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Under the Bridges of Fame

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Story banner with Steve and Bucky as well as the title

Natasha stood triumphant, one hand on her hip and the other held out to Steve.

“That’ll be five bucks.”

“Like hell,” Steve replied, declining her assistance and pushing himself to his feet in what he decided was a very impressive maneuver.

It was about the only chance he had of regaining his dignity, considering she’d knocked him on his ass ten seconds earlier, having disarmed him with no more than a question.

“You showboating son of a gun,” she grinned. “You lose. Five bucks.”

“How’s it losing when you cheated?”

“How’s it cheating when I’m only taking advantage of an opportunity?”

Steve scoffed and walked to one of the padded benches lining the walls of the sparring space, where he grabbed his half-full water bottle and tossed hers over. Because he was a good friend, in spite of the trials he suffered. “That’s a low blow, Romanov. What I do in my spare time continues to be none of your business.”

“Aw, Steve,” she grinned, swigging from the bottle. “That’d only be true if you did anything in your spare time.”

“I do things!”

“Like what?”

“I…” The fact that ‘eating’ and ‘training’ were the only two things springing to mind was somewhat telling, and he scowled. “Like you’re any better.”

“I am better,” she shrugged. “I have Sam.”

“Sam’s not a hobby.”

“Depends on your definition of a hobby,” she said primly, capping her water and shrugging. “But also, I have a book club.”

“You absolutely do not.”

“I absolutely do.”

“With who.”

“Pepper,” she said quickly. (A bit too quickly, in Steve’s opinion.) “And May Parker. And Lillian from accounting.”

“Lillian from accounting,” he said flatly, crossing his arms over his chest.

“Yup. We’re reading something called Wild, which is just...excellent.”

“What’s it about?”

“I’m not telling you. You're not in our book club."

“Mmmhmm.”

“Believe me or don’t—we’re getting together today to discuss it, actually. Lillian’s bringing brie.”

“You’re full of shit, Nat.”

“Am I?”

With Natasha, it was hard to say. But after six-ish years of close friendship, Steve was relatively confident he had at least some of her tells down. “Yes,” he said, with as much certainty as he could muster.

“Huh. Interesting. Where’s my money, by the way?”

“I’m not carrying cash.”

“Now who’s lying? I happen to know you keep an emergency twenty in your pocket, next to the butterscotches for the grandkids.”

Steve glowered. “It’s for emergencies.”

“Tell you what, then,” she replied. “Double or nothing. I prove book club’s real, you owe me ten. I’m lying, I owe you.”

“Deal.”

“Want to go zero for three and see who’s faster to the elevator?”

Natasha was the most competitive person Steve had ever met, save for (maybe) himself. Which made it all the more annoying when she won.

She was not, however, wrong about everything. Take his personal life, which he definitely wasn’t thinking about as he rode the elevator to his floor. It was a stupid thing to worry about, considering who he was. Where he lived. What he did for a living.

Because who the hell had time to cultivate a hobby when there was always another lunatic attempting to infiltrate the city, or blow up Boston, or annihilate Asgard? The longer he lived in the future, the more Steve was convinced the universe was playing some cosmic joke on him. Like the previous week, when some idiot calling himself The Kangaroo had shown up holding a grudge against Peter Parker, who was never gonna live that one down if Steve could help it.

Join the Avengers, kid! Got a shiny new suit for you, kid! We’ll train you up and set you straight!

So, really? The Kangaroo? Whatever Peter had done to piss that bouncing bastard off had hardly been worth the effort it took to contain him. But Steve and the rest of the team had shown up to do the job anyway.

Which was fine—he was glad they’d assisted for the jokes alone. Still, things hadn’t been properly apocalyptic for a while. Not since Ultron and Sokovia and Tony’s piss-poor choices. But hey, they could forgive him for the fuck-up considering that Pietro was pretty fast and Wanda was wonderful. The twins had adapted nicely to life in the tower, with both of them taking classes at Columbia alongside Peter by day, and assembling to avenge when the occasion called for it.

Granted, if the twins could go to classes, and Peter could hold down a double major and a secret identity, Steve didn’t have as much of a reason as he liked to believe for avoiding the world outside the tower. He’d been back in that world for over a half-decade now, yet the life he’d carved out wasn’t necessarily living. And that was fine—he had responsibilities. Teammates. Hell, he had friends. He just didn’t have much outside of those things, and he had nobody to blame for that but himself.

There had been a brief period where he’d tried. Gone to a bar and attempted to meet new people—to make a friend the way he’d met Sam, by being himself.

Turned out, Sam was special, and Steve’s little outing had caused what Angelica on the PR team referred to as a “small riot in Chelsea.”

Steve had stopped trying after that.

The elevator doors slid open, and he walked into his quarters—a sunny, expensive-looking suite of rooms, decorated like something out of a high-class hotel. Steve preferred the new decor to Tony and Pepper's disastrous first attempt at making him feel at home, which had involved emulating the style of the period he'd left behind. They'd done it out of kindness, but the furnishings had made him think of what he might have bought for himself in his tiny tenement if he'd had the money or the time. Steve hadn't asked for much since rejoining the world, but he'd discreetly gone to Pepper about that. There was no use dwelling in the past, mourning what was dead and gone. Not in armchairs and armoires, at any rate.

The new style she’d tasked someone with selecting was devoid of personality. It was a place to go at the end of the day; home enough without being homey.

His stomach growled, and he headed towards the kitchen, which was open to the rest of the space, save for a tiny partition that hid the cooktop and the sink. Open-concept, he’d learned, was all the rage. He hated it; what was the appeal of having people over for dinner if they could see the dirty dishes stacked in the sink?

On the other hand, he never did have people over for dinner, so it was a bit of a moot point.

Opening the fridge, he considered his options. There were vegetables—enough for soup, maybe, if he wanted to go that route. Chicken, too. Probably rice in the cabinets. He could make an effort, and part of him thought he ought to cobble something together, but he’d never enjoyed cooking, even if he was perfectly capable of feeding himself. Most days, he ordered takeout or ate with the team. Easier to do that than live with the memory of his mother’s culinary disasters, passed down to him in his undersalted soups and bland boiled vegetables. Sarah Rogers had hated to waste a scrap, but she’d also never gotten much pleasure out of the act of cooking. Long shifts and a sick child would do that to any parent.

Grandiose soup plans abandoned, he crossed to the pull-out pantry and found a half full industrial-sized jar of peanut butter along with a bottle of raw honey. What differentiated raw from regular honey, he didn’t know, but so long as it tasted the same, he also didn’t care.

Using a spoon to mix the two together, he stretched out on the sofa with his version of comfort food. Who needed bread?

By the time he was halfway through the jar, however, he'd decided he didn't care for peanuts anymore. Which didn't mean he was going to stop, he just wasn’t enjoying himself. Calories were more important than quality when it came to his metabolism.

As he spooned another mouthful of the sticky gloop into his face, his phone dinged with a new text, and he reached out for the device.

“Damn it,” he swore upon seeing the screen, both because he’d gotten peanut butter on the glass, and because he’d just lost ten dollars.

The message was from Natasha, and included a picture of her, Pepper, May Parker, and Lillian from accounting, sitting around one of the patio tables on the rooftop deck with a bottle of wine and four copies of Wild on the table in front of them.

Suck it, Rogers. $10.

Ever succinct, that was Natasha.

Steve rolled his eyes and fired off a response of “yeet" before going back to his peanut butter, knowing he was misusing the expression, and that it would bother Natasha more than she cared to admit. Peter Parker, as it turned out, was useful beyond bringing a repertoire of genuinely ridiculous villains into Steve's life.

It took him another twenty minutes to reach the bottom of the jar, and by the time he was scraping the spoon across the plastic ridges, his stomach hurt and he’d begun worrying whether or not it was possible to die of peanut butter poisoning. Groaning, he turned onto his side and closed his eyes for a minute, his so-called lunch settling like lead in his gut.

“Masochist,” he muttered to himself. He should have ordered out.

The soporific combination of too much, too fast, and too fatty put him to sleep within a couple minutes, and when he woke, dry-mouthed and grumpy, the first thing his eyes caught on was the easel set up in front of the big bank of windows that looked out onto the city. Yet another example of how there was no way in hell he could have a social life, considering he could barely work up the motivation to futz with his only hobby.

Well, actually, he’d gotten frustrated and given up after making a cursory attempt at painting a still life and hadn’t bothered to take the easel down afterward. Some shitty life, still or otherwise. The fruit he’d painted looked like something out of Matisse’s worst nightmares, and it had been so long since he’d worked on it that the fruit in the bowl he’d been using as a reference had long-since turned to mush.

Steve had never been much good at improving in fits and starts, and his anger at the artwork had come from being forced to expend energy on something he hadn’t taken seriously in a long time. Shit, he’d practically felt what scant natural talent he’d ever had leeching from his bones as he sat there daubing paint on the canvas, making things worse with every stroke.

That was what bothered him most—the chafing against the limits of his God-given ability. He’d always been good with a pencil, time spent alone and indoors giving him ample opportunity to work out how to draw the fine details of a doorknob or a pitcher. Painting had been the logical progression; he’d never had the money to afford decent paints before, and now he did, so why not?

Only, talent didn't transfer neatly to a new medium, and so he'd found himself at a crossroads: either he'd have to put some effort towards improvement, or sit and stare at the mess he'd made. The latter wasn't appealing, while the former held the beginnings of an idea. Two birds with one stone, even—a social life to shut Natasha up, and the chance to learn a new skill set that had nothing to do with saving the world.

Surely there were art classes he could sign up for through one of the many colleges that populated the city? He didn't care much for the cap and gown rigamarole, but a bit of art history, or theory, or practice? That wouldn't go amiss, so long as the supervillains continued to lay low.

(Wasn’t going to tell Natasha, though. That would have been madness.)

 


 

Turned out, there were art classes aplenty, being as the fall semester was just getting started at most schools. Steve did a little digging, and two days later he found himself having a face-to-face meeting with a perfectly pleasant admissions counselor named Patsy.

(Granted, Patsy hadn’t been expecting the meeting, considering Steve had turned up at the address listed on the program’s website without an appointment, but she’d been happy to meet with him all the same.)

Patsy had cottoned on to who Steve was the moment he’d come through her door, and while Steve didn’t love being recognized, he’d learned to manage it through a series of pointed pleas from Angelica in PR.

“The classes aren’t for credit,” Patsy explained. “So if you had ah...professional obligations? That kept you away for a week or so? That would be perfectly fine.”

Subtle, Patsy.

"It all sounds great," he said. "I guess I'm most interested in the early nineteenth-century class—that's the one at the Met, right?"

“That’s one of our most popular choices.”

“Great.” He smiled and leaned forward. “So is there an application?”

“Oh.” Patsy hesitated. “Err. Well. Our registration is completely online these days, so…”

She trailed off, sounding as awkward as anyone ever did when they were confronted with the facts of Steve's strange existence. Because obviously they did registration online; people did everything online. The ubiquity of the internet and just what it could do fascinated Steve, and he was a quick learner when it came to technology. But his default setting was always going to be to pick up the phone or to talk to someone in person. (Peter and Shuri teased him endlessly about it, but he got the sense that they thought it was somewhat endearing.)

"Right, online, of course," he chirped, covering her discomfort with his enthusiasm. "Thank you for the brochure. I'll make sure to get that registration taken care of."

“Perfect,” she said, as they rose to their feet. “It was so nice to meet you, and—” she hesitated, and Steve could practically see the gears turning in her head. The how-do-I-ask, or the I-can’t-ask, one of the two. “My son’s a huge fan,” she said, her voice only shaking a little. “Could I ask if you’d sign something for him?”

Steve didn’t mind the asks so much when they were for kids, so he signed a notecard for Patsy’s son before gathering his things and stepping out onto East 12th Street, nose buried in a brochure.

Which was how he missed the guy with the stack of books in the crook of his arm walking towards him, their bodies colliding. The books went flying, as did the fella, which was mostly the result of Steve being two hundred and thirty-seven pounds of super strength.

Shit.

Erskine’s reflexes kicked into action, and Steve moved fast, catching the stranger by his left elbow, brain registering the fact that he hadn’t grabbed flesh, but an unyielding prosthetic. Whatever was holding the arm in place was strong enough to stop the fall, however, though the same couldn’t be said for the books, which scattered across the sidewalk, two of the four landing in a puddle of fetid garbage water that had been leaking from a trash bag left on the curb.

“Oh geez,” Steve said as he stood the stranger up. “I’m sorry.”

“S’okay,” came the muttered reply as the man reached up to straighten the thick-framed black glasses gone askew on his nose. Cute nose (weird thought). Cute face, in fact. Blue eyes magnified by what were very obviously prescription lenses, along with a bit of scruff and a dimpled chin and long, brown hair pulled into a messy ponytail.

The blue eyes looked tired—red-rimmed, and with enough bags beneath them to start a small airline. He had a harried, anxious way about him, reminding Steve of an animal caught in a trap, his gaze darting back and forth for a moment before locking onto Steve’s, eyes widening just barely.

The recognition was immediate. Captain America Has Knocked You On Your Ass, Citizen. Congratulations!

Steve braced himself for the reaction, hoping for something pleasant rather than panic.

Instead, the man looked down, ducking his head as he bent to start gathering his books. The non-response took him from cute to downright appealing in Steve’s esteem. And, hell, appealing merited serious consideration when it came to Steve’s track record of meeting new people.

“Let me help,” Steve offered, crouching and reaching for the garbage-water encrusted books before the stranger could, stacking them together. “Shit. I’m so sorry…”

Downright Appealing pushed his glasses up, wrinkling his nose as he did so. “G-gross,” he muttered with a slight stammer.

”Steve

Passing the books over, Steve noticed the numbering on their spines, his heart sinking with the realization. “They’re library books,” he said, because stating the obvious had always been one of his talents.

“Yeah,” Downright Appealing agreed, tucking the waterlogged stack back into the crook of his prosthetic arm. The hand was a reasonable facsimile of flesh at first glance, but waxy and plastic upon closer examination. “It’s okay.”

“It’s really not,” Steve said, getting to his feet and offering him a hand, which he took after a moment’s hesitation. “I ought to have been watching.”

“I’m f-fine,” came the reply, books tugged tighter against his body as he pulled his hand away, wrapping his fingers around the strings of the dark maroon hoodie he wore.

“Let me buy you a cup of coffee?” Steve offered, taking a chance. “Something to eat?”

The man’s face paled at the request, which seemed a disproportionate reaction. Was he coming on too strong? It wasn’t like it was a date, it was only that he felt bad about what had happened. (And, alright, Downright Appealing was downright appealing, but that didn’t make him interested in men. Or interested in Steve, even if he was.)

“You d-don’t have to—”

“I want to,” he said, wheedling a bit. “There’s a sandwich spot around the corner, I think. Saw it on my way over. Your books can dry off.”

“I—” he blinked, the tips of his ears going red as he thought for a minute before nodding his head. “Okay.”

“Great!” Steve said, immediately wishing he could pull back the enthusiasm about twelve percent. “I’m Steve, by the way.”

“Bu—James,” he stammered. “Nice to meet you.”

“Sure about that?” Steve laughed. “I figure there gotta be better ways of meeting someone than getting knocked on your ass, but all right.”

The teasing got a genuine smile out of James, who shrugged. “M-maybe I’m being polite.”

“Oh, never be polite on my account,” Steve said as they started in the direction of the sandwich shop, where they found the remnants of the lunchtime crowd, though there wasn’t much of a line.

“What’re you gonna have?” Steve asked as he studied the menu board.

“C-club sandwich and fries,” James said without hesitation. Steve glanced over with a raised eyebrow, and James shrugged. “I order delivery from here.”

“So you live close?”

James nodded but didn't seem inclined to elaborate. When they stepped closer to the counter, Steve realized there was a fine sheen of sweat beading on James' forehead. Nerves—it had to be. Wasn't hot enough in there for anything else. Poor guy was obviously shy, and Steve couldn't help feeling guilty about that.

"Why don't you go grab us a table?" he said, to save him from the cashier. "I'll order for us."

Pure relief washed over James’ face as he fled towards the tables. Steve placed their order and got a number before joining him.

The books had been stacked at one end, serving as a makeshift barricade for James, who had hunched in on himself and was playing with his phone. Very shy, then. Steve wasn’t about to draw attention to that fact as he pulled out the seat across from him and put their number in the metal doohickey.

“I didn’t know what you wanted to drink,” he said, sliding a glass of water across the table. “Sorry, should have asked.”

“S’okay,” James said, turning his phone off and setting it face down. “Th-thanks.”

“Sure,” Steve said, before babbling on in an attempt to keep the conversation going. “I got the goat cheese and avocado on toast. My friend Peter says avocado toast’s gone out of style, but so long as they have it on the menu, I figured why not give it a shot?”

James blinked at him. “Do you like avocados?”

“Yeah,” Steve shrugged. “Though we didn’t get a lot of them growing up. Or, you know. Any. How about you, do you like them?”

(God. It wasn’t a date—it wasn’t a date—but that didn’t mean the awkward, stilted first date conversation couldn’t be a thing. Do you like avocados? Fuck. Fuck.)

“Uh, yeah. I used to live in C-California.”

“Are there a lot of avocados in California?”

(Steve hated himself. He really did. What a schmuck.)

“Sure.”

A subject change was becoming sorely necessary. Steve cleared his throat. “So what brought you to New York?”

James gave him a long, measured glance before responding. “School. I was b-born in Brooklyn, but we moved to California when I was four.”

"What are you in school for?" There was no way he was an undergrad unless he'd started very late. Steve had him pegged as in his early thirties, at least.

“I’m uh, my f-field is Russian literature? But I’m working on my dissertation.”

What Steve knew about higher education could fit on the head of a pin, but he was pretty sure a dissertation had something to do with a doctorate, having listened to Bruce and Tony go on about them enough. “What’s that about?”

“My focus is on uh, the influence of medieval literature on the emergent works of seventeenth-century agrarian novels. I was g-gonna limit it to female authors, but there’s like, nothing? And I’m t-trying to keep it pre-enlightenment.”

It was the most James had said in one go since sitting down, and Steve was desperate to keep him talking, despite feeling wholly outclassed. "Sure," he agreed. "Gotta uh...wouldn't want those medieval writers getting enlightened."

He was rewarded with another genuine smile, as James shook his head. “It’s boring, I know.”

“I never said boring,” Steve replied, holding up both hands. “Just don’t know that I could hold up my end of the conversation. Hell, I barely finished high school. Everything I know about the Russkies comes from the ones I met during the war.”

The last line was a bit of a test—to see if James had definitely cottoned on to his identity, and was playing it cool, or if he had no idea, which would merit a potentially awkward conversation later.

“Too bad you missed the C-Cold War,” James said, his smile widening.

“I’ve been doing some reading on that,” Steve replied, a wave of relief washing through him.

“Is th-that why you were here?”

Steve could only assume ‘here’ meant the admissions office, and he shrugged. “Nah. I was signing up for an art class.”

“Oh.” James twisted the top of his water bottle off and took a swallow. “Why?”

“Good question,” he said. “My friend Nat’s always giving me hell about focusing too much on work. Guess I wanted to expand my horizons.”

“What c-class?”

“Haven’t decided. Hell, I don’t even know if I’ll do it. I thought I wanted to meet new people, and...I already met you.”

Was that flirting? He’d never been much of a gladiator in that particular arena.

James shrugged, a piece of hair falling from his ponytail. “Guess so,” he said, which didn’t give Steve much to go on.

“So you uh, you live around here, you said?”

“Uh huh.”

“Do you like the neighborhood?”

James took a moment to push that errant piece of hair out of his eyes, tucking it behind his ear, where it fell down again a moment later. Steve wanted to lean across the table and kiss him, which was such a strange and sudden impulse that he nearly didn’t pay attention to what James was saying.

“It’s alright. F-fancier than where I grew up—we lived in Alphabet City when I was small.”

“Everything’s fancier these days,” Steve muttered. Manhattan hadn’t been where he’d spent much time in his youth, which made it easier to live in now. Being in Brooklyn only served to remind him of what he’d left behind and how much things had changed. “How long have you been back here?”

“F-few years,” he began. “Like I said, I’ve been working on my d-dissertation—”

“Excuse me?”

The hairs on the back of Steve’s neck stood up at the interruption, the voice coming from behind him as its owner approached, too loud by half and crossing the room at a rapid clip. He knew that voice. Or, well, he knew that sort of voice. It was the voice of someone who had spotted someone famous in public and was about to be a pain in the ass about a selfie or a story to sell. There were other voices—hesitant and apologetic and nervous—and he could deal with those because they didn’t feel as though they were owed anything. This voice, though? This voice thought it was entitled to his time and his attention and fuck, he’d just wanted to have lunch.

Thinking of Angelica and the PR team, he forced a smile onto his face and turned his head. "Hi, there—" he began, only to be cut off at the knees.

“Shit,” the guy grinned, looking not at Steve but at James, who had gone stock still, his cheeks pale and his eyes fixed on the table. “Shit, are you Bucky Barnes?”

James shook his head, and Steve could feel the vibrations of his foot tapping nervously against the floor beneath them.

“I’m not—” he began, his voice barely above a whisper.

“Oh damn, you totally are!” the guy laughed, speaking right over him before waving to the three other men he’d been dining with. “I told you guys it was him!”

The other patrons in the restaurant had begun to look up with interest, drawn to the spectacle. Steve had never been so confused in his life, which was saying something, considering the Kangaroo.

“Hey, can we get a picture?” the guy asked, as his friends made their way over.

James, who looked as though he wanted to sink through the floor, shook his head imperceptibly. The gesture was ignored by the interloper, who continued to ramble. “Oh man, I freakin’ love you. Bucky Barnes! Can you say the thing?”

Another shake of the head, and though it had only been a few seconds, Steve already felt terrible for not stepping in sooner.

“Hey, fellas,” he said, putting on his best Captain America voice (which drove his teammates nuts, but had its uses). “Come on, we’re trying to eat here—”

“Oh my fucking God!” exclaimed another one. “You’re Captain America! Dude, Captain America hangs out with Bucky Barnes!”

All four of them were crowding around the table now, more focused on Steve than on James, which gave James the opportunity he’d apparently been waiting for. He bolted from the table, scooting around the assembled idiots, and Steve hadn’t seen anyone move that fast since Pietro had stolen a Widow’s Bite on a dare.

“James—!” Steve began. His first instinct was to chase after him, but logic dictated that if he did that, the assholes with cameras might follow, creating a worse situation for the both of them.

So, assholes first. Then James.

To deal with said assholes, there were two options: take the picture, or yell at them. Thinking once more of Angelica and her sanity, Steve took the picture with as much grace as he could muster (read: none) and bolted out the door with James’ books and cell phone, which had been left behind when he made his escape.

No more than thirty seconds had elapsed since James had run, yet when Steve hit the sidewalk and looked around, he was nowhere to be found.

Which made some goddamn sense, considering he’d said he lived around there. It would have been easy enough for him to disappear inside his building or down an alley.

Damn it to hell.

Steve had his phone, though, and that was something. James would be looking for it if he was anything like everyone else in this century.

One phone, four books, and a burning question.

Thirty minutes later, Steve was back at home in the tower with his laptop open, the question typed into the search bar.

 

 

Who is Bucky Barnes?

 

Chapter Text

The first thing Steve saw after hitting enter was the mugshot.

Or, actually, several mugshots, tucked in among the row of pictures clustered on the top right of the results page. The images were unmistakably James, only a much younger version of James. Very young in most of them—no more than six or seven, grinning at the camera from beneath a heavy fringe.

Below the pictures was a name and a title:

Bucky Barnes
American actor

That explained the recognition, though not the response. Steve clicked through to the Wikipedia page and began to read.

 

James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes (born March 10, 1984) is an American former child star best known for his role as Stevie Stone on the television sitcom Stepping Stones (1988-1996). He starred in the films Galaxy Camp (1993), Camp Elsewhere (1994), and At Ten (1997) for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor.

During the height of his fame, Barnes rivaled Macaulay Culkin as one of the most successful child actors of all time. Barnes ranked number three on MTV’s list of the “50 Most Charming Child Stars”.

Additionally, Barnes is known for his brief musical career, with two major studio albums establishing him as a hit among preteen and teen audiences in the late 1990s.

However, his promising career stalled after a series of bizarre incidents beginning with an on-stage breakdown in the year 2000. Between 2000 and 2002, Barnes was arrested multiple times for drunk and disorderly behavior. In December of 2002, Barnes was seriously injured in a car accident which required the amputation of his left arm. After the accident, he disappeared from the public eye, though he resurfaced briefly in 2006 before checking into rehab.

Since leaving show business, Barnes has obtained bachelor's and master's degrees and is currently purported to be pursuing his Ph.D. from NYU.

 

“Jesus,” Steve muttered, overwhelmed by even the introductory paragraph. Pop culture eluded him at the best of times, and this was a hell of a rabbit hole to be going down.

He jumped in anyway, clicking on the link for Stepping Stones and continuing to read.

 

Stepping Stones is an American television sitcom created by Frank Jefferson for ABC. The show chronicles the lives of the Stone family. Divorced mother Susan Stone struggles to raise her two children—big sister Sam and little brother Stevie—in Brooklyn. The show initially focused on Susan’s love life, though in later seasons it focuses more on the lives of the children. It aired from September 23, 1988, to May 24, 1996, broadcasting eight seasons and 190 episodes.

While critically panned, the series did consistently well in the Nielsen Top 30. In addition, syndicated reruns, as well as a strong international following, made the series immensely popular. It spawned tie-in merchandise, most notably a series of paperback books featuring the adventures of the series’ most popular character, Stevie.

 

As Steve scrolled down, he discovered that the series hadn’t been just panned, it had been despised by any and every serious critic who'd taken the time to review it. Stepping Stones had been part of a glut of late-80s feel-good family comedies, and Steve could feel the saccharine pouring off each one as he did a cursory glance over the offerings. Seventy years gone, and hell, there was so much culture he'd missed. Sometimes that felt like a blessing.

Clicking back a few pages to the article about James, he continued to read, his eyes catching on the most damning pieces of information.

 

On August 20, 2000, Barnes suffered what appeared to be a nervous breakdown while performing onstage with his then-girlfriend, fellow teen star Michelle Simpson. Barnes stopped the show in the middle of a song, taking the microphone from Simpson and proclaiming that he was gay and that he had been forced into the relationship by his manager, Alexander Pierce, in order to promote his new album. After the announcement, he began to behave erratically, crying and threatening to do harm to himself. He was escorted from the stage by his bodyguards, and later released a statement blaming a new regimen of sleeping pills for the breakdown.

 

On November 18, 2000, Barnes was arrested in Austin, Texas for the possession of less than one ounce of marijuana in his car.

 

On March 12, 2001, days after his seventeenth birthday, Barnes was arrested outside of a Los Angeles nightclub and charged with drunk and disorderly conduct.

 

On September 23, 2001, Barnes was arrested in Los Angeles on charges of possession of illegal prescription narcotics, driving under the influence, and driving with a suspended license.

 

“Captain,” came JARVIS’ smooth, untroubled voice, causing Steve to very nearly fall off the couch. “Ms. Romanov has arrived. Shall I ask her to return at a more convenient time?”

“No,” Steve said, closing his laptop. “No, she’s—of course, let her in.”

The elevator doors opened, and Natasha walked through them, clad in the tight, black pants and tank top she favored whenever they trained together.

Shit. They’d had something scheduled.

“Hey,” she greeted, folding her arms across her chest. “It’s three.”

“It…” Steve glanced at the clock on the wall. “Yes.”

“We were supposed to meet up at two thirty.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I got caught up in something—”

“Oh?” She eyed his laptop, a half-smile on her face as she came to join him on the couch. “Masturbation’s a perfectly natural form of relief, you know. You shouldn’t be ashamed of your biological urges.”

“Ha ha.”

“This has been Rappin’ with Cap.”

“Knock it off,”  he laughed, tossing the nearest available object—which happened to be a throw pillow—at her head, where it bounced off and landed on the floor. “Sorry I forgot about you, though.”

“It’s okay,” she replied, bending down to grab the pillow before sticking it behind her back and reaching her arms above her head, stretching in a way that made Steve think she was part snake.

“Can I ask you a question?” he asked after a moment, his head still stuck on James and his story.

“Can I make a shitty joke about how you just did?”

“No.”

“Go on, then.”

“Do you know about uh...do you know the name Bucky Barnes?”

Natasha stopped stretching, dropping her hands into her lap and cracking her knuckles, which she knew drove Steve crazy. “I know of Bucky Barnes. Why?”

“I uh, I think I just hung out with him?”

One perfectly-manicured brow raised ever so slightly. “It’s always so interesting, talking to you. Care to elaborate?”

Steve told her an abbreviated version of the story, from the sidewalk spill to the aborted lunchtime conversation, ending with, “so I looked him up, and yeah. It’s definitely him, like Shirley Temple.”

“More like Judy Garland,” Natasha supplied.

“Nice to see some things are still as American as apple pie.”

“Aw, don’t say that,” she deadpanned. “Every nation finds ways to exploit their children for fun and profit, Steve.”

“That’s…” Remembering who he was talking to, Steve shrugged. “I guess a shitty TV series doesn’t compare to your upbringing.”

“Shit’s shit,” she shrugged. “And actually…”

“What?”

“It’s just, that show he was on? The reason I know who he is, is because they used to show that to us. It was uh, part of the propaganda campaign.”

It took a few seconds for Steve to process that information. “They what?”

“Yeah. All those shows. They showed them to us, so we’d hate America and understand it, all at once.”

“Jesus.”

Stepping Stones…” she shook her head. “That one was the worst. Well, no. That one and Full House. Oh, and Saved By the Bell.”

“Wow.”

“The late eighties were a dark time.”

“Uh huh.” Steve fought a smile. “So James, or Bucky, I guess? He was well known?”

“You’d have to talk to someone who was growing up here around that same time,” she replied. “But yes, I think he was famous.”

“So…” Steve glanced at his laptop. “How bad is it that I’m looking up all this stuff about him?”

“Depends,” Natasha shrugged. “Are you interested in him?”

“What? No!” Steve hesitated. “Don’t tell Sam.”

“Lips are sealed,” she said. “Anyway, it’s very twenty-first century of you. Checking out a potential partner online. Stalking him a little, even. Color me impressed.”

“It’s probably not anything,” he cautioned. “I mean, I’ve got his phone, but I also strong-armed him into lunch. For all I know, he’s married, or dating someone else.”

“For all you know, he isn’t.”

Steve smiled, looking down at his hands and shrugging, weirdly bashful about the whole thing. It wasn’t even that he knew James; they'd hardly spoken at all before things had gone to shit. But what he did know, he liked, and what he was finding out made him like him even more. It took a particular strength of character to overcome a lousy childhood.

“And hey,” Natasha continued. “Far be it from me to deny you the opportunity to be as weird and creepy as the rest of the world when it comes to this stuff.”

“Thanks?”

Smiling, she pushed herself to her feet. “I’m going for a run. Happy hunting.”

“Calling it that really makes me feel good about doing it.”

“You can’t always be a paragon of virtue, Steve. Don’t worry, I won’t tell.”

“You’re a pal.”

“Eh.”

Steve waved her away, and once the elevator doors shut behind her, he was back on his laptop, picking up where he left off.

 

On December 15, 2002, Barnes was involved in a serious car accident in Malibu. Barnes crashed his car into a tree while traveling at an approximate fifty-five miles per hour on a suburban street. The severity of his injuries necessitated the amputation of his left arm below the shoulder. He was later sentenced to 90 days in jail for the incident, followed by one year of inpatient rehab treatment. However, Barnes served only 45 days of the jail sentence, due to overcrowding. He entered an inpatient rehabilitation facility, where he stayed for 1 year and 23 days.

 

There had been another relapse when James was twenty-two, and then the personal life section of the Wiki trailed off into speculation about what he was doing now, without much concrete evidence, save for some links to grainy paparazzi photos published on cut-rate websites. The world wasn't so interested in what happened to someone who had cleaned up their act.

Which, truthfully, was the part Steve found most intriguing. It was a hell of a story, and he felt a certain kinship with James about it all. He knew what it was to perform for someone else’s pleasure—to be the dancing monkey in their show—and while he’d been an adult when he made his decisions, that didn’t mean he lived without regrets.

All that, and he liked James. He liked what little time he’d spent in his company. Liked his face and his glasses and his stammer, and yeah, there was probably something to unpack there, but Steve wasn’t an analyst, and he wasn’t about to delve too deeply into what sparked the attraction. He just knew that it was, and he was going to hold out hope that James would be doing his level best to track down his phone and his books very soon.

Even after Steve closed the laptop, his thoughts stayed with James, carrying him through the rest of the day and into bed, where he tossed and turned for an hour before rolling onto his back and making what he knew was a strange request.

“Hey, JARVIS?”

“Yes, Captain?”

“Could you uh, play the TV show Stepping Stones?”

“Certainly, Captain. Any particular episode?”

Steve swore JARVIS sounded bemused, and he did his best not to blush as he answered. “Just. The first one. Thank you.”

JARVIS didn’t respond, though seconds later the screen lowered and the first episode of the show began to play, featuring a gap-toothed baby James hamming it up for the camera.

Steve could see why it had been used for anti-American propaganda after just a few minutes. It was awful. Truly bad. And yet, he couldn't stop watching. It was like eating a bag of sugar—after a couple of bites, it tasted terrible, and you started feeling sick, but you kept sticking the spoon back in anyway.

The premise was simple—a single mom raising two kids in the city—and while Steve could appreciate a sitcom (he’d watched I Love Lucy with Wanda more than once), this one had nothing redeeming about it. The jokes weren’t good by any standard, and though Steve knew his sense of humor could be out of sync with the times, there was nothing funny about the schlocky one-liners delivered at top-volume to riotous, canned laughter.

The woman playing the mother was decent, though she didn’t have much to work with. They’d cast the kids well, too, but the wacky neighbor grated, and the teacher at Stevie’s school who was being set up as a love interest for the mother was dull as dishwater.

And yet—and yet—there was something about James. Something that elevated the kid above the mediocre writing. For all the terrible dialogue and piss-poor banter, he was charming and affable, with a big, toothy grin and dimples that stole scenes.

Granted, there wasn’t a lot for him to do in the episode, but towards the end, he had his moment. His mother, having gone out on a date with a dirtbag she’d met at a laundromat, had unceremoniously dumped the guy in front of both her children.

Smiling that big, ridiculous smile, little James-slash-Stevie stepped forward, pointing his finger at the departing would-be suitor and lisping, “that’th da endda da line for you, pal!”

The audience roared. The credits rolled. And shit. Yeah. Steve got it. A star was fuckin’ born.

Poor guy.

Steve watched four more episodes before falling asleep with the theme song playing on the fifth. When he woke up the next morning, JARVIS had shut the screen down, and Steve had a niggling little feeling of guilt sitting in his stomach over just how much he now knew about James.

James’ phone, however, had yet to ring.

 


 

It wasn't until Steve was eating dinner with Sam later that day that he made the obvious connection. Sam was thirty-five. Which made him a little older than James Barnes, and also put him right in that sweet spot of being old enough to have watched Stepping Stones when it was on the air.

Granted, Sam was probably a much too intelligent and interesting person to have watched something so shitty, but Steve figured it was worth it to ask, and—

“Man, I loved that show!” Sam exclaimed around a mouthful of noodles. “It’s the ennda-da line, pal! Oh shit, that kid...uh...Brick...Bucky!”

“Barnes, right.”

“Yeah!” Sam grinned. “My ma hated it, but she'd watch it with me anyway because she's a saint."

“So you were what?” Steve pressed. “Six?”

“Around there, yeah.” Pausing, he dug his chopsticks into his food and raised an eyebrow. “Why do you ask? It doesn’t seem like your thing. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I have rewatched every episode multiple times, but—”

“I uh. Met Bucky Barnes the other day.”

Sam dropped the food he’d just picked up, looking at Steve like it was Christmas, his birthday, and a night out with Natasha all rolled into one giant, shiny package. “You what?”

“I ran into him when I was—”

“You know Bucky Barnes?”

“Know is a strong word.”

“You are living a charmed life, my friend.”

“Sam…” Steve laughed, reaching for an egg roll. “It’s not that interesting.”

“I’m still gonna need you to back up and start from the start.”

Steve shrugged, and repeated his story for the second time in as many days, deliberately leaving out any romantic affection he might have felt. Natasha could be nosy, but he wasn’t quite ready for Sam to know his personal business just yet.

“Steve, that’s crazy,” Sam said as he finished up, reaching for his beer. “Last famous person I saw in this city was Chris Noth, and everyone’s seen that guy.”

“Sam, you’re famous.”

“That’s not the point.”

“It’s kind of the point. Anyway, who’s Chris Noth?”

“You know who he is. Everyone’s seen him, like I said.”

“I haven’t.”

"You have, you just don't know you have. I swear that dude is simultaneously in every single Starbucks in Manhattan."

“You hate Starbucks.”

“The lady requested a strawberry frappuccino—how am I gonna say no to that?”

“And if Natasha requested that you jump off a bridge without your wings?”

“I bet she’d have a good reason.”

Steve snorted. “Anyway. The reason I was asking about the show is that I didn’t know who he was, but now I do. And I feel like a chump for looking him up.”

“Why?”

“Because...I know all this shit about him, and he doesn’t know anything about me.”

Sam raised an eyebrow. “How’s that?”

"Oh." Right. Of course, James would know things about Steve. Everyone knew things about Steve. It was only that Steve sometimes forgot, how known he was to the world.

“I knew things about you,” Sam pointed out. “We’re friends anyway. Don’t worry too much about what you know and what you don’t know.”

"Are you just saying that so you can meet him if we end up being friends?"

“Would I use you like that?” Sam grinned. “Nevermind, don’t answer that. I can be cool, though.”

“I don’t think he likes attention.”

“Oh, I’m sure he doesn’t,” Sam shrugged. “And don’t pull that Captain America face with me, buddy boy. I will be perfectly composed around your new best friend.”

“Are you gonna ask him for a selfie?”

“I said composed, not sainted.

Steve smiled. “We’ll see.”

 


 

The phone continued not to ring, though Steve kept it charged. Occasional text messages would show up from someone named Becca, inquiring as to James’ location. Steve assumed that Becca had to be, well, Becca Barnes—James’ still-famous, well-respected actress sister, who had been mentioned and linked to from several of his profiles. Becca hadn’t been famous as a kid, outside of a series of commercials, but now she was turning in award-winning performances in small independent films, and had recently been cast in one of the tentpole blockbuster franchises that had cropped up in the last few years to recreate the heroics of, well, people like Steve and his teammates.

So that was weird.

Regardless of who Becca was, Steve couldn’t return the texts, being as he didn’t have James’ passcode. Natasha offered to crack it for him, but Steve thought that might be taking it a bit too far, so he just kept the phone on him, doing his best not to obsess.

Which resulted in the entirely normal behavior of him bringing up James in conversation whenever the opportunity presented itself. And also when it didn't.

Very, very normal.

 


 

“Bucky Barnes?” Pepper said, tapping away at her tablet over breakfast one morning. “Sure, I remember him. Cute kid. Why?”

“No reason,” said Steve. “Can you pass the milk?”

 


 

“Oh, Christ,” said Tony, later that same day. “Bucky Barnes. Yeah, that little shit still owes me money.”

“So you know him? Or, of him?”

“We had friends in common.” Tony paused—a rarity. “Or. No. Not friends, but acquaintances. We went to a few of the same parties when I still spent most of my time out west.”

“Oh.”

“Wasn’t much to him - he was blowing through his residuals at the time,” Tony shrugged. “Or getting cirrhosis from them, I don’t know. Why?”

“No reason.”

 


 

“Who?” said Bruce.

“Bucky Barnes.”

Should I know who that is?”

“Probably not.”

“Why?”

“...no reason.”

 


 

“Oh, yes,” Wanda nodded. “Bucky Barnes. I know him.”

“Shit songs,” Pietro agreed.

“They are not so bad,” Wanda argued, before beginning to hum something vaguely catchy. She was a bit off-key, but Steve got the idea.

“That’s his song?”

“Yes,” Wanda said, as Pietro made a face. “Our mama liked American pop music.”

“She was always singing it,” Pietro agreed. “I think to drive our father mad.”

“Huh.” Steve smiled. “How old were you, when that song was around?”

“Oh, young,” Wanda replied. “Three or four? I hardly remember. Why?”

“No reason.”

 


 

“Oh yeah, from Stepping Stones!” Peter grinned. “I love that show!”

“You do?”

“Sure! It’s so dumb, it’s hilarious.”

Steve sighed and rubbed his temples. “Is this one of those things where you like something ironically, and I end up looking old and out of touch?”

“...kind of.”

“Thanks, Peter.”

“You’re welcome. Why do you need to know?”

“No reason.”

 


 

Steve briefly considered calling Shuri to ask her, before thinking better of it. He could only handle humiliation-by-teen once a day, and surely Wakanda was far too enlightened to care about terrible American sitcoms.

It wasn’t like any of it mattered in the end—it had been three days since the disastrous lunch not-date, and the phone hadn’t rung once. (The books, meanwhile, still smelled like shit, and Steve had sealed them up inside a garbage bag once they were dry.)

On the morning of the fourth day, however, the phone began vibrating in Steve's pocket, shocking the hell out of him. He pulled it out and saw ‘Becca' on the display—a call this time, not a text, which meant he could do something about it.

Swiping his finger across the screen, he lifted the phone to his ear. “Hello?”

“Hi,” came the very male voice on the other end. “Um, Steve?”

Oh, shit. “Hi, yeah,” he greeted.

“H-hi. This is uh. James? I uh. S-sorry it took me...but uh. C-could I get my phone back, please?”

Chapter Text

It wasn't the thread count. People said it was the thread count that mattered, but it didn't matter so much as the texture. Bucky knew that; he'd always known it, but it meant something to think it over as he turned onto his back and stared at the mound of pillows he'd amassed.

Jersey sheets were too soft—felt like sleeping inside a t-shirt, which made him itchy, like how clothes did when the detergent clung to their fibers. Itchy like the laundromat they'd gone to when he was little and his ma would count quarters while he held Becca because would-you-two-just-behave?!

There had been a lot of itchy shirts during auditions.

Then there were the too rough sheets. Couldn’t sleep at all, then. Sheets in hospitals and clinics and facilities and other institutionalized areas.

His current sheets, however? Miraculous. It had taken him three years of searching, sleepless and anxious, sitting in front of his laptop night after night because his bed was an enemy combatant. But he’d found them. These perfect sheets, which felt like suede and sunshine on his skin.

These sheets, he could live between for days on end.

Which was sometimes the problem.

Because it was six in the morning—which he knew because the clock radio left behind by the previous occupants of his apartment said so—and he hadn't left his place in three? Four days? The clock had been made for squint-eyed nonagenarians who needed something bigger and brighter than a billboard in Times Square so Bucky could see it without his glasses. Fine with him; his eyes were tired.

Probably he was awake because the apartment faced east on a corner, meaning that the sun creeping over Brooklyn was beginning to flood the space with its ridiculous, intrusive, golden rays. Every glorious window that lined two of his four walls lighting up as if to say hello! I'm here! Get out of bed!

Wouldn’t.

Not his fault he’d forgotten to close the blinds during that brief period the night before when he’d gotten up to feed Bert. (Feeding Bert was something he would never forget, no matter how many days he spent wrapping himself in the comfort of those perfect, elusive sheets.)

It had been a bad week, and it hadn't even been a full week. The fact that he couldn’t remember how many days had passed since his ill-fated lunch with Captain Fucking America bothered him. A lot of things about that situation bothered him.

Number one, his irrational brain kept insisting that Captain Fucking America had been flirting with him. Which was patently untrue.

Number two, the guy wasn’t what Bucky had been expecting when it came to what one expected of Captain Fucking America. He hadn’t been expecting Some Guy Named Steve. Steve, who was nice in that way grandparents were nice, where they actually wanted to talk to you and weren’t just waiting for you to finish your half of the conversation so they could show you something stupid on YouTube.

Number three, Steve Captain Fucking America Rogers had stolen his phone. And his books. In as much as a phone and books could be stolen when an impending panic attack necessitated vacating a restaurant in short order. Bucky had called the cafe several hours later, stammering through his query, only to be told that there was no lost and found, and so his possessions had likely disappeared alongside Tall, Blond, and Definitely Not Flirting.

Number four was more of an observation than a fact: Bucky didn't need his phone as much as he thought he did. Life without a phone was great when it came down to it. Nobody could call him, and it was a hell of a lot easier to ignore emails on his laptop than it was to ignore the vibrating beast in his pocket that said oh, Bucky, your advisor wants to talk! Oh, Bucky, there's a new deposit in your account! Oh, Bucky, Becca's back in the country!

Those were the facts of the case, such as it was. Probably there was a connection to be made between the panic attack and subsequent losing of the phone to not wanting to have a phone at all. And perhaps the reason he had rarely left his bed since the incident had something to do with the fact that he’d had a complete meltdown in front of Steve Fucking Rogers.

But that sounded an awful lot like therapy-speak, and Bucky had been avoiding his therapist for six goddamn months now.

Grunting, he turned over once again and found that his right side was infinitely preferable to his left.

He ought to get up. Ought to eat. Ought to work on his dissertation.

But hell, if he did that, then he’d be doing it.

So, he closed his eyes and fell back to sleep instead.

 


 

When he next woke, someone was pounding on his door, and the neon glow of his clock proclaimed it to be 10:22 am.

“Whatdafuck,” he muttered, more to the pounding than the numbers as he groped for his glasses, finding them tangled up in a pair of boxers. Which—quick sniff—clean boxers. Why were there clean boxers on his bed?

Oh. Right.

He’d been folding laundry when the notification came from the library that the books he needed were in. So he’d abandoned the chore mid-fold, run his errand, met Steve Fucking Rogers, and by the time he came home again he’d been so close to losing his mind that he hadn’t thought much about the pile of clean clothing atop his mattress.

Really ought to put those away at some point, though.

“Bucky!” came a muffled shout from the other side of the door. “I can hear you moving around in there!”

It was Becca. But then, it usually was Becca, so she came as no great surprise.

“I’m coming,” he hollered in response, throat dry. Groping for a hoodie, he pulled a black one over his head and padded to the door in his sweats.

“Je-sus,” Becca began as soon as he’d opened it. Every syllable a sentence with his sister, whom he loved and adored. She looked good, sporting the attire of the casually famous in New York City. Celebrities-they’re-just-like-us with a black ball cap and sunglasses and jeans and a tank top that probably cost more than most people’s mortgage payment. “I’ve been texting you for days. You don’t check your messages anymore?”

“Lost my phone,” he said, stepping back to let her and her Dean and Deluca bags inside, catching a whiff of her expensive perfume. “Hi.”

“Hi back. I brought you bagels.”

“Okay.” He shut the door behind her and locked both deadbolts. “I thought you were in Paris.”

“That was last week. What do you mean you lost your phone?”

Becca always made herself at home, sweeping inside like she owned the place. It didn’t take her long to get comfortable, dropping her bags and her hat onto the small island located in the equally small kitchen area that took up one corner of the studio. Bucky followed, scratching his stomach over the velvety material of his hoodie and letting out a yawn.

“I mean,” he replied. “I lost it. I left it in a restaurant.”

Becca snorted. “You were in a restaurant?”

Yes,” he said, perching on one of the mismatched stools he’d found at someone’s stoop sale as Becca began pulling out more than just bagels from the bags. Ridiculous sister. Bucky was perfectly capable of feeding himself—he didn’t need her grocery shopping for him. But that was Becca, all through. “Why’d you go to Dean and Deluca? It’s so expensive.”

“Yeah, because I can’t afford it.”

“That’s not the point,” he said, pulling a container of cream cheese towards himself, where he braced it against the counter to open it before sticking his finger right through the plastic cover and pulling out a messy glob. “Anyway, I did go to a restaurant.”

“Use a utensil,” she chided, smacking his hand just before he stuck his finger in his mouth. “You’re so gross.”

Bucky grinned. “Takes one to know one.”

“Rubber and glue, asshole.”

That made him laugh, though it didn't stop him from going in for another swipe. It was good to see her, and truthfully, he'd been expecting it sooner or later. Becca worried about him and tended to call him at least a couple of times a week. It had been that way since Bucky had moved back to New York and they'd reconnected. Tentatively, at first, considering what he'd put her through as a kid, but Becca had been the one to reach out, and so she'd also been the one to nurture what they had, slowly but surely making herself a permanent fixture in his small, orderly life.

They were very nearly back to normal now—like real siblings, rather than fucked up acquaintances. Becca had spent her childhood living in his shadow. A cute enough kid in her own right, she’d booked a national toothpaste campaign when she was four, and the lead in a straight-to-video Christmas movie when she was six, but she’d never hit the way he had. Which was a shame, because she’d always been more talented.

Someone was smart enough to see it eventually—namely, Juilliard, which offered her a place in their acting program when she was seventeen, saving her from life as a factoid on Buzzfeed quizzes (“this washed-up child actor’s sister was the spokesgirl for Aquafresh in the nineties!”). Becca’s star had been slowly but surely on the rise ever since, beginning with raved-about turns in indie films, and lately with significant parts in two major franchises. It didn’t hurt that she was pretty, with an interesting, intelligent face that had directors and designers going gaga over her.

So yeah. Becca was doing fine. But they didn’t talk about work much, for a lot of different reasons, none of them good.

Pulling a cutting board out from the shelf beneath the island, Becca went to work on the bagels with a butter knife (which, Jesus, Rebecca, there’s a serrated bread knife hanging on the metallic strip over the stove right behind you).

“So,” she said. “Are you gonna get a new number?”

“Huh?” Bucky had been vacillating between eating the cream cheese and watching her massacre the bagel.

“When you get a new phone, are you going to have to get a new number, or are you going to have them port the old one?”

“Uh.”

“For that matter, why don’t you do the...what is it, Find My Phone? Do that.”

“Oh. Right. I haven’t done that, no.”

Becca looked up from her sorely abused bagel and frowned. “How long ago did this happen?”

“...don’t remember,” Bucky said, which was only half a lie.

“Buck-y, you’re supposed to be—”

“You’re not my doctor!”

“But you—”

“Becca!”

“Bucky!” She threw up her hands. “Go do Find My Phone! Right now!”

“Don’t know how.”

Becca cast her eyes to the ceiling in a way that reminded him disconcertingly of his mother, before blowing out a breath. “Go over. To your computer. And I will show you.”

“Well.” Bucky hesitated. “The thing is. I don’t know that I need to. Because uh. Logically. I might know where my phone might be.”

Becca waited for him to continue, butter knife held aloft.

“It might be in uh. Stark Tower?”

Or Avengers Tower, or whatever the fuck they were calling the massive monument to Tony Stark’s phallus that had sprung up seemingly overnight in Midtown. The aliens-falling-from-the-sky incident had happened while Bucky had been in Ithaca working on his Master’s thesis, but as he understood it, things had gotten a mite out of hand, what with the near-total destruction of Grand Central Station, and the whole Captain-America-isn’t-dead thing.

Becca put down her knife and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Why, Bucky, would your phone be there?”

“Because,” Bucky replied, knocking his bare toe against the wooden leg of the island while staring very intently at the cream cheese. “I think Steve Rogers has my phone.”

Becca was quiet for nearly thirty seconds, which was impressive. “Uh...huh,” she managed. “Gonna repeat the question: why?”

“Well.” Bucky’s right arm crossed to his left side, where he rubbed the end of his stump through the empty sleeve of his hoodie, the gesture more a nervous habit than anything done for comfort. “Because that’s who I was with when I lost it. In the restaurant.”

“You are a mystery wrapped up in a conundrum wrapped up in a Russian nesting doll of what-the-fuck, big brother,” Becca replied, turning to drop the bagel into the toaster. “Wanna walk me through what happened?”

“Right. So.” Bucky cleared his throat. “I was at the library, picking up some books I needed. And I’m walking back, and this huge guy just collides with me.”

“Sure. Captain America. Of course. Like, was he on official Avengers business? Was he in that hottie hot uniform with the bondage harness and the—”

“Would you shut up and let me tell the story?”

“Sorry.” (She didn’t look very sorry.)

“So. Okay. He runs into me. And it’s like hitting a brick wall, right? Fully freaked me out. And my books go flying, and then he’s like, you know, Greg Brady about it. Like, oh golly gosh gee, mister, I’m so sorry, let me help you.”

“So you were Jan in this scenario?”

Bucky glared and pushed some hair out of his eyes, feeling the remnants of the cream cheese on his finger clinging to his greasy locks. He needed a fucking shower. “Anyway. Shut up. He felt bad, so he offered to buy me lunch. And I’m like, I don’t know, my brain was like...do it do it do it because he felt guilty, and he was nice, and—”

“Bucky, you won’t even get lunch with me.”

“You’re famous!”

He’s famous!”

“Yeah but…” he shook his head. “I don’t know. He’s like a wizard. He talked me into it. And we’re—so we go to this sandwich place, and it’s fine. It’s going okay? Part of me thinks he was flirting, but—”

Becca quirked a brow.

“Okay, I know he wasn’t, but Christ, Becs, I’m fucked up. I’m not dead. I can have like...a dream.”

“I didn’t say anything!”

“You didn’t have to!”

“Well. I’m not saying he wasn’t. I’m just saying...I don’t know what I’m saying.”

“Thanks, Becca,” he said drily.

“So anyway, your phone?”

“Right,” he said, frowning. “So. We’re just talking, waiting for our food. And this guy comes up to our table.”

“Fuck.” Becca winced. “Into Steve, or some idiot Stoner?”

“Stoner,” he shrugged. “Four of them, actually.” The not-at-all-affectionate moniker was one he and Becca had created to refer to the people who were obsessed enough with a nearly twenty-year-old television show to bother him about it in public.

“Ah,” she said. “Let me guess. Panic attack?”

“Bingo-bango,” he said, pointing a finger gun at her.

“But you’re okay now?”

Bucky smiled a little, nodding. Becca was good—she found ways to check on him without being cloying or fussy. It was appreciated, because Bucky had never been one for much overt sentimentality. “I’m good.”

“How’s Bert?”

“Bert’s good, too.”

“Long as you and Bert are good, I’m good.”

"Thanks, Becs."

Becca went to work abusing a second bagel with her butter knife. “I think you should call him,” she said after a moment’s pause.

“Uh, nope,” Bucky said, his throat closing up a little at the very thought. “Remember the part where I had a panic attack in front of him and ran away? That’s like...the least endearing quality I possess.”

“Eh,” she shrugged, waggling her hand to show she didn’t agree. “Your least endearing quality is the way you smack your lips when you eat. That’s like...the worst thing in the universe.”

“Becs—”

“In. The. Universe.” She grinned, just as the toaster popped up with the first bagel. “Your agoraphobia and inability to cope with the world? That’s way down the list. Tenth. Eleventh, even.”

“Thanks.” He raised an eyebrow. “You gonna use a plate, or…?”

Becca, who had been laying out a paper towel for her bagel, shrugged. “Depends. You gonna keep smearing the cream cheese on your gross finger and double dipping, or use a knife?”

“Fair. I’ll get a knife.”

“Then I’ll get a plate.”

“Thank you.”

“And you should call Steve Rogers.”

“Can’t,” he grinned. “Don’t have a phone.”

“Eat your fucking bagel,” she said, shoving it towards him.

Bucky gave her a salute before doing what he was told, using a knife like an outstanding citizen while Becca got the second bagel ready for herself.

“How’s ma?” he asked around a mouthful, somewhat reluctant to hear the answer.

“She’s good.” Becca hopped up on the counter, long legs swinging. “I’ll see her for Sunday dinner, probably. You know you’re always welcome.”

“Yeah.” Bucky scratched the back of his neck, which had begun to prickle. “Is uh, is she still seeing that guy? The one she brought to lunch, with the hairy ears?”

“Bill? Yeah.”

“He seems nice.”

“He is.” Becca hesitated. “She uh, she wants to know if you want to come for Thanksgiving this year.”

Being as it was the middle of September, that gave him at least two months to find an excuse for flaking out. So, he shrugged. “Sure.”

“Bucky…”

“I will.”

“That’s what you said last year.”

“That was last year.”

“I just think—”

“Well, d-don’t,” he snapped, stammering out the last word before cramming another bite of bagel into his mouth.

“Sorry,” she muttered.

An awkward silence fell, the only sound in the apartment that of the motor powering the water filter in Bert's tank. Bucky's guilty conscience sat with him—he shouldn't have snapped at his sister. It wasn't her fault or her responsibility. The relationship between Bucky and his mother was complicated, to say the least, but Becca had been a kid through all of it. Hell, she hadn't even been ten when he'd emancipated himself. Nowadays, she did her best to heal the wound that had sprung up between the two of them, but sometimes it felt like slapping a band-aid on gangrene.

“You really think I should call Steve Rogers?” he said as a peace offering when the silence grew unbearable.

“I mean, yeah,” she said, a small smile creeping onto her face. “If he hasn’t turned your phone into like...Avengers lost and found.”

Bucky snorted. “That sounds super official.”

“Shut up.” Hopping down from the counter, she reached into her bag and pulled out her phone, using her thumb to unlock it. “Call your phone. See if he picks up.”

Bluff called, Bucky took the phone and found himself in her contacts under ‘Bucktooth’ before pressing the phone to his ear. Probably Steve Rogers had thrown the phone out. Probably he wouldn’t even remember Bucky. Probably—

“Hello?”

Oh shit. The motherfucker even sounded distressingly handsome.

“Hi,” he managed without stammering. “Um, Steve?”

"Hi, yeah," Steve replied like he had no idea Bucky had nearly bitten his lip off with the chewing and worrying it to death.

Bucky on the phone and Becca cheering him on

“H-hi,” Bucky said, which, so much for not stammering. Damn it. “This is uh. James? I uh. S-sorry it took me...but uh. C-could I get my phone back, please?”

Steve paused, as Becca hovered over Bucky’s shoulder like the world’s most persistent gnat. He nudged her away, all the while imagining Steve doing something heroic on the other end of the line—putting one hand on his hip, maybe. Or folding his arms across his chest. Though, he couldn’t be doing that, because he needed one hand to hold the phone, and—

“...to you.”

Shit. Steve had been saying something. “Uh, sorry,” Bucky said. “M-my connection’s bad. What was that?”

“I said, I could bring it to you. And your books—I’ve got those, too.”

"You d-don't have to do that!" he said, his voice coming out more squeaky than suave. "Just like...I'll give you my address, and you can send a messenger. Or, whatever. Mail them. I don't care."

Becca, the actual devil, punched him in the shoulder.  “Stop sabotaging yourself,” she hissed.

“I don’t mind a bit,” Steve said at the same time. “You live around where I met you, right?”

“Uh huh.” Good memory, Captain Fucking America.

“You wanna give me that address?”

Bucky told him, mostly to shut Becca up, and listened to Steve mutter a few "mmm-hmms" and "alrightys" as he scribbled it down, probably with infuriating casualness.

“Got it. 11B. How’s this afternoon? I could come around two?”

“Um.” Bucky glanced at the clock on the microwave. That gave him a few hours to prepare. “Okay, yeah. B-but you really don’t have—”

“I’ll see you then.”

“Yup! Okay, bye, then. See you later. Um, thanks!”

(Thanks old buddy old pal old public service announcement! What the fuck even was that voice? Bucky was a disaster.)

They hung up, and Bucky turned to find Becca staring at him with barely disguised glee.

“He’s gonna bring my stuff,” Bucky muttered, dropping her phone on the counter before shoving his hand into the pocket of his hoodie.

“You,” Becca replied. “Need a fucking shower.”

 

Chapter Text

Craning his neck, Steve took in all thirteen stories of James’ utterly nondescript building before hitting the buzzer and stepping back to wait. He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, given that their previous encounter had been minimal, but it definitely wasn’t this soulless slab of red brick with its blank windows and uniform design. No charm, no personality, and while he didn’t like to sound his age, they really didn’t make buildings like they used to.

The intercom crackled to life, and Steve straightened up (which was ridiculous because it wasn’t a camera).

“Hang on,” came James’ voice. There was a pause, a buzz, and a click as the deadbolt gave way.

The door opened into a narrow hallway which led to a small lobby containing two elevators as well as a bank of mail slots. It wasn’t exactly the Ritz, but it was at least clean and well-kept. Pushing the button for the elevator, he stepped back to wait, glancing at the packages set out on a table, alongside a plant that he had to assume was fake.

One of the packages had James’ name on it, and Steve debated bringing it up to him along with the books he held in his arms. Would that be odd? Overbearing? The whole thing felt odd and overbearing, now that he was standing there in the lobby. James had been right—he ought to have just messengered the stuff over. Hell, he’d probably been misreading the situation entirely. James was shy, and Steve had been a blustering blowhard who’d strong-armed him into a lunch he never wanted to have. Stupid of him to think otherwise, yet there he was. Pushing his luck.

Appropriateness in his overtures had always been a problem. The fact of the matter was that his romantic history—present day and otherwise—was so spotty and sporadic that he still felt as though he was groping in the dark when it came to what was or wasn't too much. Hell, the last date he'd been on had been foisted upon him by a well-meaning Pepper Potts. The fella in question had been named Tim, and Tim had turned out to be a Captain America fanboy who wanted nothing more than to steal stories from Steve, all the while going on and on about his trading cards.

Tim was no Phil Coulson, and while there had been an aborted attempt at intimacy, Steve had ended up alone at the end of the evening. Pepper hadn’t tried again.

And, honestly, he was fine with that. He had his work, he had his team, and he had his friends. It was more than he’d had for the majority of his old life—Howlies and Peg notwithstanding—and who was he to look a gift horse in the mouth? He didn’t need anyone to complete him; he was fine on his own.

But then, James Barnes and his books and his face and his treating Steve like a person had happened, and now there he was, nursing an infatuation all the way to James’ front door.

The ‘ding’ of the arriving elevator caught his attention, and he stepped inside, where the doors closed with only the slightest of squeaks. That boded well for the quality of the machinery. Steve wasn’t a particularly morbid guy, considering his line of work, but sometimes he had a thought or two about the limits of his body. If, say, a cable snapped, would he be able to survive the fall? Did his healing extend to multiple compound fractures from hitting the ground at such a velocity that his femurs shattered into a thousand tiny pieces?

Something to think about.

The doors opened on eleven, and Steve was hit with the smell of bacon and eggs mingling with curry mingling with something he couldn’t place. Two dozen or so lives playing out in the hallway, with all their smells and shouts and complications. He missed it, sometimes, in the antiseptic banality of Avengers tower—living life in and around other people. A strange nostalgia to have, though he had it all the same.

Turning away from the bacon and following the signs down the hall, he found 11B, lifting a hand to knock and stepping back self-consciously. Put the hand in the pocket? Hand by the side? Hand...ah, fuck. Too late. The deadbolt was sliding open, and he heard the sound of a chain rattling.

Strange, though. He hadn’t heard footsteps. He should have heard footsteps unless...had James been standing there waiting? The thought sent a small thrum of pleasure through him, though it was quickly quelled by the realization that, yes, of course James had been there waiting—Steve had just buzzed up.

James pulled the door open, looking every inch at home in his glasses, hair pulled back into a low ponytail and a hesitant smile on his face. He was in clothes that were a bit too big for him, his body drowning in the material of his grey track pants and a black hoodie. One sleeve of the hoodie hung empty at his side, and between that and the bare feet, Steve was relieved to see he hadn't put forth any special effort. (Not that Steve had either—trying on two different shirts before leaving the house had been mere practicality. One of them had had a stain on the collar.)

“Hey,” James said, his eyes flicking from Steve’s face to the books in his arms.

Steve offered him a smile before reaching into his pocket for the erstwhile phone. “Hi,” he replied. “Here.”

“Thanks.” There was an awkward pause as James reached out for his phone, which grew ever more awkward because neither of them knew what to say. “Uh—”

“There was a package for you,” Steve blurted. Like an idiot.

James blinked, and Steve figured that was reason enough to keep going.

“On the table? By the mail slots? I saw your name on a package.”

Another blink, as James fiddled with his phone. “D-did you um, bring it up with you?”

Nope. Because why would he have done anything remotely resembling sensical? “I...didn’t.”

“Oh. Well. Th-thanks for telling me.”

“Sure.”

A heavy silence dropped between them again, and Steve shifted his weight from foot to foot, wondering if he ought to drop the books and run.

“Guess you—” he began, just as James started with, “so, you w-wanna—”

They both stopped.

“You go,” James said.

“No, go ahead,” Steve replied, dancing the dance of the awkward conversationalist.

“Oh. I was only g-gonna say, if you wanna put the books on the island?”

The offer wasn’t made with any great enthusiasm, but it was an offer to come inside, and Steve wasn’t about to object. So he smiled, shrugged, and did his best to keep it casual. “Sure.”

James offered him what might have been optimistically called a smile before stepping back and holding the door open with his foot.

Steve followed him inside, finding an apartment that managed to both subvert and exceed his expectations. The room was a studio—a rectangle on the corner of the building, with windows lining two of its four walls. Said walls were painted the creamy off-white favored by countless landlords; look close enough, and you’d find evidence of botched paint jobs and hastily plastered holes.

A mattress was pushed up against the window corner, and the bedding was a quilt that looked well-loved—patchwork and pieced together, reminding Steve in an instant of his childhood. There were no fewer than a half-dozen pillows scattered across the bed, and while it lacked a frame or a headboard, it looked cozy enough.

On the windowsill near it was a terracotta planter holding three succulents—houseplants in their simplest form. Steve had to give James credit for trying; the few plants in his place at the tower were kept alive through the efforts of other people. It bothered him sometimes, how quickly he’d gotten used to the luxury of having someone else meet those most basic needs.

The rest of the apartment was sparsely furnished—a cheap-looking desk piled high with books alongside a closed laptop, with a metal folding chair tucked underneath. A chest of drawers stood next to that, and though the wood was scratched in places, Steve could see it was a decent quality piece.

A small kitchen lay to his right. A closed door to his left—bathroom, no doubt—and a closet.

All that, plus the aquarium.

It was impossible to miss, the lush tank dominating a good portion of the wall to Steve’s left. Six feet long, at least, and he’d guess about three feet deep. Water came halfway up its sides, and the interior was full of green plants, rocks, and something else. Something moving.

Huh.

“Is that—?” Steve began, setting the books down on the kitchen island and turning towards the tank.  

“He’s a turtle,” James said, shutting the door behind them.

The turtle slipped off his rock and into the water when Steve took a step closer, disappearing into the dark. “Shit. Did I scare him?”

“Probably. But that’s alright—he’s s-scared of everything.”

“How long have you had him?”

James shrugged, walking past Steve to the tank, where he crouched low. “Two years, about. I um, found him, actually.”

“You found him? What, were you scuba diving in Central Park?”

“No,” James replied, and Steve was pleased to see another hint of a smile on his face. “Someone abandoned him. I was w-walking down the alley out back, and I heard him moving in this box by the dumpster.”

“Jesus.” And lo, Steve’s infatuation with James grew ever stronger. “Lot of people would have left him.”

"Lotta people are shitty," James muttered. "I took him to the vet. She said turtles get abandoned because they live forever, and people get them for their kids, and then the kids don't w-want them anymore, so—" he sighed.

“That’s awful,” Steve said, more focused on the back of James’ head than the turtle. “So you really went all out for him, huh?”

“Sure. They need a lot of room, so...I got room for him.”

Made sense, and was another piece of evidence contributing to the theory Steve had been piecing together in the very short time he’d been in James’ space. The building itself was decent, and rent in that part of the city didn’t come cheap (hell, it didn’t come cheap anywhere these days, but James’ neighborhood was on the upper end of expensive). The apartment was in good shape, with new appliances in the kitchen and gleaming hardwood floors. There were plenty of hovels to be had in Manhattan, but this wasn’t one of them. James just hadn’t bothered to do much with it, save for the space he carved out as sacred for his pet.

“He’s lucky you were there,” Steve said. “What’s his name?”

“Bert.”

James said it in such a matter-of-fact way that it made Steve laugh, uncommonly fond of his new friend. Bert the turtle. Made perfect sense.

“M-my sister and I loved Mary Poppins when we were little,” James muttered, which made Steve feel like a heel for laughing. “And when I got Bert, she s-said he looked like Dick Van Dyke when he did the thing with his neck, so…”

Trailing off, he shrugged, and Steve offered him a smile. Mary Poppins and Dick Van Dyke were both things that he felt he was supposed to know about. Parts of the pop culture pantheon so holy that their reach ought to have extended through time. Five years in and his new life was still an endless series of oh-that-sounds-familiar and I’ll-check-it-out.

“Don’t think I know that one,” he said.

“Bert was the character he played in Mary Poppins,” James said, getting to his feet. “But I guess that’s after your time, huh?”

“After and before,” Steve agreed before spouting his tried and true line. “I’ll have to check it out.”

James smiled another almost-smile, his hand tugging on the ties of his hood. “Do you do that a lot?”

“Do what?”

“L-lie.”

Caught off guard by his candor, Steve bit back a laugh. “I’m not lying!”

“Yeah, you are. You probably have like...a million things you’re supposed to ‘check out,’ right?”

“That’s...yeah.”

“And p-probably after a while, you think. Fuck. I’m never gonna catch up, so why bother?”

A remarkably astute observation. “Honestly? I don’t even want to see Star Wars at this point. Nobody’ll shut up about it.” Steve was nothing if not a contrarian.

James grinned—his first real smile—and the tension that had built in the air began to clear. Steve watched as he relaxed, shoulders un-hunching and spine straightening. “You should watch it,” he said. “But then, like, tell everyone your favorite is the first one. The first prequel, I mean.”

“Uh huh.”

“You don’t know what I’m talking about again, right?”

“Nope.”

“Awesome. But you should still watch Mary Poppins.”

“If you want me to, I will.” Easy enough to make a promise to someone you genuinely liked; Steve would take a heartfelt recommendation over scathing disbelief at his ignorance any day. “And I’ll report back to you when I do.”

“Uh, you w-will?” A pleased smile crossed James’ face, and he ducked his head to stare at the floor.

There was something...Steve was sure he hadn't imagined the flirting. Or, alright, not flirting, but there was a vague, hesitant interest there. He was blushing, for heaven's sake.

“I will when I see you again,” Steve replied. “Which I’d like to do, by the way.” Better to state facts plainly rather than dance around them; lying and obfuscation never did anybody any good, though he knew a redhead who’d argue that point into a dagger.

"Oh. Um." James kept his eyes fixed on the ground, turning away from Steve and wandering toward the kitchen. He was sweet when he was flustered, even if his social graces left something to be desired. "Like, uh—?"

“Like a date,” Steve supplied, following him.

The proclamation was apparently so shocking that James couldn’t quite formulate an answer, instead going to the fridge, opening it and pulling out two bottles of water.

“My s-sister bought this, l-like, alkaline water,” he said, trying to change the subject. “If you want one.”

“Sure.” Crossing to the island, Steve took the bottle, keeping the countertop between himself and James, not wanting to crowd. “Thank you. Now, about that date?”

“I c-c-can’t,” James stammered, closing the fridge with enough force that the glass containers within clinked. “I can’t. You saw what h-happened, and I can’t go...you wouldn’t understand—”

“We don’t have to go out,” Steve said, which brought James up short. “It’s...look, I err...searched you. Online.”

James looked up from where he’d been twisting off the cap with his teeth. “What? Why?”

“I know I shouldn’t have,” Steve said, the feeling of guilt having been gnawing at him for days. “But when those guys knew who you were, and you panicked...hell, I liked you. And, I was curious.”

James’ eyes darted back and forth as he aggressively spat the bottle cap onto the counter before taking a long swallow, giving himself time to process. “So um, you s-saw—”

“I didn’t do a deep dive into the dirty details,” Steve replied. “But I know the basics. And—” he put his water on the counter before holding up both hands in the hopes of offering some peace of mind. “You have a past. I do, too. But the thing is, I wasn’t around for that whole part of things? I don’t give a shit about who you were.”

“Then what—?”

“I knocked over this handsome guy on the street,” he continued. “And he knew who I was, but didn’t make a thing out of it. So I figure, we might as well keep giving each other the benefit of the doubt, right? It’s not a real romantic proposal, but…” Trailing off, he smiled, only to feel his heart sink when James shook his head.

“Th-thanks,” he managed. “But I s-still can’t.”

“Why?”

“Because—” he tossed his head towards the door. “Out th-there. People see me. You don’t need that.”

“I already said we don’t have to go out. You could come to my place?”

There was no mistaking the sheer horror on James’ face at that suggestion. Which, alright, Steve’s friends could be intimidating—it was easy to forget just how intimidating when you’d seen Wanda and Sam get into a who-pukes-first competition using the spinny chairs from Tony’s lab.

“Or we could have a date here,” he amended with a shrug.

“Here?”

“Sure. Why not? Dinner and a movie’s always a decent time. How about it?”

“Um.”

“I can bring dinner, you pick the movie. I heard Mary Poppins is pretty good.”

There it was—the winning line. Steve wasn’t much of a flirt, but he wasn’t a gormless fool, either. James smiled. “I g-guess I have no good reason to say no, huh?”

“Feeling vaguely obligated is how a lot of history’s great romances began,” Steve teased.

That got a snort out of James, and he shook his head. “When?”

“How’s Friday? You already got plans?”

“Oh y-yeah. Social butterfly.”

“I don’t know what you and Bert get up to in your spare time.”

James glanced at the tank, showing the same sense of humor Steve had seen in him briefly when they’d met before. “Sometimes,” he said. “I take him out, and then he bites me.”

“Thrilling.”

“Yup.”

“So, Friday?”

“Yes. You’re really bringing dinner?”

God help him, he was going to try. “Sure. Does your oven work, in case I need to heat something up?”

James looked marginally offended. “Yes!”

“Alright, then. I’m bringing food. Oh, and I should get your number, now that you’ve got your phone back. I have to warn you, I’m not the best at texting.”

“What’s that mean?”

“I use full sentences. No emojis.”

“Oh. At least you don’t sign them with your full name.”

Steve decided it wouldn't be prudent to mention he'd only recently stopped doing that after Peter had taken him aside for a Very Serious Conversation.

Once the numbers had been swapped, they said an awkward goodbye that involved plenty of oh-goshes on both their parts as they got Steve out the door. Still, as Steve headed for his bike (which was definitely not parked illegally), he felt pretty damn proud of himself.

Because he had a date. A real date—one he'd made for himself rather than one made for him by someone else. Sure, it was unconventional, but when had he ever been one for conventionality? It helped that the date was with someone he actually liked. His time with James had been brief, but there was something about him; hard to put his finger on it, but an innate decency that Steve found very appealing. His mother had once told him that he was a hell of a judge of character, and he clung to that belief, considering that his judgment had yet to lead him astray. It was how he’d picked his team in the now and in the then, and he couldn’t think of two better groups of people to have at his back.

By the time he made it to the tower, he was whistling, and though his original intent had been to hole up in his quarters, he found he was craving some company. Taking the elevator to the common area, he was pleased to see Wanda, Bruce, and Sam sitting around the glass-topped coffee table, intently focused on a massive jigsaw puzzle. The box on the floor beside them indicated it was an aquarium scene—appropriate, given his afternoon—with three thousand pieces.

“Hi,” Steve said when they looked up to greet him. “Wow, Wanda, that’s the biggest one yet.”

“Don’t encourage her!” Tony’s voice floated down from above.

Steve craned his neck and found Tony standing directly over them holding a glass of something amber-colored and no doubt expensive while a hologram schematic floated in front of him, projected from his watch.

“She can hear you,” Wanda shot back, flicking her finger towards Tony in a way that set the ice vibrating in his glass.

The jigsaw battles had begun as a joke, with Wanda and Tony arguing over the appropriateness of long-term activities taking place in the common area. Tony's stated case was that things taking longer than an evening to complete ought to be confined to quarters. Wanda, conversely, said that team-building was important, and jigsaws were an integral part of that initiative, so they ought to always have one or two going in the lounge where anyone could stop and work on them as they passed through.

Steve—ever the unhelpful mediator—had agreed with Wanda, though that was mostly because he knew the pastoral scenes she favored were at-odds with every fiber of Tony's design aesthetic for the space. There was nothing funnier than watching him come apart at the seams over something that hardly mattered. Everyone else had agreed with Steve and had fallen in line behind him. Save for Pepper, of course, who had insisted that Tony had the right of it.

(Pepper, in the end, was the greatest betrayal of all. They’d returned from a mission and found her sitting in the middle of the floor with hundreds of pieces sorted into similarly colored piles all around her.

“It’s a barn, in Vermont,” she’d said, lamely, as Tony scoffed in disbelief.)

“Don’t worry about it, Wanda,” Steve said, stepping closer to the table. “He’s just annoyed because he’s terrible at them.”

A vague, muttered, “not terrible” came from above before the peanut gallery fell silent.

Settling on the ground between Wanda and Sam, Steve did what he understood to be a profoundly annoying thing—namely, reaching into Sam’s pile and making two perfect matches straightaway.

“I was getting to those!” Sam protested.

“Sure you were,” Steve grinned, before beginning work in earnest.

For a while, nobody said anything save for what mattered to the puzzle, with various murmurings of “need half an octopus” and “does that look like a dolphin’s tail?” As the afternoon wore on, other people drifted in and out—Bruce left with Tony, the experiment they’d been waiting for having finished running. Natasha replaced him, cuddling up to Sam and kneeing Steve out of the way.

Funny, on any other day, their coziness might have rankled him. It wasn't that he begrudged them their happiness, it was just that it was hard, sometimes, with the couples. Today, though? Today, Steve had a date.

Natasha noticed his good mood, because she was Natasha, though she didn’t bring it up until later, when she, Steve, and Sam waited for the elevator to arrive.

“You’re in a good mood,” she said, looking up at him from the cocoon of Sam’s arms. Subtle, really, the way she angled for information, but he could appreciate that she was aiming for tact rather than an outright interrogation.

“I had a good day,” he replied. Knowing he had no poker face, he continued before she could press. “Got a date.”

Natasha and Sam didn’t even have to look at each other for a wave of understanding to pass between them. No doubt due to the powerful telepathy of we’ve-seen-each-other-naked. “Oh yeah?” Sam replied. “Who with?”

"You don't know him," Steve said, which was only half true.

“That wasn’t what I asked.”

“Fair. His name’s J-ay.” He stopped himself before saying James, not quite ready yet for Sam to put the pieces together about Steve’s romantic inclinations towards his childhood obsession.

“What does he do?” Natasha interjected as the elevator doors opened, and if she’d connected the dots, she wasn’t letting on.

“He’s a student,” Steve replied, stepping inside with them. “But. You know. In his thirties. A grad student. I met him on a...run.” (By ‘run’ he meant ‘running into,’ which made it less a lie.)

Natasha smirked. “I wasn’t going to judge.”

“He’s…” Steve shook his head. “Nevermind.”

“When’s the date?” Sam asked, saving him from himself.

“Friday.”

Natasha smiled, reaching out to squeeze his arm. “You’ll have to fill us in on Saturday.”

“If there’s anything to tell,” Steve said diplomatically. “It’s just dinner and a movie.”

“Can’t go wrong with a classic,” Sam said as the elevator reached their floor.

“Yeah,” Steve agreed, smiling as Nat and Sam stepped out. It was only when he saw Natasha’s dumb fake book club book on the entry table that he remembered what he’d wanted to ask. “Nat, you’ve got May Parker’s number, right?”

“Sure,” Natasha said. “You still owe me money.”

“I know. But uh, I need to call her about...Peter. Can you send it to me?”

A likely story, and Steve could just about see the question forming on her lips as the doors slid shut.

“Thanks-have-a-good-night-just-text-it-to-me!” he called with a wave before she had the chance to ask.

A minute later, his phone pinged with May’s number and a question mark. Steve grinned, ignoring the latter and giving the former a call.

Let Natasha wonder. There was no use talking until there was something to tell.

 

Chapter Text

Bucky leaned in close to the bathroom mirror, breath fogging the glass and obscuring his reflection.

It had been a monumentally stupid mistake to agree to the date. But Steve had tricked him by calling him handsome.

Handsome. Really?

The compliment had sustained him for most of that first day, Steve’s effusive warmth sitting low in his belly like kindling. Bucky had carried it with him, luxuriating in the fragile belief of his handsomeness as he went about his business—handsomely washing the dishes, handsomely feeding Bert, handsomely rotating the plants on the windowsill so they received equal parts sun and shade.

Then, he’d discovered he was out of toilet paper, which had necessitated a trip to the bodega.

Leaving the apartment had doused the glowing embers of Steve’s words. By the time he reached the store, the compliment had turned to ashes in his mouth.

Handsome? Not so much.

Handsome was the half-naked jogger who passed him, bronzed body glistening with sweat.

Handsome was the young man unloading a truck, stacking boxes on the sidewalk, his arms muscled and hair tousled.

Handsome was the salt and pepper beard of the older man behind the counter of the bodega, who took Bucky’s money with a nod.

Handsome could mean a lot of things, but handsome didn’t mean Bucky.

As he left the bodega, he pulled his hood up and over his head, hiding himself away while he scurried towards home. Too hot for the hood—summer had yet to relinquish her hold on the city, despite the date on the calendar—but the thought of being out in the world without it made him want to claw out his guts and feed them to an alleycat, so he suffered the indignity of the sweat pouring down his face and pooling in the small of his back.

Once he was safely home, he stripped out of his sticky, sweaty clothes, staring at himself in the mirror. Fogging up the glass.

Handsome. Fucking joke.

Stepping into the shower, Bucky scrubbed himself until he was pink all over, his anxiety sloughed off alongside the grime.

The date was a bad idea.

Yet, he couldn’t bring himself to cancel it. The days between seeing Steve and seeing Steve again falling away as he fretted and fussed over all the ways in which the entire thing was preposterous.

Steve probably wouldn’t even show up. Steve—Steve! Had Steve even met Steve? With the hair and the smile and the way his brow furrowed in his open, genuine face. With the shoulders and the waist and the hips (those goddamn hips) and probably even his feet were perfect. Some foot fetishist’s wettest dream.  

What the fuck was Steve thinking? Bucky nearly called him a half-dozen times to tell him he was nuts. Insane. Ought to be declared certifiable because maybe some evil mastermind had shot him with a gonzo ray-gun if Steve thought Bucky was worthy of his time.

Never did call, though. Never did tell him. And Friday rolled around, as Fridays tended to do, leaving Bucky right where he’d started: once again staring at himself in the mirror, fixating on the size of his pores, absently rubbing his stump as the water dried on his skin.

The shower had been a necessity for a date, but spending twenty minutes fixated on his pale, scarred, naked body? That was indulgent nonsense.

Because the thing about it was—the thing about it was—Bucky didn’t date.

Not because he didn’t want to date. Not because he didn’t like the idea of having someone in his life. Theoretically, both of those things appealed. In the abstract, he could fall in love. In the abstract, he didn’t have to deal with the business of other people.

There were a number of complications when it came to dating, was all. Number one, the finding of the person. Rarely-to-never leaving one’s house was something of an impediment to that. Number two, the expression of interest. The asking for the date. The awkward, stilted mumbling.

Steve, if nothing else, had blustered his way right through both those issues.

Number three? Not so much. Because dating, if the dates went well, led somewhere. Namely, to sex. And sex was…

Well. It was, and it wasn't.

Bucky didn’t like to think too much about the was, considering that the date would probably go badly and he’d only have to contend with the wasn’t.

His phone, perched on the vanity, began to buzz with a pre-set alarm, pulling him from his thoughts and reminding him that he only had twenty minutes before Steve was due to arrive.

Shit. He needed a shirt. And pants, but one problem at a time there, Buck-o.

Leaving the bathroom, he went to his dresser, where he lamented the fact that he owned no button-up shirts, as buttons weren’t really his forte. But buttons were a date appropriate thing, and staring down the pile of t-shirts he only wore under hoodies, he once again felt woefully unprepared.

But! A sweater. He had sweaters—nice ones, even. Too hot to wear outdoors, but fine so long as the air conditioner wedged in one window kept pumping artificial coolness into the room. Sweaters were better than hoodies when it came to being appropriate for dates, and the perfect choice was waiting for him when he opened the drawer. Long-sleeved, cable-knit, too big on him (as most things were), but well-made, the grey wool soft and stretched from years of use. He’d bought it when he lived in Russia—that brief period when he’d thought he might be an interesting person, and had chosen to study abroad.

Tossing the sweater onto the mattress, he pulled on his prosthetic first, strapping himself into place before throwing on a t-shirt and finally the familiar warmth of the wool.

“Good,” he mumbled to himself. Still needed pants, though.

Luckily, his sweater happened to match his least-terrible jeans, which he pulled on over his least-terrible boxers, not because he thought Steve might see them (nope nope nope), but because nearly every other pair he owned had holes, and a guy couldn’t feel his best with holes in his drawers.

Shoes and socks were a lot of work and worry, so he didn’t bother, focusing instead on the problem of his hair. The problem being that there was too much of it, and it tended to fluff and floof in all sorts of directions. Before Becca had come back into his life, he’d gotten in the habit of cutting it himself, which had left it lopsided and choppy. After Becca, he’d begun sitting patiently while she draped a towel around his shoulders and did it herself.

She did a better job than he'd done on his own, though that wasn't saying much, leaving him with waves that came just past his shoulders. Becca said it was "pretty," and Bucky said it was "a pain in the ass" but neither of them called it what it actually was: an invisibility cloak and a shield.

Nobody remembered Bucky Barnes having long hair, after all.

Bucky checked the clock. Six fifty-two. Shit.

Forgetting his hair, he went into a last-minute whirlwind of straightening up. Bed? Made. Drawers? Shut. Windowsill? Dusted. Laptop? Closed.

At precisely seven, the buzzer buzzed, and Bucky realized with a grimace that he hadn’t done anything about his hair, which was hanging in cascading clumps of shower-damp tangles.

He allowed himself a split second of panic before taking decisive action—buzzing Steve up and grabbing a brush, doing his best to tame the beast. The resulting not-quite-dry waves would have to do, as Steve knocked on the door before Bucky had time to decide whether or not he could finagle a ponytail. Shoving his brush into one of the kitchen drawers (remember that, Barnes, when you can’t find it tomorrow), he went to open the door.

And. Okay. It was a lot. His brain processed what he was seeing, but didn’t quite understand.

Because it was Steve, obviously.

Wearing a jacket. And tie.

And holding a bouquet.

And also a purple lunchbox? No, not a lunchbox. Something that looked like a lunchbox.

And also he had a paper grocery bag with an honest-to-God loaf of Italian bread sticking out of the top like he was in a Sandra Bullock romantic comedy from the nineties. Gross. Perfect. Steve was a lot.

“Um, hi,” Bucky said, like a very intelligent person.

“Hi, James,” Steve replied, the name all wrong in his mouth.

Because James wasn't his name. Wasn't who he was to anyone save his advisors and the people who conferred his degrees. The world thought they knew Bucky, but they didn't, and he'd be god damned if they were going to take away the nickname he'd had since the day he was born and his mother—high on the good stuff they'd given her—had gotten the giggles and decided to only ever refer to him as Bucky. The world couldn't have his name, considering it had taken everything else.

“It’s uh...you can call me Bucky,” he said with a shrug, stepping back to let Steve and all his assorted accouterments inside.

“Oh,” Steve smiled. “Sure. Sorry, Bucky.”

“You brought flowers.” Way to state a fact, dumbass.

"Sure," he said, shifting his stance so he could present the bouquet. "They're uh, well. You can feed them to Bert when they start dying."

Bucky stopped short, the door falling shut as his ears went hot. “Really?” he said, focusing on the deadbolts. Afraid that if he turned to look at Steve, he might say something stupid and heartfelt and they couldn’t have that.

“Yup, there’s a florist who specializes in...well, there’s someone who specializes in everything in this city. But she said they’re safe for him, and—”

“I d-don’t have a vase,” Bucky blurted, because if he heard one more word about Steve’s special trip to the special florist for his special-and-practical Bert-bouquet, he was going to fall through the floor and into another dimension, where he’d split apart at the seams.

“Oh.” Steve sounded apologetic. “Right, I didn’t think.”

“I mean—” Bucky bit his lip. “They’re really pretty. That’s all. I want to make them look nice? And I don’t have a vase. But I have a big cup!”

“By all means, use a big cup,” Steve said, a laugh in his voice.

Bucky scooted around him to retrieve the cup in question from a cabinet. Said cup was gigantic, and plastic, sporting lettering that read ‘San Dimas High School Football Rules!’ on the side. It had been a Christmas present from Becca the year prior, and Bucky loved it. Steve glanced over when he set it down, but didn’t comment. Probably he didn’t know the reference.

“Thank you,” Bucky said, taking the bouquet from Steve and putting it on the island. Steve mimicked the gesture with his bag and not-lunchbox. “I should have started with that. I was just surprised.”

"Don't worry about it," Steve said, reaching into his bag to pull out a tub of something called Garlic Bred Spredd. (Bucky could appreciate the artistry of the extra D but was mightily annoyed by the absent As.)

“You brought a lot of stuff,” he said, sticking the cup under the faucet and using his only-useful-for-some-things prosthetic to turn on the water.

“Told you I’d take care of dinner, didn’t I?”

Bucky shrugged. “Yeah. I just thought like, you’d bring takeout?”

“This’ll be better than takeout.”

“What is it?” Cup filled, he turned off the water and set it on the counter before beginning to unwrap the bouquet. The stems had been pre-trimmed, so he didn’t feel weird about sticking them directly into the big cup.

“Oh, lasagna.”

Bucky watched the big cup tip under the weight of the flowers. Damn it. Bracing it on the counter, he chewed on his lip, searching for a fix.

Steve, meanwhile, continued talking as though Bucky wasn’t holding the fate of Bert’s flowers in his hands. “I brought stuff for garlic bread, too. And a salad if you, yanno... eat salad?”

“Who doesn’t eat salad?”

Steve shrugged. “Some people.”

“I eat salad,” he replied, more focused on the flowers than the flow of conversation as a possible solution surfaced in his mind. Crossing to the windowsill, he wedged the cup between several heavy books, using their weight to guarantee the bouquet wouldn’t tip forward.

Perfection. The flowers looked nice if slightly squished.

Bucky and Bert's flowers from Steve in their special cup

“How does your oven work?” Steve called. Bucky turned to find him studying the appliance with no small amount of consternation on his face. “What’s err...convection?”

Steve had taken off his jacket, Bucky was pleased to note, and he’d draped it over one of the island stools like it was a thing he did all the time. Like he was comfortable.

"Don't worry about that," said Bucky, who was quite the baker when the mood struck. Feeling a great kinship with Donna Reed, he went to join Steve in front of the oven. "What temperature's it supposed to be?"

“Three fifty.”

Bucky spun the dial on the digital display before going to examine the not-lunchbox on the island. “Who’s uh, Rachael Ray?” A fair question, considering her name was embroidered on what he now realized was some sort of fancy casserole tote.

“What?” Steve stepped behind him. Bucky decided not to focus too much on his relative proximity.

“Rachael Ray,” he said, pointing. “See?”

“Oh.” Steve leaned closer. Bucky’s heart caught in his throat. “No idea. I borrowed it from a friend.”

“Is her name Rachael Ray?” he offered, swallowing.

"No," Steve laughed, and Bucky was suddenly sure he was about to put a hand on his shoulder, so he had to escape to the other side of the island, where he pulled out his phone and retreated into the soothing bliss of the Internet.

“Google says,” he said a moment later. “She’s an American television personality, businesswoman, celebrity chef, and author. She hosts uh, the syndicated daily talk and lifestyle program that is also called Rachael Ray. And three series on the Food Network.”

“Wow.” Steve was smirking, leaning against the space on the countertop which Bucky had only recently vacated.

“Uh huh.” Bucky continued to scroll. “What you’ve got here is her l-lasagna lugger.”

“It’s not called that.”

“It is!” He grinned, holding out the phone to the Amazon page which displayed a range of bright colors available for purchase. “The Official R-Rachael Ray Lasagna Lugger.”

"Well, whaddaya know. Does exactly what it says on the tin."

“What?”

“Nothing.” Steve smiled. “I had no idea.”

“You had no idea what it was you were asking to borrow, when you asked your friend if they had something that could transport your lasagna?”

Steve shrugged, looking away from Bucky and towards the loaf of bread, which must have sprouted a personality, given the way he was focused on it. “It um. Didn’t come up.”

“Oh.” Bucky frowned. “I—”

“That sweater looks good on you, by the way.”

Lasagnas and luggers forgotten, Bucky nearly dropped his phone. “I got it in Russia,” he said, which wasn’t the worst response but wasn't in the hall of fame, either.

“Oh yeah? When were you in Russia?”

Bucky informed him, and Steve had a lot of questions about his time abroad as they waited for the oven to heat and the Bred Spredd to soften enough to be Spredd-able. Turned out, Bucky had plenty to say when the topic was interesting enough, and a half-hour passed in the blink of an eye, bread going into and out of the oven, salad being tossed. (No jokes, Barnes, Steve was very old and wouldn’t get it anyway.)

“Wow,” Bucky said, watching as Steve cut into the still-steaming lasagna some time later. “The lugger did its duty.”

“Would Rachael Ray allow her name to be embroidered on anything less than a superior lugger?” Steve asked, hefting a too-big portion onto Bucky’s plate, cheese and sauce oozing out the sides.

“Nope.”

Steve grinned, giving him a little salute before cutting his own piece, which was roughly the same size as Bucky’s. There was no way Bucky needed as much food as Steve did, but he appreciated the attempt at fairness.

Once they were both be-saladed, be-breaded, and laden down with their supersoldier-sized portions, Steve glanced down at the stools and shrugged. “So,” he said, “if my memory serves, you were in charge of the movie portion of the evening.”

“Oh, yeah,” Bucky agreed. “Do you want to start that now, or…?”

“Only if you want to.”

There were pros and cons.

Pro: less time to fill with conversation. Sure, it had been going well so far, but that didn’t guarantee future successes.

Con: he didn’t have a couch, meaning that movie watching would take place on his mattress. With lasagna. God’s messiest food.

Pro: Mary Poppins.

Con: Steve would be on his bed.

Pro: Steve would be on his bed.

The pros won.

“Gimme a second to get it set up,” he said. “You can uh...I mean, I don’t have a couch, so if you don’t mind using the bed. Or we could sit up at the counter, but the angle might be weird, and—”

“Bed’s fine,” Steve said.

Bucky gave a tight smile and put his plate down before going to put together his bargain basement version of a cinematic experience. Namely, his laptop beside the bed, and a monitor he had stashed underneath his desk for such occasions. The monitor was balanced on his folding chair, which he placed at the end of the mattress. An HDMI cable did the rest, and while he knew there were snazzier solutions, he didn’t relish the idea of letting anything with the word ‘TV’ in its name into his space. Steve, meanwhile, made himself at home, arranging Bucky’s pillows against the wall and settling in against them, lasagna on his lap and shoes placed on the floor by the bed.

Which, as Bucky finished his setup, left only one thing for him to do. Get into bed. Next to Steve. Who was stretched out like he fucking lived there and Jesus, Bucky couldn’t think too hard about that.

“Do you mind turning the lights off?” Steve asked. “The overheads, I mean. The glare’s right on the screen.”

Was that a move? If it was, it was a suave one, so Bucky would allow it. Mostly because he didn’t for one second think that Steve Rogers of all people would pull the oldest trick in the book on a first date. Hell, Steve probably hadn’t had electricity growing up—life would have been lit by the flickering of whale oil lanterns, or whatever they had going on in the thirties.

“Sure,” he said, clearing his throat as he went to flip the switch, leaving the apartment dark save for the glow of the screen and the soft light cast by the desk lamp.

And Bucky still hadn’t gotten into bed with Steve.

Aiming for a stroll through the neighborhood of nonchalance, he ended up falling headlong down the avenue of awkwardness as he came to bed with his plate and realized the difficulty he was going to have in lowering himself to the mattress while staying balanced. Steve saved him from himself, reaching up to take the plate as though it wasn’t any big thing, which allowed Bucky to settle onto the bed.

“Thanks,” he mumbled, taking the plate back.

“Sure,” Steve said, shifting his weight in a way that—fuckfuck—put him just a skosh closer than he’d been before.

Leaning away, Bucky tapped the spacebar on his laptop to start the movie. Thank fuck for the familiar—the music of his youth swelling over the credit sequence, camera panning across the paintings of London, winding its way towards Mary sitting solitary on her cloud.

Bucky knew every note, every word, every angle of every shot. Yet, sitting there with Steve, he found he couldn’t concentrate. Couldn’t lose himself in the setting that was as much a part of him as the breath in his lungs. Knowing that it was Steve’s first time seeing a film that meant so much to him. Realizing that he had carved out the tenderest bits of his heart and placed them in front of Steve like an offering.

It had been a bad idea. Steve was probably judging him. Wondering why in the hell Bucky wanted to watch some old, sappy kid’s movie. Bucky’s fingers itched to tap the keyboard. Shut the whole thing down and give up on the evening altogether.

But then, Admiral Boom's cannon blew, and Steve let out a genuine laugh around a mouthful of lasagna. There was no faking something like that. He liked it. Bucky let out a breath before allowing himself to eat.

The lasagna was out-of-this-world good, he realized upon taking his first bite. Old family recipe good, in fact, which had him glancing at Steve out the corner of his eye. Captain America, chef de cuisine of the classics. Who knew?

"What?" Steve asked when he caught him looking.

“This is really good lasagna,” he said quietly, so as not to interrupt the viewing experience.

“I’m glad you like it.”

Bucky went back to his plate, and by the time ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidotious’ came to an end, he was mopping the last of the sauce with his garlic bread.

“Want some more?” Steve asked.

Bucky shook his head, both because he was stuffed and because he didn’t want to miss the end of the scene. Ever the gentleman, Steve reached over to take his plate, which he put down on the floor, alongside his own.

Oh. Half a gentleman, half a rogue. Steve had wanted the plates on the floor for a purpose—namely, freeing up hands and arms and other appendages. Bucky's stomach gave a lurching roll, and he wished he'd eaten a bit less.

Steve, however, didn’t pounce. Didn’t grope. Didn’t do anything other than scoot a few inches closer and—just as Jane and Michael were being put to bed—drape his arm over Bucky’s shoulders.

Bucky stiffened instinctively, and Steve hesitated. “Is this all right?” he whispered. “Sorry, I can—”

“It’s fine,” Bucky said, because it was fine. Better than fine. It was good, that warmth, that closeness. The weight of Steve’s arm pinning him down and tethering him to the bed. Keeping him from floating up and into the whirlwind of his outsized expectations. “Just surprised me.”

“Sorry,” Steve repeated, though he didn’t sound very sorry.

Bucky spent the next few minutes doing his best to relax, which he accomplished in the end by turning his head just enough that he could rest his cheek against Steve’s shoulder, partly watching the movie and partly breathing him in. Detergent and soap, artificial but not overpowering, and underneath that a hint of something human. Pleasant, though probably that was pheromones, but what was the point of having them if you weren’t going to get into the idea of surreptitiously sniffing the guy you were seeing?  

If Steve noticed, he didn't comment, though he did tug Bucky closer, long fingers trailing over his bicep. God, Bucky was glad for their arrangement, his prosthetic wedged between their bodies rather than on display for Steve's attention.

They continued to subtly shift their positions throughout the rest of the movie. Steve's laughter during the visit to Uncle Albert caused Bucky to scoot further down, to avoid the shaking of his shoulders. And if Steve happened to hook his chin over the top of Bucky's head when Jane and Michael found themselves lost in London? Well, nobody was going to fault him for that. Bucky dropping his palm flat against the hard planes of Steve's shirt-covered stomach during ‘Step In Time'? That was just a thing that happened sometimes. Nothing out of the ordinary at all.

By the time the Bankses were flying their kite, Steve and Bucky were caught in what could only be termed a snuggle. And as Mary took her leave, Bucky felt the unmistakable press of lips to his tousled hair.

“I loved that,” Steve murmured, the timbre of his voice sending one wonderful shiver all through Bucky’s body.

“Yeah?” he asked, tipping his head so he could see Steve’s face.

“Mmmhmm. Thanks for showing it to me.”

"Welcome." Shit, he was close. Inches away and Bucky could see his pores. The way the skin of his cheeks was flushed red. His chapped lips. The tiny dab of dried sauce at the corner of his mouth. Human, after all.

“I’d really like to kiss you,” Steve said, the request gentle but the implication clear.

Bucky didn’t give himself the opportunity to think. “Okay.”

Steve wasted no time, pulling him into a kiss that tasted of vinegar and garlic, neither of them minding as their noses knocked and Bucky’s glasses got in the way. It didn’t last long, Steve laughing and leaning back in a way that had Bucky momentarily worried. What if he hadn’t liked it? What if he left? What if he—

Steve pressed another kiss to Bucky’s forehead, assuaging the anxiety. “Sorry,” he said, as if he had something to be sorry for. “I’m a little rusty.”

Buddy, if you’re rusty, I’m the hull of the Titanic. “Oh.”

“Try again?”

“Yeah, only—” Taking off his glasses, Bucky groped around above their heads until he found the windowsill, pushing them onto the ledge.

He'd barely returned his hand to Steve's chest before Steve was kissing him again, angling his head to avoid another nose bump. Kissing was more comfortable without the glasses, and their second encounter lasted longer—close-mouthed and chaste, although before it ended Steve gave Bucky's lower lip a lick that indicated he wasn't quite so rusty as he claimed. Bucky bit down on said lip the moment Steve pulled away, driven by a desire to hold onto the sensation and the promise that came along with it.

"Thanks," Steve said. Like Bucky had done anything at all.

“Uh. W-welcome?”

Steve twisted his mouth into a half-smile, making a funny clicking sound with his tongue as he brought his forehead to rest against Bucky’s. “I like you a lot. I guess you know that by now.”

(But why, but why, but why?)

“Yeah…” Bucky hesitated. “I l-like you, too.”

“You don’t sound so sure about that.”

“I do!” he protested. “I mean, I am. I just...it’s like you said. I’m rusty.”

“Two peas in a pod, huh?” Steve grinned, the expression old-fashioned enough that it made Bucky smile. “Guess that means we need to go out again.”

“We didn’t go out.”

“Ha ha ha,” he deadpanned. “Force of habit.”

Bucky, who was finding the banter came easy with Steve, shrugged. "So what's that mean? You make a habit of taking a lot of people out?"

“You’re hilarious, you know that?”

Not usually. But with Steve, it was fun to talk. Fun to play. He hadn’t been expecting that. “When I want to be,” he agreed.

“So what’s your answer?”

“To what?”

“Geez, you’re really gonna make me work for it, aren’t you?” Steve said, pushing a hand through his hair. “To seeing you again, wise guy.”

“Oh!” Obviously. “I mean, yes. Absolutely.”

“Great. What’s your week looking like?”

Bucky was never going to get over Steve treating him like a person with pre-made plans. Sure, he’d figure it out soon enough, how very much Bucky didn’t engage with the world. And when that happened, the entire house of cards might come crashing down. But for now, it was nice to be asked. “I’m...open,” he offered.

“How’s Monday?”

“But it’s Friday.”

“Yeah,” Steve agreed. “I want to see you again soon. Is that so bad?”

“No, it’s not bad—I mean, you can. I’m only...I’m surprised.”

“Why?”

“Because…” he trailed off with another shrug. Because you’re making a mistake. Because I make things difficult.

“Remember that whole thing about me liking you a lot?”

“Yeah.”

“That means I want to see you on Mondays. And Tuesdays. And any other goddamn day of the week you see fit to extend me an invitation.”

“That’s…” Bucky smiled. “Oh.”

"Yeah. Oh." Steve hesitated. "Though I don't want to come on too strong, and I don't want to overstay my welcome tonight."

A bitter pill of disappointment made its way down Bucky’s throat—he didn’t want Steve to go, but the rational part of him knew that he wasn’t in any way ready for him to stay. “You can come back,” he said, instead of saying what he meant. “Monday’s good.”

Steve grinned, kissing him briefly before getting to his feet and offering Bucky a hand. Bucky took it, the world blurry and out of focus as he followed Steve to the front door.

“Do you um,” Bucky began, before coughing. “Your, I mean, the lasagna lugger? Do you want it?”

"Keep the leftovers, and I'll get it on Monday," Steve said. "Consider it leverage—you gotta let me come back to get it."

“I told you, I want you to come back.”

“I’m leaving it anyway. My insurance policy.” Twisting both deadbolts open, he undid the chain before turning to face Bucky. “C’mere a second.”

Bucky wasn’t about to refuse, though their final kiss of the evening was more a peck with a promise, Steve’s arms wrapping around his torso to hug him tight before releasing him with a laugh. “Goodnight, Bucky.”

“Night,” Bucky managed, holding the door open as Steve left him with a smile and a squeeze on the shoulder. He watched until the blurry shadow of Steve’s retreating form disappeared into the creaky, old elevator.

Stepping inside and locking the door, Bucky couldn’t keep the smile off his face.

Whether or not he was handsome—whether or not Steve ever came back for his lugger—Bucky wasn’t sorry he’d kept the date.

 

Bucky and his sweater, smiling after the date

Chapter Text

Bucky woke to the tacky sensation of his tongue glued to the roof of his mouth and the remembrance that Steve wanted a second date. Dry-mouthed and sweaty, tangled in his sheets, still wearing his sweater with half-an-arm that ached and chafed and ohhhhh fucking fuck he’d fallen asleep without undressing. Without taking off his prosthetic. Crawled into bed with a smile on his face like he didn’t have to be a person and now everything was too hot, too sticky, too much.

Still. Steve wanted a second date.

Setting things straight came simpler with that thought in mind. Off came the sweater, then the t-shirt, then the harness that held his prosthetic in place. Peeling away the sock that had been fitted for his stump, he rubbed at the red, raw skin he found there. It happened whenever he wore the arm for more than a few hours, making the fact that he'd worn it all night even more terrible.

There were better arms out there. Newer arms. Arms that could be made for his thirty-four-year-old body as opposed to the poorly-fitted prosthetic he’d been schlepping around since his early twenties. Arms that would hurt less and do more.

But arms like that meant people. Doctors and physical therapists and regular therapists who all wanted to help him cope with the fact that he didn’t have a fucking arm anymore. And that? That was one hundred percent his own goddamn fault.

So he suffered his not-quite-right prosthetic, which he dropped to the side of his mattress before beginning to wriggle out of his jeans, kicking them to the foot of the bed and leaning back against the mound of pillows Steve had arranged.

A trickle of sweat made its way from his neck to his sacrum where it came to rest until, annoyed, he pressed against the mattress to rid himself of the dampness, suddenly aware of his body in a way he hadn’t been a moment before.

His body, with its web of scars along his left side, the once-red weals having faded to something silver and ghostly, carrying his story with them. His right side was pristine, as if the accident which had taken his arm had meant to bisect him completely.

Turning his head away from the remnants of the carnage, he found himself face to face with grey wool and knit cables, the sweater smelling of garlic bread and red sauce and something else. Something Steve—that same soapy, sharp scent he’d discovered the night before trapped in the fibers. Locked into every knit and purl stitch.

""Oh…" he breathed, burying his face against the sweater without thinking, inhaling deeply, as though he could pull Steve out of the wool and into the world. Magic him into existence, right by the door, where he'd lean against the doorframe and smile, and then he'd come to Bucky's bed and wrap him up. Kiss him, just like last night, with his hand on Bucky's shoulder and the warmth and the weight of him all at once and, and, and…

Bucky’s cock twitched.

That hadn’t happened last night. Intrigued, he slid his hand down his stomach, through the sparse trail of hair, and brought it to rest above the waistband of his shorts. Steve’s smile came to him as he tapped two fingers against the sensitive skin of his iliac furrow, and it happened again. That frisson of want and desire.

Should he, though?

On its surface, the answer was obvious. Nothing was stopping him. It was only that he usually didn’t. Or, well, not regularly. There was gas in the tank, but it was rare for him to want to turn his baser thoughts into action. To consider what he wanted. To please himself. To pleasure himself.

Self-indulgent, he figured. So for the most part, he ignored his urges until he couldn’t, and then he’d rub one out in the shower, the evidence of his desires swirling down the drain so he could pretend it was a biological imperative rather than something he needed or deserved.

And yet, Steve. He didn’t deserve Steve, but he thought he might need him. Want him. Couldn’t shake the thought of Steve’s hand on his arm. The way his fingers had curled against Bucky’s bicep. How he’d stroked the wool of the sweater, reminding Bucky he was there. He was real. He wanted to touch.

Bucky wanted to touch. Fingers working their way beneath the band, sliding over neglected territory until he was palming his mostly-soft cock, synapses firing as his brain began the good work of linking the Steve of it all with the touching. Letting out a shuddery breath, Bucky closed his fist around his shaft and started to stroke.

Then, driven on pure instinct, he turned his head and gripped the sweater between his teeth, tugging it up and over his face as he leaned back against the pillows, losing himself in the comforting, familiar smell. He was never, ever, ever going to wash it again.

It didn’t take long for his cock to swell in his hand, but no rush, no rush—it could take its time, and so could he, pulling muffled breaths past the heavy material of the sweater, never quite enough air and God, that was good. That was better than good.

"Fuck," he muttered, giving his nearly-hard self the sort of squeeze that set his toes curling. He should have gotten up. Gotten lotion. Anything to guard against the inevitable slightly-painful friction of a dry-job.

Didn’t matter, didn’t matter but oh, he was sweating, and he had to stop touching himself to shuck his boxers, and that wasn't fair at all. Lifting his hips, he wriggled out of them in a way that he knew was undignified but who fucking cared? He spat into his palm twice before wrapping the saliva-slick hand around himself once more. And it was himself. Not just some inconvenient appendage.

Bucky wasn’t a monk. His celibacy wasn’t some solemn vow. Some promise made in pursuit of great artistry or knowledge. No, it was a bitter contract forged with the universe, brought on by circumstances of his own making. He was alone, and therefore he would be alone.

Until Steve. Who had stepped into Bucky’s path so suddenly, and now Bucky couldn’t stop thinking about what this would be like if Steve were there in his bed. What Steve would think if he walked through the door and saw Bucky laid bare on the mattress, touching himself with the perfect-night sweater draped over his face.

The idea of Steve seeing? Knowing? Bucky’s prick perked further with a rush of shame tinged with pleasure, and he pumped his fist faster, imagining the expression Steve would wear. He’d laugh—yes, fuck—but not a mean laugh. Not like he thought Bucky was doing something wrong. It would be a pleased laugh. Surprised, probably. Steve would laugh and lock the door and come to kneel on the mattress at Bucky’s side.

Opening his eyes, Bucky squinted into the blurry grey morning light and swore he could see Steve there, hiding in the shadows, hovering over him and…

Fuck. He wished he had another hand. Wished he hadn’t taken it for granted. Wished he could run a second set of fingers across his ribcage. Pinch a nipple, suck on his thumb. Get ambitious and finger himself, the way he’d done when he was a teenager and had two perfect hands with which to get himself off. Every spare moment in those days spent thinking of sex and the men he’d wanted privately, secretly, and shamefully.

Steve had two hands to use. The very idea of it sent Bucky’s hips stuttering forward, the tempo of his strokes increasing as his heart hammered in his chest, thoughts turning back towards his imaginary Steve.

Kissing. That’s what Steve would do. He’d lean down, brush their lips together. Not touching yet, but tongue and teeth and teasing. Christ, yes, let him tease. Let him tease—brace his hands on either side of Bucky’s body without touching. Never touching. Bucky would do the touching and Steve wouldn’t, but he’d use his teeth. Maybe scrape them down Bucky’s jaw and across the rough stubble there. Kisses trailing towards his neck and his chest and he’d close his mouth over a nipple and finally, finally, there would be hands.

Hands on Bucky’s hips and thighs, opening him up as Steve slid between his legs. Hands on his stomach and his neck and his chest and his shoulders. Hands that knew where to touch. Knew how to set him at ease and rile him up until he didn’t know which was which. Until he was begging, pleading for Steve to do whatever he wanted, so long as he never, ever stopped touching.

Only when he begged would Steve acquiesce, replacing Bucky’s hand with his own, stroking and stroking, his other hand sliding between Bucky’s legs to touch him so intimately, so carefully that he might come apart with need. Steve’s hands, Steve’s fingers...oh, those fingers

Bucky came with a gasp and a silent cry, eyes rolling back in his head as his prick pulsed in his palm, coating his stomach and his hand for what felt like an age, the cresting waves breaking on his rocky shore until, trembling, he released himself.

Then, there were two halves of his whole: the part that burned with the desire to move quickly; get up, clean up, dispose of the evidence and feel guilt for what you did. But there was also the part that wanted to lie still. To luxuriate. To wait until his heart slowed and the evidence dried on his skin, giving him leave to walk around all day safe in the knowledge that what he’d done was held close. Secret and safe. That he’d allowed himself to feel something akin to joy for the first time in a very long time.

The halves came together in a compromise. He lay still for a while, moving only to wipe his hand on his torso. The sweater stayed draped across his face as his body returned to its equilibrium and, eventually, loose-limbed and endorphin-flushed, he stretched and sat up, letting the sweater fall to the side before pushing himself from the mattress and retrieving his glasses.

Brain still fuzzy, a shower seemed like far too much work, so he settled for a washcloth in the bathroom, cleaning his skin as best he could. When he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror—red-cheeked and smug—he laughed, the expression so incongruous to his normal nothingness of a face.

“Jesus, weirdo,” he muttered, tone very nearly affectionate as he turned to the pressing matters of his bladder and his scuzzy teeth.

Once his ablutions were completed, he took care of what few things remained before he could return to bed—feeding Bert his breakfast of bug bits, and wiping down the dishes from the previous evening before stacking them in the dishwasher.

After that, he was left at a loss, his chest bursting with a sudden need to shout from the rooftop that he, Bucky Fucking Barnes, had had a date, and not just a date, but a good date. A date in which he had been kissed, and touched, and held by a guy who’d also brought him lasagna and turtle-friendly flowers.

In the end, Bucky didn’t have a key to the roof, nor was he capable of doing something so bold, but he did have a Bert. So he settled for taking his turtle out of the tank and bringing him back to bed where he nestled into his warren of pillows and blankets, the touch of sheets on skin heightening his post-orgasmic bliss.

Bert was placed low on his belly, claws flexing as he gave a slow blink, adjusting to his unusual perch. He didn’t spend a lot of time out of his tank, but sometimes, when Bucky had a need for serious conversation, he made himself useful.

“Hey,” Bucky greeted. “Remember that guy from last night?”

Bert pushed himself another few inches towards Bucky’s chest, undoubtedly hoping for food, though Bucky liked to think he was just really interested in hearing more. Such a good listener, his Bert.

Bert and Bucky in bed, having a serious conversation

“That’s Steve,” he explained, stroking a finger over the ridges of Bert’s shell. “He’s gonna come back on Monday, for another date. Maybe I’ll let him feed you dinner.”

Another slow blink and Bert pulled his head back.

“Don’t worry, I’ll show him what you like. He made good lasagna, so I figure he’ll be fine with you.” Shifting his weight, Bucky sank further into his nest and ignored what could only be described as a look of arch disapproval from Bert. “I like him a lot. That sounds weird, right? Because it’s one date, and normally I don’t like, you know, anyone? Which I realize is on me, but, I dunno, buddy. He’s a good kisser.”

Bert looked incredulous. Bucky scoffed.

“He is! And I don't think he hated it or thought I was a shitty kisser, because he wants to come back. Anyway, what would you know about kissing? You have roach breath, and you don't have any friends except me, and sometimes Becs."

Mildly offended, Bert glanced towards the window, as though he did have friends out there, Bucky just hadn’t met them yet.

"Sorry. I know you're popular." He resisted the urge to kiss Bert on the nose because past experience had led to a lot of bitten lips. "I just thought you should know that he might be hanging out sometimes. So you should probably, you know. Get used to him."

Bert, done with the conversation, turned to the side, his claws leaving faint red lines on Bucky’s pale skin as he flooped down to the mattress, accidentally ending up on his back and frantically waving his legs in the air.

“You dummy,” Bucky said, quickly helping him right himself. “Where are you going?”

Turned out, Bert was going to the bathroom, as he’d developed an affinity for wedging himself behind the toilet. It had been funny the first half-dozen times it happened, but also it was hard to get him out from behind there with one arm. So, Bucky got to his feet and headed him off at the pass, scooping him up and returning him to his tank.

As he was closing the lid, he heard the tell-tale buzzing of a text message arriving. For the first time in a long time, he was genuinely excited to see who it was from.

Probably not Steve, he cautioned his overexcited mind as he went to retrieve his phone.

Probably not—oh shit, it’s Steve!

And so it was: a polite, full-sentenced, properly punctuated text, waiting for him.

 

 

Good morning, Bucky. I hope you slept well. I had a nice time last night, and I enjoyed the movie. Looking forward to seeing you on Monday. What would you like to do?

 

A wellspring of joy bubbled as Bucky read the words, a sheepish grin on his face. He had no idea what the hell he wanted to do, but for once in his life, he wasn’t fussed about the details.

 


 

Several hours before sending the text, Steve had been finishing up his Saturday morning run through Central Park with Sam, whistling Spoonful of Sugar every time he lapped him.

“Man, would you quit?” Sam laughed, socking him in the arm as they came to a stop.

“What? Is that bothering you?” Steve, the picture of innocence, reached for his water bottle, left tucked under the hoodies they’d placed beneath a tree at the start of their route. It was an excellent morning—one of those rare, elusive, crisp early-fall days that reminded a body of all the good things that came along with the changing of the season.

Like sweaters. Sweaters arrived during the coming season, and Steve had developed a recent affinity for them. In fact, he hoped to see many more sweaters in the days ahead.

“Yeah, actually. That song’s an earworm, and you’re driving me nuts.” Sam took a swig of his water before squirting himself in the face and shaking his head back and forth to cool off.

“I like it,” Steve said with a shrug.

Sam didn’t bother with a response, collapsing beneath the tree and stretching his arms above his head, exposing the hard lines of his abdomen. Which, if Steve were a lookin’ sort of guy, he might not have minded, but he’d stopped looking that way at Sam a few years prior, when he and Natasha had fallen in together.

(Well, he still looked—he was human—but he’d long since learned not to let his thoughts stray too far down the path of that particular garden, which was resolutely straight and, since Natasha, narrow.)

“Where’d you hear it, anyway?”

“It uh. On my date.”

“That’s right,” Sam crowed, sitting up on his elbows. “I forgot about that. Last night, right? How’d it go? Granted, you’re here, so I gotta think it didn’t go that well—”

“It went fine,” Steve cut in. “Great, actually. I brought dinner, we ate—”

“He ate your cooking?”

“Sort of. Anyway. We watched a movie.”

Mary Poppins?”

“Yup.”

“He picked that?”

“Yup.”  

“Huh.”

“What?”

“Did I say something?”

“You said huh.”

“Yeah, well,” Sam shrugged. “Wouldn’t have been my pick for a first date flick.”

“I liked it,” Steve said, not necessarily defensive of Bucky’s choice, but not feeling any need to agree with Sam, either.

“No shit, you’re singing the song.”

“Yeah.” Steve smiled, sitting down cross-legged and pulling at his shoelace. The plastic wrap at the end had worn away, leaving him with nothing but a fraying nylon lace. Someone would undoubtedly give him shit about it eventually, but old habits died hard, and he didn’t see the point of something new and shiny when old and reliable still served a purpose.

When he looked up from his laces, Sam was watching him, a knowing smile on his face.

“What?” Steve laughed.

“You like this guy.”

“Well, sure,” he shrugged.

“No, I mean, you like him. Your face is real dumb right now.”

“Hey!”

“Not like it’s bad! You’re just...you’re kinda…” he searched for the word. “Doofy.”

“Doofy?”

“Yeah. Doofy.”

As descriptors went, it wasn’t a bad one. Stretching one arm across his chest, Steve smiled. “I guess I am. But he’s nice. Sweet, you know?”

“Must be, if he tolerated your cooking.”

“Ah, yep. Heh.”

“That’s the fakest laugh I ever heard, Rogers.”

“I uh. May not have cooked. Exactly.”

“So, take out?”

“Nnnnno.”

Sam raised an eyebrow.

“In my defense,” Steve continued. “I did make the garlic bread. And the salad!”

“Uh huh.”

“And uh. May Parker made the lasagna. Which I brought and passed off as my own. Though I never actually said I’d made it—”

“Oh, Steve.” Sam looked equal parts horrified and gleeful. “Did you seriously start things off with a...with a…” his face lit up. “With a lie-sagna?”

Steve groaned out loud, throwing his hoodie at Sam’s face. “Je-sus, Wilson.”

“Oh, he can’t help you now.”

“Bucky can’t ever find out,” Steve pleaded.

He realized his slip-up a moment too late, when Sam’s jaw unhinged as though he meant to swallow the entire island of Manhattan in his shock.

“...Bucky?” he squeaked, his voice the voice of a little boy who’d just discovered his favorite toy had gained sentience overnight and was now planning on taking him to the moon.

“Shit, Sam, you can’t tell anyone!”

“Are you kidding me right now?” Sam exclaimed. “You. Are dating. Bucky Barnes? You said his name was Jay.”

“It’s...Jay is short for James. And there are other people named Bucky…”

“Do not even start with that,” Sam cackled. “What the fuck. You knocked him on his ass, and asked him out?”

“Uh huh.”

“That is some game, Steve. You somehow failed to mention the whole asking him out part when you told me you met him. So let’s uh, back this up, and start the story from the beginning, and this time you don’t leave stuff out, so when I say ‘how the fuck?’ or ‘what the fuck?’ or ‘why the fuck?’ you slow down and answer the question.”

Turned out, Sam had a lot of ‘the fucks’ to give, and by the time Steve finished retelling the tale of how he’d met and sort-of-wooed Bucky, the clock was creeping towards nine, and the park was beginning to fill with the usual Saturday crowd.

“That’s wild,” Sam informed him as they gathered their things, both of them hoping to make it back to the tower without being recognized. “Don’t think you can lie to me, by the way. You have no skill for it. But, you know. Congratulations on the date.”

“Thanks, Sam.”

“You gonna text him?”

“We have plans for Monday.”

“That...definitely does not preclude texting him to say you had fun last night.”

“Oh. Right.”

By the time they made it home, Sam had helped Steve craft what he had deemed a perfectly acceptable follow-up text.

Steve sent it before tossing his phone on the coffee table and going to take a shower. The minute he emerged from the bathroom, towel around his waist and water running in rivulets down his skin, he flipped the phone over and told himself he didn’t even care if Bucky had texted him back, he was just making sure no supervillains had set up shop in Midtown while he was moisturizing.

There was a new message. From Bucky.

 

 

I had a good time, too. Do you like Thai food? We could play Scrabble.

 

Steve grinned and sat down on the couch—towel and all—to peck out a reply.

 

Chapter Text

“What the fuck is lunchy?”

Blinking, Steve looked up from where he’d been in the process of adding a ‘y’ to Bucky’s ‘lunch’ on the Scrabble board. “Uh. It is a word that I’m playing.”

Bucky—who was kind of killing it with one hundred twenty-five points to Steve’s seventy-two—raised an eyebrow. “Is it?”

“Yes.”

“Use it in a sentence.”

Steve scowled, crossing his arms over his broad chest in a way that made the material of his button-down pull against his muscles. Which, if he thought that was going to distract Bucky, he had another thing coming. Scrabble was serious business.

“I had some potato chips. Which were vaguely lunchy.”

“What. The hell. Are you talking about?”

“It is the essence of being lunch-like without actually being lunch! Lunchy!”

“It’s not a word!”

The staredown that followed lasted all of three seconds before Steve broke into, well, not giggles—he was Steve Fucking Rogers, after all. But on any other human, they would have been giggles. Bucky did his best not to crack, but the thing about Steve's laugh was that it was infectious and impossible to ignore, and he'd joined him soon enough.

So, yeah, the second date was going well.

They’d ordered Thai food and eaten it while sitting cross-legged on the bare floor in front of Bucky’s desk, playing board games. The first had been a puzzle game Bucky had recently received from supporting a Kickstarter project—one of the many ways he’d found to spend the too-much-money in his account. Steve had won handily, being as the point of the game was the tactical use of patterns, and as it happened, he was good at both.

Bucky, however, was good at words, and his strengths had kicked in over Scrabble. Steve, meanwhile, had attempted goddamn lunchy.

“Sorry, Buck,” Steve managed as he recovered, holding his chest while the shaking of his shoulders subsided.

Buck. Hmm. Rolling the nickname around in his head, Bucky couldn’t help grinning. The ‘y’ on lunchy had to come from somewhere, so he guessed Steve had pulled it off Bucky. He liked the way it sounded coming out of Steve’s mouth. Nobody had ever called him Buck before.

“It’s okay,” he shrugged. “I mean, you definitely cheated. But that’s cool.”

“Is it cheating, though, if I really did think it was a word?”

“Did you?”

“I was feeling optimistic.”

“Uh huh. That’s half an inch from cheating, gotta say.”

“Mmm.” Steve paused. “Think you might be able to forgive me?”

Bucky, who had been focused on his tiles, snapped his head up. Steve’s voice had dropped, his expression a mix of mirth and something Bucky couldn’t name that had the hair on his arms standing on end. Right. Steve was interested in him. It was easy to forget that, playing the game. Easy to forget it was a date. Easy to forget that they were moving, bit by bit, towards the kissing portion of the evening.

It wasn’t that Bucky minded the kissing. He didn’t. He liked it. But, well, the last time he’d kissed Steve had been before his Saturday morning masturbatory exploits, and now he wasn’t quite sure about his body’s reactions, or Steve’s expectations, or any of it, really.

Swallowing hard, he picked up an errant ‘P’ from his tiles, running his thumb over the indentation of the letter. “Um, maybe I could forgive you,” he said, voice tremulous as he tried to meet Steve’s flirting with his own best efforts.

“Maybe?”

“Well. I gotta, um. You gotta…”

Steve moved closer as Bucky squirmed, though he couldn’t keep the smile off his face, ducking his head, hair obscuring his features. And then, Steve was on the other side of the board, sweeping back the hair and tipping Bucky’s chin up. But he didn’t kiss. Not yet. He just looked.

Bucky’s breath hitched in his throat, and Steve smiled.

“Buck?”

Buck. It suited him.

Taking his chances, Bucky leaned up and kissed Steve first.

 


 

They’d had five dates in two weeks. Which was probably a lot, Steve figured, under any other circumstance. It didn’t feel like a lot, though, hungry as he was for Bucky’s attention and affection. So hey, there he was again. Stretched out on the mattress, Bucky’s head on his chest as a movie played on the laptop. A familiar enough scene, right down to the way Bucky kept cuddling closer and closer, burrowing in as Steve’s hold tightened. Shit, Steve didn’t even know what the movie was about. It was difficult to concentrate when the top of Bucky’s head was so close, his hair smelling of something artificial and peppermint.

At first, Steve had worried he might grow bored with the monotony of coming to Bucky's apartment and always staying in. He'd feared they would run out of things to do or to talk about. Yet, five dates in, he'd become endeared to Bucky in a way he hadn't expected. Sure, he'd thought the guy was cute from moment one, but that initial attraction had blossomed into something truer. Deeper. He liked Bucky, but more than that, he liked being with Bucky, regardless of the mundanity of their activities. Their conversations flowed like water—sometimes a babbling brook, sometimes a roaring river, and sometimes slowing to a trickle, but never ceasing. They picked things back up where they’d left them every time, and for that small surety, Steve was grateful.

Because his life, long as it had been, had afforded him very few opportunities to connect so strongly and swiftly with another person. Never in school, Sunday or otherwise, and rarely in the neighborhood. As far as romantic pursuits went, he’d never given much thought to it until Peggy came along—mostly because he’d long-since resigned himself to being the last fella on the sidelines at the dance. But then there had been Peggy and what brief courtship they’d had. Someone who’d known him before the shield and the cowl, and had liked him anyway.

Bucky was like that. Saw the Steve of him, instead of the savior. Bucky, with his sharp wit and tendency to worry. He had no idea how charming he was, and the fact that he thought so poorly of himself was his only failing, in Steve's opinion. It was a failing Steve had every intention of helping him remedy. Because Bucky was charming and kind. Prone to losing himself in his thoughts until Steve brought him back with a tease or a touch.

Stupidly smitten, that's what Steve was. Continually cataloging every little thing Bucky did—the way he was endlessly pushing his glasses up his nose like they didn't fit right. The way he'd sometimes lift his hand off Steve's stomach to rub the very tip of his nose. Nervous habit or itch, it was hard to tell, but it was captivating. The way he'd sometimes stretch, pointing his toes and flexing his fingers all at once, like he didn't even know the actions were linked. Or how his kisses started out unsure and disbelieving before settling into something sweet.

Steve wasn't blind, though. Bucky had problems—anyone could see that—and while Steve couldn't claim to be an analyst (God knew he'd chafed at the idea of SHIELD sending him to a headshrinker), he did know that rarely to never leaving the house was something of a concern. A bit of searching online had led him to the term agoraphobia, which was the likeliest explanation he could find, though he'd never asked Bucky directly. Anxiety and other assorted disorders would explain the panic attacks or those times where he'd just...check out. Lose himself in his head.

None of it made Steve like him any less. Bucky had his past, and while Steve would be glad to listen if he wanted to tell the story, he was going to keep doing exactly what he’d been doing until such time arrived. Namely: giving Bucky what he wanted, when he wanted it.

“Steve?” Bucky said, tipping his head so Steve could see his face.

“Mmm?”

“This movie’s sorta dumb.”

Steve hadn’t been paying enough attention to know whether or not he agreed with that assessment, so he made a vaguely confirming noise before brushing a piece of hair from Bucky’s eyes. Bucky leaned into the touch, same as he always did, coming to life under Steve’s affections.

“You wanna watch something else?” he offered.

Bucky shook his head, pushing himself up and into a kiss. His enthusiasm caused him to misjudge the angle, and their teeth hit hard, which made Steve laugh. That, of course, made Bucky laugh, ruining the kiss.

“Sorry,” Bucky said with a grin.

“S’alright. I didn’t need the front teeth anyhow.”

“Shut up.”

“Wanna make me?”

“Yeah.”

So, Bucky did, which was how their evenings usually turned out. Routine now—Steve taking off Bucky’s glasses and placing them someplace safe. Kissing on the mattress. Against the wall. Over the kitchen island. Wherever they happened to be when things took their natural turn towards intimacy.

Not that Steve was pushing towards the inevitable conclusion. God knew he was rusty. But fuck, he wanted it. Most nights, he left Bucky’s place and headed home for a cold shower or—if he was feeling especially enamored—taking care of it himself. Funny, though, how even now he heard Father O’Grady in his head, lecturing about lust and sin and hairy palms. You’d think after a century, he’d feel less guilty. (Though, it had never been enough to stop him.)

This fifth date night was gonna disappoint a lot of priests in Steve's past if they were watching from above. Half-hard and doing his best to hide it, Steve leaned Bucky back against the mattress, angling that particular part of anatomy away. Bucky's hand stayed resolutely above Steve's waist every time, mostly gripping his shoulder and arm, and Steve wasn't about to jeopardize that or make him uncomfortable. It was unlikely he was a virgin or anything quite so chaste as all that, but there was hesitancy all the same.

Bucky liked kissing, though, and he always let Steve know. Take, for example, the particularly interesting place Steve found that evening right under Bucky’s left ear. There was a thin, silver scar hidden there, and finding it was a revelation. Leaning in, Steve kissed the mark, before swiping his tongue across Bucky’s sweat-dampened skin.

Bucky groaned, hips jerking. His lower half met Steve's side, and oh, there was something new. Hidden beneath the oversized denim, but there all the same.

“Sorry,” Bucky mumbled, shying away as he dropped back to the mattress, curling in on himself and doing his best to run away, even if it was only inside his head.

“Hey,” Steve said, taking a chance and draping himself across Bucky’s thigh in a manner that left no doubts about his own interest in their activities.

It took Bucky a moment to understand, but when he did, a smile broke across his face—that nervous, hesitant smile Steve had learned appeared when he was happy about something, but not quite sure how to respond.

“Oh,” Bucky said. “Hi.”

“Yeah, hi,” Steve agreed, bringing his mouth to Bucky’s neck to give that scar another kiss. “You think you’re the only one with problems here, pal?”

“Is it?” he asked. “A problem?”

“Nah.” Steve put a couple inches between them, wanting to see Bucky’s face. “Unless you think it is?”

“Just uh. I d-don’t uh. I h-haven’t in a wh...and before. I didn’t r-really…”

“You know,” Steve said, kissing him once, twice, three times in quick succession. “I can do a lot more with full sentences.”

“Fuck,” he bit out, though it did get a smile out of him. “I just...look. I’ve. You know. I’ve had sex. But it’s been...I mean. It was when I was uh…”

“Younger,” Steve supplied.

“Yeah. And a couple times since then, but nothing—” Cheeks reddening, he cut his eyes away. “—nothing with anyone I liked.”

And it meant more, with someone you liked. Steve could understand that.

Resting his brow against Bucky’s, he brought a hand up to stroke his cheek. “How uh, how experienced do you think I am? For comparison’s sake.”

Bucky blinked, forehead furrowing. “I...never thought about it before,” he admitted. “You’re. Ya know. You.”

“Been me my whole life,” Steve teased. “Not a whole lot of room for romance between the asthma and the army.”

It wasn’t nothing, Steve’s sum total of experience, but considering what people probably thought he got up to versus what he actually did was a wide gulf. A fella in the neighborhood who’d been discreet, one very kind USO girl, an aborted attempt with Peg, a brief fling with Maria Hill (who’d taught him a lot before turning him loose), and Pepper’s blind date which had ended with two pricks and one palm. And sure, he’d liked it, wouldn’t have minded trying it again, but—

“You’re a virgin?”

“Jesus,” he laughed. “No. But it’s not...vast. Especially with men.”

"Huh." Bucky cocked his head to the side. Steve wanted to bite him on the jaw because Bucky brought out the strangest impulses in him. "So…?"

“So I don’t mind taking it slow.”

“Yeah,” Bucky smiled. “Slow.”

"Slow," Steve repeated before giving in to his impulses.

 


 

Dates six through ten played out at less of a rapid clip than one through five. That was fine with Bucky, who believed Steve about being not-so-experienced, but still felt that little thrill of nerves and fright every time he felt the press of Steve’s not-inconsiderable prick against his thigh, or stomach, or whatever part of his body happened to be closest as they kissed.

He wasn’t ready. Not because he didn’t want Steve—he wanted Steve very much—and not because he didn’t want sex. He just wasn’t ready, for a lot of reasons that he probably needed ten years of therapy to uncover.

Whatever.

Except for how Steve canceled on date number eleven, and Bucky panicked the moment he got the text.  

 

Hi Buck. I’m sorry to do this last minute, but there’s a situation. I’ll need to cancel our date tonight. Please don’t worry about me. Let’s reschedule soon.

 

Bucky worried.

Of course he fucking worried.

Because yes, he knew that Steve was Steve Fucking Rogers. Understood that his day job was saving the world with a team of highly powered individuals who could like, fly, and also some of them were aliens. It was hard to reconcile that Steve with his Steve, though. The Steve who came over and brought him dinner. Who watched movies and played games and kissed him for hours. His brain couldn’t make them into the same Steve, no matter how hard he tried.

And since his brain couldn’t square those facts, it decided to play tricks on him instead. As usual. Tricks about how maybe Steve was just using work as an excuse to get out of seeing Bucky. About how Steve wanted more than Bucky was able to give, and now he’d gotten bored. It was possible, said the pernicious little voice in his head, that Steve didn’t like him at all.

That little voice grew louder and louder until it blossomed into a full-on anxiety attack which sent Bucky to bed for the better part of two days, rising only to take care of Bert or biological imperatives. In some universe—some decent, just universe—his sheets would swallow him whole. Hold him fast and trap him, so he'd never, ever have to see the world again.

As he slept his days away, he dreamt of Alexander, and when someone knocked on his door at two in the morning on the third day, Bucky sat straight up in bed, his heart pounding, convinced beyond reason that it was Alex on the other side of the door.

Stupid. Wasn’t Alex. Why would Alex want to see him, ridiculous as he was?

The knock came again, and his heart skipped a beat.

A neighbor, maybe? Fire in the building. Someone was hurt, or sick, or, or, or…

A third knock and Bucky rose with a million possibilities racing through his mind. Turning on the desk lamp, he groped for his glasses and made his way to the door in his hoodie and sweats, sticking one eye against the peephole to find…

Steve?

Steve.

Bucky pulled the door open, eyes wide. “What—?”

“Hey, Buck,” Steve said, sheepish in his tight grey shirt and pants that were undoubtedly half his uniform. “I uh. I know it’s late. I woulda buzzed, but someone was coming in and—that’s real lax security, by the way, people shouldn’t be letting anyone in off the street, but—”

“We didn’t have a date,” Bucky blurted, regretting it instantly as Steve’s face fell.

“Yeah,” he said, huffing out a laugh. “Yeah, I shouldn’t have sprung this on you. Sorry. I can go…”

As he turned away, it occurred to Bucky that although he lived ninety percent of his life caught in his own addled thoughts, he wasn't the only person in their burgeoning relationship with needs. Steve had a difficult job—he'd been out doing his difficult job—and he’d come to Bucky first. Not his teammates, not his home, but Bucky. For whatever that was worth.

“It’s good,” he managed, reaching out to catch Steve’s arm. “Don’t go. Come in.”

Steve didn’t hesitate, crossing the threshold and wrapping his arms around Bucky in the tightest hug he’d ever received. Like the weight of the world was on Steve’s shoulders and Bucky was the only thing holding him up. Bucky held him as tightly as he could, breathing in the ash and dirt and oil and grit stuck to his clothes and his skin.

When Steve broke the embrace, Bucky could make out the dark smudges under his eyes, which were red-rimmed and exhausted.

“You wanna take a shower?” he offered.

The gesture was made in earnest, though it made Steve laugh and raise an eyebrow. “I smell that bad, huh?”

Bucky shrugged. God knew he didn’t smell much like roses, either, considering he hadn’t showered in three days.  

“I can take a hint,” Steve laughed. “You got something I can put on?”

“I do. Might be small on you.”

“I’ll manage.”

Bucky retrieved some sweats and the biggest t-shirt he had, which Steve took, disappearing into the bathroom with a wave and a “hey, Bert!” tossed in the sleeping turtle’s direction.

Once Bucky heard the shower begin to run, he set to work cleaning up the mess he’d made during his wallow. Easier said than done, but he managed, tossing things into drawers and hampers before fluffing the pillows on his bed.

All the while, one thought stuck in his mind on a loop.

Steve had come to him first.

Showed up at his door in uniform.

Like Bucky was the first place he’d wanted to be after something awful.

Bucky had no idea what to do with that, but he didn’t hate the thought.

By the time Steve emerged in a cloud of steam, Bucky had returned to bed with a book. Turned out, the sweatpants were too small on Steve, and Bucky averted his eyes out of politeness. Steve hadn’t bothered with the t-shirt.

“I was afraid I’d rip the shirt,” he said by way of explanation. “If you have something bigger, I could—”

“That was my biggest shirt.”

“Oh.”

“Are you sleeping here?”

“I…” Steve hesitated. “Only if you want me to.”

“I want you to. I was just gonna say, my bed’s really warm. So you don’t need a shirt.”

Steve raised an eyebrow, though he didn’t say a word as he crossed to the mattress and pulled back the covers to get in. “I’m sorry for busting in on you,” he said once he was settled. “Things were...it was bad.”

“It’s okay.” Weirdly, it was. No anxiety flaring up, no panic attacks over an unexpected situation. “Are you um...are you alright?”

Shrugging, Steve scooted down so he could rest his head on the pillow. “No,” he said eventually. “Not alright. But better now I’m here, which is the best I can hope for sometimes.”

Bucky thought that over as he put his book to the side, wishing he’d thought to turn off the desk lamp before getting into bed. Ah well. He mirrored Steve’s position, flat on his back with his eyes cast towards the ceiling. They lay quiet for a while, the only sound shared between them their breathing.

“Hey, Buck?”

“Yeah?”

“Would you mind if I uh...held onto you again, for a minute? If you want?”

Bucky appreciated the ask, though he had his reservations. “Would. Um. My arm’s not on.” And Steve had never held him without that particular layer of security fixed firmly in place.

Steve turned his head, quirking a brow. “I know.”

"I just. Usually, I have it on, and I don't want you—"

“Bucky,” he said quietly. “Please believe me when I tell you that I genuinely don’t give a shit about whether or not you’re wearing your arm.”

Which, yeah, logically, sure. Bucky knew he wouldn’t, but brains were funny things. Deciding to answer with actions rather than words, he scooted closer, allowing Steve to wrap him up and pull him in.

“Goodnight, Bucky,” he murmured, once they were settled.

“Goodnight.”

Steve was out within minutes, exhaustion weighing him down. Bucky lay awake for a long time, just listening to him breathe.

Chapter Text

Steve left early the next morning after waking with a stiff neck, a sore back, and a guilty conscience. What on earth had possessed him to arrive at Bucky’s door in the middle of the night, half-dressed and fretful?

Sure, Bucky had been on his mind during the mission—Steve’s head in the clouds, daydreaming about the date he was missing. And yeah, then there’d been the fight, which had been a nasty piece of business (resulting in the stiff neck and sore back). They’d managed to keep the civilian casualties to zero, but some of the soldiers following the enhanced asshole they’d taken out had been hardly more than kids themselves. Cannon fodder for some evil fucker’s insane agenda.

After something like that, he’d wanted to see Bucky. Needed to see Bucky. Hadn't bothered with a debriefing or a shower before hopping on his bike and cruising through the city to the now-familiar building. It had only been when a confused, half-asleep Bucky opened the door that Steve realized maybe he ought to have called. Given him a little warning. Because Bucky wasn't the best with unexpected situations.

However, to his great surprise, Bucky had proven to be precisely the balm Steve needed to soothe his soul, generous with his home, his time, and his attention as he welcomed Steve into his bed. Steve had slept like the dead—better than he had in ages, and he had to believe it was because he was there with Bucky.

Yet lying there the next morning, he couldn’t shake the guilt of having moved too fast. Pushed too far. Invaded Bucky’s one sanctuary in a way that didn’t line up with how many dates they’d been on, or how much time they’d spent together.

So, he left early, dressing in the parts of his uniform that still smelled of soot and oil and something worse—something he could never find a name for. That cloying scent of sickness and death, clinging to him like a second skin. He fucking hated that smell.

Bucky walked him to the door and gave him a goodbye kiss, before stepping back and worrying his bottom lip between his teeth. Steve knew his tells—there was a question that he wasn’t quite sure how to ask.  

“What?” Steve nudged him, waiting for him to smile.

“Just…” There it was. “Are we uh, are we gonna make up the date soon?”

Way to go, Rogers. Shoulda maybe figured that out first, before running for the door like someone had lit a fire under his ass.

“Yeah, of course,” he said, perhaps slightly too enthusiastically. “How’s Friday?”

Bucky’s smile widened, and he nodded. “Friday’s really good.”

 


 

Friday was good. As was Saturday morning. And the following Tuesday-slash-Wednesday. Because having spent the night once, it turned into something of a habit. Over and over again until it became the expectation rather than the exception: dates and sleepovers and mornings-after all contained in one neat little package. It was an unorthodox arrangement, but it was theirs, and Steve wouldn’t have traded it for any measure of conventionality.

When he wasn’t with Bucky, he was thinking about him, like a lovesick teenager doodling hearts in a notebook. SR+BB in pen and pencil, carved into a park bench, shouted to the heavens. It was harder than he thought it would be, keeping focused when it came to his work and rallying his teammates. Harder still to hide his happiness from them with the way he constantly checked his phone for texts, or the goofy smiles that spread across his face when he found one waiting.

“Two truths and a lie,” Natasha said one day, catching him doing just that in the common room.

“Huh?” Steve looked up from his phone.

“You should never play that game,” she laughed. “You’d lose.”

“What game—hey, Nat!”

Already halfway to the kitchen door, she turned around and waggled her eyebrows like some long-lost Marx sister. “I like ya when you’re getting laid, Rogers.”

By the time Steve stopped spluttering long enough to formulate a response, the door had closed behind her.

 


 

“You still draw, right?” Bucky asked on a Thursday morning in late October, breaking Steve’s concentration. They’d been awake for a few hours, each taking to their own devices—Bucky, ostensibly doing research (though Steve had seen the tell-tale Twitter logo a time or two), and Steve stretched out on the mattress, nose-deep in one of the random books Bucky had stacked on every available surface.

“Huh?” he said, vaguely annoyed at being taken away from the story, like any voracious reader would be.

“There was um, someone linked an article about you,” Bucky shrugged, and Steve suppressed a snort. For all that Bucky refused to engage with the world outside his door, he had his vices when it came to fucking around online under a series of pseudonyms.

“Was there?”

“Yeah. It said you wanted to be an artist when you were younger, before the war. And I know you were maybe gonna take that class…” Trailing off, he pushed his glasses up his nose with a shrug. “So I was just wondering. If you still drew.”

"Not really," Steve admitted. "I never finished registering for that class." Namely, because he'd run into a handsome distraction on the sidewalk, and his life had been so pleasant in the interim that he hadn't thought much about the furthering of his educational ambitions.

“Oh.” Bucky squinted. “Why?”

Huffing a laugh, Steve stuck a bookmark between the pages and raised an eyebrow. “Aren’t you supposed to be writing? What’s with the inquisition?”

“I wrote like a hundred words,” Bucky replied, pushing the chair back with a rough scrape before dropping his glasses on the desk and getting to his feet. Unable to resist, Steve opened his arms so Bucky could flop right onto him, twisting his body so his right side took the brunt of the impact. That was one of the tell-tale signs—Bucky had his arm on, as he usually did when they were awake, but Steve had learned to look for the twitches and winces that indicated it was beginning to bother him. Such as favoring his right side for, well, everything.

“Oh, like a hundred words,” he teased, wrapping him up and rolling his eyes. “Is your arm hurting?”

“Little bit.”

“You wanna take it off?”

Bucky grunted, before turning his face against Steve’s chest, rubbing the tip of his nose against his sternum. Too goddamn charming by half. “Don’t wanna move.”

Too goddamn lazy, more like.

“So take it off here,” Steve replied, hoping against hope that the monumental nature of the offer didn’t seem quite so monumental to Bucky. Because for as much as they kissed and hugged and (occasionally) rubbed, Steve had yet to see him in anything less than his oversized swaddling sweaters and sweatshirts.

“Can’t,” Bucky muttered, voice muffled.

"Why not?" Steve didn't want to push, and he certainly wouldn't make a fuss if the answer were no. But, shit, he and Bucky meant something to one another now, and maybe he did want to know a few things.

“Because I c-can’t ,” he said sharply.

“What if I don’t look?” Steve offered, running a hand up and down his rigid spine. “I’ll close my eyes. Cover ‘em with my hand.”

“It’s not…” Bucky took in a deep breath before lifting his head. “I know I’m being stupid, alright?”

“You’re not being stupid, Buck.”

“I’m being pretty stupid, Steve,” he said. “But...you don’t mind closing your eyes?”

“I don’t mind,” Steve promised, even if the request wasn’t an answer. That was alright, though sometimes Steve wished for more. Wished that Bucky trusted him enough to reveal his hidden parts—the scarred, broken bits that he covered with his charm and his wit and his goodness.

Patience had never been Steve’s virtue, but for Bucky, he was willing to wait.

Lifting his arm to let Bucky up, he put both hands over his eyes and waited. Bucky rolled away, and Steve stayed silent, paying attention to the sounds of him unzipping his hoodie. Tugging off whatever shirt was underneath. Then came the sounds of metal on metal and Steve pressed his fingers hard against his sockets, stars exploding behind his eyelids, because of all of it, he wanted to see the harness Bucky wore.  The one he'd felt so often under the dense layers of his clothing. Wanted to prove to Bucky that it didn't matter ; that Steve could be trusted, that he wasn’t going to run away at the sight.

That want grew sharper when he heard Bucky sigh in relief, groaning as he put the prosthetic down next to the bed. God, Steve wanted to kiss away his aches and pains, lay him down and relax him and no, nope, couldn’t do it. Wouldn’t betray that trust, no matter how much his baser impulses threatened to override his good instincts.

“Okay,” Bucky said after some more shuffling of material and wriggling around, his voice hesitant.

Steve pulled his hands away and immediately cottoned onto the reason for the hesitancy. Bucky hadn't put his hoodie back on, leaving him clad only in a thin, grey, long-sleeved baseball shirt. Still completely covered, but the lighter material clung to his body in a way the schlumpy hoodies never did. Which meant that Steve had to play it very, very cool, lest he spook Bucky back into his cavernous sweatshirt of safety.

Holding out his arms, he welcomed Bucky back into them, gathering him close and kissing the top of his head once more. It was different, holding him with only that thin barrier between them. Steve could feel more—the muscles of his shoulder, the raised places that could be nothing but scarring. Bucky shivered at the touch, and Steve’s hand stilled.

Steve holding Bucky in the thinner t-shirt

“Alright?” he asked.

“Uh huh,” Bucky mumbled. “But don’t uh. Don’t move your hand down further, okay?”

‘Down further’ being towards where his arm ended abruptly, just below the deltoid. “Sure, Buck,” he said. “But…”

Bucky stiffened, and Steve could have kicked himself.

“All I mean to say,” he continued. “Is that I’m not a stranger to being around people with missing parts, alright? I knew guys in the war. Hell, I know people now. I’m not gonna be weird, when you want me...that is to say, I want to. Whenever you’re ready.”

Bucky fell silent, and when he did speak, his voice was small. “I know. But I’m not. Ready, I mean.”

“Alright, pal.”

A more comfortable silence descended after that, Steve becoming fixated on the way he could feel Bucky’s heart beating against his ribcage. He thought Bucky might be falling asleep, and he was just about to join him when Bucky’s voice cut through the quiet.

“So, why don’t you draw anymore?”

Like a dog with a goddamn bone. Steve allowed himself an eye-roll, considering Bucky couldn’t see his face from that angle. “I dunno, Buck,” he sighed. “Guess keeping up with it never seemed that important, in the grand scheme of things. And now...I just don’t. That’s all.”

“Oh.” Bucky shrugged, the movement allowing Steve to feel the shift of the scar tissue beneath his fingers. “Maybe you should anyway?”

“Yeah, well,” Steve shrugged. “Maybe you should work on your dissertation instead of fucking around on Twitter.”

That earned him a pinch on the side, which made him yelp, and then they were kissing, and then they were distracting each other, and then...who cared about drawing? Had they even been having a conversation?

 


 

Steve blamed Bucky for the fact that, a week later, he was feeling like an utter cliche, heading to the roof of the tower with a sketchbook and a set of charcoals.

“Absolute fucking pretentiousness,” he muttered, dragging one of the patio chairs towards the edge of the rooftop.

It was pretentious. Because who had this fucking view, really? Who was lucky enough to be afforded the opportunity to sit on the edge of the sky, well-rested and well-fed, playing around with a sketch of the city below? It shouldn’t have been Steve. Not his schmuck self, who hadn’t done anything to deserve the opportunity, save for signing himself up as a science experiment. The view was nice, though. Below him, the city was undoubtedly thrumming—all traffic jams and snarls, people shouting and bustling on their errands—but from his perch it was peaceful.

Once he was settled, he began drawing the rough skyline of Jersey City, figuring that if he ruined it, who cared? It was only Jersey. He’d work out the kinks on that side of the river, before moving on to Manhattan.

An hour later, he’d hit the East River and found himself intimidated by the idea of turning his eye to Brooklyn, unable to bear the injustices his work might visit upon her. That was how Natasha found him—staring out at the still-unfamiliar skyline, contemplating where to begin.

“I can hear you breathing,” he informed her with a smile.

“Only because I’m letting you,” she replied.

“Right. What’s going on?”

“Peter was here—did you know he was coming?”

“No. He’s alright?”

“He was in the lab—something about a malfunctioning Karen. I thought he might have called you.”

“Nope.” Steve lifted the page, blowing away the charcoal dust as Natasha settled cross-legged at his side. “What happened?”

"Dust-up in Queens. Another bicycle thief—he says it was a big misunderstanding."

“But he’s fine?” With Natasha, it was good to double check, as her definition of ‘fine’ could also mean that no major arteries were severed.

“Sure,” she shrugged. “Hey, how’s Bucky?”

Steve blinked. “Uh…”

“I know I’m supposed to pretend you’re seeing some guy named Jay, even though you told me you were interested in Bucky Barnes way back when, and I’m also supposed to pretend Sam didn’t tell me, but it’s been almost two months, so in the interest of saving us both some dignity...how’s Bucky?”

Steve knew he wasn’t subtle, but Natasha could be a lot.

“Good, he’s—” Steve looked down, the back of his neck growing hot. “How many people know?”

“Everyone knows you’re seeing someone,” she admitted. “You’re kind of...obvious?”

“Shit.”

“It’s nice!” she said with no small amount of affection, leaning her head against his knee as she stared out at the city. Steve appreciated the gesture. “So you really like him, yeah?”

“Yeah. He’s…great.”

“Of all the people in the world,” she teased. “You pick that one.”

“I had no idea,” he protested with a half-smile. “I like him, he’s not...you guys have all these cultural connotations about him, but he’s just Bucky to me.”

“Sam won’t shut up about it. Bucky Barnes this, Bucky Barnes that. He keeps hoping you’ll bring him over for dinner.”

“That’s...probably not going to happen for a while.” Or, possibly ever. Steve had stopped offering, being as any time he mentioned the idea of Bucky coming home with him, Bucky clammed up completely and got very stammery and anxious.

“No?”

“No.” Steve hesitated. “He’s got...I looked at the symptoms online, and I guess it’s called agoraphobia? Is that right?”

Natasha nodded. “That’s a thing.”

“I know it’s a thing. I just...it’s Bucky’s thing in particular.”

“That makes sense,” she said. “Considering what he’s been through.”

Natasha, ever the master of her own game, was showing Steve just as many of her cards as she wanted him to see. He wasn’t biting yet.

“It feels like a betrayal, to be talking about it with you,” he said. “It’s private.”

“Far be it from me to tell you how to have friends,” she replied. “But I think that talking about this stuff with people you trust is how relationships work . You can’t put it all on one person when it’s hard, or you end up making that person into a crutch.”

“That’s therapy shit.”

“Yes. Because I go to therapy.”

“Yeah, but—”

“Anyway,” she continued. “Everyone knows Bucky’s story. Or at least parts of it.”

“Not all of it,” he said, circling back around to her dropped hint. “And not everyone has the access you do. Have you been digging?”

“Haven’t you?”

Steve rolled his eyes and sighed. God save him from his thoughtful friends. “I looked up what was publicly available, yeah. And I told him that I did it. And now I’m done looking him up for ah...forever, probably.”

“Great. I looked him up, too.”

"Somehow I think your definition of ‘looking up' is different than mine."

“That’s semantics, Steve,” she countered, lifting a loose pebble from the patio and rolling it between her fingers. “Anyhow, there’s not much on him that’s not already out there—school transcripts, but those are boring. Everybody knows what your boy was dabbling in from the ages of six to sixteen, and they’ve got a decent idea of what he was doing from sixteen to eighteen. After that, though—”

“All that shit,” Steve broke in, a touch bitterly. “It wasn’t his choice. That’s not him.” At least, he didn’t think it was—they hadn’t exactly talked about it, so any assumptions he had about the Bucky-from-before and the Bucky now were pure speculation.

“There’s not much on him from the past few years,” Natasha agreed. “Which lends credence to your theory that he just wants to be left alone.”

“He does.”

“And that would be fine—”

“Except he’s dating me, and I’m never left alone.” Which was the niggling thought in the back of Steve’s mind that never fully settled down. His life was busy and messy and complicated, and Bucky’s wasn’t. Reconciling the two was something he hadn’t yet begun to piece together.

“Well, yeah, that too,” Natasha nodded.

“There’s something else?”

“There’s always something else. Question is, do you want me to tell you or not?”

Steve briefly considered saying no. But then, he didn’t. “Might as well get it all out there.”

“It’s not really about Bucky. It’s...he had a manager, before. Alexander Pierce?”

Steve vaguely remembered reading about Pierce on Bucky’s Wiki—the man Bucky had claimed coerced him into a sham relationship with a starlet when he was a teenager, forcing him into the closet. So, a real prick. “I know of him.”

“That guy’s shady business, Steve,” she said, flicking her pebble towards the ground. “Deep pockets, serious influence, and connections so varied he puts my former employers to shame.”

“Huh.” Steve frowned, mulling that over, though he wasn’t sure what to do with it yet. “Then I’m glad he’s not part of Bucky’s life anymore.”

“Sure,” Natasha shrugged. “But Pierce is still in the business. Still managing people—mostly kids. He was apparently schmoozing Bucky’s sister at the Cannes festival this year.”  

“So Bucky still knows him?”

“I don’t think so,” she replied. “But Bucky’s accident, where he lost his arm? That happened close to Pierce’s house at the time, though the press didn’t report it. And the surveillance footage from the festival shows that Becca Barnes was visibly upset by the guy’s presence.”

“Oh.”

“Even if he doesn’t have any connection to Bucky these days, he’s still out there. Working.”

Steve frowned. “Bucky doesn’t talk about him,” he said after a moment. “I think things ended badly with him.”

“Or maybe because of him,” Natasha countered. “Do you mind if I do a little more digging?”

“Into what?”

“Pierce.”

“I...why? Bucky’s not—”

“Honestly? I don’t like people who hurt kids, and I have a bad feeling about this guy.”

Steve sighed. “Promise me it won’t involve Bucky?”

"I promise," she said, knowing her word was worth its weight in gold to him. For all that they teased and bickered, Natasha was one of a tiny circle of people he truly did trust. "You can even tell him I'm doing it—I didn't want to start seriously poking around until I got your permission."

“It’s probably nothing,” he said. There was no doubt that Pierce, along with various and sundry leeches and hangers-on, had played a part in Bucky’s breakdown. But while it was cruel, none of it had been illegal, so far as he knew.

“Maybe,” she said, before getting to her feet. “I’m glad you’re happy, Steve. I think he’s good for you.”

“Early days, yet,” he replied, hiding a smile as he looked down at his sketch.

“All the same,” she said, laying a hand on his shoulder and squeezing before disappearing back the way she’d come.

Steve waited until he heard the door shut behind her before pulling out his phone and snapping a picture of his sketchbook, sending it to Bucky alongside the caption, I’m drawing .

It took less than ten seconds for Bucky to reply:

 

 

Gross, Jersey. Looks good though. Do you want to come to my mom’s for Thanksgiving? You can say no.

 

Steve didn’t hesitate.

 

 

Absolutely .

 

Chapter Text

Steve loved his friends. Really and truly loved them in a way he hadn’t thought it was possible to love other human beings. He trusted them with his life, found solace in their company, and was grateful for their good humor in his times of trouble.

However, Steve’s friends were also—nearly to the person—deeply troubled individuals who had no advice for what one said, did, or wore to another family’s Thanksgiving dinner. Sure, there were those in the group who celebrated, but their versions of celebration tended to involve copious amounts of alcohol and reliving shitty childhoods. Showing up to Bucky’s house with a bottle of vodka and some Depression-era sob stories didn’t seem the smartest route.

But then there was Sam. Sam, with his relatively stable childhood and his nice, normal family. Sam, who went home every year for Thanksgiving and knew what to expect. Sam, Steve’s savior, who gave him The Talk about Regular Thanksgivings on the Tuesday before the holiday.

“There will be a fight,” Sam said, after some debate over whether or not Steve and Bucky would arrive in time to see the end of the Macy’s parade, or if they’d just show up for the dog show. “Probably about football. Sometimes about the volume of the television. Occasionally it breaks out when two of the aunts bring the same kind of pie and insist they had a group text about who was baking what, and—”

“I don’t think Bucky’s family’s that big.”

“Steve. There will be a fight. It’s the law of Thanksgiving.”

“Duly noted. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Any other questions?”

“Yes. What should I bring?”

Sam steepled his hands and frowned. “Have you been given responsibility for making an item of food?"

“No.” (Which was honestly just as well—Bucky still had no clue about the shame of the first date lie-sagna.)

“Then you will bring flowers or wine. Nothing else.”

“Bucky doesn’t drink.”

“Flowers, then.”

“I dunno, it feels weird to eat without bringing something to contribute…”

“Steve, I promise you, these people have about a million traditions of their own. Everyone does. They do not need you showing up at their house with some half-assed store-bought cranberry sauce.”

“But—”

“My cousin,” Sam cut him off. “Five years ago. He brings his new girlfriend, and she waltzes into my mother’s house with a potato salad, like it’s goddamn Labor Day. He never lived it down. We still make fun of him.”

“I like potato salad.”

Sam lowered his head. “Flowers, man. I’m telling you.”

“Do I need to wear a tie?”

“What? No!”

“I don’t know!”

“Let’s...I will pick out an outfit.”

Sam Wilson, patron saint of lost causes.

 


 

Two days later, when Steve buzzed at Bucky’s building, he was feeling pretty damn dapper in dark-wash jeans and a button-down, topped with a sweater. Over that, he had on a pea coat and scarf, buttoned all the way up to guard against the surprisingly chilly late-November afternoon. (The outfit was classy, Sam had said, but not too dressy. Giving the impression that he’d tried, but not that he was compensating for something.)

“I’m not ready,” Bucky’s voice crackled through the intercom before the door buzzed open.

‘Not ready’ could mean any number of things when it came to Bucky, so Steve headed in and onto the elevator. He found Bucky standing in the doorway of his apartment, chewing on his thumb, looking harried and upset. He was wearing a green sweater Steve hadn’t seen before—a sweater that very nearly fit him—along with a pair of jeans that were familiar, and his prosthetic. No shoes, though, and his hair was an absolute tangle.

“Hi,” Steve greeted, taking in the tension of his stance, wound tight as a compressed coil and ready to spring.

“Hi,” came the short reply, Bucky twisting away before Steve could pull him into a hug. “I d-don’t, don’t, I—”

“Hey, pal,” he said, setting his flowers (in a vase this time) on the island. “Buck?”

Letting out a pitiful whine, low in his throat, Bucky turned to Steve with a helpless shrug. Steve hadn't seen him so worked up since that very first day in the restaurant. At least, he figured, now he could do something about it.

“Come here,” he said, not really phrasing it as a request. Bucky stepped closer, and when he was near enough, Steve put one hand on each of his biceps, gripping him tight. When Bucky didn’t resist the hold, he took a step nearer and touched their foreheads together, Bucky’s glasses mashing between them. “What’s going on?”

“Becca,” he muttered, his right hand crossing to pluck at the sleeve of the soft, green sweater. “She g-got me this.”

“It’s nice.”

“It’s t-too tight.”

It was far from tight, but for Bucky, everything was relative. “Why don’t you wear something else, then?” he offered.

“Because Becca g-got me this!” he repeated. “For Thanksgiving.”

Steve nodded, running his palms down Bucky’s arms, squeezing both hands before moving them back to their original spot. “I think you look great,” he said. “For whatever that’s worth. But if you want to change, I’m sure your sister’s not going to be mad at you.”

Bucky worried his lip, brow furrowing against Steve’s as he thought that over. Steve waited, surprised at the infinite well of patience that existed within him when it came to Bucky. Empathy had never been his strong suit—sure, he’d fought bullies and raged against the injustices visited upon the downtrodden of the world, but that was different than relating to someone. Taking care of someone. With Bucky, he was willing to take the time. To calm him down. To ease him through his burdens and bring him out the other side. Because Bucky was worth the worry and the fight.

Still, Steve found himself taking on Bucky’s anxiety and his fears sometimes, bringing them home with him, where he worked them out alongside his own worries against a punching bag. He did it so that when he was there, in that apartment with the person who needed him to be an anchor, he could stand firm. Extending empathy was a choice, and Steve was finding he’d choose Bucky every goddamn time.

“I’ll wear it,” Bucky muttered after a few deep breaths. “B-but we’re gonna be late, and I d-don’t have my socks—”

“We’ll take a taxi,” Steve replied. “I’ll get your socks. Go sit down.”

Bucky took to his folding chair as Steve went to rifle through the dresser, finding socks and underwear in the top drawer, along with a small, untouched bottle of lube in the back corner. Whether it was recently acquired or had been there for a while, Steve wasn't sure. But it was nice to know it existed, just in case.

“What shoes do you want to wear?” he asked, closing the drawer.

“Brown ones.”

Steve retrieved the brown shoes in question and went to Bucky, who reached for his socks. Instead of letting him have them, Steve pulled them back. “Let me do it.”

“Steve—” Bucky’s cheeks went pink. “I can do it.”

Of course he could do it. Bucky’s pride dictated that he didn’t often accept assistance. But Christ, Steve didn’t want to do it because he thought Bucky couldn’t put on his own socks; he wanted to do it because right then, Bucky didn’t have to.

“I know you can,” he said. “But I’m going to.”

There was a brief nod, Bucky’s face going redder as Steve knelt by the chair. He jerked his foot away the moment Steve touched it, though, being as the touch had been a bit too gentle and therefore ticklish.

“Fuck!” he managed, embarrassment forgotten as he let out a sharp bark of laughter.

“Huh. That’s interesting.”

“You can’t use that against me!”

“I can’t, huh?” Steve shrugged, tapping his index finger firmly against the arch of Bucky’s foot before propping said foot on his thigh. “Don’t recall that being in the official manual.”

“The official manual of—Steve!”

“What?” he laughed. “Hand slipped.”

“You’re an asshole.”

And you’re not stammering anymore, he didn’t say as he tugged the sock over Bucky’s foot, before repeating the action on the opposite side. Once he’d finished, he pushed Bucky’s jeans up just enough that he could kiss his shin.

“Weirdo,” Bucky said, though he sounded fond.

“What? You got good legs. I like ‘em.”

“That’s…” Bucky shook his head and laughed. “They’re hairy.”

Steve shrugged and reached for Bucky’s left shoe. “So what? I can’t like hairy legs?”

“No, I just—”

“Because if I can’t like hairy things, then I gotta say I’m concerned about whether or not you think you gotta shave your ball—”

“Steve.”

“Just sayin’.”

“Alright, alright. I’m glad you like my hairy legs.”

“Love ‘em,” he reiterated, which resulted in both of them going quiet over his use of the ‘L’ word. Which, sure, it was only in reference to Bucky’s hirsute gams, but he’d said it, and now it was there in the world.

As was Bucky, Steve realized about five minutes later, when they were standing outside the building and making a game attempt to flag down a taxi. It was the first time, in fact, that he’d seen Bucky in the world since the very first day they’d met. His Bucky, with his big, black coat, hood pulled over his head, leaning against the building and biting at his thumb.

Fuck. His Bucky. When had that happened?

A taxi finally, mercifully, rolled to a stop, and they bundled in with Bucky giving the driver his mother's address in Cobble Hill while Steve wedged the flowers between himself and the door. Steve knew the neighborhood and had spent some time there in his youth, but these days it was so far removed from where he'd grown up that he scarcely recognized it.

“Becs bought this place for my ma,” Bucky said as they crossed the bridge, his fingers twined in Steve’s.

“Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah. After she made her first movie that had a decent paycheck. My ma was living in some shithole at the time. I never saw it, but Becs said there were roaches and black mold and some slumlord asshole who owned it that wouldn’t fix anything. So I guess Becca uh, wanted to take care of her, you know?”

“Mmm,” Steve nodded, letting him talk.

“I h-haven’t been out to this house in uh...two years?” he admitted, which Steve hadn’t realized. Bucky didn’t spend a lot of time discussing the particulars of his family situation. “We get lunch in the city s-sometimes. The three of us, and ma’s boyfriend.”

“Oh yeah?” Somehow Steve didn’t think that frequent in-public lunches were high on Bucky’s agenda of priorities. “How’s that?”

"It's been s-six months, I guess, since I saw her," Bucky muttered. "We used to be c-close."

“Well,” Steve replied. “I think it’s nice you’re seeing her now. And I’m looking forward to meeting her, and Becca.”

“Oh, yeah,” Bucky grinned. “You’re gonna love Becca.”

“Is it just the three of them? Becca isn’t bringing anyone?”

“Nah. She just broke up with some idiot. Every guy she dates is a fucking moron.”

“Morons, or you just don’t like them?”

“I never meet them,” he said. “But she has shit taste. She goes for pretty but dumb.”

“Oh, see, that’s where she’s missing out.” Scooting closer, he pushed Bucky’s hood back just enough that he could kiss his temple. “Gotta go for pretty and smart.”

Bucky snorted, looking down, but with a pleased little smile on his face. “Shuddup.”

A few minutes later, the taxi arrived at a smart-looking brownstone. There was a slim, pretty brunette sitting on the front steps, wearing a yellow, floral dress—sans coat, which made Steve shiver—holding a cigarette between her fingers. He could see the familial resemblance immediately.

In the time it took Steve to pay the driver, the woman who could only be Becca crushed the cigarette and flew at her brother with a ferocity that bordered on primal, throwing both arms around him and squeezing tight. The admiration society was mutual, Steve was pleased to see.

“Hi,” she grinned, as Steve stepped out of the car.

“Hi,” Bucky replied. “Aren’t you freezing?”

“I’m fine.” Becca turned her attention to Steve as the cab pulled away. “So, you’re the guy who stole Bucky’s phone.”

“Guilty as charged,” Steve said, shaking her hand when she offered it. “You must be Becca.”

“That’s me,” she said. “Nice to meet you, Steve.”

“Likewise.”

“Becs, you’re making me cold,” Bucky complained. “Let’s go inside.”

“Fine,” she said, and there was no hiding the fact that her hands were a little red from being outside too long.

As they trooped in, Steve realized that Becca hadn’t bought the entire brownstone for her mother. It had been subdivided into apartments, and Winifred Barnes lived on the ground floor. Becca pushed open the door, which had been left slightly ajar, calling out a greeting.

“Mama! They’re here!”  

The apartment wasn’t huge, but it was well-lit and nicely appointed, with a kitchen area in front of the door and a small dining space to the right. That led straight through to a living area which was dominated by a big, bay window. To their left were several closed doors, presumably leading to bedrooms and bathrooms.

A woman was standing at the stove, and she turned as they entered. Winifred, presumably. She was shorter than Steve had been expecting, given that Bucky and Becca were both fairly tall. Winifred had long, chestnut hair dappled with streaks of grey, and was dressed conservatively in a pair of navy slacks and a white cardigan.

And, God, the woman had some strong genes—either Bucky's father had looked exactly like his wife, or both of her children had been clones. All three of them could have been siblings, save for the height, and the resemblance served to remind Steve of just how young she was, relatively speaking. Bucky had mentioned once that she'd had him when she was only nineteen, and even though she was in her early fifties, she could have easily passed for forty.

“Baby!” she exclaimed upon seeing Bucky, who released his vice grip on Steve’s hand as she embraced him. Bucky remained stiff and unyielding under her hug, and he didn’t lift his arms to return the gesture.

“Hi, ma,” he said once she’d pulled away. “Uh, this is Steve. Steve, my mother, Winnie.”

Winnie turned to Steve, and that was when she saw him for the first time—truly saw him, her eyes widening as she swallowed her shock. Fuck. Neither of her children had thought to inform her that the guy Bucky was bringing to Thanksgiving dinner had a certain amount of notoriety, and now she was faced with Captain America in her kitchen.

“Hi, Steve,” she said, her voice quavering just slightly.

“Thank you so much for having me, Winnie,” he said, holding out the flowers.

“Aren’t those pretty?” she said, acquitting herself admirably as she took the vase and handed it to Becca. “Honey, can you put these on the table?”

“Sure, mama,” Becca said, going to do just that.

One of the doors to the left opened, and a man nearly as tall as Steve emerged, tucking his shirttails into his trousers. Broad-shouldered and brawny, he had the sort of paunch that often came to men in late-middle age—a slight beer belly overhanging his belt, accompanied by a somewhat receding hairline.

"I thought I heard voices," he said, a smile on his face as he greeted them, eyes traveling from Bucky to Steve, then back to Bucky, then a double, no, triple take back to Steve. “Holy shit.”

“Hi, I’m Steve,” offered Steve.

“Ho-lee shit!” he repeated, taking a step back, his accent tinged with something southern.

"This is Bill," Winnie said, as it became increasingly apparent that Bill wasn't going to be able to introduce himself.

“Hi, Bill,” Steve said, wishing he could sink through the floor or maybe throttle Bucky and Becca for not bothering to prepare either of these people for his presence.

Luckily, fate in the form of something on the stovetop starting to boil over chose that moment to intervene, the hissing of the food on the burner drawing everyone’s attention.

“Damn it!” Winnie swore, leaping for the spoon as Bucky took a step back and pulled Steve with him. Bill sprang into action, yanking the pot off the burner, which coincided with Winnie’s frantic stirring, sending glops of gravy everywhere. Cleaning that up took the better part of five minutes, and by the time the kitchen had returned to a state of peace, Bill had gotten over his shock at the prospect of spending his Thanksgiving with Steve Rogers.

Mostly.

He did ask a lot of questions, though, as Winnie banished them to the living room, where they settled on the couch while she cooked.

“I always wondered,” Bill began. “How is it you all get paid, exactly?”

Or, later: “so you don’t work for Stark?”

And later still: “but Thor, that guy’s not really an alien, is he?”

Finally: “that Romanov, she single? Cause I got a brother…”

Steve deflected what he could and demurred on what he couldn't, answering some of the more mundane queries while ignoring others. At some point, Bucky was recruited away by Becca to help bake the biscuits, though Steve didn't see how the strange hunks of dough that came out of cardboard tubes could genuinely be called biscuits at all.

With Bill cornering him, Steve couldn’t see everything that was taking place in the kitchen, but it was hard not to notice the obvious. Namely, the way Winnie hovered over her son, touching him whenever she was able. A hand on his shoulder, his lower back, rubbing his neck or wiping schmutz from his cheek. Bucky never reciprocated the affection, though he did tolerate it, except for the one time she lay her hand atop his prosthetic. At that, he jerked his hand away, and Steve decided he’d spent enough time talking to Bill.

Excusing himself, he headed back to the kitchen, discreetly placing his palm against Bucky’s lower back while projecting false cheer in his query. “You guys good? Need some help?”

“I think we’ve just about got it,” Becca said, voice strained. She hadn’t missed what had happened, either.

“It smells great.” Stepping closer to Bucky, Steve hooked his chin over his shoulder and kissed just below his ear. “I didn’t know you were baking, dear.”

“Ha ha,” Bucky smirked, relaxing a bit before turning his head to catch Steve in a proper kiss. “If I’d known they were going to be Pillsbury, I’d have made real ones at home.”

“Next year,” Steve said, nudging him.

“You can do that?” Winnie asked, not quite eavesdropping, but not not eavesdropping, either.

“Do what?” Bucky asked, going back to dropping the lumps of dough onto the baking sheet.

“Bake,” she replied.

Bucky stiffened. “Uh huh.”

“That’s so…” she cleared her throat. “How do you manage that, with your arm?”

Bucky’s shoulders, which had nearly relaxed, hunched back towards his ears, and Steve watched as any comfort he’d been able to offer floated up and out the door. Shit.

“I just d-do,” he muttered. “I figure it out.”

“That’s so wonderful, baby.”

Steve was sure Winnie meant well, and that she hadn’t intended the sentiment to come across as patronizing. But, it was. And it had. Bucky grunted, pushing the tray of dough away. “These are done,” he muttered. “Becs, you can put ‘em in when the turkey comes out to rest.”

“Sure, Bucky,” Becca said, as Bucky turned and stalked out of the kitchen in the direction of the living room.

Steve followed, though as he walked away, he heard Winnie speaking to Becca in a low, confused tone.

“Did I say something wrong?”

Yes and no. Steve sighed as he sat down next to Bucky, shoulder-to-shoulder as they both faced the television. Sam had been right about the football game being on, though Steve’s lack of interest in the sport combined with Bucky’s stony silence meant it wasn’t much fun to watch. Mercifully, they were called to dinner less than half an hour later.

The too-small table was laden down with enough food for twenty people, though Steve supposed he could eat for ten, so they might be alright. Bill was given the dubious honor of carving the turkey, which he set to with aplomb. His precision left something to be desired as he attacked the bird with zero finesse. Made sense, though, considering he was three beers in.

“Your flowers look so nice, Steve,” Winnie said, her voice a bit too bright as she settled herself into a seat across from Bucky.

"Thank you," he said, wincing as the electric knife in Bill's hands juddered across a bone. "I uh, it's from this great florist I found. I bought some for Bucky, on our first date."

“Oh?” Winnie said.

“Yup.” God help him, he wasn’t much of a conversationalist at the best of times, and this was the worst sort of awkward. “They were uh. Edible. For Bert.”

“That’s your lizard, right honey?”

“Turtle,” Bucky gritted, as Bill shut off the knife. Small mercies.

“Right, turtle! I’m sorry. How is he?”

“Fine.”

“That’s...great,” Winnie said, the conversation withering.

“Who wants turkey?” Bill boomed.

“God, yes,” Becca muttered, reaching for the serving fork.

They ate in awkward silence, the only sounds in the room that of the cutlery scraping against plates. Steve, desperate for a neutral topic to smooth things over, focused on a painting that hung on the wall above Winnie’s head.

“That’s an interesting piece,” he said, nodding his head towards it as Winnie turned to look.

“Isn’t it?” she smiled. “Becca bought it for me in Vienna when she was shooting a movie there. Didn’t you, honey?”

“Mmhmm,” Becca nodded, swallowing the food in her mouth. “Local artist, actually. He was a fascinating guy.”

“Do you remember his name?” Steve asked, curious enough about the style of the art to want to look the man up.

"I don't," she said. "But I have it written down somewhere—my business manager keeps track of things like that. She says the art is an asset, and it always appreciates in value, or whatever. Honestly, I just liked it."

“You’re smart to do that,” Winnie said. “Having someone to keep track of your money, I mean. I never had that—I used to get so confused, and there are so many predatory people out there…”

Bucky, who had been picking at one of his biscuits, scowled. “No shit,” he muttered.

“Bucky,” Becca warned, giving him an imperceptible shake of her head.

Winnie, sounding wounded, reached for her water and turned to Steve. “I only meant that when I was young—I was younger than Becca, you have to understand, when everything happened—”

“Happened,” Bucky echoed. “L-like you weren’t the one s-sending me on auditions.”

“Well, of course I was,” she frowned, “but nobody was expecting the show to be so popul—”

“N-none of it just happened,” Bucky snapped, before stuffing his biscuit into his mouth.

There was a beat of silence, during which Steve hoped against hope that things would de-escalate.

“All I’m saying,” Winnie replied, voice stiff. “Is that there were a lot of people who took advantage of the fact that we had money, and that I didn’t have experience.”

(So much for de-escalation.)

Bucky snorted, speaking around his food. “You sh-sure as shit didn’t have trouble getting that.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Winnie said sharply.

“You fucking tell me,” Bucky snapped.

“Hey,” Bill broke in, dropping his fork with a clatter as he pointed a finger at Bucky. “You wanna watch your mouth in front of your mother.”

“She’s h-heard it!”

“Bucky, baby—” Winnie began.

“Don’t baby me,” he managed without a stammer.

“Both of you, can we just not do this right now?” Becca pleaded.

“No, let’s,” Bucky continued. “B-because I’m not sitting here playing happy f-fucking families like we don't know what she did!"

“I didn’t do anything!” Winnie cried, tears in her eyes as she threw up her hands. “You left me.”

The weight of the accusation hung in the air as silence descended once more, all oxygen sucked from the room.

Bucky moved first, pushing back from the table with such rage that his chair scraped the wood floor hard enough to leave a scratch. “Fuck this,” he snarled.

“Bucky, please—” Becca pleaded, but it was too late. Bucky was quick when he wanted to be, sprinting from the table and yanking open the front door, which he slammed behind him as he fled into the hall.

Nobody moved, and it was only when the door to the building also thudded shut that the threatening tears finally spilled over onto Winnie's cheeks.

Steve rose to his feet and cleared his throat. “I uh. We. Well. Thank you for having us. I’m gonna go.”

Pausing only long enough to retrieve their coats, he left Bucky’s family behind and headed out into the late afternoon chill to find him.

Chapter Text

It was fucking cold outside.

The wind was bitter, and Bucky was freezing, and it was hard to tell if the shaking was from the temperature or his temperament. As he walked away from his mother's house, he found he didn't care. Who the fuck—who the fuck was she to tell him she hadn’t done shit? She had done shit. He knew it, and she knew it, and he wasn't going to sit there and watch her cry about it like she wasn’t overbearing and fussy and, and, and...god damn, his hand was already going numb. Couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe with the way the blood was pounding in his ears. Every heartbeat an agony pumping fuzzy remembrances into the fractured mess that was his head. He wouldn’t turn around, wouldn’t—

“Bucky!”

Shit. That was Steve.

Steve.

Steve, whom he had left sitting at that table, alone with his family. Steve, who had witnessed just how bad things could be. How bad Bucky could be. Steve wasn’t going to want to see him anymore. Wasn’t going to come over and visit Bert. Wasn’t going to kiss him. Wasn’t going to put his socks on for him, or bring up his packages, or do any of the million other Steve things that had become so commonplace that Bucky wasn’t sure how he’d live without them.

But he’d have to. He’d have to weather this loss like he’d weathered everything else in his life and he’d endure it because—

“Bucky, would you stop?”

Was he still walking? He was. Feet moving forward.

Bucky stopped, closing his eyes and counting Steve’s every footfall. One-two-three-four-five-six-seven steps and everything would fall apart.

“Hey…” Steve said, right behind him now. “Hey, Buck.”

There was a hand on his neck—Steve’s hand was on his neck. Squeezing the muscles there between thumb and forefinger. Bucky exhaled sharply, frozen in place as he imagined the tension in his spine flowing up and out and into Steve, who bore it for him. Took it away before coming to stand in front of him, where he wrapped him in those ridiculous tree trunk arms. Held him steady as Bucky fought to breathe.

Bucky turned his face against the crook of Steve’s neck, certain it was the last time he’d be allowed such a luxury. Breathed him in, wanting to remember the texture of his damp, wool coat.

“Jesus, Buck,” Steve muttered eventually.

Bucky braced for impact. What he got instead was warmth—Steve’s hands, fisted against his back, hiding the secret of his coat. He hadn’t seen it; hadn’t realized Steve was even carrying it and then there it was, draped over his shoulders.

That wasn’t leaving. That very much wasn’t leaving.

“Better,” Steve murmured. “It’s fuckin’ freezing out here.”

Bucky opened his mouth. “Th-th-th—”

So. No words, then. Excellent. Nothing he liked more than being trapped in his head because his goddamn synapses were failing to fire. Another casualty of his own private war.

“I gotcha,” Steve said. “Don’t worry about it.”

Bucky stayed silent as Steve helped him put on the coat, going so far as to button it right to the top. The gesture might have come across as patronizing from anyone else, but from Steve, it was just What Had To Be Done. Ruthless practicality with no room for mawkishness when the chips were down, that was Steve all over.

Once every button was buttoned, Steve spoke again, brushing a thumb across Bucky’s no-doubt ruddy cheek. “What do you want to do now, pal?”

Bucky shrugged.

“I’m guessing you don’t want to go back inside?”

That one was easy, and he shook his head.

“How about food? You still hungry?”

Another shrug, though this time he glanced up at Steve, who was sporting a small smile. Not a pitying one, either. Just a normal, everyday smile. Like there was nothing at all strange going on. Bucky appreciated the effort.

“I’m starving,” Steve said. “Come on. I bet if we keep walking, we’ll find someplace that’s open.”

Steve made it seem easy, slipping his hand into Bucky’s, holding it tight. Tugging him forward as they began to walk.

And walk.

And walk and walk and walk and walk.

Past brownstones and apartment buildings, where lavish feats were no doubt being fought over. Countless families and countless grudges. Maybe some of them loved each other, too. Understood each other. Bucky wasn’t sure he’d ever understand his mother. What she’d done standing at odds with what she insisted she hadn't. The two of them at opposite ends, Winifred an enigma to him. Perfectly pleasant and yet completely culpable.

They walked for over an hour, the well-appointed facades of Cobble Hill and Brooklyn Heights giving way to seedier surroundings as they meandered towards Greenwood with nothing more than Steve’s internal compass to guide them.

“Th-th-that’s open,” Bucky said eventually, brain having calmed enough to give him back his words an hour and ten minutes into their jaunt.

The ‘that’ in question was a diner tucked between an auto parts store and a bodega, hardly noticeable save for the ‘Open’ sign in the window. Nothing special about it—they were a dime a dozen in all five boroughs—but the fact that it was serving customers on a holiday made it a welcome port in a storm.

“Perfect,” Steve said, detouring them inside, where a teenage girl was sitting behind the hostess stand, hair falling in a curtain around her face as she played with her phone.

When the door dinged, announcing their arrival, she looked up and offered them a crooked be-braced smile, pushing her lank hair from her earnest, painfully young face. Bucky adored her in an instant, every gormless, gawky inch of her, from the acne speckled on her chin to the colorful rubber bands on her braces.  

“Hello,” she said. “Two?”

She spoke with an accent, though not one Bucky could place. If he had to guess, he’d say her parents owned the restaurant—a family business, open every day of the year to make ends meet. A way station for the down and out on days like this, where expectations of love and family piled so high that nobody escaped unscathed.

They were shown to a booth, sitting down across from one another. Steve was quick to tangle their legs together beneath the table, Bucky’s heart seizing at the comfort of his constant, unyielding presence. Before she left, the hostess-cum-waitress took their drink orders, disappearing into the back to fill them. There were scant few patrons at the other tables—a motley crew of folks who had burned their turkeys mixed with those who were eating alone. Bucky felt an immediate kinship with the latter.

He felt comfortable in their company. It was strange, being around that many new people and not feeling the immediate need to claw off his skin. Maybe it was a stress response—as if his brain had already processed its maximum quota of bullshit for the day, and now it was too tired to worry about being recognized in some dumpy Brooklyn diner.

Clearing his throat, Bucky sank lower in the booth and glanced at Steve. “I uh—”

“You don’t have to talk about it,” Steve said firmly.

Bucky shrugged, pulling a napkin from the dispenser on the table before starting to systematically tear strips off it, rolling them into balls. “I w-want to.”

Which was, in the strictest sense, a lie. He never wanted to talk about it; never wanted to relive his shitty history. But with Steve, it was easier. More than that, it was becoming increasingly necessary. If Steve was going to remain a part of his life (something he very much wanted), then he was going to need to know some things. Not all the things—definitely not all the things—but some, to start.

The waitress returned with their drinks before Bucky could begin, and they had to kerfuffle with that for a moment before going ahead and placing an order. (Cheeseburger and fries times two, plus a side of onion rings, and also a chocolate milkshake. Bucky got the feeling Steve wanted more but was trying not to draw attention to his bottomless pit of a stomach.)

“I’m uh,” Bucky said, as the waitress walked away. “I’m s-sorry you had to see that. I sh-should have warned you about what it’s like…”

"Maybe you're just an optimist," Steve offered.

Bucky snorted. “Th-that sounds like me.”

“I’m serious,” Steve laughed. “I’m pretty sure you didn’t go in there expecting a fight.”

Something about that didn't sit right, and he worried it over in his head. "I did, and I didn't. Things with my ma have been uh…" Taking a breath, he reached removed his glasses, setting them on the table before rubbing his eyes. "Weird."

Steve nodded. “Sure. You’ve...alluded to that.”

“I told you she was really young when she had me, right? Like, nineteen?”

“You mentioned it, yeah.”

“So, the thing is. My dad’s not dead? He’s just a piece of shit.”

Steve’s gaze darkened. “Oh.”

“Y-yeah. He was a lot older than her, and she always said he was p-pissing away an inheritance on drugs.” (Which, hey, addictive personalities ran in the family. Bully for him.) “He married her when she got pregnant, though. And they had me, and later they had Becca. He bailed when she was two months old.”

“I’m sorry, Buck.”

“W-we didn’t hear from him, ever,” he continued, stomach tying itself into knots. “But when I started making money, he showed up, tried to sue her for support.”

“Jesus.”

“Yeah. She freaked out—that’s all the shit she was saying at dinner about not knowing what to do when she had money. She hired this guy to manage me—Alexander. And he said…” Shaking his head, he sighed. “Sorry. That’s jumping ahead.”

“Take your time.”

Bucky closed his eyes, doing his best to sort things out chronologically. The story was never entirely coherent for him, being as he'd barely been three when it all started. Details weren't any preschooler's strong suit.

“Before I started working, she was just...destitute. No money. Her parents d-died when I was two, and my dad was useless, even when he was around.”

“I’m sorry.”

Bucky shrugged. “I didn’t know them, and I don’t like him. She had a job cleaning hotel rooms, and she used to bring me and Becca with her, after he left. I guess the manager liked her. Anyway, one day they were having open auditions in the hotel for a kiddie commercial, and I’m like...her cute kid? So her boss says she should let me try, and she did.”

The story of his first gig had become lore and legend, though Bucky didn’t remember anything of that audition other than what had been told to him by other people—the tale relayed countless times in interviews and magazine pieces profiling him alongside Winnie. No stage mom here! Just a down on her luck lady who happened to be in the right place at the right time with the right kid! Nothing calculated about it, folks. Serendipity, all through.

At the crux of every profile was this: Winnie Barnes was an innocent bystander. Everything in her life had happened to her, never because of her. God fucking forbid the world think she’d had an ounce of agency.

“Let me guess,” Steve said. “You got the job?”

“Uh huh. Got a bunch of fucking jobs. I had b-buck teeth and a lisp. Casting agents ate me up. And then, I mean. I got St-St...the show.”

The early days of Stepping Stones had faded into a stage light-tinged haze in his mind. He remembered snippets and flashes—being told where to stand, being dressed by other people, being fed lines by someone standing just off set while a big, black camera hovered nearby. Whatever strange alchemy had occurred to make the show a hit, and him a star, had been out of his control. His life had stopped being his own in fits and starts until he was being paraded in front of screaming throngs at shopping malls, forced to sign his name over and over again while girls sobbed in his presence.

At a certain point, the haze had begun to coalesce into something more precise—experiences he would never forget. When he was all of eight, a girl of fourteen had kissed him full on the mouth in one of those autograph lines. His first kiss a casualty, the press of her wet tongue seared forever in his mind. He hated that he'd never forget it. Hated her for thinking she owned part of him. But hell, maybe she did. It was hard to say which—if any—parts of his life and his autonomy had been his own during those years.

Flexing his hand on the table, Bucky forced himself to continue. “I g-got the show, and then we had some money. Which was when my dad decided he was owed something. Ma panicked, and then...Alexander showed up. Said he could make it all go away.” Bucky couldn’t remember the first time he’d met Alexander Pierce, only that one day he was there. An ever-present part of their lives from that moment forward.

“Did he?”

“Yeah.” Bucky swirled the straw in his glass. “He did.”

Alexander, for all that he had a temper, was a man who solved problems, be they a deadbeat dad or a kid who needed to be taught his place. Alex had never suffered fools, even when Bucky was being very foolish. And while there was a part of Bucky that had hardened towards Alex over the years, he understood that the man had always been doing what he thought was best. Even when Bucky wouldn’t—or couldn’t—listen.

“And your mother was...it was better for her, after that?” Steve asked.  

“It was better when she started sleeping with him,” Bucky bit out, bile rising in his throat at the memory of the day Alexander had told him of their affair. “Alex, I mean. Not my dad.”

Steve, startled, managed a nod.

“It was just...sex,” Bucky frowned, gesturing vaguely. “For Alex, I mean. He was married. He is married, still. But he and my ma were…”

“I got it.”

“Yeah, well. Ma eventually, you know, threatened to expose Alex to the press.”

“Why?”

“I guess she wanted...I dunno. Alex said it had something to do with money. I don’t remember exactly.” Mostly because he’d been in an ever-present alcohol-fueled stupor by then, barely making it through press lines as he stumbled his way through puberty. “Alex protected me from whatever it was, because I guess crazy runs in our fucking family, so—”

“Buck,” Steve frowned, reaching across the table to squeeze his hand. “You’re not—”

Anyway,” he said, clearing his throat. “I sued her for uh, emancipation, when I was thirteen. You know what that is?”

“Not completely.”

“It’s basically...I became my own parent. Or, legally, I wasn’t hers. It’s more complicated than that, but…” he sighed.

“I got the gist.”

“Alex got a really good lawyer,” he said. “It wasn’t that hard to win the case, but I didn’t want...I didn’t leave her with, like, nothing. I supported her. She was still my mom, and I wanted to take care of Becca. I just...she was...we couldn’t…” he blinked, determined not to cry another tear over that particular sob story. “She didn’t see it, you know?”

“See what?”

“How bad it was. The drinking,” he spat. “Her fucking kid, right? I was her kid, and I got wasted for the first time when I was nine years old. How fucked up is that? And she just…”

“You were nine?”

“Yeah, but it’s not that uncommon,” he muttered. “Shit’s everywhere in the industry. Booze is like...the least of the problem.”

“Jesus.”

“Coulda been worse,” he muttered. “And, you know, I did end up in rehab, where like...she never once visited me—” Breaking off, he swallowed hard and coughed.

Steve, perhaps sensing how close he was to the edge, shifted the subject. “So how did you end up reconnecting with her?”

"Becca," Bucky said, forcing his voice not to quaver. "I'd always tried to keep in touch with her, best I could. When I moved back here for school, and she was here for work, we started trying to be like...real siblings again. And eventually, she asked if I'd be open to seeing ma."

“And you were?”

“Took me a while,” he said. “And it’s not great. We’ve had a few meals over the years, but I’ve only seen her maybe four, five times, total? Today was uh...this was probably too much to put on one day.”

“I didn’t realize that you saw her so infrequently.”

“Shoulda warned you, like I said.”

“She seemed happy to see you, at least?”

"She always is," he frowned. "You saw how she is. She flutters around me like she's afraid of breaking me, but then she's touching, and she's simpering, and she keeps...it's like she's trying to make up for twenty years of neglect by giving me hugs, and it's not...I mean, too little, too late, right?"

“I’m sorry,” Steve said.

“Yeah, well,” he muttered. “I’m sorry you had to be there for it.”

“Oh, I don’t know. I was told that a Thanksgiving fight was traditional—I feel really connected to the modern-day holiday now,” Steve teased.

That very nearly got a smile out of Bucky, who looked down at the table. “Still,” he said. “Thanks for coming after me. You didn’t have to—”

“Of course I did,” Steve said with a disbelieving laugh. “What am I gonna do? Not follow you?”

“Crossed my mind.”

“Buck, I was only there because of you,” he reminded him. “I’m not gonna sit and poke at the turkey with your family while you freeze on the streets.”

Steve said it so matter-of-factly that Bucky didn’t know how to respond. He’d never had that before. A partner. Someone who unreservedly had his back and was on his side. Someone who wasn’t there for what they could get out of him, but because they liked him. It was a novel concept, being supported. Even Becca, who loved him dearly, always had to play both sides, doing her best to bridge the gap between Bucky and Winnie.

Steve was different. Steve was for Bucky, and Bucky alone. Chasing him out into the street and remembering to bring him his goddamn coat.

“Thanks.” It was all he could manage, his voice cloudy as he cleared his throat once again.

“That actually…” Steve hesitated, a faint flush rising in his cheeks. “I’ve been thinking about that. You and me.”

Bucky’s irrational brain began working overtime, convincing him that this was it. Steve was ending things only seconds after being so kind. Because that was how the universe worked: cruel, callous, and with a nasty sense of humor.

“Oh?” he said, half-strangled.

“Yep,” Steve said, and if he was picking up on the anxiety Bucky was laying down, he didn’t show it. “A lot. I’ve been thinking about...well, if I was going to introduce you to people, how would I do that? Would I say...my friend, Bucky. My pal, Bucky? My buddy, Bucky?”

“Oh.” Bucky blushed, a pleased smile spreading across his face. “You could say uh...boyfriend. If you wanted.”

“Dunno,” Steve teased. “I never had a boyfriend before.”

Bucky snorted. “Likewise. Maybe we should try it on for size. See if it suits us?”

“Yeah, alright,” he agreed. “Making it official.”

“Official,” Bucky said.

It was hard to keep the smiles off their faces when the food showed up, both of them goofily grinning all the way through burgers, fries, and sharing the chocolate milkshake.

 


 

Hours later, when they'd gotten back to his place, Bucky stretched out on the mattress and checked his phone, which he'd been resolutely ignoring since leaving his mother's house, though it had frequently been vibrating.

Ten missed called from Becca, alongside a bunch of texts. Ouch.

 

Bucky are you ok?

Please call me back.

Did Steve find u?

Buddy please call me I’m not mad I’m just worried.

Ok Steve texted so I know ur fine but please call me later.

I love you Bucky and so does Mom I promise.

 

The second-to-last text came as a surprise, and he glanced at Steve, who was crouched by the aquarium, watching Bert eat his dinner.

“Did you text my sister?”

Steve looked over. “What? Oh, yeah.”

“How do you even have her number?”

“Oh,” Steve shrugged. “We swapped during the football game, while you were messing with the biscuits. She was talking to me about this arts charity thing she’s involved with and—”

“You don’t have to do that,” Bucky said quickly. “I’m sorry, she can be pushy.”

Steve laughed and got to his feet before crossing to the bed, where he flopped down at Bucky’s side. “I don’t mind. I like doing stuff like that.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. I spend so much of my life seeing the shitty things people do to one another. Having places to donate time that aren’t a buncha assholes being assholes? I like doing that.”

Bucky had never thought about it that way—he’d always assumed Becca’s endless charity work and foundation board seats were just another way for her to garner publicity and goodwill. Maybe she liked it, too.

“That’s...really decent of you,” he said quietly.

“Maybe,” Steve said, folding his arms behind his head. “I get more out of it than the charities do, honestly.”

“I doubt that.”

He shrugged, before turning his head to look over at Bucky. “Anyway, I texted her while we were walking. Let her know I found you. Did you not notice?”

Bucky vaguely remembered seeing Steve pull out his phone during their long walk, though what precisely he’d been doing hadn’t registered. “Oh. Yeah. I remember.”

“Liar,” Steve laughed. “I hope it wasn’t crossing a line, though.”

“No,” he covered. “It was nice of you. Setting her mind at ease. But don’t uh...don’t talk about me with her all the time, okay?”

“Wouldn’t dream of it.”

“Good.” He clicked the screen off, then on, then off again. “I guess I should call her, huh?”

“Up to you.”

“Jesus. Don’t do that.”

“Do what?”

"Use that tone of voice where you know I'm going to do it anyway, so you stay real passive like you don't care."

“Is that what I’m doing?”

“That’s the same tone!”

“Oh, really?”

“Steve!” he protested, starting to laugh. “Stop!”

“Should I?”

“You’re such a dick.”

“Am I?”

“Fuck off,” he grinned. “I’m calling my sister.”

“Good,” Steve replied. “I think you should.”

“Thank you for your opinion.”

“You’re so welcome, pal, really.”

Steve proceeded to cross his eyes and stick out his tongue, which was so dumb that Bucky had to lean down and bite the meat of his tricep, being as it was all handsomely existing, tucked there behind his head.

“Ow!”

“Shhh! I’m on the phone.”

“Such a jerk,” Steve muttered, moving that handsome tricep to wrap it around Bucky as he placed the call.

Becca answered on the first ring. “Bucky?”

“Hi, Becs,” he said. “I’m—”

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. Just—”

“God, I’m so sorry, Bucky. I shouldn’t have let it go that far. Mama’s just...well, you know how she gets, and…” Trailing off, Becca’s voice hitched, and Bucky felt guilty. None of this was Becca’s fault, and God knew if anyone had suffered the most due to his actions, it had been her.

“It’s alright, Becs,” he said, doing his best to be reassuring. “I shouldn’t have let her get to me. Maybe we can uh, all go for lunch again? Before Christmas?”

Becca waited a moment before responding. "Maybe," she said. "You could bring Steve if you wanted. Mama really liked him."

“He’s a likable guy,” Bucky agreed, ignoring Steve’s pleased little huff at the compliment. “We’ll see, okay?”

“Yeah. Are you at home now?”

“Uh huh.”

“Good. I um. I’m sorry. Again.”

“You didn’t do anything.”

“God, that’s so obnoxious,” she said, a laugh escaping that was closer to a sob. “I know I didn’t. I’m just saying I’m sorry that it happened.”

“Oh, well, forgive me for wanting a little precision in language, Re-bec-ca,” he teased.

“You’re an asshole,” she sniffled, though he could tell she was smiling. “I love you a lot.”

“I love you back,” he said. “Why don’t you come over on Sunday? You can bring bagels.”

“Yes. Definitely. I’ll be there. Tell Steve I said hello.”

“I will. Bye, Becs.”

“Bye, Bucky.”

Steve’s arm tightened around him as he ended the call. Bucky sighed, turning his face against Steve’s chest. “Becca says hello. And she’s gonna come over on Sunday. And bring bagels.”

“So I heard. Lucky you.”

“I think you should stay until Sunday,” he blurted. “I mean uh. Do you want to stay until Sunday?”

Shifting his weight, Steve laughed, low in his throat so Bucky could feel the rumble. “Yes,” he murmured, pressing a kiss to the top of Bucky’s head, breath warming him right down to his toes.

 

Chapter Text

Bucky usually woke up irritable and angry after a bad day—skin too tight, brain too itchy to do anything more than lie in bed, upset with himself for letting things spiral. Sure, the routine had variations, and some mornings-after were worse than others, but the physical manifestations of his anxiety attacks hadn’t changed much since he’d had his first one at the ripe old age of seven and a half.

Which made it all the more surprising when, on the morning after Thanksgiving, Bucky woke clear-headed and calm. No headache, no dry mouth, and (strangest of all) no guilt for what had transpired the day before.

There was only peace as he slowly emerged into the world, Steve’s arms around him, Bucky’s clothed back to his bare chest, both of them breathing evenly, though slightly out of sync with one another. Bucky liked that—knowing they were together and apart all at once, their bodies not wholly in tune but playing the same notes.

Also, there was the fact that Bucky had an erection. Granted, having one in the morning wasn't unusual, and he'd had them before when Steve spent the night, as had Steve. They were inconvenient at best, troublesome at worst. Generally, one of them would scurry to the bathroom to deal with the problem. (Well, Bucky would scurry, furtive and anxious and weird. Steve tended to walk, calmly, and with a sense of purpose.)

But on that morning, Bucky found he didn’t want to scurry. Didn’t want to hide. Didn’t want to be anywhere other than there, warm in his bed with his newly-minted boyfriend. So, ignoring his prick for the time being, he pulled the covers to his neck, burrowing further beneath them as he cuddled closer to Steve, who shifted and tightened his hold.

“G’morning,” came the low rumble, Steve’s voice hazy with sleep.

“Hi,” Bucky replied, words muffled beneath the quilt.

Steve yawped his way into awareness with the most preposterous of yawns, like some great beast wandering out of a cave. Bucky’s great beast, trapped and tamed and just for him. And when Steve’s hands—carefully tucked beneath Bucky’s sternum—slid down towards his belly while Steve stretched his shoulders and popped his neck? Well, Bucky couldn’t help a small shiver.

“Sorry,” Steve murmured, pulling his hands back into position.

“N-no,” Bucky protested before he could stop himself.

Steve hesitated, fingers tensing and flexing. “No, you don’t want me to do that, or no, you don’t want me to stop?”

Bucky, undoubtedly resembling a tomato by virtue of the heat in his cheeks, shrugged. “Don’t stop.”

“Oh.” Steve’s eyebrows had probably lifted off his face and were floating somewhere in the stratosphere.

“I want to um…” Bucky’s voice descended into nothing, the myriad of wants and needs weighing on him dissolving the moment he tried to articulate them.

Steve, infinitely patient, kissed the top of his head. “We can just go back to sle—”

“I’m hard,” Bucky blurted, before turning his face against the pillow and letting out a groan. That could have been more tactful.

Steve didn't say a word, and Bucky wondered if it was possible for him to dissolve into atoms and be carried away on a molecular breeze because what kind of fucking thirty-four-year-old man couldn't deal with a hard-on like a goddamn adult? He ought to want this. Shit, he did want this. But not in a rational way. Not with anything resembling typicality. Only in the way the misfiring neurons of his fucked up head allowed him to want anything—with difficulty, and a million caveats. ‘Ums' and ‘buts' like stones piled on his chest.

“Do you…” Steve began, before clearing his throat. “Do you want me to do something about that for you?”

There was a tiny, traitorous part of Bucky that wanted Steve not to ask. Wanted Steve to kiss him. Take him in hand and bring him to a shuddering end. But Steve wouldn’t—couldn’t—because he was decent and careful, and Bucky was too fucked up for Steve to want him with that sort of passion. It was easy for Steve to be sure and kind to him, because tempering the flames of desire didn't matter when that desire didn't exist.

Oh, Steve liked him, sure. Liked spending time with him. Playing games and kissing and cuddling and all of that. But enjoying someone’s company wasn’t the same as wanting to ravish them. Wanting them body and soul and everything in between.

“Um…” Bucky didn’t have the words. He never had the goddamn words.

Steve huffed out a chuckle, shifting their positions and pressing his lips to the back of Bucky’s neck. “Alright, pal,” he said quietly. “I got you.”

“St-Steve.” It wasn’t a question, nor was it was a request. It was desperation, plain and simple.

“I’m here,” he replied, brushing some hair away from the nape of Bucky’s neck before kissing him again. “Why don’t you show me what feels good?”

Fuckfuckfuck. Bucky squirmed, his cock twitching with interest at the request that his body was choosing to interpret as an instruction to be followed. The gears in his head began to turn as the tiny factory of fuck-yous churned out reason after reason why he shouldn’t-mustn’t-couldn’t let Steve see or feel or know how very much Bucky wanted him. Because God, Bucky wanted him. Had thought of him so many ways—holding him. Touching him. Knowing him.

“Please?” Steve said, his lips barely ghosting across Bucky’s skin. “I want you to show me what you like, Buck.”

It was the ‘Buck’ that did it. It was always the Buck—but then, Steve probably knew that. Bucky gave a shaky nod, exhaling forcefully and closing his eyes before sliding his hand below the waistband of his sweats. Beneath his boxers. All the way to bare skin and shit, having Steve there was better.

The first tentative touch made him twitch, giddy from the sheer fucking novelty. Of being in his bed, Steve behind him, knowing just what he was doing to himself. Wanting him to do it. Holding him tighter when he did, fingers flexing against Bucky's stomach in a way that made his breath hitch, hand gripping his shaft, squeezing just to the right side of painful.

Conscious of every heartbeat, Bucky began to move his hand. He should have spit first, but then Steve would have heard him do it. Still, he was worked up enough that there was some moisture to spare. The room was so quiet. Too quiet! All he could hear was their breathing. The sound of his fist on his cock. The rhythmic movement of the bedclothes shifting and the rushing in his ears when Steve began kissing his way down Bucky’s right shoulder, nosing the material of his hoodie out of the way as best he could. It was only when he’d gone as far as he was able that he came back to kiss and nip at the skin below Bucky’s ear.

Bucky trembled, squinching his eyes shut and slowing his fist, determined to calm down. Because he wasn’t, he wasn’t, he wasn’t going to shoot off so quickly after starting. No matter how good it felt. No matter how much a part of him wanted it to be over quickly because it was challenging to have so very much focused on him.

“S’hot in here,” he mumbled, sweat beading on his forehead. It wasn’t, but he was wearing a lot of clothes, so heat was relative.

“Let’s lose a layer,” Steve said. For one, horrifying moment, Bucky thought he meant clothes. Shirts and pants and nope, nope, nope. But he only meant the quilt and the sheet that had trapped them.

Steve kicked the bedding towards the bottom of the bed with such force that it got Bucky laughing, and he tugged his hand from his pants because it felt undignified to be holding onto his dick while also getting the giggles.

“What?” Steve asked, poking his index finger into Bucky’s side.

“Hey!” Bucky jerked away, laughing. “You’re so fucking...nevermind.”

“That’s what I thought,” Steve huffed, fluffing his pillow and leaning it against the wall before sitting back and spreading his legs. Which was as clear an invitation as Bucky had ever seen. Cuddle right on in here, Bucky. Let me hold you, Bucky. It’ll be fine, Bucky, even if this position gives me a much better angle to see what, precisely, you’re doing to yourself.

“Um.”

“Don’t have to,” Steve said. “Just thought you might be more comfortable like this. Wouldn’t be so hot.”

Bucky chewed on his lip as he thought over the proposition. There were a million scary, debilitating reasons not to, whereas the only reason to do it was because Steve was the one asking.

Which, in the end, made the choice something of a no-brainer.

Settling against Steve's bare chest, Bucky took a moment to breathe, both of them more than aware of the tent in his sweats. Briefly, he considered getting up to retrieve the bottle of lube he'd bought on a whim, but that seemed a step too far. An acknowledgment of something he couldn’t yet admit to himself. A want that was simply too big to want.

So he spat into his palm once more and, feeling very brave indeed, pushed his sweats and boxers down just enough that he was exposed to the cooler air of the room. Steve, no doubt understanding the solemnity of such an occasion, pressed a light kiss to the side of his neck before hooking his chin over his shoulder to watch.

Bucky had no particular technique. No masturbatory tricks, just good old-fashioned friction. As he began to work himself over again, he mostly tried to forget Steve was there. Tried to ignore the sound of his breathing. The feel of his hands resting just below Bucky's ribcage. The weight of his thighs on the outside of Bucky's own.

All the attempted ignorance managed to accomplish, however, was that Bucky’s erection began to flag as he sank further and further into his neuroses.

Steve—no doubt noticing—kissed a line along his jaw, lips scraping against the stubble there. “You’re doing so good, Buck.”

The praise brought Bucky back to himself, a tentative curl of warmth settling in his chest, growing brighter every moment. He didn’t know if he was good—wasn’t even sure if he could be good. But with Steve, he wanted to be.

That time, when he began to stroke himself, Bucky focused on the fact that Steve was there. Present and accounted for and oh, shit. That worked. That really worked, and within a minute or two he was panting, pointing his toes towards the foot of the bed before curling them up tight as his thighs tensed. As was usually the case when he got close to completion, he found himself longing for a left arm—hand, more specifically—to provide a source of secondary stimulation. But then, Steve's fingers tightened their hold, and oh, he'd forgotten. Steve had hands, and Bucky felt too goddamn good to feel a whit of shame for asking.

“Steve—” he whimpered.

“Yeah?” Steve’s reply came low and husky and full of promise.  

“Touch...can you…?”

Steve hesitated for only a moment before his hand began sliding down. Bucky shook his head.

“N-no. Up. Up.”

“Like…” Steve shifted his hold, sliding his hand between the heavy material of Bucky’s hoodie and the lighter fabric of his t-shirt, resting it against Bucky’s chest, which sent Bucky’s hips stuttering right into his fist. “Ohhh. There? That’s good?”

“Yes!”

Steve laughed—albeit kindly, like he’d just figured something out—before pressing another kiss to the place where Bucky’s collar met his skin. He began exploring after that, finding a nipple and fu-huck, Bucky nearly shot out of his skin when Steve circled his fingers around the nub, pinching and prodding until it was stiff and sensitive.

Steve gives Bucky a helping hand, as Bucky gets himself off

That was nearly enough. Bucky trailed off into a series of moans as he chased his climax, though it still proved elusive—the pleasure so pleasing it bordered on painful, taunting him just out of reach. It was only when Steve gave his nipple a not-so-gentle pinch while bringing his other hand up to do the same on the opposite side, that Bucky came with a shout. The fucking miraculousness of the entire encounter overwhelming his bliss as he striped his spend along the bottom of his t-shirt.

The orgasm was better than any in recent memory. It might have been the best he’d ever had, and he continued to shiver as his head stopped spinning and his prick began to soften in his hand. Oversensitive as always, he was torn between curling into a ball and staying tucked against Steve forever and ever. He didn’t want it to be over. Didn’t want Steve to stop touching him.

Steve held him through it, murmuring words of encouragement. “So good. So handsome. Look at you, Bucky.”

It took some time for Bucky to surface from the pleasant post-orgasmic haze. When he did, he realized that Steve’s breathing was coming quick and shallow, his hips moving in slow, rhythmic thrusts because…

Because.

Because oh. Because now that Bucky took a moment to pay attention, he understood that Steve was hard, too. Erring on the side of caution, his movements shallow and teasing, but seeking friction all the same.

Experimentally, Bucky shifted his weight, pressing more of himself back on Steve, pleased when Steve let out a gasping groan.

“Sorry,” Steve managed. “Sorry, Buck. I’ll...go take care of it—”

“No, don’t,” Bucky said. “Keep...keep doing that.”

"Are you sure?" Steve's voice was strained as if it was taking everything he had to be polite. To ask permission. As if Bucky—Bucky!—had driven him wild with want and desire, and now he was having a difficult time controlling his urges. Which was ridiculous, of course. Steve's wants didn't have anything to do with Bucky being Bucky. He was a warm body, and Steve had needs. That was all.

But still. It was a nice thing to imagine.

“Yes, please,” he said, grunting in surprise when Steve moved like a flash, one hand falling to Bucky’s stomach while the other slid between them to arrange fabric and flesh in one fell swoop. Settling his other hand on Bucky’s hip, Steve pulled him back once more and began rolling his hips against Bucky’s backside, his stiff length fitting neatly between the cheeks of Bucky’s ass.

Skin to skin contact. That was new. Bucky's hoodie was rucked up, and his sweats were half down, and Steve wasn't constrained by his boxers, and it was fine, it was fine, it was fine. No scars there. Nothing to panic over because if Steve didn’t care, then Bucky didn’t either.

Steve was big, though Bucky had felt him before, so that came as no great surprise. He was efficient, too, as though he didn’t want to be a bother. Didn’t want to take any longer than was necessary as he thrust, setting a brisk pace, his breathing growing ragged while he held Bucky tight, fingers digging hard into his hip.

Maybe Bucky ought to have felt used. Objectified. Whatever other dehumanizing term people liked to throw around. He didn’t. Instead, he felt in control. Steve, frantic and unbound alongside Bucky, the benevolent warm body.

It was a nice thought. A nice thing to want to be, and Bucky luxuriated in the notion that he was wanted for the scant few minutes he had before Steve came with a grunt, giving no particular inclination it was about to happen until it did. He moaned Bucky’s name, and then there was something warm and wet flooding Bucky’s lower back.

Steve’s hips continued to frot against Bucky’s body until he was spent, and only then did he manage a laugh, tucking his forehead against the crook of Bucky’s neck. “Shit,” he muttered. “Shit, Buck.”

Bucky concurred with the sentiment, sighing and leaning his head against Steve’s. “Good morning.”

That made Steve snort, and he bit the soft skin of Bucky’s neck before beginning to disentangle them. Bucky felt the slide of his not-so-stiffness as he pulled away along with the slickness of the cooling mess he’d left in his wake.

“Uck,” Bucky said eloquently.

“Yeah,” Steve agreed. “You got it front and back, huh?”

Precise jizz placement on his third-favorite hoodie wasn’t really Bucky’s most pressing concern, and the sheer absurdity of it struck him as hilarious. So, he began to laugh, which set Steve off, which was just about the second best way he could think of to start the morning right.

It took some time for them to recover, mostly because the moment one of them stopped laughing, the other would start up again, creating a vicious cycle that had Bucky holding his stomach and feeling trapped between hysteria and (possibly) puking.

“Shit, Steve, stop,” he protested. “I gotta...I gotta feed Bert!”

“Gotta get all that spunk off your shirt, too,” Steve replied.

Steve.”

“What? Am I lying?”

Bucky pursed his lips, doing his best to appear put-out. “If my turtle dies of starvation, I’m blaming you.”

“Yeah, he’s wasting away,” Steve said, leaning in to kiss those pursed lips. “I gotta piss. You feed Bert, and if you’re real nice to me, I’ll let you have the first shower while I make you breakfast.”

“By make, do you mean you’re gonna go buy a couple bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches from the bodega?”

“By a couple, do you mean ten?”

“Yup,” Bucky replied, relieved at the rate normalcy had resumed. He’d forgotten that—how intimate intimacy could be. How you could fall apart in front of someone, allow them to witness your most vulnerable, exposed self, and then five minutes later be musing the mundane.

“Perfect,” Steve said, giving him one more kiss before making his escape into the bathroom.

Bucky stood as well, hauling up his sweats and catching a glimpse of himself in the dresser mirror, doing a quick twist to survey his state of dishabille. Which, it wasn’t really dishabille. Just low riding sweats and a head of tousled hair. But as he looked himself over, he felt almost sexy. Or at the very least someone who could be sexy. A person who had sex sometimes. Was sex adjacent. Had moved into the neighborhood of sex with a mortgage rather than a lease.

Casting a furtive glance at the closed bathroom door, he reached back to touch the wet spot Steve’s spunk had left on his back. Unable to resist a quick taste (which he recognized was fucking weird, but shit, he was a fucking weirdo), he discovered Steve tasted like a whole lot of nothing—salty, kind of bitter, but nothing offensive or strange. Bucky could get used to that taste. Could see himself maybe wanting to get a whole lot more acquainted with how Steve tasted. One day. Eventually.  

A day when Steve would put him on his knees. Touch his cheek and tell him to open his mouth. A day when Steve would praise him and whisper that he was just as good at sucking cock as he was at jerking himself off and—

Jesus. Being sex adjacent was a can of worms. Opening up a whole world of possibilities in his mind. Things and thoughts he hadn’t allowed himself to have for years, so convinced had he been that there was no-one in the world who would want him.

Funny, how Steve made so many things seem allowable. Attainable. Normal. Normal to want, normal to fantasize. Normal to indulge in the sorts of thoughts that, as a kid, had made him feel different and strange and wrong.

It wasn’t wrong. It wasn’t anything other than what he wanted, and what he wanted wasn’t so bad.

“Bert looks hungry.” Steve’s voice came from behind him, tone teasing as he leaned against the doorframe of the bathroom with a washcloth in hand.

How about that—Bucky had been so lost in his thoughts he hadn't heard Steve coming. Instead of feeling guilty or caught out, however, he just grinned. Crossed to Steve and kissed him like he meant it because he did. Because Steve was there, and Bucky liked him, and he was allowed to kiss him anytime he wanted.

“I’ll feed him now,” he said when he pulled back.

“Clean up first, before it dries,” Steve said, pressing the washcloth into his hands and a kiss to his forehead. “I’ll be back with breakfast in uh—shit, time me. If I’m not back in twenty, you can uh…”

“Go first in Monopoly?”

“Yeah, that,” Steve agreed, giving him one more quick kiss on the nose before going to get dressed.

Bucky hesitated for a moment, turning to watch Steve as he retrieved his sweater, wanting to say something, but not knowing quite what.

“Hey, Steve?” he began. Spontaneity wasn’t his strong suit, but he was trying it on for size.

Steve, who had just pulled the sweater over his head, hair sticking out every which way from the static, glanced over with a smile. “What?”

“I um. Thanks. For that.”

Face splitting into a grin, Steve was back across the room in three long strides. “Pal,” he said, tipping Bucky’s chin so he could give him a proper kiss. “It was my absolute pleasure.”

 

Chapter Text

Steve hardly realized he was whistling, so ingrained was the habit. Second nature, whenever he was feeling especially happy, or relaxed, or content. Which meant he didn’t whistle often , but when he did, it was welcome. The ability had been one of the few genetic gifts passed down to him from his mother, and while his weak lungs had prevented him from being a great whistler, he’d always been able to trill his way up and down a tune when he wanted to.

He’d been whistling a lot lately.

The fact that Bucky had asked him to stay until Sunday? That meant whistling while he ran home for things like a toothbrush and a change of clothes. Which was how he ended up on the elevator when it stopped on Wanda and Pietro’s floor. Unsure of which twin he might find waiting, he smiled when he saw Wanda’s familiar face.

“What’s that song?” she asked as she stepped inside.

“What song?”

“The one you were whistling.”

“Oh,” Steve shrugged. He hadn’t been fussed about the tune, defaulting to a standard—one of his mother’s favorites. “Charmaine.”

“It is very cheerful,” she said.

“Guess so.”

“Mmm.”

Wanda was rarely coy. Steve nudged her shoulder. “What?”

“Nothing!” she hesitated. “Only...did you have good turkey?”

That made him snort. “Sure,” he said. (So what if he’d only had two bites before the entire afternoon had gone to shit?)

Wanda turned her head, squinting at him in that way she had—the one that made him wonder whether her mind reading was just something she did when the situation called for it, or if she was somehow always attuned to the emotions of her teammates and just too polite to call attention to it. “Tony and Pepper had food for us,” she said. “I was on my way up to eat some of the leftovers. Would you like to join me?”

“I uh.” Steve cleared his throat. Wanda didn’t even need to read his mind, considering he was incapable of keeping any damn thing off his face. “I’m not staying.”

“Oh,” Wanda said, smile widening. “I see.”

“I. Yeah.” Mercifully, they’d reached his floor, the doors sliding open. “I will be back on Sunday. And I have my phone.”

“Yes, I am sure that you do,” she said. “Please tell your friend I said hello.”

“Will do,” Steve said, stepping out.

The last thing he saw before the doors closed was Wanda making a kissy face. Funny. Hilarious, really. A regular comedian in their midst—she and Pietro ought to take their show on the road.

Let her insinuate. Hell, let them all insinuate. They would be wrong every time, because it wasn’t sex. Or, it wasn’t sex in the traditional manner—how most people would define it with the clothes off, boots knocking, hay rolling, etcetera, etcetera. Steve didn’t care. What had transpired between himself and Bucky hours earlier had been better than any intimacy he’d had known before. He’d spent every minute since then committing to memory each gasp and moan Bucky had made. All the ways he’d fallen apart—everything he’d requested of Steve, and everything he’d done for his own pleasure.

Bucky was the sexiest goddamn thing Steve had ever seen, and he only hoped that Bucky could see it, too.

As he headed for his bedroom, Steve discovered that his quarters had been cleaned since the last time he’d been home, which never failed to disconcert him. When he’d first moved in, he’d refused the service, only to be guilted into acceptance when his less-than-stellar dishwashing habits had resulted in a mouse problem. He didn’t mean to be messy, it just happened. Something about focusing on the big picture and missing the finer details.

These days, he was doing a better job of picking up his clothes, at least, though it was a small mercy that he didn’t have to do the laundry.

If he and Bucky ever lived together, Bucky would discover what a slob Steve was. Hell, it wasn't just being a slob—he'd find out what an utter galoot Steve could be in many departments. Eating entire jars of peanut butter while standing over the sink. Hoarding food in the pantry, even when it was several months (years) past its expiration date. The fact that he generally didn't use shampoo, preferring to lather his hair with soap to save a buck, though he had bucks going spare.

They might fight about it—a real domestic dust-up. A clattering of cohabitation. Just like the ones Steve had overheard on occasion while sitting on the fire escape of his building with a sketchpad on his lap. Mr. and Mrs. Buckley next door were the usual culprits, each with a litany of complaints about the other. Their fights tended to end with either a slammed door or muffled laughter as they took care of whatever it was that had troubled them with good humor. Steve had been obsessed with eavesdropping on their small intimacies, imagining what it might be like to have someone he cared about enough to squabble with.

Now, he had Bucky until Sunday, and the very idea of that sustained him as he packed a bag with enough clothes to get him through the weekend. He whistled all the way down to the garage, where he hopped on his bike and headed downtown.

 


 

Weeks passed in a blur of dates—dinners and movies and games and spending time together. December dawned bright and cold, Christmas drawing ever closer, and Steve was spending any spare moment he could find with Bucky.

He couldn’t pinpoint precisely when it happened, but at some point, the invisible line of what Bucky would and wouldn’t engage with when it came to the world was crossed. The first time it happened, he asked to accompany Steve to the bodega. Then the grocery store. Then to the very same cafe where they’d had their ill-fated not-quite first date. Granted, Bucky only ever came along in a baseball cap and a giant, puffy coat with a hood that hid ninety-eight percent of his pretty face, but Steve didn’t mind. He was grateful for the company.

It wasn’t as though Steve was some miracle worker—Bucky didn’t like going out, but he was capable of it when life necessitated his leaving the house, whether that was going to the library or meeting with his advisor. Those required outings, however, were considerably different from requests, and Steve couldn’t help the pride he felt whenever Bucky asked.

Take, for example, the afternoon of the twenty-first of December, when Bucky rose from his desk and came up behind Steve in the kitchen, butting his head right into the dip between his shoulder blades.

“I can’t find anything,” he complained.

“In general?” Steve teased, setting down his knife before turning to wrap his arms around Bucky’s waist. “In life? In the universe? In—”

“For Christmas. For Becs.”

“Oh.” Being as Christmas was a mere four days away, that was a problem. Granted, Steve hadn’t bought anything for Bucky, either, which was a fine kettle of fish. But there was time—four whole days! He’d find something. “I’m sorry, pal.”

“Let’s uh, can we go to the market thing? The holiday market? They have artsy shit. She’ll love it.”

“I don’t know what that is. But sure.”

“It’s in Union Square,” Bucky replied, pulling at the hem of Steve’s sweater. “It’s pretty dumb, but she’ll be like...oooh, artisanal elderflower macramed coasters, Bucky, thank you.”

Steve smirked, digging his fingers into Bucky’s sides to watch him squirm. “Thrilling. Try not to sound so excited about buying your sister a present.”

“What? It is dumb...hey, quit! That tickles.”

“So? It’s supposed to.”

“So, you’re an asshole.”

“Heard that one before.” He kissed the tip of Bucky’s nose, easing up on the tickling as he rubbed a circle against his hip. “Let’s go.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

Steve couldn’t help laughing at the surprised expression on Bucky’s face—as if Steve was the hermit between the two of them. The likelier explanation was that Bucky was already getting worried about being seen in public together. It happened every time they went out, that tiny panic that threatened to send him spiraling. Steve wasn’t sure what to do to get him over it, other than taking every available opportunity to show him that yes, in fact, Steve did want to be seen with him. (Truthfully, Steve wanted to go door to door and tell everyone in all five boroughs that he was head over heels for the schmuck in the puffy coat.)

It took a bit of puttering and pottering before they were ready to go, Steve in his trusty navy peacoat and Bucky swaddled in his security blanket. Lucky for him, there had always been plenty of weirdos in New York City—that much was a constant through all the long years of Steve’s life—so Bucky didn’t come across as all that out of the ordinary. Anywhere else in the world outside of Antarctica, though? Overdressed at best.

Union Square was a short walk, and while the market was bustling, it wasn’t suffocatingly crowded. The stalls were arranged in a warren-like labyrinth, with homemade goods alongside corporate sponsored ‘fun zones’ which scratched the peevish little itch in Steve’s brain that thoroughly resented the crass consumerism and corporations-are-people mentality of the modern age.

Poor Bucky had already been subjected to that particular rant on multiple occasions, however, so he let it lie.

“What kinda stuff does Becca like?” Steve asked as they turned a corner, wandering between a stall selling preserves and one selling knock-off ushankas lined with bright pink faux fur.

“Weird shit,” Bucky replied. Truly illuminating.

“I’ll keep my eyes peeled for that.”

“I’ll know it when I see it,” he declared emphatically, giving a wide berth to a long line of people waiting for hot chocolate. Bucky might have been getting more adventurous with leaving the house, but crowds were never going to be his thing. Steve could appreciate that—a teeming crush set his teeth on edge, too, although he’d been forced to get used to it over the years.

“Alright,” he said, squeezing Bucky’s gloved hand. “And if you see anything you want for yourself, let me—”

“Oh wow,” came a voice to their right. “Oh my gosh. I’m really sorry to bother you, but can I get a picture?”

Being as Steve was closest to the voice, and Bucky looked like a blanket with eyes, Steve assumed the request was meant for him. Plastering a pleasant smile on his face, he turned to find a tourist—college-aged girl in a fuchsia parka—looking up at him with a gobsmacked, reverent expression.

“Sure,” he said, releasing Bucky’s hand with another reassuring squeeze as the girl fumbled with her phone. Bucky disappeared while Steve took the picture, and as often happened with those things, the first request led to a second, then a third, folks realizing who he was and beginning to react accordingly. It ended up being ten minutes before Steve could scurry away with apologies. That was usually how it happened—relative anonymity until he was spotted by that first person, then a deluge. He didn’t think he’d ever understand it, but he could empathize with those who asked, so long as they did it politely. If it had been him, he supposed, and he’d been given the opportunity to shake hands with Cary Grant or Myrna Loy, he probably would have taken it.

And, hell, they weren't bothering Bucky, and it was the holidays. Steve could indulge them for a while. Still, as he walked away, he tugged his hat down lower on his forehead, slipping between two stalls to lose the crowd.

It took him a minute to find Bucky, keeping to the shadows until he saw the familiar black lump standing in front of a stall that sold glass sculptures, handmade by an artist who lived upstate (according to the sign). Stepping behind him, Steve put his hand on Bucky’s shoulder and lowered his voice so only Bucky could hear.

“Sorry,” he murmured.

Bucky shrugged, unbothered as he turned to look at him, a grin lighting up his whole face. “How cool are these?”

The sculptures were cool. Each piece had a calm center, like a teardrop or a mushroom cap, before the glass began to spin out in wild, nonsensical patterns. Some were undulating waves, while others were a mass of twisted fractals, the shards looking sharp enough to cut. The style reminded him a bit of Chihuly, whom he’d recently discovered, but wilder and angrier than the organic smoothness of that work.

“They’re fascinating,” he said. “Which one do you think Becca would like?”

“Um...that one,” Bucky said, pointing. “The ballerina? She took dance lessons when we were little.”

Steve studied the piece he’d pointed to. It was one of the larger sculptures on display, with a coral pink core that very much resembled a ballerina holding a stationary position. Trapped for eternity in a glass vortex with the distinct texture of a brittle tutu.

“I can see the dancer,” Steve agreed. “My friend Nat, she was a dancer, too.” Steve’s rudimentary knowledge of the form, in fact, had come from Nat teaching him some basic movements to improve his agility, plus a deep dive into Degas he’d done on a whim.

“Oh,” Bucky shrugged. “If you’d rather g-get it for her, instead…”

The ceding of the gift with such immediacy took Steve by surprise, and he frowned, tightening his grip on Bucky’s shoulder. “Absolutely not. You’re getting it for Becca. Why would you—?” Stopping himself before he pushed too much, he turned to the vendor. “How much for this one?”

The vendor—not the artist, but her husband, determined to tell their life story—named the price. Steve hid his wince. It was fair, considering the beauty of the artwork, but the number initially struck him as astronomical. He was pretty sure he would never stop boggling over how much inflation had influenced the century.

Bucky, on the other hand, didn't even blink before pulling out his wallet and handing over a credit card. Because Bucky had money and plenty of it. He just chose never to spend it on himself while being unfailingly generous to those around him. Steve loved that about him, while also wishing he'd allow himself occasional indulgences. A desk chair that didn't hurt his back, maybe, or seeing a goddamn doctor about his arm.

It took some time for the man to wrap, box, and bag the sculpture, ensuring that there was no chance for the glass to break. Once it was ready, Bucky took the bag, and they turned to go.

“I’m already regretting this,” he grumbled, leaning against Steve’s arm.

“Why’s that?”

“Heavy.”

“Oh for heaven’s—” Steve snorted, reaching for the bag. What was the use of super strength if you couldn’t occasionally carry your boyfriend’s package? And that wasn’t even a euphemism.

“Thanks,” Bucky said, moving to Steve’s opposite side so he could hold his hand.

“Welcome. How you doing? Cold?”

“Not really.” Which, considering his outfit, made sense. “But I think we can be done.”

“Are you hungry?”

“Kinda. Want to go to Starbucks?”

“Nope,” Steve said immediately, shaking his head. For reasons that had seemed noble at the time, he had an entirely self-imposed moral imperative to never, ever enter a Starbucks. He couldn’t actually remember the reasoning, but what good were obstinate principles if one didn’t stick to them?

“Snob. They have the best bagels in town.”

It took him a moment to realize Bucky was kidding, his stomach dropping to his toes in the interim. “That’s not even funny, Buck.”

“You and my fucking sister,” he laughed. “Come on, we’ll find something that won’t offend your delicate sensibilities.”

“Thank you.”

“Or dislodge the stick up your ass.”

“Ya know what…”

They snipped at one another all the way to a decent looking deli, where they placed an order for a couple sandwiches to go. There was a television mounted in the corner that was tuned to NY1, showing footage of some glitzy, glamorous event that Steve didn’t really give a shit about.

Bucky, however, was transfixed, his mouth hanging open.

“What?” Steve asked, nudging him.

“Th-th-that.” He cleared his throat. “That’s Alex.”

Steve looked around the deli, fully expecting Alexander Pierce to be sitting at a table, before realizing Bucky meant the screen. By the time he got there, though, the image had changed to a tiny blonde in a short velvet dress, mugging for the camera.

“He was j-just there,” Bucky continued, growing increasingly flustered. “On the c-c-carpet. He’s. Th-that’s okay.”

"Got a Reuben, and a pastrami on rye here!"

The shout from behind the counter made Bucky jump, and Steve frowned before stepping forward to grab their food. He wasted no time, taking Bucky by the hand and getting them out of there, fearful of a panic attack. Steve was in no way ashamed or embarrassed, but he understood just how much Bucky would hate to have a meltdown in public, brought on by the mere acknowledgment of Alexander Pierce’s existence.

Steve still didn’t know the full story, the bits and pieces brought to him by Bucky on Thanksgiving adding up to more question than answers. But what he did know was that Bucky had been fine, until he wasn’t, a simple picture on a screen reducing him to a stammering, anxious mess.

And that? That didn't exactly make Steve feel charitable towards Alexander Pierce. Regardless of the circumstances.

The deli wasn't far from Bucky's place, at least, and by the time they made it through the front door of the apartment, Bucky had staved off the worst of his anxiety, going from mute, to muttering, "I'm okay, I'm okay, I'm okay!" again and again, reassuring himself more than he was reassuring Steve.

“I know, Buck,” he said, setting Becca’s gift down on the island before taking Bucky by the shoulders and waiting until he could catch his eyes. “You did good, huh? You want to lie down?”

“N-no.” Bucky shook his head. “L-let’s eat.”

They did, panic quelled for the time being as they unwrapped their sandwiches—Steve helping Bucky when his shaking fingers couldn’t quite manage the paper.

By the time they’d finished eating, Bucky was still wound tight. Steve coaxed him into bed, putting on a movie, which they watched until they fell asleep. Or, rather, Steve fell asleep, and he assumed Bucky would soon follow.

Bucky didn’t, and when Steve woke—around two in the morning, according to the clock—Bucky wasn’t in bed with him. The apartment was dark save for the glow of Bert’s tank and Bucky’s laptop, which had been sitting dark at the end of the bed when Steve fell asleep. At some point, Bucky had gotten up to move it, and now he was sitting at his desk, the blue light of the screen casting an eerie pallor against his pale skin.

“Buck?” he said, which made Bucky jump in his chair, like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. “What’re you doing?”

“Uh.”

Levering himself to his feet, Steve crossed the short distance to the desk and squinted at the screen. There was a video paused on it, the image frozen on Alexander Pierce’s blurry visage. Shit. Of course Bucky hadn’t gotten over it in an evening. Whatever history existed between them, it was becoming increasingly clear just how much sway Alexander still held over his former client.

“Buck,” he sighed. “Come back to bed—”

"He won an award," Bucky said, his voice tremulous and distant as he clicked play. Pierce sprang to life, standing at a podium and holding up a trophy. "It was s-some young H-Hollywood event. They g-gave him an award for l- lifetime achievement.”

“Oh.” Blinking sleep from his eyes, Steve lay a hand atop Bucky’s head, only to have him flinch away at the touch. “Bucky…”

“It’s n-not...I mean. He has achieved? B-but…” Bucky gave a short, maniacal burst of laughter, the sound of it unnatural in the darkened room. “Y-you don’t. I c-can’t—”

“Pal, just slow down and talk to me.”

“Don’t be p-patronizing,” Bucky snapped. Steve took a step back, surprised at the hostile tone. “I’m n-not...h-he’s…”

Unwilling to risk being snapped at again, Steve crossed his arms over his chest and waited for Bucky to continue.

“H-he didn’t even mention me,” Bucky snarled. “I f-fucking...he w-wouldn’t have achieved... lifetime. Without m-me.”

Of all the reactions Steve had expected, rage and jealousy hadn’t been at the top of his list. “Look, Bucky,” he began. “You’re upset. But why—”

“Sttttop,” Bucky snapped, pushing back from the desk and standing, the chair scraping roughly against the hardwood. “Stop f-fucking placating me. You’re—”

Steve, whose temper had mellowed over the years, found himself pushed to the edge of his good humor. Being Bucky’s punching bag hadn’t been in his agenda for the evening, and he wasn’t about to stand in as Pierce’s proxy. “I’m not being placating,” he said. “But I’m trying to understand why the hell you’d be up all night torturing yourself with this bullshit.”

“You don’t g-get it.”

“I guess I get some things,” he said, knowing he sounded weary. “Christ, you haven’t talked to the guy in fifteen years. You’re not even in that world anymore. Why are you letting him get in your head?”

Caught off-guard by the question, Bucky scowled, a million possible responses flashing across his face before, finally, he muttered, “it’s n-not about that.”

“Then enlighten me, pal. I’m all ears.” The moment the words left his lips, Steve wished he could take them back and try again. Soften his tone. Come across compassionate rather than condescending. Gentle rather than judgmental.

Too late for all that. God damn it all. He watched as Bucky’s expression shuttered into something blank and dangerous, his face hiding all traces of the hurt Steve had caused as he turned back to his desk.

“You need to go,” he said, surprisingly calm and even.

“What?” Incredulous, Steve nearly laughed. “Bucky, come on, it’s two in the morning. I’m not—”

Bucky cut him off without words, lifting his fist and slamming it down on the back of the chair. The dull thud of the impact made Steve wince—there was no way it hadn’t hurt, and he could see the tension in Bucky’s spine as it stiffened.

"Fine," Steve said, although it wasn't fine at all. Part of him wanted to fight, though he knew better than to listen to that part. However, he would do what he could to maintain a little dignity—he wasn't about to beg and scrape an apology for doing his best to meet Bucky where he was. Still, that didn't make leaving feel like the right thing to do.

It was what he was asking for, though, and Christ knew Bucky hadn’t had a lot of people respecting his autonomy.

So, Steve went to get dressed, wondering how in the fuck things had devolved so damn quickly. Bucky never moved, standing still as a statue, eyes fixed on the video of Pierce's smug face giving his acceptance speech on a silent loop. Hoping Bucky might change his mind, Steve took his time in buttoning his coat, doing every button before stepping closer to the desk—not touching, because he was reasonably sure Bucky didn't want him to touch.

“You really want me to go?” he asked, needing to be sure.

Bucky nodded, twisting his head to the side, just in case he accidentally caught Steve’s eye.

“Alright,” Steve sighed, fingers itching to brush Bucky’s hair away from his shoulder. Itching to be close to him, even as every fiber of his being screamed in frustration. “I’m going on record as saying I don’t like this. And I think you should turn off the computer and go to bed. But...it’s your choice, Buck.”

When Bucky didn’t respond, Steve closed his eyes and counted to five before showing himself out.

“I’ll call you soon,” he said before shutting the door behind him.

As he rode the elevator down to the ground floor, he decided he’d been dead wrong about Mr. and Mrs. Buckley. Fighting was lousy, no matter how you squared it. He could only hope Bucky would take his call.

Chapter Text

Bucky was in bed.

In bed, and safe.

In bed, and safe because the world was outside.

In bed, and safe because the world was outside and Steve was outside in the world.

Bucky had forced Steve into the world, and now Steve wasn't there with him, and that wasn't so safe. Wasn't so...wasn't…

Fuck.

Fuckfuckfuck.

Cracking one bleary eye open, he searched the ceiling for answers and found none. So he struggled to a sitting position, legs splayed and mouth dry as he licked his parched lips, remembering bits and pieces of the early morning fugue state in which he’d fought with Steve.

Remembered sitting at his laptop. Remembered watching Alexander. Remembered Steve telling him not to.

Remembered telling Steve to leave. Fucking fuck, why had he done that? It had seemed the only choice at the time, in the midst of his anger and his frustration. Because Steve didn’t get it. Steve didn’t understand. But how could Steve understand, when Bucky hadn’t told him? How could he know the way seeing Alex there on that screen made Bucky’s throat close, vacuum-sealing itself against the bile that threatened to creep its way up and find its way out. Or the way Alex’s voice brought back so many nights he’d spent drunk and confused, crawling home in tears only to be told what a wreck he was. What a disappointment.

The problem was that Alex was still so very Alex and every part of him was wrapped in every part of Bucky. It wasn’t fair that Steve—who had come into his life and been everything—didn’t know that. Didn’t implicitly understand these fundamental things about Bucky. Couldn’t know, immediately and unreservedly, what it meant to see and realize that Alexander Pierce was in the world and of the world while Bucky remained a ghost.

What time was it? The clock said noon, which meant he'd failed at taking care of Bert, who had crawled onto a rock and was waiting expectantly for his belated breakfast. Wasn't that just like Bucky? Checking the boxes of a spiral one by one.

There was a voicemail on his phone. Bucky ignored it, turning the annoyance off before clambering out of bed. It didn’t take him long to feed Bert and take care of his own basic biology, after which he retreated to his mattress and slept, drifting down deep until dreaming and waking were one and the same.

Time passed. He didn't eat, didn't drink, didn't think. Dark, light, dark again. Hard to tell, though he was reasonably sure it was the third (fourth?) day when he turned on his phone, and it pinged with a text from Steve.

 

Bucky, can you give me a call? I just want to talk.

 

Nope. Couldn’t call. Definitely couldn’t talk, being as he was incapable of opening his mouth to put food in it, which didn’t bode well for the ability to discuss his ever-so-fucked-up feelings with Steve-who-probably-wasn’t-even-his-boyfriend-anymore.

Not his boyfriend, because who would want to be his boyfriend? Who would want to devote so much time and energy to someone who was no more than an insurmountable problem? Climb as high as you can there, Buck-o, but you’re never gonna reach the top. Never gonna get to the summit because summiting implied some measure of accomplishment and there was scant little of that in his life.

So what was the fucking point? Was there a point? He'd worked, and he'd tried, and he'd clung to school and sobriety for what, exactly? To live this nothing life between these four walls, fighting a losing battle against the demons that had plagued him since the first time he'd given into temptation. Bless him, father, and fuck trying. Fuck twelve steps and rehab and making an effort, because Jesus, what did it matter if he drank?

The moment that pernicious little thought entered his brain, he couldn’t dislodge it. Because hadn’t he been happier, at least, when he drank? Hadn’t he been taken somewhere warmer and better where he didn’t stammer? Where he could be charming and funny and not trapped in his own goddamn brain all the time? Shit, if life was so fucking insurmountable—if this was all he could ever hope to achieve—why even bother trying to keep his impulses at bay?  

Every bit of self-resolve and self-control he’d willed upon himself as penance for his sins began to fall away, replaced with a voice that said yes yes yes go go go until his shoes were on his feet, and he was hiding in his coat, standing at a shop counter and forking over money for the cheapest bottle of whiskey they had in stock. He felt like a fucking junkie—sweat on his brow, hand shaking, casting furtive glances at the clerk as though she might somehow figure out that he was throwing away several years of sobriety for this, because fucking what else was he supposed to do?

Bucky noticed every single trash can he passed as he skulked home in the dark, his intelligent mind screaming at him to drop the paper bag into any one of them. To call Becca. Call Steve. Hell, call his mother because anybody and anything would be better than what awaited him at the bottom of that bottle.

Didn’t, though. Went home instead. Threw the bag away and put the whiskey on the countertop, where he sat face-to-face with it, giving himself one final opportunity to say no.

The moment he swallowed the first mouthful of cheap, bitter whiskey, it was over. Any hope of rationality deserted him as the drink burned its way down his gullet, the first swig turning into the second and third until he gagged, slamming the bottle onto the table and stumbling off the stool to dry-heave, throat constricting and stomach spasming as his body rebelled against his base desires.

“Fuck you,” he whispered, forcing his stomach to settle even as he retched twice more.

Standing, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand before retreating to bed with the bottle.

 


 

Bucky woke to a pounding in his skull that was—no, not his skull. The door. It was dark outside, and his mouth tasted like a sock and who the fuck, who the fu

“Bucky!”

Steve? How had Steve...he was gonna...what was…

“Bucky, I’m gonna kick the goddamn door down!”

“Don’t do that!” he shouted back. Rather, that was his intention, but what came out instead was a slurry of garbled complaints, some of them vowel-adjacent.

Still drunk. Still very drunk. But Steve. Why Steve?

His phone was on the mattress next to him, and when he tapped the screen, he saw a litany of anxious texts. He hadn't...texted Steve, had he? No. Wouldn't have done that. Definitely—

The door shuddered in its frame. Jesus. Steve really was going to kick the goddamn door down.

“M’coming,” he managed, struggling to his feet.

Or. Well. Knees. Hand and knees, scrambling for purchase. Couldn’t stand. Crawling was better. It took him twenty-seven years to reach the front door, where he groped for the deadbolts, sliding them back and fumbling for the knob.

Steve. Steve looked like a Christmas tree.

No. Bucky frowned, blinking at him. Steve was a Christmas tree. Was it Christmas? There were antlers on his sweater, and he wasn't even wearing a coat and what? Fuck. Bucky hated this. Wished he could keep a thought in his head for longer than a few fuzzy seconds.

“Oh, Buck,” Steve said, but not like he was disappointed or angry.

“Sorry.” Bucky swayed forward, his forehead landing in the cradle of Steve’s thighs, planted in his hallway like two majestic redwoods. Shit, he smelled good. Steve always smelled good, even when he didn’t smell like much, and Bucky took the opportunity for a long sniff, just in case it was the last one.

“Buck—” Steve said. “Are you uh...drunk?”

Oh! Steve didn’t know! Steve didn’t know he’d gone out and bought a fifth of Fireball. Didn’t know he’d nearly finished the bottle. Didn’t know how badly Bucky had fucked up. Maybe he’d just think Bucky was sick. Maybe he’d never find out and maybe, and maybe—

Bucky puked on Steve’s shoes, the universe doing her level best to remove what tiny shred of dignity he might have been able to salvage.

“Feel bad,” he muttered, spitting the last of what was in his mouth onto the ground, head pounding and ears ringing.

“No shit,” Steve managed. “Jesus Christ.”

Steve's voice was far away. Like he was talking from another room. But Bucky felt better! Barfing. That always helped. Just, so much better. It was—oh, hello, Steve had picked him up and was saying something, but it was hard to hear over the rushing in his ears, so he focused instead on the way Steve's jaw was twitching.

Then, bed. Nothing for a minute before Steve’s voice came again, still distant as he hovered over Bucky, phone pressed to his ear, washcloth in hand so that he could wipe Bucky’s mouth.

“...if it’s alcohol poisoning?”

Bucky licked the washcloth, dehydrated and desperate for something to lessen the taste of vomit in his mouth. “Hi.”

“Hi. No, not you, Nat” Steve said. “He’s lucid, but—”

There was a cup of water at his lips, and Bucky swallowed gratefully, miraculously managing not to choke.

“Thanks,” he croaked.

“Yeah, pal,” Steve murmured, before going back to his phone call. “Are you sure? Alright. I will. Uh huh. Yeah, you too.”

“Whozzat?” Bucky slurred when he put the phone down.

“Nat.”

“She’s...th’ballerina,” Bucky said helpfully. “Steve?”

“What?”

“M’sorry.”

“You’ll be alright,” he said. “Just try and get some sleep, huh?”

“But’ll be here?”

“What?”

Be here.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Steve said. Maybe he was lying, but it was enough to assuage Bucky for the time being, his anxiety finally giving him leave to close his eyes, where he drifted deep and low, calmer than he’d been before.

Until that was, he woke with the hangover to end all hangovers.

Fuck, it was familiar, waking like that. Head throbbing, throat scratched to pieces from the inside, a hard stone pit of sick and disgust in his stomach. It was a morning he’d had a thousand times before, only now, at thirty-four, his body was less capable of coping with his indulgences. He hadn’t been a saint, but the last time he’d gotten bad enough to ruin his progress, it hadn’t felt half so shitty as this.

So caught up was he in his own discomfort that it took him a moment to register the arms around his waist. Blinking his way back to awareness, he remembered Steve. Remembered him banging on the door. Remembered crawling. Remembered—oh fuck him, had he puked on Steve’s shoes?

Doing his best not to wake Steve, Bucky extricated himself from the embrace and clambered to his feet, head swimming and vision blurring but otherwise himself. Ashamed? Yes. Horrified? Sure. But what else was new? He made his way to the bathroom, where he brushed the scuzz from his mouth, spitting and rinsing a half-dozen times before daring to look at himself head-on in the mirror. It was somehow worse than he’d been expecting. Four days without a shower, plus a night of annihilating himself would do that to a guy, though. His hair was a lank, greasy tangle, while his eyes were bloodshot. There was something crusted on his cheek, and he made a face at himself before wiping it away.

Christ, he was disgusting. And he needed a shower, but he genuinely wasn’t sure how much longer he could stay on his feet, so he decided to cut his losses and go back to bed. Upon leaving the bathroom, he found Steve awake and alert, which probably meant he hadn’t been asleep at all when Bucky left him, no doubt pretending that his enhanced reflexes hadn’t been attuned to Bucky’s every stirring.

“Hey,” Steve said in that kind-of-paternalistic way all humans had when confronted with the drunk asshole they’d had to take care of the night before.

“Hi,” Bucky said, leaning against the doorframe of the bathroom and taking in his suspiciously spotless apartment. No booze. No mess. No signs of Bucky’s disastrous string of days.

“Why don’t you come back to bed?’ Steve offered. “You look kinda woozy.”

“Yeah,” he said, worrying his bottom lip between his teeth. “You can go now. I mean, I’ll be fine, so—”

“All due respect, Buck,” Steve said lightly. “But shut up.”

Bucky shut up.

“Way I see it,” Steve continued. “My guy sends me a weird, discombobulated text at one in the morning—on Christmas, mind—I’m gonna stick around and see it through. That alright with you?”

“It’s Christmas?”

“Yes. How about you answer the question?”

“It’s...yes. It’s fine.”  

“Well, then. You better come back to bed.”

Bucky did as he was told, settling in next to Steve, who looked down at him with an enigmatic expression.

“Thank you,” Bucky offered after a moment’s awkward silence.

“You’re welcome. Are you hungry?”

Yes. No. When had he last eaten? “Um…” he shrugged. “Kind of. But nothing too—”

“Pal, you think I don’t know what a fella wants after a night of hard living? Give me some credit. I’m pretty sure I can scramble something greasy.”

“I don’t think I have any—”

“Yes, you do. I had groceries delivered while you were sleeping.”

“But it’s Christmas.”

“I have my methods,” Steve said, which didn’t exactly assuage Bucky’s guilt about the situation. “Merry Christmas, by the way.”

Bucky grunted a reply before turning his face against the pillow. Steve reached out to rub his back a little, though, so life wasn’t all bad.

Steve left him after a minute, and Bucky dozed while the smell of butter and bacon wafted through the apartment. Eventually, Steve came back to bed, nudging him into a sitting position and holding out a plate of not-quite-crispy bacon and scrambled eggs. Palatable. Greasy. Perfect.

“Thank you,” he said, reaching for the plate and pushing some hair from his eyes. “Did Bert…?”

“Fed him when I got here, and again this morning,” Steve replied. “These sheets are disgusting, by the way. I’m changing ‘em for you after we eat.”

“Steve, you don’t have—”

“Buck, I got about two things from my ma I can count on, alright, and one of them is how to take care of people when they’re down. So quit thanking me, and quit apologizing, and eat your goddamn eggs.”

Biting his lip, Bucky hid a smile. “What’s the second thing?”

“What?”

“You said two things.”

“Oh. She taught me how to whistle.”

It was such a Steve thing to say that Bucky nearly laughed, going back to his food. They ate in merciful silence, though once they were through, Bucky did take a minute to call Becca, promising her he was okay, and that they’d do their own Christmas the next day. They didn’t discuss it, but he was pretty sure she was at Winnie’s, and that was a can of worms that most definitely did not need opening.

Steve's mother had taught him well, and he proved adept as a caretaker, sending Bucky off to shower once they were through eating. While Bucky was in the bathroom, Steve stripped the bed and remade it with Bucky's only other set of sheets (identical to the first set, natch) before bundling the dirty ones near the front door. Bucky, meanwhile, showered his way back to some semblance of personhood, and when he stepped out of the bathroom he found that Steve had set the laptop on the folding chair and was waiting in bed with two bottles of water and more greasy, perfect food—which, was that a tray of leftover hors-d'oeuvres? Food delivery, indeed. Bucky just bet he'd had some Avenger out on a middle-of-the-night grocery run and/or liberating snacks from a holiday party.

“Where’d that come from?” he asked as he settled in, only to be struck by a weird memory from the night before. Steve, and a sweater with antlers on it. “Shit, were you at a Christmas party?”

“Holiday extravaganza,” Steve said dryly, tugging Bucky against his side like they hadn’t had a terrible fight less than a week prior. “I had to wear the sweater my friend Wanda picked out.”

“I didn’t mean to take you away from that.”

“I know,” Steve replied, kissing the top of his still-damp hair. “You want to watch a movie?”

Bucky really did, because his head still felt as though a pile of bricks had landed on it, and he couldn’t stop replaying what little he remembered of the evening before on a constant loop in his mind.

So, they watched Bringing Up Baby—Steve’s choice, for once—and it wasn’t until the end that Bucky found his voice.

“I wasn’t f-fair to you,” he began. “The other night, I mean.”

Steve shifted his weight, staying silent.

“So, if you want. I can tell you why…”

“You don’t have to.”

“Yes, I do,” he replied, knowing it for the truth it was. His history, his shame, his secrets. If this thing with Steve was serious, and he very much hoped it was, Bucky was going to have to air some hard truths about himself. Maybe Steve wouldn’t want to be with him after hearing them, but an unfounded well of hope existed within him all the same.

“Alright,” Steve agreed. “You wanna talk, I wanna listen.”

“Want is relative,” Bucky muttered, tugging at the thin cotton of Steve’s t-shirt as he considered where to begin. “You know the show sucked, right? Critics hated it, I mean. But people like...loved it. And they loved me.”

(Which felt like a conceited, shitty thing to say, but it was the truth, and the truth was conceited and shitty.)

“That first season,” he continued. “I don’t remember much. I remember hating it, though. I always hated it. I had to stand there under really hot lights, and someone would feed me a line. I used to hate the way everyone would look at me, and the audience made me feel weird. And like, I guess that showed?”

“What do you mean?”

“Like, the show got super popular in our second season, and I was part of that, but I wasn’t...I was difficult. That’s what they said. And they were threatening to replace me.”

Steve's fingers drummed on his bicep, and he made a low ‘hmm' noise before speaking. "Don't see how they could replace you if you were the reason it was popular."

Bucky scoffed. “I wasn’t the reason. I was a cute kid, that was all. They put me on some magazine covers, I guess, but I wasn’t like...irreplaceable. So my ma freaked out, and didn’t know what to do, because I was making money, and she needed it.”

“How old were you again, when all that was happening?”

“Uh, six, I think? It all kind of runs together in my head. But I remember having tantrums on set. I’d get angry, and I’d cry, or I’d act out, or I wouldn’t say my lines right—”

Steve snorted. “Well, yeah. You were six.”

“No, it wasn’t like...it was bad, okay? And my mother was panicking, plus that was when my dad came out of the woodwork, like I told you before, but then she finds Alex, who was just starting out, but he was already working with a couple of kids on other shows, and everyone said he was like...a miracle worker.”

(He works miracles with kids. Gamechanger. Real lifesaver. Where’s the dotted line for me to sign, says Winnie Barnes.)

“Was he?”

“What?”

“A miracle worker.”

"I mean, yeah? Soon as he got hired, he took me to a doctor who got me on medication so I could concen—"

“Medication for what?” Steve interrupted.

“Uh…” Bucky frowned. “Like, being hyperactive, I guess? Or so I wouldn’t have the tantrums.”

“Hyperactive,” Steve said, skepticism coloring his tone.

“Yes.”

“It’s...huh. You don’t strike me as someone who has trouble with that.”

Bucky blinked and frowned. “Well, not anymore.”

“All I’m saying is, a six-year-old not wanting to stand around while a bunch of grown-ups shine lights on him and shove a camera in his face...that doesn’t strike me as something that needs treatment, Buck. That’s being six goddamn years old.”

“Whatever,” Bucky snapped, feeling itchy under his skin at the implication. “It helped. The doctor and the meds, I mean. Things got really good, actually. I was performing, and they didn’t have any more trouble with me. Alex started getting me other work, which was good for Becca because she started getting some smaller parts in commercials just because of association, you know?”

“Sure,” Steve said.

“And all of that good stuff, that was because of Alex. But like...I messed it up. He got me a movie, some space camp astronaut thing, and that was great. But then they did a sequel when I was nine. And it was the first time I didn’t have my ma with me on set. Becca had to stay in LA for her dance recital stuff, and auditions, so Alex went with me on location instead.”

“Uh huh.”

“They shot it in North Carolina, and it was my first time being around a lot of kids who were my age. And I just...went crazy, I guess. One of the older kids had a party, and that was the first time I ever got drunk.”

“You mentioned that before. At nine.”

“Yeah, but—”

“So this guy, this Alex. He’s supposed to be standing in for your ma, and he lets you—”

“It wasn’t his fault! I was the one who drank, and—”

“You were nine!”

“Steve!”

“Bucky! I don’t think I’m being unreasonable here.”

“You don’t get it.”

“Pal…” Steve sighed. “Believe me. I’m trying.”

“I wanted it. I chose it. Shit, I liked it. And in that industry, it was easy for me to uh...you know. Get what I wanted. I was famous, and I had access, and I…” he shrugged. “Alex kept trying to fix it. He’d take me to doctors, and they’d try different medications, but nothing—eventually I was only able to get the job done when I was drinking, and I had to...I kept showing up. I had to take care of my family.”

Steve didn’t say a word, though there was a tension in his arms as his fingers flexed.

"When the show ended, I was a fucking mess, because like...I didn't know how to do anything else. That was when my ma went nuts, threatening Alex. She was desperate for money, and she wanted me to do all these stupid movies, but Alex thought I should try something new to like...transition me into more grown-up roles."

“And they both knew you were drinking?”

“Yeah, but Alex...he wanted to check me into rehab, quietly, so nobody would know. But my ma was the problem. She kept insisting that I didn’t need it, that I needed to keep working—”

“She said that?”

“Yeah, I mean—” Bucky blinked, thinking it over. He’d been living with Alex by the time things had gotten that bad with Winnie, and he hadn’t really been speaking to her much. Messages had been relayed by Alex, mostly, or occasionally through Becca, whenever Bucky could get her on the phone without Winnie being at home. “Alex thought she was holding me back from uh...he always said I wasn’t achieving my potential, you know? So, like, we filed for the emancipation, which just made sense. I’d been living with him for a while, and—”

“And so once you were emancipated, he got you into rehab, like he’d wanted to?”

“I—” Bucky frowned. “No, because there was the record deal, and—”

“You said,” Steve said gently. “That your mother was the obstacle keeping Alex from getting you help.”

“Yeah, I know, but—”

“Bucky, this guy—”

“He tried, alright?” Bucky snapped. “I was so fucking gone by then...Alex tried everything. He could see where things were going with me, and he thought maybe the music would be a distraction. Shit, if I’d listened to him, maybe—”

“Did you like it?”

“What?”

“Any of it? The music, the acting? Did you enjoy it?”

“Not...no. But it’s...that’s just stage fright.”

“That’s more than stage fright,” Steve said, voice strained.  

“The music wasn’t…” Bucky sighed, shaking his head. “Alex thought that if I got some albums under my belt, made the switch from pop to like...harder-edge stuff? That he could get me some adult roles after that. Like, toughen my image and shit. But then, you know, I fucked it up.”

The meltdown in front of thousands, passed around on peer-to-peer services during the early days of the Internet and later immortalized on YouTube for anyone to see. A sad, joke of a cautionary tale, Bucky proclaiming his sexuality to the world and humiliating his faux-girlfriend in the process. Christ, he probably owed her an apology, too.

“Alex dropped me as a client, after that. He said he couldn’t stand to watch me waste my potential.”

“Christ,” Steve snorted.

"I had...I screwed so much up, Steve. I spent the next couple of years just...it doesn't matter. And then when I was eighteen, one night I...I was desperate, and I'd heard through the grapevine that Alex was having a party for this kid he'd just signed. This smug-faced dick kid named Brock, and—"

“Rumlow?” Steve said, sounding surprised.

“Yeah,” Bucky muttered. “And if you’ve heard of him, that just goes to show how good Alex is at his job when he’s not managing the world’s biggest headcase.” Because Brock Rumlow, having established himself first as a nu-metal wunderkind teen idol, had gone on to great respectability as a serious actor before making the turn to directing. He’d won his first Oscar two years earlier and had thanked Alexander Pierce in his acceptance speech. That had been the last time Bucky drank.

“Bucky—”

“When I got there, to his house, he wouldn’t even let me inside,” he managed, his voice beginning to shake as the remembrance of the shame he’d felt that night crept up his spine. “He said I was pathetic, and Christ, I know I was, but fuck. The way he looked at me—" he laughed, though it came out a sob. "I left. I remember leaving, but that's the last thing I remember. I woke up in the hospital two days later, and my goddamn arm was gone."

“Jesus.”

“Which, I know I was being so stupid. Of course, he’s not going to like, let me in when I’d just embarrass him, but I got upset, because—”

“Because he was fucking profiting off your misery?”

Steve’s voice came out a snarl, and it was only then that Bucky realized how angry he was. More than angry, he was furious, his body trembling with barely suppressed rage.

“What?” Bucky said, because where the hell had Steve gotten that? “No—”

“Can I tell you a story?” Steve said, his voice pitched dangerously low as he pulled away enough that he could look Bucky in the eye. “My story’s about this kid who didn’t have anybody on his fuckin’ side. Who got chewed up and spat out by the person whose job it was to take care of him. And—this is the part I can’t get over—who was convinced by that same person that it was his goddamn fault.”

“Nobody was forcing me to do anything—”

“Christ, Bucky. There’s more than one way to force a man’s hand.” Steve swallowed, his voice thick. “Christ. That son of a bitch let you drive away knowing full well you shouldn’t have been behind the wheel.”

“He was having a party, and I was—”

“I don’t give a good goddamn if he had the Pope over!” Steve shouted, voice rising for the first time as Bucky shrank back. “Sorry. Shit, sorry, Bucky. I shouldn’t yell, but Jesus. This guy’s not—he’s not looking out for you. He never was. And I’m sorry as shit for what happened to you, but it did happen to you. Not because of you. And you gotta start putting some of that blame where it belongs, pal.”

Bucky looked down at his lap, frowning. “It’s not his fault. Addiction’s...it’s a disease. I was hurting him every time I fucked up.”

“Hurting his wallet, more like,” Steve muttered.

“That’s not fair!”

“Isn’t it?”

“You don’t know him.”

“No, I guess I don’t,” Steve said, before lifting his hand to take Bucky’s chin, pressing his thumb against the dimple there. “But I do know you. And I don’t see how the Bucky I know squares with the kid in that story you’re spinning for yourself. But if we’re not gonna agree on whose fault it was—and let me be real clear that it was Alex, not you—then I think we ought to at least figure out a way forward. I don’t want to fight with you anymore.”

“I don’t want to fight, either,” Bucky replied, relieved beyond measure at the promise of a resolution.

“But I want to make something else clear, Buck, and I know you’re gonna fight me on it, and that’s alright.”

“What?”

“I’m on your side. In your corner. Whatever you wanna call it. I’m not calling in favors, and I don’t want anything from you except you. I’m here for you, is all I’m saying. For you, with you, whatever you need.”

Bucky couldn’t help the smile that crossed his face, biting his bottom lip as he mulled that over. He wasn’t sure Steve could live up to that promise, not because Steve wasn’t a good man, but because Bucky was a difficult one. He was going to try to be better, though. No more drinking, no more spirals. He could be better for Steve. “Not gonna fight you on it. But…”

“But what?”

“It’s kinda cheesy.”

Steve gave a sharp laugh and leaned in to kiss him. “You’re kinda cheesy.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Bucky laughed, relieved for the broken tension and the return of some normalcy. “Missed you.”

“Now who’s cheesy? Missed you back.”

Bucky smiled and leaned in for a kiss, pushing away the disconcerting thoughts Steve had woken in him as he focused on fixing what their fight had threatened to break in two. Those thoughts, however, stayed with him as the day wore on, and continued to churn in his head throughout the week between Christmas and New Year’s.

Because Alex had sent him away. Alex, who purported to care for him. Who had always said he wanted what was best for him. Alex had seen him at his worst and most desperate and had turned his back, while Steve had seen him at his worst and taken him as he was.

Maybe Alex's treatment was no better than Bucky deserved, and Steve was merely sainted, but the more Bucky turned the thought over and over in his head, he began to put himself in Alex's position. If, if, if he’d been Alex, and the person asking for help had been Steve? Or Becca? Or even his mother?

He wouldn’t have turned them away, and he sure as shit wouldn’t have allowed them behind the wheel of a car.

 

Chapter Text

New Year’s resolutions were complete bullshit. Those who resolved proved no more resilient than the first month of the year allowed, inevitably dragged down by reality and its tripwires. People, those stagnant lumps, were eternally resistant to change, clinging to their habits like lifelines, all the while proudly proclaiming that this was the year they were going to lose those last twenty pounds, or give up smoking, or write that book.

Despite his dim view of resolutions, however, Bucky headed into January with remarkable optimism. Steve had seen him at his worst and had stuck around anyway. Hadn't run back to his tower and his friends. Hadn't left Bucky and his problems for some plainclothes partner—someone who maybe was still a secret agent, but didn't have meltdowns and anxiety attacks. Normal.

No, Steve was sticking around, for better or for worse, and Bucky had resolved it would be better. He would be better.

Riding that wave of hope, he reached out to his advisor—a scary smart woman who insisted her advisees just call her Paige—early in January and scheduled an in-person meeting. Sure, he could have emailed her his new pages, but there was something about a face-to-face discussion that almost (almost!) appealed. Hell, he’d accomplished something over the past few months, tapping and typing away while Steve lounged nearby. Even if what he had to say was jangled and disjointed, it was more than he’d produced in quite some time.

(“Does this make any sense?” he’d asked Steve on January 3rd, pointing to a paragraph on the relative importance of adjectives in the particular passage he was quoting.

Steve had read the words with a squint, before kissing the top of Bucky’s head. “Yes.”

“Are you lying?”

“No. I’m sure that if I understood what the hell you were talking about, it would make complete sense.”)

As it happened, his advisor was out of the country until February—something about a scholarly sabbatical in Siberia—which Bucky might have known if he’d spoken to her more than once in the past six months. Buoyed by his January momentum, he continued to write as the date approached, all the while spending time with Steve, seeing Becca when she was in the city, and on certain occasions going out on his own for various and sundry small things.

On the day of the meeting, he rose early, showered, and headed to his advisor’s office with what might have been termed a spring in his step, save for the fact that he hated that expression more than Steve hated doing the dishes. Paige’s office was located within the small clump of buildings that might have been termed NYU’s main campus, if NYU had a campus—it was more like a sprawling, tentacled monster, buying up real-estate throughout the city.

After greeting Paige and stumbling through the initial pleasantries, Bucky got down to the business of his dissertation, showing her his new pages and waiting as she glanced through them. She was thrilled with his progress—more than Bucky had anticipated, and when she said something about how he was very nearly done with that first version, he clammed up and began stammering his way through a series of protestations about how no, he wasn't, and how there was still s-s-so much work to do.

“All I’m saying,” she cut in. “Is that you’ve got a decent first draft here.”

“N-nearly,” Bucky said, shaking his head. He wasn’t done, couldn’t be.

“Nearly,” she agreed. “But if you’re striving for perfection, James, you’ll end up disappointed. At a certain point, you have to let that go.”

Bucky tugged on the strings of his hoodie, the material bunching around his neck as he considered her words carefully. “S-so, if it’s...what next?”

“I can read through the whole thing,” she said. “Give you feedback, if you want it.”

“That’s. Yeah. That’d be good.”

“Excellent. And then, you can start revising. That’s the hard part—could take years.” She said the last bit with a teasing lilt to her voice, and for the first time in as long as he could remember, Bucky took the teasing in stride. She wasn’t making fun of him, not really, and he found himself smiling in return.

“Thanks. Should, c-can I keep researching in the meantime?”

“If I said no, would you stop?”

“No.”

“Then I encourage you to do as much as you like.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Was there anything else you wanted to talk about today?”

“N-no. I’m. It’s good. Uh. Thank you.” Bucky rose to his feet, the plastic chair giving a creak of protest. “It was g-good to see you.”

“You, too,” she said. “Congratulations on finishing the first draft.”

Offering her a smile, Bucky made his exit as gracefully as he could, taking the elevator down to the sidewalk where he let out a breath that was half a laugh. Shit. He felt good. Like sort of...happy? Warmth in his chest? Pride in his accomplishments? What the fuck. What the fuck.

Riding that wave wherever it might take him, he pulled out his phone to text Steve.

 

Hi. :) Busy?

 

The reply wasn’t instantaneous, and Bucky was halfway home before he got a response.

 

Nothing I can’t find a way out of. What’s going on?

 

Bucky looked around, his eyes settling on a Chinese restaurant.

 

Want to do lunch?

 

A faster reply:

 

Sure. I can pick up sandwiches on my way over.

 

Bucky grinned.

 

Nah. I’m out. You can meet me somewhere. I’ll drop a pin.

 

Never before in his life had Bucky needed to drop a pin. First drafts, dropped pins, it was a red letter sort of day. (He only hoped Steve knew how pins worked.) Stepping inside the restaurant, he was greeted by a hostess who showed him to a table near the window, where he took off his jacket and his scarf, hanging them on the back of the chair before sitting down.

Twenty minutes, two sodas, and a plate of eggrolls later, Bucky heard the distinctive sound of a motorcycle slowing down outside. Which, yeah, that was sexy. Steve on a bike was an attractive thing, and finding it attractive meant that even Bucky, cerebral as he prided himself on being, occasionally thought about things dick-first. But shit, if (and it was a big if) he and Steve ever took a trip together, he wanted to ride pillion. Wanted to wrap his arm around Steve’s waist and hold on tight.

Bucky continued to imagine life on the bike as he watched Steve circle the block four times, looking decidedly more aggrieved with each reappearance, his shoulders hunching up towards his ears. A spot must have opened on his fifth circuit, as he came around the corner on foot a few minutes later, every inch as handsome as he possibly could be, of course. Because he was Steve.

“Hi,” Steve greeted when he arrived at the table, having bypassed the hostess with a nod as Bucky waved him over.

“Hi,” Bucky replied, feeling exceedingly Normal and Totally Average as Steve bent to give him a quick peck on the lips before he sat down. As though they were any other couple in the city, meeting for a quick bite before heading back to their respective days. “Legal or illegal?”

“Oh, very much illegal,” Steve said. “Not my fuckin’ fault people in this city park like assholes.”

“So your solution is to park like an asshole?”

“Can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, I always say,” he grinned. “Sorry it took me so long.”

"I don't care. I ate all the egg rolls."

“Look at you,” Steve teased, knocking his boot against Bucky’s sneaker. “What’s the occasion?”

“I—” Bucky looked down at his plate and suppressed a grin. Steve might not care as much as he did; might not see it as something worth celebrating. “Met with my advisor today. And uh, we decided I was done with my first draft.”

“What?” Steve exclaimed. “Shit, Bucky, that’s sw—damn it, I was gonna say swell, but then I heard Tony in my head.”

Bucky grinned; he liked it when Steve turned into a walking anachronism of tin-eared expressions. “You can say swell—it is swell. It’s aces, man. Twenty-three skidoo!”

Steve snorted, reaching across the table and covering Bucky’s hand with his own. “Swell and aces, maybe. Do you know what twenty-three skidoo means?”

“No, but I like how it sounds.”

“Of course you do,” Steve agreed, before squeezing his hand. “Christ, I’m proud of you, pal. Is that weird to say?”

“No? Maybe a little paternalistic…”

“Long as you don’t start calling me da—”

Steve.”

Steve, the picture of innocence, blinked his big, blue eyes. “What? I was only going to say…”

“I know what you were going to say. And I’m happy you’re proud. I’m kind of proud of me, too.”

“You should be, and—” he was interrupted by the waitress setting a glass of water in front of him. “Hi, thanks.”

“Sure. Do you know what you’d like?”

“Definitely.” Which was an impressive show of hubris considering he had yet to open the menu. “Can we get another order of egg rolls, and uh...crab rangoon. And pork dumplings. And do you do chop suey? Yeah, that, please. And also shrimp lo mein? Or...no, chicken lo mein.”

“And the braised beef with chili sauce,” Bucky broke in. “And an order of mixed vegetables.”

“That all comes with rice, right?” Steve asked.

“Yes…” the waitress said, glancing back and forth between them. “Are you expecting other people?”

“He eats a lot,” Bucky said. “Bottomless pit.”

“Got a hollow leg,” Steve said, which was maybe the fifth time he’d told that joke in Bucky’s presence.

“Uh huh,” she agreed, squinting at Steve before doing a double take. “Oh.”

“Hi, yeah,” Steve said, giving her a sheepish little wave. “Do us a favor, keep it low key?”

“Yes, absolutely,” she said. “But um, could you maybe sign something for my son?”

“Sure.”

Once she’d gone, Bucky shook his head, turning his hand underneath Steve’s so he could run his fingers along Steve’s palm. She hadn’t recognized him, so he felt safe enough continuing to be affectionate. “You’re so good at that.”

“At what?”

“Dealing with all the people who want a piece of you.”

“Oh.” Steve shrugged, mimicking Bucky’s movements as he trailed his fingers over Bucky’s wrist. “First of all, I’m not that good at it. I’ve had training—we’ve got this amazing woman, Angelica, does PR for the whole team. If I’m capable, it’s because of her.”

“Nah,” Bucky shrugged. “I mean, I’m sure she’s good at her job. Media training...I did that, kind of. And I get it. But it’s not...the way you are with people. That’s not something you learn.”

“I’m not,” Steve repeated, a laugh in his voice. “I’m always thinking about when it’s going to be over, and how I can get out of it with the least possible fuss. Which is...ironic, considering I spent most of my time as a teenager just waiting for someone to give me a hard time.”

“Anticipating a hassle isn’t the same thing as going looking for a fight,” Bucky countered. “And it’s...admirable, now. You could be an almighty asshole, but you’re not.”

“Not to their faces,” Steve agreed, something self-deprecating and long-suffering caught in his expression.

“We all do that," Bucky said. "Think the things we'd never say. All I mean is that...you're decent. And not in a way that's like, oh, you're my boyfriend, and I think you're great! It's more...you meet people where they are. And that's admirable."

Steve tapped his index and middle finger together above the pulse point on Bucky’s wrist. “So do you.”

Bucky shook his head. “I don’t—”

“Yes, you do. I’m not saying you’re…” he hesitated, reaching for his water. He did that sometimes—paused and reflected as opposed to speaking in haste, as though the latter was his innate response and the former was a learned behavior. Tempering his thoughts, because he knew what he had to say mattered. “You don’t talk to a lot of people, but when you do talk, you're winning. And that's...shit happened to you, pal. Bad shit. You could have let that turn you mean, but you didn't. That's all I'm trying to say when I say you're meeting people where they are. You're decent, too, and you're kind, and that's...nobody would blame you if you weren't."

Bucky’s cheeks had gone pink the moment Steve started speaking, and he was no doubt as red as a tomato by the time he finished. “Thanks,” he managed. “I um.” (I love you—but not yet.) “Shit. You’re gonna get me all weepy when I’m like, fucking happy.”

“Can’t you be both?”

“I guess,” he huffed. “Aren’t you supposed to be the repressed one? What’s all this feeling my feelings crap you’re pulling on me today?”

“Dunno,” Steve grinned, flicking a straw wrapper in his direction. “Call me sentimental.”

“Alright, sentimental, call me Bucky.”

Steve snorted, and Bucky could just about see the smart-ass retort he was working on when the waitress returned with the first of their appetizers. Predictably, Steve wasn’t so much interested in the banter when there was an opportunity to wolf down plate after plate of food. That left Bucky with ample time to consider the words he’d almost said. Did he love Steve, or had it merely been something to say at the moment? They had only been seeing one another since September, and while four-ish months wasn't nothing, it also wasn't much. Also, Bucky had never been in love before. Outside of Becca and sometimes his mother and formerly Alex, he didn't have a lot of experience with the emotion, especially in a romantic context.

Plus, how could anyone ever be sure that love was love, and not some misguided neuron firing a shot across the bow of desperation and loneliness? People craved companionship. Partnership. They wanted to access the endorphin high that came from being wanted, and wasn’t that just another form of narcissism? Just another way of blowing smoke up your own ass because you convinced yourself that you were the person someone else wanted more than anybody else?

There were a lot of factors working against it being love.

On the other hand…

On the other hand, he loved Steve.

There was no other word for it.

Bucky loved his smile. His voice. His hair. His arms and his laugh and his everything. Loved the way he was looking at Bucky with a dribble of dumpling sauce on his chin and a sheepish expression on his face.

“Did you want any of these?” Steve asked, indicating the lone dumpling left on the plate.

“No,” Bucky replied. “I’m good.” And also I love you very much.

God damn it. He and his brain were going to have to have a serious talk if that pernicious, dangerous little thought wouldn’t stop trying to sneak out at inopportune moments.

 


 

It took them another forty-five minutes to make it through all the food (and it was all the food—Steve Rogers didn’t create a lot of leftovers, in Bucky’s experience), and they split the check before standing to go. Feeling once more like one half of a very normal, average couple, Bucky took Steve’s hand as they walked out the door.

“Do you have to go back to work?” Bucky asked, chewing on the casualness of that rote phrase.

“Yeah, I gotta take the spreadsheets over to accounts receivable and update the uh, timeclocks,” Steve laughed, knocking Bucky’s shoulder with his own. “The fuck you talkin’ about, work?”

“Alright, Brooklyn, Jesus,” Bucky laughed. “I just meant, you left something behind to come here, didn’t you?”

“Sure,” Steve agreed. “And I left it to spend time with you. So let’s go back to yours, or you can come back to mine.”

The offer had been made in jest—Bucky never wanted to go back to Steve’s. The Avengers were, well, The Avengers, and God knew what they’d make of him. Probably wonder what the fuck Steve was thinking and convince him to cut his losses and—

Nope. Nope, it was a good day!

“Nah,” Bucky said instead of pouring his feelings on the sidewalk, like it was a decision instead of the only choice he could make. “Let’s go to mine.”

“Yeah,” Steve agreed. “We’ll take the bike.”

Which was how Bucky found himself living out his fantasies, riding Behind Steve as he wound his way in and out of mid-afternoon traffic. Not quite rush hour, but not quite not, either. God, it was good. Just as good as he’d imagined—wind on his cheeks, arm wrapped securely around Steve’s waist. Safe as houses while the city whipped by in a blur (or, alright, it wasn’t a blur, considering the traffic, but Bucky liked the poetry of the thought). Granted, the ugly helmet on his head didn’t do much for his sexy, romantic image, but Steve had insisted he wear it.

Bucky was grinning from ear to ear by the time they arrived at his building, the rush of the ride adding to the magic of the morning. It had been perfect, and now it might even get better. They'd go upstairs, and Steve would kiss him, and he'd kiss back, and then they'd do more than that, huffing and groaning together as they inched towards completion.

Wasn’t much. Definitely wasn’t sex. But it was progress, Bucky growing slightly more assured each time.

“You liked that, huh?” Steve asked, the illegality of yet another parking job not even in question as they stepped off the elevator and onto Bucky’s floor.

“Yeah. It was...yeah,” Bucky laughed.

“We should take her out of the city sometime,” Steve said, like it was a casual request, even though it wasn’t. “See something scenic.”

Bucky bit his lip, feeling very brave indeed as he shrugged. “Yeah, sure. Name the date.”

Steve grinned, throwing an arm around Bucky’s shoulders while he unlocked the door. “Coupla weeks, maybe—gotta let it warm up outside first.”

“So like, March?”

“Yeah, March. For your birthday?”

Bucky wanted that very much and told Steve so. That led to Steve telling Bucky what he wanted, which turned out to involve both of them tumbling onto the mattress, the honeyed haze of that good day settling on them as they fumbled their way past belt buckles and into bliss.

 


 

February and March brought with them a string of good days. There were more lunches out, as well as more grocery trips, more advisor meetings, and even an afternoon spent strolling through Central Park, Bucky tucked securely into his hoodie. Hell, he was practically a social butterfly by the time his birthday rolled around—albeit the sort of butterfly who hid behind his wings when he thought someone might be looking at him funny, and who was prone to fluttering home in a panic if anyone dared to approach.

The day of the birthday drive dawned bright and cool, with Steve cursing the traffic on the George Washington Bridge as they left the city. They drove until they didn’t want to drive anymore, stopping for lunch in a small town that boasted a single, solitary diner, a sign in the window advertising the Best Milkshakes in Town. Considering there was no competition, Bucky was dubious, but he ordered one anyway.

After lunch, they headed home, back to Bucky’s apartment where Steve presented him with a small, wrapped package that he’d apparently been keeping in the pocket of his jacket all day.

“Got you a present,” he said, holding it out with a half-smile.

“You didn’t have to,” Bucky protested, tearing open the package to reveal a...credit card? No—looked like one, but wasn’t. It was a flat, silver card with a holographic seal stamped on the back. The seal looked like an A, and as Bucky squinted at it, he realized he’d seen that particular A before.

“It’s a passcard,” Steve blurted. “For the tower. My floor, in the tower. I uh. I know you’re not ready to come over. But when you are...you don’t need to ask. Just...you can use that to come and see me. Anytime.”

“Shit,” Bucky muttered. “How many background checks did you have to run—?”

“None,” Steve said, his voice sharp. “I choose who gets access to my space. Fuck clearances.”

His tone surprised Bucky as much as the sentiment behind it. The gift implied trust, and care, and thoughtfulness. For as small as the card was, it meant something monumental. So Bucky didn’t hesitate as he went to the kitchen drawer that housed what he had termed Shit Not To Lose, rooting around until he found the second set of keys his landlord had given to him the day he moved in. Untouched since then, in fact. Not even Becca had been given the privilege.

“Here,” he said, holding them out to Steve. “For whenever.”

“Thank you, Buck,” Steve said, his voice so earnest that Bucky felt the chambers of his heart split apart and come back together again. “This means a lot.”

“They’re just keys,” he muttered. “Anyway, I’ll probably be doing something...weird and distasteful.”

That made Steve laugh, and he leaned in for a kiss. “I promise I’ll knock.”

“Yeah, ditto. Or...whatever the elevator equivalent of a knock is. I’ll yell ‘ding’ real loud before I get off on your floor.” Not that he would be going to the tower anytime soon (or getting off on Steve’s floor, ba-dum-ching!), but it was nice to know the option was there.

“I would love that,” Steve replied.

“First time I come over, that’s what I’m doing.”

“Looking forward to it.”

“Yup, me too.”

“Excellent.”

“Great.”

“Superb.”

“Top notch.”

“Pip pip cheerio.”

Bucky snorted. “Fuck off.”

“You fuck off. C’mere.”

Steve held out his arms, and Bucky stepped into them.

It was a good birthday. A good week. A good month.

Which made it all the more terrible when something came along to ruin it, the way something always did.

Chapter Text

Steve should have been paying attention. If he had, he might have been better prepared for the question. But press conferences were boring, and he was only human, sitting there at the long table cluttered with microphones and cords and water bottles. He had been staring into the middle distance as his teammates spoke, thinking more about when he could get away to see Bucky than what the members of the press were shouting at them.

Not every mission necessitated a press conference like this one. Most of them didn't, in fact. However, the humdinger that had taken place in Iowa throughout the past week had caused the media to latch on like a dog with a bone. An eco-terrorist with a genetically modified swarm of locusts? Yeah, there was no way they were letting that go. Steve appreciated the symbolism of the attacker, but not the methodology. The locusts weren't doing anything to the bottom line of the corporations that he was ostensibly protesting against; instead, they were fucking over the people who couldn't afford to get fucked.

Covering the microphone with his hand when a question about locusts biting through the Iron Man armor was lobbed Tony’s way, Steve leaned toward Natasha and sighed.

“Where was that place you found, that had the perfect bialys? Supposedly.” Because he was starving, and he wasn’t about to arrive at Bucky’s place empty-handed.

“I’m not telling you if you’re going to be a cynic,” she said, talking out the side of her mouth while maintaining perfect composure. “Pay attention.”

“Why? It’s—”

“Cap?”

That was Angelica, the head of their PR team, her brisk voice snapping him back to reality from where she stood behind a podium.

“Huh?” Not his best response, though it did draw titters from the assembled crowd.

“There’s a question for you, in the back.”

“Right,” he said, forcing a smile. “Sure. Who’s got the question?”

A hand in the back went up, and when Steve nodded, the young man got to his feet. In his flannel button-down and skinny jeans, he stood out from the rest of the business casual press corps. That probably should have been Steve’s first clue.

“Hi, Cap. Jake Moore, Buzzsaw News. Is it true you’re dating Bucky Barnes?”

A murmur spread through the crowd as heads turned to the back of the room. Jake had touched a nerve, asking something likely verboten by Angelica when she’d briefed the press before the Avengers arrived. Steve’s heart skipped a beat, which was new—even with his old bum ticker, he’d always thought it was just a goofy saying. But there he was, skipping beats as his fight or flight instincts overrode his years of media training as well as his good sense.

“Where the hell’d you get that?” he barked, too loud by half as the microphone squealed in protest.

(So, that was pretty much a confirmation. Well done, Rogers, you absolute lug.)

“There are pictures of you two—” Jake Moore, Buzzsaw News continued, only to be cut off by Angelica.

“We’re done here, folks,” she said, firm but polite. “Thank you for coming.”

“What pictures?” Steve called as she finished, fully prepared to leap over all six rows of chairs to reach Jake.

Sam’s hand landed on his shoulder before he could rise to his feet, and he shook his head slightly. “Not worth it,” he murmured, low enough that only Steve could hear. “Come on.”

Worth was relative, Steve decided, though he did follow Sam out, shuffling into the hallway where they waited for Angelica to appear. It took her a few minutes, but eventually she pushed through the double doors, looking remarkably unruffled in her cream-colored pantsuit with nary a hair out of place.

“What’s going on?” Steve asked immediately. She was a straightforward sort of person, and she didn’t need him beating around the bush.

“I was naive,” she said. “And I told them they were only to ask about the mission. I’m sorry, Steve, I should have prepped you.”

“For what?” he asked, his patience wearing down to a nub.

“Three days ago, rumors began circulating online that you and Bucky Barnes are dating. E! has been teasing an exclusive—”

“Question,” Steve said. “Why, exactly, didn’t I know about this when the rumors started?”

“You were in Iowa, and it wasn’t deemed mission critical.”

God damn it. Although: fair. Loath as he was to admit it, if he’d been running point, he wouldn’t have been sharing possibly-minor personal distractions with his operatives, either.

“Fine. Why wasn’t I briefed before going out there?”

"That's on me," she said. "Mea culpa. I really did think they'd stick to the mission, and I was going to talk to you afterward about the rest of it."

“Damn it.” Steve pushed a hand through his hair. He’d been back in New York for less than three hours—barely time to shower and debrief before the press conference. Now, all he wanted to do was buy bialys and cuddle Bucky all night long, but no, he had to deal with this particular shitstorm instead.

“Let’s talk privately,” Angelica offered, gesturing to one of the open conference rooms that lined the hall. Steve nodded, and they shut the door behind themselves. The room didn’t offer much in the way of visual privacy, being as the walls were only semi-frosted, but at the very least it was soundproof.

“So,” Steve said, crossing his arms over his chest, preferring to remain standing for the time being.

“So,” Angelica echoed, setting her tablet down on the table before taking a seat. “Let’s start with the basics, and we’ll work on a strategy from there. First off, is it true?”

“About Bucky?” Steve was surprised at the question—his reaction in the room had felt utterly transparent. Then again, maybe she was just being kind. “Yes. That’s. We’re together.”

“So if they have photographs,” she continued. “They’ll be real, not doctored.”

“Yep.”

“I have to stay, Steve,” she sighed, a wry smile on her face as she gestured at the seat next to hers. “I do have contingency plans for a sex scandal, but I never once thought it would be you—”

“What?” Steve spluttered, not taking the seat. “What...there’s no...if they’re…”

Angelica blinked, her smile fading. “I’m sorry, I assumed they were...well, intimate. The outlet that bought them has been teasing them that way.”

“If…” Steve’s cheeks were no doubt crimson as he cleared his throat. “If they’re intimate, they’re fake. And if they’re not intimate, then...someone’s obviously trying to cash in on a rumor. We don’t go out much. Bucky ah...he keeps to himself.”

Angelica nodded, tapping one well-manicured finger against the glass of her tablet. “I don’t need to know the details of your private life, Steve. No more than what’s necessary, at any rate. That’s not my job, nor do I want it to be. My job is to shield you and your teammates from bad press where I’m able, spread the good news when it exists, and mitigate damage when we’re faced with the unexpected.”

“This is sure as shit unexpected,” Steve muttered, finally pulling out the chair to sit down.

“So, what you’re telling me is that the photographs they’re threatening to release are blasé rather than boudoir?”

“They are, or they’re fake,” he repeated with a frown.

"Then I'm a happy camper because I can work with that," she said. "Give me an hour to think it through and work out the details, but we can spin it a couple different ways—"

“We’re not spinning it at all.”

Raising an eyebrow, Angelica picked up her stylus. “That’s one method of dealing with it. Care to tell me why?”

“Like I said, Bucky keeps to himself. And I’m not exposing him to some media circus. Let people talk if they want, but there’s no way I’m giving them something definitive to speculate about.”

“Ah,” Angelica said, unflappable as she scrawled something on the screen. “You’re electing to stay silent—no statement of any sort about the rumors?”

“That’s right.”

“Rumors feed rumors, and silence feeds them both, Steve,” she cautioned.

“Let them talk,” he replied. “We’re not that interesting, I promise.”

Angelica pursed her lips, trying to hide a smile. “We’ll keep monitoring the story, figure out what they have on you. No statements issued, no clarifications.”

“Thank you.”

“If you or Bucky change your mind about that at any point, you know where my office is.”

“I do,” he said, offering her a tight smile. “I appreciate your uh, respecting my decision.”

“You’re the client,” she said. “That’s my job. Plus, have you met Tony? This is a drop in the bucket, my friend.”

Steve laughed, feeling marginally better. “Still, I’m sorry I’m causing a hassle for you.”

“Did I mention how it’s my job?” she teased. “Although—”

“What?”

“You said Bucky keeps a low profile. He might want to keep it extra low for the next couple of weeks—give the news cycle a chance to play out and die down.”

“Can do,” Steve said, before pushing away from the table. “Are we done?”

“We’re done. Have a good afternoon, Steve.”

“You, too.”

It was funny—Bucky being forced to keep a low profile was the least of their troubles. He could do that in his sleep. Literally. Christ, Steve was going to have to tell him. Bucky would probably crawl inside his mattress when he heard the news, living the rest of his life among the springs and the stuffing to avoid ever having to deal with another human being again. It wasn't fair. Bucky had been doing so well, and now the world was encroaching on his progress. As fucking usual.




Steve stopped for bialys on the way to Bucky's, having coaxed the name of the bakery from Natasha, who had ended up being reasonably amenable to giving it up once she'd heard the full story of their plight. Because she was a good friend, and Steve adored her.

Bucky answered the door in a faded hoodie and oversized sweats, one sleeve hanging empty, his hair in a messy ponytail, and his glasses falling down his nose. He was Bucky all over, and Steve savored the moment, stepping inside and wrapping him up, breathing in his familiar smell.

“You have a key,” Bucky protested. “Hi.”

“Promised I’d knock,” Steve replied. “Hi. I missed you.”

Bucky—ever prone to skittishness around sentimentality—pulled back with a shrug, ducking his head and grinning. “Missed you, too. I saw the uh...locust things on YouTube yesterday. That looked slimy.”

Trust Bucky to find the footage. Briefly, Steve wondered if he might already know about the rumors—if he’d heard them online, or Becca had told him—but he seemed too cheerful for that. “The insides were,” Steve said dryly, focusing on the bugs for the time being. “You’re lucky I showered.”

“You still smell,” Bucky grinned, dodging Steve’s hand when it made a game attempt to swat him on the ass for being rude. “Quit. Are those bagels?”

“They’re bialys, and now I don’t know if you deserve any.”

“Of course I deserve them. I haven’t eaten all day, and—”

Steve caught his hand as he turned away, pulling him back and kissing him deeply, Bucky’s glasses mushing against the bridge of his nose. “Hey,” he said again, the word barely more than an exhale. “I missed you, pal.”

Bucky softened, the corners of his eyes crinkling with a smile. “I’m sorry I said you smelled. I didn’t know you were gonna get all weird about it.”

Laughing, Steve knocked the door shut and went to put his bag on the island. “I’m not weird, I just—” he shrugged. “Nevermind. Why haven’t you eaten all day?”

“Forgot. I was working,” Bucky said as he reached into the bag to pull out a bialy.

“So studious.”

“Very,” he replied around a mouthful of bread. “These are awesome. Where’d you get ‘em?”

“I’ve been sworn to secrecy.”

Bucky blinked. “So, that’s a no?”

“Nah, I’ll tell you. Did it make me sound mysterious, though?”

“No. Cute, but not mysterious.”

“I’ll take it, he said, pulling out a bialy of his own before indicating the mattress. “Shall we?”

“We shall,” Bucky agreed.

The bed was kind of a mess, which was no surprise, considering Bucky had apparently been reading there most of the day. Steve waited patiently while Bucky picked up his books and papers before straightening the blankets, all the while knowing he was procrastinating having the inevitable conversation. Because it was sweeter to see Bucky happy. His Bucky, who hadn’t asked for any of this, and who would suffer more because of it.

So Steve let himself be selfish for a while longer as they settled in, eating their bialys before getting up for seconds. Bucky had a lot of questions about Steve’s so-called business trip, and Steve was happy to regale him with stories about what the locusts smelled like when they were split in two by one of Wanda’s energy blasts.

“That’s disgusting,” Bucky informed him, unable to keep the grin off his face.

“Worst part of it was,” Steve said, swallowing his food. “Tony happened to be right underneath the giant bastard when she did it, and Buck, you ain’t smelled shit until you’ve smelled burning bug intestines lingering in every crack and crevice of Tony’s goddamn suit.”

"I thought it uh...I thought it was just nanoparticles? Or whatever it was you said. Can't they like...vaporize the goo?"

“They got shot to shit on account of the bug juice. He couldn’t take off the suit or the helmet until we got home.”

“But he did eventually, right?”

“Yeah. Suit’s ruined—first one he ever lost to an enhanced insect, which...Spider-man might disagree.”

“You’re on a fucking roll today,” Bucky laughed, flopping back onto his mound of pillows. “There’s a difference between bugs and insects, by the way. You keep using them interchangeably, but they’re not the same.”

“Oh yeah?” Steve said, taking the opportunity to lean over him, twisting his body to plant one arm on either side of Bucky’s torso. “What’s the difference?”

“I dunno. But I’m pretty sure I’m right.”

“Pedantic,” Steve smirked, leaning down to kiss him once on his forehead, once on his nose, and once on his mouth.

“Gross,” Bucky whispered with a smile that indicated he thought it was anything but.

Steve found himself caught between wanting to kiss Bucky again, forgetting about the world outside, and the knowledge that he couldn’t put it off any longer without further inflaming his already guilty conscience. In the end, there was only one choice.

“I gotta tell you something,” he murmured, hating the way the furrow on Bucky’s forehead deepened.

“What?”

“People know about us.”

The furrow furrowed further, every muscle in Bucky’s body tensing as he absorbed the news. “How?” he said, his voice quiet.

“I don’t know,” Steve replied. “I don’t have a lot of details. But some reporter asked me about you at the press conference today, and there are pictures—I don’t know what of, but they’re gonna be out there.”

Bucky swallowed, Adam's apple bobbing while the color drained from his face. He turned his head away, fixing his eyes on the wall. "Oh."

Steve balanced himself on one arm, using his free hand to stroke Bucky’s cheek. He didn’t want a fight, and he certainly didn’t want another Alexander-Pierce-is-on-TV-style breakdown. “Buck?”

“What did you say?” Bucky asked, still not meeting Steve’s eyes.

“What?”

“To the reporter. What did you say?”

“Oh. Uh. I asked him where he’d heard that.”

Bucky let out a bitter laugh, blinking twice. “Rookie fucking mistake, Rogers. That’s a yes, you know.”

“I know. I should have thought, I was just...I reacted quick.”

“It’s okay,” Bucky sighed. “I knew this was too good to last.”

“Hey,” Steve said, frowning. “Bucky, nothing’s bad. We just gotta lay low. Ride it out.”

“Mmm. Maybe.”

Steve resisted the urge to roll his eyes, as Bucky’s tacit dismissal of his plan was slightly annoying. “We—well, I met with the head of our PR team. She’s uh...she wanted to spin it, but I told her not to respond to the allegations. Just...we’re gonna ignore it, alright, pal?”

“Yeah, that always works,” Bucky muttered.

“Buck,” he said, more sharply than he meant to. “They got some pictures. That’s all. They don’t know shit about us, and there’s no story here.”

“There’s always a story,” Bucky said, his voice weary as he turned his face back to Steve’s, a wan smile on his lips. “But alright. We’ll do it your way—ignore it. See how that goes.”

“You don’t sound confident.”

“I’m not,” he replied. “I think they’re sharks, and we’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

Steve groaned, giving up on the one-armed balancing act and falling to Bucky’s side instead, relieved when Bucky rolled over to face him. “Well, what do you think we should do?”

Bucky considered the question and shrugged. “I have no idea. I was always shit at managing my own image. But—” he hesitated, a small smile playing across his face.

“What?”

“I just think, maybe, you don’t know everything.”

“I never said I did!” Steve protested, trying not to laugh.

“You just said you told your PR person not to do her job.”

“I—” Shit. He was right. “Well. I didn’t, I thought…”

“Uh huh,” Bucky smirked, leaning in and kissing him lightly. “Maybe you should like, kill giant bugs and let other people manage the stuff they’re paid to manage?”

“You want some salt to rub in that open wound?”

“Maybe.” Taking Steve’s hand in his own, Bucky sighed and squeezed his fingers. “When this stuff comes out, depending on what it is, we’ll figure out what to do.”

You don’t have to do anything. If something needs to be done, my team can take care of it. Seriously.”

“We’ll see,” Bucky said, “but I appreciate your trying to spare me the indignity. And...I also appreciate that you told me, instead of letting me find out.”

“I’m surprised Becca didn’t call you,” he said. “Or maybe that you’d see it online.”

“I have uh...I block my name. And Becca doesn’t…” he sighed. “There’s like this unspoken...I dunno. We don’t talk about that shit unless we have to. Plus, I think she’s in like...China?”

“Oh,” Steve nodded. “Sure.”

“But either way, I’m glad I heard it from you.”

"Me, too," he agreed. ‘You ah...you seem to be…" Trailing off, he couldn't quite finish the sentence. There was no gentle way of saying ‘you seem to be handling this sanely and rationally, which is not your usual response.'

Luckily, Bucky got it. “I think,” he said in response to Steve’s stumbling. “That if we’d been out somewhere, and I’d seen the photographer? Or someone had come up to us to ask us about it? I would have uh...it would have been bad.”

“Right.”

“But in the abstract, it’s...fine?” Smiling, he brought their entwined hands to his lips, kissing the tip of Steve’s thumb. “They can’t get in here. This place...everything about it, it’s still ours, you know?”

“Yeah,” Steve agreed. “Although—” he laughed, cheeks heating.

“What?”

“Angelica, that’s our PR director.” He hesitated. “I told you about her before, I think. Uh, she uh—she initially thought that the photographs were uh. Illicit.”

“Ohhhhh.” Bucky’s eyes lit up. “How scandalous.”

“Yeah,” Steve agreed, glad Bucky could see the humor as he gave an awkward chuckle.

“Oh no. Please tell me you didn’t stumble your way through telling Angelica that we haven’t uh...been illicit?”

“Weeeeeeeeell…not exactly.”

Bucky grinned. “You did!”

“I didn’t!”

“Did you blush?”

“...fuck off. No.”

“Aw, Steve,” he grinned. “Defending my honor. I’m touched. It’s like you’re a handsome prince, and I’m the hairy maiden trapped in the tower.”

“Bucky,” he laughed. “Shut up.”

“Gladly.”

Shutting up involved Bucky biting down on Steve's index finger, which was much more attractive than it had any right to be. The biting led to kissing led to touching led to a heated makeout session that only came to an end when Bucky got the giggles over something dumb Steve said in the moment.

When the giggle fit had subsided, they lay face-to-face, Bucky sporting a dopey grin, both of them still worked up, but neither feeling any great urgency to take care of their respective problems.

“Does it bother you?” Bucky asked.

“What? You making fun of me?” Steve teased. “No, never, in fact, I—”

“No, no. I mean. The whole...the fact that we haven’t had sex.”

Steve gave a pointed glance down and raised an eyebrow. “I dunno what you want to call what we’re gonna get up to in a few minutes, but if it’s not sex, then I’m confused.”

“You know what I mean. Clothes off and...you know.”

Smiling, Steve reached out to push some hair behind Bucky’s ear, fingers trailing over the red indentation left on the bridge of his nose. “Yeah, I guess I get the gist.”

“So does it bother you?”

“Oh. Nope.”

Bucky looked at him expectantly, and Steve smiled.

“Should I elaborate?”

“If you want to,” Bucky shrugged.

“I’m…” he paused, not wanting to be too hasty. It had been a long day of blurting things out without thinking them through. “The thing is, I’m not saying that I don’t want to do more. Let things reach their natural conclusion, whatever that looks like for us. But I don’t have a timetable, Buck. And I’m happy.”

“That’s…” Bucky blew out a frustrated breath. “But look at you!”

“Look at you,” he shot back. “You’re so goddamned handsome, sometimes I can’t—”

“Steve.”

“It’s true. Believe me or not. And don't mistake…" he frowned. "Shit, Bucky, don't mistake my lack of pushing for lack of passion, alright?"

Bucky nodded, chewing on his lip for a moment as he considered the implications. “I guess. I just needed to be sure.”

"Six months into this thing and he wants to be sure, ladies and gentlemen."

“Oh c’mon.”

“Seriously, Buck, that’s a gas.”

“You’re hilarious.”

“I try,” he said, leaning in for another kiss. “Stop worrying so goddamn much. We got enough on our plates without you second-guessing whether I want you. You know I do.”

“Thanks,” he muttered.

“You’re welcome.”

“And as for the other stuff we gotta think about…” Bucky shrugged. “Maybe it won’t even be that bad?”

“Maybe,” Steve agreed, before sealing that misplaced hope with a kiss.


Chapter Text

Bucky didn’t check the news. Didn’t roll over and reach for his phone the morning everything broke (and it did break, the disappointed grimace on Steve’s face when he looked at his texts later that day told Bucky as much). Why should Bucky look? Same shit, different decade. He’d seen it before. He’d been laughed at before, ridiculed before, turned into an object of mockery and scorn more times than he could count. So if they wanted to laugh at him all over again? To question how someone like him could end up with someone like Steve? Let them. As long as he didn’t have to see it, he could do a remarkably good job of pretending it wasn’t there.

Anyway, it wasn’t like those people poking fun were necessarily wrong. The thing that existed between him and Steve was ludicrous, no matter how you squared it. The two of them didn’t fit. Didn’t make sense. All the same, they worked, and wasn’t that the important thing?

Steve was probably wrong about the lifecycle of the story. Bucky had no expectation that it would die down anytime soon, because the world found Bucky and his sad fucking story endlessly entertaining. But that was alright. He was inside, and they weren’t, and so what if he’d been making progress? Didn’t need to see anyone to revise his dissertation, and he sure could get a lot delivered these days.

He had disappeared before, and he could do it again. At least, this time, he had someone to disappear with. Someone sleeping soundly at his side like a beatific elephant, one arm flung over his face and a line of saliva trailing from his mouth to his chin. Dignity in sleep was lost to even the most super of men, though Steve was charming in his charmlessness.

Reaching over, Bucky poked his cheek, just above where the drool began. Steve’s jaw tensed once, twice, three times, and his eyes opened.

“Wha—?” he grumbled, swiping a hand across his face.

“Good morning,” Bucky said primly.

“Ffff,” came Steve’s articulate reply.

Bucky leaned down and kissed him anyway.

 


 

It took a week for something to break Bucky’s resolve.

His phone, usually quiet save for the occasional text from Steve or Becca, had begun lighting up with unknown numbers on the second day after the story broke. While his list of contacts was small, small was still something. Undoubtedly person A had talked to person B who knew person C, and one of them had his number. It wouldn't have been Becca, probably hadn't been his mother, but other people might have given him up to the press.

On the third day, he turned off his phone, hiding in his work and his boyfriend and all the good things he’d built for himself over the past six months. No need for hangers-on and looky-loos at all.

The email, however? The email arrived on the seventh day. Sitting there innocuously in his inbox one morning, a ticking bomb waiting while he sat down at his computer with a bowl of cereal.

There was a name and a subject: Alexander Pierce; Hope this is the right James Barnes!

Bucky’s finger moved before his brain could catch up, disconnected from all rational thought. A click, and then Alex was inside the walls of the sanctuary. He would tell himself later it had only been a matter of time.

 

Hello! Apologies if I’ve reached the wrong James Barnes. My assistant found this address in a departmental directory.

 

Bucky scowled. He hadn’t realized he’d been listed.

 

If this is the James I’m thinking of, then hello Bucky! It’s been a long time, I know. I’ve been trying to reach you for the past few days to no avail, so I’m not sure I’ve got the right number. Jessie passed on the last one she had for you, though she said she hasn’t heard from you in over a year. Sure hope you’re the one who’s been getting my voicemails!

 

Jessie. Of course, it had been Jessie. Sweet, trusting Jessie who had played Bucky's mother on the show. They had stayed in sporadic touch over the years, and while Bucky hadn't always been amenable to her reaching out, he'd appreciated that she felt some level of responsibility towards him. He had never told her how things ended with Alex, so she would have had no reason to wonder why he wanted Bucky's number.

 

I have always regretted losing touch with you, and I've meant to reach back out for some time now. Seeing you on the news these past few days has made me feel SO GUILTY for not doing it sooner! You have no idea how pleased I am to see you doing so well, Bucky. I always knew you had the strength to pick yourself up when you were down, and I'm glad that you've proven me right. You and Captain Rogers look very happy together.

However, I do worry that this amount of attention might be overwhelming for you? You know how the press is, and they have been absolute vultures with this story. Harassing Captain Rogers, and you, unable to leave your home. How awful!

Of course I remember how anxious you would get, and while I understand you’d rather be left alone these days, I wanted to offer my help in case you do decide to make a statement. In my opinion, addressing the rumors head-on would do a lot to dispel them! If you’ve got nothing to hide, they’ll stop hunting. That’s my motto, anyway.

Please let me know if there’s anything I can do to help (press release? Interview? Could probably get you two on Ellen?), and don’t hesitate to reach out. I know things came to an end strangely between us, Bucky, but please believe me that I never stopped hoping for the best for you. My contact information is attached.

 

There was a signature, two phone numbers, and the address of an office in Burbank.

By the time he finished reading, Bucky’s hand was gripping the side of the desk so tightly that his knuckles had gone white. “Fuck,” he whispered, releasing his stranglehold to wipe his eyes, which were stinging with unshed tears.

It only took two clicks to open an incognito browser window—one that would bypass the filters he’d set up to block himself—the search bar staring him down as he henpecked ‘Bucky Barnes’ and hit enter.

Oh.

Oh fuck.

The story wasn’t dying down.

Wasn’t going away.

The story was a waking nightmare.

There were dozens of articles, most with punny headlines making jokes at his expense, and at Steve’s, too. The implication was that Steve was too stupid, naive, and new to the century to realize what a joke he was dating. Below the articles, the comments were cruel and scathing, humanity forgotten in a race to the bottom.

And, God, the pictures. Whoever the paparazzo was that had cottoned onto their relationship had built up an arsenal of proof before selling his or her story, following them for an entire day.

Photographs of them in the grocery store. Holding hands, Bucky with his head on Steve’s shoulder like they were any other couple in the world. He’d taken his hood down that day, just for a little while. Like he was safe. So fucking stupid.

Photographs of them walking into Bucky’s building, shadowy and vague, as if taken from across the street and behind a car window to muffle the click of the shutter. God damn it, how had they not noticed?

There were newer photographs—Steve on his bike, riding down a familiar street. Holding up a hand to block his face as he entered…

Shitmotherfuck. As he entered Bucky’s building.

Which meant there had been a throng of press outside in the past few days. Meant there might be press down there now. Bucky’s throat tightened at the very idea of those cameras and microphones waiting to watch a glimpse of him and lay him low.

Steve-in-the-pictures declined to talk to them. Kept his head down and his hat on, sunglasses covering his eyes. As if shades would keep them from recognizing one of the most recognizable men on earth. With dawning horror, Bucky realized he’d seen Steve in that outfit several days before. Selfless Steve, saying nothing. Shielding Bucky from the reality of the cruel barbs being lobbed their way.

Bucky wasn’t a person to them, not really, just a branded commodity. His childhood stripped away at the expense of a cutesy catchphrase. He’d been naive to think he might escape unscathed this time. That he might be allowed to become something better, or different, or even just himself.

The past was always there. Waiting. Lurking. A double take on a street corner, a hastily snapped paparazzi photo, an autograph request, or someone shouting “end of the line” in his face like hearing it was supposed to make him happy. To mean anything to him at all.

Bucky tasted blood on his tongue and realized with a start that he'd chewed his lip hard enough to break the skin. The pain faded to background noise, however, as he dove deeper into the shitshow that was the story. Steve had been wrong. It wasn't running its course. The implications were too funny, too juicy, too ripe for dumb headlines that reduced their relationship to mockery.

Steve didn't deserve that. Didn't deserve the implications, because he was decent and good and trying so hard to keep Bucky from hurting. Steve, who held the world at bay, even as it howled at Bucky's door, eager to rip his life to shreds.

It wasn’t fair to either of them. And shit, hadn’t there always been a time limit? He’d said it out loud, even. An inevitable end to the entire affair.

Steve would never be the one to call it, though. Too proud, too kind, too careful.

Bucky would have to do it for him.

Strangely, once he’d made the decision, he could breathe easier. See things a little more clearly as he settled in to wait for Steve to show up. They’d had plans for dinner and a movie, though Bucky wasn’t going to let it get that far. He wanted to do it in person, though. He owed Steve that much, God knew.

By the time Steve arrived, Bucky had a speech prepared. He knew just what he was going to say and how he was going to say it, and while he realized Steve would be upset, he was sure he could make him understand.

Still, it was hard to focus on the grand vision when Steve looked so handsome, leaning in for a kiss the moment he walked through the door. Bucky gave it to him, feeling for all the world like an executioner as he broke away, worrying his still-tender lip and fisting his hand in the pocket of his hoodie.

“So um,” he began, clearing his throat twice, looking anywhere but Steve’s face. “Okay. Th-this is…”

“Buck?” Steve stepped closer.

Bucky stepped back and shook his head. “Can’t—you c-can’t come so close, okay? This is really hard. Um—”

“Bucky, what’s wrong? Did something happen?”

“Yes.” His heart was racing, blood separating skin from bones so his anxiety could fill in the gaps. “Th-there are photographers outside? I s-saw…”

“Oh,” Steve’s face fell. “Yeah, pal, I’m sorry. I didn’t want to worry you.”

“I’m n-not mad,” he muttered, eyes firmly fixed on the parquet floor, counting the wood strips as he worked on controlling his stammer. “But um. This is. I d-don’t want people around. So, I think. For both of us. We need to n-not do this.”

“This?” Steve echoed, clearly confused.

“Be us. Anymore. If—” Bucky cleared his throat again. “If we w-want the story to go away, we have to end the story. They can’t have—”

“I’m sorry,” Steve said, cutting Bucky off abruptly, his voice holding a question and a warning. “Are you trying to break up with me?”

Bucky shook his head. “Not b-break, we’re mutually—”

“Uh, we’re not mutually doing shit.” Steve’s voice was sharp, his tone causing Bucky to look up, finding him with his arms crossed and his eyes flashing anger. “This is you calling the shots.”

“It’s for the b-best,” Bucky muttered, his rehearsed lines sounding hollow.

“If this is about the press,” Steve said, his modulated tone somehow worse than if he’d shouted. “I’m sorry for assuming the story would die down on its own. But I’m happy to talk to Angeli—”

“It’s not about the press!” Bucky interrupted, his voice breaking on the last word. “N-not...they’re a symptom. W-we’re the cause. This whole...us. It’s ridiculous. You’re...someone like you isn’t gonna want to spend your life with someone like me. And I’m not...I want to be by myself, and I want those people g-gone, and the only way they’re going to go is if you’re gone, too!”

Steve stood eerily still, his hands fisted at his sides. Bucky wasn’t sure he was even breathing, the silence trembling between them.

“Bucky,” he said eventually, taking a measured breath. “Whatever this is, I’m not signing on. You say we’re breaking up, I say we’re not. You want me to go, I’ll go. You’ve kicked me out before. But when you want me to come back, you call me and I’ll be here like a bad fuckin’ penny, pal.”

“I w-won’t,” Bucky replied, jutting his chin out. “This is for the best.”

“I know you think that’s true.”

“Don’t be a condescending sh-shithead,” he snapped.

“Can’t help it.” And god damn Steve for the way he sounded like he was smiling.

Bucky narrowed his eyes. “Stop trying to be cute. This is really hard.”

Shoulders slumping, Steve sighed. “Alright, Buck. I get what you’re trying to do. Or, no, I don’t get it, but I think I get you.”

Throat tight and face hot, Bucky scuffed his toe against the floor and shrugged. “If you get me, then you get why I need to d-do this.”

“Shit, Bucky…” Steve trailed off, and Bucky glanced at him in time to see him push a frustrated hand through his hair, leaving it standing on end. “I’ll back off.”

‘Back off’ could mean a lot of things, but it didn’t sound as though Steve was committing to the fact of the break-up. All the same, if Bucky could get him to leave, then he could prove that he meant it. Could show Steve that he was perfectly capable of existing by himself and within himself, the way he had for all those years before Steve Rogers had tripped into his life.

“Thank you,” he muttered. “I’m s-sorry.”

“Yeah,” Steve sighed. “I’m sorry, too, and I’m gonna go.”

“Okay.”

“But—” Steve paused, door half open. “You should know that I love you, and that you can call me if you need anything.”

The three unexpected words were so shocking that they took a moment to register, and by the time Bucky looked up, Steve had turned towards the hallway, his spine ramrod straight.

"Steve—" he choked out, watching as Steve's head turned slightly as if waiting to hear the sentiment returned. Bucky couldn't do it. "I r-really am sorry."

"You're doing what you think is best, Buck," he said, facing front once more. "Take care of yourself, alright?"

It was only when Steve's footsteps had fallen away, and Bucky had let the door close that he allowed himself to cry, resting his forehead against the wall and shutting his eyes. "Fuck," he muttered. "Fucking love you, too."

 

Bert hiding in his shell

 

It took two days for Bucky to surface from the deep, dark wallow he'd indulged in after ending the best thing he had going. Didn't drink, though, and he came through his misery faster than he had before because he'd chosen this. Had to live with that choice. Prove he could cope, because otherwise, he didn't know what he'd do. Probably text Steve in his sorrow, and that wasn't allowed. Not this time.

Once he was topside on his grief, he powered up his phone and listened to the various and sundry voicemails. Self-flagellation at its finest—most of the messages were from reporters and Becca. But then, there was Alex, the first message having arrived the day after the story broke.

 

Hey Bucky! Hope this is still your number! I got it from Jessie, and she mentioned she thought you were living in New York. A Ph.D., how about that? I always knew you were a smart kid. Listen, give me a call back when you get this, would you? Thought you might need a friendly ear to talk strategy with about this whole crazy story.

 

Another, the day after that:

 

Hey, Bucky! Haven’t heard from you, so I’m guessing you’ve got your phone off. Who could blame you? I’ve been thinking about you a lot, though. You know they’ve got pictures of Captain Rogers—Steve, should I call him Steve? You tell me, ha ha!—anyhow, they’ve got him coming to your place, which is just...well, it’s a goddamn invasion of privacy, is what it is, Bucky. There are things I can do for you, maybe help you get out ahead of the press. We can discuss it, just give me a call.

 

Radio silence on the third day, and then:

 

Bucky, I’m getting a little concerned I haven’t heard from you. I tried sending you an email, so hopefully you got that. I reached out to your sister’s team as well, but they’re not responding. Honestly, kiddo, I’m just worried about you—I know these high-pressure situations were never your forte, and I wouldn’t want you to find yourself...well, it’s a slippery slope, huh? Give me a call, alright? We’ll fix things.

 

There were four more voicemails over the next two days, all of them with the same message: I’m here, I’m worried, and I want to help.

Bucky figured he needed all the help he could get, and after listening to the final message, he tapped Alexander’s name and held the phone to his ear.

“Hello there, Bucky!” came the familiar voice after just two rings.

“H-hi, Alex,” he managed, suddenly all of fifteen-years-old. Shy and stammering. “I’m s-sorry it took me so long…”

“Well, but you’ve been busy,” Alex said. “All that press! My phone’s been ringing off the hook.”

“Oh no. I’m sorry if people have been bothering you—”

“No bother, no bother,” Alex replied, in a way that meant he’d been a little bothered but didn't like to make Bucky feel bad about it. "I'm always happy to help you out in a pinch. I did mean that, if you—"

“I want it to go away,” Bucky blurted. “All of it. The press, the stories. Everything about Steve.”

Alex paused, considering. “Mmm,” he said. “Well, sure. We can make that happen. But there are a couple of ways to go about it that you’d have to consider—would you and Steve be open to an interview together? Like I said in my email, Ellen’s very good at this sort of thing.”

“I broke up with Steve.”

“What?” Alexander’s response was sharp and annoyed, taking Bucky by surprise. He tempered it quickly, though. “That’s. Well. I certainly hope it wasn’t the media that drove you to end such an...important relationship.”

“No,” Bucky lied, shielding the truth for reasons he wasn’t quite sure of. “We weren’t even that serious. That’s why I just want it to be over, you know?”

Alex was quiet again, and when he spoke, his tone was kinder. “You poor thing, all this fuss and you weren’t even serious. Let me work on some ideas, alright? Maybe give me a couple of days? I can’t promise miracles, but you know me—I can fix anything, right?”

“Right,” Bucky said, some of the weight lifted from his shoulders. “Th-thank you, Alex. I um...I appreciate...and I know I f-fucked up, but y-you should know I’m different now. I’m uh...I’m n-not going to be a problem. It’s...whatever I need to do to end this, I’ll do it.”

“I’m so happy to hear that,” Alex replied. “I always knew you had it in you. I’ll be in touch. Have a good afternoon, Bucky.”

“Y-you, too. Thank you, again. And I really am sorry.”

Apology hanging in the air, Bucky ended the call and closed his eyes. It took nearly twenty minutes for his heart to stop pounding in his chest.

 


 

Alex called him back two days later, sounding exceedingly pleased with himself when Bucky answered.

“We’re going to create a diversion,” he said, giddy with his cleverness in a way Bucky remembered well. “Get people’s minds off Steve and remind them that you’re the one they love.”

“Oh, but I d-don’t want to—”

“Nothing too splashy,” Alex continued as if Bucky hadn’t spoken. “Entertainment Weekly’s been after Jessie and Annalisa about a reunion shoot for years, but they both said they wouldn’t do it without you. This is the perfect opportunity.”

“A...what? R-reunion?”

“It’s very popular right now, reviving these old sitcoms. Hell, Bucky, if we play our cards right, we could get a Netflix series greenlit. Something focusing on your sister’s kids, but you could cameo—”

“Um.” Bucky’s head was spinning. This wasn’t...he didn’t want...but Alex knew how these things worked, and…

“Now, it’s not forever. We just want to get your name out there and associated with something positive, you understand?” Something that’s just about you, not Steve. You see where I’m going?”

No. “K-kind of, but—”

“So, you’re interested?”

“W-well…”

Alex gave a long-suffering sigh, as though Bucky were unreasonable. Maybe he was. "The opportunity's not going to wait around forever, Bucky."

Was it an opportunity? Alex seemed to think so, and Alex knew how these things worked. It was a tactic Bucky hadn’t thought of, if nothing else. Doing something to distract the press could prove useful, even if the idea of standing in front of a camera again made him want to puke until there was nothing left of him but a quivering pile of misery.

“I j-just need some time to think,” he stammered. “I’m s-sorry, Alex. Can I have a day?”

Eternally aggrieved, Alex sighed, and Bucky winced. “I...suppose. But honestly, kiddo, I don’t know why you can’t see the opportunity here…”

“I d-do,” he managed. “And I’m grateful. I just. Need to think.”

“You should be grateful,” Alex agreed. “But I know it’s been a long time so...I’ll call you tomorrow. See what you’ve decided.”

“Thank you.”

“And Bucky?”

“Yes?”

“I hope you realize that a chance like this won’t come around again.”

Bucky stuttered out another apology, but Alex had already ended the call. After that, there was nothing to do but think the offer over. In the shower, in bed, while feeding Bert, or eating what scant little he’d been able to stomach since he’d last seen Steve.

The very notion of doing the show again terrified him, even if it was just a cameo. He didn’t want to do that, and the longer he turned the idea over in his head, the more resolute he became in his convictions. No—no Netflix greenlights. No revivals.

But the EW article? The photoshoot? Seeing Jessie and Annalisa again?

Maybe.

Maybe he could do that.

Give the press another story, build some goodwill with the denizens of the internet. Play into his own joke of an image, tell a couple of stories about how well he was doing, and let the sheer improbability of his fling with Steve fade into the background.

As he lay in bed, worrying into the wee hours of the morning, he had another thought. One that had nothing to do with photo shoots or the press. One that he couldn't get out of his head, despite his worry and his anxiety and his desperate need to prove to Alex that he had changed for the better.

The thought, spoken to him in a voice that sounded an awful lot like Steve’s, was that Alex had never once asked how Bucky was. Hadn’t asked about what he was doing or what his life was like now. Hadn’t asked about Becca, or Winnie, or given Bucky’s accomplishments more than a pat-on-the-head platitude.

Had Alex always been like that? Bucky couldn't remember, but surely he had cared more when Bucky was small? Likely he was just amped on excitement and opportunity and eventually he'd get around to finding out what Bucky had been doing with himself over the years. Eventually, he'd be interested, the way he had before.

He let you get in the car and drive away, the faux-Steve in his head chided. That’s caring?

Bucky tossed and turned with that disconcerting notion until, at three-thirty in the morning, needing answers and finding none in his mixed-up mind, he reached for his phone and tapped out a text.

 

Hi. Can we talk? I can come see you first thing.

 

Even though it was late enough to qualify as early, by some standards, the dots signaling a response began blinking, the reply coming within seconds.

 

Of course! Always welcome. I’ll make you breakfast. :)

 

An enthusiastic response, though that came as no surprise. Turning onto his side, Bucky managed to eke out a few hours of sleep. The next morning, he left his building around eleven, sneaking out the freight entrance to avoid any photographers that might have been lurking out front. He walked two blocks downtown before hailing a taxi, clambering into the back and nodding to the driver.

“Cobble Hill,” he said, ignoring the man’s grimace as they set off in the direction of his mother’s house.

 

Chapter Text

Some part of Steve had always enjoyed the anger.

Anger was simple. A clean, pure rage, honed over a lifetime from all-consuming vitriol towards a world that had made him too small and too sick, to something flinty and sharp, cutting to the quick of his temper. Oh, yes, he was angry. Angry at the burden of sorrow and confusion on his shoulders, angry at the circumstances, angry at the cruelty of other people.

He was not, however, angry with Bucky.

Letting fly another punch that set the weighted bag spinning on its chain, support struts groaning at the impact, Steve ignored the chafing on his knuckles. It had been a day since Bucky’s attempt at ending their relationship, and Steve had yet to do much more than vent his personal head of steam against the reinforced equipment in their gym.

It wasn’t fair, what had been done to Bucky. As a child, young adult, now—none of it was fair. Anything that made him think he had no other way of fixing things than cutting Steve out of his life? That was bullshit. And the fact that he thought it was the best thing for Steve? Christ.

As if living with nothing was better than fighting for something.

Steve hit the bag with a grunt, dust raining down from the girders above as he swiped a hand across his eyes and nose, snuffling against his palm. The last thing he needed was an excuse to feel sorrier for himself, and he wasn't going to get emotional. Not when he knew there was something odd afoot. Some bullshit of which he had yet to find the source.

Because Bucky had been fine. He'd been himself—ignoring the news and remaining none-the-wiser to the shitty things being said about him. Then, as if the universe had seen fit to take its finger from the dike holding back the floodwaters of anxiety and fear, a drop of something had gotten through.

Or someone.

Steve wasn’t sure—couldn’t be certain—but he had a pretty good goddamned idea of who that someone might be.

Fuck. Fuck. Resetting his stance, he shook his head and bounced on the balls of his feet, blinking twice and blowing out a harsh breath.

He should have fought harder. Should have stood his ground and told Bucky precisely what he thought of his breakup.

But no. Bucky had been bound and determined to push him away, and if Steve had fought back, things might have ended with malice rather than regret. Might have left a nasty, open wound between them, the relationship turning rotten with nothing left to salvage.

Christ, Steve loved him, though. Still fucking loved him.

Maybe, though. If he gave Bucky time, like before, maybe he would—

“Been down here a while, Steve.”

The unexpected voice threw him off, so caught up in his head that he’d failed to hear Sam’s footsteps behind him. Sloppy, Rogers.

“Shit,” Steve managed, turning around to find Sam with a half-smile on his face, already taping up his hands. “Hey.”

“Afternoon. Mind if I join you?”

"I'm not much company." It was neither a no nor a yes. Steve was angry and sullen and proud, but he also didn't want to be alone anymore.

“Don’t need to talk,” Sam replied. “Nat’s gonna be late—we were supposed to go a few rounds.”

"That's foreplay these days, huh?" Steve offered, a lame attempt at a joke because if he could convince Sam everything was fine, he might feel better.

“Just about.” Sam grinned and reached for his gloves, shrugging. Steve loved that Sam never reacted like a scandalized nun when he made a dirty joke—one of his better attributes, which was saying something, considering most of his attributes were excellent.

“She ever let you win?”

“Where’s the fun in that?”

“Fair. So you’re saying you don’t want me to pull my punches?”

“No, absolutely I want you to pull your punches. Are you kidding me?”

Steve laughed, grateful for the reprieve from his wallowing as he clapped Sam on the shoulder before going to get his gloves. Duking it out with Sam wasn’t as strenuous as going at it with Thor, or Peter, or even Nat, but it was a decent distraction—Sam was light on his feet, and he could trash talk with the best of them, keeping Steve moving and out of his head.

Not so out of his head, however, that Sam didn’t manage to land a decent one-two a few minutes in that had Steve staking a step back.

“Jesus,” he laughed. It hadn’t hurt, but he hadn’t seen it coming, either, which went to show where his head was at.

“You come by that glass jaw naturally?” Sam deadpanned.

“So fuckin’ funny, Wilson, I almost forgot to laugh.”

“Ohhh, last time I heard that joke, my grandpa was making it.”

“Hilarious, really.”

“I’m serious. And here I thought, being that you—”

“Bucky broke it off,” Steve blurted, because shit, he couldn’t keep joking. Couldn’t keep playing like nothing was wrong when everything was shit.

Sam’s smile faded, replaced by a disbelieving frown. “What are you talking about?”

“He uh. You’ve seen the news.”

“Old news now.”

“Yeah. Well. Guess it took some time for him to make up his mind. But he uh, doesn’t want the attention.”

“You think it’s gonna stick?”

“Dunno. Hope not, but—” he trailed off, feeling very much like Bucky as he chewed on his lip. “Thing is, I know I’m gonna be a pill, and I’d uh...rather not have to tell everyone why?” Much like how the other Avengers had found out about Steve dating Bucky through the grapevine, he figured the tale of their breakup might be better shared the same way.

“You want me spreading the news?”

“If you wouldn’t mind.”

“Consider it done.”

“Thanks, Sam.”

“Sure.” He hesitated. “How uh...you alright?”

“Nope. But I’m doing my best to be optimistic.”

 


 

Sam was an excellent conduit, and over the next few days Steve found himself having conversations with his teammates that indicated that they knew, they just weren’t going to be overt about it.

Take Bruce, who had been at the upstate facility for several weeks, helping Tony Hulk-proof some new equipment. As was often the case, he appeared overnight, and Steve found him sunning himself on a yoga mat by the windows in the common room, doing some complicated thing that was probably called something beautiful in its original language but had been bastardized by the western world into Dog Baby Sunshine Pose.

“Hi,” Steve said, cocking his head to the side.

“Morning, Steve,” Bruce replied, righting himself and sitting cross-legged on the lavender mat. “Care to join me?”

“Can’t,” Steve said, holding his bowl of cereal aloft. He’d been planning to eat on the terrace, which was a good place for moping. “Cheerios.”

“Don’t let me disturb you, then.”

Bruce had a gift for not being disturbing, Steve had discovered over the years they’d spent together. He also—contrary to popular belief—was neither wholly a hippie zen yoga master nor a seething suppressed ball of rage. Those supposed dynamics were so opposite that the truth, of course, lay somewhere in the middle, as truth tended to do. Bruce Banner was a wonderfully intelligent, articulate man, whose hubris had once led him down a dark path. He would be paying for that hubris for the rest of his long life. Despite that, or maybe because of it, Bruce had made his peace with the Hulk over the years. They would never exist together entirely without friction, but there was a symmetry now. A balance.

Or, hell, maybe Bruce’s inner life was a lot more complicated than that, and Steve ought to stick to punching and less to philosophizing.  

Fifteen minutes into his mope, the door to the terrace opened, and Bruce stepped out with two mugs of tea in his hands.

“Thought you might want this,” he offered.

Steve, having learned the restorative merits of a cuppa at Peggy Carter’s side, reached for the mug and was pleased to discover he had made it just the way Steve liked—lots of milk, no sugar. It was quite the contrast to the bitter, herbal brew Bruce preferred.

“Thank you,” Steve said, before taking a sip, the masochist within him enjoying the scald of the liquid on his tongue. “How’s everything upstate?”

“Loud,” he said with a wry smile. “Tony’s been busy.”

“Glad you’ve escaped to the peace and quiet of Manhattan?”

“Exactly.” Bruce settled himself on one of the plush patio chairs, blowing across the surface of his tea. “I’m glad I ran into you, actually.”

“Oh?”

“I was thinking about that guy you were seeing—Bucky, wasn’t it?”

Steve didn’t bother to hide his wince. “Mmm.”

“When you first asked me about him, I didn’t know who he was,” he continued. “But Sam was pretty uh...enlightening?”

Of course Sam was. Steve hid his smile.

“And I think,” Bruce said. “It can be hard, sometimes, to cope with things when the world slaps a label on you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means that I’m sorry for what happened to you. A breakup’s a lousy thing. But when it comes to why he might have done it, there’s a part of me that understands the desire to keep the world at arm’s length when your life falls apart.”

“Bucky’s not...his life didn’t…” Steve trailed off, frustrated at not being able to find the words for the point Bruce was so clearly making.

“It’s relative, Steve. I’m the world champion at running away from things—easier to keep people out than deal with their baggage. All those complicated feelings. Who needs ‘em?”

“It’s…” Steve smiled in spite of himself. “You said once that you’re always angry, but I don’t think Bucky is. With him, it’s like...it’s like he never lets himself get there. Never lets himself push all the way through it and come out the other side.”

(Was it a betrayal, to be talking so intimately about Bucky with someone else? Steve wasn’t sure. He was never sure, about things like that. But didn’t normal people do it? Discuss their problems with their friends?)

“Just because he’s not tapping into it doesn’t mean it’s not there,” Bruce replied. “Though God knows I’m not a role model.”

“Yeah, well. We’d all make lousy therapists.”

“No shit.” Bruce smiled, taking a tentative first sip of his tea. “I’m just...I wanted to talk to you, and this is gonna sound like a greeting card sentiment, so please forgive me in advance.”

“Oh no.”

“Yeah, picture a bouquet of daisies and some flowery script.”

“Disgusting.”

Bruce snorted, holding back a laugh. "All I'm trying to say is that...before I had you guys, I put myself in a place where I had nothing and no-one. I believed I was fine because I was helping other people. But being there, alone? I was half of myself, and I'm not talking about the other guy. It took Nat, and you, and Tony, and Thor, and everyone else to bring out the parts of me—all of me—it…" he cleared his throat. "It took every single one of you to help me see that I was more than the label the world had given me. You understand?"

Steve could appreciate the lesson, and it was a nice idea. But if it had taken other people to pull Bruce from the depths of his sorrow, then why hadn’t Steve been enough for Bucky?

Maybe he hadn’t done anything at all.

He wasn’t going to put that on Bruce, though, so he nodded and forced a smile. “Sure. Thanks, Bruce.”

 


 

The sympathetic murmurs and well-wishes kept coming in dribs and drabs. To their credit, nobody on the team was walking on tenterhooks around him. They knew him well enough to understand that mollycoddling was far from his preferred method of dealing with problems. Straightforward approaches suited him fine. Or distractions. Distractions were good.

Wanda, for example, dragged him downstairs to her floor for a racing video game, insisting that she needed someone with quick reflexes to train against, being as Pietro was her usual opponent. That was a losing proposition if Steve ever heard one, but he appreciated the invitation.

“You are better at this than you were before,” she said as Steve leaned into the curve with his whole body, having never quite grasped how to play video games with anything other than ridiculous physicality. Came in useful when grappling with Tony’s VR equipment, not so much with Mario Kart.

“Bucky had—” he began, before cutting himself off with a shrug. Whatever games Bucky did or did not have on his laptop had no bearing on the situation.

Wanda didn’t reply, for which Steve was grateful. Instead, she sent a barrage of bombs shaped like turtle shells in his direction.

“God damn it, Maximoff!” he swore, jamming both thumbs onto the buttons in a wild mishmash of energy, as though sheer enthusiasm might help.

“Don’t break my buttons!” she protested, before lapping him again, taking the lead. “You see, this is stupid because you are so slow, and Pietro is so fast. Either I am so good it is boring to play, or so bad I am being frustrated.”

“Your life’s a hardship, kid.”

“Do not be a sore loser. It looks bad on your face.”

“I didn’t lose! That’s...third. Decent, for an old man.”

“You are hardly old.”

“You know what I mean.”

“That shit only works with Tony.”

“Yeah, yeah. Want to go again?”

“In a minute,” she replied, setting down her controller. “I want to say, I heard about your friend, from Sam.”

“Oh. Wanda, you don’t have to—”

“And I am very sorry,” she said. “That you are hurting.”

Shit. The rusted lock holding shut the chest of emotions Steve had locked in his chest gave a creak, threatening to crack under the pressure of her caring. “Thanks,” he muttered with a curt nod.

“I liked him,” she continued, laying a hand on his arm. Such an empath—no superpowers necessary, simply a good person, right down to her center. “This is to say, I did not know him. But I like you when he is making you happy. So for that loss, you are grieving, and I am sorry."

Steve coughed, blinking rapidly before giving her hand an awkward pat. “Thank you, sweetheart,” he said, voice rough and endearment old-fashioned. Ah well, the sentiment was modern enough.

Wanda, no doubt sensing just how close he was to the edge of something, shrugged. “You are welcome. Now, let me kick you off the rainbow road.”

 


 

Natasha’s consoling came easy, but that was Nat all over. His first friend, even before Sam. The teammate who understood him best; alike and apart in equal measures, the two of them less opposite sides of a coin and more two halves of some universal whole. Nat was Nat, for good or for ill, and Steve loved that about her.

He woke up in the wee hours of the morning on the fourth day post-breakup to find her sitting at the foot of his bed, legs crossed, hoodie pulled over her head. For a moment, he was sure death had come to claim him, but then she grinned, and he rolled his eyes.

“Jesus Christ, Nat, you scared the sh—”

“Get up, lazy. We’re going for a run.”

“It’s…” he glanced to his bedside table. “Three in the morning.”

“Your point?”

“Fuck.”

Ten minutes later, they were jogging down Park Avenue, streets silent save for those souls who were already up and working—the street sweepers and delivery vans trundling along—and those who hadn’t yet made it home, tottering along in high heels and tight jeans. It was simple to lose himself in the rhythm of his run, Steve found. Feet pounding pavement, one-two-one-two, heart thumping in his ears, though he was hardly straining. They made their way towards the waterfront, which smelled like dead fish, but what else was new?

“You pissed at him?” Natasha asked as the sun began to crest the horizon.

“No,” Steve said. “Not at him.”

“Should I be pissed at him?”

“No.”

“He was good for you.”

“I know.”

“Were you good for him?”

“Thought I was.”

“You love him?”

The question stopped Steve short, and he doubled over with his hands on his knees, drawing great lungfuls of air as he squeezed his eyes shut tight. Natasha continued on for a few paces before doubling back, her hand falling to Steve’s neck, where she squeezed gently, cradling him for the few minutes it took him to recover.

When he straightened up, she took her hand away, and they continued to run.

 


 

Steve hadn’t been expecting to hear from Tony. Sure, the friendship that existed between the two of them was real—God knew Tony had pulled his ass out of the fire a time or ten—but it wasn’t warm or fraternal the way his friendships with some of the others were. He and Tony were close colleagues, more than anything else. Steve was sure they both preferred it that way.

But then, the call to action came. The eco-terrorist with the locust swarm was no lone actor. Instead, he was part of a larger cell if idiots who were hell-bent on recreating the Biblical plagues across the cornfields of Iowa. What was undoubtedly meant as divine retribution against Monsanto, however, had turned into a shitstorm of gargantuan proportions, mostly affecting civilians on the ground, and the Avengers had been called to assemble.

Strangely, Tony had elected to travel on the Quinjet with the team, rather than scouting ahead. Steve discovered why when Tony zeroed in on him with a purpose, sitting down beside him and shrugging. “So. About Barnes.”

Sure. Of course. There was a man-made storm of hail and hellfire threatening to wipe out half the country’s crops, and Tony wanted to talk about his love life.

“What about him?” Steve said, masking his annoyance in what he hoped was a neutral tone.

“That manager of his, Pierce? Nat was looking into him, right?”

“Uh.” It never failed to surprise Steve, what Tony paid attention to and what he ignored completely. Sure, Alexander Pierce was on his radar. Logical. “Yes?”

"Right. So she had Pepper make some calls—overprotective if you ask me, but if you and Punky Buckster—"

Tony,” Steve growled.

“Right. James.”

“It’s…” Steve pinched the bridge of his nose and counted to three. “Was there something you wanted to share with me, or are you just making conversation?”

“Pierce is a piece of work, but I think you already knew that,” he replied, as though Steve hadn’t spoken. “And I know from pieces of work.”

“Oh, come on, Tony, we both know you’re not that ba—”

“Excuse me?” Faux-scandalized, Tony put a hand over his heart. “I wasn’t talking about myself.”

“Oh.”

“Don’t get me wrong, I am a piece of work, but I like to think of my work as a fine wine...vintage. Aged. Austere, and with a hint of—”

“Alright, alright, I’m sorry.”

“Thank you. All I wanted to say, is that this guy, this Pierce. Well. If I had to bet, I’d say he did a number on your boy.”

“That’s not news.”

“Just…” Tony shook his head. “Pepper, she makes me read all these books. One of them was...alright, so the thing is, when you’re a kid, and you start worshipping an adult when you’re young? Doesn’t matter whether it’s your dad, or your manager, or your...business partner.”

Tony was giving him an intense look, like he was hoping Steve was a monkey smart enough to press the button that would dispense his goddamn treat. Which, alright, Tony did know a few things about hero worship, Steve would give him that.

“I get it,” he replied. “Adults screw kids up. Groundbreaking stuff.”

Tony gave him a half-smile and shook his head. “It’s harder than it looks to rip a god from a pedestal, especially when you’re the one putting them up there. Believe me, I know. And if someone’s not ready to wield that sledgehammer? Shit, Cap, that’s not on you. You can’t fix that.”

Steve in the stealth suit on the quinjet, talking to Tony, who is not in the picture

Steve’s lips twisted into what he was sure was an extremely unbecoming expression as he ran his hands down his thighs, squeezing his kneecaps when they got there. “That’s. It’s. He can’t, and I couldn’t—”

“Whoa, no,” Tony said. “That’s so many years of psychoanalysis I am in no way qualified to administer, believe you me. Talk to Pepper. Read a book.”

The abruptness with which Tony danced away from the conversation made Steve laugh, and he raised an eyebrow. “Did you just—” he began, before a crackle on comms cut him off.

“We’ll be on the ground in three,” Natasha said, voice even-keeled, though the sky outside was growing steadily darker.

Steve got to his feet, walking to the cockpit where he stood between Clint and Natasha's chairs, letting out a low whistle at the size of the massive black cloud which was blocking out the sun. Scorch marks were pocking the earth beneath them, no doubt left by the synthetic hail, which reports had said was the size of basketballs, destroying farms and fields indiscriminately.

“That...is a dilly of a pickle, wouldn’t you say, Cap?”

Clint always did have a way of putting things into perspective.

 

Chapter Text

Winnie was waiting on the front stoop of the brownstone when Bucky’s cab pulled up outside, wearing a cardigan and yoga pants that made her look as though LL Bean and Lululemon had procreated. Bucky paid the driver and stepped out as she got to her feet, offering him a half-smile and a wave, both of which he returned.

As he walked towards her, he was struck by the laugh lines creasing the skin around her eyes, as well as the furrows now permanently etched into her brow. God, she would be fifty-six this year. When was the last time he’d looked at her—really looked at her? Fifteen years? Twenty? Her youth had been something permanent and immovable and solid in his mind all this time: pretty Winnie, vibrant Winnie, winsome Winnie. The woman who had found herself so overwhelmed, so put-upon, so flutteringly confused by the life into which she’d stumbled. His mother. With her laugh lines and her wrinkles.

How had he not noticed? Hadn’t been looking, probably. Instead, he’d spent their brief interactions staring at his lap, his hand, the wall, the floor. Anywhere but at her, during those few afternoons together. Because looking at her meant acknowledging her fallibility. Her humanity.

Bucky was looking now.

“Hi, Ma,” he said, pushing his hood from his brow, greasy-haired and tired, though Winnie wouldn’t mind.

“Hi, baby,” she said, more tentative than usual, as if she couldn’t quite believe Bucky was there, alone, of his own volition. “You wanna come in?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Have you been waiting long? I know I said morning—” Technically, it was, as noon was still ten minutes off.

“Not too long,” she replied, opening the door and allowing him into the entry hall, her fingertips barely grazing his hoodie as he passed. “I’ve been checking, off and on.”

“Right,” he said, and as Winnie went to unlock the door to her apartment, Bucky scrambled for something simple. Conversational. “Is Bill here?”

“He’s not, no,” she said. “He’s visiting his sister and her kids this weekend. She lives in Ithaca. You know Ithaca, don’t you?”

Bucky did indeed know Ithaca—two years of frozen tundras and deep gorges leading to a master’s degree and an escape to Manhattan in the end.

“Uh huh,” he nodded, stepping inside when Winnie gestured.

The smell of bacon hit him first, followed by something warm and spicy—cinnamon and nutmeg. Because she’d baked for him, a foil-covered casserole dish resting on a trivet on the countertop.

“Are those cinnamon rolls?” he asked. How early had she gotten up to do that? Had she even gone back to sleep after his text? Dozed while the dough was proving?

“They are,” she smiled. “I hope you still like them.”

“I do,” he said, something he didn’t want to name welling in his chest. “I...you didn’t have to do that. Thank you.”

“It wasn’t any trouble. Sit down, I’ll warm one up for you.”

The barstools gracing the kitchen island were right out of an IKEA showroom, surprisingly strong despite their origins. Bucky watched while Winnie puttered, talking to herself as she sought out a knife (“not that one, now where’s the...oh, right where you left it!”), a plate (“last clean one, sorry honey, meant to run the dishwasher”), and a fork (“you’ll want a big one”). She sat the fork in front of him before cutting a cinnamon roll the size of his head from the Pyrex, placing it on the plate, and putting it in the microwave to warm.

“S-still holding that grudge against the Pillsbury Doughboy, huh?” Bucky said, going for good humor.

“Giggling little bastard,” Winnie replied, licking some errant icing from her finger. “Bill bought those awful biscuits for Thanksgiving, by the way. As if I couldn’t make them.”

“Your biscuits were good, but the cinnamon rolls—” Bucky grinned. “Remember when Becca got into the powdered sugar?”

“And dumped the whole bag on her head? How could I ever forget.”

Becca had been all of two at the time, and Bucky could still recall the joy he’d felt, discovering her sitting in their tiny kitchenette, sugar coating every bit of her body. He’d skipped off merrily to tell Winnie what she’d done, and her reaction had been as horrified as Bucky’s had been delighted.

“You’re going right on Santa’s naughty list, Rebecca Winifred Barnes!” Bucky mimicked.

“Oh my God,” Winnie said, covering her face with both hands as the microwave beeped. “I forgot I said that to her.”

“Eh,” Bucky smiled. “She had it coming.”

“I remember you finding the entire thing hilarious.” Popping the door open, Winnie tested the plate before pulling it out. “You kept insisting she did it on purpose.”

“She did!”

“She was two,” she smiled, setting the plate down in front of Bucky and shaking her head. “Let me know if that needs more time in the—”

“I’m sorry,” he said, startling her as his brain lit up with a sudden need to explain. To justify. To get on with the hard parts. “Um. F-for running out, on Thanksgiving. I should have...I should have c-called you later.”

Winnie made a low humming noise, her fingers drumming the countertop near his arm, though she didn’t touch him. “I’m sorry, too,” she said, hesitating as she went to cover the remaining rolls with foil. “I think I was expecting too much, and I put a lot of pressure on you.”

Bucky took a bite of his belated breakfast, swallowing a sigh as the taste of everything good about his childhood flooded his mouth. Wasn’t much, but there it was. “I was putting pressure on myself,” he conceded. “You were just…”

“Helping,” she said with a wry smile, keeping herself busy as she swept crumbs from the countertop into her palm. “How’s Steve? I’ve been keeping up a little, with the news, and I’m sorry...”

“We broke up.”

Winnie snapped to attention, blue eyes keen. “Over this? He broke up with you over this?”

“No!” Bucky was quick to correct her, surprised at the vehemence in her tone. “I uh. I was the one who ended it.”

Winnie’s shoulders relaxed slightly, and she went to brush the crumbs into the sink. When she turned back around, though, the furrow in her brow had deepened. “It’s not my place to say anything. So I’ll just say that I’m sorry if you’re hurting. I—” shaking her head, she reached out as if to touch him again, before thinking better of it and staying her hand. “Well.”

Bucky wished she wouldn’t. For all that he’d shied away from her touch before, now that she was doing her best to be respectful of those boundaries, he found himself craving the contact. Ever the hypocrite, his broken brain.

“Thank you,” he said, eating another forkful and changing the subject to one that wasn’t bleeding raw. “This is really good. It tastes just like it used to.”

“Same recipe.”

“Grandma’s, right?”

“Mmm.”

Silence descended, though it wasn’t an especially awkward one. It was almost comfortable—Bucky, genuinely enjoying his food for the first time in days, and Winnie continuing to clean around him. He could have gotten used to that warmth and familiarity, but he’d come there for a reason, and it would do him no good to delay the inevitable.

“Ma?” he said, pressing the tines of his fork into the spongy dough, watching as it sprang back when he lifted the utensil away.

“Yeah, baby?”

“Um. Alex called me.”

Winnie’s hand froze on the sponge she’d been using to wipe down the sink, her shoulders drawing towards her ears as tension radiated down her spine. “Oh?” she said, voice pitched unnaturally high.

"Uh huh. He saw the stuff in the press, about Steve and me. And he offered to help me make it go away. So um, I called him, and asked him what I could do."

Keeping her back turned, Winnie put the sponge in its caddy before resting her hands on the edge of the sink. “And what did he suggest?” she queried, voice tremulous.

“Oh. Um. A reunion article, with Jessie and Annalisa? Get the press focused on that, instead of Steve.”

Winnie sniffed, and for a brief moment, Bucky thought she was crying. However, when she turned to face him, the expression on her face wasn’t sadness. It was barely suppressed fury—not unlike the expression Steve had worn when Bucky had told him about Alexander the first time.

“Never let it be said that Alexander Pierce isn’t a born opportunist,” she said stiffly.

The back of Bucky’s neck prickled, and he set his fork down with a clatter. “What does that mean?”

“It’s…” Winnie schooled her expression. “Nevermind, honey.”

Bucky resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “No, what?”

“I shouldn’t have said anything,” she said. “I don’t want to ruin...we’re having a good morning, Bucky, let’s not—”

She blinked twice, and oh, there were the tears. Winnie’s reservoir was never far from full, eternally bubbling beneath the surface. Weaponized sadness, deployed whenever she needed it. Alex had always said she was manipulative—a born actress, capable of drawing on pity in her striving to deflect blame and defer responsibility.

Typical Winnie.

Only, what did she have to gain now? What could she possibly be hoping to coerce him into as she turned away, discreetly wiping her eyes and coughing before forcing a smile onto her face? Sunny as she looked back at him as if changing the subject might save the situation. "Have you spoken with Becs recently? She's in—"

“I want to talk about Alex,” Bucky interrupted, tempering his tone.

“Bucky…”

"I don't want to fight, though." He shook his head. "It's just hard because I d-d-don't—" Taking a deep breath, he counted to five and tried again. "It's only that I recently realized that I never um...we haven't ever talked about what h-happened."

“Oh…” Winnie looked down at her hands. “Bucky…”

“I only know what I r-remember,” he stammered. “And I don’t...when it got bad...I don’t remember much.”

“Bucky,” she repeated. “Baby, I don’t know if I can—”

“Please, mama?” Bucky could weaponize sadness, too, leaning forward and biting his lip.

Winnie closed her eyes, voice splintering when she tried to speak, and for a moment Bucky wondered if he’d pushed her too far. But then, she drew herself up, chin jutting out. Just like his. Just like Becca’s. “What do you want to know?”

Now that the question had been posed, Bucky found himself unsure of where to begin. After a moment’s consideration, however, he decided it was best to start at the beginning of the end.

“Why did you hire him?” he asked, looking down at his plate.

“Because they were threatening to drop you from the show,” she said. “You were having such trouble—”

“But I was popular,” Bucky countered. That part of the story had never sat quite right with him, and Steve’s questioning of it on Christmas had further reinforced his doubts. “I know I was having problems, but I always thought the whole...Stevie St-Stone crap was the reason the show even got a third season.”

“It’s...your contract was up after that season. Can I…” placing her hands on the counter again, she leaned forward. “It was a long time ago, Bucky. I don’t remember everything perfectly, but I’m going to try, alright?”

Bucky nodded, picking up his fork to prod at the remnants of his food as she continued.  

“Scott—” she hesitated. “You remember Scott, right?”

Scott the producer, with the big, fake smile and the slicked-back hair and the expensive grey suits. Bucky remembered him, and he nodded.

“During the second season—and this was right after your father filed the lawsuit, but we uh...don’t need to rehash that—but you weren’t happy. I was stressed out about the money, and about you being so miserable, and Becca was having those awful tantrums all the time. I was just…” she shook her head, giving him a tired smile. “I want to say I was at the end of my rope, but it’s a long goddamn rope, Bucky.”

“Ma…”

“Hang on a second,” she said, holding up a hand. “It’s...Scott calls me into his office one day, and he tells me you’re a liability—they can only work you and Annalisa so many hours per day, and that you were wasting their time. He said that if I didn’t get a handle on you, they weren’t going to re-up your contract. Which…” she trailed off with a snort.

“What?”

“That thing you said. About being popular. Part of me wonders if he was feeding me a line. You were making them money. Christ knows you were making them more through the stupid t-shirt sales than you were losing them when you acted out on set.” Clearing her throat, she shook her head. “But that’s...you know, that’s me thinking it through now. And this was then, and I didn’t know shit. All I knew was that we finally had some money, and I was able to save for you and your sister—buy you the things you needed, you know? And it was your work, baby, I know that, but I just saw your dad with the lawsuit, and they were threatening your future, and I got...I got scared.”

Bucky might have been scared, too. Winnie had been young, barely mid-twenties, with two kids and no experience in an industry she'd suddenly found herself a part of. Her strengths had never been in her forthrightness or her fortitude; she was lousy in a crisis, and she was always looking for the easy way out. Bucky could see how she might have crumbled under the weight of all that pressure from an influential person with an intimidating threat.

Fuck. Wasn’t so different from him, when it came down to it.    

“Scott thought you needed a manager, someone to get a handle on your career and to help relieve some of the stress on me,” Winnie continued. “He suggested a friend of his, someone who was new to the industry, but good with kids.”

“Alex,” Bucky said, unable to help the bitterness that tinged his tone.

“Honey,” Winnie began, taking a deep breath. “You and Becca adored him. The first day, he came to the apartment and sat right down on the floor with you two, started playing with you both like he’d known you for years. And I thought…” she blinked back tears. “I thought he was a fucking godsend.”

"But...”

“It’s so stupid, in retrospect. Nobody’s that…” she forced a laugh. “He just came in and fixed things, you know? He found a good lawyer, got Becca some auditions, and got you to a doctor—”

“That’s...yeah. The d-doctor. What um, they said I had uh...ADHD, right?”

“Yes.”

“And they gave me Ritalin, right?”

Winnie nodded, frowning. “That’s...yes.”

“Did you ever think that um...they didn’t?”

Winnie’s head snapped up, eyes sharp. “What are you talking about?”

Shrugging, Bucky put down his fork and pushed some hair behind his ear. “Well. I had this uh, conversation with Steve a while ago? And I started thinking, and then I went and looked up like...what Ritalin does for you? And like...that wasn’t how I felt when I was on it? Or...I mean. I’m not sure that’s what it was.”

“What?” Winnie barked. “Bucky, that’s—”

“I’m not saying Alex knew or anything,” Bucky shrugged. “Maybe the doctor was corrupt, or maybe…”

(Or maybe Alex did know maybe maybe maybe maybe! said that disconcerting little Steve-voice in his head that couldn’t seem to shut the fuck up these days.)

“Alexander was…” Winnie frowned. “He likes himself too goddamn much to jeopardize his position that way…”

“I mean, probably he didn’t realize,” Bucky offered, though the gears were turning in both their heads that told them probably he did realize and did it anyway.

“Fuck,” Winnie muttered. “Fuck, if that’s true…”

“If it’s true, then it’s all hindsight. And that’s not even what I’m—” he took a deep breath. “I’m just trying to piece it all together. The Alex stuff, I mean. So I need to um...when did you start sleeping with him?”

Winnie made a choking noise, her eyes going wide. “Bucky—”

“Ma, come on. We both know you were. You admitted it during the uh, the deposition stuff. When I was getting emancipated. I just want to know how long it wa—”

“Baby, if I could take that back,” she said, the tears she’d been keeping at bay finally spilling onto her cheeks. “I would. I’d…”

“I just want to know what happened,” he said, not wanting to be cruel, but not needing another excuse.

Winnie nodded, reaching for the paper towel dispenser to rip off a sheet and using it to wipe her eyes. “Alright,” she agreed, taking in a shaky breath before blowing her nose. “You’re entitled to that.” Another bit of hesitation, though Bucky could cut her some slack, considering it was a topic neither of them relished broaching. “Alex is...you know how he is. He’s charming. Or he was. And I was...stupid. Susceptible to the charm, I suppose. I knew he was married, and I fell for it anyway.” She laughed, the noise a bitter, twisted thing in her throat. “He used to tell me he’d leave her. He must have said it a thousand times—he was going to divorce her. That he loved you and Becca like you were the kids he’d never had. That we were going to be a family together.”

“What?” Bucky sat up straight, nearly swallowing his tongue. “That’s...but he told me…”

“What?” Winnie echoed, frowning.

“He used to say that you’d uh…” he paused, cleaning up Alexander’s language in his head. “Th-that you were always begging him to leave her. And that you threatened to t-tell her about the affair when he tried to end it.”

“Oh, that’s fucking rich,” Winnie snorted, another harsh bark of laughter escaping. “She knew. Christ, she’d known for years—and it wasn’t just me, honey. It was a lot of women. But he was rich, and he had influence, and she had a line of purses to sell. So she stayed with him, and he did whatever the fuck he wanted.”

“You stayed with him, too,” he said with a frown.

“That’s…yeah,” she shrugged. “Three years, baby. Which was about two years three hundred sixty-four days longer than I should have.”

“But…” Bucky frowned. That didn’t make sense. “You were with him when I left home.”

It was Winnie's turn to look surprised, and she shook her head. "No. I ended things with him that summer you went off to shoot the stupid camp sequel. You came home, and you were acting so strange, and then I caught you raiding the liquor cabinet."

Bucky winced. That had been a terrible fight. Winnie had discovered him halfway through a bottle of creme de menthe—the only liquor she’d had in the house at the time—and she’d freaked out. Screamed at him and scared him, after which he’d proceeded to throw up most of what he’d drunk as she panicked. It hadn’t been the best example of outstanding parenting, but then, what was the appropriate response to finding your nine-year-old drunk off his ass on a Tuesday afternoon?

“But—” he began, preconceived notions breaking apart in his head.

“I put you to bed,” she said wearily. “And I called Alex to ask him what the fuck had gone on during the shoot. He acted like he had no idea what I was talking about—”

Bucky snorted, because that was some horseshit. Alex had known full-well about the drinking, gently admonishing Bucky to be more careful. More discreet. That it wasn’t becoming, and it could put his future in jeopardy.

“Yeah,” Winnie sighed. “I didn’t believe him, not really. Not with the influence he had on you. So I told him that...I needed a minute. Needed a break. Needed to—” she cut herself off with a laugh, this one nearly hysterical. “I threatened to fire him. Said that if I couldn’t trust him with you on a shoot, I couldn’t trust him with your management.”

“You did?”

Of course I did!” She shrugged, wiping her eyes again. “Honey, I might have been an idiot for thinking he could ever love me. But you and Becca were...baby, you two were everything. My whole world.”  

“But Alex—”

“Oh he got sweet,” she said. “Got real contrite. Promised me it would never happen again.”

“He lied.”

“He’s good at that,” Winnie sighed, reaching for her damp paper towel. “I was naive to trust him, but at the time…well. I never slept with him again, though. And I tried to watch more closely, with you...but Becca was getting all those commercials, and I had to be with her, too. So I was too quick to leave you with him again. Thinking he wanted to do right by you.”

“Jesus,” Bucky muttered. The relationship between him and his mother had gotten worse after the creme de menthe incident. It was around that time, in fact, that Alex had begun dropping the first of his ‘your mother’ comments. As in, your mother is crazy, and your mother is holding you back, or (his oft-repeated favorite) your mother is trying to ruin me.

Bucky had believed him because it had been easier to believe Alex than to question him. Easier to go along to get along, picking fights with Winnie when she challenged him. Throwing his anger and his fear and his hatred in her face, rather than asking himself the harder questions. Taking the harder path.

Christ, he got that from her, too, in spite of everything he’d accused her of back then. Abandoning him. Loving Becca more. Wanting to see him fail. Suffer. Burn out.

“Things were limping along,” Winnie whispered, not bothering to dry her tears anymore. “And then…” she shrugged, both of them flashing back to The Fight.

The last fight, twisted and awful in Bucky’s fractured memories. He had been thirteen, sullen and manipulated into hating her. He couldn’t remember what had started it, only that he’d screamed at her. Terrible things; things he couldn’t take back. Unrepeatable accusations put into his head through Alex’s careful whispers.

Winnie had slapped him—the first and only occasion she’d ever struck him—and though he’d been half-drunk at the time, he wouldn’t ever forget the way she’d looked, standing there, her hand shaking as her face crumpled into sobs, stammering out her apologies.

Bucky had walked out the front door and taken a cab to Alex’s house, and that had been that. The emancipation suit had come soon after, and he’d never lived under Winnie’s roof again.

“I remember,” Bucky managed. “We don’t have to…”

Winnie cleared her throat. “You wanted to know,” she said, choosing her words carefully. “So you ought to know that after you moved in with him, I called every single day, the first few months—”

“What?” Bucky said, shaking his head. “No, you didn’t.”

“Alex always answered. Or his assistant. Or his wife. And it was the same line every goddamn time...Bucky doesn’t want to talk to you. Stop calling.”

“Ma…”

"I did stop, eventually," she continued. "Not because I wanted to, but because he threatened to use it against me. Make it out like I was stalking my own fucking kid so they could show what an unfit mother I was. And then, there was the emancipation."

Bucky’s thoughts were swimming, the low-grade headache he’d been nursing since breaking up with Steve now flaring into something nasty, his brain pounding against his skull as he shook his head. “Alex said it was a sign...that you didn’t call me. That it meant you um...that it meant you didn’t really care, and that...he said you were always calling him, though. Asking about the residuals, and making sure you got your check, but never about me. That’s...he was worried about what you’d do with my money.”

“I just fucking bet he was,” she said, her voice sharp in a way it hadn’t been before. “Christ. All I wanted was to see you. Really see you. All those tabloids—I was watching you fall apart at arm’s length, and you were so sick, baby, and I couldn’t fucking get to you. Do you have any idea what that feels like, to see your child...it’s—” she blew her nose into her paper towel again. “Of course you don’t. You couldn’t. I was desperate…”

“Then why’d you…” he shrugged, tears in his eyes now. “Why didn’t you fight harder, during the emancipation?”

Winnie’s hands tightened into fists, and she looked down at the counter. “Alex came to see me. Said...he said he wanted to get you help, but that you were so angry with me, you wouldn’t go to rehab if I was the one signing the paperwork. That you didn’t want me to have control over any part of your recovery.”

“Fuck,” he whispered. “That’s...I didn’t—he said you wouldn’t check me in.”

“Yeah, well.” She closed her eyes. “I agreed to the emancipation in exchange for you being able to sign yourself in somewhere. He swore to me that he was going to get you help.”

That particular revelation hit Bucky like a punch in the gut. Shit, he’d known he was sick. He’d hated himself by then, Alex’s paternalistic disappointment the albatross around his neck. He’d wanted the help, but there had always been one-more-thing with Alex. One more concert, one more appearance, one more excuse.

“That time is a little mixed up in my head,” she admitted, opening her eyes, a fresh round of tears brimming in them. “After the emancipation, I was...you didn’t go to rehab. And all of a sudden you had a record deal, and I knew I’d gotten played by that fucking snake oil salesman. You...you had some concert in LA, and I went to the stage door and begged the guard to let me back. To see my goddamned son, and he wouldn’t let me. Called Alex instead.”

Bucky frowned. “I don’t remember that.”

"You wouldn't," she sighed. "Alex came out and threatened to have me arrested. And I swear to you honey, I would have let them do it if I'd thought it might get your attention. But I had Becca—" she shrugged. "I couldn't lose her, too."

“Mama,” he said softly, sliding his hand across the countertop, where he lay his fingers over hers, bearing down. “I’m so sorry.”

“Oh, baby,” she said, blinking as she forced a smile onto her face. “None of this is your fault. You were—”

The vibration of Bucky’s phone on the countertop made them both jump, conversation ceasing as Bucky pulled his hand away to turn it over.

“Speak of the devil…” he muttered, seeing Alexander’s name on the screen.

“Are you going to answer it?” she asked, her voice small and unsure, as if worried that Alexander’s presence on the other end of the line might conjure him; bring him to Brooklyn where he could wreck their lives all over again.

“No,” Bucky said, declining the call and turning the phone over. Not now. Not again. “It...I wanted to go to rehab. I asked Alex. Begged him. But he said...after you signed the papers, he kept finding reasons that I shouldn’t go. And then...there was that other concert.” The breakdown concert. The coming out debacle.

“I remember,” Winnie said. “I saw the uh...the footage. On the news, mostly.”

“I don’t remember most of it,” he admitted. He had only seen the clip once, forcing himself to confront it online, stone-cold sober on the day he left rehab for the first time. “Only that I was angry, and I was confused.”

“Honey, you think I don’t know that? You could hardly stand up on your own, and you were so...so…” she stopped, sucking in a sharp breath. “There was this shot of you—a close-up—and I remember, I remember thinking...God, there’s my baby. Except you weren't really there at all. You looked so lost and so scared, and so young. And I just...I thought, who’s gonna hold him now, you know? Who’s gonna love him for me?”

Nobody. Nobody to hold him, nobody to love him for her. Nobody other than Alexander with one last lecture to give before casting him unceremoniously out on his own. Bucky had lost most of his memories of that day, but he remembered that. Remembered Alexander severing their relationship with perfect clarity.

“I didn’t know,” he managed, his voice hollow. “I was such a mess.”

“You were sick, Bucky," she said, repeating the statement with as much certainty as he'd ever heard from her. "When things got worse, after that, and you started getting arrested, I hoped that something would click. That you'd pick yourself up, and dust yourself off. But it never did, and by then I didn't even know where you were living. Didn't have a number for you, didn't have a way to reach you. I tried Jessie, tried Annalisa, tried everyone."

“I wasn’t uh, exactly making myself known to my friends,” he muttered. For that two year period, he hadn’t been seeing anyone outside of his enablers—those leeches who could get him exactly what he wanted, when he wanted it, while extracting a heavy price.

“Right,” she said, before gesturing towards his prosthetic. “And then, your accident—”

“You never came to see me,” he whispered. “In the hospital. In rehab.” Because that private grievance had been digging into his psyche for a very long time.

“That’s…” she took a measured breath. “I have ruined so many things, baby, but please believe me when I say that I did try and visit. But every time I figured out which facility you were at, I’d show up and find out there was a list. And I was never on those lists.”

Of course, she wouldn’t have been. Bucky had never put anyone on his lists; hadn’t considered there would be anyone who would want to see him. It had never occurred to him that Winnie might have been out there in the world, screaming his name and using both fists to batter at the walls between them.

“You never told me that,” he frowned. “You never told me any of that.”

“Bucky,” she said, reaching for his hand once again, relief crossing her face when he allowed her to take it. “I’ve spent a grand total of maybe ten hours with you in the last twenty years. I didn’t want to spend what time we have rehashing every way I failed you. That probably makes me a coward, or weak, or I don’t know. But if you ever...honey, if you ever doubted my love for you, then I will live the rest of my life regretting that, because I never stopped.”

“Fuck,” he managed. “Fuck, ma.”

He closed the distance between them, knocking his stool back and coming to her side of the counter, where he wrapped her in a tight hug, flesh arm curving around her shoulders as his prosthetic came to rest in the small of her back. God, she was tiny. Had she always been so little?

It had been a long time since he’d really hugged her; he supposed he’d been smaller then.

Tears were making their way down his nose and into her hair, the moisture fogging up his glasses, but who cared about small discomforts when she was holding him too. Crying with him for the years lost between them due to one man's misdeeds and manipulations. They had missed so much, but they didn't have to miss any more.

Maybe it could be better.

Maybe it could be.

Only when Bucky’s shoulder began to hurt, and both of their tears had dried to tracks on their faces did they reluctantly break apart, identical sheepish smiles gracing their features.

“Goodness, I ought to wash my face,” Winnie said, holding him at arm’s length—both arms, though Bucky found he didn’t mind so much when her hand touched his prosthetic.

“I’ll clean up,” he said, voice cracking, feeling lighter than he had in ages.

“Thank you,” she said, hesitating for only a moment before standing on her tiptoes to press a kiss to his forehead. “My good boy.”

The sentiment was one he would have found patronizing even an hour earlier. Now, it felt like making up for lost time, and he smiled, touching the spot on his forehead as Winnie pulled away. She disappeared into her bedroom while Bucky washed his plate, setting it in the rack to dry.

His brain hadn’t quite worked through the revelations of their conversation, though it understood very clearly that Alexander Pierce had fucked his family over thoroughly. God knew he and Winnie still had their issues to work through; what had transpired between them that morning wasn’t a resolution, but it felt like the beginning of something. A path forward—one they could pave together.

That path no longer included Alexander.

But it might—if Bucky was very lucky—include Steve.

Bucky was already mentally composing a text to that erstwhile boyfriend when Winnie emerged from the bedroom, a frown on her face, bypassing him and going to the television, which she turned to CNN.

“...live from our affiliate in Iowa, where the Avengers…”

“Ma?” Bucky said, hanging the kitchen towel back on its hook before following her into the living room.

“There was an alert on my phone,” she said, gesturing to the couch. “I’m sure it’s nothing.”

It was never nothing when it was Steve, his teammates, and national media attention. Bucky sat, a ball of anxiety growing in his stomach as they watched. The footage was grainy, shot from a distance, the camera juddering and making it difficult to tell who was who and what was what. Bucky found himself leaning forward every time he saw a flash of something that might or might not have been a shield.

They sat in silence, transfixed by the screen, an hour passing in a blur of worry until Winnie pointed with a yelp. “Oh, there!”

‘There’ being Steve, who had suddenly come into the frame alongside the Hulk. The footage wasn’t so shaky now, and it took Bucky only a moment to realize that it was because Steve was closer to the camera, rapidly shortening the distance between himself and the news crew, frantically waving for them to...to…

Shit.

The camera panned and zoomed, its operator having gotten the message that their forced evacuation was imminent. The anchor was spouting some inane commentary in the studio and Jesus, it wasn’t a sporting event, it was his Steve.

Someone in the control booth cut over to the audio from the field. Bucky heard a woman scream. A shout (Steve?). A clang. The scraping of metal on metal and then the camera landed at an angle on the ground.

Bucky watched, horrified, as the sideways view showed something large and fiery falling from the sky. Something which took out the still-visible news van, as well as the idiot in stars and stripes who had just come to a stop beside it.

Said idiot had half a second to react, lifting his shield above his head. The camera’s microphone picked up his audible, “oh, fuck—” before everything went dark.

Bucky, his mouth agape, couldn’t help but echo the sentiment.

 

Chapter Text

“What?” Bucky whispered, unable to tear his eyes from the screen.

Steve was gone. The image was of smoke and ash while the sound of screaming filled the air for one, two, three seconds. Then, the feed cut back to the studio where a pair of anchors sat, pale and shell-shocked at what they’d witnessed.

Bucky couldn’t move. Couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t, because. Because. Because…

Bucky," Winnie said, her hand falling to his arm, squeezing him.

He couldn’t feel her touch.

“What?” he repeated.

Was this shock? Maybe. He felt like himself, but maybe his life was half-shocked already, so he probably wasn't the best barometer of trauma. Wasn't capable of knowing what was and wasn't real. A hand on his arm. A picture on a screen. A dead Steve.

Steve was dead. He had to be. There was no way he could have survived, enhanced or otherwise. Bucky’s invulnerable tower of strength was one that could bleed. Was human, underneath it all.

Dead.

Fuck. Fuck.

Bucky stood abruptly. “I have to...I have to go—”

Winnie stood with him, her hand steady on his arm, her voice a balm to the buzzsaw in his head. “Bucky, stop. Sit down.”

“Ma, I have to go,” he repeated, frantic, meeting her eyes and finding her waiting, sorrowful but solid and present and real.

“Where, honey?” she asked, stepping closer and bringing her other hand to his cheek. He leaned into the touch, briefly closing his eyes.

“I—” his voice broke. Home? He could go home. But home! God! There would be more reporters outside now. More people hungry for a photo of him in his grief and his anger and his...no. Couldn’t go home. Where…?

“Sit down, baby.” Winnie’s voice was firm, her hands guiding him back to the sofa. Bucky went pliant, knees bending as he lowered himself down and let her settle him. She reached for the remote, turning off the television before pressing a kiss to his forehead. “I’m right here, Bucky.”

Yes, she was there, and Bucky was grateful.

 


 

Hours passed. Bucky understood that because the light in the room grew dim and then dark, Winnie turning on lamps to cast the room in a warm glow. The hands on the clock above the mantle said seven, eight, nine. But Bucky didn’t understand time—every minute stretched and compacted in on itself because Steve was dead and Bucky hadn’t told him that he loved him. Hadn’t given Steve back half the grace he’d gifted Bucky and now Steve was gone, gone, gone.

Winnie met him precisely where he was, his mind an anxious mess as she bundled him up with a blanket, murmuring reassurances that she was there with him. That she loved him. That she wasn’t going anywhere. She never said it would be alright, though. Never spouted a platitude or a cliche, and he loved her a little more for that.

Because it wouldn’t be alright. Not until he knew.

“Hungry, honey?” Winnie asked when the clock said nine-thirty, her cool hand smoothing the hair from his sweat-damp forehead.

“Huh?”

“Are you hungry?”

“No.” Truth be told, he didn’t think he’d ever be hungry again.

Winnie pursed her lips but didn't press. "Maybe you ought to try sleeping for a while?"

“Have they confirmed it?” he asked, ignoring the question. Winnie hadn’t turned the news back on, but Bucky had been dimly aware of her phone on the kitchen counter. The way she’d check it every so often, doing her best to shield him from the glow of the screen.

“Nothing official yet,” she said gently. “But I could sit up? Wake you when I know?”

“I don’t think I can sleep,” he said. “I can’t—”

“You can try,” she replied, her voice the same as it had been when he was small and scared of the dark, her hand falling to his shoulder.

Bucky conceded, mostly because staring at the ceiling in the bedroom was a change of scenery from staring at the wall in the living room. A thing to do, passing a few of the endless minutes that stretched out before him, every one of them a regret. Something he hadn't said. Some opportunity he hadn't afforded himself.

Winnie helped him up and brought him to the small spare bedroom, cluttered with the bits and bobs that made up a life—a half-finished cross-stitch. A vase with a cheap bouquet of fake daisies. A stack of bills that had yet to be filed. A photograph of Bucky and Becca from when they were small.

The futon had been converted into a bed and made up for him. When had she done that? Had he been dozing, or had he just not noticed?

“There’s water for you on the nightstand,” she said. “Do you want to take a pill? I’ve got—” Trailing off, her cheeks went red. “Of course you don’t.”

“That’s alright,” he said. “Thank you, ma. This is nice. It’s…” It was enough. He pulled his mouth into an approximation of a smile before hugging her, making his own clumsy attempts at comfort as he kissed the top of her head and let her go.

Once she’d shut the door behind her, he stripped out of his hoodie and t-shirt, then went to work on his harness.

It was impossible.

His goddamn hand wasn’t working, and he couldn't get the buckles undone, and it was hurting, and he wanted it off, off, off right now. In his anger, he slammed his hand against the wooden frame of the futon with a bang, gasping as the numbness of shock fell away, and he discovered that he could, indeed, still feel pain.

“Baby?” Winnie’s sharp voice came a moment later. “What happened?”

“I’m sorry,” he called back, hardly masking his sob. “I c-c-can’t—”

“I’m coming in.”

He could have stopped her. The door was near enough. Could have shut her out and swallowed his hurt and his shame. But he didn't. He let her in, to see him just as he was. His mother, whose nimble fingers were deft and knowing, working the leather off the buckle and easing the harness from his shoulders.

Bucky let out a hiss of discomfort when she pulled it away, reaching across to remove the sock himself, revealing the same irritated skin that was always there.

“Honey,” she said, concern tingeing her tone.

“I’m sorry,” he replied, pathetic in his neediness.

“For what?” she asked, crouching to pick up his t-shirt and handing it to him, some maternal instinct understanding that he needed to do that much on his own.

“For…” he shrugged, gesturing to himself before pulling it on.

“Bucky,” she said, stepping closer. “You don’t ever apologize for needing something from me. That’s my job.”

“But—”

“My job,” she reiterated. “Come on now, into bed.”

There was no arguing with that voice—the voice of scraped knees and sore throats. So he allowed himself to be guided once more, Winnie going through the motions as she tucked him in and removed his glasses, placing them on the nightstand next to his phone.

“Thank you,” he said, once she’d turned out the lamp, a sliver of light from the hallway illuminating her silhouette.

“I love you, Bucky,” she said, brushing his hair from his eyes before placing a kiss on his temple. “I’ll wake you if anything happens.”

When she left, she didn’t pull the door shut, leaving that line of light to guide him to her if he needed.

 


 

For all his protestations, Bucky did manage to sleep in fits and starts, never for more than twenty or thirty minutes at a stretch. He drifted into the beginnings of dreams before being pulled back into reality with a remembrance. It was exhausting and confusing; more than once he was sure morning had come, but when he reached out to look at his phone, it was only eleven, or twelve, or one, or…

His never-dreams were interrupted by an insistent buzzing at around four in the morning. Muzzy and confused, he groped for the phone, because maybe…

Steve.

Frantic, he swiped, too blind to make out the name on the screen.

“Steve?” his voice broke, scratchy and hurt.

“Bucky?”

Alexander.

“Bucky, is that you?”

“...what?”

“Look, Bucky, there’s not a lot of time to waste—I’ve got CNN, NBC, FOX, they’re all game. You can pick, and I’ll send a car to get you, bring you to the studio—”

Bucky, coming back to himself, frowned. “What?”

“Don’t you read your texts? Honestly, Bucky. They all want to talk to you! Everyone wants the exclusive with you about what happened to Steve.”

“Are…” Nothing made any sense. Bucky groped for his glasses. “Wha? Steve’s...they found him...his…” Couldn’t say body. Couldn’t. Not yet. “He’s d-dead?”

Alexander paused. “No, Bucky, he’s not dead. What have you been doing? The Avengers are en route to New York, and the networks are scrambling to find anyone to talk to, which is why you’ll need to strike while the iron is hot. I’m happy to meet you at the studio—I can bring you a suit. I can’t imagine you’ll have time to shower, but we can make do…”

Bucky dropped the phone to the bed and blinked. Alexander was talking a lot. Steve was alive. Steve was alive! Steve was alive, and Alexander was still talking. An endless stream of shit falling from his arrogant lips and Jesus, how young Bucky had been, to have ever thought the man a hero.

“Alex,” he said, preternaturally calm as he picked up the phone, though his voice did nothing to slow the gushing idiocy spewing forth from the other end of the line. “Alex.”

“What?” Irritated at being interrupted—no great shock.

“Fuck off.”

There was a sharp intake of breath. “What did you say to m—”

“Fuck off,” Bucky repeated, struggling to hold his stammer at bay. “No interview. No show. And fuck you for asking, you m-manipulative piece of shit.”

Tossing the phone back to the bed, he smacked the screen with all four fingers, ending the call. Steve was alive, and Alexander Pierce could eat a bag of maggot infested shit.

Bucky pushed back the covers just as he heard Winnie’s footsteps coming quickly down the hallway. She opened the door, stopping short when she realized he was already awake. “Oh, Bucky!”

“He’s alive,” Bucky said, unable to keep the grin off his face.

“I...how did you know that? I’m sorry, baby, I was dozing, and then I woke up and saw the news, and I ran in here to tell you…”

On the bed, Bucky’s phone began to vibrate. Winnie glanced down, her face going pale when she saw the name on the screen.

“I told him to fuck off,” Bucky said.

“Baby…”

“I’m d-done with him.” Getting to his feet, he reached for the phone and tapped to ignore the call. “Fucking done. I want to know about Steve.”

“They didn’t have a lot of information, but he’s stable, or...they’re bringing him back,” she said, a small smile gracing her features. “Why don’t we go watch together?”

It evoked the strangest sense of nostalgia Bucky had ever felt as he padded down the hallway behind Winnie. One of his earliest memories—clear as a bell despite the muddled fog that was most of his childhood—was a night in their very first tiny apartment. He might have been three, or just turned four, and he’d woken to the sound of someone crying. Not his angry, squalling ball of a baby sister who screamed herself raw all day and all night, though. This had been quiet crying. Grown-up crying.

He had gotten out of bed, following the sound to the room that was both Winnie’s bedroom and their living room. That was where he found his mother hunched over a pile of what had likely been bills, her head in her hands and tears rolling down her cheeks.

Whatever he'd said to her had been lost to time, but he remembered saying something that made her laugh. She had dried her eyes and called him her clown, which had made him unaccountably happy. After that, she'd wrapped him in a blanket, cuddling with him on the threadbare sofa that served as her bed until they fell asleep together.

Now, settling on a much nicer sofa alongside her some thirty-odd-years later, Bucky found himself drawn to her warmth, cuddling into her side as she wrapped him in a hug, pulling a blanket around them both before turning up the volume on the television.

It became increasingly apparent that nobody on CNN knew anything about the situation beyond the brief statement that had been released to the press. Captain America was alive. He was injured. He was being transported to Avengers tower where a team of doctors, led by the renowned Helen Cho, would be assessing his condition. Bucky didn't know much about Dr. Cho, save for a couple things: the first was the fact that Steve had spoken highly of her on more than one occasion—said she was one of the top three smartest people he'd ever met in his long life, which was saying something.

The other thing Bucky knew about Dr. Cho was that they didn’t bring her in for the softballs.

As dawn began creeping across the floorboards of the darkened living room, Bucky was reminded that there was a world outside. And that world? Was waking to the news of Steve’s uncertain fate.

Being as they didn't have a story, the news networks sent live trucks to Avengers tower, where a crowd of civilians had already begun to congregate. It started as a trickle—ten people, then twenty—before becoming a roaring river of hundreds streaming in while the city came to life. With nothing to do but worry, people clustered together, watching the skies for Steve's return.

Some folks were opportunistic—willing to talk to any reporter that would listen about the time they saw Cap up close, maybe during the Battle of New York, or elsewhere in the line of duty. Others grieved quietly, bearing flowers or gifts, setting them against the hastily erected barricades around the tower. As though Steve was returning to die, instead of to be saved.

“Shit, mama,” Bucky said, watching the mourning faces. “It’s like it’s his funeral.”

At six forty-two, every camera on the scene panned up to catch the returning Quinjet streaking across the sky. The ship made a graceful, if hasty, landing, and that was that. No drone or helicopter could get a clear shot, and what footage had been captured from a distance was so shaky and grainy that there was no way to tell what was what. Who was who.

Bucky’s heart ratcheted in his chest all the same.

“I have to…” he said. “Ma, I have to—”

“What, baby?”

“I have to go there.”

As soon as he’d voiced the desire, his shoulders settled, and he found he could breathe a little easier. Going there was walking into the lion’s den, he knew, but he had to all the same. Because Steve was there, and he had to tell Steve that he loved him. Had to be there for Steve, the way Steve had been there for him.

“Bucky,” Winnie said. “There’s a thousand people out there now. You couldn’t get close, and even if you did, they’re not letting anyone inside.”

Bucky frowned. Something about that. Something about...couldn’t get inside. Couldn’t get to Steve. Couldn’t...could, though.

He shot up from the cocoon they’d made themselves on the couch and bolted towards the spare bedroom, where he dug in the pocket of his discarded hoodie until he found his wallet.

His wallet. Which contained a slim, silver keycard.

“Bucky?” Winnie called.

“Coming!” he yelled back. “I’m just getting dressed!”

All the troubles of the night before had fallen away, and he found he was able to shrug into his harness without difficulty. There was only one focus now—getting to Steve—and his body was going to have to cooperate with making that happen.

Winnie was waiting in the living room when he emerged, her brow furrowed and arms crossed in a remarkably Steve-like fashion. “Honey?”

“I gotta go, ma.”

“Baby, it’s so crazy down there…”

“It’s alright,” he said, holding up the card. “I have a key.”

Winnie looked from the card to Bucky, then back again, a smile playing across her face. "I thought you two broke up."

Shrugging, Bucky stuck the card back in his front pocket and pulled his hood up, a sheepish smile on his face. “Steve uh...might have disagreed with me about the whole...being broken up thing. A little bit.”

“I knew I liked Steve,” she said, stepping forward to tug on the strings of his hoodie. “You want me to come with you? Won’t take me a second to get dressed.”

An enticing offer, but not one he could take her up on. “I...I think I h-have to do it myself. Even if it’s hard.” Perhaps because it would be.

Winnie frowned but didn't argue, choosing instead to wrap him in another tight hug—one which he found it easy to return. It was so simple now, to hold and be held by her. He could see himself getting used to it.

"You were always better at the tough stuff than I was," she said when she broke the embrace, leaning on her tiptoes to kiss his forehead. "Tell Steve hi from me."

“I will,” he said. “When I see him. I um...I love you. I’ll call you later.”

“Love you, too, Bucky. Now go.”

 


 

Two delayed trains had Bucky rethinking his plan. It had all seemed so simple when he was standing in his mother’s living room, convincing her in his certitude that he would be able to cope.

Now, sweaty-palmed and short of breath, he wasn’t so sure. There were other people on the train, some of them wearing shirts that bore Steve’s shield, holding flowers, or cards, or photographs. All that love and adoration and who the fuck was Bucky, really, to think that Steve would want to see him after what he’d done? To think that he could hurt Steve so badly, then waltz in and find that all was forgiven?

Fuck. The keycard might not even work. Access revoked.

That thought jolted him, as did the train, which sprang to life and juddered its way into the station, which was full of well-wishers and commuters alike. Bucky had no choice but to be swept along with the crowd, down the corridor and up the stairs and oh, the day was bright and sunny. Something about that seemed wrong on its surface, with people so sad.

The scene was chaotic. Not quite Times Square on New Year’s Eve, but a madhouse all the same. There were people everywhere—cars honking in the crosswalk as everyone made their way towards the tower. God, Bucky hated it already. Skin crawling from the teeming mass of humanity frothing around him, sweat beading on his skin as his anxiety mounted, throat closing like a vice as waves of panic overwhelmed him and…

No. He had to try. Had to try for Steve. Even if he failed. Otherwise, how could he live with himself?

Taking a deep breath, he counted to five before beginning to shuffle along in the direction of the tower looming large before him. One block away. One billion floors up.

Progress was slow going, the crowd slothlike as they trudged forward, only to be met by that same makeshift barricade that the news had shown, laden with flowers and tributes. The entire city coming to a halt because their boy from Brooklyn was hurt. Their hero, fallen, and this public outpouring was the only way they had of sharing that sorrow. Of buoying Steve through their shared grief, somehow, because he had always borne their burdens without complaint. Carrying the weight of their expectations on his broad shoulders.

Steve didn’t belong to them, not really. But he allowed them a piece of his soul all the same.

Meanwhile, Steve had given all of himself to Bucky, and Bucky had sent him away. Twice.

"Fu-uck," he muttered, craning his neck in an attempt to see the clearest path forward, only to be knocked to the side by some idiot with a bulky camera bag.

“Sorry, man,” said the idiot.

Bucky met the idiot’s eyes, only to have them widen in recognition.

Shitmotherfuck.

Pulling his hood low, Bucky did his best to skulk away into the crowd, but it was too late. The idiot had a big mouth, and the whispers started soon after.

He’s here did you see Bucky Barnes over there I swear I saw him no you didn’t yes I did well where is he why’s he here he wouldn’t be here shouldn’t he be up there with HIM?

Bucky did his best to ignore the voices, focusing on the tower instead. Why the fuck would anyone care about him when Steve was up there, hurting? Maybe dying?

Finally, he reached the barricade, pushing his hood back so that he could look around for someone official—a cop or a guard or someone who might be able to get him inside. What he found instead was a camera being shoved in his face, alongside a microphone held by a somber-faced brunette who wasn’t really that somber, fighting to keep a shit-eating grin off her face over what she obviously felt was the biggest ‘get’ of the morning.

“Bucky!” she called, drawing the attention of everyone in a ten-foot radius. “Bucky, have you spoken with Captain Rogers?”

A light shone in his face, and he blinked, ducking his head and pulling his hood back up. Too late. There was another camera. Another, another, another. The wolves had spotted their prey, and they were circling. Bucky couldn't...he couldn’t...his breath hitched in his throat.

People were shouting his name. His back was to the barricade, and he couldn't breathe, face hot and words gone. This was worse than before. Worse than any arrest or meltdown or accident because he was there, in his head instead of an alcohol-fueled stupor. Experiencing every second of it. His heart thumped, erratic in its rhythm. He was afraid he’d pass out, but at least if he passed out, they might give him space. Might allow him air and room and get him out of there, get him help get him—

A slim, cool hand slipped into his own, the touch coming from behind the barricade. Squeezing gently, letting him know that someone was there.

With the whole world narrowing to a pinprick of light, Bucky turned and found Natasha Romanov standing behind him, a half-smile on her face. Holding his hand.

“Hi, Bucky,” she said. “You want to come upstairs?”

Bucky barely managed a nod, the screaming voices behind him fading to a dull roar as Natasha directed a guard to open up a small gap between the gates. She dropped his hand only long enough for him to step to the other side, before retaking it and leading him toward the tower.

“Th-thank—” he began, words failing him as he shrugged his gratitude once they’d made their way into the deserted lobby.

“I had a feeling you might show up,” she said. “So I had some eyes in the sky keeping a lookout.”

Bucky nodded, following her into an elevator, which needed no special key so long as she was there. “S-S-Steve?”

“Oh, Steve’s fine,” she said, giving him a conspiratorial grin. “The footage made it look worse than it was, and the media ran with the story. I mean, he’s not great, but he’s with Helen, and...look, this is on a need to know basis, but your boyfriend’s a real pain in the ass when he’s hurt, so she’s mostly keeping him knocked out so he can heal.”

Bucky had stopped paying attention after Steve’s fine, his relief so great that he sagged against the mirrored wall of the elevator and choked down a sob. “Fuck,” he managed.

“I was going to call you later,” she said. “But we’re trying to uh...respect Steve’s boundaries. Sort of.”

“Oh.”

“But now you’re here! So thanks for saving me the awkward conversation.”

“Y-you’re welcome?” Bucky replied, just as the doors slid open to reveal a floor that was distinctly medical. It had that smell about it. No amount of money could disguise that; the way it permeated the senses.

Bucky could hear voices, and as Natasha turned towards them, he reached out a hand to stop her.

“What?” she asked, turning around.

“I. Uh. I.”

Raising an eyebrow, she crossed her arms over her chest. “What?” she teased. “You think because you tried to dump Steve, we’re gonna be mean to you?”

Bucky shrugged.

“Give us a little credit, Barnes,” she said before tugging him forward, around a corner, and into a small, comfortable waiting room replete with squashy chairs, bright windows, and a myriad of other Avengers in various states of disarray.

Every head in the room swiveled in Bucky’s direction, and if he’d been asked to make a list of the various scenarios in which he wanted to meet Steve’s friends and teammates, this would have been at the bottom. Briefly, he wondered if it was too late to run back outside and into the welcoming arms of the reporters.

Which was a joke. Mostly.

"Bucky's here," Natasha said unnecessarily, her tone breezy as if they'd been expecting him.

A young woman he recognized as Wanda Maximoff gave him a warm smile, while Tony Stark—who Bucky had met before, to his eternal cringe-induced memory—gave him a curt nod. Sam Wilson, meanwhile, leaped from his seat. He was sporting a white bandage around his left arm, as well as another over some lacerations above his right eye. Beyond that, however, he seemed hale and hearty.

“Hey, Bucky!” he said, with unbridled enthusiasm. “Good to meet you, man.”

Natasha muttered something under her breath that sounded like "fanboy," which Bucky was sure he'd misheard, because there was no way. Sam glared daggers in her direction all the same before reaching for Bucky's hand.

“H-hi,” Bucky said, arm nearly shaken from its socket by Sam’s eager greeting.

“You got here just in time—doc updated us a couple minutes ago, said Steve’ll be out of surgery in an hour or so. But the food just got here. You hungry? Of course you’re hungry…”

Which was how Bucky found himself eating breakfast with an assortment of Avengers, every one of them acting as if they’d known him for years. As though he were an old friend come calling. Someone who’d spent countless hours with them, until their relationships were rock-solid.

Steve, it seemed, had been bringing Bucky home with him long before Bucky had ever entered the tower.

 


 

Nearly three hours after Bucky’s arrival, Dr. Cho emerged from a set of double doors. She looked exhausted, but she had a smile on her face. “He’s still out,” she said. “But he’s recovering nicely. One of you is welcome to sit with him.”

Bucky assumed it would be Sam. Natasha, maybe. For the other people in the room, however, there was no question that it was going to be Bucky, and so it was that he found himself following Dr. Cho through the double doors and down the hallway to Steve’s room.

Steve, who looked every inch himself, despite the bruising and the bandages. Despite his suffering something that would have killed any other man a dozen times over.

“Is he—?” Bucky asked. “In p-pain?”

“Not while he’s sleeping,” she said. “But he will be sore when he wakes. He heals quickly, though. Or he should, so long as he does what I say.”

“Good l-luck,” Bucky replied.

That made Dr. Cho laugh, and she stepped to the side, allowing him entrance to Steve’s room. “I’ll be back when he wakes up,” she said, before sliding the glass door shut.

Taking a deep breath, Bucky pulled a chair as close as he could to Steve's prone form. Near enough that he could have rested his head on Steve's torso if he'd wanted to. Or, well, of course he wanted to—he wanted to more than anything, but he didn’t want to risk hurting him, so he settled for taking Steve’s hand instead, pushing their fingers together and pressing a kiss to the back before settling in to wait.

The light in the room changed as the day wore on, the sun passing overhead, just as it had the afternoon before at his mother's house. Steve didn’t move. Didn’t change. Until suddenly, he did. His fingers fluttered against Bucky’s palm, and his eyes began moving behind their closed lids.

Bucky held his breath. Waited as those bloodshot eyes blinked open, bleary and unfocused at first as Steve took in the white ceiling. Heard the beeping machines. Saw the room and the sunny day and Bucky. Sitting there. Waiting for him.

Steve’s mouth opened, his lips forming Bucky’s name, though no sound emerged.

For once, Bucky found his voice first. “Hi. I love you.”

 

Chapter Text

The coma wasn’t the surprising thing. Or, well, Steve wasn’t surprised that he’d been in a coma. It was a familiar feeling, surfacing through the fog, dry-mouthed and vaguely dizzy. His head hurt, and his whole left side was itchy. Aching and itchy, as the bits of his body stitched themselves back together again because dodging fiery projectile hail did some damage.

Fuck, the hail. The news crew—he was sure he’d gotten them out of the way. Couldn’t say the same for their van but that was fine. There had been shouting, running. He’d turned his eyes and shield to the sky and thought Bucky before leaping forward and then? Then, there was nothing at all.

But hey. Awake now. Not dead—he felt too goddamn shitty for that to be the case.

There were other signs of life beyond being miserable. The reassuring-yet-annoying beeping of the monitors. A weight on his hand that might have been another hand but was more likely a cast or cradle. The ever-present itching. The way his torso, now that he thought on it further, felt like dough stretched thin enough to see the light peeping through the other side. Brand new and tender, and that was fine. He hadn't been so attached to the old version of himself.

Still, if they’d had to call Helen in, he’d undoubtedly freaked out his teammates with the severity of his injuries. He’d have to apologize for that. First, though, he’d have to open his eyes.

Bucky was sitting next to his bed.

So, that was the surprising thing.

Huh. Maybe he was dead, then. Dead would make more sense than Bucky being there.

Steve opened his mouth to speak, but no sound emerged.

Bucky spoke for him, smiling and leaning closer. “Hi,” he said. “I love you.”

Oh, Steve was definitely dead. But it was a good sort of dead. So he smiled, closed his eyes, and drifted back into the dark.

When he next woke, the light in the room had shifted, and Bucky was still there. Holding his hand.

“Hey,” Bucky said, his voice clearer now than it had been before, the fog in Steve’s head lifting. “You gonna stick around this time?”

Steve managed a nod, a half-dozen jokes about getting the license plate of that truck, and you should see the other guy passing through his mind. Too sore for the ol’ song and dance, he licked his dry lips instead.

“Water?” (It came out “waaauh?” but the notion was there.)

“Oh, sure,” Bucky said, regrettably pulling his hand away so he could retrieve the waiting cup from the bedside table, bringing the straw to Steve’s lips.

The water was lukewarm and stale, as though it had been sitting there for hours. Which, probably it had been. Steve didn’t care—as far as his parched self was concerned, it was unspoken water, come to restore his soul. The best water he’d ever had, so much so that he nearly choked on it in his haste to swallow as much as he could.

“Uh, okay. Enough w-water.” Bucky, clearly alarmed, pulled the straw away.

“Did you…” Steve cleared his throat, the harsh rub of the sandpaper lining its walls becoming a finer grit. “You’re here.”

“Y-yes. I hope that’s al—”

“You said you loved me. Before.”

Bucky gave him a small smile, though his cheeks went red. “I d-didn’t know if you would remember.”

“I remember. Bucky…” Lifting his hand in spite of the sandbag sedatives still working their magic, he crooked a finger, and Bucky leaned closer. “Love you, too.”   

Bucky’s face lit up with Steve’s favorite smile, just as the door to the room swung open and Doctor Cho stepped in, alongside a nurse. Undoubtedly Steve’s waking had set off a cavalcade of alarms and alerts, so her presence was to be expected. However, it also meant Bucky had to step out, and that wasn’t so good.

Because Steve was fine, thank you very much, Helen. He felt fine. Great, in fact! He could get up. He could run a marathon. He wanted to get out of that room and also wanted to know what the hell they were putting in his IV.

“Elephant tranquilizers,” she informed him with a wry smile.

“Hilarious.”

“Why would you think I’m joking?”

Steve settled back with a sigh, enduring the pokes and the prods and the long-winded explanations of his condition. God save him from his helpful friend—all he really wanted were the answers to a few basic questions:

When could he get up?

When could he go home?

When was Bucky coming back? 

The answers turned out to be, respectively, “we’ll see,” “not yet,” and “as soon as you let us do our jobs.”

Their jobs involved some undignified changing of dressings, among other things, which Steve endured with what he felt was a measure of grace. Namely, because it was the nurse doing that particular duty, and he would be cold in the goddamn ground before he ever disrespected a nurse.

Finally, when Helen was sure he was stable, she acquiesced to his wishes and had Bucky brought back into the room.

"Hi, pal," Steve said when he'd reappeared in the doorway, a half-smile on his face.

“Hi,” Bucky replied. “You look better.”

Steve felt better—like a real boy, almost, now that he was sitting up, his body piecing itself back together. “I’m twenty-three skidoo,” he teased. “You wanna come over here?”

To nobody’s surprise, Bucky did, though he balked when Steve requested he climb right into bed with him. It took a half-dozen reassurances that he was fine and it wouldn’t hurt before Bucky acquiesced. And so what if it actually did hurt like the dickens? Bucky didn’t need to know, and Steve was an old hand at masking discomfort. Anyhow, the hurt was worth it when he had Bucky just where he liked him, all tucked in with his head resting on Steve’s chest, glasses on the bedside table.

“So uh,” Steve began, fingers trailing through the ends of Bucky’s not-quite-shiny hair (which meant showers had been sporadic, which meant he’d been upset, which meant he probably hadn’t been eating or...or...it was fine. He was there. They could fix it.) “How is it you ended up here? You weren’t exactly talking to me, huh?”

“Um.” Bucky began, turning his face a few degrees further against Steve’s chest, his voice slightly muffled. “Long version or short one?”

"Gimme the abridged, and I'll ask questions if I've got ‘em."

Bucky grunted his acknowledgment, though he still paused for a moment. "So. I d-didn't tell you this before, but when we broke…"

We didn’t do anything.”

“Right. When I...b-but before I did that. Alexander uh. G-got in touch.”

Fuck. Steve had had his suspicions, but to have them confirmed? He tightened his arm around Bucky instinctively. “And what did that motherfucker want?” he asked, not really caring if Bucky bristled at the insult.

Instead, Bucky laughed. Not a happy laugh, more embittered, but it was better than a full-throated defense of the asshole in question. “Yeah. Well. He said he wanted to uh...help us deal with the p-press.”

Opportunistic bastard. “I’m sure he did.”

“Mmm,” Bucky shrugged. “S-so I told him we broke up. And then he started talking about, like, a reunion.”

“Of us?”

“What? No. Of the show.”

“What?” Steve screwed his face up in consternation. “Why?”

“As a distraction. But in retrospect, to pimp me out and line his pockets with nostalgia dollars.”

The bitterness in Bucky’s voice was evident, and Steve could have jumped out of bed and danced a jig. His Bucky, decrying Alexander Pierce out loud? What the fuck had happened? Alternate universe, maybe? Or Steve was dead. There was always still the possibility he was dead.

“Huh,” he said, instead of shouting for joy.

“At the time,” Bucky continued. “Which was, like, three days ago, by the way—I was considering it.”

“So...what changed your mind?”

“You.”

Steve raised an eyebrow. “Uh?”

“Not you, you,” he clarified. “But like, I kept hearing your voice in my head. Being obnoxious. Making me like...second guess the shit Alexander was saying.”

“Oh.” Puffing up like a pigeon, Steve couldn’t help the pride swelling in his chest. “Well, call me Jiminy Cricket.”

“You’re not my conscience!” Bucky laughed. “Jesus. It was more like...everything Alex said, your voice kept asking why? What’s the story? What does he want? What’s behind the ask? And shit, I dunno. Everything he said started sounding like b-bullshit? And then—”

“I got hurt.”

“Who’s telling the fucking story?”

Steve grinned. “Right. Sorry.”

“It’s not all about you, you know.”

“You literally just said I was the voice of reason in your head.”

“Oh my God,” Bucky groaned. “Just because you’re the walking wounded right now…”

“Sorry, sorry. Please continue.”

“Right. As I was saying. Everything was bullshit, and I started thinking like...what else was bullshit? And there’s only one other person who would know. Or might...remember things I couldn’t. So I uh, I went out to see my ma yesterday.”

Winnie. The piece of the puzzle Steve was sure didn’t fit right, though he hadn’t been sure why. Only that the well-intentioned-but-overbearing woman he’d met on Thanksgiving didn’t jibe with the monster she’d been made out to be in Bucky’s memories. Which wasn’t to say that awful people couldn’t put on masks—God, Steve knew they could—but he’d always considered himself a decent judge of character, and Winnie hadn’t struck him as duplicitous. Sad, maybe. Weak, yes. But not cruel.

“How’s she doing?” he asked, kissing the top of Bucky’s head.

“Sh-she’s really good,” he said, worrying a loose thread on Steve’s synthetic hospital blanket. “She’s. We t-talked a lot. Alexander...he made things...he was...with both of us…he lied...” There was a hitch in his voice, so Steve hugged him closer. “We’re working on it.”

“Good,” Steve said, considering his words carefully. “I know I only met her once, but I think...she’s not always doing it right, but she is genuine. In loving you.”

“Yeah, that’s...she always was, even if she didn’t…” Sighing, he let out another shaky breath. “It’s not f-fixed. But we understand each other better. And Alexander...after you got hurt. He called me.”

“Do I want to know?”

“Probably not. But he…” Bucky scoffed. “He wanted to get me on the news. Talking about you.”

“Jesus Christ.”

“So I told him to fuck off.”

“What?”

“This morning,” Bucky said, pleased as punch with himself. “I said he was manipulative, and that I didn’t want to hear from him again. And that he should fuck off.”

“Buck…” Steve laughed. “Shit. I know you hate it when I get paternalistic, but I’m gonna get real paternalistic for a second, alright?”

“Uh…?”

“I’m so fuckin’ proud of you.”

“Steeeeeve…”

“I know, I know. I’m sorry. But I am. I can’t help it. You’re…”

“Ugh,” Bucky grunted, mashing his nose against Steve’s sternum. “Can we please change the subject now?”  

“Sure. To what?”

“Uh, how you got hit by a flaming...projectile? Or whatever that thing was, maybe?”

“Nah, we don’t have to talk about that.”

Bucky lifted his head, squinting. “Your job sucks for me. You should know that.”

“Because you’re my boyfriend?”

“I...well. If…”

“As far as I can recall,” Steve said diplomatically. “I never agreed to be broken up.”

“That’s…”

“So. I’m sorry that your boyfriend’s job sucks for you.”

Bucky bit his lip. “I’m not saying...I mean, I’m not a selfish prick. Just. It sucks. I don’t think I realized how much it sucks until this happened. But loving you might give me a coronary.”

“You want me to put you in touch with Pepper Potts? May Parker? You guys could form a support group.”

“Who’s May Parker?”

“Peter’s aunt.”

“That chatty kid in the waiting room?” Bucky paused. “He’s an Avenger? I thought he was Wanda’s friend.”

“He...is Wanda’s friend. He’s also uh. Spider-Man.”

Bucky’s eyes went wide. “That guy?”

“Yeah, so, listen. You might be getting let it on a few state secrets…” Because Steve was terrible with them, though to be fair, he was on an elephantine pain management regimen.

“Wow.”

“How uh, how many of my friends did you meet?”

“All of them,” Bucky shrugged. “I was outside, in the crowd—”

“There’s a crowd?”

“Steve, there’s a mob outside. Flowers and weeping and a media throng.”

“Shit. I’m fine.”

“I know you’re fine now, but they don’t. And the thing is, people actually like you.”

“That’s shocking.”

“Your face is shocking,” Bucky retorted, and Steve was glad to hear that the trauma hadn’t ruined his timing.

“Shockingly handsome,” he shot back.

Bucky, possibly agreeing with his assessment, or possibly just wanting to keep him quiet, leaned down for a kiss. “Modest, too,” he murmured when he pulled back. “I missed you.”

“Whose fault is that?” Steve teased. “I’m gonna give you a hard time about that one for a while, you know.”

“I can handle it.”

“Yeah, you can.”

“Your friends are nice, by the way.”

“I like them.”

“They know a...lot about me already.”

"Yeah. That's. Yeah." There was no use pretending he hadn't been talking to a few select folks about Bucky. And the grapevine was powerful among any group of close friends.

“So you talked about me a lot, huh?”

“I talked about you a little,” he corrected, feeling his cheeks begin to heat. “Word spread.”

“Uh huh. Sam knew my favorite kind of cereal.”

“To be fair,” Steve countered. “Sam might have just known that before any of this.”

“That’s...I can’t even think about that,” he laughed, before bumping their noses together. “Thanks.”

“For what?”

"For...letting them know me before they knew me?"

“Well, I love you. I had to tell someone.”

Bucky smiled. “I just told Bert.”

“Bert’s a really good listener.” Steve frowned, suddenly concerned. “But shit, if you’ve been here, who’s feeding him?”

“Oh. Uh. Natasha sent Peter over to my place to take care of him. Which…” Bucky frowned. “Come to think of it, I never gave her a key.”

“Yeah, he’s gonna be going in through the window.”

"Oh," Bucky said, resting his head on Steve's chest once more.

“You get used to it after a while.”

“I guess I’ll have to.”

 


 

During Steve's hospital stay, Bucky left his side precisely twice, once to call Becca, and once to take a shower. Natasha used the latter as an opportunity to visit Steve and share some information regarding their mutual enemy that she thought would prove very interesting.

“Are you going to tell Bucky?” she asked, once they’d decided on a course of action.

“Afterwards.”

“He might be upset.”

“He might. But I don’t think he will.”

“Hopefully. You know him better than I do—probably.”

“Nat, of course I know him better. You just met him.”

“Doesn’t mean I don’t know him,” she replied, kissing him on the forehead before taking her leave.

Nearly three full days passed before Steve was given the all-clear, though his original plan to return to his quarters with Bucky was put on temporary hold. Because, apparently, saying ‘fuck’ on live television necessitated a press conference. (Which, alright, it wasn’t just about his language, but he’d been told that was one of the reasons, which had set off a rant so spectacularly profane that even Tony had been impressed.)

The conference was set for noon, and while Bucky had been invited to attend, he'd elected instead to go to Steve's apartment and wait for him there. No great surprise, though Steve found he was already missing him as he trooped into the press room behind his teammates. The teeming froth of reporters was eager for information, having spent the past few days receiving only bare-bones press releases about Steve's condition. Seeing him standing on his own two feet was enough to send the room into a tizzy, and it took Angelica a moment to calm everyone down.

Things were going to be fine. Steve wasn't going to go off script. There was a plan. They'd all strategized beforehand in his hospital room, including Bucky, who had initially tried to escape, insisting that he didn't have anything to contribute to the planning. Steve had disagreed, as had Angelica, and the three of them had had a smaller discussion before meeting with the rest of the team.

“What happens today involves you, too, Bucky,” Angelica had said. “And that’s not your fault, but it’s also not going away.”

Bucky had gone quiet, his hand squeezing Steve’s, and when he spoke, his voice was shaky, but his convictions were solid. “I won’t go out there. And I w-won’t give a statement.”

Angelica frowned. “I would never ask you to do either of those things.”

Bucky had hidden his reaction to that, but Steve had felt it—the little tremor of surprise at the notion that Angelica was considering him first, rather than only thinking of what he could do for her. She maintained that level of care and thoughtfulness throughout the planning, with Bucky’s consent obtained over every possible contingency.

Armed with the plan they’d made together, Steve sat facing the crowd, determined to stick to it and hold his tongue, for Bucky’s sake.

Angelica began with a prepared statement, going over the specifics of what had happened in Iowa, what the Stark Foundation was doing to assist those who had been displaced, as well as giving an overview of injuries the team had sustained. Each of the involved Avengers then spoke briefly of their experiences, though no questions were allowed. After that, Angelica stepped back from the podium so that a Very Serious Federal Type could explain the litany of charges being brought against the perpetrators.

Then came the questions, the floor opened to the reporters, hands shooting into the air while others just blurted them out.

“Captain Rogers!” came from the first woman Angelica pointed to. “How are you feeling?”

“Fit as a fiddle,” Steve replied, turning up the folksy charm because yes, it was hokey, but his aw-shucks-I’m-from-the-forties schtick played well in print.

“And do you have anything to say about your language?”

Somewhere to his left, he heard a snort. If he had to guess, it came from Clint.

“Not really,” he began, “but I figure if anyone’s all that upset, we can cram a grenade down their thr—”

Thank you, Captain Rogers,” Angelica cut in.

Steve suppressed a grin and folded his hands in front of him on the table. The next reporter asked where Spider-Man was, which Angelica bullshat her way through with a lie about him being on another mission. (And could they help the fact that Peter'd had an unmissable final that morning? It was bad enough they dragged him away from his education on a regular basis to fight the bad guys; they weren't about to make him sit through a press conference afterward.)

There were questions for Tony, who was in his element, always ready with a quip. One for Natasha, who gave the asker such a hard stare that Steve almost felt sorry for the guy. One for Wanda as well, who was never entirely at ease with the press. Steve could sympathize, especially when the next question was lobbed in his direction.

“Cap,” shouted someone from the back. “Where’s your boyfriend?”

It took everything Steve had in him not to throttle the glib fucker. Instead, he blinked placidly, sticking to the plan. “Who?”

Glib Fucker frowned. “Your uh...Bucky Barnes? He was spotted in the crowd—”

Steve gave another slow, confused blink that would play to the cheap seats. “I don’t know who that is.”

A low murmur went through the room.

“Uh. You know, Bucky Barnes? He was…” Glib Fucker fumbled. “He was on a TV show? In the nineties?”

Dumbass. He’d walked right into it. Steve gave him a slow, patronizing smile. “Golly, I don’t know about that. I missed the nineties. And the eighties. And the, well, you know what, son, I missed just about half the century. You wanna cut an old man some slack?”

The stupid joke got a laugh out of the assembled reporters, though it was a confused, unsure sort of laughter. Ah well, Steve would just have to double down.

“But Cap,” another man broke in, holding his hand up. “There are photographs of you with him.”

“Are there? That’s...I can’t figure it out, being photographed with someone I’ve never met.”

“You were holding hands in the pic—”

“What’s the...Tony, what’s that newfangled doohickey they’ve got now? The Photomarket?”

“That’s uh, Photoshop, Cap,” Tony said. “Don’t you worry about it—we don’t expect you to understand this stuff.”

“Right! The Photoshop!”  Steve gave his best gee-whiz chuckle. “Sounds like somebody’s trying to pull your leg, fellas.”

(Bad actor, his ass. He should be nominated for a goddamned Academy Award. What a performance!)

“But you’ve been—”

“Sorry to interrupt you,” Angelica broke in, her tone brokering no argument. “But let me be clear on one thing: the personal lives of the Avengers are not up for discussion. Ever. To that end, anyone participating in any activity that involves photographing, rumor mongering, or harassing my clients about their private lives, will lose access to this room. Now, and in perpetuity. That goes for your organizations as well—right up to the top. You want to talk about their work, let’s talk. You want to talk about them? That’s on a need to know basis, and we decide when you need to know.”

There was another bout of disconsolate rumbling throughout the room, and a young woman in the back stood up. “We’re just doing our jobs—”

“Well now, here I thought that your job was to report on our jobs,” Steve said. “Who we are when we’re not at work isn’t any of your business.”

“But you’re public figures—”

"We're not saying you can't print what you like," Angelica said calmly. "We don't have that power, and we'd never do that—but I'd hope that the fourth estate would be more interested in stories about the lifesaving work that this team undertakes, as opposed to gossip and speculation about what they choose to engage with on their own time. And, as I said, if you persist with said gossip and speculation, we will revoke your security clearances so fast your heads will spin."

“But—”

"Look," Tony snapped. "Any of us starts dating a supervillain, that's fair game. Until then, lay off."

Which was rich, considering Tony used the press as his personal publicity machine when the occasion called for it, but Steve appreciated the sentiment all the same. The same way he appreciated the fact that every person at that table was willing to back him up in defending Bucky. As a plan, it wasn’t flawless—Steve wasn’t so naive as to think that Angelica’s threats and his outright denials would stay the rabid dogs. There would always be tabloids and trash, seeking out the most salacious details. But the newsrooms that prided themselves on good reporting and serving the public interest would likely lay off. And, eventually, the tide would turn, and there would be a better, bigger story to draw the attention of the worst offenders.

Steve had no misgivings that any of it would be easy. Bucky wasn’t going to magically slay his demons, and while telling Alexander Pierce to fuck off had been a powerful first step onto a path, it was a long goddamn road. But hell, it was a start. They could cobble something together, secure in the knowledge that they both were trying. Because Bucky wasn't alone anymore. His mother, his sister, Steve, and every single Avenger was on his side.

That was a hell of a starting lineup.

Angelica called things to a close, despite the disgruntled mood of the room, and all the assembled Avengers (save for one) shuffled out through the doors, which closed behind them. It was only when he was sealed off from the press that Steve allowed himself a sigh of relief.

“Newfangled doohickey!” Tony hooted. “Steve! Steve, what the fuck?”

“I was improvising,” he said, grinning.

“The Photoshop!” Angelica exclaimed. “I nearly wet myself. That was...you have a gift, Steve.”

“Yeah, well,” he shrugged. “Do you think it’ll work?”

“No,” she said. “But I think it’ll help. And we’ll be aggressive about going after anyone who goes after you two. Set an example, and they’ll learn it’s not worth it.”

“I…” Steve shook his head. “I know it’s asking a lot of you—your time, and your resources.”

“All in a day’s work,” she said, before squeezing his arm. “You fight the bad guys, I’ll keep the idiots at bay. All things considered, I think I got the easier job.”

When she put it that way, Steve could see her point.

The team dispersed soon after, but Steve hung back, waiting for the person he knew was coming. Sure enough, a few minutes later Natasha slipped through a side door with an enigmatic smile on her face.

“Hi,” she said.

“How’d it go?”

“Locked and loaded.”

“And you trust this woman?”

“She’s on the side of the angels, Steve,” she replied. “She’ll do what needs to be done.”

Steve certainly hoped so. Because he and Natasha had been busy, making plans and discussing options. When Steve had given her the all-clear to investigate the shady dealings of Alexander Pierce, she had taken him at his word, and she’d begun to dig. What she’d turned up was a rabbit warren of money laundering, pharmaceutical fraud, nefarious underworld connections, and enough shady backroom deals that he made Al Capone look like a choirboy.

When she’d come to Steve in his hospital room with the information, they’d briefly considered taking it public—using the platform of the press conference to lay forth the allegations, which would have taken everyone by surprise. However, making a public pronouncement was risky. It gave Alexander some warning. Gave him time to run; to pack up shop and escape while covering his trail.

Steve didn’t care about shock, didn’t give a shit about awe. He wanted Alexander punished. Cornered, with nowhere to hide, made as lonely and friendless as the boy who’d depended on him for everything, and received nothing in return. He wanted Alexander to tremble.

Yeah, so it was a vendetta. But it was a vendetta that might save another kid from the horrible things Bucky had endured. So, the two of them had decided to go a quieter route, with Natasha presenting a flash drive and a folder full of documentation to a reporter she knew and trusted. Someone who always did her due diligence, and who had brought down a number of scumbags in her time. Because Steve, for all his frustrations, didn’t hate the press. He saw the importance in the work that they did, and while he could do without the tabloids, he was eternally grateful for the ethical journalists in the world. They fought a different fight, but one that was no less important than his own.

It would take time, but Natasha had the utmost confidence that this reporter would able to bring Alexander Pierce and his empire crumbling down.

Steve was going to enjoy watching him fall.

Right then, though? He just wanted to go home to Bucky.

Chapter Text

Bucky had imagined where Steve lived a thousand times, each fantasy a variation on the same theme. Steve's apartment would be warm and homey, just like Steve. (It would also have a few weird, inexplicable pieces of decor, just like Steve.) He had envisioned soft, squashy couches and high pile rugs. Layer upon layer of textures and colors that were woven together into something that perfectly suited the man who lived there. Bucky had imagined he would feel entirely at ease the moment he stepped inside Steve's space, because Steve was home, and so the place where Steve laid his head would undoubtedly feel right.

When the elevator doors opened onto Steve’s actual austere, spartan apartment, full of floor model showpiece furniture and white walls, Bucky first thought he’d come to the wrong place. It was impressive, no doubt, but impersonal. The living room was open to the kitchen was open to the dining room was open to everything else, and while Bucky’s apartment was just as open, here everything was oversized and cold. The only sign of life he saw was in the kitchen—a single bowl and coffee cup turned upside down on a drying rack next to the sink, so neatly arranged that Bucky knew in an instant Steve hadn’t done it himself. A housekeeper, maybe, come to tidy after he’d been called back into the line of fire.

Then, of course, there was the aquarium. Bucky hadn’t seen it at first, tucked as it was against the far right wall, but as he stepped past the entryway and glanced to the right, the bright splash of color was unmistakable.

Steve had an aquarium?

Steve had an…

Oh! Bert!

Bucky hadn’t been expecting to see him there in Steve’s apartment, but the turtle in the tank could be nobody else. Bert, it seemed, was full of surprises.

"What…?" he managed, adjusting to the incongruity of seeing the massive, state of the art aquarium in an apartment that had no other personality. Had Steve done that? No. Hadn't been Steve. Steve would have told him. Bucky would bet his bottom dollar that this tank hadn't been there three days prior when he'd turned up at the tower. It was twice the size of his tank at home, kitted out with plants and rocks and multiple sunlamps.

Tony Stark, maybe. Or his wife. Shit. One of them had noticed; had paid attention enough to think about Bucky and Bert and had set this up for him to find.

Swallowing, Bucky stepped close to the tank, where Bert was sunning himself on a rock, oblivious to his change of circumstances.

“Jesus,” Bucky said, crouching down. “Did uh...did you fly here?”

Surely not. Surely Peter Parker hadn’t taken his small turtle on a web-slinging adventure above the city.

As he looked closer, though, he was sure he saw a wild gleam of something in Bert’s eyes. A thirst for adventure, perhaps. A certain manic glee. As if he’d tasted the sky, and now he’d never truly be earthbound again.

“Buddy,” Bucky said solemnly, laying his hand on the glass. “It’s so good to see you.”

Bert regarded him placidly, before pulling his head back and blinking.

So, in some ways, his new life of high-flying extravagance hadn’t changed him at all.

 

 

Bucky stayed by Bert’s tank for a couple minutes, fascinated by his slow, subtle movements the same way he’d been since the day they’d found one another. Eventually, though, he went to take his shoes off, lining them neatly next to the wall. It would have felt strange to kick them off by the couch, considering just how bare Steve’s space was. Which, okay, if he did the math, Steve had lived at the tower for about six-ish years, having moved in after the whole Chitauri incident, according to what he’d told Bucky. He’d vaguely alluded to the idea of striking out on his own, but nothing had ever come of it. Bucky figured he’d wanted to stay close to his team.

Six years in a place, and nothing to show for it. No personal touches, no photographs, nothing to tie him down.

Steve wasn’t living here at all.

If Steve lived anywhere, it was between the sheets of Bucky’s bed or kissing him against countertops. In the tiny moments of mirth he found—tickling Bucky’s feet, doing his sad grandpa act with delivery guys, telling his corny jokes. Steve lived on the back of his bike. In the smell of leather that seemed always to cling to him. He lived in his grins and his goodness and his generosity.

But he didn’t live here.

Bucky held that thought close as he sat on one of the too-stiff couches, speaking to the ceiling as he’d been instructed to do.

“Uh...J-Jarvis?”

“Yes, Master Barnes?”

Creepy! “C-can you just call me Bucky?”

“Of course, Bucky. What can I do for you?”

“Can you uh...I want to watch the press conference?”

Jarvis didn’t answer, and Bucky heard a faint metallic whirring as things spun to life around him. An unremarkable painting above the mantle slid aside to reveal a screen, and a closed circuit feed of the press conference began to play, the Avengers filing into the room, one by one.

It was strange, knowing them all now. Seeing the slight differences between the friendly faces he’d spent the previous three days surrounded by and the all-business expressions they adopted as Angelica began reading her prepared statement. Steve looked good. Relaxed—as if he didn’t give a shit what anyone in that room thought of him. Which, well, he didn’t, and when question time came around, he started mouthing off like the senile old coot that he very much wasn’t. Grandpa Simpson in the body of a Greek god. 

Jesus, he was a terrible actor, but the press was eating it up.

“You idiot,” Bucky marveled, leaning closer as Steve said something about ‘the’ Photoshop.

Sitting there while Steve denied knowing him and Angelica threatened to rain hellfire down on anyone who dared go after them was one of the weirder experiences of Bucky’s already-odd life. Sure, he had known that was the plan, and he’d agreed it was a good one, but watching it play out? Watching Steve guilelessly poke fun at himself and his out-of-touch image on Bucky’s behalf while every single Avenger fell in line behind him? That was something else.

Because they didn’t have to. None of them did. They didn’t know him, not really. They had no investment in him except for the fact that Steve loved him, and that he made Steve happy. No fewer than a half-dozen Avengers had told him so, firmly cementing in his mind the fact that these people adored Steve. The closeness of the Avengers wasn’t some manufactured nonsense meant to sell stories or generate goodwill. They genuinely, honestly loved one another. Protected one another. And now? That circle of protection extended to Bucky, too.

Improbable? Yup. Impossible? Apparently not.

Once the press conference was over, Bucky had Jarvis turn off the screen and rose to his feet, pacing in front of the sofa as he warred with his impatience. He wanted Steve there now. Didn't know what was taking him so long. Because when Steve got there, it would be the first time they'd be truly alone—no doctors, nurses, or well-wishers—since everything had gone to shit.

Bucky wasn’t nervous. He was excited. Anticipatory. His heart thumping and his blood pumping, but not nervous. Which was unusual, because he always had been before. No matter how comfortable he grew around Steve, there had been an anxiety. An inevitability. A pit of sorrow in his stomach that sat and whispered cruelly that it was all temporary. That Steve would grow tired of him. Leave him. That Bucky had better enjoy it while it lasted because nothing good could remain for long.  

Now, though? No anxieties. No inevitabilities. No nerves.

Steve loved him. Unreservedly. Every crazy, broken bit of him.

Bucky might wonder why until the day he died, but what did it matter? It didn’t have to make sense to him because it made sense to Steve, and that was more than enough. Hell, that was cause for celebration.

When the elevator doors finally opened, Bucky didn't hesitate, crossing the distance between them in a few short strides and meeting Steve just as he stepped across the threshold, kissing him the way he'd wanted to for days.

“Well, hey, pal,” Steve said, pulling back with a grin, still half in cheeseball mode.

“Bert’s here,” Bucky said, reaching for Steve’s hand and tugging him so he could see the tank. “Did you know?”

“I—” Steve was still catching up, taking in the aquarium. “Huh. Musta been Tony or Pep. Hiya, Bert.”

“He’s sleeping.”

“Doesn’t even greet me. Rude.”

“Well, he had a long couple of days.”

“How do you mean?”

“Uh. I’m pretty sure he flew here.”

Steve’s eyes went wide. “Surely Peter didn’t—”

“Don’t know. Don’t wanna know. I watched the press conference.”

“And?”

“You’re ridiculous. And hilarious.”

Steve grinned, scrubbing a hand through his hair like he was playacting at sheepish. “Golly gosh, Buck.”

Bucky snorted. “I watched it out here, by the way.”

“Uh...good?”

“You said I could watch it in your room. But I didn’t go in your room.” 

"Allllll-right?" Steve sounded confused.

“Because I want you to show me your room,” Bucky said, letting the directive hang in the air, hoping his meaning was implicit.

Steve’s eyes widened, realization dawning. “Oh. Right. It’s uh...it’s just down here.”

Bucky was disappointed to discover that there was no more personality in Steve’s bedroom than in the rest of the apartment. A massive bed, neatly made, alongside a matching dresser and armchair. Another blank canvas.

“You have a housekeeper, right?” Bucky asked as Steve shut the door.

“Hmm?”

“Someone comes in and cleans.”

“I...yes. Why?”

"Because I know you're messy," he replied. "You try to not be when you're at my place. But you like...don't always see messes when you make them? You always leave your coffee cup in the sink, and you'll stack things up and then forget about them."

Steve had gone pink. “I...my ma used to get on my back about it,” he admitted. “I can do it when I put my mind to it. Like Christmas. And when I was in boot camp, I learned to make do. But living on my own…"

“Old habits die hard?” Bucky teased, before leaning in to kiss him. Shit, he was asking to be kissed, with a face like that.

“I missed you,” Steve said, changing the subject as he pulled away. “Downstairs. I was thinking about you, and—oh, hey, let me do that.”

‘That’ happened to be unzipping Bucky’s hoodie, which was the first item on Bucky’s agenda. Soon to be followed by his shirt, his pants, his boxers, his everything. All of it. Because even if the thought of it made him half-queasy, he believed that Steve loved him. Loved all of him. The stump, the scars, the sad story that was the sorry state of his body.

Steve’s active participation, however, he hadn’t been expecting. He’d been so focused on the getting there that he’d forgotten there would be two people on the journey.

“Oh,” he said, dropping his hand. “If...if you want to.”

“I want to if you do.”

“I—” Bucky swallowed. “Yeah. Yes, please.”

Steve stepped closer, kissing him lightly, a chaste brush of their lips as he drew down the zipper and pushed the hoodie from Bucky’s shoulders. Much as he might have liked to, Bucky wasn’t going to overcome years of conditioning in an instant, and he stiffened, breath hitching in his throat. Instinctively, Steve drew back, all casual-like as he began unbuttoning the collared shirt he’d been stuffed into for the press conference. Once he’d discarded that, he was left only in his undershirt. Tit for tat, in a manner of speaking, and he brought his hands to the hem of Bucky’s long-sleeved t-shirt, checking in.

“You good?” he asked.

Bucky wasn’t sure yet, but he nodded, holding both arms above his head and allowing Steve to tug off the shirt. The material tangled briefly where his prosthetic met his arm, and he took in a sharp breath at the jostling. He’d been wearing the arm nonstop since the last time he took a shower, and while the pain had faded to a dull, ever-present annoyance, Steve’s movements caused it to flare, fresh and raw.

That brief burst of discomfort proved only a momentary distraction. Because Steve had finished with the shirt. Had dropped it to the floor and there Bucky was. Twisted and scarred and holding himself rigid as a board.

Steve didn’t stare. Didn’t gawk at the scarring or gape at the divot carved out by an errant piece of asphalt, just above his hip bone. No, Steve simply stepped into Bucky’s space, bringing a hand to his neck and tipping his head back for a possessive, claiming, greedy sort of kiss. His other hand came to rest on the small of Bucky’s back, drawing him in and molding their bodies together. Bucky closed his eyes, tilting his head to the side as he melted into the kiss, bare skin pressed to the thin cotton of Steve’s undershirt and fuck, this was better. This was so much better.

Steve’s hand began to wander eventually, up Bucky’s spine and towards the harness which held his arm in place, fingers brushing the worn leather. “How does this come off?” he said, breaking the kiss only long enough to ask.

“I can do it,” Bucky mumbled.

“Don’t think that was what I asked,” Steve replied, kissing the tip of his nose.

A shiver ran down Bucky’s spine—some pure, exhilarating whirl of emotions, tangling together.  Loving, being wanted, wanting, being loved. Steve—Steve! How could he ever convey what it meant when it was everything?

“You um,” he began, clearing his throat as practicality prevailed, stepping back from the embrace and showing Steve the buckle. Accustomed to harnesses, Steve undid the strap and eased the leather from his shoulders. He was especially careful with the arm, cradling it in one hand as he pulled it away from Bucky’s sock-covered stump. Unable to hold back the hiss of pain tinged with pleasure, Bucky briefly closed his eyes, the relief immeasurable. Frowning, Steve set the arm atop his dresser before turning back to peel the sock away, revealing the red, irritated skin left behind.

“Jesus, Bucky,” he murmured, and it was neither pity nor revulsion. Instead, it was concern coloring his tone. “What the hell?”

“It doesn’t fit right,” Bucky mumbled. “I never uh. I’m supposed to get it adjusted. But I um...d-don’t always—”

Steve huffed out the sort of breath that clearly meant they weren’t done discussing it, before leaning down and kissing the worst of the chafing. “You gotta take care of yourself, pal,” he muttered. “We can’t both be the walking wounded.” 

“S-sorry—” Bucky managed, overwhelmed at the intimacy of the gesture. “I—”

“Hey,” Steve said, straightening and touching his cheek before pulling him into a hug. “I love you.”

“Love you,” he echoed, and it was uncanny, how Steve knew. Understood implicitly that he needed a moment. Something quieter, softer. Something that was just holding and hugging and being until he was sure he could go on.

Eventually, though, Bucky pulled back, tugging Steve towards the bed until he got the hint, a grin spreading across his face. When Bucky’s calves hit the mattress, he sat down on the surprisingly soft comforter, looking up at Steve and biting his lip.

Steve didn’t join him right away. Instead, he took a step back and tugged his undershirt over his head, tossing it towards their accumulating pile of clothing. Perfect, his body nearly whole again despite the trauma he’d suffered, his healing factor doing in days what would have otherwise taken weeks. Bucky did his best to quiet his traitorous brain, which had already begun to make comparisons. What was the use? Steve looked like Steve, and Bucky looked like Bucky, and that was what they had to work with.

(Although, the fact that Steve was looking at him like he was starving and Bucky was a four-course dinner did a lot to assuage that particular anxiety.)

“Lie back,” Steve instructed, his voice strained.

“Why?”

Steve raised an eyebrow, a smirk on his face as he leaned across Bucky to grab a pillow, dropping it to the ground at his feet.

Oh.

“Steve, come on…” he protested. “You’re still hurt…”

“Don’t recall the doc saying there was anything wrong with my knees.”

That wasn’t even true. There was plenty wrong with all of him. But with the way Steve was advancing on him, and the stubborn set of his jaw, well. Shit. Bucky wasn’t going to win that fight. “I haven’t let anyone do this in a really—”

“No time like the present to rectify that,” Steve said, dropping to his knees with nary a grunt, shuffling forward until Bucky was forced to spread his legs to accommodate him. “Didn’t I tell you to lie back?”

“Steve—” he protested, ignoring the shit-eating grin spreading across Steve’s face.

“Hell, don’t lie back, I don’t give a damn. But it’ll make it easier for me to get your pants off if you do.”

“Je-sus,” Bucky groaned, taking a moment to toss his glasses onto the bedside table before flopping onto his back, too overwhelmed by the Steveness of Steve to bother with any more of that token resistance. “I uh. I’m not uh...you know. There yet.”

“How about you let me worry about that,” Steve replied, dropping both hands to Bucky’s hips and tugging him forward, which put his ass precariously close to the edge of the mattress. “Lift up.”

“This is so undig—”

“Lift up, or I’ll rip ‘em off you.”

Asshole. Bucky grinned, because shit, he liked that—a little thrill running through him at the warning in Steve’s tone. So he lifted his hips, and Steve wasted no time in tugging his pants and boxers down but not-quite-off, leaving tangled and trapped. Fuck, he liked that, too. Didn't mind the vulnerability so much when it was focused on his lower half, considering Steve was already familiar with that particular part of his anatomy. Still, it was the first time he had been so, uh, up close and personal? All of Bucky splayed out and stripped down. Getting the whole goddamn picture of this person he'd decided to love.

Bucky was just about to lift his head to see what was taking Steve so long when he felt the warm ghost of Steve’s breath across his shaft and then, hey, there he was. Lips and tongue and sure, it was inelegant and unrefined but warm and wet and Christ, if Bucky hadn’t been hard before, he was getting there now.  

“Guh,” he garbled, articulately, which made Steve laugh. Bucky’s hips nearly shot off the bed at the vibrations that caused, jerking himself right up and into Steve’s mouth. “Fuck.”

That got another pleased little noise out of Steve, though that time he brought his left hand to bear on Bucky’s stomach, just above the jut of his hipbones, effectively pinning him to the bed. Another thing added to the growing list of things Bucky liked, though maybe it was just that he liked Steve. Liked it when Steve began to bob his head, the action more experimental than efficient as he did his best to seek out what Bucky wanted, and what he didn’t. And god damn, it had been a while, but Bucky had thought he had better self-control than the whining, wriggling mess Steve reduced him to within minutes.

Because there was something about the soft comforter against his bare back. Being so utterly exposed to the room. To Steve. His Steve, who was making some frankly obscene sounds as he worked Bucky—who was completely hard now—over.

Steve's technique wasn't earth-shattering; there were more teeth than there needed to be, though Bucky had to give him points for experimentation when a hand slipped between his legs, circling his balls in a way that indicated Steve wasn't sure Bucky would even want him to. After giving him an encouraging moan, Bucky was rewarded by Steve taking further initiative, squeezing and teasing and sending shockwaves of pleasure to the very center of him as his toes curled against nothing, hand fisting the bedspread.

It was good, it was good, it was good. Even with his lack of finesse, Steve was committed, and eager, and Bucky had forgotten how transcendent it could feel. But more than that, he knew it had never been this good before, because this was Steve. Steve, who loved him and wanted him and thought he was everything, so maybe Bucky could be everything, so long as he had Steve. They could have each other. Have this. Have normalcy and fun and experiment and grow and oh oh oh Steve was doing a thing with his tongue that he hadn’t been doing before a-and—

“Suh—” he managed, words failing him as he kicked out with his right foot, face twisting into what was undoubtedly his most attractive expression. “Suh-Steve!”

Pulling away with a slurp that ought to have been disgusting, but instead made Bucky feel wanton and sexy in a way he’d never felt before, Steve looked at him with an eyebrow quirked. “What?”

“If you keep...I’m gonna…”

“That was kinda the point, Buck.”

“Nnn.” Bucky shook his head. “Want you.”

“I’m right here.”

Rolling his eyes, Bucky fought down a smile. Steve could be a real obtuse idiot when he wanted to be. “Here,” he clarified, patting the space next to him on the bed. “Like at home. But together.”

Because while there was something to be said for the novelty of a blow job, what Bucky really wanted more than anything was Steve’s skin on his skin. Creating something new and different and theirs.

Steve's expression softened in understanding, and he gave Bucky a grin before hopping to his feet. It was hard to tell without his glasses on, but Bucky was pretty sure he could see the outline of Steve's own erection straining against the confines of the old-man trousers he'd worn to the press conference, high-waisted and pleated to play up the aw-shucks image.

“Sit back a little, alright?” Steve said, popping the button on those ridiculous pants. “Get comfortable. I uh...hang on a second.”

Bucky scooted towards the headboard, using his feet to kick his pants and boxers off the rest of the way, watching as Steve went to his dresser and rummaged around for a moment before returning to the bed with a bottle of lube.

“How long have you had that?” Bucky asked, quirking a brow.

“Bought it when I saw the one you had in your drawer,” Steve teased, tossing the bottle onto the mattress before continuing to undress. “Just in case.”

“Oh,” Bucky replied, knowing he was blushing at the implications. Because they weren’t there yet, but having the lube on hand certainly opened up a world of possibilities.

Steve probably winked at him, though Bucky couldn’t tell, blind as he was. What he could tell, however, was the fact that Steve was very, very, very into their activities, his dick springing free from its confines to stand at attention. Shit, Bucky had felt it before—under the covers, against his back, in the dark, hidden away between kisses and cuddles—but seeing it, even fuzzy and far away, was an entirely different proposition. Realer, and bigger, and hell, Bucky wanted, in a way he hadn’t allowed himself to want Steve before.

Turned out, Bucky wasn’t the only one who wanted. Steve crawled onto the bed, pinning Bucky beneath him before leaning down for a kiss. “Sweetheart,” he teased, the endearment causing Bucky to squirm. “I’m so glad you’re here with me.” 

Surging up from the pillows, Bucky kissed Steve hard, hooking his arm around his neck to draw him down, their bodies flush together, everything touch and sensation. It didn't matter about who had what, or where, or why. Didn't matter about scars, or stumps, or any of it. At that moment, he was made for Steve, and Steve was made for him. Two halves of an Aristophenean sun fitting back together again.

They clung close, Steve scrabbling for the lube, which he used to coat his right hand before slipping it between their bodies, wrapping both their cocks in his tight fist. Nothing dignified about it as they kissed, mouths open and pressed together, groaning out stupid endearments and praise and adoration while Steve worked them over with no particular grace. Felt good, so what else mattered?

Bucky came first, only minutes later, which wasn’t surprising, considering the head start he’d been given. He bit down on Steve’s lip harder than he meant to when his orgasm hit, whining at the overstimulation when Steve’s fist kept pumping. Too much, too much, too much, and then it wasn’t enough. Overwhelming again as he pushed his hips forward, seeking the thrill of the aftershocks even as his cock began to go limp in Steve’s hand.

Steve continued to stroke himself, but it was only when Bucky wormed his hand between them to assist that he came, too, his climax messier, though less violent—nobody was bitten, at least—cock pulsing between their fists as his spend coated their stomachs.

"Bucky," he mumbled, shifting his weight enough that he could wrap an arm around Bucky's torso, holding him fast. "I fuckin' love you so much." He began to lay a line of kisses across Bucky's neck, over his collarbone, and down his sternum. It was there that he came to rest, his chin on Bucky's chest, looking at him from a brand new angle.

“Love you back so much,” Bucky replied, feeling every ounce of Steve’s weight pinning him down. Grounding him as he lifted his hand to brush Steve’s hair from his sweaty brow. Strange, to see him so undone, no doubt feeling the exertion of his efforts more than he might have on another occasion, considering his recent injuries.  

Steve smiled, turning his head so his left cheek was on Bucky's chest, lips inches from a nipple, face turned towards the arm that wasn't there. It was an intimate place to be. An intimate thing to do. Bucky allowed himself a shuddering sigh as he placed his hand atop Steve's head. Holding him as he was held and maybe that was all love was, really. The weight of that solid, immovable anchor.

Bucky and his anchor

That thought stayed with Bucky as he drifted off alongside Steve, both of them exhausted from their encounter as well as the events of the previous few days. Weeks. Years, maybe, if Bucky was honest.

When he woke some time later, he wasn’t sure how much time had passed. Steve was still asleep, a line of drool that shouldn’t have been charming trailing from his half-open mouth and forming a pool on Bucky’s chest.

“Hey,” Bucky said, tugging on his hair.

“Wha—?” Steve muttered, closing his mouth with a wet smack.

“We’re gonna stick together,” he grunted, because he could already feel it. The itch. The crust. The sheer humanity of it all. “Move your ass.”

“Oh,” Steve realized, lifting his head, which brought a line of drool with it that he swiped away. Bucky thought himself very tactful and mature for choosing not to poke fun. “Shit, pal. You wanna take a shower?”

“Uh huh,” he agreed, allowing Steve to pull him from the bed, naked as the day he was born. A switch flipping as he settled into that easy intimacy, the barricade he’d erected between himself and his body beginning to chip away. Beginning to be chipped away by Steve. Every time he looked at Bucky as though he was to be valued.

Wasn’t that something?

Steve took the lead in the shower, babying Bucky as much as Bucky would allow. In turn, Bucky insisted on checking out every last fading bruise on Steve’s body, kissing each spot twice. Indulgent, perhaps, but Steve deserved taking care of just as much as anyone else, even if it was hard for him to permit the indulgence. After their shower, they ordered food, deciding to eat in bed. Why, Bucky wondered, would they ever want to go anywhere else? Steve’s bed. His bed. Any bed, really, so long as they were in it together.

While waiting for the food to arrive, Bucky lay with his head tucked under Steve’s chin, running his fingers up and down the ridges of Steve’s abdomen. There was a tension there, one that had been growing since they’d woken up, a stiffness running from his shoulders down his spine.

“What?” Bucky prodded.

“What what?” Steve replied.

“You’re being all...tense. And weird. Why are you weird?”

“Because I meant to tell you something before,” he admitted. “And then. You know. Sex.”

As if he’d been so lust-addled by Bucky’s mere presence, he hadn’t been able to think straight. Uh huh. Sure. Whatever. Bucky smirked. “Tell me what?”

“Ah. So. Remember Natasha?”

“...uh. Yes?”

"Well. Before any of this. She, err. She asked me if she could look into Alexander."

“Look into?” Bucky echoed, a frown marring his features. “What does that mean?”

“It means that she was being Natasha,” he said. “And pressing her luck. And when we were first dating, she was trying to figure out if you were on the up and up…”

Bucky snorted.

“Which, obviously, you are, and I told her to stop digging about you...but she told me that she found stuff out about Alexander. And...shit, Bucky. What she found...that guy’s fuckin’...what he pulled with you was just the tip of the iceberg.”

Bucky shivered, chewing on his lip. He didn’t want to think about Alexander. Didn’t want any remnant of the man between them in this bed. Didn’t want to talk about him or worry about him or let him potentially taint the best thing in his life. “Steve, I d-don’t—”

"I know. But I needed to tell you because I don't want to keep things from you."

“Tell me what, exactly? I know he’s...I know what he did.”

“But you don’t know what we did with it.”

Bucky frowned. “What does that mean?”

“Natasha gave everything she found to a reporter she trusts,” he said. “It may take a little time, to make sure it’s done right. So he can’t weasel out of it. But he’s uh. He’s not gonna get away with it. What he did. To you...to anyone.”

Bucky’s mouth fell open, his mind going a million different directions as he did his best to process that information. The small part of him that still belonged to Alex thrummed bright hot and angry at the betrayal, though the rational side of his brain knew that small part was nothing more than a lie. Another, bigger piece of him felt vindication, while yet another felt sorrow for what he’d lost. No amount of retribution could restore him or make him whole. But gaining a measure of peace? Maybe he could have that.

“I don’t want to have anything t-to do with that,” he said firmly. “Nothing.”

“Oh, Bucky,” Steve said quickly. “We wouldn’t ask you to—”

“I’m done. With him. You understand? I don’t…” he cleared his throat, fighting to keep control. “I hope he suffers for what he did. But I’m done giving him s-space in my head. I know now, what you did. And I’m grateful that you told me. I just can’t…”

Steve hugged him closer, his fingers coming to stroke down the stubbled line of his jaw. “Alright, pal,” he agreed. “But if you ever do—”

“I won’t.”

“Alright.”

A comfortable silence descended, the two of them tucked into that sparse, clean apartment where Steve lived but wasn’t living, so different from the room where Bucky confined his entire life between four walls. It struck him, suddenly, that there had to be a middle ground. Something to work for, rather than hide from. A partnership, and a path forward.

“I think,” Bucky said, the idea coming together in his head. “That we ought to move in together.”

Steve laughed, a short, sharp bark of surprise. “You do, huh?”

“Mmmhmm. A house. In Brooklyn.” Craning his neck, he pressed a kiss to Steve’s cheek. “Maybe something near my mother.”