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First, Do No Harm

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Bucky Barnes’s luck runs out on May 29th.  

“I’ll shoot you if you come any closer,” the owner of Pronto Market says with trembling fingers and a shaky voice.  The barrel of the shotgun wavers as he tries to track Bucky’s movements up the snack-lined aisle.

“Shooting me isn’t gonna fix your debt.  I’m just the messenger,” Bucky tells him calmly.  He trails his fingers over the cheap metal shelving as he walks and hears the crunchy sound of chip bags falling in his wake.  

“I don’t have the money,” the man almost pleads.  

“Not my problem,” Bucky says with a sympathetic shrug.

“I have kids,” he tries one more tactic.  “You know how it is, James.  I’ve seen you with the girls.”

“Give me the money that you owe my boss, or you can explain to your kids why daddy’s in a wheelchair.”  Bucky twirls the bat and arcs it into a candy display, punching through the cardboard and sending Skittles packets flying across the floor.  He reaches the counter and flicks the ‘You must be 21 to buy’ sign to the floor.

The man swallows hard.  Bucky sighs and rears back, preparing his arm for the jolt of bat against human bone.  

There’s a piercing crack behind him.

In the confines of the store, it’s much louder than he’s used to hearing, and he registers the noise before he feels the white hot pain sear up his thigh. He turns his back on the store owner and stares incredulously at the pudgy woman behind him. She’s shaking like a leaf, but her hands are steady, and the look she gives Bucky is somewhere between disgust and fury.

“What the fuck?” Bucky yells, clutching at his leg and feeling the warm slick of blood through his glove.  He takes a few steps backwards so the shelves impede her line of sight and he doesn’t have his back to either gun.  His leg burns with each step, but he can walk.  

“You get away from my husband!” the store owner’s wife screams.  “I already called cops!”  She keeps the handgun leveled on Bucky as he swears and backs out of the store, hands in plain sight.  

No one would describe Bucky Barnes’s life as ‘charmed,’ but what luck he has runs out the day he gets shot in a convenience store on 18th Avenue in Bensonhurst.  He leaves a palmful of blood, two emotional store owners, and his lucky bat behind as he barrels out the door and jumps into the waiting getaway car.

“Looks deep,” the driver comments as Bucky hunches down in the back seat.  

“Shut up and drive,” Bucky orders.  He clenches the  side of his thigh and squeezes his eyes shut.  

“The emergency room?”

“Fuck no, take me over to Yakov’s place. He’s got stuff to clean it,” Bucky growls back at him. He’s too distracted to handle this level of stupidity right now - what idiot would go to an ER after being shot during an extortion-turned-assault?  

“Are you sure it’s not-”

“Fuck, are they paying you to give medical advice or fucking drive?” Bucky yells.  

There are sirens in his ears, and he can feel his pulse in his bloody leg.  He’s not sure how he’s going to get out of this one, but he and the girls don’t have any other choice.  

“Sorry, Buck,” the kid apologizes.  He hesitates, then, “Is it-is it gonna hurt my prospecting chances if you bleed out?”

Bucky pulls the hood of his sweatshirt over his face and doesn’t say anything else until they get to the bar.  His mind is too busy thinking ahead to damage control to deal with moronic questions.  

 

 

Steve Rogers isn’t exactly bright-eyed when he lets himself into his Brownsville clinic. Frankly, he’s dead tired, but his work ethic doesn’t allow him to slack off.

The clinic really isn’t anything special; truth be told, the building has seen better days, but it’s freshly painted, clean, and a definite step up from what the neighborhood previously had. Maybe he’ll eventually do improvements to the exterior when he isn’t steeped in med school loans.  For now, it’s somewhere he can offer people decent, safe medical care, and that’s what’s important.

The smell of coffee hits him like an old friend, and he sags with a bit of relief when his Nurse Practitioner, Sam Wilson, appears with two steaming cups.

“Wow. You look like you went a few rounds with… something,” he smirks. “I’d say our local heavy weight, but you’re not nearly that exciting.”

“Pipe burst in the kitchen last night. I’m not about to call a plumber when I can do it myself, especially not at two in the morning,” Steve sighs, dropping down onto the waiting room couch. “I didn’t really expect it to take me three hours to deal with, though.”

“Note to self: Don’t call Steve for my plumbing issues. Got it.” Sam grins down at him then rolls his eyes dramatically. “Man, that’s the time to call the damn plumber! It breaks on a Saturday, fine, I feel ya, but on a work night? Hell with that!”

“Morning,” Peter grumbles as he walks in and flops down at the reception desk.  He looks as sleepy as Steve does, but unlike Steve, he hasn’t bothered to comb his hair or press his slacks.  

“Want some coffee, Peter?  I made a pot because our receptionist wasn’t here in time to get it started,” Sam asks with a smirk.  

“Thanks,” Peter says, rubbing his eyes and completely missing Sam’s sarcasm.  Steve meets Sam’s eyes over the ceramic mug and grins at his NP and friend.  

“I know you’re not sitting there waiting for me to get you a cup, Peter,” Sam laughs and points between them. “NP… receptionist. See the difference there?”

After few more minutes of teasing at Peter’s expense, Steve heads to his office and sinks into his ancient desk chair.  It’d belonged to multiple Brownsville doctors before Steve’s time, and he feels the weight of the clinic’s history when he sits in it.  

He wakes his computer up and looks over his schedule for the day.  As usual, his morning is booked with appointments, but his late afternoon is sparse to account for the walk-ins and emergencies that inevitably crop up in this neighborhood.

He scans the appointments and notices that he’s going to see a lot of familiar faces today.  One of the McGillicuddy kids is coming in to have his cast taken off, Mrs. Patterson is back for a follow-up with her allergies, and Samia Pollard apparently has bronchitis again.

By the time his first appointment comes in, Steve’s caffeinated his way to his normal, energetic self.  He beams at his patients and speaks to them kindly, asking about school and their spouses and getting asked about his personal life in return.  

He doesn’t really mind that everyone wants to know about his dog, or if he’s found that special someone yet.  Steve’s from a different part of Brooklyn, so he hovers between insider/outsider status with his patients, and he gets it.  He’s familiar with the distrust of strangers and authority in the borough, and his interest in his patients is as much from politeness as it is from trying to win their trust.

Sam helps him measure blood pressure and take cultures through the morning and into lunchtime.  They break for thirty minutes at noon and send Peter to the deli for sandwiches and tea.  

After lunch, the pace doesn’t pick up by much.  The most serious ailment that Steve treats is a broken nose, and Sam deals with a case of the stomach flu which Peter expedites to get the patient out of the waiting room.  

Sam is in Steve’s office going over Mrs. Patterson’s case when Peter’s head appears around his office door. The kid looks a little green in the gills as he frantically gestures in the direction of the waiting room.

“Uh guys…? Sorry but...there’s some guy out there bleeding all over the chair. It’s pretty gross.”

Sam and Steve share an alarmed look as they ditch their seats to head for the waiting room.

“Did you get any info from him, Peter?” Sam asks as Steve yanks two pairs of nitrile gloves from the dispenser and hands a pair off to him.

“Well yeah, but I didn’t notice he was oozing everywhere until he sat down!”

“It’s fine, Peter,” Steve tells him patiently. “We’ll take a look and deal with it as we go. Is it a cut?”

“I dunno,” Peter grimaces, gesturing again with his hands. “It’s a whole lotta blood! I mean, I know we’re a clinic an’ all but that’s just a lot of blood. How is he even walking?”

Familiar with Peter’s occasional need to exaggerate, Sam ignores the question to ask one of his own.

“He give you a name?”

“Yeah, uh… Dom Brown?”

All three men enter the lobby and look for their urgent patient. It’s certainly not hard to find him because the other patients are keeping their distance from where he’s seated in the corner. There’s a belt tied around his thigh, and just below that, there’s a large lump under the fabric of his jeans. The denim is deeply mottled with the blood that’s giving Peter fits.

A light sheen of sweat covers the man’s brow, but he’s putting up a halfway decent front of nonchalance. Only the subtle, continued twitching of his jaw gives away the real pain he must be in. He’s a little glassy-eyed which concerns Steve. He’s about to mention as much to Sam when he realizes his NP has stepped back from the waiting room door with his arms crossed over his chest.

“Sam?” Steve frowns back at him, giving a short, confused shake of his head.

“That guy’s name ain’t Dom Brown. It’s James Barnes, and we need to get him the hell out of our lobby.”  

Steve gapes.

“You’re suggesting we refuse him care?” Steve asks with a mixture of confusion and disbelief.

“Yes, I am.”  Sam rubs his forehead with back of his hand while Peter peeks into the lobby.  

“You’re going to have to give me a damn good reason,” Steve tells him stubbornly, crossing his arms across his chest.  It isn’t that he doesn’t trust Sam, but he’s asking Steve to turn away a patient in pain, and Steve doesn’t think he can do that.  He’s aware that a fair share of his patients in this neighborhood have done some less-than-savory things, but he’s never believed that a person’s past (or present) should preclude them from medical care.  

“The guy in there’s a local thug, and he works for some pretty nasty people.  You really don’t want the clinic to have any connections to the Russians.  Plenty of people who won’t come in if they think we’re treating them.”

“We’re treating them because they’re patients.  Peter, tell him to come back,” Steve tells his staff firmly, “and then clean that chair off. Remember to disinfect it this time.”  

“Bad call,” Sam hisses as Peter steps forward into the waiting room and nervously calls for ‘Dom.’

“He looks like he’s hurting, Sam,” Steve practically begs.  

“He hurts people for a living, so pardon me if I don’t have much sympathy for him,” Sam growls under his breath, his eyes warily tracking the man as he approaches.

“Mr. Brown, go right ahead into exam room two,” Steve says with a disarming smile.  The man limps forward, scowling at both of them, while Sam rolls his eyes and holds his hands up in surrender.

“I’ll take the chicken pox,” he says.  ‘Be careful,’ he mouths, then heads to his station to get ready for the next patient.  

Steve takes a deep breath and then pushes into the room with a smile.  

“Hi, Dom is it?  I’m Dr. Rogers.  What brings you in today?”

The man stares at him for a good twenty seconds before answering with tight, barely-controlled sarcasm.

“Well, I’m bleeding?”

“What happened?” Steve asks as he pulls off his gloves, bins them, and then unlocks a cabinet to grab some gauze, sterile wash, and a surgical drape. He grabs a fresh pair of gloves, pulls them on, and sits on his low examination stool to push himself closer to the patient.

“My uncle,” he begins, watching Steve intently, “seems to think I needed to learn to fire a gun. Something about being a real man or some stupid shit like that. Bad life choice on his part. I accidentally shot myself.”

The excuse rings false to Steve, but they frequently do.  He doesn’t need to know how or why this guy was shot; just where and when and how deep.  He figures that, since the guy hobbled in here, it can’t be much more than a graze.  

“Would you mind taking your pants off for me so I can take a look?” he asks, voice steady with professionalism.  

“You gonna buy me a drink first?” The man cracks the joke but leans over with a soft groan and unties his boots. Steve watches silently as he pushes the boots off, then stands and begins to unfasten the belt around his thigh. He unbuttons the light blue jeans and grimaces as he tries to ease them over the thick wad of cotton stuck to the wound. Once they’re off and tossed carelessly aside, he leans against the exam table and looks to Steve for further instruction.

“Stay standing, okay? Let me take a look,” Steve hums, reaching for the gauzy wrappings and beginning to unwind them from the guy’s leg when he’s allowed close enough to touch.  

Steve talks while he works, because it usually calms the patient down.  

“Good bandaging, maybe a little tight though.  Did they feel tight to you?  And I’m smelling hydrogen peroxide, so I’m assuming you flushed it out?”  The gauze gets redder and stickier as Steve peels it back, and his heart flutters in his chest as he sees blood oozing out of the bandages even though he still has at least a finger’s thickness of gauze to go.  

“This looks kinda bad, Dom,” he murmurs nervously.  He continues to peel.

“Feels kinda bad, Doc,” his patient answers, his voice not quite as cocky as a moment ago. “Couldn’t get it to stop bleeding. I mean, it does for a while, and then it starts up again.”

“Oh,” Steve says, when what he really means to say is, ‘shit.’

“Hop back up here and lean back for me,” he requests as he bins the wad of bandages. ‘Dom’ sits back down on the end of the cushioned exam table and practically falls backward so he’s staring at the ceiling.  

“I’m just going to elevate your leg,” Steve says as he pulls out the leg extension on the table and pushes the folded drape under ‘Dom’s’ thigh.

“Peter!” he calls, hoping his voice will carry to the front of the hallway.  He needs to page Peter, or Sam, but his hands are slippery with blood, and he wants to put pressure on the wound until Sam can get him what he needs to treat his patient’s leg.  

“Yeah doc?” Peter calls from outside, rapping his knuckles against the exam room door.  

“Get Nurse Wilson in here,” Steve asks, keeping his voice level.  

“Sure thing,” Peter answers, and the guy lifts his head slightly.

“Uh oh, calling in backup already? It just needs a couple good stitches, right? Nothin’ major?”

“If this were major, you’d be at a hospital,” Steve avoids answering.  

Sam opens the door with raised eyebrows.

“Everything okay?” he asks, the I-told-you-so evident in his voice.

“Sutures, I need the cart and for you to take a brief history,” Steve tells him briskly.

“Right,” Sam acknowledges with a quick look in the patient’s direction, then he disappears back through the door.

Steve pulls his hand away and holds the gauze to the side of ‘Dom’s’ leg so he can dribble some sterile wash over it. The hiss of air from his patient is expected, but he still feels inward empathy because he knows it stings like crazy. He finally gets a better look at the wound, and he can see why the guy is bleeding like a stuck pig. The mild surprise on his face settles into a frown, but he remains silent as he presses gently on either side of the laceration. It’s about five inches long, and there are six makeshift stitches with what looks like normal sewing thread. He can imagine the guy hasn’t exactly given it proper immobilization to allow it the tissues to begin to knit themselves back together.

“Well, I know why you’re feverish now,” Steve mutters softly. When he looks up at his patient, his heart squeezes a tiny bit in his chest. With his expression currently unguarded, there’s trepidation in ‘Dom’s’ eyes. Hardened criminal or not, this guy looks more like a baby-faced, scared kid right now.

“Okay uh…” The sutures kit comes with scissors pre-packed inside, but Steve wants those homemade stitches gone before Sam comes back. He’s told the clinic staff not to leave any sharp objects in the exam rooms since they’ve had patients become violent in the past. People can be awfully good at picking locks when motivated to steal, so apart from basic bandages, cotton balls, swabs and surgical drapes, nothing is kept in the exam rooms. Despite the rule, however, there’s a small pair of blunt-tipped office scissors left in the pen caddy on the counter. He’ll have to talk to Peter again later, but for now he’s a little thankful for Peter being highly absent-minded.

“Let’s just do this...” Steve yanks a glove off so he can pick up the scissors, then grabs a fresh glove. He resumes his place at the side of the exam table.

“Deep breath,” he warns, his tone more serious this time. He doesn’t see ‘Dom’s’ eyes nearly bug out of his head.

“Whoa whoa whoa…! Did you just pull those outta the pen jar? Shouldn’t they be, like, sterilized or something?” His patient’s voice is strained with alarm, but he clamps his mouth shut when Steve fixes him with a stern look.

Steve’s hand freezes above ‘Dom’s’ thigh just long enough to give a good-natured smirk. “What, you mean like your thread?”

His patient actually goes a little red-faced over that, but Steve just shrugs it off with a subtle wave of his hand. “There’s nothing on these scissors that’s gonna hurt you anymore than you’ve already hurt yourself. Besides, I’m gonna clean this out before I sew you back up, okay? Now take a deep breath then try to breathe normally. This isn’t going to feel great; I’d like to get them out before my nurse comes back in and has a coronary on both of us, so I don’t have time to be as gentle as I’d normally like… Got it?”

The man’s light blue eyes dart around the room before he gives a short, curt nod to Steve. As he takes the deep breath, Steve leans in and snips the macabre sutures. His patient huffs out a pained gasp but then settles into breathing sharply through his nose.

“This would have been better if you’d just left it alone and not tried to take up cross stitch,” Steve informs him without judgement filtering into his tone. “Normal thread isn’t sanitary and your body will try to reject it every time. Only use it if you’re going to get yourself to a doctor ASAP.”  

“You say that like there’s going to be a next time,” his patient responds, but he’s not smiling or joking. Steve pulls the last bit of puss-coated thread free and looks back at him calmly.

“You trying to say there won’t be?” He asks as he dumps the thread into the lined trash bin.

His patient doesn’t get a chance to fire back before Sam returns with a small cart. Steve glances over at him and gestures toward  the guy’s leg.

“It’s not deep, but it’s long.”

“Yeah, that happens when you get caught up in-” Sam starts to mutter under his breath again. He cuts his muttering short when Steve glares at him.

The patient isn’t exactly looking at him kindly either.

“Somethin’ you wanna say, say it,” the guy glowers at him. Fortunately, Sam isn’t intimidated by him, especially not in his briefs and bleeding everywhere.

“Nothing at all, Mr. Brown,” Sam smiles back at him, not bothering to mask his dislike for Steve’s patient.  He turns to unlock another cabinet and pulls out a box of gauze, bandages and tape. He moves back to the cart and prepares a large syringe for Steve, then hands it over. “We’ll get you fixed up and on your way in no time.”

“Thank you, Nurse,” Steve says as he takes the syringe. He doesn’t look up as he leans in again.

“Local anesthetic. This might sting,” Steve warns and the man curses as Steve makes the first injection into the laceration. He does six more injections along the length of the wound, and by the last one, ‘Dom’ is starting to look a little less tense. The lines of his face have relaxed and he’s breathing normally again. When he’s not scowling, Steve thinks he’s actually a good-looking guy.

Quickly shaking the thought away, Steve trades the anesthetic for an empty syringe that Sam offers. His nurse has filled two small metal cups, one with pink liquid and the other with something clear. Using a pair of what looks like edgeless scissors, he dips a square of gauze into the pink fluid and swabs the laceration liberally. He then takes the empty syringe back in hand and extracts clear liquid from the other cup.

“This is just saline, alight? I’m just going to wash this out.”

“Isn’t that what you clean contacts with? Hell, I coulda done that at home.”

It’s a snarky comment, but there isn’t much rancor behind it, so Steve doesn’t let it rile him. Sam, however, is offended on Steve’s behalf and isn’t nearly as good at holding his tongue.

“Yeah, but ya didn’t, did ya? You dumped what smells like a whole bottle of peroxide on it. Sounds like a good idea, except it disrupts the wound and actually makes it more likely to get infected, which it did... Which is why you shouldn’t be playing doctor at home. There’s a reason my student loan’s got so many zeroes on it, ya know? Ain’t just bragging rights.”

“If you feel like ya gotta brag about it, it’s probably bullshit anyway,” Steve’s patient responds, but there’s a dangerous undertone to his words, so Steve gives Sam a look of unspoken warning. Attempting to diffuse the building tension in the room, Steve offers a cheerful smile to ‘Dom’, who’s back to scowling.

“It’s a common mistake. Peroxide is fine for scratches and abrasions, but when you get a deeper wound, it’s better to just use sterile saline. No allergic reactions and it doesn’t inhibit the body’s natural defenses against infection. You did a double whammy on yourself here, but luckily, you came in early enough that it’s still not too serious. We’ll get you fixed up just fine.”

Steve tries to ignore the cheeky smirk ‘Dom’ gives Sam as he uses the syringe to irrigate the wound. When he finishes, he presses lightly to different spots along the laceration.

“Feeling much of this?”

“Just pressure,” ‘Dom’ replies.

“Good, we’ll get you stitched up.” Steve opens up a fabric drape and positions it over ‘Dom’s’ thigh so that he can access the laceration through the hole in the middle. Behind him, Sam opens the packet with the the pre-threaded sharp and sets it down carefully onto the suture tray. Steve palms a pair of needle drivers and forceps, then picks up the curved needle with the forceps. He positions the sharp carefully in the driver, then settles in to begin closing the laceration.

Sam watches as Steve makes each suture and series of knots, ready to hand him whatever he needs. Steve’s focus is on the sutures he’s making, but the air feels thick in the room and it causes him to glance up. ‘Dom’ is actually giving him quite the appreciative stare. Steve quickly averts his eyes and hopes there’s no pink creeping into his cheeks. He’s really hoping that Sam didn’t catch the look ‘Dom’ gave him, but it’s unlikely; Sam notices everything, which is confirmed the moment he starts speaking again.

“So how exactly did you get shot again?” When Steve’s patient jerks his gaze upward to frown at him, Sam gestures toward the door. “I’ll need to note it on your chart for your follow up.”

“Accidental shooting,” he answers, his voice slightly hoarse. “I’m not too good with guns, unfortunately.”

“Accidental shooting,” Sam repeats, his lips quirking up into a knowing smirk. “That’s conveniently vague.”

“It happened fast,” ‘Dom’ smirks back, not giving anything more.

“I imagine it did. Thing is though,” Sam pauses to point at ‘Dom’s’ graze from just beyond Steve’s shoulder, “to make that path? Your hand would’ve had to have been pretty much behind your back.”

‘Dom’ just holds Sam’s stare, his lips tightening before he shifts his eyes back to Steve.

“So you got CSI moonlighting as your nurse, Doc?”

“Good to have an observant nurse on staff,” Steve dodges politely. He glances over his shoulder at Sam, then looks toward the door. “Thanks. I got it from here,” he hints.  

“You sure?”

“Yeah. We’re good. He can give Peter more info for his chart before he leaves.”

Sam doesn’t look happy about it, but he doesn’t argue with Steve. Once the door shuts behind him, Steve turns a knowing look on his patient as he finishes the last of the sutures.

“You know… there’s a fair number of people who come through here that aren’t exactly saints. I’ve seen enough gunshot wounds during my time working in an ER to know what they look like and know the kind of damage they do. This isn’t one of them. Now you felt the need to include a gun in the story you told me, so I’m guessing someone shot at you, but they missed. Whatever they did hit was close enough to you to send debris at you… this looks like metal since the edges are pretty clean… Maybe a metal shelf…?”

Steve glances up at the patient again and gives a soft smile that’s meant to tell the guy he’s not threatening him or trying to blackmail him. “Maybe that shelf was in a convenience store… hypothetically. Maybe said store got held up… again, hypothetically of course.”

The shocked look on ‘Dom’s’ face is priceless, but then it settles back into that mask of impassivity. His wary eyes go dark and cold. “Got a point to make there, Doc?”

“Yeah,” Steve spares a dry smile before piercing the man’s flesh for the last suture. “I’m not stupid. We’re not here to judge, we don’t call the cops unless someone becomes violent, and unless you want to compromise the care I give you, don’t bother lying to me again.”

The patient stares at him for several seconds, before letting out a breath and looking at Steve’s handiwork.  

“My name’s James,” he offers, and Steve takes it for the apology it is.  

“It is helpful to have the patient’s actual name on his chart,” Steve tells him wryly.  He smiles when he says it, and James turns his assessing look from the stitches back onto Steve.  

“You already knew that,” he accuses, and Steve laughs.  He’s tied off the last knot and clipped the excess filament. He pulls his gloves off after he’s put the instruments back into the tray and pushed it away from the exam table. Considering his patient’s position, he purses his lips.

“You feeling woozy or dizzy?”

Confused by the question in place of a response to his own accusation, James shakes his head. “No?”

“Okay gonna have you stand so I can wrap this easier. Take it slow, though.”

“Alright.” James sits up slowly and blinks a couple of times but doesn’t sway. He stands, gingerly placing weight on his injured leg. Steve raises his brows in silent question, and James nods that he’s okay to remain standing, so Steve pulls on new gloves and picks up the bandaging. He answers James’s question as he begins to wind the gauze bandage around his patient’s thigh.

“My NP is from the neighborhood. He knew who you were and was a little worried.  But since you’ve been a model patient, I guess we’re okay.”  

“You’re not from the neighborhood?” James asks.  “Because I thought I heard some Brooklyn in there.”  

“I’m from Brooklyn, just not Brownsville,” Steve tells him.  

“Park Slope?”

“Brooklyn Heights, closer to Cobble Hill.  I live in Brownsville now, though, so it’s starting to feel like home.”  James snorts as he runs his eyes over the medical degree hanging on the exam room wall.  

“Yeah, you fit right in, Doc.”  

“Call me Steve,” Steve tells him thoughtlessly.  He encourages most of his patients to call him Steve, so it doesn’t seem odd to him until Bucky lifts his chin and challenges him.  His stitches are done, he’s bandaged, and they’re just staring at one another and sizing each other up now.  

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why should I call you Steve?  You’re a big shot doctor,” Bucky says with a calculating look.  His eyes are still glassy, but there’s some shrewdness in his gaze that wasn’t there when he was bleeding in the lobby.

“Big shot doctors are still just regular guys, despite what they might think of themselves.”

“It’s not like I’m going to be seeing you again, Steve.  I don’t really make a habit of going to the doctor.  I’m lucky, and I’m blessed with good health,” he brags confidently.    

“I certainly hope you don’t find yourself in this position again, James,” Steve says.  He pushes himself off the stool, realizing that he’s been lingering with the patient longer than necessary.  “If you do, though…” he waves his hand and trails off.  

“Can I put my pants back on?” James  asks, stepping backward and picking up his bloody jeans.  

“Sure.  Cold water, soak in soap.  Don’t let that stain dry,” Steve says.  He’s picked up plenty of tips for getting blood out of clothing in med school.

“Yeah, I know,” James tells him, and something chilly hangs between them before Steve grabs a blank chart and starts to jot down information about James in his stereotypically messy scrawl.  

“Just so you know, I’m writing James Barnes on this chart, but it’s not going to go into a database or anything,” he says over his shoulder as he hears the rustle and zip of putting on pants.  

“Whatever,” James tells him, swinging his arms and fidgeting.  “Am I free to go?”  

“Uh… when was your last tetanus shot?”

“Man, I wouldn’t fucking know.”

“Yeah, not the answer I was looking for,” Steve grimaces. “I’m going to give you antibiotics to take, but you should have a tetanus to be safe. Wait here for a second. Don’t take off on me unless you’re okay with risking lockjaw. I’ll be right back.”

Steve darts into their drug supply room and unlocks the cabinet. He pulls the vial he needs and an empty syringe. He locks it back up quickly, worried James will ignore his request, but when he bursts back into the room, James is still there looking startled.

“Sorry, was trying to be quick about it. You’ll need to talk to our receptionist and fill out a few quick forms before you go.  We skipped over them, due to you bleeding on my upholstery.  And he’ll deal with insurance; don’t worry if you don’t have any.” Steve draws the medication and taps the air from the syringe. “Shoulder,” he nods to James. His patient offers up his arm while pulling back his sleeve. Steve swabs his skin then administers the shot.

“I don’t,” James tells him. “Have insurance, I mean.”  His tone is matter-of-fact, and he looks like he’s spent all the time he can handle in this small room with generic art on the walls.

“Have a good day then. Try not to have any more accidents,” Steve advises him. James smiles at some internal thought and swings the door wide as he leaves. Steve immediately gets on the computer and makes a note in the scheduling system, knowing that it will pop up on Peter’s screen.  

‘No insurance; give James a $20 copay,’ he types.  

He cleans and sanitizes the room and his suture tools, not allowing himself to dwell on James’s injury or to look up if any shooting-related incidents had occurred in Brooklyn that day.  

He’s happy enough knowing that the kid isn’t going to bleed out. 

Chapter Text

Red and blue lights flicker off the side view mirror and practically blind Bucky, making him glad he’s not driving.

“I know you can fucking go faster!” he growls at Vadim. He examines the blood spatter on the back of his hand and tries to rub it off in the event the cops do catch up to them.

“There are people!” his hapless driver sputters.

“Then get away from the people!” he yells, strangling an imaginary neck in front of him.

“Maybe if we take Pitkin-”

“Fuck you, do you know the city at all?” Bucky asks incredulously. He’s had it with these drivers.

The nondescript brown sedan they’re riding in (it’s probably stolen; Bucky never asked) whips around a corner and nearly slams into a green minivan. Bucky’s head hits the window as Vadim swerves, and he contemplates buckling his seatbelt for a moment as the car crosses two more lanes of traffic and takes a left turn on a red.

He doesn’t buckle up though, because he’s pretty sure that he’s going to be jumping out of this car and leaving Vadim to fend for himself as soon as the opportunity arises.

“Stay away from traffic and major roads,” Bucky orders as Vadim heads straight for both of those things.

“Easier to lose them in traffic!”

“Oh my-” Bucky starts to say, before he’s cut off by the unpleasant wompph of metal on metal. He turns to see a police car on their bumper, with two officers getting out on either side. He pulls his baseball cap lower over his eyes.

“Now, GO!” he yells when the officers are out of the car but still a few feet away. Vadim stomps on the gas, and the car squeals like a hot rod as it jolts forward. It squeezes between two cars, horns blaring and metal scraping, and Vadim pulls it in front of a red convertible and then across a grass median.

The driver of the convertible, a cute, thirty-something with brown hair and hipster glasses, gapes at them as they shoot forward. Bucky gives the guy a cheeky wink, distantly thinking that he looks like the doctor who sewed up the gash on his leg last month, before making sure his hat is covering his face from any cameras and focusing on his getaway.

“Alleys!” Vadim screams as he cuts two cars off and steers the sedan into a tight-fitting street between rows of businesses. A siren whines behind them, and Bucky sees the cops follow.

“Good, step on it,” he lies. The cops gain on them, but Bucky can see an exit from the alley ahead.

Then another cop car pulls up and blocks their means of escape. The officers scatter out of the car in case Vadim’s going to do something stupid like ram it, and Bucky grabs for the seatbelt regretfully.

It too late, and they hit the car head-on. He feels suspended for a moment before his temple slams into the dashboard, and his neck screams at him as he pushes himself up. Distantly, he realizes how lucky he is that this car is too beat-up for the airbags to deploy. Vadim can barely drive as it is without struggling around a deflated airbag.

“Keep driving!” he orders.

“I think my leg-”

Keep driving!” Somehow, they nose the smashed cop car out of the way, and Vadim guides them back onto a residential street. Thankfully there are pedestrians here; otherwise the cops might open fire on them. His head and neck throbbing, Bucky unlocks the door.

“What are you doing??” Vadim asks, panic and pain evident in his voice.

“Remember, don’t tell them anything. I’ll make sure that Sasha knows, and he’ll send someone to help you out,” Bucky tells him.

“Wait!” Vadim yelps, but Bucky sees what he’s been waiting for; a break in the buildings and a gated alleyway.

Feeling a fresh burst of adrenaline, he jumps from the car, skinning his knees and palms, but he gets up and runs before the blood’s welled to the surface. He puts the fence-climbing skills that first got him noticed by the wrong people to use, and then he’s sprinting through the trash-littered stretch. He sees a few workers and drunks, but no one that he thinks is going to rat him out.

Anyone who recognizes him will know that he’s one of their own, and not someone to be fucked with.

It takes him less than an hour to get home, and he calls Sasha on the way to let him know about Vadim. He tells him he’ll bring the money by later after he changes, and Sasha laughs at the story.

“I guess that famous Barnes luck is really changing, huh?” he says before they hang up, and Bucky swears that it’ll clear up.

Then he unlocks his door and pushes inside, pretending like his neck isn’t aching and his head isn’t bleeding. He pretends that he only needs a shower and some painkillers to be right as rain, because he doesn’t have much of a choice. He has to get dinner made and a load of laundry in before he has any time to think of himself.

 

It’s later than usual on a Saturday night when Steve finally begins to lock up the clinic. Peter and Sam left thirty minutes ago, but he’s stayed behind to catch up some of his patient notes. There never seems to be enough time in the day for it with the patient load they tend to handle. Weekends are worse. Steve knows he should take more days off, but the clinic is still so new and finding its rhythm, and Steve just can’t leave any of it to chance yet.

He’s putting the answering machine on night mode when he hears a loud rap on the front door. Looking up from the reception desk, Steve’s heart sinks a little as he sees James standing there with heavy bruising on the side of his face and a dazed look in his eyes.

“Shit.”

Grabbing his keys, Steve hurries to the front door and unlocks it. James gives him an almost sheepish smile. He doesn’t shrug though; his shoulders are hunched as though he’s in more pain than just from his head.

“Hey, Doc… would ya believe I walked into a fridge?”

“No,” Steve huffs and pulls him inside the clinic. “You look like the fridge landed on you. Go. Same room. I’ll be there in a minute.”

James puts his fingertips to his forehead in mock salute and does as Steve instructed him. He sees the rigid way James is walking and isn’t that hard-pressed to figure out what likely happened.

“You’re lucky you caught me. We closed an hour ago,” Steve tells him when he finally comes into the exam room with a suture tray just in case it’s needed. He’s made sure it looks like the clinic is closed from the outside. There’s no windows in the exam rooms so there are fewer soft spots for break-ins. Steve’s never liked it, but for now he’s grateful for it. Easier to treat a fugitive on the sly if it doesn’t look like lights are on after hours.

“Yeah, lucky me,” James mutters. He’s reclined back on the exam table with his eyes closed, so Steve nudges him in the side. The wince and grunt have Steve worried, but he’s got to check the head trauma first.

“Sit up. If you’ve got a concussion, you can’t be dozing off on me,” Steve orders. James opens his eyes and looks at Steve with an expression close to that of a kicked puppy.

“Was it this bright in here last time? Did you get new lights, man?”

Maybe a stoned kicked puppy. Light sensitivity. Definitely not a good sign.

“Same lights, James,” Steve answers, lowering his voice to be kinder to sensitive ears as he helps James upright. “You get a blow to the head, lights stop being your friends for a while.”

“Hey, you remember,” James grins before the action causes him to wince again.

“You’re not an easy one to forget.” Steve gets out his pen light and turns it on while holding up his index finger on his other hand. “Follow my finger with your eyes, okay?”

Always putting up a defensive front, James laughs shallowly. “Thought you were gonna tell me to pull your finger for a minute there, Doc.”

“Steve, and you have a head injury which is a bit more serious than a cut on your leg, so I need you to focus, James.”

“But I like callin’ ya Doc,” James practically pouts, but it turns into a leer. “You can even call me Bucky… Most people do.”

“Bucky…” Steve’s not sure if his behavior is from a concussion, being intoxicated, or if this is just his normal personality when he’s not bleeding profusely. “Bucky, you need to get serious for me, at least while I figure out what’s going on with you.”

“Okay okay,” Bucky sighs and zeroes in on Steve’s index finger. When Steve shines the light into his eyes, Bucky shrinks back and growls like he’s been hit.

“Fucking hell, Doc! That fuckin’ hurts!”

“Thought it might,” Steve admits, “but you have to let me do it. I need to see your pupils. You could have a concussion, and that’s serious shit.”

Bucky’s eyes widen as he looks back up at Steve.
“Did you just swear at me?”

“I did, yeah. Not professional, but yes, I do know a few swear words at the ripe old age of thirty-four,” Steve quips, clicking the penlight to underscore his mild annoyance.

“Wasn’t sure you had it in ya, Dr. Brooklyn Heights.”

“Bucky-”

Bucky cuts off Steve’s sigh by holding up his hand, and Steve notices the abrasions there. His patient adjusts his position slightly as if steeling himself for the blinding light, then he stares at the finger Steve’s just raised for him. Steve eases the light back into Bucky’s eyes then moves his index finger from left to right. Bucky’s eyes track, though they’re a bit sluggish. His pupils are uneven, which points to a concussion, but they’re a bit more dilated than they should be even with head trauma.

“What did you take?”

“Hmm?”

If Steve has any doubts about Bucky being on something, they vanish with the flirty smile Bucky gives him. He’s not sure what bothers him more, that Bucky likely scored something illegally, or that his smile went straight to places in Steve that it just shouldn’t be going.

“What. Did. You. Take?” Steve forms the question slowly but forcefully. He’s not sure anything less will get enough of Bucky’s attention.

“Oh… oxy,” Bucky smiles again. “Just takin’ the edge off, Doc. The girls are with Natasha so no worries. It’s just this fucking headache is killin’ me still.”

“Maybe you should’ve come in before you took that,” Steve admonishes him, wondering who the girls are that Bucky mentioned. “I could have given you something better suited because you can’t sleep more than two hours at a time tonight, and oxycontin is going to make it a pain in the ass to wake you up.”

“Two hours!” Bucky looks at him like he’s lost his mind. “I’m fuckin’ in pain, Doc. Isn’t sleep the best thing? I can’t sleep with my head hurting like this-”

“Good,” Steve huffs. “You have to be checked every two hours to make sure you don’t slip into a coma. What girls are you talking about? Do you have children?”

“Nah, my sisters,” Bucky drawls, blinking again at the lights above them. “Val…our mom... she doesn’t give a shit about ‘em. Not enough to stay sober anyway. They… I gotta watch after ‘em… But Natasha came over to stay with ‘em. I’m gonna crash at her place so they don’t see me like this.”

That sets off so many warning bells in Steve’s head. He rubs at the bridge of his nose with the back of his hand and sighs.

“Is someone going to be there with you? You need to have your speech and responses monitored, Bucky. I can’t release you if you don’t.”

“Huh? No, I’m fine. Just deal with the headache, Doc. Seriously.”

“I am serious,” Steve frowns somberly. “I’m not gonna budge on this one. I’m not gonna let you risk falling into a coma because you think you’re fine. You’re not. What was this? A car crash? You could also have internal injuries and not realize it, souped up the way you are on oxy. You should have gone to an ER.”

Bucky shakes his head as the smile fades from his lips. His eye turn earnest as he pleads with Steve.

“You know I don’t have insurance, okay? I’m banged up, but I’ve had worse, alright? I can’t do the ER. Check me over all ya need to but really, it’s just my head, Doc. I hit the dash. My neck hurts a little, but I’m tellin’ ya it’s just my head. I can’t deal with this headache.”

Steve stares at Bucky long and hard before answering, and he’s not happy at all about what he feels compelled to say.

“You obviously love those girls-” Bucky’s eyes darken dangerously at Steve bringing up his sisters, but Steve pushes on. “This lifestyle isn’t doing you any favors, Bucky. They’re relying on you to stay safe. What you’re doing? You’re always going to be in danger of leaving them alone-”

“What, you think I like this?” Bucky snarls at him, leaning in to glare at Steve. “You think I want this? Fucking McDonalds doesn’t support me, let alone two twelve-year-old girls! They wanna have girly clothes and fit in with their friends at school, and I’m fuckin’ gonna make sure they can! Don’t you fucking judge me. You don’t know shit about me!”

Steve purses his lips and considers him. He thinks back to what Sam told him when Bucky was bleeding in their waiting room last month, and he compares that information to what Bucky’s given away in his rant.

It really hasn’t occurred to him until now that Bucky fell in with the Russians out of necessity rather than a desire for status or personal gain. Steve’s heard his share of sob stories in here, but Bucky didn’t pull the pity card before, and Steve doubts he would have pulled it this time either, had it not been for Steve mentioning his sisters.

“You’re right, Bucky,” Steve begins again, softening his tone, “I don’t know you. I wasn’t trying to judge you, but I’m concerned about how you think any of this will end well for you or them.”

His gentled approach drains the anger right out of Bucky. He slips easily back into his cocky persona.

“Don’t worry about it, Doc,” he finally sighs, then he quirks up the corner of his mouth. “Although… if you’re that concerned, you could come home with me and watch over me tonight.”

He’s staring at Steve’s lips as he lets the innuendo fly free, and if he’s honest, he feels that glance all over. But he can’t go down that road with a patient. He can’t endanger his license or compromise his professionalism.

“That’s just ten kinds of wrong, Bucky,” Steve responds quietly with a shake of his head. “Here’s what is going to happen though… You love those girls and want to get better, you’ll do exactly as I tell you. Not one thing different. Deal?”

Bucky considers Steve with intensely serious eyes, his brows furrowed with indecision. Steve holds his gaze until Bucky’s face relaxes and he nods silently. Steve just continues to stare back at him until he finally mutters “deal”.

“Okay, give me your phone.”

“What?”

“Give me your phone.”

Bucky opens his mouth to question Steve, but then he snaps his lips shut, unzips his jacket pocket, and reaches in for his phone. He frowns down at its face, and Steve sees the crack down the side of the glass. He slowly takes it from Bucky’s hand and flicks it on. There’s a passcode, so Steve starts to hand it back, but Bucky waves his hand dismissively.

“3-2-5-5. It hurts my eyes to look at it right now, and nuthin’ you see in there will make any sense to ya anyway.”

“It might make sense to me later,” Steve teases lightly as he types in the passcode.

“I really don’t care right now, Steve.” Bucky’s rubbing his eyes wearily, the initial bliss of the oxy likely fading. Steve worriedly notes that Bucky’s used his name this time. He wants to keep him alert and engaged.

“Dunno… I could be a big time code cracker for all you know.”

“Then you wouldn’t’ve handed it back to me for the code, would ya?” Bucky’s expression is sour and sarcastic but there’s a twinkle behind his eyes. Steve can’t stifle the chuckle it causes, and he finds himself admiring the way Bucky seems to be able to think fast on his feet even half-stoned. The thought gets shoved to the back of his brain as he searches for what he wants on Bucky’s phone.

“True enough,” Steve allows. He calls his own phone and feels the cell buzz inside his pocket. He then pulls up the alarm on Bucky’s phone and sets a repeating event. After adjusting the volume as high as it will go, Steve hands it back.

“Okay. Your alarm’s set for every two hours starting forty minutes from now. I’m gonna give you an exam to be safe, then give you a lift to your friend’s place. I’ll give you a prescription for 800mg ibuprofen, but you can’t take it until tomorrow-”

“No insurance,” Bucky reminds him. “I’m not paying eighty bucks for Motrin.”

“Right,” Steve frowns. “I’ll send a few home with you then. Make sure you eat before you take them, or you’ll just throw them back up and that won’t help your head any. When your alarm goes off, you’re going to call me so I can check you verbally over the phone. You don’t call, I’m going to call you. You don’t answer, I’m calling an ambulance to come pick you up. Non-negotiable. Got it?”

Bucky’s stare is a little awe-struck as he blinks at his phone then up at Steve. The sensation must make him feel somewhat vulnerable because he quickly slips back behind his leering mask again. Steve at least prefers it to the forced, cold nonchalance of Bucky’s first visit.

“Ooh, can we have phone sex? I can be alert for that.”

“No.”

“Sexting? I hear it’s the new thing now.”

“Absolutely not.”

“C’mon, Doc,” Bucky grins. “Once ya get past the low income, dubious profession, current string of shitty luck and idiots for coworkers… I’m a catch!”

“Not going to happen, Bucky. You’re my patient, and it’s inappropriate and unethical.” Steve’s voice is firm but not unkind. He wishes that he could say yes, and that makes him more than a little nervous.

“Well you’re just no fun, tonight, Doc.”

Steve crosses his arms and and smiles goodnaturedly at his problematic patient.

“Funny, that’s what my last four girlfriends said.”

“Maybe it’s because they were girls,” Bucky whispers conspiratorially with a wink.

“Maybe,” Steve grunts in amusement. His stomach is flipping around like a dying fish, but he manages to keep his poker face intact. He can’t give anything he’s thinking away because he knows Bucky will go in for the kill. Maybe it’s not the best analogy, but he recognizes how relentless Bucky would likely be if he sensed Steve’s interest. Steve thinks it would take a lot more willpower than he has not to get steamrolled under the kind of charm Bucky can clearly unleash on a person. There’s a danger to it that Steve really should not find appealing, but he does, so he’s just got to hide behind a mask of his own.

“You gonna toe the line on this or not?”

“Yeah, fine,” Bucky sighs, obviously realizing he’s not going to get anywhere with Steve as things currently stand.

“Wise man,” Steve commends. “Ditch the jacket and shirt so I can check for abdominal trauma, then I’ll check range of motion on your neck.”

“Wow, such pillow talk,” Bucky drawls sullenly with a roll of his eyes, though he does begin to ease out of his clothes as instructed. Steve thinks of the sleep he’s definitely not going to get and groans inwardly when he realizes it’s more than the two-hour alarms that will keep him awake. It’s going to be a long, difficult night and, contrary to the cliche, he doubts anything is going to miraculously seem better in the morning.

 

10:00 pm

Steve’s phone rings at 10:02 as he’s gargling with mouthwash and watching the clock like a hawk. He’s nervous that Bucky isn’t going to call - and he’s a little more nervous that Bucky will call, sleepy-voiced and medicated and repeating his flirtatious words from earlier.

“This is Steve,” he says on the second ring.

“I would fucking hope so ‘cause I just woke up for you to be all medical… and my fuckin’ head hurts.” Bucky’s words are slurred, annoyed, and gravelly as hell. It’s a potent mix.

“I’m glad you called,” Steve says honestly, and then he steers the conversation to Bucky’s head injury before he can get too social. “How’s your head feeling?”

“Neighbor’s got a rottweiler… I think it might’ve chewed on my skull while I was sleeping. That’s how it feels.” There’s a long yawn and grunt; Bucky’s likely shifting in his bed. “My neck’s sore as fuck.”

“Do you have any dizziness?”

“No….” There’s a pause that’s heavy with dread. “You’re not gonna make me turn on the light to find out, are ya…? ‘Cause that would just suck ass, Doc.”

“It’s a possibility. Is there enough light in the room where you’re sleeping to tell if you’re seeing double?”

“Fuuuck,” comes the half-whispered swear. Steve hears the sound of an old chain switch on a light and a distressed groan. “No. It’s all fine and painful as ever.”

“Do you remember where my office is?” Steve asks with a smile, loosening up a little as Bucky swears like a sailor and sheds clues to the place where he’s staying as he bumps around and mutters at things.

“Not in Tahiti, unfortunately,” Bucky snarks softly, his voice cracking with lack of use.

“Bucky, just prove to me that you’re not having memory problems, and then you can go back to sleep,” Steve chastises softly. He hears a long, put-upon sigh through the speaker of his phone.

“In the armpit of Brownsville, you sadistic ass. You’re waking me up and not even fucking flirting with me.”

“Sleep, Bucky. I’ll talk to you again at midnight.”

“Fine… punk.” Bucky hangs up first, and Steve puts his phone down on the bathroom counter, staring innocently at his reflection.

“Just helping out a patient,” he tells the mirror. His reflection does not look appeased.

 

12:00 am

When the midnight call comes, Steve’s moved into his front room. He’s catching up on some news on his tablet and waiting to hear from Bucky once more before he attempts sleep. This time, he doesn’t identify himself when the phone rings. He can see that it’s Bucky’s number, so he picks it up and accepts the call with a “hi.”

“What’s it like growin’ up in Brooklyn Heights, anyway…?” It’s not the opening gambit he’s expecting from Bucky at all. In fact, he kind of wonders if Bucky was awake before his alarm went off.

“It was fine. Had a pretty average family and a pretty average childhood, for that neighborhood. I obviously had a lot of opportunities, and I tried not to waste them and to use them to help people who didn’t get such a cushy upbringing.” Bucky doesn’t respond right away, and Steve isn’t sure whether his answer is what Bucky wanted to hear. It’s his answer, though.

“Did you grow up in Brownsville?” he asks to reciprocate the conversation. They’ll talk about Bucky’s concussion in a minute.

“Nah, man… Bensonhurst. But that was ‘fore Val decided she liked being high more than she liked her kid. She got injured on her job, an’ we moved to this shithole two streets over. I just got us into a better place couple years ago.” There’s another pause that Steve doesn’t want to interrupt. “They got those cool brownstone apartments there with all the trees an’ shit, huh?”

Steve’s tired mind conjures up an image of a young, teenage Bucky taking care of his family when his mother’s addictions spiraled. He wants to ask when that happened, how old Bucky was, and how old the girls he’s mentioned were, but he also doesn’t think he knows Bucky well enough to hear the answer.

“Let’s check your reflexes,” he says instead. “Can you bring the tip of your finger to your nose on the first try?”

“Not in the dark… but I’ve got other reflexes that are working just fine.”

Steve sighs, but doesn’t give up.

“Touch your nose, please.”

“Doc… damn it. The light. You really want to kill me… or make me throw up. Maybe both.” Steve hears the lamp again and a fresh litany of swearing. “Nose fucking touched. You’re welcome.”

“Does that mean you’re experiencing nausea?” Steve asks next, ignoring the irritation in Bucky’s voice. That’s another side effect of concussions, and it’s one that Steve mentally checked off at the beginning of this conversation.

“Well yeah when I gotta keep turning on the damn light!” There’s a huff of frustration as the light clicks back off. “It’s just the lights, Doc,” he says, his tone losing its vitriol. “I think the oxy’s wearing off.”

“Excellent,” Steve tells him. “No, it is,” he adds when Bucky groans loudly. “You can start taking the pills I gave you tomorrow. I don’t want you on any suspect pills you bought from god knows where.”

“Hey, I’m not a druggie. I just don’t have the money to blow on a prescription that I can score for a fraction of the cost through-” He breaks off before he gives anything sensitive away. “I need that money for other things.”

“I’m aware of the existence of street pharmaceuticals, Bucky. I’m not completely ignorant of what goes on around me in this part of town. But prescription-strength ibuprofen is plenty strong enough for the bump on your head and it’s non-addictive.” Bucky makes a noise of protest, and Steve rushes to clarify. “I’m not saying you’re a druggie, but oxy is highly addictive for anyone.”

“Man, I know that, Doc. I see it every damn day.”

Their conversation stalls out, and Steve can hear Bucky breathing drowsily on the other end.

“Time to go back to sleep. Talk to you in two,” he tells him.

“In two,” Bucky mutters without any witty rejoinder, his voice already falling off groggily.

Steve makes sure the coffeepot is programmed and extra-strong, because he’s going to need it in the morning.

 

2:00 am

The next time his phone rings, Steve is in bed sleeping lightly. He flails for the phone, upsetting his dog Zola in the process, and accepts the call.

“Dizzy? Memory loss? Reflexes?” he mutters, hoping that Bucky will fly through the check-in so they can both go back to sleep. There’s a moment of inarticulate noises before Bucky actually manages to get out something akin to English.

“Are you in bed? Like… in bed in bed?”

“Uh, I don’t really understand the difference. But, yes, I am in my bed.”

He hears something like stuttering. Bucky’s actually fumbling for words for a minute, and Steve starts wondering if he’s disoriented.

“Bucky, are you alright?” he asks. He turns the light on and sits up in bed, for which Zola glares at him with betrayed eyes. There’s a short fit of coughing on the other end of the line, but then Bucky’s voice reaches him.

“Yeah, uh…” There’s a whiplash-inducing shift in Bucky’s tone, and Steve can practically see his leering smile. “Are ya naked, Doc?”

Steve flushes and looks down at himself. He’s wearing an NYU t-shirt and boxer shorts with little dancing steaks on them, and he contemplates lying for a moment. Then the context of the question hits him, and he makes a choking sound.

“Bucky, I’m sure that that’s just the concussion, the sleep deprivation, and the painkillers talking, but...you definitely have the wrong impression.” He starts to sweat, and he kicks his covers off self-consciously.

In their normal conversations, if they could really be called normal, Bucky’s voice only drops down in pitch when he’s pissed off or trying to intimidate. Now it’s suddenly almost a full octave lower and directly in Steve’s ear courtesy of Apple, Inc.

“I don’t think I do,” Bucky murmurs. “Not at all, Steve.”

“You’re my patient,” Steve reminds them both. He grounds the heel of his palm against his cock, which is taking an interest in Bucky’s side of the conversation, just to relieve the mounting pressure. “I’m calling to make sure that you’re still lucid and that the concussion isn’t serious enough to require hospitalization.”

“Yeah, I’m your patient and you’re a shitty liar, Doc.” There’s a soft, deep chuckle that almost seems to vibrate the phone against his ear. “You don’t take care of that boner, you’re gonna be the one needing a hospital, pal.”

“I’ll tell you if I’m naked if you do the nose check for me again.” Steve can hear the desperation in his own voice.

The sultry voice on the other end doesn’t relent.

“I’d rather touch something else, Doc.” There’s no saving click of a lamp switch to be heard this time.

Steve allows himself to visualize how this will go. They’ll have quick, sleepy phone sex, and then...well, then they’ll go back to the doctor-patient relationship that Bucky needs to oversee his injuries. Maybe the flirtation will carry over, or maybe Bucky will forget (or want to forget) that he dropped his guard tonight with Steve.
Either way, this isn’t going anywhere besides a hasty orgasm and some awkwardness. Bucky’s defensive walls are high and solid, and as much as Steve would like to earn his trust and spend some time in Bucky’s inner circle, this isn’t going to help. If anything, it might hurt.

“No, Bucky,” he says firmly. “I’m not playing games with you right now. I need to make sure that you’re okay, and then we both need to sleep.”

Bucky doesn’t say anything, and Steve winces at the silence. He’s about to start rambling about concussion symptoms, the hidden expenses of running a clinic, his house’s plumbing issues -anything- when Bucky speaks up.

“Not dizzy. Memory seems okay. I can touch my fucking nose.” He keeps his tone carefully blank, and Steve sighs.

“Look. Maybe under different circumstances. Not these,” he tells him. “Also, not naked,” he offers to alleviate some of the tension that’s crept up on them.

Bucky does laugh, but he sounds tired again.

“Fine. Uh, bye.”

“Bye Bucky,” Steve says. Zola looks at him suspiciously when he hangs up, so he gets out of bed and pads into the bathroom to take care of his cock before he goes back to sleep.

 

4:00 am

He hates himself when the phone rings at four. He’d been on the verge of falling into a dream, but his harsh ringtone pulls him back to the surface, and he picks up the phone already wary of what temperment Bucky will be in this time.

“H‘lo,” he greets him.

“Hey, Doc.” Bucky’s tone is clearer and more serious to start this time. Steve again wonders if he managed to nap at all this round. “Sorry… about earlier.”

“No problem. Just didn’t want you suing me for sexual harassment when you came back to your senses,” he jokes softly. The hint of a returned laugh is more of a hum under Bucky’s breath.

“My senses are fine… much to my utter dismay,” Bucky deadpans, dropping his thicker Brooklyn accent into something intentionally refined. “My head felt better when I was horny.”

Steve hums in sympathy, the sound rumbling in his chest and feeling like actual words this early.

“Do you still feel like you might be sick?”

“Not like before,” Bucky answers freely. “I’d take it back for this headache to go back to being a dull pain though. The nausea’s better, but the headache is sharper. That normal?”

“Unfortunately. You’re still coming down off the pills. But the good news is, in only a few hours, you can take your ibuprofen with breakfast.” He tries to sound cheery for Bucky.

“Breakfast…” Bucky’s voice trails off, sounding almost sad. “It’s Sunday.”

“Yeah. Is that a bad thing?” Steve asks.

“Nah. Sunday’s pancake day. Best fuckin’ day of the week. Chocolate chip if you must know.”

“That sounds divine,” Steve tells him. He knows his filter is gone when he starts waxing poetic about pancakes instead of checking Bucky’s stats. “Is it just you for pancake day? Or, you mentioned that you have sisters.”

“Can I tell you something…?”

“Sure,” Steve says nervously. If tonight’s taught him anything, it’s that he never has any idea what’s going to come out of Bucky Barnes’s mouth.

“I can’t fucking stand pancakes,” Bucky groans. “Especially with chocolate chips. They want whipped cream too when I can afford the shit. It’s nasty, Steve. It’s really fucking nasty… but they fuckin’ love them. I can’t say I hate the things, because they’re always so damned excited about Sunday being pancake day. I don’t even remember how it started, but I’m not gonna break their hearts and end it… so yeah. Pancakes.”

Steve doesn’t know what to do with the rant, so he asks the first thing on his mind.

“How old are your sisters?”

“Twelve,” comes the uninhibited response.

“So you were, like, sixteen when they were born?” Steve asks. He mentally checks his math against what he remembers from Bucky’s chart.

“I’d just turned sixteen. I think we have the same dad, but who the fuck knows? I don’t think Val knows either… or maybe she just doesn’t remember. Doesn’t really matter. It’s just us, and we don’t need anyone trying to play daddy now anyway.”

“What are their names?” Steve wants to know.

“Nicole and Tracy.” There’s a smile in Bucky’s voice now. “Don’t laugh. They couldn’t keep Val awake long enough to pick names. I picked the best ones I could think of at the time. I told ‘em they could change them when they’re old enough. They just laugh at me though.”

“Wow,” Steve says lamely. The fact that a sixteen-year-old Bucky named his baby sisters speaks volumes about who raised them. He thinks of himself at sixteen and what his own goals had been. If he’d been in charge of an actual human life, it wouldn’t have gone well for anyone. He wants to convey this to Bucky, because he’s suddenly concerned that no one in his circle has ever acknowledged what an impressive thing Bucky did, and does, for the girls.

“That’s incredible, Bucky. It sounds- you sound like you’re a really good parent to them. Even if it does require you to keep your views on pancakes to yourself.”

Bucky’s laugh is full and sincere.

“Yeah, well, don’t put me on any pedestal, Doc. I got it wrong a lot. Hell, I still do. I thought I was gonna lose my mind that first year. I was trying to still go to school and work. They weren’t sleeping through the night hardly ever. I don’t even remember a lot of it. I think I sleepwalked through most of that year. I had to fuck off a scholarship my junior year because it wasn’t enough to cover diapers along with the tuition and textbooks. If I worked part time, I wouldn’t have been able to finish before the clock on the scholarship, so I had to turn it down.”

“When did you drop out?” Steve asks, making sure that there’s no judgement in his tone. Among his patients, having a high school diploma is the exception rather than the rule, but the idea of Bucky being offered a scholarship says a lot about his work ethic and his intelligence before his mother failed in her parental responsibilities.

“When I turned down the scholarship, I didn’t see the point in bothering with high school anymore,” Bucky mutters, sounding a little distracted. “No point when I could go work full time to bring in more money. Rent alone wipes ya out. Start talking about kid clothes and all the other shit… And, hey Doc… Ya haven’t really lived until you walk into a transitional office at sixteen and tell them you want to apply for WIC. I almost went in drag.”

Steve laughs like he’s supposed to, even though the picture Bucky paints of his life is anything but amusing. He wants to ask about Bucky’s work and about how he’s managed to keep his family fed and clothed and finally moved them into a nicer apartment, but it veers too close to either encouraging Bucky to lie or calling him out. He hasn’t forgotten what Sam told him. He knows that whatever Bucky does, whatever lands him in Steve’s clinic with shooting-related injuries and whiplash, can’t be legal.

And he likes the plausible deniability thing they have going on.

So he refocuses and tries to remember if he’s asked Bucky about his head yet on this call. He remembers asking if he felt sick, so he figures that he’s mostly checked in.

“I’m going to go. Anything else I should know? About how you’re feeling,” he clarifies. Though he’ll listen if Bucky wants to unload anything else about the shitty hand he’s been dealt and all the ways he’s risen to meet it.

There’s a steady clicking sound in the background, maybe a pen tapping the nightstand. He hears Bucky shift on the bed, obviously taking the question to heart.

“Yeah,” he finally murmurs, though there’s no overture in his tone. “I didn’t steal the car. Just a passenger.” Another long pause. “The crash I could do without… but the aftercare is top fucking notch, Steve.”

 

6:00 am

Steve wakes up at 6:00 to both the ringing of his phone and the dulcet tone of his alarm. He groans at the lack of REM sleep and turns both the phone and the alarm off.

Then he realizes his mistake and calls Bucky back.

“Sorry, the alarm was going off at the same time as my ringtone. I got confused.”

“I think you should probably touch your nose for me now,” Bucky sasses him, “although, unlike you, I’m willing to compromise… You can touch whatever you want.”

Steve opens his mouth to protest and to remind Bucky about their conversation earlier, but he can’t figure out what he wants to say. Then he starts laughing, and he can’t stop until he hears Bucky chuckling at him over the line.

“You are insatiable. It is six in the morning, and neither of us slept well. How are you doing this??” he asks as he pushes to his feet and starts the trudge to the kitchen.

“I’m raising two twelve-year-old girls,” Bucky sighs with sarcasm thickening his words. “My balls are bluer than a Rangers jersey, Doc. As a medical professional, I would think you’d want to ease my suffering.”

“There’s a home remedy for that, I hear,” Steve teases as he grabs a mug and looks longingly into the still-percolating coffee pot.

“True, but I hear it’s really a second-rate remedy,” comes the cheeky retort. “Besides, aren’t doctors better with their hands than your basic, average shmuck?”

“Are you up for the day, or do you get to sleep more before pancake time?” Steve asks to change the subject. He’s still grinning, and his coffee isn’t even finished yet.

“Oh I’m up alright,” Bucky drawls back at him. “Did anyone ever tell you that you shoulda been a lawyer instead? You dodge and weave with the best of ‘em… except you’d have to work on your lying though, Doc. It’s really, really bad.”

“Again, a girlfriend or two has said that before. I’m a man with flaws.” The coffee finally finishes dripping, and Steve pins the phone against his jaw with his shoulder as he grabs the mug and starts to feed his addiction.

“Not that I’m seeing. The view was nice, even with my leg bleeding everywhere. Nice distraction, although your nurse was damn determined to cock block me.” Bucky’s voice is lighthearted, despite the subject matter. He’s obviously teasing Steve just to goad him more than he’s looking for Steve to actually cave.

“I’m not really sure what kind of view I had. All I could see were amateur stitches and a guy moaning about his head. I’ll have to get back to you when I finally see him without a dire medical emergency in the foreground,” Steve fires back.

“Oooh, hey, you’re even hotter when the full-on smartass kicks in,” Bucky growls low in his ear. “Well done.”

“I had coffee,” Steve says with a shrug that Bucky can probably hear in his voice. “Now, I have to go start my day. Seeing that you’ve not yet slipped into a coma, I’m going to go.”

“Doc,” Bucky sighs with mock exasperation, “how am I gonna land you as my sugar daddy if I can’t even get ya to have phone sex with me?”

“I’m not actually rich, Bucky,” Steve informs him. “Sometime I’ll tell you all about student loans.”

“Oh… well I guess I’ll just keep after ya for sex and free stitches then.”

“We’re not having sex.”

“Yet.” The self-assured grin is oozing through Bucky’s voice.

“Goodbye. Make fluffy pancakes,” Steve says before hanging up. He leans back against his counter as he slurps his way through the rest of his first cup and the beginning of his second, staring at his kitchen floor and grinning at nothing.

Chapter Text

 

The parking lot is picked because it doesn’t have any lights, so passing cars can’t see the faces of the men leaning against their cars and posturing.  

It’s hot even though it’s nighttime, but it’s mid-August in the city, so Bucky doesn’t know why he’s surprised.  He wishes that tank tops looked more menacing.  As it is, he’s sweating in a button-down because Sasha had insisted the Russians look professional for this meeting.  

The Dominicans look nice and cool in their t-shirts, and Bucky entertains the notion of switching sides.  

“Titaud,” Sasha greets.  He steps forward with his hand outstretched, but Titaud goes in for the hug.  The two gangsters clap each other’s backs, and Bucky and his men stiffen, waiting for Titaud to make a move.  

Nothing happens, and the hug ends.  

“We’re here, no guns, to talk territories,” Titatud says benevolently.  The Dominicans clustered behind him step forward and raise their shirts to show that they’re unarmed.  Bucky sighs at the display and motions to the Russian foot soldiers to do the same, and only then do their bosses start talks.  

He mostly ignores the conversation, concentrating on the shifty line of gang bangers behind Titaud in case any of them try something funny.  The talks concern who can sell what and where, but Bucky isn’t a salesman, so he doesn’t really care.  As the head of the Russian’s enforcement, he and his subordinates protect the leadership, make sure stores pay protection fees, and keep other gangs off their territory.  Someone needs to tell Bucky the new boundaries that get negotiated tonight, but other than that, he doesn’t give a shit what streets they trade.  

He’s mainly here to look scary, which is difficult when he’s sweating pit stains through his cotton shirt.

Sasha and Titaud loudly disagree about something, and Sasha turns and walks back to his side of the parking lot.  He swears and gathers his cousins under his arms to bitch in heavy Russian about the deal the Dominicans want.  

Bucky’s Russian is limited to what his grandmother taught him, so he only picks up a phrase here and there.  He’s hardly the only one; some of the kids around him are third and fourth generation, but Russian blood is thinning out in Brooklyn, and they’ll take anyone these days it seems.

Sasha and his cousins make a decision, and he whirls about and heads back to the center of the lot.  Bucky bums a cigarette off one of the boys just to have something to do with his hands, even though he knows he’ll have to hide the shirt from Nicole and her freaking bloodhound nose when he gets back to the house.

Raised voices catch his attention, and he steps forward when a Dominican on the other side of the parking lot starts heckling Sasha for wasting their time.  

“Shit,” he mutters as he drops the cigarette and takes long strides across the parking lot, catching Sasha’s raised eyebrow as he moves.  

“Hey, shut your fucking face,” he calls.  The heckler turns his ire against Bucky.  “You need to shut up and show some respect,” he says as he reaches the heckler.  He holds his hands up and away from his body to show that he’s not making a move.  

“Whatchu gonna make me, tough guy?” the heckler asks.  He turns his head and makes sure that his buddies are watching.  “Fuckin’ white boy?”  

“You’re fuckin’ eighteen, show some respect.  That’s a deal, and you’re disrespecting my boss,” he points.  One of the heckler’s buddies elbows him in the ribs, but the guy throws his stake into the pissing contest anyway.  

“I don’t respect no commie bitches,” he says with bravado and a head bobble.  His boys step away from him as Bucky smiles.

Then Bucky punches the asshole in the face.  

The Dominican grunts, dropping to his knee on the pavement as blood gushes from his nose.

Nobody moves.  Sasha and Titaud ignore the drama.  

“Anyone else wanna pretend they were alive when the Iron Curtain fell?” Bucky asks, shaking his hand out.  

A kid steps forward, looking like he’s already regretting it.  

“That’s my brother,” he motions to the groaning guy on the ground.  

“Alright, I get it,” Bucky tells him.  He lets the guy close in on him, and then he jabs.  

It connects with the brother’s stomach, but he blocks Bucky’s next two punches.  He steps backwards, but there’s a car a few feet behind him, so this won’t take long.  It’s probably for the best that weapons weren’t allowed at this meeting; this is simple and clean, and no one’s going to get seriously hurt.  

But then the brother steps backwards again, and he dodges Bucky’s next swing.  Bucky’s thinking about other things, and his guard is down, so he doesn’t anticipate the weave.  

His knuckles connect with the door frame, and he feels something shatter, then white-hot pain.  

“Motherfucker,” he swears.  The brother telegraphs his punch, but Bucky lurches forward and headbutts him before he can connect.  

He falls against the car, moaning in tune with his brother, and Bucky backs off.  

“Assholes,” he tosses over his shoulder as he walks back to his own side, making sure that he doesn’t show his injury in the way he swings his hand.  It hurts like a bitch, but he keeps it loose and relaxed, refusing to tuck it into his pocket, or hold it, or rest it on Vadim’s shoulder, which he very much wants to do.  

“I can’t fight.  Better hope no shit goes down,” he tells his guys.  Thankfully, Sasha and Titaud come to an agreement; money changes hands, and everyone gets back into their cars.  

“Do you think it’s broken?” someone asks him as he slides into a vehicle and finally gives into the urge to cradle his hand.  

“Nah, probably just bruised.  Hurts, though.  Just get me home so I can get one of the girls to wrap it.”

When his entire hand is purple and throbbing the next day, he knows that it’s time to go see Steve again.  He has to coordinate with Natasha and bribe her with pizza to stay over with the girls, but he can’t pretend it’s really a hardship.  He has a reason to go see the Doc again, and that’s always a good thing.

He worries, though, that Steve will wise up one of these days and turn him away.  

 

 

 

Two and a half months is a long time to have someone’s wicked smile flickering in and out of your thoughts at random.

Steve does his job, takes good care of his patients, and only thinks about picking up the phone and checking in on his hazardous brunet a few times a day.

Sam teases him about his occasional quiet streaks and his habit of sometimes staring off into space when he doesn’t have a patient in front of him.  He hasn’t spoken of Bucky, and it hasn’t affected his work, but Sam knows him too well; he knows something’s going on in Steve’s head. It’s completely juvenile, and Steve knows it.

It’s a simple little crush, nothing more. It’s not like he’s scanning newspapers or the obituaries. He’s not in that deep, but he did think there might be further contact with Bucky after their series of calls. Apparently, Bucky took his warnings to heart, despite the lightness of that last call. Steve should feel relieved, but he can’t quite manage it. He’s relieved Bucky hasn’t been hurt again, though.

Or maybe he found a different doctor.  The thought surges out of nowhere when Steve is tapping a four-year-old’s knee to check for reflexes, and he can’t pretend it doesn’t make him worry.  

Did he come on too strong?  Or did he not come on strong enough for someone with a sledgehammer lifestyle like Bucky’s?

Regardless, it passes over his mind again as he sinks back against his chair, entering his final patient notes into the files on his desk and thinking ahead to the pasta leftovers in his fridge at home.  

Whatever Steve continues to tell himself about what he thinks of Bucky, it flies right out the tiny, cracked window when he hears a knock at the lobby door. His heart stutters in his chest, and he’s up and fumbling for his keys before he even stops to consider much else.

Steve has to school his expression when he sees Bucky standing there with his hand wrapped up in a t-shirt and cradled to his chest. He doesn’t even bother to throw any wisecracks Steve’s way once he’s let inside, and his cheeks flush a bit when Steve closes the exam room door behind them.

“Doc,” he says simply. “Uh…”

“Does it feel like it’s broken?” Steve asks, gently taking Bucky’s hand and unwinding the t-shirt to see if there’s any blood or bruising.  Bucky winces as Steve examines his hand, which pretty much gives Steve his answer.

“Maybe… I dunno. I broke my little toe once, but that’s it. I’ve been lucky.” He’s staring with a bit of disbelief at the swelling. His knuckles barely show past the distension in the top of his hand. Or maybe it’s the lovely array of purple and blue that’s got him transfixed.

Steve holds up his keys and jangles them in front of Bucky.  

“Okay.  Follow me,” he says.  Then he heads for the front door.

“What…? Where?”

“Hospital,” Steve tells him as he leads Bucky outside and turns to lock the door after them.  

“Not the hospital.  Steve!” Bucky’s outright alarmed by the idea.

“I don’t have an x-ray machine, and I’m not an ortho.  We’re going to BHC.  I know some people there; it won’t take that long,” he says to mediate some of Bucky’s resistance.

“They do pro-bono work, because we talked about this, Steve. Just wrap it proper. I’ll be fine.”

“They do for their buddy Steve from med school,” Steve fibs slightly.  It’s still sort of pro-bono if another doctor is footing the bill.

“I think you’re full of shit,” Bucky accuses, though it’s a weak protest. “Can’t you set it yourself? Not like I’m gonna sue a guy I’m trying to pick up on.”

“It’s the green Outlander,” Steve tells him, pulse jumping at Bucky’s words.  He can’t figure out if keeping his cool or smooth-talking Bucky right back is more likely to lure him into the urgent care center.  

“Wow, that’s so soccer mom,” Bucky temporarily halts his steps to gape at the SUV. “Really, Steve?”

Steve grins at Bucky’s predictability.  If there’s anything that will make Bucky feel like he’s still in control of this situation, it’s giving Steve shit.  

“I needed a vehicle that was perfect for cruising and listening to some Jethro Tull,” he tells him.  Bucky looks at him like he thinks that Steve is joking, so Steve slides into the driver’s seat, turns the car on, and laughs at the look on Bucky’s face when the stereo kicks in.  

“I… We are never fucking to Jethro Tull, Doc. Just let me say that right now.”

“It’s an experience,” Steve tells him, deadpan, and Bucky cracks up as he slides into the passenger seat as expected.  

“Please… at least tell me that’s not your favorite band and that you’re just messing with me,” Bucky half pleads. “I have so much more faith in you than this,” he waves toward the stereo with his uninjured hand.

“Asking a guy about his favorite band is pretty intimate, Bucky,” Steve says with mock seriousness.  He falls back into the easy banter of the phone conversation without questioning it.  “I’m not sure we really know each other that well.  We’ve never gotten x-rays together.”  He points the car towards Brooklyn Hospital Center and keeps tabs on his passenger from the corner of his eye.

“And we’re not gonna go see Tull together either,” Bucky snorts goodnaturedly through his pain as Steve turns off the stereo. “Oh! I’ll have to make you a mixtape… Isn’t that what the guys used to do back in the day to impress?”

“Everyone knows Tull broke up in 2011, Bucky.”

“Not me, pal,” Bucky grimaces. “I didn’t know people still purchased their music either, because I know you didn’t illegally download that shit.”

“Maybe I did.  This is all the kind of privileged information that you get to learn after we get your hand assessed, and I know how to set it.”

“Is this going to require that penlight in my eyes again, because that shit should be kept to Guantanamo,” Bucky groans, letting his head fall back against the seat. He rolls it slowly to the side so he can let his gaze roam the length of Steve’s body. “What other privileged info do I get if I’m a good boy, Doc?”

“What do you want to know?” Steve asks, feeling bold.  They’re only a few traffic lights away from BHC, and he’ll be disappointed when he has to leave the quiet, close space of the car and share Bucky with others.  

“Are you really okay with guys or have you just been humoring me to shut me up?” Bucky murmurs, again turning on a dime. His guard is definitely up even though the topic is intimate.

“I’ve dated guys before. Never a patient, though,” Steve admits.  He wonders if the word ‘dating’ is too strong for this conversation.  After all, Bucky’s just propositioned him for sex a few times; he’s never asked him out.  

“So it really is just the patient-doctor thing,” Bucky clarifies, more to himself than anything. He’s not looking for Steve to confirm it again. He looks out the passenger window as the hospital looms into view, his brows furrowing. “You sure they’re gonna do this big a favor for you?”

“Sure.  Don’t your friends do favors for you?” Steve asks disarmingly.  When Bucky doesn’t look convinced, Steve lets out a breath.  

“We’ll work it out later if we need, but really, it’s not a big deal.  This is what I deal with on a pretty regular basis.  It would be like you shaking someone down for me,” Steve jokes.  Bucky turns to look at him with assessing eyes as Steve parks the car, and Steve meets his gaze in the dark cab.

It’s the first time he’s admitted that he has a pretty good idea what “job” Bucky took to save his family from poverty, and he’s also admitting that he isn’t scared off by it.

“Careful, Doc,” Bucky warns him seriously. His eyes are carefully reserved, and his voice has gone quiet and a little rough. “I think the term is plausible deniability. You just bit off more than you might be willing to chew.”

The car dings obnoxiously as Steve opens his door without turning off his headlights first.  

“Let’s go get that hand looked at,” he says as Bucky climbs out on the other side. They slam their doors shut simultaneously, and Steve heads into the building with the sound of Bucky scuffing his feet against the pavement keeping him aware of Bucky’s movements.

He happens to catch a glimpse of Bucky’s reflection as they pass a window, and it’s clear that Bucky’s not happy. His expression is more guarded and wary than Steve’s seen it before. His chin is up and his back is straight, but there’s an almost feral glint behind Bucky’s eyes. Steve half wants to kick himself for saying what he did, but part of him is glad to shoo the elephant from the room. They can talk about it after Bucky’s hand is cared for and he’s in less pain.

When they reach the admitting desk, the nurse behind it gives Steve a bright smile.

“Hey stranger! How’s Brownsville treatin’ ya?”

Steve doesn’t even have to lie.

“I can’t complain, Sara. I really can’t. Hey, is Bart on tonight?”

“Just came on an hour ago,” Sara answers as she shoves some files into the cabinet behind her and locks it. “Want me to page him down, or you wanna take your boy on up? Still remember where everything is?”

“It hasn’t been that long,” Steve laughs.  The nurse scoffs at his remark, still intent upon giving him shit.

“Oh I beg to differ.” She settles shrewd eyes on Bucky, and while Steve recognizes the early signs of panic on his face, Bucky doesn’t fidget. “Did he torture you with Tull on the way here?”

Bucky blinks rapidly as Steve puts a hand on his shoulder in this-is-my-buddy fashion.

“Of course,” he beams. “Poor guy busted his hand trying to escape out the window!”

For some reason, Bucky’s face flushes at the exchange. Or maybe it’s from the firmness of Steve’s grip, or the warmth of his hand through Bucky’s denim jacket. Either way, Bucky barely gets coherent words out of his mouth.

“I’m gonna chuck it out the window when he’s not looking,” he manages without his usual suaveness.  

“Oh, I like you already,” Sara grins. She buzzes them in with a wave. “I’ll let him know you’re on your way.”

“Thanks Sara. I’ll bring Starbucks next time!”

“Promises, promises, Steven,” comes the nonplussed reply as they enter a long, white hallway.

Too many turns and elevators later, they come to an area that seems deserted. Steve leans toward the wall and raps his knuckles against it.

“Yooo Bartelloooo!”

Bucky’s eyes shift slowly sideways as if he’s suddenly a little frightened of Steve, who just grins and winks back at him. Even though he’s not happy that Bucky’s been hurt again, he can’t deny being in a really good mood. It feels good to see his friends again, but it feels even better to be able to do this for Bucky.

“What the hell do you want? Do I even know you, little rat bastard?”

For a second, Bucky tenses until the face associated with the voice rounds the corner with a blinding grin. Steve just shrugs until the other, taller doctor gets close enough to pull Steve into a rough hug.

Bucky’s lips thin over the gesture, but only Steve catches it. He pulls back and motions to Bucky.

“Bart, this is James. We’re pretty sure his hand’s fractured; I’m guessing fourth metacarpal, and maybe even the scaphoid going by the bruising. Could you help me get an image? He doesn’t exactly have stellar insurance right now.”

“Boxer’s fracture, eh?” Bart’s eyes take quick inventory of Bucky, who bristles and squares his shoulders under the scrutiny. Steve shrugs it off.

“Had a guy pick a fight with him tonight.” Steve glances over at Bucky, who feels compelled to offer up support of Steve’s statement.

“Yeah… he ducked. The car behind him didn’t.”

“Ouch,” Bart winces. “Well that’s a wuss move. Smart, but still… “ The other doctor jerks his head toward the room behind them.

“Go on in, James. Cory will get you set up and get a few shots of your hand.”

Steve claps Bart on the shoulder, though his hand doesn’t linger the way it did on Bucky’s. “Thanks, man, I appreciate it.”

Bucky’s just inside the door of the x-ray room when Bart shakes his head at Steve.

“You’re such a bleeding heart, Rogers. You and your hard cases.”

“No, it’s not like that,” Steve protests. “James is my friend. He’s just had a couple bad breaks lately. He’s a good guy.”

“Oh, is he that kind of friend?” Bart laughs, poking Steve in the arm.

“He’s my friend, Bart,” Steve repeats with a soft shrug back. He glances over to see if Cory has closed the door yet. Seeing that he has, Steve drops his voice conspiratorially.

“Hey, listen… I told him you’d do me the favor so that I could get him here. He’s got two kids and a lot of bills to worry about already, so just turn it over to me okay? I’ll take care of it, but I’d rather he not know.”

“Friend my ass,” Bart smirks, but holds up a hand before Steve can deny the accusation. “Don’t worry about it. Just call Sara with your new address later.”

“Done,” Steve agrees readily. The two chat about their mutual med school buddies while Bucky’s hand is x-rayed. When Steve sees the red warning light turn green above the door, he knows Cory is finished with the shots.

“You rock, my friend,” Steve smiles, holding out his hand. Bart’s eyes flicks to the door behind Steve and he snorts. He answers Steve a little louder than he needs to, and Steve realizes Bucky must be exiting the room.

“Don’t even with the handshake. You’re hooking me up with that NFL pass on cable for this one! Not the shit one either, fucker. I want the silver package.”

The door behind them shuts, and Steve looks over to see Bucky standing there with a nebulous expression. He’s glaring a hole through Bart which, unfortunately, probably seems to confirm the other doctor’s suspicions. Steve refuses to react to it either way, though he’s grateful for Bart playing out the ruse.

“Give me about thirty, and I’ll let you come take a look. Oh and wait...” Bart tells Steve with an amused look in his eyes. He holds up a finger for Steve to wait for a moment and disappears. They stay silent until he returns with a cloth sling in a disturbing shade of purple.

“Here. Take that so you can rest it. You’ll want it when we cast it.”

“Thanks, we’ll head over to the cafeteria,” Steve says as he waves and then helps Bucky ease his arm into the sling. He doesn’t know if Bucky’s eaten anything tonight or not, but he knows he’ll need to before he can safely take any painkillers. He motions for Bucky to follow him.

“So I did my residency here,” Steve says to make conversation as they walk to the cafeteria.  Bucky doesn’t say anything back, which is odd for him.  “Yep.  Wanted to be close to home.  I thought about using it as an opportunity to go someplace crazy for a few years, like California or Florida, but I liked the program here, and it’s close to my mom.”

The look Bucky gives him is vaguely bewildered, and Steve realizes he’s talking about a world Bucky missed out on.

“Have you ever been out of New York?” he asks.  

“Nope,” Bucky answers, low in his throat. “Val wasn’t all that ambitious before she became a dopehead on her couch of the week.”

“I’ve been to New Jersey a few times to visit my dad, but I’m mostly a city boy.”  He holds the swinging door to the cafeteria open for Bucky, and he gets a raised eyebrow for his troubles.  “And the beach.  That’s about it.  Are you up for coffee, or do you want to skip right to the pudding?  I promise, it’s good.”  

Bucky ignores the question about food as he follows Steve to the line of wrapped sandwiches and chilled desserts.

“I can’t believe you’ve never been out of New York other than Jersey. Didn’t your folks take you on family vacations an’ shit?”

“To Seaside Heights,” Steve says with a laugh.  “Nah, my parents got divorced when I was pretty little, and vacations were mostly spending holidays and some of the summertime at dad’s.  Mom couldn’t really afford to go too far or stay the night just for fun.”

He scans the saran-wrapped food choices and makes his selection.

“Oooh, carrot cake.  I ate this stuff every day for a year when I was a resident.”  

Eyeing the cake dubiously, Bucky squares his shoulders and clears his throat.

“Please don’t talk to me about not being able to afford shit when you lived in Brooklyn Heights. It’s kinda insulting, Steve.”

Steve lifts his eyes and sees Bucky looking annoyed, but not angry.  He knows that something is off here, but he can’t put his finger on what it is.  This isn’t the easy, flirty banter they usually fall into, and it probably has something to do with the hospital and the x-rays, but he’s still feeling out what it is.  

“If you want to play ‘whose misfortunes are greater,’ we both know you’re going to win.  So what’s the point of playing?  Just take facts as they are.  And what are you getting?”

“I’m not hungry, and I’m not playing,” Bucky huffs, his shoulders hunching even as his chin raises. “You don’t really get it, Steve. Not that I blame you; how could you get it? You only went to Seaside Heights, fine. Just don’t say it like it’s such a rough compromise, okay? Especially not when I’m surrounded by all your buddies who probably eat kale and drink Starbucks like it’s going out of style. I’m not in the best mood to joke about it right now.”

The checkout girl watches the exchange with wide eyes.  Steve smiles tightly at her as he hands over his slice of carrot cake, two bottled waters, and a randomly-grabbed sandwich.  He pays her and heads for a table in the corner because he doesn’t want to disturb any of the doctors on shift or emotional family members with their conversation.  

“I got you this sandwich because you can’t take painkillers on an empty stomach.  If you don’t eat at least half of it, I’m not getting you any meds tonight.”

Bucky’s eyes darken immediately and the mood stewing behind his facade finally boils over. He gives the sandwich a shove to push it back at Steve and clenches his jaw.

“I’m not your fucking charity case, Rogers,” he spits through gritted teeth. “Oh, sorry… hard case.”

Steve thinks back to his conversation with Bart and winces internally.  He thinks for a minute as he decides what he wants to say, because he’s very conscious that this could blow up in his face.  He wishes he’d noticed when he lit the fuse, but at least he’s caught it now.  

“You knew I was a doctor.  It’s why you came to me. And yes, that puts me in a certain social bracket.  It’s not one that I was in when I was growing up because, regardless of what you believe, I wasn’t rich.  A lot of my med school friends were.  But why does that matter?”  

He unwraps the sandwich, which turns out to be ham, and pushes it back to Bucky.  

“Also, I do like hard cases.  You’ve benefitted from that, so again, why should it matter?  Unless,” he pauses and meets Bucky’s eyes, “you’re wanting this to be about something other than medical care.  In which case, I’m questioning why you’re getting on me for things I can’t change.”

Bucky’s jaw works silently as he stares back at Steve. There’s a lot of emotions running behind his eyes, but none of them stay there long enough for Steve to really grasp. He finally pulls his eyes away and focuses upon the oil painting of a idyllic seascape on the wall.

“To clarify, I’ve never wanted to sleep with a ‘hard case’ before.  That’s kind of unique to this situation,” Steve admits.  

Blue-grey eyes shoot back to his, and Bucky’s jaw slacks with shock. He clamps his mouth shut and shifts so he can pick at the saran wrap still dangling from the sandwich.

“So is that all?” he asks carefully. “Quick roll in the hay with a hard case. Get the novelty of it out of your system?”

“Bucky,” Steve sighs.  “I mean, I’m not writing your name in little hearts on my patient files, but...  Yeah.  I’ve been thinking about you in the months since I last heard from you.  I don’t know what that means yet, but I’m not just trying to get in your pants and forget about you.”

“Didn’t think you were tryin’ to get in my pants at all,” Bucky mutters, his cheeks flushing with  color. For all his bluster, he has moments when he still seems like he sees himself as that sixteen-year-old isolated, insecure kid.

“Do you always put guys through the wringer like this?” Steve asks with a faint smile.  He finishes his cake and looks pointedly at the sandwich between them.

Bucky’s lips curve into a semblance of a pout as he picks a bit of crust off the sandwich and examines it.

“No… I flirt with you because it’s fun… and it was easy to keep at you until you planted your feet and turned it back on me. Then I start thinking about how different we are, and then I wonder what the hell I’m doing.”

“Remember when you told me that you make pancakes for the girls every Sunday even though you hate them?  Well, sometimes you have a fundamental difference, but you overcome it because you have common ground that trumps it.”  

Still picking at the sandwich, Bucky shifts nervously and doesn’t look up. He does put a small piece of it into his mouth finally, as if offering some type of truce.

“I picked up my phone a few times to call you, but it’s not like I could talk much in front of my sisters or in front of my guys… and the couple times I did have some privacy, I couldn’t think of a good reason to bother you.”

“So you busted up your hand for my attention,” Steve teases him.  He grins at Bucky.  “You know, you could have started with our common ground.  Like, our mutual appreciation for your recovery from the concussion, which I never heard anything about.”

“Yeah, that… It’s not that I didn’t want to. I meant what I said…All of it, and I really appreciated you doing that for me even if I was being a shit about waking up every two hours… I guess I just don’t wanna kid myself into thinking I have anything to really offer here, especially to a gorgeous doctor who could do a lot better than some deadbeat thug.”

Steve takes a deep breath and lets it out through his nose.

“You’re a really smart guy.  You’re protective.  You’re funny.  You’re incredibly driven.  You’re smoking hot.  And you’re brave.”  He notices Bucky squirming in his seat.  “I’ll stop if you eat this fucking sandwich, Barnes,” he says.  

“I’m still a thug with a messy life.  You don’t want that to bleed over into yours,” Bucky sighs, but he picks up the sandwich and takes a real bite this time.

“Bleeding’s kind of my thing,” Steve grins.  

“Now who needs to be more serious,” Bucky complains past his mouthful of ham and swiss. “I mean it. I don’t think you can deal with this, Steve. It’s not like I’d be able to turn in a two-week notice and go find new horizons if, let’s say hypothetically, you get in this and then change your mind.”

“Bucky, I don’t really have a lot to offer either.  I’m not rich, contrary to what you believe.  I don’t really have a social life because I work all the time and spend my hours off with my mom.  I have a dog that destroys most of my stuff.  And I’m a caffeine addict that puts some of the junkies around the neighborhood to shame.  

“So we’re both pretty hopeless cases, but can’t we just be...two people who have a meet cute and start talking and maybe go out sometime and see where that takes them?  Instead of analyzing compatibility and comparing upbringings and all of this complicated stuff?”  He takes a calculated risk and reaches across the table to run a finger over Bucky’s pulse point on his non-broken hand.  “Just, simple.  Stop overthinking it.”

Bucky’s cheeks are even pinker as Steve lays his cards on the table, and he furrows his brow as he thinks. He looks down and turns his hand over to run his own finger along the line of Steve’s palm. He leans across the table to fix Steve with a heated stare, but his mouth quirks ever-so-slightly.

“Steve… what the actual fuck is a meet cute?”

 

 

 

 

Bucky stares with wide eyes at the monstrosity on his hand. It’s heavier than most people figure a cast would be, so Steve can imagine Bucky’s feeling surprised at the unexpected weight. It’s obvious that he’s a cast virgin.  

He sees Bucky poking at it and rubbing his fingers together suspiciously.  The plaster is still damp to the touch and will be for a while still. Bucky’s busted fingers keep flexing, and he winces a little each time. It’s probably aching like crazy from being set after they’d gotten the x-rays developed and confirmed the break in the 4th metacarpal and scaphoid.

The hospital had given him an injection for his pain, but Steve doesn’t want to turn all the credit over to Bart. He can write Bucky a prescription for an oral painkiller, and he will, once he gets back to the clinic and his prescription pad.  

“Hey, I know it aches, but try not to wiggle your fingers around too much. It just makes it worse. It might feel like he made it too tight, but he did it to allow for when the swelling goes down. That tightness will ease up.”

“Oh, I thought that was just Brent’s way of showing he cared,” Bucky mutters, his eyes darkening at the mention of the orthopedic doctor.

“Bart,” Steve corrects, not quite hiding his knowing smile. “Wait, where’s your sling?”

“I left it there,” Bucky answers, looking a little nervous that Steve’s going to lecture him. “Barney can give it to someone else.”

“Bart,” Steve snorts over Bucky’s deliberately obtuse reply. He’s not wanting to admit he thinks the mild territorial jealousy is a little cute, but he’s not able to keep himself from laughing at it either.

“Yeah, okay,” Bucky grumbles with an impatient wave. “I can’t wear it around the guys. Bad enough I’m in a gimpy cast. I definitely can’t be wearing that. Who the hell thought that color was a good life choice anyway? I think he gave it to me on purpose.”

“Most of the people Bart sees are athletes who can get away with rocking a neon purple sling.” Steve knows Bucky appreciates the favor, but his amped-up alpha demeanor was hard to miss while Bart was applying the cast. Bucky’s eyes have a tendency to go cold when his defenses are up, and Steve probably could have frosted a beer mug with the glares Bucky was giving Bart while the ortho wasn’t looking.

Beside him, Bucky’s twitching and messing with the cast still, a frown turning his lips downward into another near-pout. Other than Bucky’s feathers being ruffled over Bart, they haven’t said much since getting into Steve’s car, and Bucky keeps flicking his eyes over to Steve as if trying to figure out what else to fill the silence with.

“How long before this dries? It feels… disgusting.”  He wrinkles his nose down at the offensive cast.

“It’ll take 24 to 48 hours to fully dry, but it shouldn’t bother you anymore by tomorrow morning.  Just leave it be; don’t try to dry it with a hair dryer or anything. It needs to cure properly, or the hardness will be compromised.”

Gazing at the cast that reaches halfway up his forearm, Bucky rolls his shoulders and thumps his skull against the headrest behind him.

“I gotta figure out what to tell the girls. They’re gonna wanna draw shit on it like hearts and flowers, and that just will not fly with the guys… or at least not in a way that won’t make my life hell until it comes off. Any suggestions?”

“Well, you could tell them that it’s made of a special material that’s compromised by Sharpie ink.  Or, I don’t know your parenting strategy, do you have to be honest?”  He smirks at the false-outraged look on Bucky’s face.

“How many little kids do you lie through your teeth to on a daily basis?”

“I love kids, don’t get me wrong,” Steve says, shooting a sideways look at his passenger to make sure that message gets across.  “But in my line of work, I sometimes find the power of suggestion and misdirection to be pretty important.  Give a kid a shot, and he starts screaming, but then I say, ‘Wow, you’re so brave, that didn’t hurt a bit, did it?’  And magically, it doesn’t hurt anymore.”

Bucky just stares at Steve, and it’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on behind those blue-grey eyes, but Steve feels like there’s something good coming of it. When Bucky speaks again, he’s relieved to know he read him correctly.

“The girls would like you,” Bucky says, then blinks as if he can’t quite believe he said it aloud.

“Well, in that case, I don’t want to be the cause of their hurt feelings when you tell them that they can’t draw all over this cool canvas you’re going to be rocking for the next four to six weeks.  We need to come up with a plan.  Hey, where am I driving you?” he says when he realizes that he’s just retracing their steps and heading back in the direction of the clinic.

“Uh, I’m off Bristol.  616 number 2.”

“Oh, I’m over on Willmohr.  We’re kinda like neighbors,” Steve says almost playfully.  He points the car towards Bucky’s apartment and thinks ahead to how and when he’s going to see Bucky again.

The conversation in the cafeteria has altered their boundaries and changed the dynamics of their relationship, but Steve can still remember feeling like Bucky was done with him just a few hours ago.  He hadn’t called, or come by the clinic after the concussion despite their rapport and their easy conversation.  

Steve doesn’t want to spend another two-and-a-half months in uncertainty, so he needs something that will bring Bucky back in, preferably soon.  

“I left my scrip pad at the clinic, so if you come by tomorrow, I’ll write you a prescription for some painkillers.”  Bucky bites his lip, and Steve feels like he’s already becoming fluent in Bucky’s tells.  

“Also, I can draw some cool, macho stuff on your cast.  That way the girls won’t be upset when they can’t draw hearts and flowers.”  

“What are you gonna draw?” Bucky asks with a snort.  

“I don’t know.  I could do the bones in your hand?  Or, like, tattoo art.  I like drawing,” he adds when Bucky looks at him skeptically.  

“So you’re this amazing doctor, and now you’re gonna tell me you’re an artist too?” Bucky just shakes his head and grins out the window. A soft chuckle rolls from his throat as he looks back over at Steve. “You’re a fucking unicorn, aren’t you? An SUV-driving, Jethro-loving unicorn.”

“So yes, you’re coming by tomorrow for prescriptions and artwork?” Steve says hopefully.  He ignores the digs at his lifestyle, because there’s no malice in Bucky’s voice.  

Bucky’s grin softens into something else entirely.

“I wouldn’t have minded coming by tomorrow anyway, even if you weren’t offering pain and parenting angst relief.”

“Well, it’s good to know you’re not just using me for my medical degree,” Steve jokes as he pulls up to the curb in front of the building Bucky points out to him.  He kills the engine, and then wonders if that sends the wrong signal.  It’s not like he expects to get invited into Bucky’s home and his inner circle tonight.  On the other hand, he’s not completely ready to let Bucky go and risk restarting at doctor/patient tomorrow.  

Bucky’s not reaching for the door handle, though. He picks at the edge of his cast while shooting a glance up at what Steve suspects is his apartment window. He’s gnawing a bit at the inside of his lip as he opens his mouth to speak, then shuts it again.

“Hey, Steve… this?” He gestures to the cast and risks a furtive glance over at Steve. “This was above and beyond even for you. I uh… I really appreciate it.” He squirms around in the seat until his body is turned more toward Steve. “Thanks. Really… I mean it… Thanks.”

“No problem.  Just...  get hurt less, okay?” he says pathetically.  

“You mean actually come see you with no injuries…?” Bucky’s smiling at him, but his voice has gone husky while his lashes droop low over his eyes. “What the hell would we argue about then?”

“How about lifestyle choices?  Don’t think I can’t smell that you smoked at some point today.  I never get to give that lecture in this neighborhood, because nearly all my patients smoke, so I’ve been dying for a victim,” Steve shoots back.  

Bucky rolls his eyes with what almost passes as an innocent smile, then leans across the console toward Steve. His voice drops to a soft murmur as he looks Steve’s face over, settling upon his lips.

“I don’t really smoke, Doc. When I do, it’s for effect, not because I like it. What you’re smelling is leftover on my shirt.” Bucky raises his eyes to Steve’s suggestively.

“I definitely don’t taste like a cigarette right now.”

“Doubtful.  The chemicals in cigarettes stay on your teeth and in your saliva for hours afterwards,” Steve says as he leans in, eyes flicking to Bucky’s to make sure he’s reading the signals right.  

Bucky doesn’t smile at that; his expression is far too heated.

“I’m raising a twelve-year-old with a nose like a goddamned bloodhound. I’ve learned how to get rid of it,” he growls softly. “Fucking kiss me already, Steve. I’m fuckin’ dying over here.”

“Hopefully not from lung cancer,” Steve tells him.  Then he goes in for the kill.  

Bucky does taste a little bit like nicotine, but also like ham & swiss, and also minty. He’s probably got mints or gum stashed in his pocket. Steve finds his fingers tangling themselves in Bucky’s hair through no direct thought of his own, and Bucky tries to copy the action.  He softly clunks Steve’s face with the side of his cast, and then they’re both laughing into the kiss and trying to readjust to work around Bucky’s hand.  

Bucky finally opts for resting his cast on the console and tugging Steve closer with his good hand. He whimpers a little into Steve’s mouth when he complies, and it’s possibly the hottest thing Steve’s ever heard, especially from someone as guarded as Bucky.

When they finally pull apart, Bucky’s eyes are wide, and his lips are puffy.  Steve doesn’t want him to leave, but he’s sensitive to the neighborhood and the time of night.  Also, he doesn’t know who’s watching Bucky’s girls, but he suspects that Bucky needs to get back to them sooner rather than later.

Bucky seems to be sharing the same thoughts as he leans forward again to press his forehead to Steve’s. He runs his fingertips over Steve’s nape and smiles regretfully.

“I wish I could invite you up… but the girls… You’re new and they’d never leave you alone.”

“I get it, no worries,” Steve promises.  “Go on.”  

Bucky opens the car door, and the lights come on in startling contrast to the cozy darkness from a moment ago. Bucky squints back at Steve before he turns to go and gives him a look of mock distaste.

“Hey, get your fuckin’ windows tinted, will ya? That could’ve gone on at least another ten minutes.”

“Bye, Bucky,” Steve calls as Bucky slams the door and walks away.  His instincts don’t let him leave until he sees Bucky unlock the door and go inside, but not before flipping Steve off over his shoulder for the parental gesture. Steve finally pulls away from the curb and heads for his own place.  

He wonders if Bucky will show tomorrow.  He’s equally full of doubt and hope, and he finds himself analyzing what each action would mean long before he needs to stress himself out about this.

 

 

 

 



Steve gets to the clinic before it opens the next day.  The lights are already on inside, so he assumes that Sam or the weekend receptionist, Kate, has already arrived.  He’s guessing that it’s Sam, because Kate’s punctuality is lackluster at the best of times.  She fixes all of Peter’s filing mishaps, though, so Steve really can’t complain.  

“Hey, it’s me,” he calls as he unlocks the door and heads for the gurgling coffee pot in his office.  Sam pokes his head out of the door labeled ‘Steve Rogers, MD’ with a frown as Steve finishes crossing the waiting room.  

“You do know it’s Sunday, right? That day that comes after Saturday? It’s the one that happens after you’ve already worked six days in a row…?”

“When do I not show up on Sundays?” Steve asks with shrug and a sheepish smile.  He notices that Sam’s only made enough coffee for one person, which is unfortunate for Sam.  

“Right, but that’s later on… to do paperwork. You’re never here at the buttcrack of dawn.” Sam crosses his arms over his chest and lifts his chin Steve’s way. “Man, Steve, we talked about this. Paperwork is one thing, but you’re gonna burn yourself out, and then what good are you gonna be to anybody?”

“I probably won’t stay all day,” Steve replies as he fills up a generic coffee mug with an Rx company logo on it.  He’s not fully confident in his words, however; Bucky could very well show up after closing per usual, which means a full day in the office.

Well, he’s been meaning to catch up on some medical journals anyway.

“Might not…?” Sam finally notices that Steve just macked on his coffee, and his hands come to rest upon his hips as he squares his shoulders. “You know what? Me, you, an’ Peter need to have a long talk about the coffee situation in this office. I cannot believe you just stole my coffee. I don’t care if you are technically my boss, Steve. I will kick your ass as an uncaffeinated, pissed off friend if you do that again. I need my coffee, Steve. Don’t make me draw your ass a diagram about withdrawals. You’re a damn doctor. You know better.”

“I’ll make you more,” Steve offers an olive branch.  He still keeps his mug clenched tightly in his hand until Sam leaves with an extremely put-upon eye roll.  

He dumps more coffee in the filter, enough for all three of them this time, and then boots his computer up.  He checks his emails, reads a few interesting-looking articles on New York Times online, and then scans over the schedule for the day just to familiarize himself with the anticipated comings and goings.  

He checks the clock again.  It’s only 7:51, and the clinic won’t open for another nine minutes.  Today is going to be very long, he realizes.  

Two hours later, Steve feels eyes on him and looks up to find Sam standing back in his doorway with daggers shooting from his eyes. Steve sighs and clicks off his monitor because this is obviously going to take some concentration on his part. The article on protein markers found in the blood of patients with dengue fever is fascinating, but it will have to wait until Sam gets this out of his system, whatever the current rant ends up being.

“What the hell is James Barnes doing back here with two little girls?”

“He’s one of our patients,” Steve says innocently.  He picks up the receiver and calls Kate at the front desk.  

“Hey, Kate, I’ll come get the Barnes family in one second.”

“They don’t have an appointment today,” she tells him matter-of-factly.  

“And my schedule is clear,” he responds with a smile before hanging up.  He stands to go out into the waiting room, but Sam’s hands are on his hips again, and he looks a cross between worried and exasperated. He smacks the door shut to keep Steve in the office until he’s said his piece.

“You came in for them, didn’t you? Don’t bother lying to me, you’re shit at it. What the hell is going on, Steve? When did you suddenly become buddies enough with a criminal that he’s coming in all smiles with two kids?”

Steve feels like he’s all of nine years old and being scolded by his teacher for sneaking an extra snack, but he adamantly believes that, as a grown man, he can associate with whomever he wants.  He doesn’t, however, know how to express that to his completely unimpressed best friend and coworker without sounding blustery.  

“I’ve seen him a couple times.  He’s come here for treatment, and we talked,” he says, deliberately meeting Sam’s eyes and feigning nonchalance.

“That’s even worse! You make it sound like you had tea and biscuits, Steve, not treated a Russian mob enforcer.”

Steve snorts at the mental image of Bucky anywhere near tea and biscuits.  

“Come on, Sam.  We treat a lot of people with some skeletons in their closet.  Bucky’s no different, and he’s obviously not here to cause trouble if he’s got his sisters with him.  Can we drop it?”

“Wait, whoa whoa whoa… Did you just call him Bucky?” Sam’s eyes bug nearly free of their sockets.  Steve groans.  

“Can I be excused, dad?” he asks with a raised eyebrow.  

“Man, you are in over your head, Steve. I mean it. This can’t end well, and you damn well know it. He’s a low-life thug, and he’s gonna drag you down with him if you stay associated with him.”

“What the hell is your problem with him?” Steve hisses, leaning towards genuinely angry now.  “You keep warning me off with ambiguous statements, and I feel like you’re judging him without knowing him.”

Sam quiets his voice to a more somber tone.

“I don’t need to know him. I don’t want to know him. I watched him nearly beat a guy into a coma over five hundred dollars, Steve. Kid made a bet he couldn’t cover, and your buddy Bucky was there to collect. Kid got mouthy with him, and he took a bat to him. For all I know, he might have killed the kid if me and my two buddies hadn’t interrupted. That the kind of guy you want to feel all warm and civic-minded over, Steve?”

Steve stares at his friend with hard eyes.  He’s always trusted Sam’s judgement about everything from the people he dates, to the food he buys Zola, to the company that makes their hypodermic needles.  But he really doesn’t believe that Sam is seeing the whole picture here, just Bucky’s intentionally scary surface.  

Or, maybe Bucky’s comment about biting off more than he can chew isn’t totally off the mark.  

“People do shitty things to take care of what’s theirs.  It’s not our place to judge how our patients make ends meet, and no, I don’t think that’s the only determiner of a person’s character.  Bucky’s not a bad guy.  I know he’s done some bad things, but he’s had reasons, like anyone else.  Now can you please give me a little autonomy here?  Go, do your job,” he says with irritation tinging his voice as he puts his hand on the doorknob.

“Yeah, okay boss,” Sam mutters, but it’s clear the conversation will be picked up at a later time.  He moves away from the door to let Steve pass, and Steve plasters on a slightly-strained smile as he goes out to the waiting room.  

“Hey, come on back,” he calls to Bucky and the two pre-teen girls sitting on either side of him.  They both have Bucky’s brown hair, blue eyes, and devious smile.  The girl with shorter hair held back in a headband is looking around, interested in the office, while the girl with longer hair in a ponytail is reading an outdated People magazine from the stack on the coffee table.  

Bucky nudges them both, and the family gets up as one unit.  The shorter-haired girl hovers close to Bucky as they head toward Steve, but the longer-haired girl dawdles until Bucky turns around and tucks her under an arm, making her giggle.  

“Hi,” Steve says with a bright smile to both girls as they walk past him.  They echo the greeting, and then Bucky’s pausing right next to him.  His ‘hello’ to Bucky is lower and quieter, and Bucky grins openly back at him.  Barring moments of flirtatiousness, it’s the most jovial that Steve’s ever seen him.

“It’s that open door, go right on through,” he directs the girls.

Bucky looks back at the waiting room as the door shuts behind him. When the girls walk into Steve’s office, he subtly trails his fingertip over Steve’s abdomen with a wink as he passes to follow them. So much for Steve’s fear about returning to patient/doctor status. His stomach is fluttering from where Bucky grazed him, and Steve decides it’s a feeling he can get used to.

He follows the Barnes family into his office and pushes the door nearly-shut behind them.  

“Nicole, Tracy,” Bucky points the girls out to Steve.  “Girls, this is Dr. Rogers.”  Steve smirks at Bucky’s sudden formality; he usually just gets a ‘doc’ out of him.  

“Hi,” Tracy says first.  She’s the girl with longer hair, and she seems considerably less shy than her sister.  

“Nice to meet you, Tracy.”

“Hi, doctor,” Nicole says once the waters have been tested.  

“Hi, Nicole,” he says as he heads for his swivel chair.  Bucky sits in the chair across from the desk and hooks one ankle over the opposite knee, while the girls immediately head for the couch in the corner and start talking in hushed voices, occasionally shooting glances back Steve’s way.

“How’s the hand, Bucky?”

“Not bad,” Bucky answers with just enough hesitance in his voice to let Steve know he wants to downplay the injury in front of the girls. “Had to explain to them that the cast was still wet last night so no drawing on it, but I told them that they could help finish whatever you draw if you leave them some spaces to color in, maybe?”

“Definitely.  You want bones, or something else?  I don’t want to brag, but I’m really good at drawing bones,” he offers.  He rummages in his desk for a sharpie as he’s speaking.

“He wants bones,” Tracy answers for Bucky before he can get in a word. He rolls his eyes at Steve and smiles beatifically. It’s clear the girls have him wrapped around their fingers just by the relaxed, accepting expression painted across his features.

“Bones it is,” he shrugs.

“Do you know that there are twenty-seven bones in the human hand?” Steve asks.  He pushes his chair sideways and wheels around the desk until he’s sitting with his knees nudging up against Bucky’s.  Bucky holds out his plastered hand with an almost shy smile, and Steve grabs it gently and gets to work.  

“Do you know that doctor factoids are actually annoying and kinda braggy?” Bucky shoots back, relaxing his arm into Steve’s care. Steve’s about to come up with a witty answer when one of the girls beats him to it.

“Bucky said he broke his… metatarsal,” Nicole offers shyly. It’s all the opening Steve needs.

“Oh, he was giving you his own doctor factoids, huh?” Steve grins back at Bucky who scoots down ever-so-slightly in his chair. “For the record, he broke his metacarpal and his scaphoid bones. Metatarsals are in the foot.”

“Girls, who has the doctor’s income and who doesn’t?” Bucky laughs, seeming to know he’s really giving them carte blanche to start grilling Steve. He also seems more than willing to share the wealth of inquisition. Steve can imagine that it’s tough handling two girls their age alone all the time.

“Is it fun being a doctor?” Nicole asks hesitantly.  

“It is, but it’s a lot of hard work too,” Steve answers.  

Bucky’s brows jerk skyward even as his eyes go sly and sarcastic.

“Yes,” he begins, drawing out the word obnoxiously, “I can see the strain you’re enduring from lifting that cup of coffee and wielding a marker, Doc.”

“I’m not working today,” Steve says without lifting his eyes from the distal phalange he’s shading in.  Bucky jerks his hand a little, and Steve looks up to see that his eyebrows are still raised, but he seems more serious.

“What do you mean? We’re bugging you on your day off?” He sits up and runs his good hand over his hair. “Steve-” He catches himself with a glance toward the girls. “Doc… We could have come in tomorrow. I could have…”

“I’m here every day; it’s my practice,” Steve says to calm him down before this becomes A Thing.  “I just don’t see patients every day.  Really, I wouldn’t have told you to come in if you were going to bug me.  Of course, that was before I knew you couldn’t sit still for more than two minutes.  Stop squirming.”

“Dr. Rogers,” Tracy interjects.  “How much money do you make as a doctor?”  She pouts innocently, and then her face lights up in a shit-eating grin.  And Steve knows exactly where she got that look from.  

Bucky suddenly looks like he wants to crawl under the desk from the tiny monster he’s created. This is a kind of squirming Steve can’t help but enjoy though, especially after all the innuendo Bucky slammed him with during their first two meetings.

“Tracy,” Bucky groans, “that’s so not cool to ask.”

“I make a little over 150 grand, minus the fees for this place.  And I’m still paying off humongous student loans from medical school,” Steve answers honestly.  He’s about to add something about how the resulting take-home isn’t huge, but then he remembers his conversation with Bucky about money the night before.  He’s not trying to downplay what that much money likely means to this family, so he goes back to doodling.

“Do you have your own car?” she forges on.

“Tracy!”

“I do, and your brother loves it,” Steve tells her.  

“No, it’s a soccer-mom van,” Bucky corrects, his eyes darting between Steve and his sisters. “It’s green for godsakes.”

“Do you have to give shots to a lot-” Nicole starts, but Tracy has an agenda, and she steamrolls over her sister.  

“Are you married?” she asks.

“Oh my God,” Bucky groans, his face going crimson. It’s a look Steve enjoys tremendously.

“Why, no, I’m not, but I think you might be a little too young for me,” Steve pauses his drawing long enough to give her a teasing smile.

“How old are you?” she demands.  

“I’m 34,” he answers.  

“And how old does someone have to be to marry you?” she inquires.  Just then, Bucky flicks his good hand out and snaps his fingers sharply, and both girls stop giggling and settle down.  Tracy doesn’t stop smirking at them, though.  

Bucky’s eyes finally shift warily from his sisters to Steve, clearly embarrassed and now also annoyed.

“Sorry,” he apologizes quietly, but Steve waves him off. “If they didn’t like you they would be ignoring you… so there’s that I guess.”

“I was going to say that you sometimes ask some pretty annoying questions, so can I apply the same logic to you?”  He finishes the 27 bones and goes back, adding nit-picky details to prolong the art session.

“I thought that was obvious by now,” Bucky murmurs quietly, pointedly running his fingertips over his bottom lip. His pupils dilate slightly, though Steve wouldn’t have to be a doctor to know that sign. Bucky’s voice alone has goosebumps speeding over his flesh.

“Just about finished,” Steve says reluctantly.  “What are you guys up to today?  Have you had pancakes yet?” he directs to the girls.  

Both girls blink back at him in nearly perfect unison, before they glance at each other then at their brother.

“You know about Pancake Sunday?” Nicole asks incredulously.

“Bucky, are you going to ask him out?” Tracy demands a little loudly, but doesn’t wait for Bucky to answer. “Bucky, bring him to IHOP with us!”

“Oh my God, Tracy,” Bucky grits through his teeth and glares at her, “You are so outta line right now. Jesus. Stop it. He’s working, and we’re bugging him enough as it is without you going Oprah on him.”

“You’re not bugging me, but I am working,” Steve says apologetically to take the stress of a group outing off Bucky.  The two of them still haven’t seen each other without sutures and x-rays being involved, and it’s probably way too soon to intrude on Pancake Sunday.

“No you’re not,” Tracy skewers him with a glare of her own. “You just told Bucky that you’re off today; that you’re only doing paperwork, but you can do that later.”

Bucky’s eyes are huge, like he doesn’t even recognize the child sitting on the couch.

“Uh… Steve… Doc… I’m really sorry. I have no idea what’s up her ass right now.”

“I’m guessing she’s hungry,” Steve says with a laugh.  He lets go of Bucky’s hand.  “Let me write you up a prescription for percocet, and then you can be on your way.”

“Nuh-uh,” Tracy corrects him, folding her arms over her chest. “We. You have to come with us to IHOP.” Nicole says nothing, but she does nod in spite of Bucky’s eyes boring holes through them both.

“Nah, it’s your special tradition.  I don’t want to intrude.  I’d only drink my fourth cup of coffee, anyway,” Steve turns her down with a smile.

“Please… Steve?” Nicole finally weighs in, and her big, blue eyes are ridiculous in their pleading. Steve can see why Bucky moves heaven and earth for these two because he thinks his heart might have just melted right out of his chest cavity. It’s somewhere down around his stomach, which has also decided to chime in and make its opinion known with a loud rumble.

Bucky stares at the two for a long moment and then rolls his neck to shift his gaze back to Steve. His smile is genuine, if a bit embarrassed and shy.

“Hey… Why don’t you come with us? I could use a little help today since I’m being ganged up on by the Barnes family committee over there.” He lowers his voice a bit with a gentle nod. “I want you there if you really do have time free.”

“I would love to go get pancakes with you and these lovely ladies,” Steve tells him.  His smile feels like it’s splitting his face.  

He writes the prescription while the girls ooh and ahh over the cast art, and then the four of them head out after Steve slips out of his white coat.  

“Going out for breakfast,” he tells Sam as he leaves, because he always tells Sam where he goes during the day.  Sam gives him a bemused look, and Steve turns and follows the three siblings out of his office and to his Outlander.  

“The girls like Tull?” he asks as all four slide in, Steve reaching into the back seat to shove some things out of the way to make room for Nicole.

“Don’t you dare,” Bucky grimaces, laying it on thick just to jab at Steve. “I’m not about to have them playing that at home. They like that pop station. You should prepare yourself to be bombarded with facts about Adam Levy.”

“Bucky, Levine,” both girls correct him with exasperated groans.

“Maroon 5 guy? Like on The Voice?” Steve asks, and Bucky shoots him a look like he might now be a traitor. “He’s cool. I like their stuff.”

“You’re awesome,” Nicole says a little shyly.  Steve laughs, taken aback, and Tracy leans forward to hit Bucky’s shoulder repeatedly.

“What? What’s with hitting me?” Bucky glances at Steve before looking back at his sister like she’s grown a second head. “What?!

“I need to speak with you in private,” she hisses like she’s heard the phrase used by adults enough times to mimic it.  

“Too bad, you invited a guest.  Hold it ‘till we get home,” Bucky tells her.  Steve meets her eyes in the rearview mirror and shrugs.  

“I guess we’ll just have to talk about Adam Levine at the restaurant.  You can catch me up on The Voice.”  

She jerks her hand back from Bucky’s shoulder and crosses her arms over her chest.  

“Bucky… We’re keeping him. You’re overruled.”

Chapter Text

Steve waits the prerequisite three days before calling Bucky so he doesn’t seem too eager, even though he is.  He calls him on a Wednesday as he’s taking his morning break and eating a PowerBar, and Bucky picks up on the fourth ring.  

“Hey,” Bucky answers when the call connects.  Steve can hear someone speaking Slavic-sounding words in the background, but Bucky doesn’t sound rushed or distracted.  

“What night’s best for you for dinner?” Steve inquires.  Then he catches himself in his eagerness.  “Oh, this is Steve.  Hi.”

“I know who it is.” There’s quiet amusement in Bucky’s tone. “Caller ID, ya know?”

“I don’t think they call it caller ID anymore, Bucky,” Steve teases.  “It’s just...the address book?  Contacts?  Wait, does this mean you made me a contact?”

“Duh?” Bucky’s voice is low when he teases back, like he’s not worried about being overheard but not exactly welcoming it either. “Of course. Why wouldn’t I?”

“I was just checking.  It bodes well for asking you out if you’ve saved my number.”  He opens his desk calendar and looks over the rest of the week.  “So, dinner?  I’m assuming you don’t just eat breakfast foods.”

Steve hears a click that sounds like a door being closed. The voices in the background go away, though Bucky keeps his voice soft. Steve’s not sure if he’s just wanting privacy or if he’s doing it to be enticing. It’s working either way.

“Not only do I eat more than breakfast foods, but I’ll have you know I’m an awesome cook…when I’ve got actual, real groceries beyond necessities.” There’s a soft grunt of Bucky obviously sitting down somewhere. “And shut up. You were good for asking me out from day one, Doc. You had me at making fun of my cross-stitch attempts.”

“Yeah, that always gets me the boys.  Does that mean you’d rather stay in than go out for dinner?” Steve asks as a smile splits his face.

“Duh?” Bucky repeats, being his usual, cheeky self. “What, you think I’d actually want to share you with the public already? Fuck no, man.”

“Okay, well I’m looking over my extremely full social schedule, and I have nothing going on this week.  Or ever.  When do you want to come over?”  He thinks for a second and then rushes to cover any assumptions.  “Or I could go to yours.  Whatever.  I have groceries, though, if that’s an incentive.”  

“Not. Mine.” The answer is damn near panicked. “No. The girls like you a lot, Steve, and frankly, that’s a problem.”

“I think the problem is that you’re raising a ruthless matchmaker.  I’m pretty sure Tracy’s already checked to see if our blood types are compatible and our star signs align.”  

“She’s damn good on the laptop,” Bucky admits. “She may have already run a background check on you by now…. but seriously? No privacy, Steve. That’s unacceptable. I’m gonna get gropey with you if we’re on a date, and I’m sure as hell not gonna try to do it while dodging two nosy twelve-year-old yap-heads.”

‘My house has privacy,” Steve points out.  “Well, my dog likes to stare at guests, but he and I have a system worked out.  It’s kind of like a sock on the door, but with more cage.”  

“Doc, I don’t care if he sits there in the corner and licks his balls the whole time. He stays out of my way, we’re good. I have enough cockblocks in my life as it is.”

“Okay, you definitely need to give me a night, so I can start counting down the hours,” Steve jokes.  He’s a bit hot under the collar, but the white coat mostly covers it.

“Tuesday? The girls have some extended band practice thing that night, so Natasha said she’d pick them up for me anyway. I can ask her to stay with them.” He hears something tapping in the background, and he assumes by its sporadic patterning that it’s Bucky.

“Tuesday works,” Steve says as he writes it on his planner.  “What groceries do you need to create a masterpiece?  What are we having?”  

“Let me think about it and shoot ya a list, unless there’s something specific you like?”  Bucky’s slipped into that uncertain zone again. Steve hears the tapping speed up a bit.  He’s never seen Bucky doing it in person, but it’s coming off like an unconscious nervous tick.

“I’m not a foodie.  Whatever you want.”  They reach the part of the conversation where there’s an uncomfortable silence where neither of them knows what to say, and they don’t have the bleariness of sleep to push the conversation forward or end it entirely.

Luckily, Sam raps on the door at that moment and pushes it open to see Steve holding his phone to his ear and a twirling a half-eaten PowerBar in his fingers.  

“I have to go do doctor stuff.  I’ll talk to you before Tuesday.  Bye,” Steve tells Bucky.  He hangs up after Bucky echoes the goodbye.  

Steve’s phone instantly pings with a photo message. He’s almost afraid to open it as he stands up from his desk and shoves the rest of the PowerBar into his mouth, but he does. It’s Bucky’s good hand with his middle finger pointing skyward.

“What’s up?” he asks Sam distractedly.  

Sam’s eyebrows arch upward at Steve’s near-guilty resolution to his call. It’s mildly awkward, but Sam seems to have better things to do than give him grief at the moment. Or at least, not his usual brand of grief.

“I think we got  a case of mono in the other room, if you’re done with your 1-900 call.”

“Great, that means we’ll have ten cases tomorrow,” Steve groans.  As he leaves the room after Sam, he swats at his friend’s neck.  “And I only call 1-900 phone numbers on your phone, jerk.”

 

 



Six days later finds Steve frantically defrosting beef before Bucky gets to his house, because he’d meant to leave it on the counter to thaw, but he’d forgotten like usual.  

He hears a knock at the door, and Zola’s accompanying whine-barking, and he takes the beef-laden plate out of the microwave before answering it.  

“Sorry, no soliciting,” he says as he opens the door to see Bucky standing on the concrete slab masquerading as as a front step.  His uninjured hand is in his pocket, and he’s already chewing his lip self-consciously.  He looks mouthwatering in a denim jacket and jeans, and Steve instantly feels overdressed in his work clothes.

“Oh I’ve never had to solicit, Doc,” he smirks, throwing out a bit of swaggerish front, which Steve sees right through. “Never been that desperate… although if you make me stand out here too long, that could change pretty fast.”

“Come in,” Steve tells him.  He steps away from the door and lets it swing wide, catching Zola in his arms.  “Sorry, he just needs to smell you, and then he’ll go away.”  

Bucky holds his knuckles out for the eager dog, and the smirk broadens.  Steve shuts the door behind him with his foot as the dog wags his butt frantically and approaches the stranger.  

“Dog, ya got it all wrong. You’re supposed to sniff what you plan on keeping close,” he says as he leans his shoulder lightly against Steve’s chest and lifts his chin to look up at him. He gives the faintest sniff toward Steve’s neck, then grins and walks past Zola into the front room.

Satisfied, Zola heads back to the hall bathroom where he’s been napping on the rug.  

“Okay, bye, don’t get up to anything,” Steve calls to his retreating backside.  As soon as Zola’s tail disappears through the door, he reaches out and hooks a finger into Bucky’s jacket.  He pulls him in and nudges his nose against Bucky’s face with an exaggerated sniff.  Bucky laughs, and Steve turns his head to kiss him hello.

“Hey there,” Bucky smiles and reaches for Steve’s belt to start tugging it free. He’s also invading Steve’s space to nudge him backward toward the couch, being pretty clear about what he wants right now.

“Oh,” Steve says before he collects his thoughts and thinks of something more suave.  Bucky pushes him down and straddles his legs, pulling Steve’s belt through the last loop and dumping it unceremoniously on the floor.  

“Wait, wait,” Steve gets out in between kisses.  Bucky pulls back with a wary look.  “I was promised stroganov?” Steve says, the question evident in his voice.  

“Stroganov,” Bucky repeats dumbly, his jaw slacking a bit. It’s obvious that he’s used to charging right in. “I’m about to take complete advantage of you, and you’re worried about stroganov, Steve?”

“I’m not really going to want to cook after sex?” Steve offers.  Again, it feels like he’s asking a question.  “And I thought this was a date?  It’s usually dinner then sex, right?”

Bucky blinks back at him, and it’s clear that Steve’s definition of dating isn’t really in his purview.  

“Doc… I don’t…” He gestures with a hand swinging between them. “I don’t do this. Dinner an’ shit. I don’t ever have time for it…” He looks like he might actually bolt at any minute, and it makes Steve a little sad, but also determined.

“You told me what to buy, and you were very adamant about defrosting the beef,” Steve says with a surprised laugh.  He squeezes Bucky’s waist and then releases him.  “You knew you were coming here for dinner, so don’t try to get out of it.  Come on,” he says as he pats at Bucky’s legs.  “Come put me to work. I’m hungry.”

Bucky’s lips thin out, but he gets up. By the time he’s helping Steve up from the couch, his lips have reversed into a full-blown pout.

“I’d rather put ya to work in the bedroom than the kitchen,” he sulks, but he follows Steve anyway.

“We need energy for later,” Steve tells him with forced chipperness.  He’s anticipated that Bucky’s going to have hang-ups about a lot of things that Steve considers part of dating and romance, but he hadn’t expected eating on the first real date to be one of them.  

He walks into the kitchen, Bucky at his heels, and moves to start taking things out of the fridge.  

“What can I cut?” he asks to get the process going.  

“Mushrooms,” Bucky answers while taking off his jacket. He’s frowning darkly as he struggles to get his cast through the arm. It’s obvious he’s still not used to dealing with the extra bulk. “Cube them.”

“On it,” Steve says with a culinary confidence he doesn’t feel.  He looks at the mushrooms as he dumps them into a strainer, and thinks that there’s no way they’re going to fit nicely into little cubes.  

Meanwhile, Bucky’s won the battle with his jacket and is now pulling fresh herbs free from the packets Steve purchased them in. He eyes the white wine Steve bought and shakes his head.

“There’s a happy medium when you buy wine for cooking, Steve. That…? You drink. I can see I’m gonna have to teach you a few things, bachelor boy.”

“I have some other wine in the dining room,” Steve tells him as he takes two wine glasses out of a cabinet.  He sets them in front of Bucky, who looks at him like he’s being intentionally obtuse.  “What, you said that’s for drinking.”

“We can use it,” Bucky half-laughs, “because Steve, so help me, if I walk in there and see a rack of wines, I’m gonna scream… or something.”

“They’re not in a rack, per se,” Steve tells him as he twists the top off the wine.  “Also, no corks.  See?  Not highbrow at all.”  He pours them each a glass and then can’t help but slip into doctor mode.  

“Did you take your percocet today?” he asks.  It’s not a typical first date topic of conversation, but he’s not going to get Bucky fucked up while he’s under Steve’s responsibility.  

“Nooo because I can’t get hard on that shit. It just lays there and aches while the rest of me is a wet noodle… Speaking of which, where are they?”

Steve goes to the pantry and gets the egg noodles, face heating at Bucky’s words.  

“Well, good.  You can drink then.”  He picks up his own glass of Chardonnay and takes a liberal gulp before turning his attention back to the damp mushrooms.  

Bucky’s watching him from the corner of his eye as he starts chopping the onion. Steve’s a little impressed by his knife skills, especially dealing with a cast. Maybe more than a little impressed. Bucky, however, gives him a dubious look as he pauses the knife.

“Can you drink and cut at the same time? One of us gimping is enough.”

“Oh my God, Bucky,” Steve feigns irritation.  “I’ve cut open a person before.  Relax.”

Bucky snorts loudly and shrugs. “Oookay.” He makes quick work of the onion and throws the pieces into the pan Steve’s left out. He turns the heat on and tosses in a bit of butter.

“Cubes are square, by the way,” he teases.

“I’m actually going for trapezoids,” Steve informs him.  He takes another drink when Bucky laughs, and the agitation from earlier looks worlds away when he’s smiling and joking.  
Bucky’s shaking the pan around to keep the onions from sticking. He sets it down and checks Steve’s work.

“Okay uh… we’ll just call that a rustic chop,” he deadpans, brows raised at Steve’s abysmal cubes. “It’s fine though. All tastes the same so long as you get them into the pan in the next minute."

Steve grabs the cutting board and walks it over to the stovetop.  He uses the knife’s edge to scrape his handiwork into the pan.  

“What’s next?” he asks as he gives the board a rinse.

“Well I’m gonna deal with the roux,” Bucky murmurs, now entirely focused on the cooking. “You measure out a cup and a half broth and a fourth cup of the wine. Dump ‘em into the onions and mushrooms. Let ‘em simmer a bit.”

Steve does as he’s told while watching Bucky combine flour and melted butter.  His kitchen smells amazing, and he’s never realized how attractive cutting and stirring could be.  His attention keeps pulling to Bucky’s sure hands as they work through the ingredients and combine them together in the right ways.  

Soon Bucky’s dumping the roux into the pan Steve’s been minding.

“Stir that while it comes to a boil. It needs to thicken up.”

Bucky pulls out another pan and melts a bit more butter into it along with salt and pepper. The beef goes into the pan, and Bucky reaches for the bulb of garlic. He pulls off a clove, drops it onto the cutting board, takes the large chopping knife from Steve’s knife caddy, and lays the flat of it over the clove. Holding the knife with his casted hand, Bucky smacks the heel of his other hand down hard against the flattened blade, and the clove is both smashed and freed from its sheath. He does a fast mince on it, and Steve thinks it might be the hottest thing he’s ever seen.

“That was kinda hot, Bucky.” Steve knows he’s gaping a little. By the sly smile that spreads across Bucky’s lips, he also knows he’s just handed Bucky the means to drive him crazy with want until dinner’s ready.

That’s actually just fine with Steve. He likes the idea of showing Bucky how good it feels to enjoy the anticipation rather than rush through it.

“Steve… the sauce?”

Bucky’s questioning voice brings him sharply from his daydream, and he gives the onions and mushrooms a quick stir to make sure they’re not sticking to the pan.

“Sorry,” he offers with a slightly guilty smile.

“Yeah, I get it,” Bucky smirks back at him. “Don’t know whether to stare at my ass or the dead cow in the pan, right?”

Steve might be a doctor used to fairly disgusting things, but that snaps him right back into cooking mode.

“Did you really have to call it that?”

“If my dick’s gotta stay in my pants for the next hour, then yes.”

Bucky turns eyes on him that steal his breath for a moment. There’s no lack of desire in them as he reaches past Steve for the heavy cream, parmesan, and parsley. Bucky doesn’t bother with a measuring cup as he pours the cream into a bowl, then adds a healthy amount of the parmesan in with it. Taking the sprigs of parsley, he does another chopping show that’s almost got Steve re-thinking the merits of eating before pouncing. He shakes the thought away as Bucky points to the bowl.

“Once it’s thickened, pour all that in, kill the heat, and give it a good stir. Just put a lid on it and let it get happy while the pasta boils. Did you get the bread?”

“Yeah,” Steve answers through a dry throat. He takes another drink of his wine and doesn’t even bother removing his eyes from Bucky’s body as he moves the beef to the back of the stove and covers it. Bucky spins the knob on the stove to pre-heat the oven, then goes for the baguette Steve bought. Wielding another knife, Bucky cuts the loaf in half and gives one half to Steve to put away. He makes partial slices into the other half, then takes another clove of garlic and smashes it nearly into a paste. He rubs it into the cuts he’s made in the bread with his fingers, then sets the loaf aside. His face skews in concern as if he’s belatedly realizing something.

“You got lemon or lime juice?”  Steve nods toward the refrigerator.

“I like the occasional Corona, so yeah, I’ve always got a couple of limes on hand.”

Bucky returns to the sink, slices a small lime in half, and then rubs it vigorously over his fingers before rinsing them off. Catching Steve’s questioning stare, he steps close and leans up to murmur into his ear.

“I’m not gonna smell like garlic while we’re fucking.” He steps back instantly and smiles wickedly at Steve.

“Mind the sauce, Doc.”

Steve forces his attention back to the sauce and adds the bowl’s contents to the pan. He follows Bucky’s instructions and sets the pan aside while they wait on the water to boil.

Then they’re just standing there. Bucky’s stance is relaxed, and it seems like the cooking is cathartic for him. He looks almost peaceful save the heat behind his eyes as he looks back at Steve. On a spontaneous urge, Steve picks up the lime piece Bucky didn’t use and runs it lightly over Bucky’s lip. Before he can react, Steve leans in and slowly licks the lime juice away, sucking gently at his bottom lip before he ends the contact.

“Mmm, tastes better on you than it does in my beer,” he rasps against Bucky’s mouth. When he draws back, Bucky’s lip and cheeks are flushed with color, and his eyes are hooded. His lashes flutter slightly while his chest gives away how much his breathing has sped up. They might be taking it slow tonight, but Steve’s already decided that Bucky needs to be a regular occupant of his kitchen whether he’s cooking or not. Just the way he looks right now has Steve’s stomach performing advanced acrobatics in his gut.

“I’ll get the dishes out,” Steve smiles and turns away toward the cupboard.

 

 

 

Dinner tastes as amazing as it smells.  Bucky clearly expects to sit down at the formal dining room table and awkwardly stare at each other as they eat, but Steve laughs and drags him into the living room where the coffee table is set with plates, paper napkins, and a handful of white clover in a whiskey glass.  Bucky makes fun of him for the whim, but it seems to be the perfect blend of casual and sentimental.  

Steve groans as he digs into his food, settling against the couch cushions and feeling Bucky's arm against his own.  They’re sitting close, so it’s not hard for Steve to reach over Bucky’s lap and retrieve the remote from the couch’s arm.  

“We have Deadliest Catch, Pawn Stars, or Real Housewives of Atlanta.  Before you give me shit for that, my mom watches it, and it gives us something to talk about besides work and my love life.  So what do you want?”  

“Uh, Pawn Stars,” Bucky suggests, clearly not caring either way.  He laughs at Steve when he follows through and turns the TV on, and Steve uses the excuse of replacing the remote to invade Bucky’s space again.  

Their forks clink against the dishware as they eat and watch the show personalities appraise an old shaving set, but they don’t talk as they eat dinner.  Steve occasionally catches Bucky looking at him out of the corner of his eye, and he’s sure that Bucky is catching him doing the same thing.  

After the 22-minute episode ends, and Steve has finished his third glass of wine to Bucky’s second, they head back into the kitchen to clean up.  

“I cooked, so dishes are all you,” Bucky tells him as he scrapes his plate into the trashcan.  Steve emulates him, even though he doesn’t really have to do that with his dishwasher.  He starts to wash the bigger pans and utensils that he isn’t going to put in the dishwasher while Bucky finds some tupperware containers and puts away the leftovers.  

In the middle of scrubbing at the frying pan, Steve decides that the dishes will keep.  He abandons the sink and dries his hands thoroughly before coming to stand directly behind Bucky.  He leans in, making contact with Bucky’s shoulders, arms, and back without pressing forward, and he stands there until Bucky shifts between the granite countertop and Steve’s larger form.  

There’s a subtle shiver of anticipation that passes through Bucky. Steve feels it and raises his hands to the bare skin below Bucky’s shirt sleeves. He drags his fingertips lightly down Bucky’s arms, and Bucky leans backward into his chest in response. Steve dips his chin and nudges at Bucky’s jaw until Bucky’s head rolls forward with a soft groan. It’s the opening Steve’s looking for, so he lowers his lips to Bucky’s nape and presses a few teasing kisses just below his hairline. The sharp hiss he gets in response is perfect, but Bucky’s next words to him almost contradict his body’s own response.

“I’m not goin’ anywhere, Doc,” he mumbles, his voice thick with want. “You don’t have to butter me up to keep me here, ya know…”

“Indulge me?” Steve asks.  

“I don’t even-” Bucky grips the edge of the counter and takes a deep breath. “Are ya layin’ it on thick because you’re drunk, ‘cause if that’s the case, I don’t want you regretting this in the morning.”

“I’m not drunk,” Steve mouths into the side of Bucky’s neck and up the hinge of his jaw.  He flicks his tongue and licks the bony jut of Bucky’s jaw.  “I just like kissing the guy who’s about to get on me.”  

A shaky huff of breath escapes Bucky at Steve’s words, and his arms tense up. His words sound uncertain and off-balance compared to the bluster Steve’s used to. “I’m… just not used to it, I guess.”

Steve can read the confirmation of Bucky’s words in his body language and his attitude from earlier, but he’s not about to make it a bigger issue.  

“Come on,” he says with a final nip at Bucky’s neck.  He pulls Bucky by the waist away from the food and containers on the counter, and then he heads for his bedroom hoping that Bucky will follow.  

They make their way down the hallway to Steve’s bedroom, and he flips on the light as he enters the recently-cleaned space.  Bucky trails behind him.  

“Shut the door behind you?  Dog,” Steve asks.  Bucky complies, leaning back against the door without breaking eye contact.  

Once the outside world is sealed off, Bucky reaches behind his neck with his good hand, grabs his cotton t-shirt, and yanks it over his head.  

“Now can I get undressed?” he asks.  A dirty smile plays at his lips, but he looks more hesitant than he had the first time he tried to do this.

“That’s the idea,” Steve teases as he starts to unbutton his shirt from the neck down.

By the time he gets to the bottom button, he hears the clink of of a belt. Bucky kicks his shoes off and pulls his jeans down his legs in one, well-practiced movement.  He shucks his boxers off next, tossing them on top of the pile of clothes accumulating by the door.  He stands there, naked and hardening, while Steve’s still in his undershirt and slacks.  

Steve frowns in confusion and pauses his movements.

“Not that I’m complaining about you being naked already, but do we have less time than I thought?”

Bucky mirrors his confusion as he stares at Steve. He suddenly looks self-conscious again, his eyes darting around the room much like they did in Steve’s office that first visit.

“A few hours…?”

Steve’s highly aware of still being very dressed compared to Bucky, so he pulls off his undershirt and tosses it aside as he approaches him.

“Hey… Bucky… I like you. I like you a lot, which means I don’t want this to be some quick fuck. I want to enjoy you, and I want you to enjoy me just as much… Can you give me a chance here?”

“Steve, I’m not really sure what you want from me,” Bucky answers. He’s not angry as much as confused by Steve’s approach. “I dunno how you rich guys do this dating thing.”

Steve steps out of his pants and briefs in one go, wanting to level the playing field.  He kicks them aside and then takes the five steps that bring him into Bucky’s space.  He pushes him against the door and looks down at the patches of ink on Bucky’s arms and stomach that he’s never seen before.  

“When did you get this?” he asks, running his fingers over the scrollwork with the names “Tracy” and “Nicole” on Bucky’s upper bicep.  The ink looks old but more professional than some of the tattoos Steve sees in the clinic.

“I was eighteen. Sasha paid for it since it was my first tat.” Bucky looks down and shrugs. “I couldn’t think of anything else at the time, but I like it.”

Steve kisses the tattoo and sees another inches away from his face.  

“What’s the story behind this one?” he asks with a raised eyebrow as he runs a finger over the pin-up girl on Bucky’s ribcage.  She’s rendered in black and white, and she’s a cross between realistic and cartoon-y.  Steve can appreciate her curves, but he’s been under the impression that Bucky doesn’t, so it arouses his confusion.  

Bucky’s lip curls a bit at the ink, his eyes rolling up toward the ceiling as he lets his head fall back against the door behind him.

“Don’t ask, don’t tell,” he smirks. “Sasha knows I like guys, but he doesn’t want me out there wearing rainbows, ya know? The others aren’t very accepting of it, so no one else knows. It would undermine any authority I have.”

Steve tongues at the sexy tattoo, and then shifts over to Bucky’s other side where there’s a stylized cross on his abdomen.  It’s done in red, black, and gold, and it calls to mind culture and tradition that Steve hadn’t realized were important to Bucky.  

“And this one?” he asks, giving it the same treatment and tracing it with his fingertip.  He’s kneeling by now, having made his way down Bucky’s body.  He ignores the swelling cock inches away from his cheek, and he looks up to hear Bucky’s response.  

“Raised by lil old Russian ladies, Steve,” he grins. “Not into necklaces so this was a compromise…”

“Do you have any others?” Steve asks, scanning the lithely muscled chest above him.  Bucky hesitates, and then nudges Steve away so he can turn around.  

“This is the one that can get me into trouble, I guess,” he mutters.  Steve looks at the art in front of him.  It’s a roaring tiger on his shoulder blade, tinged orange but mostly black and white.  There are some Cyrillic letters beneath it, spelling out “Первая кровь.”

“Care to translate?” Steve asks.  He’s having a hard time looking away from the feral glint in the tiger’s eye, even though it’s rendered in skin and ink.  The fangs contribute to its fierceness.

“‘Blood first,’” Bucky tells him, monotone.  

“And this can get you in trouble...because it’s a documented gang symbol?” Steve asks, keeping his voice equally calm and low.  He presses his thumbs into Bucky’s shoulders and starts to knead, leaning against Bucky and pushing him against the door.  

“Technically,” Bucky hedges.  Steve can feel the tension in the moment, as each of them tries to figure out how much Steve knows, should know, and can know.  

But Steve knows enough, for now, so he plasters his body against Bucky’s.  

“It’s kinda hot,” he offers, and it’s the balm the situation needs.  Bucky laughs, caught off guard by the comment, and Steve runs his thumb down the side of Bucky’s neck from his pulse point to the hollow in his throat.  

“Bed,” he suggests as he pulls Bucky away from the door by his arms.  He spins them and holds Bucky in front of him as he walks them over to his bed.

Bucky crawls onto the bed and waits until Steve joins him before he makes a move. He pushes Steve onto his back and hovers over him, taking in the view.

“You’re fuckin’ gorgeous, Doc, ya know that?”

He bends down to kiss Steve, coaxing his mouth open so he can explore. It’s a great kiss right up to the point where Bucky winces and shifts his weight off of his cast.

“I think I lose my license to practice if I re-break your hand while we’re fucking,” Steve mumbles.  He pulls Bucky flush against him by the waist and flips them over, cradling the cast in his own hand.  He makes a show of putting it down gingerly on a pillow before kissing down Bucky’s chest and sucking Bucky’s cock into his mouth, swallowing around it as soon as he can bear.  

Bucky’s startled gasp turns into a heated groan, his fingers digging into the comforter near his waist. Steve feels the twitch of his hips, and he places his hands on the sharps of Bucky’s hip bones so Bucky can move without hurting him.

“Jesus, Steve…” His voice is cracking and strained, and Steve’s careful not to drive him too close too quickly.

He keeps going, loving the weight of Bucky on his tongue and the smell of him so close to his nose, until Bucky starts to twitch.  Quicky, he pulls off, and Bucky whines at him.  

“Are you still up to fuck me?” he asks, crawling back up Bucky’s body to tangle his fingers in Bucky’s hair and get his mouth back on the stubbled skin at his jaw.  

“Hell yes,” Bucky breathes, though he doesn’t move right away. His eyes are closed, and he’s enjoying Steve’s attentions as his left hand grazes along Steve’s back to his ass. When he does move finally, it’s decisive. He rolls Steve off to his left and onto his belly. Steve feels a hand roaming languidly over his back again, but then it pauses.

“I brought rubbers, but they’re in my jacket,” he sighs, clearly hoping Steve’s got something closer.

Steve rolls again and finds himself at the far side of the bed.  Bucky is already too far away, but he keeps his hand on Steve’s ass, massaging and gripping it as Steve pulls open the door of his nightstand and rummages around.  He finds a condom and tosses it behind him, but it takes him several moments to shove aside flashlights, batteries, and several pairs of half-chewed earbuds before he finds the bottle of lube he’s looking for.  

He tosses it behind him too just as Bucky’s fingers get impatient and dig into his ass cheek.  It’s the good kind of hurt, and he rolls back against Bucky in triumph.  

“I may have been an Eagle Scout,” he brags, then he kisses Bucky’s addicting lips and forgets about the supplies while he licks into Bucky’s mouth and learns his taste.

“Should I give ya a badge of my own?” The line would be completely cheesy were it not for the gravelly tone of Bucky’s voice. It goes exactly where it’s supposed to as Steve’s cock jerks in response. Bucky pushes him back onto his belly, and there’s no contact until Steve feels a sharp bite to the ass cheek that Bucky was just massaging.

Steve sharply inhales, making an embarrassing, gasping noise when he feels Bucky pulling his cheeks apart.  A second later, there’s something warm and wet against his hole, and he shudders again.  

Bucky isn’t quiet, either.  He makes a soft, grunting sound as he pushes at Steve to angle his hips downwards, and he keeps licking at Steve’s hole without finesse but with enough enthusiasm to make up for it.  In his thrashing, Steve upsets his perfectly-made bed with its military corners and its even lines, but it isn’t on his radar.  

He pushes back against Bucky’s tongue, feeling his hole loosening up with the spit and the attention, and he wants to sob when Bucky finally pulls his mouth away and makes a grab for the lube that’s ended up somewhere near Steve’s elbow.

The pop of the cap mingles with the sound of Bucky’s breathing, and Steve closes his eyes to focus on his sense of touch. A single, warmed finger slides along the crease of his ass until it reaches his hole. When Bucky pushes in, it’s surprisingly gentle. Steve pushes back to urge him on, and Bucky wiggles his finger to further loosen him up. He shifts his hips upward at Bucky with an impatient whine, and it feels amazing as a second finger comes into play.

Steve looks over his shoulder because he has to see what Bucky looks like right now, and he sees that Bucky’s using his right hand to prep him.

“Hey, no lube on the cast,” he chides.  Bucky scowls at him but switches hands.  The fingers on his left hand aren’t slicked up, so it’s a bit of a dry burn when he shoves them inside.  Steve keens, pressing his face forward into a throw pillow and getting off on the roughness as much as he’d been on Bucky’s gentle treatment.  

Bucky seems to catch on, and he’s giving Steve a third finger a minute later.  He feels full and stretched, but he can’t seem to work his mouth to give Bucky the go-ahead.  Instead, he takes the pillow from under his cheek and shoves it under his hips, canting them upwards.  He arches his back and plants his hands on the bed on either side of his body to anchor himself.  

“Mm ready,” he manages, and Bucky hesitates but doesn’t stop prepping him.  “Come on,” he reiterates a minute later, and Bucky seems to hear him that time.  

“Bossy,” Bucky mutters teasingly, but Steve hears the ripping of the condom packet. A few seconds later, Bucky situates himself closer, and the warmth of his left hand is in sharp contrast to the cool, hard texture of the cast as Bucky grips his ass. One hand leaves long enough for Steve to hear the click of the lube cap again, and a bit of it drips onto his hole. The bottle lands back on the mattress and then there’s an insistent push against him. He breathes out as Bucky slowly pushes into him with a long, strained growl.

“Fuck, Steve, you feel so good.”

“Uhn.  Back at you,” Steve says lamely.  He uses his hands to keep his shoulders elevated, but it’s hard when Bucky’s hips pick up speed and start snapping into him with enough force to plaster him to the bed.  

He doesn’t try to keep quiet because Bucky pulls at his hair or his shoulders, or scratches into his back for every sound that Steve makes.  He doesn’t even know if Bucky realizes that he’s doing it, but Steve doesn’t muffle anything. Bucky grabs at him with his hand while his hips pound into Steve, thudding against his thighs and making them even more sensitive with the blood flow.  

Then Bucky puts his hand on the dip in Steve’s back and forces him to arch even more.  He feels the jolt of Bucky’s cock slamming against his prostate, and he holds his back still even as his spine protests and his muscles start to cramp.  

Whether it’s instinctual or Bucky feels the tension in Steve’s posture, he slows slightly, pulling Steve back from the tight coiling he’s starting to feel in his gut. Bucky leans over Steve’s body and bites his shoulder, though it’s not as sharp as the bite on his ass had been. He’s fucking Steve with longer strokes now, seeming to understand what Steve was getting at earlier and not wanting this to end too quickly.

Steve pushes back to meet his thrusts, fingers scrambling for purchase in the sheets while he feels Bucky’s skin start to slide against his with perspiration.  Something about the slow thrusts and the messiness of their fucking gets to him, and he puts a hand behind him to push Bucky away.  

“What?” Bucky asks, sounding dazed.  Steve flips over and scoots back beneath him.  He uses his legs to pull Bucky flush against him and keep Bucky in place as he pushes in and starts to thrust again.  

From this angle, he can see Bucky’s face.  He’s biting his lip, and there’s sweat on his forehead, but his eyes are completely clear and blown wide with concentration.  His hair is a snarled mess, and Steve laughs as he brings his hands up to it and snags his fingers into it for something to hold onto.  

Bucky quirks an eyebrow at his laugh, and Steve has to wonder how many people Bucky’s laughed with during sex.  He’s getting into it, prolonging their fucking and staving off orgasms, and he doesn’t stop running his good hand over Steve and touching everything within his reach.  But it doesn’t mean that he’s used to sex being anything other than a frantic race to come, and it makes him wonder things about Bucky’s romantic past that he doesn’t think they’re close enough to ask yet.  

So instead, he tightens his legs around Bucky’s ribcage and uses the hand gripping Bucky’s hair to pull him in and kiss him.  Bucky’s rhythm stutters, but he picks it up again as Steve devours his mouth and holds him close until they’re breathing through their noses and Bucky’s rhythm’s gone erratic again.

Bucky starts to reach between them for Steve’s erection, but it’s awkward as he tries to accommodate his casted hand. He huffs into Steve’s mouth and breaks off the kiss.

“Touch yourself,” he whispers, putting his good hand back beside Steve’s neck for leverage, “I’m… close…”

Bucky returns to kissing Steve, now seeming to be very on board with the thrill of it while they’re fucking. He’s also changing up his initial style a little, his tongue teasing and toying more with Steve’s the longer they’re at it. Steve appreciates the attentiveness; Bucky seems to be trying to meet him halfway, and that’s more than he initially expected.

He follows Bucky’s instructions and maneuvers his hand between their bodies so that he grasps his own cock and jerks it in a counter-rhythm to Bucky’s thrusts.  He’s close, too, and he wants to come while Bucky is still inside of him and on top of him.

Bucky’s eyes slip shut, and that’s his cue.  He speeds up his hand, twisting his fingers over the bundle of nerves right under the head of his cock, and he feels the hot-cold in his spine seconds before Bucky starts moaning.

He comes hot and sticky between their bodies, and the convulsions of his muscles pulls Bucky over.  He thrusts four more times, shuddering violently as Steve lolls his head back against the mattress to even out his breathing. Steve sighs and wills his legs to unlock from their seemingly permanent position behind Bucky’s back.  

Bucky swallows hard and collapses onto Steve, burrowing his face against Steve’s neck as he tries to catch his breath. His fingers play lazily with the hair behind Steve’s ear, and he gently bites at the skin beneath his other ear.

“Next time, maybe something lighter than percocet so I’m not gimpy,” he murmurs, “but still fuckable.”

“I’m almost tempted to give you whatever drugs you want, if I can have you in my bed on the regular,” Steve tells him.  He sees Bucky’s eyes light up.  “Almost.”  

“S’okay,” Bucky grins, “I told you I’m using you for sex, not your drug stash.” As though needing to confirm what they’re asking each other, he adds. “I’ll be here whenever I can… Can’t have you getting bored and finding some other thug to coddle.”

“So that means I gotta get rid of my Crip boyfriend?” Steve asks with a straight face.  Bucky smacks his arm, and they devolve into mad laughter before they’ve fully caught their breaths.   

Chapter Text

Steve pulls up in front of Bucky’s apartment building at 8:54.  He’s six minutes early, and he knows that Bucky and the girls have a collective tendency to be late, so he busies himself making sure none of the drinks or sandwiches have shifted in the cooler.

Zola whines from his carrier in the trunk, and Steve decides to give him a chance to stretch his legs and sniff some things, even though he’ll get plenty of time to roam today.  He gets out of the car and walks around to the back.  Zola stares at him with big, brown eyes when he opens the trunk, and seconds later, he’s clipping the leash to his collar and letting him jump out.

They walk back and forth in front of Bucky’s building a few times, and it’s 9:05 when Steve finally takes his cell phone out.

“Let’s tell them to hurry up, huh boy?” he tells the dog.  As he’s bringing up Bucky’s name in his phone, the door to Bucky’s apartment opens, and he looks up with a smile.  It falters when he sees that it isn’t Bucky or the girls, but a woman in her late 40s with long, unkempt hair and a stained peacoat even though it’s September.  

“Hi,” he tells her as she ducks her head and walks past him.  She looks back but doesn’t say anything.  

Steve thinks he’s just encountered the Barnes matriarch.  He’d smelled the booze on her from three feet away, and she looks so like her children that Steve almost wants to go after her.  To say what, he doesn’t know.  

The door bangs open again, and Bucky and the girls spill out, arguing loudly about laptop time.  

“Hey,” Steve greets them as the girls squeal and break into a run to get to Zola as fast as humanly possible.  Tracy flings herself on the scraggly grass so she can rub his belly, and Nicole stands in front of him and makes kissy faces.  

“You girls remember Zola?” he prods.  They’d come over with Bucky a week ago for another dinner, which had ended somewhat differently from the first.  Instead of moving to Steve’s bedroom, all four of them had watched a movie while Steve and Bucky made faces at each other behind the girls’ backs.  

Yes, also known as my future dog,” Tracy tells him.  Bucky swats her arm.  

“Hey,” he tells Steve, coming to stand directly in front of him and nudge him with an elbow.  Steve knows better than to expect a kiss from Bucky in broad daylight in the middle of this neighborhood, but he reads the gesture of affection just fine.

“Okay, everyone who wants to go to Jamaica Bay, get in the car,” Steve announces.  He pulls Zola reluctantly back to his carrier while the girls fight for shotgun.  

“No, I get shotgun,” Bucky tells them as he grabs Tracy by the hair and fixes her ponytail.  

“Ack, stop, Bucky! I’m not a baby! I can do my own hair!” Her nose crinkles up, but Steve senses the affection beneath her indignance.

“Sheesh, fine,” Bucky answers, holding up his hands. “Remember that when the elastic thingy gets tangled in there again.”

Tracy sticks her tongue out at her brother playfully and climbs into the Outlander before he can pinch her ribs.

Eventually, all five of them are in the car and on the Belt Parkway.  Nicole tells him all about a stomach bug that’s going around her school while Tracy cranes her neck around and coos to Zola through the slats in his carrier.

They take the Kings Plaza exit and turn onto Flatbush Avenue.  

“So none of you have ever been out to Jamaica Bay?” Steve asks Bucky when Nicole and Tracy start playing the license plate game.  “It’s not that far.”

“No, usually we’ll go into Manhattan if we’re feeling adventurous,” Bucky tells him.  

“Which is never,” Tracy breaks in.  

“Well, I love Jamaica Bay.  The marine park preserve is so pretty.  And there’s a lot of cool animals there,” he says with his eyes on Nicole in the rearview mirror.  She grins at him.  

“Are you gonna make me fight a bear for ya, Doc?” Bucky turns playful eyes on Steve as he teases him, though Steve’s not sure if Bucky will even like the trip or not. They agreed it’d be fun for the girls to get out of the city for a day, and he’s pretty sure he and Bucky can find plenty to talk about while they walk around, but a little part of Steve is worried it might be boring for him.

“Pretty sure there aren’t any bears here,” Steve informs Bucky as he fights a grin.  

“Lions?”

“Well, those we obviously have in Brooklyn.  You clearly just want to fight ferocious animals to impress me, and that’s why I brought you here.”

“Well yeah,” Bucky laughs, his eyes sparkling. “You won’t let me throw ya over my shoulder, so what choice do I have? Gotta assert myself, Doc. Circle of life an’ all that shit.”

“I suppose your caveman options are rather limited in this day and age,” Steve says as he takes Avenue U and starts looking for the parking lot.  “Girls, we’re almost there.  I told you it was in our backyard.”  

“Steve,” Tracy sighs, “your backyard. We just have a clothesline that the neighbors hang their underwear and-”

“Tracy,” Bucky cuts her off as his face shades with color. “What did we talk about last night?”

“TMI,” Nicole offers, happy to get a rare one-up on her sister.

“We’re here,” Steve announces in sing-song.  He pulls into a parking spot and turns the car off.  

They climb out and load up with their gear.  Nicole is in charge of sunscreen, Tracy is in charge of Zola, and Bucky gets told to take the cooler with his good hand.  

“What are you carrying?” he asks Steve.  

“Map,” Steve says with cheeky smile. “You’re the caveman, afterall.”

The girls run ahead, and Steve spreads the map on the  hood of the Outlander to show Bucky the different features of the marina.  

“Uh… what’s there to see that you think the girls would like?” Bucky asks as his eyes scan the parking lot and then come back to Steve. “Are there parts that are a little more secluded to hike and hang out?”

“Yeah, over here’s the area with more benches and flat ground, and this marshier part is good for hiking.  You have to pay attention to the signs, though.”

“Yo!” Bucky yells at the girls.  They’re looking at a cluster of wildflowers, and Zola is barking at the birds.  “Eyes on me at all times!”

“We’re just standing here, Bucky!” Tracy shouts back as she throws her hands in the air with irritation.  

Bucky just points at her as Steve looks over the map.

“It’s a little harder to find secluded spots with them in tow,” Steve points out with a shrug.  

“I’m not looking to jump ya,” Bucky clarifies, “but if I want to sneak a kiss here or there, the less people the better. Not worried about the girls. You became ‘Bucky’s Boyfriend’ the minute you let on you like Maroon 5. Thanks for that, by the way.”

“Woah, am I ‘Bucky’s boyfriend?’” Steve asks with a laugh.  

“Yeah,” Bucky chuckles. “We had a talk that night about remembering what outside people get to know and what they don’t. You are officially no longer ‘Outside People’ anymore.”

Steve looks at him with an incredulous smile dawning on his lips.  

“Really?” he asks when Bucky starts to shift uncomfortably.  “I’m inside people?”

“Steve… like you said that first day in the clinic; you’re not stupid. You know what I do… and you’re here anyway. I don’t know what I did to deserve it, but I’m not gonna pick it apart. Yeah, there’s things I’ll never be able to tell you, but you’ve been adopted by the Barnes Family Committee. President Tracy over there made the proclamation an’ everything.”

“I’m just surprised, in good way, to hear it,” Steve says as his grin gets bigger.  “Normally I’ve fucked somebody more than three times when we make it official,” he teases.  

“Not for lack of effort on my part,” Bucky mutters. “If you’d taken me up on the phone sex, we’d be there already.”

Steve laughs and looks over to the girls where Nicole is crouched in the dirt and Tracy is scolding her for something.  

“I guess I’m not usually taking my date’s kids on family outings this early in the game either.  Feels right, though,” he says when he looks back at Bucky.

“Yeah,” Bucky smiles softly, averting his eyes almost shyly to the map on the car hood. “Just so you know…? I don’t parade people around them, but the two that they actually did meet, they didn’t act like this toward them. They really took to you, Steve.”

“Well, for what it’s worth, I like them too.  I obviously like you, and they’re your little clones,” Steve says as he folds the map along the creases.  

“Yeah they pick shit up, and then it gets thrown back at me months later,” Bucky sighs as they begin walking. The brightness in his eyes clouds a bit, and he casts a sideways glance at Steve.

“Oh… The lady that walked out before we did… She didn’t say anything to you, did she?”

“Nope.  I tried to tell her ‘hi,’ though.  Was she your mom?”

“Yep,” Bucky says without an expression.  “That’s Valentina. Nicole saw you pull up and yelled that you were at the apartment. Of course she had to be nosy because Nicole had to brag to her that you were a doctor. I told her I didn’t want her talking to you or bugging you because she’s not gonna get anything out of you by sucking up.”

“She didn’t say anything.  Seemed pretty much in her own little world,” Steve tells him.  

“Yeah, don’t let that fool you,” Bucky warns. “She’s a conniving lady, and if she thinks there’s something to gain, she’ll charm and manipulate anyone and not give a fuck who gets hurt.”

“Well, that Barnes charm doesn’t work on me.  You have nothing to worry about,” Steve jokes as the girls come sprinting back.

“Zola tried to eat a butterfly!” Nicole shrieks.  

“He thinks everything is food,” Steve points out.  “He tried to make off with the stroganov your brother made for me. He has no shame at all.”

“Steve, my arm is tired from holding Zola’s leash,” Tracy complains.

“Yeah, and I don’t wanna hold the sunscreen,” Nicole adds.  They pass their burdens over to Steve who takes them without comment.

“Are you serious?  It’s been ten minutes!” Bucky huffs at them.  He turns back to Steve as they run towards the water.  “Yeah, you’re real immune to that Barnes charm.”  

“Maybe today I can build up my immunity,” Steve suggests as they finally follow the girls.  

“Or you can carry this fucking cooler,” Bucky suggests with a flirty wink.  

“Oh no, that would impinge upon your caveman sensibilities, Buck.” Steve gives him a blinding grin. “I would never deny you the chance to prove your masculinity.”

He isn’t surprised when he ends up carrying the cooler anyway.


An hour later, Bucky’s re-applying sunscreen to Nicole’s face while Steve passes around sandwiches, drinks, and chips.  Zola has his own bowls of food and water, but he’s much more interested in Tracy’s turkey sandwich.  

“Tracy don’t you dare,” Bucky growls at her. “Steve said no human food, and I see you picking off a corner.”

“Bucky, you’ll never hook Steve for good if you keep being a big ol’ grouch to everyone,” she informs him as she looks directly at him and gives Zola the pinch of bread.

Steve thinks about saying something, but he’s not sure what his role is here.  He doesn’t feel comfortable trying to play disciplinarian, and the tiny corner of bread won’t do any damage.  He wisely keeps his mouth shut while Bucky’s jaw drops.  

“No laptop today,” he tells her.  She squeals, upset, and Steve tries to distract her by offering her a selection of chips.  

It’s hard to keep track of the moods of preteen girls.  Five minutes later, the incident is forgotten, and the girls are taking pictures of the water on Tracy's cell phone.

“The more I see you with them, the more in awe I think I am,” Steve comments quietly. “They’re a handful.”

“Jesus, don’t I know it,” Bucky sighs and leans back on his elbows, stretching his legs and crossing his ankles. “They’ve hit the age where they still mind me, but Tracy’s not afraid to remind me that I’m their brother, not their dad, when I piss her off… which seems to be more often these days. The other night I’d had enough of One Direction, so I told her to play something else. You’d think the fucking apocalypse had started in our apartment.”

“I’m sure she’s all over that argument, but you basically are their dad,” Steve answers quietly.  Nicole and Tracy are too busy trying to take a selfie with Zola and the scenic background to hear him.  

“They’re twelve. You might have to keep me from flinging myself off the fuckin’ Brooklyn Bridge by the time they’re sixteen,” Bucky confesses. It’s a bit like his impromptu confession about pancakes.

“Nicole’s not really that hard, but she tends to follow Tracy. That smartass mouth though. Oh my god, Steve, that kid can piss me off to no end sometimes. I love her, but I want to wring her neck at times. Fuck.”

“Have you ever thought of getting custody or some kind of guardianship over them?” Steve asks.

Bucky clears his throat.  

“Got priors,” he says wryly, rolling onto his side so he’s facing Steve and leaning on his good arm.  “So does Val, but she’s their mother.  The system’s pretty fucked.”

“Yeah.  From what I’ve seen of it, a lot of kids get screwed over,” Steve agrees.  He’s speaking from limited experience, but it’s something he’s had to confront as a doctor in an impoverished area.  

“Luckily she’s never been jailed for that long, so I’ve never lost the girls.  She disappears sometimes, though.  For weeks or months at a time.  And it’s not a problem as long as long as none of the child welfare assholes find out about it.”  

“You ever been in jail?” Steve asks casually.  He takes a chip and crunches it loudly for something to do with his hands.  

Bucky’s hand freezes where it’s picking at the tiny frayed bits at the edge of his cast, and his eyes slowly lift to Steve’s. He searches intently before answering first with a question of his own.

“That a deal-breaker, Doc?”

Steve drops the bag of chips and takes Bucky’s chin in his hand. “I’m still here, Buck. I already know you’re no saint… but neither am I, okay?  I’ve made a few shit decisions in my lifetime too. Stop worrying that I’m going to bail on you, okay?”

“Yeah, we’ve both made shit decisions,” Bucky says sarcastically.  He takes the abandoned bag of chips and smooths it out.  

“Age 22, aggravated assault.  Sentenced one year, served four months at Rikers.”  He grins bitterly.  “First time offender.  Then, age 24, possession of a deadly weapon while paroled.  Sentenced six months, served two.  So tell me Steve, what are your shit decisions?”

Steve had braced himself for whatever answer Bucky might give, but he still isn’t prepared for how his stomach drops over the thought of Buck having to leave the girls that long. He was so young that it had to have been traumatic despite how tough Bucky can be.

“Okay,” he admits, wincing at Bucky’s words.  “Sorry.  That was a stupid thing to say.  I wasn’t trying to compare.  I was just trying, yet again, to show you that you’re not scaring me off.”  

Bucky licks slowly at his bottom lip and shifts his eyes to check on the girls. They’re several feet away now, weaving a wreath of some sort and trying to get Zola to stay still while they measure his head for the decoration.

“Who took care of the girls while you were locked up?” Steve asks, glad for the chance to shift the subject.

“Natasha,” Bucky answers quietly. “The irony is that CPS had no problem with the girls staying in Val’s custody. Not that I’m gonna complain about them not going to a foster home, but seriously, that woman can’t boil water anymore much less take care of two kids.”

“How do you know Natasha?” Steve asks. “Is she extended family?”

“She’s related to Sasha.”  Bucky’s attention is momentarily distracted as he notices the girls getting too close to the water. He sits up as though he might have to dart down there, but they retrace their steps back to Zola, and he relaxes.

“She gets along so well with them, she just never really left,” Bucky tells him. “She’s been a fucking godsend, to be honest.”

“Is she the one who watches them when you come into the clinic and get patched up?” Steve asks.

“Yeah, and it costs me a loaded pizza every time. She’s no cheap date, Doc, so that should tell ya how you rate in the scheme of things.”

“I don’t know if this is weird to offer, but you know I’d watch them, sometime, if you needed me to?” Steve asks.  

Bucky’s eyes go wide as he stares back at Steve, but his answer is fast and characteristically sarcastic.

“Not that attached to your sanity, are ya there, Doc?”

“They’d have a grand time with me.  I’d get them hopped up on sugar and reality shows, and send them home for you to deal with,” Steve replies.

“And I’d bring them back to you and crash in your bed while you camp out with them in your front room,” Bucky informs him sourly. “Don’t threaten me, punk.”

“Well, I don’t think your social schedule is really that busy, so it probably won’t come to that.  I know that coming to see me for sex or medical treatment is basically the most fun you have all week,” Steve jokes.  He slides closer to Bucky and takes the forgotten chip bag from his hands.  Bucky’s crushed most of its contents, so Steve folds the bag and pours the crumbs into his mouth while Bucky laughs at his manners.

“So, it’s been four years since you last went to jail.  Have you been good, or have you been good?” Steve asks a minute later.  They’re staring at the the water and watching the girls try to teach Zola commands.  

“Been lucky,” Bucky tells him.  “I had quite the streak going ‘til a few months ago.  Then I started getting hurt.  Bad mojo for some reason.”  

“Really?  Because I think you got pretty lucky there,” Steve says with a grin.  Bucky looks at him, questioning, and Steve reaches out and pinches his cheek.  “You met me.”

“Yeah, I did,” Bucky smiles at him, “but did you really just pinch my cheek like a five-year-old, Doc?”

“Nope.  You imagined it,” Steve fibs.  Bucky moves to pinch him, but he tries to use his casted hand.  It’s clumsy, and Steve deflects it easily.

“Oh no fair, dodging the gimp,” Bucky teases and comes around with his good hand. When Steve does the expected duck, Bucky throws his casted forearm around Steve’s neck and pulls him in to noogie his head.

“Ow, get off!” Steve complains.  “This isn’t fair - I haven’t been to jail to learn this hand-to-hand stuff!”

Bucky pulls back and stares at Steve with abject shock on his face, and it’s not feigned. He blinks a few times, and Steve fears he might have stepped in it again. Bucky’s mouth opens, shuts, then opens again.

“You fuckin’ went there,” he gapes. “Oh my god, you actually went there!”

Steve’s stomach twists, and he wonders why he’s such a verbal trainwreck today.  He’s trying not to make this an issue, and instead, he keeps making it worse.  

Bucky hauls off and slugs him in the shoulder, which is surprisingly hard and accurate for his left hand.

“You fucking asshole,” Bucky barks at him and dissolves into a fit of laughter.  Steve shakes his head and smiles as he starts to gather up the trash from lunch.

“Why is it that when I’m being sensitive, you get mad, but when I make fun of your character flaws, you laugh at me?” he asks.  Bucky’s still laughing, and the girls run over to investigate.  

Wiping at his eyes, Bucky shrugs and his mood sobers. “Because I don’t want you coddling me, or tip-toeing around me. I’m just me, Steve. Take it or leave it… I prefer you take it though.”

“I already took it!” Steve insists as Tracy jumps on his back and Nicole slams into Bucky.  

“Can we go walk through the trees and look for more animals?” Nicole begs.  

“We can if Steve’s okay with taking Zola in the woods,” Bucky answers, banking a questioning look Steve’s way. “Does his collar keep the ticks off?”

“He’s got Heartguard, he’s fine.  Also, those aren’t woods, city boy,” Steve tells him.

“More than twenty trees together equals woods to me,” Bucky shrugs, egging Steve on with a mischievous grin.

“That just makes me so sad,” Steve moans dramatically. “I feel like I need to educate you about copses versus woods and forests. Next outing, we’re going to a real forest where you don’t see anything but trees for miles… but for now, this’ll do.”

“Little Red Riding Hood it is then,” Bucky smirks, giving Steve a mock bow that sets the girls into fits of high-pitched giggles. “Lead the way, Doc.”



Bucky comes back to the clinic to get his cast taken off at the end of September.  He actually comes in during business hours, but he has to leave almost immediately after for work.

Steve hopes that he’s seen the last of Bucky showing up at the clinic and needing medical attention.  They’ve fallen into a routine where Bucky comes over to his house a few nights a week, and Steve’s always on the lookout for new injuries, but none appear.  He doesn’t think that Bucky would have a reason to come back to the clinic now that he’s more comfortable in other areas of Steve’s life, and the thought is almost sad.  

The clinic is where they met, and it’s where Bucky first came onto him.  Those memories are only a few months old, but they’re good ones.  

Which is why he feels a mixture of fondness and fear in his gut when Bucky knocks on the clinic door one night after closing.  It’s just starting to get cold, and the coat he’s wearing hides any evidence of injury.  

“Shit, what happened?” Steve asks frantically as he unlocks the door and pulls Bucky in.  His coloring looks fine, and he doesn’t have a fever when Steve gets a hand on his forehead.  

He grabs Bucky by the wrist and pulls him back to his office.  He’d only missed Sam by a few minutes, but if what’s wrong with him requires two medical professionals then Steve can call him back, or they can make it to his car in just a minute if they need to go to the hospital, or-

“Hi,” Bucky says when they get to Steve’s office.  He turns around and pulls Steve’s face down into a kiss.  

“What’s wrong?” Steve asks, unzipping his coat and looking for blood or a broken bone.  Damn it, Bucky.  

“I cut myself,” Bucky pouts.  

“Okay, where?” Steve asks.  He pulls away from Bucky to grab nitrile gloves.  

“My finger,” Bucky tells him.  He holds up his hand limply, and Steve can see a faint red line on his index finger.  

“This is a papercut,” Steve tells him when he’s processed the situation.

“Papercut! It could get infected or something,” comes the indignant answer, and Bucky’s face stays mostly serious. “And I’ll have you know it’s your fault that it’s there to begin with so… treat it, Doc!”

Steve opens his mouth to reply, but he can’t find the words.  Automatically, he goes to the cabinet to get a Q-tip, antibiotic ointment, and a Band-Aid.  

“Okay, how is this my fault?” he asks as he comes back to Bucky.  He’s sitting on Steve’s desk now, smiling innocently and holding out his finger.  Steve sets his materials down and swabs the cut with the ointment.

“Because I was cooking for the girls, and I started thinkin’ about you crowding me into the counter over the weekend… I think the neck kissing was the final straw. I apparently can’t chop worth a shit when my dick’s that hard.”

“So it’s not even a papercut,” Steve says as he finishes cleaning the cut.  He unwraps the Band-Aid, unsure which Looney Toons character he’s grabbed.  To his delight, it’s Pepé le Pew.  “You’re duplicitous.”

“Doc,” Bucky grins at him with a come-hither stare, “I don’t have enough blood running to my top floor right now to even remember what that word means.” He looks down at the Band-Aid and blinks.

“Really, Steve? Looney Tunes?”

“Adults don’t usually want Band-Aids, Bucky,” Steve says as he covers the wound.  It’s barely bleeding, and he doesn’t believe for a second that Bucky doesn’t have some sort of first-aid kit at home with two kids.

“Maybe they should,” Bucky whispers, leaning close to Steve’s ear and knowing full-well what his tone of voice will do to his doctor.  

“There you go,” Steve says, trying desperately not to let the effect show.  “Copay is ninety dollars.  Or a blowjob,” he informs Bucky as he disposes of the waste and puts the ointment away.  He returns to the desk and stands in front of Bucky, leaving only inches between them.  

“I seem to have left my wallet in my other pants.” The grin leveled at Steve is practically pornographic as Bucky toys with the buttons on Steve’s shirt.

“Oh.  Well, you’re lucky this is that kind of clinic then,” Steve says with a matching grin.

“Uh huh, and you don’t even need to give me a tetanus shot,” Bucky murmurs, slowly pulling Steve closer. “This hotass doctor I know gave me one a few months ago.”

“Sounds like you’ve been receiving excellent medical care,” Steve tells him.  He sits next to Bucky on the desk and lets his legs fall open casually.  

Bucky hops up from the desk, his eyes smoldering as he ditches his coat. He reaches for Steve’s waistband and flicks the button open. His lips quirk upward at the corner as he pulls the zipper down with agonizing slowness. He grabs Steve’s rolling chair and kicks the lever with his toe to raise it before sitting down and freeing Steve’s cock from it’s confines.

“I love tasting you,” he smiles before sucking the tip between his lips and flicking his tongue against the slit.

“You love the fact that this is all I’m going to be able to think about when I sit in that chair,” Steve tells him.  He threads his fingers on one hand through Bucky’s hair and lightly guides him forward while using his other hand to prop himself up.  

Bucky moves with Steve’s hand, slipping Steve’s cock into his mouth a few inches and running his tongue underneath the head.  He slides back and forth, taking the chair with him, while Steve licks his lips and looks down at the image of Bucky’s mouth stretched around him, spit glistening on his lips and eyelashes fluttering.

“Guilty,” Bucky admits after coming up for air. He licks the underside again, then sinks down as far as he can take Steve. He relaxes his jaw and swallows around Steve’s girth, and it nearly causes Steve’s arm to collapse behind him. Bucky winks up at him and repeats the move.

“Mmm.  Fuck. You’re so good at this,” Steve says.  He bites his lip and slides his hand down Bucky’s head to cup his cheek and feel himself moving inside Bucky’s mouth.  

Bucky pulls off and goes back to licking at the head, and Steve groans at the tease.  Bucky runs his finger down Steve’s cock to his balls, gathering saliva and precum, and then his hand slides lower.  Steve feels the slightly-slick pressure at his hole, and he shifts so he can push his slacks farther down and spread his legs wider.  

He feels Bucky’s finger slide into him as Bucky takes his cock in deep again.  He starts to swallow around Steve in a counter-rhythm to his finger, and Steve hears the smack of his pencil cup hitting the ground before he registers that his arm is sliding.

Bucky’s throat is tight and hot, and Steve knows he won’t last much longer.  It’s a pity, because Bucky makes such a pretty picture sucking Steve off in his mundane, daily-grind office.  It engages one of his fantasies - what if he’d taken Bucky up on his propositioning the first day they met, and they’d ended up back here in this same position.  It wouldn’t have happened, but it’s an excellent fantasy for nights when Steve is lonely, and Bucky can’t get away from his responsibilities at home.  

His grin turning feral and downright predatory, Bucky pulls his fingers free and releases Steve’s cock. He stands up and unfastens his jeans.

“Sorry, but you’re not coming without me inside you.”

Steve can get on board with that plan, so he follows Bucky’s direction in standing up and kicking off his slacks and briefs.  He fumbles for a moment with his shoes, and then Bucky tries to push him down on the desk.  

“Woah, no, not the desk,” Steve says as he catches a glimpse of his desktop computer out of the corner of his eye.  Bucky sighs but lets him up.  

“Where then?  Couch in the waiting room?”

“You already bled all over that,” Steve dismisses him with a wrinkled nose.  He moves a few feet to lean against the wall next to the window, putting his face inches away from a poster about self-checking for breast cancer.  “Wall,” he suggests.  

Steve spreads his fingers for leverage and pushes his ass out, looking over his shoulder at Bucky.  Bucky’s trailing his eyes up and down Steve’s naked, wanton form, and Steve flushes.  At least he’s not alone in this - Bucky’s hard and leaking where he stands.  

“You woozy from the blood loss or something?” he eggs him on.

“I’m never gonna be able to keep a straight face in this office again,” Bucky growls as he closes in on Steve and runs his hands over the muscles in Steve’s back. “Are you good…? Might be a little dry…”

He spits into his hand to moisten his cock. It’s filthy and hot to Steve, but he still points to the counter near his desk.

“Medical lube over there… which I will never use for another baby thermometer ever again after this.”

Bucky follows his direction and comes back with a palmful of cold, watery lube.  He holds it near his face and breathes on it, warming it up, and Steve smiles to himself over the gesture as he turns back to the wall and braces himself for Bucky’s fingers.  

They’re warm and fast when Bucky gets inside him, and Steve can’t help but groan a little at the perfect stretch.  Bucky consistently knows exactly how much he can take before it lands just on the wrong side of painful, and tonight’s no different.  Before long, he’s stretching Steve on three fingers, and Steve is hissing and bucking his hips back, holding his own cock so he doesn’t thrust against the wall.

“Doc, you good? I need to be in you so bad.” There’s real desperation in Bucky’s voice as he presses his forehead to Steve’s shoulder blade. Their skin is damp where they’re touching, and Bucky’s free hand is roaming anywhere he can reach. His touch feels reverent as it glides over Steve’s body.

“Yeah, go ahead,” Steve answers thickly.  Bucky lines himself up and pushes in faster than Steve is expecting; it knocks him forward into the wall and his hand catches on a corner of the poster, tearing it as he tries to brace himself against the snapping of Bucky’s hips.  

He didn’t really have much use for that poster anyway.  

Bucky’s got an iron grip on his waist, but the slick floor isn’t giving either of them much traction. On a particularly sharp thrust, Steve nearly loses his footing, and Bucky’s hands flare out to the sides to catch him. It’s a graceless move that costs Steve one of his favorite mugs as they bump into the bookshelf below the window. Steve can’t quite find it within himself to care at the moment. His whole focus boils down to the feel of Bucky moving inside him.

He folds his forearms against the wall and rests his head there as Bucky drills into him over and over.  Steve has a few inches on Bucky, so he has to keep his legs spread wide, but it’s not really a hardship.  He plants his bare feet and pushes back to meet Bucky’s thrusts, hearing the bitten-off, guttural noises that are in all likelihood coming from him, but he’s too close to care.

Bucky’s rhythm begins to falter, so he grips Steve harder and adjusts his position until he hits Steve’s prostate. The surge that shoots up through his abdomen knocks a loud, growling cry from Steve’s chest, and he immediately hears Bucky echo him.

“Fuck, Steve… I’m close.”

Hearkening back to their first date, Bucky leans over and bites Steve’s shoulder with a long, heated moan.

“Me too,” Steve grunts as he reaches back and gets a hand on Bucky’s head, keeping them pressed front-to-back.  

Bucky palms Steve’s cock and gives him something to thrust into, and then everything goes fuzzy then starkly clear as Steve comes and his vision tunnels for a second.

Bucky practically whines into his shoulder and spills after him.  He trails sloppy kisses down the back of Steve’s neck as he gently pulls out. Steve can feel Bucky’s cum leaking out of his hole and starting to drip down his thighs.  

He thunks his forehead against the ruined poster and turns around, squinting at Bucky under the flourescent lights.  

“We didn’t use anything,” he says quietly, more surprised than anything.  He has a whole drawer of condoms to give out to desperate teenage patients, so he’s a little shocked at his own behavior.

Bucky looks down as his blissed out brain tries to catch up. A look of horror crosses his face, and he brings his hand up to his forehead.

“I… shit, Steve! I’m sorry,” he stutters, sitting down hard on Steve’s desk. “I… I was so caught up in this and… your ass… I didn’t think. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Steve tells him as he pushes his disheveled hair out of his face and moves away from the wall to stand in front of Bucky.  He rubs Bucky’s knee, still processing the last few minutes, while Bucky gets agitated.  

“It’s not okay,” Bucky scowls. “It was stupid and careless.”

“As your doctor, yeah it was,” Steve admits.  “As your boyfriend, mistakes happen.  It’s already done, and we were both stupid and careless.”

“I can’t afford to be careless with you, Doc.” Bucky’s having trouble meeting his gaze. He leans his head back and closes his eyes. “I need to keep ya around, ya know?”

“Well, I do the full panel of tests every six months, so you’re probably fine.  And if you have anything, it’ll turn up in my test.  Probably shouldn’t make that mistake again, but it’ll be okay,” he says as he brings his hands up to Bucky’s shoulders and starts to knead the tension that can flare up without warning.  “That’s not going to be the thing to shake me.”  

“Because you’re kinda dumb that way,” Bucky huffs softly with a shake of his head.  He opens his eyes and grabs Steve’s hand. He rubs his fingertips over Steve’s knuckles, then locks their fingers together. “Look, it’s not like I’m out hitting everything that breathes so… I think I’m probably okay… but yeah, I’ll get tested too. I wanna be sure.”

“You’ll get tested?” Steve asks with a grin as he finds his briefs and his pants.  He steps back into them and looks at Bucky.  “I know a place that can do that.”  

“Somewhere discreet,” Bucky warns. “Can’t you do it here?” he asks, looking around with eyes that tell Steve just how secure Bucky feels here now.

“We do plenty of STI panels here,” Steve says as he reclaims his shirt.  “I can make you an appointment, but it actually probably has to be with Sam, my RNP.”

“Why?” Bucky asks stubbornly.  

“Because we have to send those away, so there’s a paper trail.  And I’m not supposed to practice on family or close friends, so…”

For a moment Bucky looks like he’s going to shoot the option down, but then he bites his lip and nods.

“Yeah… okay,” he mutters, averting his eyes again. “Not my favorite person, but I don’t wanna go somewhere else.” He raises his eyes to Steve pointedly.

“You’d have to tell him.”

“Tell him about the appointment, or us?” Steve asks.  They’re mostly dressed and leaning against the furniture now.  Steve’s preoccupied with wondering if Bucky’s coming home with him or if this was a booty call.

“About us,” Bucky clarifies. “He’s not stupid, much as I don’t want to admit that. Can we trust him with that?”

“Pretty sure he knows,” Steve replies.  “And he doesn’t really run in the same crowd as you do, so he’s not going to talk to anyone about it.  He gets sensitive subjects.”  

“Okay, set it up then?” Bucky looks like that scared kid Steve occasionally glimpses.

Steve makes the appointment on his computer while Bucky helps himself to a lollipop from Peter’s candy stash.  

“Done.  You came in here with a minor cooking-related injury, and you’re leaving with an appointment Wednesday morning to get blood taken and your dick swabbed with a Q-tip.  Man, am I a good doctor,” Steve says cockily as he writes the date and time down on an appointment card.  He hands the official reminder over with a wicked smile and leans back in his seat.  

Bucky’s face skews up incredulously as he looks down at the card. “Really? Wilson’s gotta get near my dick with a Q-tip? Can I still change my mind?”

“No.  But he’ll be gentle,” Steve says as he stands up and ushers Bucky out of his office.  “Are you coming back to mine, or do you have to head home?”

“I should head home,” Bucky sighs, but wraps his hand around Steve’s. “Thing is though… I don’t want to. I’d rather bust out the pizza bribe because I feel like I haven’t seen you in ages.”

“It’s been two days,” Steve laughs softly.

“Yeah, ages,” Bucky whines, stressing the last word for effect. “I think I might have an addiction forming, Doc.”

“I guess it’d be cruel to make you go cold turkey until Wednesday,” Steve tells him.

“Yeah I like cold turkey as much as I like pancakes,” comes the pouty reply. They’re walking toward the door when Bucky stops abruptly and looks up, his tone more hesitant than Steve’s heard it before.

“You could uh… come home with me… if you wanted. The girls will have to go to bed soon so they wouldn’t be in your face all night.” Bucky holds his hands up quickly. “Only if you want to.”

Steve doesn’t let his surprise show on his face, but he wasn’t expecting the offer.  Bucky’s been over to his house several times, and the girls have even come over, but he’s never received an invitation to the second-story brownstone apartment where Bucky, the twins, and their mother live.  

“You keep forgetting that I like the girls,” he says.  “Of course I can come over, and then you don’t have to worry about getting someone to stay with them.”  

“I’ll still spring for loaded pizza,” Bucky grins, clearly delighted that Steve’s on board, even if there’s a hint of nervousness there.  He raises his bandaged finger.

“I already fucked up cooking for the night,” he smirks.

“Somehow that really didn’t seem to stop you when you were grabbing my hair earlier,” Steve tells him.  He locks the clinic door and leads the way to the parking lot, assuming that Bucky walked or took the blue line.

“Couldn’t be helped. It’s really nice fucking hair,” Bucky cracks, falling into his routine bluster again.

The drive to Bucky’s only takes a few minutes, and Bucky claims the radio before Steve can switch to CD mode.

“Is your mom home?” he asks during a song break while a nasally-voiced DJ is speaking.

“Nope. She latched onto some new score last week. Barely seen her,” Bucky answers apathetically.

Steve feels a little nervous parking his car in front of Bucky’s apartment building and leaving it there, but he doesn’t see any obvious smashed windows or stolen hubcaps in the immediate vicinity, so he hits the button on his key fob to lock it and follows Bucky.  His hesitance doesn’t slip by Bucky, who smiles dryly back at him.

“Relax, Doc,” he mutters under his breath while unlocking the door. “This is my neighborhood. No one’s going to fuck with you while I’m here.”

The stairwell is claustrophobic, and dozens of moths are trying to crash their bodies into the warmth and brightness of the safety lights.  It’s a phenomenon that’s always fascinated Steve, and he can’t help but draw a quick comparison between himself and the moths.  Before he can get too introspective, though, Bucky’s unlocking the door to apartment 2, and Steve hears familiar voices inside.  

“Bucky!” Nicole screams, dancing into view.  Her eyes go wide when she sees Steve behind Bucky.  “Steve’s here!” she calls, and more shrieks echo from inside the apartment.  Tracy darts from one open door through another, wearing a towel with her wet hair half-braided, and a beautiful red-haired woman emerges from the bathroom behind her with a raised eyebrow.  

“Well well,” she says with her hands on her hips, walking out to them as Steve shuts the door behind himself.  Unconsciously, like he doesn’t realize what he’s doing, Bucky flips the locks and double checks them.

“Hey, she doesn’t scare me bad enough to lock me in,” Steve jokes quietly before turning to the woman who must be Natasha. “Steve,” he offers, holding out his hand. “Nice to finally meet you. Bucky’s talked about you a lot.”

“Natasha,” she replies as she shakes his hand.  Her grip is almost painfully firm, and her glance is incredibly smug as she looks  him up and down.  “I apologize for the mess.  We thought it was just us girls tonight.  And this one,” she says as she lets go of Steve’s hand and smacks Bucky’s chest.  

“I’m still ordering pizza. Calm down,” he teases her. “Just tired of being rude and not inviting Steve up. Valentina’s not here so…”

He gives her a shrug and frowns down at Tracy, who’s attached herself to Steve’s side. “Hey, you’re getting him wet! C’mon, Tracy!”

“Hi Trace,” Steve greets her.  She beams up at him and flutters her eyelashes.  Natasha rolls her eyes and yanks the pre-teen away.  

“Tracy, let me finish your hair.  Nicole, go shower.  Bucky, don’t skimp on the pepperoni,” she orders the siblings as she herds the girls towards the hallway that, along with its adjoining rooms, seems to take up the back half of the apartment.  

Steve steps around two backpacks lying on the floor - one leopard print and one zebra - and sits down on the couch.  It’s both newer and more comfortable than he was expecting from his initial survey of the apartment.  There’s an open space that makes up the living room, kitchen, and dining area, and there are plenty of windows to let in light during the day.  The paneling on the walls, however, looks like it was done in the ‘70s, and the carpets look vacuumed but stained.  The furniture is a mix of flimsy Ikea shelves and sturdy, scratched pieces that must be at least ten years old, and the decorations range from a tattered Nirvana poster to fancy artwork in the same style as Bucky’s cross tattoo.  

He spots family pictures on top of a bookshelf, and he has to get up and go look at them.  

“No,” Bucky barks harmlessly as he approaches the pictures.  “Why’d you have to zero in on those, huh?”  

“Because this is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen,” Steve says with a grin.  He’s looking at a picture of Bucky who can’t be more than twelve or thirteen.  He’s smiling, and Steve wonders if this is how he’d envisioned his life going at that age.

“I was a dork,” Bucky groans. “I listened to Limp Bizkit for godsakes!”

Still, he walks over as he dials his phone. Steve hears the hold music kick in for the pizza place, and  he laughs as Bucky flips the picture frame over. The restaurant answers, so Bucky places his order. They clearly know him well since he gives the order in virtual shorthand, and the clerk knows exactly what he’s talking about.

When Bucky hangs up, Steve points to a picture of Bucky in a suit and tie. “How old were you here? I’m liking the suit.”

“Fifteen,” Bucky answers softly, staring at the photo. “School dance. Last time Valentina took any interest in what was going on around her. She took me over to some mom & pop shop for that.”

‘Damn,” Steve swears softly.  He picks up another picture.  This one’s of Bucky and the twins, taken probably no more than three or four years ago.  They’ve both wearing white dresses, and Bucky looks incredibly handsome in his button-down shirt.

“They look beautiful, even if she stopped caring.  So I’m assuming you took over,” he says.  

“That’s their communion,” Bucky replies, the smile returning to his lips. “I borrowed money from Sasha for their dresses, but it was worth it. They looked like little princesses.”

He seems suddenly twitchy about seeming so sentimental, so he straightens. “Not that they act like princesses now or anything… more like little divas,” he grunts.

Steve laughs and lets the moment pass.  He sits back down, leaving enough room for Bucky.  

“So eat and maybe watch TV?  I don’t want to stay too late if the girls are going to sleep.”

“You can stay as long as you want,” Bucky murmurs, leaning over to give a quick brush of his lips over Steve’s neck. “Once they’re out, they’re out. It’s fine.”

Steve grabs Bucky’s coat and pulls him in for a longer, more lingering kiss, but Bucky seems to be able to sense the movements of the apartment’s other occupants.  He pushes away from Steve, licking his lips, as Tracy comes back into the living room.  Her hair is braided Pollyanna-style, and she smiles innocently at Steve as she comes to sit next to him.  

“Are you good at math?” she asks.

“Don’t saddle Steve with your homework, Tracy,” Bucky half warns, half pleads. “It’s not his responsibility, it’s yours.”

“Your homework should already be done, Молодая леди!” Natasha yells from one of the bedrooms.  Steve takes note; the walls are very thin, and he doesn’t actually believe that the girls won’t notice if he tries to sneak into their brother’s room.

“It is,” Tracy yells back. “God!”

“Hey,” Bucky frowns and snaps his fingers at her. “Watch it. Your attitude is out of control lately.”

“You’re braver than me, Tracy,” Steve winces. “I wouldn’t yell at Natasha. I think she’d kick my butt.”

“She’d kick your ass, you mean,” Tracy grins, and Bucky looks like he might actually burst a blood vessel in his forehead.

“Room, now.” He stands up and points. “Gimme a sec, Doc.”

“What, you swear too, Bucky! You didn’t even pay up for last time in Steve’s office yet, and you owe it for tonight too!” Tracy whines at him, pointing toward the bookcase. Steve looks for a jar or piggy bank but doesn’t see one.

“Damn it, Tracy…” The profanity is out of Bucky’s mouth before he can contain it, and he winces.

“That’s three, Bucky!”

Steve’s fairly amused by this, but he doesn’t dare show it. Bucky’s face goes red, and it’s debatable whether he’s more angry or embarrassed by the confrontation since Steve’s there to witness it. He pulls in a deep breath through his nose and points toward the girls’ bedroom.

“Fine! Room, Tracy. Go!”

As he’d suspected, Steve can hear nearly every word of the lecture that Bucky gives to Tracy in one of the back bedrooms.  He looks around and takes in more details of the room, then startles when he realizes that Natasha is right behind him.  

“You’re sneaky,” he tells her.  She smiles coyly, and Steve knows that he’d be wrapped around her little finger if Bucky weren’t in the picture.  

It’s a big if though.  

“So you made it up to the apartment,” she tells him with a smirk.  She crosses her arms, and he has to crane his neck to look at her.  “Interesting.  Maybe you will stick around.”  

With that enigmatic comment, she glides into the kitchen and starts running water into the sink for dishes.  Steve follows her.  

“Can I do anything to help?” he offers.  She gives him the eyebrow again, and he’s seen the exact same expression on Bucky.

“Looks like you already did.  He was pretty uptight when he waltzed out of here a few hours ago,” she tells him.  He flushes.  “We’d probably be at the tears and no cell phone for a week stage by now, but I guess you worked him over, because I only hear some light sniffling and some threats about laptop time.”

“Uhhh, yeah,” Steve responds.  He hears a door open, and Bucky comes back into the main area.  

“Sorry,” he grits through his teeth, a bit embarrassed. “You probably think I’m like the worst example for them, but she’s usually not like that. She’s just showing off for you.”

“Like you don’t,” Natasha smirks. “You changed your shirt three different times before you left tonight.”

Bucky gapes for a split second before his rapport with Natasha takes over.

“Clearly I picked the right shirt since I got laid,” he grins evilly. Steve feels like he might want to crawl under the couch, but the embarrassment is fleeting. The fluttering in his stomach over memories of being pressed against a wall takes over the task of inflaming his cheeks.

“Weren’t you the one lecturing Tracy about TMI, Buck?” Natasha chides.  

“It was a pretty great shirt,” Steve agrees, still embarrassed but grinning.  Bucky catches his eye, and Steve can’t look away until Natasha speaks again.  

“Well, for what it’s worth, I can see where Tracy’s getting it.  Bucky doesn’t bring a lot of decent guys around here, much less ones he really likes, so she’s trying to keep him.”  Bucky flushes this time.

“Uhm, it sounded like you were busted for not paying a swear jar… but I don’t see one…?” Steve points in the general direction Tracy had during the argument. Bucky rolls his eyes and squishes his face up while rubbing his nose.

“Yeah… We tried the regular jar thing before,” he explains, “but Val would steal out of it. If I’m gonna pay for my language, I’ll be damned if she gets any of it.” He reaches behind him and taps one of the hardbound books. “Hollowed out. Val doesn’t have any use for books, so it’s never occurred to her to check any of them.”

“Is that a big enough space,” Steve teases with a laugh, hearing Natasha chuckle behind him. “You do swear like a sailor.”

“We only count it if we’re swearing at or about someone,” Bucky sighs. “Deal is, they keep it here and don’t do it around other people, but apparently since they’ve adopted you, Tracy thinks you’re fair game.  But I don’t want them sounding like me yet. They’re too young. I told her when she’s sixteen, she can say what she likes within reason, but for now I just don’t want it becoming a habit.”

Someone pulls up outside, and Bucky goes to the window to check it out.  

“Pizza,” he says, gleeful to change the subject, and Steve follows Natasha’s directions to plates and paper towels.

Ten minutes later, the three of them are squeezed on the couch, eating and watching Wipeout.  Steve can hear the girls, but they avoid the living room, so Bucky and Natasha snark and swear at each other playfully.

It’s nice to be around Bucky and a new person who he trusts.  He’s seen the sexual side of Bucky, the fatherly side of Bucky, and now, he gets to see Bucky interacting with someone his own age who doesn’t want to get into his pants.  It’s so obvious that Natasha means a lot to him, and while Steve feels like he’s on edge for every possible chance to be funny, or sweet, or appreciative of Bucky to make a good impression, he’s getting a good vibe from her.  

Around 9:30, Natasha gets up and takes the plates to the kitchen.  

“Yo, I’m coming back there to make sure the floor is clear and you’re ready to go to sleep!” she yells.  He hears a faint argument about phones and book chapters, but Bucky casually reaches his hand across Steve’s lap and palms his cock, and he forgets about the women in the apartment very quickly.

“Don’t start what you can’t finish,” he warns lightly, tracing his fingertips over the back of Bucky’s hand. He rests his other arm over the back of the couch and  gently massages the muscles below Bucky’s hairline.

“I told you, those girls can sleep through anything.  They have to, when Val’s home,” Bucky tells him.  

Natasha comes back at that moment, and she doesn’t say anything about Bucky’s hand in Steve’s lap.  

“I’m out.  I work tomorrow,” she says mostly to Bucky.  

“Be safe,” he advises as she walks out.  He isn’t looking at her, but Steve is, suddenly worried about a tiny woman walking home at night in Brownsville.  She grins, and tilts her purse to show Steve the handgun inside.  

He probably shouldn’t underestimate Bucky’s friends.  

Bucky gets up to lock the door after her, and when he comes back, he straddles Steve’s legs.  The news plays in the background, but neither of them are really watching it.

“Okay…” Steve smiles with a bit of uncertainty. He glances toward the back of the apartment where the girls’ room is. He trusts Bucky’s call, but he’s still got a case of nerves.

“Maybe your room would be better…?”

“This is my room,” Bucky says.  His smile is cocky, but Steve can see something underneath it.  

“There’s only one bedroom, then?” Steve’s sure the apartment looks bigger than just a bedroom and bathroom.

“Other one’s Valentina’s.  I could sleep in there when she’s gone, but I’d probably catch something,” Bucky says with a grimace.  

“So you sleep out here?” Steve confirms.  “Where’re your clothes and stuff?”  

Bucky points to a dresser in the dining nook, and some papers and knickknacks on the coffee table.

“I don’t bother with much stuff,” he shrugs. “Not important.”

“Not important,” Steve echoes in disbelief. His protectiveness of Bucky flares up his ire toward Bucky’s mother. “So basically you bust your ass to sleep on the couch while your- while Valentina takes up space she barely uses? Give her the couch.”

“Oh, I bust my ass for stuff.  Clothes, make-up, cell phone minutes, CDs, shoes, earrings.”  Bucky waves a hand at the apartment, and Steve does see traces of the girls everywhere.  There’s very little Bucky, though.  “And I usually try to minimize the amount of time I have to speak with Val.  She comes in sometimes, crashes in her room, does whatever she does, steals our food, and then leaves.  It’s not an ideal system, but it’s one that works.”

“Explain how that works again, because I’m missing it, I think,” Steve frowns. “Why is she even-” He catches himself and sighs. “Custody. Right. Sorry.”

Bucky looks at him, the playful mood from earlier forgotten.  “There’s that.  But...she’s our mom, Steve.  If she wants to sleep on a park bench, more power to her, but it’s not because I wouldn’t let her in our home.  I’m not heartless.”

Steve looks back at Bucky with pure adoration in his eyes as he takes Bucky’s face into his hands. “No. You’re not. You’re amazing.” He pulls Bucky’s face down to kiss him deeply.

“I’m sorry,” he whispers against Bucky’s lips. “I’m going to have a hard time ever liking that woman for what she’s done to you, but I’ll try to keep my opinion mostly to myself.”

Bucky shakes his mood off and smiles at Steve.  “So, anyway, anything goes as long as we’re quiet.”  

“Anything huh? Won’t the girls get up for things?” Again he glances back, wary of someone needing a last-minute drink of water or something in that vein.

“No, they stay out of my room,” Bucky says with a smirk.  He kisses Steve again, and even though he knows that he has to go home and let Zola out, he decides that he can stay another thirty minutes.



On Wednesday, Steve spends most of the morning doing sports physicals, and he barely gets a break.  He’s refilling his coffee mug and choosing a granola bar for his morning snack when Sam comes up to him and tosses a folder down on the counter.

“James Barnes?  Is there a reason this is on my docket instead of yours?” he asks skeptically.  

“Yes,” Steve tells him, and then he makes him wait while he finishes dumping Splenda packets into his mug.  “I can’t see him, because there’s going to be some paperwork for this, and he’s in that ‘close friends and family,’ circle that I’m not supposed to treat.”

“Hasn’t stopped you before,” Sam scoffs. “Why is this different?” He opens the file and looks down at the reason for the appointment. His face drops, and his eyes fix upon Steve.

“STI panel? Seriously, Steve, where do I even start…?”

“Obviously, it’s a conflict of interests for me to test him.  It isn’t like you don’t do this every week,” Steve says.  He’s smiling a little, and it might be undermining his intent.

Sam shakes his head and closes the door. He sets the file down on the table a little harder than necessary as he stares at Steve, choosing his words.

“I had some pretty good, blissful denial going on about what’s up between you two. Are you really standing there admitting you’re fucking around with this guy?”

“Uh, yeah,” Steve says honestly.  He shrugs.  “Is there something else you thought I was doing with him?  Because I thought my intentions were pretty clear, once we got past that doctor-patient thing.”

Sam crosses his arms over his chest and rubs a thumb over his mouth as he visibly reins in his temper. “Man, Steve… Why? I’ve known you, what, three years now?  Since you were a resident.  And I know you’re better than this. You got a whole life outside this damn clinic if you’d bother. Why would you wanna get mixed up in this? People like that don’t do the happy endings thing.”

“Sam,” Steve sighs.  He waits until Sam is done ranting.  “I like him,” he says with total earnestness.

“I think that’s the wrong head talking,” Sam mutters, his stern gaze not giving one bit.

Sighing again, Steve takes his phone out of his pocket.  He wakes it up and hands it over to Sam, who looks bemused.  The lock screen background is a picture of Bucky, Steve, the girls, and the smallest flash of black that’s all they could get of Zola in the picture.  It’s a picture from Jamaica Bay, and Steve loves it because it’s the only picture he has of himself and Bucky.  The girls are icing on the cake.  

“It’s not about that head.  Well, not just about it,” he amends.  “I know you think he’s an asshole, but he has good qualities.  And it’s too late anyway - I’m in deep.  So please, Sam,” he starts.  He puts his hands on Sam’s shoulders and looks him in the eyes.  “Be my friend and have my back on this.  And go swab his dick to make sure I’m good, just in case.”

“Aw now ya just made it weird,” Sam groans, laying the drama on thick. He shrugs off Steve’s hands and waves at him in irritation. “You owe me. So much. Like coffee for months. Not that Folgers shit either. I want Starbucks on my desk for months, Rogers. Do I need to write down my order for the first week? You should remember it after that if there's enough blood still flowin' to your brain.”

Steve has the grace to laugh so Sam opens the door and disappears through it. Ten seconds later, his head reappears around the door and he points sternly at Steve.

“Months!”

Chapter Text

On a Friday night in mid-October, Steve says goodbye to his last patient of the day and packs his messenger bag.

Sam is immediately suspicious.  

“Are you leaving?” he asks with a frown.  

“Yeah, we’re closed,” Steve tells him innocently.  He shoulders his coat on and grabs the bag.  “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you leave before Peter,” Sam continues to harass him.  Steve waves goodbye to them both and heads for his car, eager to get home and change.

He’s very excited about tonight.  Bucky’s going to come by when he finishes with work for the day, and they’re going into Manhattan to Steve’s favorite gay bar.  Steve hasn’t been there in over a year, and Bucky’s never been to anything of the sort.  It isn’t too glittery, so it’s a good way to ease Bucky into going to places like that.  He thinks it will be fun to relax and have some drinks without Bucky worrying who’s watching.  

Steve gets home and feeds Zola before he changes into jeans and a tight t-shirt.  He isn’t sure when Bucky will get there, so he busies himself with opening junk mail, organizing some clutter, and throwing in a load of laundry while he waits.  Once the load’s going, he flops down on the couch with a Corona and the New Yorker.

He’s so engrossed in the articles that he’s a little shocked when he notices forty minutes have passed with no word from Bucky. Their meet time was roughly 6:45, but Bucky’s usually good about calling if he’s running late for any reason. Steve picks up his phone and shoots off a text.

Hey you. :)

It’s their agreed-upon shorthand for each other’s status. Easy enough to pass off as Steve having texted the wrong number, if necessary, and low-stress. He tosses the phone onto the couch beside him and picks up ARTnews. It’s mostly about modern art, but he sees an article that interests him enough to pass the time.

Distressingly, it’s not engrossing enough to distract him from the fact that Bucky hasn’t answered his text a half hour later. Even when he can’t talk, he at least shoots back a text with gibberish to let Steve know he’s not dying in a ditch somewhere. The radio silence is starting to worry Steve.

He plays with the idea of sending another text, just in case Bucky didn’t hear his phone the first time, but he doubts that Bucky forgot about their plans.  Maybe he really didn’t want to go.  Maybe his uncaring shrug when Steve had suggested tonight had actually been distaste or nerves.  

It’s not like Bucky to agree to something he doesn’t want to do, though.  Or to blow him off without saying anything.  

8:30 rolls around, and he’s officially worried.  Anything could have happened to Bucky, and no one would think to call Steve.  He doesn’t have anyone to call either.  

Out of desperation, he fires off a second text anyway.  

Give me a call when u get a sec

He waits ten more minutes, and then he grabs his keys.  When traffic cooperates, Bucky’s only a few minutes away, but Steve feels like he hits every red light.  He taps his fingers on the steering wheel, sifting through ideas in his mind to keep himself from freaking out.  Maybe Bucky fell asleep, or maybe his phone’s broken, or maybe Steve’s the one who got the plans mixed up.  

He pulls up in front of Bucky’s building and sees an ambulance parked on the grass in front of the Barnes’s unit.  

Steve climbs out of the car, feeling like he’s walking in a dream.  As he’s approaching the apartment, the door opens and a police officer walks down the stairs, heading for the patrol car parked at the curb that Steve hadn’t noticed.  

It’s then that the panic kicks in. His first thought at the sight of cops is that someone’s come after Bucky. It’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility that someone might want payback at some point.

“Hey, excuse me,” he calls.  His pulse thumps in his temple.  “Is everyone okay?  I’m a doctor,” he offers to get information.  

The policeman scrutinizes Steve, probably unsure if he’s being honest.  Suddenly, Steve wonders if he should even be here.  If something happened with Bucky, he might not want Steve to talk to the police or reveal their connection.  God, how do all the other significant others in this position handle this?  And why don’t he and Bucky have some sort of contingency plan?

He takes a breath and rationalizes that Bucky would have said or done something to keep Steve away, were that the case.  And if Bucky’s hurt, Steve’s not sure if he cares who knows that he came looking for him.  

“I run the clinic over on Sutter Ave, but my friend and his family live in number 2. Pulling up and seeing this scared me.”

The policeman’s face takes on the expression of someone weary of breaking bad news. He jerks his head toward the building. “What’s the family name?”

“Barnes,” Steve answers, understanding the officer is still feeling him out. He reads the officer’s name tag. “James, Nicole, Tracy… and Valentina.”

“Stay here,” Officer Delray tells him. “I’ll see if you can go up.”

Steve’s painfully aware that the officer didn’t reassure him that the problem was in a different apartment. His stomach is lurching from not knowing what happened. He watches helplessly as Officer Delray heads inside.

When he reappears and gestures for Steve to come in, Steve practically runs for the building. Officer Delray barely moves aside before Steve pushes past and runs up the stairs.

“Bucky?” he calls frantically as he reaches their open apartment door.

Bucky turns around when Steve nearly crashes into the door frame, looking whole and undamaged, even if his face is ashen.  He’s sitting at the kitchen table with a nearly-full glass of water in front of him, and a policewoman sits across the table.  He can see another cop further in the apartment, and two lanky men leaning against the kitchen wall and glaring at the law enforcement.  

Bucky doesn’t have an expression, even when he sees Steve.  He brings his hand up half-heartedly to wave.  

“Hey,” he says.  He turns back to the policewoman and continues speaking in a low voice.  

“Who’re you?” one of the random men asks Steve.  

“He’s a family friend, leave’im alone,” Bucky snaps without looking.

“Are the girls okay?” Steve’s skin feels like it wants to crawl off his body with the nerves he’s fighting. “Are you okay?”

He’s not particularly interested in making nice with the two against the wall. He’s not about to piss them off, but his priority and concern is Bucky and the girls, though he tries to reassure himself that Bucky would likely look much worse if something had happened to Tracy or Nicole.

“Everybody in this apartment who’s not a drug addict is fine,” Bucky snaps again.  Steve can almost see the tension radiating off of him.  Steve knows Bucky’s anger isn’t aimed at him, but he feels the sting of it. He isn’t sure what to say, so he waits until Bucky’s ready to talk to him.

“Valentina.  She OD’d again.  This one took,” one of the men, whom Steve is just going to assume are Bucky’s colleagues, supplies more information.  

“Oh shit,” Steve swears softly. “Where were the girls? Are the girls with Natasha now?”

He tries not to fire off a million questions at once, but his brain is racing as much as his heart. Bucky’s shoulders hunch, and he turns to face Steve again, his face darkening with fury.

“They were here. Nicole couldn’t wake her up, so she came in to get me.  Stupid fucking whore still had a needle hanging out of her arm.” Bucky snaps his jaw shut and turns back to the female officer. He drops his head to his hand and rubs at his face.

It’s unclear to Steve what the timeline looks like here.  Another policeman exits what must be Valentina’s room, and Steve tries to pin down where they are in the scene investigation.  

“Is your medical examiner here yet?” Steve asks the officer.  

“Yeah, he’s finishing up,” he replies.  

“Who is it?” Steve asks on the off-chance that he knows the ME.

“Uh, Dr. Banner.”  Steve jolts when he realizes that he does know the man, and he heads toward the bedroom.  

“Dr. Banner, it’s Steve Rogers,” he calls.  He sees Bucky gaping at him, like Steve knowing the man who’s probably going to slice open his mother is too coincidental.  But Steve does know Bruce; he’d done a rotation under him at BHC, back when he was considering every medical option and Family Practice had seemed like the last resort.  

“Rogers?” Banner crinkles his forehead when he steps out into the hallway.  Steve comes up next to him and surveys the scene inside, speaking quietly.  

“The son’s a friend.  Is there anything I can do to speed this up?”  Banner steps aside, and Steve braces himself and steps into the room.  

“You can take notes while I sleuth.  I’m old-school, and I don’t like recording myself,” he says with his usual level of sardonicism as  he tosses Steve his notepad. “You can’t ethically do anything else.”

Steve’s only seen Valentina Barnes once, but it’s still chilling to look at a wasted, cold body and think about what it used to contain.  He doesn’t have a lot of respect for this woman - as far as he’s concerned, getting pregnant and paying enough attention to Bucky to get him to premature adulthood are all that she’s contributed to the world.  But maybe she’s done more - looking at her corpse, he hopes she’s done more.  

He takes the clipboard from Banner and writes down everything he says, noting on Banner’s preliminary sketches whenever he says something about the body.  It’s not that hard to determine cause of death - there’s a rubber tube tied around her arm, and a needle is sticking out of the crook of her elbow, the plastic part of the syringe hanging a few inches above her body like a cheap illusion.  

“Substance appears to be heroin, though substance is particularly cloudy and dark. Possibility of toxic fillers.”  Banner mumbles his observations, and Steve jots them down, emotionless.  “Alcohol present based upon two beer bottles on nightstand. Possibility of interaction. Some flecking of blood on chin pointing to pulmonary edema. Quinine possible factor. Miosis consistent with overdose.”

Steve sees that Banner has already noted the track marks on her arms, so he adds the evidence of alcohol underneath it.  He’s already thinking forward to bagging the needle as he notes the blood flecks and pupil miosis.  He’s morbidly curious to know what’s in the needle - was it compromised heroin, or was it too much?  Which circumstance would, in some small way, be more comforting to Bucky?

Banner mutters lowly as he snaps more photographs, but he seems to be wrapping up.  It shouldn’t be long before the paramedics can take the body out, and then hopefully, the police will be done with Bucky.  He thinks about Bucky staying here tonight and his stomach rolls, so he’s already decided that Bucky will sleep at his place.  Maybe the girls will want to come over, too, so they can be together, and-

The girls.  

He thinks back to their talk about guardianship a month ago, and to Steve’s comment the first time he came over about Val’s purpose for being here.  Somehow, they’ve danced around this before, but Steve’s never thought about what would happen to the family if Valentina died.

Has Bucky?  He must have.  

It’s overwhelming for Steve to take in how terrible this is, so he can’t begin to imagine what Bucky and the girls must be feeling. He knows Bucky’s somewhere in the middle of anger and apathy toward Valentina, but he also saw the wistful expression Bucky’d had when admitting he could never kick their mother out regardless of her actions.

He wishes he had Natasha’s number now so he could check in on the girls, but he’s not entirely sure Bucky would appreciate it. He’s in shock and lashing out at everyone. Not that Steve blames him, but it’s also got him wanting to be extremely careful in what he says and does right now.

“Hey, Rogers, still with me?”

Steve looks up as Banner puts the cap back on the lense of his camera.

“Yeah, sorry. This is… a shock.”

“You didn’t know she used?” Banner eyes him with the jaded expression of a man who’s not shocked by anything anymore.

“I...knew she did a lot of stuff.  Nothing specific.  Her kids don’t really talk about it.”  He hands the clipboard back to Banner, who scans it with the same level of skepticism he’d used when he graded Steve on this sort of thing.  It passes inspection, and he tucks it into his briefcase.

“They never do, kid. Unfortunately, way more die of it than kick it. I see this crap almost every week. They’d fare better going and playing Russian roulette somewhere. At least that’s a less painful way to go.”

“They don’t deserve this,” Steve says before he thinks about it.  “I mean, I know no one does, and I know that you probably hear things like this all the time, but they’re a really great family.”  He meets Banner’s eye.  “Is this going to blow back on them somehow?”

“Not my area, Rogers,” Banner frowns. “I just give COD. I don’t put personal opinions in the report.”  He nods toward the door, and Steve follows him out into the front room.  

“I’m all done in there.  Let’s get her moved,” Banner says to the policeman hovering by the door.  

The discussion at the table looks like it’s wrapping up.  Bucky still isn’t touching his water, but one of his colleagues is standing behind his chair, resting a hand on its wooden back.  Steve wants to be the person to give that kind of comfort to Bucky, but he’s still a relatively new presence in his life.  A handful of months isn’t enough time to know how to handle dead mothers and the legal hardships they bring.

“Hey Buck,” he calls gently, “why don’t you come outside with me? The EMTs need to come in. Best you’re not here when they do what they need to.”

No matter the relationship, seeing a body being zipped into a black bag is never something anyone should have to see if they’re not medically trained. He’s also acutely aware of the timetable involved and what bodies do after a certain amount of time. He doesn’t want Bucky hearing anything that will haunt him more than today already will.

The policewoman nods, and Bucky gets up and walks over to Steve.  His friends follow, and all four of them end up standing on the thin concrete pathway that connects the apartments, not looking at each other.  One of the men lights up a cigarette and hands it to Bucky, who takes it dismissively. Now’s not the time for lectures. If having a cigarette helps any, Steve doesn’t feel the need to remark on it.

“Do you or the girls need some place to stay tonight?” he offers.  One of the friends glares at him, but Steve has a king-sized bed and two guest rooms.  He’s not going to leave Bucky to sleep on some guy’s lumpy couch if he’d rather be comfortable.  

“Girls are with Natasha, but there’s really no room for them to stay the night.  Do you mind?” Bucky sighs.  

“Of course not,” Steve says with another dismissive head shake.  “We’ll go get them as soon as you’re locked up here.”  

“Gotta get their stuff,” Bucky says as he rubs his forehead.  

“Natasha packed them each a bag,” one of the friends supplies.

Steve’s watching the door of the building warily. Bucky’s still facing that direction, so Steve circles around so Bucky has to turn to face him. Steve just gives him a grim smile in answer to the questioning look he receives.

“Just… It’s not a memory you want to have, okay? Don’t watch the door, Buck.”

The cigarette trembles in Bucky’s hands.  He’s smoked it nearly down to the filter, but he doesn’t move to stab it out.  He keeps his eyes on Steve.

It’s chilly, and Steve thinks about offering Bucky his coat.  He feels so lost not knowing what he can and can’t show in front of these people from Bucky’s work, and it makes him feel helpless.  He tries to remember that soon, maybe just in a few minutes, he can take Bucky and the girls home and take care of them at least for the night.  

He’s the only one watching when the paramedics bring the body out. They drop the wheels on the gurney to wheel it to the ambulance. They make enough noise that Bucky and the men can sense what’s happening behind them, but Bucky keeps his eyes trained somewhere around Steve’s jaw.

Slowly, the paramedics get back into the ambulance and ease it off the grass. The police follow their lead, climbing into two patrol cars, and Steve assumes that Banner has already gone.  

The ambulance turns the corner and heads for the hospital.  Steve reaches out and takes the filter from Bucky before he burns his fingers, and while he hates to litter, there are plenty of crushed cigarette butts on the sidewalk as it is.  He promises the universe that he’ll pick one up in the future.  

“You need anything?” one of the colleagues asks, and Bucky waves him off.  He starts to walk toward the stairs, so Steve follows.

“No, get outta here. I’m gonna go get the girls and fuck off for a while. Let Sasha know, yeah? I’ll call him later.”

“Kay, Увидимся,” the colleague responds.  

“До свидания.  Спасибо,” Bucky tells them.  They head to an older blue Ford by the curb, and Bucky takes the stairs almost at a run.  

Steve follows him up.  Bucky’s already tearing through his dresser by the time Steve walks through the door, and he watches Bucky toss clothes onto the floor.

“Do you have a bag somewhere?” Steve asks quietly. The pressure valve looks about to blow by the tense, jerky movements Bucky’s making, and Steve desperately wants to get him out of the apartment and somewhere he can safely let out anything that he needs to.

Bucky goes to the hall closet and pushes aside some boxes and linens.  He comes back with a grungy, black backpack that’s seen better days.  He throws the clothes into the bag without folding them, and Steve heads to the bathroom to grab his toothbrush.  Anything else he needs, he can borrow from Steve.

When he exits the bathroom, Steve stops short at the sight of Bucky standing in the doorway of Valentina’s room. He’s just staring at the bed, but his hands are shaking.

“C’mon,” Steve calls to him in a whisper. “Bucky…?”

“I don’t know if it’s better to toss the place and get rid of any drugs she has, or to leave ‘em as proof,” Bucky says softly.  He sounds exhausted and a little hoarse.  

“I don’t know either, Buck, but they already know what she died of.  Dr. Banner sees this all the time. He didn’t have any doubts about what happened here. You don’t have to think about it right now, okay?”

He pauses and reconsiders.  He doesn’t want Bucky up all night worrying and second-guessing.  “Actually… yeah. Let’s get rid of them. I can dispose of it safely.”

Bucky pushes up his sleeves and steps into the stale room.  Now that he has a purpose, he looks a little better.  He starts at the rickety dresser next to the window and opens the bottom drawer.  

While he’s searching, Steve goes into the kitchen to look for a decent sized tupperware container whose lid he can find. He also pulls a black trash bag from a box under the sink.  While he’s in the kitchen, he takes care of the few dishes he can see lying around, and he looks in the fridge to see if there are many perishables.  

He comes back to see that Bucky’s got two piles going.  One is things to get rid of, like a baggie filled with traces of white powder and an orange pill bottle with one pill rattling inside.  The second pile is money - there’s some change and a dollar bill, and Steve’s stomach twists at the two-fold search.  It’s a poignant reminder that Valentina hadn’t provided for her family anywhere near as much as she should have, and here’s Bucky, shattered but still thinking about the bills he has to pay in her wake.  

It feels wrong for him to go through Valentina’s things, so he sits in the doorway and watches Bucky strategically tear the room apart.  For as much as his hands still haven’t steadied, he isn’t crying, and he doesn’t look so stony-faced anymore.

When Bucky’s finally done with the room, Steve surveys the piles.  Bucky’s collected probably about thirty dollars in change and crumpled bills, and the other pile has a few other baggies with a light coating of powder or sticky liquid clinging to plastic insides.  There are no full bags of anything - Valentina hadn’t stockpiled, but had used up whatever she got her hands on as soon as possible.  

Bucky smooths out the bills and places them in his wallet.  He gathers the change by handfuls and goes into the girls’ room to drop it loudly into a jar, then he picks up the knife he’d found under the bed and tucks it in his own pocket, mumbling about her stealing it from him.  

Steve stands up and takes the baggies and the pill with him, then goes for the bathroom. He finds a half-empty bottle of rubbing alcohol and pours some of it into the little baggies, zipping them closed afterwards. Throwing the pill into one baggie at random, he massages their contents to encourage it all to dissolve.  It only takes a few moments before he’s satisfied the now-milky substances can be flushed safely.

 “Ready?” he asks carefully, gently placing his hand to the back of Bucky’s shoulder. He’s wary of doing more until he can better read where Bucky’s head is at and what he needs.

“Let’s go get the girls.  I’ll call Natasha and tell her we’re on our way,” Bucky says as he looks around one more time.  

He shoulders the backpack and locks the door behind them as they leave.  He lingers with his hand on the doorknob for a second, then follows Steve down the stairs.  It’s a very final gesture.

They’re a few blocks away on a darker street when Steve pulls the Outlander over and turns to look fully at Bucky. He’s been staring into nothing with his head back against the headrest, and Steve’s still concerned that he’s a walking powder keg.

“If you want to get anything off your chest before we get the girls, now’s your chance.”

Bucky looks at him and then outside, like he’s just noticing the car is stopped.  Steve leans back and waits.

“I got nothin’ to say about her,” Bucky tells him flatly.  Steve waits.  “She just completely fucked us over, but it’s not a surprise.  I’m just shocked it’s only happening now.  But, as always, I gotta fix her mess.  At least this is the last time, but it’s a fucking huge mess,” Bucky complains, running his hands over his face and pinching the bridge of his nose.  

Steve thinks that’s it, and he’s a little surprised.  There’s more underneath the surface, but maybe it hasn’t sunk in yet.

Bucky’s fist lashes out, and he hits the dashboard with a resonating pound.  

“That selfish junkie whore!” he screams.  It’s sudden and loud in the cab, and Steve reaches out but then pulls his hand back.  Bucky covers his mouth with his hand and bites down on his fingers, and Steve’s heart breaks for him.

“It’s okay, Buck. Let it out. Better here than in front of the girls.” Steve risks grazing Bucky’s temple with his fingertips for just a second. “You bottle this up, it’ll come out anyway, except it’ll happen when you don’t want it to.”

“I’m gonna lose the girls,” Bucky says into his hand, and Steve can see the wetness in his eyes.  It glitters in the low lighting.

“We’ll fight it, Bucky,” Steve promises him. “It’s been a while, and we can tell them that you’ve been caring for them all along.”

“I’m gonna lose them,” Bucky repeats frantically.  His voice is wet and choked.  “I’m a violent offender, Steve.  They’re gonna take them away.”  He keens on a sob, and Steve digs around the car until he finds a tissue.  He offers it, meagerly, wanting to give Bucky anything and everything that will make him stop crying.  Unfortunately, a tissue is all he has right now.

“Hey… look at me.” He waits for Bucky to pull himself upright again and make eye contact. Bucky's chest is surging as he tries to get fight off the terror Steve knows he's be feeling.

“Whatever it takes, okay? I’ll look for a family law attorney. I’ll get my friends to write character references for you. Whatever we need to do, okay? I won’t stand by and just let this happen. We’ll figure something out.”

Bucky doesn’t look convinced, but his sobs trickle out.  Steve grips his shoulder and doesn’t let up until Bucky wipes his face and blows his nose.  He’s still red-faced when Steve puts the car back into drive, and he looks out the window, refusing to meet Steve’s eye.  

“Sorry.  That was embarrassing,” he mutters a few minutes later.  “Also, you’re going the wrong way.”

Steve huffs a dry laugh and looks over at him. “Where to then?”

He takes the next left at Bucky’s direction to put them back on course. He pops his neck, and it’s loud in the silence of the car. “Bucky…  don’t ever be embarrassed to let loose like that in front of me. Not me. I want to be a safe zone for you. I’m never going to be anything but supportive when you need to vent, and I want you to let me know what you need. I-”

Steve knows what he wants to say, but he’s not sure where the line is that will make Bucky skittery or antsy. “I just want to be what you need… just be here for you, okay?”

Bucky’s quiet.  He lets his head fall back against the seat, and his body shifts with the movements of the car.  

“I don’t have a little speech for you,” he says after a moment, “but okay.”

Steve looks over, and Bucky is actually smiling.  

“Don’t need a speech,” Steve informs him.  “Just need you to be okay. You and the girls.”

“You always fuckin’ need a speech,” Bucky dismisses him, but he’s still smiling.  And as long as he gets it, he can bluster and play the tough guy all he wants.  

The girls peer cautiously out of Natasha’s apartment when Steve pulls up, and Natasha walks them to the car, carrying both their bags.  Bucky rolls his window down, and she leans in to kiss his forehead.  

“How’d it go?” she asks in a low voice, leaning against the car.  

“Fine,” he mutters.  “They took’er away, and we combed her room.”

“We’ll figure this out.  Just sleep tonight,” she promises him with a hand on his cheek.  Then she raises her eyes to Steve.  

“Thanks for your help,” she tells him, sincerity and appreciation ringing in her voice.  Steve nods.

Steve sees that the girls are in their seatbelts, then he rummages around for a piece of scrap paper in the console. He quickly jots down his number and hands it over.

“Thanks… I feel like you should probably have this now,” he smiles sheepishly.

“Bucky will give you mine,” she says.  She gives Bucky’s cheek one more pat, and then she backs away.  “Girls, sleep tight tonight.  It won’t be so bad in the morning,” she promises.  The words feel worn, like she says them a lot.  

Steve turns the car toward his house while Bucky cranes his neck and checks in with the girls.  He acts overly cheery and asks them what they ate for dinner and what they did with Natasha, but they answer in monosyllables.  

“Anything you need before the house?” Steve asks, flicking a glance toward Bucky. “I can stop at the store if we need to.”

“We’re good,” Bucky replies.  He turns back to the girls and, to Steve’s surprise, tells them about what happened after they left.  He omits several details, but he tells them that it was a heroin overdose and that they took her body out of the apartment.  He talks briefly about the police and Banner, and then he asks them if they have any questions.

“Are they gonna make us live somewhere else?” Tracy asks softly. It’s her usual directness, but none of her brother’s borrowed bluster.

“They might.  But we’ll figure it out, baby,” Bucky tells her.  It’s uncharacteristic of the family to use nicknames, but it’s hard to act normal in situations like these.

“We’re going to do everything we can to make sure that doesn’t happen though,” Steve tells her, not wanting to make promises, but wanting her to know he’s going to fight for them.

“Why’d she die this time?” Nicole asks.  She sounds confused.  “I mean, she does it all the time.”

Steve glances over at Bucky.  His neck is still twisted around, but his body faces Steve, and Steve can see him gulp.

“Eventually, it catches up to you.  She got lucky for a long time, but it’s poison.  Remember that time we talked about it?” Bucky tells her calmly.  And Steve can only imagine some of the conversations he’s had to have with them, at such young ages, if they saw what Valentina was doing.  

“Sometimes people can get bad stuff, too,” Steve offers, feeling like he can salvage something for them. He’s not sure exactly how to explain what that means though and he looks to Bucky.

“It’s all bad,” Tracy insists.  She sounds disgusted, but like she’s saying the words more for Nicole’s benefit than her own.  

“Yeah, hon, it is,” Steve sighs. It’s not anything he can smooth over for them. He tries to deflect for the time being.

“Zola’s not going to know what to do with having you two there for the whole night,” he smiles. “One of you might end up with a dog in bed with you tonight.”

It doesn’t get him more than weak smiles, but he’s not expecting it to.  They pull into the driveway and he escorts the girls inside, heading for the linen closet while they drop their bags and fold themselves onto the couch.  Zola drifts over to them and seems to sense their mood, because he doesn’t harass them for attention.  

Meanwhile, Steve tries to figure out what sheets to grab.  One of the two spare rooms has a queen mattress; the other is basically his home gym, but he has a futon in there.  He doesn’t know if the girls will want to sleep together or separate.

“Give ‘em the queen to share,” Bucky says at his back. He’s walked up without Steve hearing him and has his hands buried in his jeans pockets. “They cling to each other when shit hits the fan.”

“Okay,” Steve says.  He grabs the fitted sheet, top sheet, and pillowcases.  “Do any of you want something to eat?  Have whatever,” he offers.  

Bucky shakes his head. “They won’t eat right now.  Maybe in the morning I can tempt them with some pancakes.”

He looks Steve up and down, tired and without intent.  

“You look good,” he offers.  “I forgot we were supposed to go out tonight.”  He cracks a smile, and Steve hooks his fingers into Bucky’s t-shirt to pull him in for a chaste kiss.  

“I think that’s understandable considering,” he soothes.

Bucky helps the girls get settled while Steve makes the bed.  They’re far beyond the age of needing Bucky’s help, but he still somehow manages to make himself part of their routine, putting Tracy’s hair up and hunting down zit cream for Nicole.  

They both get into bed without being told to, and Bucky lays down between them to talk quietly for a few minutes.  Steve takes care of Zola and doesn’t intrude, and he peels off his tight jeans and replaces them with sweatpants.  It’s not how he usually sleeps, but he doesn’t know what else this night has in store for him.  

Bucky comes back to the bedroom and closes the door behind him, dumping his backpack on the floor and heading for the master bathroom.  Through the door, Steve can see him dunk his head under the faucet and drink greedily, and he wonders if this is the first time in hours that Bucky’s realized he’s thirsty.  

He comes back into the bedroom and sheds his pants.  He pulls on worn, striped pajama bottoms and crawls onto the bed to rest his head between Steve’s shoulder blades.  

“You’re like Superman... Like Superman who chats up coroners,” he mumbles.  

“Good, because I’ve felt like I have no idea what I’m doing all night,” Steve says as he presses back into Bucky.  

“Sorry this fucked up our plans.”

“God, Buck, don’t worry about that,” Steve frowns, rolling over to face him. “I don’t care about the bar. I care that you’re alright. I wasn’t sure what to do, but I was worried when you didn’t answer my texts.”

“Sorry,” Bucky apologizes again. “I felt it buzz, but I kept having to repeat what happened to the medics and the cops.”

“It’s okay,” Steve reassures him. “I’m just glad you weren’t hurt. I have to admit that I might have freaked out a little when I pulled up and there were police and an ambulance out front. I thought someone came after you or something happened to one of the girls.”

“No, we’re good,” Bucky says unnecessarily.  It’s helpful just to hear it, though.  He crawls away from Steve and settles against one of the pillows.  Even though he’s never spent the full night, he knows which side Steve sleeps on.  “Did you wanna fool around tonight?” he asks.  He’s biting his lip, and he looks willing, if not enthusiastic.  

“Let’s get some sleep,” Steve offers.  “It’s good the girls don’t have school tomorrow, because they looked tired, too.”

“I wouldn’t let them go to school tomorrow even if they did have it,” Bucky mumbles. “They’re in no shape. I just wanna keep it cool tomorrow.”

Steve gets up to check that the front door is locked and the lights are off.  He gets a glass of water just in case, and brings it back to set it on the nightstand next to Bucky.  

Bucky’s already planted facedown into the pillow, breathing deeply, but Steve doesn’t think he’ll fall asleep anytime soon.  He gets into bed next to Bucky and curls himself around him as much as he can.  

He wakes up a few hours later, blearily knowing that it isn’t morning yet.  The bed next to him is empty, and he worries that Bucky’s up pacing or doing research, so he drags himself out of bed to find him.  

Zola’s the one who discovers Bucky first.  Steve sees the dog laying outside the girls’ room, peering in like he’s curious, and Steve peeks in to see Bucky tangled between the girls.  He seems to be asleep, and Steve smiles even though he’s lost his bed partner for the night.  

 

 

Steve hangs up his office phone and rubs at the pinch in the back of his neck. It’s taken an entire morning on the phone, but he finally reached an attorney who didn’t condescend to him over Bucky’s situation with the girls. This guy actually sounds sympathetic enough to accomplish something, so Steve’s deciding how to approach Bucky about coming up with a retainer.

Even if CPS doesn’t figure out that the girls are parentless for awhile, Bucky’s decided that he needs to look into getting custody of the girls. Sasha has offered to pull some strings, but Bucky wants to use his underworld connections as a last resort. There’s no guarantee Sasha can make it happen and, even if he does, there’s something to be said for Bucky’s custody being properly done and ironclad.

The knock at his door startles him from his thoughts. “Yeah?”

Sam peers around the corner. “I gotta run down to Starbucks. I’m dying for octane right now. You want anything?”

“Thought I was supposed to be buying you coffee,” Steve smirks broadly.

“Oh you are, man. You are… but you look like you actually need it worse than me, so I’m trying out this nice friend thing.”

Steve laughs and leans back in his chair. “It’s this custody stuff. I think I finally found a guy who won’t look down his nose at Bucky and the girls.”

“Yeah, you’d better be comfortable with whoever you hire. This is gonna be a long haul. I’ve seen it before; it’s no walk through the park.”  Sam hesitates, then continues.  “I’m working hard here, see me working hard?  On keeping my opinions to myself?  But I just gotta ask - you ready for the long haul?  You haven’t been...with him that long.  It’s a big responsibility to get involved with lawyers and shit.”

The smile comes easily to Steve’s face in spite of the gravity of Sam’s question. He taps his phone to wake it up and looks down at the picture of him with Bucky and the girls. It’s all he needs to see.

“Yeah. No hesitation whatsoever, Sam.” He points at the phone and meets Sam’s eyes. “They’re worth it to me.  They’re a good family, and I want to help them.”

“What if it doesn’t work out with you two?” Sam asks baldly.

“Then they’re still together where they belong,” Steve blinks back at him. “That’s what’s important here, above everything else.”

Sam looks at him for a moment, then he waves his hand, grinning and dismissive.  “Man, you’re too noble for me today.  What do you want from Starbucks, do-gooder?”

“Blackest, strongest coffee they got on tap today,” Steve grins. “I’ve got paperwork to catch up on, and it’s a pile that’s just growing and growing.”

Steve goes back to his paperwork after Sam closes the door behind himself, and he tries to make headway even though his mind flies back to Bucky and the girls every few minutes.  

It’s been two weeks since Valentina died, and there’s a new challenge every day.  They’d had a funeral, gotten rid of her things, and started paying off the family friends and neighbors who’d crawled out of the woodwork to collect on her debts.  Bucky and the girls are back in their apartment, but Steve’s seen them almost daily since they’d left his house after staying the weekend.  

Just this morning, he’d stopped by the apartment before work and ended up driving the girls to school.  Nicole hadn’t been able to find something for a project, and then Tracy had tearfully insisted that she didn’t want to go to school, and then they’d missed the bus.  Bucky had looked like he was ready to blow a blood vessel, so Steve had stepped in.

The morning is sticking in Steve’s mind. He’d wanted to speak to Bucky before work, but time hadn’t permitted. Bucky is incredibly stressed-out and high-strung right now, and Steve had wanted to get a moment to try to calm him down a little.

He’s thinking of picking up the phone to call Bucky when his cell begins to ring. Bucky’s name pops up on the screen, and Steve actually starts chuckling as he accepts the call.

“Hey, was just gonna call you. I found a-”

“They fuckin’ took ‘em, Steve. Right from school. No one called me. They just took ‘em right outta school.” Bucky’s voice is frantic and cracking as though he might be crying. “I fucking knew it. I knew they’d pull some shit like this!”

The bottom drops out of Steve’s stomach, and he searches for the right words.  His eyes catch on the sticky note on his desk, and it jogs his memory.  

“I’m so sorry, Buck.  I can’t believe they did that,” he says as he rubs his forehead.  “What I wanted to tell you is that I found a family lawyer who sounds like he can help, and I have his contact information.  Do you want to come over and we can call him right now?”

He can hear Bucky breathing hard on the other end of the line. It’s debatable just how much of what Steve said has actually sunk in. There’s rustling in the background and the noise is unmistakable to Steve; Bucky’s pacing and shaking his keychain as he does. It’s become a habit of late.

“Yeah, okay,” he rasps finally. “I’m gonna call Sasha on the way.”

“Hey, don’t panic,” Steve tries to soothe.  “I know how much Sasha has done for your family, and I know he practically is family to you, but you’re the one that told me he was a last resort.  Remember, you thought that anything he could do would be shady, and it would give someone grounds to yank the girls again.”  Steve takes a breath, hearing Bucky slam a door and jog down the stairs.  “I’m not telling you what to do.  I just don’t want you to make any decisions in the heat of the moment.”

“They won’t even let me talk to them on the phone! They’re probably losing their shit right now! Tracy’s a firecracker, but they’re just twelve, Steve! How can they fucking do this? How is this good for them?” He yells suddenly, and Steve realizes in horror that Bucky must’ve just walked out in front of one of the cars on his street. The smack of a palm against hollow metal just confirms it.

“Pedestrian, motherfucker,” Bucky bellows at the driver.

“Bucky, please don’t get hit by a car,” Steve almost begs.  “You’re not any good to the girls if you’re hurt.”

“I’m not gonna be the one hurting!” He’s yelling at the driver still, and Steve can only imagine the fear blooming in his or her gut. Steve’s only caught glimpses of Bucky’s real temper, but that was enough.

“Drive the fuck on, you cocksucker! Get outta my face!”

“Bucky, calm down.  It was an accident,” Steve tries desperately.  He knows that Bucky’s covering up his terror and his helplessness with anger, but he doesn’t know how to help him.  “Come over.  Or do you want me to come get you?”

“I’m calm!” Bucky yells, but his voice seems to immediately falter. There’s a long moment of nothing but the sounds of light traffic before Bucky answers quietly. “Come get me. I can’t even think right now, Steve.”

Steve grabs his keys and leaves his office almost at a run.  He thanks his lucky stars that he isn’t seeing patients this afternoon, and he almost runs into Sam as he leaves the clinic.

“Hey!” Sam calls to him as Steve brushes past.  

“I’ll be right back!” he yells over his shoulder.  Then he doubles back and grabs his coffee out of Sam’s hands in the event that Bucky might want it.

He drives to Bucky’s apartment building, because he can’t have gotten far.  He sees Bucky sitting dejectedly on top of a utility box, staring at the ground with his breath puffing away from him.  It’s unusually cold for October, but Bucky isn’t wearing so much as a long-sleeved shirt.  

Steve makes a U-turn and pulls up in front of Bucky.  He doesn’t acknowledge Steve’s presence, but slides off the box and trudges to the car.  Steve hands him the warm coffee as soon as he gets inside, and Bucky takes it.  

He doesn’t know what to say, so he leaves a hand on Bucky’s knee as they drive.

“I don’t know what I’m gonna do if I can’t get them back,” Bucky mutters, his eyes looking glassy. “This is so fucked…. I-”

He takes a breath and slumps over to rest his temple to the cold passenger window. “I hate her. I fucking hate that woman.”

“She’s gone.  She can’t create any more problems for you,” Steve reminds him softly.  “And we’re dealing with this.  Right now, we’re going to go talk about your options and call that lawyer.”

“They gonna whitewash my image and my record?”  Bucky’s voice is listless and dull as he closes his eyes.

“They deal with this all the time, and they can at the very least educate us.  Nicole and Tracy aren’t the only kids that the state took away from a good home, and it works out better for them if they don’t have to pay foster parents.  There’s a way here, somewhere,” Steve reminds him.  It’s the same thing that he’s said to Bucky several times over the past two weeks, but it has a new poignancy to it now that the girls are actually gone.

“But I’m not the best option for them, am I?”  This is dangerous, new territory. Bucky’s never doubted his ability to raise the girls. “It’s not like I’ve given them stability, and I can’t exactly provide that well for them.”

“You think they don’t have stability?” Steve almost laughs, but it would definitely send the wrong signal.  “Bucky, Nicole and Tracy always know where their next meal is coming from.  They have a safe place to live, and all the bills are paid.  They have plenty of clothes for all seasons, and plenty that you insist they don’t need.  It is a stable environment, and it’s more than some kids get.  Do not,” he orders, “sell yourself short.  You’ve done an incredible job.  I’m amazed at how you do it, but it’s obvious to anyone who knows you.”

“They’re in some strange place probably terrified!” Bucky’s yelling again, though not as viciously as before. “That’s not too incredible is it? I should’ve kicked Valentina’s ass into that low-income rehab program again. I just let her go do her thing to keep her out of our hair, but I should’ve put my foot down and made her clean her act up!”

“You’re not responsible for the things she did.  And you couldn’t have stopped her,” Steve says firmly.  “She made her choices, and they’re documented through medical records and court records.  The fact that you have a documented history of providing for the girls while she spent her money and her time on getting high will mean something.”  

“CPS knows that, Steve! They don’t fucking care! They look at me and see a hard case just like your buddy, and they want them away from me. They don’t give a fuck that I’m doing the shit I do to provide for the girls. They want them with some white fucking picket fence family, and Valentina just gave them the means.”

Steve wants to argue more, but it’s clearly falling on scared, deaf ears.  The fact is that Steve has more experience here than Bucky does - Bucky’s lived twelve years afraid that someone’s going to take his baby sisters away, and that fear has grown with both real and imagined threats.  Steve’s testified in court during custody cases as a primary care provider, and he’s seen legitimate efforts to keep family members together.  

But he’s also seen judges read people’s fates in their criminal records, and he doesn’t want to make promises.  

They pull up to the clinic after a few more minutes of stewing silence, and Bucky follows Steve sullenly to his office. Rather than taking his usual seat at the edge of Steve’s desk, Bucky drops heavily onto the couch and seems to almost curl in on himself. His shoulders are slumped, and his expression is blank. Steve quickly dials the attorney who’d seemed receptive, and he clears his throat.

“Hey, Buck… shut the door, will ya?” It’s only open a fraction, but he feels like he needs to snap Bucky out of the dark headspace he’s in.

Bucky blinks up at him for a second, then he hauls himself up to do as Steve asked. This time when he sits back down, it’s with a little more control.

After being placed on hold, Steve gets through to Clint Barton, family lawyer, and re-introduces himself from earlier before putting the phone on speaker.  Clint remembers Steve, and after some shuffling on his end, Steve explains the situation.  

“So I’m in my office with the friend I spoke to you about.  CPS took both girls directly from their school today without notifying him, and we don’t know how to contact them or what the next step is.”

Clint’s manner is calm and assertive. “You put me on retainer, and I start drawing up an emergency injunction right now. I can’t guarantee it will get them back immediately, but it will halt any action CPS is trying to take to make their removal permanent. It gives us time to get support for… James? Your homework will be to get as many letters of solid character reference for him while I contact CPS on your behalf.”

“Okay, we’re on board,” Steve tells him.  Bucky’s eyebrows shoot up, and Steve holds up a hand to ask him to wait.  “We can come in whenever you’re ready for us and deal with the fees.”

“Now’s as good a time as any. Sooner you get down here, the sooner we get this filed. I might be able to slip it under the wire if you can get down here in the next half hour.” Clint’s no-nonsense tone is reassuring to Steve. He hopes it is to Bucky on some level as well.

“We can do that.  Thanks,” Steve tells him.  Clint hangs up, and Steve starts to pack his bag.  He looks at Bucky but doesn’t say anything, waiting for him to initiate the discussion he can feel brewing in the room.  To his surprise, Bucky doesn’t immediately start panicking about money.

“Bucky, I know what you’re going to say, but we need to get over there. If we’re going to argue about this again, let’s do it in the car, okay?”  He guides Bucky back out of the clinic with a hand on his shoulder, stopping to let Peter know that he has to leave for an emergency.  

In the car, Steve uses the GPS on his phone to direct them to Clint’s office even though he has a general idea where he’s going.  Bucky stays silent, chewing on his thumb nail, and finally Steve can’t handle it.  

“You’re going to need to talk to him,” he reminds Bucky gently.  “It’s your case.”

“Talk about what? He’s gonna ask questions, and I’ll either be able to answer them or I won’t,” Bucky mutters. “If he’s on retainer, he can’t discuss my shit, but he’s also bound by law to disclose anything that could be a danger to the girls. I just have to be careful what I tell him.”

“So are you or aren’t you going to tell him that you’re in the mob?” Steve asks.  

“I’m not in the mob!” Bucky explodes.  He takes a deep breath.  “I’m in a Russian-American street gang which is marginally related to, though not directly part of, the Russian mob in America.”

“Oh.  Good to know,” Steve says lamely.  “So, wait, are you technically unemployed?”  His chest tightens at the new obstacle

“No,” Bucky grunts. “I’m on the books at Yakov’s bar, an auto shop, and a Russian bakery as their security consultant. I get paid twice a month just like any other nine to five shmuck.”

“Bakeries need security consultants?” Steve almost wants to chuckle at the ridiculousness of it, but Bucky’s somber tone stops him.

“People steal food all the time, Steve. I installed their camera system and their alarm. I troubleshoot it when it acts up or needs adjusting.”

Steve’s never known Bucky to actually report to any of these businesses, but he doesn’t have a very clear idea of what Bucky does with his day when he’s not getting injured in fights and car chases.  He starts to get a better picture of how this gang - which is at its core, a business - operates.  It renews his hope for Bucky’s case now that there’s an IRS paper trail and legitimate business owners to back him up, but it reminds him how deeply entrenched Bucky is.  

Bucky stops chewing his thumb long enough to bank his eyes Steve’s direction. “You’re not paying for this. You understand that, right?”

“If they ask for more than you’ve got on you, then yes, I’m going to pay for it.  You can pay me back later if we need to go that route,” Steve says firmly.

Bucky’s face skews angrily, and his fists clench where they rest it his lap. “Damn it, Steve. We talked about this. I joke about you being a fucking sugar daddy. I don’t actually mean it. This is my mess to deal with.”

“I’m not trying to be your sugar daddy!” Steve insists.  “I’ve barely bought you anything in all the time that I’ve known you.  Just some food and some x-rays.  And I’m not offering to pay for your lawyer, although just to be clear, I would if you asked me to,” he says seriously.  “But this is the best thing to do right now for the girls, and we’re not going to leave without retaining that guy.  Be honest; can you afford it right now, and still have everything covered?”

His eyes narrowing, Bucky looks sharply over at Steve. “What do you mean x-rays? You said your buddy Brent was doing it as a favor.”

Steve stares at the road in front of him and mentally kicks himself.  “I paid for your x-rays because otherwise you wouldn’t have gotten them.  That’s what I’m offering to do today.  It can be a loan; the x-rays can be a fucking loan if you want!”

He’s taking deep breaths as he looks at Steve, and it’s clear that Bucky’s fighting with himself as much as Steve. He looks out the window and starts rubbing the tops of his thighs in an apparent effort to get a handle on his temper.

“Do not fucking lie to me about anything like that again,” he growls. It almost sounds like a begrudging concession from Bucky. His options are limited right now, just as they were the night he broke his hand. Steve needs Bucky to have some faith in him, especially with what they’re about to face. “And you’re damn right it’s a loan. All of it.”

They drive in silence for a few minutes, broken only by the tinny voice from Steve’s phone telling them to turn right.  Steve thinks about what else they need to cover before talking to Clint, and comes up with the obvious.

“I think we should disclose our relationship to him, but I wanted to check with you first,” he says.  He turns to look at Bucky, but the expression on his face doesn’t reveal much.

“Why?” The question is flat, but the exhaustion behind it is more than evident.

“So he doesn’t get any surprises later on,” Steve says.  

“Who else would know? There’s no one to tell anyone anything,” Bucky answers bluntly.

“Well, maybe he’ll be able to tell.  Or maybe he’ll ask us directly.  Or maybe I can be a character reference for you, but not sharing our status will compromise it.  I don’t know, but I think we should only conceal what we really have to.”

Bucky passes his hand over his face and kneads at his temple. “That fucking bitch,” he murmurs under his breath. He stops what he’s doing and again rests his head against his window.

“Yeah, okay. Whatever.”

It’s not the most auspicious prelude to their visit with the lawyer, but it’s enough.  

Clint’s office is nice without being pretentious, and Steve talks about the retainer with the administrative assistant while Bucky looks at the fishtank in the corner.  Clint comes out to shake their hands, and Steve determinedly greets him second and follows after Bucky when they walk into Clint’s office.

Bucky is quiet as Clint begins to explain the steps he’s already started.  He’s direct and looks at them equally as he speaks.  When he finally focuses on Bucky, his expression remains professional, but also empathetic.

“What do you need to tell me about yourself that could jeopardize you gaining guardianship of your sisters?”

“Uh, I’m not a high school graduate.  And I don’t have a fancy job, just some part-time-”

Clint cuts him off almost immediately with a raised hand. “Don’t bullshit me, okay? I deal with this every day, so reading people is important. You can’t expect me to do my job properly if you don’t level with me.”

“Uh,” Bucky says again, but he’s clearly at a loss.  His eyes catch on Steve next to him.  “I’m...I’m gay?” he almost asks.  

Clint actually snorts and shakes his head. “Sweet, but not what I’m worried about. You haven’t said much of anything since you walked in, so what would your file look like if I pulled it from the police?”

“I’ve had a couple run-ins with the law.  Aggravated assault six years ago, and then firearm possession four years ago.”

“Okay,” Clint sighs, sitting back in his chair. “Problematic, but I’ve gotten around worse. A lot will ride on what judge we get, so let’s talk worst case scenario… Is there someone we can hit up to take temporary custody of your sisters while we slog through this and spiff up your image?”

“We have a family friend.  Her name’s Natasha, but she doesn’t really have room for the girls…” Bucky trails off.  Steve can almost see him going through other family friends in his head, but he doubts that Bucky will come up with many who don’t have equivalent police records.  And then there’s still the matter of keeping Sasha out of it.  

“No on her then,” Clint dismisses. “Not unless she’s willing to get a new place in the next day or so.” When neither of them says anything, Clint nods. “What you want is someone with a decent place with bedrooms for both girls. They could share one, but it looks better if they have space. Someone with reliable income and an upstanding member of the community.”

His eyes flick to Steve, and Steve hadn’t considered it before, but he realizes it with a jolt.  He’s probably the best person in Bucky’s life to step up for the girls.  But he doesn’t want to volunteer without at least talking to Bucky first.  

“What if no one in their circle can take them?” Steve speaks up.

“They’ll be kept in foster care until we can convince a judge that James is suitable to assume guardianship,” Clint answers frankly, his eyes not unsympathetic.

Bucky continues to work his jaw and flick his eyes back and forth like he’s thinking rapidly and trying to catch the thoughts.  Steve gives himself a moment to consider and decide, then he asks Clint if they can have a minute.  He agrees graciously and points them through to a conference room while staring meaningfully at Steve.

Bucky doesn’t sit down, but immediately starts pacing once Clint shuts the door. “I can’t believe this shit,” he mumbles, his voice starting to go hoarse from stress. “I gotta get them out of there, Steve. They shouldn’t be there.”

Steve watches Bucky pace.  He thinks about the best way to bring it up, but Bucky doesn’t even seem to be considering him, and it hurts a little.  He sinks into a chair and starts with the obvious.

“Clint wants me to do it.  He kept looking at me when he was talking about finding someone clean-nosed and capable to take them.”

Bucky stops pacing, but when he looks over at Steve, he doesn’t look surprised. In fact, his eyes are narrowed at Steve in that cautious manner Steve’s never particularly cared for.

“I know we just had a talk about you taking things from me, but this is different,” Steve tells him.  

“Yeah it is,” Bucky agrees quietly. He’s staring intently at Steve, visually boring into him as though trying to read Steve’s mind before he puts his own feelings on the table.

“It’s a big fucking deal, raising those two. It’s not marina-by-the-bay happiness every day.”

“I don’t think I could raise them,” Steve says with a wry smile.  “That’s your job.  But if family court wants them to temporarily live with someone who doesn’t have a record, makes enough to support them, and can spare a bedroom...I can do that.  I would do that, for you and them.”

Bucky’s shoulders shake for a moment as he stares at Steve, then he drops his eyes to the floor. “Jesus Christ, Steve. Are you really sure you want to do this? You’d be stuck with us legally and shit.”

Steve stands up and walks over to Bucky.  He places his hands on Bucky’s shoulders and half-shrugs.  “Yeah, I do.  It feels right to me.”

“Fucking unicorn,” Bucky blurts out, and he almost looks embarrassed by the sentiment. It doesn’t stop him from pulling Steve’s face close so he can kiss him. “You might as well. You’ve already got the ugly soccer-mom car for it.”

Steve laughs and kisses him back.  He’s never envisioned volunteering to become the guardian of two girls on the cusp of adolescence, but he’s happy, and it does feel right.  He’s known almost from the beginning that to be part of Bucky’s life in a meaningful way, he’d have to be part of the girls’.  And as crazy as the idea is, he’s a little excited to figure out a way to fit into the family unit.  

And he gets to be Bucky’s white knight in the process.  He’s not completely immune from the caveman impulse, either.  

There’s a knock at the conference door, and Clint sticks his head in. “How we doing in here?” His eyes are, again, pointedly focused on Steve.

“I think we might have a good candidate for temporary guardianship,” Steve answers with a smile. Knowingly, Clint’s eyes shift to Bucky and he lifts his brows.

“Yeah,” Bucky adds, “I want you to draw up the paperwork to have Steve as their guardian until the rest is figured out.”

“Good choice,” Clint nods approvingly. “Come on back and we’ll get this underway. I’m going to need your life history and basically all kinds of crap that will boggle your mind…. like favorite toothpaste and what side you sleep on,” he jokes.

Bucky nervously looks over at Steve. “Ready to do this?”

Steve follows Bucky and Clint back into the office, wondering how he’ll explain this to Sam.

 

 

They spend another 45 minutes with Clint going over and signing a formidable pile of paperwork. They briefly discuss the state of Steve’s house and some of the things he should check for that could potentially cause problems. Much of it pertains to things that Bucky’s already aware of, so Steve isn’t surprised when he seems to zone in and out of the conversation.

Steve wants Bucky to have copies of all the paperwork Clint gave them, so they go back to the clinic to use the copier there.  Bucky looks dead on his feet, and he slumps on the couch in Steve’s office while Steve battles with the copy machine.  

As much as they both want to be doing more tonight, it’s out of their hands for the present.  Steve doesn’t know what to do with all of this pent-up worry and anxiety, and he’s sure that Bucky’s feeling it one hundred times worse.  But he does know that he doesn’t want Bucky going back to the apartment all alone tonight.

He’s just come back into his office when Bucky’s voice hits him.

“You moved your computer.”

It would seem like a non-sequitur, except Bucky’s voice is down in that octave that always turns Steve’s insides into a trapeze act.

“Now?” he asks a little incredulously, because stress usually has the opposite effect on him.

“You told me a million times that I can’t do anything else tonight,” Bucky huffs.  He gets off the couch with renewed energy and pushes Steve against the corner of his desk.  

It’s true that the computer has moved to the counter along the wall, and Steve was hoping for this at some point, if he’s honest.  He just wouldn’t have thought that it would be relevant tonight of all nights.

“Okay… are you up for this…?” Steve’s still a little baffled by the one-eighty, but he doesn’t stop Bucky’s hands from pulling his shirt free from his slacks, either.

“I want you,” Bucky growls back at him. He pauses his fingers at Steve’s zipper. “Steve… I need you. I need this.”

Bucky’s never been so open about his needs.  He usually cloaks them in flirting and suggestion, but he’s completely honest and unashamed right now.  Steve curls his fingers into Bucky’s t-shirt, resolving that he’s going to tuck him into a hoodie that will be too big on him as soon as they get home.  First though, he uses the leverage to pull Bucky into a kiss, and then he yanks the shirt over his head when they take a break to breathe.

His fingers resuming their original task, Bucky leans up to drag his teeth lightly over Steve’s neck. Steve’s not concerned about the marks at the moment; he’ll figure it out later, if necessary. His fly is suddenly open, and Bucky’s got one hand already inside to cup him while his free hand fumbles with the buttons on Steve’s shirt. Bucky gets enough of them free to push aside the fabric and dip his mouth to Steve’s nipple. He runs his tongue around it as his fingers find the other and pinch it lightly.

Steve arches his back into the feeling and strips his shirt off his shoulders.  He sits down on the edge of the desk and pulls Bucky in to stand between his legs.  Bucky pulls Steve’s slacks down enough to run his fingers up and down Steve’s cock, and Steve groans at the feeling as he unzips Bucky’s jeans and pushes his hand inside.

Bucky’s breath puffs hot against Steve’s skin when he takes Bucky in hand. His forehead drops forward to rest on Steve’s chest as he relaxes into the intimate touch. Steve runs his thumb back and forth across Bucky’s frenulum, feeling his cock pulse with the stimulation. Bucky mirrors the move with Steve, and they both groan appreciatively. Bucky bites gently at Steve’s shoulder before he glances over at the counter where the lube is tucked further back into the corner than it used to be.

Steve gives him a playful shove, and he finishes sliding his pants down his legs and kicking them to the floor while Bucky’s gone.  He returns a moment later, and Steve drops off the desk and turns around.  Fully aware that he’s going to sit at this desk tomorrow and write notes in patient files, he spreads his legs and eases his chest down on the cold, finished wood.  Bucky warms the lube by breathing on it again, but Steve still feels goosebumps spread over his body from the chilly smoothness of the desktop.  

“Fuck that’s gorgeous, baby,” Bucky murmurs behind him. It’s the first time Bucky’s used a pet name for him other than ‘Doc’, and it settles into Steve in all the right places.

“Then get over here and prove it,” Steve sasses him, intentionally goading him on. If it gets Bucky’s mind off things for even a second, Steve will gladly bring out his inner slut for Bucky to play with.

“Awful bossy for someone taking it,” Bucky rasps back at him. His tone is deep and gravelly as Steve feels his slicked fingers casually searching for their intended mark.

Bucky slides what must be his middle finger into Steve, and Steve feels his body clench around it.  He tries to breathe and widen his legs, but he’s so tense from today, and he knows that Bucky can feel it.

“Relax,” Bucky says against Steve’s neck, and then he trails kisses down Steve’s spine until he gets to his hole.  He slips his finger out for a second to add more lube, and then it’s back, pressing deep into Steve and impeded only by Bucky’s knuckles against his balls.  He feels Bucky hold his cheeks apart with the hand that isn’t thrusting into Steve, and then Steve whimpers when he feels little kitten licks down his crack and over his hole, joining Bucky’s finger in stretching him and getting him wet.  

Bucky adds a second finger, and Steve’s muscles start to give in.  He’s brushing against Steve’s prostate, and it feels too good.  Steve splays himself against the desk, unsure if he could actually hold himself up now, as boneless as he feels.

After a third finger, then no fingers and just Bucky’s sinfully deft tongue, he’s practically panting for it.  Bucky withdraws, and there's the sound of his belt buckle jingling as he fumbles through pants to find his wallet. Steve hears the rip of a foil wrapper, then a gentle, rustling sound as Bucky rolls the condom over his cock.

Raising back up to Steve’s neck, Bucky presses against his hole with the tip of his cock but doesn’t push yet. He nuzzles Steve, then growls just behind his ear.

“Tell me you want me.”

It’s obvious to Steve where this is coming from, and he has no trouble indulging Bucky at all. He presses back against Bucky’s cock with a soft whine as he tangles his fingers into Bucky’s hair. The pull he gives Bucky’s tresses is not gentle as he tugs him within range of his lips.

“Want you so bad,” he growls, then he cranes his neck to pull Bucky into an uncoordinated kiss.  Bucky pushes inside him as he flicks his tongue against Steve’s soft palate, and the desk is still hard and angled, and his feet are cold.  It’s a lot of sensation to take in, but Bucky pushes Steve’s hips downwards and angles his cock against Steve’s prostate.  It’s hard to pay attention to anything else when he’s hitting that nerve center at least every other thrust, and Steve’s cock is blood-hard and neglected against the desk.  

He feels himself spurt precum as Bucky pounds into him, and it gives him the friction he needs to thrust his cock in little bursts across the slick surface.  Bucky grabs his hips on both sides and starts to snap almost violently into Steve, making his hands skitter for purchase against the desk.

“God yes, Buck,” Steve gasps at the wild mix of euphoria tinged with such a delicious burn.  He’s probably going be feeling every inch of where he’s rubbing against his desk later, but then he can totally use it to get some extra attention out of Bucky when they get back home. The idea just adds extra sparks to the little jolts he’s feeling in his belly now.

His hips ache where Bucky’s holding onto them like a lifeline, but Bucky’s pushing so deep inside him with his anger-fueled thrusts.  It’s like when they do it face-to-face in Steve’s bed, with Steve’s ankles crossed behind Bucky’s head - but this is, somehow, more intimate.  This is uninhibited and emotional, with Bucky digging in everywhere he can get, planting himself inside and on Steve and using this to spill the pent-up frustration and panic balled in his chest.  

Steve can’t withstand the onslaught much longer, and he reluctantly tilts his hips so Bucky misses his prostate.  It still feels amazing, but he wants this to last as long as Bucky needs it to.

When Bucky leans back over him, Steve manages to get a grip on his wrist. He pulls it close to his lips and begins lazily nibbling and biting at Bucky’s forearm, figuring turnabout might be appreciated. If the startled gasp Bucky gives him is any indicator, it is. Steve bites just a little harder, and he feels Bucky’s rhythm stutter.

“So the biting’s not one-sided,” Steve groans and nips again. Now he can’t wait to get Bucky under him at some point so he can discover which spots he likes to have bitten the most. Steve’s an avid fan of Bucky’s body, so it’s one more excuse to roam every dip and swell.

Bucky groans and starts to slow, panting heavily and licking at the sweat on the back of Steve’s neck.  Steve feels him fumble at Steve’s stomach for his cock, so he assumes that Bucky’s close.  He tilts his hips downwards again and feels Bucky’s cock brush his prostate.  It brings back the light spots at the edges of his vision, and he pushes back, trying to copy Bucky’s rhythm and go after him when he pulls away.

Bucky moans, louder than he usually lets himself be with Steve, and his cock twitches as he comes.  He makes to collapse on Steve’s back, but Steve forces himself upright and reaches behind him to grab Bucky’s ass.

“I’m close,” he mutters, and Bucky weakly thrusts into him.  He snakes his hands around to grab Steve’s cock, and he pumps it as he continues to ghost his own softening cock over Steve’s prostate. Bucky focuses his fingertips just below the head, and the sparks of current explode outward from Steve’s abdomen. He claws at the desk as his vision goes fuzzy, his whole body jerking with the intensity of his orgasm.

Bucky breathes out a soft whine as Steve clenches mercilessly around him. He strokes Steve’s side as he holds his hand steady for Steve to finish inside the channel of his fist. He’s pressing his forehead between Steve’s shoulder blades and murmuring something Steve can’t quite hear.  His brain isn’t exactly processing speech at the moment, or much of anything else, so he doesn’t think to ask Bucky to repeat himself.

They clean up and redress in comfortable silence, and then Steve remembers that he has a few more documents to copy.  Bucky comes into the file room with him and leans against Steve’s back while he takes care of it, and it’s a softer parallel of his stance just minutes earlier.  

Steve offers to bring him by the apartment, but there’s not much Bucky needs there.  Steve offers him an extra toothbrush and any of his clothes, so they go straight to Steve’s and collapse on the bed.  

Bucky gets up to let Zola out, and Steve makes sure the paperwork is in a safe spot, but that’s about all they’re capable of.  Steve slips an arm around Bucky in the dark of the bedroom and physically feels his breathing slow down until he’s completely under.  He still looks young when he sleeps, despite the scars and tattoos and stress lines on his face, and Steve pulls him in tighter, glad for the chance to just hold Bucky and keep the problems at bay for a few hours.  

Chapter Text

Steve’s about to let loose a string of profanity. He’s trying to get home as fast as possible, but traffic has other plans for him. At this rate, he could probably park the Outlander and jog home faster.

Beside him, Bucky is unusually calm. Clint had called Steve to tell him that CPS is on their way to his house to meet with him. There was no notice and, once again, Steve had to literally run out the door with barely any explanation to Sam. He’ll call him after the meeting, but for now, he’s worried about beating the caseworkers home.

He barely had time to get to the address Bucky had texted to him, which turned out to be an auto shop downtown, and now he’s stressing out over whether the house is picked up enough to pass muster.

“Stop it, Steve.” Bucky’s voice is curiously monotone as he turns his head Steve’s way. “The house is fine. It’s us they’re gonna pick apart.”

“We talked about dumping the alcohol, but we didn’t have time,” Steve ticks off faults on his fingers.  “I was going to get a safe for the handgun, but I didn’t do it yet.  And-”

“Stop,” Bucky repeats, cutting him off by laying his hand to Steve’s thigh. “It’s just beer and wine. Normal people drink beer and wine. As for the gun…” Bucky rolls his eyes and almost smiles. “It’s in your underwear drawer, Steve. They ain’t goin’ in there.”

“Zola’s probably going to jump on them,” Steve moans as he finally turns onto his block.  He doesn’t see any unfamiliar cars in front of his house, so he thinks they’ve won this at least.

“Put Zola in the back yard,” Bucky sighs, though not from irritation. “That’s what it’s for. He can go work on that hole he thinks we don’t know about.”

“What if-” Steve starts, then he catches himself and groans.  “Why are you so much calmer about this than I am?  I’m freaking out!  I’m a bachelor - I’ve never kid-proofed a single thing in my house, or thought about anyone besides me getting into it!”

“They’re twelve, Doc, not two. It doesn’t need to be kid-proofed. I’ve been through this before, remember?” He reaches for Steve’s hand and gives it a quick, firm squeeze. “I’m calm because I know what they look for, and you’re a caseworker’s wet dream. You’re Mr. Apple-fuckin-pie, for fucksakes. You got nothin’ to worry about.”

They get out of the car, and Steve jogs to unlock the front door.  Zola trots out of one of the back bedrooms, and Steve corrals him and pulls him gently to the backyard.  He goes back inside and hurriedly does the dishes in the sink while Bucky watches him, amused, from the kitchen table.  

“Can you go deal with the mess on the coffee table?” Steve asks, and then he accidentally splashes his polo and creates a suspicious wet stain on his belly.  

He’s heading for the bedroom to change when the doorbell rings.  Bucky, who isn’t tidying anything up, calls to him from the kitchen.  

“Your house, I’m just a guest!”  

Sweating and looking forlornly down at his wet shirt, Steve moves forward to answer the door.  

The CPS caseworkers are two women smiling perfunctorily at him through the screen door.

“Dr. Steven Rogers?  I’m Bernadette Rosenthal, and this is Rachel Leighton.  We’re from New York Child Protective Services.”

“Hi,” Steve greets them.  After a moment, he remembers to step aside and motion them in.  “Come on in.  I just got home.”

“Do you work during the day, Dr. Rogers?” Bernadette asks.  She hangs back to talk with him while Rachel starts to walk around.  It feels incredibly invasive, but it’s what Steve signed up for.  

“Yes, I do.  I own the family med clinic on Sutter.  I usually work the normal workday, but it’s flexible if I have an emergency or a meeting.”  

Rachel pulls out a notepad and pen as she walks into the living room. She looks up and sees Bucky seated at the kitchen table,  and she draws up short.

“Oh. Mr. Barnes is here?” She frowns back at Bernadette. “We intended to meet with you alone, Dr. Rogers.”

Bucky’s features darken with suspicion, but he keeps his voice level. “This involves my sisters, Ma’am. Of course I’m here. My attorney didn’t say that I couldn’t be here.”

“We don’t want you influencing any of the answers Dr. Rogers gives to our questions,” Bernadette informs him coolly. “Perhaps you could leave and come back in a short while?”

Bucky purses his lips and hangs his head for a moment before standing up from the table. He walks over to the entryway and pushes his hands into his pockets as he looks at the petite caseworker he’s now towering over.

“My sisters are my entire world, and your agency took them with no notice. I haven’t been allowed to even speak to them, and they’re probably terrified. Is it really too much to ask that I stay here while you talk to Steve? I want an update on the girls, and I’d like to at least be able to speak with them on the phone.”

Bucky’s voice remains incredibly calm and even-toned. He’s not looming over Bernadette, but he’s not standing meekly by either. He’s very much a father standing his ground and demanding, albeit politely, that he be given a chance to check on his girls.

Bernadette sizes him up and looks at her partner.  When Rachel nods, Bernadette takes out her phone.

“The girls are placed, and Ms. Leighton has already checked in on them and interviewed the foster parents.  I’m not allowed to tell you where they are, but I can put you in contact with them.”  Bucky steps forward, and she holds up an index finger.  “But, we’re in the middle of something here.  If you’ll take a walk, or run some errands, and come back in an hour, I’ll get you the phone number without a trip back to our office.”  

Bucky takes a slow breath and closes his eyes for a moment before his shoulders sag in acquiescence. He looks up at Steve, who points toward the keys he dropped on the coffee table minutes earlier.

“Hey, take the car. Go get dinner or something.”

Bucky licks at his bottom lip, then nods slowly. He goes for the keys and silently pushes past the caseworkers to leave out the front door. Steve’s internally screaming over how unfair this all is.

“Could you show us around the house, Dr. Rogers?” Bernadette is quick to pick up their inspection and interrogation again. “Rachel will be making notes for anything that will need to be changed before the twins are allowed to stay here with you… if you’re granted temporary guardianship.”

“Sure,” Steve replies like they didn’t just kick his boyfriend out of his own house.  He smiles at them and leads them through the archway to the dining room.  

Thirty minutes later, Steve’s perched on the edge of his loveseat while the caseworkers share the sofa.  Rachel’s still scribbling down notes while Bernadette can’t put her phone away.  He has no idea if she’s looking up information about him and Bucky, or if she’s texting.  He fidgets and waits for the next question on their exhaustive list.  

“Steve,” Bernadette asks, using his first name after he’d insisted earlier in the house tour, “tell us why you applied for temporary placement for the Barnes twins. This is quite an undertaking, so we’d like to hear why you feel you’re better suited to take on this responsibility than the family already caring for them.”

Steve wishes they would stop asking questions with multiple parts.  He feels like he’s back in Med School taking shelf exams.  

“Well, I’m close with the family,” he starts.  “I’m dating Bucky, and I’ve helped with the girls before.  I was there when their mother died, and it was hard on them.  But not that hard,” he changes tracks, “because she wasn’t there for them, so all three of them looked out for each other.  I wanted to be a part of that, anyway that I could.”  

Rachel looks at him, waiting for him to continue.  

“I’m a better choice for their guardian than whomever you’ve got them with because...they’re strangers.  Nicole and Tracy have such a strong network of people who look out for them, but they’re completely cut off from that network.  I can give them a stable, safe home without cutting them off from the people they’ve known and trusted their whole lives.”

Rachel pauses her writing to look over at Bernadette. There’s a silent exchange between them that only people who work together understand. Steve recognizes it from having the same types of exchanges with Sam. It doesn’t do anything for the nerves eating at his stomach.

“Are Nicole and Tracy aware of your relationship with their brother, or do they only know you as a family friend?”

“Yes, they are,” Steve says.  He holds back a smile at how aware Tracy in particular is.  

“And how has that affected their day-to-day lives so far?”

“It doesn’t,” Steve answers.  He doesn’t know what response they’re looking for.  “I mean, we’re not overly affectionate in front of them, and when we do things, we either take them or make sure someone can stay with them.”

There’s a short silence again, another exchange before Rachel again fires off another brutally blunt question.

“James Barnes has a criminal record and has served time for violent offenses. He has ties to organized crime. Our concern is that he’ll simply move in here with you, and we’ll have accomplished nothing; that the girls will still be exposed to that element. Can you address that, Steve?”

“He doesn’t live here, and even though he’ll be around sometimes, he’s never exposed the girls to anything harmful.  Living with their mother was more hazardous to them,” Steve says with a touch of ice in his voice.

"Maybe you’d like to expand on that thought?” Bernadette’s eyes are cautious as she leans forward slightly, but Steve gets the impression that she’s on his side, at least to a degree. More so than her partner at least.

“Valentina Barnes died from an overdose in the next room,” Steve emphasizes.  “And Nicole found her body.  She abused substances around them, she brought sketchy people around, and she emotionally manipulated them by disappearing for months at a time.  She didn’t work, and she didn’t use her disability check to provide anything for them.  Bucky was the barrier between them and her, and he kept that stuff away from them,” Steve says incredulously.  

“Anything else you’d like to say before we end this interview?” Bernadette asks him, and Steve rolls around several thoughts in his mind before he answers. He’s careful to bring his tone and manner back into check.

“Yes, actually. Bucky was sixteen when those girls were born. He named them because Valentina couldn’t. He worked hard to care for them, and only dropped out of school when it became necessary to work full time to meet their bills. Everything he does, he does to provide for them and to keep them safe. What sixteen-year-old does that other than one responsible enough to shoulder it?”

“We’re not talking about Mr. Barnes’ competencies as a guardian; we’re talking about yours,” Rachel interjects.  

“You’re suggesting that his presence in my life is going to have a negative impact on the girls.  I’m telling you that there is no negative impact.  There never has been, and there won’t be now if they come to live here.”  He directs his statement to Rachel in particular, and he notices vaguely that his nerves have disappeared.  “The only negative impact here is taking them from the only parental figure they’ve ever known when he’s done nothing but protect them.”

Bernadette seems almost ready to smile, but she schools her expression back to neutrality. She begins to gather her papers into her briefcase.

“I think we’ve covered what we need to,” she tells him. “We appreciate you leaving work to meet with us on short notice.” She pulls a card from her bag and writes on the back in precise lettering. When she hands it over, Steve sees that it’s the contact information for the family fostering the twins.

“Obviously I can’t give you their address, but they can be reached via that phone number. Please be respectful of what time you call them.”

“Yeah, we will, definitely,” Steve says as he stares at the phone number.  Timing shouldn’t be an issue, because he knows that Bucky is going to call as soon as he gets back.  “Do you need anything else from me?”

"No, you’ve been incredibly cooperative, and we appreciate that,” Bernadette answers him as she stands and waits for Rachel to finish gathering her own things. “We’ll be in contact either with you directly or via Mr. Barnes’s attorney.”

“Okay.  Thanks,” Steve says as they see themselves out.  Rachel tsks disapprovingly when she steps outside, and Bernadette sighs.  Steve goes to the window and lifts the curtain to see that Bucky is sitting in the car, motionless.  He wonders if Bucky even put the keys in the ignition.

Once their car is gone from sight, Bucky hefts the driver’s side door open and climbs out. His movement is sluggish, as though bone-weary. He clicks the alarm and shoves his hands back into his pockets as he approaches the front door.

“Just lay it on me,” he sighs. “How’d it go?”

“Do you want to hear about it, or talk to the girls first?” Steve asks with a smile.  He holds up the card and Bucky’s eyes widen.  He practically snatches it out of Steve’s fingers, and he’s dialing his cell phone before the screen door swings shut behind him.

“Williams residence,” comes the polite, formal greeting.  It’s loud enough for Steve to hear it when he leans against Bucky’s back and wraps his arms around his waist.  Bucky presses his lips together then takes a quick, steadying breath.

“Yes… this is James Barnes. My sisters, Nicole and Tracy, are staying with you?  Their caseworkers gave me your number so that I could speak to them?”

“Oh, of course.” The woman on the other end of the line seems nice enough from what Steve can hear of her voice. “I have to put you on speaker phone; did they explain that to you?”

“No, but it’s fine. I don’t care so long as I can talk to them,” Bucky answers, bouncing anxiously on the balls of his feet. He angles his head toward Steve. “I’m gonna put you on speaker too.”

They hear the sounds of the woman moving through a house, and she knocks lightly on a door.

“Girls?” she asks.  “It’s your brother James.  Do you want to talk to him?”  She phrases it like it’s actually a question, and maybe in her mind it is.  Steve has no idea what, if anything, CPS told the foster family about Bucky.  

The girls answer her question by screaming, and it’s as loud and disconcerting as Steve remembers.  He laughs as Bucky manages to look both exasperated and overjoyed at the same time.  

“Bucky!” Nicole squeals.  Steve hears a scuffle and the measured voice of Mrs. Williams promising the girls that the phone’s on speaker, no need to shove. Tracy greets him a moment later just as enthusiastically, and Steve remembers that the last time they saw each other, they were at each other’s throats over missing the bus and wanting to stay home from school again.  There isn’t a trace of that argument now.

“Hey kiddos,” Bucky answers, closing his mouth abruptly to keep his voice from shaking. He presses his fingertips to his closed eyes. “I’m sorry this happened the way it did. You know I wouldn’t just let someone take you… I’m doing everything I can to fix this, okay?”

“Okay,” Tracy says.  She sounds completely trusting, like if Bucky promises her something, it must come true.  

“What are you doing?  How much longer will we be here?” Nicole asks.  She’s a little more mature than her sister, and she needs more than a promise.

“We have a lawyer that’s trying to get Steve approved for you living at his place until I can get full guardianship.” The tone Bucky’s using is soft and reassuring; it’s the same one he used in the car after Valentina’s death. “He’s here if you want to say hi.”

“Hi girls,” Steve says into the phone.  The girls squeal his name, and it’s sweet.  

“Steve, is Bucky okay?” Nicole asks.  Bucky rolls his eyes, but it makes Steve’s chest tighten up.  

“He’s really worried, but he’s okay,” Steve assures her.  “How are you two?  Do you like where you’re staying?”

“No,” Tracy blurts, and Bucky hands Steve the phone so he can rub at his face. This is killing him, but they have to stay as positive for the girls as possible.

“It’s not home,” Nicole amends, quick to right what she obviously feels was a rude comment by Tracy. “The Williams are being really nice, but we want to come home. How long, Steve?”

“We don’t know yet, but we just had a meeting with some caseworkers.  They walked through my house to see if it would be an okay place for you two to live temporarily while we work on getting you back home to your apartment.  So we all have to be patient, even though it’s hard.”  

Bucky holds his hand out and takes the phone back.  

“So even if you don’t like it, Trace, are you okay there?  Are you going to school?  Are you eating enough?  Did they make you watch ‘Back to the Future?’”  Steve looks at Bucky oddly.  That’s a strange list of questions.  

“No, we haven’t had to watch ‘Back to the Future,’” Nicole clarifies.  “We got put into a different school, but it has a bigger gym.  And obviously there’s food, Bucky.  But Tracy’s being picky,” she tattles.

“Trace, don’t be a pain, okay? These people are doing a good thing, even though you don’t want to be there. Behave, okay? Be respectful.” He starts chewing on the edge of his thumb, his eyes darting around the front room. His brain is obviously going a mile a minute.

“We didn’t know that you got put into a new school.  Can you tell us more about it?” Steve asks when Bucky doesn’t say anything else.  The girls launch into an account of the new people they’ve met and how their schedules and classes are different.  Tracy seems to miss her old school, but Nicole’s enthusiasm is impressive.

Eventually, Mrs. Williams cuts in to let them know that the girls need to help her get dinner ready.  Bucky snorts at that, probably picturing Tracy attempting to “cook,” and Steve says his goodbyes.  

“Я люблю тебя,” Bucky tells the girls, and they say it back with slightly more stilted pronunciation.  Steve disconnects the call when none of the Barnes siblings seem able to, and he tucks the phone back into Bucky’s pocket as he pulls himself away to go bring Zola back inside.  

“So, what’s up with ‘Back to the Future?’” he asks when he returns to the front room and Bucky is sitting pensively

“It’s code,” Bucky mutters, propping his elbow up on the arm of the couch so he can massage the bridge of his nose. “If they told me they watched it, or wanted to watch it, or somehow brought it up, it means they need help but can’t say it directly.”

“Wow. That’s really smart,” Steve tells him.  Bucky shrugs.  “No, that’s really smart.  You’re constantly thinking of ways to keep them safe.”  He wonders what Bucky would’ve done if Nicole had used the code, but he doesn’t ask.  

“That’s my job,” Bucky tells him somberly. “That’s what I’m supposed to do, except I feel really fucking helpless right now.”

Steve sits next to him and drapes an arm over Bucky’s shoulders.  He searches his mind for something that will distract Bucky from the come-down after the euphoria of the phone call.  

“It’s really hot when you speak Russian,” he offers.  

Bucky actually busts out laughing. “It wouldn’t be if you knew how shitty my Russian actually is. I sound very American compared to my grandmother.”

“Are you fluent?  Can you translate books and movies for me?” Steve asks with a grin.

“Nah,” Bucky chuckles with a shake of his head. “Hell no. I catch more when I hear it spoken, but reading it’s not my strong point. Nanna tried though. I only kept what I have because I hear it every day. Natasha’s been trying to teach the girls. They might actually know more than me, but their pronunciation is worse than mine still.”

“That’s really impressive,” Steve says honestly.  Bucky laughs again.  “No, it is.  All I have is three years of conversational Spanish in high school.  I can maybe order Mexican food, and that’s it.”

“I want to to hear you trying to speak some Spanish,” Bucky snorts. “I guess I want the girls to have some of their heritage. Maybe I’ll get them one of those Rosetta Stone things. They’d be all over it, I think.”

“You should start teaching me some phrases,” Steve smiles. “I’ll probably be horrible at it, but I like the thought of talking to you and the girls in Russian and becoming a secret spy family.”  

Bucky can’t seem to catch his breath, and Steve congratulates himself on an excellent distraction.  He notices that it’s time for them to start thinking about dinner too, and he kisses Bucky’s forehead as he slips off the couch.  

“Te amo,” he says into his skin before going to the kitchen and analyzing the leftover options in the fridge.

“What’s that mean?” Bucky asks as he pulls himself from the couch. He follows Steve and steps behind him to slip his hands into Steve’s pockets.

“It means we have no food.  Where do you want to go?” he asks.

“Bullshit, c’mon,” Bucky laughs, though he does pickpocket the keys. “What’d you just say to me?”

“How do you not know what ‘te amo’ means?  Have you never watched a Spanish soap opera?” Steve teases, snatching the keys from Bucky as they leave the house.

“Uh, that would be a big, fucking no,” Bucky grimaces, “but now you’re dodging me again, and you haven’t done that since I started trying to get into your pants, Doc. Now it’s become my mission to find out.”

“So google it,” Steve smirks, clicking the alarm off of the Outlander.

“Oh that’s just fucked up!” Bucky flops down into the passenger seat. When Steve’s situated, Bucky grins over at him. He moves quicker than Steve’s ever seen him move before, and Bucky retreats triumphantly with Steve’s smart phone in his hand. He wakes up the iPhone and taps the face.

“Siri,” he asks sweetly, “what does ‘te amo’ mean?”

“‘Te amo’ is the Spanish translation for, ‘I love you,’” Siri says calmly.  Bucky stares at the phone, and then he turns to glare at Steve.  He’s smiling through the glare, so the effect is a little lost.  

“You fuckin’ nerd,” he accuses.  Steve laughs, and Bucky continues to act aghast.  “I can’t believe you just used the Spanish language to make a move on me.  And you say I’m sneaky.”  

“You said you wanted to hear me speak Spanish,” Steve shrugs.

He backs out of the driveway, grinning, and Bucky doesn’t give his phone back.  A few minutes on the way to the diner Bucky likes, Steve hears Bucky mumble something at him.

“Я люблю тебя,” he says quietly, like he’s hoping Steve won’t hear him.  

“What’s that mean?” Steve asks innocently.  

“It means I want cheese fries with my burger,” Bucky informs him.  

“No it doesn’t. I just heard you say that to your sisters, like, ten minutes ago,” Steve laughs.  “Unlike you, I can read context.”

“More code,” Bucky deflects, squirming in his seat.

“Why are you hiding your feelings behind the Russian language?” Steve demands.  And despite the earlier CPS hell, it’s a good moment.

“Uh, because you started it?”

It’s hard to tell if Bucky’s blushing, but his shy smile leaves no doubt about where he stands on this turn of events.



Steve is elbow-deep in boxes of medical supplies when his cell phone starts ringing, Clint Barton’s name flashing across the display. He sets his inventory sheet and packing lists aside, his hands almost trembling as he connects the call.

“What is it? What’s gone wrong now?”

It’s been a hellish three weeks of jumping through flaming hoops for CPS, and Steve is just as exhausted by it as Bucky is. They were given a list of modifications for Steve’s house, including specific carbon monoxide detectors, fire extinguishers in specific locations, and new screens on several windows. Bucky had taken it upon himself to oversee the changes so Steve wouldn’t have to keep leaving work.

“Oh, nothing major,” Clint answers him with a tone that sounds epically bored. “I was just calling to find out when you wanted to go pick the girls up and get them moved in with you. I can call back later though, if you’re busy.”

Steve almost drops the phone into a box of tongue depressors.   

“Now’s good,” he says breathlessly, already getting to his feet and thinking about how he can postpone or gift Sam his remaining two appointments today.  

Sam saves him the trouble of tracking him down by stepping into his path as he leaves one of the exam rooms. He takes one look at Steve and rolls his eyes.

“Let me guess… I’m getting more patients,” he huffs sarcastically. “There’s not enough coffee in the world, Rogers! I’m gonna start billing you instead of the patients!”

“Coffee and your paperwork, promise,” Steve tells him as he hurries into his office and makes the changes on his computer.

“What’s it now?” Sam asks.  His annoyance is warring with his curiosity.  

“I am now, apparently, a court-appointed legal guardian,” Steve says with a grin.  Sam snorts.  

“Jeez, did you tell them about the cacti you kept buying for the office and then killing? Cactus plants, Steve. No one kills cactus plants but you. It’s traumatic to watch.”  Steve brushes past  him as he heads for his car.  

He calls Bucky as he drives to find out where he is.  Steve’s going to get the girls right now regardless of Bucky’s schedule, but if he can, he wants to bring him along.

“Yes, my own?” Bucky answers his phone with the most ridiculous voice. Clearly he’s not around his crew.

“You busy right now?” Steve asks.

“Yes, I’m screwing…your wall outlet back in place,” he teases, though there are a couple low grunts to indicate he’s really at the house and wielding tools.

“Come for a drive with me,” Steve asks.

“Uh… now? Why aren’t you at work?” Bucky drops the leering and sounds confused. “I really do have parts of your wall everywhere.”

Steve wonders when he’ll stop learning new things about Bucky.  Apparently, he’s very good at home improvements and minor electrical work.

“Forget the wall,” Steve orders. “I need some facetime.”

“You’re so bossy sometimes,” Bucky gasps, feigning irritation.

“I’ll be there in three minutes,” Steve says cheerfully.  He hangs up before Bucky can reply.  

More like five minutes later, he’s pulling up in front of the house.  Bucky comes outside and spreads his arms in the universal ‘what the fuck?’ gesture.  He’s wearing jeans and one of Steve’s Giants hoodies, and he’s covered in little flecks of plaster.  

“Where are we going? Should I change my shirt? I’m covered in shit, Steve!” The protest is almost full-blown whining as he approaches the car.

“Uh, yeah, go change real quick,” Steve suggests.  He doesn’t know if it’s okay that he’s bringing Bucky, but he’s going to do it anyway.  He doesn’t, however, want Bucky to inadvertently make a bad impression.

Bucky comes back a few minutes later wearing a long-sleeved blue t-shirt that makes his eyes look even bluer.  Steve’s mouth waters, but he’s too excited to act on it.  He backs out of the driveway and heads for the CPS office on Bedford Avenue.  They’ve become very familiar with it over the past few weeks, but he deliberately takes a few extra turns to throw Bucky off the scent.

“Where are we going?” Bucky huffs again.  “I hate surprises.  What are you up to?”

“Just wait a minute,” Steve pacifies him.  “You’ll like it.  It’s a good surprise.”

“The fact that I’m trusting you on this should tell ya how much I love you,” Bucky pouts, tapping his knee in that nervous rhythm Steve knows well by now. “You’re an ass, though.”

A few minutes later, his expression shifts suspiciously. They’re back in familiar traffic, and the tapping at Bucky’s knee picks up its pace.

“Uh Steve…?”

Steve can’t get his grin under control, but at least now, he doesn’t have to show a blank face.  He turns onto Bedford, and Bucky whips his head to look at him.  

“Are we… Am I gonna get to visit with the girls finally?” His voice is so small in the cab of the Outlander that it makes Steve’s heart hurt. He reaches over and grabs Bucky’s hand, bringing it up to his mouth so he can kiss the back of it.

“No, Buck, we’re here to take them home,” Steve beams, but then amends quickly, “Well, my house at least. Think that’ll do for now?”

Bucky gapes at him and then explodes.  “When did Clint call?  Why didn’t you tell me?” he demands.

“He literally called right before I called you,” Steve laughs, squeezing his hand. “I thought, for once, it’d be nice to get a surprise that was good news.”

He finds a parking space that feels miles away from the building, and Bucky looks like he wants to bolt.  He flips the visor down and looks in the mirror, smoothing his hair and trying to rub a smudge off his face.  

“Should I be in a suit or something?  Shit, Steve, you couldn’t have told me??”

“There wasn’t time for that, and Clint didn’t say anything about it being necessary,” Steve reassures him as he pulls his keys from the ignition. “He didn’t say you shouldn’t be here, so there was no way I wasn’t bringing you with me.” He shoots Bucky a devious grin.

“Don’t think we won’t be talking about how disappointed I am that you had to ditch the construction guy look, though. If the situation were different, you’d be on your back in my bed right now,” he promises, and the comment has the desired effect of easing some of Bucky’s nervous tension.

“You just like me in your Giants hoodie,” Bucky, the Jets fan, accuses with a smile.  He gets out of the car and follows Steve up the cracked sidewalk and into the Brooklyn CPS office.

It’s chaos inside, as usual, and Steve leads the way to Bernadette’s area.  He hears Clint’s voice before they turn the corner, and they round the cubicle fortress to see the girls sitting in folding chairs while Clint and Bernadette look at something on her computer.

Tracy spots them first, and she punches her sister’s arm before jumping up and flying into Bucky’s chest. He picks her up as he’s hugging her, his face pressed into her hair.

“Hey kiddos,” he chokes as Nicole wraps her arms around his waist from the side. “Missed you like crazy.”

“We were worried about you,” Nicole hiccups as Bucky squats down to pull them both close. “We’re not gonna have to leave again, right?”

Bernadette sighs audibly, like she gets it but she wishes that Steve and Bucky would just follow the damn rules.  Steve steps forward and shakes first Clint’s hand, then hers, because he’s the official guardian now.  He’s sure that there’s a mountain of paperwork he has to fill out while the girls have their reunion with Bucky.  

“What do I need to-” His voice stutters as he’s hit from behind. He looks down, and Tracy is squeezing him from behind like a spider monkey. “Hey you,” he grins as he turns and hugs her tightly.

“Thanks, Steve,” she sniffles, looking almost as uncomfortable about letting tears show as her brother does.

“You don’t have to thank me for anything,” Steve tells her. He’s acutely aware of the eyes on them, so while there’s a million things he wants to say to reassure her, he keeps it simple. “I’m always going to look out for you girls.”

Bucky has Nicole tucked under his chin now, and she smiles at Steve without leaving the safety of her brother’s arms.  Tracy drifts back to them and starts making demands about going back to her old school while Steve turns back to Bernadette.  

“What do I need to sign?” he asks with a smile. Clint half-rolls his eyes behind Bernadette, and that’s how Steve knows that the answer is a lot.

“You remember buying your house? Not quite that much, but close enough.” He glances over to the Barnes family, then back to Bernadette. “There’s a waiting room in the back. Mind if they go back there rather than sitting on the floor? Can we maybe take the paperwork back there?”

“Paperwork stays here along with Steve,” Bernadette tells him with a shake of her head, “but go ahead and show them back. I don’t have enough chairs or room here.”

Steve gives Bucky a reassuring smile as Clint gestures for them to follow him. “I’ll see you in a bit.”

They make it out of the office before it starts to get dark.  Clint says goodbye to them, and Bernadette reminds Steve that they’ll be dropping by to check on things.  

The girls don’t have much because CPS had taken them directly from school, but Steve and Bucky had been able to send some things via Bernadette.  They each have their backpacks, and there’s a suitcase of shared clothes between them.  Steve takes the suitcase as they walk to the car, and he’s already planning to stop by Bucky’s apartment so they can pick up more things.

They’re in the car about ten minutes when Nicole speaks up finally. “Bucky…?”

“Yeah?” he turns and looks back at her with warm, contented eyes.

“Can we help you cook now?  We learned some stuff.  Mrs. Williams liked the Food Network a lot.”

“Not me!” Tracy scowls across the seat at her sister. “I don’t wanna cook, Nicole! It’s boring!”

Nicole ignores her, but amends, “Can I help you cook from now on?”

“Sure you can, sweetie,” Bucky smiles at her in the rearview mirror.  “Tracy, you can hang out with Steve, because he doesn’t know how to cook either.”  

“Maybe you’ll be able to cube mushrooms better than me, Nicole,” Steve chuckles, remembering his sheer panic over Bucky’s culinary terms.

“Anyone could cut mushrooms better than you, Doc,” Bucky teases lightly. “S’okay though. We’ll still keep ya.”

They get back to Bucky’s place, and the awed way that the girls tiptoe inside reminds Steve that it’s been over a month since they were home.  The novelty wears off soon, and within minutes, Bucky and Tracy are arguing about how she doesn’t have to take everything in her closet, because she’ll be able to visit and switch things out.  Nicole diligently packs up what looks like an entire box of makeup and hair care products, and Steve realizes that he’s never going to see the counter in his hall bathroom again while they’re living with him.  

They take some DVDs and books, and then they finally seem ready to head out.  Steve looks over the living room and sees the pillow and hastily-folded blanket draped over the couch arm.  Bucky’s been staying with him several nights a week, but he’s been going back to the apartment more often than not.  It’s partially for work, and partially because he’s not allowed to move into Steve’s when the girls are there, so he didn’t want to get used to Steve’s house.  

The idea that Bucky’s still been sleeping on the couch even with two empty bedrooms is heartbreaking.  If the girls pick up on it, they don’t say anything, and Bucky herds them out the door soon after.

“Can we get pizza for dinner?” Tracy gives Steve a pleading, pitiful look, and he realizes just how much trouble he might be in trying to ward off that kind of attack. His immunity to the collective Barnes charm has admittedly taken a hit over the past few months.

“We can do that,” Steve smiles, but he looks over to Bucky for confirmation.

“No,” Bucky answers, his expression neutral. “No pizza.”

“What? Why?” Tracy’s tone pitches into a loud whine. “We haven’t had pizza in forever! The Williams always cooked!”

“Because I want pancakes,” Bucky answers, raising his brows at her. Steve’s head snaps around to look at him, and he has to fight back a knowing grin.

“I have pancake mix and chocolate chips.  Oh, and bacon and fruit.  We can do brinner!” Steve says excitedly.  

Bucky’s brows raise higher as he stares at Steve. “I worry about you sometimes, Doc.”

There’s no mean tinge to his words, so Steve takes his exasperation in stride and beams into the rearview mirror. Internally, he’s making a mental note to always keep a can of Redi-whip on hand if Bucky’s okay with continuing Pancake Sundays at his place.

“You love that I’m a huge nerd.”

“I tolerate that you’re a huge nerd,” Bucky says.  He doesn’t even try to conceal his smile, and Steve knows he’s lying through his teeth.  

At Steve’s house, Bucky makes pancakes while Steve helps the girls move into the guest room.  He clears everything out of the closet and brings in some extra pillows, a desk lamp, and the beanbag chair from his childhood bedroom, retrieved last week from his mother with an accompanying line of questioning.  

“Can I put posters up?” Tracy asks, shrewdly looking at the walls and wrinkling her nose at the bland landscape above the bed.  

“Absolutely,” he allows. “Which reminds me… I have something for you two.” He leaves Tracy and Nicole blinking at each other as he goes into the front room. He pulls open the drawer on the end table on his side of the couch and takes his sketch pad out. He’s put his nights alone to good use lately, and he hopes the effort will be appreciated as he carefully pulls two sketches free. He quickly rolls them and ties drafting string around them before depositing the sketch pad back into the drawer. The girls are arguing about who gets which side of the closet, which boggles his mind a little.

“Here you go,” he calls to them, glad to be able to break up the discord. He holds out the scrolls almost sheepishly. “I did them last week.”

They suspiciously take the sketches.  Tracy shucks the the string off while Nicole unties it, and they open their sketches to reveal portraits of Adam Levine and Harry Styles.  They shriek, and Bucky comes to check on the rukus.

“Why are you screaming?” he asks.  “Don’t scream in the house.”

“We don’t have neighbors on either side of us,” Nicole points out.  

“Yeah, but you’ll annoy Steve.  What’s...what is that?” he asks confusedly, cocking his head at the sketch Tracy shows him.  

“Steve drew my love, Harry,” she sighs.  She looks at the sketch with dazzled eyes.  

“Wow.  That’s really, really good,” Bucky says.  He takes the sketch from her, not without difficulty, and looks at it.  “I didn’t know you could draw this well.  This is, like, professional.”  He hands the sketch back to Tracy’s grabby hands.  “But why’d you draw that putz?”  

Steve laughs and goes to find thumbtacks for the girls to hang up their drawings.  

“We can get frames for them later so they don’t curl,” Steve tells them as he walks down the hall, heading for the utility drawer in the kitchen.

Bucky follows him, his eyes rolling as more squeals erupt back in the girls’ new room. He leans against the counter and crosses his arms over his chest with a soft, awed smile.

“When did you do those? I’m over here all the time, and I don’t ever see you drawing.”

“I did them the other night when you were busy with work.  I draw a lot, usually when I watch TV or I’m bored.”

“You know what you’ve done now, right…?” Bucky arches a brow at him, catching his shirt hem as he moves past with the intention of bringing the thumb tacks to the girls. He gives it a gentle tug to swing Steve back around to face him.

“They’re as hopeless over you as I am now that you’ve gone and drawn those two idiots for them. You’re pretty much stuck with us now.”

“Uh,” Steve says as he looks into the front room that’s already colonized with the girls’ things.  “Stuck is good.  I was going for stuck.”  

Bucky quirks a smile at him and then goes back to the stove where Steve can smell something starting to char.  He takes the thumbtacks to the girls as he hears Zola start to beg.  

“They have chocolate, dog,” Bucky says apologetically.  Steve smiles at the interaction, and it doesn’t escape him that Zola is snarfing down a piece of bacon when he comes back to the kitchen.  

“Uh huh,” he chuckles, “here for twenty minutes and already sneaking bacon to the shyster dog… and after you scolded Tracy for that!” He still steps up behind Bucky and places a kiss to the back of his neck, though.

“Do as I say, not as I do,” Bucky retorts in his standard, smartass cadence. “Perk of parenting, Steve. Get familiar with it.”

Steve exhales and rests his head on Bucky’s shoulder.  For all intents and purposes, he does need to get familiar with parenting.  He’s not sure how long his temporary guardianship will last, and he honestly foresees some rough patches ahead as he and Bucky learn to navigate shared responsibility for the girls.  

The new dynamics are sure to come with some issues.  Steve will probably say yes to some things, while Bucky says no.  And the girls will undoubtedly play them against each other for maximum privileges.  It’s not going to be smooth, but if they keep having fun and trusting each other, it will work.  

Steve won’t let it not work.



Steve keeps the clinic open on Christmas Eve, because he can’t justify closing it two days in a row.  Sam doesn’t come in, and Peter only works in the morning, so it’s just him and a handful of patients in the afternoon.  There’s always a holiday emergency, and he ends up staying later than he’d intended to look at the onset of chicken pox in an unlucky family of six.  He offers advice to the parents and sends them on their way, itching but armed with a small bottle of pink Calamine lotion. He then turns off the lights and locks up.  

It’s dark and threatening to snow when he gets outside, and he wishes he’d remembered his scarf this morning.  The errant thought is why it doesn’t strike him as strange when a man approaches him in the parking lot with his face covered by a ski mask.  

The man pushes him against the side of the Outlander and draws a gun from his parka, poking Steve in the chest with it.  Steve’s already caught off guard by the shove, and his heart starts racing when he can feel the hardness of the gun through his coat.  

“Give me your wallet and your phone,” the man tells him, rushed.  Steve gulps.  Feeling unsafe is an occasional part of living in the city, but this is his clinic and his parking lot.  He’s never expected that anything could happen to him here, and the sudden fear consumes him for a moment.  He feels frozen, incapable of even reaching into his pockets like the man said.  

“Come on, fucking bougie,” the man prods him.  “This is for real.  Hand them to me, or you’re gonna need that clinic.”  

With shaking fingers, Steve draws his wallet out of his back pocket where it’s pressed against the car.  He gives it silently to the mugger while he opens his bag and starts to look for his phone.  

“You Steve Rogers?” the man asks a second later.  He’s flipped the wallet open to look inside, and he’s staring at Steve’s license.  Steve can’t see his face, but the man suddenly sounds uneasy.  

“Uh, yeah.”

“The doctor?”

“Yeah, this is my clinic,” Steve answers, his voice strained with trepidation and now confusion.

“Shit.  Fuck,” the man swears.  Amazingly, he pushes the wallet back into Steve’s hands without removing anything.  “I got no beef with the Russians, an’ I don’t want Winter on my ass.  I wasn’t trying anything on him.  Don’t hold this against me.”  

He pulls the gun back, and Steve has no idea what’s going on.  This is the most surreal moment of his life.  

The man turns and walks away, tucking the gun back into his parka.  He looks back at Steve, who can’t seem to get his muscles to push away from the car and walk around to the driver’s side.

When Steve’s brain comes back online, there’s a million questions colliding into each other. The man is afraid of the Russians, particularly Winter, whoever that is. He know there’s a lot Bucky doesn’t tell him, but Steve’s never heard him mention anyone called Winter. Whoever it is, Steve’s pretty sure he doesn’t want to meet him anytime soon.

Finally, he gets into the car and puts it in drive.  He’s full of adrenaline from fight-or-flight response, and it makes his hands shake against the steering wheel.  He quadruple-checks that his doors are locked as he drives, and he’s never been so glad to see his house.  

Bucky’d stayed with the girls today, and the house is alive with lights and voices when he walks in the door.  It’s nice to come home to people in the middle of things, instead of a dark house and Zola.  He smiles at Nicole when she greets him and pulls his coat off, draping it over a chair by the door. The strong scent of Douglas fir from the live tree they all picked out helps ground him as he sets his bag on the side table and away from Zola’s chewing tendencies.

He finds Bucky in the kitchen cutting vegetables, and he comes up behind him and holds on like he’s magnetized.

“Hey you,” Bucky murmurs quietly, surprisingly subdued. Maybe it’s because he’s got a knife in his hands, though that’s never stopped him from offering Steve a kiss before. “Rough day?”

“Mmm.  Yes and no,” Steve says as he inhales the spicy scent of Bucky’s shampoo.  “The clinic was pretty slow until the end.  But I almost got mugged outside, and it was scary.”

Bucky’s hands freeze, and he visibly tenses. He puts the knife down and presses his palms flat to the edges of the cutting board as he takes a long, slow breath. He’s silent at first, and Steve sees his jaw twitching. It’s strange to see his guard go up now that they’ve become a little ragtag family, and Steve doesn’t understand what’s going on.

“Wasn’t sure you’d tell me it happened,” Bucky mutters.

Steve frowns.  “Why wouldn’t I tell you?  And...you knew?  How?  It just happened.”

“Steve, I know everything that happens on Sasha’s turf, my area especially.” Bucky isn’t turning around, and it’s causing an anxious knot to form in Steve’s stomach. “Yakov called just before you got home.  News travels fast.”

“Well, I’m not as reconciled to violence as you are, Bucky,” Steve says.  The adrenaline is pushing him over to irritation when he can’t understand Bucky’s behavior.  He’s almost acting like he’s mad at Steve.  “Getting threatened at gunpoint is still pretty unnerving for me, so of course I’m going to mention it.”  

Bucky finally turns to face Steve, but his eyes stay averted. His head is dipped downward, and his shoulders aren’t squared. “Yeah, that won’t happen again. It shouldn’t have happened at all, but Leo’s an idiot.”

It’s not until Bucky’s facing him that Steve realizes he’s not angry at all. He looks more like a kicked dog waiting for the next blow.

“Uh, he sounded scared of the Russians once he saw my ID.  Do you work with a guy named Winter?”  

“Fucksakes,” Bucky growls under his breath and actually looks like he’s slumped more. He scratches nervously at his brow, clearly torn over how much to divulge to Steve.

“I don’t work with him. He’s me. Winter is my street name, and that dumb fuck should never be using it in front of someone not connected.”

“Oh,” is all that Steve can say.  He doesn’t know where Bucky’s hesitation is coming from.  It’s not like he’s ever heard the name before.  

He realizes, adrenaline still pushing him to conclusions, that the name must have some connotations he isn’t aware of.  He wonders briefly about the mythos surrounding the name, but then he gets distracted by more pressing questions.  

“So how did he know who I was?” he asks.  

“Everyone knows who you are,” Bucky answers quietly. “They know you’re not to be fucked with under any circumstances, ever.” Steve just stares back at Bucky without instant comprehension. It causes Bucky to finally meet his eyes.

“You’re under my protection Steve,” he sighs, his guarded eyes now gone completely cold. “Anyone fucks with you, they’re inviting me to come play…which won’t end well for them. Ever.”

It’s a sobering statement, and Steve can’t stop his eyes from flicking to the knife on the countertop.  This is a side of Bucky that’s flickered beneath the surface a few times, but he’s never been so nakedly threatening around Steve.  This is, Steve realizes, the side of Bucky that Sam sees, and that Rachel Leighton sees, and that so many other people superimpose over Bucky’s loving heart.  He considers Bucky from their perspective, and has a moment, he’s ashamed to admit, where a niggling doubt about Bucky’s presence around the girls worms its way into his head.  

Then he blinks, and it’s gone.  Bucky’s showing this side of himself to Steve, even though he doesn’t have to.  He’s in control of who he is at any given moment, and Steve knows with complete certainty that Nicole and Tracy haven’t seen this.  

He has, now.  It’s another layer of Bucky peeled back, and another new side of him.  Steve truly isn’t as reconciled to violence as Bucky is, so it unnerves him - but he can appreciate that it’s just one side.  It’s just one side, and he won’t make the same mistake that other people have made of thinking this one side defines Bucky.  He’s all of his good and bad parts.  

He sees Bucky’s nostrils flaring while he explores this train of thought, and he notices belatedly that Bucky looks afraid.  As steady as his words are, he’s looking at Steve like Steve is the threat here, and it hits him.

Bucky’s been living with the fear that Steve would finally “see him” and...and what?  Decide it’s too much?  Decide he couldn’t handle it?  Decide he wanted to be with another bland suburbanite without so much baggage?  

He pushes his nose against Bucky’s and closes his eyes.  

“Thank you for protecting me,” he whispers.  

Bucky tenses again, eyes wide but not trying to really look at Steve. They’re darting again, as his brain tries to absorb what Steve’s just said to him. When it does sink in, all the tension leaves him along with a loud huff of air from his lungs.

“Fucksakes, Steve,” he chokes and wraps his arms around Steve’s shoulders to hold him close. “You’re an idiot for not wanting out. Just… fuck...! Just be sure about this.”

Steve hugs him back and nods against his neck.  He hears one of the girls shuffle into the kitchen behind them.

“Um, I’m hungry,” Tracy says after a beat.  Steve pulls himself out of Bucky’s arms reluctantly and sees Bucky’s stance change.  His scary side dissipates, and a second later, he’s a brother again.  

“Well, dinner would go faster if I had some help,” he snarks at her.

“Dinner would go faster if you an’ Steve stopped sucking face,” she chimes back sweetly.

“You’ve never seen Steve and I ‘suck face,’” he complains as he turns back to the cutting board and resumes cutting the carrots into perfect cubes.  Steve wanders over to the oven and peers at the chicken cooking inside.  He’s suddenly starving too.

“I’m not stupid, Bucky,” she calls in a sing-song voice as she walks back into the front room, and Steve hears giggling ensue. He supposes, as careful as they are, that the girls are more savvy than he gives them credit for. He’s fine with how he and Bucky conduct themselves though, so he’s not planning on changing anything over some lighthearted teasing.

“What can I do to help, since we’re not allowed to do any face-sucking until the natives are fed,” he asks Bucky.

“You can get me a beer and coerce the natives into setting the table,” Bucky tells him.  “The food’s almost done.”  

Because it’s almost Christmas, Steve lets the girls off the hook and sets the table himself.  Bucky tells him that he’s spoiling them, and Steve doesn’t argue with that. It’s nothing compared to the spoiling they’re going to get when they open their presents tomorrow.  

 

 


Steve’s been listening to Clint read letter after letter of character reference for Bucky for the last half hour.  He has letters from the girls’ teachers and coaches saying that Bucky is an involved parent; letters from the management at the apartment complex saying that Bucky is clean and responsible; letters from Bucky’s former probation officers saying that he’s reformed; letters from community service organizers saying how helpful and responsible Bucky’s been over the past few months…

There’s over a dozen letters, and they’re all important to Bucky’s case.  But Steve’s read them before, and listening to Clint reading in monotone for thirty minutes is exhausting.  He’s on edge enough as it is.

Judge Stark holds his hand up and stops Clint before he can read the last three. “Okay okay, I get it Mr. Barton; your boy's gone angelic and found god and probably started a crochet circle. Fantastic. Outstanding. Round of applause.” He leans forward in his chair and folds his fingers together in front of him as he looks down at Bucky sternly over the top of his glasses.

“I also have a letter from the priest at Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church,” Clint says sweetly.  

“Oh I have no doubt,” Judge Stark scoffs, not bothering to look at Clint. “Let’s just get down to the real issue at hand here, shall we? The reason Mr. Barnes’s sisters were removed was based on his history as a violent offender and suspicion from a variety of sources that he is currently an alleged member of a Russian mob. We can’t prove it, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t keep the girls in a safer environment while we investigate.  Suspicion is enough to give me heartburn, especially given the nature of his previous offenses.”

“My client hasn’t committed a violent crime in over six years,” Clint argues.  “People do a lot of changing in their twenties.  22 is young and stupid; 28 is being a parent and a responsible adult.”

“Your client has been seen repeatedly in the vicinity of gang-related crimes and violence, Mr. Barton,” Judge Stark states flatly, shutting Clint down. “Once is a coincidence; five times is being involved in my book.  Cut the crap. I’m not going to argue the point here. What I’m going to say is that it’s grounds for me to deny guardianship. I’ll be perfectly frank about having more doubts than I’m comfortable with.”  

He turns to Bucky and speaks directly to him.  “You’re on some thin ice, Mr. Barnes. Paper thin. The second your name ends up in a formal police report about an assault, I’ll have proof to back up my gut instincts, and I will have CPS on your ass in a heartbeat. Are we perfectly clear on this?”

Bucky looks at Clint, and Clint gives him a nod.  

“Yes, absolutely,” Bucky says, too-loud in the small courtroom.  Tracy fidgets beside Steve.

“Okay, I’m signing off on guardianship only because they do seem to be thriving and doing well in school. Dr. Rogers’s presence is also appreciated as another level of stability and, let’s be blunt, legitimate income.

“You,” he points at Bucky.  “Will attend 40 hours of parenting classes.  You will submit a urine sample for drug testing every two weeks.  And you will be subject to random visits by CPS.  Are we clear?”  

“Yes,” Bucky answers again, relief welling in his eyes. “I’ll do whatever I need to.”

“Get out of the life then,” Judge Stark snaps as he looks down to sign papers. “Guardianship awarded to James Barnes with condition. Given the nature of Mr. Barnes’s hobbies, I’ll allow Dr. Rogers to retain his guardianship as well, in the event of Mr. Barnes becoming incapacitated, if all parties are agreeable? Yes? Good. Now get out of my court before I change my mind.”

Not needing to be told twice, they grab their coats and file out behind Clint.  Tracy bounces with excitement, and Nicole looks up at Steve and beams when he puts a hand on her shoulder.  

“That went well,” Clint congratulates them.  He’s already dialing his office and requesting that some paperwork be faxed over to the courthouse.  The girls hug Bucky as soon as the courtroom door closes behind them, and Steve takes his phone out to snap their picture.  

“No paparazzi,” Bucky tells him with a mock glare as he kisses Tracy’s head.  

“This is an important moment,” Steve argues.  Bucky rolls his eyes, but the girls pose and smile.

“Bucky, need your signature,” Clint says as he jerks his chin towards the clerk’s office.  Bucky pulls away and follows him.  

“Girls, stay with Steve,” he orders.  Steve nods at him as he leaves, and he motions to the girls to sit with him on a bench outside the clerk’s office.  

“So we’re going back to the apartment now?” Tracy asks a little sadly.

“I think so.  We’ll get your stuff and get you back home.  You’ll have the whole weekend to settle back in.”

Both girls fall silent, looking down at their folded hands. Tracy is biting her lips much like her brother and staying oddly quiet.

“You’ll still be around, right?” Nicole asks anxiously.  

“Of course,” Steve promises.  He doesn’t know what he did or said to make her think that’s not the case.

“No, will you be around like Bucky?” she clarifies.  “When we lived with you, Bucky was there everyday.  It was like we were still living with him.  But when will we see you?”

“I don’t wanna go back to the apartment,” Tracy whispers dejectedly.  “Your house is nicer.  And no one died there.”

That catches Steve completely off-guard. He expected them to be relieved about returning to what’s most familiar to them.

“You’re gonna go wherever Bucky is,” he reassures them.  “That’s what we’ve been fighting for - for you to live with Bucky again.  And I’ll definitely still be around.  I’ll let you in on a little secret,” he whispers conspiratorially.  “I’m pretty crazy about your brother.  I’ll be around a lot.”

“Then why can’t Bucky just move in with us?” Tracy cries, though no tears have fallen. The fact that she refers to herself, Nicole and Steve as a unit isn’t lost on him, and his heart clenches inside his chest.

He doesn’t know what to say to that.  They’ve been so busy building Bucky’s case that they really haven’t talked about what would happen when he won, but it does make sense.  As soon as she says it, Steve knows that he wants it, but he can’t say anything to the girls if he hasn’t even talked about it with Bucky.  

“That’s something for Bucky to decide,” he answers carefully.

“Have you asked him yet?” Tracy’s taken on the intent expression Bucky adopts when he’s demanding very specific answers.

“It hasn’t come up,” Steve states honestly. “We’ve been pretty busy trying to get this all cleared up so you wouldn’t be separated anymore.”

The girls look at him with puppy eyes, and he immediately looks at the mural on the wall across from him.  He will not fall victim to their charms without talking to Bucky first - because Bucky’s going to be furious if he thinks that Steve made this decision for him.  

“Ask him, Steve,” Nicole pipes up, backing her sister up with surprising firmness.

“Nicole, Tracy, this is is between Bucky and I.  Moving in with your boyfriend is a big step - let’s get things settled and then talk about it later.”  

“Don’t you want us there anymore?” Now Nicole’s eyes are shimmering with unshed tears and Steve wants to crawl under the bench and die a little. He runs his hand over his face and winces because he feels damned regardless of what answer he gives her.

Luckily, Bucky comes back at that moment.  He’s still grinning with victory, but his expression falls off when he sees the emotional state on the bench.  

“Woah, what’s going on?” he asks.  He turns to Steve first, but Steve has no idea where to begin with this.

“We don’t want to go back to the apartment, Bucky,” Tracy sniffles. Beside her, Nicole nods in agreement, and Steve slumps down a bit on the bench, completely at a loss. He doesn’t want Bucky thinking he’s behind this, but he doesn’t want him thinking he’s against it either.

“They have some concerns to address with you,” he finally says.  “I’ve been trying to stay out of it, but they’re, well... them.”

“So you’re steamrolling Steve,” Bucky grunts. “About what?”

“Why can’t you just move in with Steve so we can stay?” Tracy almost glares at her brother, but there’s real sadness behind it. Steve is suddenly painfully aware of the eyes around them.

“Hey, maybe we can talk about this in the car…? Without all the strangers giving us weird looks?” Steve mutters, knowing it can’t look great that the girls are on the verge of tears already.

“I literally just wrote our address on 40 forms,” Bucky tells the girls, nonplussed.  “And now you wanna move?”

“You didn’t ask us, and we thought we’d get to stay with Steve because we’re all happy there!” Tracy’s voice raises, and Steve stands up quickly.

“Car. Please?” He pleads again.

“I’m confused.  You can’t stay with Steve if I’m your legal guardian,” Bucky starts.

Tracy rolls her eyes like Bucky’s suddenly gone stupid. “So move in with Steve!” she barks. “Duh!”

“Okay,” Steve sighs and starts herding them all toward the doors. Tracy and Bucky going head-to-head is not something he wants on display in the courthouse hallway. At least the Outlander is fairly soundproofed.

“You, what’s your position?” Bucky says to Nicole as they leave.  Clint joins them and notices Steve’s red face.  

“Relax, Steve.  This is a family court.  I-want-to-live-there-not-here is a pretty common argument around here,” he says as he taps at his phone.  

“You didn’t move in with Steve before because CPS said you couldn’t,” Nicole tells him with caution underlining her tone. “Why can’t you move in now?”

Bucky shrugs and looks at Steve.  He’s much more calm about this than Steve had anticipated.  “Because I haven’t been asked yet,” he says.  

Both girls turn and cross their arms expectantly at Steve, and it’s a little eerie how they do things in perfect unison sometimes. Feeling like he needs to defend his own honor, he holds his hands up helplessly as they leave the courthouse. Clint cackles at the exchange and waves a hand behind him as he heads for his own car.  

“We’ve been busy! I told them we’ve been busy!”

“Uh huh.  It’s fine. Maybe talk about that down the road when our lease is up?” he says, letting Steve off the hook.  

Steve hadn’t stopped to think about their lease, and he’s kicking himself that he didn’t use it to deflect to begin with. A lot of this could have possibly been avoided.

“Yeah, your lease,” he sighs, relieved and disappointed at the same time. It’s a strange feeling. “I forgot about that.”

They get in Steve’s car and head back to his house.  The girls are still stewing, and Bucky’s looking over paperwork and complaining about the ridiculousness of the judge’s stipulations.  

“I mean, parenting classes.  Is he serious?  Those are for people like Valentina.  And drug-testing?  I’ve never had a single drug conviction.  He just threw anything he could think of at me.”  

“It does seem a little bit like overkill,” Steve admits, “but if you’re serious about doing whatever you have to, this is probably his way of testing that.”

“And Clint said they’ll definitely do two or three visits in the first month.  It’s hoop after hoop,” Bucky complains, but he doesn’t sound upset.  He’s still riding the high from winning his guardianship case, even if his sisters aren’t.

“It’d be better if they could visit at Steve’s,” Tracy mutters under her breath, not willing to stop flogging the dead horse yet.

“We know how to keep a clean house for CPS.  Remember that month we were on high alert, and we went through Val’s stuff every night to make sure she didn’t bring anything home?” he reminisces, refusing to engage with Tracy on the subject.  

They pull up in front of Steve’s house almost thirty minutes later, and the girls somberly climb out.  

“Go get your stuff together.  Steve can’t wait around all day to drive us,” Bucky tells them.  The girls head for the house, and Steve stays in the driver’s seat because Bucky doesn’t seem to be getting out either.  

“So when is your lease up?” he asks.  He wants to feel Bucky out before offering anything.  

“Our building’s month-to-month,” Bucky says, biting his lip and looking over at Steve.  “Not that they know that, though.  They have no idea how rent or utilities work.”

“Look, I didn’t mean to not ask you,” Steve starts.

“It’s fine, I wasn’t expecting you to,” Bucky interjects.  “You absolutely deserve to have your house back after everything you’ve done for us.”  He reaches out and rubs his thumb across the back of Steve’s hand.

“But I do kinda want you to stay.  All three of you,” Steve tells him.  

“Look, I’m so sorry they’re pushy,” Bucky laughs.  “They could guilt trip Mother Teresa.  I’m both annoyed and impressed at how good they are at manipulating.”  
“Bucky, I want you to move in at some point,” Steve says with conviction.  “It’s completely up to you when that is, but I want to put it on the table.”

“I don’t want this coming out of feeling obligated, Steve,” Bucky answers quietly. “You’ve done so much for us already…”

“You’ve practically been living with me anyway,” Steve points out, “and I’ve been stupidly happy with you there. The night that guy tried to mug me… Do you know how comforting it was to come home to the three of you there? What I’m feeling isn’t obligation, Buck. Not at all.”

Bucky looks at him and leans his head back against the headrest.  His thumb is still rubbing Steve’s hand, and they don’t say anything.

“I actually hate my apartment,” Bucky tells him finally.  

“Then don’t go back,” Steve shrugs. “We can let Clint handle the red tape.”

“It’s not that simple,” Bucky says, rubbing his temple with his right hand.  “I’m going to lose a lot of cred, cred that I rely on to do my job, if people learn that I moved in with a guy.”  

Steve’s torso sags into his seat as he realizes that he hadn’t considered that side of it at all. It’s been something they’ve sort of ignored beyond keeping their PDA to a minimum.

“Shit,” he huffs. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t really thinking about that… Does this mean it’s always going to be off the table then? We shouldn’t string the girls along if it is.”

“I didn’t say that it was gonna keep me from doing it,” Bucky says.  “Just that I gotta be prepared for some fallout.”

“Bucky, I want you here, more than I can even begin to say… but don’t do anything that’s going to put you in more danger than you already are sometimes. We can make the girls understand.” The rolling in Steve’s gut is painful as he tries not to think about Bucky being targeted because of their relationship.

“If something happened to me and they revoked my guardian status, but we lived here and you still had yours...then they probably wouldn’t grab the girls out of school and completely uproot them again,” Bucky says thoughtfully.  His eyes flick sideways with a hint of alarm.

“Not that I’m saying you’re a means to an end… The sugar daddy thing only goes so far, ya know?” He makes the joke to take the edge off their conversation, but it falls flat.

“I know I’m not a means to an end,” Steve reassures him with a long exhale. “So what should we do? I love you. I want you all here with me. Is that something we can manage somehow?”

Bucky exhales.  “Get the girls into a better neighborhood, more secure guardianship, and keep ‘em happy?  I think it’s worth the snide comments and kickin’ a few homophobic asses.”

That’s the part that worries Steve most. Bucky’s tough, but there’s always someone out there who’s tougher or just a little bit faster. “Can you lie? Can you tell Sasha it was this or lose them to foster care? I’ll play along with it if it makes things easier.”

“That’s good,” Bucky nods thoughtfully.  “That might work.  Except, if I move in, then I live here.  I will keep you out of my work just like I keep the girls out, but occasionally, someone’s gonna come by to talk to me, or they’ll come by with a car to get me.  If I live here, then people are gonna see things.  Maybe they’re smart enough to piece them together.  I do work with a buncha idiots, though.”

“Would they try to respect a little distance if you tell them you’re on shaky ground with the judge? I know it won’t stop altogether, but maybe keep it all to a dull roar?” Steve’s picking at any little thing he can grasp if it means they can make this work.

“Maybe.  Maybe not,” Bucky hedges.  “I’ll try whatever I can think of.  But, I think we could make this work.”  

He opens his car door, and Steve follows his lead.  

“Last chance to change your mind.  I’m gonna go tell them to stop packing and be the hero,” Bucky jokes.  

“Not a chance,” Steve tells him as he catches up to him and drifts his fingers over Bucky’s nape. “If you’re sure, so am I… but I may have to come in there and be a hero myself if they decide to kill you for making them pack and then changing your mind..”

“I guess I’ll use you as a human shield,” Bucky tells him.  He turns around to walk backwards, and he grins as Steve as they go into the house.  The sun is breaking through the overcast January day, and it makes the lingering piles of snow shine.  Bucky smiles at him, full of victory and optimism and love, and Steve is so unbelievably glad that Bucky doesn’t know how to stitch his own wounds.

Chapter Text

Steve’s parked on the couch in the living room staring at paint chips. Frankly, he’s baffled by the girls’ choices as he stares at some of the aggressively cheery pastels. He’s trying to make a convincing case against Hello Kitty Pink, but he’s not sure what he can say that won’t make him a huge jerk. Maybe he can steer them toward the pale blue with the overcoat of shimmer from the Disney line. At least Walmart didn’t have the neon shades the girls saw online.

His phone rings, and he sees that it’s Natasha.  She doesn’t call him very often, but maybe she’ll have some ideas for toning the girls’ choices down.  

“Hey,” Steve greets her.  “Tell me you can save me from Hello Kitty Pink paint.”

“Steve?  Are you at home right now?” she asks.  She sound rattled.  

“Yes,” he says, heart constricting.  There’s a universal tone for bad news, and Natasha is using it.  

“Steve, Bucky got shot today.”  He feels like all the air has been sucked out of the room, and he has to swallow several times before there’s enough moisture in his mouth to talk.

“How bad,” is Steve’s immediate inquiry, his doctor’s instincts saving him from the worst of his shock. He knows it has to be bad, otherwise Bucky would be calling him to be stitched up again.

“It was a shotgun. They got him just below his left shoulder… in the arm.”

“Oh Christ,” Steve breathes. “Did they take him to-”

“He’s at Columbia University Medical Center,” she says on a jagged breath.

So yes, it’s extremely bad. Steve’s off the couch instantly, paint chips flying off his lap. He picks up his keys on autopilot and heads for the Outlander. “I’m leaving right now,” he tells Natasha.

“What do you want to do about the girls?” she asks.  

Steve feels like an instant asshole because they hadn’t crossed his mind yet. “Please…can you pick them up from their friends’ house? I want to be there to talk to whomever’s treating him.”

“I can’t.  My dad was in the shoot-out too,” she tells him.  “But I can get someone to pick them up.”

“How about we let them stay there until I know more? I’ll call the McTiernans to see if it’s okay for them to stay a little later. Might be better if we don’t tell them until we know what’s going on?”

He’s feeling so out of his element that it comes out as a question. He’ll gladly defer to Natasha’s judgement.

“Steve, you can’t leave them out of the loop on this.  One of the other members’ children might tell them anyway.  It was big - the Dominicans made a territory move because they didn’t think a ‘homo’ was a threat, and we’ve got a lot of guys here hurt.”  

The information makes Steve sick to his stomach, and he fights back the urge to retch in his front yard. This is what he feared most when he and Bucky discussed this before. Guilt coldly creeps into his spine as he wonders if he shouldn’t have been so selfish in wanting Bucky to move in and effectively out himself.

“Should I go pick them up? Should they be there with me? I’m really lost here, Natasha.”

“I’ll send one of the prospective members.  Text me the address.”  

Steve can barely type on the screen of his iPhone with his hands shaking the way they are. He fires off the text and pulls the phone back to his ear. “Did that go through?”

“I got it.  Get down here,” she tells him, and then she hangs up.

Steve rubs his hands over his face and tries to collect himself enough to drive safely. He starts the engine of the Outlander and winces a little when he causes the tires to squeal on his way out of the drive.

It’s an agonizingly slow trip to Columbia UMC. Steve goes through phases of numbness, anger, and regret, all underlined by abject terror. By the time he jogs into the emergency wing, the physician side of his brain is taking back over enough to help him function.

“James Barnes,” he asks the nurse at the visitors’ check-in.

“I have two,” she answers flatly.

“Buchanan? James Buchanan Barnes? Shotgun wound?”

She types away on her keyboard then clicks a couple of times with her mouse. “He’s in surgery. You’ll need to wait in their waiting room,” she tells him in montone as she hands him a sticky visitor’s pass.

Steve follows her vague directions and jogs towards the surgical building.  In the waiting wing, he sees a tightly-packed group of  emotional family members taking up the chairs, walls, and floor space directly in front of the swinging ‘No Admittance’ doors.  Natasha seems to be in the middle of things, barking out orders and calming people down interchangeably.  

“Natasha,” he almost sighs in relief as he makes his way over to her.  Her eyeliner is smudged with tear tracks, but she looks composed and determined as he approaches.  

“Steve.  The girls should be here within twenty minutes.  We’ve had one fatality,” she nods to a woman sobbing openly with several people huddled around her sympathetically, “but the other victims are supposed to pull through.  At least, that’s what these bullshit doctors told us.  Can you play the doctor card and find out anything else?”

“Of course, yeah,” Steve nods, noting the way the woman beside Natasha is eyeing him. It’s not a welcoming look, but the woman doesn’t speak to him.

“Say you’re here for the Natalia’s Bakery shooting victims.  There’s six.”

He gives Natasha’s shoulder a squeeze and heads back to the nurses’ station outside the surgery. He takes a deep breath and introduces himself.

“Hi… Can you give me any kind of update on the men brought in from the bakery shooting? I’m actually a doctor in Brooklyn, and some of them in there are my patients. It would help a lot if I could give their families some layman translations and be a bit of a buffer here.”

“Do you have any identification on you, Dr…?” the nurse asks.

“Steve Rogers,” Steve supplies, pulling his wallet out. He finds his credentials and shows them to her.

“Dr. Rogers, one of the patients succumbed to his injuries twenty minutes ago.  He’s...Vadim Dubow, head wound.  The other five are in surgery.  It looks like two of them are labeled critical at the moment - Ivan Johnson and James Barnes. Ivan Johnson’s wound wasn’t that bad, but he’s having a reaction to the anesthetic. They’re trying to get that under control, but it is severe. ”

“What can you tell me about James Barnes? What’s the extent of the blast damage?”

“They haven’t updated yet,” she tells him apologetically. “Massive arterial damage when he came in. It’s looking like an amputation at this point, but that might have changed. You know how it is until they get in there to see.”

Steve thanks her in a daze, and he brings the news back to Natasha.  He tells her the general information, then pulls her close and tells her in a lower voice about Bucky.  

“How’s my dad?” she asks, wiping away tears with her thumb.  

“Who’s your dad?” Steve asks, a little thrown.

“Sasha.  Did they say anything about him?”  And suddenly, Steve gets why Natasha is running things at the moment.  

“They didn’t say anything specific, so he’s not critical.  Bucky and Ivan are.”  She touches his shoulder.  

“I’ll let Ivan’s parents and his wife know,” she tells him.  

Steve finds a seat not too far removed from the bakery group, and he sits quietly, playing the conversation he and Bucky had about the possibility of this over and over in his head.  He’s deep in self-recrimination when he hears the stomping of feet, and he looks up to see Nicole and Tracy running to him, wild-eyed.  

He stands up and intercepts the girls, pulling them against his chest and feeling their frantic pulses echo through his own veins.  

“His arm’s hurt bad,” he whispers.  “But his heart, his lungs, all of his internal organs are fine.”  It sounds more like good news than it really is.

“Is he gonna be okay, Steve?” Nicole sobs into his neck. Tracy is quietly hiccupping on his other side.

“He’s being taken care of by really excellent doctors,” Steve deflects, hating that he can’t make any promises to them. Things had settled into a smooth routine with the four of them. To have this happen now is tearing Steve up because the girls don’t deserve to have their world turned upside down again.

He gives up his seat so Tracy can sit next to Nicole, and he leans against the wall, pretending to watch the news on the rickety TV in the corner.  He has no idea what’s being reported, but it gives him something to stare at.  He’s spent enough time on the other side of emergency rooms to know that there’s a lot of staring involved for the waiters.  

Slowly, the bakery group starts to disperse as the victims come out of surgery and are shuffled to recovery rooms on different floors.  Natasha stays with them until her father is moved, and most of the remaining crowd seems to go with her to wait for their boss to wake up.  It’s just Steve, the girls, and the two men from the night of Valentina’s death left standing vigil for Bucky.

Around eight PM, a surgeon comes out and asks to speak with James Barnes’s family.  Steve identifies himself as Bucky’s partner and the girls as Bucky’s sisters.

“Okay, sort of good news first,” the surgeon begins, and Steve holds up his hand.

“I’m a doctor,” he mutters. “You don’t have to talk layman to me or blow smoke up my ass. Just tell me how he is.”

“Okay.” The surgeon gestures toward the seats and perches on the edge of the table in front of them. “Really severe arterial damage and nerve damage to his left bicep. Shot hit just below his shoulder socket, and I really thought we were going to have to take it. I was able to re-establish blood flow, but I’m not that optimistic about the nerve damage. You know the risks of him keeping a limb that he can’t feel, so if that doesn’t start to show improvement with intense therapy, it’ll be better to go back in and amputate.”

“Were any other specialists called in yet? Obviously, I want to explore any alternatives.”

“Wasn’t time,” the surgeon confessed, “but yeah… make all the inquiries you want. He’s going to need someone above even my pay grade at this point.”

Tracy and Nicole press against Steve again, and he puts an arm around each of them.  

“Amputate means cut off, right?” Nicole asks in a wobbly voice.  

“Yeah, honey, it does,” Steve answers her sadly, “but we’re not there just yet. It’s not certain.”

He turns his gaze back to the surgeon. “Thanks for talking to us. When can we go see him?”

“They’re getting him set up in ICU right now. Maybe a half hour? I don’t think I need to tell you it’s gonna look…” He shifts his eyes to the girls. “Lots of wires, and he’s got some shrapnel damage on that side of his chest. It will look a little scary, but he’s in stable condition now.”

“Thanks,” Steve says again.  The surgeon nods and walks away, and Steve doesn’t let go of the girls.  Tracy starts crying while Nicole just looks blank.  

“You two must be so hungry,” Steve says after a minute.  He doesn’t feel hungry, but his body must need to eat by now.  The surgeon’s news is incredibly bleak, but now they have a timetable.  Thirty minutes, and they can see Bucky.  Having a deadline galvanizes him, and he remembers that he still has emergency guardianship over the girls.

This is an emergency, and he’s not doing so well at taking care of them.  He can at least feed them before they get to see their brother.

“Not hungry,” Tracy mutters. Nicole shakes her head as well, but Steve can’t be dissuaded by that.

“I’m not either, but Bucky will lecture us all when he wakes up if we don’t go eat a little something, okay?” He gently dislodges them long enough to stand up. “C’mon, up you go.”

He pulls them both to their feet and guides them toward the elevator. If he can at least get them to split a sandwich, he’ll call it a victory.

On a spare thought, he turns to the two stragglers who are still waiting for Bucky.  “You guys want coffee or food?”  The men look at each other tiredly and then shrug.  

“Sure.  Coffee would be great,” one of them says.  Steve nods and nudges the girls again.  

In the elevator, he asks them who the men are.  

“Oh, those are our cousins,” Nicole says offhandedly.  Steve almost sputters.  Even after he’s been dating Bucky for almost a year, there are still things to learn about him.  

Tracy insists weakly that she’s old enough to drink coffee, so Steve chooses not to argue and gets one for her too.  He makes sure that it’s considerably diluted with milk.  He grabs several sandwiches, not caring who eats what, and pays for the food while they hover at his elbow.  

It ends up being almost an hour before they’re let in to see Bucky, and the nurses make it clear that, because none of them are immediate family over eighteen, they only have a few minutes with him.  The nurses try to limit the number of people who can go into Bucky’s room, but the girls ask to go first, and Steve plays the guardian card shamelessly.  

Bucky looks wan against the blue hospital sheets. Unlike the normal rooms, the light of the ICU is harsh and unforgiving even to healthy people. The bank of monitors to Bucky’s left side is intimidating to Steve’s experienced eyes now that their wires are buried in the man he loves. He can only imagine how terrifying they are to Nicole and Tracy, and when he looks down at them, that terror is readily apparent.

Nicole immediately begins to sob after hours of blank composure, and she grabs Bucky’s visible hand. Steve keeps Tracy close as he rubs Nicole’s back to soothe her as much as he can. Normally, he wouldn’t advise anyone to take children into an ICU with this severe an injury,  but now he understands why families still insist. There’s no way he can tell them they can’t see their brother because of red tape rules. He’s also painfully aware that he wouldn’t be able to come in to see Bucky either, were it not for the girls.

“Hey… shhhh, it’s okay. He’s not in pain. He doesn’t know any of this is going on. When he wakes up, they’ll have him on medication to keep him from being in pain, okay? He’s going to be alright.”

“Can I touch him?” asks Tracy.

“You can, but stay away from his arm and his IV,” Steve tells her softly.  She steps forward and puts her hand on Bucky’s chest, and they all watch, transfixed, as her hand goes up and down with Bucky’s breathing.  

Steve stands at the foot of the bed and picks up Bucky’s medical chart.  He reads over it, making mental notes, while Tracy starts to talk to Bucky about her morning.

“Steve said he doesn’t know this is going on,” Nicole says with an edge of annoyance.  

“You’re supposed to talk to people in hospital beds,” Tracy snaps back.  

Steve looks up from the chart and smiles faintly. “It’s okay to talk to him,” he tells them both. “He probably won’t remember any of it though, but it’s still good to do.”

The nurse comes back to escort them out, and Steve asks her when they expect Bucky to wake up.

“We’ll have him heavily sedated for a while,” she tells him, glancing at the girls. “It’s safe to go home and get some sleep. He likely won’t be aware until at least tomorrow afternoon.”

Steve already knows he’s not going to wait until tomorrow afternoon to come back. He doesn’t know if he can get anyone to stay with the girls, but he does intend to call Clint to find out what his rights are and if anything can be done to get him unrestricted access to Bucky while he’s in ICU.

The girls continue to squabble about trivial things on the drive home, burned out by the stress and needing an outlet for their emotions.  

“Girls,” Steve starts, but they talk over him.  “Girls!”  He doesn’t quite have Bucky’s authoritative tone down yet, but he’s getting there.  They stop mid-word and turn to look at him.  

“Trace, Nicole, you can’t let something like this turn you against each other.  You saw those families in the ER - you need to stick together instead of fighting right now. Bucky would want you two to look after each other,” he says with all the energy he can muster.  He sees their heads turn to look at each other in the rearview mirror, and then Nicole mumbles a low sorry.  After Tracy echoes it, they’re quiet the rest of the drive home.  

The couch is still covered in paint chips when they walk inside, and Steve wants to go back to that moment where the girls’ ridiculous color choice was the biggest worry on his mind.  He sends them off to get ready for bed, and he looks up Clint’s contact in his phone but doesn’t dial it yet.  

He gets the sense that he’s being watched, so he looks up. Nicole and Tracy are peering around the corner at him, not yet in their pajamas.

“What’s wrong?” he asks, his eyes drooping with exhaustion.

“Are you mad at us?”

“What…? No! Why would you think I’d be mad at you?”

“We didn’t mean to be fighting in the car,” Nicole answers him timidly. Steve still has so much to learn about how to navigate his role in their lives.

“No, don’t worry about it. Look…I just wanted you to pull together because this is when it’s most important. We’re a family, and we’re gonna get Bucky through this just like we fought to get you both back here. We stick together, no matter what, okay? I’m not mad. Just worried, is all.”

He gestures them over and gives them both tight hugs. “Now, go on and get ready for bed. I need to call Clint so those nurses don’t try to keep us out again… okay?”

“Okay,” Nicole says.  They go back to their room, and Zola follows them with his head cocked.  

Steve sits for another moment before he picks up the phone, and he just pictures Bucky lying in the hospital bed.  Then he mobilizes himself to be the temporary head of the family and calls Clint to get answers.  


Steve gets to the hospital at nine the next morning after taking a sick day at work and finding a friend’s house for the girls to go to.  He kisses them each on the forehead as he drops them off, and tells them that he’ll text as soon as there’s news.  Nicole tries to protest again that they should be allowed to go to the hospital, but Steve doesn’t want them sitting zombie-like in the waiting room all day again, so he drives away alone.  

When the nurse stops him at the desk again, Steve draws himself up to his full height and informs her that he has every intention of sitting with Bucky, and if she has any questions, she can call the number of the attorney on the card he hands her. She’s either too intimidated or too busy to put up much of a fight with him, especially when no one is currently in Bucky’s room. Steve pulls up a chair close to Bucky’s bedside and drops wearily into it. He leans over and takes Bucky’s right hand into his own, then slumps forward to rest his head against the mattress with his forehead against Bucky’s knuckles.

He pulls himself back upright when someone comes in to check on Bucky, and then because there’s been no change, he takes a picture of Bucky with his phone, making sure that nothing too grisly is visible.

He texts the picture to the girls with the caption, ‘Still asleep.’  Then he settles in again for the long wait.

It’s late afternoon when Steve rouses to the sensation of Bucky’s hand twitching against his face. He jerks upright, immediately watching for Bucky’s eyes to open.

“Bucky,” he calls softly, pushing the dark hair back from Bucky’s forehead. “Hey, can you open your eyes for me, baby…?”

Bucky’s eyes shift under his eyelids, and his sleep-gummy lashes flutter slightly. Steve strokes his temple with a gentle caress, and he finally sees a narrow slit of ice blue.

“Hey, there you are,” Steve smiles as he steps into Bucky’s line of sight. It’s hard to tell how aware he is yet,  but Steve wants to keep as much discombobulation at bay as he can.

Bucky groans and closes his eyes, and Steve waits it out.  Almost ten minutes later, he starts to blink again.  

“Hi Bucky.  It’s Steve,” he tries again.  Bucky’s eyes lock onto him, but he doesn’t say anything.  “Okay, you shake off the sedation,” Steve tells him as he pats his chest.  He stays awkwardly hovering where Bucky can see him as he snaps another picture and sends it to the girls.  

‘Waking up.  Very groggy and confused; I’ll let you know when he’s talking,’ the caption reads.

Steve’s waiting to see if Bucky registers the bindings on his arm. They’re huge, and the arm is cushioned, but it’s more the sensations he’s concerned by. Depending upon how Bucky’s body metabolizes pain medication, he’ll either feel little or he’ll start feeling a deep, uncentered pain.

Bucky groans again and licks at his bottom lip, his tongue moving slowly. He frowns and flutters his eyes Steve’s direction. “I’ll get you some ice chips in a minute if you want,” Steve offers. “You probably feel like you’ve got a wad of cotton in your mouth, huh?”

Bucky makes another indiscriminate noise, and Steve presses the button to call the nurse.  She comes in a moment later and sees that Bucky’s awake.

“I’ll go get his doctor,” she tells Steve.  It’s a little odd to hear someone else referred to as ‘Bucky’s doctor,’ but Steve stretches and waits.  He doesn’t know this doctor when she walks in, but she shakes his hand and tells him that she’s been watching Bucky since the early hours of the morning.  

“Hi, James,” she calls to him. “I’m Dr. Monahan. Can you tell me how much pain you’re in? 1- 5…?”

Bucky keeps flicking his lashes, his brows furrowed as he drags himself out from under the sedative enough to find words again. Dr. Monahan is looking over his vitals on the monitor and pulling the cover from his injured arm. The upper bandages show a tinge of red, but Steve expects that. A nurse will be in soon to change out the bandages.

“James…?” she calls again. Her tone is patient and encouraging. “Can you say something for me?”

Bucky’s eyes focus in on her, still frowning. “S’mthin,” he rasps, and she smiles.

“Good. Wanna try again now…? From one to five, five being really bad, how much pain are you feeling?”

“Four…?”

“Okay, we’ll get something for you to help with that alright?” She sets the blanket back down and looks up at Steve.

“Hear you’re a doctor,” she begins. “Skin tone is good, so there’s circulation still. We’ll keep a close eye on it.”

“N’fliti’” Bucky mumbles, fixing her with a glare.

It takes Steve a second to realize what he said, but once it does, it’s a huge relief. “Hey, you want the flirting to stop, you have to get your ass back in shape and stop getting hurt.”

Dr. Monahan conceals a smile behind her hand and makes a show of taking a step away from Steve.  

“I was going to grab him some ice chips, if you need to check anything else?” he offers.

“Just the shrapnel wounds,” she answers. “Won’t take but a minute.”  She gently pushes the blanket down Bucky’s chest and peels back his hospital gown, biting her lip while she looks at the wounds on his chest and then his shoulder.  Steve hasn’t really looked at those yet, so he inches around the bed to look over her shoulder.

None of the wounds will amount to much individually, but the spray pattern they form will definitely make for an intimidating web of scarring. He’s going to end up looking like someone flicked a crimson-filled paint brush at him for quite a while.

She manoeuvres back to Bucky’s medical chart and makes a few notes with the pen clipped to her hospital ID, and then she leaves with a small smile to Steve.  

“He should continue to gain lucidity.  Get him those ice chips, and keep him company,” she advises.  

“I’ll be right back,” Steve tells Bucky.  He leaves the room and goes to the nurses’ station where he politely asks for a cup of ice chips.  He returns to see Bucky trying to raise his head and staring down at his arm with panicked confusion on his face.

“Hey, easy,” Steve murmurs, keeping his voice calm. “You did a number on yourself and you need to just try to rest, okay?”

“M’arm,” Bucky gasps, not calming down yet. Steve sets the chips aside and coaxes Bucky’s face to turn toward his own.

“Do you remember what happened to you?”

Bucky’s eyes flick sluggishly around the room. “Shot…”

“Yeah. They got you pretty good, Buck,” Steve tells him, not seeing the point in sugar-coating anything. “Your arm was hit bad, so it’s all wrapped up. Are you feeling any pain from it?”

“Aches.”

“Okay, that’s normal. Dr. Monahan was going to send a nurse in with a slightly different pain medication than what you’re on.”

Suddenly Bucky’s eyes zero in on him and they’re terrified. “Girls…?”

“The girls are at their friend Brandi’s house.  I’ve been texting them updates, but we’ll Facetime them in a few minutes to let them know you’re more awake now.  They were here last night, and we were all really worried about you,” he says softly.

Bucky swallows hard and tries to shift. It’s a restless move coming more from his emotional state than being in any serious overall pain. People always emerge from anesthesia and heavy duty painkillers more emotional than they would otherwise be.

“Back t’the futr?” he stammers, his brain still a bit scrambled.

“No, none of that,” Steve reassures him. “No one’s watching ‘Back To The Future,’ okay? They really are at their friend’s. Everything’s fine there, Buck. Don’t worry.”

Bucky’s still agitated, but he doesn’t seem to be able to string together the words he wants.  Steve takes a few ice chips from the cup and gently tips them into Bucky’s mouth.  

“Here.  Chew on these, or suck on them.  The sooner you get more cognizant, the sooner we can call the girls and you can see that they’re fine,” he promises.  Bucky chomps loudly on the ice, and Steve runs his fingers through Bucky’s messy hair while watching the monitors beep around them.  

When Bucky’s gone through half the cup of ice chips and is able to ask, “Call th’girls now?” Steve makes the call.  

Bucky had told him before the twins’ birthday in May that they hated getting the same gift, so after consulting with both girls, Nicole had wanted a North Face jacket while Tracy had wanted an iPhone.  It’s a godsend now that he can video call Tracy and let Bucky look at their relieved, enthusiastic faces.  

“Bucky!” Tracy shrieks.  Nicole pushes her face into the picture and echoes her sister.  

“Hi babies,” Bucky mumbles.  Steve angles the phone so they can see Bucky better and speaks from off-screen.  

“Hi girls.  Bucky’s been waking up slowly, and he’s finally talking.  He was worried about you - wanted to make sure you were safe?”

“We’re safe, Bucky,” Nicole reassures him.  “We’re at Brandi’s.  We’re watching One Direction clips on YouTube.”

“Sounds fun,” Bucky tells them.  It’s a good sign that his sarcasm is coming back.  

“Can you tell him what we’ve been doing while he was unconscious?” Steve asks.  

“A friend of Natasha’s brought us to the hospital,” Tracy says.  “And it’s huge.  We waited forever with a bunch of family friends, and then they let us see you.  You were drooling,” she informs Bucky.  

“Then we went home.  Well, we had a fight, and we went home,” Nicole picks up the story.  

“Who ha’a fight?” Bucky asks her blearily, but on the scent of trouble.

“Me and Tracy.  Steve told us not to.  And we went home, and it sucked because you weren’t there,” Nicole finishes.  

“When are you coming back?” Tracy whines.  

“It’s going to be a while, but Bucky’ll be in a normal room soon, then you’ll be able to visit him easier,” Steve fields.  

Bucky’s eyes shift to Steve, and he can sense the question there. Steve just shakes his head and whispers, “I’ll tell you the rest when we hang up.”

“Okay girls,” Steve calls brightly, “let’s let Bucky get some rest, okay?”

“Okay, bye!” they say in unison.  “Я люблю тебя,” Nicole adds.  

“I can’t Russian right now,” Bucky tells them, his words still somewhat garbled.  Steve says goodbye to the girls and hangs up, still smiling at their antics.  

“What’sa rest?” Bucky asks almost immediately.  He’s having trouble keeping his eyes open, but they’re still focused on Steve.  “CPS,” he says after a minute.

“No, not CPS.  I know you’re used to thinking about them before you think about yourself, but you’re the one in trouble right now, Buck.”  

He offers Bucky more ice chips; Bucky ineffectually tries to bat away his hand.  

“You’re in ICU, and it was nothing short of a miracle that I was able to get the three of us in here. I’m not family, and they’re under eighteen, so that was a problem last night. I had to call Clint at an unreasonable hour last night to make sure I could get back in here this morning.”

He’s not sure how fast Bucky’s tracking conversation, so he pauses to let that sink in before he drops the really scary news to him. Bucky’s mind has always been sharper than most, even when he’s out of it, so his eyes narrow toward Steve pretty quickly.

“W’else?”

Steve pulls the chair back to the bed, and sits down. “Baby, you got hit really bad,” he begins hesitantly. “Your arm is…”

“Spit it out,” Bucky frowns, his eyes glazing with fear.

“It’s going to take a lot of work and maybe more surgeries… and if we’re lucky, you’ll regain some use in it again.”

“Regain use,” Bucky says blankly.  “I can’use it?

“We don’t know yet,” Steve tells him. “It’ll depend on how well your nerves regenerate and reconnect. You’ll have to do therapy and see how things go.”

Bucky groans and closes his eyes.  Steve isn’t sure how well that sunk in, but he’ll repeat it as many times as he has to to help Bucky understand.  

“Sorry,” Bucky tells him a minute later.

“Sorry for what?” Steve asks.  

“Getting shot,”  Bucky mumbles.  “Fwere you, I’d be freaking out.”

Steve squeezes his hands together then releases them to reach for Bucky’s good hand. “I’ve already done my freaking out,” He confesses.

“Thing is, though, it’s probably not going to be an issue again, Buck,” he said softly. “You might gain some use back, but it won’t be enough to be able to do what you do anymore. Not safely anyway.”

“Cuz it was so safe before,” Bucky replies.  

Steve’s been wanting to ease into the full implications of Bucky’s injury, but now it feels like he needs to go ahead and give Bucky the rest of it.

“Buck… if physical therapy doesn’t do enough, you will probably lose your arm below the shoulder. I’m trying to get in touch with some specialists, but right now, right at this moment, the possibility is there.”

Bucky looks at him with wide, scared eyes.  He flicks his gaze down to his own arm and seemingly tries to see through the bandages to the mess underneath.  

“So that’s where we’re at right now,” Steve tells him with a grimace.  “You’re not gonna die on me, but you’re not walking away from this one like you did before.  It fucked you up, Bucky.”

Bucky’s head falls back against his pillow, and he stares wide-eyed at the ceiling. His jaw grinds to the point that Steve presses his fingers to it firmly.

“Hey, Buck...there’s a lot to do between here and there. Nothing is certain yet, but I thought you should know what we’re up against. You’ve got a tough road ahead of you, but we’ll keep exploring any options we can dig up, okay?”

“We?” Bucky asks, flicking his eyes back to Steve.  He sounds doubtful, and Steve leans over so he’s right in Bucky’s space, feeling the heat of his skin and smelling the sourness of his breath.

“We,” he promises him.  “You are so not off the hook for getting shot, but yeah, it’s always going to be ‘we.’”

“'Cause this’ll be so appealing,” he mumbles, pointing to his arm even though Steve can’t see what he’s pointing to at first. “Gonna look like shit…not very sexy.”

It’s his mask again, and Steve hates it. He shakes his head, irritated. “Don’t. I care that you’re still here. A few inches to the left and you’d be dead, Bucky. I don’t care if your tattoo is now officially modern art.”

“I’ll have to get it redone,” Bucky continues.  He’s blocking, but it’s okay for now.  The situation isn’t changing, and Bucky will have to realize that eventually.  

“Ice chips?” Steve offers, silently agreeing to postpone this conversation for later.  Bucky nods and opens his mouth.



“Easy, easy,” Steve soothes Bucky as they walk into the front room, Tracy holding the door wide open, and he helps Bucky get situated on the couch.  

“I can walk,” Bucky says grumpily.  Steve helps him arrange his braced arm on a pile of pillows while Nicole props his feet up on an ottoman.  “Again, I can move my legs!” he snaps.  

Bucky’s been fluctuating between the loopiness of painkillers and the crankiness of coming down. He’s been also switching from being grateful to still be alive and being angry that he’s now disabled. Steve’s been with him almost the entire week while Natasha stayed at the house with the girls, so he’s pretty adept at ignoring it by now.  

“Are you hungry or thirsty?” he asks while Nicole snuggles into Bucky’s uninjured side and picks up the TV remote.  From the kitchen, Steve hears Tracy filling the tea kettle.  

“No.  Wanna sit,” Bucky tells him.  Nicole presses her nose into Bucky’s fresh t-shirt, and Bucky sighs at the fact that no one will take his bad mood seriously. 

Steve sits down with his laptop and tries to get some clinic work done while Bucky’s friends start dropping by to check in.  He’s been burning through his leave time at work, and the girls have missed a few days of school, but it’s worth it to be home with Bucky.  Even if it seems like everyone with a Russian surname in Brooklyn is determined to stop by with a casserole.  

Tracy and Nicole switch periodically between hostess duties and cuddling duties.  It’s sweet to see them plastered to Bucky’s side, because they’ve been significantly less tactile with their affection since becoming teenagers, but they revert right back to snugglers whenever something emotionally traumatic happens in their lives.  

For such young girls, they’ve had a lot of emotional trauma over the past year - losing their mother, being taken away by CPS and placed in foster care, and now Bucky’s shooting.  

Steve wants nothing more than to protect them and Bucky from these scary, painful things, but it’s hard when their family is at the root of so many of their problems.  But it’s settling.  Maybe.  Valentina’s dead, and CPS hasn’t been by the house in months.  Even Bucky’s shooting probably won’t be grounds to launch another CPS investigation - Clint told them that because Bucky was shot while unarmed and at work, it’ll be difficult to use as grounds to remove the girls.  

What hasn’t changed, though, is Bucky’s job.  They haven’t talked about it again since the hospital, but plenty of Bucky’s ‘family friends’ have been by to check on him, and Steve isn’t sure what to make of it.  From what he knows, there’s a chance that Bucky’s sexuality was a motivating factor in the attack, and his colleagues have to know that.  On the other hand, they’re dropping off food and flowers and congratulating him on shedding blood for the family.

That phrase - shedding blood - crawls under Steve’s skin.  It’s like a badge, and Bucky’s grabbing its power with both hands to keep himself from freaking out or analyzing what happened to him too much.  

Steve knows that it has to come to a head, and they have to have a conversation about it.  It will probably be unpleasant and emotional, but maybe.  

Maybe he finally found a limit with Bucky.  He doesn’t know if he can be with someone who’s proud of almost being gunned down even while he sits with his family, drinking the tea they bring him and snuggling with the kids he’s supposed to be protecting.  

Steve has to eventually get up and excuse himself for a bit of air. He takes Zola outside and waits until the last stragglers have gone home. His kitchen looks like a diner with the stacks of food containers and soup tins everywhere. Natasha peeks around the door and walks out to sit down by him on the small patio.

“This’ll be the worst of it. They’ll stop invading your space after a few days,” she assures him.

“I don’t mind visitors,” Steve shrugs, scratching at the back of his neck. “It’s the whole… patting him on the back for nearly getting killed. I’m a doctor, Natasha. It offends me on pretty much every level. The fact that he seems like he’s burying himself in that is hard to watch.”

Natasha considers Steve for a moment then tilts her head his direction. “Steve, what would you do if you suddenly couldn’t be a doctor anymore?”

He sighs.  “I’d be an artist.  Or a medical secretary.  Or something else I know how to do.” He scuffs his foot against the patio.  “But I know the point you’re trying to make is that Bucky doesn’t know how to do much besides this.  I get it.”

“You get most of it,” Natasha smiles, rolling her eyes upward to examine the green vines worming their way through the patio overhang. “What you’re missing here is that Bucky will always be a bit of an actor. He does have some hang-ups right now about this injury, and he’s worried about still being a contributor to his family, but he’s never really bought into the blood-shedding mentality. This job is a means to an end for him. You told me he asked about the girls first when he woke up. When did he ask about his crew?”

Steve thinks back.  Bucky hadn’t even asked about the other members injured in the shooting until hours after he’d woken up.  He’d been crushed that Vadim was dead, but other than that, he didn’t say much about them.

“Uh huh,” Natasha nods. “That kid’s always been too good for this, Steve. He’s smarter than this life lets him really show, except when he’s being a sneaky manipulator.  Keep telling him you’re with him all the way until he believes it, and then you’ll see a difference.”

She stands up and pats his leg. “Don’t give up on him.”  

It’s like she’s a mind reader, and her advice...does help.  Natasha gets Bucky in ways that Steve has yet to fathom, and she sets his mind at ease on some things.

He just doesn’t know what to do with it.  Does not giving up on Bucky entail going along with him for as long as he wants to stay in the life, or does it entail being the voice in Bucky’s ear that urges him to get out?  

He thinks back to one of their first real conversations.  Bucky had told him that his wasn’t a job to which he could submit a 2-weeks notice.  Bucky’s told him all along, in a thousand different ways, that he’s not going to leave his gang.  

But Steve thinks about this idolized blood shedding, and he thinks about Bucky staying in his position with an injured  arm.  He thinks ahead to the next time that Natasha calls him, and what news she’ll have then.  

He uses his knuckle to wipe away a tear that’s pooling in the corner of his eye.  He doesn’t know what to do.

Tracy is the next to appear on the patio, and she’s not oblivious to his mood. “Steve…? Bucky was wondering where you went,” she asks hesitantly. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Steve tells her with a forced smile.  She looks at him like she doesn’t buy it, and he thinks he can share at least some of the truth with her.  

“It’s really getting to me the way people are talking about him getting shot like it’s a cool thing, or something to admire,” he admits.  

“Oh that,” Tracy mutters with an obviously relieved huff. Her blue eyes are incredibly clear and self-assured over her words. “Bucky hates that. It’s stupid and he knows it.  He tenses up every time someone mentions it.  It’s not like we can say it’s stupid though.”

Her clarity about things that are mucking up Steve’s head is refreshing.  On a whim, he goes further.  

“How do you feel about what Bucky does?” he asks.  He can’t believe he’s taking advice from a 13-year-old who thinks Hello Kitty pink is the best option for her bedroom, but maybe she can help.  

“You mean being in Серые тигры?  It’s stupid.  He knows it’s stupid.  But I don’t think he knows how to stop.”  

“I didn’t understand the Russian,” Steve tells her. “I get the context, I think, but what did you call it?”

“It’s their name.  Bucky didn’t tell us, of course, but we’re not morons.”  She rolls her eyes.  “It means something about tigers.  I could come up with a better name,” she insists.  “But it’s not important.  Bucky’s always been in it, but whenever we want to know more about it or ask what he does, he freaks out and tells us that we’re never, ever allowed to get involved.  Even though Natasha is, and she’s awesome.”

“I don’t think it’s a matter of being awesome,” Steve smiles sourly. “I think it’s more about you not ending up on the couch with your arm in a medical brace like your brother with people telling you stupid shit and throwing food and flowers at you.” His venom leaks out more than he intends, and he’s internally wincing at swearing, but it’s not the end of the world. She’s heard worse from Bucky.

Tracy studies him.  “First, I’m in 8th grade.  I can say ‘shit.’  Second,” she hesitates.  “Maybe if all three of us ask Bucky in different ways, he’ll leave it.”  

It’s the idea that Steve’s brain has been dancing around, but coached in simpler terms.  Steve wishes he could see things through her eyes sometimes.  

“Does Nicole want him out too?” he asks.  He checks behind him to make sure that no one’s eavesdropping on what’s becoming a very incendiary conversation.

“Well yeah, duh,” Tracy frowns. “She doesn’t say much about it because she doesn’t like ticking Bucky off, but I tick Bucky off all the time. It’s no big deal.”

Steve snorts at her upfront approach, but she doesn’t have a bad plan.  She and Natasha have helped him sort out his thoughts, and he knows he has to at least bring it up.  He has to let Bucky know what he’s feeling, and he has to know how Bucky’s seeing things.  Maybe Steve’s buying into his mask too much, and the shooting changed the way that Bucky looks at all this.  

When he finally makes his way back into the front room, Bucky’s eyes are wary. He studies Steve as he silently approaches and drops down onto the couch, careful not to jostle Bucky too much in the process.

“Uh oh,” Bucky murmurs calmly, “here it comes.”

“Here what comes?” Steve asks.  He cranes his neck, but it doesn’t look like there are any more visitors in his house.  Maybe Natasha or Bucky got rid of them.  

“Cut it,” Bucky warns him. “No one’s here now. You can speak your mind. The girls have very graciously disappeared to their room.”

“I guess I want to know what you think is coming.  It’ll help me figure out where to start.”  They stare at each other while Bucky works his jaw.  

“What would be coming, Steve?” He asks quietly, his voice going rough from fatigue. “I’m laid up indefinitely… likely permanently. I gotta figure out where that leaves me in the grand scheme of things. I was hoping that it just involved work, but when you disappear off for over an hour, I start thinking maybe I need to worry about here too.”

“I just needed time to think,” Steve says as he scratches his neck.  They’re both stalling, and he forces himself to push this forward.  

“Knowing that you could be killed in your line of work, and getting the call that you’re laying in a hospital bed dying, are two very different things.  I know they don’t sound like it, but they are,” he starts.  

“So you’re second-guessing yourself after all?” Bucky looks past him and blinks a few times. “You thinking maybe it is too much?”

“That’s not what’s too much.  Hearing you practically brag about it when we take you home and try to get over the memory of seeing you unconscious and hooked up to all those machines...that might be too much.”

“Jesus, Steve,” Bucky sighs and drops his head back to the couch cushion. “Do you really think I wanna sit here and talk about how fucking awesome it was to nearly have my arm blown off? It’s all well an’ good for those motherfuckers to talk about it like it’s some noble shit, but they’re not the one who can’t even take a fucking shower by himself now. It’s bullshit, but I can’t say that to their faces.”

“Yes, that’s it.  Your arm is a disability now, Bucky.”  Bucky looks disgusted by the word.  “Best case scenario, you’ll recover some movement and some sensation. You already know that the worst case scenario, amputation, is a very real possibility.  I guess I don’t understand,” he says slowly and deliberately, watching Bucky even though he’s looking down at his lap.  “Why you aren’t using this as a chance to leave Sasha and...the tiger word.” Steve mutters the last with a flick of his hand.

“The-” Bucky blinks at him, his mouth opening and closing as he seems to decide how inappropriate it would be to laugh in the face of Steve’s angst. “Серые тигры? Who the hell spilled that?”

He throws up his right hand and shakes his head. “Nevermind. I’m pretty sure I know. You don’t need to rat her out…” He looks at Steve and blinks slowly. “I don’t need to try to get out. Sasha knows what my doctors are saying. The only thing left in the air is what I can do for them now that’s less physical.”  

“Do for them?  For Sasha’s people?” Steve clarifies with a bitter smile.

“I’m not exactly brimming with job qualifications I can put down on an application! I’m not gonna be some unemployed bum, but I don’t think sharp shooting or bat twirling is in demand at McDonald’s right now, Steve,” Bucky sighs.  

“Whatever I do, it’s not gonna be dangerous.  They can’t count on me with anything dangerous if I can’t fight to back ‘em up.”  He sounds just as bitter as Steve does, and the whole conversation sits on a razor’s edge between anger and sadness.

“I just don’t believe that there’s anything ‘not dangerous’ for you to do if you stay with them.  I mean, what were you doing in the bakery before the shooters ambushed you?”  Steve knows it was more of an ambush than much of an actual shootout because it was on the news. More to the point, it was a well-coordinated hit meant to erase Bucky and Sasha at the very least. He’s never seen a shooting on the news that affected him personally, and it’s odd to know that thousands of other people watched the exact same clip without feeling the twisting in their guts.

“I was playing a game of poker with Vadim and Sasha,” he answers bluntly. “We have to be there a certain amount of time for the books to look legitimate, and while I’m damn good at cleaning Vadim out, I don’t think professional poker player is in my future.”

“You were playing poker,” Steve repeats.  “And someone tried to kill you.  Do you see what I mean about there being no jobs that aren’t dangerous?”  He laughs a little hysterically.  “And Natasha told me why the Puerto Ricans-”

“Dominicans,” Bucky interrupts.  “We’re good with the Puerto Ricans.”

“Why someone came after you guys.  She said it’s because of your reputation.  Because you’re gay, and people thought that made you weak,” Steve almost yells.  The girls can probably hear them, but he’s giving himself the illusion of pretending they have headphones in.  “If you stay in a gang, you’re still going to be gay, and people are still going to find you weak for it!”

Bucky licks at his lip slowly. “So… you want me either out of the business or out of your house. Am I understanding you?”

“No, goddamnit,” Steve struggles to keep his voice reined in. “That’s not what I’m saying… I’m asking you to not do this anymore. No bookie slots, no security consulting, no fucking poker. None of it. I’m asking you to think of those girls and not put yourself in the position where they end up going to visit you in a cemetery instead of a hospital.”

Bucky pants at him, nostrils flaring.  “I had this conversation with you over and over,” he hisses, punctuating each ‘over’ with a stab of his finger.  “I knew you couldn’t handle it long haul.  I knew you’d be whining at me to get out, if I just gave it time.”  

“Fine.  You were right; I guess I can’t handle it.  Where does that leave us now?  Because the way I see it, you really have two options.”  He spreads his hands out and counts on his fingers.  “One, you retire or something.  You take all this glory that people want to heap on you - Bucky Barnes, gunned down in the line of duty, barely survived, can’t hold a weapon.  Even if you do get some mobility and feeling back, you don’t share that.  Be the guy who gave his all to the gang until he got injured, and then step down for someone more physically capable to take your job."

“Two,” he continues.  “You move aside and still let someone take your position.  I don’t quite know what Winter does, but I know he does more than most people in your circle.  Take the little jobs like driving cars and making deliveries or whatever, and when you’re having dinner with Sasha and the next shooting happens, it’ll be a comfort to your family to know you weren’t doing anything dangerous.”  

Steve’s chest heaves as he looks at Bucky, and he turns his eyes pointedly to a spot on the wall to calm himself down. Bucky looks like he’s about to hyperventilate right along with Steve. His eyes are flying around the room but then they stop abruptly when they reach the back hallway. Nicole and Tracy are hovering there with worry in their eyes. Tracy’s twisting the bottom of her dark hair tight enough around her finger that the tip is devoid of color.

Running a hand over his face, Bucky takes a deep breath and pinches his fingers together to anchor himself. “Girls… come on out,” he calls, his voice creaking with the strain of their argument.

They both walk out slowly, and Steve does his best to center himself away from the frustration he feels.

“How much did you hear?” Bucky asks quietly, holding out his hand. Tracy takes it as Nicole curls onto the couch next to Steve.

“I’m the one that told Steve to talk to you,” Tracy tells him sadly. “Don’t be mad at him, Bucky. We don’t want you fighting. We’re supposed to stick together.”

“You’re right. We were fighting, and there were better ways to handle that,” Steve admits as he takes Tracy’s hand and makes sure that the circulation is flowing back into her finger.  He squeezes her hand before he sets it back within Bucky's palm. “And it wasn’t only your idea to bring this up.”

“You said this job was less important to you than us, Bucky,” Tracy tells him with pleading eyes and tone. “Why are you arguing with Steve over it? I know you don’t like being bossed around ‘cause we’re the same, but he loves you. He doesn’t want you to get shot again.”

“We don’t either,” Nicole says before bursting into tears.  She tries to stifle them, but it just makes her sniff louder.  “We don’t even know if they’re going to cut your arm off yet!”

Steve pulls her tighter to his side and wraps his arm around her. He’s carefully avoiding looking at Bucky, for fear of what he might see in his lover’s eyes. Instead he focuses on petting Nicole’s hair to soothe her.

“That’s a long ways off yet,” he murmurs. “Bucky’s got to have a lot of therapy first.”

“So?” Tracy yelps back at him. “What good is fixing his arm if he gets himself killed?”

Bucky sighs and waits until Steve meets his eye.  “I think you over-represented the danger to them,” he accuses.  

“Did I?” Steve asks with a pained, pleading expression.  He stares Bucky down as the girls do the same, and Bucky starts to fidget under their gaze.  He scowls and looks at his lap.  

“Steve didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know,” Nicole informs Bucky. “We have friends and cousins that overhear things. We’re not stupid, Bucky.”

Bucky looks up again.  “All those friends and cousins are because of what I do.  Our whole network, everyone who helped us out when you were little, who gave us rides and gave us leftovers, who watched you, who looked out for you - that was all the gang and its people.  What you guys don’t understand,” he says to all three of them, “is that it’s not something you walk away from.  I’ve been doing this for 12 years,” he says almost desperately, “and I can’t be around these people and not be a part of what they do.  It just isn’t possible.  They suck you in, and they don’t take kindly to no.”

Tracy pushes away from him and off the couch. She turns around and faces him directly. Her voice, when she speaks, breaks Steve’s heart.

“Which one of them is going to take us in when you end up like Vadim?”  It’s both the best and the worst thing she could have said.  Steve can see Bucky just shut down, utterly destroyed by her words.  

“I’ll take you, because I’m your emergency guardian,” Steve tells her gravely.  

“You think Серые тигры will let you do that?” Tracy stares at Steve. “Bucky said it himself, we’re part of the family, and they won’t take kindly to us leaving.”

“I’ll get you out of here before they suck you in too,” Steve promises.  He looks up, and Bucky is ashen.

Tracy turns her eyes coldly to Bucky. “I don’t know… I always tell Bucky that Natasha turned out cool. Might not be that bad to be like her.”

“You only know the nice side of Natasha,” Bucky growls at her.  “You know I love her, but over my dead body will you end up like her.”  He winces at his own phrasing, but powers through.  

“Well that’s the point, isn’t it?” Tracy folds her arms over her chest and shrugs. “What’s it matter to you if you’re already dead?”

Nicole reaches out and grabs Steve’s hand.  They watch, wide-eyed, as Tracy pushes it further than either of them can.  Tracy’s always been Bucky’s mirror image in so many ways, and she knows exactly what to say to flay him open and make him sting.  

“Tracy,” Bucky starts.  He’s forcing himself to sound calm and normal, even though his voice is tight.  “You need to trust me.  I’ve never done anything that wasn’t the best option for you and Nicole.”

“No, Bucky, that’s crap!” Tracy begins to shake with rage as she points at him. “You go on about Val and how she didn’t love us enough to stop what she was doing! You’re no better! We’re asking you to stop something that could get you killed, and you won’t even try for us! It’s the same shit!”

Bucky's jaw drops for a second before he levers himself up from the couch and walks away from them.  Their eyes follow him as he walks down the hallway and into his and Steve’s bedroom.  Steve is expecting him to slam the door, but he closes it so quietly that they barely hear the latch catch.

Steve sighs and grabs their hands as he stands up. He pulls Tracy into a hug as she stands there, still shaking and hiccupping.

“It’s okay,” he whispers. “How about you two try to get some sleep? Let him think about what we all said. He’s not in an easy place to be right now.”

They both cling to him, and he crouches down to look them in the eye in turn. “Love you both, you know that right? We both love you girls.”

Tracy seems to deflate just as quickly as Bucky, and she nods and heads for her own room.  Nicole hugs him, and he swoops her up his arms, managing to get a tiny giggle from her before finally depositing her at her door.  

He knows the girls will take care of Zola, because it’s their job now, so he heads for his own bedroom.  He knocks on the door, which he’s never done before, and doesn’t get a response.  

Inside, Bucky is lying face-down on the bed, his arm at an awkward angle to keep pressure off of it.  Steve doesn’t say anything to him; he crawls onto the bed and curls up beside him, close enough to touch but not actually making contact.  

“Swore I’d never be like her,” Bucky mutters. It sounds so frail that Steve almost doesn’t hear it.

“You are and you aren’t.  You’ve got some of her qualities, and some that are the polar opposite.  Just like you and the girls,” Steve tells him calmly.  He’s not trying to instigate another argument.

“She’s right though,” Bucky answers, all the fight gone out of him. “Talk a big talk, but I’m not backin’ it up much.”

Steve lets him stew on that for a few minutes.  

“You’re a really good cook,” he says.  “And apparently you can troubleshoot security systems?  And you’ve dealt with enough CPS paperwork that I bet you’d be a decent secretary.  Obviously child care, you’ve got.  And I know retail is the worst, but you’re a natural salesman.  You’re such a charmer.”

“Fuck are you talkin’ about?” Bucky mumbles.  

“I’m just listing jobs you’d be good at.  There’s plenty others that you wouldn’t be good at, but could still do, or that anyone can be good at, but you’d hate.  So I only included the top prospects.”  

Bucky’s breath hitches for a moment, then he goes absolutely still. Steve’s about to check if he’s fallen asleep when a strained giggle reaches his ears. It’s bordering on the verge of hysteria. Bucky starts to laugh in earnest until he’s gasping in pain over his arm being shaken too much. Steve helps him lift the cumbersome brace so he can roll onto his back.  While Steve tucks a couple of pillows around his arm, Bucky watches him with shimmering eyes.

“I do want out,” Bucky whispers to him. “Have for a long time…but the longer I’m in, the harder it is to imagine anything else.”

“Tell me how to help you get out then,” Steve begs.  He runs a finger over Bucky’s cheek and collects an errant tear.  

“I don’t know,” Bucky answers him hoarsely. “Maybe your idea could work if I play the gimp card, but I don’t know. I don’t know if they’ll go for it. I’d say we could leave, but you have the clinic.”

Steve sits up at that.  He won’t be what anchors Bucky here.  A year ago, when things got serious with Bucky, he wouldn’t have thought he’d ever even consider leaving Brooklyn.  He loves the borough; the only people he really cares about are here, and he’s loyal to his patients.  He’s worked incredibly hard first to buy the clinic, and then to build it up, and he’d intended to make it his life’s work.  He’d wanted to watch the kids he treated for broken bones and stomach bugs grow up. He’d wanted to do everything in his power to bring solid healthcare to the denizens of Brownsville, who already had enough problems and not enough people to take chances on them.  

A year ago, he wouldn’t have even considered leaving Brooklyn.  

Now, it’s not a choice.  

“We’ll move, then,” he tells Bucky.  

Bucky’s eyes slide sideways to his. The frown that skews his features warns Steve of the answer he’s about to give, but he waits patiently for Bucky to say it anyway.

“I can’t ask you to do that. You built that place up practically on your own with Sam. It wouldn’t be fair.”

“I’ll sell it,” Steve says simply.  “And Sam will be fine.  He’s been running it by himself all week without any problems.  And the patients think he’s funnier than I am.”

“That’s not really saying much, Jethro,” Bucky tells him flatly, though it’s clear that he’s teasing.

Steve rolls off the bed and ducks back out to the living room to grab his laptop.  He returns to the bedroom and gets on the American Medical Association website.  

“Where do you want to move to?” he asks, trying to make it clear that he’s serious.  

“Steve, c’mon,” Bucky sighs. “Don’t be ridiculous. You can’t just up and move wherever.”

“We’re all city folk, so should we try another city?  Or go more suburban.  Wait, how far does your gang go?  Is it just Brooklyn, or is it an ‘every major city’ thing?”

“It’s East Coast,” Bucky answers him dumbly, seeming to not be able to wrap his head around Steve’s determination. “Farther west would be good.”

“Okay.  There’s California, Oregon, and Washington.  Let’s just search there for now.”  He selects the states on the job finder and enters some information about his qualifications.  “There are...1,134 jobs that I could apply for in those states.”  

“Steve this is crazy,” Bucky gapes. “You’re gonna end up regretting this and then what…? I don’t wanna be out in some strange place when you finally dump my dumb, gimpy ass.”

Steve stares at Bucky.  After everything, if this same insecurity that’s been there from the beginning is the thing that holds Bucky back…

“What about the fact that I am basically co-parenting your sisters, went through months of family court hell, and didn’t leave you when you got shot still makes you think that you’re a temporary fixture in my life?” he asks.  He’s honestly shocked that this is still on Bucky’s mind, and he doesn’t know how to combat it if nothing he’s done so far has worked.

Bucky snorts and wiggles his shoulder enough to cause pain to flash across his features. He waves at his brace and the enormous question mark it’s holding immobile. “This! I mean, I guess if they cut it off I can walk around with one of those hook things. That’ll be roguishly attractive right? I can grow a handlebar moustache to go with it.”

So it’s not really his past concerns that are rearing their head now, Steve realizes, but this terrifying new one that’s still very much up in the air. One step forward, two backward. Steve’s not about to let Bucky fall back into that kind of insecurity though, not when he can see a future for them again.

He’s said over and over that he’s committed to this, but apparently that only lasts until something new comes and knocks it over.  So he tries something different.  

He goes to Google and types his search in.  There’s over a million results, but he’s drawn to one on the first page of hits called HandlebarMoustacheLife.com.  He opens it, and it’s beautiful.  

“I bookmarked this for you,” he says somberly to Bucky.  He nudges the computer onto Bucky’s lap.  “There’s a competition calendar, a grooming guide, some surveys, and a lot of pictures.  I think this will really help you,” he says as he takes his hands back and leaves the laptop on Bucky.  “And...you know I don’t know how to delete my bookmarks.  Even the accidental ones.  So this is permanent.”

Bucky just stares at the ridiculous images covering the page, with his jaw slack. He looks so incredibly confused by this move that Steve has to bite back the urge to laugh. He’s only stopped by the fact that this isn’t really funny.

“You know what I love about us?” Steve asks a moment later while Bucky’s still open and curious.  “I love that we’ve had so many little moments by now where we could have just walked away and not bothered, but we keep doubling back to figure it out instead.  I’m always going to keep doubling back, Bucky.  Just…try to keep meeting me in the middle somewhere.”

“The middle’s hard to find,” Bucky mumbles back, eyes still trained on the screen.  “I’ve had some alls and had some nothings.  Don’t really know what the middle looks like, Steve.”  

“It looks like us doing what’s best for both of us, and for the girls.  In this case, we’re not going to find that here,” he tells Bucky.  He kisses his cheek and then gets out of bed again to take his contacts out, brush his teeth, and lock up the house.  “Think about where you want to move.”

It’s a good twenty minutes later when he finally comes back into the room. He checked on the girls, and they were both sleeping soundly, albeit with puffy faces. He trudges back in, and Bucky’s now actively roaming around on the laptop. He’s left the moustache site, thank god, and is looking at rent.com. Steve doesn’t have any intentions of renting, though they might do so temporarily while he sells the house. It seems an odd place for Bucky to start, but Steve says nothing to distract him. He curls onto his side and watches Bucky.

He doesn’t feel sleep take him.




When he rouses early the next morning, dawn hasn’t quite made its appearance yet. He looks at his watch and blinks the sleep from his eyes. It’s 5:30 am, and he has no idea why he’s awake. He rolls his head to the side when he hears a soft snore. Bucky’s fallen asleep with the laptop still on his stomach, but it’s gone into hibernation mode since the power cord isn’t attached.

Steve pulls the laptop carefully from Bucky and is about to close the lid when he accidentally hits the touchpad and wakes it up. The page Bucky has open is the only tab active in his browser. It’s a listing for a small house, not that different from this one. It looks clean and the price is certainly doable once Steve takes a position with a local hospital. He looks at the location and smiles. Palo Alto is right outside of San Francisco, but it’s far enough away to keep two precocious teenagers out of trouble. It’s likely that the house will sell before they can realistically make an offer on it, but Steve takes Bucky’s interest in it for what it’s worth. Bucky’s willing to take a chance with Steve now that Steve’s taken a chance with him.

On a whim, Steve opens a new tab and looks up one of the names he remembers from the list of reconstructive and neurology specialists he researched while Bucky was still in the hospital. He’s in the neurology field and based in San Francisco. Steve remembers being impressed enough with his CV that it seems like a sign that they’re pointed the right direction again. Steve might be jumping the gun a bit, but he looks up Dr. Meng’s email address and composes a quick, professional letter to the specialist and attaches Bucky’s scanned charts.

He yawns, and decides that if he’s up, he might as well make coffee.  He takes the laptop with him when he gets out of bed and tiptoes down the hallway.  There’s a blue-ish light emanating from the living room that makes him pause, instantly wary, and he peers around the corner to see Nicole’s head silhouetted by the light from the girls’ laptop.  

“Hey,” he says softly.  She jumps anyway, whipping her head around to look at him.  “It’s 5:45.  Why are you awake?”  

“I couldn’t sleep,” she mumbles.  She turns around again, and Steve detours to the kitchen to make his coffee.

He comes back into the living room five minutes later with a mug of coffee for himself and a mug of hot cocoa for Nicole.  She accepts the drink with a soft thanks, and he sits down beside her and mirrors her position of feet on the coffee table, laptop on legs.  

He continues to research reconstructive and neurological specialists in the San Francisco area while he peeks discreetly at her screen.  She’s looking at the National Gang Center website, and Steve can see several other tabs open on her browser

“Is Bucky still mad?” she asks carefully.

“No, he’s not mad,” Steve tells her.  “He’s very frustrated right now, but he doesn’t mean to take it out on us.”  She hums to acknowledge it, and he goes back to his search.  He assumes that she’s peeking out of the corner of her eye, too, but she’s not going to say anything.  

“Wanna move to California?” he asks blithely as he takes a sip of his coffee.  

“Yes,” she replies instantly.  “Adam Levine is from California.”  

“Really?  Where?” Steve asks conversationally.  

“Los Angeles,” she tells him.  

“What about San Francisco?  Anyone you two are in love with there?”

“The Princess Diaries were there,” she answers thoughtfully. “What else is there?”

“There’s a place called Palo Alto near it,” Steve smiles.

“Oh! Sam Winchester went to college there,” she said excitedly.  Steve shrugs.

“Who’s Sam Winchester?”

Nicole looks at him like he’s a sad man who needs to be educated. “Sam and his brother Dean? They hunt demons and ghosts and stuff on Supernatural! Their dad disappeared, so Dean showed up there to get Sam to help him find their dad!”

“Cool,” Steve answers, only listening with one ear.  “Hey, I think Tupac is from San Francisco.  Do you know who that is?”

She skews up her face. “Did he have gang ties too?”

“That depends who you ask,” Steve tells her.  “Oh, also Alcatraz Island.  That’s where Al Capone was imprisoned.”  

The corner of Nicole’s mouth hitches upward into the closest thing he’s seen to a smirk from her.

“Bucky might like that.”

Steve laughs, too loud in the quiet house for six am.  Bucky and Tracy are still sleeping, worn out from their emotional argument before bed, and Steve and Nicole are greeting the dawn, already planning ahead for their next hurdle with Bucky.  

Nicole’s kind of like him, he realizes.  They approach problems in the same introspective way, while Bucky and Tracy try to knock their problems over.  

“Help me get him on board with us moving there?  He’s considering it, but we need to convince him it’s best for all four of us.”

“On it,” she tells him.  

He holds up his mug, and she clinks hers against it.

And they plan.  

 

fin.