It took Steve months after he was woken up from the ice to realize the only time touching was easy was when it was mission related.
Fighting was easy as ever; using his body to act and react in time with his opponent, finding a way to win. It was exhilarating for him to discover all the different ways of combat people had developed, and now with SHIELD he had access to resources and connections that made it possible for him to learn. Steve threw himself into it more with more gusto than anything else in the future.
Sparring wasn’t quite as effortless as fighting someone for real, but Steve chalked it down to the very real fact that he was stronger than just about anyone, certainly stronger than anyone daily available for training, and he didn’t want to hurt them for real.
It was easy too, while on the mission to help his team members, to pull them up from the ground, to support or carry them if they were injured, to provide first aid or a shoulder to lean on when someone was having a bad day. That was all simple.
Everything else, not so much. At first Steve figured it was his general unease with things. After all, he’d just come into what was virtually a new world for him, and he’d lost pretty much everything and everyone he’d ever cared about.
Also, it wasn’t that people touched him that often, outside of sparring, so the sample size stayed small. The first people in the future to touch him while he was conscious, not counting the SHIELD STRIKE team that had tried to contain him when he first woke up, were doctors and scientists. They looked at him like he was a marvel, told him about cryogenic preservation and the theoretical stopping of time for a person and waking them up in the future. Now with him, it no longer was theoretical but real, albeit probably only due to the fact of his enhanced biology. He listened and didn’t contradict them when they gushed over him coming through the decades unchanged. He knew he hadn’t. Seventy years in ice had left its mark.
They poked and prodded at him, took blood samples and would have taken other tissue samples had Steve not balked at the idea when one of them took out the scalpels. They looked at him like he was a science project and not a person, so Steve didn’t think anything of being uncomfortable. It would have been weird if he hadn’t been.
Then there was Tony, on the helicarrier when they were all just getting on each other’s nerves, getting too familiar with the hand on Steve’s shoulder. Steve was irritated, but then Tony absolutely meant to be irritating, so again, Steve thought nothing of it after the fact.
When his return became public there were events he had to attend, parties where countless people wanted to shake his hand and more importantly, wanted to be seen shaking his hand. They didn’t care about him, didn’t care about Steve Rogers the person. They cared about Captain America, although Steve didn’t even recognize their image of his wartime persona. It was the same on the streets, people coming to greet him and getting on his skin, taking selfies just to be able to prove they’d met him. It all felt too awkward, but Steve still didn’t manage to zero in that there was more to it than just general sense of being lost in the world.
It almost broke his heart when he met Peggy for the first time after waking from the ice. In theory Steve knew beforehand that she was older, that he needed to be prepared for the changes, but the knowledge didn’t feel real, not against the image of her he had in his head, clear and vibrant.
She was shorter, pulled down by the years, thinner and almost translucent in a way. Her eyes were still familiar, even if Steve didn’t know all the expressions in them anymore. Her hand was fragile in his when they sat together and talked. It was difficult to hold onto it, and Steve didn’t think it had anything to with the fact that he’d never really gotten to do so before.
When he was back at home Steve looked into a mirror, disappointed with himself. He didn’t understand why it was so hard to accept, why he felt uncomfortable with her. She’d had a good life, and he was truly happy for her. He knew he was feeling sorry for himself, but it shouldn’t have reflected into touching her. He was determined to fix it.
It got better as weeks and months that passed and Steve tried to get used to living in the future. In time, Steve found himself seeking to hold Peggy’s hand, felt the heartache for having lost the chance to make a life with her recede.
Peggy truly was the best thing in the future, she was the only one that really knew Steve, the only one that had known him before and who didn’t have to reroute her mind when Steve didn’t fit the expectation of what Captain America was supposed to be like. Her condition was deteriorating though, and Steve knew very keenly that he’d lose her soon. Still, he was grateful every day to have gotten her back.
Steve was at SHIELD when he finally figured out that something had fundamentally changed about him while he was in the ice. He was talking to some agents he’d been training, having the kind of light conversation as one does, making jokes, and one of them suddenly laughed so hard she had to grasp his arm for support. Steve flinched, felt revulsion crawl up his back, and it was all he could do to not shake her off.
Thing was, Steve had never been very tactile in general, but touching hadn’t been something he avoided either if it had been with people he trusted. And he liked the agent in question, thought she was very capable and good company too. Before the ice his reaction would have been completely different. Yet, here he was.
That night Steve thought back to the past months, thought about the concept of casual touches, and he wanted to edge away even from the idea. Something had changed, he now was sure of it. It wasn’t just that he wasn’t used to the surroundings. He himself was somehow different.
After the revelation he paid more attention, and noticed it was fairly easy to just not touch people. In time other people seemed to unconsciously fall into his patterns, seemed to accept the boundaries he’d never voiced. Steve knew the closer people were in general the more they tended to touch, but he got lucky in that too, since his best friend besides Peggy in the future was Natasha, who kept physical boundaries around herself too. It was relaxing really, to spend time with her, since Steve didn’t have to be wary and mentally prepare himself for accidental brushes and touches. He could relax on the couch with her while watching a movie, because he knew she’d keep the physical distance. The emotional distance between them felt far less significant, even if Steve was well aware that she still kept him at an arm’s length.
An additional problem arose when Nat apparently determined he was ready and well-adjusted enough to start dating. Steve was hesitant in general about it, for several reasons. First of all he was only just getting over the heartbreak that had happened with Peggy, not to mention all the complicated feelings he’d always had toward Bucky and that he firmly kept pressing to the back of his head, because he really didn’t want to deal with them. Besides, it just felt odd in general, what did one even do on dates these days?
He kept dodging the suggestions, but Natasha was determined and occasionally managed to wear him down into accepting. It never lead to anything; Steve felt like all of the women were just looking at him through their expectations. Not to mention, he predictably had a hard time touching them at all, even simple things like letting them hold onto his arm, and of course it was something that registered to them as him not caring.
Natasha also told him that it didn’t have to be serious, that it could be just fun for a night, but she accepted it when Steve told her that kind of a thing definitely wasn’t for him. Steve knew well enough that it was considered unusual for a man his age, but Nat just shrugged and said it was okay, accepting it without prodding him for reasons.
Steve had never really gone for casual relationships anyway. He’d had some tries during the USO days, but it had left him feeling unfulfilled, and he’d fairly soon determined it was better to just rely on his own hands and avoid the complications. Besides that, there had been Bucky, for better part of a ten years, on and off when it came to physical commitment but always the most important person in Steve’s heart. No one else knew it, of course, and these days Steve did his best to not think about it. Now in the future, Steve didn’t want casual relationships for the emotional reasons that were old and familiar, but there was also a physical reason that was all new.
Truth was, he hadn’t felt sexually aroused since he woke up from the ice. Not at all. It just wasn’t there. Steve had never told anyone about it, because even if he’d been thoroughly examined after he woke up, no one had thought to ask. Considering he’d been asked pretty much everything else about his physiology Steve had been surprised, but maybe it was that sex was such a human concept, and to Steve it felt many people didn’t really consider Captain America, and hence him, in human terms anymore.
As it was, Steve did his best to dodge the dates, even if there was a part of him that wanted it, wanted to feel attracted to someone, just to prove himself that he wasn’t permanently altered, that it wasn’t just all gone. He wanted proof that he hadn’t come back to life wrong.
The most difficult thing was that Steve still missed physical contact. Missed how it had been sometimes easier to communicate by touch instead of words. He missed the closeness. It was not really something he had anymore, and even the idea of seeking it chilled him for all that he wanted it too.
So he concentrated on what little he could stand, holding hands with Peggy, and other than that he did his best to learn to live without.
He was very aware too, that the missing was tangled with missing Bucky in general, big part due to the fact that Bucky had been the major source of physical contact for Steve most of his life. It was another complication for the already huge mess of missing Bucky, and mostly Steve was dealing with it by pushing it away. He knew it was not dealing at all really, but he didn’t care.
Sam was the first person Steve actually talked to about his trouble with physical contact, simply due to circumstance. Sam was both tactile by nature and incredibly perceptive, so he clocked on Steve’s difficulty fairly soon. At first even the idea of talking about it made Steve almost nauseous, but Sam hadn’t worked for the VA for nothing.
Sam just accepted it and adjusted his behavior; he kept his distance as much as Steve needed, but bit by bit helped Steve get used to touching him too. They started from the easiest place, sparring, and went from there. Sam didn’t push, and it worked fairly well all things considered. Steve would never be fully comfortable with physical contact, but he got to the point where it was easy to accept the occasional friendly touches from Sam and weather the general touching people did almost without noticing. It was a relief to have another person with whom it wasn’t too difficult, since Peggy was slipping away, and even if Bucky was in the world, there were no guarantees at all from that direction.
Soon after they rearranged the Avengers due to the Ultron incident, Nat too brought it up, and in time she too became someone Steve was relatively comfortable touching. It meant a great deal, considering she wasn’t tactile at all, and Steve knew she too was pushing at her boundaries. He hoped they both got good things from it. With Wanda it was a bit different, she seemed to be approximately as averse to touch as Steve after losing her brother, and over time Steve bonded with her too.
It all became more manageable as time passed and Steve found anchors in his friends. Still, even if no one ever said anything to even hint so, even if Steve himself told Wanda that it was fine, he still couldn’t help but think there was something wrong with him, something even the serum couldn’t cure.
As time passed, Steve did think of trying to date, for reasons other than getting Nat off his case. He kept missing the closeness, and he did have a hope that maybe, if he found the right person he’d be okay again. He was also taking advice from Peggy, who kept telling him he should try to move on, that past was past, and that he couldn’t live there when it was gone.
For all the things he sometime wished back, he knew she was right, that he’d have to try to let go. Things could never be the same, because he wasn’t the same.
Trouble was, he didn’t really know how to start, how to make a connection. He’d never been good at it before the war, nor had he had too much practice ever since. Steve knew he’d been lucky; with Peggy, with Bucky, different though their presence and potential in his life always had been. Steve sometimes suspected he’d already used all that luck.
With Sharon, he let himself think that maybe he hadn’t, because he did really like her, for all that it rankled that he’d ended up being deceived. The lack of trust did eat at him, that even after he found out she was a SHIELD agent, after everything collapsed and they made it out, and later became friends, she still didn’t trust him with her real name. Another complication was that even if Steve liked her company, he didn’t find the attraction in himself he used to.
Hence, the kiss was mostly desperate, Steve wanting to make it work, wanting to feel something like he had used to, and he just didn’t. There was still the fondness and respect he had for her, but nothing else.
After, when their world had collapsed and they’d started gathering the pieces back together, they ended up deciding they’d make better friends. Steve decided for himself to back out again, and maybe it was giving up too easily with just a few tries when there were seven and a half billion people on the planet, but he didn’t care.
Truth was, in his heart of hearts he didn’t want someone new.
Steve thought that if the world was anything like fair, it all should have been easier with Bucky. Then again, he’d known from a very young age that the world was anything but fair, and living this long had rather reinforced that assessment.
Steve had always been comfortable with Bucky, even as a young boy when he generally had shied from contact unless it had been his mother or a fistfight, at a time when he hadn’t wanted anyone to be gentle with him. The reason why it had been easy with Bucky was because Bucky had never really been cautious about touching him, had seemed to instinctively know how to interact with Steve without it getting to him.
There had been the easy days of boyhood, being attached at the hip, with no concept of personal space when it came to each other. There had been countless nights when their parents had allowed sleepovers, when they’d slept in the same bed curled around each other. There had been other nights when they still slept next to each other even though they were probably too old for it, yearning the closeness in a way they hadn’t quite understood.
Still later they had finally understood, starting from hands on each other in the middle of one night, eyes wide open in the dark, a whole new wave of pleasure crashing over them. They had never looked back. There had been stolen moments behind closed doors in too tiny apartments where there had been no guarantee of privacy, Steve leaning on the wall and biting his own fist to muffle the sounds as Bucky sucked him off. It had gotten marginally easier when they had moved in together. No one had thought about it twice, after all it had made sense for good friends like the two of them to pool resources. Then they’d had a door that locked between them and the world, and whole new vistas to explore.
It had carried over to the war, despite all the risks and complications, despite the fact they had known more clearly than ever that what they had wouldn’t be sustainable in the long term. Privacy had been even more of a luxury, but the few moments on the leave when they’d had the opportunity they’d taken advantage of the possibilities Steve’s new physique offered. Steve had loved getting fucked then, had loved that Bucky could really go for it, hard and relentless, because he could take it all.
Now, Steve wasn’t quite sure where they stood anymore, whether Bucky even remembered, or wanted it back. There was a part of Steve that desperately wanted it all back, and the rest of him that knew it wouldn’t be possible.
Truth was, it was easier with Bucky, up until it wasn’t.
From Bucharest to Wakanda, Steve didn’t have much time to contemplate on how they’d both changed and where they were headed. There was barely any time for personal things, even if the whole mess was deeply so.
Afterward he felt like he was in limbo, because he finally had time to consider, but no way to verify anything. They hadn’t talked about anything really before Bucky went into ice, and Steve had been left unsure about everything between them, about whether Bucky remembered, whether they could even be friends. It was a limbo, and Steve alternated feeling resentful about it and feeling bad for feeling resentful. He didn’t want to be so, but he couldn’t help it.
It wasn’t a good look, but there wasn’t anything Steve could do about it as long as there was no cure for Bucky, so he threw himself into work.
It took a long time; several years and countless sleepless nights, trying to bridge gaps that seemed too wide all too often, to change things that were as immovable as mountains. Steve wasn’t alone though, never working just by himself, and as they moved forward, they saw that they’d only have to build a bridge halfway through, because there were others working for it too.
It would take more time, longer years to heal all the wounds on all sides, but they made it to a point where there were no longer divisions among the Avengers. Steve felt satisfied for the first time in ages, he thought. Almost anyway.
Soon enough after, soon and yet after an eternity, Steve stood at the medical center of Wakanda’s Royal Palace, and saw Bucky draw breath again.
Bucky came back to New York with Steve, and he lived sometimes on Steve’s floor in the Avengers Tower, sometimes at his place on the top floor of a sort of shabby apartment building in Hell’s Kitchen. Steve knew Bucky needed space sometimes, needed to get away from the ultramodern tower where surveillance was built into every structure and one just had to trust their privacy was respected. Steve understood it made Bucky feel twitchy, it sometimes made him feel twitchy too, but not so much he’d have to move away. It was enough for him to go take a run to lose the jitters.
It was slow going, rebuilding a friendship, but it was easy too, in a way not many things in the future had been, and Steve let himself be lulled into it. There was a distance between them; Bucky was obviously careful about his physical space, but it didn’t matter to Steve at all, because they were still close in their hearts and souls. It was different and yet familiar.
Steve let himself be lulled into it, the comfortable ease, and forgot to worry about the things that had changed in him. He still didn’t know if Bucky remembered how close they had used to be physically, they hadn’t talked about it, but it didn’t matter to him, not when it was still clear that there was no one else that mattered more to either of them. It was better than Steve had dared to believe.
There were still days when Bucky was inside his own head, weeks when he avoided Steve, and even if Steve could never quite shake the worry that followed him at those times, it could never keep its hold, because Bucky always came back.
The change was so gradual that Steve didn’t even notice it at first. It was only when he one evening became conscious that they were leaning on each other, slouching on the couch with shoulders slumped together watching baseball, that he realized they’d been gradually moving into the realm of friendly touching. There was the casual kind of closeness, not quite as it had been before the war, but something that suited them.
And not once had Steve felt uncomfortable. He was suddenly just so overwhelmed he could have cried, and of course Bucky noticed it.
“What is it, Steve?”
Steve could feel the minute tensing of Bucky’s body, as if he was getting ready to move away, and he was desperate to make it stop. For all that he tended to be good with words when it came to rallying troops on the battlefield, now Steve had a hard time deciding what he should say.
“I’m just happy you’re here,” Steve went with, and it was apparently the right thing, even if right after saying it Steve came up with a dozen ways it could be misunderstood.
Bucky didn’t though, he just relaxed and leaned a bit more into Steve’s space.
“I’m too,” Bucky said, and Steve’s heart sang. “Despite the road here, I truly am.”
It was easy to just be, and Steve reveled in the feeling.
It was easy for a while, the casual friendly touches just that, but Steve should have known it wouldn’t stay that easy.
The shift was again gradual, but Steve noticed this time, because now he was uncomfortable, and he hated it. He hated that he couldn’t be completely at ease with Bucky now that they had found a place where it was possible for him to enjoy the casual touching. The uncertainty crept back in, at first only a shiver at his spine, and later doubt.
Touches became loaded; Steve had to concentrate on relaxing next to Bucky, since he suddenly had a hard time recognizing whether something was just friendly, or if it was a moment when Bucky seemed to ask for something with the touch. Bucky did ask, and Steve didn’t think he had an answer anymore.
It was another afternoon, they were at Steve’s apartment, and Bucky was visibly restless about something. It didn’t last though, it was some kind of a miracle that allowed Bucky to calm down soon enough, allowed Steve to forget his hesitations, and they spent the afternoon just talking and slouching on the couch. Laughing at everything, just because it was a good day.
Steve found himself just looking at Bucky who was smiling at him, and for once there wasn’t a shadow in Bucky’s eyes, no reminder of the pain he’d gone through. Steve thought he’d never seen anything as beautiful.
Bucky’s expression changed, and it was so familiar, one Steve had seen countless times before. He knew exactly what it meant, and the familiarity meant it took him a moment to realize he hadn’t seen Bucky looking at him like that since before the train.
It wasn’t a surprise at all that Bucky kissed Steve, Steve knew to expect it, because when Bucky looked at him as he did then, he always kissed Steve if there was no one else around. It was all familiar when Bucky reached out, slid his warm hand to cup Steve’s neck and to pull him close. Steve let him because of course he did. Of course he kissed back.
It was wonderful.
It was familiar like coming home, it felt completely right. And it was new and exhilarating, everything they’d been through was in the background, bringing a new meaning to being able to be together. Steve felt dizzy. Bucky’s lips were soft, the stubble gently scraping over Steve’s skin, his thumb caressing Steve’s cheek. For a moment, it was perfect.
But only for a moment.
It was a subtle shift, Bucky losing a bit of hesitation, his hand a bit firmer behind Steve’s neck, the kiss more forceful. In a split second all of Steve’s insecurities were back. Because they’d kissed before, and it was clear Bucky remembered they had, it was also reasonable to expect Bucky remembered everything. Steve didn’t know what Bucky expected, but the familiar cold shiver was resting at the base of his spine.
Steve tensed, and Bucky stopped, pulling back to look at Steve who knew he should say something, knew they should talk and sort out what the expectations and limitations were. Steve knew it but he had no words, he just kept staring at Bucky. He didn’t know what Bucky saw on his face, but it must not have been good, because a hint of worry grew over Bucky’s brows.
Steve’s phone rang, and they jumped apart, as if caught red handed at something even if there was no one in the room but the two of them. The message on screen was that Steve was needed at the control room, that something was happening. Steve said something, he couldn’t really tell what, and all but fled out of the room.
He’d never been as grateful for an emergency call before.
It was a false alarm, which alleviated Steve’s guilt for the relief he’d felt, because no matter his personal problems, he shouldn’t have been happy about people potentially being in danger. He was only a human, though, and he knew that he very much was capable of being selfish. What the years had done was that he was a bit more lenient toward such feelings, less likely to think of the sin being the thought instead of the action, so he tried to let it go.
Even though a false alarm, it was past midnight when he made it back to his apartment, and Bucky was nowhere to be seen. Steve wasn’t quite sure whether it was a relief or a disappointment. He went straight to bed and fell asleep the moment his head hit the pillow, and woke up to sun shining on his eyes. It was already too late to go running outside, the streets filled with people making it too dangerous, so he headed off to the gym.
Peter was there too, and they ended up sparring. It had been years since the battle at the airport, and Peter was an adult now, but it seemed he hadn’t been too diligent about brushing up his skills when it came to just plain fighting. He was fast and strong and agile, more than Steve on all those counts, but Steve could still beat him.
“You’re relying on your abilities too much,” Steve said when Peter was on the ground for the third time. “I know they have served you well, and give you an edge over nearly everyone, but one day it won’t be enough, and you have potential for much more.”
They set up a training schedule, and even though Peter complained, Steve knew it was mostly an act. He leaned a bit on the young man’s pride, pointing out that there should have been no way for Steve to beat him. It got Peter to agree for the training, which was all that mattered, it would give him a better chance to stay alive.
It was only when he got back to the apartment that Steve noticed Bucky’s keys were no longer on the small table by the door, and his spare holster and gun weren’t hanging in the coat rack, a sure sign he’d gone to stay at his own apartment for a bit. It wasn’t exactly a surprise, they’d left at an off note, and Steve knew Bucky had seen his hesitation. He’d have to explain soon, he knew he owed that to Bucky, and he didn’t want to derail their relationship by hiding anything more than he already had.
Still, Steve had to admit he was grateful for the temporary reprieve. He had no idea what to say, how to say it so Bucky wouldn’t think Steve was rejecting him. And Bucky deserved to know too, that their relationship couldn’t be what they’d had before, even if Steve still wanted to be with him more than anything. Bucky deserved to know so that he could reconsider. After all, if Bucky still wanted sex, it was fair for him to find someone he could have it with, and then they’d be able to figure out where they stood with Steve. Better for both of them to have all the cards on table sooner rather than later.
At the Avengers’ briefing the next Monday Steve could see Bucky shooting confused glances at him, and he meant to take time for them to talk later that day. Only they didn’t get a chance, because there was an actual emergency, and they were all needed for action. Steve pushed his personal life out of his head and concentrated on the matter at hand, and Bucky clearly did the same. On field there was none of the awkwardness; they fought together well as ever, but on the way back it was a whole another matter. Steve tried to keep busy, not sitting down on the quinjet at all even though he was tired, and Bucky retreated to the back, taking care of his guns.
Post-mission debrief took ages as usual for Steve, and he only got a break hours after they’d gotten back to the Tower. He walked straight for the shower first, and was feeling marginally more human when he headed for kitchen, hoping he’d have time to eat before he was called back.
At least he didn’t need to bother trying to figure out what food there was, since he found Bucky and about a mountain of Chinese take-out no doubt pilfered from the common floor. Bucky had showered and changed too, his hair already fully dry, which meant Steve had taken even longer than he’d thought. No wonder he was starving.
“Thanks,” Steve said as he got himself a plate, slumped down on a chair, and grabbed the nearest container, not particularly caring what it was as long as it had calories.
It was only when Bucky made an aborted movement to touch him that Steve remembered they were due a conversation. It wasn’t an ideal moment, and for a few minutes he concentrated on eating, wondering if they could wait until they’d slept at least. Right after he decided it was cowardly and that he should get it over with. Especially since it was obvious Bucky had come to the point where he wanted and needed contact more than just the friendly interaction they’d settled into, and he should be allowed to decide whether Steve would be able to provide what he needed with his restrictions.
They cleaned their plates in silence, and when they were done Steve decided he couldn’t delay it any longer.
“I think there’s something we should discuss,” Steve began.
Bucky visibly tensed. “Was it, did I do something? I noticed you were uncomfortable back then.”
“Bucky, no. You didn’t do anything wrong. I was uncomfortable,” Steve added, because he wanted to be completely honest, “but it wasn’t your fault. It’s just me, I’m —” Steve paused and rubbed his temples. “Sorry, it’s still hard to talk about.”
Bucky relaxed a bit, curious, but still worried. “It’s okay, take your time.”
“You see, after I woke up from the ice, I was different. For some reason I had a hard time in general touching people. Still do, even though it gets better when I get more comfortable with them. I also had no interest in sex. At all, and I don’t think it’s coming back. I mean, it’s been years. And all kind of touching related to that is just odd for me now.”
“Steve —” Bucky started but Steve held up his hand.
“Wait, I want to say the rest of this. You know, you are the most important person to me, but we can’t be like we were during the war. It just can’t happen now, and I’m sorry if you wanted that. And if you want to be with someone else, I understand and won’t hold it against you. I’ll always be your friend.”
Steve tried to smile at Bucky, even if he probably didn’t quite manage it. Bucky was clearly gathering his thoughts and he opened his mouth just as Steve’s phone rang. They both jumped, surprised, and as he glanced at the screen Steve saw it was exactly what he didn’t need now.
“They want me back at the debrief, I have to go,” he said as he called the elevator. “I’m sorry it’s like that, that I came back wrong from the ice.”
Steve saw Bucky frowning after him as the doors closed, but he pushed it away from his mind, drew a deep breath and straightened his shoulders during the short ride. He needed to concentrate on business now. Bucky would have to decide what he wanted to do now.
It was several hours later, almost morning, when Steve made his way back to his apartment. All the lights were off and for a second Steve felt his heart plummet, couldn’t understand what it meant that Bucky hadn’t left even the few spotlights on as he usually did if Steve was gone late.
Only a second later Steve realized Bucky had been waiting in the dark; he took the few strides that took him right in front of Steve, anger evident in every line of his body. His voice was nearly a growl when he spoke.
“There is not a goddamn thing wrong about you, Steve, you hear me?”
It was completely different from what Steve had expected, so it took him a few moments to parse the meaning. Then relief flooded into him, and he swayed on his feet. Bucky raised his hands to Steve’s waist to steady him, a bit hesitant but there, clearly wondering if Steve would reject the contact, and it was the only encouragement Steve needed to wrap his arms around Bucky and bury his face in Bucky’s neck. Bucky slid one arm tighter around him and buried the fingers of the other hand in his hair.
It was overwhelming, Steve felt tears prickle at his eyes. He’d come clean and Bucky was still there. They’d need to talk more, but the first hurdle had been passed.
“You will have to tell me what you’re comfortable with,” Bucky said. “Although maybe not now, we should sleep first.”
Steve knew Bucky was right, he was beginning to feel the dull ache of exhaustion behind his eyes. “Come with me?” he asked, and Bucky followed him into his room for the first time in this millennium.
Steve woke up when the sun was already high, feeling content in a way he hadn’t in years. For a few minutes he didn’t even open his eyes, just enjoyed the knowledge he wasn’t alone in his bed. They’d fallen asleep with Steve’s arm thrown over Bucky, but they weren’t touching now, it was just the warmth and the soft sounds of breathing that told Steve he wasn’t alone.
“I know you’re awake,” Bucky finally whispered, and Steve felt his lips curl into a smile.
Steve opened his eyes to find Bucky looking at him, their positions mirrored in the bed, on their sides curled toward each other, their knees nearly knocking together. They didn’t talk at first, Steve kept smiling and the answering smile he got from Bucky felt like a miracle. In a moment Bucky’s hand twitched, as if he meant to reach out but pulled back, unsure of what would be welcome.
It both delighted Steve and broke his heart, because he loved that Bucky was so thoughtful, respecting his boundaries even after a night together, but he also wanted Bucky to know it was okay to touch Steve. That it was always okay.
He grasped Bucky’s hand, warm and slightly calloused from holding guns, albeit much less now than it had been during the war. Steve liked it, liked that Bucky didn’t need to use guns every day, liked that Bucky had gotten into a habit of getting around without one on him. Bucky gripped his hand hard for a few seconds, the touch grounding, and then they just held on.
Steve drifted again, not quite falling asleep but not awake either, in that half dreamland one can doze in. He wasn’t sure if Bucky was more alert, but there was no restlessness next to him, Bucky’s hand in his was steady, so he didn’t take too much effort to rouse himself from the comfortable laziness after a difficult few days.
Sometime later, when Steve was fully alert and awake, Bucky was the one to break the silence.
“You have to tell me what you’re comfortable with,” he repeated the request from the previous night.
It was a simple statement, and it didn’t feel loaded at all. Always before Steve had had hard time describing his boundaries, he had always felt exposed even with those he trusted most, but not now. Now it was as comfortable and safe as he could be. It was easy to believe things were simple as that; this was just information, and they’d be able to adjust.
“I like it when you touch me,” Steve said, and it was wonderful to see Bucky’s eyes crinkle with delight.
Steve shifted closer, not letting go of Bucky’s hand, and Bucky wound his left arm around Steve’s waist to pull him in. They ended up with their bodies flush against each other, legs tangled and their still joined hands under Steve’s cheek.
“Good?” Bucky asked, his breath puffing warm against Steve’s skin.
“Perfect,” Steve said and saw the happiness deepen in Bucky’s eyes.
A few minutes later Steve said, “I like it when you kiss me,” and the smile on Bucky’s face dimmed a little. It wasn’t at all the reaction Steve had expected, but he got the explanation soon enough.
“The way you tensed the last time we did kind of points to something else,” Bucky said, and Steve understood. There was some more explaining to do.
“Yeah, I tensed, but it doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. Because I did, it was wonderful. Perfect. It was only when it started to feel like it was about to become more than kissing, then I tensed.”
“So it’s about the intent,” Bucky said, and relaxed against Steve again. He understood.
“Yeah. It’s the same with all kinds of touching, really. You can touch me anytime, as long as it’s just about that. Honestly, I’d like you to.” Steve paused for a moment before he confessed, “You’re the only one it’s easy with.”
At that, Bucky pulled him still closer, their foreheads resting together, and Steve let his eyes slide shut. He was just basking in the perfectness of it all, in the way Bucky was relaxed against him, and still holding him, his metal arm firm around Steve. Steve had never felt safer.
“I need you to promise me something,” Bucky said, and after Steve had opened his eyes to indicate he was listening, he continued, “Promise you’ll tell me if I do something that makes you uncomfortable. Because I think it’ll take a while to learn, for both of us. But I want to.”
“I promise,” Steve said, meaning it, because he never again wanted not talking coming between them.
“So, you said you like me kissing you,” Bucky said then, smiling again easy as anything, voice pitched lower.
“Shut up and get here,” Steve said, and Bucky did.
The kiss was just as perfect as the one they’d shared days earlier, more so really, because now there was no trajectory to it, they were where they wanted to be just kissing and kissing, lips sliding and catching. Steve felt even more content, he felt like he was finally home, and even better, he thought the same was true for Bucky, if the relaxed lines of his body were any indication.
They kept kissing until Steve’s stomach grumbled and they broke apart, laughing. It didn’t matter, because there were more kisses to be shared over breakfast.
Bucky had been right in that it took them a while to learn how to fit together, but it wasn’t something they minded. After all, it wasn’t the first time they’d had to do it. When Steve had found Bucky on Zola’s table in Austria, they’d had to learn each other all over again, and since then it had been the same every time they met after a separation. But they always had found each other, had found ways to fit their lives together, and so Steve wasn’t at all worried. He was sure they’d find the equilibrium again.
They did too; there were times when Steve had to back away, but Bucky always made note of it and adjusted. There were easy happy days when everything was simple, when they didn’t have to think and could just be together. There were days when they were more careful, but it was okay, there was always trust. It took a while, but they found the new patterns on how to be together.
One thing that took a few false starts was how to live with their no longer aligning sex drives. Steve had settled into the idea of sex not happening for him years earlier, and even though Bucky accepted it, it didn’t mean that he didn’t get aroused. He did, even when there was no sexual intent in their touching, just the plain closeness did it for him sometimes. In the beginning they tried separating, one of them leaving the room, but it felt right when Steve once suggested staying.
Where they ended up after a few tries was that they’d stay together when Bucky got himself off. Steve often laid his hand over Bucky’s heart, feeling every heartbeat, closed his eyes and just listened to Bucky’s breathing becoming more ragged. They’d always been quiet during sex, for fear of being discovered, and Bucky hadn’t gotten out of the habit even now that it was safe.
Steve loved the moments right after, when Bucky was boneless and relaxed after an orgasm. Steve felt himself relaxing too as Bucky’s heartbeat came down, felt sleepy and content as if he’d gotten off too, even if he hadn’t.
They were perfect moments.
Not every moment was perfect, though. There were times when Bucky was too hesitant, unsure of the boundaries, unsure of if it was okay to touch Steve like he wanted. Steve taught himself to be active and seek Bucky’s touch instead of keeping a distance that had become almost a second nature since he woke up from the ice. After a couple of months his subconsciousness caught on too, and he managed to sleep through nights curled into Bucky’s side instead of moving away.
There were days when Steve felt doubts over whether what they had was enough for Bucky, days when he wondered if Bucky was truly satisfied with what Steve could give. Bucky always knew when Steve felt like it, and always reassured him. It never lasted too long, but the feeling kept coming back, up until one final time.
They were lying on the bed, Steve stretched half over Bucky, his face tucked against Bucky’s neck. Bucky’s metal fingers were in Steve’s hair, his other hand rubbing slow circles on Steve’s back. Steve tried to smother the doubt that had risen again, the one that had no basis in reality, that was unproven by every action of Bucky’s. He didn’t want to doubt, and he cursed his brain for it happening.
“You know,” Bucky began, the tone of his voice telling Steve this was definitely something significant, reinforced by the fact Bucky kept a slight pressure over his head, keeping him in place. Sometimes Bucky found it easier to talk if Steve wasn’t looking at him, and knowing this Steve stayed where he was, just hummed to indicate he was listening.
“Back when I kissed you for the first time again, I was looking for something we used to have. But,” Bucky continued before the ice of dread could flood over Steve, “I know now it wasn’t that I needed everything to be like it used to be. I was looking for the closeness, the way we just belonged together, and I’m so happy we have that again.”
“I’m happy too,” Steve said, his words half obscured by the fact he spoke them against Bucky’s skin.
Bucky squeezed him a bit closer. “And it’s funny, I don’t think I would have known to miss it, I would have been happy regardless, but now I’ve got something I never expected. You see, think about what HYDRA wanted from me.” Bucky rubbed his hand over Steve’s shoulder blades, easing out the tension. “They wanted my strength, my skills. Not my thinking beyond what was conductive to the performance, not my opinions, not me. All they wanted was my body. And it’s freeing, in a way I never expected, now with you, when we’ve cut out the most physical aspect of us, and it’s still just as fulfilling as ever. It’s still perfect, the two of us together. We’ve changed, both of us, in ways that are difficult and not what we wanted, but there’s some strangely lucky symmetry.”
Bucky sounded a bit wry as he concluded, clearly hesitant to talk of luck when it came to all of their hurts, but Steve suddenly felt warm all over. He didn’t really believe in fate or even providence anymore, but somehow they’d ended up back together again, had ended up becoming people that fit together even if it wasn’t anything like they’d ever expected.
It was then that Steve finally, fully believed he hadn’t come back wrong, and he knew he’d never again feel the doubt over whether he was enough for Bucky.
Some days later they were back from a mission again, together in the shower that was comfortably big enough for the two of them, and despite the aches and bruises, despite the tiredness, Steve suddenly realized he was truly happy. If asked, he would have said he was happy every day since the night Bucky had told him there was nothing wrong with him.
Now though, he suddenly and viscerally knew it, felt it. And he knew it was going to last. There would be hard days; the life they’d ended up with ensured it, but it didn’t matter. Easy days, hard days, they had each other, and would continue to have each other, to the end.
It was more than enough.