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Friends, Lovers, or Nothing

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There's a bottle on the dresser by your ring

And it's empty so right now I don't feel a thing

And I'll be hurting when I wake up on the floor

But I'll be over it by noon

That's the difference between whiskey and you

Whiskey and You --Chris Stapleton



“Barnes?” The man called. Bucky looked around the waiting room, and not seeing anyone peek over their phone or magazine, sighed and accepts that he was not going to be able to put this off any longer.

He got to his feet, unfurling his six-foot self from the tiny one-size-fits-most chair. Running his hand through his hair to get it out of his eyes, he mentally berates himself for the lack of pomade as he makes his way towards the man standing by the office door.

“Mr. Barnes? I’m Sam Wilson. It’s nice to meet you.” He held his hand out for Bucky to take and gripped strongly without trying to crush Bucky’s hand. A man with nothing to prove , Bucky thought.

“Please, call me Bucky,” he smiled as he said it.

“Call me Sam, then,”  he says with warm eyes and an endearingly gap-toothed smile.

Sam led the way down the short hallway to a small office, set up with a desk, several overflowing bookshelves and a small sitting area, complete with coffee table, sofa and two leather wingback chairs. Sam made a sweeping gesture that Bucky translated as please, take a seat , so he chose the couch knowing that if he’s really going to contemplate opening up to this walking embodiment of a labrador, he’s going to need to sprawl, and then pace, and then sprawl some more. His fingers rubbed over the stitching on his jeans as he stared at his boots, listening to Sam settle into the chair across from him, crossing his legs at the knee and settling his notebook on his thigh.

“So, Bucky,” Sam started, “what brings you to us today? Your intake paperwork says ‘grief counseling’ but it also says, and I quote, ‘a fuckton’ under ‘Other.’ Gotta admit, that's got me curious.”

Sam chuckled to himself, and Bucky finally looked up at the other man. Sam had a small smile playing at the corners of his mouth and eyes, but none of it was mocking or judgemental. He didn’t seem pitying or condescending, which already put him miles above the other two therapists Bucky had tried out since….well, since.

Bucky sighed deeply through his nose and opened his mouth. Shut it with a click. Opened it again. Groaned as he shoved his face into his hands.

Sam smiled gently, “How ‘bout we start with a little about me, then a little about you. And then, if you're up for it, the grief? We can work our way up to everything else.”

“Yeah, okay. I can do that. That sounds good.” Bucky relaxed minutely, focusing on this mundane and entirely routine part of the encounter.

“Awesome! Well, like I said, my name is Sam,” he smiled brightly and gave a tiny wave, earning a chuckle from Bucky, “and I'm from D.C. originally, but I moved up here to work at the VA when I finished my degree. After a few years there, Dr. Banner offered me a job here, and here I've been ever since.”

He smiled blandly at Bucky, clearly ready to wait him out if he chose to play Ice Breaker Chicken with him. Bucky rolled his eyes, recognizing the look on Sam’s face, though this one is fueled by patience and not sheer pigheadedness like St--. He cut’s that thought off before he can finish it, not needing to bring those ghosts into the light just yet.

“My turn, huh?” Sam nodded and Bucky huffed a laugh, dry and small, as he started in. He wanted this. He needed this. “Well, I’m James, but literally no one but my Ma calls me that. Mostly I go by Bucky.” He blows at the hair that’s falling towards his eyes. “Uhh, I’m a Brooklyn boy who moved to Indiana for a while as a kid, and Jesus God was that awful, but I came back as soon as I could. I work independently doing music for movies, both orchestral compositions and soundtracking, and I absolutely love my job.”

“Wonderful. Wasn’t so hard, was it?” Sam teased, a glint in his eyes that set Bucky more at ease. He liked Sam, liked that he’s not afraid to tease him a bit, not afraid to call him on the things that make him a little uncomfortable. “So, should I run through what to expect?” At Bucky’s reluctant nod, he launched into his explanation.

“Well, most appointments start like this, with the Hi, Hello, How are you’s , and then we start with how things have been going recently if that’s what we’re here to discuss. With you, it will more likely be that we start from the beginning and then, if you choose to come back, from where we left off, or if something has come up since I last saw you that affects what we’ve been discussing, you could start with that. You lead these with your input. I just, hopefully, help channel you in a direction that will get us where we need to go.”

Bucky sat with that for a moment. He wasn’t used to being the one leading the conversation. He had no doubt Sam would interject with relevant questions when needed, but wouldn’t push for information Bucky wasn’t ready to give. Maybe there was a reason therapy hadn’t stuck until now.

“So I just...start?” he asked.

Sam chuckles softly. “In the words of Fraulein Maria, ‘Lets start at the very beginning.’ Why don’t you start with who exactly you’re grieving? Maybe how you met if you’re up for that.”

Bucky settled back into the couch, letting the soft leather embrace him as he breathed deeply, centering himself on the controlled inhale and exhale and braced himself for what has to come.

“A little under a year ago, I lost my husband,” his voice broke a little and he paused to clear his throat, fighting past the burning in his eyes. “There are things….you gotta understand, there’s stuff I’m not sure I wanna discuss just yet that made me pretty hesitant when it came to relationships, and I didn’t think I’d find someone I wanted to see more than once, let alone find someone I’d want to marry. Until…”

-------------------------

Four Years Ago

“James?”

Bucky looked up, meeting the eyes of an attractive man standing at the edge of his table. He stood a few inches shorter than Bucky, dark hair styled short, brown eyes crinkled at the corners as he smiled, a perfect compliment to his olive skin. He was muscular in an “I run Iron Man’s and Tough Mudders” kind of way, not a “perpetual gym rat meathead” kind of way. He was dressed casually in a black v-neck and light wash lived in jeans, his boots serviceable more than fashionable, which Bucky kind of loved considering it was a cold morning in early January, and the Brooklyn streets were covered in a dirty, slushy snow that had lost its magic days before. Bucky felt a small smile tug at the corners of his mouth and held his hand out to the man.

“You must be Brock,” he says, gripping the hand that slots its way into his own. The other man nods and smiles brightly and Bucky thinks that maybe, just maybe, this one might be different.

-------------------------

Present Day

“So he was a blind date, your husband?” Sam wrote something in his notebook without taking his eyes off Bucky. Bucky appreciated that, but also kind of wished Sam was less attentive since it made him squirm a little in his chair.

“Yeah,” he said, his voice a little hoarse, so he cleared his throat and tried again. “Yes, Brock was a blind date. The last in a long line of them. My friends were…..determined.” He chuckled, remembering the vehemence with which Nat had set him up with anyone she deemed appropriate. His dating history had been long and varied by the time Brock had walked up to him in that cafe.

“What about him struck you first? Made him different?”

Bucky laughed, his eyes crinkling up at the corners, a smile brightening his face. “His boots, oddly enough. They were practical. It was January and had snowed a couple days before. He was dressed for the weather, down to his beat up, old, black boots. My friend Natasha always teases me for wearing the same pair of boots all winter, and my reason is always that they’re warm and waterproof. I’m trying to stay dry, not make a fashion statement. I liked that he seemed to feel that way, too.”

“I can dig that. I can’t tell you how many dates I’ve been on in the winter where I question her choice in shoes. There is ice on the ground, why are you in five-inch heels?” Sam rolled his eyes as he grumbles, and earns another smile from Bucky. He was enjoying Sam’s approach to this--connecting with Bucky as a person, not just a problem to be fixed.

“So after the practical boots, what first attracted you to him?”

Bucky thought for a second, trying to figure out how to phrase it. He knew instinctively what it was, but wanted to make sure he conveyed it correctly.

-------------------------

Bucky let the smile trying to break through make its way a little further as he released Brock’s hand, waving his towards the chair across the table from him. “Please, sit down. Can I get you a coffee or anything?”

“I ordered already, thanks. Had to work up my nerve to come over here,” Brock said as he ducked his head and pink tinted his cheeks. He rubbed his hand on the back of his neck. Peeking up at Bucky from under his lashes, that brilliant smile playing at the edges of his lips. “You’re intimidatingly good looking, you know that? Makes a guy a little nervous.”

“Uh, thank you, that’s...wow. Thanks.” Now it was Bucky’s turn to blush, the heat rising in his face. He wasn’t a vain man, but, sue him--he was human, and sometimes he just wanted someone to tell him he was pretty. He smiled shyly at Brock, feeling some of the tension in his shoulders release as he saw that Brock was just as nervous as he was. He noticed the smile lines around Brock’s eyes, the gray hairs that had started to thread through the black at his temples and Bucky mentally puts his age a little farther from his own, maybe closer to ten years older rather than five, though that didn't bother him. Someone a little more mature, a little more sure of themselves and a little more stable in their life was exactly what he wanted in a partner, this time around.

“So….where are you from?” He cringed, suddenly aware of how cliche that sounded. “God, could I be more typical? Ugh.”

Brock laughed, his head tipping back and his eyes closing. It was a nice sound, warm and bright, and Bucky felt butterflies tentatively flap their wings in his stomach, seeming as unused to doing so as he was to them doing it. It had been a long time since he’d reacted like that.

“No, no,” Brock said, waving off his concern, “it's fine, don’t worry about it. That was adorable.” He chuckled a little before answering. “I’m from the Bronx, originally,”

“Oh, fuck, are you a Yankees fan? Please tell me you’re not a Yankees fan!” Bucky blurted, suddenly horrified.

“Uh...yes? Is that a problem?” Brock looked a little alarmed at his sudden outburst but didn’t seem off put off by it, which was a goddamn miracle as far as Bucky was concerned.

“Just, if you ever meet my parents, don’t tell them. Not that I’m planning on that. I mean, I’m not not planning on that but…” His tendency to word-vomit in tense situations had never failed before, so of course, it wouldn’t now. He groaned and put his head in his hands. “Please stop me!” The first person he’d shown a genuine interest in in years and he was crashing and burning so hard the Hindenburg was jealous.

“James.” He looked up at the sound of his name and saw Brock slide his hands slowly over the table and pull Bucky’s hands from his face, holding them in his own when he did. “Hey. You ok?” His concern was palpable, but it didn't seem rooted in pity, which was a first.

Bucky took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Yeah. I just…..it’s been awhile since I was actually interested in someone the Romanov-Barton Matchmaking Duo set me up with and apparently it’s fucking with my ability to be a functional human being.”

He sat up, but left his hands in Brock's, not realizing how much he had missed the feeling of simply holding hands with someone. He tried to collect himself, find that part of him that had always enjoyed meeting people, flirting and charming his way through a conversation, leaving everyone else flustered. He wasn’t used to it being the other way around, and as unfamiliar as the sensation was, he wasn’t sure he minded.

He watched as Brock gently rubbed his thumbs over the backs of Bucky’s knuckles, the soft susurrus of calloused skin grounding him to the moment, bringing him back from the brink. When Bucky looked up, he was met with a compassionate smile, and eyes that showed understanding in a way that only came from personal experience. The hands on his squeezed, and he tentatively squeezed back.

“I’m very flattered by that, by the way. All I’ve heard from Clint was how funny you were, how charming, how intelligent, genuine, and caring. Honestly, if he wasn’t so obviously head over heels for Natasha, I might have been worried.” Brock’s smile quirked up a little more at the corner, slightly self-deprecating, but mostly amused. The idea of Clint even noticing another human being besides Natasha Romanov in a romantic capacity was so unlikely you couldn’t help but laugh.

“That being said,” another gentle squeeze, “I have been where you so very clearly are. So, if this is too much, I will completely understand. You have great friends, who are very clearly concerned for your happiness, but if they’ve never been in this place, they may not understand that pushing too hard, too soon, will do more harm than good.”

Bucky felt the hot prickling of tears try to start in the corners of his eyes and fought them back with sheer determination. All of his nerves--well, most of his nerves--melted away after Brock’s little speech. If this man, who was so very unexpected and unlooked for, was so understanding and considerate of a virtual stranger, what would he be like in a relationship? How could Bucky not at least try to find out? Didn’t he deserve some personal happiness, after so long?

“Can we start over?” he said. He squeezed Brock’s hands, which had stayed around his the whole time, and then withdrew, folding them in his lap to hide the last of their shaking. “Hi. I’m Bucky. It’s so nice to meet you.”

The smile he got for that was breathtaking.

-------------------------

“He was older than me, almost ten years older, but,” he holds up his hand, forestalling any comments, though had he actually been looking at Sam, he would have noticed there weren’t any coming, “it wasn’t the age that attracted me. Not my kink.” He laughed a little, mostly out of embarrassment that he’d felt the need to clarify that.

“It was…the stability in his life that’s almost guaranteed by mid-thirties. I really wanted someone who was happy with their life and where it was. I wanted that grounding that comes with age. And he was, well, he was so kind. I was sorta a mess, sweaty palms, shaking hands, the whole nine yards. Basically had my foot so far in my mouth I could kick my own ass. And none of it phased him. Not a single second of my tiny neurotic dog imitation made him so much as bat an eyelash. In fact, he calmed me down. And that was, just, so refreshing, I decided I would have been the world’s biggest fool to let him walk out of that coffee shop without at least giving him a shot.”

-------------------------

Brock’s drink showed up shortly after their re-introduction, some sort of fancy iced coffee monstrosity with entirely too much whipped cream for Bucky’s taste, but who was he to judge? If Brock could ignore the 6 empty sugar packets next to his cup, he could deal with some whipped cream.

“So, just how much of a problem is it that I’m a Yankees fan?” Brock asked, eyes twinkling with mischief.

Bucky groaned, rolling his head back with a furrowed brow at the mention of the damn Yankees, but was glad that Brock had picked up the thread of their earlier conversation with no trouble.

“As long as you don’t expect me to ever accept them, wear any kind of merchandise, and endure the active heckling and shit talking at any and all Yankees I see, at games or otherwise, we should be okay. I wasn’t joking about my parents though. And my grandfather, oof. Don’t even get me started on how he’d take it.” He rolled his eyes so hard, he thought he may have pulled a muscle. Jesus God, Pop would have a goddamn aneurysm.

Brock looked shocked like he’d never experienced this level of animosity towards New York’s team and was wholly unprepared to deal with it. “Uh, ok? But can I ask, why? You’re from Brooklyn, right? How do you hate the Yankees? Is that allowed? Do you not like baseball?”

Bucky gasped, horrified. “Not like baseball? What do I look like, a communist? Fuck no, I love baseball. I just hate the goddamn Yankees. It’s not allowed in the Barnes family, on pain of death.”

“But...what...I don’t…” Brock looked confused, mouth opening and closing, his hands vacillating around like a visual expression of his inability to process something so outrageous from a modern New York native. Bucky thought he looked adorable, the lines between his eyebrows showing slightly, head slightly tilted. Like a puppy trying to figure out where the ball he knows got thrown went.

“See, it all comes down to my grandfather…”

-------------------------

By the time his session with Sam is over, Bucky feels wrung out. They hadn’t even touched on the hard stuff, the painful stuff, the things that broke his heart and crushed his spirit. Rehashing the early parts of his relationship with Brock had just served to remind him how much he had lost, how much of his life was missing since the accident.

Bucky was on autopilot as he shook Sam’s hand, thanked him for his time, and promised to see him next week. He was in between jobs right now, his next contract not due to start for another two months. He walked mechanically out to the waiting room and made the necessary appointments with the young woman behind the desk.

Bucky stepped outside and stopped to soak in the sunlight, letting the hustle and bustle of Brooklyn wash over him and anchor him in the present. He sucked in a breath, shoving down the surge of feelings trying to fight their way to the surface. Not here , he thought to himself. The last thing he wanted is to break down on the fucking sidewalk in front of the therapists. He headed towards home, deciding that he’d hoof it to give himself time to get his emotions under control. He shoved his hands deep into the pockets of his blue coat, thoughts chasing memories like greyhounds chasing rabbits.

He stopped by the liquor store on the way home. He isn't one to drown his sorrows in alcohol, but desperate times and all. He went through the transaction still on autopilot, his focus turned inward on all the memories talking to Sam had dredged up.

Bucky's hand found its way up to his throat, and the ring on a slim chain that nestled in the vee of the open neck of his shirt. He rubbed the gold softly, his thumb polishing the gently curving metal over and over, taking comfort in the smooth surface and gently rounded edges, a familiar sensation he'd memorized when it rested on the hand that had helped him put himself back together.

By the time he got to his building he was sweating in his coat, his hair falling all over the place, his cheeks flushed from the exertion of walking from Boerum Hill all the way back to his apartment in Brooklyn Heights, but he’d needed to keep moving. He felt like a shark--if he stopped moving, he would die.

He reached his apartment, fumbling his keys out of his pocket and opening the door. The light streaming in from the oversized windows in the living room flows down the short hall toward the front door, throwing the photographs on the wall into brightness. His parents, in front of the house in Indiana. His sister at her high school graduation. Pop in front of the memorial in Cadman Plaza. His wedding photo. He clenched his jaw as he toes off his boots, resolutely refusing to acknowledge the tears that were pricking in his eyes.

He caught sight of himself in the mirror centered over the hall table--eyes red-rimmed, nose and cheeks pink from the wind. He huffed, grabbing the bottle off the table and walking down the hall to the two steps that lead down into the living room.

He loved this apartment, all pre-war aesthetics meets modern convenience. His socks slid a little on the wood floors as he walked over to the bar behind the dining table at one end of the main room, reaching under the top to grab a rocks glass, not quite desperate enough to be swigging straight from the bottle, thanks. He unscrewed the lid on the vodka, poured himself a few fingers before walking across the room, bottle gripped by the neck in his other hand, unable to resist dragging his feet when he hit the rug that delineated the “living room” from the “dining room” part of the space.

Standing in front of the windows, he reached for the records stacked on the built-in cabinets below them. He shuffled through them, the familiar sensation of thick cardboard with soft edges under his fingertips a comfort on a day with so much change. Tapestry was suddenly there, the well-known and well-loved cover damn near leaping out at him, so he placed it on the turntable and flipped the switch. He set the volume low and let the familiar sounds of “You’ve Got  A Friend” wash over him, embracing him and reminding him of home, evenings of doing math homework while his mom sang along with Carole.

He settled into the leather of the Chesterfield, long legs stretched out in front of him, rolling his glass between his fingers, and letting the memories he’s been holding at bay all morning roll over him at last.

-------------------------

They'd sat in the cafe for hours, getting to know one another. Trading childhood memories (“Imagine moving from Brooklyn to Indiana at age twelve. I'd never seen a cow before and suddenly I was surrounded by them. It was the stuff of nightmares”), tales of moving out of New York and their respective boroughs, (“I went to William & Mary in Virginia, and let me tell you, I'd never missed the Bronx more than the first time I had what they try to pass off as a bagel.” “THANK YOU, I thought the same thing when we moved. I almost cried the first time we came home to visit and Pop had a whole box of ‘em waiting for me”) and tidbits about their careers. Brock trained boxers at a local gym and took private security jobs for special events on the side. He'd met Clint in the Army after college and they'd been friends since.

“Wow, my job is not nearly as interesting!” Bucky said, feeling significantly less cool now that he knew he was sitting across from one of Barton's Ranger buddies. Brock made a “psh” noise and waved his hands dismissively, wafting away his coolness like it was nothing.

“My old job was cool, I'll give you that. But now? I'm just glad to be back home, with a job I love, an apartment I don't hate, having good coffee with a gorgeous man.” His eyes were filled with flirtation, his smile curling up at the edges. Bucky could feel his face heat but didn't break eye contact. An answering smile, just as full of that something tugged at his own lips. He wanted to feel that smile against his own.

“It takes one to know one,” he quipped back, internally groaning at the cheesiness but sticking to his guns and keeping his eyes on the man across from him. Brock groaned loud enough for the both of them, shaking his head before tossing his hands in the air.

“That was terrible! And you still haven’t told me what you do!” He fixed Bucky with a gimlet stare, eyes narrowed and piercing. He looked suspicious and Bucky suddenly felt nervous, like when you get pulled over for speeding and your brain starts throwing every illegal thing you’ve ever done to the forefront, even though you know you were speeding and definitely not about to get arrested for never returning that copy of Mists of Avalon in the sixth grade. He had zero reason for his nerves, but it looked like Brock could see right through him with that stare. He was suddenly reminded that Brock used to be a Scary Motherfucker in a professional capacity. Damn, he couldn’t decide if he was scared or excited by that look. Maybe he’d have to see it some more to decide.

Holy crap, he wanted to see it some more. More importantly, he wanted to see Brock some more. That was new. He usually wanted out of these dates so fast it made his head spin, and here he was planning how to best ask for a second date.

Finally, he thought. Am I finally over it? Over him? Could it have finally happened? He swallowed around the sudden lump in his throat, happiness mixing with distress, as the last little piece of hope that had stuck it out in the very deepest recesses of his heart waved the white flag of surrender.

He cleared his throat, and finally answered Brock, who had just waited patiently for him to get through whatever realization he’s sure it was obvious he’d just had. God, this man was wonderful. “I, uh. Um, I do music. For movies. Not always just orchestral stuff, sometimes it's soundtracking stuff too, so modern music as well as the instrumental score. But yeah. It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do.”

He was met with a slightly open-mouthed stare, and what looked suspiciously like admiration in the eyes of his date. “Wow. That’s just...wow. And you though what I did was cool. You’re literally interpreting emotions in a way that millions of people relate to. How is that not cool?” His hands had started waving around as he spoke, his body shifting to lean forward over the table, elbows resting on the tabletop as he stared at Bucky like he was the most intriguing thing in the world.

Bucky thought he could get used to that. No one had ever looked at him like that before (Liar, his braid said. He ignored it) . It was a heady thing, to know that someone found his passion for his work so exciting, to know they would probably bring him coffee as he sat at his piano till 3 AM trying to figure out the way to express this particular storylines themes and get them from his head and onto the paper. Maybe urge him to bed, insisting it would all be better if he slept on it for a few hours. Joining him in his triumphs, consoling him through his frustrations. Was that what it would be like, with this unexpected man sitting across from him, with his kind eyes and calloused hands, hands that he had freely admitted had caused more destruction than creation in their 34 years. Could he, James Buchanan Barnes, show him how good creating could be? Did he want to?

They talked for a little while longer about the films Bucky had worked on, the stories he liked to tell the best, the ones he couldn’t stand. They talked about hopes and dreams and desires. And the life he had thought he’d never have started to peek out from his imagination, and he started to want it, for the first time in years.

All too soon, it seemed, they were standing up and walking out of the cafe, hands in pockets and bodies close together. They paused, milling around out in the cool January sunshine, coat collars turned up, scarves being tucked more securely around necks and chins, and buttons and zippers being fastened. They stared at one another, trying to extend their time together just a little more, so reluctant to give up this new thing they had found.

Bucky jumped first. “Can I see you again?” he blurted, lips pressing together as soon as the words escaped them, in a desperate bid to keep his word-vomit tendencies to a minimum. He saw a smile start to answer him on Brock’s lips, sweet and slow as molasses, teeth bright against his skin as it went from a smile into a full-fledged grin. He was positively glowing, and Bucky felt his own smile break out on his face, butterflies taking up residence directly below the heart hammering away in his chest. Please say yes, please say yes, please say yes! He chanted in his head, hoping and praying this one wish would be granted.


His world was changing, he could feel it. He was standing on the tipping point of something so earth-shattering in its possibilities that he couldn’t fathom not trying for every day, every minute, every second he could get with this astonishing, wonderful, man.

He must have been staring, knew he was, and couldn’t stop. Had to memorize every inch of this face, would spend endless hours doing just that if he was allowed. He saw the face come closer, slowly, so slowly he knew permission was being sought, knew the question that was being asked. He nodded, minutely, not wanting to break the spell of this moment. Closer still--he could smell the sweet caramel coffee that Brock had been drinking, see the fine silver hairs starting at his temples, felt hands land gently on his waist.

A forehead touched his, eyes met his, lips brushed his.

“Yes.”

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He had tears slowly sliding down his face, the afternoon sun streaming through the windows, unaffected by the storm raging in his chest. He’d refilled his drink a few times as he weathered through his emotional maelstrom, and he was feeling detached like he’s watched events unfold from a distance. He forced himself to focus back on the here, the now, the present. The smell of the leather around him. The feel of the carpet under his feet as he swung his legs down from the couch. The books on the coffee table, stacked by size rather than subject. Carole King drifting down from the speakers mounted on the ceiling, music and lyrics weaving their way into his mind and lining up so precisely with what is in his heart that it is almost unreal. But this is Carole and this album is the embodiment of every heartbroken conversation he’s ever had with his mother, needing her love and acceptance and her arms around him.

He sang gently under his breath, embracing the pain, the fear, the desperation, the heart-wrenching sorrow swirling around him, purging it from his soul in the pureness of music, in the only way he has ever really known how.

He sang and sang and sang, “ And when my soul was in the lost-and-found, you came along to claim it. I didn't know just what was wrong with me till your kiss helped me name it. Now I'm no longer doubtful of what I'm living for cause if I make you happy I don't need to do more… ”  

And he broke down, sobbing, sobbing, sobbing in a way he hasn't done since the accident. He accepted that it was real, that it has happened, and that it is time. He couldn't do years of mourning again. His heart couldn't take it. So he embraced it and cried himself to sleep on his living room floor.

Chapter Text

Sweeter than wine
Softer than the summer night
Everything I want, I have
Whenever I hold you tight.

This Magic Moment —The Drifters

 

“So, Bucky, how was your week?”

Bucky huffed from his spot on the couch, cocking an eyebrow at Sam’s genial face. Calm, cool and collected in his chair, his stupid notepad on his knee, like he hadn’t caused Bucky massive amounts of pain the week before. Okay, that wasn’t totally true. But he was definitely the hand that shook his emotional coke bottle into a carbonated mess, so Bucky’s felt less than charitable at the moment.

Bucky glared some more. “Awful. Last time I saw you, I went home, drank half a bottle of vodka, emotionally sang along to Carole King and cried myself to sleep on my living room floor. Then I nursed a hangover for the better part of a day since my liver is no longer 19 and proceeded to work my way through every sad album I own. Which is an astronomical amount, believe me.” Voice saccharine sweet, he crossed his legs at the knee and leaned against the arm of the couch. “And how was yours?” The smile on his face was tight and controlled, trying to stem the flow of his anger because even he knew it was misplaced. He didn’t need Sam’s rising eyebrows to tell him.

Sam made a note. He was too far away for Bucky to see what it was, damn it. A serene smile answered his obvious peeking, Sam’s face calm and composed, even with his Eyebrows of Disapproval making an appearance. “Do you often try to handle emotional turmoil by drinking?” he asked, his stupid calm face being stupid and calm.

Bucky tried to hold on to his anger, but he couldn’t. Not in the face of such serenity. Damn, Sam was good. He definitely wasn’t going in for any of the patented “Bucky Barnes doesn’t want to deal with this” defense tactics. While he objectively knew that was good, he was also irritated that it had come about so early.

“No,” he conceded. “Not usually. I prefer to lock it down and never talk about it, and if I do talk about it, I’d rather ignore it afterward and pretend it didn’t happen. Which is only slightly healthier than the drinking, I’ll admit.” He looked at his lap, picking at the seam on the outside of his jeans. His ring flashed on his hand, catching the late morning sunlight. He blanched, remembering his promise to himself, to his friends and family. This wouldn't work if he tried to snark his way through it, even if every fiber of his being wanted to.

“I’m not….good at expressing myself,” he started. “I got better with Brock--the man had the patience of a saint. He was good at waiting me out, letting me work around to why I was feeling the way I was without asking too many questions. Kinda like you, which is good, I guess. I'll hate it sometimes, cause you'll call me on my shit, but that's for the best.”

They were quiet for a moment after Bucky’s speech, Sam clearly waiting to make sure Bucky had finished so he didn't impede any possible progress that might happen.

“I'm glad you find my methods not only something you can work with, but familiar and possibly comforting as well.” He leaned forward, elbows resting on knees as he folded his hands in front of him. “I won't lie to you, man, this is gonna be rough. The level of awareness that you have regarding your own way of understanding your emotions and motivations is gonna help. But if we are gonna really get to the meat of this, and I suspect there is a lot of meat to get to, there are gonna be more days like last week, maybe even worse. But please believe me when I tell you that it will be so worth it.”

He sat back, giving Bucky space, even though he hadn’t really been encroaching, but the illusion of him backing off was appreciated. Bucky uncrossed his legs and settled himself on the couch, tucking one leg under himself, bringing the other up in front of him, his arm snaking around his shin and hugging it to his body. He managed to make his large frame look small, and he suddenly seemed much younger, even as the resignation settled in his eyes and made them seem older.

He licked his lips, pursing them before speaking. “The other thing about last week... When I had my Bridget Jones moment of drinking and crying and singing on my floor, it was the first time I consciously admitted to myself that this is it, this is real. I knew it,  objectively you know? I was there when it happened, I made all the funeral arrangements, I have the fucking flag they handed me on the wall in my living room. I know it happened!” He snapped, running his fingers through his hair in frustration before snagging them on a snarl in the ends. He pulled a face, but it broke the mounting tension.

“I’ve used soap half my life to wash my hair. Imagine my confusion when I complain about how dry it is, and my sister says to me, Buck, you gotta use conditioner! I’m like, What the hell is that? She laughed her ass off.” He grumped at the memory of Bex cackling over the phone at his ignorance.

“Man, I feel you. Sisters are cruel like that. I’ve got two myself,” Sam settled back in his chair, clearly ready to gently get them back on course. “Is she your only sibling?”

“Yeah, it's just us. She's five years younger but we're still super close,” he said, thoughts of Bex warming him up from the inside out. “There is not a thing in this world I won’t do for her, or her for me. Honestly, she’s the biggest reason I made an appointment with you in the first place. Showed up and manhandled my ass outta bed. She said she was done with my ‘wallowing, whining, Wuthering Heights level dramatics,’ and if I didn’t at least clean my apartment and make an appointment with ‘someone qualified to deal with this shit’ by the end of the week, she was setting Pop on me, and I swear to you, I have never moved faster in my entire life.” A shudder ran through him. He had not been about to let Pop see him like that.

Sam snickered to himself as he looked at his notepad, writing something down again. Bucky shook his head, silently resigning himself to not knowing what was on there, as much as it was going to drive him batty.

“Sisters, man. Be glad you’ve only got the one. I woulda had both mine barging in, and probably my Mama close behind. Now, you mentioned a Pop? This your dad?”

“No, no. Pop’s my grandfather, he lives here in Brooklyn. My folks live in Indiana, but Bex and I both moved back for college. She goes to Barnard, graduates this year.” He was grinning, he knew he was. He was so damn proud of his baby sister, he couldn’t contain it.

“That’s awesome, man, such a big achievement. So your grandfather, you’re close?” Sam’s lips smiled gently at him, giving nothing away but encouraging Bucky to speak as much or as little as possible. It was comforting, knowing that he’d never be pressured into talking, that he could go at his own pace. It made him want to open up, and it was ...freeing.

“The closest. Until we moved to Indiana, we lived with him. He’s got this big house over in Bay Ridge, and when my folks got pregnant with me, he all but moved them in himself. ‘George,’ he says--that's my dad, who’s his son, ‘George, you ain’t raisin’ my grandkid in some tiny apartment. Now start packin’.’” He had dropped into the thickest Brooklynese he could manage, still not quite hitting Pop’s precise level of Native New Yorker. “His house, its perfect. Been in the family since the first Barnes came over to America. Pop used to do all the maintenance on it himself, keeping all the original details in perfect condition, the paint fresh, the garden healthy.”

His smile faded a little around the edges, sadness encroaching on the always happy thought of Pop. “But it was me, and then me ‘n’ Brock who’d done it the last few years, cause as much as he hates it, Pop is just too old to be doing some of the heavy lifting. Not that I would ever tell him that to his face,” he laughed. He shook his head at the outraged invective that would pour out of his grandfather at the idea that there was anything he couldn’t do.

“How soon after you met Brock did you tell Pop about him?” Sam asked, getting to what Bucky assumes is the Big Question he’s decided to tackle this week.

He did the yoga breathing he looked up online, remembers Nat telling him how calming it could be (though truthfully he just felt like an idiot).

"Five dates and the “what are we” conversation. I called him five dates in, and I didn't even realize I'd dialed till he answered the phone.

-------------------------

"Bucky, ya there?" Pop's voice came over the line, bringing Bucky back to the moment, and alerting him to the fact that apparently, he couldn't wait to tell Pop about Brock.

"Yeah, Pop, yeah. I'm here. Um, whats up?"

"Well, kid, you called me, so, I don't fuckin' know. What's up whi’ you?" Ah, yes, dropped g's, and profanity: the sound of home.

"I, uh," he paused, licking his lips and working his tongue in his suddenly dry mouth. Why was he nervous? It was just Pop. "I think I met someone. Like a someone someone."

The line crackled, a testament to Pop’s distrust of modern technology. Bucky could see Pop in his mind’s eye, at the table in the hall, the handset of the old Bakelite phone pressed to his ear, holding the body in this other hand.

An inhale, a pause, an exhale. Repeat. Then, finally, voice a little rough, a little hoarse, “About damn time, kid. About damn time.”

Bucky felt a smile break out across his face, feeling a weight he didn’t  know he was carrying lift from his shoulders. “Yeah, it really is. He’s---I--” He’d cut himself off, trying to figure out what he was trying to say.

“I really like him, Pop. I’m scared outta my mind. I haven’t done this in so long.” He sighed, his worries flowing out of him like a river, a rising tide of emotion that he couldn’t fight, and into the safest harbor he’d ever known. “I have no idea what I’m doing,” he admitted, both to Pop and to himself.

“You’re bringin’ him ta Sunday dinner ‘s what you’re doing. Don’t be fuckin’ late again or I’ll hafta kick your ass in front of ya new boyfriend and you don’t want him ta see that.” He could hear the smile in Pop’s voice, the familiar threat an old and practiced tradition between the two of them. If someone wasn’t threatening violence, something was wrong.

“Alright, old man. We’ll see you Sunday. Love you, Pop.”

“Love you, too, kid. Love you, too.”

--

Sunday saw Brock and Bucky walking from the subway station down 74th Street towards Pop’s house, their coats and scarves bundled up around them against the cold February evening. Spring was approaching, at long last, but not fast enough for Bucky. He wanted morning walks to brunch, afternoons in the park, evenings at the seaside. More importantly, he wanted them with Brock. But to get to spring, and the joy of the new season, first they had to weather this one, and with this one came dinner.

“Why am I so nervous?” He asked, squeezing Brock’s arm where it was linked through his, both their hands tucked deep in pockets against the sharp chill of the air. He wanted to walk down the street holding hands, damn it, but it was still chilly enough that he wasn’t going to brave the cold to do it, so linked arms would have to do.

He slid his gaze sideways in time to see Brock grin and look back. He was growing to love that grin, all bright teeth and pink lips and smile lines around his mouth and eyes.

“You’re nervous cause you said it’s been awhile since you introduced anyone to your grandfather. And cause you like me.” His smile edged into cocky smirk territory, and Bucky elbowed him for his trouble.

“Well, fuck, not with that attitude I don’t,” he shot back, an answering smile on his face. Truth was, he really did like Brock, and was slowly allowing himself to envision a future with him. Being with him was easy and uncomplicated, something he appreciated more than he could put into words.

Brock tossed his head back as he laughed, startling the few birds lingering in the bare trees lining the street. It echoed back off the rows of limestone houses that surrounded them, rich peals of laughter multiplying tenfold, much how Bucky himself felt every time he was with Brock—happiness multiplying endlessly.

Bucky pulled them to a slow stop as they approached the house, turning to face it as they stood on the sidewalk. The red door gleamed dully in the harsh winter sunlight, the tree in its concrete planter skeletal against the light stone of the house and the ice blue sky above it.

Brock whistled lowly in appreciation. “This is where you grew up?” Bucky could see his eyes roaming over the row of houses, each one identical from the outside, except for the occasional colored door. He tried to see it from an outsider's view, to figure out what Brock was seeing, but it was no use. All he saw was home.

The curtain in the bay window fluttered. Someone was watching them, waiting for him to get it together and walk up to the door. If he didn’t manage it soon, they’d get drug in by their collars.

“We better go in before they come out. I’d rather not start the day with an old man ass whoopin’.” He tugged Brock along by his elbow, up the stairs and onto the stoop. He took a deep breath, and felt Brock do the same. He realized, belatedly, that he wasn’t the only one who had reason to be nervous. This would be Brock meeting his new boyfriend’s family, and though Bucky may have been out of the relationship game for a while, he did remember that was a big step. Brock hadn’t said a word when he’d told him Pop wanted to meet him, and that it wasn’t a request so much as a politely worded summons.

Bucky had been so wrapped up in his own anxiety about the impending meeting he hadn’t even thought about what it might mean to Brock. Yeah, they’d agreed to be exclusive right after their third date (Bucky, I’m 34, and while I appreciate the casual dating scene, that's not really my thing anymore, so of course I’d like to make this exclusive). And sure, when he’d put the kibosh on going farther than some serious making out on the couch after date number four, explaining that he’d really like to take it slow, Brock had accepted readily and not batted an eye (I’m never going to push for more than you want, and I know that you will respect my boundaries, too). But as big as those milestones were, meeting the family was the first big, permanent step they were taking.

He took his hand out of his pocket and threaded his fingers through Brock’s, winter chill be damned, pulling his hand up and brushing a kiss across the knuckles. Brock looked at him and smiled more shakily than he had out on the sidewalk.

“Hey,” Bucky said gently, “don’t worry about it. It’s gonna be fine, I promise.” He smiled, his own nerves settling as he looked at the man at his side. He was so ready for this, for Pop and Bex to meet Brock. He wanted them to see what a good man he was, how happy he made Bucky. Suddenly, he couldn’t wait.

He kept his eyes on Brock and raised his left hand, knuckles rapping on the door. Before he’d even managed to lower his hand all the way, the door swung open, revealing Pop in all his glory.

Pop was, as always, impeccably dressed for the season in a Norwegian-print cardigan over a deep red button down shirt, tucked neatly into his pressed woolen slacks. Though he would be 90 in March, he was still a tall man, his shoulders still work-broadened and proud, but in the last few years they were finally starting to droop, gravity and old age getting the upper hand at last.  Though his hair was no longer the deep chocolate brown of his younger years, it retained all its thickness and body despite its snowy color, neatly combed and parted in a style he’d never changed. His eyes were still bright and clear and were framed by deep crow’s feet, a testament to a life well lived, as he greeted them with a brilliant smile.

“James Buchanan!” He said brightly, reaching out with open arms.

“James Buchanan,” Bucky returned, greeting Pop the same way he had since he could say his own name. He stepped in for one of his signature bear hugs before stepping back next to Brock.

Pop pulled the door open wide and ushered them into the foyer, hanging their coats and scarves on the hall tree by the door. When winter layers had been shed, Bucky turned to Brock, intertwining their fingers as he pulled him closer. He transferred his hand to the small of Brock’s back and made his introductions.

“Brock, I’d like you to meet my grandfather, James Buchanan Barnes.” He smiled as the slight hints of confusion melted from Brock’s face. “Pop, I’d like you to meet my boyfriend, Brock Rumlow.”

Brock offered his hand to Pop, who shook it firmly as he gave Brock the once over. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir. Bucky talks about you a lot.” He was all sincerity and respect, and Bucky snorted beside him, earning a muted glare right up until Pop opened his mouth.

“As he fuckin’ should, seein’ as how he’s got my name as well ‘s my good looks. Wasn’t enough to take my birthday, huh, kid?” He smiled at Bucky, completely ignoring the dumbfounded look on Brock’s face. There was a reason he never prepared anyone for Pop. The reactions were his favorite part.

“‘Course not, old man. Had to have it all,” he ribbed back, falling into the familiar pattern of affection and shit-talking.

Pop turned back to Brock, looking him up and down again. “Anotha thing, for the love of God, drop the ‘sir’ bullshit. I got enough of that during the War to last a lifetime, Jesus. Call me Buck.”

“Buck…?” Brock looked at Bucky, who burst out laughing and slung an arm around his shoulders, dropping a kiss on his cheek by way of apology.

“He,” Bucky pointed to Pop, who waved genially,“was born James Buchanan on March 10th, 1923. And I,” he points to himself, “was born to his only son March 10th, 1987. In the grand tradition of naming the first grandson after the paternal grandfather, and especially since I was the greatest birthday present he’s ever gotten,” Pop scoffed good naturedly at that as Bucky shot him a grin, “I was also named James Buchanan. And since he’s been ‘Buck’ since probably March 11th, 1923,” he spread the arm not around Brock expansively by way of explanation of his family’s singularly unoriginal naming practices.

Pop reached over and extracted Brock from Bucky’s grip, towing him deeper into the house. “What he means to say is that he’s goddamn honored to have a name as wonderful and fuckin’ stately as James Buchanan, and that he all but begged to be called Buck, too. Since we couldn’t very well have two of us runnin’ around, he got Bucky.” He turned to address his namesake over his shoulder, “And I hate to break it to ya, but you are not the best birthday present I ever got, pal. That was Patton showin’ up with the 1st Army at last, thank Christ.”

He led them into the sitting room, sending Brock towards the couch and settling into his favorite chair by the bay windows, the leather wingback moved slightly right of where it had traditionally sat to make way for the small wall mounted TV, one of the few concessions to modernity in the house.

“So, we starting the inquisition now or are we waiting for Bex?” Bucky asked, knowing that his sister had gotten the same lecture from Pop about being late, but not the threat. Pop had always been more strict with Bucky, likely because a name and birthday weren’t the only things they shared. His penchant for mischief came straight from Pop, as did his need to take care of everyone around him. Pop had helped him nurse his wounds more than once growing up, and taught him how to block a punch as well as throw one, hoping he wouldn’t have to help nurse quite so many wounds if Bucky could defend himself and whoever he inevitably deemed worth defending.

“Nah, let’s wait fer ya sista. You know she’ll be pissed as all hell if I start grillin’ this poor kid without her.” Pop smiled, the one that was mostly Nice Old Man but with a hint of I Have Seen Some Shit So Don’t Test Me. It had been used on everyone he or Bex had ever brought home, and had weeded out more than a few bad seeds early on.

They heard the front door open right then, a genial “Hello!” being called out as Bex divested herself of coat, scarf, gloves, 57 sweaters and what could only have been a fucking balaclava (the Barnes genes dictate a severe hatred of being cold) before she came through the foyer doors to join them. All three men stood as she came in, which made her snort and flap her hands dismissively at them

“Oh my God, seriously? Relax, it’s just me.” She walked over to hug Pop and plant a kiss on his cheek, which he returned, murmuring greetings into her wildly curling hair.

Despite her admonishments, they all remained standing. Bucky drew Brock forward, Bex looking expectantly at them as they got closer.

“Bex, this is Brock Rumlow, my boyfriend.” His shy smile when he said the title aloud was echoed on Brock’s face, and a smirk tugged up the corner of Bex’s mouth. “Brock, this is my sister, Rebecca Cordelia.” They exchanged handshakes and pleasantries, and Brock had the good sense to not “ma’am” Rebecca. As soon as her hand was free she used it to punch Bucky square in the arm.

“What the fuck, Bex?!” He screeched, rubbing his shoulder to soothe the ache. How was such a tiny person so strong?

“Did you seriously ‘Rebecca Cordelia’ me to your fella? Why on God’s green earth did you feel the need to out my absurd middle name? Just cause I have to live with you two “wonderfully and stately” named clowns,” she waved her arms towards him and Pop, “does not mean all of us appreciate the names that were forced upon us at birth. Mom’s unhealthy obsession with certain Canadian novels should not have been any excuse,” she grumbled, the long-held grudge against their mother for her name still as fresh as ever.

That startled a  long laugh out of Brock which, frankly, neither of them were expecting. They had been so wrapped up in their squabble, they’d completely forgotten they technically had company.

“Anne of Green Gables? Really?” Brock said, snorting a little to himself as he calmed down. He discreetly knuckled a tear away from his eye, avoiding the death glare Bex was sending his way.

“Nooooo,” Bex wailed, “you didn’t just say that! How do you know?” She gave Brock her best Glare, which was almost as good as Pop’s, but she hadn't Seen Some Shit so it fell short.

Brock laughed, “Hon, you’re gonna have to step up your game. Your grandfather already gave me the scariest look I’ve ever seen. There is no beating that.” He grinned at Pop, who gave a tiny bow from his chair (he’s old, he’ll sit when he damn well pleases, thanks). He continued, telling her, “My mother had dreamed of sharing her favorite books with her daughter her whole life, and all she had was me. So trust me, I know all those ‘Certain Canadian Novels’.”

“Oh my God, Bucky, he’s perfect,” she breathed. “Mom might steal him from you. I’m not even joking,” she said, a gentle smile playing at the corners of her mouth. Bucky smiled back, snaking his arm out and winding it around Brock’s waist.

“Yeah. He really is.”

They settled in to wait for dinner to finish, the Barnes siblings catching up on the past few weeks, Pop listening with a small smile and Brock enjoying seeing another side of Bucky. As the conversation tapered off, Pop started with the questions.

“So, Brock, what is it you do?” As if it had been a signal, Bex sat up and took notice, Protective Sister Mode activated.

“I work at a gym. Used to be a boxing only kind of place, but they're starting to adapt. I teach a lot of self-defense classes, some kids’ boxing, help with a couple of their semi-pro guys. I work some private event security with Clint Barton, when he needs the help. He and his wife set me up with Bucky, actually.” He smiled affectionately in Bucky's direction, their fingers tangled together between them on the couch. Warmth suffused Bucky's chest, something long frozen starting to thaw at the edges.

“So you’re a boxer? I used to box, back in the day. Nothin’ fancy, just whatever they had at th’ YMCA. Really loved it. But then suddenly” he opened his arms and shrugged, the universal gesture for ‘What can you do?’, “no more time for boxing.”

“A job, or something? Yeah, that can take time away from it.” Brock said, and who could blame him, when Pop had only briefly mentioned it earlier.

 

Pop laughed, and even Bucky and Bex snorted a little. “I guess you could call it a job. I’d turned 18 in March of ‘41, so come December….I was first in line after the declaration came down. Idealistic, I was.” His voice had gone soft and distant like it always did when the serious parts of his war came up. He cleared his throat, the rough sound breaking the spell his words had conjured, before speaking again.  “And vain, too. Jesus God, you shoulda seen my face the first time I got mud on my uniform. Little did I know,” he trailed off with a soft chuckle, always unable to keep the sadness out of these types of things.

“I know a little something about idealism,” Brock said quietly. Bucky looked at him, trying to keep his curiosity under wraps. He knew Brock had served with Clint, but not much else. Knowing how Pop was about his time in, he didn’t feel like it was his place to press for information.

Brock continued, not really looking at anyone in particular. “I was twenty-two when September 11th happened, working a crappy job, living in an even crappier apartment. I’d moved to Colorado for some job that didn’t pan out, struggling with some telemarketer thing just to make ends meet. I didn’t make enough money to move back, so I wasn’t even here. I was sitting in my living room somewhere in the Rockies, watching it happen to my home, to my city. I was at the recruiter's office an hour later.” He seemed to come back to himself and smiled a little. “I thought I’d be alright, reasoned that it wouldn’t be so bad. I liked the beach, loved the warm sand. Little did I know,” his words, an intentional echo of Pop’s, cemented what Bucky had always known. Wars change, soldiers don’t. He wrapped his arm around Brock’s shoulders and squeezed, earning a smile and a kiss on the cheek

Somewhere in the kitchen, a timer went off, startling them all out of the reverie they’d fallen into.

“That’ll be the roast,” Pop said, levering himself out of his chair and heading deeper into the house.

“I’ll get it, Pop,” Bucky volunteered but was waved off.

“Nah, kid, I got it. Go sidown.” He ambled off towards the back of the house, and Bucky didn’t push. If the old man needed a minute, he’d get it.

Dinner itself was easy. Just like everything with Brock, it was so, so easy.

Too easy?

No, that was ridiculous, there was no such thing as 'too easy' in a relationship, and after everything with St--

He cut himself off, refusing to bring all of that into all of this.

Pop was back to his usual, charming self, and even Bex managed to behave. They mostly traded inconsequential stories and memories over dinner, little parts of the getting-to-know-you process happening naturally as the conversations flowed. His family was as enamored with Brock as he was.

After dinner, Bucky walked through to the kitchen to start some coffee while everyone else headed back to the sitting room. He took his time, getting the good coffee cups out and placing them on a serving tray, digging the little cream and sugar set out of the cupboard and filling them before adding them to his arrangement. He started the coffee, settling against the counter, letting the familiarity of the house wash over him. The floorboards creaked in all the same places, the fridge still had a little hitch in its hum. He could hear the soft sounds of the Drifters coming from the record player in the sitting room, could see the humped shapes of Pop’s winter garden through the windows, could smell the coffee percolating. This was his childhood; before Indiana, before NYU, before ‘complicated’ became a word he associated with a long section of his life. Simplicity with a dash of nostalgia, all wrapped in the sepia-toned comfort of the past.

The coffeepot sputtered to a halt, so he scooped up his tray and carefully balanced his way to the sitting room, following the sound of laughter, his heart swelling in his chest.

"So there was Bucky, stood on the corner as the engine rolled down the street, and the poor kid, he had the worst speech impediment, he starts jumping up and down all excited, screamin' "Pop,a fire fuck! A fire fuck!!'"

Bucky groans as he walks in, which only makes them laugh harder. He grumbles under his breath as he sets the tray down, making Pop his coffee with the requisite amount of complaining required.

“Shoulda known better’n to leave him with us if you didn’t want stories told, Bucky boy.” He made an undignified noise, and Pop grinned at him as the old nickname added the cringeworthy cherry to the top of the embarrassment sundae.

“You’re the worst, all of you, I swear to God.” He looked at Bex as he fixed Brock a cup how he liked it, and then one for himself. He stared at her, making a show of sitting back and slurping his coffee. Loudly.

Bex glared at him some more before finally huffing and fixing some coffee and the rest of the evening passed almost too quickly. Bucky watched his family interact with Brock, astounded with how lucky he was. It felt as though it had always been that way, like there was never a time when Brock wasn't around. Contentment settled over him, as he looked at the two most important people in his life welcoming this new addition so openly, so eagerly. Brock turned to him and smiled, a hand reaching out and squeezing his knee. The conversation had wound down without him noticing, obviously too caught up in his own thoughts to realize it.

“You ready? I know you've got that meeting in Manhattan early tomorrow, and I'm opening the gym.” He waited for Bucky's nod before standing, everyone else following his lead. They ambled towards the front door, murmuring goodbyes as they donned their many layers again.

“It was so nice to meet you both,” Brock was saying, hand outstretched toward Bex, who pointedly ignored it and pulled him into a hug. His shoulders stiffened in surprise for a moment before relaxing and hugging back. Pop looked at Bucky over their heads, a smile on his face.

Bucky moved in for his hug when Bex finally released Brock, wrapping his arms around his little sister. “If you let him go, you're an idiot,” she whispered in his ear. He agreed, knowing a great thing when he saw it, and knowing he’d work at it every second of every day to make sure he kept the wonderful relationship that had been dropped in his lap.

When he moved back from Bex, he saw Pop with his hand on Brock’s shoulder, speaking lowly to him, his “Don’t test me” look firmly in place. He felt a nudge to his ribs and looked to see Bex watching, too. “That's his Shovel Talk face. He must really like him. I haven’t seen him do that for you since Steve.”

The sound of that name hit him like a punch to the gut, not believing that Bex had really said it out loud. He actively avoided even thinking it, let alone saying it. It hurt, God, did it hurt. It shouldn’t hurt anymore, he was over it, over him ...

-------------------------

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, breathe with me, Bucky, okay? Open your eyes if you can, deep breaths, come on…” He can’t, he can’t, he can’t. Can’t breathe, can’t open his eyes, can’t anything . His stomach hurts, twisting and turning and tearing at itself; his heart, oh God, how can he still be alive, shouldn’t it have exploded by now? Or cramped up or something with how hard it's clenching? Is he having a heart attack? He must be having a heart attack. He fought the panic rising in his head, his veins, his lungs, his whole body betraying him as it gave in to the feelings he tried so hard to keep shoved away in their neat little box in the furthest reaches of himself. He didn’t want to talk about this, has never wanted to talk about this, didn't need to.

Apparently, his subconscious has had enough of his shit and does, in fact, want to talk about it.

Somewhere far away he could hear the sound of Sam’s voice, still speaking, his words slow and steady, an anchor point in the maelstrom of thoughts in Bucky’s head. He latched on, literally, unclenching his fists, feeling the dampness on his palms that was either sweat (likely) or blood from his nails digging into his palms (...also likely) and wrapping them around Sam’s forearms.

Little by little, inch by inch, he pulled himself out of his downward spiral. Following the inexorable pull of Sam’s words, he drug himself up from the darkest depths of himself and into the light.

A shaky breath, a full body shudder and a bracing slap to his psyche later, he managed to pry his eyes open at last. The sight of Sam crouched in front of him, and the sudden remembrance that his hands had a death grip on Sam’s forearms is the last little pull he needed to step firmly away from his racing thoughts and into the moment. His heart was still pounding painfully and his stomach was still unsettled but his breathing was starting to calm and he was no longer sweating quite so much.

He shot Sam a small smile, slowly releasing his death grip on the other man. Fuck, he hated these stupid things.

Sam rocked back onto his heels, still crouched down in front of Bucky and returned the smile with one of his own. “I'm gonna guess that whatever triggered that is the ‘other’ you mentioned on your intake form?”

Bucky let out a shaky laugh, cause it really was that simple. “Other is really a great, all-encompassing word. Cause I do not even know how to qualify what all of the extra stuff is. So yeah, this is the other.” He kept flicking his eyes up to Sam’s and back down to his hands, their trembling finally coming to a halt in his lap. “It hasn’t happened in so long. I thought they’d stopped.”

Even to him, his voice sounded small, and a little broken, which he hated. He got that sharp jab in the pit of his stomach, the one that always comes with these awful feelings of self-doubt, self-consciousness, and the inevitable destruction of his self-esteem. All the progress he’d made, every little part of himself he’d salvaged and managed to glue back together over the years falls to pieces about him, the tinkling melody of a thousand shards of his heart of glass.

 

“So this isn’t the first one.” It wasn’t a question.  Bucky hadn’t even realized he’d closed his eyes again until he had to open them to look at Sam. He looked concerned, and a little upset, like this particular psychological need should have been addressed first, but it was being addressed now, so he wouldn't say anything.

Bucky appreciated that because he knows he should have seen someone about this after the fourth one, definitely after the tenth, and absolutely after he lost count. But they had slowed down eventually, only happening every once in awhile, and he just…..didn’t want him to have that kind of influence on his life anymore. He just wanted to date, and go to his favorite places, and see his friends, and listen to his damn music without all the stupid associations and memories, God the memories,  popping up and ruining everything!

The bitter laugh that came out of his mouth did so without his permission, but he couldn’t stop it. The first one? The first one, Jesus, he didn’t even remember the first one. He remembered the last one, though. He definitely remembered the last one.

“No, it’s not the first one. Not even close. I’ll be honest with you, Sam,” the snort he received for that conveyed everything it needed to in regards to Sam’s now updated expectations for Bucky’s honesty. “I couldn’t even hazard a guess at a number for this one. But it has been actual years since the last one, so I really, really thought I was done with them.”

“Yeah, I hate to break it to you, man, but that is definitely not how it works.” Sam sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose before standing and walking back to his chair. He got back in his therapist pose, ankle resting on knee, notepad resting on thigh, hand with pen resting on notepad. He took a deep breath and levels a “serious discussions” stare at Bucky, who braced himself accordingly.

“Ok, real talk. That? That was a massive, massive panic attack. The fact that you don’t even know how many you’ve had is very concerning to me. This should have been the absolute first thing we talked about. So, we don’t have to talk about it right this second, because I don’t think that would be beneficial at the moment, but we DO need to talk about it. Okay?”

He felt his head nod, knew he was agreeing, acknowledging, accepting the inevitability of finally talking about all of it. The one thing that had managed to dictate his life and his choices for almost 25 years. A stupid, selfish, self-centered, generous, kind hearted, fucking punk who had wormed his way in at six years old who Bucky thought he’d managed to dig out of every single cell in his body the second that stupid fucking letter showed up eight years ago. He knew he’d been lying to himself, but he always figured “fake it till you make it” was applicable to everything from the first day on a new job to existential and emotional crises.

With a final exhale, he fortified himself for the inevitable. There was no escaping it, never had been, never would be. As much as he hated it, didn't want to acknowledge it, it was time to talk about it.

“Okay. I don't…I can’t do a lot today. I just am not mentally ready for that. But I can do a little.”

“A little is better than nothing, man. Baby steps. Can you tell me what triggered it, maybe? Or at least maybe when they started?” Sam and his Concerned Eyebrows asked.

Bucky laughed, a horrible, brittle sound that perfectly matched the empty feeling in his chest. Before he was quite ready, it happened. His mouth took matters into its own metaphorical hands and spilled the last of his secrets.

“The trigger? Yeah, I know the trigger. His name is Steve…”

Chapter Text

Mister Postman, look and see
Is there a letter in your bag for me?

Please Mister Postman—The Marvelettes

 

The first time Bucky Barnes saw Steve Rogers, he was six years old. Even at six, he knew that the kid on the receiving end of some second-grade fists was too reckless by half. Behind some nameless trees in Owl’s Head Park, Bucky stumbled upon a knot of seven-year-olds, surrounding someone he couldn’t see, but could definitely hear. Over the soft thuds of hits landing, sharp, wheezing exhalations, and the crunch of leaves as whoever was getting the tar beat out of them fell to the ground, he could hear a steady stream of abuse being thrown at the attackers.

“Hits like that, no wonder you’re pickin’ on me. Gotta go for someone already damaged or they wouldn’t even register, huh?”

“SHUT UP!” Screamed the biggest kid, his lackeys repeating it as only the best and dumbest of henchmen can. Thud, thud, thud, and a big ‘oof!’ as their victim (though with the way he was running his mouth, he didn’t seem to feel too victimised) hit the ground hard enough to get the breath knocked out of him. It was at about this time that Bucky finally reached the outskirts of their little group, and any indecision he’d felt about intervening went out the window as the ringleader drew his leg back to deliver a kick to the kid on the ground.

“Hey!” Bucky, tall enough for his age that he was about even with the older kids, grabbed the leader by the shoulder and spun him around, throwing a wild punch that miraculously connected. He wasn’t really sure what to do after that, with Stupid #1 staring at him, well, stupidly, his mouth agape like a landed fish, eyes bugging out of his head a little. His friends (Stupid #2 and #3) seemed equally surprised, faces almost comically similar to Stupid #1’s.

Luckily, the kid on the ground had gotten shakily to his feet and took the momentary distraction as an opportunity to jab #1 in the kidneys with enough force and precision to bring him down.

Now that Bucky had a good look at him, he couldn’t believe the kid was still standing, let alone fighting. His blond hair was flopping in his face, the ends bloody from where they dragged against his split eyebrow, and he was hastily pulling some glasses from his shirt pocket and shoving them up his nose. They were so thick they magnified not only his rapidly swelling eye to ridiculous proportions but the other eye as well, which was a remarkable shade of blue that nearly matched the summer sky above them. His nose was bloody and crooked and his lip was busted, the blood he spat on the ground in front of him not doing anything to diminish the ghastly amount outlining his teeth.

Bucky joined the gaping of #2 and #3 as the kid (he was so small, how old was he?) brought his fists up in the worst ready position Bucky had ever seen, with neither of them protecting his face and his right elbow sticking too far out. But they were up, and a look of determination was cemented on the kid’s face like he’d been born with it. Honestly, it was one of the coolest things Bucky had ever seen, but he also mostly couldn't believe it was happening.

#2 was the first one to say what they were all thinking. “What are you doing? Stay down!” #1 was struggling to his feet, his face wet with tears and red with rage. Things were about to get bad again, Bucky knew it. He sighed, then started to sidle over to the dumb but brave idiot in front of them, determined to help him out this time around.

“I could do this all day,” the kid said, swaying on his feet as his body clearly disagreed with him. He had to be the most idiotic person Bucky had ever seen, and he was so in awe he couldn’t take his eyes off this stupid little punk.

He came home from the park that day with his own black eye and some bruised knuckles, and Pop swore a blue streak when he saw him. He was proud that Bucky had helped someone who clearly needed it, even if that dumb punk had been so ungrateful he'd run off as soon as they managed to show the bigger kids that they wouldn't go down without a fight. Bucky had grinned triumphantly, turning to share his moment with his sudden battle buddy, but all he saw was the kid's untucked shirttail flapping behind him as he jogged away as fast as he could. He never even learned his name, but he just couldn't believe that Fate would put someone like that in his path once and not do it again.

Looking back, sometimes he wished it hadn't.

--

The second time Bucky Barnes saw Steve Rogers was in a photograph. It was October, just a couple of months into the second grade and he’d been handed the envelope from his new inter-school pen pal, a traditional second-grade event that Bucky had been looking forward to ever since he’d found Pop’s letters home from “the worst European vacation ever, I tell ya,” in the attic at the end of last year. He wanted to be just like Pop, and this way he could write letters to someone and have a boxful to store in his attic someday.  So when he got his envelope, very carefully addressed to:

James B. Barnes

(poor kid had probably decided he wasn’t even going to try Buchanan and Bucky didn’t blame him. He avoided spelling it, too.)

P.S. 170

7109 6th Ave,

Brooklyn, NY 11209

He could barely contain his excitement. Little pencil lines were still visible under the words where someone had helpfully made guides so the lines were straight. The corners were crinkled and it was a little dingy from its travel through the postal service, but it was the first letter Bucky had ever gotten and he loved it. He waited and waited and waited forever until all the letters were passed out and he could tear through the flap, ripping a jagged edge in the little envelope and grabbing the folded paper out as fast as his chubby little fingers could manage it. He finally got it out and unfolded, and the little picture fell onto his desk. It had fallen face down, so the first thing he saw was the name Steven Grant Rogers, age 7, written in a very careful cursive on the back. He thought it was a much easier name than his, but he loved his name because it was Pop’s name, too, and that made it the best. He went to flip over the photo to look at it, but then he noticed the trees.

Bordering all the edges of the lined notebook paper was a whole forest of trees, the biggest kept carefully in the margins, the rest slowly diminishing in size and opacity as they got closer to the center of the page. Beautiful, wonderful fall foliage in scarlets and golds, oranges and ambers, all the riotous colors of autumn leaves crowning the reaching branches. There were leaves littering the forest “floor”, kicked up in an invisible breeze that swept them along in a flurry of colors. There was none of the hesitancy he saw in the writing in the little copse of trees, none of the reluctance or self-consciousness in the art. Sure, strong strokes of the pencils, the shading true and bright and bold. He'd never seen anything like it and it was so beautiful, like the stained-glass window above the stairs at home, or like the rose garden that his Nan had planted before she died, or like his Ma.

The same tentative cursive started the letter, a generic “Dear James,” (which he would definitely be correcting when he wrote back) sitting shyly on the first line.

“Dear James,

Hello. My name is Steven Grant Rogers and I'm in Mr. Dugan’s second-grade class at P.S. 102. I drew your name out of a hat. Mr. Dugan said to tell you about myself, so I will tell you my favorite things.

My favorite food is my Ma’s chicken noodle soup. It is homemade and has lots of noodles and lots of chicken but not too many vegetables. My favorite animals are dogs because they are loyal and brave and furry. I love to go to the park. I have two favorite colors and they are red and blue.

Those are my favorite things.

Sincerely,

Steve Rogers

P.S.

I hope you like the trees.

SGR”

The further down the page the writing went, the less and less neat the cursive got until it was gone altogether and replaced with plain old writing. Bucky wondered if this Steven Grant Rogers hated cursive as much as Bucky. Maybe he'd ask him. Bucky read the letter three times before he noticed that Steven Grant Rogers had signed the letter as ‘Steve,’ so maybe he didn't want to go by his whole name either. Bucky decided he would call him Steve, and maybe Steve would stop calling him James and could call him Bucky. And he really liked the trees.

When he finally set the letter down so he could write back, he noticed the picture again. Still face down on the desk, he slid it to the edge to pick it up, not wanting to bend the little wallet-sized photo of his as-yet faceless friend. He was already thinking about all the things he’d write in his letter to this Steve Rogers, wondering if they really would be friends or if it would be stilted and awkward.

When he finally managed to get the little photo flipped over, his mouth hung open in shock. It was that stupid little punk from the park! His skin may be unbruised and unbroken, but Bucky would recognize that floppy blond hair and summer blue eyes anywhere, not to mention the defiant tilt of his head and the firm set of his jaw even as he smiled. If that wasn’t a hundred pounds of righteous fury in a five-pound sack…

He studied the picture for a moment longer before propping it up on his pencil case and getting his notebook out of his desk. Opening to a fresh page, he started his letter:

Dear Steve…

--

The third time Bucky Barnes saw Steve Rogers, they were in another park. And, plot twist, Steve was getting beat up again.

When Bucky had pictured this day all year, this was not how he expected it to go. But then, it was Steve Rogers he was dealing with, and nothing in the history of his life had ever gone like it was expected to.

After receiving Steve’s letter, Bucky had sent his own photo to Steve but hadn’t said anything about recognizing him from that day at Owl’s Head Park, thinking Steve would say something to him when he wrote back. When there had been no mention of it, Bucky wondered if maybe Steve just didn’t recognize him? His one eye had been swelling rapidly shut, and he’d only put his glasses on after Bucky had sucker punched Stupid #1, so it was a possibility. Maybe Steve didn’t want to talk about it. So maybe Bucky shouldn’t?

So, on a lovely day in the beginning of June, the entire second grade from both schools were set to meet at Prospect Park. A few of the kids had hated the whole thing and were grumbling and groaning about meeting some kid they didn’t even like. A couple had mostly liked their penpal. And then there was Bucky.

When he woke up that morning it had felt like Christmas had come early and he was up and dressed before his alarm even went off (Pop and Dad were very into self-sufficiency at an early age, and he was the only seven year old he knew with an alarm clock, which he was oddly proud of), and he was off like a shot to the kitchen, his socked feet slipping and sliding down the hall towards the stairs. Hop hop hop down to the landing, a dash through the dining room, into the kitchen and he was sitting at the counter eating breakfast before anyone else even managed to get out of bed. By the time someone else ambled in, Bucky was standing on a chair in front of the sink washing his dishes. When he turned around, his ma was in the doorway gawping at him like a landed fish. She still had her robe and slippers on, her hair in its braid from the night before, and she was looking at him like she’d never seen him before.

“What?”

“Who are you and what have you done with my kid?” She said, still looking at him like he was some alien creature out of Pop’s old sci-fi novels in the attic. Not that Bucky had read those or anything, seeing as he wasn’t allowed…

Anyway.

“What?” He said again, with all his seven-year-old sass behind it.

“Don’t sass your mother,” his dad said as he breezed in, his arms wrapping gently around her waist as he pressed a kiss to her cheek. He didn’t make it two more steps before he finally took in Bucky’s position on the chair, the towel in his hands and the soap bubbles still clinging to his elbows. His mouth dropped open into a surprised little ‘o’ and his eyebrows drifted up towards his hairline. “What’s happening? Are you sick?”

“See? It's weird!” His mother gestured with her arms at the whole kitchen, and he rolled his eyes so hard they almost fell out of his head. So maybe he hated washing dishes, and maaaaybe he always complained, and sure, he tried to get out of it as much as possible, but still. They didn’t have to make such a big deal about it, jeez.

“He’s just excited. He’s got that picnic today, Jesus Christ. Like you two were never kids,” Pop, the voice of reason, sauntered into the kitchen and straight to the coffee pot, pouring himself a cup and facing the room, sipping oh so casually in a way that Bucky desperately hoped he’d be able to do someday. God, Pop was just so cool.

“Okay? What does that have to do with this changeling child suddenly doing chores without anyone having to bribe him?” His dad was looking more and more confused, so his mom helpfully moved to get him a cup of coffee. He looked slightly less confused when he’d drunk half the cup, but only just. Poor Dad, he just didn’t get the suave genes Pop had in spades.

“He gets to see that little spitfire he’s been writing to all year, George, fa fucks sake, pay attention.”

Bucky industriously started pushing the heavy oak chair back across the kitchen, pointedly ignoring all the eyes he knew were now fixed on his back.

“Oh, really? And what’s her name?” His dad sipped his coffee, and his mom smacked him on the arm. “Ow! Winnie, why?” Dad rubbed his arm where she’d made contact and looked confused some more.

His name is Steve, and Bucky has been excited to meet him for months now.” God bless Ma. She may have forgotten what today was (how!) but she’d rallied admirably with remembering everything else. Go, Ma!

“Oh. Oh . Really?” All the grown-ups had these raised-up eyebrows for some reason and were looking at each other, which Bucky didn’t really get, but he also didn’t really care because he needed to go make sure nothing had mysteriously disappeared from his book bag since he’d packed it up the night before.

After checking and double checking and triple checking, he bounded down the stairs one last time and walked into the kitchen to tell everyone goodbye (kisses all around, and a special snuggle for Bex, who had joined them all in the kitchen since he’d left), and then meet up with Jimmy Morita from down the street to walk to school.

Jimmy’s grandpa and Pop had both been in the Army together, so Bucky and Jimmy had known each other their whole lives. Jimmy was named after his grandpa, too, so that was another thing they had in common and had bonded over right away. Grandpa Jim was Pop’s best friend in the whole wide world, and Jimmy was Bucky’s. So when Jimmy asked him if he was excited to meet his pen pal, Bucky didn’t feel the need to reign in his enthusiasm.

“I am SO excited, Jimmy, like, so so so excited!” His hands held onto the shoulder straps of his bag, trembling slightly. He skipped a little as they walked down 74th toward the crosswalk, thinking about how wonderfully the day would go.

Cut to Bucky sitting with Steve against a tree, the latter with another bloody nose and a possibly busted arm, Steve apparently believing his Problematic Selflessness justified. He’d come in at the tail end of things, following Steve’s teacher Mr. Dugan as he searched for his wayward student, to discover busted-up Steve comforting a girl who had been trying to save a sparrow’s nest from some of the rougher kids in the class. The story they got was that Steve had told them to leave her and the nest alone, and when they asked him the age-old question “Who’s gonna stop us?” Steve had put his fists up (in that God awful ready position again, Bucky was sure of it) and answered in the only way he had ever known:

“Me.”

When Steve’s nose had stopped bleeding, they’d determined his arm wasn’t broken, and his mom had been called.  Bucky had read him the riot act with all the fear and hurt and anger in his seven-year-old heart. Steve had smiled up at him the whole time, blood staining his shirt and flecking his lips, eyes crinkled up at the corners and hair flopping down across his forehead.

“What? Why are you smilin’ at me, you big dope? Have you seen how you fight? It’s awful! Wait till Pop sees how you stand, he’s gonna lose it, you don’t even know. ‘Bucky,’ he’ll say, ‘What’s with this kids hands? Does he liked gettin’ his clock cleaned?’ and I’ll say ‘Gee, Pop, I dunno, sure seems like it!’ Cause I swear, Stevie, this is the second time I’ve ever seen you in person and you were gettin’ walloped but good both times!”

Steve, much to Bucky’s dismay, started laughing. Big guffaws that he doesn’t understand. Bucky stood there, arms crossed tightly across his chest, brow furrowing so hard he’s getting a headache, and still, Steve laughed. Finally, he settled down, wiping tears from the corners of his eyes and wincing as he brushed his swollen nose.

“Are you finished?” Bucky said in the most serious, ‘you’ve done it now’ type voice he could manage, which is admittedly pretty good since he’s heard it directed at himself enough times. Steve, the little punk, nodded and continued to chuckle half-heartedly to himself as he settled.

“Are you going to tell me what was so funny?” He barely restrained himself from tacking ‘Young Man’ on the end, like he usually gets, but he manages.

“You sound just like my Ma,” Steve laughed, “only sterner and like there should be some swearin’ in there. But the finger waggin’ and the rest, oh, God, that was classic.” He dissolved into the giggles again, listing a little to the side, and Bucky just doesn’t know what to do with this scrawny kid.

“How hard did that kid hit you, anyway? You got a concussion? Cause funny as I may have been, I dunno that I was that funny,” Bucky grumbled, sitting down next to Steve on the grass and leaning their shoulders together. It was a beautiful day, and even with the fight, he was so glad that Steve was sitting next to him. He’d been worried for days that meeting him in real life would be disappointing, that for all their letter writing, they’d be unable to have an actual conversation. Looks like Pop had been right, he’d worried for nothing.

“Is that what a Dad sounds like?” Steve asked suddenly. He’d stopped laughing, finally, and had his chin resting on his arms where they were folded across knobby knees. He was looking over to where the other kids were, but his eyes weren’t focused on anyone in particular, thoughts miles and miles away. Bucky knew in theory that Joe Rogers had died before his son reached his first birthday, from what Steve had never said, but to hear it voiced so plainly was something else entirely. Being close with his Dad, and even closer with Pop, Bucky couldn’t imagine his life without some kind of father-figure in it.

“Uh, yeah.I guess so. I dunno, we could get Pop to yell at you sometime and then you’d know for sure. And that swearing would be in there, too, cause boy does Pop have a mouth on him. Ma always says that if she could wash his mouth out she would, but it still probably wouldn’t do any good.” Steve laughed at that, then settled back into silence, birdsong and laughter filling the afternoon sunshine.

“So you want to hang out with me? Still?” Steve’s voice was small when he asked, like he wasn't certain he wanted the answer but would ask anyway, and that was the first time Bucky encountered Steve Rogers Inspiring Bravery, something that he’ll love even when it’s directly related to his Problematic Selflessness. He looked at Steve, saw that surprisingly square jaw clenched, his scrawny shoulders squared, his little fists balled up on his knees. He was staring resolutely into in the distance, avoiding eye contact. Bucky nudged him with his shoulder until Steve turned his head and looked at him, eyes bright but resigned.

“Of course I want to, punk. Especially if you keep insisting on getting into fights you don’t need to be in,” he laughed as he said it, but he saw the way Steve’s jaw, which had been relaxing, clench up again.

“Of course I needed to be in that fight, Bucky. Those kids were gonna destroy that nest, and they were picking on that girl. What else was I supposed to do? They were bullies .” He spat the word out with contempt, lips pursed tight like it had left a bad taste in his mouth.

“Well, you coulda got Mr. Dugan, or one of the chaperones or something! You didn’t need to be in a fight, Stevie, okay?”

Bucky didn’t fully understand then just how much Steve hated bullies, but he would learn. Good Lord, would he learn.

“Nah, Buck, I did. They were bullies. If there’s one thing in this world I hate, it's bullies. I will always fight a bully, no matter what,” he declared, with all the conviction in his six year old heart.

“Well, if you insist on it, I guess I gotta fight ‘em too,” he slung his arm around Steve, pulling him in for a half hug before clambering to his feet, yanking Steve up after him. “You’re stuck with me now, Rogers. Couldn’t get rid of me if you tried.” He smiled lazily, the sun shining bright on his face, the trees above dappling him with shadows. He made the promise with no hesitation, not for one minute, one second thinking anything would ever go wrong.

“Oh yeah?” Steve said. “Till the end of the line?”

He was smiling at Bucky, eye level with him from where he stood on the little rise leading back to the trees. Bucky grinned and stuck his hand out, waiting for Steve to grasp it before replying.

“Till the end of the line.”

Chapter Text

And the sun sets the scene,
While the rain misses me.
And all the time I'll be growing, growing up beside you.

Growing Up Beside You— Paolo Nutini

 

The first time Bucky Barnes slept with Steve Rogers, it was as innocent as it could possibly be.

It was Bucky’s first time encountering Steve’s propensity for getting himself sick, almost dying, and worrying everyone around him. His Ma and Dad were out of town, visiting his Ma’s half-sister or something, he wasn’t totally sure. He was sure that he was eleven, it was January, and Steve was dying.

Steve had asked if he wanted to stay with him and his ma while his folks were out of town, even though Pop was still gonna be here. So his Ma had called Steve’s Ma about Stuff and Things and then Bucky was staying with Steve for the last week of winter break. They’d been outside playing in the slushy snow all day, throwing terrible snowballs and sliding around Steve’s neighborhood on the iced-over sidewalks. He noticed Steve starting to shiver early in the afternoon but was shot down when he suggested they go in, Steve glaring daggers at him for even suggesting it when Bucky himself wasn’t shivering yet.

As the sun went down Bucky had started to shiver as well, and so Steve finally accepted the idea of going back to his house to get out of their wet clothes, take hot showers, and warm up in front of the space heater, with all the thick down comforters they could find piled high around them and gallons and gallons of hot chocolate warming them from the inside out.

The plan seemed sound to a couple of half-grown boys (though poor Steve still looked only a quarter grown, scrawny as he was), as all their own plans do, but they found the flaws as soon as they got back and discovered that there wasn’t enough hot water for two of them when Steve’s shower was cold (he’d graciously let Bucky go first because he was the guest) and then they had no milk to make hot chocolate so they didn’t have any at all (“I will be damned if I drink chocolate water,” Steve had said, whispering the expletive like his Ma would hear him from the kitchen where she was making her famous chicken noodle soup) and they fell asleep in front of the space heater while waiting for soup, before they could gather their blankets or eat their soup.

Miss Sarah woke them up before she left for her shift at the hospital that night, and Steve and Bucky stumbled off to Steve’s new room in the basement, where Bucky flopped onto the air mattress on the floor and promptly passed out. He woke up two hours later to a wet tearing sound that turned out to be his best friend, wracked with coughs so hard he seemed to be trying to get rid of not just the one lung, but both of them, as well as every other organ in his body.

“Steve? Steve, are you okay?” What a dumb question , Bucky thought, but he was eleven and didn’t know what to do when it sounded like his best friend was dying.

Steve answered with another one of those terrible, wracking coughs and Bucky figured that was answer enough. He tried to remember what his Ma did when he was sick as he scrambled up onto his knees next to Steve’s bed, finally settling on trying to judge Steve’s temperature with his hand. Steve was on fire, sweat beading on his brow and his normally cream-colored skin flushed red with fever.

Bucky swore some of his choicest swears, learned from Pop and never, ever said in his vicinity (“If I catch you talkin’ like this before yer grown, you’ll eat through half the soap in Brooklyn before I’m finished with ya, understand?”) and ran up the stairs, scrambling through the linen closet for washcloths, throwing them into the kitchen sink and turning the tap on the coldest it would go before finding a bowl and filling it, too. He wrung out the washcloths and set them on the cookie sheet he’d found drying by the sink and decided would do as a tray, adding a couple of the kitchen towels from the drawer, along with his bowl of water and bottle of water from the fridge.

He made his way slowly down the stairs, balancing his tray carefully. By the time he reached Steve, he felt like an eternity had passed, not the ten minutes it had actually been. Steve was still unresponsive, head moving restlessly on his pillow while his limbs churned his covers right off. Bucky pressed a cold cloth to his forehead and another to his skinny chest, hoping to god Miss Sarah would be home soon. He wasn’t sure if she was working an eight or a twelve tonight, and was planning on calling the hospital just as soon as he could convince himself to move from Steve’s side.

An hour later, he still hadn’t moved, though he’d changed out the cloths four times. He had managed to get Steve to drink some water when he’d opened glassy eyes and looked at Bucky like he wasn’t really seeing him. It scared Bucky half to death since Steve always had  some smart remark at the ready, but he spoke to him as soothingly as he could, telling him it was alright, “just a little fever, nothin’ to worry about,” holding the water to his dry lips, pleading for him to “just take a sip of this, would ya?”

As suddenly as the fever had come on, it changed to chills. One minute he was burning up, the next he was shivering fit to rattle his teeth right out his head. Bucky piled the blankets back on, tucking them in around Steve like he was a very sick burrito, but his shivering was going from chattering teeth to whole body tremors, so Bucky did the only thing he remembered from that survival show they’d watched last week, the one about the guy who got stuck in some crevice or crevasse or some other thing like that way up north in Norway or Sweden or something, and climbed in beside Steve, gathering him as close as he could, tucking that stupid crooked nose into his neck and wrapping his arms tight around Steve’s bony shoulders.

He rocked back and forth like he did with Bex when she had nightmares and crawled into bed with him, hoping it comforted his best friend like it did his kid sister. It felt like he laid awake for hours, rocking and rocking and rocking, never noticing his eyelids drooping and his breath slowing. He didn’t notice the shivers stopping, because was it supposed to be this comfortable, holding Steve like this? But he fits so well, tucked into Bucky’s arms like he belonged there, and this bed really was more comfortable than the air mattress, for all there was less room.

When he woke up, there was sunlight streaming in through the tiny basement window, and Steve wasn’t shivering anymore. Bucky scrambled out of bed while still trying not to wake his friend. Steve was still out cold, neither shivering violently or burning up from the inside. Joy in the damn morning , Bucky thought to himself, mostly in Pop’s voice since that was his favorite way to be thankful. He crossed himself like he’d seen Miss Sarah do before, generally in relation to Steve not being hurt or something when they came home a little scraped up. He’d never totally understood the impulse, not having been raised as much of anything, but after spending most of last night in an abject panic until he’d managed to fall asleep, he understood now showing some respect and appreciation to anyone, Divine or otherwise, who might have had a hand in helping Steve out.

It was at this point that he realized that all the detritus he’d left scattered on the floor when he climbed into bed (with Steve!) was gone, which meant….

Bucky took the stairs two at a time, bursting through the door to find Miss Sarah sitting at the kitchen table, a mug of fragrant tea in front of her, light limning her edges and gilding her softly, making her skin warm and rich like fresh cream, the same Irish skin she’d passed to her son. Ever since Steve had taken him to see the John Singer Sargent exhibit at the Met, he’d thought of Miss Sarah as one those Impressionist women, all strength belied by the softness of their figures, their clothes, their hair. His own mother was Proserpine by Rossetti, all strong features, and bold lines, her colors jewel-bright and kohl dark, but Miss Sarah was pastels, she was peonies and ranunculus and English roses, soft as the dawn. Steve had it, too, that strength overlaid by delicacy, steel encased in satin.

“Hello, Bucky,” she said, her voice soft and kind like it always was. She wrapped her long fingers, Steve’s fingers, around her mug and took a delicate sip of her tea, all while he stood in the doorway, frozen. “Come, sweetheart, sit with me.”

He walked slowly to the table, adrenaline still fizzing in his bloodstream, useless now in the face of her serenity. He slid onto the chair across from her, back ramrod straight as he sat warily, waiting and waiting.

“I’m sorry,” he finally blurts, not totally sure what he's apologizing for, but feeling like he should anyway. “He kept wanting to stay out and play some more. I couldn't get him to come in for anything, and then it was so cold when we were coming home, and then he wouldn’t drink the cocoa cause there wasn’t enough milk, he’s so stubborn, and then he didn’t even get a hot shower ‘cause he let me go first, and he just sat there in his cold, wet clothes, and, and….” he trailed off as his tears began to fall, his fear from the night before finally catching up to him.

“He was burnin’ up, and I know I shoulda called you. I thought about it, but then he got so cold, he was just shiverin’ so hard I thought he was gonna crack his teeth. And Miss Sarah I never been so scared in my whole life, cause he’s so small and his lungs are already not great, but I can’t never tell him any of that cause he’d gimme one of those looks, you know those looks? And it's only ever cause I can’t stand to see him hurt, it makes something in my chest feel tight and awful.”

“Miss Sarah, I was so scared, and he wouldn’t say nothing, didn’t see me, and I, I--” he choked on the words as they tumbled and fell out of his mouth, his eyes on the tabletop and his hands twisting in upon themselves where they lay. He was crying still, after his best friend gave him the scare of his whole life.

“Bucky,” she said, but he couldn’t answer. “James, honey,” she tried again, but he was crying too hard to say anything.

“It’s okay, darling boy, its okay,” Suddenly Miss Sarah’s arms were around him, holding him like he held Steve.  She knelt down next to his chair and held him to her while he cried. She pet his hair and rubbed his back in the way that it seemed only mothers knew how, and ever so slowly the tears stopped and his breathing evened out.

She sat back when she felt him start to calm down, and let him pull himself together. She went to the stove to heat more water and give him the space to wipe his face in private. She came back with two mugs of fresh tea, their strong fragrance already calming him, and set one down in front of him, encouraging him to wrap his hands around the warm ceramic, the heat helping to ground him some more. He remembered again that she was a nurse, and that she was probably used to people being all crazy sauce all over her, and felt a little better about being so overboard.

He sat back in his chair, feeling a little grown up with his fancy tea, sitting at the table just him and Miss Sarah. She settled down across from him, her long hair still up from her shift. Her eyes, so like Steve’s, looked at him over the rim of her mug, the crinkles around her eyes giving away her smile.

“You really care about him, don’t you, James?” She asked as she set her tea down, head cocked to the side.

“Ye--” his voice came out much higher than he expected and he cleared his throat. “Yes, of course, he’s my best friend in the whole world, always will be” he answered, never more sure of anything in his life. He knew it down in his bones. His name was Bucky, the sky was blue, and Steve Rogers would always best his best friend.

The second time Bucky Barnes Slept with Steve Rogers, it was still innocent--to everyone except Bucky, anyway.

Steve had come to Indiana for the summer, choosing to celebrate his 14th birthday in the middle of farm country with Bucky instead of in the city. It was the first time Steve had come to see him since the Barnes family, sans Pop, had moved to this dumb farm in the middle of Indiana (Over my dead body will you get me outta Brooklyn. I did not march across Nazi-occupied Europe fighting tooth and nail to get home to move to Indiana, George. Fuck Indiana) to help out his Ma’s sister. She had promptly signed things over to them, so that she wouldn’t “lose the house and the land that means the world to her” and then disappeared, leaving them stuck in this stupid state for the foreseeable future. They went back to Brooklyn as often as they could, but it wasn’t the same as living there. And while Steve and Bucky had started writing letters again, Bucky missed him being only a few blocks away. So to have Steve here with him for the whole summer break was the best thing that had happened to Bucky since he’d left New York.

They were staying in the loft in the barn that his folks had allowed him to turn into his own bonus room, complete with found furniture and actual hay bales. The best part was that the couch he’d found was a sofa bed, so it allowed them to stay out in the barn when the weather was nice, talking and laughing without everything traveling through the thin walls of the farmhouse.

It was Steve’s birthday, and after an early lunch, they’d spent all day in town at the big Fourth of July fair. The whole town turned out in force for it, and Steve had been here for long enough now that people greeted him by name, which just tickled him pink considering how that would never happen to him on the streets in Brooklyn. They’d hung around long enough to watch the rodeo (“Bucky, they’re crazy out here. I don’t want to get close to a cow , let alone ride a goddamn bull ,”) and see the parade. Before they headed out to the fields to watch the fireworks, Bucky made a discreet detour to see Logan.

Logan was a couple years older than him but as out of place as Bucky had been when he first got here since he was Canadian. They had established a strange sort of friendship, which meant that Logan was happy to hook him up with a bottle of homemade wine and a jar of moonshine, even while quietly judging him for it. Bucky hustled it back to the truck before he found Steve and his folks looking at the quilting bee that was going on (“Are they really just gonna sit here all day and make a quilt?” “Yeah, pal. Indiana is weird.”), and snuck it into the barn after they’d watched the fireworks.

He and Steve sprawled on the pull-out couch while they made their way halfway through a jar of shine and the empty wine bottle, looking at the stars. Bucky remembered his first night out of the city: he’d looked like every stereotypical city kid he’d ever heard about, gaping at the night sky. He’d never seen so many stars in his life! Had they always been there? When he’d called Pop about it a couple days later, he could hear the smile in his voice.

“Bucky, my boy, ain’t they marvelous? God’s gift to those poor bastards who aren’t lucky enough to live in New York. Had to make up for it somehow, huh? And boy, do they make up for it.”

So maybe it was the stars that had him feeling like this, all languid and relaxed. Maybe it was the air, hot and heavy and humid. Maybe it was the sticky-sweet with the smell of the jasmine climbing the garden gate. Maybe it was the wine, and the way it had stained their lips and tongues like garnets, set in the gold of their tanned faces. Maybe it was all of these things, or maybe none, but Bucky was feeling good. He was feeling great, no, he was feeling amazing . Better than all of those, really, because even without the stars or the jasmine or the air that was making their skin slick with a sheen of sweat, without the wine or its lingering strawberry sweetness, there was Steve.

Speaking of Steve, he was currently sprawled out next to Bucky on the couch, all his new long limbs spread out in every direction. In the past few years, Steve had hit a growth spurt at last. Over the previous summer, he’d grown seven inches, and done it so quickly that the bones in his legs had stretch marks (he’d included a photo of the x-rays in the letter he’d sent after he found out, as proof). He was still shorter than Bucky, but at five-foot-seven, he was a far cry from that skinny little punk Bucky had found behind a tree all those years ago. His shoulders had decided to join the growth party and were now almost as wide as Bucky’s. And since they’d both agreed to haul hay and chop wood for old Mrs. D’Ancanto for the summer to earn a little money, they were both sporting some hard-earned muscles .

So yeah, maybe it was the wine, and maybe it was the night air and the stars and the summer heat, but maybe it was the way that Steve’s new muscles moved under his thin shirt, or maybe it was the way his shoulders strained at the fabric before it fell loose around hips that hadn’t seemed to have gotten the memo on growth, still as skinny as the day they’d met. Whatever it was, something low in his belly stirred at the sight of this gangly kid sprawled beside him, a rush of heat that was surging through his veins, making him feel light headed and loose-limbed, a smile spreading across his face.

He slumped down until his side was against Steve’s, all hard muscle and miles of summer-freckled skin hiding under his clothes. The idea of angular lines and strong limbs was feeding the fire, a slow burn of...something? Lighting him up from the inside. He could feel it under his skin, fizzing like carbonation just below the surface and making him feel every sensation amplified by a thousand. Was this...arousal?

The thought had him sitting up so quick his head spun and spun and spun until all the wine he’d drank decided to abandon ship. He made it to the bucket he used as a trash can just in time, heaving and heaving until there was nothing left, barely registering Steve’s warm, broad hand rubbing soothing circles on his back until he was finally finished emptying his stomach and then it became all he could focus on, the rough feel of new callouses dragging across the thin cotton of his cut-off shirt, the long fingers splayed out between his shoulder blades.

It was not helping with the Bad-Timing Boner he was now sporting, nor was his inability to focus on anything but the way the muscles over Steve’s ribs were peeking from where the sleeves used to be on his shirt, now open to the waist. He grabbed the bucket and sat hard on the floor of the loft with it in his lap.

Steve was looking at him now, all concerned eyebrows and confused mouth. His whole head felt muffled like he had cotton batting from the quilting bee shoved into the space his brain left inside his skull. Something was at his lips, a bottle? Oh, Steve must have gotten water for him from the case in the corner. He washed his mouth out obediently, swishing the water around and getting distracted by the sound, like waves crashing on the shore at Coney Island. He felt a nudge, Steve’s big hand on the back of his neck, pushing him towards the bucket. Oh, he had to spit this water out, yes, okay, good idea Steve.

Speaking of Steve, Steve was saying something to him that he couldn’t quite make out, thanks, cotton batting, but was probably something like, “hey pal, what’s with all the puking?” To which he could obviously not reply “I sat up too fast after catching a case of the stiffies watching all the man-muscle you got going on, and am pretty sure I am Super Gay, which honestly explains a lot.” So he just groaned into his bucket instead and let himself be led back over to the sofa bed where he perched daintily on the side so as not to jostle his delicate stomach and newfound sexual identity.

Steve, bless him, just got him some more water and then sat with him, completely unaware that his overall male-ness was really not helping with Bucky’s situation. Maybe if he could just lie down, he could fake-sleep until actual sleep happened? Yes, fake it till you make it, that was definitely a thing people recommended all the time, so obviously, it was a very good idea, well done Bucky.

He set his bucket down and sort of flopped onto his side, trying to signal without words that he wanted to sleep, mainly because he couldn’t be sure that “Steve, I’m pretty sure I’m Extra Gay and you’re the male body that made me realize it, just FYI,” wouldn’t come out of his mouth and he was just so not ready for that conversation. He heard Steve laugh behind him, and for longer than was strictly necessary which clued Bucky in that he wasn’t the only one drunker than they’d planned to be. However, Steve probably hadn’t gotten the world's most inconvenient hard-on so he was infinitely better off than Bucky.

He must have passed out while contemplating unintentional erections, which would explain why, when he woke up sometime in the early morning hours, he still had one.

He wasn’t unfamiliar with morning wood, being a teenage boy and all, but he was unfamiliar with it on the heels of his Big Realization. He heard a snore and remembered, suddenly, that the catalyst for said realization was passed out next to him, blissfully unaware of what was going on in Bucky’s pants right now.

Speaking of which….he really needed to do something about that, but he couldn’t do it with Steve right there, could he? No, not in the same bed, that was too much. But….there was that big armchair over near the telescope….

Bucky rolled out of bed and wobbled his way to the chair, still mostly drunk, and flopped down into the overstuffed cushions. He fought his way out of his shirt, his limbs seeming to have extra joints in them for some reason and tossed it to the side. The leather was cool and refreshing on his overheated skin, sending a shiver through his body that did nothing to lessen the arousal now thrumming in his veins.

He closed his eyes and let his hands drift along with his thoughts. He’d never exclusively thought about guys when he got off, but there was no time like the present. His hand snaked beneath his shorts, palming himself over the thin cotton of his boxer briefs. He shivered at the touch, imagining the hand belonged to someone in possession of hard muscles and sharp angles instead of soft curves. He didn’t imagine smooth, small hands on him for once, which had always had him fighting to maintain his erection, anyway, but instead pictured hands like his own, rough palmed and broad-backed, and a sure, steady grip that knew its way around a cock.

He worked the elastic down as he lifted his hips, shimmying the shorts and briefs down to his thighs. He slouched down in the chair, legs sprawled to give himself room as he wrapped his fingers around his cock, now flushed red from its usual dusty rose. He started to move, slow, sure strokes with a twist at the top, his rough palm dragging across the head. His free hand traveled up his chest, digging in with his blunt nails as it went, imagining the feel of a firm chest, the skin overlaid with wiry hairs pressing against his own.

Shit, but he was getting there fast. He tweaked a nipple, the bud of it stiff and peaked between his fingers, so sensitive that any little movement now made his cock twitch in his grip. His hips were moving, canting up into his fist with every stroke, thrusting in time with his fist. He was leaking, fuck, he’d never been this wet in his life, but thinking about a strong arm wrapped around his waist, a hand gripped tight on his hip while the other jerked him off was doing it for him in ways that had never happened before.

He took the hand on his chest and moved it higher, imagining that the scrape of his nails was the drag of stubble across the delicate skin of his neck, that the press of his fingers was lips pressing into his throat as they travelled up to his ear, breath hot on his skin, teeth tugging on his earlobe while the hand around his cock sped up, grip tightening infinitesimally as he hurtled closer and closer to the peak.

He was harder than he’d ever been, dick throbbing in time with his thundering heart as his hips fucked upwards, driving himself into his fist over and over, the imaginary man still playing with his throat and ear, before finally, finally speaking, his breath hot as it fanned across him.

“C’mon, Buck,” Steve would say, biting down on his shoulder. “Let me see how pretty you look when you come for me,” and Jesus God if that didn’t send him into the most intense and surprising orgasm of his life. He gasped loudly as his hips bucked up into his hand, his dick thickening that tiny bit more before hurtling headlong over the edge, his climax so intense all of his muscles contracted with the force of how fucking amazing he felt, spurt upon spurt of come spilling onto his fingers where they were still moving up and down his shaft. As he came down, he slowed his hand to a standstill and released the fingers from his shoulder where he’d dug them into his skin in an approximation of where “Steve” had sunk his teeth into Bucky’s shoulder.

He was breathing like a racehorse, his toes cramped from how hard they’d curled, and his mind was spinning.

He cleaned up as best he could with what little there was up in the loft before slowly crawling back in bed. Steve was now laying on his side, his skin glowing in the moonlight, and reminding Bucky of what his lust-addled brain had hurled at him mid-jack off. He curled up with his back to Steve, feeling as if he’d done something wrong by accidentally jerking it to his best friend, but unable to truly regret it, either.

It had been the best orgasm he’d ever had.

The last time Bucky Barnes slept with Steve Rogers, neither of them knew it was the last time.

Chapter Text

Oh, what a mess we made
And now the final frame
Love is a losing game.

Love Is A Losing Game —Amy Winehouse

 

Love is a strange phenomenon. The subject of books, songs, poetry, art, it weaves its way through life in a way that few other things do. It can make people whole.

Or it can tear them apart.

---

The first time Bucky Barnes told Steve Rogers he loved him, he was twelve years old, and ugly-crying in front of a U-Haul truck. They were standing on the sidewalk outside Bucky’s house, clutching each other like Bucky was leaving for war, not Indiana.

It’s not like it was short notice—they’d known the move was coming since Bucky's parents had picked him up from his week at Steve’s that January. They’d told him that night his Aunt was having a hard time managing and that, since his mom could transfer to the elementary school in town, they’d be moving that summer to Nowheresville, Indiana to live on a farm. A farm.

He’d run to Steve’s house as soon as his parents had stopped talking. Didn't say a word to them, just bolted out the front door and started running the eight blocks to the Rogers place. He’d burst through the basement door and into Steve’s room, where he’d found him reading on the bed, book propped on the pillow and skinny legs swinging where they were bent up behind him.

Steve had grown during the year, still shorter than most kids his age but not quite so drastically now. He didn't seem to have put any weight on, though, so if anything he looked even skinnier, all knees and elbows, bony hips and skinny shoulders. Any other time the sight of Steve’s feet flopping around so vulnerably would have inspired immediate tickling, but right then it just filled him with sadness.

He must have made some kind of noise, maybe some sign of his distress, because Steve had sat up and turned to face him.

“Bucky?” He slid that stupid skinny leg with its dumb knobby knee towards the edge of the bed, long toes stretched towards the floor, preparing to get up and come to Bucky, who had apparently frozen in place and was fighting back tears, which, not cool, okay , cause he was twelve now and crying was for babies and and and--

He sat down hard on the top step and sobbed.

Steve came scrambling over, tripping over the threadbare rag rug in the middle of the floor like Bambi on the ice, his skinny arms finally coming around Bucky’s shoulders and squeezing, holding him like he would drift away on his tears.

“Buck, whats wrong? What happened? Bucky, ya gotta talk to me, okay, cause I really don’t like seein’ you this upset. Do I gotta beat somebody up? I can, you know. Pop’s got my stance all fixed and I can even throw a punch pretty well now that I’m not so small, and Bucky, please look at me, okay?” Steve’s rambling in the face of stress was nothing new, and it helped ground Bucky in a way that nothing else could.

He was still there, in Brooklyn, his best friend from here to eternity clutching at him cause he was acting like a big baby and crying his eyes out. He sniffed and sat up a little, shrugging Steve’s arms off him after a gentle squeeze in thanks, dragging the backs of his hands over his eyes and nose which were all slimy and snotty now, which, just, great, gross .

He’d managed to calm himself down enough to tell Steve about Indiana, at which point they’d both cried. Six months later, they were still crying.

So it wasn’t sudden, it wasn’t unexpected, but it didn’t change how much it hurt, how it felt like he was being ripped in half. How was he supposed to be without Steve?

It helped, a little, that Steve was just as much of a wreck as Bucky was: tears and snot streaming down his angular face, eyes even bluer than usual because of all the red surrounding them, his dumb, long eyelashes all clumped together.

“You’ll write?” Steve asked him for the millionth time, his arms wrapped around Bucky’s middle and squeezing tight. Bucky’s arms were wound around Steve, and he sniffled wetly into Steve’s shoulder, nodding frantically.

“All the time. You’ll be sick of it, promise. And I’ll call every Sunday.” He heard his folks closing the door to the house, could hear his Ma talking to Miss Sarah as they walked down the front steps, knew time was running out. Bucky had said his goodbyes to Pop last night with even more tears, and knew he wouldn’t be seeing him right now—if anyone was having a worse time of it than Steve and Bucky, it was Pop.

Bucky pulled back from Steve at last, both of them snuffling, wiping faces on their shirtsleeves. “Look after Pop for me? He’ll need someone to watch the Mets with since I won’t...since I’m not….” his throat was getting tight, more tears welling in his eyes.

Steve’s eyes were glassy, too, and he blinked them rapidly as he bobbed his head in acknowledgement. “‘Course I will. Don’t worry.”

His family was standing behind him now, his dad by the truck and his ma and Bex by the car. He knew they were waiting on him so he sniffed once more and squared his shoulders, watching Steve do the same. It was time.

“We’ll be back for Christmas,” Bucky said, slowly backing away.

“Okay,” Steve said, walking backward to where Sarah stood on the sidewalk.

He made it to the car and turned to climb in, but spun at the last second to sprint back to Steve, who was running right to him. They collided, arms around each other and holding tight one last time.

“You’re my best friend in the whole entire world. Till the end of the line. Love you, punk,” Bucky whispered with one last squeeze that made Steve wheeze a little.

Steve squeezed back. “Love you, too, jerk. Till the end of the line,” he replied.

They broke apart, Steve to his ma and Bucky to the car.

He didn’t look back.

The first time Bucky Barnes told Steve Rogers he loved him loved him, it was the single most wondrous and terrifying moment of his life.

He’d known for years, that what he felt for Steve went so far beyond platonic love it wasn’t even in the same realm. Realized he’d loved Steve since before he knew what it was to love someone like that, when he’d just assumed everyone felt the same about their best friend.

He never figured he’d tell him, not when Steve was just so…. Steve. He was righteous and good and passionate. Steve helped everyone he could, devoted so much time and energy to fighting for the little guy that Bucky was in awe of him, knew he would never be on Steve’s level of sheer goodness. Sure, Bucky took care of those he cared about, would do for them whatever he could (and a lot he couldn’t) and frequently did, but so would anybody.

Add in that until about six weeks ago Steve had firmly been in the “definitely straight” category, Bucky figured it would never come up. Steve had dated a few girls in high school casually, but had started dating Natasha at the end of their freshman year at NYU, and had seemed blissfully happy.

When Steve and Natasha had broken up in February, Steve had been a mess. He could acknowledge some of Natasha’s reasons for breaking it off as valid: their interests had grown apart as they’d gotten older and experienced more of the world. He knew that they wanted different things out of life: she wanted the stability she lacked growing up in a Russian orphanage, to be able to build a home with a partner.

And Steve, Steve wanted to travel. He wanted to see the world and the people in it. He didn’t know if he wanted to ever settle down and stay in one place, and hoped to find a partner who wanted the same.

He wasn’t fool enough to think that such disparity between their ideal lives could be surmounted by being in love, much as he might want it, but after a year and a half together, it had still hurt. They were two very different people now, and it broke his heart. S o Steve understood some of her reasoning. What he didn't understand was how Natasha felt that she wasn't important enough to him. In his mind, Natasha was precious to him and her happiness a priority, but she didn't feel like he treated her that way.

“Bucky,” Steve sniffled, fighting his way through the last of his tears, “she—she said, the big reason was that I acted like her needs came second, after ‘all those fucking causes.’”

Steve seemed so confused by that, but Bucky understood, he really did. He called it Steve’s Occasionally Problematic Selflessness for a reason.

Steve had moped around the rest of the semester, his gloomy mood at odds with his Summer’s Day coloring. There were long, depressed sighs, and lots of flopping dramatically onto furniture, and a whole “woe is me,” mentality that he felt he was entitled to seeing as this was his first major breakup.

When Steve’s moping continued past the semester, Bucky decided he had enough. Steve defined a core aspect of himself by his Selflessness, and to have someone so close to him tell him that he was only selfless with strangers, with others , and often to the point that he was hurt or in a situation he didn’t need to be in (the time Bucky had picked him up from that precinct in Queens had been especially memorable) really threw him for a loop.

But this self-flagellation act had to stop.

He waltzed into Steve’s room at his house in Brooklyn two weeks after the most lackluster twenty-first birthday possible for someone who quite literally gets a giant ass fireworks show for free every year. He found Steve, flopped across his twin bed, listening to The Cure and being Fucking Sad.

“Get up,” Bucky said as he threw the nearest thing he could reach at Steve’s head. Bad luck it happened to be a balled up shirt and not a textbook, but whatever. “We’re going out. I’m done with this mopey bullshit. So you got your heart broken. Ok, it happens to literally millions of people. Like, all the fucking time.” He walked to Steve’s dresser to pull clothes out, mentally preparing himself to force Steve into something other than the bleach stained shirt and god-awful cutoff shorts he was wearing.

“Don’wanna,” Steve mumbled, rolling onto his stomach and burying his head in his sheets. His feet hung off the end of the bed, the only skinny thing left after his summers and summers of growth spurts. Bucky fought down the urge to run his fingernail lightly up the sole, saving that for the last resort.

He rolled his eyes at Steve “I should have been a drama major” Rogers and stomped up the stairs, knowing Sarah would know where Steve’s wallet was since never set the stupid thing down in the same place twice.

He caught sight of her as he walked into the living room, stretched on the couch and reading a book.

“Sarah, have you see Steve’s wallet?”

She set her book down on her chest and looked at him, a smile on her face. “Are you taking him out, Bucky? He needs to go out for a while.”She sat up, swinging her long legs down to the floor. She was still sunlight, still strength and softness all wrapped into one, and Bucky loved her almost as much as he loved his own Ma. She started walking towards the front of the house and he followed.

“Yeah, I’m taking him out. He’ll lock himself down there being sad the rest of the summer if I don’t. I’m afraid he’ll be listening to Dashboard Confessional next, and that is unacceptable.” He shuddered, not wanting to even think about that possibility.

“I don’t know who that is, but if you say that’s a bad thing I’m inclined to believe you, hon. Ah, here we go!” She held up the wallet she’d fished out of the pocket of the smock Steve wore for his art supply store job.

Bucky rolled his eyes as he took the wallet from her. “He never would have looked there,” Bucky said with a chuckle. “Thanks, Sarah. I won’t keep him out too late.” He leaned in to kiss her cheek, “Or get him too drunk,” she kissed his and gave him a quick hug, besides.

“As long as he has fun, Bucky. I know you’ll watch out for him,” she said with a smile that said more than he was ready to hear. With one last squeeze of his arm, she sent him back down the stairs.

Steve was still on the bed being a dramatic little shit when Bucky came back downstairs. And those long skinny feet were still hanging off the bed.

Bucky set the wallet down on the dresser, next to the clothes he’d picked out, then turned around with his arms crossed over his chest. “Steven Grant, we are going out. I’m on orders from your Ma. You have five seconds to get up on your own, or I will make you. And you know I can.”

He started counting, watching Steve’s shoulders tense as he thought through all the ways Bucky could get him out of bed. His feet twitched suddenly, and Bucky knew Steve had figured out the plan. By the time Bucky got to four, Steve was rolling over to sit up, the hangdog expression he’d been wearing for months still sitting resolutely on his stupidly pretty face.

“Alright, fine,” he whined, drawing the words to twice their length. “I’m up, Jesus.”

It took another forty-five minutes, but finally, they were walking into the bar. Irish Haven was Bucky’s favorite bar in Brooklyn, mostly cause it was filled with locals and not the ever-encroaching hipster crowd. Tonight was no different, the old guys who held up the corner of the bar drunkenly cheering for two walruses duking it out on the tv mounted to the wall, a couple of burly construction workers ardently discussing the Yankees (fuckin’ Yankees) , and a big group of people around their own age crowded around the pool tables in the back, the Jukebox playing something loud and grating.

Bucky steered Steve to the bar and ordered them each a beer, figuring it was best to start out easy and work his way up.

“C’mon, pal, sit down,” Bucky directed, his hand on Steve’s shoulder, gently pushing him onto the stool next to his own.”We’re drinking, we’re gonna see if those folks will let us change whatever it is they’re playing on the jukebox, and we gonna have fun.”

Steve grumbled and groaned as he sat down, grabbing his beer and taking an irritated swig. Bucky instinctively looked away from the long line of Steve’s throat as he tipped his head back to drink, years of keeping his attraction to his best friend to himself having turned it into muscle memory by now.

Seven beers and five shots later, Bucky was playing pool with some of the people from the group he’d seen earlier. He’d just won forty dollars off a girl named Carol and was taking a break to finish beer number eight when he noticed that he couldn’t see Steve. As Steve was now six foot two and had shoulders wide as a damn door, he wasn’t used to not being able to spot Steve in a crowd. The last time he’d seen him, he’d been laughing and smiling, animatedly involved in a discussion with a shorter brunet guy with questionable facial hair.

Thinking that maybe Steve had needed some air, he walked toward the hall that led to the patio out back, feet sticking floor,  and coming away with a little skrrrrtch noise as he rounded the corner and-----

What the fuck? He stopped in his tracks, brain unable to process what he was seeing because it was just too goddamn unbelievable .

There, one arm braced against the wall, was Steve “Painfully Straight” Rogers, kissing Questionable Facial Hair like he wanted to eat him alive. Bucky could see his jaw working, his head slanted so that their lips could slot together, could see flashes of tongue as they moved. He saw Steve bite on Questionable Facial Hair’s bottom lip, tugging and nibbling before letting go, his other hand moving up from the guy's waist to the back of his head, holding him in place. There was a low moaning coming from QFH as Steve possessed every inch of his mouth, his hands digging into Steve’s hips from where they were slid under his shirt. Bucky couldn’t even blame the guy for all the noise, cause God and probably literally everyone else knew that, in the same situation, Bucky would be shouting his joy to the goddamn Heavens.

He must have made some kind of noise because Steve managed to detach his tongue from where QFH had been sucking on it, a hazy smile on his face telling Bucky he was drunk enough on both liquor and lust to be fully engaged in what he was doing. “Bucky…?”

“Uh, I just...I’m gonna head out, so, jus’...yeah. See ya,” he said, and spun on his heel and left the bar as fast as he could.

Fast forward six weeks and they had only barely talked about it, (“So, you like guys?” “Yeah, I guess. Never tried it before but I enjoyed it,” “Alright, cool,”), which was about all Bucky could handle, really. Part of him was bursting with hope because he had always based his “nothing will ever happen” arguments on the invariable fact that Steve was straight. But now...he didn’t know what to think. Did he risk it? Would it change their friendship forever if it didn’t work, or if Steve didn’t feel the same way? Was it even right for him to bring up, so soon after Steve had figured out his own attractions and multifaceted sexual identity? Didn’t he deserve the chance to explore this new side of himself?

Turns out, Bucky worried for nothing.

They were sitting on the roof of Pop’s house the night before they moved back into the dorms, sprawled on lawn chairs with a cooler full of beer set on the rooftop between them. They’d been talking baseball and had fallen into a comfortable silence as they watched the lights of the city start twinkling on as the sun set. Bucky heard Steve rustling around in his chair and glanced over at him, only to find that Steve had moved the cooler and was busy turning his chair to face Bucky. Confused, but figuring his best friend had a reason, he moved his, too.

It had taken Steve a minute to notice, something that had happened more than normal, lately, if Bucky was being honest. Steve was usually the most observant person in the room, but lately, he’d been distracted. Bucky figured he’d find out why sooner or later, seeing as they had never kept a damn thing to themselves as long as they’d know each other. But for Steve to miss something happening literally inches in front of him…

“You alright, Rogers? Y’seem a little distracted lately.” He took a pull from his beer, noticing with enough surprise he almost choked on the hoppy liquid, that Steve’s eyes locked on the stretch of his throat as he swallowed.

“Uh,”

Bucky snorted, disregarding the moment. He must have imagined it. “Eloquent as ever, I see.” He took another sip, deliberately not looking at Steve as he did, focussing on the lights instead.

“Yeah, um. So. Hey. Can I talk to you about something?” Steve asked hesitantly.

Bucky turned back to him, nervously peeling the corner of his beer label. Steve was never hesitant. “Yeah, pal, of course.” He settled himself deeper into his chair, facing Steve, so close that their knees were almost brushing. He could feel the hairs on Steve’s leg getting caught with his.

Steve was playing with his hands, something that had never failed to fascinate Bucky at any point in the last fifteen years. His fingers, so long and slender, were one of Bucky’s favorite parts of him.

“So, you remember a few weeks ago? A-at..the bar?” Steve was looking at him so earnestly, eyes big in his face, Shoulders of Courage in full effect. Bucky knew those shoulders, knew they meant Steve was doing something he thought was Very Important but also Very Scary. Why would have those shoulders right now? They’d already talked about his newly-discovered bisexuality, and it wasn’t like Bucky was going to be throwing stones from his glass house over here. They’d had almost the same four-sentence conversation at fifteen, when Bucky had told Steve he was gay (“So, I like guys.” “Yeah?” “Yeah.” “Alright, cool,”) that they had six weeks ago.

“Yeeeaaahhhh….”

“So, you could say that I was doing it, the kiss, I mean, well, of course, I meant the kiss, I ju--”

Bucky cut him off before he hurt himself. “Steve. Spit it out.”

Steve blew out a breath harshly, finally leaning forward to relax and rest his elbows on his knees. “Right. Okay. Well, you could say I was doing it for science.”

“For...science.”

“Right,” Steve was on a roll now, having apparently found his groove and running with it. “For science. Because I wanted to make sure that when I did it for real, I would know if there was any difference from kissing girls, so I didn’t mess it up.”

“Do it for real? That looked pretty real from where I was standing,” Bucky said, trying to reign in the snappishness he knew was seeping into his voice.

“Nah, that was just practice. See,” Steve scooched his chair closer, the metal legs dragging on the flat roof, “that one didn’t matter. And the next one might, if I’m lucky.”

“A-and why’s that?” Bucky stuttered, too afraid to acknowledge even to himself that what was happening was what he’d been secretly hoping for for years. It couldn’t be, right? This wasn’t some rom-com, life didn’t work like this.

He should have remembered that nothing in his life had gone the way he expected from the day Steve had walked into it, bloody, bruised, and perfect.

“‘Cause hopefully, the next one is with you.” Bucky could feel his breathing pick up, eyes wide with shock and fear and hope and surprise. What?!

“You gotta know, Buck, you gotta,” Steve was saying, but all Bucky could focus on was the way Steve’s hands, his eternally loved hands, were now resting on his knees. “I can’t keep it to myself anymore, and even though I am terrified that I’m about to ruin everything, you deserve to know.”

Bucky licked his lips since he had dried them out with his panting. His eyes were glued to Steve’s face, so he saw the way his best friends eyes tracked the motion, pupils dilating in his wide eyes.

Holy shit. “Know what, Steve?” His voice was rough, deeper than usual, and Steve’s eyes darkened some more. Oh, my fuck, it’s happening, this is actually happening! Steve leaned forward infinitesimally, and if Bucky hadn’t had all his focus on him already he would have missed it.

“How I feel about you. That I think there’s no one else like you on this earth and that you are the greatest friend I have ever had in my entire life,” Bucky felt frozen, rooted to the spot, not sure where Steve was going with this.

“That I love you.”

It would be fair to say that Bucky’s brain disconnected completely in that moment, stunned into silence and stillness by words he had never in a million years expected to hear. Hoped, sure. Wished, definitely. But he’d never actually planned for this scenario, and for a second he just couldn’t process it.

He saw that his second of dumbfounded silence had come across differently to Steve. He started to pull back, rejection painting his features as he swallowed and opened his mouth to say something. So Bucky did the only thing he could think of in the split second he allowed himself.

He kissed him.

There was a moment of surprise from Steve when he didn’t move, hands still up where he was going to use them to flail around some more probably. It wasn’t as gentle as it maybe should have been for their first kiss, Bucky having overdone it a little by grabbing the front of Steve’s shirt and hauling him in, smashing their lips together before he managed to back off enough to do it right. Steve finally got it together, too, and groaned as he wrapped his arms around Bucky’s shoulders, kissing back just as hungrily.

Sitting in two different chairs and kissing was exactly as awkward as you’d expect it to be, and Bucky was just trying to figure out what to do about that when Steve tightened his grip on him and pulled . Suddenly Bucky was on Steve’s lap and  deciding when in Rome, quickly settled in, threading his fingers through Steve’s hair and getting to work erasing every other kiss Steve had ever had from his mind.

When they broke apart finally, panting and flushed, hands under shirts and smiles plastered on their faces, Bucky finally responded to Steve’s declaration.

“I love you, too.”

It was the best day of his life.

----

The last time Bucky Barnes said the words “I love you,” to Steve Rogers, it broke his goddamn heart.

They were standing in front of the security line at JFK, Steve’s whole life packed into a couple bags and resting at their feet.

“You’ll write?” Bucky asked again, his arms wrapped around Steve’s neck, fingers playing with the short hairs on the back of his neck. Steve’s arms were wound around Bucky’s waist, hands fiddling with his belt loops. He could feel the need to have Steve inside him or him inside Steve rising up, clawing its way into his brain, trying to force out anything else. The primal urge to take and claim and mark fueling itself with the knowledge of separation looming ahead of them, a dark specter that had been trailing them for weeks. They’d barely left their bed for the last two days, and yet it wasn’t enough, would never be enough. He needed Steve like he needed air.

“All the time. You’ll be sick of it, promise,” Steve said, lowering his forehead to Bucky’s, their noses brushing close.

“Never,” Bucky promised, a sad smile taking up wavering residence on his lips.

“Hey, none of that, c’mon now,” Steve said, one hand coming between them to cup Bucky’s cheek, thumb brushing over the traitorous, trembling lip. Bucky nibbled it gently, teeth scraping the pad before he kissed it and let it go. “You know I have to go, sweetheart,” Steve mumbled as his lips replaced his thumb, kissing Bucky lightly.

No, Bucky did not know. He did not know why Steve had turned a perfectly doable six month job with National Geographic (right out of College! Bucky was so proud it hurt) photographing Nepal and its surrounding areas and turned it into an indefinite stay so he could be near Tibet and try to get media access to the lingering unrest in the region, because Steve was determined to become the next Lee Miller or Carol Guzy. Free Tibet was just the latest movement Steve had gotten involved in, so while Bucky was used to sharing his boyfriend ( boyfriend!!!) with those Steve decided needed his help (which seemed like a lot more people from this side of things that it had on the best friend side, if he was being honest), hearing “I’m not sure how long I’ll be there,” as an answer to “when will you be back?” was not something he was used to.

They’d barely had a year. A single, glorious, goddamn year .

But Steve, bless his stubborn heart, had insisted that they could make it work. He wasn’t giving up, didn’t care the odds. They would write, more letters for the boxes Bucky already had living right next to Pop’s in the attic. Bucky would save up and go visit when he could manage. They would be fine.

So they stood wrapped up in each other in the same way that lovers everywhere did in airports, train stations and bus terminals around the world, so wrapped up in the last moments together that nothing else even existed, until it forced its way into the bubble. Steve’s watch beeped, signaling the hour, and the spell was broken: he was standing in JFK, and his heart was breaking.

“I have to go,” Steve said, eyes tracing over Bucky’s face, learning every line, every curve, every milliliter of it as Bucky did the same. He fought so hard to memorize the exact color of Steve’s eyes, the strong brows, the slightly crooked nose, the full lips. The smattering of freckles high on his cheekbones from a summer spent lounging outdoors every moment they could. Hair bleached and skin bronzed by the sun, he was Apollo in all his golden splendor.

It had to be Steve that untangled them because Bucky would never have done it. He would have stayed wrapped in Steve’s embrace forever.

“Love,” Steve entreated, gently unwinding Bucky’s arms from their place around Steve’s neck. Hot tears were sliding down Bucky’s face, slipping into the creases by his nose and over his lips. Steve's hands slid down his arms, fingers trailing softly past his elbows, along his forearms, before weaving their fingers together. Pressed together from forehead to thigh, they shared these last moments with the ever-increasing noise and commotion of the airport, sharing a strange moment of communion with the other travelers. Bucky felt lips on his, slick and salty with their tears. He wouldn’t sob, not in the airport, he wouldn’t. “I have to go, Bucky,” Steve murmured, pulling away at last.

For as long as he lived, this moment would be seared into Bucky’s memory, the industrial lights glinting gold off Steve’s hair, the salt he smelled on every inhale from his never-ending tears. The sadness and heartbreak knitting themselves into a blanket of despair that wrapped him in its embrace. The whisper of denim on denim and he and Steve walked toward the security line. The way the bones of Steve’s hand must have rubbed together as Bucky squeezed with all his strength.

They stopped, paused in front of the webbed strap dividers that would separate the travelers from those they left behind. It was agony, and it was inevitable.

Steve was leaving.

Strong hands molded themselves to Bucky’s face, forcing him to focus his eyes from where they’d been wandering. He looked up, Steve’s summer blue eyes staring back him. For a moment, an image of Steve-as-he-was superimposed itself over current Steve. Small and feisty, ready to take on a world of injustices with his two tiny fists. God, but Bucky loved him.

One kiss, two, three, four, and they were making out in front of the TSA line, possessive and scared before Steve wrenched himself away again. His hands were still on Bucky’s face, and Bucky brought his own up to join them.

“I love you, Bucky.”

God, it was time, it was really time, and there was nothing he could do to change it. Steve was leaving, and taking Bucky’s heart with him.

So he stood on tip-toe, just enough to match those last two inches Steve had gained on him. Memorized the final details for his mental picture of this most beloved face. Rubbed his nose along the little bump that Steve had gotten all those years ago, the one perfect imperfection on his beautiful face. One last, slow, lingering kiss to memorize the exact feel of that smart mouth, and he stepped back. Put space between them though it was like ripping his arm off to do so. Steve stepped back, the look of anguish and pain on his face that must be a mirror for Bucky’s.

Bucky took a deep breath and steadied his voice.

“I love you, Steve Rogers.Till the end of the line.”

Steve smiled one last time, watery and small, but stepped past the barriers where Bucky couldn’t follow.

“Till the end of the line.”

He turned around and didn’t look back.

---

It was eight years before Bucky saw him again.

Chapter Text

All of these moments are lost in time

You're caught in my head like a thorn on a vine

To forever torment me and I wonder why

Do I wish I'd never known you at all?

The Ocean --The Bravery

 

“So, wait,” Sam interrupted, the astonishment he felt showing clear in his voice. “Let me make sure I understand. After he left, you never saw him again?”

Sam was sitting in his favorite chair in his office, notepad braced on his thigh in what Bucky referred to as his Serious Therapist Pose, capitalization clear in the way he said it. This was their fifth session, and the third that had focused on one Steve Rogers , who Sam disliked a whole damn lot, and yes, he had based the entirety of his opinion on how clearly not okay Bucky was, because the man was a wreck and had been through enough just losing his husband so soon after they were married. And now that he knew that Brock was the first time Bucky had truly put himself out there since this Steve character had left…

If Sam wasn’t such a professional, he would be feeding Bucky ice cream and telling him that Steve didn’t deserve his tears, the leaving bastard.

But Sam was goddamn professional, so he held his tongue.

Bucky sat across from him, sunk as deeply into the couch as he could manage, shoulders rounded and hunched, drawn in on himself the way he had been since they started in on this Steve Rogers business.

Bucky fiddled with the seam on his jeans, a habit Sam had noticed early on when he was going to get a large chunk of backstory all at once. Sam could see why he worked in movies—the man was a born storyteller, and their sessions often felt like direct retellings of Bucky’s life instead of just someone focusing on the parts they think are important, not realizing that even the smallest moment could have had a lasting impact on their life.

For Bucky, it was a little different. It wasn’t really one small moment that changed things for him. It was a someone , and someone’s tended to leave so many fingerprints on a life, it was hard to account for all the places they’ve done damage.

But Sam would be damned if he wasn’t going to do his level best to ferret out all of Steve Rogers fingerprints on Bucky’s life, and help Bucky deal with the effects they’d been having on him for the last twenty years.

“No, I never saw him again,” Bucky confirmed, hands twisted together in lap. This poor guy, Sam thought, wondering just how much worse things got with Steve Rogers to make Bucky react like this so unconsciously, even all these years later.

Sam shifted a little, resettling himself in his chair, sensing that there’s more to it than that. Call it a hunch, or call it six years of school on the why of people's mental state. Either way, he knew there was more to Bucky’s story than that.

Bucky looked out the window, his blue-gray eyes catching the early spring sunlight as it fell through the budding leaves on the tree outside, the barely-there shadows dappling his face. There was a weight to them that most people didn’t have at his age, like he’d lived decades and decades longer than the thirty years he’d been on this earth.

Bucky opened his mouth, still facing the window, but his mind obviously somewhere in the past. A croak came out when he tried to speak, and he shut his mouth with a click of teeth as he cleared his throat, rough and grating. “There was a letter,” he managed this time, the words coming slowly as if from far away. “A lot of letters, really, but only one that mattered in the end.”

Sam ‘hmmmmd’ in acknowledgement, trying to not interrupt the headspace Bucky seemed to have fallen into. When it looked like Bucky might leave it at that, Sam thought, You cannot leave it at that, I need to know!

“What changed?” Sam prompted, hoping to draw his client back into their discussion. He had his own ideas as to what had probably happened, but didn’t like to make assumptions. He’d heard some crazy shit over the years and had learned his lesson.

Bucky swung his head back and forth slowly, like he was moving it through water instead of the precisely heated air in Sam’s office. The sun glinted off the damn near towering mess that was Bucky’s hair, strands with deep auburn highlights shining faintly as Bucky’s hands came up and fisted themselves in the locks, twisting and pulling in a way that had to hurt. Sam’s hand went unconsciously to his own closely cropped curls in sympathy, and still he waited.

He saw the decision as it happened—the way Bucky’s shoulders rose dramatically as he took a huge breath, bracing himself for the last part of this frankly wild ride of a history. Sam adjusted his notepad again, recrossing his legs and getting Even More Serious (As Bucky would no doubt think of it) while Bucky faced him fully, a singular focus spreading across his features as he embraced his need to get all of this out.

“His stupid Problematic Selflessness” again with the implied capitals! “kicked in,” Bucky answered, like that explained everything, which to him it probably did. Bucky had lived with it for so long, he just knew at this point, and he didn’t realize he needed to share more information for Sam to understand.

The first letter came two weeks after Steve had left. There were more stamps than necessary, it was battered and bent, and the blue envelope Bucky had given him as part of his going away present (a full letter-writing kit, complete with a fancy pen and as much paper as Bucky thought Steve could feasibly take with him) was doing its job of not showing the dirt quite so much as a white envelope would have.

A very small part of Bucky was hoping this letter would be full of how hard things were there, how different, how much Steve wasn’t sure he liked it as much as he thought, anything that would indicate that when his six months with NatGeo was up, Steve would back in Bucky’s arms. It was selfish, he knew, to want to keep Steve here with him when he could do so much good out in the world, but couldn’t he also do good from Brooklyn?

Bucky shook his head, firmly shoving that train of thought off its tracks and into a ravine, because he’d promised himself when he and Steve had finally gotten together, that he would embrace all of those things, like a supportive partner should. And he had known, hadn’t he? What Steve was like when he became enmeshed in one cause or another. Had seen it happen too many times to count over the years, and accepted that part of what made Steve Steve.

And he loved Steve, so of course he would embrace it and support him. That’s what you did when you loved someone, right?

But this letter...this was a damn love letter to Nepal, and Bucky wasn’t sure he liked that. But maybe it was because it was so new. He’d only been there a few weeks. The novelty had to wear off, right?

-

The novelty hadn’t worn off.

Three months in and every damn letter was the same: “the scenery, the mountains, the people, it’s all so amazing and great and wonderful, and obviously I love it so much more than Brooklyn and New York cause people need me and I’m doing great things here blah blah blah.”

Not to mention that the letters, which had come pretty regularly once a week after the first one, were slowing down.

Steve still finished each letter with “I love you,” and “I miss you so much,” and “I can’t wait to see you,” but Bucky was starting to wonder if it was just habit, now. He missed Steve desperately, achingly, and had spent the first few months wanting nothing more than work and sleep, not interested in seeing anyone or doing anything.

By month four, Natasha had had enough.

As odd as it was, she and Bucky had gotten even closer after she and Steve had broken up, and it hadn’t even surprised her when he (very, very nervously) told her about Steve’s Big Declaration and his own subsequent Big Declaration. In fact, she calmly informed him that she’d known. “Of course I knew,” she said, after Bucky had squawked in surprise, almost choking on his chicken salad. They were having their weekly lunch, sandwiched between morning and afternoon classes on Tuesday, and she stared serenely at him from over her glass of iced tea, cool green eyes showing nothing but quiet composure.

“H-how?” He’d finally managed to sputter, after coughing up the chicken he’d started to choke on. “Steve didn’t even know he liked guys till recently!”

Natasha had given him a bland look. “We were together for years, Bucky,” she picked up her fork and idly toyed with her salad, the only sign she was even a little bothered by the topic of conversation. “He loved me, he did. But he learned how to love someone by being in love with you, even before he knew it.”

So while he was definitely still in Mope Mode, Natasha had hauled his ass to some shitty bar on the other side of Brooklyn. Dressed in his work clothes still, he felt overdressed, but had been reliably informed by one of his coworkers not to worry, as “that half-assed scruff on your face” was bringing him down a few notches.

He felt a smack on his back, and he inhaled the mouthful of whisky he’d just taken as Natasha slid onto the stool next to him. “Cheer up, Barnes. It’s a bar, for God’s sake, not a funeral.” She signaled the bartender for another round, and swiveled to face him fully, her Thoughtful Face on.

“I don’t like that Face,” he told her, grimacing as he felt the whisky still burning up the back of his throat and into his nose. The bar was loud, people chatting and laughing, the deep ‘thunk!’ of a heated game of darts breaking up the general air of uninhibited happiness. Why in the hell had she brought him here? Couldn’t she see he was content in his misery?

“What face?” Natasha asked, sipping lightly on her vodka in a way that said she knew exactly what face. She looked wonderful, her red hair done in easy curls, a deep emerald shirt on under her black leather jacket. Aubergine pants led to brogued lace up boots, swinging gently above the floor. She also looked smug as she saw him realize that he was going to have to “talk about feelings” tonight. Fuck.

“The one that says you’re about to start calling me on my shit,” he answered, turning to face her as he finished his drink in one large gulp. He set his shoulders and made eye contact, her perfectly sculpted eyebrow lifting a fraction. She threw back her own drink, picked up the new ones from the bar, and gently hopped off her stool before heading to a corner table. He followed, wondering only slightly how in the hell she managed to do that in heels without falling over. When he reached the table, she gestured for him to slide onto the cracked leather first and followed after, being more graceful that he could ever dream of being, before setting their drinks down and facing him.

“You’re miserable.” It wasn’t a question.

Bucky picked up his drink and took a fortifying slug. “Straight to the point, as usual. For your information, I am not miserable. Just a little sad.” He kept his face as neutral as possible, hoping she bought it.

She didn’t buy it. “Bullshit. You haven’t been out with any of your friends in two months, you hardly answer any texts or calls, and you look like shit.”

He gaped at her, hand slack around the whisky he’d been about to drink. “The hell you say. I do not look like shit.” She snorted at him, eyeing his stubble meaningfully.

“So whatever it is you have growing in your face is a deliberate choice, then?” Natasha reached across the table, sliding her small hand over his, squeezing gently. “Is he worth it?”

“Of course he is. Natasha, I love him. I’ve always loved him. We’re meant for each other.”

Natasha’s brow furrowed slightly, but her pale green eyes gave nothing away as she watched him. Finally she picked up her drink and flicked her gaze to the rowdy group at the dart boards in the corner. “Alright. If that’s how you feel about it.”

“It is,” Bucky confirmed. “Nat, there is no one else for me on this earth. I just miss him, is all.” Part of him, albeit a very small part, never wanted to let Nat see any possible trouble in his paradise of being with Steve. She had warned him, as if he didn’t know, that being in a relationship with Steve could be immensely lonely, even when he was in the country. He’s obsessed, she’d said. Obsessed with being there for everyone else, but not for you. He’d patted her hand, smiling the small, pleased smile he’d been wearing since Steve kissed him on Pop’s roof. The difference, he’s said, is that I already know how he can be. It won’t surprise me. She’d turned her lips up a little, the small smile sad around the edges. Alright, Bucky, she’d said. If you’re sure.

He let his eyes settle on the men at the darts corner of the bar, and noticed one in particular glancing repeatedly at their table. A quick check confirmed that Natasha seemed equally entranced, and he saw his opportunity to take the heat off himself.

“Soooooo,” Bucky drawled, slowly sipping his drink again as he settled deeper into the cracked leather seat of the booth. “What about you, huh?” He nudged her shin under the table when she didn’t answer. “Natasha. Natasha!” Her head snapped around, eyes wide and mouth slightly parted.

“Eh?” She said, and Bucky laughed brightly, now suddenly uplifted. Now that he was here, he could admit he’d missed her. Maybe isolation wasn’t the best idea.

--

“It sounds like you have some very supportive friends.” Sam made a note to emphasize the importance of allowing said support system to actually support you when you needed it, which Bucky clearly did. “This is the same Natasha that set you up with your husband, right?” He met Bucky’s eyes as he asked the question, saw the flat look in them he always got when talking about this particular subject.

Bucky cleared his throat, and the corner of his mouth twitched up with the hint of a smile. “Yeah,” he answered, raking his hair back with both hands, before smiling fully. It reached his eyes, and the warmth in it made Sam feel better--the first few times they’d talked about Steve Rogers , the idiot, it had taken a long while for Bucky to come back to himself. “That night was actually the first time she saw her now husband.”

“Really? Don’t tell me it was dart-guy.” Sam made sure that his humor came across in his voice, relying on his old stand-by of good natured banter to help transition a client out of a difficult subject. He’d found that, unsurprisingly, most people needed a break from the heavy stuff during a session. If they wanted to muscle through, that was their choice and he would support their right to make it. But most people needed a moment of levity, and he was always happy to provide it.

Bucky laughed, his face scrunching up around the eyes and nose, and suddenly Sam had a vision of what Bucky had probably looked like during his marriage, and Pre-Steve. “Hate to say it, but it was definitely darts-guy. Neither one of them said anything that night, but we started to get drinks there on Fridays after work, and wouldn’t you know it, he was there.” He chuckled again, a soft smile on his face as he looked down at his knees, twirling his wedding ring around his finger.

“Clint was home on leave from the Army, before he deployed. Stationed at Fort Drum, but from Bed-Stuy. They spent every weekend together after that, one of them making the drive to other, and when he deployed she waited for him. It was the sappiest, most romantic thing I’ve ever witnessed and I bawled like a baby when he came home.” His smile changed, then, a little watery around the edges, and softer than the last. “Clint got Brock a job at the Security firm he works for, since they were old Army buddies. And then they introduced us. Far as I’m concerned, he’s the best human being on this earth.” He huffed what might have been a laugh, but also might have been something meant to stave off a sob. Sam readied his pen.

“Clint wrote her a letter every goddamn day. He called every chance he got, even if it was just to tell her he loved her. And fuck, I would be the world biggest liar if I didn’t say it made me so-” he chokes off the words, fists balling at his sides so tight his knuckles are white. This is new, this anger. Sam waits, and waits some more, because if this doesn’t seem like some Never Before Seen Footage (Now Bucky’s got him doing the capitals!) of Bucky Barnes life, he will eat his diploma.

Bucky takes a deep breath, and Sam’s pleased to see he’s using the breathing techniques he’d taught him after the Steve Rogers induced panic attack. “I was out of my mind with jealousy. I was depressed and angry and scared and then all of that was superseded by this burning, raging envy. I had spent my entire fucking life! Just--pining after that idiot ! And six months in I’ve got a couple dozen letters, and that’s including the one where he ripped my heart out of my fucking chest!!”

Bucky’s up now, walking the floor in front of the couch. Sam is tracking him, watching him pace like a caged tiger. In all their sessions, he’s never seen Bucky get this aggravated. He’s never even had him get up off the couch before. Sam sits up, his therapist senses tingling, knowing they were about to get to some Pent Up Shit.

“So, you were jealous that someone close to you was experiencing what you had expected from your own long distance relationship, but didn’t get.”

“Exactly!” Bucky threw his arms wide as his voice was slowly grew louder. “My life had gone to shit, utter, absolute shit , and nothing and no one around me could just...stay the same! Everything had to change, all at once and I, I didn’t even--” Suddenly, he dropped to the couch, like a puppet with his strings cut. His arms came around himself and he folded down over his knees, shoulders shaking. Sam was halfway out of his chair, wondering if he’d let it go too far when Bucky looked up at him, eyes a startling shade of blue from the way he’d abruptly started sobbing. He opened his mouth, shut it, opened it again. Slowly swallowed and scrubbed his hands over his eyes.

He started speaking again, voice harsh and broken. “I got Steve’s last letter in February of 2010. My mother was diagnosed with cancer in March. Clint deployed in May. I lost my job in July, though that was good thing, cause I was able to help my folks out, but--” he heaved in a breath, “everything changed so fucking quickly, and the worst thing--the worst goddamn thing wasn’t that I lost my boyfriend, no. It was that I had no one to talk to.” He snuffled and Sam discreetly offered some tissues.

“What about Natasha?” Sam asked gently, hoping to help Bucky get all this hurt out without derailing his train of thought.

Bucky made a pfft sound. “Like I was going to worry her with all of that? She knew the basics but with Clint gone and the region he was in being constantly under attack that summer, I couldn’t do that to her, I wouldn’t. And as much as we were great friends, we weren’t best friends yet--that came later. But my actual best fucking friend had decided he knew what was best. That he was being selfish by being with me. Did he ask me? No! Of course not.” Sam had never heard Bucky sound this bitter, and wondered if he’d ever voiced these thoughts aloud before. If he’d kept them bottled up for the last eight years, it would explain his aversion to relationships.

“You mentioned a letter,” Sam said.

Bucky looked up, anger still hot in his eyes, but he squared his shoulders and clenched his fists, girding himself for the last bit of this roller coaster of a past.

“Dear Bucky,” he started…

--

Dear Bucky,

I know it’s been a while since my last letter, and I’m sorry, but I needed to get my thoughts in order before I wrote.

First things first: I’ve taken the job with Amnesty International. Tibet is still in turmoil, and people are still being treated inhumanely every day. If we can document it, visually, and bring attention to this situation in a widespread way, hopefully more people will finally take a stand and do something to help. But, Love, I don’t know how long they’ll need me, and I need to stay and help in any way I can.  I know you understand why I need to do this, and would wait if I asked. But, Bucky, I can’t ask that.

You have been my constant, my companion, my partner for our whole lives. There has never been a time when I needed you that you weren’t there. We have shared joy and laughter, heartache and sorrow, and everything in between. You are my most favorite person on this earth—you are my heart and my soul, and I love you more with every breath I take, so please believe me when I say this is the hardest thing I have ever done.

I’ve had a lot of time to think about this situation we’re in. And I can’t help but realize that I’m holding you back. You deserve to have fun and explore and take everything that life has to offer, and what am I doing but selfishly holding you back? You deserve to have someone who is there with you, not this long-distance love we find ourselves in. You deserve to be happy, Buck, and I know I’m not giving you that.

It is the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make, and it feels like I’m tearing myself in two to do it, but I know that in the end, this is what’s best. I’m going to make this a clean break, okay? I won’t write anymore unless you give me the go-ahead. I won’t do that to you, won’t force myself into your life as I tell you to move on. That’s not fair to you.

So this is me letting you go, sweetheart.

Yours,

Steve

They sat in silence for a long moment, the only sound the distant sussarus of care tires on the street outside and the faint hum as the air conditioner kicked on.

Sam was frozen. His mouth fell open and his eyebrows pulled together over squinting eyes, his face the visual equivalent to the “please wait, buffering” his brain was doing trying to process what in the good goddamn he just heard.

“What...the fuck…” he whispered, shocked right out of his tightly held professionalism. He slapped his hand over his mouth as soon as he realized what he said, and he could feel all the blood in his body rushing straight to his face.

Bucky’s gaze snapped to Sam’s from where he’d been gazing into the middle distance over Sam’s shoulder. His eyes were red, tear tracks on his cheeks glistening in the light from the window. He looked as surprised by the outburst as Sam was.

“I am so sorry,” Sam started before being cut off by Bucky’s laughter. It was a little on the wild side, that laugh, but after recounting what was frankly one of the saddest stories Sam had ever heard, he really wasn’t surprised.

Bucky wiped his eyes, his laughter starting to die down into occasional giggles. “Holy fuck, that was perfect,” he managed finally, reaching forward to grab some tissues from their box on the table in front of him. He wiped his face more thoroughly before blowing his nose. “That was basically my reaction, only mine was much louder and had more profanity. Then more tears, but...” he trailed off, shrugging his shoulders in the universal gesture for “you already knew that.”

“Still,” Sam insisted, “that was incredibly unprofessional of me, and I apologize.” He settled further into his chair while trying desperately to get ahold on the litany of “this Steve Fucking Rogers better not ever come back to Brooklyn, or anywhere near Bucky Barnes or so help me I may not be able to help myself.” He wrote Bucky Barnes Deserves a Hug on his notepad and proceeded to circle it over and over while he calmed down.

“I want to make sure I emphasize something real quick,” he said, and Bucky looked up from where he’d been fiddling with the seam on his jeans again. The part of Sam’s brain that always made snarky observations hoped to god this poor guy didn’t play poker because he was just a mess of tells.

He waited until Bucky was looking at him, irises an intense blue against the reddened whites. “You are not responsible for Steve’s actions. He made a very big decision for both of you without consulting you. I’m sure you know all of this,” Sam stated, having met his fair share of stubborn pride over the years and not wanting to bank on Bucky not having a sneaky reserve of it somewhere, “But I wanted to make sure you know that him leaving is not on you.” Sam sat back again from where he’d leaned forward, his hope at at least lessening any guilt Bucky was harboring having propelled him towards Bucky without him realizing it.

He saw the slight twitch of Bucky’s mouth and knew there was a denial coming, so he held up his hand. “I know, I know,” a smile, slow and friendly, bringing Bucky back into the rapport they’d built. “You know all of that. But I would be....lax in my responsibilities to you if I didn’t say it.” He glanced down at his watch and saw that their hour was almost up. He looked back at Bucky, who honestly looked pretty damn drained by today, which was so understandable it hurt.

“That’s time for today, man. But I want to talk about this next week, if you’re up for it. There’s a lot to unpack here, but we’re heading in a good direction.” He stood up, and across from Bucky did the same. He gestured to the door, letting Bucky get their first before he shook Bucky’s hand, his other clapping Bucky on the shoulder.

After Bucky had left, Sam sat at his desk and did some deep breathing, trying to get his emotions under control. He needed to acknowledge his feelings, accept them, and move on.

“Steve Fucking Rogers,” he started, teeth clenched as he let the anger roll over him, “You did him dirty, and I seriously hope, however unprofessional it is, that you realize you made a mistake every single day.” He breathed some more, let go of his anger, and got up to greet his next appointment.

In a small flat in East London, Steve Rogers was regretting his mistake every single day.

Chapter Text

“Half of life is fucking up. The other half is dealing with it.”

--Henry Rollins

 

Unlike most bad decisions, Steve didn’t realize how terrible his idea had been right away.

Sure, something deep in his chest ached with every waking moment, and he was having thoughts like “I can’t wait to tell Bucky what happened,” and What Bucky would think about this, and the ubiquitous “I wonder what Bucky is doing right now?”, but he kept reassuring himself they would fade with time, even if they never completely left him. When months and months had passed him by, when winter winds gave way to the most riotously colorful spring he’d ever seen, he started to understand that for him, there may not be any fading, any easing of this constant heartache. His heart, his soul, may reach for its missing piece until the end of his days, and he would just need to get used to it. As long as Bucky had the chance at happiness, he could manage. He had his work, after all, and all the good he could do here. It would be enough.

Eighteen months after he ended things with Bucky, just shortly after his two-year anniversary of living in Nepal, and Steve awoke in the night, in that sudden way that happens when your brain finally processes something fully, especially when it was a terrible something. His subconscious had been working all these months, wrestling with his conviction, before coming to its conclusion. His heart was racing, his stomach in knots and tears were standing in his eyes. He whispered, “Oh God,” to the silence around him, the darkened walls of his little flat the only witnesses to his distress. “Oh God,” he said again, hands fisting in his hair, knees drawing in to meet elbows, stretching the blanket his mother had made him taut across his thighs. “What have I done? What have I done?

After two and a half years in Nepal, Steve was wondering why he’d ever agreed to stay.

It had nothing to do with the country or the people, both of which he loved dearly and would consider his second home for the rest of his life. No, the thing that was slowly leeching the joy from his life was the goddamn red tape that he’d had no idea existed in such an extensive manner when it came to getting anything done. He’d thought, maybe naively, that the only thing you had to do to do the right thing was do the right thing . As involved as he’d been in marches and causes and protests back home, he’d never been too heavily involved in the organizational side of things.

His most spoken words these days were “Is there anything I can do?” To which the reply was mostly “Not right now, Steve. We’re waiting on—.”

God, but those words pissed him off. All he did was wait, and wait, and fucking wait! He hadn’t come all this way to sit around and twiddle his thumbs doing jack shit. He could have done that from Brooklyn.

He wasn’t ready to give up, not yet. But at the end of the day, when he went home to his empty apartment and sat down to write the same short letters to his mother and Peggy as he always wrote, he couldn’t help but think about how tired he was, how drained, both emotionally and physically, by everything. Doing something for “the greater good,” as abstract as it was, had never worn him down so much as it did now.

More and more he wondered just how badly he had fucked up the day he all but shoved Bucky out of his life.

It was September again, and Steve had been in Nepal for three years. And, in the moments of self-honesty that were becoming more frequent, he was getting a little burnt out. Maybe more than a little.

In all the years he’d been committed to this cause, that foundation, or any of the many movements in between, he'd never fully realized how much he had relied on his time with Bucky, both pre- and post-romantic relationship, to recharge his metaphorical batteries. The unyielding support that had always been waiting for him had given him the strength and the drive to keep going, even in the moments he felt a little defeated.

Lately he had been feeling a lot defeated, but he didn’t have Bucky anymore; and the frustration was grating. The red tape of working internationally with such a quagmire of a movement that Free Tibet was turning out to be was sapping him of his positivity and he didn’t know how to fix it. He wasn’t ready to throw in the towel, but after the spectacular disappointment that had been his trip to New Delhi, he wasn’t sure that attitude would last much longer.

There had been word though his Amnesty contacts that the Tibetan Youth Congress was going to New Delhi to take part in a fast unto death on March 10th, the anniversary of Tibetan National Uprising day. Asking if Steve would go and document it, they hoped that they could help the TYC gain more recognition around the world, and that the UN would have to acknowledge the demands being made.

Steve, who had never done a half measure of something in his life, decided to join the fast in solidarity with the six hunger strikers representing the six million people of Tibet. He spent the first few weeks in silent awe of their commitment, and was convinced that it would be enough to compel the UN to act. He was wrong.

By the first week of April, Steve started to have his doubts.

And the goddamn idiot teenagers didn’t help.

He’d was sitting out front of a coffee shop, inhaling deeply on every breath as though he could eat through osmosis. He was looking through the days photographs when he heard people with American accents speaking about the importance of the strike, and how inspired they were by the fasters dedication. He had gone up to them, explained who he was and what he was doing, and asked if he could photograph them. They had all agreed amiably, and when he’d finished he’d stopped to ask them why they were in India, what organization they were with.

“Oh,” said one of the girls, “no, we’re not here with anyone. We’re doing a gap year. I only know about Free Tibet because of my community service requirement last year. My parents said they wouldn’t pay for the trip unless I “made myself useful” so we came here after France. Where did you say these would be published?”

Steve saw red. He didn’t remember exactly what he’d said to the kids but it had been as close to hellfire and brimstone as he’d ever come and he knew he’d made a show of deleting the photos from his camera. How dare they? How dare they? This was people lives on the line! This moment would change the tide!

As he stormed away, stomach cramping and legs shaking, the small, bitter voice in his head that he did his best to ignore said But how are you so different? An outsider, how can you ever truly understand? He squashed the voice as hard as he could, but it left him feeling uneasy the rest of the day.

On April 14th, the UN acknowledged the fasters and their personal commitment but refused to acknowledge their demands. In that moment, Steve questioned his belief in doing the right thing for the first time.

On April 15th, he was told to leave New Delhi and the TYC behind, his bosses rightly thinking there would be no more response from the UN. He packed his bag and went downstairs to eat his weight in whatever the special was in the restaurant across the street. He left in the morning.

He was despondent, angry, and disillusioned by the time he made it home. Body and mind restless, he took to prowling his apartment like a caged animal. He was just so...frustrated. All that work, all the energy, the very life forces of the six Tibetans trying to make the world a better place for their people and the country that had been taken from them, and the world just turned a blind eye to them. He felt disconnected from himself and from the one thing that had kept him going for the last three and a half years of his life. He needed to prioritize, he needed to think.

When he had given up Bucky, he had made the bargain with himself that he could live with that sacrifice if only he could do some good in the world. And if he didn’t have that, didn’t have the certainty that he was doing something worthwhile that would change the world for the better, why the fuck had he given up Bucky?

He stayed in this funk for another week before he took himself into the mountains to Tibet, in a desperate bid for motivation and understanding as to why he was still there. He didn’t find it then, and he was rudderless and broken when he returned to his little flat.

Then, on a rather ordinary day in early May, while sitting on his roof and enjoying the sunset, trying desperately to reclaim the dedication he had felt before New Delhi, motivation found him in the way he’d least expected.

“Hey! Hello, the roof!” He heard, the voice echoing off the buildings around him, bouncing between the walls before fading away. He looked down, his concentration broken, to see a man standing in the street below. He was tall and slim, with dark hair going elegantly gray at the temples (like Bucky would one day, his brain reminded him) and a goatee. He waved cheerfully when he saw Steve notice him, a smile fitting itself into the frame of his facial hair.

“Hello! I was wondering if you could help me!” He dropped his arms, which were long enough that he’d almost brushed the prayer flags the hung lazily over the pavement, their shapes flapping slowly in the breeze. “Do you speak English?”

Steve thought it was a bit late in the conversation to be asking that, but kept it to himself, replying easily, “Yes! How can I help?”

His name was Stephen Strange (which both Steven and Stephen found disproportionately amusing) and he was a surgeon, working with Doctors Without Borders. They became fast friends, he and Dr. Strange. “You sound like a supervillain,” Steve had told him when he’d learned Stephen’s last name. “I think you mean superhero,” Stephen had said. They agreed to disagree. While no one would ever match up to the decades-long friendship he’d had with Bucky, having someone to confide in, someone to share his frustrations and small happinesses with made dealing with the bureaucratic red tape renewed some of his dedication to what he was in Nepal to do.

At four years, Stephen (never Steve) asked him why he remained in Nepal when all he felt was frustration and disillusionment.

“I want to help people,” Steve answered. They were sitting on the roof of Steve’s building, the space having gradually transformed into his own little oasis over the years. Lights were strung from poles sunk in buckets of concrete positioned at the corners of the roof, and a small table and chairs were situated in the center, a small rug he’d bought at a local market tying everything together and protecting their feet from the rough texture of the roof. A cooler sat under the table, currently filled with ice and bottles of the local beer, a plate of momo’s on the table from the shop down the street.

They were enjoying the last of the sweltering summer nights, the air still slightly heavy with humidity and thick with the smells of street food from the vendors below. Stephen shot him a look full of disbelief. “Sure,” Stephen drawled, “let’s go with that.” He reached for another of the dumplings before taking a long, surprisingly judgemental drink of his beer.

“What do you mean, ‘let’s go with that’?” Steve asked. He was sprawled in his chair, bottle of beer balanced on his stomach, watching Stephen out of the corner of his eye. He had eased off on the “facial hair trimmed with a laser level” look over the last year, leaving his carefully styled hair with it (joining Steve in in the long hair, don’t care club, if not quite committing to becoming beard-bro’s yet), and he looked as relaxed as Steve had ever seen him. Conversely, Steve was the most stressed he’d ever been. The pushback they were getting from the Chinese government had increased in recent months, bringing what little progress being made with Tibet to an absolute standstill. Steve was feeling helpless and at loose ends, not something he had ever handled well.

He caught Stephen looking over at him and snorting at what as probably a world-class scowl on his face. “I mean exactly what I said. We’ll go with that. I don’t think thats all of it, but we can start there. So, who are you helping?” The look on his face was reminding Steve a little bit of Peggy, who had always felt it the duty of a true friend to “not stand on ceremony, Steve. I’ll call you out when I see you being an absolute idiot, and trust you to do the same. Though I feel I’ll get rather more practice than you will.” Apprehension tightened his chest, and he sat up more fully, somehow thinking that taking whatever was coming sprawled lazily in an armchair was not something he wanted to do.

“Well, I’m here with Amne-”

“But who are you helping, besides yourself? In the year I’ve known you, all I’ve heard is Red tape this, and bureaucracy that.” Stephen was looking him full in the face now, blue-green eyes intense and unyielding. “I know your heart is in the right place,  but anyone else would have gone home by now. So why haven’t you?”

Steve snapped his mouth shut, biting off the angry refute that had been sitting on his tongue. Why was he still here? Because Strange was right, he wasn’t really doing any good. Now that he thought about it, they didn’t really need him, at least not for the skills he’d originally offered them. He knew more about running a major campaign and dealing with paperwork and governmental agencies than he had before, but even that wasn’t really helping anyone besides himself, if only as fodder for a potential future resume. Why was he still in Nepal?

The answer was simple. “Bucky,” he said.

Strange stared at him, nonplussed. “Who the hell is Bucky?”

Steve gaped at him for a moment, before Stephen had burst into laughter. “I’m kidding,” he said, and Steve snapped his jaw shut. “Best friends since childhood. What does that have to do with you still being in Nepal?”

“Well...he’s also kind of...my ex.”

“I’m sensing more to it than that, Steve. Spill, already.”

So Steve told him, laid out their whole history and every little thing Bucky had ever meant to him, and how his sojourn Nepal had turned into a greater divide than anticipated.

For Steve, he had known right away that Nepal would transformative. He knew it as he boarded the plane, knew it had already changed his life in so many ways, and he hadn’t even been technically in the country yet. For one thing, it was the first time he’d ever travelled to another country ( Go big or go home, eh, Stevie? Bucky had said to him, can’t just go to Canada like a respectable New Yorker. Not you. He’d said it with a smile that hadn’t quite reached his eyes, but Steve had been too excited to linger on that over much at the time), and for another, it had separated him from Bucky.

He’d thought that when Bucky moved back from Indiana they’d never have to do long-term separation again, and that was when they were still “just friends” (though how Steve had managed to delude himself as long as he had on that front he’d never know. It had always been Bucky, even when he didn’t realize it). It had wrenched his poor twelve year old self in two when Bucky had left, and now here he was voluntarily doing it again. But how could he not? This was the opportunity of a lifetime. And Bucky, amazing, wonderful, perfect boyfriend that he was, understood that and supported him fully.

Stephen nodded, and ‘hmmed’  in understanding at Steve’s explanation. “So not just an ex, but The Ex. The big, life-changing one. I take it there was a  bad breakup, then?” He reached over and grabbed another momo, popping it into his mouth.

“I...well, I don’t really know,” Steve admitted sheepishly, tilting his head back and hiding his embarrassment in draining the last of his beer.

“The hell do you mean you don’t really know?” Stephen snorted, disbelief coloring his features.

Steve bought himself a little time by reaching into the cooler for another drink, holding one out to his drinking partner in a silent question. Stephen reached out and took it, using the bottle opener they kept on the table to pop the top off before silently saluting Steve with his beer.

“Well, I wasn’t there? I was here. So, it probably could have gone better?” He took a long pull off his new drink before wishing he hadn’t. He thought he’d grabbed another of the Kathmandu, but instead he had a bottle of the Commando Super Strong Beer, which lived up to its name and was best enjoyed in smaller sips. He made a face, trying to dispel the hoppiness from his tongue. “Bah. I thought you bought more Kathmandu?”

Strange waved to the empty bottles at their feet, a neat collection next to each of their chairs. “I did, but we drank them. And don’t change the subject.” He took a drink of his own, thought it was considerably smaller than Steve’s, and he fared better. “So, he cheated then?”

“What?” Steve sputtered. “Bucky? Never.” Steve was offended at the very idea that someone could think that of Bucky. He also realized he was maybe a little drunk.

“So, did he decide he couldn’t handle the distance?”

Steve looked at him, indignation building in his chest. “Of course not! Bucky never said a word against the distance.”

“Just cause he never said it doesn’t mean he never felt it. People don’t say a lot of things, if it means sparing someone else's feelings.” Strange shrugged, head tipping back to watch the last of the light fade from view. Steve got up and plugged in the lights, casting a soft glow over their space and giving himself a moment to think. Had Bucky had a problem with the distance? But surely he would have mentioned it…

Looking back, Steve realized he had spent the first week of his life in Kathmandu exploring the his new neighborhood, familiarizing himself with the streets and landmarks. Easily the most colorful place he’d ever been--the Buddhist prayer flags waved across narrow alleys, and the various temples glinted gold over the rooftops of the city, Steve had been awed. The palaces, gardens and mansions left over from the days of the Kingdom of Nepal were stunning, if only for their reminder that things had changed only a few years ago. They had fascinated Steve, their grandeur and ostentatiousness something he’d never seen before.

He had taken hundreds and hundreds of photographs in the first few months, focusing on the juxtapositions of the still-wealthy former aristocracy and the everyday people of Nepal. It had been exciting and stimulating and spectacular, and he couldn’t wait to tell Bucky all about it every time he wrote home. But Bucky, who had been excited and enthusiastic about basically anything Steve had ever shared with him, seemed indifferent and disinterested every time he wrote back.

Steve sat back down, a little harder than he meant to.

“Then what? What happened? If it was bad enough to keep you from going home it had to be pretty big.”

“I- it's just-” Steve stopped, trying to gather his thoughts as they scattered slowly like fluff off  dandelion.

“Does that mean you’re the one who broke it off?”  Stephen was picking at his bottle, long surgeon’s fingers toying with the label.

Steve cleared his throat, fighting the tightness that always crept up when he thought of Bucky. “Yeah. Yeah, I broke it off, idiot that I am.”

“Regret, Steve? That’s very unlike you. Why end it, then?”

“He deserved a chance to be happy. And how could he be, with all this distance?”

Stephen stopped twirling his bottle idly between his fingers. “That sounds an awful lot like an assumption, Steve. Did he tell you he was unhappy?”

“I mean…” Steve trailed off, eyes going anywhere but Stephen’s face. “Not in so many words?”

Bucky’s letters had sounded off. He’d known Bucky forever, and these letters just felt...different.

Well, if Steve was being honest, they sounded like Bucky was miserable. And it was his fault. He had insisted on this trip, and while he loved it, the distance had been difficult. Bucky wore his emotions on his sleeves and embraced them so much that Steve knew that it wasn’t just that Bucky was too busy to go out with his friends or go to festivals or concerts like they used to. No, if Bucky had been sad or upset or depressed about this distance, this separation, he would have been avoiding doing all of those things, isolating himself and depriving himself of the life he should have been living as a twenty-two year old recent college graduate.

“Do you mean to say,” Strange started, sitting up to his full height and facing Steve directly, “That you... assumed he was unhappy and then decided to break up with him without actually asking him?”

“Weeeeelllll,” Steve drawled, trying to delay the realization he’s rapidly coming to from falling out of his mouth. “When you put it like that, it sounds kind of…” he trailed off, his own stupidity smacking him square in the face.

“Idiotic? Reckless? Phenomenally assumptive and rude, especially considering the literal decades of history between you two?” Strange sat back in his chair, disappointment writ clear across his face. “I never would have thought you that callous, Steve.”

Steve also sat back, his back hitting the back of the chair with a thunk. Callous? But...he’d been doing the right thing? Hadn’t he?

Hadn’t he?

“He sounded so miserable. He’s the most vibrant, energetic person I’ve ever met-”

“Well, you’re a gigantic introvert, so I’ll take that with a grain of salt,” Stephen interrupted, a small smile playing on his lips as he shot Steve a look, clearly trying to dispel some of the tension that had cropped up after his diagnosis of Steve’s actions. Steve shot him a smile of his own, a signal of no hard feelings.

“Anyway,” Steve continued, feeling lighter after their brief exchange. Stephen was his closest friend here in Nepal, and Steve was loathe to have a rift between them, no matter how small. “Bucky stopped doing anything, as far as he was telling me, anyway. There was never mention of his friends, or our friends, or anything. What else was I supposed to do?” he demanded, talking himself back into thinking his decision was the right one. No one had ever accused him of not sticking to his beliefs, after all.

“Well, you could have asked him, for one thing. Four words, Steve.” He ticked them off his fingers, “Bucky, are you happy?”

“I already knew the answer, obviously!” He exploded. His jaw clenched, he glared at Stephen as he continued. He was getting worked up, and he wasn’t entirely sure why.

“You didn’t! Or you wouldn’t be so angry about this.”

“I’m angry because you’re being a condescending prick.”

Stephen looked shocked. Steve had never been quite so upset with him before, even when he default setting was anger.

“So you just decided to break it off, no explanation given?”

Steve was getting angrier the more Strange questioned him. “Of course I explained it! What else was I supposed to do, huh? I couldn’t just...rob him of his happiness!”

Stephen scoffed. “So you robbed yourself of your own?”

In all his life, Steve Rogers had never been shut up quite so quickly, or effectively. He sat down, hard, not having realized he was standing and the surprise at that and what Strange had just said stopped his prepared argument in its tracks, the words catching behind his suddenly closed teeth. Around him, the wind still blew, the stars still shone, and the rivers still flowed to the sea, and yet in that moment, the whole world shifted and realigned itself on its axis.

Steve had had an idea. But he hadn’t liked the idea, hadn’t wanted it to be the answer. So he’d avoided it, and kept writing letters and taking photos and learning his new city. He had told all of the things he learned or discovered to Bucky, committing all his memories to paper, inking them into a mutual existence, hoping that Bucky would have then shared some adventures of his own, or would tell him about the new music he’d found, or about Pop or the neighborhood or something , because the idea of Bucky sitting in his apartment every moment he wasn’t working was the worst thing he could have imagined.

The idea came back, poked its head up and said I’m still here, you know. This is the best way .

And so Steve had thought. He had debated, he had argued with himself and he had thought some more.

It had been the only way. He couldn’t live with himself knowing he was causing Bucky to be passing up chances to live his life fully and freely. It would break his heart, absolutely and irrevocably, but it was for the best.

So he had gathered his thoughts, he’d gone over his reasons and found them sound. He tried to talk himself out of it constantly, but he had refused to indulge those thoughts, refused to be selfish. He had always prided himself on being as selfless as he could, even when it hurt, especially when it hurt. After all, if it didn’t hurt to give up, did it even mean anything?

When he had gotten the call from Amnesty International, he’d known it was time. Six months was one thing, he knew of people who had been separated that long and come out the other side the better for it. But an indefinite amount of time… Bucky deserved more than some shadow of what they had.

So he’d taken his stationary and his envelopes, the thoughtful gifts given to him by his thoughtful love. He’d taken his pens and his stamps and his lapdesk and himself to the roof, and under a watercolor sky he had composed his farewell. There were tears, salty stains that dropped to his lap and made inky rivers of his best intentions. There were hiccuping sobs and sniffles and snuffles as his heart fought his head for the right thing to say. How did one cut off their arm? Surely it was easier than what he’d been trying to do. It was ripping his heart from his chest, but he’d soldiered on. Steve Rogers always did the right thing.

And at last, when the damned words were sealed inside their paper prison, tiny faces stuck to the corner who would ensure their passenger reached its recipient, he had set aside his paper and pens and practicality and let himself grieve for the lost love of his life.

Like a fog clearing and revealing the looming cliffs of a new land, the deep ache in his chest stepped to the forefront of his awareness, whispering its name to him: misery .

“Oh, fuck. I’m miserable,” he said in amazement, wondering how he had possibly lied to himself so well that he thought he’d been thrilled to be here, away from everyone he knew, feeling more useless than he’d ever felt before, and desperately trying to figure out what in the hell he was still doing in Nepal.

“Welcome to self-awareness, Steve. It’s mostly awful,” Stephen reached across the table and slapped him on the shoulder, hand squeezing tight, “but sometimes its life-changing in all the best ways.” He sat back and drained the last of his beer, remaining by Steve in companionable silence as his world slid into focus, one mistake after another for the rest of his night.

He knew what needed to happen, what he needed to do.

It was time for Steve to go home.

--

“Peggy?” He all but yelled into the phone in the lobby of his building. He had broken out his emergencies-only international calling card as soon as he’d gotten off the roof, Stephen wishing him a good night with a small wave that he distractedly returned. “Pegs, can you hear me?”

“Do stop shouting, Steve,” came the crisp reply over the somewhat fuzzy connection, and how she managed that he’d never know. “I can hear you, give a woman time to answer.”

He chuckled sheepishly, feeling himself blush a little. He had to remember that just because he had had a life-changing revelation didn’t mean everyone else suddenly knew, too. “Sorry, Peggy. Uh, how are you?” He felt bad, now, and while he wanted to get everything out at once, he tried to remember the manners he’d been raised with.

“Well, since you asked, I’m doing very well at the moment. Would you like specifics?” He could hear the smile in her voice, knew she was probably teasing him.

Probably.

“S-sure, that’d be, uh, great…” He tried to keep the hesitancy out of his voice but wasn’t sure it was working.

Peggy’s rich laugh filtered down the line, a little of its lustre fading with the distance but not enough to make it sound any less familiar and comforting. God, but he missed her, too. She was his best friend, now especially, since he’d messed up so badly with Bucky.

“You are a good man, Steve, but since you haven’t actually phoned after running off to the ends of the earth, I won’t make you wait any longer. Out with it.” Her tone brooked no argument (like he was about to make one, anyway), so wait he did not.

“I’m coming home. Pegs, I fucked up so bad, I’m a goddamned idiot, and I gotta make it right, I gotta come home and fix this.” He paused to breathe for a moment, all the words that had been desperately trying to claw their way out for the last hour finally managing to do so.

“...What, exactly, do you plan to fix?” There was a hesitancy in her voice that was so unlike her it made Steve pause, his answer waiting on his tongue.

“Everything with Bucky, of course,” he replied steadily. Something about this was making him antsy, his stomach bunching back into the knots it had just managed to untangle. “I never should have let him go. I’ve been so fucking miserable, I didn’t even realize it, and I can’t even imagine how its been for him but I can’t, I just-” He cut himself off, feeling as close to crying as he’d been in years. “He’s it for me, Peggy. And if there is even the tiniest sliver of a chance that he might, possibly still care about me, I gotta try.”

For a beat, there was silence. No swish of cars outside, not breeze through the window, no neighbors. The world was at peace with itself in this moment, and so was Steve. He had a plan, and something he could believe in for the first time in years. This would work.

All it took was a sigh, and his peace was broken. He knew that sigh. That was the bad-news sigh. “Oh, Steve,” Peggy breathed, and he almost told her to stop, that whatever it was, he didn’t need to hear it. He had a plan, damnit, and it would work! He could still fix this, still make it right.

He felt the first tear slip down his cheek before she even spoke again. Opened his mouth and tried to breathe silently around his-suddenly stuffy nose. “Darling,” she said, and if that wasn’t a signal that this was terrible news for him, he didn’t know what was. Peggy, bless her, wasn’t one for affectionate names outside of romance. She’d only ever called him that once before, the night of his going away party.

He couldn’t help it, couldn’t stop the sounds anymore--mortified that the huffing noise was him, just as obvious as if he was constantly sniffing and snuffling.

“Darling, I’m so sorry but...something’s just come from Bucky in the post.”

He braced himself for the worst, though what that was he wasn’t sure. Knew it would break his heart all over again, like he’d done to himself all those years ago.

“O-oh?” he managed, barely.

“Yes. I-Steve, I’m so sorry, but.” She cleared her throat, probably firming up that stiff-upper lip in the process. He knew she hadn’t approved of his breaking it off with Bucky, and that was without even knowing the whole story. But she was still Peggy, and he was still Steve, and hearing the other cry did them both in.

“Steven. Bucky’s engaged.”

It was a strange phenomenon to have the peace he’d managed to wrap himself in only moments before shattered so thoroughly in such a short time. It seemed as if his whole perception of everything swelled all around him, encompassing every decision he’d ever made that had led him to this very moment, before collapsing back in on itself to a single focal point:  his heart, fragile and only newly and hastily taped back together, shattering and crumbling one last time.

“Oh. I see. Well. I’m-” sniff “happy for him. He deserves it. Anyway, Peggy, I’ve got to go. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

“Steve, wait-”

He hung up the phone and trudged up the stairs, only peripherally aware that he did either. He knew he let himself into his apartment, knew he locked the door. He stumbled across the floor, tripping on nothing but wasted time and his own sadness.

He managed to make it to his room, crawling into bed and curling into a ball, the blanket his mother had made him tucked tight around his large frame. Only once he was as close to comfort as it was possible for him to get so far from everyone he loved, did he let himself go.

He’d waited too long. And now, as punishment for his pride, and his selfishness, it was too late.

Bucky was gone.