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Cardiac Therapy

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Steve chewed his lip as he stared up at the sign in front of him, before looking back at the piece of paper in his hand to confirm that yes, he was at the right address and no, he really, really didn’t want to look in the row of windows showing off the workout equipment and unfairly attractive people inside.  Finally, he sighed and squared his shoulders, standing as proud as one could when they were a slightly-crooked five foot two-point-four inches tall, and forced himself to march through the front door of The Red Room gym and fitness center.

He probably never would have gotten up the nerve to have gone to a high-end gym on his own, much less to have bought a year-long membership to one, but after having a final open heart surgery to finish repairing a malformed septum which had been giving him problems since the actual day he was born, Steve’s friends had pitched in to get him a membership to a proper fitness center as soon as his doctors had cleared him to work out on his own… and Steve Rogers wasn’t the type to let so well-intentioned and expensive of a gift to waste.  There was the added bonus that the membership had also come with ten sessions of instructed work-outs with one of the gym’s professional trainers; Steve had barely been healthy enough to participate in PE classes when he’d been in school, so he wouldn’t have known the first thing to do had he been forced into this exercising thing on his own.  While the thought of having some muscle-brained gym rat trail him around and judge his shitty body for five weeks wasn’t exactly an exciting one, Steve was humble enough to admit that it was a good idea.

Steve made a bee-line for the member’s services desk, holding his head high and reminding himself that the likelihood of people actually looking at him and judging the skinny hipster lost at the gym was slim to none, despite what the anxious little voice in his mind was telling him.  The thought was quickly pushed out of his head when he caught sight of the strikingly beautiful woman sitting behind the desk.  Her bright red hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and when she looked up at him with sharp green eyes, it was all that Steve could do to remember how to speak English.

“Hi, er…” he started stupidly, “I got a gift membership from a friend, I uh – I was hoping to get the registration done, and talk about getting set up with a trainer.  Um – I have a few questions about making sure I get the right person.”

The woman, Natasha according to the name stitched into her polo shirt, gave him a smile that wasn’t exactly friendly but did set Steve somewhat at ease.  “No problem,” she responded simply, grabbing a clipboard and stack of papers from a drawer inside the desk, “If you’ve got the gift receipt on hand I’ll go ahead and start putting you in the system, I’ll just need you to fill out the paperwork here then we can talk about what you’re looking for and figure out the best fit for a trainer.”

“Sounds good,” Steve said, sighing quietly as he handed over the envelope Sam had given him earlier then taking the clipboard and grabbing a seat on a nearby bench.  The forms were your standard health assessment questionnaires, and Steve tried not to feel too embarrassed as he checked off box after box of chronic health conditions, adding extra ailments to the ‘others’ section at the bottom before going on to report that he’d basically done no prior exercise in his life.  On more than one occasion he wanted to return the clipboard to Natasha and apologize for wasting her time – Steve had no business being here, watching out of the corner of his eye as other twenty-somethings sprinted on treadmills and benched Steve’s bodyweight with ease.  Before his real melancholy could set in, Steve shook his head, frowning as he went back to the paper; that was the point of this, after all – to take advantage of the fact that he finally had a functional heart, and to work towards having a working body to go along with it.

Once he’d finally finished writing in all of his health contact information on the back of the sheet, Steve marched back to the desk, staring straight ahead as Natasha slowly flipped through the papers.  The one time that he made the mistake of stealing a glance at her face, his stomach dropped at the frown he saw there – maybe she’d turn him down out of liability for the gym.  They didn’t want some skinny kid dying on one of the elliptical machines; it’d be terrible for advertising.

Finally, she looked up at him, tapping her pen against the clipboard a couple of times before smiling.  “Alright – what did you have in mind, in terms of a trainer?”

Steve blinked a couple of times, shocked that she hadn’t told him to leave.  “Well, mainly someone to show me the basics of using the machines, give me some ideas on how to build an exercise plan.  I’m sure it’s a shock,” he added sardonically, “but I haven’t done much working out in my day.”

Natasha chuckled at that, her eyes softening a bit as she looked over his list of health concerns again.  “No, I kind of guessed that.  But you said you have clearance, now?”

Steve nodded tightly, “Provided I have someone who knows what they’re doing to help me get started, yeah – my doctors said I could start a reasonable workout plan.”

“You know,” Natasha said with a grin, typing shortly on the computer in front of her, “I think I’ve got just the trainer for you, actually – do you have a schedule in mind?”

“I just have to work around my class schedule,” Steve answered, already digging his phone out of his pocket so that he could give it to her if needed, “but I would like to get started as soon as possible.”

“Great,” she said brightly, turning the computer screen around so that he could see it.  “Let’s see what you have for availabilities wherever you see the name ‘James’ listed.”

And so, Steve found himself walking through the doors of The Red Room two afternoons later, this time decked out in an obviously new pair of sneakers, a white cotton t-shirt that was probably a size too-big for him, and a pair of basketball shorts that he’d bought in the kid’s section at Target (they were cheaper and fit him better than those made for men, so he refused to let himself be embarrassed about them).  It was all that he could do not to turn around and walk back out when he saw how full the place was, with almost every machine occupied by either a lithe young woman or a heavily-muscled man.  Swallowing down his momentary panic, Steve made his way towards the desk, noticing a small gathering of people in matching outfits who must have been the training staff.

As Steve approached, the lone guy in the group glanced in his direction, his face going oddly blank for a second as he stared directly at Steve.  Before he could feel too offended by it, the man was smiling again and jogging in Steve’s direction; as he got a better look at him, Steve cursed internally, realizing that one: this was clearly his trainer, James, and two: the guy could have stepped out of one of Steve’s wet dreams.   While he was muscular, it wasn’t the ridiculous, overly-muscled look that some of the guys on the free-weights had; instead he was built like a swimmer, clearly powerful and cut but with a clean, lithe grace to him.   He wore the same outfit as the rest of the staff, a bright red polo that fit his broad shoulders and trim waist perfectly, with a pair of black track pants that Steve could tell from a distance clung to a beautifully sculpted pair of legs.  On top of that, he had huge steel blue eyes, plush plink lips, and a jaw line that Steve was fairly certain would be able to cut glass.  Even his hair, which was brown and cut in a stupid Eagle Scout style and parted on the side, worked perfectly for him… like he was some god damned black and white film star who had been brought to life and raised in a gym.

Steve was so fucked.

(Or maybe, didn’t stand a chance of being fucked, and didn’t that just make it even worse?)

“Hey,” the brunette said smoothly, extending his hand as he came to a stop in front of him.  “You’re Steve, right?”

“Yeah,” Steve wheezed, before clearing his throat harshly and trying again.  “Er, yeah – my name is Steve.  Are you James?”

“Bucky, actually, but Natasha refused to let me have it printed on our uniforms,” James laughed, giving Steve’s hand a couple of quick, strong pumps as he finally remembered how to interact like a human being.  “Uh, you mind grabbing a bench and talking for a second before we get started?  I just like to get to know my clients a little bit before I really start planning out a program for them.”

“Sure,” he responded stupidly, before following James – Bucky – to the mentioned bench, dropping next to him and doing his best to not gape at the outline of his thigh muscles through his track pants. 

Bucky had grabbed a covered clipboard from a stack of them on the main desk, and flipped through the pages of it momentarily before glancing at Steve.  “So… your health history forms were pretty – thorough,” he started gently.

“Yeah,” Steve shrugged, “I’ve kind of made being sick a full-time job up until now, but my cardiologist seems to think that the heart issues are finally taken care of.”

Bucky nodded thoughtfully, “You had cardiac rehabilitation after the last surgery?”

Steve blinked, surprised that a trainer would have known about such a thing.  “Yeah, yeah I did,” he finally answered, “I finished up with it last week when they said there wasn’t much more that they could do for me there and recommended I start exercising on my own.  Saw my doctor in follow-up and she agreed that it would be a good idea, so my friends went about picking out a gym and paying for lessons with a trainer so I could learn my way around the ropes.”

“That’s awesome,” Bucky responded earnestly, “I mean, that’s what we’re here for, so… yeah, I’m excited to help.”  He chewed on his lower lip for a moment (God that was going to be dangerously distracting) before focusing on Steve again, “Any specific goals, then?  Bulk up, tone up, win an IronMan?”

Although the last bit had clearly been added to tease, Steve didn’t feel as offended as he had expected to.  Sure, it was obvious that Bucky was messing with him – but it wasn’t the mean-spirited bullying that Steve had dealt with from most jocks his age.  If anything, it had just released the tension that Steve had been feeling about starting the whole process in the first place.

“Pal, I’d settle for running a block, at this point.”  Steve responded drolly, hoping that his smile didn’t look too stupid as it took over his face while Bucky laughed at the quip.  “But seriously,” he added after a moment, “being able to carry groceries from the subway so I don’t have to have a cart all the time, being able to take the stairs if the elevator is down without feeling like I need an ambulance by the end – I know I’m not gonna be Mister America or anything, but a body that works would be nice.”

Bucky had watched him seriously as Steve had spoken, before nodding decisively and giving him another broad grin.  “I really think we can get to that, then… let’s start today by working on figuring out your baseline,” he said cheerily, springing to his feet with grace then extending his hand to Steve.  Under any other circumstances Steve would have probably shunned the offer for a boost, hating the fact that people felt the need to baby him; but the lazy smile on Bucky’s face really meant it seem that he was only offering because he was being friendly, not because he thought Steve was too sick to stand on his own.  And besides that, it gave him an excuse to actually touch the guy for a second.

Steve stepped up onto the scale first, staring at his feet as Bucky slid the counterweight to its paltry final weight, recording it on his clipboard in diplomatic silence before leading Steve out onto the main floor of the weight room.  Sticking to a smaller bar and five pound weights, Bucky patiently put Steve through a full upper and lower body circuit workout, easily showing him each move with a considerably heavier bar, then watching and talking Steve through the exercises until his technique was deemed good enough to move on.  While it was mortifying at the beginning, working with weights that were obviously less than even the women on the machines around them, Steve quickly found himself working so hard at learning the techniques and keeping up with Bucky’s motions that he couldn’t focus on anything outside of the exercises.

After forty-five minutes of seemingly constant movement, Steve ended on the treadmill, with Bucky upping the speed and the incline while watching Steve’s heart rate monitor increase, before finally nodding and leaving it at the same level.  “You alright on your own for a few minutes while I go print off your instructions for the week?”  He asked pleasantly, glancing up from the monitor and watching Steve closely as he waited for an answer.

“Yeah,” Steve responded tightly, swallowing down the innate annoyance that he felt over being coddled.  He was hardly going any faster than he had been by the end of his sessions with the heart therapist – and while he’d certainly never worked out as hard on the weights during those sessions, he was plenty strong enough to walk on a treadmill for a while, even if it was all uphill.

Steve couldn’t really help watching Bucky as he jogged over to the main desk; even if he was feeling a little annoyed with the brunette, Steve wasn’t one to turn down the opportunity to appreciate such a view.  As soon as he’d ducked out of sight Steve put himself back to the task of focusing on the treadmill, pushing himself to keep up with the pace and keep his breathing even until Bucky returned to change the settings to cool-down mode.

“Alright,” Bucky said, already starting to scribble instructions out on his clipboard as Steve stepped off of the treadmill, holding onto the handrail and doing his best to control his panting.  “That was an awesome start – make sure to do the stretches on the second page of this packet at home tomorrow, and try to go out walking for a couple of blocks just to loosen your muscles up, but otherwise plan on taking the day off; rest days are just as important as training days, especially when you’re getting started.”  He finished jotting a few more things down before handing his instructions over.  “Come back in on Wednesday and Thursday, I’ve split up today’s lifts between the two, just do your best to stick to the circuits and the repetitions, then take Friday off and we’ll reassess how things are going on Saturday.  Sound good?”

Steve frowned slightly as he read over the instructions – his contacts were nowhere near as good for reading as his glasses were, but he hadn’t wanted to risk busting them while working out and hadn’t thought that he would need to read again before getting home.  As he read over the specifics for the weight program, he felt the furrow between his brows growing deeper.  “There aren’t any weights on most of these, and the treadmill is at the same level you had me today…”

“I wanna start you on higher reps with lower weights,” Bucky responded sagely, “it’ll help your muscles start building up endurance, plus it’s easier on your heart then trying to strain through heavier things…”

Steve didn’t bother hiding his annoyance over Bucky’s words; after everything he hadn’t expected the guy to baby him, and yet here he was…

“We’ll work you up next week, I promise,” Bucky continued, as if he’d been reading Steve’s increasingly angry thoughts.  “Just trust me here, alright?  It’s gonna be enough of a shock to your system easing into getting active, you getting injured will only make it worse.  And if it’s not hard enough for you, grab me on Wednesday or Thursday and we can reconfigure the plan, alright?”

“Yeah, sure,” Steve responded skeptically, before scowling one final time at the paper and folding it in half.  “Alright then – I guess I’ll see you around.”

“Have a good one,” Bucky responded softly, but Steve had already turned to march out the door of the gym.

He’d had half a mind to go back the next day to workout, just to prove Bucky wrong, but when Steve had woke the next morning he’d been so sore he could barely get out of bed.  A long, hot shower and the stretches that Bucky had recommended had helped a bit, but ultimately it had been hard enough to get through the day of classes and walk to the bodega around the corner to buy dinner after – for as bitter as it was to admit, Steve realized that his trainer had probably been right in assessing his limits, and while he had every intention of pushing them, he figured it would probably be best to stick to them for the moment.

The rest of the week hadn’t been easy – Steve heard more than a couple of sarcastic chuckles as he struggled his way through bench pressing one of the light bars with a single sad five-pound weight on each end, and had damn near walked out of the gym for good when he’d needed one of the female trainers help him re-rack a bar when he’d misjudged his grip in the middle of a squat.  But Steve had been nothing but stubborn his entire life – in the end he’d stuck with it, pushing himself through the entirety of Bucky’s recommendations before heading home and soaking in a cold bath, only to get up the next day and start it all over.

Things were going fine until the end of his fourth session, when Steve had taken over the controls on the treadmill and pushed the speed up, ignoring the skepticism on Bucky’s face as he pushed himself into an up-hill jog, and then promptly started wheezing with the exertion.

“Here, hop off the track to the side while I dial it down,” Bucky said gently, already beginning to reduce the incline on the treadmill before glancing up at Steve with worry plain on his face.  “Good… breathe in deep through your nose, then out through your mouth…”

“I know how to breathe through an attack, Bucky, I’ve had asthma my whole life,” Steve muttered, glad that his chest was at least starting to loosen up.

“D’you have an inhaler?”  Bucky asked sheepishly, thankfully dropping the breathing coach act.

Steve took a few more breaths before nodding, “In my bag, yeah, but I’m fine,” he insisted, balancing carefully on the track of the treadmill and taking a sip of his water before stepping back onto the belt and starting from the beginning again.  “You regretting drawing the short stick, yet?”  He asked bitterly, his breathing finally normal as Bucky started scribbling notes on his clipboard again.

“What?”  Bucky asked, looking up with a confused frown.

“I mean, getting stuck with a mess like me,” Steve muttered, already regretting having self-pity get the best of him, “when you could have had one of the easier jobs.”  He gestured vaguely around the rest of the gym, where two of the other trainers were working with people who looked like actual athletes.

Bucky’s cheeks actually pinked up a bit as he looked at the clipboard again, shaking his head.  “No,” he finally responded quietly.  “I mean… yeah, having the clients who make the biggest gains and set gym records and whatnot looks good on the leader board, but ah –” after chewing his lip for a second Bucky looked up at Steve, “I’m actually trying to go back to school, get degree in physical therapy and really get to help people, so the more clients I can get who are really working through something to try to turn their health around, the better.”

Steve stared at him in shock, barely managing to put one foot in front of the other in his surprise.  He’d expected Bucky to blow the question off, or maybe give some trite answer, but he’d sounded totally sincere in his explanation.  He felt his heart trip for a moment, only it was completely different than any of the scary arrhythmias he’d felt in the past.  Suddenly, the way that Bucky acted around him, the good-natured teasing and earnest encouragement, started to make sense.  Steve had been right in thinking that Bucky had never pitied him – if anything, it was as if he was actually empathizing with Steve’s issues, and truly impressed by his gradual improvements.

From there, it got progressively harder to not notice Bucky whenever he was at the gym.  Sure, Steve focused on his workouts, pushing himself to his limit while also making sure that he maintained his form and stuck to Bucky’s plans so that he didn’t get injured.  But he found his eyes wandering more and more to wherever Bucky was in the gym, appreciating the encouraging way he seemed to work with all of his clients, and even more the way he looked when he didn’t have anyone to train and was working on the machines himself. 

The worst, though, came one afternoon right after Steve had worked himself into a jog on the treadmill.  A young blonde woman was trying to work through a free-weight routine on the floor, when Steve noticed one of the bigger jerks start following her around.  While his hearing was nowhere near good enough to understand what the guy was saying over the canned pop music filtering through the gym, it wasn’t hard to tell that he was giving her a hard time.  Steve was getting ready to pause his run, when Bucky seemed to appear out of nowhere, giving the woman a professional smile and leading her towards another set of weights on the far end of the gym.  After showing her a couple of curl techniques, Bucky let her get back to her workout, although he jumped up onto the chin-up bar nearby, effortlessly alternating between chins and hanging leg raises as he glared down the free-weight jerk before he got the idea to try to hit on the lady again.

Steve damn-near swooned off the treadmill.

Interestingly, while Steve was busy paying attention to his trainer, he was simultaneously missing how much easier his workouts were becoming.  Each session Bucky gave his usual platitudes and pushed Steve a bit further, adding a couple more 2.5 pound weights, increasing the speed intervals on the treadmill, filling in another set of reps on his instruction sheet. 

At the end of the fourth week he had increased the treadmill workouts to include a five minute jog and made the final round of each of Steve’s free weight circuits 3x max wt.  “Within reason, of course,” he’d added with a small smile, catching the puzzled look on Steve’s face as he read the instructions again.  “And feel free to grab me if you want a spotter, especially on the bench or the squats.”

Steve had nodded dumbly at the time, shaking off the delusional thought that Bucky was hitting on him before making his way home.  During his workouts that week, though, he noticed more and more often that he was catching Bucky’s eye when he looked in his direction, his heart giving a stupid little thrill each time.  As Steve set up for his final round of power cleans, he let his good mood get the best of him, adding an extra five-pound weight to each side of the bar before squatting in front of it and checking his grip.

After a couple of deep breaths, Steve shifted his weight, pulling the bar into first position before pausing and taking another breath.  Realizing that it didn’t feel that much heavier than the last time he’d done the reps, Steve took another breath and pulled the bar the second time, bending his knees and jerking the bar upward as hard as he could.  His arms seemed to move on their own, shrugging as the bar moved upwards past his chest, then his wrists rolled over effortlessly, catching the weight in final position as he squatted down with it then stood up straight.  He couldn’t help smiling as he exhaled and dropped the bar back to the matt, but that feeling of happy accomplishment was nothing on the rush of joy Steve felt when he glanced across the room and saw the huge, open-mouthed grin on Bucky’s face.  Steve grinned right back, not caring if he looked like a sweaty, scrawny goober – in that moment, he was pumped so full of pride and adrenaline that he was fairly certain that if someone asked him to, he could have probably lifted a freakin’ Harley. 

Of course, he settled for squatting down and cleaning sixty pounds again.

Their final week continued in the same manner, with Steve pushing himself as hard as his body would allow and Bucky encouraging him through it, so that when he weighed in at the beginning of their last session together, the number on the scale – 111.4 pounds – shocked the hell out of both of them.

“That’s two and a half pounds heavier than when you started…” Bucky observed, noting the numbers in his chart with a smile – when he looked up, Steve was hopeless in doing anything other than returning it.  “Steve, this is seriously incredible; you did even better than I was hoping for.”

 Steve shrugged nonchalantly, although he could tell even without looking in the mirrors in front of him that he had a pretty spectacular blush going.  “I mean, guess we’ll know for sure in an hour, won’t we?”  He ended up saying simply, before Bucky flung an arm around his shoulders and led him off to their usual circuit, ready to see how much his max reps had improved over his baseline.

It definitely wasn’t easy, but Steve made his way through each of the weight circuits Bucky had coached him through, with actual weights on the actual bars this time, and then was able to bang out a whopping twenty push-ups before ending by jogging a quarter mile three separate times on the treadmill.  He wouldn’t be able to get out of bed the next morning, in all likelihood, but even Steve was beaming like an idiot as he hopped off the treadmill after his cool-down, making his way around the side of it to watch as Bucky filled in his final assessments.

“All-star, man,” Bucky grinned, signing off on the paperwork with a flourish.  “I’ll need the computer to crunch it for sure, but I’m willing to bet you’re one of the best improvements we’ve had in months.  Keep it up and you’ll be on the leader board in no time.”

Steve knew that was an exaggeration, but coming from Bucky he also knew it wasn’t meant to be anything other than friendly teasing.  As he looked closer though, Steve noticed that Bucky didn’t seem like his usual cheerful self; if anything, he looked almost sad as he flipped through the pages of Steve’s chart one final time before dropping it against his side.  “Well,” he said finally, extending his hand to Steve after a beat, “it’s been a pleasure, for real.  If you, uh – if you ever want me to look over your form or talk about changing up routines or… y’know, whatever, just grab me, alright?  As long as I’m not with a client.  I mean, I won’t charge you or anything, just – it can really help to have an outside eye every once in a while, and I’m always here anyway…”

Bucky continued rambling, but Steve barely listened, instead turning over everything that had happened in the past five weeks and riding the adrenaline rush of another good workout.  It was crazy, he knew, to imagine that Bucky wanted anything to do with him – Steve didn’t even know if he liked guys, and if he did, the chances of him going for someone as scrawny as Steve were slim to none.  Especially considering how much time he spent around seriously ripped people; someone as good-looking as Bucky wouldn’t have any trouble pulling any of the other gym rats if he wanted to.  Hell, he deserved as much. 

But, he continued stalling in their goodbyes, and Steve had been around the gym for an inordinate amount of time over the past five weeks.  He was never going to be built like Bucky or any of the other jocks, but if he’d already made the progress he had in five weeks, who was to say that Steve couldn’t at least start jogging regularly, and build up enough strength to finally feel like a healthy, normal guy.

He took a deep breath, finally deciding to go for it – he’d had the guts to go through the training program, Steve wasn’t about to chicken out now, especially given the fact that their sessions were over.

“Yeah, man,” he finally said, cutting off Bucky’s continued nervous rant and shaking his hand firmly.  “Yeah, I’ll definitely be workout buddies when you’re free – on one condition.”  He added the last bit with an arched eyebrow, his stomach turning over as Bucky listened intently.  “I know you said you won’t charge me for formal sessions, but you’ve gotta let me get you dinner to pay you back.”

Bucky remained completely still after Steve had finished talking, and for a second he was afraid that he’d overstepped his bounds.  When another couple of seconds passed in silence, Steve began to feel his heart dropping, waiting for Bucky to either laugh in his face or punch him for being so forward.  He swallowed, mortified that he’d been so stupid, trying to think of anything that he might be able to say that might be able to at least salvage the easy relationship they’d had until that point. 

Before Steve could say anything, a small smile started to curl at the corners of Bucky’s mouth, and he dropped his head to look at his sneakers before looking at Steve again, his eyes bashful and fucking adorable.  “I’m alright with that,” Bucky finally responded softly, licking his lip shortly before smiling even wider.  “Actually, I’m fine with getting dinner anytime that you want to, it doesn’t just have to be after training sessions.”

Steve grinned outright at that, barely restraining himself from fist-pumping in celebration.  Because that – that definitely wasn’t Steve’s imagination playing tricks on him.  Bucky definitely seemed interested, at least in being friends, which was more than Steve possibly could have hoped for.  “Alright,” he finally said, his voice sounding goofy even to his own ears, “alright… awesome.  Well, uh, I’ll see you soon, then?”

“Hold on,” Bucky responded, clicking his pen again and tucking the clipboard underneath his arm as he reached out and grabbed Steve by the wrist.  He carefully wrote ten digits on the soft, translucent skin over Steve’s veins – all the while, Steve’s heart was pounding so hard it was a wonder that Bucky was able to write at all.  “Let me know ASAP, alright?”  He asked gently, holding Steve’s arm for a beat longer before giving it a gentle squeeze and letting go.

“Yeah…” Steve breathed, staying rooted in the spot as they continued to grin at each other.

“JAMES!”  A voice shouted from across the room, interrupting their reverie.  Bucky glanced over his shoulder where Steve could recognize Natasha standing next to what looked like a new client at the desk, giving them both a bemused look. 

“Er, sorry, I’ve gotta go…” Bucky said, turning back to Steve one last time.  “Just – text me.”

Before Steve could respond Bucky had already run off to return to work, but it hardly mattered; he took one more look at the numbers written on his wrist then headed home, feet barely touching the pavement.