Author Notes: Standalone story in the Don't Ask, Don't Tell universe, set a few months before The Winter Soldier. Totally not necessary to read the rest of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell stories to understand this one, but it fits in the same universe with no spoilers - other than the obvious "Steve & Bucky had a thing and then Bucky died and Steve was sad."
Unbeta'd, so please let me know if anything sticks out and screams "WRONG!" to you :)
It was too damn hot in this bar, and he was tired of it already only ten minutes in. The music was pounding and dissonant, the smells of sweat and beer and reefer were overwhelming, the lights were blaring, he wasn't - this had been a mistake.
He looked around, running a hand over his stubbled cheek.
It was something else, though. Men dancing with men, out in the open and unashamed. He'd heard of fairy bars in Brooklyn back in his day but he'd never gone to one. And he'd always imagined that they would've been full of "real" men and... well, fairies. Here... he looked around, frankly appraising.
There was a lot more openly swishy behaviour - that blond one was doing things with his hips that had probably been illegal in Steve's day - but most just looked like regular fellas. And some others, like that tall Asian man... had an almost aggressive masculinity. Wolves on the prowl. Bucky out with the dames.
No. Don't think of Bucky.
He took another sip of his beer and glanced around, wishing he'd thought to bring earplugs. Wishing he could actually like the horrible shouting that passed for music in here. Wishing he could ignore just how ugly this place was, how crass and classless.
... and how incredibly turned on he was despite that. He adjusted himself.
He took a deep breath. He was here because he needed to get out of his apartment, needed to join the land of the living. He was doing what Natasha had been pushing him to do for ages - though he could not imagine her face if she knew he was doing it here.
He caught a tall blond with plucked eyebrows and a skimpy tank top giving him a once over and looked away uncomfortably as the man grinned suggestively. He rubbed his cheek again. Yeah, it made him harder to recognize, but it was damned uncomfortable.
Months, it had been, of Natasha pushing girls at him. This weapons instructor, that data analyst, the red-headed lab tech. He'd tried putting her off, but no dice. Maybe he should have pointed out that she'd have a better shot pushing fellas, but the words stuck in his throat.
The music changed beat, became slightly slower, and the bodies on the dance floor gyrated closer. He swallowed, heart speeding up, a wash of desire and frustration flooding through him. Damn it, this had been a mistake. He couldn't... he couldn't go out there. This wasn't going to go anywhere.
Another guy was giving him a leer and licking his lips. Short, spiky blue hair, pierced ears. He looked away.
Maybe he should've talked to the SHIELD shrink about this, back when he was attending counselling sessions regularly. But there had been so much else to work through, and he had been so accustomed to never ever ever talking about certain things, that by the time he'd accepted that the world really had changed with regard to men like him the moment had passed and he'd felt too awkward to mention it.
And where could he start, anyway? With the shrink or with anyone? He couldn't talk about his sexuality without talking about Bucky. And Bucky was his. One of the only parts of his history that belonged solely to him, that he could hold tight to himself, even if it hurt, without anybody assuming they knew how he felt about it, or should feel about it.
So he'd talked about adjusting to this century, dealing with PTSD, feeling disoriented, mourning all the people he'd known. He'd gotten himself squared away and healthy and cleared by SHIELD psych only ever having talked about missing Bucky as a friend.
Nothing about the gaping loneliness that went deeper than losing a best buddy. Nothing about feeling like a limb had been ripped off and he was still reaching for it.
"Buy you a drink?" a voice spoke into his ear, and Steve jumped slightly. A dark-haired man in a tight blue t-shirt grinned at him. "Sorry, didn't mean to startle you."
"Oh. Uh - no, that's OK, you didn't, I just - I didn't see you."
"Can I buy you a beer?" the man repeated.
What the hell. This was what he was here for, after all. And the guy was attractive, in a cocky sort of way, and this way he didn't have to figure out how to approach anybody.
The man smiled and gestured to the bartender, getting them two beers. Steve drained his current glass, wishing it could have some sort of fortifying effect, and picked up the other.
"What's your name?"
"Grant," said Steve. "Yours?"
"Mark," said the dark-haired man, taking a pull from his glass. He suddenly looked a little closer at Steve, frowning slightly. "Hey, did anybody ever tell you, you look a lot like-"
"Johnny Storm, yeah, I get that a lot," Steve broke in, his heart skipping a little. Damn it, even with the stubble and glasses, he supposed he was somewhat recognizable, and he thanked God that the goofiest member of the Fantastic Four looked so much like him that mentioning him would probably throw anybody off. He forced a chuckle as the man - Mark - widened his eyes slightly and glanced over him again.
"Yeah, him too," said Mark, nodding.
"Sorry, I can't streak through the sky," said Steve.
"Hey, you're still pretty hot," Mark smirked, and Steve smiled politely. He wondered if Storm heard that one a lot.
"So... when we're done our beers, do you wanna dance?" asked Mark.
Steve took another sip, hesitating. The idea of dancing with a guy was - OK, the men out there on the dance floor looked like they were having fun, but he'd never even mastered dancing in his own time and had never danced with a man at all and besides, trying to move in time to this ungodly noise - and being on display, out there on the floor, rutting together like more than a few of the...
"I uh, sorry I twisted my ankle. I wasn't gonna, uh..."
Mark put his hand on Steve's, getting closer. "Listen, are you here with anyone?"
"Do you wanna be?"
Steve swallowed. "Yeah, sure."
This wasn't so hard, he realized as Mark launched into small talk, asking him if he'd been to this bar before, chatting about some friends he'd come in with. He'd always been so tongue-tied around women when he was trying for them, but guys were different. If he didn't think too hard about the fact that he was obviously not here to talk about the watery beer or his motorcycle or Mark's preference for a certain bar in Atlantic City, this wasn't so awkward at all, despite the cacophanous music and unfamiliar setting. Bucky would've been proud of him.
Then Mark grinned, leaned closer and kissed him.
Steve blinked, shocked at the unexpectedness and the sudden sensuality. Another person's lips on his. First kiss since 1945, and it was as far away from that first and last quick kiss with Peggy as anything could be. Mark's lips were hot, moving on his, gentler than he'd thought a stranger's lips would be, especially one who was so direct, and holy shit they were right where anybody could see them and Steve was frozen for a moment and then Mark was - oh, he was pulling back-
Steve instinctively followed, a small sound in his throat drowned out by the loud music, and moved his lips tentatively against Mark's.
Mark chuckled, pulling away slightly. "That's all right, then," he said, the corner of his mouth twitching up. "Glad we're on the same page."
He pulled Steve close again and they locked lips, and Steve quickly lost himself in the sensuality of it. Right in the open, kissing another man, and really nobody cared, nobody was looking at them, nobody even cared that they were angling their bodies closer, chests touching, arms now winding around each other, and any moment now Mark was probably going to pull Steve off his bar stool and they'd press together and Mark would probably be able to feel the hard-on Steve had been sporting since the moment he walked in here...
And now Mark was doing exactly that and Steve went with it, a thrill going through him as Mark's erection brushed against his own. Jesus. Jesus, holy fuck, that was direct, and now they were thrusting together and he couldn't stop the groan that escaped his throat, God that felt so good-
Mark moved his lips over Steve's cheek, nibbling on his ear and sending sparks flying through Steve, and Steve nearly missed it as he murmured, "Before we go too far, let's just make sure we're still on the same page - top or bottom?"
Steve's mind blanked with images - Bucky kissing his way down his throat, Bucky on his back, legs wrapped around Steve's waist, neck arched back, Bucky above him, pushing into him, eyes locked together, or below him as Steve rode him, jerking up and hitting that sweet spot that made him see stars-
He felt himself tensing up. He'd thought he could do this, he'd known that coming to a bar like this he'd be propositioned this way and thought he was ready but - no, he couldn't. Much as his whole body hungered for touch, clamored with the need to be possessed and held down and move with another person - he couldn't hand over his body to some stranger, a man he didn't even know doing to him what only Bucky had ever done-
"Or do you wanna maybe just stick to blow jobs?" asked Mark. Steve gulped and nodded. OK, yeah. He could probably do that.
Mark suddenly paused, frowning at him. "You're not... this isn't some straight boy taking a walk on the wild side thing, is it?" he asked slowly. "Not your first time with a guy? Because-"
Steve huffed a laugh and Mark relaxed slightly. "No. No, I've done this with a guy before." Very briefly he wondered what Bucky would've thought of some guy thinking he was gonna pop Steve's cherry, eighty years after the fact, after everything he and Bucky had done together. "It's just... been a while." He cleared his throat. "I was... uh, off the market for a bit." And he suddenly wondered what Mark would say if he found out that 'a bit' meant eighty years. "Haven't, uh, done this with somebody new in a while."
Mark nodded, smiling. "Ah. Well it's like riding a bicycle. But a lot more fun." He leaned forward again, caught Steve's lower lip between his own.
Steve swallowed a gasp, his heart racing, and kissed him back. God, he'd almost forgotten what this was like - the warmth of another mouth on his, the thrill of someone else's hands wandering over his body. The heat, the scent of sweat and musk and some kind of modern cologne, the taste of lips and tongue and the beer that Mark had just had - and gum or something too, but not mint like the gum Bucky used to chew - and Mark's thigh pressed between Steve's, providing sweet pressure. He could feel Mark's hard chest heaving, and Mark was nibbling on his ear - not kissing his way down Steve's throat the way Bucky used to - and holding on to his waist, not bringing a hand up to brush his nipples the way Bucky used to.
He pressed their chests together, concentrating on the feelings, running a hand through Mark's hair and almost wincing at the hard texture, crisp with some kind of gel and not silky with pomade. He shivered, thrusting against Mark and feeling disorientation mixing with the steady arousal, flinching as Mark brought a hand to the front of his trousers and grabbing the hand away before he could stop himself.
"I'm - I'm sorry," he gasped. "Stop."
Mark's eyebrows went up and he paused, chest still heaving. "What?"
"I, uh." Shit. He really should've thought of something, some fall-back plan if he realized he couldn't go through with this. What do you say to someone who's done nothing wrong...
"I - it's not you."
"I know that, honey," Mark said, rolling his eyes. "What the hell?"
"I'm - I'm actually not feeling well," said Steve. "Sorry. I, uh, I'm getting over the... the flu. Thought I was better but I'm uh-"
Mark scowled at him. "You're shitting me."
"I don't - I'm sorry..." he trailed off. I don't know what I'm doing. This isn't right. I haven't had sex in seventy years. I thought I could, but you smell and taste wrong. I want to, so badly it hurts, but I can't. "I thought - I didn't mean to-" damn it. He took a deep breath, frustrated beyond belief.
Mark was still staring at him, his annoyance swiftly turning to pity, and damned if that wasn't its own special brand of humiliation.
"Dude... how long has it been?"
"A while," said Steve. He cleared his throat. "Two years."
"And you were with someone before that?" Steve nodded. "How long?"
"Ten years. On and off."
"Ouch. Nasty breakup?"
Steve shook his head. "He, uh, he died," he said, wincing as his voice broke.
Mark's eyes widened and he stepped back. "Shit. OK. Um, OK." He took a deep breath and ran a hand through his hair. "Look, honey... maybe this wasn't the best idea. You're hella hot and all, but you're kinda messed up." Steve's face was burning, his body still feeling the effects of their interrupted caresses and his pants uncomfortably tight, and Mark was still talking. "Maybe next time just say you want a hand job or something, OK? Don't lead a guy on thinking there's gonna be a blow or a fuck. Nobody likes a cocktease."
Steve nodded miserably. Mark rubbed a hand over his head quickly and cleared his throat, then touched Steve's shoulder.
"Hey, I'm sorry. That was - you weren't being a tease, I'm an asshole." He cleared his throat and gave Steve a small smile. "Don't beat yourself up. Baby steps, dude. You got picked up and made out with someone, so go you. Next time just - you know, be up-front."
Steve nodded again, his eyes unexpectedly filling with tears at the patient tone of Mark's voice. He quickly looked down, blinking, and rubbed a hand across his forehead and wiped his eyes surreptitiously. He cleared his throat. "Yeah. Yeah, thanks. I'll... I'll do that."
Mark gave him a wry smile, then leaned forward and took his mouth in a slow, wet kiss. Steve leaned into it helplessly, unable to keep back a moan. God, that felt so, so fucking good, and it had been so long, and maybe he could do this, anything would be better than going home alone again...
But now Mark was pulling back, gently but firmly, and patting his arm. Like he hadn't just had his tongue down Steve's throat, like they were just the strangers they were. "Relax, sweetheart. If I see you back here after you've got your head on straight, maybe we'll try again, OK?"
Steve nodded and watched Mark head back out to the dance floor, weaving between the dancers until he was gone. His chest was still heaving, tremors running through his body, all of him primed and ready to go and confusion and disappointment churning the beer into a lead weight in his stomach.
OK, he had to get out of here. He glanced around the bar one last time and headed out, threading his way past the dancers, trying not to stare with envious eyes at the men involved with each other on the dance floor and in the shadows - most just laughing together intimately, holding hands and nuzzling each other, but some clearly on the way to something more.
All of it so free, so open. Everything that he and Bucky never had a chance to do. Everything he and Bucky worked so damn hard to hide from everybody, including themselves.
He got on his motorcycle and headed home, arriving an hour later and wishing he'd been able to blank his mind the way he usually did while riding. Normally the road, the wind, the vibrations of the bike were enough to send him into a calm headspace. Not today; he was as jittery has he had been at the bar. Getting on the bike with a raging hard-on hadn't helped either, though thankfully it had subsided.
He entered his apartment, settled against the door, his entire body aching with weariness and frustration. He rubbed a hand over his face, hating the stubble, thinking of shaving and remembering how Bucky teased him when he got beard burn, and felt a tightness in his chest.
No, shit, no. He pushed off the door, heading to the shower. Better wash off the smell of the bar, if there was any left after that hour-long ride. Shave, feel normal again, go to bed and try to pretend nothing happened.
He dropped his clothes in the hamper and turned on the water, getting in and scrubbing himself quickly, then slowed down and bowed his head under the spray.
He breathed deeply, feeling the interrupted caresses from the bar waking his body again, feeling the blood rushing down. He palmed himself, his mind going back to the bar. That man's mouth, his scent - all those men, so uninhibited, unashamed masculine sexuality, bodies moving together...
He moaned and moved his hand, caressing, his pleasure growing.
Bucky had always turned him to jelly when he did this, from the first time they'd reached for each other. Nobody's hands but Bucky's and his own had ever touched him. How could a stranger ever make him feel like Bucky had?
Ten years. Ten years, they'd gotten to know each others' bodies. Trying out things Bucky had done with the girls he slept with. Discovering that Steve's nipples were sensitive but Bucky's weren't; Steve preferred being on the bottom, and kissing, and Bucky adored blow jobs. Steve got a rush from Bucky being rough and impatient, and Bucky loved holding hands during sex, and got sappy afterwards.
He slid a hand down his chest, playing with his nipple as his other hand sped up and his pulse quickened, and angled his head under the shower, feeling the water's caress on his neck. Bucky had always nibbled at his neck until he squirmed, and the drops of water felt like Bucky's lips always started before his kisses got harder, before he'd start almost biting Steve's neck as his body thrust against Steve. Steve's hand sped up but the water's pressure never changed, the hand working his length was his own and it wasn't the same, the thumb flicking his nipple didn't unexpectedly turn rough, the ghost of Bucky was all around him and so close, he could almost hear Bucky's gasps and moans but there was nothing, only the sound of the water and his own voice against the tiles, he was so damn hard and starving for touch from someone, anyone, need going so deep sometimes he felt like screaming, all of him taut and breathless and his hand sped up, reaching and closer and faster until he cried out, climax rushing through him, body pulsing, one hand dropping from his chest to the tiles as he leaned against the wall and panted and rested his head against the wall and suddenly found his pants turning into weary sobs.
Oh God damn it.
He pushed himself off the wall impatiently, washing down evidence of his release and holding his breath, refusing to let himself get maudlin. He stood, chest aching, and turned his face to the shower, washing off any tears.
Ten years. Ten years he and Bucky had touched each other, with heat and tenderness and curiosity and desperation and love. And now there was nothing but a damn shower and his own hand, an empty bed and flashes of memory of abortive caresses with a man he'd just met, and Bucky's ghost.
His throat ached and his eyes stung as he dried off. Body still trembling in the aftermath of an orgasm, but empty as always.
No, he wasn't going to cry over this. Control, damn it.
Funny, when he'd first been unfrozen, for a while there he'd cried himself to sleep almost every night. Reluctantly at first, only when he couldn't hold it in any more, knowing that SHIELD watched his every move while he lived in their quarters, but gradually reassured that everyone expected his sadness and pain. Things had changed now and he really wasn't expected to keep a stiff upper lip all the time, his therapist had told him. Needing time to mourn every single person he'd ever known was healthy and normal. He'd nodded and kept his comments vague, not letting the therapist know there was a specific face he missed, let himself give in to his grief at the end of the day, and waited to feel better.
He got into his bed, not bothering to glance over at the sketch of Bucky on his wall. He didn't need to see it to picture him. Bucky was always there.
He turned over in bed, hugging his pillow to himself. Damn it, it would feel so good to have something else to hold. Maybe a Bucky Bear. Bucky had hated those things, but right now he would have sold his soul for something to cling to, something of Bucky's.
He wondered if Bucky would've hated those bears as much if he'd survived the War, or if he would've eventually been nostalgic about them. Wondered if he himself would've ended up with nothing but a bear even if they'd both lived, desperately lost and alone if he and Bucky had merely gone their separate ways after the War, ending up married to other people like he'd always assumed they would eventually.
No, they wouldn't have. Bucky would've kept them together. Steve was the one who pushed them apart, over and over again, with his damn notions of doing what was right and decent and not holding Bucky back from having what he deserved: a wife, a family, respectability. Bucky was so much wiser, knowing that what was right wasn't always what was decent, and that sometimes what felt good was good, and worth fighting for no matter what anybody said.
Bucky had fought for them, over and over. He wouldn't have given up after the War.
He rolled over. If Bucky had survived... if Bucky had survived, they might have been one of those amazing old couples he saw on the news these days. Ninety-five years old, together all their lives, finally able to get married like Bucky always said he wished they could.
But it didn't make any difference. There was no what if. Bucky had died so long ago probably even his bones were gone from that mountain. And Steve had wished it was him on that mountain instead so many times he'd lost count.
I don't know how to be without you, Bucky.
He closed his eyes, tears squeezing past his eyelids.
Sure you do, punk, Bucky would say if he were here. You sure as hell weren't with me in that bar.
Steve sighed. He'd tried. But it was too different. His body was getting more and more insistent over time, telling him his loneliness and hunger for touch had a solution, but he just couldn't. He'd woken up hard and panting so many times in the last few months, as he slowly got over his losses and sort of... unfroze emotionally and physically, but actually trying to do something to sate that hunger just wasn't...
Come on, you jerk, Bucky would've said gently. You can do this. Go out again. Or take Natasha up on those offers she keeps making.
Buck, I don't know how to talk to dames.
Well, lucky you - now you know you don't have to. It's a brave new world and all. Why don't you ask her about that good looking guy in data analysis?
Steve chuckled, picturing Natasha's face if he did that. She'd probably think he was joking. Then she'd give him the number. And that would be one more familiar thing he'd lose - Natasha trying to get him a date with a woman, the way Bucky had tried whenever they weren't together.
Hey, you did good today. So you didn't get much farther than what we used to do when we were kids. Baby steps, like that guy said.
He turned over in the cold, empty bed.
Steve, he could almost hear Bucky's gentle voice. Stevie, you're doing better than you were. You're alive. That's a gift. I know it's hard, and you miss me - but you know if I'd lived, you would've wanted me to move on.
Move on. How? He could still see Bucky so clearly all the time, ached for him so desperately every night. He could still feel Bucky's calloused fingers in his, taste his lips, the side of his neck. Could still hear his voice.
He was still having conversations with a man seventy years gone.
And tonight, at that bar - that man would've just been a stand-in for Bucky. Mark was alive, right now, sensual and vital and looking for a pickup - and there was Steve, starving for touch, should've been exactly what Mark was looking for, but dying to touch one particular man. A man who'd been dead since long before Mark's parents were even born, from the look of him.
He should probably try again. But he couldn't. Couldn't take a man home and have him be a stand-in for someone else.
So pick up someone who doesn't look like me next time, punk, he could hear Bucky teasing him. Pick up a dame next time.
I can't. I don't know how.
Maybe ask that nurse next door for coffee. Or maybe meet a fella you can hang out with, if you can't do the bar scene. You're out running all the time these days; go after one of the guys you've noticed.
Just like that?
It's easy. Just go up to one of them, like a pal. Get to know him, then make a move. If he says no, no big deal. You're not taking your life in your hands, like you would've been in our day.
Steve closed his eyes, letting the fantasy play out. Letting himself feel Bucky's presence, hear Bucky's voice.
Whatever you do, do something. Don't just sit here getting old and sad.
Live, buddy. Maybe you can't get back what we had together, but you could find something new. Something else. Someone else.
I don't want to. Steve blinked, wiping the tears from his cheek. I can't, Buck.
You don't have a choice. He could hear Bucky's voice, rough and tender at the same time, and he swallowed back another sob. You know I wouldn't have wanted you to be like this forever. I loved you.
Live, Stevie. For me. And for you.