed Steve out onto the street, shoving his hands into his pockets and squinted up at the sky, half wondering if the sky was going to open up with a storm of its own.

“Huh,” Steve managed to say volumes with just that word, particularly given his outright scowl. He pulled his other hand from his pocket, dragging a thin and fraying scarf from his pocket and wrapping it around his neck a few times, not even looking at Bucky while he does it. “What now?”

Bucky gathered his own coat closer, even if he didn’t bother to button it. He sighed in a puff of frosty steam, glancing at Steve sideways, and they stepped out onto the sidewalk together. “I go to basic, I guess. And you…?”

Bucky trailed off, not explicitly asking if Steve got in or not—he already knew the answer without Steve needing to say it—but he still wanted to know what Steve planned to do next. Steve swallowed hard, still not looking at Bucky, but he lifted his head defiantly, ready for a fight. His hands went back into his pockets as he made his way down the icy steps onto the sidewalk, talking a brief look around before setting in the direction of Bucky’s parents place.

“Keep working on what you’ve taught me. Find a way to make it to basic,” Steve said, his voice low and steady. Bucky nodded mostly to himself for that conversation, looking at Steve properly now, even if Steve continues to avoid him.

“Look, Stevie…” Bucky started, but he trailed off, obviously not knowing where to go with that, especially how hard Steve’s expression is. Bucky made a face and trailed off instead, at a loss at how to reassure him.

Steve slowed down a little, turning his head to look back at Bucky. His expression was spitting mad, the anger only increasing now that they’re out of the building. “You gonna tell me that I shouldn’t?”

“No, because I know you wouldn’t listen,” Bucky replied pointedly, his look mild in comparison to Steve’s glare, but he shrugged it off as best he can. “I just don’t want you to do anything especially stupid and get yourself into more trouble than usual.”

Of course, that only made Steve more irate, and he looked half ready to kick snow in Bucky’s direction. Steve managed to stop himself from doing that, but he huffed and shrugged his shoulders in an exaggerated movement, exasperated by just how big his coat was on his frame. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

“I’m pretty sure the answer to that is ‘getting arrested’, and you’re not exactly one who’d hold up to jail time,” Bucky pointed out indelicately, more than happy to get snippy right back at Steve for the other man’s attitude.

“Well apparently, I couldn’t handle the Western front either, so what’s it matter?” Steve challenged Bucky with a sharp look, ready to rise to the challenge and looking to find any outlet for the fight he’s got building inside of him.

“Whaddya mean, ‘what’s it matter’?” Bucky countered, giving Steve an unimpressed look in return. “If you can’t get there, you find something else to do that isn’t going to jail or getting yourself killed on the front lines—” 

Bucky stopped himself before he said anything more, frowning as he shook his head instead, glancing up and ahead of where they’re walking.

“Oh, so now you think I’m going to get myself killed too?” Steve demanded, balling his hands into fists inside of his jacket pockets. Steve’s voice continued to rise in volume, ignoring the looks that he got from the few other individuals that they passed, looking straight ahead. “If you thought that, why'd you even bother to train me, you… you… jerk?” 

“I’m thinking it’s war, Steve, and everyone’s got a real good chance of getting killed out there,” Bucky fired back, emphasizing war when he spoke. He tried not to let his own fears and insecurities leak into his tone, but the effort wore on him and he needed to look forward, his expression stony.

“What about your chances of getting killed out there? Just because you’re all big and strong, doesn’t make you invincible, Bucky,” Steve blurted out, not even really thinking about what he’s saying while the words came out of his mouth, but it’s clear that he realized it after the fact, his eyes going wide as he glanced at Bucky.

Bucky met his eyes briefly, but his expression was hard, missing the apologetic expression on Steve’s face. Instead, he shook his head and turned his eyes forward, hunching his shoulders against the cold, his voice low and tone just as hard as his expression. “You think I don’t know that?”

“Do you?” Steve asked as he stepped a little closer to Bucky, telling himself it was a reaction to the strong cold wind, that might as well have blown away Steve’s anger as well.

Bucky hesitated a moment but shrugged, pulling one hand from his pocket to drape his arm casually around Steve’s shoulders, pulling him in closer for warmth. “I’m not an idiot. It doesn’t seem real yet, but… it will.”

Steve’s mouth thinned out, but his disapproval this time around ran a little too close to sadness than he would have liked. He stepped a little closer to Bucky’s side, his voice even soft enough to almost be lost in the wind. “I don’t want you to.”

“Want me to what?” Buck asked, glancing at Steve with a frown, even as his hand automatically and reassuringly squeezed Steve’s shoulder. 

“You know what,” Steve murmured, briefly glancing up toward Bucky. Belatedly, he realized how worried he might look and quickly looked back down at the sidewalk, but it was enough for Bucky to see it and note it. Bucky’s expression softened in turn, and he took a moment to tilt his head back, looking up at the sky—already it was starting to get dark. Bucky sighed and squeezed Steve’s shoulder again.

“I don’t want to, either,” Bucky admitted, and Steve made a quiet sound. It reminded Bucky of the way Steve sounded when he would say ‘that’s something’, so that’s how Bucky took it. They continued walking in silence for a long moment, Steve leaning in against Bucky and drawing comfort from him.

They crossed an intersection and Steve finally sighed under his breath and spoke. “I’d feel better if I was there with you.”

“Thought you’d be glad to get rid of me for six months.” Bucky tried in vain to lighten the mood, but his heart wasn’t really in it. He couldn’t bring himself to look at Steve either, so he kept his eyes straight ahead, even as he shook his head briefly.

“Yeah, looking forward to taking all those punches by myself,” Steve murmured, trying to return the lighthearted jab, but it falls short, so he tries something else. “You… do you want to celebrate, tonight? Just us?”

The choice of words made Bucky’s eyebrows lift, but he glanced at Steve again, somehow managing to avoid being a smartass and wisely nodded instead. “Yeah. Let’s do that.”

“We can pick up a bottle of something big and cheap,” Steve figured, but another thought occurred to him, and a smile pulled at the corner of his eye. “After we tell your ma.”

“Right, that.” Bucky responded, and the face he made suggested that he was less than looking forward to that for so many reasons. Bucky took a deep breath in and let it out in a puff, but he was finally able to smile, even if it was small.

“That,” Steve agreed. With no small amount of an exertion of his will, he pulled his hand from the warm comfort of his pocket and brought it out to pat Bucky’s back consolingly. “Want me there?”

“She’s gonna grill you, too,” Bucky pointed out. He briefly raised his eyebrows at Steve, but then looked forward again, only then absently squeezing Steve’s shoulder. “Sure you wanna deal with that?”

“Yeah, I’m the one that got F4’d today, how bad can her grilling be in comparison?” Steve brushed it off with fake ease, looking at Bucky. He patted Bucky’s back again before withdrawing his hand, rubbing his fingers together to try and warm them again. The wind picked up momentarily, and Bucky kept Steve in close for it.

“You know ma. She finds a way.”

Steve swallowed hard around a lump that appeared in his throat, biting his dried out lip as his brow furrowed until he was able to force the words out he needed to say. “If I can’t be by your side on the field, I can at least stick by you for this.”

Bucky was quiet for a moment, but eventually nodded. “Thanks, pal. Appreciate it.”

Steve could feel the taller man relax, even if it was only fractionally. Bucky gave Steve’s shoulder a firm squeeze, somewhere between reassuring him and trying to take some reassurance for himself.

“I want to be with you, as… as long as we can, anyway,” Steve said, sounding a little distracted. He cleared his throat to also clear his mind, then stood up a little straighter.

“Me too,” Bucky murmured easily, giving Steve’s back a reassuring pat before resettling that arm around his shoulders. “I’ll write you. When I’m in basic, and… after.”

That was enough to reassure Steve, even if it was a small thing. A thought struck him suddenly and he laughed quietly. “Don’t think I’ve ever written you a letter.”

“Well we’ve never been apart for more than a couple of days at a time since we met,” Bucky said with a chuckle, giving Steve’s shoulders a friendly and affectionate jostle. “Hope you can read my writing.”

“Write me one before you go, so I can yell at you about it, if your writing is no good.” Steve made a face for that jostle, keeping his hands in his pockets, given the temperature. But somehow, his elbow found its way to Bucky’s side, and Bucky let out a short laugh of an exhale.

“Okay,” Bucky agreed, bringing his other hand around to rub at his side. “If only they know what good weapons your bony elbows are.”

The idea pleased Steve and he chuckled to himself, before shrugging his shoulder a little. “Funny enough, the local bullies don’t like it when I try to elbow them either. But maybe I’ll try it on the army doctors, next time.”

“Yeah, good plan.” Bucky chuckled, his grin less strained now, and he shook his head, glancing sideways at Steve. “See how far that gets ya.”

“I’ll probably be able to write letters from prison, right?” Steve smiled widely at Bucky, clearly teasing. It was an easy enough thing to make a joke of, even with his earlier trouble.

“Shut up,” Bucky said while rolling his eyes, even if he couldn’t help but smile more. He brought his hand up to give Steve’s hair a thorough but affectionate ruffle, his fingers lingering in the softness of his hair for a moment or two longer than usual.

“Cut it out, Buck!”

Steve made a face, swatting at Bucky’s hand while he did that. He stopped walking, moving out of the way of anyone on the street to run his hands through his hair a few times, trying to bring it back in order, muttering under his breath. “What’s your ma gonna say about it?”

“I dunno,” Bucky said honestly, watching Steve do that with a soft smile. His hands found his pockets, using them to pull his coat closer against his front. “She’ll be proud that I’m makin’ something of myself, blah blah. But I know she’ll cry, too.”

“Think she’ll cry while I’m there?” Steve asked, mostly out of curiosity while he glanced in a store window, trying to figure out what his hair looked like. Once he was satisfied, he started walking again, his eyes mostly on Bucky now that his temper is under control.

“Dunno, this is kinda new territory.” Bucky was obviously uncomfortable with the prospect, his eyes actively avoiding Steve now. He turned his collar up against the wind, then buried his hands back into his pockets.

“Right,” Steve said softly, furrowing his brow as he gives it some thought. He was quiet for a moment, not wanting to push Bucky on the topic, but eventually he felt like he needed to know the answer. “...do you blame me, for you enlisting?”

“What? Of Course not,” Bucky scoffed, his answer almost too quick as he shook his head. Bucky reached out to give Steve’s shoulder a light shove. “Why would you even ask that?”

“Mm,” Steve said, shrugging his shoulders. He kept looking at Bucky, but he didn’t get any closer to him, despite the comforting warmth. “Wouldn’t be crazy if you did.”

“I don’t blame you,” Bucky reiterated firmly, now frowning at Steve as he shook his head again and shoved his hands deep inside his pockets. “You didn’t force me to do anything. I wanted this.”

Steve looked at Bucky but didn’t say anything immediately. He didn’t know if he agreed or disagreed with Bucky about that point, but he was too afraid of what it might mean, one way or the other. “You’re gonna do great, Buck.”

“Assuming I don’t get kicked out for running my mouth,” Bucky said to try and lighten the mood. He glanced back at Steve, nudging him amicably with one elbow.

“If you end up in military prison for being a smartass, your ma will kill you.” Steve tried to make it sound like a joke and smiled a little as he looked back at Bucky, elbowing him right back.

“Aint that the truth,” Bucky agreed with a chuckle, smiling and shaking his head as he looked down at the sidewalk. His laugh trailed off and the smiled faded, his thoughts shifting. Bucky cleared his throat and lifted his head but didn’t look at Steve.

“Listen, if it happens that you can’t ship out with me or…” Bucky paused, shrugging, but didn’t finish that thought. He intentionally didn’t look at Steve, missing the sharp look the smaller man gave him and the frown that followed. “Look after her, okay? And the rest?”

Aware that he wasn’t getting Bucky’s attention just by making faces at him, Steve reached over, curling his finger inside Bucky’s pocket to draw him away from that train of thought. “It’s not happening, Buck.”

“Just—while I’m gone,” Bucky tried to dig himself out from the metaphorical grave he had dug out of that train of thought, glancing briefly toward Steve’s hand, letting out a soft breath, white puffs forming in the cold winter air. “That’s it. Check in on her, and all.”

“Alright,” Steve said warily, giving him a knowing look. He lightly tugged on his pocket before slowly pulling his hand back, already regretting it as it returned to his own pocket, and he repeated himself. “Alright. But you better write her letters, too.”

“Yeah, I will,” Bucky said, watching Steve’s hand as he slowly pulled it away. It made him smile, and he glanced up to look at Steve’s face again, nodding once. Steve automatically returned the smile, but it was a little forced.

“Anyone else you need me to check on? That you’ll be writing letters to?” Steve asked, trying to sound casual about it.

“Nah,” Bucky replied, not needing to put much thought into it. He shook his head and pulled his coat closer, as another cold gust of wind blew past them. If the question set anything off for him, it wasn’t obvious, not even to Steve.

“Oh,” Steve said, sounding and feeling pretty okay with that. His smile became a little easier, and he shrugged his shoulders, bringing a hand out from his pocket to run through his hair briefly, trying to fix it after that gust of wind. “You know you’re gonna be breaking half of the hearts in Brooklyn when you leave.”

“Hm,” Bucky seemed pretty amused by the prospect, and took a second to figure out what he felt about it, before he shrugged too, looking at Steve with a smile. “I’m sure they’ll be okay without me.”

“Yeah, most,” Steve said, smiling back at Bucky as he briefly leaned in to nudge Bucky’s arm with his shoulder.

“Most, huh?” Bucky asks, but that’s the extent to how deep he’s willing to get into it, even if the look he gives Steve is briefly indescribable. In turn, Steve’s gaze was sharp to see where he would take that comment. Bucky tried to hide it by turning to face forward again, still smiling, and missed the faint look of disappointment on Steve’s face, as he started on a new train of thought. “Guess we’ll see what the hearts are like in Wisconsin.”

“Gotta compete with the best guys from around the country. Seems like you might have your work cut out for you,” Steve said mildly, nodding to himself.

“Yeah, true,” Bucky chuckled, but it wasn’t terribly genuine. He cleared his throat after the laugh trailed off, and he reached up, unnecessarily fiddling with his collar. “I don’t expect to have much luck.”

“That’ll be a first,” Steve said mildly, not trying to hide anger, only mindful of sounding bitter. He smiled at Bucky and tried to offer him an alternative. “Would you rather go dancing tonight?”

“No,” Bucky replied, his expression and smile softening into something more genuine again as he looks back at Steve. He gave him a nudge with one elbow, before adding, “Just being with you. And a bottle of something big and cheap.”

“Well, when your head is killing you tomorrow, remember that you had a choice,” Steve said with a chuckle, halfheartedly nudging Bucky’s arm with his elbow. But the cold air had been bothering his lungs for too long, and he stepped out of the way of traffic, moving to a corner to catch his breath.

“I’ll blame it on you, anyway,” Bucky said helpfully, pausing to stand next to Steve. He knew not to make a big deal of it, so he rested a reassuring hand on Steve’s back until he was ready to move on. After a few steadying breaths, Steve reached up to squeeze Bucky’s arm, the only sign of gratitude he would show, and then started to walk again.

“I figured,” Steve said, only a faint wheeze audible in his voice.

“People almost always believe me when I blame things on you. Go figure,” Bucky said with a light tone, not bothering to look at Steve as he smiled, falling back into step with him. They were close enough now that he could see the block where his family lived, and his steps slowed down. “Except Ma, she knows better.”

“That’s because she’s the smartest person we know,” Steve said easily enough, but he was starting to get nervous, now that they were so close. He wasn’t the only nervous one—while Steve fidgeted with his scarf, Bucky came to a complete stop at the base of the stairs and a hand through his hair.

“Yeah, probably,” Bucky mutter, his amusement faded. Steve turned to look at Bucky, watching him while he played with his hair. Steve shook his head, reaching out to give his arm a quick squeeze, trying to be as reassuring as he could.

“She’s gonna be proud.”

“She is,” Bucky echoed, half for the sake of convincing himself. Bucky managed a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes, and glanced at Steve, nodding before he returned that arm squeeze. Together, they were ready, and started up the stairs.

———————-

Steve was drunk or well on his way to being drunk. He was at least to the point where tried to be very, very careful as he poured more booze into two glasses, not wanting to spill any, but still wanting another drink. Fortunately, he was able not to spill the alcohol, but he looked funny for all his efforts. Managing to pick up both glasses, he carefully walked back toward Bucky, and sat next to him on his bed. It was the only comfortable surface in the apartment that they could both sit on.

“Here. Cheers, Buck.”

“Cheers,” Bucky said with a fond smile, taking the glass as Steve offered it. He clinked his glass lightly against Steve’s (who wisely left all the clinking action to Bucky) and took a slow sip. He wasn’t drunk—but he was tipsy enough that he felt warmer and looser.

Steve took a small sip, still careful about it, but once the glass was less perilously full, he leaned back and rested his weight on one hand, smiling easily. “It sure helps with the cold.”

“It does,” Bucky agreed easily enough. He glanced over at Steve and decided to take that as an invitation to scoot closer to Steve, who had certainly meant it as one. Bucky rested their arms together to try and offer up some of his own warmth, and Steve smiled at him gratefully for it.

“Winter in Wisconsin, huh? That must be something,” Steve said as he leaned in comfortably against Bucky.

“Think it’ll be worse than here?” Bucky mused, turning his glass in his hand. He shook his head and smiled, but the reminder of what the future held was enough that he took a longer sip of his drink.

“Maybe, in different ways. It’s more north, isn’t it?” Steve asked, but he wasn’t too interested in the answer, shrugging his shoulders. It seemed natural enough to move from there to rest his head against Bucky’s shoulder, trying to picture a map in his head.

“Dunno,” Bucky replied honestly, and with a shrug of his own, but he was careful to try and not dislodge Steve. His eyes flickered to Steve’s messy blonde hair, but soon returned to examining his glass, dangling from where he has his elbow resting on bent knees. “Don’t know much about it at all, except that it sounds like it’s in the middle of nowhere. Gonna miss the city.”

“City’s gonna miss you,” Steve murmured quietly, his eyes closing. He took another small sip of his drink, comfortable in the way that he leant against Bucky, and he let out an equally quiet sigh. “You and all the other folks serving… it’s gonna be a lot quieter around here.”

Bucky made a sound to indicate his agreement, slumping a little lower where he sat. He sighed out, swiping his thumb across the side of his glass. “Good news for you, I guess. Lots more girls going without dates.”

“Somehow I don’t think my luck is going to change,” Steve said dryly, not even pausing to think about it. The prospect wasn’t amusing. He sat up again but kept leaning against Bucky as he opened his eyes, taking a good, hard look at him.

“Why not?” Bucky asked, starting to chuckle until he caught Steve’s eye. His laugh trailed off at that look and he raised his eyebrows both in absent surprise and inquisitiveness. He fell quiet, waiting to hear what Steve would say.

Steve was surprised too—surprised that Bucky even had to ask. He seemed to consider his answer, mentally weighing the pros and cons of truth. He opted to take a sip of his drink for liquid courage first, then spoke. “You know. I’ve got my eye on someone, Buck.”

Bucky raised his eyebrows that much further, going so far as to open and close his mouth with nothing coming out of it. He cleared his throat once and gave his head the slightest shake. “What, and you never told me?”

Steve smiled, trying to match Bucky’s levity but the smile was weak, only managing it in one corner of his mouth. He tried to focus on Bucky’s face, not sure how much of Bucky’s surprise was genuine. “I thought you might already know.”

“Enlighten me,” Bucky said lightly, trying to keep his tone as casual as his reaction was ambiguous. But he kept his eyes on Steve, even as he took a slow drink of his drink.

“Oh, you want to know who it is?” Steve asked blandly, clearly not impressed by Bucky’s response, but his expression was intended to challenge Bucky. He didn’t believe for a second that Bucky wanted to know, but he didn’t break eye contact either.

“That’s why I asked,” Bucky said as he brought his glass back down. He kept his gaze on Steve as he tilted his head, his eyes narrowing briefly as he tried to get a read on him.

Steve swallowed hard, suddenly nervous about the prospect, but he took a sip of his drink anyway to steel himself again, suddenly feeling far too sober. But he didn’t look away from Bucky, not even as he spoke, his voice soft and clear when he brought the glass away from his lips.

“You.”

It’s obvious to Steve that Bucky’s heart skipped a beat. Bucky opened his mouth, but once again, no sound came out and he snapped his jaw shut again, pressing his lips together and outright frowning. For a long moment he didn’t say anything and just frowned, but just when it was getting to be too much for Steve to handle, Bucky suddenly pushed Steve’s shoulder and started to laugh, but it was distinctly forced. “Jesus, Stevie! You really had me going there, for a second.”

Steve very briefly looked disappointed as Bucky pushed him away, but his expression quickly became guarded instead, staying as far away from Bucky as he can without actually moving. He stared hard at Bucky, barely moving his head to shake it. “Oh, that’s funny to you?”

Even as thick as he was, it was obvious to Bucky that his approach wasn’t exactly helping him. He let out a soft breath and brought up his free hand to run over his face, trying again. “No, I… look, Stevie…”

It was all that Bucky could say. It didn’t impress Steve any more than his joke approach had. Bucky dropped his gaze away from his face, clearly at a loss and gave Steve a helpless sort of look instead. It was enough to cool some of Steve’s immediate anger, and Steve took a deep breath and let it out. It was shaky, but not even Steve could tell if it was because of his emotional response, or if his lungs were just doing their normal winter night asthma activity.

“Bucky, you’re going to fight in a war. Don’t you think we’re beyond due for clearing the air?”

“And why’s that, huh?” Bucky bristled immediately, his own expression turning hard and his brow furrowed. “Why now?”

They both knew that Bucky was daring Steve to say, ‘because you might not come back’. It was the only thing that might make sense to Bucky. And if Steve was brave enough, he’d admit that too.

“Would’ve told you earlier, but for some reason, every time I would’ve, you suddenly had somewhere to be or something stupid to tell me,” Steve retorted instead, rising up to meet Bucky’s challenge. He lifted his eyebrows briefly, as if to tell Bucky ‘It’s in your court now’.

“Yeah, well.” Bucky started, and Steve’s brow furrowed slightly, bringing a leg up under himself as he shifted his weight. Bucky’s frown deepened, and he had to look away, barely shaking his head before his gaze turned to his glass instead, swirling the liquid around before he took a drink, only speaking once he had taking that sip. “Maybe that’s because some things are better left alone.”

That idea was enough to make Steve outright flinch. He drew up his other leg so that he could sit on both of his feet, trying his best not to look as hurt by that as he actually felt. He needed to look away from Bucky, and his eyes found his own glass. “Oh.”

It was all Steve could manage to say.

There was a long silence that followed. If Steve had looked at Bucky, he might have actually seen the way that Bucky looked like he had a lot of things he could say or wanted to say.

He could have said: I feel the same way.

Or maybe: I care about you too.

Or he could have gone the more truthful route, where the words hurt too much to even think about—that he didn’t want to go. That they couldn’t do this, even if they wanted.

Bucky could have admitted that he wanted to be able to be what Steve needed.

Instead, when Bucky finally spoke again, his voice was soft and neutral, saying none of those things. “I don’t want to fight. Not tonight, not with what’s coming.”

“I didn’t want to fight either,” Steve said, more than a little helpless. He drew up his hand so that he could run it through his hair, braving a very quick look at Bucky. What he saw made him shake his head and look away again. “I just thought… I thought you might feel the same, is all.”

“It doesn’t matter what I feel,” Bucky mumbled as evasively as ever as he thoroughly avoided looking at Steve, even from the corner of his eye. “It doesn’t change a damn thing.”

“Why?” Steve said, unable to stop his voice from cracking as he said it, and he hated himself a little for it. He bit his lip to try to avoid anything else.

“Because it doesn’t. Okay?” Bucky bit back sharply, even more sharply than he intended, but the tone of Steve’s voice was making him sick to his stomach. He shook his head quickly and resolutely. “Just drop it.”

Steve didn’t flinch this time, even if Bucky’s voice was sharper. But he did hold onto his glass a little tighter, and after a long moment of nothing he took another sip and nodded, not trusting himself to say anything whatsoever. Bucky was quiet too, much for the same reasons, and his knuckles were just as tight around his glass.

Eventually, Bucky took a slow, careful breath, and his voice was quiet when he spoke again, the heat gone. “I’m—I’m sorry. This isn’t how I wanted it.”

“How did you want it, Bucky?” Steve’s voice was still quiet, but all the shakiness was gone, replaced with an almost weary tone. He took another small sip of his drink, just to prove to himself that his hands wouldn’t shake either.

“I don’t know,” Bucky said honestly. He leaned forward to set his glass down on the ground and buried his face in his hands, rubbing his skin. He eventually pushed his hands through his hair, gaze averted. “I really don’t.”

“What about now?” Steve’s tone was the same. He wasn’t even mad at Bucky for his reaction, so he was unable to fight the urge to reach out toward him, resting his hand against his back in sympathy.

“What about it?” Bucky retorted dully, not seeing the mild look that Steve gave him for that response. He didn’t pull away from Steve’s touch, but he didn’t react to it like he normally might. Instead, he rested one arm on his knee again as the other rubbed at the back of his neck, while Steve started to rub Bucky’s back.

Steve kept his touch light, like Bucky might dart at any second. “How do you want it to go now?”

“Right now, I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” Bucky mumbled, practically to himself but loud enough for Steve to hear. Steve took in a sharp breath and withdrew his hand. Bucky wasn’t proud of himself for saying it, but he also didn’t know what else to say.

He still didn’t see the way that Steve briefly looked angry for Bucky daring to say that out loud. Steve opened his mouth for an angry retort, but he couldn’t figure out the words, and he closed his mouth again. He raised his glass to his mouth and finished it off, bending to the side so he could place the glass down on the floor.

“You’re a jerk,” Steve said, but without any heat to the words.

“Yeah. I know,” Bucky said simply.

Bucky shook his head and likewise finished his drink, setting his glass aside. He moved to stand, and Steve lifted his eyebrows, curious to where he was going. But then Bucky took a couple of steps forward to start pushing his feet into his shoes, clearly getting ready to leave and Steve looked outright alarmed, sitting up straight and planting both feet on the floor.

“You’re leaving?”

Bucky finally looked at Steve over his shoulder, his eyes glancing briefly to the way that Steve is gripped the bed with white knuckles. Then he cleared his throat and gave a faint shrug. “I don’t exactly feel like I’m doing you any favors by staying.”

“Maybe not, but…” Steve hesitated, but then also stood, taking a step toward Bucky and crossed his arms tightly against his chest. He looked outright worried, his brow furrowed in thought. “I don’t want you to go.”

Bucky faced forward again, turning away from Steve, so that Steve wouldn’t see the thoroughly torn expression on his face. He squeezed his eyes shut and his brow knitted together, but eventually his hands relaxed at his sides and he let out a quiet and defeated sort of breath. “I don’t… want to go either.”

There’s a second meaning to his words, but it’s not one that Steve noticed, only a little relieved that Bucky would say as much.

“So, don’t,” Steve said, as he took a very cautious step toward Bucky, arms crossed tightly against his chest to resist reaching out to touch him. “You were… you’ve been my best friend since always, Buck. I don’t want this… I don’t want to ruin that. I’m sorry, too.”

Bucky’s frown deepened, but he shook his head, managing to smooth his expression out into something neutral before he turned back around. Steve didn’t trust that neutral expression, and Bucky could read the worry written all over Steve’s face. Bucky’s hand tentatively reached out to brush his fingertips against Steve’s sleeve as he spoke. “You haven’t ruined anything. Couldn’t if you tried.

“Kinda feels like I could’ve,” Steve said mildly, but Bucky’s light touch is enough to undo his resistance and he uncrossed his arms and took another step to reach out, hugging Bucky without any hesitation.

 

“You didn’t,” Bucky reintegrated more firmly. But he hesitated for the briefest moment, before he brought his hands up to wrap around Steve in return, carefully pulling him closer. There’s a fragility to the hug that’s unfamiliar to both of them. Steve swallowed hard as he leaned into Bucky, holding onto him just as tightly as he could get away with.

Forall the fragility to the hug, it offered Steve all the reassurance that he needed. When Bucky spoke again, his voice was low and just a little rough with emotion. “I’m sorry that I can’t… be that. For you.”

Steve’s voice was quiet, trying to mask some of his lingering pain. It was hard, when they were this close. “S’okay, Bucky. There’s… I don’t have a lot going for me, and I knew it was a long shot, but I had to try. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t’ve.”

“No, hey,” Bucky started gently, shaking his head even if Steve won’t be able to see it. He carefully squeezed Steve’s shoulder. “I’m glad you did, honestly.”

Steve looked up at Bucky at that, pulling away just enough that he could catch his expression. His own expression clearly read that he doubted that very, very much. “You didn’t seem so glad.”

“Maybe not, but…” Bucky trailed off, distracted as he hazarded a glance down at Steve even at this proximity. They were still so close. Bucky started to bite at the corner of his lip, and he shook his head. “The idea that you couldn’t trust me with something like this is even worse.”

Steve nodded, unable to disagree with that sentiment. He loosened his arms from around Bucky enough that he could start drawing them back, not wanting to make things weird in any way. “No secrets?”

“No secrets,” Bucky agreed quietly. His eyes flickered to the side for the briefest of moments as he took a half-step away, bringing up a hand to run through his hair. “Can we… get back to that whole drinking thing?”

Bucky’s attempt to lighten the mood was obvious, but it wasn’t one that Steve was going to disagree with.

“Yeah,” Steve said quietly. He looked at Bucky for a long moment, then moved to the side and picked up both of their empty glasses, looking toward the kitchen, but didn’t start walking there just yet. “Gonna take off your shoes?”

“...yeah,” Bucky said, sounding and looking briefly embarrassed. He scratched the back of his neck with a sheepish expression as he toed those off again, nudging them toward the wall once they did. Steve didn’t comment further on the shoe situation but inched past Bucky toward the kitchen counter.

Steve put the glasses down and took a small steadying breath before he started to fill them again, taking his time to do so, in an attempt to find something else that they could say. Bucky didn’t fare much better in making conversation, crossing back to the bed to settle himself carefully on the edge.

Bucky wanted to say something that was comforting but still neutral, but there was nothing he could come up with. Just the things that he wished he could say.

Steve carried both drinks over to the bed, taking one look at Bucky’s face before he let out small huff of a laugh, offering Bucky his glass as he back as he sat back down. “Don’t act like it’s the worst news you’ve had all day, Buck.”

The look that Bucky gave Steve was unimpressed, but he couldn’t help but quirk a smile as he took the offered glass. “It’s not, and you know it.”

“I know it’s not,” Steve said sort of matter of factly, but settled on the mattress and smiled a little as he looked at Bucky. He then lifted his glass to clink lightly against Bucky’s, careful as he did that.

 Bucky returned that cheers gently before they bought brought their glasses up to take small sips. Bucky sighed out when he swallowed. He was more than a little solemn for the reminder, and briefly lost in thought.

Steve caught some of Bucky’s mood as he took a look of his face, bringing his glass back down. He leaned forward, elbow resting on his knee as he shifted his gaze to look at the floor, not wanting to see Bucky’s face when he answered his next question. “Regretting it?”

 

“No,” Bucky said, but that wasn’t right.

“I don’t know,” Bucky admitted, when he realized he was just saying no because that should have been the right answer. He leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees, shoulders bowed. “I was just… was getting used to the idea we might get to go together. Y’know?”

Bucky wanted to tell him that he didn’t want to go alone. But that was too much of a truth—if that came out, it would be like the loose string that unraveled everything. He couldn’t do that, so he couldn’t say it. Eventually, Bucky shrugged his shoulders and took another drink instead.

“I know,” Steve said solemnly, not about to judge Bucky on that front, unaware of any inner turmoil. He spared Bucky another glance, still leaning forward himself, then shifted his weight just a little, so that he could lean lightly against Bucky. “I’m sorry, Buck.”

“No, hey.” Bucky shook his head immediately, leaning into Steve with ease and not an ounce of awkwardness or discomfort, even in light of the conversation they just had. Whatever might’ve changed between them, Bucky still wasn’t afraid to show affection. “It’s not your fault. I know you wish you could be going.”

“I will be going, Buck. I’m gonna join you as soon as I can,” Steve said earnestly, relaxing against Bucky easily. He was grateful for that same, familiar ease. He kept most of his weight against Bucky, offering him a small, determined smile.

“...okay,” Bucky agreed, but there was some conflict in his smile as he returned Steve’s, nodding slowly. It was with only a moment’s thought that he shifted so as to sling his arm over Steve’s shoulders, giving him a reassuring glance. “I believe you.

Steve looked grateful, with everything considered, and leaned heavily against Bucky, wrapping his arm around his back. “Even if I don’t get sent to Wisconsin, I’ll catch up. I promise. I’m not gonna... leave you to fight it all on your own.”

“You never left me to fight anything on my own,” Bucky agreed. It was said with a mixture of chastisement and pride all at once. He let out a breath and managed to relax slightly, giving Steve’s small shoulders another squeeze. “Even if I wanted you to.”

“The war included in that?” Steve asked, lifting his eyebrows a little. But Steve also just leaned into Bucky a little more, and patted his back fondly, his private smile growing just a little easier.

“I dunno, pal,” Bucky said quietly, but honestly. For a moment, Steve thought that Bucky would leave it at that, but eventually Bucky continued, his voice soft and his eyes fixed on the floor. “We’re always together. I don’t want that to change. But...what kinda friend am I to wish you’d come with war?”

Steve looked at Bucky’s face, his smile fading, but he didn’t seem upset. He rubbed Bucky’s back a little slower, keeping his eyes on his face. “The kind that thinks we’re in this life together until the end.”

Bucky smiled faintly and nodded, appreciating the sentiment but still not quite able to meet Steve’s gaze. He gave his shoulder another absent squeeze instead. The thought was more reassuring than he thought it would be—he hadn’t thought Steve’s feelings about him would change so quickly, but it was comforting to hear it all the same. “Just don’t want the end to be any quicker than it has to be. Y’know?”

“I know,” Steve said simply, but he shrugged his shoulders a little, even under the weight of Bucky’s arm. He offered him a small, helpless smile. “I’m not afraid of that, if we’re together.”

“Really?” Bucky glanced over at Steve with the same smile, but there was a noticeable sadness in his eyes that broke Steve’s heart, more than anything else had that night. Bucky’s brow briefly knitted together, as Steve shook his head, so Bucky continued. “‘Cause I am.”

Steve didn’t look away from Bucky’s eyes, but he had to swallow hard, working to resist the urge to touch Bucky any further. “I’ve been on death’s door before. The only way I want to end up there again is by your side.”

Bucky’s frown deepened, and for a moment, Steve had thought he had gone ahead and crossed the line again. But Bucky kept his eyes locked on Steve’s as he nodded slowly, taking a slow breath and letting it out before he spoke again. “I don’t disagree with you. But I will say: you’re a lot braver than I am.”

Steve shook his head a little, even if he was privately relieved that Bucky at least didn’t disagree, that relief evident in a small smile. “Not really. I’m just... well-experienced with coming a little too close to dying for anyone’s comfort.”

“Which I would say makes you braver than most people,” Bucky pointed out. His smile relaxed only slightly as he reached up to gently ruffle Steve’s hair, trying to bright some levity back into the conversation, but Steve only made a face for it.

“Doesn’t make you not brave,” Steve said, just sort of butting his head against Bucky’s armpit, trying to get him to stop. It worked, as Bucky leaned away, his hand dropping back behind them on the bed, so he could lean on it.

“Didn’t say it did. But it makes you braver’n I am,” Bucky said with a soft chuckle, and brought up his glass to take a sip of his drink.

Steve smiled faintly but straightened up. He brought his hand away from Bucky’s back, so that he could run his fingers through his hair, making an attempt to straighten it out. “I believe in you, Buck. You’re gonna be just as brave, when push comes to shove.”

“Mm,” Bucky said, acknowledging Steve’s words. It offered some measure of reassurance, and it was obvious in his body language, and the way that he nodded, smiling absently over at Steve. “Thanks, Stevie.”

“You’ve never let me down,” Steve said with an easier smile. He leaned forward again and took a small sip of his drink, looking away when he did, but his smile didn’t fade. “And what kind of friend would I be if I didn’t think that?”

“That’s… definitely good to hear,” Bucky said, since he was thinking that he’d absolutely let Steve down a handful of minutes ago, but he wouldn’t point that out—he didn’t want to dig it back up. Instead, he nodded absently to himself instead, taking a slow sip of his own drink.

“Not when it matters anyway,” Steve said with an easy shrug. He didn’t look back toward Bucky, instead nursing his drink quietly, resting his chin on his arm and elbow on his knee. Bucky made a quiet sound of agreement. It was clear enough that they were thinking about the same thing, so there wasn’t a chance that Bucky was going to ask Steve to elaborate.

Bucky swirled what was left of his drink in his glass before he downed the last of it, and set the glass down on the floor, flopping back to the bed with a sigh, lacing his fingers behind his head. Steve watched Bucky do that, then took a small breath, opting to finish his drink as well. It didn’t go nearly as well, and he ended up coughing a little, but he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, then put his glass on the floor before turning to look at Bucky, not yet lying down. “Got work tomorrow? Or are you quitting?”

“Gotta keep going as long as I can. Make sure Ma and them have a little something extra when I go,” Bucky said, shrugging a little, his eyes up on the ceiling while he spoke. When he finished, he glanced down at Steve with a little bit of a smile. Steve smiled back as he looked at him.

“That’s why you’re the perfect son,” Steve outright teased Bucky, shifting to bring up both of his legs on the bed, but he stayed above Bucky. It was comfortable to just look at him like this.

“Shut up,” Bucky said with a very well-practiced combination of an eye roll and a laugh. It was easier to fall into the teasing, than either of their previous conversations, and he shifted to get comfortable. “Don’t have to be there at the crack of dawn, at least.”

“Yeah, since you’ll never have to be up early when you’re serving,” Steve said with a chuckle. He moved so that he could untuck the ends of his shirt, and once he was done, he moved to lie down next to Bucky. It was accomplished like a well-practiced routine, keeping his legs on the bed and twisting so that they could fit.

“Don’t remind me,” Bucky said flatly. He made a face at the mere thought of how early he was going to need to get up—and mere seconds of thinking about it was enough that he brought a hand around to cover his face, groaning into it, while Steve chuckled.

“Won’t mention it again,” Steve promised, as he reached out to absently pat Bucky’s elbow, but withdrew his hand soon enough, smiling to himself while he closed his eyes.

“Appreciate it,” Bucky said mildly, still muffled by his hand, but by the time he drops his hand back he was smiling again. He still let out a put-upon sigh, mostly for the sake of sighing. “We’ll see if I even survive that, to make it to the front line.”

It was enough to make Steve laugh again, turning his head to look at Bucky despite the odd angle. “There might be a time zone difference. That might mean you’ll survive training.”

“That’s a big ‘might’,” Bucky pointed out with another chuckle. He opened one eye to look up at Steve with a fond sort of skepticism. Steve was smiling at him, warm and affectionate. It was enough that Bucky ended up smiling, slowly widening.

“Sure,” Steve agreed, his smile widening even more now that Bucky was smiling again. “Better than you trying to adjust to wherever you end up getting sent. You wanna think about what that time difference is gonna be like?”

“No, I don’t.” Bucky said pointedly, driving his index finger into Steve’s shoulder, but he was still smiling. He shook his head as Steve brought up his own hand to swat Bucky’s hand away.

“Probably like waking up at two in the morning,” Steve said helpfully, withdrawing his hand away from Bucky’s fingers, faster than he normally would have bothered.

Stop,” Bucky demanded. Whether he was talking about Steve’s swat or the fact that Steve was still playing up the early mornings wasn’t clear—maybe it was a bit of both. That’s how Steve took it.

In any case, Bucky was laughing as he dropped his hand to rest on his chest again. He shook his head at Steve, outright grinning. Steve grinned right back at him and just laughed. It was enough that he could still get Bucky to grin like that. He withdrew his hand, pillowing it under his head. Bucky turned his head, so he could look at Steve better.

“Hope you’re ready for letter full of whining,” Bucky said, patting lightly at his own stomach. “Maybe that’ll encourage you to get out there even faster.”

Steve chuckled a little more quietly at that, not as cheered by the reminder, but he kept grinning all the same. He shook his head and gave Bucky a fond look. “Yeah, one of us ain't afraid of early mornings either, pal.”

“Yet another reason that you’re brave at me.” Bucky shook his head right back at Steve. He was trying to soak up this moment as much as he could for as the time being, and his smile didn’t fade.

“I don’t think that’s how bravery works. That’s just how time works,” Steve said with a dubious look. He shifted to poke Bucky with one bony finger, and Bucky managed to grab Steve’s hand without even looking.

“That’s definitely not how time works for me,” Bucky’s tone was just as skeptical, holding onto Steve’s hand as he narrowed his eyes at Steve.

“Well, there’s no such thing as time sickness,” Steve insisted, his expression still dubious, but now it’s an effort to maintain that look, struggling to resist the smile that pulled at the corner of his mouth all the same. He tried to jab his finger against Bucky’s side with the same finger, despite the hold that Bucky had.

“Says who? You a doctor?” Bucky argued, but couldn’t help but start grinning again at the ridiculousness of his own attempts. It didn’t take much of his strength to prevent Steve from poking him in the ribs, but Steve was tenacious. He might not necessarily have the strength to keep poking Bucky, but he did manage to wiggle his finger against Bucky’s side.

“Seen enough doctors, haven’t I?” Steve asked, with a wide grin of his own.

“You’re gonna be seeing another one sooner than you think, if you keep that up,” Bucky challenged, even as he kept grinning. His eyes flickered pointedly to Steve’s hand in his as he lightly pushed it away, letting go. Steve laughed, put pulled his hand back just a little, before moving in for one last jab and retreating entirely.

“While you see a doctor about your time problem?” Steve asked with that same grin, while Bucky shook his head for that last jab.

“If I could get some help for that, that’d be great,” Bucky agreed with a chuckle, resettling with both hands laced behind his head and a loud sigh.

“Think it’s called coffee,” Steve said, just to get the last verbal jab in, smiling to himself. He continued to look at Bucky, pillowing both of his hands under his head, in lieu of an actual pillow.

“Well, I hope they serve a lot of it,” Bucky replied ruefully, shifting to get more comfortable on the bed. His head turned, and he looked up at the ceiling, getting lost in his own thoughts, not paying attention to the way that Steve watched him do that.

“Hope so, too.” Steve agreed with that much, then drew in a breath, finally closing his eyes. “Tired now?”

“Not especially,” Bucky admitted. He took a deep breath of his own, and hazarded a glance at Steve, mostly studying him from the corner of his eye, now that his eyes were closed. “I can get lost if you are, though.”

“No,” Steve said quickly, opening his eyes just as fast. He blinked a little as he looked at Bucky, surprised to catch his eye like that, but neither man looked away. “Can you stay?”

Bucky raised an eyebrow, somehow managing not to look sheepish for getting caught. The surprise was more difficult to mask. “You want me to?”

Steve didn’t say anything—he wasn’t sure how Bucky would take the offer after a night like the one they’ve had. But he nodded his head, just enough to make his offer clear, without any other movements.

“Okay,” Bucky said without hesitation. A small smile caught at the corner of his lips, and he nodded in return, glancing over Steve’s expression to try and get a read on him, noting the way that the blonde started to smile slowly. “Yeah, I’ll stay.”

Steve’s relief was clear, and he slipped one hand from under his head to reach for Bucky’s shoulder, squeezing it lightly before he pulled it back. “See if we can’t borrow some coffee from the neighbors in the morning.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Bucky said with a quiet laugh, as he relaxed under Steve’s touch, nodding briefly.

Neither looked away for quite some time.

Chapter Text

Steve Rogers was Howard Stark’s magnum opus. He was his masterpiece, his life’s greatest achievement—it was the thing in life that Howard wanted to be remembered for.

During a private moment of pride, Howard nursed a cigar and ruminated on the subject, as he stared at a poster for the now cancelled Captain America fundraising tour. It was a bit like what the ghosts of Bach or Van Gogh must have felt, when their masterpieces didn’t get the recognition they deserved right away.

Of course, Howard hadn’t needed to die before people realized the true worth of his creation, but that was just his own form of genius.

The only question that remained was what would Steve Rogers do to the world, now that he was in a position to change it? And possibly more importantly, what would Howard Stark to and/or with Steve Rogers?

———————-

 

The word on the street was that Captain America and his new unit were going to be deployed any day, and that was true. Steve’s orders from Colonel Phillips that day had confirmed as much—Steve needed to meet with Howard Stark to get his new uniform and put it through its paces, but otherwise they were good to go.

Since it was likely that they’d be shipped out after that, Steve took the Commandos out to a pub that none of them had been barred from yet. It might be their last chance for a while. They probably would still be in town the next night, but he wanted them as well rested as they could be before they did finally leave. He had intended it as a bonding experience, but despite his intentions he managed to get separated from the rest of the boys, chatting with a cute brunette near the end of the bar.

Bucky watched Steve’s interactions with the girl intermittently and from a distance. His attention was split between Steve and all the raucous going-ons with the Commandos at their table. But even from a distance, he could tell that Steve looks uncomfortable and nervous, but doing the best job that he can to hold a conversation.

He couldn’t hear it, but he saw the girl look at her watch and indicate that she had to leave—god knows what for. He nearly rolled his eyes when he saw her write something on a napkin, probably her name and address, and she handed it to Steve.

He didn’t expect for Steve to look as both bewildered and helpless by that napkin as he did. And Bucky certainly didn’t expect for Steve to be as reckless as he was, leaning in to kiss her none-too-briefly. Bucky cleared his throat and abruptly downed the rest of his whiskey, earning him an oblivious clap on the back from Dum-Dum.

By the time that Bucky looked back at Steve, the kiss was over. The girl ran off giggling, and Steve looked even more helpless than he had. He waved goodbye to the girl and got another drink. When Steve finally made his way back enough in their direction that Bucky could catch his eye, Bucky didn’t say anything, but he arched an eyebrow expectantly. The look in his eyes was otherwise indiscernible.

It was enough that Steve had the sense to look even more embarrassed, but he shrugged his shoulders slightly and looked away. He nodded to Gabe, who made room for enough for Steve to join them at the table by convincing Falsworth to grab a stool from another table. There was a moment when there was almost an international conflict, but in the end, Steve had a seat. He chose to sit down next to Bucky, his glass full and he leaned in toward the table.

Now that he was close to Bucky, he couldn’t make eye contact with him at all. Instead, he cleared his throat. “Fellas.”

“Cap’n,” Bucky said. His tone was light enough that none of the Commandos would have ever questioned it, especially drunk as they were, but Steve knew better than to trust that tone. Steve automatically looked at Bucky, unable to help that knee-jerk reaction, but Bucky glanced away and avoided eye contact.

Steve’s brow furrowed slightly as he looked at Bucky and the way that Bucky’s fingers turned his now-empty glass absentmindedly on the table. After a breath, Steve looked away again, running his finger around the edge of his own glass, and kept his eyes on the rest of the Commandos. “Nice night?”

Bucky shrugged noncommittally and looked down at his glass. He raised it briefly then set it down again and leaned back in his chair with his arms crossed. “I need to figure out what they’re drinking, because mine must be watered down.”

“Might not be anything that the bar is selling, could be something that they brought,” Steve suggested under his breath. He let out a slow breath, then started to move so that he could lean back as well, but he was moving at a slower pace than Bucky.

Steve took a sip of his drink then offered it to Bucky as a peace offering. Bucky glanced at the glass and actually looked like he might refuse it for a moment, but after a brief pause, he relented and reached to take the glass. He murmured something that sounded both grumpy and like a thank-you before taking a sip and giving it back to Steve.

Steve took the glass almost reluctantly, but he sat back in the chair uncomfortably. He didn’t look at Bucky as he took another sip himself. For the moment, he was trying to avoid putting his foot actively into his mouth. Bucky clearly wasn’t sure what to say for a long, uncomfortable moment, either.

Bucky shifted in his chair a couple of times, trying to re-invest himself in whatever exaggerated story Dum-Dum was telling, before he realized that he just couldn’t manage. He pushed away from the table instead and mumbled only for Steve’s benefit, “I’m going to get some air.”

Steve glanced at Bucky as he pushed away, half-ready to reach for his arm and convince him to stay, but ultimately, he didn’t do anything. Instead he nodded and took a very long swig of his drink but didn’t finish it, placing them half-empty glass on the table and then stood up. “I’ll come with you.”

Bucky hesitated briefly before giving a brief nod. He used Dum-Dum’s admittedly unsteady shoulder to navigate away from the table before then making his way through the crowd to the door. He pushed it open and stepped out onto the sidewalk, never looking back to see if Steve was following.

Steve ran his hand through his hair. He allowed Falsworth to finish off his drink quickly before anyone else could pick it up, and then started to follow Bucky. It took him an extra minute to make his way out of the bar, and he exhaled when he was finally outside. “Warm in there.”

“Yeah,” Bucky said noncommittally, after having found a spot to lean against the wall. He straightened up again when Steve appeared, and he shoved his hands into his pockets and started to walk down the sidewalk. He took a deep breath and let it out carefully.

“Where are you going?” Steve asked with a bit of a frown. He continued to follow after Bucky, his arms crossed against his chest. He caught up with him to try and see his face, wanting to get a read on him, since nothing Bucky said was giving him any clue as to what was going on—but Steve’s gut had an idea.

“To get some air,” Bucky said, like the answer should be obvious. He glanced over at Steve with one eyebrow raised, but Steve couldn’t read his expression at all.

“There’s air by the door,” Steve said with a furrowed brow. Bucky slowed down enough that he could fall into step with Steve, and Steve settled for walking at the same pace as Bucky. Steve uncrossed his arms and put his hands into his pockets, further mirroring Bucky’s body language, albeit unintentionally.

“You can stay, if you want.”

Bucky’s tone wasn’t hash—it was more matter-of-fact. He kept his gaze forward again as the walk, glancing furtively at the occasional person or pair that are also wandering the streets this late at night.

“If I wanted to stay, I’d stay. You plan on going back?” Steve asked softly. His hands curled into fists inside his pockets, trying desperately to figure out what was happening. He was frustrated, and his mouth thinned out, as he looked away from Bucky.

“I dunno. You plan on going back to pick up more dames?” Bucky muttered, hunching his shoulders, even though it wasn’t particularly cold. It helped him avoid looking over at Steve, who drew in a little breath.

Steve looked sharply at Bucky as he straightened up. There had been a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, and Bucky had confirmed the worst of it. “Is that what this is about, the girl at the bar?”

“Forget I mentioned it,” Bucky said quickly and suspiciously so. He waved one hand dismissively before stuffing it back in his pocket and cleared his throat, still frowning.

“Bucky,” Steve said with a little desperation and a fair share of frustration. He pulled his hand from his pocket to run through his hair, frowning even more. “She—I was just trying to be nice.”

“Looked like you were very nice,” Bucky quipped in return. He glanced down a side street, before turning the corner to head that way. It was a less-populated area at night, mostly filled with shops that closed hours ago. He didn’t look to Steve to see the way he was blushing faintly, unable to stop it from happening.

Steve rubbed his cheeks a few times, trying to fight that blush, and his frown grew even more intense. “What, like you’d have done anything else? Except take it even further?”

Bucky gave Steve a briefly startled look before his frown deepened too. He scoffed and shook his head as he looked away, angry and flustered all at once. “Look, I said forget I mentioned it.”

“Right,” Steve said, drawing out the word just so Bucky would know just how much he didn’t believe him. He looked away with a shake of his head and huffed out a breath, the faint coloring to his cheeks and ears already fading. Bucky likewise let out a sharp breath and shook his head. Things were quiet while they walked, and Bucky took a long moment to sort his thoughts out before he started over, more slowly and carefully this time.

“My point is—you don’t have to do anything you want to, to be nice. So I just assume—” Bucky stopped, shaking his head one more time. He assumed that Steve wanted to kiss her, but he left that part unsaid. “You don’t owe anyone anything. That’s all.”

Steve’s eyes drifted back toward Bucky once he started speaking again with a false sense of casualness. When he looked at Bucky, his eyes were sharp, but he noticed Bucky’s tone, and that helped with some of his irritation. Not that he stopped frowning. “She was nice. It’s… well. She deserved a kiss, s’all. From Captain America.”

“What? Why?” Bucky asked with clear frustration, finally looking at Steve with his own heighted irritation. “What about her deserved a kiss? She donate to the war effort? She out there killing Nazis and Hydra like we are? Did she do anything besides give you doe-eyes at the bar?”

That level of reaction surprised Steve, and he stopped entirely in his tracks to look at Bucky. With a brief thought as to their public setting and feeling like there might be a proper fight coming on, he stepped a little closer to one of the closed buildings and reached out for Bucky’s arm to pull him that way. “What the hell, Bucky?”

“And what about me? Huh?” Bucky demanded, following in the direction Steve pulled him in, before taking a step further. He pushed Steve against a brick wall, not with enough strength to keep Steve there if he tried to move, but with more strength than either of them might have expected. His hand captured the nape of Steve’s neck and pulled him in, their faces unambiguously close. Steve was surprised enough by the shift that he didn’t even let go of Bucky’s arm where had gripped it earlier.

“How many do I deserve, after all these years?” Bucky’s tone was undercut with a measure of nervous infirmity, against which he set his jaw and tried to keep his piercing gaze fixed on Steve’s lost expression.

Steve tightened his hold on Bucky’s arm, finding himself further lost in Bucky’s eyes. He swallowed hard, and tried to find the ground beneath his feet, fairly certain that the entire world must have shifted in some way. “You… want that.”

It might have been a question, but there wasn’t any way that Steve could have doubted Bucky’s intent in that moment. As much as it might have shocked him, Steve wasn’t fool enough to doubt it. But the look in Steve’s eye was enough to snap Bucky out of it, losing a lot of his nerve.

Bucky opened his mouth and then closed it again. He didn’t have any idea of how to respond to that—which might have said it all. Instead he let go of Steve’s neck, and glanced to the side with a guilty sort of look.

But what he didn’t do was put any distance between them.

Steve furrowed his brow, confused by Bucky’s change in demeanor again, enough to be entirely frustrated it. He held onto Bucky’s elbow even tighter, trying to keep Bucky from pulling away all together. His voice was low and steady, quietly demanding. “Why? Why now?”

Bucky withered a bit more under that tightened grip, like a kid caught in a lie. He struggled with what to say for a moment longer, but even when he did clear his throat to mumble out an answer, he continued to avoid eye contact. “Look, I— I don’t know, okay? Just— you, and that girl, it…”

“You would’ve encouraged me to do just that, when we were home,” Steve pointed out, frowning even more. He reached for Bucky’s chin with a sure grip, pulling up to force Bucky to meet his eye when he repeats the one question, he’s had all night. “Why?”

“I didn’t—-” Bucky started, but was briefly derailed by the way Steve caught his chin. He swallowed hard and forced himself to meet Steve’s gaze, glancing over his face in the dim light. This would have been so much easier, if he didn’t have to look at Steve. Even as dark as it was, Bucky could see the steel in his eyes.

“I didn’t… think it would feel the way it did,” Bucky finished lamely. It was a poor representation of his feelings, but wasn’t that always the case? It was certainly the best that he could do, given his current circumstances. It was more than he’d managed to ever say before.

Steve swallowed hard, his grip relaxing on Bucky’s chin once it seems like Bucky won’t actually look away. But he left his fingers where they were, not able to convince himself to let go of Bucky, now that he is touching him. He took a short, steadying breath, trying to sort it all out in his mind. “Because I get attention now? Because I look like this?”

“—what? No, I…” Bucky trailed off, as he obviously tried to process that. He frowned and shook as head as well as he could in Steve’s grip. For all the thoughts going through his head, his reaction and answers weren’t convincing, not even to himself. He hadn’t even thought of something like that, until Steve had said it. “That’s not—”

“No?” Steve asked, before Bucky could try again. He didn’t sound like he believed Bucky at all, and his brow furrowed all the more as he considered Bucky’s reaction, trying to read into his body language, what with the lack of information Bucky’s mouth was providing.

Steve bit his lip very briefly, but he forced himself to release it, and pulled Bucky even closer, his grip on Bucky’s arm tightening unconsciously. “Why now?”

 

“I don’t know! Because—” Bucky shot back defensively. He only then started to try and pull back against Steve’s grip, but he found it to be iron-clad. Truth be told, Bucky knew the answer. He could look back at Steve and tell him. He could tell Steve that when he almost died, that Steve was all he could think about. That Bucky had spent part of every day since then thinking about him. Bucky knew Steve wouldn’t… probably wouldn’t think badly of him, but...

Instead, Bucky deflated, incapable of saying any of it. He spoke a little more quietly this time when he replied, “I don’t know.”

Steve was disappointed more than anything else. It wasn’t exactly surprising, Bucky’s inability to answer, but against all reason, he had hoped that Bucky would be able to say something. He knew when Bucky was being evasive and had been capable of reading it on Bucky’s face since they were teenagers, and he had first thought Bucky wanted to kiss him. Bucky had chickened out back then.

If anything had changed since then, it was Steve. And why should he leave it to Bucky? The thought stuck with him, and he took a breath and studied Bucky’s face and the frustration that was plain as day. So Steve came to a decision.

He tilted Bucky’s chin slightly, closing this distance between them to press a rough kiss to Bucky’s mouth. Bucky inhaled sharply in surprise, but he didn’t make any moves to pull further away. After the briefest hesitation, Bucky leaned into the kiss instead.

It was rough, and deeply unplanned, but Steve could feel the element of desire from Bucky as clear as day. He had thought to keep the kiss brief, but the way that Bucky responded was enough to reawaken his long suppressed feelings. The plan went out the window as Steve made a soft sound against Bucky’s mouth, needing more. Steve parted his lips and first nipped at Bucky’s lip, then swiped his tongue across it, causing Bucky to barely suppress a shiver.

Bucky stepped in closer to press against Steve, parting his lips so as to meet Steve’s tongue with his own, and Steve kissed him greedily. Bucky made a quiet, almost desperate sort sound, and Steve swallowed it with even more hunger. He needed to Bucky to make more of those sounds.

Steve let go of Bucky’s arm to reach down to his waist and pulled him even closer, his hand fisting in the fabric of Bucky’s jacket. Bucky was nothing but pliant under Steve’s touches, his body collapsing in against Steve that much more completely. Bucky tilted his head to deepen the kiss, and his brow furrowed with the intensity of it. He should have known all the fire he saw in Steve when they fought would be there when they kissed.

Bucky snuck his hand past Steve’s jacket to flatten against his side, feeling the muscles there through his shirt that he had furtively thought about touching for what felt like eternity. For his part, Steve continued to ramp up the kiss, hungry for more. Steve’s hand curled in Bucky’s hair near the nape of his neck, and the tightening hold pricked goosebumps down the back of Bucky’s neck.

But then Steve’s hips pushed off from the wall to press against Bucky all that much more, and his other hand worked down to Bucky’s hip to pull him in to meet that touch. It brought Bucky at least partially back to reality, enough to break off the kiss with a couple of soft pants. Bucky quickly glanced around them, just to see if there was anyone that might see. “We—... we can’t—...”

Steve took a few shallow breaths, not immediately opening his eyes, but he started to relax his hold on Bucky’s hip and in his hair. After a moment, he drew in one longer breath pulled his hands back, moving them to rest on Bucky’s chest. Finally ready, he opened his eyes to look at Bucky. His gaze was heated, but it quickly faded into something steelier. “That’s all you wanted then? The kiss you deserve for all those years?”

Bucky’s expression was briefly apologetic for that reminder of his earlier dig, but he was still affected by the heated look in Steve’s eyes. It surprised him, and he shook his head wordlessly. His hand was still in Steve’s jacket and pressed against his side, not putting any distance between them. “No, I— we just can’t, here. We can’t get caught.”

“You want me? Like this?” Steve asked, surprised by the huskiness of his own voice. He swallowed hard, trying not to get his hopes up yet, but it was difficult. His hands under Bucky’s open jacket curled in the material of his shirt, as he watched a hot flush rise in Bucky’s cheeks. He wasn’t sure if he had ever seen Bucky blush before.

Bucky waffled and cleared his throat, as he ever did when the answer to something was ‘yes’, but he has difficulty admitting to as much. It’s a new context for that look, but Steve knew the answer, even before Bucky finally nodded. By some miracle, Bucky even managed to meet Steve’s eyes again, and there was no small amount of fire in his eyes. “Yeah. I do.”

Steve swallowed again and shivered under the weight of Bucky’s gaze, but he didn’t look away. He shifted his hips slightly, still trying not to get his hopes up, but it’s difficult with Bucky looking like that at him and when they’re so close.

But as much as Steve wanted to pull Bucky in for another kiss and let it go until neither of them could breathe, then drag Bucky back to his room—and there was a thought that had him shift his weight again—he needed to know one more thing. “Did you want me, back in Brooklyn? Before I became Captain America?”

“Wh… what?” Bucky answered, the question clearly catching him off guard. While he met Steve’s gaze for a moment, it wasn’t long before he had to glance away, shifting uncomfortably under that look as he struggled with how to answer that question. “Steve, I...”

Steve’s heart started to crumble into a million pieces, and he unable to hide his immediately look of disappointment. So he closed his eyes and took that in, flattening his hands against Bucky’s chest, savoring the closeness for one more selfish moment.

“I’ve wanted you for as long as I can remember, Buck,” Steve murmured. He then took a breath and opened his eyes, gently pushing on Bucky’s chest to try and create some space between them. “But if I wanted someone who just wanted me like this, I could have taken home the girl from the bar.”

Steve Rogers was still that kid in love with his best friend, hoping that his friend felt the same. If all Bucky wanted was his new body, then… he was asking to get his heart broken. Better to stop, before it hurt any worse.

Bucky’s heart in turn started to drop into his stomach as he took a step back under the pressure of Steve’s hands. He tried to make a grab of Steve’s sleeve, even though he knew he deserved that, and didn’t have a leg to stand on. He had to try. “Steve, that’s not— that’s not fair, that’s not what I’m saying…”

Steve didn’t pull away from Bucky’s touch, but he dropped his hands away from Bucky’s chest, no longer touching him at all. His expression kept getting sadder by the moment, and he couldn’t hide it from Bucky, even if he had wanted to. “I want someone who wants me for the little guy I am inside. You’re my best friend, Bucky. I don’t want to ruin that, with just some… physical thing.”

“It’s not, Steve, don’t… don’t say that,” Bucky almost pleaded, frowning as he shook his head quickly. His fingers tightened in Steve’s sleeve, to try and hold on to as much of him as he could. Unfortunately, it wasn’t obvious who he was trying to convince more, Steve or himself, so he likewise succeeded in convincing exactly no one.

“Isn’t it?” Steve asked softly, but there was still steel in his tone. He continued to look at Bucky, his expression still sad, but his eyes were appraising, trying to figure out Bucky (almost as much as Bucky was trying to figure out himself). Whatever Steve saw in Bucky, it only made him shake his head slowly. “The only thing that’s changed is how I look. If you didn’t want me then, all you want is just… physical and changing what we got now isn’t worth that.”

“That’s not the only thing that’s changed,” Bucky tried to insist, a sense of unease and desperation sinking into his chest. He took a half-step closer to Steve again, still fumbling with how to express what he wanted in ways other than insisting Steve’s got it wrong. He couldn’t find any words.

“What else has changed, then?” Steve asked with an exasperated breath. He wrapped both of his arms around Bucky’s waist to pull him into a tight hug, not able to resist when Bucky looked so uncomfortable. Bucky was clearly surprised by the hug, but not unpleasantly. He ran his hands up Steve’s arms before wrapping them around his shoulders, pulling him in just as tightly.

“Everything, Steve. All of this, this is… all so new.”

“It’s not new to me,” Steve murmured, keeping his arms tight around Bucky. He tilted his head toward the other man as he closed his eyes and sighed out. He continued to hold back just a little as he shook his head, mostly at himself.

“I know,” Bucky said just as quietly. His chin came to rest on Steve’s shoulder as he closed his eyes and frowned, trying to hug him that much tighter. “I’m… I’m sorry.”

It wasn’t clear to Steve what Bucky was apologizing for. Maybe it wasn’t even clear to Bucky.

“Me too, Buck,” Steve said just as softly. He squeezed Bucky tightly, then swallowed hard and straightened up, his hands dropping again. “Maybe when you’ve figured it out, then…”

Then there was a realm of possibilities that were just too much for Steve to even give word to. He let Bucky interpret that as he would, then shook his head, trying to clear some of those images from his mind. “But until then, you’re my best friend.”

Bucky swallowed hard. He wanted to argue, but he understood the fairness of it. Fairness was a bit of a bitter pill. He likewise pulled away to let his hands run down Steve’s arms, still catching in his sleeves at his forearms. “I…. yeah. Okay. Always, Stevie.”

“Always,” Steve agreed. He lifted his hands to squeeze Bucky’s arms warmly and offered him as small smile that didn’t entirely reach his eyes. There were things that he needed to say that were too hard when all he wanted to do was reassure Bucky and draw him in closer. “Until then, how about you or I kiss anyone else that we want?”

“... yeah,” Bucky replied. It might’ve been what he said, but it certainly wasn’t how he felt. Bucky forced a smile right back at Steve before he had to look away, nodding and taking another step backward, one hand running through his hair with an air of discomfort.

Bucky wanted to apologize for how he acted earlier, but he swallowed it instead—not that it mattered, since Steve could read it in his body language and had to look away. Bucky cleared his throat, then continued. “Yeah. ‘Course.”

Steve pushed off from the wall and adjusted his shirt, starting to button up his jacket again, needing to do something to avoid looking at Bucky for the moment. “You wanna head back to the bar?”

“Yeah, that… sounds good,” Bucky replied unconvincingly, but with a nod. He took a deep breath and let out, as he likewise generally tried to collect himself, straightening his already-generally-disheveled jacket just for something to do.

“I’ll buy you a drink,” Steve murmured, finally looking back at Bucky. He took a step toward him and reached out to put a hand on his shoulder and squeeze firmly. There was an offer of reassurance in it, and Bucky nodded, patting Steve’s lower back.

If Bucky’s hand lingered briefly before he dropped it, neither of them was going to bring it up.

“Hope it’ll be better than what I’ve been drinking,” Bucky said flatly, but not without a shade of humor at least. He could use a drink that worked to get him rip roaringly drunk at this point.

Steve gave Bucky’s shoulder a brief shake, but then started to walk, albeit slowly. As awkward as things were, he still wanted to spend time with Bucky. “Can’t be worse, can it?”

“Definitely not,” Bucky said, as he finally starting to crack an easier, more genuine smile. Steve relaxed when he saw it. He put his hands back in his pockets, in part to keep himself from reaching for Steve again.

“So there,” Steve said with a smile of his own, and Bucky murmured and agreement and nodded. Steve squeezed Bucky’s shoulder again, before his hands returned to his pockets. But his ability to resist the urge to touch him was still too much, and he nudged Bucky lightly with his shoulder.

For a moment, it looked like Bucky might ask Steve something. Steve looked briefly curious but didn’t push him on it. There was a part of Bucky that was dying to know if Steve was going to keep or do anything with the girl from the bar’s information. The smart part of him really, really didn’t want to know. “Nice night out, anyway.”

Steve nodded, allowing Bucky his thoughts, and glanced up so as to look away from Bucky. “Yeah. Think it’s nice, back home?”

“Dunno. Hope so,” Bucky replied, rubbing the back of his neck. A lot of the tension had dissipated, but he was still distracted and lost in his thoughts.

“Mm,” Steve made a brief sound, as he looked down and back at Bucky. He took in as much of Bucky’s appearance as he could in the dim lighting, and then looked forward again. His heart was too heavy to keep looking at Bucky. Nonetheless, he added, “Glad we’re here together, Buck.”

“Yeah?” Bucky automatically asked. His tone and expression were dubious as he glanced at Steve. It wasn’t that he disagreed, but he wasn’t sure that Steve had a lot of reasons to feel that way, given the circumstances. When Steve glanced back at Bucky, he looked faintly surprised that he even had to ask at all.

Steve nodded—and if Bucky’s too-ready doubt hurt him at all, it wasn’t enough for him to express it. He pulled his hand out of his pocket to reach out, hand on Bucky’s shoulder again. “Yeah. Even when you’re a jerk.”

“...alright,” Bucky replied. Whether or not he was convinced wasn’t obvious either. But he did crack a small, brief smile, and reached out to pat Steve’s lower back in return. His hand lingered for a moment, before finding its way back to his pocket.

“I’m glad we’re here together too.”

———-

The next day found Steve testing the last of his equipment. It had been useful—he had gotten to take out most of his frustration out on dummies and whatever else the SSR engineers could throw at him, under the guidance of one Howard Stark.

Howard nodded, and six of his engineers entered the room, pushing and pulling a constructed brick wall on a trolley. It still looked heavy enough that Steve worried that one of them would collapse from exhaustion. However, they persevered, and locked the legs into place.

“Whenever you’re ready, Captain.”

Steve nodded, and considered the wall for a brief second, then started running directly at the wall, holding the shield out in front of his body as he ran straight for the wall. He didn’t stop or slow down as he approached. Instead, the shield punched through the brick and Steve emerged on the other side, admittedly covered in a fair amount of dust from the bricks. The shield remained intact.

Howard whistled, from where he had been watching on top of his desk. He clapped a few times, then hopped off from his desk, walking over toward Steve, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket. He took a brief look at the shield to inspect it for damage, then started to rub some of the dirt off of Steve’s jacket. Steve was surprised by the action, but with one hand holding the shield, there wasn’t much that he could do about it.

“I think it’s safe to say that you and this shield are gonna be able to handle almost anything that Hydra throws at you. Course, you might be the one doing the throwing,” Howard declared, crumpling up the handkerchief and putting it into his pocket.

“Thank you, Mr. Stark,” Steve said, taking a step back and giving himself enough room that he could slide the shield off of his arm. Both men took a look at the shield for further damage, but even the paint job that Howard had given the shield hadn’t been nicked. Steve hesitated, and then cleared his throat, taking a look around the room. “Any more tests?”

Howard took a brief glance to where his engineers were trying to clean up the mess from the now-destroyed brick wall, then back at Steve, before taking Steve by the arm, and starting to lead him away, back to where his office was. “No, no more tests. You broke all the tests, pal.”

“Oh,” Steve said in a quiet sound. He hesitated again, even as he let Howard take his arm. He lowered the shield to his side and trailed after Howard, who let go of Steve’s arm when it became clear that Steve was willing to follow. Steve gave one more glance over his shoulder toward the destroyed wall, and when he looked back to Howard, his eyebrows were raised inquisitively. “Then…?”

“Then the shield is all set. Just gotta calibrate the captain using it,” Howard said and allowed himself a small smile. He walked into his office ahead of Steve and headed over to a cabinet, which looked very professional, despite the mini-bar it contained.

“Calibrate?” Steve echoed not catching the joke if there was one. It even sounded like he might believe that there really was a calibration process. But his attention was divided between the potential calibration and taking a brief look around Howard’s office. It was cluttered with notebooks and small, abandoned mechanical pieces, but it was clean and free from rubble, which was saying something. What it lacked was somewhere for Steve to put his shield—he held it in both hands and couldn’t decide where the put it. He made a move to put it on the desk first, then a nearby cabinet, but ultimately decided against both, finally setting it down on the floor against the desk. But he didn’t look comfortable with that option either, frowning at the shield where it leaned.

“Sure,” Howard offered breezily. He considered his liquor cabinet with the barest of frowns, tapping his finger against a bottle as he pulled it out then pulled it out, but then returned it to its place, glancing at his wristwatch. “Still too early for a drink, isn’t it? At least while we’re on the clock.”

Steve glanced up again, distracted from his shield dilemma, which Howard had largely ignored. Steve opened and closed his mouth before shrugging, slipping his hands into his pockets. He was still standing as he shook his head. “Oh, I uh… wouldn’t waste that on me, Mr. Stark.”

“Howard,” he corrected. He glanced at Steve with a little, amused smile, shaking his head as he made a one armed gesture for Steve to sit. He continued to rummage through the cabinet, ultimately pulling out a thin box and taking with him as he sat at the desk.

“Howard,” Steve amended with almost comical care. He glanced at the chair Howard had gestured to before he took a step over and settled him down, but he was clearly far from actually making himself comfortable. He was waiting to see where the was supposed to be going, and even Howard could tell.

“Now, I don’t have any raspberry left, since I’m not the kind of fella that saves the best for last but trust me. These are still top notch,” Howard said, smiling at Steve across the table. He looked at him for a long moment before he started to push the box toward him, lifting the lid in the same motion to reveal a box of chocolate truffles, with a few admittedly already missing.

“Oh, uh— ...thank you,” Steve said with unnecessary politeness. He slid forward to the edge of his chair to lean in and pick one of the chocolates, sliding back again once he popped it in his mouth. Even under the circumstances, Steve couldn’t help a brief, appreciative hum for something far more palatable than the usual field rations.

“See? Nothing wasted,” Howard said with one of his same smiles. He left the box between them as he picked a chocolate for himself, first biting the corner as he leaned back into his chair and sighed appreciatively.

“Mm,” Steve agreed as he chewed. He shifted to get marginally more comfortable in his chair. A brief silence passed between them, and Steve continued to try and figure out exactly what this part of the meeting was supposed to be. He watched Howard with something closer to curiosity, and Howard looked at Steve while he popped the rest of the chocolate square into his mouth.

Howard briefly sucked his finger clean of any remaining chocolate before he leaned forward together and linked his hands together. “You seemed… tense. Thought you could use a reminder of some of the reasons this war is worth winning. “

“Oh,” Steve said, seemingly surprised and then sheepish. He glanced down and rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah, I— sorry. Had a rough couple of days. Nothing to do with my dedication to the cause, though.”

Steve attempted a reassuring smile, but Howard just looked a little amused, and pushed the box of chocolates toward Steve again. “Wasn’t doubting your dedication, just thought it would cheer you up.”

“Is that part of the calibration?” Steve asked. He arched an eyebrow and glanced down at the box. Despite any skepticism, his tone was still kind. He was also hard pressed to refuse another truffle, and he reached out to take another one with a murmured thank you.

“This is the calibration,” Howard said a little fondly, amused that Steve hadn’t yet figured that out. He cleared his throat, then leaned forward to pick another chocolate for himself. “I’m ruling out all the likely causes—it’s not the shield, and Agent Carter hasn’t tried to kill you today, so I’m taking it’s not Pegs either.”

Steve’s expression clouded before he managed to push that aside with a brief (albeit forced) chuckle. He glanced down and shook his head. “No, haven’t gotten shot at today, so that’s already an improvement on a lot of days out here.”

“So what I’m hearing is that it’s not all bad. But something’s bothering you and it doesn’t take an actual genius to notice that much,” Howard said. He didn’t miss the change in Steve’s expression, and he chewed on the chocolate thoughtfully while studying Steve’s face.

“It’ll pass, but I appreciate the concern,” Steve assured Howard gently, but with a tired sort of smile. He was trying not to leave Howard with a whole lot of room for argument. He didn’t feel the need to put up a front with Howard, but he wasn’t exactly ready to talk about it either. He could still feel the ghost of Bucky’s mouth, underneath the chocolate.

“Mm,” said Howard, smiling right back at Steve. He wasn’t convinced by that facade, but he let it pass with a shrug of his shoulders. “Sure thing. Listen, you got dinner plans tonight?”

Steve raised his eyebrows and shook his head. He wasn’t entirely sure where this question was coming from. “Other than the usual mess hall mess? No. Why?”

“Since you’re leaving town tomorrow, so to speak, allow me to treat you to a real dinner—something a little different from what they’re serving up there. We can finish off the box of chocolates, and actually have a drink,” Howard suggested with a smile. He was fairly pleased with his own idea and he leaned back in his chair, curling his hand around the chair’s arm.

If the offer caught Steve off-guard it was only briefly. He opened and closed his mouth to try and come up with a proper reply before he seemed to get an idea, smiling slowly. “Dinner, like fondue?”

Howard all but smirked in response. His eyebrows lifted slightly as he considered Steve, then gave a small shrug of his shoulders, leaning forward again. “If you’d like. Still never tried it?”

“I haven’t,” Steve admitted with a chuckle. He glanced down, bravery giving way to sheepishness as he reached up to rub at the back of his neck. He considered the offer and took a small breath, pushing the memory of a fever pitch kiss out of his mind. He started to nod, before he looked up again to meet Howard’s eyes. “Yeah, that— sounds nice. Dinner.”

“Dinner, then.” Howard said, as he slapped his palm down on the desk, then fluidly stood up and went around the desk to cross toward Steve. He took a brief glance to where Steve had put the shield with an amused expression as he looked back at Steve, a hand reaching out to rest casually on his shoulder.

“Wasn’t sure… where to put it,” Steve said, in defense of the shield. There was an edge of fluster as Howard approached. He smiled up at him for a moment, before moving to stand, not oblivious to how close they were as he cleared his throat.

“No need to bring the shield to dinner,” Howard suggested. He pulled his hand away from Steve’s shoulder as he stood, but he didn’t move to actually step away—if anything, it just made him smile all the more. It seemed to be infectious, given the way that Steve tilted his head slightly and also started to smile a little more.

“Just Steve Rogers and Howard Stark,” Howard finished.

Steve hesitated for just a moment before he reached up and gave Howard’s arm a brief squeeze above the elbow. It was awkward, sure, but the action was still genuine. “Just us.”

“And the fondue pot, of course,” Howard teased. He was kind enough not to not to make anything more awkward, and slid it off by briefly crossing his arms, enough so that he could pat Steve’s hand. His fingers lingered a moment longer than necessary before he stepped back, allowing Steve the space to leave.

“Yeah,” Steve agreed with a chuckle. He smiled at Howard for a moment before he nodded and turned to lead the way out of the office. “And where are we gonna find one of those around here?”

“Oh, you leave that all to me,” Howard said with a bit of a smirk. His hands went into his pockets, although one quickly came back out to stroke his moustache, already beginning to plan the dinner.

“Okay,” Steve said, somehow not at all suspicious of that. He smiled instead and slipped his hands into his pocket, heading toward the exit of the building, but he kept his strides short enough that Howard could walk beside him.

Howard’s smile softened into something a little more genuine for Steve’s effort, and he stuck by Steve’s side as his hands returned to his pockets. “And in case you thought I slept in my office, I’ll let you in on where you need to go…”

Where Steve needed to go turned out to be a house outside of the general area that the SSR stayed, but close enough that Steve could walk there. He had changed into a fresh uniform and left with enough time to make it there too early. He had then spent a few minutes walking around the neighborhood, checking the time a few times before returning to the door right at the top of the hour. With a brief steading breath, he knocked on the door.

Howard opened the door, a martini glass in hand and a smile ready for Steve. He had changed out of his work clothes, losing his tie all together and gaining a sweater in its place. “Well, isn’t someone punctual.”

Steve smiled sheepishly and shrugged, but it didn’t take long before he returned the tease, nodding his chin toward Howard’s drink. “And yet it looks like you started without me anyway.”

“This? Just tinkering,” Howard said with a wider smile. He lifted the glass to Steve then took a step back, letting go of the door and gesturing wide with his drink. “Come on in.”

Steve couldn’t help but likewise smile as he nodded, glancing down sheepishly as he took a step inside and took a brief look around the front hall. “Thanks for this. I would’ve bought something, but I assumed anything I could’ve gotten you already had or could get it better.”

Howard closed the door behind Steve and set his glass down on the nearest end table briefly, just so that he could squeeze his elbow. He didn’t let go. “I think we have everything we need for a good night. Take your jacket for you?”

“Any evening I can spend off-base is a good one,” Steve figured. He murmured a thank-you as he slipped out of his jacket and passed it to Howard. His fingers found his collar to loosen his tie just a little. He couldn’t help but look sheepish again when he added, “And the company is a definite bonus.”

Howard grinned a little, glancing at Steve has he hangs up the jacket, his eyebrows raised slightly. “I bet you say that to all the rich geniuses who treat you to dinner. Fancy a drink?”

Howard picked up his glass again and took a few steps down the hall, but he kept an eye in Steve. Steve in turn followed Howard down the hall, still smiling as he slipped his hands into his pockets, sparing a couple of glances for some of the more interesting pieces of decor. “I would love a beer, if you’ve got one to spare.”

“What kind of fella do you think I am?” Howard asked with mock indignation that was followed by an easy laugh. He headed into the dining room, where there were two place settings at the end of an oversized table. He left his drink there as he continued in onto the kitchen. “That machine in there is my attempt at a machine that makes a martini by itself, I’ve got no head for recipes.”

“A—what?” Steve blurted out, before he gave a brief, incredulous laugh. He followed after Howard into the kitchen so that he could take a good look at the machine in question. It rather looked like an oversized wooden box and a conveyor belt, but— ”I can’t tell if you’re serious or not.”

 

“I’m entirely serious!” Howard protested. He opened the refrigerator and pulled out a beer, going ahead and taking off the cap as well before he handed it to Steve. It went into the fridge again for some ice and took it over toward the machine, where sure enough, there was a tumbler right next to the conveyor belt.

 

“My first attempt had it pour the drink too, but there was a minor electrical fire, so that’s been scrapped for now,” Howard explained, while he placed the ice in the tumbler. It seemed to set up so that the tumbler would move down the conveyor belt, with a tube that came up from below in the middle of the machine, and what looked like it could have been a mechanized vice near the end.

“Wow,” Steve said simply. He still wasn’t entirely sure if he should believe Howard or not, and he took a long sip of his beer before he leaned in to inspect the machine, but only as far as he thinks might be safe, considering that there had been a fire at some point. “All that for a drink?”

“A mixed drink,” Howard clarified, and he set the tumbler in the spot that he needed. He lifted his eyebrows a little and gestured toward a switch on the machine’s side. “Want to give it ago?”

“That depends, is it going to light on fire?” Steve had to at least briefly tease Howard about that, but he shot him a good-natured smile as he straightened up.

“Not until later,” Howard promised, briefly grinning at Steve. Without any hesitation, Steve reached over to flip the switch into the “on” position, and then he stepped back. Their attention was on the machine, watching its progress.

As promised, the tumbler moved along until it was under the spout and several liquids entered the container in a stream. After a moment, it continued along until it reached the vice, where a top came down with a lid, and the whole component began to shake. It was a dangerous rumble, but nothing slipped, and Howard looked entirely pleased with himself when it stopped.

“Well, I’ll be,” Steve said and let out another quick laugh of disbelief. He straightened up again with a big grin as he watched the machine before glancing back to Howard, still smiling. “That’s incredible.”

“It’d be better if it could pour into a glass but yeah, it’s not half bad,” Howard said with all his usual modesty. He smiled back at Steve before finishing off his current drink to pour himself a new one from the freed tumbler.

“‘Not half bad’? I’ve seen a lot of things you’ve made, and I’d say drink-mixers and hovering cars are a lot more than ‘not half bad’,” Steve had to point out as he watched Howard do that with a smile and another shake of his head.

“Oh, you’ve seen the car, have you? That one works more than you think it would,” Howard remarked with a chuckle. He took a sip of his new drink and seemed pleased with it, raising it slightly in Steve’s direction before taking another sip.

“Yeah, I—I was at that Expo,” Steve said as he raised his beer in return, even as he caught himself starting to blush for no reason that he could put his finger on. Instead, he pretended to study the drink mixing machine as he cleared his throat and continued. “that was the night I met Dr. Erskine, actually. Kinda seems like fate, now that I think about it.”

As soon as he said it, Steve seemed to regret it, and he doubled back awkwardly. “Sorry, that— that came out weird, I didn’t… “

“It’s alright, that car has that kind of effect on me too,” Howard chuckled again as he moved closer to Steve. He reached up to grab his arm for a gentle squeeze then continued past him, setting his glass down on the table. “If we win this war, I’d even let you drive it.”

“I can’t even drive a regular car,” Steve felt the need to point out with a laugh that bordered on relieved. He offered Howard a warm smile for that squeeze before he turned to watch him and took a few steps to follow him.

“You’ll learn. I’ll teach you, if you don’t learn from one of your boys,” Howard sounded amused by the prospect, and watched Steve for a moment before clearing his throat. “So, you hungry?”

“Starving,” Steve admitted with another sheepish smile. He nodded and took a brief glance around as if he expected more machines for preparing their dinner. “This new metabolism is no joke.”

“Have a seat. I got something that’s gonna knock your socks off, I swear, but you’ll have to close your eyes until I bring it out,” Howard warned. He leaned one hand on the back of a chair as he glanced toward the kitchen and then back at Steve.

“Close my…? Okay,” Steve agreed and fixed Howard with amused look, but he obviously trusted him because he crossed to the table and pulled out a chair to settle in. He gave one more smile in Howard’s direction before closing his eyes.

“Now, wait right there,” Howard said and smiled as he looked at Steve for a moment longer. Then he was moving back into the kitchen, pulling items out of the refrigerator and onto a platter that had already been partially prepared. When he finished, he grunted a little with the effort to lift it, but he managed to carry it the few steps into the dining room and set the massive tray on the table between the two place settings.

Steve heard Howard moving around with plenty of curiosity, but he kept his promise and didn’t open his eyes, even if he did start to sniff with clear interest when Howard was back in the room. “Can I look now?”

“Sure thing,” Howard said with a wide smile. He was looking forward to Steve’s reaction and he kept his eyes on Steve’s face, even as he moved to take the other chair, moving it to be a little closer to Steve once he sat.

Steve opened his eyes and blinked, but it didn’t take long for him to register what was in front of them. The tray looked like it came straight from a New York deli, with sandwiches that include pastrami, corned beef, and even egg salad, with a hearty pile of sliced pickles and jars of mustard and mayonnaise. The grin spread quickly and easily, and he leaned in to get a better look at everything on the tray with obvious interest. “No way, you—how did you—-”

Steve tried to express the question a few more times before he just laughed. Howard in turn chuckled, pleased by Steve’s reactions and he sat back, picking up his martini glass again to take a small sip. “I know, it’s not fondue. But I thought you could use a taste of home. I’ve got a plane—it can cross the Atlantic in about fifteen hours. Government’s been using it to mostly send mail, but they don’t know the plane can hold about 10 more pounds than they think it can. So I’m very well supplied.”

 

“Howard, this is…” Steve started. He was still grinning wide as he shook his head and glanced up again, obviously appreciative. “This is so amazing, I can hardly believe it. I thought I was gonna get shot before I would get another good pastrami on rye.”

“Aren’t you glad that you agreed to dinner?” Howard said playfully, but his expression was clearly pleased by Steve’s reaction. He smiled widely as he kept looking at him, glass in his hand. “I’ve got a local chef who put everything together, but the rest is all authentic. Now dig in, before you get shot.”

“Okay,” Steve said. It was hard to argue with that so he laughed and nodded. He took a sip of his beer before he set it aside and then went about piling his plate high. He might be shy in all other respects but with as much food there was just for the two of them, he wasn’t going to be shy here.

Howard wasn’t bothered by that, but he did let Steve go first. Once Steve’s plate was full, Howard grabbed a sandwich of his own and then a pickle. He pulled the mustard over to him so that he could start slathering it onto the bread. “When you were on tour with the USO, you ever make it back to the city? Test out those newly improved taste buds of yours?”

“No, not quite. And never long enough that I would've gotten anything like this, anyway. So I haven't had this kind of thing since—” Steve’s face briefly clouded over, but he was mostly successful in pushing it aside and flashed Howard a smile. “Since I was back home.”

Howard noticed the shift, but he didn’t comment on it. He did appraise Steve even while returning that smile and reassembling his sandwich. “Well then, even more of a reason to celebrate. And if there are any leftovers, feel free to take them. Even if you can’t finish them before heading out tomorrow, I’m sure you’ll find some takers.”

“Not sure they deserve them, after the trouble I’m sure you went through to get all this,” Steve had to point out with a chuckle. He borrowed the jar of mustard so that he could assemble his own sandwich and when done, raised in a sort of cheers toward Howard before he took a big bite, humming his clear approval.

“Someone has to eat it,” Howard said with a smile. He watched Steve take that bite then settled in to take a bite of his own and chewed it over and sighed quietly with appreciation.

“Can’t let it go to waste,” Steve agreed once he finished his mouthful, though he was pretty quick to take another even as he chewed thoughtfully. He watched Howard for a moment now that a thought had occurred to him, and after he swallowed again, he spoke up again. “So… do you often get groceries from a different continent for people?”

Howard raised his eyebrows slightly as he chewed on another bite of his own, then placed the sandwich down on the plate. He lifted his napkin to wipe at his mouth before replying, “I do a lot of things for myself. But meals like this, they’re better shared with other people, wouldn’t you say?”

“Yeah. Can’t argue with that,” Steve said as he gave a faint shrug and returned the smile. The sandwich was still in his hand as he reached for a pickle with the other and ate it in a few short bites, washing it down with a quick sip of his beer.

“I just happen to want to share this particular meal with one person,” Howard added. It might have been a little unnecessarily, but it didn’t go unappreciated by Steve, judging by the sheepish smile on his face.

“Oh,” Steve said, and nodded as he licked a smear of mustard from his thumb before he took another bite from his sandwich. He didn’t know how to respond to that—and Howard had noticed.

“Do you smoke?” Howard asked, as he placed his sandwich down and wiped his mouth before picking up his drink for a sip.

Steve shook his head as he finished chewing and swallowed that bite. He gave a soft chuckle when he had the chance, then spoke, “No. I mean, I tried it once, but it didn’t go great for how I was before.” Despite how casually he said it, it was clearly an understatement, and Steve continued. “Can’t say I’ve tried recently.”

Howard lifted one eyebrow in interest and leaned his elbow on the chair as he inclined himself toward Steve. “Well, I have some pretty nice cigars if you want to try it again. How badly did it go the first time?”

“Really badly,” Steve said with another embarrassed chuckle. He took a sip of his beer and considered if he should even say it, seeing how they were eating and all, but—Howard had asked. “I threw up. I’m sure they were pretty cheap cigarettes, though, so… I’d give a nice cigar a shot.”

Howard laughed, but it wasn’t necessarily a mean laugh. He then gave Steve a fond look and picked up a stray piece of meat that fell out of his sandwich to chew on. “You’re incredible, Steve. I wish I could’ve known you longer before I stuck all those needles in you.”

“What?” Steve asked. That was not the reaction he was expecting, even if he likewise started to laugh. He gave a quick headshake of incredulity. “Why do you say that?”

“A shitty cigarette made you puke, but some experimental serum combined with a form of radiation that had never been tested before? Somehow that didn’t kill you, but got you to this,” Howard said with a brief handwave gesture toward Steve’s appearance. He took a moment to appreciate said appearance before continuing. “Would’ve liked to've seen what else you were capable of, back then.”

Steve’s cheeks flushed just a little for the compliment, even as he glanced down and laughed sheepishly. He shook his head and set what little is left of his sandwich down, wiping his fingers on his napkin. “Don’t think you would’ve been very impressed, I wasn’t capable of much anything beyond getting sick all the time.”

“No? Don’t sell yourself short. You were capable of becoming this. Well—with some help,” Howard added the last part with a small smirk. He enjoyed the rosy look of Steve’s cheeks as he sat back again, sipping his martini and watching Steve over the rim of his glass.

“Pretty sure that most of what I am now is thanks to your help,” Steve pointed out as he glanced up at Howard with a small grin. He shook his head again, some of that flush still coloring his cheeks. “I was just a normal guy with a higher than average chance of kicking the bucket early.”

Howard caught Steve’s eye as he set the glass down again. He was chuckling quietly as he drew his hand back to smooth his moustache, even as he kept looking at Steve. “There’ll never be another like you, pal. Even if I figure out how to recreate that formula once this war is over, you’re one of a kind.”

Steve was clearly struck with just how genuine the statement was. He managed to keep his gaze on Howard (somehow), even in his sheepish embarrassment for the compliment. He opened his mouth and closed it once or twice before managing a response. “… thank you, Howard. That means a lot.”

“Just speaking the truth,” Howard said with a little amused look for Steve’s brief impression of a fish. He reached out to run his fingers along the stem of his glass, then cleared his throat. “I’ll say this—if Erskine’s formula did amplify whatever was inside you, my machine gave you the room to grow. So let’s be grateful that this Red Skull didn’t have me.”

“Yeah,” Steve agreed easily and with one more short laugh. He nodded and picked up his beer to raise that briefly. “I’ll drink to that.”

“Cheers,” Howard said, hardly one to turn down that opportunity. Steve drank his beer deeply, while Howard took a smaller sip and set his glass back down on the table.

Dinner progressed … amiably. They talked about various people working for the SSR, and what they missed back in New York. Steve never mentioned Bucky, and neither of them was particularly inclined to mention the war. It was a reprieve.

Plus, Steve managed to eat four entire sandwiches. They were both impressed by that one.

After dinner, Howard convinced Steve to stay for drinks (and Steve didn’t need much convincing at all). They made their way into the living room, where all the chairs (except the couch) were oddly covered in pillows, leaving one clear seating option. Steve paused when he got to the couch and eventually settled to one side and tried to make himself a bit smaller for there to be more room, not that he was particularly successful.

Howard followed him into the room, carrying drinks on a tray with a selection of some fruit and the rest of the chocolates that they had sampled earlier in the day. “Hope you left some room for dessert, my friend.”

“You bet,” Steve said with a smile, pushing himself further back into the couch. It didn’t matter—Howard sat down as near to Steve as he could anyway. The tray was placed on the coffee table and coasters were acquired for their drinks.

“I think my calibration worked,” Howard said smugly, as he sat back, one arm resting on the back of the couch. Steve shifted slightly with Howard sitting so close, but he notably didn’t shift in any direction that took him further away. Instead he leaned forward to grab another truffle, raising it with an appreciative smile before he popped it in his mouth.

“If it means I can enjoy a lot more of these than I used to be able to, I’d call it an improvement,” Steve said, speaking around the truffle in his mouth, about as politely as one could.

Howard looked amused, but he didn’t correct Steve and he reached for a grape to pop into his mouth, following it with his drink. “So what’s your all-time favorite dessert, then? I would’ve gotten us some rainbow cookies, with enough warning.”

“I do like those,” Steve admitted with a smile. He reached for his own drink to sip as well, then settled into the couch again. “I didn’t always get to try much, but… chocolate is always good. And saltwater taffy reminds me of home.”

 

“Everyone likes those,” Howard pointed out with a smile. His eyes were on Steve as he took another sip. “You make it down to Atlantic City, ever?”

“No,” Steve admitted, shaking his head but he looked curious enough. He glanced over at Howard and only slightly registered some fluster for how close together they were. “Is it nice?”

“Best saltwater taffy in the world,” Howard said with the same smile. He moved to put his glass back down and picked up a chocolate instead and offered it to Steve. “I’ve got a little property there, nothing much.”

“‘Nothing much?’” Steve asked and there as some playful/teasing disbelief there, as if he found it difficult to believe that Howard was capable of owning anything that isn’t ‘much’. He smiled and took the chocolate with a murmured thank-you, popping that in his mouth.

“Comparatively,” Howard admitted. He smiled even wider as he reached for a second chocolate and ate that one himself. He looked at Steve for another moment before he moved his hand on the back of the couch, closer to Steve’s shoulder.

“Mmhm,” Steve said good-naturedly. He was seemingly oblivious to the movement of Howard’s hand as he took a sip of his drink after that chocolate. “Anything in particular draw you to Atlantic City? Other than the taffy, of course.”

“Well it’s not known as the World’s Playground for nothing, but who knows how much longer that will last. The war sure hasn’t helped—you know they’re calling it Camp Boardwalk these days?” Howard asked with a chuckle. He leaned forward to the coffee table for his drink again and in that moment, he placed his other hand on Steve’s shoulder.

“Guess I should try and visit there soon, huh,” Steve said as his takeaway with a chuckle. He was only briefly distracted by Howard’s hand on his shoulder—he spared it a brief glance before he turned his attention back toward Howard. His smile softened even if the look in his eyes was somewhat difficult to discern.

“If you can’t get away from the war, I’ll find somewhere else special to show you when it’s all said and done. There’s a whole world out there,” Howard pointed out. He sat back down on the couch as he took a small sip of his drink, leaving his hand on Steve’s shoulder.

“And even though I’ve gotten to see more of it since enlisting than I have my whole life, I haven’t exactly gotten to enjoy it,” Steve agreed with a chuckle. He turned his drink in his hand before he brought it up for a slow sip.

“Damn shame, that. You should get to enjoy it—I’d say you earned it,” Howard suggested and stayed like that with his drink in his hand. He started to rub Steve’s shoulder with his thumb, his touch light but sure.

“I— I don’t know, I haven’t done much of anything, really,” Steve said, humbleness and fluster started to rise to the surface at the movement of Howard’s thumb.

“You will. You don’t think you deserve something nice?” Howard asked with confidence. His eyebrows raised slightly at the question and he briefly glanced at his hand, but he only stopped so that he could put his drink back down on the table. He never actually let go of Steve’s shoulder.

“That’s not— I mean, I guess—...” Steve floundered. He was at least able to laugh briefly at himself about it as he brought up his free hand to rub at the back of his neck and shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe.”

Howard briefly rolled his eyes and then leaned back on the couch, giving Steve’s shoulder a brief squeeze as he looked at him. “Allow me to make it clear—you do.”

“Okay,” Steve said. He wouldn’t necessarily admit it for himself, but he allowed it from Howard without an argument. He relaxed into the couch again with another soft laugh and nodded, glancing down at the glance in his hands. “...thank you.”

“What for?” Howard asked with mild curiosity. He considered Steve for another moment before he let go of his shoulder only to move that hand to cover Steve’s wrist. His touch was mild and careful, waiting to see Steve’s reaction.

“For—” and Steve was momentarily derailed by that action, but not in a bad way. His eyes flickered to Howard’s hand as he swallowed, and then started to smile softly again before he shrugged. “I don’t know. For thinking so.”

Howard smiled a little bit more. He was encouraged by Steve’s reaction to curl his hand more securely around Steve’s wrist and gave a small shrug with his other shoulder as he leaned in closer. “Whatever you need.”

Steve shook his head faintly even as he couldn’t help the smile. He leaned forward to set his glass on the table, so he could lean back again and after only the briefest hesitation he let his hand settle to cover’s Howard’s. “This is already so much. I couldn’t ask for any more.”

Now it was Howard’s turn to seem a little surprised by Steve’s actions, but it could very well have been feigned. Regardless, he shifted his weight to close any remaining distance between them on the couch and glanced briefly down at their hands and then back up to Steve’s face. His eyes briefly fixated on Steve’s mouth. “No? Then how about we make this a regular thing, when we end up in the same SSR location. You bring yourself back in one piece, and I’ll supply a meal.”

“...yeah, okay.” Steve agreed. It didn’t take much thought at all before he smiled softly and nodded. He tilted his head slightly as he glanced over Howard’s face and tentatively squeezed his hand. “I'd like that. … a lot.”

Howard smiled widely and then curled his fingers around Steve’s hand to return that squeeze. He reached out with his other hand to place that hand on Steve’s knee and turned a little more for an easier angle. “Then it’s a date.”

Steve turned that word over in his head for a moment. It wasn’t a surprise—he already assumed as much—but to see how he felt about it. This was something tangible, with someone who wasn’t afraid to use his words. With someone that had  knew him before everything thing. It wasn’t long before he nodded again, smile still soft. “It’s a date.”

“Anything you want specifically, for next time?” Howard asked, briefly letting go of Steve’s hand to change the angle just enough that he could intertwine their fingers together instead.

“I’ll uh…” Steve trailed off, taking a moment to be distracted by the interlacing of their fingers. Howard rested his other hand on Steve’s leg and Steve curled his fingers around Howard’s to give them another, almost careful sort of squeeze. “I'll have to think about it. What do you like…?”

Steve’s question was distracted, any double meaning unintentional and lost on Steve. It wasn’t lost on Howard.

“Apparently, I like military captains sitting next to me and holding my hand,” Howard said, since he couldn’t help but twist Steve’s words, even if it wasn’t as much as he really could have. He smiled to himself and squeezed his hand again.

It definitely served to up Steve’s fluster and a light redness colored his cheeks again. Steve opened and closed his mouth again before he couldn’t help but smile, glancing down and shaking his head. “I mean— I don’t think I’m a captain, technically speaking…”

“If Phillips didn’t say anything about it, you’re a captain,” Howard said with a brief laugh. His smile widened as he lifted his hand from Steve’s knee to place it on his shoulder and rubbed it lightly.

“Yeah? Is that how it works?” Steve’s tone was edged with teasing. He glanced up at Howard again and the smile was still tugging at his lip as his thumb brushed almost carefully back and forth against Howard’s.

“Pretty much. If he doesn’t object, no one else will,” Howard said with a wide, amused smile. He gave Steve’s hand a reassuring squeeze to make sure that he was comfortable before moving his hand up Steve’s shoulder and to his neck.

“Maybe I’ll ask him, then,” Steve smiled softly as he spoke, if with distraction. He managed to keep his gaze locked on Howard’s even if his pulse was starting to quicken. He started to return the squeeze to Howard’s hand and Howard lifted his eyebrows slightly.

“I would pay to be in room while you did that,” Howard said with a brief chuckle. He lightly rubbed at the exposed skin above Steve’s collar, otherwise content to take his time.

“I’ll try and save it for when you’re there, then,” Steve said with a soft laugh of his own. He only slightly shook his head in amusement in order not to give Howard a reason to pull his hand away, absently appreciating the contact.

“Deal,” Howard said. He considered Steve with a different smile, and his thumb moved into the space behind Steve’s ear, moving it in slow, steady lines. “Anyone ever tell you that you’re awfully tall, even sitting down?”

“You’re the first but considering how I used to be…” Steve said and trailed off. He shrugged his shoulders slightly, and his smile was that much more distracted as he either consciously or unconsciously tried to make himself a little smaller again. He didn’t move in a way that put any distance between them.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. It just means that there’s no graceful way for me to kiss you,” Howard said and managed to make it sound conversational, even if his voice was in a lower pitch, moving his hand back down to Steve’s shoulder.

“Oh,” Steve said quietly and followed it with a brief swallow. It didn’t come as a surprise to him, but the forwardness of the statement was, however conversation as his tone might be. “What if… I kissed you?”

Steve managed to ask it despite another flare of the red in his cheeks, and even though he said so, he didn’t yet make a move to do so. Howard lifted an eyebrow again and his gaze briefly explored Steve’s face. He appreciated that blush and he gave his shoulder an encouraging squeeze as he nodded. “Yeah, that should work.”

“Okay,” Steve said and again, despite him saying so it took him a moment longer of glancing over Howard’s face either to gauge that he’s serious or summon the courage. Finally, he leaned in to close what little distance was left between and pressed a kiss to Howard’s lips that managed to be both shy and comfortably firm at the same time.

Steve found the kiss… surprising. He thought of his last kiss—the one with Bucky. This kiss wasn’t that. There wasn’t nearly as much passion. But at the same time, it… was better than any kiss he had with any of the girls that he had ended up kissing over the past year. Howard was attractive and this—he liked this.

He was surprised how much he liked it. Howard leaned in closer and shut his eyes as he let go of Steve’s shoulder and wrapped his arm around Steve’s neck to keep him that close. He increased the pressure of the kiss slightly, and Steve was more than content to lean into Howard in return.

Steve’s free hand came to settle absently against Howard’s chest. The reciprocated affection was slightly clumsy but still very genuine, and Howard ran his fingers through the ends of Steve’s hair slowly as he briefly broke off the kiss with a smile. Howard didn’t pull back and only let out a soft breath before he kissed Steve again.

Steve let out a breath of his own. He had started to smile and was likely a millisecond away from saying something awkward before Howard’s lips were on his again, so he just smiled and leaned into the kiss instead. The smile was infectious, and Howard couldn’t help but smile a little himself.

Howard let go of Steve’s hand to slip his arm around Steve’s waist, using his hold to pull himself a little closer to the captain. He was pleased with the slight change of angle and parted his lips so that he could slowly slide his tongue across Steve’s lower lip. He tasted the remnants of chocolate.

The slow pace was foreign to Steve—especially as it washed away some of the bright fire of Bucky’s kiss. The slowness wasn’t unwelcomed though, and as Howard moved in Steve snaked his arm around Howard’s waist to keep him closer. He inclined his head to the side and parted his lips to tentatively brush his tongue against Howard’s, able to taste a hint of his drink in return.

Howard made a quiet but approving sound, appreciating the way that Steve responded so beautifully. He took his time to really enjoy the kiss and slid his tongue against Steve’s almost as slowly as Steve had done, but with the intent to tease.

Steve for his part would mostly follow Howard’s lead, echoing that soft sound was his tongue met Howard’s. His free hand settled just above Howard’s elbow to give it a squeeze that was both encouraging and reassuring.

Howard couldn’t help but faintly smile, not bothering to try and fight it hard, but he continued to kiss Steve. His hand moved slightly in Steve’s hair before curling his fingers to get a better grip. Steve was able to feel the smile against his lips and he eventually had to break off the kiss with a soft exhale of a laugh.

Steve rested their foreheads together and bit his lower lip with the same smile, not opening his eyes as he drew out a pleased sound. Howard chuckled, but didn’t open his eyes either.

Howard tilted his head until he could find Steve’s mouth again, and even if it was only the corner of his lips, he planted another light kiss there and his smile widened slightly. “That worked.”

“I’d say so,” Steve agreed easily and with a slow grin of his own. He distractedly bumped their noses together and gave Howard’s arm another squeeze as he brushed one more, brief kiss to his lips.

“Could use a few more tests, just to be sure…” Howard teased gently as his fingers briefly scratched at Steve’s scalp. He tilted his head for another kiss but kept it brief and followed it with a rather playful nip of Steve’s lip.

“What part of the calibration is this?” Steve had to asked. He suppressed a prickle of goosebumps for Howard’s hand in his hair and the nip, returning the latter just as playfully, if not a little clumsily.

Howard outright grinned at the teasing and pressed a little closer to Steve. He ran his hand up along Steve’s side before settling lower down near his waist. “Oh, I could patent a method that would really knock your socks off, but my lawyers have told me it’s not quite unique enough.”

“I—wow,” was all that Steve had to say about that. He didn’t regret asking but he wasn’t sure he expected in response that wasn’t going to make him blush. He was grateful that they were still as close as they were.

“I’ll show you some time,” Howard teased Steve a little further, still smiling. He leaned in again to slide his lips against Steve’s in a light brush and moved his hand in Steve’s hair to trace the shell of his ear with his thumb.

“Okay,” Steve replied, clearly having no idea what to say to that either. He laughed softly into the brush of Howard’s lips before he tilted his head and leaned in to kiss him in earnest again, arm tightening around Howard’s waist.

They stayed like that for several hours, until Steve returned to his quarters. He was carrying a platter of food and had a secretive smile.

Chapter Text

A few weeks later, Steve arrived back at his quarters late at night. They were back in London for a few days to resupply and exchange intelligence. He had come from dinner with Howard, and it had been… nice. Really nice, in fact. Howard was charming enough to sell a chicken some eggs, but Steve had known that before any of this began.

What he hadn’t expected was how easy it would be to talk to Howard. Howard told great stories, but he also listened to Steve’s own anecdotes from his missions from the Commandos or from adventures while he was growing up in Brooklyn.

They had been sitting on a couch talking about Brooklyn, eating the remnants of some dessert—Steve had no idea where Howard had gotten the fresh fruit, but he certainly appreciated it. Howard had popped a grape into his mouth, and then smiled, offering Steve one silently. Steve had nodded, and Howard had leaned in closer, using two careful fingers to feed Steve the grape, eyes on Steve’s mouth.

“You know,” Howard said. “I grew up on the Lower East Side myself.”

Steve raised his eyebrows in surprise as he chewed and swallowed the grape. “Really?”

“Really,” Howard admitted, settling in against Steve’s side, still smiling faintly. “I know what you’re thinking—no, it’s not common knowledge, so don’t you tell anyone.”

“Does it matter?” Steve asked, a little baffled by the secret. He shifted his weight slightly, his arm loose around Howard’s shoulders, and Howard gave him a bit of an amused look.

“Of course it matters. You think I would have gotten half the chances I got, if people knew that I grew up poor?” Howard asked, then chuckled a little. He reached up for Steve’s fingers, drawing them over to his mouth to gently kiss his knuckles. “I wouldn’t be here, if I hadn’t changed my name to something distinctly more American—although, nothing quite as American as Rogers.”

Steve ignored the dig at his own name, briefly watching Howard’s mouth, but he was still largely focusing on the secret that Howard had just let him in on. He furrowed his brow, thinking about it some more. “You shouldn’t’ve had to change who you are, just to be successful.”

“Hey, I just fibbed a bit so that I could be me,” Howard corrected, glancing back toward Steve’s face. He slowly curled his fingers around Steve’s hand, squeezing gently despite the correction. “I’m just saying—if things had been a little different, we might’ve grown up together.”

“We probably know at least some of the few fellas,” Steve agreed, musing on it some more. He intertwined his fingers with Howard’s absently, then leaned over to press a brief kiss to his temple. “Do you regret any of it?”

“Not for a second,” Howard said adamantly. “I did what I had to do to get here, where I got to have a hand in making Captain America who he is—star spangled man with the plan and all. And you don’t have to hide that you’re from Brooklyn.”

Steve gave Howard a bit of a look for that reminder, but it was just on the side of affectionate. He shook his head, smiling at Howard faintly. “I’ve got no shame in where I’m from.”

“Shout it from the rooftops for both Brooklyn and the Lower East Side, then,” Howard suggested. He then gave Steve a different type of look and let go of Steve’s hand to wrap both of his arms around Steve’s neck, to pull him in for a kiss. That had been the end of the conversation for a while.

Steve was still smiling to himself a little and was lost in his thoughts, oblivious to anything else in the universe. He was still wearing his dress uniform, but his jacket was hung over his arm, his tie tucked into his pocket, and his shirt was both unbuttoned and half-heartedly tucked in. It was downright disheveled for Steve.

He was distracted enough that it took him a second to notice that Bucky was standing in front of his door. He lifted his eyebrows in surprise at first and then in worry, walking a little faster to get there. His voice was low, mindful of the others sleeping in the hall. Bucky had straightened up when he got closer, his arms folded across his chest.

“Something wrong?” Steve asked.

“You tell me. Must’ve been a serious meeting, to go this late,” Bucky said, with a hard and unimpressed look. He had been waiting for Steve and standing around, pacing the hall for over an hour hadn’t exactly helped his suspicion of his frustration. Neither had Steve’s appearance, once he shown up.

Steve gave Bucky a brief, appraising look that quickly turned into confusion. Once he was clear that there wasn’t some big emergency, he looked away and fumbled to get his key out of his pocket. He paid too much attention to unlocking his door and shrugged his shoulders in a small way. “We had dinner. It was nice. Did we have plans?”

“Dinner at midnight?” Bucky countered, ignoring the other question as he turned on his heel to watch Steve do that. He leaned his shoulder on the doorframe, never taking his eyes off of Steve’s face, obviously studying or looking for something.

Steve swallowed hard, but he was aware of his own ability to lie enough that he didn't even bother to try. Instead he opted to say nothing and focused on getting the door unlock and stepping inside, once he did. He left the door open, assuming that Bucky would follow, and he immediately but his jacket on his back of the room’s only chair, removing his tie from his pocket to straighten out and hang with the jacket.

“And without you tie?” Bucky asked on that note. He had indeed followed at least enough to lean in the doorway, his arm still tightly crossed over his chest. The muscles in his jaw were tense even as he tried to act as casual as possible, but much like Steve, it wasn’t exactly working out well for him.

Steve finally looked back at Bucky, but his expression was bland. He moved his hands to his hips, his mouth narrowing as he took in Bucky’s mood, then sighed very, very loudly. “When was the last time you wore a tie? It’s after midnight, Bucky. If you’re coming in, shut the door behind you.”

Bucky straightened up and glanced into the hall. For a moment, Steve legitimately thought that Bucky might walk out, but then it appeared that Bucky apparently decided otherwise. He dropped his arms with an air of irritation before he stepped inside and swung the door shut behind him. Bucky didn’t say anything for the moment, partially because he had too many things that he wants to say already. Instead, he waited to see if Steve would elaborate now that the door was closed.

Steve didn’t immediately say anything and looked at Bucky with his own appraising look. Deciding something, he then walked over toward him, taking a few steps, but then reached past him, checking to make sure that the door was shut tight. He then locked it, for good measure. “Regular folk are sleeping.”

“And other folk are out having dinner at midnight looking like they just rolled out of a bed,” Bucky said flatly. He met Steve’s gaze with the same hard, appraising look as he straightened up and crossed his arms over his chest again.

Steve didn’t blush, which might have been the strongest evidence that he hadn’t been rolling around in any bed. Bucky certainly noticed the lack of blush in the back of his mind. But Steve’s eyes did get a little steelier, shoving his hands into his pockets as he gave Bucky a hard look of his own, his voice still low. “Whose bed do you think I’ve been rolling out of?”

“Howard’s. Was that not clear?” Bucky’s tone was thickly sarcastic and challenging. Whether or not Steve was blushing, he wasn’t going to back down.

Steve shrugged his shoulders mildly, first looking away from Bucky and then started to actually walk away from him. The tension in his shoulders was evidence against his more casual approach and tone, even as he kept trying to hold onto it, untucking his shirt entirely. “So if it’s not your bed I’m rolling out of, what business is it of yours?”

Bucky frowned. He started to second-guess his previous assumption, even if Steve wasn’t blushing. If there really was something between Howard and Steve, then… Then he had to fight a brief surge of emotion in light of realization. His tone was still even when he replied, but it lost some of its earlier edge. “Thought we didn’t keep secrets, is all. Guess that’s not true anymore.”

Steve turned around and frowned outright at that, his hands going straight to his hips. He shook his head out of exasperation and took a few steps back toward Bucky. “I’m not keeping any secrets from you, Buck.”

“Okay. Then what were you doing tonight, besides having a meeting and dinner?” Bucky tried to ask again, this time more matter-of-factly than accusatory. He mirrored Steve’s frown, but didn’t otherwise move from his spot by the door.

Steve bit his lip, uncomfortable now, and he looked down at his shoes. He walked a little slower as he took a few more steps toward Bucky, bringing his hands back up to cross against his chest defensively. He sighed, and closed his eyes, not able to say anything and resist the urge to look at Bucky. “Just… kissing.”

That Steve finally admitted it cut Bucky deep, deeper than he might have anticipated. It was deep enough that Bucky realized that he had been hoping anything else was true the entire time.

“Right,” Bucky said. The word was carefully neutral, even as he crossed his arms even tighter against his chest. He struggled with what to do with that information, now that he had it, and floundered a bit. “Okay.”

Steve opened his eyes slowly, and he was even slower to lift his head and look at Bucky. His expression was more than a little helpless and he was chewing on his lip again. He was almost as uncomfortable about the whole thing as Bucky might be. He finally started to blush light Bucky thought he might have earlier, although it was still mild, compared to how bad they both knew it could be. “I’m not… I mean, I’ve… well. I haven’t… slept with him, Buck.”

“You planning on it?” Bucky asked immediately, but as soon as the question left his mouth, he realized he didn’t want to know the answer. He followed it up quickly and with the hopes that Steve will take the out to only answer the second question. “You two an item now?”

Steve looked a little lost and hopeless, the second question not actually helping matters. He drew up his hand to run through his hair in a nervous tick, his brow furrowed as he shook his head—if the head shake is meant to be any sort of answer to a question, it’s not clear. “I don’t know, Bucky. I don’t think so. It’s… we haven’t talked about it.”

“...okay,” Bucky said uncomfortably. He couldn’t tell which question Steve meant to answer there. He still didn’t want to know the answer, so mercifully (for both of them), he shifted gears. “You plannin’ on telling Peggy?”

Steve briefly relaxed, grateful for the shift in conversation, but he also let out a little breath, almost an incredulous laugh. “I get shot at enough.”

“She deserves to know,” Bucky said with an unimpressed look for that almost-laugh, even as the tension in his shoulders and arms started to ease. “I’ve seen the way she looks at you, Steve. She thinks there could be something there.”

Steve shook his head, looking away again as he settled his hands back down in his pockets and his tongue absently swiped across his lower lip. “She’s smarter than that, pal.”

“Smarter than what?” Bucky asked dubiously. He quirked an eyebrow and kept his eyes on Steve, despite the evasion. “To think there’s something there, or you think she’s figured you and Howard out?”

‘Smarter than you’, Steve immediately thought, but he bit his tongue to keep himself from actually saying it. Instead, he looked back at Bucky, fixing him with a bit of a knowing look. “I think Peg would agree that it’s not her business.”

“How is it not her business, if she’s got hopes of being with you when you’re with someone else?” Bucky asked, just as dubiously as before. He ignored that knowing look, but shifted between his feet, briefly uncomfortable.

 

“If she had that kinda hope, she might talk to me about it,” Steve said knowingly. He frowned at Bucky, unamused by his attempts to put things on Peggy, and then he sighed, hands returning to his hips.

“So what, you just lead her on until she has the guts to bring it up with you?” Bucky asked. The emphasis on the pronouns and the comparison that Steve was making were lost on him for the moment, and he frowned right back at Steve for that kind of logic.

Steve looked a little incredulous that Bucky managed to miss that, raising his eyebrows slightly as he shook his head again. “I’m not leading her on, Bucky. I haven’t kissed her.”

Bucky opened his mouth and then closed it again—so the comparison finally seemed to land. Not that he was going to make that obvious, of course. Instead, he continued his own line of evasion. “I— I’m just saying. I think you should be honest with her.”

“I haven’t lied to her,” Steve pointed out, frowning as he looked at Bucky. He tapped his finger against his hip as he started to pace, taking large steps. It just meant that he quickly covered all of the space in the tiny room. “If she doesn’t want to bring it up, maybe she’s not being honest with herself.”

“And how long would it’ve taken you to tell me, if I hadn’t asked?” Bucky asked bluntly. He was frustrated with the entire conversation for a whole laundry list of reasons, most of which he’s tried to tell himself were related to Peggy.

“Oh, so we’re talking about you now?” Steve asked as he gave Bucky another one of his looks and momentarily stopped his pacing. He wasn’t sure how Bucky thought that that they were ever talking about Peggy.

“Stop answering half of my questions with more damn questions,” Bucky fired back. His frown deepened, and he uncrossed his arms to plant his hands on his hips, still as challenging as ever. “How long?

“I don’t know!” Steve responded a little louder. He crossed the room back over to Buck, his own hand still on his hips and his brow furrowed deeply, but he didn’t avoid looking at Bucky. “I would’ve told you if there was something to tell.”

“Yeah, well. Excuse me if I’m finding that hard to believe right now,” Bucky muttered, still meeting Steve’s gaze with a steely one of his own. He didn’t back down, not even when crossed the room back toward him.

“Oh, I’m sorry, you’ve told me about every girl that you’ve ever kissed? In your whole life?” Steve asked, challenging Bucky with an expectant look. He clearly believed that he knew the answer to that question.

“Yeah! Practically!” Bucky fired back. He gestured wide with one arm before planting that hand back on his hip. “If I didn’t, they weren’t important — you gonna tell me this guy isn’t?”

“I don’t know!” Steve said with an edge of helplessness. He drew up a hand from his hip to rub at his face, which he scrunched up. His hand went back to his hip, before he sighed out loudly. “I would’ve told you, once I was sure!”

“Hm,” Bucky said flatly and with a brief, exasperated exhale to match. He glanced to the side and shook his head. He didn’t say as much, but it was clear to Steve that he didn’t believe that.

“Oh, come on,” Steve muttered, with just as much exasperation. He frowned as he looked at Bucky, outright moving to step into his field of view. “You think I’d lie to you, now?”

“I don’t think you’d lie to me,” Bucky corrected. He glanced up at Steve again with a hard look, once Steve forced his hand, and he crossed his arms protectively over his chest again. “But I’m gonna wonder what you aren’t telling me.”

Steve sighed again, and his gaze softened into outright weariness. He leaned against the wall, his mouth still in a thin line as he shook his head faintly. “I don’t know what you want from me, Buck.”

“I just…” Bucky started, but then trailed off for a moment, forced to evaluate what that might, if only briefly. He wanted Steve. He didn’t want Steve to kiss Howard Stark. He wanted a lot of things from Steve that weren’t exactly possible. Bucky’s shoulders likewise sagged, and he brought up a hand to run over his face. “I just don’t want there to be secrets between us. That’s all.”

“There’s not,” Steve said, his brow furrowing briefly. He moved his hands to cross against his chest, albeit loosely. He couldn’t tell what Bucky was thinking and did his best to try and analyze Bucky’s face. “I promise, pal. I’d tell you if there was something, but… this is new ground.”

“...okay,” Bucky said with a faint nod, once he dropped his hand away from his face. He kept his gaze averted and down as he leaned against the wall. But it seemed to Steve that he at least seemed to believe this time, even if he was largely deflated.

Steve sighed again and kept watching Bucky for another long moment. He uncrossed his arms and took a little step closer, reaching out to squeeze Bucky’s arm gently. “I’m sorry, Bucky.”

“It’s…” Bucky trailed off, shaking his head carefully as he kept his eyes down, neither reciprocating nor pulling away from Steve’s touch. “It’s okay. Like you said, it’s… new ground.”

“Yeah,” Steve said softly. He frowned a little at Bucky’s lack of a response, but doubled down on his efforts, stepping a little closer to Bucky and started to outright rub at his upper arm slowly.

“I should go,” Bucky said somewhat abruptly. The affection and what he perceived as pity was just too much. He straightened up from where he was leaning and turned on his heel without looking at Steve, reaching to undo the lock on the door.

“Bucky, don’t,” Steve said quickly. He frowned even more as he reached out with the same hand to grab a hold of Bucky’s wrist, trying to pull him away from the lock. “You don’t gotta.”

“It’s late,” Bucky said simply. He was frozen in place for a moment as he let Steve take his wrist. He frowned and hazarded only the briefest glances toward Steve’s face, then repeated himself. “I should go.”

Steve got that look on his face again, the stubborn one that told Bucky that he was ready to fight. Steve pulled Bucky’s wrist away from the door, but he didn’t let go of it. He told himself it was so that Bucky wouldn’t try and unlock it again. “You can stay. C’mon.”

“I can’t. Okay?” Bucky said firmly. His arm tensed against Steve’s hold, and he finally met Steve’s gaze. His eyes weren’t sharp, but he tried to prove Steve little room to argue—not that it’s ever worked for him in the past. “I need to get back.”

If he stayed, Bucky knew that they’d share the bed. He couldn’t handle Steve leading him on like that, not anymore. Steve might not have a clue, but the distinctions between friends and more than friends had become a blurry mess between them, and it needed to stop before it hurt anymore.

“C’mon, Buck, I’m asking you to stay,” Steve said with another frown, even more intense than the last. He didn’t let go of Bucky’s arm, his mouth set in a thin line. “Like old times.”

“Yeah, well— I’m asking you not to ask,” Bucky replied, his tone just as firm. He glanced away, trying to give his arm another pull from Steve’s hold, as he reached for the door lock with his other hand.”

Steve pursed his lips even further and tightened his hold on Bucky’s wrist. He gave it a small tug to try and pull him away from the door by force, if he needed to. “Too late, already did.”

“Just—stop. Would you?!” Bucky’s tone got even shaper, turning on Steve as he was forced to take a half-step away from the door. But he pulled back harder on his own arm, his temper flaring. “I can’t stay. I don’t want to stay. So let me go.

“You’re the one that came here!” Steve reminded Bucky, his voice rising. But he let go of Bucky’s arm, only so that he could step more into Bucky’s personal space. Not that it mattered—Bucky turned back to the door to unlock it as soon as Steve let him go.

“I came here to talk, and I’m done talking,” Bucky said simply, still intent on leaving.

“Yeah, you said so much. Coward,” Steve spit out with no small amount of acid in his voice. He scoffed and turned around, walking away from Bucky. “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out!”

Bucky froze with his hand on the doorknob. In that moment, he was grateful that both of their backs were turned. It made masking the masking the hurt easier. Eventually he took a careful breath and shook his head. He willed himself to pull the door open and slip out into the hallway, closing it quietly behind them.

It wasn’t like Steve was wrong, after all.

—-

The next day, Bucky attempted to act like everything was status quo between him and Steve, and maybe it convinced some people. It sure as hell didn’t convince Steve and Bucky took to avoiding looking at Steve, just to avoid the hurt look in those blue eyes. He certainly didn’t give Steve the chance to get him alone. He wouldn’t know what he’d do if Steve touched him again.

But since Bucky had the worst luck in the entire world, Steve had been called to a meeting with the upper brass for some tactical arrangements and Bucky had been stuck meeting with the research and development crew and engineers. Apparently, they were still trying to pick apart the power source that fueled Hydra’s technology. And worst of all, Howard was leading the meeting.

Bucky hadn’t entered the meeting in a terribly good mood, and it had been readily apparent to everyone in the room. Howard had largely let his team of engineers ask the questions, but as the meeting wore on, he eventually started to send some of the engineers away on various tasks and started asking more of the questions. That just served to sour Bucky’s mood even further. Not that Howard paid much attention to Bucky’s mood—he was laser focused on his work and his goal of getting actionable answers out of the sulky sergeant.

Finally, Howard sent away the last of the engineers to go find some notes that they had taken earlier on. He pushed himself away from the table and stood up to stretch, crossing the room to their map that they had set up. It laid out what Bucky remembered of the other potential Hydra bases, in the hopes that they might be able to recover any more of the technology.

Meanwhile, Bucky slouched back in his chair with an assortment of pages in front of him, littered with nose in his own hand and other people’s, but his eyes followed Howard with a sullen expression for a moment before he broke the silence. “We done here, then?”

Bucky’s voice drew Howard out of whatever thoughts he might have as he stared at the map. He turned to look at Bucky, his hands on his hips. “I dunno, you got any other bright ideas that might help?”

“I thought you were supposed to be the ‘bright ideas’ department,” Bucky said blandly, making no move to stifle an enormous yawn as he crossed his arms across his chest.”

“Well we could always try hypnosis, see if there’s anything that you’ve managed to repress,” Howard suggested, sounding entirely serious about the prospect. He kept his hands on his hips as he started to walk across the room, keeping one eye on Bucky. “You feeling sleepy, Sergeant Barnes?”

Bucky willfully ignored the hypnosis suggestion even as he made a face at it. He ran a hand through his hair with a nonchalant shrug. “Feels like we’ve been at this forever, is all.”

“We can take a break if you need one,” Howard offered, but there was a little bit of a challenge in his voice. He went ahead and made a pile of some of the papers, putting them to one side so that he could sit on the table. “You can get some coffee, and I’ll find a pocket watch for the hypnosis.”

“I don’t need coffee, and I definitely don’t need you to hypnotize me,” Bucky replied, bristling and with a frown. He pushed his chair back from the table to stand. “So if that’s all you’ve got left, I’ll be taking my leave. Sir.”

The sir was certainly belated, and without any intention of respect. They both knew that much.

“Sure thing, buddy. I’ll be sure to let Captain Rogers know exactly how helpful you are,” Howard said without rising or paying any mind to Bucky’s tone. Instead, he started to pile up the papers some more, without moving from where he sits on the table.

If it was at all possible, Bucky bristled even more. He let out a brief, short laugh as he crossed his arms over his chest again. “Right, ‘cause I’m sure you’ll be seeing him later tonight.”

“Yeah, we’re having dinner,” Howard replied without any shame or strong emotion. He leaned back on the table to grab some papers that were in the middle of the table, then sat up again. He was talking as if they were just having a casual conversation, where Bucky was responding like a normal person. “Found a real nice bottle of whiskey that I’ve been saving all week.”

“Didn’t ask. Don’t care,” Bucky said shortly. The tension in his jaw was building as he shifted from one foot to the other, his agitation increasingly obvious. “Besides, I’ve told you all I can. If you don’t find it helpful, that’s not on me.”

“You’re not wrong on that front,” Howard murmured quietly, mostly to himself. For a moment, his thoughts returned to work, and the beginnings of an idea began to form in a corner of his mind. He let that start, then looked up and toward Bucky, his tone changing a little as he gazed at Bucky with appraising eyes. “Tell you what you’ve been really helpful with though—pretty sure I know what’s had your captain upset about this week.”

“Oh, really?” Bucky responded with feigned interest. He canted his head slightly back and narrowed his eyes at Howard now, unimpressed. “Know everything about him now, do you?”

“I know enough,” Howard said with a bit of a smirk, unable to help that automatic reaction. The smirk didn’t fade as he lifted his hand, still holding the papers and waving it in Bucky’s reaction. “Doesn’t take a genius like myself to figure out that you’re the reason for his mood.”

Bucky openly rolled his eyes for Howards’ words and his tone alike. He was outright radiating an aura of being very, very unimpressed. “So what, pal? Anything between us has got nothing to do with you.”

“And what about what’s between him and me, that got something to do with you?” Howard asked. He leaned forward, raising his eyebrows with no small amount of curiosity as to how Bucky would take that or respond.

“Guess that depends on what’s between him and you,” Bucky replied, not backing down. His arms were still firmly folded, and his head was tilted ever so slightly back in defiance.

“I think you know what’s between us, that’s why you have that metaphorical stick up your ass,” Howard said mildly, but he seemed pretty amused by his own statement. To be sure, the hint of a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth.

“He wasn’t exactly clear about it,” Bucky replied with another brief eyebrow. He finally dropped his arms, only so that he could settle his hands on his hips. “But, yeah. I got the gist.”

Howard chuckled quietly. It wasn’t a mean laugh—he was absently fond that Steve didn’t manage to be clear about it with Bucky. Howard had a pretty good idea about why that was. “And?”

“And what?” Bucky asked flatly. That chuckle clearly rubbed him the wrong way, and his frown deepened, despite all his efforts to remain nonchalant.

“And if you uh...seem to understand this so-called gist, what does that have to do with you?” Howard’s smirk returned, reminding Bucky of his earlier question.

“Nothing. He’s an adult, he can make his own choices,” Bucky said simply and with a brief shrug. He didn’t take his eyes off of Howard, his gaze steely and sizing the other man up. “Even if I disagree with ‘em.”

“Think I’m bad for your friend?” Howard asked, seeming more amused than anything else by that. It certainly wasn’t something he hadn’t heard before. He sat up a little straighter under Bucky’s appraising gaze, but then had the audacity to follow his question up with a wink. “Or are you jealous?”

“That’s a lot of conclusions that you’re jumping to, pal,” Bucky replied with an unimpressed look for that wink. He quirked his eyebrow as he otherwise evenly met Howard’s gaze—even if he didn’t answer either of his questions.

“Lots of questions you seem to be avoiding,” Howard answered with an easy smile. He shrugged off Bucky’s look with a roll of his shoulders and leaned back on one hand.

Bucky gave a brief shrug, and for a moment he looked more tired than anything else. But then his expression hardened again, and his defenses were raised again. “I’ve answered enough questions today, I figure.”

Howard was seemingly disappointed by that response and sighed loudly and then shrugged the shoulder that he wasn’t leaning on. He started to pick up some papers again, sorting them into a system that would only make sense to himself. “Have it your way, then.

“Alright,” Bucky said nonchalantly. He turned on his heel and headed for the door, but then paused with his hand on the doorknob. He hesitated for a long moment before he closed his eyes and took a breath, mumbling with an almost uncomfortable air. “Just don’t… jerk him around. Y’know? … he’s better than that.”

Howard seemed genuinely surprised by that. He actually let out a little breath of disbelief as he pushed himself off of the table, dropping the papers back on the table without a second thought. “You don’t think I know that? What kinda fella do you take me for?”

“Can’t say the rumor mill’s been kind to you,” Bucky pointed out. He glanced back at Howard over his shoulder with an unimpressed look, but it was decided mild compared to the rest of the looks that Bucky had given him so far. “But I only figured it out because… I know him.”

Bucky trailed off, his eyes darting to the floor again and he gave his shoulders a small shrug. Then he had another thought, his frown starting to deepen. “Don’t think anyone else has. Try to keep it that way.”

“I couldn’t care less about what the rumor mill says,” Howard said blandly. He rolled his sleeves up to his elbows while he looked at Bucky. He didn’t seem to mind that he was largely facing his back from his angle. “Your friend doesn’t seem to care, either.”

“Yeah, well. He should,” Bucky murmured, almost more to himself than to Howard at this point, briefly shaking his head.

“He means something. And not just to me,” Bucky continued, then added, almost too hastily. “As Captain America. So… be careful, is all. Protect that.”

“I played no small role in making that,” Howard pointed out, his tone dry. His ego was bristling even more for the way that Bucky seemed to be looking over that fact, more so than any of the other insults that Bucky had laid at his feet. He crossed his arms against his chest and continued. “He’s practically untouchable, and so am I.”

“‘Practically’ isn't ‘entirely,” Bucky pointed out right back, almost as dryly. He either didn’t notice or didn’t care to acknowledge Howard’s bristling, as he kept his eyes averted.

“All I'm asking is for you to be careful,” Bucky reminded Howard, finally turning a hard look back toward Howard as he looked over his shoulder. “Can you do that?”

Howard set Bucky with a look of his own. If there was a difference in their height or physical capabilities, it wasn’t something that Howard was going to pay attention to in that moment. He stepped aside so that he could have a better look at Bucky. “No. But I’m gonna take care of him, far beyond the end of this war.”

Bucky couldn’t hide his own measure of surprise in that moment, and because of it he was quick to glance away. He swallowed hard and struggled to avoid the swell of emotions that the potential future Howard was painting would hold—a future that would see Steve taken even further away from him. When Bucky did manage to respond, the word was almost strangled, and certainly bitter. “...alright.”

Howard’s expression softened a little, unable to avoid noticing at least part of Bucky’s reaction. He was a smart guy, and he started to have at least some idea what brought this whole conversation on. He took a step back to appraise Bucky in a different light. “That good enough for your… friend?”

The final word was a question in and of itself and there was a clear hesitation in Bucky’s reaction, but eventually he nodded but kept his eyes averted. “Yeah. If you're gonna take good care of him, then… yeah.”

“Hm.” Howard looked at Bucky after that admittedly lame finish. Bucky took a careful breath in and let it out in one go, nodding again. Howard looked like he might have something more to say about that, but he let it go, nodding a few times. “Yeah. All I wanna do is take care of him. Who wouldn’t?”

“...yeah,” Bucky agreed quietly and almost to himself. This was a way of taking care of Steve, wasn’t it? He nodded one more time as he brought a hand up to rub at the back of his neck, looking like he’d desperately prefer not to be in this conversation for another second. “Who wouldn’t.”

If it wasn’t taking care of Steve, it was at least making sure that someone would take care of him. It was the least that a coward could do.

Howard seemed to sense some of Bucky’s reluctance and nodded to himself, then uncrossed his arms. He rubbed his hand against his pant leg then held it out to Bucky. “Truce?”

Bucky took a good, long look at Howard’s hand. For a moment it seemed like he might refuse the handshake, but then he reached out and grasped it firmly, nodding. “Truce.”

“For now,” Bucky added. The look that he gave Howard read ‘as long as you treat him right’. It was a look that they bought understood.

Howard rolled his eyes but shook Bucky’s hand, pulling it back only to give Bucky a good natured slap on the arm, before he started to step away. “Don’t worry so much, you’ll see that’ll work out. Probably be some benefits for you too, down the road.”

“Mm,” Bucky said non-committedly. His tone was clearly unconvinced, but only maybe for the reasons that Howard might think. He pushed his hand through his hair, nodding faintly and he looked away. “As long as… he’s happy. That’s…”

It was all that mattered. But Bucky couldn’t finish that sentence, and certainly not in front of Howard. He swallowed hard and nodded again.

“Well,” Howard started. He let his eyes drift away from Bucky. He briefly rocked on his heels as he gave his shirtsleeves a check, needing something to do. Bucky wasn’t the only one that pictured Steve’s sad blue eyes. “Not sure that he is, yet. But I’m workin’ on it.”

“Oh,” Bucky said. There was another quirked eyebrow, and he obviously wanted to launch into a line of questioning there, but by some miracle he managed to suppress it. He watched Howard for a moment, then eventually gave a faint nod. “Well, work really hard.”

“It’s what I’m known for,” Howard said, even though it really, really wasn’t. He shot a quick accusatory glance at Bucky and raised one hand to point a finger at him. “And so should you, since you’re what’s making him so glum these days.”

“Yeah,” Bucky agreed uncomfortably, but at least he wasn’t above admitting it both to himself and to Howard. He took in a breath and let it out tiredly, not avoiding Howard’s gaze any longer, either. “Yeah, I know. I’m… trying.”

Howard dropped his finger, only to use it and his thumb to run over his moustache thoughtfully, taking Bucky’s reaction in and nodding. He followed it with a brief sigh of his own. “You need a drink? I need a drink.”

“Yeah,” Bucky repeated himself almost immediately and with a fervent nod. He seemed to shake himself out of his mood as he straightened up and tugged at his jacket almost self-consciously. “A drink would be great.”

“C’mon, then,” Howard started. He glanced at the table briefly, noting the way it was still largely disorganized and then shrugged, making a mental not to send someone to organize it later. He then turned around and reached for the door, pulling it open and taking a step out, ready to head for his office. “I don’t think your captain is gonna mind if we crack that bottle of whiskey open a little earlier.”

——

Although Bucky had left rather quickly after downing his whiskey, Howard had nursed his drink for far longer. He eventually poured himself a second, while he went so far as to smoke a cigar and make some attempts to read the newspapers on his desk. He wasn't capable of processing much of what he was reading, but he continued to try. By the time that Steve arrived at his office, the cigar was sitting in the ashtray, reduced to a still smoking butt.

Steve initially looked apologetic, loosening his tie as he appeared in the door and started to walk toward Howard. “Hey, sorry. Took a little longer than anticipated,” Steve started and then paused when he noticed the remainder of the cigar and the glass in Howard’s hand. “How was the meeting…?”

Howard put down the paper when heard Steve approach. He offered him an easy smile, despite his train of thought and pushed back from the desk to stand up, still holding onto the glass in one hand. “We did as much as we could do. We’ll see if any of it pans out.”

“Hopefully it will,” Steve said, relaxing fractionally when Howard smile. He offered what he hoped was a reassuring smile of his own in return and stepped in closer to give Howard's arm a light and awkward sort of squeeze. Howard thought it was endearing.

Howard patted Steve’s side lightly, moving past him to shut the door and turn the blinds for good measure. “I hope you don’t mind, but I found this really nice bottle of whiskey earlier. I was planning on saving it until I saw you, but I had a conversation with Sergeant Barnes that seemed to leave him in need of a stiff one.”

“...oh,” Steve said and swallowed hard. He was suddenly avoiding looking at Howard, and he crossed the room, slipping out of his jacket in the process. He tried (and failed) to keep his voice casual. “Did the meeting, uh… bring up some bad memories for him?”

It was an overly optimistic question.

“Nothing Hydra related,” Howard said dryly as he shot Steve a rather amused look for his tone. He walked back to his desk and placed his glass down, only to reach for Bucky’s earlier glass and pouring some for Steve.

“Ah,” Steve said with some disappointment and an air of ‘well I tried’, as well as a brief frown of irritation. He figured he’d let Howard elaborate before he said any more, and instead crossed to accept that glass gratefully to show that he likely understood.

Howard in turned offered Steve a sympathetic look and stepped close to him. He moved his hand so that he could squeeze Steve’s bicep, managing to be far less awkward about it than Steve had been minutes before. His tone was still dry when he spoke. “I got the impression he doesn’t much care for me.”

Steve settled his hand at Howard’s back with a bit more ease now, and he let out a breath of frustration before sipping from his glass. “I don’t think he cares much for me anymore, either.”

Howard quirked a smile and took a sip of his own glass. He took advantage of Steve’s arm to lean into him slightly and Steve settled his arm more completely around Howard, who chuckled when he drew his glass away from his mouth. “Now, I know that’s not true.”

“Yeah? You talk about that?” Steve asked. He intended it as a joke, but he belated realized that he had in fact hit the nail on the head.

“Yeah, as much as he was willing to talk about it,” Howard said with another chuckle. He wormed his own hand around Steve’s side. “Have you talked to him about it?”

“As much as he was willing to talk about it, yeah,” Steve echoed with a dry smile and another sip from his glass. He ran his hand absently up and down Howard’s arm.

“That does seem to be the sticking point,” Howard said with another brief laugh. He reached out to put his glass down on the desk then turned slightly so that he could actually face Steve, his hand casually resting against his hip. “I got the picture he cared a lot about how I was gonna treat you.”

Steve didn’t quite understand that, given the frown that then appeared on his face. He likewise set his glass down and ran his hand up Howard’s other arm. “Really? … he said that?”

“Frequently. Mostly implying that I wouldn’t do right by you,” Howard said with a slight raise of his eyebrows, as if he found that part impossible to believe.

Steve in turn closed his eyes and let out a soft, exasperated breath. His hand squeezed Howard's arm just about his elbow before wrapping his own arm more completely around Howard’s shoulders. “I’m sorry for that, it’s not his place. We had something of a… heated discussion the other night.”

Howard let go of Steve’s hip to wrap both of his arms around his waist. He gave Steve a brief, reassuring squeeze. He was still smiling faintly as he tilted his head up, butting his nose against Steve’s jaw. “Because he has feelings for you?”

“He feels some kinda way about me,” Steve countered wryly, tempering the statement with a bump of his cheek to Howard’s temple in return.

Hoard chuckled a little, and briefly closed his eyes as he gave Steve’s back a reassuring pat. “I asked if he was jealous, but he didn’t answer.”

“He’s really good at not answering thing,” Steve said, still wryly, but with more sympathy for Howard’s plight. His cheek rested against Howard’s hair for the moment. Howard made a brief sound of agreement but didn’t say anything else on the topic for now. He thought about it some more as he considered Steve’s reactions, but he was content to stay just as they were for as long as he could manage.

Steve let the quiet settle for a moment, but then the guilt started to set in. Eventually, he gave a soft sigh, and managed to elaborate. “We’ve been on edge lately, because… well, back in Brooklyn. Before all this. I… had feelings for Bucky, and I told him so. He made it pretty clear in his own way that he wasn’t interested.”

Howard wasn’t surprised by that at all, but he did pull back a little, just so he could take a look at Steve’s face. His own expression was far more curious than anything else. “And did he change his mind with all your… this?”

He opted to use Steve’s own description but drew one hand back, so he could pat Steve’s abdomen in the newly created space.

“Yeah. Exactly,” Steve said, relieved that Howard managed to guess so that he didn’t have to spell it out. He glanced down at Howard’s hand, and continued. “I called him on it, and he couldn’t give me a straight answer.”

Howard patted Steve’s abdomen again, but then lifted his hand slightly, enough that he could give Steve’s loosened tie a brief, playful tug. “What about you, you change your mind?”

Steve paused at the question, obviously taking a long moment to roll it around in his head. Finally, he inhaled and shrugged, shaking his head for emphasis. “Pretty much. I can’t… be with someone if I think this is all they’re interested in.” He paused to gesture toward himself, then continued. “And if I can’t figure out what he wants, then it’ll always be in the back of my mind.”

“That’s a good standard, since everyone is interested in this,” Howard made his point with another brief tug to Steve’s tie, but then he let it go, slipping his arm back around his waist. He was smiling faintly as Steve began to look briefly flustered.

“I mean— that’s—” Steve started, then let out a laugh and glanced down, shaking his head as he draped his arms back around Howard’s shoulders. “Can’t be everyone…”

Howard gave Steve a bit of a look for that. He didn’t believe that Steve could be that thick, but he stepped a little closer to him with a shake of his head. “Yeah, pal. Everyone. As they should be.”

“Well— anyway—” Steve began, trying to deflect with the same air of fluster and a soft laugh. His thoughts turned down another road and his expression became a little more serious. “That was… part of Bucky’s concern, too, that he brought up. Everyone else, and… if they start to notice.”

Steve’s serious expression was enough that Howard rolled his eyes. “What exactly do you think would happen if I hopped up on this desk, pulled you with me, and someone happened to walk in?”

That was a mental image that Steve wasn’t expecting. His eyes widened dramatically, and a flush crept up his cheeks. His arms tightened somewhat unconsciously around Howard’s shoulders as he worked his mouth a few times before he managed a response. “Howard’s shoulders- I— I mean, there’s— a lot that could happen—”

“Sure could. But I meant in terms of repercussions, for once.” Howard outright grinned at Steve, so much that it almost bordered on a leer. He took a brief step back and toward the desk, making an effort to drag Steve along. Steve resisted, but it was a token effort. He knew he could stop Howard from moving him if he had to. Instead, Steve moved with Howard with a flustered laugh at how Howard had managed to turn that back on him. “I mean more along the lines of court martialing, dishonorable discharge…”

Howard looked pleased that he managed to make Steve laugh at all. As for the insistence on the serious topic, Howard just shrugged his shoulders. “I’m not actually military, and I’d sue the pants off them if they even tried to tarnish my name. Not that they would—you couldn’t even imagine how many weapons I’ve designed or manufactured for this government. And you think they’d court martial Captain America?

Steve sighed out. He saw Howard’s point, but he couldn’t exactly agree. “I don’t know, but I can’t say that I want to find out, either.”

“We won’t,” Howard said it as gently as he could. He gave Steve’s waist a reassuring squeeze and offered him a gentler smile. “Like I told your sergeant—I want to take care of you. This isn’t my first rodeo, and I can handle these sorts of cowboys a lot better than you, if it comes to it.”

“...okay,” Steve finally agreed. He started to smile faintly again as he nodded, brining one hand to rest at the side of Howard’s neck, while his thumb brushed against his cheek. “Okay. I trust you. I do.”

“Glad to hear it,” Howard said sincerely. He tilted his head slightly toward Steve’s hand, but he didn’t look away from his face. His gentle expression didn’t change. “We’re not stupid and we’re sure as hell not going to get figured out by anyone that would say anything. If you want this to be a thing worth figuring out.”

It didn’t take much thought for Steve’s smile to widen. He nodded in agreement, meeting Howard’s gaze. “Yeah. Yeah, I want this.”

“Yeah?” Howard asked with interest. He tilted his head a little to outright nuzzle Steve’s hand, in part to hide his own hopeful smile. “I don’t exactly have a great track record, when it comes to long-term … things.”

“Well, I don’t even have a track record when it comes to any kind of term ‘things,’ so…” Steve trailed off with a sheepish smile and a shrug, not sure if that was actually as reassuring as he wanted it to be.

Howard chuckled, but he didn’t find it not reassuring at least. He gave Steve an appraising look. “Sounds like we should change that, for both of us.”

Steve smiled more easily for that and started to nod again. He moved his hand to settle at the nape of Howard’s neck. “Yeah, sounds like we should.”

Howard smiled, but didn’t say anything else. Instead, he leaned in toward Steve, angling his face up for a kiss. Steve bridged the small distance between them with a faint smile against Howard’s lips, and his fingers slid just a little higher into Howard’s short hair. Howard ended up smiling against Steve’s mouth too, but he also made an effort to continue the kiss for as long as possible.

When finally pulled back, he mostly spoke against Steve’s mouth, the smile audible in his voice. “So you want me to hop up on the desk?”

“Howard—” Steve chastised with another blush and squeezed his eyes that much further shut. He leaned in for another kiss in the hopes of keeping Howard quiet, but Howard couldn’t help but laugh against Steve’s lips.

Howard tightened his arms around Steve’s waist, and pulled back after a brief nip to Steve’s lower lip. “How about a toast, instead?”

“Okay. A toast,” Steve agreed easily. He kept one arm around Howard with a smile as he reached for his glass. “What to?”

“The future. Our future,” Howard said and then corrected, reaching back for his own glass. He lifted it toward Steve’s glass.

“Perfect. To our future,” Steve said, his smile widening as he nodded. His eyes were on Howard’s as he reciprocated the light clink of glasses and took a sip of the whiskey.

——

The future began on the day that Bucky Barnes fell from a train. Bucky was gone, and Howard could offer no comfort to Steve that the other man would accept. At the time, Howard had thought that there would be time to run away with Steve and help him grieve. Help him move on from the loss of his friend.

Instead, Howard lost Steve as well. Too late, he realized why Steve wouldn’t accept any comfort: Steve Rogers wasn’t planning on being long in this world without Bucky, no matter what Howard tried to plan for him. The harsh truth was that Steve’s heart had broken when he lost Bucky, and in turn, Howard’s heart broke when he realized Steve had never gotten over Bucky. Perhaps it was just as well that Howard had never gotten a chance to tell Steve that he loved him.

Despite all evidence that Steve was gone forever, Howard never completely abandoned his search for Steve. Projects that related to searching the Atlantic Ocean were always funded when they came across his desk. It was the least he could do with the hole that existed in his universe.

Elsewhere, physicists conducted experiments to prove that black holes existed, because leading theories suggested that they must. It didn’t matter how long it would take to find the evidence needed. So too did Howard search for Steve—he needed to bring him home.

He never got the chance, but he never gave up either.

Chapter Text

Time past. Howard Stark had a son and named him Anthony. He told most people that it was a family name, but the truth was that he had suggested the name when Maria couldn’t stop singing songs from West Side Story until Howard knew all the lyrics too.

He didn’t sing along, but he listened and sometimes watched while his wife danced around the room, at first alone, and then years later with their growing baby boy.

Howard didn’t dance. He was too busy trying to improve the universe, to prepare it for the day that Tony would inherit his seat at the center. Tony held the greatest possible chance for Howard to truly achieve immortality—he had thought it would have been him and Steve, together, but that wasn’t meant to be. He’d come to terms with instead giving Tony every possible advantage, when it would be his turn.

Tony’s turn came far, far before Howard thought it would have been. He didn’t get the chance to prepare Tony in the way that he had wanted to, but well—he didn’t have time to mourn that, either.

Howard Stark died, and the center of the universe was empty for many years, until his son built a suit that changed the course of the universe. Howard had been right about Tony’s potential to be a quasar—he would eclipse Howard in every way.

If the ghost of Howard Stark lived on as the former center of the universe, he might have even been proud of his son.

He might have also realized that for all he believed that he, Howard Stark, was the center of the universe, there was a quasar that he had failed to recognize. The black hole that was Steve Rogers directed the course of Howard Stark’s existence. Even when Steve was dead (and thus a true quasar), Howard spent his entire life trying to create something as good as Steve.

Was it ironic, that Howard Stark was murdered by the Winter Soldier? Was it just chance that Steve Rogers returned to the universe to interact with Tony Stark? Or was it the result of the measurable movements of greater-than-life celestial bodies?

———

The cosmic forces of Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, and Bucky Barnes came to head in an abandoned Hydra facility in Siberia. As tended to happen when such forces collided, the impacts were felt around the world and spread throughout the universe.

Most of the injuries would take time to heal, and Steve and Bucky knew that, even as they sought a temporary reprieve. But there were older hurts awoken by the interaction, and those scratched at Bucky like a scab he was ready to peel off.

Steve had said he was going to take a shower and then probably a nap. Despite likewise saying he was going to his respective room to take a shower, Bucky was alone in his room for fewer than five minutes. The weight of his thoughts and the things he wanted and needed to say became unbearable. He paced his room in an attempt to suppress it, but finally he stepped out onto the balcony that connected his room to Steve’s guest room.

He crossed to Steve’s side and stood uncomfortably at the door for a moment, then knocked almost timidly on the glass pane.

Steve was moving a little slower than he normally would be, but it wasn’t due to any specific injury. The past few days had been...long. It was too easy to think of ways that everything could have been avoided, now that it was said and done. It didn’t much matter that he wouldn’t have changed any of it.

He had only started to run the shower and get undressed when he heard what he thought was a knock. He turned off the water and pulled up his pants again, wandering out from the bathroom to head for the door, wondering what else could have possibly gone wrong. Had Tony and Ross found them? But on his way, he saw Bucky standing at the balcony and stopped, turning that way instead.

If he was surprised to see Bucky, he didn’t let it show, sliding the balcony door open. “Hey, Buck.”

“Hey,” Bucky replied. His whole demeanor was pretty subdued and overly penitent, and he rubbed at the back of his neck with his hand as he glanced past Steve, unable to get a read on his expression. “Can I, uh… can I come in?”

“Yeah, come in,” Steve said as he took a step back into the room. He held out one arm to let Bucky past and offered him a very small ghost of a smile, but Bucky didn’t find it all that reassuring. Steve shut the door behind him once Bucky took a few steps into the room, and Bucky’s face read like he already regretted walking into the room.

Bucky swallowed hard and glanced around. There were so many things that he needed to stay to Steve, that it was hard to find the words to say any of them, at all.

“Look, Steve… I…”

Steve moved to lean against the nearest clear wall, his arms crossed against his chest. He briefly glanced toward the bathroom but then looked back at Bucky. He was waiting to see what he would say—and despite Bucky’s tongue-tied efforts, Steve only offered an encouraging look. He didn’t interrupt.

“I’m sorry,” Bucky finally managed to say. He kept his eyes averted and frowned deeply. His hand flexed absent-mindedly at his side, as he took a careful breath. “I’m sorry for everything.”

Steve was surprised by the apology, and he quickly frowned as he tried to process the apology. “Nothing for you to apologize about, Bucky.”

Bucky obviously didn’t agree, but he knew better to argue big-picture points with Steve. His frown mirrored Steve’s when he glanced up at him, and he forged on with what he needed to say, regardless. “About Howard, you… you said you knew. When did you find out?”

Steve caught Bucky’s eye and then looked away. He had no small amount of his own guilt when it came to Howard. He looked down at his feet and shifted his weight slightly. “Oh, uh… a few years, now. When Natasha released all of the Hydra secrets, it… confirmed it.”

“Jesus,” Bucky breathed out. He took a step back and sunk down to sitting on the edge of the bed, his face buried in his hand. When he continued, his voice was halting, like he believed that he already knew the answer to the question he was asking. “Did that… did I… ruin everything between us? I know… what he meant to you. And I…”

Bucky trailed off, shaking his head slowly, and Steve finally looked up, blinking in momentary confusion. He pushed off from the wall to cross the room toward Bucky, but he slowed down when he got closer, afraid to actually touch him. “What? No, not at all.”

It’s pretty clear to Steve that Bucky doesn’t believe him. Bucky had dropped his hand and noticed how Steve began to walk toward him but was able to come up with another reason for why Steve stopped short. Bucky swallowed hard, still frowning and shaking his head. “I wouldn’t blame you. I’ve given you more than enough reason not to want to see me again.”

“After everything that’s happened since Bucharest, you think I don’t want to see you?” Steve asked, sounding a little incredulous. He sat down next to Bucky but left some space between them. “I’ve been looking for you for ages.”

“Wouldn’t blame you for not liking what you found,” Bucky said quietly. His eyes flickered first to the space left between them and then to the floor. “I don’t know why you protected me. Why you’d side with me in all this. Why you’d— why you’d still consider me a friend.”

“Because you’ve always been my friend,” Steve murmured quietly. He swallowed hard as he started to move a little closer to Bucky, afraid to cross some invisible line. He let out a slow breath and lifted his hand to run through his hair. “What you did—it wasn’t you.”

Bucky neither nodded nor shook his head for the statement, but it did at least quiet him down or a long moment. His eyes were still fixed to the floor and his voice soft when he spoke again. “I didn’t like Howard. At best, I tolerated him, because I knew you cared about him. And he cared about you. I might’ve been jealous, but I never—” Bucky paused and closed his eyes, exhaling carefully before finishing. “I never would’ve wished that on anyone.”

“I know, Buck. He… what happened to him, I don’t blame you, not at all,” Steve said in his own quiet tone. He absently chewed on his lip as he reached out, putting his hand on Bucky’s arm and squeezing lightly, before pulling back.

“I believe you, I do,” Bucky said, glancing briefly at Steve’s touch. He had automatically started to shift into it before Steve pulled away, and Bucky turned his gaze forward as he shook his head. “But you can’t say it doesn’t change anything between us. Even if you don’t think it does on the surface.”

Steve hesitated. There were things he could say, but he wasn’t sure if he could say them. Having Bucky back seemed like such a fragile thing, and he was loathe to do something that could end in him losing it all over again. In the end, his courage persisted, and he ran his hand through his hair, looking away as he spoke quietly. “It… it doesn’t really. But maybe it seems that way to you?”

Bucky hazarded another glance over to Steve, trying to get a read on him. He ultimately failed to do so and frowned a little as he shook his head. “What do you mean?”

Steve drew in a breath, but he didn’t look at Bucky. He almost grimaced as he tried to find a way to put it into words and swallowed hard as he thought about it.  When I thought you died... I realized a few things. And that’s… it changed things for me, and how… and it changed things with Howard.”

In contrast to Steve, Bucky kept his eyes locked on Steve throughout. Once Steve finished, Bucky did have to look away again. He first took a long pause to mull that over, and then another to carefully put together what he wanted to say. “Do you remember that one night in London? … you kissed me, in an alley. You asked me what had changed when I kissed you back. And I said I didn’t know.”

Steve drew in a breath, finally glancing back at Bucky. His gaze was intense, and he nodded very slowly, not immediately ready to trust his voice. “I remember. You remember that?”

“Yeah,” Bucky said the word carefully, but definitively. He managed to meet Steve’s eyes and mirrored that nod. He didn’t look away when he continued speaking, even though he sorely wanted to. “It wasn’t that you had changed. I had changed, after they captured me, and you brought me back. I just didn’t know how to say it, so you ended up thinking it was just because you were different.”

The guilt finally drove Bucky to look away again, and he shook his head. “It took a long time before I could even figure it out for myself, but… I almost died out there. And I wasn’t scared of dying, but damn if I wasn’t scared of never being able to see you again. That’s what kept me from giving in. That’s what… made me realize how I felt about you. How I’d always felt about you.”

“Oh,” Steve said quietly. It took him a minute to process everything, and his eyes drilled holes in Bucky’s skin while he tried to understand everything that Bucky had finally said. The wheels in his head turned until he finally started to understand it. His brow furrowed as he leaned forward, resting his weight on his elbows and linking his fingers together to avoid fidgeting—but he didn’t look away from Bucky, while he asked. “Always?”

“Always,” Bucky repeated quietly, but no less resolutely. He’s sure to look up again and met Steve’s gaze when he said so. “And I’m not… saying it because I expect anything. You don’t owe me a damn thing, after all that’s happened. You just… deserve to know, since I could never tell you before.”

Steve nodded a few times, processing that for another moment. He finally looked away, but he reached out to put a hand on Bucky’s arm, reassured by the warmth of his skin, even if he needed a minute to think about it. “Why didn’t you say anything? I thought it was just physical for you.”

“I had to be sure it wasn’t,” Bucky admitted. He wasn’t entirely proud of that fact, and he glanced down again, even if he relaxed under Steve’s touch. “But I wasn’t exactly doing a good job of admitting any of it to myself. By the time I could… you were with Howard.”

“I would have dropped Howard like a bad habit, if I knew,” Steve said, but looked chagrined more than anything else. He looked at his feet with great interested, but he didn’t let go of Bucky’s arm as he shook his head. “It’s not far to him—he was good to me, but it’s true.”

Bucky couldn’t help but let out a short, mirthless laugh for Steve saying so. He shook his head and sighed. “I thought about saying something. But… you seemed happy. He did seem good for you. I thought he'd be better for you than me, seeing as he could tell you how he felt and I… couldn't.”

Steve finally started to look at Bucky from the corner of his head and he nodded his head again. There was no small amount of truth to that, but he squeezed Bucky’s forearm gently, not otherwise moving. “I cared about Howard. I didn’t love him. That’s on me.”

“We both could've done things differently,” Bucky said with a softer tone. He glanced at Steve’s hand on his arm before his eyes lingered on where his own hand rested on his knee. He wanted to reach for Steve, but he didn’t know where they stood now.

“Yeah,” Steve said quietly. He followed Bucky’s gaze momentarily, but then he shifted it to where his own hand rested on his arm. His tone stayed just as soft and sad. “I thought that if I could love anyone except you, I could learn to love Howard. But when I thought you died—God, Bucky.”

Steve’s voice started to get more emotional, and he held onto Bucky’s arm even tighter as he continued. “I was still in love with you.”

“Steve…” Bucky started. Hearing him stay that was just as emotional for Bucky, though the look on his face was mixed. The past tense wasn’t lost on him, but even so, he couldn’t quite resist reaching out to rest his hand tentatively above Steve’s knee. Steve made a quiet sound when Bucky touched his knee and he leaned forward slightly.

Steve’s hand moved down to Bucky’s wrist and his fingertips touched the back of Bucky’s hand. He was a little too afraid to reach for his fingers and he was still overwhelmed to say anything further. Bucky hesitated for a moment too and he looked down at their hands and eventually and tentatively turned his hand over.

He didn’t actively take Steve’s hand in his own, but the invitation was there. Bucky was still frowning slightly—he didn’t even realize he was holding his breath. Steve took a small, shaky breath and then moved his hand to intertwine his fingers with Bucky’s.

The touch was tentative at first but then he almost immediately tightened his grip. Bucky swallowed hard and glanced over at Steve, as the blonde man’s eyes closed. Bucky’s fingers started to curl around Steve’s, eventually tightening.

Bucky finally took a breath, and his voice was low and more than a little shaky when he did speak up again. “Like I said, you don’t… you don’t owe me anything, but…”

“There isn’t a single damn thing in the world that is more important to me than you,” Steve said quietly but with the strongest conviction possible. He slowly opened his eyes and looked at their hands for a moment longer before he looked up toward Bucky’s face. He made an attempt to smile but failed. “And after today, I’m pretty sure the whole world knows that.”

Bucky met Steve’s gaze with a look of his own that managed to be confused, surprised, and still very much emotional all at once. As much as he was struggling not to get his hopes up, there was reassurance in Steve’s words. Still he was far beyond the point of being anything but perfectly clear. “Important to you because I’m your friend, or… important to you because you… still…?”

“Because I still love you?” Steve asked, finishing Bucky’s sentence. It felt strange that he had finally managed to say it to Bucky’s face—but the words were out there, and he wordlessly nodded, squeezing the other man’s hand. “Yeah.”

Bucky’s expression softened, and he only narrowly avoided letting out a laugh of sheer relief. He started to nod, before he could even manage to reply, and his had squeezed Steve’s just as tightly. “Yeah, I… me, too.”

“I still love you, too,” Bucky corrected himself, knowing that Steve deserved to hear as much instead of the simpler answer. Steve smiled faintly, not loosening his hold of Bucky’s hand at all. He leaned in closer even as he let out a breath, some of the tension in his shoulders fading from sheer relief.

“So when you said things had to have changed between us…” Steve started, but he trailed off, letting Bucky finish the sentence. At first, Bucky only nodded faintly. He had to glance down when Steve brought it up, but he didn’t fault him for doing so. It wasn’t something he wanted to express, and it wasn’t something easy to put into words, but he tried anyway.

“Whoever it was you fell in love with over a lifetime ago… that isn’t me anymore,” Bucky began. It was easier to speak, once he got started. “I’ve done horrible things, both to people you care about and to people who care about you. As much as you can say it wasn’t me, or that I didn’t have a choice… are you gonna be able to look at me and not think about that? Isn’t it always going to be there, in the back of your mind?”

Steve listened to Bucky intently, even if his brow furrowed into a frown. He absently started to rub at the side of Bucky’s hand with his thumb, trying to offer him some comfort. Once Bucky finished, Steve shook his head, very slowly. “What’s in the back of my mind is the way that you pulled me from the river. And how you lied to me in Bucharest to try and make things easier on me, if things went south. I know you, Buck, and I know what you’ve done and what they made you do. How many people have you killed, after D.C.?”

Bucky looked for all the world like he wanted to believe Steve, but he wasn’t yet certain he could. He did manage to nod faintly and meet Steve’s gaze. At the question, he cleared his throat, and considered. “None, that… I know of.”

“That’s what I thought,” Steve murmured. He then took in a deep breath and shifted to be a little closer to Bucky. The small distance between them managed to seem rather large at the moment. “I’ve got regrets in the back of my mind, especially when it comes to Howard. Probably more, after today. But I can live with those. And they’re not your fault.”

“I…” Bucky started. The weight of those words was huge, however reassuring. He nodded slowly as he tried to process them and began chewing at the corner of his lips. “I want to believe you. I really do. And maybe someday I will, but in the meantime… I’ll try and live with it all, too.”

Steve nodded, and his expression turned sad. He glanced back down toward their hands, watching his thumb as he moved it against the side of Bucky’s hand again. He needed to, to distract himself from the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. “Whatever you need from me, I’ll be here.”

“I need you to be here, with me,” Bucky said softly but in no uncertain terms. He tilted his head and tried to get Steve’s attention with another squeeze of his hand. “And I want to be with you. And everything that means.”

Steve looked up, briefly confused but he quickly realized his error. He nodded again, this time his expression a little warmer and he even managed a small, wry smile. “I got no place I’d rather be. And no one I’d rather be with than you.”

“Yeah,” Bucky said, his voice still soft but more than resolutely. He nodded once and mirrored that faint, warm smile. His thumb brushed against Steve’s as he let out a soft breath—he managed to relax just a little more. “Me, too.”

Steve looked at Bucky for a long moment. He noticed that slight change and he smiled a bit easier. He took a small breath before started to lean in. He moved slowly enough that Bucky would know exactly what he was about to do. Bucky’s kept his gaze on Steve, but his eyes eventually flickered down to Steve’s lips.

Bucky slid his eyes shut as Steve pressed his lips against Bucky’s mouth in a soft, chaste kiss. Bucky let the kiss be light for a moment before he leaned in closer, gently increasing the pressure. Steve appreciated the gentleness of the kiss, too aware of how fragile the thing between them was, but he melted under the new pressure and tilted his head to one side for a better angle.

Bucky’s fingers tightened around Steve’s fingers and his brow furrowed briefly with the emotion of it. He let the kiss linger for another long moment before he broke it off, only to rest his forehead against Steve’s, eyes still closed as their breaths mixed together. He didn’t have anything to say just yet, so for the time being, he simply didn’t.

Steve took a slow and shallow breath, his eyes closed as he leaned into Bucky’s touch, but he didn’t say anything else either. He rubbed Bucky’s hand slowly before he tilted his head for another kiss. This kiss was just as soft, but far briefer, when he was unable to resist the temptation when he was that close.

Bucky was happy to echo those kisses with a couple of brief, distracted brushes of his own lips. Eventually Bucky drew away only enough that he could open his eyes and smiled softly at Steve. A lot of the previous tension was gone—instead he looked thoroughly exhausted, but at least the emptiness was also far less present. “...thank you. For… always trusting me.”

“Thank you for trying to believe in me,” Steve offered back, but he echoed that soft smile. He let go of Bucky’s hand to reach up, gingerly cupping his cheek in his palm. He was aware of all the physical trauma that he had to deal with over the last day, and as much as he wanted to touch—he didn’t want to hurt him.

“I believe in you,” Bucky corrected him softly and with clear affection in his eyes. He tilted his head toward Steve’s hand and let out a soft breath. “Just don’t believe in myself. Or that I deserve your trust in me.”

“You can’t be held responsible for Hydra’s actions,” Steve said mildly. He needed to say it but not wanting to get into it with Bucky again. He knew that they’d have their difference of opinions about that. He glanced toward his own hand, where his thumb carefully brushed across Bucky’s cheek.

“I know,” Bucky said softly and almost convincingly. His eyes slid shut as he tilted his head that much further into Steve’s touch. “But you might have to keep fighting the whole world on that one.”

“That’s a fight I’m willing to take on,” Steve murmured quietly. His gaze softened even more when Bucky’s closed, and he stole a quick glance toward the ruined remains of Bucky’s metal arm. He then looked back toward his face and let out a soft breath as he moved his hand down toward Bucky’s neck.

Bucky gave a faint nod since he certainly believes Steve would and will. It gave him a measure of regret just as it gave him a measure of hope, and he opened his eyes again. He smiled carefully at Steve as he soaked in those idle touches, unable to even remember the last time anyone touched him like that. “Thank you. I wish you didn’t have to. But… thank you.”

“You’d do the same for me,” Steve said without any doubt as to that. He caught Bucky’s eye and returned that smile softly, moving his hand further back so he could just touch the edges of Bucky’s hair. But he didn’t do anything more than that, and then his smile faded slightly. “What happened was as much my fault as anyone else’s.”

“Don’t,” Bucky said, still quiet, but his tone was firm. He barely shook his head, and it wasn’t enough to move even slightly out of Steve’s touch. “You have to know that’s not true.”

“If I had told Tony about his parents when I found out, none of this would have happened,” Steve reminded Bucky, but his tone was rather resigned. He brought up his hand to slowly run through Bucky’s hair, his expression guilty.

“You think he wouldn’t have tried to hunt me down anyway?” Bucky asked in a quiet murmur. He watched Steve’s expression closely, even as he continued to shift into every one of those idle touches, his fingers still firmly intertwined with Steve’s own digits. “It wouldn’t have mattered how or when he found out, as long as I was still out there.”

“He wouldn’t have been able to find you or hurt you,” Steve said, and that was the crux of the matter. He managed not to look at Bucky’s arm this time, but he did look sadder as he dropped his hand back down to Bucky’s shoulder.

“I wouldn’t have been able to hide from him forever,” Bucky said softly. I was an odd thing to say when he was trying to be reassuring, and the irony wasn’t lost on him. He quirked a faint smile and shook his head as he watched Steve. “He would’ve found me anyway, but… I know you would’ve been there for me.”

“He might calm down, in a few years,” Steve tried to make light of it, with an attempted smile, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes. He squeezed Bucky’s shoulder gently in appreciation anyway. “If I hadn’t felt so bad about Howard, maybe I would’ve been able to tell him. Get him to understand.”

“It’s not worth it to think about the what-ifs,” Bucky said as gently as he could manage and still get the point across. He slipped his hand from Steve’s only so that he could reach up and rest it against Steve’s bruised cheek. “This is the hand we got dealt, so… we gotta try and deal with it.”

“You’re right,” Steve admitted, and he leaned into Bucky’s touch. His own hand moved to gently squeeze Bucky’s elbow, and he closed his eyes and sighed quietly. “I’ve missed you being right.”

Bucky managed a soft laugh, though it didn’t last very long as it echoed through his deeply bruised ribs. His hand moved to curl at the nape of Steve’s neck and he pulled him in to rest their foreheads together. “You say that now…”

“I know, I’ll regret it later,” Steve murmured. He finally managed a small smile as he leaned back into Bucky. He kept his eyes closed as he rubbed his fingers against the crease of Bucky’s elbow, and he shifted his weight to get closer.

“Probably,” Bucky agreed. He bumped his nose gently and tentatively to Steve’s, and then hesitated only for the briefest moment before he inclined his head and pressed another slow kiss to Steve’s lips. Steve shivered slightly as Bucky’s thumb brushed distractedly at the curve of Steve’s jaw, just below his ear, but Steve responded to the kiss with the interest. They both kept it soft and gentle, even as they moved to get even closer. Steve ended up with his hand at Bucky’s side, and Bucky wrapped his arm around Steve’s waist.

Steve took a small breath and pulled back from the kiss, but only it was only momentarily. He opened his eyes as he then moved to stand up and reposition himself that he could straddle Bucky’s lap. His arms went around his shoulders, but he had the good sense to look embarrassed, holding himself up a little out of worry of further injuring Bucky. “This alright?”

Bucky (who had briefly had a look somewhere between disappointment and concern when Steve pulled away and stood) relaxed into another soft, fond smile and nodded. He shifted under Steve before trying to pull him all the way down with his hand on Steve’s hip. “Yeah, more than alright.”

Steve settled on top of Bucky carefully, still mindful of his injuries but he smiled anyway. He let one arm drape around Bucky’s good shoulder, while the other carefully ran through his hair. “Neither of us is exactly in peak condition right now.”

“Yeah, Bucky said with a faint frown in contrast. His hand moved to slide up Steve’s sides, tentative both for his injuries and that he’d somehow overstep his bounds, despite Steve being the one to make this move. “I’m sorry you had to step in, but… I’m glad you did. It could’ve been a lot worse.”

Bucky looked like head something else to say, but he opted not to. Steve didn’t need to know that he had intentionally provoked Tony. He didn’t really remember the death of Howard and Maria—but the video didn’t lie. He knew he had done it. He knew he was guilty.

He knew that he deserved to be punished for his crimes, especially from those who had suffered as a consequence. That included Tony. If they had been alone, things would have been different.

But for Steve. Steve that knew what Bucky had done and was still willing to hold him like a lover.

Steve’s smile faded, waited to see if Bucky would say anything before he looked down. He then leaned in and planted a soft kiss to Bucky’s forehead. Bucky tilted his head back and closed his eye for the kiss. Steve’s arm around Bucky’s shoulder moved to hold him close instead, in a one arm hug. Bucky let out a soft breath as his arm moved to drape more completely (but still carefully) around Steve’s waist, then tilted his head back more to return that kiss to Steve’s jaw.

Steve made a soft sound at that kiss. He tilted his head to one side and closed his eyes, rubbing the back of Bucky’s neck with his fingertips and he let out a very slow breath. He shifted a little closer to Bucky as he murmured quietly, “We’re okay.”

“Yeah,” Bucky agreed quietly. His fingers traced tentatively over the dips in Steve’s ribs before flattening at his lower back. He buried his face into the curve of Steve’s neck, taking immense comfort in being able to have him this close. “Yeah, we are.”

Steve nodded a little, keeping his eyes closed as he then turned his head to bury his nose against Bucky’s hair. He took a slow breath and relaxed for it even further. They were both content to be quiet in that moment and for a time. Eventually, Bucky bumped his nose to Steve’s jaw again and sat up a little straighter, sighing out softly. “Sorry, you... were going to take a shower.”

“So were you,” Steve reminded Bucky. He pulled back a little slower, taking a moment to look at Bucky, and then he turned his gaze toward the bathroom. A thought occurred to him, and the tips of his ears went pink as he cleared his throat. “We could save some water.”

It was so unexpected that Bucky almost didn’t understand at first. But once he did, his eyebrows arched, and he smiled slowly, watching that shade of a blush with all due affection. His tone was clearly more teasing than trying to make an actual point. “Moving awful fast, huh?”

Steve laughed, not able to look at Bucky and the blush spread to his cheeks. He shook his head as he drew his hand back to rub at his face. “It’s just a shower.”

“Sure it is,” Bucky said, still with more intent to tease Steve than to contradict him. He smiled that much more as Steve’s blush spread, and he opted to spare him further teasing. His arm dropped from Steve’s waist so that he could lean back on it. “I think that sounds like a good idea.”

“Well if you think it’s a good idea…” Steve said as he pulled his hand back from his face to rest over Bucky’s chest. He barely resisted the urge to roll his eyes, but when he looked back at Bucky, his expression was just a little shy.

“Yeah,” Bucky said with a nod. The smile he offered Steve was very warm and reassuring in turn. His demeanor was already so much different than earlier, with the weight of telling Steve how he felt off of his conscience. “A real good idea.”

Steve smiled slowly, then leaned in to press a quick kiss to Bucky’s mouth, then pushed back and moved to stand. He offered Bucky his hand, once he was vertical, in order to help him off the bed. “Alright.”

Bucky took Steve’s hand in his to pull himself up with only a brief wince. He let out a sigh and smiled at Steve again regardless and let him lead the way to the bathroom. Once they were there, he took a moment to briefly look self-conscious as he glanced at the reminder of his metal shoulder. He reached across to carefully remove the black cap—the errant wires and metal fragments were trimmed down for general safety’s sake, but it was still a grim enough reminder.

Steve followed Bucky’s gaze to his arm and his expression faded into no small amount of sadness, but he didn’t try and reach out and touch, as much as he wanted to. He only moved his hand to lightly support Bucky’s back and his brow furrowed slightly. “Does it hurt?”

“No,” Bucky said softly and with a brief shake of his head. He leaned into Steve’s hold as he started to pull the hem of his shirt higher up with his hand. “It feels… empty.”

Steve drew his hand away briefly, only to put his hand back against his skin once his shirt was up high enough. His frown kept growing and he kept his eyes on the remnants of Bucky’s arm. “I’m sorry, Buck.”

“It’s okay,” Bucky said and tried to reassure him, even as he struggled a bit with getting his shirt the rest of the way over his head and off, absently appreciative that Steve didn’t try to help. “It’s...maybe it’s better like this.”

Steve helped only in the sense that he nodded to the pile where had left his own shirt earlier, distracted by that idea as he fixed Bucky with a rather knowing look. “I’m not buying that.”

“Mm,” was Bucky’s only response. He offered a smile that was likewise knowing, but very, very tired. The sound was a silent request that they table the discussion for later. Steve silently agreed, and leaned in to press a soft kiss to Bucky’s cheek, once Bucky had thrown his shirt in the direction where Steve had nodded.

Steve spared a glance for the angry scar tissue and swallowed hard, but he did his best to hide the response. After a moment, he took a step back toward the shower and turned it on. Bucky suppressed another brief flair of self-consciousness, even as he reached across his chest to run his hand over that line where the metal merged angrily with his skin.

To distract himself, Bucky looked at Steve instead, and then stepped over to lean against the counter. Steve had gotten the water running in the shower and was testing the temperature against his skin. Bucky cleared his throat, and then asked, “Do you really think… there'll be a time when Tony can overlook everything that just happened?”

Steve considered his response, but then shrugged as he looked back at Bucky, his expression a little helpless. “I don’t know that he’ll ever forgive me, but I still hope that there’ll be a day when we can work together anyway. I doubt that we’ll ever agree—but some things are more important.”

“Mm…” Bucky began, and he smiled faintly for Steve saying so, but barely managed to avoid the urge to disagree. He rubbed the back of his neck with his hand. “I mean, it’s… it’s not gonna get much better if he finds out we’re…”

Bucky trailed off, and gestured to the space between them. He left the end of the sentence vague, since they’d only just made the decision themselves. It seemed too fragile to try and label just yet.

“Why would that change anything?” Steve asked with no small amount of confusion. He gave Bucky a look, even as he unbuckled his belt and added it to the clothing pile of shirts.

Bucky raised his eyebrows as if to say ‘really?’ before he realized he shouldn’t even be remotely surprised that Steve would be so oblivious. He let out a soft breath that managed to be both exasperated and quietly affectionate, all at once. “Because he looked at you an awful lot like Howard used to.”

Steve also lifted his eyebrows, but he just shook his head. He smiled faintly as he stepped back toward Bucky, trying to offer him some reassurance. “There’s nothing like that between us.”

“Maybe not, but I think he wishes there was,” Bucky said carefully. He watched Steve’s face as he said it, not trying to corner him, but still trying to get him to understand. Steve still didn’t seem to believe it and only shook his head again.

In another second, Steve reached out and took Bucky’s hand in his own. “You don’t know him. He was dating the same woman since I first met him.”

“Okay,” Bucky said with a faint shrug, but he was obviously not convinced either. He settled his hand comfortably in Steve’s and squeezed his hand reassuringly. “I’m just saying, I feel like I’ve seen those looks before. The ones he was giving you.”

“Mm,” Steve said non-committedly. He wasn’t convinced, but he didn't want to argue about it. He squeezed Bucky’s hand as he looked at him, and comforted by that touch, he tried to tease Bucky about it instead. “Maybe you were just jealous.”

“Jealous?” Bucky countered. He started to smile as he took a step or two closer in toward Steve. He feigned thinking about it, and Steve chuckled while Bucky shook his head. “Mm, that doesn’t sound like me.”

“You remember the London alley, but not how we got there?” Steve asked, relaxed as he used his hold on Bucky’s hand to close any remaining distance between them.

“It’s spotty,” Bucky said with more of a smile and a brief laugh. He leaned easily into Steve and glanced over his face—this moment seemed impossible an hour ago. It was still hard to believe that they were actually at this point.

“Look, all I’m saying is—” Bucky continued. “I figured I’d better say something before another Stark tried to scoop you up.”

“Even if you were right, I don’t think he’d try to scoop me up now after today,” Steve countered with a small smile. His free hand rose to cup Bucky’s cheek in his palm, just as amazed that he could do that and touch Bucky the way that he wanted. It had been impossible for almost as long as it had been inevitable.

“Maybe not,” Bucky admitted in agreement, but his smile was soft, and his eyes were still on Steve, even as he tilted his head into that touch. “I wouldn’t let him, anyway. I don’t think I deserve much, but… if you think I deserve you, then I’m not about to argue.”

“For once in your life,” Steve murmured, but it was only so that he could keep teasing Bucky. His smile was soft, while Bucky gave his hand a reassuring squeeze.

“Yeah,” Bucky said, apparently not going to argue the point either. He laughed quietly and then Steve leaned in to gently kiss Bucky. Bucky inclined his head toward the kiss. It was light and brief in a way that promised a future filled with a million more of those kisses.

Steve pulled back so that he could look at Bucky again, starting to smile already. “Ready for that shower?”

“Yeah. Definitely,” Bucky said easily. He smiled as he nodded and gave Steve’s hand a squeeze before he took a step back.

It was easier for Bucky to get out of the sweatpants than it had been the shirt, Steve noticed. Steve couldn’t help but notice. It didn’t feel right to watch him undress, but it wasn’t something he could convince himself not to do. The catalogue of fresh injuries on Bucky’s body brought fresh reminders of showers during the war though, so Steve attempted to distract himself by removing his own pants and underwear. He picked them up (and Bucky’s sweatpants, while he was at it) to add to a growing pile of laundry.

The distance between their bodies gave Bucky distance enough to see some of the bruising flowering across Steve’s back from his ribs, and Bucky’s smile faded. He took a half-step closer again to reach out, fingertips tentatively brushing at the edge of one of the darker splotches. Steve didn’t grimace, but he tensed slightly and straightened up again.

It was a conversation that didn’t need words, as Steve offered Bucky a reassuring glance, moving to take his wrist in his hand and draw him back toward the shower.

“We’re okay,” Steve said. And the fact that Steve said ‘we’ was somehow the most reassuring thing Steve could have said. Bucky smiled weakly, but not disingenuously, as he let Steve lead him toward the shower. “Yeah,” he said. “...we are.”

Steve looked away, to get a sense of where he was stepping, minding the lip of the shower stall, but he didn’t let go of Bucky’s wrist until they were both under the water and he could begin to relax slightly.

“And we heal fast,” Steve added in a soft murmur.

“I know,” Bucky conceded, but although his muscles began to relax, he continued to look contrite. Bucky’s gaze was on the visible bruising on Steve’s chest. “Doesn’t mean that I like to see it, or… that I’m okay that it happened to you.”

Steve furrowed his brow in thought. He kept his eyes on Bucky, but wrapped an arm around his waist, taking in the ruined remains of Bucky’s arm, then toward the old, angry scar tissue, and finally taking in Bucky’s own collection of bruises.

“Bucky…” Steve began, but hesitated to finish the thought. Bucky opened and closed his mouth, realizing where Steve was looking at. Fortunately, he also seemed to understand exactly what Steve was getting at. He managed a ghost of a smile for his own hypocrisy, since his immediate reaction was to reassure Steve that he was fine. He suppressed it and let out a soft sigh instead.

“Okay. Point taken,” Bucky said. Steve echoed Bucky’s sigh with one of his own, and moved to pull Bucky a little closer, even while trying to avoid touching the worst of the bruising. Bucky let his hand slide up Steve’s arm and briefly squeezed his arm.

As they settled closer together, Bucky became acutely aware of the feel of Steve’s skin against the length of their bodies. It was probably the best distract away from his worry, and he exhaled carefully.

They were both quiet for a long moment, and Steve settled one hand against Bucky’s lower back, where there was the least amount of bruising. The silence remained comfortable for a long moment, before Bucky finally broke it.

“I will say one thing,” Bucky began. A smile snuck its way into his tone, as he ran his hand down Steve’s arm, then back up again. “The bruises do nothing to take away from how good I always remembered you looked naked.”

Steve opened his eyes briefly in surprise, but closed them again, even as he started to slowly smile. He didn’t immediately say anything, but his free hand reached around to grab a handful of Bucky’s ass, squeezing lightly before letting go. “And I’ve always wanted to do that.”

The look of surprise on Bucky’s face was thoroughly genuine and almost comical, even if Steve didn’t get to see it. The brief laugh was enough. Bucky rested his forehead against Steve’s temple. “Guess you’re well within your rights to do it as much as you like, now.”

“Yeah?” Steve was almost ready to grin at the permission but laughed quietly instead. He considered it some more, but he did move his hand back toward Bucky’s ass, letting his hand rest there instead. Bucky just laughed again and pressed a few distracted kisses to Steve’s jaw and cheek.

“As long as you make good on it eventually,” Bucky amended.

“Make good on it?” Steve’s smile widened. His expression indicated just a hint of mischievousness, and he inclined his head further to one side. It was only a moment before he squeezed Bucky’s cheek again, then lowered his other hand to do the same to the other cheek.

Bucky’s responding laugh was decidedly more distracted, and the kisses he placed to Steve’s jaw were more open-mouthed and lingering, wandering his way down to Steve’s neck and punctuating with a light nip. “I think you know what I mean.”

“I do,” Steve admitted, even as he shivered faintly at the feel of Bucky’s teeth against his skin. He let out a slow breath, using both his hands to pull Bucky in closer as he just barely rocked his hips forward. His voice was low when he continued. “Do you…”

Bucky moved his arms to drape around Steve’s shoulders and pull him in closer. He was distracted, but he raised his head and nodded, despite the distinct haze in his eyes as he slowly rocked his hips against Steve’s in return. “Yeah, I do.”

Steve let out a quiet sound to acknowledge Bucky’s response, but it was barely audible over the sound of water. He opened his eyes to take a look at Bucky’s expression, and his own expression darkened as he considered what he saw there.

It was only another moment before Steve leaned in to kiss Bucky hungrily, and Bucky inhaled softly as his arms tightened around Steve’s shoulders. Bucky’s brow furrowed as he tilted his head to return that kiss in kind.

The kiss broke something of a dam between them. There was no longer any reason for them not to be together like this anymore. Nothing would keep them from being together again.

The kiss was so much like their very first kiss in a dark alley in London and yet nothing like that kiss. Steve melted into the kiss as Bucky responded, parting his lips to slide his tongue across Bucky’s lower lip to taste him. Bucky in turn darted his tongue out to taste Steve just as eagerly.

It was the eagerness of almost a century of wanting more. It was the eagerness that had been there in their first kiss, but now it held the promise of an infinite future to be together like this. Steve squeezed Bucky’s ass again before he let go, gripping his hips instead and Bucky let out a shakier breath, his fingertips curling in to dig lightly into the muscles of Steve’s back. Bucky was trying to press closer, even though there was almost no space left between them to begin with.

Steve made another sound, as his grip on Bucky’s hips tightened slightly. He pushed Bucky against the shower wall, and Bucky tightened his arm around Steve’s shoulders to keep close and not lose his footing while they moved. The chill of the tiles against his back elicited a brief shiver from Bucky, but it was hardly a deterrent. He was happy to use the wall as leverage to rock his hips firmly forward and moved to press one of his thighs between Steve’s legs.

Steve groaned into Bucky’s mouth, more than happy with the outcome of that move. He briefly broke off the kiss to catch his breath and his eyes opened to just look at Bucky. He let go of his hips now that he was against the wall, and slowly moved his fingers up his sides.

Bucky blinked a few times to get the water out of his eyes and so that he could meet Steve’s gaze with a still-heated one of his own. He glanced over Steve’s face before his eyes settled at the cut to the corner of his lips. He moved his hand to carefully brush his thumb over that spot, then closed his eyes again as he replaced his thumb with his lips, pressing gently.

Steve’s expression softened, and he was almost smiling by the time that Bucky leaned back in, his eyes closing again. He turned his head to kiss Bucky fully, but kept the kiss light. Bucky in turn murmured Steve’s name against his lips and the sound was almost inaudible with the sound of the water.

Bucky returned the kiss easily for a moment, but it wasn’t long before he couldn’t help but up the intensity. His hand trailed back to bury in Steve’s wet hair as he arched closer again, and Steve responded in kind.

Steve murmured something against Bucky’s mouth and moved his hands along Bucky’s side. He was careful once he went as far as his ribs. He was aware of the damage there, but he didn’t stop touching him for a moment.

If there was any pain, Bucky didn’t register or react to it. He only parted his lips to dip his tongue into Steve’s mouth with a low murmur of his own. His hips ground against Steve’s leg with a brief tightening of his fingers in Steve’s hair and Steve moaned against Bucky’s mouth, brow furrowing as he rocked his hips forward. His hand moved down to grip Bucky’s hip again, holding him while he did that.

Bucky had to break off the kiss, only so that he could tilt his head back and let out a low moan. He followed the sound with a distracted smile and a couple of brief pants, trying to talk between each breath. “Not sure… any of this actually counts… as taking a shower…”

Steve laughed breathlessly and smiled again as he shook his head. It was brief, and he leaned in and started planting kisses along Bucky’s neck, careful to avoid a nasty looking bruise to his jaw. “We could shower later…”

“Yeah,” agreed Bucky, a little too readily. He gave a soft laugh at his own eagerness and then bit at his lip and tilted his head to offer up more of his skin for Steve. His hand slid down to the nape of Steve’s neck as he continued. “Yeah, we could…”

“Go back to bed,” Steve suggested as an alternative. He chuckled briefly before he planted a more lingering kiss to Bucky’s neck, following the kiss with a swipe of his tongue over the spot.

“Mmmhm…,” Bucky agreed just as easily, albeit distractedly. He let out a slow, shaky breath for the feel of the brush of Steve’s tongue and he shifted and pressed his hips into Steve’s and especially between his thighs, as a sort of encouragement.

Steve moaned against Bucky’s neck, his brow furrowing faintly before he nipped at the same spot. He pulled back just a little to take another small breath, steeling himself to be slow when he rocked forward, trying to tease Bucky more than anything else. “Lots of options in bed.”

“So why are we still in here?” Bucky asked, his tone teasing in return but there was a clear undercurrent of impatience. He met Steve’s eyes with a dark look of his own as he arched to press into Steve’s hips a little more roughly.

Steve bit his lip to avoid moaning, but his eyes were dark as he gripped Bucky’s hip tightly. He watched Bucky with that hungry look and moved against him again, appreciating the way that Bucky faintly shuddered under him. Steve finally released his lip and spoke again, his voice low. “‘Cause I could suck you off right here, if that’s as far as you wanna go.”

Bucky couldn’t help the faint shudder that Steve’s words elicited. Neither could he look away from Steve’s eyes. He held his gaze, as he licked his lips slowly, shifting and pressing against Steve in ways that may or may not have been intentional. “God, Steve…”

Steve swallowed hard, watching Bucky’s reactions with all possible intensity. He needed to see each of those expressions that he had only imagined before, alone in his bed at night. Steve took another breath, then used his hand on Bucky’s hip to roughly pull him closer, allowing room for his other hand to move back and rest on Bucky’s ass.

“Or…” Steve began.

“O-or?” Bucky responded, failing to keep his tone entirely even. Bucky’s fingers were tightening almost unintentionally at the nape of Steve’s neck. He was acutely aware of Steve’s hand and arching into that touch.

Steve continued to look at Bucky with all possibly intensity. He needed to know what Bucky wanted, but he still needed to take a small breath and steel his nerves. He squeezed Bucky’s ass as he rocked forward against him, and his voice was low. “In bed, I could fuck you.”

Bucky exhaled shakily, unable to mask the look in his eyes even if he wanted to (which he certainly didn’t want to). The statement had a clear effect on him, and his hands smoothened to flatten against Steve’s back between his shoulder blades. “Yeah. You most definitely could.”

Steve let out a breath, briefly biting his lip again. He made another low sound, but he was trying to restrain himself from distracting either of them too much. He couldn’t quite help pressing his leg against Bucky, though. “So here or the bed?”

“...the bed,” Bucky breathed out. It hadn’t required much thought at all. His hand wandered over the dips and planes of Steve’s back muscles, and his fingers dug in briefly in anticipation.

Steve nodded a little, briefly letting go of Bucky’s hip, but it was only so that he could reach out and turn off the water. As soon as the water was off, he leaned back in and kissed Bucky hard, taking a few steps back to lead him out of the shower.

Chapter Text

They had made it back to the bed, and for a time, Steve and Bucky were able to forget the rest of the universe. The outside world only began to exist again with soft touches and slow kisses as the two men remained in bed. They needed a shower even more now, but it would be a while before either suggested that they actually get out of the bed.

Steve was all but collapsed on top of Bucky, and he took a deep breath and let it out slowly, nuzzling his nose gently against Bucky’s skin. “I love you…”

Bucky arched to press closer to Steve in any possible way, his arm circling Steve’s shoulder to hold him tightly. He could feel his heart pounding against Steve’s chest. “I love you, too…”

Steve smiled, unable to help how he reacted to Bucky saying those three words, even a second time. He curled his fingers protectively against Bucky’s shoulder blade. He took another deep breath, then started to kiss his neck again, needing to express some of those feelings.

“Mm…” There was a clear smile in Bucky’s murmur, and his hand smoothed over what he could reach of Steve’s back. He was relaxed under him, particularly given those idle kisses. He didn't say anything else, not just yet. He wanted to take in all that this moment had to offer. Steve stayed quiet for a similar reason.

Finally, the speed at which Steve planted kisses to Bucky’s skin slowed down but didn’t stop. Steve nuzzled Bucky’s neck carefully with his nose and sighed happily, and Bucky smiled faintly for the sound. His hand settled splayed in the middle of Steve’s back, and his thumb brushed affectionately back and forth as he took a slow breath and let it out again. He pointedly ignored some of the lingering aches and pains that they’d managed to exasperate. He thought it was, of course, more than worth it.

Steve shifted his weight a little, but largely settled bonelessly on top of Bucky, consent to ignore any pain in favor of staying this close to the man that he loved. He was only willing to put in the amount of effort that it took to raise his head and open his eyes to look at Bucky. What he saw made him smile widely.

Bucky slowly opened his eyes when he felt Steve move. When he noticed that smile, one of his own started to tug at the corner of his lips, almost without him noticing. His voice was quiet and a little rough when he did speak up again. “What…?”

Steve shrugged his shoulders a little and leaned in to quickly press his lips against Bucky’s mouth, mostly just because he could do that now. When he pulled back, it was only so he could take another look at Bucky. “Never thought I’d get to see you like this.”

“Mm,” Bucky said quietly but with a bit more of a smile. He inclined his head to steal a kiss of his own. “Wasn't really sure we'd ever make it here, either. … still hasn't quite sunk in, all the way.”

“Maybe after our actual shower, it will,” Steve suggested with a warm chuckle. He worked one hand up so that he could reach toward Bucky’s hair, pushing some of the strands back away from his face. “Or I could tell you that I love you a few more times.”

Bucky had to glance down and laugh softly before he nodded, only briefly embarrassed when he caught Steve’s eye. “Definitely not tired of it yet.”

“That’s good, I’m not tired of saying it,” Steve teased, a little amused by Bucky’s embarrassment, but his expression was more fond than anything else.

Bucky gave another absent murmur as he nodded, and Steve continued to absently play with Bucky’s hair. Bucky relaxed that much more under Steve’s touch, but he watched Steve almost carefully, or with a quietly guarded expression. He shifted so that his hand could wander slowly and affectionately up and down Steve’s side, keeping his touch light where it trailed over bruises.

Steve looked curious at the change in Bucky’s expression. There was an unspoken question, but he left it unspoken and only gently kissed Bucky’s cheek. Bucky considered not elaborating, but at the end of the day, there had already been too much that had gone unspoken between them. Even if it was difficult for him to say, it needed to be said.

He took a soft, steadying breath and forged on. “I’m not… used to this. I’ve spent so much time not knowing anything but violence, or… fear.” Bucky hesitated again, concerned with making Steve feel guilty for things outside of his control, and shook his head. “I don’t blame you. And it’s not that I don’t trust you. It’s just that after all that, it’s hard to accept this could be happening for me and not… be waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

For all Bucky’s carefulness, Steve couldn’t help but look a little guilty, but his expression was more sympathetic than guilty. His eyes never left Bucky’s face. “There’s no other shoe. No strings attached.”

Bucky’s smile softened again at the offered reassurance. It may have been brief, but he knew Steve. He knew it was genuine and that he could hold Steve to it. He settled his hand against the curve of Steve’s lower back and nodded faintly, still smiling. “Okay.”

Steve smiled softly too in a mirror of Bucky’s expression. He cupped Bucky’s cheek in his palm, his thumb briefly dusting across a healing cut to his cheekbone. “I’m with you, Buck. Wherever this goes.”

“Yeah,” Bucky agreed quietly and with more of a smile. His eyes were fixed resolutely on Steve, even as he nuzzled absently into his touch. “I’m not gonna give this up. Or you. Not to anyone.”

“Not to Tony?” Steve asked with a hint of a teasing smile. He still clearly did not believe Bucky when it came to Tony’s feelings being very similar to those of Howard’s.

Before Bucky could reply, Steve leaned in for a kiss, and it was an effect interruption, even as Bucky tried to answer. As a result, Bucky laughed against Steve’s lips with an affectionate nuzzle, before pulling back and fixing Steve with an amused but unimpressed look. “Not to Tony, no. I’m not making the same mistake twice.”

Steve chuckled, and pulled back to look at Bucky. His own expression was unapologetic as he shrugged. “You know, if you had been this jealous of Howard, we could have had this way back when.”

“I was this jealous of Howard,” Bucky countered, and gave a good-natured chuckle of his own. Steve moved his fingers to the back of Bucky’s neck and rubbed gently, and Bucky’s eyes slid shut, enjoying the touch. “I was also just… really stubborn.”

“I knew you didn’t like Howard, but you never really made the jealousy angle clear,” Steve said, but he didn’t seem particularly bothered by it. He moved his fingers outright into Bucky’s hair, his expression warm as he kept looking at his face.

“Yeah, well. Maybe I didn’t like him because he reminded me too much of me,” Bucky said, and then sighed out softly and with a clear air of being loathe to admit it. He shifted so that he could run his food idly up Steve’s calf and down again. “Except he could say the things to you that I couldn’t.”

“You said them today,” Steve said fondly. He obviously appreciated anything that got Bucky to open up, but he didn’t laugh, only rubbing Bucky’s scalp gently.

“Mm,” Bucky said softly, distracted by Steve’s fingers in his hair. His own hand smoothed out and traced an idle path up and down Steve’s back. He opened his eyes, so that he could meet Steve’s gaze when he added, “If only I could’ve said them back then, instead.”

“At least you said them now,” Steve said easily enough, but he smiled even more for Bucky saying so, and then his smile widened even more. If you hadn’t been jealous of Howard back then, maybe you wouldn’t have said anything today.”

Bucky opened his mouth to disagree, but as much as he really wanted to disagree, he wasn’t sure that he actually could. Instead, he briefly looked conflicted before he started to narrow his eyes at Steve, entirely playful. “I’m sorry, are you trying to give Howard Stark credit for what we have right now?”

Steve outright grinned, unable to help it given Bucky’s open-mouth reaction. He pulled his hand out of Bucky’s hair and carefully crossed his arms against Bucky’s chest, resting his chin on top of his arms. “Why, haven’t you heard how he’s entirely responsible for Captain America?”

“More times than I can count. Doesn’t mean I want to give him credit for everything,” Bucky countered, but he started to laugh in spite of himself. He brought his hand up to run through Steve’s hair, his thumb lingering affectionately at his temple, and Steve leaned in toward his hand with a chuckle and shrug of his shoulders.

“But if you hadn’t been jealous then, you might have let me take my shower in peace,” Steve said mischievously.

“No. I’m not playing this game,” Bucky replied, which notably didn’t answer the question. He started to laugh more, and briefly pointed at Steve before buying those fingers in his hair again. “I’m not giving him credit for any more than I have to.”

“Oh, so you think he does deserve some credit,” Steve said with another laugh. He nuzzled Bucky’s wrist, then shook his head and uncrossed his arms to wrap around Bucky’s shoulders instead.

“I think you deserve a swift kick in the ass, if you don’t drop it,” Bucky threatened with a grin. His arm settled around Steve’s waist again, and he kept their legs intertwined in total contrast to his following statement. “Or I’m leaving.”

Steve laughed and tightened his arms around Bucky’s neck, just to keep him from leaving all the same. He planted a kiss to Bucky’s cheek, his smile warm. “You wouldn’t.”

“I would,” Bucky said, but he clearly wouldn’t. He made absolutely no move to do anything but pull Steve closer in against him. He tried to cut off any further argument by pressing a lingering kiss to Steve’s lips.

It worked.