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Howitzer

Chapter Text

The envelope was thick, made of an expensive paper that was completely unnecessary but gave the impression of importance. The letter inside was much the same. Carter University was printed on the back, embossed on the envelope. It was pretty obvious what it was. It took James Barnes only a moment to open it, tumbling the equally heavy paper into his hands. Shaking hands unfolded it, heart beating hard in his chest as he skimmed the opening line before sagging a little, against his bedroom door.

Bucky stared at the letter in his hands after he finished, shocked, as key phrases caught his eye. Pleased to offer you a position, jumped out at him first. Then, on the second page – a whole separate letter, even, unable to provide financial aid… no development program for figure or dance skatersnumerous hockey scholarships on offer. His fingers tightened a little on the paper, scrunching it just enough to startle him out of his thoughts. He dumped the document on his desk, sat heavily on his chair.

He knew he couldn’t afford college on his own, or even with his parents helping. They had enough on their plate, putting his sisters through school and paying for as many competitions for him as they could afford. If he gave up competing, they could probably put him through a year? Two? Still, only half of a degree. He picked up the letter again, flipped to the second page and skimmed it again. They were pushing him off with one hand, and dangling another stupid scholarship in front of his eyes with the other, like he was a damned horse to be led with only a carrot and a promise. His gaze drifted to his skate bag, the white logo glaring at him from the black bag.

As a kid, he’d wanted to be a hockey player, right from the start. But as soon as he’d put on a pair of rental skates, that first time his ma had taken him down to the rink – to make him quit whining, she would say fondly at every retelling – he’d known.

There had been a skating class on, using half the rink, when they’d gotten there. He’d had to wait until they were done, but he’d been pressed up against the boards, barely tall enough to look over them, and he’d watched, eyes wide. It had been a figure class, that much he remembered, for a group of older students, and they’d been learning jumps. He didn’t remember much else, as he’d only been six at the time, but he remembered telling his ma, in that no nonsense way children have, that that’s what he wanted to do when he grew up.

He’d pulled through so much, refused to feel ashamed for his choice despite teasing from schoolmates, never felt like he’d made the wrong decision about which skates he chose to lace up. Until now. Now it seemed like his decision was going to screw him over in the end.

Bucky bit his lip, tapped his foot, knee bouncing in and out of the bottom of his field of vision. Eyes on his skate bag. An idea came to mind, one so irrational and ultimately Bucky that it might actually work. He stood abruptly, shoving his feet into his shoes before crossing the couple of steps to his bag. He scooped it up, tossed it over his shoulder, and headed out of his room.

“I’m going to the rink,” he called out, and waited until he heard a muffled yell in response from his mother before shoving his wallet in his pocket, grabbing his keys, and heading out, phone in hand.

If they wanted a hockey player, they’d get one.

 

*

He headed into the familiar building, head ducked and turned away just a little from the small crowd of people in the foyer. There were enough people that he recognised within the group to be recognised himself, and he didn’t want that, not now. He made a beeline for the rental booth, head down, and only looked up when a warm voice said his name.

“Jamie, it’s been a while since you’ve come to visit me,” and Bucky smiled warm, genuine, as he saw who’s behind the skate rental counter. He planted his hands on the wood, leaned across, and bussed his lips against a wizened cheek, before settling back on his feet with a grin.

“What a charmer,” the woman said, dry, but there was a gleam in her eye that said she was pleased, and he laughed.

“Not on purpose Marlene, you know that,” he responded, leaning his elbows on the counter. “College applications kinda suck the life out of you.”

The older woman lit up at that, looking as pleased as if she’d been told her own grandchildren were going to college, though they were barely old enough for elementary. “You’ll have no problem,” she told him, “Your mom showed me your grade card last semester. Just make sure you think hard about picking one,” she continued, and Bucky caught a glimpse of the sharpness in her eyes that had made him so scared of her when he’d been young.

“Been offered a place,” he told her, fingers twisting on the edge of the hardwood, following cuts in it from clumsy skate blades. “It’s real nice, we went and toured the campus a few weeks back. Big ice rink there, they have a hockey team, a pretty good one from what I hear. Expensive though.”

“Is it friendly?” Marlene asked, holding her hands out for his skate bag, and he handed it over with a little shrug.

“Yeah, the people seem nice, and the LGBT community is pretty big as well,” Bucky said, forcing the words past the lump in his throat. It wasn’t the first time he’d told her, not the first time he’d admitted to the woman he saw as family that he wasn’t straight, but it never got any easier. She reacted as she always did though, just patted his hand before pulling his skates out of his bag.

“Good, you pick a place where you can be proud of yourself,” she said matter-of-factly, as she pulled the soakers off and checked his blades. “I’ll run these over with the stone, they don’t need the machine yet,” she added, crouching to pull out the hand sharpening kit from under the desk.

“You’re too good to me Marl,” Bucky said with a smile, nerves easing a little as he grabbed his wallet to pay. “Also, do you think you could grab me a pair of the hockey skates in a nine?” He smiled winningly at her as she paused, looking at him sceptically.

“James Barnes, what are you planning?” she asked dryly after a long moment, finishing up one skate and moving to the other.

“I’ll tell you if it works,” Bucky responded. Marlene just laughed, handed him back his own skates and went to grab him the rentals.

 

It only took him a minute to work out how to do them up, the clips sitting much differently across his instep compared to the laces on his own skates, and probably very differently to actual hockey skates. Standing on the edge of the rink, however, was much harder. He wasn’t even on the ice and he was teetering, rocking back and forth as he leaned back, caught himself, leaned forward to compensate, then started all over again. He growled under his breath, shaking first one foot, then the other, before shaking his head a little.

Part of him wished he’d thought to put his crash pads on, but then again, he hadn’t felt like he’d need them. Bucky regretted the cockiness now. Hand tight on the edge of the boards, he stepped onto the ice, carefully transferring his weight to the shorter blade.

He was still upright, he mused after a moment, both feet still, holding onto the boards hard enough that his knuckles went white. Bucky hadn’t been this scared of the ice since he was a kid, and even then he had been full of childlike recklessness, uncaring of the brief pain, enjoying the thrill of skating too much.

The rink wasn’t busy, at least. There was one girl looping the ice backwards, face set in concentration as she practiced backwards crossovers. A couple of people in rentals, dicking around on the other side of the rink, but keeping out of people’s way, and a few people chatting by the blue lines in the ice. Enough people to make him really not want to fall.

He took a breath, squeezed the rail, and bent his knees a little, before pushing himself back a little bit from the boards. The blades wobbled under him, but he stayed on his feet, coming to a stop a few steps away. Now, the hard bit – getting back to the wall. In theory it should be the same, he knew that, but Bucky doubted it would be in practice. At least he’d stopped rocking, his training finally kicking in and keeping him mostly settled in the middle of the curved blade.

Another deep breath, and he tipped his left foot out, pushing back and shifting his weight to his other foot at the same time. It didn’t go horribly, and he glided forward, back to the boards in a slow but stable movement.

Awesome.

He recognised the flaw in his plan a split second before he had to act, and he leaned back a little, hands reaching out as he shifted his feet to stop himself before he hit the boards hard.

And instead, he hit the ice hard.

The fuck resonated in the air around him, but he knew it wouldn’t have carried far, and he glared at his feet, which were in front of him instead of under him, like they should be. “Stupid hockey skates,” he mumbled under his breath, before shifting to his knees and pushing himself to his feet, being more careful than he’d ever been considering the different blades. He lunged forward just as he got his feet under him, got his hands on the wall, and let himself hang over it, feeling rather pathetic. Thirty seconds in these skates and he was on his ass.

“You okay there? That was a pretty hard fall.” Bucky lifted his head, stiffening a little, and turned to look over his shoulder. The girl who’d been doing laps was standing just behind him, mild concern on her face. She looked comfortable in her hockey skates, and a part of him, a larger part than he’d like to admit to, was jealous.

“Yeah,” Bucky said after a moment of staring, realising she was still waiting for an answer. He straightened up, carefully, holding on tight. “I’ve had worse,” he added, turning a little to face her and smiling a little ruefully. “It’s harder than I expected.”

“First time?” She asked, sympathetic, and the selfish part of him wanted to yell I’m basically a professional! I’ve been skating for twelve years!

Instead, he shrugged a little. “First time on hockey skates.” Her expression changed a little, and she looked more amused than anything else.

“It’s pretty different from figure, isn’t it? I tried figure skates, thought I’d learn both, and haven’t switched back in eight months,” she laughed, skating a little closer. “I’m America, I can give you some tips if you want? It’s easier to switch out of figure skates, so you should pick it up pretty quickly.”

Bucky hesitated, then swallowed his pride. Nodded. “Bucky, and I’d really appreciate the help.”

 

*

Bucky shifted his bag on his shoulder as he fumbled for his keys, wincing to himself as the shift pulled at aching muscles. He hadn’t been this sore after a skate since he’d first learned axels, he was sure of it. He got his key in the lock, shoved the door open, and as soon as it was closed behind him he leaned back against it, groaned.

“Bucky?” He blinked open eyes that had only just slid shut and looked up at his mom, standing in the doorway to the kitchen. He sighed quietly, and pushed himself upright, dumping his keys in the key dish on his way over to her. “You were gone a while, is everything alright?”

Bucky took the tea towel draped over her shoulder and wrung it in in his hands, looking down at the bright green material before looking up at her again. Concern pulled her eyebrows down at his silence, and she cupped his cheeks gently, tilting his head up so she could look at him properly. “I think I’m making a mistake,” he said after a moment of just letting her look, and she shook her head slightly, before kissing his forehead like he was five.

“Put your stuff away, then come see me, I’ll be in the living room.” She took the towel back from him and turned without waiting for a response, heading back into the kitchen. He could hear her turning down the elements on the stovetop, switching off the range hood. Bucky sighed, quiet, and headed down the hall to his room.

It only took him a few minutes to unpack his skates, pulling the laces loose and the tongues forward despite the fact that he hadn’t worn them that day. He dumped his shorts in the hamper, peeled off his compression pants, and swapped them for loose track pants before heading back down to the other end of the house.

His mom was right where she said she’d be, mug in her hands as she sat, feet tucked up under her, on the couch. She’d pulled her hair back, and it made her look younger than she was, but nothing hid the look of quiet concern on her face when she saw him. Winnifred had been the one to get him into skating in the first place, had supported him every step of the way, stood up for him and helped him stand up for himself in the female dominated sport, and Bucky suddenly felt hesitant to tell her what he was going to do. What he was doing.

“Sit down honey, talk to me,” Winnie said after a moment of him just standing in the doorway, and he gave her a little smile, sat down at the other end of the couch she was on.

There was silence for a few moments, and she didn’t press him to talk, for which he was thankful of. Eventually, he started at the beginning.

“I got a letter from Carter, and of all of the colleges I applied for I liked it the most,” he said, looking at his hands. “They offered me a place, but not any of the scholarships I applied for.”

Winnie leaned forward a little, elbows on her knees, mug still cradled in her hands. She didn’t get overexcited about the fact that he was accepted into his top university choice, even though he thought she probably wanted to. “And?”

“There was a letter in there, along with everything else, from one of the sports coaches. Someone must have passed my information on to him or something, I guess. He said they don’t have anything for figure skating, no scholarships or even a support team or coach, but they do have hockey. And they have a lot of scholarships for hockey.” Bucky kept looking at his hands as he talked. Part of why he wanted to go to Carter University in the first place was their rink, and the fact that they’d at least have somewhere for him to train, even if they didn’t outright train him. But without the academic scholarships, without the financial aid, he knew he wouldn’t be able to afford more than a year.

He told his mom this, and she listened, quiet, considering. “And you’re avoiding a loan, why?” She asked, not accusing, but trying to understand why he hadn’t mentioned it.

“I wouldn’t be able to pay it off. I don’t want to get stuck into something, be in debt to such an extreme, when I have no idea what I’ll be doing at the end of it.”

“And how is this a mistake?”

Bucky took a breath, lifting his gaze from his hands to his mother’s face. “It’s not. The fact that I’m seriously considering going for a hockey scholarship is.”

There’s a moment of silence, and Winnie regarded him carefully, just for a moment. Then, “And how do you plan on doing that?” She said, voice neutral.

“I’ve got enough saved to get myself a pair of decent skates, and I spent most of today on a rental pair, and I think I’m pretty stable now, I just have to get used to them. They’re very different.” He started, and she nodded, waving him to continue before sipping at her drink. “What I was thinking was, I could pay for first year with what I have saved, with what you guys have saved for me,” He knew it was a stretch, asking this way, but he also knew his parents had been saving since he was born, to give him the chance if he wanted to go. “I spend the year teaching myself what I need to, to be able to at least make it into the team. The coach, Fury I think his name was, said in his letter that he’d be willing to hold off a scholarship for me, if I wanted it. I’m not even sure if he can do that, but apparently he can, and he’s willing to, for me, for some reason.”

“Do you think you can do it?” There wasn’t any judgement in her voice, just even acceptance, like she was trying to make him truly think about his answer.

So he did. “I think so. What I want to do, study wise, is kinda tough, but I think I could balance it if I stayed on campus. It’d be hard, but yeah I think I can.” He shrugged a little, tucking his feet under him in a mirror of her position. “I have other colleges I’ve applied for, though I haven’t heard anything back yet. But this place has the best ranked psych school, and there’s the whole-” the words caught in his throat, for a moment.

“Queerest college in the east thing?” Winnie offered, amused smile on her face. She knew he found it hard to say it, sometimes.

“Yeah, that.”

“I’m going to ask you again, why do you think this is a mistake?”

“I don’t know? If I don’t get selected, or Fury doesn’t like me, or I don’t keep my grades up, it’ll be the biggest waste of money I could possibly manage. I can’t afford to stay there without the scholarship, unless I take out a massive loan. I could be making the worst decision of my life.”

Winnie smiled, reached out a hand to rest it on Bucky’s shoulder. She squeezed a little, waited until he looked her in the eye again. “Or, it could be the best choice you could ever make.” She didn’t offer anything else, and Bucky knew she wouldn’t unless he asked, so he did.

“What do you think I should do?”

“How long do you have to respond to their offer?” She asked first.

“A month or so.”

“Okay. I think you should wait for a bit, see how your other applications went. Give it a couple of weeks. But keep practicing with the new skates, and I’ll talk to your dad about getting you a pair so you don’t have to touch your savings. If you haven’t changed your mind on it after you hear back from other colleges, good or bad, come talk to me or your father.” Winnie smiled, warm and soft, and leaned over, pulling him into a quick, one armed hug. “How does that sound for a plan?”

Good, it sounded really good, and Bucky couldn’t hide the grateful smile on his face. She always knew how to make things better. “It’s good, perfect, even. Thanks ma,” he said, hugging her back quickly.

“Good, now I better get back to dinner before something goes funny.”

 

*

Bucky’s new skates fit well, even though they fit weirdly. The support he was used to wasn’t there, but the boot was more rigid, looser around his foot than his Edeas were. He had the lacing technique down, not too much different from his normal skates, but still found himself flexing his toes, bending his knees a little until the tongue, or the ankle guard, stopped the movement. He’d wiggle his toes against the top of the toe cap, until his feet felt weird, or would rock side to side, switching from inside edge to outside edge and back again when he was standing still, until America hit him lightly and reminded him to stay still.

He still fell, a lot, finding himself falling into his old habits, getting lazy and sitting back a little and expecting his tails to catch him, and hitting the ice as punishment. He’d started wearing his crash pads, and the one on his left hip was taking a beating. When he was concentrating, he was alright, for the most part, but he continuously overcompensated in his right crossovers, and the shorter blade was unforgiving at best. America didn’t help much there, too busy laughing herself hoarse at him to even help him up whenever he did it.

But he was getting better, there was no doubt about it. Getting used to the way the skate fit his foot, the way the blade curved, the way he could move on it – faster, sharper. The skates themselves were more responsive, which made his movements faster, and he found he was having a lot of fun just playing on them.

After two weeks, his acceptance pile had grown, three more colleges had offered him a place, and two had even offered scholarships. However, none were full rides, and none would get him through his four years when combined with what they had saved. A big part of him resented that fact, but another part of him was excited about it. His crazy plan became more and more viable with each letter he received, and he began to like the idea more and more.

Yes, he was still a figure skater, he told himself, time and time again. He made sure to skate as much in his Edeas as he did in his new Bauers, but he was also -what. There wasn’t really a word for it. He wasn’t a hockey player, but he could skate in hockey boots. He wasn’t a hockey player, but he’d just started skating with a stick, and all of the distractions and balance changing that brought with it. He wasn’t a hockey player, but he was, almost.

“I’m gonna do it,” Bucky told his mom, out of the blue one day. He was sitting at the breakfast bar, feet swinging, as he watched her cook.

“Do what, honey?” She asked absently, stirring the sauce in the pot in front of her.

“I’m gonna go to Carter.”

Chapter Text

Bucky hefted the boxes back into his arms, stepping away from the stair rail as he did, and kept moving up. The metal clanked under his feet, shuddering slightly with each step, and he struggled to see past the cardboard piled high in front of him. He tipped his head to the side, focusing hard on watching the stairs so he didn’t trip, and was surprised when he hit flat ground again. Looking up, he saw the big number four painted next to the door, and sighed in relief.

It took a little manoeuvring, but he managed to prop the boxes against the wall, balanced on one knee, long enough for him to open the door. He propped it open with a foot as he shuffled his way through, letting it swing closed behind him. The hallway was lit well, at least, and it only took him a minute to walk down to his dorm room. The door was open still, and he paused as his roommate came back out, smiling slightly at him as he passed. “Hey,” the guy said quietly as Bucky went in, heading back up the hall before Bucky could respond.

He assumed it was a moving in day thing, honestly. Hoped he’d actually get along with the guy, Clément, but had heard horror stories about bad roommates, and they seemed to be more common than the good ones. He walked over to his bed, set the boxes down, and pulled his phone out of his pocket, quickly sending a text off to his mother that he was sorted. They’d left only a few minutes before, but his ma had been insistent that he text her as soon as he was back up in his room. He assumed that was a moving out day thing.

Bucky looked around slowly, taking in his own half-spread belongings and boxes, almost out of place next to the almost completely set up other half of the room. Clément had arrived a few hours before him though, had more time to set up. He hoped that was the case.

Unpacking didn’t take long, in the end. Books into the low bookshelf running under his desk, which his dad had put up while Bucky had been ferrying boxes up the four flights of stairs. Stationery, or what he had of it, on the desk itself. His bed was made already, and he didn’t have all that much in the way of clothing left to put away. He stood in the middle of the room once that was done, weighing up his options, before climbing onto his bed and attaching pull away hooks to the wall about halfway down, hopefully far enough out of the light pouring through the open window.

Once they were in place, he hooked his skates up over them, careful, to make sure they’d take the weight, laces tied together firmly. They held, thankfully, so he left them there, dropping back down off the bed and sighing. With a sigh, he pulled his hair out, leaving the elastic around his wrist, and sat on the edge of his bed, looking around. He wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do now, really. Classes started the next day, and he knew where the buildings he needed were, had the map his mother had crammed into one of his bags if he was desperate. He looked up at his skates, then rolled his eyes, grabbing the hockey ones down and cramming them in a bag. He was there to skate, honestly, so there was no point in resisting it.

 

*

Bucky pushed open the door to Rakird Centre on the first day of the second week of classes, already feeling the buzz under his skin, the tension in his spine, of not having been on the ice for more than a few days. After daily practices through his last year of high school, he evidently grown used to it, and the stress relief it gave him.

Just being inside the centre helped him settle, and he took a deep breath, steadying himself before heading for the office to check in. Coach Fury had walked him through Rakird a few days before, had introduced him to the main staff and made it clear that while he wasn’t with the team, he was to be allowed on the ice whenever he needed to, unless there was a booking.

It gets him in this time, with a smile and a wave and a heads up that the hockey team have the place booked from six. He agreed to keep an eye on the time and was waved through, heading past the doors to the locker rooms and down the stairs to rink level. He had to swipe his access card to get through to the benches, and once he was there he set his bag down, looking over the rink. It’d been resurfaced between the last skater and him, and he was secretly delighted at the fact, had always loved skating on untouched ice.

He quickly traded his shoes for his skates, deciding on his figures so he didn’t have to think as much, and pulled off his skate guards, leaving them on the bench. It was a step to the gate, then a step down onto the ice, knuckles rapping lightly against the wooden boards, and he let out a slow breath, settling his weight into his boots.

He started out easy, slow loops around the ice to get the feel for it. Every rink, every arena, every bit of ice he’d skated on had a different feel to it, and he wasn’t sure how to explain it when asked. The ice was the same, in essence. The consistency was the same, it was all flat, snowless after it’d been flooded. But still, different.

A quick turn, heel to instep and twist, and he was backwards, still taking it easy as he moved around the rink. Lemons to warm his legs up, feet spreading wide then pulling back together, before he turned, headed back for the boards to stretch. He knew he should have gone for a run or something, warmed up properly, but class had ended half an hour ago, and he hadn’t wanted to waste any time. He kept a hand on the boards in front of the benches, crouched to stretch his legs out, then straightened. Body flat against the boards, holding tight, letting his legs spread, toes out, arches against the wood. Hold. Breathe. He could hear movement in the stands, voices, but no one came near him, so he didn’t pay any attention, straightening up again and rolling his shoulders back.

Bucky moved away from the boards again, started back up with easy circles, and once he’d paused to retighten his laces, he started to play. Long, steady strides across the ice, switching from edge to edge on his blades, crossing over his legs, switching from forward to backwards and keeping himself loose. Then, easy as anything, planting his toe pick instead of stepping, and pushing up.

He tucked his arms in, and the jump came to him as natural as breathing, a single rotation, land steady on one foot, free leg at ninety degrees, and breathe out. He waited a few seconds in the glide, before lowering his leg and using it to propel himself into a spin.

There was something he couldn’t put a name to, about being on ice, that made something right settle in his stomach, and it was no different this time. Everything fell away, school and study and time and space until it was just him and the ice. He lifted his free leg higher, reached back with an arm, hooked his fingers under his blade. Stretched himself out. Breathe in, breathe out.

It all came rushing back as he heard a yell, closer than the noises from earlier and directed his way. He didn’t stumble, but it was a close thing, fingers spreading and foot dropping as he checked himself out of the spin, slid a few feet backwards, and stopped himself with a little spray of snow.

There were two guys leaning against the plexiglass, watching him with grins on their faces. They were in workout gear, and looked puffed, and it took him a moment, and the realisation that they were at the bottom of a set of stairs, to realise what they’d been doing. He knew how gruelling stair training could be, didn’t envy them even a little.

“Pretty sure that’s unnatural,” one said, and Bucky stiffened at the casual words, the dismissal he’d been facing since he was young. That’s a girl’s sport, go play hockey like a man.

“Yeah man,” the other continued, batting at the first guy’s hand as he tapped the glass. “Spines aren’t supposed to bend that way, especially not on ice.”

Bucky relaxed, a little, eyes narrowing slightly before he spoke. “That wasn’t even a stretch, if I’m honest.” Taking the challenge laid out to him, whether or not it had been intended as one in the first place.

“Prove it,” the first guy said, shoving the mop of blond hair out of his face. Bucky shrugged, shifted his left foot back. Planted the toe pick to keep him steady, and tipped himself backwards. He breathed out, nice and slow, one continuous breath until his fingers skimmed the ice behind him, all of his weight sitting on the pivot point of the pick.

He waited until he heard a “Holy shit,” before pulling himself up, rocking off the pick and onto the flat of the blade and sliding back a few inches. He shrugged.

“Lots of practice,” Bucky grinned at the expressions on the guys’ faces. “You two do hockey?” It wasn’t the only reason they’d be in the centre, considering the number of stairs, but they moved like skaters, and, if his glance earlier had noticed anything, they had asses like skaters.

The second guy nodded, speaking over the first as the blonds mouth opened with a look of amusement, and Bucky could see they were pretty close. “Yeah, I’m Sam, goalie, and this is Clint, defenceman.”

“Bucky, figure,” Bucky responded, lifting a hand in a little wave before he could stop himself. The first guy, Clint, was halfway to waving back when there was a yell from the top of the stairs. The three of them turned to see a big man, shock of red hair standing out against the dark cement of the back wall, standing at the top, tapping his wrist in an exaggerated motion.

“Captain’s calling,” Clint sighed, and Bucky grinned. “Catch you ‘round, Bucky.”

“You too guys, nice to meet you,” Bucky responded, watching for a moment as the two men turned, started jogging up the concrete steps.

 

*

“Do you have any idea what’s going on?”

Bucky looked up at the voice, smiling slightly at the woman it belonged to, who was standing next to the table he was working at. “I’m sorry?”

“You’re in Professor Danim’s first year psych class, right?” She said, inviting herself to sit at across from him, and tapping his textbook. “Do you understand what he’s going on about?”

“Oh, right, yeah I am,” Bucky responded, looking a little closer and realising that yeah, he did recognise the woman. He usually saw her from behind though, seeing as she sat a few rows in front of him. “Sort of? I mean I’m going through the reading now so I assume that’ll help. I think it’s just a lot of name memorisation at this point.” He shrugged a little.

“I’m Sharon,” the woman said after a moment, holding out a hand. Bucky took it, returning the firm grip she gave him.

“Bucky,” he responded, and before he could think of anything else to say, she continued.

“Do you want to study together?”

“Sure,” he said with a smile, hand dropping back to the table. “Do you want to give me your number?” He gave her his most charming smile, and she snickered, but held out her hand.

“Give me your phone,” Sharon responded, amusement on her face. “We should aim for at least an hour a week if we want to actually get anything out of this.”

Bucky raised an eyebrow, but nodded, willing to take a step back and let someone who actually sounded like they had a plan take over. He pulled out his phone, pulled up a contacts page, and handed it over. After a moment, Sharon’s phone buzzed, and she passed his back.

“There we go,” she said with a smile. “Now, how are you going about memorising the brain segments? That’ll give me grief I can tell.”

Bucky smiled, flipped his notebook back a few pages, then closed iTunes on his laptop. Maybe college wasn’t going to be so bad.

 

*

“College sucks I’m dropping out,” Bucky whined into his phone, voice muffled by the pillow his head was buried in. America’s laughter through the tinny speaker just made him bury his face deeper into his bedding.

“It can’t be that bad, surely,” she responded, and yeah, she was still laughing at him. Rude.

“It is,” he insisted, rolling onto his back. “Three of my professors dumped assignments on us out of nowhere, they’re all due on the same day. The other prof is just waiting for his moment to strike, I swear it. I have a test next week, the possibility of a pop quiz next week as well, and I still can’t do backwards crossovers when I’m holding a hockey stick. It’s only the third week.” Bucky covered his face with a hand and made a frankly childish whine. “This was a mistake.”

“You’re close enough for a day trip, I can see if my mum wants to go into the city, and can drop me off on the way,” was her immediate offer, and Bucky huffed under his breath.

“It’s fine, you don’t have to,” he protested, weakly, but part of him was aching for a little bit of familiarity, and America’s friendly teasing was something he’d take any day.

“Don’t sweat it, I want to see your fancy rink that you get all to yourself,” America responded, and he could almost hear the shrug. “It’ll be fun.”

“Don’t push yourself, I’ll have to ask Sam when the hockey team is gonna be using it. Preseason is coming up, so they’ve been in there more, and I can’t get in if they’re on the ice.”

“Oooh, who’s Sam?”

Of course she fixated on that. “Uh, the goalie for the Commandos. I’ve run into him and one of the defencemen a few times at the rink.”

“Is he hot?”

“America no,” Bucky groaned, sitting up and swinging his feet off his bed. He was lucky his roommate was out while he had this conversation. “You don’t swing that way and I’m not looking for anything. Besides, he’s probably straight.”

“What have I told you about assuming things, chico? And you didn’t answer the question.”

Bucky sighed. “I know, I know, but he’s a hockey jock, what can I expect? And yeah, he is, but I’m not interested,” he repeated, exasperation in his voice.

“Fine. Text me the deets about which day is better and I’ll talk to my mom. Now, I’ve got to go, practice is in twenty.”

“Sure thing,” Bucky sighed, forcing his fingers to relax around his phone. “Tell your ma I said hi.”

“Will do.”

There was a beep, and the line disconnected. Bucky dropped his phone to his lap, staring at the screen for a moment. Honestly, in such a short space of time the younger girl had become one of his closest friends, and he really did want to see her in person again. He shot a text to Sam, asking after the schedule for the weekend, then headed over to his desk, setting his phone on the plywood and dropping into the chair, which groaned at his weight. He glanced at his skates, hanging their hooks by the laces, drying after his morning skate, and sighed to himself, before picking up his psychology textbook, and flipping back to his post-it bookmark.

 

*

The on-campus café was busy, but there wasn’t the clamour of noise Bucky was used to hearing in a full store like this. People had textbooks open in front of them, headphones in, laptops out, or were talking in small groups, but keeping their voices respectfully lowered. It was an awesome little study spot, he’d learned, and he loved it to bits. But that wasn’t why he was here.

“Bucks!” He lifted his head, standing a little at the familiar voice coming from nearby. A grin split his face as he saw who it was, straightening and throwing his arms around his older sister’s shoulders.

“Becks,” he replied, surprise in his voice, before pulling back a little to look at her. “What are you doing here?” She’d moved out a few years ago and now worked closer to Pittsburgh than Philadelphia, having graduated the year before. New York wasn’t in “I’ll just pop over” range when one lived in the far side of Pennsylvania and worked six days a week. Which sucked, because he and Rebecca had always been close, and now it was that much harder to see her.

“Your friend mentioned she was coming up, and I couldn’t let the chance slide,” she responds, pinching his cheek then grinning at him.

“Yeah? Where is she then?” Bucky challenged, just to be a shit, and Becca rolled her eyes, knowing exactly what he was doing.

“Right here, chico,” was the familiar drawl, and he grinned, stepping past his sister to give America a quick hug as well. She was only a year younger, but sometimes it felt like she was the one mothering him. “Have you eaten yet?” She asked, reminding him why he felt that way.

“Nah, I was waiting for you. Lemme treat you guys to something, for coming up all this way.”

Bucky kept an eye on the time as they ate, and chatted quietly, knowing they were just killing time until the hockey guys cleared out of the rink. “Becks, did you bring your…?” he asked suddenly, looking over at her. She had to finish her mouthful, but she pointed to the bag at her feet in the meantime.

“Yeah, I got ‘em. Can’t let you two have all the fun,” she responded, and Bucky couldn’t help but grin. It’d been a while since he’d skated with his sister, and god but he was glad to be able to now.

As soon as they’d finished, Bucky was pushing to his feet, waving his thanks at the staff behind the counter. The other two followed, and he led the way out of the café as they made bets between them.

“It’s going to be fancy as hell,” America said, folding her arms across her chest for a moment before unfolding them to steady her bag. “As hell, princess.”

“It’s a college, how fancy can it be,” Becca responded, and Bucky wasn’t surprised. His sister loved to be annoyingly contrary when it didn’t matter much.

“This place earns enough a year to host a world cup, probably,” America snorted, wise to his sister’s antics but always willing to take up the challenge. “They’re in division one, so it’s got to be fancy to live up to places like Princeton.”

“Look up and find out,” Bucky broke in after a moment, turning to look at them as they approached Rakird.

“Holy shit,” America said weakly, and Becca echoed the sentiment.

“Yeah, I know,” Bucky said with a grin. “Now do you want to skate or not?”

They follow him in, silent for once, looking around with matching looks of surprised awe at the wide atrium. “They’re big on hockey here, so they did it properly,” he said, preening a little inside because yeah, this is his school. He could hear the faint chatter of people on the ice, realised the hockey practice must have gone overtime a little, and headed up to the reception desk anyway to check them in.

The woman was all smiles, waving them through with a reminder to be off the rink by six, which gave them nearly five hours to themselves to play. She also offered to have the ice resurfaced for them later in the afternoon, which Bucky gratefully accepted. Considering the hockey team was on it, it had probably just been done, but there was nothing like drills, or toe picks, to mess everything up again.

He led the way down through the building, skirting the locker rooms as the hockey players started to clatter down that hallway to change. Bucky glanced over his shoulder, making sure the other two were still on his heels, waited a moment as they stood, staring as big guy sweaty after big sweaty guy passed them by, then headed down the concrete steps towards the ice.

There were still a few people on the ice, a couple just chatting, someone in goalie pads that was too short to be Sam swinging himself from side to side in the net, down into the spread-eagled butterfly position, then back to his feet, rinse, and repeat.

Sam, still decked out in the goalie leg pads but missing his helmet now that practise was over, shot Bucky a smile, clapping someone on the back and skating over.

“Aren’t you supposed to be training?” Bucky asked as soon as they were close enough to speak, tilting his chin at the goalie in the net. “Looks like he’s got the jump on you.”

“Bucky, buddy,” Sam drawled, tucking his hand under his armpit to remove his glove before clasping Bucky on the shoulder. “Nobody has the drop on me.”

When Bucky just raised an eyebrow, Sam jumped to explain, amusing Bucky to no end. “He’s the second backup goalie, he needs more time in the net than I do at the moment.” Bucky kept his sceptical expression in place until Sam removed his grip to slap Bucky’s shoulder. “You’re an ass.”

“You love me,” Bucky responded, as the girls came even with him, having had enough time to gawk at the rink.

“Yeah, I guess I might. Now, you gonna introduce me?”

Bucky rolled his eyes, stepped back a little, and tipped his head towards the girls. “This is America, a close friend from home, and Rebecca, my older sister.”

Sam was, if Bucky had to say it, absolutely charming as he turned to the women, introducing himself to them. He had his mouth open, as though he was about to say more, when someone called his name, and he closed it with a snap. “Duty calls. I’ll see you ‘round, Bucky. It was lovely to meet you!”

He turned, skated off, and it left Bucky reeling a little, but he was getting used to Sam’s abrupt exits.

“Yeah, that’s Sam,” he said, glancing over and seeing the look on Becca’s face. America looked considering though, and he wasn’t sure that was a good thing.

“They’re finishing up, so we can jump on,” he said as a distraction, sitting on the bench closest to the rink and opening his bag. After a moment’s hesitation, he’d packed both his Bauers and his Edeas that morning, knowing that America was coming specifically to help him with his hockey skating, not just to fuck around on the ice like they did sometimes, both in their element and trying to outdo each other.

He pulled the Bauers out of his bag now and tugged off the soft soaker guards to check the blades. Happy they were still sharp enough to skate well on, he began to loosen the laces and shoving his feet in, ignoring the look Becca gave him when she saw the skates.

“Something you want to tell me, Bucky?” She asked after a long moment of waiting for him to look at her, and Bucky sighed, pinning his laces to his boot with a finger to keep them tight as he looked up at his sister.

“I’ve taken up hockey to get a scholarship because there’s nothing for figure skaters, and it’s the only reason I’m at this university,” he deadpanned, and Becca laughed like she didn’t believe him.

There was a beat of silence, as she waited for him to actually explain, then her jaw dropped, and she stared at him, shocked. “You’re serious.”

“Yup. Ask mom.”

“I can’t believe you.” Despite saying it, she didn’t sound overly surprised. Maybe a little shocked, but mostly amused, that he could tell. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I need the money, and you’d have insisted on being there when I was teaching myself to skate on these. I didn’t need that sort of teasing. Now put your skates on before I freeze,” he retorted, finishing one foot and moving onto the other. By the time he was standing, guards off, there was only one person left on the ice, and Bucky couldn’t help himself. His gaze skimmed over the figure, facing away from them, lingering on the wide shoulders and the shock of blond hair before dragging down. Despite the padding the other man had on, he was obviously built, and Bucky couldn’t help but wonder what he looked like without the thick layers on, what he looked like from the front.

Someone cleared their throat behind him, and he turned as soon as he stepped on the ice, gliding backwards a little and pulling the finger at his definitely amused sister. He knew, oh he knew, he was a little behind on the dating front, but that wasn’t a conversation he was having with her – with them, he corrected himself as America stepped onto the ice after Becca – with someone else on the rink. So he turned, skated away, forwards, following the blue line across the ice.

When he reached the other side of the rink, he let himself tap the board, lightly, before pushing himself backwards, warming himself up with the repetitive back and forth as he crossed the ice a few times.

“It’s been a while, so you can’t laugh at me,” Becca said out of nowhere by his side, and he jumped a little, quickly stopping and spraying snow out in front of him. “Damn, you were deep in your head, weren’t you,” she asked, laughing at him, but he knew it was meant kindly. Mostly.

“It’s only been a few months,” he argued, ignoring the second comment and planting his hands on his hips. “You were showing me up not long before I left, so don’t give me that.”

“Hardly,” she shot back, smile on her face. They both knew Bucky was the higher graded skater of the two, considering he started a few years before her, but Becca had a fluidity on the ice that Bucky struggled to match, and he wasn’t entirely convinced it was, as his coach had told him, just because Becca was a lady.

“Go on then, show off,” he drawled, poking her arm lightly before pushing backwards. “Have you managed to get that double Lutz down?”

“I can do it sometimes,” she responded with a little grin, “But I think you’re here to practice, not to coach me, so get to it lil bro.”

Bucky pouted, pacing his feet a little, before Becca leaned forward and gave him a push. He slid backwards, not bothering to stop himself, and flipped the bird at her, before turning and skating over to where America was still warming up.

Bucky couldn’t help but notice the hockey player was still at the other end of the ice, stick in hand, but pulled his mind back to what he was doing as he stopped in the middle of the rink.

“Ready?” America asked him, grin in place as she skated towards him. “Do some forward crossovers first, let me make sure you’re not lying to me before we go backwards.”

Bucky sighed overdramatically, but pushed away, skating in a loose circle, using the middle faceoff circle as a guide. He let himself fall into it, first crossing his feet to a single line, with each step, then swinging free, then as his legs loosened up a little, crossing over fully. He kept to the circle at first, and then, after a glance at America, started loose diagonal lines up to the goal line and back, crossing over to change direction, to build speed, or to just stretch himself out, switching legs to prove he could do both. Forwards, at least.

He turned, letting himself glide backwards, grin on his face as he looked at America. “Yeah yeah, come back here and show me where you got to with the back ones then, smartass.”

Bucky laughed, short and sharp, falling into an easy half circle, left leg coming up off the ground as he instinctually pushed himself into a low arabesque. The balance was different in the hockey skates, but he’d gotten used to it over the months, and grinned when America wolf-whistled at him sarcastically. He dropped his foot a little, turned on his blade, and grinned at her as he returned to where she was standing.

“Show-off,” she heckled good-naturedly.

“Asshole,” he replied, and she thumped his shoulder, grinning.

He used the disguised push to start, taking the hint for what it was, and his grin disappeared as he concentrated. Backwards was harder, always, and backwards crossovers were the bane of his existence. But he knew, from the hockey he’d been watching more and more of, that they were essential, which is why he’d been working at them.

The first one was shaky, as usual, but he got into it, staying in the easy circle he had with the forward movements. After a minute, he heard America say “switch sides,” and he grumbled under his breath, but turned sharply, pushing himself backwards. Sharp turns, he’d discovered, were a lot easier in hockey skates. He could turn on a dime, change direction on less.

He let himself just take the circle at first, getting used to the left handed strokes, before starting his weaker-sided crossovers. Immediately, he could feel his balance shifting, and leaned forward a little to compensate, luckily evening himself out again. He kept at it, knowing it wasn’t as good as his right, but good enough as long as he was able to use his hands for control.

Which is where the problem was.

“Alright,” America called, and he dropped his feet, gliding on both blades back to the centre of the circle before turning to face her.

He wasn’t surprised when she started talking him through his issues, knowing she had a keen eye and knew how he skated after such a short time. He was surprised, however, at how few things she pointed out. When he raised his eyebrow at her after she’d been silent for a moment, she sighed, rolling her eyes.

“You’re getting good chico, don’t let it get to your head. I assume you have a stick or something we can use when we get to it?”

Bucky nodded, hands on his hips, and raised an eyebrow. “Jumping ahead a little aren’t you? Let me make sure I can do what you’ve said first.”

She snorted, but waved him off, and he grinned at her, before blowing her a kiss. She just flipped him the bird in response.

Bucky pushed back a little, then fell back into the circle, trying to keep what America had said in mind. He could already feel his balance shifting, for the better, and laughed to himself, soft and a little excited. Sure, he had a long way to go, he knew, but every time something became easier it felt like a leap in the right direction.

“Better, Bucky,” he heard from the centre of his circle, and he turned his head, grinning at her.

“You’re a goddamned miracle worker, America,” he responded, slowing his steps and letting himself glide around the circle on two feet, slowing gradually. “Just let me go grab the stick I’ve been using, and I’ll see if that stuff helps when I’ve got that in my hands.”

Before he could fully come to a stop, there was a voice, deep and smooth and right next to his shoulder, saying “Just use mine, it’ll save you time.”

Less than a word in, Bucky jumped, feet completely clearing the ice by a few inches as he turned, then landed heavily. The only thing that saved him were his reflexes, and he knew it, pushing back a little to land in motion and saving his ankles and knees from the brunt of the impact.

Bucky opened his mouth, ready to deliver a strongly worded lecture about sneaking up on people, but as soon as his eyes actually travelled up from the chest that was at eye level to the person’s face, he’d lost the words out of his mouth. “Uhh,” he said intelligently instead, before mentally slapping himself.

It was the hockey player, the one that’d been on the ice when they’d arrived, and apparently had stayed the nearly forty minutes since then. But that wasn’t what had Bucky’s tongue tied and his stomach dropping to somewhere near his knees.

The man was gorgeous, stunningly so, and didn’t look like he’d spent more than a few minutes doing light activity, let alone spent over two hours on the ice doing intensive training. Bucky swallowed, hard, pulling his gaze away from the impressive jawline, up past lips that, frankly, should be illegal, to bright, amused blue eyes. Yeah, he was desperate for something all right.

“You needed a stick?” the man repeated, lifting his hockey stick in the air, and Bucky nearly said something he’d regret. The loud snickers behind him brought him back into his own mind, and he nodded, a little dumbly.

“Yeah, I, uh, sorry, I didn’t realise you were still here.” Bucky nearly slapped himself for admitting he’d noticed the guy in the first place.

“Yeah, I can tell,” was the response, amused, and Bucky couldn’t stop the little annoyed pout. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to give you a fright.” The man held up his stick, offering it to Bucky with an apologetic little smile.

Bucky blinked, then took it, fingers closing tight around the wooden shaft. “Thank you,” he said, a little stunned, before looking back up, and it was up, the guy had a few inches on him easily, and asking, “What’s your name?”

He couldn’t think of a good reason, didn’t even try, just smiled winningly and lifted the stick a little between them. The man laughed, and god but Bucky could die happy having heard that sound. He knew he was being overdramatic, but he couldn’t care less.

“Steve. And you are?”

“James. I go by Bucky though, there’s enough Jameses around.”

“That’s a fair point,” Steve said, grin still in place, and Bucky would have happily stayed there, making awkward small talk, for the rest of his life, had there not been the scrape of a skate near him, and a chipper voice on his left.

“Thanks for offering, that’ll make this go a little faster,” America said beside him, words directed at Steve but eyes on Bucky, looking more than a little amused. “Do you play for the team here?”

“No problem, I was just going to free skate for a bit before heading off,” Steve said with a little shrug, answering the question Bucky should have asked about whether he no longer needed the stick. “Do you mind if I stay? I should have asked when you first got here, I’m sorry. And I wouldn’t say play for, not yet, but I’m on the team.”

Bucky raised his eyebrows at that, looking at Steve for a moment. “I don’t mind, and that’s pretty cryptic of you.”

Steve blushed – actually, truly, blushed – at the comment, and Bucky couldn’t help but stare at the red spreading across his cheeks. “Preseason hasn’t started yet, so I haven’t actually played any games for the team. First year,” he explained quickly, which almost made Bucky laugh.

“There’s no way you’re a first year,” he said with a grin, and Steve shrugged, smiling a little.

“It’s true,” Steve responded, and it took Bucky a moment to realise that Steve was shifting a little, like he was uncomfortable with the attention.

“If you insist buddy,” he said instead of arguing it, before asking, “Have you been playing long?”

“Since I was old enough to stay upright,” Steve responded, almost visibly relaxing at the topic change. “My dad played AHL before he met my ma, and kept playing for one of the local teams, so I grew up around it. Almost skated before I could walk.” His gaze dropped down to Bucky’s skates, then back up, before he glanced at America. “You guys play?”

“I play high school,” America answered before Bucky could, grinning as Steve seemed surprised. “Bucky’s only been in hockey boots for a few months.”

Bucky scowled at her over his shoulder, a little annoyed that she’d completely outed him like that. “I’ve been skating for years,” he defended himself, looking back at Steve, who looked a little confused. “Figure, though. Thought I’d switch it up.” He shrugged, and for once America left it at that.

“That’s why there’s a figure skater with you?” Steve asked, tipping his chin to point behind them. Bucky turned to see his sister a little ways back, watching them curiously with one toe pick lazily set in the ice.

“Yeah, that’s my sister,” Bucky said with a little smile. “She didn’t want to be left out.”

There was a beat of silence, as though Steve wasn’t sure how to reply, before Bucky stepped back a little. “We should leave you to your practice,” he said, knowing his time on the ice was running out, as much as he wanted to stay and chat to the gorgeous man in front of him.

“Oh, uh. Yeah,” Steve responded, a flash of something crossing his face, gone before Bucky could read it. “If I’m not here when you’re done, just leave the stick on the rack by the locker rooms, I’ll grab it tomorrow,” he said, looking down at the stick in Bucky’s hands. Then, almost hesitantly, “If you need anything, though you look like you’ve got him covered,” Steve’s gaze dropped to America, who grinned. “Just give me a shout, okay?”

Bucky stared up at him for a moment, trying to decide whether he was taking the piss, but the way he’d said it, the way he was shifting from foot to foot and the way his eyes kept flicking between Bucky and America, made Bucky think he was being genuine. “Yeah, alright,” he said after a moment, and Steve smiled, small but genuine. “As long as it’s not a bother.”

“Wouldn’t have offered if it was,” Steve responded, looking at Bucky for a moment before nodding, seeming to shake himself out of his own thoughts. “I’ll uh. Leave you to it,” he said, pushing himself backwards with a shift of his hips, before turning, skating away.

Bucky watched him go, before shaking his head slightly, turning away from his friend before she could say anything. “Shh, I know, don’t say it,” he said under his breath, and she just laughed at him.

“Go on then lover boy,” she teased, wiggling her eyebrows in his direction, and he sighed, overdramatic. “Forwards first, stick up high.”

She pushed him, she really did, and by the time she was happy he was breathing heavily, hair falling out of its knot and into his face, only to get stuck to his skin.

“Go on,” she said with a grin, pulling to a stop after running him to exhaustion with what he knew were basic fucking drills. “Switch your skates, I know you want to skate with your sister as well.”

“But,” he protested, flicking his head back to try and detach the hair from his forehead, and only succeeding in pushing himself back a few inches on the ice. “You’re here to-”

“Do you feel like I’ve helped you?” She cut him off, grinning at him.

“Yeah,” he mumbled reluctantly under his breath, knowing exactly where she was going and only half resenting it.

“Then the trip is worth it. Go make it worth it for Becca too,” she said with a grin, taking the hockey stick from his slack hands.

“You’re way too wise for your age,” he muttered after a moment, and she laughed at him.

“Different life experiences,” she shot back, and yeah, he couldn’t really argue that one.

“Okay, fine, I’m going,” he said with a sigh, putting it on a little, but his strides felt lighter as he moved back to the bench. He couldn’t help but glance over to the other side of the rink, where Steve was still skating, his movements almost lazy. Part of Bucky envied how easy Steve made it look, skating on the hockey skates that had made his life hell for a few weeks when he’d first put them on. The other part of him he refused to acknowledge.

He stepped up onto the bench and rested the stick, Steve’s stick, against the wood. He turned, dropping onto the wooden seat with a sigh, before tackling the laces on his skates. By the time he got the skates off, Becca had realised what was happening and had skated over, leaning on the boards with a grin on her face.

“C’mon, you take forever,” she sighed, sounding more two than twenty three, and he snorted, not dignifying that with an answer. He flexed his feet, before letting them relax a little as he wiped off the blades, and hooked the soft blade guards over them. It didn’t take long to get them sorted and pull out his figure skates, fingers lingering a little over the chrome lettering on the heel before he started to loosen the laces.

“Just give me a sec,” he said after a moment, getting them on his feet and starting to tighten the laces. He was meticulous, but fast, fingers easily falling into the familiar pattern of tug, hold, twist, release, that kept the laces tight as he moved up the boot. He wiggled his toes, to make sure he hadn’t overtightened them, then pulled off his guards, stood, and stepped onto the ice.

The difference was immediately noticeable, but he was used to it now, giving himself a few moments to get used to the differently shaped blades. Becca bounced up and down a little on her skates, an almost identical pair to his, but white, and grinned at him as he paced his feet a little.

“Okay, you’re warmed up,” he said to her, and she grinned wider, chasing him as he pushed himself into a backwards glide. “Show me your single Lutz?”

“You show me yours,” she retorted, and he wasn’t sure he was supposed to hear her as she let herself glide away, giving herself room. Bucky snickered, and she stuck her tongue out over her shoulder at him, before turning and skating backwards. He inched closer, could feel America pulling in at his side to watch curiously, and he bumped his shoulder against hers lightly.

“Feel good to be back on this side of the lecture?” America teased lightly as Becca built up her momentum, before gliding backwards on one skate. Then, she toed in with a soft crunch, pushing herself into the air for the single rotation, and then landed smoothly. There wasn’t much Bucky could say about it other than the positives, so as Becca let herself slow to a stop, he shot her a thumbs up.

“Okay, so why can’t you do that with the double?”

Becca pouted at him, and he grinned wider, folding his arms across his chest.

“I switch my edges,” she finally admitted, hands on her hips.

“You do what?” He said, grin on his face as he leaned forward a little, hand cupping his own ear.

Becca pouted at him, but knew what he was waiting for, knew she wouldn’t get any help until she said it. “It’s a flutz,” she whined after a moment, skating over to him and planting her hands on his shoulders. “One of the biggest jumps in my short routine this year and it’s a flutz,” she said mournfully, hands sliding down his arms to catch his elbows. “A flutz, Bucky.”

Bucky laughed at her dramatics, but leaned forward a little until she let him go, then skated back to give himself a little room. He stuck his left foot out in front of him a little, tipping it so he was leaning just a little on the outside edge of his skate. “You’re working off this edge, yes? Or trying to?”

Becca nodded, and Bucky raised an eyebrow at her. “Can you still land it safely? It’s just the take-off edge that’s wrong?” When she nodded, Bucky tipped his chin to the space behind her. “Show me? I want to see your take-off fully.”

It didn’t take long, only a couple of jumps from her to work out where she was going wrong, and how she was overcompensating for it. And it took even less time for Bucky to explain it, as America stared at him and Becca tried to understand how it’d make a difference.

Bucky sighed heavily, scrubbing a hand over his face. “Okay, I’ll show you what you’re doing, then what I want you to do. Nothing else is changing, okay?” He waited for the nod, and pushed off to get a bit of momentum, switching behind to skate backwards before taking off, making sure to cut his body movement short. Sure enough, he felt his foot shift to accommodate, and as he toed into the jump, he rocked onto the inside edge of his blade.

He landed it and let the momentum of the jump carry him back a little longer, before he did the same jump properly. As he landed it, he glanced up, eyes sliding past Becca and America to the person on the other side of the rink, watching. He dropped his gaze, quick as anything, cheeks feeling like they were burning, and slowly skated out of the jump to give himself a chance at composure. Or, at least, a chance at not looking like a love-struck fool.

He managed to limit the number of times his gaze found Steve’s for the rest of their time on the ice, proud of himself for only looking up and over every few techniques, rather than each one. He wasn’t sure why he felt the need to show off, to prove himself, except that he did, just a little. Bucky berated himself for it every time.

By the time they’d warmed down, talking animatedly, Becca over the moon that she’d managed to get her jump right more than once in a row, Steve was gone. Bucky had to really try not to feel disappointed in the fact, or in the face of Steve’s stick not being where Bucky had left it. He flopped over the bench, overdramatic, and yelped when Becca poked him in the stomach, but his mind was still focused on the hockey player.

Bucky wasn’t entirely sure why he was so infatuated. It probably had something to do with the fact that Steve ticked every single proverbial box Bucky had when faced with an attractive person, and something to do with a lack of people who had ticked any of those boxes in the more recent months. He sighed, dramatic, and America poked him this time, making him jerk upright and glare at the both of them. Without a word he leaned forward, overdramatic frown on his face, and started pulling at the laces of his boots.

Once he had everything packed away, and the women were waiting for him, looking impatient, he stood, glancing back at the rink before following them out. “We haven’t got much time until we have to head back,” Becca said, and it took Bucky a moment to realise it wasn’t a comment on how long he’d taken to pack two pairs of skates away.

“How long have you got?” Bucky asked after a moment, looking between the other two. America checked her phone, sighed, and gave him an apologetic smile. “Like, ten minutes before we’re meeting up with mom. Sorry Bucko.”

“Hey,” Bucky said quietly, waiting for America to turn before pulling her into a brief, one armed hug. “Thanks for coming out all this way to help me,” he told her quietly, smile in place.

“It’s no problem, really,” America responded, crooked smile lifting her lips as she tossed her hair over her shoulder. “Just, don’t keep this rink all to yourself, okay? I expect invites every month.”

Bucky laughed, but knew he’d be holding her to that, whether or not she could make it up. He did miss skating with her, and it’d been fun. “Yeah, sure, only if you drag my sister up every once in a while,” he responded, tucking an arm around Becca’s waist and squeezing lightly. “It’s only a couple of hours, you can make it more than once a year,” he added, directed at his sister.

Becca just rolled her eyes at him, but kissed his cheek and gave him a quick hug, before America’s phone chimed. “Okay, we got to go,” she said with a sigh. “Catch you later, Buck.”

 

*

After their first meeting, Bucky started seeing Steve everywhere. He nearly walked into Steve on his way out of the coffee shop he frequented, getting an amused smile and a warm, steadying hand on his arm before Steve said, “Maybe you should drink your morning coffee instead of carrying it around,” making Bucky laugh despite his bad mood. He was at the rink, flicking hockey pucks into the net with precision and patience, smiling at Bucky when he realised he wasn’t alone. He was in the halls, waving a little as they passed each other only to have a friend catch his attention again before Bucky could properly react.

Bucky wasn’t sure what to do about it, frankly.

He knew what he wanted to do, but at the same time knew it wasn’t an option. But he had no idea what he was going to do. So when Steve skated up to him directly one day when he was just getting on the rink, Bucky was a little off kilter.

Before he could embarrass himself, Steve set the end of his stick on the ice, leaned onto it a little, and asked, “So, you’re teaching yourself to play?”

Bucky blinked, startled, then stumbled out a “Yes?” before he could think about the question.

“Any particular reason you’re doing it like this?”

Bucky stared down at his skates, lifted a foot and tapped his heel against the boards behind him. “It’s a long story,” he responded eventually, hoping Steve would leave it be, not wanting to admit the ridiculousness of his plan, or the desperation that brought it into being.

There was a beat of silence, and then, quiet, “You don’t have to do it alone.”

“What?” Bucky said sharply, gaze jumping up to Steve’s face, and the wry little smile and honest eyes there.

“You don’t have to learn it all by yourself.” Steve was still giving him this look, like he completely believed what he was saying and was hoping, through some sheer force of will, to make Bucky believe it too.

“What are you saying?” Bucky didn’t want to assume anything, put words in Steve’s mouth, but it sounded a hell of a lot like-

“I can work with you, if you want. It’s different on the ice, there’s a lot of unspoken rules and techniques that can make it hard to do by yourself.” Steve pushed himself upright again, tapping the stick lightly on the ice. “Everything from working with the puck to working around other players to the way we talk with each other isn’t something you can get quickly when you don’t have a team. So I’m- this is an offer, I guess. If you want some human help. I can be that.”

Bucky narrowed his eyes a little, and Steve shifted on his feet, back and forward scoot of his blades on the ice.

“What’s in it for you?” Bucky asked eventually, thinking it was a little better than outright demanding what Steve wanted. Hopefully.

“I get extra practice time,” Steve said with a little shrug, “With someone who can probably keep up with me.” There was a glint of challenge in that statement, in the set of his jaw, and Bucky was having a lot of trouble resisting it.

Too much, as it were. “Alright.”

Steve looked surprised, blinking a little before nodding to himself. He looked like he was about to double check, so Bucky saved him the trouble.

“It’s harder than it sounds, even just trying to learn the basics. Off the ice or on the ice.” He shrugged a little, annoyed at himself to have admitted it.

“What level do you want to play at?” Steve asked, skating back a little as Bucky shifted, and Bucky followed at a small distance. “Just for fun, club level, what?”

Bucky hesitated, knowing it’d be easier to play it down. But Steve genuinely seemed like he wanted to help, and he couldn’t do that if he didn’t know how much help was needed. Bucky wasn’t sure of the exact differences, but knew there were a lot between college level and club level hockey, at least in the rulebooks. So. “You can’t laugh,” he said, just as Steve’s mouth started to pinch, turn down a little.

Steve’s answer was immediate, as the other man used the butt end of the stick in his hands to draw an X across his chest. “I would never,” he responded, and he sounded so genuine that Bucky was having a hard time not believing him.

“I want to make the team. Here.” He rushed it out, looking at Steve for a second, than letting his gaze wander, away from the face that was sure to be laughing at him soon.

“Okay,” was the response he got instead, “What’s the time frame? Next year?”

Bucky nodded, a tight little movement. “Preferably,” he said, instead of admitting it was that or not at all.

“How familiar are you with the sport? I know you figure skate, but have you been interested in hockey before?”

That was easier to answer, and Steve’s genuine tone was helping, a lot. Bucky let his eyes meet Steve’s again, only seeing honest encouragement. “Yeah, I’ve been watching it a while. I wanted to play, before I got into figure, and I always sort of kept that interest, even though the game itself didn’t draw me like figure did.” He shrugged a little, slid his hands into the pockets of his thin track pants. “I follow one of the NHL teams within easy travel distance, kept up with a couple of the local teams.” He smiled, raised an eyebrow. “I’m not completely new to it, don’t worry.”

Steve raised an eyebrow back, planted a hand on his hip as the other kept his stick steady against the ice. “And what team is that?” He drawled, and Bucky felt like he was being tested.

“The Leafs,” Bucky responded, and laughed at Steve’s overdramatic wince. “I know I know, but my dad loves them, and you can’t badmouth a team like them. I’ve always preferred Colorado though, much better colour scheme.” Bucky was pleased when Steve laughed at that, and was even more pleased when Steve turned his grin on Bucky, full wattage and almost enough to make Bucky shiver.

“At least it’s not the ‘Hawks,” Steve responded dryly, and Bucky grinned, shifting his weight absently. “Islanders and Habs,” Steve said, pointing at himself before letting his hand drop again. “But we can get along, right?”

Bucky grinned wider, responding, “What’s a friendship without a little rivalry?” Before he realised his wording, smile freezing on his face.

But Steve just laughed, taking hold of his stick properly and lifting it a little. “What is, huh,” he responded before tipping his head a little, towards the centre of the rink. “Let’s get going, then. What were you wanting to work on?”

Bucky shrugged a little, following Steve as the other man started skating slowly around the rink. “Honestly, I’ve been working on puck handling. I know I need to get faster, and I’m getting used to it I think, but I’m not sure how to.”

“It’s a good thing I offered then, huh,” Steve said with a grin over his shoulder, and Bucky couldn’t help but smile in return.

“Yeah, kinda is. I’ll just warm up, then grab the rest of my gear,” Bucky responded, waiting for Steve’s nod to really start pushing himself. And if he tried a little harder, pushed a little further, because Steve was watching, then it was no one’s business but his own.

At one point Bucky looked around, and couldn’t find Steve, but the other man stepped back onto the ice before he could get worried, a couple of sticks in one hand and a few pucks in the other. He smiled when he saw Bucky stopped, skating over. “Warm? I’m not sure whether you’ve got a stick picked but I thought we’re about the same size so…” He held out the sticks, and Bucky couldn’t see anything different between them except the colour of the tape at the top.

Bucky blinked, running through everything he had in his mind about sticks before blurting out, “What’s the difference anyway?”

Steve stared at him, mouth open a little, before shaking his head slightly. “You don’t mean that, do you?” He asked, slight laugh in his voice as though he was sure Bucky had to be joking. When Bucky just stared at him, Steve’s face fell. “Oh, Buck.”

Bucky shifted on his feet, a little awkwardly, and looked at the ground. “After this we’re going stick shopping, getting you fitted, and if you’ve got time, we’ll go through the basic types of gear.” Bucky looked up again at Steve’s brisk words, nearly got poked in the face by a stick. “Try this one, it’s mid height, regular flex, and it should be okay for now.” Bucky took it, surprised to find it heavier than the one he’d been using, but not much. “What have you been using?”

Bucky found his voice again as Steve dropped the pucks, catching them with the other stick as they tried to roll away at the impact of rubber on ice. “You don’t want to know.”

“Alright, I won’t ask again,” Steve responded, raising an eyebrow. “How does that one feel?”

“Like a stick?” Bucky responded, not sure what he was supposed to say. Steve looked vaguely horrified.

“We have a long way to go.”

 

*

By the end of the day, Bucky was reeling a little. He hadn’t realised there was so much choice in this sort of thing. He still wasn’t overly sure on some of the specifics, but he knew what kind of stick he needed, what the options all meant. Knew the flex of the stick was how bendy it was, and the less bendy it was the better for attackers – unless it was too stiff.

He knew about the weights and materials, how much of a blade curve was too much – and that the blade was the bit on the end of the stick, connected to the shaft. Steve had informed him quietly, as the shop assistant went to find something, that the curve helped control the puck, the twist of the blade – loft, was the word Steve had used – changed the height of the puck during a pass or shot, and taping the stick helped grip and spin the puck sideways as it was moved around, rather than flipping it vertically.

The sheer amount of information was almost enough to make Bucky feel stupid that he hadn’t known such basic things, but Steve had never made him feel that way, or implied he thought that way of Bucky. Each explanation had been quiet, as to not draw attention from others in the store, and he never did anything other than smile and help when Bucky checked in, making sure he hadn’t gotten it wrong.

And that was just the sticks. Steve had given him a rundown on all the gear he’d need and why, grinned gleefully as he presented the caged helmet – a “Bucky” apparently in hockey speak – and told him in no uncertain terms that he was wearing a mouth guard no matter how annoying it got.

But one thing was niggling at Bucky, in the back of his mind, and it took him until they were seated at a small café on the way back to campus for him to be able to put it into words.

“Why do you care?” He asked abruptly, hands curved around his mug. Steve look startled at the question, then frowned, looking at Bucky in confusion.

“What do you mean?”

“Why do you care about this, about me?”

Steve shrugged a little, looking at his coffee, then back up at Bucky. “You seem like you’re a good guy from our talks so far, and you want to learn, want to succeed. I can help. Why wouldn’t I?”

Bucky raised his eyebrows, holding Steve’s gaze until the other man looked away for a second. “Because it’s a lot of work? A lot of effort you don’t need to give? A lot of time you could be using to do other stuff?”

“I’m not gonna lie, it does benefit me as well,” Steve said after a moment of thought. “I get extra time on the ice, I get extra practice, and hey, better a talented skater like you is on our team than not,” he added with a laugh, before taking a sip of his coffee, shifting in his seat to lean forward. “But honestly, I like helping people.”

He made it sound so simple. Like everyone could just put aside hours of their time as both a student and an athlete, like everyone was willing to give up their down time, like everyone was willing to just lend a hand. Bucky was shocked to his core by it, how genuine this man seemed.

“You look like you don’t believe me,” Steve said after a beat of silence, and Bucky startled, head lifting as he blinked at Steve. “I promise I’m not trying to use you or anything.” Now Steve looked genuinely worried, like he thought Bucky was thinking the worst.

He had to answer, had to stop this lovely guy from thinking he was in the wrong. He just wasn’t sure how to. “I don’t think you are.” He said quickly, and Steve frowned a little. “Trying to take advantage of me, or anything. I just. You’re too good to be true,” he said on an exhale, and Steve looked even more confused, but there was the faintest tinge of pink on his cheeks.

“I’m serious,” Bucky continued, resting his cup in his lap to look at Steve. “Not many people would do this.” Steve leaned back in his seat, unreadable expression on his face, before he smiled, slow and sure. Bucky’s heart felt like it skipped a beat, and he had to bit his tongue to stop himself from saying something stupid. “So, thank you,” he finished after a moment, awkwardly, looking down again.

He felt the nudge of a foot against his leg and looked up to see Steve’s grinning face. “It’s no problem. Now hurry up and finish, there’s more we can do today.”

 

*

Steve was….

Bucky wasn’t sure what Steve was. If he was honest. The man was a miracle worker, a martyr, a good person, a fantastic skater, a brilliant player, but Bucky wasn’t sure whether he could call Steve a friend. They’d swapped numbers, yeah, but didn’t text beyond organising a meeting time. Their conversations didn’t stray outside of hockey, sometimes mentioning classes but only in relation to timing their meetings on the ice.

It was kind of infuriating, if Bucky was honest with himself. He kept reaching for his phone, aborting the movement. Unlocking it, only to lock it again. One time he’d gotten to his messages screen, pulled up the thread with Steve, but had chickened out at the last second in the face of several short, impersonal messages.

Bucky wasn’t entirely sure what to do, but he knew what he wanted to do. He just didn’t know why it was so hard.

He was reaching for his phone again, ignoring the open textbook in front of him, when it buzzed against the wooden table, loud in the quiet library. He mouthed an apology to the student closest to him, a woman with a scarily large number of law textbooks in front of her and tired eyes, and grabbed the device, unlocking it with a swipe of his thumb. He opened the messenger app without checking who it was from, and nearly dropped his phone when he saw the text from the very person he’d been wanting to reach out to.

[Steve : you never told me what you were studying]

[Steve: if you don’t mind sharing of course]

The second message came through before he could finish reading the first, and he laughed under his breath.

[ psych]

He responded before he could think about it, then typed out a slightly longer answer, just in case Steve thought he didn’t want to talk about it.

[ haven’t decided what I want to major in. education or developmental or smthn]

[ none of this highbrow pure psych bullshit. what about you?]

There was no response for a bit, and Bucky wondered if he’d overstepped the mark. Maybe that’s what Steve was studying, maybe he’d just insulted one of the few people he actually liked on campus. Before he could work himself into a fit, his phone buzzed in his hand again, screen lighting up cheerily.

[Steve: sounds like a lot of work tbh, are you enjoying it?]

[Steve: I’m doing pre-med, because I evidently hate having a life]

Bucky nearly choked at that. On top of playing on the team, which was about to start preseason, and helping Bucky out, this guy was doing pre-med? Christ.

[ how are you even still alive jesus christ Steve]

Bucky set his phone on his thigh, avoiding placing it back on the wood, and tried to concentrate on his notes, but he couldn’t make his brain settle. Not when he was actually having a real conversation with the guy he’d been somewhat pining over for the past month. His phone went off against his leg, and he jumped slightly, nearly sending it clattering to the floor. He caught it with a soft exhale of relief, then flipped it around to look at the screen again.

[Steve: caffeine and prayer buck, caffeine and prayer]

Frankly, that didn’t surprise Bucky at all.

[ do you have a test or something that you’re procrastinating study of?]

Bucky felt obliged to check, at least. Even if Steve was using him as a block from the real world, it’d serve as a reminder, before the both of them completely ignored it.

[Steve: assignment. lab write-up. not worth much but if I don’t do it, I fail :( ]

Bucky couldn’t help but laugh at the ridiculousness of that text. The fact that Steve actively used smileys but avoided emoticons didn’t surprise him at all, but at the same time made him shake his head.

[ tell you what, if you get into it and finish it today at a reasonable time I’ll meet you at the rink]

Bucky didn’t even have a chance to regret the offer, Steve’s name flashed up on his phone faster than anything.

[Steve: those are the best words I’ve heard all day]

[Steve: wait]

[Steve: aren’t you studying?]

Bucky rolled his eyes, shoving his books back and, before he could think twice, snapping a photo of them, hand just in front of the camera, middle finger extended towards the books. He sent it without a caption, imagining Steve’s laugh and really hoping that was the reaction he got.

[Steve: oh my god buck]

[Steve: give me a couple of hours. you try get some work done too]

Bucky snorted, switching his phone to silent and setting it back on the table, before sitting his elbows on the hardwood and sighing. After a moment of feeling sorry for himself, he dragged his books back, turned the page in his textbook, and went back to trying to make sense of his written notes from the lecture the day before.

 

*

It was just after dinner when Bucky made it to the rink, Steve’s photo message still pulled up on his phone. It was an unmarked seat inside the rink he was sure, and Steve’s legs were extended in front of it with his ankles crossed. Come find me the caption had said, and Bucky had jumped to his feet as soon as it had come through. It had only taken a minute for him to shimmy out of his jeans, pull on his Skins and a pair of track pants before heading out the door of his dorm, grabbing his already packed skate bag on the way. He stuck his phone in his mouth to hold it as he scraped his hair back, walking through the foyer of the rink.

The building was quiet, empty, which would be strange if he didn’t know that the peewee team that were usually training on Friday nights had a bye that week, and so had taken the night off. He wasn’t entirely sure how Steve had known that, not having picked the other man to be one to pay attention to the unaffiliated team, but he wasn’t overly surprised.

He tied off his hair with the elastic on his wrist, then retrieved his phone as he walked past the office. He smiled, lifted a hand in an approximation of a wave at the woman inside, paused just past the door. Bucky swung back, hand on the door frame, and smiled winningly as she looked up at him.

“Sorry, this is a really strange question, but I was wondering if you could help me?”

The woman raised an eyebrow, then said, voice soft and amused, “Yeah, that’s what we’re here for. What do you need?”

Bucky moved a little closer, held out his phone. “My friend sent me this picture, I was wondering if you could tell me what general area this is?”

The woman, El according to her nametag, took the phone with a sceptical look, glancing at the phone almost hesitantly. When she saw the photo, she relaxed a bit, and Bucky almost laughed when he realised what she must have thought. Sadly for him, Steve didn’t see him like that.

“Chirped by one of the hockey boys, eh?” she asked. Bucky just squinted a little.

“Chirped…?” He tried to remember if Steve had told him what that meant, but was drawing a blank. The woman looked up at him for a second, then laughed.

“Made fun of, teased, pranked, all of that.” She raised an eyebrow at Bucky’s small frown. “Between teammates it’s friendly, between teams it can be really nasty apparently.”

“How do you know about-?”

“The hockey slang thing?” When Bucky nodded, she snorted, looking more than a little amused. “For one, it’s all online. Google is a thing y’know? Two, I played for Carter while I studied here.” Bucky blinked, then laughed under his breath.

“Of course, should’ve guessed,” he mumbled to himself, and the woman let him stew for a bit before bringing his attention back to the picture.

“So. That looks like…” She, El, said after a moment, turning the phone slightly. “Yeah, that looks like the Commandos logo. Your friend’s in the locker rooms, though that doesn’t look like the main room. Maybe the trainers lounge?” As she handed the phone back, Bucky sighed, rolling his eyes.

“Of course he is,” he mumbled under his breath, tucking the phone in the pocket of his hoodie, before smiling at El. Before he could open his mouth to thank her, she spoke again.

“I don’t know if your access card will let you in there, I can walk you down if you’d like? Matt can handle the office for a few minutes.” When Bucky nodded gratefully, she ducked back into the office, grabbing a key card on a lanyard before heading off with a little wave. “This way. Hopefully he hasn’t moved.”

Bucky laughed, shaking his head slightly. “I wouldn’t put it past him to be honest.” El led the way down a hall, then swiped her card against a reader before pulling open a glass door and ushering him through. “He’s probably expecting me to get stuck at that door and bitch him out until he lets me in.”

“Unfortunate for him then,” she responded, grin on her face as she followed him through the door, before moving back into the lead and heading down the hall.

“Christ, this place is a rabbit warren,” he said after the third intersection. “I could lose my own ass down here.” El paused, glancing back over her shoulder, and Bucky didn’t miss the way her eyes dragged down his body, then back up.

“It’s a nice one, that would be unfortunate,” she responded, and he laughed as she started to walk again.

“That’s the real reason I skate,” he responded seriously, nodding a little as she stopped by another door. “I’m surrounded by absolutely fantastic asses.” El snickered as he opened the door, cold concrete hallway giving way to plush carpet and warm lighting. “I should be able to find him now, you’ve been a great help. Thank you.”

She smiled, waved as she headed back up the hall, and Bucky turned, nearly walking into a solid chest. “Oh. Hi.”

Bucky looked up the few inches necessary, hoping he hadn’t just collided with a player that was about to kick him out, and relaxed a little when he met bright blue eyes.

“You were taking your time,” Steve said after a moment, stepping back and letting Bucky into the room properly. The door swung closed behind them, closing them in the small room. “Thought you were making a point about not calling me to let you in.” There was an edge to his voice, something closed off in his eyes that Bucky didn’t like, didn’t know how to get rid of. “Didn’t realise you’d made a friend.”

“Well if someone hadn’t hidden himself in a room I couldn’t get to, I wouldn’t have had to,” Bucky responded, trying to keep his tone light, teasing. He thought he succeeded. “C’mon, show me around then let’s get on the ice, before you explode.”

Steve gave a little snort, and Bucky sighed quietly, wondering where Steve’s good mood had gone. But Steve seemed to relax a little in his company, so Bucky bumped their shoulders together, before walking ahead. “So, where is this?”

“Offices,” Steve replied after a moment, and Bucky relaxed to hear Steve’s footsteps just behind him. Steve pointed at the door in front of them, so Bucky went through, into a wide hall. “Turn left, down to the end.” His words were still a little clipped, so Bucky just shrugged his bag a little higher and headed off, sneakers silent on the carpet. They passed a few open doors, and Bucky’s curiosity had him peering in. Steve slowed a little, letting him look, and he seemed a little calmer when he said, “Those are the trainer’s rooms. We have the physio, Mike, who’s probably the most laid back guy I’ve ever met until one of us get hurt, and there’s Asher, the medic, who knows his way around a needle a little too well if you ask me.” Despite Steve’s words, his tone was fond, so Bucky just nodded a little as they kept going.

“Do you have many people on staff?” He asked curiously as Steve nudged him left, around a corner. The hall suddenly opened up into a large open planned room, and Steve paused for a moment.

“This is the main locker room. We have the two main coaches, a manager, and the trainers. One offensive, one defensive, one goalie. Then the medic, physio and nutritionist.” Steve led the way across the bright room, skirting the logo in the middle of the floor, a stylised eagle with the team name under it. Bucky had the distinct feeling that he wasn’t supposed to be in there, and frowned a little in Steve’s direction. When the blond glanced over his shoulder and waved him forward, Bucky followed, copying Steve in not stepping on the logo.

As he got closer, he realised the wooden stalls against the sides of the room were more akin to cubbies, and they had little name plates on the top shelves. The one Steve was standing in front of said Rogers across the top, and Steve nodded at the one next to him, Barton.

“You can sit, it’s not like. Unsanitary,” he said with a little smile, pulling skates off the shelf. Bucky raised an eyebrow slightly, looking between the seat and Steve.

“I’m more distracted by the fact that your last name is Rogers, to be honest,” Bucky said after a beat of silence, and Steve sighed, long-suffering. “How often do you get the-”

“Don’t say it,” Steve groaned, leaned forward to rest his forehead against the shelf in front of him. “A lot.”

Bucky snickered, but sat on the bench and set his bag down at his feet. It didn’t take him long to pull out his skates, checking the blades with the edge of his thumb before pushing the guard back into place and toeing off his shoes. Steve was already pulling his skates on, fingers nimble on the laces, and Bucky swallowed hard, before focusing back on his own feet.

“I only brought my figures,” he said after a moment, glancing up at Steve out of the corner of his eye. “Didn’t think you deserved coming out of an assignment only to coach me. Thought we could just,” he shrugged, pausing to pull the lace tight across his instep and hook them over the first lace lock before continuing. “Fuck around a bit, decompress more than anything. You look like you need it.”

There was a sigh from beside him, and he looked up, fingers still tight on the laces, to meet Steve’s gaze. “Yeah, I wish,” Steve muttered, and Bucky wasn’t sure he was supposed to have heard that, because Steve went on to say, “I guess I do. Thank you, by the way. You probably had better things to do than come out here.”

Bucky shrugged a shoulder, finished tying his skate, and switched to the other foot. He was half done when Steve stood, unerringly stable on the thin blades, and stretched, rocking a little on his feet. “You can go on ahead,” Bucky said quickly, not wanting to keep Steve waiting, but Steve’s feet didn’t move from the corner of his eye.

Once his laces were tight, he stood, shoulder brushing Steve’s lightly as he moved his bag up onto the bench seat. “Alright, let’s go,” he murmured, bumping Steve’s shoulder a little more firmly. Whatever had been bugging Steve when he’d first arrived had let up, evidently, because Steve was relaxed, loose as he led the way across the locker room and down the carpeted hall.

“The bathrooms and showers are through there,” Steve said as they passed another couple of doors, and then the other man was reaching out, fingers dragging along a wooden rack that had, in Bucky’s opinion, far more hockey sticks than necessary.

Through the tunnel in silence, harsh lighting running down either side of the roof making Steve look more drawn than he should, and Bucky couldn’t help but reach out, but caught himself, dropping his hand again. Steve glanced at him, eyebrow raised, and Bucky just shook his head slightly.

The sudden light of the centre blinded him for a second, and he felt a steadying hand on his shoulder as he blinked spots out of his vision. “That takes some getting used to,” Steve’s voice was quiet, and Bucky just nodded, missing the warmth of his hand as soon as Steve let go. A few steps to the bench, then Steve was unlocking the gate, stepping onto the ice and swinging around, holding the gate open as he tapped the toes of his skates against the boards.

Bucky stepped on after him with a grateful little smile, not speaking as he felt Steve’s mood shift, not wanting to interrupt the … whatever was helping Steve settle down. Steve let the gate go, the click of it closing loud in the empty arena, and he came over, stopping just beside Bucky.

“Don’t wait for me,” he said again, smiling up at Steve. “Do what you need to do, yeah?” Steve nodded, and almost immediately struck out, half the rink covered before Bucky could move an inch. He shook his head a little to himself, followed at a more relaxed pace.

It was quiet between them, and Bucky didn’t bother trying to get Steve’s attention, leaving the man to do what he needed to do. He kept moving, warming himself up slowly, then dropped into a slow spin as he stretched out.

The jumps came quickly, and he threw himself into them, the half-turn waltz moving into the single rotations, little crunches of ice every time he pushed off. He lost himself in the movements, one step, spin, stride, breathe out, jump, pushing himself like he hadn’t in a while. He let himself slow eventually, not sure how much time had passed. He looked around for Steve, unsure.

Only to find him leaning against the boards, water bottle in hand, watching Bucky. He felt his face heat, and he scrubbed his hands over his cheeks, hoping like hell it just looked like he was red from the effort before pushing off and making his way over to Steve.

“You alright?” He asked, breathing a little heavier than he probably should be. God he was out of practice. Steve nodded a little, bottle still raised, then shook his head sharply.

“Sorry, yeah,” he said, lowering the bottle. “I kinda…” He waved a hand, and Bucky nodded.

“Yeah I get you,” he said after a moment, reaching out and snagging the bottle from Steve’s loose grip. He undid the lid, took a sip, then pulled a face, looking up at Steve in mild horror.

Steve shrugged, before he could say anything, saying, “Yeah, I know.” Bucky shook the bottle at him, gently so it didn’t spill.

“What the fuck, Steve?” He finally managed to get out, tongue heavy with the cloyingly sweet taste of powdered juice. “I trusted you, what the fuck?” Steve snickered, taking the bottle back and screwing the lid back in place.

“You were the one who took it, sorry it wasn’t up to your standards,” he drawled, and yeah, he must be feeling better.

“You’re an athlete,” Bucky finally managed to get out. “Don’t you have like, a nutrition plan? A sugar limit? This is basically sugar and water pretending to be healthy,” he ranted, poking the bottle accusatorily. “How are you getting away with this?”

Steve shrugged, leaning back a little more against the boards, grinning. His hair was stuck to his forehead, and his eyes held an amused gleam that was far too attractive for the current location. “I don’t do it often, but I have a collection of the packets in my room, just in case.” He shrugged a little. “When I get stressed I need the sugar.”

That shut Bucky up pretty quickly, but he pursed his lips, pulling them into a frown. “I’m not gonna tell, but I can’t believe you’re getting away with this.”

Steve grinned, wide, and tilted his chin up a little. There was the faint scrape of ice as he shifted a foot, but he didn’t say anything, as though daring Bucky to keep going on about it. “Shut up,” Bucky mumbled, scrubbing a hand over his face before squeezing the bridge of his nose. “You’re a menace.”

“Yup,” Steve responded, popping the p, and surely he had to know how good he looked. Bucky nudged himself back a little with his pick, raised a hand to run through his hair.

He got halfway before remembering his hair was up, and his fingers got caught in the strands, grumbling under his breath, he yanked at the tie, pulling his hair free before redoing it, mumbling “Shut up” under his breath as Steve laughed silently at him. “Seriously,” he said after a moment, fingers still moving in his hair, twisting the elastic around the loose bun. “Are you feeling better? You look like you are.”

Steve nodded, eyes still amused, and pushed himself upright, resting his bottle on the board edge and bouncing it between his thumb and forefinger. “Yeah, I am. It’s getting to me already, I think, how much work I have to do, just to keep up now that we’ve started playing properly,” he sighed, mouth twisting into an approximation of a frown. “It’s a bit of a nightmare, honestly. I don’t know how I’m going to sleep this year,” he added, obviously trying for levity and falling a little flat.

Bucky frowned, looking at him steadily. “You need to look after yourself, Steve. You’re no help to the team when you’re exhausted, and you’re gonna struggle with your work if you’re not careful.”

“I know,” Steve sighed, pushing upright and skating a little closer, lazily dropping into a slow spread eagle turn, circling Bucky without much effort. Bucky didn’t bother turning to follow his face, just kept talking, knowing Steve was listening. “You can talk to me whenever you need,” he offered, a little off kilter as he struggled to process the worry he felt for this man, who he really didn’t know all that well. It felt like he did though. “We’re friends, okay?” He said, hoping Steve wasn’t about to shut him down. He didn’t think Steve was one to do something like this, be so open to someone he didn’t see as a friend, but it was still a gamble, and one that had his stomach twisting as he waited for a response.

“Yeah, Buck,” Steve responded immediately, and he sounded so sure about it that it had Bucky settling again. “You’ve got your own stuff though, you’re training and studying as well. I can’t just give you all my crap and expect you to be able to bear it.”

Bucky shrugged, reaching out a hand, and Steve got the hint, slowing to a stop just in front of him. “Then you’ll help me with mine, and we’ll be equal. It’s what friends do.”

Steve smiled, just a little, but it was bright, almost blinding in its intensity. “Yeah, I guess it is.”

 

*

Bucky paused in the doorway of the locker room and watched Steve, not sure if the other man knew he was there. He was sprawled out on the floor, a pile of sticks on his left and a pile of tape rolls on the right. The stick in his hands was nearly done, Steve’s hands quick and confident as he wrapped the black tape around the blade. A snip of the scissors, and then he held the stick up waving it slightly in Bucky’s direction.

“If you’re gonna stare, you can at least hold these while you do so.” Bucky snorted at that, but walked forward, dumping his bag next to Steve’s locker and taking the stick. He ran his fingers over the knobbed tape on the handle, then sat close enough that Steve could pass him the finished sticks.

“Every player has a different sequence,” Steve said after a moment of silence, switching tape. Bucky snickered as he saw the white stars on dark blue, but Steve didn’t react at all. “And each player has a different preference for how their stick should be taped. Some are weirder than others.”

Bucky realised in that moment that Steve was telling him something more than what he was saying. “You’re one of the weirder ones?”

“Yeah, seem to be.” It was said with a grin shot over Steve’s shoulder, and Bucky couldn’t help but curl his toes a little in his shoes, trying not to react too much. “I don’t like other people taping for me, that’s par for the course. But I don’t like people touching my sticks before I tape them, or while I’m taping them. If I have to tape any on game day, no one can touch them after I’ve done it.”

Bucky reached out a foot, poked Steve’s knee with the toe of his shoe. “Why so many rolls?”

Steve snorted. “Because I’m weird.”

“Show me then, smartass,” Bucky retorted, poking Steve’s knee until his foot was batted lightly away. When Steve hesitated, Bucky froze, wondering if he’d committed some grave error in the Hockey World, broken a Rule that he hadn’t been aware of.

“You can’t laugh,” Steve said after a moment, and Bucky drew a cross over his heart.

“I’d never.”

“Promise?” There was a little waver in his voice, one that he was obviously trying to cover up, so Bucky poked his knee again lightly.

“Promise. I’ll even tell you one of my weird things I have to do. It’s not just you hockey guys with the superstitions, you know.”

Steve hesitated again, then nodded slightly, taking another stick and laying it across his legs. “In principle we’re all trying to do the same thing, right? Get a good grip on the stick, and control the puck. It’s just the order and method and style that changes.” He picked the starry tape up again, and tore a bit off the top, before covering the top of his stick with it.

“Most people use only one or two types of tape, and do their sticks all the same, so this is where mine gets weird,” he said before switching to blue. He pulled out a strip of tape and rolled it up between his fingers. “This helps keep the grip,” he said as he wound the rolled up tape around the top part of the stick. Bucky didn’t see him shift his hands, but then Steve was winding back down, covering the lines up with flat tape to leave ridges in the handle. “Has to be five times around, then this keeps it all in place.” He held up the stick and Bucky raised an eyebrow.

“Five because…?” He asked, and Steve looked at him for a second.

“Just because.” Bucky took that as being another one of the things that made Steve’s taping a little weird and just nodded, bouncing one of the taped sticks between his palms. “Then,” Steve switched back to the tape with the stars on it. He drew out a strip, and Bucky almost laughed as he realised that it wasn’t just stars on the tape.

“You have American flag stick tape?” He snickered, and Steve rolled his eyes, kicking Bucky’s knee lightly.

“Shut up,” he said under his breath, tearing off a strip and pressing it to the flat of the blade, stars towards the toe. He drew out another, stuck it to the opposite side in the same way, then switched to black tape. “The black helps disguise the puck. Your opponents are struggling to see what’s puck and what’s stick, they’re less likely to be able to steal the puck from you.” He hesitated. “In theory.” He started binding the black tape around the blade, starting at the toe and moving back, and Bucky watched in silence as he finished it off, then checked the distance between the tape and the end of the blade with two fingers.

“Done,” he announced, holding the stick up before passing it over to Bucky. He moved on to the next stick, and Bucky realised exactly how much Steve had slowed down to demonstrate.

“I should probably…” Bucky started, frowning a little at the pile of tape. “Learn how to do it properly. At some point.” He was mostly just slapping it onto the stick and hoping for the best. Steve raised an eyebrow.

“Hate to break it to you,” Steve responded, hands not stilling. “But you just did.”

“I meant-”

“I know.” Steve didn’t even look up, eyes locked on the tape he was wrapping around the blade. “The important bits are the grip section and the blade part, the rest you can make up as you go along.” Bucky sighed, awkwardly leaning his chin into the sticks he was holding. “You’ll work it out,” Steve said again, before laying down the last stick, tape firmly in place. “So, I was promised one of your weird rituals.”

Bucky sighed again, heavier this time, overdramatic, and Steve laughed. “You promised,” Steve whined, pouting and God if he knew how he had Bucky wrapped around his little finger, Bucky would be in a whole heap of trouble.

“So, you know how I touch the ice just before I come off at the end of a skate?” Bucky said after a moment, rubbing his thumb over the roughness of the stick tape. “The last time I didn’t do it, I slipped coming onto the ice the next day and knocked myself out. No helmets and all,” he added with a little grin at Steve’s almost horrified expression. “So I just… I gotta. The ice is good to me, the least I can do is thank her.”

Steve looked thoughtful for a moment, then poked Bucky’s knee with a foot. “How come you still fall over then?” He teased, and Bucky groaned, hiding his face in his forearm.

“Different skates, asshole,” Bucky retorted, hoping he wasn’t about to get hit. Steve just poked his knee again.

“Speaking of skates, put ‘em on, we’ve wasted enough time.” Bucky snorted at that, at Steve’s innocent expression, and the fact that he didn’t budge from his spot on the floor.

“Yeah,” he said rolling his eyes. “It’s my fault. Totally.” He didn’t bother getting up to sit at a bench, just leaned over and dragged his bag towards him. Yanked out his skates, rolled his eyes at Steve’s affronted expression. “Yeah yeah, put your skates on buddy.”

Steve’s laughter sent a shiver down his spine at that, and Bucky couldn’t help the fond little smile on his lips as he got to work on his skate laces.

  

“What’s on the menu today?” Bucky asked as they walked down the tunnel to the rink, sticks in hand. Steve hummed in response, tapping the end of his stick against the ground lightly every few steps.

“Well,” Steve started, voice slow as he thought. “I know we’ve been focusing a lot on the intra-team stuff. How to set up passes, take one-timer shots, how to work in a line and in a team.” He paused to unlatch the gate and step onto the ice, waiting for Bucky to step on before he continued.

“But the defensive stuff from the other team isn’t really anything we’ve looked at? So today we’re gonna go through the body hits and the rules around them. That work for you?” Steve looked expectant, even though Bucky knew he really wasn’t being given an option. Unless he had a legitimate reason to hold off on this, he was stuck.

Bucky nodded. “Where do we start?”

Steve grinned, weight sinking into one foot as Bucky leaned back against the boards. “Words first. Body checking isn’t allowed in most little leagues, because if it’s done wrong it’s dangerous, so you won’t be the only one on the ice who hasn’t played a full contact game before.”

Snorting, Bucky rested his chin on the top of his stick shaft. “Probably the first one to never have played a game though.”

“Yeah, well,” Steve retorted, not flustered. “You’re a special case. The most important thing about checking, in body checks at least, is where your stick is. It can’t be between you and the person you’re hitting. Or between you and the person who’s about to hit you.” He added the last bit almost as though he’d forgotten it. “You’ll still get pinged if you’re getting hit and your stick is in the wrong place.”

Bucky raised an eyebrow, almost tempted to remind Steve that he had, in fact, watched a few games of hockey before. “Yeah, cross checking. Two minute minor penalty, four if there’s blood.”

“More still if it hits the face,” Steve added, tapping his stick against his own cheek. The rattle of wood against the cage of his helmet was loud in the quiet rink. “Even with the birdcages, a stick to the face can do a lot of damage. They don’t want people losing teeth before they go pro. Which is why we’re wearing them now.”

Bucky had to admit, they looked kind of funny in track pants, tee shirts, and the face-cage helmets, but if it kept Steve happy, he’d do it. “A lot of people lose teeth?” he asked.

Steve raised an eyebrow. “Yeah, most people have lost at least one by the end of their first year with the NHL. AHL it happens a little less, but not many people last a couple of years with all of their original teeth.” He continued, obviously amused at Bucky’s shocked expression. “Yeah, it’s a lot. Most players have false implants, some don’t bother and just keep the gap as it is.”

“Like,” Bucky started, grasping at straws to remember the name of the player he was thinking of. “Brent? Burns is it?”

Steve laughed at that one, a full head thrown back belly laugh. “Yeah, Burnsie has a few missing. He’s always smiling, so you notice it more. Even Crosby has a few missing.”

Bucky resigned himself to looking up what about Crosby had Steve mentioning his name all the time, and reeled the conversation back in. “So cross checking is a no, what else?”

“Charging and boarding are the other two main checking-based penalties,” Steve said, immediately concentrating again. “Charging is when you take more than three steps before hitting someone, and boarding is if you hit someone into the boards dangerously – usually face first, or in a way that could hurt them.” Steve nodded a little, as if to signal the end of his speaking, and shifted his grip on his stick. “Warm up and we’ll get into it,” he finished off.

As they moved around the rink, starting slow, Bucky had a moment to actually think about Steve’s words. He ran his tongue over his teeth, resolving to get a better mouth guard in the near future, then pushed himself a little faster when he felt a stick poke him in the back.

Another poke, lower, and he turned his head, sticking his tongue out when Steve grinned at him. “Worry about your own warmup,” he sniped, before picking up the pace again, almost running out of his crossovers to get the edge over Steve.

“Alright,” Steve said when they were both breathing a little harder, and Bucky wiped at his face with a hand before shoving his glove back on. “Let’s start small,” he added, rolling his eyes at Bucky’s expression.

“I’ve taken a hit before,” Bucky snorted. “You don’t need to baby me.”

“I’m bigger than you,” was the response, and Bucky scowled. “And it’s different on the ice,” Steve added, poking Bucky’s chest with the blade of his stick and leaving a wet mark in the middle. “Plus, I’m the coach here,” he seemed to suddenly remember, and Bucky gave in. Albeit not very gracefully.

“Fine. Where do we start?” Bucky said, exasperated.

Steve gave him a smug little smile. “Stick checks, then body checks. Hip, then shoulder, then full body. That sound suitable?”

Bucky knew that wasn’t an opening to argue, and sighed. “Yeah, let’s get on with it.”

 

Usually Bucky loved the way Steve taught. Loved the repetition of it, the ‘try first, explain later” method he seemed to favour. Loved the way that he was never standing still for long. This time though, he was restless in a way that the movement couldn’t help.

Steve finally noticed halfway through explaining the poke check, and just paused for a moment to look at Bucky. Then he straightened, blade of his stick hitting the ice with a thwack. Bucky sighed, mentally preparing an excuse, but Steve didn’t ask any questions.

“I think you’ve got that one, it’s pretty straightforward,” Steve said instead, absently scraping his stick blade through a little pile of shredded ice. “We can come back to the rest. Let’s do the fun stuff.”

Bucky perked up a little at that, straightening out of position as a small smile crept across his face. “You call full body hits ‘the fun stuff’?” he responded, but he was hoping his eagerness to do something different didn’t show too much.

“Yeah, always,” Steve said with a wink, twisting his foot. Then he was beside Bucky, elbow brushing Bucky’s lightly.

“Body checks are contact from hip to shoulder, including your arm and elbow.” Steve dropped back into coach mode, and shifted his feet before setting his body against Bucky’s side.

The shock of warmth had Bucky’s attention more than Steve’s words did, but the contact had him settling a little bit. He blinked, forcing himself to focus on the body against his, and the way Steve was touching him.

“The idea is to remove your opponent from the puck,” Steve was saying, straightening a little but keeping the contact at their shoulders. “And put them into the boards, onto the ice or in the air. Whatever works.”

Bucky shifted his feet a little, bumping his shoulder against Steve’s, then asked, “How is the movement different from the shoulder checks then?”

“It’s less the movement and more the positioning of the hit,” Steve answered after a second. "A shoulder check is more shoulder to chest, whereas these are usually more side on. Though, that depends on who you ask. They get interchanged a fair bit.”

Steve moved away, and Bucky had to bite his tongue to hold back the bereft little noise that tried to escape. “Alright,” Steve continued. “Do you want to take the hit or give the hit first?”

It took Bucky a moment to decide, but eventually he said, “Give it,” hoping that would prepare him to actually take a hit from Steve. Even the warmup stuff they’d been doing had given Bucky an idea of just how strong the other man was, and while part of him was absolutely over the moon at the prospect of that sort of contact, the rest of him was almost dreading it.

“Alright, we’ll start stationary,” Steve answered, thankfully completely unaware of Bucky’s internal struggle. “Try and make me step sideways.”

Bucky shifted, mimicked Steve’s earlier position, then shoved at Steve with his body. Steve swayed to one side, but there was no step. Scowling, Bucky rolled his shoulder a little, then dropped his hips and tried again. This time Steve had to take a step to stay upright, and Bucky grinned.

“Alright, now I’ll push back,” Steve said as he straightened, and that had Bucky blinking.

“You weren’t already?”

“Nope,” Steve grinned, popping the p as he braced his feet a little wider. “Come on, you can do it.”

It should have felt like Steve was coddling him, but as Bucky hit him again, it didn’t. Somehow. After a minute, Bucky had Steve moving with each hit, and Steve held up a hand to stop him.

“Okay, we’re running out of time a little, but we’ll do a few runs along the boards before swap. Then we’ll have to cool off and pack up,” Steve said, which had Bucky glancing up at the clock in surprise. Turns out their two hours were nearly up.

“Shit, where did that go,” Bucky mumbled, one hand sliding down his stick a little then back  up in an absent little movement. Steve just nodded sympathetically.

“We were warming up for a good three quarters of an hour,” Steve shrugged, before pushing off and making his way to the boards.

Turns out, checking a moving target was both easier and harder at the same time. Actually hitting Steve was the hard part, and the first few times he tried he was a second too late. The third time he hit the boards instead of Steve the other man evidently took pity on him, tapping the ice in front of them both.

“Aim for where I’m going to be, not for where I am at the time,” he instructed, and Bucky would have face palmed had the cage not been in the way. Of course. “A foot or so ahead should be enough at the speed we’re doing,” he continued, and Bucky nodded.

They reset, and headed off again.

This time, Bucky not only made contact, but sent Steve flying into the boards. Steve’s shoulder hit the plexiglass, and Bucky could feel the impact through to his teeth. They hadn’t even been going very fast. “Jesus,” he mumbled as Steve shook the hit off, rolled his shoulders.

“Yeah, the movement adds more power,” Steve responded, one hand rubbing over the shoulder that had hit the glass. “Which is why we’re not going any faster without pads on.”

“Fair,” Bucky nodded, and Steve waved a hand.

“Once more, then it’s your turn.”

Bucky was more prepared for the feeling the second time around, pushing through it rather than falling back, and heard Steve’s breath leave him at the force of it. Bucky immediately backed off, dropping his stick to catch at Steve’s arm, but the other man grinned at him.

“Christ, you pack a punch,” Steve said, and Bucky hoped the smile on his face meant it wasn’t a bad thing. “Don’t give me that face,” he added, voice stuck somewhere between teasing and reassuring, and Bucky pouted. “I’ve taken worse. It’s your turn.”

They headed back to the blue line, Bucky’s feet on one side of it and Steve’s on the other. There was the faintest brush of Steve’s shoulder against his as they settled, then Steve was pointing at the ice.

“When you know you’re about to take a hit you can brace yourself for it. Drop your centre of gravity a little, drop your shoulders, and lean into it to keep your feet.” Steve smiled a little, demonstrating the position for a moment. “It takes a while to get the hang of, and it’s a lot easier when you know it’s coming.”

Bucky nodded at that, shifted his feet a little wider, then bent his knees a little. “Alright,” he murmured, grip tightening on his stick. “Hit me.”

Laughing under his breath, Steve did just that, and yeah the hit was hard, but nothing that he wasn’t expecting. Bucky had to shuffle his feet a little to stay upright, but he weathered it and moved back into position.

“Again,” Steve said, and Bucky set his feet. The second one was harder, the force of the impact jolting him to the side. He straightened, got back into position.

“Again.”

They swapped sides, then Steve kept going, kept pushing, and Bucky felt the… whatever it was that had been bugging him settle back into place. Until the spell broke.

Steve said something that wasn’t the same barked word. “Alright, we’ll do a few wall runs so you can feel it, then head off. That work for you?”

Bucky nodded, but when Steve didn’t say anything he glanced up, met Steve’s eyes. The other man looked a little concerned, and Bucky sighed softly. “Yeah, that works.” He clasped Steve’s shoulder for a second, and the man looked like he was going to accept that.

Bucky rolled his shoulders as they moved back to the boards, and Steve got that worried look on his face again. “I’m fine,” Bucky murmured, but Steve didn’t look convinced. “Let’s just do this.”

Bucky took a breath, then started to skate up the boards, not waiting for Steve to give the go ahead. He almost missed the heavy sigh, but heard the sound of skates behind him.

“Incoming,” Steve warned, and Bucky bent his knees a little, dropped his shoulders, but kept skating.

Then, impact. It felt sort of like what he imagined being hit by a car would feel like, in all honesty, just a little toned down. The force of it sent him rocking into the boards, and it was that second impact that hurt the most really.

Hissing out a breath, Bucky forced himself to relax, and waited for Steve to step back, demand a second run. When he didn’t, Bucky lifted his head, confused. “Steve?”

Steve’s head was close to his, but he didn’t move at first, just looked Bucky’s face over, before shaking his head. When he did step back, Bucky almost mourned the loss of warmth. At least that’s what he told himself that feeling was.

“We’re done here,” Steve said eventually, turning towards the bench. “You’re done here.” He skated away, leaving Bucky staring after him.

He spluttered for a second, still leaning against the boards, then managed to get out, “what the fuck, Steve?”

Steve didn’t turn, but he paused, one foot on the ice and one foot on the wooden platform. “Your head’s not in it. One of us is gonna get hurt if you’re distracted. I’d be a pretty shitty friend if I let that happen.”

Bucky stayed where he was as Steve crossed to the bench itself, finally turned to sit down.

“We’re going to get changed, then go get something to eat. We’ll pick back up on this next time.”

Bucky pushed himself off the boards, finally making his way over. Steve looked at his feet as Bucky got closer, and Bucky felt more than just an inkling of shame. “I’m sorry,” he said after a second, voice quiet. Steve’s head snapped up. “I wasn’t good enough," he continued, skates lightly hitting the boards in front of the bench. Bucky’s fingers closed around the top of the boards, tight enough to make his knuckles go white.

“No,” Steve said after a second’s hesitation, and for one twisted moment Bucky thought he was agreeing. “You’ve got nothing to be sorry for. Something changed and it’s not your fault.”

Bucky hesitated, then couldn’t help himself, mumbling “Sorry” again as he finally stepped off the ice, fingers still damp from his customary tap. He dropped onto the bench next to Steve, leaning down to pick at his laces. He wasn’t expecting Steve’s knee to knock against his lightly, once, twice, then press firm against his knee and stay there. Bucky’s fingers stilled for a second, then slowly continued, not wanting to chase away the comfort Steve was offering him.

“S’not a problem,” Steve said quietly. “Now hurry up, I’m hungry.”

  

*

“You know I’m not straight, right?” Bucky said abruptly, not looking at Steve as he cleaned off his skates. He felt Steve go still, next to him, and added, “That’s not going to be a problem, is it?” He kept his voice as neutral as possible, not knowing how the other man, a man that played a very non-welcoming sport, would react.

When Steve just stayed quiet, Bucky looked up, steeled himself, then looked over at his friend. Steve was looking at him, steady, spoke as soon as Bucky met his gaze as though he’d been waiting for Bucky to look. “No problem here, Buck.” Bucky couldn’t see any trace of hesitation, any flicker of doubt in Steve’s face. If he was lying, he was a damned good liar.

“What about the team?” Bucky pressed, rag limp in his hand, skate only held in place by the pressure of his knees.

Steve looked surprised. “You’d tell them?”

“I came out to my parents when I was twelve and I haven’t looked back since. I’m not going back in the closet, not even for this sport.” Bucky’s mouth snapped closed as soon as he realised how harsh he sounded, and he tried again. “I’m proud of who I am, and I’m not gonna hide that, or hide any relationship I have, because a bunch of athletes care too much about what I do with my life.” He looked down again, steadying his skate, then scrubbed a little more vigorously than necessary at a wet spot on the runner. “I couldn’t do that to the person I was seeing, no matter their gender.”

He jumped a little when he felt a hand on his shoulder, and looked back into Steve’s earnest face. “I wouldn’t ask that of you. Most of the team, I think, wouldn’t bat an eye if you showed up at a kegger with a guy.” Steve paused, and he looked like he was trying to decide how to put something. Bucky spoke again, before Steve could continue.

“Not just a guy, Steve. I’m pan, not gay, or bi.”

Steve just shrugged a little. “Either way, being seen with a guy, or someone people see as a guy, is what people would react to more. There are always gonna be bigots, but most of the team wouldn’t have a problem with it.” Bucky looked at him for a long moment, then sighed, going back to his skates.

“I’d rather be out before it came to that,” Bucky said after a moment of silence. “I won’t put my date in a position where they could get hurt.”

Steve shook his head a little. “I don’t think it’d come to that, honestly. But if you need backup, you can count on me.” Bucky dropped his rag, reached out a hand, and clasped Steve’s shoulder firmly. The man didn’t flinch, didn’t lean back.

“Thanks, Steve,” He said quietly, and Steve just gave him that blindingly bright smile in return.

 

*

The end of the year was coming too fast, way too fast, and Bucky wasn’t impressed with it, at all. It had started slow, but classes had begun to blend into each other, trainings either alone or with Steve becoming indistinct in any way but the ways Steve was warming up to him.

And now, now it was spring, all his finals were approaching, his audition with Coach Fury only weeks away, but Steve was standing in front of him, and Bucky couldn’t make himself care about the rest of it.

“So you’ll come?” Steve asked, all wide smile and earnest eyes. Bucky felt a tug, somewhere in his gut, and was nodding before he could think twice.

“Yeah, why not.”

“If you get there before four I can introduce you to the team when they’re sober enough to remember your name,” Steve added on, shoving his hands in his pockets and grinning. Bucky snorted at that, shrugging a little.

“What about the fact that half the team is-”

“Underage?” Steve cut him off, looking more than a little smug, and Bucky couldn’t work out what for. “Of course we’d never give alcohol to minors Buck, how dare you imply that we would. The tub juice is perfectly safe to drink.”

Bucky gave Steve a sceptical look, and just waited him out.

“I wouldn’t drink it though, if I were you. Or if I were me. Or if I were anybody, to be honest, seriously why would they drink something called tub juice-” Steve cut himself off with a sheepish smile.

“Uh huh.” Bucky responded, rolling his eyes as they approached his dorm. He pushed his bag strap up his shoulder a little and quickened his step, the cool breeze doing little to dim the heat of the day. “I’ve got a test tomorrow,” he said apologetically as Steve pouted at him, evidently realising Bucky was preparing to head into the building rather than continue to the house.

Steve blinked, then gave Bucky an incredulous look. “Then why were you skating?” He asked, doing his best impersonation of Bucky’s mother, despite never having met the woman.

“You’re one to talk,” he retorted, slowing down as they came up to the main door. “But regardless of my grades, if I don’t make the team I have to drop out. So I’d rather do a makeup paper and stay then get brilliant grades but bomb my assessment with Coach.”

He felt a hand on his arm, catching at his elbow and then gone again, fleeting. He stopped, turning to face Steve with an eyebrow raised. “You won’t fail it, even if you didn’t skate for a week leading up to it.” Steve spoke low, confident where Bucky wasn’t. “He likes you, and he wants you on the team. You can keep up with me on your worst day, fitness wise, and you’re getting damned good with the stick. You’ll be fine.”

Bucky tried for a smile, not sure how sincere it looked. “Thanks for thinking so,” he responded, catching Steve’s elbow and squeezing lightly. Steve looked delighted, and Bucky assumed it was something to do with the hockey bro tactility thing Steve was always mentioning. “But seriously, I gotta go. I have another chapter to get through, and it’s organic chemistry.” Steve winced, and Bucky nodded. “Yeah. I’ll see you tomorrow?”

Steve nodded, immediate and sure. “Yeah, text me after your test and we’ll get on the ice,” he responded, taking a step back. “Good luck.”

 

*

By the time Bucky arrived at the house, music was already thumping loudly, bass vibrations tickling his feet through the soles of his shoes. He frowned a little, then checked the time on his phone. Four PM. He unlocked it with a swipe, and opened Facebook Messenger, frowning a little more at the brief ‘invite’ that had been sent out to a list of over a hundred people.

[Kegger. Hockey House. 8-late. BYO.]

His frown deepened, and he flicked Steve a text before heading up the stairs onto the porch, then through the open front door.

Three of the seniors stopped whatever they were doing with the huge couch and turned to look at him. One of them, a defenceman Bucky thought, struggling to put a name to the face, straightened, opening his mouth. “Hey, we don’t start for a few hour-”

“Bucky!”

All four of them stopped, turned a little to face the stairs. Steve came clattering into sight, jumping the last few steps. He turned red when he noticed all of the eyes on him, crossed the hall at a more sedate pace, but still pulled Bucky in for a brief hug.

“Hey Steve,” Bucky responded with a little smile, patting Steve’s back lightly. The seniors that had stopped him all raised their eyebrows, and Steve turned just a little bit pink.

“Sorry, I asked him to come around a little earlier, I needed his help with something,” Steve said quickly before waving a hand between Bucky and the two men. “Namor, Toro, this is Bucky. Bucky, this is the current first line defensive pair.”

Namor grinned, an eerie little glint in his eyes. “Alright, we’ll let you off this time,” he drawled, southern accent surprising Bucky just a little. “We’re the unofficial bouncers for this gig, so if you notice anything weird, come let us know.”

Toro clapped Bucky on the shoulder, nearly knocking him over, before nodding. “Alternatively, don’t do anything stupid, because we’ll kick you out,” he added, and Bucky nodded, more than a little intimidated.

Steve seemed unbothered, and waved at the two of them before heading back up the stairs, and Bucky gave a nervous little smile before turning and following his friend. As soon as they were out of range, Bucky caught Steve’s elbow with a hand, slowing him down just a little. “They’re a little….” He started, and Steve laughed, nodded.

“Yep, they are. They’re very good at their jobs, too.”

They were silent for a few moments, passing a few doors before Steve popped one open, ducked inside. Bucky followed, and Steve immediately dumped a box in his hands.

“I wasn’t kidding about the help thing,” Steve grinned, dropping another box on top before crossing the room. Bucky had a moment to glance around Steve’s room, eyebrows lifting when he noticed something.

“How the fuck did you get such a big bed up here?” He asked, incredulous, and Steve just flashed him a grin over his shoulder. “How did they even let you have it? The RA’s wouldn’t even let me go to a double!”

“Frat house perks,” Steve said airily, cramming a few things in the pockets of his hoodie before grabbing another box. “C’mon, let’s head to the kitchen and start setting these up.”

Bucky’s eyebrows went up, and he glanced in the top box, not able to see much with the way the top was folded. “How do I get in here then?” He asked instead of questioning it.

“Be on the team, and grovel enough,” Steve said unhelpfully, and Bucky sighed, following him out of the room.

  

Before he knew it, the music was loud, he had a drink in his hand, and there was way too many people crammed into the bottom floor of the frat. Bucky had been to enough house parties to know the drill, staying close to the wall when he needed to get anywhere and not trying too hard to hold a conversation.

He did, however, stick close to Steve, who despite being a social fucking butterfly, looked a little disoriented with the sheer number of people hitting on him. Honestly, Bucky didn’t blame them at all.

Steve had disappeared partway through the setup to get changed, and it had taken Bucky a few minutes to be able to speak when he’d returned. Even now, with the low lights and the crush of people, Steve’s shirt was almost see through, far too tight for any sense of modesty.

God Bucky wished Steve wasn’t straight.

Despite that though, Bucky kept his hands to himself, dragging Steve out of conversations whenever he looked uncomfortable, progressively meeting and greeting his way through the entire Commandos roster. Not that many would actually remember him.

He sighed quietly as he led Steve to the kitchen, away from another groping woman who was too drunk to realise how uncomfortable Steve’s smile was. He opened the chiller in front of the oven, pulled out another bottle of the cheap-and-nasty beer the team had obviously bought in bulk. He handed it to Steve, grabbed one for himself, and pressed the cool glass to his forehead for a second, eyes falling closed.

“God,” Steve said, and Bucky opened an eye, watching his friend wipe his mouth with the back of one hand. “I don’t know how I’d be surviving this without you,” he said with a grin.

“You’re too nice,” Bucky responded, eye sliding closed again as he rolled the bottle across his forehead, then lowered it so he could open it. “If you say no they’ll back off. Well, most will,” he corrected himself, and Steve snorted.

“That’s harder than it sounds,” he responded, and boy he had no idea. “Most of them are nice enough. Just-”

“Drunk. And handsy,” Bucky responded dryly. “Not that I can blame them,” he said without thinking, freezing as soon as he realised. Steve didn’t react beyond a short laugh.

“Thanks for the vote of confidence, even though it’s the opposite of what I want to hear,” Steve responded, and Bucky forced his slack mouth into a smile.

Bucky tilted his bottle towards Steve, waving it in a little circle. “You sure you don’t want to get drunk enough not to care?” He asked, even though he knew the answer.

“You sure you don’t want to get drunk enough to willingly play beer pong?” Steve retorted, thankfully still grinning.

“Like I said before,” and god it felt like ages ago, the hours of setup time spent teasing and talking and learning each other in a way Bucky hadn’t expected. “Nothing can get me drunk enough to play beer pong in an athlete frat house.” He’d about hit his limit for alcohol anyway, the low buzz under his skin nice but not overbearing.

Steve grinned wider. “And I have to be sober enough to make sure you don’t get that far,” he said. Bucky rolled his eyes at the latest excuse, but didn’t press Steve any further. The least he could do was respect the man’s choices.

Bucky opened his mouth to ask – something, he wasn’t sure what, when there was a low drawl from behind Steve.

“So, this is where you ran off to.” Steve’s face lit up, and Bucky had to bite the inside of his cheek not to scowl as the woman appeared in the doorway. Even in just a shirt and jeans she was stunning, in an I could crush you without a thought kind of way. Bucky was instantly more than just a little bit cowed. Steve, however, lit up.

Bucky bit his cheek a little bit harder.

“Nat!” Steve said, and the woman smiled warmly, let Steve hug her for a moment before poking a finger in his ribs and making him move back. “When did you arrive?” He asked, and the woman, Nat, smiled wider.

“Like half an hour ago. I had to talk to T’challa about some gear changes though. Any idea when Jace will be back?” Steve scratched his head, still standing close, and Bucky forced himself to relax a little. He had no right to be… whatever this was.

“Next week I think?” Steve offered, and she snorted. “I hope so, games start back up next week.” While Steve turned pink – more obvious than when he was sober, Bucky noted – Nat turned to him.

Bucky swallowed. Nat smiled again. “Who’s your friend?” She asked Steve without looking away from Bucky, and it sounded like there was something behind her words. Bucky wasn’t drunk, but he wasn’t sober enough to work it out. Steve seemed to latch onto the conversation starter.

“Bucky, this is Nat, the team manager, Nat this is my friend Bucky. Bucky wants to make the team next year.” Bucky took a breath, let it out slow, and reminded himself that Steve wasn’t entirely sober. And apparently ran his mouth a little more than usual.

Nat raised an eyebrow, but Bucky straightened, shifted his beer to his other hand, and held out a hand to shake. She seemed surprised, but took it, and her grip was firm. Business-like. “That so,” she asked, and Bucky nodded. “Steve doesn’t shut up about you, so it’s good to be able to put a face to a name.”

Bucky’s eyebrows went up, and Nat grinned. They both looked at Steve, who was pink again. “Shuddup,” Steve mumbled, busying himself with his bottle.

“Awesome comeback,” Bucky said seriously, nudging Steve with an elbow before looking back at Nat. “Only the good stuff, I hope?”

“Probably too much good stuff,” She said without explaining further. “He did mention you skated figure – my girlfriend used to before she switched to hockey. I’ll introduce you sometime, she plays for Carter as well.”

Bucky opened his mouth to respond, but before he could there was a crash from the other room, then a few surprised screams. They all turned to look, and Steve rolled his eyes. “Let’s hope that wasn’t the punch,” Nat said before disappearing, leaving Bucky with only the faint smell of perfume and the odd feeling that he’d just been assessed, ranked, and filed away.

“She likes you,” Steve said after a second, and Bucky couldn’t help the incredulous look.

“How do you figure?”

“She doesn’t usually mention Sharon. She’s not exactly not out, but they’re quiet about it.” Bucky blinked in response.

“So she meant actual girlfriend? Not that weird tendency some women have to call their friends girlfriends?” Steve laughed, but nodded, draining the last of his beer and setting the bottle in the empty pile on the bench.

“Yeah, they’ve been dating for a couple of years now apparently. C’mon, we shouldn’t leave damage control to her.”

Bucky sighed, drained the last of the beer from his bottle, trying to savour what would probably be his last for the night. “Yeah. I’m sure she could handle it though,” he added on, and Steve grinned.

“See, you’re learning fast. It took Clint about three weeks to work out she doesn’t need anyone’s help, least of all his,” Steve said, finally leading the way from the kitchen, back into the fray of partygoers.

 

 *

Steve gave him a reassuring smile as they got their gear on, handing Bucky the tape that he’d only worked out what to do with in the past month or so. “It’ll be fine,” he said, voice steady. “He’ll run you through some handling drills-”

 

Fury’s voice was sharp as he set out the props, the long dangler, and a couple of passing mats. “Run up and down this a few times, I want to see how fast your hands are. Pass when you get to the end, but not too hard, because they shoot back pretty quickly.”

Bucky nodded, shifted his hands on the stick, waited for Fury to drop him a puck. He took it, starting slow, passing it through the slots, back and forth, up and down the long training aid. He shot too hard the first time, sent the puck flying off the passer, and felt something in his gut twist, embarrassment colouring his cheeks. Fury didn’t say anything, just dropped him another puck, so he kept going.

Pass, breathe, up the dangler, bouncing his stick from side to side over the pipe to catch the puck again and again. Breathe. Pass. He lost himself in it, speeding up gradually until he was pushing himself, faster than he’d tried before, but it felt good, the stick rock steady in his hands.

“Good,” Fury’s voice broke him from his mind-set, and the puck went skittering away. He popped out his stick, only just managing to catch it, and looked up at the head coach, whose face revealed absolutely nothing.

 

“-and then he’ll have you on moving drills, defence avoidance, seeing how you cope with one, then probably two d-men chasing you around.” Steve took the tape back, finished taping his socks up before moving up his body, pulling on the thick padding over his compression shirt. Bucky, already half in his, had to fight not to stare as Steve moved effortlessly through his routine. “They’ll probably check you a bit, try to force penalties-”

 

Bucky whipped his stick up, flicking the puck over Clint’s stick. He realised, just in time, yanking his own stick back and to the side just before he hit Clint bodily, hip to hip and shoulder to shoulder. “Nearly got you!” The blond crowed, pushing Bucky away, and away from the puck, making him work to dodge around the defenceman to get to the puck again.

“Second D!” Fury called out from somewhere to Bucky’s left, and he heard Clint laugh before he darted ahead, racing the fresh defenceman to the puck as Clint hung back. Bucky snuck his stick out, flicking the puck away from them both, chased it down, pulling ahead with every stride. A step, a twist, a flick of his wrist, and he sent the puck flying at the empty net, the satisfying thud of rubber hitting the netting at the back making him grin as he turned, still moving backwards. Bucky skidded himself to a stop, and the other defenceman, one of the other freshman, Scott, if he remembered right, skidded to a stop in front of him. A fist came out, and Bucky bumped his own against it, grin matching Scott’s, before they turned, skating back to the centre of the rink for another go-around.

“Not gonna take it easy on you Bucky,” Scott said, before he seemed to get distracted, head cocking to the side a little. “Did Steve give you that name or what? That’s pretty on par for a nickname, but he said he didn’t. It’s just that some people call helmets ‘buckys’ and I wasn’t sure if-”

“Scott.” Fury’s voice was sharp, but almost fond, and Scott shut his mouth immediately. “Next play, Steve – pass the puck out a little further behind the D’s this time.”

 

“- but they won’t be too bad. It’s about testing your skill, and showing Fury what would be on your tape if you’d played high school.” Bucky pulled his shirt on over the padding, fastened the fight strap to the back of his pants, and stood, careful on the smooth skate guards.

“Steve. It’s okay. I’ll be fine,” he said, appreciative of the information, but pretty sure Steve was rambling. “I’ve just got to go out there, show him what you and America have been teaching me, and hope it’s enough.” He shrugged, trying to sound cavalier about it, as though his entire college career didn’t rest on the result of this session.

“Okay.” Steve nodded, then nodded again. “Let’s go, the D-men were already on the ice when we got here.”

Bucky nodded back, unable to help himself, and with Steve on his heels, he headed for the tunnel, and the rink beyond, helmet in hand. He’d be fine, he had to be.

 

Bucky took a breath, shifting a little on his skates, fingers tight on the stick until he forced himself to relax. Chewed his mouth guard, the strap of his helmet brushing his throat with every movement. They’d done this before, more than once, he reminded himself. He could do this, he told himself.

He leaned forward a little as he skated forward, tapped the blade against the ice once, twice, and Steve popped him the puck without hesitation. Bucky took a breath, twisting his body, catching the puck and defending it at the same time as a body hit him. The turn transferred a lot of the energy from the collision, and as soon as he had an open line at the net, he darted forward, keeping the puck close as he felt the defenceman give chase.

One stride, two, step, turn, shift the stick, and he was around another player, heartbeat thundering in his ears. Just the goalie now, crouched low and ready, shifting as Bucky moved. Eyes darting across the net, he made his decision, swung, flicked the puck up and forward, and watched as it snuck between the goalie’s leg pad and his arm, into the back of the net.

Before he could fully process, a body hit his, arms coming around his chest. There was warmth pressed along the length of his side, and an ecstatic laugh in his ear, and he lifted his head, turned it a little, one arm coming up and around Steve’s wide shoulders.

The contact of the sport had taken some getting used to, really. How easily teammates touched each other, everything from a shoulder bump during warmup to the all-out tackle after a goal. Though it was still practice, Steve was exuberant, and every time Bucky managed something new, or got past him, or whatever, he was sweeping Bucky up into a hug, grin wide and face full of delight.

It was almost easy now, to pull Steve in, grin splitting his own face as he bumped their heads together lightly. The hard plastic of the helmets thunked together, and Steve laughed again, spinning them once before pulling back. “See? Easy,” Steve said, completely and utterly smug, and Bucky gave him a push, which made Steve laugh again. Clint came skating up to them, and rapped the end of his stick against Bucky’s helmet lightly before patting the side of his face, big glove taking most of the impact.

“If you’re getting past us like that,” Clint said with a grin, and Sam chimed in, stopping by skating into Clint and hoping for the best like usual, goalie pads making him seem a little like a fish out of water.

“You’ll have no trouble in an actual game,” Sam finished for Clint, holding out a hand, fingers curled into a fist. Bucky swung his own, and hit the back of his against the back of Sam’s, just like Sam always insisted.

“Barnes.” The voice was sharp, low, and the chatter quieted instantly as the four of them turned to the bench. Fury stood on the ice, back to the boards, and he called Bucky over with a wave of his hand.

Soft, almost too quiet to register it, Bucky heard a “good luck,” and he glanced back, smiling a little when he was met with encouraging faces. He skated over to the coach, stick loose in his hands, and relaxed a little when Fury didn’t immediately dress him down.

“Barnes,” the man said, a little quieter now that Bucky was closer, and looked at him steadily. “You’ve done well. Better than I expected.” For a moment, that’s all he said, and Bucky felt his heart sink. “Well enough for me to want to offer you a place on the team starting next year,” Fury continued, and Bucky blinked, a little stunned.

He rested the blade of his stick on the ice, leaning onto it a little, before saying, cautiously, “Are you going to?” There was a trace of amusement on Fury’s face at that.

“I think I will. If you want it.”

Chapter Text

Bucky smiled as he bumped his shoulder with Steve’s as they stood in the locker rooms, grinning wider as Steve bumped him back. Though he was technically a rookie, Steve had made it quite clear that he wasn’t required by the weird hockey team bylaws to stay with, or be treated like, the actual first years.

“There’s a hazing thing,” He’d said, voice warm in Bucky’s ear in the way that the cold phone couldn’t destroy. “Which you kinda have to do, but the rest of it, don’t worry about it.”

“You sure?” Bucky had asked, looking at the desk critically before dropping to his knees, crawling under it to plug in his multiboard. “I ain’t gonna fuck with it if it’s one of those weird team traditions, Steve.”

“It’s fine, honestly,” Steve had insisted, and he’d been right. Bucky had had the tour of the team house, with its weird ballot system and typical frat house vibe, before the rookies had been taken through, just Steve and Sam and a laid back attitude, nothing like, as he was told, what the rookies got.

The coaches were talking, laying out the information about the weekend training camp they were about to have, and Bucky was only mostly paying attention, still rather focused on the warm pressure of Steve’s arm against his own. He was excited, more than he should be, considering the weekend to come was probably going to be absolute hell, but he’d been told by Fury in no uncertain terms that the weekend was his only chance to prove that he’d maintained his skill level, built on it, and was actually fit to be on the team with people who’d been playing all their lives.

He was looking forward to it, honestly.

The coach finished up, dismissed them, and Steve turned his head a little, grinning down at him. Bucky rolled his eyes, bumped their shoulders together, and said, as noise started to fill the room again, “He’s not exaggerating, is he? This is gonna be hell.”

“Absolutely,” Steve responded, grin in place. “I hope you’ve been practicing the drills I showed you, because they’re not gonna go easy.”

“Yeah, I have,” Bucky said with a little nod. “Been skating with the club team over the summer break as well, so.” He shrugged, smiled. “I think I’ll be alright.”

Steve laughed, warm, and wrapped an arm around Bucky’s shoulders for a moment, before stepping back. “Buck, none of us are going to be, but that’s normal.”

  

*

Steve was right, he’d been right, he had been so right.

“Fuck,” Bucky whined, draping himself over the cot, and Steve just laughed, breathless and absolutely exhausted. Bucky rolled onto his back, staring at the ceiling of the hotel room. “Fuck,” he said again. His calves were on fire, his thighs were aching, his feet hurt. There was a thin layer of sweat all over him, and he was pretty sure he was sticking to the bedspread. He wasn’t looking forward to getting up again.

“Hell, isn’t it,” Steve said from the other bed, and Bucky just groaned in response. It wasn’t even halfway through the first day and he was pretty sure he was going to die. “You’ll be fine,” Steve said, and Bucky startled, hadn’t realised he’d been speaking aloud.

“Did you see the rookies though? I thought they were going to throw up in tandem for a second there,” Steve continued, and Bucky managed a grunt.

“How are you still talking, where are you getting your energy from,” Bucky mumbled, and Steve laughed.

“Sugary water and a fuckload of caffeine,” he responded, and Bucky managed to get his shaky arms to move, propped himself up on one elbow to look across the room. Steve was sprawled back on his bed, upside down with his feet on the pillow, head hanging off the end of the bed. Bucky couldn’t see Steve’s face, but could see the still-heavy movement of Steve’s chest, the tremors of exertion running through Steve’s legs.

“Bullshit,” Bucky responded, and in an act of athletic prowess considering how tired Bucky felt, and how tired Steve must be, Steve lifted his head to look over. “If you’d had sugar, you would have shared,” he said confidently, and Steve let out a snort before dropping his head again. Bucky followed suit.

“Yeah, I would have,” Steve agreed after a moment of silence. “It’s the ice, I guess. I haven’t been able to skate much since mid-August, our rink had issues with the piping so they had to close up for a bit ‘til it can get fixed.”

“Ouch,” was all Bucky could muster the energy to say, will to do anything but lie there quickly fading.

“Yeah.” There was movement from the other side of the room, the sound of footsteps, then Steve was standing over him, looking gloriously dishevelled in a way that should probably be gross, but to Bucky’s tired mind, absolutely wasn’t. “C’mon, go shower before lunch. You’ll hate yourself if you don’t,” he said, and Bucky groaned, dragging his pillow over his face.

“Buck,” Steve said, amused, and pried the pillow out of his grip, lifting it again until Bucky could see Steve’s face again. “Trust me, go have a shower, then you can nap. We have an hour break, there’s time.”

Bucky opened his mouth, closed it again with a snap, cutting off the offer, stemming from somewhere inside him, for Steve to join him. “Fine,” He said instead, pushing up to a seated position and abandoning his pillow to Steve’s grip. When Steve stepped back, turned, Bucky couldn’t help but let his eyes slide down Steve’s back, highlighted by the tight compression shirt, and over his ass, draped in running shorts that were unfairly loose. Down, he told himself, pushing up to his feet as Steve face-planted himself on his own bed. He grabbed his bag and a towel, headed for the bathroom they shared with the room next door, hoping it wasn’t in use.

He was in luck, door swinging open freely, and he made sure to lock both before setting his stuff down and getting the shower running. He stared at himself in the mirror as he waited for the water to heat, silently cursing himself. He’d thought, hoped, that the few months of the summer break had been enough to get over his stupid attraction to Steve, but evidently it’d been a lost cause. He’d tried, really honestly tried, had gone to a couple of house parties, let himself be hit on, let himself be coaxed upstairs on more than one occasion by more than one person, but his heart had still beat a little faster whenever he’d seen Steve’s name on his phone.

And now. And now he was trapped in a hotel room with the guy for the weekend, probably in minimal clothing – he both loved and hated compression gear, and what seemed like every hockey player’s love for it – and he had to somehow keep his cool in front of, as he’d assured his sister, one of the straightest people he knew.

Fuck.

He shook his head sharply, pushed away from the small basin, and stripped, climbing into the shower and almost moaning at the feeling of hot water hitting tired muscles. He didn’t do much more than rinse himself off, knowing full well that there was another round of hell after lunch, but when he stepped out of the shower, he was already feeling better, and he made a mental note to thank Steve for the idea.

He dressed quickly, sticking with a tee and his compression pants, knowing he wouldn’t want to change again after lunch. Running shorts on for some sense of decorum, and he unlocked the bathroom doors again, heading back into the room he and Steve shared.

Steve lifted a head, looked at him, then pressed it back into the pillow with a soft grunt. “Go take your own advice pal,” Bucky said, hanging his towel over his shoulders and stowing away his gear before sitting on the end of the bed to dry his hair. Steve just grunted again.

“Steve,” He said, dragging out the middle syllable, and Steve mumbled something he couldn’t hear before pushing himself up, dragging himself off the bed and grabbing a small bag on the way to the bathroom. He’d obviously lost most of his good mood in the few minutes Bucky had been out of the room, and the exhaustion had settled in. “Shower, then we’ll go downstairs and eat,” he said, taking charge now that Steve was the one who needed direction. Then we can come back up here and nap or whatever.”

Steve’s broad shoulders just lifted a little before he disappeared into the bathroom, and the door locked. Bucky sighed softly, headed to the window, and opened it to hang his towel before finger combing his hair into something presentable.

It didn’t take long for Steve to come out, looking a hell of a lot more settled, and Bucky smiled at him, as he headed back to his bed, throwing his towel over the window to match Bucky’s. “Better?” Bucky asked, and Steve laughed softly, nodded.

“Yeah, much. Want to go downstairs?” He asked, and Bucky stood with a grin.

“Yeah, I could eat,” he responded, stretching his arms above his head before rolling his shoulders back with a satisfying little series of clicks. When Steve seemed as though he’d spaced out for a second, Bucky waved a hand, catching his attention again, laughing when Steve startled. “Come on then, before you fall asleep here,” Bucky teased, and Steve laughed again, rolling his eyes.

“I’m fine, I promise. Let’s go.”

 

*

Lunch was busy, all twenty two players tired but loud, and subsequently talking over each other to be heard. The coaches were talking in a small group, and the trainers were making sure everyone was taking the start to the weekend okay. Half of the team was lined up in front of the buffet, watching staff bring out new plates of food with a scary sort of focus. As they arrived in the restaurant, Bucky spotted Sam, sitting at one of the tables, and lifted a hand as the other man pushed up slightly, waved them over. It took a bit of effort to work their way around the room, weaving through tables that were mostly empty, dodging the steady, uncoordinated stream of players to and from the food lines, but they made it, Bucky dropping into the seat next to Sam, Steve sitting on his other side.

“So,” Sam started, and Bucky ignored him in favour of the water jug, hooking the handle with a couple of fingers and dragging it over. He contemplated dumping it on his own head, decided against it purely because it’d be hard to clean up, and caught the glasses that were slid his way from the other side of the table. “How are you guys handling this?”

Bucky filled the glasses, a little concerned by the way his arm shook when he lifted the jug. “We’re not,” Steve answered for him, taking the glass Bucky handed him and shooting him a smile that made Bucky’s knees a little weak.

“Hell already,” Bucky agreed, and Clint laughed, leaning across the table and nearly sticking his elbow in his meal.

“It’s just going to get worse,” Clint responded, and Bucky just nodded woefully. Before Bucky could respond, there was a hand clasping his shoulder, and he glanced up, smiling at their new captain.

“You guys should eat,” was the quiet voice, and Steve stood, bumping fists with Luke. The man was quiet, serious, but from the few interactions Bucky had had with him, he’d really liked the guy. And being one of the top defencemen in the division probably helped with his selection. Bucky nodded, draining his glass and refilling it, before pushing to his feet.

“You coping?”

Bucky raised an eyebrow at Luke, not sure whether the direct question was because this was his first camp, or because he was a figure skater, a title that came with a lot of misconceptions. He forced back the defensiveness, not wanting to give the wrong impression, but more adamant than ever to prove he belonged in the team.

“Yeah, I’m fine. Can’t say the same about the freshmen though,” he nodded over at one of the other tables, where a small group were lying face down on the table, plates pushed out of the way.

“They’ll be fine, probably,” Sam said without standing, and Luke snorted.

“I think they were expecting a laid back weekend on the ice,” He said, and Steve laughed under his breath. “They were wrong, obviously,” Luke added, before stepping back. “Don’t fill up too much, we don’t want you throwing up later.”

With that, he left, continuing around the tables, and Bucky shook his head a little. A hand touched his elbow, and he tuned back in to see Steve nodding at the buffet line. “Let’s go.”

Their table was surprisingly loud considering the effort of the morning, and Bucky found himself laughing nearly until he cried as Clint managed to spill sauce down his front, get his elbow covered in mashed potato, and spill his water in his lap, in the space of about ten seconds. Steve disappeared after he’d eaten, excusing himself and heading back up to their room, but Bucky found himself pulled into conversation after conversation, until Coach Fury stood and gave them ten minutes to get back to the rink.

The entire team scattered, plates neatly stacked at the centre of each table, and a few braved the stairs as the others waited for the elevators. Bucky took one look at the line in the lobby and chose leg pain over the inevitable yelling being directed at him.

He knocked lightly on the door, and pushed it open at Steve’s muffled response, finding him sitting at the end of his bed, bag zipped up by his feet. At Bucky’s raised eyebrow, Steve just shrugged. “There was yelling in the hallway, so I figured we’d been called back.” Bucky rolled his eyes at that, but checked his bag, before shouldering it and grabbing the key that was sitting on the rather useless dresser. Steve stood, grabbed his bag, and they headed out, Bucky locking up before handing the blond the key.

 

*

The afternoon was more of the same, stair climbs until their legs were shaking, suicide runs across the ice, drill after drill until Bucky could barely hold his stick. When Fury called it, sometime around five, Bucky let himself drop to his ass on the ice in relief. He wasn’t the only one, either, most of the freshmen and a few others in varyingly graceful heaps. Bucky lay back, the cool of the ice slowly seeping through all the padding he was wearing, when Steve appeared above him, somewhere near his hip.

He held out a hand, and Bucky sat up before taking it, letting Steve pull him back to his feet. He steadied himself on Steve’s shoulder for a moment, then grinned, handing his stick to Steve so he could undo the chin strap of his helmet, pull it off with a relieved sigh. “Gets hot in there,” He said at Steve’s amused look, and Steve just laughed, handing him back the stick.

“Yeah, that takes some getting used to, I’ll admit,” he responded with a shrug, starting to skate over to the bench, and the water bottles there. “The amount of hair you have probably doesn’t help,” he added, grinning over his shoulder, and Bucky rolled his eyes heavenwards, bumping his shoulder against Steve’s before skating past.

“Oh, he’s a funny guy now,” Bucky responded, voice a low drawl, and Steve just laughed again, catching up with a couple of harder strides. Bucky stopped, suddenly, and Steve went flying past, only just managing to avoid hitting the boards. He glared over his shoulder, and Bucky just shrugged, licked his lips, before stepping up through the gate onto the wood and grabbing his bottle.

“Ass,” Steve said as he came up beside Bucky again, and Bucky grinned, handed over Steve’s bottle, and headed for the locker rooms without a response.

 

*

The second day was more of the same, with the added bonus, in Bucky’s eyes, of waking up to a sleep-rumpled Steve. Even the muscle aches and the vague pain in his ribs couldn’t compete with the fluffy hair and sleepy smile he’d gotten right before he walked into a doorframe. Steve had laughed outright at him, but Bucky hadn’t minded, blaming it on lack of sleep and claiming the six o’clock wakeup was far too early for him.

Steve hadn’t shut up about it since, guiding Bucky through every doorway they had to pass through with a hand on his elbow and a fake concerned look on his face, all “Hold on, let me get that,” and “There’s a gap here, Buck, you don’t need to make another one.” The others had picked up on it, some of the juniors laughing whenever Steve did it, but as much as Bucky grumbled, slapped away Steve’s hands, or shoved Steve away completely, the weight of Steve’s hands on him stuck with him the entire day.

The distraction cost him in the afternoon practice.

It went well, at first. He managed to get a few pucks past Sam in the short games, skated circles around the freshmen almost literally in their footwork drills, and had kept up in the puck handling drills.

Coach Fury had announced another game to wrap up, full five on five to practice with their lines, learn the players. The lines changed as people’s play style developed, as people’s skill developed, but it was a chance to get a starting place with the people they’d be playing with for at least the first game.

He’d been doing well, he thought, at taking the hits – checks – doled out to him, or avoiding them entirely. He’d been keeping out of trouble, weathering the impact and moving on, moving forward, with only mild complaint.

What he hadn’t anticipated was Isaiah Bradley.

Isaiah had a few inches on Bucky, and had at least thirty pounds of muscle where Bucky only had air. Bucky had met the guy, who was almost sunshine in human form, and had never really thought about ever having to face him in a game.

He was a lot more… solid. Than Bucky had expected. And, Bucky decided as his skates left the ice, that was probably a good thing for the team. Not necessarily a good thing for him, though.

He hit the ice on his back, stick flying out of his hands, and he was distracted from the pain arcing out through his shoulders by the distinct tightening around his ribs, and the sudden realisation that he couldn’t quite breathe.

There was a whistle, loud and sharp, and Bucky winced, the noise rattling around his skull as though trapped in the neurons themselves. He clawed at the chin strap of his helmet, trying to get the thing off, and couldn’t work out why his fingers couldn’t find the catch. There were hands on his arms, tugging at his hands, and then his helmet was gone, and he was spitting out his mouth guard, gasping in a breath, air rattling in his chest.

People were talking, but he couldn’t quite work out the words, then he was pulled up carefully, and ended up almost nose to nose with Asher, who was trying to get his attention. Bucky blinked, still fighting for each breath, and felt something solid against his back, but couldn’t muster the energy to turn and find out what it was.

“Just relax for me Bucky,” Asher was saying, a note of concern in his steady voice. “Take a deep breath.”

Bucky let out a strangled noise that was supposed to be a laugh at that, not having the breath to spare to explain that he couldn’t, actually, no. But as he sat there, cold seeping into his ass and fire spreading across his shoulders and down, his lungs started to cooperate, filling in fast, heaving breaths.

“There you go,” Asher said gently, before pushing to his feet, and Bucky slowly started to become aware of the crowd of people around him. Steve’s concerned face caught his eye first, a few feet behind the medic, and the rest of his line was crowded around him. He glanced up to see Isaiah behind him, Bucky’s back propped up against one padded leg, and smiled, just a little.

The big man smiled back, so Bucky decided they were still good, and took the hands offered to him, letting the medic pull him to his feet.

“Fuck,” was the first thing he said, one hand dropping to his side as pain lanced up it, and Asher just nodded.

“Yeah, you took a hit. Isaiah, help him over to the bench, then you can jump back on.” An arm came around him at that, just under his armpits, and Bucky resigned himself to an ungraceful exit from the ice. He barely had any weight on his own feet as he was hauled off and unceremoniously set on a bench before he was left alone with the medic.

Much to Bucky’s embarrassment, Asher knelt at his feet to until his skates, and when Bucky protested, the man just levelled an even stare up at him, pulling the skate off with an air of finality before moving to the other foot. “Don’t bend over, I need to check your ribs, make sure you didn’t crack anything. I actually heard you hit the ice from over here, it wasn’t a light tap you got. Now, sit still.”

Bucky stilled instantly, barely having noticed that he’d been shifting on the bench, and sighed, looking at his hands. “Where are my gloves?” He asked abruptly, still sounding a little wheezy, and Asher pointed on the floor next to him before pulling off Bucky’s other skate. “What happened?” He asked next, eyes moving from the medic as Asher straightened and out to the ice, where the team had just restarted a game.

“Best I can tell,” Asher said, holding out a hand, and Bucky took it, standing gingerly. He went to grab his skates, but Asher just shook his head, led the way back out to the locker rooms, and the training room beyond. “When Isaiah hit you, he popped his shoulder up, and you went flying. When I looked over, you were already in the air.”

By the time Asher was happy that he’d just winded himself and pulled a few muscles, the practice had ended, and there was a familiar face in the doorway. Bucky gave Steve a little smile, wincing as he pulled his shirt back over his head, and stood gingerly. “Thanks Asher,” he said quietly as the medic packed up, leaving the room completely tidy again. “Don’t know what I’d have done without ya.”

“Played on and made yourself worse, probably,” Asher responded, grinning over his shoulder at Bucky, before going back to his gear. “Go take a hot shower, loosen up.” Bucky nodded, collected the pile of padding that he’d shed, and turned to Steve, still in the doorway, still with a concerned little furrow between his eyebrows.

“I’m fine,” Bucky said as he came closer, and when both Asher and Steve snorted in tandem, revised his statement to, “Nothing’s broken.” Steve draped an arm over Bucky’s shoulders, pulled him in for a second, then stepped back, letting Bucky out of the room.

“Most people have already left for the hotel, we’re doing dinner before we get back on the bus,” Steve said, eyes moving to Asher before landing on Bucky again.

“Okay, cool,” the medic said, pausing to look over at them. “Steve, help him back to the hotel, I don’t want him carrying his stuff back but he’s okay to walk it.”

Steve nodded, removing Bucky’s stuff from his arms before he could protest, but Bucky tried anyway. “No, I can carry that back to my bag it’s not heavy,” he grumbled, but Steve didn’t give it back, just started for the locker room.

“Don’t care, Asher’s orders,” Steve responded, still sounding worried, but less so. Bucky went to jog to catch up, but took one step and hissed out a breath, hand clutching his side. Steve slowed to a stop and shot a concerned look over his shoulder, but Bucky waved him off, following at a more sedate pace than he’d previously attempted. That worked, for the most part.

“I’ve been still long enough that the ache’s set in,” he mumbled as he got even with Steve, who hadn’t moved. Steve nodded a little, looking at their feet, then back up to Bucky.

“C’mon, we should head back,” he said after a moment, starting to walk again, but slower, and Bucky managed to keep up. He lost the fight in the locker room as well, once everything was packed back in his bag, and Steve hefted Bucky’s bag onto his own shoulder as well as his own.

They were about halfway back to the hotel when Steve spoke again, voice quiet even though there was no one else out walking. “You really scared me.” When Bucky looked over at him, Steve was staring at the ground in front of his feet, refusing to look up, and for a moment Bucky thought he’d imagined it.

“He hit you and you basically crumpled. I thought.” Steve stopped again, lips pulled into a tight line, and Bucky sighed softly, reached out a hand. He grabbed Steve’s shoulder and slowed, and Steve stopped instantly, turning to look at him.

“Hey, Steve,” Bucky said, voice low, as soothing as he could make it. “I’m okay. I took it, it happens, hockey is a physical sport. But I’m okay.”

“But you’re not.” Steve’s voice got hard, even as his eyes kept that kicked puppy look. “You can’t keep taking hits like that, you got lucky. I’ve seen Isaiah break bones just from a completely legal check. You can’t-

“The hell I can’t,” Bucky snapped, voice hardening. “I’m not weak, I’m nearly as big as you are, Steve. Doing figure doesn’t make me weaker than you. You say you’re my friend, fucking act like it.”

The thud of two bags hitting the ground had Bucky twitching, and Steve looked angry, truly angry in a way Bucky had never seen him before. One step, two, and Steve was right in front of him, making Bucky lift his chin to keep Steve’s gaze. Bucky forced himself not to flinch, knew Steve wouldn’t hurt him, but the moment seemed loaded, sitting on the edge of something and just waiting. Watching.

Steve’s hand shot out, fisting in the material of Bucky’s shirt, and then there were warm lips on his, and Bucky’s brain clocked out for a bit.

The kiss was hard, but not forceful, almost chaste considering the circumstances. Bucky’s hands flew up, grasping Steve’s upper arms, and Steve’s hand smoothed out, heavy against Bucky’s chest. Bucky rocked up on his toes, seeking more, and Steve gave it to him, lips parting just a little, and there was the wet swipe of tongue across his lower lip. A hand settled against Bucky’s cheek, and he sighed, soft, into Steve’s mouth.

Bucky’s fingers tightened a little around firm muscle, and then- and then nothing. Steve pulled back, suddenly enough to leave Bucky reeling, and his eyes blinked open, searching, confused. Steve was staring at him, face unreadable, before he turned on his heel. A quick movement, and Steve hefted both bags up, settling the straps over one shoulder before he walked away, head hunched, hands in his pockets.

Bucky stared after him, shocked, then lifted one hand to his mouth, wondering if he’d imagined it. His lips were still wet, just a little, and his heart beat was lightning fast in his chest. He was pretty sure he hadn’t.

“Shit.”

 

*

They didn’t talk about it. They probably should, Bucky knew, but when he reached the hotel, he was caught by Sam, who all but dragged him away from the stairs, and Steve’s retreating back, towards the dining room. At least he had an excuse not to be smiley and talkative, he told himself as he picked at his food, one elbow on the table, chin in his hand.

Isaiah came past, apologising before holding his hand out, fist closed tight. Bucky bumped it with his own, knowing they were good, then excused himself, telling the others he needed to pack his gear up.

He entered the room slowly, warily, but he needn’t have worried, he realised quickly. Steve wasn’t there. His things weren’t there. There was no indication that Bucky had shared the room with anyone. Bucky let out a breath, pinched the bridge of his nose for a moment, then reminded himself they had a three hour bus ride to make it through yet. There was still a chance to fix… whatever the problem was.

He showered quickly, careful of the bruises already developing across his ribs, then slowly packed his bag up as his wet hair slowly dripped onto his shirt. When he was done he looked around, before giving in and reaching for his phone. Bucky sent America a string of sad emoji’s, the poop, and the peach.

Instead of staring at his phone waiting for a reply, Bucky grabbed the straps of his bags and started to walk, dragging them behind him as he headed out of the room and down the hall.

They still had the bus ride, he told himself again as he rode the elevator down. Three uninterrupted hours where they could actually talk about whatever was going through Steve’s head. Three hours in which Steve couldn’t run away from him, from the conversation they obviously needed to have.

Three hours.

As soon as Bucky’s ass hit the seat, bags stowed away, he was asleep.

He woke up, somewhere in the middle, head tipped at an awkward angle, feet up on an otherwise empty seat, and blinked dazedly. The low chatter in the bus wasn’t enough to distract him from the person sitting by his feet, on his phone. Bucky let himself take in Steve’s face, the angle of his jaw, the way his hair flopped down over his forehead, the way his eyebrows furrowed at whatever he was looking at on the small screen in his hands. Bucky swallowed, trying to make his throat work, but couldn’t get any words out, so he settled for the next best thing.

Bucky reached out with his foot, just a little, and poked Steve’s arm lightly.

Steve jumped, just a little, phone slipping, but he managed to grab it before it fell. He looked over at Bucky, wide-eyed, and Bucky just stared back at him, waiting for something, anything.

After a moment, Steve smiled, a little cautious, a little uncertain, but it was a smile. He didn’t say anything, and a large part of Bucky was glad he didn’t, still barely awake. But it was a smile, and god Bucky was glad to see it.

Bucky poked him again, just because he could, and Steve’s smile got a little wider. A hand came down, squeezed Bucky’s ankle lightly, and Bucky hummed sleepily, closing his eyes again. The weight of Steve’s hand stayed steady until he fell asleep again.

 

The next thing Bucky knew, there was a gentle hand on his shoulder, shaking him awake. He blinked blearily, mumbling wordlessly, and waved a hand when all that got him was another shake. Forcing his eyes to focus, Bucky looked up, following long arms to a tired looking face.

“C’mon,” Steve said quietly, and Bucky realised that he couldn’t actually hear anything else, not the bus, not the chatter of teammates. “We’re here, let’s get you to bed.”

Bucky made a disapproving noise, and Steve cracked a little smile, but tugged at Bucky’s shoulder until Bucky gave in.

“M’comin m’comin,” he mumbled, shifting his legs down and sitting up, then gasping softly at the bolt of pain the action sent through his ribs. Steve’s hand tightened on his shoulder, and he waved him off with a shaky breath, before pushing to his feet. He wobbled a little, but managed to stay upright, before inching sideways out into the aisle of the bus. Steve’s hand shifted to Bucky’s elbow, and steadied him, before Steve stepped back, leaving a bit of space between them.

They stared at each other for a moment, before Steve said “I’m sorry,” suddenly, and Christ there was the kicked puppy look.

“Steve,” Bucky started, before stopping, licking his lips as his eyes dropped to the ground. “As much as this talk needs to happen, I will fall asleep again in the next five minutes, regardless of where we are, so I’d prefer to be lying down.”

“Oh,” Steve responded, before all but jumping out of the way, heading down the aisle and making sure Bucky was following. He didn’t say anything else, and part of Bucky wondered whether he should have let Steve talk, passed out in his arms for emphasis or something. But no, they both needed to be fully invested in that conversation, so Bucky let it go for the moment, following gingerly. He glared at the stairs down to the ground, then started down them, one step at a time, clinging to the rail.

Steve didn’t say a word, just watched him carefully, then as soon as Bucky had both feet on the ground there was an arm around his waist, careful. “I’ve taken your bags up already, your key was in your bag pocket so I hope you don’t mind,” he said after a moment of walking. Bucky hadn’t even registered the absence of his bags, if he was being honest.

“Thanks,” he said quietly, before adding, “I don’t. Mind, I mean.” Steve nodded, slowed his steps a little as Bucky leaned a little more heavily against him, and they slowly headed up the stairs together. Bucky held back the swearing that he would have let out had he been alone, pain lancing up his sides, but it was almost worth it to have Steve there and not avoiding him again. Almost.

When they reached his down, Bucky’s door was open, and he narrowed his eyes a little bit, looking up at Steve. “Roommate,” Steve said with a half shrug, and Bucky had to accept it. Sure enough, as he made it through the door, Clément was there, sitting up on his bed, leaning against the wall.

“You look like hell,” was the greeting, and Bucky flipped the bird at him, knowing he was mostly teasing. They got along for the most part, so it was probably teasing. Probably.

Steve let go as Bucky reached his bed, and he turned, sitting carefully on it before looking up at his friend. “You good?” Steve asked, and Bucky nodded, just a little.

“Yeah, thanks,” he said quietly, dropping his hands to the coverlet and gripping it lightly. Before he could think of something else to say, Steve was ruffling his hair, stepping back.

“You should sleep, we need you back as fast as possible.” There was a note in Steve’s voice that Bucky couldn’t place, but he sighed, not wanting to get into it with his roommate there.

“Don’t know what you’d do without me,” he responded instead, smiling a little, and Steve smiled back.

“Implode, probably,” was the response, then Steve was stepping back, raising a hand in a half wave before turning and walking away.

“Tell me again why you two aren’t..?” Clément said as the door shut behind Steve, making an obscene gesture with his hands. Bucky rolled his eyes.

“It’s not like that,” He responded, like he always did, but this time, he wasn’t as sure.

 

*

Like Asher had said, it didn’t take him long to heal. Long enough, though, that he was scratched for their first preseason game, sitting rinkside in his Carter hoodie. It wasn’t his first hockey game by any means, but it was the first he had an investment in, and he was pressed against the boards for as much of the game as he could get away with. The other scratched players, a normally loud, somewhat grating junior and a couple of the freshmen, were more subdued, but Bucky couldn’t help himself.

Steve was, shit but Steve was good. The playing people of the team were on the benches on the other side of the rink, so Bucky was forced to shout, along with the rest of the crowd, whenever something big happened. Bucky was cheering for all of them, he really was, but whenever Steve had the puck, was moving down the ice to the other team’s goal, Bucky was louder, cheering Steve’s number with every shot Steve took, every hit Steve gave out.

He yelled angrily whenever Steve took a hit, swearing loudly, but cheered just as loud when Clint came swooping in to check one of the other team, or when Sam made one of his many spectacular saves. By the end of the second period Bucky was wincing, holding his ribs a little as his muscles complained at the activity. When he did, there was a tap on his shoulder, and he turned, eyes narrowing a little.

It was the junior, Tony, and he had a grin on his face and a bottle held between them. “You look like you need something a little stronger,” he drawled, and Bucky raised an eyebrow at the bottle, before looking at his own drink.

“I’m drinking water, there’s not much that isn’t stronger,” he responded, a little wary, but Tony just nudged the bottle at him again.

“It’s fine, it’ll distract you from the pain in your side and your crush on the ice,” Tony responded, eyes glinting a little, and Bucky felt his face fall at that. He snapped his mouth shut, narrowed his eyes a little, and let out a breath.

“I don’t-”

“Save it for someone you can convince, lover boy,” Tony cut him off, and Bucky took the bottle a little more abruptly than he’d planned. He took a drink, surprised to taste only a sugary… something, nothing that he’d been expecting. He raised an eyebrow, and Tony gave him an affronted look. “What, you thought it was something else? Shame on you,” he said overdramatically, and Bucky just handed the bottle back with a sigh.

There was a moment of silence as the teams on the ice lined up for a face off, people Bucky didn’t recognise on one side of the ice, people Bucky could only just remember the names of on the other. Sam was in goal, watching what was going on, but the action was by the other net, so he wasn’t as tense as he would have been otherwise.

“So,” Tony said, and Bucky growled internally, hoping he’d avoided whatever was about to come. “You and Steve, huh.”

“No,” Bucky said shortly, eyes on the ice as the puck went flying, and players chased it down the ice as the voice came over the speakers, obnoxiously announcing the final minute of play. “Not at all.”

“But you’d like it to be.”

“Drop it, okay?”

“So you’re gay?”

“No.”

“Bi?”

“Also no.”

“Pan?”

“If I say yes will you stop?” Bucky asked, exasperated, and Tony just grinned at him.

“Only if it’s the truth.” Was the response, and Bucky sighed.

“Yes, pan. Now will you drop it?” Bucky snapped, and folded his arms across his chest. Not exactly how he’d planned on coming out to his team, but if it worked, he’d claim it.

“Same. Well, pan poly, but same difference really,” Tony responded, and boy was that not the reaction Bucky had been expecting.

He turned, looking at Tony, who just shrugged. “Figured you told me, I should tell you. Pepper, have you met Pepper? On the women’s team, that Pepper, I’ve been seeing her for about eight months, and our boyfriend, another James actually, has been putting up with us for …. Three? Four? Months officially.” He waved a hand towards the ice, and the players on it, as the buzzer sounded for the end of the period. “They know, and they don’t care. They won’t care about your preference either. Have you told Steve?”

“He knows I’m queer, yeah,” Bucky responded, still struggling to process what had been dumped unceremoniously on him.

Tony raised an eyebrow. “But he doesn’t know you have feelings for him.” It wasn’t a question, and Bucky sighed.

“No, and he’ll continue not knowing, because you’re not going to tell him,” he said firmly, and Tony gave his shoulder a light push.

“Look, all I’m saying is you should talk to him. I won’t tell him, it’s not my place to.” Bucky looked over at Tony again, who was actually giving him a serious look, not trying to lighten the conversation for once. “Seriously. Talk to him.” There was a pause, and Tony grinned, leaning back on the hard plastic seat. “And that’s my good deed for the day, done. You can thank me later.”

Bucky snorted, but Tony’s words sat in his mind. He was pretty sure he wasn’t about to go proclaiming his affection for Steve, but Tony was right on one thing at least. They did need to talk, and soon, preferably. Bucky wasn’t sure how much more of the distance between them he could take.

 

*

Bucky stretched, toes hooking over the end of his bed and arms out to his sides to avoid the headboard. He relaxed, popped his jaw, stared up at the ceiling for a long moment as he woke up fully. Then he was pushing upright, grabbing the pile of mostly clean clothes off his desk chair, and pulling them on. A swipe of deodorant, then he was grabbing his bathroom gear.

Within five minutes he was out the door, closing it behind him carefully as to not wake his roommate. He readjusted the bag over his shoulder, fingers stroking the strap lightly as he walked across the campus. His boots crunched on the thin layer of frost, and there was no one else around. Not even the crazy jocks on the football team were out for their run yet.

Bucky checked his watch as he reached the rink, a big, hulking building that had been more than a little intimidating when he’d first stood in its shadow. He pushed open the doors at exactly four thirty am, after fumbling with his access card for a few precious seconds.

He didn’t bother going to the locker room. He didn’t need anything from there, not this time. He just kept walking, past the rooms, through the tunnel, fingers brushing along the twig rack as he passed. Then he was out on the boards, and he could almost feel the tension leaving him. It’d been a long. Fucking. Week.

He had his lace-tying down to sixty seconds, and barely felt the tight cut of the nylon against his fingers as he checked, then checked again. Guards off. Final lace check, and he was out.

Being on the ice was humbling, every single time. Sometimes it was a quiet feeling, before a game, carefully tied into padding and shoulders bumping against other players, but sometimes it was all-encompassing. It was fresh, not a single mark on it, and he settled into his boots, feeling at home in them like he didn’t in his hockey skates.

Easy. Take it easy.

Bucky breathed out, pushed off, careful. It had been over a week since he’d been on anything but the shorter hockey blades, and it would hurt more than just his pride if he caught his picks like he was a novice.

Push off. Lift. Glide down the straight. Foot on the ground. Exhale. Push.

He fell into a rhythm, as easy as breathing, easy circles becoming figure-of-eights. Easy. Take it easy.

His first set of crossovers was wobbly, leaning back a little too far onto the tail on each step, but he took a slow breath, corrected himself as he turned. The second set was better, no sound beyond the soft hush of steel against ice.

The first waltz was shaky on the landing, and Bucky narrowed his eyes, built up his speed a little more. Arms out, head up. Rock forward, push. Better.

He let himself glide backwards, little shimmy of his hips whenever he slowed down, then turned - rock forward, lift, twist hips - before settling into the forward motion.

Picking up speed, he changed direction with a step, diagonal across the ice. Head tipped forward, breathing deep and even. Push up, spin, land. As he came out of the axel, he grinned, body falling into the routine, but his face fell as he saw someone standing on the other side of the rink, steady on their own skates.

He stared as he glided backwards, trying to make out who it was across the distance, and he couldn’t see much beyond the shock of blond hair, and a scarf pulled up high. He stopped, careful, and a familiar voice rang out, muted by the ice.

“Don’t stop on my account.” And then, after a moment of silence. “Do you mind if I...?” A hand, waved Bucky’s vague direction, and Bucky nodded, cleared his throat.

“Sure.”

As soon as the other person was close enough, he pushed the scarf down off his face, and Bucky smiled slightly.

“Sorry,” Steve said, quieter as they face each other with a few feet between them. “I can leave, if you want?”

“Stay,” Bucky said, knee-jerk, then smoothed over his response with a soft, “There’s plenty of room.” Bucky meet Steve’s gaze, for the first time, and saw something akin to awe in them before Steve looked at their feet, their mismatched skates.

“I won’t get in your way.”

“S’okay, like I said, big rink.”

Steve gave him one of his blinding smiles, the one that could probably start riots and charm even the most feral. “You’re good, Buck,” he said, and Bucky was left blinking after him as Steve skated away.

 

*

They still hadn’t had their talk. Hadn’t really talked at all, if Bucky was honest, and he felt it like a dull ache in his chest. No matter what he wanted, he’d never been willing to lose Steve as a friend, and now it seemed like he’d gone and lost him anyway, without ever having a chance.

Steve was … distant. It was the best word Bucky could come up for it. Even when Steve was in the room, it felt like he was a million miles away. They still spoke, yeah, but it was less and less. Less and less personal, as well. Their text history had turned back into a back and forward of times and locations, practice schedules with nothing deeper than face value in the strings of letters. Bucky hated it.

America was convinced they were both idiots, and Bucky was inclined to agree, but not for the same reasons as her. He knew he was stuck on it, stuck in that moment when he’d thought that maybe he was getting something good, but his mind kept playing Steve’s words on replay. I’m sorry. Like he hadn’t meant it, hadn’t thought it through. Like it was something Steve was ashamed of. Like Bucky, by extension, was something he was ashamed of.

Bucky sighed, scrubbing his hands over his face, before staring blankly at the pages in front of him. Stats had never been his strong suit, not in all his years at high school, and he was even less inclined to think about it now, more important things filling his mind, distracting him.

“Bucky.” Sharon said with a soft sigh, dragging Bucky’s attention back to her, back to the work. Again. “Where are you? Because it’s damned well not here.”

Bucky sighed again, straightening up in his seat and staring across the table at the woman. She was a lifesaver, if he was honest, both in keeping him focused and keeping him enthused, and he knew he wasn’t repaying her very well for that. “Sorry, I’m just thinking-”

“About your boy toy?” She said with a little grin, and Bucky groaned in the back of his throat.

“He’s my friend,” he started, but she butted in.

“That you’ve been pining over for the past year. I can feel the tension between you guys, and I haven’t even met him.” She rested her elbows on the table, book lying open in front of her, forgotten for the moment. “When did you last go on a date? Hell, when was the last time you got laid?”

Bucky scowled at her, folding his arms across his chest and narrowly avoiding drawing on himself with the pen in his hand. “I’m not answering that. But it’s not that long.”

“You sure about that?” Sharon said, grinning, and Bucky glared.

“Yeah, I’m sure. Can we focus, please,” he responded, voice far too close to a whine for his liking. Sharon let it drop, despite the fact that he’d been the distracted on in the first place.

 

*

Seeing Steve in the mornings became, if not routine, at least normal. It wasn’t every day that he woke up, jittery and anxious, or overly stressed, or just craving the cut and crunch of ice under his skates. It wasn’t every day he was on the ice that Steve was there, awkwardly hesitant at first, then settling when Bucky didn’t protest his presence. But it was enough.

He was trying to get over Steve, trying to take comfort in what friendship they had left, trying to convince himself to move on. Though he sometimes let himself forget, whenever his phone buzzed, he reached for it immediately, hoping the stalemate was finally being broken. Whenever there was a knock at his door he was jumping to his feet, hoping it was Steve, finally reaching out.

To be fair, Bucky knew he could be doing it. He could be bridging the gap. But, in his defence, Steve lived in the hockey team’s house. If he went there, they’d have an audience, and a nosy one.

He didn’t ask why Steve was at the rink either, meticulously going over his drills at whatever god-awful time they’d met. They’d had that level of friendship before. Bucky wasn’t sure they did now. Steve, likewise, didn’t ask him.

But one morning, as he was pushing open the doors to the rink, there was movement at his shoulder, and he turned, squinting in the darkness for a split second. The sensor light came on as he stepped back, into the building, and he blinked a few times to clear the flecks of light from his vision.

Steve stood just behind him, still outside the door, hands in the air with a crooked smile pulling at his lips. “Sorry,” he murmured, voice hushed in the early morning air. “Didn’t mean to startle you, Buck.”

Bucky laughed, short and relieved, adrenaline still rushing through him and making his movements a little jerky as he stepped back, letting Steve into the building. “S’okay, I wasn’t paying attention,” he responded on an exhale, dropping his hands and turning a little, waiting for Steve to fall into step with him.

“Yeah, I could tell,” Steve responded, voice still low, bumping his shoulder lightly against Bucky’s. The thrill of contact ran through him, and Bucky let it out on a soft sigh, wishing, again, that he’d stop reacting this way to the other man. Wishing that he didn’t live for the brief moments of contact. “I called out to you a couple of times, but you were completely zoned out,” Steve continued, oblivious to Bucky’s internal monologue.

“Oh, sorry,” Bucky said after a moment, realising that probably deserved an answer. When Steve gave him a concerned look, Bucky just shrugged a little. “It’s been a long week, and I’ve been pretty stressed,” he admitted after a moment, unsure if it was crossing one of the newly etched lines in the space between them. “I space out a little more when I’m stressed, or tired. You’ve probably noticed,” he added with a little smile, trying to play it down. Steve bumped their shoulders together again. It took Bucky a moment to realise he was being herded gently towards the locker room.

Steve shrugged a little, smiled over at him. “We all do it, and deal with it in different ways. I’m glad you have a way of coping, at the least.” He led Bucky down the hall, into the main locker room, and Bucky couldn’t help but wiggle his toes on the carpet despite his shoes, pausing in the doorway for just a moment. Steve stayed silent, letting him process, and Bucky sighed, picking his way around logo in the centre of the room, finding his booth by habit more than anything. He sat, dropped his bag at his feet, and Steve smiled at him from a few spaces down.

When Bucky just stared at him, Steve sighed, which rattled Bucky out of his own head. Steve didn’t seem exasperated, it was almost fond, but Bucky blushed, looking at his feet. It took him a moment to reach down, start pulling at his laces, but when he did, he saw Steve do the same from the corner of his eye.

He toed his shoes off, tucked them back under the bench seat, then pulled his bag closer. Out came his figure skates, and he rubbed his fingers lightly over the silver name on the heel before loosening the laces, swapping the soft soakers for the hard guards. He shoved his feet in, tightened them meticulously, checking and rechecking them before tying off. He felt a little off kilter, didn’t want to mis-tie his laces and injure himself, not now, after he’d missed the first games of the preseason. He didn’t want to miss any more, give Fury a reason to kick him out. He checked the guards on the bottom of his skates, then stood, looked up to see Steve waiting for him by the archway that led back out to the corridor, and out to the rink.

Steve didn’t say anything, just nodded his head towards the hall, and Bucky followed, the soft hush of his guards against the carpet already settling him again. Steve’s hand caught his elbow lightly, steering him down the hall gently, and part of Bucky wanted to protest it, wanted to insist he didn’t need the babying. Another part of him realised that yeah, maybe he did, and maybe, worse still, maybe he liked being looked after. At least by Steve, at least sometimes.

“Y’know,” Bucky started, soft, because he couldn’t leave it alone, couldn’t just let the moment be. “I didn’t do this, any of this, for the hockey. Not really.” Steve looked at him, one eyebrow raised as the floor under foot turned to rubber pads on concrete, guards protecting the sharp edges of his skates, Steve’s blades bare. “It was for the money. It sounds bad but. I couldn’t have afforded any of this without the scholarship.”

“You’re not the only one,” Steve responded, hand squeezing just above Bucky’s elbow before he let go, and Bucky immediately felt bereft. “Come on.”

Bucky didn’t bother sitting down, just leaned a hand on the edge of the rail to pull off his guards, tossing them in the general direction of the bench before pulling the small gate open and stepping onto the ice. He let himself slide forward, nice and stable, and glanced over his shoulder as he heard the click of the gate closing, saw Steve stepping on after him.

“Just, pretend I’m not here,” Steve said with a smile, waving a hand in the direction of the ice, and when Bucky snorted, he smiled wider. “Or, try to. I won’t bug you.”

Bucky gave him a smile, or his best approximation of one, then pushed off, letting himself focus on nothing but the ice.

He wasn’t sure how long it was, one hour, two, less, more, before he heard Steve’s voice calling out, muted by ice. He looked up, pulling his spin before it started, and saw Steve waving him over. He frowned a little, stroked out slowly, closing the distance between them.

“Hey,” Steve murmured, before Bucky could say anything. There was a faint pink tinge on his cheeks, and Bucky assumed it was from the cold air. “It’s going on six, I wasn’t sure when your first class was?” Steve continued, and Bucky blinked, eyes flicking towards the big clock on the wall. “You’re usually packing up by now, is all.”

Bucky nodded, raised his hands, scrubbed them over his face. “I. Yeah, I have an eight.” He breathed out, long and unsteady. “Shit.”

Steve reached out, careful, and settled a hand on Bucky’s shoulder, clasping tight for a moment. “You doing okay?” Bucky nodded a little jerkily, let out a breath.

“Yeah, sorry. Thanks. There’s just a lot going on, y’know?” He tried to smile, wasn’t sure he succeeded. “I thought I could handle it, study and practice and tests and games, but it’s getting to me,” he admitted, voice quiet.

Steve nodded, nudged forward a little on the ice, hooked his arm around Bucky’s shoulders. “You can handle it. I know you can. But there’s no shame in struggling to juggle it all. It’s a lot.”

Bucky snorted, warmed to his core by the contact and trying to pretend he wasn’t. “You’re fine.”

Steve shook his head. “Nice of you to think so,” he laughed softly, guiding Bucky over to the bench. “I’ve had a bit more practice. I played all of last year, and through high school as well. I’m used to roadies, training day after day.” Before Bucky could protest, Steve kept talking. “I know you were practicing as well in high school, but you weren’t last year, you were on your own schedule, and that’s a hell of a lot different. So, believe me when I say it takes a bit of time.”

Bucky sighed, loud, and Steve laughed again. The wood of the boards creaked under their weight as Bucky left the ice, followed by Steve, and they sat side by side on the bench to wipe off their blades and pull on their guards. “I’m serious, Bucky,” Steve said as they stood, evidently taking Bucky’s silence as a disagreement.

“I know you are,” Bucky responded, not sure what he was supposed to say, and headed back down the corridor to the locker room to start getting his gear together. By the time Steve caught up Bucky had his skates off, upside down on the floor in front of him, and he was tying himself back into his shoes. “I’m not saying I disbelieve you,” he said quietly as Steve sat. “I’m just tryna… take it all in, I guess.”

There was a soft snort from Steve’s locker, and he looked up to see amused eyes looking at him. “Well, you left the dorm before the coffee was ready, and you woke up at least around four to get out here when you did.” He grinned, and Bucky ducked his head to hide a smile. “So I can’t blame you.”

“Thanks, Steve,” Bucky drawled out, and Steve laughed again, the serious mood between them clearing a little. It only took him a few minutes to wipe down his skates again, put the soft covers over the blades to keep them safe in his bag, stow them away, and he stood with a soft sigh.

He moved to the door, and felt Steve’s hand on his elbow. Jumped a little, because he’d never get used to the way such a big man could move so quietly.

“Sorry.” Steve said, looking only a little apologetic. “I just wanted to say, if you were up to it, maybe we could meet for coffee after your class, or after your classes?” Bucky blinked, a little shocked, and before he could open his mouth, Steve finished, “I feel like there’s more you need to say, and it’d be good to get it off your chest. If you want to.”

Bucky swallowed down his words, his shock, and nodded a little, turning to face Steve more. “Yeah, I’d. I’d like that,” he said slowly. “I have a class at ten as well, but then I’m free ‘til practice. When works for you?”

Steve nodded, looking almost relieved, and Bucky couldn’t help the pang of something settling in his gut. “We could do an early lunch when you get out of your class?” he offered, and Bucky nodded, a little jerky. “Text me when you get out? I don’t have my phone on me now, but I’ll go grab it before my class.”

“Yeah, okay, just make sure you don’t forget,” he teased, voice a little rough, and if Steve noticed, he didn’t comment.

“I have reason not to, now.” And what the hell did he mean by that? Bucky pursed his lips, and Steve just shook his head, little smile in place. “Go on, shoo, before you’re late,” Steve said suddenly, and Bucky sighed, backing out of the locker room and nearly walking into the frame of the arch.

“I’m going, I’m going,” he responded, before pausing. “Hey Steve?” He waited for the other man to look up, gave him a small smile.

“Thanks.”

“Not a problem,” was the warm reply, before Steve turned back to his own gear.

 

*

He was distracted in class, but less so than he would have been if he hadn’t skated earlier. Bucky kept glancing at his phone, the little speaker icon flashing as it recorded the lecture he was in, then back to the projector screen to scribble down the next page of notes. He wasn’t taking any of it in, but Sharon was sitting beside him, looking like she was actually paying attention, so he knew he could ask her later if he couldn’t make sense of the content.

Second year psychology was much like first year psych, Bucky realised pretty quickly, and two of his classes seemed to overlap quite heavily. He’d started the year by declaring his major as developmental psychology, and that already had him both relaxing and worrying more.  He knew it wasn’t hard to change major, but it was a lot of effort that Bucky didn’t know if he could spare in the long run.

There was a tap on his shoulder, and he jumped a little, nearly dropping his pen. Turning, he met Sharon’s eyes, then rolled his own as she pointed back at the board before sticking her tongue out at him. He sighed, focused back on the lecture slides, and completely ignored the fact that he’d been doodling little hockey sticks in the margins of his paper.

When class was over, he packed his shit up, went to leave, and was surprised to see Sharon waiting for him at the end of the aisle. When he made it to the end, she gave him a little smile, said, “You doing okay?”

Bucky nodded, a little surprised at the question, but it wasn’t unwelcome. As much as their friendship was based on study and teasing, he had a soft spot for Sharon, and wasn’t overly surprised to find out that she had one for him as well. “Yeah, just a lot on my mind. Even though we’ve had a couple of byes already, it’s hard to deal with the team stuff and all this.” He waved a hand in the general direction of the professor, who was answering questions up the front of the lecture hall. “I’ll be fine,” he added, with a little shrug. “Just a learning curve.”

Sharon raised her eyebrow, just looked at him for a long moment, before shaking her head slightly. “Alright. Seriously though, I’m here if you need it, but not right now because I have to get to my pathology class.”

Bucky snorted, waved a hand, and she grinned at him before jogging up the steps to the doors at the back of the hall. He checked the time on his phone, followed more sedately, with an hour to kill before his last class for the day. He knew he should probably try to go over the class’s notes, or try to catch a short nap, but he decided against it, heading for the nearest coffee shop and the caffeine it held.

His second class was almost bearable, the lecturer engaging and witty, and Bucky found himself actually paying attention to the class in a way that he hadn’t managed in the first couple of weeks. It helped that it was more of an interest paper, so he could get his minor sorted, making the lecture on ancient roman culture a complete gear change from his science papers.

Bucky walked out of it feeling strangely settled, and sent Steve a text to let him know he was done, before heading back towards his dorm. Before he got halfway, his phone buzzed in his hand, and he glanced down, unlocking it. Reading the text from Steve, he changed directions, bouncing his bag a little higher on his shoulder before picking up the pace a little.

It only took him a few minutes to reach the café off campus, and he immediately saw why Steve had chosen it. It was quiet, much quieter than anything on campus itself, and open plan, with widely spaced tables and plush seats. Steve was already there, sitting on a couch under the front window, textbook on his lap, and he looked up with a smile as Bucky entered the café, bell on the door jangling happily.

“Hey,” he said before Bucky could say anything. “Go order something before you get comfortable, I get the feeling you won’t want to get up once you’re settled.”

He was right, as usual, so Bucky just nodded, set his bag down, and went up to the counter. A few minutes later, he was precariously balancing a coffee in one hand, and a plate, with a knife sitting across, it in the other. Steve gave him a curious look, and he shrugged, setting the little plate down and revealing the small muffin. When Steve raised an eyebrow at him, he scowled, pointing his knife at the other man before cutting the muffin in half.

“You cannot tell me off for this, Mister Juice Sachet,” Bucky said, and Steve, whose mouth had been open, probably to deliver some sort of witty comment, promptly snapped shut. “Yeah, that’s what I thought,” Bucky continued, pulling a little piece off and popping it in his mouth. Steve stayed silent for a moment, then stood, taking the cup sitting in front of him back up to the counter. By the time Bucky had finished his muffin, Steve was back, cup full again, and he took a sip, sighing happily as he settled.

There was a beat of silence between them, and Bucky looked at his cup, not wanting to speak first in case he said something wrong, and Steve went back to pretending they weren’t really friends at all.

“I guess I should start,” Steve said, just as Bucky started to shift a little on his seat. He looked up, fingers wrapped tight around his mug, and frowned a little at the look on Steve’s face. Big blue eyes earnest, brows furrowed, lips turned down, just a little.

“Oh?” Was all Bucky managed before Steve continued, evidently having set his path and as usual he was letting nothing derail him.

“First, and probably least of all, I’m sorry for what happened at camp. I overreact sometimes,” at Bucky’s snort, he corrected himself, wry smile on his face, “a lot, and … that was an example of it.” Oh, so that’s how they were talking about it. The Kiss, which had been on Bucky’s mind the entire month since it’d happened, was just a ‘that’ in Steve’s mind. Alright then.

“As much as that was me being reckless and irresponsible, what I did after was worse. I completely ghosted you,” and, Bucky thought, wasn’t that the truth, “and I’ve been holding back ever since. So,” Steve said, voice a little sad, that kicked puppy look on his face that he got whenever something had a chance of not going his way. “I’m sorry for that, all of it. And I know sorry isn’t enough, I cut you out and going by this morning you needed a friend, and you didn’t have one in me.”

“I don’t need your pity,” Bucky said sharply, startling Steve into looking up at him. “What I want is my friend back.” He wanted more, but he’d never say that, not to Steve’s face. Steve stared at him for a long moment, then nodded slowly.

“Yeah, I can do that.” He said it softly, soft enough that Bucky had to lean forward a little to hear him, and looked up at Bucky through his lashes. “Sorry, Buck.”

Bucky stared at him for a moment, before sighing softly, knowing he’d never be able to stay away from Steve for long. “It’s cool. Well, it’s not cool, don’t do it again, but we’re cool.” He picked up his mug, leaned forward a little to catch Steve’s eyes again. “I guess it’s my turn, huh.”

Steve shrugged a little, but kept looking at him, steady, so Bucky took that as a go-ahead. “I guess I should start by saying, I’m sorry too.” That made Steve’s eyes widen a little, surprised, then narrow. Bucky ignored him and kept going. “I should have reached out. Sure, you don’t talk unless you’re ready to, but I should have made it clear that, when you were ready, I was willing to listen.” He shrugged a little, then removed a hand from his cup, holding up a finger to stop Steve before he could start speaking.

“Now that I’m absolved of all blame,” he drawled, and it had the intended result, Steve laughing quietly and relaxing in his seat. He let his voice turn serious, looked at his mug. “I don’t know if I’m cut out for this shit. We’re not even a month in, and I’m already behind on my coursework. I didn’t even play for the first week, and I’m behind.”

He paused, taking a sip of his coffee, and Steve obviously saw the opportunity Bucky was giving him to speak. “I said it before and I’ll say it again, it just takes time to get used to it. Not playing actually extended the time it’s taking you to get used to it all, because you thought you had more time, but you didn’t. You were still going to practices, going to games, going to meetings.” He shrugged, and Bucky sighed softly, setting his mug down on the table between them.

“I guess. I just.” He hesitated, trying to work out how to put it into words. “Feel like I should be doing better. The only reason I’m here is because of the scholarship I’m getting to play hockey. Then I get injured before the preseason starts. The least I could do is be doing well in the actual schoolwork, y’know? Even now that I’m playing again.”

Steve nodded, and for a moment he didn’t say anything. Bucky let him think, leaned back into the plush chair, and tipped his head back, staring at the ceiling absently.

“They’re investing in you.” Steve said eventually. “They don’t expect it to pay off immediately, it’s been a month. You’re getting better and better, and you’re gonna be a force to be reckoned with on the ice, I can feel it. The coaches know it, too. They don’t expect it now.” He sighed softly, raised an eyebrow. “Getting injured happens, it’s part of the game. The fact that you got hurt in the first place shows how hard you’re pushing yourself. You’re allowed to give yourself time to breathe.”

Bucky sighed, then shrugged a shoulder, looking at his cup, then up at Steve. “I guess. It just takes a bit of time to convince myself.”

Steve nodded at that, looked sympathetic. But when Bucky didn’t offer anything more, feeling like he’d done enough soul searching for the day, Steve seemed to pick up on his mood, and shifted the focus of their conversation. “Okay, feelings talk is over. When are you back to play full shifts?” Bucky internally gave a sigh of relief, relaxing as conversation shifted to an easier topic to stomach.

“Next game, hopefully. Final check up with Asher is this week, Wednesday, and he makes the decision then. I think I could have done it last game, but he insisted I only do half as many as usual.”

 

*

Bucky caught the puck on his stick, glanced around as he settled it in front of him, moving away from the approaching defencemen. He didn’t let himself think, saw the open scoring lane, saw he had a little bit of time before anyone would be close enough. He twisted his body, skidded himself to a halt, hefted his stick. Saw the goalie’s eyes widen, somehow, adrenaline bringing his entire being, all of his focus, down to three things – the puck, the net, and the one person who stood in his way.

It felt like it took a lifetime to bring his stick back down, and the resounding crack echoed in the air around him. He followed through, body following the path that had been carved for it, stick, then arms, then shoulders, then torso, twisting as he threw his entire body into it.

Bucky blinked, and a few things happened at once. A body hit him, hard, enough to send him backwards, but not enough to knock him over. He stumbled, caught himself. He heard yelling, sudden and loud, overshadowed only by a loud horn that made him jump.

Then he got hit again, and again, bodies staying pressed close to his, the cheering suddenly loud and in his face, and he realised what was happening. Just in time, as someone jumped on his back, yelling overdramatically, and he tipped his head back, stared at the giant scoreboard overhead.

‘Goal’ was flashing on the screen.

Bucky tipped his head back, a laugh bubbling out of his chest, and his teammates kept piling on, jumping in tandem and yelling incoherently. It took a couple of minutes, but he was finally released, shoved towards the bench. Every one of his teammates was on their feet. A couple were still banging sticks against the boards, still chanting the team name over and over.

He followed his gut, and what others had done before him, skating down the line of players, fist out. Every single one of them was waiting, ready, fists knocking against his. Steve, on the end of the bench, was absolutely beaming behind the visor, and when Coach Fury tipped his head, gesturing for Bucky to come off, Bucky stepped through the gate without hesitation. He was followed by the others in his line, Tony bumping his hip against Bucky’s with a grin on his face, and Peter, babbling excitedly still, excited to have a point on his own tally, even if it was just in the assist column.

Steve knocked their shoulders together as Bucky sat, then pressed a little closer to get out of the way as the first line jumped the barrier to get onto the ice again. “That was brilliant,” Steve said, voice low, before straightening up again, shifting over to fill in the gaps that had been left. “Trust you to pull off a howitzer in your first full game.”

The crowd settled, somewhat, as the whistle blew again, and Bucky’s eyes were drawn back to the ice, away from Steve’s grinning face. “I don’t know what you mean,” he said, actually meaning it, and Steve picked it up, leaning forward and checking the laces of his skates.

“Remember the types of shots?” He said, and Bucky had to lean in a little to hear him over the roar of the home crowd as the centre on the ice, a senior carrying the A proudly on his jersey, got the puck, flicking it out of the defensive zone and up the ice again.

Bucky nodded. “Yeah, that was a slap shot, right?”

“Yep,” Steve confirmed, redoing the chin strap of his helmet as Fury tapped him on the shoulder to signal he’d be next out. “All power, little accuracy. Usually very fast. A howitzer is one that’s faster than normal.” Steve grinned over at Bucky, rapped his knuckles against Bucky’s visor, grinning wider as Bucky flinched. “Incredibly difficult to see, even harder to catch. Like I said, you did well.”

Then Steve was launching himself over the boards, and Bucky was being shunted down again to let people on.

 

They won the game, 4-1.

Bucky managed to notch himself an assist in the final period, flicking the puck across the defined goal area – goal crease, he reminded himself, every time it came up – and into the waiting stick of one of the defencemen.

“What did I tell ya,” Steve said in the changing rooms, after most of the team had filtered out. He could still hear the overzealous chanting from the foyer, as fans took the early season home ice win to heart.

Bucky glanced up, surprised, fingers tightening on the straps of the body pads that he was checking for damage. “What?”

“Told you that you were worth the investment. Two points from the third line, in your first full game, that’s pretty impressive.”

Bucky grinned in response, raising an eyebrow at Steve. “I dunno, I had a pretty amazing teacher. That might have something to do with it.”

Steve set the leg pad in his hands down, and that was all the warning Bucky had, before he was being dragged into a quick, solid hug. “Seriously Buck. Good work out there, you deserved both of those points.”

Bucky smiled, warm, and hugged Steve back, arms tight around the other man’s shoulders for a split second before they pulled apart. Steve patted his shoulder, firm, then went back to his locker, a few steps away.

 

*

“I wanted to tell you guys something,” Bucky said as he dropped onto the couch, near Steve’s feet. He poked Steve’s closest foot with a finger until his friend grumbled and tucked his legs up a little higher, and Bucky curled his feet under him in the newly freed space.

“Oh?” Was the response, drawled in the most fake southern accent Sam could manage, and Steve snickered from the other side of the couch. Bucky bumped his foot against Steve’s, deliberate and slow, and Steve focused on him, eyes a little narrow as he tried to work out what Bucky had to say.

Bucky let his bottle swing in his fingers, the neck of the bottle cool against his skin. “Yeah. You guys are my friends, as much as anyone,” he couldn’t help but tease, and got an empty beer can thrown vaguely in his direction for it. He watched it clatter to a stop somewhere by the wonky TV cabinet, chewing on his lip.

He knew he needed to do it, knew he wanted to do it, but he hadn’t actually thought about how he was going to say it. “So you guys went out on a limb to support me while I tried to get my shit together and tried to force my way into this team, and I guess it’s kinda shitty for me to ask you to come up to bat for me again,” he started, scratching the back of his head absently.

That had their attention. “But I kinda have to now because I don’t think I can do it alone.” Steve cleared his throat, gave Bucky a pointed look, having finally caught on to what was happening. “Well, not alone, but not even Steve can double as a group of people. As much as he’d like to think otherwise,” Bucky snorts, and Sam cackles.

“It’s true though, holy shit,” the goaltender gets out. “He’d take on the world if it looked funny at him.”

Steve pouted, a pointed toe jabbing Bucky in the ribs, and Bucky swatted at it with one hand. “Or at one of us,” Clint added in, and Steve looked a little more pacified with the clarification.

“Seriously though,” Bucky said, mouth twisting a little. “The hockey world is known to … not be kind to people like me, so I’m gonna need all the backup I can get.” Steve poked him again, this time lighter, before leaving his foot in contact with Bucky’s in a silent show of support.

Understanding dawned on Nat’s face, and Bucky shot her a smile. “The hockey world needs a kick up the ass,” she grumbled, and Bucky shook his head fondly. It was true, just maybe not possible. Yet, at least.

Bucky opened his mouth again, hesitated. It never got easier to say, not when understanding of this sort of thing wasn’t exactly common. Even less so in a frat house of all places. “I’m not straight. As far from straight as possible, to be honest.” Just like ripping a band aid, really. Now, the ball was in their court. He looked at Nat first, knowing she, more than anyone, had no reason to react badly.

“Welcome to the hockey queers club,” she said with a grin, before pausing, considering. “You don’t mind that word do you?”

Bucky shook his head immediately, sagging a little into the couch even though the rest of the room was suspiciously quiet. “Nah, use it all the time.” She nodded in response, and reiterated.

“Hockey queers club, then,” she said, throwing something at him. He caught it instinctively, and rolled his eyes when he realised it was her empty water bottle. He tossed it back as she laughed, then chanced a look at the rest of the room.

Clint looked… confused. Less because he didn’t know what Bucky meant, he hoped, and more because he hadn’t even considered it. “Really?” he said finally. “Huh. Locker room must be fun for you then.”

Bucky rolled his eyes, having expected that one. “Locker room is full of gross hockey guys. I don’t know about you but I still have standards,” He responded, and that startled a laugh out of Clint.

“Okay, yeah fair,” he said, before shrugging. Sam finally piped up, looking thoughtful.

“Is that why we never see you with a date for anything?” Bucky laughed at that.

“Sam, Sammy, being pan should like. Triple my chances of finding a date. I think my dating problems come from my friends all being assholes,” he couldn’t help but chirp, and Sam threw a pillow at him.

“Alright alright,” Steve interjected, as though he wasn’t the biggest shit-stirrer in the group. “Can we un-derail this please? Fuckin pick your pizzas so I can order.”

And just like that, everything settled again, conversation turning away from Bucky finally and back to what they’d been arguing about when he’d come in. Bucky reached out a hand, patting Steve’s calf lightly. Steve shot him a warm smile in return, one of his deeply genuine ones, eyes crinkling in the way that had Bucky’s heart skipping a beat. He sighed, pulling his thoughts away from that, and started trying to work out how to drop that little bomb of a subject on the rest of the team.

He knew though, that no matter what happened, these guys would have his back.

 

*

By the end of the year Bucky had a lot more points under his belt. The lines had been switched, and he’d been absolutely over the moon to be bumped up to the second line with Steve. They worked well together, better than he’d expected even, and more importantly, Steve was fun to play with. He brought out the best in Bucky, and Bucky liked to think that Steve played a little better with him there was well. He’d been told he was the sniper to Steve’s playmaker, and it took a laughing Steve to explain to him that that just meant that Bucky could finish what Steve started, especially when Steve bit off more than he could chew. It was pretty apt, considering.

Steve had opened up a lot, just like he’d all but promised to do, and their friendship had settled a little. Bucky tried not to think too much about The Kiss, and he forced himself to not treat Steve any differently from the others.

Or, not much different. Steve was still his closest friend of the lot of them, and the others accepted that. Even if Tony constantly mouthed off about favouritism, and Sam kept wiggling his eyebrows at Steve whenever he was them together.

Steve also had a protective streak a mile wide, Bucky realised, and Bucky was firmly in the ‘to protect’ column for some reason.

It was evident in their next game. American International was Carter’s rivals, had been since the inception of the NCAA, from what Bucky knew. They clashed in every sport, and hockey was no different. That made the games a little more interesting, as players with grudges faced off against each other, and players without grudges shouldered the school grudge just because that’s How it was Done.

The thing about the AIU team, from what Bucky could tell, was that they were big, and mean, and they knew it. By the time Bucky got his first shift on the ice there had been six penalties, everything from high sticking to cross checking. For a single precious minute, Carter had been up five players to three, finally scoring the first goal of the match with that power play. The teams had been evenly matched since, even with one player or another in the penalty box for whatever reason.

So when Bucky’s skates hit the ice, he was expecting rough. He was expecting bad. He wasn’t expecting to be checked the second he his stick touched the puck. The full body hit disguised the elbow he got to the gut, at least at first, and Bucky’s breath left his body on a gasp. There was a hissed “That’s how you like it, huh, fuckin queer,” and then the whistle was being blown, and the player pulled off him. Bucky couldn’t see much beyond sharp eyes and a hateful little smirk, what with the helmet in place, but as the player was sent to the penalty box, Bucky stared at the number 12 on his back, at the ‘Rumlow’ in capital letters sitting across the guy’s shoulders. There wasn’t much he could do, and he knew it, but he could avoid the guy as much as he could.

Bucky coughed, once, sharp, then took a deep breath, making sure he hadn’t gotten anything other than a brief moment of being winded from the contact. He judged himself to be fine, waved off the ref’s concern, and skated back to the nearest faceoff spot. Fury had obviously taken the chance to bring the rest of the line on, and when he saw Steve standing in the centre of the circle, little frown on his face, Bucky just grinned at him, shrugged a little. It wasn’t like it was the first comment he’d heard after he’d come out officially, and it wouldn’t be the last. He did his best to shrug them off.

The play started again, and Bucky let himself forget about the incident. Let himself focus on the ice, on the puck, on the way the stick felt in his hands and the way his team moved around the other players. He knew he was being targeted by the defensive players, knew he was being shut down, because every time he got near the goal, especially when Steve had the puck, he was being blocked, or checked just as Steve sent the puck his way.

It happened, and they weren’t the first team to pick up on his and Steve’s partnership, so he changed tactics, worked to draw the defenders away from the right wing. Steve, luckily for them, picked up on what he was doing pretty quickly, started to shift his play to compensate. The other wing shot Bucky a grin across the faceoff circle the first time he did so, and they kept picking at the AIU defence, looking for a weakness.

Bucky was dimly aware of a buzzing noise signalling the end of the power play, too focused on chasing the puck that had been dumped towards their goal, racing one of the AIU forwards to it. He reached it first, flicked it along the boards down to Steve, who was simply there when Bucky needed him, reading the situation perfectly.

Steve played the puck along the boards, keeping it away from the AIU forwards on the hunt, and Bucky shifted in behind him, clearing his throat loud enough for Steve to hear. Steve reacted, dropping the puck back to him with a pass between his skates and darting forwards. The other team’s players followed Steve, letting Bucky move the puck away and into the centre in the seconds it took for them to realise Steve didn’t have it.

Bucky saw the guy coming, the same forward from the first altercation. He braced his feet, slipped the puck ahead to the right wing before the guy, Rumlow, could touch him.

But Rumlow kept coming. Bucky took a breath, braced himself a little to take the check that was coming, and when it landed, he thought he’d done alright. There was the scrape of ice, and then something hit him from behind, and Bucky felt himself overbalancing, sliding down the boards he’d backed into and landing hard on his ass on the ice. As he fell, he saw someone in the blue and grey of the Commandos come flying past. In the moment of time in which Bucky was blinking, a few things happened.

Steve did… something that resulted in Rumlow on the ice, on his face, struggling to get back to his feet on the slippery surface. Referees swarmed the area, whistles echoing shrilly in Bucky’s ears, and he winced a little, planting a hand on the ice. The cold seeped through the glove as he pushed himself to his feet. Steve had his hands up, skating backwards and removing himself from the situation in a clear I have disengaged message, before standing still, looking completely unrepentant. Fury was yelling, all but hanging over the boards a few feet behind Bucky.

Two linesmen inserted themselves into the space between Steve and Rumlow, who finally made it to his feet and looked like he was considering dropping his gloves and taking the disqualification for fighting.

Bucky rolled his neck, shrugged his shoulders a little, and pushed backwards carefully, joining the rest of the players on the bench, as the refs had clearly ordered. One of them was talking to Steve, and Steve was making insistent hand gestures, before he stilled, nodded, and turned. Bucky watched as Steve skated towards the penalty box, and the announcer came over the loudspeaker announcing a double minor penalty for roughing, leaving Steve in the sin bin for four minutes.

Then, the refs turned to Rumlow.

That discussion was far more energetic, and much longer, but after a few minutes the ref signalled twice in a row, then pointed to the bench. “Game misconduct,” said the announcer and the crowd, the home crowd for the player in question, lost their cool, screaming and yelling, banging on the plexiglass surrounding the ice. “For charging, boarding, and unsportsmanlike conduct.”

Fury, just behind Bucky, growled under his breath, “Should have been disqualification for targeting,” but he didn’t say it again, louder, so Bucky assumed he probably hadn’t been intended to hear that.

As soon as Rumlow had been escorted off the ice and back down the tunnel to the locker rooms, players were called back on the ice. Given Steve’s penalty, Carter was down a man, so Bucky got to stay where he was as the penalty kill special team went onto the ice.

Four minutes later, Steve was released back to the ice, and it wasn’t until the end of the period, the second, that Bucky got a chance to speak to him.

The score remained 1-0 to them, and the players came off the ice panting, heading down the tunnel as the bench players followed. Bucky immediately walked a little faster, caught Steve’s arm as soon as they were clear of the intermission interview reporters, pulling the other man to a stop.

“What the hell Steve,” he hissed, voice low. “You didn’t need to do that. You’re lucky T’challa kept his cool on the penalty kill.”

“He was outright hunting you down Bucky, he had no intention of chasing the puck.” Steve responded, voice hard. “You’re my friend, and I’m not about to let that asshole get away with that.”

Bucky growled under his breath, frustrated, but gripped Steve’s shoulder, pulling him in for a brief hug. “You’re an idiot,” he grumbled, mostly mollified by Steve’s words. “A noble idiot.”

“Yeah, I know,” Steve said, and there was a trace of a smile in his voice that was present on his lips as he pulled back. “He didn’t hurt you did he?”

Bucky shook his head immediately, pulling back and giving Steve’s shoulders a light shove to get him walking, back into the visitor’s locker room. “Nah, rattled me a little at first but I’m fine. Asher wasn’t even worried,” he responded, and he felt Steve relax under the hand he had on Steve’s shoulder.

“Get yourself a drink,” Steve said after a moment, and Bucky snickered, stopping at his locker after ducking around a few of the guys.

“Yes, mom,” he responded with a grin, and heard Clint laugh next to him. He sat, grabbed his bottle and looked at the defenceman with a grin. “It’s not just me he does it to, right?” Bucky asked him, and Clint shook his head.

“Nah, but he doesn’t do it to everyone. You’re one of us now, Sarge.”

There was a beat of silence as every player in the room stopped, turning to look at him and Clint. Bucky looked around, confused, as every other player, including Steve and Clint, turned to look at Luke. The captain nodded, said in that even voice of his, “Sarge,” and a cheer went up around the room.

Bucky blinked, looked at Clint, then over at Steve, and for a moment there was no explanation. Then, finally, Steve managed to stop snickering to say, “Sorry pal, you’ve just earned your nickname.”

Bucky blinked, then said, incredulously, “Sarge? What where did that even come from?”

“Most of us came into this team with nicknames, it’s not often we get to pick them, alright?” Clint objected, before he added, pointing at Steve, then Bucky. “Captain Asshole, Sargent Shittalker.” A laugh bubbled around the room, and Steve just shrugged a shoulder when Bucky looked at him.

“Hockey nicknames are a big thing,” someone said from the other side of the locker, solemn. There was a collective mhm that echoed around the room, then someone, and it took Bucky a moment to realise it was one of the freshmen, Isaiah’s younger brother Eli, chimed in.

“You learn your teammates’ first names from their gravestones.” The room cheered, before everyone returned to their own little bubbles.

“Seriously?” Bucky asked Steve, glancing between him and Clint.

“Not really,” Steve snorted, “but it is a big thing. It’s like cellys and Sid Crosby, they’re an incredibly important part of hockey.”

“That’s true,” T’challa said seriously from Steve’s other side, head popping out of the folds of his shirt as he dressed. “Some are better than others, but they’re all important.”

Bucky frowned, small and serious, and Steve’s words finally sank in, and he realised there had been a name thrown in there. “Wait, what? What about Sid?”

Steve didn’t answer, just nodded solemnly in response to T’challa’s words. Bucky sighed, realising he wasn’t going to get a proper answer out of them, and didn’t bother repeating himself. “If you insist,” he murmured, rolling his eyes.

 

*

“Oh my god, is that- Are you- James Barnes? The James Barnes?”

The incredulous voice came from behind him, and Bucky startled a little, looking up from his phone. He turned, a little confused, trying to place the voice and coming up short. “That’s my name, yeah?” He said cautiously, confusion not letting up at the two people behind him. He didn’t recognise them at all.

“Like, the figure skater?” One asked, the initial speaker, voice as bouncy as she was as she rocked up onto her toes, and then down again.

“Oh. Yeah, I guess,” Bucky said after a moment, a bit taken aback. “I wouldn’t say it like that, though. It’s just Bucky.”

“Oh my god it is,” the other said, a little more collected, but the look on his face was ecstatic. “I didn’t actually think it was you but it is and Eilish was right,” he said in a rush, and Bucky just smiled a little, brushing the hair out of his face.

“I was one of the assistants at the State comp you went to a few years ago,” the woman, Eilish, told him, a conspirator’s gleam in her eye. “I was pretty sure it was you.”

Bucky smiled, a little awkward, and shifted a little as the Commandos started to filter out of the door that led to the locker room. “Which one was that?” He asked just to make conversation, grinning and slapping behind him without looking as he felt a hand smack his ass. Clint moved out of the way, stuck his tongue out, and turned, walking backwards as he waved, overly energetic, back at Bucky. Bucky flipped him the bird, and rolled his eyes, before focusing back on the two in front of him.

“Sorry, he was raised in a barn,” he said, and laughed as Clint yelled back, It was a tent as he left the building, the door snapping closed and cutting off Bucky’s chance to get the last word in.

“It’s okay, we know how hockey players are,” the man said, and the woman nodded, lips pursed. Bucky raised an eyebrow, looked down at his own skate bag, with the logo of the team sitting on the side. The two both flushed, floundered for a moment.

“It was the twenty-thirteen one,” Eilish said after a moment, looking a little flustered but ploughing on as though nothing had happened. “You skated to that Bastille song in your short program.” Bucky grinned at the reminder, tucking his hands in his pockets.

“That was a fun one, actually, the two thousand and fourteen program was a little clunky at the end,” he said with a little shrug. “I liked it at first, but yeah, not my best.”

The two looked stuck between agreeing to be polite, and protesting his words, but before they could react, he felt a hand on his shoulder. The weight was familiar, and he looked back with a smile at Steve, who grinned back. “Don’t tell me,” he said with a raised eyebrow. “After all that, you’re contemplating going back out there.”

Bucky gave him his best affronted look, then laughed as Steve just looked at him. “Yeah, okay, I am,” he responded with an overdramatic sigh, and the two people in front of him lit up.

“Oh, would we be able to skate with you?” the man asked, and damn it but Bucky hadn’t even asked their names. He floundered for a moment, then smiled.

“Yeah, you’ll have to hold on though because my Edeas are in my dorm,” he responded, before glancing up at Steve. “You want to come on, see some real skating?” He looked between Steve and the two in front of him, before adding, “This is Steve, Steve this is…” He trailed off, hoping the people would get the hint.

They did, thankfully. “Oh, my name is Jacob,” the man said with a little wave at Steve, who gave an awkward little half wave back that was more endearing than it had the right to be.

“I’m Eilish,” the woman pitched in, before adding, “We just sort of jumped on you, sorry about that. We’ve been pair skating for a little while now, and you’ve always been sort of a hometown hero of mine.”

Bucky blinked at that, then pressed a hand to his cheek, hoping he wasn’t blushing. By the heat against his palm, he definitely was, damnit. “I just didn’t take no for an answer,” he demurred with a wince, and Steve snickered quietly behind him.

“Yeah, I’ll tag along if you don’t mind me?” Steve said after a moment, looking over at the couple, and when they shook their heads, smiling, Bucky gave a little nod.

“Okay, I’ll run over and swap these,” he said, pulling at the strap of his bag and letting it drop again. “I’ll be back in five, play nice,” he added, looking at Steve.

Bucky jogged back to his dorm, feet crunching through the thin layer of snow, rattling up the stairs rather than waiting for the finally-repaired lift, and dumped the hockey bag on his bed. He pulled his hockey skates out, pulled the tongues forward to let them air, and grabbed his figure skates, looping the laces around the boot before cramming them in his bag. He grabbed his keys back off his nightstand, shouldered his bag again, and was back out into the crisp afternoon air within minutes, jogging back across the quad and around the block back to the rink.

By the time he got back, Steve had the two figure skaters charmed, and Bucky was completely unsurprised. They all looked over at him as he crossed the foyer, and the two skaters lit up, as though they had expected him to bail. He raised an eyebrow at Steve, who just shrugged back, and he gave his friend a light shove towards the rink. “Alright, let’s go.”

“Hey Buck,” Steve said after a moment of walking, tone overly innocent in the way that spelled trouble. “How come you’ve never shown me any of your competition videos?”

Oh. That’s what they’d been talking about.

“Because I don’t have any on me,” he responded, hoping that was the end of it. Because it was Steve, of course it wasn’t.

“So, nothing to do with the sequined Lycra?” Steve responded, and Bucky groaned softly.

“I’m not going into this, but I resent the fact that you’re implying I didn’t look good in sequins, or Lycra,” Bucky responded, making Eilish giggle and Steve bark out a laugh.

“Okay, you win,” Steve responded, and there was no way in hell it was that easy. Bucky knew he’d be checking his room for sequins for the next week. Minimum.

The other two didn’t see anything wrong with the exchange, but they weren’t wise to Steve’s ways like he was. Probably.

“Have you been skating long?” Bucky asked the couple instead, and Steve became fully attentive, attention on the two.

Eilish smiled, taking the question in her stride. “I’ve been skating for about four years, Jacob for two.” She sounded proud of the fact, and Bucky just smiled encouragingly. “We’ve been skating as a pair for almost a year now.”

“What made you get into it?” He really hoped he didn’t sound like he was trying to force conversation, genuinely interested in the answer. “It’s something that can be hard to pick up the older you start.”

Jacob nodded first, laughing. “It is, but I love it. I was watching the winter Olympics, Sochi? And the men’s singles came on. I just couldn’t take my eyes off them. I found my local rink a few weeks later, started lessons.”

Eilish nodded slightly at that, slung an arm around Jacob’s waist as they approached the benches. “My mom took me out to the rink, thought it’d be fun. I walked off with a bruised ass and scraped up hands, and went back the next day,” she said with a grin.

Steve laughed at that, bumped his hip against Bucky’s to nudge him over to the bench, and Bucky took the hint, shifting down the line and sitting once there was enough room for the others. He pulled out his skates as he responded, pulling the soft guards off and switching them for the hard ones. “That was basically what happened to me, except I was six.” He grinned, nudged Steve with a knee, before toeing off his shoes and stuffing his feet in his skates.

“Dad was a hockey player,” Steve responded, taking the silent conversational baton-pass like a champ. “So I could skate before I could run, almost. I don’t exactly remember it,” he finished, pulling on the skates he must have retrieved while Bucky had been collecting his own.

 “Lucky for some” Bucky responded, finishing the laces on one boot and moving to the other. Steve pushed to his feet, already finished, and Bucky sighed, rolling his eyes at the man’s eagerness to get back on the ice. As if they hadn’t spent three hours on it already that day. Steve just laughed, vaulting over the low boards instead of trying to get past the other two figure skaters. He turned, stroking backwards, then pushed his feet out, and in, repeating the motion as he moved across the ice.

“You coming?” Steve called, and Bucky rolled his eyes, finishing the last knot of his laces and pulling off the skate guards. He’d jumped the boards before, many times, but never in his figure skates, so he was careful when he did so.

His toe pick caught at the last second, but he was moving slow enough to just tip his foot a little further until it came free, sliding away from the bench. He shifted his feet, paced them a little, getting himself used to the figures again, and heard the gate swing open behind him, and the quiet scrape of skate blades over ice. He turned, smiled at the pair as they came out, one after the other.

“I’m already pretty warm,” he told them, tucking his hands into the pocket of his hoodie. “But was there anything you had in mind that you wanted to do?” He’d been around figure skaters long enough to know that if he was on the ice with someone of a lower grade, he’d be asked for help, as a rule. It was less of a competitive thing and more of a using an available resource thing, so he didn’t take offence, but he didn’t sugar-coat it.

Bucky wasn’t wrong. “Some of my solo spins are a little wobbly on the exits, so I was hoping an extra pair of eyes could spot what I’m doing wrong,” Eilish said without fuss, before nudging Jacob slightly with an elbow.

“Some of my connecting elements need work,” Jacob said after a beat of silence. “I keep getting marked down in my cantilevers and I haven’t managed to work out why yet.”

Bucky nodded at that, nudging himself backwards a little as he felt more than saw Steve skate closer. “Okay, I’ll see if I can help with those. You guys should warm up first though,” he said with a little smile, and they nodded, almost scarily in sync, before moving off, in opposite directions. He turned to face Steve, pulling a face to make the other man smile, pleased when it worked.

“What was that about?” Steve asked, and Bucky shrugged, sighing quietly.

“They were asking me to help them out with a few things, nothing much,” he responded, skating closer before smiling. “I expected it though, they’d be stupid not to use me while I’m here,” he added, and Steve frowned for a little bit, then nodded slightly.

“You don’t mind?” Steve asked after a moment, and Bucky shrugged a little.

“It’s logical, and I like helping people,” Bucky said, before grinning and adding, “It’d be kinda hypocritical for me not to either. Once I bugged an Olympic medallist into helping me clean up my hydroblading.” Steve just stared at him for a moment, then barked out a laugh. “I got told off for that one, sure, because they were there to see the rink, not to help some annoying thirteen year old with an element, but they didn’t seem to mind.”

Steve was quiet for a long minute, then admitted quietly, “I’m not actually sure what hydroblading is, but that sounds like something you’d do.”

“Oh.” Bucky pushed himself back a little. “Let me show you.” He pushed himself hard to pick up speed, looping in a wide circle around Steve, then dropped, leaning into the centre of the circle. His inside leg came up, then extended out in the opposite direction to his body, crossing behind his skating leg, and he let out a slow breath before extending his arm to match, fingers skimming the ice. He held the position for a breath, two, as he glided, following the circle around Steve.

Then, he brought his arm in, let his body straighten off the edge of his blade, and pulled his feet back in line. He pushed up out of his crouch, stepped off the line of his circle, and brought himself back to stop in front of Steve again. Who was staring at him with a peculiar look on his face. Bucky blinked.

“You alright buddy?” He asked, and Steve jumped a little, before shaking his head, to clear it more to answer Bucky’s question.

“Yeah, I’m fine, just thinking,” he said quickly, and Bucky snickered. “That looks difficult.”

Bucky shook his head slightly at that, smile in place. “Nah, it’s hard to learn but once you’ve got it it’s not too bad,” he responded. “Cantilevers are harder, honestly.” That made Steve nervous, and it was obvious.

“Do I… want to know what those are?” Bucky snickered, but didn’t move, pleased to be the one who knew what was going on for once.

“Jacob wants help with his, so you’ll see them in a bit,” Bucky responded, and almost on cue, Jacob skated over to him. Bucky shifted to include him in the conversation with a wiggle of his hips. “So, where do you want to start?”

 

An hour later, and Bucky was giving in to a triple puppy eyed attack on his willpower. “I can’t believe this,” he grumbled, scrubbing his hands over his face. “I cannot believe you’re asking me to do this.” Steve grinned, knowing that Bucky was giving in but the other two just kept looking at him pleadingly until Bucky sighed. “Alright, fine. You’re lucky I remember my short programs,” he said. “There’s no music, so it’ll look funny, but I can still do the twenty thirteen program, so I’m doing that one. I guess.”

Bucky toed his way to the bench, pulling his hoodie over his head, before tugging his shirt back down. The black fabric with the Commando’s logo on it didn’t exactly fit with what he was going to do, but his impromptu audience would have to deal with it. He leaned over, feet coming off the ice and wooden barrier digging into his stomach as he grabbed his bag, fished his phone and headphones out of it. They wouldn’t get music, sure, but Bucky needed it to time himself, so he got himself set up, then headed back to centre ice.

“You guys are gonna need to sit down, I’ll use the whole rink,” he said when he spotted the three of them standing where he’d left them, in varying degrees of excitement. They scrambled for the bench, and Bucky laughed to himself, flicking through his music until he found the track he needed.

When the others were situated off ice, Bucky took a deep breath, let it out nice and slow. It took a moment to find the right headspace, so long without competing, but as soon as he did, he hit play, and zipped his phone into the pocket of his track pants. Bucky slowly slid into his starting position, dead centre on the ice, one hand above his head, and waited out the delayed start.

One breath. Two.

The music started, and he let himself move.

The steps were as familiar as breathing, and the music was almost an echo in his mind, resonating through him as he took each step. Each spin and drop pulled him further in, and when he took his first jump it was with the complete knowledge that he would land it. Perfectly.

He did, fingers skimming the ice as he glided out of the double axel, before he used his free leg to pull him into a spin, body tipping back. The beat of the song sped up again, and he moved to match, all but flying over the ice.

He almost stumbled as he came out of the second jump in his jump combination, but pushed himself out a little further in his landing, knee bending lower, and he rode it out, before spreading his knees wide, planting his second foot, and easing into a spread eagled glide. And then, with only twenty seconds left, he approached the hardest element of his programme, not including the axel.

The thing about the death drop was that it sounded scarier than it actually was. There was very little rotation to it compared to the other jumps, and it started exactly the same as an axel. The problem Bucky had always had with it was that, about halfway through, looking forward meant looking completely at the ice that should be under his feet. The landing, and resulting spin, were things he could do in his sleep, but that distinct moment of what now always had him on edge.

Bucky spread his arms, moved into a short series of half jumps, travelling across the ice with them, then took a breath, and swung himself up.

Everything tilted, and he forced himself to stay spread, position open, until the last possible second, before tucking his legs in and landing with a click of steel on ice. He let the momentum pull him down and around, into the spin that came next, and let out the breath he’d been holding. The move, only a couple of seconds long at most, had his heart racing in a way that even the extended exercise didn’t. He laughed to himself, pushed upright, took the final few steps, and then stopped abruptly on a high note, in an echo of his starting position.

The music died off in his ears, and he let himself breathe, hard and fast, for a few precious seconds, before dropping to a more natural position. He’d ended facing away from the benches, so he pulled his headphones out, tucking them in the neckline of his shirt before composing himself, and turning.

Bucky wasn’t sure what the other two were doing, because his eyes locked on Steve’s, and they just stared, silently. Steve looked… gobsmacked, if Bucky had to put a word on it, and part of Bucky was pleased, because it served Steve right for underestimating figure skating. He didn’t think for a second that Steve had underestimated him. Steve’s lips parted, and Bucky was glad for the distance between them, glad Steve couldn’t see the way Bucky’s eyes dropped to that curve, followed the flick of Steve’s tongue across it. Steve started to stand, and Bucky’s heart beat a little faster, but then Steve completely disappeared from his sight.

The soft thud, followed by a loud “Fuck” floated across the ice, reaching Bucky in the centre, and he realised what had happened. Biting his lip to hold back a laugh, Bucky skated over to the bench as Eilish and Jacob had no qualms about laughing at Steve’s misfortune. Bucky leaned over the boards to see Steve sitting on the ground, looking affronted and put out, and Bucky couldn’t help himself any longer.

He snickered, reaching out and patting Steve’s head as condescendingly as possible, despite having to lean right over the barrier and stretch awkwardly to do so.

“My skates slipped,” Steve said, disbelieving, eyes lifting from his feet to Bucky’s face. “I haven’t done that in years.”

“Happens to the best of us, big guy,” Bucky responded as he settled himself back on the ice, and moved to the gate, stepping up carefully onto the wood. “Now I need a nap and probably three coffees after that, so get off your ass,” he added, voice teasing, hoping that Steve wouldn’t take him too seriously.

The moment was long gone, and Bucky was almost glad for it, the air between he and Steve easy as Steve got to his feet. Bucky turned to look at the other skaters, smile in place. “That what you wanted?”

Then nodded, eager, and Jacob stood up, moving out of the way so Bucky could scoot past. “That was amazing,” he said, and Bucky grinned. “Eilish said that was the one you skated at the twenty thirteen state comp, yeah?”

Bucky nodded, dropping to sit next to Steve, who still hadn’t gotten off the floor, but had turned a little to face the three of them. Bucky bent to unlace his skates, and nudged Steve’s shoulder with his elbow as he did. “Yeah, I won with that and my full program. No, I’m not showing you that one,” he added before they could ask, and Steve laughed, low and quiet by his ear. Bucky tried to hold back the shiver that ran through him at the sound, and mostly succeeded.

“Why not?” Steve asked, and Bucky let go of his laces to poke Steve’s shoulder.

“Because I’m tired and out of practice,” he responded firmly. “That was three years ago, and I don’t keep my full programs as well as I do my short ones.” He shrugged a little, then looked back over at the couple. “I hope that all helped in some way,” he said, side-tracking a little.

“Yeah,” Eilish responded, and Jacob nodded immediately. “It really did. We’re gonna stay on and keep practicing, but thank you for your help.” She turned to look at Steve, smiling. “And it was nice to meet you.” It was almost abrupt, the way she, then Jacob, got back onto the ice, but Bucky didn’t take offence. They’d used up a lot of the couple’s skating time already.

Bucky looked at Steve, then went back to undoing his laces, tugging his skates off and sitting them on the bench next to him. “C’mon. For making me do that, you’re buying me at least one of those coffees,” he said, and Steve heaved a sigh, pushing himself up onto the bench and bending to pick at his laces.

“If I have to,” he responded, but he didn’t sound overly put out. A beat of silence. “You were really good,” he said into the quiet between them. “It was beautiful, really.”

Bucky bit his lip, keeping his head down as he felt himself go red. “Um. Thanks. I know it can look a little weird without the music, and even then-”

“Bucky,” Steve interrupted his rambling, shaking his head. “It was amazing. I’m telling you.”

Bucky hesitated, glancing up at Steve, and Steve was staring at him with an intent expression Bucky had never seen on him. “O-okay,” he said after a second, then looked back at his feet. He grabbed a skate, started to clean off the blade, awkward silence settling between them.

“I’m pretty sure Eilish was trying to hit on you,” Steve said into the quiet, and Bucky startled, looking up at his friend. Steve was grinning over at him as he tucked his laces away. “She looked about three seconds away from doing something unmentionable.”

“Yeah,” Bucky snorted. “Way too old for me though, wow,” he responded, and Steve snickered next to him. He finished cleaning up his skates, tucked them in his bag, and stood, stretching his arms over his head. He pulled his hoodie back on, tucking the hood up and his hands in his pockets. “Let’s go, I wasn’t kidding about that coffee,” he said, and Steve nodded, pushing to his feet.

“I’ll just grab my stuff, hold on,” Steve responded, heading up the tunnel to the locker rooms and leaving Bucky to follow at a slower pace.

 

The coffee shop was packed despite the late hour, people crammed into the plush seats and crowded around the fire when they arrived, stamping their feet on the doormat to get the worst of the snow off them. It had stopped falling, at least, small drifts getting packed down by feet instead of being built up, and it looked like the worst was over, for the day at least. Steve got into the line, which reached almost halfway back to the door, and nudged Bucky lightly with an elbow. “You’re the sniper, go find us a seat,” he grinned, and Bucky rolled his eyes, but did.

He made a slow circuit around the store, then again, and spied someone packing up. Bucky slowed, tried to make it look like he wasn’t hurrying them up, and as soon as they moved away he dropped into the newly vacated seat. He turned, held up a hand, and waited for Steve to spot him before relaxing into the cushions. The café was warm, but despite the number of people in it, it wasn’t loud, just the steady hum of voices and clink of metal spoons against ceramic.

Bucky reached out, palming the container of sugar sachets, and bounced it between his hands, barely paying attention to it, or the world around him. He jumped, knocking it over and nearly sending it flying, when Steve spoke next to him, voice contrite. “I think I got your order right, but I’m not sure.”

“Oh,” Bucky managed in response, picking up the packets that had fallen out of the container instead of answering immediately. “I’m sure it’s fine, coffee is coffee. What did you get?”

“Iced Americano.” Bucky froze, trying to arrange his face into something reassuring, and Steve’s serious expression broke, the man laughing at him. The gall. Bucky straightened a little, and Steve set a mug in front of Bucky. Bucky was pleased to see it had milk in it, at first glance. “Double shot latte with skim milk. I actually pay attention sometimes,” Steve said, still snickering, and Bucky rolled his eyes, waiting until Steve sat before kicking his shin lightly under the table.

“Ass.”

“You betcha.” Steve nudged the sugar container towards him again, and Bucky took a few packets, ripping them all open at once and adding four entire sachets at the same time. Steve shook his head despairingly, and Bucky raised an eyebrow, daring him to say something. He didn’t, and Bucky stirred the sugar in with a plastic stirrer from the same container before taking a sip.

“Thank you,” he said after a moment, nudging his foot against Steve’s to get his attention again, before tucking his legs up on the chair, half under him. “Seriously, thanks. I needed this.”

Steve shrugged, sipping at his drink, whatever it was that time. For the creature of habit Steve definitely was, he was always changing his drink order. “Thank you for skating for us today. You didn’t have to.”

“Kinda did, with you all looking at me like that,” Bucky said drily, and Steve snorted. Bucky didn’t add in that it was Steve’s look that had broken his will to refuse, not the other two.

Steve gave him a serious look. “You know you could have said no, right?” He seemed insistent that Bucky answer, so Bucky gave a little nod.

“Yeah, I know. I miss it though. I love the hockey, don’t get me wrong, but figure is what I grew up with.” Bucky shrugged a little, cradling his mug in his hands before letting out a sigh. “It felt good, I guess. To be able to do it properly again. What I do in my free time doesn’t really count.” He wiggled his toes, hands finally warm against the ceramic.

Steve looked like he was thinking for a moment, brows furrowed and lips pursed, before he asked, “Do you like teaching it? Telling and showing people how to do things?”

Bucky nodded immediately, smile pulling at his lips. “Yeah, it’s why I did it so much, and why I didn’t just straight up refuse the two today when they came over.”

Steve stretched out on his seat, feet bumping the leg of the table. “You could teach me? Or, us – I’m sure there will be others who are curious. Sam probably. Clint. Maybe a couple of the freshers if you feel like dealing with them.”

Bucky could only blink, a little stunned at the offer, before he narrowed his eyes. “You don’t have figure skates. The rink doesn’t do rentals, either.”

“You leave that to me,” Steve responded, raising his eyebrows before grinning over the edge of his mug. “It’ll be fun, and you have the added bonus of getting to laugh at us make fools of ourselves.”

Bucky narrowed his eyes a little, unfolding his legs just so he could poke Steve’s foot with his toes. “Don’t do anything stupid, but if you can get the skates, I’m happy to teach you a few things.” That was an understatement, really. If Steve could find skates for himself, Bucky would be absolutely over the moon, being able to share what he loved with the man who had shared his own love of hockey. As an added bonus, it meant more time around Steve, which Bucky would never say no to, not even with others on the rink distracting them both.

The conversation moved on, but Bucky couldn’t help but smile to himself the entire time, quiet and pleased.

 

*

Bucky’s phone kept buzzing. Every minute or so, it’d buzz once against the wood of his desk, then go silent. Buzz again, go silent. He knew it wasn’t a call, so left it, entertained by the scary amount of dedication whoever it was had to bugging him. He looked at it for a moment, screen lighting up with every message, then looked back at his book, sighing as he forced himself to finish the page, at least.

He managed to read the opening sentence of the last paragraph four times, but he got there in the end, pushing the book back a little and grabbing his phone. Leaning back on his chair, Bucky unlocked it, snorting at the little notification bubble telling him he had twenty seven text messages. He opened his app, and was unsurprised to see the little notification bubble only beside one name.

Tapping on Steve’s name, he scrolled back until he found the start of the barrage.

[Steve: Buck]

[Steve: Bucko]

[Steve: Buckaroo]

[Steve: Guess what finally arrived]

[Steve: I’m gonna keep texting you until you reply]

The rest of the messages were just the word guess repeated with different capitalisation patterns in each one, apart from the last message, which was just a sad face.

[ I don’t know, something exciting?]

Bucky honestly couldn’t think of anything from their conversations, and he even flicked through their conversation history on his phone to see if there was any mention of Steve waiting for something.

[Steve: check your snapchat then]

[Steve: you suck at guessing]

[Steve: and replying]

Bucky rolled his eyes, but switched apps, waiting for the new snaps to pop up on his list. There was a little red box next to Steve’s name already, and he sighed, tapped it, hoping he wasn’t about to be pranked in some annoying way.

The photo was of Steve, holding a box with the hockey frat’s address on it, looking all too pleased with himself. By the time it timed out, there was another from Steve, and there was a pair of black skates sitting on Steve’s bed.

Bucky’s first thought was that somehow Steve had ‘borrowed’ his, but when he glanced at the hook on his wall, his Edeas were hanging there. He switched back to his messaging app, sent Steve a line of question marks, and waited, staring at his phone.

[Steve: I told you I’d sort something out, you still cool to teach?]

Oh. Yeah.

[ you’re serious?? How did you get those?? Where did you get those??]

Bucky set his phone down, disbelieving, and looked back at his book, before deciding he had better things to do. He pulled on a thicker jacket, wrapped a scarf around his neck, shoved his feet in shoes, and headed out of his dorm with his keys and phone in hand, wallet tucked in his back pocket.

The walk to the hockey frat felt longer than it was, the air a biting cold that had Bucky pulling his scarf up to cover the lower part of his face in a vain attempt to hide from it. He felt his phone buzzing in his hand, but given that said hand was in his pocket, he wasn’t about to give up the warmth to check it. The door was closed, but not locked, and he slipped inside without knocking, pulling his hands out and shaking them to warm up, before tugging the scarf back down off his face.

One of the seniors wandered past, barely batting an eyelid at Bucky’s presence, wrapped up tight in several layers and a blanket to boot, with the only part Bucky could actually see being his face. “He’s upstairs,” was the lightly accented voice, a twang of something, and Bucky nodded, grinned.

“Which one?” He responded, having been past before to visit more than just Steve.

“All of them bro,” was the response, and the senior, who Bucky had only once been introduced to and had promptly forgotten the name of, wandered off. Bucky felt bad. He probably should remember the guy’s name, considering they were on the same team. A- Ad-something, he was sure.

Bucky made a mental note to ask Steve, and headed for the stairs, taking them two at a time. He took a left when he reached the top, knocked on the third door down. Steve opened it, looking completely unsurprised, and when Bucky just raised an eyebrow, Steve shrugged. “Saw you coming from the window. Who held you up this time?”

Bucky snorted, brushing past Steve and kicking his shoes off before dropping to his ass on the rug in the middle of the floor. “Uh. I forget his name. The big guy, Australian accent I think. With the uh. Lots of layers thing he’s got going on.”

Steve looked confused for a moment, before nodding. “Oh, right, that’s Adoni. He doesn’t like the cold very much, yeah,” he responded, and Bucky nodded, filing that away for later. Bucky pulled out his phone, opening his messages but not bothering to read them with Steve right in front of him.

“Okay. Explain.”

Steve shook his head, grinning, and folded his arms across his chest before dropping to sit on his bed, facing Bucky. “Nope, you don’t get to know where they came from or how I got them, just know that they’re mine.”

“Show me?” Bucky asked with a pleading little twist to his mouth, holding out his hands and making grabby motions with them. “Don’t hold out on me here as well, Steve.”

Steve hesitated, something flickering across his face, and Bucky’s mouth snapped closed as he realised what he’d said. But Steve didn’t protest, just turned, grabbed the pair of skates off his bed. He held out his hands, skates hanging off his fingers by the blades, and he shrugged. “They’re nowhere near as fancy as yours,” he said instead of responding directly to Bucky’s comment. “But they’ll do. Hopefully.”

Holding out his hands, Bucky waited for Steve to drop the skates into his hands, and once he did, he pulled them in to inspect them. They were solid, a decent brand, and when Bucky squeezed the ankle part of the boot, it didn’t fold. “Yeah, they’ll take your weight.” He turned them over, looked at the rivets holding the blade onto the boot, holding the boot between his knees. “You’re not gonna break yourself in seconds, at least.”

Steve looked pleased with that, and Bucky handed the skates back. Steve held them for a second, silent for a second, before saying, “So… rink?”

Bucky stared at him. “We had a three hour training today,” he deadpanned. Steve just grinned.

“Yup,” Steve responded, popping the p.

“Really?” Bucky asked, but he was already pushing to his feet, not in any way shape or form against the idea. “Fine, I’ve got to get my skates though.”

“I don’t see why you don’t just leave them in the locker room. All the guys know you did figure,” Steve said, shrugging as though it wasn’t that big a deal. Bucky just stared at him.

“Those skates are my most treasured possession, of course I’ll just leave them in the locker room with a bunch of guys who have, on more than one occasion, put chewing gum inside each other’s skates for a laugh.” Bucky responded, so completely incredulous that his response came off almost serious. “Shall we take bets on how long it’ll be before they have a new coat of paint? Someone’s signature in nail polish on the side?”

Steve pouted a little, folding his arms across his chest. “Okay, okay, I get it. They wouldn’t though.” He paused. “Probably.”

“Yeah, right” Bucky snorted, but he didn’t hesitate to bump his hand against Steve’s when Steve held it up.

“Alright, let’s go.”

 

*

“They feel weird.”

Bucky rolled his eyes at Steve, crouching at his friend’s feet to make sure his skates were tied properly. “They feel weird and I feel like a child.” Steve continued, pouting at him.

“You sound like a child,” Bucky retorted, retying the knot on one of Steve’s feet to take up the slack, before unhooking the skate guards. “You’re good to go,” he added on, pushing to his feet and pulling off his own guards before stepping out of the gate and onto the ice.

He turned, stopping himself before he got too far, and grinned at Steve. “Come on.”

Steve looked like he was regretting his decision, standing by the gate and shifting a little on his new skates. “I’m gonna regret this aren’t I?” He said after a moment, and Bucky just grinned wider.

“C’mon, are you scared?” Bucky teased, and Steve’s mouth snapped shut. His jaw tightened, and Bucky could see the little furrow appearing between his eyebrows.

Steve stepped onto the ice, wary, knees way too bent to be natural, and Bucky stifled a laugh at the awkwardness of his position. He rocked back and forth without moving his feet, then said rather abruptly, “What do I need to know to avoid leaving half my face on the ice?”

Bucky grinned, tapped his left pick against the ice near one faceoff spot, and just said, “Don’t forget about the picks.”

Steve looked at him, unimpressed, and Bucky grinned wider, toeing himself back a little before waving Steve forward. “C’mon, you can do it,” he said, like he’d speak to a child their first time on the ice. Steve’s lower lip stuck out in a pout, and Bucky snickered as Steve finally let go of the wall, standing on his own.

“Shut up,” he mumbled under his breath before, overly careful, pushing himself out in a slow glide. He was meticulous in placing his foot down flat, and glided on both feet towards Bucky, face a twist of concentration. Bucky kept nudging himself backwards whenever Steve got close, forcing him to stroke out again on one foot, until he had his back to the opposite wall and Steve was only a few feet away.

“See?” Bucky said with a raised eyebrow. “Not so bad?” Steve just grumbled a little, wordless, and Bucky turned, pushing himself back across the ice, slow and steady. “Keep up with me and don’t try anything fancy until you’re comfortable, alright,” he said, voice a mix of amusement and seriousness. “I don’t want you breaking something because you tried to turn too quickly or something.”

Steve only grumbled something under his breath that Bucky elected to ignore, and followed him, slow and meticulous.

It didn’t take him long, though, to get comfortable. Or to get cocky. Just as Bucky had told him not to, Steve tried to turn around while he was moving, show off a little, Bucky assumed. His only problem was the length of the blades he was on. As he turned, he clipped his pick against the tail of his skate and hit the ground with a thud.

Bucky froze, just staring for a second, then quickly skated back to Steve, leaning over him with a soft, “You alright?”

Steve just rolled to his back, stared up at him for a second then said, as seriously and emotionlessly as possible, “Ow.”

Bucky held out a hand, and pulled Steve up to a sitting position when Steve took it, before nudging backwards to let the other man get to his feet. “What did I do?” Steve said after a moment, genuine, and Bucky lifted a foot, tapped the tail of that foot against the toe pick of the other.

“Forgot about the tail, I think,” he responded, reaching out and brushing a bit of snow off Steve’s arm without thinking about it. He pulled his hand back, blushing a little, and Steve just smiled.

“Alright,” Bucky said, a little sharper than intended, and Steve’s smile grew. He pushed himself backwards further, until there was room between them again.

Then, just to be an asshole, Bucky turned, using exactly the same motion Steve had tried, and failed, to skate away.

“I hate you,” was the response to that, and Bucky turned again, one foot lifting off the ice as he grinned and waved overdramatically at Steve.

“Love you too buddy,” he responded, sarcasm thick in his voice. “C’mon, you can pick up some speed if you’re up to it.” He knew the way he worded it would get Steve going, the underlying challenge too much for him to resist, and Steve proved him right, pushing off with one foot – not with his pick, Bucky was pleased to note, but he still looked unsteady on the differently shaped blades.

Bucky pointed his toes in, let his legs swing out into a wide stance as he travelled backwards, then brought them back together, focusing more on Steve than on himself. “You’ll want to straighten up a little, don’t lean forward so far,” he said after a moment where only the cut of the blades through the ice dulled the silence. “It’ll be a little more forgiving if you catch your picks.”

“Does that happen often?” Steve asked, still looking at his feet. Bucky slowed down, feet still too wide as he glided along.

“Yeah, at all levels really. I still do it, though I’m not sure if it’s because I’m switching skates all the time or not,” he responded, and Steve looked up at him for a second, before nodding. Before he could drop his head again, Bucky added, “Keep your chin up, balance over your knees. You can skate, you just have to believe that you can.”

Steve’s smile was wry, but he kept his head up, and Bucky pulled his feet back in before slowing down to let Steve catch up. “Easier to say than to do,” he responded, and Bucky laughed.

“Yeah, but it was only a year ago that you were skating circles around me while I was struggling with everything hockey, so it’s my turn to be smug,” Bucky responded raising his eyebrows, and Steve snorted.

“Yeah, well, I prefer it the other way around,” Steve grumbled, stumbling a little as he tipped his foot forward too much.

Bucky raised an eyebrow, lifting his foot to show off his blade. “At least you don’t have picks like these, they’re even harder to learn on,” he said with a grin, dropping the foot to the ice only to use it to push off again, keeping pace with Steve.

“Oh, how lucky,” Steve drawled, sarcastic, and Bucky snickered.

“How are your feet doing?” Bucky asked abruptly, suddenly remembering the worst part about new skates, mentally slapping himself for overlooking something so simple. No wonder Steve was having problems.

“Kind of numb,” Steve responded airily, and Bucky stopped suddenly, nearly having the other man run into him. “I’ve been wearing them around the house,” Steve protested once he’d caught his balance again, pouting when Bucky folded his arms. “I have!”

“Numb isn’t good,” Bucky said with a frown, and Steve sighed.

“It’s better than the pain from before.”

“It won’t be once you get off your feet. Which is what you’re about to do.” Before Steve could respond, Bucky turned, skating towards the bench. He heard a sigh, and then the scrape of blades as Steve followed, and held the gate open for the other man without a word. Once Steve was off the ice, Bucky followed, sliding on his guards with one hand as he pointed at Steve’s feet with the other.

“Unlace them all the way to the toe, but leave them on for the moment,” he said firmly, and Steve looked at him. “I’ve broken in a lot of pairs of skates, Steve, trust me on this one alright?” Steve nodded, unlacing the skates carefully, before pulling the guards on, as if he’d only just remembered them.

“Ow,” Steve responded, sounding surprised, and Bucky snorted, crouching beside Steve’s feet, He tugged at the skates, gently pulling them off Steve’s feet, then made a sympathetic noise as Steve hissed out a breath.

“Once you’ve got feeling back, stand up, and walk around a little. Do some squats and all that to stretch your feet back out, then we’ll go back on.” Bucky pulled his phone out of his pocket, glanced at the time. Half an hour on the ice, and he sighed in relief. Nothing too bad then.

“If it starts to really hurt, to the point where weight on your foot is impossible, you need to tell me. If something’s rubbing against your skin, you need to tell me. If you lose feeling, you need to tell me,” he said firmly, pulling the other skate off before leaving them sitting next to Steve’s feet, and straightening.

“I should have warned you,” He continued, glancing at his own feet, the skates he’d taken a month and a half to break in, then getting stuck on the dull glint of the overhead light on the black eyelets. “You probably knew it from hockey, but with the padding in different places, figures hurt in different ways,” he added, and Steve laughed quietly.

Toes came sticking into his field of view, wiggling, then Steve poked his shin, making Bucky look up. “It’s cool, it’s fine, I expected it,” Steve said, voice soothing. “It’s not too much worse than my last pair of hockey skates,” he added. “Just hurts in different places, like you said.  But I’ll tell you.”

Bucky took a breath, let it out slow, then smiled a little when Steve poked him again. “Alright, get up, stretch out your feet then we’ll go back on. We’ll stick to chasses once you’ve got your balance sorted, I think,” he said after a beat of silence stretched out for a few seconds.

“I don’t know what they are,” Steve said as he stood, wincing a little. He stepped over the bench to the space between the rows, crouched with a pained little grunt. “But they can’t be too hard.”

Bucky raised an eyebrow at that, before stepping back onto the ice. “If you can’t move forward without catching your pick, they’ll be hard,” he responded, and Steve flipped the bird at him from where he was crouched.

 

It took him almost half an hour, but Steve managed to get the simple technique down with face planting kept to the barest minimum. Bucky spent half the time coaching him, half the time nearly falling over himself just from laughing at Steve’s misfortunes.

“Take it slow!” Bucky repeated for what was probably the fifteenth time in the past ten minutes as Steve started to speed up again, feet not coming up as high with each step. “The more you rush-”

“The more likely I am to trip,” Steve intoned, sounding bored, but he flashed a grin over his shoulder. Then bringing his arms up like he’d been taught, tucked a foot behind the other and slid to a stop. “Surely you have more interesting lesson plans,” Steve said, drawing his eyebrows in a little. Bucky was familiar with the look that was approaching. “Kids wouldn’t be able to concentrate on one thing for this long.”

“You’re not a kid,” Bucky responded, eyebrows raised. Honestly he was surprised it had taken Steve this long to complain.

“I have the attention span of one,” Steve blatantly lied, and Bucky snorted.

“Okay, come here.”

Steve looked at the distance between them, looked at Bucky, then scowled to himself, pushing out. It took a little longer than it would had Steve been in his normal skates, but he made it without stumbling or tripping. “What are yo-” Steve began, but Bucky cut him off by lifting a hand.

“This isn’t easy,” he said with a raised eyebrow. “But because you can already skate we’re going to give it a shot, alright?”

Steve nodded, bouncing on his toes a little before he nearly tripped himself up on his picks. Bucky rolled his eyes but didn’t say anything, instead choosing to stroke back a few paces. He cocked a leg, planted his pick lightly. Once he was completely still, he pointed at his feet. “Watch closely,” he said, waiting for Steve’s nod before pointing his toes together slightly.

Instead of letting himself go backwards he kept his weight over one foot, and, as soon as he started to turn, gave himself a push with the edge of his blade. The spin started slowly, as they usually did, so he brought his feet together and tucked his arms in, speeding up thanks to physics.

He held the position for a second, then let his arms come out, feet parting in the exact reverse of the movement of before. Once he was still again, he cocked a hip, grinned at Steve. “Did you see what I did?”

Steve blinked at him, hesitantly responded “Ye-es?” Which, Bucky knew from experience, meant no in Steve-speak.

Rolling his eyes, Bucky nudged himself closer. “You can plant your pick if you need to, to get you started, but you’ve got the core strength to hold yourself in place without that.” Bucky tapped his pick lightly against the ice, barely reacting at the sound of the ice splintering under it. “Tip your weight forward a little so you’re on the curved bit of your blade, then let your other foot glide out. Use the inside edge of your blade, push, and-” Bucky cut himself off by demonstrating, pushing himself into a two footed spin. He let himself slow to a stop, before finishing what he was saying.

“If you want to stop, you can just bring your arms back out, then let your feet separate the same way you brought the first one in.” He raised an eyebrow, and Steve grinned at him, looking a little more confident. “Give it a shot,” he finished, pointing his toes in and sliding back a little to give Steve room.

“Don’t worry about keeping in one place once you’re going,” Bucky tacked on, hands tucking into the pockets of his jacket. “It’s important while you’re starting the move, but once you’re going it doesn’t matter really.”

Steve nodded, and held his arms out like Bucky had shown him earlier. It took him a few tries to get enough momentum going, but when he did his face lit up, and he nearly fell over in his excitement.

“I did it!” Steve crowed, stumbling a little as he rushed the exit, but Bucky didn’t comment, letting Steve ride the high of success.

Instead, he grinned, skating over and holding out his hand. Steve slapped it in a high five, and Bucky nodded. “Sure did buddy. Once more and we’ll call it for the night, yeah?”

Steve pouted, but when Bucky raised his eyebrows he nodded. “If I can get this one down,” Steve asked after a second, before Bucky could skate himself backwards. “If I can, can you teach me something else next time? Nothing big or fancy, but like… a new goal?”

He looked so hopeful that Bucky couldn’t even think to refuse, not that he would have anyway. “Yeah, of course. Let me think on what, but of course I can.” Steve beamed at him, then looked at his feet, getting back into position.

“Okay,” Bucky said, and Steve lifted his head. “Go.”

 

*

“Okay.” Bucky settled into his skates, hands on his hips. “I’ve been building myself up to something these past weeks, but I need a spotter, you think you’re up to it?”

It was early morning, again, and despite the fact that the clock had just hit three thirty, Steve looked wide awake as he nodded. “What do you need me to do?”

Bucky explained what Steve needed to know as he bent over, stretching out the backs of his legs, hands wrapped around the back of his ankles. He held the position, voice getting a little strained, then straightened again, shaking out one leg, then the other.

“I can do the jump as a triple, and as a combination of two doubles, so I’ve been meaning to try for the quad. I just keep forgetting to ask,” he added on at the end, wry smile on his face. “I should be able to check the rotation at three if I know I won’t make the fourth,” he continued, pausing only when Steve frowned.

“I have a feeling that means something different in figure skating,” Steve said with a raised eyebrow, pacing his feet back and forth a little.

Bucky grinned. “Yeah, please don’t hit me while I’m in the air, it won’t end well. It just means that I’ll stop the rotation early.” He shrugged a little, rocked up onto his picks, then back down to his blades again, leaving neat little holes in the ice. “I’ll do some warmups jumps first, then let you know when I’m ready.” It would also give him time to forget about Steve’s eyes on him. “I’ve got my crash pads on as well,” he added before he forgot, patting the squishy pad at his hip. “So don’t worry too much about me falling, which I will do. A lot.”

Steve looked worried for a second, and then nodded, tipping his toes in and pushing himself backwards across the ice. Bucky gave him what he hoped was a reassuring smile, turned, and skated off. He started slow, a few loose spins, jumps with half rotations that he slowly brought to full rotations. He fell into a backwards glide, keeping himself low, then hooked a foot back, launching himself up into a double rotation and then landing again, still taking it easy.

A wide turn, with a twist of his feet in the middle, and he was moving forward again, slowing as he approached Steve. Bucky widened his feet, twisted his body and opened out his hips, feet in a straight line, knees pointing out. He leaned forward a little, onto the inside edge, then sighed quietly. “You ready?” Steve asked, turning slowly as Bucky circled him, and Bucky nodded a little.

“Yeah let’s do this.”

The first attempt, and he didn’t push off hard enough, he knew it before his skates had fully left the ground. He checked himself at three rotations, landing and making an annoyed noise under his breath. He took a few quick strides, tried again. And didn’t jump high enough, landing just after he’d finished his third rotation. He was still spinning as his skate hit the ground, which skewed him sideways a little, and he only managed to stay upright out of sheer luck, and the quick reactions hockey was giving him.

That’s not to say he didn’t fall. A lot. Every time he thought he’d make it, halfway through the third turn, or second, he’d realise he couldn’t land it properly, or just plain chicken out, spreading himself out to slow himself down and pull out of the spin early. At one point, he’d almost had it, making the four spins and then, ecstatic, pulling his body out of its tight position too early and futzing the landing, ending up on his ass. Swearing loudly, he wasn’t proud to admit.

He kept pushing himself, counting off the number of jumps he was making in his head, not willing to do too many in a short space of time. Eventually, he skated over to Steve, and the other man’s attention was on his face within seconds of Bucky pulling out of the area he was training in.

“You okay?” Steve asked, moving a little closer, hands coming up as if to catch Bucky’s arms, and Bucky nodded immediately.

“Yeah, I just wanted to say I’m only going to do a couple more then take a break from this jump.” At Steve’s confused look, he explained, little smile pulling at his lips. “When I was twelve, I ended up with stress fractures in my landing leg because I was doing too many jumps too quickly. Since then I try to limit how much I do per hour, and how many jump sessions I do. It hasn’t been a problem lately because I’m not really making jumps, but I’d rather play it safe.”

Steve frowned, a concerned little pull between his brows, and Bucky set his hands on Steve’s shoulders for a moment. “It’s fine. Trust me. I know when I need to stop.” Steve still looked a little unsure, and Bucky rolled his eyes. “Literally the only thing that’s changed is you knowing about an injury I had nearly eight years ago. It’s fine Steve, really.” He used his grip to push himself back a little, grinning at Steve’s disgruntled look as he too skidded back a few inches, until he turned a foot and stopped himself.

“One more,” Steve said, voice firm, but Bucky was somewhat impervious.

“Two” he said, turning and skating off before Steve could reply. He turned back when he was halfway across the width of the rink, to see Steve pulling the finger at him with both hands. Bucky snickered, turned to avoid the wall, and then picked up speed.

The first was closer than the others had been, making the four rotations and then shaking through the landing, ending up on his side with a grunt. But, he told himself, it was progress. He pushed himself to his feet again, dusted his pants off, and then wiped his damp hands on his shirt.

One more.

He pushed himself into motion, steady strokes of his feet to pick up speed, trying to match the speed of his last entry. He kicked his foot out, dug his pick into the ice, and pushed himself into the air. He tucked himself in tighter than the last time, trying to speed up the rotations so he could focus on the landing. The four turns came easy, three by the time he started to drop in height, and he had more time than he knew what to do with almost to place his feet, keeping himself relaxed. In reality it was maybe a couple of seconds from take-off to landing, but when he was in the air, it felt like an age. Skate flat on the ice, follow through with the body, free leg extended out, glide. Breathe in. Out.

It took Bucky a few seconds to process, but then he was doing a little half jump to face Steve, grinning wide. “I did it,” he said, voice muted by the ice, then a little louder. “I did it!”

As much as he wanted to keep going, keep working until he could make the jump time and time again, he knew he couldn’t risk it, so when Steve skated over, matching grin on his face, Bucky didn’t shoo him away.

“You did it,” Steve echoed, and before Bucky could work out what was happening, long arms were wrapping around him, and he was spinning. Bucky wrapped his arms around Steve’s shoulders, laughing sharp and sudden as Steve hefted him off the ground, spun them once, twice. Then Steve surprised him again, god this man, but Bucky couldn’t say he minded at all because Steve’s lips were on his.

Bucky had been good, he’d tried so hard to be good, not thinking about the last time, nearly six months ago, that he’d felt Steve’s mouth against his. The last time, and the first time. He’d done his best to forget, and sure, the memory had faded, but the press of chapped lips brought it all back, and he gasped softly into Steve’s mouth.

This time though, this time Steve didn’t pull back. He slowly let Bucky down, fronts of their bodies sliding against each other in a way that had Bucky’s breath hitching, and his arms stayed tight around Bucky’s waist. His lips parted, and Steve took the hint this time, tongue brushing Bucky’s lip, then curling deeper. Bucky’s grip tightened on Steve’s shoulders, and Steve tugged him closer, arms firm around him.

Their skates bumped together, light, and Steve drew back. Bucky’s eyes flickered open, instantly drawn to the spit slick curve of Steve’s lips, before they flicked up to look at Steve. He looked uncertain, but not the same way as last time, no panic on his face. Bucky couldn’t tell what he was thinking though, a heavy silence falling between them, tense, waiting for one of them to move.

“Please don’t do this again,” Bucky breathed, and felt Steve stiffen against him, body going rigid. He started to pull away, but Bucky held on, shaking his head a little. “Please don’t run this time. I can’t- Don’t make me do this again.”

Steve’s expression shifted, shattered, all resistance falling away, and his hands dragged up Bucky’s back, only releasing him so he could cup Bucky’s face in both warm palms. “Buck, shit Buck no,” he breathed, and before Bucky could open his mouth, Steve took a breath, kept speaking. “I’m sorry I did that, I’m sorry I hurt you, I’m not gonna, I promise I won’t.”

Bucky’s head was a mess, so he didn’t bother thinking, just rocked up onto his picks again, stopping just before their lips touched. “Please,” he breathed, hoping he wasn’t just hearing what he wanted to hear. Steve’s fingers threaded up into his hair, tucking under the hair elastic, and he closed the distance between them.

The kiss this time wasn’t soft, wasn’t hesitant. Steve’s mouth slanted over his, tongue pressing in between shock parted lips, and Bucky couldn’t help the noise that escaped him as Steve took what he wanted, what Bucky wanted to give.

Bucky’s fingers tightened in Steve’s shirt, breathing hard and fast through his nose, and he pressed in close, until Steve’s hands dropped to his hips, held tight. Steve pulled back, just a little, and Bucky took the opportunity to catch Steve’s lower lip between his teeth, tug lightly, and then lick over the small hurt. “God,” Steve breathed, voice shaky, thumbs rubbing back and forth over Bucky’s hipbones. Bucky shook his head, little smirk curling the corners of his mouth.

“Nope, Bucky’s fine,” he responded, and Steve laughed, low and surprised.

“You’re a menace,” Steve said, rolling his eyes, and Bucky raised an eyebrow.

“Says the one who cold shouldered me for a month and a half last time he kissed me.”

“I’m sorry.” If Steve had meant if before, Bucky wasn’t sure what to call the intensely apologetic look Steve was giving him. His hands loosened on Bucky’s hips, just a little, and Steve took a breath, before saying again, “I’m sorry, Buck. I-”

He was cut off by the shrill noise from Bucky’s pocket, and they both looked down, confused. It took Bucky a moment to realise it was his alarm going off, that natural light was starting to spill through the high windows, throwing the ice into sharp relief.

He dropped a hand, fumbled with his zip, pulled his phone out and switched the alarm off. The final notes echoed across the ice, dying out slowly, and Bucky bit his lip, fiddling with his phone. Steve caught Bucky’s hands in one of his, stilling them, dipped his head to kiss Bucky’s nose, and when Bucky tilted his head up, Steve brushed a kiss over his mouth. “You have a class,” he murmured as he pulled back. “You should go to it.”

Bucky shook his head, mouth opening to argue, and Steve shut him up with another kiss, soft and fast. Part of Bucky melted, knowing full well he could get used to that very quickly. The rest of him was disgruntled that he’d been interrupted. “Nuh-uh, no arguing. We need to talk, yes, but I think we need to take some time, get our heads on straight.” Steve paused, smiled wryly. “I know I do. Can we… do that? Take some time to think and meet after your class?”

Bucky couldn’t deny Steve that, sighing softly before looking up at him. “Yeah, okay,” he murmured, biting his lip for a second. “We can meet at Rosie’s after my class, then?” Bucky suggested hesitantly, and relaxed when Steve nodded immediately.

“Yeah, of course. I’ll head over there soon so we get a seat, just text me when your class is over,” Steve responded, and Bucky nodded slightly, then hesitated. He leaned up in a quick movement, brushed his lips against Steve’s again, and then pulled away completely, sighing as Steve’s hands fell away. “I’ll see you soon.”

As Bucky skated back to the benches, he struggled to process what had happened, trying to work out Steve’s change of heart and coming up blank. He supposed it’d be explained when they spoke later, but at that moment, Bucky was just confused. And shaking a little, if he was honest.

His fingers brushed the ice, then he straightened, carefully stepped off the ice, sat on the bench next to his bag, and let out a shuddering breath. He didn’t let himself think at all about what had happened, focused with a single minded intensity on undoing his laces, getting his skates clean and packed away, and putting his shoes on. He checked his phone for the time between each task, then stood, and with a final glance at the rink, and the lonely figure on it, he left.

 

There were a fair few people in the café when Bucky arrived, bag hanging from his shoulder by one strap, book and pens hastily crammed in it. He’d all but ran from his lecture hall, but now stood in the door, hesitating. He saw Steve in one corner, away from most people, and flicked his eyes to the counter. He hesitated, then headed towards the counter and got in line, rather than actually fronting up for the conversation they needed to have.

It took a few minutes to even reach the counter, and another five to get his coffee, takeaway cup cradled in both hands as he tried to warm his fingers up. It hadn’t snowed in a while, and the weather overall was warming up, but it was still early, and the air was crisp and cold. “Hi,” he said a little awkwardly as he approached the table, settled by Steve’s warm smile, and hesitated, before setting his bag down and all but perching on the edge of the seat opposite Steve.

Bucky knew what he wanted to do in that moment, every part of him pushing to lean across the table, kiss Steve in greeting. But, there were people around, and Bucky wasn’t sure if this, if he, was supposed to be kept quiet or not. Given Steve wanted to do everything to increase his chances of being selected by NHL reps in senior year, Bucky supposed that whatever was between them would have to be quiet at least, completely secret at most.

“Hi,” Steve responded, voice warm, and Bucky felt something nudge against his foot. He looked down to see Steve’s leg sticking out from under the small table, foot tapping lightly against Bucky’s calf. He grinned, settled back a little further in his chair, and bumped his foot against Steve’s in return. “How was class? It’s the neuroscience course, right?”

Bucky nodded immediately, taking a sip of his coffee as he tried to put his feeling on the course into words. “It was good, the professor is really engaging, but the coursework is really difficult, so it’s a good thing he makes you want to listen.” He smiled a little around the lip of his cup. “How was your time off?”

Steve grinned at that, raising his eyebrows. “That sounds almost painful-”

Bucky snorted at that, interrupting Steve with a quiet, “Yeah, nothing compared to your courses though,” which got him a mildly annoyed look.

“Pre-med doesn’t instantly mean the courses are hard, Buck, they’re just intense,” he said with a little shake of his head. “But as I was saying, it was good. No one came on after you left, so it was just me and my thoughts. I needed the space, I think,” he added with a raised eyebrow.

“Speaking of…” Bucky started, eyebrows furrowing a little as he turned his cup in his hands, staring at the little hole on the opposite side of the mouthpiece. “What thoughts did you have?”

Steve sighed softly, set the large mug he’d had balanced on his knee back on the table. “A lot of them,” he said quietly, before nudging his foot against Bucky’s again. “I like you, and I have for a while. Probably since sometime in first year. You were so… adamant, I guess, that you could do whatever I set out for you, that you could make the team and show us all up. And you did.”

“But the thing is, I’m not out. And I wasn’t planning on being out, not yet at least. I told myself I wasn’t doing anything about what I felt because I didn’t want to make you hide a relationship, to make you feel like I was ashamed of you, but I guess I was just scared.”

Bucky couldn’t help but butt in then, shaking his head slightly. “It’s reasonable. It’s a big thing, a big step to take. Don’t forget that.” He fell silent at the look Steve gave him, a mixture of pleading and affection.

“I know it is,” Steve said when Bucky stayed silent for a moment, “But I was just… avoiding the problems I thought it’d cause. By the time I started to realise that, I’d already fucked it up, fucked us up, and there was a time when I thought I’d lost you completely. God, you gave me a second chance that I didn’t really deserve, and I tried to put it all behind me, like you seemed like you had. But I never really got over it, got over you. And now, now I’m aware enough to know I don’t want to hurt you, by hiding a relationship, by pretending we’re nothing more than friends. Because until I know whether a team wants me, I have to keep my head down, be as attractive as I can be to the selectors. I know it’s not fair on you, not really, but honestly, I’m letting myself be selfish enough to try.”

Before Steve could continue, Bucky leaned forward, setting his coffee down and reaching out, covering one of Steve’s hands with his own. “Steve. Just because I’m out doesn’t mean all my date-mates have been. I once was in a relationship with someone who had only ever told me that they were nonbinary. No one else knew. I understand, I was there, I still am in some situations. I’m not gonna hold it against you, and it’s my choice as to whether I commit to it, okay? It’s not your place to make decisions for me.” Steve had the presence of mind to look sheepish at that, and for a moment, a single, memorable moment, he shifted his hands, laced their fingers together tightly, and squeezed.

Then Steve was letting go, sitting himself back again, and Bucky followed suit, taking his coffee with him. “Do you want to try this, between us?” Bucky asked when Steve seemed lost for words. Steve nodded mutely. “Good, because so do I. Can we, please?”

Bucky gave Steve his best pleading look, and Steve sighed, shook his head in a fond gesture. “I wouldn’t have kissed you if I was gonna say no,” he said drolly, and Bucky snorted, then realised what Steve was saying and beamed.

He wanted to lean across, wanted to kiss his… boyfriend? Friend? He wasn’t sure what to call them, if he was honest, so he kept his mouth shut and slouched back, nudging Steve’s foot with his own.

“This is our first date, by the way,” Steve said, smug little smile in place.

Bucky scoffed. “You can’t just decide that halfway through, Steven, that’s hardly fair,” he responded, kicking at Steve’s foot lightly. Steve kicked back, and Bucky grinned wider.

“You’re not supposed to disagree, Buck,” Steve said petulantly. “You’re supposed to agree so we’re actual boyfriends and not just people who have agreed to date but haven’t quite gotten there yet.”

Well, that answered that question.

Bucky narrowed his eyes. “You’ve got to make it worth my time to get me to agree. I want a proper date next time, flowers and all that sappy shit.”

Steve raised an eyebrow. “Aren’t we supposed to go easy first?” Bucky was shaking his head before he finished speaking.

“Nope, you had four months to do that and you spent it trying to friendzone yourself. And,” Bucky said, already feeling too demanding but not willing to back down. Steve seemed amused, at least. “I don’t care if you’re not out, no beard, no fake dating anyone. You’re in this monogamy style, or you’re not in this at all.”

Steve leaned forward, eyes serious, and he spoke carefully, seeming to weigh each word before he said it. “Buck, I would never do that to you. It’s bad enough that I’m forcing you to hide our relationship, I’d never make you stand by and watch something like that.”

Bucky nodded, mollified, and picked up his cup, taking a sip and pulling a face at the fact that his coffee was barely lukewarm. Steve shifted forward in his seat, spoke again, voice a little less serious. “I’ll make that time up to you, alright. I’ll work out a way, I promise.”

Bucky smiled, ducked his head and flicked his eyes up to look at Steve. “I have no doubt that you will.”

 

*

Bucky had always been aware that they had a women’s hockey team, in the back of his mind. He saw their code on the roster for the rink, saw flyers up around campus every few weeks for a home game, heard the roar and saw the crowds when people flocked to Rakird Centre to watch their games.

But, when Steve spoke up in one of their team-wide locker room chats, he hadn’t really realised the extent to which Carter favoured the men’s team over them.

“The women’s team needs our help,” Steve was saying, knee bumping Bucky’s lightly as they sat on the floor, wiping off their skates after practice. “They’re losing funding for their roadies, and they’re doing better than we are this season. They’re 16-10-2 at the moment, with six games left to play. There’s no way they won’t make it to the playoffs this year.”

“And how do you suppose we do that?” Luke asked, leaning forward a little where he sat at his locker, elbows on his knees. “I agree, they deserve it as much as, if not more than, we do. But what can we do here?”

Tony piped up from where he was cleaning his skates, voice just the right mix of sarcastic and serious that Bucky couldn’t tell if he was genuinely making a suggestion or not. “Petition Carter’s athletic board. They deal with the sponsors, they allocate the funding.”

Clint, of course it was Clint, yelled “Sexy car wash,” and when everyone turned to stare at him, he clarified, “Us, not them.” Laughter bubbled up, echoing around the room. T’challa, organised as ever, was standing by the whiteboard, writing down what they came up with. Bucky had the joy of watching the professional, almost regal man write the words ‘sexy car wash’, and then, almost absently sketch a little car with a hockey stick through the front window.

“High school teams often do food based fundraisers, selling chocolates or cookies or doing bake sales,” one of the freshmen said after a moment, and it took Bucky a moment to remember the name. Pietro, one of the fastest skaters on the team, he reminded himself, more from looking at the nametag above the kid’s head than any actual mental ability.

There was a murmur of agreement through the small group of freshmen, and Bucky nudged his foot against Steve’s in the ensuing distraction. Steve turned his head a little, gave him an all too innocent smile, and said, “Bucky has an idea.”

All eyes turned to him, and Bucky was very tempted to shove his boyfriend over, if not for the stunt then for the smug look on his face. “We could do a raffle or something. See if we can convince local businesses to put up prizes, especially if they can’t afford to be or weren’t chosen to be sponsors. Good money for us, good business for them.”

Steve pouted, looking almost insulted that Bucky had actually had an idea ready to go. “Lessons,” he countered, eyebrows raised a little, looking away from Bucky finally and at the room at large. “Skating lessons, hockey lessons. Offer them to supporters of either team, to families and friends. My buddy here could even pitch in and show off some tricks,” he added, shoulder nudging Bucky’s, and Bucky sighed as eyes moved to him again.

He was fully aware that refusing wouldn’t look good, but he didn’t really mind, and he knew Steve was counting on that fact. “I haven’t coached beginners in a while but I guess I could,” he said with a little shrug, and both ideas went up on the board.

Ideas went back and forth, until Isaiah spoke up, voice considering. “Don’t NHL teams sometimes act as patrons, get themselves involved with college level teams to increase the likelihood of them signing college leavers?” He asked. “New York has two teams. One might be willing to show their support for the development of the women’s game, especially if it means good publicity for them.”

“Oh shit,” someone said, “True man true,” and Isaiah gave this pleased little smile, falling silent again.

“We have a list,” Luke said after a moment of silence, no one able to top that. “I’ll get in contact with the women’s team captain, and let you guys know how it goes. Was there anything else we needed to cover?”

“Yeah, someone keeps painting my skate guards pink and it’s rubbing off on the blades,” someone said, sounding only mildly annoyed, and laughter echoed around the room, serious mood dissipating again. “Own up, asshole!”

 

*

Sprawled back on Steve’s bed, Bucky couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. His feet were in Steve’s lap, and Steve was leaning against the wall, textbook sitting on Bucky’s ankles, propped between them for stabilisation. The hard cover dug in a little against his calf but he didn’t mind, not really.

“Reversible inhibitors interact with the enzyme through noncovalent association and dissociation reactions,” Steve was saying, reading aloud directly out of his textbook in an effort to memorise the content. His free hand was resting on Bucky’s foot, warm, and Bucky wiggled his toes, tensing his calf a little just to make the book shift. The hand on his foot squeezed a little in silent warning as Steve continued to read.

“In contrast, irreversible inhibitors usually form covalent bonds with side chains or prosthetic groups in the enzyme. That is, the consequence of irreversible inhibition is a decrease in the concentration of the enzyme.”

“Tell me why you have to do biochemistry again?” Bucky said when Steve paused to take a breath, and Steve gave him one of his Looks, head tilted down a little, one eyebrow raised. “I’m serious Steve, you want to do nursing, right?”

Steve gave a sigh, sounding long-suffering, and Bucky pouted, making sure to quiver his lower lip just a little. “This stuff in particular is really important for drug interactions, both in terms of the patient having more than one drug in their system, which happens in nursing a lot more than you think, and in terms of a drug helping with a condition or making it worse.” He rubbed his hand up Bucky’s foot, back down in a steady stroke, then pinched his big toe, making Bucky jump a little. “Plus, the pre-med programme is for everyone going into medicine, not just people who are aiming for nursing. Everything from future physical therapists to future doctors do the same set programme, and wouldn’t you rather have a doctor who knows these sorts of things?”

Bucky snorted but yeah, Steve was right, and he knew his boyfriend knew it. “How long ‘til you can take a break?” he asked instead of admitting it, scrunching his nose up a little and holding back the reaction he wanted to make when Steve’s fingers trailed down the palm of his foot, tickling a little.

“End of this page,” Steve responded, lips curling into a smug little smile, and Bucky knew that Steve knew it was a cop out question. “Few more lines, promise.”

“Alright,” Bucky sighed, head falling back to rest on the coverlet. He didn’t mind Steve reading aloud to him, even if he didn’t understand the more specialised parts of it. It helped Steve remember the content, and Bucky got to listen to the smooth, even voice of his boyfriend for long periods of time. Didn’t mean there weren’t things he’d rather be doing. Or, rather, that he’d rather Steve be doing with his mouth.

Bucky closed his eyes for the last few lines, and didn’t open them when Steve’s voice died off, or the book resting on his legs shifted. His feet hit the mattress, and weight next to his shoulders made his body tip, but he didn’t open his eyes, just tilted his head back a little.

The warm press of lips against his had the corners of his mouth tipping up, and he stretched an arm up over his head, then left it to dangle over the side of Steve’s bed. “Hi,” he murmured as Steve pulled back, settling beside him in a line of heat from Bucky’s knee to his chest. He finally opened his eyes to Steve’s fond look, and he couldn’t help but close the inch or so between their mouths to kiss him again.

“Hi,” Steve responded, voice a little hoarse from reading aloud for so long. Bucky lifted his other hand, threaded his fingers through Steve’s hair, and pulled him back down as he dropped his head, keeping them close.

“You set your alarm?” Bucky asked, mindful that Steve had to finish the chapter for his quiz the next morning, and knowing they’d both get distracted without the unforgiving reminder of Steve’s alarm tone of choice.

“Yeah, all set,” Steve responded, shifting a little to lean over Bucky. “Fifteen minutes, this one is. Better make the most of it.” Bucky nodded, but before he could reply, Steve’s mouth was on his again, a warm hand settling on his stomach. Fingers curled in the fabric of his shirt, and Bucky slid his hand out of Steve’s hair, down to ruck up his shirt a little. He palmed the warm skin of Steve’s hip, pleased little hum escaping as Steve’s teeth scraped his lower lip.

“You move fast,” Steve murmured as they parted for a moment, and Bucky grinned, inching his hand a little higher.

He shrugged, just a little, and brought his other hand down to rub a thumb over Steve’s lip. “Well, you didn’t give me much time, I had to,” he responded, licking his own lips subconsciously. Steve nipped at his thumb, and he grinned, pressing down on Steve’s lower lip lightly until Steve’s mouth opened a little. Then he ducked forward, thumb dropping to Steve’s chin as he kissed Steve again, slow and steady.

They didn’t get far, Steve shifting a little to hover over Bucky, when there was a banging on the closed door to Steve’s room, the loud noise making them jump apart. “Team meeting,” A voice yelled, and it took Bucky a few moments to get his brain back online and realise it was Luke. “Five minutes, you can go back to your books after, Rogers, Barnes.”

They both froze at that, looking at each other, but before either could respond footsteps moved down the hall, and there was the distinct sound of Luke banging on the next door along.

“Probably should go,” Bucky said after a moment, splaying his hand over Steve’s chest before giving him a push. “Otherwise he’ll come in here.” Steve nodded, sighed reluctantly, and sat back, dragging his fingers through his hair in an attempt to flatten it again. Bucky leaned up, pressed a quick kiss to Steve’s chin, and then slid off the bed to his feet. He stretched, and was completely unsurprised to feel Steve’s hand on his ass, patting lightly, just for a moment. He looked over his shoulder to see Steve grinning at him unrepentantly.

“I don’t get to touch it as much as I’d like, I’m gonna take any opportunity I get okay,” he responded, before standing, grabbing his phone and moving over to the small mirror on his wall. Bucky waited until Steve was happy he didn’t look like he’d spent the better part of five minutes being kissed, and Bucky stepped up, finger combing his hair before putting it up roughly.

He rubbed at his cheeks, frowned at himself, and then grabbed his phone from Steve’s nightstand. “Alright, let’s go. Don’t forget to turn your alarm off,” he said, catching Steve’s elbow and nudging him towards the door.

When they got downstairs, most of the team was already there, and there were a few odd faces scattered through the group. Odd, namely, because they were women.

There was a tall woman standing by Isaiah, dwarfed by him despite her height, talking animatedly with him, and he, surprisingly, was actually maintaining the conversation. There was the low hum of chatter, a mix of voices, and when Luke came rattling down the stairs, not long after Bucky found a spot on a chair and Steve sat at his feet, most fell silent.

The woman speaking with Isaiah held up a hand, gave a little half wave to the assembled group from her position by the wall. “Okay guys, hey, for those that don’t know me, I’m Carol Danvers, captain of the women’s team.”

Luke spoke up as he took his spot on Carol’s other side, leaving the poor, not exactly short, woman stuck between the two tallest people on the team. “Luke, men’s team captain.”

“We’ve gathered you here today,” Carol started, but a woman on the couch threw a pen at her before she could continue, laughing hard enough that her curls, all Bucky could really see of her from his position, were bouncing slightly.

“Oh get on with it,” the curly haired woman said, and Carol grinned.

“Okay, so we’ve heard back from the board regarding the funding cuts the women’s team have had recently, and it’s pretty promising. But, there’s conditions.” Carol continued, pulling a bit of paper out of her pocket and unfolding it as she spoke.

“Always with the conditions,” a low female voice drawled, but Bucky couldn’t pick out who said it. The redhead next to Clint looked please with herself though.

“Yeah. Pepper’s done a great job of getting as much out of the board as possible, but we have to raise a pretty big chunk of money,” Carol continued, straightening out the bit of paper in her hands. “Thirty five percent of the cost of the rest of the regular season. If we make that, they’ll send more our way for playoffs, if we make it.”

A scoff, from somewhere in the room, and a couple of voices in unison. “If.”

Carol ignored them for the most part, except for the smug little grin on her face. “We have a month to come up with the money, which would be worse if we had more away games, but four of our last six are home games so there’s not much travel involved. So, for fundraising, Luke and I thought we’d pitch our ideas to you guys, and we can pick the top few and see how we go?” There was a murmur of agreement, and Luke pulled out his phone, flipping through it until he found what he was looking for.

“Alright, the list we’ve put together,” he started, waiting until people quieted again to continue. “We’ve got raffle on the top, Tony mentioned he could pull some strings, get some StarkTech donated for the pot. We could also go around a few stores, see if any are willing to donate small items, vouchers, things like that, especially the locally owned places who could use the good publicity.”

Steve pinched Bucky’s toe, and tipped his head back, grinning up at him for a second, and Bucky grinned back, pleased that the idea he’d come up with on the fly had been good enough to make the shortlist. “I could talk to my ma, see if I can get some AHL stuff passed through,” Steve said after a moment. “She still kept in contact with the WAGs after her and dad split, so it should be possible.”

Luke nodded at that, typing a note on his phone, before continuing down the list, letting each option be approved or vetoed by both teams.

Eventually, they were down to four, and according to Pepper, third year offensive player and commerce student, they’d probably be able to pull enough money to show they had the support.

“Alright team,” Carol said, clapping her hands once, and people started to stand, stretch out after the hour of the nearly fifty people crammed into the small room. “See what you can wrangle up. I’ll get a Facebook chat sorted so we’re all in the loop. Keep us updated if you find anything noteworthy.”

People started to filter out, and Bucky rolled his shoulders as Steve leaned against his legs a little more heavily. “That took longer than expected,” Steve sighed, and Bucky nodded, dropping a hand to Steve’s shoulder and nudging him forward. He stood, sidling out from behind Steve, then held out a hand to his boyfriend to help him up.

“Yeah, think you’ll still be okay to finish your reading?” He responded, pulling Steve to his feet then stepping back, all too aware of the number of people still in the room.

“Yeah, should be fine,” Steve responded with a little nod, nudging Bucky forward with a hand to his shoulder, and herding him towards the stairs. “I’ve probably only got a few pages left of it,” he continued, “If you wanted to stay?”

Bucky took the stairs a few at a time, pausing at the top to look back at his boyfriend, raising an eyebrow at Steve. “Well yeah, of course,” he responded, before heading up the hall to Steve’s room. “Where else would I go? Clément has a girlfriend, I don’t want to be in that room dealing with his lovey dovey shit for longer than I have to.” It was only mostly true, he had a better reason for staying, but he couldn’t exactly say it in the middle of the hockey frat, surrounded by the people Steve wasn’t out to.

“Of course that’s it, are you sure you haven’t been sexiled?” Steve responded, snickering, and Bucky turned, pulling the finger at him and nearly walking into a doorjamb. He jumped a little, scowling as Steve laughed at him, and turned, walking into Steve’s room and closing the door behind himself, just to be petty. “Okay, okay, I’m sorry,” Steve laughed, rattling the door handle Bucky was still holding, and Bucky gave in after a second, letting his boyfriend in.

“Ass,” he said, fondly, and Steve just grinned, tossing his phone in the general direction of the bed. It bounced once, twice, then fell onto the floor with a thud, and Bucky grinned, opened his mouth.

“Don’t say it,” Steve grumbled, shutting the door behind himself and reaching out, catching Bucky’s hip. “Don’t you say it.”

“Not saying anything,” Bucky snickered, letting Steve draw him in and pressing a kiss to Steve’s chin before the other man could do anything. Steve’s put-upon expression dropped immediately, and Bucky grinned, please with himself. Steve dropped a soft kiss to Bucky’s lips, then sighed and released him, stepping past and sitting on the bed.

“I should probably get started,” he sighed, and Bucky nodded a little, crawling over Steve and plopping himself down on the double bed Steve was so proud of, head at the end of the bed.

“Yeah, get reading smarty pants. Make me feel dumb.”

Steve grinned, grabbing his book again and flicking it open to his bookmark, before flicking a few pages forward. “Alright, competitive inhibition.” As Steve started to read again, Bucky reached out a hand, cupping Steve’s calf loosely and sighing. He had work he should be doing, and he knew it, but despite everything, there was really no place he’d rather be at that moment.

 

*

Bucky cracked the butt of his stick against the board as he came off, chewed angrily on his mouthpiece as he followed the rest of the Commandos down the tunnel for their second intermission break. Carter was down by one, in their first game of the playoffs, their first game in the single elimination round. If they didn’t pull back, they were done for the year.

They all knew it.

The locker room was quiet as they loosened ties and pulled off skates, some of the seniors electing to stay in their gear, others pulling theirs skates off and running over them with the portable sharpening stones they all had in their bags. Bucky just sat at his temporary locker, in the unfamiliar, cold, grey visitors room, and frowned at the floor between his skates.

Something bumped against his shoulder, and he jerked, head coming up as he tried to work out what it was. Something, probably the same thing, bumped against his helmet, and Bucky scrabbled to take it off, wedging his gloves between his knees before pulling at the buckle, getting the plastic helmet with its annoying face shield off. There was a bump against his head, and he finally turned, hand coming up to catch the water bottle before it hit him square between the eyes.

“Drink up,” Sam said, looking tired, and Bucky sighed, squeezing the water into his mouth. Sam didn’t speak again until Bucky’d drained half the bottle, and dumped half the remaining on his face.

“You doing alright?” Sam asked eventually, smile on his face, and Bucky shrugged a little, looking away, over the collected teammates.

“Yeah, I guess. Feel like we’re failing them though,” he said with a little shrug, tipping his chin to the seniors, and Sam sighed, dropped onto the bench beside him. Sam’s legs kicked out, and Bucky did not envy the amount of padding the guy was wearing. At all.

“I know, I do,” Sam said, and Bucky believed him. Sam had been in goal for the past two periods, probably was going to get switched for the sophomore goalie despite his performance in the conference playoffs. “We can only do our best though,” he added with a little shrug, and Bucky leaned over, bumped his shoulder against Sam’s as Clint dropped onto the floor at their feet.

“This sucks ass,” he proclaimed, and Bucky rolled his eyes, tipping his foot and nudging Clint’s knee with the toe of his skate, keeping the runner, and its sharp edge, away from Clint.

“I can assure you it doesn’t,” Bucky responded dryly. Clint slapped his foot in response, but before he could reply, Luke cleared his throat from the middle of the room.

“Okay guys, we’re one down, but we’ve come back from worse than this,” the man said, skates braced wide, looking more than a little imposing in all of his padding, and their away white kit. “Who are we?” His voice rang out, clear around the stone room.

“Commandos!” Was the shouted answer, people rising to their feet, letting their captain hype them back up.

“What do we do?” Luke continued, raising one hand above his head, stick in hand.

“Fight!”

By the time the shout, more of a battle cry really, had died out, the coaches had replaced Luke in the middle of the room. Line changes, controlling the puck, don’t let them in our defensive zone if you can help it, play safe.

A team handshake, everyone crammed into a circle, hands out. The circle was big enough that their hands barely met in the middle even with gloves on but they made it work, Bucky’s shoulder crammed into Clint’s, and he had to grab Steve’s hip to stop himself from falling over, but he worked it out.

Their hands dipped at the count of one, lifted for the count of two, then all of them joined in in the third count, hands lifting up. They scattered back to their lockers to grab helmets, then headed back down the tunnel one by one. As Bucky passed Luke, their eyes met, and something in the captain’s eyes had Bucky settling.

Luke had never been one for dramatics, not really, but Bucky was well aware that this could be his last chance to play hockey like this. To play with a team like this, to keep this part of himself alive. Sure, there had been rumours floating around, as they were wont to do, of Luke getting a contract offer from one of the big franchises, but the man hadn’t confirmed or denied that. So, as Bucky’s fist knocked against his captain’s, possibly for the last time, Bucky couldn’t put on a smile. This wasn’t for him anymore, this was for their seniors.

 

When the horn sounded at the end of the third period, the score remained unchanged. Their playoff run was over before it really had a chance to start, and there was something bittersweet in that.

As the other team cheered and yelled, as the crowd let loose, Bucky found himself on his feet. Hips against the boards, shoulders brushing his on either side, sticks tapping against the boards as their skaters returned to the bench, as the goalie made his way across the open ice that had nothing to give them.

 

Their playoff run was over, and they moved on.

 

*

Exam season was never pleasant, and Bucky was pretty sure his instructors were trying to murder him. He had all four of his finals across five days. In the first week of the finals period.

When Bucky had received his exam schedule, he’d barely glanced at it before tucking it away in one of his notebooks to worry about later. He’d pulled it out in the last week of tuition and nearly cried before sending a photo of it to Steve. His boyfriend, asshole that he was, had sent back a picture of his own, three exams a week apart. Rubbing it in, probably.

But now, with the dead week over and Bucky only a few days out from his half-week of hell, Steve was there. Bucky was studying – cramming, really – eyes barely leaving his laptop as he picked up whatever Steve held to his left. It was soft, spongey under his fingers, and when he bit into it he realised it was fresh bread. A sandwich then, most likely, part of his brain supplied before he kept reading over his notes.

He heard Steve laugh softly, felt the lightest brush of a kiss to the top of his head, then heard Steve walking away, back across to the bed where he was reading over his own material, albeit at a much more leisurely pace.

Time blurred again, page after page of notes disappearing up and off his screen. He kept pulling out his textbook, swearing under his breath because surely that wasn’t right, but yeah, his notes were usually right the first time.

At three AM on the day of his first exam, Steve closed his laptop from in front of him, pulled the chair Bucky was using away from his desk, and tugged him to his feet. Without a word he bent down, scooped Bucky up, and carried him towards Steve’s bed. He set Bucky down, and with gentle hands he stripped Bucky down to his boxers, pointed at Bucky’s side of the double bed, and raised an eyebrow.

Bucky thought about arguing for a minute, then just sighed, crawling across the bed. “Alarm,” he mumbled, his first word since probably midday the day before. His voice was hoarse enough that it might have actually been longer.

“It’s set for seven,” Steve responded, turning the overhead light off and sliding in after Bucky. Blearily Bucky realised that Steve was in his normal sleep sweatpants, and in the dim light from the bedside lamp he saw the tiredness in the bags under Steve’s eyes.

He took a breath, wiggling a little to face Steve. “Sorry,” he mumbled quietly, running a finger along Steve’s cheekbone. When Steve just smiled in return Bucky sighed, head dropping forward to rest against Steve’s chest. “Thank you,” he tried again as Steve’s arms wrapped around him.

Steve’s lips pressed against the top of his head again, and as he tucked his hands under his chin he heard Steve murmur, “S’okay, thank you for letting me look after you.”

Before Bucky could reply, he was slipping into sleep, crashing hard with a warm body wrapped around him.

The next morning was a bleary rush of coffee and people. Not a single person brought up the fact that Bucky had obviously stayed the night, and only one commented at all, the knowing “Yeah, the floors aren’t that comfortable here,” from one person completely off the mark but appreciated nonetheless. Steve shoved a coffee cup in his hands, and Bucky just sat at the table, blinking tiredly as a handful of hockey players came through the kitchen as part of their morning routine.

As soon as his mug was empty Steve refilled it, before ushering him back up to Steve’s room. “What time’s your final?” Steve asked as they headed up the stairs, and Bucky grumbled under his breath before answering.

“Two, and it’s a two hour. Then nine tomorrow morning.”

Steve winced and Bucky huffed a laugh under his breath. “What have you got left?” Steve asked next, and Bucky realised the question for what it was. He thought about it for a second, narrowing down his options before replying.

“I have one more lecture to read through, then I need to listen to the audio for a couple of points, just to clarify a couple of things. Then, practice questions.” He set the itinerary out, knowing Steve would hold him to that. “I’ll eat in there somewhere.”

“I’ll bring you something,” Steve said in response, before opening the door to his room. Bucky made a b-line for the desk, and his laptop on it, and Steve closed the door behind them. While Bucky was getting settled, reopening everything from the taskbar tabs, Steve paused behind his chair. “You’ll be great,” he said quietly, emphatically, and Bucky smiled over his shoulder at him.

“I’ll try,” he responded, and Steve laughed under his breath, kissed his forehead.

“I’ll leave you to it,” Steve said after a second, grabbing his own notebooks and moving back to the bed.

Steve did make good on his promise, bringing something for Bucky to eat just after midday. Bucky wasn’t too sure what it was, eyes not leaving his screen long enough to look, but it tasted good, so he finished it off.

What felt like a minute later, but really was just over an hour, Steve’s phone started ringing. The happily obnoxious alarm rang for a few seconds before Steve shut it off, but then his boyfriend was standing behind him, setting a hand on his shoulder, and damnit he wasn’t ready yet.

“I’m not re-”

“Yes, you are,” Steve cut him off before he could get any further, patted Bucky’s shoulders lightly. “You know your shit. You can talk circles around anyone with what you know. You’ve studied, you’ve done practice questions. You. Are. Ready.”

There was a beat of silence, then Bucky sighed, pushing his chair back carefully. Steve stepped out of the way, and when Bucky stood up it was right into a hug. He settled his hands on Steve’s hips, then gave in, wrapping them tightly around Steve and sighing into his chest.

It was over too soon, Steve pulling back with a smile and a nod towards the desk. “Okay, grab what you need, I’ll walk you down.”

It only took Bucky a few minutes, grabbing a handful of pens, a pencil, and his ID card and shoving them in his pockets. He grabbed his hoodie, shrugged it on, then looked up at Steve. He held out a hand and Steve took it, lacing their fingers together and squeezing tightly before letting go and heading towards the door.

The walk across campus was… it was. The world around them was pretty, leaves coming in on the trees now that winter had finally let go of them, people milling around on the grass in the sunshine. But Bucky was focused on the brush of Steve’s shoulder against his, on the ground under his feet, on the numbers and definitions whirling around in his head as they headed for the room his final was in.

Just before they were surrounded by the brick and concrete of the buildings, Steve veered off. Bucky paused on the footpath, and when Steve waved him over, followed cautiously. “What are you up to?” He questioned quietly as Steve grabbed his hand, leading him into the shadows of one of the larger trees.

The thrill of Steve touching him like that in public almost outweighed the concern. Bucky knew how it was, had accepted that touch wouldn’t really be a thing they did. The fact that he was getting this, with the sun on their faces and no walls protecting them? It had him on his toes.

And then. Then Steve was turning, pulling him in close with one hand still in Bucky’s, one hand landing on his waist. Then Bucky’s hands were on Steve’s chest, loosely curled in Steve’s shirt, and Steve’s lips were on his, and he left all confusion and concern behind him.

The kiss was short. Steve’s back was hiding Bucky from the path, the shadows were hiding their bodies, but they were still in public. Anyone could see them.

Steve pulled back, swiping a thumb over Bucky’s lips, and smiled soft and sweet. “You’ve got this,” he murmured quietly. “You’re gonna do great, and I’ll be waiting for you when you’re done, okay?”

Bucky nodded, because that felt like the appropriate response, and Steve smiled wider. “C’mon, let’s get you where you need to go.”

 

Steve was there when Bucky finally escaped the lecture hall, sitting on the floor with his back to the wall opposite the double doors. He had his book in his lap, but had looked up as the door had opened under Bucky’s hand, a smile breaking over his face. Before he could stand up Bucky walked over, dropping to his ass next to his boyfriend, careful distance between them.

“Hi,” Steve said quietly, and Bucky couldn’t help but smile.

“Hi yourself,” Bucky responded.

“How was it?” The age-old question, really, but Bucky just shrugged.

“I knew most of the content. Had to guess a little bit with reasoning here and there, but it’s one of those papers where logic can get you through it I think.” He paused. “I hope.”

Steve laughed at that, closing the book in his lap. “Fair enough, I hope for your sake it is. Logic isn’t something you’re short on,” he added, and Bucky felt a rush of pride at Steve’s words. “Now,” Steve continued, and Bucky blinked, unprepared for it. “Do you want to go back to the dorm, or get something to eat first? You’ve been living off sandwiches and soup, you need something a little more substantial in you.”

Bucky sighed, waiting for Steve to get up then taking his hand and letting his boyfriend haul him up as well. “Eat first,” he said after a moment of thinking, slower than usual but for good reason. “Don’t want to have to go back out, don’t feel like dining hall food. Still have some stuff to cover for tomorrow."

“Fair,” Steve said with a little smile, and when he let go of Bucky’s hand he didn’t look happy about it. “Anything in particular you feel like?” He asked he started to walk, leaving Bucky to follow.

Bucky caught up with a few strides then fell into step with Steve, shrugging again. “Something hot and tasty, I really don’t care otherwise.”

He realised the opening he’d left with that just as Steve’s grin took on an edge, just as a blush dusted the tops of Steve’s cheeks and his eyebrow rose towards his hairline. “Hot and tasty huh?” was all he said though, and Bucky was thankful for that.

“Yeah.” Bucky replied, squinting a little. There weren’t many people around, but too many for Steve to say what he was obviously thinking. “You pick.”

Steve snorted, elbowing Bucky lightly in the side before making what was probably an off-the-top-of-his-head decision and saying, “Let’s get Thai.”

Bucky savoured the contact, such as it was, then sighed. He shoved his hands in his pockets to keep them away from the temptation of Steve’s hands, and nodded a little. “Yeah, sounds good.”

One down, three to go.

Chapter Text

“You sure?” Steve murmured, voice a little hoarse as their lips parted, and Bucky kept his fingers tight in Steve’s hair, refusing to let him go far.

Bucky nodded, hummed out a little mhm before nipping Steve’s lower lip, trying to pull his boyfriend back down and failing. He pouted up at Steve, one leg curling around Steve’s calves, and slid his hands down to Steve’s shoulders. “Yeah, I’m sure. Becca texted me a little while back saying they had the tickets. They won’t be home ‘til after. Promise.”

Steve still hesitated, thumb stroking along Bucky’s cheekbone, and Bucky sighed softly, leaned up. The kiss was soft, nothing like the ones they’d been sharing mere minutes ago, and when Bucky pulled back, Steve was smiling again, so Bucky counted that as a win. “I promise,” he repeated, brushing his hands down Steve’s arms, then back up. “We don’t have to, if you don’t want to, but they’re not gonna be back for ages.”

“Oh,” Steve murmured, voice low, and he dropped his head, lips scant inches from Bucky’s. Bucky squirmed a little, telling himself he wasn’t going to push Steve, but damn it was hard to resist just leaning up and taking the kiss that was waiting for him. “I want to, alright. But do you? With me?”

Bucky sighed softly, wiggling his hips a little until Steve was properly cradled by his legs, then rolled his hips up in a slow roll. “That feel like I don’t?” Steve’s eyes fluttered shut, just for a moment, and Bucky had the great pleasure of watching Steve’s jaw clench, feel the muscles in his arms tense under Bucky’s hands.

“Buck,” Steve growled, and he sounded a little strained, making Bucky feel even more pleased with himself. “Your body reacting doesn’t mean you want it.” Bucky sighed softly, then took pity on his boyfriend, giving him a serious look.

“Steve,” he mimicked, bringing his hands up to cup his cheeks. He bumped their noses together lightly. “I want it. Have for a while. The only reason I didn’t jump you on campus was because neither of us have very private rooms, or lives. But no one’s here, there’s none of that in the way, and I want you. Please.”

Steve managed to keep his sober expression for a few moments, but the way his body relaxed against his made it clear that Bucky was going to get what he wanted. What Steve wanted, evidently. Then, he gave in completely, elbows bending as he pressed himself completely against Bucky again. As his weight settled, Steve pressed a kiss to Bucky’s chin, nipped his jaw, working his way along to Bucky’s ear.

When he reached his destination, he closed his teeth around the lobe, tugged, and Bucky moaned softly, shakily. The sound seemed to spur Steve on, and Bucky had a moment of wondering exactly how much Steve had held back before, then he stopped thinking.

Bucky let his hands drift down Steve’s body, firm against his boyfriend’s sides before tugging at his shirt. Steve wasn’t helping either, body pressed tight against him as Steve tugged on Bucky’s earlobe again, and Bucky gave a little noise that was half grumble and half groan. He wiggled the shirt, it finally sliding up a little, then gave up, getting his hands on the skin of Steve’s back and inching them up and under the shirt. Steve’s skin was warm, and he hooked his legs over Steve’s before turning his head, nipping Steve’s jaw impatiently.

“Steve,” he said, whined really, though he’d deny it if ever asked. “Steve, c’mon,” he continued, and Steve’s low chuckle had his stomach twisting. Steve didn’t bother answering, turned his head again, and kissed Bucky, pushy and wet. With Steve’s tongue in his mouth, Bucky couldn’t speak, so he stroked his own against it, pushed his hands up a little higher, then dragged his nails down Steve’s back, firm, hoping like hell it’d leave a mark. Steve’s breathing hitched, sped up, and Bucky tugged at Steve’s shirt again.

Steve pulled back with a gasp, pushed up onto his hands, and Bucky took the opportunity handed to him, dragging Steve’s shirt up to his armpits and leaving the rest of the work to Steve as he flattened his hand against Steve’s chest. He cupped Steve’s pec, thumbed a nipple, and Steve trembled a little over him, propped up on one arm as he got the shirt the rest of the way off. It went flying somewhere, but before Steve could take over Bucky gave him a push, twisting his body as he did.

Steve hit his side, then rolled to his back with the most ungraceful thump, and Bucky grinned, following him over until he was perched in Steve’s lap. He immediately planted his hands on Steve’s chest, leaning onto them just a little, and grinned down at his boyfriend. Steve’s hands settled on his hips, fingers flirting with the edge of his shirt before pushing at it, so Bucky reluctantly let go to pull it over his head. Steve’s hands slid up his stomach, almost reverently, and Bucky tossed his shirt the same way Steve’s went before trying to get his hair into a semblance of order again.

It didn’t take long for him to give up, pushing it off his face and leaving it be. Leaning forward again, Bucky pushed into the solid weight of Steve’s hands, before sliding his own to the bed and tipping his head down. He kissed Steve’s chin, followed his well-travelled path down the side of Steve’s throat, oh so careful to do no more than kiss, then smiled against Steve’s collar.

“You have no idea how long I’ve been wanting to do this,” he murmured against Steve’s skin, nipping at the jut of his collarbone before kissing his way down, across. Steve tensed a little under him just as he reached the heavy weight of his pectoral, and Bucky paused, lifting just a little off his skin and looking up at Steve.

Steve shook his head a little, eyes locked on Bucky’s, and murmured “keep going,” in a small voice. Bucky opened his mouth, words on the tip of his tongue, but Steve said, a little louder, “I want you to.”

Bucky took his words to heart, dropping his head and covering the short distance back to Steve’s skin. He licked over a nipple, tongue flat, and at the strangled noise Steve made, sealed his lips over the nub and sucked firmly.

He hadn’t realised how easy Steve would be when he did that, how malleable his boyfriend would turn, hands on Bucky’s back and his spine arching but nothing more. He just… held the position, held on, as Bucky played, teeth and lips working together until Steve’s pec was a damp mess of red, a little swollen from the attention and if Steve’s reaction to Bucky rubbing it with his thumb was any indication, oh so sensitive. Bucky pressed his mouth to the centre of Steve’s chest, humming quietly at the rapid beat of Steve’s heart, the jagged rise and fall of his breathing.

“You okay?” Bucky checked in when Steve didn’t say anything, glancing up, and Steve nodded jerkily, eyes crammed shut. “Stevie,” Bucky murmured, staying where he was. “Look at me baby, you okay? Need a minute?” Steve opened his eyes after a beat, shook his head, then paused, nodding a little. His face was flushed red, skin tinged all the way down over his shoulders, and Bucky kissed pink skin lightly. “Okay, catch your breath. This why you haven’t let me play with them before? Because you’re so sensitive?”

Steve laughed, short and hoarse, fingers threading through Bucky’s hair and tugging lightly. Bucky shivered, a bolt of pleasure running down his spine, and Steve must have seen something, because he did it again, a little harder. Bucky let out a shaky breath, but followed Steve’s silent demand, shifting back up Steve’s body to kiss his boyfriend deeply. “Yeah, you could say that,” Steve managed to say as their lips parted, and he gave a dopey little grin. “God you’re pretty,” he added, and Bucky let out a surprised little laugh, kissing him again to shut him up.

“Okay, okay,” Steve breathed out when they parted again, hands shifting to Bucky’s shoulders, down his back, following the lines of muscle before sliding around and up his stomach. “I’m good now, I’m good.” Bucky grinned, planting his hands by Steve’s shoulders, and leaned forward, nipping Steve’s lip lightly.

“Yeah?” He purred, and when Steve nodded, a little jerky, he grinned. “Can I suck you off then?” Steve choked a little, obviously surprised, but by the way his dick twitched against Bucky’s ass, and the way his eyes managed to get a shade darker, Bucky knew he liked the idea.

“Yeah,” Steve said, sounding a little strangled, but there was no uncertainty in the word. “You want to?”

“God,” Bucky responded, shifting down, kissing a little further down, “I was ready to go to my knees when I first saw you, ‘course I want to.” Steve lifted his head, looked at him with a raised eyebrow. “It’s true, only reason I didn’t was because we were on ice, and my sister was there,” he mumbled against the skin of Steve’s stomach, before licking delicately at the indents of Steve’s abdominals. “Swear to god you were more distracting than helpful at times. Would’a let you fuck me in the bathroom if I hadn’t been sure you were straight.”

Steve made a strained noise, somewhere close to a groan, fisting his hands in Bucky’s hair as Bucky moved further down. “Like that idea, huh?” Bucky continued, setting his teeth against Steve’s hipbone before tugging at Steve’s belt lightly. “Can I take this off?” He side tracked, glancing up at Steve, and at his boyfriend’s nod, undid the buckle, and then paused at the fly of Steve’s jeans.

“And those too,” Steve mumbled, hips lifting a little, and Bucky grinned, taking the help and undoing the button and fly before tugging the fabric down. Steve’s underwear came with them, and Bucky gave Steve an innocent smile as they inched down. He didn’t, however, see the amused look Steve gave him, because his attention was elsewhere.

He couldn’t help himself, leaving Steve’s pants around his thighs and leaning forward. He braced a hand next to Steve’s hip, curled his fingers around the warm, heavy weight of Steve’s cock, already hard, and pressed his lips to the tip, just the tip. He parted his lips to the music of Steve’s moan, didn’t take any in, let his tongue dip out, finding the slit and curling against it, sweat and the faintest taste of precome already salty against his taste buds. There was something more though, something purely Steve, and Bucky chased the taste, dragging his tongue down the length to where his hand held Steve’s cock steady. He glanced up at Steve as he moved back up, tracing the heavy vein on the underside with a pleased little hum before wrapping his lips around the head and sucking lightly. Steve’s hips twitched, and he heard a low noise from above him. He kept going, pulling back a little, then nudging forward a little further, loving the heavy weight on his tongue.

He built up a rhythm, slow and steady, keeping his lips tight and pausing every time he pulled back to rub his tongue over the head, trying to find new ways to make Steve moan. Steve let him, brilliantly receptive and oh so open about his reactions, back arching a little as Bucky finally removed his hand, nudging Steve’s cock into the back of his throat, holding back his gag reflex out of pure will. He pulled off with a pop, and a soft gasp, breathing heavily for a moment before Steve sat up a little, hands catching Bucky’s arms and tugging him up.

“Buck,” Steve mumbled, voice soft. “C’mere Buck, fuck give me a sec,” he continued, and Bucky relented with a final lick, crawling up Steve’s body and trapping his cock between their stomachs.

“You’ve got a pretty dick,” Bucky murmured, voice scratchy, and he kissed Steve’s shoulder, then his neck, then his lips. “You’ve been holding out on me baby, Christ have you been.” Instead of answering, Steve caught his chin, pulling him into another kiss, wet and fast.

“Feeling mighty underdressed here Buck,” Steve murmured after they parted, eyes dropping down to Bucky’s pants. “Wanna join me?” Bucky grinned, pushed up to his knees, and while he was shuffling has pants and boxers down his hips, Steve tipped them. He hit his back with an oof, and Steve grinned unrepentantly before kicking off his pants the rest of the way and pulling Bucky’s off to match.

Steve just looked at him for a long moment, until Bucky started to squirm a little under the heavy gaze, then pinned him with hands on Bucky’s hips. “When was the last time you showered?” It wasn’t said accusatorily, and Bucky blinked, a little confused.

“After our run this morning?” He responded, eyes narrowing a little, and Steve leaned forward, setting his teeth against Bucky’s hip and biting lightly.

Steve hummed softly, and Bucky couldn’t help but twitch a little at the feeling against his skin. “How thoroughly did you clean?” He asked, and it took that question, and the way Steve’s lips dragged down Bucky’s thigh before Steve cupped the back of his thigh and pushed it upwards, to work out why Steve was asking.

“Oh god,” he responded, a little breathless at the thought, toes curling just at the promise of what was to come. “Very, fuck, yeah I’m clean,” he added, pushing up on his elbow to look down at Steve. Steve just made a noise of approval, kissing slowly down the back of Bucky’s thigh, and then he could feel the press of teeth as Steve smiled against his skin.

“This something you like then?” Steve asked, and Bucky could only nod, lip between his teeth. Steve pressed against his thigh a little harder, and Bucky used his other foot to lift his hips a little. Then, he yelped quietly as Steve’s shoulder came under his braced leg and scooped it up. Both of Steve’s hands dropped to Bucky’s ass, and Steve said, “Tell me if you don’t like something, I’ll work it out if you do,” with an almost cocky sureness before dropping his head.

Bucky wasn’t sure what he expected, with a comment like that. Steve to jump straight into it, probably. It wasn’t what he got. At all. First was the nose at the crease of his thigh, a little cold, enough to make him jump, and Steve laughed, low. He nipped at the sensitive skin, then Bucky could feel the heat of his breath travel down, across. Steve nipped the curve of his ass, making him laugh, then applied a little pressure with his thumbs, spreading his cheeks. Bucky fell still, waiting, and couldn’t help the moan as the flat of Steve’s tongue dragged over his hole, up towards his dick. He curled his leg tighter around Steve’s shoulder as Steve sucked one of his balls into his mouth, then released it for the other, just enough to get them wet before he was moving back down with little licks.

Dropping a hand to hold onto Steve’s hair, Bucky moaned again when Steve licked, more focused this time, just over his hole. It was still light, exploratory, passes of his tongue getting shorter until he was tracing Bucky’s rim, rubbing the tip of his tongue against the tight muscle. He was slow about it, keeping Bucky loose limbed and wanting, and Bucky almost lost himself in the wet press of Steve’s mouth, until a sharp nip made him jump, moan. Steve kept his teeth covered by his lips as he scraped them over Bucky’s hole again, steady, and then he was sealing his mouth over his hole and Bucky was gone.

Getting eaten out always got him going, always had him straining and moaning and needing until he didn’t know anything but the heat of breath and the press of tongue, and this was no different. In fact, it was more, because it was Steve, not just some meaningless hook-up who was willing to do it. Steve threw himself into it, living up to his promise and following Bucky’s noises until every pass of his tongue, every press, had Bucky gasping, moaning. Steve’s tongue curled in, deep and sudden, and Bucky shouted, hips jerking back as he tried to get more, now.

Then, as soon as it was there, it was gone, and Steve was pulling back, kissing up Bucky’s thigh again. Bucky whimpered at the loss, and Steve looked up at him, face flushed and chin wet. Bucky shuddered, tugging at Steve’s hair to try bring him closer. Steve took the hint, dropping Bucky’s legs carefully before crawling up, pressing his knees under Bucky’s lifted hips and keeping Bucky’s ass in the air as he leaned over. Bucky pressed a hand to Steve’s cheek, wiped his thumb over Steve’s chin, then pulled him in for a sloppy kiss, uncaring about where Steve’s mouth had just been.

“Fuck,” Bucky breathed against Steve’s mouth, and Steve laughed smugly.

“Good?” He wasn’t sure how Steve could put so much smugness into a single word, but he managed.

“Fuck,” Bucky repeated, and Steve grinned.

“I’ll take that as a yes, not bad for a first try,”” he drawled, and Bucky’s eyes widened.

“You’re kidding me? You’ve never done that before? Jesus Christ I’m gonna die after you get a chance to practice.” Bucky dropped his head back to the pillow. “Shit.”

“Oh, I’ve eaten women out. Assumed it’d be somewhat similar, wasn’t wrong,” Steve responded, distracting himself by kissing Bucky’s neck. “Was not wrong at all.”

“Yeah yeah, yuck it up,” Bucky mumbled, squeezing his knees around Steve’s hips before sneaking a hand between them. He almost managed to get his hand on Steve’s cock again, but Steve caught his arm, pulled his hand back.

“Nuh uh, my turn to play,” Steve said, and before Bucky could protest, he kissed him again. “Please?” Bucky sighed, but reluctantly stopped trying to get his hand out of Steve’s grip, wrapping his arms around his boyfriend’s shoulders again. “You got anything in here or am I gonna have to go grab my bag?” Bucky’s eyes widened a little at that.

“You brought lube to my parents’ house?” He said incredulously, and Steve snorted, kissing the indignant look off Bucky’s face until Bucky forgot why he was annoyed in the first place.

“Of course,” he responded, nudging their noses together. “Box of condoms, too. I had plans and I wasn’t sure how classy teenage you was.”

Bucky snorted at that, but nodded, reluctantly letting go of Steve and waving a hand towards his nightstand. “There’s a hidden drawer in that, the latch is just under the logo, just pull and it’ll open,” Bucky murmured. “Plus, I restocked when we got here.”

“Ooh, very classy then,” Steve said with a little smirk, twisting at the hips and leaning across. Bucky let himself be distracted by the play of light across Steve’s chest, the way the muscles down his sides stretched and twisted as Steve did. He ran a hand down Steve’s side, dipped his thumb into the furrow above his hip, then dragged his hand back up to cup a pec. He responded to Steve’s words with a hum, pushed himself up on his elbow to press his lips to Steve’s nipple. Steve shivered all over, and Bucky heard the scrabbling hand pause, then start moving with a little more urgency.

Steve made a little ha under his breath, and sat back straight, dropping his spoils near his knee and nudging Bucky flat with the other hand. Bucky didn’t bother fighting it, didn’t see the point when he was getting what he wanted, and stretched his hands over his head with an innocent little smile. “You’re a menace,” Steve said, a little strained, and Bucky grinned.

“You love it,” he responded, and Steve snorted, catching Bucky’s hips when he wiggled impatiently.

“Something like that,” he responded, but he settled between Bucky’s legs again, nudging his thighs wide before uncapping the lube. “Can I?” he asked, wiggling his fingers a little, and Bucky nodded, a little jerky. Steve didn’t make him wait after that, one hand warm against Bucky’s thigh, holding his leg out wide. Cool fingers slid down his crack, making him shiver, and Steve grinned down at him before pressing a finger in.

Bucky wasn’t paying all that much attention to anything but the cool stretch of a slick finger, and, when Steve wasn’t moving fast enough for his liking, he braced a foot on the bed, lifted his hips a little, and rocked back impatiently. The hand on his thigh tightened, and then pushed him back to the bed, and he growled a little under his breath, but Steve kissed the sound out of his mouth.

“You’ll get it,” Steve murmured, before kissing him again, and the finger pressed deeper, still slower than Bucky would have liked but faster than before. Then, Steve crooked it, and Bucky didn’t care anymore. He arched his back, gasping, and Steve got the hint, rubbing the spot he’d found until Bucky was a gasping mess. “Another?” He asked, brushing the tip of another finger against Bucky’s hole, and he nodded immediately, hands dropping to Steve’s shoulders.

“Please,” he mumbled, and Steve didn’t tease him. There was pressure, and then the coolness of lube and the heat of Steve’s finger, the stretch of two making him shiver, the press of Steve’s mouth to his throat making him melt.

It was both too long and too little time before Steve was pulling three fingers out, then there was the crinkle of foil and the click of a cap. Bucky lifted his head, still a little dazed, and watched as Steve covered his dick, then slicked himself up. Bucky pushed up on his elbow again, eyes on Steve’s hands, then tipped his chin, silently asking for a kiss. Steve leaned forward, one hand still on his cock, braced the other by Bucky’s hip and gave him what he wanted, lips slow and smooth over Bucky’s, before his tongue pressed in deep.

“This what you want?” Steve asked as he pulled back, a little breathless, and Bucky nodded, nipping at Steve’s chin and leaving slight indents behind. “Need to hear you say it, Buck,” Steve said, and Bucky pouted, arched his back a little until their chests brushed.

“Want it, want you,” he got out, wrapping a leg around Steve’s waist as Steve dropped his hips. Bucky pulled in with his leg, and Steve got the hint, shifting a little then sliding in, slow and easy. No amount of prep could have prepared Bucky for the feeling, blunt pressure and the faint burn as Steve pushed in, steady, no pause until their hips were flush. Bucky dropped his chin to his chest, breath rattling in and out of his lungs, and looked down. He rocked his hips after a moment, tentative, and Steve gasped, rucking up the sheets by Bucky’s shoulders in his tight grip.

“Feel so good,” Bucky mumbled, drunk on it, on Steve, and rocked his hips again, and again, until one of Steve’s hands was clutching at his hips, pinning him to the mattress. Steve pulled out, slow, and thrust in the same way, dropping from his hand to his elbow and breathing heavily against Bucky’s cheek. Bucky tipped his head, caught Steve’s mouth with his own as Steve built up a rhythm.

The kiss was sloppy, more tongue and breath than kiss for the most part, but Bucky couldn’t think, didn’t try to focus on that, everything in him clutching at Steve’s sides, legs wrapped around him and urging him on.

Steve tilted his hips a little, somehow, and then each stroke was hitting just a little closer to where Bucky wanted it. He arched his back, felt one of Steve’s hands slide into the gap, hot against the skin of his back. Steve’s grip kept him arched, and when he thrust again, Bucky couldn’t help the heated moan that escaped. “Fuck,” he managed to get out.

Steve laughed in response, breathless and a little strained, and Bucky nudged his heels into Steve’s ass in response. “M’trying,” Steve responded, and Bucky’s answering laugh turned into another moan at the next thrust of Steve’s hips.

“More,” Bucky bit out, unable to speak in anything more than fragments of sentences, each word laced with want. “Steve.”

Steve pushed up onto his knees, and Bucky almost whined at the loss, but then Steve was rolling his hips, driving his cock deeper still. Just a little, just enough. Bucky’s hand dropped to Steve’s stomach, pressing into the skin just a little, and Steve’s hand settled on his hip, squeezing firmly.

Another thrust, and another moan was knocked free from Bucky. He stared up at Steve, hazy with it, hazy with want, and fuck but Steve looked pretty. Lip caught between his teeth, concentration mixed with pleasure all over his face. Bucky slid his hand up Steve’s stomach, up as high as he could reach, fingers just brushing over Steve’s nipple before he dropped his hand.

Bucky nudged Steve’s ass with his leg again, snuck his hand between them, skating a line over his own dick but not really touching it, not yet. He pressed his fingers to Steve’s skin, just above the hair around his cock, and when Steve didn’t do anything more than roll his hips forward again, he snuck them down lower. First he just brushed his fingers over Steve’s cock, the lube and latex almost making him pull back, but when he glanced up at Steve’s face, the look in his eyes made him keep going.

Curling his fingers around the girth of Steve’s cock, he held on for just a second, then slid the pads of his fingers against the edge of his hole. A shiver ran through him, the shock of pleasure at the touch unexpected, but he rubbed his fingers over the part where they joined again as Steve thrust in, and the thrust was unsteady at best. Steve’s eyes were wide, dark, and Bucky let out a little breath, rocked his hips back.

“Steve,” he murmured, voice a mess but uncaring. “Steve.” His boyfriend seemed to get what he couldn’t say, and the next thrust was deep, sure, and harder than the ones before.

Bucky dropped his hands, fisting them in the sheets below them as Steve fell into a steady rhythm, breath rattling out of him with every thrust in, lost on a moan with almost every pull out. He kept his foot where it was, pressing into Steve’s ass if he waited too long to give Bucky what he wanted.

Steve’s voice broke through the air, thick and slow like he was struggling to get the words out. “Bucky,” he said, fingers tight on Bucky’s hips. “God you’re pretty, Buck. So good, fuck you feel so good,” he trailed off, eyes wide and roaming Bucky’s face, his body. Bucky arched his back up, showing off in whatever way he could, anything to keep those words falling from Steve’s lips.

His muscles jumped as Steve stroked a hand down his stomach, and he clenched instinctively. Steve’s breath caught in his throat, so Bucky did it again. He must have pushed Steve too far, must have broken whatever was holding him back, because Steve’s hand curled around his cock, his thrusts got faster, and Bucky was floundering under the sheer feeling of it.

Another thrust, and Bucky moaned, loud and uncaring. Steve’s thumb hit the right place, his cock slid in in just the right way, and the weight of it hit Bucky all at once. The edges of his vision got fuzzy as his back arched, and when he came it felt like a kick in the gut.

By the time he came back to himself Steve was slumped over him, pressing soft kisses to his face. There were soft hands at his waist, thumbs soothing over sensitive skin, and Bucky shivered at the touch. A kiss at his jaw, and Bucky blindly tipped his head towards the pressure. Steve’s laugh skimmed over his skin, and then there were lips on his.

Bucky moaned at the feeling, soft and hoarse, and brought a hand up to frame Steve’s face. “Hi,” Steve murmured, kissing his nose once their lips parted, and Bucky smiled, smug.

“Hi,” he responded, and that smugness crept into his voice. He didn’t bother to hide it.

“What?” Steve asked curious, and Bucky’s smile grew. The corners of Steve’s mouth twitched, like he was struggling not to smile back, but he eventually relented. Steve laughed on a breath out, head dropping to rest against Bucky’s shoulder.

Bucky struggled to put his feelings into words, struggled to describe the hum over his skin, the deep settling of something in his chest. He wasn’t sure he had the words. Wasn’t sure if he wanted them. He settled on, “You’re mine now,” and he didn’t even try to hide his satisfaction at the fact. “And you’ve got a nice dick.”

Steve’s face twisted into something, like he was caught between amusement and something else, something more. He seemed to choose the amusement, because his voice was thick with it. “So you’ve said.” There was a pause, and Steve’s hand stroked up his stomach, his fingers tapped against his breastbone. “And I was already yours, sex or no.”

With a shift of his hips Bucky got a leg free, used it to roll them both, and straddled Steve’s waist. He looked down at Steve for a moment, taking him in, before smiling. “Yeah, you were. Big softie.”

Steve looked pleased at that, pulling Bucky down for a kiss. Then he shoved at Bucky’s shoulder and Bucky fell sideways, surprised little yelp escaping him. “Go open a window,” Steve said after a second, sticking his tongue out. “Clear the room out before your parents get home.”

“They know-” Bucky protested, and Steve sat up, poked Bucky’s stomach lightly.

“It’s one thing to know, another thing to be faced with it. Open a window and I’ll wash your hair in the shower.”

Bucky pouted, but pushed himself up, fingers trailing along Steve’s thigh. “Alright then, you have a deal.”

Chapter Text

Bucky sighed, shoving his hands through his hair before he held tight, tugged it lightly. Steve raised an eyebrow from where he was sitting on Bucky’s bed, fingers tapping lightly against his keyboard. Finally Steve glanced up, and Bucky turned fully to face him, hands still raised.

“What?” Steve asked, face belying his mild worry. He pushed his laptop to the side, set his feet on the ground, and patted his lap lightly. With a glance to make sure his door was latched Bucky crossed the distance, sitting on Steve’s knees facing his boyfriend.

“What’s up?” Steve repeated, and Bucky leaned forward, bumping their noses together lightly.

“If I was gonna be living here,” in the house, with the team was unspoken. “If I’d chosen to live here, it’s gonna be harder to be us,” he said quietly. “Together. The guys are everywhere, and they know about me, but,” he paused, stroked a thumb down Steve’s jaw lightly. “I don’t want to put you in a position where you feel like you have to… risk yourself.”

The look on Steve’s face crushed him, made him feel like an absolute asshole for bringing it up. The hurt, quickly covered by something that even now Bucky couldn’t decipher. “Buck…” he started, but Bucky shook his head. Cupping both of Steve’s cheeks in his hands, Bucky chewed his lip, trying to work out how to phrase what he was thinking.

“Steve. You can’t risk yourself for me, can’t risk your future for me.” He shook his head, pressed a finger to Steve’s lips when he started to protest. “This is it, right? Hockey is it for you, it’s your goal? Your endgame?” He didn’t let Steve answer that, kept his finger right where it was. “I won’t let you risk that for me.” It was like Steve had said, way back in sophomore year. People knowing, or even thinking he was queer would damage his chances of a signing, and his chances of making, and staying, NHL. And Bucky knew his boyfriend well enough to know that was his end goal.

“What are you saying?” Steve asked in the silence that followed, lips brushing Bucky’s fingers as he spoke. “Are you..?”

Bucky blinked, then realised what Steve was thinking and shook his head sharply. “No, no no I’m not,” he murmured, leaning in and brushing his lips over Steve’s. “I’m in this, with you, and you know I am.” He pulled back, staying right where he was perched on Steve’s knees. It was a risk, but everything they did was a risk, really.

“I just…” he continued, hands dropping to Steve’s shoulders. “Wanted you to know. I’ve gone against pretty much every tradition by staying here, and god knows I can think of at least three people who want me stripped of the A for it, but,” Bucky swallowed, looked at Steve’s lap for a minute, mouth twisting. “At least here I have a roommate who doesn’t give a shit, who knocks when he knows I’m not alone, respects the sock on the door.” That had Steve cracking a smile, eyebrows lifting high.

“Oh, is that what this is about?” Steve teased, obviously latching onto the lighter-hearted comment, and Bucky dropped his head, hiding his smile against Steve’s shoulder.

“Shut up,” he mumbled against Steve’s skin, smile still in place, and Steve’s laughter quieted. But he was still smiling, Bucky knew it. “It’s about us, and about us having the space to be us. If that makes any sense at all.”

Steve’s cheek pressed against his and Steve’s arms slid around his waist, hugging him tight. “Yeah,” he murmured quietly, lips close to Bucky’s ear. “Yeah it does. You have no idea how much I appreciate that.”

Bucky shrugged a little, staying tucked in close, and tightened his grip on Steve’s shoulders. He choked back the words, the ones that had been on the tip of his tongue since, god probably halfway through the year before. He choked them back, kissed the soft curve of Steve’s neck, and let Steve hold him. Just for now, just for a while.

There was time for the other stuff, for planning and training and homework and writing. Later.

 

 *

By mid-November the lake on campus had finally frozen over enough to be skated on, and with absolute glee on his face Steve had announced to the team that their next session would be out in the sun. Voluntary of course, no coaching staff present, but as usual not a single person hadn’t shown.

They made quite a sight really, Bucky realised as they made the second trip from Rakird to the lake. A pile of guys in hockey gear – sans skates of course – waddling across a snow-laden campus carrying everything from goal nets to cones to hockey pucks? A group of the rookies were racing across snowdrifts, taking advantage of the heavy padding to be even more reckless than they hopefully would have been otherwise.

A part of Bucky felt like an overworked father, watching the potential nightmare. He couldn’t even begin to think about how Steve must be feeling, having to stop every few minutes to apologise to a student that had been hit by a snowball, or a professor that had nearly been knocked over by the all-too enthusiastic rookie goalie. Nat, good team manager that she was, recorded everything, glint in her eye whenever she snapped a photo. It was probably going to be fine. Probably.

But, finally, they made it to the lake all in one piece. Sam had taken on the role of “guardian of the goodies” and was standing by their makeshift benches, all of their boxes stacked in front of him. He looked utterly dwarfed by his pads without his helmet on, and when he started waving his gloved hands over his head Bucky couldn’t help but snicker.

“You look like a crab,” he called out as they got closer, and Sam just waved his arms harder.

“You’re just…. Crabby that it’s me and not you,” was the response, and Bucky groaned, contemplated sticking his head in a snow drift.

“That was terrible,” Steve said as he squatted next to Sam, setting down the box he was carrying and pulling it open. “Absolutely horrendous. I should give you a lap for making me hear it with my own two ears.”

Sam shrugged, pleased, and held out a hand, padded fingers groping the air until Bucky gave in and passed the man his stick. “No hitting anyone who doesn’t deserve it,” Bucky said, remembering the last time they’d trained on the lake. He shuddered, not enjoying the thought in the slightest.

Sam just shrugged, white teeth glinting in a smile that should have been comforting. It wasn’t, not really. “Of course,” he said, sugar-sweet, and Bucky sighed, shaking his head.

“The ice was tested this morning?” Steve asked, back to business, and Nat nodded, taking the question seriously.

“Yeah, I let the ground staff know that we were doing this and they checked it out this morning.” She pulled out a notebook, flicked through it until a bit of paper threatened to fall out. She pulled it out, handed it to Steve. “They were a little concerned about how fast it froze up, but it’s all sound enough for you elephants to be stomping around on it.

Steve snorted, Bucky laughed, and Sam pouted. “It’s just the padding,” Sam bemoaned, and Bucky could tell Nat was fighting a smile.

Steve was back to business as he got a few of the rookies to get the nets set up before sitting on the log someone had dragged over.

“No changes to the plan?” Bucky asked him, dropping down next to his boyfriend after retrieving his skates from the pile of bags sitting on a tarp. It only took him a few minutes to get everything on and laced up, careful not to get snow inside the boot.

Steve shook his head, tucking his socks into his skates. “Nah, no change. Nat, can you put up a thing on the Facebook page? Once everyone’s warmed up we’ll see if anyone wants to join in.”

That was one of the best parts about this sort of session, Bucky thought. Sure it was a bonding thing, it was a training thing, it got people out of the rink and gave everyone a new experience. But it was also an opportunity for regular people, other students, fans, whoever, to come out on the ice and have a go. Because, if he was honest with himself, a team that didn’t promote the sport and the growth of the sport wasn’t a very good team.

Steve stood up, waving the team over as Bucky finished his laces. Nat dropped onto the log next to him, tapping away at her phone, and showed him the posted notice as soon as it was done. “Is Sharon coming out?” He asked her as she tucked her phone away, but she shook her head, corners of her mouth quirking up.

“Nah, she has work to do. Unlike the rest of us, she said.”

Bucky grinned at that, bumped his shoulder against hers, then stood as Steve addressed the team.

“Once everyone’s got their skates on we’ll do some of the usual warmups, but keep an eye on the edges, they can be hard to see if you’re not paying attention. We’ll do some drills, then get some shinny going. Ice was tested this morning, so we’re good to go, but keep in mind that this is natural ice, and it’s not going to be as smooth as the rink. Be careful. Any objections?”

Steve waited the customary few seconds in silence, then nodded. “Great. Once we’re ready to play I’ll go over the rules, and we’ll get anyone else who wants to join in kitted up. Go get your skates on and let’s get started.”

The team scrabbled for position on the logs and the chatter was almost deafening even with the dampening layer of snow on everything. Bucky walked over to Steve, internally wincing at the crunch of his blades on the snow, and elbowed Steve hard enough that Steve would feel it through his padding. “Ready?” Bucky asked, and Steve grinned, eyes bright.

“Yeah, let’s go,” was the response, and Steve stepped onto the ice.

With a few steps Bucky joined him, pacing his feet a little to get used to the difference again. “When were you last on natural?” He asked Steve, who grinned over his shoulder.

“Last year’s lake skate,” Steve tossed back, taking a few steps before turning, gliding backwards easily. “But we had a small pond near our house when I was a kid, so I spent a lot of time on it back then.”

Bucky did a quick crossover, cutting across the ice as the team started to dribble on after them. “Rich kid,” he called out, and Steve nearly ended up in the snow bank on the other side of the lake. Bucky could hear the indignant noise Steve made from where he was, and he just grinned in response, holding his skates still as he glided down a slight incline in the ice.

Soon the sounds of stick against puck filled the air, soft drills getting competitive as they tended to do with a pile of division one athletes. Bucky flung a puck towards Sam, making the goalie lunge to one side, then took the pass Clint sent him, sliding the second puck in the gap Sam had left.

“Unfair!” Sam yelled, and yeah, maybe, but Bucky just stuck his tongue out at his friend and fist bumped Clint as the D-man skated over.

“Do you think,” Clint started, before stumbling over a lump in the ice. “Do you think,” he started again, a little louder, looking unconcerned that he’d nearly face planted. “That we could convince the refs to give us another puck next game?”

Bucky snorted, rolling his stick between his fingers before catching a puck that had gone off target. He flicked it back towards the owner as he responded. “I wish, it’d make for more fun I think.” Then an idea came to mind and he called out to Steve, who was overseeing the drills as best he could. “Hey Stevie, two puck shinny later?”

Steve barely reacted, pulling the finger as best he could with his gloves, eyes still on the skaters in front of him. “Not if you call me that again,” he responded dryly, and Bucky glanced at Clint, who grinned back at him.

“Steeevieee” Bucky dragged out, nudging himself a little closer with the toe of one skate. “Stevieee, Stevie, Steven,” he continued in the most annoying voice he could muster, getting right into Steve’s space and putting his chin on Steve’s shoulder from behind. Once he was there he could feel how stiff Steve was under his touch, knew he was pushing his limits on what was “allowable” between friends. So, he winked at the rookie closest to them and said “Stevie,” in Steve’s ear, before jumping backwards.

Just in time too, with Steve spinning and a hand fling out to catch Bucky – hopefully lightly – around the ears. The swipe just hit air, and Bucky grinned unrepentantly, pacing his feet.

“Brat,” was all Steve said in response, but he looked amused so that was a win.

“Two puck shinny,” Bucky replied, and Steve rolled his eyes.

“Fine, later though. I’ll be making the teams smaller to give Sam and David a chance though,” he added, and Bucky stuck his tongue out at Steve before giving Clint the thumbs up.

He took a moment to look around, counting up the people that were now scattered around the lake, then doing a second count of the ones who looked like they had skates. He could see Nat flitting around them, getting people’s names most likely, and left her to it, wiping his face on his sleeve.

He ran a few more drills then tagged out with Steve, letting the captain get in amongst the rest of the team to warm up. By the time Bucky called it, he had amassed a collection of stray pucks, and he started firing them out and random people on the team. Once about half the team had pucks he stopped, tipping his head towards Steve.

“You guys are team white,” he said, tapping his stick against the ice to get their attention again. “Steve’s your team captain. Go grab the white bibs from the box.” He paused to let them all shuffle off, pucks thankfully in tow, and grinned at the remaining people.

“You guys are team blue, and I’ll be your captain. The blue bibs are on the tarp next to the bags, go grab one each.”

As the other half of the players shuffled off Steve scuffed his way to a stop and held out a blue bib to him. “You ready?” Steve asked with a grin, and Bucky took the bib, rolling his eyes.

“Ready to beat your ass, yeah.”

By the time all the players were back on the ice Nat had all of the supporters who were going to play geared up and split into two teams. While they were putting on the bibs Bucky looked out over the Commandos with a critical eye. “Remember,” Steve said firmly, tapping his stick blade against the ice. “These guys have minimal padding, if any. No checking, or you’ll be sent off. No slashing, keep the chirps against them to a minimum, alright?”

Once all of the team were nodding, Bucky waved at Nat and she sent her guys out. Bucky waved them in close, doing a quick count. Not too many that it would be hard to run games, but a good twenty or so, enough to have some fun. He dropped his hip and let himself skate backwards as Steve ran over the rules for everyone, circling the crowd with a few lazy cross steps. No one looked unsteady on the ice, thankfully, and a few of them even had remembered mouth guards. A step up from the year before, when they’d had to teach a handful of people how to stay upright before starting.

Once Steve had wrapped up, Bucky started directing people to opposite ends of the lake, and checked in with Sam. Once he was happy the blue team goalie was happy with the rules he divvied up his team into lines, making sure at least one spectator was in each of the forward lines. A few surprised him by asking to play defence though, so he quickly scrambled the defensive lines he had in his head, pairing them up with some of the seniors.

Then, the games started.

The girl on his line was actually pretty good – she’d admitted to playing a few times in fun games, and she knew how to hold a stick and skate with it, which was good enough for Bucky.

While the games weren’t about winning, the first time she put the puck in the net, skimming it past the rookie goaltender off a pass from Bucky, she looked happy enough to cry. The second time she was just as ecstatic, nearly jumping into his arms in order to hug him. Bucky hugged her back quickly, winked at Steve over her shoulder, then separated them to get the next line going.

As time passed, people filtered off, and Bucky took a breather to sit back and watch for a few rounds. He was quickly surrounded by rookies, and one of them had the guts to finally ask what was keeping all of them a little bit tense.

“Bucky,” the freshman asked, and Bucky just gave a hum in response. He wiggled his skates, eyes on the game, but flicked them over to the freshman when he started again. “People have been saying that you uh.” He paused, and Bucky tensed a little, not knowing what to expect. “Used to figure skate?”

Oh, was that all? Bucky bit back a laugh at himself, paced his feet, and raised an eyebrow. “Who’s people?” He asked after a second, just to get the guy squirming. It worked, and the freshman – Teddy – almost looked like he regretted asking.

Bucky let the silence between them extend for a minute, then shrugged, grinning. “Yeah, I did. Still do, just not competitively, it’s hard enough fitting this team in around my study.”

Teddy looked surprised to have actually gotten an answer, doubly so that it had been to confirm the rumour. “Wait… really?”

Bucky nodded, raising his eyebrows. “Yup, really. I competed regularly up until the end of high school. Did alright.”

There was a snort from behind him and Bucky tipped his head, expecting to see Steve. Instead Clint stood there, looking just as offended as Steve would have been. “Alright? You’re saying you did alright? Kids,” he skated forward, and Bucky snorted at Clint’s insistence at calling the rookies that. “Kids this guy was a champion. We’ve had groupies turn up at practices looking for him, people following him to get something signed. He did more than alright.”

Bucky shoved at Clint’s shoulder, fighting back a blush and ultimately failing. He was about to say something, rebut Clint’s words or push the attention away or something, when Teddy’s friend piped up.

“So, if you were that good,” the rookie, Billy, said. “Why did you stop?” He leaned on his stick, looking expectant, and Bucky sighed.

“No scholarships for figure skaters. Plenty of scholarships for hockey players. More again for football players but I didn’t have the heart to go that far,” he tried to make light of it, and got the rookies snickering.

“Can you still do any of it?” Billy asked, and Bucky could see where this was going.

“I’m a little out of practice with some things,” he responded, eyes flicking back to the game for a second as the puck careened their way. It was scooped up by someone and sent back in before it got close, and Bucky turned back to the rookies. “But I get on my figures at least once a week. I can still do most things.”

“Can you show us something?” And there it was.

“I’m in hockey skates,” Bucky responded, wiggling his feet as a reminder. Both boys pouted in unison. It was a little freaky, if Bucky was honest.

“Can you not do anything in these skates?” Teddy asked, and Clint piped up again.

“Boy can’t do anything full stop in those skates, I’m surprised he’s still upright.”

Bucky rolled his eyes at the chirp, swinging his stick out and whacking Clint in the stomach with it. “Yeah, I can do some things. No big big jumps though, nor with the way these blades are cut.”

“So,” Teddy started again, grin spreading over his face. “Can you show us something?”

Bucky huffed under his breath but held his stick out to Clint, who took it, grinning like a madman. “Yeah, fine,” he responded, not really bothered by the request. They were there for fun, after all. “Lemme just do a few laps, get some footwork going, and then I’ll do a few things okay?”

At the eager nods Bucky sighed, pushing off and carefully making his way around the outside of the game. There was plenty of space surrounding the patch that was being played on, but a puck could come flying out at any second, and Bucky would rather not be hit while doing something. He built up some speed as he came around past the rookies again, then started to play around, focusing in on his feet as he did. A few steps had him turning, then turning back, a lazy grapevine turning into equally lazy barrel rolls. Neither of the techniques was really a ‘figure skating’ one, and he was pretty sure most of the players on the team could do both, but that wasn’t the point of them, not really.

He did a short waltz jump, going from skating forwards to skating backwards with the half turn jump, then let his arms come up. A few cross steps to build up some more speed, then just as he approached the rookies again he stepped a little more solidly and pushed himself up into the air.

The take-off was harder in the shorter skate, but he’d done it a few times before, just bent his knee a little more to compensate. Two spins, because if he was asked to show off he was going to damned well show off, and then the landing. He held his breath, fully expecting to end up on his face, but he just rocked forward a little more than usual on the curved blade as it touched ice again.

Bucky let himself glide backwards for a moment before switching his feet and doing a quick turn before skating back to the three people watching avidly.

“Did that prove my point?” He said with a little grin as he got close, and Billy absolutely beamed at him. “I’d do a few spins, but I’d probably make a fool of myself. I’ve never tried them before on these skates.” He wiggled his feet again, before dropping his weight back a little and falling still. He punched Clint’s shoulder as the other senior approached, before taking his stick. “Asshole, I know what you did.”

Clint looked overly indignant, then pointed behind them. “They enjoyed the show though,” he said, and when Bucky glanced around he saw a fair number of people with their phones out, pointed their way.

“You set me up you fucker,” Bucky laughed, kicking a clump of snow at Clint. “You knew, you set me up!”

Clint shrugged, then didn’t even bother to hide it as he high fived first Teddy, then Billy.

“All of you, holy fuck,” Bucky said, sighing.

“Can you teach us how to do that?” Billy asked, but Bucky saw the gleam in his eye, the way Clint grinned wider at the question.

“God, I’ve already fallen for it once, give me some dignity,” Bucky protested, pushing himself backwards with a few strokes. “Maybe, if you’re actually serious about it. Now I’m gonna go play before you assholes rope me into doing something else obnoxiously dumb.”

The laughter followed him as he skated back, and he scowled at Steve, who stuck his tongue out in response.

 

*

Bucky grinned as he nudged Steve’s shoulder, shoving him towards the rink with a hand in the small of his back. It’d taken nearly a month to organise, to plan out, but finally their schedules had lined up. And now, in the middle of New York, they were standing in front of a quiet recreational rink.

Steve stumbled forward, yelping, and Bucky grinned wider at the flush on Steve’s cheeks. He reached forward just as his boyfriend reached back, and Steve linked their fingers tightly together. Then pulled, making Bucky stumble into motion again. “Ass,” Steve mumbled, and Bucky reached across, patted Steve’s ass lightly.

“Absolutely,” he responded and pulled Steve to a stop. He leaned up on his toes in the doorway of the rink, brushing his lips over Steve’s cheek and narrowly avoiding hitting him in the face with the brim of his cap. “Thank you though, for organising this,” he murmured softly. “Seriously.”

Steve smiled in response, free arm wrapping around Bucky’s shoulders for a moment, two. “I gotta look after my best guy,” he murmured, before knocking the brims of their caps together. “Let’s go show off to some kids,” he said a little louder, before dropping his arm, stepping back. Their fingers stayed laced together tightly as Steve pulled him forward, and Bucky followed without hesitation.

The foyer was cool despite the spring heat, and a shiver ran down his spine. He leaned forward, nudged Steve a little to make him go faster. “The class has ended, right?” he asked, keeping his voice low. “Or is about to?”

“Yep, they should be about to come off the ice now,” Steve reassured him, not sounding the tiniest bit exasperated despite it being the seventh time he’d asked. “We can pay and go in, and just wait at the boards until the Zamboni has been through.”

With a little hum, Bucky fell silent, and Steve didn’t try to prompt him to speak which was nice. Instead, he led the way to the counter, paying for both of them despite Bucky’s wordless grumbling, then waving the lady off when she asked for their foot size. “We have our own skates if that’s okay?” Steve asked, and Bucky nodded his head slightly over Steve’s shoulder when the woman looked at him.

“Yeah that’s absolutely fine,” she responded, looking completely unsurprised. “Do you need them sharpened before you head in?” When they both shook their heads, she waved them through and Bucky led the way down the corridor to the rink.

The soft hush of blades on ice made Bucky walk a little straighter, fingers still tightly latched in Steve’s. He held a finger up to his lips, quieted his steps, and when Steve followed suit, slowly moved out into the rink, scanning the ice. He couldn’t help the smile curling his lips as he watched the final dregs of the beginner’s class playing around as the hum of the Zamboni started up. The instructor called them off, after a moment of watching, and as he turned to check the ice for anyone else he spotted the two of them.

He waved a little, and Bucky waved back, voice pitched low as he spoke to Steve. “He doesn’t know who we are, this rink seems small enough that they’d know all the regulars,” he murmured, glancing back at his amused-looking boyfriend. “Be prepared for questions.”

Steve laughed at that, closing the distance between them to slide his free arm around Bucky’s waist, press a kiss to his shoulder. “I don’t care, I promise.”

Bucky leaned back into Steve’s grip just as a throat cleared behind them, and Bucky just rocked his head back, smiling when he saw the instructor approaching.

“Hey guys,” the man started, and Bucky kept the smile on his face, bracing for the worst. “I haven’t seen you around here before, are you just taking a look?”

Bucky opened his mouth to reply but Steve beat him to it, probably a lot nicer about it than Bucky would have been. “Nah, we’ve been skating for years, but we thought we’d come here because it’s a lot more quiet than our normal rink.” The man nodded, and Bucky could immediately feel a shift in his demeanour.

“Oh, that’s cool! What do you guys skate?” the man asked, before shaking his head slightly. “Sorry, I’m Ben, me and my partner take the classes here.”

Bucky waved his free hand, before pointing at himself. “Bucky, and this is Steve,” he responded, before adding, “While I’d love to say we’re pair skaters or synchro or something, it’s not true. We’re hockey players, and I trained in figure before that.”

“I used to play hockey,” Ben said with a smile. “All through high school. Who do you guys play for?”

Bucky hesitated a moment, and Steve quickly filled in the space he left. “Just a college team, nothing big,” he responded, effectively closing the door on that conversation.

“I’m sure you guys are pretty big,” Ben responded, then turned a little to face the ice. “Looks like Jim’s nearly done with the ice, I’m sure you’re wanting to get out there. I was going to offer you a quick lesson, but I feel like you’d run circles around me.”

Bucky laughed, squeezing Steve’s hand. “We’d go easy on you don’t worry,” he chirped, and Steve snickered in his ear before straightening up. “It was nice meeting you,” he added, and Ben smiled.

“You too guys. Have fun!” With that, and a parting wave, the instructor was off again, scooping up a small child waiting by the door and heading out into the foyer.

“That went better than I expected,” Steve murmured after a beat of silence, and Bucky laughed, elbowing his boyfriend lightly before twisting in Steve’s grip.

“I think you scared him off,” Bucky murmured, before kissing him lightly. “He’s right though, the ice is nearly done. We should get out before the kids arrive.” Steve sighed, slowly letting go, and Bucky leaned forward, patting Steve’s cheek lightly. “Oh perk up, this is a date. You can touch as much as you want on the ice, if you can catch me.”

With that he stepped back, grinning, then turned, almost running for the front row of seats. Steve trailed after him, pouting, and Bucky dropped onto the hard plastic, looking over his shoulder. He didn’t say anything more, just stuck his tongue out at Steve before nudging his shoes off. It didn’t take more than a minute to have his soft soakers traded for the hard blade guards, and he started to lace himself in. By the time he’d finished his left foot Steve was done, walking on bare blades across to the ice. It almost made Bucky wince, not quite used to seeing, or hearing that. He silently promised his Edeas that he’d never do that to them, thumb rubbing over the metal plated name lightly before he went back to his laces.

“C’mon slowpoke,” Steve drawled, leaning against the boards. “Or it’ll be you catching up to me today.”

“Oh just get on,” Bucky responded, faking irritation, and Steve just laughed, vaulting the boards instead of using the gate like a regular human would.

Bucky finished lacing up as Steve paced his feet, scooting them back and forth as he waited. “C’mo-on,” he whined, and Bucky paused, deliberately in the middle of lacing. He switched his laces to one hand, the bottom hook holding them tight, and slowly flipped the bird over at his boyfriend, before continuing to lace.

In less than thirty seconds he had them done, but in that time Steve had managed to make a hell of a racket, hands on the boards, swinging himself out then pulling back in repeatedly, hitting his skate runners against the wood. “Ass,” Bucky said fondly, standing and doing a quick squat to test his laces.

“You love my ass,” Steve responded airily, before smacking his skates against the wood again.

Bucky rolled his eyes then headed over to the ice, knuckles lightly tapping the boards before he pulled off his blade guards and stepped onto the ice.

Steve was at his side almost immediately, hands landing on Bucky’s biceps before sliding down to link their fingers. He didn’t move them, just paced his feet again, waiting for Bucky to settle into his heels. When Bucky looked up at him, he grinned, dropping one hand and pushing himself backwards with the edge of a blade. “Shall we?” Steve asked, arm stretching out as the distance between them widened, and Bucky took pity on him, moving before he fell over.

“Yeah, I guess,” he responded, a couple of quick strides letting him catch up to Steve. A quick twist and Steve was at his side, sticking close even though his hockey skates would let him move a lot faster.

By the time they’d done a full circuit of the rink, there were a few other people getting ready to give the ice a go. Bucky slowed, sliding his fingers from Steve’s as he saw a kid struggling with the gate, and pulled himself to a stop against the boards. With a smile he pulled the gate in, holding it against the boards so the boy could jump on.

Instead of racing off after Steve like Bucky had expected him to do, the kid turned and said “Thank you,” almost sounding like he meant it. Then he seemed to do a double take, looking at Bucky and his skates. Bucky grinned wider as he took in the figures the boy was wearing.

“My name’s Chase, look what I can do,” he said, speaking fast, and before Bucky could reply the kid had moved a few steps in, kicked his leg around, and pulled himself into a spin. It was over quick, but Bucky was grinning by the end of it, and when the kid, Chase, came skating back, Bucky held out a hand.

“Nice!” he said as he got his high five, before toeing back just a little. “Wanna show me how you did that? So I can do it too?”

The kid lit up at the idea, slowing his movements down as he did his best to explain what he was doing. Bucky could feel the eyes on him from the seats, but forced himself not to look over, instead following along.

It was a basic spin, but Bucky made sure to mess it up a few times, then wobbled his way around a little after Chase added in a little bit more information. Sometimes, he’d realised when he’d first started teaching, the only way to help people understand something was to let them help someone else understand it.

Bucky glanced up as Steve came into his field of vision again and held out a hand. Steve snagged it, using Bucky as a pivot to bring himself around and slow to a stop.

“That’s a pretty cool trick you’ve got there buddy, can you teach me how to do it too?” Steve said, and god but Bucky could have kissed him right there. Of course Steve would understand, he’d coached the little league what felt like so long ago.

At Bucky’s encouraging nod, Chase walked through the instructions exactly as he’d done with Bucky, a little wobbly as he demonstrated but more than a little confident in what he was doing. Bucky reluctantly let Steve’s hand slide from his again, tucking his hands in his pockets as Steve made an absolute fool of himself trying to do the spin in his hockey skates.

“You’re a mess,” Bucky chirped after Steve pushed himself upright for the fourth time, grinning as Chase laughed at them both. “An absolute mess. Why do I like you?”

“Because I make you look good,” Steve retorted, trying once more and managing to stay on his feet.

After a few minutes Steve managed to stay on his feet three times in a row, and by the way he reacted – a celly without a goal to celebrate, one knee grazing the ice as he pumped his fist in the air – he’d obviously taken that as a win. “I think I’ll stop while I can do it,” he said after he straightened, and Chase laughed in delight.

“Can you show me a trick?” the kid asked next, and yeah, trick for trick, it was fair trade.

“What do you want to see?” Bucky asked, smiling slightly and hoping like hell he was warm enough to pull off whatever Chase asked for.

After a moment of quiet, face screwed up a little in concentration, Chase had decided. “Something with a jump?”

Bucky glanced around, and while they’d been preoccupied a few more people had come onto the ice, but not enough to be any sort of excuse.

“Okay, but nothing big because I’m not very warm yet,” Bucky answered finally, and Chase nodded, solemn cast to his face. “You can’t laugh okay?” Bucky added with a grin to try and make him smile. It worked.

With a little nod Bucky pushed off, skating around a little to build up some speed. As much as he hated them, death drops were not only impressive, but less strain on his cold muscles than most of the jumps he’d normally do.

A deep breath. A few strides. Kick, jump, land. Walk out of it rather than spinning, because there was a time and a place for that, and in front of the kid who’d just shown him how to spin was neither.

Bucky pushed himself back over to the two waiting for him, smile in place. Steve was grinning back at him, and held out a hand that Bucky took without hesitation. “So,” he said to the gobsmacked Chase, “Was that cool enough?”

Chase was nodding before he could finish speaking, and Bucky held out his free hand. A high five later, the kid was pushing back, sulking expression on his face as his mother yelled something from her seat in a flurry of a language Bucky didn’t recognise.

“Mom says I gotta leave you alone now because you’re not here to show me stuff,” he said, sullen as anything, and Bucky had to hide a grin. There was another burst of words, and Chase added, “And thank you for showing me that trick.”

“No problem buddy,” Bucky responded, elbowing Steve lightly as Steve laughed under his breath. “Have fun skating, alright?”

At Chase’s nod Bucky let Steve pull him backwards, a little shimmy of his hips turning him after a few metres. “He was cute,” Bucky mumbled under his breath, and Steve laughed again, louder.

“You looked like you wanted to take him home,” Steve responded, and Bucky pouted.

“I like kids, okay? I’m not sure if I want them, but I like them.” Bucky dropped Steve’s hand, put on a little bit of speed as he pushed out of the corner, trying to avoid the fact that he’d said that. On a date. To his boyfriend of three years.

Talking about children was almost welcoming in the changes that were about to happen. Thinking about life after college, where he had to go do something, be someone. Bucky didn’t want to deal with that just yet. Didn’t want to think about the selectors showing up at games, or the way they looked at Steve, pens poised over their clipboards.

Steve caught up with him, almost too easily on the faster skates. He stayed silent, let Bucky stew for almost an entire lap of the rink, before speaking. “Is there anything that could help you decide? Whether you want that?”

Bucky looked up from the ice, shocked. Steve was staring ahead, jaw set, and Bucky slowed, waited for Steve to notice. His boyfriend skidded to a stop, and let Bucky catch up.

“Maybe,” Bucky said, looking at their feet before up at Steve’s face. “A few things. The right house. The right time.” He reached out, catching Steve’s hands in his, heart in his throat. “The right partner.”

 

*

The clipboards were out at practice again, an ever-present reminder to of what was coming. Bucky ducked his head, kept his eyes on the ice in front of him, and pushed himself just that little bit harder through the suicide runs. With every pass of the benches, he could see movement from the suits there, and had to force himself to keep his head in the game.

The boys had been talking about the scouts in the locker rooms, strapping padding on as they’d tried to work out who was there. Bucky knew, they all knew, that the scouts wouldn’t reveal their teams unless they wanted to speak to someone directly, knew there was no point looking for shark cufflinks or a lightning bolt tie bar.

Likewise Steve had been quiet, tugging on the jersey bearing the C as Bucky pulled on his matching A, nudging Bucky lightly with an elbow as he checked the taping on one leg.

Now, Steve was breathing heavy, finishing a few steps ahead of everyone else and immediately lining up for another run. He wanted it, wanted this, wanted the contract the scouts were looking to propose. Wanted the attention he was getting if it meant getting him where he needed to go.

Bucky wasn’t sure how he felt about that. He let his feet move, jumping forward as the whistle blew, to the blue line, back, to centre, back. Tried to just think about the ice under his skates, the stick in his hands, the heat of Steve’s body on his left.

It worked, for the most part, completely tuning out the scouts as they moved through drills and on to the small games. Bucky was out, skating towards the bench for his water bottle, when he saw one of the suits tap Steve on the shoulder. Steve nearly fell over in his shock, but Bucky couldn’t even laugh, filled with a sickening mix of excitement and dread. He grabbed his bottle, moved to the end of the bench area to give them space, and let out a breath, more than a little disgusted with himself.

A few things happened at once, then. Coach Fury called out for the penalty kill first line, one of the freshman managed to trip and take out three other players, and there was a tap on Bucky’s shoulder.

Bucky whirled, startled, and managed to school his expression into something less like a deer on the road.

“Number eleven, James Barnes?” The man confirmed, and yeah, there was a hint of a smile in his voice. Damnit.

Bucky pulled off a glove, fumbled with his mouth guard until it came free. “Yeah, that’s me,” Bucky managed to get out, confused for a second before realising his blue training jersey didn’t have his number or name on it. The man nodded, making a mark on his clipboard.

A beat of silence, another note on the paper, then “And you play left wing, on the first line, correct?”

Bucky nodded, even though the person, the scout, probably knew everything about him right down to what he’d had for breakfast.

“You and your centre, Rogers,” The man continued, and Bucky’s breath caught for a moment before he forced himself to exhale. “You’ve both moved up the lines together in the past two years. How often are you on the ice without him?”

That wasn’t what Bucky had expected. “Uh. Not often, honestly. He’s on my line in the four-on-five and four-on-four teams. I played most of my first year on the team on a different line though. There are games when he’s scratched for whatever reason though, tests or injuries or whatever.” The scout nodded at that, and Bucky rolled his water bottle between his fingers nervously.

“So,” The man said, and Bucky realised that the real questions hadn’t even started. “He’s a playmaker, you’re a sniper. He sets you up and you score. Do you play better with him, or do you play well because of him?”

Bucky blinked, and it took him a few minutes to actually parse out the meaning behind the scout’s words. “You’ve seen my stats,” he started cautiously, and the man nodded in confirmation, despite it being more of a rhetorical question. “I score off his passes more because he knows me. We’re friends off the ice, we spend a lot of time together, and we know how each other works. I play better with him, he plays better with me.”

Bucky paused, took a breath, glanced over to where Steve was watching the current game, waiting to be called in.

“But with all due respect, I’m not good at hockey because of him.” Not in the way the scout was implying, at least. “I play with him, I play without him, I play to the best of my abilities regardless of whether he’s my centre or not. Yes we work well together, but that’s just efforts on our parts, and has nothing to do with my ability on the ice.”

The scout took Bucky’s words in with a raised eyebrow and a note on his paper. “Thank you for that,” the man said with no indication whether that was the right answer or not. “I think that’s enough for now,” he added, nodding towards the ice, and Bucky tipped his head to see Coach Fury waving him over.

Bucky nodded and set his bottle down again, glancing at the scout and giving him a little smile before shoving his mouth guard back in and putting on his glove. He nodded to the scout, who smiled a little at him, then grabbed his stick off the wall and headed back into the group of players waiting to be called on.

He skidded to a stop next to Steve, dropping the blade of his stick to the ice and bumping his shoulder against Steve’s. “So?” Steve asked quietly, looking a little smug.

“He implied I was only good because I’m on your line,” he huffed out, words a little mangled by the mouth guard.

Steve didn’t look overly surprised. “Did you correct him?”

“Obviously,” Bucky snorted, before looking over at Steve again, raising an eyebrow. “I can only score when I’m taking it from you,” he quipped, before stepping forward at Fury’s signal and throwing himself into the game.

Steve’s startled laugh followed him across the ice, and Bucky grinned to himself, catching the puck as it was launched his way.

 

He proved himself right to the scouts within a few minutes, scoring once off a pass from the second line centre, Pietro. Then seeing an opportunity, he slotted himself between two of the “opposition” forwards just as one set off a pass.

Good-natured swearing followed him as he carted the puck up the ice, the three-on-three style games meaning the white jerseys were left somewhere in their offensive zone. Meaning it was him, alone in front of the goalie.

Bucky bounced the puck left and right as he approached, knowing he had a bit of time before the others caught him, and saw the flash of white as Sam flexed his glove. He swung left, toe lightly nudging at the ice to slow him down and turn him, just a little. Sam shifted too, not dropping low yet, just watching. He knew Bucky well enough to not go for the easy option straight away, that’s for sure.

Bucky shifted his stick in his hands, let the puck slide out, watched Sam drop to meet it as he faked the shot over the glove. As soon as Sam committed to the movement Bucky switched, stretching his body out and taking a snap shot at the opposite top corner.

“You fucker!” Sam yelled, muffled through the mask as the puck went sailing over his shoulder, hitting the back of the net hard enough to ripple the netting.

“Too slow,” Bucky retorted, catching himself with a foot and skidding to a stop in front of Sam. The goalie pushed himself up out of the low crouch, reaching out a hand and poking Bucky in the shoulder with a padded finger.

“Prick” Sam said, teeth flashing behind the grid of the facemask.

“Ass,” Bucky responded just as fondly, before one of the blue-shirts jumped on his back, having finally made it from the other side of the rink. Bucky let them spin him, hugged the junior that had latched onto him, patted the head of the freshman who looked like he wanted to do the same. Then, lifting his chin a little, he stared across the ice at the bench where the scouts were sitting.

The guy he’d spoken to was watching him with an expression Bucky was too far away to decipher, but he still took a moment to hook one glove in his armpit to pull it off and salute the guy mockingly. As he pushed his hand back in his glove, he heard the faint sound of a laugh, muted by the ice between them.

 

*

It had been going fine. It had been going fine and Bucky wasn’t sure what had happened. His classes? Hard, but worthwhile. Classmates? Entertaining. His supervisor? Annoying as fuck, but that’s what happened really. He’d settled on his thesis subject, sketched out an outline. He knew where he was going.

It was a lot of work, on top of hockey, on top of his work as Steve’s alternate captain. But, he had it handled.

He’d thought he had it handled.

He didn’t, evidently.

And now, now he was lying in bed, hair greasy and limp, eyes barely taking in the ceiling above him. Now his skin was sticky, the sheets were coarse, and the blankets too heavy. Now his phone was going off, staccato pulse of the vibrations against the plywood nightstand like someone driving something into his skull.

He didn’t want to answer it. He picked it up anyway.

It wasn’t a call, just a series of texts. Texts from Steve, no less.

[Steve: have you eaten today?]

[Steve: buck I know you’re reading these, just a yes or a no]

[Steve: please buck, I know you need space right now but just let me know you’re still alive in there]

 

The texts stopped, and Bucky blinked blearily at the white light of his phone. He should probably reply. Steve was worried, and Bucky didn’t want him worried.

His thumb hovered over the text box, and he willed himself to tap, to answer. To make sure Steve knew he was fine. Objectively fine at least. He was alive, eating, drinking. There was just sort of… A mass of emptiness where his emotions should be.

It wasn’t like he hadn’t known that this happened to people, to other students. He was a psychology student, this sort of thing was the foundation of studies they’d learned about, replicated, written reports about. He just hadn’t expected it to happen to him.

That’s what everyone else had said though.

He just needed time. Just needed to decompress and be, and he’d pick up the pieces at the end of the week.

Instead, his phone buzzed in his hand again.

[Steve: alright, I’m coming over]

Bucky locked his phone, set it on the nightstand again, and closed his eyes.

Ten minutes later there was a knock at his door.

“It’s for you,” Clément said, deadpan. His roommate was a decent sort, had just opened the windows when Bucky had collapsed in on himself, brought up meals from the dining hall whenever he came back.

Bucky made a noise in response. Probably a grunt, if he’d had the care to categorise it.

“It’s your friend, isn’t it?”

Bucky dragged his duvet over his head, refusing to acknowledge the question, but in doing so answering the question.

Clément got up and opened the door. Bucky regretted all of the nice thoughts he’d been thinking about him. Clément was an asshole. A traitor. A lot of bad things that Bucky couldn’t think of at that moment.

There was the quiet murmur of words. Bucky could have listened, he really couldn’t be bothered. The snick of the door, and a single set of footsteps moving towards Bucky’s bed. He didn’t bother looking. The bed dipped near his hip, and there was the weight of a hand on Bucky’s stomach.

“Hey.”

God he wanted so badly to respond, to crawl up into Steve’s arms and never let go. He made a noise instead, somewhere between a sigh and a whine.

“Clément’s gone out. Do you wanna drop the sheets?” It wasn’t judgemental, wasn’t demanding, wasn’t pushy. That’s what had Bucky sighing, nudging the duvet down away from his face. It was soft, accepting, and, if Bucky really listened, it was wanting.

As soon as Bucky’s eyes met Steve’s over the fabric, Steve was smiling. It was almost blinding. “Hey, there you are.”

When Bucky just blinked at him, Steve’s smile softened, and he lifted a hand, cupping Bucky’s cheek. The contact was a shock, but it kicked his brain into motion at least. He felt himself leaning into the touch without even realising it, even as he protested quietly. “No, I’m all gross.”

Steve’s smile got bigger, that same softness in his eyes making Bucky squirm a little. “Nah, I’ve seen you grosser. Dev camp this year, for one.”

Yeah, okay, he had a point.

“Still,” Bucky protested, voice a little hoarse from disuse. Steve just leaned down, kissed his forehead.

“I’ve got a treat for you,” Steve said instead, ignoring Bucky’s annoyed pout. “But you’ve gotta do something first, okay?”

“Not a present if I have to earn it,” Bucky mumbled, eyes dropping closed.

Steve laughed at that, head thrown back. “Never said it was a present. Treats you gotta earn.”

Steve waited after that, not offering anything more, and Bucky heaved out a sigh. “What is it?” he mumbled, petulant.

“The treat, or the price?”

Bucky frowned, lips pressing together tight as he did, and his eyes opened again with a snap as he felt the brush of Steve’s mouth against his own. “Both,” he said eventually.

“The treat is a surprise. The price? You gotta go have a shower.”

Bucky stared up at Steve, then closed his eyes again. “Why.”

Steve, lovely, sweet, take no shits Steve, responded bluntly. “Because you smell.” Bucky just snorted in response.

“I’m serious. You smell, your hair is a mess, and you’re breaking out. You’ll feel a lot better when you’re clean, I promise.” Steve continued to speak, voice warm but firm. “There’s no one around, there’ll be no one in the bathroom. I don’t care if you’re going to wallow, Buck. But you’re going to do it clean.”

Bucky let out a breath, mulling it over. He was gross, he knew he was. His hair was sticking to his forehead, he didn’t want to think about how much of a mess his skin was. He probably did smell. That was almost certainly the reason for the open window, despite it still being cold outside.

He took a breath in, slow, and let it out steadily. He’d already made up his mind, he just had to say it, commit to it. “Come with me?”

Steve smiled, a teasing light in his eyes that Bucky had missed. “I can’t come into the shower with you, but I’ll come to the bathroom with you,” he bargained. Bucky knew it was as good as he was going to get. He dipped his chin in a nod, and Steve turned a little, held out his hands. Bucky extracted his own from the bedsheets and placed them in Steve’s.

With a tug from Steve, Bucky was sitting up, and Steve was just a few inches away. Bucky wanted to kiss him. Bucky knew Steve wouldn’t want to, at least until he’d brushed his goddamned teeth.

Instead, Steve kissed the corner of his mouth, then stood, and Bucky followed with a grumble.

 When he was standing, Steve surprised him again, scooping him up into a bridal-style carry. “You’ll have to open the doors for me,” Steve murmured, mouth close to Bucky’s ear. “And grab your keys, but let’s go.”

“I can walk,” Bucky grumbled, kicking his legs in a token protest.

Steve raised an eyebrow, stopping near Bucky’s desk to let Bucky grab the keyring that was precariously balanced on the corner of it. Bucky reached out and reluctantly grabbed them, kicking his legs a little again. Steve didn’t even react, just headed to the door, waiting for Bucky to pull it closed and engage the lock before carrying Bucky down the hall.

“I feel like a child,” Bucky grumbled against Steve’s chest, where he’d given up on pretence and tucked himself in for the ride. He curled his fingers in Steve’s shirt, tugged a little.

Steve laughed quietly. Bucky felt the rumble of it against his hand. “All of this is because you’re too stressed. Let me take care of some of it for a bit, yeah?”

Bucky huffed, but didn’t answer. He just swung one of his legs a little, and let Steve carry him the rest of the way to the shared bathroom. He even opened the door when Steve paused in front of it, fumbling the handle but letting them inside, out of sight.

The room was quiet, empty, not even the sound of a tap dripping onto tile. Steve walked over to one of the benches, closest to the biggest “standard” shower cubicle. He set Bucky down, and before Bucky could move, Steve was heading for the cubicle. A squeak, then the sound of falling water, interrupted every few moments by what was probably Steve’s hand.

“How hot do you want it?” Steve asked, and Bucky sighed again.

“Not very.”

If Steve was surprised, he hid it well, just responding “’kay” before fiddling with the knobs, if the squeaking was anything to go by.

A moment of quiet, only the sound of water on tile, then Steve was returning, pulling Bucky to his feet and herding him into the cubicle.

“Okay,” Steve murmured, hands warm on Bucky’s waist. “Strip down and get in. I grabbed your toilet bag-” jeez, Bucky hadn’t even noticed, “-so there’s soap and a washcloth. I put out your hair stuff, but if you’re not up to it don’t worry about it.” Bucky nodded, staring at the little curtain that separated the shower from the small changing area.

Steve nudged him so he started to strip, methodical in removal but leaving his clothes in a heap on the ground. As soon as he stepped in he heard Steve set something on the tiny bench, realised Steve had picked up after him.

“I’m just gonna run back to your room, get your towel and some clean clothes. I won’t be long, alright?”

Bucky made an effort then, turning and looking at Steve over his shoulder before nodding, stepping under the spray proper. “Sure,” he said quietly, before he fell silent again, just enjoying the water on his face.

There was the click of the cubicle door being closed, and after a moment Bucky reached out, closed the shower curtain. He didn’t bother locking the cubicle, knowing Steve would be back.

Then he reached for the soap.

After a few minutes the washcloth was hanging from his loose grasp, brain blissfully, annoyingly, numb again, skin prickling under the somewhat pitiful spray of water. It felt like a few minutes at least, but when there was a tap on the door, a quiet, “Sorry I took so long”, Bucky had the distinct feeling that it had actually been longer.

He blinked, eyes still locked on the flecks of grey in the white tile wall, heard a soft sigh. There was the rustle of clothing, then something big and warm behind him had him startling out of… wherever his mind had gone. Bucky glanced over his shoulder, and Steve was there, shirt off but still in his track pants, Bucky’s body protecting the fabric from the worst of the water.

“Hey,” Steve murmured, hands settling warm on Bucky’s hips. Bucky felt himself leaning back, trusting, and Steve stepped forward. Bucky’s shoulders thumped into the warm breadth of Steve’s chest. He tipped his head back, tried for a smile. Succeeded, mostly.

“You still warm enough?” Steve asked, and his thumbs were rubbing back and forth across Bucky’s skin. It was nice, reassuring. Bucky nodded. “Want me to wash your hair?” Was the next question, and Bucky sighed softly, nodding again, just a little bit.

Steve’s hands tightened on his hips, and then he was murmuring, “Straighten up then, can’t have you falling over,” in that infinitely patient voice.

“I’m sorry,” Bucky stuttered out, not sure where it came from but knowing he needed to say it. Steve deserved something better than this, than to play caretaker with someone who couldn’t cope with a little stress.

He didn’t realise he’d been speaking aloud until Steve’s hands wound around his stomach, holding him tight, warm.

Steve’s voice was steady as he replied. Honest in the way Steve always was. “No, you’re allowed to need help. You’re allowed to be stressed, allowed to have it get to you. You’ve picked me back up more times than I can count, let me do the same for you.”

Bucky sighed, nodded just a little. Felt Steve smile against his shoulder, lips curling even as he kissed the wet skin there.

“Okay, tip your head back,” Steve said next, and Bucky did without hesitation. The cool drizzle of shampoo made him jump, but then Steve’s hands were in his hair, and he settled without a single thought.

Steve was thorough but gentle, slowly detangling the messy strands as he scrubbed shampoo into Bucky’s scalp. He rinsed, guiding Bucky through the motions of turning, getting his head back. Covered Bucky’s eyes as the suds went everywhere. Once Bucky’s hair ran clean he was being turned, and again came the cool touch of liquid from the bottle.

Steve was less meticulous about the conditioner, taking advantage of the time to massage Bucky’s scalp slowly, work the conditioner into the ends of his hair. By the time he’d rinsed off again, Bucky felt lighter. Lighter, tired, and warm in the affection Steve was giving him.

“You get everywhere else?”

Bucky nodded, thoughts like molasses. Steve made a pleased noise, and after a second of reaching, the water switched off, and Bucky was swaddled in a towel. The terrycloth was rough against his skin, but didn’t hurt as Steve dried him off, then bundled him up again. “Hold onto my shoulders,” Steve murmured, and when Bucky did, Steve lifted him out of the shower and into the tiny cubicle.

He stayed pliant as Steve nudged him through the dressing process, wrapped his arms around Steve once Steve had his shirt back on, everything else packed up. Bucky felt the press of lips against the top of his head, burrowed further into the warmth of Steve’s chest.

There was a rustling movement, then the rattle of the lock on the cubicle.  “I’m gonna pick you up again,” was the only warning he got, but he didn’t have to relax much. This time Steve was carrying him like a child but Bucky didn’t care, just tucked his nose against Steve’s neck and let out a soft sigh.

The walk was short, but Bucky felt himself drifting off again, had to shake his head to concentrate enough to get the key in the lock. Then they were back in Bucky’s room, and once the door was closed and locked behind them, Steve carried Bucky to his bed.

The first thing Bucky noticed as he was set down was that the bed was made. The second thing he noticed was that the sheets were clean. “Is this my treat?” he asked, soft and slow, fingers spreading out on the sheet, stroking it slightly. It was nice, would be nice to sleep in, especially now that he was clean.

But Steve shook his head, grin on his face. “Nah, this is as much for me as it is for you. I’m not sleeping on those gross things tonight,” Steve responded, and that had Bucky blinking. “No, that’s not your treat either,” Steve added, and Bucky just looked at him blankly.

“I’m not leaving you alone today,” Steve said with a little shrug. “And we can probably work out how to both fit in that bed. You can kick me out whenever, but I’m staying as long as you’ll let me.”

Bucky hummed, mulling it over, then tucked his legs back under the sheets and held out a hand for Steve. “What’s my treat then?” he asked, and Steve grinned wide. Steve took his hand, pressed a kiss to Bucky’s knuckles and while Bucky was still reeling over the gentle press of warmth Steve went to the desk, returned.

“I wasn’t sure if you’d eaten,” Steve said quietly, fiddling with a bag before pulling out a small box. “So I stopped by your favourite waffle place, picked you up something sweet.”

Then there was a little plastic container in his lap, and Bucky, stupidly, felt like crying.

He curled his fingers around the edge of the container, thumbs rubbing along the edge of the lid, then lifted his head and stared at Steve. He stared at Steve for long enough that Steve’s smile turned to a frown, and he started to speak, hesitantly.

“I can… put it in your fridge if you don’t want it… or just throw it out or…?”

Bucky shook his head, held out a hand, and Steve took it, lacing their fingers tightly together. “No, I just… thank you,” he murmured, voice soft, staring at their linked hands. He felt Steve’s lips press against his forehead, gentle but firm.

Bucky sagged against Steve, one hand tight on the little plastic container so it didn’t fall victim to the clean bedsheets. Steve’s arms wrapped around him, and he made a little noise, burrowing deeper into Steve’s warmth. “You’re too good to me,” he mumbled in the safe hollow he’d created.

Steve’s head shifted against his, and it took him a moment to realise Steve was shaking his head. “No,” Steve murmured, voice firm. “We’re good for each other. None of this ‘too good’ stuff, buddy.”

Not wanting to argue, Bucky just sighed, the one hand not on his food burrowing under Steve’s shirt hem to rest against the skin of his waist. “Can you stay?”

Sure, Steve had said he was going to, but Bucky needed to ask, needed to know for sure.

“Yeah, I’m not going anywhere. You eat, then get some sleep if you want. I’ll be here.”

 

Bucky woke a few hours later, curled against Steve’s hip, face tucked against his warmth. He kept his eyes closed, bit back a yawn, then absently nuzzled his nose against the skin in front of him.

The soft tapping of keys stopped as Steve jumped a little, and Bucky huffed out a laugh. A hand landed in his hair, carded gently through the strands as the body against his settled again.

“You’re awake,” he heard, and he glanced up, cracking a single eyelid open to look at Steve. Steve was smiling down at him, expression full of something, and Bucky felt the blush tinge his cheeks. He nodded, tucked his nose back against Steve’s hip, and sighed.

“You’re warm,” he said in response, and there was another laugh.

“I try. You alright? You need anything?” Steve’s voice stayed low, and he fell silent when Bucky shook his head a little.

“Just you,” Bucky mumbled against Steve’s skin, and Steve’s fingers stilled in his hair before continuing with their smooth strokes. “What’re you doing?” he got out, ready to be awake but not ready to face the rest of the world just yet. Their little bubble, him and Steve caught safely inside, this was all he needed right now.

“Just writing up data. I have a meeting with my supervisor tomorrow, and I want to have something to show him.” Steve’s voice stayed pitched low, warm, and Bucky revelled in it until he worked out what Steve was actually saying.

A thread of cold ran through him, and he jerked upright, nearly knocking Steve over. “Shit,” Bucky mumbled, fingers curling tight in his sheets. “Shit shit shit, I should be writing I should be doing something-

He didn’t hear the click of a laptop being closed, but Steve’s hands were on him then, warm against his cheeks, and he let himself be pulled into Steve’s gaze. “Bucky,” Steve said, quiet but firm. “Baby it’s okay. I emailed your supervisor, said you were sick. When you’re ready you can reschedule your catch-up session, and he doesn’t expect anything big from you. He sends his well wishes and everything.” Thumbs brushing along his cheekbones, back and forth. Bucky leaned into it, eyes wide.

“I promise,” Steve murmured when Bucky didn’t respond, then leaned in, brushing his lips over Bucky’s lightly. “If you’re up to it you can go back to it tomorrow, but you don’t have to do anything today.”

Bucky took in a ragged breath, searching Steve’s face for any hint that he was lying. Steve couldn’t lie for shit a lot of the time, but even when he pulled it off he had tells that Bucky knew without even thinking about them. None of them showed up, no twitch of his lips, no hitched inhale of breath. Nothing.

After a second, Bucky relaxed, curling into Steve’s shoulder as Steve wrapped him up in a hug. “Really?” Bucky asked in a quiet voice, muffled against Steve’s shirt.

“Absolutely,” was the response. “Anything you need.” Bucky tipped his head, kissed the side of Steve’s neck.

“Can I just… watch you?” Bucky asked next, shifting a little. “Don’t wanna go back to sleep.”

Steve was nodding, Bucky could feel it. “Yeah, of course.”

So Bucky curled back up, shoving at a pillow until it supported his head right, and watched letters fly across the screen of Steve’s laptop as he worked. It made Bucky feel almost like it was him being productive.

 

The next morning Bucky woke to a rare sight. Steve’s hair was spilled across the pillow, tickling at Bucky’s nose in a way that should be annoying. Steve’s face was mere inches from his, both of their heads on the same pillow, and even with the lines from the pillow case, even with the dried drool in the corner of his mouth he was beautiful.

Steve’s body was a warm solid line against Bucky’s and Bucky couldn’t help but inch closer, hand sliding around Steve’s waist. Just holding him.

He felt more human, that’s the first thing Bucky realised. His head was clearer than it had been in days – not like normal, no, but a step in the right direction. He felt an urge, a buzz under his skin to do something, and he flexed his fingers in Steve’s shirt.

Steve just kept sleeping, his breath coming in soft puffs against Bucky’s cheek. It should be annoying, but it wasn’t.

After a moment’s hesitation, Bucky tipped his head twisting awkwardly to check the other bed. There was a lump under the sheets, turned towards the wall, and Bucky sighed shakily. To his knowledge, his roommate had no idea he and Steve were together. Bucky was as out as he’d ever be, but Steve wasn’t, and Bucky wanted to keep it that way until Steve was ready.

If Steve was ready.

Either way, Clément was asleep. Bucky didn’t have to let go just yet. He relaxed, turning back to Steve and pressing a kiss to his forehead.

Steve snuffled in his sleep, as he often did when Bucky couldn’t help but touch him, and wiggled his way closer. It took Bucky a moment to extract himself from Steve’s arms, shushing him with soft fingers against his lips, gentle kisses on his forehead, whenever he threatened to wake. Once he was free Bucky grabbed his key, glancing back at Steve before sliding out of the room and heading for the bathrooms.

When he got back Steve was awake, but only just. Eyes blinking up at the ceiling but only barely, toes clenching and unclenching in little movements that shifted the sheets. Bucky couldn’t stop the adoring little smile creeping across his face, and with a quick glance to the other bed to ensure they still had privacy Bucky crossed back to the bed. He didn’t bother holding himself back, crawling up over Steve from the foot of the bed, smile growing at the grumpy scrunch of Steve’s mouth.

As soon as the bed dipped under Bucky’s knee Steve’s eyes opened fully, but he didn’t move more than that, waiting Bucky out probably. By the time his hands were on either side of Steve’s head, Steve was biting back a smile. Bucky could see it in the twitch of his lips, the soft warmth in his eyes. He dropped his head, pressed a gentle kiss to the hard-maintained pout. Grinned as Steve’s hand ended up in his hair, pulling him down.

“Hi,” he whispered against Steve’s lips before kissing him lightly, dropping his weight to sprawl over his boyfriend unapologetically. Arms wound around his waist, sneaking free of the blankets, and Bucky hummed quietly.

“You’re up,” Steve responded, looking pleased. A thumb rubbed back and forth against Bucky’s back, sneaking under the hem of his shirt, and Bucky couldn’t help but kiss Steve again.

“Yep, and your breath stinks,” Bucky responded, holding back a laugh as Steve rolled, dumping him on his ass. He nearly fell off the bed, the two of them really too much for the single mattress, but Steve caught him with a hand on his hip, reeled him back in.

“Guy brushes his teeth for the first time in a week, thinks he has room to judge,” was the mumbled response, Steve’s head dropping to bury against Bucky’s shoulder. Bucky stroked fingers through Steve’s hair lightly, then kissed the top of his head.

Before he could say anything there was a shuffle from the other side of the room, and they both froze. Bucky looked down at Steve, Steve snuck a glance back up at him. Steve’s eyes were wide, and Bucky made a decision he might regret later, but it was a decision that, ultimately, would protect Steve.

He wiggled free, swung his feet off the side of his bed, and stood, just as his roommate rolled over. He felt the brush of fingertips against the back of his knees and sighed quietly, wishing that they didn’t have to hide, hating himself a little for wishing that. Then the touch was gone, and Bucky gave Clément a tight smile as the other man looked over.

“Hey, you’re up,” was all he said, and Bucky shrugged a little.

“Yeah, guess it was time,” he responded as airily as he could manage. With a glance at Steve, who was still feigning sleep, Bucky sighed, scrubbed his hand over his face. “I’m gonna make some coffee, you want any?”

There was a snort, then the Clément-lump rolled back over to face the wall. “No thanks, I’ve seen how you prepare your coffee and I want no part in that.”

 

*

Bucky’s phone was ringing. His phone was ringing and the only person who would call him, aside from his mother, was sitting next to him. He picked it up, frowning at the unknown number it displayed, and glanced at Steve.

In response, Steve just paused the movie they were watching, elbowed Bucky in the side lightly. “Pick it up, before they give up.”

Bucky did.

“Sorry, did I catch you at a bad time?” was the first thing the smooth voice at the other end said. Bucky didn’t recognise it at all.

“Uh, no? But you might have the wrong number,” he responded after a second of floundering.

A pause at the other end, some tapping, like the person was looking something up on a computer. “James Barnes, Carter University Commandos?”

Bucky blinked. “Yeah, that’s me. Who am I speaking to?”

“Sorry, this is David Lloyd, I’m a representative for the Arizona Coyotes Ice Hockey team.”

And oh. That was happening.

Bucky floundered for a second for the appropriate response before dropping his free hand to Steve’s knee, squeezing. “Hi, sorry about that. I don’t usually get calls from blocked numbers,” he said after a second, and there was a laugh at the other end of the line.

“It’s fine, I’ve always said there should be a better way for us to do this, but we take what we can get.” A pause. “On to business, if you have a moment?”

Bucky didn’t hesitate this time, sitting a little straighter, eyes meeting Steve’s. “Of course, what can I do for you?”

“Well,” the voice on the other end of the line, other side of the country, said. “It’s more what you can do for me. Our scouts have been picking through the current NCAA seniors, and you’ve made an impression. If you’d be willing, we’d like to talk to you face to face, see if you’d be a fit for our organisation.”

Bucky swallowed hard, hand tightening on Steve’s leg reflexively before he smoothed it out. “Of course, when would suit you best?”

“We’ll be in New York in about a week, staying for a few days. Does this work for you?” At Bucky’s quick agreement, the man continued. “We could meet for lunch on the,” the flipping of pages now, “fifteenth of March? At one.”

Bucky quickly did a mental skim of his calendar before agreeing. “Sure, where would I meet you?

The man rattled out an address for one of the hotel restaurants, and after a few more pleasantries, hung up. Bucky was left staring at his phone, confused, surprised, and just a little bit terrified.

“Buck?” Steve’s voice pulled him out, as did the hand sliding around his waist. “Who was it?”

Bucky struggled to find the words, and eventually settled on the words the man had given him. “A rep for the Arizona Coyotes.”

A beat of silence, then Steve’s face cracked into a grin, bigger and brighter than normal. He was tugged forward, suddenly hitting Steve’s body as his boyfriend yanked him into a hug. “Oh my god, Bucky, that’s great news,” he said warmly, and Bucky couldn’t help but laugh.

“It’s nothing yet,” he demurred, but Steve poked his side, pulled back just enough to look Bucky in the eye.

“No, maybe not, but it’s interest, it’s potential. And once they meet you how could they not want you?”

Bucky felt himself blush, dropped his head to hide the redness in Steve’s shoulder. “You’re biased,” he said muffled.

“I’m honest,” was the response. “Now do you want to finish watching this movie?”

Bucky laughed, kissing the join of Steve’s shoulders, safely hidden by his body. “Yeah, start it up again.”

 

*

By the end of March Bucky had had a few more calls, a few meetings out in the city with various reps. Montreal, Tampa Bay, even the likes of Nashville. He hadn’t expected even the first one, so to get teams calling in from all over was a confidence boost to say the least.

Steve celebrated each call with him, but just smiled when Bucky asked him about his own phone calls. Bucky knew he’d received some, had seen the unknown number alerts come up on Steve’s phone, had walked in a few times to see Steve finishing up a conversation, sounding overly polite but brittle. But, whenever Bucky asked about it, he’d just shrug and say he’d worry about it later.

Bucky wasn’t… worried, per se. He didn’t think Steve was cheating, or doing something dangerous, like he probably would have earlier in their relationship. He knew Steve was seeing reps from teams all over, knew that they’d be stupid to not go after the captain of a division one college team.

But.

But Steve still wouldn’t say anything, and Bucky could see the tightness in the corners of his eyes, the pause before he laughed, the way he kept hesitating before letting himself touch.

He wasn’t sure what to do about it. Wasn’t sure if he was supposed to, if it was his place.

When he talked to Sam about it, the man had just slapped his shoulder with a dishcloth, pausing as he did the dishes for the frat. “You’re the psych student, not me,” had been the response, and then softer, because Sam still had a heart, “Talk to the boy. If anyone can get it out of him, it’s you.”

Clint, well.

Clint had actually been helpful, which Bucky hasn’t been prepared for. He’d looked at Bucky, something uncannily knowing in his eyes. He’d set his hands on Bucky’s shoulder, leaned in a little, and said “Steve is very good at avoiding the things that cause him stress, or make him feel in a way he can’t control. Don’t approach him directly about it because he’ll shut down, but give him the friend he needs, and give him the openings to talk. He will, eventually.”

Clint was a godsend.

The only downside to waiting Steve out, however, was having to watch him get to the point where he actually had to face it.

So Bucky did. He watched as Steve threw himself headfirst into his training, pushing himself harder and faster and longer than anyone else on the ice. Off ice trainings were no different, Steve staying for one more set of reps, or doing two repetitions for every one counted out by the coach. The rookies watched, grinning, egging him on, and Bucky has to bite his tongue every time they spoke, finally stepping in and telling Steve enough.

He waited as Steve started to get snappy, responding to the usual chirps with annoyance, then outright hostility. He held his tongue when Steve hid himself away, cutting their morning skates short, pulling out of plans. He knew that Steve needed space, gave it to him, waiting and watching, helping and smiling when he knew Steve needed it.

By the time Steve reached breaking point, it was getting close to half a dozen deadlines, and Bucky let himself into Steve’s room to find him sitting on his bed, staring at the phone in his hand, breathing far too loud to be normal.

When Bucky walked in Steve’s breathing hitched, and Bucky could see the hand holding his phone start to shake. Quickly shutting the door behind him, Bucky dropped his bag in its usual spot then crossed the room. Two steps in and Steve dropped his phone to the bed, hands gripping the edges of the mattress tight enough that his knuckles turned white.

Bucky knew this was his chance, possibly his only chance, to get through to his boyfriend.

“Oh honey,” he murmured, voice soft, and Steve flinched. Bucky kept walking, didn’t stop until he was just in front of him, didn’t hesitate to reach out, cup Steve’s cheek in his palm.

A full body shudder ran through Steve, but he leaned into the touch, craning into the contact he’d been denying himself. He took in a breath, eyes closing, and when he let it out, it was ragged, chewed up by whatever was holding him back. Bucky nudged his knee against Steve’s lightly, and Steve spread his legs instinctively. Stepping between them, Bucky stroked a hand through Steve’s hair then pulled him in.

Steve’s forehead hit his stomach at the same moment Steve’s hands finally came up, gripping Bucky’s hips loosely. Bucky didn’t speak, just carded his fingers through Steve’s hair, letting him get his words into order. He stroked fingers down the side of Steve’s cheek, rubbed his thumb against the hinge of Steve’s jaw, feeling it work under his touch as Steve struggled to get the words out.

“Sorry,” was the first thing Steve said, voice hoarse. Bucky kept his hands moving, let Steve hide, but made a noise of protest.

“You’ve got nothing to apologise for,” he murmured, but Steve shook his head slightly, careful not to dislodge Bucky’s hands.

Steve’s hands flexed against Bucky’s hips, then slid around his waist. Bucky waited him out.

“I do.” A pause, and Bucky kept up the petting. “I’ve been shitty. You’ve just been trying to help and I’ve been an asshole.”

Bucky sighed softly, tugging at Steve’s hair a little until Steve looked up. His eyes were red, the shadows under his eyes more pronounced than ever, and Bucky took the opportunity to shift.

He didn’t say anything as Bucky nudged his legs closed, straddled them. He didn’t say anything as Bucky pressed their foreheads together, gentle as he’d ever been.

He just stared at Bucky, not quite meeting his eyes but close to it as Bucky spoke, keeping his voice even. “You’re stressed. More than you’ve ever been, it seems. You’ve put everything into this, into your study and into this team.  I’m not gonna hold that against you, and this doesn’t make you a bad friend, a bad boyfriend, or a bad person.”

“But-” Steve started to protest, and Bucky shook his head, shushing him with a finger against Steve’s lips.

Bucky spoke, keeping his voice low. “No. No buts. I-” then it was his turn to pause, biting back the words that had nearly slipped out. “I adore you, Steve. I can see what you’re putting yourself through, and the thing that’s hurting me the most is seeing you hurting.” He pressed a kiss to Steve’s forehead, lingering in the touch when Steve leaned into him. “I’m not going to push you into telling me,” he continued, voice almost a whisper. “I’m not going to force you to open up. But Steve, I’m here. Trust that I’m not gonna let you fall.”

Silence, only disturbed by the sound of Bucky’s breathing, and the ragged inhales and exhales from Steve. Then Steve’s arms were tightening around him, pulling him in, and Steve’s head was dropping to his shoulder.

“I don’t- I can’t- fuck,” Steve mumbled into the quiet, and Bucky let him work out what he wanted to say. “It’s all happening so fast,” He finally got out, and Bucky kissed the top of his head. “I need to… decide. Pick a team. Finish my thesis. We need to get through the playoffs. I need to get through the playoffs.” He took a breath, nose nudging into Bucky’s neck, and Bucky took the hint, stroking a hand down Steve’s back before settling it at the nape of his neck. “I need to decide how to move forward. Things are going to change and I don’t want them to.”

There it was. Bucky waited for a moment, and when it seemed like Steve was done he cupped Steve’s cheeks, coaxed his head up. Before saying anything he leaned in, pressing a soft kiss to Steve’s lips.

“Baby,” he murmured, voice as soft as he could make it. “I know. Things are good, we’re happy, we’re safe. But things can still get better. You can achieve your dreams, we can get out of this place, we can be us.” Bucky stroked his thumbs along Steve’s cheekbones, holding his gaze. “It’s unknown, but it’s good.

Steve let out a shuddering breath, but he seemed to lose tension in his shoulders, in the way he was resting against Bucky. “Do you want to let me help you?” he asked quietly after a moment of silence, keeping his thumbs moving against Steve’s cheeks.

Without breaking eye contact Steve nodded, a tiny little thing that Bucky could barely see, but he felt the shift, saw the way Steve’s gaze sharpened, just that little bit.

“Okay.” Bucky started to shift, aiming for the bed next to Steve, but Steve’s arms tightened around his waist, refused to let him go.

“Stay.”

Bucky nodded, resettling on Steve’s lap, not sparing a glance for the door.

Steve took a breath, then another. Started to speak, then thought better of it. Bucky waited him out, running his thumb along the arch of Steve’s nose, the soft line of his mouth. “I need to narrow down the team options I have,” he got out after a second, and Bucky smiled encouragingly. “I have five from NHL teams here. One from-” a soft laugh, and Bucky melted at the sound, “-from a team in Europe. Three from the OHL.” Bucky bit back his awestruck surprise at that. He’d known Steve was sought after, hadn’t realised how much. “Two of the NHL contracts are straight to their AHL affiliates with assessment over the year. The others are conditional on preseason performance.”

Bucky piped up as Steve paused, scratching his fingers lightly through Steve’s hair to keep him quiet. “Is there anywhere you want to rule out straight away?”

Steve’s response was immediate. “Well, I’m not going to Chicago.”

Bucky snorted at that, kissed Steve lightly. “You’re amazing, you know that?” He said quietly, absolutely meaning it. “Any others?”

A pause. “I don’t really want to go to the European league. I don’t know enough about it.”

“Okay,” Bucky nodded, smiling. “That’s two down.”

 

*

A whistle.

Bucky pushed himself over to his section of the faceoff circle, sliding into position as the wing from the other team did the same. Bucky nodded slightly, and the other man returned the gesture. The game was all but over, a few minutes to go with the Commandos up 6-2, but that was one of the things Steve liked about this team as an opponent.

They were pushy, aggressive players, hunting the puck, unafraid of body contact or hitting the ice, but they were still good guys. There was a nudge at his hip as the other wing settled into his space, and the ref finally made his way over after retrieving a new puck from the benches.

The centres moved into position, crouching low. Sticks held ready. Bucky leaned forward, stick brushing the ice. The puck dropped.

Bucky caught the puck that Steve flung his way, cutting in front of the opposing winger. Their right wing, Peter, had just shaken free of his opponent, so Bucky dished the puck to him, pushed forward harder. A few strides later and he had the puck again.

He slowed down, bouncing the puck back and forth lightly to keep his hands warm and ready. He let it drift out as one of the defencemen approached him, waited to the last second to flick it back around him. The d-man’s stick swiped a second too late, and with a twist of his feet Bucky was past him.

Steve came up into his field of vision as he approached the offensive zone, and he was completely undefended. Without missing a beat Bucky pushed the puck up to him, cutting off the player that was heading for Steve, giving Steve just a moment more.

That moment was all he needed. Bucky got himself free, just in case, but Steve had it covered. A twist of his body, the puck sliding out to the side. Leaning into the shot. Stick bending with the force Steve was putting behind it. His stick hit the ice, then hit the puck, technique as perfect as ever. 

The puck left his stick like it was shot from a gun, the crack of impact the only indication the puck had been there in the first place. A thud as the goalie got his pad up, and Bucky was moving, chasing the rebound. Before he could make it more than a few steps though, there was a flash of read, then the goal horn sounded.

The crowd, their crowd, absolutely lost it. There was screaming, cheering, hands banging on the glass. Bucky twisted, feet spreading out to push himself to a stop, and headed for Steve as his boyfriend pulled out of whatever dumb celly he’d been dared to do.

Bucky landed first, jumping onto Steve’s shoulders in a way it’d taken him a while to get used to doing. Then came Peter, the sophomore whooping as he hit Steve from the other side, almost knocking them both over. Then Clint, the big defenceman barrelling into them almost at top speed. Finally the second defenceman, Rhodes came skidding into them. He at least made an attempt to stop before hitting their group.

Bucky lifted a hand to Sam, stuck in his goal crease, and Sam waved back. Bucky could see the grin from where he was, even through the grates of the mask.

After a minute Bucky patted the top of Steve’s head and wriggled himself loose. Everyone else took the hint, and Bucky was glad for that. Delay of game penalties came way too quickly in playoffs hockey.

They skated back towards centre ice for the reset, and Bucky took a moment to elbow Steve lightly as their line headed for the bench. They probably wouldn’t play again that match unless something happened, but Bucky was happy enough. They’d done their bit, it was time for the others to step up.

Two minutes and thirty eight seconds later the final horn blew.

They were already on their feet, shouting the countdown of the final seconds as the Commandos kept the puck, played it in the neutral zone. But, as that final horn blew, Bucky didn’t hesitate. He had one hand on the boards, swinging his legs over without a second thought. As his feet hit the ice he headed for the already developing dogpile in the middle of the rink.

He heard the banging of sticks, the scraping of blade on ice, and as soon as he hit the pack he felt a body hit his, then another, then another.

It was something else, really. Being surrounded by your team, shouting, cheering, hugging, crying.

It was another step forward for them. Another brick in the road they were building, but at that moment Bucky felt like they were on top of the world.

They were heading to the Frozen Four.

 

*

Their next game, nothing could bring them down.

They were further through the playoffs than they’d been in almost ten years, the bulk of the competition behind them. They could have stopped there, gone home heroes, but their eyes were cast higher. As high as they could go. One more game to the final. Two more games to the cup.

The expectation, the energy, had the entire team tense in the warmups. What was supposed to be a loose skate was anything but, each step seeming forced, stick handling too meticulous, too rigid. Bucky glanced at Steve, pulling out of the circle to stand in the centre, and after a second Steve joined him.

“We’re not gonna play well if we stay like this,” he said quietly, saw Steve nod out of the corner of his eye.

“How long have we got?”

Bucky cast his eyes up to the jumbotron above them. “Half an hour more on the ice. One hour ‘til puck drop.”

Steve looked at the team critically, then nudged Bucky lightly. “Let me talk to Coach, keep them moving.” Steve was already moving away as Bucky nodded, and he sighed to himself before joining back into the circle.

He picked up the pace, keeping himself as loose as he could, one eye on Steve as the other man spoke with their head coach, one eye on the players around him. He took a couple of steps harder, faster, and managed to sidle up next to Clint as they came away from the boards.

Just as Clint glanced over at him, confusion on his face, Bucky reached out a hand, whacked him in the shoulder, and said loud and clear, “tag.”

Before Clint could react beyond staring, Bucky took off, knowing that Clint would be coming after him as soon as he worked out what had happened.

Sure enough, it only took a moment before he heard, “It’s on, Barnes!” Bucky pushed himself harder, knowing Clint had the longer stride, and as soon as he knew he had the speed to do it he started weaving around the other players. First there was indignation, but he kept going, and that turned to laughter, then to cheering for either him or Clint as they ducked and weaved around each other.

The tension started to drop, Bucky could feel it, and after a minute Clint tagged a rookie, who looked a little stunned for a second before taking off after Bucky. After another minute Bucky tagged out, letting one of the juniors take his place so he could slide out of the group and catch up with Steve.

Steve glanced over at him as he skidded to a stop, and he grinned at him and Coach. “They’re lightening up a bit now,” he said, and Steve grinned back.

“Good. I was just telling Steve to get some of the looser drills started,” Coach Fury said, something akin to pride in his eyes. “I need you relaxed, but on your toes. I want you guys to get them there, and I’ll talk to them when we head back to the changing rooms before puck drop.”

Bucky nodded, and Coach tilted his head, nodding towards the ice. “Go on then. Don’t break anything. Or anyone.”

Bucky nodded, Steve said a quiet affirmative, and Bucky turned in a quick movement. He kept even with Steve as they headed back, naming drills until they’d picked a few that could keep the enthusiasm up.

Then they got to work.

 

By the time they were leaving the ice to let it get cleaned up for the puck drop the entire team seemed a lot more settled.  Coach spoke to them all, quiet and serious, and Bucky was confident that with that, they were ready to go out and play well.

As they headed back out to the benches, Bucky pushed it all out of his mind, focusing on the game. They’d beaten this team before, twice in fact, but they were a strong team and full of surprises.

And that showed almost immediately. They had the Commandos backtracking most of the first period, chasing the puck in their own end, fighting to gain ground. Sometimes it felt like they’d put defensemen in the forward lines and called them centres, and Bucky was frustrated by the time they left the ice, still at nil-all.

There was tension in the locker rooms, the knowledge that this game was do or die making them desperate, but Steve was as level-headed as always. He was bumping shoulders as he moved around the locker room, talking to people, checking in. Teasing, joking, whatever each person needed, Steve had in him to give.

When Coach Fury came in a minute later Steve returned to his bench and Bucky reached out, fingers clenched into a fist. Steve knocked his own against it, then stretched his legs out in front of him, staring at his feet.

“Hey,” Bucky murmured, waiting until Steve was looking at him again. “Whatever happens out there, next period, third, whatever. Whatever happens, you’ve done what no other person with that C on their jersey has done.” He paused as Steve looked away, poked Steve’s shoulder with his drink bottle repeatedly, annoyingly, until Steve was looking his way again. “You got us this far. You led us this far. Keep your head up, you can lead us one step further.”

He shut up as Coach started talking but Steve smiled a little, looked a little more settled. A little more focused. He bumped his knee against Steve’s, took a drink from his bottle.

 

At the end of the second, they were down by one. Frustration was high again, people snipping at each other over the smallest thing, and between the two of them it took a few minutes to get everyone level again. Steve took a moment, standing in the centre of the unfamiliar locker room, hands on his hips, to survey the team before speaking to them, quiet and level.

“We’ve come back from this before. Against this team, no less. I know you can do it, I know we can do it. But we have to work as a team to get there. We believe in you,” he said, gesturing between himself and Bucky, and Bucky nodded when eyes turned to him. “They believe in you,” another wave, towards the coaching staff along the back wall, their trainers and medics and all of the people that got them through each game, through each training session.

“Now we’re gonna go out there and kick ass, you hear me? We want it more than them, and we’ve got to leave everything out on the ice to get it.”

He fell silent, shifting out of the way as Fury stepped forward to give his usual talk. Steve settled next to him again, and Bucky smiled, nudging their knees together in silent comfort. They could do this, they would do this. They just had to get out there and prove it.

 

When the puck went in the net Bucky was on his feet immediately, screaming until his voice went hoarse. Steve was up a second later, stick in the air, and there was yelling and cheering around him as the Commandos celebrated. It had taken them fifteen minutes but they’d drawn even with that one point, that one goal. They were back in the game, and Bucky couldn’t be more elated. He couldn’t help himself as the second line came gliding past, reaching out and pulling the defenceman in.

“You fuckin did it,” he got out, and Steve latched on too, the two of them hugging the junior that had kept them in the game. Bucky let go quickly, patting Eli’s shoulder, then nodded as he got a pen poke in the back to tell him he was next up.

They swapped out with the second line, and Bucky fell into position, eyes flicking across the grave looking players on the other team. They’d be getting desperate now. Neither team wanted to go into overtime, but Bucky saw it as a necessary evil. Any chance they had to get another one in was a chance he’d grab with both hands.

When the horn at the end of the third blew, they were still locked at 1-1. Bucky put his hand between his knees, pulled his hand out of his glove, and squirted some water on his face before rinsing out his mouth guard. Once he had his glove back on he twisted, looking up at Coach as the third line returned to the bench.

Sam made it over after a minute, and Bucky grinned tiredly at him. Sam was half the reason they’d made it this far, no less, and god but he loved the guy. He held out his fist and Sam bumped it with his own, hand twisting to keep the blocker out of the way.

Once they were assembled Fury began to speak, running them through his loose plan for the overtime shifts. It was four-on-four for overtime now, thanks to the change in rules, but they’d organised their lines once they had locked in their playoff berth.

The time between third and overtime was short, so they didn’t bother heading back down the tunnel, and Bucky slid over the boards, following Sam onto the ice once Fury was done talking, and the Zamboni had left the ice again. Steve joined him after a second, as did Clint and Rhodes. The four of them put their hands in, fists knocking against each other, before they parted, Sam back to his net, the rest of them stroking out across the ice. Bucky did a quick loop of their defensive zone, taking a couple of lazy turns to keep himself warm, laughing as Sam chirped him as he passed. He headed back for the centre face off spot as the refs came out again, and they all got into position.

This was it.

The puck dropped, and Bucky had it on his stick in seconds. He bolted forward a few steps, dodged around the defenceman in his way, then sent the puck to Rhodes when the big man appeared in his line of sight, unmarked by a defensive player.

If there was one thing the Commandos excelled at, it was four-on-four play. The four of them had been playing together for three years now, and the other offensive and defensive pairs were tight. It showed as they played, Bucky keeping himself free of his marking player almost easily, the four of them dominating the ice in a way they hadn’t during regular play.

There was a patch of free ice and Bucky bolted for it, stick coming up as he threw himself forward. There was a tap on the ice behind him and he dropped his stick again, catching the puck as it came between his legs. He lifted his head, catching the moment the goalie realised he had the puck, and then didn’t hesitate.

With a twist of his shoulders, Bucky leaned into his stick, nearly snapping it in half with the force of his swing. It came free of the ice with a soft sound and the puck went flying, hurtling straight at the net.

The goalie got a pad up and Bucky started to move again, racing for the most likely rebound spot when there was the loud ting of puck hitting metal.

Then the goal horn blared.

Bucky let out a whoop, letting himself glide as he dropped to one knee, hand coming up in front of his face in a fist pump. By the time he was on both feet again he was swarmed by his entire team, people spilling over the sides of the boards and running towards him as the person over the loudspeaker announced the final score. Bucky was barely listening, arms wide as he was swamped by bodies. Someone started jumping, then they were all jumping, Sam nearly knocking them all over as he latched onto the back of the pack.

One more game.

One more game for Carter University’s first Division One men’s hockey win.

 

*

Bucky bounced his knee as they sat in the dining hall, fingers worrying over the edge of his hoodie. He looked up when Steve dropped onto the bench beside him, setting a plate of toast in front of Bucky and a bowl in front of himself.

“You’ve gotta eat something,” he said quietly, and Bucky managed a tight smile. Steve glanced around, and when there was no one all too close to them he shifted sideways, until their thighs were pressed together under the table. “C’mon, just a bite,” he coaxed, and Bucky knew that Steve wasn’t going to drop it.

He sighed, picked up a slice. Without doubting that Steve had done it just as he liked, he bit in, humming a little at the sharp taste of peanut butter. It had been three full days since the semi-final, three days of being stuck in this unfamiliar school, on this unfamiliar campus, and that was tripping him up almost as much as the pressure of the game was.

“There you go,” Steve said proudly as the team nutritionist walked in, probably to make sure everyone was eating something. “Just in time. Leigh would have your ass on a plate ready to feed back to you had he seen you with only a coffee cup.”

Bucky snorted out a laugh, almost inhaling a flake of toasted crust, and he pouted as Steve laughed at his spluttering. “Ass,” he said fondly, looking at his plate. “Do you think we can do it?”

Steve fell silent, serious as he contemplated the question. “I do. I think we’re the better team. AIU has gotten this far through brute force rather than skill, honestly, and our entire team can skate circles around them. Even Sam, in all his gear.”

Bucky laughed quietly at the mental image, then took another bite, free hand smoothing down the hem of his sweater. “They’re gonna be just as brutal tonight though, if not more. We need to be careful. Plus that asshole that’s had it out for me since sophomore year? He’s the captain now. They’re gonna be bad, Steve.”

Steve nodded, face serious, and set his spoon back in his bowl, abandoning his cereal for a minute longer. Bucky knew he liked his cornflakes soggy anyway, so it didn’t really matter too much.

“I talked with Fury about that. We’re both gonna be watching carefully, and I’ll be talking to the refs as soon as they try anything dangerous. It’s all we can do, but if we keep the team prepared for it, we should come out on top.” Steve patted his shoulder, as close as they could get to their usual sort of reassurance, and Bucky sighed, leaning his shoulder into Steve’s briefly.

“After breakfast,” he asked quietly, head dropping a little. “After we finish eating can we go for a run? I don’t really want to go alone, not around here.”

Steve was nodding immediately, finally digging in to his breakfast with gusto. “Of course,” he said as milk dribbled down his chin, and fuck but that shouldn’t be so endearing. But it was Steve, so it was. Instead of admitting anything Bucky laughed, planting his hand on Steve’s cheek and shoving him sideways lightly. “You’re a mess, we can’t take you anywhere,” he said, latching onto the more light hearted feeling, trying to forget the trepidation in his gut.

“You love me though,” Steve slurred through his full mouth, making even more of a mess of himself, and Bucky nearly fell off the bench laughing so hard.

 

The run barely settled him, the soft crunch of frosty grass under their trainers barely enough to distract him from everything rattling around in his head. He let Steve call the shots, let Steve set the pace, and he just ran, shoulder to shoulder with his boyfriend.

As they walked around the small quad to warm down Steve shot him a look that he struggled to decipher. “Did you get like this before finals with your figure competitions?” He asked quietly, and it startled Bucky enough that he stopped in his tracks, staring at Steve as the other man kept walking.

After a second Bucky jogged the few steps between them before returning to a walk.

“Sometimes? It’s hard to compare though, because often you get to a competition and you do each part once. You don’t like, skate, then do a semi, then a final. You’re ranked by points, and that’s it.” He shrugged a little, tucking his hands into his warm pockets. “The competitions are ranked though. You get through one to qualify for the next, and on and on. So yeah, once you get to the top level competitions it starts to feel like you’ve gotten through the playoffs, into the semi or final. It’s comparable, sort of?”

Steve bumped his shoulder against Bucky’s and that had Bucky glancing up away from the ground, smiling at his boyfriend. “You gonna answer the question?” Steve teased lightly, and Bucky flushed, looking back at the ground.

“Uh. What was the question?”

Steve laughed quietly, shaking his head fondly. “You sorta answered it. Do you get like this before those competitions as well?”

“Oh.” Bucky twisted his mouth, trying to think back to his last run of big competitions. “Yes and no. Whenever I was international I was pretty bad, even if it was just across the border into Canada. If it was in the States I was usually alright. Nervous but I could contain it.”

Steve nodded, pulling to a halt in front of their building and smiling slightly. “How did you cope with it then?”

Bucky shrugged again, before reaching up and pulling his hood over his head. “I didn’t really? I freaked until I got my skates on, went out and did what I’d gone to do, then got off the ice and freaked some more.”

“That,” Steve said with a laugh, draping his arm over Bucky’s shoulders and steering him into the building, “Is the most believable thing I’ve heard about you. C’mon, I’m sure we can find something to distract you, even if it means we go for a skate.”

 

Bucky wiped his face with the back of his glove, only succeeding in wiping the sweat around thanks to the waterproof material. He shoved his helmet back on, and jumped the boards when nudged by Fury. They’d just passed the halfway point of regular time, the clock ticking down the last ten minutes of the second period, and the game had been as brutal as they’d expected it to be.

Already there had been seven penalties called, most of them against AIU, and at least two of the Commandos were with Asher, the medic assessing whether they could keep playing or whether they were done for the game. For the season.

Bucky bolted after the puck, narrowly avoiding the shoulder charge sent his way by an overly pushy defenceman, and managed to muscle it away from the forward that had it. He flicked it back towards Clint, skated up the ice, and then got the puck back.

He twisted, bouncing the puck off his skate to keep the defenseman distracted and sent it to Steve as the centre cleared the boards to get on the ice again. Steve looked mildly surprised behind the helmet cage to have the puck so soon, but he reacted well as Bucky had expected him to.

A quick doge around a few more defensive players and Bucky dropped his shoulder, checking the forward making a move for the puck as Steve passed it back to him.

He tipped his head, looking for an open player as he headed towards the net, then grunted as he was unexpectedly removed from the puck by someone else’s body.

Stumbling a few steps, Bucky dropped his chin and made after the guy, dead set on getting the stupid hunk of rubber back.

The game had been like that the whole time, really. A slow grind towards the net, being forced back, recollecting, pushing forward again.

They were up 3-2 by sheer force of luck, the last goal having ricocheted off the goalies mask and into the net after being fumbled by a defensive player, and it didn’t look like they were going to get anywhere near that lucky again.

Bucky huffed out a breath as he made a run for the bench, quickly switching out with another player while Steve had the puck controlled in the neutral zone. After a few seconds Steve joined him and Bucky pulled his helmet off again, shoving the mouthpiece of his water bottle in his mouth and taking a draught.

“Fuck,” he mumbled under his breath, and Steve laughed, knocking their shoulders together in his usual gesture of agreement. “Feels like we’re running into a brick wall,” Bucky continued, shaking his head sharply before inverting his bottle. He tipped it right way up, shuffled down the bench to let someone in, then sprayed his face with a burst from his bottle.

“But we’re ahead of the wall,” Steve responded, grabbing his own bottle as they scooted past it. “Honestly, I don’t think we’ll get any further this period. They’ve locked down defensively, and they’re sending out their enforcers and two-way forwards as well. They’re not looking for the net right now, they’re looking for the end of the period.”

“We’ll have to be ready for them then,” Bucky said quietly. “They’ll be super pushy next period, looking for the back of the net. Sam is gonna save our asses this game, I swear.”

Steve laughed quietly at that, clapping the shoulder of a player who slotted in on his other side after jumping off the ice. “He is, but we’ll get there. Just gotta get through this period first.”

Just like Steve had predicted, they didn’t get anywhere with the last minutes of the second. They all filed down the tunnel into the locker rooms with the score still hanging at 3-2. At least they were up, Bucky rationalised as he walked, stick clamped tight in his hand as he tuned out the chattering of his teammates.

Compared to the locker room banter after the first, the second time around was almost light-hearted. The fact that they’d managed to force AIU to go so heavily defensive weighed in their favour, as did the fact that both of the players that had been with the medic had been cleared to return.

They could finish this, but the question was all in what AIU were going to bring to the ice in the third, and Bucky had a sneaking suspicion in his gut that the game hadn’t seen its most brutal hits yet.

When they headed back out for the third, Bucky took a moment as he and Steve waited for everyone else to exit. He kept his eyes on his team’s faces, trying to memorise this moment, this last period he’d play, they’d play, for the Carter University team.

He bit his lip as the last person walked past, stepping into the doorway. A hand on his shoulder stopped him, and he glanced back, staring at Steve in wordless confusion. Steve held up a hand, fingers closed tight, and Bucky knocked his own against it.

“Let’s finish this,” Steve said quietly, and Bucky had to remind himself of the coaching staff in the room.

“Yeah, let’s get this done.”

Steve nodded. Smiled.

Bucky took a deep breath, then headed down the tunnel after their team. Steve was on his heels, the gentle sound of their skates on the rubber mats slowly being drowned out by the yelling and cheering of the crowd.

With a few easy strokes of his skates he was on the ice again, heading for the barrier on the other side of the ice before slowly pulling into a circle and heading back to centre ice for the opening faceoff of the period.

He dropped into a crouch, growled under his breath as the AIU winger stopped by slamming his hip into Bucky’s, but he let it slide this time. No point in starting something before the period was underway.

The ref pulled into position, and Bucky set his stick on the ice, keeping his body low to avoid prodding elbows. The ref held up the puck, and Bucky pushed aside all other thoughts, focusing on the black rubber.

The whistle blew, the puck dropped. The final period began.

 

It was harder than Bucky had expected to keep the AIU away from their net. The other team pushed and pushed, tripped and cross checked, got penalty after penalty. It was disheartening after a while, knowing that as soon as you stepped onto the ice there would be a target on your back.

The entire period was tiring, to say the least. Every time the other team got the puck in their defensive zone they were tossing it out into the neutral zone, and often didn’t even bother to chase it. And sure, Bucky knew that the whole point of defensive zone play was to clear the puck, but there was something about the way that AIU were doing it that was getting on his nerves.

Then they crashed the net, two of their forwards moving full tilt at Sam, puck nowhere near them. The puck made it to one of them just before they reached the blue goal crease, but Bucky was pretty sure it was sheer luck. Sam managed to deflect it and nearly took a stick to the face in the process. Then Clint was there, latching on to the jersey of one of the forwards and getting up in his face. From the bench Bucky couldn’t hear words, but he could tell that Clint was yelling, and yeah, rightfully so. The entire bench was on their feet, Steve yelling for the ref to call a charging penalty, then swearing when the ref didn’t.

Eventually a ref managed to get Clint to let go, signalled for a minor penalty, and sent the defenceman to the penalty box.

Their lines changed, and Bucky went out with Steve in the penalty kill. They’d been successful so far, shutting down all three power play opportunities that AIU had managed to get, and Bucky hoped they could make it four from four.

Two minutes later and Clint flung himself out of the penalty box and into the fray near the Commando’s net, managing to help clear the puck out of the scoring zone before AIU managed to get a look at open net.

As everyone chased the puck up the ice there was a quick line change, and Bucky had the chance to look up at the jumbotron to check the clock. It took him a moment to fully comprehend what he was seeing, that there were only four minutes remaining in the game, but he took it in his stride, unsticking his mouth guard from his teeth for a moment before tucking it back into place.

With the score still unchanged, Bucky knew they could make it to the final whistle, but knew that things on the ice were about to get worse.

He was right, too.

Bucky took an elbow to the face with a minute and a half on the clock, the cage barely protecting him from the impact. A snarling face looked at him from behind the opposing cage, recognition making Bucky stumble. Unlike every other time they’d butted heads, Rumlow stayed quiet, shoving himself back using Bucky’s shoulders. The refs came skating over, whistles shrill, and he was sent to the sin bin. Bucky came off the ice with his stick in one hand, the other tugging at the helmet, trying to get it off.

“You alright?” Steve asked as he came off just behind him, sat next to Bucky on the bench. Bucky handed him his stick, and his glove, before undoing his helmet and getting the damned thing off.

“Feels like I’m gonna have a shiner tomorrow,” he responded, gently pressing his fingers against his cheekbone, then across the bridge of his nose. “Asshole managed to get the mask to do most of the work. Don’t think anything’s broken though.”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” was the voice behind them and Bucky twisted, grinning up at their medic.

“They’re keeping you on your toes,” Bucky commented as Asher quickly checked him over, paying no mind to the annoyed pull of Bucky’s mouth.

“Yeah, so do me a favour and don’t let this go to overtime again,” was the response, before Bucky got a pat on the shoulder. “Probably have some bruising tomorrow but you’re fine to keep playing.”

Bucky quickly got his helmet back on, shoved his hand back in the glove Steve held up for him.

“We’ll do our best, doc,” Steve said as the second line returned, the third line going out for what was probably the last shift of the game. The puck was in the attacking zone for the Commandos, and they had control. Hopefully they could keep it for the last minute of play.

They did.

The entire team was on their feet as the clock struck ten seconds remaining, the coaching staff and professional staff included. They were waiting, breaths held, and Bucky could feel the undercurrent of excitement in his teammates as they watched one of the freshman, Teddy, handle the puck.

Nine seconds. Teddy made a pass.

Left wing receiving, making a quick turn to keep away from a defenseman. Billy dropped a pass back to the Eli, hugging the blue line.

Six seconds and a brief scuffle for the puck, before it got sent back to the left wing.

Five seconds, four seconds, three seconds. Billy took the puck around the back of the net, defense hot on his heels. A twist, flick of a skate, and he was free.

Two seconds. A pass to a free defenseman.

One second, and a shot. Slapshot. Barely on target, bouncing off the goalpost and into the glass. Killing time.

The end of period horn blew, and the crowd absolutely lost it.

Bucky launched himself onto the ice as the rest of his team did, gloves and sticks flying everywhere. He nearly tripped over an errant stick, but kept his feet, all but tackling the rapidly growing mass of blue and silver that was the team huddle.

Someone, deep in the middle of the mob, started a chant, the word Commando’s ringing out over and over. Bucky joined in without thinking. They’d done it, they’d made it further than anyone had for Carter, and they’d achieved what no one had expected them to be able to do.

It took a long while for any of them to calm down long enough to separate out, and Bucky weaved his way through his teammates to find Steve. He was hampered nearly every step of the way by someone pulling him in for a hug but eventually he made it, launching himself at his captain as soon as Steve looked over at him.

Laughing, Steve barely managed to keep his balance, stumbling back a few steps as his arms came around Bucky, hugging him tight.

“Told you we could do it,” Steve said, grinning, and Bucky scrubbed his knuckles over Steve’s hair, turning the flat helmet hair into an outright mess.

Bucky reluctantly pulled away, standing and facing Steve with a grin on his face. Steve looked fucking incredible, if Bucky was honest with himself. He was completely dishevelled, sweaty and gross, but his whole face was lit up, and there was a gleam in his eye that Bucky had never seen before. He swallowed thickly, got his tongue working, and got out a strangled sounding “Yeah, you did.”

Steve grinned at him, getting an arm around his shoulders and pulling him towards the middle of the ice. Between the two sin bins was a small door, and that was open now, a strip of carpet being quickly laid out by a crew that had probably been preparing for this exact moment for months.

A table was carried out, and then. The trophy. The nameless chunk of wood and glass was set on it, and matching hardwood boxes set out around it. Someone Bucky probably should know the name of was given a microphone, and the crowd bubbled into quiet. Bucky barely paid attention to the words that the man said, but felt Steve leave his side. Watched as his captain crossed the ice to hoist the trophy, cheered with the rest of them as it happened.

It felt surreal, if he was honest with himself. Disjointed, like he wasn’t entirely sure it was actually happening. Like he would be woken up, the night before their last regular season game, and this whole thing turned out to be a dream.

When Steve skated over to him, pressed the heavy chunk of wood into his hands, it felt a little more real. The warm press of Steve’s fingers as they brushed his own helped ground him, and Bucky’s fingers were tingling as he took his short skate with the trophy above his head. He passed it on to Sam next, the one who’d basically won the game for them in the third, and it made its way around the team slowly.

The rest of the evening passed in a blur of photos and medals and people he didn’t know but talked to anyway. The sports journalists were pushy as always, the medal around his neck heavier than he expected.

The whole thing also had a twinge of something else too. Not quite sadness, but the knowledge that this was the last game they’d play together, with this team. The season was over.

Bucky was struggling to come to terms with that, in all honesty. He ended up sprawled on Steve’s bed in the hotel room, too wired to sleep, not energetic enough to join the others who were legal and out celebrating on the town. He could hear the beat of music from a few rooms down, some of the juniors still amped up, and Steve’s hand was on his knee, squeezing lightly as he leafed through notes for something Bucky didn’t recognise.

Tomorrow, home. And they were going home champions.

 

*

Bucky took a breath, dusting his hands off on his pants for the third time in the past ten minutes. He’d been early, as usual when he was nervous, and now he was awkwardly standing outside the little meeting room, in the bowels of a training facility.

It was slightly warmer than it needed to be, as though whoever had set the temperature was still in deep winter mode, and Bucky tugged at the neck of his shirt a little, hoping he wouldn’t do something embarrassing, like stain the pits of his shirt.

A few minutes of shifting feet later and a handful of people were walking down the hall towards him. The man in front looked surprised to see him out in the hall, smiled a little as he said as much. “You didn’t have to wait out here, son. Linda did tell you that you could go in, right?”

Bucky nodded immediately, leaping to the defence of the secretary that had shown him to the office. “She did, sir. And with all due respect, the room was a bit stuffy to wait in.” Bucky waited, holding his ground as the man looked him over before nodding a little.

“Fair enough. The heat takes a little while to get used to. It’s a pleasure to see you again James,” Was the response, and Bucky smiled, held out his hand, and said the appropriate pleasant response. The man gestured, and Bucky ducked his head a little, walking a little stiffly through the meeting room rood and holding it open as the other people filed in.

He hadn’t expected so many, not really. The General Manager, the Coach, maybe one of the assistant managers. But there were six or seven people in the room with him, all looking at him with consideration as they assembled around the circular table. Bucky ended up opposite the GM, probably by design, and smiled a little nervously at him. The man smiled back and it was reassuring, if a little sharp. Introductions happened, and Bucky shook each person’s hand, hoping like hell he was giving a good first impression.

They sat. There was a flurry of papers, and then, once everyone was set, the GM leaned forward. “You’ve read through the contract?”

“I have, sir,” Bucky responded, folding his hands in his lap in front of him. He wished Steve was here, or his mother, or god even the lawyer they’d seen to work through the contract with.

“Do you have any further concerns?” Was the next question, and Bucky paused, weighing up his answer. The contract was basically done, bartered out over the course of weeks until they were all happy. The expectations were set, high but doable. The media agreement was hammered out.

“No, sir. They’ve all been addressed and resolved.” At Bucky’s response there was something that Bucky could almost call approval in the manager’s eyes.

“Excellent.” A nod, and a stack of papers was set in front of Bucky. His own signature at the bottom of the first page indicated it was untampered with, and when the manager nodded he leafed through it, checking conditions and figures to make sure everything was correct. He knew that once he signed, that was the binding document, not what had been promised or negotiated. The player’s association rep he’d met with had warned him of that. There wasn’t much they could do about a verbal contract once the paper one had been signed, not without a lot of fighting.

When he was happy Bucky took the pen helpfully offered to him, and glanced up at the manager. The man was smiling, nothing in him looking like he was hiding anything. Bucky hoped like hell he was doing the right thing.

“Are you happy to continue?” The manager asked, and Bucky nodded, voice a little rough when he tried to answer.

He cleared his throat, tried again. “Yes, I am.”

The man smiled wider. “Sign when you’re ready, son.”

Bucky took a breath, set his pen to the paper. And signed.

 

*

It was nearly a month later when Steve walked into his room, barely glancing at Bucky before he started to pull things out of his dresser. Bucky glanced up from his laptop, needing the break from staring at graphs anyway, only to frown when Steve didn’t say anything.

He glanced at the door, just to make sure it was closed, before nudging his laptop off his lap and onto the bed. “Babe?” he asked, quiet and careful, and Steve just set his hand son his hips.

“Steve,” he tried again, only getting a non-committal noise. “Steven.”

That had his boyfriend’s attention. Steve glanced up, looking at Bucky for a second before smiling tightly. “Have I ever told you I don’t like flying?” Steve said after a second, and Bucky frowned for a moment before he worked out Steve’s meaning.

“So you’re..?”

Steve nodded.

“You gonna tell me who with?” Bucky asked, swinging his legs off the bed so he could face Steve.

Steve shrugged, looking at the floor. “After it sinks in, definitely,” he said quietly, and Bucky sighed. He didn’t protest, knowing Steve needed the time like always, but he knew he could at least help with one thing.

“Is there a reason you don’t like flying?” He changed the topic with a smile, watched Steve tense like he expected more, then start to settle.

Steve shrugged in response, and when Bucky held out his hand he finally came over, sliding his hand into Bucky’s and standing between his knees. Bucky leaned forward, kissed Steve’s stomach over his shirt. “I don’t know, not really?” Steve said after a second, frown on his face

Bucky smiled in return, keeping Steve’s hand tight in his as he looked up at him. “I think that’s kinda normal,” he responded, “will a distraction help?”

He waited Steve out, let the man think, and a gentle hand landed on his head, fingers gently stroking through his hair. He leaned into the touch, smiling, and Steve gave him a little smile in return.

“Yeah, I guess so.” He said finally, and Bucky smiled.

First – “How long until you go?”

“This weekend. Leave Friday, come back Sunday” was the response, and Bucky nodded. “So I don’t have to pack tonight,” Steve added, fingers gripping Bucky’s hair lightly, tugging, before resuming their gentle strokes.

Bucky thought about it for a second, then said bluntly, “I’d suck your dick but you don’t have a proper lock on your door.” That startled a laugh out of Steve, and Bucky grinned up at him.

“What,” Steve said, raising his eyebrows as overdramatically as possible. “You’ll do it in your room but not here?” He tugged at Bucky’s hair again, just lightly, but enough to remind Bucky exactly who had the upper hand right now. Bucky couldn’t really care less. At that point at least, he was too busy poking and prodding, providing the distraction Steve had asked for.

He tugged on Steve’s hand, using their linked fingers to pull Steve in closer before resting his chin on Steve’s stomach. “My room has a proper lock. With a key. Yours has a pop tab lock that someone can open with a thin enough finger if you do it the right way.”

Steve grumbled, taking another step and pushing Bucky off balance with it. Bucky let himself fall back onto the bed, raising an eyebrow, and Steve used their joined hands to nudge his laptop out of the way. Bucky raised an eyebrow in warning but Steve just shook his head.

A knee settled by Bucky’s hip, then Steve was leaning over him, pressing a kiss to his chin. Bucky hummed, but when Steve’s lips moved down to brush over his throat Bucky mumbled out a “Steve” in warning that was a little clearer. Steve just shook his head, kissing Bucky’s collarbone before tucking his face against Bucky’s shoulder.

Steve heaved out a breath then flopped sideways, falling to the mattress with a soft thud that bounced Bucky a little where he lay. “I wish you could come with me,” he said quietly, frown pulling at his lips. “It’d be nice to have a weekend to ourselves.”

Bucky wiggled around a little before rolling, smiling a little at Steve. “If you were going just for yourself, then maybe,” he responded, finally letting go of Steve’s hand but only to press his fingers to Steve’s chest instead. He could feel the steady beat of Steve’s heart, the gentle rise and fall of Steve’s breath. “We should, in the summer. Before…” He trailed off, not wanting to bring up what was coming, but Steve just shrugged.

“Before bits of paper send us to different cities?”

Bucky had known that it would happen, had known from the start that The Arizona Coyotes hadn’t offered a contract to Steve, but the confirmation was still a bit of a blow. “Yeah, before that. Before dev camps and fittings and media bullshit,” he agreed quietly. “Before house shopping, god we need to look at houses.” The last ended on a whine, which had Steve laughing.

“It’s not so bad,” Steve countered, thumb against Bucky’s chin, resting in the cleft for a moment before Steve stroked his cheek. “If you know what you want, house shopping isn’t all too bad. It’s the actual moving in that’s the worst.”

Bucky shifted closer, pulling a face at Steve. “You’re biased,” he responded, not sure how or why but knowing that to be true.

“Probably,” was the response, and Bucky couldn’t help but laugh at Steve’s smug expression.

 

*

The airport was crowded, but with a couple of ball caps and a dark pair of sunglasses, Bucky knew they were unrecognisable, even by someone who followed college hockey. So, because of that he had Steve’s hand tucked firmly in his, Steve’s bag over his shoulder, and Steve’s adoring little smiles every time he spoke. It was new, it was novel. Bucky kind of loved it.

Steve tugged on his hand to get his attention, then pointed at a little bookstore tucked between the clothing stores and tourist traps. He pouted when Bucky didn’t immediately agree, but once Bucky had checked that they had enough time he was nudging Steve towards the store.

“What are you looking for?” He asked quietly, not wanting to bother anyone else in the store as they entered. “Anything in particular?”

Steve just shrugged, pausing next to the stand of classics and picking up the one on the top shelf. “Just looking. If I find something interesting I might get it though, read it on the flight.”

He ended up with a novel, something new and shiny with a Viking-looking longboat on the front. When Bucky raised an eyebrow at it he just shrugged, paying for it with a smile and tucking it under his arm.

“It looked like it could be good,” he mumbled in his own defence as they left the store, Bucky tugging him towards a coffee stand.

“Text me all about it when you get off the plane,” Bucky murmured, stepping into line. As soon as Steve had stopped next to him he leaned up on his toes, pressing a soft kiss to Steve’s chin, then the corner of his mouth, then his nose.

“Or,” Steve countered, smile turning soft. “Or I could call you when I get there? Tell you what it’s like instead?”

Bucky grinned, pulling back to move forward in the line then tucking himself back in against Steve’s side. “Sounds like a deal,” he said.

They stepped forward again, and Steve snorted, one hand sliding around Bucky’s waist to rest on his hip. “A deal implies I get something out of it,” he teased.

“What,” Bucky immediately said, pushing fake indignation into his voice. “Being able to speak to me isn’t enough?”

That had Steve laughing, and Bucky grinned at him, pleased. Before Steve could answer they reached the front of the queue, and Bucky rattled off their coffee orders. Steve, the sneaky bastard, managed to get cash out before Bucky could, handing it over and snickering as Bucky elbowed him in protest.

The cashier looked amused but Bucky didn’t protest, let himself be shuffled to the side by his boyfriend. There looked to be a bit of a wait so Bucky set Steve’s bag down at their feet, sliding his arms around Steve’s waist. When Steve looked down at him, surprised, Bucky just gave a little smile and tucked his face against Steve’s chest.

“If you’re gonna be away for the weekend,” he started, voice muffled by the body in front of his mouth. “Then I’m taking all the cuddles I can get now.”

Steve’s arms folded around him then, book in its little paper bag landing on top of Steve’s backpack with a thump. “That’s fair,” Steve murmured, voice soft in Bucky’s ear. He set his chin on top of Bucky’s head, ignoring the annoying poke of Bucky’s sunglasses against his sternum. “Anything you want.”

Bucky hummed in response, keeping his mouth shut on all the ways he could take that comment, and let Steve hold him until his name was called out by someone behind the counter. Reluctantly he detangled himself, went and fetched the cups, and when he turned Steve had relocated them to a small table.

Bucky went over, reluctantly sitting on the chair opposite Steve and handing him the cup. Steve tangled their feet together as soon as Bucky sat, catching his free hand and squeezing it lightly. “If you don’t want me to go…” Steve started, but Bucky cut him off before he could finish that thought.

“No, I want you to be happy. Will doing this make you happy, will being on this team make you happy?” Bucky asked, and Steve actually took the time to think it over. He eventually tipped his head down, meeting Bucky’s gaze over the rim of his sunglasses.

“I think so. It’s a chance I’ve always wanted, doing what I love.”

Bucky nodded, having expected the answer, and squeezed Steve’s hand. “Then I want you to go. To sign. To take the opportunity.” He paused, rolled the takeaway cup on his free hand. “I can survive you being away for a weekend. We can survive living apart. We’re solid.” He shrugged a little, smiling at his cup before lifting his gaze back to Steve. “But I don’t know if you can survive not playing hockey.”

Steve stayed quiet for a long moment, leaving Bucky to sip at his coffee and hope he hadn’t said something stupid. Steve’s hand stayed tight in his though, and that pressure kept him from scrambling to take all of it back.

“Okay,” Steve finally said. He lifted their joint hands, brushing a kiss over Bucky’s knuckles. “Okay.” He sounded like he was trying to convince himself of something, so Bucky stayed quiet, rubbing his thumb back and forth over Steve’s. “I’ll be back though. Soon. And I’ll call when I’m there, now and… in the future. You’ll always be hearing from me.”

Bucky cracked a smile at that, squeezed Steve’s hand, then checked the time. “We should uh. Head towards your gate,” he said quietly, not really wanting to break up the conversation but not willing to let Steve miss his flight for something that could wait. “Gotta get you there before I can start missing you,” he added, and that got a grin from Steve.

A few minutes later and Steve was stopping, not too far away from the checkpoint that separated the gates from the main airport. He tugged, suddenly moving towards the wall, and Bucky followed, concerned for a second. As soon as they were out of the way though, Steve pulled him in, hand on his waist and hand in his hair. There was the soft touch of breath against his lips, the silent question, and Bucky pushed himself up on his toes, closing the distance.

The kiss started light, didn’t stay that way, dragging out as Steve shifted closer. Bucky tipped his head, lips parting, and Steve took complete advantage of the opportunity given to him, deepening the kiss. It left Bucky’s skin prickling, his toes curling in his shoes just a little, and when Steve pulled back Bucky couldn’t help the protesting noise.

Steve brushed another kiss, soft and fast, against Bucky’s lips, then hugged him tightly for a second. “I’ll see you on Sunday,” he murmured into Bucky’s hair, and Bucky nodded, still a little dumbstruck by the sudden force of the kiss.

“I’ll text you when I land. And call you when I get to the hotel.”

Bucky pushed up on his toes, kissing Steve again to halt the ramble of words. “Yes. Please. Stay safe, I’ll be waiting for you.” He stepped back at that, and Steve caught his hand, squeezing it lightly before he let Bucky pull away properly. “Now go, before you miss your flight,” he said with a little smile.

Steve nodded, looking like he wanted to argue, but he turned on his heel and headed for the gate. Bucky watched him go, waving a little when Steve looked back over his shoulder, and didn’t move until his boyfriend had disappeared into the depths of the TSA checkpoint.

 

Steve had done more than texted. He’d called, sent photos, and they’d even managed a video call on the Saturday night – a ruffled Steve looking like an absolute angel in the glow of a nightstand lamp.

But, Bucky realised as he stood in the arrivals lounge of the airport on Sunday, it hadn’t really been the same. He wanted more, he wanted to be able to hold Steve’s hand and kiss him whenever he felt like it. Sure, some days he didn’t see Steve outside of team practice, sometimes they didn’t even have that, needing the space or the time to work on things. But even then, Steve had been there if they’d wanted to meet up. He’d only been a couple of minutes away, not a couple of states away.

Bucky was jerked out of his thoughts by a rattling screech, then the baggage carousel treadmill kicked into life with a jerk. He bounced on his toes a little, knowing what that meant, and the first few people started filtering out of the doors as the first bags came out of their little tunnel.

Steve didn’t have checked luggage so Bucky didn’t bother looking there, just craned his neck to look over the throng of people.

He saw a flash of gold hair and he started to push through the people around him, apologising as he did. The flash of a smile and he moved faster, basically jogging as he finally got free of the press of people.

And there he was, walking towards Bucky with a spring in his step and a grin on his face.

Bucky couldn’t help himself then, knowing Steve would give him shit for it probably for the rest of their lives. He broke into a jog, then a flat out run, people moving out of his way as he came barrelling past. He watched as Steve dropped his bag, held out his arms, and he jumped at the last second, latching onto Steve with arms and legs as Steve laughed at him.

But even as he did, Steve’s arms came around him, holding him up and holding him tight, and Bucky dropped his head into the crook of Steve’s neck. “I missed you” he mumbled quietly against Steve’s skin.

“It’s only been three days,” was the warm response, but Steve’s arms were tight around him as he said it.  “I missed you too,” Steve finally admitted quietly, and Bucky smiled against Steve’s skin.

Bucky wiggled, and Steve dutifully let his legs down. As soon as his feet were on the ground he was pushing up on his toes, kissing Steve right there in the baggage claim area.

The fact that Steve kissed him back told him something, told him exactly how much Steve had been affected by the time away, the time on the plane. Eventually he did pull back and Bucky pouted up at him.

Steve kissed his nose in apology, then pulled him in for another hug. “How was your peace and quiet time?”

Bucky snorted, resting his chin on Steve’s shoulder. “What peace and quiet?” he grumbled, arms staying tight around Steve’s shoulders. “With you away all the disputes came my way. Sam was away visiting his family this weekend so I couldn’t even share the load with him. It felt like they all waited until you were gone to bring the whiny little shit things to me. The season’s over and it’s still like we’re in the first month of learning-be-civil-school.”

Steve nudged Bucky, but Bucky didn’t let go, instead holding on even tighter. He felt Steve laugh into his hair, felt a hand on his ass, and took the hint, jumping up as Steve lifted. “You’re a menace,” Steve said into his hair as Bucky got his legs back around Steve’s waist, and Steve started to walk towards the exit.

“I carried the team for three days, you can carry me for five minutes,” Bucky responded, tipping his head to look up at Steve.

“An overdramatic menace,” Steve corrected and Bucky snickered. “How are we getting home?”

Bucky hummed, tucking his nose against Steve’s throat. “Uber,” he mumbled, and by the time it took for Steve to respond he realised he was probably muffled by his insistence in staying close to Steve’s skin.

“Why are we springing for that?” Steve finally responded, and Bucky poked him in the shoulder.

“Bus was full,” Bucky responded, pulling back a little so Steve could hear him. “Train is only running hourly today. Plus,” he grinned, lifted his head to speak in Steve’s ear. “This way we can make out in the back seat.”

Steve’s laugh was loud enough to get them odd looks as they passed through the terminal, but Bucky didn’t really care about that. The fact that Steve’s face was lit up, that he held Bucky a little closer and walked a little faster, that was all he cared about in the long run.

On the ride home they didn’t do much, despite Bucky’s words. Bucky kept his head on Steve’s shoulder, their hands firmly linked, and ran his thumb back and forth over Steve’s knuckles. “So,” Bucky murmured, staring at their joined hands. “This is happening, huh.” He was excited for Steve, excited for himself, but wasn’t sure what it meant for them.

Steve seemed to sense that, squeezed Bucky’s hand and kissed the top of his head. “This is what I’ve always wanted,” Steve started, and for the first time he didn’t sound as happy about it as he should have. “But I never thought I’d find you. But, like you said,” he added, and when Bucky glanced up there was a smile on his face. “We’ll work it out.”

 “Are you gonna tell the team?” Bucky asked quietly, felt Steve go tense beside him. “No, no not that. Who you signed with.” Steve huffed out a sigh, squeezed Bucky’s hand again.

“They’ll know anyway,” he finally responded. It’s probably all over that stupid app by now. Just like you were,” he added, and Bucky groaned quietly at the reminder.

“They were on my ass for like a week after that,” Bucky mumbled, and Steve laughed.

“What was it? ‘First openly gay NHL player’?” Steve recounted, and Bucky grumbled into Steve’s shoulder. “More like ‘Biggest headache for the NHL association.’ I give it like a week before you’re ripping their shitty inclusion efforts to shreds.”

Bucky rolled his eyes, and the driver thankfully didn’t say anything. “Like you haven’t already got scathing tweets ready to go,” he retorted, and Steve just grinned. “Don’t make me out to be the asshole in this relationship, you’re like three times worse than me.”

Steve shrugged, jiggling Bucky’s head a little until Bucky poked his thigh. “Yeah, but they don’t know it’s coming. If they don’t expect it from you, they’re idiots, and you’re going to rip them to shreds.”

Bucky thought about that for a few seconds, then shrugged. “Okay, but I reserve the right to be there when you chew them out for the first time.”

Steve was quiet for a moment, then nodded, twisting his head to kiss the top of Steve’s. “If it’s planned, yes.”

Bucky hummed quietly at that, then tipped his head. “Okay. Now tell me about your trip, did they do the full tour?”

 

*

“So.”

Bucky glanced up, thumb stilling. Smiled a little as he realised it was Steve. He shifted over on the bed a little, jersey still clutched in his hand, and Steve sat beside him. He twisted, lifting one knee up, and leaned forward, resting his head on Steve’s shoulder lightly.

He felt a tug on the fabric in his hand, resisted for a second before letting it slide free. “Do you think we can keep them?” Bucky asked, tipping his head so he wasn’t speaking directly into Steve’s shoulder.

Steve’s thumb traced the line of the B on the name panel, following the path Bucky’s had, and he tipped his head, kissing Bucky’s forehead. Bucky’s eyes darted to the unlocked door, but Steve didn’t do anything more, didn’t say anything more. Until-

“Yeah. If you clear it with Nat I don’t see why not.” Steve slid the jersey back and Bucky took it, scrunching it into his lap one-handed. He sighed, soft and sad, and Steve’s arm came up, wrapping around his shoulders.

Bucky hesitated for a minute, lifted his head. “It’s gonna be weird, playing without you.” When Steve went to protest Bucky rocked forward, kissed him quickly to shut him up. “No, it will. I’ve never played without you on my team. Without you there. Next time we’re on the ice together we’ll be wearing different colours.”

It had been unavoidable really. Despite their playing ability as a team, no team had offered them both a contract. Steve had been close-lipped about exactly which teams he’d spoken to, even when seeking Bucky’s advice, but Bucky knew it was true. Even if there had been one that had wanted them both, Bucky had no way of telling whether it would suit either of them. Whether they’d get what they wanted out of the team.

As much as it hurt, it was better this way.

“We’re not too far away from each other,” Steve started, and Bucky raised his eyebrows.

“Compared to the Islanders and the Rangers, we could be on opposite sides of the country,” Bucky retorted, and Steve laughed. “Seriously though, it’s like a day’s drive.”

Steve shrugged. “Could be worse. You could be Oilers and I could be Tampa.”

Bucky raised his eyebrows, letting mock-indignation spread over his face. “Oilers? Why am I the one in orange?”

As Steve snickered Bucky set his head on Steve’s shoulder again, arm sliding around Steve’s waist. “How are we gonna do this?” He said quietly, pushing the joking aside. “Like, I’m happy with you. I’m happy with us, how we are now. But adding distance on top of that? Shitty times because we’re both flying around the country eight months of the year?”

Steve fell silent. After a few long moments, where Bucky refused to look up at him, he felt Steve’s head rest against his lightly. “I already ask so much of you,” Steve murmured, and god Bucky wished they were closer. Wished he could crawl into Steve’s lap and hold him close, stop him from sounding so unbelievably sad.

“Maybe too much at times,” Steve continued. Bucky couldn’t help the noise of protest, but Steve kept talking like he hadn’t heard anything. “It doesn’t feel fair to make you wait for me, to put you through that and not even be able to give you anything when we do get to see each other.”

Steve paused, and Bucky wasn’t sure if the noise he could hear was his heart breaking, or Steve’s.

Bucky took a breath, held himself very still, and said, “Is that what you want? Or what you think I want? Are you-” his voice broke.

But before he had the chance to try again, Steve was speaking, voice so insistent, so emphatic, that Bucky didn’t even try to talk over him.

“No. No. It’s not what I want. I’m twenty-fucking-two and I already know that you’re it for me.” There was a pause, like Steve was picking his words, and Bucky lifted his head. He had to look at Steve, had to see that he was telling the truth. “I always thought, back when I was a kid, that I’d know. That as soon as The One walked into my life, I’d know, and I’d latch on, and I’d never let go.” But reality has a way of fucking that sort of thing over. I first saw you and I was curious, I was fascinated, I was charmed to hell and back. But I didn’t know.”

Steve took a breath, eyes meeting Bucky’s, and there was a second where something he’d only gotten glimpses of was suddenly made clear. “Steve,” he said quietly, but faltered, not knowing what to say. Steve just smiled like he knew, and tipped his head forward, forehead lightly touching Bucky’s.

“I know now. I know you’re it. I don’t want to let you go, but I don’t want to hurt you.” A breath, and before Bucky could bring himself to speak Steve continued. “I’m so fucking in love with you, and if that means letting you walk away, that’s what it means.”

“Say it again.” The words were out of his mouth, tumbling into being before Bucky even realised he wanted to say them. He cupped Steve’s cheek, keeping him right where he was, and held Steve’s gaze. He hoped he didn’t sound as desperate as he was. “Please.”

Steve’s brow furrowed, and it took him a second to work out exactly what Bucky meant. Bucky felt the exact moment he did, the smile against his palm, the hopeful little breath against his lips. “I love you. I’m in love with you, god I’m so gone for yo-”

Bucky cut him off with a kiss, crossing the tiny distance between their mouths without a care. It was messy, off centre, their noses awkwardly shoved together, but it was perfect.

“I love you,” Steve murmured against his lips, and Bucky couldn’t help the laugh that slipped out.  He dropped his head to Steve’s shoulder for a second, just breathing him in.

Then he lifted his head, looked Steve in the eye, and said “You fucker.” Before Steve could start to worry Bucky kissed him again, soft and fast. “I was gonna tell you, but I didn’t think it was the right time. Never thought it was the right time. And you- you just fucking-” He laughed again, pressing his forehead to Steve’s. “I love you too. So much, you have no idea.”

Steve’s body sagged into him, a puppet with his strings cut, and Bucky wrapped his arms around him. “I think I have some idea,” he said softly, hugging Bucky close, and Bucky just laughed softly.

“I’m not leaving you,” Bucky said, just to be sure Steve understood. “I’m not walking away from this. From us.” He stroked his fingers through Steve’s hair, silently reassuring. “You can take all the time you need. You don’t ever have to come out if you aren’t ready. But I’m gonna be at your side the entire time, as your friend, as your partner. Got it?”

Steve nodded, didn’t protest for a second. After a minute he pulled back, and Bucky’s eyes slid to the door again, still mercifully closed. “What a pair we’ll be,” Steve said quietly, stroking a hand over Bucky’s cheek. Bucky leaned into it for the split second it was there, sighing quietly as it fell away. “Bucky Barnes of the Coyotes and Steve Rogers of the Avalanche. Can you imagine what people will say?”

Bucky snorted, leaned in again and brushed his lips over Steve’s. “I don’t care what they say.” He felt more than saw Steve’s smile, then fell back against his pillows, looking up at Steve with a little smile in return. “Now that we’ve got that sorted,” he said, wiggling around until he could unfold his legs and stick them in Steve’s lap. A hand immediately curled around one calf and he smiled up at Steve. “How are we gonna do this? Trips between games, an insane amount of skype calling time, crashing at each other’s places when we play each other?”

Steve thought for a minute, leaning back and bracing himself on one hand. “Yeah, I don’t see why not? We get bye weeks as well, and we can work out the rest as we go?”

Bucky nodded, wiggling his feet until Steve shifted, gave him room to get his legs in Steve’s lap. “I’m gonna give you a key. It’s gonna be sickeningly domestic,” he said, smile not fading for a second. “We’re gonna house shop together. Furniture shop together. Car shop together.”

“You demand a lot,” Steve said, and Bucky didn’t even have to look at Steve for a second to see that Steve was joking.

“It’s gonna be domestic as fuck,” Bucky repeated, and Steve squeezed his foot lightly.

“Yes,” Steve agreed, and Bucky relaxed into the mattress. “It will be. We gotta get there first though,” he added and Bucky huffed out a sigh in response.

“I’m nearly finished,” he mumbled, stretching his arms above his head. “Just gotta edit and format my references. Then I can submit.” And boy, wasn’t that a scary thought? He was technically employed. His thesis was finished and almost ready to be handed in. Graduation was in less than three months. College was nearly over. “You?” He asked instead of dwelling on that.

Steve nodded. “Nat finished proofing it last night, so I just need to fix what she’s found – because let’s face it, she’s found stuff – and I’m ready to submit. Prof seemed happy when I showed him my last draft, so hopefully that’s a good sign.”

“How do you do that?” Bucky grumbled, tipping his chin down to look at Steve properly. “You’re like twice as busy as I am, and yet you’ve finished before me?” It was good-natured grumbling, sure, but he was still curious as to where Steve actually was getting the time to work.

Steve shrugged. “I write fast, and don’t look back. Half my editing time is spelling and punctuation, if I’m honest.” He shrugged one shoulder, then pinched Bucky’s toe. “And I don’t put it off like you do. Easier to get it done and out of the way.”

“I feel insulted,” Bucky said, eyes narrowing. “I feel unnecessarily insulted. What was that for?” He couldn’t quite reach the indignant tone he was aiming for, so just closed his eyes and pouted. He felt the bed shift, held his breath, and just as there was the lightest brush of Steve’s lips against his own, the door handle rattled.

Bucky’s eyes shot open as Steve shoved himself upright, eyes wide before he schooled his face into a neutral expression. Bucky struggled to do the same, head turning away from the door to give himself a second longer.

The door handle rattled again, and Bucky took a breath, then another. “You stuck there?” He called out when the door didn’t open straight away, and it swung open immediately after he spoke.

“Just thought I’d give you some warning” was the response as his roommate came in, barely looking at them. “Hey Steve,” he said, sounding mildly surprised, as though he’d expected someone else.

“Hey Clément,” Steve responded weakly, and Bucky smiled weakly up at him, heart pounding after the near miss. He poked Steve’s leg, raising an eyebrow at him, then stuck his tongue out.

“You were saying?” He prodded, not giving Steve any help at all.

Steve floundered for a second, mouth opening and closing a few times. “Oh. Yeah.” He struggled for a second, then finally said. “It was supposed to be an insult. You’d have been finished a week ago but you ‘forgot’ to bring your laptop with you while we were at the tournament.”

Bucky pouted, poking Steve in the leg with his toe, and once he was sure he sounded normal he responded, “I didn’t forget, I left it at home on purpose. I was busy with other shit, and didn’t have time fo-”

“You had time to do a beer run, organise a party for when we came back without knowing we were going to win, draw terrible caricatures of the entire te-”

Bucky poked Steve in the stomach this time and the words stopped. Bucky gave his boyfriend a completely innocent look as the words ground to a halt, and grinned at his roommate over Steve’s shoulder. “Team bonding or something,” he said while Steve was still quiet, but before Steve could respond, Bucky poked him again, lighter. “Not like I could have concentrated on the work anyway, we were all jacked up all week. You’re just a force of nature. An outlier, different in ways us mere mortals can only dream of.”

Steve pinched his toes and Bucky froze, levelling a stare at his boyfriend. “Don’t you dare,” he said darkly, mood from before completely gone at the silent threat.

“Don’t make me,” Steve said, raising an eyebrow.

“We both know that tickling me will end up with your nose bleeding.”

Steve eventually relented, planting his hands on the bed behind him, and Bucky grinned up at him. “So,” Bucky said after a second of silence. “Can you help me edit my thesis?”

The pillow hitting his face was entirely expected, really.

Chapter Text

With a grunt Bucky dropped the last of his boxes in the kitchen – his kitchen. It was empty save for the boxes, the new fridge was humming quietly behind him, and there was sunlight streaming through the windows, casting dappled shadows on the Formica countertop.

He braced his hands on the edge of the counter, watching the trees in the yard – his yard – rustle in what must be a light breeze. It still hadn’t fully sunken in, not really. This house, this property, it was his. Not his family’s, not the university’s, no. He owned it, all by himself.

It was a little scary, if he thought too hard about it.

There was a thud behind him, the dull noise of a mostly empty box being dropped, and he turned his head. Steve stood in the doorway, box discarded at his feet, smile on his face.

“Ari-fucking-zona.”

Bucky laughed, startled, and Steve looked irrationally pleased. He crossed the room, hands landing on Bucky’s hips, and Bucky stretched up on his toes to kiss his chin. “Yeah,” he said quietly. “It’s already fuckin hot.”

Steve opened his mouth and Bucky pre-emptively kissed him quiet. “Shush. I didn’t pick it for the weather and you know it.” As Steve dropped his head, there was the sound of a phone camera behind Steve. Bucky tipped his head to look over Steve’s shoulder as his boyfriend turned his head, and he rolled his eyes when he saw his mother in the doorway.

“Sorry,” she started, but she didn’t look sorry in the slightest. “It’s a day of firsts, I’m a little photo-happy.” She blinked a few times rapidly and Bucky kissed Steve’s cheek before sliding out of his now-slack grip. He crossed to his mother, wrapping her up into a hug.

“Sorry,” she said again, but her voice sounded a little wet, and the patch of his shirt that her face was resting on felt a little damp. “My baby is all grown up, moving out.”

“I moved out to go to college,” Bucky reminded her softly, but hugged her tighter.

“That wasn’t a full move-out,” Winnie argued, voice soft. “All of your stuff was still at home, and you came back for the summer. This is for real this time. And you’re out here all alone.”

Bucky sighed, not willing to get into that argument with her again, and just held her until she was pulling back, wiping her face. “I’ve got Steve,” he said as she did, smiling over his shoulder as he felt his boyfriend’s hands settle on his waist. “He’s staying for a few weeks until his place is ready.”

His mom tutted under her breath at that, but lifted her phone, snapped another photo before he could protest. “If you’re moving out,” she said before he could even open his mouth. “Then I reserve the right to take as many photos as I want.”

Bucky pretended to think about it, got the jab of a pointy finger in his stomach in return. “Okay, okay fine. Is the truck unpacked?”

As he’d hoped, she latched onto the topic as he leaned back against Steve, running him through what had arrived, and still needed to show up. “The smaller truck got caught in traffic,” she informed him once she had finished listing everything off. “I had a call from the guys a few minutes ago. They’ll be here soon, then it’s just the boxes to unpack.”

Bucky nodded as Steve squeezed his hands lightly, before he checked the time on his phone. “I was just gonna do the essentials, then do my room. The rest can wait until tomorrow,” he said with a little shrug. “What time is your flight?”

Winnie raised an eyebrow at him, and he gave her an innocent smile. “Five o’clock tomorrow afternoon,” she responded, long suffering. “But we need to be there before four.” Bucky nodded a little, patted Steve’s hands.

“Then you can help me decide where everything goes,” he said with a smile, and stuck his tongue out at her sceptical expression. “Honestly, it’ll take me weeks to get everything unpacked,” he said after a second. “So some stuff is gonna have to wait.”

She opened her mouth, and just before she could get anything out there was a honk from outside. “Oh, truck’s here,” she said, immediately turning and heading back into the living room. “I’m not done with you yet,” she called over her shoulder as she walked out the front door, and Bucky just waved at her.

As soon as she was gone he turned in place, stretching up on his toes and kissing Steve lightly. “Sorry,” he said, his turn to apologise, but Steve just laughed.

“I know what she’s like,” he said, amused, and hugged Bucky tight. “She’s just worried about you.”

“I know,” Bucky responded quietly, pressing his nose under the curve of Steve’s jaw, kissing the skin there. “She was the same when Becca moved out. Will probably be the same when one of us moves to a new place.” He shrugged a little, stepped back, catching Steve’s hands in his. “C’mon, before she micromanages the movers to death.”

 

The movers were gone. His family had been bundled off to the airport. The boxes that still had to be unpacked were put in places where he’d actually remember their existence. The empty shell of an average house in Phoenix had become the very start of a home. His home.

Bucky let himself stand in the doorway for a minute, watching Steve move around the living room like he owned it. There was a smile on his face that Bucky couldn’t help but echo, Steve’s hands sure as he wiped bits of packaging dust off a cabinet, straightened a couple of frames that had been hastily set down.

Eventually Steve realised he was being watched, and smiled wider, glancing over his shoulder at Bucky. He held out a hand and Bucky let himself move forward, sliding his hand into Steve’s.

“Hey,” he murmured softly, and Steve smiled in response, soft and warm.

“Hi,” Steve said softly, pulling his free hand up and brushing Bucky’s hair off his face. “How are you doing?”

Bucky opened his mouth to give a generic response, but at Steve’s look he closed it, teeth sinking into his lower lip as he actually weighed himself up.

“It’s been a full-on weekend,” he responded eventually. “I’m just glad I’m not doing it alone.”

Steve’s grin softened and he cupped Bucky’s cheeks, leaning in and kissing his forehead. Bucky melted a little at the gentle contact, loosely circling Steve’s wrists with his fingers. “You’ll never have to do it alone,” Steve murmured, stroking his thumbs over Bucky’s cheekbones. Bucky shivered at the contact, at the weight of Steve’s gaze.

After a charged moment, Bucky pushed up onto his toes without breaking eye contact with Steve. He let his hands slide up Steve’s arms, wrapped them around Steve’s shoulders as he closed the distance between them. The first kiss was soft, often was between them, but as soon as he felt the flick of Steve’s tongue against his lower lip Bucky parted his, let Steve take over.

It was grounding, really. Everything in his life was flipped on his head, everything except Steve, the way Steve looked at him, the way Steve kissed him. Bucky clutched at his shoulders, sagged into the steadiness of Steve’s body, kissed Steve back for all he was worth.

 

Later, much later, Bucky curled into Steve’s side, snuggled into his warmth instead of fishing for the blankets that had been kicked off the end of the bed. He traced absent shapes over Steve’s chest, watching Steve’s muscles flex whenever he hit a particularly sensitive or ticklish spot. Steve retaliated by combing fingers through his hair, soothing until his fingers caught, tugged, sending a wave of heat through him that his body was too tired to do anything with.

Bucky tipped his head, kissed somewhere to the side of Steve’s nipple, then rested his chin on his boyfriend’s pec. “I’m still not sure I believe it,” he said quietly, breaking the easy silence between them. Steve raised an eyebrow, tipped his head to look at Bucky, and opened his mouth. Recognising the look, Bucky reached up, shoving a finger in his mouth before he could speak, and talking over the indignant noise Steve made.

“Not you, you’ve done a very good job of reminding me how real you are.” He pulled his finger out after Steve nipped it lightly, and settled his hand back on Steve’s chest. “Five years ago, I’d never have believed it if someone told me this is where I’d be. What I’d be doing. Five years ago I couldn’t even hold a hockey stick properly, and now I’m signed on a professional team. I’ve been part of a championship winning D1 team. I live in Arizona for god’s sake.”

At that Steve seemed to give up on holding back a laugh, chest shaking under Bucky’s palm, and Bucky smiled, shook his head. “It’s true. I thought maybe I’d get through college somehow, maybe I’d compete nationally, maybe I’d make international. Didn’t expect to win anything, but I thought hey, maybe I’ll qualify, and that was good enough for me then.”

Steve settled, shifted a little, and Bucky glanced up to see the small frown on his face. “You’re an amazing skater, don’t sell yourself short,” he argued, and Bucky couldn’t shake the fond smile.

“I’ve been out of the circuit for four years now, things would have moved way past me. I’m not saying I’m not proud of what I’ve accomplished, but it’s just. Not where I thought I’d be?”

Steve rolled over at that, hot skin sliding against Bucky’s, and as exhausted as he was, Bucky felt something inside him perk up a little in interest. Once he was on his side he paused, palm settling hot and heavy on Bucky’s waist before sliding down, easy as anything, to cup his thigh.

“Are you happy?” Steve asked once he was happily settled. “With where you are, with what you’ve managed to do?” He sounded genuinely interested, concerned that maybe Bucky was regretting some part of his life.

Bucky hastened to reassure him, kissing his nose lightly before speaking. “Yeah. I’m happy with you, with us, with this strange life we have together. I’m happy with this team, I think it’ll work out well. I’m happy, more than I ever thought I’d be.”

Steve nodded a little, tugged at Bucky’s thigh until he looped it over Steve’s hips. Steve, predictably, ended up with a hand on Bucky’s ass, and Bucky snorted, dropping his head into the hollow between Steve’s shoulder and neck.

“What about you?” He asked after a moment of silence, pressing kiss to Steve’s shoulder once the words were out. “I know you’ve always said NHL was your goal. But are you happy with the team you’ve signed? Do you think you’ll be happy in Denver?”

The following silence was a touch longer than he expected, but he stroked a hand down Steve’s side, let him think about it for a minute, two.

“I do,” Steve said eventually. “I do think this is the best team for me right now, I do think they’ll have the best opportunities for me. I think I’ll be happy with them, but I know I’ll be happiest when you’re there with me. Even if it means we’re facing each other on the ice.”

“Sap,” Bucky said, quietly more than a little bit pleased. “We’re not that far away. I can come visit, and so can you.” He paused, waited for Steve’s agreeing hum before continuing. “Anyways, you’re here for a few more weeks. Might as well make the most of it.”

Steve’s hand squeezed lightly, and Steve’s voice was a low rumble. “And how do you suppose we do that?”

Bucky grinned against his shoulder, than planted another kiss there, a little closer to Steve’s neck than the last. “I dunno,” he drawled, feeling Steve’s body tense under his leg. “You tell me.”

Steve rolled again, getting Bucky on his back and looming over him. “How about I show you instead?” Steve responded before diving in for a kiss, and yeah, Bucky could handle that.

 

*

Bucky had thought Carter’s training camps had been brutal. Had conditioned himself over the summer to be in shape for them, had set the bar high for himself every single time and come out dead on his feet, but always, always after proving he was good enough to be there.

The Arizona Coyotes’ Development Camp had been difficult, but coming in only a couple of months after the end of Carter’s run through the playoffs, it hadn’t been too bad. All the other rookies had suffered just as much, if not more, than he had.

But he’d proved himself during that, kept his spot in the official team training camp. Kept his spot on the preseason roster.

Part of him was wondering if the pain was worth it. Because sure, Carter had left him dead on his feet, ready for the three hour bus ride back to New York and the three hours’ sleep it brought.

The Coyotes training camp left him dead on the floor of his hotel room in all ways but the one that actually mattered.

He wasn’t alone though. His roommate, one of the rookies fresh out of the draft, groaned softly as the buzz of a phone alarm sounded around them. Neither of them moved for a long moment, and Bucky finally realised it was his phone. He reached out, patting the floor around him until he found the device, then swiped his thumb across the screen to stop the buzzing. Then, he rotated his phone and tried again, because the fucking thing had been upside down.

He cracked an eyelid, unstuck his cheek from the wood floor, and checked the time. “We gotta.” He started, but his voice died halfway through the second word. He cleared his throat with a cough, tried again. “We gotta head down to dinner,” he got out on the second attempt, rolling to his back before pushing himself up. He didn’t try for his feet the first time around, just waited until his core muscles stopped screaming in protest with his hands braced behind him, much to the protest of his arm muscles.

After a minute he clambered to his feet, offered a hand to the shattered looking teenager, and pulled him up too. “Did you have anything like this in your other team?” He asks curiously once they’re both standing, and the guy shakes his head.

“Fresh outta high school,” he responds, and god that makes Bucky feel old. “We had training camps, but nothing like this.”

Bucky smiled slightly as that, patted the kid’s shoulder. “It gets easier. Not straight away, but it does. And you’ll be thanking the coaches later.” As much as they were internally cursing said coaches, probably.

His phone buzzed again and he cursed his past self for setting a second alarm. He swiped it off, ran his hands through his hair. “Alright, let’s go, while there’s still food left,” he said with a smile, and the kid – he should probably learn his name, Bucky reasoned – smiled wearily back.

 

The drills weren’t any easier the next day, or the day after that, and Bucky thought fondly back to the two day camps they’d had in college. By day four he’d found his second wind, was keeping up with the faster skaters on the team, was able to joke around a little more over lunch while the draftees, as fit as they were, still looked like they were torn between throwing up and passing out.

He couldn’t help but grin when they were dismissed for the final time though, shoulders sagging in relief as the coach ran through what Bucky was beginning to realise was his customary post-training spiel. He was already daydreaming about a hot shower and bed when the sound of his name snapped him back to reality.

“Barnes, stay for a sec, I just need to check something with you. The rest of you are free to go.”

Bucky dropped his chin, looking at the coach in confusion as everyone filed out, couldn’t help but grin as he felt a few people pat his shoulders in silent gestures of luck.

Once the sound of skates disappeared down the tunnel to the locker rooms Bucky nudged himself forward with one skate, easing to a stop in front of the coach. He was smiling so there was that. Bucky was pretty sure he wasn’t about to be kicked out, down to the AHL. God he hoped he wasn’t about to be sent down.

“Hey, thanks for staying.”

Bucky forced out a smile. “What’s up, coach?” He stood a little straighter as the man ran an assessing eye over him, then nodded to the empty rink.

“You were a figure skater, right? You’re a lot more precise than the other rookies out there.”

That hadn’t been what he’d been expecting, to say the least. “Yeah, fourteen years or something before I switched to hockey.”

“What made you switch?”

Bucky had no doubt that the coach already knew, no doubt that the scouts had documented everything down to which hand he wiped his skates down with. He went for honesty, hoped that wasn’t the wrong answer. “I wanted to get through college, didn’t have the money for it, so that’s why I switched initially. Plenty of scholarships for hockey players. But I stayed because…” He had to bite back what he wanted to say, Steve’s name sitting in his throat. “Because once I got started, I was hooked. I wanted to play, and I wanted to play well.”

There was a beat of silence, and the coach looked at him with consideration. “We’re currently looking at line placements, as you’d expect. I want you on the first line for our preseason opener, and depending on how you play I’m looking at keeping you there for the start of the season. You won’t be lower than the second line to start with. That work for you?”

Bucky hadn’t been expecting that to say the least. He also knew he didn’t exactly have a say in his placement, so he swallowed back the words and nodded sharply. “Yessir,” he got out, and the coach smiled.

“Good. I’ll confirm the rest of the lines within a week, I just wanted you to know. We have high expectations of you, and there have been a lot of whispers around the analysts and journalists that we didn’t hire you to play hockey. Before you see any more of them I wanted to be clear that this certainly isn’t the case.”

Bucky had seen the articles, had seen the words people were spouting. Hadn’t really been surprised, if he was honest. With the NHL as it was, the first team to sign an openly queer player was ahead of the game, and appealing to the public all at once.

“Of course, sir. I signed to play hockey,” he responded, flirting dangerously close to saying outright that he wasn’t going to be their token queer player.

“Good. Go get changed, I’m sure you’re itching to get out of your gear.”

Bucky took the dismissal with a nod and a “Thank you, coach,” before nudging back and turning. He headed into the lockers with a grin on his face, and his fingers itching for his phone. He needed to call Steve, needed to tell someone.

He kept his mouth shut at his teammates’ pestering, just grinned and shook his head whenever someone asked, pulling his skates off and getting them packed away before starting on the rest of his padding.

He took a moment, half out of gear, to grab his phone and flick Steve a quick can I call in abt 30mins? He didn’t wait for a response, just kept working, but when he heard the buzz of his phone against something in his bag he was on it in a second.

[Steve: sure, anything I should be worried about? Alone for?]

Bucky snorted, typed back a quick response, then got himself into his sweats and team shirt. He shouldered his bag and headed out of the facility, wishing it had been held at the rink in Phoenix so he could have just gone home. Instead, thanks to every team’s insistence on the training camp being an actual stay-away-from-home camp, he had one more night in a hotel before getting to his own bed, his own shower.

They had been given taxi chips for the ride back to the hotel, but Bucky opted to walk the short distance, to stretch his legs out. About halfway there he hit call on Steve’s contact, and the line connected almost instantly.

“Desperate to hear my voice?” Bucky teased, shifting his bag a little higher on his shoulder.

“You left me hanging for half an hour, of course I’m desperate, tell me what’s going on Barnes.”

“Eh,” Bucky said, skirting around a group of teenagers who insisted on walking four abreast on the narrow footpath. He felt eyes on him as he passed, tried not to think about it. It’d only get worse if he stayed on the team. “Had a chat with coach after training today. Gave me some insight to where I’ll be playing in a few weeks.”

There was silence on the other end of the line, and Bucky paused to readjust his bag again while Steve waited for more information. Finally, his boyfriend’s patience reached its limit. “You gonna tell me or are you just gonna leave it at that?”

Bucky stayed quiet for a moment longer, knowing Steve could hear him breathing at the other end of the line. Right as Steve made a disgusted noise, Bucky grinned and gave him what he was waiting for.

“It’s still up in the air a bit,” he said, and tapped his finger against the back of his phone. “But I’m looking at first for the preseason, first or second for the start of regular. They lost a few wingers to other teams over the break, so there’s room for me.”

There was a beat of silence, and then, “Oh my god that’s brilliant, Buck! I’m so proud of you!”

Bucky grinned, but kept himself down to earth as he responded “It’s all still in the air though, nothing gets finalised until next week.”

There was a rattle at the other end of the line, the sound of feet on stairs that were built just a little hollower than you’d expect. Then, Steve’s voice again, quieter. “Still, the coach wants you there. That’s saying something Buck. You’re going to be amazing.”

Bucky smiled into his phone, shifted a little to avoid someone who’d decided that the three feet of sidewalk on his other side wasn’t enough and had tried to walk through him. “Stop It, you’re making me blush,” he laughed, something right clicking into place when he heard Steve’s laughter on the other end. “I love you,” he added, more serious. “I can’t wait to see you again.”

“It’s been like two weeks,” Steve responded, teasing but Bucky could hear the wistful note in his voice. “I love you too,” quieter.

“Yeah,” he murmured, hitching his bag up and waiting for a break in foot traffic before dashing across and up the stairs to the hotel entrance. “I know. I’m an easy date, but that doesn’t make it any less true.”

There’s a pause on the other end of the line, then a hesitant “Our season opener…?” but Bucky shook his head, realised Steve couldn’t see him, tried again.

“Ours is three days later, in Ottawa. I’d miss the plane if I had to drive up and back. We have our first game against each other on the twenty-seventh,” he said, sighing. “We might have to wait ‘til then. We have three days off after that, then a home game.”

“We have two days then another home game, so that would work,” Steve said eventually, and Bucky pressed the button on the elevator for his floor, held the door close one until he was sure that he’d be riding alone.

“I’ll see you then?” Bucky asked, voice hushed. “I’m almost back, so I gotta go but, I’ll see you then? Promise?”

“Of course baby,” was the reply, and it made Bucky warm to his toes. “I’ll see you then, and then we’re gonna beat you guys on the ice, of course.”

And oh. It was on.

 

*

Skating on the ice for warm-ups, Bucky had a chance to look around the arena a little. It was twice the size of even the one for the Division One championship, seats going up until he couldn’t distinctly make out each one, and then going up a little more for good measure. They were already starting to fill up, fans in the red of Ottawa filing in, finding their seats, standing at the glass to watch the players.

He reeled his attention back in, back to the ice and the pucks and his stick, swatting at some of the pucks sent towards him, juggling others, warming up his brain as much as his body.

He’d almost settled by the time Coach blew a whistle sent everyone back down the visitor’s tunnel so the ice could be prepared for the start of the game. A few reminders of the way the coaching team wanted them to play, and then they were sent back out.

In the half-hour since they’d been on the ice, everything had changed.

The seats were almost full, eyes glinting, catching the light as neon patterns and strobes roamed the crowd, played out a story on the ice. They were called forward, Bucky’s skates hitting the ice just after their left defenceman, his centre jumping on the ice just behind him.

The Ottawa players were almost all on the ice before Bucky’s team got the first player out, having been announced first as the home team. The strobes on the ice were still going, spinning pictures and lights that were incredibly disconcerting if he looked too hard. He kept his eyes up, taking a few loops just as they’d been told they’d do, and waited for his cue.

After a minute Ottawa started to line up, and Bucky could see his team moving towards the bench. Bucky kept himself steady, took one more loop around their zone, then fell into place with the rest of his line, and the first defensive pair.

Once he’d stopped moving the lights were harder to ignore, but eventually they faded out, until it was just a gently pulsing red on the ice, coating them all. Senator’s red. Ottawa red.

The announcer was giving his spiel, then a camera started making its way along the line of Bucky’s team, introducing players one by one. He wasn’t surprised when they said his real name, announcing him to the world as James Barnes, even though part of him had hoped they would go by the one he actually preferred.

The cheering in the arena increased tenfold as the cameraman moved to the home team, and Bucky sighed in relief. He saw movement out of the corner of his eye, one of the more veteran players pacing lightly on the spot, and relaxed a little bit, shifted on his feet.

Once the introductions were over the lights came up, harshly reflecting off the ice below them. The crowd stood.

A beat of silence, and then the music started.

Bucky had never been the patriotic sort, always seeing more flaws in his country than good. But, in that moment, with tens of thousands of people standing and singing, Bucky felt a weird twinge of pride in his gut. It was the Canadian anthem first, obvious as they were in Ottawa, but the energy of the crowd, the whole arena, was breathtakingly surreal. Bucky kept his helmet in his hand, fingers tight around the chin strap, and looked up to the screen on the jumbotron, trying to ignore the cameraman moving past them again, camera just above the ice. The defenceman on his left was Canadian, and Bucky could see his mouth moving out of the corner of his eye.

The American anthem next, Bucky unable to help himself, public school upbringing making him mouth the words he couldn’t sing with his mouth guard in.

Once the anthems were done, pack up began, and the refs fell into place, waving the players forward as they all got their helmets on, made sure they were ready to play. They couldn’t start until the carpet was gone, the non-players were off the ice, but Bucky moved into position anyway. His hip lightly brushed against the Senators winger and Bucky dropped his chin, chewing his mouth guard to distract himself. This was it. This was real.

A whistle, and the puck dropped.

 

Bucky hadn’t made the connection at first, between the increased intensity of the trainings and what a real game would feel like.

After a period Bucky felt like he’d left everything on the ice, and most of the other rookies looked even worse than he felt. The veterans playing the preseason were laughing at them, slapping backs and moving through the locker room on their skates, easy as anything. They looked a little redder, a little more damp, but otherwise they were just breathing hard. Used to it, obviously.

But, on the other hand, the other team couldn’t be faring much better

They were up, Bucky notching his first NHL point with an assist in the eighteenth minute of play. The tiredness was warring with excitement, with the burn in his gut that was pushing him to do more, to be better, for himself and also for his family in the stands, for Steve in Denver.

There was a beeping noise, the coach’s pager going off, and a hand appeared in his field of vision. Bucky lifted his head, smiled at his centre. His play style was similar to Steve’s, enough that Bucky had quickly fell into the rhythm of working with him. He had the feeling they’d be staying together, at least for the rest of the preseason.

Bucky reached up, took the hand offered him, let the guy, Morita, pull him to his feet.

“You ready?”

Bucky nodded, short and sharp, shifting his feet a little. “Yeah, let’s do this.”

He put one in the net with three seconds to go of the second period, picking up a rebound off a goalie pad, flicking it up and over the stretched out leg smothering the bottom of the net.

Bucky barely had time to let out a hoot before a solid weight hit his back, the cheering of his team as they crossed the ice almost drowning out the unimpressed groaning of the Ottawa crowd. He looked up, saw the jumbotron camera focused on his family, jumping and screaming in excitement.  Grinned, as hard as it was with the mouth guard, patted the back of the nearest teammate, and they finally disengaged.

He blocked out the sound of the announcer, focused on getting to the bench, gloved fist rattling along the line of hands held out for him. Halfway along there was a grip on his other shoulder, a yank, and he stumbled backwards, falling into the enthusiastic hugs of a couple of the rookies before clearing the line.

Then he took a deep breath, focused on what was in front of him, and squared up for the last faceoff of the period.

The final twenty minutes of the game were a battle, every inch they gained getting stolen back from them, but they kept the lead they’d gained in the first two periods, thankfully.

The twist of a skate, the roll of a shoulder. Sticks clacking together, bodies hitting bodies, the shrill pitch of the whistle, blowing play dead. Again.

The scrape of ice, then he was seated, watching the game pass as the next line took over. He should be watching, analysing, learning how his team reacted under pressure, learning how they played with their backs to a wall. But the adrenaline was running through him, buzzing under his skin, and when he was on the bench he could barely follow the puck. It wasn’t until he was on the ice again that everything settled, the noise turned to action, the puck a comfortably familiar weight on the blade of his stick.

It felt right, playing on this team, with these people. The red and grey wasn’t as bad as he’d expected either, his reluctance to pass to anyone not in Commandos blue mitigated by the training and the white away jerseys.

They won the game almost easily, 6-3 with a perfect start to their preseason. His parents dragged him out for dinner before their flight the next day, and the whole time Bucky’s fingers itched for his phone.

 

*

The regular season swept them away, and it felt like far longer than a month before he was knocking on a white door in a regular looking neighbourhood, overnight bag slung over his shoulder.

He didn’t even hesitate. As soon as the door started to open he was stepping forward, bag hitting the ground as the door clicked closed behind him. As soon as it was safe, the outside world shut away, warm hands settled on his hips, a warm body backed him up against the closed door. Steve pressed in, mouth slanting over Bucky’s, and Bucky flung his arms around Steve’s waist, pulled him in closer still.

The kiss was slow, the soft brush of lips again and again becoming a little more, tongue against his lip. He opened for Steve, nipped Steve’s lower lip as he relaxed into the contact he’d missed so much.

A few long minutes later Steve pulled back, rested his forehead against Bucky’s lightly. They were both breathing heavily, and the smile on Steve’s face was absolutely blinding.

“Hey.” Finally the silence was broken, Steve’s voice warm and husky, and Bucky couldn’t help the smile that was growing uncontrollably.

“Hi,” he responded, a hand sliding up Steve’s back, then back down to his waist. “I missed you.”

Steve dragged his hands up Bucky’s sides, a warm trail that made Bucky shiver a little even in the warm air. Hands then cupped his cheeks, and Bucky leaned into them, eyes falling closed for a moment, two, as Steve dragged his thumbs over his cheekbones. It was achingly familiar, just that little touch, and Bucky couldn’t get enough of it. Not now, probably not ever.

“Missed you too Bucky,” was the eventual response, words on a quiet breath of air. Bucky smiled, caught one of Steve’s hands in his, and held it to his cheek.

“It’s been a long month,” he responded in a quiet voice, leaning forward and touching his nose to Steve’s. “Now I just got off a plane. I need a shower.”

Steve laughed at that, kissing him quickly before he stepped back. His hands dropped away but before Bucky could mourn Steve was taking his hand, stooping to grab the bag lying on the floor. “C’mon then, let’s get you upstairs,” Steve said with a smile, heading down the hall. It had been months since Bucky had been in this house but it felt homey, lived in even with Steve gone most days. There were frames on the walls, photos and movie posters and some of the stupid trinkets Bucky had sent him from Canada at the start of the season were pasted up amongst them.

“Where do you even find the time to decorate?” He asked as they started up the stairs, the gentle creak of settling wood punctuating his words.

Steve pulled a face, but ran his fingers along a small hall table on the way towards the bedroom, if Bucky remembered right. “Ma came down after you left, spent nearly a week just on redecorating until it ‘stopped looking like a show home’. Her words. She even got the first game pucks framed.” The last sounded bashful, as much as Steve could, and Bucky took a few longer strides, caught up to him.

“A puck for each wall?” he teased quietly, kissing Steve’s shoulder, and there was a snort, even as the tips of Steve’s ears turned red. God, he revelled in making Steve blush. “I’m proud of you, you know,” he added quietly and Steve paused outside the bedroom door, turned in his arms.

“I know,” Steve echoed, sincerity in his voice. “As much as I am of you, probably.”

“I dunno, I feel like I got you beat there,” Bucky responded, grinning and stepping in close to bump their shoulders together. “I mean Auston still showed you up in last year’s preseason, but you’re mine. So, show me the damned pucks so I can go fall in love with your showerhead again.”

Laughter, surprised and sudden, then lips brushing against his cheek. Bucky grinned, nudging Steve with an elbow, and he finally opened the bedroom door, letting Bucky go in.

It was the same as he remembered, really. Warm light streaming through large windows, a bed big enough for two people to sprawl on without touching. And the new addition: three goal pucks lined up on the dresser.

Bucky dumped his bag on the bed as he crossed the room, picking up one heavy frame to take a closer look. “Aw, you left the tape on,” he said with a smile, glancing over his shoulder. “Where’s the debut one?”

Steve pointed and Bucky turned, grinning as he saw the first puck Steve had earned sitting on the windowsill with the one Bucky had sent him. The usually opposing logos almost matched in the sunlight, and Bucky held out a hand.

 Steve took it, fingers lacing through his. “Come on, you wanted a shower. I’ll bring you something to wear.”

Bucky laughed softly, nudging his shoulder against Steve’s before stepping around him, hand reluctantly sliding out of Steve’s. “Don’t make me look stupid,” he responded, really not protesting being allowed to wear Steve’s clothes again.

“Never,” Steve promised, lying through his teeth, but Bucky trusted him anyway. It was just going to be a lazy night in, so he honestly didn’t care what Steve put him in.

He headed for the bathroom, got the shower running as he looked around like the nosy little shit he was. He rummaged under the vanity, grabbed the spare razor Steve kept in there, and set it in the shower before stripping down. After poking at the yellowing bruises on his ribs he checked the water temperature before sliding in, and immediately groaned at the feeling.

Warm water pelted down against his back, loosening travel-tired muscles, and Bucky let his head fall back, hair sliding into the spray as well.

He didn’t even have all of his hair wet when the door nudged open, Steve’s head sticking through and smiling at what he saw.

“Your showerhead,” Bucky said, loud to be heard over the clattering of water on tile. “Is amazing. Holy fuck, how could I forget?” Steve’s laughter echoed around the bathroom as he came the rest of the way in, setting a bundle of soft-looking clothes on the vanity.

“You didn’t seem like you’d forgotten,” was the response, and Bucky snorted.

“What I remembered was a fraction of how this feels. I was remembering a lie,” he protested, before falling silent as Steve quickly started to strip.

Not even the hot water and beating pressure could distract Bucky from that. He stepped back, letting his shoulders lean against the tile as his eyes drifted down the lines of Steve’s body. “You know,” he said into the silence between them, “It’s been weeks since we were in the same room together, let alone naked in the same room together.”

Steve laughed softly at that, balling his clothes up and making sure there were towels within reach before stepping into the shower cubicle. It was big, sure, but not really big enough for a couple of hockey players, so Steve was instantly in his space, closing the little door behind him before turning the showerhead back to centre. “That it has,” he responded, and Bucky tipped his head back a little, closed his eyes and preened as he felt Steve’s hands sliding up his stomach.

“So,” Bucky continued, finally dropping his hands to Steve’s shoulders, stroking them down Steve’s arms to grip his wrists lightly. “I reserve the right to stare. Grope a little.”

Steve’s laugh was lounder this time, echoing off the tile and glass and making Bucky feel like he was surrounded by Steve. It was more than a little nice, if he was honest. “Like that was ever up for debate,” was the response, Steve gripping Bucky’s waist and pulling him in. Bucky let himself be manhandled, ended up leaning against Steve’s chest, mouth so close to Steve’s that it’d only take a twitch of his head for them to meet. “Just make sure you give as good as you get,” Steve added, and closed the distance between their mouths.

The kiss was different to the one earlier, jumping from zero to one hundred in half a second. Bucky gasped against Steve’s mouth, and clung to him, Steve keeping him upright as the kiss dragged on.

When Steve pulled back his eyes were dark, and Bucky had to bite his lip to hold himself back from pushing up, pressing their mouths together again, and losing himself in Steve’s touch. He wanted to. But.

“You fucker,” Bucky mumbled, dropping his head to Steve’s shoulder and holding very still.  “You know the rule.”

Steve grinned in response, hand dropping to squeeze Bucky’s ass lightly before joining it’s other half at Bucky’s waist again. “It was just a kiss. Nobody’s breaking the rule.”

And he was right, technically. The rule only counted full penetrative sex in the ‘no sex before a game’ pact. Nothing to stop them kissing. Or doing other things, but that wasn’t the point.

“But,” Bucky mumbled, watching Steve grab the bar of soap and start to lather it. “That was a sex kiss. That was you tryna get me to start something” The rule also had consequences for breaking it, and the person who initiated was the one who earned the punishments. It had never really mattered as a deterrent in college, neither of them really wanting to risk performance on the ice for something they could wait to do, but here, while they were on opposite teams? Bucky clung to those consequences like a lifeline.

“What, don’t think you can go a week without getting off? Who are you hiding away down in Phoenix?” Steve teased, and Bucky grumbled wordlessly.

“There’s no one but you, asshole. But you’d be calling me and texting me every night, and then I wouldn’t even be able to get here for the end of the week because you’ll be in Toronto.” He finally got the words out, and Steve laughed so hard he dropped the soap, sending it skittering around the bottom of the shower.

“That’s ridiculous,” he said, but Bucky squinted at him a little, poked a finger against his chest.

“It’s true.”

“Didn’t say it wasn’t.” Steve grinned, slowly dropping into a crouch to retrieve the soap. “I’ll make it up to you,” he said finally, still crouching and looking up at Bucky through his lashes.

“You always do,” Bucky managed to get out, stroking fingers over Steve’s check. Steve leaned forward, kissed the spot just below Bucky’s belly button and just to the left of one of his more… sensitive spots. Bucky threaded his fingers through Steve’s hair and tugged him back, scowling.

“Wasn’t gonna do anything,” Steve said with a cheeky little grin, finally pushing to his feet and lathering the washcloth again. “Hot water cylinder is too temperamental.”

That startled a laugh out of Bucky and he let go of Steve, reaching for the shampoo, mood broken. “Sounds like you’re speaking from experience,” he said as Steve pressed the washcloth to his skin, before humming at the gentle pressure of Steve’s hands on him, cleaning him off.

“I am,” was the response, disgruntled, and Bucky laughed again.

 

Steve did make it up to him, later, after they’d finished their carefully logged meals that their nutritionists had set for them, sprawled on the couch in front of the television. Bucky had been idly flipping channels as Steve took the dishes to the kitchen, but when he returned he’d had a look in his eye that had immediately made Bucky wary.

He’d made some cheesy comment about those boring meals never being enough, then ended up on his knees. This, he’d reminded Bucky in a low voice, pulling at the waistband of Bucky’s pants like he was desperate for it, was completely allowable within their rule. Then he’d shut up, and done something infinitely more interesting with his mouth.

Afterwards, Bucky had slid off the couch with an absolutely besotted smile, kissing his boyfriend senseless before getting his hand between them.

 

 *

Game day dawned, twin phone alarms breaking the silence with their shrill noises. Bucky groaned, burying his face deeper into Steve’s chest, and refused to turn his off.

After about ten seconds Steve gave an unimpressed grunt, tipping onto his back and blindly patting the nightstand. Bucky didn’t open his eyes, but the shrill noise from Steve’s side of the bed cut off just after, so he must have been successful.

Bucky’s phone kept going with its happy little death wish, not reacting to the force of Bucky’s will. As usual, really. Steve poked him in the ribs with a pointy finger and Bucky huffed, finally releasing his boyfriend. He found his phone out of sheer luck, nearly knocking everything else off the nightstand, but he got the damned alarm turned off.

“Ugh,” Bucky got out.

“Mmmhmm,” was the slow response from Steve. It sounded almost like he was getting ready to go back to sleep. It was Bucky’s turn to go for the ribs with a finger, jabbing until Steve opened one eye. Somehow, dishevelled and sleep soft and completely naked apart from a sheet, he managed to look haughty.

“If I gotta get up,” Bucky mumbled, word slurring together a little. “Then so do you.”

Steve’s grumble turned into an overdramatic groan, so Bucky gave him a shove, nearly pushing him off the bed. “Okay, okay,” Steve grumbled, stretching his arms over his head before leaving them sprawled over the pillows. “What’s the time?”

Bucky braved his phone screen, squinting at the bright light. “Uh. Five.”

“When d’you gotta go?”

Bucky dropped his phone back on the nightstand, rolling back into Steve’s side and tucking himself in close. He’d gotten used to the heavy heat of Phoenix, and Denver in the morning almost felt crisp in comparison. Steve though, Steve was like a furnace in front of him, and Bucky shamelessly leeched heat off him.

“Soon,” he mumbled into the skin somewhere around Steve’s armpit. “Gotta be there for seven.”

“It’s like a ten minute drive.” Steve sounded incredulous.

“And?” Bucky responded, twisting his head to look at Steve. He wove his leg through Steve’s, making it difficult for the other man to even think about moving.

Steve scowled. Bucky reached a hand up, rubbed at the crease between Steve’s eyebrows until it smoothed out. “It’s five in the morning,” Steve finally responded, sounding a little less peeved than he had. Bucky took that as a win.

“Yeah, but its routine,” Bucky responded, finally extracting himself from Steve’s warmth and sitting up. Sure, it was early winter, but it was early winter in Colorado, which meant it was positively balmy compared to New York. Bucky didn’t bother with a sweater, just tugged on a tee shirt and headed out of the room in just that and his boxers.

By the time the coffee machine was beeping Steve had joined him, grumbling the whole time. Warm arms slid around his waist, and Steve kissed his shoulder lightly before reaching past and pulling mugs out of the cupboard.

They fell into an easy routine, Bucky fixing up coffee for the both of them, Steve slicing fruit for a light breakfast, and Bucky had to bite his lip to hold back the words he wanted to say. It was domestic, too domestic, almost, and given the way Steve was quieter than usual, he felt it too.

Bucky slid the coffee across the bench to Steve, then stole an apple slice before heading out of the kitchen. By the time he’d gotten himself settled on the couch Steve had finished up, and a few seconds later he was sliding the plate of fruit onto the table and dropping onto the couch by Bucky’s feet.

A little bit of wiggling and Bucky got his feet in Steve’s lap, head on a pillow, and coffee in hand. It was quiet for a long moment between them, both of them focusing on their drinks, then Steve said quietly, “This is it, huh? This is our life now.” At Bucky’s confused noise Steve sighed, tipped his head back. Bucky nudged his heel against Steve’s leg, and smiled into his mug when Steve’s free hand wrapped loosely around his ankle, not so much holding him still as just holding.

“This. Stealing moments together when we can, busy as anything, technically rivals.”

Bucky sighed quietly, closing his eyes for a second before cracking one, looking at Steve. “It’s too early for melodrama,” he drawled, making Steve laugh, then sat up and pressed a kiss to Steve’s cheek. “We are what we are, and we’ll find a way just like we always have. Everyone else can either accept it, or go suck a dick.”

That had Steve laughing again, and an arm snaked around Bucky’s shoulders, keeping him close. “It’s too early to think about that,” Steve retorted, head tipping so he was speaking against Bucky’s lips. He tasted like coffee, like the pineapple he’d been eating, and Bucky grinned against his mouth, licked Steve’s lower lip just a little, to see what Steve would do.

He barely reacted, annoyingly, just kissed Bucky lightly and let him go, shoving his shoulder until Bucky let himself fall back into the couch cushions.

“Seriously though,” Bucky said, staring up at the ceiling. He tightened his grip on his mug, stretched his legs out before relaxing again. “This will probably be our life for a while. But I’m gonna take every moment with you that I can, and they’re mine, I’m not stealing them from anyone. Everything else can wait a hot second for me to get my good morning kiss.”

He dropped his chin, looked at Steve a little. “Now pass me the fruit.”

 

 *

The opening faceoff of the game, and Bucky was certain the coaches were having a laugh at their expense. He eyed Steve up as he approached, skidding into place at just the right angle to send a spray of ice onto the skates of Steve’s winger.

Steve looked completely unimpressed, but then the ref skated over, and he focused. Bucky shook his head sharply, leaning forward and getting his stick down. A shoulder set against his, and yeah he deserved that. Bucky took a breath, let it out slow, and focused his eyes on his centre, away from Steve.

The puck dropped, the game began.

 

It was tough, playing against Steve when they were both on the ice. He felt himself moving around Steve, starting to fall into old habits, and pulled himself out of them just in time. Sometimes not in time.

The first hit he took wasn’t from Steve, but he could see the way Steve reacted, head dropping and shoulders tensing like he had something to say about it. Bucky shook it off, and Steve stayed away.

Steve was… He was different, playing with this team. Faster. Pushing himself harder, playing with his line in a way Bucky hadn’t expected. It was one thing to watch it on TV, or watch highlight reels on a phone, another to be dealing with it, trying to outplay it. It was harder than it should be, really. Bucky knew Steve, knew how Steve played, to a point at least, but the rest of the team didn’t. Sure, they played plenty of people, plenty of lines, and were keeping up, but Bucky knew how they could do better, how they could do better.

They came out of the first period one up on the scoreboard, and Bucky caught the head coach’s arm lightly. “I know a way to shut him down.”

 

Second period they came out with a shuffled tactic, new instructions, and Bucky had no doubt the other team did too.

But.

Once the puck dropped, Bucky could feel the difference in his team. They were playing smarter, playing faster, playing closer. Dropping pucks instead of taking long passes, carefully timed dekes creating more opportunities, and leaving the home team flummoxed.

Bucky let himself push a little more, let himself get a little more physical, taking and doling out checks more than usual.

The first time he checked Steve, it was small. Barely enough to be called a check, a glance of shoulder and hip contact to keep Steve back, but the expression on Steve’s face was almost enough to make him laugh.

He tipped his head as the whistle blew, shot Steve a grin, raised his eyebrows. Steve rolled his eyes in return, but Bucky could see that he was processing, trying to plan his way out of the situation he found himself in.

When he headed back to the bench he nodded to the coach, who looked more than pleased by the changes. The Coyotes were up in attacking time, were pushing back, and the Avalanche were struggling to catch up to the change.

His next shift, and he was on the ice for about three seconds before he had the puck, wheeling it up the ice as soon as his brain caught up with what was happening. He wasn’t marked by any player yet and used that to his advantage, taking the puck across the blue line then flicking it up and over the stick of a defending player to his linemate.

They kept the pressure on for a minute, nearing on two. The home team players were tiring, and Bucky could see it. An opportunity presented itself, and he tapped his stick on the ice twice. The puck was sent his way and without stopping it, Bucky swung, aiming for the top left corner of the net.

The goalie got his glove up, but not in time, and the puck rung off the post before bouncing into the net.

 

Bucky finally managed to get free of his team, still celebrating the 4-1 win, and waved them all a goodbye. He laughed as they called out to him, tried to cajole him into drinking with them, or whatever they were planning on doing, but Bucky just shook his head.

“I’ve already got plans,” He said easily, not giving them anything more when they tried to convince him to spill the details. “See you at the airport, boys.”

He slid into one of the cars hired by the team to get from hotel to venue, but leaned forward to give the driver Steve’s address before he buckled himself in. He could see fans spilling out of the arena, could still hear the arena music, but he got his headphones on, kept the windows up, and tried to ignore the people who noticed his car.

They were halfway to Steve’s when Bucky realised that he’d actually have to talk to Steve about the game. Would have to walk into the house having been on the team that beat Steve’s. Having scored not once, but twice, the second time while Steve had been on the ice.

He wasn’t sure what to expect when he walked through the front door.

When they arrived Bucky straightened his jacket, leaned forward to thank the driver, and slid out, bag in tow. He closed the door carefully behind him, stood and watched as the man drove away before heading up the front steps to the door.

The first thing he noticed was that the house was dark. He unlocked the door, carefully pushed it open, but the hall was empty, the only light being what was spilling through the door around him. He slipped in, closing the door quietly behind him, and set his keys on the small hall table. Tugging at his tie Bucky headed down the hall, dress shoes quiet on the carpet, looking for any sign of Steve. His keys were on the bench, bag on the floor by the couch, but Bucky couldn’t see him in the streetlight.

Bucky set his bag down next to Steve’s, popped a few buttons on his shirt, and made for the second hall, and the bedrooms it harboured, when he was blindsided by something.

He reacted instinctively, twisting around to face it, but familiar hands caught his wrists before he could strike out, slid down to his hands. A low voice in his ear, body crowding him against the wall just a few steps away from the hallway door.

“God, Buck. You have no idea, do you?”

Bucky made a confused noise, hands slipping free and clutching at broad shoulders. “Steve?”

A hum of acknowledgement, hands on his hips, sliding under his jacket but staying on top of his shirt. They still felt like brands, warm after the cool night air. “No idea about what?” Bucky asked, hands sliding across Steve’s shoulders, arms looping around his neck almost instinctively, pulling him in.

“How crazy you make me. God, I’m pretty sure I was hard from the start of the second period on.”

Bucky laughed quietly, dropping his head a little, nosing in until Steve tipped his head, kissed him. It was deep, heavy in a way Bucky hadn’t expected on the ride home, but hadn’t expected any less than with the way Steve was pressed up against him now. “I think that’s your problem, not mine.”

“Thought I was ready to face you on the ice, god I was wrong,” Steve said against his lips. “Jesus, Bucky.”

Bucky threaded his fingers up into Steve’s hair, longer than it used to be. “You and me both buddy,” he said, canting his hips, but Steve shifted his away, pushed back with hands on Bucky's hips until Bucky’s ass hit the wall again.

“Someone’s pushy,” he drawled, liking it more than he probably should, and Steve nipped his chin before pressing kisses down his neck.

“Bedroom,” Bucky said after a second, when it looked like Steve wasn’t about to move. There was a grumble in response, teeth set against his collarbone, and he twitched, let out a gasp. He’d seen how Steve reacted after games before, had never had the space or the time to experience it like this. If they didn’t move now, he knew they wouldn’t.

Bucky pressed his hand against the side of Steve’s face, gave him a push, and Steve pulled back. Bucky couldn’t really see him in the dim light, but he leaned forward, found his mouth with a little help and a lot of muscle memory, kissing him hard and fast.

“Bedroom,” he repeated, and Steve grabbed his hand, stepping back. Bucky linked their fingers, grinning as Steve took that as the invitation it was, and led the way down the hall.

 

*

Bucky headed down the tunnel to the locker rooms after practice in a good mood, helmet in one hand and stick in the other. He set his stick in the rack outside the door to the locker room itself, fingers running lightly over the bibbed tape, before he pushed the door open with his hip. He grabbed the door when one of the defensemen appeared behind him, holding it open so the guy could get through with his bags, and turned his head when he heard his name get called from the other side of the room.

“Hey, Barnes! Your phone’s been buzzing for a while, sounds like someone’s trying to get hold of ya pretty bad.”

Bucky hesitated a second, then nodded, letting the door go when he could and pulling his mouth guard out as he headed straight for his bag. “Thanks, Jim. Probably wouldn’t have checked for another hour or so otherwise.”

There was a smattering of laughter around the room, then people went back to their own business, and Bucky dug through his side pocket just as he felt his phone start to vibrate again. He grabbed it before it had the chance to start whatever song Steve had set it to this time, and glanced at the screen.

Steve’s name flashed up, and Bucky frowned, dumping one glove on his bench before swiping to accept the call. “Hey, sorry practice ran overtime, what’s up?”

There was silence, the awkward sort of silence in which Bucky could hear breathing but nothing else.

“You, uh.” Steve’s voice filtered through, sounding tired. Strained. Bucky’s heart skipped a beat, and he paused halfway through taking off his second glove. “You have to promise not to freak out.”

Bucky hesitated, then said cautiously, “That just tells me there’s something I should be freaking out about.”

That had the attention of the guys on either side of him, both men turning to give him a mildly concerned look. He shrugged a little helplessly as all Steve did was breathe for a second, two.

“There’s not, that’s why I’m asking you not to freak out,” was the cryptic response, and Bucky pinched the bridge of his nose. “I wanted to tell you, before you saw it.”

“You’re not doing a whole lot of telling, asshole,” Bucky got out, and there was a weak laugh, then a rapid inhale, like it had hurt. Bucky’s mind raced ahead, trying to figure out what Steve wasn’t telling him. Steve had been slated to play that day, the game should have just been finishing up if Bucky was right about the time, and yet Steve was on the phone, with him.

“Okay, that hurt,” Steve mumbled on the other end of the line, and Bucky was sure that he wasn’t supposed to have heard that. “Promise not to freak out?” Steve asked again, and Bucky sighed, leaning his shoulder against the frame of his locker.

“I promise. Spit it out.”

A breath of relief, and then, quiet and rushed like he didn’t really want to tell, but knew he had to, “Imightbeinhospitalandrememberyoupromisednottofreakout.”

Bucky blinked, then said in a low voice, “You better not have said what I think you said.”

“What did you think I said?”

“That your dumb ass ended up in hospital.”

A pause for a second, two. “Okay that’s not quite what I said but you got the gist.”

Silence from Steve again. Bucky opened his mouth, closed his mouth, then twisted, dropping down onto the bench and tugging at his laces with his free hand. “You fucker, I’m gonna kick your ass. Are you alone? What happened? Do they know what’s wrong?” He fumbled his laces, swearing under his breath, and finally got one skate off as the veteran player next to him, Jamison, turned and pulled Bucky’s bag down, pulling out the cloth sitting on top of the clothes in it.

He silently held out a hand for Bucky’s skate and Bucky blinked before handing it to him, mouthing a thank you as the defenceman started to wipe off the skate. Bucky turned his attention to his other skate, jamming his phone between his ear and shoulder so he could use both hands.

“No, I’ve got the team medic here. I took a hit, got the butt of a stick in the ribs. Not on purpose, the guy looked as surprised as I felt. They think it’s cracked ribs, could be a full break on one.” Now that Bucky was paying attention he could pick up the almost laboured way Steve was speaking, the pauses after every few words.

Bucky hesitated after kicking his other skate off, but Jamison grabbed it and started wiping that one down too, nodding towards Bucky’s bag. “Get changed, I got this.”

“Which hospital? I’m coming.” Bucky spoke sharply, grabbing his clothes out of his bag before he started stripping off. Getting the jersey off was easy, but the pads were a struggle with one hand, and he growled under his breath. Steve laughed a little in his ear, then made a noise like he’d been punched in the gut. Had probably felt like it, the idiot.

“No, you don’t need to, I’m fine-”

“You’re in hospital, you’re not fucking fine,” Bucky snapped back, dropping his phone for a second to get the pads off before pressing it back to his ear again. “Put the medic on, if you’re not gonna tell me. Who is it, Daniel? Nate? I’m gonna call Nate if you hang up on me, don’t even try it.”

There was silence, sullen if Bucky knew anything about Steve’s silences, and then rustling like the phone was changing hands. He used that moment to get his tee shirt on, get his pants unlaced.

“You there?” Bucky fumbled to get his phone back to his ear properly, shoving the padded pants off his hips.

“Yeah, I’m here. What’s the idiot done?”

“He was telling the truth, don’t worry,” was the amused reply, and if the head medic of Steve’s team sounded amused to say the least then Steve can't have been too badly hurt. The lack of worry relaxed Bucky a little bit.

“Cracked ribs at the minimum, at least three. We’re at Porter, and yes he’s calling his mother next. Did you know he’s got you as his emergency contact?”

Bucky snorted, peeling his socks and leg pads off as Nate talked, cramming them in his bag before handing Jamison his soft soakers for his skates. “Yeah, I’m closer than his mother is. He’s mine too. I can get to the airport in half an hour, I’ll let him know which flight I’m on. Please get him to text me if he gets discharged before I land.”

There was a beat of silence, then an easy agreement. “Sure, it looks likely that he will be if I’m honest. I’ll make sure he gets home.”

“Thanks Nate,” Bucky said before hesitating. “Can you put him back on please?”

There was no verbal answer, just rustling again, and then Steve’s quiet, “Hey.”

“I’ll be there in a few hours. Don’t do anything more stupid than what you’ve already done.” He heard Steve take a breath, cut him off before he could even start to speak. “No, none of that, you’re the one who landed himself in hospital. I’ll be there soon, do what the doctors tell you for once in your life, please.”

The plea slipped out before he could stop it, but Steve just mumbled a quiet “I will,” and he let out a sigh of relief. “See you soon,” Steve added, and ended the call. Bucky didn’t even hesitate, throwing his phone down on the bench and shoving his feet in his track pants, on top of his compression pants.

“Stupid idiot,” he mumbled under his breath, cramming his feet in his shoes before starting to get everything in his bag. Jamison laughed, and so did Gabe on his other side, obviously not too worried now. “Stupid best friend broke his stupid ribs, lives in another stupid state,” Bucky continued, and Jamison handed up his skates, one at a time.

“They do that, just when you think things are going well,” Gabe said on his left, and Bucky glanced at him, rolling his eyes. “My wife, back when we were still just engaged, broke her wrist when I was in San Jose for a game. Had to fly back overnight, leave all my gear with the guys and hope it got back alright.”

Another voice piped up on Gabe’s far side, agreeing with his own tale, then another, then another, and Bucky zipped his bag up, tossed his jersey in the basket in the middle of the room.

“Don’t forget to talk to coach before you go,” the captain reminded him, holding out his hand. Bucky hoisted his bag up on his shoulder, bumped his fist against the offered one.

“Will do, Shane. It’s not a long flight, I’ll be back before the next game.” Bucky sketched a quick salute to his linemates before ducking out the door, heading straight for the office as he pulled up the airport website on his phone.

 

An hour later and he was checking in, overnight bag thrown over his shoulder, profusely thanking the counter staff that had managed to get him on the next flight to Denver.

Two hours later and he was landing, barely having paid attention to the flight itself, too busy using the on-board wireless to find everything he could about what had happened to Steve.

And he was furious.

There was a text from Steve when he turned aeroplane mode off, and he immediately hit call without reading it, walking down the tunnel from the plane to the terminal proper. As soon as it connected Bucky growled out “They let you keep playing after that? You kept playing after that?”

“Oh,” was the response. “So you uh. Watched the video?”

“Yes I watched the video,” Bucky snapped, ignoring the looks he was getting from a few other passengers. The plane had been relatively empty given the late departure time, and the domestic terminal at the airport reflected that, so Bucky didn’t bother acknowledging the people shooting him glares. “I’m gonna strangle you, I swear to god.”

“No you won’t,” was the confident reply. “How far away are you?”

“I just have to get through the airport then I’ll be in a taxi. Maybe twenty minutes?” Bucky replied, not acknowledging Steve’s other comment, knowing it was true. “You’re home?”

There was a tired hum, and the rustle of sheets. “Yeah. In bed. Breathing kinda hurts.”

Bucky scowled, setting his bag down on the counter for a spot security inspection, jamming his phone in his pocket so he could open the bag up. After a few minutes he was free again, and he headed for the main doors to the terminal, and the line of cabs waiting outside.

“I wonder why,” he replied as soon as he got the phone back to his ear, getting into the nearest taxi and rattling off Steve’s address with a slight smile. “You have a water bottle?”

“Drinking hurts,” was the whined response, but there was the pop of a cap in the background.

Bucky smiled into his phone, said “Do it anyway.”

 

Almost exactly twenty minutes later Bucky was letting himself in, locking Steve’s door behind him then heading straight for the bedroom. He dropped his bag on the floor at the end of the bed as he walked around it, perching on the edge of the mattress next to the undignified lump that was Steve.

As the mattress dipped the covers slowly pulled down, Steve’s face revealing itself bit by bit. Bucky couldn’t see all that well, all the lights off and the blinds drawn, but the light filtering through from the streetlights was enough to see him.

“Hi,” he said quietly, brushing fingers over Steve’s forehead. “How are you feeling?”

“Like shit,” was the mumbled response, a hand sneaking out from under the covers to catch Bucky’s hand, hold it to Steve’s cheek.

“Painkillers?”

“Yeah. Fuzzy.”

“That’s good, you need to sleep,” Bucky replied, leaning down and kissing Steve’s forehead. “Just gimmie a minute to change, okay sweetheart?” He felt more than saw Steve’s responding nod then stood.

He headed for the kitchen, making sure nothing had been left on before getting himself a glass of water, draining it. A quick circuit of the house to make sure all the doors were locked and the windows latched, then he grabbed his bag, headed for the bathroom. He brushed his teeth, got changed, then returned his bag to the end of Steve’s bed before carefully crawling into bed with Steve.

Bucky shifted as close as he could get without bumping his boyfriend, stretched out a hand until his fingers brushed Steve’s arm. He slid his fingers down until he could lace them with Steve’s, then took a deep breath. “Go to sleep Stevie,” he murmured, and Steve’s head tipped towards him in the dark. “I love you.”

“Love you too,” was the mumbled response, a squeeze on his hand to match, and Bucky smiled, curling into his pillow. Steve was fine, he told himself, thumb rubbing back and forth across Steve’s knuckles. He would be fine. And now he wasn’t alone.

 

Bucky woke to a pained whine, all too close to his head, and the warmth of Steve’s body against his. He eased back, but Steve grabbed his shoulder, trying to keep him still. He lifted his head to squint at Steve in the dawning light, frowning at him. “Steve?” He murmured, sleep-hoarse.

“M’fine,” Steve said, obviously not fine, and Bucky carefully pushed himself up to sit. “Painkillers wore off,” Steve finally added, and Bucky ran his fingers down Steve’s arm lightly.

“I’ll get you more,” he responded quietly, slipping out of bed before Steve could stop him and ignoring the pout sent after him.

He found the box on Steve’s nightstand, just a little bit too far away from the bed for Steve to reach easily. He popped a few out, grabbed Steve’s water bottle, and coaxed Steve to sit up long enough to take them. “You moved closer,” he said while Steve was drinking and couldn’t argue. “You’re just gonna hurt yourself more if you do that.”

“Can’t help it,” was the response, bottle getting set on the nightstand again before hands reached out for Bucky. He went, unable to say no to Steve, leaning over him and kissing his forehead, then his nose, then his mouth. “Don’t even realise I’m doing it,” Steve mumbled against his lips and Bucky laughed softly, nudging his nose against Steve’s.

“Of course. Try and get back to sleep,” Bucky replied, waiting for Steve to lie back down before going back to his side of the bed. “This isn’t gonna be fun,” he warned Steve quietly, tucking himself against Steve’s side so the idiot wouldn’t try to move again. “You’re injured, and it fucking sucks. And ribs suck the most. But I promise you, they’ll heal again. Faster if you sleep as much as you can.”

“I know,” was the whined response, Steve awkwardly shifting until he was comfortable, chin against the top of Bucky’s head. “I hate it.”

“I know,” Bucky echoed. “I know.”

 

*

Steve was, looking back, the most annoying injured person Bucky had ever had the misfortune of dealing with.

Bucky loved him to pieces, no doubt about that, but now that Steve was feeling better but still technically injured and therefore unable to play? He was insufferable.

“I’m busy,” Bucky answered his phone when Steve didn’t give up after thirty seconds and just send a text like he usually did.

“I’m bored” was the whined response, long and drawn out. Bucky set the wet pot in the dish rack and sighed.

“Go for a walk,” he suggested, picking up the next thing, a lonely plate from his boring chicken-and-rice dinner. “Watch some TV. Read a book. Jack off then take a nap.”

There was a snicker, and the sound of the couch creaking. “If I do the last one will you stay on the line?”

Bucky rolled his eyes, scrubbed at a particularly stubborn spot. He wasn’t entirely sure how chicken and rice created stubborn spots on dishes, but they were there. “If I do will you stop calling me until after our game tomorrow?”

A considering sound on the other end, then the faint murmur of voices. “Nah, too hard. I’ll watch TV instead.” That explained the voices at least. “I gotta call you before the game anyways, you don’t fuck with tradition Buck.”

He had a point there. “I won’t be near my phone for most of the day,” Bucky warned instead, setting the plate in the rack and starting on the collection of coffee cups. He had a thought then, something to keep Steve busy, keep them both happy. “Why don’t you come?”

“Been there, done that,” was the dry response, and Bucky snorted.

“No, asshole. Come down, for the game. I can probably wheedle tickets out of someone if you can get flights on such short notice.” Bucky held his breath as the other end of the line went silent, then he could hear Steve moving.

“Lemme grab my laptop, see if I can find something. Who are you playing?” He asked as though he didn’t know, and Bucky told him as much. “Fine,” Steve said, and Bucky could hear typing. “You’re playing the Kings. I’ll need to leave morning after though, we’ve got a game I should be there for.”

Bucky hummed, finishing up the dishes and wiping his hands on a tea towel before taking his phone in hand again. “That’s cool, I can drive you to the airport. I’ve gotta call in and see if I can get tickets, I’ll let you know how I go?”

 

*

Knowing Steve was there, was watching, had Bucky moving faster, lighter, stronger in his first shift, pushing back against the strong team with everything he had. He was given more shifts than usual, probably because of it, and when he put the puck in the net for the first time, he swore he could hear Steve cheering above everyone else.

When Bucky put his third in, sliding it through the five hole as he stared down the goalie, the home crowd lost it, and by the time he reached the bench the ice was littered with caps and beanies. Bucky couldn’t help but search out Steve’s face in the front rows near the bench, smiling when he saw Steve absolutely beaming.

They won the game, losing streak finally broken, and Bucky couldn’t help but think Steve had something to do with it.

 

*

[Steve: hey, can we skype?]

The request in itself wasn’t unusual, but the timing was, the clock on Bucky’s nightstand clicking over to ten thirty at night. A little worried, Bucky booted up his laptop, answering the text by booting up the program and clicking the phone next to Steve’s name.

Steve answered immediately, looking a little frazzled but unhurt. Bucky raised an eyebrow as he shifted his legs, got his laptop into a better position. “Hey,” he said quietly, just loud enough for the microphone to pick up.                

“Hi,” Steve responded, and his smile was a little slower than usual, but it was there. “I have something to ask you and I thought it’d be better like this.”

That had Bucky a little worried, but he took a breath, let it out, before responding. “Okay, what is it?”

“I’ve been talking to people around here – our captain is an ambassador for the You Can Play project, and others on the team are really involved with it. I think Landy approached me because of you, at first,” there was a little smile, Steve ducking his head as Bucky laughed a little at him.

“Because he wants to be friends with me, obviously,” Bucky drawled, just to make Steve laugh, and it worked for a short moment.

“But seriously, I was talking to him and I don’t remember what I said, what he said, but I sort of… told him? That I was bi? And implied I was seeing a guy?”

That wasn’t how Bucky had expected this conversation to go. “Oh my god, Steve. Are you okay with him knowing? Did he do anything? Do I need to come up and have words with him?”

That had Steve laughing again, and the image was grainy as hell but Bucky could still see the way his nose scrunched up a little when he did. “No, no it’s fine, he’s fine. I promise. YCP ambassador, remember?”

Bucky breathed out a sigh of relief, leaning forward a little. “Okay then. I’m proud of you.”

“I’m proud of me too,” was the response, and Bucky smiled softly. “I love you, and I’m getting tired of hiding that.”

“Does that mean that you..?” Bucky started, and Steve nodded, just a little.

“Yeah. I want to. To the team first, for now. Then I can stop talking about you like you’re not the most important person in my life. That’s what I wanted to ask, really. Whether it was okay to tell them. About us.”

“Steve.” Bucky had to stop, swallow, try again, shifting on his bed until he was sitting up folly. “Steve, I want whatever you want. If you’re ready to tell them, I’m absolutely okay with it.”

Steve looked relieved, hand reaching forward, disappearing like he was touching the screen of his laptop. “I love you,” He said again, a little more firmly. “I want to tell them, I want them to know.”

“I love you too,” Bucky responded, automatic but no less heartfelt. “So much. And when you’re ready, I’ll be at your side, where I belong. Okay?”

“Okay,” was the quiet response, and Bucky knew in that moment that Steve absolutely believed it. “I have to talk to the team, then talk to the PR manager, Christ. How did you do it?”

Bucky smiled, answered the rhetorical question anyway. “It was easier for me, I was already out. They had everything sorted before they signed me. But there won’t be people that accept it easily, just remember that. Don’t lock up your twitter or anything unless you want to, but be prepared for shitty comments and messages. Be prepared for it on the ice, in the crowds. People are assholes, and they will continue to be assholes.”

Shifting his legs, Bucky picked the laptop up and slid under the covers, setting the laptop back on the duvet over his legs. “You getting comfortable there?” Steve drawled, and Bucky flicked the webcam lightly.

“I have to be up early. It’s later for you, too, why are you even up?”

“Stressing, mainly,” Steve responded wryly, and Bucky sighed.

“Steve. It’ll be okay. I promise.”

“I know. It’s still hard though.”

“It is,” Bucky agreed. “But it’ll be easier with sleep. I’ll call you in the morning? It’ll feel like less of a feat then.”

Steve sighed overdramatically, but he started shifting, the image on the screen shaking then turning pointing somewhere to Steve’s left. Then it quickly readjusted so Steve was visible again, standing beside the bed. “Okay. Call me when you’re ready. Love you.”

“Love you too Steve. Talk to you tomorrow.” Bucky waited until Steve waved before ending the call, staring at his computer screen for a minute before closing it, shoving it to the other side of the bed to be dealt with in the morning.

 

*

The final buzzer went, and sticks went up, celebrating the win that got their players through to the first round of the playoffs. Home colours flew, blue and white in sharp contrast to Arizona’s red and grey.

Bucky leaned forward, head resting against the boards in front of him. Shoulders brushed his on either side, and they stood as a unit.

They spilled out onto the ice, one by one, hands clasping others, quiet words of comfort.

“You did well,” a voice behind him spoke, and Bucky turned, smiling up at his captain. “This game, all the others. You should be proud.”

Bucky held out a hand, glove tucked under his armpit, and Shane took it, reeled him in. A brief hug, hands clasped, then they were moving on. Bucky was no stranger to loss, was no stranger to staring at the playoff berth, just a little out of reach. This felt like a bit more of a slap to the face though, to have been this close.

One more win, and they would have had it. After all of their losses, their struggles with injury, they’d made it so far, gotten so close.

And now, beaten. In the last game that mattered, the last game of the season. Two teams pushing for the same spot, winner takes it all. And they’d lost.

They lined up as a team, down the centre of the ice. Shook hands, player after player from the other team beaming, but most of them polite, respectful. A few sneering comments towards Bucky, nothing he wasn’t used to, and the players who spoke them got shoved on by people on their own team.

Then, to the locker room, air of finality amongst them. Their season was over, before it had really had a chance to shine no less. They all knew it.

A vow then, from the coaches to the players, from the players to the coaches. Spoken quiet, heartfelt, rattling around the locker room, in once voice after another.

Better next year, stronger next year.

 

*

Bucky stood in the wings as he watched Steve cross to the lonely looking table at the front of the room, flanked by his captain and general manager.

He’d announced it the day before, carefully crafted media statement going out the door after he’d gotten himself into an argument at a bar that someone had happened to be filming. He’d had the good presence of mind to have called the Avalanche PR team almost immediately, but this press conference was putting out fires, and they all knew it.

The room quieted as the three of them sat, and Steve spoke first, words careful and, to Bucky at least, clearly not his.

“First and foremost, I’d like to thank you for attending. This was at very short notice, so we’re glad so many of you could make it out.”

That was an understatement, the thing having being announced mere hours ago, but the room was full to bursting. There were journalists and media reps sitting on the floor, packed into the back of the room behind the seats, elbowing each other up until the moment Steve had walked out.

“Regarding the situation last night, I would like to say that the target of the harassment is safe and has suffered no lasting trauma or damage from what happened. He is thankful for the concern expressed for him on social media, and when I spoke with him on the phone this morning, he said he appreciated the outpouring of support he received from fans of the game.”

Steve paused, and looked around the room slowly, the only sound the shutters of cameras for a moment.

“Whilst the situation was not ideal, it was handled by the exceptional team we have in this organisation, and the support I have received from them has been incredible. And, whilst this wasn’t how I had intended to go about this, it has achieved the same thing, in the end.”

Another pause, a deep breath. Bucky could see the way Steve was holding himself, could see the tenseness in his shoulders. Wished he was out there with him.

“What I said, last night, was true, and I’m sure many of you were expecting me to say otherwise. I am proud of who I am, proud of the decisions I’ve made, and most of all, I’m proud of the person I love. That this person is a man has no bearing on that. So, to put it clearly. I am bisexual, and my long term partner is a man. Any questions?”

Then, the yelling started.

With the help of the people on either side of him, Steve answered or shot down every question posed to him for almost an hour, until Bucky could see the weariness on his face. Some of the questions were stupid, typical bullshit from heteronormative people, and some were clearly trying to fish for more information about Steve’s partner. Several journalists had to be escorted out, and at least two were looking like they were toeing that line as well.

Eventually though, Steve’s GM stood, held up a hand to fend off further questions. “That, I’m afraid, is all we have time for today. We thank you for your attendance.”

With those words Steve and the captain were standing, heading towards the side of the stage, and towards Bucky.

As soon as Steve was out of sight Bucky reached out a hand for him. Steve grabbed at it a little desperately, and Bucky reeled him in, hugging him tightly. “I’m proud of you,” he said, repeating the last thing he’d said to Steve before the other man had gone out to face the crowd. “So proud of you, you have no idea.”

“I think I have some,” Steve mumbled, head dropping to Bucky’s shoulder, and Bucky hummed, just holding him for a second.

“Have you called your mother?” Bucky asked after a long moment, finally breaking the silence between them. “I hope you called her last night, or at least this morning.”

There was a moment of silence, then a sullen, “Called her this morning, got my ass handed to me. Told me off for wasting the PR team’s prep because I got pissy.”

There was laughter from behind Steve at that, and Bucky reluctantly let his boyfriend go to turn around. Said PR team was standing there, and Bucky nudged Steve towards them.

“Thank you for sticking to the script this time,” one of them said, and there was a smattering of laughter as Steve turned pink.

Bucky grinned, staying close but otherwise not interfering as Steve got his debrief, and once they were done Steve turned back to him, smiling. He held out his hands, and Bucky took them, squeezing slightly as Steve pulled him in. “Ready to run the gauntlet?” Steve asked, raising an eyebrow before tipping his head towards the exit. The other side of the door was probably packed with reporters, fans, people looking for someone to blame for Steve’s team not qualifying. It wasn’t going to be an easy walk to the car.

“As I’ll ever be,” Bucky responded, putting his cap on and tugging the brim down low over his face. Steve dropped one hand, turned. “Are you ready?”

Steve nodded, squeezing Bucky’s hand before lifting it, kissing the back of Bucky’s knuckles. “Yeah. Let’s go.”

They stepped forward, heads held high. Steve’s hand firmly in his, like it had never been, like it would always now be. Everyone else could deal with it.

 

*

It had taken a lot of organising, a lot of pulling favours and playing nice, but in the end, the Player’s Association hadn’t really been able to miss the opportunity of sending the only two openly queer NHL players, who were in a relationship to boot, to one of the biggest Pride March events in the country.

They’d arrived a few days before the march itself, but Bucky had absolutely relished in introducing Steve to his first pride festival as an openly bi man. They’d been recognised, of course they had, but most people would just wave and let them move on without further comment.

The first day had been intense, Steve insisting that he was fine and didn’t need to go to the hotel after their early morning flight, only to crash halfway through dinner, struggling to keep his eyes open as they sat in a little hole-in-the-wall diner. The second day had gone better, the youth parade keeping the city vibrant as street performers roamed, and people set up for the main parade the next day.

Then, the morning they’d been waiting for. Bucky woke up tangled in the sheets, tangled with Steve, already smiling. He didn’t move for a long moment, face mushed against Steve’s chest, then stretched slowly. By the time he relaxed Steve was stirring, mumbling wordlessly under his breath, and Bucky couldn’t help the absolutely smitten smile on his face as he looked up at him.

Steve blinked blearily, still not quite awake, but Bucky leaned up and kissed him anyway, just a light brushing of lips. They hadn’t managed to close the curtains all the way the night before, and sunlight took quick advantage. Strips of light lay over Steve’s face, and Bucky was, Jesus he was so in love.

A heavy hand slid up his back, cupped the back of his head, and Steve nosed in for another kiss, taking Bucky’s breath away without even trying. He didn’t pull back until they were both breathing heavily, and Bucky took advantage of the sheets having slid lower, pressing his face to Steve’s chest again. Arms wrapped around his shoulders and he smiled against skin, so gone, so gone for this man.

“I love you,” he murmured against Steve’s skin. “You have no idea how much.”

“Think I have some,” Steve responded, voice sleep heavy and low, and Bucky felt it under his cheek more than he heard it. “I love you too.”

As much as Bucky wanted to stay there, wrapped up in Steve for the rest of the day, he knew he couldn’t. So, he carefully untangled them, kissing Steve quiet when he protested, and headed for the bathroom.

They’d been put up in some fancy hotel near the top of the parade route, and Bucky couldn’t help but eye the deep bath as he pulled out towels, turned on the shower. They didn’t really have time, not now or even that night, but god it was tempting. It looked big enough for the both of them to fit, albeit with more than a little body contact. Not that either of them had a problem with that.

He was halfway through washing his hair when he felt cool air at his back, then a warm body press in close. Hands in his hair, taking over, and Bucky hummed, letting his own hands drop to catch Steve’s hips. “You’re up,” he murmured, eyes still closed against the spray or water.

“Mm. You convinced me,” was the response, still sleep-soft, and Bucky smiled, squeezed Steve’s hips lightly.

“Wonder how,” Bucky replied drolly, but let Steve finish his hair before turning in his arms. “Hurry up,” he said with a grin, going up on his toes to kiss Steve lightly. “I want to go get coffee.” With that he slid free of Steve, leaving his pouting boyfriend to the warm shower and getting out. He threw Steve a bone by staying in the bathroom, towelling off then tucking the towel around his waist to brush his teeth.

Eventually he did leave the bathroom to dress, just as the shower shut off behind him, and he couldn’t help but grin over his shoulder at Steve as he went. “Getting slow,” he teased lightly, laughed as he heard grumbling behind him.

By the time Steve came out Bucky was sprawled back on the bed fully dressed. He kicked his feet lightly, and Steve grabbed one as he went past, squeezing lightly. Bucky wiggled his toes against Steve’s wrist, grinning up at him, and Steve shot him a smile before digging through his suitcase for the clothes he’d packed specifically for this.

Bucky propped himself up on his elbows to watch, because yeah he was only human, and Steve threw him a look over his shoulder, cocking his hip and sticking his ass out overdramatically. Bucky couldn’t help but laugh at that, before reaching out with a foot. He just missed poking Steve in the ass with his toes, but Steve saw his attempt and that’s what mattered.

“Hurry uuuppp,” he whined, shoving at his sleeves one by one until they were rolled up. It was warm enough that he didn’t really want to be wearing the hoodie, but the morning air could still be crisp, so he left it on. It was worn thin anyway, almost threadbare around the cuffs, and had Steve smiling whenever he saw it, which was half the reason he was wearing it.

“Surely,” Steve started, patting down his shirt before turning to look at Bucky. “Surely you’ve got better things to wear than that,” he finished, making Bucky grin, sit up the rest of the way.

“I don’t know what you mean,” he retorted, pushing up onto his knees. He caught Steve’s belt loops in his fingers, pulled him a little closer, then leaned up and kissed him. “You know I’m absolutely taking advantage of this today,” he added, changing the subject. “I am well within my rights to kiss you whenever and wherever I want.”

Steve hummed as though he was considering it, and Bucky pressed in, kissing him again. “Unless you don’t want me to, I’m gonna be all over you today.”

Steve curled arms around Bucky’s waist, and Bucky leaned into him with a pleased noise. “I’m more than okay with it,” Steve said after a second, dropping the act. “Kissing and handholding, even a butt pat or two. All the fun stuff.”

“I’m gonna pat your butt at least three times, just for that,” Bucky retorted, kissing Steve again despite the smiles on their faces. It didn’t really work, but the intent was there, so close enough really.

“C’mon,” Steve said after a second, pulling back, obvious reluctance on his face. “We gotta get you caffeinated. Then meet up with the team for breakfast.”

Bucky sighed, but let go, sitting back on his ass so he could get his shoes on. “Fine, as long as the coffee is real coffee,” he responded.

“Have I ever gotten you less?”

“Have, and will again, don’t play coy.”

 

PrideFest had grown since Bucky had last been, and he revelled in it, dragging Steve from stall to stall. He made sure to stop in at the face paint stalls, pestering Steve into agreeing to painted flags before getting his own. He got badges, pins, tucking them into his pockets before he spotted a flag booth. He caught Steve’s hand again, pulled him in, got his mouth up close to Steve’s ear, and murmured his idea into it, grinning as Steve wound an arm around his waist, casual and carefree.

They walked the march as participants, flags draped over their shoulders. Each of their team mascots walked with them, along with the rest of the You Can Play contingent. They insisted on walking despite the pickup they were provided, wanting to be able to mingle with the crowds, cross the street whenever they wanted, whenever someone called for them. They were constantly stopping and starting, posing for photos, signing everything from postcards to team jerseys that were definitely not their own.

But, when it came down to it, they were together. Bucky held out a hand, and Steve drifted back to him, fingers linking. Months ago, Bucky wouldn’t have dreamed they’d be here, in this moment. Together, here, like this.

It was surreal, if he was honest, but he’d take it. All of it.

This life, this love, this man.