It starts with a phone call.
Steve is puttering around in the kitchen with Natasha on speakerphone. Sam’s at the kitchen table, eating cereal out of a mixing bowl. And Bucky’s on the couch in a blanket nest of his own making, staring blankly at the television. Some cooking show Steve likes is on; Bucky never pays much attention, but leaves it on anyway in case Steve wants to watch.
“I’m not sure what part of off the grid is so hard for you to understand,” Natasha says, affectionately exasperated, when Steve asks for the third time what she’s been up to. “It means I don’t need you, your boyfriend, or the winged wonder over there currently in my business.”
“Rude,” Sam says through a mouthful of Fruit Loops.
Steve laughs, a little sheepish. “Alright, alright. I’ll back off. But don’t forget, Nat, you’re the one who called me.”
“Well, with SHIELD gone, someone’s gotta keep tabs on you boys, make sure you’re staying out of trouble.”
“Tell her we’re fine without her,” Sam calls over his shoulder.
“Just fine,” Steve says, sneaking a glance at Bucky, a small smile on his lips, a touch of color high on his cheeks.
And suddenly Bucky feels like he’s missing something. Something important. He knows he’s the reason Natasha calls so often—to see how he’s doing, of course, but mostly to see how Steve’s doing, because of Bucky or in spite of him. Bucky doesn’t mind so much, because Natasha has a point: someone should be looking out for Steve, and as loath as he is to admit it, he’s no longer the best person for the job.
But Bucky feels like there’s something else going on here, something they’re talking around, that he’s not picking up on. It happens more than he'd like to admit: he’ll be following along with a seemingly casual conversation when the mood in the room will shift just so, with a slight pause and a hastily exchanged glance, and Bucky can never quite grasp what causes it, what it means. It’s infuriating. Steve explains a lot, offers him comforting pats on the shoulder and assurances that it’s okay, there’s a lot to get used to, he’s not expected to pick up on all the finer points of these new people and new freedoms right away.
“It takes time,” Steve reassures him, “adjusting to this whole…” And he’ll trail off and wave his hand around in a way Bucky interprets as this whole human interaction thing or this whole relationship thing or this whole being a person thing, depending on what kind of day Bucky’s having.
But something tells Bucky he might have to figure this one out on his own. He thinks back, tries to remember what, exactly, Natasha said before Steve got antsy.
She called him Steve’s boyfriend. And Bucky’s not entirely clueless, he understands modern partnerships and romance—theoretically—but he doesn’t…remember. He has no memory of being Steve’s boyfriend, his best guy, his sweetheart. That’s not saying much, of course; there’s so much Bucky doesn’t remember, whole lifetimes missing from his mind, but he’d like to think…
Well. He’d sure like to think he’d remember something like that.
The thing is, Bucky doesn’t remember being anyone’s boyfriend. Ever. Was that possible? He’s read about the Bucky Barnes of old, heard enough stories about his pre-Soldier exploits to know he used to be the kind of guy who would’ve been good at romance, would’ve loved love. But as hard as he wracks his brain, he simply doesn’t remember how. How to be a boyfriend. A partner. What that entails. What he’s supposed to do.
And then his stomach’s a tangle of knots, because christ, he doesn’t even know what a boyfriend’s supposed to do and he’s supposed to be Steve’s? Steve, who is good and gentle and everything to Bucky, and Bucky can’t even be this. This one thing he’s supposed to be (even though Steve insists, time and time again, that Bucky isn’t supposed to be anything he doesn’t want to be, or can’t be). Worthless, he thinks to himself, automatically, furiously. You're worthless.
Bucky shakes his head, jumps to his feet. He’s determined not to think like that. He can choose to do something about this. He can fix this. He can. “I need to use the computer.”
“I told you, man, you don’t gotta announce it every time,” Sam says. Bucky ignores him and heads to Steve’s bedroom, fires up Steve’s laptop and types “what does a boyfriend do” into the search bar. He’s going to sit there and learn everything there is to know about being a good one.
It takes a while.
There are many websites that explain, in great detail, the involvement of a sexual component, and Bucky decides to skim over that because…well, he doesn’t know why, exactly, but the thought of it leaves a curdled feeling in his gut that he’s not going to examine presently. He doesn’t know what the old Bucky’s thoughts on sex were, but the old Bucky’s body was not this body, and though there are many things Bucky doesn’t know, he knows, viscerally, this body and its scars, what it wants, what it doesn’t.
Thankfully, there’s other stuff to worry about. Stuff to do and say. One site even has a helpful bulleted list, which Bucky jots down on a piece of notebook paper.
The first item on the list reads, Compliment your significant other. It offers a few suggestions: Say they look nice, or tell them what you appreciate about them.
“Right,” Bucky says, tearing out the list and slipping it into his pocket for safekeeping. He marches back into the kitchen, where Steve is at the sink, washing dishes and humming to himself.
“Hey, Buck,” Steve says, grinning. “What’s up?”
Bucky realizes he should’ve come up with a good compliment before this moment. He fidgets, and thinks, I appreciate the way you’re here, you’re always here, always within reach, it’s the most important thing in my life. He thinks, when I see your face, I feel sane again.
He says, “I appreciate your face.”
Sam spits milk halfway across the table.
Steve blinks, gapes, his arms submerged to the elbows in soapy water. “Uh,” he says. He cocks his head, gives Bucky a wary smile. “Thank you?”
Bucky feels that could’ve gone better, but nods anyway and heads back to the couch. Sam hides his face in his arms, shoulders shaking, and Bucky flicks the back of his head on the way by.
The next morning, he unfolds his list and reads item two: Keep things exciting! Surprise your significant other with a gift, just because. You don’t need a special occasion to take them out for a fancy dinner, or better yet, cook one yourself! In the bedroom—
Bucky scratches out that last bit, and wrinkles his nose. He doesn’t know if he knows how to cook, and he doesn’t really…own much, as of yet. Certainly nothing Steve would want. Bucky fingers the hem of his sweatshirt—a soft, faded hoodie that Steve gave him his first night back, that Bucky wears almost every day. He guesses that could count as a gift. He aches at the thought of giving it away, but item six on the list says, A good partner is willing to make sacrifices and compromise. (He might’ve skipped ahead.)
He shuffles back into the living room, where Steve is stretched out on the couch reading the newspaper, and pulls off the hoodie, shivering at its absence. He holds it out to Steve.
“What’s this?” Steve folds his paper and sets it aside, frowns at Bucky. “You don’t want it anymore?”
“It’s yours,” Bucky says, shaking it a little. “I thought you might…want it back.”
Steve takes the hoodie and stares down at it with sad eyes. “I gave it to you,” he says quietly. “You’re more than welcome to keep it.” He takes a deep breath, his forehead furrowing. “Unless you’re planning on going somewhere?”
“What? No. No, no, no.” Bucky rubs a hand over his face. “Ah, shit. Shit.”
“Hey. What’s wrong?”
“Fuck. Nevermind.” Bucky skitters back to the bedroom, slamming the door and crawling beneath the covers. He rips open the list and draws a heavy line through item two.
He doesn’t check it again until late afternoon. Item three says, Make sure your partner knows you trust and support them. Then, because Bucky thinks he might have to make up lost ground, he reads item four: Be physically affectionate. Touch your partner in ways that show you care.
Bucky mulls that over. The idea of sex isn’t…great, but touch for its own sake, for affection’s sake, sounds much more appealing. He sneaks out of the bedroom and, in lieu of cooking Steve a meal, toasts two pieces of bread, slathering them in butter and bringing them out to Steve, who’s still on the couch, dozing.
Steve yawns and stretches as Bucky sits next to him, smiles lazily when Bucky hands him a plate. “How’d you know I was getting hungry?”
“I trust and support you,” Bucky blurts out, and then groans, burying his face in his hands. He’s screwing this all up so much.
Steve watches him for a few moments, as if searching for an explanation for Bucky’s weirdness on his face. “Not that I don’t appreciate it, Bucky, because I do,” he says. He waits for Bucky to look up at him. “Hey. I really do, you know?”
Bucky nods, because Steve’s eyes never lie.
“I just wanna make sure everything’s okay with you.”
Bucky nods again. “Can I hold your hand?” he asks, because he wants to.
Steve seems to have run out of perplexed faces to make, because he sighs and pulls Bucky to his side, lacing their fingers together in his lap. “You like this show, right?” he asks, tucking Bucky’s head under his chin. It’s the cooking show, of course.
“Yeah,” Bucky murmurs, squeezing Steve’s fingers, testing the feel of them between his own.
Steve squeezes back. “He’s making a bread pudding. Watch, Buck, he’ll get chopped. They always get chopped when they make a bread pudding.”
“Yeah.” Bucky closes his eyes. He feels good. He feels right.
He wakes up in the middle of the night in his own bed, and can’t be bothered to get embarrassed about Steve presumably carrying him there. He fumbles for the list and draws a smiley face next to item four. Item five says, Be spontaneous. He closes his eyes, swallows the anxious lump in his throat, slips out of his bed and into Steve’s room, where Steve is snoring mightily. He hesitates for only a few breaths, and crawls into Steve’s bed.
Steve mutters and rolls over, opens his bleary eyes. “Bucky,” he says, thick with sleep. “Okay?”
“Yeah,” Bucky says, fishing for Steve’s hand under the covers.
“What are you doing?”
“Do you want me to kiss you?”
Steve goes a little cross-eyed, and Bucky thinks, spontaneous, and brushes his lips against Steve’s. It’s…interesting, soft and pleasant, and something Bucky wouldn’t mind doing again. Steve smells nice, and he tastes nice, and he hovers there, a breath away from Bucky’s mouth, until Bucky starts to lean back in.
“Whoa,” Steve says, gently cupping the back of Bucky’s head, a gesture that seems incongruous with the fact that he’s scooting to the other side of the bed. He sits up, scratches a rough hand through his hair like he’s trying to wake himself up, and apparently he’s not out of perplexed faces to make, because he makes one Bucky’s never seen before. “Buck, what is going on with you?”
Bucky’s heart hurts. There are so many things he doesn’t know, but he's certain of this: he doesn’t like that Steve doesn’t want to kiss him. “I was just trying to…”
“To be a good boyfriend.”
They sit in silence for long enough that Bucky gets even more uncomfortable and tries to leave. “Hey, hey, wait a minute,” Steve says, grabbing his wrist. “Not so fast. Now what…” Steve shakes his head, pinches the bridge of his nose. “What?”
“I’m your boyfriend, right? Romantic, uh…partner. Significant other? Or I was. Natasha said…and I figured I didn’t remember, so I thought I would just…try.”
“Natasha said,” Steve mutters under his breath, and then, suddenly, something lands, and his eyes light up, and he says, “Oh my god, you’ve been…” and he’s laughing, contained little hiccups at first, until he’s bent over at the waist, struggling for air.
“It’s not funny,” Bucky scowls.
“No, no, it’s not. It’s not. Sorry, I’m sorry, I just, I’ve been wondering if you’ve been okay, if something was wrong, you’ve been acting so strange, and you’ve just been…” Steve wipes at his eyes. “You’ve been wooing me.”
Bucky, for lack of a better response, punches Steve in the arm and starts to laugh. Eventually, they both topple backwards onto the bed, snickering and pressed together, arm to toe.
“So we weren’t,” Bucky says, after the worst of it dies down.
“No,” Steve says. “We weren’t.”
Steve turns his head, bumps his forehead against Bucky’s temple. “Is it?”
“I guess. It just seemed like…did you want to be? Do you want to be?”
“God, Buck.” Steve laughs again. “How about we let that one be for a while, huh? Some days I’m not even sure you’re real. As soon as I’m fully convinced you’re actually here, for good, then…if you wanna talk about it, we’ll talk about it. Okay?”
“Yeah, okay,” Bucky says, a wave of relief crashing over him, though he’s not quite sure why֫—maybe because, for once, there was nothing to forget? Or maybe because there’s something new here, something that might be, that could be, that hasn’t been before. “Hey,” he says, knocking his forehead against Steve’s. “I’m here, though.”
“I know you are.”
“Don’t tell Sam. Or Natasha. Don’t tell them about this."
“That was terrible. I was terrible at that.”
“Nah, not all of it. I liked some of it.”
Steve hums. “The part where you brought me toast. That was nice.”
“Oh,” Bucky says. “I liked…” He swallows. “There are things I don’t like. I won’t like. Yet. Maybe ever. If we…when we talk about it.”
“Okay,” Steve says, tucking a strand of Bucky's hair behind his ear, tender and open and so willing to take Bucky as he is.
Bucky breathes the tension from his body, says, entirely unselfconscious, “I liked holding your hand.”
“Yeah?” Steve reaches down and takes Bucky’s hand, brings it up to his lips.
They fall asleep together, and in the morning, Bucky makes Steve toast. Steve holds Bucky’s hand. And, as it turns out, Steve does want to kiss him, so they do that, too: over breakfast and the newspaper, during Steve's cooking show, in bed at night.
Bucky tosses the list in the garbage. He thinks he’s doing fine without it.