"I want Barnes," Steve said.
Coach Fury didn't say anything in reply, but his raised eyebrow was pretty eloquent. Beside him, Hill just nodded, inscrutable as usual.
Steve waved a hand at Fury's monitor. "He's got softer hands than any of the guys you're looking at. He's fast--"
"He can hit harder than any of those guys, too," Fury said, with deceptive mildness. He clicked to another tab on his computer and started up a video.
Barnes could hit hard, all right. On the screen he did it over and over, and the video included helpful captions about how much he'd been fined for each penalty he racked up.
It ended, predictably, with a brutal hit against one Steven G. Rogers. The video was cleverly edited, cutting right from the moment Barnes drilled Steve into the boards to the image of Steve bleeding onto the ice a few seconds later, looking unacceptably soft and vulnerable as Dr. Cho checked to see if he was even conscious.
He had been conscious. Plenty conscious enough to remember the parts that Fury's video had left out, anyway. It had been two years, but he remembered. He got out his phone and quickly pulled up a video of his own. He didn't even bother playing it, he just swiped to the few frames he wanted and held it up where Fury could see the image.
"Does that look like a guy who's doing what he wants?" Steve demanded.
It didn't, of course. Barnes looked horrified, peering over Sam's shoulder at Steve's crumpled figure.
Hill pursed her lips in a way that revealed absolutely nothing.
With barely a glance at the screen, Fury said, "Maybe what he wanted was to crack your skull some more."
"My skull was fine, I barely even had a concussion," Steve snapped, realizing as he said it that it wasn't his finest argument. "You brought me in here because you wanted my opinion, and my opinion is that Barnes is your best choice."
"How much of this opinion has to do with pretty eyes and killer legs?" Hill asked.
Steve blinked in surprise. Barnes did, in fact, have pretty eyes, and even with his full gear on his thighs were obviously--
"Romanoff didn't talk to you?" Fury asked.
"I have a lot of respect for Natasha," Steve said pointedly, but Fury and Hill didn't react at all. "She's a great agent, and she knows the game better than anyone. But she doesn't make my decisions for me. Barnes is wasted where he is. Nobody matches him for accuracy. He doesn't belong on the bench."
"Did it occur to you that if he's too unhinged for a team like Hydra--"
Hill glanced up quickly at that.
Steve went on, "He's not unhinged. If you thought he was, he wouldn't be on your list. So if this is all some elaborate set up to make sure I'm not holding a grudge against Barnes, then you have your answer. I'm not."
"Good. 'Cause you have a meeting with him on Tuesday," said Fury, with a smug smile.
Steve held back an eye roll. "Well gee, thanks for letting me know."
"You're welcome," said Fury, unfazed by the sarcasm. "I need to be sure. Take the meeting. If he's still the one you want, we'll talk to Romanov about a contract."
"I'll text you the details," added Hill, with a pointed glance at the door.
Taking it as the dismissal it was, Steve left before he broke into a lecture about the values of being straightforward, since he knew it wouldn't change anything.
Bucky straightened the edges of the little stack of paper napkins on the table.
This was a mistake. This was all a mistake, and he should just leave, but leaving would mean going back and--
He straightened the napkins again, making sure they were parallel to the sides of the table.
Rogers probably wouldn't even show, he was probably wasting Bucky's time, raising his hopes as some kind of payback, which Bucky deserved, and wasn't that just--
He set his phone on the table, perpendicular to the napkins. No new texts. No new calls.
With two fingers, he swiveled the phone until it was at a forty-five degree angle to the napkins. A perfect diagonal. Just exactly so.
This was a mistake. This was all a mistake, and he should--
Bucky looked up into a face he knew very well, considering that he'd never met this guy.
Giving someone a concussion did not count as meeting them.
"Uh, yeah, that's me. You're Rogers?" It wasn't a question, but it seemed more polite to pretend it was.
"Please, call me Steve," Rogers said, sticking his hand out. "Do you go by James, or..."
"Barnes." Bucky shook Steve's hand, feeling weirdly like a little kid playing grownup. He should have just given Steve his name. He didn't need to be so insecure all the time. Natasha was going to laugh at him when she found out. 'Barnes.' It was absurd.
Shoving all that deep down where he wouldn't need to deal with it, he waved for Steve to take a seat, which Steve did, gracefully lowering himself into the rickety wooden chair on the opposite side of the table.
Looking at some imaginary point above Steve's left shoulder, Bucky swiveled the phone so it was parallel to the napkins. "I guess I should start by apologising. It's too little, too late, but for what it's worth, I'm sorry. What I did to you...It never should have happened."
Steve shrugged. "It's how the game goes sometimes. Besides, you more than paid for it."
"What, the forfeited salary?" Bucky said, because Steve didn't know about--
"And the donation."
Shit. Bucky stared blankly for a moment and finally said, "She told you about that?"
Steve frowned. "Nobody told me about it, it's my charity. I mean, I don't run it, but I do get a statement every month."
"You get...But it was supposed to be anonymous."
"Your name wasn't on it, if that's what you're asking, but it was a twenty five thousand dollar donation, on the same day you got a twenty five thousand dollar fine. It kinda stood out."
Bucky clenched his teeth and spun his phone. He didn't have his own fucking charity. Nobody on his team did. They were all expected to support the charity their owner picked out, which was, not at all coincidentally, run by the owner's son. It hadn't occurred to Bucky that Steve would be looking at those numbers, and now he felt like an idiot twice over. Maybe three times. Damn it.
He didn't look up from the spinning of his phone. "I wasn't trying to buy my way onto your team."
"Of course not. I know--"
"You weren't supposed to know at all!" Bucky slapped his hand down on his phone, stopping it spinning and making an extra big fool of himself like the fantastic communicator that he was.
He heaved out a breath and forced himself to meet Steve's eyes. He was at least enough of a grown up to do that.
Steve was frowning, disappointed. After everything Bucky had been through this past year, he couldn't believe how much it hurt to see that. He'd known the guy for two whole minutes, and he'd already disappointed him. Again.
Giving someone a concussion definitely counted as disappointing them.
Finally, after what felt like an eternity, Steve shook his head a little and said, "Can we just start over? I think we should start over. Hi. It's nice to meet you. I'm Steve."
He even wiggled his fingers in a silly wave of a greeting, just as if Bucky hadn't already screwed everything up. What the hell was with this guy?
"Um, Bucky," Bucky said, with a choppy wave of his own.
"Yeah?" Steve smiled warmly. "I don't think I've ever met a Bucky before."
"Well, now you have," Bucky said, with a tight smile of his own. He could do this. He could act friendly. It had been a while, but he knew how. "It's a family thing. Too many Jameses."
"And not enough Buckys. I get it," said Steve. "So, I hear you're interested in a spot on our team. Why us?"
Bucky raised an eyebrow. The Avengers had won the Cup twice in four years. Anyone would want in on that. But Bucky had other priorities.
Honesty wasn't something he'd had much practice with lately, but he licked his lips and gave it a try. "You play fair," he said, more softly than he'd intended. "I just want a chance. I know you've got your own guys, and they've earned their spot on first string, and that's fine, I get it. Maybe I'll never make it off the bench again. But at least..."
He swallowed, distracted by that wrinkle between Steve's eyebrows. The wrinkle looked like worry. Understanding. Sympathy.
Steve was either a really good actor, or he was an idiot. Worrying about Bucky after all this. Ridiculous. "Anyway, you're gonna need me," Bucky said, figuring bravado was safer than sincerity. "If Bradley really is retiring--"
"Oh, is that the story going around?" Steve asked, full of false innocence. Not a really good actor then. Probably.
"That's what a little spider told me."
Steve nodded, absorbing that. He didn't seem the least bit confused about the reference to Natasha. Not a good actor at all.
Bucky flashed a cocky grin. "You want to win the Cup without Bradley, you're gonna need the best forward in the league to replace him. And I'm right here, ready to sign."
"Natasha didn't mention you were humble," Steve said, smirking.
"Does Natasha usually lie to you?"
Steve laughed. "I guess not."
Bucky was joking around. With Steve Rogers. And Steve was grinning about it. Grinning like he meant it, and not like it was the lead up to some new kind of cruelty. Grinning, even though he wasn't a good actor at all.
It was horrible. Hope was such a horrible thing.
Bucky clung to it anyway. It was the only thing he had.
"So you just...ate dinner with him," Sam said flatly.
"I did," Steve said. He threw a towel at Sam and sat on a nearby bench, looking up at the girders rather than meeting Sam's eye.
Sam was taking all of this better than Steve expected. It was a big relief. Arguing with Sam was the worst.
"Steve. He's an actual monster."
"Come on," Steve said, "he isn't--"
"He's the reason Thor broke his hand. He's the reason you have that scar." Sam pointed at Steve's eyebrow, as if Steve didn't know which scar he meant.
"No, Thor is--" Steve ducked away from Sam's finger. It was a public gym, and he didn't want anyone staring. "Thor is the reason Thor broke his hand. He's the one who threw a punch."
"He broke his hand! And I noticed you didn't mention the scar. You do remember the scar, right? The brain damage didn't--"
"It wasn't brain damage, it was just a little concussion."
That was the wrong answer. Sam's eyes flared. "A concussion is brain damage. That's the definition of the word, Steve. He damaged your brain."
"Well, I got better, and it wasn't his fault it happened. He didn't have a choice."
"Oh is that what he told you? Did someone force him to drill you into the boards, face first? I didn't see anyone forcing--"
"No, he didn't say that. I could just tell, that's all."
Sam covered his face with his hands. "Steeeeeeve."
"Oh my god," Sam said, but his hands were in the way, so it sounded more like 'umagud'.
Steve wished he could tell Sam all of it. Bucky had been prickly and defensive and scared, in a way that Steve understood all too well. Hunched in and ready for a fight. And that was before Steve had badgered him about the donation.
He should have let him stay anonymous. He'd been too proud of himself for figuring it out to put in much thought about how it'd make Bucky feel.
It had clearly made Bucky feel exposed and vulnerable, and that as much as anything made Steve believe that Bucky was being treated really horribly at Hydra.
But when he finally relaxed enough to let his guard down a little bit, he was almost like a different person. Charming, sincere, funny.
Steve couldn't tell Sam all of that, though. He'd violated Bucky's privacy enough already.
"No," Sam said. "You are nice. You're nice, and you're kind, and you're very, very forgiving. Which is great, except Barnes is bad news. The year he gave you that concussion, he spent more time in the penalty box than our entire team combined."
"How much time did he spend there last season?" Steve asked, smugly.
Sam waved his hand, swatting the question away like a pesky fly, which meant he also knew the answer. None. Bucky had hardly gotten to play at all last season, and he hadn't made any questionable hits in a long time. Steve didn't believe that was a coincidence, especially after meeting Bucky.
Sam said, "Did he at least apologize to you?"
"He did. He was nice," Steve repeated. "He let me recover after I was rude to him, and he tipped really well."
"How well?" Sam cared a lot about proper tipping. Rule number five was 'You can afford to leave a twenty percent tip, and you damn well better.' It was the first rule that Steve had wholeheartedly agreed with, back when The Rules had first been established.
"Twenty five percent."
Sam made a noncommittal 'hmm' noise.
"And the service was terrible," Steve added, since they'd barely seen their waitress at all.
Sam huffed, then looked Steve in the eyes. "That doesn't mean I have to forgive him. He put you in the hospital."
"I'm not asking you to forgive him. I'm asking you to give him a chance."
"All right. For you. And because Wade can be kind of a disaster, and with Isaiah retiring..."
"We need the best, I know. Natasha says he's it." Bucky said so too, but Sam didn't need to know that yet.
"Oh of course he knows Natasha. When do I get to meet her?"
"Probably never," Steve said, with as straight a face as he could manage. "I've been hiding her from you all this time. It is absolutely personal, and not because we're all busy people who work too much."
Sam gasped dramatically. "I knew it! You can't keep her from me forever, Steve-o. I won't--"
Steve flinched when a hand landed on his shoulder from behind.
"Oops, jumpy!" Wade said, coming around where they could fucking see him, with Scott trailing along beside him. "What are we keeping from Sam?"
Sam greeted Wade with a punch in the shoulder. "Steve's friend, Natasha."
"I heard she was a hockey genius." Wade elbowed Scott.
Scott elbowed him back. "Yeah? I heard she was really hot."
"Isn't that what I just said?" Wade asked, looking genuinely confused.
Scott chuckled. "Well, Fury's a hockey genius too, you think he's hot?"
"Yes," Wade said, like it was the most obvious possible answer. "I wonder if lack of depth perception makes things look bigger." He put his hand over one eye and bent over at the waist. "Nope. Same size. Not bad though." He glanced around at Sam and Steve, still covering his eye. "Nobody looks any hotter this way either. Probably just as well."
"Hey, I'm a hockey genius," said Scott.
"I'd say more of a prodigy. Plus, you're embarrassingly straight."
"It's okay," said Wade, "you have a nice ass anyway. Not as nice as Steve's, but still."
"No, no," said Steve. "Do not bring me into this."
Scott ignored him. "Is anybody's as nice as Steve's?"
"We are not having this conversation," said Steve.
"Nope. Nobody. It's the platonic ideal of asses."
"And I'm leaving." Steve kept a light smile on his face and made his way over to the heavy bags.
They were his teammates. They weren't going to turn the jokes into something ugly. They weren't going to bring up memories that Steve would rather keep locked away, of the other kids screaming 'eww' when he got too close, of fists and boots and locker doors.
He hadn't told them. Not even Sam.
Sometimes Sam looked at him with too much compassion, as if he might suspect, but he didn't know, and Steve intended to keep it that way.
Thankfully, he was already taped up, and the bag was ready.
Punching was so much easier than talking.
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This chapter contains descriptions of blood and injuries. They're all past tense, but sort of graphic.
There were so many of them.
They were just a normal hockey team, how could there be so many of them?
It had been two weeks since he'd met with Rogers.
Steve, Bucky reminded himself. He liked to be called Steve, and it had been fifteen days now, or would be in about an hour.
Bucky closed his eyes. He was tired from driving all night, listening to the radio and waiting for the news to break. It never had, and he wasn't sure if that meant nobody knew, or that nobody cared. Or there'd been some kind of mix-up and it hadn't actually happened and he was late for training with Hydra.
That would be bad in so many ways.
He opened his eyes, verified that there really were that many guys, and checked his phone.
No new messages. The ones from yesterday were still there, though. Both from Natasha. One saying: It's done. The other giving an address in Brooklyn, and a note saying: Tomorrow, 7 PM.
And now it was tomorrow, 6:46 PM. He'd miraculously found a place to park outside of JK's Pizza and Arcade, where approximately ninety-five members of the Avengers were milling around, eating and drinking and playing Pac-Man or whatever.
At least it wasn't bowling.
Bowling would be much worse.
Bucky reminded himself that he knew all their names and all their faces. He had as clear an idea about their personalities as a person could get from ESPN and social media, which wasn't much, but it was the best he could do.
May as well just go for it.
He pushed himself out of the car, plowed his way into the restaurant, and instead of going to Steve, he went directly to the biggest, blondest person in the room.
He made it through the crowd, right to where he needed to be, and the plan was going great, except he wasn't prepared for Thor Odinson, star center for the Avengers, to be wearing a t-shirt that said "THUNDER THIGHS".
It was written in big gothic letters across the front.
So instead of introducing himself right away, Bucky lost a few seconds just blinking in awe.
Odinson slowly raised an eyebrow. "Perhaps you missed the signs, but this is a private party."
"Umm." Bucky had missed the signs, but that didn't really matter. "My name is James Barnes."
If Odinson recognized the name, he didn't show it. He gave a friendly, blank look, like he was waiting for more information. It was almost insulting. The guy had broken his hand on Bucky's skull once, he ought to remember him.
Maybe there really had been a mix-up. Maybe Bucky didn't have a spot on either team. Maybe his entire career was in the dumpster now.
Maybe he was wildly overreacting and he should calm the fuck down.
"They didn't tell you to expect me?" Bucky asked.
"They didn't have time," a commanding voice said, cutting through all of the noise and chaos of the arcade.
Coach Fury, dressed all in black except for the bright red Avenger's 'A' on the lapel of his leather jacket, the same way he dressed in every public appearance, stalked right up to Bucky. He looked him over, his face not giving away anything, and said, "You're early. Normally I'd like that, but not when you get here before I do."
"Traffic back in Indy wasn't as bad as I expected," Bucky said, aiming for an apologetic tone, but mostly using it as a reminder that he'd driven through four fucking states to get here.
Instead of the cold-eyed stare that Coach Pierce would have given, Coach Fury might possibly have smiled a bit. It wasn't the kind of smile that promised retribution would come later, either. He looked...amused.
Odinson glanced between Bucky and Coach Fury, curious but patient, like a man with few worries and fewer fears. Like a man who would wear a Thunder Thighs shirt to a team meeting.
Natasha had said the Avengers would be different, but she hadn't prepared him for anything like this. He half wondered if it was a hazing thing, but he also doubted that Odinson was putting on an act. Besides, Steve Rogers was over there playing air hockey, as if he was impervious to irony, and he seemed to be losing badly. Bucky trusted Steve more than anyone he knew, with the possible exception of Natasha, and while that didn't say much for his social life, it meant that he didn't think Steve would let him suffer too much for his teammate's entertainment.
A loud rumble jolted him out of his thoughts, as a souped up Harley roared its way into a newly opened parking spot near the doors. Two people dismounted from it and pulled off their helmets. The driver was a severe looking woman, whose hair was somehow still in a perfect bun, and the other was a kid with bleached white hair and a silvery jacket that showed exactly how hard he was trying. He raced around to open the saddle bag on the bike, and she waited patiently for him to realize that it was locked before she took his helmet and shooed him toward the arcade.
Bucky recognized them both. Maria Hill was the Avengers General Manager, known for being so stoic and resolved that she was considered too boring to be interviewed, and Pietro Maximoff was a forward, straight out of college, known for his small size and incredible speed.
Maybe Bucky should have been relieved that he wasn't the only new recruit, but mostly he was bewildered at how young the guy seemed, zipping around like a caffeinated puppy and trying to impress Hill, who didn't pay him any mind at all.
She made her way through the doors and over to Coach Fury, with Maximoff pacing at her side, walking backward and generally being an embarrassment.
Fury nodded at her. "Nice of you to join us."
"We're ten minutes early, Boss. And I should charge you extra for delivery." She glanced at the spot where Maximoff had been, only to find that he was halfway to the pinball machines already.
Fury and Hill shared a look, and finally Fury said, "Ready when you are."
"Listen up people," Hill called. Silence fell over the arcade almost immediately, and all eyes turned to her as she made her way to a more central location.
"First, you should know that I have many, many photos from Isaiah Bradley's retirement party, and I am more than willing to use them against any and all of you." She twitched her lips in a smile. "I posted some of the less incriminating ones on Instagram. Look them up."
She gave a steely stare and waited until they all nodded before she went on. "Good. I sent out practice schedules this afternoon. Check your emails. Contact me if you haven't received yours. No excuses."
Again, she glared around until she got nods from everyone. "Alright. I don't have to tell you that finding a player who could replace Isaiah would be impossible. Which is why we brought on two. Pietro Maximoff and James Barnes. Meet them, welcome them, demand greatness from them."
She snapped around on her heel and marched off to the table where Coach Fury was sitting.
Well. That was abrupt.
Bucky looked around, and everyone seemed to be drifting back to whatever they'd been doing, so apparently the official part of the meeting was done. Steve smiled at Bucky and started walking his way, but Maximoff pushed in front of him and darted over.
"So, you're the other new guy." Maximoff frowned and looked Bucky over. "Or, new to the team, anyway. You were with Hydra, right? I almost went there, but my sister refused to live in Indianapolis, and she's all the family I've got, really."
"Right," Bucky said, not really caring which part Maximoff thought he was answering. He turned to Steve instead, and drawled, "Rogers."
"Barnes," Steve replied, smirking his way through it, and Bucky held back a smile. "You drive all the way up here today?"
"I'm pretty sure I'm still somewhere on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and this is all a vivid hallucination."
Steve chuckled, but Maximoff stared, wide-eyed. "You drove here from Indiana? That's half-way across the country. It must have taken forever."
"Nah, it's only about a fourth of the country. Took twelve hours. About eleven hours driving, with an hour or so for food and gas."
Ten hours and forty three minutes of driving, one hour and seventeen minutes for breaks, actually, but most people didn't want that level of detail.
Maximoff was still blinking in dismay when someone new walked over.
James Rhodes, a brilliant two-way forward with an ideal balance between speed, accuracy, and power, nodded sharply at Pietro, and again at Bucky. "Welcome to the team. You know, Isaiah left behind some big shoes to fill. It--"
"Skates," said Pietro. "Big skates to fill."
Bucky braced himself.
The only sign of annoyance that Rhodes gave was the deep breath he took through his nose. "Not just on the ice. He was an important part of the community, too. You two have a lot to live up to."
That was all. Rhodes smiled a little when Maximoff gave a determined nod, and then he walked away to talk to someone else. No posturing. No putting the kid in his place. Nothing.
It just...continued like that. Bucky met Luke Cage, a reserve D-man who was very distracted with texting someone, Scott Lang, another D-man who showed off pictures of his adorable daughter to anyone who didn't actively run away, Bruce Banner, a shy goalie who barely said anything, and Samuel ("Call me Sam") Wilson, the team captain, who was holding a stack of papers and frowning, and none of them crushed Bucky's hand when they shook it, or eyed him like a caged tiger looking to destroy something for fun.
Steve was tense, but he was smiling. After just two meetings, Bucky was pretty sure he could tell the smile was genuine, and it helped him to let go of the idea that this was all a thin veneer of civility that was going to fall away any second.
Someone shouted "WILSON!" in a horrible imitation of Tom Hanks in Cast Away.
Sam rolled his eyes without even looking to see who it was. "I'm right here, Wade. You can see me."
Wade Wilson. Bucky recognized him from the scars. Bucky's teammates at Hydra described him as having the most punchable face in the league. He could taunt damn near anyone into a fight. He once got Rollins and Rumlow tossed out at the same time, and kept playing despite his obviously broken nose and a fractured eye socket that wasn't reported until the next day. He was unstoppable.
He came over and sat on a nearby table. "One of these days I'm going to get you to say it back like that. Just you wait. And you owe me a game of air hockey."
"I don't owe you anything," Sam said, knocking Wade's feet off of the chair he'd propped them on. "Did you even meet Maximoff and Barnes yet?"
Before Wade could say that he hadn't, Hill gave a loud whistle and turned up the volume on the big overhead tv.
One of the announcers was saying, "...Brooklyn Avengers brought on two new players. Rookie Pietro Maximoff, and wild child James Barnes from the Indianapolis Hydra."
"That's right, Chet," said another announcer. "It's the biggest surprise of a season that hasn't even begun yet. Barnes is perhaps best known for this vicious hit against the Avenger's star Defenceman, Steve Rogers."
They showed the clip. Of course they did. Steve scrabbling with Rumlow to get the puck out of the corner, turning his head just before Bucky slammed into him. Then a quick edit to Steve sprawled on the ice, and another edit to Sam Wilson holding Bucky's arms as the doctors rushed to Steve's side.
God he hated that video. He was never going to be free of it. Not ever.
The only good news was that there hadn't been a camera in place to catch the expression on Steve's face as it happened. Not that Bucky would ever forget, but at least no one else could replay it over and over, the way he did.
Everyone in the room was transfixed, either by the video on the screen, or by Bucky and Steve sitting quietly together as they showed it again in slow motion.
Bucky had long practice at not clenching his jaw or twitching his lips, no matter what was happening around him, or to him, and he kept his face impassive in spite of the way Sam was studying him.
The video finally ended, and Chet came back on. "Widely regarded as one of the worst injuries in hockey history, the names of Barnes and--"
"Oh come on!" Steve shouted at the screen. "It's not even in the top ten! This is such bullshit."
"Yes, bullshit!" Odinson bellowed from across the room. "When Xavier was paralysed by Lehnsherr the damage was far greater, and they have formed a fine partnership."
Fine was an understatement. They had one of the best partnerships in the history of the league, as the head coach and general manager who had led the Excelsiors to three Stanley Cup wins in the last five years. Steve and Bucky glanced at each other. That was a hell of a thing to be compared to, especially before they'd even played together.
"It was still an epic hit, though," Wade said. "He pulverized Steve's face! It looked like he got stuck in a food processor."
"Wade," Sam said, not all that forcefully.
"There were buckets of blood," Wade explained to Maximoff, all in a rush. "Like, literal buckets. It starts freezing as soon as it hits the ice, and Steve's practically dying, so by the time they get him out of the way, the staff has to come out with gloves and scrapers and scoop it all up. In buckets. It's not even blood anymore by this point, it's this giant Rogers flavored slurpee, spreading out all over--"
"Wade, that's enough," Steve ordered.
"It's a compliment! Not just anybody can bleed like that, Steve-o."
Maximoff glanced around at Steve, who was glaring at Wade, and Sam, who was frowning at his papers, and Bucky, who was still as blank as he could manage, and said to Wade, "Have you ever played Dumb Ways to Die?"
Wade blinked. "You mean in real life, or is it also a game?"
Maximoff chuckled. "It's a game. Come on, I'll show it to you." He pulled out his phone and pulled Wade toward a different table.
As he went, Wade called over his shoulder, "Nice meeting you Barnes the Bloody!"
Steve sighed. "Well. At least he was trying to make a good impression."
Bucky stared at him, but he couldn't figure out if that was supposed to be a joke. Which probably meant that it wasn't.
Sam continued to frown, and handed Bucky a little stack of papers. "Welcome to the Avengers," he said gruffly, and he walked away before Bucky could reply.
"Oh, uh, those are...I can explain," Steve said reaching for the papers.
Bucky pulled them away and raised an eyebrow. "Explain what?"
Steve rubbed at a spot above his nose. "The rules. Sam started them because...There was a fight. Which I started. But I had a good reason, there really wasn't--"
"Hey, I'm the last guy who's gonna judge you for fighting."
Steve started to say something, then stopped and refocused, bringing up a smile. "That should make for a nice change. You'll be the only one on the team who can resist lecturing me."
Bucky looked away and scanned over the first page. It had a title across the top that said The Founding Rules. Under that was a short list:
1) Don't start bar fights.
2) If you must start a bar fight, call for backup first.
3) If you start a bar fight, and you don't call for backup, do not get your fool self injured.
4) If you do get your fool self injured, call your fucking team captain immediately. Do not judge for yourself that you are fine. Especially if you are Steve Rogers.
"Fighting is one thing, but you need to have someone at your back, Steve."
"Are you volunteering?"
Bucky frowned at Steve's smirk. "Is there someone here you're planning to fight?"
"No. Sam will tell you that I don't usually plan these things, though."
"Okay. If your teammates all decide to kick your ass for some reason, they'll have to go through me first."
"Not first, just at the same time," Steve said, moving up from smirking to grinning.
He really did need someone looking after him, he was an idiot, trusting Bucky like that.
Bucky shook his head. "Fine. Together. But I'll tell you now, I'm gonna complain the whole time."
Steve chuckled. "Complain all you want. You've got a deal."
Bucky shook his head again, and went back to flipping through the rules. Most of them made sense, or at least seemed to have some kind of story behind them.
26) Stay sober on game day, I shouldn't have to tell you this.
32) No dating anyone professionally affiliated with the team.
33) If you do date someone professionally affiliated with the team, do not break up with them during Playoffs.
34) Please do not cry about your break up during a Playoff game.
35) No it does not matter that we won anyway.
Some of them were a little weirder.
42) No burping the alphabet.
He pointed that one out to Steve and raised an eyebrow. "Why'd you need a rule for this?"
"Bruce. He threw up when he got to the letter 'V'. Which wouldn't have been so bad, except we were on the bus at the time." Steve shook his head in disgust. "It was a long ride to Cleveland."
Somehow that wasn't very reassuring.
Steve used to show up hours early to every practice. He used to time himself by the glow through the windows, as the morning sky turned from black to grey to blue.
That habit had faded away so slowly that he hadn't even realized it, until now.
Barnes was already out on the ice. (Bucky, he reminded himself. He'd introduced himself as Bucky.) He had a row of pucks lined up, and he ran a complicated s-loop around the rink between each shot, coming in at a new angle on every approach.
Either Bucky had gotten better since last time Steve had faced off against him, or he'd been holding back.
His technique was flawless. For a moment, Steve wondered if Bucky resented that he couldn't just skate everywhere, because the way he moved didn't seem like second nature, it seemed like first nature, like he was born for the ice. Steve shook the thought off though, watching the sheer effort Bucky was pouring into it, striving to be just a little more perfect.
That drive, that focus, that pure determination. Something inside Steve's chest clicked into place again, after lying dormant for an unmeasurable time. He wanted to be part of that. He hadn't even realized he'd been drifting, but the way Bucky pushed himself made Steve want to find his way back on course and push just as hard, earn his way onto the ice, prove to himself that he was worthy.
He didn't know how long he watched before a voice from behind him said, "Hey."
Steve turned to see Luke approaching. Jeez, that meant it was almost time for practice, and he hadn't even put on his skates yet.
Luke nodded over at Bucky and said quietly, "They ask you if you're good with this?"
"Yeah, of course," Steve replied immediately. "What about you?"
"It wasn't my face he busted. I'll defer to your judgement on this one."
Steve nodded, grateful. He watched Bucky execute a slap shot that whistled into the top right of the net, dead center on the small target hanging there. He may have a reputation as a hard hitter, but he should have been known for his accuracy. The man did not miss. Steve itched to play at his side. He nodded again. "I think he's exactly what the team needs."
"Glad to hear it," Luke said. "I believe in second chances."
Steve turned back to see a soft smile turn up the corner of Luke's mouth. "Something tells me this isn't about Barnes."
"I had dinner with her last night," Luke said dreamily. He glanced over and seemed to pick up on Steve's complete lack of understanding. "Jessica. We dated for a few months, last winter. I think we're going to give it another try."
"Yeah? Good for you!" Steve grinned. If anyone deserved happiness, it was Luke. "I hope it works out."
"I hope so too. What about you? Got a new guy in your life yet?"
Steve shook his head. "So tell me about your Jessica. She nice?"
"Not really. She's foul mouthed and hard headed and prickly as can be. I like her."
"Sounds like a winner," Steve said sincerely. He got flustered around anyone who was too dainty and delicate. People who were willing to push back and challenge him were much easier to be around, somehow.
"Are we gonna practice or what?" Bucky shouted from the ice.
Steve snorted. "We've only met three times, it's too soon to get all snippy with me."
"Look buddy, I warned you last time, the complaining is the price you gotta pay." Bucky smiled, the warmest smile Steve had gotten out of him yet, and Steve smiled back and grabbed his skates.
Luke shrugged and pulled his skates out, too.
This was going to be fun.
Bucky didn't remember when he'd ever enjoyed a practice so much.
He'd always loved hockey, the precision and focus of it, the way everything narrowed down to a three inch puck and a twelve and a half inch blade. There was a grace to it that he never spoke about, for fear that he'd lose it somehow.
But fun wasn't a word he would have used. Not for years. Not until today.
Thor's laughter flooding the rink, Sam slapping Rhodes on the shoulder, Wade and Pietro cheerfully tripping each other with their sticks. Steve grinning when Bucky darted past Luke, retrieved the puck out of the corner, and curved it into the net for a goal.
It was fun.
He didn't hang around after it ended. As soon as Fury let them go, he gathered up his bag and made for the doors. Everything was so different. He couldn't help the feeling that this new reality was too fragile to last.
Before he even got to his car, his phone chimed.
It was a text from Natasha.
'How'd it go?'
He sent back, 'fine', and dumped his bag into the back seat. The typing bubbles were already back when he closed the door, and he leaned against the sun-warmed car while he waited for her reply.
'Make any new friends?'
He rolled his eyes. 'This isn't preschool'.
She sent back five poop emojis, followed by, 'did you try?'
'I love how you waste the time to type in two extra letters'
He figured she knew he was lying, and she confirmed it by sending a pants emoji and a fire emoji. He knew what was coming next, so he hopped in his car and backed out before anyone from the team caught up with him.
A second later his phone rang, as expected. He hit the bluetooth button on his steering wheel while he turned out of the parking lot. "I already told you I'm fine, Natasha."
"And yet I called anyway. Almost as if I am unconvinced. How are they treating you?"
It was a loaded question, and he hesitated over it, wondering how he could make her believe what he couldn't believe himself. "You were right, it's totally different here. Better. Good." He swallowed and repeated, "You were right."
"Me? Right? What a surprise," she said, so dryly that Bucky chuckled.
"Yeah, well, you also told me that Brooklyn was beautiful in the fall, but it's just as humid and disgusting as it was in Indy. I feel like I'm walking around in somebody's mouth."
"I never promised good weather, I only meant that there was significantly less corn up there."
"No, we don't talk about corn," Bucky said. "I don't want to talk about corn, or look at corn, or think about corn. No corn mazes, or corn games, or--"
"There are corn games?"
"You've never heard of corn hole?"
"What the hell James."
"I don't want to talk about corn hole. They made us play it for some stupid fundraiser. It was terrible. I won, but it was terrible."
"This is the worst. I still don't believe you, but I refuse to type the words 'corn' and 'hole' into the same google search. I hate everything about this."
"I hate it more," Bucky said. "It's basically a bean-bag toss, but with a bag of dry corn. And by the way, corn-bag would still be a bad name, but they went with corn hole instead. Sick bastards."
"You should have told me sooner, we could have had a 'no corn games' clause written into your Avengers contract. Too late now. You're at the mercy of fate and Nick Fury."
"Fury would at least find a way to get us out on the ice for it. Let us use our sticks. Minimize the humiliation."
"I'm sure he would," Natasha said, with far too little snark for Bucky's liking.
"I'd still win, of course, but I bet Wade would do all right. He probably knows his way around a corn hole."
"I will hang up on you. Don't think I won't."
He spent the rest of the drive not talking about corn hole instead of not talking about his feelings or his lack of other friends.
The rest of the practices went the same way. Steve started showing up earlier, and most days they ran one-on-one drills together. He was already brilliant on defense. Nothing could get past him. Still, he found room to improve, and he worked tirelessly at it. He was smart, tough, and tenacious.
He was also kind and open and encouraging.
Practice was good, just like he'd said. None of the other players paid Bucky much mind, aside from their regular greetings and goodbyes. Sometimes Sam's charming smile dropped away when he caught his eye, but Bucky didn't blame him.
There are things you never get to take back, no matter how much you wish you could. Things you can't get over, even after you're supposed to let them go.
Bucky didn't blame him at all.
"Oh, and it still smells the same," Sam announced with fake enthusiasm.
Steve shook his head and climbed onto the bus behind him. It did smell the same as last year, if not worse. Somewhat like a locker room, but with the added bonus of mildew. Sam dropped into his usual seat and set to work on opening the window.
A few seats away, Bucky was quietly reading.
Steve really shouldn't have been surprised that Bucky had beaten them there, but he couldn't let him stay where he was. Rather than yell across at him, Steve continued down the aisle.
Bucky looked up from his book and raised an eyebrow. Aside from practicing together, Steve didn't get to talk to him much, but he knew him well enough by now to know that he had a lot of quiet days, when he would barely talk and he avoided meeting anyone's eyes. Steve was careful not to crowd him and said, "You probably don't want to sit there. That's where the leak is."
"Yeah, the roof leaks when it rains, and whenever the air conditioner is running. And that's the seat where it drips the most. You'd be safer over here." Steve waved over at a seat near his own. "Don't want your book to get ruined."
Bucky finally nodded and changed seats. Steve hated the idea that if it wasn't for the book, he might sit there and let himself get dripped on. For a guy who joked so much about complaining, he rarely did any.
Steve wished he would.
Sam let out a loud sigh. "Remember how we used to say, 'At least the windows work?' Those were good times."
"I don't think we ever said that," Steve said. He tried the nearest window, and it didn't open either.
"We should have." Sam dropped into his seat and pulled out his phone, flipping through messages and scowling.
Steve tried two more windows before he gave up and sat next to Bucky. He debated about putting the arm up between the seats, but he figured that'd be too awkward, so he left it.
"Why doesn't she just shove him into a river and put us out of our misery?" Wade asked, stomping onto the bus.
Luke strolled on behind him. "Why is murder always your first resort?"
Wade wiggled his hips and said breathily, "I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way," in a horrible imitation of Jessica Rabbit.
"They ought to at least get a divorce though," said Sam, and Luke nodded.
Bucky sat silent and watchful, and he didn't have any reason to understand any of what they'd said.
Steve leaned closer while the others went on with their conversation. "They mean the team owners. Wade thinks that the bus is some kind of revenge, because Hank Pym bought the team as a wedding present for his wife, Janet, and he figures their marriage is failing."
"Do you?" Bucky asked.
Steve shrugged. "I hope they're happy together."
"Sure, you hope. But what do you think?"
Before Steve could answer, Maria and Nick climbed onto the bus, their faces grim.
The rest of the team had assembled while Steve was distracted, and they all fell silent as Coach Fury looked them over.
Maria took a half step forward. "We have news, people. And it's not good. The team owner, in his wisdom, has reduced our travel budget again."
The team shuffled in their seats, and Wade groaned. Hill waited for silence before she went on. "You're not going to like the solution we've come up with, but we're asking you to trust that it's the only one that works, under the provisions of your contracts." She glanced at Fury, an unusually nervous gesture for her, and said, "We're going to need to double up in our hotel rooms."
"Oh, bullshit!" Wade blurted out, loudly.
Hill waved a hand. "I know, I know. We've done everything we can, but Pym isn't budging on this. Check your emails. We assigned partners. If you switch rooms, you'll have to clear up the resulting mess, so keep that in mind. Now let's get to Baltimore and kick some ass."
As the grumbling of the rest of the team filled the bus, Steve turned to Bucky. "I think Janet should shove Hank into a river."
Bucky snorted without much humor.
Steve pulled out his phone opened his email. The message from Hill had one word.
He turned the phone around where Bucky could see it. "Looks like you're stuck with me."
A quick nod was all the reply Bucky gave before he opened his book again.
Wade flopped sideways in his seat. He plunked his feet in Sam's lap, as usual, and announced, "Bed sharing is the best trope ever."
"We're sharing a room, not a bed," Sam answered, flicking him in the knee.
"I'm sharing with Rhodes," said Pietro, hanging over the back of the seat so he could see them. "What is he like? Is he all stuffy and strict?"
Hill nearly smirked. She raised her voice, "Hey Rhodey, are you all stuffy and strict?"
"Probably," Rhodey said from the back, without looking up. He played Words With Friends during every road trip, always with some guy he knew out of Malibu, and nothing ever distracted him from it.
Pietro rolled his eyes and went back to whatever he was doing on his phone.
Scott was waving Luke away from Thor's hair, saying, "I've got this, I've got this." Last season, Luke had taught him to do basic braids, and it had been such a hit with Cassie that Scott was determined to teach himself to braid her hair into a crown when he saw her again.
Turning down Luke's help was not a great idea, but Steve figured Scott would realize that on his own, eventually.
Thor, who was acting as Scott's model, sat patiently through the whole thing, while Bruce leaned against his shoulder, reading something on his phone.
Steve usually played poker with Isaiah, but since that wasn't an option, and Bucky was busy reading, he put in his earbuds and listened to podcasts from NPR.
It was a long drive, and a long game, but they came through in the end. It was preseason, so they were still feeling things out, but the team had a hell of a lot of potential, and they showed it out on the ice, coming from behind to beat the Blades 2 - 4.
Two of those goals were Bucky's, including the tie breaker that turned around the game. The whole team was in high spirits as they got to the hotel, and Bucky was grinning as they found their room.
"Hey, I'm gonna go get some coffee from the lobby, you want some coffee?" Steve said, too wired to avoid sounding like he was wired.
Bucky hesitated and said, "Nah, I don't think so."
"Okay. Cookies? Sometimes they have fresh chocolate chip cookies. You want those?"
"Oh." Bucky blinked in surprise. "Yeah, chocolate chip is great."
"If they have cookies, then do you still not want coffee?"
"Probably be easier if I come with you," Bucky said. "Just in case they have oatmeal raisin instead, and then I might want tea."
Steve chuckled and led the way down the hall, in what he hoped was the right direction. "Is that the trick to liking oatmeal raisin? Tea?"
"No, the only trick there is to have good taste," Bucky said, with a smirk.
Steve laughed so hard he nearly tripped himself. "That's one trick I don't know, I guess."
Bucky didn't say anything more, but he smiled all the way down the hall, and it felt like another victory.
The lobby was crowded, mostly with their teammates, but also with fans and tourists and whoever else was up this late on a Wednesday. The cookies and the coffee were on opposite sides of the room, so everyone was milling around instead of forming into an impatient mob.
"You scope out the cookies, and I'll wait in line for the drinks," Steve offered. "You can signal me if you want tea."
"Sure." Bucky smiled again and made a big 'T' with his hands.
Steve laughed and hurried over to the line for the drinks. Once he was there, he turned back and gave Bucky a goofy smile and a big thumbs up.
Bucky chuckled and shook his head.
He didn't see Wade coming.
He didn't see Wade reach out to grab his shoulder, the way Wade always did, the way that always made Steve flinch.
Bucky didn't flinch.
Bucky spun and ducked and raised his fists, in one quick motion.
Steve rushed over, but he'd barely taken a step in their direction before Sam swooped in and knocked Bucky's arm down.
"Back off," Sam warned, narrowing his eyes at Bucky and putting himself between the two of them.
"What the shit Wilson?" Wade snapped. He pushed Sam out of the way. "It's Barnes. I don't need your fucking help with Barnes. If his ass needs to be kicked, I'll kick it myself."
"Thanks for the offer, but I think I'll take my ass and go," Bucky said, with a curl of his lips that might be a smirk or a sneer. He stalked off down the hall without a backward glance, but with every step his shoulders got higher and his head got lower, until he was curled into himself as he rounded the corner, out of sight.
Sam muttered, "Shit," and started to go after him.
Wade grabbed his arm. "You were kind of a dick, I doubt he wants to talk to you right now. Let Steve take care of this."
Steve intended to. He had no idea how, but he would damn well do his best.
He brushed past them and hurried down the hall after Bucky.
There was a beep from a keycard, and the door opened, flooding the room with unwelcome light.
Bucky didn't look up. His back was against the wall, his chin tucked between the peaks of his knees, his arms wrapped tight around his legs, and he knew it was childish, he knew it was weak, but he didn't have it in him to let go right now, even with Steve looking at him. Judging him.
The door swung closed again. Steve's phone lit up a patch of space around him, moving as Steve made his way to the other bed, going dim as Steve set the screen down against the comforter, an eerie line of light creeping out from around its edges.
The only other light was from a cheap plastic alarm clock. The glow of the numbers fell on the cord of the old phone that sat beside it on the nightstand, making the coils gleam a dull red.
The clock was wrong. 5:41 had been hours ago. Or hours from now, depending. Either way, it was wrong.
There was a dot beside the numbers, but it was too dark to tell if the dot meant AM or PM.
Maybe the dot meant an alarm was set. Maybe the clock would start blaring at whatever time it thought 6AM was.
"It takes time," Steve said softly.
Bucky frowned. For a weird moment he thought he was saying that the clock was eating up time itself. Devouring minutes and hours and days, digesting them into nothing.
That didn't make sense. It wasn't what Steve meant. Steve meant the other thing.
He could ignore him. Three words would be easy to ignore. Maybe Steve would let it go, leave him alone, never talk to him again.
Never talk to him again.
"What?" Bucky whispered. It came out harsh and dry.
Steve's bed creaked, and the covers rustled. Shadow-Steve shrunk up against the wall, smaller than he had any right to be, barely visible in the dim glow from the upside-down phone and the red of the clock. 5:45, day or night or neither or both.
"After...when I went to college," Steve said, almost too quiet to hear, almost making some kind of sense. "None of the same people were around, and it was a totally different place, but I was still...I didn't believe it yet. I was just waiting for it to start up again. I kept to myself. Jumped at every sound. Didn't trust anybody. But it got better. Just took time."
Jumped at every sound. Nearly took a swing at Wade. Bucky was starting to see the connection. If 'none of the same people were around' then that meant-- "Back in high school, you got picked on?"
A short, sharp exhale. Not a laugh.
'Picked on' wasn't the right phrase, then. Not at all. It was too late to take it back though. Somehow it was always too late with Steve. Bucky turned to get a better look at the curled up shape that Shadow-Steve made against the wall. "I guess it was pretty brutal."
"Guess so," Steve said.
"They hit you? Break you? Freeze you out so that nobody talked to you, ever, except..."
Fuck, he shouldn't have said any of that. Especially to Steve. Especially now. Fuck.
"Not like anyone wanted to talk to me anyway," Steve said. He didn't sound like himself. He sounded cold. Detached. It made Bucky want to bury him in teddy bears and bring him hot tea and warm cookies, but it was too late for that, too. "I was this tiny little thing. They called me queer before I even knew that's what I was. I was so angry, about everything, all the time. Nobody wanted--"
"Of course you were angry, that's...You were just a kid, Steve."
"So? It wouldn't be any different now. It wouldn't hurt any less. It wouldn't fuck me up any less."
Shadow-Steve put a hand over his mouth, (maybe over his whole face, it was hard to tell) and shifted further up against the wall. Hurt. Steve was hurt, and something rabbity in Bucky's chest started racing in circles, wanting to help, wanting to run, wanting--
"I'm sorry," Steve murmured.
"I'm not used to talking about it, is all, but I swear, it got better."
Jesus christ, Steve was still trying to reassure him. "Just took time?"
"And friends. Friends helped," Steve said, with a hopeful note in his voice.
That rabbity feeling hadn't gone away. He had to do something, he had to help, he had to...be Steve's friend, somehow. He might suck at it, but he had to try. Soul-baring seemed to be the way to go, so Bucky jumped in head first. "I, uh. Nobody called me that. Or, they did, but they didn't know I'm gay, so it wasn't personal."
Steve was quiet for a long moment, then he said softly, "You figure that's better?"
Bucky tried to imagine what would have happened if they'd known, and immediately shied away from that line of thought. "I wasn't brave enough to find out, I guess."
"No, I meant was it better if it wasn't personal. You must have been brave. You made it out."
"Did I?" Bucky swallowed. "What if I didn't? What if I'm not okay?"
"Then I'll help you."
He said it so simply, as if he hadn't already seen what Bucky was.
Bucky whispered, "But what if I'm just like them now? What if--"
"You're not like them."
"You saw what happened with Wade."
"I saw that you were surprised, and you thought you had to defend yourself. You didn't hurt him. You didn't even want to hurt him."
Bucky stared at Shadow-Steve, wishing he could see his face, even though he knew by now that Steve was too honest to say something he didn't mean. "Why are you so nice to me?"
"Because all you wanted was a chance, and I'm trying to give you the best one I can. I think you deserve it."
Even looking at his shadow was too much, after that. Bucky ducked his head down and pulled his knees back up to his chest. His voice was nearly steady when he said, "Thanks."
Steve made a huffing sound. "It's not like it's a hardship, Bucky. You're a good guy. I would've wanted to be your friend even if...Most people don't know what it's like, to go through that. It'll be nice to have a friend who does."
"Lucky you," Bucky muttered.
"Yeah. Lucky me."
There was nothing to say to that. Not without being an even bigger asshole than he'd already been. When the quiet stretched out too long, Bucky finally said, "You want to watch something?"
"Sure. You have the remote?"
Bucky felt around for it and handed it over. While Steve turned on the tv and flipped through channels, Bucky picked up the alarm clock. He poked at the buttons until he found a way to set it to the right time.
12:37 AM. No alarms.
"Sorry you didn't get your coffee," he murmured as he put it back in place.
Finally visible in the flickering glow of the television, Steve looked over at him with a warm little smile and said, "Next time."
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If Steve had to get stuck with a roommate, Bucky was a good choice. He kept all of his things either neatly packed or carefully lined up on the bathroom counter, and he showered really fast so that Steve didn't have to wait long. They were both dressed and had their bags ready with plenty of time to spare for the hotel's breakfast bar.
It was only eight o'clock, so most of the team was still asleep, and nearly all of the tables were empty, except for the one that Fury and Hill were sitting at, which they had covered in notebooks and folders.
"Don't they have tablets or laptops or something?" Bucky asked.
Steve shrugged. "Fury likes to say that paper makes the best firewall."
Bucky blinked grumpily. "That is a weird thing to say."
"I know. But I have to admit, they've never been hacked."
"At what cost, Steve? No spellcheck, no cut and paste, no spreadsheets."
"It's what they like." Struggling not to grin as widely as he wanted, Steve poured two cups of coffee and carried them to the nearest table.
Bucky filled two plates with muffins and brought them over. "It's inhumane, is what it is. I should call Amnesty International."
"File an official complaint?"
"No. Email an official complaint. You know why? Because they use computers." Bucky nodded, really smugly for someone who hadn't had their coffee yet, and flashed a smile.
Steve did grin at that. It was the widest smile he'd gotten from Bucky yet, even if it didn't last long. Even if it faded away entirely as Bucky glanced first at the entryway, and then down into his coffee.
Sam was coming toward them, with Wade beside him, and everything about last night came crashing down again.
Bucky's voice echoed through Steve's memory. 'What if I'm not okay? What if I'm just like them now?' He'd said it so quietly, barely a whisper, in the way that darkest fears are voiced. Steve knew that fear. He knew what it was like to question everyone's motives, especially his own. He knew the sharp edges of self-loathing that came with it.
He wanted to do something to reassure him, but despite the secrets they'd shared last night and how well the morning had gone so far, Steve couldn't kid himself into thinking they were especially close yet. He wasn't sure if it was okay to nudge Bucky's shoulder or knock his knee. Punching him in the arm was definitely out.
He should say something.
"The muffins aren't oatmeal raisin, are they?"
He was terrible at saying things.
Bucky looked up at him incredulously. "I doubt it. Why, did you want some tea to go with them?"
It wasn't a smile, but that was probably too much to ask for, anyway.
"Hey," Sam said, as he and Wade reached their table.
Bucky's face went absolutely neutral, not giving anything away.
Steve hated it. He hated that Bucky closed himself down so often, and he really hated the reason behind it. It made him want to go knock out the entire Hydra organization.
"Hey," Bucky said back cooly.
"About last night." Sam ran his hand nervously over his hair. "I was--"
"He was a dick," said Wade. When Sam scowled at him for it, he blinked hard and whispered, "Sorry." He looked back at Bucky. "I was a dick too. Sorry I snuck up on you."
Sam nodded. "And I overreacted, in a big way, and I need to apologize."
"You did what you thought you had to," Bucky said, still blank faced. "It's fine."
Sam visibly struggled not to frown. "It's not fine with me. I shouldn't have done it, and I'm sorry."
"Dick," Wade said again, with another hard blink.
Bucky turned to him and said gently, "Are you okay?"
Wade shook his head. "Yeah. Sorry. I'm just tired. Shit slips out."
Sam looked worried and patted Wade on the shoulder, but Wade shook his head again and waved him off, so he turned to Steve instead. "Right. Well, enjoy your breakfasts."
"Thanks Sam," Steve said sincerely. He had plenty of experience with giving apologies, he knew exactly how uncomfortable that must have been.
Sam nodded, gave a quick glance at Bucky and nodded again, and then marched off to the breakfast bar, pausing only to tug Wade along behind him.
Once they were out of earshot, Bucky leaned across the table and said in a low voice, "Don't get any ideas. You're not gonna make him be my friend."
Bucky frowned. "Look, you already know what I'm like, so if you wanna be an idiot and try to hang around with me anyway, I'm not gonna stop you. But you don't get to try to make other people do it too."
Steve swallowed around the lump that rose in his throat and gave Bucky a steady solemn look. "I won't have to try. Once they get to know you, they'll all want to hang around with you, too."
"Did anyone ever tell you you're too nice for your own good?"
"Yes. And I'm really fucking sick of it." Seeing Bucky's eyes widen was a hell of a lot more satisfying that it should have been, and Steve went on. "I'm sick of people thinking I'm some kind of lost puppy who can't take care of himself. I am nice. Sometimes that means I get hurt. I know all about that. But I'm not going to let it stop me, because it's still the right thing to do."
"Huh." Bucky stared at him for a moment. "Okay." He sat back and stared some more. "Okay, I like it."
This time it was Steve who stared, looking for some hint of mockery, which he didn't find.
"I do, I like it," said Bucky. "You're right. There's not enough niceness in the world. It's not your job to make up for all of it, but you're right. It's not a weakness. It's a strength. I like it."
Steve looked down at his coffee, just to have somewhere to look. "I didn't mean to rant about it."
"No, I like that too." Bucky shrugged and plucked at a muffin wrapper. "It's like you said, you're not a puppy. You don't have to be sunshiny all the time."
"Is that what I've been doing?"
"Maybe." Steve took a moment to think about it. "I was definitely trying to be friendly."
Bucky crossed his arms over his chest. "Well stop it."
Steve crossed his arms over his chest. "No."
"Rude." Bucky tried to smile, and mostly failed. "It's a start anyway."
"Oh, don't worry. I plan to make you regret ever saying that. I won't even thank you for letting me know it bothered you."
"That's harsh Steve. I'm so proud of you."
"Thanks," Steve said automatically.
Bucky chuckled at Steve's exasperated sigh, so it was completely worth it.
The bus ride home was noisier than the ride there, but not by much. Pre-season games were always like that, Bucky figured, especially the next day, when everyone had time to think about how their win didn't really count for anything.
He tucked himself into a window seat near Steve again, and pretended to read his book again, with just as little success as he'd had last time. And, like last time, Steve put in his earbuds to listen to something on his phone, but he kept glancing around at all his teammates, like he was checking up on them.
Cage and Rhodes were laughing about whatever game Rhodes was always playing. Wade had his feet in Sam's lap, and he was animatedly explaining something, making Sam shake his head and pretend he didn't think it was hilarious. Lang and Maximoff seemed to be playing some kind of patty-cake game, but they both had serious expressions on their faces, pressing their knees together and going over the moves again and again, so Lang was probably trying to learn it for his daughter. Callie? Cassidy? Odinson and Banner were huddled together, looking at something on a tablet, and as Bucky watched, Odinson casually wrapped his arm around Banner's shoulder to get a better view.
They were all so fucking cuddly. That's how Bucky's middle school team had been, but it had tapered off by the time he hit college, and his last team sure as hell didn't touch each other. At least, not in any way that passed for being cuddly. Bucky had assumed that everyone just grew out of it, but these guys didn't seem to have gotten the memo.
He wondered which one was normal. Maybe all the other teams flopped on each other, too. Maybe Drax usually sat with his arm around Quill on the Guardian's bus. Maybe Logan and Summers liked to give each other foot rubs on the Excelsior's plane after a hard game.
That couldn't possibly be true.
It took Bucky two weeks to figure out the answer.
Twelve days. Six games. Five states. Two trips by plane and four trips on the bus. That's how long it took.
When Steve was anywhere else, with anyone else, then there were hugs for Thor, punches for Wade, fist bumps, shoulder slaps, foot nudges, and that one time he'd full-body tackled Sam into a bed in Newark and had a twenty minute tickle fight.
But on the bus, while the rest of Steve's friends were all around them, sitting shoulder to shoulder, or draped over each other's knees, or, in the case of Luke and Bruce, arm-wrestling each other, Steve sat alone beside Bucky, just watching.
That's where Bucky found his answer.
The answer, of course, was that it didn't matter what passed for normal anywhere else. What mattered was here and now. What mattered was the guy who wanted to be his friend. The guy who was fiercely kind, stubbornly nice, and all too forgiving. The guy who had seen what happened when Bucky got grabbed, and had never touched him, not once, even though it was normal for all the rest of his friends. Who sat nearby on every bus ride and put in his earbuds and watched everyone else, alone, while Bucky stared at a book and didn't read.
That guy deserved a better friend. Bucky hadn't forgotten the rabbity feeling he'd felt in his chest the last time he thought he was letting Steve down, and he didn't like it any better this time around.
He snapped his book closed and started to move over, ready to crush their shoulders together, when Steve caught the movement and looked over at him.
Bucky froze. It was then that he realized that maybe shoulder crushing wasn't a great first step, and he should have planned better.
Steve raised an eyebrow and pulled out his earbuds. "Something wrong with your book?"
That was as good a distraction as any. "No. I just started reading it this morning, it's good so far. I mean, it's terrible, because it's about the big hurricane that wiped out Galveston, but it's good."
He held the book out, and Steve looked it over, blinking in surprise.
"Erik Larson? That's..." Steve tilted his phone so Bucky could read it.
'Currently playing: Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson'
He was eight minutes into the first chapter.
"This one's on my to read list," Bucky said, more excitedly than he intended. "How's the recording? Do you like the reader?"
Steve gave Bucky his usual bright smile, then turned and called out over his shoulder, "Hey Rhodey! Do you have one of those adaptors that'll let me use two sets of headphones?"
"Yeah, sure," Rhodey called back. A few seconds later, he tossed a splitter down the aisle.
Steve caught it deftly and yelled, "Thanks!" Rhodey nodded, already back to playing his game.
"Rhodes is always the one to ask for this kind of thing," Steve explained, plugging in the adaptor. "He has a friend who works at a computer company in Malibu. They play phone games together and talk about tech stuff."
Bucky didn't know what to do with that information, so he shrugged. Steve shrugged back and plugged in both sets of earbuds.
It would have been an ideal time to scoot closer and bump knees or something, Bucky realized, ten seconds after the moment had passed.
He could do it anyway. He hadn't put in his earbuds yet. It wasn't too late.
He could do it. Scoot right over. It wouldn't be weird.
That worried wrinkle was between Steve's eyebrows again, and he was waiting with his thumb over the play button.
Bucky sighed. "This is gonna be weird."
Steve looked even more worried at that, and he took a breath to say something.
Bucky scooted over and wedged their shoulders together.
"Oh." Steve considered him for a moment. "Well, yeah, that's definitely gonna get weird. We'll probably grow tentacles any minute now. Turn blue. Fly around the bus."
Bucky huffed and shoved Steve with his elbow. "Shut up."
Steve shoved back, smiling. "Are we listening to the book or not?"
"Yes, push play already, we've got a World's Fair to build," Bucky said, making impatient gestures while Steve rolled his eyes.
Just before he hit the button, Steve hesitated. "Is it too weird for you?"
Bucky almost blurted out 'it's fine', but that damned worried wrinkle had reappeared on Steve's face, so he took a moment to answer more honestly. "From what I've heard, these things take time. I'm working on it."
"Okay." Steve pushed the play button, but before the narration started, Bucky heard him say, "Good."
It took most of the ride to Cleveland to get used to it, but Steve was right.
It was okay. It was even good.
And nobody grew tentacles.
Their first regular season game was in two days, and Steve had been trying hard not to think about all the kinds of food that he wasn't allowed to eat, so naturally, he had gone the grocery store.
He was on his third trip down the pasta aisle when he got a text from Natasha.
Steve sighed heavily at the complete lack of capitalization and punctuation. It wouldn't bother him as much, except that she hadn't started doing it until she found out it annoyed him. Natasha was fun that way.
Then there was the question itself. How was Barnes? Grumpy. but sweet. Distant, but warm. Prickly. Charming. Brave. Brave enough to say out loud that he was working on doing better, and then to stick with it. For two weeks now he had spent every bus ride with his shoulder or his back propped up against Steve's, listening to their book or just talking about their day or about whatever came up. It seemed like it got easier for him every time, but Bucky had never pretended it was effortless, and Steve admired him for it.
It didn't seem right to say any of that to Natasha. He wandered to the dairy aisle and sent back, 'We're lucky to have him on the team. He's even better than you said.'
The typing bubbles appeared, and disappeared, and reappeared, before finally she sent, 'But how is he?'
Shit, she must be worried. He felt a brief stab of panic, wondering if something had happened, but then he remembered that he'd seen Bucky just a few hours ago, at their usual morning practice, and he had smirked and snarked and made Steve laugh, like normal.
Before Steve figured out how to answer the question, his phone rang. Natasha.
He moved so he wouldn't be blocking off the entire yogurt section while he accepted the call. "Hello."
"You're hesitating," Natasha said, with no greeting at all. "Why?"
"I don't know what he'd want me to say." There was a pause, as if she wasn't taking that for an answer, so he added, "He's a really private person."
"Yes he is," Natasha said slowly, expecting him to say more.
Steve dumped some flavorless Greek yogurt in his cart and tried to come up with the right words. "Look, I know Bucky's your friend, but he's my friend, too. I don't want to jeopardize that. I think it'd be better if you asked him yourself."
"You're also my friend," he added quickly. He really did not want her to doubt that.
"Of course," Natasha said, with a smile in her voice. "And I'm sure you wouldn't let a friend worry if she didn't need to."
Steve snorted. "Wow Nat, that was so subtle. I'm ready to spill everything now." She breathed out a laugh, amused with herself, and Steve said softly, "I don't think you need to worry. I think he's okay. I'm..." He trailed off before he could say that he was proud of him, but he was. Bucky tried so hard, at everything he did. Steve had never known anyone like him. "I'm pretty sure he's doing okay."
Natasha was quiet again, long enough that he wished he could see her face, before she said, "You're a good man, Steve."
"Thanks. So are you. I mean, not...I didn't--"
"And an absolute goober, obviously, but still, a good man," Natasha said, barely holding back laughter.
"You are also a superior human being," Steve said. An older man glanced up from picking through the various cheddars to give him a strange look, but he didn't much care.
Natasha laughed, that low husky laugh that was all too rare. "Yes I am," she said. "But since you're not being forthcoming, I'll have to ask him myself. Again. Should I tell him to text you after?"
"Sure?" He didn't bother asking why. She almost never answered that kind of question.
"I will," she said thoughtfully. "Bye Steve."
"Goodbye." He shook his head, smiling. She really was a superior human being, and talking to her had been a nice distraction.
Nice, but all too short. A steady diet of chicken and turkey and protein powder made plain white bread seem like a heavenly treat. Or toast. Toast with butter. And jam. Oh, all the kinds of jam, and honey, and Nutella.
He hurried out of the bread section before he could empty whole racks of it into his cart and trudged back to the meat department. Chicken. Turkey. Lean pork chops. Right.
None of that made its way into his cart. He was glaring at a gleaming, plastic shrouded package of boneless skinless chicken breasts when he was interrupted by a text, this time from Bucky.
'Nat says I should thank you?'
Steve smiled as he left the meat department, dodging a lady who had a cart full of dog food and one package of sushi. He wrote back, 'Yep. Since she couldn't get me to give up all your secrets.'
'Whoa, what kind of secrets are we talking about?'
The opportunity was too good to pass up. Steve snapped a picture of a package on a shelf and sent it to Bucky.
Soft oatmeal raisin cookies. They looked absurdly tempting, and Steve didn't even like oatmeal raisin.
'CARBS!!!' Bucky sent back immediately. 'That IS my secret. Jesus, I'm coming over, we'll eat all of them.'
Steve chuckled. 'Don't tempt me. You don't even know where I live.'
There was a pause, just long enough for Steve to wonder if he'd misstepped somehow, when he got a new text, forwarded by Bucky from Natasha.
The only thing in it was Steve's home address.
Steve rushed down the next aisle and sent back a picture of shelves full of tea. 'What kind?'
'We're really doing this?' Bucky wrote, and then, 'English Breakfast. Twinings.'
Steve grinned and picked out the right box of tea bags.
Bucky figured they were probably both going to back down. It was a terrible idea anyway. They were professionals. They didn't just give in to the temptation of cookies.
The look on Steve's face confirmed it. A mixture of guilt and doubtfulness as he held up his package of oatmeal cookies, just after he let Bucky into his condo.
He was going to let Steve off the hook. He had every intention to shrug it all off. He was about to say 'nevermind'.
But then Steve saw the package Bucky was holding. And then Steve's eyes lit up in a spectacular grin, and then he made grabby hands and said, "Chocolate chip!"
And then Bucky laughed.
"This is so great." Steve grinned even wider and slung his arm over Bucky's shoulders to lead him to the kitchen.
That was new. Bucky laughed again, softer this time, caught up on the idea that Steve trusted him not to snap or anything at the sudden contact. Steve was an idiot, but it was still a pretty terrific feeling.
They didn't talk, but the silence was comfortable, as they sat down at the table, bumping their knees together, and poured their tea. Steve broke off a chunk of an oatmeal cookie, nibbled on it gingerly, then pushed the rest of it across the table to Bucky and sipped his tea.
Bucky couldn't help a smile at that. He pushed a chocolate chip cookie over to Steve's side in return.
The cookies were delicious in the way that only forbidden food could be, sweet and soft and buttery.
They made their way through three more each before Steve sighed. "We should probably stop."
Bucky nodded. That seemed like his cue to leave.
"You think we can get away with having pasta, too?" Steve said hopefully.
Oh. Maybe he didn't need to go. "We could put chicken in it. You have any?"
Steve raised an eyebrow, because it was a ridiculous question. Their nutritionist, Claire, had practically buried the team in pre-made chicken-based meals. It was all Bucky had eaten for days, and the same was almost certainly true for Steve.
"You make the pasta, I'll chop?" Bucky offered.
Steve bounced out of his chair, smiling, so Bucky took that as a yes. He opened the fridge and found it just as full as his own, with stacks of boxed meals, all carefully labeled in Claire's precise writing.
He pulled out two of them, with walnuts, cranberries, spinach, and of course chicken, and pushed aside an empty grocery bag to make room on the counter.
A grocery bag.
He looked up from filling a big pot with water. "Yeah?"
"Your refrigerator is full."
"Yeah, isn't yours?"
"Sure," Bucky said. "That's why I wasn't hanging around in the cookie aisle."
Steve blushed, which was hilarious.
Bucky grinned. "Was this a plan?"
"No. I couldn't have planned anything like this. I didn't even know you'd text me."
"Then what were you doing at the grocery store?"
Steve ran his hand through his hair, leaving it all rumpled. "I like food, Bucky. I wasn't going to buy any, honest, I just really like eating, and sometimes I go and walk around, is all."
"So you just go there to look? Like a food museum?"
"Exactly!" Steve pulled out a cutting board and knife, and pushed them over Bucky's way.
Bucky tested the knife with his thumb. Good and sharp. He set to work on a piece of chicken. "Checking out the food blogs on Instagram seems safer."
Steve shook his head. "Photographs aren't the same as seeing it for yourself."
Idiot, Bucky thought fondly.
No. That wasn't right. Playing things safe wasn't important to him, that was all. It was like he'd said, 'Sometimes that means I get hurt. I know all about that. But I'm not going to let it stop me.'
"You're not an idiot," Bucky said, before he thought to stop himself.
"Oh gee, thanks Buck, that's really sweet of you. You're not an asshole."
Bucky laughed so hard he had to put his knife down, and giggled out, "Are you sure about that?"
"I'm sure," Steve said. His voice was light, but his eyes were steady and serious, not giving any ground.
Bucky went back to his chopping, and didn't try to argue.
They ended up playing Guitar Hero. It wasn't what Steve would have expected, but he hadn't expected any of this. After they ate and loaded the dishwasher, Bucky had noticed the controller, propped against a wall gathering dust, and laughed as he picked it up.
Tonight was the first time Steve had seen that happen. He wondered if Bucky realized that. But once it happened, it was like the doors had opened, and more and more laughter tumbled out.
Maybe the sugar high had something to do with it, but Steve didn't care. It was great.
Especially when Steve distracted Bucky from playing Misirlou by trying to dance like Uma Thurman, and Bucky laughed so hard that he failed out of the song.
It was so great.
It carried over onto the ice, too. Their partnership in the rink was like nothing Steve had ever experienced, built on trust, respect, and a sense of fun that he'd never expected. During the opening weeks of the season, together, they led the team to victory after victory. They took down the Knights 4-2, and then went on to defeat the Guardians 5-3, and the Blades 3-2.
The week after that, they rode down to Arlington, where Shield beat them by one. Steve hated losing, but coming that close to beating last season's champions wasn't so terrible.
Or at least that's what he told himself, as they all made their way to their hotel room.
"Sam's right, I should've leaned harder on Barton," Bucky grumbled once they were alone in the elevator.
"Next time," Steve said.
"Only way we play them again is in the playoffs."
Steve grinned. "Next time."
Bucky shook his head, but the line of his mouth turned a little less grim. "Right. Next time."
The elevator door slid open, and Steve frowned at it. "Walking sucks. I don't wanna."
"Come on, it's only one more hallway."
"Ugh." Steve pushed himself off the wall and out of the elevator just before the doors closed on him.
Bucky used his keycard and opened the door to their room. "I want to watch that goal again tomorrow, I think..."
He trailed off, barely inside the doorway. Steve peeked around him. Normal hotel room. Couch, tv, bed.
"Uhh," Steve said eloquently.
"We'll have to go back down, get a different room," Bucky muttered.
"Guess so." Steve sighed. "The lobby's all the way on the other side of the building though."
"Have to carry all our bags, too."
"Fuck. Can't we just..."
"Just what? I'm not sleeping on the fucking couch." Bucky glared before Steve could say anything and added, "Neither are you."
Steve's shoulders sagged. They both looked around the room, as if maybe another bed would spring into view.
"It's a big bed," Bucky said, almost as a question.
"And it's right here," Steve said.
Bucky inched further into the room, until he could put his fingertips on the mattress. "It's just for one night, anyway."
Steve stepped the rest of the way inside and gently closed the door behind him. "One night. As long as you're sure it's okay."
Bucky rolled his eyes. "I'm not made of tissue paper, you don't gotta be so careful all the time."
"I want you to remember you said that when I start kicking you in my sleep." Steve scooped up their toiletry bags and took them to the bathroom.
Bucky leaned in the doorway. "Could be worse. At least you're not a biter."
"I'm not making any promises." Steve pointed his toothbrush at him for emphasis.
"Well, at least you'll have clean teeth." Bucky smirked, and found his own toothbrush. Steve already had his toothpaste out, so he wordlessly offered some to Bucky, who nodded and held his brush out. They brushed in silence, bumping elbows occasionally, and wearily made their way back to the bed.
It was barely different from their usual nighttime ritual. Steve stripped off his sweats and his shirt, and Bucky did the same. Steve turned on the bedside lamp and Bucky turned off the light by the door. The only slight difference was that they climbed in on opposite sides of the same bed, instead of different ones, before Steve reached over and turned the bedside lamp off again.
He closed his eyes and waited, already knowing what would come next.
Sure enough, a few minutes later Bucky grumbled, "I shoulda leaned harder on Barton."
"Fury will go over the tapes tomorrow, you can beat yourself up about it then. Go to sleep."
Bucky shifted around a little, and their ankles bumped together. "You think I went too soft on him?"
"Should I even bother answering? You're just gonna tell me I'm wrong."
"Only because you are wrong. I shoulda done more."
"Then why didn't you?"
They were close enough that he could hear Bucky swallow down whatever he'd been about to say. Steve suspected it was something about not wanting to hurt anyone, and he felt a weird mixture of aching sadness and fierce pride for him. He stretched over and nudged him with his elbow. "You played a good game, Buck."
Bucky nudged him back, then rolled over onto his side. His forehead brushed against Steve's shoulder.
Steve leaned into him lightly, tilting so their heads touched, not much different from how they usually sat on the bus.
"G'night Stevie," Bucky said softly.
They settled into a deep easy sleep that lasted to morning.
It should have been weird or awkward or something, waking up with his knee pressed into Steve's hip, the two of them sprawled at odd angles across the bed.
Mostly it was just warm and comfortable. Bucky let his eyes fall closed again and relaxed, since his alarm shouldn't go off for another ten minutes.
Steve woke up with a soft, confused 'mmm?' sound, and patted Bucky's knee. He identified it, with a quiet, 'ohh' sound, and twisted around, blinking his eyes open and smiling sleepily. "Morning."
His hair was a fluffy mess, and there were lines on his cheek from the wrinkles in his pillow. Bucky smiled back at him, probably just as sleepily. There was something cuddly and inviting about him like this, and Bucky had a sudden, irrational urge to pull him in for a hug.
It was the eyes, he supposed. The long lashes, the soft crinkles around them. The scar.
Bucky swallowed and turned away. He already knew everything he needed to know about that. There was no point in dwelling on it, or on anything attached to it.
"You think there's breakfast at this one?" Steve mumbled. The hotel in Grand Rapids hadn't had breakfast, and the team had descended on the nearby IHOP like a plague of huge, angry locusts. It was a wonder anyone had made it out alive.
"If they don't, I've got protein bars in my bag," Bucky said.
"I swear, I won the roommate lottery. You're the best."
Bucky turned around raised an eyebrow. "Never said I'd share."
Steve threw a pillow at him, but Bucky dodged it, grinning.
They goofed off the way they normally would throughout the morning. The hotel did provide breakfast, and they got there before their teammates, so they had more than drips and crumbs to choose from, though nothing as good as what Claire would have had delivered to their doors back home. The team owner wasn't even willing to spring for separate rooms, so having their nutritionist flown across the country was out of the question.
Their next game was in South Carolina, which meant a bus ride there instead of home to Brooklyn.
Bucky followed Steve up the steps of the bus and down toward their seats, getting slower and slower as they realized how dark the mood was around them.
Wade was curled up in his seat, scowling and cursing and punching at the armrest. Banner was pacing angrily between the last few seats, with a look in his eyes that usually only came out on the ice, where he got into more fights than any goalie had a right to. Rhodey was on his phone, snapping at someone, "No, I don't need you swooping in here trying to -- Tony, are you even listening to me?"
Thor seemed cheerful enough, sitting comfortably in his usual seat. But Scott had dark circles under his eyes that made it obvious he'd barely had any sleep last night. That, and he wasn't having much success at braiding Thor's hair. Or any success, really. He looked up from the disaster in his hands when Steve came closer.
"Everything okay?" Steve asked.
"Goddamn fucking fold out couch," Scott muttered darkly. "Shit, I'm not supposed to cuss. Dammit."
"I am sorry," Thor said, looking up at him and making his braids fall apart the rest of the way.
"Nope, not your fault," Scott said. "You won at rochambeau, rock beats scissors, you got the bed. I got the fu-- the torture rack." He looked despairingly at Steve and Bucky. "If I'd known how bad it would be I would've slept on the floor instead. I tried to, but I couldn't figure out how to fold the godda-- the dumb thing back up in the dark."
Steve turned around to Bucky, wide eyed, and mouthed the words, "Fold out couch?"
Laughing would be really inappropriate. Bucky managed to hold it back, but he couldn't help the little bit of a smile that broke through before he tamped it back down again.
Steve was much less successful at hiding his smile, which was one of the things Bucky liked best about him, but it wasn't especially convenient at the moment.
Trying to keep the attention off of Steve's sunny face, Bucky said to Scott, "So how's the braiding going?"
Scott hung his head. "I can't get it. Family Day is next week, and I don't want to let Cassie down, but I just can't."
That solved Steve's smiling problem. He went all solemn and straightened up tall, like he was ready for battle. "How can we help?"
Steve looked at Bucky, eyebrows raised in a question.
"You know how to do a french braid?" Scott asked doubtfully.
"Well, it's been a while, but I think I so," Steve said. When Scott gave him a surprised look, he added, "I used to babysit. A lot."
"Sure, sure. Um, it's like a french braid, but around the top?" Scott held up his phone, paused in the middle of an instruction video.
Steve studied it for a moment, nodded, then turned to Bucky again, looking just as hopeful as Scott.
Bucky sighed. He must still be suffering the lingering effects of seeing Steve all soft and sleep tousled that morning, because he dropped into the seat beside Thor and waved his hand to give Steve permission to start braiding.
Steve's hands were unsurprisingly gentle as he combed his fingers through Bucky's hair and sorted it out however he needed it.
All Bucky could do was sit very still and not think about anything at all.
After two attempts, (or maybe three, it was hard to tell without thinking), Steve found some kind of rhythm. He had gotten most of the way around to the back, brushing his fingers up the base of Bucky's neck as he went, when Sam and Luke made their way onto the bus.
Luke went immediately to Banner, and talked soothingly to him about how Hill had already verified that the next hotel would have real beds for them, and that Coach had somehow gotten Pym on the phone and lectured him for half an hour about dignity and respect and actual goddamn beds.
Sam looked over Bucky and Thor and grinned. "It looks like something out of Frozen." He pointed at Thor, "Elsa." He pointed at Bucky, "And Olaf."
Scott chuckled, but Thor said, "I feel that Rapunzel is a better fit."
"And Barnes is what?" Sam said, "The horse?"
Bucky made a whickering sound, and got a laugh out of Steve.
"Steve-o, you getting Barnes ready for a pony show or what?"
Scott said, "Oh, he's trying to learn to braid a crown so he can teach me to do it. For Cassie."
"That's no problem," said Sam, "I can show you."
He gave Bucky a questioning look and reached out toward him.
For all that Sam was a good person, maybe even a great person, Sam was not Steve. Sam hadn't shared late night confessions with him, hadn't had him over for illicit cookies, hadn't spent months meeting him for early morning practices.
Which was why, when he reached out, Bucky shifted backwards the least little amount. Right into Steve's hand.
Steve flattened his palm against Bucky's shoulder and ran his thumb in a slow circle. "What makes you think you're more qualified than I am, Samson?"
Sam stopped short. He probably realized what Steve was doing.
Bucky hoped so, because it was such a ridiculously kind and thoughtful thing, for Steve to find a way to reassure him without making things any more awkward than they already were. He was probably the best person Bucky had ever known.
Sam crossed his arms over his chest and looked down at Bucky. "I have a sister. We couldn't afford the salon, but one summer she decides she needs micro braids, and...You have no idea what micro braids are. Okay. Just, lots of braids. Lots. Took me three days, because Sarah wouldn't have anything less than perfection. After that, I was her designated stylist." He smirked and shrugged, clearly proud of himself.
"And she survived?" Bucky said dryly.
Sam grinned. "So far."
Bucky rolled his eyes and nodded. "Okay, go ahead."
Sam moved in and started to portion out sections of hair to braid. A second later he said thoughtfully, "Although, Sarah is bald now."
Bucky tilted his head back to glare at him, but he just smiled and nudged him forward again, saying, "Hold still, Olaf."
Sure. Hold still. No problem.
"Doing a reverse french braid?" Luke asked from somewhere. Bucky took a deep breath, six seconds long, and held it for three. He already didn't like this. If things turned bad, he wouldn't know until too late, he couldn't watch his back, he couldn't--
Steve dropped onto the floor in front of him. It was almost comical, the way he wedged his huge shoulders into such a small space, crushing his back against the seat ahead of them. Under different circumstances, Bucky might have laughed. But the circumstances weren't different, so he just twitched a small smile at him.
Steve didn't smile back. Not really. His mouth quirked up on one side, but his eyes were steady and warm and...aw fuck, he looked proud. Proud of Bucky, for something so damned simple.
Worst of all, Bucky appreciated it. Steve understood what it was like, how hard it was to learn to trust, and here he was, offering support, watching Bucky's back when he couldn't do it for himself.
Bucky really appreciated it.
So he did the only thing he could do in the face of all that kindness. He crossed his eyes and stuck his tongue out at him.
Steve laughed, a big full body laugh, and grabbed Bucky's knee for balance. This time, Bucky managed a real smile in return.
When he'd recovered, Steve took a moment to study the progress on Bucky's hair. "It looks good. Sam probably is better at this than me."
"I never got to see yours, so I won't be able to tell," Bucky pointed out.
"If you want, I'll do them again. It'll be good practice."
"Why do you need practice?"
Steve shrugged, as much as he could without breaking the seat loose with his shoulders. "I don't know. Maybe we'll do races at Family Day."
"Oh, that's bound to work out well. Luckily, nobody here is overly competitive."
"I'd win," said Sam.
"You would not," said Luke.
Thor laughed. "Luke is correct. I will win."
Scott said softly, "But just think how happy Cassie would be if --"
"That is cheating!" Sam said. "No bringing sweet little children into this. We only braid each other's hair."
"Like men!" Wade chimed in.
"Exactly," said Sam. "I call dibs on Thor."
"What?! He's my roommate!"
"Scott's right," said Steve, grinning at Bucky. "Roommates should get dibs."
"Oh screw all of you," Sam said.
Wade popped up over the seat and ran a hand over his buzzcut. "I promise I'll grow as much hair as possible in the next week. I won't even shave. Anywhere."
"That is really not necessary," Sam said.
"Anything for my roomie!" Wade clasped his hands over his heart and batted his eyelashes.
Somewhere, Luke said, "Bruce, you in?"
"Me? No, no, no, I don't think...I mean it's not really long enough, it's probably..."
"One way to find out," Luke offered.
"Oh. Yeah. Okay. You can try it."
They took the seats on the other side of the aisle, and Luke started combing his fingers through Bruce's hair.
Bucky nudged Steve with his foot. "Look at what you started."
"Looks pretty great to me," Steve said, grinning up at him.
Bucky smiled back at him, because he was right. It was pretty great.
Steve slopped his way over to the deck chair that had his stuff on it, leaving a trail of wet footprints on the concrete. The splashfight in the hotel pool had outlasted his patience, and he had reached the point where he was considering drowning one or more people, so he had ducked out, leaving the rest of them to their fun.
He had just finished toweling down and was considering hitting the shower when Bucky plopped into the chair beside him.
He was raising his eyebrows, like he was waiting for an answer to a question he hadn't asked, and dripping all over the place.
Steve threw a clean towel at him, landing it so that it draped over his whole head.
Bucky snorted, scrubbed it over his hair a few times, and came out smiling. He glanced back at where Bruce and Thor were teaming up to dunk Wade, then looked back at Steve, serious again. "You good?"
"Yeah, of course," Steve said.
A bubble of panicked guilt rose up in Steve's chest at the way Bucky's face turned blank and neutral. He hated when Bucky did that, and he hated even more that he had caused it.
Ducking his head, Steve said, "It, uh, got pretty intense, that's all."
He glanced up, and Bucky nodded silently.
"I don't like blurring things," Steve said in a rush.
"Playing and fighting. Friends and...not friends. It's different on the ice, there are rules." He shrugged, uncomfortable. "I just don't want to get blurry."
"Okay," Bucky said again, solemn this time, which was a big improvement over closed off. "Was it me? Making things blurry?"
"No," Steve said, so fast that Bucky frowned in disbelief. Dammit. Steve lowered his voice to a murmur. "Thor pulled me under, and it pissed me off. That's all. He was just having fun, and I wanted to deck him for it, so I left."
"Sorry," Bucky said, looking away.
"I told you it wasn't--"
"For making you tell me. I don't need to be so insecure, I shoulda let it go."
"You're allowed," Steve said, carefully reining in his frustration.
Bucky gave an exasperated sigh. "I'm allowed to be a self-centered asshole?"
His frustration over the playfighting had been one thing, but combining it with his fury at everyone who had ever hurt Bucky left Steve teetering on the verge of shouting. "You're allowed to talk to me," he snapped. "You're allowed to have feelings. You're allowed to be my friend. I care about you, dammit, I don't want you to feel like shit, so you're allowed."
"Well I don't want you to feel like shit, either," Bucky snarled.
"Well...thanks?" Steve said, all the fight draining out of him just as fast as it had arrived, leaving embarrassment in its wake.
"Yeah, you too." Bucky scrubbed a hand over his face. "So. This turned awkward. Want a water bottle?"
He pulled up his bag without waiting for an answer and got out two bottles of water. He probably had protein bars in there too. Bucky liked being prepared, and Steve was usually lucky enough to reap the benefits.
When Bucky handed over one of the bottles, Steve took it and knocked it against the one Bucky was holding before he opened it. "Thank you."
Bucky nodded and picked at the label on his water.
Nothing had been resolved, and it seemed wrong to pretend that it had.
"Was it like that for you?" Steve asked softly. "Did they say things like that? 'Just playing around, just having fun, why can't you take a joke, no wonder you don't have any friends'."
"Um. No. They would..." Bucky swallowed and looked over at the pool, where everyone was still laughing and splashing, too far away to even notice when their voices had been raised. "No, they were all about justice and punishment and not letting the team down."
Steve concentrated on not crushing his water bottle. "That's not...fuck."
"Yeah, I know." Bucky closed his eyes and took a slow breath. When he looked at Steve again, he didn't have that blank, shut-down expression, but seeing Bucky with his eyes full of pain wasn't better. Not at all. "Usually they were careful. I still had to be useful, right? But, uh, one time I let Barton score a hat trick, and didn't make him suffer for it. I ended up with three broken ribs. Blamed it on a hit from Scott Summers, the next week, but they were broken before the game started. Anyway, it wasn't personal. It was never personal. Not according to them."
"Bucky..." Steve knew, he knew that there was nothing he could do to take away that kind of hurt. He pondered it, ran through all the platitudes and nonsense that had been said to him, by the underpaid high school counselor, the school librarian, the nurse who had iced his broken nose. None of the words had done him any good. Not really. Finally, he sighed in defeat. "I wish there was something I could say. I wish I could make it better."
"Yeah, well, I can't help with yours, either, so I guess we're even."
With barely a thought, Steve said, "No, I'm winning."
A shocked laugh was far better than no laugh at all, and Steve was glad to get it.
"What does that even mean, Steve?"
"I have no idea. Seems right though. Got anything to eat?"
Still giving Steve an incredulous look, Bucky reached into his bag and pulled out a pair of protein bars.
Steve took the one Bucky held out, opened it and bit off a chunk. Around the bite, he said, "See, told ya. I'm definitely coming out ahead here."
"I think you're forgetting about the Night of the Cookies," Bucky said smugly.
"I would never," Steve said. "It proves my point. You brought the good ones."
And the laughter, and the fun.
Bucky looked at him, in that quiet way he did, like Steve was a puzzle he wanted to figure out, and he shook his head, with a little smile at the corner of his mouth. "You trying to talk your way outta getting more cookies or what?"
"You trying to bribe me into saying you're winning when you're not?"
"Would it work?"
"Not for oatmeal raisin, only weirdos like those."
"Which is why I brought you chocolate chip. But that was just the start, Stevie. Next time it could be double chocolate fudge. Shortbread with toffee. Fresh gingerbread. But not if it means I'm gonna lose."
Steve gave Bucky a stern glare. "All right, fine, we can call it a draw. But only if you let me bring cookies to your place next time."
"I don't think this is how arguments are supposed to go," Bucky said, really smiling now.
"Take it or leave it, Buck. I'm talking dark chocolate with walnuts, warm from the bakery."
"Well, if you insist, then I guess...You're allowed." He fixed Steve with a significant look, like he needed to be certain this wasn't just about the cookies.
"Good," Steve said softly. "Thank you."
Bucky swallowed and looked away. "Yeah. You too."
Despite their agreement, it sure as hell felt like a win to Steve.
Steve looked so grumpy, Bucky couldn't help but chuckle.
That made him frown even even deeper. "You do know that we're not going to win."
"Won't be the first time we don't win at something, Steve. It'll be fine."
Steve clenched his jaw and stared ahead at nothing.
"Look alive, people," said Hill. "We go on three. One...Two...Three!"
Bucky sat as still as he could, focussing on the feel of Steve's fingers sorting his hair into portions.
Steve was braiding as quickly as he could, but it wasn't all that fast, and he was right, they were going to 'not win'. They were going to 'not win' by a lot, and Bucky didn't care at all.
Family Day hadn't really started yet. This was sort of a warm up, according to Wade, who had somehow been named the judge of this absurdity.
They were lined up at a table, in one of the suites at the rink. Scott was braiding Thor's hair, not especially fast, but very neatly. Luke was doing Bruce's hair, despite how short it was, and doing it quickly and well.
Beside them was Pietro, and probably Pietro's sister. Bucky hadn't met her yet, so he wasn't sure. He also hadn't met Sam's sister, who was not nearly as bald as Sam had reported, since Sam was currently doing her hair.
At the end of the bench was Rhodey, who had surprised everyone by asking Hill if he could do her hair, but not as much as she had surprised everyone by saying yes.
"Done!" Pietro shouted, before Steve had gotten even half-way around on the crown he'd been braiding.
Steve muttered, "Dammit," through clenched teeth. He repeated it when Luke finished, and when Sam finished, and when Rhodey finished. Each time, he seemed to try to speed up, if the increase in hair pulling was any indication.
It was down to Steve and Scott, when a door banged open and a high voice squealed "Daddy!"
A little kid in a purple dress ran by in a blur, and Scott abandoned his braiding to scoop her up and spin her in a circle.
A few seconds later, Steve quietly said, "Done." He dropped his hands onto Bucky's shoulders, and when Bucky looked up at him, he said miserably, "I'm sorry."
"It's not a problem at all."
Steve frowned and looked away.
"Hey, come on," said Bucky. "What do you always say to me?"
"I don't know, you've never made us lose before."
Bucky rolled his eyes. "Next time. That's what you say. I'll let you practice all you want, and we'll do better next time."
"Yeah, okay." Steve blew out a breath and visibly tried to refocus. "You want to go meet Sam's sister? She's pretty great."
"Absolutely," Bucky said, though his enthusiasm was more for Steve's sake than out of a desire to hang around with strangers and feel awkward and weird.
He followed Steve down the bench to Sam and his sister. She was pretty in the same way Sam was, with the same dark, expressive eyes, and the same bright smile, but sadly without a gap in her teeth. The lipstick was a nice touch, though.
"Steve," she said warmly, giving him a quick hug. She turned to Bucky. "Nice to meet you. I'm Sarah Wilson, and you must be James Barnes. You're doing great work for the team, but I'm still not going to call you by whatever goofy name they picked out for you."
Bucky blinked and shook the hand she offered.
"Actually, we just call him Barnes," Sam said, frowning in thought.
'Bucky' was probably goofy enough on its own, but Sam was right, everyone called him Barnes. Except Steve, of course. And now Sam had it in his head to come up with something worse. Wonderful.
Bucky waved vaguely at Sarah's braids. "Uh, great crown. It suits you."
"Oh, you and I are gonna get along just fine." Sarah grinned, showing her dimples.
Sam playfully narrowed his eyes at Bucky. "No. Do not act charming around my sister."
Sarah smacked him in the arm. "Do you really not have the good sense to agree when a man calls me a queen?"
"That's not what I said, and you know it."
She turned away from him as if he'd ceased to exist, winked at Bucky, and said to Steve, "Is your mama coming today?"
"Sorry, Sam and I decided the world would be a safer place without another meeting of the Sarahs." When she rolled her eyes, he chuckled and added, "She's somewhere in South America, doing a tour with Doctors Without Borders."
"Holy fuck," Bucky said before he could catch himself. He muttered "Sorry," at Sarah, who just smiled and shook her head, and turned back to Steve. "I didn't even know your ma was a doctor."
"Yeah, she's pretty amazing." Steve smiled and looked at the floor.
"I figured that much, since she raised you."
Steve huffed like it was a joke, so Bucky kicked him in the ankle and frowned at him until he smiled a little.
Sarah watched them with a strange, speculative look, then turned to Sam. "Go bring me snacks," she ordered, flicking her hand at him imperiously. "I'll find us a table."
Sam took a breath, then just shook his head in defeat. "Right. Snacks."
They took off in opposite directions, leaving Steve and Bucky on their own.
"She doesn't need that crown, does she," Bucky said, watching Sarah commandeer a table and strike up a conversation with Thor.
"Nope, she does just fine without it," Steve said, sounding distracted.
He was studying Bucky's hair, looking like he was working his way up to apologizing again, so Bucky did his best to head him off.
"You secure the cookies, and I'll go get drinks. Maybe she'll let us sit with her, if we hurry."
Steve nodded and took off for the snack tables.
Bucky took off too, heading for the drinks, but he looked over his shoulder to watch Steve go, waiting for what he hoped would happen next.
Yep. A few steps later, Steve turned back to him and held up his hands in a big 'T'. Bucky laughed and gave him a thumbs up, practically walking backwards to do it.
That was a mistake.
Someone small bounced off of his shin and onto the ground, with an "Oof."
"Oh jeez, I'm sorry! Are you okay?"
Scott's daughter, Cassie, picked herself up and dusted off her knees. "I'm okay," she said, as if this was a common occurrence. She looked up at him, and her eyes widened. "Your hair is so pretty!"
She was tiny, somewhere between being old enough to walk and not old enough to pay taxes, which didn't narrow things down at all, so Bucky didn't have any idea how to talk to her.
"Oh. Thank you. Do you see that guy over there?" He pointed over to where Steve was heaping a plate full of desserts.
"That's Steve," Cassie informed him, with a wide smile that showed her missing front teeth.
"Right. Well, he braided it for me. If you get the chance, make sure to tell him you liked it, okay? I think it might cheer him up."
"Is he your best friend?"
"I..." Bucky hadn't been prepared for that question. He thought about what being a best friend would mean to a little kid. Someone you can trust with all your secrets. Someone you can share your fears with and make them lighter. Someone you want to see every day. "Yeah. Yeah, I guess he is."
She frowned, like she was annoyed that he wasn't more sure. He was a little annoyed at that himself. Cassie brightened and said, "My best friend is Sophia."
"Is she here too?" Bucky asked, looking over the milling groups of people and secretly hoping that Sophia would come along and rescue him from this conversation.
Cassie giggled, as if he'd asked if turtles could fly. "Noooo, Sophia lives in California. She has purple sparkle shoes, just like mine. 'Cause we're best best friends."
"Oh. Well, uh, me and Steve have matching jerseys." He gave a lopsided smile.
Getting a sweet, pitying look from a tiny adorable child wasn't the worst thing his ego had ever suffered, but it was probably on the list. Christ.
"Bye," Cassie said. She skipped away, leaving Bucky blinking after her as he questioned his life choices.
The next hour or so didn't offer any particular clarity, either.
He found Steve, and they quickly shared good cookies and terrible tea, then went their separate ways.
He met Pietro's sister, Wanda, who looked exactly like Pietro, except her hair was longer and had red highlights instead of silver. He met Thor's brother, Loki, who looked nothing like Thor, except for the way they smiled in unison as they finished each other's sentences. He met Luke's girlfriend, Jessica, who seemed deeply suspicious of everyone but Luke, and probably wanted to be anywhere but here.
Bucky could definitely relate. He took a moment to look out at the ice and remember the calm of the early morning, with nothing but the hiss of skates, his own and Steve's, and no one to impress, because Steve never made him feel like he wasn't enough. He took a deep breath and tried to hold on to that feeling.
Finally, he slipped away from Loki and Pietro, who were goodnaturedly arguing about which of them would win in a race, with increasingly boisterous encouragement from their siblings, and made his way to a quieter corner, with just Luke, Jessica, Scott, Cassie, Sam and Sarah. And Steve, who had ambled over at the same time Bucky did.
Wasn't a tough choice who to talk to first.
"Hey Steve. Having fun?"
Steve chuckled, which was kind of an answer in itself.
Bucky still hadn't come up with a plan for how to help when Wade rushed between them on his way to Sam.
"Sam," Wade said, in a loud whisper. "Sam I need to break one of the rules. Just a little bit."
Sam raised an eyebrow.
Wade flailed his hands toward the other side of the room. "Twins, Sam. Funny sweet hockey genius twins. Come on, it's technically only half a rule, because she's not part of the team. Please Samson, let go of the rules, this one time, for me."
"Last time I did that, you cried on me, right before we played The Excelsiors. You're the whole reason we have that rule."
Wade propped his fists on his hips. "I'm also the reason we have the 'No flange, not safe' rule, but that never stopped me from--"
The shout seemed to come from about half the room, Luke and Sarah and Steve, while Scott hurriedly put his hands over Cassie's ears.
Sam said quietly, "They're just rules, Wade. I can't stop you from doing anything."
Wade's eyes went wide.
"But." Sam looked down at his fingers and steepled them together. "Remember, you wouldn't be the only one breaking them. You'd be asking Pietro to break them, too. He's new here, he's just starting out. So if you're gonna do that, you'd better be sure about it. Because you're not the only one who might get hurt."
Across the room, as Wade's shoulders slumped, there was a general uproar, and everyone over there started heading for the door.
Hill stopped by on her way out. "Thor's brother challenged Pietro to a race. We're heading down to the ice. I'm not sure if either of them know that the other used to be a speed skater. Should be fun."
While everyone was shuffling around to go watch, Steve took a deep breath, like he was steadying himself. Bucky wondered if this was another of those blurring situations he had talked about. Sure seemed like it had the potential for it, anyway.
He nudged him with his shoulder and they made their way toward the door while Sam and Wade stayed behind to talk.
When they were far enough from the others, Bucky said casually, "Cassie says we need to get matching purple shoes. With sparkles."
Steve blinked in surprise. "Uh, sure, if we can find them in our size."
"You're not even gonna ask why?"
Suddenly it wasn't as easy to say as it had seemed in his head, now that Steve was looking right at him, open and smiling, willing to trust him.
Bucky stopped walking so he could focus. "Because Cassie and Sophia have matching shoes. When I first met you, I really needed...I mean, there was Natasha but...I needed a friend, and somehow you showed up, and...You're my best friend."
"Hey," Steve said. He pulled Bucky into a rough hug. "I'm lucky to have you, Buck."
It was a hell of a good hug, warm and engulfing and absolutely wonderful. Bucky sank into it and hugged back as well as he could, despite the nagging feeling that he hadn't said enough.
He tried again as they pulled away from each other. "Sorry for being weird, but I wanted you to know. I wanted to thank you. 'Cause there couldn't be a better friend than you, Steve."
Before Steve could reply, Wade came charging around the corner, carrying Sam in a piggyback ride, and Luke came right after, carrying Jessica the same way.
"Saddle up, Steve-o," Sam yelled.
Bucky rolled his eyes and turned around so he could try to drag Steve onto his back.
It made Steve chuckle, so it was worth it.
Once Steve was securely in place, Wade raised one fist in the air like he was about to rush into battle and shouted, "Wilson!" in a horrible imitation of Tom Hanks from Cast Away.
Then Sam raised his fist in the air and shouted, "Wilson!" in a surprisingly good imitation of Tom Hanks in Cast Away.
Wade laughed so hard he staggered sideways, and Steve had to grab them to help keep them steady while Bucky held him tight and braced against all their combined weight.
Once he'd gotten his footing back, Wade said to Sam, "You know, if we got married, we wouldn't have to change our last names."
Sam poked Wade's shoulder to get his full attention, looked him dead in the eye and said, "Wade. We'd hyphenate."
Wade grinned widely. "Sam and Wade Wilson-Wilson."
"Sounds like the name of a law firm," said Luke.
"We'd need a third for that," said Wade. "Wilson-Wilson and Cage."
"Wilson-Wilson, Cage and Jones." Luke laughed.
"I'm not marrying Jessica," said Wade. "She's terrifying."
Jessica snorted. "Damn right, you're not."
Luke turned around and gave her a look that made her smile soften. "You comfortable up there?"
She narrowed her eyes at him and clambered up to sit on his shoulders. "There. That's better."
"Works for me," he said, lightly holding her knees.
"Wilson-Wilson and Bargers," Wade said, turning his grin on Steve and Bucky.
"Bargers?" said Steve.
Sam said, "Well you can't be Rarnes. That just sounds like a dinosaur noise." His eyes lit up. "Though you do need a proper hockey name, Barney."
Before Bucky had the chance to head off this catastrophe, Steve murmured from Bucky's back, "It'll match our purple shoes."
Bucky couldn't stop himself. He laughed, loud enough that they all heard.
Wade laughed too. Which made Sam laugh. Bucky knew then that it was too late, and Sam and Wade confirmed it.
Wade ran away, while Sam clung to him and shouted over his shoulder, "Bye bye Barney!"
Luke ran after them, making Jessica duck her head to avoid an exit sign and laughing when she yelled, "Watch it, fucker."
"Thanks a lot Stevie, now the name's gonna stick forever." He hitched Steve higher and started to follow after, in no particular hurry.
"You're welcome," Steve said brightly. "After all, what are best friends for?"
Bucky didn't expect the wave of relief and gratitude that hit him at hearing that. He tried to cover it behind a chuckle, but Steve squeezed his shoulder as if he understood anyway.
"Come on, we should catch up."
"You really want to catch up?" Bucky asked, already putting on some speed.
"Yeah," Steve said, with a dangerous grin, "Giddy up, let's see what you've got."
"All right, hold on."
Bucky broke into a run, while Steve wrapped both arms around his chest and laughed in his ear.
They caught up with Wade and Sam, but not with Luke and Jessica, and they missed Loki and Pietro's race altogether.
It didn't matter at all. Not to Bucky. Not when he was busy laughing with his best friend.
He wasn't sure anything could matter quite like that.
They had a rare morning off, and Steve had no desire to spend it at home, so he headed out, hopped on the train, and before he really had a chance to think about where he was going, he found himself at the Met.
He used to wind up here almost every week, sometimes with his mom and sometimes on his own. The art was sometimes soothing, sometimes infuriating, but it always made him feel something, even when the rest of his life made him want to hide at home and never feel anything else again.
As he wandered the galleries, though, he kept finding himself wanting to point out a favorite piece to Bucky, or see what his reaction would be to some of the more outrageous contemporary pieces.
He finally gave in to the urge, and took a picture of a still life that featured a giant loaf of bread and texted it to Bucky. His phone buzzed almost immediately.
"That's even better than a food museum," the message said. His phone buzzed again. "Don't eat the paintings, they frown on that sort of behavior."
Bucky was such an asshole. Steve grinned and sent him a selfie, holding up his middle finger.
He didn't wander far before he got back a picture of Bucky raising an eyebrow and frowning into the camera. He was scruffy and his hair was a wreck, almost like he had just rolled out of bed, except not as soft and cuddly as when he first woke up.
Steve sent back, "Wow, you didn't have to clean up just for me."
"That's the great thing about not leaving your apartment. You don't have to clean up at all."
Steve grinned at Bucky's unique blend of grumpiness and good cheer. He was lucky to be his friend.
His best friend.
Nobody'd ever called him that before. He wondered sometimes if Bucky knew that. He'd had friends. Excellent friends. Close friends. Wonderful friends. But they had all come along after the time in his life when people talked about 'best friends', with that hushed air of mystery and connection, so often followed by the word 'forever'.
And then along came Bucky, and the words that used to sound like too much suddenly didn't seem like quite enough to describe what they had.
He was so damned lucky.
Lost in his thoughts, he rounded a corner, into a tangle of cords that led to a stand of lights and cameras and...That was Cookie Monster.
Fuzzy blue Cookie Monster. Right here at the museum.
It was too perfect. Steve crept up as close as he could get without interfering with the cameras and snapped a few pictures.
He picked out the best one and sent it to Bucky, along with the message, "Didn't expect to see you here. Thought you weren't leaving your apartment?"
He got back, "!!!" Followed immediately by, "Sorry, not me" and then, "He is my hero, but if I remember the Night of the Cookies correctly, you're the real Cookie Monster".
Steve sent back, "???"
Knowing that Bucky also thought of that night in capital letters made up for any guilt he might have felt about it.
Bucky sent a picture of a box of oatmeal raisin cookies, on a shelf at the store. It was familiar, because it was the same picture Steve had sent to Bucky. The same picture that had kicked off the Night of the Cookies. It was captioned, "i forgive you, they were delicious, so sweet and so soft".
Steve blinked at it. "Did you just send me poetry? About cookies?"
"I only desecrate WCW for things I really care about. Like cookies. And pasta. It was a magical night, Stevie. So many carbs."
He sent back a goofy smiley face, but now that Bucky had mentioned it, Steve was actually hungry. Breakfast felt like it had been a long time ago.
As he left the museum and walked back toward home, all he could think about was cookies. Between the intense craving for carbs and an enticing smell that not even Eau de New York could overpower, Steve found himself standing in front of a little bakery as if drawn there.
Claire was going to kill him. It was her sworn duty as team nutritionist to kill him for this, Steve thought as he looked down at the giant stack of cookies he had bought. He could have bought just one, but they all looked so good. And maybe he could have gone with one of each, but then once he ate one it would be gone. He snapped a picture of the stack of cookies to send to Bucky, this time with the caption 'you're a bad influence.'
The first cookie - chocolate chip, might as well start with a classic - was even better than it looked, chewy and soft and so good Steve wanted to cry. His phone buzzed again. "Holy shit, warn a guy before you send him fucking porn."
This was...an awful lot of cookies. He really shouldn't be eating them at all, but it wouldn't be nearly so terrible if he split them with someone else…
Bucky knew he'd brought this on himself. He could admit that.
He wasn't going to admit that, but he could.
"Claire is going to murder us both," he said, as he snatched one of Steve's cookies off the counter.
"I know," Steve moaned. "Eat faster, I'm not allowed to have more until you catch up."
Bucky chomped down half a cookie in one bite and tried to glare at Steve, but he lost the capacity for glaring once he started chewing. "Fuck, is this maple bacon?"
"Is it good?" Steve asked, staring longingly.
"So good. Jesus, Stevie, you're killing me. Here, come on." He shoved the remaining cookie at Steve's face, and it wasn't until after Steve took the whole half in his mouth that Bucky thought maybe that was weird. Ah well, they'd been weird before.
Steve grinned while he chewed, struggling to keep his lips together, and Bucky snorted with laughter.
"She won't even have to kill us herself," Bucky said, "she can just tell Sam. This has to be against some rules."
"Mmm, only one rule, 'cause it's not game night. We should tell him." Steve pulled out his phone, and he didn't seem to be kidding at all. He took a picture of the cookies, typed in his message, and flipped his phone around so Bucky could see.
"Rule number 24 isn't doing so good."
He hit send while Bucky was still blinking at it.
"Did you try one of the key lime ones yet?" Steve asked.
Bucky shook his head, as much to clear it as to say no, and Steve broke a cookie in half and handed him one of the pieces.
He didn't even get it up to his mouth before Steve's phone rang.
Steve grinned at him and answered on speaker. "Hi Sam."
"Okay," Sam said in a rush, "before you eat them, just remember Claire's beautiful face, and how disappointed she would be."
Steve and Bucky turned to each other, and Steve looked so guilty that Bucky patted him on the shoulder, getting crumbs on his shirt.
"You already started eating them, didn't you," Sam said in a flat voice.
"You didn't smell them, Sam. They're--"
"It was my fault. I started it," said Bucky.
"Barnes?" Sam asked. "What--"
"I bought them," said Steve. "And I brought them here. None of this--"
"And I sent you that picture, and the poem, and it--"
"Hey, time-out," said Sam. "I don't really care who bought them, or whose idea it was, or how delicious they are. I'm assuming you called me for a reason, and that reason had better not be so that you can brag about your fresh baked pastries. What are you looking to get out of this conversation?"
"Rule number ten. Call your team captain when you break the rules. Especially if you are Steve Rogers. It so happens that I am, and you're the one--"
"I know for a fact that you don't call me every time--"
"I don't make the rules, Samson."
"That's for damn sure, you just inspire them."
Bucky snorted. He tried to imagine any of this happening when he'd worked for Hydra, and he laughed out loud, because it didn't fucking matter what would have happened with them. They meant nothing to him now, nothing at all, and instead he got Steve and Sam and a stupid amount of cookies. He got hair braiding contests and piggy-back rides and every ridiculous thing Wade ever said. He was absolutely free, and somehow it was the funniest damn thing in the world.
Steve gave him a confused look, and that was also hilarious, but Bucky managed to rein himself in enough to wave him off and say, "It's fine. It's nothing. It's just...everything."
"Bye Sam," Steve said, suddenly grinning. "We've got cookies to eat."
"Yeah, fuck you too," Sam said cheerfully. "Y'all'd better be in early tomorrow to run extra drills."
"Sure thing," said Bucky. "You gonna be there to watch?"
"Sorry, I can't hear you over the sound of me hanging up on you," Sam said. There was a click and a dial tone, which meant that he missed out on Steve giggling so hard that he collapsed onto the kitchen counter.
That was okay. Bucky enjoyed it enough for both of them.
"What the hell am I doing wrong?" Scott grumbled from his seat.
It was a sound Steve had been expecting ever since Scott had gotten onto the bus with a big ziploc bag full of colored string in his hand. Past experience told him that Scott would try and try at whatever new craft he'd decided that Cassie needed him to learn, and then he'd eventually admit that he needed some help. In the meantime, he would mutter curses under his breath and not accept any advice or input.
Steve approved wholeheartedly of Scott's parenting efforts. He just sometimes wished they could all skip the part in the middle.
"You're doing it backwards," Bucky said.
Scott frowned at him. "No. It's a chevron. You go from the left and then from the right."
"Yeah, but you gotta flip the knots."
"What are you even doing?" Sam asked.
"Friendship bracelets," said Scott. "Cassie got one from Sophia, and one from her mom, and one from Paxton. But the one he made was just braided. I gotta do better than that, come on. But it keeps coming out all crooked."
"Seriously, you need to flip the knots," Bucky repeated. "Here, can I have some string?"
Scott tossed him the bag, and Bucky held it out to Steve. "Pick your colors."
Bucky shrugged. "We'll go with two this time. Save the fancy stuff for later."
Steve chuckled and ignored the warm feeling that always rushed up into his chest whenever Bucky reminded him they were best friends. He sorted through the little bundles of strings and pulled out a nice deep blue and a soft gray, while Bucky searched through his big black bag that somehow held every basic necessity known to humankind.
Bucky came up with a safety pin, which he used to secure several strands of the blue and gray string onto the knee of his jeans.
"Right, okay look," Bucky said, once he had everything arranged. "You start on the left side, and you make a less-than sign with the string, then tuck the tail under, and pull the knot tight."
Scott nodded impatiently.
"So you do that twice on each string for this half..." Bucky quickly made the knots, much faster than Steve expected, and moved to the other side. "And you go to the right. On this side, you make a greater-than sign, and tuck the tail under, then pull it tight."
"Yep. That way the knot--" Bucky stopped as his phone rang in his pocket. He looked down at his hands, all full of strings. "Shit. Uh, little help?"
He looked meaningfully at Steve and twisted sideways to let him reach, so Steve felt around in Bucky's pocket and pulled out his phone.
"It's Natasha," Steve said, as he swiped the screen to answer. "Hi Nat."
"Steve." It almost sounded like a question, and it almost sounded like she was annoyed, which was possibly the funniest reaction Steve had ever gotten from her. "I called to speak to James."
"Well, he's a little tied up at the moment."
Bucky cackled, loud enough for Natasha to hear him, but she didn't reply.
"I can put you on speaker if--"
"No," she said abruptly. "No, I can work with this. How are you two?"
"We're fine. We're heading up to Quebec City with the rest of the guys, but you already knew that."
"I did," she said, sounding amused. "And have you broken any interesting rules lately?"
"How--" Steve cut himself off, since there was no point in asking Natasha how she knew things. She always knew things, and she never answered how. He should be used to it by now. "No. Rule 24 isn't interesting. All we did was eat a few cookies."
Sam shouted, "How many is a few, Steve-o? Is it less than four apiece?"
Steve flipped him off, and Bucky laughed.
"Have you heard any news?" Natasha asked casually.
"News, what...You know something."
"I know lots of things," she said, with a sly smile in her voice. "Not enough, in this case, but something. Word is there's a buyer."
Following Natasha in conversation was always an interesting challenge, but Steve quickly caught up. "Pym's selling the team?"
Silence fell in a wave through the bus, as all eyes turned to him.
"Looks that way," said Natasha. "Negotiations are locked down tight, though. I can't find out any more."
Steve nodded at his teammates. "Okay," he said to Natasha. "Thank you. That's...Thanks."
"I'll be in touch," she said.
"Bye Nat." Steve ended the call and slipped the phone back into Bucky's pocket.
Wade, of course, was the first one to talk. "Who's the buyer?"
"Natasha didn't know."
"Well then, nobody knows," said Bucky.
Sam sighed. "One of these days I'm gonna meet her, and it's gonna be the greatest day of my life."
Wade chuckled. "I had one of those, once. Here, look." He pulled out his phone and flipped through his pictures.
"No, Wade," said Sam. "Nobody wants to see your porn, that's not--"
He stopped mid-sentence when Wade turned his phone around.
"Wow," Sam breathed.
Steve moved around behind Sam's seat so he could see.
At first he thought it was in black and white, before he realized that it was just the light, focussed so that Wade's skin was luminous against the dark background.
The composition was masterful, framed so that Wade's presence was the only important thing in the world. The hard lines of his scars and muscles were softened by the curves of the pose, not hidden, but lovingly revealed, celebrated, embraced.
"That's amazing," said Bucky.
Wade smiled. "I know. He was amazing. The whole night was amazing. Even with all the equipment and the lights, it was like there was nothing there but the two of us. And that's why I'll never forget Peter Parker. For one night, I was beautiful."
Steve really hoped that Sam would come up with something to say, since he was the best at it, but when he opened his mouth, nothing came out. Bucky, Steve's second hope, bit his lip and looked down at the strings in his hands. Even Scott just glanced from face to face.
Before Steve came up with a way to break the silence, Luke, a few seats down, cleared his throat. "I heard that Trish Walker had been looking into a franchise, but I didn't think she meant ours."
Pietro chimed in, "I heard the guy from Worthington Industries was interested."
"Better him than Oscorp," said Thor.
"Could be worse," said Luke. "Could be Fisk."
"Or Justin Hammer," added Rhodes, frowning deeply.
"Ugh," said Scott. "Even Fisk is better than Hammer."
"They're both bad," said Bucky, "It doesn't--"
"Fisk is worse," said Sam.
"--have to be a competition," Bucky finished.
"Oscorp is certainly the worst," said Thor.
"Fisk," said Luke, and Sam nodded, while Scott and Thor shook their heads.
The debate raged through the rest of the trip, the friendship bracelets long forgotten, and the whole team ended up on edge, unfocused, and distracted.
It cost them what should have been an easy game. They lost to the Northstars, 5-2.
Next time, Steve decided, he would head the whole thing off and just tell Wade he was always beautiful, because nothing was more awkward than being the losing team in Quebec City.
Bucky could see it in Steve's face, the way he pursed his lips, the way his brow crinkled, that he was finding a way to blame himself, when really, Steve had been the best of them out there.
It had been a tough loss, and neither Steve nor Bucky had felt like going out into an unfriendly city to party away their sorrows, so they sat in their room watching something terrible on TV that did absolutely nothing to distract him from going over and over everything that had gone wrong.
It was hard sometimes, being trapped in his own head. Crowding together like little kids on the one bed that had a view of the television should have been fun, or at least funny, but Bucky was distracted by the knowledge that a lot of what had gone wrong had been his own fault.
He kept seeing all the opportunities he'd missed. He could have taken a shot there, could have been in a better position there. None of them had played their best, but it still felt like if he had been a little bit faster, a little bit sharper, then maybe…
"Jesus Christ, Buck, you're going to drive me insane," Steve said, shattering the silence. "Just...here, give me that," he said as he grabbed Bucky's foot.
He hadn't even realized he had been twitching it, much less doing it enough to bother Steve. "Stop you don't have to--nnng. Yeah okay, you can do that forever, actually. You're never allowed to not do that, god where did you learn this?" It wasn't like he hadn't gotten massages before, from trainers and from pros, but Steve's hands were some kind of fucking magic, apparently both on and off the ice.
"I don't know, I just--It's what I do to myself, but the angle is better on, uh, on someone else."
"Yeah?" Bucky asked, cocking one eyebrow. "Here, c'mere, I wanna try."
Steve rearranged himself, turning and planting his foot in Bucky's lap, apparently entirely willing to volunteer himself as guinea pig for this little experiment. Steve's foot was...a foot. There wasn't anything special about it - scattered hair on the top, thick calluses from his skates - other than the fact that it was sitting here in Bucky's lap and he didn't mind. Probably having a different foot here would be strange and uncomfortable, but this wasn't. Because it was Steve.
He dug his thumb into Steve's arch, and was entirely unprepared for the groan Steve let out, for the soft flutter of eyelashes and the look of utter bliss that took over his face. Oh. That was...he dug his thumb in again, rubbing circles this time and watching as the tension drained out of Steve, drop by drop.
Something was fluttering in his chest, something huge and overwhelming that he wasn't at all prepared to examine, so he cleared his throat and pushed his foot back at Steve. "Hey, I didn't say you could stop."
Making Steve laugh was just as good as making him relax, Bucky thought, ignoring all those things he wasn't ready to think about yet.
It occurred to him later that maybe it should have felt weird, that maybe there should have been some of that awkwardness that seemed to manifest in nearly every interaction Bucky had with people, but there wasn't.
Even waking up in the same bed the next morning and realizing they'd both drifted off in the middle of some Godzilla movie hadn't been awkward.
Things were never awkward with Steve.
Which was why, two days later, as they geared up for their early morning skate, Bucky flung a gray and blue friendship bracelet across the locker room at him.
Of course Steve caught it, and of course he smiled like the sunrise when he realized what it was, that was all part of the wonder of Steve. He flipped the bracelet around his wrist and studied it. "Um, how?"
"Here, I've gotcha," Bucky said, reaching for the ends. "Kind of takes two hands." He slipped the loose ends through the loop and made a quick overhand knot. "Of course, now you won't be able to get out of it."
Steve chuckled. "Well I wasn't planning--"
"Knock knock," Sam shouted from the doorway, "We've got visitors."
Bucky stepped back from Steve so fast he nearly tripped on one of the locker room benches, while Steve snatched his hand away and tucked it behind his back, none of which made any sense, but they were surprised, dammit.
"Fellas," said a warm, amused voice.
"Natasha," Steve said, his voice going a little squeaky. "Why are you here, is everything alright?"
She curved her lips in a cheshire grin. "Everything is excellent."
"Good?" Steve apparently knew Natasha well enough to make it a question.
She just continued to smile dangerously, and Sam took on kind of a glazed look as he watched.
"Okay," Bucky said, wondering what the hell she was up to, but refusing to give her the satisfaction of asking. "We're heading for the weight room next, if you want to tag along."
"I wouldn't miss it."
Steve waited until Natasha had turned for the door before he raised an eyebrow at Bucky, but Bucky didn't know any more than he did, so he just shrugged.
The four of them made their way over to the weight room, where most of the team had already set up. Bucky followed Sam over toward Wade, on the pull up bars, while Steve stayed behind with Natasha.
Wade dropped to the floor and nodded across the room. "Is that her?"
Sam nodded, wide eyed. "I'm pretty sure she almost murdered me when I opened the door for her. It was amazing."
"You should ask her out!" Wade said. He hopped back up onto the bars and grimaced as he pulled himself up, while Sam watched just as carefully as he always did.
Bucky picked up a pair of dumbbells. He didn't need a spotter for those, and his usual spotter was busy.
Natasha was looking at Steve with a sly smile, while he sighed and probably agreed to whatever she was trying to talk him into.
She didn't seem the least bit surprised when the gym doors flew open, and the mystery of who currently owned the team was solved, in the most dramatic of ways.
"HELLO MY BEAUTIFUL MUSCLEBOUND MEN, oh, and you too, Rhodey," Tony Fucking Stark announced as he burst into the room in a suit that probably cost about as much as the team, followed by his PA. Bucky didn't know her name, but he recognized her from the press conferences.
Rhodes put his weights down and got up, pulling Tony into a sweaty hug that probably did that suit no good at all. "I thought what we had was special, man! Now you've got a whole hockey team to play Words With Friends with."
"Honeybear, you'll always be first in my heart," Tony responded with a smirk. "Besides, how many other people on this team are going to play words like tmesis? I need opponents who can keep up."
"You'd be surprised," Rhodey said as he led Tony over to the rest of the team. "Brucie here - have you met Bruce? He's our star goalie - I played him once, and this asshole completely destroyed me when he played syzygy."
"Why hellooooooooooo there," Tony said to Bruce, giving him an extremely obvious once-over. The fact that Bruce was doing splits just made the whole situation more surreal. "Brains, brawn, beauty, and flexibility...I think we need to be friends," he leered.
"Oh my god," Tony's PA said. "Buying a hockey team is the worst idea you have ever had, and you have had some spectacularly bad ideas."
"That can't possibly be true. What about Dubai?" Tony asked.
"We don't talk about Dubai!" She seemed...high-strung.
"Tony, can you at least wait five minutes before you start hitting on people?" Rhodes asked with disapproval in his tone that didn't at all match the expression on his face.
"I don't think you have any room here to complain," Tony replied. "I mean, this is your fault. Completely! Completely your fault!"
"My fau -- how on earth is this my fault?"
Tony waved his hand around vaguely. "'The bus is leaking, Tony. I have to share a hotel room, Tony. This is the worst pull-out couch I have ever slept on and I include the one that you used to have in your lab when I say that Tony.' It was my sacred best friend duty to rescue you."
Bucky automatically glanced over at Steve, who spread his hands out, bemused.
"Does this mean we're not sharing hotel rooms anymore?" Luke asked.
"Please, do I look like an animal? Of course you're not sharing hotel rooms, and that death-trap you call a bus is going to be put out of its misery too. Pepper, you took care of the bus, right?"
His PA started nodding before he even finished the question. "Yes, and the plane, and Ms. Hill and I are coordinating on new hotel accommodations. We should have the schedule by the end of the day."
This, of course, set up a flurry of side-talk and general clamor, so Bucky went back to his bicep curls as Stark circulated around the room. No more room sharing was...fine. Great. Private rooms were amazing. He could sprawl out, and wouldn't have to listen to Steve snoring, or see the ridiculous faces Steve made while trying to make his hair look like it wasn't attached to a ninety-year-old Scout, or see how surprised and grateful Steve was every time Bucky pulled some basic necessity that every adult should already have on-hand out of his bag.
"I see you've met the team's new owner," Fury announced from the door, and it almost looked like he had developed an eye twitch, in the eye covered by a patch. "I had hoped to be on-hand when he arrived, but I wasn't informed he would be here today."
"Fury-kins, don't be mad, I freed up some space in my schedule and flew in early," Stark said, and damn. That was an eye twitch. Or...a patch-twitch? Either way, not something Bucky wanted to get involved with. The feeling seemed to be universal, with all the guys focusing extra hard on their current reps.
Well, all but one.
"Banner!" Thor boomed. "Do you want to feel the thunder?" He was wearing another one of his Thunder Thighs shirts today, this one with sparkly rainbow glitter, but that was somehow less obnoxious than the lycra shorts he had on, emblazoned on one leg with 'feel the thunder.' Those were definitely new, and Thor seemed delighted with them.
Bruce blinked once, and shook his head. "Oh. Thanks, but I'm--"
"Feel it, Banner! FEEL IT!" Thor lunged forward until his knee was between Bruce's legs and held that position.
"Really, I'm--" Thor just leaned deeper into the lunge, invading Bruce's space even more. "FINE I'LL FEEL YOUR DAMN THIGH JUST--ooo, nice, those lunges have really been paying off," he said as he squeezed Thor's leg.
Tony, who apparently had some kind of sixth sense about these things, materialized out of nowhere, one eyebrow lifted so high it looked like it might go flying off his forehead. "So thighs are what do it for you? I can work with that. I can definitely work with that, boardroom lunges can replace boardroom lunches."
"Tony!" The PA -- Pepper -- hooked her arm around his elbow and started dragging him away. "I'm afraid you're needed urgently somewhere that isn't right here so we can have the discussion on sexual harassment and appropriate workplace behavior again."
Well. This was certainly going to be...something. Still, it was a helluva lot better than Hydra.
Steve glanced over from where he was talking to Natasha again, and gave Bucky a little smile.
Yeah, a helluva lot better than Hydra.
Chapter 13: Chapter 13
Sometimes Steve wondered if he and Natasha really were friends.
Usually he considered her a friend, but if that was the sort of guy she thought was perfect for him, either she didn't know him at all, or she didn't like him much. Or she was completely fucking with him for reasons of her own, which was honestly the most likely explanation.
Bucky would sympathize with him. As he walked home, not paying any attention to the time, he called his actual friend, the one who would never, ever set him up on a terrible date.
"Steve? I thought you had a date tonight," Bucky said, sounding adorably confused.
"Natasha hates me, and is possibly plotting my death," Steve responded.
"Ah. One of those dates? She's set me up on a couple of those," Bucky commiserated. "Go on, tell your Uncle Buck all about it."
"First off? Please never, ever call yourself that again, I might have nightmares," Steve said. "And second," he said louder, competing with Bucky's cackle, "I don't even know where to start."
"Let's start with what really matters, eh? What was he wearing?" Bucky asked, because he was an asshole who knew how to hit Steve where it hurt.
He groaned, loudly. "Okay, so there I am, in that blue cashmere v-neck and the pants you told me to wear, right? And I open the door, and the first thing I see is a giant beard floating over a bowtie."
"Steve, we live in Brooklyn. Beards and bowties are practically standard issue," Bucky said, but Steve could hear the amusement in his voice.
"It was a giant lumberjack beard, Buck! He didn't even have the decency to pair it with flannel!"
"So what did he pair it with? Unless he showed up at your door wearing nothing but the beard and bowtie?"
"That would have been less traumatic," Steve said grimly. "Picture this. A jacket, blue seersucker with white pinstripes, nicely tailored. A dress shirt, pale pink, boring as fuck. And beneath that…"
"Oh please tell me. Flannel PJ pants? Floral leggings? Elizabethan pumpkin pants?"
"That doesn't sound so bad."
" Short shorts. They were originally matching suit pants, before he cut them off."
Bucky gasped. "Tell me he at least hemmed them."
"Of fucking course he didn't hem them! And then he didn't even have the decency to wear shoes that would make the outfit 'playful' or what the fuck ever. Nope, fancy dress shoes, probably more expensive than mine, because apparently this was him taking himself seriously."
"Oh god," Bucky squeaked out between laughs. "This is better than reality TV. Tell me more!"
Steve sighed. "So he took me to this vegetarian place, right? Which, fine, I eat plenty of vegetables, but I'm also supposed to eat six thousand calories a day, and that's hard to do with vegetarian food unless you're frying it or eating all damn day." Steve barreled on, not waiting to hear Bucky's response, because if anyone understood about food, it was Bucky. "I have absolutely nothing against vegetarian food. Nothing at all! That curry Bruce made at the last potluck was amazing! But you know what I have a problem with?"
"I can't wait to--"
Steve cut him off. "A broccoli hot dog , Bucky. Broccoli hot dog. With broccoli kraut." Bucky was laughing so hard he was wheezing, but Steve didn't stop talking. "They also had a forager's salad, that contained, and I quote, 'whatever our forager brought us today.' Where the fuck do you forage in Brooklyn ? I feel like I need to know if I'm going to be eating something fake-foraged out of a rooftop garden, or if someone's out there ripping weeds out of the ground at the waterfront and dumpster-diving behind the farmer's market."
"Wearing 400 dollar shoes and stealing fucking mulberries," Bucky joked. "Maybe that's why they cut off their pants, some mean ass dog caught them trying to climb a damn mulberry tree and went after them. Lucky for them, apparently the dog was small enough it could only reach just above knee height."
"A guard Pomeranian," Steve said in his best serious on-ice voice, making Bucky crack up again.
Bucky finally caught his breath enough to gasp out another question. "So, tell me about the conversation? I mean, was it as bad as the rest of it?"
"Worse," Steve said as he walked over to the nearest light pole just so he could bang his forehead against it. The brain trauma was at least familiar. Comforting. "He started out by lecturing me on the ritualized violence of team sports, and by the time his carrot slider arrived he had moved on to telling me that I eat too much and really needed to watch my diet better, because I definitely don't already have everything I eat scrutinized by a professional dietician several times a week, and needed the advice of somebody who cuts off the legs of his suit."
"Do you need me to fight him? Because I will fight him for you," Bucky said, sounding reassuringly aggrieved and defensive.
Steve smiled, feeling warm at his best friend's willingness to defend him. "No need. I tried to change the subject, thought art would be safe. It...was not safe."
"I'm almost afraid to ask how it's possible to have an unsafe opinion about art."
"He...oh god, I can't even say it," Steve groaned. "So I started talking about that photographer, you know the one who paints his scenes with the different colored lights? And he interrupted me, cut me off right in the middle of a sentence, to tell me that Thomas Fucking Kincaid had done everything there was to do with light and that everybody else should just give up."
There was a long silence on the phone. "Was that when you walked out? Please tell me you didn't flip a table."
"I didn't flip a table. Barely," Steve said. "It was a close call."
"I'll be over at your place in fifteen with pizza and Mad Max. We're going to ride historic on the bad date express."
"You're my favorite," Steve told Bucky, and it was almost surprising how deeply true that rang.
Chapter 14: Chapter 14
Why did everybody suddenly fucking care about hockey?
It barely ranked above soccer on American news, and usually Bucky felt like he had to hunt through four channels worth of sport news to piece together a full minute of hockey coverage, none of it about his own team.
But with the game against Hydra coming up, everyone seemed to be talking about it.
Mostly they were talking about him. Talking about how he used to be, and showing clips of him in a Hydra uniform. Always the one of him hitting Steve, but there were plenty of others, too.
Shoving Summers in the chest. Slamming Drax into the boards. Elbowing Barton in the face.
Violent. Unhinged. Feral. Monster. Machine.
Morning practice turned into something to be endured, staying hyperfocused on the line between pushing against his teammates too hard, or not hard enough.
He got off the ice and into the showers before anyone else, and came out of the locker room to find Sam and Steve bent over a phone, worry on their faces, watching something.
Bucky didn't have to ask what. He knew that clip from the sound alone, even with a reporter's breathless exclamations of 'brutal' and 'vicious' laid over it.
He left without a word, before either of them noticed he was there.
The drive to his apartment didn't do anything to improve the situation, and neither did a half hour spent pacing back and forth between the kitchen and the living room.
He didn't know what to do. There was nothing he could do. Brutal. Vicious. Fucking Feral.
A loud knock at the door made him flinch. He paused for a deep breath before he moved to answer it.
It didn't work. He wasn't calm. He yanked the door open, too hard, and found himself looking into the startled eyes of..."Steve."
"Uh, hey Bucky." Steve lifted his hand, like he was reaching for Bucky's shoulder, the way he normally would, but he let his hand fall again.
Bucky hadn't really thought he could feel worse. In a way, he didn't. Watching Steve turn all careful on him, wordlessly confirming everything the press had said, it just left him hollow. Like an aching void had opened in his chest.
Without letting any of that show, he turned away toward the kitchen.
Behind him, Steve breathed, "Ah fuck it," and suddenly he was right in front of him, pulling him into a hug.
Oh god, he hadn't even thought of it as an option, why hadn't he thought of it, this was exactly what he needed. He closed his eyes and wrapped shaking arms around Steve's back, squeezing him too damn tight, he just couldn't help it.
After three long, shuddering breaths, Bucky was able to loosen his grip on poor Steve, who was too fucking perfect to let a mountain of awkwardness keep him from being a great friend.
Steve stepped back for some space, but he kept one hand on his arm, giving Bucky a lifeline. "Can you talk to me about it?"
Bucky would have tried to talk about it anyway, but there was a pleading note in Steve's voice that made it impossible for him to refuse.
"It's...all that shit on the news. They won't stop talking about it. About me."
Steve didn't reply, other than to squeeze his arm, encouraging him to go on.
"They keep showing that clip, they keep saying I'm this rabid dog, this bloodthirsty thing, and I'm...I don't want to be like that anymore, but no matter how much I try--"
"You're not. You're not like that at all, I know you're not."
"But--" He cut himself off before he could say it didn't matter what Steve thought. It did matter, a lot. It was just that Steve wasn't the one he needed to convince. "It's hard. I'm trying, but it's so hard."
"I know." Steve bit nervously at his lip and took a deep breath. "Do you trust me?"
"Do I...Steve, what the fuck, why is that even a question? I'd trust you if you had a loaded gun to my head, of course I fucking trust you."
The raised eyebrow he got from Steve made him figure that wasn't the best choice of phrases, maybe something less violent would have been better, but it was too late to take it back now.
"It's nothing quite that dramatic. Just...just wait here," Steve said. "Ten minutes, okay? I'll be right back."
"Oh. Okay. Sure."
Steve hugged him again, so fast he accidentally bumped his nose against Bucky's hair, and he dashed for the door. He stopped mid-way through. "And, change into something comfortable. Whatever's...ya know, cozy. Soft. Be right back."
Bucky frowned at the door for a moment after Steve had closed it. Right. He'd just put on some footy pajamas and wait for him to come back. Because that wasn't weird.
And anyway, he didn't even have footy pajamas.
He sighed and went to go find whatever was cozy, muttering to himself, "There'd better be cookies for this."
The first thing Steve grabbed was a package of cookies. He didn't pay much attention to what kind, because he was busy resolutely not thinking about how he had almost kissed Bucky's forehead.
He'd just seemed so sad and vulnerable, and Steve was an idiot.
This was probably a terrible idea, he thought as he scanned the rack in front of him. This was going to backfire in his face, Bucky was going to hate it, and he'd have to keep watching Bucky spiral into that black pit of self-loathing that he had worked so hard to climb out of.
Fuck it. He didn't have any other ideas, and he had to do something. Steve grabbed his phone out of his pocket and texted Sam, just in case it worked and he needed someone to talk to the guys before they geared up for the game. If this worked, the last damn thing they needed was somebody chirping Bucky for it.
He grabbed everything he needed, and headed back to Bucky's apartment. It was only half a block away, but he still ran, not wanting to leave Bucky alone for any longer than he had to. He had looked so broken, and that was something Steve never, ever wanted to see again, no matter what it took.
Bucky's eyes were wide and shocked when he opened the door, almost like he hadn't expected Steve to come back.
When he came inside, he found that Bucky had changed into a fuzzy gray sweater and a pair of faded blue yoga pants. His thumbs were pushed through a pair of holes at the end of his sleeves, a detail that somehow made Steve's heart clench.
Steve held up the bag, and he could feel himself blushing. He really hoped this wasn't going to be a complete disaster. "So I, uh...I thought we could, uh, paint our toenails?"
Bucky stared at the bag for what seemed like a long damn time. "Why?"
Steve swallowed, trying not to panic. "I just...I thought about Cassie, and we never found shoes with purple sparkles, and...I mean, how scary could you feel with glittery purple toenails, so...we don't have to, if--"
"How the hell did I luck into finding you?" Bucky said, wrapping Steve in a quick, wonderful hug.
"Well," Steve said into his shoulder, "when in doubt, I usually blame Natasha."
Bucky chuckled as he pulled away, and grabbed the shopping bag from Steve's hand. First he took out the cookies, tucking them under his arm with a sharp nod, as if he had expected them, then reached in again and found the stuffed Eeyore. He raised an eyebrow at Steve.
Steve felt his face go warm again, and muttered, "It made me think of you, it's not..."
He reached out to take it away, but Bucky clutched it to his chest and said, "Nope. You've got toenails to paint, you'll get your turn later."
"Go sit down then," Steve said, waving Bucky toward the couch. He lined up his supplies -- polish, top coat, toe spacers -- and got to work once Bucky put his foot up in Steve's lap. Bucky was still tense, on-edge, so he started out pushing his thumbs into the arch of Bucky's foot, kneading in and doing his best to make up for every bit of worry and pain that Bucky had suffered.
Bucky groaned and his head dropped back onto the couch, shoulders loosening like Steve had lifted a weight off of them. "Magic hands, Stevie. I swear to god you have magic hands."
"This is just the opening act," Steve said as he reached for the supplies and started on Bucky's nails while Bucky started on the cookies.
He stopped chewing midway through the first cookie. "These are the worst cookies I've ever had," he said through a mouthful of crumbs. "I didn't know anyone made cookies this bad."
Steve shrugged apologetically. "I was in a hurry. They were pretty."
"They are pretty. And look, they have 'delicious butter flavoring'. Not actual butter. Butter flavoring, Steve." He picked up two more, and shoved one of them at Steve's mouth.
It really was awful. The peach jam filling was gummy, sticking to his teeth, and the shortbread tasted slightly gluey, which shouldn't be a flavor at all.
"This is what you get for not being prepared with proper cookies," Steve said, making Bucky laugh. The tightness around his eyes was starting to fade, and his cheeks had color again, instead of the stark paleness they had been when Steve had first arrived.
He sat quietly after that, content just to idly flip Eeyore's ears back and forth and watch Steve work.
Trying to make that content feeling last, Steve took his time with the base coats, pausing between each toe to admire his work. He still felt like he finished all too soon, but he couldn't come up with any excuses to take longer.
He jiggled the bottle of the top coat and told Bucky, "This is the best part. Watch."
Bucky watched, and as Steve painted on the glittery top coat, he made a sound that was something like a giggle. "You weren't kidding about the sparkles, huh? Look at that, they're like galaxies."
Bucky smiled at him, eyes full of wonder. He was beautiful. It wasn't new, he had always been beautiful, but now he was damn near glowing.
"Give 'em a minute to dry and you'll be walking in starlight," Steve said, swiping top coat on the last of Bucky's toes.
"I'm not walking anywhere, I've got toenails to paint." He tucked Eeyore against his side and patted his lap. "Come on. Your turn."
Steve had almost forgotten about that part. He shucked his socks off and used them to dust any lint off his toes, then dropped his feet on Bucky's knees.
It took Bucky a minute to get the toe spacers lined up, his usual dexterity seemingly confounded by Steve's big feet, but he figured it out and started brushing.
That didn't go so well either.
"Steeeeeeve," Bucky whined as he ended up applying more paint to Steve's toe than his nail. "Steve, what the fuck. You made this look easy, but it is not easy. It is, in fact, the opposite of easy. Brain surgery might be easier than this."
"Just takes practice, is all," Steve said with a little shrug.
"So where'd a guy like you practice a skill like this?"
If anyone else had asked...if it was anyone else, Steve would have played it off as a joke, or snapped back something defensive, but this was Bucky. "My mom," Steve said. "When I was younger...she got sick. Cancer. The treatments -- she was so weak, her hair was gone, her skin was like paper. This was the one thing I could do for her. She said it made her feel human again."
Bucky solemnly picked up the stuffed Eeyore and handed it over, gently wrapping Steve's fingers around it. "She got better, right?"
"Yep." He smoothed down Eeyore's ears with his thumb. "Modern medicine is pretty great."
"Still sucked to go through it," Bucky said, so matter-of-fact, as if he hadn't put words to something that was so hard for Steve say.
"I'm grateful things turned out okay, and I try to focus on that, but...yeah, it sucked. The treatments were hell. We didn't know if she'd make it through. I was scared all the time and...It sucked."
Bucky swiped a bit of polish on the last of Steve's toenails, set aside the bottle, and promptly curled up against Steve's shoulder. "If things could just stop sucking for a while, that'd be great."
Steve twisted sideways so he could run his fingers through Bucky's hair, letting him lie back against his chest, wishing he could make things even a little bit better.
"Okay, that...that doesn't suck," Bucky murmured. "And this..." He lifted his foot up into view and wiggled his toes. "And you. Nothing about you sucks. You're the least sucky thing in the world. Not like those cookies. The cookies are terrible."
"Come on, they're trying," Steve said. When Bucky squirmed around to raise an eyebrow at him, he figured he'd better go on. "The cookies don't mean to be terrible. They're doing their best."
Bucky huffed and picked up Eeyore. "I guess trying counts for something."
"Counts for a lot. It's the only way anything happens."
"Wanna watch the movie?" Bucky asked, jiggling Eeyore to indicate which movie.
Steve handed over the remote rather than answering, and Bucky set up the tv.
As the opening song began to play, Bucky settled back where he had been, snuggling his shoulders into Steve's chest until they were both comfortable.
"Least sucky thing in the world," Bucky repeated quietly.
Steve wanted to argue, he really did, but other things took priority. He ran his fingers through Bucky's hair again, gently rubbing circles onto his scalp.
Watching Bucky slowly relax into boneless contentment was definitely the least sucky thing in the world.
It turned out that flying across the country went much faster when you did it in Tony Stark's private jet. Bucky didn't have any trouble keeping himself distracted the whole time, listening to Walter Cronkite's autobiography with Steve.
It wasn't until he was actually in the visitor's locker room that he really started to worry.
That was the trouble with not thinking about things, Bucky supposed. Shoving those thoughts down meant he didn't get the chance to prepare for the inevitable.
He wouldn't have done anything different, though. Ridiculous as it seemed, glittery purple nail polish had rescued some shriveled piece of his soul, with significant help from one Steve Rogers, and Bucky wouldn't change a thing. He could take whatever chirps came his way for it. His last team had done far worse.
What he didn't expect was that Sam would stand like a sentry at his side while he took off his shoes. Steve did too, crossing his arms and frowning at Luke, who hadn't done so much as walk nearby, but Bucky wasn't surprised by that.
Sam glaring, jaw clenched and eyes narrowed, when Scott glanced at Bucky's feet, definitely was a surprise. It surprised Scott, too, and he quickly backed away.
"Hey, guys..." Bucky said, without having any idea how to follow it up when Sam and Steve both turned to him. He wasn't sure if he wanted to say it was unnecessary, or thank them profusely, or maybe both.
Wade solved the dilemma by blurting out, "Purple with sparkles? Where the hell did you get that, I can only find plain purple, holy fuck!"
"Uh, it's a top coat," Bucky said, before Sam or Steve could try to throw Wade out of the room or something. "The glitter. It's a top coat."
"Shit, I should have thought of that, it looks awesome!" Wade ignored Sam's frown and high fived Bucky.
"Come on, we've got a game to win," Steve said, throwing a bright smile at Bucky.
And that was that.
The game against the Excelsiors was almost anticlimactic with the stress of the upcoming game against Hydra weighing on them all. The Excelsiors were an excellent team, strong and fast, but they were sometimes undisciplined, which left openings that the Avengers were quick to exploit. 2-1 wasn't a win for the record books, but it was solid.
"Huh," Steve said as they headed off to the visiting locker room. "Can't say I'm surprised, but that's good to see."
"What's that?" Bucky asked.
Steve gestured up at the jumbotron, where they were playing (and replaying, and replaying) a kiss between Xavier and Lehnsherr, the coach and GM of the Excelsiors.
It looked like it had happened before the game, and wow, that was definitely not platonic.
"I mean, it makes total sense, right?" Wade asked. He held open the locker room door for them as he went on, "Anyone who ever saw them play against each other should have seen this coming."
"Considering how things went the last time they faced off? I admit I'm a little surprised," Sam said, eyeing Wade carefully.
"Really? They skated like it was foreplay, pure chemistry. Sure, it got a little rough sometimes, but chemistry's like that, all those electrons getting yanked out of orbit and shit. And besides," Wade smirked, "maybe they like it a little rough."
Sam groaned. "You were so close -- so damn close! -- to sounding almost poetic there. I don't even know what I expected from you."
"Heads up, boys, we've got press incoming," Maria announced as she walked in. "And don't grumble at me about it, this is all on Stark. Barnes, he asked for you specifically, so no dodging this time"
And really, he should have seen the first question coming, but he had been with the Avengers long enough now that he had started to relax.
"Jim Barnes, what do you think of the comments your former coach has made on Twitter about tonight's events?"
Bucky blinked, because he was never going to get used to people thinking they should call him Jim. "Uh, I just got out of a game, and I don't actually follow him on Twitter, 'cause he's not my coach."
There was a flurry of activity as reporters pulled up their phones and raced to see who would be first to open the tweet.
One of them pushed to the front and recited, "Now we see why Excelsiors lack discipline. Not a problem we've ever had on my team."
Bucky flexed his toes in his boots, reminding himself about the nail polish. About Steve's shy smile when he brought it back from the drugstore. About Sam's fiercely protective glare before the game, and how unnecessary it had turned out to be. He thought about Thor's patience, Luke's kindness, Rhodey's wisdom. He thought about how Wade would take a bullet for any one of them, but only if Steve couldn't get to it first.
This was his team. He was one of them, and they wouldn't let him down.
"Well," Bucky said carefully, "first of all, I think Pierce would be very surprised to know that he did have gay players on his team." He could see the reporters perking up, waiting for his next line, but he could also feel his team's support behind him, invisible but no less real. Bucky took a deep breath before continuing. "He'd be surprised because I never told him that I was gay." He barrelled on, talking over the wave of shouted questions. "I never told him, because when someone considers your existence a 'problem,' you do your best to protect that existence, even when it means hiding who you are. And you do that twice as hard when you're in an environment where any deviation from the norm, anything less than total compliance, is punished."
The noise washed over him, dozens of questions being shouted at him. It was overwhelming, and Bucky could feel himself freeze.
Luckily, it seemed that fate was still looking out for him. "No questions," Maria Hill, actual angel, said briskly into the microphone. "The Avengers and Mr. Barnes will post a Q&A video on AvengersTV later this week. We'll be sending a press release out later with the email address for you to direct any questions." With that, she dragged him away and into a small office space.
She didn't say anything, just pulled her phone out of a pocket and started sending texts, fingers flying.
What the fuck had he just done? He was going to get benched. Hell, he'd be lucky to be benched -- they'd probably kick his ass straight past the AHL into some ECHL farm team that nobody's ever heard of and then bench him until his contract ran out. Coming out like that -- no matter how safe he might have felt, how supportive the team had been, this was still hockey, and hockey was still business, and…
The hand on his arm jerked him out of his thoughts and back into the real world.
"Hey," Hill said, softly. "Nicely done. We're going to hide out here for a bit until things have died down and we can sneak you out without having to run a gauntlet."
"You're not mad?" Bucky's mouth asked without his brain's permission.
Hill frowned. "I'd love to find Pierce in a dark alley at some point, but that's really nothing new."
What. "I mean at me," Bucky clarified.
"Why on earth would I be angry with you," Hill asked, eyes narrowed.
"Because...lack of discipline and all that? I wasn't up front about it, I ruined your press conference, I never--"
"Whoa. I don't give a shit about the press conference. Some lead time for PR would have been nice, but honestly, I should have seen this coming, and there was nothing else you could have said."
Bucky sputtered. "You knew?"
Maria gave a little shrug. "If they had asked Wade, it would have been him. If they had asked Steve, it would have been Steve. But they asked you, and you hit back beautifully. Anyway, first thing tomorrow I'll send you a list of questions. PR is going to want to film that video soon, but I got them to leave you alone for tonight. You need some rest first."
"Thank you," Bucky said, still blinking in shock.
"That's the whole point of a team, Barnes." She glanced at her phone. "There's a car for us around the back. Let's go."
He followed her outside, into a bright red limo, and spent the ride to the hotel silently watching her text at lightning speed. She sent at least fourteen messages during the ten minute trip, and they didn't seem like they were short ones.
They pulled up at the back of the hotel, and the driver rolled down the partition to hand over a key card.
"Boss needs 'em all the time," the driver said, "so we just print 'em out in the car. Faster that way. You're in room 557." He tapped the number written on the card, for emphasis. "Don't get lost. 557."
"Thanks Happy," said Maria, hiding a smile.
"Yeah, thanks Happy," Bucky repeated. He stepped out of the car and swiped the card on the reader to get into the hotel. It worked, which should have surprised him, but somehow didn't. This day seemed determined to spiral into ever increasing weirdness.
He hadn't even showered. He was still in his uniform, and he could smell his own sweat as he made his way into a hotel that was luxurious even by Hollywood standards. He'd never felt more out of place.
He was fucking exhausted, ready to curl up in the middle of the opulent hallway, but he hadn't taken four steps before someone shouted at him.
It didn't occur to him until after he turned around that there was only one person who called him 'Bucky'.
Steve was pelting at him, full speed, which had to hurt after the game they'd just played. That didn't stop Bucky from doing just the same, though, and they crashed into each other like a pair of idiots and wrapped each other in a crushing bear hug.
"I'm so fucking proud of you," Steve said into his hair.
Bucky's breath hitched and he squeezed Steve even tighter for a second. Kind of a long second. Closer to twelve seconds, but he was too tired to let go any sooner.
Finally, he took a deep breath and stepped back. "I'm in 557," he said, waving his keycard at Steve.
"Good. I'm in 555," Steve said. "Come on, the elevator is this way."
Bucky followed along at Steve's side, grateful to not have to think about anything for a few minutes. They made their way to his room, and he didn't even have to wonder if it'd be weird to ask Steve to come in for a while, because Steve followed him right inside.
"So, uh, there's something you should probably see," Steve said as he pulled up Youtube on his phone.
Bucky groaned. "I am ten thousand percent sure that I don't want to see anything you might have to show me, unless it involves kittens."
Steve laughed. "No kittens, just trust me." He pulled up a video titled "WHAT EVEN IS HAPPENING IN HOCKEY?!?!!!!111ELEVEN!!" and pressed play.
It was a series of video clips, starting with the reporter reading Pierce's tweet from the press conference earlier. And...yep, Bucky sounded like just as much of a moron as he thought he did.
"Shhhh," Steve said, wrapping one arm around Bucky's shoulders and pulling him close, and fuck, that was exactly what he needed. "Keep watching. Trust me."
It cut away to a shot of Wade with about a million microphones being shoved in his face. Reporters weren't shy with him because he tended to run his mouth without thinking. In the video, Wade was gesticulating wildly. "Do you know how long I've been waiting to come out? I was saving it for a dramatic moment, but Barnes had to go and steal my thunder. Fuck, I knew I should have done it last week when I was at that club. Two words: Rainbow G-string. Or is that three words? Fuck, I don't even know."
Another clip, Thor this time, wearing yet another "Thunder Thighs" shirt. "I don't understand why the gender of your partner is of any significance whatsoever. I myself have had partners of many genders, or no gender at all! Why limit yourself when there are so many remarkable people in the world?"
It cut away again to Sam, who had the same look on his face he did that time when Pietro thought it would be funny to fill his locker with shaving cream. "Look. I like men, and I like hockey, and I just want to get back on the ice and focus on the game. Don't y'all have anything better to talk about? Hockey maybe? Because we played a great game out there tonight, and I'd really like to talk about that sweet assist from Cage in the third."
Luke was next. "Did you see how Wilson took my pass and shot it in top-shelf? Beautiful. I mean, I'm straight as hell, but I sure hope that somebody's giving him a congratulatory BJ tonight."
The next shot was Steve, and Bucky wasn't even sure why that came as a surprise. "Yeah, I'm gay. Want to make something of it? Homophobia is a huge problem in professional sports, especially hockey. The culture of toxic masculinity that's fostered in locker rooms is a violent distraction that gets in the way of playing the game. Why is it that a gay player is more of a story than a pro athlete who beats his wife or girlfriend? I feel like an industry that has been known to excuse sexual assault when perpetrated by a top earner needs to clean up its own damn house before it worries about what happens in mine."
Unsurprisingly, the last clip was the team's new owner, Tony Stark, wearing a red sequined suit, because of course he was. "Damn right I bought the gayest team in the league. Did I say 'gayest'? I also meant greatest. As far as I'm concerned, Alexander Pierce can go suck a dick, although I guess he would deny himself the pleasure."
Holy fuck. Bucky was pretty sure he was hallucinating, or maybe in a coma, because there was no way he just saw what he thought he saw.
"We weren't going to leave you to face that on your own. We're your team, we've got you," Steve said as he pulled Bucky's head down onto his shoulder. It was damp, which was strange, because Bucky definitely wasn't crying. It was just...really dusty in this room that looked like it was sterilized and polished three times a day.
An eternity later, Bucky's breathing had settled back to something almost normal. "I could eat a fucking horse right now," he muttered, face still smooshed onto Steve's shoulder.
Steve laughed, which was possibly the greatest sound in the entire world. "Tell you what. I'll order a couple of horse-burgers from room service while you shower and change. Hockey funk isn't a good smell on anybody."
The shower was great, and the burger was possibly even better, and Bucky felt his eyes drooping as he pushed the plate away and the entire emotional weight of the day dropped back down on him. "I'm so fucking tired, Steve," he mumbled as he stumbled over and collapsed onto the bed, already more than half asleep, tucking his knee against Steve's hip the way they'd done before, when they used to share.
Steve was saying something, but he wasn't awake enough to register more than the murmur of words and a feeling that might have been fingers running through his hair.
The next morning, Steve and Bucky were the last two on the plane, because Bucky had been so tired that Steve turned off his alarm and hadn't woken him up until the last possible minute. Bucky had grumbled about it, but since he had already showered and hadn't had time to unpack anything the night before, there wasn't much for him to really be upset about. Especially when Steve woke him up by bringing in omelettes and fresh orange juice that tasted like it might have still been on a tree half an hour ago.
The way Bucky had looked, hair wild, soft and sleepy, so completely relaxed, was something Steve wasn't sure he'd ever be able to forget, even if he wanted to.
It definitely wasn't something he wanted to forget.
"Race you to the top," he yelled to Bucky before swinging his duffle over his shoulder and sprinting towards the rolling stairs set up for the Stark Industries plane.
"You asshole!" Bucky shouted back, feet pounding on the tarmac. Bucky was almost as fast off the ice as he was on it, but the head start gave Steve enough of an edge that he made it to the stairs ahead of Bucky.
They were out of breath and laughing as they walked onto the plane, and were completely unprepared for the scene that was waiting for them.
"'Sup," Scott said with a wave before going back to painting Luke's toenails an eye-searing shade of neon orange. Wade was frowning at Pietro, directing him to make the rainbow stripes neater, which mostly just resulted in blotches of color all over the place, including the upholstery.
Sam's nails were a dark red that coordinated nicely with the team's logo. "About fucking time you got here," he said as he swiped more sparkly top-coat over Thor's pink toenails.
Bucky's expression went blank, making Steve's heart stop. But as he looked over the entire team, every single one of them with nail polish on their toes, including Coach Fury, who had gone with plain black, finally a slow smile spread over Bucky's face. "Christ Stevie, look what you started."
"Pretty sure you get credit for this one," Steve said. Bucky shook his head, stubbornly, and Steve couldn't help grinning. "Together then. Side-by-side, like you promised."
"That was for a fight, not..." he waved his hand, "this."
"Nope. I'm holding you to it. And I expect you to complain the whole time, so you'd better get started."
Bucky flipped him off, which was great, the ultimate proof that he was doing okay, and Steve slung an arm over his shoulders and dragged him in the direction of their seats.
They got intercepted by Claire, who was finally able to come on roadies with them, to the delight of the entire team. She'd been applying midnight blue nail polish to Maria's toenails, but she set the bottle aside and stood in front of Bucky, arms wide. "You did good, Barnes."
"And Steve didn't punch anybody," Maria added, studying her toes.
Claire grinned. "That's right! Come on, both of you, get in here."
Bucky dragged Steve forward and they hugged Claire together. She turned out to be excellent at hugging, not surprisingly, since she was excellent in every other way, too.
Bucky was also excellent at hugging. Steve knew that already, but he still noticed it every time. He was strong and solid and his hair smelled like last night's shower.
"Hey, check it!" Rhodey called out, pulling up a video on his phone and leaning over the back of his seat to show them. It was Logan Howlett, one of the Defensemen from the Excelsiors. "I'm not gay, I'm bi and poly," he was growling at a reporter. "Go fucking Google it and get the fuck out of my face."
Apparently his on-ice persona wasn't limited to just the ice.
Steve had his own phone out by then, and he checked out the trending topics. #loveislove was right at the top, along with NHL and #youcanplay. He turned the phone so Bucky could see. "Congratulations, you broke the internet."
"Me? What happened to side-by-side, asshole?"
He should've expected that, he knew he should have, just like he should have expected Bucky's smug little smile, and the blast of joy he felt at seeing it, but Bucky had a way of taking him by surprise. It was all part of the best friend package, Steve was sure. He ruffled Bucky's hair. "Fine. We broke the internet together. Any other major infrastructures we should destroy?"
"Not today," Bucky said, grinning and putting his hair back in order.
The team chatted and called out news bits from their seats during take off. Bobby Drake from the Excelsiors had announced he was gay, and Antoine Triplett came out as bisexual. Bruce excitedly read them an email from his cousin, a college player who wanted to thank the whole team for inspiring her to come out as a transwoman. She had chosen the name Jen, and she planned to sign with the NWHL when she graduated. Pietro rushed over and hugged him, despite the glowing seat belt sign, and once they were safely in the air, Bruce went around and showed everyone the pictures she'd sent.
When he got close enough, he gave Bucky an extra pat on the back and quietly said, "Thank you."
Bucky shook his head, but before he could argue, Bruce repeated, more firmly, "Thank you."
"Okay," Bucky said, to Steve's relief. Arguing with Bruce never worked out for anyone. "She's amazing on her own, though. I don't get any credit for that."
"She is," said Bruce, smiling. "She's pre-Law, and she's--"
"Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit!" Wade yelled, sounding almost panicked. "Oh my fucking god, I can't believe what I'm reading."
Everyone crowded in to read over his shoulder.
It was a tweet, from @frank_thepunisher, that simply said, "I'm not a problem. #loveislove #youcanplay." There was even a little rainbow flag emoji.
"I don't know who that is," Pietro said. "What is the big deal?"
"That's Castle," Bucky said, looking pale and stunned. "He's one of Hydra's wingers. That's...fuck. I can't...fuck."
Steve followed him back to his seat, because there was no way he was leaving Bucky alone when he was that visibly upset.
"He's gone and made himself a target," Bucky whispered. "It's the bravest and stupidest thing I've ever seen in my life. They're going to...fuck, it's going to be bad. And they're going to blame me for it. They already hated me, but now? We'll be lucky if nobody leaves the game on a stretcher."
Anyone who wanted to get to Bucky, Steve thought, was going to have to come through him first.
By the time they got back to Brooklyn, #notaproblem was the number one trending topic on twitter, and Bucky knew what he needed to do.
He waited until Steve was distracted by Sam and Rhodey, then doubled back to corner Coach Fury.
Fury sighed, as if he'd somehow been expecting Bucky to talk to him, even though Bucky literally never talked to him.
"I need you to put me in against Indy," Bucky said quickly. He wanted this over before Steve could hear him.
"This is a professional hockey team, Barnes. I'm here to win, not help you out with some vendetta."
Bucky really should have expected that. "No. Listen to me. You can't put Wade in there. I'm not the one with a vendetta. They want to get to me, and they'll be happy to go through him to do it, especially when he opens his mouth."
"In that case, why would I hand them what they want?"
"Because if they knock me out of the game, they won't get to hurt me anymore." It was so fucking obvious, he couldn't believe Fury hadn't already figured it out. "With me, they'll go for maximum pain, and minimum damage. It won't be like that for Wade. They'll tear him apart. Nothing will stop them. You can't let that happen."
Fury just stared, letting the silence stretch out between them. "You're our starting forward," he said finally. "We can't afford to have you injured badly enough that you're out for the rest of the season."
"I won't be," Bucky said, feeling frantic. "I know how they think, I know how they move, and I know how to take a hit. You send me in, worst case, I'm out for a few games. If you have Wade start, it could end his career."
"I don't like it," Fury said finally. "We'll try it your way, but if I tell you to rest, you rest. I pull you out, you're out. And Rogers and Odinson are going to be defending the everliving fuck out of you while you get me some fucking goals."
It was the best he was going to get, so Bucky nodded. It didn't matter. He wasn't going to give Fury any reason to tell him to rest. If there was one thing he knew how to do, it was taking a hit without showing the pain.
Steve didn't like the way the game was going.
No, that wasn't true. Steve fucking hated the way the game was going.
The casual slurs were annoyingly predictable, as were the dirty checks. He and Thor were feeling the pressure at the tail end of the second period, thighs and calves burning from the way they had to throw themselves around the ice to try to open up space for the team to score. His shoulders and ribs ached from the dirty hits and elbows he had already taken trying to keep Bucky safe, and he knew that he'd have some truly spectacular bruising.
Bucky was...Bucky was incredible, somehow always in just the right spot, hitting the puck with laser-precision, shrugging off hits like he didn't even feel them. It should have been fantastic, feeling that connection as they worked together wordlessly to create openings, matching his level of skill, but there was something missing from Bucky, that joy and humor and light that had seeped into him so slowly since he first joined the team that Steve hadn't really noticed the change until it was gone.
They had managed three goals to Hydra's one, capitalizing on the power plays that Hydra's rough play made inevitable, but it didn’t feel like they were winning.
It felt like they were just trying to survive.
"Don't let them fucking goad you," Fury had said after the first. "You are fucking professionals, not a bunch of goddamned schoolyard scrappers. Keep your gloves on, your heads down, and your eyes on the fucking puck."
It was excellent advice, but Brock Rumlow just would not shut up.
Rumlow was an okay player, nothing to write home about, and Steve could never understand why he got so much media coverage. Normally it was easy enough to ignore him.
"Did Barnes cry about how we made him hit you?"
Sometimes it wasn't.
"Worthless bastard never wanted to hit anybody."
Sometimes it was impossible.
"So do you all take turns bending him over or--"
Steve's vision went red, and his gloves dropped to the ice so fast it was like they had a mind of their own. Rumlow clearly wasn't expecting the punch, and Steve cherished the brief look of shock he saw before he knocked it off with his fist.
He managed to get two more hits in before more players from both teams showed up, but Foggy was a great ref, and he broke them up before the brawl could get started in earnest.
Bucky chomped down on his mouthguard and stared at the penalty box, where Steve was flanked by Bruce and Rhodey, all of them glaring out at the ice and counting down the seconds until they could go back in.
This whole game was an absolute shitshow, and it was only going to get worse. Scott should be okay, goalies could usually avoid trouble, as long as they weren't Bruce, and Luke was tough as could be, though Bucky didn't have the same rapport with him that he did with Steve. But Pietro was too young and too small, and Bucky wished like hell that Rhodes had stayed out of the fight.
He couldn't blame him, though. Bucky had nearly gone tearing in as soon as Rumlow took a swing at Steve, in spite of his promise to himself to keep Wade out of the game. Steve was the heart of the team, none of them were going to leave him to fight alone.
The only good news was that the ref with the long hair, Nelson, had heard whatever Brock said, and slapped him with a bench minor for unsportsmanlike conduct. With Hydra shorthanded, Pietro might be alright.
It wasn't clear who would have subbed in for Brock, anyway, since Frank Castle had been listed as injured in a mysterious training accident and wasn't even in the rink tonight. Bucky didn't let himself think too hard on that, other than to feel a certain satisfaction that Rumlow and Rollins had matching black eyes, and Rollins was favoring his right side, like maybe he had a cracked rib. Whatever had happened, Frank had gone down swinging.
Bucky hustled into position and put everything out of his mind again. The only way out was through. He could do this. He could take anything. As long as everyone kept their heads down, like Coach had said, they'd be fine.
Fifteen seconds later, Pietro skated two rings arounds Rollins, feinted left, and dodged right.
Rollins, confused, crashed into his own defenseman, Ward, and clutched at his ribs while leaving Pietro untouched.
Ward threatened something, but Pietro just skated away, calling over his shoulder, "You'd have to catch me first!"
Shoving Rollins aside, Ward took off after Pietro.
There were times on the ice when everything took on a perfect kind of clarity. When seconds stretched longer and thought moved faster.
Bucky knew exactly where the puck was, he knew Luke was about to send it his way, he knew he could take the shot and score.
Or he could dive in and keep Pietro from taking a bone crushing hit that he'd never see coming.
Well, fuck it. Bucky shouldered into Ward with a satisfying crunch, while the puck sailed past them both.
He didn't see who scored for Hydra. He heard the whistle, followed by the cheer from the small contingent of Indy fans who'd made it up to Brooklyn, but all he saw was the smug sneer Ward gave him.
"Bet you'll pay for that one tonight," Ward gloated.
It wasn't a calculated reply, though he kind of wished it had been, given the horrified look on Ward's face. It was just so fucking absurd to think that his own team would have some punishment waiting for him in the locker room. There wasn't a single one of them he didn't trust, and laughter was the only possible response.
"YEAH BUCKY!" Steve's voice called over the grumbles and cheers of the crowd.
Bucky laughed harder. Steve had never once let him down, and his timing couldn't have been more perfect. Ward looked even more completely baffled than he had before. It was hilarious.
Somewhere, Wade started chanting, "Bar-NEY, Bar-NEY," and Sam immediately joined in. Then Steve and Bruce. Pretty soon the whole fucking team joined in, cheering Bucky for losing them a point, which had to be the stupidest, most fantastic display of team spirit he'd ever heard of. With the possible exception of the nail polish, which was just as ridiculous.
Damn, he loved his team. He looped around and stuck his tongue out at Steve and the other guys in the box, and the crowd perked up as Steve laughed so hard he fell over onto Bruce's shoulder.
After that, it was an entirely different game. A brutal, ugly game, yes, because Hydra didn't do it any other way, but the Avengers played with the kind of fierce joy and aggressive loyalty that made them the best the league had ever seen. They played like a seamless unit, taking full advantage of each player's strengths. Steve's grace, Sam's leadership, Thor's power, Bucky's accuracy, Rhodey's versatility, Bruce's precision. Even Wade's mouth worked in their favor. When Fury made Bucky take a break, Wade worked Rumlow into a bewildered rage by whispering at him whenever they crossed paths and cackling with glee whenever Rumlow hit him.
The final score was 6-2, with no major injuries on either side.
It was the best damn win of Bucky's career.
The team met after the game at one of their usual spots, a sports bar with a private room they were happy to set aside. One of the TVs was on, set to ESPN, where their game was apparently the only topic worth talking about.
"I have to say, Chris," one of the anchors said, "we've never seen behavior like this from the Avengers before."
"PLEASE, STEVE AND I LITERALLY FIGHT PEOPLE ALL THE TIME," Wade shouted, knocking his drink to the floor. "I'LL FIGHT ANYBODY. I'LL FIGHT YOUR MOM."
"I agree, Chris," the second host said.
'Chris, Chris, and Chuck' was possibly the worst show on ESPN, hosted by three guys who had far more baseless confidence than hockey knowledge, and there was a team rule specifically against doing shots whenever one of the hosts said "Chris".
Steve might have had a hand in the creation of that rule, although he figured that since it had happened in Wade's apartment, it must have been Wade's fault. All he remembered was waking up on the floor the next morning, along with Bruce and Thor. Thankfully, they'd all been wearing pants.
"It's safe to say that Barnes, who's spent more time in the penalty box than any other current player in the league, is definitely a bad influence on his teammates. He's the sort of player who can rot a team from the inside." There was a crunch from Bruce's corner of the room that sounded like it might have been the sturdy wooden chair-arm being yanked off. "Chuck, what do you think?"
The third host, distinguishable from the other two only by his name, picked up the thread. "I think this is just to be expected after the revelations of the past couple of days. I imagine there are players on the Avengers who might not be entirely comfortable and want to work out their feelings on the ice, and the opposing team is the only real target they--"
The click and sudden silence echoed through the room as Sam turned the TV off.
"Chuck needs to die," Wade said in a disturbingly calm tone.
"I really shouldn't encourage that sort of talk," Sam said with a sigh, "but you're not wrong."
"Tony's talking lawsuits," Rhodey said as he checked his phone. "Also, he said something about exploding death pucks, but I'm pretty sure that's a joke. Maybe."
“But we won,” Pietro said plaintively. “I do not understand. We won the game.”
Wade slung one arm over Pietro’s shoulders. “Kid, this is possibly the most important lesson you will ever learn as a professional athlete,” he said, capturing Pietro’s attention. He leaned in like he was imparting a profound secret before saying, loudly enough for the entire room to hear, “Sportsball pundits are giant pustulant cocks.”
Sam had a look on his face like he was trying to be Serious Captain Leader, but was also trying not to laugh, so he mostly just looked like his features were fighting with each other.
“That’s right,” Sam said after he managed to school his face. “We did win, and we’re going to damn well keep winning. I did not go without cookies and dick all goddamn season just for the press to come along and try to screw up our playoff chances."
Bruce set the broken chair arm on the table, with a thunk. "This is bullshit. There has to be something we can do."
"You know what we're gonna do?" Sam said. "We're going to tear up the ice like the fucking professionals we are for the next three games, we're going to win, then we're going to take a nice break and relax. Then, we're going to come back, we're going make the playoffs, and we're going to win the fucking Stanley Cup as a giant "fuck you" to every one of these assholes. Then we're going to take the cup and march that shit in a fucking Pride parade."
There were reasons that Sam was the captain.
A cheer went up, and Steve looked over to Bucky, like he so often did. Bucky had a smile on his face, but his eyes were shadowed, as if he was exhausted in every possible way. Sam was right, they all needed a break, but especially Bucky, who had become the heart of the whole team. Steve couldn't possibly be prouder of him, but it made him want to whisk him away, take him somewhere cozy and soft and safe.
They texted each other when they got to their apartments. Steve told him about how Miss Lorraine was out front, yelling at the bushes for her cat, and he had slipped past so she couldn't talk him into helping. Bucky just sent back a smiley, which somehow conveyed exactly how tired he was, so Steve sent a 'goodnight' and let him sleep.
He kept thinking about it, though. He pondered it whenever he had time, through the next few games, and the increasing frenzy of the press as the playoffs got closer. Bucky was glorious on the ice, and his energy and drive were infectious, inspiring the whole team to play at their peak, handily beating every team they met.
Somewhere during the party after the Kansas City game, a game Bucky had won almost single-handedly with his hat trick, Steve figured out the perfect solution.
Bucky deserved a break. Bucky deserved the best. And Steve knew just how to give him that.
All he had to do was convince him to say yes.
Oh jeez, he wished he knew how.
Steve was looking shifty. He had the worst poker face in the world, if he wasn't so fucking pretty there was no way they'd ever let him do press. When they finally got back to Steve's apartment after the game, after the rounds of shots, after the dancing, oh dear god, Bucky threw himself down on the couch like he owned the place, propped his chin up on one hand, and said, "Okay, out with it."
"Out with what?" Steve asked.
"You've had something on your mind all night, so out with it."
Steve looked even shiftier, which shouldn't have been adorable, but the man managed to make sweaty gear look adorable, so clearly he was an anomaly. "It's, ah. Our bye-week is coming up."
Fuck. Bucky had been actively trying not to think about it. Bye-weeks were good for catching up on Netflix and maybe a couple of random hookups, but they were generally something he dreaded. The days seemed too empty without the steady routine of practice, watching tape, training, and games, and this year was likely to be even worse with the way the press was hounding him. "Yeah, and?"
"So, I was thinking about going somewhere this year, maybe?" Steve was actually fidgeting, what the fuck.
"Yeah? Sounds like fun. You heading somewhere with a beach and lots of people wearing as little as possible? Seems like that's what most guys do," Bucky said lightly, trying not to think of Steve wearing nothing more than a tiny bathing suit, one that did more to emphasize his ass than cover it.
It felt like he was spending a lot of time lately not thinking about Steve's ass. Weird.
"No, I...so what do you have planned?"
Bucky shrugged. "Not much. I used to do the resort thing, but I haven't really been feeling it for the last couple of years. I'll probably just sit at home and binge watch Netflix documentaries."
"Might be good to get away from the press for a while," Steve said casually.
"Oh yeah. I'll just grab a tent, hope it doesn't rain, and head off to the woods. Just me and the mosquitoes," Bucky said, nose crinkling.
"You've got to admit, mosquitoes are still less annoying than reporters."
"You're not wrong," Bucky said. There was a long pause. "Honestly, that sounds so fucking boring I think I'd die after about ten minutes. If I'm going to be off by myself, I might as well stay here where I have air conditioning and pizza delivery."
"Or you could. Maybe. Come to Paris with me?"
If Bucky had been even remotely inclined to say no, Steve's puppy-dog eyes would have convinced him otherwise, but he really didn't want to. Just the thought of eating gelato in little cafes with Steve, watching him delight in the art at the Louvre, taking selfies in front of the Eiffel Tower...there were worse ways to spend a week.
Maybe they could go dancing again, and Bucky could discover if Steve was any better at it when he was sober. A man who moved like poetry on the ice shouldn't be that uncoordinated on the dance floor, it was a goddamned travesty.
"Yeah, okay," Bucky said, and basked in the warmth of Steve's answering grin.
It'd be great. It was a nice idea, and he'd get to relax for the whole week.
He really believed that.
Until about fifty two hours into their vacation.
He was wrong. He was so wrong, this had been a horrible idea, and he wasn't going to survive the week.
"So what's the plan for today?" Bucky had asked that morning, definitely not looking at the way the morning light pooled on Steve's skin, making him look like one of those marble statues they had seen at the Louvre. Mercury, maybe, but the way he was draped on his bed was more reminiscent of the Barberini Faun, relaxed and shameless and sublime.
"There's this island my mom told me about," Steve said. "It's supposed to be beautiful, with this rocky grotto and everything." He was like a puppy, all enthusiasm and fluff with his bedhead on full display.
And that's how they ended up here, sharing a rowboat on the lake, going out to the Île de Reuilly so they could get a close-up view of the Temple of Motherfucking Love. Clearly, this was all some sort of cruel cosmic joke, and between the painfully romantic scenery and the way Steve's arms and chest strained as he rowed the boat, it seemed likely that this was the way he was going to die.
They were friends. They were friends, and that was great. It was fantastic, actually, and he meant that with absolutely no sarcasm at all. Steve was...Steve was the most important person in his life, and he was going to treasure every second they had together like the gift it was. He was just confused -- it had been awhile since he had gotten laid, he and Steve spent a lot of time together, his dick was just confused. Neglected. They'd hit some clubs tonight, meet some pretty people, have one night stands like normal young, single hockey players, and then tomorrow they'd go to the Rodin museum and he could watch the way Steve's face lit up in the presence of artistic masterpieces, the way he knew the history of every piece better than any guidebook, the way his face went awestruck and soft in front of certain pieces, and…oh.
It wasn't that Steve regretted the trip. He didn't. At all. It was just that watching Bucky frown up at the Eiffel Tower made him ache inside. Seeing the way the light hit his hair as they walked along the Seine. The way he glanced over and their eyes met...
He wanted to hold Bucky's hand.
That was maybe not all he wanted.
That was definitely not all he wanted.
Oh hell. There were rules about this. Steve didn't usually care much about rules, but he had vivid, horrible memories of Wade crying all over Sam's jersey when their old trainer broke his heart and quit the team. Bucky was a lot more vital to the team than any trainer.
There was also, Steve had to admit, more to life than the team. He and Bucky both weren't exactly old, but hockey careers were short, and they were definitely closer to retirement than to the draft. And Steve...Steve wasn't Nathan Summers, and Bucky wasn't Wade, and breaking rules with Bucky hadn't ended in disaster yet, no matter what Sam might say.
And Steve wanted so much.
The real question here had nothing to do with the team, and nothing to do with Steve's desires. The question was -- what did Bucky want? Steve chewed on his lip as they walked, trying to analyze the situation the same way he analyzed other players on the ice.
"Hey," Bucky said, elbowing him. "You've got that look like you need to eat," he said, and the warmth in his eyes took Steve's breath away. Maybe...maybe. "So I heard this place not too far from here has the best gelato in Paris," Bucky continued, one eyebrow lifted. "You in?"
"It's like you don't even know me," Steve said with a mock-frown, meaning the exact opposite.
Immediately after they got back from their bye-week, they were swept into a frenzy of back-to-back games, intense training (Claire had given them a look like she knew), and strategy sessions. Fury wanted them to lock in their playoff spot soon, and made damn sure they were all personally aware of their responsibility in making this goal.
They had played hard, and finally won in overtime, and Steve could feel every single one of those extra minutes of play. It wasn't until he collapsed on the bed next to Bucky he even realized what he had done.
"Fuck." His room was on the other side of the hotel, which might as well be the moon.
"So stay here," Bucky said. Apparently, Steve had said that out-loud.
"Yeah you did, pal," Bucky said, sounding just as tired as Steve felt. "It's not like we've never shared before, and I've got a spare toothbrush in my bag. Don't worry, I won't get fresh with ya."
Steve tried to hold back his laugh, but he wasn't completely successful.
"What?" Bucky asked suspiciously.
"I was just trying to imagine that," Steve said with a smile.
"Oh yeah?" Bucky asked. "And how're we doing? In your imagination, I mean."
Steve rolled over on his side so he could face Bucky. "Well, neither of us can move, and we're both kinda whimpering in pain, so it's going pretty good. Definitely not my worst date."
Bucky frowned a little, just an unhappy twist of his lips that Steve wanted to kiss away. "Oh come on…"
"I'm serious," Steve said instead of kissing. "My dates mostly end with someone crying. It's usually me."
"You didn't cry after you went out with the broccoli dog guy," Bucky pointed out.
"That's...Well, I mean, he might have, after what I said about Kincaide." Bucky smiled at that, eyes crinkling up in the way that Steve loved so much, and maybe it was that that made the extra honesty spill out. "But I didn't," he continued. "I had you. I called you and...you were the best part of that night."
Steve didn't know how to interpret the look that Bucky gave him next, and definitely didn't know what to think when Bucky rolled away and grabbed his phone.
"We're going to Cleveland next?" Bucky asked as he poked at his phone.
"How about you and me go to the natural history museum they've got there? They have a planetarium I'm dying to see."
Steve nodded his head slowly. "Yeah, sure, sounds...um. Is it-- are you asking me on a date?"
They were both tired. Exhausted, actually, and their mental goalies were exhausted too, and it would be so easy to brush it off as a joke. Except...
Bucky sat up, chewing on his lip nervously. "Yeah. Yeah I am."
Oh. "We're best friends," Steve pointed out. "Is that gonna be kind of awkward?"
"What? Us?" Bucky laughed. "Hell yeah. It'll be so awkward, we'll get back to our rooms and pull the covers over our faces and long for the sweet embrace of the grave. That's how awkward we'll be."
Bucky was such a fucking asshole, and Steve loved him so much. "Wow, I haven't longed for the grave in weeks. Sounds great, Buck, count me in."
"Absolutely." Steve found himself smiling at Bucky, and Bucky was grinning right back, and he was pretty sure they both looked like a pair of dopey idiots, but that was nothing new. "You'd better wear that sweater I like or my best friend and I will judge your fashion choices."
Bucky laughed. "Yeah? Guy sounds like kind of a dick."
"Nah, he's alright," Steve slurred, fatigue crashing down on him. "G'night Bucky."
"Night Steve," Bucky said as he fluffed his pillow before reaching over to turn off the lights.
Their hands brushed in the dark, and Steve curled his fingers loosely around Bucky's as he drifted off.
It was the best sleep Steve had gotten all week.
Their date had gone better than Bucky could have imagined, and he had imagined a lot, lying in bed that night, with Steve soundly asleep at his side. He had imagined everything falling apart between them, but he hadn't been able to maintain the thought for long. Not with Steve holding his hand, even while he snored. He had imagined everything turning vaguely uncomfortable, with no spark of romance or attraction between them, but again, the feeling of Steve's fingers against his own had driven that thought away.
He had imagined a normal night of joking and laughing with his best friend, of Steve's eyes bright and smiling, of the giddy rush he felt whenever their shoulders brushed, and that had seemed about perfect. Perfect enough that Bucky had finally managed to fall asleep.
As was often the case with Steve though, the reality had turned out to be more than just perfect.
They were almost back to their hotel rooms, after the most magnificent date ever, when Steve nudged Bucky with his elbow. "What are you thinking about over there?"
"You," Bucky answered, looking him over with a meaningful smile.
Steve blushed and tripped over some air, which was adorable, but also annoying, leaving Bucky wondering what kind of assholes Steve had been dating if a simple line like that was enough to surprise him. Fucking broccoli dog guy.
"I was hoping you'd let me take you out again sometime," Bucky said.
Steve smiled over at him. "What if I wanted to take you out next time?"
"As long as there is a next time."
"There will be," Steve said, blushing again. He stopped and waved his hand at the door. "This one's mine. I, uh, had a really great time tonight."
"Yeah, me too."
Steve slowly reached out, telegraphing his movements. For some reason, Bucky anticipated a rough hand around the back of his skull, pulling him in for a hard kiss. It wasn't a bad thought at all, not with Steve, but it wasn't what he got.
What he got was Steve plucking at a tendril of his hair, and running his thumb and forefinger down the length of it, so soft, so gentle, so delicate that Bucky barely felt it. What he got was a look something like wonder, something like joy, something like fondness. What he got was Steve, perfect fucking Steve, treating him like he was precious, and it was more than he could stand.
Without thinking, without breathing, Bucky said, "I want your lips."
It probably should have gone right to the top of the list of most embarrassing things Bucky'd ever said, except that it worked. Steve barely hesitated before he kissed him, slowly and thoroughly and oh so well, backing away just long enough to say "yes," before he pressed right in again.
God, of course Steve was delicious. He tasted like the snickerdoodle ice cream they'd shared for dessert, only better, because he was warm, and because he was Steve, and because Bucky had possibly fallen desperately in love with him.
He pulled back before he could be overwhelmed by that thought, and leaned their foreheads together.
"I guess I should go," Steve said, his breath whispering against Bucky's lips with every word. "Game tomorrow."
"Yeah." Bucky stepped back. "I'll see ya."
Steve smiled. "And we can plan for next time."
"Next time," Bucky repeated, grinning at the prospect. Steve grinned right back, before he turned to let himself into his room.
Bucky felt like he floated down the hallway to his own room, though at the same time, each step he took seemed to echo, 'next time, next time.'
He flopped on the big lonely bed and smiled up at the ceiling. Asking Steve out was the best idea he'd ever had. He wanted to shout it from the mountain tops. Everyone should date their best friend. It was great.
His phone started playing the theme song from The Golden Girls, which meant a couple of things. It meant that Wade had changed his fucking ringtones again, but more importantly, it meant that Steve was calling.
He answered by asking, "You forget something?" Automatically, he started cataloging what Steve might need, from a toothbrush to a protein bar to shampoo.
"Sort of," Steve said, with a smile in his voice. "I was sitting here with nobody to talk to, and I realized, all I wanted to do was call my best friend and tell him about this amazing date I just went on."
Bucky chuckled and relaxed back into the mattress. "Yeah?"
"Yep. Hey Buck, want to hear about this amazing date I just went on?"
"It can't beat mine, but I'd love to hear it. Start with what really matters. What was he wearing?"
"Oh god, it was fantastic, he had on this fuzzy gray sweater with long sleeves, and he looped his thumbs through these holes at the cuffs. He looked so soft and comfortable, I just wanted to curl up and hold him."
Bucky took a moment to appreciate how much he also wanted that. Finally he said, "Um. My guy had a cashmere v-neck that matched his eyes. Most gorgeous blue I've ever seen. Plus, you know I hate to be crass--"
"Shut up. He's got the most magnificent ass imaginable."
"No, listen. The entire internet agrees with me on this. Magnificent is definitely the correct word. But he's also...Stevie he's so nice. People act like that's an insult or something, but it's not. He's sweet and gentle and nice. He got the wrong food at the restaurant and he didn't even complain."
"He...fuck, really? Jeez, he was probably super distracted and didn't even realize. Stop laughing," Steve said, laughing at least as hard as Bucky.
"He's still nice," Bucky said, once he caught his breath. "I took him to the planetarium, because it's one of my favorite places, and I'm selfish like that, I guess. Because I wanted to see him there, looking up at the stars. And he didn't mind at all, even though it's not his thing. He listened to me go on and on about the moons around Saturn, and the images from the Cassini probe."
"My guy had all these great stories about space exploration and NASA and science. He's so fucking smart. He's not afraid of being passionate about what he likes, either, and he likes the coolest things. I could have listened to him all night."
"My guy is so...so sweet," Bucky said, his voice going hushed and reverent. "I like him a lot."
"I thought maybe it would be weird, since we're friends, and I don't want to lose that, but it's comfortable, being with him, it's...ahh Bucky, I could fall for you so easily."
Bucky closed his eyes, in an effort to steady himself. "I'm more than halfway there, Steve. You were already my favorite person. Christ, I wish you were here. I wish I could kiss you again."
"You definitely can. First chance we get."
Silence stretched out between them, warm and companionable, before Steve broke it with a little cough. "I don’t want to keep this secret," he said.
"I don’t think I could keep this a secret if I tried," Bucky said, maybe too honestly.
Or maybe not, because Steve laughed ruefully. "Me either. And that means we need to tell Sam."
Oh shit. "Oh shit," Bucky echoed out-loud. "But...the rules. What’s he gonna--"
"It’ll be fine," Steve said, cutting Bucky off before he could get too worked up. "Some things are more important than rules. You’re more important than rules. Sam’s probably not going to be happy about it, but as long as it doesn’t affect our game he’ll understand."
"He won’t understand. Sam hates me," Bucky replied, only half joking.
"He doesn’t hate you. I’ll talk to him tomorrow, make sure he understands. You’re the most important thing, Bucky."
He meant to argue. He meant to say 'no I'm not.' But what came out sounded exactly like what he'd said before. "I wish I could kiss you again."
"What if I wanted to kiss you next time?"
"You definitely can," Bucky promised. "Every chance we get."
Steve stalled after practice, dragging his feet until it was just him and Sam in the locker room. Sam looked at him with his best unimpressed face.
"What?" he said. "You did something. You have that look on your face that means you did something and I'm going to hate it. I hate that look."
Sometimes it sucked to know each other so well. "So, uh," Steve mumbled, "Bucky and I are breaking some rules, and--"
Sam held up one hand. "Nope. I don't want to hear about whatever ridiculous carbs you two are eating. I still haven't forgiven you for sending pictures of those cookies. Do you know how many oreos--"
"I'm in love with him," Steve said in a rush. That...fuck, that wasn't what he meant to say. Wasn't any less true, though.
"You...What?" Sam looked like he had just taken a puck to the face. The last time Sam actually had taken a puck to the face someone had taken a picture at just the right time, and once Steve got over worrying he had decided it was the funniest thing he had ever seen. It was still Sam's contact picture in his phone, so it was an expression Steve was extremely familiar with.
"I went on a date with him, and I kissed him, and I never want to stop kissing him," Steve explained, and he could feel the sappy smile on his face again. Hell, he was pretty sure there was sap oozing out of his pores.
"You couldn't at least wait 'til after the playoffs?"
He knew it was going to sound corny, but… "I've been waiting my whole life for someone like him."
Sam covered his face and moaned, "Umagud Steeeve."
"I know! I can't help it. Want me to tell you which songs make me think of him? It's all of them. All of them, Sam! I scrolled back through two months of text messages so I could look up a poem he talked about and memorize it. I don't even know if it's his favorite, I just know that it's him, and he's worth it. And I'm not scared. I guess maybe I should be, but I'm not, because I trust him with my entire heart. He's it for me."
"Have you told him any of this?"
"Not nearly enough. I..."
"Go. Feel free not to text me with the details, I have playoffs to worry about."
"Thanks Sam," Steve said as he clapped one hand onto Sam's shoulder. "I'm...I'm going to go take care of that right now."
"Fine. Do that. But you owe me another Stanley Cup, dammit!"
Steve could hear him muttering about fucking distractions and dumbasses with blind spots the size of Montana as he left, but that wasn't important. Finding Bucky? That was what really mattered right now.
Bucky stood waiting in a quiet corner of the rink, near the doors.
He couldn't even lie to himself about it, he was stalling in the hopes of seeing Steve again.
They'd been training together all day. There was no reason to miss him. That would be ridiculous.
He carefully arranged the contents of his bag. For the third time.
He missed him. Terrific as it was to look across the ice and see Steve grinning at him over a particularly good pass or a sweet slapshot, actually getting to talk to him was better.
It should probably worry him that hockey was suddenly not the most important thing in his world anymore, when for so long it had been the only thing in his world, but he was too fucking euphoric to be worried.
The door banged open, and Steve finally came striding out of the locker room. His shoulders were tight, and there was a frown on his face, but as soon as he saw Bucky, he smiled and walked even faster.
"Hey. I was afraid I'd missed you," he said, when he got within arm's reach. "I wanted to tell you. I was right."
Bucky had no idea what that was about, but Steve seemed happy now, so he just went with it. He gave an earnest look and patted Steve's elbow. "Well, you put it off longer than most people manage, but I guess everyone is right eventually."
Steve lit up even brighter and laughed. "You're so obnoxious!"
"True. I'm not sure that counts as something you were right about, though. Anyone coulda told you that."
Steve narrowed his eyes, like he was ready to fight whoever dared to say such a thing, which was pretty hilarious under the circumstances.
Bucky glanced around to make sure they were alone and kissed the tip of Steve's nose. "What were you right about this time?"
"You." Steve leaned in for another kiss, without looking around first, and he didn't aim for Bucky's nose. Bucky let him get away with it, too, because he didn't want Steve to get better at hiding things. "I told you it would be easy to fall for you," Steve said, and he kissed Bucky again. "And I was right." Another kiss, soft and quick. "So easy I don't even know when it happened." Another kiss, and a gentle nudge that left Bucky pressed against the wall, and Bucky let him, in front of anyone who might walk by, he wrapped his arms around Steve's waist and he welcomed every bit of it. "Fell so hard for you Buck." A flurry of kisses, each more insistent than the last. "It's okay, you don't have to say it back right away or--"
"Like hell I don't," Bucky growled, pushing away before he succumbed to the temptation of more kisses. "I love you. And I can't believe we're doing this in the lobby of the fucking rink, but I'm absolutely in love with you. Have been since before we even went out. So I sure as hell do have to say it back right away, 'cause it's the best thing I've ever done."
Steve made a soft, high sound, and Bucky kissed him harder than before. He didn't give a damn who might see them. If Sam didn't know yet, then he was about to, and the rules could go right to hell.
'Fell so hard for you Buck.' Christ, Steve had really said that, he really meant that. Bucky had to be the luckiest jerk on the planet right now, and he wouldn't give this up for anything.
"WILS-oh shit, what the fuck are you doing?" Wade appeared from somewhere, frantically waving his hands at them. "You can't--He'll be here any second, and he'll murder you, and I'll have to help him."
"It's fine," Steve said, keeping his arm around Bucky's waist. "I already told Sam we're seeing each other, and he's okay with it."
Well, that was good to know.
"He..." Wade frowned. "Really. Even though you're both on the fucking team. Not the nutritionist, or the trainer, or the goddamn zamboni driver, but someone on the fucking team, and suddenly he's fine with it?! Right here in the fucking rink?!"
"Uh, maybe not in the rink," Steve said. "He didn't--"
"You cry on a guy one goddamn time--"
"Wait, the nutritionist?" Bucky asked. "You and Claire?"
"No, me and nobody, because everyone works for the fucking team! Hypocritical ass, when I...meanwhile he lets you two start knocking cocks right--"
"HEY. Watch your mouth," Steve snapped.
Wade scoffed. "Sure, like you weren't about to--"
"Sam doesn't get to decide who we fall in love with," Bucky interrupted.
Wade's eyes went wide, and he charged across the small space between them. Bucky braced himself for a punch, but what he got was a huge hug, enveloping him and Steve both.
"Aww, you guys," Wade said into Steve's armpit. "I didn't know you were in love!"
"Yeah," Bucky said, "I guess that's what they call it when you want to knock cocks with your best friend."
Steve made a strangled noise and pushed Wade away. He stared at Bucky with a hilarious look on his face, like lust battling with annoyance.
"When you want to make sweet, passionate love with your best friend," Bucky said, looking at him through his eyelashes.
Oh good, lust won. Still, it never hurt to be sure.
"When you want to press against his skin, feel his heartbeat against your tongue, slide your hands--"
"We have to go." Steve nudged Bucky toward the door.
Bucky smirked, thoroughly enjoying the way Steve tracked the movement, and innocently said, "Why's that?"
Steve narrowed his eyes and gave him a delicious dark smile. "Because I want your lips. And every other part of you."
"Good reason," Bucky said, a little weakly. He should have known Steve could win that game. "Your place?"
It wasn't until much later that Bucky realised they never said goodbye to Wade.
They fit together on Steve's bed just as perfectly as they did on any other, languid with pleasures given and received, too spent now to do anything more than bask in each other's presence.
Steve trailed his fingers along Bucky's shoulder and side, and he basked and he basked, marveling at smooth soft skin and the dark fan of Bucky's hair spilling over Steve's chest.
They fit better on Steve's bed than on any other, curved together like a pair of parentheses containing only each other.
Bucky shifted, his hair falling into a new shape, just as beautiful as the last, and recited in a murmur, "I like my body, when it is with your body. It is so quite new a thing. Muscles better and nerves more. I like the hardness and the softness of you, I like how it tastes, your skin against my lips, again and again and again, as I kiss this and that of you."
"Wow, that's...Bucky, you're amazing, you know that?"
"The good parts were by e e cummings, but I forgot the rest and made up some of the middle."
"That just makes you more amazing." Steve smoothed his hand down Bucky's back. "I don't know any poems for this yet, but--"
"Yet?" Bucky lifted his head and looked into Steve's eyes. "You don't have to--"
"I will. For you, I will. I want to make you as happy as you make me. I want that more than anything."
"You've already got that," Bucky said. He pressed a kiss to Steve's collarbone and buried his nose in the hollow there. "Love you."
"Love you," Steve said, nuzzling at Bucky's hair. They held on to each other as the silence stretched, until the ecstatic bliss became almost overwhelming, and Steve said, "I also want to win the Stanley Cup."
Bucky snorted, and then laughed so hard he might have fallen over if they weren't already lying down. "Yeah, okay. Me too. Think we could fill it with cookies?"
"Um, we could, but I don't really want to think about what other kind of things have been in there."
"Oh god," Bucky said, laughing even harder. "Fine, we'll stick with plates. But I want to find every kind of cookie in the world for you. One of each, all the best kinds."
"Two of each," Steve corrected. He pulled Bucky tight against his chest, and he basked and he basked. "Always two."
Bucky snuggled in closer, like he meant to stay forever, and murmured, "Always two."
Steve sighed contentedly. Forever sounded just about perfect.
It was a damn good thing that Bucky's instincts had learned to chill the fuck out over the past couple of months, because he had barely set foot into the locker room when Wade charged him, waving necklaces of paper flowers around. Wade draped one around Bucky's neck, and the other around Steve's.
The locker room looked like it had been attacked by the decorating committee for a middle school dance, with streamers and paper roses and colored hearts covering every surface it was possible to cover, including the ceiling.
"Congrats on getting LAID!" Wade said with an exaggerated leer that turned into a pout when Sam smacked him on the back of his head.
"Really. Couldn't have gone with the de-flowered joke?" Sam laughed, but for once Wade didn't look entertained. If Bucky had to put a name on the expression that crossed over Wade's face for a second, it would be something between "punched in the gut" and "every single member of my family died in a tragic plane crash."
That wasn't good.
Thor was there before Bucky could react, crushing him and Steve together in a hug that made it clear that Bucky needed to spend more time on upper body development. "MY FRIENDS," Thor bellowed. "I am so happy for you! Congratulations on finding connection both on and off the ice!"
Scott blinked widely. "Oh wow, that does explain how you two play so well together." He turned around and found Pietro, who looked him over speculatively. After a long uncomfortable moment, Scott muttered, "Dammit, I'm so straight. Why do I have to be so straight?"
Pietro shrugged. "Your loss."
Wade was back, handing out little plastic shot glasses, which contained something disturbingly, unnaturally greenish. "No alcohol. Wouldn't want to break any fucking rules, would we? Fuck no, rules are GREAT. Rules are THE BEST. Without rules we might accidentally be HAPPY or something," he said to the room at large, but his eyes were trained on Sam.
Sam glared, looking frustrated. "How many times have I told you? If it's that important, if you're so in love, then you can date whoever the hell you want."
Bucky drank the whatever-it-was, hoping it would wash down the taste of awkward. It didn't, but it was a relief to find out that the mystery drink was just gatorade.
Wade gave Sam a wounded look, on the verge of tears, which was a horrible thing to see from someone who could shrug off a fractured eye socket with no complaints. He shook his head and walked out of the locker room without another word. Sam didn't look any happier watching Wade go, before he clenched his jaw and seemed to pretend it all away.
Practice was strange, a mix of good-natured chirps from most of the team while Sam and Wade did their level best to pretend that everything was fine, only without making any kind of eye contact with each other. Finally, Coach Fury shouted, "Act like you've got some sense, Wilson," and both of them flinched. They got on track after that, but whenever Steve and Bucky bumped shoulders or laughed together, it felt like Sam and Wade would glare at each other.
"So I feel kinda guilty," Bucky said as he leaned his head onto Steve's shoulder after they had showered and gone back to Steve's place.
"We really are distracting the team. And maybe ourselves too. The team has been...you all mean so much to me, and I don't want this thing that's happening between us to keep us from winning the cup."
"It hasn't so far," Steve pointed out. "My feelings for you have been growing all season, and we've only been playing better."
"Yeah, but...what if?"
"I see your point," Steve said, kissing the top of Bucky's head. "I can't turn this off - wouldn't want to even if I could - but we can try to keep things low-key. Save the extravagant courting for the summer."
"You gonna buy me flowers?" Bucky asked, fluttering his eyelashes ridiculously.
"All the flowers. Roses, because it's traditional, but also peonies and orchids. Daisies. Sunflowers, because they remind me of you."
"I think I'd like being courted. I'll make you a homemade dinner, my ma's enchiladas with refried beans from scratch."
"Because nothing says romance like beans."
"You are literally the worst, I'm trying to romance you here!"
Steve laughed, the sound somehow even better when he could feel the low rumble of it, pressed up tight against Steve's chest.
"Sam would appreciate it if we stayed focused on playoffs," Steve said once he stopped laughing.
"Sam needs to get laid," Bucky grumbled
"You're not wrong," Steve agreed. "I think he has his eye on someone, but he's keeping quiet about them."
Bucky pulled away and squinted up at him. "Really?"
"Yeah, I know how Sam gets when he's fallen for someone."
"Not what I meant, Steve. You're cute when you're clueless."
"I'm always cute," Steve shot back before he stopped and blinked a couple of times. "Wait, what are you talking about?"
"I'll tell you when you're older."