Steve sees him for the first time when the sky is so blue it looks like dreaming.
Not a cloud anywhere, which Steve has come to learn is strange for Washington over the four months he’s lived here so far. The air still tastes like rain, though. Metallic on the tip of his tongue. Electric.
Steve’s standing at the woodline, his hands in his pockets, the sun like a warm gold weight on the back of his neck.
It’s nice out here. Not too crowded, big houses spaced apart with enough yard in between that it wouldn’t be considered rude to walk through them. Trees everywhere—tall pines, the kind of dark green that’s blue in the corner of your eye, the kind that sheds a thick carpet of russet-shaded needles on the loamy earth below—and so much clean oxygen that Steve thinks he might never cough again.
Steve sees him for the first time when the morning is pitching over into afternoon, a slow-drawn tilt.
Their backyards are on an incline, and Steve’s standing at the base of his own, looking distantly back up the hill. Wondering. Wondering if he can get an easel down here, wondering if it would be worth it to get an easel down here—
The creak of a door opening, and Steve looks up and to the left, to the house next door, to the house he has never seen anybody come out of, not even once, and Steve stares.
Steve sees him for the first time.
The first impression Steve gets is one of softness. A strange kind of elegance in the way he moves across his porch: hands tucked down into pockets just like Steve, bare feets skimming wooden boards, the roll of his gait even and light, like he’s used to moving and being told not to make noise. His hair is down and long, dark brown waves with a curl at the end, brushing shoulders and forehead; it blocks most of his face from sight, but Steve can see one pale curve of cheek, the pink flash of a bottom lip, and that sight sticks with him.
He hasn’t seen Steve. Steve thinks he should reach up, should call out, but he feels strangely stuck, so all he does is watch until the man drifts back inside.
Making the move from Brooklyn to Middle-of-Nowhere Washington State had been a split-second decision.
Most of Steve’s decisions are split-second ones.
He hasn’t regretted it so far. The house he’s in is ten times the size of his tiny apartment back in the city; he has an actual studio now, complete with windows and a ton of wall space and a stool and a table and a big soft couch, rather than having to spread all his supplies over his kitchen counters; he’s freelance, so it doesn’t matter where the hell he’s working from; and it’s so goddamn beautiful out here that Steve doesn’t think he’ll ever run out of things to paint, even if he never gets commissioned again, even if he can’t seem to force himself to be inspired lately.
And there’s a neighbor next door that he just can’t seem to meet.
He’s met the rest of them, and they’re nice. The street they live on is more of an ambling road, stretching out in either direction into thick woods on either side. Something about living in a place like this—not quite country, but certainly not city—means that you might not actually see another neighbor for days at a time if you didn’t go actively searching for them.
Steve is alright with this. It’s not that he doesn’t like people, people are fine, whatever, it’s just… he appreciates the quiet out here, is all. The mellow hush, the thick dark woods.
He’s surprised with how much he truly wants to meet the man who lives next to him. Especially after that glimpse on the porch that day.
Steve lives about ten minutes outside of the nearest town and that’s where he drives to pick up groceries, or the art supplies he has shipped to the post office. There’s a coffee shop next door to the grocery store, and he usually stops in there because by the time he’s done shopping he always needs to refuel on caffeine; he stops there now.
It’s a small, cozy place, and the baristas smile at him when he enters. They know his order by now—once a week for four months’ll do that—and Steve gets his coffee and heads back to the corner table he favors. He brought his tablet today. Maybe he’ll work on a few of those digital pieces he needs to have out by next month—
“Oh,” says Steve.
The man looks up.
It’s Steve’s neighbor. The one from the back porch. The one he’s only seen once. Sitting here at Steve’s table in Steve’s coffee shop, with the top half of his hair pulled back in a little bun, and big gray eyes, and his lips parted.
He looks powerfully, fleetingly familiar, and for half a second Steve thinks he knows who he is—and then he glances away, and down, and Steve loses the certainty.
“Sorry,” says Steve, grimacing at how awkward he’s managed to make this in all of about five seconds. “Sorry, I’m just… you’re—”
“I can move,” the man interrupts, his voice as quiet as the rest of him. He’s still looking down, the tops of his ears scarlet, but he’s gone pale and Steve doesn’t know why. “I’m sorry,” he says, gathering his coat off the back of his chair, folding it over his arms. He stands—there’s that fluid grace that Steve remembers—and he’s surprisingly tall. Especially compared to Steve. “I’ll just…”
“No,” Steve says, a little too loud. They’re gathering stares. Mae, the barista who just made Steve’s drink, is coming over. Steve feels like dying, and scrambles to right things. “Fuck, sorry, I didn’t mean that. I was just surprised to see you, that's all.”
Steve’s neighbor has looked back up. There’s a line between his eyebrows, like Steve is being desperately confusing. Something about him seems shock-still and too hesitant, and entirely guilty.
Steve tries to smile at him. He makes it as kind as he can.
“I…” his eyes are still wide. He’s darting glances behind Steve.
Steve turns around. Mae comes up to them, her frown fixed, and Steve notices the way she steps between the man and Steve. Like she’s protecting him. Like she’s protecting him from Steve.
Steve, who is five foot four on a good day.
Steve, whose hands itch for a pencil at the sight of this man’s shape.
“Everything all right?” Mae asks it looking at Steve, but it’s clear who the words are really for.
“It’s fine, Mae, thank you,” Steve’s neighbor says, that low, gentle voice, those soft lips forming a hesitant smile. He’s really lovely. Not a good time to be noticing that, maybe, but it’s true. “We’re fine.”
Mae still looks hesitant, but she doesn’t doubt his word. She nods, circling back to go behind the counter, and probably watch them from a distance.
“I’m so sorry,” Steve says. “Seriously, shit, I… I’ll just leave you alone now, let you drink your coffee in peace.” He tries out that smile again. He can’t see himself, but he knows the expression will be wilted. “Maybe next time I see you I won’t fuck up, yeah?”
He goes to leave, weaving his way between tables, but the man’s voice stops him.
Steve turns back around. He doesn't come any closer, but he doesn’t walk away.
The man is still clutching his coat, draped over both arms. He’s wavering there in front of that table, like he’s not sure if he should step forward or sit down, and he’s blushing now. It’s better than being scared-pale.
It’s adorable, actually.
“Should I…” a pause. He shakes his head a little, frowns briefly, like he’s dismissing words that just ran through his head. “Should I know you?”
Jesus, Steve didn’t even say why he recognized him.
He can never look this guy in the eye again.
“I’m a giant asshole,” Steve says, and shrugs, and some coffee spills out of his mug onto his wrist but he ignores it. “I’m your neighbor. I’ve seen you on your porch before. I’m sorry if I sound like a stalker. I’m not one, but I don’t expect you to take my word for it at this point.”
A flicker of a smile. Something that looks like it wants to be more.
“Is this your table?” Steve’s neighbor asks quietly.
“I usually sit here,” Steve confirms. He takes a couple hesitant, shuffling steps forward, and the man doesn’t seem to mind. “But that means literally nothing. Enjoy your coffee in peace, you fucking earned it.”
There. That gets the rest of the smile to come out, and something in Steve’s chest catches a little: the gesture pushes up across the man’s cheeks, rounds his face out, softens his jaw.
“You can.” Another pause. He speaks in disjointed sentences, like he’s being very careful to say the right thing every time he opens his mouth. Steve could probably stand to adopt a few of those habits. “You can join me. If you’d like.”
Steve beams at him, too enthusiastic by far, but unable to tamp it down. “Are you sure?” he asks. “You aren’t just being polite to a potential stalker?”
“Not just being polite,” the man murmurs. He has to tip his chin down to look Steve in the eye, and there’s a small pocket of soft flesh beneath his chin and jaw that makes the place in Steve’s chest go warm. “Go ahead.”
“Thank you,” Steve says. He moves slowly across the small space still between them, and his heart skips a beat when the man frees his right hand from his bundle of coat and pulls Steve’s chair back for him.
It’s a strange, sort of old-fashioned thing to do. Apparently Steve is a slut for good manners.
They take their respective seats, settling down and in; Steve glances at the counter, and Mae gives him a tiny smile, so he thinks he’s patched things up pretty well.
“My name’s Steve,” he says, extending a hand across the table between them.
The man hesitates for half a second—Steve sees it in the way his lips part, in the flicker of dark-lashed eyes from Steve’s face to that hand—but he takes Steve’s fingers in his own, holding them gently enough for Steve to notice, and shakes.
He looks down before he speaks. Down at the tabletop.
“Bucky,” he murmurs.
That is why he looked so familiar to Steve. That is why he knew Bucky’s face as soon as he saw it; because two years ago, Bucky Barnes’ face was all anybody saw. Plastered across every television screen in America, on the front page of every newspaper, his name the headline of every article.
It’s definitely him. He was emaciated and wild-eyed the last time the public saw him, after the Avengers found him frozen in a HYDRA base, malnourished and locked up and out of his mind with drugs and torture and seventy years of programming with a title instead of a name—until suddenly Tony Stark had done a press release saying that the Winter Solider would not be joining the Avengers, as some people were calling for, and he would not be put in prison, as many others wanted. In fact, he wouldn’t be going public at all.
He’d seemingly dropped off of the face of the earth for two years. That is until now, when he’s sitting across from Steve in a coffee shop in Washington.
Steve’s pleased to see how much healthier he looks now than he did then, even though there is still some of that skittishness that one would expect of the world’s longest-serving POW darting around his eyes.
He’s so much gentler than Steve would have expected.
Steve is the biggest idiot that has ever lived.
Steve only realizes he’s still holding Bucky’s hand when Bucky goes to pull it back; Steve lets go immediately.
“Bucky,” says Steve. He isn't going to make a big deal of this. There’s a reason Bucky Barnes disappeared; there’s a reason he lives all the way out here, away from too many people, in the most peaceful place Steve’s ever been; Steve refuses to be the person who ruins this for him. “It’s very nice to meet you.”
Bucky looks up with his dark eyes, with his hair curling across his forehead. There’s disbelief on that face. Like it’s unfathomable that Steve isn’t freaking out right now.
That breaks Steve’s heart.
It takes Bucky a minute to form the words he wants to say. Steve waits patiently.
“It’s nice to meet you too, Steve,” he murmurs.
Steve tells himself that it’s much too early to be enamored. Even though Bucky has a rosebud-mouth, and eyes made for looking in, and hair that’s so many different, lustrous shades of brown that Steve doesn’t even own paint that color—even so. It’s unreasonable.
Steve has never been good at listening to reason.
Bucky sets his coat aside, and Steve realizes suddenly what he’d been hiding. The shine of his metal hand is bright and obvious here in this dimly-lit corner, and it immediately gives his identity away. Steve would’ve known who he was in seconds.
No wonder Mae had been so instantly protective. There’s nothing about this man in front of Steve that says that he’s ever killed anyone, but he has a feeling that strangers act on what they’ve heard about him rather than what they see.
It must be hard. The former Winter Soldier, just trying to get by.
Steve’s glad Mae is on Bucky’s side. Steve decides that he will be, too.
Bucky doesn’t understand what’s going on.
Steve is slim and wiry and golden-bright. He’s quick to smile. He hasn’t shown an ounce of fear, not once, not during this whole conversation.
Bucky wonders if possibly Steve hasn’t made the connection yet, doesn’t know who he is—but that’s ridiculous. Steve doesn’t seem stupid, and he’d have to be, because Bucky just told him his name and waved his arm around, and there’s really only one conclusion to be reached from all that.
The only other option is that Steve just… doesn’t care.
That idea makes Bucky’s heart pound.
Are you afraid? Bucky wants to ask him. Are you afraid of me?
He doesn’t. Speaking is something that takes so much thinking through for Bucky that he almost never says anything he doesn’t mean. He almost never says anything without heavily weighing the ramifications of the phrase first.
He wasn’t allowed to speak for a very long time. He doesn’t take it for granted now.
“I like your scarf,” Steve says pleasantly.
Bucky brings his hand up—the flesh one—to touch the fibrous threads wrapped around his neck. The scarf is made of very soft dark blue wool, the stitches big, the yarn thick. A gift from Natalia, for Bucky’s first birthday After.
Bucky likes Steve’s… everything. His nose, his eyes, his smile—which is silver-quick and very kind.
“Thank you, Steve,” Bucky says. He likes the shape of Steve’s name in his mouth. The word is short and smooth, and nestles easily at the front of his lips. He files it away in the back of his mind, right at the top of his list of words he knows he’ll always like to say: Steve, Steve, Steve.
The conversation is stalling, and Bucky knows this is his own fault. Bucky isn’t good at conversation—Bucky isn’t good at people. It’s why he waited so long to meet Steve. He knew he was living next to someone new, and he didn’t want to ruin it.
The conversation is stalling… but Steve doesn’t seem to mind.
He’s sipping his coffee easily, and he’s looking up at Bucky with a gaze that is wide and very blue and carries the weight of zero expectations. He is looking at Bucky like they’re simply two men, seated across from each other in a coffee shop in their town, having a normal day, and not—
Not who they are. The Winter Soldier, and a man made of spun-strong gold.
“Do you mind if I work a little, Bucky?” He says Bucky’s name as often as Bucky says Steve’s, like maybe he likes the feel of it, the music of it—like maybe it’s at the top of his list, too. He’s using strong-looking hands to pick up the satchel he’d been carrying when he came over, lifting it up and sitting it on his lap. “I’m an artist, and I’ve got a couple commissions I hafta finish up here soon.”
Artist. Of course he is.
“I don’t mind,” Bucky says. He doesn’t. He likes the idea of sitting across from Steve while he works, sipping his coffee, finishing the book he was reading, and maybe looking up and meeting Steve’s eyes every now and again.
His shock-blue eyes. His eyes framed with golden lashes, like seagrass.
Bucky tries to smile at him. He knows he doesn’t smile very well; he knows he looks too sad. Mae and the girls are always telling him so, and so’s Natasha when she sees him, in her own way.
But Steve beams back, his biggest grin, a breathtaking one. Crooked nose above chapped lips. Bangs fanning down across his forehead.
“Alright, thanks, Bucky,” he says, nodding, and pulls a tablet out of his bag. “Gotta just finish these up real fast, won’t be any trouble, you just do your thing and I’ll do mine…”
Steve’s got Brooklyn in his voice. Bucky picks up on it, strong as anything, even though he hasn’t lived there in over seventy years. Listening to him feels dangerously like home.
Bucky’s book is very good.
The people at the library recommended it to him. He likes the people at the library—he likes a lot of people in this town; most of them, anyway, at least the ones who like him back—so he usually listens to whatever they suggest, and this one didn’t disappoint.
It’s a book about love. Bucky really likes books about love.
Bucky can’t pay attention to it. Not today.
Steve is sitting in front of him, and he’s one small jumble of big hands and sharp corners and soft-falling bangs—and he’s brave. Is the thing. Because if their positions were switched—if Bucky was the one sitting across from somebody who had killed a human being more recently than he’d been kissed—well. He wouldn’t be.
Brave, that is.
But Steve is just going on like he doesn’t have a care in the world. He’s working fluidly with the tablet in front of him—the screen’s tipped back, Bucky can’t see what he’s working on, but even if he could he thinks it might be too invasive to really look—and he’s concentrating fully on his work. He doesn’t seem on edge, or nervous, or like he thinks he has to keep one eye constantly on Bucky just in case he finally snaps.
He even hums under his breath sometimes. Just a little.
Look down, Bucky’s brain says to him. Stop staring.
He does. Face hot.
But the thing about spending seventy years as the world’s most highly-skilled international assassin is—
The thing is that Bucky can always tell when someone is looking at him.
He feels it now. Steve’s eyes, weighty against his skin.
Should he look up? Should he say something? That might startle Steve, though—although this still doesn’t feel like Steve is wary. It feels gentler than that. More commonplace. Simply like Bucky is being observed, or… or just… looked at.
“I’m gonna ask you a really weird question,” Steve says, “but I want you to know that I totally won’t be offended if you don’t want to answer. Or if you do wanna answer and your answer is no. Or. Anything like that.”
Bucky wants to tell Steve that he couldn’t possibly ask anything weirder than Bucky has been asked over the past two years of living here. He’s gotten some of the most invasive questions you could ever ask a person, let alone a person with spaghetti for brains and a memory like a rusty colander.
Bucky looks up, and Bucky says, “Alright.”
Steve is small, but there’s just so much presence to him. Bucky doesn’t think that this is a person that anybody could help but notice.
“So,” says Steve. He sets his stylus down. It rolls a little, and Bucky watches it stop right at the edge of the table, right where it’s poised to topple over the side and into Steve’s lap. “This probably sounds like a line but it’s totally not a line.”
That is not a question. It is also definitely something that somebody getting ready to feed someone else a line would say, but the idea of anybody even contemplating chatting Bucky up is frankly, tragically hysterical.
All these thoughts make Bucky want to smile, and the idea of that is so surprising that he doesn’t.
Maybe Steve sees it in his eyes though: that urge. His face, which is already so bright that Bucky can barely look at him, brightens further, and his mouth is wide and pink in a grin.
“Would you wanna come over for dinner sometime?”
Bucky sits, all of him still, unable to look away.
That didn’t sound like a line, Bucky’s brain provides.
Steve doesn’t look as panicked as he did earlier when he thought he was bullying Bucky out of his chair, but the longer the two of them sit here with this silence between them, the deeper the line between Steve’s eyebrows grows.
Bucky is used to people being panicked around him. Bucky isn’t used to people being panicked about being rude to him.
“Again,” says Steve, and waves a hand negligently up by his head, like he’s brushing aside the question, “please don’t feel pressured to say yes.”
Bucky takes a deep breath. Feels all these words pushing at the band of his ribcage around his lungs, trying to work their way out of his Swiss cheese brain and onto his tongue. He selects one carefully; pulls it down, and in, and on.
Steve’s face shifts and changes quickly, like watching a timelapse of a sunset. His lips move before he lets his own words out.
“Well,” he says quietly. There’s something tucked up in the folds of his voice that seems small and sad, and that Bucky doesn’t understand. He hopes it isn’t his fault; and oddly, he doesn’t think it is. There’s a strange-sudden softness in Steve’s blue eyes. In the angle of his lashes. “I’m new here, and I don’t know anybody. And you seem kind. I’d like to get to know you.”
This happens sometimes. This: enough emotions pounding and pounding and pounding through Bucky that he can’t remember how to speak.
Nobody asks him to do anything. Well, not true: Mae and the girls, they ask him to do plenty of things, and he even enjoys them—but that’s just not the same, is it? They’re all ex-SHIELD agents. They all moved here when Bucky moved here. It’s basically their job to be his friends.
But here is Steve. A civilian. An artist. A man who smiles at him, who has capable hands and a quiet-deep voice that pleases Bucky’s ears.
Asking him to do things. A thing. One very particular thing. A dinner-shaped thing.
“Oh,” Bucky says faintly.
Steve smiles pleasantly. Nervously still, a bit, but not like he’s annoyed to have to wait while Bucky gets his thoughts together, and certainly not angry. Bucky’s so glad. He hates when people are angry with him.
He doesn’t remember a time when anger didn’t equal pain.
“I should also say,” Steve says, not leaning over the table and getting too much in Bucky’s space, but not pulling away, either, “that I’m a really bad cook, so you might want to decline just based on that.”
“I’m not going to decline,” Bucky says.
Steve’s eyebrows go up, and his grin gets so wide that Bucky’s heart jumps in his chest. “Bucky,” he says, “that is great. ”
Bucky’s almost as pleased with himself as Steve is with him. He thinks of what his therapist will say when he tells her that he accepted a dinner invitation from his cute new neighbor that he’s been avoiding introducing himself to for the past few months. He thinks she’ll also be pleased.
This was a good decision. Happiness all around.
“Now I gotta decide what to cook,” Steve says, and the words should be complaining, but he clearly isn’t. He still looks so happy. Bucky doesn’t remember the last time somebody looked at him with this much joy on their face. Just honest to god has no fucking clue when that might have been.
Before. Obviously Before.
“I’m not picky, Steve,” Bucky says. He knows that his voice is quiet on a good day, usually almost a whisper, sometimes not anything at all: today he’s pleased to see that Steve doesn’t have to lean in at all to hear his words.
“Thank fuck,” Steve says. “Might be frozen pizza.”
Bucky’s feeling emboldened by his acceptance, by the invitation, by the feel of Steve’s golden gaze on his face. He nuzzles down into his scarf, and this time, his smile is full. “I’ve never had frozen pizza,” he says.
“Oh well then that’s definitely what I’m making.” Steve has such a nice laugh. It’s deep, just like his voice, and utterly genuine. “I mean it’s awful, but it’s a formative experience.”
“Ok,” says Bucky, and drinks his coffee, and lets the warm glow of excitement in the center of his chest grow a little.
Bucky is standing at Steve’s door with a bottle of wine in his hands and that expression of his on his face that kicks Steve right in the chest. Quiet and soft and a little hesitant. Translucent gray eyes.
“Hi,” says Steve, more air than voice. He’s gripping the doorknob with one tight hand, fingers holding metal with too much intent. He wants to beam and say something too enthusiastic. He wants to touch Bucky. He doesn’t. “Bucky. Come on in.”
Bucky ducks his chin—his eyes don’t leave Steve’s, and he ends up doing that indescribable thing where he looks up at Steve through dark lashes, even though he’s taller, what the fuck, Steve is dying—and smiles, and he’s tall and his shoulders are oh-my-god wide, and his hair is gathered in a neat loose bun at the nape of his neck, and his cheeks are pink, and there’s stubble on his chin and cheeks, and he’s lovely and soft, and Steve is going to possibly have an asthma attack right here in the doorway of his own goddamn house.
“Hi Steve,” Bucky murmurs once he’s inside.
“How are you?” Steve asks. He takes the bottle from Bucky just because his hands need something to do now that they’re free of strangling the door, and he’s careful not to let their fingers brush. He doesn’t know how Bucky feels about touch. He would guess not very well.
He watched the news two years ago. He knows what was done to him.
Bucky is quiet for a moment; his steps are elegant and muffled on gleaming hardwood as he follows Steve.
Steve likes this about him. The way he considers everything before he says it.
“I’m grateful that you asked me over,” Bucky says finally. Steve glances back at him over his shoulder, stunned or sad or something —but Bucky isn’t looking back. Instead his eyes are moving sweepingly, scanning the space as they step into it, a gesture that’s analytical and calculating and that Steve is fairly sure he can’t control.
Steve waits for him to finish. Doesn’t take him any further until it’s clear he decides the kitchen is safe.
Bucky’s eyes settle on him then. He gives Steve one of his small smiles; just slips one into the space between them, bestowed like a gift. “I really am, Steve.”
Steve doesn’t know how to say that that breaks his heart and makes him happy at the same time. Steve doesn’t know how to say that something as simple as Steve Rogers inviting you over— someone as simple as Steve Rogers inviting you over—shouldn’t inspire any kind of overwhelming feelings. Steve doesn’t know how to say that he’s both flattered and saddened that it apparently is inspiring those feelings in Bucky Barnes.
So he just says, “Good, Buck,” and pulls out a chair at the kitchen table, and wonders where the fuck that nickname came from.
If Bucky wonders too, he doesn’t ask it. He takes a seat. Folds all of himself up, and settles down.
Steve jogs to the cabinet, grabs a couple of wine glasses, tries not to cringe when he turns back around and sees Bucky settled at the table with his hands folded in his lap, looking so beautiful in the low lighting of the sunset coming in through the large bay windows at the back of the room. God, he’s lovely. Steve’s fingers itch to paint him. And Steve is about to serve him frozen fucking pizza.
Something tells him that Bucky won’t complain, even if it’s awful.
He doesn’t know if that makes things better or worse.
“So I gotta preface this by saying that whatever high expectations you might have…” Steve sets the pizza pan down in the middle of the table. “Lower them.”
Steve and Bucky both look down at the pizza, and Steve does cringe now: slightly-burned cheese, very-burned crust, something that is supposed to vegetables on the top but really just looks like moldy cardboard.
“Oh my god,” says Steve, “oh my god, somehow it looks ever worse over here.”
Bucky meets his eyes.
Steve has to sit down at that.
It’s such a nice laugh. Quiet and soft, just like his voice, and dusty enough that Steve can tell it isn’t used very often. Bucky’s smile stretches full-length with it, and the corners of his eyes wrinkle up, and his cheeks go round.
Shit, Steve thinks. The urge to paint him is doubling. The urge to touch him—just take his hand, brush the hair back from his forehead, something—is tripling. Steve’s heart is swinging wildly on a narrow golden chord.
“I am,” Steve says, “so sorry.”
Bucky is looking at him. Bucky is looking at him, smiling right at him, and that laugh and those eyes—-
“Steve,” says Bucky, gentle-voiced and kind-eyed, and how anyone could be scared of this man Steve can barely fathom, “can I cook?”
The answer to that question turns out to be an emphatic yes.
Bucky has whipped together some sort of veggie fried rice concoction from ingredients out of Steve’s fridge that he probably would have let sit there until they rotted, having no idea what to do with them.
Bucky knows what to do with them. Holy shit does Bucky know what to do with them.
If Steve were alone he’d probably move to the living room or his studio to eat, but he has a guest and he’s hyper-conscious of that fact, so they sit at the dining room table across from each other, burned pizza subtly scooted out of the way.
“Oh my god,” says Steve. He thinks he might have gone to heaven. He’s been existing off of takeout and his own meager skills in the kitchen for years now, so his opinion might be biased, but the flavors in this dish have satisfied something warm and small deep down in his center that hasn’t been touched in a long time. “This is ridiculously good.”
Bucky smiles at him across the table. Small and tempered, but with a surprised sort of pride that makes him glow. “Thank you,” he says, running a finger around the edge of his plate. “Maya taught me.”
“Maya?” Steve asks.
A nod. “She’s one of the people who helped me get used to… to living on my own again.” Bucky looks down as he speaks, and Steve watches the way the light above the table paints his eyelids gold. He’s a fresco. “Maya, and Lauren, and Sabeen, and Mae from the coffeeshop.”
Steve thinks about the small woman who’d seemed so protective of Bucky in town the other day; the way she’d been fully ready to kick Steve out of the place if he was causing Bucky trouble.
“Natasha, too,” says Bucky, “when she’s not too busy.”
“Natasha,” Steve repeats, and then, when it hits him, “Natasha Romanov? Like, Black Widow? That Natasha?”
Bucky gives him another laugh, gentle and real. His eyes crinkle in the corners when he does that. Steve eats, and the warmth in his core grows.
“That Natasha,” Bucky says in his quiet way. “She found me two years ago. We’re friends.”
Steve is glad.
Steve is—Steve is entirely too caught up in the life of this man he barely knows. This man whose public image is so at odds with his reality—careful words and a quiet smile and hands used for cooking instead of killing—that Steve almost forgets he was ever anything but who he is right now.
Until he goes and says something about the Black Widow being his friend.
“That’s a very badass friend you’ve got,” Steve says. He grins so Bucky knows he means it kindly. “Impressive.”
Another nod, a little bigger this time.
“She’d like you,” Bucky says.
Oh. Steve wasn’t prepared for that. His heart jumps a bit too sharply to be casual, and he knows his smile is much too soft. “Oh,” he says out loud. “Wow. Thanks, Buck.”
Bucky gestures: a mixture between a shrug and a nod, it’s the least graceful Steve has ever seen him. The sight’s endearing. “You’re welcome,” he murmurs.
The light’s gone violet-pale when Steve walks Bucky to the door, washing over the pine trees around them like watercolor.
“Thank you,” says Bucky. Steve leans against the doorframe above him, and the porchlight flickers bright above their heads, moths dancing in its beam. “I had a very nice time.”
Those elegant manners. Steve can’t stop smiling at him. “So did I, Buck,” he says, and means it, and means it. “Sorry I invited you over just to make you cook for me. It really wasn’t a con.”
Bucky’s smile is tucked up gentle in the corners of his mouth. “If it was a con,” he says, “I don’t think I would have minded.
Steve calls Sam when he gets inside.
“Sam,” he says when his friend picks up. “What would you do if your new reclusive neighbor was infamous, but also the most lovely man you’ve ever met, and you wanted to paint him more than anything?”
“Oh shit,” Sam says. “Oh, Christ.”
“You can say that again,” Steve sighs.
“Oh shit,” Sam says. “Oh, Christ. Boy oh boy. ”
“Listen,” Steve says, but he doesn’t have anything to justify himself and the word comes out a little desperate.
“I definitely am,” Sam says. There’s a rustling sound like he’s settling in somewhere, kicking his feet up to bask in Steve’s pain. “I am listening to every word you’re saying. Who is this person?”
Steve sighs again. He drops his head to the table where he’s sitting, here among the dishes he’d had to forcibly ensure Bucky didn’t insist on washing after they were done. “I don’t think I can tell you that,” Steve says. “Not without—I mean— fuck. I should ask him first.”
Sam is quiet for a moment. Steve doesn’t know if it’s because he’s actually considering Steve’s problem or simply covering the speaker to laugh at him, but he can’t bring himself to really care.
“Every day,” says Sam, “I pick up the phone and you say things to me. You just keep fucking saying words.”
Right. So, he was laughing.
“I’d tell you if I felt like I morally could, Sam,” Steve says. He sits up again, and his eyes catch on a light outside his window: Bucky’s house. There’s a room inside lit up all golden and warm, and Steve makes himself look away. “I just… I really don’t think I should.”
“Ok, man,” Sam says, enough of the laugh in his voice settling that Steve knows he’s taking this seriously. Sam might be a bastard, but he’s not a bad friend. “I’m sure you’re right. Tell me what you can.”
“Ok,” Steve says. “Ok, so. Remember my next door neighbor that I’d never met? Well, I met him. And he’s… uh, let’s say he’s a public figure. He’s also, just, like. Wonderful. And can fucking cook. Which isn’t relevant, but is weighing heavily on my mind.”
“How do you know he can cook?” Sam says, and there’s a giddy kind of restraint in Sam’s voice that makes Steve’s face flare red, the tops of his ears hot. “Has this man cooked for you? This public figure? ”
“I had him over for dinner,” Steve says. His voice is hot. “It’s not that weird.”
“Right,” Sam says faintly.
“Anyway. Anyway. I haven’t felt very… inspired lately. Burned out, I guess.” Steve traces the grain of his table with one finger, eyes lowered. He doesn’t like talking about things like this with anyone, even Sam. “Uh. But he’s very inspiring and I think I’d like to paint him but he’s not a fucking model and I don’t know how to approach this, Sam.”
“Right,” says Sam again. “Listen. Just ask him.”
Steve says, “Samuel.”
“I’m serious, man. Ask your steaming hot neighbor if you can paint him. It’s a lot less weird than the alternative—”
“—what’s the alternative?”
“Just doing it,” Sam says. “Which is creepy as hell and I do not condone.”
“Ugh,” Steve says. “You aren’t helpful.”
“Love you,” Sam smiles.
He’s been living alone for so long, but Bucky still feels the hairs on the back of his neck rise when there’s a knock at the door.
He’s sitting in his living room by the fireplace, Alpine curled up small as a comma in his lap. Alpine doesn’t stir at the sound, doesn’t so much as lift a small white ear; Bucky strokes a hand down his back and tells himself to calm the fuck down.
“Sorry,” Bucky murmurs, picking Alpine up and replacing him in the seat Bucky just vacated. Alpine blinks at him with one round eye, but doesn’t seem to mind that much.
Bucky wipes his palms on his thighs as he makes his way to the door.
It’s Steve on the other side.
“Oh,” says Bucky, which was most likely the wrong thing to say, and feels himself go red. Steve has on a sweatshirt that’s much too big for him, and there’s paint smudged all along the sleeves and the hem.
The sight makes Bucky want to smile. It makes sense that Steve would be a little bit messy that way.
“Hi,” Steve says, and tips his head back to meet Bucky’s eyes, and smiles his wide smile. “It’s your friendly neighborhood nuisance, back to ask another weird question.”
“Want me to cook for you again?”
The words come out more dry than Bucky planned them to, and it takes him a moment to realize that what he’s just done is made a joke.
By the time he does, Steve is already laughing. A little too loud, round on the edges. Bucky wants to hear it again, again, again.
“Weirder, pal,” Steve says, and Bucky’s not sure if he knows he’s moving forward, taking steps into Bucky’s orbit, but he isn’t about to ask Steve to step away. “If you can believe it.”
Bucky can believe it, although weird isn’t quite the word he’d use. Delightful, maybe.
Steve, and his bangs that flop over into his eyes and his crooked nose and his laugh that sounds bigger than he is. Delightful.
“Go ahead,” Bucky smiles.
“Alright,” Steve says. His shoulder is up against the doorframe at this point, one narrow point holding the rest of him up, and if Bucky moved just a bit closer he might be able to feel the heat bouncing off his skin, smell the turpentine on his sleeve, catch a glimpse of the place where his pulse pounds, living in the line of his throat. Bucky doesn’t move closer. “You know I’m an artist.”
“Well,” Steve says, and “well,” and just when Bucky realizes it’s the first time he’s ever seen Steve nervous Steve says “Can I paint you?” and the rest of his thoughts leave his head.
It isn’t the fact that he’s being asked that’s stunning him—Bucky knows who he is, how infamous he is, how much money one could probably make off of an original portrait of him—it’s just… that it’s Steve.
He had seemed so earnest when they first met. So kind. Different.
“I don’t…” he has to stop, take a deep breath, clear his throat of the terrible and embarrassing weight that’s crushing it. “No thank you,” he says quietly. “I don’t want people to… I try not to let people know where I live. I don’t want anyone to worry, or. Be scared.”
He doesn’t want to watch Steve after he says it but he does anyway: the frown that climbs its way between his eyebrows, the creases at the corners of his mouth.
It isn’t that difficult, Bucky thinks, and wants to be angry but can’t quite pull anything up but disappointment.
“Shit,” Steve says. “ Shit, I told Sam this wouldn’t work—fuck. Steve. Stop.” He pinches the bridge of his nose with one hand, eyes screwed up tight for a second. When it drops to his side he meets Bucky’s gaze head-on, clear and apologetic. “I fucked up, as I usually seem to do. I didn’t mean… any of what you’re thinking.” His turn to go red, vivid on his cheekbones and the tops of his ears and splotched down his neck. “I wouldn’t ever tell anyone you’re here,” Steve says firmly, “especially without asking first. I don’t even want to show anyone this painting if that’s not something you’re ok with. Hell, you can have it. I just…” he shrugs. Bucky wants to touch the sharpness of his collar bone: an upswipe, a checkmark. “I’d like to paint you, Buck. But only if you’d like that too.”
He’s speechless again, but for a different reason.
It just doesn’t make sense. None of it does. Not that Steve would bother painting something that nobody ever gets to see and certainly not that he wants the subject of that painting to be Bucky. It’s confusing. It’s ridiculous.
Steve is watching him evenly, no hint of impatience at Bucky’s silence.
Natalia would tell him “don’t knock it ‘til you try it , ” with a terrible New York Accent thrown in for emphasis. And Natalia is always right.
“Yes,” Bucky says. It’s louder than either of them expected: Bucky startles himself, but Steve just smiles. “I think that would be fine.”
Steve spends the next day cleaning his studio like his life depends on it.
Even though Bucky’s already been to his house, Steve is extra-conscious of the fact that it takes hours to make a painting of the scale he has planned, and he just—he just wants everything to be nice for Bucky. All clean and set up nice, and smelling as good as a little room full of paint fumes can smell.
By the time Bucky arrives, Steve has scrubbed enough tables and fluffed enough cushions that his chest doesn’t feel like it’ll explode anymore. He pushes up his sleeves and he opens the door.
“Hi,” says Bucky.
He looks… god. Fucking good.
“Hey, Buck,” Steve says, stepping back to let Bucky in. When he moves to close the door behind him he catches some of Bucky’s scent: clean laundry, a little bit of smoke from the fireplace Steve knows he has next door. “How’s your day been?”
“Pretty well,” Bucky says. He follows Steve to the back of the house, his hands tucked neatly in his pants pockets. “I just played with Alpine a little before coming over here.”
Bucky smiles when Steve says it. Small, but real.
“My cat,” he says. “A gift from Natasha.”
Steve thinks about Bucky and his broad shoulders and his round jaw and his wide hands playing with a cat and nearly loses his head. Oh no, Steve thinks. Oh no—
“I like cats,” Steve says, instead of any of the thousand other more damning things on the tip of his tongue. “I’d like to meet him someday.”
Steve pushes open his studio door, back to Bucky’s face, but he can feel the warmth of Bucky’s gaze on his skin anyway. Sunshine on the nape of his neck.
He glances at Bucky out of the corner of his eye as the other man moves past him. Watches Bucky stand in the center of the room, taking in everything around them: the easels set up in each corner, the drying brushes beside the sink, the paint in little tubes and jars on every surface.
He expects Bucky to relax, maybe, or at least stay the same; instead his hands leave his pockets to flex at his sides, and his spine stiffens.
Steve frowns where Bucky can’t see him.
“You know,” he says, trying his best to sound nonchalant without sounding dismissive, “you know you can totally back out at any point and I won’t hold it against you.”
Bucky’s eyes flicker to his. “I know, Steve.”
Steve nods. It’s the last time he’ll say anything. Bucky’s a grown man, and Steve has to trust him to say if he’s uncomfortable.
Bucky lowers himself gently into the chair Steve has set up in the corner, both hands braced on the thin wrought-iron arms. It creaks a little as he settles, and for all the grace he usually moves with, he looks supremely uncomfortable: stiff spine and unyielding shoulders, mouth a tight line, his feet placed at equal and parallel distances upon the wooden floor.
“Have a seat,” Steve says, even though Bucky already has. He busies himself pulling the curtains back from the wide windows, pinning them with big clothespins like his mom used to do. The light outside is distilled and pale, and it clings to the bridge of Bucky’s nose when Steve turns back to face him. Highlights the curve of his cheek, settles in that secret place at the base of his neck.
“Make yourself comfortable,” Steve adds, voice softer than he meant it to be. Bucky looks beautiful. He’s shades of blue and blue and gray; he’s those shadows beneath his eyes, and the ones behind the slope of an earlobe, and the way his hair falls loose and soft to brush the bottom of his chin. Steve could paint him a million times and never be able to capture the way he looks right now—but regardless of that, he’s going to try. He’s going to try.
Bucky nods, wordless.
His sweater is a soft pale blue, clinging to thick arms and rounded shoulders. He always wears soft things: sweaters, scarves, shirts, robes. Texture and sensation, Steve thinks. Bucky likes those two things.
Steve will paint him in bright colors. Steve will paint him in movement and light and careful strokes.
“So today I’ll just do some sketching,” Steve says. He’s gathering things, trying not to stare at Bucky as he shifts around. He wants to make this as comfortable for Bucky as possible, so he’s starting with narrating the steps. “Get the general outline of you, your shape, a pose that feels good and looks good.” He flicks a glance up as he settles onto his taller stool, catches Bucky’s eye, smiles his biggest smile. “Does this all still sound ok?”
Bucky takes a couple breaths before answering. “I… yes.”
There’s something so focused about him. He is furiously concentrating on this.
It’s endearing. But it won’t do.
“Buck,” Steve says, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. He tips his words softly into the space between them. “Sometimes it’s helpful to just chat for a little while before. Just to get familiar with each other.”
“Oh,” says Bucky—frowning slightly, which was the opposite of what Steve was going for. “Steve. I’m not uncomfortable because of you.”
It’s honest, no words hiding words, no layers of meaning that Steve has to strip away to get to the truth. Steve likes his boldfaced honesty, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t slightly flustered under it sometimes. “Thanks, Buck,” he says softly.
“I don’t want to mess this up for you,” Bucky says. “I know it’s how you make your living, even if you aren’t going to sell this one. It’s important.”
Jesus Christ. This guy.
Steve stands, and sets aside his sketchpad. He holds a hand out toward Bucky casually, enough distance already between them that he could pull the rest of the way back at the slightest sign. “Do you mind if I touch you?”
Bucky’s gaze is very steady upon Steve: dark-lashed and intent and unafraid. “I don’t mind,” he rasps.
Bucky tries not to breathe too deeply as Steve comes toward him. He tries not to move at all.
There isn’t anything but the sound of his shallow breath in this room. That and the gentle scrape of Steve’s socks against the floorboards.
“Lean back a little,” Steve murmurs, and waits for Bucky’s nod before he sets the palm of his hand against Bucky’s flesh shoulder, right over the seam of his sweater. The lightest pressure—movement that flows from Steve’s core, down his arm, across his palm, right into Bucky’s skin—and Bucky takes in a breath that rattles as he sinks back into the chair, following Steve’s touch like the tide.
Nobody touches Bucky Barnes.
“Good,” says Steve—deep voice, familiar vowels—and Bucky glows warm from the inside out. “Great, Buck, ok, now…”
Steve’s words sink into the background, melting into a liquid-low hum. Bucky follows his touch automatically, going where Steve would have him; Bucky drifts and Steve guides, and all of this is singing right on the fever-pitch of being too much (an itching, a coiling, a hundred heartbeats locked into one) when Steve finally lets his hands fall. When Steve finally steps away.
Bucky’s spine is made of something liquid. Something warm. Honey, tea, a molten-hot river.
He’s completely relaxed in his chair. The constant buzzing in his mind is nothing but a steady hum.
Steve is watching him from a few inches above—he’s standing and Bucky’s sitting, that’s why, Bucky’s brain helpfully supplies—and his eyes are wide and blue, and his mouth is making a soft shape, like the beginning of a smile.
The only word in Bucky’s head is Steve’s name, so he doesn’t say anything at all.
“That feel ok?” Steve asks. He’s lowered his voice further. Around them, the airy room buoys the words, keeps them afloat in the sunshine filtering in through wide windows. Bucky isn’t letting any thoughts slip into his head right now, or is trying hard not to, anyway, because if they did all he would be able to focus on would be how nobody has touched him in a way that didn’t hurt in years and years and years. Until now. Until Steve. “I don’t want to… overstep.”
Bucky has applesauce for brains and he hasn’t been up to date on social conventions since he was very young, but even he knows that what just happened probably wasn’t normal. He doesn’t care.
He really doesn’t care.
“You didn’t,” he says. Truth. Maybe it wasn’t normal, but neither is he. He can still feel the way Steve touched him, like an echo on his skin. “That was… good.”
Steve is standing above him, one hand braced on the arm of Bucky’s chair. Steve is watching him: listening to every single word Bucky says, few as they are. And Steve isn’t afraid of him.
Of anything, maybe.
“And you’re comfortable?” he asks.
Bucky very nearly laughs. Comfortable. What a loaded word. Especially now, here, slumped in this chair where Steve put him. Where he willingly went.
He just nods.
Maybe Steve sees the laughter that almost got out, trapped in the corners of his mouth and his eyes. He steps back with a smile that sets Bucky’s heart beating and goes back to his chair, pulling his knees up to his chest and balancing his sketchbook on them as he flips to a clean page.
“So you just relax while I sketch, yeah?” Steve meets his eyes, waits for confirmation, goes back to his sketchbook. “This is pretty informal, I’m not super worried about getting the details perfect, so you can talk and shift a little if you need to.”
Bucky probably isn’t going to do any of that. Probably Bucky is just going to sit here: to relax into this space, to marvel at the fact that this is becoming a safe place, in a world where so few places are.
But “Sounds good, Steve,” he says, and smiles, and watches the elegant lines of Steve’s hands as he leads a pencil across the page.
The quiet ticks by them.
Before, Bucky liked loudness. He liked going out late with his friends, he liked loud music, he liked the bright raucous laughter that signified a good time. He liked the anonymity that came with being able to disappear into a noisy crowd.
And then the war had come.
Loud sounds like nothing he’d ever imagined. The rattle of bullets, the rolling thunder of bombs. Screams that nobody should ever have to hear.
He’s found value in silence, here, After. He was anonymous for seventy years, and the thought of disappearing back into that now terrifies him. Crowds are places to get lost in, and he’s been lost enough times to know that that isn’t something he wants to repeat.
Steve is very good at quiet.
The scratch of pencil on paper grows until it’s the only sound in the room: steady and repeated, something that lulls the ever-busy corner of Bucky’s brain for a little while.
He’s not sure how long he and Steve have been sitting here with silence strung between them, but strangely he doesn’t feel uncomfortable with the uncertainty. There isn’t a schedule he has to stick to anymore. There isn't a regime. There isn’t punishment waiting for him back home if he doesn’t document his day in careful increments.
They can sit here for hours if he and Steve want to.
Bucky thinks he might want to.
He likes watching Steve work. The way his hair falls down across his eyes. The pink smudge of his tongue poking out of the corner of his mouth while he’s carefully tracing a curve. The delicate arch of his wrist.
His hands had been gentle when he’d touched Bucky. Gentle and guiding and firm.
“You’re good at this,” Steve says after a little while. His voice is as mild as his strokes across the page; it doesn’t upset the air around them. “Anybody ever done your portrait before, Buck?”
He’s got very long eyelashes. The feather down over his cheeks when he watches his pencil, and they lift like palm fronds when he meets Bucky’s gaze.
Bucky can’t speak for a moment. “Not that I can remember,” he says finally. A lot of his life Before is fuzzy, made of dim shapes like looking through frosted glass: there might be something, he thinks. Someone on the pier, making funny shapes out of his and his sister’s faces when he was very young. But he’s just not sure.
“I can’t believe that,” Steve says quietly. He is looking at Bucky in that steady way of his, like peeling back all Bucky’s layers and pressing himself inside. Bucky would like him to. Bucky would— “I’d’ve drawn you over and over again.”
God, this is dangerous.
Bucky wants Steve to touch him again. Bucky says, “I would’ve let you.”
“Tomorrow?” Steve asks.
They’re standing on his front porch, and the air is chilly, sneaking up beneath Bucky’s hem and curling around the nape of his neck. Steve’s hands are smudged with graphite, silvery-gray in the moonlight; if he touched Bucky now he’d leave those marks on his skin.
“Tomorrow,” Bucky says.
Bucky comes back the next day, and the next day, and the day after that. Before Steve knows it it’s been almost two weeks.
Steve has never been this glad that painting portraits takes so long.
He must have gone into town before coming over today; when Steve lets him in he’s holding two cups of coffee from Mae’s place in town, one in each hand, and he extends one to Steve with a smile.
“Hey, thanks, Buck,” Steve says. Their hands brush when he takes the cup—skin against skin-warm metal—and Steve doesn’t think he’s making up the way Bucky’s fingers linger against his.
He doesn’t think he’s making up the weight of Bucky’s eyes on him, either. There is heft to his gaze. Meaning behind his glances.
Steve wonders what Bucky would do if he reached out again, and circled his fingers around Bucky’s wrist, and brought Bucky’s palm up to his lips.
He doesn’t think Bucky would pull away.
“Come on in,” Steve says warmly.
There is a sweet sort of routine in what they’re doing.
Steve puts his paintbrush down only when his wrists start to ache, and the light coming in through the window is night-stained.
He looks up, ready to tell Bucky he’s done for today—but he stops. Can’t speak.
Bucky reads sometimes while Steve works, like he is right now: there’s a thick-spined book propped up against his thigh, pages spread open carefully with one hand. He smiles when he reads—just slight, a little lift tied up in the corners of his mouth—and Steve’s eyes catch there summarily. His lips are a little bit glossy. Chapstick, Steve thinks. He wonders what it tastes like.
Bucky is beautiful. Steve’s chest hurts with it.
Steve thinks I want you to stay.
“Bucky,” Steve murmurs, passing his own name over to him like a quiet gift. His heart’s beating too quickly, pressed up against bone. Bucky looks up at him, and his eyes are gray and round, Steve would go to war for him. He would. “Stay for dinner?”
The smile gets wide. He isn’t looking at a book, he’s looking at Steve, and the smile still gets wider.
“Sure thing,” he says. “If you promise to order in.”
Steve laughs around the heartbeat in his throat. He says, “That I can do.”
They put on a movie while they wait for the pizza to arrive, and then another when it actually gets there. Steve watches Bucky eat with small darting glances, liking what he sees: the care with which he holds each slice, making sure not to drip cheese and sauce onto Steve’s couch. His crinkle-eyed smiles when something funny happens onscreen. The rare, soft laugh.
I wanna kiss you, Steve thinks. I wanna kiss you, I want—
They’re watching The Princess Bride because Bucky’s never seen it. Steve, who could probably recite every word from memory, doesn’t mind missing a few scenes for a more interesting view.
“I like this,” Bucky says, tipping his head toward the screen.
“Good,” Steve says.
Westley dies. Buttercup gets kidnapped. They set sail.
Steve’s eyelids are getting heavy. He rests his cheek against the back of the couch, propped up so he can still see Bucky’s reactions, and closes one eye to watch him out of the other.
By the time Westley and Buttercup are reunited, Steve’s eyes have both slipped shut, and the sounds of the movie are a muted stream of words in the background. He can still hear Bucky laugh, though, and that’s what he concentrates on as everything else fades to darkness.
Steve is asleep on Bucky’s shoulder and Bucky has been sitting frozen on the couch for fifteen minutes now, the credits playing over and over again.
He could move—he should move. There is no question there.
But oh, Steve is warm. Steve is warm, and the weight of him is secure and reassuring pressed up against Bucky’s side.
Steve murmurs something soft and unintelligble against the skin right above Bucky’s collar, his breath cloudlike and warm. Bucky shivers from the inside out. Presses his eyes tightly shut for a moment.
He’s gotta wake him up.
“Stevie,” he murmurs, and somehow he is brave enough to cup his palm over the point of Steve’s cheek. Somehow he is brave enough to swipe his thumb over the ridge of his eyebrow, soft as a whisper. “Sweetheart. Your back’s gonna kill you if I let you sleep here.”
Steve makes another sound, soft and small; he turns his face briefly into Bucky’s palm before he blinks awake.
He doesn’t move away immediately up waking. This is what sets Bucky’s heart pounding like a tripwire.
“Sorry,” breathes Bucky. He is. He would let Steve sleep on him as long as he’d like if he was sure it wouldn’t hurt him. “Sorry.”
“That’s ok, Buck,” Steve says. His eyes are heavy, half-lidded and long-lashed. His voice is careful-quiet. “Sorry I hung all over you.”
Don’t be, Bucky wants to say, but he can’t fold his voice around his intentions, can’t build thoughts up into words. He presses Steve’s shoulder instead—metal palm curled very cautiously over protuberance of bone.
Steve is watching him. His level gaze and his easy smile.
“One last weird question,” Steve says quietly. “Just one.”
Bucky nods at him. His mouth is too dry, his throat too full.
“Can I kiss you, Buck?”
“Yes,” Bucky breathes. “Yes, please.”
And Bucky has never thought of Steve as small—Steve is a starburst, Steve is as big as a flame—but the way he folds himself up to notch between Bucky’s arms and against his chest is perfect. And Bucky has never thought of Steve as touchable, as tangible, hardly even as real—
Steve’s hands are cool and smooth on Bucky’s cheeks. His mouth is soft and wide and knows what it wants. Bucky sinks into him.
Steve finishes the painting on a morning so bright Bucky can taste it.
It’s wonderful. It’s colors and textures and soft, careful shapes.
Bucky can’t believe that’s how Steve sees him.
Steve kisses him on the cheek as Bucky looks at it, and tangles their hands together at their sides.