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Witch hazel

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Afterwards – after the grief, the soul stone, the time stone, the battle; after everyone’s returned and the world is set to painful rights again – Steve lies battered and bruised and naked on a bed in a place he can’t name. He could be anywhere; his mind spins when he tries to put the events of the last few days in any kind of order, so he doesn’t try, just keeps his eyes closed, lies still, tries to get comfortable with the low ache of his body knitting itself back together. The sunlight that pours through a window is warm against his skin. The people he loves are safe. He can hear Bucky moving things around in a medicine cabinet in the nearby bathroom. He’s tired.

There’s a lull in the shifting and clinking from the bathroom, the sound of footfalls against wooden floors, and then the mattress dips as Bucky sits beside him. Steve smells something sharp and familiar, something that reminds him so forcefully of the ‘30s that he has to open his eyes to get his bearings.

“Witch hazel,” says Bucky, offering a mirthless smile. He turns the bottle upside down, a cotton ball absorbing the liquid.

Steve feels something in him soften and give a little. “You know I’ll be fine.”

“Maybe it’s not for you,” Bucky replies as he sets the bottle down, shifts a little to get better access to the abrasion on Steve’s shoulder. His fingertips touch Steve’s skin and Steve shivers once, then closes his eyes again, lets Bucky work.

It’s years since they did this, since Bucky insisted Steve show him the bruises and scrapes he got every time he was in a fight, since he last patched him up, unsympathetic when the witch hazel stung. Steve feels tension leaving his body bit by tiny bit as Bucky tends to his bruises. They both know his body can heal on its own; they both know this isn’t about the skinny kid with asthma and a heart condition who never knew how to run away.

Except it is.

Because that kid never apologized for what he did, and Steve isn’t about to start now. But Bucky never asked for regret, and though his hands were sometimes rough, signaling his frustration, there was a time when he’d press the palm of his hand over gauze and a bandage and leave it there, warmth bleeding into Steve’s skin, and Steve would look up and kiss him. It was simple.

Steve opens his eyes when Bucky’s done an inventory of every hurt showing on his skin, and Bucky isn’t smiling. But Steve reaches up a hand to curve around the back of Bucky’s neck, pulls him down and kisses him anyway.

Bucky pulls back a bare inch, maybe two, and his gaze is sad, evaluative, doubtful.

Steve tugs again, and Bucky shifts until they’re lying side by side, and then he’s kissing back, the palm of his hand pressed warm against Steve’s skin.

“S’been a while,” Bucky murmurs, and Steve noses beneath his jaw, feels Bucky’s stubble against the tip of his tongue. They haven’t talked enough; he doesn’t know if time moved differently for Bucky after he was gone from this dimension, only that he came back and their worlds crashed into each other with enough force to leave them both reeling.

“Seventy fucking years we’ve been doing this,” Steve says, and that shocks a laugh out of Bucky.

“When you put it that way . . .”

Steve pauses, cups Bucky’s face with one hand, studies the wrinkles, the scars, the weight of everything he knows and so much he doesn’t. “You know that nothing’s changed.”

Bucky shakes his head. “Everything’s changed.”

“Not for me. Not this.”

That shuts Bucky up, his forehead wrinkling slightly as the words hit. He wets his bottom lip, looks somewhere just over Steve’s shoulder. “You can’t . . .”

“Yes I can,” Steve says firmly.

Bucky sighs. “You never did listen.”

“Nope.”

“Ornery as fuck.”

“Yep.” Steve presses a soft kiss to Bucky’s forehead.

Bucky tucks his face against Steve’s shoulder and Steve can feel the unsteadiness of his breathing, the slight tremor in his body. For all that Bucky’s solid and real and warm beside him now, Steve saw him turn to dust just days before. The reality of that has claws – he feels torn open, scaled down by the things he’s seen, the unimaginable breadth of life and death in this universe and the next. For all that his actions helped put things right, his body is all that he has and it seems not enough when pitted against the scale of all the things that he now knows could go wrong.

“I can hear you thinking,” says Buck, and Steve huffs, tries to yank his thoughts back under control.

“Can you blame me?” he asks.

“No.” Bucky pushes himself up on one elbow and looks Steve in the eye. “But you can’t carry this one.”

“Buck . . .”

“You can’t, Stevie. You can’t.”

Steve closes his eyes again. “I don’t know what else to do,” he offers, as if that explains everything. Maybe it does, because Bucky threads his fingers through Steve’s hair, reaches down to kiss the hinge of his jaw. “I know.”

That fragile bit of reassurance ignites something desperate in Steve, a need to obliterate the what ifs and now whats and just feel objectively, wholly, thoroughly alive, even for a moment. He reaches for Bucky, kisses him with a hunger he’s not sure he can satiate, and Bucky meets him half way, rolls him onto his back, presses him into the mattress. He’s hard against Steve’s hip.

“This is gonna take nothin’,” Steve warns, and laughs a little, sucks in a breath when Bucky licks his palm and takes Steve in hand. It feels stupidly good. Bucky’s rough and impatient, or maybe just knows what Steve needs, and Steve grabs at him, shifts until he can reach to close Bucky’s hand around both of them, until he can rock his hips and slide his dick directly against Bucky’s, feel Bucky shiver and thrust, breath coming in short, warm pants.

“Jesus,” Bucky says, and Steve nods, keeps up a soft litany of encouragement.

“Yeah, like that. God, fuck, yes, keep going, keep going . . .”

There’s not a shred of grace to it, just stripped-bare want, and when Steve glances between them, at Bucky’s hand, he’s done, shooting off all over his stomach, all over Bucky’s, and Bucky’s gasping, following. Steve makes some sort of sound he doesn’t even recognize, lost as it is in the clatter of their heartbeats, the drag of their legs together, the shocks of pleasure that startle him. When they ebb to something he can handle, he falls back against the pillows, grumbling as Bucky reaches over to wipe his hand on the sheets before collapsing at Steve’s side, breathing hard. “Shit,” Bucky manages.

Steve hums; his limbs are pleasantly leaden, his breathing uneven. He fumbles for Bucky’s hand and threads their fingers loosely together, remembering the first time he’d had the courage to do this, to lie beside Bucky, naked, head over heels gone for him and out of words.

Bucky turns his head. “I got you, you know that.”

And Steve thinks of the inconsequence of witch hazel when there’s so much to do and bear and make right, and the consequence of a man who’d still tend to his body despite that. “You too,” he says, and Bucky squeezes his hand and closes his eyes, and Steve follows suit. He might not sleep, but he feels for the first time in days like he could, and his mind is quieter. His heart hurts – there’s no witch hazel can work simple magic on that – but here, for the moment, there’s the chance he can mend it one piece at a time.