Actions

Work Header

The Firing Line

Chapter Text

Chapter Track: Blue Jeans – Ladytron

Steve’s taxi pulled up to a house in a state of disrepair. Paint peeled from the shutters and the porch. Grass grew untamed and thick with weeds around the great maple that dominated the front yard. His mother’s rose bushes beneath the kitchen window wilted from neglect. Last time Steve saw this house – just after his high school graduation, and just before beginning his freshman year of college – the rose bushes were his mother’s pride and joy. Sarah Rogers cared for the most beautiful garden in the neighborhood. The entire town knew that.

He stared for several seconds before he remembered that he still had to pay the driver, and slid his credit card through the machine attached to the back of the seat. Despite Steve’s size, the driver insisted upon helping him unload his suitcase from the trunk.

Steve thanked him, and the taxi sped out of the cul-de-sac, leaving him a lone figure in front of his childhood home, on a quiet street in a tiny town.

Though Steve hadn’t been back in ten years to witness it, he knew his mother’s garden remained beautiful – until, well, now. Until three months ago, when Winnie Barnes mentioned that Joe Rogers didn’t look quite right, and were they sure they wanted to stay for the fireworks at the barbeque?

Joe collapsed thirty minutes after the annual Barnes Family July 4th fireworks started, and several hours after that, a doctor in the next town over, the slightly bigger town several miles away, diagnosed Steve’s father with cancer.

Now Joe was dying, and Steve was standing on the sidewalk in front of his childhood home like an idiot, running through all the things he should have done differently in the past ten years as though thumbing through a cartoon flipbook of hindsight and regrets.

As he lingered in front of the house, the front door creaked open. Steve jerked his attention forward just in time to see his mother step out onto the weather-worn porch, looking worse for the wear with her gray-blond hair tied back with a scrunchy and wearing a haphazard ensemble that wouldn’t have been out of place in the nineties.

“Please, honey, come inside,” she said, and she sounded tired. So, so tired.

Steve’s rolling suitcase jostled and complained as he tugged it over the cracked concrete path that led up to the house. Once inside, he shoved the handle down and leaned it against the wall beside the front door. Neither he nor his mother spoke for a long several seconds while Steve took in the sight of his old living room, different and the same all at once. When he was a teenager the walls had been sunshine yellow but now were slate blue. His mom’s framed cross-stitch projects were the same as he recalled though hung in the wrong places.

Steve threw his arms around his mom. He buried his face in her hair and, oh God, she even smelled the same, like whatever strawberry drugstore shampoo was on sale that week.

“I’m so glad you’re home,” she whispered into his neck.

“I’m sorry it took me so long,” he said back.

They stood in each other’s arms for what seemed hours. When Sarah pulled back, she wiped her damp cheeks with the backs of her hands and dried them on her ancient jeans. She smoothed back a lock of Steve’s hair and said, “How do you feel about mac n’ cheese for dinner?”

“Sounds great,” Steve grinned, and if his smile was a little too tight around the edges, that was his business.

They didn’t talk about Joe being alone in the hospital over their bowls of mac n’ cheese that night, and Sarah didn’t bring it up before she showed Steve back to his old bedroom as though giving a guest the nickel tour. He hugged her again and kissed her cheek before he wished her goodnight and hauled his suitcase into the bedroom he grew up in.

Steve collapsed on his old twin bed and held his head in his hands.

He should have been here.

He shouldn’t have left so fast, and he should have come back for holidays.

Sure, he paid to fly his parents to him in more recent years, but had stubbornly spent his college days away from his family for the sake of his own stubbornness.

His feud with Bucky was, in light of his father’s imminent death, a fucking farce and a waste of Steve’s energy.

Exhaustion cascaded over Steve, but when he rolled onto his old mattress and chased sleep, sleep never came. Instead he stared at his ceiling where years and years ago he’d stuck glow-in-the-dark stars in swirls and patterns and wallowed in how stupid he’d been. After over an hour of tossing and turning, he gave up and shoved his sneakers back onto his feet. Steve yanked a hoodie over his head and tucked his phone into the pocket of his sleep pants and walked down from his bedroom and out the front door.

He took the spare key from beneath the third garden gnome to the right and locked the door behind him before he left.

Steve didn’t walk with a purpose. He wandered, foggy and hazy with all the regret and hindsight and sorrow in the world, feelings bleeding together in an ugly, twisted stew that was boiling him alive.

Before he realized what he was doing, Steve’s feet took him away from the pocket of neighborhoods in his tiny hometown and down the one road that went all the way through it. He veered into the wilderness, through fields of weeds and crusty snow, on a path he didn’t recognize as familiar until he reached his destination.

Steve stopped in an old clearing, far enough away to be out of sight, but close enough for two stupid adolescent boys to find it and build a clubhouse out of branches and dirty plywood.

Though half of the roof was collapsing and mud caked the sides, his and Bucky’s clubhouse still stood. Steve made a soft, sad noise and trekked through the grass to it. Mud squelched beneath his shoes and rogue branches swayed in his path and God, had it always been this small? He reached out to brush his fingers over the side and the structure shivered.

Steve ducked inside anyway.

The years had worn away at this place in a way that made Steve indescribably sad. Somebody had found his and Bucky’s hideaway – new graffiti was spray painted over the paintings that Steve worked tirelessly on during the summer they built this place. They were twelve years old and immortal, and Steve was going to be an artist. Empty beer cans and cigarette butts coated the ground inside the fort in a fine carpet of teenage contraband.

He snorted at the thought and sat on the ground, curling into himself in the corner of the clubhouse. Steve drew his knees up to his chest and rested his forehead on them. Returning to this place felt like dropping into another dimension, a parallel world in which Steve might have once belonged but didn’t fit into anymore. He belonged in New York with Sam and Natasha, far away from the western United States and one sad little town in the Rocky Mountains.

Steve drowned in thought, or maybe he fell a little bit asleep – he didn’t know which, only that a gruff, rumbling voice interrupted with a terse, “Hey, asshole, get your own drinking spot.”

Steve jerked up his head and met the eyes of Bucky Barnes.

X

This had to be another fucking hallucination.

No other reason would explain Steven Grant Rogers sitting in their dilapidated clubhouse in pajamas, looking like some kinda blond Adonis when the Steve burned in Bucky’s brain was a scrappy little string bean. When he closed his eyes, he could still see the way that Steve looked that night, shoulders bare and brows knit and sweat gliding down –

“Aw, hell,” Bucky muttered. He squeezed his eyes shut tighter and patted down his coat for the flask in the inside pocket, holding the thing with his right hand and twisting it open with his teeth and tongue as he’d learned to do.

“Bucky?”

That was Steve’s voice, all right.

“I’m not having another goddamn conversation with a hallucination,” Bucky said tightly.

He opened his eyes in the hope that the vision would evaporate, but there Steve still sat, a dumbfounded look on a familiar-not-familiar face. Not-Steve’s lips parted as Bucky tossed back his flask and tipped whiskey down his throat and he said, “I’m not a hallucination.”

Bucky squinted at Not-Steve and then reached forward to prod his pointer finger into a very real, very firm chest.

“Aw, hell,” Bucky repeated. He didn’t know what to do other than what he usually did. Bucky sat down in the dirt, groped inside his jeans for his half-smoked pack of cigarettes and lit one up. He took a long drag and held it before he exhaled. He rubbed his hand through his greasy hair – how long had it been since he showered? Three days? Four? – cigarette and all, and asked, “When’d you get in?”

“That’s it?” Steve asked, “‘When did you get in?’ Ten years and that’s what you go with?”

“What the fuck do you want me to say, Steve?” Bucky snapped, “Some dumb shit you’re gonna hear a million times before this whole thing is over, like, gee Steve, I’m sorry your dad is dying? Or how about I’m sorry the last time we talked was an argument we had naked?”

“I don’t know!” Steve exclaimed with a flourish, one of those broad, sweep gestures that he’d always made when he got fired up about one thing or another, “Just something. Like, ask me how I am, like a normal person.”

“Too bad I’m not fuckin’ normal,” Bucky spat back. He inhaled from the end of his cigarette and refocused his gaze on his battered work boots. Christ, he was a mess. Here Steve was, looking like sex embodied even in his pajamas, while Bucky sat not a foot away, an unshowered one-armed wonder with shadows deep as the Mississippi beneath his eyes and at least a week’s worth of stubble on his jaw.

“What the hell happened to you?” Steve demanded.

Bucky couldn’t help it – he laughed. He laughed so hard his ribs hurt, and then smoked a little more, and then finally found the wherewithal to answer such a stupid goddamn question. He said, “I got blown to kingdom come in Iraq; what the fuck do you think happened to me?”

They quieted on that note – not that that came as a surprise to Bucky. Folks always got quiet when he brought up his arm, the empty sleeve he pinned up on his left side and the prosthetic he refused to wear because it made his shoulder ache and had him crying in frustration every time the thing didn’t work like he wanted it to. Sometimes his ma still got watery-eyed when she looked at him too long and Bucky’d lock himself in his bedroom and drink until he forgot the heartbreak on his mom’s face.

“I’m sorry,” Steve said, “I’m sorry that happened to you.”

“Yeah? Me too,” Bucky bit out, “but sorry don’t take that shit back.”

Silence fell between them again, and Bucky didn’t bother to try filling it. He finished his cigarette and stubbed it out on the cold ground, then pulled out his flask for another sip. He uncapped it with his teeth, but offered it to Steve first. To his surprise, Steve took the flask and drank. Only a little swirled around at the bottom when he handed the flask back. Bucky finished the rest.

“So what the hell happened to you?” Bucky asked.

Steve tipped his head back and clunked it against the unsound wall of their old clubhouse. The thing was far too small for two grown men. A couple of dumb, skinny kids could move around inside with relative freedom, but with the roof collapsed in a rotting heap on one side and the other side being tiny and dirty, their bodies sat crunched close enough together that he could feel Steve’s body heat and smell his masculine shampoo.

Steve shook his head before he spoke and shrugged one shoulder. He answered, “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?” echoed Bucky.

Steve shook his head a second time.

“Shit,” Bucky said.

“Yeah,” agreed Steve.

“All right, now, you can hit me for this if you want, ‘cause I’ve been drinking since like noon,” Bucky’s mouth went on before his brain could catch up, “but no offense, you seem like you need to blow off steam. And me, I’m real tense these days. I got a laundry list of things wrong with my head and I got no way to fix it. I think we should fuck.”

What?”

“I think we should fuck,” Bucky said.

“Oh, because that went real smooth last time,” Steve snarked.

“Last time we were eighteen and we were idiots,” Bucky said, “I’m still an idiot but I got way more experience under my belt and I’m telling you that we should fuck. You’re angry and I’m crazy; maybe if we work off some energy together we’ll feel better.”

“You’re insane,” said Steve.

“I told you; that’s the point,” Bucky replied, “Listen, if you don’t wanna all you gotta do is say so. Far be it from me to try and get in the pants of someone who doesn’t want their pants gotten into, but if you’re up for it, then I say it’s a world-class idea.”

Steve frowned.

“Steve?” Bucky prodded.

“I’m thinkin’ about it,” Steve said.

Bucky huffed a soft laugh. Ten years and he could still tell when Steve made up his mind but thought he hadn’t. He pulled out a second cigarette and waited for Steve to come to the same conclusion. Steve’s brows knit in concentration and he worries his lip between his teeth.

“That sounds…” Steve said, “good. That sounds good. We should do that. Yeah.”

“Cool,” said Bucky, “You staying at the Walnut?”

The only place to stay in town – a B&B called the Walnut Inn.

“No,” Steve said, and scratched at the back of his neck, “I’m with my folks. Or, I’m with my mom, I mean. In my old bedroom.”

Bucky barked out a short, humorless laugh. He tapped the ash from the end of his cigarette into the dirt and said, “Yeah, me too.”

The night almost felt like old times when Steve said, “Yours is easier to sneak into.”

Bucky nudged Steve’s foot with his boot and said, “Let’s get going, punk.”

X

The surrealistic quality of the evening increased tenfold the moment that Steve jumped down from the storm window that opened into Bucky’s basement bedroom. Most of the bedroom looked exactly as Steve recalled, from the dusty, colored string lights to the crumpled Pokémon blanket on top of ugly flannel sheets. None of the furniture had changed since 2007, all mismatched garage sale pieces and hand-me-downs from his parents.

But some things – some things looked just a little different, same as Steve’s childhood home. Bucky’s bed used to rest against the wall in the center of the room, just beneath the storm window for comfortable access to sneak in and out. Now, he shoved his bed back in the corner of the room. Where a middle school science fair medal once hung, dog tags dangled, and the frame on Bucky’s bedside table that used to hold a picture of him arm in arm with Becca the summer the Barnes family took a trip to Disneyland now held a photo of Bucky with his arms slung around a couple guys on a dusty landscape. All in uniform, all mid-laugh like the photographer had said something hysterical.

Bucky slammed the frame face down and glared at Steve, but before Steve could get out an apology, Bucky shed his coat and wiggled from his shirt.

Steve winced at his own sharp intake of breath.

All that remained of Bucky’s left arm was angry, red skin stretched over a short stump. The scar tissue extended over most of Bucky’s left side in furious streaks and God, Steve couldn’t imagine the pain of an injury so grave.

“You got something to fucking say about it?” Bucky asked, “Change your mind ‘cause I ain’t pretty enough to look at?”

“No!” Steve said.

“Then get on with it,” Bucky said, “You’re wearing too many clothes.” As though to punctuate his statement, he let his jeans fall to the floor and bounced back on his bed in nothing but a pair of black boxer briefs. He tucked his only hand behind his head and spread his legs with a dirty grin.

Steve unzipped his sweatshirt and cast it aside. He crawled over Bucky once he discarded his shirt. He leaned down for a kiss, and Bucky leaned up to meet him. The kiss wasn’t a gentle, pretty kiss. It was nothing like the wine cooler flavored kisses of that summer night, kisses so kind that Steve thought his chest would burst from the love building beneath his ribs.

This kiss was vicious. It was a fight. Teeth cut and clacked against each other. Bucky reached up with his one hand and yanked on Steve’s short hair hard enough to pull a groan from Steve’s throat.

“Fuck, yeah,” Bucky muttered, and dove back in to latch his mouth onto Steve’s neck, sucking hard and bruising the tender skin.

They were in too deep to climb out now. He wanted to see what Bucky Barnes looked like coming apart at twenty-eight, instead of the barely-out-of-high-school clean-cut guy that he remembered. That Bucky took pride in his appearance – he gelled his hair every morning, shaved every evening, and dressed like somebody out of a fashion magazine. His strong but slender limbs had wrapped around Steve in a way he’d never forget while he pressed his lips to Bucky’s and murmured in his ear about how long he’d wanted him.

Bucky now…

Bucky was solid – a wall of muscle, from thick thighs to impressive arms. He hadn’t shaved in some time, and his hair grew wild and unkempt like a guy out of Lord of the Rings. And God help him, Bucky wasn’t any less attractive than he was to Steve a decade ago, even if now he looked like he hadn’t slept in months.

The hand tangled in Steve’s hair let go, and Steve whined.

“I’m trying to get your pants off, you baby,” Bucky said.

Steve did his best to assist in divesting himself of pajamas. Bucky yanked both sleep pants and underwear down in one, hard movement, and Steve kicked the twisted bundle of clothing away. His cock bounced up, red and desperate for attention.

“Forgot how big you are,” Bucky said.

“Yeah, you say something about it every damn time my dick is out,” Steve replied, as though this had happened more recently than ten years ago at sleepover slip-ups, locker room glimpses and That One Time.

Steve smoothed his palms over Bucky’s muscled thighs before hooking his fingers in the elastic waistband of his boxer briefs. He pulled them down with far more finesse than Bucky, and in the same motion, sucked the head of Bucky’s cock into his mouth. He tasted right, musky and perfect, and God, how could Steve have forgotten how good this was?

“Jesus,” Bucky breathed. He lifted his hips and Steve obliged him, lowering his mouth further down the length of Bucky’s dick. He hummed and worked his head up and down until below him, Bucky gasped and salty come splashed in Steve’s throat. He yanked himself back and coughed, sputtering come.

Steve wiped his chin with the back of his hand and said, “What the shit, Buck? A warning would be nice!”

Bucky chuckled and replied with an insincere, “Sorry. My bad.”

Steve scowled. He grabbed Bucky’s trashcan to spit in, surprised that he remembered where Bucky kept the damn thing, and that it hadn’t moved when Bucky rearranged his bedroom. Steve flung the plastic can back into place and said, “I don’t suppose you happen to keep lube around here, do you?”

“As luck would have it,” Bucky said, and twisted to reach between his mattress and bedframe. He extracted a half-used and slightly slippery bottle of lubricant. The cap made a slick noise when Steve popped it open, and only then did their final argument resurface in his mind. He paused.

“What’s the hold up, big guy?” Bucky asked.

“I just – do I need to be careful? Like, how long –”

Bucky rolled his eyes. He said, “Fuck, why are you always so earnest? I’ve done other guys and I have fucking toys. I’m not a virgin princess. Just rail me like I asked.”

“Christ, fine,” Steve said. Neither of them mentioned how Steve was the first guy Bucky ever slept with, but Steve didn’t doubt that they were both thinking it. Steve poured lube onto his fingers and then hitched Bucky’s legs up. Despite Bucky’s request to be railed, Steve still took the initial fingering slow. He slid one finger in and out of Bucky’s body and watched his face carefully.

Bucky’s eyes shuttered closed and nose scrunched up and hell, he was so handsome. When Steve didn’t pick up the pace, though, Bucky opened his eyes to glare and complained, “What part of ‘not a virgin princess’ was unclear? Get a move on, asshole.”

Steve shoved two fingers into Bucky’s ass with gusto, and punched a gasp right out of Bucky’s throat.

“Shut up,” Bucky said when Steve laughed, and rode back on Steve’s fingers.

They didn’t talk after that. The noise in the room devolved from bickering to breathy, helpless noises and the slick noise of lube and sweaty skin.

When Steve spoke again, all he could manage was a terse, “Condom?”

“Shit,” Bucky said, “Anything I got’s expired by like a decade. Just do me raw, Steve, I know you don’t got anything.”

Steve eyed Bucky. He knew little about this older version of his long-ago best friend and one-time lover, but he doubted that this Bucky was so far from his old self that he’d lie about condoms and STDs. So, Steve squeezed lube into his palm and slicked it over his cock. He tried to pull Bucky’s legs up onto his shoulders, but Bucky locked his thighs around Steve’s waist and stared him down as though daring him to complain about the position of their naked bodies.

When Steve pressed into Bucky, Bucky dug the nails of his hand into the meat of Steve’s shoulder and clawed down. Maybe Steve should have taken things slow, but hell, he figured that they’d gotten this far. He braced his hands on either side of Bucky’s head, smashed their lips together in a violent kiss, and fucked into Bucky’s body as hard as he could.

Fuck yes,” Bucky hissed against Steve’s mouth, “Fuckin’ – do me.”

The slap of skin on skin echoed in Bucky’s basement room, hard and loud like the crack of thunder. Sweat dripped from Steve’s brow as he pounded into Bucky, while Bucky’s hand raked over Steve’s shoulder blade with enough force to draw blood to the surface.

Bucky was right: Steve needed this. He channeled all his anger, all his grief – every miserable fucking feeling he’d been striving to keep a tight lid on – and screwed Bucky into his mattress, wrenching moans and frantic whines from him.

“C’mon,” Bucky ordered through gritted teeth, “Come in me. You know you want to.”

Steve pumped his cock faster into Bucky. His rhythm stuttered as pleasure soared and he came like a crash of cymbals: quick and loud and all at once.

Steve slumped onto Bucky, limp, and tried to catch his breath.

“Told you it was a good idea,” Bucky said into Steve’s shoulder, where it lay smashed against Bucky’s face.

“Ngh,” Steve answered.

With a pat to Steve’s back, Bucky said, “As much as I enjoy your company, you gotta go.”

“Are you fucking serious?” Steve groaned into the pillows above Bucky’s head, “You’re kicking me out of bed?”

“Yup,” Bucky said.

“Cold, Buck,” said Steve, but he peeled his body off Bucky’s and stood, jelly-legged, to search for his clothes in the mess of discarded clothing and trash already piled on Bucky’s bedroom floor.

Bucky pushed the sweaty hair back from his forehead and said, “But hey, you ever wanna do that again, you got an open invitation.”

“Go fuck yourself,” Steve said.

“I’m tired of doing that,” replied Bucky, “Kinda why I asked you to do it for me.”

Steve pinched the bridge of his nose and bent to collect his t-shirt. He dressed with precision and, as he’d done so many times before in his life, climbed out of the storm window and onto the empty street outside of the Barnes family home. Only, the last time Steve did this, he’d been at least half the size he was now.

The last thing Steve heard before he wriggled out onto the Barnes’ side yard was Bucky’s coarse laughter behind him.

Chapter Text

Chapter Track: No Children – The Mountain Goats

In spite of Steve’s late night, he woke before his mom, and took the opportunity to dig into chores that had been long-neglected since his father’s diagnosis. He made coffee first, and cleaned the kitchen while he waited for the pot to spit out its watery offering. The clanging of dishes and cabinets as he worked, unfortunately, drew Sarah down the stairs to see what all the noise was about.

“Did I wake you?” asked Steve.

Sarah made a fluttering gesture and said, “I don’t sleep much in any case. What on earth are you doing?”

“Cleaning,” Steve said, perhaps petulantly, because he felt what he was doing should be obvious.

Sarah’s face softened, and she reached out to ruffle her hand through his hair, as though this moment was twenty years ago when Steve was eight years old and a tiny bag of bones, and Sarah still did her makeup every day, even though her face had so fewer lines than it did now.

“You’re a good boy,” Sarah told him.

Steve flushed red, because he wasn’t. He wasn’t good. He ran away as soon as he could and didn’t see his parents for years, not until he could afford to pay for their plane tickets to visit him in New York. He left behind his entire world, and for what? Sure, he had Sam and Natasha back in Brooklyn, but he hated his job. He hated his overpriced apartment and he hated the noise that the city brought, alive and awake when anyone sane should already have gone to bed.

He turned back to the smelly mess of the neglected kitchen and returned to work.

In a word, the Rogers kitchen, like the rest of the house, was old-fashioned. The linoleum, though now scrubbed clean, yellowed and peeled at the edges where it met the base of the cabinets, whose honey oak color that had once been The Thing to have in every home now dated the things as a marked 2002-ish renovation. But now at least the kitchen was clean – dishwasher running for the first time in God-only-knew how long, counters clear of grease-stained fast food bags and piles of junk mail.

Steve hefted two entire black garbage bags over his shoulders (pointedly ignoring the sting where Bucky dragged his nails through his skin and made him bleed) and strolled out to where he heard his mom roll out the garbage cans this morning. When he dumped the bags and swiveled around, the patchy, untended front yard blinked back at him, and Steve found his next project.

He first opened the garage to find the gardening equipment – at one point in his life, Joe Rogers attempted to take an interest in his wife’s garden, an endeavor that lasted all of ten minutes before Sarah told Joe that she loved him dearly but he was going to fuck up her rose bushes, and Joe replied, “Thank God. I’m going inside. The game is on.”

But the attempt had happened, ergo the crusty pair of men’s gardening gloves Steve dug out from behind cobwebbed gardening equipment and stuffed his hands into so that he didn’t cut himself up yanking all the weeds out of his mothers’ front yard.

At first glance, the task appeared simple enough. Some weeds dotted the browning grass, but most congregated around the edges of the garden and climbed up the side of the porch. Steve started with the lawn and, after only a few weeds yanked, learned how wrong he was. He had to return to the garage to pull out one of his mom’s trowels so he could dig out the stubborn fuckers that left roots behind, and though the air could be no more than sixty degrees optimistically sweat gathered at the neck of his t-shirt and soaked the back, sticking cotton to his skin and making it chafe where Bucky left his mark.

Irritated and overheated, Steve pulled his shirt up over his head and went back to work. Nothing the neighborhood hadn’t seen before – in the summers, Steve (and often Bucky, and sometimes Clint with a little bribery) mowed the lawn shirtless despite his skinny torso and easily-burned skin, after which he tended to dick around in the sprinklers even though he and his friends were probably too old for that once they struck their teenage years.

Lost to a string of summer memories of a different, doe-eyed Steve, he didn’t even hear when his mother approached.

“Oh, honey, you don’t have to – oh, my Lord.”

Steve went rigid. Far be it from Sarah Rogers to take the Lord’s name in vain without one hell of a reason. He dropped his trowel into the grass and squinted up at his mother to ask, “What? Why are you looking at me like that?”

Sarah cocked one disbelieving brow and hitched her hands onto her hips. She said, “You know very well why, Steven Grant.”

“What? No I don’t,” he said. How was it that his mom could make him feel all of eight years old again in so many ways in just a matter of hours?

“For goodness’ sake, Steven Rogers, you haven’t even been back for twenty-four hours, how did you – oh. Oh, you didn’t.”

“Didn’t what?” Steve said.

“You slept with Bucky Barnes!” Sarah accused.

Steve’s eyes darted to the side. How in the fuck – the scratches. Crap. Maybe he could play them off as casual sex with a stranger passing through town or something, or a last hurrah before he flew in from New York and took his expensive taxi trip all the way to the middle of nowhere. He said, “No, I didn’t.”

“You would lie to your own mother?” Sarah said, “I take everything back about you being a good boy. You need to leave that poor boy alone. Bucky has been through too much –”

“Ma, it was some one night stand. I can’t even remember her name, really,” Steve said, giving her what he hoped was a convincing expression of innocence.

Sarah scowled. She said, “Do you think I fell off the applecart yesterday? You have scratches on one damned side of your back! No one hangs on one-handed while they’re getting the business, unless they only have one hand. Was your mystery woman an amputee, too? Because that would be awfully convenient.”

She was right. The evidence was damning, and he’d been made. Steve swiped at his sweaty forehead with his hand, forgetting he had gardening gloves on and no doubt smearing dirt across his face. He said, “Okay, well. It was his idea, so.”

“The hell you say!”

“It was!” insisted Steve.

The volume of the exchange garnered the attention of Mrs. Peterson across the street, where she shuffled along with a very fat, very elderly dachshund that Steve recalled meeting as a squirming puppy. She pretended to stoop down to pet the little guy, but Steve knew better than to think her blameless. Nothing happened in this fucking place, so anything that happened was news. And boy, did news spread fast.

“Frankly, I don’t care whose idea it was,” Sarah said. How many times had Steve heard her say those words before? How many scrapes had he and Bucky gotten into that ended in bloodied knuckles or grass-stained clothes on school picture day, or that time Steve slipped and fell into the creek and stood back up covered in sloppy black mud, and Bucky jumped in after him just so he wouldn’t feel bad.

“We’re grown-ass men, Ma,” Steve argued.

“Be that as it may, don’t think I’ve forgotten how this turned out the last time you and Bucky thought sex was a real neat idea,” Sarah said, and at what must be a wonderful, stunned face on her son, she carried on, “Oh yes, I know about that. You two had that shit written all over your guilty little faces, and then you up and vanished without a single goodbye and when I come to the Barneses expecting book club, I get Winnie with her lap full of crying teenager. So: I do not care whose idea it was this time, because no matter whose idea it was, it’s terrible.”

Steve couldn’t help the borderline-hysterical laugh that cracked out of him. He ran his gloved hands back through his hair, dirt and all, and said, “Shit, Ma, I know that. I knew that last night, too. And you know what? I don’t care and Bucky didn’t seem to mind so much either.”

The severity eked from Sarah’s face. She said, “Steve…honey. Please. Bucky is a sweet boy – a good boy – but his head’s not all there these days. I don’t want you two doing something you’ll come to regret because he’s struggling and you make terrible decisions.”

Steve opened his mouth to protest, but snapped it closed an instant later. He couldn’t argue with his ma on that front. The past ten years – and arguably the eighteen before that – had been nothing but one impulsive decision after another, mistake after mistake, thinking he’d learned but never applying the goddamned lessons.

Admitting this to his mother, however, was not on the table. Instead, Steve asked, “When do we get to see dad?”

X

Booze-induced sleep was a toss-up as far as nightmares were concerned. Half of time after Bucky drank himself to sleep, he drank himself right into Iraq, into that That Day. The other half of the time, he slept like a baby. This time, blessedly, was a baby-like sleep – until something jabbed him in the back and Bucky threw himself awake, crawling to wedge his body against the walls where his bed met the corner of the room. His bed used to be positioned in the middle of the room, with his back to the window – as soon as Bucky came home from the hospital (the first time) he moved it so he could see his bedroom without any blind spots.

In front of him, his mother stood still as stone, an alarmed look on her face.

“Fuck,” exhaled Bucky. He dropped his face into his hand, rubbed one eye, and said, “You scared the shit outta me, Ma.”

She gave him that watery, heartbroken expression again. Bucky hated that expression. He kept putting it on his mom’s face and no matter what he did it kept happening. He shoved down the panic at being woken, at being touched when he didn’t expect it, and counted his breaths before he asked, “What’s going on? Everything okay?”

Winnie, seamlessly as ever, transitioned from heartbroken to disapproving in the space of a breath. She arched a brow and said, “In what universe is it a smart idea to take up with Steve?”

Bucky groaned and banged his head against the wall, eyes at the ceiling. “Goddamnit, Sarah,” he muttered, because there was no other way his mom could have found out that goddamned fast about he and Steve bumping uglies. Though ten years ago he and Steve screwed, Bucky screwed up after, and neither of them spoke to each other until last night, Winnie Barnes and Sarah Rogers remained thick as thieves.

Hell, even though Steve refused to speak to Bucky after he fucked up so hard, Bucky still thought of Sarah as his second mom. He wrote to her while he was in Iraq same as he did with the rest of his family, and she sent him care packages and letters back. Bucky saw Sarah at least once a week when she came to the house for Ma’s book club, but typically more than that because spending time with Sarah was one of the only ways to wind Winnie down when she was all keyed up.

All keyed up because of Bucky, because he can’t keep his shit together long enough to have three good days in a row.

“James Buchanan Barnes, did you sleep with Steve in this room? Under my roof?”

Bucky bit back, “Yeah, I did. And I could afford my own place if someone just let me fucking leave.”

“Until you can be trusted with your own life, you’re staying right here, young man,” Winnie said, “and your disability checks aren’t enough to live on.”

Bucky leapt from his bed and skulked across his floor to pull a shirt over his head. Fortunately, Bucky of last night had the foresight to pull a pair of clean underwear on. He’d rather not flash his mother while making his escape, as he had been unlucky enough to do in the past.

“I’m twenty-eight,” Bucky spat out, struggling to pull on his jeans with one arm. Across the room, his prosthetic leered accusingly.

Ma watched him for a few torturous seconds of scuffle with the pair of jeans before she stepped in to intervene. She gripped the jeans with both her hands, drew them up over his hips, and held them in the right place so that Bucky could do the fly up himself. He wanted to cry at the ridiculousness of it all, at the fact that he was an adult man that required his mom’s help to get dressed. When Bucky dressed himself, stepping into his clothes rapidly descended into an ordeal. Bucky spent a solid fifty percent of his days in pajamas to prevent such a production. The other fifty percent of the time, he took anywhere from a half hour to an entire hour to get dressed or ended up shouting frustration until Winnie came down to help.

Humiliation roiled in his gut. He avoided his ma’s eye as he said, “I’m going out.”

“Where?”

“It’s none of your fucking business, that’s where,” said Bucky.

Winnie pulled Bucky forward to face her. She stared him dead in the eye and said, “I know things aren’t easy, but that doesn’t give you the right to speak to me that way. You know very well why I worry.”

Bucky swallowed, his throat dry and head thumping out a persistent ache. He breathed in and tried to steady himself, get grounded back on planet Earth, and answer his mom like a decent son might do. He said, “Yeah. I know.”

“I don’t expect to know where you are every hour of every day,” Winnie told him, “but I will worry about you every hour of every day, because I’m your mom. It’s what we do.”

“I’m sorry I shouted at you,” Bucky mumbled.

Winnie wrapped her arms around Bucky and replied, “And I’m sorry I invaded your privacy. Will you be home for dinner? Your dad’s roasting a chicken.”

“Yeah,” Bucky said, “I’ll be back for dinner.”

At this hour of the day, Clint would be at work, but Bucky stopped by the liquor store on the way there anyway and bought a six pack of shitty beer. Fucking Rumlow was working, which pushed Bucky deeper into his foul mood. He didn’t try anything – just smirked at Bucky and ran his tongue over his teeth, but Bucky still walked away feeling like he’d bathed in a tub full of pond slime, beer in hand.

Bucky recognized that he shouldn’t encourage Clint to drink on the job, but what the hell else was the guy gonna do? He worked at a boutique pet store (the only pet store) in Gold Cliff, Colorado. The shop made enough money to pay for its lease and Clint’s paltry hourly wages, and put food on the owner’s table, but nothing beyond that. A couple customers filed into the store a day, typically regulars that knew what they needed, and maybe a handful of tourists on weekends and in the summer.

The summer it was not, so Bucky made himself at home with the beer and Clint Barton’s sparkling company.

Clint chugged half a can from the get-go and then said, “You’re not serious.”

“Why would I joke about getting reamed by ripped Steve Rogers?” Bucky asked.

“Most of the time you don’t even know which way is up, and I’m supposed to believe Steve Rogers is not only back in town, but also that he’s ripped, and that in addition to being ripped, he fucked you just because?” Clint screwed up his face in that I-don’t-believe-you way.

“You want some fuckin’ proof, dickhead? Because my asshole knows that wasn’t no fuckin’ hallucination, and I’ll drop trou right here, right now if you need physical evidence,” Bucky set his beer on the counter so that he could reach down to unbutton his fly.

Clint gestured with beer in hand at Bucky’s crotch and said, “Let’s see it. I’m calling your bluff, big boy. Spread ‘em and flash me the chocolate pocket.”

“I feel like I walked into the wrong part of this conversation.”

Bucky and Clint jerked their heads toward the door to the shop where stood none other than Steve Rogers in the flesh, his massive shoulders taking up almost the entire doorway.

“There wasn’t a right part of the conversation to walk into,” Clint said, “Can I help you find something?”

“Oh, uh,” Steve stammered, and lifted the grocery bag in his right hand, “I actually just stopped to grab stuff for dinner for my mom, and I saw you guys through the window and…thought I would say hi, I guess.”

“Cool. Hi. Bye,” Clint said with a salute.

Steve knit his brow.

Bucky glanced at Clint. Rather than speak aloud, he signed: What is your deal?

Clint sipped his beer and replied, He fucked you up, remember?

Steve had fucked Bucky up, but Bucky hadn’t been innocent in what happened. At the root of what ended their friendship was Bucky. Bucky fucked up first, and then Steve…followed his example.

It was my fault, Bucky signed.

At that Clint cast Bucky a sharp look. He returned his attention to Steve only to say, “You need something? ‘Cause if not, you should head home and start that dinner for your mom.”

When Steve’s face blanked out into that bleak expression he wore after being name-called or shoved around back in high school, Bucky couldn’t have felt worse. He knew he wasn’t the one that put the look on Steve’s face, but it felt like he had, so he blurted, “Hey, Steve?” as Steve turned his back to exit the boutique.

“Yeah?” Steve asked, only half-turning.

“Meet me at my place?” My parents’ basement, Bucky did not say, but instead went on, “Midnight?”

The barest hint of a smile touched Steve’s mouth. Had Bucky not known Steve’s face so well, he wouldn’t have noticed the difference from one moment to the next.

“Sure, Buck,” Steve said, and shouldered his way out of the pet boutique, around the corner and out of sight.

Both Bucky and Clint watched as he left, though Clint’s gaze lingered a moment longer. Bucky seized the opportunity to reach across the counter and smack Clint’s chest.

“Ow!” he complained, “What the hell was that for?”

“For being a jackass,” Bucky said.

“Oh, sure, I’m the jackass. Did I just hallucinate, or did you just set up another sex date with Steve fucking Rogers?” Clint waved his arms in a hopeless gesture. When Bucky blankly looked back in return, he shook his head, sighed, and chugged the rest of his can of beer.

“Are you really going to bone Steve again?”

“Why the fuck wouldn’t I?” asked Bucky. Had Clint seen Steve’s arms? Steve used those massive, muscled things to steady himself and fuck Bucky into a parallel universe. He’d be an idiot if he didn’t take advantage of another round.

Clint cracked open a second beer and rolled his eyes.

X

This was a terrible idea, and Steve knew it was a terrible idea. Even logically knowing that sleeping with Bucky again numbered among his least bright ideas (and Steve had been through so many, many bad ideas), his heart (and his dick; who was he kidding?) wanted nothing more than to slink down the dark streets and slide into Bucky’s bedroom through the storm window. He fought with himself on whether or not to go as the minutes ticked down to midnight.

Terrible idea.

But he wanted to.

Steve wanted to go badly.

In the end, he toed from his house at two minutes to midnight. By the time that he jumped down into the storm window and jimmied it open, he surpassed midnight by at least fifteen minutes. When Steve leapt down and landed on the concrete floor below, Bucky’s voice drawled, “You’re late.”

“Yeah,” agreed Steve.

“Didn’t know if you were going to come,” Bucky ventured. He reclined on the pillows on his bed, only arm tucked under his head.

Steve shrugged a shoulder and said, “Neither did I.”

“This is a shit idea,” Bucky remarked.

“You wanna call it quits?” asked Steve.

Bucky snorted. “Fuck no,” he said, and in the next instant, they were on each other, limbs wrapped like vines around one another’s bodies, mouth on mouth and tongue against tongue in a battle of wills. Steve shoved Bucky back against his mattress and ground their bodies together. He’d been half-hard since he left his house, and around Bucky it seemed his dick had a hair-trigger – he was up and ready to go in no time at all.

With a hard jerk of his hand, Bucky wrenched Steve’s head closer by the hair, kissing as though he meant to consume him.

Steve backed off to pull his shirt up over his head and kick off his shoes, and then reached for the waistband of Bucky’s sweatpants, right above where his cock tented the fabric. When he glanced back up, Bucky was wild-eyed, mouth red from kissing, a sheen of sweat at his brow.

Steve swallowed the lump in his throat and said, “I wanna eat you out.”

Bucky grinned like a wolf. He shed his clothing and bared every inch of his skin. God, he was gorgeous. Scars split his left side like lightning bolts and he’s paler than he used to be when they were young, but he was gorgeous, a work of art just as Steve always thought he was. He manhandled Bucky onto his stomach and shoved up his legs to expose him, parting his ass just to admire for a long moment.

“Any goddamn day now,” Bucky said, voice muffled by his pillow.

Steve chuckled. He leaned in and teased the rim of Bucky’s hole with the tip of his tongue, enough pressure to punch a frustrated growl from Bucky’s throat. He canted his ass back and Steve couldn’t help the desperate laugh that bubbled up. He petted Bucky’s side and murmured, “Fine, fine,” before pushing his tongue inside Bucky in earnest.

Aborted, desperate noises spilled out of Bucky between labored breaths. He pushed his face into his pillow and his ass to Steve’s mouth and fell apart. The tense line of his shoulders eased with each stroke of Steve’s tongue until he melted into putty twisted in the sheets, growling frustrated curses at Steve that he wants to come, damn it and just put it in already.

But when Steve pulled his mouth back, Bucky didn’t wait for him to comply. He turned his body, wrapped his thick thighs around Steve’s middle, and with nothing more than the strength of his legs flipped Steve onto his back on the mattress. Bucky reached for the discarded bottle of lube from the previous night, held it up and asked, “I wanna ride you. You cool?”

Breathless, Steve nodded, “Yeah. Yeah, whatever you want, Buck,” because it was always about what Bucky wanted, wasn’t it? And Steve had never been able to tell Bucky no, not as a shrimpy eighteen-year-old boy, and not as a grown-ass man, either.

Bucky squirted lube into his palm and slicked Steve’s cock in one fluid movement. He lifted up onto his knees and reached to position Steve’s cock, but Steve stopped him with a hand to his chest and said, “Hey, I should probably finger you first –”

Bucky glowered at Steve through a curtain of long, dark hair and said, “I can take it.”

“But –”

“I said I can fucking take it, Steve,” Bucky snapped, “Do you wanna do this or not? Because I don’t give a shit. I can ride your dick or I can ride a fuckin’ dildo in the shower. Makes no goddamn difference to me.”

Steve opened his mouth to protest being compared to sex toy, but that’s what this was, wasn’t it? They were using each other for sex, to blow off steam, to take the edge off of the agony of the shitty lives they led as adults. Steve’s dad would die any day now. Bucky didn’t have a left arm – and had seen horrors that Steve could only imagine in the darkest corners of his worst nightmares. He narrowed his eyes up at Bucky and said, “You wanna do it? Then do it. I’ll sit here and you can do the work to get yourself off. I’m your toy.”

Bucky scoffed and scraped his eyes down Steve’s sweaty body once more before, inch by inch, he lowered himself onto Steve’s cock. When he hit down to the hilt, Bucky let out a long, satisfied groan. He braced his hand on Steve’s chest, and with a heave of effort, Bucky began to fuck himself up and down Steve’s length. He threw his head back, hair falling away from his handsome face as he ground his body against Steve.

Steve wanted to roll into the tight, wet pressure bearing down on his cock, wanted to throw himself into it, but no – more than that, he wanted to follow through. He was Bucky’s toy and Bucky would use him however he chose.

“Fuck,” Bucky muttered, working himself back harder, riding, skin slipping against sweat, bodies striking one another. Bucky shifted his angle so he didn’t have to brace his hand against Steve’s chest and instead wrapped those fingers around his straining erection as he fucked himself harder onto Steve.

The sight would be forever branded into Steve’s brain: Bucky on top of him, scarred and dark-eyed, kiss-swollen lips caught between his teeth while he thrust onto Steve. His dark hair became a wild halo backlit by the fluorescent basement light, light that glinted against the sheen of sweat over a muscled chest. The angry red of the dick in Bucky’s hand was what did Steve in, though, watching as Bucky rubbed furiously over his erection while he used Steve like a toy, just as he was told to do.

Steve’s orgasm exploded over him all at once, so hard he squeezed his eyes closed as pleasure hit him in frantic waves. Bucky didn’t pull off Steve’s softening cock – he slowed to rocking against him, humping as he tugged at his hard-on. Only a murmured curse passed Bucky's lips when he finally came, spilling over his calloused fingers and onto Steve’s belly.

For a long moment, they sat together in relative silence broken only by heavy breaths and the shift of fabric beneath their bodies. Bucky ran his fingers back through his hair and rolled his shoulders, but didn’t move from his place astride Steve’s body, muscular legs thrown akimbo. Steve couldn’t help but reach out to feel along Bucky’s thighs, but Bucky pulled back and rolled to the other side of the mattress.

Fine, then. If Bucky didn’t give a shit, then Steve didn’t give a shit either. Despite being sweaty and disgusting and covered in come, Steve pulled his shirt and pants back on, vowing to do laundry as soon as he had taken a shower back at his parents’ place.

“What are you doing?” Bucky asked.

“Fucking off,” Steve said, “I need to shower.”

“Use mine,” Bucky said, with a vague gesture to the bedroom door.

“Thanks, but no thanks,” Steve replied.

Bucky made a face, which Steve ignored. He bent and tied his shoes back onto his feet.

“The hell is that supposed to mean?” Bucky asked.

Steve shrugged a shoulder, “It means I’m good. Have a good night, Buck.” And Steve climbed out of the bedroom, through the window well, and onto the street. The satisfaction of getting Bucky back for booting him out of bed the previous night brought a smirk to his face. Vindication stirred in his gut and remained until halfway through his shower back at home, when the afterglow of sex vanished under the smell of travel-sized body wash and the reality of his stay in town.

Tomorrow, Steve would see his dad for the first time since he was diagnosed.

Joe Rogers was dying.

Steve thought he might be dying a little bit, too.

Chapter Text

Chapter Track: Feel Good Song of the Year (cover) – Old Man Markley

More familiar to Steve than the repainted walls and rearranged furniture of his childhood home were the hallways of Mountain Valley Hospital. Here his mom worked, and here Steve grew up, in and out of hospital beds in a whirlwind cycle that lasted to his early twenties. Asthma still got the better of him from time to time, but a combination of belated puberty, working out and eating well, and learning to manage his conditions birthed a new Steve, one that hadn’t seen the inside of a hospital for at least five years.

And no hospital would ever be more familiar than Mountain Valley. The bones of the building existed since the gold rush, with additions as the population in the towns surrounding the hospital swelled from tiny to modest.

What Steve wasn’t familiar with, however, was being the one beside the bed. Joe managed a weak smile when Steve and Sarah filled the doorway. Steve and Joe had never had a physically affectionate relationship, not like Steve and Sarah – Joe was an ever-gruff man’s man that took Steve fishing, taught Steve and Bucky how to shoot with beer cans in the backyard, and insisted upon doing home improvement projects his own damn self.

Now, a frail man lay in front of him, hooked up to machines and tubes like the cover of a pulp science fiction magazine.

To hell with it, Steve thought, and hugged his dad. Joe hugged back without any of the strength that he should have had.

“Good to see you home, son,” Joe said.

Steve pulled back and pulled a chair from the corner of the hospital room to sit on. He murmured back, “I wish I could say I was happy to be home, but…” he swept a hand over their surroundings, at the collection of medical equipment keeping his father alive. Seeing his dad down for the count, almost small in his bed, struck a strange chord in Steve.

The dad he knew might not have been vivacious and full of laughter like George Barnes, but Joe Rogers had a presence about him that didn’t exist within the four walls of this room. Joe was solid, brusque. He was set in his ways, but not opposed to revisiting his values upon the introduction of new information. When Steve came out as bisexual, Joe hadn’t understood. He asked Steve why he couldn’t just pick a side.

But Joe learned, and while he never quite grew to understand Steve’s sexuality, he did once mutter, “I just want you to be happy, kid. Whatever way that comes is fine by me.”

Upon which Steve joked, “Except murder, right?”

Joe had laughed, tense atmosphere diffused, and replied, “Depends. Why’d you kill ‘em?”

In Steve’s brain, Dad conjured memories of barbecues (rain or shine), bike rides over rocky paths just outside town, and cups of coffee while Joe did his woodworking in the garage. The images smelled like campfire smoke and charred meat and fresh sawdust. Like the first fish ever caught on Steve’s line, the memories tugged and he reeled them in.

His dad was steady. If Steve were a river, Joe was the earth that pointed the water to the ocean.

And now he was here. Too thin, too gray, too tired. He didn’t talk much, only asked Steve about work and if he still liked living in New York. By the time that Steve and Sarah trundled into Sarah’s old Toyota to drive back into Gold Cliff, the full weight of this visit came full-speed at his chest. Neither he nor his mom spoke over the soft sound of NPR humming from the stereo, and Sarah didn’t bother to question where Steve was going when instead of following her into the house, he turned down their driveway and started down the sidewalk.

Muscle memory drove Steve to the Barnes house in daylight. This place, too, was same-and-different. Same shade of cream paint; now with blue shutters on the windows instead of green. New roof. At least the heinous ceramic rooster statue that Winifred bought at a swap meet and refused to retire from the front yard remained on its perch beside the front steps.

Too tired to brave a reunion with Bucky’s parents, Steve slipped past the front and through the side yard. When he hopped down through the storm window to the bedroom below, Bucky was doing push-ups – on his one hand, shirtless, hair tied back from his face and the sheen of sweat coating his body.

When Steve’s shoes slapped down on the concrete floor, however, Bucky was on his feet in an instant, a knife in his hand. He relaxed when he met Steve’s eyes and tossed the knife onto the bed.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” Bucky demanded.

Numb, Steve didn’t bother to respond. He sat down on the edge of Bucky’s mattress and picked at the frayed edges of the old Pokémon blanket.

Bucky’s next words lacked the honed edge of the first: “Your dad?”

Steve nodded.

“Hell,” Bucky said.

In silence, Steve slumped back onto the bed and stared at the ceiling. Bucky’s parents never bothered to finish the ceiling, and instead exposed ductwork and pipes snaked overhead. When Steve turned his head to at last look at Bucky, his not-best-friend looked back, pensive.

“Want me to fuck it outta you?” he asked.

“What, the sadness?”

“Yeah, sure, why not?”

Steve glanced skyward. He didn’t know what he expected. A hug? Sympathy? Those were long gone with the eighteen-year-old incarnation of Bucky stored at the back of his brain. This Bucky was about as huggable as a cactus, and so far up his own shit’s creek that there was no way he could offer sagely advice to Steve on his.

What Bucky now had to offer was sex, and wasn’t that better than drowning himself in the contents of his dad’s liquor cabinet like Steve wanted to? He raked both hands through his hair and said, “Do it. Pin me down. Make me forget. Whatever.”

And he did. Bucky wasn’t any gentler with Steve than Steve had been with him. He shoved Steve down onto his stomach, naked, and fingered him open. Bucky covered Steve’s body with his own and thrust into him, hard. He was relentless and he was strong, and maybe this wasn’t what Steve needed but damn if it wasn’t what he wanted.

The sex wasn’t loving, wasn’t tender, but it swallowed his senses whole. Steve hadn’t bottomed for…well, a while. He’d be sore later, and the thought had him smiling into Bucky’s bed as he canted his ass back to meet each of Bucky’s strokes. Maybe Steve was the first guy that Bucky had ever slept with, but judging by the skill, the precise way Bucky fucked into him, Steve sure as shit wasn’t the only one.

He came into Bucky’s sheets without a single finger on his cock – how could Bucky reach around with only one arm?

Bucky drove harder into him and his orgasm followed no more than a minute later, hot and sticky inside Steve. Gross, but the sensation grounded him in the reality of the moment. This was not an elaborate dream. Steve Rogers let Bucky Barnes inside him for the first time, and it was –

“Ow, what the – why is there a cat in here?” Steve demanded, and clutched at his arm, where blood seeped from thin claw marks.

The cat in question hissed and bolted to the other side of the room, where it leapt on top of Bucky’s bookcase. A sentient toilet brush, this cat was the ugliest cat he’d ever laid eyes on. Its mottled grayish-brown fur stuck every which way. Part of one ear was missing, and further down one yellow eye blinked beside a cloudier, sightless one.

“That’s Swamp Cat,” Bucky said.

Steve waited for Bucky to elaborate, but he never did. He repeated, “Swamp Cat?”

“Yeah, that’s her name.”

“Swamp Cat.”

“Yes. I just said that, Steve.”

“What is Swamp Cat doing in here?” Steve asked.

“She’s kind of mine. Mostly. I think,” Bucky answered, “I met her in our clubhouse while I was out there drinking. You know. In the swamp? Swamp Cat. Anyway, she was all banged up and shit so I went back home and brought her a can of tuna. She followed me home and now I have a cat.”

“The wilderness isn’t really a swamp –”

Bucky rolled his eyes, “Semantics. It’s swampy. Besides, Wilderness Cat is a mouthful.”

Steve opened his mouth to argue, only to be cut off by the sound of plastic slapping against the concrete floor. Both Steve and Bucky whipped their attention to the door, where Winifred Barnes stood at the door, hands over her eyes and a laundry basket forgotten at her feet.

“For the love of God, boys,” Winnie complained.

Bucky hitched the Pokémon blanket over their naked bodies. He said, “You can look now, Ma, it’s fine.”

“Buck –” Steve protested.

“Nice to see you again, Steve,” Winnie interrupted. She rested her hands on either hip and surveyed the scene before her. Steve didn’t want to think about how it looked. Hell, he knew how it looked – he hadn’t even rolled onto his back. Ignoring their obvious nudity beneath the blanket, Winifred continued, “Since you’re already here, why don’t you put your clothes back on and join us upstairs for dinner?”

That time, Bucky protested, “Ma –”

“Don’t you ‘Ma’ me, James Buchanan,” Winnie scolded, “If he’s good enough to stick your penis into, then he’s good enough for my brisket.”

Bucky groaned and smothered his face in his pillow.

Steve responded, “That’s all right, Winnie. I’d rather not intrude.” Warmth crept from his chest to his cheeks and ears, and Christ, he was bright red, wasn’t he?

“That’s ridiculous. I invited you,” Winnie answered, “You can help cook, if you’re so worried about it. But I’d like if you two washed up before you touched any food.” Her tone left no room for argument. With a final, lingering stare at the pair of them, Winifred plucked her laundry basket from the floor, announced, “These are clean, James,” and placed the basket beside Bucky’s dresser. She closed the door behind her with a click of finality.

Steve dropped his head into the covers and whined.

“Fuck,” Bucky summarized. He was close enough that Steve could feel his breath on the back of his neck, hot and still uneven from sex.

“We can’t get out of this, can we?” Steve asked.

A sigh sounded beside him. Bucky said, “No way, man. You know if you up and leave she’s just gonna tell your mom. You can have first dibs on the bathroom. Got more to clean off you.”

Steve turned his head to glare at Bucky, only to receive a smirk in return. They shuffled from the bed and wrapped blankets around their waists to preserve what was left of their modesty before they made a mad dash to the basement bathroom.

“Uh,” Steve said, upon entry. Where once there was a cheap shower, only a bathtub remained. No shower head, no curtain, just the tub and spigot. He glanced back at Bucky and said, “You don’t have a shower. Didn’t you say you had a shower?”

Bucky looked as though he actually hadn’t considered this factor. His shoulders stiffened, he lowered his gaze to the linoleum, and explained, “I forgot. I don’t…like showers. Anymore. After, um. Anyway – you can use the upstairs bathroom if you want a shower. I’m sure Ma won’t mind, long as you throw some pants on first.”

Not for the first time since his arrival in Gold Cliff, Steve wanted to know what the fuck had happened to Bucky. Sure, okay, he knew that Bucky enlisted in the army, knew that he’d gotten blown up and lost his arm and probably suffered some kind of PTSD, but – hallucinations? Binge drinking? Living in his parents’ basement? Afraid of showers? So far gone that Steve’s own mother jumped to defend him from her son?

Steve hadn’t exactly made life easy on himself since he blazed out of town at eighteen, but somehow he had himself more together than Bucky.

What a fucking mess.

“Nah, this is fine,” Steve said.

“Shampoo and shit’s in the cupboard. You want a bath bomb? I got bath bombs.”

“You got bath bombs?” Steve echoed.

“They smell nice. Sue me,” Bucky said defensively.

Steve held up one hand and said, “Whatever works, Buck. Wasn’t a criticism.”

“Towels are where they’ve always been,” Bucky muttered.

He didn’t stick around any longer than that.

X

Bucky hunkered down in the furthest corner of the bed, the best vantage point in the entire room. Confusion, like a vampire, bit into him and sapped his strength. At his core he had to have known that getting involved with Steve was The Mother of All Bad Ideas, and still was, but the rest of him wanted Steve Rogers naked and waiting in his bed every day for the rest of his miserable life.

Steve…sparked feelings in Bucky that he thought were long dead, buried deep with the corpse of his younger self. He didn’t like seeing Steve so quiet and disturbed, but Bucky didn’t know how to fix it, either. He’d dealt in death more than anyone his age should have, but he’d never watched the life slowly eke from a family member. The death that Bucky knew threw shrapnel in his chest and took his left arm. The death he knew was blood and fire.

Bucky didn’t have any advice worth passing along to Steve. He could tell him that drinking helped but didn’t stop the nightmares. He could tell him that nothing ever felt the same once somebody was gone.

He sunk so far into his sullen mood that Bucky still hadn’t moved from his perch on the bed by the time that Steve came in from the bath, chest dripping with moisture and a towel hitched around his waist. He didn’t speak to Bucky, just let the towel drop and bent to gather discarded clothing.

Seeing Steve in this body still struck Bucky as dissonant. His Steve was forever one hundred pounds of piss and vinegar and righteous fury. He was late-night sleepovers and afternoons of exploration – he was cutting class to smoke pot in the woods and talk shit about creeps like Rumlow and Rollins.

But Christ, if Steve wasn’t beautiful like this. Skin pink from the heat of his bath, or maybe still from sex. His shoulders were fucking huge and his waist was trim. Bucky wanted to lick every goddamned inch of him.

Steve slipped his boxer briefs over his hips and caught Bucky staring. “You see something you like?” he asked, one brow quirked high.

“Your ass, mostly,” Bucky answered, “Shoulders are nice too. Your face, though…how’s it you got such an ugly mug?”

Steve narrowed his eyes. “Eat me,” he said.

“As fun as that sounds, my mother would kill me if we were late to dinner because I got caught up in your ass again,” Bucky replied, “But I’ll take a rain check.”

“You are so fucking annoying,” Steve told him.

Bucky huffed, “Tell me something I don’t know. Imma clean up. See you upstairs.” He hopped off his bed and shouldered his way out of the room, shameless in his nudity – mostly to garner a reaction from Steve, which he got in the form of a softly hitched breath.

In the bathroom, Bucky drew his hot bath and tossed in a bath bomb. To hell with Steve’s judgmental tone. Come to think of it, to hell with Steve. Like, they were having sex and all, but Bucky hadn’t forgotten what happened between them and what a shitlord Steve chose to be when he felt slighted. So, yeah, maybe Bucky started it – but Steve did a bang-up job of finishing the fight.

What an asshole.

All at once, Bucky was eighteen and scared. The only person he would have talked to about everything going to hell in a handbasket was the person he fucked everything up with. Bucky was all alone. An idiot, stupid, teenager. And he’d done it to himself. What a sap he’d been.

Steve wasn’t in the bedroom by the time that Bucky emerged dripping from the bathroom, which was just as well, because Bucky didn’t really want Steve to watch him struggle with his clothes. If his mom expected Bucky to help with dinner, he’d better put on the prosthetic arm, a prospect that sent Bucky’s heart into a frenzied, uncomfortable beating.

Nude, he rummaged in his dresser until he found his whiskey stash. He just needed a fortifying sip for the circus ahead of him. That was all. And if Bucky took a fortifying chug of whiskey instead, well, that was his business.

Bucky fumbled with his prosthetic before he tackled his clothes. Although he didn’t get much practice putting the stupid arm on these days, the physical therapists at the hospital had forced practice on him, putting it on, taking it off, until Bucky could attach his prosthesis in his sleep. More than help, the prosthesis seemed to get in the way, but he managed sweatpants and a t-shirt before he slogged up the stairs the same way he’d slogged into temple as a child – slow, slow, slow, because he really didn’t want to go.

The atmosphere in the kitchen, typically wrought with the strained optimism Winifred Barnes could have copyrighted, was instead wrought in awkward, icy silence. The brisket was already out of the oven and resting on the counter, but Winnie insisted upon vegetables every night and enlisted Steve in chopping them.

Steve looked like he would rather be anywhere else.

Bucky couldn’t blame him on that front.

“Bucky, honey, could you grab me the cast iron skillet?”

Bucky reached up with his good hand and pulled the pan from the pot rack overhead. When he handed it to his mom, she kissed his cheek and said, “Thank you.”

“Ma,” Bucky complained, wiping at the kiss mark on his cheek.

“Oh, what, Steve can’t see that your mother loves you? If Steve jumped off a bridge –”

From the kitchen table (at which he had likely been banished to for backseat cooking), Bucky’s dad cleared his throat and warned, “Winnie.”

Bucky helped set the table with his youngest sister – the only one of his younger sisters still living with their parents, Judy. She was seventeen and terrified of being the one that pushed Bucky over the edge, so she avoided interacting with him and Bucky could hardly blame her. He wished he didn’t have to deal with himself, either.

When they all sat down, Steve sat across from Judy and his eyes went wide as he realized.

“Jeez, Judy, you’re all grown up,” he said.

Judy plastered on a pained smile and said, “Yeah…you too.”

Silence fell again. Only the clink of silverware against their plates and glasses thumping on the table broke up the awkwardness. Bucky figured if he had food in his mouth, then he didn’t have to talk to anyone.

“So, Steve, what are you doing in New York? Still working on your art?” Bucky’s mom plied.

Bucky stared down at his food and tried to pretend none of this was happening.

“Oh – uh. No, I don’t, um. I don’t really do that anymore,” Steve said.

Bucky looked up sharply and demanded, “You don’t do your art anymore? Why not?”

“James,” his mom admonished.

Steve avoided looking any of them in the eye. He replied, “It just wasn’t practical. Everyone in New York is trying to make it as an artist, you know? So I work security at a hi-rise in Manhattan. My boss is a little, uh, out there, but it’s not too bad.”

For some ungodly reason, hearing that Steve gave up on his dream like every other young adult their age pissed Bucky off to no end. Disbelieving, he asked, “Just like that? You just gave up?”

“James!” Winnie snapped.

“What?” Bucky bit back, “If there was one person that shoulda made it outta this hellhole and made something of themselves, it was him,” he pointed an accusing finger at Steve over the mostly-demolished brisket, “and he comes back here and tells us it wasn’t practical to believe in himself? What the fuck kinda bullshit is –”

“Oh, because you have room to talk,” Steve grit out, “You don’t even know me anymore. Where do you get off judging how I live? I get by just fine!”

“And that’s what you wanna say you did on this godforsaken planet? You ‘got by’?”

Steve banged his fists against the table. The glasses teetered, the plates smacked back against the wood, and Steve shouted, “I’m sorry we can’t all be heroes with a Silver freaking Star, Sergeant Barnes!” He shot to his feet, chair screeching out behind him against the floor, and stormed all the way out the front door, which he slammed hard enough to shake the entire house.

If Steve knew about the damn medal, that meant that he’d A) either heard about it from Sarah, or B) kept tabs on Bucky all these years.

“You get up and you go apologize right now, James Barnes,” Winifred commanded.

“But –”

“Don’t you ‘but’ me, mister!” she said, “That was uncalled for, and you know it. You find him and you tell him that you’re sorry.”

Bucky glowered at her, but stood up, shoved his shoes onto his feet, and followed Steve out to the street.

But he wasn’t there. Steve was in a hurry to get away from Bucky, and hell, Bucky understood why. He understood why the same way he understood why his mom got all watery-eyed and sad or why his little sister was afraid to talk to him. He got it. Nevertheless, he walked the fifteen minutes it took to get to the Rogers homestead, only to be told by Sarah that Steve hadn’t come home yet.

Bucky peeled away from the neighborhoods and to Main Street, ducking into the shitty dives and asking around. No one had seen Steve, and hey, did Bucky want to sit down for a drink? He really did want a drink, but he also felt like a jackass for getting too far into Steve’s business. Who was he kidding, anyway? Bucky wasn’t Steve’s best friend anymore. He hadn’t been for ten entire years. He didn’t have the right to criticize Steve’s life choices, even if they made him unspeakably sad to hear. Everything made him unspeakably sad. What was one more tragedy?

When no place in town turned up Steve, Bucky knew there was only one place left to check. He trudged along the two-lane highway that snaked through Gold Cliff, out past the feed supply store and a couple of lonely abandoned barns he and Steve and sometimes Clint had broken into as kids for the hell of it.

Bucky cursed at the leaves that caught in his hair and the mud that squished up and ran into his shoes and coated the bottoms of his sweatpants. He swatted at flies, braved the creek, and landed at their shitty clubhouse in what was totally a swamp.

Inside, Steve sat, staring ahead at the paintings he’d done on the inside. They’d been spray-painted over long ago, but faded acrylic still shone through. Bucky always loved the way that Steve painted.

At the crunch of Bucky’s boots against twigs, Steve looked up. He muttered, “Fuck off.”

Instead, Bucky plopped down in the dirt beside him.

“Hey,” he said, “I didn’t, you know, mean it. I was just – surprised. All right?”

Steve snorted, “Your mom made you come and apologize, didn’t she?”

“So what if she did? I coulda told her I couldn’t find your dumb ass, but I went and found you anyway,” Bucky said.

Steve grimaced and cast his gaze out the window at the back of the clubhouse. They were really too big to fit as two grown men, but Bucky kind of liked feeling Steve’s body heat and hearing his breath.

“You’re wearing your prosthesis,” Steve said, “How come you don’t usually?”

Through the overwhelming desire to tell Steve to fuck off and that Bucky’s prosthesis wasn’t any of his business, Bucky figured he owed Steve one. He answered, “It hurts, it never does what I want it to do, everybody stares when I wear it – take your pick.”

“You know –” Steve began, but quieted soon after. He sighed and tried again, “Never thought we’d end up like this.”

“I can’t remember if no one told me things don’t work out the way you think, or if I just ignored them,” Bucky said.

“I know I ignored them.”

“Couple a’ dumbasses, you and me,” Bucky remarked.

“You can say that again,” said Steve.

Bucky didn’t think – he just let his head flop onto Steve’s shoulder. Steve stiffened beneath him, maybe in surprise. Maybe he should have shifted away, but Bucky was too mortified to pull back now. He’d have to look at Steve’s stupid face if he did. So he sat, and little by little, Steve relaxed.

When Steve let his head rest against Bucky’s, that was it. Bucky’s gut stirred, and he knew that he was fucked.

Chapter Text

Chapter Track: Wild Horses – Bishop Briggs

Little by little, the Rogers’ homestead began to look like home again, instead of the domain of a depressed nurse whose husband was dying. Steve vacuumed the carpets, polished banisters and baseboards, drove fat trash bags to the dump by the carload, pulled weeds until his fingers ached, and ran over every inch of the house with a spray can of Pledge and a roll of paper towels.

“You don’t have to do all this,” his mom would say, any time Steve finished another project that Sarah had set aside out of necessity.

And Steve would reply, “Yes, I do,” because there was so little that he could do for his mother, so what was a little cleaning?

Steve didn’t talk to Bucky. He repainted the front porch its original crisp white and the shutters a gentle blue. By the time that Steve got to climbing on the roof and cleaning out the gutters, two weeks had flown by. Bucky hadn’t tried to contact him, and he hadn’t tried to contact Bucky. The temptation loomed over his head – a constant nagging to walk the familiar route to the Barnes’ house and climb down the storm window to be with his best friend.

Bucky wasn’t his best friend anymore. At best they were friends with benefits, but more than likely they were just two people using each other for sex.

In lieu of buying some gadget to do the gutter cleaning for him, Steve used the same trowel he dug up weeds with to scoop old gunk out from along the roof.  He took the task a foot at a time, stepping up and down their old mud-splattered ladder to shift it across the lawn as he filled garbage bags with old leaves and God-only-knew what else.

Steve came no closer than the halfway point when the sound of an engine pulled him from the trance of his task. Somebody on the street had a loud new car, he guessed, probably –

“Hey! Rogers!” an all-too-familiar voice shouted. Tony Stark punctuated the announcement of his arrival with two short honks of his horn. In his surprise, Steve nearly catapulted from the ladder.

He managed just barely to keep his grip and turned to yell, “What the hell, Tony?”

And, nightmare of nightmares, not only Tony Stark stared back at him from an expensive cherry red rental car, but Steve’s two closest friends.

“Hey, man,” Sam greeted. Natasha didn’t say anything.

“What are you guys doing here?” Steve asked. Car aside, the trio stuck out like a sore thumb. Tony adjusted the tie beneath a pinstriped designer suit as he clambered from the driver’s seat. Sam looked clean-cut and handsome in a t-shirt and jeans without holes, and Natasha clicked out of the rental car in a pair of sleek pumps and a deceptively casual dress.

In his dirt-streaked work button-down and serviceable jeans, Steve couldn’t have felt more criminally out of place. He didn’t know that Tony had ever seen him out of his work suit. Sam and Nat had, but never so far out of his suit that Steve was crusted in sweat and gutter gunk.

Tony leaned against the side of the car and folded his arms over his chest. Brows lifted from behind his expensive sunglasses, he said, “Well, Rogers. Steve. Cap. Natasha said you asked to extend your vacation time, and hell, I’m without half my protection detail. So I ask what you’re doing that so damn special you can’t get your tight ass back to New York and oh – you’ll never guess what she told me. Your dad is dying. Your father is dying. The man that sired you –”

“Enough!” Steve snapped.

Tony ignored him. “My point,” he went on, “is that we have bereavement leave. And like, you being full time and salaried and all, qualify for that. But you use your vacation hours instead? You should be taking advantage of my generous benefits package, is all.”

“I don’t want to talk about this,” Steve muttered, yanking off the gardening gloves he’d donned. He tossed them in the now-mowed lawn and mimicked Tony’s stance, arms crossed over his chest. “You never answered my question. What are you doing here?”

“Well, obviously we’re concerned,” Tony said, and repeated, brows still high above his sunglasses, “Obviously.”

“We’re here to support you, man,” Sam said.

“Um,” managed Steve, “We don’t have enough room to put you all up at the house. There’s only one guest room and –”

Tony stuck his thumb out behind him, “Did I not see some bed & breakfast when I pulled in here? Am I hallucinating?”

“Oh. Uh. No,” said Steve, “That’s the Walnut Inn. It’s…not what you’re used to, Mr. Stark.”

“Are you really going to ‘Mr. Stark’ me right now?” Tony asked, and turned to Natasha, “You hear that? He’s ‘Mr.Stark’ing me after I came to check on him.”

Natasha cleared her throat, and everyone quieted. She said, “There’s a diner on Main Street, right? I think we’d be better off talking over food. Steve, go shower and change.”

“Okay,” Steve said, and that was that.

**

Natasha ripped open her fourth packet of diner sugar, dumped it into her coffee, and stirred a precise spiral before she set her spoon aside and drank.

“I don’t know how you can drink that shit with so much sugar in it,” Sam shook his head and nursed his black-as-tar coffee, strong enough to raise the dead – just as Wanda always brewed it.

Steve didn’t say a word. He stared into his coffee mug.

The coffee stared back.

Tony tucked into a heaping plate of blueberry pancakes and greasy hash browns, oblivious to the crackling tension between Steve and everyone else.

“Steve,” Natasha started.

“Why?” he demanded, cutting her off, “Why did you have to go and snitch to Tony? I just want to watch my dad die in fucking peace and now Tony goddamn Stark is in my hometown eating pancakes.” Steve waved a hand at Tony, who looked up from his meal, questioning.

“Excuse you,” Tony said, “I am here out of concern for your wellbeing.”

“I just want to be left alone,” Steve said. He drowned the rest of his thoughts in a long drink of coffee so that he didn’t have to speak them aloud – so he could stare at his plain white diner mug instead of looking any of his friends – or his boss – in the eye.  

So when the bell above the front door of the restaurant tinkled and in walked Bucky and Clint, relief washed over Steve at the potential distraction. He spilled coffee over his hand in his haste to slap his cup back on the table and exclaimed, “Buck!”

“Buck? Like Bucky?” Sam echoed, “As in, that Bucky?”

“Sam,” Steve warned.

“Is that Tony Stark?” Bucky said, eyes sweeping the table.

Clint, meanwhile, sidled to them and offered Natasha a goofy grin. “Hey,” he said, “I’m Clint,” and leaned against the sticky vinyl of the booth – or tried to, anyway, as he misstepped, stumbled, and went ass over teakettle onto the checkerboard tile floor. “Aww, floor,” he groaned.

Steve’s brows soared as Natasha stepped out of the booth and offered a hand. Clint took it, she helped him stand, and she said, “I’m Natasha,” with an expression that looked suspiciously like a smile.

Sam and Steve exchanged a look.

“You gonna introduce us or what, Steve?” asked Sam.

“Oh,” Steve said, “This is Bucky. That’s Clint,” and then, “and this is Natasha, Sam and Tony.”

“I’m his boss,” Tony said, reaching across the table to offer a hand to shake.

Bucky did not take Tony’s hand. Instead he eyed Steve and asked, “Your boss is Tony fucking Stark?”

“Did I not just say that?” Tony asked, “I feel like I just said that.”

“You said you work at a hi-rise in Manhattan,” Bucky said.

“I do,” Steve defended.

“You didn’t say you work at Stark Tower. That’s not just any hi-rise, Steve. You’re makin’ me look like a jackass for yelling about you giving up your art,” Bucky complained.

“You do art?” Tony asked.

Steve rubbed his temples and willed away the anxious headache threatening to build behind his eyes. This was not how he pictured his return to Gold Cliff. Hell, he hadn’t even known Bucky still lived here. He definitely had not expected his friends from New York to come blazing into town like they owned the place. Steve kept his background to himself for the most part. Natasha knew bits and pieces of Steve’s childhood and Sam had a bigger picture, but Steve hadn’t said word one about his hometown to Tony.

Overwhelmed, Steve pushed out of the booth and said, “I’m…I gotta go. I’m gonna go.”

Steve didn’t have a planned direction. He kept his eyes trained on the cracked sidewalk and shoved his hands in the pockets of his brown leather jacket. Where in his head he organized his life into two neat packages – His Former Life in Colorado, and His Past Life in New York – the colors began to bleed. Steve never wanted these pieces of himself to meet.

Now the past and present bled together and whirled around his mind in a blinding loop of anxious color. Steve ended up walking back up through the tiny neighborhoods and pushed into his childhood home. He grasped his suitcase in his old bedroom upstairs and unzipped it with unsteady hands. Tucked into one of the inside pockets were his seldom-used meds.

Steve didn’t like taking meds. He knew he needed them, but he didn’t like them. He knocked two Xanax into his hand and stumbled down to the kitchen to choke them down with a glass of tap water.

On the back porch, Steve waited for the mellow to blanket him. Overhead, the sky dimmed as gray clouds closed in on all sides. Sitting on the porch swing, he could see his dad’s grill out further on the patio. It wasn’t covered. It should have been covered. Dad fucking loved the grill, loved its gleam, and now dirt and rust crawled over its metal shell. In a flurry, Steve searched for the cover. Maybe his mom put it away. Maybe the wind blew it away. Steve needed to protect the grill before the rain started.

Only when a hand came down on Steve’s shoulder did he snap out of the blind panic. He jerked around and found Bucky behind him, dressed more neatly than Steve had yet seen since his return to town.

Steve shoved Bucky’s hand off his shoulder and said, “I can’t do this right now. I need to find the cover for my dad’s grill.”

“Steve,” Bucky said. He reached out and took Steve by the arm, pulling him near.

And Bucky’s voice was free of vitriol, was so gentle that for an instant Steve was eighteen again and so in love with his best friend that his chest ached. Bucky gathered Steve in close and Steve went, knowing it was a bad idea to go but not giving half a damn. Bucky wrapped one solid arm around him and rubbed Steve’s back, up and down and back again.

“You don’t have to do this,” Steve muttered against Bucky’s left shoulder.

“Yeah, I know I don’t gotta,” Bucky replied.

“Why?”

Bucky’s chest shook as he chuckled. “I should hate you, you know? You fucking coward. One argument and you’re thousands of miles away and won’t answer my calls or texts. You sure as shit know how to hold a grudge. But me, Steve? No matter how fucked up I get, I keep coming back to you. So maybe I should hate you, but I don’t. I’m with you no matter what – to the end of the line.”

The armor Steve built cracked open in an instant. He shuddered in Bucky’s grip and let tears roll down his cheeks and into Bucky’s jacket. He cried and repeated over and over, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” because he was, Steve was so sorry for what he’d done.

As they stood together in the lawn, the skies opened and freezing rain bit at them in torrents of water. They didn’t move, even when their clothes soaked through and Bucky began to shiver against Steve’s body.

“C’mon,” Bucky said, “Let’s get inside, okay?”

**

Bucky trundled Steve into the house and flicked on the lights.

He didn’t know what to say. Maybe there wasn’t anything that could be said. Steve’s dad was dying, and nothing Bucky said or did could change that. So he didn’t say a damn thing – just took the familiar path up the stairs to Steve’s bedroom, where he raided the suitcase laid out in the middle of the floor for dry clothes for both of them.

Steve listlessly peeled off his wet belongings smack in the middle of the living room, so Bucky did the same – and then tossed their wet clothes in the dryer, because God knew that Steve wasn’t going to think of doing it.

Steve’s clothes smelled like him. Like his skin, like his soap. Bucky tried to be subtle about breathing in the scent, but when he turned, Steve wasn’t watching him. He stared at the wall, blank. Bucky’s gut churned, a stew of emotions turning over inside him. Hell, he still hadn’t forgiven Steve for the emotional strain of the last ten years – but that didn’t negate the concern rooted so deep inside him he’d need a backhoe to shovel it out.

This wasn’t the Steve he knew. Wasn’t the Steve he knew from way-back-when, and it wasn’t this older, jaded Steve that he’d gotten to know, either.

Bucky padded into the kitchen to let Steve mellow, filled Sarah’s little blue kettle with water, and waited for it to boil while he prepared a cup of tea. After all this time, Bucky knew the Rogers family kitchen as well as his own reflection. Ten years may have passed, but Sarah still kept her collection of Celestial Seasonings teas in the cabinet to the left of the fridge.

With two steaming mugs of Sleepytime in hand, Bucky returned to the couch where he left Steve. He pressed a cup of tea into his hand, sat beside him, and greeted, “Hey.”

Steve swallowed, but didn’t answer.

“I can get by on my own,” Steve finally rasped.

“Thing is,” Bucky replied, “You don’t have to. You got me. And I bet you dollars to doughnuts that if you look at your phone you’re gonna have about a thousand texts from your fancy city friends.”

Steve groped around in his pocket, only to realize that he wasn’t wearing his rained-on clothes. Bucky held up the phone – an expensive-as-all-hell StarkPhone – and tossed it to Steve. Steve swiped open the screen. He said, “You cheater. You knew they were texting me ‘cause you had my phone.”

“Listen, shit-for-brains, even if I didn’t see your phone, I still know that those people came all the way from New York just to see you. Because they care about you. You might wanna tell them you’re not dead, at least.”

A quintessential Steve scowl weighed down his face, the pout that Steve had always worn when somebody told him what to do. Usually Bucky, and usually Bucky was right. Perhaps it was a testament to ten years’ growth that Steve thumbed his way into his text messages to do as Bucky said and type out a quick not-dead text. He cast the phone away. It landed on the carpet with a muffled thump.

“So what d’you wanna do, pal?” Bucky asked, “I can leave you here, I can –”

“Don’t,” Steve said, “Don’t leave me. I know I don’t deserve it. But don’t. Stay.”

“That was all you gotta say.”

Steve studied Bucky, calculating. Bucky stared back. The aging Steve had done showed not in the primordial crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes or the hint of fine lines on his brow, but in the weary look in his eye. Bucky never once saw Steve make a face like that back in the day. For all the shit he got for being scrawny, asthmatic, bisexual and a little shit to boot, Steve was an optimistic teenager. He believed in the good of people.

Maybe not so much anymore, though.

Bucky glanced at the empty space where his left arm used to be. He understood the feeling.

“Buck?”

“Hm?”

“Can you fuck me?” Steve asked.

God, he was so fucking earnest – even when he asked to be plowed. Bucky smeared his hand over his face. “You sure?”

“Yeah,” Steve said, with less enthusiasm than Bucky typically cared to see in his sexual partners, but Steve was sad and if Steve wanted to have sad sex, well, Bucky could oblige. He herded Steve all the way onto the couch and boxed him in.

“Your mom’s not gonna come home and surprise us, is she?” asked Bucky. He meant to tease a laugh out of Steve, but Steve just shook his head.

“On shift until late,” Steve explained, “and she might be staying with my dad for the night.”

“Good,” Bucky murmured, and began a trail of heated kisses up the column of Steve’s throat. Together, they made quick work of pulling off each other’s clothes. When Steve’s mouth sought Bucky’s, he caught flame. His body burned and his mind crackled. Bucky both hated and loved that Steve could do this to him even now, enchant his way into Bucky’s pants with a single turn of that earnest smile or a doleful look from his stupid puppy-dog eyes.

The sex wasn’t angry – not the way they’d been intimate the last few times, full of untapped rage at one another, at themselves, at the world. Intense, yeah. But not angry. Steve clung to Bucky when he sunk his fingers inside him. He didn’t howl or cry out or claw, just kept Bucky as close as he could get him.

A soft whimper escaped as Bucky sunk his cock into Steve. Steve wrapped his legs around Bucky’s waist and pulled him in tight. Each thrust was long and deep and calculated to hit the right spots. Steve needed to feel good, and Bucky wanted to make that happen. He kissed him hard and drew him in, and fuck, Steve felt amazing. All slick and hot and tight around Bucky’s cock, holding on with that furrow between his brows.

Bucky bent to kiss that dent. It didn’t go away, but Steve flicked his eyes up to meet Bucky’s. Their breath mingled, heavy and thick and ever-quicker as Bucky picked up the pace of his hips. Bucky kissed his way to Steve’s ear and murmured, “Touch yourself, Stevie. I wanna see you come.”

Steve obeyed. And hell, Bucky had been with a lot of guys since his fateful deflowering via eighteen-year-old Steve, but no one ever compared to how gorgeous Steve had looked that night pushing into him, holding Bucky’s legs with his skinny arms. Not until just now, with big Steve beneath him taking cock like a champ, lips parted and hand on his dick, flying toward his orgasm.

All at once, Steve clenched up around Bucky. He didn’t cry out – this was a quieter climax; a breath being let out after being held in for too long. Steve melted into the couch on the end of a sigh. He gazed up at Bucky through heavy-lidded eyes, a slack sort-of-smile on his dopey face while he watched Bucky finish inside him.

Spent, Bucky slumped over Steve and tucked his face into his neck. The position wasn’t the most comfortable that he’d ever been in, crammed together on the same floral couch they watched movies on in the eighth grade, sweaty skin both sliding and sticking together, the mess of their orgasms smearing over their bellies and Steve’s ass.

“You’re beautiful,” Steve said, voice hoarse.

“Shut up,” Bucky replied.

“I mean it.”

“I know you do,” Bucky said, “and you’re entitled to your wrong opinion.”

Steve bent away to glower directly at him.

“That’s never worked on me and you know it,” Bucky told him.

They quieted.

“We’re gonna have to talk about it, you know,” Steve said at last.

“Yeah, I know,” Bucky agreed, “but not yet. Can’t handle that yet.”

“No,” Steve said, “Not yet.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Track: S.O.B. – Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats

Bucky lingered at the Rogers’ house long after they cleaned up and redressed. He changed out Steve’s cold cup of tea for a fresh one, turned on Dog Cops, and let Steve lean against him. A low buzz of anger still thrummed beneath his skin at stupid Steve and all the shit he’d put Bucky through, but it was quieter now.

This wasn’t the time or place for Bucky’s anger. He knew that. He’d cycled his way through a lot of fucked up shit, but one thing he hadn’t experienced was the loss of a parent. If Bucky’s mom or dad bit the dust…Bucky didn’t know how he would keep going. Hell, even with them here, he didn’t always know how he kept going.

For that matter, he didn’t know how Steve kept going. Bucky never understood how Steve could pretend that nothing was wrong at all, how he could tune out misfortune as though switching a radio station. Today was the first time Bucky watched the façade crumble, witnessing firsthand what became of Steve when he thought that no one was watching.

And all over a tarp for Joe’s barbeque.

When Steve closed his eyes and drifted to sleep, Bucky extricated himself from their tangle on the couch. He pulled one of Sarah’s throw blankets over those massive goddamned shoulders, placed their empty mugs in the kitchen sink, and shut off the lights before he slipped back outside.

The rain continued a frigid onslaught, beating down on Bucky’s shoulders and bleeding through the clothes he borrowed from Steve. The scent of soaked earth and chimney smoke coiled around him as he stalked through the storm, while the rest of the town hid from the churlish weather in front of fireplaces and televisions.

The moment that Bucky closed the front door behind him, his mother appeared.

“What on earth were you doing out there, honey?” she asked, “You need to get out of those wet clothes, or you’ll catch your death.”

If only, Bucky thought, but he kept that to himself.

His ma started in on the clothes right there, in the middle of the foyer. She stripped Steve’s t-shirt off of him, frowned at it in her hands, and said, “This isn’t yours. Where’d you get this?”

“It’s. Uh. Steve’s.”

Winnie leveled a flat, unimpressed stare at him.

“It’s not what you think,” Bucky said.

“Oh, really?”

“Okay, well, yes, some of it’s what you think,” Bucky said, “but not all of it, all right? He was all bent outta shape because he couldn’t find anything to cover Joe’s barbeque, and then he cried all over me. I didn’t want to be an asshole.”

“That’s new for you. How’s that working?”

“Ma!” Bucky protested, “and it worked just fine, thanks.”

With a resigned sigh, Winnie said, “You go change into something warm and bring me the rest of what you borrowed. I’ll throw them in the wash and you can give them back to Steve yourself, because Heaven knows you’re going to see him again whether or not it’s a good idea.”

Bucky shrugged. She wasn’t wrong. Keeping this thing with Steve going was about as bad an idea as one could get, and nonetheless, Bucky was all up in that like a teenager on prom night.

And after the overwrought afternoon that he and Steve spent together, this bad idea kept getting worse. Because, God – now, now when Bucky’s heart pumped blood into his veins, it didn’t just pump white-hot fury. Oh, no. Now his chest ached when he looked at Steve for too long, or when they kissed just the right way. Steve tasted as perfect as he had when they were teenagers – at least for the night that Bucky had been able to indulge in kissing Steve.

In his sordid basement bedroom, Bucky wrestled the wet clothing from his body and replaced them with soft sweatpants and a long-sleeved shirt. He should have been tired from the emotional strain of the day, but instead, Bucky’s body crawled with the need to get back out, to be away from his mom’s sad eyes and pointed questions.

So he did what he always did when he needed to escape – he texted Clint to come and get him.

Clint lived on the edge of Gold Cliff in a mobile home (“It’s not a trailer, you fuck. Does it look like it has wheels?”) with lavender sideboards and windows that neither closed nor opened all the way. The gravel driveway crunched beneath the weight of Clint’s beloved 1970 Dodge Challenger as they pulled up to the house. He and Bucky sprinted through the rain to the unlocked front door, where excited barking greeted them.

Lucky jumped on Bucky and gave him a huge, slobbering kiss.

“Hey, buddy,” Bucky said, patting Lucky’s head. Lucky made a soft, satisfied whoof as Bucky scratched behind his ears. One of these days, Bucky might get a dog of his own – provided it could get along with Swamp Cat.

Without asking, Clint trekked across the uneven floor and tossed Bucky a cheap beer from the fridge. They settled on the couch together, which Lucky took as an opportunity to sprawl across not one, but two laps.

“You boned Steve again, didn’t you?” Clint asked.

“Well, when you say it like that, with the mean voice and everything –”

“Man, I know you still care about him. But you know why I’m worried.”

“Yeah, me too,” Bucky agreed, sinking further into the couch cushions. He took a long pull from his beer. He was nowhere near being drunk enough to deal with the possibility of unrequited love hanging over his head like a guillotine blade. That would be the cherry on top of the fucking sundae of his life, wouldn’t it? Blown to bits, dead friends, suicidal, alcoholic mess of a human being, and he’d have to add unrequited love to the list.

Fuck that.

“So, like,” Bucky starts in again, “he lost his shit.”

“He yelled at you?” Clint said, incredulous.

“No, no. He like…was all worried about his dad’s barbeque, but like, it wasn’t about the barbeque, man. It was about his dad. And then he started crying on me, so I took him inside and made him tea and then I accidentally fucked him.”

“Accidentally,” repeated Clint, “You accidentally fucked him.”

“He was sad!” Bucky defended, “You would have fucked him too, if he looked at you with his fucking puppy dog eyes.”

“And after that?” Clint asked, “What did you do then?”

Bucky shrugged his shoulder. He said, “He fell asleep on me and I went home. I feel like I’m caught in a fucked up time loop. Everything’s different, but nothing has changed, you know? He may be buff and sad and not do art anymore –”

“He doesn’t do his art anymore?” Clint’s brows drew together.

Bucky shook his head. “I thought I told you this,” he said, and then sighed, “Whatever. He doesn’t do his art anymore and just, like, gave up on it. He’s Tony Stark’s body guard or whatever. My point is that after all this time, and even though I’m still so goddamn mad I could strangle him, I care about Steve. I care what happens to him. I still don’t like it when he’s sad, and all he has to do is look at me with his dumb handsome face and I forget how pissed I am at him. It’s not fair. I just want to die alone in peace.”

“Don’t,” Clint warned, “Don’t say that, bro.”

Bucky smeared his hand across his face and finished his beer. Were it not for the golden retriever snuffling contentedly in his lap, he’d been at the fridge popping open a second. And hell, the puppy eyes Clint was giving him rivaled even Steve’s. Bucky forgot, sometimes, how much Clint had been through with him.

In high school, Clint played a role as a casual friend, a guy on the outskirts of Steve and Bucky’s unbreakable bond that came by sometimes to party or play video games. For the most part, teenaged Clint spent his days hanging out at the weird abandoned hippie commune a couple miles out of town, smoking weed with Wade and Weasel and that angry short kid everyone called Rocket. But people left Gold Cliff to bigger and better things.

Clint and Bucky stayed behind. During the brief period that they left town, they both did separate army tours, and both came back even more of a mess than they were before. After that, they stuck together. Whether it was shared experience of being human tire fires or because they were the only two their age left in the joint that forged their friendship – well, that was up for debate.

“Sorry,” Bucky finally muttered.

“S’Okay,” Clint said, “I’m just worried. You matter to me and shit.”

“Gross.”

“Fuck you,” Clint retorted, “I mean it. Some days I’m like – I don’t know if I could have made it this far without you, man.”

Bucky frowned. He said, “Now I just feel bad for you.”

“You’re such an asshole –”

Lucky leapt up off their laps at the exact moment as a ruffled head of vibrant hair emerged from the narrow hallway.

There, in one of Clint’s offensively purple t-shirts, stood the redhead from the diner.

In only Clint’s t-shirt.

“Hey,” she greeted.

“Did you sleep with him?” blurted Bucky.

“What does it look like?” she asked.

Stunned, Bucky blinked from Clint to the redhead – Natasha, if he remembered correctly – and back again. He opened his mouth to deny the possibility, but hell, she was there in nothing but a t-shirt and panties.

“You are so out of his league,” Bucky settled on saying.

“Hey!” Clint said, “You’ve slept with me, too, you fucknut.”

“And I’m a disaster,” Bucky said, “She doesn’t give off disaster vibes, dude.” He heaved his body from the couch and shuffled to Clint’s kitchen, which was in desperate need of a little TLC. An artful stack of dishes towered high over the sink, while empty beer bottles lined grease-stained countertops. Lucky padded after Bucky, nails clicking against the linoleum. His tongue lolled from his mouth as he sat, casting Bucky his most hopeful expression.

Outside, beyond the insect-encrusted window above the kitchen sink, the rain subsided.

“I’m not feeding you,” Bucky told the dog, “I’m getting a beer. Hey, uh…Natasha? You want a beer?” He extended a bottle in her direction.

“No thanks,” she replied, “I should head back to the bed and breakfast, or Tony will start to worry.”

“He worries about his body guards?” Clint asked.

Natasha shrugged, “He cares very deeply for his staff. I couldn’t talk him out of coming after Steve, not after he set his heart on it. Steve’s very important to us – you should know that. If anyone were to hurt him…well, let’s just say that we would go to great lengths to make sure they can’t do it again.” She smiled at Bucky, but the expression looked sharp – predatory.

With that, Natasha disappeared back to Clint’s bedroom. She reemerged not five minutes later in the same flimsy-looking dress and killer shoes she’d worn at the diner, hair sculpted back into place. She ignored Bucky, but crouched to stroke Lucky’s ears and kiss the top of his head. When she straightened back to her full height, she reached into her purse and extracted a business card, which she held out to Clint.

“I had a nice time,” she said, “My cell’s on there, in case you want to do it again.” Then, she honest-to-god winked at Clint and strode out of the mobile home and to the dirt road, where between the blinds on the living room window, Bucky could see the handsome black guy from the diner pull up in their flashy rental, sour-faced.

“Did that actually happen?” Clint asked the room at large, after the car pulled away.

Bucky tipped beer down his throat. He asked, “Did she threaten me?”

“She totally did,” Clint nodded, “It was kinda hot, actually.”

“Wow. Nice to see where your loyalties lie, dickhead,” Bucky snarked. Clint chucked an empty beer can from his coffee table at Bucky. It bounced off his chest.

Despite bickering, Bucky settled back on the couch at Clint’s side. The beer wasn’t yet enough to take the edge off of reality, but hell, the day was young. Bucky didn’t look at Clint as he asked, “Am I doing the right thing? Am I about to fuck everything up again?”

“Bro, since when has it been a good idea to ask me for advice?” Clint pointedly asked.

“Shit. You’re right,” Bucky said.

Clint waved his half-drunk beer in a vague gesture and went on, “But, you know, whatever happens, I’m here. I’m here, man.”

“I know,” Bucky murmured, and then, rather than dwell on the writhing mass of indecipherable feelings lodged in his gut, he asked, “You wanna go out back and shoot some beer bottles?”

“Hell yeah, bro.”

**

Bucky lost track of how much he drank at Clint’s place, just knew that he kept going long after Clint stopped to sober up. Clint dropped Bucky back at his parents’ place sometime after the sun sank below the horizon and a carpet of stars threw up onto the sky. The Challenger hovered as Bucky fumbled with his keys, missing the lock several times before he hit his mark and tumbled through the door. Only after that did Clint jet away.

The house was dark. Quiet. Bucky’s parents and his sister already packed it in for the night. On Bucky’s bedroom door, his mom left a sticky note – she’d saved some leftover stew for him in a Tupperware in the fridge and put his name on it in case he was hungry. He wasn’t hungry, not really. No, Bucky was desperate to blur the emotions bouncing inside his skull.

Beers with Clint wasn’t enough. He swayed on his feet into his dark bedroom and slapped the light on. Blinking against the flood of light from the lightbulb swinging overhead, Bucky yanked his sock drawer open. He fumbled around until his fingers brushed one of the bottles of liquor in his stash. Indifferent to which one it was, he closed his hand around the neck of the bottle, uncapped it, and took a swig.

Only after Bucky lowered the bottle – of rum, it turned out – did he see the body on his bed.

“Jesus fucking Christ!” he exclaimed, falling back against the dresser, “How long have you been there?” He glared at the offender – Steve, naturally. Why wouldn’t Steve be lurking in his bedroom after dark like a weirdo?

“Couple hours,” Steve said. He didn’t look at Bucky, just stared listlessly at the ceiling.

Why are you here?” Bucky asked. He tossed back another swallow of rum.

“Mom’s at the hospital for the night. Didn’t want to be alone.”

“I can’t be your emotional crutch, Steve,” Bucky slurred.

“Wasn’t askin’,” was all Bucky got out of Steve in return.

But Bucky was mad. He’d already done his penance with Steve for the day. He couldn’t handle another round of make-sure-Steve-doesn’t-do-something-stupid, especially not with sobriety a distant misfortune from hours before. He complained, “You come here in town like you never left and you expect me to be your best friend again. I’m not, okay? I’m just a fucked up guy looking for his own peace of mind.”

“That’s not what you said earlier.”

“You were crying in the rain,” Bucky said, “What was I supposed to do? Tell you to fuck off and sac up?”

“Sounds like a friend to me,” Steve mumbled.

Bucky slammed the bottle of rum down on top of his dresser and ran his hand through his hair. He said, “Damn it, Steve. I’m trying to keep afloat, here. I’m trying not to die, because it would make my mom sad, okay? I can barely handle my own bullshit, let alone the ten years of whatever crap you’ve boxed up. I’m a whole person, you know? I don’t exist to prop you up.”

Steve sat up. “Is that what you think?” he asked, “You think I’m just hanging around to use you?”

“Kinda feels like it,” Bucky said.

“You started this shit,” Steve bit back, “You wanted to have sex.”

“Yeah, I wanted to have sex,” Bucky emphasized, “I didn’t sign up to be your therapist.”

“Then what the hell was earlier?” Steve snapped, “How come you seemed like you cared? Was that a joke? Am I a joke to you?”

Bucky deflated just as rapidly as he’d bristled. He picked the rum back up for a fortifying drink, and waited for everything to settle into a pleasant watercolor. He said, “Nah, Steve. You’ve never been a joke to me. And you never will be, neither. I’m just tryin’ to make it through one day at a time.”

Steve looked down at his socked feet and replied, “I know a little something about that, at least.”

“Sucks,” Bucky summarized.

A bitter, fractured laugh tore out of Steve. He said, “Yeah. It really does.”

“I’m not sorry I yelled at you,” Bucky told him.

“Didn’t think you were,” said Steve.

Bucky cleared his throat, “You…uh. You still want company?”

Steve didn’t speak, only gave Bucky a pitiful look. Were Bucky sober, he might have been embarrassed by the amount of time he took clumsily pulling at his clothes one-armed, but Steve didn’t say a word, even as Bucky forewent pajamas and climbed into bed in nothing but a worn out pair of boxer briefs. Again, sober Bucky might have had the wherewithal to protest Steve pulling him close with his ridiculous arms, but for now – well. Leaning against a warm body felt too good to pass up. Exhaustion seeped into Bucky from the marrow of his bones out, and surrounded by the addictive scent of Steve’s skin, he drifted off.

Bucky drifted from his bedroom in Colorado, and straight into Iraq. Into Tikrit. Bucky hadn’t seen a lick of action since his deployment, just sand and cigarettes and routine patrols. He missed his family, but all his sisters wrote to him. He kept a letter on him at all times to read whenever he swung low.

His deployment crawled along into September, and here, heat lingered far longer than it did in Colorado. Were he at home, he’d be enjoying leaves changing to a host of reds and golds, the start of cool days, and the beginning of chimney smoke puffing from every house in the neighborhood. Not here. The temperature had yet to swoop below eighty.

There was no operation. There was no warning. Maybe the surprise was on Bucky. He was his guys’ NCO, after all. Bucky’s duty was to look after them and keep their asses in line. Instead, he’d been sitting around, rereading a letter from Becca for the umpteenth time, moping about missing Rosh Hashanah and all the good food that came with it.

Those were his last thoughts before everything in his head went jumbled and cockeyed. A blast blew Bucky back so hard he blacked out. He still didn’t know how long he’d been dead to the world. If he woke up sooner, maybe he would have been able to save Dernier. Maybe Morita would still have both legs.

When Bucky snapped back to reality, a shrill ringing in his ears softened the noise of everything else, dulling shouts and gunshots to an indistinguishable background while he forced himself to his feet. His left arm looked like it had gone through a meat grinder, but he couldn’t even feel it. Bucky only knew that his guys were nearby, and he had to make sure that they were safe.

Bucky ran headlong into the flaming ruin at his back. He found Jones first, knocked out by flying debris and bleeding from his head, but still breathing. Bucky dragged Jones outside to safety, away from the firefight and toward cover.

“I’m gonna get the others,” he told Jones’ unconscious body, “Don’t die on me. Don’t do that.”

Back in the inferno, Dugan scrabbled at a busted beam trapping Falsworth against the wall. His face went sheet-white when Bucky barreled in, but he didn’t protest when Bucky used his good arm to leverage a piece of debris beneath the beam and pry it up just enough for Falsworth to wiggle to freedom. He crumpled as soon as he clawed his way out. One of his legs stuck out all funny.

“Get him out of here,” Bucky ordered.

“But Sarge –” Dum Dum protested.

“That’s an order,” Bucky snapped, “I pulled Gabe out around back, but I ain’t seen Morita or Dernier. I’m going in to get them.”

Bucky coughed as smoke clouded around him, thick and black. His focus narrowed to the path he could stomp out for himself. The heat was bad, real bad, but even as his head began to swim, Bucky pressed forward.

He found Morita and Dernier in the same room. Blood soaked everything. Neither was trapped, but both were beat to hell. Both breathing. Both clocks ticking.

But Bucky only had one arm that he could use. Morita looked worse; where Falsworth’s leg didn’t look right, Morita’s was so fucked Bucky couldn’t see the extent of the damage through his blood-soaked camouflage. He’d have to carry them out one at a time. He could do it. They would make it. The others weren’t far. All Bucky had to do was pull them out, and they could get medical attention. Bucky maneuvered Morita onto his back and hefted him through the rubble as flames climbed higher. He found the others right where he left Jones, all being tended to by a stone-faced medic.

Dugan’s shoulders sagged when Bucky crested the horizon and dumped Morita haphazardly into the sand.

“Where’s Dernier?” Dugan shouted, “He’s back inside,” Bucky called back, “I couldn’t carry ‘em both, I have to go back and –”

A second blast knocked Bucky onto his ass.

Where a building once stood, flame swallowed the horizon whole. There was no inside to go back to, anymore.

“No!” Bucky screamed, “No! Fuck, no.”

And that was when everything went from terrible to horrifying.

Buck.

Buck.

Bucky, wake up.

C’mon, Buck.

Bucky gasped awake in a puddle of cooling sweat. The lights were still on in his bedroom, illuminating dusty science fiction novels he couldn’t convince himself to pick up again, and the face of Steven Grant Rogers, screwed up with worry above him. The twin instincts to shove Steve away from him and cry from sheer terror ripped at Bucky from either side. He ended up compromising: jumping to curl up on the floor and cry there.

Steve climbed up from the bed, but gave Bucky his space.

“Buck, is it okay if I touch you?” he asked.

Bucky shook his head.

“You wanna talk about it?”

“I should’ve saved them all. I should’ve got them outta there,” Bucky said into his knees, hot, humiliated tears soaking his skin.

“But…you did,” Steve said.

“Dernier’s dead because of me,” Bucky said, “Morita doesn’t have a leg. Should’ve taken care of ‘em. I didn’t. I fucked it all up.”

“Bucky, the way I heard it, you saved four guys,” Steve said, “That’s how you got your silver star.”

“How do you even know that?” Bucky demanded.

“I’ve Googled you a couple times,” admitted Steve, “Didn’t know you’d lost your arm, but I know there are four guys out there that swear you saved their skin.”

“They’re idiots,” grumbled Bucky, “M’drunk and I still feel like shit. This blows. I can’t get it out of my head. Can’t get any of it out of my head.”

Steve worried his lower lip between his teeth and said, “Not sure drinking’s how you help fix any of this.”

Through the snot and the tears, Bucky laughed. He said, “I know. I know it’s not, Stevie, but I’m tired and fucked up and booze makes it go a while for a little bit. Makes the world a little softer, so I’m not always tripping over the sharp edges and fucking myself up more.” With a gurgle, Bucky’s stomach roiled. He parted his knees just in time to vomit onto the concrete floor.

“Aw, shit,” Bucky whimpered.

“C’mon,” Steve said, “I’ll help you up. We’ll go sleep upstairs.”

“My ma’s gonna get mad that you’re here,” Bucky protested.

Steve huffed, “That’s a problem for Future Steve. Come on. Up you go.” He heaved Bucky to his feet. Together, they stumbled up the stairs, where Steve pushed Bucky onto his dad’s recliner in front of the TV. He disappeared and returned with a glass of tap water, instructing simply, “Drink all of that, you jerk.”

Bucky did, and Steve disappeared again.

“Where’d you go?” Bucky whined, when Steve returned to his side.

“Cleaned up the mess downstairs. Brought you some clothes.”

Bucky should have fought Steve tooth and nail over helping him into pajamas, but instead, he flopped his head onto Steve’s shoulder and let it happen. The warmth from Steve’s hands eased some of the jitters, the steady weight of his massive body anchoring Bucky in now instead of Tikrit. Steve kissed the top of Bucky’s head after he finished helping him dress, then eased him back down into the recliner again.

Inexplicably, Steve’s next move was to pry all the couch cushions off and splay them over the floor.

“The fuck are you doing?” asked Bucky.

“Like when we were kids,” Steve said, “We used to do this. Remember?”

Hell. The strain of nightmares slunk away, chased off by memories of microwave popcorn and Disney movies on VHS. How they begged to have sleepovers. All the time. He never wanted to leave Steve’s side, even as a runt. Steve burned so bright, so vibrantly, and Bucky never could get enough of the relentlessness that made Steve who he was.

Steve’s colors didn’t burn as brightly, now, but Bucky didn’t want to leave him any less. Like a moth to flame, Bucky would always come flying toward Steve, whether or not he burned in the process.

Steve piled blankets and pillows onto the couch cushions, and cajoled a second glass of water down Bucky’s throat before they lay down. This time, Steve didn’t gather Bucky against him – Bucky wriggled into Steve’s grip of his own volition. If he was going to burn, he may as well throw himself right into the fire.

Chapter Text

Chapter Track: Fourth of July – Sufjan Stevens

Steve, by some miracle, snuck a burger and fries past the crop of nurses and hospital personnel patrolling the hallways of Mountain Valley Hospital. In his dad’s room, he found his mother dozing in a chair beside her husband, still wearing the scrubs from the previous night’s shift, husband watching her fondly from his bed. Joe’s eyes lit up when Steve ducked into the room.

“Kiddo,” he wearily managed.

“Hey Dad,” Steve greeted, subdued. As soon as the door clicked closed behind him, he pulled his grease-stained paper bag of McDonald’s from his messenger bag.

Joe didn’t say anything, but the wide (tired, sad) grin that spread across his face was thanks enough. He reached out with grabbing hands, teasing a surprised laugh out of Steve before he handed it over. Joe ate slowly, but Steve was more than content to sit on the side of the beside opposite his sleeping mother, enjoying the company of his parents in silence.

Though Joe didn’t manage to finish the meal Steve smuggled in, his smile remained. He reached over to pat Steve’s hand and said, “Tell me about your day. I’m too tired to talk.”

A stab of anguish at his dad’s state speared through his gut, but Steve pasted a smile of his own over his face anyway and admitted, “I had an awkward breakfast with the Barneses.”

For all his lack of strength, Joe Rogers still had power enough in his body to manage a mighty eyeroll. He didn’t lecture Steve as his mom might were she awake, but instead waved his hand in a ‘go on’ motion.  

“I know what you’re thinking,” said Steve, holding both hands up in defense, “but I didn’t sleep with him. We just hung out.”

A minute upward twitch of Joe’s brow said he believed exactly none of that sentence, but Steve continued, “Yesterday was a bad day. For me and Buck both, I think. He was really drunk, so I cleaned him up and got some water in him. We made a pillow nest on the floor like when we were kids. Winnie found us. We weren’t in trouble – you know Winnie would rip me a new one if she thought we were doing something wrong, but instead we all sat in silence over breakfast.”

Steve recalled old, old memories of breakfast at the Barnes homestead, none of which looked anything like earlier that morning. George and Winnie served as a second set of parents throughout his childhood and adolescence, stuffing food into him in hopes of putting weight on his skinny frame and teasing him with the ease they nettled their own flesh-and-blood children. Breakfasts were loud and jovial affairs, crass and full of laughter.

This morning, they were little better than strangers eyeing Steve over oatmeal and mugs of bargain-brand coffee. He expected blowback from staying the night, but when Winnie cleared her throat and startled both Steve and Bucky awake, she gave no indication of her opinion, just said, “I suppose you may as well stay for breakfast, Steve.”

And then Bucky – Bucky, who’d been plastered the night before and vomited on the floor of his bedroom and shouted at Steve – asked Steve if he was all right before Steve could ask Bucky the same thing.

“Me?” Steve had squeezed out, “What about you?”

“No hangover,” Bucky said, “Thanks for looking after me.”

“Least I could do,” Steve had told him, “after you looked after me.”

An awkward, tentative truce wound between them in delicate threads. Rather than risk the peace, Steve kept his mouth shut about all the shit behind them. Bucky seemed to be on the same train as him; before Steve left that morning, Bucky yanked him into a hard, unrelenting kiss on the front porch, all tongue and teeth and unspoken words. Steve met the kiss with equal power, though much of the anger of previous kisses drained away as they clung to each other.

He left dizzy from the kiss and disconnected from reality, riding the sensation of same-but-different that plagued him in this stupid town. Rode it through to the Walnut, where Tony lent Steve the keys to his rental without a word of argument, rode it through the McDonald’s drive-thru, and rode it into the hospital room where he sat now, recounting his bizarre morning to his dying father.

Joe let out a long exhale.

“Son,” he said, “You gotta figure this shit out with Bucky.”

So surprised was Steve that he didn’t have time to mask it. Sure, no secrets stayed unkept between his parents, but he didn’t know how much his mother really knew about his strange, thorny relationship with his not-best-friend.

“I’m not as dumb as I look,” Joe added.

Steve exclaimed, “I don’t think you’re dumb!”

“You did when you were eighteen,” replied Joe, “but that’s all right. Most kids think their parents are morons when they’re eighteen. Listen, we both know I’m not long for this world. I can’t do a lot, but I can sure as shit give you some parting advice. I may not know the details of the bullcrap fight you two have been in for a decade, but I know whatever the details are, they’re stupid. You kids have been through too much to keep letting some ten-year-old shit get between you.”

“Dad, you don’t know –” Steve began, but restarted, “You said you were too tired to talk.”

“Well, I changed my mind. You’re being stupid, and if you’re not gonna listen to me, then you’re not gonna listen to anyone. I know you two had some kind of teenage sexcapade that ended badly,” his dad went on, “You’re world-class at holding grudges; I’ll give you that. But I want you to consider this, okay? You don’t get where I am right now without becoming painfully aware of your own mortality. Of everyone’s mortality. We got a short ride on this rollercoaster, and I don’t want you to waste your life hanging onto anger. If you died tomorrow, you’d die without fixing the hurts between you and your best goddamn friend on the planet. Don’t risk it.”

Through the whirl of Steve’s mind, he couldn’t pick out anything to say. He knew his dad was right. Of course he knew that. And as usual, in defiance of his father’s correctness, Steve’s first instinct was to reject being told what to do and choose precisely the opposite of the choices he’d been advised to make. Thing was…this wasn’t the same-old advice Joe Rogers dispensed during fishing trips or before Little League games. Someday soon, too soon, Joe wasn’t going to be alive any more.

And his dying wish was for Steve to mend things with Bucky.

Joe hadn’t said dying wish word for word, but that’s what he meant.

Perhaps Steve kept quiet for too long, because Joe spoke up again. He said, “I’m happy with what I’ve done here on Earth. I married the love of my life. I helped make and raise an incredible son. No, don’t look at me like that, Steve. You’re lost right now, but that doesn’t mean you’re not a great son. You are. What I’m saying is that I don’t have old hurts and old regrets hanging over my head here. I lived a good life. A great life, even. I only want the same for you. I want you to consider what matters to you. Whatever happened between you and Bucky – is it more important than what you want with him?”

“No,” Steve answered softly, “it’s not.”

“I thought as much,” Joe said.

After a long stretch without speaking, Steve at last said, “I love you, Dad.”

“I love you too,” Joe replied, “Even when you’re being a shit. Now give me a hug.”

Steve leaned down and wrapped his arms around his father. He held on long enough that Sarah woke in the interim and joined the embrace, holding her husband and her son against her.

**

Two weeks and three days later, Joe Rogers died.

**

Halfway through Bucky’s workout routine, his mom’s familiar knock sounded at his bedroom door. Sweating, he rolled from his push-up position to his side and straightened to his feet, prepared to tell his mom that he wasn’t hungry and had no intention of coming upstairs to dinner.

But then he saw her face.

Tears glinted in her eyes, and Bucky felt like a heel. Even though he knew what words would come next out of her mouth, nothing could have prepared him for the blow he felt, for the gust of emptiness that hit him full-force.

“Joe’s gone,” she said.

This whole time he’d compartmentalized the imminent loss of Joe Rogers as a Steve Thing. He’d shoved it in the box in his head labeled Steve Things, good and bad alike, and kicked it to the back of his mind behind cobwebs of nightmares.

He didn’t consider how Joe Rogers’ death would affect everyone else. Joe was his parents’ friend. They spent year after year at Fourth of July cookouts, looking on as Steve and Bucky lived in each other’s pockets. Even after Bucky fucked everything to hell and Steve vanished into thin air, their parents stuck together. Friends – best friends – just like Steve and Bucky.

And here stood Bucky, paralyzed by the weight of confused grief that bludgeoned his gut.

“Fuck,” Bucky said, “When?”

“About an hour ago. Sarah and Steve only just came home from the hospital. Sarah texted me.”

Steve. Oh, God, Steve. Bucky lunged back to look at his phone, but unlike Sarah, Steve hadn’t thought to tell Bucky the news. Maybe Steve knew that Winnie would tell him. Maybe Steve couldn’t bring himself to do it. Maybe Bucky didn’t matter enough to Steve to be told. Bucky didn’t know, and he didn’t care – because all at once he realized that despite everything, Steve mattered to him.

“I gotta go to him,” Bucky said.

Winnie didn’t preach at him, didn’t tell Bucky that Steve was a bad idea. She gave a gentle nod and said, “Yeah. Okay. You’re a good friend, honey. A good boy.”

Bucky kissed his mom on the cheek, shoved his feet into his combat boots without bothering to tie the laces, and burst down the street as fast as his tired legs could take him. The neighborhood was quiet, the town winding down to sleep. The sun had been gone from the sky long enough that the heat of the summer day had faded, leaving a cool evening breeze to lick at his cheeks. The tranquility grated at Bucky as he ran. How could all these people sit in their houses so serenely, when the Rogers’ world had come crashing down around their ears?

At the Steve’s place, Bucky didn’t bother to knock. Instead, he took a leaf from his teenage book and jumped to grab the lowest branch of the thick, gnarled tree that brushed against the side of the house. Hauling his adult weight up with one arm proved nowhere near as easy as when he was a two-armed teenager, but Bucky managed to shimmy up to Steve’s window with minimal scratches.

No one ever fixed Steve’s bedroom window – it didn’t lock, and maybe it never had. Bucky dug his nails into the bottom and pried it open. Unceremoniously, he toppled into Steve’s old bed, startling Steve into leaping from the mattress. He steadied when his gaze landed on Bucky, but then frowned.

“Go away, Buck.”

“Fuck you,” Bucky said, “If you think I’m leaving here by yourself, you’re delusional, pal.” He kicked his unlaced boots to the carpet and patted the space beside him, still warm from Steve’s body heat.

Steve went blank-faced, his red-rimmed eyes lowering to the floor before he turned to sit on the edge of the mattress. He avoided Bucky’s eyes, gazing into nothing. He didn’t cry or snap at Bucky a second time. Steve just sat.

“Steve,” Bucky murmured. He reached out and tentatively rested his hand on Steve’s back. When this failed to garner a reaction, Bucky tried coaxing, “C’mon. Lie down with me.”

Whether Steve agreed or Bucky manhandled him like a puppet into spooning on a bed far too small for two grown men, Bucky couldn’t say. Steve held his body tight as a rubber band stretched to the limit, the muscles of his back hard against Bucky’s abdomen. Bucky leaned in close enough to rest his lips on the back of Steve’s neck. He kept his arm draped over Steve’s body.

“Hey,” Bucky gently said, “Remember that time – we were like, eight? – and your dad took us out to ice cream right before our Little League game?”

Steve shifted in Bucky’s grip, the tiny movement the only indication that he’d heard Bucky at all. Bucky rubbed circles on Steve’s taut stomach and continued, “I can’t remember what flavor you got, but I know I got cotton candy.”

“Chocolate,” Steve said, “I got chocolate ice cream.”

“Right,” answered Bucky, “I only remember mine ‘cause when we were all running and shit, I projectile vomited blue all over home base.”

“Dad didn’t want us to tell my mom that it was his fault we threw up at our game,” Steve put in.

A smile stretched Bucky’s mouth, strange in light of the weight of grief rolling low in his belly, but there nonetheless. More often than not, Joe Rogers came across as stern – a man not terribly demonstrative in his affection. Perhaps Joe didn’t show his love with suffocating hugs like George and Winnie Barnes, but he showed Steve and Bucky alike in different ways – in making their favorite dinners or taking them to drive-in movies, in making chores fun or misbehaving at exactly the right time. Ice cream treats were a classic Joe Rogers move.

“And then, when your dad drove us home, your mom took one look at us and knew exactly what happened,” Bucky said, and started to laugh.

A chuckle escaped Steve at the recollection. He turned to face Bucky, a genuine grin on his otherwise exhausted face. Punch-drunk, he snorted and laughed and managed, “You had blue all down the front of your uniform, but remember? Remember how I looked? It looked like I shit myself.”

“She was so mad,” Bucky laughed.

Mid-laughter, the door to Steve’s bedroom swung open. Sarah’s shoulders visibly sagged when she realized that Bucky was there, was the reason her son was upstairs laughing on the day of his dad’s death. Bucky didn’t pretend not to be cuddling Steve, and instead pulled him closer to make room for Sarah to sit on the edge of the bed. He beckoned for her to come, and she did, perched a respectable distance from Bucky and Steve’s tangled bodies.

“We were talking about that Little League game when we threw up all over ourselves,” Bucky said, “You remember, Sarah?”

Like dawn, fondness rose on Sarah’s face. She shook her head and said, “I was furious! How the hell did that man not know ice cream was a bad idea right before you two would be running all over the place? Your uniforms were ruined. We had to buy new ones for both of you because it was all his fault.” Her laugh didn’t strike out as loudly, but the sound was unmistakable.

Steve reached over to grab his mom’s hand and said, “Or what about that time he and George had us play hooky from school so we could drive to Denver for a Rockies game?”

Sarah made an exasperated noise and responded, “Don’t even get me started!”

Heartache waned with nostalgia, gold-edged memories that kept smiles on all their faces. Sarah, Steve, and Bucky shared Joe Rogers memories well into the night, past the stroke of midnight, until their eyelids drooped and yawns punctuated their retellings. Sarah left Bucky and Steve to their own devices a little past two in the morning, but they didn’t move from where they lay on the narrow mattress.

Steve’s breath went uneven and he cried quietly. Bucky held him and said nothing, because nothing could be said.

But Bucky could stay here and hold Steve as long as he needed to be held. Turned out that no matter how many years passed, Steve Rogers never stopped being his best friend. No amount of anger or hurt would change that – and right now, Bucky’s best friend needed him here.

So here was where he’d be.

**

Joe Rogers’ funeral service was about the least Catholic event Bucky had seen Catholics plan. Sure, only Sarah still adhered to the faith, and the Rogers still had last rites read before he passed and a vigil before the service, and the funeral service was in Gold Cliff’s tiny Catholic church, but in true Joe Rogers form the rules were bent just at the edge of breakage.

The service looked nothing like a funeral mass, as the prayers and crying were scant, and not even Sarah wore black. Joe insisted that everyone wear what was comfortable to his funeral. He didn’t want a stuffy, procedural memorial, no matter what tradition dictated. He didn’t want his absence mourned, or so he’d told anyone that visited, he wanted his life celebrated.

So friends and family exchanged stories of Joe’s life, of the Little League mishaps and barbeques Joe infamously went all-out for. Joe’s coworkers from the construction company that employed him for over thirty years laughed about Joe’s simultaneous rule-following work and independent personality.

Bucky stood with his family while Steve’s New York friends stood behind him. Tony Stark put his hand on Steve’s shoulder, and Steve smiled at him, thin but genuine.

“No matter how much I said, ‘Joe, we can’t play AC/DC in the church,’ he didn’t back down,” Sarah told the onlookers, “He wanted us all to dance, so that’s what we’ll do. I’d like to thank Father Simmons for being so patient with my husband, and for letting us play ‘Highway to Hell’ in his church. You are truly a saint for allowing this much leeway.”

Surprised laughter broke out through the pews. And true to Joe’s wishes, the attendees of his service left the church dancing, AC/DC blaring from the speakers overhead.

Steve and Sarah’s closest friends drove back to the Rogers’ house for a quieter round of memories, for a little more sadness that Joe perhaps would have liked. Bucky knocked back no more than five glasses of Joe’s best whiskey while Steve’s New York friends stared him down from the couch across from him. He draped his arm over Steve’s broad shoulders and met them stare for stare.

Steve leaned into Bucky. He didn’t cry, didn’t add any stories to the mix, but he did rest his hand on Bucky’s knee.

Bucky couldn’t get a read on Steve past the stone-tense muscles and expressionless face, so he did what he could – he stayed by his side.

Beyond that, he didn’t know what else he could do.

Chapter Text

Chapter Seven: Two Drums in the Gray

Chapter Track: Run – Daughter

The loss of Joe seeped into the town like watercolor soaking into too-thin paper. Places once smooth and right seemed wrinkled and off-kilter, all of Gold Cliff too quiet in the wake of one of their own being gone. None were more quiet than Steve, who hadn’t cried in Bucky’s presence since the day of Joe’s service, but who didn’t smile, either.

Stubborn loyalty kept Bucky by his side, even as Steve’s New York friends dragged him out of his childhood home and forced him to interact with the world. Bucky went along with, learning that Natasha was technically Steve’s supervisor and head of security, Steve had worked for Tony for almost the entirety of his ten-year absence from Gold Cliff, and Sam liked Bucky about as much as Bucky liked himself, which was not at all. That was fine. Bucky didn’t much care for Sam, either.

While Steve stared out the window of the Main Street Diner and watched passersby, his city friends focused their attention on Bucky.

Tony (Stark – Bucky still wasn’t over that, and wasn’t sure if he’d ever be) emptied a couple of sugar packets onto the table and drew in the granules with a coffee stirrer as he spoke, and Christ on a cracker, did Tony have a lot to say. Bucky wasn’t certain that he ever stopped, and in the few short days they’d existed in each other’s company, he learned to tune out most of what the man said.

Beside him, Steve didn’t appear to be listening to anyone.

“Barnes? Are you listening to me?”

Maybe Bucky wasn’t listening either.

“Huh?” Bucky said, and found all eyes but for Steve’s on him.

“I asked if you had a prosthesis,” Tony said, “because you don’t wear one, and I know they charge out the ass for those things, so –”

“I have one,” Bucky stiffly answered, “I just don’t like to wear it.”

“Why not?” Tony asked, “Seems like your limited mobility pisses you off pretty hard. I hear prosthetic limbs are supposed to help with the whole mobility thing. You know. Picking things up and having two arms and all that?”

“Maybe, but mine does shit-all for me. Just makes my shoulder hurt like a motherfucker,” Bucky said, irritated. Wanda drifted to the table again to fill their coffee mugs and eye Tony’s sugar mess on the tabletop. Perhaps realizing that he was in public, Tony swept the sugar off the table and dumped it from his palm into his coffee mug, then ordered more food than any one person needed.

Tony reclined against the sticky vinyl seating and nursed his coffee, a pensive expression on his face. He said, “I bet you I could make a better prosthesis than the one you’ve got. I mean, I’ve never tried, but it can’t be that hard. I’ve invented way weirder stuff. I’d need your other arm though. And probably some measurements. Maybe I could even make this a thing! I could make arms for people. And legs, probably, although I don’t know anyone off the top of my head with a missing leg. I know they seem similar in theory but arms and legs do totally different shit and I’d need to do some serious –”

“No,” Bucky said, voice flat.

Tony frowned. “No?” he echoed, “Why not?”

“I don’t got money coming out my ears; that’s why,” Bucky said, “Do I look like I have enough money to buy me a prosthesis made by Tony Stark?” He swept a hand over his worn clothing, pieces he’d had since high school that now stretched too tightly across adult muscle.

Tony rolled his eyes. He said, “I wouldn’t make you pay for it. That’s ridiculous. I’m not that much of an asshat. You’re Steve’s friend. Boyfriend? Fuckbuddy? Whatever. You’re Steve’s. That makes you mine, and I look out for my people. So do you want a new arm or what?”

Bucky slid his gaze from Tony to Steve, who still wasn’t listening to the conversation. He sighed, and rubbed his hand over his face, “Whatever. You can try. But makin’ an arm isn’t as simple as you make it sound.”

“Of course it isn’t,” Tony replied, “but you know I’ve made arms before. Get it? Arms? Like weapons? That was a joke; you’re supposed to laugh at it. I’ll wait.” At the ensuing silence, Tony sighed, “Fine. You’re all humorless. But listen, Murder-Eyes, I’m not just some engineer off the street. I’m Tony goddamn Stark. You’ll get your arm, and it’s gonna be fucking amazing.”

Bucky stared at Tony for a beat too long and shook his head. “Okay,” he demurred, “Whatever you say,” because that was way easier than fighting with Steve’s friends the way that he wanted to.

While Tony chattered about something else, Steve mumbled, “Who the hell is that?” and Bucky turned to look out the window.

In a space cat meme t-shirt, a handsome black guy sauntered past the diner walking not one, not two, but three cats. Bucky chuckled. He said, “He moved here like two years back? I think he’s rich or something. Doesn’t have a job in town, but he has a giant house out near the woods. Built the thing himself. It’s nice as hell.”

“You don’t know his name?” Steve asked.

“Nah,” Bucky said, “He keeps to himself. Me and Clint call him Weird Cat Guy. But I know the cats. The calico’s Sipho, black one is Jama and the gray is Ikati. He’s got like – I don’t know, five or six more.”

“He’s kinda hot,” Sam remarked.

“Sam,” Steve warned.

“What?” Sam shrugged, “He is. I don’t mind cats.”

“You should meet mine,” Bucky muttered, conjuring the image of Swamp Cat clawing the shit out of Sam Wilson’s smug face.

“What was that, Barnes?” asked Sam.

Bucky put a sweet smile on his face and said, “I said maybe you should meet him. Weird Cat Guy, I mean. Maybe he’ll like you as much as he likes his cats.”

Sam threw a wadded-up napkin at Bucky’s face.

“Guys,” Steve warned. Sam didn’t bother looking abashed in the slightest. Bucky made a face at him, knowing full well that as an adult man his behavior was questionable, but something in Sam Wilson brought out his inner child in the least flattering ways. Perhaps it was the old friend-new friend thing – but then again, Bucky was porking Steve, and knew full well that Sam Wilson was not.

No one was surprised when the next words out of Steve’s mouth were, “I think I’m gonna call it a day. I’m really tired.”

Tony frowned from over his breakfast and said, “It’s not even eleven, champ.”

“Yeah, but I didn’t sleep so good,” Steve mumbled, “I’ll see you guys around.” He gathered his worn leather jacket from its place on the seat between his legs and Bucky’s, waited for Bucky to shuffle out of the booth, and shouldered out of the diner, leaving confused friends in his wake.

Tight-lipped, Natasha said, “Somebody’s gotta talk to him.”

“Not me,” Tony said, “My dad was a grade-A asshole. I got nothing for him.”

Sam smeared both his hands down his face. He replied, “I’ve tried, Tasha. All I’m getting is ‘I’m fine’ and ‘just drop it’. But I bet you our boy here could make something work.” He jerked his chin at Bucky.

“Me?” Bucky screwed up his face, “I haven’t been able to get Steve to do shit since like, the first grade.”

“I don’t know, man,” Sam shrugged, “I don’t like it, but he’s different with you. You’re something special to him.”

The soft edges of hope fluttered against Bucky’s insides. He hated that feeling, hated getting a little light when he knew full well that he’d be locked in the dark moments later. But…this wasn’t about him. This was about Steve. What was the worst that happened? Steve decided he wasn’t going to speak to Bucky anymore and disappeared off the face of the planet? That already happened. Bucky knew what that felt like.

Bucky shook his head, exhaled a resigned sigh, and said, “I guess. I can try. No promises.”

Shrugging his own coat over his shoulders, he peeled away from Wanda’s diner in search of Steve.

Tony would have no problem covering the bill.

**

In the light of day, Steve’s bedroom struck Bucky to his core. While Sarah kept dust bunnies at bay over the years, little else changed – a few storage boxes crammed into corners, maybe, but otherwise all the same. Steve’s bed suited a tiny teenager, not the grown-ass man he’d become, and on the ancient mattress, he looked like a giant trying to squeeze into an impossible space.

Bucky closed the door behind him. For every one of Bucky’s Pokémon or Star Wars posters, Steve had punk bands plastered all over his walls. In a bigger town, maybe they might not have become friends. Bucky might have run in circles with other nerds, and Steve might have been off fighting the man with his anti-establishment crew and his emo-kid haircut that cried out in old pictures: I WAS A TEENAGER IN 2006!

Now they both looked a mess.

Steve lifted his head at the sound of the door, and frowned when he saw Bucky standing there.

“Yeah, I know,” Bucky said, waving his hand, “not who you were hoping for, but I’m who you’re stuck with. Your friends are worried about you.”

Vacantly, Steve stared. He said, “None of this feels real.”

“Like, your dad?”

“That, but like…everything. Am I even really here? Are my friends actually here? Are you really here, in this room, right now, with me?”

“That’s…uh. That’s called dissociating, Steve,” Bucky said, uncomfortable.

Steve’s brows crunched together. He replied, “I thought that was like, you know, an out-of-body thing.”

“Can be,” Bucky murmured, daring to step closer. He didn’t sit, but hovered over where Steve lay crunched in a ball to fit in his comically small bed. He went on, “It is for me, usually. Like I’m not inside myself. But like. Sometimes it’s like nothing around you is real, like a weird dream you might wake up from.”

Steve didn’t say anything.

“Listen,” continued Bucky, “I promise I’m real, okay?”

“Doesn’t feel that way,” Steve mumbled.

Swallowing the fear that beat against his ribs like the wings of a moth, Bucky knelt, took Steve’s big hand in his, and placed it against his chest. He said, “See, Rogers. Real.”

Steve shifted from a fetal position to sitting perched on the edge of the mattress. He slid his free hand up under Bucky’s shirt and let it rest against his skin. His whole hand was warm – and Bucky found himself surprised. As a teenager, Steve’s circulation was for shit. His hands felt like ice and his toes were twice as worse, which Steve had enjoyed proving at sleepovers by sticking his feet directly onto Bucky’s shins just to hear him shriek.

Now, Steve leaned his forehead against Bucky’s chest. He stayed there, still, for several long seconds. Then, Steve glanced up at Bucky with his stupid blue-green eyes, chin still cradled against the muscle of Bucky’s torso as he stared.

“Prove it’s real,” Steve rasped.

Bucky swallowed the nervous lump in his throat. Somewhere, his brain told him that coping with all this grief with sex was ten shades of a terrible idea, but the rest of him didn’t give a shit. He released Steve’s hand to stroke his fingers through Steve’s blond hair, and said, “You sure you wanna do that right now, pal?”

Steve nodded into Bucky’s t-shirt.

Gently, more gently than he’d dared treat Steve before, Bucky pushed him to lie back on the tiny bed. The frame creaked under Steve’s bulk, swaying dangerously. Bucky hummed, and suggested, “Maybe the floor’s better for this, huh?”

And like they were children, like they weren’t about to fuck again, Steve and Bucky constructed a sloppy fort of pillows and blankets and the mattress they pulled out of its precarious frame. Steve smuggled in extra supplies from the hall closet and bathroom, and they used one of Sarah’s banana clips to secure an old striped sheet to Steve’s desk chair.

Inside the fort, the world beyond vanished. They weren’t two adult men with tragic histories spiraling behind them – they were Steve and Bucky, Bucky and Steve, as they used be, and perhaps as they always would. Bucky kissed Steve, and this time, he didn’t kiss like he fought. He kissed like he thought he might have liked to, had Steve never left town, had Bucky never enlisted, if only their lives had happened the way that they planned.

Steve thrust his hands into Bucky’s hair and kissed back all the same, too gently and sweetly, like all of this meant more than it really did. Bucky reminded himself that they were using each other for sex, using each other as crutches, using one another for what they lacked.

“How do you want it?” Bucky whispered between kisses.

Steve cupped the back of Bucky’s head and let their foreheads rest together. He licked his lips and asked, “Can I be inside you?”

“Yeah, that’ll be good.”

They stripped their clothes but took it slow, kissing like they needed each other to breathe. Bucky seized the opportunity to take Steve in, to let his eyes roam over the planes of muscle that made up this new frame, this Steve 2.0. To the untrained eye, Steve was flawless, but Bucky could still pick out childhood scars all across Steve’s skin. He made a point to kiss each and every one, from bicycle crashes to falling out of trees to getting into playground scraps with the assholes of their youth.

Soon, Bucky realized, Steve would leave again. He didn’t want to let Steve go with the same regrets he did ten years ago. So Bucky captured Steve’s mouth in a longing kiss, a kiss that spoke what words he couldn’t force up from his lungs. He pulled Steve down on top of him and they laughed at little when they shook the foundation of their fort.

“Let me…I bought lube,” Steve said, “I’ll go get it.”

“Oh, good, now everybody knows what we’re up to,” Bucky snarked.

Steve rolled his eyes. He said, “After our moms knew, it was all over. It doesn’t matter that I bought lube. If it makes you feel better, Ms. McKay lectured me while she was ringing me up. ‘If you hurt our boy…’” Steve ended on an exaggerated, high-pitched voice, then ducked out of the fort to retrieve a brand-new bottle of lube.

With his teeth, Steve gnawed at the plastic around the cap and tossed it aside. As eager as it made him look, Steve took it all slow. He treated Bucky like the virgin princess he’d told Steve a thousand times he was not. It was nice, though, almost like that first time – teenage Steve, for all the anger packed inside his tiny frame, was gentle as anything when they’d slept together.

Déjà vu, as Steve fingered Bucky open, swarmed all around them, crawling across Bucky’s skin. He let his eyes close and the sensation swallowed him whole, his entire body a livewire as Steve worked him over. And like the big idiot Steve continued to be, he pecked kisses to Bucky’s face before he breathed, “You all good?”

Bucky withheld all the stinging comments that danced at the tip of his tongue and instead answered, “Yeah.”

Oh, this was stupid.

When Bucky opened his eyes, Steve’s hands held his legs open like they had all those years ago. He braced himself with a palm to the meat of Bucky’s thigh and a hand on his cock and pushed in. He wrapped his legs around Steve’s trim waist.

Kisses and heat and Steve’s big body.

A striped sheet fluttering overhead as the feeling of fullness overwhelmed Bucky’s entire body.

The sex came and went in snatches of wondrous time and brief consciousness. Bucky kissed Steve and cradled his hips.

“God, Steve,” he said, “You’re something else, you know? So goddamn gorgeous, all this time.”

A breathless laugh escaped Steve’s chest. He asked, “Even back then?”

Especially back then,” Bucky said, “You ever look in a mirror in high school? You were the sexiest little thing, Rogers. Your ass would not quit.”

“You’re hilarious.”

“I’m bein’ serious, you bonehead,” Bucky said back, pulling Steve in for another precious kiss. “I wanted to nail your skinny little body into the mattress since we were about fourteen. Swear to God.”

Steve’s hips gyrated, circled against Bucky’s body, and Bucky moaned. He muffled the noise into Steve’s shoulder as he lifted to meet Steve thrust for thrust. When Steve reached between them to slowly work his palm over Bucky’s cock, Bucky about lost it. He mumbled into Steve’s skin about how gorgeous he was, how good he felt. Any praise that came to Bucky’s mind left his mouth without a thought, because – God, this could be the last time he got to do this with Steve before he returned to his life in the big city.

Steve would leave Colorado again, would leave Bucky behind, and that would be that.

Bucky shook the thought from his head, let the heat of Steve’s hand shove him right over the edge and into an orgasm incongruently explosive for the slow, heartfelt sex. Steve kept his grip on Bucky’s oversensitive cock as he rode into him like the waves of the ocean.

Minutes later, Steve pulled out and came on the mattress. He wrapped his limbs around Bucky and clung like a limpet. They breathed together, but didn’t speak.

Only after their lungs settled did Bucky dare shift his attention to Steve. He put his hand against Steve’s cheek and asked, “You back, big guy?”

Steve blinked a few times, as if only then realizing where he was. He narrowed his eyes and groaned and said, “We should not have done that.”

And there it was.

Bucky cast a sardonic smile up at the sheet above them and said, “Probably not, no.”

“This isn’t working, Buck,” Steve said, more insistently.

Bucky lifted a brow. He asked, “What’s not working?”

“The sex,” Steve said with a helpless sweep of his arm, “This…everything. Everything between us. What the hell are we accomplishing? We’re making it worse. We can’t just keep fucking our feelings into the ground, you know?”

Bucky expected this, but he thought maybe – maybe he’d be able to sneak in a little cuddling beforehand. Steve was right, of course. They couldn’t keep using sex to feel like normal people, to pretend neither of them felt the horrible things they did.

What Bucky hadn’t expected was the crushing blow to his chest, no less powerful than what he felt the day that he discovered Steve left him behind and wouldn’t speak to him. This time, though, he didn’t cry. He just wet his lips with the tip of his tongue and nodded along.

“Yeah, I know,” Bucky agreed, “Okay.”

Bucky rolled out of the fort and kicked around the clothes on the floor until he found what belonged to him.

Steve scrambled out after, and buck-ass naked with hands on hips, demanded, “Wait, what are you doing?”

“Gettin’ out of here,” Bucky said, buttoning his pants.

“That’s not – not what I meant,” Steve said, pulling his fingers back through his hair, “Bucky, come on, don’t –”

Bucky held up his hand. “Steve,” he said, “Don’t make this harder than it is already. Don’t drag it out. Don’t make me sit through the essay about everything that’s wrong with me. I know we made this hard for us but let’s just – make a clean cut, okay? Have a nice life. You deserve to be happy and shit.”

And Bucky left. What else was there to do? He could listen to Steve tell him why they couldn’t do what they were doing, but he already knew. He knew he was fucked up and forced his fuckery on everyone he touched. Steve wasn’t the only one to feel the weight of Bucky’s fucked-up-ness on his shoulders. Hell, Bucky sucked up souls like a black hole. His mom looked exhausted every time she met his eyes. His sisters were afraid of him.

Everything hit Bucky in one, laser-focused beam of realization: He kept trying for other people, but all he was doing was using those people up like napkins, leaving crumpled corpses behind him as he crushed the good out of the people he touched.

One thing would ease the burden, and Bucky knew immediately it was the right choice.

When he walked through the front door to his home, he greeted his parents. He filled Swamp Cat’s bowl with a can of wet food and put fresh water in her dish. Said hi to Judy, who was doing homework at the kitchen table. She barely acknowledged his presence, and that was good. That was for the best.

“Ma! I’m taking a bath!” Bucky shouted behind him, and descended the basement stairs. He set the scene as he would any bath: threw in a bath bomb, turned the lights off and lit soothing candles. He even brought his phone, though he ignored the eight million texts from Steve.

He texted Clint, perhaps as a last act of desperation, but all he wrote was hey. Then, Bucky unearthed what was left of his alcohol stash and inventoried the pharmacy that his medicine cabinet had become. Anxiety pills lined the slender shelves, sandwiched between painkillers for the mess of his arm. He dumped an entire handful of pills into his palm, garnished it with a couple of painkillers for good measure, and chased them down his throat with a long, burning swig of whiskey.

Then, Bucky stripped out of his clothes.

He sank into the warm bathwater and waited to die.

Chapter Text

Chapter Eight: Please Don’t Leave Here

Chapter Track: Illusion – VNV Nation

Murmured voices surrounded Bucky on all sides. He couldn’t hear what they were saying, and he didn’t try to listen.

The voices came in waves: some frantic, some authoritative, some too quiet to sound like much at all.

But Bucky came-to during silence, eyes fluttering open, only to be assaulted with an onslaught of too-bright fluorescent light. He whined and squeezed his eyes closed.

“Buck?”

Steve?

Bucky opened one eye and squinted against the glare. The vague, large shape of Bucky’s best friend hovered at his side, and, after a few seconds of adjustment, swam into focus. He looked…well, pissed. Bucky scraped his thoughts back to what he must have done to rub Steve wrong this time, and ventured a guess: “Is this about the sex?”

Steve’s face shifted from pissed to down-right furious.

“You – you – you –” Steve sputtered.

“I’m sorry?” he guessed.

“You tried to kill yourself!” Steve shouted.

Oh. That.

“Aw, Stevie, don’t be mad,” he tried. His throat felt like steaming shit, all rough and scratchy.

“Don’t be – don’t be –”

“It obviously didn’t work,” Bucky reassured him, and reached over to pat Steve’s hand where it rested on the edge of his mattress. “Aw, shit, am I at the hospital?” Sure as hell, Bucky’s heartbeat flickered across an overhead monitor. An IV of fluids rested in the crook of his elbow, the skin around the needle tight and wrinkled with medical tape. Everything smelled of sharp disinfectant.

“Where else would you be?” snapped Steve. Only then did Bucky realize that not only was he in a hospital with Steve Rogers at his bedside, but that Steve was covered in the unmistakable, thin parallel scratches that could only have one culprit: a cat.

Bucky ran the tip of his finger over one of the offending marks and asked, “What’d you do?”

“What did I do?” Steve near-screeched, “What did I do? I tried to feed your cat! And she mauled me! Do you know why? Because she doesn’t like anyone but you! And you tried to kill yourself, you asshole!”

Bucky’s barely-awake brain did all that it could think to do –

It made him cry. Tears sprung from his eyes and snot filled his nose and his face flooded with oozing heat. His breath hitched as he tried to be quiet, though on that front, he did not succeed in the slightest.

Abashed, Steve tried to calm him down with a soft, “Hey,” and, “Hey, whoa, it’s okay. You’re okay.” He cupped Bucky’s face with his big hands and wiped the tears from under his eyes with his thumbs, then peeled back from Bucky’s bedside to snag a slender box of tissues from across the room.

Bucky was, and always had been, an easy – and ugly – crier. Dog movie? Water works. Anxiety attack? Tomato-faced tears. Read a touching story on Facebook? Immediate downpour. His breath stuck in his throat like insects on flypaper, and even as he blew his nose his sinuses filled again.

“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” Steve was saying, through it all, “I’m sorry I shouted. You just scared me. C’mon, Buck, please don’t cry.”

“I just want somebody to be nice to me,” Bucky wailed.

Between his big palms, Steve cradled Bucky’s face and pulled him closer, close enough to close his mouth over Bucky’s. Bucky leaned into the kiss like a flower to the sun. He was pathetic, he would take any touch he could, anything he could get –

“Shh,” Steve said, and kissed his forehead, “You’re not pathetic. Shh.”

While Bucky continued to cry, Steve appeared to win a battle within himself, and climbed over to join Bucky in the narrow hospital bed. He circled his thick arms around Bucky and nuzzled his nose against Bucky’s cheek, and like an infant, Bucky hiccupped away the last of his tears into the tight embrace. He held his body still, allowed himself to be cradled against Steve’s chest, even though he didn’t deserve it.

Bucky lost time there, wrapped in Steve’s arms. For once, Steve didn’t have anything to say. For once, Bucky had to ask, “What happened?”

Steve let out a long, tired sigh, laced with feeling. He buried his nose in Bucky’s hair and explained, “Your mom found you in your bathtub. An ambulance would’ve taken too long, so she and your dad and Judy carried you to the car and rushed you out here. They had to pump your stomach. You’ve been out for about a day.”

“Fuck,” Bucky murmured, because he didn’t mean for his little sister to get mixed up in his bullshit again.

“Yeah,” Steve agreed. Bucky could tell that he wanted to say more, but for Bucky’s sake was keeping himself in check.

“I didn’t want Judy to get mixed up in this shit again,” Bucky confessed, “and I didn’t mean for you to get caught up in it, either. This is – this is just how I am, now.”

“No.”

“No?” Bucky repeated, and withdrew from Steve enough to meet him eye for eye. He said, “Steve, no offense, buddy, but you barely know me now.”

“I know enough,” Steve said. He didn’t raise his voice, but the tone was firm. Unshakeable, as Steve ever was. He went on, “People change; that’s true. But some things don’t. You’re still brave –”

Bucky couldn’t contain the short bark of laughter that escaped his chest. Raw and raspy, it burned on the way out of his throat. He said, “Steve. We are in a hospital right now, as we speak, because I tried to off myself. I am a fucking coward. You never would have left if I wasn’t such a fucking coward.”

The mention of That One Time silenced Steve, and Bucky wished he weren’t right.

“I don’t think being scared means that you can’t be brave,” Steve slowly replied, “I think being brave is making the right choice even when you’re scared.”

“Which I did not do,” muttered Bucky.

“You were a kid,” Steve said. The words lolled off his tongue hesitantly, as though Steve himself was realizing this for the first time. Bucky was a kid. Steve was a kid. They slept together, just two idiot eighteen-year-old kids, and Bucky panicked.

“I thought we ruined everything,” whispered Bucky. No weight lifted from his chest as he said the words. They hissed from his chest like helium escaping a balloon, and instead of freer he felt flatter.

“I didn’t think so,” Steve answered, “at first. But then I woke up and you were gone, and I…I thought I screwed up. I thought I ruined everything. I thought the only way to make it right was to leave you alone. To just – leave.”

**

Ten Years Before

“I’m really gonna do it, Buck,” Steve said, with a sweeping flourish of his arms, his narrow face split open in a huge, tipsy grin.

Affection overflowed inside Bucky, like liquid golden light. He wanted nothing more than to wrap his arms around his skinny best friend and hold him forever.

Sure, Steve was going to go to school far away in New York, and Bucky wouldn’t see him as much, but he’d never let Steve go. Ever. They were two peas in a pod, always together, one and the same. All of Gold Cliff knew that Steve and Bucky went hand in hand, and Bucky had no intention of letting a few thousand miles change that.

Cheap orange juice and Barney Barton’s bathtub moonshine flowed through their veins, and they were untouchable. They would be the force that changed the world, that turned tides, that toppled capitalism and ended injustice.

It was 2007, and they were wonderfully alive.

“You’re gonna change the world,” Bucky told Steve, seriously.

As they walked back to Steve’s house from the graduation party at the Bartons’ trailer, crickets chirped and a blanket of stars winked in the night sky overhead.

“They won’t have those in New York,” Steve remarked absently, “Everyone on the internet says so.”

“Light pollution,” Bucky agreed.

Steve knew what he wanted in his life. He always had. Steve would make art that would change the world. Anyone that said he couldn’t simply hadn’t met him yet. He’d yelled as much at teachers, whispered as much to Bucky, and drunkenly declared it to their tiny graduating class while standing on a broken lawn chair around a bonfire.

Steve Rogers would change the world.

Bucky…didn’t know what he wanted. He never had grand aspirations like Steve did, never thought he’d somehow make it big and put his name in the history books. All he wanted was to be happy, to be fulfilled wherever he was. He supposed, probably, that place would be with Steve. He’d work the night shift packing boxes or stocking shelves and he’d come home and there…

There would be Steve.

“Bucky,” Steve said, and stopped walking.

Bucky turned. Steve stood on the dirt road with his hands stuffed in the pockets of his jeans, checkered Vans scuffing the ground. His hair flopped over one eye, emo in a way Bucky could only accomplish after a battle with his sister’s flat iron.

“What’s up?” asked Bucky.

Steve reached between them and grabbed Bucky’s hand, laced their fingers together. He said, “I don’t know what I’m gonna do without you.”

“You’ll find friends,” Bucky assured him.

They’d been walking almost forty-five minutes now. Clint lived far enough out of town that the cops wouldn’t bother busting a bunch of rowdy, horny teenagers getting wasted and roasting marshmallows. No neighbors lived close enough to care.

“But I won’t find anyone like you,” Steve murmured.

Bucky grinned. “Of course you won’t,” he said, all cocky confidence, even as he tentatively held his best friend’s hand like a blessing, “There’s only one Bucky Barnes. Can’t have my brand diluted with mass-marketed Buckys in New York, can I?”

Steve laughed and leaned into Bucky’s side. “Still,” he said, “I’m really gonna miss you.”

With that sobering thought, Bucky replied, “I’m really gonna miss you too, Steve.”

With those final words ringing in their ears, Bucky and Steve traversed the rest of the way into Gold Cliff proper. Now more sober than either of them set out to be, they climbed the tree outside Steve’s house and shimmied in through the window. With a muffled squeal of springs, they toppled onto Steve’s mattress, one after the other.

For a long moment, Bucky and Steve lay side by side, pressed so close that Bucky could feel the rise and fall of Steve’s chest with each intake of breath.

Steve was getting bigger. Taller. He’d grown several inches in the last year. What if Steve came home from college taller than Bucky? Stranger things had happened. Steve was still a skinny scrap of a thing, though Bucky fancied that Steve’s ribs pushed less prominently at his skin as they had months before.

Steve turned his head and gazed at Bucky.

Bucky stared back.

“I won’t find anyone like you in New York,” Steve said slowly, as though tasting the words as he said them.

“Sure you will,” Bucky replied, though the idea that Steve could replace him with a shiny New York model sat like a hot stone in the pit of his stomach.

“I won’t,” Steve stated. His voice took on the This-Is-An-Argument-And-I-Won’t-Back-Down tone he was so prone to adopt.

Bucky rolled to his side, his face mere inches from Steve’s. How could this guy have such long eyelashes? All he wanted, really, was to make Steve feel better. Steve Rogers was going to change the world, but he couldn’t do that from a tiny mountain town. He had break out into bigger places.

“Okay,” Bucky tried reasoning, “You won’t find somebody like me. But you’re gonna find somebody. You’re right. They won’t be me, but they’ll be themselves, and you’ll love them for it.”

“No, I mean –” Steve made a frustrated noise. He propped himself up on one elbow, winning some war within, and said, “Bucky. Listen. I’m not – I’m never gonna find another person like you. And it’s not because there are no other people like you. I’m sure there are. But the thing is that I don’t care about them. You’re my best friend, but it’s more than that. It’s like, every time I see you, I think –”

“I love you,” blurted Bucky.

Steve stared, his mouth going slack.

“And I mean it exactly the way it sounds,” he added for good measure. If he was going to do this, he may as well go all the way.

Steve smacked his chest.

“You asshole,” Steve croaked, “I was going to say it first! I had a speech planned, and you just fucking barrel in, all like ‘Oh, yeah, I love you.’ I love you.”

So, Bucky kissed him.

And Steve kissed back, fury and fire at the ready.

“Hey, slow down,” Bucky told him, “Let yourself enjoy it.”

This time, when their lips met, the kiss was tender and unsure. Bucky wasn’t certain Steve went into anything without expecting a fight – he clawed his way out of the womb spitting fucking mad – but he’d show him. He would show Steve something that wasn’t a fight, something that could never be a fight. Bucky licked along the seam of Steve’s lips and kissed him with everything he had. It was exactly as he imagined and nothing like his daydreams all at once. None of the mind-Steves Bucky played this out with made that pretty noise, and none of the mind-Buckys felt so delightfully, stupidly whole.

When they broke apart, they laughed helplessly in each other’s arms, so happy that the joy had no place else to go but out.

Bucky snuggled up against Steve’s side.

“Hey, so, this is just an idea,” Steve started.

“Christ,” complained Bucky, “Famous last words. We always get into trouble after you say that.”

Steve planted his elbow in Bucky’s gut and said, “Shut up. I’m serious. And we won’t get in trouble this time. It’s just between you and me.”

Interest piqued, Bucky said, “All right. Hit me. What dumbass idea are we getting ourselves into tonight?”

“You can say no,” Steve emphasized.

“Oh boy,” said Bucky, “Here we fucking go.”

This time, Steve ignored him. “I have stuff,” he said, “for…you know. Sex. If you want to.”

To say that Bucky was not expecting Steve to proposition him tonight was understatement of the year.

That didn’t mean he didn’t want it.

“We don’t have to,” Steve carried on, when Bucky was quiet for too long, “I just thought, maybe, if you wanted to. If everything went all right with the speech I had planned. I had drafts, Buck. Actual drafts. And I didn’t even get to say it. Anyway, I thought maybe you might want sex so I bought lube and condoms.”

“Oh my God,” Bucky groaned, “now everyone’s gonna know.”

“No, they just know I’m having sex. Or want to. They don’t know it’s with you.”

“They can take a wild fucking guess,” Bucky said. Their graduating class had all of thirty-three people in it, and Steve pissed off at least half of them.

“Does it matter?” asked Steve.

No, Bucky supposed, it didn’t matter. What mattered was that he wanted to be as close to Steve as possible, and Steve was offering that, right now, like it was nothing.

“Okay,” Bucky agreed, “Let’s try it.”

“Wait, really?”

Bucky laughed. “You didn’t expect me to say yes?”

“I didn’t even expect to get as far as ‘I love you,’” Steve admitted.

“Well, you did,” shrugged Bucky. He sat up, then, with his legs crossed, and yanked his t-shirt up over his head. He wasn’t as skinny as Steve by any stretch of the imagination, but he was still scrawnier than he wanted to be. The vague slope of muscles shaped his arms and torso, remnants of a student athlete, but Bucky hadn’t kept up nearly as much as he should have in the weeks since their graduation.

Steve had seen Bucky shirtless before, but he still raked his eyes over Bucky’s chest like he was a holiday feast all laid out on the dining room table and ready to eat. He drew up to sitting and leaned over to kiss Bucky just once. Then, he stood, and rummaged in his dresser drawers. Steve returned victorious to the bed with a plastic bag, the kind that read ‘THANK YOU’ in red ink over and over.

“How do you wanna do it?” asked Bucky.

Steve replied, “I, um, kind of didn’t think that far ahead.” The tops of his ears went red. Knowing Steve, he was probably ashamed he hadn’t planned for every possibility.

“I can be on bottom,” Bucky volunteered.

“You sure?” asked Steve.

“I mean, I’m no expert,” Bucky said, “I’ve only ever done stuff with girls, but if you look in the right places on the internet…well. Anyway, I’ve tried some things. I think I’d like it with you on top.” A traitorous blush spread down his body. The red flush didn’t show nearly as much on Bucky’s olive skin as it did on Steve, but he didn’t feel it any less keenly.

“You watched gay porn?” Steve asked, quietly.

“Yeah,” Bucky said, “A few times.”

Steve nodded to that, for some reason, and dumped the unopened lube and condoms on the bed. While he tore into the condom box, Bucky undid the fly of his jeans and shimmied out of them. He wasn’t hard yet, but the anticipation was enough for his cock to perk up in his underwear.

With the plastic ripped from the bottle of lube and a string of condoms in hand, Steve climbed back into bed.

“How come you still got clothes on?” Bucky prodded.

Steve shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t look like you, Buck.”

“So?”

“So you look better than I do,” Steve said.

“Not to me,” said Bucky earnestly, “I always think you look good.”

“Your funeral,” Steve muttered, but he took his t-shirt off anyway, a shirt for a band that was mostly screaming and Bucky couldn’t listen to even thirty seconds of. Underneath, he was all familiar Steve, the kind of skinny that had Bucky’s Ma clucking her tongue and spooning extra servings onto Steve’s plate at dinnertime.

“You’re beautiful,” Bucky told him.

“Ha-ha,” Steve shot back.

“I mean it,” Bucky said, “You’re beautiful. C’mere, idiot.”

Bucky opened his arms and Steve went willingly into them, straddling Bucky’s lap. They kissed like that, skin to skin, so close that Bucky could feel the rapid beating of Steve’s heart. He brought one hand up to stroke Steve’s soft blond hair and said, “You don’t have to be nervous. It’s just me.”

“But you’re everything,” Steve whispered.

At that, Bucky kissed Steve with everything in him. He put every moment he thought of Steve into that kiss – every lingering glance at every sleepover, every playful touch in every locker room, every hug on every bad day – every ounce he poured into kissing Steve and kissing him right, the way he ought to have been kissed twenty times over, if people appreciated Steve the way that he deserved to be appreciated.

When Steve pushed Bucky to lie on his back, he went. He tracked the movement of Steve’s hands as they undid the button on his jeans and pushed both pants and boxer shorts down past his hips. When other times Bucky glanced quickly away from Steve’s nudity, now, he let his gaze linger.

“Jeez, Stevie,” Bucky managed.

“What?” Steve looked down at his body, and guessed, “Skinny?”

“No, you moron. I knew you were skinny already,” Bucky said. He reached out and pulled Steve onto the bed, on top of him, legs splayed out on either side of Bucky while one of the largest penises he had ever seen – and definitely the largest he had seen in person, by far – stared him in the face. “Your dick is…big.”

“It’s not that big,” muttered Steve.

Bucky shook his head and said, “Here. Take off my briefs.”

Steve did, pulling up to his knees and hooking his bony fingers under the elastic band of Bucky’s boxer briefs. Bucky’s erection, while nothing to turn a nose up at, didn’t quite rival the surprising girth of Steve’s cock.

“All right. I see what you mean,” Steve said.

Bucky laughed, and then Steve did, too.

What happened next was a complicated dance of rearranging limbs and making sure that each of them was comfortable. Bucky lay back against Steve’s stacked pillows with his legs open and vulnerable. But with Steve swearing at the bottle of lube under his breath right there in front of him, Bucky was safe. He’d never been more comfortable in his own skin. When Steve spilled lube on his fingers and glanced up, catching Bucky’s eye, they both smiled.

“Okay,” Steve said, “You gotta tell me if it hurts, okay? Even a little bit. I mean it.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Bucky said, “Just get moving, Rogers. We don’t got all night.”

“Sure we do,” Steve said, but he edged forward anyway, using his dry hand to guide Bucky’s legs further apart.

Cold, wet fingers brushed against Bucky’s entrance. Bucky’s breath hitched, but he didn’t want Steve to stop. He inhaled sharply when Steve pushed a finger in, but nodded for him to continue.

“Feels good so far,” Bucky assured him.

Steve opened Bucky up carefully, his brow furrowed in concentration all the while. Bucky stifled moans and cries into his left arm, thrown up over his mouth so that Sarah and Joe wouldn’t hear what they were up to a mere room away.

“Okay, okay, I’m ready,” Bucky said.

Steve struggled with three separate condoms, hands shaking too hard to roll one over his erection. Bucky had to lean forward to help with the fourth, circling Steve’s cock with one hand to steady it and using the other to pinch the tip of the condom while Steve rolled it down. They kissed like that, kneeling naked together on Steve’s twin mattress, before Steve pushed Bucky down and drizzled extra lube over both of them.

The sex wasn’t perfect. Steve slipped out and swore. Bucky laughed and had to reassure Steve that he wasn’t laughing at him, but rather at how silly they both must look. They muffled their noise into each other’s bodies, kissing sweat-damp limbs and crying out into one another’s mouths with their foreheads resting together. Steve had trouble setting a rhythm and Bucky came too fast, but he wouldn’t trade that night for anything, not one thing in all the world.

When Steve came into the condom, he swore against Bucky’s throat just once.

“I love you,” Bucky told him, afterward, and Steve replied, “I love you too.”

**

In the morning, Bucky woke nude with Steve tucked under his chin.

In the morning, Bucky panicked.

In the morning, Bucky wiggled out of his best friend’s arms, threw his clothes on, and ran past Joe Rogers at the kitchen table with a mug of coffee. He didn’t bother to say good morning, and didn’t bother to bid him goodbye.

What had he done?

His best friend.

He had sex with Steve.

Nothing would ever be the same.

When his phone chirped later with text messages from Steve, Bucky ignored all of them, shoved his flip phone into his sock drawer, and pleaded with the universe.

Nothing would ever be the same, he thought again, and he was scared.

**

A day later, Steve left for college.

No matter how hard Bucky tried to contact him, Steve never wrote back.

Never called back.

Never texted back.

Never came home.

**

Bucky made himself move on.

**

Present Day

“You never came back,” Bucky said, weakly.

“At first I was mad,” Steve said, “At first I thought, how dare he try to call me or text me or whatever. I was so furious. Then, when I got less mad, I thought…I don’t know. I thought it was too late to try again. We became two different people. I thought you’d be better without me.”

“I wasn’t,” rasped Bucky.

“Neither was I,” Steve said.

Bucky let out a long, long breath, and raked his eyes over Steve, a Steve so strange to him that he’d hardly recognized him in their dilapidated hideaway in the woods. This Steve was big and brawny and didn’t do his art anymore, but he still held onto Bucky like he never intended to let him go.

Steve Rogers did not change the world.

But he had changed Bucky’s world.

“I missed you,” Bucky said, “I thought I hated you, for a while. But mostly I just missed you.”

Steve broke open. His face crumpled and he closed his eyes.

Then, so, so, softly, Steve told him, “I still love you.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Nine: Try and Capture it

Chapter Track: Possible Deaths – Typhoon

Mountain Valley Hospital, to no one’s surprise, put Bucky on a 72-hour hold. Bucky was about as good a sport about it as everyone expected him to be, which was to say that he was a shitlord, grumping at every nurse, doctor, and visitor unfortunate enough to cross his room.

Steve visited daily, typically decorated with Swamp Cat’s greeting scratches.

Today, he held an enormous bouquet of flowers in front of his face as he rapped his knuckles against the door frame, though his scratched-and-muscular forearms made his identity unmistakable.

“What are those for?” Bucky asked, as Steve placed them on the table alongside Bucky’s bed, where the remains of his meager hospital breakfast lay stacked. Between his thighs, Bucky cradled his second coffee of his morning. Steam rolled off the top, and he took a long, fortifying sip.

“Uh, well,” Steve started.

Bucky narrowed his eyes at the pinkish flush of guilt across Steve’s stupid, handsome face.

“What did you do?” he asked.

“Listen, I tried to stop him,” Steve said, “and believe me, putting him off the scent for this long is really a testament to how stubborn I am. Thing is – he outlasted me this time.”

“Who? What?”

“Tony,” Steve said, which explained exactly nothing. “He has your prosthesis.”

Bucky smeared his hand over his face, then brought his coffee to his lips and slurped. “Why does Tony Stark have my prosthesis, Steve?”

Steve’s eyes darted to the flowers. The muscles in his face twitched as he tried to conjure one of his faux-innocent expressions, but he couldn’t quite hack it. Instead of lying his way out of whatever the fuck was going on, Steve collapsed into the chair at Bucky’s bedside and scraped a hand through his cropped hair. He said, “Look. I didn’t have the energy to tell him no. He wants to make you a new arm and needed measurements, or something? He’s probably already halfway to the airport by now. Sorry.”

“Cool,” Bucky replied, flopping back against the pillows of his bed, “Like the cops would ever believe me if I called ‘em up and said ‘Tony Stark stole my arm and he’s on his way out of town’.”

Alarmed, Steve lifted his head. “You want to call the cops?”

“No, you fucking asshole; it was a joke,” Bucky said, “and anyway, he sort of told me he was gonna do that.”

“What?”

“Yeah, I blew him off, because what? What does he think he’s doing? But I guess there’s no stopping that guy when he’s got an idea, is there?” Bucky let out a long breath, and then eyed the grocery store bouquet commanding the bulk of his little plastic table. “I can’t believe you bought me flowers because your boss stole my prosthetic arm. I can’t believe you bought me flowers, period. Are you wooing me?”

“I don’t know,” Steve said, throwing his hands up in the air, “Do I look like I know what the hell I’m doing?”

“No, you really don’t,” Bucky told him.

At least neither of them had any idea what happened now. The ten-year grudge lingered in the air, but behind them, the exhaust trailing from their tailpipe while a gorgeous, sprawling road lay ahead – or something poetic like that. Bucky wished it could be something poetic like that, but that wasn’t how life worked, and certainly wasn’t how his life worked. In actuality, the road twisted and warped like a tight mountain highway, the hairpin turns unguarded by rails and unmarked by signs.

“Can I borrow your coffee?” asked Steve.

“Borrow...my coffee,” repeated Bucky, half-possessive, half-bewildered. In the end, he shook his head, but passed the plain, plastic mug over.

The hospital didn’t trust him with ceramic. Wise, on their part, because even with some fancy, new meds and a panel of doctors at his disposal, Bucky’s brain screamed at him on a loop. He hadn’t slept for shit for two nights in a row, nightmares clawing at him, the bits and pieces whose dirty details didn’t make it into feel-good news articles about a soldier that saved his guys, but the classified parts that terrified Bucky into forgoing showers for the rest of his life.

Steve reached into his pocket and pulled out a rattling orange pill bottle. His hands shook as he knocked a couple ovular, white pills into his palm. He tossed ‘em back and washed them down with Bucky’s coffee, and when Bucky lifted a brow, Steve explained, “Xanax.”

“Anxiety?” Bucky murmured, not actually keen on giving Steve shit for the crappy parts of his brain he couldn’t control.

At least they had one thing in common as adult men.

Steve nodded, looking numb, and returned the mug of coffee to Bucky’s waiting hand. Bucky drank. The liquid burned the edges of his tongue, and the bitterness of charred beans washed over his palette. He wished for a heartbeat that the coffee were something stiffer, but a different part of his mind whispered that maybe he needed to kick the booze altogether.

The booze fucked him up something fierce.

“I got a fucking nightmare brain, I tell you what,” Bucky said, maybe as a reassurance.

A wry not-smile stretched Steve’s mouth into an alien expression. “You don’t have to one-up me on terrible mental health, Buck. Only one of us has tried to off himself.”

Bucky’s head lolled against the pillows. He and Steve had been in the business of confessions lately, so what was one more ugly truth in the mix? “Twice,” he admitted, “Not allowed to touch guns anymore, unless we’re counting that airsoft shit me and Clint shoot cans with.”

Steve stared.

“Right after I got home, and I know this seems impossible, I was even worse than I am now. I couldn’t leave my room. Couldn’t look anyone in the eye. Couldn’t sleep. Barely ate. My mom gets this haunted kind of look when I really freak her out good, you know? She can’t help it. I get it. I just wanted her to stop looking at me. I just wanted it to stop. I have a theme going.” Bucky sighed. “Anyway, the bullet ricocheted off of my front fucking teeth and shattered them, and Judy found me, and now Judy gives me the haunted look.”

Steve blinked, brows drawn tight. He looked at the pill bottle in his hand to the coffee squished between Bucky’s thighs.

“You still have front teeth?” was what he decided to say, the words lilting like a question.

Bucky reached up and flicked his teeth. “They’re fake.”

The same panel of doctors that watched over him now had watched over him then, and didn’t seem to find the humor in Bucky returning to Mountain Valley. Being that they were not a VA, any visit of Bucky’s accrued massive piles of paperwork to cover the cost of his care. Mountain Valley didn’t often deal in mental illness, either, so here Bucky puzzled and disturbed medical staff whose job description didn’t stretch to include ‘amputee veteran with shit for brains’.

“Jesus Christ,” said Steve, and slouched in his chair. As the Xanax settled into him, the little dent between Steve’s brow softened, the perturbed parentheses that bracketed his mouth retreated, and his face tempered to something ruminating. “Well,” he ended up saying, “What the hell are we supposed to do now?”

Some bone-deep knowledge never left, and understanding Steve did not leave Bucky in its entirety. What did two lost men do now, with a past of youthful idiocy behind them and a grimy, muddled future ahead?

Bucky exhaled. Again, confessions continued to be on the table. Masking his hand did nothing for him now.

“I still love you too. Y’know that, right?”

The resigned confession clashed with confessions of the past. Teenage Bucky admitted he loved Steve with wonder in his voice and his heart in his hands, and Steve returned the sentiment with equal passion. The day before last, Steve acknowledged his lingering love of Bucky in ropes of wistful sentiment.

Bucky’s acknowledgment of his love for Steve Rogers slipped from his lungs like a breath. He said it as he might say I like cats or sunsets are nice, an innocuous, assumed position as natural to him as walking on two legs.

Surprise nonetheless lit Steve’s eyes. “I didn’t, no,” he replied, “Not until just now.”

“I’m not so good about saying shit I mean sometimes,” Bucky told him.

Steve said, “I know that,” unable to bite down a sardonic smile. “So now that we know we’re two morons, we love each other, we’re fucked up beyond belief, and have no idea what we’re doing – where do we go from here?”

“That’s a good question, Stevie,” Bucky said, “I’ll get back to you if I ever figure it out.”

**

The anxiety that gnawed at Steve when he crossed over the threshold into Mountain Valley was absent when he exited, and whether the Xanax or his bizarre conversation with Bucky tricked his brain into cooperation, he couldn’t say. He floated to his mother’s car on a cloud of “I don’t know what the hell is going on, but Bucky loves me, so it doesn’t matter.” Unidentifiable emotion twisted and tore his gut in every direction – grief for his dad, tentative hope at Bucky’s admission of love, a giant question mark in front of his future, manufactured calm at the hands of his medication.

Steve’s unconscious decision about the road forward didn’t come to light until he returned home and found his mother in her bedroom, folding clothes that once belonged to Joe Rogers. Sarah glanced up when Steve’s shoulders filled the doorway, eyes wan. She rested her hand on the well-loved plaid flannel folded into a neat square on her bedspread.

Looking not to Steve but to the shirt, Sarah said, “Doesn’t feel right to get rid of them.”

“I’d wear them,” Steve said, surprised to find that he meant what he said. His father’s mountain man lumberjack-chic sense of style hadn’t always appealed to him, but sturdy flannels reminded him of home.

Home was once a curse, but Steve didn’t find truth in that – not anymore.

That was when his unconscious decision became conscious.

He wasn’t going to leave here.

Steve wasn’t going to leave his mom on her own.

He wasn’t going to leave Bucky behind for a second time.

He wasn’t going to leave Gold Cliff.

Steve lowered his body onto the edge of the mattress beside Sarah and wrapped an arm around her thin shoulders. He pulled her tight against his chest.

“I’ll take all his clothes,” Steve told her, “Except that denim vest with the cowboy boots on it.”

A startled laugh escaped his mother. She leaned back against Steve, head lolling onto his shoulder, and sighed. “Maybe I’ll make a Joe Rogers’ Questionable Fashion Choices quilt. I’m assuming you don’t want that shirt with the map of the United States on it.”

“Nah, but I might be able to rock the one with the sheep.”

Sarah released another sort-of-laugh, a gentle whuff of air from her lungs. For several minutes, they sat in silence while Sarah stroked the weave of Joe Rogers’ shirts, breathing together. When someone finally did speak, his mom asked, “How did things with Bucky go today?” because Bucky’s mood changed on a dime, as unpredictable as a child let loose in an antique store.

“He loves me,” Steve told her.

Sarah scoffed. “Well, that’s hardly news.”

“I mean that he told me he loves me,” Steve replied, “He told me that he never stopped.”

“And what do you plan to do about that?” she asked.

“We don’t really know,” said Steve, “but I have some ideas. I’m gonna make a phone call real quick. You want me to throw something together for lunch while I’m downstairs?”

Sarah shook her head. “We still have at least twenty casseroles. I’m sure I’ll find at least one that’s not awful.”

“I don’t know about that,” Steve chuckled, and pressed a kiss to the side of Sarah’s head before he stood again. He gestured to the pile of his father’s shirts and said, “Put them on my bed. I’ll see what fits later tonight.”

With that, Steve stepped out and thumped down the stairs. He exited to the backyard, the wild tangle unkempt garden, patches of dying grass, and crooked aspen trees. He reclined in the porch swing. The chains squealed their discontent at being disturbed for the first time in a long time, but the rocking motion settled the churn of Steve’s innards.

He slid his cellphone from his pocket, and called his boss.

“I’m not giving it back, if that’s why you’re calling,” Tony answered breezily.

“Hello to you too, Tony,” Steve said.

“Listen, if this is about leaving Romanoff and your buddy without a car, Natasha said her paramour – or whoever the scruffy guy with all the band-aids is – can give them a ride to the airport when they’re ready, and she emphasized that they were not ready to leave and would not be until they touched base with you. So. My advice? Call somebody that isn’t on their way out of town for whatever you need.”

“Tony.”

“Anyway, the arm is going to be great, so you don’t want this piece of junk I’ve got here back. Did you tell your bestie that this arm is junk? Because you really should, and emphasize that what I make him will be the opposite of junk. Can you do that?”

“Tony.”

“What?” asked Stark.

“This isn’t about the arm,” Steve told him.

This revelation startled Tony into silence, a rare but treasured feat. The absence of chatter lasted all of four seconds before Tony slowly said, “Wait. If you’re not calling about the arm, then what is this?”

“I’m giving my two weeks’ notice,” Steve said, firm, “I’ll come back to New York to finish out anything that needs finishing, but...you can find anybody to be your bodyguard. People need me here, and it’s not fair to keep asking you to extend my leave.”

Silence, again.

Tony’s voice softened. “There’s nothing I can do to convince you to stay, is there?”

“No,” Steve said, “No. Thank you, though, for everything that you’ve done. That you’re doing. You’re a good person when you want to be.”

“It sounds like you’re saying goodbye, and I don’t like that at all,” responded Tony, “First of all, don’t worry about your two weeks. No offense, but I kinda saw this one coming. I’ll give you some severance; that’ll give you some time to scrounge up another job somewhere in Podunk, Colorado. But I want this to be clear, Rogers. Are you listening to me? Tell me that you’re listening to me.”

“I’m listening.”

“Just because you’re leaving this job behind doesn’t mean that you’re leaving me behind, you got that? We’re friends, sort of. In a weird way. My point is that you can’t say goodbye to me, because it’s weird and final and I don’t like it. Did I already say weird? I did. Whatever. I’m going to come back to your crappy town and I’m going to come with an amazing new prosthetic arm for your fucked-up buddy and we’ll do lunch. Just..come say hi, if you’re ever back in town. Things won’t be the same without you, but I trust your choices.”

“Did you rehearse that?” asked Steve.

“Kind of,” replied Tony, “After the first time you asked to extend your leave I got an inkling that I’d have to admit to liking you so you wouldn’t leave forever. Can we agree to never speak of this again?”

“Speak of what?” Steve said back.

“That’s the spirit,” Tony said in turn, “It’s been good. I’ll see you when I see you, huh?”

“Sure,” agreed Steve, “See you when I see you.”

After he hung up the phone, Steve let his head fall back against the top edge of the porch swing. Winter sun warmed him through his ratty jeans and threadbare t-shirt, though snow crusted the edges and shadows of the yard, brown with age. He remembered days like this, from before he made every bad choice that led him to this moment, cold-hot days that teased spring. Teenage Steve and Bucky shucked their shirts and tossed a football for hours on end. They only packed it in when sunburns seared their necks.

Though they lived in Gold Cliff all their lives, they never remembered they were nearly two miles closer to the sun than the flat parts of the country.

In quiet, Steve extended his legs over the width of the porch. Seldom did certainty bless him in his decisions, but the decision to stay in Gold Cliff throbbed in his veins, as sure as his heartbeat.

When he slipped back inside, his mother sat at the kitchen table over a microwaved plate of green bean casserole from Mrs. Peterson. She picked at the edges with her fork, not really eating. Steve didn’t blame her. Food went down like gritty concrete. He made an effort to try to eat, but that didn’t always work like he wanted to.

“What was that about?” asked Sarah.

Steve’s lips quirked in a half smile as he told his mother, “I’m staying in Gold Cliff. I’m staying home.”

**

On the day of Bucky’s release from the hospital, Winifred Barnes alone greeted him. Not a surprise – George worked weekdays and Judy would be in school, but awkwardness nonetheless hung in the air between them as she and Bucky signed release forms. They didn’t talk, though Winnie opened her mouth and closed it again, over and over, brow crinkling with every aborted attempt at conversation.

“I signed up to go to an AA meeting,” Bucky finally said, when they settled into the front seats of Winnie’s Subaru.

“Oh?” was his mom’s only response.

Bucky understood. He promised to get better before, caring for himself in short bursts, always to trip over his feet and crash land back into bad habits.

“One of the nurses helped me look it up on her StarkPad,” Bucky explained, “I guess some folks meet at that one Methodist church in town. I don’t know. It seemed like a good idea. Some people to hold me accountable, or something.”

Winnie didn’t say anything to that, which was probably fair.

Bucky “Empty Promises” Barnes reigned supreme since his return to his hometown.

“I’m tired of finding what I think is going to be your corpse,” Winnie said.

“I know.”

“I’m tired of picking you up out of your own vomit,” she continued.

“I know.”

“I don’t blame you for what you’ve been through,” his mom went on, “but absolutely blame you for failing to care for your own mental illness. Whether you like it or not, you’re the one responsible for your own healing. It’s not me or your father or your sisters, and it is certainly not Steve Rogers. It’s you. You’re the one in charge of your mind and body, even when they don’t cooperate. The question isn’t whether or not you’re suffering, James Buchanan; it’s what you’re going to do with your suffering.”

Bucky drooped in the passenger seat. The cutting words stung, but he couldn’t deny the truth of them. He couldn’t blame his mom for not believing what he said, even if he hoped she’d be proud of him for taking a step forward, toward some new kind of light.

Winnie exhaled through her nostrils and tightened her grip on the steering wheel. Her eyes didn’t shift from the road ahead as she finished, “But...I’m proud that you’re trying. You keep trying, and that’s not nothing. I just want you to be happy, honey. I don’t care if you’re rich or how many arms you have. I don’t care whether you live with me and your father for the rest of your life. I just want you to find your place. You belong on this earth, and I know you can find where.”

Bucky nodded. With nothing left to say, he and his mother rode back to their home without another word, but the silence wasn’t uncomfortable. More than anything, it was final – a final judgment on the path ahead.

For the first time in a long time, Bucky wondered if there might be a place for him on the path. Whether the new medications or his mother’s speech or Steve’s flowers were the driving force behind it, he couldn’t say.

“I don’t think wanting to get better for the sake of other people is the worst thing in the world,” he said, when they pulled into the driveway.

“No, it’s not,” Winnie agreed, “but I do hope that someday you’ll want things for yourself.”

Back in his basement bedroom, Bucky rifled through his drawers, extracting every hidden bottle of alcohol and arranging them on the dresser. His throat tightened and fingers shook, but he tucked them under his arm and unloaded them on the kitchen counter with a mighty clatter. Winifred jerked her attention from her book of crosswords to him, one brow lifted.

“Can you help me dump these?” panted Bucky.

“Sure,” Winnie said, and circled the table to his side.

One by one, Bucky and his mother unscrewed the lids on the assorted half-drunk bottles of booze and drained them into the kitchen sink. Sharp-smelling liquid swirled down and down, and with each emptied bottle, weight lifted and worry settled. Bucky never surrendered his alcohol before. His mom knew as well as he did that he could skulk to the liquor store and buy more whenever the craving struck, but he didn’t want to. He just didn’t know if the feeling would last forever.

The internet said that his need for liquor would never leave, but in time would fade. The promise reminded him of similar rhetoric regarding his PTSD.

Forever, but in time, not as keen.

That relief came only with work on his part occurred to him.

Was he stupid for not realizing that before?

“I’m gonna try, Mom,” Bucky whispered.

Winnie flicked curly hair over her shoulder and drew him in for a hug, then. Bucky had to bend to rest his head on her shoulder, his bulk engulfing her far-shorter frame. She rubbed a hand in circles over his back and replied, “I believe you,” which happened to be the exact thing that he needed to hear.

In stark contrast to the last several months, Bucky lingered upstairs with his mom, sitting alongside her scrolling through his laptop to read more about what to expect from his first AA meeting while she did her crosswords.

They split a pot of coffee without conversation, until the door opened and Judy arrived home. She heaved her backpack off her shoulders onto the floor, and her gaze flicked from Winifred to Bucky and back again, unsure as she tread into the kitchen.

“Hi,” she said shyly. She looked to the empty liquor bottles piled in the recycling and back to them.

Bucky hadn’t checked to see what he looked like in the mirror, but he doubted he was at his best. His mom helped him twist his hair into a knot at the back of his neck and brought him comfortable clothes to leave the hospital in, but one didn’t come out the other end of an overdose looking like a queen.

“Hey, kid,” he said.

Winnie made a ‘go on’ motion at the pair of them.

“Gimme a second?” Bucky said, and tilted his head at the front door, inviting.

Judy stepped out with Bucky onto the front porch. She rubbed her arms through her navy blue hoodie – in the cooler shade, winter felt much apparent. Her curly hair, a mimic of their mother’s, fell in ringlets down her back, and her glasses magnified her eyes to owlish, making her childhood that much more apparent. The eleven years between them were a gaping maw.

When Judy found him after the teeth-shattering first suicide attempt, they didn’t speak. Bucky didn’t apologize, because he wasn’t sorry. He drained his family of their energy and resources, and to him, trying to die was trying to fix it.

Maybe...maybe not anymore. He wasn’t certain. Nothing felt certain.

“I’m sorry,” he told his youngest sister.

“For what?” Judy asked, “This time? Last time? Everything else?”

“All of it,” Bucky answered her, “I don’t even know where to start, so I’m covering my bases. I’m sorry for everything, and I’m especially sorry that you got dragged into my shitshow. I don’t think things between us are gonna get better right away, okay? I did a great job of making everything awkward for everybody. But I wanna set the record straight: I love you, and I don’t want to be the way I am forever. I’m not gonna be better tomorrow, or the next day, or maybe even next year. I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m going to try and make this right.”

“Okay,” was all that Judy said.

“Okay?”

“Yeah, okay,” she repeated, “I’ll believe it when I see it. But I love you too.”

Bucky lifted his arm in a universal hug invitation. Judy rolled her eyes, but accepted the offer. The embrace lasted all of a second, too stilted to be as loving as Bucky wanted to be, but it was better than nothing.

A start – that’s what all of this would be. A start.

**

Steve picked up a paintbrush for the first time in six years on a Tuesday.

With Sarah at work and needed chores dwindling to a handful, he didn’t know how to pass his time – until he dove forearms-deep into his mother’s craft cabinet and discovered a bounty of cheap acrylic paint and a small clutch of stained brushes. He looked at them, considering, and rolled a bottle of black paint in his palm.

He had no canvasses, no easel, and no palette.

Steve did have several cardboard boxes, ingenuity, and a lonely Tupperware lid.

Natasha and Sam found him in the backyard with a ripped rectangle of cardboard propped up against a wooden column in a Scrabble tile-holder, dripping paint from a piece of Tupperware onto an old t-shirt.

Neither of his friends had ever seen any of his art: Steve packed that life away and tried to forget it. Everyone in New York was an artist. How to scream above the din, he didn’t know.

“Whatcha making?” asked Sam.

“Painting my dad’s grill,” answered Steve, “I dunno. Maybe it’s stupid. I wanted to make something for my mom, something new to remember him by.”

“We wanted to you know that we’re heading out today,” Natasha cut in, though her interest in Steve’s slapdash painting bonanza skated across her face.

“And wanted to ask if there’s anything you need before we go,” added Sam.

Steve paused his work and set his makeshift palette aside. On the scrap of cardboard, blocks of color formed the basic shape of the grill against the end of the patio, rusting in places and gleaming in sunlight in others. The detail work would come later. For now, the first layers of paint would do.

Steve faced his friends.

“Tony told us that you’re not coming back,” Natasha remarked.

With a shake of his head, Steve replied, “Tony’s got a big mouth. I’ll come back, sometimes. I still need to get my things. Probably gonna put all my furniture on Craigslist.”

“Can I have that squishy armchair?” asked Sam.

Steve grinned. “It’s all yours.”

“Dibs on the blue couch,” Natasha said, and Sam made a whining noise of protest.

“We’ll be back here, too,” Sam told him.

Steve cocked one brow and folded his arms over his chest. “Oh?” he said.

“Sam’s got a date with the cat guy,” said Natasha, “and I think Clint might be my boyfriend.”

“Really? But he –”

“Careful, Steve,” Natasha warned, “It sounds like you’re about to insult somebody I really like.”

Steve held his hands up in defense. He said, “I’m glad you guys found people here. I don’t want us – well. Just because I’m here doesn’t mean I want to leave you guys behind. I know I’ve been...not myself, but –”

“No, no,” Sam interrupted, “I think you’ve been more yourself in the past couple of months than I’ve ever seen before. There’s something about this place that brings out the you in you. That’s why we’re not too broke up about you calling it quits on New York. That, and you’ve got whatever the hell Bucky is.”

“Your guess is as good as mine,” shrugged Steve.

The blare of a car horn echoed from the other side of the house.

“Sounds like our ride is here,” Natasha said.

Steve glanced down at his shirt. Wet paint smeared over his chest and dripped down the long-worn Sex Pistols logo. He said, “I’d offer you guys a hug, but...”

“You think you’re getting out of a hug that easy?” laughed Sam, “Like I give a shit about getting paint on my airport clothes. Bring it in, man. Bring it the fuck in.”

With one arm around each of his friends, Steve reeled them in. They lingered more than they might usually. This wasn’t goodnight at the end of a movie, wasn’t a goodbye after a jog in the park. It wasn’t the lazy salute Steve afforded Natasha at the end of their workdays, and it wasn’t the laughter of back-and-forth puns from Steve to Sam as they parted on trivia nights.

“Can’t get rid of us,” promised Sam.

“We’re like a bad penny,” added Natasha.

The honk of Clint’s horn sounded again.

“Make good choices!” Steve joked, as Sam and Natasha ambled away.

“We never do,” Sam said, and Natasha imitated Steve’s mock-salute.

Steve finished his painting several hours and a sunburn later. The lines and light didn’t quite live up to what he could do during his peak creativity and art school dream, but the subject matter was unmistakable. Joe Rogers’ beloved grill, hood open, hamburger patties and hot dogs steaming over graying charcoal. The painting didn’t feature his dad, but the spirit was there. He wasn’t out of the picture, just a little outside the frame.

Steve left it to dry where his mom would find it – on the coffee table in the family room – and changed out of his paint-covered clothes, swapping to something halfway respectable before he tackled visiting the Barnes family.

He wasn’t surprised to hear that Bucky was not at home.

“He went out walking,” Winnie offered, and maybe he was imagining things, but her smile for Steve was not as tight as it had been in the weeks before.

“I know where to find him, in that case,” Steve told her.

“Tell him he’d better not miss dinner,” Winnie said back, and Steve agreed.

Steve strode down the busiest street in Gold Cliff. He passed few people, but all of them offered him waves and fond expressions, the worry eked from their bodies since word got around that he intended to stay with them. He kicked rocks along the dirt road leading to the wild, swampy piece of land just out of town, not a care given to the smelly black mud that squelched onto his shoes, or the branches that smacked his leather jacket.

In the crumbing ruin of his and Bucky’s hideaway, Steve found him.

Bucky rested his head against the plywood wall. A stream of cigarette smoke escaped his lips.

“Those’ll kill you, you know,” Steve said.

Bucky opened his eyes. A sort-of-smile played on his lips, and he took another drag from the end of it. “I can only try to kick so many bad habits at a time, you know. Coffee?” He stuck his cigarette between his lips and offered a thermos to Steve, who took it as he lowered his body to the ground, unashamed to lean right up against the heat of Bucky’s body. A clean scent wafted from him beyond the ashy smoke, something vaguely spicy – maybe one of his bath bombs.

“Your mom says you better not miss dinner,” Steve said.

“Yeah, she’d kill me,” said Bucky. His eyes crawled over Steve, and he went on, “Inherited the sheep shirt, huh?”

Beneath Steve’s leather jacket, a pattern of prancing sheep covered his button-down. He smoothed a hand over the fabric and answered, “Yeah. I think it suits me.”

“Heard you’re staying.”

“Yup.”

“You got some paint on your face.”

“Sure do.”

“I’m gonna kiss you,” Bucky informed him.

Steve knocked his shoulder into Bucky’s. “Do it.”

Time slowed with their mouths together. Steve didn’t care for the taste of cigarettes, but he did like the taste of coffee and Bucky. Neither of them fought the kiss or battled one another. They leaned in and, not wanting to let go, breathed through their nostrils, desperate to taste each other wholly, afraid to miss a single detail.

Mud caked their shoes and the bottoms of their jeans. The weight of two grown men made the graffitied plywood at their backs groan and shudder. The stink of cigarettes crowded the stiff winter air, broken only by a strain of coffee and the stench of still water and old snow.

Steve cupped Bucky’s cheek in his palm, paint stuck under his fingernails, and drank him in, languid and tender.

No more fighting.

When they broke apart they laughed, forehead against forehead.

“Think we can sneak in a quickie before dinner?” Bucky stage-whispered.

Steve laughed harder.

“We can sure as hell try,” he said.

With hands tucked into the back pockets of each other’s muddy jeans, Steve and Bucky walked back into town, together.

The End

The Beginning