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1.

God damn it, it was rising again, that all-consuming rage, he couldn’t control it, he got so fucking angry and Steve didn’t deserve it, didn’t deserve any of this--

“So why don’t you say what you really mean, you coward,” Bucky spat, helpless to keep the words back against the fury raging through him and he didn’t even remember what they were arguing about any more. “Fucking hypocrite! ‘Stay in touch with your feelings, Bucky, it’s not good to keep them in’ - but it’s fine for you, isn’t it? Fucking hero--”

“Buck, I love you,” said Steve through gritted teeth. “But I’m gonna go for a run before I put a fist through the wall. Why don’t you do the same.” He got up to leave.

“Running away? Awfully brave of you, Captain,” said Bucky, unable to keep the torrent of angry, bitter words back. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go, he was supposed to be better than this, they’d been doing well for so long and now in the last month it had all gone to shit--

“No,” snapped Steve. “I’m just - retreating and regrouping.”

“Why don’t you just retreat all the way back to New York?” Bucky flung out. “Then you wouldn’t have to wear out the path around the Mall every time--”

“Because I don’t want to, you stupid asshole!” Steve shouted at him, and Bucky felt both triumph at having broken through the Captain America calm and regret that once again, he’d reduced Steve to this.

It was like picking at a toy until it broke. And then trying to put the pieces back together again. Over and over. With cracks getting larger every time.

Steve glared at him, then turned on his heel and walked out of Bucky’s quarters, his back rigid and fists clenched.

God damn it.

Burning resentment flooded through him. Again. That Steve could leave this behind, get himself under control again with just a few laps around the Mall, while Bucky was gonna need to pummel the hell out of something to get even remotely back to normal and even then, the anger would keep vibrating every limb and distorting everything--

And over nothing. God damn minor charity event that Steve wanted Bucky to attend, as his official date, and it had escalated to rage and...

Helplessness. He hated this feeling. The rage that built when he couldn’t control himself, even though he knew he was being watched, would always be watched, mistrusted forever, a malfunctioning machine.

The man he used to be got angry too, but it blew over. And when he did get into fights, they were always minor. They blew over too - at most a few bruises, nothing serious.

Not now. Now he was a deadly weapon that had to be watched lest it misfire and kill somebody. A deadly weapon that so often wanted to fire, to hit, to hurt--

Damn it.

He could go for a run himself, or to Arlington to try to cool his jets amid the peace of the graves, comforted by death in a way that he really didn’t like to think about too closely. But it would take a few minutes to get permission and sign out and the way he was feeling he just might punch the nice security guard and--

He headed for the facility’s gym.

2.

He’d been doing so well, too, he thought bleakly as he pounded on a specially reinforced punching bag. He’d been doing really good. And then he’d been thrown off and it had all gone to shit.

Story of his life since getting away from HYDRA.

Steve kept pointing out that he was doing better overall, that every time he got “thrown off” meant a setback, yeah, but never as bad as the last one. Yes, he was angry and tense and kept picking fights, Steve admitted. But he had yet to attack a civilian... so far. He had never attacked Steve physically, no matter how much he’d wanted to. And OK, so he’d often had vague thoughts about ditching his minders and just going to ground; but he hadn’t ever even gotten as far as planning.

And so he’d caused some property damage and they’d had some high-decibel fights; Steve said he could live with that.

Steve was an idiot sometimes. Bucky knocked the punching bag off its tether.

Steve shouldn’t have to live with it, was the problem. And Steve wasn’t the only one whose opinion counted when it came to Bucky’s behavior.

Bucky impatiently grabbed another punching bag and strung it up.

Steve wasn’t the only one whose opinion mattered. Yeah, he was the most important person in Bucky’s life, but he wasn’t the only one who had a say in what happened to it.

It hadn’t been so bad when the news had first come out that they were a couple again, three months ago - it had gone surprisingly well, actually - but after what had happened last month, practically the whole fucking country had an opinion about Bucky, and a lot of them weren’t exactly charitable. And Steve had taken plenty of shit over the situation.

Bucky had tried so damn hard to ignore his own constant surveillance. He even agreed with it. He was dangerous, volatile. No matter how much therapy he went through, nothing could completely erase the effect of seventy years of cryo, torture, conditioning and mind-wipes. He’d been so controlled, for so long, and had so much anger inside him, that he couldn’t just shrug off frustration like a normal person. Things that used to simply cause annoyance and an occasional pissy mood when they were young now caused black rage. And with a body capable of mass murder... hell, he’d want himself watched too.

And that was without even considering the fact that there were people out there who wanted to recapture him. He needed 24/7 surveillance, so that if HYDRA ever tried to capture him, the invisible angels watching over him could either rescue him or put him down without collateral damage.

The problem was that one of his invisible angels had decided to go to the media with information about him. And Steve. And...

There it was, the rising rage again, and he savaged the punching bag. A sense of violation that you’d think he would’ve been incapable of, after everything HYDRA had done to him. Maybe because this time it was one of the supposed good guys doing it, and it wasn’t just his own privacy that had been shattered but Steve’s as well. And Steve had done nothing to deserve that.

And on top of that was the tension, the sense of impending doom that colored everything. Because yes, what that stupid woman had leaked had been bad enough: recordings of fights between them, ugly words that nobody else had a right to hear. Frank discussions with his therapist about his fears.

But she hadn’t leaked recordings of his therapist asking details about some of his kills. Or details about his recovery. She hadn’t leaked recordings of him and Steve having sex. And she could have. She could still have copies of those recordings. Recordings of everything they had ever said or done together while under surveillance. Finding their way to one another again, Steve taking it so goddamn slow when they got back together, so cautious, both of them so hurt and scared and scarred, by life and by each other, so filled with misunderstandings and tension. So many raw emotions that spilled out in words and tears and fights as they negotiated their way to closeness again. Blunt discussions about what they would and wouldn’t do in bed together, and why--

And so much that was out of context. Even he didn’t remember the nightmare he’d been having in one recording that had been leaked, just remembered waking up shaking and clammy and fighting a clawing sense of doom, and the steady peace and warmth of Steve’s arms around him.

“Think you were dreaming about HYDRA,” Steve had murmured, soothing him. “Them taking you back.”

He’d nodded, still gasping with terror.

“They won’t,” Steve had murmured comfortingly, fingers soothing through his soaked hair. “You know that. Even if they did, you’ve got failsafes--”

“But what if--” He’d taken a deep breath, clinging to Steve. “What if all the safeties implanted in me don’t work? What if HYDRA disables them? What if they take me back?”

“I won’t let them. You know that.”

“But you’ll try to rescue me.”

“I promised you I wouldn’t,” Steve had said seriously, his voice low and husky, but the recording had picked it up. “I promised you I’d take you down myself. Not because you’d deserve it, but because if they ever found you and turned you, you’d never trust yourself again, and you’d want to die. And I promised you once that I’d be the last face you’d see.”

That had been gold for the internet. Because why had Steve promised that? What kind of man was he, to tell his lover that he’d kill him, and make it sound like a tender, comforting promise? How sick and twisted were they, as a couple?

Sick and twisted, they’d called Steve, for sleeping with a man who found it soothing to be told that if necessary his own lover would put him down like a rabid dog.

How sick and twisted would they call them both, if more was leaked? How soon before somebody demanded Steve turn in his shield? How long before they revoked Bucky’s ability to leave the secure facility at all, before they confined him again, for his own safety?

His gut still churned at the thought of that. It was one thing to accept surveillance and having to live most of his life in a comfortable prison, but the idea of being utterly confined again, fighting deep-down conditioning that told him to do anything and everything to get out, no matter how horrible or violent or unforgivable, and Steve would--

He punched the bag off its stand.

They’d identified the guard responsible and she’d never have a job doing anything but flipping burgers again, Bucky reminded himself as his chest heaved and his exhausted limbs trembled with weariness. Which was good. But the damage had been done.

And there was no point in worrying about it, he reminded himself as he put up another bag. He was (mostly) free, right now. The leak had happened and that was unfortunate, but the one good thing about the relentlessness of internet culture was the continuous availability of sources of scandal from all sides. Within a few weeks the world had found other things to be outraged about and the furor over their own particular scandal had died down.

It could come back to life again at any point, though. Closing its jaws around him and Steve.

The thought of that was suffocating. He couldn’t drag Steve down with him. The thought of what they had fought so hard to build together being used against Steve--

“Fuck 'em,” Natasha had said when Bucky had haltingly talked to her about it, and her mouth shaping words that sounded like they came straight from Clint had made Buck smile despite himself. “Seriously, fuck 'em. You know what you have together.” She’d taken his hand in hers and leaned forward, her green eyes serious. “You know it’s real and the only things that are sick and twisted about it have to do with what you’ve both been put through by other people’s evil. You’ve done nothing wrong. You’re doing the best you can with the shitty hand you were dealt. Fuck 'em all if they judge you on it. It says a lot more about them than it does about you.”

She’d made him smile despite himself. Natasha knew all about being judged by the world because of what evil people had made of her. He’d squeezed her small hand and tried to remind himself of her words every time his fears came yammering to the forefront of his thoughts.

“And you know Steve will fight for you,” she’d reminded him. “We all will. You won’t have the freedom you earned taken away from you. Not again.”

He didn’t mind the idea of imprisonment so much for himself, he wanted to tell her. HYDRA had blasted away most of his sense of self - his sense of personal outrage or hurt or personal responsibility. Yes, he feared being confined, feared what he’d do to escape, but from a sort of distance.

But it would kill Steve. Because Steve wouldn’t abandon him. He’d keep fighting for Bucky, keep coming to see him, probably move right into a cell with him just to keep him company.

And it would be for nothing. Because Steve could do anything he wanted, if it wasn’t for Bucky. He could be free - he could even end up with another guy if he wanted. Like that vet he’d dated for a while, Lee, whom the press adored so much while they were together. A really decent guy, who’d even stood up for Steve and Bucky when the press had tracked him down and asked him what he thought of his ex’s “disturbing” relationship...

“I’m still good friends with Captain Rogers and Sergeant Barnes is a goddamn hero,” Lee had snapped. “If you’re looking for dirt on either of them you’re gonna have to go somewhere else.” Social media had loved that one.

That’s who Steve should be with. Not someone who dragged him down, held him back, made him vulnerable.

Just the thought of it boiled under Bucky’s skin. Made him want to strike out. To hurt, maim, kill. He redoubled his efforts against the swaying punching bag, his shoulders beginning to ache, welcoming the coming exhaustion that sometimes seemed to be the only form of relief from the pull towards brutality.

For so long he’d known nothing but violence - caused by him or visited on him, didn’t matter. The years he’d spent with HYDRA were memories of almost nothing but pain, his body restrained and his voice shrieking for an end that never came until he eventually stopped begging for mercy and simply accepted the agony as the natural order of things. Tried not to piss his handlers off too much, but didn’t hold back from hurting anyone he was permitted to hurt. No backtalk to Pierce, but killing a tech if he was feeling a little off? Didn’t even register.

Kill or be killed. Order through pain. That was all he’d known, for so long. Brutal dominance and cowering submission.

Trying to be a person after that was almost impossible.

And Steve caught the backlash of his inability to control himself, as per usual.

Which made him want to use everything else HYDRA had taught him to compel Steve to save himself. Manipulate him, lie to him, do whatever it took, so that Steve decided that splitting up again was the best option, for Bucky’s sake.

He’d promised himself never to play Steve again, but it was so fucking hard not to. To ignore the weapons HYDRA had given him, and fall back to nothing but himself... when all he had were arguments and angry words.

3.

He finally stumbled, exhausted, to his floor again, passing the security station and nodding at Tim, the guard on duty.

“Cap’s back,” said Tim. “You two fighting again?”

Bucky nodded tiredly, refraining from snapping at Tim to just mind his own business. Tim was just doing his job, making sure the people under his supervision were secure and stable. He was good at it, too. Tried to make the surveillance as unobtrusive as possible. Even tried to be a friend, as much as he could be.

Tim nodded sympathetically. “Yeah, you both looked kinda tense when you left. Looks like he’s calmer now.” He glanced over Bucky. “You, uh... you need anything?”

Nice. His jailer was concerned about him. This was his life now. How far the Fist of HYDRA had fallen. Some days it almost made him long for the days when his captors stood as far away from him as possible and only approached him with stun guns and a muzzle in hand.

No, it didn’t. Now he was in danger of straying into what the kids these days called Emo territory. His jailers were really great guys, who were just doing their jobs and who gave him as much latitude as they could, considering.

He shook his head and stared at the hallway down to his quarters, reluctant to go down it.

“So, you going to that gala?” asked Tim.

Bucky shook his head. “Nah.”

Tim’s lips pressed together. “You know we approved it, right? ‘Unobtrusive security presence’ and everything. And it would mean a lot to--”

“Don’t feel like endangering the public just to make Steve feel better, thanks,” Bucky snapped.

“You wouldn’t be endangering anyone,” said Tim reasonably.

“My security classification would beg to disagree with you.”

“That’s just a technicality--”

“OK, did you just sort of miss the two-ton security door I took off its hinge last month? It’s not a fucking technicality.”

Tim put his hands up placatingly. “OK, OK, poor choice of words,” he admitted. “It’s not a technicality. But it’s also not an all-encompassing judgment on you and... just think about it, OK?”

Bucky shrugged and headed down the hall. Think about it, sure.

Think about going to a charity function, all those people looking at him - at them. Judging Steve. It was one thing to be out, and public about their relationship; quite another to be seen together. Rubbing it in everyone’s face just what kind of monster Captain America was sleeping with.

And Steve just wouldn’t back down about it, kept insisting it would be good for him - and not just for Bucky, but for other people too. Like that gay college kid who’d interviewed Steve a while ago, whose dad had been a Captain America fan from way back - and a homophobe from way back, too - and the dad was trying, said Steve, but it would mean a lot to the kid if his dad could meet not just Captain America, but also the guy his hero was involved with...

Not to mention the freaking kids who were gonna be in attendance. “Come on, Buck,” Steve had wheedled. “They’re child amputees, and they wanna meet you. You remember how much it meant to those deaf kids to find out Clint has hearing aids. A lot of them have Bucky Bears that they modified. It would mean so much...”

Guilt trips and loyalty and blind faith in Bucky’s innate power to do good. Vintage Steve Rogers all the way. Some things hadn’t changed in eighty years, despite everything.

He sighed and pushed open his door.

“Hey,” said Steve, looking up from his book, sitting on the couch as if he hadn’t had to leave to avoid a meltdown just a couple of hours ago. Laptop on the coffee table playing a singer Bucky had recently discovered - Sting, Fortress Around Your Heart. His hair looked damp and there was a faint scent of shampoo wafting from the washroom. “I got you a peach smoothie from that shop you like. It’s in the fridge.”

Bucky nodded and headed for the shower, reflecting that sometimes it was kind of a pain to be involved with somebody who could just let stuff roll off his back as easily as Steve did. He stood and let the water wash away his remaining frustrations, warm rivulets down his aching limbs, making sure he was back to relatively normal before he stepped out and pulled on a T-shirt and sweats. Say what you would of this century: they sure made comfortable clothing, even if it was flimsy as hell.

He grabbed the smoothie out of the fridge and sank down next to Steve, accepting the peace offering. Steve finished the page he was reading - Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, working on that list of his again - and Bucky wasn’t surprised when he bookmarked and set it down, turning the volume down on the laptop as well.

“We need to talk.”

Bucky nodded glumly, taking a sip of the smoothie. Here they went. Again. They’d talked so many times, and it didn’t make much difference.

“Don’t you have a charity thing to go to?”

“I’m skipping it,” said Steve.

“You’ll disappoint your fans,” said Bucky, and took another sip.

“They’ll get over it.”

“They’ve gotten over a lot from you lately.”

“I know.” Steve took a deep breath. “Look. The fight this morning.” He paused again. “Buck, I can’t keep doing this.”

Bucky nodded. “I don’t expect you to. I keep telling you that you should leave. And, I mean - I know I‘ve said it angry before, but... even when I’m not angry, you know I still mean it.”

“I know. And that’s what I wanna talk about.” Steve reached out and took his hand, the metal one. Funny how he never seemed to notice a difference between them. He took another deep breath. “Look, we’ve both said to the end of the line and we both meant it. But... I think we need to decide how we meant it.”

Bucky frowned. “What do you mean?”

“I feel like... we’re at a crossroad. That’s how I feel, anyway.” Bucky nodded. “And we should decide how we’re gonna get to the end of the line.”

Bucky gave Steve a small smile. “So are we on a road or on a train?”

Steve chuckled. “I was also gonna say we have to decide to fish or cut bait.”

“So... we’re fishing now?”

“Pretty much. Fishing on a road that’s also a train. It’s complicated.”

“Well, we’re complicated,” Bucky pointed out, and warmed a little at Steve’s smile.

They were. Brothers, best pals, men out of time, immortal or close to it, with a little brainwashing and scrambled brains thrown in.

“Yeah, we are,” said Steve, and his smile dimmed a little.

Bucky sighed, feeling strangely calm. Yeah, here they went. This was familiar territory, despite the almost seventy five years since the last time they’d gone down this road.

Steve was breaking up with him again. Finally. Just like he’d done in the past, so very many times, back when he thought it would make Bucky “free” and more likely to get himself a nice little wife and family. Bucky tried to feel positive about the fact that at least this time he might be doing it for himself and not for the sake of being a self-sacrificing idiot. And... well, Bucky had basically asked for this, after all.

“Is this it, then?” he said, putting his smoothie down on the coffee table and turning to face Steve on the couch, and it was funny but it felt both peaceful and devastating. He’d probably have another tantrum later on, but for right now it felt almost like the peace he’d felt sometimes before a wipe.

It was gonna hurt like hell, and he didn’t want it, but he knew there would be emptiness afterwards, no more questing for something just out of reach. He’d always accepted the bite guard almost gratefully. If there was a chair here now, he’d be leaning back into it, tensing for the pain but telling himself it would feel better afterwards. He wouldn’t even remember the godawful screaming that tore his throat apart.

“Well, I’m sure reaching the end of what I can deal with,” Steve admitted, and Bucky nodded.

“Can’t say I blame you.”

“Not because of your setback, or what they’ve said in the papers or any of it,” said Steve softly. “Because of this shit you keep pulling.”

“What shit?”

“Telling me to go. Pushing me away.”

Bucky frowned. “I tell you that because--”

“I know you don’t have a lot of self-confidence left,” Steve spoke over him. “And I know I’m supposed to help you with that, and I don’t mind. But... I need you to just let me do it, OK? Don’t make it all about how you don’t deserve me or I deserve better, or I should just leave - because that just wrecks me. Over and over and over.”

Bucky blinked. “You do deserve better--”

“Stop it!” said Steve, his voice low, anger simmering again. “Stop trying to protect me. I’m not little Stevie Rogers who could blow away in a stiff breeze any more, and we’re not a couple of deviant queers who should try to get married to nice girls. I’m not even Captain America who should marry the beautiful Agent Carter. We--”

“Yeah, you’re Captain America, who could marry a guy now,” said Bucky. “Someone like Lee, or--”

“I’m not with him any more!” snapped Steve. “For fuck’s sake, Bucky! He broke up with me!”

“That’s only because he didn’t like your job,” said Bucky.

“Whatever the reason, he did. I was willing to work it out, I was willing to do a lot for him, but he couldn’t take the job, and he made his choice. He’s a great guy, you know that, but he’s not you. If he couldn’t take who I was, he wasn’t right for me.”

“What if I asked you to quit?”

“I’d quit in a heartbeat, you know that,” said Steve.

“Why for me and not him?” asked Bucky.

Steve blinked. He opened his mouth, then paused. “I... I don’t know.” He thought for a moment. “I never thought about it, I guess.”

“Because we’ve been together since we were kids,” said Bucky. “And you just think we’re meant to be together forever and--”

“What the hell do you think this is for me? Inertia?” Steve snapped. He paused, eyes narrowed in anger and visibly reaching for calm. “I am not some pathetic little baby duckling that imprinted on you because you were the only queer guy around when I was growing up. I know I could have someone else, someone without baggage, someone with two arms! Do you honestly think it’s never occurred to me before?”

Bucky blinked at him, a sharp pain passing through him. He ignored it.

“I’ve thought about it, Buck,” said Steve more gently. “I’m not with you just because I can’t imagine anything else. I was with Lee for months. I know what it’s like now, to be with someone where there’s no fear and no huge obstacles like there are for you and me. It’s nice.” He gripped Bucky’s hand tighter and leaned forward slightly. “And I still choose you. Over and over again. It kills me that you keep pissing on that.”

Bucky gazed back at him and Steve sighed, then leaned closer, resting his forehead against Bucky 's. ''It's not easy being with you, but it's worth it to me. I wish you’d believe that.”

Bucky nodded, and Steve tilted his head up, gently taking Bucky's mouth in a kiss. Bucky leaned into it gratefully, kissing him back, parting his lips, letting his tongue in. This was better than talking; talking never got them anywhere and so often turned painful, whereas this was familiar and gentle...

Gentle, he thought as they came closer together and Steve slipped a hand under his shirt and they started moving together familiarly. Sex between them was always so gentle these days - soft lips and slow caresses, fingers running through hair, sighs and murmurs and whispers. He dropped his head back and sighed as Steve pressed kisses to his neck, slowly pressing him closer.

They were going to break up, again, possibly at soon as tonight. Didn’t mean he couldn't enjoy this, right now. While he could. He'd done it plenty of times before, living for the moment.

They kissed deeply, slowly letting their arousal build, loosening and removing clothing. Steve lay back on the couch, drawing Bucky down on top of himself and reached down, taking him in hand and stroking, their breath getting faster. Bucky felt his heart speeding and reached down too, smiling into Steve's mouth as Steve’s breath hitched.

“Want me to go down on you?” Steve whispered, and Bucky’s heart sped up because damn, Steve’s mouth had always driven him crazy and he loved it, but...

“Nah, wanna keep doing this,” he murmured back, and went back to kissing. He stroked slowly, teasing, taking his time, their bodies moving together with the ease of familiarity, tender and sweet and slow.

And there it was, that stab of regret that hit him every so often even in the middle of sex.

They'd been able to do more than this, once. Steve kind of got off on roughness, up to a point. He liked bites and grabbing hands and a bit of a struggle, both when he was skinny and after the Serum - the kind of mock-fight where no matter who lost, they both won. Where Bucky would eventually pin him down and hold him immobile, thrusting into him while Steve arched his back and gasped in pleasure--

They couldn't do that any more. Not even close. There had been too much violence in Bucky’s life and between the two of them, and roughness wasn't something he could ever do again for fun, no matter what Steve might get off on.

Lee probably could. Lee could give Steve what he wanted--

Lee wasn’t here.

Bucky forced the thought of Lee out of his head and sped up his hand and they locked lips, and he concentrated on Steve's lips and tongue and hands, their bodies moving together urgently as they reached for that high together. Steve's voice crying out, his scent all around Bucky, the sweetness and rightness of it as they touched and gave each other what nobody else could.

And then his climax was breaking over him like a wave, washing him clean of all his frustrations and regrets, bringing him peace - for now, at least - and Steve’s breath hitched as he climaxed as well. They panted together on the couch, sweat and racing heartbeats and trembling limbs and Steve’s lips catching his in a deep kiss.

Somewhere a faceless computer was filing away surveillance footage of their intimacy, Bucky knew distantly. Tim had no doubt discreetly turned his own station’s live monitors off as soon as they’d started kissing.

He sighed and moved off of Steve, tucking himself against the side of the wide couch, then ran an idle finger down Steve’s chest. They lay together, legs entwined, getting their breath back and listening to the music still piping tinnily from Steve’s laptop. Mm, Fields of Gold. He liked this one.

4.

“I’m gonna say something I wasn’t sure I should say until... well, a lot later,” said Steve quietly after the playlist had ended and Bucky’s quarters were silent.

“Then maybe you shouldn’t say it.”

“Well, I’ve been talking to Alan about it,” said Steve. Bucky's eyebrows went up. Neither of them usually brought up whatever happened in counseling. “Hadn’t made up my mind yet.” He took a deep breath and took Bucky’s hand, entwining their fingers. “You remember we always used to...” he paused, then plunged on. “We always talked about getting married when we were kids.”

“No we didn’t,” said Bucky flatly. Steve blinked. “I talked about it. You always told me to shut up.”

Steve looked away. “I didn’t see the point in torturing ourselves over something that couldn’t ever happen. And I was wrong.”

“What are you saying?” Bucky frowned, a stab of fear going through him and he tried to take his hand back, his entire body tensing for flight. “You’re not asking--”

“No, I’m - I’m not asking anything right now,” said Steve quickly, turning on his side, hand tightening slightly and one leg hooking loosely around Bucky’s - not holding him, not confining him, just steadying him, as Steve had learned to do automatically over the months they’d been together. “It’s not time, and I wouldn’t ask you out of the blue. Mostly ‘cause you’d shoot me down and I don’t wanna ask again.”

Bucky stared at him.

“But - but that’s where I’m going, OK? Eventually, not right now, don’t worry.” Steve looked at their clasped hands, not meeting Bucky’s eyes. “And I was talking to Alan and we talked about maybe just asking for... a guarantee of some kind.”

“A what?”

“Not forever. I wouldn’t ask that. But just... give me six months. Just six months of not having to deal with... this.”

“What do you mean?” His heartbeat was slowing again, he noticed. Sense of threat receding. They’d both learned, over the months - Steve had learned how to steady him and soothe him, and he’d learned how to accept it.

“Just don’t break up with me,” said Steve. “And don’t try to push me to do it for you. For six months. I won’t propose, I won’t try to change anything or push anything you’re not ready for. I just wanna know that I can have a fight with my boyfriend without feeling like he might not be that when I come back.”

Bucky nodded thoughtfully, but chuckled despite himself. “Boyfriend, huh.”

Steve’s lips quirked. “Yeah. Boyfriend.” Bucky rolled his eyes, amused, and Steve kissed him. “Bucky, you’re more than just a pal I happen to fuck every so often.”

“All right, fine. Boyfriend, then.”

“You’d let me call you that?” Steve smirked at him. “...honey?”

Bucky groaned and settled back down, head on Steve’s chest. “Honey? Honey? We’ve got cute little terms of endearment now?”

“Sugar?”

Bucky mock-gagged.

“Baby.”

“Listen, sweetheart--” Bucky stopped as Steve laughed.

“That doesn’t sound too bad, does it?”

“Eh, I still prefer punk,” said Bucky.

“Jerk,” Steve smiled down at him, and Bucky wondered if he was the only one who could see the love and devotion in Steve’s eyes and voice no matter what words he used.

Funny how that had been one of the things people had remarked about on the internet after the leaks. So many of their supposed fans seemed to have constructed elaborate ideas about how romantic they were, and had been disappointed that their reality was filled with insults even in their most loving times.

“So you were talking marriage with your shrink,” said Bucky, pushing aside the thoughts of their fangirls. The fangirls didn’t live with them. He shook his head. “I’m not even compos mentis by most measurements, Steve. Couldn’t marry anyone.”

“I didn’t say I’d thought it all out,” Steve said defensively.

“It would make your fans wet themselves.” He grimaced. “Well... the ones who aren’t still completely crushed that our great beautiful love story isn’t what they thought it was.”

“We don’t owe anyone a beautiful love story.” Steve frowned thoughtfully. “And I’m honestly not sure what they thought was so beautiful about it in the first place. We kept breaking up and felt guilty for being together most of the time. If it wasn’t for the fact that you went to hell to get where we are now - if I was just being selfish - I’d have to say that frankly in a lot of ways this is better, fucked up as it is.”

“Yeah, but amputation’s not sexy,” Bucky pointed out. “Brainwashing’s not so romantic.”

“Pneumonia wasn’t so fucking sexy either, remember?” Steve countered, fingers idly going to the join of Bucky’s metal arm and rubbing gently at scar tissue that always felt slightly sore. “Poverty’s not romantic unless you’ve never been poor. Shame isn’t romantic. Fear and hiding aren’t romantic. It’s all ugly.”

They were silent for a few moments, and then the laptop chimed softly. Steve had an e-mail or a text. He made no move to check it.

Bucky gazed at the sketch of the Vietnam Memorial that Steve had put on the wall. He preferred Steve’s apartment, but considering the terms of Bucky’s surveillance made staying over at Steve’s only about a once-a-week thing because of the security required, he couldn’t deny that Steve had done a lot to make his quarters here look homey.

Not just look homey, either. This was home, now. It might be a secure facility, but it didn’t feel like a prison. It was their home, as much as their apartment in Brooklyn had ever been, at the end of the day when the two of them went to sleep together, breath slowly evening out, Bucky’s jagged emotions soothed by the warmth of Steve’s arms around him, their bodies pressed together for comfort. Just the two of them against the world.

“Six months,” said Bucky slowly, running a finger down Steve’s chest, watching goosebumps rise on the pale flesh.

“What?”

“Six months.” He looked back up at Steve. “I won’t push you away. I won’t tell you that you’d be better off without me.”

Steve’s mouth dropped open slightly and they gazed at each other for a long moment, Bucky’s heart beating faster. “You promise?” he finally asked.

“Yeah.” He smiled. “Sweetheart.” He glanced at his watch, needing to look away from the raw emotion in Steve’s eyes, his blue eyes shining with relief and-- “You still have time to make that charity thing, you know.”

Steve blinked, clearly completely lost.

“The charity thing. You know, what started the whole mess today? You still have time to go. You even have your fancy duds here.”

“Come with me,” Steve said softly.

Bucky shook his head. “Not today.”

“Maybe someday?”

He nodded slowly, and Steve’s smile was blinding. God, such a simple thing - such a small thing for Steve to ask for and him to grant - and Steve was glowing. It was completely humbling. He gave Steve a gentle push to get him to stand and go get ready, and pulled his sweats back on, feeling unaccountably shaky and off-balance.

Six months. Six months of no second guessing, no guilt, no maybes. Whatever happened, happened to both of them. Whatever shit rained down, they weathered it together.

It was terrifying, but wasn’t everything these days?

He watched Steve quickly shave and pull on his nice suit, which had hung in Bucky’s closet next to Bucky’s own since the last Senate hearings. Damn, he definitely cleaned up nice.

Then again, he always had, even when he weighed ninety pounds soaking wet. Bucky handed Steve his comb. “Baby duckling, huh?” he teased. “You’ve got the fluffy yellow hair, at least.”

Steve’s mouth quirked up slightly. “Jerk.”

Bucky held out his tie. “Now that’s no way to talk to your boyfriend.”

“Too bad,” said Steve, taking the tie and stepping closer to Bucky as he put it around his neck. “I wouldn’t know any other way.” He tilted his chin up and Bucky did the tie up, pulling him in for a slow kiss after he was done.

No, he didn’t know any other way. Bucky had a sudden flash of what Steve would do if he actually did propose at some point. He’d want to be romantic, but probably end up shoving a ring at Bucky and mumbling, “So, you wanna?” half-embarrassed and half-nervous, and Bucky would probably say yes just out of pity and--

OK, this was all unsettling enough without letting his imagination run wild. “I’ll walk you out,” he said, and they held hands as they headed down the corridor. Tim gave them a small smile, but looked at Bucky’s t-shirt and sweats disapprovingly.

“Told you, Barnes, we’re good with you going--”

“It’s OK,” Steve told him, and damn it, he was still glowing. He was gonna go to the stupid charity event alone, having lost this morning’s argument; he’d talk to that interview kid and his dad alone, talk to the amputee kids about Bucky without Bucky backing him up - and he still looked happy, at peace, like the embodiment of fucking sunshine, just because Bucky had said yes to six lousy months.

He’d probably dazzle all of them without even being aware of it, like he’d been dazzling Bucky ever since they were kids. “Really. It’s fine,” Steve told Tim, gazing at Bucky. “Some other day.” He gave Bucky a kiss and headed out.

“You OK, Barnes?” asked Tim quietly a moment later.

Bucky gave him a small smile. No, he wasn’t. But he was closer than he had been.

“Yeah, fine.”

“Next time?”

“Maybe.” He cleared his throat. “Probably.” Steve would no doubt be invited to a few more of these in the next six months. Bucky had said yes to one thing today, after all...

Maybe there were more yeses in their future.

Tim gave him a grin and a clap on the shoulder, and Bucky smiled back at him before heading back home.