“What's that noise?” Bucky asks, because from the baseball field—a loose term, since it's really just a dirt lot and they've dropped books for bases—they can hear a distant sort of roar, like a crowd's gathering, but it's that high-pitched sound of kids' voices. Tommy Wilson, who's a head taller than everyone else, rises up on his tip-toes on a bench and looks toward the sound. He rolls his eyes and climbs down, shaking his head.
“It's that Rogers kid again.” He waves a hand dismissively and the other guys all groan.
“Who?” Bucky's new; he's good at baseball so making friends came easy.
“Ah, he's this scrawny runt who always picks fights.”
“Well, he doesn't pick 'em,” one of the guys, Bucky can't remember his name, clarifies. “He does sometimes, but only when someone's being a bully.”
“He's too little to be doing that, though,” Tommy says, hands on his hips. “He's gonna get himself killed.”
“Should we go help him?” Bucky asks, because he hasn't yet figured out the hierarchy of his new neighborhood and a kid who goes around stopping bullies sounds like he must be near the top.
“No way,” Sam Thompson says. “That kid's crazy.”
“I wanna go see.” Bucky is stubborn, and even the threat of losing the group of friends he's made can't change that.
“Suit yourself,” Tommy says with a snotty look on his face. By virtue of being the tallest, Tommy is the ringleader of their little gaggle of boys, so sending Bucky away means he probably won't get to play with these guys for at least a few days until Tommy lets him back in. He curses his own stupidity a little, kicking up dust as he heads to the gathering crowd, and then he sees a little runt, just like they'd said, get knocked to the ground and jump right back up again and declare in a high, reedy voice,
“You can't take what isn't yours!”
Bucky jumps in. He never regrets either action.
“Hey, Bucky,” Max Evans calls out across the schoolyard. “We're going down to the soda shop to get Cokes. You wanna come?”
Bucky likes Coke; all fourteen-year-olds do, especially because their parents don't really want them drinking it. But Steve's home sick again so Bucky shakes his head.
“Maybe next time,” he answers. “I gotta take Steve his homework.”
“Ah, come on,” Max wheedles. “He can wait to do his homework until later.”
That part is, technically, true; Steve could do his homework later and wouldn't even complain about Bucky not bringing it to him right away. But later the sun will start going down and Steve won't want to waste money keeping the lamps lit and he'll try to do his work by the fading light even though he's already half-blind in full light. And besides, getting through a whole day without Steve at his side grates on Bucky's nerves.
“When you gonna ditch that punk?” Max adds, laughing, and the group with him laughs, too, and suddenly Bucky finds a few minutes to cross the yard and give Max a piece of his mind and maybe a punch or two, depending on how the talk goes.
“Who fought Howard Fitzroy for you after he pushed you off the swings and broke your arm two years ago?” Bucky demands, hands clenched tight around his book bag.
“Gina, who taught you to tie your shoes?”
“Steve did, but—”
“Ralphie, I seem to remember you puking your guts out at that party last week. Who was it who helped you out then?”
“Steve.” Ralphie, at least, has the sense to look ashamed, possibly because his was the most recent. Bucky raises a finger and sticks it right in Max's face.
“So don't you let me catch you ever talking 'bout him like that again, none of you,” Bucky admonishes. “This is your only warning.”
He turns before any of them can respond and leaves without a backward glance.
“Hi Bucky,” Ruthie Edwards says shyly, coming up to Bucky's desk. He's sixteen and just had an incredibly gratifying growth spurt so suddenly all the girls are shy with him.
“Hiya, Ruthie.” Bucky gives her his best grin and she blushes.
“I was just wondering if you wanted to eat lunch with me today,” she tells the carpet between her shoes. She's got a red ribbon in her hair and Bucky has spent many nights waxing poetic about her eyes to anyone who would listen, a list totaling exactly one person: Steve. Bucky's own mother won't even listen to him anymore.
“Well, I'd be honored, doll.” Bucky winks at her like he's sure Clark Gable does to all the girls. “Lemme just grab Steve.”
“Oh—um, well...” Her hands flutter and Bucky's stomach starts to sink because he's suddenly sure of what she's going to say. “I was hoping it'd be just you.” She flutters her eyelashes a little. They're very long.
Bucky bites the inside of his cheek. It's not like people don't like Steve—he's genuinely kind to everyone, and they've all mostly been in school together since they were just kids, so they all know this. But most of them only really want Steve around when he's doing something for them, and that's just not an attitude Bucky can abide, not even from beautiful Ruthie Edwards.
“Sorry,” he says with a shrug, telling himself the little pit opening up in his stomach is just because it's lunchtime. “Me and Steve're a package deal.”
She leaves looking irritated with him, and he feels pretty glum for the rest of the day, but not glum enough to honestly answer Steve's question about what Ruthie wanted when he asks.
(“You're over her?” Steve echoes him dubiously the next day. Bucky puts all his effort in shrugging totally carelessly. “She's too shy,” he justifies himself. “I like 'em with a little more fire.”)
Bucky's seventeen, and he's just started working at the docks. His parents keep telling him how proud they are that he got a hard-working job like that, and he pretends he doesn't see the way his ma's mouth turns down in disappointment. She'd always wanted Bucky to go to college. Bucky had kind of always wanted to go, too, but college is expensive and he reminds himself dreams are for kids, anyway. He's making enough that maybe he can help his parents save up for Becca to go.
It's rough work, and he ends up exhausted and sore at the end of each day. The other guys are tough and crude and Bucky hasn't quite made it on the in with the group, yet, because he's just a kid and most of them are grown men.
But one day one of the older guys loses his grip and is about to drop a crate, and Bucky's there, quick as a flash, and helps him steady it and avoid getting his foot crushed, too, and a bunch of the guys slap Bucky on the back and tell him he's swell for a kid.
“Hey, Barnes, you coming?” George Simon asks after their shift ends. “We're going out for a drink. We're buying, since you're new and all.” Bucky knows this is a lot like a schoolyard situation—Simon's the lead of the pack of men here, and getting on his good side will make Bucky's life at the docks infinitely better.
But it's Thursday night, and Thursday night he and Steve have a long-standing arrangement to eat dinner together. They switch off between eating with Steve's ma and Bucky's family. Bucky always wants to eat at Steve's quiet house with his doting mother and Steve always wants to eat at Bucky's wild, full-to-bursting apartment with little girls hanging off their arms and tugging at their pant-legs and begging for Steve to draw them.
“Sorry, fellas,” Bucky says without a second of hesitation. “Got a family to get home to.”
Simon snorts and some of the other guys laugh. “You're a kid. What family you got?”
Bucky spreads his arms out wide, grinning big. “Got parents, don't I?” He reasons. “Got three little sisters waiting to get tucked in by their favorite guy. And I got a friend needs looked after, too. Gets himself into too many fights than's good for one guy.”
“That Sarah Rogers' boy?” Simon asks, and Bucky remembers everyone knows Steve's ma because she's a nurse and George Simon probably remembers Bucky and Steve running down the street playing soldier from the time they were knee-high.
“Sure thing. He's probably in an alley right now defending some dame's honor. I gotta go find him and give 'im a hand.”
Steve's tall as a house now, just about, and Bucky keeps finding himself looking at a spot on Steve's shoulder because he keeps expecting Steve's face to be there instead. He's got a war inside himself right now, because if Steve's rescuing him what's Bucky's job anymore, but on the other hand, Steve jumped over a goddamn fireball and marched two days without a single wheeze. Bucky can handle being useless if it means Steve doesn't need help staying alive.
But the thing is, none of the other guys know Steve, and he's already set himself apart a bit as a commanding officer, so he comes out of his briefing when they get back to camp and looks around all lost and no one says a word to him. Bucky, hiding behind a corner because every time someone tries to talk to him his hands shake and he feels the urge to start spouting his service number again, watches him as he squares that ridiculous jaw and sets his shoulders and heads over to a group playing cards. They quit talking when he comes up because it's plain as the nose on Steve's giant face he doesn't know much about being a soldier.
Bucky snorts to himself and shakes his head a little, because Steve never did learn to handle a situation with delicacy and instead barrels head-first into every single thing. Steve's got that bright, hopeful, trying-to-make friends face on, but he's got his hands on his hips and none of them are saying a thing because they all just came out of a work camp and Steve just came off a USO tour in tights.
Bucky pushes off the wall he was slouching against and starts walking over, a slow saunter because he doesn't actually really want to be around the other guys, who look at him with big eyes seeing as how he was the only one to ever come back after being taken to the tables and they all know it.
“Heya, Barnes!” One calls out, too cheerful to really like Bucky that much, and Steve's head snaps around all hopeful. He'd hovered around Bucky the whole march back and Bucky had gotten so sick of his mothering he'd snapped at him to go find that damn Peggy Carter he couldn't stop yammering about and leave Bucky alone to take a piss in peace for a little while.
And the thing is, Bucky can't stand when Steve gets all up on his back like he has been, but at least Steve still looks at him like he's just plain ol' Bucky Barnes, his jerk of a best friend, and sometimes that means he looks like Bucky's the stars and sometimes it means he looks like Bucky's the most annoying nuisance this world's ever thought up, and that's all Bucky's ever wanted: for Steve to roll his eyes but stick by his side anyway.
“Hey Buck,” Steve says, a little wary in case Bucky's still being a grump but not really that wary because he's Steve and this is Bucky and even if Bucky's being a bawl baby Steve's not all that delicate with him, and Bucky comes over and throws an arm around Steve's neck (he misjudges the distance and only gets him around the shoulders but pretends that's what he'd meant to do all along, even though he can see on Steve's face he sees right through that) so Steve's eyes quiet down and he just grins.
“Here to join our card game?” The guy dealing asks, looking only at Bucky and ignoring Steve, and Bucky can see from the corner of his eye that too-familiar way Steve's head drops because he knows they don't want him around. Bucky huffs an annoyed breath, because Steve just saved these guys from certain fucking death and they're still being assholes.
“Nah,” Bucky says easily, and it truly is the easiest thing in the world because he hasn't seen Steve in almost a year and there's no one he wants to be around, anyway, not when he feels like he's fraying at the edges and his skin's buzzing. He needs to rest his head and Steve's shoulder has always been the best place for that; whenever he wants to be alone he actually just wants to be alone plus Steve. He tugs Steve around and drags him toward the tents. “Come on, pal, you gotta tell me more about this dame 'a yours.”
Steve is starting to get bored. They've been holed up on the couch for almost two days straight now, eating take-out and most of the time sitting in silence, not even watching anything on TV. Bucky's still working on talking, and of course Steve doesn't begrudge him that. They read side-by-side, they doze side-by-side, they sometimes grimace at the food side-by-side. Steve's just not used to so much down time, and he's not really sure what to do.
His phone rings and when he looks at it he sees it's not just a phone call but a video call from Tony, and he hesitates for a second because Bucky's plastered to his side—Steve can't figure out if he's not letting Bucky out of his sight or if it's the other way around—and sometimes Tony can make anyone want to punch him, let alone Bucky with his hair-trigger these days.
But he answers, because he basically promised when Bucky came to live with him he'd always answer so they'd know Bucky hadn't gone Winter Soldier and killed him in his sleep. He absolutely resents the implication and thinks if everyone could see the way Bucky curls up with Steve as his pillow and cries with his face turned into Steve's shoulder they'd all quit being so paranoid, but Steve's not going to share that privilege with anyone else on Earth.
“Capsicle and the Red Menace, hello, hello,” Tony says, and Steve already feels exasperated.
“Hi, Tony.” He manages to keep his voice even.
“So, what kind of excitement are you two whippersnappers getting up to tonight?”
Steve's eyes flick to the top of Bucky's head resting against his arm and then back to Tony on the screen. “Not sure yet.”
“Perfect, you have no plans. Come to the Tower and join the party.” Tony swings the phone around so Steve can see a table full of food where Clint's grazing. Bruce, in the corner, offers a wave, and Steve thinks he can pick out Pepper's voice talking to Rhodey. Steve wasn't sure Bucky was even listening, but he feels Bucky tense up against him.
“I think we're just gonna order a pizza and watch a movie,” Steve says. Tony rolls his eyes.
“Are you going to be asleep by nine, too?” He snarks.
“Well, it's Friday, so probably ten.”
“Wild men,” Tony says drily. “Suit yourselves.” He shakes his head, but his smile tells Steve he gets it and isn't going to push.
“I'll see you Monday at the latest, Tony, for the briefing with Coulson's team,” Steve reminds Tony firmly. Tony makes a face. “Don't pretend you forgot. I heard Pepper schedule it with Jarvis.”
“Yeah, whatever, gramps.” Tony waves a hand around. “Go buy a new sweater or something.”
It's quiet after Steve ends the call, and then Bucky sighs a little. “You can go out with your friends,” he says softly. Steve looks down at him, the way his mouth is pressed against Steve's shirt, his hair mussed from lazing about all day, the stubble on his chin, and jostles him a little to make him sit up and look at Steve's face.
“Buck, I don't want to go without you,” he says, smiling easily.
“I'm not gonna do anything to hurt myself.” Bucky's pouting a little, either because he thinks Steve doesn't trust him or because Steve made him move. “I'm not a child.” Option one, probably.
“I know you won't.” Steve rolls his eyes. “You're such a dummy, sheesh. I don't want to go without you because I want to be with you.”
“Steve, I can't even—we're not even doing anything. I probably will be asleep by nine. I can't watch TV, I can't talk, I just...” Bucky licks his lips and shoves a lock of hair behind his ear. “I'm fucking boring.”
“Yeah, you always have been,” Steve says; it's an absolute lie and Bucky makes a face that says he knows it. “I'd rather sit here and look at the wall with you than go to a party without you.” Bucky opens his mouth to argue so Steve talks over him. “It's always been like that, Buck. And now it's even more like that, because I had to go all that time without being able to look over and see you, or listen to your dumb jokes, or get your drool all over me, because you do drool.” Steve heads off the decades-long argument about Bucky's drooling situation that absolutely happens, no matter how many times Bucky says it doesn't.
Bucky weighs that in his head, and then his eyebrows draw together into that cute little scowl he gets these days when he's remembering something. “It was like that for me, too.” His voice is sort of distant, so Steve waits patiently. “I'd say I wanted to be alone and then we'd sit there and not say a word.” He glances quickly up at Steve. “Right?”
Steve can't help but smile. “Right.” He can't even count how many times Bucky would say he didn't want to be around anyone and then ask Steve where he was going when he got up to leave. You don't count! He used to say with an eye roll.
“Well, alright.” Bucky heaves a sigh and there's a smile in his voice that makes Steve's heart want to burst out of his chest. “I guess I'll sit around and be an old grandpa with you. If it'll make you feel better.” He settles back down against Steve's shoulder and Steve blinks the tears out of his eyes before Bucky can rib him about them.
“And I do not drool.”