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You and a Test of Will

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Soundtrack: Fortress – Pinback

You and a Test of Will

Nat was at his apartment door again, dressed in a slinky black dress like she meant to go out. She, unlike Bucky, had probably bathed sometime in the last week. His clothes said something more along the lines of “depressed asshole” in a dingy bathrobe and threadbare plaid boxer shorts.

“We’re going out,” Nat said, a decisive hand on one hip, one brow raised in challenge.

“Do I look like I’m going out?” Bucky replied. He started to close the door, but Nat stuck her shoe forward between the frame and forced her way in. Bucky had the physical strength to put up a fight, he knew he did, but he didn’t have the emotional will, so he let Nat into his apartment and closed the door behind her, quietly.

“We’re going out,” Natasha repeated.

Bucky stared at her, flooded by embarrassment at the state of his living space. Dirty dishes and empty beer bottles crowded his kitchen counter and his coffee table. A pile of dirty laundry overflowed from the basket by the door. He meant to take it downstairs to the washers last week…or maybe two weeks ago. Time ran together.

“Come on,” Natasha said, “You haven’t been out in like a month. It smells like ketchup in here and you look like you haven’t slept in a year when I know that’s all you’ve been doing. You won’t talk to anybody that can help, so we’re going out. You’re going to meet me halfway.”

Bucky sighed. He asked, “Who’s going? Where are we going? Why are you doing this?”

Since Natasha arrived back from Afghanistan – several months after Bucky’s arm got blown off and the army discharged him – she made her mission to take care of him, to make sure that he was taking care of himself. They took care of one another overseas, she said, and now she would take care of him here. Already, she was doing much better than Bucky. She went to the VA. Didn’t talk much, so she said, but she liked to listen to the people that did talk. Met a fella at her group. They were taking it slow.

Meanwhile, the weight of Bucky’s desire to blink out of existence consumed him.

“Just me, Clint, and Clint’s friend.”

Clint did three tours in Iraq. He came back minus 80% of his hearing, but with all of his limbs. He seemed all right.

“Army buddy?” asked Bucky.

“You’ll like him,” Natasha swore, “He’s a lowkey guy, kind of shy.”

“Clint’s friends with somebody shy?” Bucky asked.

“Yeah, I know. I promise you’ll like him.”

“Them’s fighting words, Nat,” said Bucky, but he knew that he had lost. He didn’t bother telling her this; judging by the glint in Natasha’s eye, she already knew.

Bucky shed his robe and boxers in the bathroom, unhooked his arm (he could have the thing on if he wanted, but getting soap scum between the plates sucked a fat one), and ducked into his shower. The thing blew hot and cold, so any shower that he took had to happen quick. Five minutes later, he ran a comb through his hair, one-armed, before he took the prosthetic and hustled to his bedroom. Nat didn’t bat a lash as he walked past in a towel with his metal arm clenched in his flesh hand. Nothing she hadn’t seen before. Nat was his best friend – the only one that had ever seen what he looked like minus several layers of clothes and disdain.

Thing was, Bucky was scarred up before he went to play war. It wasn’t that he didn’t have a family that loved him, but that he was born with a chemically imbalanced brain, took sharp shit to his wrists and landed in the mental ward more than once. His ma cried about it but never let him see. Bucky promised that he wouldn’t let her see him as bad as he got ever again, so he hadn’t called since he came back from overseas. He texted Becca, but the texts were less conversations and more hey I’m not dead.

At eighteen, he cleaned up his act long enough to get his GED and work a couple jobs. Bucky saw an ad to join the army before a movie that he went to see by himself, and he figured, why not? It would be better than working his ass off for peanuts.

Two – and part of a third – tours in Afghanistan, and Bucky returned sans an arm and what remained of his sanity. He spent hours sitting for a sleeve of tattoos on his flesh arm so that he wouldn’t cut anymore. He knew if his skin weren’t covered in expensive artwork that he’d cave in and draw blood. He wasn’t healthy – but he was afraid to just give up and off himself.

Bucky dried off before he reattached his arm (state-of-the-art, Stark Industries shit) and pulled on a long-sleeved Henley and the first pair of jeans he identified on his floor. When he exited his bedroom, Natasha handed him his wallet and keys.

As Bucky laced boots onto his feet, Nat laid a firm hand on his shoulder. She said, “If you need out, just signal me. We’ll go. But at least try, okay?”

“Yeah, fine,” Bucky said.

“We’re just going to be at the bar down the street. Erskine’s. Steve knew the owner before he went into the service, I guess. I scoped it out for you beforehand. We’ll have a booth in the back corner. All the exits are visible.”

“Steve is…Clint’s buddy?”

“Yes,” said Nat, “I want you to play nice.”

“That depends on some shit,” Bucky replied, “and you never told me why the hell you’re doing this.”

“Because you’re my friend,” Natasha told him, and slipped her arm in his, as though he couldn’t guide himself out of his own damn apartment building. And maybe he couldn’t.

Erskine’s, it turned out, stood not three blocks from Bucky’s apartment building. Bucky didn’t like the amount of people out, but it was Saturday night. Of course there were people out. Having Natasha at his side meant something, meant that somebody had his back, but it didn’t stop his eyes from shifting from person to person, group to group, wondering if any among them were a threat. He tightened his grip on Natasha’s waist and she squeezed his arm, a silent it’ll be okay.

Erskine’s was well-lit for a dive bar in Brooklyn, the crowd not-too-thick, especially in comparison to the bustle on the sidewalks outside. As promised, Clint waved from a booth in a back corner, a bright smile cracking open on his face. It comforted Bucky, just a little, to see his friend happy. Natasha’s smile was more subtle, the slightest curve of her lips, but it was enough that that Bucky noticed.

“Steve’s running late,” Clint said, as they slid into the booth. Bucky ordered scotch on the rocks, but nothing to eat. He hadn’t eaten since yesterday but he wasn’t hungry. Clint nursed a beer and went on, “Something about Pollock and getting into his food container.”

“Pollock?” echoed Bucky.

“Steve’s dog,” Clint explained, “He’s a service dog, but he’s a little shit sometimes. A little shit I love, but a shit nonetheless. Oh, hey. Speak of the devil.”

Bucky turned his head to look at the person Clint was waving to. His breath caught. This – this just wasn’t fair. The handsomest goddamn bastard just walked into Erskine’s, his gait stiff, but a shy smile on his face and a yellow Labrador retriever at his side in a vest that marked him as a service dog. He waved back. It was directed at Clint, but it still made Bucky’s heart stutter in his chest.

Bucky turned to Natasha and muttered in her ear, “You didn’t mention he was hot, Nat.”

Nat shrugged a shoulder and responded, “I had nothing to do with Steve’s looks.”

“You engineered this,” Bucky whispered back.

Bucky didn’t miss the sly half-smile that quirked up one side of Natasha’s face as she said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Steve slid into the booth and greeted, “Hey, guys,” and zeroed in on Bucky, “Hi. I’m Steve.”

“This is James Barnes,” Nat said.

“Bucky,” corrected Bucky.

Steve’s eyes swept over Bucky and he said, “The same James Barnes that saved Natasha in Kunar?”

“That’s him,” Natasha said.

“Nat,” Bucky said.

Steve was already smiling, a gentle, kind smile. Bucky shifted uncomfortably against the vinyl booth at the sight of it. Steve held out his hand and said, “Thank you for your service.”

Being thanked for his service always made Bucky feel awkward as all fuck, and usually anyone that'd been in felt the same way. The earnest look on Steve's face cowed the barb at the tip of Bucky's tongue, though.

“Uh,” Bucky managed, but he shook Steve’s hand anyway. He forgot to use his flesh hand. Something flashed in Steve’s eyes when he saw Bucky’s prosthetic hand, but he didn’t say anything about it. He just shook, that same dumb-looking smile on his stupid, handsome face. Damn it. Natasha would suffer for doing this to him. He cast her a look that said as much, but she didn’t seem to give a shit. Typical.

Steve ordered a beer. They talked about nothing at all for a while, just discussed movies that they’d seen and how Bucky resembled one of the guys in The Martian. Bucky hadn’t seen The Martian. He hadn’t seen any recent movies, really. He mostly slept, relied on disability to pay for his rent, and scraped by on money that his ma or sister sent over, because they knew he was perpetually unemployed and also too miserable and pathetic to do anything about that.

For the most part, Bucky kept close to the edge of the booth and clenched metal fingers in a fist so that he didn’t try to rub the ears of Steve’s service dog. Unfortunately for Bucky, Steve noticed. His eyes flicked from Bucky’s clenched hand to where Pollock laid on the floor, pink tongue lolling out of his mouth.

Steve said, “You can pet him, if you’d like. He loves attention from handsome fellas.”

Heat spread over what Bucky was sure was his entire face. He lowered his eyes so he didn’t have to look at Steve’s face and stuck his prosthetic hand in Pollock’s fur. Pollock looked up at him, seeming happy as a clam on the floor. From then on, Bucky kept his hand stroking through the fur on Pollock’s head. When he stopped, the lab bumped the pressure-sensors on Bucky’s hand and encouraged him to keep going.

More people filtered into the bar as the night wore on. Bucky lost track of how many scotches he let himself have. It was enough to make his head swim and his tongue loosen. He started talking about the new Star Wars. He wanted to see it, but didn’t have anyone to go with.

“I’ll go with you,” Steve told him, “I haven’t seen it, either.”

“Where the fuck have you guys been?” Clint asked, visibly tipsy, “I’ve seen it three times already.”

Natasha leaned into Clint, lips right up against his ear, so Clint’s hearing aids would pick up her voice above the buzz of the bar crowd. Bucky looked away, having a feeling that the moment between Clint and Nat was some kind of private thing that he wasn’t supposed to be watching. Steve must have felt the same way, because he caught Steve averting his eyes from their friends.

“Hey, guys,” Nat said, “Clint’s kinda overstimulated. We’re gonna take off. Think you two can handle yourselves?” She aimed a pointed look at Bucky. He knew what she was asking. Would he be okay to get home on his own? Could he walk three blocks without losing his shit? Probably not, but he didn’t want to leave yet, which was a weird feeling. He didn’t want to leave Steve. That was most likely creepy, seeing as they’d just met, but Bucky had so many fucking issues that being creepy seemed low on the list when said list was taken in as a whole.

“Fine,” he said.

He and Steve watched Natasha and Clint go, arm in arm, and then ordered more drinks. Bucky was drunk as a damn skunk. He started to run his mouth. He could hear himself say words but couldn’t tell if they even made sense or not. He faded in and out of where they were, faded in and out of himself. He did that sometimes.

“I like your dog,” he heard himself say.

“Thanks,” replied Steve, “He’s, uh. He’s good for me. Having him near keeps me grounded, y’know? Plus he helps me navigate crowds. With my leg, it’s kinda…difficult.”

“Your leg?”

Steve lifted up one side of his jeans. His sneaker covered not a flesh-and-bone foot, but the end of a prosthetic. The prosthetic Steve wore proved to be far less advanced than Bucky’s arm, nothing birthed by the mind of Tony Stark, but a standard, pole-like device that clipped into a sleeve where Steve’s leg ended.

“IED?” Bucky asked.

Steve shook his head. He replied, “Little more messy than that.”

Bucky wondered what could be messier than having one’s limb blown off, but his brain didn’t struggle to make the leap from the gory parts of war to the gorier. So he said, “I won’t ask if you don’t wanna tell me.”

“Thanks, pal,” Steve said. From anyone else that might have sounded sarcastic. Paired with the smile on Steve’s face, it sounded downright sincere.

“M’really drunk,” Bucky mentioned, after a beat. He downed the rest of his scotch anyway. Hopefully any hangover he got wouldn’t be too bad. Crunching the ice cubes left in the glasses counted as drinking water, right? No, he knew it didn’t, but that didn’t stop him from hoping that a few ice cubes would offset the insane amount of cheap scotch he’d imbibed this evening.

“I can walk you back to your apartment, if you’d like,” Steve offered, “Gettin’ late as it is.”

Bucky made some kind of noise of agreement. Steve left a pile of cash on the table. It would cover both of them, and Bucky felt like he should protest, except that he probably drank at least thirty or forty bucks worth of crappy scotch and he didn’t exactly have that kind of cash on him at the moment. He leaned on Steve on the way out. Steve smelled nice, not like cologne, but like soap and laundry detergent and guy.

“Smell nice,” he told Steve.

Politely, Steve said, “Thanks, Buck. You do too.”

They started to walk. Steve offered Bucky a stick of spearmint gum, but he pushed it away and rambled directions. Only Bucky’s directions didn’t make sense and he couldn’t guide Steve to his apartment. He couldn’t remember the way. He hadn’t lived there long, and he used to be good at directions, but then everything went to shit, and he lost his arm and his goddamn mind, and, and –

“Hey,” Steve said.

Bucky wasn’t standing anymore. He was on the ground, face in his hands. Pollock sat next to him, big ol’ head rested on Bucky’s shoulder. Bucky trembled. He asked, “What happened?”

“Just got confused about your apartment, is all,” Steve replied, “Why don’t you stay at my place tonight? We can worry about finding yours in the morning.”

Steve made getting lost and forgetting his address sound like something that everybody went through. And maybe they did, except that Bucky had lived in that cramped, gross apartment for almost six months now. After six months, people tended to remember their addresses, but Bucky didn’t. He didn’t just lose his arm. He lost his mind – what was left of it, anyway. Did he already say that? He did.

“I’m sorry,” Bucky said, again.

“Don’t worry about it,” Steve said back, “You’re recovering.”

“Been recovering too long,” muttered Bucky.

“There isn’t a strict timeline for recovery,” Steve replied, voice soft, “Sometimes it’s harder for some people than it is for others.”

“Why s’it so hard for me?” asked Bucky, “You’re…recovered.”

Steve let out a laugh, but there was no mirth in it. He said, “Bucky, I’m so far from recovered that it’s ridiculous. I get nightmares like anybody else. I take medication like anybody else. I have to take my dog with me everywhere, because if I don’t have Pollock, I panic. I’m taking this shit a day at a time. C’mon, we’re here.”

Bucky let himself be guided into an apartment building and up a short flight of stairs. Despite his drunkenness, the stairs still took Steve longer to conquer, even as he white-knuckled the railing and Pollock plodded along to help. Bucky tried not to stare at Steve’s gimpy walk and failed. By the time that Steve made it up onto the landing beside Bucky, his hands shook so bad he couldn’t fit the key into the lock. Bucky tried to take the key from him, but Steve jerked his hand back.

“I can do it just fine,” Steve snapped.

It was the first irritable thing Steve said to Bucky. Usually people got annoyed with him faster than that. He let his hand drop away from Steve’s and said, “Sorry.”

“I didn’t mean to shout,” Steve said, “I just – I don’t like being treated like I’m too weak to take care of myself, is all.”

“I know what you mean.”

Bucky patiently waited for Steve’s hands to stop shaking enough to get his key into his apartment door. A couple minutes passed, probably, but Steve’s shoulders relaxed just a fraction when the door swung open. Steve inclined his head and said, “C’mon. Let’s get you inside, huh?”

The door closed behind them. Bucky shed his coat, but couldn’t quite get his shirt. He wanted it off, couldn’t sleep with it on –

“Here, let me help,” Steve offered.

Bucky began to protest, but Steve pulled the Henley off for him. He guided Bucky back, away from the living area, and said, “You can take the bed. You’ll need it.” Bucky caught Steve’s eye running along the length of his tattooed, flesh arm. The ink was expensive shit, top-quality art done by one of his guy’s brothers. Realistic. Intense.

With a gentle push from Steve, Bucky was on a bed. It was neat. Military corners. Old habits die hard for Steve, then.

“You gonna leave me all alone?” Bucky crooned.

“You’re drunk,” Steve answered.

“Did I ask for your dick in my ass?” Bucky said, “Just come on and cuddle me. ‘Less you don’t want to. I know I look kinda fucked up. Wouldn’t hold it against you.”

Steve held Bucky’s gaze for a long, unbroken beat, and then sat on the edge of the mattress. He rolled up the right leg of his jeans, inch by inch revealing a below-the-knee prosthetic.

“Whatcha doin’?” asked Bucky.

“Taking off my leg,” Steve replied, “I’m not sleeping with it on. You sleep with yours on?” Steve jerked his head at the metal contraption.

Bucky glanced at his arm, at the wealth of scar tissue around his shoulder. He shook his head and found the switch to unhook his arm from the socket. The concept of his arm far outdid Steve’s leg as far as technological advancement went. He wondered why Steve didn’t have a Stark-made leg when Tony Stark offered his prosthetics to decorated veterans at a minimal price: their cooperation. The more lab rats the guy had, the better limbs he could make. Bucky figured he didn’t have a reason not to throw his hat in the ring.

Bucky waved his now-detached arm and asked, “Where do you want this shit?”

“You can set it on the bedside table.”

Bucky began to realize that Steve wasn’t nearly as drunk as he was. The realization started when he watched the careful way that Steve detached his prosthetic and peeled away the sleeve. The end of Steve’s leg didn’t look anything like the exploded mass that was Bucky’s arm – there were no burns, no ugly stretch or bunching of skin. It was smooth. Didn’t Steve say the loss of his leg was messier than an IED? Shit didn’t look messy.

Steve caught Bucky’s eye and said, “Was my foot more than anything. They were able to save most of the leg itself.”

Steve didn’t elaborate further than that, and Bucky didn’t ask. No, he looked on as Steve squirmed up into the bed, mere inches from Bucky’s body. Steve hesitated before he got closer. That was fine. Bucky was the drunker of the two of them, so it was up to him to make crappy passes at Steve. He looped his arm around Steve’s waist and curled in around Steve’s back. Steve was bigger than him, but he seemed to be okay with being the little spoon.

Fingers stroked down Bucky’s arm.

“This is gorgeous,” Steve said.

“Wanna hear something fucked up about it?” Bucky asked, “Of course you don’t. But I’m gonna tell you anyway. I got it done – paid a fuckload of money – so I wouldn’t hurt myself. Used to hurt myself before. You can feel the scars.” Bucky didn’t wait for Steve to touch his wrist, but moved his hand. Steve pressed his fingertips to uneven, tattooed skin, feeling along the precise, measured scars that ran all the way down the inside of Bucky’s forearm.

“You did this before…?” Steve let the question hang.

“Before Kunar? Yeah. I’ve always been crazy. War just made me a little crazier.”

“You’re not crazy.”

“Yeah, then what am I?” asked Bucky.

Steve shifted in Bucky’s loose grip, turned his face so that their eyes met. This close, Bucky could smell spearmint chewing gum on Steve’s breath, with the soft undercurrent of beer and human. It should have been gross, but it wasn’t. Instead, it made Bucky want to kiss Steve. He didn’t, though. He doubted that Steve would want to be kissed by some guy like him. Steve seemed too wholesome for all that.

“You’re human, Buck,” Steve softly said.

Those words were the nicest thing Bucky had heard in weeks.

X

The nightmares that night didn’t belong to Bucky. The nightmares belonged to Steve.

Bucky’s head and heart pounded, but he gathered Steve into his arms anyway and murmured to Steve that the nightmares weren’t his fault.

X

Instant, searing agony burned into Bucky’s brain as light stamped into his retinas. He groaned and held his hand over his eyes, shifted onto his side. Bright, late morning sunlight streamed into an unfamiliar room through the spaces between the metal blinds over the window. As soon as Bucky realized that he didn’t know where he was, he bolted up to a sitting position and put his back to the wall. He scanned his surroundings.

Bedroom. Decent place, with taupe-colored walls. At least, it smelled nice. Smelled like one of those plug-in scent things his ma used to stick in every outlet in their damn house. The bed was messy, but the sheets were clean. Hell, the pillowcases looked like they’d been ironed. Maybe they had. Music filtered in from the other room. The melody was old, something that his granddad might have listened to…maybe Tommy Dorsey. Whatever is was, the notes felt like slimy tentacles against his hungover brain.

His arm was missing.

No - something - his arm caught the lines of sunlight and gleamed at the edge of Bucky's vision. The table was neat as a pin, not even graced by an alarm clock or a lamp. There was, however, an ugly plate, some brown and yellow nightmare from the seventies, topped with a couple of Advil gel capsules and an Ikea-standard-type glass filled with water.

Where the fuck was he?

The outline of the previous night returned to him in pieces as he grabbed at the Advil and chucked them down his throat with a swallow of water. Natasha showed up at his door, made him shower and come out to some dive with Clint and Clint’s war buddy, Steve.

Steve.

Shit, that was right. Shades of gray filled in his memory between the bones. Nat left. Bucky was vague on why, but he imagined it had to do with Clint’s anxiety around crowds or his hearing aids acting up. She left Bucky with Steve like a traitor…or Bucky, idiot drunk he was, probably told her it was fine and she left him to his own devices. He knew he drank a lot, enough to obliterate most of the in-between here and there.

The bedroom door creaked open a sliver. Bucky’s head shot up. He expected Steve, but instead found Pollock poking his muzzle between the door and its frame.

“Hey, dog,” Bucky rasped. He sounded like he’d been gargling gravel with his whiskey. Christ.

Pollock took Bucky's greeting as an all-clear to be in the bedroom. He trotted the rest of the way and leapt onto the bed, tags jangling at his neck. He curled up against Bucky and huffed out a world-weary sigh.

“Yeah, that what you think, buddy?” Bucky asked. Pollock’s tail thumped against the mattress.

Someplace beyond the door, a smooth voice called, “Pollock? Bud, where’d you go?”

Pollock thumped his tail again, but he didn’t move from his place at Bucky’s side. Momentary panic at the idea of Steve being in the same breathing space as Bucky had Bucky whispering to the dog, “Dude, you gotta go. Steve needs you.” Pollock cocked his head at Bucky like he didn’t understand, but he was a service dog, for fuck’s sake. Service dogs were smart. He knew Bucky wanted him out but he was playing coy.

“Oh.”

And now the damn dog had brought the most handsome guy in New York to him. Steve stood at the door, bedhead glowing like a halo in the light from the window, his clothes paint-stained, and his feet in socks that had seen better days.

“You’re up.”

A blush screamed across Bucky’s face before he could stop it. Sure, he nausea roiled in his gut and like he’d been run over by a steamroller or six, but something about Steve’s presence made that all fade to a dull roar. He wetted his lips with the tip of his tongue and tried to think of what to say. They didn’t make a damn how-to guide for drinking your crazy away and becoming stupid in the process.

“Um,” Bucky managed, “I kind of don’t…remember…”

“We didn’t sleep together, if that’s what you’re asking,” Steve said.

“No, I got my pants on, so I got that far,” replied Bucky, “I’m real sorry about this. I don’t really – I can’t…”

Steve held up a hand and said, “Hey, don’t sweat it. You think you can stomach anything? I can whip up some pancakes. Or waffles! I can totally make waffles.”

The waffle enthusiasm coaxed a chuckle out of Bucky. He rubbed at his temples and said, “Yeah, sure. Waffles are good.”

A millisecond-long smile flashed across Steve’s face, and he turned away from the door. Pollock jumped from the bed to follow, and Bucky forced himself into a sitting position. His head throbbed with discomfort, like it was one of those popper-vacuums he played with as a preschool kid, little plastic balls rattling around in his skull at the slightest movement. He took a moment to breathe before he reached for his arm and hooked it into the socket built into his shoulder.

Like always, a weird jolt surged through the left half of Bucky’s body at the addition of his arm. He shook it off and pushed open the bedroom door.

“My buddy Sam gave me this waffle iron when I got out of the hospital,” Steve said as Bucky hovered awkwardly back near the kitchen, “I haven’t had a chance to use it yet, so really I gotta thank you for giving me the opportunity to do a science experiment.”

“Uh, you’re welcome, I guess,” Bucky replied. He shoved his hands in the pockets of his jeans and drifted away from the kitchen, where Steve started banging through cabinets. Even through a loose, well-loved t-shirt and a pair of sweatpants, the fact that the guy was built like a brick shithouse was clear as day. Bucky tried not to let his gaze linger too long on the breadth of Steve’s shoulders or the way that his sweatpants hugged his ass and removed his attention to the living area, which proved to be far cleaner than Bucky’s own piece-of-shit, closet-sized apartment.

A full bookshelf stood tall against one wall, crammed in next to a small television and a respectable, newer-looking couch. The whole entertainment center sat squished on one side of the room in favor of a tarp-covered floor, an easel, several canvases, and a battered antique desk covered from top to foot with multicolored smears of paint.

Bucky’s eyes, once they fell on the canvases, had trouble moving from them. His legs did the moving for him, and before he knew it, he stood in front of a stack of paintings.

They were messy.

Ugly.

Disturbing.

They were perfect.

Not unlike a Jackson Pollock, the paint seemed splattered and smeared with little rhyme or reason, at least as far as the backgrounds went. The shapes in front, though – those were soldiers. Bucky would know the silhouette of an armed man in ACUs anywhere. The exaggerated shadows of soldiers stretched over the canvases, over stains of deep red and violent orange and fleshy pink.

Jesus, they were hard to look at.

Bucky reached out without thinking, until –

“I paint them after the nightmares.”

Bucky jumped back. He stammered out, “Sorry, I didn’t –”

Steve offered Bucky a vague, grimace-like smile. He said, “S’fine,” and started to turn away.

Bucky blurted, “It’s like you’re in my head!”

Steve leaned back on the kitchen counter and folded his arms across his chest. He lifted his brows, and a chasm opened between them, a gaping maw between the carpeted and tiled halves of Steve’s apartment. Steve murmured, “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Bucky replied, “They’re fucking brutal, like, it hurts to look at, but – but they’re really good. You should show somebody these things, get ‘em put up someplace.”

“I don’t think anybody wants to see those,” Steve said with a shake of his head. He ripped his attention away and busied himself with making a stack of waffles. He set it down at the table – a foldable, cheap table not unlike the one Bucky shoved into his apartment beside the two square feet that he politely called a kitchen. Steve pointed to the plate and said, “There you go. Some Steve Rogers waffle magic. I got no idea what they taste like, so I guess that makes you my guinea pig.”

Bucky sat at the table, and Steve stuck two bottles down on the table: Aunt Jemima, and a maple leaf shaped bottle of real syrup. Shit, he hadn’t had real syrup since he was a kid. He reached for that and drizzled it over the waffles. They looked and smelled good, at least.

Bucky took off a big bite, chewed and swallowed before he said, “I think people would want to see those paintings.”

“I don’t think it’s any of your business,” replied Steve.

With that, the spell broke. Bucky remembered Steve was little more than a kind stranger and that he’d trespassed enough on the guy’s hospitality. Bucky set his fork down and cleared his throat. He said, “Sorry. You probably want me to leave.” The chair beneath him squealed against the floor as Bucky stood. God, he never even took off his shoes last night. What an ass. How goddamn embarrassed can he make himself?

Bucky rooted around and found his shirt from last night tangled in the sheets on Steve’s bed.

“Aren’t you going to finish your waffles?” asked Steve. Bucky didn’t want to meet Steve’s eye, but he did anyway, because he was a masochist. Steve looked like a kicked puppy.

“They’re great,” Bucky said, “but I’m not hungry. Sorry for, you know, fucking up your morning. And your night. I’ll see you around, Steve.”

“Buck –”

Bucky shrugged his coat on over his shoulders. He felt filthy, like a trough of slop had been upended over his head. He said, “Thanks. Again. I appreciate it,” and pried open the door. Like a bat out of hell, Bucky escaped, and he prayed to anyone that would listen that he never saw Steve Rogers again.

Chapter Text

Chapter Track: Get Free (ft Amber of Dirty Projectors) – Major Lazer

Dreams Are Wearin’ Thin

“Did you fuck Steve?” Natasha deadpanned.

Bucky eyed his phone. He’d been back at his apartment for maybe thirty seconds when her name flashed across his screen.

“What? Why do think I fucked Steve? He walkin’ funny or something?” He snarked back.

“That isn’t funny, James,” said Nat.

“Really? Because I think it’s funny.”

“What did you do to him?” asked Natasha, “I’m serious, Barnes. Rogers looks even more like a sad puppy than usual.”

“I thought that was just how his face looked.”

“Ha fucking ha.” Natasha waited for him to give an actual answer, knowing that he would. She’d deny it to her grave, but Nat mothered the hell out of him, especially after she came back from Kunar. I didn’t know that you let it get this bad, she’d said, the first time that she stepped into his apartment. Bucky still didn’t expend any effort on that front, but at least he allowed Nat to pull him bodily from his depression cave so he could embarrass himself in front of her friends.

“I was too drunk to find my apartment last night, okay?” Bucky said. He nudged his laundry pile into a more acceptable shape, only to have it topple back over into a bigger mess of dirty clothes across his stained carpet.

Natasha’s silence said more than any words would.

“I’m sorry,” Bucky said.

“You told me you were okay to get home.”

“What do you want me to say, Nat? I got too drunk, couldn’t remember where I lived, and Steve let me spend the night at his place,” said Bucky, “and I managed to humiliate myself in every way imaginable, in case you were wondering. I’m sure there’s shit I did that I was too fucked up to remember, but I know for sure that I insulted his art and his waffles. Not on purpose, but you know me. Kind of a dick on a good day.”

Nat sighed, “You know that’s not true.”

“You only like me because I blew off my arm for you,” Bucky responded.

He could feel Natasha rolling her eyes on the other end of the line. She said, “James, look. Listen. I know you won’t really, but listen to me. Letting some of this shit out, talking to somebody –”

“I’m talking to you, ain’t I?”

“Don’t be a smartass,” Natasha replied, “It’s unbecoming.”

“What am I, a fucking debutante?”

“Maybe a little,” Nat said. Bucky could hear her smile in the way that spoke, and he heard it fade when she crossed back into serious territory, “A professional, though. You could use a professional. I know you don’t think that it would help, but –”

“I did the whole ‘talking to a professional’ thing before I got blown up,” Bucky said, “I didn’t work then, and it’s not gonna work now. Drop it, okay?”

“Fine,” replied Nat, “but if you don’t check in with me these next couple of days, then I will show up on your doorstep and make you do something social, do you hear me?”

“Yeah, I hear you.”

“Good. You be on your best behavior, all right?”

“Can’t promise nothing,” Bucky said. He did feel lighter when he hung up the phone, at least by a fraction. The weight of messing up with Steve and permanently putting a black mark on that potential relationship hung heavy on his shoulders, heavier than he thought possible, being that he’d only just met the guy yesterday.

Bucky, despite having little food in the last couple of days, didn’t feel like eating. Instead, he swept his long hair up in a loose bun and collapsed on his filthy bed. The sheets had come off sometime last week, or maybe even before then, from all the tossing and turning that Bucky did. He hadn’t bothered to pull the fitted sheet back into place, just slept on bare, sketchy looking mattress. He did a lot of sleeping these days, even with the nightmares and anxiety and the crazy shit that should have kept him up. At least when Bucky slept he didn’t have to deal with his reality.

X

Steve let Pollock have Bucky’s barely-touched waffles, scraping them into the kitchen floor before he placed the plate in his dishwasher. Steve leaned his elbows against the kitchen counter and lowered his head into hands. It would be nice, Steve thought, if he could spend a single morning without screwing everything up. He made himself breathe.

Sometimes he forgot that panic attacks felt a helluva lot like asthma attacks, except that using his inhaler made panic attacks worse.

This one wasn’t bad, as far as panic went. Pollock stopped eating waffles to pad over to Steve and nose at his hand until Steve petted him. The soft fur and wet nose eased Steve just enough for him to untangle himself from the knot he wrapped himself into against the counter.

“Be nice if I could do something right, huh, pal?” Steve said to his dog.

Pollock nuzzled Steve’s hand a little harder.

Tommy Dorsey still fizzled into the air from the cheap record player on Steve’s bookshelf. I’m Gettin’ Sentimental Over You leaked out and seemed, somehow, on point. Because Steve was getting sentimental – sentimental over a complete stranger. What little he knew about Bucky – James Barnes, as Natasha had recounted him in her story – was that in Kunar, he shoved Natasha out of the way and threw himself onto an IED. That, and Natasha’s lamentation that the guy wouldn’t talk to somebody at the VA.

Natasha didn’t tell Steve how handsome Bucky was, how his eyes were older than the rest of his body.

But they all had that look, didn’t they? Everyone Steve knew during his service and everyone he had met after he returned home that served watched civilians through eyes decades older than their faces. Sometimes Steve caught the same look in his own eyes, in his reflection on a clean car door, the front window of a shop, his bathroom mirror while he brushed his teeth – just a glance of age that vanished again as soon as he recognized it.

Steve always felt older than his years. Combat, and the months he spent captured, only amplified it. Before, his age came through childhood ailments and a love of older things. Steve didn’t think he was born in the wrong decade (should he fall in love with a male partner, he enjoyed his right to be married to that partner, thank you very much), but did love the art that came from times before his. He liked to listen to Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again and think that someday, whatever came after this life, he’d get to see his mom again.

His awkward nature didn’t help his age-beyond-years. He wasn’t shy, exactly, or maybe he was – it depended upon who you asked about that. Steve wasn’t afraid of people; he just didn’t know how to talk to them. That included James Barnes, he supposed.

A knock split him from the thought. That was probably for the best. It seemed too early for the caller to be Sam picking Steve up for his meeting at the VA, but maybe he wanted to hang out beforehand. Steve could use some Sam today. How Sam was so damn well-adjusted bewildered him, but he wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth.

When Steve opened his door, he found not Sam, but Clint and Natasha. He signed a hello at Clint, and then a why are you here? Clint’s face quirked up partway with a crooked, boyish smile. He stuck his thumb out at Nat.

“Ask her,” Clint said.

Natasha let herself in, a box in her hands. She said, “We brought you a housewarming gift.”

“I’ve lived here for two months,” Steve said, “What is this really about?”

Natasha placed the box on Steve’s kitchen counter. If it contained the product printed on the cardboard, then Steve had a new slow-cooker.

“Clint’s brother brought him this thing and he doesn’t know how to use it, so we decided to regift it,” Nat said, “Satisfied?”

Steve worried his lip between his teeth.

“The real question,” Natasha went on, “Is what is going on with you?”

“Nothing,” Steve answered, too fast.

“There are waffles on the floor and you’re shaking,” Clint pointed out. He signed as he spoke – probably didn’t have his hearing aids up as high as he could, probably because he got overwhelmed last night by the noise and crush of humanity. Steve got that. When he walked into Erskine’s he almost walked right back out. It wasn’t crowded, but the body count in the building was just enough to raise his blood pressure.

“Clint wanted to check in on you,” Natasha supplied.

Steve smiled a little at that. Natasha probably wanted to check on him, too, but she wouldn’t ever admit that. He hadn’t known Natasha long, but he knew her enough that he liked having her around. ‘Sides, she made Clint happy, and happy Clint made a happy Steve. God knew they’d all been through hell and back. They deserved people that could make them smile.

“I’m fine,” Steve said, and it was mostly true. He signed his sentences, for Clint’s sake.

“Mhmm,” Nat hummed.

“What? Why did you make that noise? I’m fine, really,” Steve went on.

“Mhmm.”

“Look, you should probably be more worried about your friend,” Steve said, “Bucky was pretty messed up last night.”

Natasha’s smirk melted into a frown. She asked, “What happened?”

“He got lost,” Steve said. He instantly felt like a heel for ratting Bucky out, but at least it threw Natasha off Steve’s scent for the time being. Carefully, Steve edited last night’s events and recounted, “He didn’t know where his apartment was, so I let him spend the night. I kind of…um. I kind of snapped at him this morning. Didn’t mean to.” Didn’t mean to snap at him the night before, either. People always asked Steve if he needed help now. Even if they didn’t see his leg, they saw his dog, and Pollock’s service vest was a beacon to well-meaning people everywhere, trying to help Steve when he didn’t need it.

It reminded Steve of being little again, and he didn’t like it.

“Give me your phone,” Natasha said.

“What?”

“Give me your phone,” she repeated.

Steve pulled his phone out of the back pocket of his paint-stained sweatpants and handed it to Natasha. She fiddled with it and punched something in before she handed it back. She said, “There. Now you can tell him you’re sorry like I know you’re going to.”

“Even though you probably don’t have anything to be sorry about,” Clint said. He patted the top of Pollock’s head. Pollock, who had returned to eating the abandoned waffles on the kitchen floor.

“He’s a stubborn son of a bitch,” Natasha went on, “If you’re gonna try and get him to leave that shithole he calls an apartment, it’ll be an uphill battle.”

“Maybe I should get his address too?” suggested Steve.

Natasha shook her head, a strange expression pulled tight across her lips. She said, “You’ll have to get that yourself. My helping hand only extends so far.”

They made small talk for a couple more minutes, and Steve thanked them for the slow-cooker. He’d Google some recipes and try it out, more likely tomorrow night than today. Today, he had his meeting at the VA and a job interview for some part-time desk job that would cover Steve’s extra expenses. The VA was paying his rent. That, at least, was an enormous weight off of his shoulders.

When Natasha and Clint said their goodbyes, Steve buckled down and cleaned his kitchen. He polished every surface and, unsatisfied with the performance of his Swiffer, crawled along the floor with a spray bottle of cleaner and rag until the kitchen floor gleamed and his head went light from the sharp scent of chemical citrus. It didn't matter. Steve would be tense until his apartment sparkled. At least he had control over something - the way his apartment looked, if not his own damn life. He vacuumed, scrubbed out what looked like a stain the carpet, vacuumed again. 

“You been doing that cleaning thing, haven’t you?” Sam said, when he showed up an hour later.

Steve shrugged his shoulders. Sam sighed and said, “Guess it’s a good thing you’re coming out to talk today, huh? Let’s go, big guy.”

Steve rolled his eyes but didn’t bother to tell Sam to stop calling him big guy. Instead, he climbed into Sam’s car and strapped himself into the passenger seat. He liked Sam’s car. Steve could drive with his prosthetic, of course, but the comfort of the routine of Sam’s car was important. He liked that it was some kind of 1990s monstrosity, liked that it smelled like pine car freshener and fast food. Sam’s car was a slice of normalcy in an otherwise unnavigable world.

As always, Steve avoided the subject of his capture at group. He talked about combat. He talked about how, all in all, slow days of nothing made up his tours, but that the explosive, shrapnel-filled days outweighed those in his memory. Then he listened to the others in his group, and listened to Sam’s gentle voice replying in kind.

The day ramped up to being all right, until his job interview. Sometimes Steve forgot that he wasn’t his tiny, standoffish self anymore. He stumbled through every word that he spoke in response to the interviewer’s questions, until the very end, when she asked him, “Why don’t you have a Stark prosthetic? I hear they’re free for vets.”

“Because I don’t agree with his ethics, ma’am,” Steve replied. It was the only sentence that came out of his mouth smoothly, and by the oh you’re one of those people looks on the interviewer’s face, Steve knew he was toast.

The truth was, when he left the building in his itchy, ironed business casual, Steve didn’t even think. His hands worked on autopilot. They took out his phone, found the contact that read Bucky Barnes and typed in: Do you wanna see the new Star Wars?

13:27 Bucky Barnes: who is this

13:27 Steve: Steve, from last night

13:27 Steve: Natasha gave me your number

13:28 Steve: She said it would be an uphill battle to get you out of your apartment

13:28 Steve: But I screwed the pooch with this job interview and I want to see Star Wars

13:29 Steve: So I figured I’d try anyway

For several minutes, no response came. Then:

13:38 Bucky Barnes: okay. when.

Steve released the tight breath that he didn’t realize he was holding in his lungs.

13:39 Steve: Tonight’s good. I don’t know how much longer I can go without seeing it and keep avoiding spoilers

Bucky texted back an address. He didn’t live too far from Steve, or from Erskine’s, for that matter. Steve’s heart ached at the memory of the previous night, of how Bucky looked like he might cry because he couldn’t remember where he lived. It wasn’t far, but it was far enough that that a couple of whiskeys worked on Buck like a brain-scrambler, like something out of one of the old scifi pulp magazines that Steve collected.

13:52 Steve: There’s a showing at six. That sound okay?

14:01 Bucky Barnes: k

X

Why did he do this to himself?

Bucky pulled the elastic out of his hair, combed out his mane, and tied his hair back for either the sixth or seventh time. He lost track. He’d showered for the second day in a row, and actually blew his hair dry, all to look nice for Steve Rogers, who was definitely not taking Bucky out on a date.

Why did he say yes to this?

Because Steve was nice.

Because seeing Steve Rogers’ smile was like looking into the sun. Because, if nothing else, Bucky would get to pet a dog and see Star Wars, which he had wanted to see for what felt like forever, but he never bought tickets for because he didn’t want to go alone and he didn’t want to admit that to the handful of people that he communicated with.

Bucky had changed his clothing three times already by the time that he heard a soft knock at his apartment door. Shit. Shit. He couldn’t let Steve in here to see the disaster area that he called a living space. He could have at least tried to toss some of the beer bottles if he’d thought of it, but instead he dicked around his hair and shirt. What did even matter? He’d look like shit no matter what he did.

So, Bucky opened the door.

“You don’t look like shit; that’s for sure,” Bucky said.

Steve’s brows crested high on his forehead, “Thank you? I think.”

Bucky bit his tongue and pretended that he hadn’t started the night off like an asshole. He didn’t open the door wide enough for Steve to see inside the hidey-hole of despair where he lived, just grabbed his keys and his wallet and exited. His apartment door closed with a concise click.

“Hey, so,” Steve said, scratching the back of his head, “I wanted to, um. That is. I mean. I’m sorry about hollerin’ at you this morning.”

“You…what?”

“I get kinda riled up about small things sometimes, you know?” Steve went on, “I haven’t been back home too long and there’s some stuff about adjusting to civilian life that nobody can really teach you. Sometimes I don’t even know why I’m angry. I just am. So, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to take it out on you.”

This was unexpected. Bucky was pretty sure that he was the one that fucked up, but Rogers was here apologizing. Bucky scratched at his head and messed up the bun he’d tried to tie his hair into. He gnawed at the skin around the fingernails on his good hand and wracked his brain for the right thing to say.

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” was the sentence Bucky eventually got out, “Shouldna bugged you about your art, anyway.”

Bucky didn’t usually talk this much. In company he found it easier to be quiet. He could observe and he could listen. He could find out about people and they never had to find out about him. Plenty of folks were more than happy to talk about themselves, talk about anything, really, to fill the silence. Bucky used to talk to fill silence, at least before he landed in Afghanistan. Now he spoke a whole lot less.

“Don’t worry about it,” Steve said, “It just helps me…you know, cope. I woulda been painting last night if you hadn’t made me feel all right. That was real nice of you, helping with my nightmares.”

“I did what?” Bucky said. He scanned back in his memory, tried to recall what the hell Steve was talking about, but drew a blank. He must’ve been too drunk to store that particular event on the right shelf.

“You don’t remember?” Steve looked disappointed, and Bucky felt like a dick.

Bucky shook his head. He replied, “Was pretty drunk.”

“Ah.”

Silence stretched out between them. It was awkward silence, not the comfortable kind that rolled out between folks like an old quilt. This silence was all exposed wires, barbs and sparks, and neither Steve nor Bucky knew how to navigate it.

Bucky fumbled for words and, for Christ only knows what reason, said, “Music kinda helps.”

“Yeah?” said Steve.

“Uh, helps me, anyway,” Bucky replied, “You listen to a lot of old stuff?”

Something close to a smile appeared on Steve’s face. He answered, “Yeah. There’s something comforting about it, like, it’s always been there and it always will be. That sounds stupid. Sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Bucky said, “I can’t listen to the real loud stuff. It makes me all jittery. I like quieter things, I guess. Sometimes weird stuff. Nat calls me a hipster.”

“She said the same thing when she saw my record collection,” Steve muttered, and then said a little more loudly, “I’m bad at finding new music. Any recommendations?”

“I got plenty of those,” Bucky said, “I think my favorite is Strangejuice. He screams sometimes in his songs but somehow it’s okay when he does it. I don’t know. It’s weird and I like it. Oh, twenty one pilots. They’re cool. Same thing with the screaming, I guess. Milky Chance is good. I could make you a mix!”

It wasn’t until Bucky’s line of sight settled on Steve’s grin that he realized he’d started rambling. He felt the blood rush to his face and glanced away, embarrassed.

“A mix would be great,” Steve said, “I’d like that a lot.”

Bucky looked back up. Enthusiasm flooded him at the idea of making a mix CD for Steve. He hadn’t made a mix since he was a hypersexual, depressed teenager and the only one of his old group of friends that had to fit a beat-up Walkman in his hoodie pockets instead of an iPod. He thought of which songs helped when in the small hours of the morning nightmares woke him, and knew that he would put those songs on a CD for Steve, in case they might help Steve, too.

The good feeling vanished just as abruptly as it came on. Bucky never got this excited about crap. He stifled the feeling, but banked the idea away for later. Maybe Steve needed good nightmare music.

“If the theater’s too crowded, we can always leave,” Steve said, when they arrived.

Being a weekend night, people packed the place like sardines. Bucky noted the exits, and before he could stop himself, he recited them to Steve: “Two main exits, at eight and four o’clock. Fire escape at two. Those are what I can see. Probably a couple fire exits in the halls and definitely one in our theater.” Once he started talking, he couldn’t stop. His face went hot all over again, but when he chanced a look at Steve, Steve was smiling fondly back.

“Thanks, Buck,” he said.

Wading through people felt easier with Steve next to him. Turned out Steve already bought the tickets, which earned a pointed “Fine, but next time’s on me,” from Bucky before they stopped at concessions for popcorn and sodas. Bucky almost wished this theater was one of those souped-up ones that kept popping up all over the place, where they served real food and booze, too. Mostly for the booze part, but he wasn’t sure Steve’s company and booze would be a great combination. He didn’t need any more embarrassing shit on his conscience.

They took seats all the way up top, with their backs against the wall. Bucky did it without thinking, but he watched tension leak out of Steve’s shoulders once they sat that indicated he felt the same way about having rows upon rows of strangers behind them.

Bucky found that he wanted Steve to know that he had his back. Last night when Bucky let out a little of his crazy, Steve had his back. It was only fair that he return the favor. And it had nothing to do with the fact that Steve Rogers’ smile could chase the frown off of the devil himself, or the fact that he fed Pollock popcorn when he thought Bucky wasn’t looking.

Bucky liked the movie. Even with a field of people below him and noise he wouldn’t have been able to take a handful of months ago without losing his shit, he enjoyed himself. But, partway through, he started to think that the enjoyment had only partially to do with Star Wars and mostly due to the company.

Damn it, why did Steve have to be so nice? Nice and good-looking. Not that Bucky had noticed – okay, he noticed. He felt bad, because he didn’t want Steve to be another notch on the belt, but sometimes when Bucky’s brain and dick agreed on a person they liked he panicked about it, okay? As a mental-case teenager, he fucked about everything that breathed. Hell, he got suspended in high school because one of the administration walked in on Bucky blowing a guy from his biology class. Then he got expelled a couple of months later – similar incident, except he hand his hands in a girl’s panties.

Bucky didn’t remember their names. Romance never came easy to him the way that sex did. When he cared, he fucked up. At least, that was always how it seemed to play out. So, he couldn’t like Steve, even if his brain and dick were pretty sure that they could.

“Bucky?”

Bucky jerked his head up. “Huh?” he said.

“Movie’s over,” Steve told him, “You all right?”

“Fine,” Bucky answered, an automatic answer, not a truthful one, “Just thinking.”

“Let me walk you back to your place,” Steve said.

Bucky didn’t argue. He took Pollock’s leash and watched Steve gather their empty soda cups and popcorn bag to throw away in the trash can outside of the theater. Of course he’d take care of his garbage like a polite human being. Steve was just fucking polite.

Steve wasn’t a toy, or so he reminded himself as they walked back to Bucky’s apartment. The neighborhood wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t the best, either. He’d heard muggings and read about shady shit between the buildings when he deigned to browse the internet, but he didn’t think a couple of former soldiers were in much trouble. Even with Steve’s service dog and stilted walk, he looked like he could punch a guy straight the gates of the afterlife.

They made it to the doorstep of Bucky’s apartment, and he knew he had to say something to break the silence.

“Thanks,” was about all he managed, “This was nice.”

Steve did that weird embarrassed-smile thing, like he was self-conscious about being thanked for the good shit he did for people.

Bucky pulled his keys out of his pocket and stuck them in his door. He opened it a crack, just enough to make it inside, when Steve place his hand on Bucky’s left arm. Bucky looked up. Steve still had the stupid look on his face, but now he was blushing, too.

“Buck,” he started, “I, um. I.”

Bucky waited while Steve stammered.

“I like you!” blurted Steve.

“You like me?” echoed Bucky.

“Yeah,” Steve said, “I mean, who wouldn’t? There’s just…it’s like…there’s something about you.”

“There’s something about me?”

Steve nodded, “You – um. I don’t know. You understand things.”

Bucky sighed. He said, “Steve, come on. People like you don’t like people like me.”

“Who’re ‘people like you’?” asked Steve. The blushing schoolboy effect popped out of existence and gave way to a much more serious-faced Steve Rogers.

“Messed up people,” Bucky said, “Crazy people. That’s people like me. People like you…you got your shit, Steve. I won’t deny you that. But this?” He gestured over himself, “This is next level fucked up, okay? I’m no good. Not good for you, not good for anybody. Natasha’s got red on her ledger same as me, but you? You’re something else. You’re better than people like us.”

“That’s not true,” Steve said lowly.

“It’s –”

“You’re wrong,” said Steve, “You deserve good. And you know what? I’m gonna figure out a way to prove it to you.”

Steve turned around and Pollock padded along with him. The exit would have been more dramatic if Steve didn’t have a limp.

Chapter Text

Chapter Track: Space Oddity – David Bowie

In a Most Peculiar Way

A week after Bucky saw Star Wars with Steve Rogers, he had one of his good days. The good days felt strange to him; a good day for Bucky was an exception that proved the rule. For a few hours he broke out of his haze, because that’s what depression felt like, a lot of the time – a haze, a pollution, thick clouds of exhaust from his broken-down beater of a brain.

Today, he felt clear. He wasn’t happy, exactly, but clear days were close enough to happy that Bucky would take what he could get. He showered, even brushed his teeth, dressed and took his ever-growing laundry pile down to the communal building washers. He didn’t know anyone in his building, didn’t know if they were cool or shady, so he sat with a beaten copy of some scifi pulp he bought forever ago at a used bookstore for two bucks and ended up liking more than he thought he would.

No one showed through the duration of the wash cycle, but as Bucky threw his clothes from the washer to the dryer, a guy as built as Steve and his blond hair in a knot on his head shouldered his way into the cramped room with a full laundry basket under each arm. Bucky shifted, kept his six to the wall, and dicked with the dials on the dryer from the side of the machine until it roared to life, vibrating in place.

At first, the guy just stuck his laundry into the washer without speaking, but he turned to Bucky and nodded in acknowledgment. He pointed to Bucky’s arm, “Where did you serve?”

“Kunar,” Bucky said slowly, “Two tours. Part of a third.”

The guy didn’t thank Bucky for his service, or any of that stuff people usually did. He just nodded again, and said, “You are in 101, yes?”

“Yeah,” Bucky said, “How’d you know?” Part of his brain told him that he should be uneasy, but he was having a clear day. He let it slide. Something in the set of the guy’s jaw, in the way that he carried himself, alluded to military service of his own. That and the monster build of his arms, Christ. Bucky’s arms weren’t anything to sniff at, but they sure as shit didn’t look like this dude’s.

“I have met everyone else in the building,” he shrugged, “You – more elusive. Thor.”

Thor stuck out his hand, and Bucky couldn’t help his next question as he shook, “What, really?”

“My parents are eccentric people,” answered Thor.                                                 

“Huh. I’m Bucky.”

“That is also an interesting name.”

“I’m really James, but nobody calls me that but my friend Nat,” Bucky said.

“I prefer James, I think.”

“Then use it. I don’t give a fuck.”

Thor let out a booming, belly-deep laugh. He said, “If you ever want company, James, my Jane and I live in 205. We don’t get out as often as we should.” He didn’t touch Bucky, but did give him a lazy salute before he exited the laundry room, leaving his baskets and the clothes cycling in the washing machine. Thor trusted more easily, then. Maybe he’d been out of the service longer. He had an air of a well-adjusted guy.

Bucky put a new crease in the spine of his book while he waited for his clothes. He didn’t fold them when the dryer shrilly beeped to signal the end of its cycle, just dumped them in his plastic laundry basket. He put a warm towel up against his face and almost smiled. Bucky forgot how nice clean things were.

The haze hadn’t yet returned by the time he threw his basket of clean clothing onto the floor of his bedroom, so he embraced the clear. Bucky stuck shoes on his feet and threw a coat over his shoulders, made sure to pull gloves on so nobody would stare. He walked to the nearest Starbucks. It wasn’t the best coffee, but he liked sugary shit as much as the next person.

Despite Christmas having passed, Bucky ordered a gingerbread latte and stuck to the corner of the place. He watched people for a while, watched a group of teenage girls laughing together and wondered what it must be like to be so carefree, watched an elderly couple as the wife helped her husband read the menu and his gentle smile in return and wondered what it must be like to be in love, wondered what it must be like to be anyone but him.

Bucky sat long after he drained his paper cup and just looked. Watching normal people function felt like window shopping without money in his pockets, looking at all the shit he couldn’t have but wanted anyway, because he was a sucker.

And even with those heavy thoughts bearing down on him, Bucky managed to keep a clear head. He walked back to his apartment building, comforted by the relatively people-free sidewalks.

But when he got back, somebody sat outside of his door.

“Becca?” he managed, stunned.

Bucky’s sister sat in jeans and a gray peacoat on a suitcase in front of his door. He stared for a long moment and asked, “What are you doing here?”

“I told you if you didn’t text me to let me know you were alive that I’d come find you,” Becca said, “and you haven’t texted me in like two weeks, you asshole.”

Bucky frowned and pulled his phone out of his pocket. Sure enough, several texts from his younger sister were in there, each one more desperate than the last, though he didn’t remember seeing them. He made a gruff humming noise and said, “Right. Forgot, I guess.”

“You forgot?” Becca said, indignant.

“Can we fight about this inside my apartment instead of in front of it?” asked Bucky.

Becca opened her mouth like she wanted to argue and folded her arms over her chest. He sent a single, scathing look before she stepped aside and let him unlock the door.

The thing about having a clear day meant that Bucky saw just how fucked up his living space looked when they walked in.

“Jesus,” Becca said.

Beer bottles, dirty dishes, filthy carpet, the kitchen of a hoarder – at least Bucky washed his clothes. The absence of the laundry basket in the front room left a blank space for Becca to set her suitcase down. But God, the place looked like a warzone, and hell, maybe it was. It wasn’t the warzone Bucky came home from, but it sure as shit was the warzone in his head.

“How do you live in this?” his sister asked.

“Don’t notice it most of the time,” he answered honestly, and shrugged his coat off of his shoulders to drape it over the back of the couch.

Thing was that Bucky forgot he was wearing a t-shirt under the coat and forgot that Becca hadn’t ever really seen either one of his arms. She gaped at the prosthetic and then at the full sleeve of tattoos, and then at his face.

His ma and Becca had seen him minus the prosthetic, one-armed in a hospital bed, but she hadn’t seen this.

“God, Bucky,” she said, and moved forward.

He knew – he knew – she meant to hug him, but Bucky still flinched back. Becca withdrew her hands and looked dejected and just…sad. Sad for him. That fucking haze crept in at the corners of his mind and Bucky tried to will it away, clenched his hands into fists and thought, not now, let me have this one day, but it didn’t matter. He felt like shit because he didn’t want his baby sister to see what a disaster he was.

“Sorry,” he said lamely, “You should go. I’m fine, see? In one piece. Two, actually, but who’s counting?”

“You’re not fine,” Becca argued, “This is so far from fine, Bucky.”

“Well I’m alive, ain’t I?” asked Bucky, “Can’t that be enough for you?”

“I just want you to be happy,” Becca said.

“Happy,” Bucky snorted, “I wasn’t even happy before the fucking –”

A knock at the door cut Bucky’s speech short. He aimed a this isn’t over glance at his sister before he brushed past her and threw open his apartment door.

There on the threshold stood Steve with a plate in his hands, Pollock at his side wagging his tail.

Bucky gaped.

“Are those cookies?” he asked.

“Snickerdoodles. Made ‘em myself. Thought you might want some,” Steve said. Then he glanced to the right of Bucky’s shoulder and saw Becca. Steve asked, “Am I interrupting something?”

“No, s’all right,” Bucky muttered, “Come in, I guess. Since everybody wants to see the depression cave today.”

Steve politely refrained from humoring Bucky, and didn’t comment on the state of the apartment. Instead, he started stacking dishes in Bucky’s kitchen to clear space, and put down his plastic-wrapped plate of snickerdoodles.

Snickerdoodles. Steve fucking baked snickerdoodles and brought them over. It was sweet as hell, and Bucky couldn’t help but feel a little bit like an asshole for being as pissy as he was right now. The desire to not be pissy didn’t relieve his pissiness, however.

“Steve,” Bucky said, “This is my little sister, Becca. Becca, this is Steve, and Steve’s dog, Pollock.”

Pollock wagged his tail.

Goddamnit.

Of all the times for a rudely handsome, all-American, earnest dude with a yellow Labrador to show up at Bucky’s place, it had to be when Bucky already was under the intense scrutiny of his little sister. Her furious expression had softened in the last couple of minutes into something more interested. Bucky did not like that look.

“Hey, Steve,” Becca said. He didn’t like the look, and he liked the tone even less.

“Becca, I swear to God,” Bucky said.

“What?” said Becca, “I’m just saying hi to Steve. Who brought you cookies. And who has a really cute dog. How come I haven’t heard about Steve before now?”

“We’ve only known each other a couple weeks,” Steve replied, before Bucky could start another fight with his sister. Steve adopted an aw, shucks kind of expression, scuffing his foot against the floor, and added, “but I’m trying to be his friend. He’s makin’ it difficult but I’m working on it.”

That little shit, Bucky thought. He revised his opinion of Steve’s visit as ‘sweet’ and now labeled it ‘devious.’ That fucker was using Becca, who would now badger him to no end about this whole thing. And he knew it. Steve goddamn knew what he was doing, judging by the look on his face – trying to be nonchalant, looking all innocent, but biting down none other than a smirk.

Naturally, that’s when a second knock sounded at Bucky’s door. He pulled his hands back through his hair and groaned at the ceiling. He hesitated just long enough that Becca stepped aside and answered the door.

Natasha’s voice filtered into the room: “Guess I’m not the first one here for the party.”

“You, too?” Bucky said, “What the hell are you doing here?”

“You haven’t been answering my texts,” Natasha said, “I’m making sure you’re not dead.”

Fuck it. The anxiety crowded in on Bucky. There were too many people and they wanted too many goddamn things from him. He snapped, “I’m fucking fine. Has everyone got their good look at me?” He does a sarcastic turn for effect, “I’m not a child. I don’t need eight fucking people hovering over my shoulder all hours of the damn day. I’m here, I’m not dead, I don’t need sympathy or hugs or cookies, and now you can all leave.”

No one moved, so Bucky did. He shoved past Steve and to his bedroom, slammed the door, and locked it behind him. Bucky sunk down with his back against his bed and lowered his face into his knees.

Why couldn’t he have just one clear day?

X

Steve stared at the door as the lock clicked. The initial shock of Bucky’s outburst gave way to a rolling boulder of guilt in his gut. He rubbed at his temples and said, “I feel like an asshole.”

Natasha sighed and said, “You’re not an asshole, Steve.”

Steve made a point of ignoring that and instead said, “He probably feels overcrowded,” because he knew that he would feel overcrowded were he in Bucky’s same place, “so I should probably go. Um, nice to meet you, Becca. Bye.”

Steve tugged Pollock’s leash and hastened to the exit. Pollock seemed put out at the idea of leaving, and Steve didn’t know whether it was simply because Pollock enjoyed the presence of people, or if he sensed that Bucky might have needed a dog the way that Steve needed a dog – “Don’t freak out, here’s someone loving and furry to pet.”

Steve tried not to dwell on the situation, but something must have clued Peggy into his mood. He’d had “coffee with Peggy” on his agenda forever, but neither of them had time until today. Now, he was about as fun to be around as – well, a combat veteran that needed a dog around to keep him level. Steve took a sip of his coffee under Peggy’s scrutinizing gaze so that he didn’t have to say anything.

“All right, that’s enough of that,” she said, “What happened?”

“Nothing,” Steve said, “I’m fine.”

“You are the worst liar in the world, Steve Rogers.”

Steve took another sip of his coffee.

The cup was empty.

“Steve,” Peggy urged.

The fond, exasperated look on her face was what did him in, in the end. Peggy was one of the few people from high school that he kept in contact with. They dated for a while, until Steve enlisted and Peggy went to college. He’d gone to prom with her. He lost his virginity to her (made his sexual debut, Peggy preferred to say). She was one of the only people that knew everything about him, from the chronic illness that plagued his childhood to what happened to him in Iraq. He trusted her with his life – he just didn’t want to burden her with his problems.

“I like a guy,” he said, finally.

“Go on.”

Two words, and the dam was broken. Steve told her everything. He detailed the night that he and Bucky met and how Bucky was the James Barnes that saved the life of Natasha and lost his arm in the process. He told her about Bucky drinking himself stupid and forgetting where he lived and how they’d cuddled in Steve’s bed. He told her about Bucky bringing him down from his nightmares, and how Bucky didn’t remember doing that. Then he explained going to Star Wars and what Bucky said to him outside his apartment.

And then today, with the damn cookies.

Steve watched as Peggy nursed her coffee. She seemed to be mulling over the information he’d relayed.

“Far be it from me to judge a man that I haven’t met,” Peggy said, “but it sounds to me like you might end up getting hurt, darling. You should tread lightly. Bucky is unstable.”

Steve’s hackles rose at that. He defended, “I’m unstable. Heck, Peggy, we’re all a little unstable. No one comes back the same as they left.”

Peggy exhaled a long, pensive breath. She met his eyes with that same fond expression on her face, and pulled one of his hands into both of hers. She said, “You’re so loving, Steve. You never do things by half-measures. I’m telling you now that if you throw your whole heart into a misguided attempt to save this man that you are going to get burned. You can’t save everybody. Sometimes people must save themselves.”

Steve knew she was right, but even after he parted from Peggy with a hug and returned home for the night, the desire to be around Bucky hadn’t left. He decided it wasn’t necessarily a desire to help. He put his wish that Bucky could be helped in a separate box in his head and taped it up for the time being. There was a different box, though, that he was reluctant to close. He enjoyed Bucky’s company. There were few people in his life that he could say that he felt understood, that he knew down to a molecular level were meant to be in his life.

Bucky was meant to be there. He knew it. He didn’t know how he knew, just that he did. He’d known it when he met Peggy at his scrawny fourteen, and he knew it now.

Steve made it back to his apartment, but he wasn’t sure how. His night felt like a skipping record, and he went from one place to the next without the ends matching up. He took his mind off of it all by removing every last book from his bookshelf, including the old bagged-and-boarded pulp magazines he collected when he could. He had the magazines in alphabetical order by title, but he replaced them by date of publication.

The books had been alphabetical, too, but he put them back by color.

It wasn’t until Pollock whined at Steve that he realized how long he worked on the shelf. Doing the cleaning thing again, Sam would say. His leg aches like hell from being strapped on all day. He’d probably do better with a fancy leg from Tony Stark, but he didn’t like the history with weapons manufacturing that Stark had, and he didn’t like the veil of secrecy that Stark kept over his science projects.

So he had a standard, below-the-knee prosthetic that clipped into the sleeve he pulled over his stump.

Steve heaved himself onto his couch and undid his leg. He set it aside as Pollock leapt onto the cushion beside him, and scratched his dog behind the ears with one hand and massaged the irritated, red skin where his right leg ended. He blinked several times and forced himself to breathe, shoved away memories of everything that happened that led to his sitting here with a missing fucking foot.

Peggy called Bucky unstable, but Steve wasn’t any better. His demons manifested differently, but that didn’t make them any less screwy.

X

Bucky’s lock was getting picked, which meant Natasha was going to make him talk about his fucking feelings. Bucky didn’t have the patience for that shit, and he said as much as soon as his bedroom door swung open.

“I don’t have patience for your shit right now,” he said.

Natasha narrowed her eyes.

“Funny,” she said, “I don’t have patience for your shit right now.”

Bucky didn’t feel like arguing about that. He decided to sink his head back between his knees and pretend that Natasha wasn’t there until she left. Unfortunately, this plan of action worked opposite to Bucky’s intentions, and instead, he felt Natasha’s weight settle beside him on the filthy carpet of his bedroom.

Bucky groaned into his knees, “Nat, don’t sit in my filth.”

“It’s not that bad,” she said, “You did laundry.”

“Yeah, I was havin’ a good day.”

“Was?”

“Went downhill pretty fast,” Bucky said, “Didn’t mean to yell. Panicked.” He pulled in a shuddering breath.

Bucky flinched when Natasha’s hand rested on his back, but he didn’t tell her to move it. She rubbed in circles until his ragged breathing slowed to something quieter. It wasn’t the first time she’d had to calm his ass down, and he doubted it would be the last. She’d done it for him when they were in Afghanistan together. He lost his marbles more than once over there, even before the arm incident.

He kept telling everyone he was a mess before he got deployed, but no one seemed to comprehend the truth of it. Maybe he was minus an arm now, but he’d always been minus the brain.

Natasha leaned her head on his shoulder and said, “When I came back, I felt like a waste of space. I didn’t want to die but I didn’t know what I was supposed to do after everything I’d seen and done. It helps me to have you and Clint and Steve. I’m trying to help you too. I don’t like talking about this, so consider yourself lucky.”

Lucky. Bucky laughed into his knees and lifted his head to show Natasha his look of disbelief.

Natasha looked unimpressed. She said, “Everyone that came to your apartment today was just trying to help.”

“I know.”

“Let people help you,” said Nat, “Don’t make your life harder than it is. You could be friendless. You could have no one. And I know I’m not the number one best friend to have, believe me, I know, but I’m better than nothing.”

“What the fuck are you talking about? You’re a great best friend,” Bucky said.

“That’s all you picked up from that?” Natasha said.

“I get it, I get it. Could be more fucked up than I am.”

Natasha narrowed her eyes and said, “I’m not writing you off, you know. The things in your head, they’re valid. But I’m here to tell you that sometimes you’re a giant baby and this is one of those times.”

Bucky rolled his eyes, but fine, she was probably right. This time, anyway.

Nat leaned forehead and pressed her lips against his forehead. She stood and offered a hand, which Bucky took.

Outside his bedroom, Becca was hard at work cleaning his kitchen.

“Becca, you don’t need to –”

“Let me do this.”

“Fine, whatever. Go nuts.”

Natasha bumped Bucky’s shoulder and said, “Seeing as you’re not dead, I’m gonna take off. But I swear to God, James, answer your damn texts or I’m coming for you.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Bucky said. He would at least try. Obviously if texting his friends and family prevented them from showing up on his damn doorstep, it was worth doing, if only for the isolation that he craved. He liked to be left alone, and right now, the world was intent upon not letting him have that.

As soon as the door closed behind Nat, Bucky said, “Hey, kid,” to his sister. She looked up from loading his dishes into the dishwasher.

“Yeah?” Becca said.

“Sorry. I freak out, sometimes.”

Becca’s face softened. She asked him, “How’d it get this way, Bucky?”

Bucky’s lips twisted into a mirthless smile. He replied, “I was always this way.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Track: Fiery Crash – Andrew Bird

A Nod to Mortality

A stretch of silence made the air between Bucky and his sister grow thin and taut, like taffy being pulled. Becca studied him from where she’d taken to filing his gross old dishes into his less-than-used dishwasher. At one time, Bucky could read his sister like a book. Her emotions read on her face same as his emotions read on his face, plain as day.

But now Bucky and Becca were older. Either she was better at masking what she thought, or he was so worse for the wear that he didn’t know his own sister anymore. More than likely, both of those things were true.

Becca broke eye contact first and ducked to pull a container of dishwasher detergent pods from one of Bucky’s kitchen cabinet. He didn’t remember buying them. She closed the dishwasher and said, “So, Natasha seems pretty cool.”

Bucky said, “She’s a good friend.”

“Friend?”

“Yes, a friend. I do have those,” Bucky replied. He flopped back on his stained couch and let his head fall back, eyes to the ceiling.

“Is Steve just a friend too?” asked Becca. She came around the couch with an air of caution and sat gingerly on the opposite side.

Bucky considered deflecting his sister’s question with an interrogation about her love life, but decided against it. He didn’t feel like fighting with her, and that’s all he’d done since she’d shown up. While Bucky was embarrassed at the state of his living space, he found a small sense of relief at his little sister’s presence. They didn’t always get along – they were siblings, after all – but he knew that he could depend on her when it counted.

You’re not always going to have me, their mother would tell Bucky and Becca when they argued, but you’re stuck with each other ‘til the end.

So Bucky heaved a sigh and told the truth: “I like him, but he’s too good for me.”

“What a load of horseshit,” Becca fired back, “You deserve some good in your life. You fought for your country. You lost an arm. And contrary to popular belief, I did know that you were going through shit before this. You don’t exactly forget visiting your older brother in some behavioral health ward because he sliced himself open. And all the shit you got into in high school! God, I’m not stupid. I think you could have something with this Steve guy. He brought you cookies, for shit’s sake.”

“Don’t you have shit to do? Something that’s not badgering me about where I stick it?” asked Bucky, irritated, “Aren’t you supposed to be getting an education? This ain’t Long Island.”

Becca attended Stony Brook, going after something to do with physics. Last time Bucky checked, she worked at a dining hall across campus and was doing all right, but then, he obviously hadn’t checked in with her enough.

Upon examination, Bucky realized he knew very little about his sister’s life at the moment. She told him things if he asked directly, but never offered any personal information otherwise. She was too focused on making sure Bucky was taking care of himself, which was not a burden that should be put on a twenty year old.

Becca crinkled her nose and ran a hand through her long, dark hair. She said, “Ugh, don’t get me started. I’m just stressed out by one of my professors. He can’t teach for shit. And I was worried about you anyway, so I took the weekend off. Now that I’m here, I’m even more worried.”

“I’ll be fine,” Bucky said.

Becca made another face. She said, “You look like shit. You probably haven’t been sleeping. Am I right? And I’ll bet you haven’t refilled your meds in forever.”

“Who are you, mom?” asked Bucky.

“I want you to do something about this,” Becca said with a sweep of her arm at the disaster that was Bucky’s apartment.

“You want me to clean my apartment?”

“Don’t be obtuse. You know what I’m talking about. I want you to take care of yourself. I want you to refill your meds. I want you to talk to somebody. Anybody.”

“Fine,” Bucky replied, “I’ll think about it.”

From the desperate, sad look on Becca’s face, Bucky could tell she knew he was lying. He wasn’t going to do any of those things. He didn’t have a good reason not to, other than that he felt like he might deserve to feel this way. He’d been ruining people’s lives forever now – medical bills for doctors and hospitals when his depression manifested, the detentions and suspensions and expulsion from high school for doing any crazy shit that would make him feel better for ten seconds, using a talent for good aim to fire bullets into human beings – and he thought that the people he cared about would be better off without him.

But his ma and Becca insisted that wasn’t true, so he grit his teeth and tried to get through the days.

Becca dropped the subject.

X

While coffee brewed in his shitty drip coffee machine the following morning, Bucky unwrapped the plastic from Steve’s cookies and stared at them. Each one was perfectly round, flawless, almost professional in appearance. The plate Steve brought them on was another unattractive yellow and brown plate. An actual plate, not a paper one, which Bucky would bet his other arm was on purpose.

9:12 Bucky: did u bring me cookies on this plate so i would have to bring the damn plate back to u

Steve didn’t send an immediate response. Bucky took it in stride and stuffed one of the snickerdoodles in his mouth.

Jesus, it was amazing. The thing practically melted in his mouth in a bite of sugar-cinnamon, buttery perfection. Bucky finished it in two succinct bites and dove for another one.

When Becca lifted her head from where she’d slept on his couch, Bucky said, “You have got to try these. These are God’s own cookies.”

Bucky ate three more and washed them down with crappy coffee. That seemed somehow sacrilegious, so he ate two to get the taste of gritty, poorly-brewed coffee out of his mouth and sent Steve another text.

9:43 Bucky: jesus tapdancing christ rogers these cookies are amazing i just ate half the damn plate

And a couple minutes later, upon recalling yesterday:

9:46 Bucky: hey and im sorry for being an asshole yesterday

Bucky set his phone down long enough to swap his pajamas out for actual clothes. He had clean ones, now. It was nice to pull something over his head that smelled like laundry soap instead of vaguely crusty carpet and sweat from the last time he’d worn the thing. He emerged from his bedroom to Becca eating another cookie and drinking coffee out of a Garfield mug that, again, Bucky didn’t recall buying.

“Your phone’s buzzing. Messages from Handsome Steve.”

Right. Bucky already had a Steve in his phone, an old coworker from another age in his life, but he had to differentiate between that Steve and his Steve when he put the contact in. So “Handsome Steve” had made it into his contacts. He could have changed it before now, but Bucky didn’t. Whether that was out of laziness or affection, Bucky couldn’t say.

With a glower at his sister, Bucky swiped his phone off of the table and opened the lock screen.

9:52 Handsome Steve: I can neither confirm nor deny the plate allegations

9:53 Handsome Steve: I’m glad you liked the cookies, and you weren’t an asshole

Bucky rolled his eyes.

9:54 Bucky: i was 5000% an asshole steve

9:54 Handsome Steve: You weren’t.

Bucky started to type a rebuttal, only to receive several messages from Steve in a row.

9:55 Handsome Steve: But

9:55 Handsome Steve: If you wanted to make it up to me

9:55 Handsome Steve: I would accept a date as penance.

Bucky licked his lips. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his sister watching him with an expression of interest on her face. On one hand, telling Steve no would spite Becca. On the other hand, warmth spread through Bucky from his chest out at the thought of going on a date with Steve.

9:57 Bucky: a date?

9:57 Handsome Steve: Yes, like going out to dinner.

9:57 Handsome Steve: Let me take you out.

9:59 Bucky: fine

10:00 Bucky: one date

Steve replied with several smiley face emoticons in a row.

X

Bucky wanted to know what the secret ingredient to Steve Rogers was, because this was ridiculous. He showed up on Bucky’s doorstep with hair effortlessly disheveled in a button-up shirt, collar unbuttoned enough to see a white cotton t-shirt. He had his hands stuck in his pockets and Pollock beside him, and a big grin on his face.

Meanwhile, Bucky tried, but he didn’t look all that great. He wore his only pair of unripped jeans and a plaid button-down that Becca had to iron because Bucky couldn’t get the wrinkles out of the cuffs or collar and almost burned through the fabric from holding the iron too close to his metal fingers and letting them get too hot.

“You look gorgeous,” Steve told Bucky when he opened the door.

The compliment punched the bitterness right out of Bucky for a couple of awkward seconds. He gnawed down on his lip, pulling at this skin, and said, “You’re a fucking flatterer, but don’t think I don’t see through you.”

Steve lifted his hands in defense and said, “No ulterior motives. You just look nice.”

Bucky pursed his lips. He probably could have snapped something back and Steve would have taken it in stride, but instead he said, “Thanks. You, uh. You look real good, too. Just FYI.”

Steve’s smile melted into Bucky, under his skin. This was dangerous. Bucky had literally never felt something like the feeling that Steve’s compliments and smiles and cookies gave him. He’d never actually dated, despite being twenty five. Pre-Kunar, Bucky had sex. He fucked a lot of people. He liked to take his mind off how awful he felt for the span of a few minutes, and sex did that. It wasn’t as much having the orgasms as it was giving them. Bucky liked taking people apart and he liked when they praised him for it.

He bet Steve would be the kind of screw that would stroke Bucky’s hair and tell him he did a good job after Bucky sucked his dick.

God, Bucky wasn’t even out of the door and his thoughts had already taken a turn for the irreverent.

Bucky called a goodbye to his sister over his shoulder and Becca waved him out with what Bucky personally thought were too-enthusiastic gestures to leave. He shook his head and closed the apartment door. He wanted to kiss Steve real bad, but instead of the full on tongue-on-tongue action that he craved, Bucky leaned in and brushed his lips against Steve’s cheek.

And then, so he didn’t have to look Steve directly in the eye, Bucky leaned down to scratch Pollock behind the ears. Pollock wagged his tail.

“Nowhere crowded, right?” Bucky said.

“Just this pizza place I know. You all right with pizza?”

“I’m from New York, Steve. Pizza is in my blood.”

Steve laughed, and it felt hard to breathe.

Though the weather was unseasonably warm, Bucky still took his coat. He didn’t like his arm being stared at. He knew people didn’t stare to be malicious. A lot of the time, people were just curious. Knowing that didn’t change that he felt tense under the scrutiny of so many eyes, so he wore the coat and put his hands in the pockets.

The joint that Steve walked them to stood along a street Bucky had walked before, but he’d never noticed the place or gone inside. It was squashed between a Starbucks and a crusty old bodega that looked like it had been around since the dawn of time. A bell tinkled when Steve pushed open the door and held it for Bucky. The place was narrow but long, empty of people, and smelled divine.

“Steven!” exclaimed one of the guys behind the counter, “Good to see you again. And who is your friend?”

“This is Bucky Barnes,” Steve answered. His hand rested on Bucky’s lower back and nudged him forward as Steve continued, “He’s my date.”

“A date!” the guy’s face split into a delighted grin, “You hear that? Steven brought a date!”

Steve slid Bucky a look and an affectionate roll of the eyes. He said, “When I got home, I barely went out, but God, I’d missed pizza. Google maps said this was the closest place and I’ve been hanging around Benny and these idiots ever since.”

The guy from the counter, Benny, seated them at a table along an exposed brick wall, a table that had a good view of the entire place but didn’t leave their backs exposed. Pollock curled up underneath the table beside Steve’s feet, looking like he was gearing up to use some puppy-eyes on Steve for a slice or two. Steve ordered them a classic pepperoni pizza and a couple of beers.

It was…nice. Relaxed. The restaurant staff were all looking at them and Bucky knew it, but it didn’t bother him as much as it might have if he were alone. He got the feeling that they knew about Steve’s leg and military service in general. So, Bucky pulled off his coat, set it down beside him on the vinyl seating, and rolled up his sleeves a little.

“I’ve never been on a date before,” Bucky confessed.

Steve’s brows shot up on his forehead. He managed to get his expression under control in the next second, but the surprise remained barely masked. He said, “Really? But you’re so…you.” He made a circling gesture at Bucky.

Bucky shrugged. He said, “I’m kinda trashy, Steve. I used to pick people up like it was my job. I mean. I haven’t…haven’t done that since I got back. From Afghanistan. The arm thing – I guess I don’t know how people would react to it. And I’d freak out if I went to a club the way I did before. Too dark, too many people. You know what I mean.”

“Were you even old enough to go clubbing before you got deployed?”

“No. Had a fake ID, like every other idiot kid.”

“I never had a fake ID.”

“That doesn’t surprise me,” Bucky said, “I guess you’ve been on dates before?”

A half-smile flashed on Steve’s face. He shrugged one shoulder as he spoke, “Yeah. I mean, a couple. I wasn’t really a catch back in high school. At least, not the first three years. Growth spurt in my senior year and suddenly everybody’s short.”

“Bull. You were always a catch, I bet,” Bucky accused. He took a pull from his beer and pointed at Steve with the bottle still in his hand, “You probably held doors open for everybody and got your dates flowers, bought ‘em spaghetti dinners and crap. Never put out on the first date, never pressured anybody else to do it. I’m right, aren’t I?”

The tops of Steve’s cheeks turned a dangerous shade of red. Bucky snorted and said, “Steve Rogers, did you put out on the first date?”

“It was one time,” Steve defended, “and we didn’t go all the way or anything. I’d been friends with this girl for a long time. I’m still friends with her, actually, but…anyway, when I worked up the courage to ask her out she just ‘Took you long enough’ and somehow at the end of the night we were in the back of her car talking and it escalated.”

“Mm, got some of those memories myself,” Bucky said, leaning back into the booth, “Backseat memories, I mean.”

“No date memories, though.”

“Nada.”

Benny rescued them from the rest of that conversation with the arrival of their pizza, and quiet relief washed over Bucky. He felt compelled to be honest to Steve, but at the same time, he didn’t exactly want Steve to know the sordid ins and outs of Bucky’s sexual history. Like how he kept sucking Brock Rumlow’s dick in high school because the guy would be nice to Bucky for the space of two seconds, even though he’d turn right back into a douchebag after he came.

Bucky helped himself to a slice of pepperoni pizza and shoved it in his mouth to derail his own train of thought. It was damn good pizza. He had to hand it to Steve, as far as seductions went, this was working out pretty frickin’ good. Bucky wanted so badly to cave in and let Steve date him or whatever, even though it felt like a bad idea because Bucky was a bad idea in general.

Steve’s eyes flicked up to the TV mounted up against the ceiling, just behind Bucky’s head.

It happened so fast that Bucky dropped his pizza on his plate mid-bite.

Steve was looking at the TV, mirth in his eyes, and then he went corpse-pale, the happiness leeched right out of his eyes.

Bucky turned to look at the television himself. A news story about the infiltration of a camp holding prisoners of war flashed across the screen, showed pictures with wounds blurred out. Bucky’s throat closed up a little at the story, but as soon as he glanced away, Steve got up from the booth and strode straight to the restrooms at the back of the restaurant. He left Pollock at the table.

“Shit,” Bucky said. He took Pollock’s leash and said to Benny at the counter, “Hey, can you turn that crap off? Steve just – fuck.”

Bucky didn’t bother explaining himself, just led Pollock to the back. He rapped his metal knuckles against the restroom door, but Steve didn’t answer. Bucky tested the doorknob. It wasn’t locked. He said, “Steve, me n’ Pollock are coming in.”

Steve curled into a ball on the floor, his breathing uneven and ragged, shoulders shaking. This was a panic attack if Bucky ever did see one. And he hadn’t actually – seen one, anyway. He’d only ever had them himself. Pollock nosed at Steve’s hand, and Bucky lowered himself to the tiled bathroom floor beside Steve. God, Bucky was so not qualified to help with this kind of thing.

But he could try.

“Steve,” he said gently. He didn’t touch him. Bucky wanted to, but he didn’t know if Steve was panicking or flashing back or a little of both. He cleared his throat and went on, “Steve, you’re safe. You’re in a bathroom in a pizza joint in Brooklyn. Your dog wants you to pet him. He wants to take care of you. And I got you, okay? Nothin’ happening with me right here.”

“D-Don’t…don’t,” was all that Steve managed, and that didn’t help Bucky in identifying what the fuck was going on in Steve’s head.

He tried again, “Smells like one of them plug-in scent things in here, don’t it? You’re home, Steve. Whatever happened back there, it’s not gonna happen again. You’re safe, okay?”

It felt like hours before Steve’s breathing slowed to something close to normal. He lifted his head and his eyes darted from Pollock to the sink to Bucky and back again. When his gaze settled on Bucky, Steve cracked his head against the wall. He banged his skull back again and again until Bucky’s hand shot out between Steve and the wall. He said, “Don’t do that.”

“This is humiliating,” Steve said, “I was supposed to take you out.”

“Hey, hey,” Bucky said, “Don’t worry about it.” He shifted so he was sitting closer to Steve’s front than his side and cupped Steve’s face in his flesh-and-bone hand. Bucky guided Steve’s gaze up, had him look him in the eye.

“You said one date and I messed it up.”

Steve tried to jerk his face away, but Bucky held him and stroked his thumb over Steve’s cheek.

“I said don’t worry about it,” repeated Bucky, “We’ll go on another one. Did you forget the night we met? And freaking yesterday? This is peanuts, Steve. I’m a wreck.”

“They took me,” Steve said, “That’s how I lost the leg. They took me.”

Bucky swallowed back the knot in his throat and let his hand fall back to his side. He didn’t know whether to be angry or sad, but he didn’t think either one of those would be helpful in this situation. He said, “You don’t have to tell me,” because people were forever wanting Bucky to talk and talk and talk and no one ever told him it was okay to wait until he was ready.

“You should at least know that,” Steve responded, “I might seem like I got it together, but I don’t. I go blank, sometimes. I did it with the cookies. You know how many cookies I made? I made a hundred and twenty six cookies. I made goddamn cookies until I had fifteen perfect cookies to bring you.”

“The fuck did you do with the other hundred and eleven cookies?”

It might not have been the most polite response, but it startled Steve into desperate laughter. A full-on guffaw burst out of his chest and he shook with it. He laughed so hard that Bucky chuckled a little. Then Steve quieted and stroked his hand through the fur of Pollock’s back over and over in a rhythm. Steve answered, “I donated them to a homeless shelter.”

Bucky shook his head and said, “Of course you did, you fucking boy scout.”

Steve had the gall to look offended. He said, “I was and always will be too gay to be a boy scout.”

“Well, you’ve got me there,” said Bucky.

Quiet settled over them, but the silence was less awkward than silences between them had been before. Steve was the first to speak, after several minutes. He said, “Thanks, Buck. I…I really owe you one for this. Don’t know if I ever came down from an episode so quick before.”

“You helped me first, you punk.”

A trace of a smile worked at Steve’s lips. He said, “We should…I should go home.”

“I’ll walk you,” Bucky offered, “C’mon. Up and at ‘em.”

At their table, the pizza had been packed into a cardboard to-go box. As Bucky pulled on his coat, Benny approached. He looked beyond apologetic and something closer to abject penitence. He said, “This one’s on the house, Steven. We shouldna left the TV on the news.”

“It’s not your fault,” Steve said, and pulled out his wallet, “At least let me tip, okay?”

Benny didn’t look like he wanted to accept it, but if there’s one thing that Bucky had picked up in the short time he’d known Steve, it was that once his heels were dug into the ground, nothing short of an act of God would move him. Benny took the cash from Steve’s hand and tucked it into the pocket of his green apron.

“Take care,” Benny said. Steve waved, and Bucky took the pizza.

They walked to Steve’s place without speaking, but partway through, Bucky bumped his hand against Steve’s. Steve looked down at Bucky’s palm-up offering. With only a second of hesitation, he laced his fingers through Bucky’s, and they tromped the rest of the way to Steve’s apartment hand in hand.

Bucky patiently walked up the stairs at Steve’s pace, which didn’t seem so bad if his prosthesis wasn’t bothering him. Steve’s leg handled more weight than Bucky’s arm and was ten times less advanced, so of course Steve got sore and irritated.

“You all good?” Bucky asked when Steve made it to the landing.

“I, um,” Steve said, “Would you stay? Just for a little?”

“Trying to deflower me already,” Bucky dryly replied, “I’m shocked.”

Steve blushed and said, “No, no. It’s just – I feel calmer. With you around. You don’t have to stay if you don’t want to, though.”

Bucky didn’t know whether he was flattered or disappointed that Steve wasn’t trying to get into his pants, but he decided to go with flattered. So, he said, “Sure, I’ll stay.”

Steve put the pizza box away in his fridge before they settle on the couch on opposite sides. Pollock could fit between them, but inside he curled up on the floor with a mangled rawhide and chewed while Steve flicked through Netflix on his TV and looked for something to watch. They decided on some superhero cartoon, but Bucky didn’t concentrate on it. His thoughts drifted.

And as Bucky’s thoughts drifted, so did their bodies. Abruptly Steve was much closer to Bucky than he had been before, and perhaps had spent the entirety of the episode of whatever the hell they were watching edging closer and closer to Bucky.

Bucky scooted up into the corner of the couch and let his legs fall apart. He patted his chest and said, “C’mere.”

Steve looked like he didn’t think Bucky would catch him, let alone invite him to – well, cuddle. But he shifted into the V of Bucky’s legs and rested his head on Bucky’s chest. Bucky ran his fingers through Steve’s hair. Neither of them was paying attention to the cartoon. When Bucky looked down, Steve was looking up at him.

“You ever get that phantom limb thing?” asked Bucky.

“God, yeah.”

Then Bucky queried, “How come you don’t have a Stark leg?”

“Ugh,” Steve said, and rolled his eyes, “He’s corrupt, Bucky. I mean, we could start with the weapons manufacturing –”

“He quit doing that, I thought.”

“Maybe he did publicly, but who’s to say he’s not still doing it? He’s not as open about his work as he should be, and that smells like illegal activity to me. Why isn't he working out of a VA hospital?”

Bucky snorted, “Tony Stark ain’t all that. I think you’re giving him too much credit. And trust me, he can't work out of a VA facility, not with the equipment he needs for the Stark limbs to work. He's got a contract with the military for the prosthetic limbs program, and well...he's a diva. He wanted to keep doing his shit out of his own workshop.”

Steve rotated in Bucky’s grip and met his gaze, confused, “You’ve met the guy?”

“Yeah, Steve. He makes the limbs personally, all custom-like. Very fancy stuff.”

“What’s he like?”

“Kind of a dick,” Bucky said, “Lot of bravado for a short guy, but he did give me my arm so I ain’t got many complaints. He’s not bad.”

“Hm.”

They stopped talking, and Bucky’s attention drifted to the television. He stroked Steve’s hair and drifted again, wondering how he managed to get himself here. Part of him felt like he didn’t deserve to be here, half-asleep with Steve in his arms. Another part said, yeah, let’s be here forever. He knew that Steve could do better than him, but selfishly, Bucky wanted Steve to himself.

Bucky’s throat got tight. He glanced down and opened his mouth to tell Steve that he should go, only to find that Steve was asleep, head heavy against Bucky’s chest and his arms around Bucky’s middle.

It would be rude to wake him.

X

In some small hour of the morning, Bucky rolled to his side and opened his eyes. Steve draped a blanket over him sometime in the night, but his body no longer was wedged against Bucky’s as it had been when Bucky fell asleep.

Blearily, he saw Steve seated in front of his easel with a paintbrush in hand, his body cast in silhouette by the light of the moon.

“Steve?” he rasped.

The shadow of Steve’s head turned.

“Go back to sleep, Buck.”

“’Kay.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Track: A Place Not So Unkind – Firewater

Some Asylum

Steve and Bucky became fast friends.

The morning after their attempted date and Steve’s episode, the tension stretched taught over the apartment until Bucky sat up on the couch, rubbed one eye, and said, “Hey.”

Steve grinned and replied, “Morning.”

After that, Bucky’s life took a weird turn into being intertwined into Steve’s life. Bucky forgot to be sad, sometimes, when he was around Steve. Together they formed a stronger unit from two screwed up people, and hey, even if it didn’t work forever, at least it worked for now. Bucky could do shit he wouldn’t dream of doing by himself, and he did the same for Steve.

Last weekend, Bucky escorted Steve to the nearest comic book store. Steve hadn’t wanted to go alone, just ordered his comic books online and let them come to his door. But he told Bucky over plates of some fancy meal he’d made himself that he missed the feeling of thumbing through longboxes and the clashing scents of old paper and fresh ink.

So, they went. Steve lit up like a Christmas tree at the hole-in-the-wall comic joint crammed up against several other crappy shops and emerged with no less than fifty dollars worth of comic books (“That’s actually not a lot, Bucky, but I just got this month’s Wonder Woman in the mail already.”).

Bucky stayed at Steve’s place more than strictly necessary, especially after Becca left to return to Long Island, with a kiss to his cheek and a too-adult, “Take care of yourself.” He promised himself that he would try to let his sister be a kid, even if that meant texting near-constantly to assuage her brother-related anxieties.

Steve’s apartment was spotless. Lemony cleaner and carpet shampoo saturated the air, tempered only by the scent of oil paint and old books. Bucky doubted Steve noticed Bucky's skill in observation. The bookshelf didn’t rearrange itself on a weekly basis, so Bucky gathered that Steve pulled his books and plastic-covered pulp magazines down from the shelves, dusted and polished, and replaced them in a different order. Sometimes the order of the books made sense to Bucky. Other times, the order stayed locked inside Steve Rogers’ head.

At least today, the bookcase was alphabetical again.

Bucky touched his metal hand to the spines of the books. He couldn’t feel their texture, couldn’t feel temperature, just the pressure, just that the books were there. They existed. Still, in comparison to the temporary prosthetic arm the hospital fitted him with when Bucky first made it back stateside, the Stark tech was a dream.

Steve owned a lot of books. Some of them were novels, but a lot of them were collected versions of comic books. Bucky hadn’t read a comic book since he was a kid, and even then, he’d ridden bikes and played video games more than he had read anything, at least until he hit puberty and depression descended upon him like a fast-moving storm.

“Rat Queens? The hell kinda name is that?” Bucky said, pulling one of the books. Comic book, which he’d known from the spine. A couple weeks ago the name Image on the spine of a book meant nothing. Under Steve’s influence, he knew it was a publisher.

Steve approached from the kitchen, smiled at Bucky with that dream-boy smile like he didn’t know what he was doing. Bucky didn’t buy it. He learned fast that Steve Rogers knew what he was doing more than most people credited him for. Steve leaned his shoulder against the bookcase and said, “You’d like that one. There’s nudity.”

“You know me so well already,” Bucky wryly answered. He tucked the volume of Rat Queens back where he found it and didn’t miss the way the unease leeched from Steve when the book returned to its exact place. Bucky eyed Steve. He shouldn’t ask, but the day Bucky did something that he should was the day he’d been replaced by an android version of himself. So he said: “So, what’s up with the cleaning thing?”

A host of emotions cycled over Steve’s face and the tension returned to his shoulders. Steve settled someplace between sheepish and edgy and replied, “It’s…uh, it’s one of the things I do when I go blank. Like the cookies thing. I start thinking about what happened over there and I clean so I don’t think about it. Makes it kinda like it happened to somebody else. I don’t know. That doesn’t make sense.”

“I thought you talked out your shit at the VA like a good boy,” Bucky said idly.

A long, coffee-scented exhale drained Steve’s chest. He said, “I talk about the fighting, about the things I saw. You know me and the other guys weren’t intended for combat, even? All it took was one day, one splinter op we took down, and they want me and the others trained in stuff we never even thought about before,” – Steve paused and rubbed a hand back through his blond hair – “Anyway, I don’t talk about…being imprisoned.”

Bucky reached out to touch Steve, to offer some measure of comfort, but pulled back when Steve’s body drew up tight like a pissed off animal. Instead he caught Steve’s eye and said, “Hey, listen. People are always bugging me to talk, so I ain’t gonna make you chat. But if you want to talk about this shit with me, you know you can, right? I hear I got good shoulders.”

“I’ll say.”

Bucky quieted. He licked his lips and wracked his brain for the next thing to say, but Steve’s presence made Bucky significantly more un-smooth. Sure, okay, Kunar and the IED and the hospital and all that crap contributed, but at least Bucky put on a decent front. Steve tore that front down like the Berlin wall, and Bucky didn’t know whether or not to like that. His gaze latched onto Steve’s, and dang, his eyes were so damn blue.

A smile quirked up one side of Steve’s face, like he didn’t know if it was all right to smile all the way.

“You tryin’ to seduce me?” asked Bucky.

“Maybe,” said Steve, “Maybe you’re trying to seduce me.”

Bucky chuckled, but he didn’t break their stare-down.

“Could be,” said Bucky, “I’ve got some pretty good feedback. Just sayin’.”

Steve’s smile widened. He said, “Think we should put that to the test?”

God, yeah, Bucky wanted to say, but he didn’t say a damn word. Instead he slid his hands over Steve’s arms and leaned in real close, close enough that Steve’s breath tickled his face. Then, Bucky tipped his head up and covered Steve’s mouth with his. Steve kissed back, but his technique didn’t compare to any kiss that Bucky had had before. Steve didn’t dive in rough like this was just a segue to nudity and groping each other’s bodies. He kissed soft and sweet, like Bucky mattered, like he wasn’t as cheap as he was, like he wasn’t twisted up and broken apart.

Minus the first few awkward, adolescent kisses of Bucky Barnes’ life, every kiss he had was a prelude to sex. This…wasn’t. Steve kissed Bucky for the sake of kissing him.

Until somebody knocked on Steve’s door, and he and Bucky split apart like guilty teenagers.

“I’ll, um. Just get that,” Steve said, and peeled away from the bookshelf that Bucky would never be able to look at the same way.

Bucky trailed after and hovered behind Steve. The door opened to an attractive brunette woman wearing a shock of red lipstick. She was drop dead gorgeous; Bucky looked her up and down before his good sense told him not to. She cleared her throat.

“Hey, Peggy,” Steve said, “You wanna come in?”

“I’ll only be a moment,” she told him. Peggy placed a small cardboard box on Steve’s kitchen island and said, “I was going through my things, and I found a few that belong to you. I thought you might like to have them back.”

“Let me introduce you before you run off,” Steve said, a good-natured look on his face even though he must have seen Bucky checking out his attractive friend. Steve grinned at Bucky and said, “Buck, this is my good friend Peggy. Peggy, this is my good friend Bucky.”

The sharp glint in Peggy’s eye unnerved Bucky. She drank him in, but the assessment was far from sexual. She appraised Bucky in the same business-like manner as an accountant reviewing spreadsheets, and somehow that occurred to Bucky as far more intimidating than if she’d just given him bedroom eyes.

Bucky coughed and broke the silence with, “Nice to meet you.”

“Likewise,” Peggy said. She didn’t shift her brown eyes off of him.

Steve, meanwhile, peered inside the cardboard box. He pulled a sweatshirt out of it, held it up, and asked, “Is this that old hoodie of mine I gave to you?”

Peggy nodded.

“Steve, is that a My Chemical Romance hoodie?” asked Bucky, unable to keep a measure of glee out of his voice.

Steve flushed. He folded the sweatshirt and placed it beside the box before he answered, “I had an emo thing in high school. Didn’t everybody?”

Bucky tried to imagine the woman between Steve and him having an emo phase and came up short. He pointed at Peggy and asked, “Did she?”

“Peggy was born having her shit together,” Steve said, “Always too busy to have an emo phase. But she tolerated me. That was considerate.”

This earned a fond eye-roll from Peggy. Then she slid her attention to Bucky and said, “I adored Steve from the start. I simply had to wait for him to catch up.”

Ah. A smirk on his face, he bounced his eyebrows at Steve and said, “So this is ‘took you long enough’ girl, huh?”

Steve, still pink from the discovery of the My Chemical Romance sweatshirt, turned redder.

Peggy laughed and said, “That’s Steve, for you,” she sighs, “Well, I’d better get going. It was a pleasure to meet you, Bucky.”

“Uh. Same,” Bucky managed.

“Oh, and Steve,” Peggy added, “I put your mother’s ring in that box.”

Peggy left as soon as she’d arrived, and when Bucky turned his head to stare at Steve, Steve had eyes and hands in the cardboard box. He smacked old photographs out on the kitchen island and his face melted into the distant echo of a smile when he dipped his hands down one last time and came up with a small, uncomplicated ring. Bucky swung close enough to look – he didn’t realize that he’d moved – and saw it was gold, a tiny diamond no wider than the band sparkling in the middle.

Steve curled his fist around the ring and said, “I thought I was gonna marry her, you know.”

“Yeah, I bet,” Bucky said. He inclined his head and Steve’s closed hand, “So what the hell happened?”

“Life. I told you. I enlisted and she went to school. The ring went with her. It wasn’t like an engagement ring, more like a promise ring. An ‘I’m coming back because you’re wearing my dead mother’s ring’ kind of a promise,” Steve explained. He opened his hand and thumbed the ring. When Steve stuck the ring on his pinky, it got caught against his knuckle.

Bucky cleared his throat and suggested, “Put it on your tags.”

“Now why didn’t I think of that?” asked Steve. He gently placed the ring on the island and fished around under the neck of his too-tight t-shirt, pulled the ball chain with his dog tags off of his neck. Clear plastic tubing covered the back of his chain, and rubber protected the edges of the tags themselves – the dog tags of a man that needed to be quiet. Steve rotated the clasp out from behind the tubing, let his mom’s ring fall along the chain, and put it together again before he put the tags back over this head.

Bucky pretended he hadn’t been watching and snatched up one of the old photos. He sneezed at the dust, but dissolved into laughter at the picture he’d picked up. Steve was skinny, though by whatever point the picture’d been taken, he’d hit a growth spurt and was tall. His blond hair flopped over one eye and he wore an early iteration of skinny jeans.

“Fuck,” Bucky wheezed, “This is hilarious.”

Steve yanked the picture out of Bucky’s hand and rolled his eyes to the ceiling. He said, “We can’t all be high school Lotharios.”

“Correction,” Bucky said, resting his elbows on the kitchen island, “I was a fucking bicycle. And you don’t have to look all that great if you’re handing out sex like Halloween candy. I didn’t look that much better than you. Man, I totally would’ve had my way with you.”

Steve cocked a brow. “Oh yeah?” he said.

“Totally,” Bucky repeated, “Skinny emo kid? You might’ve taken some convincing, but I bet you would’ve let me suck you off in the bathroom during lunch period.”

Steve didn’t answer that, and he didn’t smile either. An calculating gaze not unlike the one that Peggy subjected Bucky to took hold of his face.

“Anyway,” Bucky said, pulling Steve’s emo picture out of his hands and setting it on the kitchen island between them, “I looked just as awkward, if not more awkward.”

“I doubt that’s true.”

“One day you’ll see pictures and you’ll know you’re wrong,” Bucky said. He glanced down at the version of Steve in the photograph. Emo haircut and clothing aside, a smile took up near half his skinny face. He was so goddamn young. Bucky traced the edge of the picture and wondered what it would have been like to befriend Steve in high school, wondered what it would have been like if somebody had been good to him. Bucky didn’t blame the kids he went to school with. Teenagers spent a lot of time wrapped up in themselves. Hell, he was wrapped up in himself.

Steve was probably the only person that didn’t spend much time thinking about himself, even back in high school when that was what everybody did.

“You ever look at old pictures and think about how happy you look?” asked Bucky, “I mean, I was always pretty screwy, but I still got this look in my eye like I got no idea what’s coming to me.”

Steve sighed and his eyes flicked over the pile of pictures, of dozens of his own teenage face grinning back up at him. He said, “It’s better he didn’t know what would happen. I wouldn’t want him to know what came next.”

X

“Will you just pick a character already?” Clint said, “It doesn’t matter who it is, because I’m still going to kick your ass.”

Steve paused thumbing through Mario Kart riders, set his controller down on Clint’s coffee table, and made a grab for him. Clint threw up his arms and blocked Steve, so fast that both of them tumbled off of the couch and onto the floor. Steve wrestled for Clint’s controller, or maybe just to be annoying.

“Like dogs like humans, I suppose.”

Steve jerked his head up. Natasha stood over them in the most casual clothing he had ever seen her wear – yoga pants and a big t-shirt that had to belong to Clint. Steve hadn’t even known she was here, otherwise he probably wouldn’t have tackled Clint to the floor. From her angle, Steve was straddling Clint and had a hand stuck in Clint’s hair.

“Is there something I can help you with, Rogers?” asked Natasha.

Steve blushed, like he always did. He started staring at her without realizing, of course.

“Uh,” Steve said, “No. Ma’am.”

To be honest, Steve still didn’t know what to make of Natasha. He liked her, he thought, but she intimidated him. Her death-stare didn’t appear to work the same black magic on Clint as it did everybody else, which was something. When Clint told Steve he met a woman at the VA, he thought – good for him. He still thought that, with perhaps a grain of fear.

But hell, anybody that liked Clint the way he deserved passed in Steve’s book.

Pollock played with Clint’s retriever Lucky on the carpet while Clint did, in fact, kick Steve’s ass at Mario Kart.

“Is that a fucking shell –

But it was too late, and Steve got knocked back several places while Clint slid into first.

“I hate you,” Steve said emphatically.

Clint rewarded Steve’s hatred with a toothy grin. He slung his arm over the couch behind Steve while Natasha did something in the apartment’s kitchen. He asked, “Hey, so, how’s the job search?”

Steve should have known. He groaned.

“That bad?”

“I keep screwing up,” Steve answered. He brought a hand back through his hair, blew all the air out of his lungs, and went on, “It’s…hard to explain. I get nervous and think, ‘they’re not looking for somebody like me’, like I’m just too messy to have a job.”

Clint worked at a mom and pop hunting goods store and enjoyed the hell out of it, as far as Steve could tell. But months after Clint arrived back stateside he still didn’t have a job; months of recovery and couch-surfing passed before any prospects seemed remotely feasible. Steve wasn’t there for that. He was still knee-deep in a dank hellhole halfway across the world with feet he couldn’t stand on anymore.

But Clint told him how it was, mostly to distract Steve from his own demons.

“Before I got my thing at the shop, I used to think about how all these dumb job descriptions didn’t sound a thing like me.”

Steve huffed out a laugh, “Outgoing, people-loving, enthusiastic, sparkling.”

“Yeah, exactly. What if I’m not enthusiastic? What if I hate people? What if I’m a lazy piece of shit?”

The last of the speech earned a sharp look from Natasha as she sat down in the armchair beside the couch with a still-steaming omelet and a mug of straight black coffee. When Steve sank to his lowest, Clint recounted tales of his own rock bottom, of exhaustion that seeped to the marrow of the bones and a knowledge just as deep that no one wanted him around.

Steve licked his lips and said, “I think Bucky feels the same way.”

Both Natasha and Clint leveled interested stares at him at that.

“We’ve been spending time together,” Steve said.

“Uh-huh,” Clint replied.

“I tried to take him out, like on a date, I mean. But I messed that up,” said Steve.

“Uh-huh.” That time, it was Natasha.

“He didn’t seem to mind, though,” Steve went on, “Now he borrows my books all the time and forgets to give them back.”

“Uh-huh,” Clint said, eyebrows high on his forehead.

“Okay, fine,” said Steve, “We kissed. Once! A week ago. Am I about to get the shovel talk?”

Natasha blew across the top of her mug of coffee and sipped, her eyes on Steve throughout the ordeal. Clint’s attention stayed on her, too, like he was waiting for her go-ahead to tell Steve that she had a shotgun and a shovel and no one would ever find Steve’s body if he fucked over the guy that saved her life in Kunar.

“No,” Natasha finally said, “I think you know better than to mess with him. I think you might do each other some good.”

“Oh,” was all that Steve managed.

X

The cold needled at Bucky as he and Steve walked side by side, but at least he had funnel cake to warm him up. Like a couple of teenagers, they took a day to crash Coney Island for a second attempt at a date. Bucky tried to pretend that it wasn’t perfect, but it was. Pollock clicked along a couple feet in front of them, and Steve being the radiator that he was meant the cold bothered Bucky less than it might have otherwise.

None of the rides were open at this time of year and Steve couldn’t skate with his prosthesis, but something warm bloomed in the pit of Bucky’s stomach just from being in the area, and from being with Steve. Fucking Steve. Bucky had never trusted somebody so fast and so implicitly in his life until Steve.

“This would be more fun in summertime, huh?” Steve, like Bucky, drank in the comparative quiet of the area.

“With all the tourists?” Bucky snorted.

“I guess spring would be better. We’ll come back in a couple months,” said Steve.

“How do you know I like you that much?” asked Bucky.

Steve lifted one brow. He’d perfected a look that Bucky couldn’t attain, though not for lack of trying. Something about Steve commanded attention; that was it. Bucky – well, didn’t.

“Yeah, you’re right,” Bucky said, as if Steve’s look were words, “I do like you, but only a little.”

“I’ll take what I can get,” Steve said, “Hey, can we sit? My leg’s fucking with me right now.”

Bucky nodded and inclined his head at the nearest bench. He lowered himself down, but Steve practically collapsed there. He rolled up the leg of his jeans and pressed his fingers into the flesh above his prosthesis.

“You all good?” asked Bucky.

“Too much walking,” Steve said.

“We can sit for a while,” Bucky replied, “I don’t mind.”

So they did. Steve wrapped an arm around Bucky’s shoulders, a natural movement, like they’d been doing this for years. Bucky let his head fall against Steve’s shoulders, again, like they’d been doing it for forever. Why were things with Steve always so easy, so fluid? His thoughts chased themselves in circles like a dog chasing its tail and he thought he must be going insane. Why did Steve care? And why did Bucky care back?

The whole thing smelled funny, but the warmth in Bucky’s belly had nothing to do with funnel cake and everything to do with the company, so he decided to let the weirdness slide.

“You know,” Steve started. He paused, considering, and continued, “We have Natasha and Clint’s blessing.”

“What?” Bucky said, “How’d they find out?”

Guilt swept over Steve’s face. He said, “Uh. It was an accident. It just slipped out. You know how Nat does that thing with her face and then you just say shit even if she didn’t ask?”

“You do that sometimes, too.”

“I do?”

“Yeah, I mean, it’s more like a disappointed dad look than an I-know-all-your-secrets look, but still,” Bucky said, “Anyway, I don’t care if Nat and Clint know about,” – he made a vague circling gesture with his metal hand – “this.”

“So, what? We’re boyfriends?”

“Let’s not jump the fucking gun,” Bucky said, “We’re seeing each other.” If one kiss, some borrowed books, a disaster of a date, and nightmare cuddling counted as seeing someone, Bucky felt compelled to add. He didn’t. Never say Bucky Barnes doesn’t have some goddamned manners, he mused.

“Right,” said Steve, “So how am I supposed to introduce you to folks, then?”

Bucky mulled over that for a few seconds. He said, “You like old crap. I’m your ‘best guy.’ How about that?”

And like that, Steve’s face shifted from intent to dopey. He leaned in real close, close enough for Bucky to smell spearmint gum, and asked, “And me? Am I your best guy?”

“Well, yeah, stupid.”

Steve covered Bucky’s mouth with his.

Chapter Text

Chapter Track: I Am Not A Robot – Marina & the Diamonds

You’re Just Troubled

Bucky remembered being eighteen in flashes of color and clips of sound. He remembered pre-gaming with booze he got off some guy at his high school for sucking him off in the men’s restroom tucked behind the arts hallway, a bathroom no one used to actually shit but only for illicit activities (the guy stole it from his dad’s liquor cabinet; shit was actually quality but at the time Bucky lacked appreciation for anything but the fact that he had whiskey in his hand and pumping through his bloodstream).

Sometimes heavy bass rattled his memories. Other times, a soundtrack of desperate moans and pleasured whimpers played on a loop in Bucky’s head.

He remembered the smell of sweat and sex and cheap perfume. Sometimes cheap cologne.

He remembered the feel of damp skin against his palms, of kiss-swollen lips sucking bruises onto every part of his body.

The whole of Bucky’s senior year of high school fell under a haze of not-quite-there. Drugs. Bucky did a lot of those, most of which he shouldn’t have touched but did anyway because he felt like shit and being high – well, it didn’t make it better, but being high stalled the pain some, like putting his universe on pause so he could catch up to his own life.

Academically, he scraped by on charm alone and graduated with a crappy GPA.

Bucky wasn’t stupid. He knew he used sex to feel better. He’d done that shit for a long, long time.

That was why the prospect of sex with Steve, or really Steve in general scared him. He’d say that it scared the pants off of him, but the whole deal was actually kind of scaring his pants into staying on. He respected the hell out of Steve – the idea that Steve wanted to get involved with somebody as…gross as Bucky baffled him, and he wanted to tell Steve to fuck off as much as he didn’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth and ride Steve like a pony.

But God, Steve was different, and Bucky shouldn’t have been thinking of riding Steve while they sat in a bar together waiting for Steve’s best friend. Bucky was meeting the best friend. He had to make a good impression, or at least assure this Sam guy that there was no accounting for taste and for some reason Steve picked Bucky to care about and Bucky kinda liked being cared about. Oh, and that he cared back. That was stupid as shit, the whole caring thing. Caring cornered folks, but Bucky was doomed the second he saw Steve Rogers walk with his head held high and his therapy dog at his side into a joint that unnerved him to be at.

“There he is,” Steve said. He lifted a hand, and a handsome dark-skinned guy waved back, his grin as wide and (almost) as hypnotic as Steve’s.

“Hey, man, sorry I’m late,” Sam said, “Group went over a little, breakthroughs and all that. Hi, I’m Sam.”

“So I’ve heard,” said Bucky, “I’m Bucky.”

Sam shook his hand, all smiles and manners, and though Bucky liked basically no one he found he liked Sam. An amiable air surrounded the guy like a halo. Bucky leaned into the table to hear him speak without even thinking, laughing at jokes and Jesus, the stories about Steve.

Bucky got the scoop on how Steve and Sam met. He’d assumed that they crossed paths at the VA, but the real story was more interesting than that. Sam, having ended his most recent tour of duty, wanted to extend a hand to some other folks in the military, and ended up signing up to be a pen pal with a soldier through one of those Adopt-A-Soldier programs. Steve had signed up from the other end, and the rest was history.

“I told him things I’d never told anybody,” Steve chuckled into his beer, “It’s amazing what shit comes out when you’re writing somebody.”

“He drew me these little comics at the bottom of every letter, and this one, oh man,” Sam’s shoulders shook with laughter, “You gotta have the background on this. The letter before, he tells me that when he lost his virginity, he got so nervous after the clothes came off that he gestures to –”

“No one needs to hear this story,” Steve interjected.

Bucky held up a hand and said, “No, hold up. I definitely need to hear this story.”

“If no one needed to hear this story, then you wouldn’t have told it in this first place,” said Sam, “Your fault you told me all your nonsense, Rogers.”

Steve groaned.

Bucky made a ‘go on’ motion, and Sam licked his lips before he spoke. He leaned into the table, grinning ear to ear, and said, “Anyway, where was I? Right, so teenage Steve is naked and nervous as all get out, so he says to this girl –”

“Peggy, right?” Bucky asked. He glanced to Steve for confirmation.

Steve sighed, “Yes, it was Peggy.”

“Now if you people would let me tell the story,” Sam went on, “Steve’s butt-naked, and points to his own dick and tells his girl ‘Hey, look, I think he likes you.’” Sam paused to let Bucky laugh, and then continued, “So anyway, keeping this in mind, Steve draws me this little comic in the next letter, and lo and behold, he’s drawn this intricately detailed johnson with a smiley face and it’s got a little speech bubble that says ‘I think I like you!’ God, I almost opened that letter in front of my mother, Steve. Thank Jesus, Mary and Joseph that I didn’t because if I had I would have had some explaining to do.”

Bucky gasped for breath between laughs. When he chanced a glance at Steve, the poor guy looked like he wanted the floor to open its gaping maw and swallow him whole. Bucky looped his arm around Steve’s shoulders – his metal arm, he realized – and kissed Steve’s cheek.

Bucky said, “Listen, I think I like you too.”

Steve put his face in his hands and lamented, “Why did I think it would be a good idea to introduce you two?”

“Because it was,” Bucky replied, “I don’t even have all that many embarrassing stories yet, but you can bet your ass Sam’ll be the first to know ‘em when they come.”

The evening eased by with drinks and easy camaraderie, beer bottles collecting in patches on the table as they laugh. Bucky laughed louder and harder than he had in ages. The rightness of the moment struck him in a way he couldn’t recall happening before. He let the grins and lewd jokes and embarrassing Steve wash over him like sunshine, drank it in like a bather at the beach on Coney Island right in the bright eye of summertime.

Later, when Bucky dozed on Steve’s couch under a warm blanket and the natural high gleaned from an excellent evening waned, it occurred to Bucky that when shit felt this perfect, when something in Bucky’s life transcended ‘good’ and even ‘great’ and straight to about damn flawless, too much of a good thing came into play.

The experience begged the question: when was the other shoe gonna drop?

X

A week later, the other shoe dropped.

Bucky had a breakfast date scheduled with Steve and a need for caffeine so deep it prickled under his skin. He walked to Steve’s apartment with his hands stuffed in the pockets of his coat. The news warned that there would be snow within the week, heavy and wet and overpowering as east coast storms tended to be. For now all the weather brought was gray skies and biting wind, a telltale warning before the sky split open and started spitting snowflakes.

Something was wrong.

Bucky knew it when in the same moment he heard Pollock’s desperate, shrill barking from inside Steve’s  apartment and Steve’s neighbor, a grizzled older guy with frown lines etched deep into his face exited his own apartment and said, “Thank God. That dog’s been barking his head off for ten minutes. Can’t get any quiet.”

If the press of urgency weren’t on Bucky like a bucket of ice water, he might have told the guy to fuck off and that he was talking about a veteran’s service dog, and Pollock didn’t bark for no damn reason. Bucky fumbled, eyes roving for a spare key. He gave up after a few pained seconds of listening to Pollock cry on the other side.

Bucky used his Stark-made arm to press up against Steve’s door and – he ignored the tearing sensation, ignored heat and sensor warnings – ripped the doorknob off.

On the kitchen floor, Steve lay crumpled, chest heaving with the effort to breathe. The sharp chemical smell of bleach stank up the apartment. One look at Steve’s kitchen sink confirmed Bucky’s fear – Steve went blank and started cleaning, and this time something got the better of him.

Childhood asthma. Didn’t Steve say he struggled with it on and off?

“Shit,” Bucky said, “Shit. Steve, you got an inhaler someplace?”

Wild-eyed, Steve pointed in the vague direction of the cabinets. Bucky threw open cabinet doors, eyes flying over mismatched mugs and those fucking ugly plates until he struck gold and found, in the nook above the stove, the medicine cabinet. He tossed old orange pill bottles aside and found the inhaler toward the back of the cupboard.

Bucky stumbled to Steve’s side and pulled him up into a sitting position. He shook the inhaler the way he’d seen his mom do it years and years back when Becca needed an inhaler for a bad case of bronchitis. He pulled off the cap at the end and pressed the inhaler against his lips.

“On three, okay?” Bucky said. He counted, pushed down the top of the inhaler, and Steve sucked in a pained, wheezing breath.

Nothing happened. Steve wasn’t breathing. Fuck, fuck.

“Let’s try one more time,” Bucky said. How he managed to sound calm when he felt anything but, he didn’t know, but he thanked the universe for small miracles. He counted to three and administered another puff of Albuterol, but like the one before it, the medicine didn’t take.

“Fuck it, I’m calling 911,” Bucky said, “Keep breathing for me.”

The wrist on Bucky’s prosthesis wasn’t working right and the fingers wouldn’t close all the way, but it worked enough for Bucky to balance his cell in his metal palm and punch in 9-1-1 with his good hand. The emergency responder on the other line tried to bring him down from his frenzy, said crap like it’s okay, sir, please breathe and an ambulance is on its way, don’t worry, but nothing eclipsed the overwhelming feeling that Steve was hurt and Bucky wasn’t going to be able to pull him out of this.

Bucky sat with Steve and laced their fingers together. Steve’s face started to lose color somewhere along the way. He wasn’t getting enough oxygen, Christ. Just as Bucky contemplated his ability to administer CPR, the paramedics arrived. They gathered Steve onto a stretcher and pulled an oxygen mask over his face.

Bucky made to follow, but a paramedic stopped him with a hand on his chest and said, “You family?”

“I’m his boyfriend, dickhead,” Bucky said, and that put an end to that argument. He had enough brain power to clip Pollock's leash and whisk the dog with him before he ran for the stairs and clambered into the back of the ambulance after Steve and the paramedics.

Bucky watched as they stuck a line of saline into his arm. Steve was conscious, but barely, his eyelids flickering over his eyes like insect wings, his gaze unfocused. Bucky took Steve’s hand with his right. The mess of fucked up metal and wiring on Bucky’s left hand inhibited movement more and more. He could hear Stark’s stupid voice already: Really? I give you a new arm and it takes you all of five minutes to bust it wide open.

Their arrival at the hospital interrupted Bucky’s train of thought, and he’d never been more grateful for it. The paramedics started to roll Steve away, but Bucky said, "Wait! This is his service dog. He'll want Pollock with him." Bucky transferred the leash to the hands of a harried paramedic, and with that, he was alone in the waiting room.

God, he hated hospitals. But he’d tolerate the place for Steve, because Steve was one nice thing in an incredibly shitty world and Steve deserved to be looked after, too. The staff wouldn’t let him in Steve’s room while they worked whatever voodoo magic that would open up Steve’s airways and fill his lungs. No, they made him park his ass in some waiting area that had a small collection of kids’ toys and a couple of televisions playing a movie that he didn’t recognize.

Folks assumed Bucky’s wariness regarding hospitals came with the territory of being in an IED blast, with the whole missing arm and intense physical therapy thing, but honestly, that summed up the most bearable hospital experiences of his life. The hospital visits from earlier – from his misspent teenage years, the hospital visits from slicing open his arm or for overdosing in some shit club he was too young to be in to begin with...those were the hospital visits that made Bucky want to curl in on himself and forget it all.

After Bucky’s injury and subsequent discharge, Becca and his mom were, while upset that he returned home minus a limb, proud and supportive. Those other visits (always in the small hours of the morning; they were always wearing pajamas), his mom and sister pulled those long, gaunt faces that made them look like the disappointed ghosts of themselves. Bucky hated – hated – anything that reminded him that he did that to them. He disappointed his family. He hurt them. He sapped their spirit over and over, one stupid decision after another.

Several painstaking minutes later, Sam barreled into the waiting room.

“Hey,” he said to Bucky.

“Hey,” Bucky managed to make himself reply, “How the fuck did you hear?”

“I’m Steve’s next of kin,” Sam said.

“What?”

“Steve doesn’t have any family or anything, so it’s just me. He probably would’ve put Peggy down but she travels so much he thought it would be smarter to name me. Look who was right. Peggy’s in Argentina right now, and Steve goes and has his fool ass an asthma attack.”

Sam broke away from Bucky to address the receptionist at the front desk. A minute later, he plopped into the chair next to Bucky and released a long, slow breath.

“What’d she say?” asked Bucky.

“Doc’s still with him,” Sam said, “I’m sure he’ll be fine, but this is a helluva way to start my day.”

A nurse in patterned scrubs walked briskly into the waiting room and called, “Steve Rogers?”

Bucky and Sam stood up at the same time.

The nurse eyed them, “I can only take one of you to see him at a time.”

Bucky sat back down. He watched Sam disappear around a corner and then dropped his head into his hands, running his fingers back through his hair. In the midst of the chaos of the morning, he lost the elastic that he’d put his hair up with, and now it hung loose around his face. Just a wild guess – but he probably looked as shit as he felt, which was exceptionally shitty.

And feeling as shitty as he did, Bucky’s thoughts landed naturally on the fact that Steve had literally no family. He didn’t have his own equivalent of Becca or Winifred Barnes.

But, Bucky marveled, Steve’s friends were fiercely loyal to him. Steve didn’t have family by blood, but he built his own family and damn if it wasn’t impressive. The guy inspired loyalty. Hell, he gained Bucky’s loyalty, and that crap was hard-won.

“Bucky,” Sam reappeared in the waiting room, “He’s asking for you.”

Bucky stood up and let Sam lead him around the corner and down a hallway too narrow for Bucky’s taste. He tensed, but of course Sam noticed. He dropped back to Bucky’s side and said, “Got your six, man. Don’t worry about it.” Bucky let out a breath.

Just before they reached Steve’s room, Sam brushed against Bucky’s arm and pulled him back. He said, “Hey, listen. Steve’s probably not gonna tell you what happened, but –”

“Something with the cleaning,” Bucky said, “There were a bunch of cleaning supplies in his kitchen sink and the whole place reeked like fucking bleach.”

“Yeah, I wheedled it out of him,” replied Sam, “He wasn’t really present for what he was doing. Dissociating like nuts. He said he came out of it in the ambulance, but he thinks that he was the bleach that triggered an asthma attack. He used too much and got too close. Anyway, listen. Please talk some sense into him. He doesn’t talk about this stuff with anybody, and he needs to. I keep telling him that and he plays dumb. He might actually listen to you.”

Bucky screwed up his face. “Why would he listen to me?” he asked.

“Because, and no offense, man,” Sam said, “but you’re not all there yourself and it makes him feel safe, I’ll bet.”

“Well, you’re not wrong,” Bucky said, “I’ll try.”

“That’s all I ask.”

Bucky ducked into Steve’s room. The breadth of Steve’s shoulders rivaled the width of the hospital bed. His hand hung off of the edge, and his fingers were buried in Pollock's fur. Pollock perked up at the sight of Bucky. The color had returned to Steve's face, but the oxygen mask over his nose and mouth really promoted Steve’s sad puppydog aesthetic. He pulled that mask off of his face when Bucky entered the room and offered a weak smile.

“Steve, you fucking idiot. What were you thinking?”

The smile slipped right off Steve’s face, and Bucky felt like an asshole.

“Wasn’t thinking. Went blank,” said Steve, “What’d you do to your arm?”

Bucky glanced at his metal hand, bent and misshapen. He kept it pressed to his side and in hindsight that gave away the damage more than anything. He replied, “I heard Pollock barking and I didn’t have a key. So I broke your door.”

“And your hand.”

“And my hand,” confirmed Bucky, and sighed, “Steve –”

“Don’t start, Bucky.”

“You didn’t even know what I was going to say,” defended Bucky, heated.

“Something about me taking better care of myself, I’ll bet.”

Steve was right, of course, which only pissed Bucky off more.

“You have got to do something about this shit,” Bucky said. He tried not to raise his voice, but rise it did as he realized just how fucking mad he was at Steve for being so stupid. He continued, “You’re messing yourself up, you can’t just –”

Steve interrupted, “Yeah?” his voice was hoarse, but he kept going, “Is that what you think? That I should do something about my issues? That I’m messing myself up? What about you? You’re so fucking careless with yourself.”

“What the hell do I matter?” demanded Bucky.

“You matter to me!” Steve snapped.

The silence that fell over them was deafening. Steve’s jaw was set, a ferocious glimmer in his eye. He was pissed. Of the spectrum of Steve Rogers’ emotions, Bucky had yet – until now – to see anger. He’d witnessed desperation and some mental screwiness, kindness and sarcasm and everything in between. Steve apparently kept a tight rein on this shit.

Except for now, anyway.

The whole scene overwhelmed Bucky. The sterile hospital room brought to mind simultaneously disjointed memories of drugged-up hospital visits and Steve's always-clean apartment, where a speck of dust didn't land without being wiped away an instant later. But beyond the room the contents of it had Bucky shuffling his feet: Steve and his stupid handsome face hooked into a hydration pole, with an oxygen mask against his face, color high on his face. And that stupid handsome guy said Bucky mattered.

Jesus. Bucky couldn't screw this up.

“Okay, okay, look,” Bucky said, “How ‘bout this? I’ll go see somebody about the whole depression crap, but only if you go talk to somebody about your,” – he waved a hand over Steve's entire body – “whatever the fuck.”

Steve spoke through gritted teeth.

“Fine.”

“Fine,” said Bucky back.

X

The hospital kept Steve under observation for only a handful of hours after his asthma attack, and though Sam drove Steve back to his place and Bucky walked Steve to the door, everyone parted ways at the end of the day, and Bucky crashed on his bed at his depression-battlefield apartment.

His bed where nightmares ruled, where he tossed and turned so much that the fitted sheet snapped off of his mattress no matter how many times he pulled it back into place. Looking at the lumpy mattress made his head ache but he laid down on it anyway and passed out, overtaken by sleep like a like an attack in the night.

The following day Bucky’s promise to Steve to make an appointment to see somebody about his whole depression shtick itched at his brain, but he put the task off, opting instead to clear out his living room. Becca made a dent in the crap vortex during her visit, but the battle was far from over. While no more dirty dishes sat stacked in corners and on the coffee table, takeout containers had taken their place and the beer bottles seemed to be mating in the night.

In the back pocket of Bucky’s jeans, his phone vibrated.

10:42 Handsome Steve: Did you make your appointment?

10:43 Bucky: did u

10:43 Handsome Steve: I asked you first. Call the VA, Bucky

10:44 Bucky: steve if i go thru the va for an appt ill be waiting until the day i die

Bucky hadn’t thought of the truth of that statement until he typed it out. What options did he have? He was living off of disability. He didn’t even have health insurance, which he thought might get him into trouble if somebody found out about that. Was that how that shit worked now? He couldn’t keep the damn healthcare system straight. He could apply for government healthcare, couldn’t he? Which one was the one for old folks and which one was the health insurance – Medicare or Medicaid?

Bucky googled it and found that he was thinking of Medicaid. It was for “low-income individuals.” He had to fit that, right? He wasn’t even employed.

Handling his phone with his prosthesis fucked all to hell blew hardcore. He needed to hit up Stark, too, which was gonna be a real pain in the ass. Tony would ride him hard for the damage he caused, even if it was in the name of his best guy's life.

Filling out the online application forms for Medicaid took the better part of an hour. He didn’t know half the answers to the questions and hazarded guesses, even though the website disclosures warned he could get in trouble if he lied on the form. It wasn’t lying if he didn’t know the answer, right?

The confirmation e-mail that Bucky applied for Medicaid came through. He screenshotted it and sent the picture to Steve.

11:53 Bucky: not an appt but gettin there

Steve sent back a row of happy emojis.

Chapter Text

Chapter Track: Genghis Khan – Miike Snow

With Nobody Else But Me

Yup, Bucky could do this forever.

He and Steve started the morning with mugs of fragrant coffee in Steve’s pristine kitchen (though Steve tucked the cleaning products safely out of sight, or somebody did, Bucky noticed), brewed not with a crappy, steam-spitting drip machine, but some hipster pour-over pitcher that Steve claimed brought out the floral notes in the beans. Bucky drank his portion with minimal teasing, because the coffee did taste good – and then somehow they ended up on Steve’s bed?

Not that he was complaining.

They began with laughing and jabbing at each other, something that devolved into wrestling. And as soon as Bucky felt the shift of Steve’s big body beneath his, he came to notice they made it from the kitchen to Steve’s bedroom, and Bucky was on top of him, straddling him.

Steve gazed up at Bucky with that dopey look on his face, the dopey look so plainly emotive that Bucky’s heart clenched beneath his ribs and he smiled before he could help himself. He planted his flesh hand onto the mattress beside Steve’s head and he kissed him, long and thorough and slow. Steve tasted like coffee with the fucking floral notes, tasted like real maple syrup and that something-magic taste that belonged to no one but Steve Rogers, the taste that had Bucky moaning into Steve’s mouth.

When they split to breathe, Steve murmured against Bucky’s spit-slick mouth, “You taste nice.”

“Like your fruity coffee,” Bucky said back. He pressed smaller, closed-mouth kisses to the corner of Steve’s mouth and up the blade of his jaw, the scratch of day-old stubble electric on Bucky’s sensitive skin.

“Floral coffee,” Steve corrected.

Bucky huffed out a laugh against Steve’s mouth. Between lingering kisses, he panted, “My bad.”

Kissing for the sake of kissing alone still took Bucky by surprise, even though that was all that he and Steve had done together. Rolling his hips against Steve felt like the natural next move, but when he did it, a soft, startled noise tore from Steve’s throat.

Steve held Bucky’s hips in either hand but pulled his mouth back from their kisses. He stroked Bucky’s side and said, “Can’t do this right now. Sam’s gonna be here any minute.”

Bucky dropped his head against Steve’s shoulder and whined.

“I know,” Steve said, rubbing his hand down Bucky’s back, “If we had time, I’d rip off your damn jeans. I’d kiss my way down there, put your cock in my mouth, suck you ‘til you begged.”

Well, that fucked Bucky’s plan of curbing his libido straight to hell. Under layers of denim and cotton, Bucky felt his dick stir. God, he couldn’t get an erection right now. He had to be at Stark Tower to get his broken hand looked at in like a half hour and Tony would never let Bucky live it down if he showed up with a hard-on in his jeans.

Jesus, Steve,” Bucky whispered, “I didn’t know you could talk dirty.”

A wicked grin flashed across Steve’s face. He leaned up and pulled Bucky down, brought them into a slow, filthy kiss. Then he said, “Guess there’s a lot you’ll be finding out, then.”

Just as Bucky and Steve fell into a rhythm of kissing and soft noises and moving bodies, a knock at the door signaled Sam’s arrival – their ride to Stark Tower so that Bucky could get his arm fixed. The phone conversation with Stark didn’t go as poorly as Bucky thought it would, which perhaps meant that being physically in the same room as Tony would be worse.

The phone conversation went like:

“I’m busy and this had better be important.” – Tony

“I fucked up my hand.” – Bucky

“Wait, wait, wait. Who is this? You broke one of my hands?” – Tony

“It’s fucking Bucky Barnes. Who the hell did you think it was?” – Bucky

“Of course. Of course it would be you to break something unbreakable. All right. All right. You come in and see me at say…hm. Friday. Eleven o’clock. Just come up to my lab. I’ll tell security to expect you.” – Tony.

Tony hung up before Bucky got a word in edgewise, but that was fine. Tony had eyes everywhere so it figured that he knew Bucky was doing shit-all with his life and didn’t even have a job. Either that or Tony didn’t consider that eleven o’clock on Friday might not work. Probably a little bit of both, knowing Stark.

Steve let Sam into the apartment while Bucky splashed cold water on his face in the bathroom and adjusted his erection to be less obvious. As long as he kept his mind out of the gutter, his dick would cooperate and go down by the time that they arrived at Stark Tower. He threw Sam a grin when he emerged and greeted him with one of those masculine slap-hugs, an appropriate level of affection for somebody, he felt, when you’ve been in a hospital together both acutely afraid for the person you’re there for and for yourself.

Despite Bucky urging the opposite, Steve left Pollock at the apartment. Seemed to Bucky that with Steve’s hardcore dislike of Tony Stark that it would have been wise to take his damn service dog along with him to see the man in question, but Bucky knew better than to argue with Steve when he’d put the proverbial foot down. Pollock still whined when they closed Steve’s (repaired) apartment door.

Bucky clambered into the back of Sam’s car and Steve followed. Sam snorted at them both and asked, “What am I, a taxi?” But it was good-natured and Sam was smiling when he started the car.

Traffic predictably congested the streets. By the time that Sam pulled the car into the Stark Tower garage, they balanced on the knife’s edge of being on time for Bucky’s appointment and falling behind, which would only be cause for Tony to be pissier at Bucky for breaking the damn thing.

Sam stopped at the security booth and when he rolled down the window announced, “We’re here for James Barnes’ appointment with Mr. Stark.” It all sounded very official, which Bucky knew it was not.

“Yeah, he told me you’d be here. Use this keycard in the elevator,” the security guard manning the booth passed down a red card and then let them through the gate. Sam slid expertly into a visitor parking space, and the three of them shuffled to the lobby.

Beside Bucky, Steve tensed. His eyes shot from exit to exit in the Stark Tower lobby which, while busy, wasn’t crowded. People moved around each other in fluid motion like neurons firing in the well-worn grooves of a massive brain. The nature of the building meant plentiful light spilled in through hulking glass windows and reflected off polished floors. No corner was dark. Everywhere was clear. It should have felt safe to a soldier.

“You okay?” Bucky asked.

Steve’s throat bobbed as he swallowed. He said, “I’ll be all right.”

“You don’t look like it.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be nice to me?” asked Steve.

“I don’t remember agreeing to that,” replied Bucky.

Steve snorted and the tension diffused, if only for a little. Sam, Steve and Bucky together piled into a spacious elevator that, like the rest of the building, was all glass and marble and pomp. Sam swiped the keycard and asked, “Where are we going?”

“Top floor,” Bucky said. Sam obliged. The top floor that this elevator reached, anyway. Stark’s private quarters used a different elevator that understandably only Stark and his longtime girlfriend Pepper had access to. Maybe a couple other high-level people could get in. Maybe not.

The elevator soared up and Steve shifted uneasily again at Bucky’s side. Bucky frowned and rested his good hand on the small of Steve’s back. The touch earned one of those smiles Steve gave that were almost too open, too much. Those smiles were like staring into the sun; they hurt to look at but they kept Bucky alive.

The doors opened. Bucky barely stepped into the lab before he heard, “You’re fucking late, Barnes. Do you know how valuable my time is? Very. It’s very valuable.”

“Eat me,” Bucky said.

Stark stepped out from behind some metal contraption, protective eyewear pushed up on top of his head and hair haywire like he’d been grabbing at it. Tony blinked from Bucky to his companions, and when his gaze fell on Steve, he did a double take.

“Did you bring me Steve Rogers?” Tony asked.

“What?” Bucky said, “I didn’t bring him for you. I brought him for me. He’s my best guy. How do you know Steve?” he turned to Steve, “You never said you knew Tony.”

“I don’t,” Steve answered flatly.

Tony narrowed his eyes. He said, “This guy – this asshole. I don’t know why I’m surprised that you don’t know about all this, Barnes, since you only come out of your cave if you need something from me or the world is ending.”

“Hey, now wait a –” began Bucky.

“Anyway, Captain Rogers here does all this heroic shit, saves his guys’ lives, stares into the jaws of death and gets himself captured by this batshit terrorist cell. You were there what, nine, ten months, Rogers?” Tony asked.

Under Bucky’s hand, Steve had gone very still, his face trained carefully blank. He said, “I was there for a year.”

Tony whistled. He said, “All right, so he’s there for a year before he figures out no one is coming for him and he busts the fuck out of there with nothing but a paperclip and a rubber band.”

“It was a shank,” Steve said, with no inflection to indicate how he felt about any of this. Bucky would bet his other arm that it wasn’t good.

“Okay, yeah, a shank. He shanks these guys and makes it out of there far enough that he can get help, except because of all the shit these guys did to him –”

“Tony, knock it off,” Bucky said, and returned his attention to Steve, “You don’t have to stay if you don’t want.”

Steve’s severe expression softened. He said, “You wanted me here.”

“Not if it’s gonna fuck you up,” Bucky replied.

“I hate to interrupt,” Tony drawled, “but I have shit I need to do and I still haven’t seen what the hell you did to my arm.”

Bucky glared and said, “Give me a second. Jesus,” and then to Steve, “Seriously, I don’t mind if you gotta go. I’ve done this by myself plenty of times. It took forever for Stark to get this stupid thing right.”

“I’m staying,” Steve said.

“But –”

“It’s okay, Buck,” said Steve, “Really. I’ll stay. You gonna tell him the rest, Mr. Stark?”

“Mr. Stark? Jesus, you’re formal,” Tony said, “I got bored with the story like five minutes ago. Suffice it to say that I offered your captain here one of my legs to replace his fucked up foot and he embarrassed me on national television and said he – what was it you said?”

“I’d rather have no legs than accept a leg from Tony Stark,” Steve recited.

Bucky lifted his brows. He said, “Yikes. Them’s fighting words, Steve.”

“I know, right?” Tony said, “Anyway, we need to fix your boo-boo. Come on back.”

Tony brought the three of them deeper into the belly of his laboratory and, rather than speak, pointed at a chair for Bucky to sit on. He shuffled around through a couple metal cases of tools and laid out a couple of screwdrivers, some pliers, and some tools Bucky figured were Stark’s own invention, since they looked like nothing he’d ever seen before.

“Any of you guys want a drink? Soda, smoothie? Sex on the Beach?”

Bucky and Steve declined, but Sam said, “Hey, if you got it, I’ll have a Coke,” and at sharp looks from his companions, “It’s Tony Stark. He can afford to lose a can of Coke.”

“Yeah, what do you think my lab is, the fairy realm? You eat my food and you’re trapped here forever?” Stark asked. He plopped down in a rolling chair and scooted himself across the smooth laboratory floor to a stainless steel minifridge. He tossed Sam a can of Coke, which Sam caught one-handed. For himself, Tony ripped open a packet of trail mix and said, “Pepper’s always buying me these things. Thinks I don’t eat enough when I’m working. Probably right, since it’s Pepper. Okie dokie, let’s get a look-see at your fuck up.”

Tony emptied the trail mix into his mouth and chewed while he wheeled back to Bucky’s chair. He snapped latex gloves onto his hands and felt around the arm for the release and pulled Bucky’s arm from the socket. The imbalance didn’t throw Bucky off as much when he reclined, but the sensation of missing his arm again still rattled every time he did it, even though he took the thing out every night.

Tony took one look at the mess that Bucky made of the prosthetic wrist and cast him a pointed look. He said, “What did you do, exactly?”

“Broke into Steve’s apartment,” Bucky answered.

“Do I want to know the story?”

“It’s none of your business,” Steve primly answered before Bucky could.

“It would help if I knew what you did specifically, at least,” Tony said, “In case you need to do it again. I don’t need to the sob story or anything, Christ. I just need to know enough so I can reinforce this baby and you won’t bust it while breaking and entering anymore.”

“I wedged my hand between the knob and the doorframe and broke off the knob,” Bucky said.

“Really? That’s all it took to break my arm?” Tony asked, “What a bummer. I’m sad it was that easy to mess up my work.”

Tony poked around the wrist, lips twisted in concentration. He said, “I can repair this guy pretty easy, but I want to make you a new one. Obviously I didn’t make the thing right the first time if you can break it so quick.”

“You don’t have to make me a new one, Tony,” sighed Bucky.

“I know,” Tony answered, “I want to. ‘See a need, fill a need’, and all that.”

“Did you just quote that Robots movie?” asked Sam.

“No,” Tony said, “Okay, yes. Really, though. You need an arm that can break into apartments. I can make an arm that can break into apartments. Please. Pretty please. Give me this one thing, Barnes.”

Bucky resisted the urge to roll his eyes, but saw Steve roll his own in his peripheral vision. Bucky replied, “Yeah, go for it, I guess.”

“And you, Captain Tightass? Still a ‘no’ on a leg?” Tony said.

A flicker of surprise licked across Steve’s face but he masked it before anyone but Bucky noticed. Steve said, “You still want to build me a leg?”

“Well, yeah. What’ve you got now? Bet it makes your leg hurt like a bitch if you wear it for too long.”

Steve lifted up the leg of his jeans and stuck his prosthesis out at Tony. Tony dropped the tools he had in his hands and wheeled over, taking the prosthesis in hand without asking if it was okay for him to touch. He hummed at it and said, “Yeah, fitting you with something better wouldn’t be too bad. I mean, you’d need surgery for the anchor and that inevitably sucks but the reward outlasts the sacrifice, if you ask me.”

“I didn’t ask you,” said Steve.

Tony released Steve’s prosthesis and shrugged, “Well, something to consider, then. You have one of my legs and I can make sure it’s not as much of a pain in the ass – or, actually, pain in the leg – to do, you know, normal shit that people with normal limbs do.”

“I’m normal,” muttered Steve.

Tony cocked a single brow and said, “That’s a little rich, coming from Captain Famous POW who slandered my name on national television.” He pushed himself back to Bucky’s arm and, without another word on building Steve a new leg, dug into the limb and started working.

“You know,” Tony said, while he played with the wiring, “This whole thing is starting to seem like the opening scene to a porno with a couple of sexy amputees. You know the ones I’m talking about.”

“What the fuck kind of porn are you watching?” Bucky asked.

“The good kind,” defended Tony. He scooted back to Bucky’s chair with Bucky’s arm gleaming in his lap and said, “Give me your shoulder, sexy amputee.”

Bucky shifted to give Tony better access to the anchor in his shoulder. He winced at the static sensation of an arm hooked into his fucking brain coming back online, but other than that, he didn’t have any more pain.

“Try it out,” Tony said, “Wiggle your fingers. Move the wrist.”

Bucky lifted the arm and rotated his wrist in a circle. He played with putting his fingers down one by one into a fist and pushing them back out with a jazz-hands motion. Tony grinned and clapped Bucky on his bad shoulder. He didn’t notice Bucky wince, and said, “Cool. You just jammed some plates and nicked the wiring. I’ll start playing with options for an upgrade. I can add some other features too, you know. Vibrating fingers, for example, could be very pleasurable if you stuck them up Steve’s –”

Okay,” Bucky said, and jumped out of the chair, “That’s great, Tony. I appreciate the fix. We’re just gonna go ahead and go.”

“Fine,” Tony said, “I’ll call you about your upgrade.”

“No vibrating fingers. I mean it.”

“You’re no fun,” said Tony, and as Bucky led Steve and Sam back to the elevator, he called, “One day, Barnes. You and me. Vibrating fingers.”

“In your dreams, Stark,” Bucky called back.

X

Sam dropped Bucky and Steve off at the front of Steve’s apartment with Steve’s sworn promise that he’d buy Sam dinner in exchange for sitting in traffic with “the two of them sulking in the backseat” as Sam put it.

“Better be someplace classy, Rogers,” Sam said when Steve clambered out of the car, “I’m talkin’ at least cloth napkins and a wine list.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Steve said, “Thanks again.”

An affectionate look fell over Sam’s face and he said, “You got it. I’ll see you next week at group, right?”

“Right,” Steve answered, though he didn’t look happy about it.

In silence, Steve and Bucky ascended the stairs, and Bucky hung back while Steve unlocked the door and shouldered his way inside. Pollock greeted them with a happy yip and a rapidly wagging tail. He knew better than to jump on Steve but still butted Steve’s good leg with his head. Steve stooped down to scratch behind Pollock’s ears and said, voice tired, “Bet you’re hungry, huh, buddy?”

Pollock wagged his tail harder.

Bucky leaned against the kitchen island while Steve pulled the plastic container of Pollock’s food out from one of the lower cabinets and scooped kibble into his metal bowl. He placed the bowl on the other side of the island and when he ringed back around, Bucky asked, “So, you think you might take Stark up on his leg offer?”

Steve didn’t answer.

Instead, Steve backed Bucky further up against the kitchen island, tangled his fingers in Bucky’s long hair, and yanked him into a heady, teeth-gnashing kiss. This kiss was no place near the languid, emotion-heavy kisses on Steve’s bed, or the affectionate, careful kisses from before that. No, this was a sex-kiss. Bucky’s heart beat faster in his chest. This was fine. This was okay. He could handle sex with Steve. It totally wouldn’t fuck things up between them because Steve would realize what a piece of shit Bucky was.

“Buck,” Steve said hoarsely.

“Huh? What?”

“You stopped kissin’ back,” said Steve, “What’s going on?”

Bucky worried his lower lip between his teeth. He tore his eyes from Steve and fixed his gaze on the beaten boots on his feet, out of place in Steve’s spotless kitchen. The instinct to bolt out the door beat through Bucky’s brain and made the hair on the back of his neck rise. He couldn’t do that to Steve. Steve was too good to fuck over because Bucky was too much of a coward to spit out the God’s honest truth about himself.

“I don’t – I don’t wanna ruin what we have,” Bucky said.

“Okay,” Steve slowly said, “You’re gonna have to explain to me what you mean by that, ‘cause I’m kind of lost here, pal.”

“God, okay,” Bucky said. He licked his lips and wrung his mind out until he got a trickle of thoughts on the right track, “I – I haven’t ever had sex with anyone I actually cared about and I don’t want to ruin us because I’m garbage and you’re you.”

The look that Steve gave Bucky was impossibly sad.

“Bucky,” he rumbled. Steve pressed his forehead to Bucky’s, smoothed a lock of hair back behind Bucky’s ear and applied a lighter kiss to his lips before he asked, “Have you ever let anybody take care of you?”

“Sure, I mooch off people all the time,” Bucky replied.

Steve pinned him down with hard gleam in his eye. He said, “That’s not what I meant,” with his breath hot against Bucky’s mouth. He kissed Bucky again, all slow-like, same way he kissed Bucky in his bedroom earlier that day. The kiss had intent, but this intent felt like worship on Bucky’s skin as Steve moved his mouth from Bucky’s and kissed along his jaw. Steve bent his head and sucked a bruise onto Bucky’s throat, laser-focused on Bucky and Bucky alone.

The tips of Steve’s fingers played at the edge of Bucky’s shirt, flirting with the idea of skin on skin, but never quite daring to make the touch. Bucky didn’t catch onto Steve’s plans until Steve started mouthing lower, skirting lips over Bucky’s shoulder and chest through the cotton stretched across it. Then, Steve fell to his knees. He rucked up Bucky’s shirt and kissed against his abdomen.

The heat of blood filled Bucky’s face. He wasn’t quite as ripped as Steve, had let his body get a little softer after his discharge from the army. But Steve didn’t seem to give half a damn, just held Bucky’s waist in his hands and kept kissing along his belly.

“You don’t have to,” Bucky softly told him.

Steve peered at Bucky through his lashes and said, voice low with lust, “I want to.”

So Bucky ran his fingers through Steve’s hair and said, “Okay.”

That one word spurred Steve into action. He shifted one hand onto Bucky’s ass and pressed the heel of his palm against Bucky’s crotch with the other, rubbing up and down until he felt Bucky’s dick get hard under his jeans and undies. The sight of Steve on his knees would have been enough to do the trick, but Steve kept going, sweet and intense all at once.

Bucky had never been on the receiving end of a blow job before. That was probably his fault, since he dropped on his knees for plenty of people before anything else could be suggested. But they could have reciprocated, right? And they didn’t. But Steve – Steve was doing this for him.

Steve’s mouth drifted lower. Bucky whined when the hand on his ass moved away. Steve undid the fly of Bucky’s jeans and, in firm movements, pulled the denim pants and cotton boxer briefs down just enough to free Bucky’s erection. Bucky swallowed his nerves while Steve took him in. He hadn’t given much thought to the aesthetic of his dick until Steve started staring.

“You’re beautiful, Buck,” Steve said, “Did you know that?”

Bucky shook his head.

“You’re beautiful,” repeated Steve, and he leaned in to press a kiss to the tip of Bucky’s cock. Big, warm hands palmed at Bucky’s ass, drew him in. Steve licked along the length of the shaft.

Bucky tossed his head back and groaned. He wanted Steve to swallow him down at the same time he enjoyed the hell out of Steve going all slow, licking and kissing and nuzzling but never diving all-in. When Bucky’s hips jerked forward of their own volition, Steve sent Bucky a dirty-looking smirk and closed his lips over the head of his cock. Inch by inch he sank down and, holy shit, didn’t stop for any kind of gag reflex.

Did Steve know how fucking hot he looked like this? His lips stretched over Bucky’s girth as he began to work up and down in long, slow strokes, all spit-wet and inviting. His hair stuck up, tangled between Bucky’s metal fingers. Steve’s eyes bored into Bucky as he swallowed around the cock in his mouth. Tight heat contracted around Bucky and he moaned.

“Fuck,” Bucky cried. His body dipped forward again and took Steve by surprise. He opened his mouth to apologize, but Steve just pressed his fingers further into the meat of Bucky’s ass and encouraged him forward again.

They fell into a wet, flowing rhythm. Steve worked his mouth and throat over Bucky’s dick and Bucky thrust forward into the heat in shallow pushes of his hips and tight tugs of Steve’s blond hair. He felt the build of pleasure in his belly, the concentrated roll of thunder in his veins. His legs shook and he gripped Steve’s hair harder in his hands. Around Bucky’s cock, Steve whimpered.

“Steve, fuck, I –”

And while Bucky thought to push Steve away so that he wouldn’t have to taste Bucky’s come, Steve shoved Bucky back against the kitchen island with surprising force, redoubled his efforts, and let out an obscene, broken noise when Bucky lurched forward into his mouth in one final push and came. The force of Bucky’s orgasm struck right down to the core as it tore over him and crashed in great, violent waves. If Steve hadn’t held him steady, Bucky’s legs might have buckled beneath him from the sheer magnitude of it.

When Steve pulled off of Bucky’s now-soft cock, Bucky managed, “Wow.”

“Good?” asked Steve.

“Nobody’s ever sucked me off before so I, uh, don’t really got any notes to compare,” said Bucky, “but I’m gonna hazard a guess and say that that was fucking impressive.”

Steve’s brows drew together. He said, “Really? No one ever…?”

“Yeah, I dunno,” Bucky shrugged, “I always got on my knees first. But hey, now I can get on them second, so that’s new.” Bucky pulled Steve up to his feet and crowded him back against the counters.

Flags of red rode high on Steve’s cheeks. He said, “This was for you. I don’t need –”

“I know you don’t need me to blow you, punk,” Bucky said, “I wanna do it because my best guy gave me a real nice treat so I’m gonna treat him back. Got it?”

“Yeah,” Steve said breathlessly, “Okay, yes. That sounds good.”

Bucky, with his jeans still hanging down past his ass, fumbled to get Steve’s jeans open and yanked them down quick as he could. Truth was that Bucky liked giving head to boys and girls and everyone in between. He liked the taste of people on his tongue, liked the noises folks made when he kissed them just right between their legs, liked being called nice things and having fingers run through his hair. He thought he might like this with Steve best, though.

Steve was a man of a certain size; that was for damn sure. His cock was near-purple with need, big and thick. Bucky couldn’t wait to taste him.

His technique lacked the methodical grace of Steve’s, but Bucky knew he gave a damn good blow job. He took Steve’s cock in his mouth in a messy gulp. The weight of Steve, the musky smell of him, the scratch of hair against Bucky’s nose, was almost enough to get Bucky hard all over again. He played with his tongue against Steve’s skin, hummed and moaned around him. When Steve’s hands settled in Bucky’s hair, he leaned into the touch like a cat.

Steve picked up on the movement and stroked his hands back over Bucky’s scalp, scratching his clipped nails just-so over the skin. He murmured, “You’re real good at that, aren’t you?”

Bucky nodded, or moved his head in the best semblance of a nod that he could while there was a cock in his mouth. He was louder than Steve about sucking dick. He moaned and sighed and whined around Steve and Steve took cues like a champ, running his hands through Bucky’s long hair and fucking up into his mouth.

Unghh – you know how mad I got about Tony Stark flirting with you?” Steve babbled, “I was pissed. Here’s this clown, coming onto my best guy. Well, he can’t have you. You’re mine.”

Christ. Bucky groaned, muffled by Steve thrusting into his mouth. He liked that. He liked being Steve’s best guy. Liked being Steve’s in general. That was – yeah. It was nice. Real fucking nice.

When the movement of Steve’s body became erratic, Bucky knew he was close. He let himself go a little slack, let Steve hold his head and fuck his cock into Bucky’s mouth. The look on Steve’s face when he came was an image to save to the spank bank for the rest of his life. Color in his face that suggested a full-body flush, lips all swollen and parted, eyes squeezed closed.

“God, Buck,” Steve exhaled when Bucky pulled off of him.

Bucky pulled Steve’s underwear and jeans up over his hips before he went to fix his own. The smile couldn’t be wiped off of his face. He said, “You know Stark wasn’t serious, right?”

Steve huffed. He said, “Yeah, I know. Still. You – you’re mine, right?”

“A’course I am,” Bucky said, “and you’re mine.”

“Yeah,” Steve agreed, “I am.” He leaned in for a kiss, this one sloppy and sex-flavored.

When they parted, Bucky scratched a hand through his mussed hair and said, “Uh, do you want me to go?”

“What? No,” Steve said, “Thought you could stay and we’d watch cartoons or something. Why the heck would I want you to go?”

“Uh,” Bucky said. Because that was usually what people wanted, he thought, but didn’t say. People liked Bucky until they came and then they didn’t want him around anymore.

Steve studied Bucky and said, “You know just being around you and watching TV is just as important as anything else we do, right?”

“Don’t be stupid.”

“If you left, you’d be taking all the stupid with you,” Steve said back, “Now hush up and let me put my arm around you on the couch like this is our first date and I’m trying to be a gentleman.”

“I take it back,” Bucky said, “I don’t know why I ever liked you.”

Steve didn’t let it fly. He drew Bucky into his arms and smoothed his palm over the curve of Bucky’s spine, content to stand with arms around one another without a word being said. Bucky’s chest seized up when Steve touched the gentlest of kisses to Bucky’s forehead. Then, Steve naturally had to ruin the moment with: “You’re such a fucking idiot.”

“Oh, my god.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Track: After the Storm – Mumford & Sons

Took You by the Hand

After a successful trip with Steve and Pollock to the park, Bucky walked with them to Steve’s apartment. Steve let Pollock off the leash after he opened the door. Bucky hesitated to follow, but when Steve closed his fist around the front of Bucky’s t-shirt and tugged him inside, the decision was made for him. Steve’s lips descended on his, and without thinking Bucky let his hands pull back into Steve’s hair, smoothing it back while Steve nipped down on Bucky’s lower lip.

Steve pulled back and murmured, “You wanna…” and then inclined his head at his bedroom door.

“Yeah,” was about all that Bucky could manage.

Steve rewarded Pollock with a rawhide bone to occupy him, and laced his fingers through Bucky’s.

Behind Steve’s securely closed bedroom door, they kissed, slow and sensual. Bucky loved the all-encompassing warmth that Steve’s kisses filled him up with. No one ever paid attention to Bucky the way that Steve paid attention to Bucky. Steve mapped out every detail of Bucky’s mouth with his tongue, kissed every part of his skin, lips pressing to places Bucky didn’t know that he wanted to have kissed.

Steve slid his hands up under Bucky’s shirt and ran his big palms down his back. This was a recent addition to their kissing, hands on bare skin, edging on a promise for more but never quite reaching out to grasp it. This time, Bucky shucked his t-shirt over his head and backed Steve up to his pin-neat bed. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with Steve yet, but Bucky knew that he wanted to be on top of him for it.

The perfect sheets wrinkled and pulled free as Steve scooted back to lie with his head against the pillows. Bucky followed. This, at least, was a familiar movement – crawling on top of somebody on a bed, running his hands over their body, teasing at the good spots but never lingering. The kisses, though, those were something unique to Steve.

Steve’s kisses sent electricity zigzagging through Bucky’s veins and stirred up spiraling movement in his gut, a feeling he’d never felt before and didn’t have a name to put to it.

And then Bucky’s phone started vibrating in his pocket.

Steve groaned and let his head flop against the pillows. Bucky pulled the thing out of his jeans with the intention of turning it off, but saw Tony’s name flash across the screen.

“Crap,” he said, “I better take this. Hey, Tony. What’s going on?”

“Heyo, how’s your evening going? No, don’t tell me. I don’t actually care. Listen, I’ve got your new arm assembled and ready to go. I can squeeze you in tomorrow sometime in the afternoon. And hey, are you with Rogers? Ask him if he wants a leg.”

Bucky blinked at the rapid-fire speech and then glanced to Steve, who looked bemused beneath him. This was an awkward conversation to be having while straddling his best guy, but Bucky still said, “Tony wants to know if you want him to make you a leg.”

Steve leveled an irritated look at Bucky and said, “That’s not the body part I’m after right now.”

On the phone, Tony – who had obviously heard Steve’s retort – started to laugh. He asked, “Did I interrupt an intimate moment between you and the good Captain? Maybe I’ll make you guys a mechanical penis instead of limbs. I’ve never tried making a MechaDong before.”

“They already make those,” Bucky said, “They’re called vibrators. They sell them at adult toy stores.”

“But they’re not selling a Tony Stark patented MechaDong,” said Tony.

Bucky exhaled through his nostrils. He said, “I’m hanging up now.”

Bucky tossed his phone onto the carpet of Steve’s bedroom. When he turned his attention back to Steve where he lay trapped between Bucky’s legs, Steve stared up at him with one eyebrow lifted.

“The moment gone?” asked Bucky.

Steve nodded, “The moment’s gone.”

With a sigh, Bucky rolled off of Steve and stared at the ceiling. On one hand Tony’s cockblock disappointed him, but he didn’t mind just chilling with Steve, sex nixed from the table. Steve pulled himself off of the bed. With his weight off of the covers, Bucky seized the opportunity to roll himself up in Steve’s soft blanket.

Steve opened the bedroom door and Pollock bounded in. The dog leapt up on the bed, and with Bucky’s limbs trapped in the blanket, he was helpless to prevent Pollock from licking his face over and over in enthusiastic laps. Bucky laughed, thrashing back to get his arms free. As soon as he broke from his blanket burrito, he managed to get Pollock to lie down and be still enough for a rub behind the ears.

Bucky’s eyes drifted to the open door, where Steve leaned against the frame. A goofy smile uncurled on his face. Something about that smile tied Bucky’s insides into knots.

“What?” Bucky asked.

Steve chuckled and broke their gaze. “Nothing,” he said, “I just really like you.”

X

The following afternoon, Bucky was watching Steve sift through a longbox of musty-smelling comic books when he asked, “Hey, if you have asthma, how’d you get the army to take you?”

Steve glanced up from his busywork, but held his place with his thumb stuck in between two bagged-and-boarded issues with yellowed pages. He said, “Uh, if you don’t have any issues with childhood asthma after age twelve, you’re good to go.”

“You literally had an asthma attack like two seconds ago.”

“It’s been like a month, Buck.”

“My point stands.”

“I didn’t have any documented issues with my asthma after twelve, so no one made a fuss,” Steve said.

“So you lied,” Bucky replied, “on your enlistment form.”

“No,” Steve said, “Maybe by omission. I can’t take it back now. You’re one to talk anyway. I thought you said you got these scars before you went into the military?” Steve removed his hand from the box of comic books to grab Bucky’s right arm. He ran his thumb over the raised welts on his arm, all in uniform order like ants.

“Yeah, I did.”

“Army doesn’t take people with depression. How’d you pull off enlistment?”

Bucky jerked his arm out of Steve’s grip. He said, “Did the tattoo sleeve over it, got mixed in with a crooked recruiter that wanted to boost his numbers. So yeah, neither of us should have been able to get into the army in the first place. But you’re right. We can’t take the years of service back. It’s not – it’s not that I regret enlisting. It’s more like…I did things that I regret, and I saw shit I shouldn’t have. But if I didn’t get thrown into Kunar, then I never would’ve shoved Natasha out of the way of that IED. I never would’ve met some really awesome people. So I fucked myself up more, and so did you, but I’ll bet you anything that you don’t regret it either. Do you, Steve?”

Steve shook his head and answered, “Regret some things that happened, but not enlisting.”

“See.”

“Hm.”

Steve turned away from Bucky and flicked through the comic books until he found his place from before. Content to watch Steve and his bottomless font of enthusiasm for superheroes, Bucky leaned back against a glass case where the owner of the joint kept the rarest books of his collection under lock and key. Bucky liked this shop. The outside only read "COMICS" and color splashed every part of the cramped inside. Against one wall stood the newest issues of current titles, and in the middle were the longboxes of back issues that kept Steve so occupied.

No more than a minute into looking on as Steve filed through issue after issue and extracted what he wanted, Bucky’s phone vibrated in his back pocket. He pulled it out – Tony again.

“What do you want?” answered Bucky. He pulled away from watching Steve and pushed open the door to the comic shop and stepped out onto the sidewalk. From the traffic sign where his leash was fastened, Pollock wagged his tail. Bucky humored him with a scratch behind the ears.

“So, are you coming in or what? I don’t have all day, Barnes. I’m very important people.”

Bucky rolled his eyes and scuffed at a blackened patch of gum left on the concrete with his boot. Pollock nosed at his hand for another round of scratching. Bucky said, “Uh, I guess. Me and Stevie are just hitting up the comic book store. We can be at Stark Tower when we’re done here.”

“And when is that, exactly?” asked Tony.

“I dunno. Steve’s still poking around,” responded Bucky.

“Great, great. Leave ‘em hanging. That’s the way all the great seducers do it. Also, Stevie?”

“Screw you. I don’t have to explain myself to you,” Bucky said, “We’ll get there when we get there. See you later, Stark.”

Bucky hung up before Tony could protest and shoved his phone back into the pocket of his jeans. The bell at the door tinkled when Bucky reentered the comic book shop, but Steve didn’t look up from his exploration of the boxes and the cashier behind the glass cases of rare issues and action figures didn’t glance away from his issue of Hellboy.

That was fine. Bucky didn’t mind nosing around the store, and he certainly didn’t mind admiring Steve’s ass when he bent over longboxes to reach the comic books filed in at the end. Thirty minutes later, Steve cast Bucky a look that dared him to criticize the thick stack of comic books in Steve’s arms. Bucky just smiled, because even though he didn’t understand the appeal, he liked seeing Steve excited about something. Steve deserved to be excited about everything.

Besides, the excitement of buying a metric fuckton of new comic books (“It wasn’t that many, Bucky.”) tempered Steve’s annoyance at accompanying Bucky to Stark Tower for the fitting of his upgraded prosthesis. Bucky told Steve that he didn’t have to come with him, which naturally meant that Steve had to be contrary and come anyway. Bucky wouldn’t admit it out loud, but he was glad he didn’t have to face another one of these appointments alone.

After Bucky returned from his tours, Becca and his mom stood by his side for a lot of the crap that he had to do, but both of them had lives – they couldn’t be there for all of it. Bucky endured physical therapy and the scrutiny of psychiatrists wanting to prescribe him a buffet of medications, and then he endured Tony Stark for the duration of his shoulder surgery to create the anchor for his arm, and then everything else afterward. No one stood by for all that bullshit.

So having Steve helped.

They took the subway to get to Stark Tower, a feat neither Bucky nor Steve could accomplish very well on their own, but did all right with standing with their sides pressed against one another, their fingers laced together, and Pollock seated in front of them in his service dog’s vest. The travel-by-foot sucked for Steve – his limp became more pronounced the longer that they walked, and by the time that he and Bucky made it up to Tony’s lab, Steve collapsed in a chair with a groan.

“How’s it hanging, gentlemen? Little to the left?” asked Tony.

“Ha-ha, a dick joke, very funny,” Bucky said. He climbed into the reclining chair where Tony did all his fittings, and without being asked stretched out his current prosthesis for Tony to unmount and replace with whatever newfangled model he’d come up with.

The arm pulled away from Bucky’s body with ease, though as always he felt unbalanced as the weight left his body. Tony scooted his rolling chair across his laboratory floor and returned with a different arm. The new arm, for the most part, resembled the old one. It shone a little brighter under the fluorescent overhead lights, but the plating functioned the same way as it had on the old one. All except for the hand, that was.

“Okay,” Tony said, “I’m gonna stick this bad boy on and we’re gonna test it out, see how the motor functions run with the heavier plating in the hand. If it doesn’t work right we’ll swap it for your old arm and I’ll try again.”

Tony docked the new arm into his shoulder socket with that jolt that Bucky had become used to over the course of his Stark arm ownership. Bucky wriggled into a more comfortable sitting position and bent his elbow a couple of times. When he crunched the fingers into a fist the movement of the digits remained basically the same as his other hand.

“Nice,” Tony said, “Am I good at my job, or what? How’s that feel?”

“Like the other one,” replied Bucky.

“That’s good,” Tony said, “That thing was a work of art, and this one is too. One of these days I’ll figure out how to do better than pressure sensors. I’ll be able to get your arm to actually feel shit.”

“You’re nuts.”

“Yeah, but being nuts has gotten me this far, hasn’t it?” asked Tony, before he swiveled in his chair and faced Steve. He rested his right foot on his left knee and folded his hands in his lap before he went on, “So, I never got an answer from your boy Barnes about getting a Stark leg. You want one, or are you still taking the high road?”

Steve’s eyes flew up ceiling-ward and he let out an irritable exhale. With one hand stroking Pollock’s fur, he answered Tony’s question with one of his own: “What exactly does getting a Stark limb entail?”

Bucky didn’t have to look at Tony’s face to know the man was delighted. Tony replied, “Well, Cap, I am glad you asked. The first step is for me to get to know your party leg and do a shitload of measurement. Then I draw up some schematics, do a 3D printed prototype, and we do a fitting with that. Then as soon as I’m one hundred percent A-okay with how the leg works, you get to come in for an exciting surgery where I stick one of my limb anchors in and hook it up to your nervous system. You get wheeled around or walk on crutches ‘til your stump heals up and I make you a brand new leg for realsies this time, with metal and wiring and the fancy stuff.

“But I bet you anything that I’ll get cockblocked by a bunch of bureaucratic bullshit and something’ll get fudged, because the government is on my ass about healthcare plans and the cost of my limbs. Is it their business what I do with my own money? No, but they like to think it is. So there’s that, and the subsequent inevitable sticking point somewhere in the process.”

“Your own money?”

“What did you think, the money fairy paid for all the work that goes into these babies?” Tony waved around Bucky’s old arm and let the joints flop, “I saw the crap we were putting out there for people that lost their limbs being brave idiots and knew I could do better. I also knew that with the way the American government functions that I’d never fucking get anything done unless I funded the shit myself. Fortunately for everybody, I am a billionaire and have the means to create my brilliant ideas.”

“I thought you used government funding,” Steve admitted, his brows furrowed, "Bucky said you have a military contract."

Tony snorted. He said, “Hell no. I don't use government money. You think I’m on the government’s good side after I stopped developing weapons for them? With the conservative congress, I’d be screwed at every turn. Those guys are all about weapons and up in arms about anything to do with healthcare. So, I circumnavigated them. The contract's just formality. The VA refers eligible vets to me; that's it.”

Somewhere during Tony’s speech, Steve’s mouth had fallen open. Bucky seldom saw Steve struck actually speechless. Several seconds passed before Steve got ahold of himself and cleared his throat. He said, “I’ll do it. I’ll get a Stark leg.”

“Oh-ho-ho!” Tony exclaimed, “Does that mean you take back what you said to the media about me?”

Steve pursed his lips and said, “Yes, I take it back.”

“I’m not so bad after all, huh?” Tony smirked.

“You’re all right,” Steve told him, “but you’re still kind of a dick.”

Tony shrugged, “I’ll take it.”

Before either Bucky or Steve could say anything, a voice overhead announced, “Sir, Miss Potts has arrived with a meal.”

“That time already?” Tony glanced down at his watch, “Huh. Guess I probably need to eat sometime today. Thanks, Jarvis. Send her up.”

Bucky had never met Pepper, only heard Tony sing her praises and seen her face on television and in Time magazine as one of the world’s most influential people. When she arrived at the lab in person with a grease-stained brown paper bag, she looked even more put-together than she did in pictures and on the TV screen. Her hair was swept up in some kind of classy ‘do, and she wore a tailored pantsuit over flesh-tone high heels.

“Sorry to interrupt,” she greeted.

Tony wheeled his chair across the laboratory floor and pulled her down for a kiss. He said, “You are never interrupting. Get this, though. Captain Asshat is getting one of my legs.”

“Hey!” Steve protested.

Pepper whirled on her heel and raised a brow at Steve. She said, “Really?” and dragged out the word in a long, meaningful drawl.

Steve looked cowed. He said, “Yes, ma’am.”

“And what changed your mind?” asked Pepper.

“I may have misjudged the situation,” Steve said.

“Go easy on him, Pep,” Tony said, mid-bite around a burger dripping ketchup onto the wrapper spread across his lap, “Lots of people have thought I’m a tool, including you. You changed your mind, so did Captain Rogers. Everybody wins. Now, Barnes, if you just move, I can start measuring El Capitano’s leg and get this show on the road.”

With a minimal amount of shuffling and exchange of Pollock’s leash from Steve’s hand to Bucky’s, Steve settled back onto the chair. Bucky stood alongside it instead of sitting down. He felt better knowing that he had Steve’s back, and from the looks of it, Steve liked having Bucky close while Tony Stark unclipped his run-of-the-mill prosthesis and rolled the sleeve off of the stump.

Somewhere in the process, Steve got bored and pulled his phone out to screw around on some game, and when Bucky reached in his back pocket to do the same, he saw he’d missed a text from Nat a half hour before.

15:23 Nat: Do you and Steve want to hang out at Clint’s with us tonight?

15:56 Bucky: how did u kno im with steve

15:58 Nat: Lucky guess. You in?

“Steve, you wanna hang with Nat and Clint tonight?” asked Bucky.

Steve glanced up from his phone, “Huh? Oh, yeah, sure. That sounds good.”

X

Pollock bounded into Clint’s apartment the moment that he opened the door and pounced on a golden retriever Steve informed him was named Lucky. Lucky barked happily at Pollock’s arrival and they circled one another, sniffing.

The strong scent of pizza – melted cheese and tomato sauce and pepperoni – wafted through the apartment. Bucky’s stomach growled at the aroma, and Clint laughed a little. He said, “Take as much as you want, man. We got plenty. You wanna beer? You, Steve?”

“Yeah, sure,” Bucky said.

Clint tossed a bottle in Bucky’s direction. He caught it with his metal hand, and popped the lid off on one of the new reinforced plates on the fingers. Before he could take a sip, however, Natasha swooped in and yanked his hand forward. She stared at it for a second and said, “Your arm’s new.”

“Yeah, since I busted the other one breaking into Steve’s apartment, Tony made an arm that could break into an apartment without falling apart,” Bucky answered, and took a sip of his beer before he continued, “I told him it didn’t matter, but you know he can’t resist a freaking challenge. I swear to God. But hey, Steve’s gonna get himself a Stark leg.”

Natasha stopped admiring Bucky’s new arm and dropped it. She stared at Steve with her brows lifted, and Clint whistled, “No shit.”

“Really?” Natasha said, “After what you said about him?”

Bucky made a face and asked, “Did everyone know about that but me?”

Nat cast him a sideways glance – an oh, you expression – and said, “To be fair, James, you do live under a rock.”

“So what changed your mind, Rogers?” asked Clint, taking a pull from his own beer.

Steve pawed through the pizza boxes in the kitchen before he answered, helping himself to a healthy four slices and sinking down into one of Clint’s “antique” (see: rickety) kitchen chairs. He let out a long breath once seated and replied, “He’s not as terrible as I thought he was. And I guess Republican congressmen don’t like him? I feel dirty, like I helped them out by, you know –”

“Throwing shade?” suggested Bucky.

“Yeah, that,” Steve said, “Anyway, this leg I got already fucking kills me when I wear it too long and Stark said his model would reduce pain.”

“It does,” Bucky put in, “I had a standard prosthetic arm for a while and when I wore it too long, the thing felt like it was pulling down my entire fucking left side. Sometimes it still gets that way with the Stark arm but it’s never the way it was with the other one. Tony’s a lot of things, but he’s not a total idiot. He’s good at what he does.”

“Is that kind of like how you’re good at whatever’s got that dopey looking smile on Steve’s face?” asked Clint.

“Clint, for fuck’s sake,” Bucky said.

“Nat told me to ask,” said Clint.

Nat sighed. She said, “Clint, you’re about as subtle as a brick.”

“The point,” Clint said, waving his hand in Natasha’s direction, “is that we’re nosy friends and we want to know what’s up with you two. You’re with each other at like, all hours of the day. Neither of you are employed, both of you are paying for rent with government money, and literally every picture that Steve posts on Facebook has Bucky in it.”

“You post pictures of me on Facebook?” Bucky said.

Steve swallowed a bite of pizza and shrugged one shoulder. He said, “I tag you in them. If you went on Facebook instead of being a hipster shit then you’d know that.”

“Excuse me, if one of us is a hipster shit, then it’s the guy with the record collection, and that’s not me,” argued Bucky, “Last week you told me that vinyl just sounds different, Bucky, and that you don’t care for digital downloads if you can avoid it. And I’m the hipster shit. Sure. Right.”

Steve snorted into his pizza, but otherwise refrained from commenting.

“So,” Clint said.

“Smooth segue,” Bucky said back.

Clint smacked Bucky’s arm and said, “Shut up. Guys. Come on.”

“What’s up between you two, then?” asked Bucky, “If we’re all about honesty here.”

“We’re taking it slow but we like each other a lot,” Natasha said, “Does that answer your question?”

“Not really,” Bucky told her, “Me n’ Steve were trying to take it slow and kind of end up not doing that. He’s my best guy, though. That’s what we’re calling it. Ain’t no fucking boyfriends here, but it’s the same thing…right?” Bucky hesitated, realizing that he was talking for both of them, when he and Steve hadn’t really talked about what they’d be telling their friends beyond calling each other ‘best guys.’

What were they doing, exactly? Sort of having sex, but no one's ass had actually been on anyone’s dick yet? Falling asleep tangled up on the couch only to wake up to Steve being at his easel at four o’clock in the damn morning, painting his nightmares? Going to the park, grabbing coffee, attending appointments with Tony Stark, visiting the comic shop – every part of that was intimate, Bucky was pretty sure.

“Of course,” Steve said, and leaned over and smacked a kiss on Bucky’s forehead.

Bucky shoved him away by the shoulder and complained, “You asshole. You just had pizza in your mouth.”

“I kissed you after I had your dick in my mouth and you didn’t complain then.”

Steve,” Bucky said, “Christ in a kayak. I can’t believe you just said that. You’re a lot dirtier than you let on, you know?”

Clint said with a tip of his beer bottle, “You keep that shit to yourselves. I am not a third party in your bedroom romps.”

“Technically it was the kitchen,” Steve replied.

Bucky groaned, Steve grinned, Natasha laughed, and Clint knocked back the rest of his beer.

X

Bucky considered returning to his lonely apartment that smelled like old food and sweat. He really did. But when Steve offered for Bucky to spend the night again at his place, he couldn’t pass it up. Steve batted his lashes and did the whole puppy eyes routine and that worked as well as waving a magic goddamn wand would have.

Steve fed Pollock first thing in the door, and second thing collapsed on the edge of his mattress with a long groan, chest compressing as he whined at the ceiling, “Fuuuuuck.”

“Want me to get your leg?” asked Bucky.

Steve lifted his head at the neck and said, “Could you?”

“Yeah, ‘course I can,” Bucky said. He knelt in the carpet and rolled up the leg of Steve’s jeans past his stump and held them there with his metal hand while he fumbled for the release to undo the pin. The prosthesis came away and the sleeve soon after, and Steve let out a long, contented moan.

“That was killing me,” he said.

“I know,” Bucky replied, because Steve had been limping around even before they made it to Stark Tower. They’d been doing shit all day non-stop. But the quiet now comforted Bucky after the chaos of the day, and unlike the silence of his own empty apartment the silence between the two of them fit like a favorite t-shirt.

Bucky pressed his fingers into the scar tissue on Steve’s stump and rubbed. Steve let out an unholy noise, something between pain and relief and pleasure all in a pyramid of sensation. Bucky’s metal fingers could dig deeper and work harder. Just for the grunts and sighs he’d coax out of Steve from massaging with his prosthetic hand, Bucky could do this shit all the time.

“Buck, hey,” Steve said, “Come up here and kiss me a little.”

“Don’t have to tell me twice,” he murmured, and rose from his place on the floor in front of Steve to crawl up onto the mattress. Bucky settled in Steve’s lap and lowered his lips to Steve’s mouth, letting himself be sucked into the kind of kiss that Bucky was beginning to recognize as classic Steve – slow, detailed exploration, with long strokes of Steve’s tongue against Bucky’s mouth.

Steve’s hands inched up the back of Bucky’s shirt and his palms rested on Bucky’s shoulder blades, warm and big and damn, did he feel nice. Bucky’s body moved of its own accord, probably a knee-jerk reaction to being pressed up against another person. His hips rolled over Steve’s, and he fell into a practiced rhythm as old as anyone was having sex.

Below him, Steve’s breath came faster, and little noises spilled out from his throat. These noises were nothing like the loud groans and grateful gasps that Bucky elicited from massaging Steve’s stump, but smaller, helpless sounds punched out from the chest.

“Don’t wanna come in my pants,” Steve said.

“You tryin’ to get me naked, doll?” asked Bucky.

Yes,” Steve replied emphatically, “Is it working?”

Bucky laughed. He pulled up and off of Steve, who whined at the loss of Bucky’s body. Bucky said, “I can’t take my clothes off while I’m plastered to you, you baby. Give me ten seconds. You’re gonna be naked too, right?”

Steve, in lieu of a verbal response, yanked his shirt up over his head and threw it.

God, he was a work of art. Bucky didn’t know how he managed to snag a guy that looked like he was carved out of fucking marble and on display in a fancy art museum, but he wasn’t gonna question that crap. As far as Bucky was concerned, he would enjoy his time with Steve to the fullest, for however long it lasted. Steve would probably get tired of him, but Bucky would always have memories like this one – like blowjobs in the kitchen, like cuddling on the couch, like watching Steve talk shop with the cashier at the comic book store – to remember. Bucky was good at rerunning shit in his head like a movie reel, and whatever happened with Steve would be no exception to the rule.

Bucky pulled off his clothes with the grace of a guy that had gotten naked with a cornucopia of other people. He finished just in time to watch Steve shimmy out of his jeans and boxer briefs, letting the discarded clothes pool on the carpet before he used his massive fucking arms to maneuver his body back onto the pillows.

His good foot still had a sock on it.

“Do you want me to…” Bucky waved at the sock.

Steve licked his lips and swallowed. His eyes flickered from the sock to Bucky and back again, and only after several seconds had passed in total silence did Steve blow all the air out of his lungs and reply, “Yeah. Go ahead.”

Bucky understood the hesitation when he pulled Steve’s boring white sock away and saw the bare foot underneath. Bucky hadn’t realized that he hadn’t seen Steve barefoot until faced with the abused, scarred flesh of his in-tact foot, saved most likely by a team of genius surgeons and generous skin grafts. Red, angry tissue strained over crooked bone, like everything in the foot had been broken.

How Steve walked at all with his foot so fucking mangled bewildered the hell out of Bucky, and because he was an asshole, he asked without thinking, “Does that hurt?”

“Sometimes,” Steve told him, “I don’t want to talk about it. I wanna keep kissing you. You want your arm off or on? Looks kinda irritated around the shoulder.”

Bucky spared a glance at his left shoulder. Sure enough, when he flexed, the skin felt stretched and tired under the burden of the prosthetic arm. He said, “Don’t think I can hold myself up with the one hand, but you’re right, it hurts. Wasn’t thinking about it.”

“Here, switch with me,” Steve said, scooting, “You lie back and I’ll be on top.”

Bucky did just that, pulling himself to the pillows. Steve knew the way that Bucky’s arm worked, and pressed the switch that undocked it from the shoulder piece. He set it aside all-gentle on his bedside table, the same place that it was resting the morning after the first night that they met. The relief of being free from the weight washed over Bucky like cool waves on a hot beach. He let out a hum of happiness, only to have the noise swallowed by Steve in a hard kiss.

Steve looked gorgeous all the time, but he looked beautiful like this, boxing Bucky in with strong arms and thick, muscled thighs. Between his legs, his cock flushed with need and man, did Bucky love it. He knew the taste of Steve now, and that knowledge made him salivate.

Steve dipped his body down and let his cock move against Bucky’s own erection.

“Shit,” Bucky said, and he repeated that with a louder, “Shit,” when Steve took both their cocks in one of his huge hands and started to jack them together, movement steady and sure and not at all as fast as Bucky wanted it to be.

Bucky pushed his body into the touch, head thrown back against the pillows. Their hips rocked together and Steve’s grip held firm, a tight glove of heat.

“Not gonna last long,” Steve gasped out, “You’re so goddamn perfect, Buck.”

“Me?” Bucky started to laugh a little, but the sound melted into startled moan. With two more strokes of Steve’s palm, Steve came onto Bucky’s belly with a full-body shudder and a pleased, broken noise.

Steve didn’t allow himself even a beat of recovery, though. He moved, fluid, down the mattress, and sank his mouth over Bucky’s cock. The pressure and heat and wet became too much all at once, and Bucky launched off of the mattress and into Steve’s mouth. Steve made a surprised noise, but held Bucky’s hips steady. His eyelids fluttered closed as he swallowed.

Steve pulled off and took in a few measured breaths.

Then, he met Bucky’s eye. He stroked his fingers through the loose hair framing Bucky’s face and said, “I meant it. You’re perfect.”

“That’s…you’re wrong, but. I appreciate it,” Bucky said, “You make me wanna be better for you.”

Steve lowered his lips to the center of Bucky’s forehead and said, “You’re already enough.”

With Steve’s leg off, the duty of retrieving a towel to mop them up with fell to Bucky. He wiped off Steve’s sweat-shiny chest first, and then scrubbed at the come on his own stomach. They collapsed side by side, but it took only moments for Steve to creep closer and drape his arm over Bucky’s middle.

Bucky offered a lazy grin and was met with Steve’s boyish smile.

Something about that smile tugged behind Bucky’s ribs and he –

Oh, shit.

Bucky cared about Steve. He really cared about Steve. In his chest he swore he could feel his shriveled-up Grinch heart grow three sizes from the nourishment of Steve’s smile alone. He didn’t want Steve to become a memory. Bucky wanted to hold onto Steve with both hands and never fucking let him go.

Chapter Text

Chapter Track: This Isn’t Control – MS MR

It Feels Like a Curse

During the group session, Steve kept mostly quiet. He still didn’t want to talk about the year that he spent under the thumb of a violent terrorist cell. Even thinking about discussing it made his tongue stick to the roof of his mouth and his throat shutter closed and his vision go fuzzy at the edges, like if the words came out that he would remember it all. Steve did remember it all, and he didn’t want to.

He shifted his weight to his better leg. The prosthesis started bugging him more after the promise of a new one that would hurt less and work better, because Steve hyper-focused on the existence of the shittier one – okay, fine, not shitty, but average non-Stark prosthesis. And yesterday, Tony fitted Steve with the final leg in a series of 3D-printed prototype limbs. Soon, Steve would wear a genuine Stark leg.

Sam emerged from the medium-sized room used for group sessions and leveled a tired look at Steve. He said, “You didn’t say a damn thing today.”

Steve shrugged and said, “I wanted to give other people an opportunity to talk.”

“You and I both know that’s bullshit.”

“What do you want me to say, Sam?” asked Steve, “That I hate talking about the gory details of captivity? Because I do. I do hate that, and I don’t feel ready to talk about it, and I don’t know if I’ll ever feel ready to talk about it.”

Sam exhaled through his nostrils and looped his arm around Steve’s shoulders. He pulled him into a loose hug. Steve couldn’t help but melt into it; he was a sucker for touch that way. Still, he huffed against Sam’s chest, and then pointedly ignored the quiet shaking of Sam trying not to laugh at him.

Steve straightened back to his full height and carded his fingers through his hair. He and Sam walked out to the VA parking lot together without speaking, Pollock’s nails clicking against the pavement as he trod along at Steve’s side. The silence wasn’t awkward, but it was wrought with a million unsaid things – a million of Steve’s problems that he had yet to address and might never address given the opportunity to avoid doing so.

“Hey,” Steve said, “After I get this surgery for the Stark leg anchor, I’m gonna need somebody to look after me because I’ll apparently be a drooling mess for at least a few days. Think you could do it?”

Sam shook his head and answered, “No can do, man. I got work. Why aren’t you asking your boyfriend?”

Steve traced his teeth with his tongue and mulled over whether or not to blow Sam off with a half-lie. Sam would never believe a lie told by Steve, though, so he sighed and replied with the truth: “I don’t want him to feel obligated to take care of me, you know? We’ve only been doing this thing for a few months and signing up to take care of me while I’m fucked up with pain meds and out of my mind seems like a tall order.”

Sam rolled his eyes.

“What?” Steve said.

“You’re an idiot,” Sam told him, “I love you, man, but you’re an idiot. That guy is crazy for you. He’d do anything for you, and that includes taking care of your stupid ass while you’re wasted on pain meds. Hell, he’ll probably jump at the opportunity to watch you make a fool of yourself. Well, more of a fool than usual, anyway.”

“Thanks,” Steve said dryly, and let Pollock jump into the backseat before he climbed into the passenger’s side of Sam’s car.

At the front of Steve’s building, Steve said goodbye to Sam and dodged a request for Steve to promise to talk more at the next group session. Pollock led the way up the stairs to Steve’s door, but before Steve could even turn the key in the knob, it swung open and revealed Bucky grinning on the other side, his hair tied up in a sloppy knot at the back of his head.

“Hey,” Bucky greeted.

Steve leaned forward and nabbed a kiss before he replied, “Hey. Something smells good. Did you cook?”

Bucky lifted one shoulder, his smile dimming to something a little more self-conscious. He said, “Nothin’ fancy. Just made some spaghetti. Hope that’s all right. Here, why don’t you sit down? I’ll dish some up for you. You want parmesan?”

“Of course I want cheese. I’m not a heathen. Or not a heathen in that way, in any case.”

Bucky laughed. Steve didn’t collapse into one of his kitchen chairs until Bucky turned his attention back to the pot on the stove and busied himself with preparing two bowls of pasta. The fact that Bucky probably noticed Steve was favoring his good leg unnerved him, but at least he hadn’t said anything about it outright. Steve’s pride could only take so much battering in one day.

Bucky grated cheese over two bowls of spaghetti and swung over to the table to arrange them. He asked, “You want anything to drink while I’m up?”

“Water?” Steve said, and a second later, a glass appeared beside his bowl. Steve waited until Bucky sat and tucked into his meal before he cleared his throat and dared to ask, “Hey, so…after my operation for the anchor…can you look after me?”

Bucky slurped a noodle into his mouth and swallowed. He said back, “I thought that was a given.”

“You did?”

“I mean, yeah. Did you want me there for the op itself? I’m not like allowed to sit next to you or anything, but I’m allowed to watch from the next room,” Bucky said.

Steve wet his lips with the tip of his tongue and tried not to sound nervous when he asked, “You’d do that for me?”

“Of course I’d do that for you, dipshit,” Bucky returned, and went back to eating his spaghetti like Steve’s gut wasn’t churning with a category six hurricane of emotions.

Thing was, Bucky fit seamlessly into Steve’s life. Steve didn’t know if Bucky had noticed, but Steve sure had. When Steve took his laundry downstairs, almost half of the clothing in his basket belonged to Bucky, and he washed those clothes with just as much care as he paid to his own. Two toothbrushes mingled together in the cup on his bathroom counter, because Steve bought Bucky his own and supervised tooth-brushing so there would be minimal morning breath when they woke up and kissed. Steve added TV shows and movies to his Netflix queue on the sole basis that Bucky might like to see them, even if Steve himself had zero interest in the media in question.

And here Bucky was, ascertaining that Steve sit to rest his bum leg while he prepared dinner for both of them, like they’d been doing this for years instead of months. They moved around and with each other with a fluidity that Steve had never felt before, not even with Peggy before they split. He didn’t know about Bucky being half of him – Steve was a whole person on his own, but his unique shape and Bucky’s unique shape complimented each other, locked in place, worked together.

When Steve counted, the days in a row that Bucky slept at Steve’s instead of his own apartment added up to a week. Bucky hadn’t slept at his own place in a week. He’d only been back to grab extra clothes and the books he borrowed from Steve and forgot to give back. So Steve didn’t blink when Bucky kissed him and climbed into his bed. He removed his prosthetic leg while Bucky unlocked his arm and set it aside on the bedside table. Pollock leapt up onto the mattress only after Steve pulled the covers over his and Bucky’s bodies.

Steve slung his arm over Bucky’s middle and spooned him from behind the way they’d been sleeping for the past several nights. Bucky wiggled back into it. Steve couldn’t resist pressing his lips to the back of Bucky’s neck, which Bucky rewarded with a happy hum.

“Go to sleep,” Bucky murmured, “and don’t get fresh with me in front of the dog.”

“Wasn’t trying to,” Steve said back, and let his eyes slip closed.

When Steve opened them, dark surrounded him on all sides. The scent of damp and human refuse saturated the air and sweat beaded on his forehead. A single swinging lightbulb flickered on, and one of the masked insurgents stood in front of Steve. Fear swept through Steve’s body like a tsunami and flattened everything in its path. He kept his face trained on being neutral, though. He knew he would scream and cry later, but he refused to show them an ounce of what they wanted.

The insurgent brought the butt of his gun down on Steve’s foot. Steve swallowed the shout that threatened to tear out of him. White hot fire engulfed his foot, already broken in so many places from being beaten and tortured. So much time had passed – the days impossible to record in the windowless concrete room they held him in – that Steve wasn’t sure whether these men wanted information or the upper hand with the US Army or if they simply wanted a body to do terrible things to.

When Steve opened his mouth, he repeated his name and rank over and over. He repeated the mantra with a raw throat and desert-dry mouth.

Steve didn’t think anyone was coming for him. His operation was so classified that fewer people knew about it than Steve could count on both hands. Everything that the army sent Steve and his team to accomplish was that classified, and the United States’ government wouldn’t risk exposing their dirty work by bailing him out of this place. At least it was just him, at least everyone else was safe.

The butt of the gun came down on Steve’s foot again and a hoarse, broken noise rattled his bruised ribs.

Someplace distant, a dog barked.

A dog barked?

There were no dogs in Iraq.

Steve woke with a gasp. Cold sweat slicked his entire body. Pollock’s tongue lapped the sweat from his face. He reached up to bury his fingers in Pollock’s fur automatically, the moonlit bedroom spinning around him like a top.

This wasn’t Iraq. Wasn’t the cell. Wasn’t the insurgents.

“Steve?”

Steve glanced down.

Bucky.

Steve forced himself to breathe, but not enough air made it into his lungs.

“Steve? Doll?” Bucky rested his hand on Steve’s arm. Instead of the comfort Bucky intended with the touch, Steve’s panic increased tenfold and he tore out of Bucky’s grip. He swung his leg over the side of the bed and fumbled for his prosthesis. Putting it on in the dark wasn’t ideal, and rolling the sleeve over his stump with shaking hands proved difficult.

The second that the prosthesis clicked into place Steve stumbled from the room. He collapsed into place in front of his canvas. As Steve emptied tubes of paint onto his palette, panic fizzled back into anger. Anger at himself, for getting involved in operations he should have known were dirty, dark work; anger at his country and the army for fucking leaving him there because they couldn’t afford for their secrets to be exposed; anger at the world as whole for spitting out evil people that tortured other human beings – just pure, crystalized fury that burned hot and heavy in his gut.

Steve splattered paint and stabbed at the canvas with his brushes. He battered the canvas with every shitty shred of anger that he had in him, because he didn’t want that anger to be anywhere but a piece of ugly, disturbing art that no one’s eyes but his would see.

“You okay?”

His eyes, and maybe Bucky’s.

Wearily, Steve turned on the seat in front of his easel and faced Bucky Barnes. He’d put his arm back on, and stood rubbing sleep out of his eyes, wearing nothing but a pair of threadbare boxer shorts. When Steve didn’t immediately answer, Bucky stepped forward and wrapped his arms around him, resting his chin on the top of Steve’s head.

Steve blinked over at his canvas when Bucky released him from the embrace. Dark red and dirty gray dropped behind a lone nude figure, a mostly-silhouetted, starving man bleeding from his feet. Steve swallowed around the knot in his throat and tore his eyes away from it. He’d cover it as soon as the paint dried, and then nobody would have to look at it again.

“I’m not okay,” Steve at last answered Bucky, “I know I’m not okay. But I’m calmer now. I’ll come back to bed.”

Bucky nodded. After Steve removed the prosthesis again and burrowed underneath the comforter, Bucky cupped Steve’s face in his flesh hand and stroked his thumb beneath his cheek. He kissed the center of Steve’s forehead, down to the tip of his nose and over his eyelids. The anarchic, tangled feelings that speared through his gut didn’t vanish, but shrunk back to the shadows at the back of Steve’s mind and the tenderness he felt for the guy kissing his face seized the front.

Steve was fucked up, but Bucky was fucked up too, and he cared about Steve anyway. He kissed him anyway, and tucked Steve’s head into his chest anyway. Bucky’s smell surrounded Steve and brought him back down to earth.

Steve wasn’t okay, but neither was Bucky, and that made all the difference.

X

The month before Steve’s operation to implant the anchor in his leg for a Stark Industries prosthesis passed in a smear of color and sound, moments rolling by but never lingering. Steve sat back and allowed it all to happen. He moved in time to other people’s beats. He attended group sessions at the VA and pretended he wasn’t relieved that no one had gotten back to him about the one-on-one therapy that he promised Bucky he would sign on for.

Bucky never really went back to his own apartment. He wedged into Steve’s life – made breakfast on Steve’s stove with Steve’s frying pans, learned to make coffee with Steve’s “hipster pour-over piece of shit”, took Pollock outside when Steve’s anxiety bore down on him and he couldn’t bear the thought of leaving the safety of his own bedroom.

Their friends noticed, but being that Steve and Bucky were nigh inseparable from one another at this point, Steve gleaned his friends’ skepticism of his and Bucky’s quickly developing relationship from pointed looks and text messages like “How are you and James?” (Natasha) or “so buckys p cool whats goin on there” (Clint) or “I hear your paramour has practically moved in” (Peggy).

Sam, being Sam, was more circumspect, but Steve knew when Sam had Opinions About Things and was waiting for his idiot friends to figure themselves out without mentioning said opinions.

The night before the procedure with Tony and his “expert surgeon” would take place, Bucky barred Steve from both eating and drinking the beer that he wanted to, on Tony’s authority that he couldn’t consume anything twelve hours before the surgery.

Bucky swiped a beer bottle from Steve’s hand seconds after Steve drew it from the fridge and gave a firm, “Nope.”

“But,” Steve said.

“You have your procedure tomorrow,” Bucky reminded him.

“But,” Steve said again.

Bucky crowded him against the kitchen counter and trapped Steve there with his legs. He opened the refrigerator with his left hand and replaced the beer before he pressed a kiss to Steve’s mouth and said, “I could always distract you, if you wanted.”

So, mere hours before Steve’s procedure, he and Bucky ended up with their mouths on each other’s dicks. Steve gripped Bucky’s hips and pinned him to the wall while he swallowed, an act that sent Bucky pacing afterward and running his hands back through his long hair as he said, “Oh, you better not barf that back up in Stark’s lab. We would never live it down, Steve. Ever. Never ever ever.”

“I won’t. Come to bed.”

Steve went to sleep as the little spoon, Bucky’s leg thrown over him and his breath soft and warm against Steve’s neck. He didn’t know having a naked person plastered to his back could be so comfortable, but here they were, and he didn’t ever want to move. Bucky felt and smelled and moved right, seemed even to shift in his sleep in the right way.

When Steve woke the next morning, he wished that he could have coffee and scowled when Bucky made a point to slurp from his mug with more gusto than usual. Logically, Steve knew caffeine would aggravate the nervousness jumping like bugs under his skin, but anxiety didn’t cancel out early morning weariness.

“You all right?” asked Bucky. His coffee mug was empty. Bastard.

Steve drummed his fingers on the table and let out a long breath. He said, “Kind of. I’m nervous, you know?”

“I was too,” Bucky said, “but you got me there, and you’ll have me here while you’re recovering. It’ll be fine. If you think Stark’s a giant fucking nerd, just wait until you meet Banner. Almost everything that Bruce says goes right over my head but I like him anyway. He knows what he’s doing.”

“Good to know the people I’m letting tear open my body know what they’re doing,” said Steve, “I should fucking hope they know what they’re doing.”

Knuckles rapped against the apartment door. Bucky stood and waved for Steve to stay sitting with a muttered, “Probably Natasha. You got Pollock’s leash?”

“I’ll get it,” Steve said. He shuffled off to pull Pollock’s leash from the hooks beside the door and clipped it to Pollock’s collar. When he turned around, Natasha stood in his living room, arms crossed and a blank expression on her face. He never knew what she was thinking.

Since Sam worked that morning, Natasha volunteered to taxi Steve and Bucky to Stark Tower, after which she would drive Pollock to Clint’s place, where he would stay the night so that Steve could get settled back into the apartment and worry only about himself. Steve would worry about his dog anyway and he knew that he would do that, but knowing Pollock was in Clint’s hands eased the concern.

Natasha did, however, work later on in the day, and her compact car wouldn’t accommodate a wheelchair, so Tony arranged for a car of his own to bring Steve and Bucky back post-surgery. She dropped them at the employee entrance in the parking garage. Steve fidgeted, wringing his hands, until Bucky reached over and laced his fingers through Steve’s.

“I got you, sweetheart,” he said.

Steve felt his cheeks turn pink at the endearment and stared at the marble floor of the ground level of Stark Tower as they walked to the elevator. The low rumble of Bucky’s voice did smooth the feathers ruffled by his apprehension, and the weight of Bucky’s hand in his brought his shoulders down from his ears just a fraction of an inch.

Under Tony’s instructions, they rode the elevator to the floor below Tony’s personal laboratory.

“It’s cleaner than his lab, right?” asked Steve.

Bucky said, “Well, yeah. It has to be, for medical procedures. Tony’s got an ego the size of Jupiter, but even he doesn’t think he’d win in a fight against germs in a medical facility.”

That appeased Steve, but he still tapped his foot against the floor of the elevator and let his eyes dart from place to place, never settling to stare at any one thing until they landed on Bucky, who was watching him with an amused half-smile quirking up one side of his face. Bucky squeezed Steve’s hand, and Steve squeezed back.

The elevator pinged and the doors rolled open to reveal a hallway done up in surprisingly warm colors. The air still smelled sterilized, but something about the décor prevented Steve’s hackles from going up. But then, if Tony Stark dealt with veterans on a regular basis as obviously he did, then he would need a facility that didn’t trigger flashbacks or panic attacks or even encourage tension. Stark was smart in ways that he didn’t let on. For as much as Stark touted his genius, he never claimed to be emotionally apt.

Bucky led Steve down the hall and to a well-lit operating room. The look of hospital plagued this room more than anyplace else in the building that Steve had seen, but he figured none of that would matter as soon as they knocked him out.

A bespectacled man, his curly hair shot through with threads of gray, stood alongside the operating table, organizing surgical tools into a neat line. At the sound of Bucky and Steve entering the room, he looked up, and greeted, “Hey, Sergeant Barnes. How’s the arm treating you?”

“Great,” Bucky replied, “Tony upgraded it so I can break into houses without busting my hand.”

“Do I want to know?”

“Probably not,” Bucky answered, “Bruce, this is Steve. Steve, this is Dr. Bruce Banner. He’s the one in charge here, for the most part. Tony just supervises the technology.”

“Captain Rogers,” nodded Bruce, “Changed your mind about the limbs, I see.”

Steve rubbed the back of his neck, the flush of nerves on his face darkening with embarrassment. He said, “Yeah. Where do you need me?”

Bruce broke away from his task and retrieved a mint green hospital gown. He tossed it to Steve and said, “Change into that in the bathroom,” – Banner pointed at an adjoining door on the right side of the operating room – “and then we can put you under and get this show on the road. Tony and our nurses should be showing up pretty soon. Barnes, you can hang out in the next room over and watch from the window.”

Bucky nodded. He slid his hand out of Steve’s grip and moved to press a kiss to Steve’s cheek. Steve moved his head so that Bucky’s mouth brushed his lips instead, and sighed into the touch. That would have to keep him going for the next several minutes, while he changed into the backless monstrosity in his hand and waited to be conked out and sliced open.

“I’ll be right in that room,” Bucky said, “Only a few feet away. Won’t let nothing happen to my best guy.”

Steve smiled despite the knot of anxiety weighing in his stomach like a hot stone. He indulged himself and watched Bucky retreat, jeans tightening over the curve of his ass and shirt stretched tight over the expanse of his shoulders.

“Captain Rogers?”

Steve shook himself out of his trance and said, “Yup?”

“Were you planning on wearing jeans for the operation? Because that isn’t going to work,” Dr. Banner said.

“Sorry,” Steve apologized, and he ducked past the surgeon and into the bathroom.

When Steve emerged with the cool breeze of exposure against his back, Tony and several people decked in scrubs had joined Dr. Banner in the operating room. Steve sat at the edge of the operating table and removed his current prosthesis, which Tony made a snorting noise at as he took the leg and Steve’s clothing out of the room, probably to Bucky.

“All right, Captain Rogers,” Dr. Banner said, “Just lie back. Get comfortable, and then we’ll put you under.”

Steve obeyed, heart pounding in his chest as he swung his legs up onto the table and settled his head down onto the rest. Bruce manhandled Steve into a slightly different position to stick an IV into his arm with brutal efficiency and zero warning, then asked, “Everything feel all right?”

Steve nodded.

“Good,” Bruce said, “You’ll be halfway to a new leg when we see you next, Captain Rogers,” and he fitted a mask over Steve.

Steve inhaled, and inhaled again, until the operating room flickered like bug zapper and blinked into a void of black.

X

Several hours into the operation, somebody brought Bucky coffee and some kind of sandwich. He didn’t pay attention to who handed him food, and he didn’t pay attention to how any of it tasted, but he was grateful to be thought of even if everyone should have been worrying about Steve. Bucky switches off pacing in front of the window and collapsing into a sitting position to watch the action.

Bucky obviously wasn’t conscious for his own operation, so watching Steve’s both fascinated and repulsed him. Less blood leaked out than Bucky expected, but it still rankled to see pieces of flesh peeled back, with Dr. Banner and Tony Stark working together like two parts of a well-oiled machine. They moved around each other with the grace of people that had been working together for a long time. Hell, tons of veterans had Stark limbs. Tony had been working with Bruce for a long time.

Sometime during the operation, Bucky must have drifted off.

He startled and jerked upright, tossing his head to survey his surroundings.

Tony Stark stood beside him on his right side, both hands in the air next to his head. He said, “Whoa. It’s cool. You’re cool. Are you cool? Your hubby’s all wrapped up and ready to go home. You’re gonna need to keep an eye on that one. He’s a real talker.”

Bucky relaxed a fraction when he realized where he was. Not in Afghanistan, not in a hospital – or at least, not in a traditional hospital. He scrubbed a tired hand over his face and asked, “What time is it?”

“It is just past eight at night, my friend,” Tony answered.

Jesus. They’d been there for twelve hours.

Bucky glanced back at Tony after he rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and noticed just how beat Stark looked himself. The shadows under his eyes went deep, like he could sleep for a year after Bucky and Steve were off the premises and safely tucked back home. And to think that someone had still thought to feed and caffeinate Bucky sometime in the mix.

“You’re an all right guy, Tony,” Bucky said.

Tony held a finger to his lips and said, “Shh, don’t go telling anyone that. I have a reputation to uphold.”

“What, as a douchebag?”

“Yes, as a douchebag,” Tony answered, “If people think I have a soul, they’ll be all over me for shit. I can’t have that nonsense. I have enough people whose feelings I have to care about without getting every Tom, Dick and Harry involved, too. I mean, really.”

Tony led Bucky out to the hallway, where Bruce stood behind a wheelchair that contained a goofy-looking Steve. The second that Steve laid eyes on Bucky, his face split into a wide, not-quite-all-there grin, and he said, “Buck!” before trying bracing his hands on either arm of the wheelchair and making to stand.

Dr. Banner’s arms shot out and clamped over Steve’s wrists. He said, “Nope. You gotta stay put, Captain Rogers. Can’t risk doing any damage to your leg.” Bucky looked down at the mention of the operation site. Bandages looped over Steve’s stump, just a little blood peeking through the material in some places. The shape of the anchor protruded from the bottom of the wrapping, something machine-cut where before there had only been flesh.

“But,” Steve started.

Bucky nudged Bruce out of the way and leaned over the chair. He said, “You gotta listen to the doctor’s orders, doll. You wanna get better, dontcha?”

Steve whined.

“I know,” Bucky said, “but you’ll do this for me, won’t you?”

“Mmm,” Steve seemed to agree. His eyelids pulled down over his eyes, which Bucky took as a sign that it was okay to release Steve’s shoulder and straighten up to face Tony and Bruce.

Bruce handed Bucky a paper bag and said, “These are his pain meds and some gauze and medical tape to redo his bandages when he bleeds through. For the first day or so you’ll probably need to change them every couple of hours, but after that the flow should slow. If anything looks even remotely weird when you remove the bandages, you call me immediately. If I don’t answer, then you call Tony. Captain Rogers is on some pretty intense pain medication already, so he shouldn’t need anything additionally for a few hours at the earliest. Any questions?”

“Nah, I know the drill,” Bucky answered. He decided not to mention that he did his own bandages during the recovery that followed the implant of his own anchor. Dr. Banner would probably be unbelievably pissed that Bucky cared for himself under the influence of the crazy-ass pain meds they prescribed him.

“If you need a refill on the scrip, call me,” Bruce said, “Chances are that you probably will. His operation was bigger than yours by nature, so he’ll most likely be more out of it than you were after the surgery for your arm anchor.”

“All right,” Bucky said, “Thanks, guys. I guess I’d better get him home before he tries anything stupid. And you guys look like you could use a nap.”

“Amen to that,” Tony said, “I’ll have Happy pull the car around to the doors in the parking garage.”

Bucky said goodbye to Bruce and Tony and the nurses and remembered to thank them on Steve’s behalf one more time before he pushed Steve’s wheelchair into the elevator and sent it sailing down to the lobby and then garage level of Stark Tower. Steve didn’t even bat a lash when Happy helped load the wheelchair into his van and Bucky secured him in place.

The fact that Steve’s apartment wasn’t exactly wheelchair accessible only put a minor dent in the plan. Bucky and Happy carried Steve up the stairs, and while Bucky settled Steve on the couch, Happy returned to the ground level to retrieve the wheelchair. God, Steve was going to hate having to get around in that. He’d probably be an idiot and insist upon using crutches long before he should be expending that kind of energy.

Bucky didn’t even realize that he’d fallen asleep again until he felt the pressure of something tugging against his prosthesis. He groaned and smacked whatever it was away, only for the sensation to double with a stronger tugging effort. When Bucky opened his eyes, he found Steve yanking at his prosthesis with both hands, eyes unfocused.

“Steve, what the hell are you doing?”

“Collecting scrap metal.”

“This is not scrap metal,” Bucky said, almost offended, “That’s my goddamn arm.”

Steve leveled what might have been an admonishing look if he weren’t so jacked up on pain medication. He said, “Bucky. It’s either this or enlist.”

“You already enlisted,” Bucky said, massaging his temples, “You did your part and lost your goddamn foot and now you’re back stateside.”

“See? I can’t enlist, so I have to collect scrap metal. Everyone has to do their part.”

“Jesus,” Bucky said, “You are high as balls. What is this, 1943?”

“Soon as I get all patched up, I’ll take you dancing,” Steve told him, “Treat my best guy. Just ‘cause there’s a war doesn’t mean we should do nice things sometimes. But let me have this scrap metal first.”

“Oh for the –” Bucky cut himself off and smeared a hand over his face, “You know what? I bet we need to change your bandages. Don’t you dare move, Steve.”

Steve made a noise of complaint, but Bucky was already up. With gentle hands he undid the now thoroughly blood-spotted gauze and tape. Under the too-dim light of the standing lamp beside the couch, Bucky peered at the anchor and the staples and stitches and weird shit holding it all together. It looked like hell, but nothing looked infected, so he taped Steve up again and called it a night.

The fact that Bucky didn’t mind doing any of this for Steve should have occurred to him as odd. Few people achieved a place in Bucky’s life that warranted a willingness from Bucky to do anything for them, but Steve managed to wriggle in there in a matter of a few short months. This operation was serious shit, and Bucky volunteered to involve himself in it because Steve mattered to him.

Bucky was far more deeply embedded in Steve’s world than he deserved to be.

Chapter Text

Chapter Track: Flume – Bon Iver

With Us All

Steve kept trying to do shit he shouldn’t. High off his ass on pain medication, he’d hop around his apartment on crutches instead of wheeling around in his chair and Bucky would have to intervene. All passing thoughts of Bucky returning to his own place faded far into the background as he caught Steve doing stupid crap after even stupider crap.

“Steve, fuck, let me make the coffee,” Bucky would say, “You can’t balance that long while you’re doing that pour-over nonsense.”

Or, “Stevie, what the hell? Let me get the goddamn mail. All four of my limbs are fully functional.”

Or even, “Did you just try to hold yourself up in the shower, alone? I swear, I leave you alone for five fucking minutes and you’re naked on the bottom of your bathtub. Jesus, babe.”

That time, Bucky hauled Steve out of the tub over his shoulders and reminded himself to thank Stark for the enhanced strength of his left arm that helped him take care of his stubborn-ass best guy who refused to let people do things for him at the detriment of himself. He’d dried Steve off with one of Steve’s soft, royal blue towels, and stuffed Steve into a bathrobe before he parked him on the couch and snuggled up alongside him to watch one of the war documentaries that Steve seemed to like so much.

Steve’s impracticality came to a head in the wee hours of the morning, two and a half weeks after his surgery and well after he and Bucky had wiggled into each other’s warmth and gone to bed. A crash and a strangled cry jerked Bucky from a thankfully murky, dreamless sleep with a sharp inhale. He patted the mattress and found Steve’s side empty but warm. When he rolled to the edge of the bed, Steve was on the carpet, eyes wet and wide with fear.

“Steve?”

Steve clutched at the sheets and tried to pull himself up, but couldn’t in his drugged-out, sleep-addled state.

“Hang on, hang on,” Bucky said. Blindly, he fumbled for where he left his disconnected prosthesis on what had become his side of the bed – Christ, when had that happened? He jerked the arm into the socket and breathed through the jolt of electricity that accompanied the prosthesis coming online. He scrambled out of the tangle of sweat-damp sheets and to Steve’s side, scooping him up with a heave of strength he didn’t know that he had in him. Steve was almost deadweight in the midst of post-nightmare fuckery.

“Damn it,” Bucky panted, when Steve swung his legs back on the mattress, “What were you thinking? You’re missing your leg, you fucking idiot. If you damage the anchor on your stump, you’re gonna have to go through surgery to fix whatever you fucked up and then you’ll be out of commission for even longer. Is that what you’re hoping for?”

“I’m not a child!” snapped Steve, fire in his eyes.

“Exactly,” Bucky said, “You’re not a child. You should be capable of listening to what the doctor told you to do. And hey, you know what? You’re not a child, but you are an amputee who recently underwent a serious freaking operation to implant a foreign object into your damn leg, so excuse the shit out of me for trying to look after your stubborn ass.”

Silence stretched out between them like a long, cracked desert highway. Finally, after several beats without speaking, Steve huffed. He folded his arms over his broad chest and said, “I’m – I’m sorry, Buck. I just hate not being able to do things by myself. I hate it a lot.”

“I know you do.”

Bucky climbed back into bed and propped his pillow up against the headboard so he could sit alongside Steve.

Steve chewed at his lip, peeling skin away with his teeth, and said, “The nightmares…they’re weird, with the pain meds. Everything’s all screwy. And not being able to take care of that stuff on my own – it’s – God. You know, I was pretty sick when I was little. I know you know that. But I was really, really sick. All the time. Couldn’t do a damn thing on my own and I hated it so much. I never wanted to feel like that again and this thing with my leg and the drugs and everything – it makes me feel like that kid again. Like I can’t do anything, like everyone has to do things for me. And I’m helpless, and I’m useless.”

“You’re not useless,” Bucky told him, voice soft. He scooted closer to Steve, close enough to drape his arm around Steve’s shoulders, and pulled Steve’s solid body against his. He rubbed his flesh and blood hand over Steve’s arm, back and forth.

“I feel useless.”

“I know,” Bucky murmured. He pressed his lips to Steve’s temple and soothed, “but you’re not. You’re just getting better, is all. You wanna try going back to sleep?”

Steve shook his head. He said, “Wouldn’t be able to fall asleep after that.”

“Want me to grab your chair so you can go paint?” asked Bucky.

Steve hummed, and then agreed, “Yeah.”

“I can make some tea.”

“That sounds good, too.”

So Bucky peeled away from Steve’s side to pull his wheelchair from the corner of the bedroom. He steadied Steve and helped him into the chair, and made sure to look like he wasn’t watching too hard while Steve wheeled out to his easel and pulled the drop-cloth off of his current work in progress. A couple minutes later, Bucky set a steaming mug of herbal tea (“Technically it’s a tisane, Bucky.”) on the stool beside the easel, bumped his lips against the mussed top of Steve’s blond head, and flopped onto the couch to pretend to watch TV while he really looked after his dumbass best guy.

X

Clint brought a casserole that he made, while Natasha brought smoothies from some hipster joint a couple blocks from Steve’s apartment. Steve thanked each of them at least several dozen times before Bucky hushed him with a kiss and told him that Nat and Clint probably got the message.

“Ah, come on, doll,” Steve complained, when Bucky stowed the casserole in the refrigerator instead of serving it, “Don’t got money for a good icebox; it’ll go bad in there. Better to eat it now.”

“What the hell is he talking about?” asked Clint.

“Your fridge looks fine,” Natasha remarked, and sipped from her smoothie.

Bucky tried not to linger on Nat’s use of your in regards to the refrigerator that by anyone’s standards actually belonged to Steve. He answered, “Eh, when the pain meds first hit after he takes the pills he does this thing where he goes in and out of thinking he’s in the forties.”

“No way,” Clint said, “That’s amazing. I need to see more of this. Steve, what year is it?”

“Why?” asked Steve.

“Nah, questioning him like that doesn’t work,” Bucky said, “I’ve tried. It’s more like – you gotta do something to provoke it. Here, watch this.” Bucky closed the refrigerator door and ambled to where Steve sat on the couch within an arm’s reach of both his wheelchair and his crutches. He lowered himself on the cushion beside Steve and looped his arm over his shoulders, pulling him in for a long, showy kiss.

Steve bared his teeth in a wide grin as soon as Bucky pulled away and asked, “You rationed, sugar?”

Clint barked out a long, happy laugh and said, “That’s awesome!”

“Give it a minute,” Bucky said, “You’ll like what comes next.”

“So, he does the same thing every time?” Natasha asked.

“Yeah, pretty much, until his head settles. Aaand, there he goes,” Bucky said, lifting his brows at Steve as he tugged at Bucky’s metal arm for the umpteenth time since his procedure.

“Buck, help me with this scrap metal,” Steve said, right on cue, “We need to do our part for our boys overseas.”

“Whatever you say, Stevie,” Bucky replied, and thumbed around for the release to his arm. As soon as it disengaged from the shoulder piece, he laid the arm across Steve’s lap.

Steve hugged Bucky’s flaccid metal arm to his chest and said, “We’re doin’ such a great job for our country.”

A flash went off, and Bucky scowled at Clint. He said, “Did you just take a fucking picture of that?”

“Why, yes,” Clint answered, “I did. And it’s magical. That one’s going on Facebook.”

Bucky narrowed his eyes and said, “I hate you.”

“That’s a blatant lie,” Clint replied, “You love me, and you love my casseroles. If you throw me out, then I’ll take the casserole with me.”

“Did you talk to Banner about the reaction to the medication?” asked Natasha.

“Of course I did,” Bucky told her, “It’s a Banner-Stark original cocktail specifically designed for the veterans that go through the procedures for their limb anchors, the only thing really strong enough to hit the pain and keep ‘em going enough not to affect their daily lives.”

“Didn’t you have to take it?” asked Clint.

“Uh, yeah,” Bucky said, “I managed.”

Natasha narrowed her eyes. When Bucky got his Stark arm implant, Natasha had yet to return from her tour in Kunar, and therefore a gap in her knowledge spread wide open between the day that Bucky hurled her away from the IED, and the day she showed up on his doorstep almost a year later and hauled him bodily out of his void-of-sunlight depression nest and to a secluded coffee place to feed and caffeinate him.

“James,” Natasha said carefully, “Tell me you didn’t muddle through a recovery for major surgery by yourself.”

“Uh,” Bucky said, “Do you want me to say that, or do you want me to tell the truth?”

“Bucky!” exclaimed Nat.

Bucky’s phone rescued him from having to respond by choosing that moment to vibrate against Steve’s coffee table. Bucky dove to grab it and slid his thumb across the screen to answer without even looking at the caller. He answered, “Yup?”

“James Buchanan Barnes.”

“Uh,” Bucky managed, “Hi, ma. What did I do?”

“Where are you?” she demanded, “I don’t hear from you for weeks at a time, you don’t answer my text messages, and I come to your apartment and your neighbor says you haven’t been here for days. I thought you were dead!”

“I’m not dead,” Bucky assured her, “I’m just taking care of Steve.”

“Steve? Is that the boy from all of the pictures on Facebook? Those pictures he posts of you two are the only reason I know you’re alive right now.”

“Probably? I don’t really go on Facebook, ma, you know that,” Bucky said.

“And why does he need taking care of? Did something happen? Is he okay? Are you okay?”

“Christ,” Bucky muttered, and ran his fingers back through his hair. He scowled at Natasha and Clint, who wore twin smug expressions. Bucky let out a long, tired sigh and said, “We’re fine. Jesus. Steve decided to get a Stark leg and so he’s real out of it on pain meds and stuff. I promised I’d take care of him while he’s healing. That’s all.”

“Oh,” his mom said, “and why is that you’re willing to drop everything to take of this young man and I still haven’t met him, exactly?”

Bucky groaned. He said, “I don’t know. Sorry I wasn't at my apartment. I live more at Steve most days anyway. I'll come walk to you. Give me a few.”

When Bucky hung up the phone, he met Natasha and Clint’s stupid, smiling faces with a tired look and said, “You guys okay to babysit Cary Grant?” And then he wrestled his arm back from Steve.

X

Winnie Barnes looked like the older clone of her daughter Becca, with soft, shoulder-length brown hair (now shot through with silver at the front), a sturdy frame, and no-nonsense expression on her face that managed to make Bucky want to melt into the ground any time it landed on him. At this particular moment, he didn’t know if he wanted to run up the steps and hug the fury out of her, or if he wanted to sink into the gum-encrusted sidewalk. Bucky took after her too – same gray-blue eyes, same strong shoulders.

He’d forgotten that.

“Hey, ma,” Bucky softly said.

“Oh, come here,” she said, but before he could walk up to his apartment, she leapt down the steps and threw her arms around him. Winifred Barnes never half-assed a hug. She put her all into every embrace, and this one was no exception.

Bucky could only get her grip to loosen when he protested, “Ma, I need to breathe.”

“You look so good,” Ma said, clutching Bucky’s jaw in her hand. She turned his head from side to side as though inspecting. Whatever she was looking for, she must have found: Winnie released him and gave a steady nod of approval. She went on, “You’ve been eating. You look happier. Is this all because of this Steve?”

“A little bit,” he said. More than a little bit, but Bucky knew that his mom could see that from a mile away.

Bucky forgot, sometimes, all the bullshit that she’d seen him through. Every time Bucky landed in the hospital because of some stupid shit he did, he woke up to Winifred Barnes at his bedside, always looking equal parts annoyed and worried, always hugging him before she set in on a lecture. She stood by while he blasted through liquor and knocked himself on his ass with drugs, when he fucked his way into not feeling anything, when Bucky felt so through with himself that he took a blade to his arm and tried to bleed himself dead. She saw him off to basic when she knew that he wasn’t supposed to be able to go, and when Bucky got lifted out of Kunar, he came-to without an arm, in the United States, with his mother next to him.

“Me n’ Steve…we’re, uh,” Bucky scratched the back of his neck and tried to find the right words. He settled on what he and Steve said they’d tell people when pressed: “He’s my best guy.”

“You’re dating him?” asked Ma.

Bucky nodded. His face burned, and he tore his eyes away from his mom’s, choosing instead of stare down at the concrete where some dog left paw prints while the sidewalk had still been drying.

“It looks like he’s been good for you,” Winnie ventured.

“Yeah,” agreed Bucky, “He has.”

“How’d you meet?”

“Uh, I guess he served with Clint. You know, the guy that Nat met at her group at the VA. They’re kinda seeing each other but they’re being pretty shifty about how serious it is. You know how Natasha is.”

“And he lost his leg?” prodded Ma, “You said he got one of the Stark ones.”

“Took some convincing,” Bucky said, “I guess he bad-mouthed Tony when he came back stateside, way before he realized Tony’s doing all this stuff for vets on his own dime, with time he could be using for other stuff. He came with me to get my arm looked at and changed his mind.”

Winnie tilted her head, assessing. Then she asked, “This isn’t Steve Rogers, is it? The one that was all over the television not too long ago?”

“Uh,” was all that Bucky managed to get out.

“It is, isn’t it?” demanded Winifred, “You’re dating Captain Steve Rogers? And you didn’t tell me? He’s a hero, Bucky.”

“I know!” Bucky said, “I know he is. This is why I didn’t tell you. I knew you’d flip your shit and I don’t want to make it awkward for him. He doesn’t like talking about Afghanistan, okay? He’s in pretty rough shape.” Bucky heard the words falling from his lips and shook his head – to think that when he met Steve, he’d thought Steve had his shit together. Turned out that while on the surface Steve looked pretty solid, underneath the guy suffered seven different kinds of shitstorm.

Winnie blinked at him. Bucky didn’t like the look behind her eyes. He knew it well, knew how to tell when an idea started bouncing around in Winifred Barnes’ skull. She reached over and rubbed her hand over Bucky’s back and said, “I want to meet him.”

“What?” Bucky said, “Right now?”

“Yes, right now,” Winnie said, “Weren’t you just with him?”

“Yeah, I left him with Natasha and Clint,” Bucky said, “He’s high off his ass on pain meds right now, ma.”

“I’ve seen a lot of people high off their asses in my day,” Winifred countered, “You, for example, multiple times. I won’t ask him about his service. I just want to meet the man that’s done my little boy so much good.”

She pinched Bucky’s cheek and Bucky swatted her hand back. He complained, “How come he’s a man and I’m a little boy?”

“You’ll always be my little boy,” said Winnie sagely.

Bucky knew there’d be no arguing with her. He rubbed a hand over his face and conceded, “Fine. But ma, I fuckin’ swear, you say one goddamn word about his service –”

“I won’t,” Winifred said.

She had better not, Bucky thought, but he knew better than to speak like that to his mother. Instead, he shifted the topic to Becca’s struggles at school and asked if Winnie knew if she’d been doing any better. His mom told him that if he bothered keeping up with his sister and answering her texts that he’d know the answers to his questions, so he kept quiet after that, jaw tight. Bucky knew he hadn’t been good to his mom and sister in the past – forever. Maybe since he hit puberty, shit.

But since Bucky’d been back from Afghanistan, he knew he’d been worse. He knew he pulled back. Hell, he didn’t even bother to spend the holidays with his mom or Becca. He told them that he didn’t want to. He didn’t even lie and say that he was sick. He just told them that he didn’t want to see them. Christ, what the fuck?

Bucky didn’t bother to conceal that he owned a key to Steve’s apartment.

“Hey guys,” he greeted, when he pulled his mother through the door, “Everyone, this is my mom. Ma, you’ve met Nat. That’s her guy Clint, and my guy Steve.”

Steve lit up like fireworks on the fucking Fourth of July. He grinned, “This is your mom? I’ve been wanting to meet you, ma’am.”

“Thank you, Steve,” Ma said, “and thank you so much for posting your pictures on Facebook. It means the world to be able to see my James alive and well. Your mother must love having all those pictures to look at!”

Aw, crap.

The light sucked out of Steve’s face. He fidgeted with the drawstring of his sweatpants and answered, “She probably would, but she and my dad have passed, ma’am.”

“Oh, honey,” Winnie said, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean any disrespect. And none of that with the ma’am. It’s Winnie to you.”

“It’s all right,” Steve said, “It’s been a long time. Winnie.”

“I’m sure the rest of your family –”

“Ma, for fuck’s sake,” Bucky groaned.

“What?”

“It’s just me,” Steve clarified.

“And us, dude,” Clint said, toasting Steve with his empty smoothie cup, “You got the family you chose.”

That teased a half-smile onto Steve’s face, and some relief to the crushing weight against Bucky’s gut.

“And you will always welcome in the Barnes household,” Winnie said decisively, “You’ve done a world of good for my son so you’re just as good as family to me.”

Steve smiled again, but Bucky saw tension pulling at the edges of his mouth. Catching onto Steve’s exhaustion wasn’t as easy as it sounded. Bucky had the maneuver down to pat by now, but even he’d been initially fooled by Steve’s amalgam of shit-having-together facades. He crossed the room to run his fingers through Steve’s hair and announced to the room at large, “Seems like you’re kinda worn out, doll.”

“M’fine,” Steve insisted, like Bucky knew he would.

“You’re full of crap,” Bucky told him, and then turned his attention to Nat and Clint to say, “Sorry guys.”

Natasha held up a hand and said, “Please. He only just had surgery. We’re not assholes. You guys need anything, you text, okay?”

Bucky nodded, and let Nat wrap her arms around him. She hugged Steve, too, and Clint yanked Bucky into a surprisingly tight embrace. Nat and Clint both hugged Bucky’s mom, which naturally, she loved. She kissed both of them on the cheek and wished them a good afternoon.

As soon as the door closed behind them, Bucky put the kettle on the stove to make tea for his mom, and then bustled to the living room to fuss over Steve. He brought him his pills and a glass of water, and ruffled his hair and pressed a kiss to his forehead before he passed them over. He forgot his mom was sitting right there watching until he looked up and she lifted her brows at him.

“Think I might need a nap,” Steve mumbled, and then raised his voice for Winnie to hear, “Sorry I’m not the best company, Winnie.”

“Don’t you worry about it one bit,” Winnie said, “You’ve been through a lot.”

Bucky cast a sharp warning glare for the last piece – he didn’t want his mom to dredge any shit up before Steve fell asleep, or his nightmares would get out of hand. She held up her hands in defense, but said nothing as Bucky pulled Steve’s legs up onto the couch and stuffed a pillow behind his back so that he could lie down. He asked, “You want me to turn anything on for you?”

“That one documentary – the one with the dogs,” Steve murmured.

Bucky felt the corner of his mouth hitch up as he said, “Sure, pal,” and did just that.

From the kitchen, the kettle whistled. Bucky set it on a cool burner and took down two mugs. He used bagged tea – he knew that Steve had plenty of looseleaf stuff and fancy tea baskets and stuff, but he always made a mess out of the tea leaves and Steve would get all anal about cleaning it up. Even in his drugged-out state he was a pain and a half with the cleaning. Sometimes he was even worse.

Bucky placed the handmade cup in his mother’s hands and sat down across from her at the kitchen table. He blew across the top of his own tea, inhaled the sweet, herbal kickback from the steam puffing up from the surface of the liquid. He drank, and waited for his mom to speak.

Winnie sipped her tea and stared him down.

“You care about him a lot,” she observed.

Bucky gnawed on his lower lip and turned his attention behind him to Steve on the couch. He looked dead to the world already, his right arm flopped over his stomach and both left limbs hanging down over the edge of the cushions. His eyes were closed and his lips were parted. A flower of warmth bloomed in Bucky’s belly looking at it. He smiled, even though he knew his mom would see whatever dumbass sappy look was on his face right now.

“Yeah,” Bucky finally rasped, “I do. I care about him so much, ma. It’s like…I live in the same shitty world as I always did, but it’s not as bad to live in when he’s there. You know?”

Winifred reached across the table and covered his hand with hers. She said, “I know exactly what you mean. I had that with your father. But…”

“But?”

“I worry about you,” Winnie said, “I don’t want you to focus all your energy on Steve’s problems and forget your own.”

Bucky swallowed. He drank his tea to stall having to respond. The fact of the matter was that his mom was right to worry. He hadn’t had time or energy to give a single flying fuck about himself in the last few weeks, not with Steve to look after. His nightmares came. Not every night, but they still happened. He woke breathless and scared, pain in his phantom limb strangling his psyche like a fucking boa constrictor.

“I’m,” Bucky started, but he didn’t know how to finish. He quieted for a long time before he tried again, “I’m not doing it on purpose. I can worry about myself later. Steve’s more important right now.”

X

“Steve, just get in the fucking chair.”

“No,” Steve said.

Bucky sighed and exchanged a look with Sam, who threw his hands up as if to say leave me out of this one. Bucky tried again with the same argument that he’d been using all morning, since he hauled Steve out of his shower chair and served him coffee, to when they loaded the wheelchair into the back of Sam’s car, to right now, in the parking garage at Stark Tower: “Come on. Babe. We have to return the wheelchair to Stark anyway. We were borrowing it. You don’t have to use the crutches.”

“I know I don’t have to,” Steve said crisply, “I want to.”

“Please,” Bucky said.

“No,” Steve said again, and he eased his way out of Sam’s car, wobbling as he stood with the crutches hitched up under his arms. Bucky sighed again, exaggerated this time, and pulled the empty wheelchair from the back, carting it along after Steve, who hop-walked with his crutches all the way to the elevator.

“You excited, man?” Sam asked Steve, when they stepped out into the lobby of Stark Tower, surrounded by all that chic, modern opulence and still unused to it.

Steve made an aborted motion with his shoulders as they climbed into the second elevator, something that was probably supposed to be a shrug. As Sam swiped the security card the guard at the parking garage gave them and punched the button for Tony’s lab, Steve answered, “I don’t know. I think I might be nervous. Mostly I just want to stop having to rely on freaking everyone.”

“You know we don’t mind, man,” Sam said.

“I know, I know,” said Steve, “but still. I just – I want to walk again. Being like this reminds me of when I first got back to the states. It kinda freaks me out.”

The elevator let out a cheery ding when they reached the right level. Steve clicked his way out first, Sam at his heels and Bucky at the tail end, leaning on the back of the empty wheelchair.

They weren’t ten steps out of the elevator when a big blond guy – possibly bigger than Steve, though it was hard to tell with Steve hunched over on his crutches – swung out of the lab with not one, but two Stark arms hanging on either side of him. Bucky almost opened his mouth to say damn, but before he could, Sam spoke.

“Riley! That you?”

“If it ain’t the falcon himself,” the blond dude (Riley, apparently) said.

“Haven’t seen you in ages, man, where have you been?” asked Sam.

Tony insinuated himself before Riley could as much as open his mouth. He said, “Getting himself blown up; that’s where he’s been.”

“Yeah, something like that,” said Riley, laughing, like being blown up was just a funny joke. But then, Riley was missing both arms and Bucky just had the one – so who was he to say what the guy could laugh at? Shit.

“Heya Cap,” Tony greeted, “See you’re as stubborn as ever.”

“Right?” Bucky said, “Christ.”

Tony snorted. He said to Riley, “You call me if you have any other problems, okay? They’re not supposed to hurt like that. I mean, really. You all are such fucking martyrs. It’s amazing. Anyhoo. You ready to be a real boy, Steve?”

“That’s kind of ableist –”

“You can lecture me in my lab,” Tony interrupted, “Let’s go.”

Steve huffed, but he didn’t have any other choice but to follow Tony into the laboratory. Bucky spared a glance at Sam and said, “You coming?”

“Nah, I’m gonna catch up with my man,” Sam said, nudging Riley with his shoulder, “You and Steve go on ahead. Text me when you’re done.”

Bucky gave Sam a lazy thumbs-up and wheeled the empty chair after Tony and Steve.

In the lab, Steve laid the crutches against the wall by the door. Bucky propped Steve up and helped him into the exam chair while Tony rummaged around beyond a few questionable looking machines. He returned with a leg that glimmered under the bright laboratory lights, all shiny and new with sleek plating and individual toes.

“Whaddya think?” Tony asked Steve.

“It looks cool,” Steve said, “Does it work?”

Tony scrunched up his nose, offended. He replied, holding the leg to his chest as though clutching at pearls, “Does it work? What kind of question is that? I am a goddamn professional, Steve. Now stuff it and let me hook up your peg leg.”

Steve rolled his eyes. Bucky bit down a laugh.

Tony rolled Steve’s sweatpants up a few inches past the stump and the anchor for the leg. He muttered under his breath, and returned with a set of goggles over his eyes. He poked around at the skin around the anchor, asked Steve a few how does that feel and does it hurt if I do this kind of questions before he pushed the magnifying goggles back up onto his head and announced, “Sweet. I think you’re ready to go.”

Bucky would later admit to holding his breath while Tony talked through how to hook the leg into the system. He warned Steve, “This is gonna feel weird the first few times you stick it in. Ha. That’s what she said. He said? Whatever. Anyway, you get used it, but it’s a little funky to start.”

The leg clicked into place.

“Whoa,” Steve said.

“Okay, let’s try standing, shall we?” Tony suggested.

Steve pushed himself up from reclining and let his legs dangle off of the edge of the exam chair. His throat bobbed with a nervous swallow, but then he gingerly set both feet down on the ground and straightened to his full height. Steve exhaled, and then something fucking magical happened. Every part of his face lit up, and every piece of his body animated with excitement. He didn’t just grin. He beamed.

“Holy shit,” Steve said, meeting Bucky’s eyes. He then cast a look over his shoulder at Tony and repeated, “Holy shit.

“Try wiggling your toes,” Tony said.

Steve obeyed. Sure enough, Steve’s mechanical toes clinked against the laboratory floor.

Bucky didn’t expect what Steve did next – he laughed, then his face went a little funky, like he had to sneeze, and he stared down at the floor at his moving metal toes. When he raised his face back up to look at Bucky and Tony, wet gleamed in his eyes. Steve breathed, “Tony…thank you,” and enveloped Tony in a massive, enthusiastic bear hug.

Tony squeaked and patted Steve’s shoulder. He said, “You’re…uh. You’re welcome, Cap. Any ol’ time.”

“No, no, you don’t get it,” Steve said into Tony’s goggles-mussed hair, “I can feel the pressure of the floor. My leg doesn’t hurt at all it’s like – it’s like – it’s just like it used to be. You’re a genius.”

“Well, I knew that already,” Tony muttered.

But Bucky was pretty sure he saw Tony smile against Steve’s chest.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Track: Zombie – Cranberries

What’s In Your Head

Bucky watched Steve blow through dozens of activities he couldn’t accomplish before his Stark leg and was exhausted. He’d accomplished this level of exhaustion before, or so Bucky had thought, before Steve’s alarm blared at half-past five in the morning to wake Steve for his hour-long run (“I’m only running seven miles, Buck.”), before Steve slid around the kitchen before seven AM in his running clothes and socks and danced to upbeat songs that sounded like they belonged to the opening credits of an early 2000s high school flick, before Steve bounced along hopscotch chalked onto the sidewalks by children, before Steve wanted to go out every night and do things –

God, exhaustion settled around Bucky like a heavy blanket.

Exhaustion ate at Bucky like termites gnawing at the frame of a well-loved house, and Bucky still followed Steve into the mouth of hell every goddamn night.

Why?

Probably because Bucky was, and always would be, an idiot.

Sometimes Bucky had fun.

He had fun earlier that night, when Steve took him to some old dance hall that he went to with Peggy before he enlisted, because Peggy liked to dance and therefore Steve had been determined to learn. Bucky’s brand of dance was less classy – he spent high school using his fake ID to get into clubs where he’d drink himself stupid and grind up against sweaty bodies, undulating like he was fucking the stranger in his arms. And really, the only difference between the way he danced before and the way he fucked were the clothes and the speed.

Bucky tripped and made a fool of himself at Steve’s dance hall, but they emerged laughing at the end of the night and made out on Steve’s bed with loopy smiles on their faces. They got off with their dicks pressed against each other, with Steve’s bear-paw hand wrapped around both of them.

Happy exhaustion led Bucky to believe he might make it through sleep without nightmares, but Christ, he was wrong. He closed his eyes and the lightning bolt of hot, electric terror struck him as he saw the IED and Natasha right there over and over again in his mind. Sometimes in Bucky’s nightmares, he didn’t move fast enough. He watched Natasha’s body explode into pieces and he screamed every time he saw it. His best friend, the one person overseas he would do fucking anything for – and did.

Tonight his nightmare swerved in the opposite direction, the road that plummeted straight down to reality. Bucky watched Natasha and the IED and he felt the electric terror, but he acted as he had in Kunar. He leapt forward, grabbed by the back of her ACUs and launched her backward, diving to take her place. His head was too heavy for his body, his ears rang shrilly, and shit, his blood was everywhere. Shock slapped him before the pain. Disoriented, Bucky tried to force his body into a sitting position and found his left arm didn’t work.

He turned, and found it was worse than that.

The tattered, bloody remains of his left arm lay several paces away, right up against Nat – she herself was scratched, dirtied, but looked otherwise okay. Bucky might have felt relief, but the pain hit him before he could be glad to see Natasha in one piece. He shouted himself hoarse, and –

“Bucky.”

Maybe he passed out. Bucky didn’t remember all of it. He just remembered liquid fire all down his left side, so brutal his brain couldn’t process it all and the world swam –

“Bucky!”

He’d never seen Natasha look like that before. She put on a brave face – always – but then her eyes went huge and watery and terrified, and Bucky never wanted to see that expression on her face ever again, never –

Buck.”

“Fuck!” Bucky exclaimed, and jerked awake so violently that he cracked the back of his skull against Steve’s headboard. Breath heaving, he scanned the room. Naked. Bucky was naked. Why was he naked? Right, he and Steve screwed around before bed.

“Bucky?” he heard, and turned to see Steve with that stupid kicked-puppy look on his dumb handsome face.

Bucky swallowed. His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth, peeled away with a dry, sticky noise. He managed, “Yeah. I’m here. M’fine, Steve.”

“You are not fine –”

“Are you trying to start a fucking argument right after a goddamn nightmare?” Bucky snapped, glaring. He mopped at the sweat on his forehead with a corner of Steve’s sheets, blinked around for wherever he’d popped his arm for the night.

The heat drained from Steve’s face. He reached out for Bucky, but Bucky flinched back, and Steve withdrew his hand. He said, “Sorry. I’m sorry. I just got worried. You need me to help you come down?”

Bucky shook his head. He said, “Nah, no. Not flashback-y enough. I know I’m here. Just…need water, probably.” Steve shifted and stretched for his leg, but Bucky smacked Steve’s arm and said, “No, don’t put on your leg, idiot. I’ll get up. Give me a second.”

Bucky left his arm on the bedside table and rolled off of the mattress. Nude, he trekked into the kitchen and pulled down a glass, filling it from the tap. Pollock hopped down from his perch on the couch and padded after him, tags jingling around his neck. Bucky patted Pollock on the head, then downed the water and then a second helping before he tucked the glass in the kitchen sink and returned to bed, where he found Steve sitting all the way up with his back against the pillows. Pollock leapt onto the foot of the bed and curled up into a bun.

“You all right?” Steve asked.

Bucky collapsed onto his side of the bed and smeared his hands over his face. He said, “No. What time is it?”

Steve retrieved his phone from the table on his side of the bed and answered, “Not even midnight yet.”

“Christ,” Bucky muttered.

“Seemed like a bad one,” Steve said.

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Maybe you should,” suggested Steve.

“Jesus, Steve, get off my dick,” Bucky barked, “I said I didn’t want to talk about it, and I don’t.”

“Wow, okay,” Steve said back, “I was just trying to help.”

“Yeah, well, stop doing that,” said Bucky, “I don’t need your help. Shit, it’s your fault I’ve been getting all these nightmares.”

“What?”

“You can’t sit still for two damn seconds,” Bucky complained, “You want to go out every night, want to go experience things, and I hate it. I hate it, Steve.”

“I thought you had fun,” Steve whispered.

“Yeah, sure, tonight I had fun,” Bucky said, “but the bars? The art galleries? All these freaking places with all these freaking people and I feel trapped, Steve. I’m so fucking tired all the fucking time, but I don’t want to rain on your parade so I keep it locked up until I’m passed out, and whatever bullshit is in the back of my head takes over.”

“You should have said something,” Steve said, “I wouldn’t have taken you out if you just –”

“Oh, so it’s my fault?” Bucky went on, “It’s my fault I’m a headcase. You know I’m a headcase. You know I’m mess. You knew that going in! Remember? Remember me trying to convince you that I’m not worth your time? Or did you just forget that part?”

“I didn’t –”

“You didn’t think, you didn’t know, you didn’t want to,” continued Bucky, “but you did know. You did know I’m a wreck and you dragged me out anyway and now it’s a surprise when I’m blowing my top off because I’m too tired to keep it contained. I can’t believe – you know what? Fuck it. I’m leaving. I’m not having this argument anymore.”

“Bucky,” Steve protested.

Bucky didn’t listen. He stuck his Stark arm in the port and yanked on what clothes he could find, shoving his feet into shoes next to the door. Pollock tried to follow, and he was certain Steve wasn’t far behind, but Bucky tucked his wallet into the back pocket of whoever’s jeans he was wearing and slammed the door in the dog’s face, taking the steps two at a time until he escaped onto the sidewalk.

He didn’t pay attention to what direction he went, just walked until he heard noise over the crash of thoughts against his brain’s shore. A bar. Okay. Bucky didn’t do bars anymore, didn’t like them, but he needed to get out of his mind and booze tended to be pretty good for that. With his eyes glued to his boots, he shoved his way into the joint and past clusters of people.

Bucky parked himself in the corner, at a barstool that sat alone by the wall. Vaguely he became aware of the bartender talking to him and managed to get out, “Whiskey. Double.”

The whiskey was shit whiskey, but it did what he wanted it to do. The rush of thoughts slowed to a speed he could match, at which point he noticed his metal arm glinting at him in the dim light of the bar. He was wearing a t-shirt. Steve’s t-shirt, if the tightness were anything to go by. Were people looking at him? The night was warm. He hadn’t thought to throw a jacket on, and now he was out in public with his Stark limb and tattooed arm front and center like a flashing, animated billboard alerting everyone with a proud neon LOOK HOW FUCKED UP I AM.

Bucky ordered another whiskey.

Didn’t take long for him to be drunk, considering he’d stopped drinking as much and his tolerance was for shit now. He should go back, he thought. Steve would be worried. Bucky was an idiot and Steve hadn’t done anything, really. Bucky got mad for no discernable fucking reason because, as he warned Steve, he was a wreck.

Bucky slapped crinkled bills onto the bar top and shouldered past the other patrons. Outside, he breathed in deep, let fresh air that didn’t smell like booze and human sweat settle into his lungs. Okay. He wasn’t all here, but he was okay. Swaying a little, but it was whatever. Cigarette smoke curled in his nose, smoke from a couple of guys on the curb.

“Hey man, nice arm,” one of them said. Had Bucky been staring?

His hackles rose. He said, “Thanks, asshole. I got it blown off in Afghanistan.”

“Whoa, dude, chill,” Smoking Guy said. He stood, his hands raised in defense.

“Fuck you, man,” Bucky cut back, “I’m not gonna chill.”

“What’s your problem?”

“What’s my problem?” echoed Bucky, “My problem is some dickhead thinks it’s cool to chat me up about the arm I lost in a fucking warzone. That’s my problem. My problem is that I get to have nightmares every other night. My problem is that I flash back to a fucking bomb blast, and some fuckin’ douche outside a bar wants to bring it all up like it’s cool.”

“Shit, you’re crazy,” the guy said, and Bucky Lost His Shit.

It was out of body, almost: Bucky watched his tattooed right arm snap out and clock the idiot in the jaw. He could have thrown one punch and walked away, but that wasn’t gonna work. This dickhead needed a lesson, his brain told him, and so Bucky punched. And punched. The other smoking guy was on him now, and Bucky flailed to throw a kick in his direction before beating the snot out of the little shit that had something to say about his arm.

Fuck that guy, and fuck everyone, and –

“I’m calling the cops, man!”

In slow motion, Bucky felt himself being torn off of Smoking Guy #1, being held back. He fought against the grip, elbowed and punched and bit somebody’s hand, and –

Then blue and red lit up his vision, and the boys in blue stepped out onto the curb. A pair of cuffs slapped onto Bucky’s wrist, though really they could have just confiscated his arm and the effect would have been almost the same. He struggled and spat insults. Nothing made sense, but he knew he was in trouble. It felt like being seventeen again, high off his ass and being pulled into the back of a cop car.

Oh.

Bucky was in the back of a cop car.

Fucking great.

X

Bucky debated calling Steve, but he didn’t want to see that disappointed look on Steve’s face. Instead, he used his phone call to summon the same person he summoned every time he got into trouble and couldn’t back his way out of it.

“Hello?” a sleepy voice answered.

Bucky called his mom.

“Hey ma,” Bucky said against the receiver, his forehead tucked into his right hand.

“Bucky?”

“Yeah,” he said, “I fucked up.”

“What happened?” asked Winnie.

Bucky exhaled and tried to get the words right, tried to make himself sound less drunk than he was. It didn’t really work. He slurred, “I got – I didn’t – I was st-stupid,” – he hiccupped – “got into it w’Steve and now I’m – I’m real – really drunk. M’face hurts. Think I – think I hit a guy.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, James Buchanan,” his mom sighed, “Are you at the police station?”

“Yeah,” he admitted sullenly, “Please come get me.”

“I will,” Winnie said, “I’ll be right there.”

The cops tossed Bucky in the drunk tank with the other idiots that couldn’t stand up straight. He scooted into the back corner, as far away from the other assholes as he could get, and tucked his head in between his knees.

An indiscernible amount of time slid by. Bucky spent all of it with his face buried. He might even have fallen asleep for a second, only to be brought out of it by one of the police officers banging against the bars to announce, “James Barnes? Your mom’s here to bail you out.”

They pulled Bucky out from the tank stumbling, and guided him back out the waiting area, where his mom stood in yoga pants, a bathrobe, and her glasses, looking less than pleased as Bucky wavered on his feet. She gave a polite, “Thank you, officer,” to the cop and took Bucky’s hand in hers, pulling him along and out of the station.

“What happened?” Winnie demanded, as soon as they were out of earshot of the police station.

Bucky closed his eyes and let his mom tug him to her car, a beat up old station wagon that she’d had since the dawn of time. Ma herded him into the passenger’s seat and buckled him in. When she clambered into the driver’s side, she repeated, “What. Happened?”

“Nightmare,” Bucky said, “Don’t wanna go home. Can we go back to your place?” Your place, he said, like it wasn’t Bucky’s childhood home and the apex of most of his memories. Still, he’d rather shack up at his mom’s house than go face Steve right now. Of his two shitty options, going with Ma was the less shitty of them both.

“All right,” Winnie said. She turned the dial on the stereo and settled on a classic rock station. The fuzzy sound of guitar roped Bucky backward into the nostalgic sensation of being driven to school. Of course, his dad drove him then – George Barnes loved his classic rock. Ma never cared for it until Bucky’s dad bit the dust. Then classic rock went with Winnie Barnes like peanut butter went with jelly.

Neither Bucky nor Winifred spoke for the drive back to the house, an old place a little outside of Brooklyn, whose yellow siding needed replacing and garden needed weeding. Bucky let his mom unbuckle him and pull him inside. She guided him into his old bedroom and took off his shoes before she tucked him in. Winnie raked her hands through Bucky’s hair and gave him a firm, “We’re going to talk about this when you’re sober, James Buchanan Barnes.”

“Yes ma’am,” Bucky said back, because he was in deep shit and he knew it.

Despite his drunkenness, Bucky didn’t actually sleep. He stared at the walls of his childhood bedroom, lit only by slivers of moonlight that darted into the room from the spaces in between the blinds. Old band posters, a dartboard – the hole he’d punched in his wall when he was fifteen and full of adolescent rage – all of it was the same.

Bucky lost his virginity in this room to a girl two years older than him, when he was fourteen. She had a gap between her front two teeth and skin like strawberry ice cream and he’d kind of been an ass, in retrospect. Got his, didn’t let her have hers. What a fucking schmuck. Still, that was one of the only times Bucky can recall chasing his own orgasm instead of giving whatever fuck of the hour was in his bed theirs.

Christ, this twin bed had seen a lot of sex. Bad sex, mostly.

And asshole kid that he was, he had so much sex that more than one member of his family had walked in on him. Christ on sale – he hadn’t even been fazed by the third time it happened, when he brought one of the dudes from his high school’s track team up and let himself be railed. Ma had walked in, made awkward eye contact, and walked right back out. At least you’re using condoms, she’d said, later that night over green bean casserole.

Bucky did fall asleep then, feeling like a shitheel because he’d done shitheel things as a shitheel teenager. He didn’t know how long he managed to sleep this time, but the nightmare reeled in his head, this time of Bucky being too late and Natasha’s blood soaking his uniform and sticking to his skin. He woke up screaming, but his ma was there.

Winnie pulled him into a hug and Bucky sniffled into her shoulder. From his underwater brain he knew he was still drunk, but he was sober enough to ramble out, “I’m sorry,” several times into his mother’s shoulder.

“What are you sorry for, honey?” asked Winnie.

“Everything,” Bucky said, and his voice cracked, “All the shit in high school. Jumping on a bomb. For right now, ‘cause I’m really drunk and you don’t deserve it.”

“You’re a good boy,” Winnie assured him.

“I’m not,” Bucky cried. And he did cry. He ugly-cried into his mom’s robe, all snot and crocodile tears in spite of being a grown-ass man that should have been able to function like a normal human being. Should have been able, but couldn’t, because Bucky was sick and had been sick for a long time and managed to make all the shitty depression and everything that came with it worse because he was in general An Idiot and did Idiot Things.

“You’re not an idiot,” said his ma. Bucky must have been rambling out loud – awesome.

His mom held him in the tight circle of her arms for a long time until Bucky cried himself hoarse and dry. Then she said, “Maybe it’s time to try to sleep, okay?” and eased Bucky back onto the old pillows, fluffing some life into them behind his head. She drew the covers up over him and kissed the top of his head and Bucky didn’t deserve any of it at all.

Bucky didn’t sleep after that, but he did fall in and out of a trance-like state until the sun crested above the roofs of the neighborhood. When milk-pale sunlight drifted into his old bedroom he figured it was late enough that he could wake up. He kicked off the covers (Star Wars blankets, just as they always had been) and shuffled into the kitchen to make coffee. Mom still used the same coffee maker they’d been using since Bucky’s high school days. A relic, and Bucky’s hands remembered just how to use it even with his brain off the rails.

He poured himself a mug, and when he turned, he heard a throat clearing.

“Morning,” Bucky said.

His mom gave him a fond shake of her head and asked, “Is there enough of that for me?”

“Yeah,” Bucky answered, “Sorry for keeping you up all night.” He poured a mug for his mom and fixed it the way she liked, with a little milk and a dash of sugar.

When Bucky handed her the coffee, she leaned up and kissed him on his cheek. She said, “Don’t you worry a bit about that. Now the drinking –”

“I know, I know,” he said.

“I don’t think you do know,” Winnie said, “What on earth, James?”

Why did she have to keep first-naming him? Bucky plopped down at the kitchen table and sank low into his chair. He said, “I had a nightmare and I took it out on Steve, and then I got drunk, and then some guy got fresh with me about my fucking stupid robot arm, and I kicked his ass or got my ass kicked or both, I guess. And then I got arrested, and then I cried all over my mom, and now I’m here.”

Winnie took a seat across from him. She sipped at her coffee before she said, “Have you told Steve where you are?”

“Uh,” Bucky said.

“He’s probably worried sick,” Winnie scolded, “I didn’t know things were still this bad. I thought you were doing better.”

“I was,” Bucky insisted, “I am. There’s just…stuff I haven’t taken care of yet.”

“Bucky,” she said.

“Fine,” he said, “but I told Steve, okay? I told him I wasn’t all right and I told him I was real messed up, and he still wanted to be with me because he’s a moron.”

“I think Steve is a very smart boy,” Winnie said, “and I think he deserves for you to get better.”

“Yeah,” Bucky said, “I know.”

“You deserve to get better,” Winnie said, “and it won’t be easy. None of it is ever easy. But I know you can be better – you can be better for yourself, and then better for everyone that cares about you.”

Bucky nodded and pointedly avoided looking his mom in the eye. He said to his coffee, “You’re right. I’ll – I’m gonna do my best, ma.”

“That’s all I ask,” Winnie said, and folded Bucky’s hand in hers.

X

The dulcet tones of M.I.A.’s Bad Girls roused Natasha from sleep. She hiked herself up reached over Lucky to grab her phone. It was Steve – at six in the morning, for some ungodly reason. She swiped to answer and pressed the phone to her ear.

“Hey,” Natasha answered, “It’s really fucking early, Rogers.”

“I know,” Steve said, “Is Bucky with you?”

Natasha sat up straighter and frowned as she replied, “No. Why do you ask?”

“We got into a fight last night,” Steve explained, “He had a nightmare. And I don’t know…I guess I said the wrong thing and he got really mad at me and took off. I figured he’d come back but he hasn’t and I’ve been up all night and –”

“I assume you already called him,” Natasha said.

“I’ve texted him like a billion times and I left like, eight voicemails and he’s not answering,” Steve told her.

Natasha let out a long breath. She said, “Give me a couple of minutes. I’ll track him down. Sit tight, okay? Don’t call the cops or anything.”

“What if he’s hurt –”

“He’s a big boy, Steve,” Nat said, “Be good. I’ll call you back.”

Natasha hung up the phone and scrolled to Bucky’s contact. Goddamn James Barnes – she couldn’t have one morning of peace without worrying about his irresponsible ass. Natasha listened with her cell pressed against her ear, but Bucky’s phone didn’t even ring. It went straight to: “Hey, you’ve reached Bucky Barnes. You know the drill,” and clicked.

“James, I swear, if you are not okay, I will find you and I will kill you,” Natasha bit into the phone, “Steve is freaking out, and if I have to start freaking out too I’m not going to be happy. Call me back, you piece of shit.”

Nat let the phone plunk onto the bed between her legs. She poked at the heavy, well-toned arm draped over her waist. Clint snuffled, but didn’t wake. She carded her fingers through his short, blond hair, and jostled him again. His eye slit open and blinked up at her. Out loud she wouldn’t admit a damn thing, but to herself she could admit the flutter in her belly when Clint smiled at the sight of her. She would not panic about Bucky Barnes, not right now, when she was enjoying a perfectly nice morning with her boyfriend.

“Why are we awake?” asked Clint. His voice was rounder without his hearing aids, and slow with sleep.

“Steve and Bucky got into a fight last night,” Natasha told him, signing as she spoke, “and then James bolted and didn’t come back home. Steve just called and he’s losing his marbles. Oh, and I called Bucky’s phone and it went straight to voicemail. So now I’ve been pulled into it, which means I’m pulling you into it.”

Clint closed his eyes and groaned. He dug his fingers into his temples and complained, “Jesus. They’re even more of a mess than we are.”

Natasha snorted at that and signed, “I know, right? I feel like a fully functional adult every time we talk to them.”

Natasha was a disaster, and she knew as much, even if she didn’t let it show. Clint knew she was a disaster, and Bucky would probably know if he weren’t so wrapped up in himself and Steve – but it was fine. Natasha liked having a couple of idiots on standby making her look a little less like the mess of PTSD and bad deeds that she was.

She stretched her arms over her head and rolled on top of Clint. Through her panties and his sweatpants she could feel that he was half-hard. They’d have to explore that later. For now, she and Clint had to play clean-up and take care of their friends. She leaned down, resisted the urge to roll her hips against Clint’s, and instead applied a closed-mouth kiss to his lips and lifted off.

“Aww, Nat,” Clint protested.

“I know,” she said, “but as much as I’d love some morning sex right now, we have to go babysit Steve before he does something stupid.”

“Aww,” Clint whined.

“Let’s bring Lucky, too,” she said.

Clint huffed. He didn’t move from bed, even as Natasha extracted herself from the Clint-and-Lucky sandwich they’d migrated into during the night and rifled around in her duffel to pull a pair of leggings on and switch out her t-shirt (Well, Clint’s t-shirt) for a bra and tank top. Clint whined again from across the room when she threw the t-shirt at him and bared her torso. She opted for a practical nude bra and tucked last night’s lacier number in the bag with a sigh of regret. She would have loved morning sex, but no. James Buchanan Barnes had to clam-jam her at six in the morning.

Clint didn’t roll out of bed until Natasha smoothed her tank top over her body. Neither of them spent a special amount of time readying for the day – she threw her hair up and forewent makeup, while Clint tripped into a pair of jeans from his floor and the t-shirt of his that she’d worn to sleep.

Natasha clipped Lucky’s leash to his collar while Clint put in his hearing aids. They stopped at the smoothie place that Natasha liked, so they’d have an offering when they showed up at Steve’s doorstep.

Steve looked like even more of a wreck than he’d sounded like on the phone, with bags hinged under his eyes and his hair haywire from running his hands through it several times over. Pollock was excited, at least, when they let Lucky off of his leash and they wrestled out a greeting on Steve’s living room floor.

“Still nothing?” Natasha asked.

“No,” Steve said, “Did you get ahold of him?”

She shook her head and answered, “I left a voicemail. We brought you a smoothie.”

“Thanks,” Steve muttered, pacified by the protein-infused monstrosity he always ordered.

Clint slung his arm around Steve, and Natasha took out her phone again. She sent off a text to Bucky, and then sent another to Winifred Barnes: Do you know where your son is? His boyfriend is blubbering.

7:03 Mama B: Yes, and he’s sorry. We’re about to get in the car and drive to Steve’s apartment.

7:04 Natasha: Is there some special reason he isn’t answering the phone?

7:06 Mama B: nat its me and my phone is dead, sorry, i screwed up tell steve im really sorry

7:06 Mama B: i kinda got drunk and kinda got arrested and my mom kinda bailed me out pls tell steve

7:07 Natasha: Tell him yourself. He’s crying on my boyfriend.

7:08 Mama B: aw shit

7:08 Natasha: Mmhmm.

Natasha pocketed her phone and made her way to the couch, where Steve had curled into Clint like a sad anemone avoiding the scuba diver that was his disaster life. Clint met Natasha’s eyes and toasted her with his smoothie cup, slurping. When Natasha sat, Steve looked up and asked, “Any news?”

“Yeah, I texted his mom,” Natasha said, “He says he’s very sorry and that he kind of got drunk and kind of got arrested and his mom kind of bailed him out.”

“Why didn’t he call me?” Steve wondered out loud, “I would have bailed him out!”

“He was probably embarrassed, Steve,” Natasha said, “It’s not rocket science.”

“He doesn’t have to be embarrassed,” Steve insisted, “It’s just me.”

“Yeah, and Bucky’s Bucky so he’s going to be embarrassed,” Natasha reasoned.

Before Steve could continue blubbering, a knock sounded at the apartment door. The dogs both leapt up from play to go wag their tails at the culprit, and Steve similarly jumped to his feet and threw the door open. Winifred Barnes herded her son through the door, and when Steve threw his arms around Bucky and crushed them together, Natasha met Winnie’s eye with a knowing look.

“He’s hungover,” Winnie said, coming around to take a seat beside Natasha.

“I’m not surprised,” she answered, “Since he was drunk enough to get arrested.”

Winnie rolled her eyes. She said, “He got into a bar fight.”

“Of course he did,” Natasha muttered.

“I told him he needs to get it together,” Winnie said.

“That’s putting it lightly,” Natasha said, sliding a glance to Bucky and Steve, where they’d stopped hugging but started kissing like a couple of horny teenagers. She snapped her fingers at them and said, “Hey! Hey. Do I need to get out a spray bottle? You irresponsible fucks scared the shit out of everyone this morning.”

“We’re sorry,” Steve told them.

“Sorry,” Bucky said, but only after Steve elbowed him.

“I’m serious,” Natasha said, “Everyone is a mess, you know? We’re all a mess. But you two are so bad at handling your messes that you’re making us look good.”

Clint stopped slurping the remains of his smoothie to put in, “Trust me when I say it’s really hard to make me look good.”

Steve grabbed at the back of his neck, guiltily avoiding looking at any of them and instead focusing on the dogs. Bucky scowled like a surly teenager that got caught sneaking back into his house past curfew. The glower melted off of his face after a few minutes of consideration and Bucky hung his head. When he looked back up he said, “I know. I know, Nat. I’m gonna – I’m gonna start working on it. I promise.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Track: To Build a Home – Cinematic Orchestra

As Tightly As You Held Onto Me

Bucky’s mom reported that she had a shift to start in forty five minutes, and the atmosphere she left behind in her wake at the apartment was quiet. It wasn’t cold, not with Clint on Steve’s floor wrestling with the dogs and Natasha’s affectionate half-smile as she looked on, but something about the absence of his mom put the weight of responsibility right onto Bucky’s shoulders.

“You guys want breakfast?” Steve offered. His hand lingered at the base of Bucky’s spine, rubbing soft circles as they stood against one another. He raked his other hand through his already haywire hair, and added, “We kinda owe you.”

“I’ll say,” Natasha replied, “We can stay.”

“Waffles?” Steve suggested.

“Hell fuckin’ yeah I want waffles,” Clint said from the floor, only to let out a muted oof as Lucky shoved him down with both paws.

“Waffles it is,” said Steve. He dipped down and pecked a kiss to Bucky’s unshaven cheek before he ducked back into the kitchen, clanging around in the cupboards.

Bucky rubbed his right hand over where Steve put his lips. He had more beard growth than he’d realized. He didn’t want to think about what he looked like – he hadn’t looked at himself in a mirror in long enough that he knew that whatever looked back at him now would suck a fat one. Instead of rectifying his whole face situation, he scraped his nails through his kinda-beard one last time and crossed to the couch.

Gracelessly, he plopped down beside Natasha and said, voice rough, “Hey.”

“Hey,” she said back.

The sound of the mixer echoed from the kitchen. Bucky struggled to come up with the appropriate thing to say. He knew he owed Nat an apology, but the delivery was up in the air. He coughed into his hands. Behind them, batter sizzled to crispy in the waffle iron and the smell of breakfast rolled out. Bucky crossed his fingers for coffee, even though he’d already doused himself with the stuff at his mom’s house.

Bucky licked his lips and met Natasha’s expectant expression.

“Listen,” Bucky said, and then stopped. He cleared his throat and tried again, “I screwed up pretty bad, huh?”

“No more than usual,” shrugged Natasha, and that stung. Bucky winced. She rolled her shoulders before she went on, “but the thing is…you keep promising that you’re going to try to get better, and you’re not doing it. I know you got your Medicaid card. I know you could go see the doctor. I know you could go do those things, but you don’t. When Steve got his Stark leg I figured it would happen – you know, Steve gaining energy and you…burning out. The arrest was a nice touch, though. Truly a James Barnes flair.”

“Okay,” Bucky said, “Okay. I deserved that.”

“Yeah,” she said, “It’s like I said. We all have our shit. After your incident, I carried on all right. But when I came home, everything hit me like a train, you know? It was like I had to face everything that happened and everything I did all at once, and it wasn’t easy. I didn’t want to fall apart, so I decided to take care of myself. I went to group things at the VA and I still do. I don’t really talk a lot, but I did meet Clint. And he and I – we understand each other. I think you and Steve understand each other too.”

Bucky nodded and agreed, “Yeah. Yeah, we really do.”

Natasha threw her arm over Bucky’s shoulders. She ran her palm over his upper arm and without thinking Bucky melted into the touch. He let his head fall into her lap and Natasha smoothed manicured fingers through his hair. With a huff of laughter, she remarked, “You need a shower.”

“I know,” he mumbled into her thigh.

“Hey!” Clint complained, “How come you’re cuddling him? Steve, your boyfriend’s face is on my girlfriend.”

Steve’s rumbling laugh sounded someplace nearby, but Bucky didn’t look up to find it. Waffles smelled close, though.

“I got the first waffle,” Steve said, “and Clint, I’ll cuddle you if you want.”

“I do want,” Clint said, “but waffles first.”

When Clint pushed Lucky and Pollock away and climbed to his feet for breakfast, Nat and Bucky took the hint and eased apart. They convened in the kitchen and flopped into place at the kitchen table where, sure enough, Steve’s hipster pour-over coffee took centerstage in its pretentious-looking carafe and matching set of mugs. What kind of person owned matching mugs? Bucky’s best guy, apparently. He took the red one and helped himself, while across the table Clint appeared intent upon filling each individual square of his waffle with Mrs. Butterworth.

No one said much of anything until Steve sat down with the final waffle and tucked into his own breakfast. After a couple of happy bites, Steve bit his lip the way he did before he was about to mention something serious, and told them, “I’m sorry for freaking out this morning.”

“Yeah, that was my fault,” Bucky drawled. He brought his coffee to his mouth after speaking to prevent the need of having to say more.

“I shouldn’t have freaked out,” Steve supplied.

Natasha sighed and leaned forward. She held out a hand and said, “I’m gonna stop you two right there.”

“What?” Steve said, miffed.

“The self-blame thing. The fact of the matter is that you guys are both fucked up and you need help un-fucking yourselves. Instead of being all moody about your bullshit, do something about it,” Natasha said. She pulled her phone out and checked the time, then said, “And as much as we’d like to stay, Clint and I have adult shit to do. So remember what I said earlier, okay? We all have our own messes. You just need to figure out how to clean up after yourselves.”

Natasha always did know how to make an exit, Bucky thought. They left their dirty breakfast dishes at the table to say goodbye, hugging it out at the front door while Pollock looked sad to see his best-dog-friend exit the building.

As soon as the door closed behind Natasha and Clint and Steve turned to face Bucky, Bucky blurted, “God, Steve, I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Steve assured him. In two steps he made it to Bucky’s side and scooped him into one of those full-body, warm, fucking amazing hugs. Bucky hugged back, letting his head fall against Steve’s shoulder, letting himself be cradled close to that halo of body heat that did wonders for Bucky’s cold blood.

Steve pressed kisses to the top of Bucky’s head and down the side of his face. He tipped Bucky’s chin up, and when his mouth met Bucky’s lips, Bucky would swear every bone in his body went all wiggly, weird with the lightness of being forgiven for being a fucking idiot.

When Steve pulled back from their kiss, he pulled Bucky into a second tight hug. He rocked Bucky’s body against his, swaying gently in the center of the apartment without speaking. Against Bucky’s ear, Steve’s lungs filled and emptied, and then Steve said in that low voice of his, “Natasha’s right, you know.”

“She usually is.”

“We kinda screwed this up.”

“I tend to do that,” Bucky muttered.

Steve narrowed his eyes and said, “Isn’t that just what Natasha said not to do?”

“I know,” Bucky groaned, “It’s just – it’s so much easier to blame myself. Because. I don’t know. Because it feels like it’s my fault? I mean, nobody held a gun to my head and told me to go get blasted and punch a dude.”

“Sure, but it’s a part of a bigger issue,” Steve said, “and I know you know that too.”

“Yeah, I do,” Bucky conceded, and fell silent for a moment. He said, “We should do something fun today.”

“Yeah?” Steve said, brows sweeping together, “I don’t wanna take too much out of you. You sure you don’t wanna take a nap and watch some Netflix or something?”

“Nah,” Bucky said, “I’m fine. Let’s go to that comics place. You haven’t been in a while, have you?”

Steve shook his head and replied, “Not since before the operation for the anchor in my leg.”

“See. We should go. You need to catch up on all your nerd shit.”

Bucky cleaned up while Steve clipped Pollock’s leash to his collar. He didn’t shower like he should have, opting instead to scrub at his face with some of Steve’s face wash and running a wet comb through his hair before he tied it on top of his head again. He was never certain whether the whole messy bun option made his hair look more or less greasy when he didn’t have time to bathe, but on average Bucky felt like it looked better up so he rolled with it.

The people on the sidewalks didn’t constrict Bucky as much as he thought they might after the events of the previous night. With Steve’s leg obscured under jeans and his scuffed-up work boots and Bucky’s hand tucked into the front pocket of his hoodie, the only clue to disability on either of their parts Pollock’s bright service dog vest, a blinding primary blue in front of them as they plodded along past dog-walkers and joggers alike.

The New York-typical cloud cover obscured the sun from view, but the closer that the months rolled toward summer, the warmer the days became. Steve and Bucky hadn’t been especially close in time for Bucky’s March birthday, but Bucky knew Steve’s birthday fell in July – he could do something special for his best guy.

Steve passed Pollock’s leash to Bucky as they entered the comics store. One of the cuter employees lounged behind the glass cases of rare merch at the front of the store, a dark-haired chick with eyes like a Disney princess. She grinned at them as they ducked past and asked, “Can I help you gentlemen find anything?”

“I’m just here for him,” Bucky said, shrugging his shoulder at Steve, “He knows what he’s talking about.”

“Well, I wanted to start reading the DC Death in the Family arc, you know,” Steve started, and whatever came next Bucky didn’t hear. He watched Steve go back and forth with the comic book chick, an animated expression on Steve’s face and mirrored in the face of the shop employee. Bucky didn’t come back to listening until Steve stuck his hand out and said, “I didn’t catch your name, by the way. I’m Steve. And this is my best guy Bucky. And my dog Pollock.”

Steve stuck his thumb back at Bucky, and Bucky lifted his hand with a succinct, “Hey.”

“Sup,” the comic chick answered, “I’m Darcy.”

Darcy and Steve chatted on and on for several minutes, long enough that Bucky wandered off with Pollock through the store. There wasn’t much room to maneuver between the long boxes and shelves and cabinets of merchandise, but enough that he didn’t feel suffocated, and even flicked through some of the titles stacked in a dollar bin, unalphabetized, without the plastic bags and squares of cardboard that Steve meticulously arranged each of his issues with. One Marvel title featured a guy with one mechanical arm on the cover. He picked it up and shook his head – maybe another day – and turned back around to join Steve again.

“Hey,” Darcy was saying, “You know a lot about comics. If you need a job or anything, you should totally apply.” She pointed to a “HELP WANTED” sign done up in Sharpie on some salmon-colored printer paper.

HELP WANTED

Part-time Position

Applicants leave resume and availability

 

“You should do it,” Bucky said. He nudged Steve with his elbow.

Steve tossed back one of those fragile, self-deprecating half-smiles and replied, “I guess it doesn’t hurt to give it a shot. I can bring in my resume.”

“Awesome!” Darcy exclaimed, and clapped her hands together.

“It’s just –” Steve started, and the grin on Darcy’s face slipped a little.

“Do you have a record?” she asked, “’Cause we still look at folks that have arrest records and stuff. We like giving people second chances and all.”

Steve forced out a tired chuckle and said, “No, nothing like that. It’s just that I was, um, in the army for a while before this and y’know, some things are still hard. S’why I got my dog, that and the leg thing.” Steve hiked up the right leg of his jeans just enough to show the metallic glint of his Stark limb. He went on, “This thing makes everything way easier than a standard prosthetic, but at the end of the day I’m still missing a leg and shit happens. I wouldn’t, well – I don’t know. I just thought you should probably know something like that before you hired me.”

“Dude,” Darcy said, “Don’t worry about that at all. Everyone that works here kinda has issues anyway, you know? Ian’s a little ball of anxiety, I’m on all kinds of meds for depression and shit, hell, I think Dugan was in the service too. We’re a motley group of messy brains. I actually kinda want you to be hired even more, now.”

The smile that rose on Steve’s face wasn’t tight anymore, and it went all the way to his eyes. He answered, “I think I’ll give it a shot.”

After Darcy took down Steve’s piled-up subscriptions and rang them up at the register, they left the store. The light, contented look on Steve’s face stirred peace in Bucky, too. Watching Steve talk about art and comics with Darcy gave him the proverbial warm fuzzies right in the gut, the ones that whispered over and over yes, him, and we like him a whole lot on a loop.

“You think you’re gonna do it for real?” asked Bucky on the walk back to Steve’s.

Steve nodded and draped his free arm over Bucky’s shoulders. He nosed at Bucky’s cheek and planted a kiss on him right there, in the middle of the sidewalk, where anyone could be looking at them. Bucky laughed and flicked Steve back, but not far enough that they couldn’t continue their journey back hand in hand.

“You think they’ll let you have Pollock while you work?” asked Bucky.

Steve shrugged and said, “Dunno. There looked like there was enough room behind the counter, and Pollock’s not a troublemaker as long as Lucky isn’t nearby. But I guess I’d have to ask that question myself. I think this is good. Getting a job would help me, I think. Buck, I could get out of the house and then I won’t wear you down so hard. You know, channel that energy into something productive.”

Bucky sighed. He said, “I’m sorry I said that. You don’t wear me down, Steve. It’s – it’s the activities. But I think you’re right. At least give ‘em the resume and see what happens, you know?”

Outside Steve’s building, they let Pollock do his business before climbing the stairs up. The smells of waffles and syrup and coffee drift still through the apartment, sweet and homey. Home. That was what this place felt like, especially after Bucky’s off-the-rails adventure to the drunk tank and his childhood bedroom. Sure, he still owned his cruddy apartment a couple blocks away, but he never thought of the place as home, even before he met Steve. It was just – where he slept. Home had become a concept just out of reach, and Bucky felt like an asshole for feeling homeless for so long because he wasn’t houseless.

Being with Steve, though – that was home.

The impulse to kiss Steve speared through Bucky, and who was he to put that feeling aside? He cupped Steve’s face with both hands and yanked Steve to him, smashing their lips together in a searing kiss. This kiss said more than lips and tongue, this was one of those kisses that Bucky so seldom shared with Steve: kisses with intent beyond the kiss itself. Bucky kissed Steve liked he wanted their clothes to peel off and fall to the floor, kissed Steve like he knew his mouth would have better use on other parts of Steve’s body.

Steve whined into Bucky’s mouth, stroked Bucky’s tongue with his own. When he pulled away panting, Steve said, “I know we’re taking it slow, but I would really love it if you fucked me right now.”

A thread of panic electrified Bucky’s veins, straight to his heart. He swallowed his nerves and said, “I want that too. I’d love that, but…”

“But?” prompted Steve, his palm gentle as it runs over Bucky’s arm.

Bucky didn’t want to foul up the mood. He pecked another kiss to Steve’s lips and scraped his nails back through Steve’s hair, right against the sensitive skin of his scalp. Steve leaned into the touch and let his head rest with his nose at the crook of Bucky’s neck. Steve’s lips skirted over the soft skin of Bucky’s throat; the tip of his tongue darted out to taste Bucky’s skin.

“So, um,” Bucky said, “I was a pretty screwy teenager. I mean, like, I’m a screwy adult, but I was a worse teenager. I’ve had sex with a lot of people. I mean like a shit ton of people, Steve. I wasn’t always safe about it and it was always about making myself feel better because at least I could do something with my depressed ass. I let a lot of people use me. I used sex to cope with being born with a cruddy brain chemistry. Kinda worked against me, but…you know.”

Bucky took a breath. When Steve opened his mouth to speak, Bucky held up his hand to silence him. “Hang on,” Bucky said, “Let me get this all out. The reason I’m so damn jumpy about any sex stuff we do is because I don’t want you to feel like – like I’m using you. Because I’m not. You matter to me and even if we never had sex I’d still wanna be with you. I mean, I’d probably masturbate like crazy, but –”

“Bucky,” Steve said. He took both Bucky’s hands and folded them in his own, big flesh bear-paw-sized hands, and drew them close together again, chest to chest. Steve kissed Bucky’s forehead and said, “None of that matters. None of those people matter to me. You’re what matters to me. Right now, I want you to fuck me. But if you don’t want to do something, we’ll find something else.”

Bucky let out a long breath and then bobbed his head like a cork. He licked his lips and said, “Fucking. Yeah. Fucking you sounds nice. I haven’t topped for a while, but I can take real good care of you. I promise, Stevie. This is what I’m good at.”

“Topping?”

“Sex, Steve,” Bucky said, “I’m good at sex. I’ll figure out topping as I go. Usually guys wanted me on bottom, you know. They get theirs and take off, I rub one out as soon as they’re gone and that’s that.”

“I mean, I kind of assumed you weren’t planning on doing that to me,” Steve said wryly.

Bucky knocked Steve on the shoulder and said, “Of course I wouldn’t leave you hanging, you a-hole.

Steve snorted, “Real romantic, a-hole.”

Bucky laughed and shoved at Steve, who shoved back hard enough for Bucky to land on his ass on the living room carpet. They wrestled around on the ground, trading jabs and slaps until Bucky sprawled with his back on the floor and Steve straddled him, long legs stretched on either side of Bucky’s body. With a heated look in Steve’s eye, he bent in half and captured Bucky’s mouth with his own, moving his lips in a series of bruising, deep kisses that Bucky felt all the way down to the tightening apex of his jeans.

“Shit,” Bucky murmured, “Shit, Steve.”

His heart beat faster with each filthy kiss, and ever-quicker when Steve pulled up to scrape his eyes over Bucky’s body, from his sloppy hair to wrinkled shirt to the hard outline of his erection trapped beneath his jeans. Bucky returned the favor. Steve’s too-tight t-shirt stuck to his impressive frame with sweat and his jeans in a state similar to Bucky’s, if a little more impressive in the size of the matter.

Steve’s hands breached the bottom of Bucky’s t-shirt, the shirt he’d been wearing since the night before. His fingertips played along the soft skin of Bucky’s stomach, stroking, and he asked, “This okay, Buck?”

“Fuck, yeah, more than okay,” Bucky answered, “but it might be better on your bed and not, you know, your living room floor. Pollock’s staring at us, man.”

Steve laughed but lifted off of Bucky. He offered a hand, which Bucky took, and they leapt to barricade themselves in the safety of Steve’s bedroom. In the light of day, the personality in Steve’s bedroom strikes Bucky as all the more stark. From the place he woke up in several months ago, confused (plain white walls, sheets with military corners, no more decoration than a bedside table and lamp) to now (None of Steve’s paintings ever made it as far as the walls, but he scanned and printed favorite comic book covers to frame and hang along the walls, lending more color. The bed was messy from tossing and turning. Several long boxes of comics sat stacked against the wall of the closet, where they would be safe from direct sunlight) the differences could fill a book.

Somebody lived here. Somebody loved comic books. Somebody that forgot to make the bed.

Steve yanked his shirt up over his head and tossed it someplace close to his wicker laundry basket. He fell back on the bed, neck propped up by the pillows, and asked, “So, how you do you want me?”

“You got stuff?” Bucky asked.

“Have for a while now,” answered Steve, “Bottom drawer, your side.”

Bucky grinned. He popped open the drawer and threw out an unused bottle of lube (Christ, was Steve not even masturbating?) and a couple of condoms. They landed on the bed between Steve’s spread but tragically still denim-clad legs.

Bucky shucked his own shirt and kicked off his jeans. He crawled over Steve and let their lips fuse in a heated kiss, another kiss with promise, with intent. They were going to do this and it wouldn’t be anything like Bucky giving out blowies under the bleachers in high school, or letting himself be worked over in the handicapped stall of some club, half out of his mind on the pills of the evening with some dude he didn’t know that smelled like Wal-Mart cologne and sweat.

Right here, right now, Bucky had coffee in his gut. Steve didn’t smell like any cologne at all. He smelled like laundry detergent and salty-sweet skin, like the weird organic man-shampoo he kept in the shower and the cheap-ass jug of lotion Steve needed because my skin gets really dry, okay, Buck? All of it endeared the hell out of him to Bucky, made his cotton boxer briefs slide uncomfortably against his dick.

“You look real nice,” Steve said hoarsely.

One half of Bucky’s lips quirked up. He said, “You’re one to talk,” and ran his nails down Steve’s stacked chest, leaving little pink lines behind. Steve shivered at the contact, mouth dropping open, but making no sound. Bucky reached for Steve’s fly and said, “Gonna take these off. How do you wanna do this?”

“Um,” Steve blushed, and without his shirt, Bucky could see the tinge of pink spread from Steve’s face and ears, down his throat, to his chest and shoulders. A full-body blusher, his guy. Bucky applied kisses to the pink on Steve’s chest and thanked his lucky stars he ended up with somebody that looked as nice as Steve always did.

“What is it?” Bucky asked, still kissing, still fumbling with the zipper on Steve’s jeans. He pulled the teeth apart one by one and drew back cast the pants aside.

In nothing but his shorts, Steve was a vision. Pink all over and shining with a hint of sweat at his temples, Bucky wanted every part of him. He wanted skin on skin, wanted the taste of Steve in his mouth, wanted the slide of his big body. Maybe even one day he’d let Steve top him, because Steve wasn’t a fuck ‘em and leave ‘em guy; Steve took care of his partners.

Steve’s tongue parted his lips and he wet them before he spoke. He said, “I like…um.”

“Come on. I don’t bite. Unless you’re into that. Then I can totally bite.”

“I just like, um. I like being held down. I like it when,” Steve swallowed the knot in his throat and continued more quietly, “I like it when I’m on all fours and I’m, y’know, pinned.”

Steve blinked up at Bucky like he was ready to be judged and laughed at, which was frankly ridiculous. Bucky rested his forehead against Steve’s and ghosted a gentle kiss over Steve’s lips. He murmured, “Good thing I got a real strong arm, huh? Turn on your belly.”

They kissed again and Steve smiled with more wild desperation, a hopeful look that went straight to Bucky’s cock like a homing signal. Steve climbed onto his hands and knees, and Bucky seized the opportunity to yank Steve’s underwear off. God, his ass was perfect – round, pale, well-muscled and firm. Everything to look for in an ass, really. Bucky took a handful on each side and kissed at the base of Steve’s spine, tonguing down, down, down. He parted Steve’s cheeks and Christ, everything about Steve was beautiful.

Bucky licked a long stripe over Steve’s hole.

Steve released an unholy whimper and canted back into Bucky’s mouth.

“Ah,” Bucky said, “I see why you need to be held down.” – a sentence that teased a second whimper from Steve’s throat and filled the air with thick, heady need.

Bucky drew away and Steve whined.

“Hang on, hang on,” Bucky assured him, “Just getting the lube. It’s not even open yet.”

Bucky peeled off the plastic and slicked up his right hand. He came to where Steve knelt on the bed, face-down in the pillows. He covered Steve’s body with his own. In Bucky’s left hand, he took Steve’s wrists and held them hard against the mattress. With his right, he teased over Steve’s hole with his slick fingertips. Steve’s body twitched to beg for more touch, but Bucky’s metal hand clamped down on him limited Steve’s movement. The moan that ripped out of Steve made that concession immediately worth it.

Bucky wouldn’t tease Steve too hard. Not this time. Not during their first foray into penetrative sex. He could save real teasing, the tears and rawness and begging teasing, for another time. For this new ground, Bucky would take care of Steve the way that he deserved to be taken care of.

One thick finger breached Steve. Steve inhaled and hummed pleasure, his body vibrating, like he might burst out of his skin if he didn’t get more. Bucky stroked inside Steve, strummed over him until he found just the right spot. As soon as Bucky massaged against Steve’s prostate, Steve launched off the mattress and groaned, low and long and filthy.

“More,” Steve said, “More. Please, Buck.”

“I gotcha, Stevie,” Bucky replied, and ducked to place a kiss to the top of Steve’s blond head.

One finger stretched to two, and Bucky focused on working Steve open. Steve took it beautifully, rocking his hips as much as Bucky’s iron grip would allow, taking as much as he could. These breathy little noises punched out of Steve, needy moans and whispered curses, a lot of fuck, again, and Buck, please. Bucky slid a third finger inside Steve with the other two. The resulting moan that shuddered through Steve made Bucky’s erection, if possible, ever-harder where it sat trapped against his belly in his boxer briefs.

Fuck, Steve was beautiful. He looked gorgeous in the daylight, riding back on Bucky’s hand with the jerky, small movements he could manage while pinned. He deserved a reward, Bucky decided – so he pinned Steve harder, used the full weight of his body to trap him against the mattress, and fucked his fingers into Steve, hard and unrelenting.

“God, Buck,” Steve gasped, “S’amazing. Don’t stop.”

Bucky leaned down to nip at Steve’s earlobe and said, “Gotta stop for a second, but just a second, doll.”

Bucky withdrew his hand, kicked off his boxer briefs, and cruised the messy sheets to find where the condoms shifted to. He pulled off a single package and, with a little struggle with his slippery hand, managed to rip it open. He rolled the condom over his cock which was possibly harder than he had ever seen it before in his life, and why shouldn’t it be? His lover was face-down on their bed, legs sprawled wide open, ass on display in the air, pink all over his body and his muscles rippling with the effort of keeping himself in the same position.

Bucky poured lube over his cock and spread it. He sidled up behind Steve, positioned himself at Steve’s hole, and murmured, “You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever goddamn seen, Stevie,” before he thrust inside Steve to the hilt, and shoved his broad shoulders down into the sheets.

Steve squirmed and cried out, the most sweetly broken noise that Bucky had ever had the honor of hearing. Shit, Steve hadn’t been kidding when he said he liked being held down. So Bucky focused his arm strength into pinning Steve right to the bed, canting his ass up so that Bucky could fuck him however he wanted. Bucky started long and slow, deep thrusts that earned helpless noises and barb-ended curses from Steve.

Then, Bucky dove full-force into the movement. He pounded into Steve, the sound of skin slapping against skin a symphony to his ears. Steve felt searing and tight around him, so perfect and wet and everything that Bucky needed. He lived for the noises Steve managed while he clawed at the sheets below, lived for those shouts and screams and the repetition of Bucky’s name over and over like a prayer.

Bucky’s legs began to shake with effort. He warned Steve, “M’come soon. You feel so good around me, doll. So tight. So perfect.”

Steve just moaned and made a movement that looked something like a nod.

The orgasm built. It rumbled in Bucky’s gut and in his balls and his body slammed into Steve’s one, two, three more times before he came with a force into the condom, into Steve. Bucky collapsed on top of Steve, his chest to Steve’s back, and caught his breath for a moment before he withdrew. Steve whined in complaint at the loss of Bucky’s cock, but Steve still hadn’t gotten his, and that wouldn’t do.

Bucky flipped Steve onto his back. Steve’s dick curved against the ridges of his abdomen. Bucky didn’t hesitate, didn’t linger to stare at Steve’s unbelievable body like he wanted to. There would be time for that later. No, he dipped his head down and sucked Steve into his mouth. He worked Steve’s length to his throat, hummed around him, pulled up to pay special attention to the head of Steve’s cock with laps and presses of his lips before he brought him back down again.

Steve sputtered a surprised noise – all the warning given before come filled Bucky’s mouth. He swallowed and surfaced with a feral grin.

“Fuck,” Steve said, “That was…amazing.”

Bucky stood up, wobbly on his legs.

“Where are you going?” Steve frowned.

“Gonna clean us up,” Bucky answered, dipping his head toward the bathroom.

Steve pushed his body to sitting and said, “No, let me. I wanna take care of you.”

Bewildered, Bucky fell nude and sweating against the pillows as Steve disappeared into the bathroom. He fidgeted – no one had ever done cleanup before but Bucky. He’d given folks the once over with damp paper towels or his undershirt or whatever was on hand for mopping up sweat and come. No one else had ever bothered to think of doing the same. Bucky pulled off the condom and cast it into Steve’s wastebasket as an afterthought, almost. Being taken care of was confusing.

Steve reappeared with a washcloth he’d run under the bathroom tap. He smoothed the cloth over Bucky’s spent cock and his softer-than-it-used-to-be stomach, down his back and up to his shoulders. Steve said, “It’s my turn to take care of you. Pretty sure that’s how these relationship things are supposed to work.”

“I wouldn’t know,” Bucky whispered, “You’re kind of my first relationship ever. Is that sad?”

“I don’t think it is.”

“It’s just…before, you know. People knew they could get sex out of me. I was easy as hell to get in the sack and no one ever wanted anything more. Or maybe somebody did want something more from me, but I never saw it because I was a dick teenager to them the same way people were dick teenagers to me. Man, that’s a cycle if I ever saw one.”

Steve climbed into the bed and spooned Bucky from behind. He raked his hands through Bucky’s hair, pulling the hair tie out of the mess and setting it aside on one of the end tables before he continued his ministrations. He kissed along the blade of Bucky’s jaw, down to the dip in Bucky’s chin and to his lips, where he lingered for several seconds before he said, “I like sex with you, but I like just being around you even better. You know that, right? I like waking up next to you. I like making coffee for you. I like how you dance to music when you make us breakfast. I like how you play with my dog.”

Steve paused.

“I just like you,” Steve went on, “I like everything about you. I get that we’re kind of fucked up and everything, but I like being fucked up together. I guess I…”

Steve paused to bring Bucky’s mouth into a long, tender kiss. He exhaled and said, “I think you should move in. For real.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Track: Don’t Wait – Mapei

Come Build Me Up

Sex with Steve surged to the top of Bucky’s Favorite Activities list faster than just about anything. Thing was – Steve gave as good as he took. Which, yeah, okay, Bucky knew that. They’d been having sex before (it wasn’t called ‘oral messing around’, after all), but something about having Steve on him, something about being inside his guy, struck Bucky as new and exciting.

(Bucky shared this information with Steve, only to have Steve glance away from the television to say, “Anal sex isn’t some newfangled invention, Buck. People thought about putting their dicks in asses long before we were put on this earth – and they acted on it, come to think of it.” How Bucky forgot that under all the aw-shucks-you-mean-me demeanor that Steve radiated that he was also a little shit, he would never know.)

Still, some trepidation overtook when Bucky placed the last cardboard box beside Steve’s – no, their – front door, and again the image of being worked over by Steve, of riding Steve’s lap or hanging onto the headboard while Steve drove into him jolted through Bucky’s brain like a particularly raunchy bolt of lightning.

So naturally Steve chose that exact moment to wrap his arms around Bucky from behind and drop his lips to the patch of skin behind Bucky’s ear, pressing tender kisses. He murmured, “All moved in. Think we should celebrate?”

Bucky swallowed and nodded.

“Mm, good, me too,” Steve said, and kept kissing along Bucky’s throat, all slow and distracting.

Bucky leaned into the hot press of Steve’s mouth, letting the back of his head fall against one of Steve’s broad, well-muscled shoulders. Steve worked Bucky like a magician working a spell, all slick tongue and lips against Bucky’s throat and nibbling teeth to his earlobe. Bucky’s soft, happy hums devolved into breathless, open-mouthed noises when Steve slipped his hand beneath the waistband of Bucky’s sweatpants and pressed the heel of his palm to Bucky’s growing erection.

And damn, if Steve didn’t play him like an instrument. He cupped Bucky with his big palm and stroked in light, steady touches that sent pleasure radiating to every overworked nerve of Bucky’s body. He moved against Steve’s touch, pushing his body forward with little jerks of his hips, and on the back-thrust felt Steve’s cock thick and hard against his ass.

“I have an idea,” Bucky said. His voice rumbled out low, and shit, even he could hear how turned on he sounded.

The movement of Steve’s hand against Bucky’s dick didn’t ease up as Steve asked, “Oh yeah? What’s that?”

The slow grind of Steve’s hand into Bucky’s erection short-circuited his brain for a few silent, breathy seconds. When Steve cleared his throat, Bucky came out of his heady trance, wet his lips with his tongue and bit at them with indecision. This was either the best idea he’d ever had or the very worst, depending on whether he considered his track record with sex in general or his track record with sex involving Steve.

In the end, Bucky considered both, and said, “I think you should fuck me.”

Only then did Steve’s hand pause, the seductive teasing slammed to a screeching halt. Steve pulled his fingers out of Bucky’s sweatpants and guided Bucky to face him. That freaking concerned puppy look took over his whole face, which might have thrown the mood if Steve didn’t have World’s Biggest Erection tenting the front of his silver athletic shorts.

Steve cupped Bucky’s face with both hands and brought him into a kiss. The kiss wasn’t plagued with sexual overtones, just that tender Steve-specific affection that Bucky craved like an addict. He fell into it, let his tongue sweep against Steve’s until they needed to breathe. When they pulled apart, Steve rested his forehead against Bucky’s and asked, “You sure?”

Bucky gnawed on his lower lip again. He said, “I’m nervous but I’m sure. I promise, Stevie.”

“Okay,” Steve said as he drew back. He nodded and repeated, “Okay. We’re gonna do it on the bed, though. I want you to be comfortable, all right?” He swept his thumb across Bucky’s cheekbone.

The bed was fine by Bucky. He’d been fucked lots of places, and really, he and Steve had been fucking lots of places too – the couch, against the counter, halfway onto the kitchen table – but he supposed he couldn’t go wrong with a time-tested classic. ‘Sides, maybe Bucky would be less nervous about playing bottom again if they did it in the place that had been theirs the longest.

Bucky undressed as they went, and scooted back onto the bed naked, stretching his arms over his head with a smile on his face that projected far more confidence than he actually felt. He watched Steve stumble out of his exercise shorts and tight little boxer-briefs, already halfway to that full-body pink he got when they fucked.

“So,” Steve said, when the last of his clothing dropped onto the carpet, “How – um. How do you want it?”

Bucky considered. He said, “This is so vanilla, but like…can we do it face to face?”

One side of Steve’s lips quirked up in a half-smile. He said, “However you like, Buck.”

Steve covered Bucky with his huge body and pulled him into a kiss. Bucky never wanted to go without Steve’s kisses again in his life. He wanted to kiss Steve forever. Every time that Steve kissed him like he needed him same as lungs needed air, Bucky remembered that. When Steve inched back, his mouth was pinker, swollen from attention.

Steve slid down the mattress and braced his hands on Bucky’s legs, pushing them up so that they fell open, bent at the knee.

“Gimme a couple pillows,” Steve said. They shifted in a less-than-sexy, awkward dance to rearrange pillows from behind Bucky’s head to under his lower back, and that’s when Bucky’s nervousness amped up to the next level.

Because hell – this was pretty damn close to places he’d been before and Bucky didn’t want to revisit his wayward youth. He didn’t want to revisit faceless fucks, whose bodies he could remember cradled between his thighs but whose names had long left his memory.

Something must have shown on his face, because Steve surged up from his crouch between Bucky’s legs and kissed him again. He said, “You know you can tell me if you change your mind, right?”

And that right there was why Bucky wasn’t gonna change his mind. Steve was right. Steve was the piece in their puzzle that fit right against him and he would trust Steve with anything, including the crap that made Bucky anxious. Bucky carded his fingers through Steve’s already mussed hair, and pecked a kiss to the tip of Steve’s crooked nose.

“I’m good,” Bucky said, and when Steve’s brows crunched with dubiousness, he added, “I promise, you asshole. I want it.”

Steve grinned. He fell back into place between Bucky’s legs and heaved each up over his shoulders. Before Bucky could ask what the hell the big idea was, Steve’s tongue already pressed across Bucky’s hole in one bold, long stripe. Bucky whined and said, “Shit, doll. No one’s ever done that for me before.”

“Somebody’s about to,” Steve said back, and lapped against Bucky again.

Bucky shivered. He’d never felt anything like it – the wet, lavish sensation of a tongue exploring him right there in his ass – his ass. Sure, yeah, Bucky had done that for other people before, mostly if they asked. Never understood the appeal, at least not until now. Steve breached Bucky with the tip of his tongue and Bucky couldn’t help but clench his legs around Steve’s head.

“Fuck,” Bucky said, “Fucking…fuck. That feels real good. Don’t stop…ah. Oh my God.”

Steve thrust his tongue inside him, twisted it up and played Bucky like a fiddle. Every stroke felt like a step closer to seeing Jesus, holy shit.

When Steve shifted away, Bucky whimpered. Steve gave a conciliatory pat to his thigh and said, “Gettin’ the lube, stupid.”

“You’re stupid, stupid,” Bucky mumbled back.

Steve chuckled as he slicked up his fingers. He cast Bucky a final, lingering look for permission, and when Bucky nodded a go-ahead, a long, thick finger breached him. The moan that tore from Bucky’s throat was so loud it was fucking embarrassing, but Steve looked so pleased with himself Bucky couldn’t help but make more noise. Bucky forgot how much he liked being fingered, how much he liked the glide of a well-lubricated, skillful hand. And damn, Steve’s hand was both of those.

Within moments of the press of a second finger, Steve kneaded against Bucky’s prostate. Bucky whined and thrashed against the attention, tried to pull Steve further into his body. His dick ached with the need to be touched but Steve was ignoring Bucky’ s erection on purpose, the little shit – “Oh fuck, Stevie, babydoll, right there, please –”

The orgasm that ripped through Bucky’s body surprised both of them. Without as much as a fingertip on his dick, Bucky went off like a bottle rocket, coming hard onto his belly. His brain whited-out. He didn’t know how long he kept his eyes closed, but when he opened them, Steve was staring at the mess on Bucky’s with his lips parted.

“Uh,” Bucky said, “Sorry. That was surprising.”

Steve laughed a little. He said, “I’ll say. That’s – shit, Buck. That was one of the sexiest things I’ve ever seen in my entire life. I’m keeping that memory under lock and key. Goddamn.”

“Puttin’ me in the spank bank?” Bucky teased.

Steve grinned like the Cheshire cat and replied, “You know the answer to that,” before he moved his hand again, fingering Bucky open.

The nerves started again when Steve moved aside to roll a condom over his dick. His big dick, Bucky reminded himself. Taking that, well – never let it be said that Bucky didn’t like to challenge himself. Steve knew, of course. No matter how many times he grumbled about Bucky’s remarks on the size of his cock, Steve knew he carried a fine piece of equipment between his legs. He eased into Bucky’s body all slow and careful, nothing at all like the quick thrusts and rough handling he asked for when he bottomed for Bucky.

Holy God, Bucky was so full. Steve’s cock burned as he pressed in, but Steve distracted Bucky with another one of those sweet kisses, those kisses that melted Bucky like sugar in the rain and embodied I’m gonna take care of you without any words at all.

When Steve settled all the way inside Bucky’s body, Bucky hooked his legs around Steve and drew their bodies in close. Steve’s eyes were closed, a little hitch between his brow, his lower lip sucked up beneath his teeth, like he was afraid he might come undone if he moved an inch. Bucky shifted up and kissed Steve’s forehead. He said, “Feels real good. You gonna move, or are we gonna be here all day?”

Steve opened his eyes, then, a tiny smile playing at his lips. “Asshat,” he said, and he pulled back and thrust back into Bucky with a heave.

Bucky let his head fall back against the headboard and groaned. He was so full, so fucking full, and having come beforehand made the whole experience some kind of next-level shit, his body wired and oversensitive. Every push and pull of Steve’s dick inside him lit Bucky up like a thousand sparklers all fizzing and popping, bright lights in the dark. He ground back against Steve counterpoint to the powerful thrusts of Steve’s body.

Watching Steve…just…fuck. The muscles moved smoothly under flushed skin with barely coiled power. Knowing Steve could nail Bucky back into the headboard hard enough to break it and that he somehow managed to restrain himself from doing so revved Bucky’s engines so hard he didn’t know it was possible to be this turned on, the arousal stretched tight over the both of them so far it could pop at any moment.

Bucky flexed his legs around Steve and said, “Harder, Stevie. I know you can go harder.”

Steve met his eyes with an exasperated look and said, “I know I can too. I was trying to be gentle.”

“Gentle sex later,” Bucky said with a wave of his hand, “Fuck me into next week now.”

And shit, did Steve take orders. He slammed up into Bucky hard enough that the lock of Bucky’s legs went loose around Steve’s waist. Bucky let go of the remaining ounce of control he had and took what Steve gave to him, pounding, brutal thrusts of his body peppered with comparatively sweet, loving little kisses.

“You’re gorgeous like this,” Steve gasped, “Taking me so nice.”

Bucky kissed Steve, knotting his fingers in Steve’s hair, and commanded against his lips, “Come on, doll. You’re close, ain’t you? Real close? Bet you like it like this, like it so you can see. You just love seeing me fucked, don’t you?”

Steve cried out and sped the movement of his body, jackhammered into Bucky – from the twisted, open-mouthed expression on Steve’s face, Bucky knew he had to be close. He rode back against Steve, clenched his body tight around him, and then –

Steve’s nailed scraped red trails down Bucky’s chest. He gripped Bucky’s shoulders and heaved out, “Bucky, Buck, baby – gonna, g-gonna –”

Bucky cinched his legs around Steve’s waist real tight, locking him in as his hips stuttered forward and he came. If Bucky were any good at words he’d write poetry about the look on Steve’s handsome face when he orgasmed, like he was in the best sort of pain and he never wanted to leave it. When he came down from his orgasm, he sort of slipped in the sweat between them, flopping over Bucky like a pat of butter melting over the side of a pancake.

“You okay there, buddy?” Bucky finally asked. Hell, he sounded raw, his voice all deep and garbled.

“Uh-huh,” Steve said, the noise muffled by Bucky’s pectoral.

They should have gotten up to shower, but Bucky decided to let Steve be until he was ready to get up. They dozed against each other for an indeterminate amount of time, but long enough that the sun shifted through the slits between the bedroom window blinds when Steve’s fingers mussed Bucky’s hair and his fucked-out voice whispered, “Bucky.”

“Mmph.”

“Come on,” Steve said, “Let’s shower.”

Both of them staggered through the walk to the bathroom, clinging onto one another for balance. Bucky’s legs felt about as useful as two ramen noodles. He sagged against the tiled wall of the shower when they climbed in, ready to scrub off the embarrassing amount of body fluids on his skin. But instead of tending to himself, Steve gathered Bucky in his arms, peppering little kisses over Bucky’s face and neck. He poured shower gel in his palm and soaped up Bucky’s body, worshipped every little corner with his fingers, and massaged that weird farmer’s market shampoo he loved so much into Bucky’s hair.

No one ever took care of Bucky like that before, not ever. Determined to pay Steve back, Bucky washed him in kind, pushing the heel of his metal hand into the knotted muscles of Steve’s back. He worked over Steve’s body until he looked like he might fall asleep on his feet, but before Bucky could shut off the water, Steve brought the showerhead down to rinse Bucky’s prosthesis off with a soft, “I know you hate when you get soap scum on it.”

It was like being speared through and thrown over a fire to roast, Bucky decided.

Bucky stared as Steve rinsed bubbles from the prosthetic arm, brows knit in concentration, and all at once every bone in his body sang I love you.

X

Pollock was asleep on Bucky’s chest, both of them sprawled out on the couch in front of some documentary about poisonous animals when Steve got the call. Steve paused Netflix and extracted himself out from under Bucky’s legs to answer, wandering into the kitchen to lean against the counter with his cell against his ear. Bucky watched him speak lowly to the caller, and whatever they said shifted Steve’s face from its usual I-hate-talking-on-the-phone expression to a hopeful, dopey grin.

Steve hung up the phone a minute or so later, and before Bucky could ask who it was, Steve answered, “I got the job.”

“No shit?”

“Darcy called to tell me they wanna hire me,” Steve replied. He’d brought his resume in the week before, turned it into the establishment’s proprietor, Tim “call me Dum Dum” Dugan – and left having spent way too much money on comic books (again). Steve was on a Deadpool kick, and couldn’t control himself around variant covers (“You have that issue, Stevie.” “Not with this cover, I don’t.”).

Bucky grinned and said, “That’s great. C’mere and kiss me. I’d come over there but your dog is on me.” Pollock licked the side of Bucky’s face, appreciative of being mentioned.

Steve bent over the back of the couch and applied his lips to Bucky’s. They lingered for only a second, because Pollock made a noise of complaint and licked at both of them until they broke apart, laughing.

The thing was, as soon as Steve started, life got fucking lonely. Steve brought Pollock with him to work. Darcy, who (as Steve reported over a pan of potato casserole that Bucky baked) sewed cosplays and worked a sewing machine like nothing else, made Pollock his own doggie bed out of superhero fabric. They kept the bed stuffed behind the counter, but Pollock was more than happy to curl up and relax the day away in his little corner.

But that left Bucky at the apartment alone. Mostly he cleaned up and made breakfast and dinner like a house husband or some shit. And yeah, okay, Steve’s position was part time so he was still home with the dog more often than not, but the emptiness that Steve left behind became just enough to leave Bucky with his thoughts again.

Bucky didn’t like that.

The echo of self-loathing in his brain repeated the same pattern he’d suffered since puberty. He sat twisted up in the bedsheets, as he’d sat in his shitty apartment or in his childhood bedroom and stared up at the ceiling and thought about being left behind. He thought about being useless, and how Steve managed to get out and be something other than useless, so shouldn’t he able to do that, too?

On one quiet Tuesday afternoon, a few hours before Steve and Pollock would return home, Bucky slid out of his and Steve’s bed to make another pot of coffee (with his coffee pot, because it required far less concentration than using Steve’s hipster pour-over). He settled at the kitchen table with a steaming cup and pried his ancient laptop open.

It chugged to life, and as soon as Bucky got his internet to stop being a piece of crap, he googled therapists that took Medicaid. The internet returned a surprising amount of results to him, and he found himself able to click through several profiles of different therapists from different practices – and on one website, he found the feature of his fucking dreams: he didn’t have to call to make an intake appointment, but could use the website software. God bless the twenty first century.

When Steve arrived home, Bucky had a chicken in the oven and some veggies in a stir fry. He kissed Steve harder than usual and asked, “How was your day?”

“Good,” Steve said, “Nothing special. You seem…energized.”

“I, um,” Bucky started, and tore his gaze from Steve’s face to the vegetables on the stove. He dashed a little more lemon juice into the pan and said as it sizzled, “I made an appointment. An intake thing. With a therapist. They take Medicaid, and this guy helps veterans, I guess, so…”

Steve roped Bucky into a tight hug and kissed him again. He said, “I’m proud of you, y’jerk.”

Bucky shoved at Steve and complained, “Who’re you calling jerk? Punk-ass bitch.”

In the end Bucky burned the stir fry, but he and Steve ate it anyway.

X

Steve and Pollock walked Bucky to the therapist’s office, but Steve’s shift at the comics joint started later that morning, so he couldn’t linger. That didn’t stop Bucky from texting Steve incessantly throughout the process of the intake paperwork. Bucky always forgot how boring the paperwork was, and how some of the shit on it seemed like a no-brainer.

                What are you seeking help for? (Current concerns)

A fair question to which Bucky answered: “Depression, PTSD, and probably some other stuff.”

                How long has this been a problem?

Bucky wrote: “Depression 10+ yrs, PTSD 2 yrs-ish.”

                What would you need or want to accomplish to consider treatment successful?

And that, Bucky felt, was the no-brainer. He rolled his eyes and wrote: “Not feeling like crap all the time would be nice.”

And sure, yeah, Bucky wanted to feel better for Steve, that was part of it, but after sitting on his ass for a solid thirty minutes or so in a way-too-cold waiting room after handing the intake paperwork in, he decided he wanted to feel less like crap for himself, too. He wanted to be at home without those invasive, casually passing thoughts like What if I jumped out that window right now? or I sure wish a bus would hit me and put me out of my misery. The thoughts weren’t serious, not the way that they were before he got his Stark limb and he sat cross-legged on his bathroom floor with bottles of pain pills arranged in a half-circle in front of him and googled which ones would kill him with the least amount of pain. These days, Bucky’s weird suicide space-outs came followed by the more conscious thoughts like Okay, idiot, we’re not killing ourselves today and Ma would be really sad about that, though.

Nonetheless, if Bucky could eliminate – or at least minimize – the bastard thoughts that told him offing himself sounded like a grand old plan, he’d be pretty stoked.

“James Barnes?”

Bucky glanced up from a snarky text to Steve. Though he’d seen Nick Fury’s picture on the practice’s website, the guy looked twice as badass in person.

And when they sat down and Nick started to piece together Bucky’s laundry list of issues from the retorts he’d written to the questions on the intake paperwork, Bucky felt kind of okay. Nick didn’t beat around the bush, and looked Bucky dead in the eye when he said, “You’re going to need to elaborate past ‘feeling like crap all the time.’”

The sky hadn’t shifted from gray by the time that Bucky exited the therapist’s office with another, smaller mountain of paperwork clutched in his prosthesis to fill out and bring to his next appointment, but his back felt lighter, some weight having lifted from his shoulders with just the knowledge that he’d taken a small but not insignificant step in the right direction. For once.

The route to and from the therapist’s office wound Bucky through several hipster-y parts of Brooklyn, where bearded guys distilled their own whiskey and people in bright, vintage clothing zipped down the street on fixed-gear bicycles. As such, independent coffee joints and boutiques with color schemes reminiscent of a Wes Anderson movie dotted the road. Bucky would have laughed at it all with Steve, but since Steve liked vinyl and pour-over coffee, and Bucky wore his hair in a bun and liked flannel a little too much, he figured he didn’t have much of a place to poke fun.

Especially not after he spotted a record store with the cryptic name Asgardian Records and the thought of getting Steve a birthday present there whipped Bucky’s ass immediately. He smiled and shook his head at himself, and pushed into Asgardian Records before he could second-guess himself.

Like Dugan’s comic book store, Asgardian Records was a small place. Framed posters of musicians decked the walls from an exposed ductwork ceiling to the concrete floor. Some were signed, others simply tributes to well-respected or obscure artists. No one was at the register, which Bucky found a relief. He always felt like the people in places like this would look at him and know he wasn’t cool enough to be there, which was a fucking weird paranoia for a twenty-six year old man, but knowing the thought was paranoia didn’t stop it from playing on a loop in his head.

The records were organized by genre and then alphabetically. Bucky knew Steve liked a lot of old shit, so he veered away from the alternative and rock sections and lingered closer to jazz and big band, right at the edge of R&B. Just as he swept his thumb across the front of a Fats Domino record in consideration, a booming voice exclaimed, “James, from 101!”

Bucky jerked his attention up and saw that big blond dude from the laundry room at his old apartment. Like Bucky, he wore his long hair in a knot at the top of his head. Bucky smiled and said, “Thor.”

“It is good to see you,” Thor said, “I worried, you know. I knocked on your door and our landlady told me that you had moved out of the building.”

Bucky grabbed at the back of his neck and said, “Yeah, I moved in my boyfriend.”

“That’s wonderful!” Thor exclaimed, “I am very happy for you. Is there anything I can help you find?”

“Ah, well,” Bucky said, and held up the Fats Domino vinyl, “I think I just found it. I was poking around for a gift for Steve. His birthday’s coming up, so…”

“A most excellent choice,” Thor assured him, and sidled up behind the register to ring him up. Thor asked, “How are you? You seem lighter than when I saw you last, if you don’t mind my saying so.”

“I’m good, man,” Bucky answered, “I am. Lighter, I guess. A lot’s changed. I’m even thinking about looking for a job, if you can believe it. Steve – that’s my best guy – he’s got a part time gig and now I’m alone and bored in the apartment and I actually feel like getting out more, which – weird. Anyway. How are you?”

“Tired,” admitted Thor, “Though I imagine my Jane is more tired than I am. We are new parents, you see.”

“Congrats, dude,” Bucky said, and he meant it.

“Thank you,” Thor replied, “You know, I own this store. If you are interested, perhaps you might consider working here? Do you like music?”

“Yeah, of course I do,” Bucky grinned, “I like a lot of newer stuff, but Steve’s all about oldies and I think I’m a convert. But, uh. I mean. I can’t do like full time or anything, man. Like, I’m better, but,” Bucky paused, and remembered the brief conversation that Bucky had had with Thor in the laundry room, that Thor already knew Bucky served and wasn’t fazed by that information. Bucky exhaled and continued, “I’ve got things I’m still sorting out, since I’ve been back stateside. Shoulda taken care of a lot of this stuff a long time ago, but I’m only working on it now.”

Thor nodded and handed Bucky his record and his change and said, “It wouldn’t have to be a full time position, my friend. I understand what it is like. If you would consider part time employment, it would be a great help. I would be able to spend more time with Jane and our baby, and you would have an activity outside of home.”

Bucky licked his lips. He said, “I…uh. I can think about it.”

Thor brightened and said, “Wonderful! I will give you my cellphone number, and you can let me know if you’ve decided if you’d like the job.” He plucked one of the business cards for the shop out of the holder and a ballpoint pen from beside the computer, and scribbled his phone number and a smiley face.

Bucky tucked the card into the pocket of his jeans and said, “Thanks, man. Take it easy.”

“Take care, James,” Thor said, and waved, “I am glad to see that you are well.”

X

Bucky didn’t tell Steve about the possibility of a job of his own, at least not right away. Instead, he put it in a box in his head for later, after dinner – or at least after Steve unwound (Steve came home indignant and pissed off about some guy that “tried to geek test this poor girl, Buck! She just wanted to look at comics!”). He stuffed Steve full of ravioli and when Steve asked how his day went, Bucky just told him that he liked his therapist and had another appointment the next week, with paperwork on the kitchen counter he had to fill out.

“Don’t let me forget about that,” Bucky told him.

“I won’t,” Steve promised.

After Steve washed up the dinner dishes and stashed the leftovers in the fridge, they set up some indie flick on Netflix, but both Steve and Bucky knew that they weren’t going to pay attention. Steve told Pollock “bed”, the command they’d been using to tell Pollock to hang out in their bedroom until commanded otherwise. Pollock didn’t seem to mind; he liked sprawling out on Steve and Bucky’s mattress when there weren’t two full-grown veterans jammed on it.  

Bucky didn’t tell Steve about Thor’s offer until much later that night, when their chests were kind of stuck together from sweat and Steve’s cock had long gone soft inside Bucky. Bucky pressed his ear to Steve’s chest and listened to his heartbeat, strong and steady against his ribcage, still faster than it would be resting.

“I might have a job offer,” Bucky finally said.

Steve shifted beneath Bucky and his hand came to tilt Bucky’s chin up. Steve asked, “Really? Where at?”

“That record store we passed on the way to my therapist,” Bucky said, “Turns out I know the guy who runs it. He lives in my old building. We talked once when I went and did laundry. Seems real nice. Has a new kid.”

“You gonna do it?”

“Dunno.”

“I think you should,” Steve said, and peeled his upper back off of the couch so he could lean up into a gentle kiss. He said, “Unless you don’t think you’re ready.”

Bucky mulled it over, tracing patterns on Steve’s left pectoral with the tip of his finger. He said, “I think…I dunno. I think maybe I am ready to go do shit. But. Like. Knock on wood, or whatever. I don’t wanna jinx my potential for better mental health.”

Steve leaned over and knocked his fist against the frame of the coffee table and said, “There.”

“Thanks, doll.”

Later, after Steve pulled sweatpants over his hips and brushed his teeth in the bathroom, Bucky retrieved his phone and the business card for Asgardian Records. He punched Thor’s cell number in, shoved past the trepidation that scratched at the back of his brain, and typed.

22:34 Bucky: hey, this is bucky/james. i was thinking id take you up on that job offer.

22:36 Thor: MARVELOUS JAMES WHEN CAN YOU START

Chapter Text

Chapter Track: Give Me Novacaine – Green Day

Toothache of the Mind

“I think it’s one of those things,” Bucky said while punching in the prices for a skinny, mustachioed guy’s vinyl purchases, “When a band’s got a following, people hate them to have something to hate. I don’t like fighting about what music I want to listen to, you know? Like okay, I’m glad you don’t like my thing? Good for you?”

Skinny Mustache Guy laughed. He said, “Right? I was five seconds away from getting into an internet battle yesterday over a twenty one pilots song and then I was like…you know what? The song means something to me, but I’m not going to fight somebody about it.”

“Dude, I feel that,” Bucky replied, “You need a bag?”

“Got one of my own,” said Mustache Guy. Of course he did, Bucky thought, but didn’t say as much as he tucked the records into a canvas bag from some music festival that Bucky felt he should have heard of, given his current profession. He had not, as it happened, heard of it.

As Bucky bid Skinny Mustache Guy goodbye, Thor bustled into the shop, looking harried in a wrinkled Empire of the Sun t-shirt. Large red headphones rested around his neck and haywire hair escaped the half-assed ponytail at the base of his neck. Bucky asked, “You okay?”

“I’m fine,” Thor waved him off and stashed his backpack beneath the front counter. He went on, “Jane arrived late from work, and little Frigga spit up on my shirt. I had to change clothes and – anyhow, I apologize for my tardiness.”

A rush of fondness poured through Bucky for Thor, for his words and his disheveled appearance, and even for the whole host of alien-themed, “I WANT TO BELIEVE” buttons gleaming from where they were pinned on the backpack now stashed at the toes of Bucky’s battered boots. He clapped Thor on the shoulder and said, “Don’t sweat it. I’ll see you Wednesday, man.”

Thor offered a blinding-bright smile and said, “Of course. Thank you again. You have a way with the customers, my friend.”

Bucky managed a crooked smile in response to that, and shuffled his feet. He said, “Thanks. I’m trying,” and with his right hand clocked out on the dusty computer before he bid Thor goodbye with a, “Try not to get in trouble while I’m gone, buddy.”

Outside, Sam waited in his car. The familiar sight of peeling paint over the boxy 1990s design made Bucky smile again. He felt, another tally in a progressively longer line of marks, a striking sense of normalcy in climbing into the passenger’s seat and letting his boots fall over the empty fast food bags that Sam ignored on the car floor. Pine air freshener covered that old fries and hamburger smell, but only barely.

“Steve already there?” asked Bucky.

“Natasha and Clint picked him up a while ago,” Sam nodded, peeling away from the curb in front of Asgardian Records toward the VA center. He added, “Guess he wanted to stop by a little earlier. He seem off to you?”

“Was kind of a busy day at work,” Bucky said, “Haven’t texted him today.”

Sam’s concern didn’t seem unfounded when they parked at the center and tread into the cramped room where the peer support meeting took place. Somebody set up a water dispenser, and somebody else brought what looked like a couple dozen homemade cupcakes. Bucky narrowed his eyes at the cupcakes, and at the large man hovering over them, rearranging them like a paranoid squirrel over his acorn stash. Pollock’s leash was wrapped around Steve’s wrist, and the dog in question looked affronted at having been banished from eating the cupcakes himself.

“Steve,” Bucky said.

Steve jumped and offered Bucky a thin smile. He greeted, “Hey Buck.”

“You baked today?” Bucky said. The question was almost code – only their friends knew that Steve baked and cleaned when his anxiety seized him or his brain skipped out of the present and dissociated. Obviously Steve had baked. But was Steve okay?

Steve wrung his hands and let Bucky guide him away from the sparse refreshment table. He murmured, “Yeah. Yes. I did. I baked, I mean.”

“How many cupcakes did you dump in the trash because they didn’t look right?” Bucky asked.

“Um,” Steve said, grabbing at the back of his neck, “About half of them, probably. I’m gonna – I’m gonna talk today.”

“You talk all the time,” Bucky pointed out.

“Yeah, I know,” he said, “I’m gonna talk about – you know. The whole…thing. Capture. Prisoner. Thing. That thing.”

Bucky’s brows soared high on his head before he could stop them. He said, “No shit?”

“If I don’t chicken out, I guess,” Steve said. His eyes darted out over the crowd. Not too many tonight – most of the faces in the room had become familiar to Bucky in the past month, veterans in varying stages of healing from their own experiences. Many of them, like Natasha or Bucky, kept quiet about their experiences and listened to what others had to say. Steve talked a lot, but never about anything he needed to talk about. Steve filled empty space with empty words. The empty words should have been useless, but they weren’t. Steve talking about the mundane, everyday bullshit that came with being an ex-POW comforted the group.

Or, Steve comforted Bucky. But Bucky could read a crowd, and Steve helped them.

“You can do this,” Bucky told Steve. He wrapped his arms around Steve’s waist and pulled him into a loose hug, just tight enough to encourage Steve’s head onto his shoulder. He rubbed his metal hand over the curve of Steve’s spine and went on, “And if you need to tap out, everyone will understand.”

Steve just huffed against Bucky’s neck.

“I know,” Bucky said, “but you can do it. And I bet those cupcakes are awesome.”

Steve chuckled as Sam called them all to find a folding chair and take a seat wherever they felt comfortable. Bucky snagged a cupcake from the refreshment table before he lined up a chair alongside Steve’s, and peeled the wrapper away to eat while Sam greeted the group and gave them the rundown that preceded each session. Only one new face introduced herself, some brunette chick with a fierce scowl whose name was Sif, or some weird thing like that.

Sam opened the floor for sharing. Bucky watched Steve as others took turns speaking, sharing the hardships of day to day life, of being scared by a bag of popcorn blowing up in the microwave, or realizing all at once that they were having a panic attack in the crowded food court of a mall.

“You still wanna talk?” Bucky asked, when the silence between them all stretched just a little too long. He offered his hand to Steve, laying it palm-up on his leg.

Steve laced his fingers through Bucky’s and started, “When I was in Iraq, this op went sideways.”

Steve didn’t go into excruciating detail. He mentioned using himself as a distraction to bail his guys out of trouble, and how he had faith that somebody would find him. He talked about how nobody did find him, and he busted himself out of the hands of a terrorist and walked on destroyed feet to the nearest village. He talked about not remembering a whole hell of a lot after that and how sick he was in the intervening months between his escape and his transition into civilian life.

As he spoke, Pollock laid his head on Steve’s leg, and Steve used his free hand to scratch behind Pollock’s ears.

“It’s not as hard as it used to be,” Steve said, “but sometimes I still – break. I made twice as many cupcakes than I brought and I just…threw out every cupcake that didn’t look right to me. All because I knew I was gonna say something tonight about what happened over there. I know it’s different here, with all of you. You won’t look at me any differently after I tell you all this. You have your own crap you’re carrying. But when I first came home, civilians just had this look they’d give me. Pity or something, especially before I decided to get my Stark leg. I don’t like when people look at me like that. It makes it all worse.”

Sam launched into a speech when Steve finished and Steve slumped back into his chair. Bucky squeezed Steve’s hand. The squeeze teased a tired smile onto Steve’s lips, and Bucky said, “I’m real proud of you.”

“Yeah?” Steve said, and then added more quietly, “I’m kinda proud of me too. Feel like shit, though.”

By the time that the support meeting wrapped up, the entire tray of cupcakes had been decimated. Steve carried the empty dish under his arm and walked hand-in-hand with Bucky to Sam’s car, where they both crawled into the backseat together, and Sam complained as he always did: “What am I, your taxi driver?”

They invited Sam up to watch a movie with them, which Sam accepted with the caveat that he wanted to sit with Pollock. Pollock didn’t seem to mind, and snuggled alongside Sam while Bucky and Steve wrapped themselves up in each other beneath a fleece throw blanket at the other end of the couch.

“Hey, Steve,” Sam said, after they settled on watching Re-Animator but before it started playing, “You did a great job today. I’m glad you talked about what you did.”

Steve smeared a hand over his face and said, “Thanks. I’m trying to forget about it.”

Sam rolled his eyes heavenward, but a soft smile played at his lips. Cheesy special effects and on-screen buffoonery overtook their attention soon after, and together they settled in and did forget, for a while, that Steve sliced open a long scabbed-over wound and spilled new blood tonight. Bucky drifted in and out of a half-sleep, but spooned behind him, Steve sat with a tense, stiff body and didn’t relax.

After the movie, Steve and Bucky (and Pollock, with an enthusiastic series of doggy kisses) bid Sam goodnight. Sam zeroed in on Steve before they could close the apartment door, and said, “You need anything at all, you text me. Okay, big guy?”

“Yeah, I got it,” Steve said.

Bedtime rituals were slow that night. Bucky undid his hair from its tie and brushed it out while Steve brushed his teeth with venom. Only later, after Bucky helped Steve remove his prosthesis and rested it against the bedside table, did Steve wind down, and even then, he lay back in their bed the same way a patient laid in a hospital cot.

“C’mere,” Bucky said. He herded Steve into a sitting position and rested his hands, both flesh and prosthetic, on Steve’s shoulders. He asked, “This okay? You’re real tense, doll. Thinkin’ I could work some of this tightness out.”

“Yeah, all right.”

Bucky pressed his fingers into Steve’s rigid muscles and, minute by minute, Steve melted into the touch. Bucky worked until Steve went from soft and sleepy to deadweight out-like-a-light. He eased Steve’s sleeping body onto his own, Steve’s back to Bucky’s chest, in the most comfortable position he could manage with nearly two hundred and some pounds of disabled veteran on top of him. With both of them situated, Bucky pressed his fingers to the release for his arm and set it aside on the empty side of the bed where Steve usually would have slept.

With a whistle for Pollock, Bucky accepted his fate. He switched off the lamp, wiggled as far into the pillows as he could, and closed his eyes.

X

The unmistakable sensation of the wind being knocked straight from Bucky’s lungs jolted him out of sleep. He wheezed awake and took immediate account of what the hell happened. Steve was sitting, hands fisted in the covers, with Bucky’s legs still thrown on either side of him.

Bucky rubbed the sore spot on his chest and, as soon as he caught his breath, rasped out, “Steve?”

Nothing.

Crap. Bucky tried to extract himself from their awkward knot of limbs, but as soon as Bucky’s legs shifted, Steve clamped his hands down on Bucky’s ankles. Steve turned his head. Fear and confusion blurred the focus of Steve’s eyes, and his mouth twisted into a pained grimace, upper lip curled back in a snarl.

“Babe,” Bucky said slowly, “You’re safe. We’re in Brooklyn, New York. In our bed. With our dog. Feel that mattress? Hard as a rock – just the way we like it.”

Steve turned his gaze away from Bucky and tightened his grip on his legs. He didn’t pull out of the trance. Instead, he trembled in place. Bucky wished he could read the expression on Steve’s face, but with his back to Bucky like this, the tense line of his shoulders was all Bucky had to work from.

Bucky whistled to wake Pollock. The dog lifted his head, ears at attention. As soon as he saw Steve’s state, he hopped to his feet and toed across the bed. He parked himself between Steve’s legs and lapped at Steve’s face, whining low in his throat.

“See?” Bucky tried again, “Pollock’s real worried. Hear your dog? He needs you, Stevie. Come back to us. Come on.”

After a long stretch of quiet, Steve unraveled, and the pressure on Bucky’s legs let up as Steve’s grip loosened. Steve slumped forward and rested his head on Pollock’s back. He whispered, “Fuck,” before anything, and then asked, “Where the hell is my leg?”

“Got it. Give me a sec,” Bucky said. He pulled his legs away from Steve and shifted to lean off of the side of the bed. Bucky liked to help Steve with his leg, but after nightmares that shit was no good – Steve didn’t want to be touched. So, Bucky came back up with the Stark limb and set it on the mattress beside Steve instead, watched him plug the prosthesis into its anchor and stumble onto both feet.

“I-I,” Steve stammered, “I’ll be back. Later.”

Outside the bedroom, Bucky heard the light switch being flipped with a slap of Steve’s hand, heard his stool being dragged from the corner to sit in front of his easel. He’d need time alone tonight, which Bucky expected given the nature of Steve’s sharing at the support group, but that knowledge didn’t stop weariness from setting in, knowing that there would probably always be times like this, nightmare-drenched sleeps and stress baking a fuckton of cupcakes.

Bucky sighed and leaned back onto the pillows. His muscles ached from being crunched between Steve and the mattress at an awkward angle. He stretched until joints popped and then groped for his phone. More than anything, Bucky wanted to go to Steve and kiss him, wanted to chase the nightmares away and make them normal again, but that wasn’t how shit worked. Bucky and Steve made each other better, complemented one another, but the nightmares and panic and depression and all manners of mental fuckery wouldn’t vanish just because Bucky loved the hell out of Steve.

And he did. Love Steve, that was. He loved Steve so much his heart felt heavy as a stone in his chest, heavy enough to weigh down his lungs and short out his breath. But it was a good kind of hurt, the kind of hurt that made Bucky smile. He smiled now.

For a while Bucky played games on his phone, determined to bide his time. Forty five minutes trickled by before he rolled out of bed and reached for his prosthesis, clicking it into place in the dark of the bedroom.

In the living room, Pollock lay curled around the stool at Steve’s feet. Steve sat like a mountain, still and unmoving but for the twitch of his hand at the canvas. He blinked up when Bucky tread into the room.

“Hey,” Bucky said.

“Hey,” Steve said back.

“Just wanted to check on you,” said Bucky.

“Well then, consider me checked.”

“You doin’ okay?” Bucky asked.

“Not really, no.”

“I’m gonna make you some tea,” Bucky said. From the looks of it, this bad night would stretch into a bad morning. The least that he could do was provide a little padding between now and then. He slipped past Steve and Pollock to the kitchen and filled Steve’s kettle from the tap, tossing it onto the burner while he banged around the cabinets for a couple of mugs.

Months ago, Bucky knew shit-all about looseleaf tea or pourover coffee. Now preparing a couple of tea balls of Steve’s favorite nighttime tea blend was almost muscle memory. He knew when to take the kettle off of the stove just by listening to the way the water bubbled, far before the whistle went off. The minutes the tea took to steep granted Steve a little more time to marinate in his thoughts.

By the time Bucky returned to Steve’s side and passed him a steaming mug of minty tea, Steve had slowed his roll and set his paintbrushes aside. Bucky draped an arm over the broad expanse of Steve’s shoulders and pressed a kiss to his cheek.

That, at least, teased a smile out of Steve.

“I knew I was gonna dream bad after I talked about that stuff,” Steve said, “Doesn’t make it suck less, though.”

Bucky applied a kiss at Steve’s temple and said, “That blows.”

Steve snorted into his tea.

They stood like that for a long while: Steve on the stool in front of his easel, leaning back against Bucky, who curled his arm around him as though that one arm would protect Steve from the bullshit that ruled their day to day lives. He scratched his fingers over Steve’s skin in circles and murmured, with a lift of his mug at Steve’s half-finished painting, “These are real good, you know. Real good. They mean something.”

Steve hummed, “I guess I don’t hate them as much as I used to.”

“They’re hard to look at,” Bucky agreed, “I know I’ve said that before. But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? Civilians want inspiring stories about feeding children or daring rescues but sometimes it kinda seems like they don’t want to deal with the mess afterwards, when the folks you sent overseas come back home. Your paintings – those are the mess, and I feel like everyone needs to fucking look at it.”

X

Work at the comic shop was slow as hell, and Steve’s mind centered on his paintings. Many he hadn’t looked at in weeks or even months, had opted to stack them facing the wall as soon as the paint finished drying. He didn’t like to look at them. Painting the nightmares served a purpose. Painting sucked the venom from the wound, ugly venom.

But Bucky liked them.

Behind Steve, Pollock snuffled and shifted on the bed that Darcy made for him. Steve leaned back to give him a scratch, happy to have something break through the cyclical thoughts whirling round and round like a carnival ride in his head. But Pollock curled into a dog-sized bun and went back to sleep, and left Steve thinking again.

People wouldn’t really want to see those paintings, would they?

No, they wouldn’t. The paintings were horrific, but that was the point. They were red like blood and black like ash and stark white like exposed and broken bone. They were infection, they were pain, they were the scrambled insides of Steve’s mind when sleep escaped him and all that remained were flashes of memory.

Steve frowned. His hand shook on the counter. His heart sped up. He couldn’t have a panic attack at work, oh God. Panic attacks at home were one thing, could be contained and packaged and put away in the corners of his mind but work, that was public, that was professional, that was –

The bell above the shop door tinkled, and broke the spell. Steve jerked his head up and pasted a strained smile over his face. He greeted a pair of customers, two punky looking girls with tattoos snaking out of their clothing, “Hey, let me know if you have any questions.”

“We actually wanted to know if we could leave some of our flyers here,” one of the girls said, sticking out a pile of neon printer paper.

Steve took the pile from her.

“We’re trying to organize an art walk in a couple months,” the other said, “but we need more local artists.”

Sam would tell Steve this was the universe giving Steve a sign. Steve would tell Sam to fuck off.

“Uh, yeah, sure,” Steve said, “That’s fine by me. I’ll keep ‘em up here next to the register.”

The girls grinned and thanked him, but didn’t leave right away. They picked up a couple back issues of Lumberjanes and, at Steve’s recommendation, trade paperbacks of Rat Queens. But as soon as they were gone, Steve’s eyes drifted to their flyers. He pulled one close to him and tapped it with the tip of his ballpoint pen, doodling absently over the name of the tentative art walk’s website and the contact information for the organizers.

“Damn, you’re good.”

Jesus,” Steve exclaimed, “Don’t sneak up on me.”

Darcy arched a brow and said, “My bad.”

“I’m a combat veteran,” Steve complained.

“Sorry, sorry,” Darcy said, “I shouldn’t have come through the back. You just looked so focused. I didn’t want to interrupt. Slow day?”

“Yeah, kinda,” Steve said, “We got a couple customers this morning and some that left these guys behind.” Steve flapped the flyer that he’d doodled on in the air. A beat passed before it occurred to Steve that his ballpoint-pen doodle resembled the grotesque figures featured in some of his nightmare paintings, this one a long-limbed creature scratched out of negative space.

“I didn’t know you did art,” Darcy remarked.

Steve shrugged a shoulder, “I’m okay. I’m not…you know, a professional. Didn’t go to school or nothing.”

“Yeah, so? You don’t have to go to school to be a good artist,” Darcy said, “Are you thinking of doing this thing?” She pointed to the bold lettering at the top of the flyer that read “SEEKING ARTISTS.”

“I dunno,” Steve said, “My art’s…gross looking,” at Darcy’s pointed look, he jumped to add, “Not like it’s bad or anything. Or maybe it is. I don’t know. I mean I paint when I have nightmares, and the stuff that comes out…it’s fucked up. I don’t think anybody wants to look at that.”

“Maybe they should look,” Darcy said.

Steve pursed his lips. He folded the doodled-on flyer, tucked it into his pocket, and agreed, “Maybe.”

X

Bucky downed his meds like a responsible human being. He ate breakfast, went to work, and when he returned in the afternoon, he gathered his and Steve’s clothing into an empty laundry basket to take to the communal washing machines down in the building’s basement. The discarded clothing on their bedroom floor teased a stupid grin out of him. Typically Steve didn’t stand for a cluttered floor, but neither of them had time to pick up after last night’s bedroom romp since they both worked a morning shift.

He picked up Steve’s tight t-shirt and thought of running his hands down Steve’s chest, thought about how the weather heated up enough that they were slippery with sweat and sliding over each other and making sex awkward so they’d laughed as much as they’d fucked. When they finally settled, Steve sat against the headboard and Bucky rode him, and they kissed and just – smiled.

Bucky never had that before. The stupid grins and busting out laughing while they tried to have sex.

Goofing around with Steve was just as fun as fucking him, was the thing.

Nobody else ever did that with Bucky. His long-ass roster of previous sexual partners and one-hit-wonders wanted the sex, just the sex, without any of the heart that Bucky knew it could have. He hadn’t known that before Steve.

Humming, Bucky plucked Steve’s jeans off of the carpet. He stuck his hands in the pockets to check for rogue items – the chapstick incident of last month would not be repeated if he had anything to say about it – and found a folded piece of paper, bright pink. Steve had drawn on it. A monster-like figure wrapped around information about an art walk. An art walk looking for artists.

14:32 Bucky: so were u planning on telling me about this art walk thing or

14:44 Handsome Steve: Are you snooping in my things?

14:45 Bucky: im doing laundry asshole trying not to repeat The Chapstick Incident and i found it in ur pocket

Bucky wouldn’t win this one on his own and he knew it. He opened a group chat and punched Peggy and Sam’s numbers into the message in addition to Steve’s.

14:51 Bucky: steve is thinking about submitting his paintings to an art walk tell him to do it

14:52 Sam: !!!!!

14:55 Peggy: That’s wonderful!

14:55 Sam: You should do it man

14:56 Handsome Steve: I can’t believe you just tattled on me Buck

14:57 Bucky: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

15:01 Peggy: Please at least try, Steve. You’ve always been so talented. You deserve recognition.

15:02 Handsome Steve: Oh for fuck’s sake

15:03 Bucky: yeah steve ur so talented

15:03 Sam: Yeah Steve you’re so talented

15:04 Peggy: See Steve, everyone thinks you’re talented.

15:06 Handsome Steve: Fuck fine I’ll submit some pieces are you all happy

15:06 Peggy: Yes!

15:07 Sam: [several thumbs up emojis]

15:07 Bucky: [heart emoji]

15:08 Handsome Steve: [middle finger emoji]

 

Chapter Text

Ending Credits: The Only Thing – Sufjan Stevens

If I Survive This

The fact that he needed to choose a few pieces from his stack of many nightmares daunted Steve. Only one piece struck Steve as necessary, a piece he’d been painting on days off, when Bucky was at work or therapy or otherwise occupied, because in truth, the piece was for Bucky. Anxiety rattled Steve’s bones at the thought of Bucky looking at the painting, but he wanted him to see it. He did. He painted it for them, together, as a unit.

Steve photographed and then stowed the painting for Bucky. The other choices – well, Steve still didn’t know what to do, so he opened the group message between himself and Bucky, Peggy and Sam and invited them to drop by the apartment and take a look at his work, to see if any of the paintings struck a chord.

Steve didn’t expect Sam to appear on his doorstep all of twenty minutes later, or Peggy to let herself in less than ten minutes after. Maybe he should have expected them to be so quick to react to the invitation, since before right that moment with Sam and Peggy in his apartment, Steve kept his paintings covered with drop cloths and turned away from his friends. He didn’t want them to see. Bucky saw one by mistake – the night they met, all that time ago – so Steve’s walls crumbled faster than they had for anyone else.

“You guys want…uh. Drinks? Or something?” asked Steve.

“I’m good, man,” Sam said.

“Tea, if you could,” answered Peggy.

“Okay, cool, yeah, I can do that,” Steve said. He swallowed the nervous lump in his throat and led them to his corner, where his easel stood weighed down under blank canvases he’d bought a few days and completed paintings sat stacked against the wall. Steve waved a hand at the pile and pulled the first one off the top, one with thick streaks of bright paint streaming down like harsh sun and crawling bodies splattered in desert camouflage.

“Damn,” Sam said, “That’s – damn. That’s heavy, man.”

“You guys can pick ‘em up if you want,” Steve said, “I’m gonna go make tea.”

Preparing a pot of tea gave Steve something to do with his hands. He called over the kitchen island to ask if Peggy had a preference for a specific type of tea, and when she answered in the negative Steve selected a calming, rooibos-based blend that he’d bought at one of the numerous hipster cafes between his apartment and the comic shop. With his hands busy, Steve didn’t have time to focus on the shuffling from his art corner of the living room, or the low rumble of Peggy and Sam talking back and forth.

When Steve brought a cup of tea over and passed it to Peggy, he discovered his friends had laid every one of his paintings out in the room. They rested against the couch and wall and TV, on his easel and in front of the bookcase (he hadn’t reordered that in a while, now that he thought about it). Peggy took the teacup from him but pulled Steve into a firm hug. He held her back with his free arm.

“I paint my nightmares,” Steve said, when she pulled back, “You guys knew that.”

“Yeah, but…” Sam trailed off and cleared his throat before he started again, “This is what’s been in your head the whole time?”

Steve shrugged a shoulder. In lieu of responding, he nursed his tea. His heart raced with elevated anxiety, but by the grace of God he didn’t think he was on the precipice of a panic attack as he expected to be when people looked at his work. At last, he answered, “I know they’re pretty ugly.”

“They’re not,” Peggy cut in, “The subject matter, perhaps. But the paintings…they’re beautiful, Steve.”

“They’re really something,” Sam said.

The scrape of Bucky’s key in the door rescued Steve from having to reply. Bucky didn’t look surprised to see the crowd, and said, “Got your text. Can I pick out one too?”

Steve swept across the room to yank Bucky into a greeting kiss. He smiled a shaky smile against Bucky’s lips, pecked a second kiss to Bucky’s cheek and said, “That’s why I included you in the group. How was work?”

“Same old,” Bucky said, “I like it, though. Helping people find music is fun.”

Then Bucky turned to the living room-turned-gallery and remarked, “Damn. I don’t think I’ve ever seen all of them.”

In the end, Sam chose the first piece he saw, with the desert sun and crawling bodies. Peggy selected a piece with silhouettes using each other’s bodies for support as they walked along a hazy, sloppy ground, and Bucky picked the painting he knew to be a self-portrait, the one of the shadow of Steve in the dark with broken, bleeding feet. Steve stacked the other paintings back where he had them, facing the wall and away from prying eyes. He took pictures of the pieces his friends chose, and left them out for later.

The four of them ordered a pizza and spent the afternoon a world away from Steve’s paintings. His heart rate fell back to a normal rate, so by the time that Sam left to guide a meeting at the VA and Peggy headed out to take care of errands, Steve e-mailed the pictures of his work to the organizers of the art walk and managed to not feel like immediate shit after.

Instead, his best guy planted one on Steve’s lips and Steve laughed, contentment floating through him. His whole body felt light, as though he could lift off of the ground at any moment and ascend out of his apartment.

“I’m real excited for you,” Bucky said softly, “Real proud.”

How attractive Bucky was in that moment struck Steve, a direct line to his heart. Strands of hair escaped from the loose knot tied at the base of Bucky’s neck and stubble shadowed over his jaw. His clothes were rumpled from the activity of the day and at the sight of it all Steve couldn’t help but think about how damn beautiful Bucky Barnes was. His shy smile on kiss-bitten lips inspired erratic heartbeats. The glint of light reflecting on Bucky’s metal hand softened everything in him.

I love him, Steve knew. He’d known for a while, and he knew how he’d tell Bucky, too. Not yet, though. Not yet.

Steve drifted forward again to capture Bucky’s mouth in his. He cupped the back of Bucky’s head to pull him into it and Bucky melted against him with a whimper. Steve pulled back and planted a line of kisses along the solid line of Bucky’s jaw, down to where the collar of his cotton t-shirt rested at the base of his throat.

“Mm,” Steve hummed, “I want you inside of me. You up for that?”

“Hell yeah, I’m up for that,” Bucky grinned, “Let’s do bedroom, though. Last time we fucked on the couch I had a crick in my neck for two days. Race you!”

Bucky was off like a shot. Steve laughed again and got up to follow. He closed the bedroom door in front of Pollock, who snuffled indignantly. Steve turned to find Bucky already tearing at his clothes and throwing them into the laundry hamper.

Once naked, Bucky flopped back on the bed and made a sweeping gesture at Steve. He said, “Your turn, babydoll.”

Steve rolled his eyes. Still, he humored Bucky with a silly, not-entirely-joking striptease, rolling his hips while he pulled his t-shirt up over his head and undid the fly of his jeans. Bucky laughed his rich, full-bodied laugh. Steve shucked his underwear off and leapt up onto the bed, crawling over Bucky’s body to kiss him. The heat and humidity of another body surrounded Steve, their chests already damp pressed together.

When Steve lowered his hips and let the weight of his erection fall against Bucky, Bucky groaned.

“Fuck, yeah,” Bucky said, “How d’you want it?”

Steve nuzzled along Bucky’s neck and applied kisses. He answered, “Wanna ride you. That okay?”

Bucky hummed in the affirmative and surged up to capture Steve’s mouth in a heady kiss. Their lips slid together, tongues tangled, and Steve held Bucky’s head in his hand to keep them connected. Bucky nipped Steve’s lower lip and ran his fingers through his disheveled blond hair, stubble scraping against one another’s skin.

Choreographing foreplay always proved a challenge, and in an attempt to make a grab for the lube in the bedside table, Steve toppled off of the mattress and onto the floor. Both of them laughed. Bucky offered his hand, which Steve accepted. He retrieved the lube on his feet, smiling at Bucky with what he was sure was a goofy, dumbstruck look the whole time, like an asshole.

Bucky made grabby hands at the bottle of lube, but Steve shook his head. He said, “I’m gonna do it.”

Bucky looked like he could have died and rocketed to heaven in that moment. Steve watched Bucky strive to keep still while Steve straddled him again, but Bucky couldn’t contain the groan that escaped his throat when Steve spread his legs open wide and leaned up on his chest. The pop of the lube cap echoed in the bedroom. A shiver of anticipation rolled down Bucky’s spine like a xylophone, pushing him up into Steve.

Bucky’s cock flushed red with need against his belly as Steve coated his own fingers and reached up behind himself, lip caught between his teeth. When he met Bucky’s eyes, Steve managed a smile. A stupid wave of shyness washed over Steve, like they hadn’t been fucking for ages now, and needed to be embarrassed to be putting on a show. But the stage fright wore off after only seconds of Steve fingering himself.

Sure, Steve couldn’t reach as far inside himself as Bucky could, not at this angle, but he still knew how to play his own body, and damn, did it feel good. Bucky’s bitten lips fell open as through heavy-lidded eyes he watched Steve fuck himself on his fingers. Steve hiccupped little noises of pleasure as he opened himself up, unable to choke back the sound.

“Can’t wait for this to be you,” Steve said.

“I can’t wait either,” Bucky said. He scraped an appreciative look over Steve’s body. Steve glanced down at himself. Already he glowed with a sheen of sweat. His whole body, as usual, was pink with exertion, a flush from the top of his ears to his chest and his ass.

“I love your ass,” Bucky rumbled, “Can’t wait to be inside it. Know how good you’re gonna feel?” Bucky reached down, then, and squeezed his fist around his erection like he was afraid watching Steve finger himself might make him come.

Steve dipped down to kiss Bucky with sticky lips. The kiss was noisy and jackknifed Steve’s need for his best guy to pound inside him ever-higher. God, he couldn’t wait.

When Steve finally withdrew his fingers from his body, Bucky whined. After he slicked Bucky up, Steve took his cock in one hand and braced himself with the fingers of his other hand splayed over Bucky’s chest. A broken sound cracked out from deep in Steve’s chest as he lowered himself down, and swallowed Bucky’s cock into his body inch after agonizing inch. The slide of Bucky’s thick erection inside him burned, but it was good. So damn good.

Bucky moaned.

“Christ, Stevie,” he whimpered, “You’re so tight. God.”

“Mm,” Steve said, “You feel so good inside me. I’m so full. Ah, yeah.”

And then he rode Bucky in earnest. Bucky clutched onto Steve by the hips, guiding him down while Steve kept his grip on the headboard to leverage his body back. Steve would take no prisoners. He wanted to fuck himself on Bucky as hard as he could. He slammed his body onto Bucky’s like he was in a race, a goddamn dick-riding race, and Bucky was lucky enough to be a participant. Steve cried out and sighed and cursed.

Bucky petted his hands over Steve’s sides and said, “You look so gorgeous. Wish you could see yourself, Stevie. Wish you could watch how nice you take cock.”

“Shit, Buck,” Steve said.

His own cock bounced with each slap back into Bucky’s lap. He threw his head back and howled when Bucky took his erection in hand and fisted it counterpoint to each of Steve’s thrusts. He didn’t expect to come before Bucky, but he did, orgasm tackling him from behind all sneak-attack. Steve fell forward against Bucky in surprise.

Steve didn’t stop riding. He slowed the movements of his body, grinding low and dirty in circles on Bucky’s lap until he milked the right sounds out of Bucky, until Bucky looked like he might start to cry from pleasure, and clenched hard around Bucky’s dick. Bucky’s hips smacked up hard inside Steve one final time when he came, mouth open wide in a silent scream.

“Shit,” Bucky breathed, “You’re good at that, you know?”

Steve managed a smile and said, “Yeah, I know.”

Bucky shook his head and murmured, “Smug asshole.”

They lay in their own mess for longer than strictly sanitary and dozed, but eventually made it out to shower. Steve stripped the sheets while Bucky started dinner. Profound soreness creaked through Steve’s bones as he brought the laundry to the communal washing machines and shoved their clothes and dirty sheets inside. His silent prayer to the universe that nobody would come in and smell the fuck-fumes from Steve’s laundry went answered, and Steve made it back to the apartment without a single awkward encounter with his neighbors.

His heart spun in his chest at the sight of Bucky in the kitchen, dancing to some indie record he’d bought at work. Steve didn’t recognize the music, but watching his best guy dance to the song in front of the stove still turned his insides into a pile of idiot mush.

Steve looped his arms around Bucky from behind and buried his face in Bucky’s neck.

“Hey there,” Bucky chuckled, “What are you doin’ back there?”

“Hugging you,” Steve said, “Hugging my favorite person.”

“Jesus, Steve. You sure now how to make a guy blush.”

“My mission in life,” Steve said seriously.

Bucky flicked Steve’s shoulder, but kissed him. Yes, Steve thought. This was how he always wanted it to be.

X

Bucky fixed his eyes on Nick’s degrees and certifications where they hung framed behind his desk and kicked his feet up onto the couch. He went on, “So the art walk people liked Steve’s shit so much that they wanted more than just what he e-mailed to them. He hated choosing paintings in the first place, so he had Nat and Clint pick a couple out like he did with our other friends.”

Bucky paused and slid his eyes over at Nick. He said, “That’s so weird. I have friends.”

“As pleased as I am to hear that your boyfriend is making strides with his own issues, you know I have to ask how you’re managing,” Nick said.

Bucky shrugged in an attempt to avoid the question, but Fury cocked a brow, and he knew there was no getting out of answering.

“I take it day by day, like you said,” Bucky replied after a stretch of silent consideration. He exhaled and admitted, “Some days it’s like…everything feels impossible, still. And I’ll pull the covers up over my head and I keep wishing I’ll fucking disappear, and it’s just like it was before – except that I have some things that make me think okay, but what about that? That’s a good thing.

Bucky pushed back the pieces of hair that had escaped from his ponytail and went on, “But other days, I get up and I go to work and I whistle my whole way there. I come home and I cook dinner for my best guy and screw him on the couch and feel normal as shit. Fact is, I don’t think I’m ever gonna be cured or nothing. I don’t think depression works that way.”

“But you’re coping,” Nick said.

“But I’m coping,” Bucky agreed, “and that counts for something.”

After the session, less weight rested on Bucky’s shoulders, for which he was grateful. He didn’t want to go to Steve’s thing tonight feeling like shit because he’d drained a wound at therapy and was feeling the aftereffects of purging poison. No, instead he just handed off some of the burden to Nick for safe keeping.

About a block from the art walk, Bucky’s phone vibrated in the pocket of his jeans.

“Hey, Ma,” he answered.

“Hi, honey,” his mom said, “Do you know where we’re supposed to park for Steve’s art thing? There’s no goddamned –”

“Mom!” Becca’s voice called in the background, tinny, “There’s a spot right there! Get it before some other asshole does.”

“Sounds like you found something,” Bucky said, “I’ll meet you guys there, okay? I’m almost at the walk.”

“Okay, okay,” said his mom, “We’ll be there in a shake.”

Bucky hung up his phone and pocketed it again. People already crowded the street when he arrived at the art walk, despite the fact that it had only officially opened a half-hour before. All kinds of folks strolled the streets, skin cast orange and pink in the glow of the setting sun. The scent of fried and sugary food from local vendors permeated the air – Bucky’s stomach rumbled, and he’d revisit that as soon as he found Steve.

Bucky texted Sam to ask where Steve’s work was, and Sam texted back that it was in one of the galleries near a balloon vendor in a building with the bricks painted white. He found it with little trouble, and when he ducked inside, spotted Natasha and Peggy wrapped up in conversation with one another, each with a glass of wine in hand.

“Hey,” Bucky greeted, “You guys look nice.”

They did. Peggy cut a striking figure in a snappy red dress, while Natasha opted for more subtle-sexy in a slinky black thing. In comparison, Bucky’s weathered jeans and plaid button-down seemed pretty shabby, but out here in this part of the city he could probably make it pass for hipster shabby-chic.

“Steve’s work is in this room back here,” Peggy pointed to the archway, through which Bucky could see the painting of Steve’s that he picked out for the walk.

“It’s getting a lot of attention,” Natasha added, “There’s one you need to see.”

“I’ve seen all of them,” Bucky said.

“I don’t think you have,” Peggy told him.

Bucky put his hands up and said, “All right, all right. I’ll go look. And hey…thanks for coming. I know it means the world to Steve.”

Natasha pulled Bucky forward to smack a kiss to his cheek and said, “We wouldn’t miss this for anything. Go check out the painting.”

Bucky dipped into the next room. True to Natasha’s word, people crowded this part of the gallery far more densely than the other room, stirring up body heat that lazily spinning ceiling fans did little to counter. Sweat broke out over Bucky’s brow, but he took his time to absorb every one of Steve’s paintings, even though he totally had seen every one.

Until he turned the corner.

There, the only canvas on one wall, hung an enormous piece that Bucky had never before laid eyes on. The backdrop was fire and smoke, streaks of black and bright orange, ash and fanned plumes of thick carbon clouds. Two figures done in white sliced through the violence of the background, gray over their faces to shadow the most basic features. They stood hand in hand.

One figure wore his hair long, and where a left arm should have been hung a stump bleeding bright, primary red.

The other figure lacked his right leg from below the knee and bled just as brightly, dripping down to the bottom of the canvas.

Bucky stared.

And stared.

When at last he moved, he took a stumbling step toward the title card mounted beside the canvas.

Steve G. Rogers

Love, 2016

Oil on Canvas, 48 in x 30 in

This painting didn’t have a price tag like the others.

Love.

Bucky gaped. He gaped at the beautiful-ugly painting of his own mutilated body hand-in-hand with Steve’s, of them bleeding together on the canvas. He gaped at the title card. He gaped at the word Love. Bucky lifted hand to his mouth and bit down on his knuckles. He wasn’t going to cry in the middle of a crowded art gallery, for fuck’s sake.

When Bucky turned, Natasha and Peggy stood behind him.

Hoarsely, Bucky asked, “Where is he?”

A small smile tugged on one corner of Peggy’s mouth as she answered him, “The crowds overwhelmed him. He went to take a break out in the back. Through that door, just there.”

Bucky turned on his heel and shouldered his way through the crowd of people buzzing around Steve’s paintings. He shoved open the back door and found Steve, ass parked on the curb with his big bear-paw hand scratching the top of Pollock’s head. He glanced up when he heard the metallic slam of the door.

“Hey,” Steve said, a tired smile on his face.

“I saw the painting,” Bucky said.

“Yeah? What did you think?”

“I love you too, you big asshole,” Bucky said, “You and your stupid romantic painting. All I got is the words.”

Steve pushed up onto his feet and pulled Bucky into an all-encompassing, warm, perfect hug. Steve said, “All I need’s the words.”

“Stupid sappy punk,” Bucky complained, but whispered into Steve's neck again, "I love you," just in case the first one hadn't been enough.

Steve pulled back enough to press the gentlest of kisses to Bucky’s lips. He said, “I love you so much sometimes I think I’m crazy, Buck.”

Bucky snorted and said, “You are crazy, but what the hell? So am I. We’ll figure it out together.”

The End