It’s beginning to look a lot like… Steve Rogers focusing too much on the mission
He was running late, Steve realized, jamming his arms into his jacket sleeves as he heard the door to the stairwell open, a loud scraping sound of the heavy metal door against the wood floor beneath it. Steve grabbed his keys and hurried out his front door, already turning to face the hallway as he moved through the familiar steps of locking up behind him.
The way Steve peered down the hallway to make sure that it was Bucky he heard on the stairway was neither subtle nor unobtrusive, but if it wasn’t Bucky, then Steve should probably go back inside and take the time to turn off the lights he’d neglected in his rush. There were only two people on their floor who regularly used the stairway, and Steve was one of them.
Bucky was the other.
Only, Steve hadn’t really seen Bucky in months except for in fleeting passes. He hadn’t even seen him on Halloween, and that was practically a tradition between the two of them. Steve was starting to get concerned that he’d blink and Bucky would disappear from the apartment across the hall entirely, that one day he’d just pack up and leave, and Steve would never know what happened to him. He was becoming concerned that it already happened.
The chance paid off, because it was definitely Bucky heading towards him. He was carrying an unfamiliar work uniform and his hand sloped so low, the vibrant material of the vest threatened to drag along the hallway floor. Steve started to frown at the sight, not used to Bucky not being impeccably dressed in a business suit or a stylish pair of jeans that moulded to the slope of his thighs.
He certainly wasn't used to the sight of Bucky scowling, at least in a heavier way than the good-natured frown Bucky treated minor inconveniences like rain and a deluge of flyers in his mailbox. There was an actual glower on Bucky’s face, as though he just couldn’t hide his discontent in those final steps to the door of his apartment.
Now that Steve was watching, he wasn't sure if he could remember Bucky smiling in the last few months. Steve had been so busy going in and out of a book tour and locking down the contract for his next three titles that his time at home had been punctuated by a near-frazzled urgency, the kind Steve thrived under but also the kind that limited his ability to see outside of what he was currently focusing on.
Like the man across the hall with the gorgeous smile and quick wit that Steve had been hopelessly taken with for ages. Now, there was a line between his eyebrows that had seemingly appeared overnight and there were bags beneath his eyes that made him look older than his mid-twenties.
It made Steve actually stop and observe him, his keys dangling in his fingers.
Bucky looked up and saw him, a smile curling his lips and softening his eyes into a less-severe expression. For a moment he looked like the carefree man Steve had met when he first moved in. Then Bucky’s eyes spanned to the left and Steve followed his attention thoughtlessly.
Both of them noticed the paper on Bucky’s front door with the big, bold printed EVICTION NOTICE plastered across the top at the same time.
Steve honestly hadn’t noticed the paper before he stepped out of his apartment. If he’d known what faced Bucky at his door, Steve would have allowed him his privacy instead of rushing his exit in the hope of running into him.
Bucky already looked so exhausted and dejected that Steve wanted to leap across the hallway and protect him from what was about to happen, but hiding it would probably just hurt Bucky in the long run, and tearing it down in front of him was a useless gesture.
Bucky’s expression tightened, lines forming at the corners of his mouth as he stomped over and tore the sheet down.
He took a moment to look at Steve, words half-formed in his mind and his mouth parted to let them out. Then he blinked, his lips turning down in a grimace and his whole body shuddering with a loud exhale.
“Bu…” Steve started to say, but Bucky was already turning his back on him and storming into his apartment. The door slammed behind him.
Dammit. Steve felt like the world’s hugest idiot, but that probably didn’t even come close to touching how Bucky felt right now. He stood in the hallway staring at the closed door across the way from him, and his heart felt heavy. He didn’t know what to do – there was nothing he could do, short of offering Bucky money, and he knew that Bucky not only wouldn’t accept the offer, he’d be deeply insulted by it.
Steve stood in the hallway for a moment, concerned and feeling entirely helpless for it. There was a reluctance in his step when he carried on with his day, because there was absolutely nothing he could think of to fix things – and, of less concern, he wasn’t sure it was even his place to try.
Steve had butted his nose into things for worse reasons.
Steve tried. He slid an envelope with enough money for rent beneath Bucky’s door, thinking that even if it was too late for this place, he’d at least be able to use it as a deposit somewhere else.
It was a(n anonymous) holiday miracle.
Or at least it should have been.
Steve returned home and stepped on the envelope. It had been shoved back under his door, and when he lifted his foot, there was a sticky note stuck to the sole of his shoe.
It simply said ‘No’ in a very decisive cursive. If handwriting could be angry, Bucky’s response was pointedly so.
Steve emerged from his apartment on November 30th to find a stack of medium-sized plastic totes in the hallway and a number of boxes of varying sizes leaning against them. There was one actual suitcase, a gym duffle, and very little else in the sense of earthly belongings.
The entirety of Bucky Barnes’ possessions, it seemed, and it was shocking to see Bucky Barnes pared down to such a small pile. Steve could see right into the apartment across the hallway, noticing that there wasn’t a single piece of furniture to be seen. He paused and frowned, peering through the open door with his eyes on the lookout for Bucky, knowing that there was no way Bucky would go very far with all of his things out in the open like that. Bucky wouldn’t even leave his laundry in the machines downstairs – he claimed 3E kept stealing his shirts. 3E owned a lot of shirts Steve was marginally sure he’d seen on other building tenants, so Bucky might be on to something.
Steve finally spotted him in the bedroom stuffing a comforter into a large garbage bag. From the way the blankets were crumpled on the floor, Steve wondered if the dark circles beneath Bucky’s eyes weren’t just partially caused by stress, or if there was something else behind them, like going sleepless night after sleepless night because the floor was too hard.
Steve had no problem sleeping on the floor, but then he was considered weird. Multiple people told him so.
“You’ll be ok?” Steve asked awkwardly, watching as Bucky shifted the garbage bag worth of things over his shoulder as he emerged from the bedroom. He hadn’t gotten a glimpse into Bucky’s apartment in a few months, but he could remember it being a lot more cluttered. Once, Bucky had grinned at him as he dragged an antique phonograph into the elevator and Steve had rushed forward to grab the other end. “I like to own things,” he’d said with a shrug. Steve had noticed a lot of those items had been steadily moving out over the last few months, starting with a gorgeous apartment-sized sectional that Steve had been envious of. At the time he thought Bucky was redecorating as people in their building were likely to do every few years. He also considered that Bucky was slowly relocating, sharing his things with someone else in his life.
Now, the starkness of the apartment and the very few things stacked in front of it told a very different story. Bucky’s schedule had inexplicably changed around the beginning of July and Steve no longer met him in the hallway every morning, sharing a laugh at how Bucky worked at the same time Steve left for his morning run. Bucky had occasionally, and rightly, joked that it wasn't a coincidence, but then the same could be said for Bucky's need for coffee from the place down the street on the weekends just as Steve was heading out for his weekly luncheon with Peggy.
Steve hadn't noticed Bucky slowly selling off his things except in retrospect. There were a lot of things Steve hadn't noticed.
Bucky looked up at the sound of Steve’s voice and laughed, a harsh bitter sound that was at odds with the person Steve knew. It settled into place with the sullen expression on Bucky’s face now. He spread his arms wide, the garbage bag in his hands moving easily, bulky with the bedding Bucky had been sleeping on, but not heavy. “There’s nowhere to go but up, right?” Bucky questioned derisively. “I’ll be fine.”
That. That was not necessarily true.
“You have somewhere to go?” Steve questioned, crossing his arms and attempting to look casual, not like he was worried for Bucky. He stepped into the apartment, ignoring how bare it was. It really was a great space, almost the mirror image of Steve’s. He owned his outright, and he remembered Bucky joking that he considered buying Steve’s but he had zero desire to move – Steve remembered, because Bucky’s eyes had then dragged over Steve as he said that everything had worked out for the best, and Steve had felt warm for days. He should have done more to find out who Bucky was renting from and paid them directly, going right to the source. Bucky wouldn’t have been able to slide that back under his door.
Steve was a fixer when he saw an injustice – usually on larger issues that made him want to make change happen. To Steve, Bucky… nice, kind, sweet, funny, and hot as hell Bucky wasn’t a small thing. The fact that he couldn’t fix this made him feel like a failure, especially considering how… attached he was to Bucky. He couldn’t imagine not having the possibility of seeing Bucky’s smiling face every morning, and he hated himself a little for that being his one main concern when Bucky was being evicted, when Bucky had so many more worries than whether or not he saw Steve again.
Bucky paused and gave him an exasperated look. “I’m not completely hopeless.”
“I didn’t think they were allowed to just evict you like this. Isn’t there a court process…”
Bucky cut him off with the most scathing expression Steve had ever been on the receiving end of. “I went to court. I don’t know if you noticed the complete lack of surprise on my face or not. I’ve had time to prepare for this,” he pointed out, gesturing widely with his arms at the empty room around him. “What’s left of my things can go to my parents’ place in Rhode Island and I’ll… be around. I’m not giving up on New York yet.” His face softened a bit. “Maybe when I’m back on my feet I’ll look you up and we can go on a proper date.”
Steve smiled and found himself nodding. “I’d like that,” he answered. “And listen, you don’t have to send everything home. You can have the corner of my living room.”
Bucky made a face at him. “Don’t offer what you can’t produce. You don’t have room for the small amount of stuff I have left. You’re too kind by half, Steve, and you can’t fix everything.” Bucky gave him a very knowing look.
Steve shrugged in return, unsure how to explain that the offer had been genuine but it wasn’t entirely altruistic. If he had Bucky’s things, he’d be able to make sure that Bucky kept his promise for the date.
“Only I can fix this, and I’m working on it. I’m working on it. But for now I still have the dishware to get done and you know what they say about too many hands in the kitchen.”
Bucky was obviously trying to get rid of him, and if the way his eyes were reddening like he was on the verge of tears was any indication, he probably wanted Steve gone sooner rather than later. Steve understood dignity. Steve had a childhood worth of moments of understanding dignity.
“Bye Bucky,” Steve said, pausing at his front door. “You’ll let me know if you need anything.”
“Sure,” Bucky answered casually, but it was clear he was saying it just because it was the polite thing to say. “Goodbye, Steve.” Then his face turned down slightly, almost crumpling with emotion, and Steve wasn’t sure whether he should take a step back towards Bucky or leave him to be alone. His fingers twitched, itching to reach for Bucky.
Bucky made the decision by closing his door, shutting Steve out entirely.
An hour later Steve answered a knock on his door to find Bucky standing in the hallway, looking uncertain and just a little annoyed. “Still have that corner?” he asked, mouth tightening as he turned back to look at his stuff. His phone was clasped tightly in his hand, and he seemed to be unconsciously shaking it in anger.
“The architecture of the room is pretty static,” Steve pointed out, because sometimes he was a complete asshole. Sarcasm. Just when Bucky was asking for a favor. Nice.
Bucky either didn’t notice or didn’t care.
“My sister and her boyfriend got a flat tire somewhere on the I-95,” Bucky said to him, furiously typing something one-handed into his phone with a heavy scowl. “When you promise someone you’ll pick up their stuff before they’re forced out of their home, you… you damn well have a spare tire and you don’t then say maybe next weekend.” He took a deep breath and gave Steve a rueful shrug that spoke of awareness he was verging on ranting territory. “Whatever, sorry. Can I keep everything here? I know it’s a huge imposition, but I… it’s all that’s left.”
Bucky looked like anger was the only thing that was helping him keep it together.
Well, shit. “Come on in,” Steve offered, holding the door open. If he thought that Bucky’s face had been devastating earlier, that was nothing compared to Bucky on the verge of tears and frustration. Steve just wanted to fold him into a hug and never let go.
“There was a plan,” Bucky huffed as he shifted two of the boxes into Steve’s arms. Steve was trying his best not to use Bucky leaning down to grab another box as a chance to look at his ass. Anyone who thought Steve was a good guy was probably wrong. He was terrible. “After all the times I came through for her, I just needed her to help me this once. The irony is that I’ve always been the one she called to help her out, and I would have dropped what I was doing, rented a truck for the weekend, and made sure that she was able to keep her promise, because that’s what I do. But what happens when the person who usually bails you out of things like a flat tire ruining your weekend is the person you were helping in the first place? I’ll tell you what happens – I end up really encroaching on my kindly neighbor’s space,” Bucky finished, only slightly out of breath even though he’d been ranting the entire time he transferred boxes into the corner of Steve’s living room.
Bucky took a step back to observe the space. Steve was inwardly wincing at how little room was left to navigate, but he was already figuring out ways to work with it. He’d have to move where he kept his jacket and shoes temporarily, and he wasn’t sure his door would open the full way, but Steve could probably slip through the space left. There hadn’t appeared to be that much stuff when it was in the hallway, but the moment it moved into an enclosed space like a New York sized apartment, it was obvious just how little wiggle room Steve had to work with.
Bucky seemed to be coming to the same conclusion. “Wow, I’m sorry about this. I can find somewhere…” he trailed off, realizing that he’d already said that there were no other options.
“It’s ok, I’ll just move – “ Steve gestured to one of his storyboards, grabbing it firmly as he pushed it flush against the side of Bucky’s stack of boxes, making a small partition in the room and opening up the floor a little. It wasn’t a big deal, Steve told himself. Except.
Well, Steve never moved them until they were completed. It was a rule he had that he never broke.
Bucky took a step back to look at what Steve was looking at, and Steve knew he didn’t get the significance. “It’s a good job I know what you do for a living, or that would be creepy,” Bucky pointed out, gesturing at all the stuffed animals hanging from the top of the board by red thread. It had been the only color he had at the time, but Steve could concede that it was pretty weird to an outside observer. “You do still write kids’ books, right?” Bucky questioned, eying Steve with a mock wariness. “Haven’t graduated on to something more exciting, like killing off beloved characters?”
“There’s always next year,” Steve promised ominously.
“But think of the children, Steve,” Bucky responded, giving Steve that teasing grin that was two parts ribbing and one part self-congratulatory.
Steve couldn’t help but grin back. “Do you want something to drink?” he asked, gesturing towards his kitchen. “Coffee?” he offered, because he knew what was most likely to tempt Bucky.
“Nah,” Bucky answered, grabbing his jacket from where it was draped over Steve’s couch arm. “I should get going.” He shouldered his gym bag and looked hesitantly towards the suitcase, his fingers reaching for the handle before he took a step away from it, looked to Steve as though that was significant, and then reached for the door.
“Wait, I almost forgot,” Steve said as Bucky stood in the doorway, giving off the impression that he was both impatient to get out of Steve’s hair and reluctant to leave. “I leave Wednesday on a book tour. Eight libraries in six days, a charity event,” he made a face, and it wasn’t that he didn’t think it was a worthwhile cause, it was that he was aware of the inconvenience it could be for Bucky. “I’m sorry if that’s a problem.”
“Oh,” Bucky answered, his eyes flicking to the corner with his things. “It’s ok if everything stays here? You’re not taking back the offer? I can… maybe find a storage space, but I’m sure Becca can wait until you come back if you can just keep it.”
Steve thought if a storage space was an option, Bucky would have tried it first, before coming to him. It was far more likely that all of Bucky’s things would end up in the dumpster.
“I’ll do you one better,” Steve answered, digging through the drawer of odds and ends in his kitchen. He pulled out a keychain and handed it over. Bucky recoiled from it at first, eying it warily like Steve was handing him a live grenade, his fingers hovering over the keys with obvious hesitation.
“You’re too trusting as well as kind,” he told Steve, grabbing the keys from his hand and jamming them in his jacket pocket. Bucky stared at Steve for a moment, waiting. If Steve knew what he was waiting for, he’d probably give it to Bucky.
“You’re trustworthy,” Steve answered with surety and a frown, cocking his head to the side as he observed the man standing in front of him. This attitude didn’t fit with the person he felt like he knew, and he wished that he had more of the story of what happened in the last few months.
“Right,” Bucky snorted. “Sure. Trust someone who can’t seem to hold on to anything and is now intimately familiar with pawn shops with the keys to your life.” Bucky shook his head as though to get rid of the negative thought. Then he smiled at Steve, patting his pocket. “Thanks. I should be going. See you next week.” He flicked his fingers in an approximation of a goodbye and headed out the door.
“Wait,” Steve said, reaching out to grab Bucky but stopping short of actually touching him. “You have somewhere to go tonight?” he asked, realizing that if Bucky’s things weren’t being picked up, then neither was Bucky.
“I’ll take a bus,” he said with a shrug, adjusting the gym bag on his shoulder. “I’m fine. I don’t need your charity. I’m not like the groups of adorable children in poor economic areas that are deserving of your time.”
“I…” Steve started, knowing that the bitter way Bucky approached the sentence meant it was an insult, but not exactly sure how to respond when someone accused you of being a good person. “You’re just as deserving…”
“I’ll see you later, Steve,” Bucky snapped, pulling the front door partially closed behind him. He was half-turned towards Steve, his profile not giving Steve any cues to work from. “Or I won’t, but this arrangement is only temporary. So thank you for your help, but don’t go feeling sorry for me.”
“Of course. Anything for you and the children.”
Bucky snorted and closed the door with a kind of finality that made Steve’s stomach feel strange. He reached out and brushed his hand over one of Bucky’s bins, the smooth feeling of the plastic tote beneath his fingers grounding him to the reality that Bucky would be back. He’d make sure that his things were moved from the apartment whether his sister came to get them or not.
Bucky’s pride was something Steve would bet on.
That was the problem, he thought, moving to out the window to see if he could catch a glimpse of Bucky leaving the building. There was frost on the bottom of the pane from where the old wood leaked cold air in the winter, and there were a few flakes falling. Steve had been enjoying the signs of early winter, appreciating how New York appeared for a few magical moments with a fresh snowfall that only seemed to feel like special before January.
It worried him, wondering if Bucky actually planned to go where he said he did.
“I had a thought I wanted to run by you,” his mother started the phone call with just as Steve was picking up his fresh mug of coffee. That was never a good sign. His mother never warned him about her ideas unless they were something he probably wouldn’t like.
“Yes?” Steve questioned, deliberately heading for his couch because he felt like he’d probably need to be sitting for this. His toe hit against one of Bucky’s tote bins and he muffled a curse. His apartment really might not be big enough for all Bucky’s things, but at least Steve would be leaving for his trip soon.
“Your cousin Janice and her husband are coming up for the month and they’re bringing their three children. Right now they plan to stay with us, but you know that the guest room here can hardly hold you now that you’re 6 feet tall and weigh 189 pounds. An entire family?...”
“That’s frighteningly accurate, mom,” Steve pointed out.
“You think I don’t know what my son looks like?” his mother questioned in a semi-indignant tone. “The point I’m trying to make is this: move home for December and let Janice and the kids take your apartment.”
"Uhm," Steve hedged, looking at the three complicated storyboards he had set up in various locations around his apartment. He'd seen murderboards on television shows that looked less convoluted than his process for creating children's picture books. There was no way any of them would survive a week with three children, let alone a month. They would play with the toys Steve used as art references! Those toys were only meant to be played with by him. As a professional. "You know, just because I write books for them, that doesn't mean my apartment is child friendly."
"There would be more privacy for them," his mother pointed out. "It’s Christmas, and it can’t be easy to be away from home during this time of year. It’ll give those kids some stability.”
Oh, she was good.
“Take a picture of how you have them set up, pack them up, and recreate them after the holiday,” his mother continued. “I know you’re very exacting, but you can make an exception in this case.”
So his mother did know that his creative process was the excuse he was about to make. Just like Steve knew that his mother wasn’t being as altruistic as she sounded. She just didn’t want those kids underfoot either. They were about to be at a stalemate of stubbornness and Steve had a feeling which one of them would buckle first, and it wasn’t his mother.
"The thing is," Steve said, desperately looking around his apartment for a better excuse. Could he claim construction was about to be done? Mold spores? Anything, really. Then his eyes fell on Bucky's corner of stuff and it was like everything slotted into place. "The thing is I just had someone move in with me."
His mother was silent for a moment on the other end of the phone. "Don't you lie to me at Christmas Steven Grant Rogers."
"It's December 2nd," Steve pointed out in an exasperated tone. "And I'm not lying. His stuff is piled into all available spaces, the apartment is a mess. It would be rude to ask him to relocate just after he got here."
"You have five minutes to use that smart phone of yours and send me proof, and you better tell me all about your new boyfriend. Then, and only then, will I accept that as a good enough reason not to allow your cousins to stay over."
The picture was easy. The picture was the truth, and it showed that Steve could barely open his front door. It showed that Steve had moved a few of the boxes to the other side of the room as well so he could reach his shoes and jacket, and that one of his only windows was half-obscured. His mother knew he liked his natural sunlight.
The difficult part was talking about Bucky like Bucky moving in wasn’t a favor and was instead a deliberate choice.
"I don't know where to start," Steve answered, wincing into the phone as he grabbed the day-old take-out from his fridge now that he was standing. He needed to finish it before his trip the next day anyway, and talking to his mother always made him hungry. Maybe it was Pavlovian from the way she spent his childhood desperately trying to make weight stick to his bones. "Bucky's great..." Lying might not be his forte, but Bucky was pretty great. So long as he kept to facts, it wasn't really lying. That, Steve was good at. "Smart. Kind. Sexy. He’s just… he’s Bucky.”
Sarah was silent for a moment. “I’m happy for you Steve. God knows your books aren’t what you planned to be doing, so I hope this relationship gives you what you need. I’ll see you when you get back from your trip. Maybe we can meet for lunch, since I know you’ll want a day or two off from children and it sounds like there will be three of them living here.”
“Sure, my treat,” Steve answered her, buzzing with relief as his mother said goodbye and disconnected the call.
The irony of Steve's life was that he was terrible with kids. He didn't really like being around them, always feeling like he was too large and clumsy. He didn't know how to talk to them, either. The irony of Steve's life was that even though he had a successful children's series under his belt, it hadn't come from a place where he wanted to write books for that age group. He'd taken an elective course during his college degree on illustrating for children and his professor had given him a C on his reimagined version of Where the Wild Things Are, telling him that he'd never be a successful children's author.
Steve had immediately gone home and started What a croc!, styling the performing monkey who was the main character after himself and the alligator who kept telling the monkey what he couldn’t do after his professor. He sent it off to publishers still fueled by rage, not expecting to hear back. His career was launched off the back of proving someone wrong and thumbing his nose at adversity. There were worse ways to start a career and worse messages to send to children.
And the thing was? His professor wasn’t exactly wrong. Steve should never have become a successful children's author. It just wasn't for him. If the man had just given Steve the grade his work deserved, he’d be comfortable in a graphic design position that was full time rather than the contracts he was able to fit into his schedule. Steve loved graphic design.
Steve ran in terror from small infants.
That life might be more comfortable, but Steve firmly believed that the world wasn’t changed off comfort, so he kept doing what he did well, even though it wasn’t the future Steve had ever seen for himself. He knew his mother was worried he’d burn out by 30. Steve was worried he’d burn out by 30, but putting the onus of saving him from that on Bucky’s shoulders wouldn’t be fair even if they were in a relationship.
(His professor being partially right didn’t mean Steve still didn’t have Triskelion Publishing send him a free copy of each book published. He was up to book 16 now.)
Compact book tours made him exhausted, and it wasn’t like he could just sit there and stare at the people who came to hear him read from his book like some authors could, answer a few questions, and then leave. No, he had to smile, and grin, and perform. Steve the performing monkey had been based on how Steve felt as a student asked to do assignments that were deliberately set up so students would fail, but there was a lot more truth of it in his life now. Steve the performing monkey was now a major part of his identity.
He wasn’t sure what he’d do if he didn’t have Clint around to do the puppet show and to make sure the children were sufficiently entertained when Steve froze in terror. There weren’t many things that actually scared him, but small children? Especially the precocious ones who crawled onto his lap because they weren’t duly supervised by an adult? Terrifying. In the days before he had the publishing house send a PA with him, he got back to his hotel, slept and had nightmares of dropping toddlers by accident.
Now he was able to get back to the hotel and unwind enough that he very rarely dreamt of being the cause of babies falling on sharp knives or off a cliff.
Now he was awake to take calls from his mother.
“I went by your apartment early this morning to set up your Christmas tree,” she said without preamble, as was her way when she had an actual topic to talk to him about.
“I told you last year that I didn’t need one at my place because I travel so much,” Steve pointed out, picking at his room service. “You were supposed to keep it, set it up at the end of the hallway upstairs or something. I’m going to be there on Christmas Day anyway. I don’t need a tree.”
“Did you get Bucky’s opinion on the matter? It seems he might appreciate some input, or at least consideration.”
“Steve,” his mother answered in an aggravated tone. “You could have told me your boyfriend was sleeping on your couch. I think I startled him.”
“I… could have… told you…” Steve started in confusion, drawing the sentence out slowly as he thought. It wasn’t really strange that someone might be crashing on his couch, but usually they shot him a text if they showed up and Steve wasn’t home. He wondered if it was who he thought it might be. Hell. Of course it was. There really was only one answer to that question. “On the couch? Really? Are you sure it was my boyfriend? Sam sometimes crashes.”
“I know Sam,” his mother reminded him, unimpressed by the fact he was questioning her. “And I’ve met your attractive neighbor across the hall. Did you think I wouldn’t recognise Bucky? A mother remembers when her son stops to watch someone walk away, especially with that view.”
“Ah, yeah,” Steve laughed uneasily. “I know that you know Bucky.” Sometimes he was incredibly glad for phone calls so his mother couldn’t see the way his eyes were wide and darting around the room, unable to really focus on one object for long. She would definitely call him on his frantic confusion if this conversation was happening in person. Bucky was sleeping on the couch?
Well, for one thing: good.
“I thought that you roped him into storing some of his things in your apartment so you could get out of hosting your cousins,” Sarah said, and it was close enough to the truth that it made Steve wince. The moment his mother actually took to Facetime, he was going to be screwed. “I just assumed the boxes were empty.”
“No,” Steve answered firmly. “I didn’t ask him to do that. And I mentioned that he moved in, mom. I think him physically being in the apartment goes hand in hand with that.”
“I know, I know. He was on the couch, Steve. I might have gone, set up the tree, and left all without knowing he was there if he was sleeping in your bed. A heads up for either of us might have been nice.”
The aggravating thing about his mother was that she was always a force to be reckoned with, even when she wasn’t entirely in the right. Like now. He wasn’t about to point out, again, that she hadn’t given him warning either.
“How was he?” Steve asked. “Did he look good?”
“Don’t you text him? You should know how he is, unless… did the two of you have a fight already?”
Steve didn’t answer the question directly. “I just want to know if he looks like he’s settling in ok. The timing could have worked out better. It seems like one day he’s moving in his things and the next I’m across the country.”
“He looked good,” Sarah assured him. “He’s a very attractive man. He looked a little tired, a little confused about the strange woman hoisting a Christmas tree at him. I think the question you should be asking is why he’s sleeping on the couch instead of in your bed.”
Steve didn’t have a good answer for that. He assumed it was because Bucky was technically squatting without permission, but it wasn’t like he could say that to his mother.
“I think we both know why,” Sarah continued on blithely. “You’re the only one who thinks your bed is comfortable. It might be a good thing this happened, despite it being horribly embarrassing for all of us. You know how you can fix this.”
The moment Steve bought a new mattress was the moment he conceded that he’d have another person sleeping in it for long enough that it mattered. Right now, Steve was starting to realize that his mother just set up the perfect reason for the parting of ways that would happen once Bucky left with his stuff. Then he thought of the way Bucky had asked Steve to date him after he got back on his feet, that earnest and hopeful expression that Steve knew he had returned, and realized he couldn’t do that. “Bucky and I aren’t at the point where we should be moving in together – it probably won’t be permanent at this stage, and if he moves out it won’t be because he doesn’t like me or that my bed is too hard. There were just circumstances that made this an emergency and that he’s trying to fix.”
“Pfffffffft,” his mother succinctly responded.
It struck him after his final library appearance that Bucky would probably disappear before Steve returned. There was an itinerary on the fridge that he’d stuck there so he would remember the dates, and there was a possibility that Bucky was basing his stay off that.
So he cancelled his final night in a hotel and took a red-eye home, all for the possibility he might make it back in time to find Bucky still in the apartment.
When he unlocked the door to find Bucky snoring on the couch, startling him awake by turning the light on at 4 am, Steve would claim that he hadn’t thought the plan through very well, if that hadn’t been exactly the plan he’d outlined in his head. There was probably something very wrong with him for enjoying the way Bucky bolted off the couch, standing barefoot in the living room with his blanket around him like a swath of protection from the intruder and his eyes blinking rapidly in the sudden light like a startled woodland creature.
Steve would laugh about this later.
“Why are you sleeping on my couch?” Steve questioned, dumbfounded at the sight of Bucky’s bare toes peeking out from beneath the comforter Steve had watched Bucky stuff into a garbage bag a week and a half before. He was too tall for the couch, but didn’t seem to mind being contorted into an unnatural shape if the way he had been snoring a few moments before was any indication.
“Don’t pretend you didn’t know. Why didn’t you have your mom kick me out if you didn’t want me here?” Bucky demanded in return, getting his wits about him faster than Steve would have been able to. “And why did she know my name and refer to me as your boyfriend?”
“I just meant… I have a bed,” Steve answered, frustrated, pointing towards his bedroom. “I wasn’t even home. It’s been empty all this time and it seems like a waste of a perfectly good bed.”
“Wait,” Bucky answered, looking at Steve’s face with a thoughtful, semi-amused expression that told Steve he was rapidly losing control over this conversation. “You let your mom believe I’m your boyfriend on purpose, before she even came here? Would it have anything to do with those adorable children she had trailing after her?”
Steve had definitely lost control of this conversation.
“They’re trying to kick me out of my apartment for the month,” Steve answered, and then winced. Not a smart thing to say to someone who was literally just kicked out of his own home. “The whole family wants to move in until after the holidays and leave me sleeping in the guest room at my parents’ place.”
“Those fiends,” Bucky said with sarcasm. “There’s a message for you on fridge, by the way.”
Bucky watched as Steve crossed the room, pulling off three pieces of white paper. The first was a drawing of five stick figures in a box and one very large stick figure that Steve assumed was himself outside of the box. The second was squiggles. The third was a letter that said: Dear Steve, you have a nice home. Love, Kristen.
“Oh boy,” Steve said, dropping all of them on the counter.
“There’s more,” Bucky continued in delight, pointing towards the blinking light on Steve’s answering machine. He rarely used his home phone, so someone had to have deliberately looked up the number to call it to leave a message.
Someone who didn’t want him to find it until he got back, and who maybe wanted Steve’s company to hear what it said.
Someone like his overbearing mother.
So, with that conclusion in mind, he wasn’t expecting to hear a child’s voice.
“Uncle Steve! We went to see your apartment yesterday and there was a man there that made Auntie Sarah scream. Mom says it’s big enough for five people but that there are only two of you. Do you think Stella, David and I can come stay with you? We can sleep on the couch. Pleeease! You already have toys, though I don’t understand why they were pinned to the furniture. Is it so you don’t lose them? Davey always loses his toys. Oh! And mommy is telling me that… I mean, no, mommy isn’t here, but did you know that you’ll always be able to entertain us because you have a big imagination, and Auntie Sarah says that the guest room here can hold two. I think that’s it. That’s it. Byeeee.”
His mother was far better at tactical warfare than he was.
“Please stay,” Steve said, putting his head in his hands. Bucky was laughing at him, leaning against the kitchen counter and outright grinning at Steve. The way that Bucky was laughing at him told Steve that he’d figured out what was going on, and maybe Steve hadn’t had to return home to surprise him because Bucky had been planning to stay just to give Steve shit about this. “I’m begging you. You can even take the bed.”
“Well, if you’re begging,” Bucky answered, all mock-hesitancy. “I don’t see why I couldn’t. It’s easier to lie about having a boyfriend when you can produce him when you need to.”
“Yes,” Steve nodded along.
“You shouldn’t lie to your mother. I’m doing you a favor, you know,” Bucky seemed to have trouble holding on to an innocent expression as he said that, his mouth twitching in and out of a smirk. “She seems very sharp, she would have figured you out.”
“Also true,” Steve agreed. “It was a ploy to buy a little time, at best.”
“And I tried sleeping on your bed,” Bucky shrugged. “But it was way too firm. I’d rather sleep on a hardwood floor than in your bed. I felt like Goldilocks, and the couch was just right.”
Ouch. That actually… ouch. Why did that bother Steve as much as it did?
“Ohhhh hooooo,” Bucky crowed, getting a good look at Steve’s face. “You want me in your bed. That’s an interesting turn of events that I can’t even pretend to be surprised about. We’re so going on a date sometime.” He was entirely too smug for Steve’s comfort. How did this conversation get away from him so quickly?
“We can date now.” Steve said that with the kind of hopeless confusion of someone completely out of their depth and floundering for a step back up into the shallow end of the pool. They just… had that conversation been a negotiation of all the reasons Bucky wanted Steve to think he was staying, rather than the one large reason – Bucky being homeless?
“Well, sure, we could,” Bucky mused, “but I’d rather not mix the idea of being indebted to you for putting me up for a few weeks with dating. It seems like a disaster waiting to happen.”
“You’re staying?” Steve questioned, relieved, his tone taking on a hopeful quality that would make him wince in other circumstances. He could actually feel the tension eking out of his shoulders.
“Wow, I was convinced you were putting things out of proportion until just this moment. Your face is pathetic right now – I’m the one who has been couch hopping for the last week and a half, and you look more grateful for the idea of having someone sleep on your couch than I am to be on it.”
“They have a way of wearing me down until I’m agreeing to do things I promised myself I wouldn’t. It’s only a matter of time before I’m packing up a bag and sleeping at home so my cousins can have my apartment. This place isn’t children friendly.”
“No,” Bucky agreed. “This is the place where toys go to die. Young ones should not be exposed to that. I don’t know what your mother is thinking.”
“Exactly. Thank you.”
“No problem,” Bucky yawned widely, grabbing his blanket up in his hands. “As the boyfriend you invented, it’s my job to have your back. Now, I’m sleeping for another 4 hours and you owe me for waking me up this early. What did you do? Take an overnight flight?”
“Go back to sleep,” Steve mumbled in response, grabbing up his suitcase and retreating to his bedroom before Bucky had a new observation that would prove exactly how transparent he was.
Steve woke up a few hours later and realized that in an apartment the size of his, if he left his bedroom to get breakfast, he’d definitely wake up his guest. He wasn’t sure he’d even be able to shower quietly enough. He stared up at his ceiling, listening for sounds that might indicate that Bucky was awake.
Like the shower running. That was a good sign that Steve could probably leave his bedroom. Only, the most pressing reason to leave bed, he was discovering, was the need to pee.
He might not be cut out to have a roommate. Steve had a bladder of champions. He once had a summer job that put him in a one-piece costume, and he rarely needed help getting in or out of it to use the bathroom over the span of his 6-hour shift. It was a source of pride for him. But there was just something about knowing that he couldn’t go because someone was already occupying the bathroom that made his bladder rebel in a very desperate way.
The only way Steve could see around that was to go back to sleep. It was easy enough to do since he never napped on planes, so technically he was running on less than four hours after a very hectic week. By the time Steve emerged from his bedroom, Bucky was gone and there was a strange towel hanging on (what used to be) the empty hook on the back of the bathroom door.
Living with someone else might take some getting used to, Steve decided, going for coffee and finding his Keurig already turned on and heated up. But then there might be some advantages.
And some disadvantages, Steve realized, coming home from his lunch with his mother with the idea of turning on Netflix to finish the episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine he started while staying in a hotel in Louisiana, only to find Bucky sitting on the couch, his feet up on the coffee table. The moment he saw Steve, he put his feet on the floor and looked sheepishly at him.
“I could leave if you don’t want to see me through the day,” Bucky offered, probably misinterpreting the look on Steve’s face as displeasure. “I’m sure I can find things to do. I know you work from home.”
Steve waved him off. “Don’t worry about it,” he said, collapsing into the arm chair he had situated at a corner with the couch and that had seemed like a foolish addition to his apartment before now. Steve usually sat on the space Bucky put his head, and it felt weird to sit on Bucky’s bed, especially with him sitting right there. They sat in silence for a moment, and Steve wondered if he should just concede awkwardness and go hide in his bedroom.
No. No, that was the coward’s way out of this. Steve was no coward.
“Do you like Brooklyn Nine-Nine?” he questioned instead, reaching forward for the television remote.
“Sure,” Bucky drawled, leaning back into a sprawl that looked boneless and relaxed. Steve wasn’t sure if Bucky felt the way he looked or if he, too, was making an effort, but Steve was a little envious either way how easy it seemed for him. “What kid from Brooklyn doesn’t?”
“Yeah?” Steve turned Netflix on. “Me too.”
“Oh, I know,” Bucky grinned. “Your mom made sure I had her contact information and your life history. We’ve been texting about you.”
That would not surprise Steve. “Good things, I hope.”
“No,” Bucky laughed. “I’d call you gullible, but I have met your mom, so I have a feeling receiving a text from her is just another thing in a long list of things I can expect from this relationship.”
“You know,” Steve answered, a smile playing around his lips as he braced his toes on the edge of the coffee table. “I’m not sure what you can expect from this relationship. She’ll probably swing by at least once with a batch of cookies.”
“Yum,” Bucky responded. “I’ll take bribes.”
“Really she’ll be wondering if you’re still on the couch, checking into the state of unpacking – or, actually, your things integrating in with mine, and judging me on whether or not I put up more in terms of decoration than the tree.”
“Is that all then? That’s easy enough. I’ll continue to remove the bedding when I wake up so that your living room looks like a living room. We can hide some of these boxes, distribute them around a bit so it doesn’t look like we haven’t even considered touching them yet, and there’s one of them that has a few books and apartment odds and ends that we can set up so it looks like I’m nesting. We can say that the ones left are my summer things, and you’re in the process of cleaning out your storage area downstairs to give me a bit of space.”
“I’ve seen it. I think it might be a fire hazard,” Bucky reminded him. “I actually worry that if any rodents are going to be living down there, it’s probably in the tightly packed boxes of sports equipment you keep. Did you once have a gym set up in here instead of a couch and television? It’s one of those things I’ve always wanted to ask.”
“It’s all things I’ve picked up over the years,” Steve told him. “I want to have a home gym if I move into a two bedroom apartment and there was a point a few years ago where I started purchasing used equipment when gyms went out of business. It got out of hand quickly.”
“That stuff does take up a lot of space,” Bucky agreed, slinging his feet on to the coffee table, which had been the reason Steve had put his own up to begin with. He wanted Bucky to be comfortable to do whatever he wanted. “We gonna do this or what? I gave up my television and internet package back in the summer and Netflix a few months ago. It’s been a while since I’ve been entertained by something I haven’t gotten from the library.”
“Yeah,” Steve answered, pressing the play button. “We’re gonna do this.”
“Not to disparage the library,” Bucky added, and somehow relaxed into the couch even more, almost going completely boneless. “They probably give you a lot of business and all. Can you start the episode from the beginning?”
It took Steve less than 24 more hours to learn that Bucky wasn’t a morning person. On the second day of Bucky on his couch, Steve woke up to go to the gym, stepped out into the living room, and went for coffee. He was standing in his kitchen waiting for his Keurig to warm up, munching on an apple, when something soft collided with his back with enough force that he stumbled forward in surprise.
Steve looked over at Bucky. Bucky glared back. “It’s stupid early, Steve,” he groaned, and then flopped back down onto the couch. He made a startled, unhappy sound as his head hit the armrest instead of his pillow. “Where the fuck’s my pillow?”
Steve was – well Steve was amused enough that he was probably going to deliberately evoke that reaction again.
Bucky whined with discontent when his pillow landed on his face. Steve sat at his small kitchen table and observed the apartment. There was a chrome bowl on the coffee table that he didn’t understand, actual vinyl records stacked next to his CD player with no record player in sight – Steve assumed Bucky had once owned a rather expensive one and the leftover records were the fragmented remains of that interest. Bucky’s coat was hanging next to his, a pair of shoes lined up neatly beneath it. The bathroom was a mess of products that weren’t his, there were mugs hanging on hooks close to the coffee machine that looked like they matched the coffee table bowl, and the entire place looked like Bucky had made himself at home.
It made Steve feel weird to see it. He knew that he was the one who needed Bucky to play along, but it he still felt strange to see all their things mingling in a space Steve had always considered to be solely his.
He tried to identify the feeling closer than that, but his heart felt heavy and disproportionately sized for his chest and there was a crackling, bursting feeling in his lungs, like he couldn’t breathe easily even though his air intake was fine. If Steve tried to label what it was from life experience he’d say he was experiencing pneumonia.
Steve didn’t have pneumonia. Steve was experiencing whatever the emotional equivalent of moving in with someone (even temporarily) and discovering that you liked their things next to yours, no matter how much your tastes varied, and that he liked the fact that Bucky’s feet were sticking out of the end of the blanket because he had it pulled over his head, gathered at his ears and over his eyes to block out the sun. Whatever the emotional equivalent of that? That was what Steve was experiencing.
“Could you slurp your coffee quieter?” Bucky questioned in an irritated tone from his swaths of blanket.
“You’re really not good at mornings,” Steve observed, and he smiled against the lip of his coffee mug because that hadn’t been something he previously knew about Bucky.
There were some habits…
Some habits Steve didn’t really consider because he had been doing them for so long that they came automatically, especially in the middle of the night. Steve couldn’t be blamed for working on autopilot in the middle of the night, not if Bucky couldn’t be blamed for cursing at him while half asleep in the morning.
It was something he’d have to work on.
Steve didn’t notice what he was wearing - or not wearing - until he had his hand in the fridge, retrieving the jug of water, and realized how cold the air was on his chest. It wouldn’t be a big deal - he got water a few times a week like this, if it wasn’t for the soft sound of Bucky shifting behind him. Steve had completely forgotten there was someone sleeping in his living room.
Steve stood very still, not moving a muscle.
“Steve?” Bucky questioned, voice rough from sleep.
Steve turned, eyes wide with horror.
“Are you… why are you naked in the kitchen?” Bucky questioned, squinting at Steve from the couch.
“It’s how I sleep,” Steve answered.
“Yes,” Bucky agreed with him, a big grin crossing his face even though he didn’t look to be entirely awake. “But why are you naked? It’s not Christmas. Yet. I feel like I’ve been given a present.”
“It’s how I sleep!” Steve repeated in a louder, more panicked tone.
“Are you sleeping now?”
“Are you?” Steve retorted.
They both stared at each other for a moment. “Maybe,” Bucky conceded in confusion. “I don’t think I can rule it out.”
There was one last work related thing he had to do before he was able to take two weeks ‘off’ from outside obligations. He usually used breaks like the holidays to get a good start on his first book of the New Year. It took a surprising amount of time to create a book for kids, especially when he was both the artist and the writer, and after the first one he actually put thought into the contents.
“We had the crocodile sock puppet cleaned for you. Mostly got the baby vom out,” Clint said, dropping a bag at his feet. “Your itinerary is in your iCal, we’ve set up text notifications for you, though we realize you’ve never had a problem remembering appointments. We’ve asked staff at the bookstore to make sure the children don’t touch you. They seem very competent. Unfortunately, no one from Triskelion will be there.”
“That’s not a service I request,” Steve frowned, considering this new information. His author visits had been getting easier for him to do. He’d thought that was because he was getting less anxious about them, and while he did notice that having Clint around helped, he hadn’t realized it was because someone was running interference. He was sure that the bookstore clerks were very competent when it came to some things, but keeping kids away from a guest author probably wasn’t high on the list of priorities. “You’re not sending someone?”
He might not have thought about it in terms of a purposeful service Triskelion was taking care of, but that didn’t mean Steve wanted to be without it.
Clint looked like he was outright rolling his eyes at Steve. “It’s not something you need to request, it’s up to us to anticipate what you need. Some authors request tepid water before doing a reading, some refuse to visit places without a private staging room, and some desire complete anonymity. For you, we just limit your physical exposure to the children. You already knew that I’m taking next week off for the holidays, I told you back in November. This is a busy time of year for us, there’s no one else to step up.”
“Of course,” he answered, becoming aware that if he made any kind of issue of it, he’d be the insensitive jerk. He already felt like enough of a prima donna author. Triskelion sent someone to sure the kids didn’t touch him. Specifically for that reason.
“You’ll be fine!” Clint insisted. “They’re just kids. Nothing to be scared of.”
“Wait,” Bucky said, his head popping up from the other side of the couch, causing Clint to visibly jump. Steve himself had forgotten Bucky had been quietly reading. He still wasn’t used to having someone in his space at all times, his independence slightly infringed upon by having to make sure Bucky wouldn’t be inconvenienced by things like… like getting water without putting on pajama bottoms.
Steve couldn’t do that anymore.
Though, Bucky hadn’t really been complaining. The only thing Bucky really did in response was smirk in his direction sometimes like Bucky had seen Steve naked (he had) and was thinking about it (he probably was). It made Steve feel warm with a reaction that was only about 30% embarrassment.
Steve looked at Bucky and Bucky looked back at him with a delighted expression, like Christmas had come early. “You’re scared of children?” he asked incredulously.
“No, I…” Steve started and then just… deflated. “Yeah. Yeah, terrified of them.”
If anything, Bucky looked even more delighted. “You write children’s books. You tour the country reading your books to children, and you don’t even like them?”
“Uhh.” Steve was actually fidgeting now. “Yes? I mean, I like them in theory? They just…”
“Scare you?” Bucky questioned in glee.
“Scare him,” Clint affirmed. He, too, was starting to look amused at Steve’s expense.
“This is the best day ever.”
The way Bucky was looking at Steve was really worrying.
“Don’t worry,” Bucky continued, his lips permanently etched in a grin. “I’ll go with you,” he said to Steve, and then looked over to Steve’s PA. “I’ll go with him.”
“See, your boyfriend will be there,” Clint pointed out, handing Steve the bag of puppets.
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Bucky said. He was one movement away from rubbing his hands together and cackling like a movie villain. “Listen, I used to work in the business sector. I’m sure I can handle more than keeping children off him. Maybe we can make this official.”
“I’m not sure how that’s relevant,” Clint hedged.
“Well, I have 3 nieces and nephews,” Bucky continued. “Plus, look at him. Do you think kids are the only ones I have to beat off with a stick?”
To Steve’s immense embarrassment, Clint looked like this was a valid point. “Between you and me, it’s really the moms you have to worry about. Yeah, ok. Are you free right now? There’s a café on the corner that I go to every time I stop by Steve’s place. I can fill you in there so that way I can get my mocha and get back to the office on time.”
“Buddy, I’m practically unemployed. I have all the time in the world if you treat. Let me get my jacket.”
“In that case, forward me your resume and maybe we can see if Steve has any wriggle room in his contract so we can hire you as a temp.”
“Sweet,” Bucky said, giving Steve a thumbs up from behind Clint’s back. He had his jacket in his hand and the door open with a kind of enthusiasm that his impression of a couch potato hadn’t really allowed for.
“Your hot neighbor across the hall,” Clint observed. “Nice going.”
Steve wasn’t sure how, but somehow that was just icing on the awkward cake this whole afternoon had been so far. Did everyone know about his crush on Bucky? Bucky even seemed to know about his crush on Bucky.
“You didn’t mention that part of the job was doing your puppet show for you,” Bucky said to him, his tone full of recrimination and his eyes narrowed into a glare as he pulled the fashionable scarf from around his neck. Steve could tell he wasn’t actually furious, which was interesting, because Steve wasn’t sure he should know enough about Bucky to be able to tell his moods.
It wasn’t like that was a recent development after Bucky had moved in.
“Hey, I didn’t say anything at all,” Steve pointed out. “That was all you.”
“You can’t talk to me like that, technically you’re paying me now.” Bucky grinned. “I get $100 just for watching your ass for an hour. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t jump at the chance to do that for free.”
“Ha ha,” Steve answered in a sarcastic tone.
Bucky continued to grin at him.
“What?” Steve asked, feeling vaguely uneasy.
“Clint had pictures.”
“Of my ass?” Steve questioned, jarred.
“No. Of your terror-face while holding a baby. It’s hilarious. I can’t wait to see it in person.”
The weather outside is fri… ok, no. It wasn’t the weather that was frightful to Steve.
Steve paused signing books to appreciate the way Bucky’s ass looked in his jeans as he bent over to talk with some of the kids who enjoyed the puppet show. Now that he was aware that Clint was interacting with the children more than Steve did on purpose, Steve could see the places where Bucky deliberately stepped in to be the first contact. Bucky was in front of the table shaking tiny hands and grinning, almost permanently in a kneeling position, while Steve was set up behind the table stacked with his books, multiple colored pens next to his hand. While he’d been doing the reading, Bucky had been at the floor at his feet while Steve had been in a chair. It was little things like that that seemed obvious in retrospect but that Steve had never noticed as deliberate.
Before he really understood what was happening there was a writhing, squishy mass pushed into his arms and a bunch of people sighing softly.
That was what happened when he let his guard down for too long. It was his own fault, getting distracted by Bucky’s butt like that. Never would have happened with Clint.
Very rarely happened with Clint.
“You look good with a baby,” one of the mothers said as Steve held on to the child, his heart beating audibly in his chest as he went into a minor panic and hoped he didn’t drop it. “It’s not fair that you’re so good with children and look so good doing it.”
“Kids are my life,” Steve found himself saying. “They’re so cute, I could just eat them up.” The words were automatic, something he started saying by rote very early on because that’s what people said about babies. It had started a whole range of nightmares about cannibalizing infants that had forced him to give up watching Hannibal.
Bucky turned around and caught sight of him with the child, his entire body going still. “Oh my god,” he said, eyes going wide. To his credit, he didn’t look on the verge of hysterical laughter like Sam had the one time he’d come along to one of Steve’s book readings in the early days, before the publishing house started sending an assistant for the puppet show.
Steve stared over at him. He wasn’t sure what his face looked like, but he was very aware that people were taking pictures, so he was trying his best to minimize ‘freaked out.’ He’d seen the way his smile looked when he was trying not to look freaked out and he had no idea how people couldn’t tell immediately. It had all the classic signs of someone smiling because there was a gun to their head.
(or, more aptly, a child wiping their nose on his sweater)
“Steve,” Bucky said, reaching out towards him to take the baby from his outstretched hands. “That’s enough pictures for now. I can take her from you so you can sign the book her mother is holding.”
“I love babies,” Steve responded in what sounded like a completely dead tone to his ears.
What a croc!
“I know. But I promised to help keep the line moving,” he made grabby hands for the baby, and Steve tried not to be too relieved as Bucky took the weight into his arms, cooing down at the child with a silly smile on his face as Steve took one of his books from the mother. Bucky quirked an eyebrow at him before passing the baby along. In that moment, Bucky appeared to be the kind of person who would say “baby!” in a delighted tone when he had one in his arms. Steve was the kind of person who would exclaim “baby!!!” in horrified tones, like he had a live grenade in his hands, and do his best not to actually drop the tiny human.
Great, they’d probably have to have the conversation at some point. The one about kids.
If they ever actually dated.
“I swear to god,” Bucky hissed at the Keurig. “I’m going to turn off the feature that times your off switch, so you’re always ready to go when I want coffee, you piece of shit. The whole point of owning you is convenience. It’s not like the coffee is good. Do you hear that, Keurig? Your coffee isn’t even that good.”
“Seriously?” Steve questioned, amused as he sipped at his orange juice. He was sure his eyes were soft with fondness, and he’d worry that Bucky would notice if it wasn’t for how much Bucky was not a morning person. “Keep it on 24/7 if you want, but the blue light will get in your eyes all night.”
Bucky stared at him like he saw that as a personal challenge.
The next morning Bucky stood silently in front of the Keurig, wiping sleep out of his eyes and looking like he was on the verge of collapse. It finished spitting out a mug of coffee and he stood braced against the counter as he gulped it down, his free hand replacing the pod with a fresh one.
“Rough night?” Steve questioned.
“Shut the fuck up,” Bucky croaked. “You didn’t warn me that the Keurig lights up the entire apartment like the blue light of death.”
“I did, actually,” Steve answered with amusement. “And you could have turned it off, you stubborn bastard.”
Bucky flipped him the bird.
It was tough to say which Bucky Steve enjoyed more: the easy-going, witty and charming version he knew during the day or the cranky asshole he was in the morning.
Steve was pretty sure the answer was that he just liked Bucky.
Of course, one of the reasons that Steve never could blame Bucky for his cranky starts to the morning, besides the fact that Steve thought they were adorable, was that Bucky always tried to make up for them later. Sometimes he offered to make supper, others he made sure there was fresh milk in the fridge. Sometimes he’d just look at Steve and say something like ‘sorry I… ya know’ and then give him the middle finger for demonstrative purposes.
One of the other reasons was that Steve was enough of an adult to realize that it wasn’t like he didn’t also have terrible habits.
Habits like painting in the middle of a small, poorly ventilated apartment with the window wide open despite the fact it was mid-December and it was snowing in earnest out.
He knew that, even as he took out his brushes, that it wasn’t a kindness to expose another person to the discomfort of the scent of paint and the cold air, no matter how blocked he was on how the new sidekick, best friend forever that Steve the Dancing Monkey was about to gain should look. Bucky had only been gone an hour into an eight hour shift, and Steve worked best with actual paints when he couldn’t figure something out. It was his primary medium, no matter how well he’d adapted to the digital age.
He’d be done long before Bucky returned, he figured, picking up his brush….
Bucky set a glass of ice water next to Steve’s non-dominant hand. It was very wisely in a cup with a lid, something Steve thought of as an adult version of a sippy cup – it worked well for the artist in him who wasn’t always paying attention to which cup his paint brushes were dunked into. Steve took a gulp of water before he even registered where it came from, and he realized he was really thirsty.
“You’ve been clearing your throat for the last fifteen minutes,” Bucky observed, smiling at Steve. “Got obnoxious,” he said, but he looked like he thought Steve was anything but, a soft expression on his face.
Steve felt his heart trip over itself, effectively jolting him out of his painting mindset.
“I’m sorry about the fumes,” he said, feeling self-conscious of the fact that he hadn’t even noticed Bucky return home. He’d promised himself that he’d have everything cleared and aired out before that happened, which told Steve that he’d spend more time on the piece than he thought. “When I’m stuck I go back to my roots, and I got caught up…”
“It’s not a problem,” Bucky promised him, collapsing on to the couch and pulling a book on to his lap. It was one of the war history books Steve had lining the shelf next to his television set. Bucky had taken one look at his book collection and his superhero movie collection and had started laughing, but he seemed to find the books readable enough. “Who am I to complain, anyway?”
“You live here too,” Steve reminded him.
Bucky gave him a look like Steve was extremely behind on the conversation. “I sleep here. Literally, here. On the couch.”
“You didn’t want the bed,” Steve blurted out and then closed his eyes because wow, he actually had said that.
Bucky just laughed. Steve cleaned off his brush and stretched out his fingers with a wince. They were cramped from a combination of the cool air and being pressed around his paint brush for hours. He stood back to take a look at what had developed on his canvas, and he didn’t know what to think of the small bear with the smirk.
A bear? So cliché. Steve couldn’t use that, he realized, sneering to himself.
“You look cold,” Bucky observed as Steve pressed his hands beneath his armpits. It wasn’t just from the cold, it was also disappointment that he hadn’t been able to work through the mental block he had for this character.
Steve shrugged, turning to look at Bucky. He felt even worse to note that Bucky had on a heavy sweater and a matching scarf and fingerless glove set, leafing through his book like the cold wasn’t of concern.
“You can share body heat with me,” Bucky offered, mouth turning up in a devastatingly impish smirk.
Steve’s heart tripped over itself in his chest as he turned to look at the painting, a hollow, shocked feeling buzzing through his head as he took in the similarities between Bucky’s expression and the bear’s.
“Bucky,” Steve hissed, sticking his head out the door to his bedroom. He wasn’t sure why he was being quiet, there was just something about what he had to say that felt like it had to be said in hushed tones, despite the fact that no one was listening in. No one who wasn’t in on the secret, anyway.
“What?” Bucky asked, obviously not giving Steve his full attention.
“Mom is stopping by at 7 tomorrow morning.”
Amendment: no one was listening in. Not even the person in on the secret.
“Bucky,” Steve continued in a normal tone. “Mom is stopping by at 7 tomorrow morning. Saturday, you know, the day you usually sleep in.”
“That’s…” Bucky’s head came up and he turned to look at Steve. “Actually, that really sucks.”
Steve winced. “Sorry.”
“Is this what you were talking about? Her checking in on us.”
“Uh,” Steve hedged, rubbing at his forehead. “More like… she wants to get an early start for our trip to New Haven to go antiquing.”
Bucky stared at him.
Bucky stared at him a little more, finally blinking in exaggerated disbelief.
“What?” Bucky sounded incredulous. Steve might find it flattering that Bucky didn’t think Steve was the type to go on an antiquing trip with his mother if he didn’t know for a fact that Bucky really appreciated quality vintage things. “You’re serious? Your poker face is not good enough for that to be anything other than the truth. Antiquing in New Haven?”
Steve shrugged. “We do it every year. She likes to see everything coated in snow.”
“Ah huh,” Bucky answered, and there was something judgemental in his tone, but Steve wasn’t sure what it was directed at. “And what do you get out of it?”
“Seeing everything coated in snow,” he confessed, grinning sheepishly at Bucky with a casual shrug and a slight tilt of his head. “You can come, if you want.”
“As delightful as that sounds, I can’t,” Bucky admitted. “And that is completely sincere, absolutely zero sarcasm. I work from noon to 6 on Saturdays.”
“Well, why don’t you just sleep in my bed?” Steve found himself asking, gesturing towards his bedroom. “That way you won’t be woken up earlier than you want to be.”
“I’m not going to sleep in your bed,” Bucky scoffed at the idea. “I mean literally. I will not actually sleep on that thing. I’ll just wake up for 7, it’s not that big of a deal.”
“The offer’s open.”
Bucky smirked at him, suddenly looking pleased. “Ohh, is it? And exactly how far does the offer to be in your bed extend?”
Steve took in Bucky’s obviously flirtatious expression and squared his shoulders, matching Bucky’s confidence with his own. “However far you want it to.” He looked at Bucky directly, and turned back into his room. Bucky could take that as whatever kind of invitation he wanted to take it as.
“Shit,” he heard Bucky breathe.
“Buck.” Steve was crouched next to Bucky, peering into his lax, sleeping face. Bucky was absurdly attractive at any point, but there was something about seeing his face close up, mouth mashed into the pillow cradled beneath both of his arms as he snored softly, the material below his lips slightly damp with drool, that was disarmingly adorable. Steve reached out and curved his hand around Bucky’s shoulder, nudging him a bit. “Bucky. Mom’s going to be here in about 5 minutes. You’ve gotta wake up so we can hide your bedding.”
“F’off,” Bucky grumbled. “Let’r see. Tell’r wur fighn’ng.”
“I’m not telling her we’re fighting,” Steve answered in an exasperated tone. “You said you were going to wake up.”
Bucky turned to look at him, squinting up with an expression of pure loathing before he lifted himself up enough that he was able to gather his blanket around him with an exaggerated amount of dignity, shuffling into Steve’s bedroom and collapsing face-down on the bed.
When Bucky actually woke up, Steve was going to give him so much shit for this.
Instead what happened was this: Steve and Sarah returned from their trip, and Steve was feeling a sense of warmth from the hot chocolate and the sugar cookies he’d had at a small bakery (and maybe also from the afternoon with his mother). They walked in the door to find Bucky flat on the floor, his legs pressed vertical against the wall, and a used heat pack next to him.
“What happened to you?” Steve questioned in surprise as Bucky glared up at him.
“What do you think?” There was a certain measure of accusation in Bucky’s tone.
“Oh sweetie,” Sarah cooed, moving forward to adjust Bucky’s stance. “It works better like this. Steve’s bed finally caught up with you, did it?”
“Mom,” Steve started, already with an annoyed tirade on his tongue.
“It’s the worst, Sarah,” Bucky confided.
“Let me get you another heat pack,” Steve’s mother fussed over his not-actually-boyfriend, moving efficiently into Steve’s bathroom. “Did you take pain killers?”
“Before and after work,” Bucky answered. “It wasn’t so bad a few hours ago, but a 6 hour shift on my feet didn’t help.”
“Of course it didn’t,” she responded, shooting Steve a critical look that made him feel like the villain in his own apartment. He already felt bad enough seeing Bucky in pain, he didn’t need his mother to be on Bucky’s side.
“I brought you back cookies,” Steve offered, kind of helplessly shaking the paper bag and feeling like a complete idiot for cookies being the only thing he had to offer.
The way Bucky’s eyes lit up in delight and he lifted his arm to make grabby hands at Steve made it a bit better. “Quit bribing me with sweets, Rogers.”
“Well, I don’t have to give them to you,” Steve pointed out, sitting on the floor so he didn’t feel like a towering giant. Bucky still had to look up at him, but at least it wasn’t all 6 feet of him. It was probably gentler on Bucky’s neck. “I could keep them. They’re delicious.”
“Quit blackmailing me using the sweets you’re trying to bribe me with,” Bucky retorted, despite the fact Steve was already handing over the bag of cookies. He took a deep whiff. “Oh my god,” he groaned, taking a big bite out of one of the cookies. “These are amazing.”
Steve smiled down at him. It took a moment before he realized that his mother was watching the two of them with a soft, affectionate smile on her face, looking like she’d just witnessed a moment that was bringing her close to tears. Steve waited to feel like the world’s worst fraud for trying to lie to her, but out of all the things he was feeling in that moment, that wasn’t one of them.
“If you like those, you should join us on Christmas,” Sarah told Bucky. “If you think those are good, you need to experience Steve’s grandmother’s baking.”
“Can’t,” Bucky mumbled around a cookie. “I promised I’d be home this year before all,” he waved with his hand to encompass Steve and the room.
“Maybe before you leave?”
“I work Christmas Eve and take off directly after,” Bucky said. “I work all the shifts no one else wants to take. Thinksgiving was time and a half, and the store was practically dead on Halloween.” He shrugged. “It’s not like working minimum wage does more than provide a dippy little arm floatation device in the ocean. During a storm. In the middle of winter. There’s only so long you can keep your head above water before everything deflates and then you die.”
“That was a beautiful analogy,” Bucky insisted, grinning in a very self-congratulatory way. “Though it might be beyond someone who writes for toddlers.”
“You worked on Halloween?” Steve questioned.
It was an incredibly minor thing to think of, but money problems would explain why Bucky hadn’t dressed as a sex god for Halloween. Steve thought he missed it, that maybe Bucky had found someone else to zip him in and out of the leather pants. He wasn’t sure why it was easier to swallow the fact that Bucky had been working that evening than it was to consider someone else with their hands on the finicky back zipper to Bucky’s superhero costume. Steve wasn’t anyone to Bucky besides his neighbor and the closest person on hand during an emergency, and yet.
And yet, it seemed to matter to him. He had terrible priorities.
But the way Bucky grinned at him knowingly meant that Bucky probably came to Steve on purpose. “I sold the costume. You should have taken me up on the invitation the last two years I offered it. But enough flirtin’ in front of your mom.”
“Don’t mind me.” Sarah was smiling at him in a knowing way, and for a moment Steve wondered if she had him all figured out. “I’m just leaving. Thanks for the day, Steve. Maybe both of you will come next year?”
“I’d love to, Sarah,” Bucky promised. “Maybe you’ll let me show you my favorite place. It’s a bit out of the way so it doesn’t get picked over by the fall foliage day trippers.”
“You’re a hipster,” Steve informed Bucky after his mother slipped out the door. He was still sitting on the floor, watching as Bucky rolled the heat pack beneath his back with a wince. “The scarves should have warned me.”
“You get turned on by superhero costumes,” Bucky pointed out, hissing as the heat settled into his muscles. “You fucking nerd.”
“I get turned on by you in a superhero costume,” Steve corrected, rolling his eyes as Bucky stared at him in astonishment. “It’s not like that’s a secret.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t expect you to just admit it so easily, Steve!” Bucky said, smiling as Steve reached into the bag of cookies and took one. “I had good money on you being shy and repressed.”
“Maybe I am,” Steve responded, biting into the cookie with a wicked smirk of his own, leaning forward so he was as close to Bucky as possible, given their positions. “Maybe you’ll have to teach me. It’s a moot point, now,” he confided, leaning back. “Given your relationship with my bed. That’s how it works, right?” Steve adopted an expression of innocence. “In a bed?”
Bucky swore at him, hiding his eyes in the crook of his elbow as he laughed. “Yeah,” Bucky wheezed. “That’s how it works. God, you’re an asshole.”
“See,” Steve answered smugly. “We have something in common.”
“Buck? Did you finish off the cookies?” Steve looked mournfully at the empty bag in the garbage. Before going to bed there had been three left.
Bucky didn’t answer.
Steve had been so focused on Bucky that he almost forgot that this time of year actually carried a lot of obligations. It was like his weekend outing with his mother opened the floodgates, and the next thing he knew, he was holding their first real reason to be seen in public together as a couple where the onus would be on how well they could fake being in love.
It was stressing him out a little.
It became even more stressful when Bucky didn’t return home when Steve expected him, and he was left pacing the apartment wearing nice clothing and worrying that he might have to show up somewhere without Bucky, even though he should have known it was coming with enough time to give Bucky a heads up.
There was a sense of relief that came with Bucky unlocking the door with just enough time to spare that they wouldn’t be late.
“Are you going somewhere?” Bucky asked once he kicked off his boots and struggled with his work vest, finally getting it off with a violent shake of his arm that had it sailing across the living room and landing in a ball beside the couch. He turned, his entire face registering displeasure and exhaustion, and saw Steve standing in the entry way to the kitchen wearing a nice shirt and pants set.
Steve looked down at the tickets in his hands and back up at Bucky. He’d called his mother when they arrived by messenger that afternoon and told her that Bucky might not be able to make it because he was at work, but now that Bucky was standing in front of him looking like he couldn’t take just one more thing piling up on his day, Steve hesitated to even tell him.
"What?" Bucky questioned, almost crossly, as he leaned forward and picked the vest up, draping it over one of the boxes of his things. “You wouldn’t believe my day. I got asked to do a double five minutes before my shift was supposed to be over. Is it too much to ask that if you’re going to call in hung over that you do it before two in the afternoon?”
"Soooo.” Steve started cautiously, clearing his throat. Bucky stopped rambling about his coworkers to focus on him, his expression clearing and his eyebrow winging up in a curious expression.
“You’re doing that thing you do when you’re trying to figure out how to say something to me. You may as well just spit it out.”
“You know how I told mom that you moved in and then just allowed her to think that we're dating?"
"Sure," Bucky answered in a hesitant tone, like he, too, wasn't very happy with the direction this was going in.
"Well, every year we all pitch in for tickets to a Broadway show and go as a family. Sometimes someone wants to see something that’s a special showing, so I didn’t really question how much money I sent mom until the tickets arrived."
"Ah huh," Bucky responded, and he seemed to understand what Steve was about to say because his eyebrow arched sarcastically. Was it weird that Steve could tell Bucky’s moods by his eyebrows?
"Aladdin, this year," Steve hedged, not really wanting to outright say what needed to be said.
"Sure. Nothing says family like show tunes at Christmas."
"I know you think you're joking," Steve answered him. "But..."
"Nothing says family like show tunes at Christmas?" Bucky questioned.
"Yes. The problem is that mom assumes that you're family now. Because she thinks we’re dating. She expects you to be there with me in about an hour."
Bucky just laughed at him, the corner of one side of his mouth lifting as he cocked his head and observed Steve. "I'm sure you thought you were burying that little fact but your body language led with it before you even said a word. I've already figured out what I'm going to wear and which box it’s in, considered whether I have enough money to suggest we get drinks afterwards - I probably don't, by the way, but I'm game if you are. I’ve also decided that bringing a hostess gift for your mom isn’t needed, but if I managed to sneak a box of chocolates into the theatre I would probably be a hero."
He said all this while digging through one of his boxes, drawing out a pair of pants, and scowling at them as he noticed they didn’t survive being tightly packed without being wrinkled. Steve knew this because Bucky kept trying to smooth the material.
“We’ll leave in ten?” Bucky said, closing the door to the bathroom with a bundle of clothing beneath his arm.
Bucky had always cleaned up in an effortless kind of way that made all of his clothing look like they were made for him. Steve rarely noticed things like that, but when you brought a load of laundry down to the laundry room in the basement and met someone running up the stairs, clearly victim to New York street slush, and then met them again not even five minutes later running down the stairs, coat impeccably without a layering of frozen mud and grime and hair completely dry, you wondered if they were a wizard.
Steve might have been a bit tipsy off the rum he was contracted to do an advertisement for and wondering if ‘tastes like Manhattan looks’ was a viable plan for not lying off his ass about the fact it tasted like sewage water at the time, but it only made him take note of how often he saw Bucky with his collar out of place or one pant cuff accidentally tucked into his sock – both things Steve couldn’t go a week without doing at least once.
The answer was never.
So it wasn’t so much of a surprise when Bucky took his outfit into the bathroom and came out ten minutes later with most of the wrinkles tamed and the pants fitting his ass like the material was honored to be cupping such a treasure.
Steve wasn’t sure what his face looked like, but it definitely wasn’t the way Bucky took his expression to mean. “I know,” he said with a sigh, pulling at the material over his thighs and causing the material of his thin white t-shirt to stretch over defined shoulders. Christ. “I wish I had more time so I could iron them properly. I look like a slob.”
“You look perfect,” Steve blurted out, because he did. He looked really, really perfect, like the kind of guy who came home from working at a job he hated and was obligated into doing something he didn’t want to with someone he wasn’t actually dating. He looked like the kind of guy who took what he was given and made the best of it, smiling as he pulled a sweater on over his undershirt and treating Steve’s words like they were a heartfelt compliment that Bucky just wasn’t sure he could agree with.
“That’s nice of you to say,” Bucky took a moment to straighten his shirt. Somehow the v-neck collar matched perfectly with the collar of his undershirt, a combination that Steve never seemed to work out for himself.
“You look nice too,” Bucky informed him with a small smile. “Should we go?”
Steve wasn’t sure about Bucky, but he was suddenly incredibly nervous to introduce this man to his family – not because he thought that Bucky wouldn’t completely charm them, but because it carried a solidified kind of weight in Steve’s mind, a weight that it shouldn’t have considering that he and Bucky weren’t actually dating yet.
It felt like this was it. This had the potential of being the last person Steve ever brought home for the first time. It should be terrifying considering there were sheets from Bucky on his couch, an impermanence that didn’t make any guarantees that Bucky would be around for more than just a short time.
Steve felt like he just knew.
So it was no surprise when Steve found himself watching as Bucky won his family over entirely. He watched as his mother kissed Bucky’s cheek and laughed in delight when Bucky passed over the chocolates he snuck in during the first act. He watched as Bucky escorted her into the theatre, his free hand reaching behind him to grasp Steve’s.
He watched as Bucky put his hand on Steve’s thigh the moment they were both seated, and he watched as his own fingers reached out and traced the line of Bucky’s knuckles.
The real show, for Steve, wasn’t Aladdin.
Bucky fit in with his family seamlessly, hardly hesitating before he leaned over and whispered an observation about the play to his mother, who laughed and pointed to Steve’s aunt as someone who would also appreciate the joke. He went along with Steve’s cousins when they dragged him out of the theatre and towards one of the nearby bars, laughing along with Greg pantomiming one of the pivotal scenes, but also chiding him to have some respect for the actors.
By the time they left the bar, Steve was more and more certain that Bucky just fit in his life.
“You know,” Bucky said, walking straight despite the fact that his words came out with a slow Brooklyn drawl, like he had to concentrate on getting his lips to form sounds. He was leaning heavily against Steve, and Steve regretted not warning Bucky against taking shots with his cousin Phyllis. She dressed like a severe old spinster and drank vodka like she was Russian. Privately, he wanted to introduce her to Natasha. Bucky had started the thought as though he had something important to say, moved the words around in his mouth for a while, and then finished with: “I can’t feel my tongue.”
“You held your own well,” Steve answered, amused. He liked the feel of Bucky tucked up beside him, drunk because Steve’s family had taken to him and didn’t want to let him go. “I think she likes you. Those chocolates were a good idea.”
“No one likes concession prices, Steve,” Bucky said with all the gravitas of someone drunk. He threw his arms wide and turned a circle on the sidewalk, listing to one side as his foot moved over the slick cement. “Everyone likes chocolates.”
“Ok,” Steve answered, charmed. Entirely. He allowed Bucky to fall back into his arms, and he wondered if it was less to provide stable support and more because Bucky wanted to be there.
“Maybe next year it can be real,” he said, looking up at Steve with guileless, wide eyes. Usually Bucky looked like a hardened New Yorker, especially these days, but in that moment he looked vulnerable and painfully unaware of how gorgeous he was, how it tripped Steve up to see those eyes at the same time as hearing the unspoken uncertainty in his tone.
“I want it to be,” Steve answered honestly, tightening his grip. “I hope so.”
“I had fun tonight,” Bucky continued, very carefully putting one of his feet on the first of the stairs leading up to the entrance of Steve’s building. “You looked so concerned when I got back from work. That kind of ‘we need to talk’ expression and I worried you were going to kick me out, but this was fun. I like your family.”
“I’m not going to kick you out,” Steve promised him, his hands automatically moving to support Bucky in case he stumbled on the stairs. “I wouldn’t do that.”
“Yeah. You’re too… solid. Too stand-up. Too good of a person. That’s why I’m going home next week for good, so you won’t ever have to think about it.”
Steve let go of Bucky in surprise, the absence of his steading hand caused Bucky to flail backwards, catching himself on the railing. “You know you’re welcome to come home with me on Christmas Day if you don’t want to face going to Rhode Island. I want you there.”
“Your family made sure to tell me how much they’re looking forward to it. I think what I really need is a Barnes family special.” Bucky turned carefully, leaning down from his higher step and pressing his mouth against Steve’s. It was hardly a kiss, more of an expression of gratitude, but it made Steve still, preparing to gently extricate himself. Bucky pulled back first, patting his cheek a bit sharper than he would have if he was sober, and continued up the stairs with all the dignity he could manage.
“Eugh,” Bucky said in the morning, staring across the room at the Keurig. He was still spread out on the couch and had very gingerly removed his arm from across his eyes, squinting into the light.
“It’s not on,” Steve pointed out after Bucky stared across the room for five minutes, looking like he was trying to will the thing to make him coffee from the power of his hangover.
“No shit!” Bucky snapped at him. Then he winced and covered his face with his pillow, causing his head to hit against the arm of the couch. “Please turn it on. I promise it won’t be a habit.” The words were muffled by the pillow, but Steve understood.
“Well,” Steve said, magnanimously, enjoying the fact that he’d returned from a Christmas Broadway outing with his family without feeling like death for once. No one had cared if he did shots so long as they were entertained by Bucky. “It’s the least I can do considering this is my fault.”
“Fucker,” Bucky muttered, but there was no heat behind it, and Steve found himself leaning against the counter as the Keurig heated up, watching in amusement as Bucky slowly moved the pillow off his face. “I have to be at work in half an hour,” he groaned. “And because I’m responsible enough not to call in sick, I’m going to spend the whole day smelling like vodka sweat and vomit.”
“I’ll put the coffee in a travel mug for you.”
“Great,” Bucky croaked, gingerly pulling himself into a seated position. “I’m going to go throw up.”
“I love these mornings,” Steve called out behind him as Bucky stumbled into the washroom, only pausing long enough to give Steve the middle finger. Again.
“You’re all charm, Barnes.”
And Steve did love these mornings.
Bucky had told him that he was leaving when all Steve wanted was to find a way to keep him forever.
It didn't occur to Steve until about two days after their night out that it was tradition to hold The Rogers Family does Broadway exactly seven days before Christmas. Usually he was more prepared, but he hadn't been prepared at all for the feelings he was developing for Bucky and it was throwing everything off until he was five days away from the holidays and had exactly one present bought.
Steve shopped online when he could, not wanting to brave the department stores unless he was walking past to look at the holiday displays at night, but he found himself standing in front of a packed display case looking for a piece of jewellery his mother could wear for New Year’s Eve. It was a tradition his father had started back before he was born and Steve had been more than happy to keep it going. Now his mother was obliging him by sending him pictures of her planned outfit mid-November so he'd be able to locate something coordinated in plenty of time.
Or was it obligation him?
Regardless, Steve found himself picking out what the sales associate called a dinner ring and a bunch of accessories that she recommended, taking pity of his wide-eyed hopelessness.
He finished shopping before he expected, and it wasn't until he was standing in line at a coffee cart contemplating what Bucky would want that he realised – not only had he timed buying his final present with Bucky finishing work, but he'd also done it about three buildings away from his place of employment. Part of him was tempted to chalk it up to coincidence and return home, but he knew that wasn’t it.
So he bought the coffee and loitered outside, his bulk talking up more sidewalk space than New Yorkers really appreciated.
Bucky saw Steve the moment he stepped outside, chatting with one of his coworkers in an animated tone. His hands paused for a second as their eyes met, and then he gestured towards Steve, excusing himself from the crowd of people who finished their shifts at the same time he did. Bucky walked over, and Steve was almost positive he was putting an extra pop in his step on purpose.
“Hey,” Bucky said, drawing up next to him. “Are one of those for me?” he nodded at the coffee.
“No, I was thinking of asking out one of your coworkers. Which one keeps calling in sick?” Steve answered as he handed over the drink.
“This is the best,” Bucky told him, inhaling the scent through his nose before he took a sip. “I never feel justified to treat myself, even though work has been brutally busy this week. All these assholes doing their last minute shopping.” Bucky looked down at the bags Steve was holding in amusement. “What dickbags.”
“I bet.” Steve did his best to sound sardonic as Bucky nudged him with his shoulder, grinning as he matched his steps to Steve’s. There was a companionable silence between them as they walked back to Steve’s apartment, fingers brushing in a flirtatious manner. They paused to look at a holiday display and Bucky made a wounded sound in the back of his throat when he finished off his coffee.
Steve found himself passing his over, even though he wasn’t finished. There was just something about Bucky that inspired Steve to make the sacrifice play.
And the way Bucky hummed happily at the drink made Steve’s lack of coffee worth it.
“What a croc!” a kid yelled at a man in the Santa suit a few feet away, drawing Steve’s attention instantly. “Santa loves everyone!”
Steve paused on the sidewalk to put himself in a position where he could step in to help if it looked like it was needed. He wasn’t sure what was happening, but he could take a good guess. There weren’t very many interpretations to be made by a child yelling at a bell ringer dressed in a Santa costume. He found that he was smiling, and it wasn’t at what was happening, not really, but at how easily ‘what a croc!’ had emerged from the child’s mouth.
Before Steve could process what that meant, he found himself clapping in encouragement as the angry child scowled and crossed his arms over his chest.
“You did this,” Bucky said, stopping beside him and following Steve’s lead by clapping, one hand hitting against the fingers curled around his coffee cup. “You said it, kid!” he heckled in a loud voice. “What a croc!”
“What?” Steve questioned out the corner of his mouth, still grinning as one of the child’s mothers hurried over and took her son’s hand. She was followed by a security guard.
“You created a generation of social justice warriors,” Bucky answered, very obviously amused. “Are you happy with yourself?”
“You know what?” Steve answered, looking at the kid who had the ability to stick up for his family. Steve couldn’t take credit for any of that, except for maybe the line he’d used to do it. “I really think I am.”
“Good,” Bucky answered with a pleased smile. “There’s a reason your books resonate, and it’s not because you draw a ridiculously adorable monkey.”
“I’m the monkey,” Steve told him like it was his benediction. “The performing monkey is me.”
Bucky just rolled his eyes, nudging Steve with his shoulder. “You’re not nearly half as cute, quit fishin’ for compliments.”
“I…” Steve sputtered.
“Nah,” Bucky decided, “that’s a lie. You’re adorable. Especially flustered. Come on, let’s go home so I can make you supper to thank you for the coffee.”
There was a couple sitting on the front steps of the building as they arrived. The woman noticed them before Bucky saw her. “Bucky!”
“Becca!” Bucky exclaimed, his face lighting up in a smile as he stepped away from Steve’s side and towards his sister with his arms thrown wide. “You made it.”
Steve couldn’t help but juxtapose Bucky’s greeting with the expression on his face a few weeks before when he was waiting in the hallway for his sister to show up to move his things. Bucky looked… he looked happy, like the weight of the world wasn’t on his shoulders. His sister had her arms curled around him, reluctant to let go even as Bucky spread his arms towards her boyfriend, stepping out of her space.
Steve knew the feeling of having Bucky slip out of your grasp. It left the two of them standing there, observing each other. Becca took a step forward, offering her hand. “So you’re the guy?”
If Steve had learned one thing from Bucky over the last few weeks, it was how to answer that question. “I must be, depending on who you think I am.”
“Bucky’s new boyfriend,” she answered. “The one who insisted Bucky move in when he was in trouble earlier this month. Back home you’re our hero. We’ve been looking forward to meeting you.”
“Of course I did,” Steve answered, picking the strategic answer as he looked at Bucky over her head. It wasn’t so much that he was bothered by the idea that Bucky allowed his sister to believe that Steve was his boyfriend as it was Steve’s mind was screaming ‘aHA aHHHAAAAA’ on repeat towards Bucky like he was an overly immature five year old. There was a certain joy in knowing this was mutually beneficial and not just Steve’s inability to hold his ground when his mother asked for a favor and then repeatedly checked in to make sure he hadn’t changed his mind.
“We should get started packing my things,” Bucky pointed out, looking uneasily back at Steve like he was daring Steve to crow AHA in his face. “Where’d you park?”
“Are you kidding?” Becca asked. “We have 24 hours off from the kids. The van is parked at the hotel and we’re going to enjoy downtown Manhattan at Christmas. Whadda think?” she turned to her boyfriend. “Rockefeller?”
“Yeah,” Becca said in delight. “Say you’ll come, bro. You and Steve. It’ll be magical! Do you know how much I miss this city?”
Bucky looked at Steve, Steve looked at Bucky. Maybe if they were in a real relationship, or at least more familiar with the nuances of each other’s expressions from more than a few years accumulation of hallway meetings, Steve would be able to read Bucky better. As it was, he found himself making an exaggerated ‘whatever you want’ motion, which was half a shrug and a ‘I don’t know’ expression.
Bucky looked bemused in return, like he was reading Steve’s body language to mean something totally different.
“Well,” Bucky started. “I thought Steve might be really tired and want to skip out, but he seems to be game.”
Or possibly like Steve being so obvious meant he couldn’t turn his sister down by blaming it on Steve. Whoops. Steve was a terrible fake boyfriend.
“So, we’re in!” Bucky promised. “And I know just the place to get drunk once you’re done gawking at the lights like a tourist. You’ll love it.” Bucky grinned at him like this was going to be everything Bucky ever wanted, revenge-wise, for the night he went out with the Rogers family.
Steve just smiled back.
“I’m your boyfriend?” Steve questioned, leaning into Bucky on the bar stool he was perched on. Bucky’s sister was dancing in the small space carved out in front of the stage meant for live performances, though the music was entirely over the sound system. The way they were pressed together made Steve’s question not carry as much weight as it could, since there was no actual reason for the two of them to be treating the bar like there was no room for them to be sitting except for pressed up against each other. The seats on either side of them were empty.
“It doesn’t just work as a cover story for you.” Bucky pointed the neck of his beer in Steve’s direction, his foot curling around Steve’s ankle. “It took a few days, but it eventually hit them that I might be living on the streets. By that point I’d met your mother and put a few things together myself. You’re a good accomplice.”
“Yeah, but you realize you lose your higher moral ground, right?”
Bucky snorted. “As if I had any in the first place.”
“Oh, you did,” Steve answered with amusement.
“Mmhmm,” Bucky agreed with an edge of sarcasm. “At least this way there won’t be conflicting stories down the road.”
Yeah, if their families were ever in the same room together and compared notes.
Jesus. Steve was sitting in a bar, drinking beer, and thinking about the ways that could happen.
There was only one that immediately came to mind.
He couldn’t even think it in more than a whisper, a horrified whisper that came with a heavy dose of screaming what are you doing? in his brain.
Marriage. He was not drunk enough to think about marriage.
“Like if we get married,” Steve blurted out, because Steve had zero ability to talk to someone he was interested in, apparently. Or even a modicum of self-preservation.
“Yeah,” Bucky’s face went soft, and despite all the promises both of them made, that moment stood out strongly to Steve. It was as though it solidified the fact that both of them were on the same page far more than the words ‘we want the same things’ ever could. Bucky tapped the bottom of his beer against Steve’s, the clinking sounding like a call to toast. “To whatever the future holds for us.”
Steve woke up to the sound of the front door closing, and the first thing he thought of was Bucky leaving without saying goodbye. Even though he typically allowed himself Sunday mornings to sleep in, he found himself bolting out of bed at the noise, standing in the doorway of his bedroom looking for a familiar presence in the living room. Bucky wasn’t still asleep on the couch, which was definitely a worrying sign, and Steve ended up staring around his apartment looking for him with a surprising amount of desperation before he realized that all of Bucky’s things were still in the corner. He was so used to seeing them there that they didn’t even register as not belonging anymore.
He felt the sigh of relief through his entire body at the realization that Bucky hadn’t packed and left. Bucky was still in New York, even if he wasn’t in their apartment.
Steve spent a few quiet minutes reflecting on the fact that he’d considered his apartment as ‘their’ apartment before the key turned in the lock and Bucky walked in carrying two cups of coffee from the place down the street he had always been partial to treating himself to. “One of these is for you,” he said, passing over a full, warm cup of coffee. Steve inhaled the scent of peppermint and caffeine. It was like Christmas.
It was especially like Christmas considering that expensive coffee was one of the treats Bucky didn’t allow himself anymore.
“Thanks,” Steve said, taking the cup of coffee from Bucky’s hands with a grateful sigh. Then he frowned because there looked to be a trail of frozen, half-dried brown liquid spilling from Bucky’s scarf to the hem of his sweater. “Looks like you’re wearing yours.”
“Some asshole body-checked me mid-sip,” Bucky answered, peeling off his scarf and looking at the knit with a critical eye. “So some of it is his. At least I can gladly say that I robbed him of a little bit of enjoyment, since I think I’m wearing his whipped cream.”
Steve stared at Bucky, doing his best to keep his face dead-panned so Bucky would automatically consider his words.
“Oh,” Bucky smirked. “Well, either way, there’s something to be said about not wearing $500 shoes anymore. I think most of it sloughed off in the slush out there, but I don’t want to think of the stains it would have left on suede. He wouldn’t have made it home alive.”
“You’re very vindictive.”
“He was very rude,” Bucky said, finishing off his drink and then reaching for Steve’s. Steve watched as Bucky took a large, gratifying gulp of his coffee, and even though he hated people sharing his food and drinks, he didn’t mind it so much when Bucky somehow managed to make it home without spilling a drop of it while he was wearing the proof of his own war wounds. “I spent over $8 on a coffee too,” Bucky continued, offering the cup back to Steve. Steve took it automatically, taking a sip before passing it back to Bucky. “And if there’s anyone in Manhattan who can’t afford to pay that for coffee, it’s me. That’s like two hour at my current job. Two hours! How do people even eat on minimum wage?”
“$8 a coffee?” Steve echoed incredulously. “Why? What’s in it?”
“I don’t know,” Bucky answered, taking another sip of Steve’s drink and licking his lips. “Probably crack. Considering the way I woke up this morning and intensely wanted one, I wouldn’t be surprised. I mean, why not? It’s almost Christmas and this week I’m going to have to move to Rhode Island,” Bucky continued, almost petulantly. “I deserve a treat.”
“Of course you do,” Steve affirmed.
“And don’t tell me I shouldn’t have wasted money on you, too. If anyone deserves a fancy, overpriced coffee, it’s you,” Bucky took a final sip of Steve’s drink and then pushed the cup back into Steve’s hands. It was over half gone. “Especially since I didn’t get a chance to make supper for you last night.”
Bucky nodded sharply and moved towards his things, shoving his belongings back into the boxes they’d been packed in at the start of the month. “If I forget anything you’ll keep it aside for me, right?”
“Yeah,” Steve promised, and he felt like he should say more, but he didn’t really know how to. “You know – you don’t have to go.”
“But I do, you see?” Bucky answered, shoving his soiled scarf and sweater into a bag.
Not really, Steve reflected, but this was probably one of those things Bucky needed to do for himself. Steve understood those. Steve understood those so well, he was still maintaining a lucrative career based on it. It might not be the right decision, but Bucky thought it was the only one he could make at this point and time. Steve got that. “Yeah, but the option is there.”
Bucky paused his packing, straightening up to look at Steve. He smiled. “That helps. Can you get the door?” he asked a second before there was a knock. “It’ll be Becca.”
“I think I’m going to go home with my sister,” Bucky said from the doorway, all of his boxes gone and the only thing left was the man himself. “Basically I’d make enough in the next few days to buy the train ticket that I need to get home last minute. I’ll call in and quit on the road, be the asshole coworker for once.”
“Oh,” Steve answered. “It makes sense. You have a drive.” And it did. It made sense. Steve’s intense disappointment did not.
Well, it did.
“I’ll be back,” Bucky promised, crossing the room so that he was right in front of Steve. Steve reached for him, even though it wasn’t really something they did. “New York hasn’t seen the last of me.” Bucky stepped into Steve’s space, moving into Steve’s hands.
“Ok,” Steve answered, his fingers curling into the soft material of Bucky’s scarf. Bucky brought his hands up, his fingers covering Steve’s.
“Bad timing,” Bucky assured him, leaning in and pressing his mouth against Steve’s. “But hey, at least you get your living room back.”
Steve didn’t want his living room back. He’d willingly give up all that space just so he could see Bucky in the morning, that cranky expression on his face as he waited for the coffee machine to sputter out enough caffeine that Bucky stopped staring at it with an impatient, hungry expression. He’d willingly never sit on his couch again to enjoy a movie if that meant that Bucky would call out funny lines he found on the internet or suggest dirty phrases he could put in his next book that only the adults would understand.
Bucky patted his hand as though he could read all those things on Steve’s face. Steve was an open book, so it was possible that Bucky could. “Yeah,” he answered softly, though Steve hadn’t said anything, leaning forward and brushing his mouth against Steve’s again. “But maybe next time it’ll happen properly.”
Steve smiled in response. “I hope so.”
Bucky’s answering smile was one of the sweetest things Steve had ever seen. “Me too.”
Bucky left Steve with an empty apartment that looked like far too much space for one person and the dregs of a peppermint mocha.
The hole in his life felt much larger, more acute, than it had any right to be. The still void wasn’t just Bucky-shaped, it filled the entire apartment, including the space in Steve’s heart where warmth lived.
It was embarrassing, really, how quickly it had happened.
If there was one thing that defined Steve’s Christmas Day, 2014, it was this: “I’m so disappointed your boyfriend isn’t with you.”
Steve was too.
“He’s with his own family today,” Steve answered. His holiday sweater was intensely itchy at his collar, or maybe that was the half-lies tripping off his tongue. “Went up a few days ago. It was important to him.”
And then, because he couldn’t leave well enough alone, Steve almost always followed up their understanding nods with “maybe next year.”
As though the possibility of 2015 was a guarantee.
Eventually, even the people who hadn’t met Bucky yet stopped asking about him, and Steve felt like he was able to breathe. Missing Bucky was…
Well, he missed Bucky. He’d just have to leave it at that.
“Hello?” Steve questioned, seeing the strange number flash on his phone screen. He wasn’t sure what the area code was, but he suspected. It was either Bucky or a telemarketer.
“You know,” Bucky’s voice came as a drawl over the line. “I have a lot to thank you for, and maybe it’s the eggnog, but I’ve been considering all the good things in my life today and I realized that you didn’t just give me a place to stay. You didn’t just save me from throwing out the last of my stuff and sleeping under the stairs. You gave me back a little of my spirit just when I needed it. You’re my Christmas Miracle.”
“You’re drunk,” Steve pronounced with all the surety of a drunk person.
“Yep,” Bucky answered, and Steve could hear the grin. “Doesn’t mean I’m not wrong.”
“I love you,” Steve blurted out, and then physically reared back from the phone so sharply his head smacked against a wreath on the wall. “Ow. I think I just gave myself a concussion on mistletoe.”
“Steve,” Bucky answered with a laugh in his tone. “You’re drunk.”
“Doesn’t mean I’m right,” Steve answered in a petulant tone. “Wait… it sounded better when you said it.”
“I’m sure you are right. How much did you have to drink? Did you actually hit your head?”
“You’ve met my family.”
“I have. Do I have to call your mom?”
“No. I just miss you. And there was an entire bottle of rum involved,” he continued with, frowning in confusion. “And everyone wanted to know where you were. Even the ones who didn’t meet you were frowning at me for not insisting you come, like I’ve already destroyed our relationship, and I just spent the day missing you. The week.”
“I miss you too. I read the kids your newest book earlier and thought about how if you were here, I’d put one of them in your lap for family pictures and then I laughed so hard Becca had to take the book away from me. That was before the eggnog.”
“Come back. Promise?”
“I already promised I will, but yes Steve, I promise.”
Oh god, Sober Steve realized on the day after Christmas. He told Bucky he loved him.
Maybe Bucky wouldn’t notice. He was the one who drunk called Steve, after all.
Steve found himself standing in the department store in the New Year, staring at Sleep Number mattresses and wondering if it was a justifiable purchase.
They were on sale.
The dancing monkey found a friend in an adorably cheerful bear that could turn very cranky if prodded into it. Steve wasn’t missing Bucky, not really, but he had his next six books planned out and was about seven months ahead of his schedule.
He wasn’t missing Bucky. It wasn’t like Bucky was the bear.
The bear was definitely Bucky, though.
And Steve didn’t need alcohol to admit that he missed Bucky, but he far preferred lying to himself about it than allowing it to lead him towards binge watching television and feeling sorry for himself.
It wasn’t until February when Steve answered a knock on his door a bit absent-mindedly, a paintbrush clasped in one hand and his feet shoved into a pair of crocodile slippers, that the full effect of how much he missed Bucky really hit him.
“Hi,” Bucky said, holding a bakery box of cookies. He had on a charcoal suit, a heavy peacoat over his shoulders. He looked like a fashionable young professional. He looked like the Bucky Steve used to pass in the hallway the year before. “Do you know how hard it is to find cookies that aren’t in the shape of a heart in February?”
“It’s what’s on the inside that matters,” Steve pointed out, taking the box from him. They were the same kind as the cookies Bucky had completely destroyed before Christmas.
“I just got paid for the first time at my new job,” Bucky continued, shoving his hands in the pocket of his coat. He was giving off a vulnerable air, despite the self-confident lean to his shoulders. Steve wanted to gather him close and never let go. “Do you want to go out for supper with me?”
“No,” Steve answered simply, tugging at the front of Bucky’s coat and pulling him in close. Steve meant to kiss him, but their noses bumped first before both of them moved to correct their angle, Bucky tilting his chin upwards as Steve’s head shifted to the left. Then they were kissing, Bucky’s mouth a little chilled from the cool temperature outside with the flavour of coffee as Steve chased his tongue across Bucky’s bottom lip.
“No?” Bucky questioned, breaking away slightly to look Steve in the eye. He was teasing, the corners of his eyes crinkled and giving the impression of lightheartedness. His fingers were digging into Steve’s arms, holding tight. “And here I thought we had an understanding. I’m disappointed.” He pouted, mouth reddened and slick from the kiss. It was a potent effect that made Steve want to kiss him again.
There was no reason not to. “I want you in my bed,” Steve clarified, pulling Bucky into his apartment. “You should test out the new mattress I bought.”
They were moving in a whirlwind of motions that didn’t put much space between them, the long line of Bucky’s body pressed up against Steve. At that, Bucky moved back enough that there were a few inches between them, staring at him like he needed the distance to put things into perspective, to see the whole picture. “You’re serious?” he said.
“I don’t mean about just the bed. I mean…” Bucky made a hand motion in the space between the two of them. “Serious.”
“Yes.” Steve wasn’t sure if there was a possible way to highlight the meaning he infused in that answer.
Bucky’s face lit up as he grinned at Steve. “Good. Good. I thought maybe you were. You don’t seem the type to go around drunkenly proclaiming your love for people when you don’t mean it.” Bucky then laughed at the expression on Steve’s face, patting his shoulder like it was comforting. “Don’t worry, I’m here, aren’t I?”