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--STEVE--

The kid at the counter sticks out like a sore thumb.

Steve's sitting at a booth by the window, sipping at his coffee while he waits for the vet to finish with Lady, when he comes into the McDonald's just before noon on Friday.

He’s built like a dancer or a gymnast, with long, thin legs and a light frame, though his shoulders are fairly broad despite the narrow length of him. It's his outfit, though, that catches Steve's eye; his pants look practically painted on, shiny like an oil slick, with no pockets to speak of, and a gauzy white shirt that gapes open at the throat to show off his collarbones. He's wearing a cheap, cropped vinyl jacket over it, a backpack hanging over one shoulder, and bright purple high-top sneakers with iridescent tops. His hair is loosely styled, a tumble of brown curls on top and in front that fade down into shaved sides. That's a trendy style right now, Steve thinks vaguely. He notices it on tourists, in the summer.

The kid can't be more than 20, judging by the soft give of his dimpled chin and the baby fat clinging to the underside of his sharp, smooth jaw. He has a slightly wide-eyed look to his pale, blue-grey eyes, and his pouty mouth curves down naturally into a sullen frown.

"Hey, um, hi," he says to the cashier, his voice low and a little rough. "Listen, how much food can I get for $4?"

"Buncha stuff," says the cashier. She shrugs and gestures above her. "The dollar menu is—"

"Nevermind," huffs the kid, putting his crumpled ones on the counter. "Two McDoubles, a McChicken, and a small fry. Please."

"Sure," says the cashier, thoroughly disinterested. "You want anything to drink, or—"

"Water," the kid interrupts, his cheeks a bit pink. "Just a water cup."

The cashier rolls her eyes but sets a tray and a cup down in front of the kid before announcing, "That'll be four dollars and twenty seven cents."

His face flashes with panic and he makes a show of checking his pockets and digging in his backpack before he holds up a single nickel. "Um, I've got four-oh-five?"

The cashier huffs and then reaches around to the front of the register where a little cup is sitting filled with spare change. She picks out a couple of coins and then makes a gimme gesture with her hand. "That's fine."

He hands over the money, his cheeks deeply crimson now, and he mutters a barely audible thank you when she deposits a brown sack filled with his ordered items. He snatches it up and walks away with his shoulders hunched, filling up his cup at the fountain and gulping it down right there before he fills it up again. He makes his way to the far corner of the restaurant, placing his backpack between himself and the wall before he promptly digs into his food with the kind of starving enthusiasm typical of someone who hasn’t eaten in many long hours, maybe even days.

The kid glances around anxiously as he chews hungrily on his burger, a third of it gone in a single bite. He looks a little hunted, but when he notices Steve looking at him, he stares back boldly.

Steve snorts, looking away with a dismissive blink. Whatever that kid is up to, it’s none of Steve’s business, so long as he’s not here to cause trouble—with Steve, or with the locals.

When Steve is finished, he gets up and tosses his trash, filling his cup up with sweet tea. It makes his teeth ache drinking it, but it’s good for the calories and he can’t stand the taste of cola in this century. He strides out the door but can’t keep himself from one last glance at the kid, only to find him already tracking Steve’s movement; he doesn’t look at all embarrassed to have been caught staring. Steve keeps his gaze moving, not settling on him at all before he turns away again and walks toward his truck.

Steve has a few more errands to run before he can pick up Lady. He wants to hit the farm and home store to pick up some supplies for the greenhouse, chicken feed, dog food for Lady, some lumber to fix the fence and put a new gate up, and new weather-proofing for the cabin—some of the windows were awfully breezy last winter, even for him.

He’s chatting with the clerk at the Orscheln’s about the virtue of planting broad beans vs peas in the greenhouse this winter when he catches sight of the boy from McDonald’s idly browsing the winter wear aisle. Steve’s only half watching him out of the corner of his eye, so the kid must think Steve and the clerk are too preoccupied to notice what he’s doing, but Steve sees him stuff a scarf and gloves and then a whole-ass flannel shirt into his backpack.

There’s no real reason to let it go. Steve’s not sure why he doesn’t say anything to Davey. The kid’s clearly desperate. Steve remembers what it was like to be that desperate. He never did steal, but there were a few winters after his mother’s death where his burning desire to survive outweighed his pride, and he found himself digging newspaper and rags out of the trash to line his threadbare coat with. He clears his throat, though, and then asks Davey if he can double check if the pak choi Steve ordered special for the greenhouse has come in.

When Davey’s out of the way, Steve casually wanders down an aisle, then doubles back until he can cut over to where the kid is without alerting him, blocking off his fastest exit.

“You know, they do have cameras in here,” he says mildly, nodding his head toward the upper back corner. “No one’s in the office watching right now, but they will eventually. If you’re still in town, you won’t exactly be hard to find.”

The kid's head snaps up at Steve's sudden voice and presence, big eyes wild, and his pale face floods with color. He immediately takes a step back. Steve knows he's a big guy, and now that he's stood next to the kid's thin, wiry frame, Steve is particularly conscious of how he's at least three times the size of him. He could snap his delicate wrists like twigs, wrap both hands around his slender waist, pick him up as easily as he'd scoop up a cat. There is a brief flash of that fear on the kid’s face and then he glances back to the empty front counter.

"Don't know what you're talking about," he mutters. "I'm just looking."

"Uh huh," says Steve. "Seems like your style. You hitch into town?"

The kid does not make prolonged eye contact, shifting his weight like he’s preparing to escape. "What's it to you?"

Steve snorts. He won't get anywhere with this conversation, when this defensive little kitten won't put his claws away or quit hissing. "Okay. Have a good day, now." He opens his wallet, pulls out two twenties, and tucks them between the shelf and a stack of folded up pairs of jeans. Then he turns and heads back to the counter. He intends for the kid to feel guilty enough to use the cash to pay for the clothes, but if he only had four bucks to spend on food, it's likely he'll just steal the clothes and keep the cash.

Steve waits at the front for Davey. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees the kid pocket the cash and then book it back out the doors of the store.

Oh, well. That cash could buy him a ride, maybe. He'll be gone before they see he's lifted merchandise.

"Sorry, Steve," says Davey, reappearing. "Not in yet. Likely next week."

"Thanks," says Steve, knocking on the counter. "See you."

When he heads back outside, the kid is nowhere to be found.

Steve heads over to the local library next to return a few books and check out some more. It's been 7 years since he defrosted, but he finds he's still catching up on things. Not history so much these days—he's got that for the most part thanks to an old set of Encyclopedia Britannica from 2005 he bought at a garage sale plus a few other books to fill in the gaps and learn about other perspectives. These days, he's working his way through 70 years of fiction. He really missed a good mystery novel.

After the library, his old battered Nokia finally rings. While the damn thing had seemed incredibly futuristic when he first picked it up, he knows now that it's as old fashioned as it gets. It's not equipped with GPS, though, and when he turns the thing off, he's not worried it's still transmitting a signal. He keeps it in his truck and only uses it when he goes into town. It’s the vet calling and Steve goes to pick up Lady.

Errands completed, Steve is lifting Lady up into the cab of the truck when he hears someone breathing real close by.

It’s small and shallow and carefully regulated. Steve glances around and doesn't see anybody or anything, but then something catches his eye in the bed of his truck: the tarp has been shifted.

It takes him all of five seconds to figure out who must have crawled into the back.

What the hell is this kid’s game plan? Does he think he's gonna rob Steve? Surely not. Steve could easily overpower him, even if he wasn't a supersoldier. Maybe he's hoping Steve will take him in for the night, but he could also just ask. Steve did give him $40.

Well, there’s only one way to find out.

With that, Steve shuts the passenger door. He circles the cab and gets into the driver’s seat, ruffling Lady’s ears and then grinning as she sits patiently while he starts the engine.

“Time to go,” he tells her. She barks, tongue lolling happily, and he cranks the window a bit for her.

Pulling out of town, Steve drives slowly down the country road for several miles. It eventually turns into rough gravel, then after twenty minutes, becomes bumpy, hard-packed dirt.

Another few miles, and he reaches the bridge. It’s the kind of bridge that looks haunted, rotted and crumbling, and no reasonable person would drive over it. It was the perfect candidate for access to Steve’s place, and so Steve reinforced it five years ago, making sure that on the surface it looked aesthetically dangerous.

The kid never once peeks out from under the tarp, so Steve's not too concerned he'll figure out where Steve lives.

When he finally pulls into the little awning he set up to park the truck under and protect it from the worst of the weather—and to keep it from being easily spotted from the air—he gets out of the truck, holding the door open and whistling twice. Lady bounds out past him and runs straight through her doggy door into the cabin. Then, Steve leisurely circles to the back of the truck and reaches out to yank the tarp aside.

"Enjoy your ride?" he asks.

The kid clearly wasn't expecting to actually be discovered this quickly, reacting with a sharp yelp and the kind of instinctive flinch that indicates he's used to having things thrown at him; arm up to cover his face, shoulders around his ears, curling up real small with his legs protecting his belly. It drops Steve's whole stomach out to see that kind of knee-jerk animal response.

"Easy," rumbles Steve. He puts his other hand in sight and keeps his whole body still. "I'm not going to hurt you, kid."

The kid still uses his legs to push himself against the other side of the truck, eyes huge, darting left and right, but he drops his arm and doesn't try to run. "How'd you know I was back here?" he asks, thin chest rising and falling with quick breaths.

Heard you breathing isn't the right answer, here. "You moved the tarp," says Steve shortly. "Could say I got an eye for detail."

"Oh yeah? Got me pegged, then, huh," says the kid. He seems to catch sight of their surroundings, the forest pressing in thick and deep, and Steve watches his tense expression crumble into something resigned as he realizes they're not in town anymore. Maybe he was looking to keep hitching a ride, and gambled, or he thought Steve lived closer to the town center if he wanted to stay the night.

"Figure you're hitching, said that already," says Steve. "Not sure I can help with that. Why'd you crawl in?"

The kid shrugs his shoulders. "Was considering sleeping back here."

Steve sighs and lets the tarp drop and braces his hands on the edge of the truck bed. "Too cold. You should come inside."

The kid snorts. His eyes are wide, whites visible all around his irises. His gaze sweeps all the way down Steve's body, lingering on his chest and then back up to his face. "Yeah, come inside the huge lumberjack's cabin in the middle of the fucking woods. No thanks."

"You're the one that hopped into my truck, kid," says Steve, sighing. "We're miles outta town. I got a spare bed."

Bucky's eyes narrow. "A spare bed," he says flatly, as if he doesn't quite believe it. "And what'll I owe you for that kind of privilege?"

"Well, I already know the only money you've got is what I gave you. How about we just call it hospitality?" Steve gestures at the cabin. "Left a crockpot going all day. Should have some pretty decent chili in there, and I got some cornbread too. Come on, kid. I'm not gonna touch you, if that's what you're worried about."

The kid looks at Steve for a long time, then asks, "What's your name?"

"Steve. Yours?"

The kid makes a face, like he's not sure he wants to say and is trying to decide if he wants to give a fake one, but eventually he shrugs. "Bucky."

"Nice to meet you, Bucky," says Steve. "Now get out of my truck and go on in the house. It's not locked. Lady will keep you company while I unload my stuff."

Bucky gives him one last look but finally he obeys, grabbing his backpack and scrambling out of the truck and toward the cabin. Steve watches him go and then starts putting away all his supplies so nothing freezes overnight. When he makes it inside the cabin, kicking off his shoes and hanging up his jacket, he finds Bucky sitting on the floor in the middle of the kitchen, Lady draped across his entire lap like she's not pushing 100 lbs of husky. Her tongue is lolling out happily as Bucky strokes her head, between her ears and down her back. Whenever he pauses, Lady turns and licks his hand until he laughs and starts petting her again.

Steve can't help but chuckle. "She knows better than to try that stuff with me. Looks like she found herself a real pushover."

"She's beautiful," says Bucky reverently. "I love her." He sounds even younger than he looks, filled with awe and wonder.

"Yeah, she's a good girl," says Steve mildly. "But don't let her trick you. She gets plenty of attention." He gives a sharp little whistle as he heads to the cupboard and Lady hops up off of Bucky to his little cry of disappointment. Steve fills her food bowl and sets it down in the corner. Lady doesn't touch it until Steve whistles again.

"Come on," he says, "I'll show you where the bathroom is, get you some towels so you can clean up while I get dinner together."

Bucky pushes himself up from the floor, drawing inward like he wasn't holding himself when Lady was loving on him. He has gangly arms with pointy elbows that he wraps around his middle as he trails cautiously after Steve.

"Here we go," says Steve, opening the bathroom door. He finished renovating it last year; it's been retiled and freshly grouted, with entirely new fixtures. He replaced all the pipes and put in a stand-up shower in addition to the huge, claw-foot tub.

Bucky's eyes are wide as he leans into the doorway. "Hell," he breathes. "Some cabin."

"Use the tub or the shower, I don't care," says Steve, opening the linen closet just outside the bathroom and taking out a towel. He sets it on the rack inside. "Hot water will run out, though, so be mindful. Shampoo and soap is all on the side there. Use whatever you like."

"Even your toothbrush?" asks Bucky smartly, because he's definitely the kind of person that senses generosity and finds the flaw in it.

Steve shrugs. He knows he can't catch anything from Bucky, and likewise Bucky can't catch anything from him, but he doesn’t think Bucky actually wants to use his toothbrush more than just needling at him for a reaction. "There are fresh ones in the cabinet, but if that's your fetish, kid, knock yourself out."

He has the pleasure of watching Bucky's cheek flush pink in surprise.

"Need anything else?" continues Steve, when it's clear Bucky can't muster a retort.

"No," says Bucky. "Thanks."

Steve turns and heads back down the hall to the kitchen. He busies himself with the chili, giving it a stir, tasting it, adding a final bit of seasoning before leaving it to warm in the crockpot. The cornbread, he wraps in foil and throws in the oven to heat through, digging out butter and scooping it into a little dish to put on the table with a salad he throws together before the spinach he picked from the greenhouse yesterday wilts.

The shower kicked on a minute or two after he left Bucky to his own devices, and just as Steve is pulling out bowls, the water cuts off. He's scooping out chili when he hears Bucky in the doorway, turning to find he's naked but for the towel wrapped around his waist, slender body flecked with droplets, wet hair slicked back.

He meets Steve's eyes boldly as he saunters across the room to snag his backpack off the floor. "Forgot this," he chirps, turning around and heading back to the bathroom. "Be out in a sec."

Steve's eyes drift down the length of him, the towel tied just above the sweet swell of his ass, dimples on display.

"Jesus," he huffs, shaking his head. He looks over at Lady and shrugs. "Kids these days."

She opens her mouth, panting happily, as if to say, yeah, isn't it great? Steve purses his lips and looks away. "Figures."

Bucky reappears right when Steve sits down and starts buttering a big piece of cornbread. He's shamelessly wearing the flannel shirt he stole from the store and a pair of jeans so thin and threadbare they look like they're going to fall to shreds any moment. He's not wearing any shoes or socks and he's left the shirt unbuttoned except two in the middle just to keep it together. Dropping his bag on the floor near the couch, he pushes his hand through his hair, fingers gently separating tangles without combing out the curls.

He comes over after that, plopping down heavily in the chair across from Steve. "That was an amazing shower. Feel like a whole new man."

Steve smirks. "Sure, kid. Eat up."

That seems to put Bucky out because he frowns, his bottom lip sticking out in a pout. "I'm not a kid, okay?"

"Sure," agrees Steve, shoveling a spoonful of chili in his mouth.

"I'm twenty," insists Bucky.

"Uh huh," says Steve, smiling blandly. He takes a sip of his root beer. Homemade last winter, tastes almost as good as it used to when he was a kid. "Sounds right."

Bucky huffs but starts on the chili, apparently pausing whatever test of wills he's decided he needs to engage in long enough to eat. As soon as he takes the first mouthful, he lets out a soft little groan and then all his concentration goes toward devouring the entire bowl in front of him, a second helping that Steve silently spoons out for him, and three thick slices of cornbread. It's pretty impressive considering how skinny he is.

"You want another bowl?" offers Steve, ladling out a third for himself.

Bucky shakes his head, rubbing his stomach absently. "No, thank you. That...was really good." Steve's pretty sure that's the first genuine thing that's come out of his mouth since Steve met him.

"You're welcome." Bucky sits there sipping at his own root beer while Steve polishes off his third heaping bowl. When he's finished, he stands and wordlessly starts gathering their dirty dishes up.

"Wait, I can help." Bucky stands quickly.

"No, you're a guest. Sit down. I've got this." Steve is firm but warm and gently pushes Bucky toward the living room. "Don't have cable or anything, no service out here, even on the antenna. But I've got a decent collection of DVDs. Pick something out if you want."

Bucky doesn't move though. The tension has crept back into his posture and he stares at Steve. "Are you for real? You can't be real."

"What?" Steve blinks at him.

"Why are you still being so nice to me?" snaps Bucky. "You don't gotta be nice, okay? You want something, just say it, we can work something out for the food and lodging, alright? I'm not a kid. I know how this works."

Steve looks at him steadily, then turns and goes to the sink, turning the tap on and grabbing the sponge. "Don't know what you mean," he says mildly.

Bucky lets out an irritated noise. "Like hell you don't. You gave me money, you fed me, you're letting me stay the night... I can't pay you, so I need to do something for you, and you won’t even let me wash the dishes. That means you want something else."

"Means you can go into the living room and pick a movie," Steve repeats, glancing at Bucky over his shoulder. Steve can see the tension in Bucky's body, the tremble in his hands and chin.

"It's not fair if you keep me guessing," he says quietly. "I'm offering, okay? Let me pay you back."

"Not keeping you guessing," Steve says firmly. "Does it look like I need anything? Don't need money, don't need payment. Of any kind."

"What, you don't get lonely out here with just your hand?" demands Bucky.

Steve soaps up the bowls and glasses, focusing back on the sink, though he's fully aware of Bucky behind him. "I’m not gonna let a kid down on his luck feel like he owes me something for common decency. I been there."

The snort that Bucky lets out is dripping with contempt and disbelief. "Sure. Okay. I've jerked off a lot of truckers, okay? I'm not some innocent kid. I know how this works. Doesn't matter to me if you want to close your eyes and pretend I'm some hot girl, neither."

Steve breathes out slowly through his nose, not reacting to any of what just tumbled out of Bucky's mouth. "I'm going to finish up here and then get some dessert together. You gonna pick a movie, or what?" He angles his head over his shoulder to make eye contact with Bucky again.

He finds exactly what he was afraid of; a look of frustrated hurt on Bucky's face, shoulders slumped. The poor kid has twisted himself all up inside, convinced Steve's going to come collect on his hospitality. "You from the 1960s, or what?" he finally scoffs. "This is some Leave it to Beaver shit."

"Movie," repeats Steve, and Bucky finally turns and goes into the living room.

Looking at Lady, Steve whistles at her, jerking his chin after Bucky, and she jumps up and follows him.

"Oh," he hears Bucky mumble from the other room. "Hey, girl. Oh, do you like belly rubs?" Bucky's voice immediately perks up and he starts to babytalk Lady with a lot more enthusiasm.

Steve finishes the dishes, leaving Bucky alone with Lady for a while to break him out of whatever bad mood was brewing. He has some pie in the fridge, so he cuts two big slices and heats them in the toaster oven, removing vanilla ice cream from the freezer.

Once he's plated it up, he carries it into the living room, finding that Bucky has elected to sit on the floor, Lady in his lap again, and he's turned on the TV and put Ghostbusters into the DVD player.

"Here," he says, handing Bucky the bowl. "Apple pie."

"Fuck off," Bucky huffs. "Are you serious?"

Steve blinks, taking a seat on the couch. "Excuse me?"

"Sorry," mumbles Bucky. "It's just...hard to believe. Apple pie, too?"

Steve shrugs. “I didn’t make it. Millie at the diner sent me home with an extra pie the last time I was in town. I froze it.”

“Millie at the diner,” repeats Bucky mockingly. Then he blows out a breath and picks up the spoon. “Whatever.”

They sit and eat and watch the movie. Steve hasn’t actually seen this one yet. He buys new movies all the time, orders them on the computer at the library and has them delivered to his P.O. Box. When they’re finished with the dessert, he gathers their bowls while Bucky remains firmly planted on the floor with Lady. By the time the movie is over, the sun has gone down, although that doesn’t mean much. It sets by 6:00 these days. He can hear the wind howling and wonders if a storm is blowing in. He should have checked the weather while he was in town.

“Do you want to watch another?” he asks.

Bucky stifles a yawn as he tries to open his mouth to reply. Steve wonders how long it’s been since he slept in a bed, or hell, even in a place he felt safe. Not that Steve thinks Bucky feels particularly safe here, but hopefully it’s better than it could be.

With a sigh, he whistles, and Lady jumps up off of Bucky. “I’m gonna take her out for a walk, check the property for the night. There are three doors down the hall. The one directly across from the bathroom is my office. There’s a daybed in there you can sleep in. It’s comfortable. The door locks from the inside. There’s extra blankets in the linen closet. It can get a little chilly at night around here.”

Bucky stands up. He looks a little lost, glancing between the hall and Steve pulling on a jacket by the kitchen door. “That’s it, then. That’s really...you’re not gonna...” His voice trembles a little and then he snaps his mouth closed, fierce stubbornness stealing over his face. “Good night.”

He turns and stomps away.

Steve goes out with Lady, doing their usual lap of the property and checking on the chickens before turning in. The woods are just as peaceful and empty as ever. When he gets back, he can hear Bucky in the study, door closed firmly. He’s tossing and turning on the little bed, but he settles soon enough. As Steve walks past it, he hears Bucky’s heartbeat pounding in his chest so he doesn’t let himself pause. Just pushes on to his own room. Lady curls up on her doggy bed on the floor and Steve strips down to a pair of sweatpants before he gets in bed.

In the morning, he’ll offer Bucky the money for a bus ticket wherever it is he’s trying to go.

Steve's not a particularly heavy sleeper, nor does he need much sleep. The first time he wakes to unfamiliar noise in the cabin, the red glow of his alarm clock shows him it's just past two in the morning. He hears the toilet flush, the sink running, and then Bucky's light feet on the hardwood. There's a pause just outside Steve's door, but then he keeps walking back to the study, the door closing gently and the lock clicking into place.

At four, he hears Bucky go to the kitchen for a glass of water. Then he hears him do a circuit of the living room and the whole cabin, with the kind of pauses in his steps that indicate he's pausing to look at stuff. Steve doesn't have a lot of photos on the walls, but there are a couple, and maybe he's browsing his books and DVDs. Steve’s got a lot of his own art up, too, so he’s probably perusing the landscapes. Again, Bucky returns to the study and locks the door, sinking back into sleep.

Steve dozes for another hour or so before he's up for good, wide awake at 5:30. Lady stirs as well, and Steve figures she'll start getting antsy for breakfast and a walk soon, anyway. He gets himself up and pulls on a hoodie. This time, when he pauses silently outside the study, he hears Bucky snoring deeply, having finally found deep sleep at last.

He feeds Lady, puts on the coffee maker, and then pulls the kitchen curtains open.

"Well," he says, stunned, blinking into the blinding brightness of a world blanketed in snow. "Shit."

The sun hasn't even risen yet, but with the last of the moonlight streaming down, it looks like daylight already. Steve goes to the door, pulling it open to get a closer look; there's at least twelve inches of snow piled on top of his picnic table, with more swirling steadily down.

Lady huddles at his ankles, sniffing at the snow as she licks at the thick flakes. He pushes her back, not wanting to let her out before he clears a path. She loves snow, and given the chance, she'll leap into it like it's a pond, and he'll be saddled with a soaking wet dog to stink up the house.

The kitchen starts to fill with the smell of coffee, but Steve just leaves it to stay warm while he grumbles through the process of digging out snow pants, boots, and his big coat. He shovels out half the deck and a path to the yard, then turns and whistles for Lady.

She happily runs out into the snow, bounding through the path Steve carved for her. They spend awhile longer out there together while Steve half-heartedly does chores, mostly focusing on clearing the snow from the solar panels, until Steve finally trudges back to the house. He makes Lady sit on the porch a moment while he goes in to get towels, coming back to rub her down. When they both come back inside, Bucky is standing in the kitchen with a cup of coffee, staring out the window in wide-eyed shock. "It snowed."

"Yeah, came pretty early this year." He doesn't point out that Bucky would have been out in that if he'd slept outside as he intended. He doesn't think he needs to, the look on Bucky's face says he's perfectly aware.

"How do we even still have power?" he asks, looking back at Steve.

"Solar panels and generator for backup. We're not on the grid." Steve shrugs. "I am sorry because I think you'll be stuck with me for a while. Snow's early but usually once it comes...it sticks for the season."

"The season?" Bucky repeats slowly. "Like, all winter?"

"Yes," says Steve simply. No use beating around the bush. "The mountains block the warm sea air from getting to us, it all just gets pushed down from the great lakes."

"Oh," says Bucky. "And...and when is it over?"

Steve shrugs. "March if we're lucky, but usually April. May if we're really unlucky."

"Oh my god."

Steve hangs the towel on the back of one of the chairs, grabbing Lady's water bowl to refill it. He's keeping calm, because it's clear this is hitting Bucky hard; he's frozen in the middle of the kitchen, white-knuckled as he grips his mug, face pale, mouth slack with shock.

"I can't be here all winter," he says thinly. "I... I... Are you serious? Once it snows, you're just...stuck here? What do you do for food? Fuel? Supplies?"

Steve goes to the cupboard and pulls out a dog biscuit, whistling sharply for Lady to sit and wait patiently before he gives it to her. "I got a cellar, kid. Two upright freezers, canned goods, jars. I just restocked on dog food, wet and dry, and chicken feed. There’s a small greenhouse around the back of the house. Plenty of trees around for wood and I picked up all the supplies I need for winter, extra fuel included. That's why I was in town."

Bucky makes a strangled little noise. "They don't clear the road? You've got a big truck..."

"We’re 35 miles out of town," Steve says, keeping his voice gentle. "Practically none of that is paved so, no, they don't clear it."

"I was heading for Brooklyn," Bucky says weakly. "I made it this far, I..."

"I'm sorry, Bucky," Steve says quietly. "I planned on taking you to the bus station today, buying you a ticket wherever you were going. But there's over a foot of snow already. I can't drive in that."

Bucky's breath hitches, face screwing up as he fights off frustrated tears. "Stupid," he mutters. "I'm so damn stupid."

"Kid—" starts Steve, but Bucky shoots him a glare that actually manages to cut Steve off.

"I'm not a kid!" he snarls again, twice as irate as last night. "God! I'm just some dumbass who got in the back of a stranger's truck without knowing where it was going or if it would work out and just hoping I could bargain my way out of trouble by offering to suck you off. And you don't even want that and now I'm stuck!"

Steve holds up his hands, trying to placate Bucky. "Come on, take a deep breath, Buck. It's not that bad. The snow came early, it's possible we'll catch a break and it'll melt off before the next big storm. I swear, if it gets down to a few inches, I'll take you into town, okay?"

Bucky's angry expression crumbles and he turns away abruptly, setting his coffee cup down and leaning heavily over the kitchen sink. His shoulders shake and Steve can hear him trying to stifle his own sobs. Whatever brought Bucky to this point, it was clearly not just a freak early snowstorm.

Taking a breath, Steve whistles for Lady and goes back to the door. He should probably head out to the shed and get some wood for inside. He'll give Bucky a moment.

By the time Steve has done every remaining chore there is to do outdoors and away from his unplanned house guest, Bucky has disappeared back into Steve's study. His deep and even breathing sounds like sleep, and Steve leaves him to it. He probably has a sleep debt he needs to catch up on anyway. Steve busies himself making a late breakfast/early lunch and then settles onto the couch and picks up one of the books he got from the library. He sure doesn’t want to see the size of the fine he’ll need to pay, come spring.

Bucky will have to come to terms with this on his own. There’s nothing Steve can do to make it any easier.

It's mid-afternoon when Bucky reappears. He’s rubbing at his eyes, which look puffy and swollen from crying and too much sleep. "Sorry about earlier," he mutters. "I...I don't like feeling trapped."

"I get that," says Steve, looking up. "There's a couple of sandwiches in the fridge and some leftover chili if you want to heat that up."

Bucky frowns a little, but it passes quickly. With a heavy sigh, he goes into the kitchen, rummaging in the fridge to pull out the food in question. They don't talk a lot for the rest of the day. Bucky picks out a book from Steve's shelf and sits on the floor with Lady, who has already learned she’s welcome to drape herself across his lap when he sits like that.

Dinner is a casserole Steve takes out of the freezer and heats up in the oven. Bucky is quiet for all of it before he excuses himself to the study again and shuts the door. Steve can hear that he doesn't go to sleep immediately, and he thinks probably he keeps reading, but eventually his heart rate slows and his breaths go rhythmic and deep, and Steve sighs to himself.

This is gonna be a long-ass winter.

Chapter Text

--BUCKY--

Bucky, in all his infinite wisdom, has managed to trap himself in a cabin in rural New York with Johnny fucking Appleseed.

Well. If Johnny Appleseed was six feet, five inches of all American jawline, thick beard, thick thighs, and the longest eyelashes Bucky's ever seen on a human being of any gender. There's no way Steve is real. Bucky fell asleep in the back of his truck, froze to death, and this is some kind of horrible purgatory as he makes his way inevitably towards hell.

No one man is this beautiful or perfect. Steve's enormous, the span of his body is easily three of Bucky stacked shoulder to shoulder, and just one of his biceps is the width of Bucky's waist. He wears soft jeans and flannel shirts and his dark blond hair curls softly around his earlobes. His mouth has no right to be that plush, and there's gotta be a story behind his once-broken nose. Not to mention the way his piercing blue eyes pin Bucky to the spot if he makes the mistake of looking at him directly.

Bucky is losing his tiny gay mind.

He doesn't even want Steve to fuck him, because that's bound to just be disappointing, and Bucky doesn't want anything to shatter the illusion. Steve turned him down, anyway. Twice. God.

Bucky can't stand it. He can't have crossed four states to finally arrive in New York only to get trapped in a cabin for the entire winter because he's the biggest fucking idiot in the world. When that third trucker, the one in Cleveland, said he could give him a ride all the way to New York, Bucky thought he was practically home free. Instead, it was the scenic route bordering Lake Erie and all the way up to Buffalo. Finally making it as far east as the Catskills seemed like maybe things were working out.

He can't be stuck here for months with Steve. It's some kind of exquisite torture. He's being punished.

That's the only thing that makes sense as he stands in the kitchen with a cup of coffee in his hand the next morning, staring dumbly out the window at Steve chopping wood.

Which he's doing shirtless. In 30 degree weather, as flakes drift gently down. He's steaming. His thick, well-muscled body is steaming in the cold, skin gleaming with sweat, and snowflakes are melting on his skin. He is shirtless. In the snow. He is rippling majestically as he brings the axe down on each cord of wood.

Lizzo was right. Why men great 'til they gotta be great? He knows this way lies folly. Bucky has bent over for no less than three big muscle-y men in his short life—not counting all the cocks he's sucked and jerked—and every damn time they've been two pump chumps. He's never even gotten to come while being fucked, not even with the help of his own hand. It's always just...over, without any time for it to even sort of start to feel good. Just all achy burning and uncomfortable stretching and hurting.

So, no. He doesn’t want Steve to fuck him.

Bucky Barnes might look like the perfect little power bottom twink, but he never wants to let another disappointing cock in his ass ever again.

...He will, however, gladly suck the fuck out of Steve's cock given the opportunity. At least when he's getting his mouth fucked, he can jerk himself off, can let himself drift happily with the hot press of musky dick on his tongue, his nose buried against pubic hair, meaty hands tugging roughly on his curls. It feels good, dirty, useful.

But Steve won't even let him be that. Steve, for all his wet dream Adonis-style looks, seems sadly devoted to celibacy in his hermitude.

Bucky sighs and takes a sip, but he nearly chokes and ends up spraying it across the kitchen when Steve looks up from his wood chopping and stares directly into the window like he knows what Bucky's been thinking. He probably does, the overly perfect asshole.

Well...Steve can fuck off. He might not want to take Bucky up on his perfectly legitimate offer, but he can't stop Bucky from thinking about it.

Fuckin' goody two shoes.

Bucky bets he's not even that great. He bets under the right circumstances, with the right push, he could get Steve to be just as filthy and perverted and selfish as anyone else Bucky's ever been stupid enough to really want: the asshole jock who he gave it up to for the first time only to have him sock Bucky in the jaw after and call him a fag; his high school math teacher who was so nice when Bucky found out about his mom's cancer and then wasn't nice at all after he got what he wanted; or Nice Guy Neighbor Matt, who was the last straw, and Bucky really isn't in the mood to dwell on that.

Steve's gotta be just as bad as all of them and Bucky's gonna prove it to them both.

He wipes up the coffee and sits at the table to finish it, so that he doesn't accidentally make eye contact with Steve again while he splits logs in two with his bare hands or whatever.

Thankfully, Steve comes back inside fully dressed, his flannel shirt mostly buttoned, an armful of wood under one bulging bicep. He piles it all up by the wood stove in the living room and then comes back into the kitchen to pour himself a glass of water, Bucky's eyes glued to his adam's apple while he gulps it down.

"I'm going to make breakfast," says Steve. "Bacon and eggs sound good?"

Outside, the snow starts to fall thicker and faster.

"Sure," says Bucky. He stands up, toying with the hem of his t-shirt. "I'm going to take a shower." He just took one yesterday, but he can’t think of anyone else to do, and he needs some time alone with his dick.

Steve huffs, amused, picking up Bucky's discarded mug and bringing it to the sink. "So you'll be back just in time to eat, then."

With a shrug, Bucky deliberately turns his back on Steve, knowing he's watching. As he goes through the doorway, he arches his back, grabs his shirt, and strips it off, up over his head. As tempted as he is to look back over his shoulder and lock eyes with Steve, he keeps his eyes forward and walks confidently into the bathroom and shuts the door.

"Fuck," he whispers, leaning up against it. He cups his hand over his half-chub, squeezing himself through his joggers. He can take a little pressure off, right?

Stumbling to the shower, he turns the water on.

He'd like to pretend he's capable of something slow and thorough, but as soon as he's under the hot spray with his hand around his cock, he can't help the muffled sounds he makes as his hand flies hard and fast. All he can think about as he squeezes his eyes shut so hard he sees sparks is Steve's back and his shoulders and his fucking chest, the way his arms looked, the flex of his muscles and the slick sheen of sweat, the steam rising from his skin and puffing up from his perfect pink lips. That goddamned beard would burn so good against his skin...

Bucky rubs purposefully against his slit, sobbing as he comes. His orgasm staggers him, leaves him jelly-limbed and panting, clutching at the wall to regain his balance.

It's several long minutes by the time he manages to get himself under control again and finish cleaning himself up, the water just starting to run cold. When he gets out, he has to dress himself in sweatpants and a t-shirt Steve lent him, too big for him by several sizes. They hang off his body like he’s ten years old wearing his father's clothes. It twists up horribly in his gut so he pushes it aside, stomping out of the bathroom and back to the kitchen, only to find a perfectly prepared plate of food waiting for him, eggs and bacon and even some home fries, golden and crispy.

Irrationally, he’s struck by the desire to throw it across the room. Instead, he sits down and manages to mumble a resentful thank you as Steve sets a glass of orange juice down next to him.

"Good shower?" murmurs Steve.

Bucky jerks his head up and looks at him, cheeks burning. Steve's expression is neutral but there's something in his eyes, something almost playful. The bastard knows somehow. "It was fine."

"Good." Steve forks up some eggs and takes a bite. "You let me know if that hot water heater acts up," he continues, chewing lazily. "Wouldn't want it to cut out in the middle of a nice hot....shower."

Bucky chokes on his juice, ducking his head and scowling at the table, face burning. "Yeah, thanks," he bites out, thoroughly off-kilter, now. "I'll do that."

Steve hums, peacefully chowing down. Bucky focuses on his plate, digging in with enthusiasm. Everything Steve makes is simple, but after weeks of the cheapest fast food imaginable, it all tastes like five star gourmet restaurant food to Bucky. Steve always makes enough for seconds—and thirds, for himself; Bucky's never met someone who eats this much, but he's so big it makes sense—and Bucky gets as much as he can stand.

When they finish, Bucky tries to talk Steve into letting him do the dishes, but he just gets gently herded out of the kitchen, so Bucky sighs and wanders into the living room, settling on the couch.

He doesn't even have a phone to play on, not that Steve has WIFI or anything. Bucky broke his phone a week ago, crushing it in the door of a truck as he was getting out. It must have slipped from his jacket pocket after he finished jerking the guy off, and he's been totally disconnected ever since. Right now, he wishes he could at least play Candy Crush, or something. He's already started and finished a novel and it’s barely been two days.

"What do you do all winter?" yells Bucky, flopping back dramatically and groaning.

"Plenty," answers Steve, startling Bucky as he appears at the end of the couch, wiping his hands on a dish towel. "I cook, I read, I watch movies. I do chores, I chop wood..." He lets that trail off, lip curled in a smirk as Bucky's stomach twists hotly. "I play with Lady, take her out on hikes. Snowshoeing... I paint."

Bucky perks up. "You paint?"

"Yeah, I paint." The smirk has shifted to a fully amused smile. "Built a studio over the shed a few years back. Probably painted one too many snowy landscapes but..." He shrugs. "It's something to do. Used to paint a lot when I was younger, it's been nice to get back into."

Bucky doesn't know what to make of that. Steve is an artist? On top of the way he looks and the way he acts and all of it, he's a fucking artist too, out there painting things in his self-built studio. Who the fuck is this guy?

"Is that where all your money comes from?" he blurts. "You some kind of famous artist?"

That draws a startled laugh from Steve, for the first time looking like Bucky managed to catch him off guard. "No, not quite. I came by my money from...an early investment in some experimental medical tech. Came home from the army and I suddenly had all this money. So...I bought this land and moved out here."

"What for?" asks Bucky, narrowing his eyes.

Steve looks at him steadily. "Peace and quiet."

Crossing his arms, Bucky huffs. "Oh, come off it! You gotta be bored out here all alone. People aren't meant to do shit like this for extended periods of time, years and years. No man is an island, or whatever."

"Sounds a little hypocritical coming from someone who was trying to hitch across country by himself."

"Yeah, and look where that got me. Stranded in the middle of fucking nowhere with Mr. Goody-Two-Shoes blue balls," gripes Bucky.

Steve doesn't even blink at the words. He's so hard to ruffle, but that doesn't mean Bucky is about to quit trying. "It's been good for me," Steve says instead. "Gives me perspective. If I ever get tired of it, I can just move. Or I can find myself a city slicker twink to house for the winter." He's smirking again.

Bucky feels heat pool in his cheeks at that word coming out of Steve's mouth but refuses to let it fluster him. "What you should get is the internet," says Bucky. "So you can at least download some porn."

Steve snorts. "You're a real horndog, aren't you, Bucky?" He folds the dish towel and hangs it up, moving fully into the living room. When he whistles for Lady, she abandons Bucky and goes to him. He retrieves a big brush from a shelf and sits down on the floor, where Lady lies primly down next to him. Bucky watches as Steve starts to brush her out, big tufts of soft underhair coming out by the handful.

"I'm 20 years old," Bucky says defensively, even though he's not asking for himself, he's asking because there's no way Steve isn't fucking desperate for a hand on his dick in this lonely cabin. "Anyway, I just think it's bullshit. You must go stir crazy. Anyone would."

"I go into town," Steve points out. "I talk to everyone, I have a meal out, I fill up on company."

Bucky sighs. "Whatever. Do I get to see these paintings?"

Steve steadily piles up fur beside his hip, maybe working on building another dog. "You already have. They're up all over the house."

Bucky leaps up immediately and beelines for the first painting he sees. He did notice art on the walls when he looked around the cabin the other night, but it was too dark for him to really see the details. This one is a big winter landscape, as Steve mentioned, but it's done in every shade of blue and white and grey imaginable, with little iced pine trees dotting some river that must be nearby. It's pretty good. Kinda Bob Ross-like but with a twist? An edge.

Bucky doesn't know anything about art. "Not bad."

Steve makes a soft sound, smiling down at Lady. "Thanks."

Bucky moves onto the next painting. It's not a landscape. Bucky actually noticed it yesterday, registered how it made his stomach churn with something raw and scary and terrible, and then quickly dismissed it. It's maybe a little abstract, not at all the same style as the other one, but definitely the same talent. It's brilliant blue backdrop, different layers and shades making it look alive and sky-like, but for the maw of a black hole in the center that’s torn and tattered at the edges, studded with stars that are sharp and cold and dangerous twinkling in its depths.

He shied away from it before, something alien and horrible about it that made his eyes want to slide over it quickly. Now that he knows Steve painted it, he can't seem to look away. It hits him then, what it reminds him of.

"I was 13 when the sky over Manhattan opened up," he says, feeling breathless. "My dad lost his job after that. Nothing he did wrong, I guess, but the building he worked in was demolished. So we moved to Indiana, where he's from, a year later."

He hears Steve shift on the floor and when he looks back at him, Steve is carrying the pile of fur to the door, and he's not looking at Bucky. "Moved out here myself after that."

"Peace and quiet," recalls Bucky.

Lady gets up, newly brushed, and trots over to Steve, looking up at him as though she's concerned. It brings the lost smile back to Steve's face and he pets her, scritches behind her ears while murmuring too softly for Bucky to hear. He gets a treat for her and hands it over.

"But you're going back now," Steve finally says, returning to the living room with Lady in tow. He sits in his big chair and Lady climbs onto her bed next to him, curling up with her nose in her tail.

Bucky shrugs. "Even with aliens, it's better than Muncie."

Steve looks at Bucky as he picks up his book and opens it to where he folded down the corner of the page like an animal. "And your father?" he asks mildly.

Bucky grunts. "Still there."

It doesn't escape Bucky's notice that Steve doesn't ask about his mom. Bucky didn't mention her, so Steve didn't ask.

"You a runaway, Buck?" Steve keeps doing that, further shortening his nickname. He thinks he likes it.

"Can't run away from home when you're over 18, pal," says Bucky. "I decided I didn't want to die of boredom in Indiana and got myself out. At least I can get proper fucking pizza in New York."

Steve makes a noise of acknowledgment, his eyes drifting down to his book. The conversation is clearly over, but Bucky doesn't want to sit and read or do a puzzle or any other activity that wouldn't be out of place in an old folks home. He paces the living room, restless, drifting between the paintings and Steve's bookshelves, pulling stuff out to look at before putting it right back again. Eventually, Lady gets up from her bed and follows at his heels, whining at him, her tongue darting out to wet his hand. "What?" he asks her. "I don't have any food."

"She wants to go out," murmurs Steve, not looking up.

"Well, then shouldn't you take her?"

"She wants you."

Bucky looks out the window at the snow and makes a face. "I don't have boots. Or a coat."

"I have a box of stuff in the coat closet. Should be something that fits in there. Be good for you to get some fresh air." Steve turns a page, still not even looking at Bucky. "Go on. Take her for a run."

Bucky blinks at Steve and then looks back down at Lady, who wags her tail hopefully. Well. He can't say no to that face! "Alright, fine," he says, and then grumps at Steve, "What happened to not being a pushover for her?"

Steve just smiles down at his book, not offering any further explanation. Whatever. Bucky heads to the closet and digs out a thick down coat, a sweater to wear under it because it's way too big on him, and a pair of boots. He pulls on an extra pair of socks, wraps a scarf around his neck, and puts mittens on, all while Lady trots around him impatiently. "Okay, okay, I'm almost ready."

When he’s dressed, Steve finally looks up, saying, "Can you whistle? If you give one sharp whistle, she'll come back to you if she runs off. She knows she's not allowed to go out of hearing range. But she probably won't go out of sight, to be honest. She thinks you're part of her pack. She'll try to herd you."

For some reason, that makes something warm and bright curl around his heart. He blinks quickly, looking down at her. "Is that right, girl? Are you going to look out for me?" he coos.

She gives him a soft little aroo. Bucky's heart breaks happily.

Ready for a winter wonderland, he heads out, Lady at his side, trudging through the paths Steve carved out. He was out here with a small bobcat yesterday, cutting through the snow so he can navigate the property. Bucky sticks to them, the snow piled up past his hips on either side. Lady bounds forward, mostly sticking to the paths too, but occasionally something catches her eye and she crashes through the bank, burrowing desperately until the snow is clumped thickly in her fur and then she comes running back.

She shakes vigorously, sending wet snow all over Bucky.

"Ugh," he laughs. "Lady!"

She just barks happily and butts her head against his leg, pushing him along. "Fine, fine." But he's grinning as he allows her to lead him on a walk, more than the other way around.

They're deep in the property, the woods hushed and bright, the snow a heavy blanket making the whole place feel...divine, in a way, like it's special, magical even. He shivers and it's not from the cold. He can tell they've turned back toward the house as they follow the path, the tiny little wisp of smoke curling above the trees in the distance from their—from Steve's—chimney.

Steve. Fuck. Bucky just doesn't know what to make of him. He doesn't know what a guy like Steve is doing way out here, why he seems so perfect, like he could have or do anything, and is clearly loaded. He just...hangs out with his dog in the woods. Which...Lady is great but it's weird.

In the distance he can hear the trickle and patter of running water, somewhere to the west. He thinks he can see where the trees clear out a little and it looks as though enough wildlife has passed through that the snow is stomped down some. He starts to leave the path, wanting to see it, but suddenly he's stopped short by Lady's grip on his coat, teeth clamped down. She growls lightly, not threateningly, just...letting him know she doesn't want him to go in that direction.

"Come on," he says, rolling his eyes. "I'll be careful, I just want to see." He can't believe he's out here reasoning with a dog like she speaks English.

Lady just growls some more, giving him another tug.

"Hey! Cut it out," he says, tugging his coat back. She lets go, but her ears flatten a bit and she whines. "Oh, don't be a baby."

He turns away, stubbornly heading toward the sound of the river. He's not gonna let Steve and his dog boss him around. Lady follows alongside him, but she's cautious, ears pricked forward, listening intently, as she slinks along.

"Scaredy cat," he teases.

And honestly, if Bucky wasn’t so stubborn, he probably would have questioned the idea of going someplace a smart dog warned against. He steps out into the clearing by the river and comes up short as a big fuckoff black bear makes a startled noise and jerks upright on its hind legs, standing in the middle of the rushing river.

It's just that Bucky's really not the kind of person that spends time in the woods. He knows bears, like, exist. But he's never been camping or hiking before and his brain comes to a screeching halt at the sight of it, everything between his ears turning to static.

Beside him, Lady shoulders in, barking loudly, and the bear startles back a little. Then it roars in return, rising up taller, the fur raised on its shoulders and neck.

"No," chokes Bucky, grabbing Lady by the collar before she can move between him and the bear. If Bucky gets his dog killed, Steve is gonna kill him.

Well. If this bear doesn't kill him first.

Lady throws her head back and howls mournfully, which prompts another startled jerk from the bear, and, oh, god, it lumbers toward them, splashing through the water onto the shore.

"Back," hisses Bucky, pulling helplessly on Lady's collar. "Back, back, move back." Bucky could run, but what if Lady stays behind? He can't carry her. Something tells him he won't get very far in ill-fitting boots and loose snow.

Suddenly, the bear lurches forward on all fours, swiftly closing the distance between them, before rearing back up on its hind legs again and roaring. Lady pulls free, darting in between the bear's legs and nipping viciously at the backs of its ankles. Bucky stumbles back in fear, tripping over his own feet and falling on his ass in the snow. His heart in his throat, he watches in slow motion as the bear swipes down at where Lady has dug her jaws into the bear's haunch, but she's quick and clever and dodges away, barking again.

"Lady!" cries Bucky, scrambling to get back up.

A gunshot cracks overheard, into the sky, and Bucky yells, covering his head with his hands. Another shot, closer, and movement right beside him.

As Bucky looks up, shaking, he sees the bear dart off back across the river, disappearing into the woods on the other side. Steve is standing next to him, shotgun in hand, watching the bear go.

"Steve," gasps Bucky. "Holy shit, Steve. Lady, is...is Lady okay?"

A cold nose shoves into his face, then a warm tongue licks him from nose to eye. He splutters, clutching at her with mittened hands.

He realizes tears are slipping down his cheeks as Steve kneels down next to him and tugs Lady back gently. "Hey, it's okay, Lady, you're both okay. Good girl," he murmurs, praising her quickly before he reaches down to help Bucky. "Are you okay?"

Bucky sits up slowly, his heart still thudding in his chest. He reaches out automatically to pet Lady, hands burying in her thick fur. "She saved me," he breathes. "Lady—and then you—where did you come from? How did you—" Bucky feels dazed, dizzy with the adrenaline burning off in his system, everything buzzing. He can't even feel his own face right now.

"Heard Lady howl, I came as fast as I could," says Steve shortly. "Can you stand? We should go back to the cabin before that bear decides it's not afraid of loud noises after all."

"Uh, I think so," mutters Bucky. He bends his knees, preparing to rock up onto his feet, and then lets out a startled yelp. His ankle is suddenly on fire. "Owww," he wails, clutching at it, more tears prickling his eyes. This fucking day is awful. His voice comes out in a high whine, "I think I did something to it."

Steve makes a tutting sound. "Well, I'm not gonna take your boot off in the snow to check it out. I'll just have to carry you back."

"Carry me?" echoes Bucky. It feels like everything around him is on a delay now as his brain functions come screaming back online one process at a time. Fuck, ow. His ankle kills. He's cold and he can't stop shaking and are his tears freezing on his eyelashes? His lungs burn with every breath, and—

He realizes quite abruptly that Steve is crouching down next to him, radiating heat, and he's not wearing a coat. He's out here, snow soaking his jeans, wearing a flannel shirt and no fucking shoes. He's barefoot. Steve dropped everything, grabbed a gun, and ran a mile to get to them.

"Steve," Bucky says thinly. "What—"

"Come on," Steve interrupts, turning his back to Bucky and holding his arms out behind him. "Climb on, kid."

Bucky wraps his arms around Steve's neck, wincing as he plasters himself to Steve's back, and then Steve tucks his hands under Bucky's thighs and stands up in one smooth motion, lifting him easily into a piggyback ride. He whistles for Lady and she heels, trotting closely at his side as he turns swiftly back to the house.

"You're really warm," mumbles Bucky, pressing his face to Steve's shoulder. "How the fuck."

"I ran," says Steve. His voice is a little tight around the edges. Curt. He's probably upset with Bucky. It's not like Bucky can blame him. He nearly got his dog killed.

"I'm sorry," Bucky whispers, his eyes burning with tears. "I went off the path. Lady tried to get me to go back and I didn't listen."

"No, I'm sorry," says Steve through gritted teeth. "I should have warned you about Rufus."

"Wh—it has a name? You named the bear Rufus?" sputters Bucky, his trajectory of self-pity derailed by this revelation.

"He's been around here longer than I have," says Steve, sounding a bit defensive. "We came to an understanding. I stay out of his way and he stays out of my trash."

"God," says Bucky, squeezing his eyes shut. "No wonder Lady seemed to know not to go down there."

Steve lets out a slow breath. "Yeah, she keeps me out of trouble," he agrees. "Next time, listen to her."

It doesn't exactly sound like Steve is scolding him, but it does feel a bit like a reprimand. Bucky doesn't argue. He knows he deserves it. "I will, I'm sorry. I'm sorry she almost got hurt because of me. I tried to get her to run, I swear I wasn't going to leave her."

"Hey," says Steve, and his hand squeezes Bucky's thigh as they trudge through the snow. "It's okay. You know better now. She's okay and you're safe. That's all that matters."

Bucky nods, verklempt, too overwhelmed with gratitude for Steve's kindness. God, how is he always so steadfast? So solid and good and kind. Bucky feels so stupid and small, clinging to him, and he has to shut his eyes tight as more tears slip past. He rests his head against the back of Steve's shoulder and doesn't say anything more.

When they reach the house, he can see that Steve really did leave in a hurry. The door is wide open, and as they enter, Bucky notices that Steve's book is on the floor, his mug of tea cracked and tipped over near it. The hooks on the wall where the shotgun sat are barely hanging on, and the box of shells is overturned on the kitchen counter. Bucky can see how the scene must have unfolded: Lady's howl, Steve jumping up, dropping everything he was holding as he yanked the gun from the wall and the box of shells from the drawer, dumping them out to grab a handful as he ran outside.

He moved so fast. It's taken them just about fifteen minutes, maybe, to get back to the cabin, but Steve was there...instantly, it felt like, barely a whole minute. God, maybe he got a concussion when he fell, hit his head and lost consciousness for a few minutes. There's no way Steve could have come that far so fast, right?

"Here we go," murmurs Steve, interrupting Bucky's swirling thoughts. He ignores the mess he left behind and strides straight into the living room, turning around and ducking down in front of the couch to tip Bucky gently off his back onto the big squishy cushions.

Steve straightens up and Bucky is struck by just how big he is, looming over him as he stands by Bucky on the couch. There's a deep furrow in his brow, his mouth caught in a frown. After a moment of his sharp blue gaze sweeping over Bucky, he unzips Bucky's coat, helping him out of it like Bucky's a toddler.

"I got it," mumbles Bucky, shrugging off the big sleeves. Steve allows the refusal to stand, bending down instead to work the boots off Bucky's feet. As Bucky struggles out of the mittens and scarf, he tries not to flinch as Steve peels both pairs of socks off for him.

Steve whistles softly at whatever he sees, his fingers brushing over the skin of Bucky's right ankle. "That's swelling up real good. Sit tight, I'll get some ice."

Bucky huffs, flopping back and letting out a deep breath. Now that all the adrenaline has faded, Bucky is exhausted, his stomach a little sour, and his foot throbs dully. Lady comes over to the couch, sitting on the floor and putting her whole head on Bucky's thigh, whining as she licks his hand.

"Yeah," whispers Bucky, tears inexplicably prickling at his eyelids again. "I know. I'm sorry."

Steve comes back with a lumpy dishtowel. He catches both of Bucky's ankles with his free hand, lifting his legs up onto the couch and turning Bucky's entire body so that he's sprawling across the length of it. Then he presses the wrapped ice to Bucky's swollen ankle until Bucky can struggle back upright to sit and hold it there himself.

"I thought he'd be asleep by now," Steve says gruffly, not meeting Bucky's eyes.

"Huh?" Bucky says dumbly.

"Rufus," says Steve. "But it's early for the snow. Stands to reason he'd still be out hunting, fattening up. I should have known to warn you. I'm sorry, Buck."

Bucky shakes his head. "It's not your fault. There's nothing to forgive." He can't quite look at Steve, instead concentrating on his ankle. "If I'd stayed on the path and not been stubborn when Lady tried to keep me on it, it wouldn't have mattered that he was down there."

"No, he doesn't always stay on his side of the creek. He's a bear, but he keeps away from the cabin for the most part. He still might have—he could have been on the path," says Steve, sounding stubborn and petulant in a way Bucky's not quite used to.

It takes Bucky a moment to process it all before he looks at Steve incredulously. "Are you trying to downplay my dumbass choice just so you can be a martyr about how a bear named Rufus roughed me up a little?"

"No," grunts Steve, rolling his eyes. He's got an awful habit of that. But then he huffs and cracks a small smile, "You're still a dumbass. Just wish I'd have made sure if you were gonna be that big of one, you had all the facts to support your dumbassery."

"Wow," huffs Bucky. "Thanks."

"Just using your words, pal," says Steve. "Keep that there. I'll get you some water and something for the pain. Don't move."

"Yes, sir," Bucky says sullenly. Steve doesn't react at all, but as he rises and turns away, Bucky thinks he sees red creeping down the back of Steve's neck.

Bucky sighs, rubbing his fingers into the top of Lady's head. She pants at him, tongue lolling.

Steve comes back with a glass of water, handing it over. "Hold out your hand," he says, and when Bucky opens his palm, he drops one white pill into it.

"What is this?" asks Bucky. "If it's regular-strength Advil, I usually take two."

"It's not," says Steve shortly. "And you only need one."

Bucky has a brief moment of irrational panic. Then reality catches up to him and he remembers that Steve just saved him from a bear. Besides, Bucky's been throwing himself repeatedly against the brick wall of Steve's body since he crawled out of the back of his truck. "Okay."

"It's Tramadol," Steve concedes, some weird tension bleeding out of his shoulders. "It's all I've got, but it'll do the trick."

Bucky raises an eyebrow. "Seriously? You don't have normal-people painkillers? Isn't this stuff prescription?"

"Yes," says Steve shortly. "Go on. You want something to eat?"

Bucky takes the pill and drinks half the glass of water. "I'm not hungry," he says, watching as Steve pads barefoot across the living room, collecting his book and cleaning up the dropped teacup. "Aren't your feet fucking freezing? You sure you don't have frostbite?"

"I'm sure." He sounds annoyed at the question.

Well, excuse Bucky for giving a damn. "Fine, whatever, let all your toes fall off. I don't care."

"Do you want some tomato soup? I can make grilled cheese," says Steve instead.

"Only if it's the shitty stuff from the can." He might be injured but he still has standards.

"And I thought I had nostalgic attachment issues," mutters Steve. "I'll see what I can do. Second choice if I can’t accommodate his royal pain in the ass?"

Bucky sniffs. "Peanut butter and jelly sandwich." He pauses and then jerks upright enough to look sternly at Steve. "Grape!"

Steve tries to look annoyed but Bucky can see the curl of amusement hiding at the corner of his mouth. If Bucky did have to get stranded with someone in a remote cabin for a whole winter, at least it's someone with a sense of humor.

And someone who looks like that.

Steve brings him two grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, displaying the Campbell's can for Bucky when he lifts an eyebrow. Bucky digs in happily, the throb of his ankle definitely starting to diminish. The Tramadol is working wonders and Steve switches out his ice after handing Bucky his food. By the time he finishes eating, he can barely feel a distant ache and he also feels sort of like his nose is made of hot chocolate.

He must say that last bit out loud to Steve, because he makes a choking sound and then coughs roughly, thumping his big broad chest. "Maybe I should have only given you a half of one of those pills."

Bucky smiles pleasantly and wiggles down into the couch more, pulling the blanket off the back to cover himself. "I wanna watch Anne of Green Gables."

Steve frowns. "What?"

"When I was home sick in the winter, that's what I'd watch, all day long with my mom."

"I don't know if I have that movie, Buck," says Steve, sounding soft and distant.

"Please?" he says plaintively.

"Please all you want, it won't make it appear on my shelf," huffs Steve, but he gets up and goes over, scanning the rows of DVDs.

Bucky's eyes drift closed a moment, and the next thing he knows Steve is saying, "Well, I don't have the movie, but it looks like I have the book. Do you want me to read it to you?"

"Oh," says Bucky. He yawns, looking at Steve. "Never read the books. You've got a good voice, though. That'd be nice."

Steve clears his throat again, something very pleasantly flustered about him. That's nice. Bucky likes that. He's been trying so hard to ruffle him, turns out all he's gotta do is almost get eaten by a bear, then sprain his ankle and demand Steve read to him in his nice deep voice.

Easy.

Bucky lets his eyes drift shut again while he waits for Steve, and the next thing he knows, Steve is lifting his feet up and then settling down on the couch with Bucky's legs in his lap.

"Keep your ankle elevated," Steve mutters gruffly.

"Mm," mumbles Bucky. "Sure."

"You gonna stay awake for this?"

"I'm awake," says Bucky through another yawn.

Steve's warm chuckle washes over Bucky, but once Steve is settled, one warm hand holding the ice pack to Bucky's ankle, he starts to read. "Mrs. Rachel Lynde lived just where the Avonlea main road dipped down into a little hollow, fringed with alders and ladies' eardrops and traversed by a brook that had its source away back in the woods of the old Cuthbert place..."

Honestly, Bucky isn't even sure if he's catching every word, he's so tired, but Steve's voice is like a thick blanket, wrapping Bucky up. He drifts in and out of sleep, responding to Steve's occasional check-ins with an affirmative hum. It's easy to let it drag him down.

He's distantly aware of when the reading stops, Steve moving gently, one big strong arm sliding under Bucky's back, scooping Bucky up off the couch to be cradled against Steve's broad chest. Bucky snuffles and turns his face into Steve's throat, clutching at him sleepily.

"Who said you could stop," he mumbles, when Steve sets him down in his own bed, pulling the covers back, god, to tuck Bucky in.

"You tell me the last thing I read, I'll do another chapter," rumbles Steve.

"Hm," huffs Bucky. "Touché."

"Thought so," says Steve.

"Don't gotta sound so smug..."

Steve ignores him, propping his sprained ankle up on a pillow and taking the ice pack away. He whistles softly, and Lady jumps up onto the bed, curling up next to Bucky's hip and putting her head on his thigh.

"Yesss," crows Bucky softly. "Puppy cuddles."

"She'll make sure you don't do anything else dumb," says Steve.

Bucky's eyes slide closed again and he smiles up at where Steve's voice is coming from. He can't seem to keep his eyes open. "I trust her," he sighs, putting his hand on Lady's head.

Steve doesn't reply, but Bucky can tell he's still there, hovering. Watching Bucky, maybe.

Just as sleep claims him, the ghost of a touch ruffles at Bucky's hair.

Chapter Text

--STEVE--

Steve stays in the study until Bucky’s breathing is deep and even. He touches Bucky's hair softly and then gives Lady a quick pet, whispering, "Good girl."

Out in the living room, he cleans up the box of shotgun shells, tucking them away in the drawer. He fixes the gun rack he practically ripped from the wall, reinforcing it and hanging the shotgun back up.

He wipes up the spilled tea, sweeps the floor. At a loss for anything else to do, he decides to keep cleaning, puttering aimlessly around the house.

Bucky is trouble.

Bucky is so much more trouble than Steve ever would have guessed, and, honestly, he guessed a lot. It's not just that he seems determined to get under Steve's skin, carrying on about sex or how bored he is or whatever else pops into his head. It's also that he's funny, charming when he's not trying too hard, sharp as can be, but still so damn soft. Soft hair and soft lips, a soft heart he tries so hard to hide. Steve can see it every time he so much as looks at Lady, immediately clutching at her when he thought Rufus hurt her. Bucky is tender and oddly naive in ways that don't line up with all his supposed experience in the world.

Steve doesn't quite know what to do with that.

Earlier today, hearing Lady howl like that, Steve knew instantly something was terribly wrong. Lady doesn’t just make noise like that.

For a moment, Steve actually considered bringing his shield, pulling it out from its hiding place under the floorboards. Was it Hydra, back from the dead, its two heads rising in place of the one? Was it the US Government, finally come to collect on their property? Aliens? Rogue agents? Monsters? Gods?

And then he heard Rufus's roar and he grabbed the gun and ran.

Steve's been happy here the last few years, figuring out who he is in relation to a great big new world. He knows it's only a matter of time until someone needs something and he has to help, but he's at peace with that. He's at peace with living out his limited days here with Lady at his side while he enjoys the quiet as long as he can.

Or at least he was.

But today, after the terrifying possibility of losing the person he’s newly responsible for after so long worrying only about himself and his dog...

Steve doesn’t know Bucky. He’s been thrust unceremoniously into Steve’s space, but Steve is enjoying his company. He finds that he wants to get to know Bucky, learn more about him. He also wants one of those soft, sweet smiles he reserves for Lady to be directed at him and he really can't believe he's so pathetic that he's jealous of his dog.

It’s fine. Steve’s been alone for a long time. It’s probably inevitable that he get attached so quickly to the first person he’s in close quarters with after seven years of brief, surface-level interactions with the folks in town. Steve once went an entire month without speaking a word, communicating with Lady entirely in whistles.

He needs to ease up, pull back on the affection building up in his heart.

As soon as the snow lifts, Bucky's going to Brooklyn, Steve will see to that. He's not going to take Bucky up on his offer, couldn't live with himself if he did, and he's never, ever been capable of casual. So, that’s fine. They'll be friends and that will be enough.

Steve sighs, making sure the place he left off is marked in the book he dropped on the floor. He puts it on the side table and then walks over to fold the blanket and drape it over the back of the couch. He starts washing the dishes from their late lunch, dragging his feet as he slowly works his way through tidying every room. He drifts back and forth, pausing every so often to listen to Bucky's deep, even breaths in the study. He's fine. He's safe. Lady's with him, has already adopted him as another member of her little pack; she'll probably be glued to him even more than she already was, now.

Steve doesn't actively miss having human company, but every so often, when he's got a real problem to talk through, he wishes he still had a friend to listen to him and help him get his head on straight. It's been seven years since he came out of the ice to a world that he didn't recognize, a world that no longer had a place for him. Peggy was gone, leaving behind a truly impressive legacy for Steve to mourn, while Howard was married and had an adult child and was barely recognizable as the young man Steve remembered, just having turned 95.

Then aliens ripped New York apart and Steve picked up the shield one last time.

Steve’s brooding leads him to his studio.

It’s quiet and cool up here, surrounded by books and art supplies and stacks of paper as the light streams in through the skylight Steve installed. He sets an oversized drawing pad on the easel, flipping to a fresh page, then picks up a stick of charcoal. He's never let himself over-think what he wants to draw. After all, he's the only one that sees it. So when he starts to sketch Bucky from memory, spread out in bed with Lady curled up beside him, he feels a little pang of guilt but he doesn't try to stop himself.

Bucky sleeps for most of the afternoon. Steve ends up starting on dinner, throwing together a chicken potpie with scraps and leftovers. He's just popping it into the oven when he hears Bucky start to stir.

Steve left the door to the study open so that Lady could leave if she needed to go out, but also so that he could hear Bucky's activities more easily. He's leaning in the doorway before Bucky's even put his feet on the floor, squinting at Steve through sleep-puffy eyes, his cheek creased from the pillow and his hair a jumbled cloud of curls.

"Hey," he says softly. "Where do you think you're going?"

"Pee," mumbles Bucky, barely awake. "If that's allowed."

Steve lifts an eyebrow. "How does your ankle feel?"

Bucky looks at his feet and Steve sees the careful wince as he tests the range of motion. "Um, better, I think? It's sore and tender but not as bad—" He reaches for it, touching it cautiously, "Still kind of swollen, though."

Steve purses his lips. "Alright, let me help you to the bathroom. I'll find something to wrap it and we'll keep it elevated. Read something once that said a mild sprain takes about five to ten days to heal." He read it in a medic field guide in 1943, but Bucky doesn't need to know that. The way you treat sprained ankles can't have changed that much and he's pretty sure it'd be a hell of a lot more swollen if it were broken.

With an irritated huff, Bucky just holds out his arms, like a child waiting to be picked up, still groggy and rumpled from sleep. He immediately ruins the endearing tableau by speaking. "Fine, take me to the pisser, but you're not staying there while I go. I won't fall over."

Steve’s heart clenches despite himself, but he ignores the feeling in favor of giving Bucky a look. "If you fall while trying to take a piss, that's your problem, pal."

"Fair enough," Bucky laughs. Steve scoops him back up, taking him into the bathroom and gently setting him down on his uninjured foot, the other barely grazing the floor as Bucky keeps it lifted. Steve helps him get a hold of the towel rack for balance, hoping vaguely that he did a decent job installing it, and then he lifts the toilet seat for him. As he’s walking out of the bathroom, Bucky scoffs at him. "I could have lifted the seat myself!"

"Sure," agrees Steve. "You could have. I’ll be right back."

He closes the door and goes in search of something he can wrap Bucky's ankle with. There’s not exactly a need for him to keep a lot of first aid around, just what he needs for Lady. The Tramadol was hers from when he first found her, barely a year old, broken leg, half-starved. Young and abandoned and in need of someone to care about her.

Kind of like Bucky.

Steve gives himself a mental shake, dismissing his own idiocy as he heads out to the shed. He's pretty sure he still has his old boxing hand wraps. Those oughta work for Bucky's ankle.

On his way back inside with the wraps in hand, he hears Bucky call for him.

"Coming," he responds, raising his voice. "You okay?"

"Yeah, just don't wanna hop," Bucky says, and Steve finds him leaning on the counter in front of the bathroom sink. He managed to wash his hands, at least.

"Okay, I'm gonna park you on the couch again," says Steve, putting his arm around Bucky's shoulders and then ducking down to wrap the other one behind his knees, scooping him up again. Bucky squawks in surprise, hand fisting into the material of Steve's shirt.

"You could have just let me lean on you," he grumbles as Steve carries him to the living room and lays him out on the couch.

"This is easier," says Steve. He props Bucky's ankle up on another cushion, then starts to wrap it up. "It hurt?"

Bucky grimaces a little. "Not like it did before."

"If it starts to get worse, you can have half a pill in a few hours," says Steve. "That too tight?"

"No. There's a big smudge on your cheek," says Bucky, reaching out to rub at it with his thumb. Steve does not flinch at the unexpected contact, but he does go still.

"Charcoal," he says, his own voice sounding distant in his ears. "I was drawing. Must have touched my face. There's a potpie in the oven, should be ready in about half an hour if you're hungry."

"We, like, just ate lunch," protests Bucky.

"It's almost dinner," counters Steve. "You aren't hungry?"

"I guess so." Bucky shrugs. "Not really used to eating this much."

"You need to eat more," Steve says shortly. "Anyone else would be starving."

"Yeah, well, you only think that because you eat enough for, like, three people," says Bucky. "And you put it all in your biceps."

"Some of it goes to my thighs." When Bucky sputters in surprise, Steve smiles serenely. "Anyway, you're gonna eat. And after that, you can pick out a movie."

"You're gonna be even more annoying now that I'm hurt, aren't you?" Bucky sounds resigned already.

"If by ‘annoying’ you mean ‘wanting you to get better and be safe’—" Steve doesn't try to hide his sarcasm. "—then sure."

Bucky's pout is, unfortunately, cute, but finally he relents. "Fine, I'll eat your potpie. Whatever."

Victorious, Steve gets their food together and brings Bucky a plate. They sit and eat in front of the TV, while Lady lays down on the ground along the couch, close to Bucky, her tail thumping occasionally when Bucky sneaks her a piece of chicken, as if Steve doesn't notice it happening. "You're gonna spoil her."

"No, I won't. She's a good girl," argues Bucky. "Aren't you, Lady? Yeah. The best girl ever."

Lady's tail thumps harder.

Steve sighs. "She'll get a stomach ache from too much people food. You can give her dog treats after."

Lady's ears perk up immediately at the word "treats" and she raises her head to look expectantly at Steve.

"No, not right now," he mutters. Whining, she puts her head down on her front paws and looks at him sadly. "Don't you look at me like that. You know better."

Bucky's soft laugh turns Steve’s attention back to him. "What?"

"You talk to her like she knows English. It's cute."

"She does," insists Steve. "She's really smart. Smartest dog I've ever known."

Lady's tail wags again. Steve tips his chin toward her. "See?"

Bucky just smiles down at his plate and finishes his meal.

Having Bucky in the house is, overall, a positive change. It’s not that Steve was bored or aimless before Bucky’s arrival; Steve always had something to keep him busy, and with Lady to talk to, and visits into town to get his fill of human interaction and gossip, he felt reasonably engaged.

But the addition of Bucky brings a presence Steve didn't even realize he was lacking.

He wakes up each morning and puts on coffee and makes breakfast for them both, planning out lunch and dinner for later, and then helps Bucky to the nest he's built on the couch. For someone who so stubbornly refused Steve's help the first day they met, he settles into being doted on easily in a way that makes Steve wonder if he's the baby of his family. He puts up token protest to every offer of help, objects to any implication he's spoiled, and then folds like a bad poker hand.

For the most part, he's fine, though Steve insists on carrying him or helping him walk so that his ankle can heal properly. Which means Bucky spends the next few days wrapped in a blanket with his foot propped up on a pillow, reading steadily through Steve's murder mysteries, watching movies, or napping. Lady joins him unless Steve specifically gets her attention; he's given up trying to get her off the couch where she lies along Bucky's side like a sentinel.

Steve does what he normally does.

He takes Lady out, trying to ignore the faint worry at the back of his mind when they leave Bucky alone in the house. Everything still needs attention: the greenhouse, the chicken coop, the woodpile. It snows near-constantly, so Steve spends every morning clearing the snow that doesn’t slide off the roof from the solar panels. He shovels and cleans, he cooks, he goes up into the studio to paint or draw.

Throughout each busy day, Bucky is there to chirp at him, making comments, asking questions, watching Steve in a way that indicates he's thinking highly inappropriate thoughts, and wholly digging himself deep under Steve's skin.

Steve is getting attached.

"Swelling is totally gone," Bucky remarks, a week into his convalescence. He's been limping from room to room on his own for the last two days, brushing off Steve's offers of help.

"It's looking good," agrees Steve. "You should still take it easy. Don't exert yourself and undo all that work."

Bucky rolls his eyes. "I’m not planning on entering a dance competition any time soon."

Steve opens his mouth to say Bucky's got the body for dancing, but he thinks better of it. Bucky hasn't made untoward advances since he got injured and Steve doesn't want him getting any ideas. That sort of complication is not what they need for the next few months. Bucky might like to look, but he's kept a lid on the flirting lately and that's probably for the best.

"It'll be Christmas in a couple of weeks," says Steve, changing the subject. "I was thinking of cutting down a tree this year. Do you celebrate?"

Bucky blinks up at him. "Oh, um," he says, sitting down on the couch and pulling the blanket back over him. "We did Christmas and Hanukkah when I was a kid. Dad's...I guess some kind of Christian, but we never went to church. Ma was Jewish."

Was. It's the first time Bucky's really talked about his mother at all.

"Oh," says Steve. "I've got candles. Don't have a real menorah but we could light them."

Bucky shrugs. "It's okay. A tree would be nice. I don't know the blessings really well, anyway."

"Well...if you're sure?" Steve doesn't want to push but he also wants Bucky to feel comfortable. "Had a friend in the army who was Jewish. I think I remember some." Steve actually remembers them all because he can't forget. He remembers a cold winter in France when Juniper lit the candles and said the blessings, the other Howlies all gathered around because it was important to him.

One more person not in Steve's life anymore.

Bucky bites his lip, considering. "We could do both. I’m not sure when it starts this year. Your calendar say?"

Steve walks over to where it hangs in the kitchen and checks. "It’s the 22nd to the 30th this year. So we have plenty of time to get ready. I could maybe make a menorah, if a wood one would be okay?"

Bucky's quiet for so long, Steve wonders if he said something wrong, but finally he looks back up from petting Lady and says, "That'd be nice."

"Okay," says Steve. "I can do that. I'll cut down a tree and I'll make a menorah."

"Gonna go full lumberjack, huh?" asks Bucky. He seems to shake off whatever emotion subdued him, giving Steve a smirk, one eyebrow raised. "I get to watch, right?"

"Don't think I'd be able to stop you," says Steve. "Feel like I shouldn't let you outside, though, after the Rufus incident."

"Just do it within sight of the house and I'll creep through the window." Bucky pets Lady absently on the head, pulling the blanket up over them both. "I've had my fill of winter exploring."

Steve lets the conversation naturally trail off, idly wondering how to get back around to the topic of Bucky. It's too nosy to just ask, but Steve is curious, and it's been almost two weeks of having Bucky here; he feels like he needs something to explain his lonely trek from Indiana to Brooklyn. He can't get over how ill-equipped Bucky was for hitchhiking, the choices he made to pay his way. The brief reference to his family has only made Steve curious for more.

"Anyone gonna miss you during the holidays?" is what ends up falling from his mouth like a stone. He tries not to wince at his own inept digging.

Bucky looks up, eyes wide, and then his expression smooths into a mask of neutrality. "Probably not," he replies, which gives Steve absolutely nothing more to work with.

Steve grunts. "Well, I got a turkey in the freezer."

"Do you make stuffing?" Bucky asks.

"Sure," says Steve. "I can, if you like it."

"It's my favorite part," confesses Bucky. "That, and the pie."

"What kind's your favorite?"

"Pecan," says Bucky, shrugging. "But we probably don't have the ingredients for that."

Steve hesitates. He doesn’t know how to make pie, but maybe it would be fun to try. "We might. I do have pecans. Don't really know what else goes in it."

"I only remember a few. Do you have any cookbooks around here?"

They spend the rest of the night discussing food for the holidays. Steve doesn't manage to bring Bucky around to any more reveals and they end the night the way they have every other: watching a movie and then heading to their separate beds.

In the morning, Steve treks out to find a decent tree. He can't cut down anything too big, it won't fit, but he manages to locate a spindly five foot pine that should work just fine. It's even within sight of the cabin. Axe balanced on his shoulder, Steve looks up to see Bucky watching through the living room window, and he smirks as he starts chopping it down.

To be honest, he could probably do it in a single swing, but he doesn't need Bucky asking those kinds of questions. It’s got a pretty skinny trunk, though, so it almost takes more effort to reign it in enough to even get three solid whacks out of it before the tree tips over. He saws the end flat and then drags it back to the cabin.

Bucky is there to open the door for him as he comes in, a little wide-eyed. "That didn't take nearly as long as I thought it would. I've never seen anyone cut down a tree before, though."

Steve just grunts and sets the tree on the floor, pine needles going everywhere. "I’m not entirely sure how to get this thing to stand."

"No tree stand, I take it? Maybe rope, then," shrugs Bucky. "Or some wire?"

"Might have something in the shed. I'll be back."

A brief hunt does turn up some rope, thin enough that it shouldn't be intrusive but strong enough to keep the tree from falling. He grabs some nails and a hammer, and with Bucky holding the tree in position with the trunk sat in a bowl full of water, Steve braces the tree with a few lengths, hammering the ends into the wall on each side of the corner they chose.

When he brings his arms back down, he tugs at his shirt where it was riding up, baring his stomach. Bucky licks his lips, gaze dragging up until he blinks and shakes himself. Steve ignores it, turning away. "Gonna go find a block of wood I can drill some holes into for the menorah. Why don’t you pop some popcorn? There's thread in the drawer to the left of the silverware."

Bucky stares at him, uncomprehending. His lips are still a little parted, wet from his tongue. "Uh. What?"

"Popcorn," repeats Steve. "In the cabinet. Thread in the drawer."

"I'm sorry, what do popcorn and thread have to do with each other?"

"For decorating," says Steve impatiently. "Pop the popcorn, grab a needle and thread, string it up."

Bucky lets out a burst of laughter, delight washing over his face. "Popcorn ornaments? What are you, ninety?" he demands. "Is this Little House on the Prairie?"

Steve scowls at him. "I got no decorations to speak of, Buck. Unless you want a naked tree, go pop some goddamn corn."

"Okay, okay," laughs Bucky, waving Steve off as he limps carefully into the kitchen.

Steve huffs, shaking his head. This kid, seriously. He heads out to the shed, digging through his scrap pile for a nicely-sized piece of wood. There’s no real rush, but Steve spends a while sawing it down, sanding it, and coring out nine divots to act as holders for the candles. Then, once he's done that, he sits and stares at it for a while, wondering how to reinforce the whole thing so that they're not repeatedly lighting fires near a wooden holder.

He's got time. He'll come back to it later. At least the base structure is done. He wraps it in a cloth and tucks it away, letting himself back into a house that smells strongly of popcorn. He finds Bucky sitting at the kitchen table, hunched over with a needle in hand, threading kernels onto a long garland.

"I've stabbed myself in the thumb like five times," Bucky announces as Steve walks in. "Is this even sanitary? Lady's not just gonna eat this whole thing, right?"

"Ordinarily, I'd say she wouldn't dare, but you've been spoiling her so much lately, I guess we'll find out," says Steve, crossing to the bowl and scooping up a handful of popcorn to crunch on.

"Hey!" cries Bucky. "That's my stock! I won't have enough to loop around the whole tree."

"We'll just do the front," says Steve, through a full mouth. "It's in the corner. We don't have to decorate the back of the tree."

"But I'll know the back is bare!" Bucky grabs the bowl and drags it out of Steve's reach, scowling at him.

Steve chuckles and goes to make more, grabbing the thimble from the drawer and setting it next to Bucky. "So you quit poking your thumb."

Once he has his own bowl, Steve turns on the radio and sits across from Bucky, threading his own needle to start making more. Ultimately, he eats more than he threads, but they sit comfortably together for thirty solid minutes, listening to music and making garlands. "Think I'm gonna try to cut out some tin for the menorah, protect it a little."

Bucky nods, tongue sticking through his teeth as he places the last few kernels on his own garland. "There!"

Lady perks up from her spot on the kitchen floor, watching closely for any dropped snacks.

Steve finishes up his own, which is barely half the length of Bucky's, and they head over to the tree. Steve aches a little, remembering doing this as a boy with his mother, but he still finds himself smiling widely at Bucky as they create their own memories. They do manage to mostly get the back of the tree, too, and when it's all done, they step back to admire it.

"Thanks, Buck," says Steve. "I...haven't done anything like this in a long time."

"Yeah," says Bucky. "Same. It's not bad. I don't know how well this kinda thing holds up, but it's, like, quaint, right? Kinda rustic, like in a magazine. And if we get tired of it, we can just eat it."

Steve snorts. "Right. I'm gonna get dinner together, in case we want something better than stale popcorn."

"And I'll be on the couch," says Bucky. "You don't have any lights, do you? Trees look better with lights. More festive."

"I'll check tomorrow," says Steve. "I doubt it, but who knows. I got some boxes in the shed I can look at."

They both wander off, Steve going into the kitchen to rustle around and make dinner, while Bucky lounges on the couch with his book. The rest of the day passes without incident, Steve finding himself in a surprisingly cheerful mood. He's whistling as he gets ready for bed, Bucky having said goodnight almost an hour ago, carrying a stack of books with him into the study.

Steve stays up reading a little himself before he rolls over and turns off the lamp and lets himself drift into sleep.

It's the weight of Bucky's body on the bed that wakes him, although Steve knows better than to react or let his breathing quicken; it's a testament to Steve's overall comfort and how he's gotten used to not being alone in the cabin that he didn't wake up the moment Bucky crossed the threshold.

Pretending to be asleep lets him analyze the situation, as Bucky wriggles carefully under the covers to crawl in beside Steve. It's not for comfort. It can't be. Bucky's breathing is normal, his heart rate is steady, he's not upset. Which means Steve knows exactly what he's trying to do here, and his disappointment hits the base of his belly like a ship's anchor thudding into the seabed.

This fucking kid.

He holds out vain hope that Bucky won't try to touch him, will just...lie here, maybe. Be close, but maintain the boundary. Steve's rebuffed his physical advances, sure, but maybe he shouldn't have flirted, because now Bucky...

Well, now Bucky presses in close, those slim hands hooking into the waistband of Steve's sweats, and Steve can't let this go anymore.

He reaches up between their bodies, grabbing Bucky's wrists to stop him. Bucky inhales sharply, his eyes wide in the darkness, and he goes rigid at Steve’s touch. He doesn't try to tug his wrists out of Steve’s loose grip, though. He just holds perfectly still, breathing quickly as he stares at Steve with plaintive eyes.

His voice is shaky as he whispers, "Steve, please."

Steve’s annoyance and frustration spill over, knowing his face is tight with anger. "Please what?" he snaps, voice rough with sleep and hurt. "Please let you sneak into my room and touch me without permission? Please let you thank me for helping you, even if I don't want or need it? Please pretend like I don't care about you? What is it, Bucky?"

Bucky whines sharply, his eyes squeezing shut and shaking his head.

"Look at me," Steve barks.

With a sob, Bucky opens his eyes. "Please, just hurt me."

"What?" Of all the things Bucky could have said, Steve wasn't expecting that. He's stunned, letting go of Bucky’s wrists.

"Hurt me!" cries Bucky, yanking at Steve’s shirt, trying to force him to put his hands on Bucky again. "Just fucking—I deserve it! I do. That's all I'm—"

Steve feels sick with realization, of how deep Bucky's self-loathing goes. He knows what that's like, or at least, he used to know. Spent years working it out of his head, roaming these woods while he tried to convince himself he'd given enough, done enough, that he didn't owe anyone but himself anything more. Some days he's better at believing it than others. "No."

"Please." His big blue eyes are pale in the dark, wet and desperate, and it breaks Steve's heart.

"I won't hurt you, Buck. I won't take what you're only offering because you think you owe it to me." He can hear Bucky's heart hammering beneath his ribs, rabbit-quick.

"Just get it over with," insists Bucky, his voice raw. There's something horribly cracked in his expression, the frayed nerves of someone that's been waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Steve's so fucking stupid. He thought he proved that Bucky was safe, that Bucky didn't owe him a thing, but he's just been building the tension inside him like a balloon fit to burst. "No," he repeats firmly. "There's no it to get over. I'm not gonna hurt you, I'm not taking anything from you that you think you need to barter."

Bucky's face crumples up, tears spilling over his cheeks. "Please," he begs, voice breaking. "I just want this to make sense. You don't make sense, none of this makes sense! Why would you care if you don't even want to fuck me? I can make it good for you, Steve, I can give you something I know you've been missing, if you'd just let me put my mouth on you, I'd..." He chokes a little, sniffling. "I'd make it so good."

"Bucky," says Steve. His chest feels tight and he doesn't want to have his hands anywhere near Bucky while he shatters into pieces, but he's still tugging at Steve like he can get him to roll over and let Bucky suck his cock. "Stop, kid, please. Come on, now, no. Not like this. Just take a breath, okay?"

Bucky shudders as he inhales shakily, his lashes clumped thick with tears, and he looks so miserable and confused that Steve leans down and presses a kiss, soft, to his forehead. "That's it. Just breathe, Buck. Come on, it's okay. I don't need this. I don't need this from you, you don't owe me."

"You don't want me at all?" sobs Bucky. "Not even a little bit? You flirt back and I see you looking."

Steve groans, shaking his head. With every ounce of tenderness he can put into it, he very softly gives Bucky another kiss, pressing it chastely to Bucky's lips this time. "Can't say that," he admits, his heart hurting too much to lie. "But you're all messed up about this. I don't know what's going on in that hard head of yours. All I want right now is for you to keep breathing in and out. You're okay. You're okay, Buck."

Bucky hiccups lightly, shuddering through his tears as he tries to breathe. The room grows quiet again but for Bucky's breaths as he starts to calm down. Steve thinks maybe the worst of it is over, that he can send Bucky back to his room and they can try to move on from this once and for all.

"I just wanted to be good enough for you," whispers Bucky, the confession cutting through the heavy silence.

"Oh, sweetheart, you are," he says, can't keep the truth from spilling from his lips. "You're so good. That's not why; it's never been why. I told you the reason."

Bucky turns his face away, wiping at his eyes with his free hand. "But I do want you." He sniffles, breath hitching. "You're...you're so good to me and—no, I don't mean like I want to pay you back," he continues, maybe noticing Steve about to interrupt. "I just mean...you make me feel good. You make me feel safe. I just want to know what it would be like with someone who’s good."

Steve's entire stomach drops out. "Bucky," he breathes, feeling a little like someone with a fist made of concrete just socked him in the sternum. Jesus, this kid breaks his heart. "Bucky, nothing can happen tonight."

Bucky shuts his eyes, crying quietly, and turns his face to the side again. Steve watches a tear track down his temple and disappear into his hair. He's still clinging to Steve's shirt.

"We can't," says Steve. "Not like this. I know what you think you want, and I know what I want, but it's not right. You're all mixed up."

"Stop," begs Bucky. "Stop saying that, like I'm so naive."

"In some ways, you are," sighs Steve. "You should go back to bed."

"Can't I just stay here?"

"No, Buck."

"Please," whispers Bucky. "I won't touch you, I swear. I'm sorry. I just want...can I just sleep here with you?"

Steve lets out a ragged sigh, halfway to trembling himself. He shouldn't. He keeps giving in, and it's not Bucky who's spoiling Lady, it's Steve that can't help but give ground to Bucky. Putting him to bed by himself, though, sending him back to the study to cry himself to sleep... Steve can't do it.

"Roll over," Steve instructs gruffly. Bucky obeys easily, curling up onto his side. Steve spoons up behind him, wrapping one arm around Bucky's waist and tucking his other hand up under his pillow. "Like this," he offers quietly. "Just sleep."

"Promise," mumbles Bucky, sniffling.

By increments, Bucky relaxes against him, giving in, breathing deep. Steve can tell when he's finally drifted off with only the occasional murmur as he sleeps safely in Steve's arms. Bucky feels incredible, tucked close, held tight. It's like he belongs there, fitting just so beneath Steve's chin, soft hair against Steve's skin. He presses a kiss to it, the silky strands lightly scented with Steve's shampoo.

Steve lets out a shaky breath and knows just how fucked he really is when it comes to Bucky. He's falling for him, hard and fast and inevitable. He wants to keep him—keep him safe, keep him happy and content, just plain keep him. And Steve can't, can he? He's got to send Bucky away in just a few months. What kind of life can he offer someone twenty years old, just starting out?

Bucky makes Steve want to be selfish, to at least ask and hope Bucky will say yes.

He may have convinced himself that he doesn't owe the whole world a piece of himself, but he still hasn't quite figured out what he owes himself, what he has any right to ask for.

That's a problem for the morning, though. Right now, he's got Bucky, warm and pliant and secure, right here in his arms, and maybe he is a good man, but he's not a saint. He holds Bucky close and falls asleep.

Chapter Text

--BUCKY--

Bucky wakes up in Steve's arms.

He realizes pretty quickly that Steve's not just holding Bucky, he's cuddling him. Steve is pressed all along Bucky's back, his knees tucked into the bend of Bucky's legs, and his big, thick arms are curled around Bucky's waist. Steve's breath puffs against the back of Bucky's neck in regular intervals, face tucked close.

Bucky's never been held quite like this before. He’s never woken up with another man after being thoroughly shut down the night before.

Steve even kissed him but refused Bucky all the same. Even now, warm and comfortable and held safe in Steve's arms, tears prickle at Bucky's eyes as he revisits the rejection.

He sniffles, rubbing his hand over his face.

Not like this, he said. Did that mean there is a way it could happen? Or was Steve just letting him down easy? Relenting eventually, allowing Bucky to stay the night, maybe just to lessen the sting.

God, Bucky really needs to get up. He starts to wriggle very gently, trying to extricate himself from the steel-grip of Steve's arms without waking him. Steve exhales gustily and loosens his grip, but not before his big hand spreads over Bucky's belly protectively first.

With a shaky sigh, Bucky slides out of bed and goes to the bathroom.

Steve was angry with him last night and Bucky knows he deserves that. He should never have snuck into Steve's room, into his bed. It was an awful thing to do. There’s no real excuse. Bucky just couldn't shake the worry, the certainty that Steve would be like every other person Bucky’s ever known.

Except he couldn't be more wrong. Steve isn't like those other people. Steve's not like anyone else. He's good and kind and caring, and Bucky took all that and tried to sabotage it just to prove to himself and to Steve that no one can be those things, not really.

Loitering in the bathroom, Bucky hears Steve moving around, soft footsteps and gentle words to Lady as he heads past the bathroom to the kitchen, then the sound of Lady's kibble hitting her bowl. Finishing up, Bucky splashes water on his face and gets ready to face the music. He knows, realistically, that Steve won't throw him out, won't sentence him to death out in the woods, cold and alone. Steve will keep providing shelter and food for Bucky and, honestly, that makes it even worse.

Steve is putting on coffee when Bucky makes it to the kitchen. He looks up when Bucky comes in and gives him a small smile. "Morning, Buck."

Fuck. Of course he’s being nice. Bucky's insides twist painfully and he abruptly blinks back tears. He ducks his head, wishing Lady wasn’t preoccupied with breakfast so he could at least concentrate on her instead. "Morning."

There's a beat of silence and then Steve strides across the kitchen, his socked feet coming into view, inches from Bucky's. "Hey, please look at me?"

Bucky takes a shuddering breath and slowly raises his head. He owes Steve at least that much. He owes him so much more.

When he looks up, the expression on Steve's face is tender. There's no other word for it. His eyebrows pulled up in concern, his mouth turned down with worry, his eyes searching Bucky's face. Bucky's breath shudders through him and he finds himself blurting, "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, Steve. I shouldn't have—I'm so stupid. Please don't hate me."

"Honey, no, it's—" Steve sighs, shaking his head. "Apology accepted, alright? You shouldn't go crawling into people's beds without their permission, Bucky, but I'm not mad. I don’t hate you. I..." Steve lifts his hand and it hovers near Bucky's jaw. "Can I touch you?"

Bucky can't speak. If he does, he'll start crying, but he manages a quick, shaky nod.

Gently, Steve's hand cradles Bucky's face, his thumb sliding steady along Bucky's jaw, dragging across the fresh stubble, up across the corner of his trembling mouth, sweeping against his over-warm cheeks. A sob slips loose and Bucky squeezes his eyes shut.

Steve tips Bucky's head back, chin up and throat exposed. "Bucky," he says, his voice so warm that Bucky's heart clenches. "I need you to understand something. Are you listening? Can you open your pretty eyes so I can see that you're taking in what I'm saying?"

With tremendous effort, Bucky manages it, his lashes wet and his eyes stinging.

"Good, that's so good, thank you," praises Steve, and Bucky shivers. Steve's eyes are so blue, staring at him, searching him down to his soul. It's the best and worst feeling all at once. "I need you to understand that you don't owe me or anyone else a damn thing just...just for being alive. I don't want you because I think you should give me whatever I want—"

"I would, though," says Bucky without hesitation, can't keep the truth of it inside. "I would give you anything, Steve. I want to—"

"Shhh," hushes Steve, his thumb sliding over Bucky's lips, keeping him quiet. "Let me finish. I get that, I do. I get that you want me. I want you too. I thought a lot about it last night and I don't know that it's doing either of us any good to pretend we don't feel something for each other. I just need to know you understand the difference between wanting me and feeling obligated to me."

Bucky's head is swimming. Held here in place so gently, transfixed by Steve's eyes and hands, he wants to say whatever it is Steve needs to hear him say, but that's the complete opposite of what Steve wants from him. He doesn't want Bucky to rush and trip over himself to pretend he understands the difference, but if Steve wants him to figure it out, then he will. He does want Steve, and he does feel obligated to him, but that's because he's grateful.

He can't stop feeling grateful for this snowglobe they're trapped in. This precious, undisturbed bubble of safety.

"I want you," he mumbles, Steve's thumb easing loose on his bottom lip. "I do."

"Yeah," says Steve, with a crooked grin. "I get that. I was mad, kid. Wanted to grab you by the back of the neck and shake you for pulling that shit. You don't owe me a goddamn thing."

Bucky nods hurriedly. "Okay. Okay, I know. I won't do that again, I promise. I'm sorry."

Steve sighs. His expression is a little tired around the edges, weary in a way that doesn't seem to have a lot to do with Bucky, but tugs at his guts all the same. "You know, I've been where you are," he says quietly. "I've been reckless with my body. I figured out the value of what people wanted from me and how I could trade it away on my own terms. I know what it's like to look at every interaction with the people you meet like a transaction, a calculation, how to give a little to get a lot."

He moves his hands to cup Bucky's jaw gently, leaning in to press another one of those kisses to Bucky's forehead that just turn his knees to water. "I'm not shaming you or judging you, Buck. I just can't be on the receiving end of that. I don't do casual anymore."

"That's not what I want," Bucky insists. "I...I did it wrong, I know. I was trying to prove that you were just the same as the guys I've met, but I don't think you are. I get it. I was testing you and I'm the one who failed. I promise, I get it."

Steve hums. His steady gaze flickers over Bucky's face until finally some tension leaks out of the room and he lets his hands slide to Bucky's shoulders. "You understand that if we start something, here, we'll be taking it slow."

Bucky nods eagerly. Sure, slow. If it means Steve will keep touching him like this, kissing him, then he'll hoard each moment of it and jerk himself off in the bathroom if he gets too desperate. It's a blessed, knee-shaking relief. Steve doesn't want to use him up in payment for his generosity. Steve truly doesn't want that from him.

"You want to sleep in my bed with me, you just ask for it, Buck," Steve says firmly. "You want something, you ask. You ever try something like that again while I'm sleeping and we'll have a much bigger problem."

Bucky nods again, desperate for Steve to believe him. "I won't. I understand."

"Good." Steve smiles at him and Bucky's heart squeezes.

His thumbs stroke Bucky's collarbone and Bucky gathers bravery he didn't know he had. "Can I—will you kiss me?"

"Yeah, honey, I will," he says simply, leaning down to catch Bucky's mouth in a sweet, gentle kiss. His lips are soft but dry, brushing against Bucky's own, barely lingering before he pulls back. "Now, what would you like for breakfast?"

Bucky's whole body feels bright and light and giddy, something warm filling his chest. "Um...French toast?"

Steve hmms. "Well, I'll have to go out to the coop to get more eggs, but I think I can manage that. You stay in here with Lady so she doesn't try to terrorize the chickens for fun."

"Awww, you wouldn't do that, would you?" Bucky looks down at Lady, who has finished her breakfast and is watching them closely. She wags her tail, tilting her head curiously. "You would never scare the poor chickens. You're a good girl."

Lady's tail thumps with even more enthusiasm and she gets up to push her head against Bucky's thighs. Steve steps back from him then and Bucky feels immediately colder. He lets himself focus all his attention on Lady instead as Steve wraps a scarf around his neck and shoves his feet into boots. Bucky watches as he trudges through the freshly fallen layer of snow toward the chicken coop just off the shed.

Lady licks his hand, drawing his attention back. "Yes, I'm sorry. You're right. How could I dare ignore you even for a second? Such a good girl," he says, his voice stretching out into a singsong rhythm. He rubs the sides of her face and under her jaw and her eyes close blissfully. Bucky sighs fondly. "You're so spoiled."

Her tongue lolls out, giving her the appearance of laughter. Bucky gets down onto the floor, sitting up against the cabinet and patting his thighs. Lady sprawls out over his legs, head in his lap, a prime position to be stroked. He's rubbing her ears, murmuring nonsense to her, when Steve comes back inside.

"Got four," says Steve, thumping his boots in the doorway to kick off the snow. He sets the basket down and strips out of his scarf and coat. "Think I've got two left in the fridge. They don't lay much when it's this cold and dark."

"Want me to help?"

Steve glances at him, mouth curling into a smile. "No. You can't disturb her highness, now. You stay put."

Steve's always doing that. Letting Bucky lounge and be lazy while he takes care of him. He doesn't complain or argue, though. He keeps Lady company while Steve cracks eggs and pours cream and vanilla and gets cinnamon from the cupboard. The butter sizzles when it hits the pan, Bucky watching with an ache in his chest as Steve stands over the oven, damp hair curling into his eyes, his fingers wet with egg wash as he dips the bread.

Making Bucky breakfast. The last time someone made him breakfast, it was...

There's a lump in his throat. Bucky sniffles very quietly, but Lady immediately lifts her head, tongue darting out to wet Bucky's face, while Steve turns to look at him, eyebrows furrowed.

"What's wrong?" he asks.

"Nothing," says Bucky, voice thick. "You're nice."

Steve looks even more concerned, if possible. "You say that like you're used to the bare minimum, Buck."

Bucky shrugs. "Guess so."

Steve hesitates a moment, then turns back around to start adding the bread to the pan. The silence stretches long enough that Bucky thinks Steve might have decided to let it go entirely. Then Steve says, "When I was little, it was just me and my mom. My dad was a soldier and he died before he ever got a chance to come home and meet me. It was good though, the two of us. She was a nurse and she took care of me the best she could.

"On her days off, she used to make me breakfast. We didn't have a lot of money so there wasn't a lot of variety but she did her best. When I was 17, she got sick and died, and I had to get by on my own. By the time I got into the army, I was so used to fending for myself, I didn't know how to let anyone else help, but...funny thing about being in a war zone, you gotta learn fast."

Steve shrugs, his gaze distant as he looks out the window. He looks...not sad, exactly, but wistful, as if he's far enough away from the memory that the sadness can't quite reach him anymore. He visibly shakes himself after a moment and clears his throat. "Anyway, we're not in a war zone, so...maybe it'll take a little longer to realize it's okay to accept help without feeling guilty about it."

Bucky wants to grab every little nugget of information he just learned about Steve and shove them all in his pockets for safekeeping. There's a pang of solidarity, enough key similarities between them that Bucky's eyes get so hot he pulls Lady against him and hides his tears in her thick fur. He's kept himself to himself out of reflexive self-defense and here's Steve looking at him struggling and sharing more of himself to extend a hand to Bucky as he picks himself up.

"Your mom sounds like she was something," he finally manages to say, lifting his head.

Steve nods, picking up a spatula and flipping over the toast. "She was. I still miss her."

"Me too," says Bucky, his face crumpling. He clears his throat and clarifies. "My mom died a year ago. She was sick for a while."

Steve's looks at Bucky with an expression of soft shock and deep sympathy. "I'm so sorry, Buck. That must have been so hard."

"Yeah," says Bucky. "I mean, you get it. You know."

"I do," says Steve quietly. "Wish I didn't, wish neither of us did."

They fall silent, Steve finishing up the French toast and plating it, bringing it to the table with cups of coffee. Then he lures Lady away with a chew stick so that Bucky doesn't have to be the one to betray her by getting up.

"Oh," says Steve, as he's washing his hands. "There's maple syrup in the fridge. Small glass bottle, no label."

Bucky retrieves it, happy for something to do to help out, and they both sit down to steaming, fragrant plates of French toast.

Bucky pours syrup carefully over his toast and licks the stray droplets off his fingers, eyes wide. "Whoa. Never had maple syrup like this before." It's a deep brown, gleaming amber in the sunlight.

"Mm," murmurs Steve, cutting his toast into squares. "I made it. Tapped something like forty trees last spring. Got this little bottle for all my efforts. Boiled it down dark and rich. It's grade B. Usually people prefer grade A."

"Is there anything you don't know how to do?" blurts Bucky.

Steve lets out a surprised laugh. "Sure, plenty."

Bucky lifts an eyebrow. "Like what? Name one thing."

Steve chews thoughtfully as he considers Bucky’s question, a small smile on his face. There's a beat after he swallows his bite where the look he gives Bucky feels like it might catch him on fire. But finally, Steve says, "Dance. Never did get a chance to learn."

Bucky opens his mouth to make a crack about it, but it catches in his throat. Steve is serious, and he's sharing something special with Bucky. He doesn't really understand it, not yet, but he wants to. He licks powdered sugar from his lips. "I could teach you some time, if you want."

"I'd like that," says Steve.

Bucky reaches for his coffee, gulping it down while he tries to process...everything. He's never had anything like this, someone he could share these things with, someone he could trust. With...himself, his heart, broken and piecemeal as it is now.

"So...you don’t have any siblings?" Bucky asks after awhile.

Steve shakes his head. "No, you?"

Bucky's chest is tight with anxiety at sharing so much, but he pushes through it. "I've got three sisters but...they're a lot older. I was kind of a surprise, I guess. The youngest is 30 now, then 34 and 37. They're all married, careers, two oldest have kids..."

"They around in Indiana when your mom was sick?"

"No, they couldn't really take that much time off,” says Bucky. “They'd come visit, y'know? Weekends, mostly, some days off work when they could but...they had these lives that were far away. Becca, that's the one that's closest in age to me, she was in the middle of her residency at New York Presbyterian. She's a fellow there now. That's who I was gonna go see."

"So it was just you and your mom?" prompts Steve.

"And my dad," admits Bucky. "Sort of. He...he worked a lot. Ma was sick for about two years, so...so I stayed with her."

"That's a lot for a seventeen-year-old to take on," Steve says softly. "I'm sorry you didn't have someone in your corner."

Bucky shrugs, cutting pieces off his toast with his fork, eyes fixed on his plate. "Ma took care of me my whole life. She never acted like it was funny I was so unexpected. Never made me feel like an afterthought. She did everything with me. Least I could do for her was take care of her when she needed me. Wish I could've done more."

"You did your best," says Steve. "With an awful situation."

Bucky makes a noncommittal noise. It still wasn't enough; he knows it wasn't his fault, was nobody's fault, but that doesn't make it easier. Bucky had one person who loved him wholly and completely and was proud of him for just being himself, and she’s gone now.

"After that, things weren't so great," he admits. "Never got along well with my dad and without mom, he just...turned into this miserable, sick person. And I'd get so resentful, so angry that he was still around when she was gone, I'd just pour gasoline directly onto the fire."

"He hit you?" Steve asks quietly.

"Some," mumbles Bucky, shrugging. "He'd threaten to kick me out all the time and then I just eventually realized...why wait? Why stick around for that? So I left."

Steve maintains a steady presence, right there across from him. He's not angry or upset. He doesn't rage about what an asshole his dad is or ridicule Bucky for not getting along better with him either. He doesn't make the same excuses Bucky’s heard a hundred times: He just lost his wife. He's got a shit job. Life's been mean to him, too.

Steve doesn’t do any of that. He only says, "I'm sorry it turned out that way, Buck. You deserve better."

Bucky breathes shakily through the burn of unshed tears, holding them back with a lump in his throat. "I guess," he croaks. "But I don't think life really cares about what we deserve."

Huffing, Steve looks down at his own plate as he cuts up a bite of toast. "No, don't suppose it does. But I do."

Bucky doesn't know what to say to that, so he doesn't say anything. Steve lets him, somehow just understanding him better than anyone ever has, giving him space when he needs it without being asked. They finish their breakfast in silence and for once, Steve lets Bucky do the dishes.

"Gonna take Lady out for a walk," he says as Bucky starts to fill the sink with water. "I need to check on the generator and the solar panels and look in on the chickens. Radio was saying we can expect another storm."

Clearing his throat, Bucky nods and says, "Sounds good."

Steve's still not back by the time Bucky finishes tidying the kitchen and adding a couple of logs to the woodstove. The crackling of the fire is soothing, though, and the place is feeling satisfyingly toasty. Wandering the living room aimlessly, Bucky checks the tree, but he doesn't see any evidence that Lady has nibbled on the popcorn garland. He fully intends to gloat about that to Steve. He's not spoiling her, see? It still looks a little bare, though, so he goes back to the kitchen and digs around in the drawers and cupboards until he comes up with a bulk-sized roll of tinfoil. He saw a couple more stashed in the pantry, so he's not worried about using the last of it.

Then Bucky sits down at the kitchen table, gets out a sharp little paring knife, and starts cutting up sections of foil. He mostly folds them over into longer, sturdier strips and squares, but even manages to fold a few decent looking stars. Once he’s got enough made, Bucky curls the strips and indents designs in the squares. When Steve does return, red-cheeked and radiating a chill from being outside so long, Bucky has created a tidy collection of ornaments.

"What are you up to?" asks Steve, kicking off his boots and hanging up his coat.

"Crafts," mumbles Bucky, folding off a final star. "You got more string somewhere?"

"Bottom drawer," says Steve, before turning his attention to Lady. He grabs her towel, rubbing her down so she doesn't get everything wet.

Bucky looks up from the table and fixes a mournful stare across the kitchen. "It's so far," he sighs.

Steve rolls his eyes. "You haven't left the cabin in days. Go on. Get your circulation moving."

Heaving out a dramatic sigh, Bucky pouts, reaching one arm towards the drawer. "Steve. Please."

With a deep, indulgent sigh, Steve hangs up the towel and crosses to the kitchen counter, opening the bottom drawer and pulling out a coil of string. He drops it on the table next to Bucky's elbow. "These for the tree?"

"Yeah," says Bucky. "Needs something shiny."

"Sorry I couldn't find any lights."

"S'okay." Bucky uses the knife to carefully punch out holes for the string. "Hey, you know, they used to use candles to light trees—"

"No," Steve interrupts firmly. "You can light the menorah when it's time. I got the tin holders all punched out, just gotta glue them in."

Bucky doesn't really feel put out but he wants to complain anyway. "Spoilsport."

"Yeah yeah," mutters Steve. "Maybe I'll make a tin star, too, bigger than these, for the top of the tree."

Bucky perks up. "Do you have any old lamps around? Anything broken? I could probably use the top to rig something up so that it actually lights up on the tree."

Steve looks closely at him. "You a secret electrician?"

"No." Bucky’s cheeks grow hot. "I really liked shop when I was in high school. I went to one of those uh, vocational ones. So I did all kinds of stuff. Took classes on electrical work and plumbing and all that. Mostly I took mechanic classes, but I made a lamp once for a project my sophomore year."

Steve looks impressed, which is contrary to the reaction Bucky is used to. When he was in Indiana, the kids who went to the vocational school were the poor kids or the troublemakers. Mostly the poor troublemakers. Kids who didn't have a future going to some fancy college 'cause everyone knew they weren't smart enough for scholarships and their parents couldn't afford to send them. When he met other kids his age, he never liked to admit where he went to school, because inevitably they'd get this look on their face. Like, oh, so you're a loser, huh?

"I've got some stuff in the shed. You can go out there and mess around after lunch if you want," says Steve. "Spare parts I've collected over the years. I'm sure I've got a lamp or two."

Bucky's shoulders relax. "Sounds good."

They hang up Bucky's tinfoil decorations together, then clean up for lunch. Steve heats up some soup and puts together chicken salad sandwiches. The second Bucky's finished eating, he takes his dishes to the sink and washes them up.

"You in some kinda hurry?" Steve asks, still working on his second sandwich. He eats a lot. He usually finishes whatever Bucky leaves behind in addition to the second or third helping he takes.

"I know where the shed is," says Bucky. "You don't have to show me. You trust me, right?" He flashes Steve a winning smile, grabbing the coat he's been borrowing if he needs to go outside.

Steve snorts, shoving his last bite into his mouth and chewing speculatively. "We don't both fit in there at the same time, anyway. Go on."

"Anything off-limits?" asks Bucky, hesitating by the door. Lady gets up to follow him, winding between his legs, making him stumble and catch himself on the doorframe. "Hey!"

Steve barks a laugh. "The last time you went out, you tripped over Rufus. She remembers."

"Lady," whines Bucky. "Come on. Just the shed, okay? You can supervise."

"The two shelves on the wall by the door are projects I’m still working on, so don't strip them for parts," says Steve. "Anything else is up for grabs."

"Okay," says Bucky breathlessly, maneuvering his body over Lady and stepping outside. "Come on, girl."

He crunches across the yard, where Steve's cleared paths to the shed and the coop. Lady stays vigilant right at his heels, huffing in satisfaction when Bucky only goes into the shed.

Steve's right, it's not very big, but it's more his size than Steve's. Jesus, his head must almost touch the ceiling in here. There's a bit of floor space, but mostly it's filled with shelves brimming with home renovation and repair supplies. Another shelf is jammed with what looks like broken appliances.

"Bingo," says Bucky, unearthing a little lamp that looks like it probably sat on a side table in Steve's bedroom or study. He flips it over and unscrews the base. If Steve dumped it here, the wires probably shorted out or frayed or something, but that's easy to deal with.

At his feet, Lady realizes he's here to stay for a bit and curls up under the workbench.

Bucky makes quick work of breaking down the lamp, taking the parts he needs, then digs out some spare wire and a soldering tool. He finds the scrap metal leftover from Steve making the menorah and sketches out a star big enough to go in front of a bulb, as well as a little flat bit for the bulb to go through in the back. He punches crisscrossing holes all across the star for the light to shine through. Then he starts cutting it out, carefully using the metal cutters. Last thing he needs is to slice off his own finger. Steve would never trust him again.

He manages to cut everything out and solder it all together without incident, though, plugging it in to observe the effect when it’s ready. It’s pretty good. Simple but beautiful, the light twinkling through the punched-out holes. It’s really good to just...make something again. He hasn't in a long time.

Cleaning up, he puts everything away, making sure the tools are all unplugged and switched off. Then he takes the new tree topper and brings it in to show Steve. Lady follows along, eagerly herding Bucky back to the house on the path. "I know, I know. Rufus is probably asleep anyway!"

Lady boofs disapprovingly and Bucky just laughs. When he opens the door, Steve looks up from his chair where he's reading a book, Bucky suddenly struck by how beautiful he is, all over again. His dark blond hair is falling in pieces over his forehead, falling loose from the combed back look Steve usually sports. Steve’s thick beard is starting to grow out even more than when Bucky first saw him, a little uneven and unkempt-looking, but Bucky remembers how soft it felt against his face when Steve kissed him. His eyes are very blue and they crinkle at the corners when he smiles at Bucky, his pink lips full and wide.

Bucky blinks rapidly, turning away to shed his gear. Lady didn't venture into the high snow, so she doesn't need another rub down. She just wanders over to Steve for pets as Bucky holds up the star. "All done."

Steve's eyebrows go up. "You cut the star, too?"

"Don't worry, I was careful, I used the gloves," Bucky says hurriedly, anxious for positive reinforcement.

"It's real beautiful," Steve says softly, getting up from his chair. "Should we put it up?"

Bucky joins him at the tree and holds it out. "You're taller. There somewhere back there to plug it in? I could do a battery pack, but—"

"There is," says Steve, accepting the star reverently with both hands and turning it over to examine the back. "This is fine work."

Bucky's cheeks flood with heat. "Thanks. It'll look nice when it's dark in here and it's all lit up."

Steve doesn't even have to rise up on his toes to comfortably situate the star on the top of the tree, nestled into the pine needles. There's an outlet on the wall around the back of the tree and Steve plugs in the star, both of them standing back to look at the light filtering through the metal.

"Pretty, right?" asks Bucky.

"Yeah," says Steve, hushed. "Real pretty. It looks like a proper tree, now." He wraps an arm around Bucky's shoulders, drawing him in for a one-armed hug and kissing his temple, and Bucky's insides turn soft and warm.

"Guess I should finish that menorah, if you're all done in the shed."

"Yeah, um, I'm done," mumbles Bucky, leaning shamelessly into Steve's bulk, enjoying the warmth and sturdy solidity of him. "No rush, though."

"Oh?" Bucky can practically hear the raised eyebrow in his voice. "What should I do instead?"

"You could...." Bucky casts frantically around for something that doesn't involve Bucky's mouth on Steve's dick. "You could keep reading to me."

"You liked that, huh? Wasn't just the painkiller talking?" muses Steve. His hand comes up and brushes gently through Bucky's soft hair at the base of his head.

"Nope. Told you, I like your voice," he admits, and if his own voice is a little breathless, at least Steve doesn't seem inclined to call him on it.

"Alright," agrees Steve. "Same book?"

"Yeah, gotta hear what happens to Anne."

Steve retrieves the book, but when he returns to his armchair, Bucky makes a soft, involuntary noise of disappointment, catching Steve’s attention. He raises his eyebrows.

"Could we sit on the couch together?" asks Bucky, feeling a little lightheaded at his own bravery. Steve told him to ask if he wants something. He's gotta ask.

And boy, oh boy, is he rewarded. Steve's smile is instant, big and warm as it spreads across his face. "Of course, Buck."

Steve settles in the corner of the couch while Bucky takes the blanket from the back and sits right next to him, curling up with his knees tucked under his body. Steve lifts his arm and Bucky leans into his side, his head resting on Steve's shoulder as he wraps his arm around him, thumb stroking Bucky's arm. "You'll have to help me turn the pages if you're gonna cuddle up there."

"Okay," hums Bucky. He'll do anything Steve asks if it means he gets to stay right here.

He feels warm and safe and wanted as Steve's deep, steady voice washes over him. The rumble of Steve’s voice, a deep, rich vibrato, settles in Bucky’s chest. Lady hops up on his other side and rests her head on Bucky's hip.

Bucky wants to hoard every single second of this, keep it in his heart forever. The tree they decorated together, shining in the corner; the sound of Steve reading to him; the warmth of the cabin; the soft rustle of the wind outside. Steve and Bucky and Lady all together...like some kind of family, almost, and part of Bucky feels like someone is going to burst in any second and take it all away, remind him that someone like him doesn't get to have this.

He clings harder to Steve, one hand twisted up in the tail of his flannel shirt while the other pets Lady, only stopping long enough to turn the page for Steve.

The next couple of weeks pass similarly.

It's the happiest Bucky's been in years. He stocks up on it, greedily devouring every scrap of joy like he’s Rufus, getting ready to hibernate.

Bucky can't help but predict disaster. It's just in his nature to worry, but it's also so much easier to exist in a bubble when they're miles away from anything and totally self-sufficient in the cabin. They only have to worry about keeping everything clean and functional, feeding themselves and Lady, and finding entertainment during the long, dark evenings. With Steve here to hold him, sleep beside him, read to him, and kiss him, Bucky doesn't have to reach too far to not be bored.

If he wants attention, he just crawls into Steve's lap and asks to be kissed, and Steve puts his big hands on Bucky's hips and obliges him with an indulgent smile.

As the holidays approach, though, Bucky starts to think about gifts. Steve insists Bucky owes him nothing, and Bucky almost believes him, but gifts aren't about owing someone something, right? Giving a gift is meant to show you care. Steve got him a tree and Bucky topped it with decorations. Steve finished the menorah, too, setting it on the mantle until it's time to use it. Those aren't actions owed.

Steve's already got all sorts of plans for Christmas dinner, but Bucky digs through Steve's books until he finds a recipe for pecan pie.

In the shed, he sorts through all the junk, trying to brainstorm anything Steve needs that Bucky could make for him, but there's nothing special that lights a fire inside him. He mopes around for days, enough that Steve notices and tries to coax an explanation out of him, but Bucky manages to convince him he's just preoccupied with other things.

They're watching Beauty and the Beast, of all things, when he finally gets his big idea. Steve's never seen it; Steve's never seen a lot of classic movies, apparently intent on catching up all at once. Onscreen, Belle and the Beast dress up and dance together, and Bucky remembers their conversation about the maple syrup.

He knows exactly what he'll do, the broken record player abandoned in the shed coming to mind immediately.

First, though, there’s Hanukkah to celebrate, and before Bucky knows it, the first night is here.

Bucky is oddly nervous. His mom always took the lead on this. That night, they finish dinner and Steve gets the menorah down onto the kitchen table near the window, finding nine short, thin tapers, while Bucky fidgets in his seat.

"I don't remember," he admits. "What if we do it wrong?"

"I remember," Steve says gently. "I used to celebrate with a member of my unit."

"Okay," says Bucky, glancing out the window. The sun has set and he knows it's time. "I remember one of the blessings, the one we said the most, even outside of Hanukkah. I can start with that one, before we light the first candle?"

"Sure, Bucky, whatever you want." He gives Bucky a warm smile and Bucky smiles back, reaching out to hold Steve's hand. Steve takes it easily and Bucky lets out a breath as he settles down.

The words are hesitant at first as they come to his lips, and he feels a little like an imposter because he doesn't remember the Hebrew. He doesn't follow any faith anymore, not his dad's or his mom's, but it feels good to do this for her anyway. I'm sorry if I fuck it up, Ma.

"Blessed are You Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who has granted us life, sustained us and enabled us to reach this occasion." He breathes out when he finishes, glancing at Steve. "Now I'll light the shamash and then I think you say the other two prayers."

Steve squeezes his hand and nods encouragingly.

Bucky picks up the box of matches, letting go of Steve to take one out and striking it as he tries not to shake. As Bucky lights the shamash and carefully uses it to light the first candle on the far right, Steve starts the second blessing.

If he knows the Hebrew, he doesn't use it, instead following Bucky's lead. "Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah light."

The candlelight flickers in the dim room, only the star atop the tree and the fire in the stove its companion. Bucky blows out the match and steps back, taking Steve's hand again as he starts the final blessing. "Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days at this time..."

Steve holds up the piece of paper where he wrote out the Hanerot Halalu hymn with Bucky's help, altering the version Steve knows with the changes Bucky remembers from celebrating with his mom. Together, they recite the words, Bucky leaning into Steve's warmth as they watch the light.

When it's done, Steve leads him over to the couch where they can watch the candle burn down. As they sit, he draws something out of his pocket, handing it over wordlessly.

Bucky's throat clenches up as he realizes what it is. "A dreidel. Steve, when did you...?"

Steve shrugs, looking a little self-conscious. Bucky doesn’t think he’s seen him uncertain like this before. "I found time while you were having near-daily naps with Lady. It's nothing special."

Maybe it wouldn't be if they could go to the store and buy one in person, but Steve took the time to carve down a piece of wood, etching the letters into each side, painting it a soft blue color. "It's beautiful."

"We don't have to play. I know it's more for kids, but...I thought you might like it. We don't exactly have anything to play for, anyway."

"I love it," Bucky says softly. He turns it over in his hands and lets out a shaky breath. "When I was really little, maybe four or five, my mom gave me one, and my sisters taught me how to play. And I thought I was so good, because I kept winning, and they just kept giving me more and more chocolate coins."

Steve chuckles softly. "Maybe you were just that good, Buck."

Bucky grins. "They kept it up for a few years, but I figured out they were just humoring me. It was nice, for a while. Good memories."

Steve presses a kiss to his cheek. "It sounds nice."

"Thank you," murmurs Bucky, choked up again. "This... It's..." He swallows hard and exhales shakily. "It means a lot. To do this with someone that...understands."

"You're welcome," says Steve softly. "It's my pleasure. Thanks for sharing this with me."

They sit quietly for a moment, Bucky trying desperately to get a hold of himself while Steve puts his arm around him. Eventually Bucky says, "Will you keep reading to me? We're almost done with Anne."

Steve kisses his temple. "Sure, Buck."

On Christmas Eve, Steve starts preparing for Christmas dinner, putting the turkey into the fridge to thaw and rustling around in the pantry and kitchen for what feels like hours, chopping up stale bread, opening and closing recipe books, and collecting ingredients. Bucky has to figure out when to kick him out so he can make the pie, because he doubts he'll be able to convince Steve to get out of the kitchen tomorrow.

Luckily, Steve extracts himself without prompting, poking his head into the living room in the middle of the afternoon. "I'll be in the studio for a couple of hours. If you need anything, just yell."

"Okay," Bucky says, sitting up on the couch. "Have fun."

Steve lets himself out of the house, door slamming shut behind him, and Bucky counts to thirty before he jumps up and digs out the recipe book he found, carrying it into the kitchen.

"Pie crust," he mutters, flipping pages. "Pie crust from scratch. Can't be too hard, right?"

As it turns out, it's kind of a pain in the ass. The first attempt ends up going too stiff and twenty minutes into smacking it with a rolling pin, Bucky gives up and throws it out. The second attempt goes much better, Bucky avoiding the mistakes of the first, and it turns out flour and butter can actually combine to make a serviceable pie crust.

After that, it gets a little easier. He remembers helping his ma with this during holidays and so the instructions for the filling seem a lot easier to follow. When he checked a few days ago, he was surprised and relieved to see that Steve somehow had corn syrup as well as dark and light brown sugar. Bucky kind of wonders if he just buys whatever goes on sale in bulk all year round in the nonperishables. It seems pretty likely considering the hodgepodge of stuff in the cellar and pantry.

He very nearly boils the syrup over, catching it just in time, and the pecans might be a little on the dark side, but overall, when he pulls the finished product out of the oven to set, he feels a swell of pride at his accomplishment. He did that. He made this pie for Steve.

"I am a culinary genius," he tells Lady. She perks up, looking at him. Her nose twitches at the smell of caramelizing sugar, tongue lolling out hopefully. Bucky chuckles and walks over to the jar with her treats, taking one out. She's up like a rocket as soon as he even takes a step toward it, so he makes her do a trick to earn her treat. "Sit. Good girl, okay, now...shake paws."

Lady dutifully sticks out her paw for a shake and Bucky rubs her fluffy coat while he hands over the promised treat. She snatches it delicately and trots away to devour it just as Steve comes back into the house, letting in a blast of cold air. "Ah, spoiling her again, I see."

"No!" Bucky shuffles sideways, standing in front of the where the pie is cooling. "I am not spoiling her. She earned that treat like a good girl. And anyway... I'm spoiling you, not her. I made you a present."

Steve's eyebrows go up. "Oh?" He sniffs, reminding Bucky of Lady, and a smile spreads across his face. "Did you bake for me, Buck?"

"Yes, but you can't have any until tomorrow! For Christmas! It's gotta cool anyway."

Steve leans sideways and Bucky follows the movement, scowling at Steve as he blocks his line of sight. "Stop! Get out of here."

"I gotta get the turkey out of the fridge and into the brine for tomorrow," says Steve, a smirk on his face as he leans on the counter.

"Do you gotta do that now?" demands Bucky. "You can do that in an hour when the pie is cool and I can cover it up and put it away from your prying eyes!"

Steve chuckles and backs away, turning around and leaving the kitchen. "Fine, fine! I'm taking a shower, I'm covered in paint."

He disappears from view and Bucky relaxes, turning to examine his pie. It looks good. It looks exactly like a pecan pie. He did that, he made this entire thing from scratch. Only time will tell whether it sets up right and tastes good, but right now he's pretty pleased with himself.

Steve does behave, avoiding the kitchen until Bucky tells him he's allowed to go in and do whatever he needs to do to prep the turkey.

Which, Bucky learns, involves Steve dragging a huge pot out of the cupboard, boiling a bunch of stuff in it that smells spicy and salty, and then dunking the entire turkey into the pot and heaving it into the fridge.

"There's only two of us," says Bucky, watching as Steve gently lowers the bird into the brine.

Steve shrugs. "You've seen how I eat. Besides, anything we don't eat, I'll freeze. Turkey soup, turkey sandwiches... there's plenty of stuff we can do with leftovers."

"And you're making stuffing, right?" Bucky insists.

"Yes, Buck, I'm making stuffing. I didn't have any stale bread, so I chopped up fresh bread and let it sit out. I'll make it tomorrow."

"Doesn't it go into the turkey?"

Steve makes a face. "It can. I'll make it separate. Unless you want to get in there and shove it up inside the—"

"Separate pan is fine," interrupts Bucky.

Steve laughs. "Alright. Why don't you help me peel potatoes? I'll make the mashed potatoes tonight so it's one less thing."

"Sure," agrees Bucky. He sits in the kitchen with Steve until it starts to get dark, peeling and cutting potatoes. They make an entire bag of them, and then after, Steve throws together some grilled cheese and soup for dinner before they go to light the third candle and say the prayers. Steve reads to him just like he has every night and they watch the candles burn down.

When they go to bed that night, Steve holds Bucky close and kisses him to sleep, while Bucky does his damn best to ignore what the heated press of Steve’s body does to him.

Chapter Text

--STEVE--

Steve wakes up the next morning to light pouring in through the window, Bucky plastered to his side. He's sweaty in his sleep from the heat of their bodies, dark hair even darker at the temples and along his hairline, cheeks flushed with pink. His wet mouth is open as he drools on Steve's shoulder, held tight in his arms. It's fucking adorable.

With a sigh, he peels Bucky gently away. Bucky makes a discontented little sound but rolls over obligingly, clutching the pillow to him instead. Steve's heart clenches sweetly but he forces himself to get up instead of luxuriating in bed with Bucky, taking a quick shower before going to the kitchen.

They're not doing anything elaborate for breakfast, just oatmeal and coffee, so that they have plenty of room for Christmas dinner. Well, it’ll be more like Christmas late lunch, followed by grazing for the rest of the day. Steve's never really done anything like this before. With his Ma, they used to help serve at the soup kitchens and then go to their neighbor's house for dinner with a carefully made dish to share.

It feels like he's forming new traditions with Bucky, and he tries not to let that sink under his skin so bad, but it is what it is.

While he gets the water boiling for the oats and the coffee brewing, he heads outside to get the painting he made for Bucky, carefully wrapping it in old newspaper and bringing it inside to place under the tree.

Then, finally, he goes to wake Bucky up.

In the time since Steve’s been absent from the bed, Bucky's rolled over again, now sprawled diagonally on his back with one foot dangling off the side. Lady is curled up on the foot of the mattress, her head on Bucky's ankle.

Bucky is snoring a little, head tipped back, his hair a mess of curls and his mouth slack.

Feeling horribly fond, Steve bends over and presses a kiss to Bucky's forehead. "Hey pal," he murmurs, giving Bucky's shoulder a gentle shake. "Wake up. Merry Christmas."

Bucky mumbles unintelligibly and heaves out a sleepy sigh, stirring slowly. "Mm?"

"Good morning, it's time to get up," says Steve.

"Who says?" slurs Bucky, his eyelashes fluttering as he opens heavy-lidded eyes. "It's Christmas?"

"Sure is," says Steve. He whistles for Lady, pointing out the doorway, and she rises up with a lazy yawn and stretch and ambles off the bed.

"Nooo," protests Bucky, reaching for her. "Come back, don't listen to Steve."

Steve huffs, catching Bucky's hand and then pressing a kiss to his knuckles. "Breakfast is ready."

"Coffee?"

"That, too."

"Bring me a cup?"

Steve rolls his eyes. "No, but how about I bring you to it instead?" Scooping Bucky up into his arms is easy when he's still half-asleep and his protests are muffled as he clings to Steve and tucks his face against his neck. Steve carries him out to the living room and sets him on the couch.

Once situated, Bucky yawns and stretches dramatically, looking at Steve with very innocent eyes. "I was just so sleepy," he says, looking around the room. His gaze catches on the present under the tree immediately. "What's that?"

"Gift," says Steve, going into the kitchen.

"Who’s it for?"

"Well, who else, Buck?"

"Oh," says Bucky, but his eyes are bright with curiosity, and he grins up at Steve. "What did you get me?"

Steve laughs. "You'll just have to wait and see. Breakfast first."

"Fine, but you have to wait for your present until after dinner."

"Hmm, that hardly seems fair," says Steve, though he doesn't particularly care. He doesn't expect anything from Bucky at all. He picks up Bucky's bowl and his cup of coffee, already fixed the way Steve knows he likes it, and brings it over.

"Too bad," Bucky sniffs, accepting what Steve hands him. "At least you already know what your present is."

"I don't know what flavor, just that it's a pie."

Bucky scowls at him cutely, stuffing his mouth with oatmeal and then taking several gulps of coffee. "Hmph."

Steve grins and picks up his own breakfast, sitting in the armchair across from Bucky. They each scarf down their breakfast, Bucky barely containing his excitement. "Okay," he says, scraping up his last spoonful of oatmeal. " Now do I get to open my present?"

"Now you can wait while I get the turkey in the oven so it can start cooking."

"Then can I have a second cup of coffee? Please?" he wheedles, holding up his cup.

Steve indulges him, filling it up and adding cream and sugar. When he brings it back, he kisses Bucky's cheek and takes his empty bowl from him.

Bucky repositions himself on the couch and drapes the blanket over his lap before he starts chatting away to Lady, who has come over after her own breakfast, eager for morning pets. Half-listening to their one-sided conversation, Steve brings the dishes to the sink and washes his hands before he gets the pot out and brings it over to the oven, setting the turkey in the roaster and then sliding it into the preheated oven.

When he's washed his hands again, he joins Bucky in the living room, picking up the present from under the tree and bringing it over. "Alright, go ahead."

Bucky is gleeful as he sits up, setting his cup down and carefully lifting each of the folded corners of the package until he can remove the wrapping in one piece. Steve will admit to himself that he's nervous. He hasn't given art to someone since...well, Peggy. He'd given her a piece he drew of London, before the worst of the bombing. That art was donated by her estate to the Smithsonian, or so Steve read.

He shakes off the sad thought, though, and focuses on Bucky, who has gone very still, his heartbeat loud in Steve's ears. The piece he's staring at took Steve several days to work out, catching Bucky when he was napping long enough to sketch him before he brought the sketch to the studio and traced it onto a larger canvas to be painted.

What Bucky's looking at now is a domestic scene: it captures Bucky asleep on the couch, Lady draped over his legs, the cabin warm and soft, nearly glowing around him. The winter landscape can be seen through the kitchen window in the background and Bucky looks nothing but peaceful.

Bucky stares at the painting in his lap, apparently shocked speechless. His cheeks flush and the very tip of his nose starts to turn pink as though he's holding back tears.

Sure enough, he sniffles, ducking his head to wipe at his eyes. Steve scoots closer on the couch, setting his hand on Bucky's shoulder and giving it a squeeze. "Hey, Buck," he soothes. "You okay?"

"Am I okay?" demands Bucky, voice thick. "How could you give me this and then ask me that?"

Anxiety blooms in Steve's belly, his own heart rate picking up almost in sympathy of the distress Bucky is in. "I'm sorry," Steve says quietly. "I just thought..."

Bucky shakes his head, face wet with tears. "No, no, Steve, I'm... No one has ever given me something like this. Thank you, it's beautiful."

As quickly as the anxiety took root, relief washes through Steve. "I thought maybe I'd made you uncomfortable," he says, laughing nervously.

"You will if you don't kiss me right now," says Bucky, carefully setting the painting on the floor and then drawing his legs up onto the couch to turn and reach for Steve.

Steve cups the back of Bucky's head and tilts his head into the kiss, Bucky's lips parting against Steve's, the creamy sweetness of Bucky's coffee still on his tongue. Bucky can't seem to help himself, clutching at Steve's shirt and dragging him in close, making a soft, vulnerable noise against Steve's mouth.

"Thank you," Bucky repeats when they part. He ducks his head, breathing raggedly, and tucks himself under Steve's chin, against his chest, so Steve hugs him. He wants to wrap Bucky up, take his soft heart into his own ribs to protect it.

"I like seeing you here," Steve says roughly, kissing the top of Bucky's head. "In my home, in the kitchen, on the couch, in my bed. Feels right. Wanted to show you what I see."

"Oh, my god, stop before I actually cry," mumbles Bucky, sounding very watery. "You painted that, for me. You put me in..." He sniffles again, a little sob catching in his throat. In Steve's arms, Bucky is trembling.

"Merry Christmas," Steve says softly. "I'm glad you're here with me."

"I am too," whispers Bucky. "Steve, I'm so glad that I crawled into the back of your truck. And I'm sorry, because I know it wasn't fair, and then you got stuck with me, but I—" Bucky breaks off, lifting his face to look at Steve again. He wipes his eyes, pushing up to kiss Steve, shaking as he says, "I love you."

For an interminable moment, Steve can’t process that statement. He hears Bucky say the words, he knows what those words are, he knows what Bucky is saying, but it’s like he’s just been railed over the head with a hammer. He’s stunned stupid.

Before he even finishes processing the tremulous sentiment, his brain rushes to catch up, spitting truths back at him: he loves Bucky, too. He knows it; he knows he loves Bucky because the evidence is propped on the floor, bursting from every stroke of Steve’s brush.

He can’t deny the feelings he splashed across the canvas. They’re right there, his own heart outside of his chest, tender and raw.

Knowing the truth doesn’t change how it still scares him like nothing else does anymore.

The fact is, Steve’s stolen this. He’s stolen Bucky from the life he could have, should have once this winter is over. It's so soon. It’s too soon to have and acknowledge these kinds of feelings.

Steve knows it's the intensity of their situation, but he also fell in love with Peggy Carter in the middle of a war and never got to tell her. Maybe he doesn't care about too soon or unique circumstances bringing them together.

As the insecurity creeps into Bucky's face, Steve can't delay another second, won't put Bucky through feeling that rejection when it must have taken so much trust and faith for him to say those words to Steve. Surging forward, Steve brings their lips together, deepening the kiss with a sweep of his tongue as Bucky gasps.

When they part, Steve lets himself confess. "I love you too, Buck."

Bucky makes a relieved sound, a shudder rippling through his slender frame, and he tips himself forward into Steve's arms to hide his face again.

Steve embraces him securely and nuzzles at his soft hair. "Easy, Buck," he soothes, when Bucky swallows back some muffled sobs. "You're okay. You're okay, honey." He relaxes by degrees, soft and warm in Steve's arms. He feels so good there, where Steve can feel the beat of his heart against his own chest.

"I keep waiting to wake up," Bucky finally says, voice watery. "But you're always here when I do, and if it is a dream, I don't ever want it to end." When he manages to raise his head, to brush the tip of his nose, pink and tear-stained, against Steve's cheek, his eyes are huge and pale blue, red-rimmed and full of fragile hope. Steve kisses him, jaw cupped in his hands. "I've never felt like this before," Bucky admits.

"I know, baby," murmurs Steve. "I know. Haven't been able to help it, either."

"I get it, now," says Bucky, closing his eyes. "The difference. Between wanting you and feeling obligated."

"Buck," rumbles Steve, kissing him firmly. "I can give you anything…anything you want, you know that? If you ask, if you really want it."

Bucky bobs his head up and down, clutching at Steve's shirt. "I do really want it, I want everything with you." He presses a soft kiss to Steve's cheek, fingers tugging at his beard. When he meets Steve's eyes again, there's a deliberateness to his voice as he says, "Tonight, when we go to bed. I want to have sex."

Desire swoops hotly through Steve. "Yeah, honey, we can do that. Would love nothing better."

Bucky lets out a breath and then plants one more kiss to Steve's lips before he pushes away. Steve lets him go, watching as Bucky picks up the painting and brings it into the study. Steve gives him the space, turning his attention back to dinner.

The rest of the morning passes with crackly carols on the radio and Bucky sitting with a hot chocolate at the table while Steve gets everything ready. They don't talk the whole time, not really needing to fill the comfortable silence, but occasionally they share a memory or a story of the day spent with their respective families.

"I think one of my favorite memories is actually the last Christmas I spent in the army," Steve says while he bastes the turkey, sitting it out to rest now that it's finally cooked through. The stuffing and yams are heating in the oven, the mashed potatoes in their pot ready to be put in next. Steve takes some of the drippings from the turkey to make gravy on the stove. "We camped out. It was cold and wet, it'd been raining for days. We were between missions and it was just me and my unit. We built this big fire, sang carols, passed around the last bottle of whisky Dum Dum had been hoarding, ate twice as many rations as we should have... It was stupid, but...they were my family."

He hears Bucky shift in his seat, hesitating before he asks, "Do you not get to see them anymore?"

Steve exhales slowly, counting to five. "They're all gone."

"Gone?" asks Bucky, the confusion evident. "Your whole unit...?"

"Yeah." His voice sounds rough even to his own ears. He takes another steadying breath, turning to give Bucky a reassuring smile. "Sorry, didn't mean to bring us down. It really was a good memory. I've come to terms with losing them. It's fine, really."

Bucky shakes his head. "It's not fine, but I'm glad you're okay. I'm sorry that happened, Steve."

"Yeah, me too." He turns back to the stove, stirring the gravy vigorously until the moment passes. Bucky clears his throat after a few minutes, smoothly changing the subject, and they move on.

Not to brag about his own skills in the kitchen, but dinner is incredible. When everything is ready, they both pile their plates high and sit down, their feet hooked together under the table as they eat more than their fair share.

"Oh my god, the stuffing is so good," Bucky groans, shoveling in another bite. "If I hadn't already confessed my love, I'd be doing it right now."

Steve laughs, almost choking on his own mouthful. "Thanks."

"You are so welcome," mumbles Bucky through a full mouth.

They both clean their plates and then take seconds—and thirds, in Steve's case—and by the time they're finished eating, Bucky is slumped over the table while even Steve feels a little like he overdid it.

"Well," says Steve, feeding a small bite of turkey breast to Lady and stroking her head. "That was pretty good, I'd say."

"I'm dying," says Bucky, flopping back in his chair and stretching his legs out under the table, a hand resting gingerly on his belly. "But if I have to go out, then I’m okay with going out like this."

Steve huffs a laugh. "We can just...leave the dishes, for now."

"Good, 'cause I can't move."

"And I can't pick you up."

Bucky closes his eyes, moaning softly. "I'm gonna fall onto the floor and then roll into the living room."

They do, eventually, manage to move, though in Bucky's case, he doesn't go far. He takes four steps into the living room and then lies face down on the couch, where he passes out almost immediately. Steve pulls a blanket over him and takes his time cleaning up, packing up leftovers into the fridge and freezer. He lets the dishes soak, not really interested in washing them, and finally sinks down into his armchair with a deep sigh.

He naps a little bit, just resting his eyes as his metabolism kicks into overdrive. Lady splits her time between nuzzling her wet nose into Bucky's dangling hand and resting her head on Steve's knee while she stares at him mournfully, clearly hoping for more turkey.

Bucky sleeps for almost two hours, eventually getting himself up to go to the bathroom. They settle down to watch a movie, Bucky picking out National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, which is yet another DVD Steve owns but has never watched.

At sunset, they light another candle, Bucky's head on Steve's shoulder as they sit in the warmly lit living room, the fire roaring.

"Is it time to consider eating again?" ventures Bucky. "I made that pie."

"I could eat," Steve says instantly.

Bucky pats his shoulder. "Okay. You stay here, I'll get it."

Steve hums, catching Bucky by the hand to kiss him before he gets up. Bucky flushes a little, pleased, before disappearing into the kitchen.

He feels a little bad that he already knows it's pecan pie, but his nose is pretty accurate, and the kitchen had smelled buttery and rich and caramelized when he'd come back inside yesterday from the studio. Still. Bucky doesn't have to know that. When Bucky returns with two perfectly set and sliced pieces of pecan pie, Steve brightens and makes an eager noise, genuinely touched.

"Is this the pie you told me about?" he asks, Bucky settling back in beside him.

"Yeah," says Bucky. "It looks right. I hope it tastes good."

"It looks amazing," Steve says genuinely. "I can't wait to try it."

"Go ahead, put me out of my misery," says Bucky, lifting his hand to cover his face and peek through his fingers.

Steve laughs but forks up a hefty mouthful and takes a bite. It is, quite frankly, the best pecan pie Steve’s ever tasted. It’s incredible. Steve's eyes slide blissfully shut. "Oh my god," he mumbles through a mouthful of perfectly sweet-and-salty buttery goodness. He chews and swallows and then groans. "Oh my god, Bucky, it's so good."

"Yeah?" Bucky's entire face has gone pink, right up to his ears. "You mean it?"

"Yes, honey, it's delicious. What is that little bite to it? It cuts the sweetness so well." Steve takes another bite, enthusiastically demolishing his slice.

"Oh," says Bucky. "You taste that, huh? It’s bourbon. I found some in the cellar. I hope you don't mind."

"No, not at all. I told you, you’re welcome to anything in there. That in the recipe you used?"

Bucky shakes his head, finally taking his own bite. "No, I added it. My ma used to do it, said it made it better. Just a half an ounce is all."

"Well, she was right."

Bucky looks happier than Steve's ever seen him as they finish up their pie, and when Bucky takes their plates away, Steve steals another kiss. "Thank you, Buck. This is my new favorite Christmas, I mean it."

"Mine too," he says quietly, adding the plates to the sink to soak. When he comes back, he's fidgeting a bit. "That wasn't your only present. I've got one more for you."

"You do?" asks Steve, genuinely surprised. "You didn't have to do that. Having you here is present enough."

"I wanted to," insists Bucky. "I'm gonna go get it but I need you to do something for me first."

"What's that?"

"Can you move the couch over to the other wall? I need a clear space." He points, indicating where he wants it.

Curious, Steve agrees. "Sure."

"Alright, I'll be right back." He goes to the study, where he honestly hasn't slept in weeks. When he comes back, he's carrying something big and boxy in his arms. With a start, Steve realizes it's the old broken record player he had in the shed. It'd actually been there since the previous owner of this cabin still lived here.

"So, I saw this out there, and when I opened it up, I could see a mouse chewed through some of the wiring. I fixed it up while you were out on a walk with Lady." He sets it down on the table and then turns around and goes back to the study, coming right back with a record. "And you already had some records so I thought maybe...I could teach you how to dance." Bucky looks up at him with a small, hopeful smile, biting his bottom lip. "But if you were just kidding about the dancing, at least you have a working record player now."

Steve's chest tightens, his eyes hot. Bucky's compassion and consideration shouldn't catch him off guard, at this point, but the thoughtfulness of this particular gesture settles right into Steve's very guts, twisting into deep affection.

"You remembered," he murmurs. He sniffs, rubbing at the tip of his nose and nodding. "It wasn't a joke."

Bucky's hesitant smile grows. "Then...?"

Steve steps into the open space and turns expectantly to Bucky. "I'd love it if you taught me to dance, Buck."

"I'm not, like, an expert," Bucky disclaims, grabbing the record and sliding it out of the sleeve. "But I did lessons before my bar mitzvah. That was when we still lived in Brooklyn and ma took us to temple sometimes."

Steve smiles. "You're an expert as far as I'm concerned."

Bucky looks pleased, flush with excitement. He turns to place the record on the table, delicately lifting the needle and setting it down. Music crackles out, bluesy and soft, and Bucky makes a relieved sound, clapping his hands together. "Yes! Song choice is limited, I don't even know what this is, but it has the right tempo."

"Great," says Steve, barely understanding what Bucky is talking about. Bucky straightens up, though, and comes over to Steve, looking up at him as he positions himself directly in front, their toes aligned on the floor. Bucky grins, his heartbeat a rapid thump that contrasts with the steady beat of the music. He's nervous, but so is Steve.

Bucky bites his lip, as if realizing there's a piece of a puzzle he has yet to solve. When he speaks, his question is soft and hesitant, "Do you want to lead or follow?"

"Whatever you want is fine by me, honey," he says truthfully. "You probably learned to lead, right?"

"Yeah, but…" Bucky trails off, his cheeks glowing. "I might, um, try it the other way."

"Sure," he murmurs, feeling warm all over. "You just tell me what to do."

"So, I put my hand here," says Bucky, resting his hand on Steve's left shoulder, trembling only for a moment before he settles, growing more confident as he goes. "And we hold hands up here..." With his right hand, he takes Steve's left, lifting them up to shoulder height.

"What do I do with..." Steve tentatively raising his left hand.

"Under my arm, just put it on my back, right... Yeah, right there."

Steve spreads his hand over Bucky's back, just over his shoulder blade, huffing out a steadying breath.

"That's great," praises Bucky, and Steve can't help laughing.

"We haven't even moved yet. Just wait until I step on your foot."

"It's so easy, I promise," says Bucky. "Just listen to my instructions. You're going to step forward with your left foot while moving diagonally with your right foot, then back one step with your right foot, diagonally to the left, to end up where you started. That's it. Then we repeat until you get the hang of it."

Steve's never been gladder that the serum makes him predisposed to learning anything new and physical quite easily. He takes a breath, listening for the music, and then mimics the directions, moving smoothly forward with Bucky held in his arms, diagonally right, then back. Bucky moves with him, legs never tangling with Steve's.

"It's a simple waltz," says Bucky. "A box step. Try it again."

Steve does, and they move through it easily, taking a slow turn in the living room while Lady watches from her bed.

"Wow," says Bucky. "I'm not surprised you're getting this so quickly, but are you sure you've never done this before?"

Steve lets out a pleased chuckle. "Yes, I'm sure." Tipping his face down, he brushes his lips to Bucky's cheek, then says softly in his ear, "You're just a very good teacher. I'm lucky you've given me such a thoughtful present."

Bucky's cheeks go enticingly pink at the compliment and he shivers in Steve's hold. "I'm glad you like it."

"I like everything about you." It's an easy truth to share. "Can I tell you something?"

"Of course." Their voices are soft, whisper-quiet, even though it's only the two of them, reinforcing their closeness as they sway around the room together.

"I'm glad you asked to be intimate tonight," admits Steve, his mouth brushing the shell of Bucky's ear. "I can’t stop thinking about it. I want to make you feel so good, honey."

Bucky’s reaction isn’t exactly what Steve was expecting; he goes tense in his arms, his heartbeat hammering loudly. "Oh, uh."

Steve frowns, pausing in their dance, then steps back far enough to see Bucky's face, though their hands are still tangled. "Buck?"

Bucky holds himself stiffly, frozen in place, his eyes on the floor. He looks embarrassed, red-faced, and shakes his head dismissively. "I'm fine," he says, tugging at Steve's hands. "Can we just...sorry, my brain went somewhere else. Can we finish dancing?"

The last thing Steve wants to do is destroy this moment, and if something made Bucky uncomfortable, maybe he should drop it, for now. "Are you sure you're okay?" he asks softly.

"Yeah," says Bucky. His expression smoothes out, lips curling into a tight smile. "Here, let me show you how to give me a twirl."

"Okay, Bucky," says Steve, filing this away to discuss when they go to bed.

Whatever tension developed between them fades as Bucky continues his lesson. They dance their way through the small assortment of records Bucky surfaces from the study, while Bucky patiently explains the steps each time before they practice them.

After about an hour, Bucky collapses onto the couch, throwing his head back with a theatrical groan. "Okay, lesson over! You did great. I'll probably move you to the advanced class, next time."

"Next time, hm?" murmurs Steve, sitting down next to him. "I like the sound of that."

Bucky grins, turning towards him and pulling Steve in for a kiss. "Merry Christmas. How about we get ready for bed?"

Steve kisses back for several long moments, thumb brushing gently against Bucky's smooth jaw. He must have shaved this morning.

Eventually, he pulls back and smiles. "Yeah, that sounds real good, Buck. Let's get ready for bed."

Chapter Text

--BUCKY--

For a little while, they don’t move from the couch.

Steve doesn’t seem inclined to actually get up or release Bucky to get ready for bed as they enjoy the comfort of the crackling fire. It’s good to sit like this, warm and close, settling the nerves that flared up while he danced with Steve.

It's going to be fine. Bucky knows that he wants Steve—wants to be with Steve—but he has to make sure Steve understands that Bucky doesn't mind not getting anything out of it. If Steve wants to fuck him like Bucky thinks he does, Bucky's okay with that. He just hopes Steve won't be disappointed.

Eventually, Steve leans down and kisses his temple, pulling Bucky out of his thoughts. "Okay. Up. I'm going to take Lady for a late night run so she doesn't sulk when I kick her out of the bedroom tonight."

"Make sure she gets an extra t-r-e-a-t," says Bucky, spelling it out. It does nothing to prevent Lady from figuring out what he's talking about, though, because she's suddenly right there, pushing against their legs, whining hopefully. Bucky lets out a startled laugh. "Oh my god, you're too smart for your own good."

"Told you, she understands English," chuckles Steve, giving Lady a rub between the ears. "Okay, I'll be about an hour." He presses another kiss to Bucky's head and goes to pull on his boots and coat, Lady dancing excitedly at his feet before they disappear outside together.

With a sigh, Bucky settles back on the couch, pulling the blanket down over him. He tries to read for a while, but his mind is elsewhere. He should probably actually get ready for bed and take a shower, if they're going to fuck. Then he could crawl into bed naked for when Steve gets back.

When he finally gets up, it's been almost forty minutes since Steve left with Lady, and Bucky needs to hurry up if he wants to be ready and waiting for Steve. The candles have long since burned down in the menorah when Bucky checks on them. Outside the kitchen window, the snow shines brightly, glittering under the porch lights.

Bucky takes a shower, scrubbing himself squeaky clean. As he's getting out, rubbing the towel over his head, he hears the door closing, Lady barking happily; Steve must be spoiling her with treats, as requested. Hurriedly drying himself off, Bucky slips out of the bathroom and crosses the hallway, slipping in between the sheets of Steve's bed.

"Buck?" calls Steve. His footsteps travel down the hallway and then his head pops into the bedroom, blue eyes bright in the dim light. "There you are," he murmurs, voice low.

"Here I am," says Bucky softly, shivering a little, curling the blanket into his hands. "Thought I'd...wait for you."

"You're so good," Steve says quietly. "Why don't you get comfortable. I'll be ten minutes while I lock up the house and get cleaned up a little."

"Okay," says Bucky. He's already as comfortable as he's going to get, but he doesn't need Steve to know that. Instead he makes a show of wiggling down further in the bed.

Steve turns away and heads for the bathroom and Bucky lets out a sigh. He just needs to relax. He doesn't want Steve to pick up on how anxious he is about this whole thing. Steve always seems to be able to tune into his emotions on a preternatural level and it's definitely putting Bucky at a disadvantage right now.

He concentrates on deep, steadying breaths, in and out in a measured rhythm, while he listens to Steve in the shower, the sound of the water. When it shuts off again, he's something approaching relaxed, the roar of his heartbeat having calmed.

Steve appears again in the doorway, all the lights shut off behind him. Only the moon shining in from the window illuminates him, and Bucky can see that he's not wearing a shirt, just a pair of boxers. He closes the door behind him as he enters the bedroom. "Hey."

"Hey," breathes Bucky, turning toward him as he lifts the blankets and climbs in next to Bucky.

Steve's eyes widen a bit as he realizes Bucky is naked beneath the blankets, but his expression settles into something fond and pleased that warms Bucky through. Steve's hand slides over his shoulder and his side, resting heavy on Bucky's hip. "Okay, honey?"

Bucky nods quickly, scooting closer until they're face to face, Steve's arm draped over him and holding him close. Steve kisses his forehead and then the tip of his nose before he finally presses his lips to Bucky's.

It's unbearably sweet when Steve does that. From someone so big, who immediately tried to help Bucky despite how gruff he was... Of course he starts slow, pressing soft kisses to every part of Bucky he can reach before he even thinks of taking it further.

Something deep inside Bucky melts like a popsicle left out in the hot sun, sticky sweet and shivery cold. Steve works any residual tension out of Bucky with slow, deep, wet kisses, slipping between Bucky's lips with strong sweeps of his tongue. He's firm, commanding, but with gentle give; Steve warms him up from head to foot, Bucky squirming closer to him as pleasure mounts. They've kissed a lot lately, but it's never been with purpose, and as Bucky's cock perks up and he rolls his hips against Steve's strong thigh, he thinks he can definitely get through this as long as Steve keeps kissing him.

Most guys don't kiss like this, if at all.

"God," Bucky gasps into Steve's mouth, feeling drunk on it like he's been doing shots of whiskey. "You're so... Fuck, Steve, I've been dying to suck your cock, please?"

Steve makes a soft, huffed noise, a bit like the ghost of a laugh. His big hand slides over Bucky's belly, fingers spread wide on his skin. "Buck..."

"It's not the same as when I first asked," breathes Bucky. "I promise."

"I know that," murmurs Steve, kissing soothingly at Bucky's jaw. "That really what you want?"

"It's what I prefer," says Bucky. "Can I touch you there?"

Steve's still wearing his underwear, so Bucky curls his hand around the hard curve of his hip. "I can make you feel so good, Steve."

"I know you can," says Steve, smiling indulgently. His hand strokes warmly across his stomach and over his side, sliding to the small of his back but not straying below his waistline, ever respectful. "I believe you, but I was hoping I might get to make you feel good tonight, too. Would you let me?"

Bucky squirms, his heart hammering in his chest. "I—" he starts, licking his lips. "I don't, um..." He sighs hard out of his nose, staring at Steve's shoulder instead of his face. "I don't really like sex."

Steve freezes, his hand going completely still on him. "What do you mean, Buck?"

"I just don't get off when people touch me, okay? And...and I've had a lot of people touch me. I mean. Not a lot, but enough," blurts Bucky. "I mean, I can have an orgasm. I like orgasms. But I don't have them with people, not unless...I mean, that's why I like sucking cock, okay? Because it always gets me hot and then I just jerk off. Nobody’s ever, like, given me one when we fucked."

Steve starts to pull back and Bucky's insides twist. God, he’s going to ruin everything.

"Wait, no," he says, clinging to Steve. "I'm sorry, I just wanted to be honest. But I really do want to suck you. I—please?"

"Whoa, hey, I'm not going anywhere," says Steve. He wraps an arm around Bucky's back and just pulls him with him, so they're sitting up against the headboard. "I just think we should talk about this a bit before we keep going. I'm glad you were honest, okay?"

"There's nothing to talk about," insists Bucky, avoiding Steve's eyes. "I just have some stuff I like and some stuff I don't like."

Steve regards him steadily, the hand on Bucky's hip rubbing circles into his skin. "Okay. That’s fine, Bucky. When you say you don't get off when people touch you, can you tell me exactly what you mean? You don't get hard? Or feel attracted?"

Bucky's face flushes hot. "No, I do, I get turned on. I like to jerk off, and I like to suck cock, it turns me on to do that with another person, to be the one that gets them off. And a couple people have returned the favor, you know? When I was in high school, this guy on the basketball team, he sucked my dick, and he wasn't, like, amazing at it, but he made me come, and he even swallowed."

Steve's eyes are wide in the semidarkness, like he can't quite believe what he's hearing. "Then you mean when your partners have fucked you," he says quietly.

"Well, yeah," says Bucky. He doesn't mean to sound belligerent. He doesn't want to get defensive, but he wishes they didn't have to dissect this when all he wants to do is put his mouth on Steve. "What else would I mean? A lot of guys have fucked me, Steve, and it's not like in porn, okay? I never come. I've never come on someone's cock. It's not a big deal."

"Okay," says Steve, though it doesn't necessarily sound like agreement. "Some people don't like penetration, and if that's true for you, then that's fine. I don't need to put my dick in you to have sex with you, Buck."

"Well," says Bucky, feeling stubborn with nowhere to direct it now that Steve's agreed they don't have to have that kind of sex. "Fine. Good."

"Can we talk about it a little more, though? And please know I'm not trying to change your mind. I just want to make sure I understand." Steve is so achingly sincere that Bucky can't bring himself to say no, even though he kind of wants to tell Steve to drop it.

Instead, Bucky sighs and resigns himself to talking this out. "Sure, whatever."

"Thank you." Steve gives him a small squeeze. "So, first of all, I do want to help you have an orgasm in whatever way you like best, okay? That's kind of part of what I like about having sex with someone, making them feel good."

Bucky feels a hot tug at the base of his belly, his cock perking right back up at Steve's words despite the interruption. "Okay. I...I would be okay with you touching me" His cheeks are so red, he feels light headed. "Touching my cock, I mean."

Steve nods. "Alright, that's good. Second, I wanted you to know that I like to get fucked as much as I like fucking someone. We can always just do that, if it's something you'd like to try."

Bucky's mouth goes dry. Never in his life did he imagine someone that looks like Steve just...saying that. None of the people who he's ever been with ever suggested it as a possibility. They didn’t even bother to refute it as one, as if it was so impossible it didn't even occur to them to address it.

"You...like it?" he asks, feeling baffled.

"Yeah, I do. I don't have a particularly sensitive prostate, but I do like the way it feels and I enjoy being fucked," says Steve easily. "I take it you've never been with someone who let you fuck them?"

Stunned, Bucky shakes his head.

Steve hums a bit. "Do you want to try it with me?"

"You want me to do that?" Bucky asks dumbly.

Of all the things he dreamed of doing with Steve, this didn't even make the list. He was so sure he'd suck Steve's cock, maybe let Steve fuck him if things naturally went that direction. Bucky assumed that Steve wouldn't ask, wouldn't clarify, and that was a really stupid thing to assume, wasn't it? Of course Steve would ask. Of course he'd realize something about this made Bucky uncomfortable.

"Only if you want to try it, Bucky," says Steve. "Like I said, I'd like to make you feel good, too. I just want you to be comfortable."

"Okay," says Bucky. "Then...if you help me, I can...I can fuck you." He feels a little helpless, this evening not going how he expected it to go, and now he's on a completely different path in the woods, one that doesn't lead to anything familiar. He runs a hand down Steve's chest, over the defined muscle of his abdomen, letting it rest just above the base of Steve's cock. "Do I still get to suck you off, too?"

Steve chuckles. "Is this where I'm supposed to make a joke about oral fixations?"

Bucky makes a bratty face at him, sticking out his tongue. "Only if you want to sound like every other guy I've been with."

That sobers Steve quickly. Bucky half regrets saying anything at all, but Steve smoothly moves on, combing his fingertips through Bucky's bangs, brushing them back. "Yeah, Buck, you can put your mouth on me. You could do that while you open me up, if you want? I like that."

"Oh," says Bucky, his face burning. "Okay."

Steve gives him a reassuring smile. "Hey...if you don't want to do this, you don't have to. We can just do what you're used to for tonight."

Bucky shakes his head immediately. "No, I—I want to try it. I want to do something we'll both like." Steve wants him to feel good too, and even though the whole prospect of sticking his cock into Steve is unbelievable, Bucky can't help but find the idea ridiculously hot. He leans in and kisses Steve firmly. "I promise."

Steve relaxes, leaning back against the mountain of pillows pushed between his back and the headboard. He draws Bucky with him, until Bucky is straddling Steve's lap, lowering down over Steve's tented boxers, his covered cock warm and firm against Bucky's bare ass.

They both groan as Bucky leans closer for more kisses, calming his own nerves with the reassurance of Steve's easy acceptance. After a while, the curling heat in his gut, the grip of Steve's hands on his hips, and the way they're both panting finally overpowers his anxiety. More confident, Bucky pulls back to reach over to the bedside table where he stashed his supply of condoms and lube after he started sleeping in Steve’s bedroom.

Before hitching a ride in Steve’s truck, Bucky had just purchased a fresh package of condoms with the money Steve gave him in the farm supply store. He took those two crisp twenties and went straight to the gas station. If there was one thing he wasn't willing to compromise on as he sucked his way to New York, it was the chance of getting something that couldn't be undone along the way.

The type of men that were usually willing to trade in blowjobs couldn't always be counted on to have condoms on hand, so Bucky kept his own supply.

Which is not exactly what he wants to be thinking about as he separates two from the rest and drops the remainder in the drawer again. He kisses Steve once more before he shuffles back, repositioning them until he's kneeling between Steve's thighs. "I'm gonna put a condom on you now, if that's okay?"

"'Course it is," answers Steve. His voice sounds uncharacteristically rough.

Bucky nods, half to himself, and then pours a little lube onto his palm before he reaches for Steve's cock. It's beautiful, even in the dim light. Thick and pretty, long and flushed dark at the tip. Bucky's mouth waters as he takes it in hand, slicking it up.

Steve grunts, his hands fisting in the sheets near his hips as he visibly tries to keep from thrusting up. It makes Bucky grin, letting out a relieved sigh. This, he knows how to do.

Carefully, he tears open one of the condoms and leans down to roll it into place, pinching the tip before he smoothes it down Steve's length. He immediately follows the motion of his hand with his mouth, dragging a moan out of Steve.

Bucky's never felt more powerful in his whole life.

It's exactly what he wanted, his mouth watering as he sinks down to take Steve in slow and deep. Steve’s cock is thick in the most satisfying way, hot and firm against Bucky's tongue, and he wraps his fingers around the base, nestled in dark blond hair.

Steve is one vibrating mass of carefully-restrained pleasure, his hips twitching minutely as he gently curls his had around the back of Bucky's head, fingers tangling in his hair. He doesn't apply pressure, doesn't tug or pull; he's cradling Bucky's skull with the same tender care he touches the rest of him with.

It’s perfect. Steve makes a soft noise, his chest rising and falling in deep breaths, so Bucky pulls back to suck gently on the head of his cock, watching as he jerks and moans. He tightens his lips as he bobs back down again, swallowing around Steve and angling his head so that he can try to get the length of him in his throat.

That makes Steve choke out a noise more akin to a sob, his other hand on Bucky's shoulder, petting him shakily. "Oh, Buck," he gasps, head thrown back, his normally neat hair falling across his eyes. "Honey, that feels so good."

Bucky pulls back up, humming gently when he can breathe again, applying firm, even pressure as he dips back in a smooth rhythm. He wants to tease Steve, get him worked up. He's not sure if it would be right to make him come before he fucks him, if that would be at all pleasurable, but honestly? He doesn't know. It's probably better to just keep the pressure light, until he... Well, Steve said he could suck him off while he opens him up. God.

Popping off Steve's dick with a wet noise, his licks his lips. "How should I, um... I don't really know..."

Steve's chest is sheened with sweat as he breathes heavily. He draws one knee up, bracketing Bucky's shoulder. "I can talk you through it. Get your fingers slick, then start with one."

Bucky retrieves the bottle of lube, squeezing some more out onto his fingers. This part usually feels so cursory, quick and dirty, in and out, which...feels wrong, now. He can't just shove a finger into Steve. He knows that hurts. So with Steve's hand on his head, Bucky rubs tentatively over Steve's hole, very slowly and very carefully pushing a single finger inside him while he sinks back down onto Steve's cock.

"Bucky," sighs Steve, his hand cupping Bucky's head again.

He doesn't offer any other feedback right away, so Bucky carries on. He's careful about sliding his finger back and then pushing it forward again. He goes slow, tender; he wants to explore the way Steve feels, the flutter of his body around Bucky's finger. He’s hot and slick inside and Bucky likes it.

He keeps up his attention on Steve's cock, bobbing up and down in the same slow rhythm of his finger. When he lifts up enough to swirl his tongue around the tip, tease the fat head of Steve's cock, he pulls his finger back too. Rubbing against Steve's rim, Bucky twists his fingertip and draws a breathy whine from Steve's mouth.

"Bucky, honey," he says roughly, the words ringing in Bucky's ears in the best possible way. "Need—you can push in a second finger, now. God, please."

Bucky does, slow and deliberate, rocking them in as he sucks and rubs Steve's cock with his tongue. Steve's panting breath is music to his ears. Steve is really enjoying being worked open on Bucky's fingers.

It’s Bucky who’s responsible for giving Steve this considerate pleasure, and with a start, he realizes that no one ever did anything like this for him. Bucky moans around Steve's cock, his own dick achingly hard as he slides his fingers in deep, fucking Steve with careful determination.

As he opens Steve up, Steve works his body into the motion of Bucky's mouth and fingers, hips moving forward and back to meet him. Steve's a breathy mess, pink splotches of color on his chest and cheeks, lips parted as he urges Bucky on.

"Bucky," he breathes, thumb brushing at the hinge of Bucky's jaw, where he's got Steve's cock tucked into the back of his throat, "Bucky, sweetheart... God, you feel so good, that's perfect. Can I show you something?"

Bucky doesn't particularly want to take his mouth off Steve's cock, so he hums his assent. "Mmhm."

Steve huffs a thready laugh, and then he holds his hand up, with two fingers extended, the rest folded back, just like how Bucky has them buried in Steve's hot, fluttering hole. "If you curl them in like this, like you're..." He pauses to gasp a little—and isn’t it just a power-trip to be doing this to Steve with so little—then says, "Like you're trying to stroke my balls from the inside..."

Intent on making this even better for Steve, Bucky mimics the motion, reflexively curling his fingers inside Steve's body. Steve's hips jump, a shocked moan tumbling out of him. Then he digs his heels into the mattress, body bowing up, trembling with pleasure. His cock throbs in Bucky's mouth and he stares up Steve's tense belly with wide eyes.

Then he does it again, because holy shit. Steve moans, hips twisting like he wants to simultaneously fuck up into Bucky's mouth and grind back onto Bucky's fingers.

"Yeah," breathes Steve. "That feels good, Buck. You can...add another finger, now."

Reluctantly, Bucky lifts his mouth from Steve's cock to fumble for the lube again. He wants to add more. No one ever bothered with more than two fingers on him and he doesn't want to hurt Steve. He dribbles more lube onto where his two fingers sink into Steve, twisting them back and forth to encourage the slick liquid in deeper. Then he eases them back until he can work the third fingertip in alongside them, pressing in with patient thrusts.

Steve's answering grunts make Bucky's cock pulse, dribbling out precome against his own thighs. He pauses, worried for a moment that he's hurting Steve after all, but Steve just pushes down onto his fingers instead. "Buck, don't—don't stop."

Steve's rim clutches at his fingers, trying to draw them in deeper, and so Bucky obliges, momentarily forgetting his mission to keep his mouth on Steve's cock. He's entranced by the sight of Steve's hole, slick and accepting, as Bucky buries all three to the last knuckle. Eager to see Steve squirm again, Bucky curls his fingers, trying to find that spot, and Steve's cock jerks above him, slapping against Steve's stomach as it spurts precome.

"Thought—" Bucky breaks off at the sound of his own voice, breathless and wrecked. He shivers at the repeated clench of Steve's ass around his fingers, like he wants to feel them there. "Thought you said your prostate wasn't that sensitive."

"It's not," breathes out Steve, obviously struggling to concentrate on what Bucky said. "Not...not like I've seen some people's. I couldn't come just from having it rubbed or from being fucked. Need my cock touched too."

"Oh," says Bucky, licking his lips. "I...do you want to come before...before I fuck you? Or—"

Steve shakes his head. "Not this time. I'd—I'd rather come with you inside me."

"Okay." He feels shaky, like he might burst. Still, he keeps going, starts moving his fingers inside Steve with real purpose. He fucks them in and out, in and out, curling his fingers to brush against Steve’s prostate with every third thrust. It's beautiful, the way he reacts, the way his abdominal muscles tense. He lowers his mouth again, just to suck lightly, to make sure Steve feels good as he loosens him up.

Steve is riding his hand in earnest now, and as Bucky rubs his tongue against the sensitive head again, he abruptly pushes Bucky's mouth away. "Stop—stop, I—oh, god, I can't remember the last time I almost came on accident, honey. Your mouth—"

Bucky grins at him. "Yeah?"

Steve groans, nodding his head, his hips still working down against Bucky's fingers, like he just can't help himself. "I need you to fuck me now. Don't think I can wait anymore."

"Fuck," mumbles Bucky. Steve's desperation hits him right in the gut and his own arousal is suddenly front and center, not just an idle thought in the background; Bucky has been hard since he first put his mouth on Steve's dick.

He looks up Steve's big, strong body and then sits back up on his knees, still a little dazed. Steve is as flustered as Bucky's ever seen him, his pupils blown wide, body slick with sweat, breathing heavily. All that flushed, freckled skin... Bucky did this, turned him on and wound him up, got him so hot and ready for Bucky that he's begging for it.

Bucky carefully gets rid of the condom on Steve and grabs the second one, getting himself ready with one squeeze of lube and a stroke of his hand. "Like this?" he asks, crawling back between Steve's big thighs. "On your back?"

"I'd like to see your face," Steve says, nodding. "You fit nice, right here." His hand curls around Bucky's hip, giving him a squeeze.

"You sure you're ready?" Bucky licks his lips, nervous.

"Please," murmurs Steve, arching his hips up, his knees drawn up to expose the slick, pink clutch of his hole.

Another shock to Bucky's system. He nods jerkily and clutches the base of his cock, guiding himself in to press the head of his cock gently to Steve's ass, just tugging at his loosened rim. Then Steve puts one hand on the small of Bucky's back and the other cups his ass, bodily hitching him closer, and Bucky rolls his hips into the motion and sinks into Steve with a punched out groan.

"Ungh," he chokes, shuddering at the tight pressure. It's ten times tighter than a blowjob, holy fuck.

Bucky's hips seem to have a mind of their own, jerking forward until he's half buried in Steve's ass. He gasps at the same time as Steve, blinking away sweat as he desperately gets ahold of himself. Grabbing at Steve's hips, Bucky goes still while he just tries to remember how to breathe.

Steve's hole clutches at him, spasming tight and releasing again and again as Steve adjusts to being filled. "Steve," chokes out Bucky. "Fuck, I’m sorry."

"Got nothing to be sorry for, Buck," groans Steve. His whole body seems to ripple and roll as he arches his back into Bucky, while Bucky's cock slips another inch or so into Steve. "You feel so good."

Something split between a sob and a moan pushes its way out of Bucky's chest. His balls are drawn up tight and his cock is throbbing, but he refuses to be like most of the guys who've ever fucked him. He's not gonna come half a second after he gets his cock inside of Steve.

He takes another trembling breath, steadying himself and then nodding vaguely. "Okay, okay," he says. "Just...just a minute. I'm sorry, Steve, your ass is just so fucking tight."

Steve chuckles warmly at that, even if it sounds out of breath, and he gives Bucky's ass a fond squeeze where he's holding onto him. "Always—" he swallows, his throat bobbing, "always nice to hear. You take your time, honey."

Bucky nods again, licking his lips as he regains his composure, what little he can scrape together. After a moment, he stops feeling like he's going to come at the first twitch of his hips, and he's able to pull back a little. "Ready?"

"Yeah," whispers Steve into the darkness, eyes heavy-lidded as he looks up at Bucky through his thick lashes.

Biting down on his own lip to distract himself with the brief flash of pain, Bucky pushes in, managing to go deeper still, and when he rocks back out and thrusts again, he finds himself completely swallowed up by Steve's perfect ass. "Oh god."

"Yeah," pants Steve. "Yeah, that's—that’s so good. Keep—keep going, please?"

It's not going to be long or drawn out, that's for sure, and there's no way Steve hasn't had better sex than Bucky fumbling his dick into him, so overwhelmed by the sensation that he can barely speak, but it's not bad, either.

At least, judging by the noises Bucky draws out of Steve with every trembling plunge of his hips, it probably at least feels good for however long Bucky manages to keep himself together.

It's just so hot and smooth and tight inside Steve, the kind of slick pressure that lights up every nerve in Bucky's body and makes him feel a little bit like he's going to pass out. He doesn't have to worry about holding himself up, either, not with Steve's hands locked on him, keeping him buried deep. Bucky knows he's close again, balls drawn up tight and aching with need, but he lets the pleasure build until he's consumed by the white-hot coil of arousal in his gut.

Steve has thrown his head back, throat bobbing with every gasping breath. His own cock is swollen red, the tip wet with precome, slapping against Steve's taut belly when Bucky's hips snap into Steve's body.

"I want to make you come," Bucky gasps. He wraps his hand around his erection, squeezing him firmly.

Steve makes a noise startlingly like a whimper, hips twitching up into Bucky's grip and then rolling back onto his cock. "So close, sweetheart."

Bucky is clumsy about it, he knows he is, hand squeezing too tight, too rough, as he jerks Steve's cock while he tries to maintain some semblance of a rhythm as he plunges his cock into his ass. It's a race, and he's terrified of winning. "Steve," he moans, his voice in shambles, rough and desperate. "Steve, I can't—oh god, I love you so much, I do, I—"

With a wordless cry, Steve tosses his head back, squeezing so tight around Bucky's cock that Bucky sees stars dancing in his vision, blurring the most beautiful sight he's ever seen as Steve comes. His cock jerks in Bucky's hold, splattering messy across his own abs and heaving chest. Overwhelmed, Bucky's thrusts stutter and all he can do is shove deep, coming and coming as Steve's body milks the orgasm out of him.

He doesn't mean to collapse down on top of Steve. He knows that it’s rude and he always hated when guys did it to him, heavy and sweaty and overheated, keeping him pinned. Then again, he doubts very seriously he could ever pin Steve down. Still, he does try to roll off him, reaching down to pinch at the condom, but when he goes, Steve follows.

Steve's hands keep hold of him, solid and reassuring on his back as he gets them both onto their sides, reaching down to help Bucky with the condom. It's a good thing, too, because Bucky's still pretty dazed from his orgasm and can't quite coordinate his fingers. He makes a noise that sort of sounds like an apology, maybe, but Steve only hushes him.

He's lucky that Steve still seems to have some brain cells left to rub together because Bucky does not. Steve gets the condom tied off, disposed of into the trash, and then wriggles back into bed to wrap Bucky up in his arms, pressing a warm, soft kiss to Bucky's lips.

Bucky hums against his mouth, clumsy as he clutches at Steve's arms and blinks up at him dizzily.

"Did you like that, Buck?" Steve rumbles, kissing his cheek.

Bucky makes a garbled noise, nodding emphatically.

Steve chuckles, indulgent, and twists a lock of Bucky's hair around his finger. "Yeah?"

"Mm," grunts Bucky. Words don’t come easily. His body is soft and heavy and totally fucked out. Steve just let Bucky put his dick inside him. "Wow. You felt... That was... Really good, for me, personally. Was it...was I okay?"

"You were great," Steve says, hugging him. "You made me feel incredible. Haven't shared something like that with a partner in a long time."

"I wanted to do it right," Bucky mumbles, nosing at Steve's throat. "Wanted it to actually feel good for you. It didn't hurt?"

"No, Buck," Steve says firmly. "It didn't hurt. Felt amazing."

"Hmm. Good," Bucky says through a yawn.

Steve kisses his cheek and his jaw and his lips, snuggling him closer as he drags the blankets up over them. "Thank you for giving me that."

"What?" mutters Bucky sleepily. "My dick?"

Steve's quiet laughter shakes them both. "Yeah, that, and for being willing to try something new with me."

Bucky yawns so big, his jaw cracks. "Oh," he says, once the words have filtered in. "I think I'd like to try other stuff with you, too."

More soft kisses rain down on him, Steve’s voice soft and distant as Bucky drifts happily to sleep. "We can try anything you want, Bucky."

When Bucky wakes up the next morning, his back twinges slightly, and his thighs burn. It’s the good kind of burn, though. Bucky’s alone in bed, but he can hear Steve in the kitchen, talking quietly to Lady, and smell fresh coffee in the air. Sitting up slowly in bed, Bucky rubs his eyes and yawns, eventually stumbling out of bed and into the bathroom.

After he pees, washes up, and brushes his teeth, he lets his feet carry him like he's one of those cartoons where the smells from the kitchen float them down the hall. Steve already has a cup of coffee waiting for him alongside a huge piece of pie.

"Post-holiday prerogative," announces Steve. "Leftovers for all meals."

"Oh my god, yes," groans Bucky, flopping down into his chair and grabbing his fork.

Bucky has always believed that pecan pie only gets better on the second or third day. Maybe the crust gets soggier, sure, but the filling gets stickier, the flavors developing and intensifying. As he shoves a forkful of the pie into his mouth, he groans, buttery-rich decadence spreading over his tongue. "I'm starving," mumbles Bucky, digging in heartily.

"Well, you had a pretty decent workout last night," drawls Steve, the ghost of a grin on his face. He picks up his coffee and takes a prim sip. "How are you feeling?"

"Fucking amazing," says Bucky, muffled by pie. "Like I did a hundred squats. Fucking is probably great for your thighs, right?"

Steve snorts, shaking his head. "Sure, I can see that."

Swallowing his bite of pie, Bucky sits back in his seat to take a sip of coffee. It's hits him all at once, how he's sitting with Steve in his kitchen, warm and safe and loved and fed, when a month ago he wasn't even sure if and when he'd catch his next ride. Bucky crawled into the back of Steve's truck on a whim, desperate; Steve had given Bucky money and Bucky thought maybe he'd be a good bet for more.

He could never have anticipated this.

"Thanks for being so patient," he says quietly. "For showing me that." Last night, Steve opened himself up to Bucky, made himself vulnerable in so many ways, showing him not to be afraid of intimacy.

Steve looks like he's studying him, his ankle hooking with Bucky beneath the table. He gives him a smile. "I'll always try to give you whatever you want."

God, the heaviness of that isn't missed by Bucky, but instead of weighing him down, it feels like it supports him, a solid foundation to start building himself up. He ducks his head, smiling into his coffee. "I didn't know it could be like that."

"That's how it's supposed to be," says Steve, setting down his coffee cup. "You kept asking if you were hurting me, and it shouldn't hurt, not really. Whatever you do with a partner should make you feel good, one way or another."

Bucky buys time by taking another bite of pie, looking away from Steve long enough to think about the words. Finally he says, "What do you mean, one way or another?"

Steve shrugs one shoulder. "Well, sometimes people like pain, but that's skipping ahead a bit. There's all sorts of things people can do together, if everyone likes it and wants it." He leans forward, holding out a hand to Bucky across the table, and Bucky takes it. "I don't mean to sound preachy about this, alright? You've got your own experiences and that's important. I just want you to know...we can figure things out together too, try whatever you want. I just want you to feel good when we're intimate. I want you to feel good all the time, Buck."

Bucky's face heats up, his eyes prickling almost instantly.

The second Steve starts talking sweet to him like that, treating him like someone cherished and special, Bucky's throat gets all tight and he is overwhelmed with the urge to cry like a little baby.

"You make that pretty easy," he mumbles, sniffling.

Steve gives him a warm smile, squeezing his hand, and they turn their attention back to the pie.

Bucky wants this winter to last forever.

Chapter Text

--STEVE--

As the end of the year creeps closer, uncertainty takes root in Steve’s chest.

There are several problems he's been stubbornly ignoring, but the new year brings them back to the forefront.

The main issue is, of course, what happens when the snow melts. Now that they've started this, it follows that there must be an end.

If Bucky leaves, heads back to New York to find his sister, then Steve's identity becomes irrelevant. If Bucky, somehow, wants to stay, if this fragile relationship survives into the spring, then Steve has to explain himself.

Through the final days of Hanukkah, Steve keeps his concerns on the backburner, focusing on the celebration. Between Boxing Day and December 30th, they eat their way through pounds of leftovers and finish Anne of Green Gables. Bucky sleeps in Steve's bed every night, tucked warm and snug against Steve's chest. They fool around together—just last night, Steve pinned Bucky to the mattress, his slim thighs wrapped around Steve's head, and sucked his cock with eager enthusiasm while Bucky pulled his hair and fucked down his throat.

Even if Bucky wants to stay, Steve shouldn't let him. He can't shake it. What kind of life is this for someone that deserves a little goddamn autonomy?

Steve can't keep him here, in the middle of the woods, with restricted access to the outside world. Bucky didn't choose this. He may want Steve, but everything else that comes with him? He didn’t sign up for that.

He'll be climbing the walls soon.

Until then, though, until the snow melts, the microcosm they inhabit gets to stay intact, and Steve wants to savor every bit of it.

New Year's Eve day dawns bright and sunny, an unusual melt that sees the temperatures hit just above freezing. It's enough to have great big icicles forming on the cabin and the shed, dripping down from the roof on every side and dangling over the doorways and the chicken coop. The chickens themselves seem ecstatic, clucking noisily as Steve takes Lady for her early morning trek through the woods.

He makes a mental note to stop in on his way back and see if they've laid anything. They haven't done much but huddle together over the last week and they're out of eggs. That's not much of a hardship for Steve, who's used to the times when the food selection gets more monotonous through the winter, but he worries about Bucky.

Of course, when isn't he worried about Bucky, thinking about Bucky, dreaming about Bucky. His thoughts frequently revolve around Bucky.

Lady barks loudly, gaining his attention, and he cracks a smile. "I know, girl. I'm pathetic, huh?"

She wags her tail and bounds through the wet mess of melting snow, just as happy for the temporary reprieve as Steve is. "But we can't go getting overly attached," he tells her seriously. "He doesn't belong out here with us. We can't keep him."

Lady's ears flatten and she looks displeased, whining before she barks again and does a couple of enthusiastic circles around his legs before she suddenly takes off like a shot after a little brown rabbit. He lets her chase for a bit before he whistles sharply, calling her back before she can go in for the kill. "Come on, I'll give you an extra treat. The bunny can live another day."

She trots contentedly enough alongside him as they head back, and Steve collects six whole eggs from the coop, which is a record in the winter. He sets the basket down on the table when he comes in, grinning when he sees Bucky already sipping on his morning coffee, sleepily watching the commotion of Lady and Steve's arrival. His soft brown hair sticks up with cowlicks and tangled curls and Steve's fingers itch to smooth it down.

Instead he grabs Lady's towel off the hook and starts rubbing her down. "Morning," he says as he tries to get each of her paws, muddy and wet from the soggy melt.

"Morning," croaks Bucky. He must have only just gotten up. There are still pillow creases on his cheek and his eyelids are heavy. His gaze falls on the basket Steve set down on the table. "Breakfast?"

"Eggs," confirms Steve. "It's warm out today. They must have some energy to spare. I was thinking omelettes."

Steve doesn't have a particularly wide array of fresh vegetables at this point in the winter, even with what he’s managed to grow in the greenhouse, but he does have carefully portioned bags of frozen peppers and onions in the freezer, as well as bricks of frozen spinach.

"Bacon?" Bucky asks, knuckling groggily at his eyes.

"Maple smoked." Steve grabs a treat from the jar, waiting until Lady sits to give it to her. She can have another when they have their breakfast. She retreats to her bed to crunch it up and Steve goes to the sink to wash his hands.

Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Bucky watching him, chin propped up on one hand. "Don't tell me you cured the bacon yourself."

Steve laughs, collecting ingredients from the fridge and freezer. "No. Place in town. Tomorrow I'll make waffles. Something special for the new year."

"Shit," mumbles Bucky, his expression crumpling in surprise. "Already?"

Steve glances at him briefly and keeps his own anxiety off his face. "Time marches on, Buck. Whether we like it or not."

They haven't talked about what happens next. Bucky's been stuck to him like glue, in his arms or on his lap as much as possible, like they both know this can't last.

Bucky's frown, though, is adorable, and Steve can admit that to himself. His lower lip pouts out and he huffs as he brings his cup up to slurp at his coffee. Apparently, he decides that's a conversation for another time, and announces, "I'm hungry."

Steve snorts, turning back to the stove. "Yeah, yeah, your majesty. Let me just finish this."

"Thank you," says Bucky in a prim voice.

Breakfast is ready in a flash, Bucky half-dozing at the table while Steve sautées veggies and beats eggs with a fork. When everything is ready, Steve brings their plates to the table, by now serving them equal portions and then letting Bucky push his plate to Steve when he's eaten his fill.

Bucky does exactly that as he gets up to refill his coffee cup. He pauses at Steve's side when he returns, leaning against him, and Steve feels Bucky's fingers comb through his hair, rubbing gently at his scalp. With a sigh of contentment, Steve wraps an arm around Bucky's narrow hips, dragging him even closer while he finishes up his breakfast.

Standing there throughout, Bucky is warm and soft and solid at Steve's side, drinking his second cup, for all the world happy just like that. Steve polishes off his portion and the remaining half of Bucky's, washing it all down with the last of his coffee. Then, arm still around Bucky, Steve scoots his chair back from the table. "You finished with that?"

Bucky nods, eyes wide. Steve takes his mug from him, sets it down, and then without further warning, he stands and picks Bucky up with him. Bucky makes a small noise, surprised, but he immediately wraps his arms and legs around Steve, clinging to him like a koala.

His eyes are bright with amusement and his voice sounds giddy as he asks, "We going somewhere?"

"Yeah, back to bed." Because honestly, if Steve's gonna lose this, and he knows that he will, he doesn't want to waste a second of it. "That okay with you?"

Bucky kisses him hard. "Uh huh."

They spend most of the morning and early afternoon in bed.

Eventually, Steve's stomach demands attention, and Bucky groans and rolls over, tossing an arm over his eyes and refusing to move.

When Steve comes back carrying sandwiches on a tray and finds that Bucky has dozed off, eyelashes dark against his flushed cheeks, Steve has to pause in the doorway, his entire body weak at the tableau of Bucky naked and vulnerable in Steve's bed. He's fallen asleep half on his belly, half on his side, one knee drawn up, the covers barely drawn up to his thigh. The slope of his back, the curve of his full little ass...

Steve is shaky as he settles on the edge of the bed, setting the tray down on rumpled bedclothes.

"Buck," he murmurs, reaching out to ruffle gently at Bucky's mop of hair. It's a little shaggier at the back and sides now. Steve likes it. More to run his fingers through. "Wake up. Lunch."

Bucky mumbles unintelligibly and then stretches his entire lean body like a cat, yawning widely and flopping onto his back.

"What was that?" Steve asks mildly, taking a bite of his sandwich.

"Already ate," Bucky says meaningfully, his expression sly and dirty.

Steve snorts. "You're nasty."

Bucky doubles down. "Ate that ass like groceries!"

While Steve makes a face, Bucky laughs, finally sitting up. "What'd you bring me?"

"Sandwiches. Might get one of the lasagnas out of the freezer downstairs for dinner tonight." Steve licks a stray bit of mustard off his thumb. "What do you think?"

Bucky's already halfway into his sandwich, mouth disgustingly full as he mumbles, "Hfonh gudf."

Steve makes a face. "That's only cute when your mouth is full of my dick."

"Hnfgh!" Bucky swallows though, picking up the root beer Steve brought, washing down bread and cheese with a big gulp. "Now who's nasty?"

"Still you," says Steve pointedly.

"Yeah, yeah," mutters Bucky. "Anyway, lasagna sounds good. I'm ready to eat something that isn’t turkey-related."

Bobbing his head, Steve polishes off his first sandwich and sips his own root beer. "Don't really have any champagne but I traded some fresh eggs for homemade cider this past October. It's still in the cellar. We could have that at midnight?"

The grin Bucky gives him makes his whole chest ache. "That sounds nice."

Steve nods and they're both quiet for a little while as they finish off lunch. Bucky in particular looks like he's thinking something over, but Steve's learned that it's best to wait him out.

It pays off, too. Bucky clears his throat and says, "Hey, um...have you ever heard of that saying that whatever you're doing at midnight is what you'll be doing for the rest of the year?"

Steve shakes his head. He lifts an eyebrow, though, because he has a feeling he knows where this is going. "Can't say that I have."

"Well," begins Bucky, and there's a deep pink flush growing on his cheeks now. "I thought...maybe it'd be good if I started the year off knowing what it feels like to have you inside me."

Well, Steve thought he knew where this was going. He assumed it would be dirty, but Bucky's answer still makes him flush and he covers his surprise by clearing his throat. It was probably naive to assume Bucky was going to say something like I want to be kissing you or even I want to suck your cock.

Once he's regained control of himself, Steve clarifies. "You want me to fuck you, honey?"

Bucky's very red now. Considering he had his face buried in Steve's ass less than an hour ago, this sudden shyness is pretty endearing, and Steve softens immediately. "Yeah. I do. I been thinking about it, Steve."

"Have you," says Steve. "It's been on your mind?" He's not intentionally trying to make Bucky squirm, not really, but it's working anyway. When he slows things down like this, makes Bucky think it through one question at a time, Bucky loses his composure pretty quickly.

"Of course it has," blurts Bucky. "Ever since you let me do that with you. Every time there's something inside you, tongue or cock or fingers, you act like it's just as good as me sucking your dick, and apparently you're not even that sensitive."

Steve considers this, trying to keep the smile off his face. He doesn't want Bucky to think he's making fun of him. Not when the reason he even thinks anal sex doesn't feel good in the first place is because he's had the world's worst array of sexual partners. "Are you sure, Buck? It's okay to not want it. I'll do anything you like, and if you want it, I'll give it to you, but you should be sure."

Bucky's eyes are wide, his pupils dilated. He nods eagerly. "I want to at least try it. I know it might end up not being for me, but then....I'll know I just don't like it, and it’s not that..."He pauses, licking his lips. "I want to try it with you," he finishes firmly.

Steve brushes a stray crumb from Bucky's chin, smiling at him. "Then I want to try it with you, too."

Heaving a sigh of relief, as if he wasn't quite sure Steve would agree to it, Bucky nods. "Well, there's our New Year's plans settled."

"Guess so," agrees Steve, leaning forward. Bucky meets him, angling his head up for a kiss that Steve happily gives. "Come on," says Steve after they break apart. "We shouldn't spend all day in bed. Let's go for a walk. It's almost 37* out there."

"And muddy," complains Bucky. "What if Rufus wakes up?"

"I will protect you from Rufus," vows Steve. "And clean up all mud-related messes while you lounge like a prince in the bathtub."

"I accept these terms." Bucky holds out his hand, presumably for Steve to help him out of bed.

Steve rolls his eyes, chuckling as he pulls Bucky up and onto his feet. He reaches around and gropes his naked ass, giving it a tweak while Bucky squeaks and squirms away. "Get dressed!"

"Fine! I'm stealing your clothes, though," announces Bucky.

Steve waves him off. "That's what you've been doing for weeks."

It's been doing all kinds of things to Steve, watching Bucky wander the house in his clothes. Bucky never had a lot of clothes to begin with, maybe five outfits crammed into his backpack, but none of it was particularly comfortable or appropriate for winter, even inside a cabin.

He's taken to wearing all of Steve's old sweatpants pretty much all the time, draping himself in hoodies that Steve shrunk in the dryer and rolling up the sleeves. He always looks cozy and sweet, soft around the edges.

Once they're both dressed, they head out with Lady. It's gorgeous out, picturesque in a calendar of New York state landscapes kind of way, and they take a long walk around the property, avoiding the river while Lady races happily through the snow chasing squirrels.

When the sun starts to dip in the sky, they head back to the house, getting the lasagna in the oven and breaking out the cider. Bucky takes a post-carb nap on the couch while Steve sketches and half-listens to a movie on the TV. When he looks up after a few flipped pages in his book, he finds Bucky watching him through sleepy eyes.

"You gonna make it to midnight?" teases Steve.

Bucky's eyes widen. "Yeah! That's why I had to take a nap."

"Oh, I see," hums Steve. "It was a planned nap. Not a noodle-induced involuntary coma."

Bucky sticks out his tongue. "You're the one who served bread with noodles."

"Garlic bread goes with Italian food. Everybody knows that."

"Carb, carb, more carb." Bucky yawns again but sits up. "With cheese, though, so that's alright."

Steve laughs softly. "Do you want to take that bath you were talking about earlier? I'll clean up out here."

"Mmm, yeah," murmurs Bucky. He gets up, bending down to kiss Steve's cheek as he walks past. It's so horribly domestic, Steve wants to run out to the truck and smash the engine to bits so they can never, ever leave.

Logic and reason prevail, though, and he gets up and starts the cleanup process in the kitchen and living room, turning off the TV and the lights. He gets Lady one of the really good rawhides that he rations through the winter and puts it on her bed for her. She gives him a betrayed look but curls up with it nonetheless.

She's been pretty put out ever since Steve started exiling her from the bedroom at night. He'll have to figure out a way to make it up to her soon.

From the bathroom, Steve’s hearing picks up Bucky’s soft sigh and gentle lap of water as he sinks down into his bath, so Steve gets fresh sheets out of linen closet. Granted, they're about to get them dirty all over again, but Steve has the undeniable urge to make tonight as special as he can for Bucky. If Bucky ends up not liking this, Steve's not worried about the status of their sex life. He's been more than happy with everything they've done.

Still, though. He won't deny the thought of helping Bucky enjoy something that other people made him believe was bad is a tempting lure. Steve knows it's not a competition, but if it was...

He's just finished getting the bed neatly made when Bucky appears in the bedroom with a towel around his waist, smelling like the lavender bath oil that the woman at the farmer's market last spring shoved in his bag when he just wanted to buy cedar soap and shampoo. She also crammed in lotion that smells like peonies, lilac candles, some sort of organic shaving cream, and a spicy-smelling aftershave.

She kept staring at his shoulders and chest, too, so Steve didn't ask a lot of questions.

Regardless, Bucky smells incredible and looks relaxed, his skin pink and radiating warmth from the hot water. Steve finds himself drifting towards him without thought, his fingertips gliding over dewy skin, hand settling warm and heavy at the small of Bucky's back to draw him in close. "Nice bath?"

"Mmm," hums Bucky, leaning his hips into Steve's thighs, putting his hands on his waist. "Almost fell asleep, it was so nice."

Steve presses a soft kiss to Bucky's forehead. "You smell good." Nuzzling Bucky's cheek, he lowers his voice and murmurs, "So good I could just eat you up."

Leaning his weight into Steve's body, Bucky shivers. "Yeah?"

"I've got plans for you," Steve continues, threading his fingers through Bucky's damp, curling hair and just touching his lips to the shell of Bucky's ear. "Do you want to hear what I'd like to do to you, honey?"

Another shiver. Bucky sways closer, bobbing his head in a jerky nod. His hands tighten on Steve's waist, tugging sweetly.

Steve kisses his temple. "If you think this is going to be some kind of in-and-out endeavor, Buck, you've got another thing coming. I plan to take my time with you. First, I'm going to lay you out on your belly, tuck a pillow under your hips to prop up that sweet little ass, before I spread your cheeks and fuck you open on my tongue. I'll lick and suck until you're dripping and your cock is so hard you're begging me for more."

Bucky inhales sharply, lowering his chin to hide his face, his eyelashes sweeping against his cheeks as he shudders. "Steve..."

"Once you're all wet, I'll turn you over so I can look right into your pretty little face, see those big puppy eyes, and then I'll give that cock of yours a bit of attention." Steve reaches under the towel, rucking it up to cup Bucky's ass in his hands, giving him a squeeze. "Do you think you’d like that? If I sucked your cock and then fingered you open? Because once I know you're feeling good, I'll try a finger, press it in so slow and easy..."

Steve wants Bucky to know what he's planning to do to minimize anxiety, and this seems like the easiest way to warn Bucky while turning him the fuck on at the same time.

It's really, really working.

The towel comes loose from where it was tucked around Bucky's waist, slipping to the floor, leaving nothing between Steve and Bucky's skin. Bucky pushes himself up on his toes to get closer to Steve, his lips grazing Steve's beard, across his jaw.

"Steve," Bucky says breathlessly. "Take me to bed?"

With an encouraging squeeze, Steve lifts Bucky by the hips, and Bucky hops up, wrapping his legs around Steve. Bucky pushes his lips to Steve's throat, mouthing at his pulse. "God, I love that you can do that."

Steve hums, taking the few short steps to the bed and then kneeling down to shuffle across the mattress with Bucky under him. As Steve spreads him out on the bed, he kisses Bucky's cheek and the shell of his ear and finally his sweet mouth when Bucky tips it up toward him.

When Steve pulls back, they're both panting. "Wasn't done telling you what comes next."

Bucky groans. "Then tell me, please! Just—I want you."

Steve smiles, stealing several more kisses before he reluctantly releases Bucky, climbing off the bed to strip his own clothes off. "Well, I thought I'd let you come, whenever you wanted, sucking you down my throat while you opened up on my finger. Don't think I'll even get around to adding a second until you come for me the first time, y'know?" Steve pulls his shirt over his head and tosses it at the hamper. "Then I'll fuck you so slow on those two fingers, Bucky, help you figure out how sensitive your prostate really is." Steve unbuckles his belt and pulls it through the loops. "We'll have to play it by ear a little here, depending on how you respond. If you can come again, I'd like that."

On the bed, Bucky props himself up on his elbows, watching Steve with wide, dark eyes, his cheeks flushed. His gaze follows Steve's movements, focusing on his hands, his hips, stuttering up over his chest to settle on his face. "That sounds optimistic," Bucky offers, his voice a little rough.

"Like I said," murmurs Steve. "We'll play it by ear. See how you like it." He keeps his attention on undoing his fly, unzipping, pushing his pants and underwear down his hips.

Bucky is breathing a bit heavily, his cock curving up against his thigh as he hardens. "Then what?"

"If you're into that, Buck, then I'll keep going, keep working you open, stretch you on three fingers. Slowly, to make sure you can take it." Steve curves his mouth into a soft smirk.

Bucky huffs, squirming. "And then will you give me your dick?"

"If you're ready," says Steve, "And if you're very, very good, then I'll give you my dick."

Bucky’s flush deepens, spreads across his face and chest. “I’ll be good.”

"I know you will," agrees Steve. Fully naked now, he takes his own cock in hand, giving it several slow strokes, letting Bucky look. Then he climbs back into bed, patting Bucky's hip as he leans over him to give him another kiss. "Turn over for me?"

Bucky nods, breath catching as he starts to shuffle over, half caged in as Steve kneels over him. "God," groans Bucky. "You are, like, unfairly hot."

Steve chuckles, pressing a kiss to Bucky's shoulder. "Sorry."

"No, you're not." Bucky presses his face into his arms to hide.

"Mm, maybe not," agrees Steve.

Bucky’s right. Steve isn’t sorry at all. He is very much enjoying the effect he's having on Bucky.

He smiles against Bucky's skin as he starts to kiss his way down Bucky's back, relishing the way he shivers and sighs. When he makes it to the top of Bucky's ass, he clutches his hips and lifts him up enough to side a pillow underneath.

Bucky makes a small noise, his hips twitching into the cushion. Steve sits back a moment just to admire the picture he makes, Bucky's ass raised up for him while he buries his face in the mattress and squirms in place. Palming a cheek in each hand is clearly the next step, Steve indulging in a good firm grope, squeezing at the bouncy give of his pert ass.

"Ohmygod," Bucky mumbles, the words muffled by the bed. "Steve."

"Just seeing what I have to work with," Steve murmurs, smiling. He spreads Bucky's cheeks gently, exposing Bucky's pink little hole. "You want me to stop?"

"No," Bucky says instantly, wriggling. Steve tucks his thumbs against Bucky's perineum, and he grunts, hips twitching again.

"Okay. You grab another pillow if you need to, hug it in your arms, whatever you need to hold nice and still for me, honey." Steve gets comfortable, slotting between Bucky's spread thighs, starting with a long, lick up from the base of Bucky's balls to his hole.

Bucky lets out a strangled noise, syllables that might include Steve's name, but maybe they don't. Steve just hums happily and does it again, lapping at Bucky's skin, still warm and tasting of bathwater and salt. Bucky squirms and shivers and makes pleased, needy sounds, and Steve indulges in eating him out.

He slurps, filthy and messy, sucks on the tender skin just below Bucky's hole, delicately scrapes his teeth over sensitive skin. He kisses Bucky's hole, soft presses of his lips, brief suckling glances. Leaning back for a moment, he looks at the glistening, clenching pink bud, watching as he spits a long, trickling string of saliva down over it, reveling in the perverted thrill of seeing it slide over Bucky's skin, across his taint and balls.

Bucky sobs, and Steve can hear the strain of fabric as Bucky pulls on it tightly, clings to the sheets and pillow, knees spreading further and further apart so he can arch his back and tilt his ass into Steve's waiting mouth.

Steve traces circles around his hole, pressing the tip of his tongue into the fluttering center, and Bucky cries out. "Ah, ah, oh—! Oh, please, Steve, please."

"Please, what, baby?" rumbles Steve, pulling back to lick his lips. They’re a little swollen and slick. He tucks the pad of his thumb over Bucky's clenching hole and teases with a bit of pressure. Bucky's hips arch, seeking more, but Steve pulls back.

"Please, please will you..." Bucky groans, panting. "Will you put your tongue inside me?"

"Oh, that's what you want, hmm? Are you enjoying this?"

"Y-yes," gasps Bucky. His head bobs jerkily, face tucked into the rumpled blankets as he nods. "Yes, please, it feels so good. Please?"

"So sweet," breathes Steve. He presses a deep, wet, filthy kiss on Bucky's hole, working it open around his tongue as he slowly breaches the tight heat of his body.

Bucky wails, his body trembling under the onslaught of Steve's tongue; with both hands curling around Bucky's hips, Steve holds him down and pins him in place so that he doesn't squirm back too hard onto Steve's mouth and catch his teeth.

Steve loses himself in the rhythm of it. Bucky's unintelligible commentary washes over him, leaving him warm and pleased as he sucks and fucks Bucky's tight little hole with his tongue, groaning when Bucky flutters around it, the tight clench he can't help but imagine around his own cock. He doesn't keep track of the exact amount of time he spends doing this, he just goes until Bucky's begging again.

"Oh, oh, please, I'm—" Bucky swallows. "I'm ready. I need to come, I need—"

Steve gives his hole one final sucking kiss before he sits back. "Alright, honey, I've got you."

Easy as can be, Steve reaches for Bucky and flips him over, Bucky's mouth falling open. "Oh god."

Steve grins down at him, repositioning his legs and spreading them wide around Steve's hips. "Mmm, that's a pretty picture," he says. Bucky's hair stands on end from Bucky clutching at it, his face damp with sweat and bright pink. His mouth is wet and open and he blinks at Steve with wide pupils ringed in silvery blue.

"Steve," he whines, eyes fluttering shut.

"I know, give me just a second." He leans over to the bedside table and gets condoms and lube. Setting them down on the bed, he slides his hands up Bucky's thighs. "Ready?"

"God, please!"

Steve bites back a smirk, smoothly rolling a condom onto Bucky's cock and then dipping his head down. He takes Bucky's cock between his lips without another word.

Bucky lets out a breathy sigh as Steve closes his mouth around him and sucks gently. There's an involuntary twitch of Bucky's hips, but Steve holds him steady, a hand on his waist, and Bucky's next exhalation is ragged and shaky. Steve fits his other hand under the crook of Bucky's knee, pushing up and out to expose him and give himself more room to work with.

God, Steve loves to give head. Bucky's cock is hot and hard in Steve's mouth, a firm, silken weight cradled against his tongue as he leisurely works Bucky in deep and then bobs back again to mouth at just the fat, swollen tip.

As Bucky's head rolls back and his body slumps in rippling waves of pleasure, Steve tucks Bucky's thighs over his shoulders and plucks up the lube.

Bucky is lost to the sensation, head tossed back, Steve enjoying the lazy rhythm as he slicks up his fingers. It's clear that Bucky is close. His hips roll in tiny thrusts, even held still by Steve's hands, a squirming, panting mess. When Steve thumbs at his hole with a slick finger, Bucky grunts and screws down into the pressure, Steve sucking firmly around his cock to focus the pleasure.

"O-oh, god, Steve," groans Bucky, shuddering bodily. "Fuck, you feel so good."

Steve hums his acknowledgement, working his finger into Bucky with gentle, patient pressure. His body opens up sweetly, Steve teasing at the slit of his cock with the tip of his tongue while he stretches his rim.

Bucky takes several broken, hitching breaths, like he's forgotten how to get a full breath in his lungs, like he's unraveling. Very suddenly, Bucky gasps, "I'm gonna—oh, oh, Steve, I'm coming, I'm—" it breaks off hard with a sharp whine.

Steve doesn't stop, keeps up the consistent, wet pressure, sliding down Bucky's cock and then up again to suck hard on the head. Bucky's whole body bows up, pushes against Steve's hold as he fills the condom with splash after splash of thick come. Steve wishes desperately he could swallow it all down, hungry for Bucky, for his pleasure.

Bucky goes boneless and shivery, pretty pink mouth hanging open as he pants and stares wide eyed at the ceiling with dazed amazement. Steve's finger sinks all the way in so easily, Bucky's body relaxed and unresisting.

"Steve."

Steve hums, finally letting Bucky's cock slip from his mouth and carefully removing the condom. He gives it one last apologetic kiss, just below the tip, and Bucky whimpers.

"Sorry, sweetheart, you're alright. I won't touch it again until you want me to," he promises. He rubs softly at the skin behind Bucky's balls, carefully rocking the finger he has buried in Bucky's hot, clutching ass. With his other hand, he pets Bucky's stomach, feeling his muscles twitch and shake.

"Unh," mumbles Bucky, eyelids dragging shut as he comes down from his orgasm.

Steve doesn't want to overstimulate him. The key here is to avoid discomfort, and while Bucky is fully relaxed and limp and pliant, accidentally going beyond his capacity for pleasure right now wouldn't be hard to do. His cock will be too sensitive for a little while, and as he recovers, Steve has to be mindful of his body's limits.

"You okay there, honey?" murmurs Steve, turning his head to press a kiss to the soft tremble of muscle in Bucky's inner thigh. "Want me to stop, or ease up?"

"No," manages Bucky. His chest is stained pink, rising and falling in deep breaths. "I'm good, this is..." He squirms, a soft clench around Steve's finger, and he makes an inquisitive noise. "You can keep going with your itinerary."

Steve huffs a laugh, indulging in deep, slow plunges into Bucky's body, twisting and tugging and crooking his finger up gently.

When Bucky makes an involuntary noise, stomach muscles tensing up, Steve repeats the gesture to brush over his prostate. "That feel okay? Not too much right now?"

Bucky, having calmed down, is starting to breathe heavily again. "Feels....hot," he says breathlessly.

"Yeah?" Steve continues to drag his finger in and out, turning it slowly, making sure Bucky's hole is slick and accepting. "You like it?"

Bucky bites his lip, his face screwed up in concentrated, anguished pleasure. "Uh huh."

"Think you might be ready for another finger now?" prompts Steve, keeping his voice soft and steady.

Bucky runs his tongue over his top lip, sweeping away beads of sweat as his head moves up and down. "Uh huh."

Steve smiles at him, leaning in to press a kiss to his stomach and sternum and then his lips as he carefully starts to ease in a second finger, still slick with lubricant. Bucky kisses back, his hand pushing into Steve's hair, clutching at him as he makes a soft grunting noise. Steve kisses the tip of his nose as both fingers slip in past the first knuckle.

"There you go," he croons, easing them back and then pressing in deeper, again and again until Bucky's mouth hangs open again, his breaths fast and high. "Not hurting you, am I?"

Bucky moves his head back and forth, bangs flopping over his sweaty forehead. "S'good," he says, slurring a little, blinking wide eyes as he focuses on Steve's face again. "I...I like the stretch. It feels different than...than it has before."

"They go too fast for you before, baby? Didn’t make sure you felt good first?"

"Yeah." Bucky looks embarrassed, casting his gaze away, fingers fidgeting in Steve's hair.

"Then we'll go slow,” Steve says simply. “I got all night. Not going anywhere else. I don't care if it takes hours of me filling you up on my fingers."

Eyes fluttering, Bucky whines. "No, no I—I'm going to like it. I can tell. I can already tell. You make me feel so good, Steve. Love you so much."

The words hit Steve right in the chest, wrapping around his heart and squeezing tightly. He blinks quickly against the sudden, unexpected burn of tears, and covers it by kissing the part of Bucky closest to him.

"Me too, Buck," he murmurs, voice coming out rough. Bucky is, thankfully, distracted, closing his eyes and arching his back to get more, to feel more. Steve can't believe no one's ever taken the time to do this, a protective and possessive burn of emotion taking root inside him as he greedily memorizes every hitch of Bucky's breath and the eager press of his body. He wants to hoard this, treasure it, cherish every bit of the gift Bucky's given him. "How does this feel?"

Very carefully, he rubs more firmly over Bucky's prostate.

"Oh fuck," Bucky says, voice thick. His hips jerk and he bears down on Steve's fingers, chasing the brief flare of pleasure. "Oh fuck, Steve."

"Hm? That a good 'oh fuck'? Or are you still a little sensitive?"

"It's a good 'oh fuck'," Bucky says quickly, head bobbing in a frantic nod. "It's good, it's good, it feels so good, don't stop. I can take it."

"I know," Steve says lightly. "You can take a lot of things, but I want them to feel good, too. Easy. No rush, hm?"

Bucky whines. "You keep saying that, and I know you're committed to this...this...whole..." His throat works as he grasps for words, moaning when Steve teases with a press of his thumb to Bucky's perineum from the outside. His cock has started to get back in on the action, plumping up against his belly. "Fuck, Steve. You're...gonna kill me, is what I mean. You can go faster. I'm so good, I'm being so good, aren't I?"

Those words tug hotly in Steve's chest, in his belly, yanking him in and setting him on fire. His own cock throbs. "Yeah, honey." His voice is rougher than it was fifteen seconds ago. "You're good, always such a good boy for me."

Bucky makes such a relieved sound, knocked straight out of his lungs and tumbling up to Steve, and Steve can't deny him what he's asking for, can't sit there and pretend like he knows what Bucky wants and needs better than him. He picks up his pace, sharpens the rhythm, rubbing firmly over Bucky's prostate with every plunge of his fingers.

In response, Bucky's cock firms up, flushed and dripping messy against his belly, his balls drawn up tight. Steve watches as he tosses his head back, hips starting to work down into Steve's touches. Bucky's hands fall to the mattress again, clutching at the sheets, and his nipples are temptingly peaked, his chest and belly rising and falling with every breath he takes.

"You're the most beautiful man I've ever seen," confesses Steve, practically dizzy with his own arousal. "Just want to watch you come on my fingers. You think you can do it, huh? God, 'cause I do. I think you can. You look so good like this."

Bucky nods immediately, those stunning eyes wet and glassy, the heat bright under his skin. "Yeah, I—" he swallows, breath whistling through his nose. "I want to, I wanna come again so bad. I've never—I didn't know! I didn't know...is this how it feels for you? Like...like the, the start of an orgasm every time I touch you inside?"

Steve chuckles slowly, understanding sinking in. "No, Buck," he tells him, shaking his head. "You remember how I said some people are more sensitive than others?" To make his point, Steve stops the in and out motion of his fingers and instead presses directly against his prostate again, rubbing it firmly from the inside while he pushes at Bucky's perineum from the outside. Bucky sobs, his cock jerking so hard it slaps against his stomach. "Think you might be a little sensitive."

"Ah," gasps Bucky, his chest heaving as he pants out ragged, uneven breaths. "Ah, fuck, oh my god. Holy shit."

"That's why I think you could come on my fingers like this," Steve murmurs, settling back into a firm rhythm, stroking and stretching, tugging at Bucky's rim to start working in a third finger and get him ready for more. "It's nice, right?"

"Nice," babbles Bucky, grinding back onto Steve's hand with a rough surge of his hips. "O-oh, yeah, it's nice, fucking me open so good I think I might go fucking blind."

Steve tries to swallow back his smug grin, curling his free hand around Bucky's hip and holding him more firmly to the bed. He slumps down as Steve's been working him over, legs thrown open, a debauched mess as his flushed cock drools out precome.

"Just a little more," encourages Steve. Bucky raises one knee, digging his heel into Steve's shoulder to spread himself open more widely, and Steve's treated to the delectably obscene sight of his pink, slick hole all stretched around his fingers, drawing him in as Bucky fucks himself onto Steve's hand. "I can see how much you want to come, sweetheart, look at you. So good, so perfect for me."

Bucky sobs again, putting weight behind the leg he's braced on Steve's shoulder as he screws himself back and then rolls his hips forward, maintaining a fairly impressive rhythm. Steve indulges him with firm pressure, coaxing him patiently and increasing the speed when Bucky gets desperate.

Watching the orgasm wash over him when he finally crests the precipice is beautiful; Bucky's features go slack with true pleasure, his body bowing up into Steve's as he arches his back and spills over his own tense belly and chest. He makes a soft, breathless noise, a barely-there moan, and then shivers through the aftershocks, Steve stimulating him until Bucky goes loose and limp, thoroughly spent.

Gently, Steve slips his fingers from Bucky's body, though Bucky still gives a quiet mewl of protest, a little frown appearing between his eyes.

Steve clucks his tongue sympathetically. "Oh, I know, honey. I know. Gonna get myself ready now, though. Is that okay?"

Bucky's expression goes greedy, hungry for more, biting at the inside of his cheek as he nods. He pushes himself up on his elbows, looking down his body at Steve kneeling between his spread thighs. "Yes, please."

So polite. How could Steve ever deny him? He makes quick work of slicking up his cock, rolling on the condom, spreading more lube on himself and on Bucky as he scoots in closer. Gripping the base with one hand, he holds the back of one of Bucky's knees with the other, keeping him open. "Hey Buck?"

"What?" croaks Bucky, his tone sharp with need.

Steve laughs, warm and pleased. "Happy New Year."

Bucky relaxes, the little bit of tension he picked up falling away as he laughs as well. "Happy New Year, Steve."

"I'm gonna fuck you now. You still want that?"

"Yeah, I really do."

Steve hesitates a moment, then he says, "Can you ask me for it?"

Bucky's eyes flutter and his mouth falls open. "Oh god, yes. Please, Steve, please, will you fuck me?"

"Anything for you, honey," Steve assures him. He finally presses the head of his cock to Bucky's hole, sliding the tip across his rim twice, three times, until it opens up enough to catch and Steve sinks in the first inch.

Bucky's lips part on a breathy exhalation, his chest gleaming with sweat. He tenses up a little around Steve, and Steve stops moving, settling a hand on Bucky's hip and stroking at his skin with his thumb.

"Okay, baby?" he murmurs, turning his head to kiss Bucky's knee. "I can stop, if you're—"

"I'm good," interrupts Bucky, nodding. He relaxes slowly. "I'm okay, It feels...it feels different. Good. You're big, but it actually...the stretch feels good. I want more?"

Steve obliges him carefully, working his hips in with even, shallow pressure, and all around his cock, Bucky is tight, silky heat, rippling sweetly.

"That's good," Bucky says breathlessly. "You feel...."

"So do you," Steve says, strained. It's another thing to add to the list of how Bucky knocks him flat on his ass: the image of Bucky laid out for him, trusting him, thighs tense, spread open, the flush of his skin, the floppy mess of his hair, lip caught provocatively between his teeth.

Steve wanted to wreck him with pleasure, completely overwhelm him with how good this could be, and he thinks he's succeeding.

He works up to bottoming out, as much as Bucky seems to be trying to draw him in with his ankles, sinking into his body with short, easy thrusts, before pulling back out again. By the time Bucky's loose and relaxed, stretched open around him to let Steve in deep with a choked sigh, Bucky pants raggedly, pretty pink all the way down from his cheeks to his navel.

It's been a long time for Steve. Too many years since he’s experienced the pleasure of pushing inside someone beautiful and sexy, lit up just for him, and Bucky is all of that and more. Bucky loves him, trusts him in a way that isn't easy for him. Bucky asked Steve to give him this despite having every reason to never want to do it.

Steve loves him right back.

With herculean effort, he holds himself off from fucking into Bucky with selfish abandon. Instead, he gathers Bucky's legs, pressing them back toward his chest, and he unfolds one of his own to plant a foot on the bed next to Bucky's hip. Drawing his hips back, he uses that leverage to push in with a new angle, and Bucky arches his back and sobs, his half hard cock spitting come weakly.

"Oh my god," whimpers Bucky, a hand going into his own hair, messing it up further. "Oh my god, Steve, how—"

"You just tell me if it's too much or you want it to stop for any reason, okay? Otherwise, all you gotta do is lay back and let me make you feel good." To emphasize his point, Steve gives him another perfect thrust.

Bucky's breath catches. "O-okay!"

Not even trying to stop his smug smile this time, Steve begins to fuck Bucky with smooth, uninterrupted thrusts aimed entirely at driving Bucky out of his mind with pleasure. He's got a lot of stamina and he can keep this up with precision and unflagging energy.

"There," he breathes, watching Bucky's mouth fall open, drinking in the way Bucky's body clutches so tightly to his cock every time he pulls out, how it opens greedily to him when he pushes back in. "That's my good boy."

"I am, I'm—I'm yours, only wanna be yours, Steve. Wanna be yours forever."

"Is that right?" he asks, feeling out of breath just from the sight of him, if not from the effort. "You want me to keep you, honey? So I can always take care of you just how you need?"

It's a stupid, dangerous fantasy to indulge in, but Steve can't hold it back, can't pretend he doesn't want this more than he's ever wanted anything.

Bucky can only bob his head up and down, hair tangling against the pillow as his eyes start to roll back.

"Oh, sweetheart," murmurs Steve. "You gonna come again? You gonna show me how much you love feeling my cock inside of you?"

Bucky whines, nodding frantically. "Yes! Yes, I...I want to, Steve, I want to come, but I don't... I don't know."

"Shhh," hushes Steve, kissing the hollow of Bucky's throat. "Let me, Buck. Let me get you there, okay? I know you can do it, but there's no rush. We got all night. You wanted to start the year off doing what you want to spend the rest of the year doing, hmm?

"Yeah," breathes Bucky. "Yeah, I do, I...I want you, I want this, I want..."

"I know," Steve says soothingly. "I know. I've got you." It's easy, now, no resistance in his thrusts. Steve's own arousal has been secondary until this moment, his own orgasm building steadily, unfolding in his gut. There's no real urgency yet, but he's aware of it, hot and tight and blooming warmly. He won't come until Bucky does, though. Until he's brought Bucky to the brink and carried him over, spoiling him with pleasure.

"Want to," Bucky is chanting softly, head tossed back, eyes closed, clutching at the pillow above his head. "Want to, want to come with you inside me, I want to, I don't know if I can, but I want to, Steve..."

Hushing him gently, Steve tries to soothe him, catching his lips in soft kisses. Bucky hums into his mouth, sighing deeply. He's drowning in it, drunk on sensation; body loose, rosy pink with exertion, cheeks ruddy.

"Oh," gasps Bucky, Steve burying himself deep, and he comes alive again, tightening up, hips writhing. "Oh, god, yeah, Steve, please... Please? I'm so close."

This time, Steve wraps his hand around Bucky's cock, stroking firmly, and Bucky goes rigid as climax cascades through him, rippling down through his body as he clenches up hard, spurting over Steve's fist as he comes with a strangled cry.

Steve allows the rhythmic squeeze of Bucky's body to pull him into orgasm too, his hips chasing waves of pleasure with the surge of his body against Bucky's. Bucky grabs onto him, holds him close and pulls him in for kisses. They're messy and needy and quick until they're not, until they go languid, trading reassurances that don't require words.

When Steve finally manages to think clearly again, he pulls out of Bucky with the most care he can possibly manage, wincing with Bucky at the inevitable twinge. Quickly disposing of the condom, he returns to Bucky with a warm washcloth, kissing him and touching him all over as he cleans him up gently. Bucky sighs into it sleepily, letting himself be handled, taken care of. He's dreamy and hazy and so, so sweet. Steve wishes he could keep them both in this moment forever.

Eventually, he tosses the washcloth aside and pulls Bucky in for sleep, finding comfort in the way Bucky fits so nicely against him.

Chapter Text

--BUCKY--

The first few days of January are bright and sunny and achingly beautiful, but the brief thaw doesn't hold, the temperature plummeting back down to the kind of cold that's postcard pretty but freezes the snot in your nose the second you step outside the door.

It doesn't matter, though, because it's warm in the cabin and it's warm in Steve's bed.

Bucky hasn't slept in the study in weeks. He's not sure Lady is ever gonna forgive him for being the reason she gets kicked out of Steve's room every night, but he plans to keep bribing her with treats until she stops languishing pitifully in the hallway right outside the door so that Bucky trips on her when he gets up in the middle of the night for water.

It's not his fault, anyway. Bucky is finally having truly incredible sex and he plans to bounce on Steve's dick for the rest of the winter.

Or at least, that's what he thinks he's going to do. Plans change, sometimes, even if you don't want them to.

One morning, Bucky wakes up to Steve getting out of bed, grabbing for his sweatpants and shirt.

"What're you doin'?" mumbles Bucky, rolling over and squinting at him blearily. It's still dark, isn't it? It can't be time to get up.

"Go back to sleep," says Steve. His voice is tight around the edges and he doesn't look at Bucky. "It's nothing. I heard something and I'm going to check it out."

"What?" asks Bucky, knuckling at his eyes. He sits up in bed, watching as Steve pulls a hoodie over his t-shirt.

"Stay here," says Steve. He whistles for Lady as he opens the bedroom door. "Stay put, Buck."

He disappears. Bucky frowns, kicking his legs out of bed and stumbling around to find something to wear, dressing himself in an assortment of Steve's clothes. When he goes out into the living room, Steve's at the kitchen door wearing his coat, boots on, taking the shotgun down from the rack.

"Steve," says Bucky, hurrying over to shove his own feet into boots and grabbing a coat. "What the hell is going on?"

"I said to stay here, Bucky," Steve says, huffing. He opens the door, a bitter wind blowing in. The sun is low on the horizon, hidden behind the trees, but the sky is just beginning to turn pink. "Everything is fine."

"That's why you need the shotgun, right?" scoffs Bucky, pulling on a woolen hat and wrapping a scarf around his head. "Quit bullshitting me."

Steve grunts, glancing briefly at him with an expression Bucky can't read, but he doesn't object again or try to stop Bucky as he leads the way out of the cabin.

Lady rockets off ahead, down the path cleared through the trees, while Steve follows her at a more reasonable pace. Bucky stumbles through the snow behind him, the boots too big for his feet without an extra couple of pairs of socks. "Hey!" calls Bucky. "Are you going to tell me what you hear—"

In front of Bucky, Steve stops walking, and Bucky collides with his back. Steve's arm actually comes up to hold him back, and Bucky thinks wildly that maybe Rufus has woken up early, or something.

When he peers around Steve's broad body, though, it's not Rufus at all.

There's a man striding across the yard. He's wearing a long black coat and, bizarrely, a pair of sunglasses. Lady is trotting alongside him, tail wagging, accompanying him as he heads towards Steve and Bucky.

"Well," says the newcomer, stopping a couple of feet away from them. "This is a surprise."

"Tony," says Steve, nodding warily.

There's a weird disconnect in Bucky's head, because he recognizes Tony Stark, of Stark Industries, of the Avengers, because who the fuck doesn't know who he is?

But also why is he here, in the middle of nowhere in the Catskills, and why does Steve know him?

"Rogers," Tony says, greeting Steve. "I know it's been a while, but I just thought I'd drop in for a visit, see how you've been doing. Is this the welcome party?" He gestures at the gun in Steve's hand and to Lady, who left Tony and circled back around to press protectively against Bucky's hip.

"I didn't exactly know who'd be in the chopper," Steve says flatly.

Chopper? Steve heard—

"What the hell is going on?" demands Bucky, clutching harder at Steve's arm.

Stark turns his head towards him, flipping his sunglasses up to the top of his head with a gloved hand. "Well, well, it's our missing person, right here, in the flesh. I didn't expect this, truly. I was coming to check up on dear old Cap, here, but—"

"Tony," Steve bites out, cutting him off. "It's freezing out here. Come inside if you want to talk." Then he wraps his arm around Bucky's shoulders and turns him around, hustling him back to the cabin.

Bucky keeps looking back behind him, checking to see if Tony Stark is really here and if he's really following them back to the cabin. He wants to ask questions, he wants to know what the fuck. He glances up at Steve's face and sees anxious worry in the turn of his lips, the crease between his eyes, the way he stares straight ahead. So he doesn't ask and he doesn't push.

Steve said they'd talk in the cabin.

Jesus, though. Tony Stark? He blinks back to the path ahead of them and tries to sort through the hundreds of pieces of random information tripping over themselves in his brain right now. Tony Stark. He called Steve 'Rogers' and then 'Cap'. Steve heard the helicopter, loud enough it woke him up. Steve...

Did Bucky know that Steve's last name is Rogers? How did he never ping to it if he did? Did it honestly just never come up? There's only one Steve Rogers that would know Tony Stark. Bucky swallows, looking up at Steve again, and Steve must sense he's looking because he looks back. His expression is distinctly apologetic.

The second they’re inside, Bucky stumbles as he pushes away from Steve, ripping off his hat and scarf, kicking off his boots. "You're Captain America," he gasps. "Oh my god, I'm so stupid."

Steve freezes in the doorway. "Bucky—"

"He didn't know?" Tony appears behind Steve, shoving at his shoulders to let him inside. He sounds like he's caught between genuine horrified surprise and amusement. "What have you been up to out here?"

"Not now, Tony," snaps Steve.

Bucky turns away, struggling out of his coat. Steve's coat. Steve Rogers. Captain America. Seven years ago, Captain America disappeared out of the public eye. There were so many conspiracy theories about where he went, what he was doing now, if he was even alive. And Bucky, the stupid fucking idiot, didn’t even realize he’s been living with him for the last six weeks. "Oh my god. Oh my god, no wonder you got to me so fast when I ran into Rufus. And how you figured out I was in the truck, and—"

He blinks, tears burning his eyes as he whips around to look at Steve. "Were you ever going to tell me?"

Steve’s looks unfairly crushed. He’s not allowed to look this sad when Bucky’s too busy figuring this the fuck out. "Yes," he says roughly. "I planned on it. I'm sorry, Buck. I really am."

The thing is, Steve looks so genuinely sorry that for a second, Bucky feels even worse for being angry to begin with. Then he gets mad that he’s feeling sorry for Steve, for lying to him. Scrubbing the tears from his eyes, he lets out a shuddering breath. Bucky doesn't know what to say to Steve right now, so instead he latches onto something else Tony said.

"What do you mean, missing person?" he asks, looking straight at him.

For his part, Tony seems to have been doing his best to pretend he wasn't listening to every word of Bucky and Steve’s confrontation. His coat is off and he's looking around the cabin idly, short of whistling theatrically while he pokes at books and Steve's DVD collection and stares at the tree they haven't thrown out yet. He turns to Bucky when addressed, feigning surprise. "What? Oh, right. I guess you didn't tell your sisters you were headed off for a lovers' getaway in the woods, so they've been circulating your photo on various social media platforms. Just after Christmas, someone from the closet town sent them footage of you, uh, liberating some items from a general store."

"What?" Bucky is stunned. "They’re looking for me?"

"Sure are. But since you're an adult, the police didn't exactly take them seriously. In lieu of official help, your family made themselves a little viral facebook page. 'Bring Home Bucky.' After the footage of your crime spree came in, JARVIS picked it up when it flagged my facial recognition programming." Tony tips his head toward Steve.

Bucky doesn't get it. There's too much to process, here. His sisters think he's missing, and Steve is Captain America, and he's standing here talking to Tony Stark. He's dreaming. This is stupid and fake. How does he hit rewind to bring them back to lying in bed together this morning?

"You're not here for me, though," Bucky says slowly. Tony was surprised to see him, outside. He's not here for Bucky, he's here for Steve.

"No, I'm not," says Tony, with a careless shrug. "No offense, kid, but I assumed you'd be long gone. I figured Cap gave you a talking to about stealing when your paths crossed and that was that."

"Why are you here, Tony?" barks Steve. He's looming by the threshold into the living room, arms crossed tightly over his chest, his brow furrowed deeply.

Tony's eyebrows go up and he spreads his hands. It's a placating gesture. "Like I said, I'm checking up on you. Honest. Your face hasn't cropped up in over five years, Cap. I love the beard, by the way. Really, this whole backwoods lumberjack shtick really suits you. If JARVIS hadn't flagged the video footage, I honestly wouldn't have believed it was you. I doubt anyone else will ever make the connection, either. I've already deleted the footage."

"Does anyone else know?" asks Steve. His intense blue eyes fix firmly on Tony's face. "Fury? Hill?"

"No," says Tony. "Just me. You have my word, Steve."

Bucky sits down heavily at the kitchen table. Lady, sensing his distress, comes over to him, shoving her head into his lap and whining. Bucky ducks his head to hide his face, frustrated tears spilling down his cheeks.

"Will you be staying long?" Steve finally asks.

"The chopper will be back to pick me up tomorrow morning," says Tony. When Bucky surreptitiously wipes his eyes and looks up, he's giving Steve a sheepish grin. "I figured my old friend wouldn't toss me out on my ass when it's 5°."

Steve snorts, turning his head away. There's so much tension in his shoulders. "As long as you're not here to recruit me, Tony."

"I think the recruitment dossier on you has been permanently filed away in a cabinet and is collecting dust as we speak." Tony rubs a hand along his jawline, like he's considering something, his gaze flicking from Steve to Bucky and back again. It's a little intimidating when Bucky remembers he's one of the smartest people on the planet. "No, this really is just a social call. Pepper won't be surprised when I tell her my timing is as poor as ever."

Steve's shoulders droop a little and he shakes his head with a sigh. "No, it's not your fault, Tony. You're welcome to stay, of course. Help yourself to whatever you'd like." He pauses, turning to catch Bucky's eye. Bucky stares boldly back at him. Steve tips his head toward the bedroom, the warm little cocoon they were happily ensconced in barely an hour ago, until Bucky's whole world turned upside down again.

Taking a breath, Bucky manages a diffident shrug.

Steve brushes his hand through his hair and musters up a small smile for Tony. "If you'll excuse us a moment, Tony. I need to talk to Bucky in private."

Tony waves them both off. "I can entertain myself."

As always, Bucky is grateful for Lady, who stays alongside him as he stands to follow Steve into their—into Steve's—room. Bucky feels a little lightheaded, so when the door is closed behind him, he sits on the end of the bed.

Lady leaps up beside him, putting her head in Bucky’s lap. Bucky exhales slowly, petting her soft ears, before he finally looks up at Steve. "I don't know what to say. I don’t know what to think."

"I know. I'm so sorry," Steve says immediately, sitting down next to Bucky. "I should have told you sooner. The moment our relationship changed, I should have—"

"Probably," agrees Bucky, cutting him off. "Why didn’t you?"

Steve’s brow furrows. He doesn’t say anything for a while, clearly collecting his thoughts. "At first, I didn't say anything because I just don't tell anyone who I am. But as time passed, I got used to just being Steve with you. I liked that. I haven't been Captain America in a really long time," he says. "I don't plan on ever being him again."

The really frustrating part is that Bucky gets it. Leaving your identity behind so you can start over? He gets that. He gets wanting that. The knot in his chest eases just a little. "Can you tell me what happened? You were there. When the portal opened up," says Bucky. "You fought with the Avengers. Saved the city. That painting of yours..."

Steve looks straight ahead, at the wall, Bucky sitting next to him on the bed, neither of them touching. Lady licks his hand when he's paused too long from petting her, and he's grateful for the distraction.

"I retired, after the Battle of New York," Steve says after a moment. "Parted ways with the team, took myself out of the equation. I didn't leave a forwarding address. I don't tell people who I am, as a rule, because being Steve Rogers means that I am always going to be Captain America, even when I've put down the shield."

"It's okay to just want to be Steve," Bucky says quietly. "I kinda like him."

Steve huffs, the corner of his mouth turning up ruefully. "I'm sorry I lied to you."

Bucky takes a deep breath, pushing past the hurt as the shock fades. He’s not entitled to anything about Steve. Bucky knows that. They haven’t even known each other for two months. "I kinda figured the honeymoon couldn’t last forever," Bucky admits. "The bubble always pops, you know?"

There’s a horrible pause, and then—

"We need to talk about that," Steve says gently. He turns, angling his body towards Bucky, and it's the look on his face—the horribly tender look on his face—that digs right into Bucky's ribs. That expression could carve Bucky’s heart right out of his chest. Even Lady sits up, her ears going back as she whines.

"Don't," pleads Bucky. "Please don't say what I think you're going to say."

"You heard Tony." Steve takes Bucky's hand in both of his, giving it a squeeze. "Your family thinks you're missing. They're looking for you."

"It's not spring yet," whispers Bucky. "I'm supposed to have until the snow melts."

"It started to melt four days ago when the weather turned," says Steve. "I probably could have driven you back to town yesterday."

"It's cold again now, though," Bucky says stubbornly. It’s stupid, it's so, so stupid and Bucky knows it. None of it matters anymore.

"Buck...you're so young. You have your whole life ahead of you. You shouldn't be out here in the woods alone with me. You shouldn't have to give up everything just because I did." Steve's hand comes up and Bucky realizes he's crying as Steve wipes his tears away. "Please don't cry."

"But you love me." Bucky's chest, freshly excavated, feels like it's going to collapse. This can't be happening, not again. He can't be losing one more person. "You love me. That should mean you want me to stay! Steve, please, please, just ask me to stay, and I will. I don't care about any of that. Please just ask me to stay!"

His throat is raw. Bucky is wild with desperation, eyes aching, face hot, tears stinging his skin, but in the face of his distress, Steve just shakes his head. "I can't. You don't belong here. You belong with your family."

God, Bucky is going to scream. Bucky can't look at Steve—all he wants to do is look at him for the rest of his life—so he turns away, allowing himself the indulgence of crawling back under the covers, pulling them up as he gives into the overwhelming tears. Steve doesn’t stop him or say anything. His weight doesn’t lift from the bed. Bucky wishes he’d leave, but he also can’t stand the thought of losing the comfort of his presence.

Bucky wishes he could hate Steve for this. He wishes he could feel anything other than inevitable, crushing disappointment.

As he’s crumbling from the inside, Lady crawls right into bed with Bucky, under the covers, her cold, wet nose pressed to his neck when she plasters herself up against him. Bucky doesn't push her away. He doesn’t do or say anything, a lump under the covers.

The bedroom door opens and closes, Steve slipping out when it becomes clear Bucky is going to ignore him.

It’s a miserable day.

When Bucky can pull himself together enough to get up, he relocates to the study. Steve and Tony are in the kitchen, talking quietly, so Bucky avoids them, visiting the bathroom on the way. Lady sticks to him like glue, licking at his fingers and face, grumbling worriedly when he curls up again in bed.

At lunch, Steve knocks on the door, asking if he’s hungry, but Bucky ignores him. Eventually, he says, "Tony and I are taking a walk," and Bucky waits until the distant sound of the kitchen door opening and closing before he emerges to get something to eat, squirreling away enough snacks that he doesn’t need to go into the kitchen again at all.

He spends the rest of the day in bed and then goes to sleep early, face buried in Lady’s scruff.

In the morning, he wakes up with a headache, but he couldn't possibly cry more if he tried. Lady is nosing at him insistently, so he lets her out to find Steve, then finds his backpack. Sitting on the floor, Bucky packs up his stuff, careful to not take anything that belongs to Steve. He can't bring himself to leave behind the gifts Steve gave him, though, carefully wrapping the newspaper around the painting and tucking the dreidel into his clothes.

It’s pathetic, just looking at his meagre belongings, thinking about how little time it took to get ready to leave.

Bucky braces himself.

Tony is leaning up against the kitchen counter when Bucky walks in. He looks sleepy, his hair sticking on end, and he's nursing a cup of coffee. When he notices Bucky, he salutes him with two fingers. "Steve says you're heading back to New York with me, Bucko. That true?"

It’s like a punch to the heart. Steve says. With effort, Bucky shrugs nonchalantly, focusing on pouring himself a cup. "Guess so."

"Just think," chirps Tony, "A cellular signal. WIFI. Pizza. You've been snowed in for how long? I bet you can't wait to get back to civilization."

He's staring at the side of Bucky's head like he's trying to look inside his skull. Bucky doesn't meet his eyes, eyes on his cup while he stirs in cream and sugar. "Sure."

"I can't even imagine," Tony prattles on. "Don't get me wrong, it's a nice house, cute space, you know? But no access to the outside world... You can't even make a phone call!"

Bucky shrugs. "It's been a while. Few weeks. I don't know. I followed him out here. It was my own fault."

"You were trying to hitch home, right?" asks Tony. "To your sister? I've been in contact with her."

That gets Bucky’s attention. "Since when?"

"Since last night, when Steve told me you were going to go with me. I figured she should have some warning."

"You said there's no reception out here," protests Bucky, his heart pounding. If Tony's already talked to Becca, told her Bucky is coming, then that's it. He doesn't have a choice. He has to go. Steve made sure he has to leave. Tears burn his eyes, anger finally winning out over resigned sadness.

"Oh, there isn't," says Tony. "Not for regular people, anyway. I have a satellite link. She knows you're safe."

"That's good," Bucky says, numb, because he thinks that's what he’s supposed to say. His sisters were worried, of course they were. Isn't that why he was trying to hitch his way across the country to get to Brooklyn?

It’s kind of fucked up, but maybe that's the silver lining. At least they still care. He knows, now. Fuck. His eyes are still burning and his throat hurts. He gulps down his coffee while it's too hot, scalding himself but successfully giving himself a distraction. He can't shed another damn tear over this.

"When are we leaving?" he croaks, wiping his hand across his mouth.

"Ride'll be here in twenty. You in a hurry all of a sudden?"

"Like you said, I've been stuck here for a while. It'll be nice to have some civilization," he lies. Based on Tony's expression, he's not buying it, but by the grace of Tony's goatee, he doesn't say anything.

The door opens in a rush of cold air and Lady comes bounding in, followed at a more sedate pace by Steve. Bucky's heart threatens to seize up, but he pushes it away, tries to focus on Lady instead.

"Hey there, sweet girl. Did you have a good walk? What a good girl, good little Lady," he coos, rubbing behind her ears and under her jaw, all her favorite spots. Her tail thumps and she looks up at him with her big brown eyes and Bucky very nearly starts sobbing right then and there, to hell with his resolve to hold it together.

Instead, he takes a breath and straightens up, glancing at Steve before he picks up his coffee again. "I think I got all my stuff out of the study. If I left anything by accident, you can just throw it away. Can't be that important."

Steve nods slowly, brow furrowed. "Sure, Buck, whatever you want."

That's not true at all. It's not whatever Bucky wants, is it? Because Bucky wants to stay and Steve won't let him. Steve has made the choice for them both and he doesn't trust that Bucky knows what he wants at all.

"I can walk you out to the clearing," Steve offers, as conversation lapses into awkward silence.

"No," says Bucky. "You just came in. Don't bother."

Steve's expression twists for a moment, pain in his eyes, before he smooths it out. "Okay," he says softly.

Bucky drains his coffee.

"Better get ready," says Tony.

Bucky refuses to take any of the winter gear Steve offers him. He puts on the same outfit he was wearing when he met Steve, knowing he'll ruin his sneakers in the snow but unwilling to take anything of Steve's that he won't be able to give back. In the doorway, Steve and Tony exchange a tight hug.

"Take care, Rogers," says Tony. "I've got your back."

"Thank you, for everything, Tony," says Steve. "I appreciate it."

Bucky pets Lady, looking away from their goodbye. His throat is tight, and if he has to speak, he'll cry again and he won’t be able to stop.

"Buck," says Steve, his voice rough. He squeezes Bucky's shoulder, hand lingering. "Take care of yourself, okay?"

Bucky nods furiously, throat working. The bastard. The self-righteous bastard. This isn't fair. He shoves his hands in his pockets and clenches his jaw. "Bye," he mumbles. "Thank you for having me."

It's the dumbest thing he's ever said to anyone and Bucky's said a lot of dumb things. Before he loses it entirely, he turns and heads out the door into the snow and he doesn't look back.

When he reaches the treeline he hears Lady howl from the house and he realizes he's never been outside without her. He pauses, his heart pounding, wondering if he should turn around, if he should run back and yell and scream at Steve until he fucking listens! Until he admits that he loves Bucky and he wants him to stay and nothing else matters.

But that's just a fairytale. It's not real and it won't happen. He can hear Tony's boots crunching in the snow behind him and, distantly, the sound of a helicopter.

It's surreal, watching it land in the clearing, following Tony onto it, and then accepting a headset and a fucking heated blanket to tuck over his lap before they lift off. Bucky can’t keep himself from looking out the window even though he knows he shouldn’t, watching the landscape fall away, smaller and smaller—the woods, the creek, and the warm little cabin where he was the happiest he’s ever been.

And just outside of it, a solitary figure that can only be Steve, staring up at the sky.

The tears finally return, Bucky desperately grateful that Tony seems distracted by yammering to the pilot and fiddling with his phone. It gives Bucky time to wallow in his crushing sadness, slumped down in his seat, face turned to the window. Every time he feels tears spill over onto his cheeks, he wipes them roughly away with his sleeve and mourns the loss of a life that he was just barely allowed to live.

Before Bucky even knows it, New York City sprawls in the distance.

It doesn't feel real, that the cabin and the city are even in the same state, let alone so close by air. He swallows around a lump in his throat as the city fills the skyline, the upward jut of Manhattan getting closer and closer.

Bucky’s not ready for them to land. He’s not ready for any of this. Yesterday morning, he was in bed in Steve’s arms, and today he’s here, stumbling dazedly out of a helicopter onto the roof of Stark Tower, alone again.

The wind hits him instantly, sinking into every inappropriate scrap of clothing he's wearing and blasting right through to his skin. He crumples into a full body shiver, and next to him, Tony murmurs, "Hey, kid, keep that," as he tucks the heated blanket around his shoulders.

Bucky doesn't have it in him to argue that he doesn't need the charity. His throat is too tight and he is too abjectly miserable to refuse any offered comfort. So instead he nods, even lets Tony put a guiding hand on his shoulder as they cross the roof in the bitter wind, all of Manhattan spread out around them.

"Your sister lives in Queens," says Tony, as they enter the tower. "I assume you knew that. I've arranged a ride to take you out there whenever you're ready to go."

They walk into the elevator and Tony turns towards him, putting both hands on his shoulders.

Bucky forces himself to meet his eyes.

"You need anything?" Tony asks quietly. "A new phone, some clothes? I figure you were in some trouble and I have no clue what kind of family reunion you're stepping into."

Jesus. Bucky's eyes burn at the unexpected compassion and he has to lift a hand to wipe away escaping tears.

"Thanks," he says roughly. "But I'm fine. I was trying to get to my sister. She's not who I was running from."

Tony takes a moment, looking him over. Then he gives Bucky’s shoulder one quick squeeze and steps back. "Alright, kid, sounds good. You wanna call her first, before you go?"

Bucky’s first instinct is to say no, to refuse anymore of Tony’s generosity, but then he thinks about what it’ll be like if the first time he talks to Becca in months is seeing her face to face. "That’d be good, thanks."

Tony tips his head in acknowledgement and when they get inside his...Jesus, his penthouse? Tony walks over to a desk, picks up a cell phone and hands it to Bucky. He points down the hall. "There’s an office if you want some privacy, first door on your right."

Bucky shuts the door behind him, hands a little shaky as he dials Becca’s number from memory, pacing as it rings.

"Hello?" She sounds tired.

"Hey, Becca," he replies, his voice suddenly and unexpectedly rough.

There's a sharp intake of breath. "Bucky," she whispers. "Where are you, baby? Do you need me to come get you from somewhere?"

Bucky sits heavily down in the office chair, shoving the heel of his hand into his eye, head hanging down. He can't hold his tears back any longer, not when he's finally hearing her voice and her first instinct is to care for him.

He's been so stupid. Stupid and stubborn and silent.

"No, it's okay," he says, sniffling. "I'm at Stark Industries. If it's okay with you, he offered me a ride out to your place. I figure he's rich, let him waste his gas."

Becca makes a cut off sound that might be halfway between a sob and a laugh. "Of course you can come here. Are you leaving soon? I'm going to make something."

Bucky swallows hard against the painful lump in his throat. "Don't fuss," he mumbles. "You don't have to do that."

"Don't tell me not to fuss over my only brother," Becca says, her voice sharp and brittle. "My baby brother. I'm not doing this over the phone. You get your ass over here where I can see you and feed you, and then we talk. About everything."

"Who's over there?" he asks uncertainly. "Is it just you?"

"Yeah," she says, gentling her voice. "Ted is on a trip. Just us."

"Okay," says Bucky. "I should be there in... I dunno. An hour? Two?"

"See you soon, Buck."

"See you," he confirms, hanging up. He wipes at his eyes, slumped in the chair. It takes him several minutes to get himself together before he goes to find Tony.

In the main room, Tony seems to be bouncing in place, flicking through some screen-like projections. He looks over when Bucky enters. "There he is. What’s the plan, Stan?"

"I’m ready to go whenever. Thanks again." Bucky tries to give him the phone back.

Tony immediately puts both hands up like Bucky is pointing a gun at him. "Sorry, I don’t like to be handed things. Why don’t you just keep it? That’ll solve multiple problems. You keep that, don’t hand it to me." He nods decisively, turning away. "JARVIS? Have the driver ready downstairs. I’ll send Barnes down."

"Very good, Mr. Stark," announces the ceiling.

Bucky stares, stunned. He addresses the most pressing issue first. "I can’t just take your phone."

"It’s not mine. Probably just an extra. A prototype I got bored with? Not sure." Tony shrugs, like he didn’t just gift Bucky with a brand new, state of the art phone. "It’s yours now."

Bucky opens his mouth to argue but ultimately decides against it. He’s too tired and Iron Man gave him a phone. His day is just starting and it’s already gone on too long for him to even consider fighting this. "Sure. Thanks," he says, stifling a sigh. "Did the ceiling just talk?"

"Yeah, that’s JARVIS. He runs the building."

"Okay," says Bucky. What does that even mean? He’s rapidly hitting his wall, oversaturated with new stimulus, and it’s bringing him uncomfortably close to hysteria. He needs to go, he needs to be alone for a while. "You mentioned a car? Do I just take the elevator?"

"Yeah, you do." Tony looks up from his tablet. "Hey, listen. I know he’s not your favorite person right now, but do me a favor and don’t blow his cover? The man deserves some peace. Don’t tell him I told you that."

"He’s not exactly able to take my calls," Bucky says defensively. Every time he thinks he might be done wanting to cry, the urge hits him again, so he forces himself to stop thinking about Steve. "I’m not going to tell anyone. Thank you for everything, but I’m gonna go now."

Tony holds his gaze until the hair on the back of Bucky’s neck prickles uncomfortably. He nods shortly, reaches out to squeeze Bucky’s shoulder, and then dismisses him. "Later, squirt." He tunes back into whatever project he’s fiddling with and Bucky hustles into the elevator with a rush of relief.

The car is big and black, with tinted windows, and Bucky crawls into the back seat and stares out at the city as they sit in traffic on the way out of Manhattan.

At least he’s alone. He hasn’t been alone for a long fucking time. Tugging his hood up, Bucky slumps into the leather seats and gives in to the strong desire to wallow in his own misery.

He must doze off, because when a light knock on the glass partition startles him awake, the landscape has changed completely into suburb-style neighborhoods. They're parked outside a semi-detached house with a neat front lawn that Bucky remembers from pictures but has never actually visited, since Becca and her husband only moved out here a couple of years ago.

"Sorry," blurts Bucky, rubbing at his eyes. "Thank you, for the ride, I... Thanks." He lets himself out of the car, waving uncertainly at the driver as he heads up the walkway, backpack slung over his shoulder.

God, he should have changed into jeans, or something. Standing here ringing the doorbell in vinyl pants and purple kicks just makes him feel like even more of an idiot. He's itching to run away, who even knows where, but Becca doesn't give him the opportunity.

The door swings open and Bucky doesn't even have a chance to say a word before Becca throws her arms around him in a tight hug. "Bucky," she whispers in his ear. "Oh, I'm so glad to see you."

"Becks," he protests mildly, patting awkwardly at her back. "I'm fine, okay? I'm fine."

"Hush," she says firmly. She squeezes him again, and he gives in, burying his face in her shoulder.

"Can we at least go inside," he mumbles after a prolonged hug. "What are your neighbors gonna think?"

"That my erstwhile little brother finally came home," she says, pulling away just enough to hold him by the shoulders, sharp eyes taking him in closely. She brushes his bangs out of his eyes, cupping his cheek. "Inside. I made lunch, meatloaf and mashed potatoes, and I even baked a pie."

Becca doesn't stop touching him the whole time, like she's afraid he'll disappear again if she does. His chest aches with vague guilt as he lets her usher him into her home, straight to the kitchen where he's sat on a stool while she turns away to start making him a plate. "I called Vanessa and Claire. I told them you’re safe and staying with me. They're so relieved. If they could be here they would be. They both want you to come visit soon."

"Oh," says Bucky. "Really?"

Becca sighs. "Yes, really. They're your family."

"Could've fooled me," he mutters, and maybe that's mean but he hadn't heard from either of them for weeks outside of Facebook before he broke his phone in early November.

"Bucky." Becca turns around, face flushed as she puts the plate down in front of him. "What's that supposed to mean? They love you."

"Sure, okay, but I wasn't convenient and they didn't want to put any effort in. I get it, no hard feelings, but I'm not going to pretend like they're not too busy to give a damn." Fuck. He didn't mean to get into this already.

"That's funny," Becca says sharply. "Vanessa's spent every day combing through responses to our campaign to find you and Claire posted the reward money—"

"You mean her husband did," he scoffs.

"Jesus, Bucky. That chip on your shoulder got bigger, huh?" Becca’s eyes are glittering with tears. "I'm sorry we couldn’t be there with you when she was dying. I'm sorry we left that to you and then we left you to dad. We fucked up, and we know that. I know that. But you didn't even try to talk to us. To me. One day, you just left! We thought you were dead."

Bucky stares at the plate of steaming food, hands curled into fists in his lap. His heart is pounding and he wants to scream, he wants to give in, finally, to the urge to scream and cry and react to everything that's happened in the last day, in the last few months, in the last three fucking years.

"And you felt guilty, is that it?" he says hoarsely, looking up at Becca's drawn face. "That you didn't have time for mom before she died, and you didn't have time for me, so what would it look like if I just up and died, too. Is that it?"

"No," says Becca, her voice quiet. "That's not fair, kid."

"Isn't it?" He's not hungry. He doesn't want to sit here and eat lunch in his sister's house like this is normal. This is his sister, and he can't remember the last time he saw her. Was it a year ago? He's never even visited her in this house. "You didn't make time. Why did you need to know where I was going or what I was doing? I woke up one day and I realized I didn't have to take it anymore, so I left."

"You could have told me," says Becca. "I would have bought you a plane ticket in a heartbeat."

"If you'd come for mom, maybe I would have believed that," says Bucky. "If any of you had been there when she died, I could have believed you'd help me."

Becca's eyes are wet. "I talked to dad."

Bucky snorts. "Save it."

"I didn't know it had gotten that bad. I'm sorry, Bucky. Did he—"

"I don't want to talk about this any more," Bucky interrupts. "And I'm not super hungry. Is it okay if I take a shower?"

Becca looks sad and tired and every bit of her 30 years, which is saying something because when he was still in high school, occasionally they’d be mistaken for twins. She looks like she's seconds away from crying but she just scrubs a hand through her dark hair. "Sure, Bucky, whatever you want. Guest bathroom is next to the spare bedroom, first two doors on the left. It's all set up for you, use whatever you need. I...I got a few things in your size, just in case."

Bucky can't reply to that so he just nods and ducks his head, hopping off the stool and hurrying away. In the spare bedroom, he dumps his bag on the floor and sees a JC Penney bag sitting on the middle of the bed. A quick glance reveals several pairs of sweats and hoodies, t-shirts, packs of underwear and socks, a pair of jeans. He scoops up the bag and brings it with him to the bathroom.

He just wants to curl up in bed and go to sleep. He misses Steve. He misses Lady. He misses their cabin. He can't have any of it because it's not his at all, it's Steve's, and Steve didn't want him there. Not enough to keep him, anyway.

In the shower, Bucky turns the water on as hot as he can stand it and scrubs himself down, drying off and gratefully dressing himself in a soft t-shirt with fleece sweatpants and a hoodie. He does consider just going to sleep, then, but it's only just past noon and he doesn't want to be up all night. Instead, he sits on the bed and sorts his stuff, figuring he ought to run a load of laundry so he doesn't pick it up and smell Steve's cedar soap every time.

He's about halfway through unpacking when he finds the money.

There's an envelope stuffed between his clothes, no name, no note, but inside of it is a thick bundle of hundred dollar bills.

Bucky really is going to scream. Logically, it's possible this was somehow Tony’s doing, but Bucky doesn't think so. He remembers setting his bag down when he said goodbye to Lady. Steve was nearby, hovering, and he must have done it then.

With shaking hands, he counts it. There are 50 bills. Five thousand fucking dollars.

"Asshole," he mutters, even as he swipes at the tears spilling over. What the hell is he supposed to do with this? "Fucking asshole."

He doesn't want Steve's money. He doesn’t need this, he just wants Steve.

Bucky desperately wishes he could rewind time. Go back to a week ago, when neither of them knew any of this was going to happen, and stay in that moment forever. He wants the snowglobe back, before the thaw, when they were stuck in the cabin but it didn't feel like they were stuck at all because they were together.

Scrubbing at his eyes, Bucky shoves the money back in his bag and pushes it off the bed. It doesn't matter. It's done, he's here now, he's exactly where he set out to go when he left Indiana months ago.

Finally, he's here, with Becca, and he doesn't know what's supposed to happen next.

He thought he could move past his bitterness, but he'd gotten into it with Becca right away. All that resentment and hurt bubbling up to choke him.

Why didn't he tell her sooner? Why couldn't he suck it up and call and ask for help, just once in his life?

Instead, he kept it all to himself, like a stubborn child. At some point, he decided the only person he trusted was dead, and so he was on his own. If he was going to go somewhere, though, there was only one choice. Back home, to New York. Ending up at Becca's anyway.

He wants to forgive her.

When he goes back out into the kitchen, he doesn't immediately find Becca anywhere. The door to what he thinks is the master bedroom is closed, so he takes the plate out of the fridge that he didn't touch earlier and heats it up in the microwave.

He's sitting at the table, taking slow, unenthusiastic bites of meatloaf when Becca sits down across from him at the table.

"This is really good," he offers. "Just like...just like mom's."

Becca's face crumples, her eyes bright with tears. "You think so?"

"Yeah. Like, a solid...9 out of 10." He gives her a brief smile.

"I'm sorry, Bucky. I shouldn't have pushed you to try to talk before you were ready."

He shrugs, thinking of the wad of cash crushed at the bottom of his pack. "Not all your fault. I wasn't really ready to leave where I was yet. I thought I'd be snowed in there until April. Thought I wouldn't have to figure any of this out until then."

Becca hesitates. "I can't really pretend to be sad that you're back sooner than April. I think I'd have lost my mind if you were gone for another four months. Stark said he happened to be out there surveying for a new build, helicoptered in and ran into you and the guy you were staying with. What are the chances?"

Bucky's throat feels tight. "Yeah," he tries to laugh. "Pretty wild."

He looks up when Becca's hand wraps warmly around his forearm, giving him a gentle squeeze. "Hey...I am sorry it was so hard on you, even if I'm glad to have you back. You...felt safe there?"

Bucky's mind goes rapidly to being in Steve's bed, wrapped up in his arms. "Yeah. Steve, the guy who helped me, he was really nice. Nicer than he had to be."

"You got to be friends with him?"

"Yeah." Bucky's voice comes out in a whisper, as though if he speaks any louder he'll shatter, fall apart. "He has a dog. Lady. She’s really smart."

"Maybe you can go back and see them in the spring," she suggests. She sounds kind of lost now, like she wasn't expecting this problem, out of all the other problems they have.

Bucky sniffs, wiping his sleeve across his face and blinking hard. "Nah, I think he prefers being alone. It's fine. I'm just tired. A little overwhelmed, I guess. I'll be better soon. I'm sorry I snapped at you. I don't really want to be mad at you anymore, Becca."

"It's okay if you are," Becca says quietly. "There's a lot I'd change, if I could. I let you down, kid. I let mom down, and then I let you down, and I should have held on harder."

Bucky clutches at his fork, staring at his half-finished plate of meatloaf. They're both crying now, tears spilling over Becca's cheeks, Bucky sniffling, his face hot.

It's probably going to be like this for a while. Awkward, and hard, and so fucking painful.

"Hey," he says roughly, because he's really hit his hard limit on processing emotion today. "I think I'm about ready for that pie you mentioned."

"Okay," says Becca, giving him a tentative smile, wiping quickly at her eyes. "I can heat it up in the oven? Get some ice cream?"

"That sounds great," he says.

It's not the worst thing ever. They sit together on the couch and eat dessert, watching Queer Eye, and don't have to talk much. The pie is really good, but even though it's blueberry and nothing like the pie he made for Christmas, it still reminds him of Steve.

Bucky wonders how long it's going to take before every single thing stops reminding him of Steve.

Chapter Text

--STEVE--

Steve stands on the front step long after the helicopter is gone, staring up at the sky.

It's clear today, pale blue and sunny, but the air is cold and crisp on his face. It smells like snow.

Next to his knee, Lady whines softly. Steve sighs and turns back inside, holding the door open for her, but she hesitates as though she knows that someone is missing. She really is too smart for her own good. “Come on,” Steve says firmly, giving her a nudge. “Inside.”

When Lady does go in, she immediately darts into the living room, nosing at the blanket crumpled on the couch in Bucky’s spot.

"He's not here," Steve murmurs, going to the coffee machine and pouring out the last cup. When he glances back at Lady, she’s standing alert on the threshold between the kitchen and the living room, head cocked. With a huff, she streaks down the hall and barrels into Steve's room. She emerges a moment later and shoulders her way into the study next, which Bucky left ajar. As Steve sips at his coffee, he listens to Lady’s frantic snuffling as she searches for their missing occupant. Lady comes back out and heads straight for the door, pawing at it and whining softly.

"He's not here, girl," Steve says again. "He went home, okay? You can look all you want, you won't find him."

Steve's heart feels bruised. Tender. He leans up against the counter, both hands wrapped around his mug, trying not to think about the look of betrayal on Bucky's face. The way his expression crumpled when Steve told him he couldn't stay here. Steve did that. Steve put that pain on his face. He’s the only one responsible for the outcome.

"It's going to be okay," Steve says quietly. He knows it’s not Lady he’s trying to convince. "We're going to be fine, just us, again. I know you got used to him around. So did I. But it's time for everything to go back to normal, now."

Lady lowers her head to her paws and lies down on the threshold, whining again.

She doesn't move for hours, but Bucky still doesn't come back. Why would he? Steve made him go.

It's Steve's fault for entertaining the fantasy for this long.

Bucky was an accident. Happy, sure, but still an accident. He was never meant to be a part of Steve's life. Bucky is meant to have his own life.

It's a little difficult to stay steady in his convictions when Lady is steadfast in her mourning. Even though the bedroom door remains open for the first time in a while when he goes to bed that night, Lady lays by the front door, occasionally letting out the most mournful howl Steve's ever heard. In the morning, when they go for their customary run, she bolts away and it takes him several hours to track her down.

When he finally finds her, panicked and shaken, she’s followed Bucky's scent from the day before to the clearing. She sits in the open field, ears perked up, like she's listening for Bucky's return. Steve's tattered heart breaks fully in half. "Come on, girl," he sighs. "It's too cold to stay out here."

She tips her head at him like he's crazy, giving a little snort-huff, as if to say, 'Well, Bucky's out here! If it's too cold for us, it's too cold for him. We can't go inside without him!'

"Pretty girl," he says softly, bending down to rub behind her ears. "I'm sorry, Lady. He's not coming back. I meant it. We have to go back to the cabin now."

She whines again, her ears folding back sadly, but when Steve stands and whistles sharply, she finally follows him in.

Steve finds himself trying to make it up to her; he treats her to a fresh rawhide and a few crumbled up chunks of lamb lungs, which she crunches up immediately, and then spends a good hour brushing her. He’s not sure if it helps at all, but at least it distracts them both. When he’s finished, she curls up in her bed with the rawhide, and Steve goes out to do his daily chores.

The snow melted down enough from the thaw that he ends up digging out the truck. After he’s shoveled out each tire, he keeps going, even though he can’t tell where the driveway is. It’s a satisfyingly physical task, Steve shedding layers of clothing to strip down to his t-shirt and jeans and then carving out a long rectangle until he looks up and realizes he’s nearly two hundred feet out from the house. Breathing heavily, Steve wipes sweat from his brow and walks out beyond where he cleared the driveway into the accumulated snow. It’s only up to about mid-calf.

He can definitely drive in this.

Before it snows again, he should head into town, stock up, do something that will take his mind off things.

Lady refuses to come with him, so he grabs his wallet and keys and resigns himself to a solo journey.

It’s slow going, and while the truck pulls out easily from under the awning, he does have to get out and push a couple of times when he hits uneven ground. Eventually, though, the driveway evens out, and he drives right through to the bridge. When he moved out here, he spent a long time researching what kind of vehicle he’d need—four wheel drive is a necessity, even when it isn’t snowy, and he shelled out extra for the best off-road shock absorbers he could find.

Even when he hits paved road, the conditions are bad, but he manages to make it to town.

His presence isn’t questioned, despite it being midwinter. All the regulars greet him and he nods in return, grateful his reputation as quiet and reserved saves him from smalltalk.

Normally he’d start with breakfast, followed by coffee, but it’s already after lunch, so he skips the diner and McDonald’s, finding it all reminds him too much of when he met Bucky to even consider his usual routine. He’s here to run errands, so that’s all he’ll do.

The most pressing concern is money.

Something tells him his gesture probably wasn’t well received, and if he’s honest with himself, it’s not like Steve really thought it fully through. He just didn’t know what else to do. He couldn’t let Bucky go without leaving him something, and all he could think of was making sure he had spending money. It wasn’t like he surrendered Bucky to the streets; he’s with his sister, and from what Bucky told him, she’s well off. She can take care of him.

But Steve knows that Bucky didn’t have any cash at all. There’s a high probability that finding the envelope just made Bucky angry, that he won’t spend it, but at least Steve gave it to him, just in case. He doesn’t like the idea of Bucky needing to ask his sister for everything he might need.

Still. That envelope was all the cash Steve had on him. Everything he had in his wallet and under his mattress. He grabbed it all, shoved it in an envelope while Bucky was avoiding him, and tucked it into his backpack while he was busy saying goodbye to Lady.

Which means his first stop is the bank.

After that, he’s free to actually go shopping. He skips Orscheln’s, even though he guesses his seeds must be in, because he’s worried Davey will question him on the viral post about Bucky. There’s plenty he could get, but he sticks instead to what he needs, picking up groceries and other household necessities. He’s not out of anything by any means, but Steve likes to stay ahead of his supplies. February is just around the corner and he knows it’ll snow enough to keep him from traveling again.

On a trip into town like this, Steve often finishes off with something nice, like a slice of pie or some pastries, but it doesn’t feel right to reward himself.

None of this feels right, which is ridiculous. He’s been doing this for seven years. Bucky was only in his life for six weeks.

Somehow, though, his presence reset the status quo, and his absence is palpable.

As Steve packs up his purchases in the truck and begins the slow trip home, the sun starts to set, the sky already dark with thick grey clouds. It definitely smells like snow and as he crosses the bridge and starts the final stretch back to the cabin, fat flakes begin to swirl down from the darkening sky.

When Steve lets himself back into the cabin, he nearly trips over Lady, who hasn’t moved from her sad sprawl at the door.

Steve’s brief spike of annoyance is instantly tempered by the bone-deep knowledge that he caused this. He not only drove Bucky away from him but also from Lady. He never stopped to think, before, about how it would affect her when he left. She took so easily to Bucky living with them.

She does not adapt as easily to Bucky’s absence.

In fact, it takes her a full week to stop sleeping by the door and searching every room for him whenever they come back into the house. She still gives Steve a betrayed look every time they go for a walk and don't find Bucky, but there's less howling and general pouting, at least from her. Steve, on the other hand, feels worn thin. He keeps making too much for meals, which has rarely ever been a problem before now. He finds himself reading aloud to Lady, avoiding the study for any reason, and turning off the radio when music comes onto the only station he gets out here.

The thing is, Steve would never say he was lonely before Bucky arrived.

When he first moved to the cabin, the only thing he felt was profound relief. Even when he was totally alone, before he found Lady, his quiet, solitary life allowed him to narrow his focus and build himself a home. That’s not to say there weren't any moments where Steve went completely and totally stir-crazy. Adapting to rural life was a considerable challenge that he coped with by being productive. There was always something to learn, or build, or fix. There was nobody out here to see him fail, so failure didn’t scare him.

Alone in the woods, Steve healed. He found peace and learned patience. Everything took time—chopping wood, clearing land, building furniture.

For years, it was enough. But now, standing in the middle of the kitchen, briefly confused about why he just pulled two mugs out of the cupboard, Steve feels the sharp stab of loneliness.

He expects Bucky to be here, and when his expectation isn’t met, he feels the loss of what he had very keenly. Regaining his previous equilibrium will be painful. Maybe he could have prepared himself for this better. If he’d been stronger, had turned Bucky down sooner….

Steve could have saved them both some grief.

That’s just what it is, though. Grief. Steve knows that while he’s miserable now, struggling to return to some semblance of routine in his life, it will pass.

It has to.

Bucky will bounce back and Steve will bear the weight of his mistakes until the ache dulls.

Steve doesn't actually start wondering if he truly made a mistake until three more weeks have crawled by, but he's not ready to admit it out loud. Lady already knows what’s wrong, having calmed in her single-minded search for Bucky but not having entirely forgotten him, and he has no one else to talk to.

He doesn’t know what to do about it, anyway, even without externalizing the exact words. Steve is snowed in again after several heavy snowfalls and the cabin didn’t magically gain a cellular signal overnight. By the time he can communicate with the outside world, it will definitely be too late to revisit the choice he made.

Luckily, Steve still has someone looking out for him.

One bright morning in early February, Steve’s sketching idly on the couch when Lady alerts to the sound of something approaching fast about five seconds after Steve does. He goes to the kitchen and pulls back the curtain on the window just in time to see Tony land in his Iron Man suit with a muffled thump.

Steve's heart leaps into his throat. He throws open the door, bare feet sinking into the fresh snow as he runs out, wild-eyed and unsettled. He hasn't seen Tony suited up since the Battle of New York. It hits a button in the dusty part of his brain that screams emergency emergency emergency.

"Tony!" Steve shouts, striding towards him. "Tony, what's wrong?"

The eerily expressionless helmet raises to meet his eyes as Tony straightens up from the impact crater his landing made in the snow. Then he touches a control at his wrist and the suit melts away from his body.

"Did you just run out here without shoes on?" says Tony, his brow furrowing. "Stand down, Cap. This is a social call."

Steve exhales sharply, hands on his hips. Adrenaline crashes through his body and he shakes his head. "Jesus Christ, Tony. I thought... I don't know what I thought."

"That aliens fell from the sky again, presumably," quips Tony. "My bad. Sorry to impose again."

"No, no," says Steve, gesturing at the house. "Come in."

They end up at the table, Steve pouring out coffee because he doesn't know what else to do. "Can I get you something to eat?" he asks. "I have leftovers from dinner last night."

"I ate, thanks," Tony says, waving him off. "How are you doing?"

Steve blinks. "I'm fine, Tony. Did you really come all the way out here to ask me how I am?"

Tony just looks at him. "I can’t exactly just text you or send an email, since you won’t let me install internet for you.”

“Right,” says Steve, snorting. “Well, I’m fine. Lady is fine. Everything is...fine.”

Tony drums his fingertips on the table, humming. “So is he, you know. Fine. He moved in with his sister in Queens. He's been working as a mechanic."

"Are you spying on him?" demands Steve, even though something eases in his chest that he hadn't realized was tense and tight before hearing that Bucky is settled in back home.

“Not spying,” says Tony. “Checking up on. It seemed like he was maybe someone important to you and you’d appreciate an update on his well-being.”

Steve rolls his shoulders. “Well,” he allows. “As long as it’s only once in a while.”

Tony watches him. It’s that same damn expression he wore years and years ago when he was trying to figure out just what makes Bruce tick. Calculating. “Sure thing, Cap. One thing, though. You didn’t actually answer my question in a meaningful way.”

“Which question was that?” Steve looks away to give Lady some attention, rubbing her cheeks with his thumbs. She’s perked up a lot with Tony’s arrival. Maybe she remembers him. Maybe she’s just as lonely as Steve is, these days. God, that’s a sad thought.

Heaving a very dramatic, put upon sigh, Tony gestures. “I asked how you’re doing. You know. How you’re really doing. Way out here. Alone?”

“Not alone,” says Steve stubbornly. “Got Lady, don’t I?”

“I forgot you were like this,” Tony says, exasperated. It almost makes Steve smile. “Don’t know how I forgot, but I did. Selective memory, maybe. The inevitable passage of time and residual fondness made me remember you as only slightly annoying.”

Steve rolls his eyes. “I’m fine,” he says firmly. “That’s the truth. I’m not good, I’m not great, I’m fine, as fine as I’ve ever been. I’ve been living out here for nearly seven years, Tony. Before last month and today, you came by once, just to let me know you knew where I was. I don’t mean to be rude, I appreciate your friendship, but I don’t need you trying to fix anything about how I live.”

Something sparks in Tony’s brown eyes. Now Steve’s gotten him going. “Okay, just a second,” he says, stabbing his index finger into the table between them. “It was more than that and if you weren’t determined to be such a damn martyr you’d admit it. God, what is it with you, Rogers? Why are you so sure your only choice is this?”

Steve's first response is to bristle, to refute Tony's accusation, but he counts out ten breaths instead and then looks away, putting his hand out for Lady and turning his focus to scratching her fluffy ears.

For his part, Tony actually lets the moment sit. He's watching Steve closely, clearly itching to jump in, to poke and prod and fight, but he waits.

Maybe they’ve both grown over the years.

"I'm not," Steve finally admits, when he’s rolled the truth around in his head and let it take shape between his lips. "But my life works and I'm comfortable. It's okay for me to be here, Tony, I'm good with that. I appreciate the concern. I do. You've been a good friend to me, are a good friend, but I don't need you to look out for me. I can take care of myself."

"Yeah, I've seen you rip cars open with your bare hands, Rogers," Tony snorts. "I'm not concerned for your physical safety. It’s your stupid heart I worry about. I feel a little protective of you, okay? You deserve the life you want to live and I’m trying to help you live it."

Hell.

"You have," says Steve, a lump in his throat. "You've kept my secret, you keep people off my back." He lowers his voice. "You took care of Bucky. I won’t ever forget any of that."

"You crushed him," says Tony frankly. "That kid was heartbroken. Is that really what you think is best?"

Steve clenches his jaw to tamp down on the ache in his chest. "This isn't a romance novel. He's got a whole life ahead of him. He's just so young. He'll get over this and he'll be better for it. Bucky deserves to make his own choices, now."

"Only after the one you made for him, right?" Tony asks smartly. He slurps noisily at his coffee, looking at Steve over the rim of the mug. "He did not want to leave. You did that. Cap knows best, right?"

“I don’t…” Steve blows an annoyed breath out through his nose. “It’s not like that. He’s twenty years old. I shouldn’t have ever gotten involved with him to begin with.”

“Maybe.” Tony shrugs. “But you did and that means he deserves a say.”

It’s true. They both know that it’s true. Steve’s been thinking it for days and now Tony is here to say it aloud to him and Steve can’t pretend it’s out of his hands anymore. He pushes up from the table and doubles down on his weakening convictions. “Even if that’s true, it’s too late now. I sent him away. He moved on, just like I knew he would. He needed a push.”

“So you’re over him? He mean that little to you?” Tony, not one to ever temper his approach to confrontation, reaches out and presses his metaphorical finger directly into Steve’s metaphorical open wound.

The words bring white hot anger to the surface, Steve offended and hurt by the very implication that Bucky isn’t the most important person in Steve’s life now.

“He means everything to me!” The minute it’s out of his mouth, Steve knows it’s true, knows he’ll never be over Bucky Barnes. Steve loves him and he’ll always love him.

“Huh,” says Tony. “You know logic might suggest that if you’re not over it, neither is he. Just some food for thought, while you keep talking about him moving on and getting over it.”

"It's different," Steve says, forcing a gruffness he doesn't feel into his voice. "He'll bounce back. Even if he's not over it now, it'll get easier with time. He deserves better than me, than this place. He deserves a chance to see what’s out there."

Tony grunts. "If you'd come to that decision together, I'd be more receptive, gotta admit. You're still treating him like he's not able to make that decision himself."

Steve scowls, lips pursed. "I don't want him to regret it later," he says quietly. "When he's still trapped here with me, what, a year from now?"

"You gain a new superpower I wasn't aware of?" Tony quips. "Do we need to test out your newfound ability to predict the future?"

Steve groans. "Tony...."

"No, I'm serious, Steve," he interrupts. "You don't know that. You're trying to be tactical with a relationship. I'm saying you gotta cut that out. It won’t bring you anywhere good. Trust me."

"Are you done?" Steve rubs a hand over his face, shaking his head. "You made your point."

"You have a slim window here," Tony warns. "The longer you let this go, the more bitterness will set in. You still have a chance to be happy. You can get what you want, and so can he."

Drumming his fingers against the counter while he stares fixedly out the window, Steve lets himself imagine what it’d be like, having Bucky back, having him here to stay. Not just until spring, but for always. His chest squeezes so tight he feels like he’s having an asthma attack. He forces himself to breathe more steadily. “Well, last I looked, all you had out there was your suit. Am I gonna get a piggy back ride back to New York?”

Tony rolls his eyes so hard, they disappear to nothing but the whites. “God, you’re an asshole. They never say that in the history books, you know. ‘Steve Rogers: asshole.’ Anyway, smartass, the helicopter is already on the way. You might say I had confidence in my ability to make your stubborn butt see reason.”

A grudging affection swells in Steve and he huffs out a laugh. “One of these days I gotta meet your mom. Give her an award for putting up with you and Howard all her life.”

Tony smirks. “I’m sure she’d like that. You just let me know.”

"I'll send up a flare," Steve says dryly.

"Don't you think it's time you got a phone out here? Some internet, or something?" suggests Tony. "I can rig it so you're untraceable, you know. If you're gonna bring Bucko out here, you need something for him to be in touch with the outside world besides the phone I gave him."

Steve raises an eyebrow. "You gave him a phone? That how you tracked him?"

"For the last time, I didn't track him," says Tony. "I checked on him, for you. Once you pull your head out of your ass, I'll stop."

"You're getting ahead of yourself, anyway." Steve sighs, taking their mugs to the sink and rinsing them out. "He might not want to forgive me. He might not want to see me at all. I plan to respect that."

"Something tells me that won't be a problem." Tony looks down at his lap, where Lady has put her head, hoping for pets. He scritches at the soft fur between her eyes.

"She'll need to come," says Steve, inclining his head towards Lady. "I can't leave her inside unattended for more than a few hours. She’s not used to it and I don’t want to come back to a cabin destroyed by a restless husky."

"Well," says Tony, frowning speculatively and petting her between the ears. "You'll have to hold a headset over her ears. I've never considered the logistics of pet ear protection on a helicopter before."

"Can't you google it?"

Tony looks up as if Steve's just spoken an alien language to him. "What did you say?"

"Oh for the love of—I go to the library in town, you know. I've figured things out." Steve crosses his arms.

"Sure, sure, I could google it…” Tony allows. “Or I could just ask JARVIS. He’s better. Hey, you know, I could set him up out here, too, if you wanted. Wire the whole place..."

"No, Tony,” Steve says firmly. “I like how things are just fine. It’s still better than what I grew up with. Anyway, if—and it’s a big if, Tony—he wants to come back with me, we'll discuss the options. Okay? Are you happy?" Steve can't keep the amusement from his tone, though.

"Moderately," agrees Tony, standing up. He seems to be hesitating, which is very unlike him, but finally he adds, "I should have come sooner. Shouldn't have waited for you to show up on JARVIS's radar. I was taking care of some things for myself, going through a rocky patch with Pep, but that's no excuse for letting you disappear into the wilderness. You shouldn't have had to be alone out here for so long."

Steve softens immediately, reaching out to give Tony's shoulder a quick squeeze. "You don't owe me anything. You've done more than enough."

"It's not about what I think I owe you, Steve.” Tony spreads his hands, opening himself up. “It's about friendship. I think I fell down on the job a bit. This is me telling you that even if you don't make it good with your boy—and you'd better—you're not going back to your old ways. I'm coming to visit more often."

The sincerity of the words, the emotion behind them, just about knock Steve on his ass with gratitude. "Anyone ever tell you you've got a big heart?"

Tony scoffs. "That's called cardiomegaly and it's a very serious condition. I don't need any other heart problems, so never mention it again."

Steve lets out a startled laugh, shaking his head. "You didn’t mention that, about you and Pepper, when you were here last month. The two of you are okay now?"

"We’re good. We're really good,” says Tony, a warm, genuine smile spreading over his face. “We’re getting married next year. You’re invited, by the way. If you keep this mountain man aesthetic going, I bet we could tell everyone you're my eccentric cousin Stefan or something. If you didn't want to remind everyone you exist." Tony pauses abruptly and Steve can just barely hear JARVIS's voice in Tony's earpiece. "Helicopter's here. JARVIS says you can hold the headset over Lady's ears. Grab a bag, I'll meet you out there."

"Thanks, Tony," murmurs Steve, giving him a grateful smile. "I'll just be a minute."

"Yeah, yeah. Take your time." Tony heads back out, the door closing behind him, and Steve exhales, slumping against the counter for a moment before he collects himself.

He’s doing this. He’s really going to give this a shot. Maybe he doesn’t deserve the second chance, but he’d be stupid to let it go.

Steve changes his clothes, putting on a nicer pair of jeans and a blue checked shirt, throwing an extra change of clothes into a backpack, along with his wallet, toiletries, and some treats and food portioned out into baggies for Lady. At the door, he puts on a coat and his hiking boots, then clips a leash to Lady's collar. As a rule, she's not a fan of being leashed, spoiled by her freedom out here, but she accepts it as gracefully as she accepts most things. Finally, he takes his keys out of the bowl and actually locks up behind him.

The helicopter is here; Steve can hear the resonant thrum of the blades as he crunches through the snow with Lady beside him towards the clearing.

Lady gets nervous as they approach, thrown by the noise, and Steve doesn't want to risk her getting scared and jumping anywhere, so he just picks her up like a baby and climbs aboard with her huddled in his arms. Once he sits down across from where Tony is waiting in the back, he sets Lady carefully down on the floor between his legs, accepting a headset for himself and then putting the second one Tony offers him very gently over her ears.

Tony adjusts the microphone, the radio crackling to life. "Very cute. Away we go, Cap. It's been a while since you've been back to New York, huh?"

"Yeah," says Steve. "Guess you could say that."

"Well, not much has changed in seven years. At least, not compared to how much it changed over your last absence."

"Ha," says Steve. "Very funny."

Tony grins at him. "We’ll touch down at the tower in about 45 minutes."

Steve glances at the watch on his wrist. It's two in the afternoon now, so about 2:45. "Anyone else at the tower these days?"

Tony doesn't need to clarify what he means. "Bruce is always in and out. He does a lot of his research there. Thor hasn't been Earth-side in a few months and Clint retired to his own farm. He’s got three kids, now. I can't keep track of Natasha but she's always around when she needs to be. We have a few new kids, though. Picked up some twins who ended up with some interesting abilities from Loki's old scepter. Turned out Hydra—"

"What?" Steve interrupts, spine stiffening.

Tony waves him off, unconcerned. "Relax. You know that dad and Peggy rooted them out of SHIELD, way back in the day. This was just a tiny little baby head that we had to chop off. Anyway, it's been handled, and in the process we recruited the power twins. I think you'd like all of them. Good people, you know? Oh, and Sam, you’d love Sam, you should meet him. He served, too. Sam Wilson, goes by Falcon when we're, y'know." Tony whistles, makes a little twirl gesture with his hand.

Steve nods his understanding. "I’d like that. Maybe not today, though."

"Nah, not today,” agrees Tony. “He's leading a mission in Latvia right now. Hey, did you know the Wakandans have a cat?"

Steve struggles to parse this. "I imagine they have a lot of cats."

"A cat man. Well, panther. Actually, he's a prince. You've missed some things, Cap."

"I'd say so," he laughs. It feels good to joke about these things with Tony, to not know what any of it means but to know that Tony does. Tony's handling it, along with everyone else. The world safe in their hands. "I can't say I'm real upset about that part, though."

"Fair enough. I didn’t want to overwhelm you, last time, but I figure… Can’t hurt to know what’s up, right?" Tony shrugs, reaching down to pet Lady, who is panting excitedly. "Sorry, girl. Promise we're almost there."

As the landscape below them begins to change, the snow-capped trees and farmland shifting and changing into bigger towns and suburban communities, something unfurls in Steve’s chest.

This exact view, the hectic urban sprawl of contemporary New York City, is not the beloved memory he holds only in his mind, but it occupies the same place in his heart. They’re superimposed over each other, now, and the sight still takes his breath away. A tender ache, right in the center of his chest.

He wasn’t sure when he’d ever see it again, but it’s not quite as difficult as he imagined it might be.

When they arrive in Manhattan, the helicopter lands on the roof of the tower. They disembark, Steve scooping Lady up into his arms again. Steve opens his mouth as they cross the roof to the door but Tony beats him to punch, pointing at the elevator. "Does she need to, like, go? There's a garden on the..."

"Sixty first floor," cuts in JARVIS smoothly.

"Right, sixty first. You can take Lady out there, if you want."

Steve hesitates. "And after that, if, theoretically, I wanted to leave right away to go see Bucky—"

Tony snorts. "What, you didn't bring your own ride? No? There's always the subway. Nobody drives in Manhattan, Rogers, you know that—"

Steve makes a face.

"Yeah, yeah," laughs Tony. "Head down to the garage, you can hitch a ride. Barnes's sister lives out in Queens. I've already got the address, I'll inform JARVIS."

"Consider me informed, sir," says JARVIS.

Tony points at the ceiling. "See?"

"Thank you, Tony. I owe you one."

"Ooh. Now that... A favor from Cap, that's valuable." Tony grins. "I've really gotta think about how I'll cash that one in."

Steve ignores him, stepping into Tony’s personal space and wrapping an arm around his shoulders in a firm hug. "See you around, Tony. Give my best to your family."

"You got it. Say hi to your better half."

With that, knowing it isn’t goodbye, Steve heads into the elevator.

He does take Lady to the garden out of respect for the interior of Tony's home, and when they’re ready, he bundles her back into the elevator down to the garage. She seems a little anxious at the unfamiliar environment, sticking close to Steve, not even pulling on the leash. He hates to do this to her, shutting her into so many foreign, enclosed spaces, but he knows that the second she sees Bucky, she'll forgive him for the horrible urban scenery.

By the time they're crossing the bridge, Steve staring broodily out the window at the darkening skyline, he's officially nervous.

What the fuck is he going to say? How is he just going to turn up on the doorstep of Bucky's sister's house and explain himself?

Bucky might take one look at him and ask Steve to turn around and go right back where he came from.

Steve would deserve it, too.

A cold, wet nose pushes against his hand, and Steve huffs a laugh, digging his fingers into Lady's ruff and giving her the attention she’s demanding so politely. "Maybe if he sees you first," Steve murmurs to her, "He'll want to hear what I have to say, huh? He likes you better than me, I think. Yeah, he does. He spoiled you rotten. He did. Good girl. My good, sweet girl."

Her tail thumps hopefully, a tentative rhythm lacking true enthusiasm just yet. He doesn't blame her. She’s never been in a car that didn’t have the window cranked down for her to stick her head out of. Steve continues to pet her, murmuring apologies and reassurances as they make their way across the East River and into Queens.

With the traffic, it feels truly endless. Steve’s about to ask the driver to let him out so he can run to Queens.

Finally, though, after a meandering tour of identical neighborhoods, the car pulls to a stop.

Lady sits up, ears perked forward. Steve's heart kicks up a notch, hammering against his ribs as he looks out the window at the tidy home they stopped in front of. Maybe he should have called. Maybe this is a bad idea altogether and Tony doesn't know what he's talking about.

Maybe he just needs to get it over with, one way or another.

With a deep breath, he opens the door and helps Lady out, before closing it behind him. The driver rolls down the window. "I'll wait here for you, sir." Steve must make a face, because she immediately smiles and adds, "It's alright if it takes awhile. I've got a podcast ready to go."

"Okay, thanks. It's this one, right?" he points, and when she nods, he turns and leads Lady up the stairs.

With one last quick pet, more to reassure himself at this point than to reassure Lady, Steve reaches out and rings the doorbell.

Chapter Text

--BUCKY--

As it turns out, a week doesn't do the trick to clear Steve out of his head. Neither does two. Not even a whole month can do that, apparently.

By the time February rolls around, things are better, though. Bucky feels like he could almost be approaching something categorized as good. The first step to finding a new normal involves getting a job at a local auto body shop that Ted's uncle owns. Having something to do every day, to focus on, redirects all his nervous energy, and makes him feel a lot less like a freeloader.

He also makes an effort to reach out to his sisters. He’s closest with Becca, always has been, but together they go down to North Carolina to visit Vanessa with Claire. Just the four of them, to try and clear the air. They have a good time, drinking wine and baking brownies and catching each other up on everything that’s happened during the long months of estrangement, and while it has moments where one or all of them are crying, it’s not as bad as Bucky prepared himself for it to be. He does feel like he lives an entire lifetime in one weekend, but it’s worth it.

Bucky hasn't spoken to his dad, yet, though. Some days, he thinks he never will. Becca agrees that it’s up to him whether he even wants to, or not.

Yeah, Bucky should be doing really well. He should be great.

Except there's still $5,000 in his backpack, tucked away in the closet, under old shoes and a VCR Ted won't get rid of even though there are no VHS tapes in the whole house.

There's still the money and there's still the part where sometimes he opens the drawer of his bedside table and stares at the dreidel Steve made him. He can’t bring himself to actually hold it, though, and no matter what, he can't bring himself to look at the painting or he'll cry.

So, it's actually not great at all, and Bucky guesses he’ll never get over Steve Rogers.

Becca waits until they're back from their sibling reunion trip to ask him about Steve. God knows Bucky's seen the question in her eyes a million times over the past month as Bucky has moped and brooded all over the house.

He’s been living in Becca and Ted’s guest room. He knows he has to find a place, soon, because Becca and Ted need their privacy back, but she keeps saying not to rush it, and he thinks maybe she likes having him here. Still, it also means she’s been watching him worriedly for weeks and knows him well enough to figure out that Steve wasn’t just a nice guy that let Bucky stay in his cabin.

They’re cooking dinner when she finally brings it up.

"Can I ask you a question?"

"I dunno," mumbles Bucky. "Can you?"

She snorts. "I just keep wondering, you know? Did you and Steve...have a, like, thing?"

"What makes you say that?" he asks mildly, hoping to stall a little. He's sitting at the table, cutting the tops off green beans, while she peels and chops potatoes at the counter.

Becca glances at him. "Because you were shacked up with this guy for almost two months," she says. "And when you think I'm not looking, you get real fucking sad, like, recovering from a breakup sad. I know that face. We have a pretty similar one, you know." She smiles warmly at him, encouraging.

Bucky takes a deep breath. "It was a small cabin," he says, shrugging. "It was just proximity, okay? Close quarters. He was, like, stupid hot."

"So it was just a physical relationship?" she asks. Her perfectly arched eyebrow, deeply suspicious of his bullshit, reminds him too much of mom.

"Yeah," he says shortly. "Sex. Which I do not at all want to talk about with you, okay?"

"Of course not," says Becca. "But...are you sure? There really weren’t any feelings there?"

Bucky shrugs. "Not anymore. I'm never going to see him again, so it doesn't matter. I'm done, Becks. I'm moving on. It was just a weird, intense fling."

"Okay, sure," she agrees, which he knows is bullshit because she's got this look like a cat after a mouse. "I just think it's weird that you never talk about him. It's like you're brokenhearted and you can't stand to even think about him."

"Well, if I was," huffs Bucky, face hot. "Which I am not, it'd be kind of rude to bring it up like this. Don't you think?"

Becca only shrugs. "Maybe, maybe not. You know that you can tell me about this, right? I'm not going to think whatever it is you're afraid I'm going to think."

Bucky groans dramatically. "It's not a big deal, okay? We had a really nice holiday together and it made it feel like something it wasn't. And then we ran into Tony Stark and instead of three or four more months to figure it out, we had about 24 hours. If he wanted me to stay, he would have asked me to stay."

"Did he know that your family thought you were missing?" Becca asks, annoyingly astute.

"Yes," admits Bucky. "But that's not the point. I could have sent a message with Stark or used his fancy satellite phone."

"And left us worried about you without even getting a chance to see you?" Becca shrugs. "It sounds like he cares."

"Then he could have at least made an effort to hold on to me!" Bucky snaps. "If he really loved me like he said he did, he could have let me make my own choice!"

Becca's eyes widen with surprise. Then her face softens, smooths out into something too close to pity, and Bucky throws the green beans into the bowl and gets up. "No, Bucky, wait, don't go, come on. Talk to me."

"Don't look at me like that!" he cries, eyes burning. "Don't do that, don’t look at me like you're sad for me, okay?"

"I won't," says Becca. She clears her throat and visibly controls her face. "This guy was older than you, right?"

Bucky huffs, shrugging. "Sure. Yeah. I know, there's an age difference. But the whole time it was just us, he treated me like a whole person. Then, the second Stark showed up, it was like...he woke up, realized he'd been dreaming, and whatever future he might have thought he wanted just evaporated. He didn't let me choose, he just decided for me. Didn't even kiss me goodbye."

"Oh, Bucky," says Becca softly. "I'm sorry."

"So it's over," says Bucky. "There's no way to contact him, and even if there was, he doesn't want me."

"I think he was trying to look out for you," Becca says quietly. "He wants what's best for you. He knew you were trying to get home, that we were worried."

"I'm just mad at him," says Bucky. "I don’t care why he did it! He broke my fucking heart. I think about him all alone in that house and I feel sorry for him! I'm tired of thinking about him, Becca. I'm tired of caring about how he feels when he basically kicked me out."

Becca puts down her knife and quietly draws him into her arms, hugging him tight, and Bucky's easy, he's always been easy. He hugs back, squeezing his eyes shut to fend off tears. After a while, she lets him go, stepping back. "Alright, here's what we're going to do. We're going to finish putting dinner in the oven, and then we're gonna text Ted and tell him to pick up ice cream. When he gets home, we're gonna make him deal with the rest of dinner while we spoil our appetites eating an entire pint each. It's the only true solution."

Bucky snorts. "Oh my god, Becca. I'm not in high school. Some cute boy didn't just dump me to go out with Jessica from AP Chem."

"First of all, Jessica from AP Chem kind of sounds like the worst," says Becca. "Second of all, I'll have you know I have eaten my weight in ice cream for every break up I've ever had. I even did it when Ted and I took a break during my first year of residency and that wasn't a real breakup because he still showed up at my house with pizza once a week."

This time, Bucky can't keep himself from laughing. "Your husband is dumb."

"Listen, you might be heartbroken, but I'm the real sufferer. I'm morosexual, Bucky. There's no cure."

"No one suffers like you suffer, truly," he deadpans.

"Thank you," she says solemnly.

They get dinner in the oven, as promised, and Ted comes home with a whole grocery bag full of ice cream. "Ben and Jerry’s was on sale," he says with a shrug, kissing Becca hello.

"You're a good husband," she says, hand over her heart.

"Yeah, yeah, no need to kiss up to me," he says, waving dismissively. "Go wallow, or whatever. I think you break up with people just to have an excuse to binge ice cream."

"I don't need an excuse. I do what I want." She sticks out her tongue at him, thus proving that 30 is not the magic adult number Bucky sort of assumed it would be.

Becca grabs two spoons from the drawer and they head into the living room. Bucky can actually admit that sitting on the couch with Becca and eating more ice cream than any one human should ever consume is helpful. It might be partly because he's so full he's going to explode, and that will keep him from ever thinking of Steve Rogers again.

When they’re both one and a half pints deep, the doorbell rings. Bucky groans. "We don't want any."

Ted strolls past, rolling his eyes. "Calm down, it's probably the neighbor. They delivered one of her packages here today. I sent her a message on Facebook."

Bucky returns to scraping the bottom of the Chubby Hubby ice cream, savoring every last bite.

He’s really not ready for Ted to pop his head back into the living room a minute later, his brow furrowed in confusion. "Bucky? Someone's here for you."

"What? Who?" Bucky looks at Becca, eyebrows raised, as if she can provide the answer.

Ted shrugs. "It’s some guy and his, uh, dog. His name is Steve?"

Bucky freezes. His heart starts to pound and whatever expression he has on his face prompts Becca to lean in and put a reassuring hand on his wrist. "Bucky? Hey, are you okay? Do you want me to tell him to leave?"

"No. No, I'll go talk to him," croaks Bucky.

Swallowing hard, he stands up, avoiding Becca’s eyes as he rubs his nose into his sleeve, sniffling. He can’t face Steve again looking like he’s about to fucking cry. He’s so busy trying to compose himself that he fully ignores Ted as he passes him, his body moving on autopilot while Bucky fully vacates his body. He can't bring himself to believe it's actually going to be Steve, that he's here, that it's not some other guy named Steve with a dog who wants to talk to him. It seems more realistic than his Steve, Steve Rogers, arriving from his cabin in the woods to stand on his Bucky's sister's front stoop in Queens.

Except then his feet bring him to the threshold of the front door and he looks up as he pulls it open, catches one glimpse of Steve’s face—God, Steve really is here, he came here to see Bucky—and before either of them can say a single fucking word, Lady launches herself at Bucky with a pitiful whimper.

It’s the perfect distraction. Relieved, Bucky staggers under the weight of one hundred pounds of excited, wriggling husky while she barks, plants both paws on his shoulders, and licks wildly at his face. Bucky laughs hoarsely, head ducked down, hugging her tightly. God, he missed her so much. He missed her soft fur and eager cuddles. He missed being so unconditionally loved.

"Easy, Lady," Steve murmurs. When he whistles softly, she drops her paws to the ground, whining and pacing instead, darting in for headbutts and licking at Bucky's hands. "Good girl."

Bucky sniffs noisily, hiding his face in Lady's ruff. When he finally picks himself up off the ground, he scrubs at his face with his hands and then raises his head, blinking warily at Steve.

"Hi," Steve says roughly. His throat bobs nervously and Bucky notices an uncertainty on him that he’s just not accustomed to seeing, trembling fingers curled into loose fists like he has no idea what to do with his hands.

"Hi," says Bucky, wiping his nose on the back of his hand. He cuts his gaze away, then flicks it back to Steve's face. He looks good, achingly familiar, and it feels like no time at all since Bucky left and also, at the same time, like years have passed, so it's almost a shock to see that Steve hasn't drastically changed. His hair is still long and his beard is thick but neatly-trimmed. He’s wearing soft, ragged jeans, and a plaid shirt, under his worn brown coat.

"I know you got no reason to want to see me," Steve says, the words slow and practiced. "But if you're willing to give me some of your time, I'd appreciate it if we could talk."

Bucky works his jaw, his eyes immediately burning with unshed tears. He’s so emotional he feels he might choke on it, nose and cheeks hot. "I could maybe find some time in my day. You wanna come in? We can talk in my room."

"I'd love to," says Steve. "Is it okay for Lady to come with?"

"I could never say no to this face," says Bucky, reaching out to scratch her under the chin. Before he can second-guess doing this, he turns and leads the way inside, and Steve follows.

Bucky's brain is just a loud blaring siren. There are no words or distinguishable feelings or thoughts or any of it between his ears. There’s just a primal scream stretching out and out and out.

He walks through the living room with Steve and Lady to find that Ted and Becca are both sitting on the couch with wide eyes. Bucky catches Becca’s eye and he feels his face go even hotter. "Uh, guys, this is Steve and Lady. Steve, this is my sister, Becca, and her husband, Ted. We're gonna go talk."

"Sure," says Becca, her voice coming out a little higher than normal. "Do you need anything?"

Bucky shakes his head quickly. "We'll be okay. Thanks."

"Okay, well...just shout if you do." She nods, adding like an afterthought, "Nice to meet you, Steve."

"You too. You have a lovely home. Sorry to intrude." Steve sounds steady and calm, but Bucky saw the worry in his face. He’s nervous.

"Of course," says Becca easily. "We've got dinner, if you want to eat."

Bucky clears his throat before Steve can respond. "Not right now, Becca. Thanks, sorry." He grabs Steve’s sleeve and tugs, hurrying him down the hall to escape the stares of his family.

When they go into his room, he closes the door and avoids looking at Steve, settling cross-legged on the end of his bed. He barely has to pat the space next to him before Lady immediately jumps up. "Hey girl," he croons, smiling through teary eyes. "I missed you. You've been good for Steve, right? I bet you have. You're the best girl in the whole wide world."

Bucky is so glad she's here. He has no idea if Steve brought her on purpose, knowing she'd break the ice, provide focus and comfort where otherwise they'd be standing awkwardly alone together, or if he just honestly couldn't fathom going somewhere without her. Either way, Bucky puts his arms around her neck and rubs his face into her fur.

"She's been moping," says Steve, and the deep rumble of his voice catches Bucky off guard. It's jarring to see him here, out of place. Steve is so intrinsically tied to the cabin, to life there, that Bucky feels off-balance just to have him here.

When Bucky lifts his head enough to peek, he finds Steve leaning up against the door, hands in his pockets. He's big, and solid, and so broad, in soft blue flannel and dark wash jeans, his coat open. There's a concerned furrow in his brow as he looks down at the floor, a couple locks of his swept back hair falling into his eyes. "She's spent weeks wandering the house looking for you."

Bucky swallows hard against the lump in his throat, rubbing at his eyes. "Sorry, girl," he mumbles, kissing her between the ears where her fur is softest. "You worrying 'bout me? No bears out here. I've been just fine, promise."

Lady boofs softly and licks his face, Bucky letting out a watery laugh.

Steve clears his throat, that gently concerned expression folding into tense worry. That he's even telegraphing his anxieties on his face seems noteworthy. "I've been doing the same thing," Steve adds. "Looking around for you, confused. Making too much food and coffee, reading aloud for nobody. Rolling over in bed and reaching for a person that isn't there. Someone that should be there."

Bucky blinks, tears spilling over. What the hell. It’s everything Bucky expected, imagining Steve rattling around alone.

"So what?" he mumbles, forcing himself to reach for the stubbornness and hurt he still feels before his determination wavers. "You miss what's convenient now that it's gone?"

Steve takes a shaky breath, pushing his hair back from his face. "I deserve that, I know, and I'm sorry. I messed up, Buck, and I hurt you. I should never have forced you to leave."

"No, you shouldn't have." Bucky pulls his sleeves over his hands and wipes his eyes with them. Lady lays her head in his lap with a soft whine, flicking her ears as she watches him. Bucky didn't know it was possible to love an animal this much. He keeps petting her, letting her calming presence keep him centered. "All you had to do was ask me to say. I told you to ask me to stay."

"I know," admits Steve. "I thought I had to save you from making a mistake. I thought I was doing the right thing."

"By taking away my choice?" Bucky watches as Steve flinches at his words. "I didn't need to be saved. You gave me a place to be when I didn't have anywhere else, but in the moment when I finally had a choice, when I could show you I wanted to be with you because I wanted it and not because it was that or die, you sent me away."

Steve's eyes are bloodshot. He wipes at them with trembling fingers, his head hung in shame. "I'm sorry, Buck. I was afraid. I was afraid it was selfish to keep you. I was afraid you'd wake up in a year and hate me for asking you to stay."

"You weren't afraid it was selfish. You knew it was selfish. You were afraid to want something for yourself, you were afraid of what it would mean to want something for yourself besides being left alone in those woods." Bucky's not sure where it comes from, but he knows it's true. He knows that Steve is a good man who's been hiding in that cabin trying to justify not being out in the world sacrificing whatever he's got left for the greater good. "I think you were afraid if you asked me to stay, it would mean you didn't have the right to stay yourself."

"You're right," Steve says, voice rough and unsteady. He sniffs, the tip of his freckled nose ruddy pink from holding back tears. When he looks up again, his red-rimmed eyes are intensely blue. "I'm sorry, Buck. I knew exactly what I was doing and I justified it to myself and chose wrong for the both of us. I should never have done that."

Bucky exhales slowly, taking in Steve's words, processing them. "You may think you deserve the bare minimum like some kinda penance, but punishing yourself punished me, too, you know," he mumbles. "We were both happy and you took that away because you imagined one possible unhappy future."

Steve nods again, and as he looks down at the floor, he blinks, a tear slipping down the end of his crooked nose. "I understand if you can't forgive me. Either way, I wanted to apologize. You deserve to hear it in person. I was wrong, Buck, and I’m sorry."

Something knotted up all tight and jagged at the base of Bucky's sternum loosens a little. It’s easier to breathe. Still. He needs a little more. "That all you got to say?" he asks, tipping his up defiantly.

"No," says Steve. His gaze, when he finds Bucky's eyes again, is steadier. "I'd like to ask you now, if it's not too late."

"Ask me what?" demands Bucky. "I didn't hear a question."

Steve licks his lips. "Will you stay with me? Will you come back home, Buck?"

"Home," repeats Bucky in a small voice, and then he's crying for real, sliding his legs off the bed, Lady lifting her head to let him get up.

Steve's eyes widen, startled, and he lurches away from the door like he only just realized he's been blocking it, but Bucky grabs him by his open coat and pushes him back into it. There's no force behind it, Bucky can't move Steve unless he wants to be moved, but Steve lets Bucky move him. His back bumps against the door, hands hovering uncertainly by Bucky's hips.

"You mean it?" Bucky asks, voice breaking. He tightens his grip, tugging on his coat. “You have to mean it.”

"Of course I mean it. I’ve never meant anything more," answers Steve in a hush. "I want you home with me for as long as you'll have me."

More tears slip down Bucky's cheeks, hot and stinging. He nods distractedly, half to himself. "I’ll come. I'll come tonight, I’ll come right now if you want me to. I missed you so much, Steve. I’m still a little mad, and you’re an idiot, but just...kiss me, please?"

He doesn’t have to ask again.

Steve kisses him, his hands finally settling warm and steady on Bucky's hips, lighting him up, pulling him closer still. The hesitation is gone. Bucky clings to the front of Steve's coat, pushing up on his toes as Steve leans in to meet him. Their lips are wet and tangy with the salt of both their tears, but Bucky doesn't care.

Steve came to get him. Steve is here to bring Bucky home.

Bucky can't move close enough to Steve as he wants to be without climbing into his coat; he can't get enough of his hands and mouth and body, can't possibly have enough, ever, and the feeling seems to be mutual. One moment, his feet are planted firmly on the floor, and then next, Steve lifts him effortlessly. Bucky gasps, arms wrapping around Steve's shoulders. "Oh!"

"This okay?" murmurs Steve, lips already brushing along Bucky's jaw.

Bucky nods jerkily. "Yeah. Don't you fucking dare stop, I want enough kisses to make up for every day I was without you."

Steve huffs, but it's a fond sound, and he turns them both, pinning Bucky against the door as he clutches at his soft flannel shirt and feels like he's flying. The skin around Bucky’s mouth and cheeks is already tender and warm from the friction of Steve's beard, the tingles spreading across his skin, and he finds he just doesn't care. It’s gonna be so damn obvious that they were making out in here when he has to walk out into the living room covered in beard burn, but it's so fucking worth it.

It's several long minutes of desperate kissing before anything about their situation returns to him.

"Wait, wait," he says, planting a hand on Steve’s chest as he leans back and looks at him seriously. "If I come back, it’s not going to put the cabin in danger, is it? People aren't going to find you just because of me?"

Steve shakes his head, letting out a warm laugh. "No, honey. Tony's been watching my back for a long time and he's promised me he'll continue to do that. He even offered to set us with internet and a phone out there without risking anything. What do you think?"

"Oh my god, really? I could...I could talk to my sisters?" Bucky can't push down his own hope, doesn't want to try. He wants to give into this feeling. This is real, now. He’s allowed to have this. He can go back to the cabin with Steve and still keep in touch with his family.

"Yeah, any time you wanted. And if we ever get stuck out there again, we can just make Tony bring us pizza whenever we want." Steve gives him a big shit-eating grin.

"Don't suppose you've cleared the Iron Man delivery service with Tony himself before offering it, huh?" Bucky tugs on Steve's hair, laughing softly. "Somehow I get the feeling that Tony's not used to being anyone's errand boy on demand."

"Yeah, well, he gets off on making ridiculous things happen," says Steve. Slowly setting Bucky back down on his feet, Steve brings his hands up to cup Bucky's jaw, thumbs brushing his cheeks. He looks at Bucky with the kind of love in his eyes that has his face warming up from the intensity of Steve's focus. It feels like the moment stretches out for ages before Steve says softly, "I'm so sorry, sweetheart."

"I forgive you, okay?" Bucky says, tugging pointedly on Steve's coat. "But if you ever do it again—"

"Won't," says Steve, kissing his forehead.

Bucky sighs. "I can pack. You know I haven't exactly got much, and we can go now, we can leave right away."

Steve wraps his hands around Bucky's, giving them a reassuring squeeze. "There's no rush. You must have things to take care of. You think your sister won't appreciate a few days to move out properly?"

"Steve," whines Bucky. "I mean, yeah, I have a job, and—"

"Why don't you take a week," Steve says gently. "Get packed up, take care of anything you need to. It'll give me time to head back with Tony, take him up on his offer. I'll get the cabin set up properly, replenish supplies. Then, when you come, I'll be waiting for you."

"A week," mumbles Bucky, his heart sinking.

Of course it makes sense. Becca will be upset if he just picks up and leaves right now, and he could also apologize and resign at the garage in person... He should probably go shopping for more clothes, too. Still. It doesn’t mean he has to like it. The part of him that’s desperate to leave right this second is anxious and insecure and worried Steve’s going to change his mind in a week. He shouldn’t indulge that line of thinking.

Bucky sighs deeply. "I don't want to, but you're right, I should. You won't stick around the city?"

Steve hesitates. "I could stay tonight. But only if that's okay with your sister and her husband. I don't want to impose or make anyone uncomfortable."

"Fine," hedges Bucky. "I'll go talk to her. You stay here."

Steve gives him a warm smile and kisses his cheek. "Sure, no problem."

Bucky fidgets a moment, bouncing on the balls of his feet as he keeps ahold of Steve's jacket. Letting go of him seems like a bad idea. Sighing, Bucky leans up and kisses Steve one more time before he reluctantly pulls away. "Go sit on my bed."

With a smirk, Steve moves out of Bucky's way and obediently sits on the end of the bed. Bucky rolls his eyes. "I'm not boning you in my sister's house."

Steve sputters. "I wasn't—I wouldn't—"

"Uh huh." Bucky reaches for the door handle and Lady perks up, abandoning Steve to leap off the bed, coming right to his side. "Oh, you want to escort me? Alright, come on."

He opens the door and Lady trots alongside him. Bucky glances back, his heart thumping in his chest at the sight of Steve sitting patiently on his bed. He can't keep the giddy smile off his face as he hurries down the hall.

When he walks into the living room, Ted and Becca immediately stop talking, looking up at him like a pair of meerkats peeking out of a hole. Ted flushes guiltily but Becca seems unashamed at being caught blatantly gossiping about her baby brother. "Bucky!"

Bucky huffs, crossing his arms over his chest. "Not even gonna pretend, huh?"

"Nope," she says. "You need me to bail you out?"

"No," he says, shaking his head firmly. "No, he's...it's good. Is it okay if he stays the night? He can have my bed, and I'll sleep on the couch, or something." He puts his hand on Lady's head and pets her. "Lady is really good. She won't make a mess and I'll take care of her."

Becca's keen grey eyes fix on Bucky's face. "I love dogs," she says, then glances at Ted, who shrugs. "I think one night is fine, if that's what you need."

"He's just.... We're...." Bucky blows out a breath. "Let's start there, okay? He'll go, tomorrow morning, and then I need to talk to you about...my plans, but...I'd really like for you to be cool with Steve. He's...he means a lot to me."

Becca's expression softens. "I know, squirt. You gonna squirrel him away in your room all night, or can we say hi to him, get to know him a bit?"

Bucky glances back over his shoulder and then shrugs. “I’ll see what he’s up for, but...sure?”

Becca smiles. “Okay, no pressure. I’m really glad he’s here, though, if it’s something you’re happy about.”

“Yeah, I am. I really am, Becks.” Bucky can’t help the smile that spreads over his face. “Okay, I’ll let him know, maybe see if he wants to eat dinner after all.”

Steve is waiting just where Bucky left him.

“Hi,” says Bucky, leaning up against the door.

Steve grins tentatively at him. “Hi.”

“So…” As Bucky starts to explain, it occurs to him again that Steve is Captain America. Steve figured out Bucky was in the back of his truck when they first met just by listening. Steve also heard Lady howl from two miles away when they ran into Rufus. “Before I repeat myself, what are the chances you heard our conversation?”

Steve turns red immediately. “Pretty high, but not because I was trying to eavesdrop. I’m sorry. It’s a hazard of the whole...serum thing.”

"Wait,” says Bucky, with dawning realization. “Does that mean you could hear it when I'd take a shower, and—"

"Bucky," interrupts Steve. "Why don't we just..." He gestures out the door, endearingly flustered.

"Okay,” says Bucky, shrugging. “I didn't tell her I'm gonna leave, yet, though. I'll talk to her when you're gone, okay?"

Steve's brow furrows. "Sure, Buck. That's up to you. I don't want to make anything difficult."

"Come on, then." Bucky steps forward to take Steve by the hand, tugging him up to his feet. As they go into the living room, Bucky gives Steve's hand a squeeze, not quite sure if he's reassuring Steve or himself.

Becca and Ted are pretending to watch TV, though Becca pauses it when Bucky and Steve reappear.

"So, you kind of already said hi," Bucky says, gesturing at Steve. "This is Steve. Again."

Becca gets up from the couch this time and comes over, holding out her hand to Steve. "It's nice to meet you, Steve. Call me Becca, because you really look like the type that’ll try to call me ‘ma’am’."

Steve accepts her hand, shaking it firmly. “Nice to meet you, too. Thank you for letting me stay the night. I was hoping I'd get a chance to meet some of Bucky's family."

Bucky blinks, a little surprised. It never occurred to him that Steve might want to meet his family. The sentiment makes the already warm bubbly happiness inside him grow warmer still.

"Well, I'm the best sister, so I'm afraid I might be spoiling you early on,” Becca says easily. “Vanessa and Claire will be huge disappointments compared to me."

Bucky snorts. "I should tell them you said that."

"No," she says smartly. "You shouldn't, unless you want them asking you a million questions about your friend."

Bucky's cheeks flood with heat. "Becca!"

Steve ducks his head, clearly doing a terrible job of hiding his smile. "Well, it's a pleasure, Becca."

"You change your mind about dinner?" she asks. "We could heat something up."

"Well," says Steve. "I don't want to put you out. I need to send the driver home, anyway, and I can just—"

"He can always eat," Bucky cuts in knowingly. "I'll get something heated up. Steve, go take care of the driver and then make yourself comfortable."

Bucky catches a brief glimpse of Steve's wide, uncertain eyes before he goes into the kitchen, leaving Steve. He hears him head out the door while Lady accompanies Bucky, apparently deciding that after disappearing from her sight for a month, Bucky isn't to be trusted on his own. As he's getting leftovers out for Steve, he sneaks her a bit as well, ruffling her ears as she licks his fingers for every last trace of food.

"I missed you," Bucky says to her. "I missed you so much. Him too. But you didn't know what happened, sweet girl, and I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

When he comes back out with a plate for Steve, he's already back inside. Bucky sits down next to him, hip to hip, their knees touching.

"Thanks, Buck," murmurs Steve warmly. "Didn't have to do that."

"I pressed a button," huffs Bucky. "Not that you have a microwave. Reheating casserole in the oven is not efficient."

Steve grunts, his lip curling up at the corner.

"You'll lend him out for visits, right?" asks Becca suddenly, her voice a little wobbly.

Bucky and Steve both look at the same time, Steve's fork frozen on the way to his mouth.

"Becks," says Bucky helplessly. "I didn't even...we didn't..."

"I'm not stupid, Bucky," she says gently. "I made an educated guess. You will visit, right?"

“I will, I promise,” says Bucky, his eyes already hot with unshed tears. “Steve’s going to upgrade the cabin. It’s gonna have internet now. We can video chat whenever.”

Becca takes a shaky breath. “Right, that’ll be good. Are you leaving in the morning?”

Bucky can tell she’s trying to put on a brave face while simultaneously juggling her guilt versus her desire to convince Bucky to stay. “No! Steve is going back tomorrow.” He leans into Steve’s reassuring presence. “I’m going in a week. I’ll resign from the garage...I’m sorry I’m leaving so soon after you helped me get the job, Ted.”

Ted waves him off with a snort. “That’s okay. It’s more notice than they usually get.”

Becca gives him a sad smile. "It’s been nice having you around, Bucky. But I'm really glad you get to go back to where you were so happy."

"Yeah," croaks Bucky, tears slipping down his cheeks. He wipes them away, tipping his head onto Steve's shoulder. "Me too.”

"Okay," breathes out Becca, clearing her throat and sniffling. “The Catskills, huh? Must be pretty. Steve, how long have you lived there?"

"About seven years," says Steve after he swallows a bite. "Moved out there to do some thinking."

"Yeah? How'd that go for you?"

"Depends on who you ask," says Steve wryly. "But I think it worked out pretty well, overall." He glances sidelong at Bucky and Bucky's face warms up.

"What do you do for work?" asks Ted. It's an innocuous question, coming from him; standard small-talk, but Bucky fidgets a little, biting his lip. 'Retired American Hero' isn't the kind of job that's easily explained. Besides, Bucky isn't wholly sure if Steve does do anything for work during the year.

Steve doesn't seem bothered, though. "Bought the property and the cabin after an early investment panned out. I’d just gotten out of the army and was looking for a quiet place. I'm mostly self-sufficient, though of course I pick up supplies every six to eight weeks. I work with wood, do odd jobs, help out in the closest town sometimes. I still have a nest egg, so I'm lucky enough to be pretty comfortable. Occasionally, I sell a painting, too."

"Sounds nice," says Becca thoughtfully. She glances at Bucky. "Never thought this one could be that happy in the backwoods. Indiana seemed bad enough, after New York. Hope you don't make Steve do all the work, Bucky."

"He's good company," says Steve, before Bucky can start bickering with Becca. He still sticks his tongue out at her, though.

The conversation flows fairly easily from there, and after Steve finishes his dinner, Bucky excuses them both to go take Lady out for a walk, leaving Becca and Ted to finish their movie.

"Your sister took that better than I thought she would," Steve murmurs, as they stand on the sidewalk and politely look away as Lady pees on the base of a tree. "I expected she might disapprove."

Bucky sighs. "Becca is cool with letting me make my own choices," he says. "But she also feels so guilty about letting me down that she doesn't think she has the right to tell me not to do it. In this case, though, I don't think she does actually believe it's a bad idea, but I'm sure she'd rather I stay here longer."

"Do you want to stay here longer?" Steve doesn't give anything away with his tone or his expression. "I'll wait as long as you want."

"No," answers Bucky, firm as he can manage without veering into panicked. "I'm good with one week. I'll miss her, but it's not like it was before. You're getting the internet. I'll be able to keep in touch. It’s probably going to be better than it was when I lived in Muncie."

They're quiet for a block or so, watching as Lady sniffs out brand new territory, wagging her tail happily. Bucky takes in the neighborhood he's spent the last month in, the bodega down the street, the record shop, the park that's always full of joggers, the coffee shops and the restaurants.

"You know what else?" he asks, interrupting their silence. "I don't want to live my life here. New York was always the last place I could really remember being happy, a place where I felt safe and settled, before I met you. But now it's just the place where you're not."

"Oh," says Steve. Their shoulders bump. "And you get all those things from being with me? Feeling happy and safe?"

"Yeah." It's a simple enough answer, but there is complexity behind it. Living at the cabin with Steve taught him how to just be for the first time in his adult life. He wasn't worried about his father's alcoholism and abuse. He wasn't worried about taking care of his mom. He wasn't worried about if he was ever going to be good enough.

Bucky is enough, for himself, and for Steve.

"I'm glad, honey," murmurs Steve. "Real glad."

“Kiss,” demands Bucky, turning towards Steve and tipping his chin up expectantly.

Steve obliges him without hesitation, cupping his chin gently with the hand not holding Lady's leash. When they part, Steve strokes his hair gently, brushing the curls off his forehead. His eyes crinkle when he smiles. As they start to walk again, looping back around the neighborhood to head to the house, Bucky takes Steve's hand in his.

"I know what I want," he says firmly. "I'm not living for anyone else. I'm living for me."

Steve squeezes Bucky's hand. "Then I respect your decision," he says quietly. "And if it ever changes—"

"You'll be the first to know," says Bucky. "Hey, you ever think about getting another dog?"

Steve throws his head back and laughs.

It's both the longest and shortest week of Bucky's life.

After Steve leaves the next morning, Bucky sits down to make a list of what he needs to do, then promptly gets overwhelmed and crawls into bed for a nap. It's worth it, though. It's worth it, because at the end of the week, he's going home.

Becca takes him shopping and treats him to way too many new clothes. When she asks him what he did with just the clothes he had in his backpack when he turned up on her doorstep, he admits he basically wore Steve's clothes for two months with the sleeves and pant legs all rolled up. While that was usually pretty cozy and comfortable and had its own weird appeal, it's not sustainable. He ends up with a brand new coat, snow pants, boots, and an assortment of scarves, hats, and mittens.

On top of that, Becca throws in sweaters, hoodies, jeans, and sweatpants, plus full sets of plain t-shirts, underwear, socks, and two new pairs of shoes: hiking and sneakers.

Absolutely nothing Bucky says convinces her not to do this. By the time he finishes packing up his stuff, he's gone from a backpack to two rolling suitcases.

He goes to the autobody shop with a neatly typed letter of resignation and quits his job amicably.

With all his errands done, Bucky spends as much time with Becca as he can; she takes a couple days off work and they revisit the places in Brooklyn they used to go when Bucky was a kid. Coney Island, the Botanical Gardens, a long walk in Prospect Park.

Hey spends the night before he leaves on the couch with her in their PJs. They call Vanessa and Claire and spend an hour on speakerphone talking a lot of shit. They're all disappointed that Bucky won't be around for his birthday, but he promises to make himself available for a group video chat where they can sing him happy birthday.

"And this guy, he's good to you? You swear?" asks Claire.

Bucky laughs. "He's amazing, I promise."

"He's not bad to look at either," adds Becca. "Looks like some sort of GQ lumberjack. Like, bend me over and shout timber."

Bucky lets out an anguished howl that turns into helpless giggles while the rest of his sisters shriek so loud the sound goes wonky on the speaker. Becca cackles.

"God," huffs Vanessa when they've calmed down enough. "I need a picture. Get him on Facebook ASAP, Bucky."

"He's not really the Facebook type." Bucky makes a face. "I'm also not sure I want any of you to have a picture of him after that!"

"That's okay, girls. We'll just have to go visit our dear baby brother at his love cabin." Becca grins evilly at him.

The conversation devolves from there, but no one is trying to stop him from moving, so he'll take some well-meaning heckling. It’s a good way to spend time with his sisters, especially when it’s been a lot of work to get to a place where they can talk like this.

When he goes to bed, he picks up his phone to check the time—just past midnight—and finds a message from an unknown number.

Curious, he swipes it open.

(518)555-5690: guess who? Internet is all set up and a satellite boost for our phones. Can't wait for you to come home, honey. I love you.

It's time-stamped for 8:30 PM, but Bucky still types out a response immediately after saving the number to his phone, feeling so happy he can hardly stand it.

Bucky: I love you too!!! I'm so excited to see you tomorrow.
Steve: We're waiting for you.

There's a picture attached of Lady laying at the foot of Steve's bed, head resting on her paws.

Steve: get some sleep, we'll see you bright and early, Buck.
Bucky: I'll try my best. Night! 💗💗💗
Steve: Goodnight.

Feeling warm and loved, he turns off the lights and pulls the blankets up over him. Falling asleep is surprisingly easy despite his nervous excitement, but it's probably helped along by the glass of wine Becca gave him.

In the morning, there's a town car waiting for him after breakfast.

When it’s time to actually say goodbye, which Bucky and Becca both agreed they weren’t going to do, Bucky stands on the curb while Becca hugs him tightly. He clings right back. If he tries to speak, he’ll cry, of course. When isn’t Bucky an emotional mess?

“Take care,” mumbles Becca, her voice thick with tears. “Be safe. Send me a message when you get there, okay? And some pictures.”

Bucky nods wordlessly, giving her a squeeze. “Promise,” he whispers, blinking back tears.

“Okay.” Becca sighs, releasing him and brushing him off, straightening his coat and hat fussily. “Right. Bye for now.”

She’s right, anyway. It’s not forever. This time, he’s got options. Resources. People who love him, who want to see him. When Bucky wants to come visit Becca, he can.

By the time he’s boarded the helicopter to go upstate, Bucky is calm again.

The further out they get from New York City, the more snow there is; a clean white landscape dotted with little frosted evergreens. He definitely wasn’t able to appreciate the view when he was a heartbroken mess during the last trip. This time, though, he’s going home.

Bucky spots the cabin when the pilot lets him know they’re almost ready to land, sat in the thick snow like a gingerbread house decorated with icing, sending up plumes of smoke from the chimney. Leaning into the window, Bucky holds his breath and peers down.

As they descend, the front door of the cabin opens and Lady races out, followed at a more sedate pace by Steve, the two of them following the path to the clearing, two small figures winding through a stark white landscape.

Bucky is fizzy and bright with excitement. When the helicopter touches down, he can barely stand to keep seated until he's given the all clear and helped out onto the ground.

In the distance, Steve emerges from the trees, Lady now at his side. Even from here, Bucky can see that Steve is smiling broadly.

It's not a particularly graceful run across the clearing, but it's easier in snow boots that actually fit properly. Steve lets out a quiet oof when Bucky launches himself at him, wrapping Bucky up in his arms and squeezing him tightly as Bucky clings to Steve’s hips with his legs.

"Hi," breathes Bucky, kissing him hard.

"Hi, honey," Steve says warmly. "I'm your ride from here on out."

Bucky snorts, burying his face in Steve's shoulder. "You have to carry my bags, though. Don't worry. I'll tip."

"As long as it's not just the tip," quips Steve, laughing loudly when Bucky squawks with surprise.

"Put me down so I can watch you lift my bags instead," he demands. “Work those biceps for me.”

"Sure, sure." Steve sets him down on his feet again and Bucky turns his attention to Lady as Steve trudges through the snow to the helicopter, where the pilot has unloaded Bucky’s bags.

Lady is ecstatic, of course, licking his face and wagging her tail. Her enthusiasm manifests in overexcited whines and huffs and she can't seem to sit still for him to give her enough attention to satisfy, turning in circles and shifting from paw to paw as she pushes her whole body against him. The message is clear, at any rate; she's happy to have him home, too.

Bucky looks up at the sound of crunchy footsteps and spots Tony coming up the path from the cabin. "Can't believe the favoritism. I didn't get a greeting like that."

Smiling, Bucky stands, holding out his hand to Tony. "Thanks for coming out here with Steve. I got his message last night."

Tony takes his hand, shaking it firmly, his other hand coming up to give Bucky's shoulder a squeeze. "Don't mention it, kid. I'm happy to see him happy. Glad he worked things out with you."

"Me too," says Bucky, glancing toward the helicopter.

Steve shakes the pilot's hand and then picks Bucky's suitcases up easily, carrying them over as the pilot gets back in the helicopter, waiting for Tony.

As Steve arrives, Tony gives him a solid hug, patting his back. "Take care, call me if you need me. Hey, isn’t that a fun, novel thing? You can call me. Oh, and don't forget to eat in between rounds of marathon reunion sex."

"Tony!" barks Steve, his cheeks going red, but his eyes crinkle at the corners and there's good-humored laughter under his shock. Bucky can feel heat to match in his own face.

"Yeah, yeah." Tony grins, waving them off. "I'll see you two crazy kids around. Keep in touch."

With that, he heads across the clearing and climbs aboard the helicopter. As it disappears into the sky, Bucky turns his face up the sun, smiling helplessly, warmed all the way through.

He's home. He's really home and it's just them now.

Steve adjusts his grip on the bags until he's got them stacked together, his massive hand wrapped around two handles. He lifts them easily with one arm and then walks right up to Bucky, bending to get his other arm around his legs just beneath his ass, lifting him too. Bucky clutches instinctively at Steve’s wide shoulders as he balances him here. "Hold on tight."

Bucky laughs, breathless with joy. Racing through the snow alongside them, Lady barks happily, while Steve carries him home.


We could leave the Christmas lights up 'til January
This is our place, we make the rules
And there's a dazzling haze, a mysterious way about you, dear
Have I known you 20 seconds or 20 years?

Can I go where you go?
Can we always be this close forever and ever?
And ah, take me out, and take me home
You're my, my, my, my lover